Part 4

Some vestige of pride kept Tara on her feet and silent until Spike was out of the suite with the door closed behind him. Even when her senses told her he was out of earshot, habit made her clamp a hand over her mouth, keeping the sound inside as she slid down the wall to rest on her heels.

Stop this. Come on, concentrate. Center, damn it!

But the peace of meditation eluded her, and the only mantra that came to her mind was ‘stupid’, ‘stupid’, ‘STUPID!’ with ‘idiot’ tossed in occasionally for variety’s sake.

She could still feel his hands, his mouth, the hard planes of his body — strange after the soft curves of a woman’s embrace — could still feel the loss when he pulled away. As Tara remembered the eagerness of her response to Spike’s kiss, humiliation washed hotly over her, and she thunked her head against the hotel wall.

I can’t believe I did that. Or that I said I didn’t want him to go. Did a lot of good, too, didn’t it?

Nausea hit her suddenly, and she staggered up, making it to the bathroom just in time. After she finished emptying herself of all the orange juice Kate and Rose insisted she drink, Tara splashed cold water on her face, catching sight of her reflection in the mirror. Her skin was blotchy, cheeks and eyes red from crying, baby-fine hair standing out from her head.

“How could he have passed all this up?” she said bitterly to the Tara in the mirror, smoothing the oversized sweater over her heavy breasts. “Compared to Buffy or Drusilla, you’re just love’s young dream.”

At least the crying had stopped. That was something. She wearily dragged back into the living room and collapsed on the couch. The sight of her computer made her mouth twist.

Will Jane and Shiv fuck in the next book? Gee, Sophie, apparently not.

Something underneath all the misery and shame tried to make itself known. Something that felt like anger.

It wasn’t as if she had done the seducing tonight. Crying on his shoulder wasn’t exactly a declaration of desire. Yes, she’d gotten aroused, but she hadn’t done anything about it, and she wouldn’t have. It had taken everything she had to form coherent sentences after he showed up at the door. Spike had initiated the change from friendship to passion, she the one to reciprocate. Okay, she probably wasn’t the world’s greatest kisser, but leaving her like that, with no explanation or apology wasn’t … right.

Tara sat up, frowning. It wasn’t right. And it wasn’t fair. If Spike had suddenly changed his mind, well, people had the right to do that. She wouldn’t have pushed him for anything. But he still could have spoken to her, still treated her decently.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said aloud, trying the words on for size and finding them a surprisingly good fit. “Not anything.”

Tara pointed her chin at the computer. Maybe Jane and Shiv wouldn’t get together in the next book after all. And maybe Jane had been a little bit of a doormat in the past couple of books, a little too enthralled. Like Buffy had been with Dracula. But the Slayer had gotten past that, hadn’t she? Yes, she had, and Dracula had ended with a stake in his chest. The thought of her agent’s probable reaction to Jane staking Shiv made her smile despite her anger.

Okay, so maybe I won’t go that far.

But still, it might be time for Jane to come into her own a little more.

It was time for other things too. The past couple of days had given her a sudden yearning for home. Not the farm — that hadn’t been home since the death of her mother — but Sunnydale. She wanted to see