All About Spike - Print Version
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Bachelor Party
By Kimi

Part 1: Blackmail

"Well, I'm not planning it!" Spike said stubbornly.

"You need to be involved. Heavily."

"Can't I just show up? Wait a minute. Am I even invited? All this sounds more like a job for the Ripper anyway. Why can't the bloody Watcher get his arse back here for a week or two and throw something together?"

Buffy blew out some carefully held breath in frustration. "You'd better be glad he's not here. If he'd taken one look at me the morning after our little escapade, you'd have been shish-kabob before the sun went down."

"Hey, you started it. Well ... I started it. But you...."

"Oh, yeah. He'd really blame me after everything you've done. Manacles. Robot. And don't think I didn't tell him about that shrine thing in your crypt."

"You blackmailing me, Slayer? Is that what this is all about? And what's all this buddy stuff all of a sudden? You drag me to the bloody mall to shop for a shower gift, which I graciously pay for. Shopping for wedding gifts, like I'm Willow, or something. A Big Bad like me? Now, I get to bond with Harris. Reducing me to a member of the Buffy Fan Club, are you?" Spike narrowed his eyes. "Trying to downplay this thing we've got til you kill it? Won't work, you know."

"Familiarity breeds contempt, Spike."

"Yeah. And your convoluted thought processes are becoming more familiar by the day. Sometimes you really scare me, luv, and I don't mean the wooden stake in the heart kind of scare. Well, maybe I do, but not necessarily the stake you're thinking about..."

"Spike..."

"Okay. Back to topic. I can see you're not willing to talk. Again. So the Watcher can't do it. You could ..."

"The groom's best friend puts on the party."

"But I'm not..."

"You spent last summer bonding with him. Not me. You're the one he wants to show his new tools to, remember? And unless Willow, Tara, Dawn or I put on this bachelor party -- which is so lame I won't even consider it -- you're the closest thing to a best friend he's got. One more benefit of living on the Hellmouth. Anya said none of the guys where he works have volunteered. Now get over it. If you need us, we'll help. All you have to do is ask."

"Bloody hell," Spike muttered in surrender.

*******

As time passed and the date for the bachelor party approached, Buffy saw Spike less and less.

When she did see him, he had a cell phone practically growing out of his ear and a memory like an elephant. No small detail was lost in the shuffle, as he expertly handled call after call.

And he was ... well, a little distracted. Not about slaying necessarily. Just distracted where Buffy was concerned. Like all his energy was going somewhere else. And although she should have been relieved at the lack of double entendre and sexual innuendo, she felt ... well, neglected.

Patrols used to pass in companionable silence with an occasional dusting. Sometimes a little conversation. It was Buffy's best time of the day. She could say whatever she liked, or nothing at all. And nobody was analyzing what she said or didn't say. Now even that was different. There was still conversation, but not really with her.

Then one night, after Spike helped polish off a new nest of vamps ("It was a mercy killing, really. No sense of style at all."), the cell phone rang.

"I thought I told you to turn that thing off when we were on patrol," Buffy grumbled.

Spike looked at the number on the caller ID and grinned at her apologetically. "Sorry, luv, got to take this one. "

"Who died and made you party god anyway?" she shot back.

"Well. You did. And. You did. Nobody else would do it. Seems I've got a gift or it." Buffy's eyes darkened and her mouth opened. " C'mon, Slayer." he aid placatingly. "Been waiting on this call for days. Watch my back for me?"

Buffy growled a 'yes,' but eyed his back. Looked down at the stake in her hand.

She shook off the thought and stepped a little closer. What little she'd heard of these phone calls had her grudging admiration. He wheedled, he coaxed, he cajoled, he threatened. Absently, she thought it was kinda sexy to watch him work the suppliers and caterers and the band and ... No, not sexy. Interesting. That's it. Interesting.

"Right. 'Bout time you called. No excuses now. You've seen her, right? It doesn't help me when you tap dance like this. I don't have time for it. I'm on a deadline here. So? Yes or no." Spike's voice rose in anger. Buffy knew that tone.

"Bloody hell!" he continued. "I'm drownin in details here. This is ground zero, right? I ask you, on the basis of past associations to handle this one important detail, not even an unpleasant detail, mind, and ...." He listened. Obviously, he was being mollified by the supplier. Buffy grinned.

"Good. Fine. Just check her out and if...well, you know ..." Spike chuckled. A naughty little laugh that sent a welcome --no, unwelcome, unwelcome -- chill up Buffy's spine. "Yeah, I remember. Bloody good. That's what I had in mind, too. Yep, I took care of the sound system. Finalized the band last week. Food's taken care... Hey, I told you it's all handled."

"Look, I'm trusting you on this." Spike said earnestly. "Can you make sure she gets here? She goes on at eleven. I've set this thing up for two nights before the wedding so that we're sure the groom gets to the church on time. Yeah, fine, bring her with. We'll find something to do with her til after the wedding. Or just fly her back out the next day.

Spike looked over his shoulder at Buffy. "She's fine. I don't know. Why don't you bloody ask her yourself? She's right here. " Buffy stiffened. Someone she knew? And obviously, Spike didn't like the question because he growled the answer, "What do you think? On patrol, of course. Right, then."

"What? Well, don't tell her where you're goin' then! Then take her with, for God's sake. She might even like it. God, I can't believe I asked you to do this and you're wimpin' out like this! I mean it, Peaches. Just deal with it!

Buffy was staring at Spike as he slammed the phone back in his pocket.

Since when was Spike even speaking to Angel? Or Angel to Spike? Or ...

"Bloody pouf," Spike grumbled. "Can't get his bleedin' soul-full self over to the club to even see the girl dance! Sends his minions." Now he was ranting. "Talk about whipped! Of course, if Gunn's been there twice, she can't be too bad..."

Spike saw Buffy staring at him in shock. "What?" he asked impatiently.

"A stripper ...?" It was the last thing on Buffy's mind, but the only thing that she could focus on just then.

"Well. Yeah. It's a bachelor party. I've crashed a few in my time. It's just not a bachelor party without a stripper. Better the stripper, the better the party. Nothing but skanks around 'Sunnyhell,' so I'm bringin one in. From L.A. Well, the poof is, but it's my money!"

"You're a pig, Spike."

"Which is why you puttin' me in charge of this bachelor party was such a good plan. Bigger the pig, the better the party. Besides, last night of freedom for old Xander and all that."

"And Angel's coming here? To Xander's bachelor party? Coming to Sunnydale?"

"Well. Yeah ... What?!" Buffy was looking at him like...

"Angel's gonna kill you when he finds out about..."

"About what?" Spike looked a little too cocky for her taste. Or relaxed. Confident? What?

"You know."

"Oh. That. Like you're gonna have a heart-to-heart with him about something you contend isn't going on? Doubt it. I'm your friend, remember? Shopping buddy. Girlfriend."

"I won't have to say anything. He'll know."

"From who? 'Cause it won't be me telling' him. You said you'd kill me if I told anyone, right? Isn't that what you said? Well, I value this skin, so you won't have to worry. Not that that pouf could take me out anyway. And if you think he's going to see it in your face, you're sadly mistaken."

"You're not worried about me seeing Angel? I mean ..."

Spike took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "No. I told you once already: you've never had better than me. I stand by it."

"You're crazy."

"Oh, hell, Buffy. Let it lie. Angel's comin'. Unless the poufster backs out..." Spike dug for the cell phone and punched numbers in a rage, completely forgetting Buffy was there. "Yeah. It's me. Don't you bloody back out! I'm countin' on you ... You're going? Now? Good boy. I knew you were the vamp for the job. Great. Call me when you get in, you great oaf!"

Spike laughed. "Yeah, I'll be up." He hung up the phone and remembered Buffy was there.

His eyes hardened.

"You started this, Slayer. I'm going to pull off the most kick-ass bachelor party this Hellhole has ever seen. It's too bad you won't be there to see it. " He laughed and his expression became apologetic. "Well, maybe it's good you won't, you might never forgive me, but Harris'll never forget it. It'll sustain him through many a boring married night. For the rest of his life."

"I still say Angel's gonna kill you."

Spike shrugged. "It'll be a helluva party then."



Part 2: The Sting

Spike put the cell phone down when he walked in the crypt. Took off his coat. Threw himself into the chair in front of the TV. He was reflecting on the evening. This wasn't kitten poker he was playing, that was for sure. But he'd had it. It was time to resolve it. One throw of the dice.

It was a big gamble, yes. But not the kind of gamble it would have been before the chip revelation. And the whole thing was having unexpected benefits. Planning and executing this party had been really good for him. He felt confident. He felt gainfully employed. He was meeting a lot of new people. Re-acquainting himself with Angel, (who he'd always suspected he'd like, if Dru and Darla had stayed out of it). And he was having fun.

Still, he was playing with fire. Especially if Buffy figured out what he was doing before it was too late. Like he'd figured out that she was trying to relegate him to Xander status. How dare she? After everything he'd done.

He chuckled to himself. Hell, he was making her crazy right now and he wasn't even into Phase Two. It was a good thing there was no Big Bad lurking around right now. This wedding had put everything on hold. The Buffy being wrong thing had barely come up ... and only between the two of them. And in passing at that. Wasn't like her, to accept something like that on faith. Especially since she was the Queen of Denial.

It was taking a lot to stay away, to stay cool, to keep from beating some sense into her. Bad choice there. Been there, done that. Wasn't really his style. Well... not now anyway. To keep from grabbing her and ravaging her. He'd done that (or had he been the ravaged party?). It was time for some finesse. Not always his strong suit, but love seemed to be giving him wings.

Spike frowned. But the Angel thing was really a risk. Was he that sure?

He was that sure. And it was kind of cool to have another vamp to pull into this party thing with him. One that he didn't have to worry about killing someone. Unless the someone was him, maybe.

And Buffy? . Spike was tired of sensing Mr. Dark and Brooding everywhere. Spike had had Angel thrown up to him for the last time. So he was going to take care of it. End it. Somehow. Of course, when the Slayer was involved, his plans had a way of ... not working out.

Spike wasn't certain of anything in this unlife, but he was damn sure how he felt about Buffy. And by the time he was through putting on this party, she'd be sure too. One way or another. He just wasn't feeling very patient anymore. He'd stopped being patient the night she kissed him in the Bronze. So ...

One throw of the dice.

But he was loading them carefully as he went along. And enjoying it more than he ever had enjoyed anything in his life.

He hadn't been lying. They'd be talking about this party for years. When Xander was so old he didn't remember his own name, his last conscious thought would be this party.

*******

Willow really didn't care, but she felt obligated to ask. Especially with Buffy knocking around the kitchen rearranging the cabinets that Willow had organized perfectly after she and Tara had moved in to take care of Dawn. She felt a surge of anger. Suppressing it, she decided Buffy must need to talk (why else would she be in the same room with her?) and as her "best friend," Willow should invite her to do just that and get it over with. Willow wasn't feeling very "best-friendy" right now, but no one really took how she felt into account anyway.

Willow sighed. Loudly. Buffy was really getting on her nerves.

Buffy whipped around in relief, forgetting the cabinet's contents (Willow gave herself 'snaps' for that part).

"Did you say something, Will?"

"Nope. You must've been hearing what I was thinking. Oops. Sorry. Forgot about that whole mind-reading-bad deal. So. What's up with you?"

Buffy relaxed a little and threw herself down in the kitchen chair across from Willow and her computer. "This whole bachelor party thing is way out of control."

"Oh, gee, Buffy, you shoulda said something. I'll be glad to help out. Bring it on. And maybe Tara -- maybe you could talk to Tara. Oh, I forgot. She's doing Anya's party that night. You know, puttin' it on. Maybe we could split up the responsibilities to make sure old Xander has a high old time!" Willow hated every bouncy word that came out of her mouth. But this was who Buffy expected. They all did. Even Tara. "You know, I would have asked sooner, but Anya said Spike had it all handled."

"Oh, he does. Believe me. In addition to the chip, Mr. TechnoVamp has a cell phone practically implanted in his ear. Too bad the Initiative wasn't looking ahead. At least he'd have two hands for patrol."

"Mmmm. You're all growly bear Buffy. What's wrong?" Willow managed a little encouraging smile. She sure hoped her face didn't crack open.

"Well, for one thing, Spike barely has time for patrol anymore. I'm all alone out there!"

"He's not helping? No wonder you look so tired all the time. Hey! We can help! Just like the old days. Put on our holsters and saddle up." Willow inwardly winced and hoped it wouldn't come to that.

Buffy answered her silent plea. "Oh, no, it's okay. He patrols every night. Buffy's brow puckered in a frown. "Well, most every night." Wonder what's up with that? "And he always lets me know if he's not. He's just ... not really there sometimes." Okay, Buffy became aware that that was lame. "Just going way overboard on this party. This whole last-night-of-freedom thing." She laughed. Mmm. That sounded better.

Willow smiled at Buffy, trying to get a smile in return. Of course, that seldom happened in these post-Resurrection days. "Awww, c'mon, Buffy. That's kinda nice. That he's so into doing this for Xander. I would have felt really weird throwing a bachelor party for him myself, even if he has been my best friend since birth. This way, I don't have to ... to feel all weirdy, I mean. This is a guy thing , you know. Big time."

"Will, you don't understand. This is no little thing he's doing. He's planning it like an all-out assault. Like the old Dru days. I'm glad I'm not a caterer. You know how Spike can get when he doesn't get what he expects." No, Buffy, she doesn't really. Focus on the party. This is not about you and Spike. Wait. Where did that come from? There was no you and Spike...

Willow was beginning to get interested. She was a little out of practice of course, but she was so sick and tired of Spike being Buffy's new best friend. He was the one she'd been talking to, confiding in, since she'd gotten "back." Willow was sure of it. And Willow was damned sure that it was because Spike hadn't been involved in any shape, form or fashion with Buffy's over-processed, over-analyzed resurrection.

Buffy realized Willow was looking at her questioningly. "What? Oh, assault. I didn't mean murder and mayhem. Nothing like 'Goodbye Mr. Chip' or anything like that. It's just that he's like ... Man on a Mission. He walks around with that damn cell phone in his hand. Making...calls. Getting...calls...." Buffy trailed off in confusion. What?

"So he's become phone friendly. Majorly phone call guy. " The lameness of the old perky Willow's banter was in danger of making new and improved Willow hurl.

"Oh, that's just the beginning," Buffy continued, rewarming to her subject. This was working into a Spike bitch session. Those were very cathartic. Buffy leaned toward Willow confidingly. "We stopped in Willy's last night after patrol... you did know Spike rented Willy's out for the night, right?"

"Well, yeah, but I really didn't get it. I would have thought the Bronze."

"Oh, well, get this. Spike says the Bronze isn't sleazy enough to have the right kind of atmosphere for the final night of decadence and drunkeness for a condemned man. "

Willow laughed in spite of herself. She relaxed a little.

"Anyway, we stop at Willy's ..."

"And you ended up in a bar fight!"

"What? No, no fight. "

"But you always end up in a bar fight if you go to Willy's with Spike."

"Oh. Well, yeah, we do. Sometimes I don't fight though. I just watch. But this time, no fight. We stopped in Willy's to check on the bandstand. The stage. For a band."

"I didn't know Willy's had a bandstand."

"It didn't. Now it does. That's when I find out. Spike's booked a band for the party! Not a d.j., not a karaoke machine. He's booked a live band."

"Now I wish I were going. Are you sure we aren't invited? Can we crash?"

"Oh, c'mon, you know Spike's taste in music. I think they're mostly dead by now. You know death, drugs and rock and roll. I think Billy Idol's touring again though. Hmmp." Buffy considered that a minute. Dismissed it.

Willow was getting way more intrigued with this conversation than she'd been at the prospect of it. It was almost like old times. Almost. "So who's he got booked?"

"Won't tell. Says it's a surprise. He's put together a song list though. To supplement, he says. You'd think he was booking Madison Square Gardens. Big expensive rented sound system. Real sound engineer. An independent, you know. And Willy's practically calling him Mr. Spike. Has a Bloody Mary --and I do mean Bloody -- waiting on him when we go by."

Willow decided it was fun to watch Buffy wig out. "Well," Willow prodded, hoping for more crumbs, "I don't know very much about the plans at all. Just what Anya's told me."

"Well, I don't imagine Anya knows this. Will, Spike is bringing in a professional stripper from L.A.! Well, technically, Angel's bringing her ..."

"Whoa. Hold up! Angel? Our Angel? Well, your Angel...well, not anymore, but...that would mean... Well, duh. It does mean ... Spike's talking to Angel."

Buffy nodded grimly. "And Angel's talking to Spike. All the time. They call back in forth just to check in. Big cell phone buddies. They have plans to hit the Bronze the night after the bachelor party, the night before the wedding. 'Raise a few pints for old time's sake, luv.' "

Buffy's horrendous English accent cracked Willow up. "'Pints' takes on a whole different meaning when you're talking about those two."

"Oh, you think it's funny? Well, I don't think so. The two of them drunk, talking, comparing notes."

Buffy and Willow sat silent for a moment. Willow was trying to get the image of Spike and Angel with arms around each others' shoulders trying to get back to crash at Spike's crypt. Buffy's image was a lot different.

Willow broke the silence. "Anya told me Cordy was coming, " she said slowly. "I thought it was odd, but Anya said Xander was fine with all of it. All of a sudden Xander's fine with whatever. If Angel's coming, I guess Connor's coming too?"

"Oh, it's going to be a regular caravan. The May Queen. Vampire ex-boyfriend. Miracle child. And all of Angel Investigations. Spike's decided we're all one big happy extended dysfunctional family."

"What? But why? Xander doesn't even know ... well, Wesley of course. Ewww. That's weird, too."

"Spike says Xander has a lot more in common with professional demon-hunters than the 'blokes' he works construction with and that Xander needs more male friends." Buffy spouted like the BuffyBot.

Willow giggled again. "That's so lame, but sweet."

"Oh, yeah. Sweet. He says that that way they can give Xander his next bachelor party."

Willow laughed at that. A real old-fashioned Willow laugh. Buffy rambled on absently. "He's even got somebody working for him. Some kind of planner. Handles the daytime stuff with the caterers, liquor distributors, sound guys ... you know, party stuff. And that planner calls all the time. Even during patrol. He's figured out how to put the phone on vibrate so it doesn't alert the bad guys."

"Anne."

"And when we go... what? Who's Anne?" Buffy had no idea how much of the conversation she'd missed during her rant. She hoped Willow hadn't noticed.

"Anne, the party planner."

Buffy's jaw dropped. "Spike's party planner is a woman named Anne?"

"Uh huh. I don't know her last name. Anya met her a few weeks ago when she came by to see Xander about the party. Ask him about food preferences, alcohol ... you know, detail stuff. Anya said Xander's jaw dropped so far when he saw her, she felt like she should put a worm in his mouth. Anya liked her, though. Said she was very professional...really knew her business." Willow laughed, remembering. It hadn't seemed so funny a few days ago. "Anya said she thought she'd try a long red wig and higher heels on for Xander. See if that heated things up a few hundred more degrees." Willow shook her head. "Those two have a really rich fantasy life."

Buffy didn't answer and Willow frowned. Buffy seemed mighty disturbed over a wig and high heels. "It's okay, Buff. Anya wasn't mad or anything. I think she's feeling real secure now that the wedding's so close and all."

"That must be it," said Buffy, absently. Willow was losing her and suddenly, it felt really important not to.

"Buffy, what is it? Oh, Angel. That's got to feel weird."

"Well, there's more to it than that. Willow, I..."

Slept with Spike. And I really enjoyed it. Every time. And I'd like to do it again, but things got all weird. Like they always do with me no matter who's involved. And now he's so different since he's got something to do except wait for me to show up. And ....

"Never mind. I just need sleep. Lots of sleep. Wake me ... when the wedding's over." Buffy got up and left the kitchen before Willow could try and stop her.

Willow shrugged. Same old Buffy. What difference did any of it make anyway? Except ... well, maybe a visit to Anya ...

Willow turned off the computer and got up out of chair to get dressed. She was almost ... excited?



Part 3: Turnabout

Spike had no idea he was the hot topic of conversation in the Slayer's kitchen. He was too busy to even consider it.

Spike also had no idea that Anne was going to have such an impact. If he had, he would have exploited it. As it stood, the first caterer he spoke with realized that Spike's plans were going to take a lot of work. So the caterer recommended a party planner. And gave him a name.

Spike had set up a meeting at the Bronze and they'd continued the meeting at Willy's. Spike had been impressed with her grasp of the magnitude of what he was planning. She'd made valuable suggestions and helped him sweat the details. He'd gotten the initial quotes. Now he made a deal with her. 10% of the total cost of the party. And 100% of whatever she was able to save on the cost through negotiations.

A very expensive party, Spike admitted to himself. But if he was going to crash and burn with Buffy, he might as well go out with a bang. And he had to respect Xander for having the balls to marry an ex-vengeance demon, reformed or not. He deserved a good loud, drunken send-off.

Money. He checked. He was still ahead, even after paying cash up front for everything. Still, he had to have the stake to play the game, so it was about time to have another go.

Graduating from kitten to high stakes poker hadn't been as hard as he thought. It was paying for the party, and all Spike's little incidentals. He hadn't nicked anything from the convenience store in weeks. Spike frowned. Shook his head. Didn't have time to think about it.

He grinned to himself in anticipation. The gentlemen he was playing cards with weren't the nicest sort, but they knew how to keep a civil tongue in their heads. And you could use your winnings at the convenience store. Couldn't do that winning at kitten poker.

******

"Have you noticed that no one ever threatens us at Willy's anymore?" Buffy reflected on this odd fact as they left the bar. She stopped at looked back at Spike. "Spike?"

"What, luv?" Spike said absently. He looked up from the book he had open in his hand. "Sorry. Wasn't listening."

Buffy recognized the book he was carrying. "You carry around a daytimer now?"

"More like a 'nightimer.' he chuckled, coming up to Buffy. "And I'll be bloody glad to chuck it once this bleedin' party is over. Except that ..." Spike took a second look.

"Spike. Spike! Willy's."

"Yeah?"

"Nobody ever threatens to kill us anymore when we're there. We ... you haven't had a good demon bar fight in ages. Now it's demon-heads-down-minding -their-own business. Rather than 'oh-you're -the -Slayer, you- kill -our- kind' and 'oh -you're -a -vamp -but -you -kill -your -own -kind. Let's fight!' What's up with that?"

"It's because we've become highly respected members of the community," Spike said offhandedly , engrossed with his schedule for the next three days. Noticed he had an appointment tonight. Shook his head. He'd forgotten all about it. Proximity to the Slayer had a tendency to drive other things right out of his head.

"What community? Slayers R Us? Spike, close that book! Now!"

"Sorry, luv. You were saying?" He was going to be late ...

"Highly respected...? Spike, they hate us!"

Spike gave Buffy his full attention. "But they respect us. It's safer than being liked around here."

Buffy looked confused. "I don't see it."

Spike laughed patronizingly. "Of course not. You hate me and you don't respect me. How could you possibly understand it?"

Buffy opened her mouth to speak, but Spike patted her shoulder. "Look, just relax. Accept it like a gift. The respect, I mean. You've earned it." Spike chuckled. "I'd've had their respect before now if you hadn't publicly kicked my ass so often. And so often undeserved at that." He lowered his voice, eyes sparkling. "Sometimes I was even trying to be nice."

Buffy ignored that remark and the look in his eyes, which was becoming distracting . She looked down quickly. Spike chuckled again.

Buffy recaptured the thread. "You said they respect *us.* Spike, do you ... uh, they think we're like a couple or something? Because if they do..."

Spike snorted. "A couple?" he laughed bitterly. "As in boyfriend/girlfriend, lovers in the crypt kind of thing? A Slayer and an evil soulless vampire? Not bloody likely!"

"Oh."

Spike reached in to his pocket and dug out his cell phone. Dialed numbers. Looked evenly at Buffy before he hit the send button.

"Of course, if you'd like to be absolutely certain about that, luv, you have my permission to go right back in there and make a general announcement to that effect." He looked down and hit the send button. "I've got to go. Running late for an appointment."

Buffy just stood there, not quite sure what just happened. As she watched him stride away, back to her, she looked down at the stake that had somehow made it into her hand. Then at his back. She sighed. Shook her head. Started home...alone.

********

Spike groaned as he rolled out of bed the next afternoon. He'd won "early" and gotten out "early." He'd had a couple of hands that had run close and he hadn't really felt on top of his game. Her fault, of course. Worrying about what they thought. Even the demons. Shaking himself awake, he got dressed and sat down with the remote to the new VCR.

According to his daytimer, he had about six hours and some change. If he fast forwarded through the parts he didn't care about, he could probably catch up on "Passions."

Spike settled back into his chair with a mug of breakfast and some anticipation of a nice escapist afternoon. And heard something. A hesitant knock on the door.

Frowning, he got up and opened it a crack and stepped back away from the light. And saw the Good Witch standing there, looking ... well, uncomfortable. He hoped it was nothing he'd done. He held a certain affinity for Tara, outsider that she was right now.

He pulled the door open further, making sure the daylight was staying on the other side of the door.

"Well, hello. C'mon in. Places to sit and all."

Tara inched in, stopped just inside the door.

"C'mon, luv. You know I don't bite." He chuckled. "Well, not anymore anyway. Hey. Come on in so's I can close the door."

"I ...wasn't sure you'd be up. I didn't want to bother you or anything."

"You? A bother? C'mon. Sit. Been a while since I've seen you about. Got some flavored water in the fridge. Or I could make some tea. Take a minute, but ..."

Tara relaxed. "No thanks."

Spike smiled. "So what's up? Got a big bad you want me to fix?"

Tara smiled back. "No big. Bad, I mean."

"Oooh. C'mon, luv, give. What brought you to my crypt at such an early and unsightly hour?"

Tara looked down and looked back up from under her lashes at Spike and relaxed some more. "Well, you know I'm having a party for Anya at the Bronze. Just a few of us girls. Lingerie shower slash bachelorette party. And Anya said you were doing Xander's and ..." She looked back down and colored slightly. Pretty little blush, Spike thought.

"And?"

Tara took a deep breath and it came out in a rush of air. "Anya wants a str - stripper. A male stripper. For her party. And I don't..."

"Well, me neither, but hang on. I bet I know someone who does." Spike retrieved the cell phone off the table by the chair and hit re-dial. He looked at Tara reassuringly as the phone rang.

"Anne. Good. S'me. Need a favor. A friend is having a party for the bride. And the bride wants equal time. Whoa. Hang on. Not the whole thing. I think she's got it covered." Spike put his hand over the phone and looked at Tara. "You do, don't you?"

Tara breathed out quietly, "Yes. Oh, yes. This was the only thing that I ..."

Spike uncovered the phone. "She's got it all covered except for this one detail. Male stripper. Good one. And not some bloody awful gutter trash either. These are ladies we're talking about here."

Spike listened a moment and tore a sheet of paper out of the daytimer. He looked up at Tara. "When?"

"The same night as yours. I thought your recovery idea made sense. I've never been to one of these, but I think they can get kind of...well, wild. And I know Anya likes to have fun."

"Right," Spike nodded knowingly. "Okay, the kittens are planning on their fun the same night as the bachelor party. "

Spike took down some information on the sheet of paper. Wrote some more. Frowned in thought and wrote some more. "So then. Check it out for me. I'll cover the bill." Tara opened her mouth, shaking her head. Spike waved her off, covering the mouthpiece again. "Gift to the bride in advance payment for what my party's going to do to the groom." He said in explanation. And he spoke back into the phone. "She'll call you. Her name is Tara and she's a good friend. Take care of her. Right. Thanks, luv."

Spike got up and crossed the room to where Tara was standing and handed her a piece of paper. Tara took it, barely looking at it.

"Anne's number is on that sheet of paper. Call her this afternoon. She says there's a guy goes to UC Sunnydale that does this sort of thing. Pretty good, she's used him before. No complaints. She'll see if he's available and see to bookin' him if you like."

Tara smiled gratefully. "Thank you so much. I didn't know..."

"'Course not. Nice girl like you. This kind of blue and bawdy stuff isn't really your style at all. Glad to help. Anything else you need? Need to talk?"

Tara thought a moment. "No," she breathed. "Thanks." Tara turned to go, relieved at the ease of the whole thing.

"Don't mention it." Tara turned back into Spike's eyes locked on hers. " I mean, literally, don't mention it. Don't tell anyone I had anything to do with this. I'm taking enough from flack from Buffy about the bachelor party. Don't need to add to it. And you're welcome here anytime, ducks. You actually knock first, which may take some getting used to, so you might want to knock a little harder next time. My cell phone number is on that piece of paper as well as the bloke's name. Call me if you get in a muddle. Any kind of muddle at all."

Tara glanced down at the piece of paper. "Thanks. I will call. Oh!" Tara did a double take and looked hard at the piece of paper.

Spike saw her surprise. "What is it?"

"Spike! I know this guy! He's gorgeous. He's a theatre major. Oh! And he's gay!"

Spike laughed at the confused look on her face. "Well, don't tell the bride. Girl deserves a few illusions. Almost-last-night-of-freedom and all."

Tara laughed. "Bye. I'll come back by sometime." She smiled at Spike. "Really I will."

"Countin' on it." He said meaning it. "Steer clear of the nasties now. It's getting late."

*******

"Buffy, you can't not let me go! I'm a bridesmaid!"

"Okay, okay! Here's the deal. No negotiation. You can come to the shower part. You just leave before the 'in the gutter' part. Spend the night with Janice."

"What! That is so mean! Mom would let me go. I'm almost sixteen!"

"It would just embarrass you," Buffy retorted.

"No. It would embarrass you!"

"Look, Dawn, this is a lingerie shower, too." Buffy attempted to reason with her. "The gifts are bound to be a little racy. I think that's enough 'grown-up' for one night.

"And it's not going to be just us guys. Some of Anya's friends from the Sunnydale Business Women's Association are coming too, so it's going to be all adults."

"I don't know about that," Dawn snarked back. "You'll be there, right?"

Buffy spun around at the low chuckle that sounded from the hallway.

"Spike, can't you knock?"

"Well, you never do." Spike said as he came into the room. "Hey! Everybody's decent. Bloody hell!"

Dawn scuttled over to Spike, wearing her most appealing, wounded, put-upon face. "Spike, Buffy won't let me go to Anya's bachelor party!"

Spike put his finger on Dawn's nose and pressed lightly. "Now, Dawn. You're exaggerating. Buffy said you could go. To the shower part. Think she's right, luv. Don't want my girl corrupted by a brood of randy old hens. Bad enough to see naughty little bits made to cover naughty little parts. Plenty enough excitement for one night," he smiled mischeviously. Buffy opened her mouth to call him down on that one.

"But Spike ...!" Dawn started to whine shrilly.

Spike cut off the whine and his voice became firm. "Dawn. That's enough of that. Buffy is right. Even I think Buffy is right. Tell you what. I'll come get you and take you to Janice's for the night after the shower. Get you out of that corrupting atmosphere."

"Well..." Dawn considered. Buffy couldn't believe it. Spike had Dawn wavering in her resolve. "Can we...?"

"No stopping off, Little Bit. Not that night. Straight to Janice's and no loitering. I can't be away from Willy's too long, even if I have made a sizeable donation to the Sunnydale Police Retirement Fund in anticipation of this event. Don't want to push it.

"But after the wedding, I'll make it up to you. Rent videos and order up pizza. Get rid of Big Sis for the night. Like the old days, right?"

Buffy couldn't believe how Dawn's resistance had suddenly melted away. Into a Dawn-sized puddle of mush. She almost resented it, but squashed that reaction. At this point, whatever worked!

Buffy looked at Spike over Dawn's shoulder and mouthed "thank you," as Dawn bounced out and started up the stairs.

"You're welcome," he said absently, watching Dawn go up to her room. "Remembered I didn't tell you I'd meet you for patrol. So I thought I'd catch you before you left. Let's get this knocked out. I've got lots to finish up. Deadline's approaching. We may even have to make a couple of stops while we're out."

Buffy couldn't believe he was being so dismissive.

"Can't Anne handle it?" she said hotly.

Spike's head snapped up and he looked at Buffy, puzzled. "Anne? She's got plenty enough on her plate already. But if it's wastin' your valuable time, I'll do it after."

"No," stated Buffy, aware that she was in danger of making a fool of herself. "It's okay. I want this party to be really nice for Xander."

Spike laughed wryly. "Luv, 'nice' is the last thing I have in mind."

********

Two days.

Willow was getting a little bit excited. She'd already wrapped Anya's gift and giggled as she did it. Willow had also talked to Tara for a few minutes on the phone. It had been strange at first: Tara hesitant, Willow apologetic. But Willow had felt so much ... warmer ... just hearing Tara's voice that she tried hard not to sound needy or defensive or any of the things that had made Tara go away. The more they talked about the party, the more the coldness, that had taken up permanent residence in the pit of Willow's stomach, had receded.

She almost felt ... good ... when they hung up.

The phone rang again. Willow hurried to pick it up.

"Red?"

Willow felt a twinge of disappointment, but didn't let it get to her.

"Spike?" And Willow giggled at the image that had just popped into her mind. "Are you calling me on your cell phone?"

"What? Yeah. Listen, Red," Spike blurted out. "I've been goin' at this party thing for Xander full out, racking my brain for ways to make it something to remember for him and I might have made a very big blunder. I've realized I should have asked you about it before I did it. But ... I didn't. And now... well, better late and all that, right?"

Willow felt a flutter of apprehension. Spike sounded all soft and apologetic-y, like after Buffy went away.

"Red, it's still light out and I don't really want an audience for this. If it wouldn't be too much trouble, could you pop by? I'll be sure to put away the instruments of torture if you do."

"Spike, you're making me feel all fluttery. How bad is it?"

Spike didn't answer.

"Okay," she sighed. "I'm dressed. I'm leaving. Oh. Hanging up the phone now."

"Good. See you in a bit," he said with a trace of dread in his voice.

Just like Spike to destroy her good mood, Willow thought as she approached the crypt. How about some cutting of the slack for the old Willow-meister?

Willow pushed the door open and stepped inside, her eyes adjusting to the low light. She looked around in surprise. Boy, this place looked like somebody lived here!

Spike came up the stairs from below. "That was quick. Listen, I didn't do this to hurt anyone, understand? Just didn't ask the right questions. Thought it was all okay now. No, that's not true. I didn't consider your feelings. Didn't even cross my mind. You've been with Glinda for awhile now and so I..."

Willow sat down heavily on the edge of the sarcophagus. "Right."

Spike approached her with an apologetic look in his eyes and his voice reflected it. "Buffy told you I'd hired a band, right?"

Willow stared. Where was he going with this? Oh. Willow put her head down in her hands, covering her face.

Spike's voice began again, even softer and sadder. "See, I didn't know everything. I knew he used to help and I figured he and Xander had been like ... mates. Then, after it was all booked -- for certain, I mean -- I told Anya and she..."

Spike heard Willow making a muffled squeaking noise.

"I shoulda remembered. I was there right after he left, but I clean forgot. I'm sorry. Really. I'll cancel. Find another band. Stake myself. Except that I'd miss the party and..."

Willow couldn't let him wallow anymore. She looked up at Spike with her eyes sparkling.

"This," she gasped in laughter, "was the horrible thing. You've booked Oz's old band for the party?"

Spike nodded. "And Oz," he said carefully, gauging her reaction. "Tracked him down. And it wasn't easy either. If I'd just asked instead of playin' so fast and loose..."

Willow reached out and patted Spike's arm. So...cold, she thought distractedly. Sometimes she just forgot..."Spike that's all done and over. It might even be good to see Oz right now."

"But..."

"Spike. Tara will be fine with it. I made a choice a long time ago. Things may be rough right now, but they won't always be. Sure wish I could see 'em play, though."

"Well ... that was the other thing. Rehearsals have gone so well, they're booked in at the Bronze the night after the party, the night before the wedding."

"Oh, yeah. You and Angel's big night out." Willow giggled. "I heard. Believe me, I heard. ' Raise a few pints?' That's a rare one, even from you."

Spike looked so relieved that Willow almost patted him again. Instead she hopped down and headed for the door.

"Red?"

"Huh?"

"Thanks for not being mad. And keep this between us for now if you would. Surprise for old Xander, okay?"

"When is Oz coming in?"

"Oh. I thought you understood. They're in rehearsal. Over at Angel's old place on Crawford Street. Oz and the band are crashing and rehearsing there."

"Okay. And Spike, I hope all this works out exactly the way you hope it will," she said smiling as she closed the door behind her.

From your mouth to God's ear, he thought reverently.

*******

The party was tomorrow night. Spike couldn't believe he'd put himself in this position. Spike couldn't believe he'd put Buffy in this position. And Spike couldn't believe Angel hadn't brought it up before.

Buffy's eyes flashed dangerously. Spike was eyeing the stake in her pocket. He knew she was quick on the draw and he hoped he'd be able to get out of the way.

"Let me get this straight. Everyone's coming in tomorrow. And you've invited Cordelia, Fred and Angel's son to stay at Casa Summers."

Well, Slayer, I didn't know what else to do. Got myself in a bit of a spot. The baby needs to be in a private residence. So he's safe from any uninvited vampires. Can't chuck him in a hotel room. Angel can crash at the crypt, though. No problem there. Or he could stay with the babe and you could ..."

"Crash here? Are you nuts?" Buffy blurted out, just as Spike finished, "at Glinda's."

Buffy realized what he said and felt embarrassed. And just a little disappointed that he hadn't asked. Even though she would have punched him if he had suggested it. Well, maybe not punched, but ... What?

"Okay," Buffy said, resigned to the nightmare. "Whatever. We'll decide later where Angel stays. Let's go patrol, all right. Find something simple to do. Like stake some evil. I'm sick to death of thinking about this wedding."

"Right. But I might have to leave. Need to go over some last minute daytime details with Anne. You understand, right?"

Buffy wondered just how hard it would be to kill Spike.



Part 4: The Plan

Buffy decided that killing Spike wasn't worth the flack she would catch from Dawn. Or probably from Xander. He was really looking forward to his party.

Spike picked up his duster and grabbed the cell phone. Buffy made an impatient noise. "You with your cell phone and your daytimer and your appointments. And your 'party planner," she grumbled.

Spike turned to Buffy, daytimer forgotten. "Have you forgotten you strong-armed me into this, Slayer?" he asked curiously, wondering what she expected anyway.

Buffy threw her arms in the air. "I didn't expect you to take this on like it was Prince Andrew's bachelor party."

Spike smiled. Then frowned as he saw her face darken. He didn't have time for a Slayer meltdown right now. They had patrol and he had lots of things to finish up. "Slayer..." he warned.

All her insecurities slammed into drive.

Buffy's eyes hardened. "Let's cut to the chase, okay? I've been up against you more times than I care to think about right now. And I have to give you a round of snaps in planning and execution. Your schemes have always made some kind of twisted sense. And you've almost gotten the better of me more than once. So forgive me if I'm feeling a teensy bit paranoid."

Spike stared at Buffy. He sure hadn't seen this coming. He should have known she gave in too easily about Cordelia and Fred and .... Frantically, without betraying it on the outside, he wondered how he could get her outside before the crypt got irreparably trashed.

He wasn't even listening to her. "Spike. Have you heard a thing I've said in the last three weeks?"

"Now, luv..."

"Don't call me that. Or pet, or Goldilocks or even Slayer. Buffy. My name is Buffy." She took a deep breath and let it out.

Spike tried to figure out where they were headed with this conversation. But he was busy dealing with an overwhelming sense that fists and feet were imminent. And although he liked a good brawl as well as the next bloke, he did not want to fight with Buffy.

Buffy continued. "You know, I haven't had to second guess you in a long time now, Spike." She sighed. "I am so out of practice. And it's just too much effort."

Spike opened his mouth to speak, but a gesture from Buffy made him decide he'd better shut it. Besides, she was talking. Really talking.

Buffy laughed wryly, but it had a slightly broken edge to it. "I have racked my brain, going over everything in my head a dozen times. Every tidbit of information. But I don't have a clue." She took a deep breath and set her shoulders, looking levelly and honestly into Spike's eyes.

"I give," she confessed.

Spike's surprise was etched across his face. She bit down and chewed on her lip. "I give up. I cave. I surrender. 'Uncle.' The L.A. crew will be here tomorrow and I need to know what your big master plan is. " Despite her flat emotionless voice, her whole body was betraying her tension.

"Plan?"

"Your plan." Buffy stated in a reasoning tone. "Whatever bent little confrontation or revelation or whatever your reason is for inviting Angel here. I need to know."

"Buffy..."

"It's okay. You've pulled it off. ProActive Buffy is no longer in the building. All I can do is react at this point, you know."

Spike slowly smiled and stepped forward, taking Buffy's shoulders in his hands.

"Buffy," he chuckled softly, "there is no plan."

He felt her shoulders slump, as she dropped her eyes. "I knew you wouldn't tell me," she muttered.

Spike shook her, just a little, so she'd look up at him. He smiled encouragingly. "Buffy, it's true. There is no plan. Just a party."

The miserable look on her face morphed into something sharp and glittering. "Don't. Don't 'Buffy' me in that soft 'bed' voice that makes me even more ...crazy. Why else would you have invited Angel and taken the chance that..." She stopped abruptly. Took another breath. "I've got to figure out how to feel ... " She dropped her eyes in surprise at her own words. "Uh, deal. Deal with it."

"Buffy, look at me. Buffy..." And risking unlife and limb, he caught her chin and lifted her face so that she was looking in his eyes. "There is no plan," he assured her again. "In the beginning, there was the spark of a plan. More like a glimmer, actually. But the last few weeks, I've taken turns both kicking and congratulating myself for making that bloody call to Angelus.

"Buffy, this party has made me see things a whole lot differently." he smiled. "Especially myself. It's been a long time since I had a purpose that wasn't directly tied into you. I needed that, I think. The last few weeks, I've felt almost ... alive. And believe me that's something to savor and not overthink when you've been dead as long as I have."

Buffy tried to wrap her mind around his words to absorb the meaning.

She breathed out in a whisper. "There's no plan?"

"No plan."

And she slapped the living hell out of him.

The slap only rocked Spike back a step or two. His hand absently went up to his cheek. Startled, he looked at her stiff stance, the fighting glint in her eyes. Took it all in. His face changed with his body language, as he drew himself up and raised an eyebrow to disguise the hurt. "Oh. I see. I was confused. I forgot it was exclusively All!About!Buffy."

Buffy winced.

"So. Angelus is on his way back to Sunnydale with his extended family unit. There are no big nasties to kill or heart-crushing deaths for you to lay on his big broad shoulders this time. Just a party. And a wedding. Joyous times," he said muttered thoughfully, turning and presenting Buffy with a very attractive target.

He reached the table, slowly picking up cigarettes and lighter. The lighter snicked open. Lighting the cigarette, still not turning to face her, he said quietly and calmly, "Seems to me you've got some thinking to do." He slowly turned around. "What is it you want?" He looked her over in that hungry, predatory way he had that made her knees weak. "Or rather, who?"

Buffy swiftly dropped her eyes, looking intently at a spot on the floor.

"Put your mind at rest. There will be no big public confessions, revelations or confrontations. This is between me and you, pet. Not you and me and Angel. Not you and me and the Scoobies. Nor Dawn. As of now, this discussion is on hold until after the wedding.

"Xander and Anya have been planning this for a long time. I've worked damn hard to make this party the grand send-off that he deserves."

"This time, Buffy, it's not All!About!You. I'm sorry about a lot of things, Buffy. Your mom, your responsibilities, your best friend, your Watcher. But ... someone needs to tell you that it's someone else's turn. And I guess, as usual, I'm elected."

Buffy didn't look up. Tears were fighting to escape, but she wouldn't let them. She wouldn't sniff, either.

Spike walked toward the stairs to his room. Spike stopped. "You know, it's early yet. I'll catch up with you later for patrol. Got a few things to do first."

His parting words cut across her and left her bleeding.

"You can let yourself out, right?"

*******

Tara took a deep breath and relaxed back into the chair as she checked the last item off the list. She felt so much better now that the party stuff was all done.

When Buffy had come by yesterday to ask Tara if she could move Anya's party to the night before the wedding, Tara had been stunned. And embarrassed.

"Gee, Buffy, if the Bronze is available -- the balcony, I mean -- it shouldn't be a problem. I'm just sorry I put you in this position."

Buffy had just laughed. "I don't know what we were all thinking, leaving the Hellmouth undefended a whole night. The wedding's going to be bad enough. And I hoped it wouldn't give you as much trouble as it would Spike."

"If I can get the balcony at the Bronze, everything else is easy." Tara assured her. "I'm just so sorry, Buffy."

"Don't be. I think we've all gotten a little giddy over this wedding. They're the first of us, you know. Maybe the last. Who can tell? Do you need any help? Anything I can do? See if the stripper's available on the next night?"

"No, no." Tara said quickly. "That's okay. I think I can manage. I'll call if I need help, though."

"Spike's going to do patrol the night of your party. Maybe take Angel and his boys with him. But the night of the bachelor party, I could use a little backup." Buffy grinned in invitation. "Want to go patrol with me?"

Tara grinned. "Haven't had to do that since you got back. I hate to say it, cause it sounds a little sick, but yeah, it'd be fun."

"We'll all go. Drag Cordelia along, too. Leave Dawn and Fred with the baby. Besides, it'll take our minds off what's going on at the bachelor party." Buffy chuckled.

Tara hadn't thought about it too much at the time. She had had to call Anya, the Bronze, and Anne and the guests. But now that everything was all set, again, she sat back and thought about it. Going on a full patrol would take them all right past Willy's. That area was a well-known Hellmouth hot spot.

Tara's eyes gleamed a little. She'd never seen a real live bachelor party. Maybe they'd peek.

********

Buffy's eyes were still wet when she got home. Spike had been right. It was still a little early for patrol. And she needed the quiet of her room right now. She almost bumped into Willow as she headed for the stairs.

"Whoa!" Willow involuntarily grabbed Buffy's arm when she saw the look on her face. "Buffy, what's wrong?"

Willow's voice was so warm, so caring, so Willow, that Buffy blurted out the first words that came to mind.

"I hate him! Hate him!" And there was a fresh onslaught of tears following this revelation. Willow pulled Buffy against her and pushed her head down on her shoulder as Buffy quietly sobbed.

"Oh, Buffster, it's okay," Willow murmured. "Buffy ... shhh." Willow thought about it for a minute. "On second thought, honey, boohoo all you want." Willow felt better about Buffy than she had in months.

Buffy pulled away a little from Willow abruptly to look at her. "Will, it's not always just All!About!Buffy, right?"

No, Willow thought sadly, looking at Buffy, lately it's been All!About!Willow or I would have known something was wrong. "Well, you've had a lot to deal with lately." Buffy's chin began to quiver. Willow grabbed her and hugged her. "No, of course not." But who would have.... Willow suddenly had a thought. Oh. Oh!

She took a chance. "Spike tell you that, sweetie?" she probed gently. Buffy nodded miserably into Willow's shoulder. "You two have a fight?"

Buffy looked up childlike into Willow's eyes. "Uh huh. I wanted to know why he invited Angel and he said..." she gulped. "He said..."

"What, honey?"

"That everything wasn't always AllAboutBuffy. And he told me to leave." she whispered.

Willow looked into Buffy's swimming eyes and wondered how or when she could ever thank Spike for this gift. She pulled Buffy's head back on her shoulder and let her cry herself out.

Buffy, her best friend Buffy, was back.

*******

Willow sighed. Buffy had cried and then pulled herself together, announcing that she had to patrol. When Willow asked her if she needed help, Buffy shook her head.

"You really don't need to patrol all by yourself right now," Willow reasoned. "Dawn's at Janice's and we could ..."

"It's okay, Will. I won't be alone." And that was all Buffy said.

As night deepened, Willow left the house and found herself on Crawford Street. She walked up the steps, wondering idly at the open front door.

Willow took a deep breath and walked inside, her eyes falling on a lone figure who was crouched down stuffing a t-shirt into an old battered duffle. Her breath caught.

Oz's head came up and he smiled. "Thought that was you." At Willow's puzzled look, Oz indicated his nose and sniffed.

Willow grinned, "You smelled me comin'?"

"You must have been a little nervous about seeing me, I guess. I wanted to come and see you, but Spike seemed like he wanted me to keep a low profile. Everyone else is somewhere eating."

God, it was good to see him. And it didn't hurt a bit. It felt ... well, good.

Oz got up and walked over to Willow. His eyes were warm and soft, his look appraising.

"Been having a rough time, huh?"

Willow suddenly knew how Buffy felt. It was hard hearing it like this. Especially from someone you'd loved once and hadn't seen since all the bad things had happened. Tears pooled in Willow's eyes. She blinked them back.

Oz walked over quickly and put his an arm around her shoulder. "It's okay. Sometimes life just gets ... hard."



Part 5: Surprise

2 a.m., the "day" of the party. Spike was slogging through the cemetery, bone-sore and utterly exhausted.

All of his fears had rushed back when he'd heard Buffy leave that afternoon. They'd marched through his brain and over his heart until he thought he go insane, or that his heart would stop. Then he remembered it already had. So he sat for awhile. Better that than rushing after her. And what he'd said was true. Someone needed to let her know that the world didn't revolve around her. It was coincidental that his did.

So he and Buffy had silently and grimly stalked every cemetery in Sunnydale (which was no small feat in itself) tonight, making certain that they'd made the Hellmouth as safe as possible for the Slayer, two witches (one non-practicing), an ex-demon (who was still making last minute changes to the seating chart) and....well...Cordelia. Who Spike privately contended had the most irritating, ear-splitting scream he'd ever heard. She'd even put him off his feed once or twice in the old days.

The silence was getting to him a bit. He paused and turned to Buffy.

But she walked right past him, frowning prettily, a very distracted look in her eyes. He watched her walk ahead and told himself that he deserved better than what he was getting. And that he was better off without her if this was all there was. Spike was fast approaching the 150-year mark, if you counted alive and undead time together. He knew how the years could drag on and on when there was nothing to envision but more of the same.

He drew in another breath he didn't need and set his shoulders, caught up with Buffy, determined to get back on track. He was here to back up the Slayer. So he'd better start paying a little more attention to the foliage. That was hard though. He wished things were different, that they hadn't gone so wrong. He knew he wasn't good enough for her, but he was the best of a bad lot. And she could be so sweet, so good. Just not to him.

Buffy sensed Spike at her shoulder, breaking her reverie. She naturally turned to acknowlege his presence as she had so many times before. She blinked and stopped, completely taken by the look in his eyes.

She allowed herself to fall into the intensity of it. He hadn't looked at her like that in weeks. She'd begun to think he'd forgotten how. Her stomach flipped over and her knees gave. Just the tiniest bit.

Then Spike had his arms around her, steadying her, while leaning down to see what had made her stumble. He looked up at her questioningly and smiled. Then he carefully kissed her.

Her stomach flipped again and she felt herself go hot all over. Spike pulled back from the kiss and held her eyes.

"I love you, Buffy."

Buffy opened her mouth to speak. Cowardice took over and Spike laid his fingers across her mouth. He gathered her in close, holding her firmly to still the shaking -- he wasn't certain whose.

Buffy was enveloped in the smell of tobacco and the crackle of leather. All comfortable things somehow. She let out a little ragged breath, relaxing a little against his tight strength like a little girl.

Spike kissed her forehead. "Come on," he said softly. "I'll walk you home."

*******

Oz and Willow sat in the dark quietly. Willow had told him everything. Even the fears she hadn't felt she could share with Tara when Buffy had been taken from them and it had been up to her to lead them all. Willow had laughed at herself and cried softly when she told him about the forgetting spell and how Tara had left her. And about how broken Willow had felt when she realized what she'd done.

Oz listened, solid and supportive. He'd led her through the rough patches and encouraged her to say what she had really felt in those lonely months.

"Got some of this from Spike. But not all."

"Spike doesn't know everything. Things got really weird when Buffy got back and I got really angry with Spike."

Oz's words came slowly. "Cause Spike was the one that Buffy chose to spend time with."

"Well," Willow considered Oz's words. "I guess I was kind of jealous. I mean, I'm the one who did the spell. I'm the one that..." She looked down at her hands. She looked back at Oz and saw his puzzlement. "The resurrection spell." She closed her eyes briefly, remembering. "But I don't want to talk about the spell."

Oz nodded once. "Tried to live up to what you thought the Scoobs needed you to be. You took a few shortcuts. And ended up in a dark place."

Willow sniffed and wiped her face on the sleeve of her jacket. "Tara told me that. Kind of."

Oz smiled sadly. "Of course she did," he said softly. He held her eyes. "She loves you, Will. If she thought you were in trouble, she'd call you on it. Would have done the same myself."

Oz stood up. "I'll walk you home. I'll be in town for a while. We'll talk again, work through some of it. But for the rest you're going to need Tara."

Oz smiled, effectively changing the subject. "The band thing has been cool. Spike's been cool." He shook his head in amazement.

"You must have seen him a lot," Willow hiccupped, grateful for the new conversation.

"Well, yeah, some. He's been here practicing with the band. Song's a little dated, but..." Oz shrugged. "It works for him, I guess. Little gift for Xander," he explained, chuckling.

Tears forgotten, Willow looked at Oz in shock. "What?!"

********

Buffy walked up the steps. Spike had stopped. It had been a quiet walk back, but nice. Like it used to be right after she got back, before that first kiss. She turned back to him.

Spike nodded at her, indicating the door. "Get some sleep, Slayer."

She paused, "Do you want to...come in?"

Spike had already started down the walk. Her uncertainty was disarming. And he'd already been disarmed enough tonight.

"Tempting. But no. Got to juice up the bar. Steal some clean sheets," he said a little flippantly. "I don't have much company, you know."

She sighed, "Spike, I..."

"Buffy, I'm talked out. Really."

She shook her head. "We don't..."

"Don't what? Have to talk? Also tempting. But I'll pass." He decided it was time to get out now.

"That's not what I..."

Dammit, she was making him crazy, all soft like she was right now. Suddenly, in the time it took for Buffy to take a breath, Spike was on the top step with her, nose to nose.

"Slayer, if I come in, I assure you, we will talk." He said softly. "Then we will proceed to some other not-so-talkative things. And probably trash your bedroom in the bargain. I'm bloody tired of waiting on the steps like some neglected pet for you to let me come in. I am in. I'm in here," he said brushing her temple with the side of hand. "In here," moving his hand to rest very lightly over her heart. She didn't breathe. "You just won't admit it."

He pulled his hand away and leaned back away from her to focus on her whole face and to get away from those eyes that were dominating his field of vision. And he smirked, seemingly changing the subject.

"Want to know why I'm not quaking in my boots at the second coming of The Ensouled One, Slayer?"

Eyes widening, she shook her head, which seemed to be the only part of her that would move.

"Because you're not in love with Angel, you silly bint. You're in love with me."

He laughed and continued in a voice dripping with sarcasm. "Hell, the only thing I have to worry about is what Angelus is going to do to me when he figures it out. Could be a simple staking or maybe a full scale beheading." Spike's eyes sparkled in amusement. "I'd like to see him try. But by God, it would be even be worth going up in flames to wipe that holier than thou look off his face."

Oh, he was mad. She could tell that underneath his cool exterior, he could break her neck. And she remembered that now he could. But knew he wouldn't. Still, she thought it better not to interrupt.

"You know, pet, this isn't some fantasy, some fairy tale romance you can keep trapped in the pages of a book. I'm not interested in little schoolgirls like one I won't mention. And unlike that sodding waste of your time and tears, I'm not going anywhere. And there's nowhere you can go that I won't find you."

He leaned in close, eyes burning like gas flames. They burned right through her eyes and into the back of her brain. She realized she was breathing roughly. And so did he.

He leaned in closer. In a hard whisper, he taunted her. "I ought to take you right here on the front steps. Or maybe right against the front door."

"But this isn't about the sex. The very good sex." He felt her shift again and the smell of her almost overwhelmed him. He put his hands on the door on either side of her head. But he didn't touch her. He let the weight of the air between them flatten her against the door. "Don't ever think that this is about the sex," he growled.

He felt her nod, holding her breath.

He snapped back to a standing position, dropping his hands to his sides. "So. Then. So long as you understand." He turned away from her. "G'nite, pet."

And found himself being spun around, back slamming against the door, with one of her small white hands, palm down, against his chest. And she was looking at her hand like it didn't belong to her, frowning.

Such a lovely little hand. He found his voice and was pleasantly surprised at how steady it was. He tenderly wrapped his fingers around her hand and removed it from his chest, kissing it softly and holding it. He smirked and called up reserves of bravado from the old days. "Oho, Baby wants to play."

"Well, I'm done playing. And I think you need to go inside before I do something you'll regret in the morning." He pushed her hand back at her calmly, looking her dead-on in the eyes.

She turned on her heel and went into the house.

******

Buffy softly closed the door of the Summer's house and stood quietly for a moment, staring vacantly at the doorknob. She calmed her breathing, sighed once and started up the stairs. Hesitating, she turned and went back to the door, putting her hand on the knob. The hand he'd given back to her.

What could she say, anyway? He'd said plenty enough for both of them.

She went up the stairs. The light was on in her mom's old room. Buffy decisively changed course, heading toward the master bedroom.

Buffy peeped in. "Willow?"

Willow was sitting on the bed with folded and unfolded towels all around her. Buffy smiled in spite of herself at the sight of her friend folding clothes the old-fashioned way. She inclined her head to the pile of fluffy towels. "Extra points for hand-folding."

Willow grinned. Buffy made a decision, continued into the room and sat down on the bed with a thump.

Willow looked a little concerned. "You okay?"

"Sure. Nothing a nice sharp stake wouldn't cure."

"Oh. Patrol go all right?"

"Patrol was fine. It's all the rest of the time that my life sucks." Buffy smiled encouragingly at Willow. "Been slaying that ole Laundry Demon, huh?"

"Had a lot to think about. I'd forgotten how folding clothes helped. I saw Oz tonight."

Buffy glanced up from the loose thread in the quilt that had caught her attention. "Oz? He's here?"

Willow nodded. "Long story. Better left 'til tomorrow. Tonight's installment is that we talked."

"Really? Was it weird?"

Willow considered the question. "No, not really. Not like last time. You know, me the one with the new girlfriend and all. But this time, no falling into the black hole in the pit of my stomach. No paranoia. No 'what-if' moments. It was nice. Like seeing a really special old friend."

Buffy found the loose thread again with her eyes, trying to decide whether to pull it out or not. "Did it make you feel guilty? Not feeling ... not being all in love with the first guy you ever were... with?"

Willow thought a moment. "No. Not guilty. But I mean ... it's not like I left him for somebody else. He left. I grieved. And then I met Tara."

"Yeah," Buffy said absently as she began tugging on the thread lightly.

Willow stopped folding and waited.

Buffy continued staring down fixedly. "I felt guilty."

Willow leaned over and put her hand on Buffy's knee. "When, honey?" she asked softly.

"When I met Angel outside L.A. After I ... got back." Buffy looked up at Willow to see if she remembered and once assured, looked back down at the bed. "I felt guilty. I felt ... I don't know, almost unfaithful. Which is ridiculous considering Angel left me and Riley and I had been ... you know, since then."

Buffy shook her head. "After all the people who were hurt -- killed. How could that just be ...gone? All I could think about was getting out of there and getting back here to..." She stopped at Willow's shrewd look. "You guys," she finished lamely.

"Mmmm. Well, Buffy, you're not a schoolgirl anymore, you know. And Riley was Rebound Guy."

"Not a schoolgirl," Buffy repeated softly, frowning at the offending thread. "Or a shopgirl, or..." She ripped the thread out of the comforter, staring at the limp thing. "Or anything faintly resembling a girl."

Willow reached across and caught her hand. "Buffy? What is it?"

Buffy looked at Willow's hand and up at Willow's concerned face. And that look released her from her silence.

"Oh, Willow, I'm such a mess. I'm worried about you. I'm worried about Dawn. I'm worried about Xander and Anya and the wedding. I'm even worried about Giles, because Spike said he was busy on Watcher business and might not even make the wedding.

"I'm real worried about me because I can't seem to do anything to fix what I'm worried about." Buffy laughed wryly. "And I'm worried that all I do is worry." She took a breath. "I'm even worried about Spike."

Willow was taken aback. "About Spike? Spike is...well, of all of us, Spike seems to be the one who's got it all under control. Kinda together. You know, in a chipped vampire sort of way." She could start paying Spike back for breaking through to Buffy right now. And it was true anyway.

Buffy snorted derisively. "Yeah? Well, Angel gets here tomorrow night, right?"

"Buffy, Spike invited Angel. You said Angel and Spike were..."

"Oh, they are. For now. But things get weird in Sunnydale. And when Angel gets here and figures out that..." Buffy stopped, not quite certain what to say next.

"What? That you and Spike are not just ... you and Spike. That there is a 'you and Spike'?"

Buffy looked up at Willow in surprise. "You knew?"

Willow smiled a little sadly. "Well, being out of the 'Buffy' loop and into the whole 'Poor Willow' thing, I didn't figure it out until today. After I thought about it, it seemed pretty obvious. I mean, talk about stamina!"

Buffy gulped. "What?" she choked out.

Willow looked at Buffy and laughed. She couldn't help it. Buffy looked so... funny. Shocked and reddening, Buffy just stared at Willow. "Oh. Ohhh." Willow laughed again. They were definitely going to talk about that later. "I meant the way he'd hung in there. All this time. Even after you were..." Willow tensed up, looking for a word.

"Dead?" said Buffy pertly, recovering a little. Now this was something Buffy could be certain about.

Willow chuckled, tension gone. "Yeah, dead." She got serious. "Buffy, when you...died, I thought he was going to shake apart. I've never seen anyone cry like that, man or woman. He sees Dawn coming down off the scaffold and goes to her and holds her. Then he took her away with him. Back here. Next night, he was pushing us to go patrol. And he calls Cordy 'cheerleader!' You shoulda seen him. And some nights he even stayed here." She got lost in her thoughts, remembering how unreal it had been.

"We were all so...numb, Buffy. I think we were waiting for you to get up. All except him and Dawn and Giles. They accepted it. They grieved. I don't think the rest of us really did. I don't think we believed it.

"I think that was why it was so easy to start looking for a way around it. To bring you back. To cheat." Willow looked at Buffy, imploringly. "Buffy, I am really sorry. I just..."

Buffy hugged Willow hard to forestall that whole line of discussion. "Well, I'm here now." She laughed ruefully. "Probably better off here anyway. Except I've got one brassed-off vampire on my hands, and probably another one showing up tomorrow. I am so not Angel-4ever-Buffy anymore, Will. I'm almost to What-Did-I-Ever-See-In-Him Buffy. I'm worried about Angel figuring it out, and even though Spike says he won't say anything...well, you know Spike and that mouth of his. And I mean, it's not like he's my boyfriend or anything. Spike, I mean."

"Oh." Willow was taken a little aback. "You just have sex with him," she said appraisingly. "Slutty much, Buffy?"

Buffy grimaced. "Okay, I guess I deserved that just a little, but you sounded like Spike just then." She laughed bitterly. "I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do about it anyway. I mean, Spike's not Riley. Spike is ... well, Spike. And I don't think he'd appreciate any interference from Rescue!Buffy! at all when it comes to Angel. He's practically lifting his leg on every tree in the front yard now!"

Willow laughed and Buffy joined her, even though she was still worried. It was an image, all right.

"Ugly male pride rearing its serpentine head. Ewww. That was phallic, wasn't it?" Willow grimaced, as Buffy giggled.

"Yep. You have no idea. Well, you ... no, you don't. Believe me. And it's Spike."

"So? I never thought it was that weird when we thought you were the 'Bot."

"My turn. Ewwww. Hate the 'Bot. Help me forget the 'Bot." Buffy looked at Willow quickly. "Forget the 'forget,' okay?"

"Well, what was it like?"

"What?"

Willow reddened a little. "You know. And I want details. Graphic enough, but not all 'ewww, okay?' Remember, gay here. Just the highlights."

Buffy looked embarrassed. "I got highlights for you, Will. We demolished a house. A whole house," she mumbled, looking down where the thread didn't live anymore.

Willow looked at her in shock, then chuckled. "You brought the house down?"

Buffy looked back up at Willow. "It's not funny. I woke up, it was morning and we were in the basement. We didn't start out in the basement, Will. I'm sure of that, because the ceiling was gone. And there were beams, flooring, debris everywhere. Monster-size Godzilla stakes everywhere. And him. Right in the middle of it."

"It was daylight and he was still there?"

"Yeah. How weird is that? Waking up with someone the morning after. That was so...unusual...for me, anyway. I didn't know what to do. What to say. And then he...didn't want me to go...and we had a...fight... cause I guess that's what we do. And I was...mean. And he was...horrible."

"So you treated him like the evil vampire?"

Buffy nodded. "And have ever since. Except when I'm screwing his brains out."

"Buffy!"

"I know, Will. But it's Spike. I mean, how sick is this? A vampire and a slayer? Looking back on Angel, it was insane. People died, Will."

"Well, try being Logic Girl for a minute. As a boyfriend, Spike has a great track record. I leave out the Harmony part cause she was just Rebound Girl. He was with Druscilla for what? Over a hundred years? And she was nuts. Perfect boyfriend. He would have died for her. He's definitely paid his 'boyfriend dues.'"

"Will, he's a vampire and I'm a Slayer."

Willow nodded. "Genius much?"

"He drinks."

Willow nodded again. "But only pig's blood, any and all alcoholic beverages and hot chocolate. Almost forgot that. Wholesome."

"He dresses like an 80's punk rocker." Buffy's eyes got a little distant, going down the 'con' list of a Spike relationship.

Willow started to say something then, but closed her mouth. She had almost told her what Oz had said.

"He roars when he comes." Buffy complained. Remembering Willow, her eyes widened and she slapped her hand over her mouth, as her words reached her own ears.

A bit flustered, Willow stared at her. Then she grinned conspiratorially. "Well, at least he's verbal. Doesn't just grunt a little and squeak."

Head tilting and the beginning of a smirk on her face, Buffy knowingly looked at Willow.

"I've seen movies!" Willow said defensively.

"Oz didn't..."

"No, he didn't squeak. But he didn't roar either." Willow scolded her friend.

Willow's eyes glinted wickedly, as she had another thought. "Good thing it was an abandoned house. And that he has his own place."

Buffy couldn't help it. She started laughing. Willow joined in. And pretty soon they were wiping wet faces on the clean towels.

Buffy got up. "Well, that's it. I cannot solve the Spike problem tonight. I think I'm punchy. You gonna be all right? Need help slaying those towels?"

"Me?" Willow tried to straighten up. "I haven't been this good in a long time. Nite, Buff. Tomorrow is ... well, you know, like tomorrow."

"Don't I know it," she sighed. Buffy wished there was no bachelor party and certainly no Angel coming to grace it with his presence.

*******

Spike drew on his cigarette and watched the light go on in Buffy's room. He dropped the fag and absently stepped on it with his boot.

It had been awhile since he'd just stood outside her house, watching and waiting. He'd been justified in everything he'd said, but he thought he might...well, not apologize precisely, but try to explain things a different way. Last chance before the poof slipped in. Spike didn't want the Slayer too angry with him. She might pick up and go to back to L.A. with Angel's crew just to spite him.

He squared his shoulders and headed for the tree. No reason to wake the whole household.

*********

Buffy strode to the window and dragged Spike the rest of the way in. He grimaced. Not exactly the entrance he was looking for. She looked around outside. All clear. "Trying to ruin my reputation?" She complained.

"Well, it's not like you're not in and out of here at all times of night anyway," he reasoned. "Neighbors probably think you're a call girl."

She ignored the remark, looking him up and down. "Forget something? Think of some other really snarky thing to say? Any new arguments I haven't already heard a zillion times?" She breathed out in half-hearted exasperation. She loved it when he had that embarrassed little boy look on his face. Made her want to hug him.

He spread his hands in surrender. "Buffy..."

"No talking." She leaned over and kissed him.

Spike opened his mouth to protest.

"Spike, shut up. I want to be with you right now and if I have to gag you, I will. Don't want talk. Or the other thing. Just want 'close' tonight. Okay?"

*******

Time to go. Didn't want her waking up to the new day next to a Big Pile of Dust. And he sure wasn't resting in this little girl room with this child-woman pushing her bare bottom up against him as she slept, making all those delicious little noises.

So much for 'just close.' He'd done so well keeping his distance, letting her marinate in her own juices for once, for weeks now. Blown it in an hour's time. Well, maybe two hours. He wasn't keeping track.

He reached for his pants and got one leg in before he heard Buffy start to stir. Got to move faster than this.

Buffy groggily reached across the bed. Not finding what she was looking for, she rolled over to see a shadow standing over the bed, fumbling. She heard a soft clank of metal and a smothered "bloody hell."

"What..." she muttered in a little girl Buffy voice.

"Shhh. Go back to sleep, luv." Spike whispered, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "Sun'll be up soon. Can't get stuck here."

"Spike?" still groggy.

Well at least she knew who'd been in her bed. Amazing. "Shhh." Spike leaned down and kissed her with a gentle sweep of his lips across her cheek, before she had a chance to wake up properly and ruin it all. In the same downward motion, he retrieved his boots, t-shirt and duster and slipped out of Buffy's room and into the t-shirt, traveling quietly down the stairs barefoot. He didn't stop until he heard the snick of the lock behind him.

He sat down on the doorstep and methodically pulled on shirt and boots. He didn't like this slipping out before dawn, like some thief in the night. He didn't like the slipping around period. He stood and put on his duster and walked down the front steps, digging in the coat for cigarettes and lighter.

******

He smoked and looked at the house, waiting for the light to come on in Buffy's room. It didn't. A little disappointed, he started walking, duster flapping, as the sky turned pink. He wasn't ready to go to the crypt.

Dawn eased back from her window as Spike strode away. She sighed and crawled back in her bed.

She knew she'd heard someone in the house.

*******

Spike banged into his crypt. He'd really pushed it to the last possible second and without the blanket, well.... Major possibility of missing the party. He was emotionally exhausted and more than ready to invest in some sleep.

He almost missed the figure sitting in shadow in front of the television. His body skidded to a brief halt until he realized how guilty it looked. And he was anything but guilty, right? Right.

Besides, maybe it was some shape-shifting demon that just looked like Angel. The poof was a full twelve hours early.

"You're early," Spike said out loud as he threw off his duster. This was not how he had envisioned this meeting. And he truly hated to improvise.

"Maybe you're late. It's almost dawn."

"Like to live dangerously. You know that," Spike said with some of his old-time cockiness. Now that was better.

"Yeah. That you do." Angel held up a black cell phone. "Need some help making calls?"

Spike laughed. "Probably. But it's a bit early for that. World's still sleeping. Gonna get some sleep myself. You don't mind, right?"

Angel's face was still partly shadowed. "I'm still kind of geared from the drive. Maybe I'll watch some TV?"

Spike nodded. "Got cable, you know. Even some soft porn, if you're still into that kind of thing." Spike's eyes brightened. "Speaking of which. You got the girl?"

"Oh, yeah." Angel ducked his head and looked sideways at Spike. "She's staying at the Inn with Wesley and Gunn. I dropped Fred, Cordelia and Connor at Buffy's already," he added.

Spike looked unconcerned, but his mind started churning furiously. "Really? Already? That would have been about..."

"Just about the time you left there, I guess."



Part 6: The Scramble

“And all the time you were…sittin' back up the street watchin' her house! Spyin' on her!"

Angel shook his head. "That wasn't it at all. We were coming up the street … Didn`t want to make a big scene so we hung back a little until we could see who was there," said Angel said in his own defense.

"Oh, right!” Spike said, thoroughly disgusted with the stupidity of that statement. “With the bloody headlights off?"

"Like I need `em anyway. We were trying not to call attention to ourselves."

Spike looked disgusted. "Angel, it's illegal to drive at night without headlights. And a bloody good way to call attention to yourself."

"This is a covert visit as far as the demon population is concerned, remember? What if a neighbor saw us?"

"Acting all suspicious, you mean? Driving up and down Revello Drive with no headlights? The old lady across the street told me she always hated your bloody guts anyway. You never even bothered to say hello to her. Much less get her cat out of the soddin' tree.” Spike was warming to the subject and keeping Angel as far off track as he dared.

“There's a word for people like you, Peaches. Self-absorbed," Spike said righteously. If he could just keep Angel on the defensive, there was a chance…

"So, what was it you said you were doing at Buffy's at 6 am?"

Spike’s eyes became unreadable slits. "Didn't."

"Are you going to tell me it's not what I think?"

"Depends on what you think, doesn't it?"

"I think that you two were going over the patrol plan for tonight and tomorrow." Angel tossed the words nonchalantly into the middle of the silent crypt.

Spike looked a little startled. "Well. All right then." Spike turned toward the stairs, off the hook. Angel pounced.

"You never could lie worth a damn, William. Are you and Buffy…?"

Spike turned back to Angel. "What?" he said levelly, both eyebrows raised.

"You know."

Spike blew out a held breath in disgust. "Watch some TV, all right? I'm knackered. If you`ve got any questions, you can ask the lady. I`m sure she`ll set you right, straight away. Until then, sod off."

Angel watched Spike go below, then sat back down and picked up the remote, musing.

Spike never had answered his question. Maybe Buffy would, if he ever got up the nerve to ask her. Angel would rather take his chances with Spike.

******

She'd had a total of two hours sleep. Maybe.

There had been some smothered bumpies in the night. Later a few more mixed in with some muffled voices. After her conversation with Buffy last night, Willow had been a bit surprised at their self-restraint. Still, it hadn’t been exactly what you’d call quiet. But right now, as far as Willow was concerned, Spike had unconditional amnesty. Cordy did not.

Willow yawned right in Cordelia's face.

Cordelia's eyes snapped. "Oh, you're tired? You don't know tired. Angel drove from right outside L.A. Too fast. My jaw is still clenched. Permanently locked."

Willow jumped in quickly, patting Cordelia`s arm. "Probably be better if you rested it then." She said innocently. "No talky for a little while."

Cordelia shot Willow one of her best dark looks. Willow leaned down toward the baby cuddled in Cordy's arms. "He kinda looks like a Cabbage Patch, doesn't he? You ever have a Cabbage Patch doll? Well, he looks like that. Except this little guy moves. And cries, I guess." Willow leaned in for a closer look. "Oh." She sniffed. "And poops?"

"Probably. I know I always do when I travel. And his father probably scared the sh…" Cordy got a good whiff. "Ewww, Connor!"

********

"Uh, Spike?"

Spike turned over on his back and looked up at the ceiling, cell phone in his ear. "Hullo, Red. Can't let a man sleep, can you? Not a one of you."

Willow giggled at Spike`s gruff tone, "Maybe you should have gotten some sleep last night. You know. At home.” She was amused by the dead silence at the other end of the line. Obviously, they thought they were being quiet. “Houseguest made it?" she said conspiratorially.

"Yeah. Now what is it, Red?"

"Things are a teensy bit out of hand here."

Spike realized that the background noise he was hearing on his cell phone was a baby crying. "Right."

"Connor's gotten all fussy and no one can get him to sleep. And I'm feeling pretty loopy since I heard some noises in the night and couldn't go to sleep…"

Blackmail. Spike sat up and started pulling his pants on. He sighed, "Yeah? And?"

"Cordelia doesn't want Angel to think she can't handle the baby alone, so she won`t call him. I`m not sure what that`s about. Spike, we need Angel over here. Or we could bring Connor over there…" she said hopefully.

"Bloody hell no. I've got things to do today. I'll get the pouf over right quick. Then you can get some sleep. Guess everybody's wide awake?" he asked innocently.

Willow giggled again. "Not everybody. When I was upstairs a few minutes ago, someone was sleeping the sleep of the undead. Congratulations."

"Don't know what you mean. Wait. Buffy doesn't know she has … early guests?"

"Don't think so. Haven't heard any bumpety wake-ups." But I did hear plenty of bumpeties last night, she thought slyly.

"Well, let the Slayer sleep. She's got patrol tonight. I'll fetch him over. Hope I can find another blanket over here. Don't fancy gettin' the two of us under just the one."

"Thanks, Spike. I'm not cut out for this. Just don't let Angel make Cordy feel bad, okay? She wanted him to think she could handle this. "

"Wouldn't want to injure the bloomin' cheerleader's feelings," Spike grumbled. "That is, if she has any."

"Spike!"

"Fine. Calvary's comin', Red. Just hang on."

********

Buffy stretched and yawned. Flipped over on her stomach, face down on the sheet. Her nose tickled with the faint smell of stale smoke and the headier, stronger scent of sex.

Her eyes flew open. Oh boy. Oh boy. Oh boy…

Her eyes darted to the clock and then to the other pillow. The indented pillow.

Oh boy. Oh boy. Oh boy. Oh boy.

There was a knock on the door. Buffy looked wildly for a sleep shirt. Something. She grabbed the pillow and shook it.

"Just a minute," she said shakily as she dressed in last night's clothes. She sat down on the bed, going for nonchalant. "Okay," she called.

Dawn came in, looking around the room appraisingly. Saw a black sock peeping out from under the bed. Not one of Buffy's socks. Somehow she never had put together the idea of Spike and socks. Seemed kinda ordinary.

Buffy followed Dawn's eyes down and glanced up quickly, foot pushing the sock further under the bed.

Dawn smiled and said brightly, "Time to shop."

Buffy stood up. "Sure … sure. Just need to get a shower. Get dressed." Wash the sheets. Air out the room. Did Dawn know what … "Uh, why are we shopping?"

"Lingerie. Shower. Frederick's."

"Oh, no. No, no, no, no. No Frederick's. Victoria's Secret."

"Lame." said Dawn pertly. She was smiling, but her eyes were getting stormy. "Don't want lame. Get Anya … naughty bits."

Buffy walked over to the dresser and grimaced.

"What's up, Limpy?"

"What? No Limpy. Just a catch in my hip. See. Nothing." Buffy stretched her leg out behind her as she leaned on the dresser.

"Just makin' sure you're okay, Big Sis." Dawn headed toward the door. "I'll just go downstairs and play with the baby. Let me know when you're ready to go."

Buffy grabbed Dawn's arm. "Baby?"

"Well, duh. Connor's here. Didn't you hear him? And Fred's really tired, so when you get up and out, she's gonna get a nap up here in your room."

Buffy dropped Dawn's arm, aghast. "But they're not supposed to be here until tonight!" Buffy looked around the room wildly and started yanking sheets off the bed. Dawn watched her panic, inwardly amused.

"They came early. Before the sun came up." Dawn shrugged. "Guess Angel didn't want to miss anything. He went straight over to Spike's, Cordy said."

Buffy threw the window open wide and started to hand the sheets off to Dawn, but thought better of it. She pushed her hair out of her face and started out of the room to get a shower.

Dawn grinned. This was really going to be fun.

*********

Buffy wandered into a crowded kitchen. Angel was with Spike in the corner with what she presumed was the baby. Angel was talking baby-talk.

"That's my big boy. Yessir, you grew while daddy was gone. I missed you, Connor." Angel looked at Spike. "Want to see a neat trick?"

"Yeah." Spike's head was twisted so far to one side it looked painful. "Little one does tricks?"

"No. I do. Watch Connor."

Angel slid into game-face. Connor's mouth turned up at the corners and he cooed. In a feral growl, Angel said, "See?"

"Little blighter likes it, don't he?" Spike slid into game face too. The baby looked from one to the other, kicking his feet happily. Spike looked at Angel and grinned. Which Buffy always found disturbing when Spike was vamped out.

Willow came up from the basement and saw Buffy clutching a pile of dirty sheets to her chest. At almost the same moment, Spike saw Buffy and shook off the vamp face. Then he saw what she was carrying, along with the painfully embarrassed look on her face. His mouth twitched up at one corner. Dawn and Cordelia were sitting at the table discussing what was "in" in L.A., as opposed to the selection at the Sunnydale Mall.

Willow scrambled up to Buffy. "Your sheets," she whispered. Her eyes darted around the room. "Gimme." Willow reached to take them.

"Will, can you get these in the washer? Now?" Buffy pleaded desperately in a low whisper.

"Sure." Willow grimaced.

"Shut. Up. Just get em in the machine. Has Angel…?"

"Hey, Buffy." Angel called out. "You met my little man yet?" And he again regressed into the baby-talk voice. "There's my man. Such a big man." Buffy rolled her eyes. It was all Spike could do to

keep a straight face.

Angel shook off his game face. He walked toward Buffy. "This is Connor."

Buffy looked down and tried to smile at the baby. But there was white stuff with little lumps in it running out the side of his mouth. "Uh, Angel …" She pointed.

Angel spun to the table and grabbed a white cloth. He dabbed at the baby's mouth. "There. Buffy, this is kinda neat. When I …"

"Angel? I need to talk to Spike a minute."

Spike looked up from the baby. "Yeah?"

Buffy looked determined. "About that thing."

"That thing?" Spike echoed. Angel looked from Spike's face to Buffy's.

"Yeah. That thing. In the living room, okay? Angel, excuse us just a minute. Oh, and the baby's real cute."

Buffy dragged Spike out of the kitchen. She spun back toward him and ended up with her nose in his neck. She glared.

Spike put both hands out, palms up, in surrender. "What?!"

"That … thing? Last night?"

His face softened. "Yeah. That thing."

Buffy slapped his chest to get his attention. "Hey. They came in this morning," she hissed.

"I know. Peaches was waitin' for me when I got back to the crypt."

"Oh, great. So you had to lie to him about where you'd been."

"Uh. Well. Y'see, he knew where I'd been. Saw me leavin'. Buffy, they were out there stakin' out the house!" Maybe stake was a poor choice of words.

Buffy slammed her palm onto Spike's chest even harder as she made a face.

"Ow," Spike rubbed his chest. "I would `a left earlier if I'd known he was comin'."

"What. Did. He. Say." Buffy punctuated her words with sharp raps to Spike's chest.

Spike grabbed her hand. "D'you mind, luv? Didn't tell him anything. Told him he'd have to talk to you."

"Oh," Buffy squeaked. "Thanks." She shook off his hand. "Always the gentleman, aren't you?" The sarcasm dripped off her words and into an invisible puddle on the floor. She slipped two crumpled black socks into his duster pocket. He looked down, reached in and pulled the unrecognizable bundle out slightly. “Oh. Wondered where I’d left those.”

Angel came around the door with the baby. "Hey. Take care of that thing?"

Buffy started slightly as Spike nodded. "Yeah. Done." "It's all good."

"Great." Angel ducked his head and looked at them both suspiciously. Then he looked down at Connor. "C'mere, Buffy. Let me show you what Connor likes."

Spike leaned toward Buffy and muttered, "Call me later. I'm outta here."

"Coward," she growled through gritted teeth.

*******

"The house feels different."

Buffy looked at her feet. "I think it's because Mom's not here."

Angel nodded, leaning back into the sofa. "Could be." He relaxed.

Connor had finally gone down for a late morning nap, along with Fred, Cordelia and Willow. Buffy hadn't really had a chance to meet Fred, as she had thrown herself across Buffy's bed as soon as the clean sheets were on. Still, Cordelia had seemed different, as Willow had assured Buffy she would be. Different, but a little distant, in some indefinable way.

Buffy and Angel had ended up in the living room, draperies drawn tightly. Dawn sashayed through and looked at Angel with disdain. "Hey," she said, lip curling, as she headed toward the kitchen.

Angel chuckled mirthlessly. "She never did like me. I don't think your mom liked me either."

Buffy wrinkled her nose. "I think they just didn't know you. After all, you never spent any one-on-one time with them, like…" Buffy stopped.

Angel didn't seem to notice. "Maybe. Or maybe it was that whole vampire thing."

"Mmm." Buffy hummed noncommittally. She bounced her feet against the bottom of the chair.

Angel looked at her. "You okay?"

"Me? Yeah. Course. You?"

Angel smiled. "Okay. Spike’s place isn’t bad. But I'm really not used to being away from Connor. Could I stay here, Buffy? I'll try to stay out of your way."

Buffy smiled back. "That's okay. I'll stay with Tara or something. Give my company room to spread out. It's all for a good cause."

Angel looked at the ceiling. "Thanks. So," he changed the subject, "you and Spike worked out the patrol patterns for us? It must be some plan for you to have worked all night on it."

Buffy squeezed her eyes shut. Angel was prying and she was going to scream soon if he didn't …

Just then, the front door swung open in a snarl of moth-eaten blanket, rolled-up paper and blond vampire. Spike slammed the door and stomped on one edge of the blanket where it had started to smolder.

Angel shook his head, eyebrows raised. "Did I neglect in my training to explain about vampires and daylight?"

Spike smirked at Angel. "If you weren't such a poofster, you'd know the value of outside exercise." Spike walked over to the table in front of the sofa and unrolled several large sheets of paper. Buffy pounced to try and keep one stubborn corner from rolling back up.

Spike looked at Buffy, eyes holding hers steadily. "Slayer, I took care of that thing." He nodded down at the paper. "Drew up the patrol patterns for you and the witches."

He glanced at Angel. "And for us tomorrow night while the girls are having their party. I will have to slip away at one point to pick Dawn up at the Bronze and take her to her friend's house, but it shouldn't be a problem."

Buffy leaned forward and looked down at the carefully drawn maps. She grinned wickedly at Spike. "Just what I always wanted." Spike's eyes sparkled. Angel looked from one to the other, trying to figure out how he'd gotten the wrong idea about what he'd seen this morning.

Spike tapped the pages. "It was rather extensive, though. `Preciate you going over it. See if I missed anything."

Angel cleared his throat. "I'm going to check on Connor." He got up and went upstairs.

Buffy's face glowed as she looked at Spike. "Are you ever going to stop surprising me?"

"God. I should hope not." He looked down. "Neat, innit? Giles and I talked about this once, but we never did anything with the idea. Think it works?"

She nodded. "Wesley could follow it."

Spike chuckled, "Kind of keep-it-simple-stupid logic, right?"

"I think it's great." She sat back, smiling.

Spike fidgeted and looked at the wall clock. "Buffy, I've got to leave."

"Oh, of course." She pointed at the table. "Thanks for these." She leaned over and whispered, "Oh, and your timing was impeccable."

"Yeah? You mean just now or last night?" He grinned wickedly. Then, shrugged, a little embarrassed. "See you before the party?"

"You coming here?"

"Thought I would. Yeah. Pick up the poof. Show him my motorcycle."

Buffy considered a moment, then nodded. "Okay."

******

Dawn had decided to savor every minute of her shopping excursion. Even though Buffy wasn't showing the amount of guilt and distractedness she had come to expect from her, there were still opportunities for some sisterly digs. Most of Dawn's more pointed comments had been lost on Buffy though, getting her only puzzled looks.

Dawn wondered how long `it' had been going on. She decided that the first time had to have been the night no one had come home. Of course, Buffy had looked like a railroad train had run over her that morning and she wondered about that, but since Buffy and Spike patrolled together, it could have been some wildly romantic moment when Spike had rescued her from some demon Big Bad. She almost sighed at the images her mind was painting for her.

Dawn sniffed. It must have been that night. And last night. How many times in between? Spike and Buffy weren't your typical soul mate-type couple, but Dawn had always thought they were kinda sexy together. Especially since she'd seen them under that wedding spell that Willow had cast accidentally. And if Buffy and Spike were together, it meant more Spiketime for Dawn. She sure hadn't been getting much of that lately.

The best thing about Spike was that he didn't treat her like a little kid. He talked to her like an adult. And he didn't avoid difficult (for Buffy) subjects. He was also an excellent source of information about guys. First hand data. A girl would have to be stupid not to take advantage of that.

Dawn shrugged her shoulders and decided to can the rest of the snarky comments. They had a party to go to tomorrow night and Dawn didn't want to miss it. But Dawn did think she could probably cadge a late lunch and a big shake if she was good and quiet.

********

Anya tiptoed toward the door at Willie's. Tara followed, walking normally. "Anya …"

"I want to see. You know you want to."

Tara looked at her watch. "It's early yet. No one will be here anyway."

"Wrong," Anya said excitedly. "I bet that Anne is here. Oh."

A beautiful, long-legged girl in daisy duke shorts brushed past them and went inside. Tara gave an appreciative look.

"Humph. And you all think I'm sex-crazed? That’s a total stranger you’re looking at." Anya complained.

Tara reddened. "I just thought they were nice shorts."

"Uh huh." Anya said, not convinced. She pulled open the door. Tara reached out and grabbed her arm.

"Wait."

"For what? More girls? I told you I want to see." Anya stepped inside the door, Tara following hesitantly.

Willie's was covered up in women. Good looking women, seemingly college age. Some were already wearing tight, cropped yellow t-shirts that showed off most of their well-defined torsos. The t-shirts were emblazoned with the words "Xander's Toy" in big black letters. Tara's mouth dropped open. Anya nudged her.

"See. Those are the t-shirts Spike had made. Xander has one too. Only it just says `Xander.'" She frowned. "His is bigger, of course." She pointed at the shirt on the girl nearest them. "I have one of those. The prototype, Spike said." She bobbed her head up and smiled. "I've already worn mine. But not for very long," she said with typical Anya matter-of-factness.

Tara shook her head and looked toward the stage, disappointed that it was empty. "Do you see Oz yet? Willow said he was playing tonight and I thought I might get to say hello."

Anya drew in a breath in excitement. "See." She dug her elbow into Tara's ribs. "There's Anne. I told you she'd be here. She's such a professional," she said proudly. "Spike was lucky to get her."

Tara privately agreed. But not because of her professionalism. Although she looked pretty on top of things with her clipboard, checking the girls' names off of a list as she handed them t-shirts.

Just then, the woman looked back toward the kitchen and flashed a dazzling `welcome back' smile. Tara followed the woman's eyes and saw …

Spike.

Tara involuntarily gave a low whistle. He must have come in through the tunnels. After all, it was broad daylight outside. Of course, that never seemed to be much of a problem for Spike, she reflected.

Spike was wearing obviously-new tight black jeans. On his feet (and Tara could have fainted when she saw them) were silver-tipped black cowboy boots with riding heels. The inevitable t-shirt was cobalt blue.

"Wow," Tara breathed. "I guess I never really looked before. You know?"

Spike began working the room. Talking to the sound guys, conferring with the caterers, patting backs, slapping a few willing fannies. He sparkled with every mischievous smile he bestowed. And those receiving those smiles bestowed them right back.

"That's our Spike? His eyes are bluer than I thought."

"Look at him," Anya said proudly. "He has everything perfectly planned, and it's being executed like clockwork. He's got his finger on all of it.

“It's so exciting.” Anya said admiringly. “Just imagine it. He could be the owner of a supper club, an actor or the CEO of a major Fortune 500 corporation."

Anya shivered slightly and her voice became a husky whisper. "Makes you want to call him `William,' doesn't it?"

Tara backed toward the door, pulling Anya with her, and muttering to herself under her breath. "You know, you think you know somebody and `blam,' one day you look up and they've become the most gorgeous guy you've ever seen."

Anya looked up at Tara in surprise. "You're still gay, aren't you? Because if you're not, Xander is still spoken for."

”Still gay, but highly appreciative,” explained Tara as she pulled Anya out of there.



Part 7: The Gauntlet

Buffy walked in from the mall with Dawn. They'd finally found something that they could agree on. A little lace, lots of illusion, in a rich deep rose. Dawn came in the door, looked around and headed for the kitchen. Buffy did the same. By the time Buffy had reached the door, Dawn had the box open in front of Cordelia and they were discussing the various merits of Buffy's and her gift.

Eyes sparkling, Willow looked up at Buffy. "Tara called."

Buffy grinned at her excitement. "Really? Anything you can tell?" she teased.

"She and Anya were at the florist." Willow chuckled. "Having trouble pulling off the nightshade."

Buffy slammed down into a chair, with a bemused look on her face. "Ah, for the days of roses and stephanotis. Or even baby's breath."

"She just may have to make do." Willow said, frowning. "Or rent it from a hothouse or something... Anyway, they went by Willie's..."

Cordelia looked up from her review of Anya's shower gift. "Anything happening yet?"

Mischievously, Willow grinned. "Just girls, girls, girls. In screen print t-shirts. That are really tight and really cropped. That say 'Xander's Toy.'" Her eyes sparkled at the thought.

"Think I could sneak in?" she continued, teasing. "Talk in a deep voice? Stick around for awhile?" At the lack of response, Willow said in a thoughtful tone, "If I wasn't on the wagon, I could morph myself into one of those t-shirts." She looked at Buffy. "Course I won't. Right?"

Buffy just rubbed her face with her palm, ignoring Willow's hopeful tone. "Oh, God. Spike." She groaned. "Doesn't he remember Anya was a vengeance demon? Who has friends who are still in the biz?" She shook her head. "Any belly dancers yet?" she asked rhetorically.

Cordelia stared. "We brought her from L.A., remember, Buffy?"

"I know that. I just meant.... Never mind."

"Tara seemed pretty whoo-whoo about Spike," Willow continued. Cordy and Buffy looked up in surprise. "No, no. Not like that. Jeez, you guys, Tara's gay. But there's a certain amount of appreciation ... well, just 'cause we don't bed em don't mean we don't look." She said admonishingly.

"She just said that the Spike that's over at Willie's isn't like any Spike she ever remembers. She's really impressed. And not just with all those girls either. Food, two bars, bandstand. And she says he's got on new boots!"

Willow's face changed to a pout. "Aww. I just can't believe we're not going. I mean, Oz's band and Spike. And just the whole party, party thingy. Angel and Xand and the guys from L.A. I haven't even met Gunn yet, but Fred said he's really neat ... . I don't see why we can't go! Sure we'd be out of place, but I could try to butch up some before tonight."

Cordelia made a slightly rude noise. "You want to go to a bachelor party? With naked dancers and bimbo servers and..."

"Yeah," Willow said setting her chin as she faced down Cordelia. "I want to go. Xander's been my friend forever and the guys are going to have this decadent party and we're not."

Buffy looked up and said helpfully, "We've got a male stripper..."

Willow looked at her sadly. "Not really my Speedo, Buff. And I just want to see Spike's party." She brightened. "You know, 'cause when Spike does anything he goes all out."

Buffy blushed as she thought about all the different ways he could go all out and full out and on top and... She felt her skin redden and picked up the thread of the conversation.

"Oh, well." Willow continued with a sigh. "What did you get for Anya? I love what I got her but it's a surprise and I really don't want anybody to know what it is yet. Gimme, Cordy."

Buffy tuned everyone in the room out as she thought about everything she'd heard about the party. She had to admit she was pretty curious herself. But there was no way she would give Spike the satisfaction of knowing that.

Oh, and that party planner, that Anne, would be there, too. Just love to get a look at her and see what all the fuss was about. Bet she really wasn't really so all that. Anya was just blinded by her ... professionalism.

Buffy snorted out loud. Then, looked around to see if anyone noticed. But Dawn was rambling on about the things at Frederick's that Buffy had put her foot down about and Cordy was rambling about this cute little lingerie boutique in L.A., and Willow was off in her own little world.

Buffy had a quick flashback of the night before. And got all flushy just thinking about it. One thing about it, he sure could make a girl flushy and hot. Those hands ... And it had been such a long time. She shivered a little and looked around guiltily to see if anyone had noticed. Nope.

Buffy had actually begun wondering if Spike's attention was wandering in another direction. Not that that would be a bad thing, of course, she corrected herself quickly. But he was doing this party, meeting all those people (one in particular instantly came to mind). And he certainly hadn't been big on the contact lately. Innuendo, well, of course. But that sort of thing was like breathing for Spike. Or would have been if he'd still breathed.

Hello! Buffy thought derisively. Vampire slayer! Now that was exciting an exciting career choice! Meeting dashing demons and certain blond vampires who certainly knew how to make a girl ... Buffy felt a flush coming on and decided to go upstairs and try to get a nap in her room. Oops, Fred was in there. Okay, so a nap in her mom's ... Willow's room.

"Sure would like to see that party in full swing ..." were the last words Buffy heard as she left the kitchen.

********

It was finally dusk. Buffy smoothed her clothes and took a last look in the mirror. She heard a motorcycle outside and headed down, taking the steps two at a time. She hoped her plan worked. Hated to think she'd wriggled into this thing for nothing.

Angel looked up disinterestedly as she hurtled down the stairs and out the door. Cordelia looked at Angel and raised an eyebrow.

"That Buffy ... the one who flew by here just now ... looked amazingly like the Buffy I used to know."

Angel's eyes darkened a little. He opened his mouth to speak. Then he shrugged. It was just too much trouble to get worked up over it. He didn't even bother to look out the window. He looked back down at the patrol maps, trying to get a handle on tomorrow night.

Cordelia looked a little put out at his lack of emotion. "Well, what do you think is going on between those two? And it makes things easier, doesn't it? For us, I mean, right?" she said meaningfully.

"He's an idiot," said Angel dismissively. "Always was. Does dangerous things. Always did." Angel looked up and held up his forefinger and thumb, curved toward each other. "See that? That's how close he's been to being dusted. At least two dozen times I can name. Six of those times, Buffy almost had him herself."

Cordelia leaned forward. "And you never wondered about that?"

"Huh?" Angel looked at Cordy.

"Well," she said warming her to subject. "I remember when Giles told us about him. He kills Slayers. That's what he does. Or did. Goes after them and kills them. Some Super-Duper Vampire Slayer Slayer."

"I remember. I was in China with him. I know what he's capable of."

"So all of a sudden he can't kill this one? You know, Buffy?"

"Cordelia, Buffy is really good. The best I've ever seen."

"Then why can't she kill him? It's not like she hasn't had the chance. Angel, she's even killed you. But never did she come close to killing him."

"She came close!"

Cordelia folded her arms. "Right," she breathed out slowly. "But she didn't finish the job, did she?

*****

Outside, Buffy was standing on the porch. Spike came up the steps. "Hey, Buffy. Waitin' for me?" He looked her up and down appreciatively.

She pretended she didn't notice. "Hey. How's the party coming along?"

"S'good. No snafus yet. Proper planning, you know."

"Right." She looked down. "New pants?"

"Yeah."

"Boots?"

"Yes," he said precisely, in a tone that forestalled further comments on his wardrobe. He turned the conversation to hers. "You're dressed to kill. Or be killed." He observed.

Buffy looked down, a little embarrassed. "I've worn skirts before on patrol."

Spike pointed at her skirt, a teasing expression in his eyes. "Short tight ones like that? Think I would 'a remembered, luv. Fact is, if you'd ever worn anything like that in the old days when you and me were mixing it up, I think you could 'a dusted me pretty easy. Of course, now I've seen the whole package, but even then, a little ... "

She looked up at him and her chin hardened at the amused glint in his eye. "Maybe I should go change."

He laughed, eyes sparkling. "Not on my account, pet! Please."

Buffy started to say something mean (she hadn't thought of exactly what yet) when Angel came out the front door and brushed by them and down toward the motorcycle.

"William, if you're ready ..." he said over his shoulder, not looking back.

Spike rolled his eyes. "'William.' Guess I'd better get 'mother' to his destination. He gets so impatient if you don't accord him the proper amount of respect."

Buffy bit her lip to keep from laughing. Spike looked at her, looked back over his shoulder, leaned over and brushed her cheek with his lips. "Be careful tonight. I mean it." he said intensely, looking deeply into her eyes before she had a chance to get mad. "I won't be there to watch your back."

Buffy saw that he was serious, so she didn't dust him. So far, so good. She smiled reassuringly. "I know. It'll be fine. Scoobie Girls Nite Out."

Spike grabbed her shoulders and shook her lightly, so that she'd pay attention. "The 'Scoobies' haven't done a patrol since you came back. That's months ago now. Makes me a bit nervous."

"I've got the maps. We'll go over them." She turned big eyes on him, all innocence. "Do you want me to check in with you when we're done?" she asked sweetly. Trap open.

"Yeah," he said relieved. Trap closed. "That'd be good."

"Uh." Buffy crooked her finger out to indicate Angel on the motorcycle. "He looks cranky."

Spike looked over his shoulder. Looked back at Buffy. "Constipated." He said raising an eyebrow.

Buffy spluttered. Spike stepped back and looked down to make sure she'd missed his shirt. "He looks like that when he's constipated. You bints think it's 'cause he's so deep." He shook his head. "Soddin' irregularity, that's all. Keeps you turned inward."

"You're crazy, you know that?"

Spike didn't pretend to misunderstand where that outburst came from. "For that little nothin' of a kiss? He didn't even see it. Too busy lustin' after my bike. Wasn't me kissed you like that anyway. That was 'William.'"

She nodded, smiling a little. " 'William' seems like he's a gentleman."

"Oh, yeah. He's a total wanker. Almost as pathetic as that waste of space sitting on my motorcycle." Spike turned to walk down to Angel, who was now crawling all over the big 'bike.

"I'll drive," Angel called out.

"I don't bloody think so!" Spike boomed back at him. Angel settled back.

Spike sat down on the seat and looked back over his shoulder at Angel.

"I saw that," Angel complained, as he nodded his head toward Buffy, still on the porch.

"Good," Spike smirked. And he peeled off on the motorcycle.

"Willow," Buffy called out gleefully in satisfaction. "Got you a widdle present. Invitation to the bachelor party!"

Cordelia jumped up. "What?"

Willow came flying in from the kitchen. "We're going to the party? Really?"

"Not precisely going-going, but we'll be able to peek."

Willow looked at her curiously. "How? I mean, how'd you pull it off?"

"Hard work and a wardrobe modification. Had to remind the ex-Big Bad that I'm a real girl. Hope it doesn't come back to haunt me. Now Spike's all worried about us 'gals' running the patrol without his perfect male self to back us up." she said sarcastically. "We're to 'check in.' I'm sure he won't be able to hear his cell phone with all the noise."

Willow walked in grinning. "Of course not. Why, the call may not ever even show up on his caller i.d.!"

Buffy's grin got bigger, as she nodded her head up and down. "Probably won't!"

Buffy walked over to the table and indicated some rolled up pieces of paper. "O-kay. Spike put together some patrol charts for us tonight. Places and the best times to be there based on activity for that area."

She looked up. "Willow, call Tara and Anya. See if they can come on over here or meet us at the shop." Buffy started up the steps to her room. "We'll pick up weapons there."

"Sure," said Willow. She watched Buffy go up in puzzlement. "Where are you going?"

"To change. You don't think I'm wearing this little bitty skirt out on patrol, do you?" She called back down.

*******

Anya hung up the phone and went to the bathroom door, pushing it open.

"Ahn..." Xander pulled his t-shirt down over his knees. "Honey, please?"

"Your 'Xander' t-shirt is on the bed, along with clean jeans, underwear, socks and shoes. You might want to take a jacket." She pulled the door shut. He could be so helpless.

"I'm headed to Buffy's." she continued, in a voice shrill enough to carry through the door. "We're going to the Magic Box and then patrol. You just go do that bachelor party thing."

She stalked back and stuck her head in the bathroom. "Make sure you do it really well. I don't want us to have to have another one of these at any time in our future," she said sternly, as she waved her hand in the air.

*********

"Is that every plot in Sunnydale? How can you read writing that small?" Cordelia seemed determined to drive Buffy completely insane. "What do those little lines mean? And those gray places? What do those mean? Seems awfully complicated for something we used to just ...do."

Cordelia sniffed in disdain, wrinkling her nose. "Spike can certainly be anal, can't he?" Willow's head swung around to the Slayer, who was weighing down the edges of the pages.

Buffy looked up quickly, eyes glittering. "Funny. And I was just thinking what a nice change it was. You know, someone on the team who goes out on patrol night in and night out. Doesn't just pop in when there's an apocalypse coming down, give out some cryptic warnings and disappear again. You know, 'cause if that was the deal ... with Giles gone, we'd really be handicapped now. As in maimed and dead?"

Willow's eyes went wide as she looked for Cordelia's reaction.

Cordy tapped her foot, folding her arms on her chest. "What do you mean by that?" she asked dangerously.

Buffy's face smoothed out. "Nothing. Just a thought I had. While I was going over these maps. Maps that even Wesley could use and do a real patrol."

"Hey!" Cordy sputtered, "Wes could ... well, maybe not when he was in Sunnydale ... but now that he's in L.A., he's a valuable member of the team!"

"Buffy!" Willow leapt into the stony silence. "Let's see those mappy thingies. Oh, wow. You and Spike came up with this last night?" she said, nodding big nods at Buffy to confirm it.

"Right" said Cordelia loftily. "Like it took you all night to *talk* about it. Angel may be all 'Oh-Buffy-wouldn't,' but I saw you two with your little secret language this morning, and we all know how he feels about you. Dru was pretty forthcoming with Angel...."

"Hey! Back down a little, Cordy." Willow didn't like the look on Buffy's face.

"Willow, this isn't about you. Buffy isn't being honest. In fact, nobody's being honest and I'm pretty sick of tiptoeing around just because ..."

Dawn came down the stairs, looking from reddened face to reddened face. "What's up?" she quipped. She really had wanted to hear more, but Cordelia was making her mad. Nobody could fuss at her big sis that way but her. Hence, the perfectly timed interuption. Cordelia's mouth closed and tightened into a straight line. Just then, Anya walked in from the kitchen. Must have come in the back door.

"Nothing," Buffy answered Dawn, lowering her head and gathering up the charts. "Nothing is going on. Hey, Anya." she said weakly. "Was Tara coming right now?" she asked Willow, in a clipped voice.

"Oh. No. She'll meet us at the Magic Box. Told her I'd catch her up on everything then."

"Okay. Weapon time. Dawn, where's Fred?"

"Upstairs with Connor. Duh."

"Help her out tonight, okay? Don't know how late we'll be."

"Kay." Dawn watched the four women file out the door, Buffy clutching the rolls of paper. "See you later?" Dawn called after them. She ran to the window and grinned, looking out. Just because she couldn't listen to it didn't mean she didn't want Cordelia to have at it.

Boy, this was fun.

*******

Angel whistled in appreciation as he and Spike walked in the bar. Spike looked up at him in surprise and grinned.

"This is some spread," Angel commented, looking around.

Spike looked around himself, but he was a little bemused at Angel's whole change of attitude. Funny how well the two of them got along once the women in their lives were out of sight.

"You looking at the food or the bints?" Spike teased.

Angel looked at Spike suspiciously. "Where did you get the money for this? This was not cheap. Those girls are not cheap. This food was not cheap. When we had the open house at the Hyperion, it almost broke us. And we had Lorne helping out, calling in all kinds of favors."

"The girls are mostly students. Do a lot of parties for the woman who's helping me with this. And the food ... well, everything really ... was negotiated for turnkey cost. Anne keeps what she saved."

"It was expensive," Spike admitted. "Especially bringin' Oz and his boys back in here and keeping them in food and beer." He shrugged. "But I don't plan on having one of these once a week, y'know. Not even if the whelp and demon-girl don't take."

"Spike," Angel said proddingly, "the money?"

Spike thought fleetingly about telling him to 'sod off.' But instead he grinned and his eyes sparkled.

"Been uh, playing a few games of cards. High stakes stuff. Against some gentlemen with questionable morals. Rather redemptive really, in a sense. For me, at least. Robin Hood, without the stealing. Well, not precisely Robin Hood, unless you look at Harris as the 'poor.' Which I do.

"Anyway, I prevent these 'gentlemen' from reinvesting their ill-gotten gains by relieving said gentlemen of their money. Quite civily, of course. They are very polite 'gentlemen,' after all. Dangerous, but polite." Spike loved the look of surprise on Angel's face. "Didja think I was lootin' liquor stores or something?"

The surprise on Angel's face returned to a look of suspicion. "You're cheating at cards to pay for a bachelor party for someone you loathe?"

"'Loathe' is a strong word. Harris has his good points, I guess. Haven't seen many of them lately, though. As to cheating, well, somehow it didn't seem ... fitting." Spike suddenly looked as puzzled as Angel. "Guess it would feel like nicking a gift. Anyway, I needed to get out of that kitten poker trap. This is much better. And it's a more widely accepted form of currency." He chuckled.

Angel shook his head. "Thinking about how your mind works makes my head hurt. I need a drink."

"Me, too. C'mon." Spike led Angel to the bar and motioned to the man stocking the liquor. "Bourbon." He looked at Angel. "Right?"

Angel shrugged. "Yeah, sure."

When the bottle was handed to him, he motioned for two shot glasses, which then appeared on the bar. Spike poured two healthy shots and handed one to Angel. "Here's to parties on the Hellmouth." He drank, as did Angel.

Spike looked around, mentally ticking off the progress in the preparations since he'd left to pick up Angel. Angel noticed him doing it. Noticed a lot of things. Like the satisfaction he felt emanating from Spike. Angel sighed. "Look at you. Who would have ever thought it?"

Spike turned to Angel. "What?"

Angel chuckled. "You were so ... useless ... when you were turned. Then you just got nuts."

Spike raised an eyebrow. "Oh, and you were the 'sanity' poster child? Those weeks you'd spend stalking some young girl or young man, terrorizing them and their families until you made your move? Someone like Dru?" Spike hackles had risen at the thought.

Angel bristled slightly at that, then sighed. "Well, the gypsies took care of that."

"*And* the Wiccan. You just gotta love Red, even when she's deep endin' it, like right now."

Angel was curious. "Just what's up with that? Haven't had a quiet moment to ask anyone much of anything. I'd ask Willow, but ..."

"Suffice it to say that old Red is having to come up with new coping strategies for her lack of self-image," Spike said. Oprah was definitely good for something besides the book reviews. "Like she wasn't worthwhile without the spells. Never understood it myself."

"One night, when I first got 'chipped,' I was huntin' up the Slayer for a ... talk and found the Wiccan instead." Spike said. "Gave her a choice, dead or undead. But the chip started hummin' and I couldn't do a thing."

Spike shook his head. "It was horrible. A bit like not being able to ... well, you know." Angel nodded. "Well, Red gets it into her head that it's because she's not ... attractive enough." Spike snorted. "And you know how cute she is. Little turned up nose and great big eyes. And that hair! Hell, I'd have turned her, kept her around. Now *she* would have been an interestin' little vamp.... Wicked!"

Spike's eyes took on a far away look. He shook his head and looked at Angel. "Women! They make everything harder than it is."

"Speaking of which, what's the deal with Buf ..."

Spike interrupted him. "There's Oz. I'm needin' a word with him. Have another drink." Spike said as he hastily got up. "Or six."

*******

"I don't know what you're in such a snit about," Cordelia complained loudly. "Your boyfriend called *us*."

Buffy whipped around in the middle of the sidewalk. "What 'boyfriend?'" Buffy sputtered, looking over her shoulder at Anya, who was looking way too interested. "And you and Angel are an 'us' now?" She rushed on, grasping at anything to get off the boyfriend thing.

Cordelia stopped dead. "First, on the boyfriend topic? Get a clue, Buffy. Any fool can see there's something going on here, whether you want to admit to it or not. We all know you've got a thing for the undead. And second, 'us' is Angel Investigations. We're a unit! A family. Something you 'Scoobies' ought to know all about. "

Willow made a choking noise that faintly resembled a chuckle, cut off in mid-chuck by the looks Buffy and Cordelia swung in her direction.

"Walking here. Stubbed my toe," Willow said lamely in explanation.

Buffy turned back to Cordelia with a look in her eyes like frozen sea water. "Spike and I slay together. He backs me up. I don't see where ..."

"Backs you up? That's a new one. Mind if I use it sometime?" Cordelia looked at Buffy appraisingly. "I just bet he does back you up. Up against tables, walls... Or is it you who's doing the backing? You were always pretty forward. A take-what-you-want type. Don't think I don't remember how you threw yourself at Angel."

Buffy looked back at Anya, very conscious that this wasn't a private conversation. That was one thing she had forgotten about Cordelia. She'd say anything, anywhere, in front of anyone. She thanked God one more time that Giles was nowhere around right now. Buffy didn't see the big change that Willow had been harping about. She seemed just as obnoxious as ever.

Buffy turned her back on Cordelia, headed to the Magic Box and the sanity that was Tara. Then, she turned back to her.

"You know, Cordelia, you're just as rude as you ever were. Don't know why everyone in L.A. didn't just relocate when you moved in the neighborhood. To Paraguay. We're stuck with each other tonight, so let's just make the best of it. Best of it being, your mouth closed unless you're insulting something to death. Besides me."

Buffy turned back to continue on her way, very aware that her little rejoiner was lame. But Cordelia could take the snarkiness right out of her. Buffy secretly hoped that something on the patrol tonight would take some snarkiness out of Cordelia.

******

Angel watched Spike with Oz and the rest of the band, as he nursed his third bourbon. He had reached behind the bar and gotten an old-fashioned glass and had given up the shot glass. Too much trouble to keep raising the bottle to pour those little drinks.

He swirled the liquor around in the glass, musing. He didn't drink very often. Didn't like the reminder of being alive that the false warmth of the alcohol gave him. Unlike Spike, he thought. Who drank in large amounts and often. Another difference between the two of them.

He remembered going to see Dru and Spike in New York once, during the seventies. He'd followed them, found out where they were living, looked inside. And was shocked when he realized that they'd basically set up housekeeping. Basement apartment in the East Village.

Dru's collection of dolls placed haphazardly shelves, furniture, knick- knacks, queen size bed. Lots of brocades in deep rich colors. Dru rocking over in a corner clutching Miss Edith to her breast, while Spike carried on a 'normal' conversation. Talking to her about his plans for the night, what she would be doing. If she would like to get out with him for a little while. It had put a knife through his soul to see him. To see her. And know that he himself was the reason for this sick parody of 'normal' life.

Then, Dru had sensed him and he had run.

A normal life ...

Spike appeared at his shoulder, smiling. "S'goin' great!" He rubbed his hands together. "You're gonna love it, Peaches. Just love it." Spike reached for the shot glass and bottle, expression changing to curiosity. And maybe a little concern. "What?"

"A normal life." Angel said still looking at his drink.

Spike sat down, trying hard to misunderstand where Angel was going with this. "Well, this is as close as it gets, right? For us, anyway."

"This is the reason I left."

"Think you're startin' the conversation in the middle, mate. Have another drink."

"Buffy. I left so she could have a normal life."

Spike's eyes glinted dangerously. "Angel, we are not having this conversation right now." Spike's eyes changed imperceptibly. "But hell, since you already started it without me, I'll play. Okay, normal life. Buffy. Let's see..."

"Normal life?" Spike spat out. "Good God, you imbecile, she's a vampire slayer!" Spike's eyes hardened. "How could her life ever be normal?"

"She might have beaten the odds..." Angel murmured, looking back at the glass.

"She already has," Spike hissed. "She's alive, isn't she? Again. Don't think you can feed me pablum like that baby of yours, me hangin' on your every word of wisdom. You may be family, but you're bloody stupid if you believe that Buffy can have a normal life."

Angel turned his eyes from the glass on the bar to Spike.

"We," Spike continued, as he swung his forefinger from his chest to Angel's, "are what she knows. Us and the night and the crawly things that go bump in it. Real things happen for her in the dark. Her life happens in the dark. Where we live."

Angel sighed. "Spike, that's not true. Buffy is like the light of the ..."

Spike let out an impatient breath. "Sun? Buffy is a candle. I've seen that light go out. She's a flickering candle that stands between safety and danger. She's everything we aren't ... and everything we are. She's a hunter. A killer. Just.Like.Us."

Angel tried to interrupt, but he really wasn't certain how to argue this.

"Look, you left her. I won't. You didn't have the balls for this, but I do. And it wouldn't matter if I left anyway. She's got the taste for it. Like all slayers do, and I know a lot more about slayers than you do. Most slayers just don't get the chance to find out what she knows. It's kill or be killed, usually."

"But this slayer is different, Angelus. She knows. And she'd just find another one if I left anyway. One who probably wouldn't be on a leash like us."

Spike shook his head and looked down at the bar, smiling ruefully. "No, I'll just stay on until it kills one of us. And the way things are going, it'll probably be me. So, cheers." Spike looked Angel in the eye, smiling recklessly, and lifted the glass to his lips, slugging down the bourbon.

Angel looked at Spike sadly. "You were always an idiot. You're in love with her."

"That's not what's important, mate. That's not the thing. I understand her. Something you never did."



Part 8: The Party

Construction buddies in tow, Xander unsteadily swung into Willie’s. It looked like they had already started the party. Smirking, Spike watched Xander’s eyes widen as he looked around the bar and all the lovely, yummy things in it. Including the food. Anne had done an excellent job, he thought in satisfaction.

"Hi. Look, he`s got on our t-shirt!" One of the girls called out to the others. Xander looked up to see a fresh-faced blonde pushing her way up to him, wearing a yellow t-shirt that was emblazoned with the legend, 'Xander's Toy.'

"Uh, yeah." Xander looked down at his shirt (which simply said 'Xander' ) and back up to the girl. His eyes stopped dead center in the middle of her shirt. He looked down quickly. When Spike had brought Anya her shirt, Xander hadn't thought about how they would look plastered tightly all over anyone else’s tight little body. He flushed slightly.

“Ohh, it’s him!” One of the other girls exclaimed.

“We wondered when you were coming,“ said a soft, gleeful little voice.

“Xander? You want a beer? Anything?“ At his nod, the curly-haired redhead to his right gave him a pixie-ish look that was unmistakably mischievous, as she handed him a draft beer from the tray she was carrying. Xander absently took it, with a wide-eyed and abstracted nod.

Suddenly the area around Xander was all giggles peppered with sweet and sexy looks. The Hooter’s-like servers tried to make him as welcome as possible. Xander looked slightly embarrassed, while his blue-collar buddies looked a little miffed at where all the attention was going.

Xander turned around in confusion, not quite sure where to look, because his eyes were being drawn to the same place every time. Or at least the same spot on the t-shirts.

“Uh, excuse me. Yeah. Hi,“ he tried smiling and being cool, but this reminded him way too much of Amy’s Valentine spell back when he was with Cordelia. Bad memory.

Seeing Spike at the bar, he slowly made his way in that direction. He paused for a moment, sneaking a peak at the bandstand and the live band crawling all over it. Almost like he was afraid to look.

His eyes widened as he recognized Devon, who had made it in late last night. Then, Oz’s head popped up from behind a large amp. Xander almost choked on the draught of beer he had just guzzled down.

Devon spoke to Oz, nodding in the direction of the slow-moving group of gawkers. Oz turned as if looking for someone and put his hand up in acknowledgement when he saw Xander. A word to Devon and Oz was off the stage, walking up to the guest of honor.

Angel raised his eyebrows in congratulations as he turned back to Spike, who had a wicked grin tugging on one side of his mouth. “Xander didn’t know?”

Spike ducked his head and ran a hand through his hair. “Wasn’t sure ‘til just now if he knew or not. Demon girl’s not real discreet. I did ask him if it’d be okay. Way back. Didn’t ever tell him for sure that they were comin.’ Expected him to ask. He didn‘t.”

“He probably thought he wouldn’t come,“ Angel explained. Seeing Xander smile a lop-sided smile and throw his arms around Oz in a bear hug, Angel snorted. Once. “Never thought I’d see that. After Oz and Cordy catching him and Willow kissing at the Factory.”

“What? The night I ‘borrowed’ the Wiccan? And the whelp? Nobody tells me anything!”

“Yeah,” Angel affirmed. “That night.” Angel turned hard eyes on Spike. “Cordelia got badly hurt that night. Didn’t know that either, did you? She’s still got the scar. Puncture wound.”

Spike’s eyes shifted slightly.

His point made, Angel relaxed. “No vitals, but she curses your name all through swimsuit season every year.” He chuckled a little. “Which in California pretty much ensures you a place in her thoughts most of the time.”

“Hmm. Didn’t know.” Spike’s expression was unreadable. “Lucky the whelp and the wolf are feelin’ all forgivin’ and all. Of each other, I mean. Don‘t really care how they feel about me, of course,” he muttered.

“Of course,” Angel echoed with a silent sigh.

*******

Tara looked at Willow questioningly. Willow shook her head almost imperceptibly and motioned for Tara to move closer to the door and away from the training room where Buffy was loading weapons, a snarky but quiet Cordelia watching closely. Tara slipped off in the direction Willow had indicated, as Willow followed.

“What is going on with those two?” Tara whispered.

“They came out with their fists up.” Willow said worriedly. “I’m not sure but I think I’m getting a jealous-y kind of vibe. I just don’t get who’s jealous of who. Or for what? Cause Buffy’s not …” Willow stopped talking. Almost said too much.

Tara looked puzzled. “Well, why wouldn’t Buffy be a little jealous? I don’t know what Spike was thinking when he invited them here. Seeing Cordelia with Connor must be hard on Buffy. It could be Buffy helping to raise him, you know, if things were different.”

“Oh, I don’t think Buffy’s jealous because she’s not playing Mommie. She’s barely looked at the baby. Or Angel. Seems like it’s more on Cordelia’s side anyway. Which is silly….” Willow stopped again and slowly realization dawned, as she remembered how defensive Cordelia had been about Buffy’s snide ‘Angel’ comments during the map cat fight.

Willow looked at Tara. Tara looked at Willow, taking a moment to think about what was unsaid. Their mouths were matching o’s. Tara put her hand over her mouth, giggled, then looked at Willow apologetically. “I’m sorry, it’s just…”

Shaking her head, Willow sighed. “Hope nobody gets killed tonight. Buffy’s already off her game over this whole bachelor party thing.”

“Spike mentioned that Buffy wasn’t being … very supportive. You’d think she’d want Xander to have a nice night.”

“I don’t think it’s Xander’s party that’s bothering Buffy. I think it’s Spike.” Now that wasn’t saying anymore than everyone already knew.

*******

“Think this must be it. Live band. Lights.” Peered in. “Lots of pretty girls in skimpy tees and shorts. My kind of place.”

“I think I might be of some help on the patrol. This seems …”

“Oh, no, my friend, you are going inside and you are gonna have you some fun!”

The tall blonde standing between the two men blew out an impatient breath. “I need to get in, gentlemen.” She stated bluntly as she looked from side to side. “You two can iron out your differences after I‘m gone. I don’t get paid for standing outside,” she said as she pulled the coat closer around her rather full breasts. She looked levelly into Wesley‘s eyes.

“Maybe this isn’t your ‘cuppa’ tea, sweetie, but it’s my bread and butter. And I don’t want the bread to get soggy.”

“Aww, Laura,” Gunn said in a wheedling voice. “I need a little help getting my buddy here inside. Any assistance you can give … “

Giving Gunn an appraising look, she nodded. Then she turned to Wesley. “Wesley, this is just a party. An opportunity for a future bridegroom and his friends to blow off some steam. Nothing that’s going to change your life is going to happen here.” She smiled wickedly. “Unless you want it to.” Wes looked slightly shocked. She rolled her eyes. “Obviously not.”

The door to Willie’s swung open and a large dark figure stood in silhouette . “Hi, guys. ‘Bout time you got here. I was starting to worry.“ Angel looked at Wes and admitted to himself that Wesley looked like he was ‘born to run’ … away. “Got an old friend of yours in here that’s just dying to see you.” And Angel unceremoniously dragged Wesley, protesting in a choked voice, through the door and into the bar.

With a twinkle in her eye, Laura looked at Gunn. Pretty much eye to eye. Gunn moved back a half-step. “After you, my lady.” He said, twinkling right back.

“You’re a pretty thing, aren’t you, Mr. Gunn?” And the beautiful dancer smiled and winked once. “Let’s see if I can heat things up in here. Show ‘em how we do it in L.A.”

*******

Anne lightly touched Laura’s arm and inclined her head to a small office to the right of the door. “Got a dressing room all ready for you. You’ve got a couple of hours to kill.”

“That’s fine. I like to have time to prepare. Feel my audience. From behind closed doors, of course.”

Anne smiled. “What if I prepare you some dinner? Plenty out there.”

“Carrots, veggies. Some dip if you’ve got it. I eat light before I perform. But I’ll be looking forward to pigging out after. ‘Carbs’” she said pointedly to the younger woman, “are what a girl needs when she’s depleted.”

“There’s plenty for later. I’ll make sure of it. Something to drink?”

“Water with lemon. And a hefty bourbon just before I go out. Just to loosen things up.”

Anne nodded. She felt a light touch on her arm and turned. “Oh. Laura, this is Spike. He’s the one who’s responsible for you being here.”

Spike looked the dancer up and down appraisingly. “Well, for once, the

Poufter didn’t exaggerate. You are one bloody good-looking woman. Harris

is damn lucky I got rooked into this.”

Laura relaxed at the rather frank gaze being directed at her and acknowledged the compliment. “Thank you. This looks like quite a party,” she laughed, “from what little I’ve seen.”

“Plenty of time for that later, pet. Stay after?”

The dancer started to demur, but … what the hell? Good-looking host. And that Gunn was a cute guy. She thought there might be some fun to be had here. And so far, they all seemed nice. Then again, they usually were.

“I don’t usually stick around after. But in this case …”

Spike, getting his way, cut back on the intense look a little. “Stay. Don’t want classy ladies leavin’ early.” Spike turned to Anne as Laura closed the office door. “Anne, a word?”

“Of course.”

“Very good, all the way ‘round. Thank you for doing … well, your job, I guess.” He looked back toward the stage, indicating the food, girls. “Couldn’t have pulled it off without you.” Smiling, he walked away.

At the sincere compliment, Anne smiled, too. Such a strange man. But so charming. And sweet. Especially when everything was going his way. She had made sure that it would.

Anne wondered if he was happy in his real world job. He was good at this. The planning, the ideas… She wished she could offer him a job. Work with him again.

She shook her head. Silly. His real job was probably a lot more interesting than this.

*******

Oz was taking a short break. He didn’t really need one, but Devon had insisted. So Oz set his guitar down on the stand and headed off the stage toward Spike at the bar. On his way there, one of the servers stopped him.

“Didn’t you go to Sunnydale High?” She asked.

Oz turned his full attention to the short blonde. What he saw first were her freckles. And amazing green eyes. “Yeah.”

“I was a sophomore when you were a senior.” She said, with a tell-tale flush creeping up her face. “I snuck into the Bronze to see you play a couple of times. You sound good tonight. Even better than you did then.”

“Thanks.” Oz turned to go.

“Uh,” and her pretty, freckled face turned a fiery red, making her eyes jump out. “Are you gonna be in town for a few days?”

Oz looked at the girl, a little surprised. “Yeah. Playing the Bronze tomorrow night.”

“Oh.” And she looked down at her feet. Looked up. “Maybe … I’ll see you there?”

“Yeah, okay.”

The girl started off. Then she turned back. “My name is Dori. Well, really Dorothy.”

Oz smiled. “Dorothy?” he echoed.

“Dori.” She said firmly.

“Dorothy, I’m Oz.”

The girl giggled. “I know. Sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it?”

He laughed. “It does.” He looked a little closer at the girl. “The Bronze?”

Self-consciously running her fingers through her hair, she smiled.

*******

Walking behind Buffy, Cordelia thought about high school and other nights like this. The tombstones seemed like as much a part of her life right now as her apartment in L.A.

Cordelia liked to think that she had matured a lot since joining Angel’s bunch. She‘d helped people and made a place for herself there. With Angel and his son. She was so happy there, she never even thought of coming back to Sunnydale even for a visit.

Obviously, that was a good thing. Because ever since she’d walked in the door of Buffy’s house, a shrill aggressive stranger had taken over her body. She didn’t like this Cordelia. She didn’t want to be this Cordelia. And every word that came out of her mouth reinforced her belief that Sunnydale was a bad place for her to be.

“Buffy, we need to talk.” There, that was better. More like the new Cordelia.

“Talk?” Buffy shot back over her shoulder. “We’re on patrol. Not out for coffee somewhere. Or ‘doing’ lunch.” She was still smarting over Cordelia’s premature discovery of she and Spike’s… what?

Cordelia swallowed a really tacky retort. She was in control. She couldn’t do anything about Buffy, but she could certainly take responsibility for herself.

Buffy ran her fingers through her hair as she looked down at the dust still clinging to the gravestone. One less vamp to worry about, but the whole patrol had been a semi-disaster. Nobody was dead, but in retrospect it was hard to believe.

Despite Willow’s and Tara’s attempts to be responsible and look out for bads, they still seemed a lot more caught up in spending time with each other than the denizens of the cemetery. Buffy was glad they were getting along so well, but gee!

Cordelia had been sulking with such single mindedness that Buffy was sure her own head would explode from the bad vibes.

And Anya was like a small kid on a car trip. ‘Is it time yet? Are we done? Can we go check on Xander now?’ Gah!

Buffy was thoroughly miffed when she decided that she’d rather be patrolling with Spike any night of the week than do it with the ‘new’ Scoobies. Did that make her a bad person? A bad friend?

Well, Buffy admitted to herself, she missed Spike. Missed the comfort of knowing he had her back. It was so easy to patrol with Spike. Well, except when his mouth was open and words were coming out.

She trudged on, wishing this was over and she was at home, lying in a hot bath. Or that Spike was here with her right now, even if he had that damn cell phone plugged into his ear. Or wishing she were home and in a hot tub and Spike …

Whoops! Almost missed that one, Buffy berated herself as she took off running, stake upraised, after the long-haired girl in the long blue dress.

“You really …” Buffy huffed, “should have … done … the whole … preplanning thing … so that your mother …. didn’t dress…you for your ….Oops ... Another fashion victim at rest.” Buffy finished in satisfaction.

Willow and Tara came loping up as the dust settled, Anya right behind. Buffy looked beyond them to find Cordelia stalking toward her, chin up and face set in a no nonsense ‘time to talk‘ look.

“Cordy!” Buffy saw another vamp in a black funeral suit rise behind the brunette.

Too late. Cordelia was swung around by an acne-scarred teen vamp with bad hair. More victims, Buffy thought, as she raced toward Cordelia, stake up.

“Hey!” Cordelia stared into the fledgling vampires face. “I’m trying to have a conversation here.“ Cordelia took in the hair, the sudden uncertainty in the scarred, undead face.

She decided this was a good time to get back to the more mature Cordelia. “I understand that you’re trying to take unlife where you find it, but other people live in the world. Interrupting important conversations when two people are trying to communicate is a bad thing.”

Warming to her subject and hoping that Buffy was listening, she continued. “You know, you don’t have to be the victim here. You can take charge of your new unlife. I can introduce you to a friend who can help you build an alternate vampire unlifestyle.”

Buffy had come to a stop directly behind the boy, stake raised, and became fascinated by Cordelia‘s self-help politically-correct speech. She’d seen her stop another vampire dead in his tracks the night of the prom, just with that obnoxious mouth of hers. This was completely different but the results were absolutely the same. Unbelievable. She didn’t even need a stake.

The new vampire twitched with discomfort and broke away from the woman‘s level eyes and voice to go. Anywhere …

Buffy’s eyes went wide as the dust floated toward the ground.

He’d dusted himself, just to get away from Cordelia. Accidentally, of course, as he’d blindly turned into Buffy’s upraised stake, but still…

Buffy started laughing. And continued laughing so hard and became so weak with it that she found herself sitting on the ground. It had become impossible to stand. She looked up at Cordy, whose mouth had dropped open in shock as she watched the dust float down to the dark ground. Buffy pointed at her, tried to speak and couldn’t. Still laughing.

When Willow, Tara and Anya got to them, Buffy was laughing so hard that tears were rolling down her cheeks. She couldn’t stop if she’d tried.

Cordelia was a little chagrined that Buffy was continuing to find it so funny, but realized she was laughing ruefully herself at the irony of it. She sat down next to Buffy.

Willow and Tara looked at each other. Anya shrugged. Then patted her foot on the ground, arms folded tightly.

“Can we go now?”

*******

Spike noticed Oz coming his way and went to meet him.

“Good party.” Oz said, nodding.

“Yeah. Not bad.” Spike commented, looking around at the servers serving and the consumers consuming. The blue-collar boys were loud and raucous. “Not really what I’m used to. I hope the entertainment’s going to be … well, their taste.“ Spike smirked, thinking at how much Giles would have hated this until the scotch had kicked in.

“It’s a good crowd. Loud.”

Spike grinned wickedly. “Didn’t know the whelp had this many friends. Have to go on and tap another keg. Or six. May need a delivery.”

“They’re well on their way,” Oz agreed. ‘About time? Think they’re drunk enough?”

“I hope *I* am. Better get another drink. Doesn’t last long with me. Vampire, you know.” Spike made a decision. “Let’s get on with it,” Spike said, taking a deep breath.

Looking out at the sea of denim-clad, plaid-shirted wonders, Spike was dead certain that Xander had a lot more in common with Angel’s boys than these blokes. Spike didn’t actually know what he had expected, but this group was his worst nightmare. And he was about to hoist up on his own petard. Spike shook his head. Idiot.

Oz went back up on the stage to get ready for the next set. Spike headed to the bar and chugged down a tumbler of bourbon. He motioned Angel over. “I’m goin’ up there on that stage to do the welcomin’ speech and all that. Where’s Harris?”

Angel looked around. Being appreciably taller than Spike had advantages. “Over there. He’s with Gunn and Wesley. Whoo. He looks pretty wasted. He‘s got his arm around Wes.”

“Good. Good and drunk is just the way I want him. Get him.”

“Now?”

“Yeah, ‘fore I lose my nerve.”

*******

“I don’t know how it’s going to end up, but I feel like we’re sneaking around. ” Cordelia explained. “I didn’t while I was in L.A., but I do around here. Not that we’re doing anything. It’s just that this place brings out the worst in me. And there‘s that whole ‘Buffy-Angel

4-ever’thing.”

Buffy looked down at her hot chocolate. You just had to love the Espresso Pump. Plenty of marshmallows. Spike loved hot chocolate with marshmallows. Wondered how he felt about marshmallow crème. She pushed the subsequent thought away. Bonding with now.

Cordelia reached over and touched Buffy’s arm. “You do understand that I really don’t know how I feel about Angel. There’s that whole sex thing that’s really hard to deal with.”

Buffy thought she should feel really weird about this whole conversation. She fidgeted, trying to spot Willow and Tara. Oh, somewhere in cyberspace. Anya was standing near the door, nearly apoplectic in her need to move on. Buffy took a deep breath.

“Look, Cordy, Angel left a long time ago. He’s different and I’m different. Uh, it’s natural that things are a little strange. I don’t think Angel and I can ever be friends. Not really. I resent him leaving the way he did, even if it was the right thing to do. There was no discussion, just a decision. His.”

“I can’t really forgive him for it. All I can do is accept it and get past it. Which I have. Still … this is like you’re asking permission to date my ex.”

Cordelia stared. “I *am* asking permission to date your ex. I don’t know why. We’ve never been great friends, but I do have a certain amount of respect for you.”

“If I give you my blessing, can we end this conversation?”

“Will you really be giving me your blessing or telling me it’s okay to shut me up?”

“Both.” Buffy looked up at Cordy and laughed. “Sorry. Old habits die hard. It’s just that all this has come up at a bad time. I wasn’t prepared to think about Angel, much less deal with his being in a new relationship. Especially with …uh, anyone I know.” she finished lamely

Cordelia smiled sadly. “I understand.”

Shaking her head, Buffy smiled ruefully. “No, you don’t. Dealing with the one vampire means I have to deal with the other one. Something I’m not ready to do yet.”

Eyes flashing in triumph, the brunette crowed, “I knew it! I just knew it. You and Spike have a thing!”

Buffy looked in panic at Anya. She was still near the door, but was now animatedly talking to the night manager of the Espresso Pump. Money talk, obviously, by the flushed look on Anya’s face. So they had some time.

“A thing?” Buffy echoed. She considered her words to Cordelia carefully. “We have something.” She admitted. “But I’m damned if I’ll tell him that right now. He’ll be picking out wedding bands. Probably with little pagan figures on ‘em.”

“He’s a lot different than when you knew him,” she explained. Still Spike, but his priorities are changing. He’s definitely WIP.” Buffy laughed. “But then so am I.”

“Ah. Work In Progress.” Cordy nodded. “So. Are you having sex with him?” She asked candidly. “Because even though I hate his undead guts, I do think he’s kind of sexy, in a mysterious vampire hard-lean guy kind-of- way.”

*******

Spike dragged Xander up on the stage and walked to the microphone. He looked out at the collection of Xander’s co-workers and acquaintances, experiencing a major moment of uncertainty. Very ‘William.‘ Then he remembered he was the Big Bad, not William, and he didn’t give a bloody damn what any of them thought.

“Uh. Yeah.” Spike’s voice boomed out through the bar. He recoiled, gritting his teeth slightly. The sound tech winced and made an adjustment. He nodded. Spike leaned back into the mike. “I’m Spike.” he said gingerly. Yeah, that was better.

Regaining a little of his confidence, he continued. “And this is Mr. Alexander Harris. Xander to most of you. The ‘whelp,’ or Harris, to me.” He winced inwardly. Couldn’t he just leave? Walk off the stage and out of the bar, out of Sunnydale. He took a breath.

“Now Harris here is formalizin’ his relationship with the old ball and chain in a coupla days. Why the whelp would put his head on the block, so to speak, I can’t tell you. But I’m here to make sure that what little he ends up remembering of t’night sticks with him through the ‘thick and thin’ everyone talks about.”

The faces were more attentive now and Spike was feeling a little better. He glanced at Xander, who was staring down at this own feet. Think you’re embarrassed now? Payback‘s a bitch, Harris!

“Little somethin’ about Harris here you may not know. Got some videos stashed away.” The crowd laughed then began derisive cat-calls. Spike grinned at the crowd, shaking his head, as the audience whooped it up.

“Nah. Not those. Music videos. Seems that the whelp expresses a deep and abidin’ love for country music, right? You’ve heard him?”

A few sounds of assent were heard from the audience.

“But in truth, he secretly has a thing for the 80’s. In case you’re interested, the videos are in the closet.”

Startled, Xander looked at Spike and then looked out at his buddies guiltily. He looked down in contrition. There were more whoops and a few good-natured boos.

“Yeah!” One loud female voice cut across the deeper voices of the men. Xander looked up and craned his neck, trying to see who it was. “Go, Xander!” Soon other female voices joined hers. “Yes!”

Spike smirked at Xander, then at the crowd. “Got a new play list, beginnin’ now, for our retro friend.” Spike said in satisfaction. “Hope you enjoy it.” Anne had done a fine job of priming the bints for his announcement. “Head banging is encouraged, but optional.”

Spike looked back toward the door of the bar and nodded decisively. The room darkened and spotlights set off the stage. Closest they could get to concert lighting in this place.

Looking at Xander, Spike nodded toward the audience. “Go on, Harris,” he encouraged. “Take your seat. Got a little surprise for you.” Xander gratefully jumped down and out of the limelight.

“Peaches! A little help here? Of the liquid kind?”

Angel poured a tumbler full of bourbon and headed toward the stage, hoping to stay out of the limelight.

“Now,” Spike said as he took the drink out of Angel’s hand. “I’m kickin’ this off. Because I’m bloody stupid I guess.” He laughed. He heard light laughter from the crowd. This lighting was much better. He couldn’t see the crowd.

He put the glass to his lips and killed it. There was scattered applause and sounds of approval. Yeah, Spike reflected absently, getting drunk enough to forget our mostly pointless lives is something we all have in common. Maybe they weren’t so different from him, after all.

Spike wiped his hand across his mouth and looked for a place to put his glass. A hand reached for it. Anne. Still taking care of him. He took a deep breath and looked at Oz, as he stepped back to the mike.

“Somethin’ for the wedding, mate.” He winked at Xander, or at least, where he thought Xander might be. He was glad he couldn’t see out into the audience -- and a little sorry, too. Obviously, the bourbon was going to his head.

Oz’s guitar began the familiar chords. One thing about this song. It just screamed ‘eighties.’ The guitar riff leapt out and the bass line followed. Spike closed in on the mike for the first line. There were squeals from the ‘Hooter’s girls.’

‘White Wedding. Now how weird was this, with Spike the original Billy Idol lookalike anyway?’ Xander stared in shock, then looked around, fully prepared to see a lynch mob gathering. No such luck, he thought. His buddies were staring in fascination as Spike finished the first verse.

Like you’d stare at a cobra with its hood spread. The guitar and bass line were mesmerizing, slightly rearranged to fit the band’s sound. And Spike wasn’t too bad, Xander admitted to himself.

Gunn elbowed Wes. “We gotta get this guy to Lorne,” he yelled over the music. “There‘s a lot goin‘ on in there.” He said, nodding toward Spike.

“It’s a nice day to start again

It’s a nice day for a white wedding

It’s a nice day to start again”

Spike finished the second chorus and Oz went into the lead break. Almost over, he thought. Then Devon could take over the rest of the play list. Spike could then relax until it came time for the dancer to come out. He had no idea how this was going over with the audience. Didn’t care. It’d been a long time since he’d been center stage instead of Slayer back up. He liked the way it felt.

Almost in answer, a male voice yelled, “Yeah!” as Oz modulated into an even more wicked lead riff against the driving bass. Other voices followed with approving noises of their own. Oz had created a concert length lead break.

So far so good. His favorite part, the middle-eight, was coming up. Then, the last bridge and he was done. He grabbed the mike.

“There is nothin’ fair in this world

There is nothin’ safe in this world

And there’s nothin’ sure in this world

And there’s nothin’ pure in this world

Look for somethin’ left in this world

Start again”

Angel shook his head. Spike might be an idiot, but he sure knew how to throw a party. A few of the drunkest brave souls had grabbed a couple of servers and were dancing by the tables. The music was loud and the beat was primal. Angel made a mental note to ask Spike to plan the Hyperion Christmas Party next year.

Xander was up on drunken feet with two servers of his very own. Wesley’s head alternated between the unearthly Billy Idol look-alike on stage (so that was William the Bloody!) and the impending bridegroom’s antics (that was dancing?). He felt a movement beside him and saw that Gunn was on his feet, pushing chairs out of his way to join in.

Too soon, the song ended. Devon stepped up to the mike quickly and Oz ’segued’ into ’Mony, Mony,’ which had a guarantee of keeping the dancers on their feet and converting the even the overweight construction wallflowers into screaming teenagers.

********

Spike threw himself down on the bar stool and reached for the full glass of bourbon waiting at his place. He grinned at Angel. “Thanks,” he said recklessly as he killed another drink. “Needed that.”

“You did all right!” Angel yelled over the music.

“Cause you make me feel.

So good, so good, so good

So fine, so fine

It’s all mine, well I feel all right

I said yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

I love you Mony mo-mo-mony”

Suddenly, the crowd was chanting the lyrics.

“No need to yell, mate. Vampire. Remember?” He saw Xander approaching and winced. “Now I’m in for it,” he muttered.

“Spike!” Xander yelled, out of breath. “That was …” Xander searched for a word and finally have up, mouth twisted in an apologetic grin.

“Have another beer, Harris. Or somethin’ stronger.” Xander grabbed the bourbon bottle and took a slug. Spike looked at him appraisingly. “Like your party, whelp?”

“Party’s great! Girls are great! Was not loving the idea of you giving the party, but … S’great! Thanks!”

Now Spike was certain that Harris was drunk. He’d never gotten a ‘thank you’ before, even when he’d saved his life.

“Don’t mention it,” Spike growled. “Please. Devon will be doing ‘Like a Virgin’ later. His contribution to your wedding celebration.”

“That’s my favorite Madonna song! But Spike, really … the eighties idea. I may never live it down, but …well, loving this.”

Spike was only half-listening as he scanned the bar. He sensed … suddenly, he stiffened.

Feeling the change in Spike, Angel turned, following his intent and frowning eyes to the front of the bar. Five females, not wearing Xander t- shirts, were looking around them with wide eyes, except for the small blonde who looked decidedly pissed. What was she doing here? What were they doing here?

“Bloody hell,” Spike muttered. He remembered Buffy’s and his conversation on the steps. “Think I’ve been played.”

He looked at Angel. “It’s Buffy and the bints. Including yours.”

“What?” Xander said blearily, looking toward the front of the bar. The bourbon had just hit. He started to rise off the stool. “Anya…”

“Harris,” Spike pushed Xander back on the stool. Xander grabbed the seat with both hands to keep from falling off. “Stay put. The girl ‘Scoobies’ are here and, by the looks of it, they smell blood.” Well, one of them does, anyway. The rest look like they’re in a daze, he thought absently. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and squinted at it.

“No call. She intended to come by here all along.” He blew out an annoyed breath. “Been had by the Slayer. Again.“

“I’ll try to do damage control, mate.” Spike said as he patted Xander’s arm to get his attention. “Just stay here,” Spike said reassuringly, then remembered who he didn’t really like the whelp, much, and shrugged. “Or not. But you’ll be bloody stupid if you don’t stay put,“ he growled.

Spike turned to Angel. “Peaches, you deal with yours. I’ll deal with mine. And demon-girl. And the witches.” Spike rolled his eyes. “No rest for the weary.”



Part 9: The Standoff

The crowd parted as Spike headed toward the Slayer. A few people pounded him on the back, or spoke an acknowledgment. He didn't slow his pace. He was looking at the little blonde head that was bobbing up periodically, trying to see over the taller heads of the construction workers.

He'd love to stay brassed-off. He really would. Have a bit of fire in his eyes when he called her on her "evil" plot to crash the bachelor party. Bite off some appropriately sharp words and see her defiant chin firm up in contrast to the uncertain look in her eyes. And he knew with frightening certainty exactly what he was going to see as she tried to brazen this little game out.

A muscle in his jaw started to twitch. But not with anger. She was still bobbing up and down, trying to see. He was finding it increasingly difficult to keep a straight face. And he was almost to her. Steady, steady. Hold onto ... what? Anger? Frankly, he was amused. And the Slayer looked absolutely adorable with that look of complete surprise on her face as she took it all in. The girls, the band, the food... He wished to just stand in the shadows for a while, gazing at her unguarded eyes and unguarded face.

Too late. As always, her face changed when she saw him. Her chin came up challengingly. Eyes a bit dangerous ...

Now wait just a bloody minute! Where did she get off looking at him with that knowing gleam in her eyes? How long had she been here? Did she see ... Going on the offensive looked like a good bet. He drew out the cell phone and waved it at her.

"Check in. Not crash in. You do know how to use a telephone, right, Slayer?"

Taken slightly aback, Buffy looked a little uncertain, but managed a save. She looked at him a little disgusted.

"You didn't give me your number."

Spike stared at her. Oh, this was going to be his fault? Not bloody likely!

"Red has it. Glinda has it. The Little Bit has it. The bride has it. Hell, I'd wager the bleedin' cheerleader has it! You couldn't ask one of them?"

"If you'd wanted me to have it, you'd have given it to me," she answered self-righteously.

Bloody hell, she was making it his fault! He felt like an idiot. It was that damned short skirt she'd been wearing, waitin' for him on the front porch like.... Remembering, he looked down to catch a quick look at her legs in that skirt. Which was ... where? Ah.

"Decided to go with pants?" he asked a little condescendingly.

She dismissively swept her eyes across him to focus on the server nearby.

"Girls," she said in a disgusted tone, ignoring his question completely.

"Yes, lots," he said agreeably. Now this was more like it. A spot of Buffy bitchiness to make his night complete.

"Oz?" she asked, indicating the stage.

"Well, yeah. What's wrong with that?" Spike was feeling a bit defensive now. But maybe she hadn't come in time to see him up on that stage. Looked like it was time to regroup and get back on the offensive. One of Harris' friends had noticed the Good Witch. Who was looking rather fetching as she swung her enormous eyes up at Willow. Ah, the big poof was moving that way.

Spike returned his attention to the big problem in the small package that seemed to be sizing him up for the kill. Oh, no, pretty Buffy, he thought sweetly. Not tonight!

"Getting an eyeful, Slayer? Well, you've had more than your fair share. Quite a bit more than a peep. And you've put Harris' wedded bliss in serious danger by lettin' demon girl in here." He pointedly looked behind her. "Is Sweet Bits around too? Since you seem to think anyone is welcome in this slave den?"

Buffy blew out a sanctimonious breath. "You said 'check in.' I finished patrol and I'm checking in. 'Watcher!'" she finished cuttingly. "Like I couldn't handle a simple patrol without you," she muttered under her breath.

"Hey!" Spike drew himself up. "Vampire," he reminded her unnecessarily. "I heard that! And the distasteful memory of that remark and the accompanying endearment will remind me to stop saving your pretty ass every time it needs it."

Buffy swung her head to the right and left to make sure no one had heard that rather intimate description of her anatomy. Okay, great. She didn't know where any of the girl Scoobs were. They had been swallowed by Spike's party.

"As if." Buffy's eyes glinted humorously with unveiled disdain in answer to Spike's remark. "Lately, it's been your ... ass ... in the wringer. And maybe next time I won't be so quick to ... uh...wring. Either." Buffy wondered what she had just said. She thought it might possibly be dirty.

Buffy felt a flush creep up her neck. Suddenly, he was wearing that self- satisfied smirk she'd dearly love to knock off his face and had several times in the recent past. And he was looking awfully good, with that shining hair and those shining eyes.

She shook herself mentally. Sure he looked good. But lately, she reminded herself, he was also really good at making her feel no more than fifteen years old. And he, on the other hand, was coming off as the patient Watcher-type.

Ewww. Which was kind of gross when you considered what her relationship had been with the evil undead lately. With the moaning and the groping and the touching and the kissing and ... things. Lots of different ... things.

"Wring?" He repeated questioningly. Buffy almost jumped as she was brought back from her impure thoughts. He still looked so ... well, what? Self-confident? So much more like the old Spike, maybe? That self- assured figure she remembered in the alley behind the Bronze, clapping as she'd dusted the vamp. She was reddening again, fresh flush over fading one. Her body would betray her next. And he'd know. He always knew. And then...

She looked around. He had done all this. Put this incredible decadent shindig together. What was Buffy even doing here, all off-balance, ready to kill him one minute and kiss him the next? She looked wildly to the left. Where was Willow anyway?

Ahh, Spike thought, he had her. Like a deer in headlights. That was good. Or that could be bad. He had a window of opportunity here. One to take advantage of quickly and decisively. He hoped Peaches was gathering all the other ducks together. He had to get Buffy out of Willie's now. He grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the door, muttering something inane.

"Spike?"

Spike's head swung around as he stopped at the sound of the familiar voice. He felt Buffy jerk her arm out of his grip. Oh, Christ. It was Anne, needing something, he'd wager. Inwardly, he was beginning to panic. There was a very narrow window for Off-Balance!Buffy! and he'd just missed it.

Anne dashed up to Spike, eyes smiling. "You were great up there! I told you not to be nervous. Everybody just loved it. You did 'jumpstart' things! The party has really kicked in!"

Buffy's eyes settled on Anne and her head full of long red hair. She absently ran her hand through her own, shorter hair.

Buffy looked suspiciously at Anne, then at Spike. Everybody just loved what? Buffy felt out of the loop and she didn't like it. And she didn't like this woman, either.

The redhead smiled down at the shorter woman and put out her right hand. "Hi, I'm Anne," she said with a small laugh. "The party planner."

Buffy shot a quick glance at Spike, and shook the woman's hand. "Hi. Uh, could you excuse us?" She looked behind her and saw the closed door of something that looked like an office. She grabbed Spike's arm and propelled him back through the door she opened with a smooth motion.

And saw a woman wearing nothing but a sequined thong sitting in a lotus position on the battered desk. Her eyes were closed, posture graceful, and her....

That was all Buffy took in, as she swung back through the door, Spike in tow, and pulled the door shut with a slam. Well, that was definitely a dose of cold water on the attraction that was 'Spike.' She turned on him with glitteringly eyes.

"What was that?" she asked, daring him to explain.

"Not quite sure. Was all so fast, pet. But I think Laura is meditating."

Flushing with embarrassment, Buffy looked down. Her mouth tightened into what Spike liked to think of as 'The Thin Red Line.' Which always meant that he was walking one.

"Okay, mister. Outside now!" A little desperately, Buffy pushed Spike toward the door. It miraculously opened, revealing more revelers, obviously out for an illegal California cigarette or two. The two men whooped and headed back into the thick.

Following Buffy outside, he congratulated himself on having gotten her there. Of course, a naked Los Angeles stripper in yoga position was not the way he would have chosen, but ... inwardly, he shrugged. Whatever worked. At least the Slayer was outside.

Of course. There was a nearby alley, and she had his arm, dragging him in that direction. Not that he was resisting. She stomped around the corner and turned to the vampire.

"Spike, that woman was naked."

"Well, not technically."

"I thought you didn't see anything." Buffy said accusingly.

"Well, it's not something you see everyday. The yoga and all. Bound to make a bit of an impression."

Buffy was ... angry? Shocked? She shook her head and focused on what she did know. Spike was a pig.

"You're a pig, Spike."

"Well, yeah. But it makes..."

"For a great bachelor party," Buffy finished, sarcastically. "Spike, that is the most disgusting, perverse thing I've ever experienced."

"What? Luv, I'm hurt. I thought *I* was."

Buffy swung a practiced fist toward Spike's face. Her mouth dropped open as his hand appeared and stopped the punch cold at nose level, her fist in his.

"No hitting, Slayer. It ceased to be foreplay a while back," Spike reminded her. "Right?" She nodded and he let go of her hand. "Now. Any problems on patrol?" he asked her calmly.

"Oh, no. We're not through talking about..."

"We are bloody well through talking about the party. Patrol?"

Buffy took a deep breath. He'd caught her fist in the air and solidly stopped it. She'd forgotten how fast he could move. Or maybe she'd just gotten sloppy. More training needed, obviously. Okay, patrol then. She opened her mouth to tell him about Cordelia's run in with the vamp.

"Wait." Spike waved her off. "You asked me to give Xander a party." Spike continued, trying to forestall any further argument. "It wasn't my choice, but the least I could do is make it a good one. Which I have. So." He stopped talking, hoping he'd made himself clear.

"There were," Buffy said in a calm and measured voice, "a lot of new vamps rising tonight. More than usual. Especially near your crypt." She grinned, as Spike's eyes widened slightly. "In fact, Cordelia..."

"Hmm. I have been neglectin' the place lately, I guess," Spike mused. "Well. Me and Peaches'll clean house tomorrow night. Do some light dusting."

One side of Buffy's mouth turned up in spite of herself. Well, he did have a sense of humor. A little twisted, but...well, her own sense of humor was a little dark, too. Didn't mean he could do stand-up comedy or anything...

Buffy realized Spike was patiently waiting for a sharp rejoiner. She wished she had one. But the image of that redhead telling Spike how...

"What was she talking about?"

Whiplash was an occupational hazard when you worked with the Slayer. "She who?"

"That...Anne."

"That Anne? As opposed to 'this' Anne?" he smiled at her.

He could make her melt with that smile. Better not let him know it though.

"Buffy Anne," she corrected sharply. "And I do mean that Anne. The party planner." That had sounded a little sharp, too. What had her so upset? Besides the overall existence of Spike in the first place.

Spike could tell by the look on her face that he wasn't going to get off the hook. "Speech. Host addressing the masses," he explained airily, omitting the rest. "Roasting the groom."

"Oh," she said, barely listening now. She was satisfied with his explanation and way too conscious of his new jeans and those silver tipped boots. "Well. I'd better find Willow and the others," she said, turning away from him. She heard Spike sigh in relief. Relief?

"Well, if the poof is doin' his job, all the kittens are in a basket on the doorstep by now," he quipped.

Buffy turned the corner to see Angel in deep conversation with Cordy, the others looking on.

"So you haven't checked on him since you went on patrol?" Angel whipped out his cell phone, turning it over and over in his hands, scowling. "The green button, right?"

Cordelia snatched the phone and looked at him witheringly. "Technology is so wasted on the undead." She looked up as Buffy and Spike approached. They were amused at the scene and not hiding it. And Buffy's color seemed a little high.

"Where have you two been?" Cordy asked suspiciously.

Spike didn't hesitate, as he locked onto Cordelia's eyes with a hard grin. "Fightin'." Shrugging, he commented, "S'what we do." He turned to Angel, smirking. "The Slayer met the Stripper."

Angel ducked his head to hide a smile.

"T'was a bit porn-ish," Spike continued. "But educational. The Slayer..."

"Spike, I am so staking you when this party is over," Buffy warned.

"Maybe. Maybe I'll be staking you, luv. So you might want to watch your...back," he said suggestively.

As Buffy started to blush, she turned to Cordelia. "C'mon, we can be at the house before you can make the call. Give him his phone and let's go." She moved off hurriedly, the brunette following. Hearing Spike's low chuckle and feeling the accompanying shiver, Buffy picked up her pace.

Anya looked at Willow. "Was that sexual innuendo? It sounded like sexual innuendo to me." When Willow didn't respond, Anya moved to catch up with Buffy and Cordelia. "Didn't you think that sounded like sexual innuendo?" she asked, shrilly, trying to get their attention.

Grinning at Willow, Tara said admiringly, "Spike got her good!"

"You have no idea," Willow muttered as they walked away, leaving vampire and sire at the bar's entrance. She looked back and gave Spike a little wave.

"Well, I'm impressed. You handled her pretty well," Angel said in congratulations.

"Nah. She'll start thinking about it and get pissed. Diversion works for a little while, though. Give her a little somethin' to distract her and she's slower to strike." Spike was feeling a little distracted himself. At the moment, he was thinking about the night before and wishing he were back in her bed.

Angel snorted. "Yeah, well, good luck with that."

Spike's head whipped around to look at Angel.

"The distracting, I mean," he continued, catching Spike's confused look.

Eyes sparkling as he roared with laughter, Spike threw his arm up, almost getting it over Angel's shoulder. He laughed wickedly. "Well, we've all but tucked 'em in their beds. Let's get drunk. Again. Buffy crisis is always a soberin' experience."

"You're buying."

"I *am* buying, you bloody wanker!"

"That's what I said, you idiot. I brought the *stripper*!"

"That you did, Peaches. And a fine job you did, too. Very fine! You should have seen the Slayer's face! Let's roust our Laura out of her gilded cage. Soon as we're drunk!" Spike opened the door to Willy's and bowed, giving the right of first passage to Angel.

"You know, Spike, could be you drink too much."

"Slayer'd drive anybody to drink!"



Part 10: The Brawl

"Age before beauty, mate."

Angel grinned at Spike's 'bow and scrape' as they headed back into Willie's after getting the girl Scoobs and Cordelia off and on their way back to Buffy's house and to Connor. The grin froze as he saw Spike's eyes narrow.

"Bloody hell," Spike muttered, certain something was wrong, but not knowing what. Angel moved inside.

Neither of them could see a problem at first, but both felt the palatable change in the party's atmosphere. The focal point seemed to be somewhere around the impromptu dance floor. As they moved, Angel noticed that the band sounded a little...'off.'

At the same time, Spike heard that the band was still playing, but barely. The bass faltered off beat. Devon sounded preoccupied and was barely carrying the tune. And Oz, still plugging along, was on point, his wolflike attributes obvious.

Spike noticed that Oz's attention was fixed on an area to his left.

"Bloody hell," he repeated, eyes following Oz's. Xander was quite drunk and nose-to-nose with one of the men that Spike and Buffy had noticed going inside. His ears picked up Harris' voice as he answered the much more massive and older man.

"Hey, Brills, back off! Understand? I've taken the job and I'm keeping it. And you weren't invited anyway. Keep your lazy ass away from me and the job!"

Harris was going to get his drunken ass kicked, Spike thought, a little amused. Always was more bark than bite. Black eye would go quite well with the black tie...

Spike rushed toward Xander, throwing himself between Xander and the on-coming punch. A punch that would have decked the not-so-future bridegroom. Even though he was off-balance, the punch didn't do much. He ignored the big construction worker after a hard look into his eyes and turned to Xander.

"What the hell is this? Harris, you're not gettin' marked up two days before your bleedin' wedding! The de...uh, bride'll be seeking some serious vengeance. You get that?"

"This isn't your problem." The big man growled out the words. Spike turned back around to face him.

"It bloody well is!"

"Spike, stay out of this. Brills thinks he's such a toughie, let him come on!"

Spike turned toward Xander. "Whelp, you don't ..." He never saw the second punch coming, which slammed into the side of his head. He staggered a bit, off-balance as he turned back to Brills.

"Here, what's this? I'm having a conversation here."

Angel stepped up a little closer as the man took a menacing step toward Spike. He looked confused but stupid. A lethal combination, Angel thought. Time to get Xander out of there.

The bigger man looked down at Spike. "Harris took my job. The job I was up for. I've got the seniority and I've got the balls to back it up. So get out of my way, little man. I'm coming through."

Spike sputtered, Xander forgotten. "Little man...? Little man?" He drew himself up to his full height.

Derisively, the big man in the big plaid shirt smiled. "It's none of your business. Little man."

"Now it's my business," Spike said as he visibly winced in anticipation. He slammed his fist into the man's stomach, punch pulled, to try to cut down on the searing pain that was coming any moment now.

As the man doubled over, he heard an anguished growl.

The pain in Spike's head was so blindingly intense that he never saw the next fist coming from the other man who had entered with Brills. Then suddenly, he was grabbed around the waist and pulled up and away. He opened eyes that danced with twinkling white lights to see Angel looking at him in concern.

"The chip?"

"Oh, yeah," he groaned. "Peaches, let go."

"But the chip!"

"Sod the bloody chip. Or get the whelp out of there yourself! Buffy'll never forgive me if he goes to his weddin' lookin' like a prize fighter!"

Angel looked over his shoulder at the beginnings of a drunken brawl. Some of Xander's friends from work had jumped into the fray, keeping the even angrier Brills away.

"Uh, oh. Bar fight."

"You bleedin' idiot! He'll get himself killed! Just in time for the weddin'!" Spike yelled, breaking away from Angel. Angel reached for him as he spun away but grabbed only air.

"Harris, here! Don't..." Spike roughly pushed his way through the thickening crowd of bodies, wincing with every shock the chip was giving him.

Then Xander had stepped out, moving toward Brills, who had recovered from the punch and was headed to meet the boy.

Spike flung himself in the air, turning to take another sledgehammer type punch. It connected, but it was high and glancing, barely noticeable if you'd fought the Slayer for four years. Or had sex with her. Spike turned to Xander in a rage.

"You bloody fool! Back off!"

Slam. Another blow, low to the small of the back. Kidney punch. Lovely.

If he could concentrate on avoiding the blows, he'd be fine. But trying to talk sense into Harris at the same time was getting him a bit of an ass kicking.

"Here!" Spike saw Oz coming up on his left, moving sleekly through the crowd. An empty beer keg smashed into two men on Spike's right. "Take him!"

With that Spike grabbed Xander and practically threw him to Oz. Xander staggered. Oz steadied him and disappeared into the crowd.

Angel had finally waded up back up beside him, having been appreciably slowed by the thirty-five odd construction workers who had gathered around the growing fight. Many more of them were now throwing indiscriminate punches - hitting Angel, Gunn, Wesley and each other. The blows Angel was receiving, even with Wesley and Gunn now flanking him, didn't hurt, but the constant barrage was as annoying as hell.

"Spike, this is a hell of a mess," he said calmly to the younger vampire.

Spike looked at Angel incredulously, completely bowled over by the understatement.

Suddenly, Xander's voice was heard over the melee. "Hell, yes, I took your job! It wasn't your job to have, you lazy bastard! Come on! Come and get me, you..."

Spike's jaw tightened as the crowd picked up its fighting pace. Obviously, the whelp's removal from the mob had done nothing to diffuse the situation, especially since removing him hadn't kept his soddin' mouth shut. Suddenly, Xander's voice cut off in mid-challenge. Spike took a feeble kick to the groin and stayed standing, just looking at the 'mess.'

Angel saw Spike narrow his now glittering eyes as he looked around at the escalating violence. Chairs were being smashed, bottles were breaking as tables were overturned.

Suddenly, Spike grinned a feral grin, took a deep breath, let out a wickedly joyous laugh and dived deep into the fray. As Angel blocked punches, he looked for the top of the white blond head. And he saw him, as well as heard him. Heard him utter a constant stream of pained invectives and oaths to punctuate every pulled blow he threw.

Then Angel was so busy himself, he stopped paying attention.

+++++++++++++

Dawn put her video tape on pause and looked up as Willow, Buffy and Cordelia arrived back at Casa Summers. Cordelia looked around and went upstairs to check on Connor and Fred.

"Now that was a party," pronounced Willow in satisfaction. She grinned at Buffy. "Did you get some of those little puffy thingies with cheese inside? Spicy, spicy hot!" she said appreciably.

Buffy stared at Willow. "You ate?"

"Well, I didn't have time to get much. But Tara and I made a couple of napkins. See?" Willow reached into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out a bulging napkin and unwrapped it.

Dawn came sidling over. "Hmm. Didn't travel very well, did it?"

"Well, it's party food, Dawnie. It's for eatin' there, not for travelin'." She reached in and picked up another strange pastry. "Real men don't eat quiche." She popped the pastry into Dawn's mouth like she was a baby bird. "But these were almost all gone. Must be a shortage of real men at the party."

Cordelia came back down the stairs just as Dawn plopped down, chewing the baby quiche. "Okay, so tell me. How was it?"

"Connor's fine," Cordelia said to all and no one. "Angel makes me so crazy when he acts like I'm not being a good ... whatever," she complained. "Fred's asleep. Again. I think she's faking. I think she's hiding out up there."

Willow laughed at Cordy as she sat down beside Dawn. "Okay, Dawnie, time for the big explaino. Didn't see much. Oz and the band sounded great. They were doing all this eighties stuff. Spike's idea. 'You spin me right round baby right roundy.' Of course we missed the best part. One time performance. Spike singing."

Buffy, who had entered a fugue state, brought herself back to the conversation.

Making a surprised sound, Cordelia put her hands on her hips in consternation. "Is that what they were talking about? Vampire up on stage singing? Is this L.A.?"

"Singing what?" Dawn asked, eyes sparkling. "Was it good?"

"Well, when Xander and I were little kids, I guess about five or six, we used to watch MTV at Xander's house. Mom would have had a stroke if she'd caught me watching anything but PBS. But we could go to Xander's or Jesse's and turn it up til our ears bled. And watch. That was the best part.

"Jesse loved Cindy Lauper. You know 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun?" Dawn looked clueless. " 'Time After Time?'" At Dawn's blank look, she shrugged. "Guess you had to be there. Anyways, Xander loved Madonna. Oh, yeah, he did. Used to go through the house singing 'Like a Virgin.' Now I always had a real thing for Billy Idol."

Willow stopped, got a thoughtful look on her face. "The videos were kinda dark, but they were kinda like magic, too." She grinned at Dawn, finally answering her question. "Spike sang 'White Wedding' with Oz's band. Got up on stage and did it. One of the girls was practically swoony over it." She shot a quick look at Buffy, as she looked down at the napkin and popped another unrecognizable mass in her mouth, then offered the napkin to Dawn. "We missed it. But just barely," she complained. "We were at the Espresso Pump just a little too long."

Cordelia laughed wryly. "Well, I'm glad. The thought of Spike up on stage swallowing a microphone gives me the willies."

"Buffy?" Willow looked at her friend innocently. "Did you meet Anne?" She saw Buffy's eyes harden. Just a ghost of a 'harden', but it was there. "I saw her heading over in Spike's direction, so I thought you might. Tara said she was 'statuesque.' Funny word, statuesque. Like a statue? She didn't look very stiff to me. All that red hair. Think I should let mine grow out?"

Buffy shrugged, trying to look unconcerned, and succeeding. "She's all right, I guess. It's that stripper that gave me the wiggins. She was sitting in Willie's office up on the desk doing yoga. Naked. I got out of there fast."

"I think she's nice," Cordelia said haughtily. Buffy stared at her in shock. "Well, she is," Cordelia insisted. "She's an artist. Well, she is." She said defensively. "You just have to bear in mind that she's the kind of artist who takes off her clothes for men for money. Then you get it." Buffy rolled her eyes. She didn't know if she liked this new politically correct Cordelia. Talk about the wiggins!

Willow grinned at Dawn. "Then, there was a little scene with one of the guys Xander works with. Comin' on to Tara. She had this funny look on her face. Like she couldn't believe it." Willow face got very wistful. "She looked so beautiful tonight. Did you see that new way she did her hair? With that little twist and all the spriggies falling around her face? Thought I might have to say something, cause Tara was getting all twitchy like she does when she feels uncomfortable, but then Angel showed up and the guy backed off the leeeeery looks."

"Where is Tara?" Dawn asked. "She didn't come back here?"

"She had some things to do at home. Buffy's staying at her apartment tonight." Willow looked envious. "I haven't even seen it yet." She sighed, then grinned wickedly. "Well, maybe I'll see it sooner or later. I'm all over the sooner." Willow smiled. "But the party was really cool. I would have never known it was Willie's."

"It's just ridiculous," Buffy burst out. "Spike's going around like he's the Big Party Bad. And Angel's right in there with him. Do the evil undead still have testosterone? Cause there were major doses flying around over there."

Willow grinned mischievously. "Oh, I think there's definitely testosterone revenants. Ghosts of testosterone past." She let out a huge sigh. "Wish we could have stayed. I'd've loved to see what happened next!"

+++++++++++++

Shaking his head, Angel picked Spike up off the floor. Idiot!

Wesley frowned. "Is he all right?"

Oz glanced up from the kneeling position he had taken by Xander's prone body. Oh. Wesley was asking about Spike. He returned to his perusal of the groom. No bruises. At least not that he could see.

"Is he?"

"How can you tell?" Gunn quipped. "Dead or unconscious look about the same in a vampire."

Angel looked up to see if any of the non-initiated had heard him. Anne was across the room, helping the others set up the tables again.

"Do you mind?" he said pointedly to Gunn, as he hauled Spike onto a nearby table that had survived the fight. "And there are ways to tell." He leaned over and put his mouth to Spike's ear.

"YOU ALL RIGHT?"

Spike jerked once and groaned long and low. His hands went involuntarily to his head. He turned on his side, pulling his knees up into a fetal position.

And promptly rolled off the table.

"Ow!" Spike sat up, head cradling his hands as he pulled his knees up to his chest. "Bloody hell." Waves of pain came and crested. He put his head between his knees. "Oh, Christ. I'm killin' Harris."

"Head hurts, huh." said Angel innocently. It was not a question.

"Go to hell!" Spike growled at the patronizing tone he heard in Angel's voice.

Angel looked over at Wesley. "He's fine. Just hungover."

"S'not a hangover. I can handle a bleedin' hangover. This ... now this is a migraine. Get me somethin', Peaches. Somethin' to deaden the pain."

"Oh, yeah, alcohol's just what you need," Angel said sarcastically as he headed toward the bar.

"Bugger off! You think havin' a soul is painful, try one of these." Spike raised his head to look around the now-empty room from his vantage point on the floor.

"Hey, who got Harris?" Spike asked, seeing Xander's sprawled body.

Oz looked at Spike. "I did. Started fighting me to get back in there. Had to deck him."

Angel walked past Oz with Spike's drink. "Bet you just hated that," he murmured.

Oz settled back on his heels, a small smile playing around the corner of his mouth.

"Not bruised up, is he?" Spike barked out.

"Not that I can see."

"Well, if you can't see it, doesn't matter, does it? Good job shuttin' him up. Wish it'd been me."

Standing up shakily, Spike groaned. He looked around the bar from his new and much worse vantage point and absently took the glass from Angel, draining it. He felt something catch at the side of his back and reached around to see what the damage was. His hand came away with a dart.

"Somebody started throwing darts," Angel explained unnecessarily, while indicating the now empty dartboard in the corner.

Spike shook his head and looked closely at the dart. Metal and plastic were good. He dropped it and glanced around at the wreck that used to be Willie's. "Well." He realized that everyone was gone except a few servers and Anne.

"Hullo, Anne. Fine mess and all that."

Anne walked toward him smiling. "Hi. Glad to see you back in the land of the living."

Gunn choked on his drink and started coughing. Angel pounded him on the back. Gunn gave Angel a dirty look, as he pulled himself back up off the table. He rubbed his chest with a grimace.

Spike grinned at Anne, popping open a cut on his lip. "Ow!" He reached up and felt his lip, running his tongue over the spot.

"Let's get you cleaned up." Anne giggled at his mumble. "Oh, and Angel?"

Angel head swung over to Anne questioningly.

"Could you please rescue Laura now? I think it's safe for her to come out."

Spike's mouth dropped open as he remembered the stripper in her makeshift dressing room in Willie's office. He snorted wryly. "Bloody stripper comes all the way from L.A., all expenses paid, to spend the bachelor party in her dressin' room." The wider grin made his whole face crack. "Ow."

Anne put her hand on his arm. "C'mon. Clean up time. You'd scare the dead with that face."

"Well, that's somethin' at least," Spike grumbled as Anne carefully pulled him toward the bar. "Bout all I could do right now."

+++++++++++++++

Buffy wondered what was going on at the party. That dancer had done her thing by now and she was quite certain, by the little she'd seen (which was more than she wanted to), that the crowd had been quite appreciative.

And it had become very obvious to her that Spike had really wanted to get rid of her. Something that Buffy was not really used to, especially not from Spike. Willow, yes. In fact, Buffy used to hang around sometimes with Willow and Tara to see if she could put a little crimp in things. Or stick around the magic shop after she could see that Anya and Xander wanted some alone time. So, so tired of being the fifth wheel.

"That was Anya," Dawn said as she came back in from the kitchen. "Xander's still not home and she's getting worried."

"It's barely one a.m.," Cordelia snarked. "She should be glad to get a night with him out of the house. I know I would!"

Dawn sat back down on the sofa, grabbing a bag of chips. "I think it's a wedding question. It's always a wedding question. They've been working on the seating arrangements for weeks! Xander's Uncle Rory seems to be a major cause of concern. And Anya wants to make certain her old boss is sitting with just the right people."

"Not looking forward to a repeato introduction to D'Hoffryn," Willow sighed. "But he is very polite. Very so not Uncle Rory. Ew!"

Willow saw Cordelia's disdainful look. "Hey! If you had Xander's family to deal with and that whole demon family of Anya's, you'd be a little nervy too." Willow defended Anya, something she wasn't big on doing, but still... "And they are all so here for it. Bringing gifts and everything. Wonder what the head vengeance demon gives one of his exes. Sooo glad it's Anya and not me!" Willow's eyes sparkled at the thought of wedding hell.

"Gee, Willow, a little compassion would be good here. Xander and Anya are uniting two worlds. Like Romeo and Juliet. Capulets and Montages."

"Montagues," Buffy said absently, correcting Dawn. She stood up. "Well, I could go check and make sure everything's okay."

"Check what? The baby's fine," said Cordelia a little defensively.

"Check Xander," Buffy explained. "Just make sure the Xan-man isn't unconscious somewhere with a bottle in his hand being preyed upon by harpies in tasteless t-shirts. I don't trust Spike where Xander is concerned."

"Aw, Buffy, he's fine. Don't check up on him," Willow reasoned. "This is his last big night."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Buffy mumbled as she grabbed her coat and headed out the door.

++++++++++++++++++

Oz had grabbed his acoustic and had pulled up a chair at the table with Gunn, Wesley and the now conscious Xander. He strummed down the strings of the guitar softly, creating a diminished counterpoint to the conversation.

"It's a nice promotion." Xander explained, much more sober than he had been two hours ago. "Means Anya and I could look at buying a house. Think about having a family. Later. Much later." His voice raised slightly. "Except some people want to interfere with that. Giving fertility goddesses as wedding gifts."

Spike grinned as Anne worked on a cut behind his ear. "Ow!" He raised his voice to carry to the table. "Figured you might need some help, mate. Once you've bought the cow, the milk can sour, you know."

"I so did not want to hear that, Spike." Xander punched at the air with his finger, punching home the words. "You're disgusting."

"When did you start channeling the Slayer, mate? Might have to do something about that. Watcher-Boy, you ever done an exorcism?"

"Look, I love Anya and she loves me."

"She might have had a few questions about that if she'd seen you tonight."

"No matter what, I can always count on Anya being there for me. That's what love's all about, Spike. Something you know nothing about."

Spike's mouth tightened.

"Oh," Anne squeaked. "Sorry. Did I hurt you?"

"S'nothin'," Spike muttered. "But you really don't have to do this. I'm a quick healer."

"Well, this one.... Oh. Look at that." Anne laughed nervously. "I guess you're right! That's ... well, really something," she said uncomfortably.

All at once, Oz's guitar rung out with a grouping of chords that sounded very familiar.

"Ah," Xander breathed. "Miss Tammy." He looked at Gunn. "You wouldn't know about Miss Tammy, I guess," he asked hopefully.

"Sometimes its hard to be a woman, givin' all your love to just one man," Gunn crooned in tune with Oz's chords.

Xander grinned in delight and joined in.

"You'll have bad times and he'll have good times, doin' things that you don't understand."

Angel, who was sitting at a table with Laura, got up and bowed, crooking a finger.

"You do realize I still expect to be paid for this," she said, getting up and being swept easily onto the dance floor. "Even though I didn't dance."

Angel grinned. "Looks like you're dancing to me."

"But if you love him you'll forgive him
Even though he's hard to understand
And if you love him
Oh, be proud of him
'Cause, after all, he's just a man."

Spike grinned, joining in loudly from the bar, not really singing, but yelling the lyrics as Wes stumbled along a little behind.

"Stand by your man
Give him two arms to cling to
And something warm to come to
When nights are cold and lonely

Stand by your man
And show the world you love him
Keep givin' all the love you can
Stand by your man."

Angel stopped dancing a moment, raising his voice with the others.

"Stand by your man."

"Spike?" Anne elbowed Spike as he took another swig out of bourbon. He had abandoned the glass and moved straight on to the bottle. His head hurt, dammit. And beltin' out that song hadn't helped. Anne nodded her head, and got up to meet the new arrival near the door.

Christ, she's back. Spike sighed.

"What the hell is this?"

"It's okay. Everything's fine," said Anne rushing up to Buffy. She gently took the shorter blonde's arm to guide her back to the door. "It looks worse than it is," she lied, laughing nervously.

Buffy looked down at Anne's hand on her arm, then back up into Anne's eyes. Anne's hand dropped to her side as her eyes widened.

Buffy turned back to the bar and looked around, really taking it in.

Angel had been dancing with the stripper, who was thankfully now wearing some kind of shiny robe that barely covered a multitude of sinfulness. Oz was sitting at a table, guitar in hand, with Xander, a bleary eyed Wesley and a big man who must be Gunn. And Spike was sitting at the bar, a bevy of bloody cloths and the remnants of a first aid kit around him. There was a second drink beside his at the bar.

Buffy's eyes narrowed as they settled on him.

"Hey, Slayer." Spike had decided to brazen this out. After all, they'd just had a spot of violence was all. "You missed all the fun. Had a bit of a..."

"Bar fight?" She finished sweetly. Anne slunk back and into the kitchen, away from the fire in Buffy's eyes. "Obviously a bar fight. Denizens of the night, right? I told you there were..."

"No," Angel spoke up, determined to take a little of that Slayer heat off of the battered vampire at the bar. "Well, demonish, yes. Demon construction workers from hell!"

Spike looked over at Angel appreciatively, equilibrium restored. "Good one, poof." He looked back at Buffy. "Yes, luv. T'was a whole passel of 'em. Big ones, too!"

"You've been fighting," Buffy said slowly, taking in his battered face.

Spike laughed wryly, healing cuts set back another hour or so. "Like a bloody milksop! A real wanker, matter o' fact. But yeah. Pulled my punches, but my head's still killin' me. Finally got some kind of rhythm goin'." Spike looked over at Angel. "Up for a bit of a beheading, Peaches? Put me out of your misery?"

Angel laughed as Buffy tapped her foot, arms folded tight across her chest. Gunn chuckled at the scene. "Maybe later, Spike. You may not need me."

Buffy looked around again, pointedly taking in the debris. Willie's was trashed. Completely and utterly wrecked!

Her eyes swung back to Spike. Hazel eyes narrowed at his smirky grin. Anne walked back up, eyes down, to the bar and started stashing the alcohol and unopened gauze back into the old rusty first aid kit. Buffy's eyes flashed.

"Spike," she asked softly, "can I see you outside?" She said it politely, but her posture as she spun on her heel and headed to the door proved her calm tone was deceptive. She stopped, hand on the door. "And Xander, you might want to call your fiancé. Oh, and Angel, your son is just fine." She opened the door and went out without turning to see if Spike was following her.

Spike sat for a moment, staring vacantly at the door. Was he really up for this? If his head didn't kill him, Buffy might. He sighed in a big way. Then he realized the room had gone totally silent. Looking around, he saw all eyes on him, waiting expectantly. He gave a non-repentant grin, shrugged sheepishly and eased his way carefully off the stool, heading toward the door. He heard a big 'oooooh,' as he stepped outside and Gunn dissolving into whooping laughter.

Gunn snorted as the door closed behind Spike. "I thought he was a tough guy! Could he be any more whipped?"

"Hey!" Angel said in Spike's defense. "This is Buffy Summers, okay? Still, it is sad to see the demise of the Big Bad. It was fun having him back."

Gunn laughed. "She's pretty pissed, all right." He looked at Wes. "Remind me if I ever have a girlfriend again to be sure and never give anybody a bachelor party. Looks real hard on a relationship."

Xander's grin died, as puzzlement slid over his face. He laughed, but nervously. "No, no. It's nothing like that. Buffy and Spike are just .... Well, Buffy and Spike are ... well, it's nothing like that."

Gunn raised an eyebrow at Xander. Even Wesley looked at Xander like he was crazy. Angel's face was carefully non-committal - a look Gunn knew all too well.

Xander couldn't let it go. He stumbled over some kind of explanation for the scene that had just played out. "I mean, Buffy and Spike?" He laughed again. "Why that would be..." His voice played out as he looked at Angel and all the pieces fell into place. Including some pieces he would never want to think about again.

"...Typical," he finished. "Oh, God." He buried his head in his hands and sunk into a depressed silence.

Oz, who had never really raised his head from his guitar, played the first bit of the chorus of 'Stand By Your Man,' drawing the last chord out to punctuate the silence.

Gunn threw back his head and laughed.



Part 11: The End

Spike walked outside, carefully closing the door to Willie's. He waited calmly for the storm: the questions, accusations, and charges of stupidity.

"Who does that Party Nazi think she is?" Buffy asked angrily, pacing back and forth on the sidewalk.

Spike's eyes widened as his head snapped back imperceptibly. Whatever he might have imagined was coming, this was not it. "You mean Anne." It was not a question.

"She met me at the door like I was some party crasher!"

"Anne," he said very precisely and firmly, "is doing the job I pay her to do. Which, at the moment, consists of keeping what's left of the guest list intact."

"Oh? So I'm a party crasher?"

"Well, you're not on the guest list." Spike was using a reasoning tone, but inwardly he was getting a little angry. "Anne may have been a little over zealous, but..."

"She was rude."

Spike laughed, "I doubt it."

Ice in her voice, Buffy clipped off her next words. "So you're taking her side?"

Spike blinked, surprised. "Her side? She doesn't have a side. Until this party is over, she works for me." Spike's eyes narrowed. "What the hell is wrong with you? You haven't given a tinker's damn about this party since you foisted it off on me. At least she cares, even if I have to pay her handsomely for it!"

"Well, I don't like her. She's condescending. Did I say she was rude? She's too tall and I think her hair is a weave." Buffy stated angrily, chin up and eyes flashing.

Spike's head was threatening to explode. What the hell? He was getting more and more frustrated by the second. "Did I ask you to sleep with her, Slayer?" he asked crudely. "Send her Christmas cards? Did I even ask you to ..." Spike stopped as he saw Buffy's fingers flexing, her body drawn up tight. This was crazy. They were having a fight about Anne? His mouth dropped open as realization dawned.

"Bloody hell, Buffy. Have you been drinkin' again? You're being ridiculous!"

"Me? Ridiculous? Oh, no. You're the one who's being ridiculous, Mr. Party God. You with your smarmy party planner!" she spat out.

Spike let out a ragged breath. He stared at Buffy as if she'd raised a stake and was about to plunge it in his chest. "You think I'm shaggin' her," he said slowly. "That's what this is all about. You're jealous."

"I am not."

He laughed unpleasantly. "Oh, yes, you are."

Buffy's mouth was set in a firm line, fists balled up at her side. "You're deranged. I don't care what you..."

"You know," he paced back and forth in front of her, punctuating his words with the opening and closing of fists that were down tight by his side, "if it was Dru had blown into town, and you were bitched off about that, I might be prepared to do a little grovelin'. Maybe. But this!"

"As for my being deranged, you're too right. To get the money to pay for this thing for your friend, I've spent many nights gambling for money with men who would've put a stake in me if they'd known I couldn't do a soddin' thing to stop them.

"I also got a royal ass-kickin' tonight takin' punches that were meant for the stupid whelp who's sittin' in there right now gettin' tanked on the booze I paid for. Then I managed to acquire the headache from hell tryin' to do something about it.

"And now you're throwin' another one of your temper tantrums. And this time it's over some woman I barely know! You saying all the time we don't have anything between us. And never mind that Harris doesn't have a scratch on him. That I saved his ass from his own cronies. Not a thought of that. No, you're just spoilin' for a fight. As usual."

She opened her mouth to protest. It was too much. He...

He closed the distance between them quickly, his eyes stabbing her with anger, hurt and disillusionment. "After last night? After last year? After everything, how could you think that I could ever want to be with anyone but you?"

She relaxed slightly and looked at him. His lip was swollen and there was a cut high on his cheekbone, but it seemed to be closing. And he did have that grimace she'd seen before when he'd pushed that chip in his head too far.

She was still angry for reasons she chose not to explore at the moment, but she was willing to listen to Spike's explanation. Then, she'd tell him how immature this whole party had been.

Too bad Spike wasn't going to oblige.

Buffy opened her mouth to speak. Spike made a slashing motion with his hand at his side, effectively cutting off whatever she was going to say.

"Tonight was important to me, Buffy. You knew that. And you've done your level best to ruin it from the get-go. 'Course bein' an undead evil thing, I'm not meant for anything 'cept waitin' on you, it seems."

"Well, I have what's left of a party in there and I'm by God going back in there now and get snot-slingin' drunk! And you are not stickin' around here to bollix it up. I don't care where you go, but it better not be within a hundred yards of this place until this party is canned. Even if it's three days from now!"

Spike headed toward the door, Buffy staring after him with tears of embarrassment welling up in her eyes. He turned back.

"This is beyond believin', Buffy." He shook his head angrily and continued inside, closing the door loudly and firmly behind him.

++++++++++++++++++

Angel was waiting by the door when Spike slammed back into the bar. There had been a very slim, but real, possibility that he might have been sweeping Spike up into a dustpan by now. He was not at all surprised by the tight look around the pale vampire's mouth. His heart sank a little at the evidence that his intuition had been right, but was instantly buoyed up by the thought of the two people, big and small, that were waiting for him at Buffy's house.

Spike's mouth was moving silently. Angel suspected that he was rehashing whatever he'd said to Buffy outside.

"Dunno why I try," he muttered. "Why I stay. Dunno anythin'."

Angel grinned inwardly, if a bit sadly. Maybe the others hadn't figured it out, but he had known exactly how the little scene outside was going to play out from the moment Buffy had squared off with the party planner by the door. He was perversely pleased to see that he still knew his Buffy.

Looking around the bar, Spike noticed everyone was making a point not to look at him. Even Harris, who was staring off into space and drinking steadily. What was his problem?

"You all right?"

Spike looked at Angel with frustration. "No."

"Ream you out over the fight?" Angel prodded him.

"No. She didn't. Not a bloody word about that. That," he said angrily, "would have made some sense. "That," he said loudly, "is what I expected." He shook his head. "Can't suss her out. Can't please her. Can't...anything. Nothing."

Angel allowed himself a slight grin. "So she let you have it over your private nurse?"

Spike stared at the older vampire in surprise. "Well. Yeah."

With a chuckle, Angel squired Spike back over to the bar. Sitting Spike on a stool, he reached over the bar to grab one of the surviving bottles of bourbon and poured Spike a drink.

"All right. Pretend I'm your friendly neighbor vampire bartender. Tell me your troubles."

Spike rubbed his hand over his face as he stretched his neck, trying to relieve the headache that had reasserted itself with a vengeance during his fight with Buffy.

"I can hardly think about it without wantin' to grab her and shake her til she sees sense."

"Oh, yeah, that would work," Angel commented sarcastically.

Spike considered a moment and decided he'd come clean, promise or not. After all, she hadn't exactly been playin' by the rules, had she? Hadn't been for weeks. He needed to talk to someone. And he thought Angel might understand better than anyone. "Listen, Peaches, you don't know everything 'bout me and Buffy, all right?"

"No? Try me."

"Look, if you're gonna stake me, you may as well go on and do it. 'Cause me and Buffy..." Spike stopped, unsure just how to proceed. Right now, Angel felt like a friend, not the competitor he'd always been. And he didn't really want to hurt him, oddly enough. Or selfishly enough, maybe.

"Buffy and me, we have.... Well, I wouldn't precisely call it a relationship." Spike reconsidered that statement. "Well, she wouldn't anyway."

"And?"

Spike shot Angel a look. "Well, I've loved Buffy for a long time. I was miserable while she was...gone." Angel nodded. He remembered the agonizing emptiness he'd felt at the thought of a world without Buffy Summers in it.

"And then she was back," Spike said quickly, glossing over the hellish nights he'd spent reproaching himself. "All's right with the world again. Except it wasn't. Not really. She was different.

"Thing is, she started talkin' to me about it, y'see. Seekin' me out. Really talkin' about the things that she felt. Things that she couldn't deal with. Things she couldn't tell anyone else. Almost became like...friends, you know? And I thought, 'yeah, this is all right.' Not ideal, but all right. You understand?"

Angel nodded.

"Well, the rules changed. Never mind how. They just did. Then, she finished changin' em. And then we were...well, not friends anymore. And that's when the trouble started."

"Not friends?"

"No, not friends. We were..." Spike looked down at the empty glass and swallowed, not sure quite how to say it delicately. Delicately? Oh, hell...

"Were." He had a flash of last night and Buffy moving under him. "Are. Shaggin' like bunnies."

Spike waited for the inevitable backhand to the head. It didn't come.

"Well," Angel said mildly. "That was a visual I could have done without."

Spike's eyes narrowed. What was this? A ploy to put him off guard?

Chuckling a little sadly, Angel picked up the bottle and poured himself a drink. Eyed it. "Well, Spike, it's not like I hadn't figured it out." He took a slug and looked Spike in the eye. "So?"

"Uh," Spike was so thrown it took him a second to recall what they'd been talking about. "Oh. Buffy. She thinks I'm shaggin' Anne." Suddenly, the revelation became anti-climactic.

"Yeah, well, Buffy's a jealous little thing." Angel didn't sound the least surprised. "When she saw Anne patching you up, I figured she'd put you though a wall. She showed some restraint at least," he chuckled, a bit hurt, but dealing with it.

"Buffy saw that? And that's what this is all about?" Spike shook his head.

"She'd been standing there long enough. She'd had plenty of time to take it all in." Angel grimaced. "Hope she doesn't say anything to Cordelia about my slow dancing with the stripper."

"Oh, she's far too busy bein' bitched off about Anne, believe me." Spike reassured him. "It's AllAboutBuffy at the moment."

Angel laughed a rueful laugh. "Thank the Powers for that! Cordy can be mean."

"What really brasses me off was that she'd even think somethin' like that," Spike complained. "Reminded me of Dru, it did. One step forward, two back."

"Well, William, she doesn't know you very well, does she?"

"That's what I told her. Sometimes I wonder why I'm still here. Didn't think things could get worse. But they always do."

Angel and Spike sat silently, absently gazing at the wall behind the bar. Angel made a decision and grinned, characteristically ducking his head as he did it.

Noticing, Spike said, "What, you poncy poof, is so bleedin' funny?"

"You should be flattered, I guess."

"Flattered? I don't think so, mate."

Angel couldn't believe he was encouraging this, but his earlier conversation with Spike had made him do some soul-searching. And soul-searching was one thing he couldn't very well escape. Buffy obviously had a taste for monsters who dwelt in the gray areas, just as Spike had pointed out. And Angel was very aware that Spike had always possessed more perceptiveness than he himself had.

Besides, Angel knew he couldn't go back and undo what had happened between him and Buffy. He was lucky she even tolerated him after what Angelus had put her through. He still had some heavy guilt issues and he suspected by her avoidance of him that she harbored some resentment. Probably a lot.

On the upside, Spike would never hurt her intentionally, even without the chip the government had put in his head. There was something a little comforting about being able to give your blessing to your ex-lover's new relationship. He would always love Buffy, but...

Angel made a decision. "She's jealous," Angel said quickly, before Spike had time to launch into another tirade. He watched Spike gear down and think about what Angel had just said. "So maybe there's more of a relationship than you think."

"Or maybe she doesn't love me, doesn't want me, will never love me, will never want me, but doesn't want anyone else to ever love me, want me, or have me, either," he countered. "Wants her pet vampire on a leash close by, leather collar and all. Bell, too."

"Maybe. But I think you ought to be celebrating instead of contemplating a sunrise funeral service."

Spike made a rude noise. "Not much chance of that, Peaches. No woman alive, dead or undead is going to make me go for a daytime stroll."

"Yeah, right," Angel said dryly, remembering Spike's near emotional collapse over Dru's leaving him. This looked like it could be even worse.

Staring at the wall behind the bar, Spike's mind began to churn. "Hmm. Jealous, is she?" He sat a little straighter on the stool. "Well, bloody hell, yes! She is jealous, isn't she?" He turned to Angel with a delighted smile. "A jealous Slayer. I like that," he said in satisfaction.

Angel rolled his eyes. You would, he thought. The three most dangerous words Angel had ever heard, 'A jealous Slayer,' and Spike was pleased. Maybe Spike should stop drinking so much and check into Prozac to deal with those mood swings.

++++++++++++++++++

Anya walked in slowly, dressed in flannel pj's and a rumpled robe, looking around her at the disaster that was Xander's bachelor party.

The girls were long since gone, except for Anne and a tall blonde woman, who was wearing a man's leather coat (not Spike's, Anya saw). Angel and the woman were slow dancing to the quiet. The clink of bottles and murmurs were the only sound.

The only thing left on the bandstand was the drum kit. Anya stood on tip-toe, but she didn't see Oz anywhere.

The one named Wesley, who used to be Faith's Watcher (and a poor job he'd done of it, too) had managed to stay semi-erect by leaning his head against the support column beside their table and hooking a foot in the chair rail. He snored disagreeably, but fairly quietly. Xander could take a few lessons in that, Anya thought.

Xander was singing the words of a song Anya had never heard before, while Gunn followed along behind. Then, Xander would forget the words and Gunn would recapture the thread and lead off, each of them running out of words periodically only to be reminded by the other. Her eyes softened as she looked at Xander's tousled hair and the bright spots of color on his cheeks.

She walked toward the table.

Xander looked up as she approached. "Hey, honey." Gunn stopped singing and looked at Anya questioningly. As Spike walked over to the table, Xander looked down at his hands.

Anya looked at Spike with a touch of embarrassment. "Is the party over? Because it's late and I can't go to sleep." She looked down. "I've gotten used to him being there when I go to bed at night and when I wake up in the morning. I'm tired. Can he leave now?"

Spike smiled. Anya's honesty was always disarming when she looked a bit lost. He nodded. "Party's over, love. And I'm returnin' him the way I got him."

Anya nodded gravely. "Thank you."

Her voice was louder now, pitched to take in everyone in the room, including Angel. "I came to get Xander. But I think I should be getting all of you, too, because the sun will be up in 47 minutes. I think we all want that cute little baby to still have a daddy tomorrow."

Spike smothered a grin. No one like her, demon or human. He shook his head.

"Hey!" Spike called out to Angel, trying to get his attention. Didn't work. Angel could very well be asleep on his feet. The way Angel danced, it was hard to tell.

"Hey." Spike stumbled toward Angel. He was ignored. "Hey." Angel slowly turned at looked at him. Spike held up three fingers, folding one down after the others for each word he spoke. "Daylight. Baby. Cheerleader."

Angel took Laura's hand and kissed it reverently. Then he reached over, put a hand lightly on Spike's shoulder and silently walked to the door and into the night. Spike noticed that Angel's very mysterious exit lost some of its cool when Laura chased him out the door, trying to return his coat. He chuckled.

"Hey, Watcher-Boy! Bus is leavin'."

"Ex-Watcher-Boy," Wesley mumbled. His eyes opened with a snap. "What bus?"

The lady came back inside, sans coat. She was still wearing the sheer robe she'd had on when she'd been 'rescued' from the office. Looking a little intoxicated, she wove her way back to pack her things for the trip back to the hotel.

"L.A.?" Gunn looked up at the sound of his new nickname, bestowed by Spike sometime during the night. "See if you can help the girl find her street clothes. Don't fancy getting arrested this close to sun-up."

Xander was slowly getting up. Spike noticed that he was leaning heavily on Anya, and that she was staggering a bit.

"Hey, demon girl, need some help with the groom?"

Anya's eyes sparkled, but her voice was petulant. "You realize it will be hours before he's of any use to me, don't you?"

Spike threw his head back and laughed in delight. "Well, all the parts should still be workin', just a bit slower than usual."

Xander looked at Spike, eyes dead. "Thanks for the party," he said, no warmth in his voice.

Spike shrugged, ignoring the strangeness of it.

Anya looked at Xander and back up at Spike, embarrassed. "It looks like it was a great party," she said brightly.

Surveying the ruins of the bar, Spike smiled wistfully. "Yeah, it was." You could really see where the bodies were buried once all of the live things were gone. He was damn glad Anne had talked him into taking out 'event' insurance. He didn't think there were enough good poker hands in the world to make this right.

Wesley noticed Spike's eyes sweeping the bar and did the same. He grimaced and reached down to start clearing the nearest table.

"Watcher-Boy, you've got patrol tonight. Got people comin' to attend to this pig-sty. Load up. I'm drivin'.

Anya and Xander walked to the door. Xander stopped and looked back at Spike, who was busy gathering the L.A. group.

"Spike and Buffy are seeing each other," he said quietly.

"Really? I was afraid they'd broken up," said Anya in relief.

"What?"

"Well, Buffy's always at home or at the Magic Box now and I thought they had probably broken up."

Xander stared at her. "You knew? And you didn't say anything?"

"Well, no. No reason to get you upset right here before the wedding. But you're not upset. Are you?"

"Let's go."

++++++++++++++++++++++++

Angel tried the door to Buffy's house. It swung open, soft light spilling onto the porch to rival the growing paleness of the night sky.

Cordelia was asleep with her mouth open. She was wrapped around a bundle of quiet, but bright-eyed baby. Seeing his daddy, Connor began to move impatiently. Angel put a finger up to his mouth, trying to give the baby the hint.

"Shhhh." Angel said as he picked Connor up in his arms, barely disturbing the sleeping brunette. "Daddy's home. Oh, yes, he is. I didn't know how much I missed you 'til I saw you." Angel gave the baby a soft kiss.

"Angel?" Cordy stretched and squinted. "Hey," she said in a voice deepened by sleep. She yawned. "Have fun?"

Angel grinned at Connor, who was making a funny face. "Oh, yeah," he said offhandedly. "Spike always did know how to throw a party. Fun." He looked at her. "You look all kinked up. Go on to bed. I'll take over now. Almost time for his bottle."

Cordelia stood up shakily. "Okay...." She walked on rubbery legs up the stairs, leaning heavily against the banister.

"Cordy?"

Cordelia swung around to look down at Angel standing below her with his son.

"I like seeing you with Connor." He held her eyes for a moment. Then, a little embarrassed he looked back down at the baby.

She continued up the stairs and out of sight. Angel and Connor went into the kitchen to get something to eat as the day began to dawn.

++++++++++++++++++

Spike moved quietly into his crypt and stopped by the television, silencing its low murmur. The room darkened perceptibly, not that that was a problem of course. He walked to the fridge, pulled out a jar and quaffed half the contents, not bothering to heat it.

Stretching his arms up above his head and twisting a little, he felt some of the tension go out of him. Of course, he grimaced as he did it, humming a snatch of John Mellencamp's 'Hurts So Good,' and laughing loudly at the irony of it. Ah, the joys of living alone!

His head hurt. He hurt. And he was low, very low. He was relieved the party was over, but he also felt let down. The thing that had occupied his time and his mind for weeks was over. What would he do tomorrow? Oh, yeah. Patrol and the Bronze. And the next day? The wedding. And the day after?

He shook his head angrily. Nothing after that. Just back to the same old dance with the Slayer. And the dance was getting old. Spike had had a moment of exhilaration when he'd thought about the slayer caring enough to be jealous. Now he wasn't so sure. Spike considered making a run to L.A. Maybe a little distance between him and Sunnyhell wasn't a bad idea. Hang out with Angel and the boys a bit.

He took off his duster and laid it across the chair, hoping that anyone who came barging in tomorrow would see it, realize he was in bed and leave him the hell alone.

He went downstairs, accompanied by the soft glowing light of a single burning candle below. Puzzled by the light, he looked about, eyes landing on a wad of denim, hair and flesh curled up in the middle of his bed.

Abandoning all plans to go to L.A., Timbuktu, or anywhere that wasn't Sunnydale, he sat down softly on the edge. A smile played around his mouth and eyes. Beautiful little girl all curled up like that. Sweet. Looking at her like this, it was hard to believe that angelic form housed such a devil of a woman. And even harder to believe that he loved her more than anything he'd ever loved in his life or unlife.

Buffy's eyes opened blearily. "You're home," she stated stupidly. Ah, sleepy Slayer. Soft, sleepy slayer.

"Yeah," he said, pushing her hair off her face. "Home sweet home," he chuckled as he leaned down and pulled off his boots. As he busied himself taking off his belt, he waited for an explanation for her being there. It didn't come. He snuck a glance at her. She was asleep again.

He looked at her wistfully and blew out the candle. He didn't know why she was here and he really didn't care right now. At least he wasn't alone. "Scootch over, pet," he said softly, prompting her with a little push toward the left side of the bed.

She moved over, turning on her side as he crawled into bed in his clothes. He groaned as he lay down flat. Then he rolled over, frustrated at not being able to find a comfortable position.

"Sore?" she whispered.

He grunted a 'yes' as he managed to get one arm under her and cupped her shoulder with the other. He sighed as he felt her settle against him, knowing that things would be fine between them if everything else didn't get in the way.

"Head still hurt?" she asked solicitously.

"Oh, yeah," he breathed out wearily.

They lay there a moment in complete silence, but the air was alive with unspoken words. The Slayer broke the quiet.

"I'm sorry I ruined your special day," she said in a soft voice.

For a moment, he couldn't speak.

"Well, you had plenty of help," he whispered gruffly. "Big burlies in plaid and drunken bridegrooms. I'll tell you about it sometime." He reached up, absently playing with her hair. "Now shut up and let a man rest in peace, why don't you?" he grumbled, swallowing hard.

An apology. Who would have ever thought it? His hopes rose a little. Then he fell asleep.

++++++++++++++++++

It was much later. The sun had been up for hours. He felt the Slayer stir.

"Spike..."

"Hmm."

"How many vampires have you made?"

Wonderful. The Slayer wanted pillow talk and they hadn't even had sex. How long had she been awake to come up with this one? His head was still hurting a bit, he still felt like a walking bruise and she wanted to talk about his past history.

Interestin' question comin' from her though. Had to give her that. More like something The Bit would ask.

"Two," he said softly. "Didn't turn out too well though. Either time. Why? Lookin' for a go at number three?" he said archly.

Whoops. Smart-ass mouth always gets you in trouble, Spike. The whelp couldn't 'a done any better.

He realized she was laughing silently. "Nooo...." She breathed the word out softly. Once again proving that drowsy slayer equaled good. Now that was something to remember.

Spike decided to push his luck a little. After all, they'd been here for the last few hours, fully clothed, spooned up, sleeping. That was cuddling, wasn't it? What all those silly books, magazines and Oprah prattled on about all the time? He'd been good. And if he wanted to play a little and she didn't, well, she'd damn sure let him know. What was another bruise or two at this point?

"Chip doesn't work on you, pet. So I could do it, you know," he said in a low teasing growl. His mouth moved close to her neck and he felt her shiver and tense up. "Slide my mouth..." Now he was talking in her ear and the sensation of his breath was making her breath faster. "...down..." He moved back to her neck, "...right here and just...." He pounced, blunt teeth biting down firmly right on her jugular. She bucked up against him, with a deep moan. Then she giggled hesitantly, a little embarrassed at her reaction.

"Stop it. We're talking," she reproved him.

"Oh." He smiled to himself.

"Why?" she asked.

"Why what?" And why was he talking to the back of her head? He moved a stray strand of her hair that was threatening his nose and eased up on his elbow to whisper in her ear.

"Why what?" he repeated. She shivered and pushed against him a little. Ah. Well, that was as good a reason as any for talking to the back of her head, wasn't it?

"Why only two?"

She wasn't going to let this go, was she? Well, fine. All right.

"Well, several reasons," he said easily. If she was going to call him an evil undead thing anyway, he wasn't going to manufacture any high sounding motives. "First, Angelus frowned on the wholesale assembly-line production of other vampires." He stopped, cursing himself for prefacing his statement with 'first.'

"And second?" she prompted.

Oh, hell. Well, why not just be the evil disgusting thing and see how fast she pops up out of bed?

"Well, Druscilla didn't like me makin' much of anythin', lessin' it was her."

Silence.

"You're a pig, Spike," she said mildly.

At least they hadn't gotten to the third reason. He'd keep that one to himself a while longer.

"Yeah, yeah," he kept his voice unconcerned, but he was really trying to figure out why she hadn't left yet. "Well, she was a bit jealous, y'see." Not a very subtle dig, considering. But something that was very much on his mind.

"Don't see why." Her back was still to him, but she hadn't pulled away. "Stupid vampire gets himself chipped so that he can't feed, falls in love with a vampire slayer and gets himself beat to shit by a bunch of construction workers at a party," she said, then muttered, "She'd be an idiot to get jealous over someone like that."

Spike chuckled low in his throat. She was right. Sounded pretty damn ridiculous. They could never sell this story idea to a small indy TV network, much less one of the big ones. So that path to the big wealth was out.

"When you put it that way, love, it just proves Dru was insane, doesn't it? Now, me, I never had a problem with it. The insanity, I mean. But the jealousy made me a bit bonkers," he said truthfully. "Hurt my feelings. Me always being right there for her and all."

"Yeah? Well, I still say, who'd be jealous over you anyway?"

"She'd have to be pretty bent," Spike teased.

"Yep," Buffy agreed.

"A half-wit." He paused for dramatic effect. "Or totally bonkers herself."

"Maybe," Buffy sounded a little less inclined to agree. Or maybe it was that remark Xander had slung at them that morning in her kitchen. That one had definitely stung. Her. Not him. The topic had spun itself out. He'd made his point.

"My turn." Spike said, nonchalantly.

"Your turn for what?" she sounded suspiciously sleepy again. Right!

He got up on his elbow to look over her shoulder and see her face. "To ask a question. Don't I get a turn?" It sounded exactly like 'don't I get a cookie.' A small grin played around her mouth.

"I'm ... awfully tired." She yawned unattractively. "You get a turn just as long as you don't ask me about playing doctor with my cousin in the laundry room when I was eight," she negotiated, eyes closed.

"Tempting, but all right." He took a breath and the words rushed out. "Do you love me, Buffy? I mean, I know you love me, but do you...?"

Dead silence. Spike waited for an answer. Any answer.

"Buffy?" She didn't move. He shook her a little. She was like a wet rag. Suddenly her mouth opened and she let out the most obnoxious snore he'd ever heard.

"Buffy!"

He turned her over on her back. Her arm flopped over onto her stomach, too limply, and her mouth dropped opened even farther. A second snore wheezed out. And if anything, it was a snore even more fake and more obnoxious than the first.

He stared at her, lying there defenseless in his bed. "Well, bloody hell," he said finally. He let out a frustrated breath. Then, his voice brightened. "I'm just going to have to take that as a 'yes.'"

It sounded just like the voice he'd used when he'd talked about tying Dru up and torturing her 'til she loved him again.

She couldn't stand it anymore. The corners of Buffy's mouth twitched up into a smile.

He saw his chance and he took it. He covered her mouth with his and felt a soft little Buffy-moan.

Well, he'd been good. Very, very good. Now it was time to be bad.

THE END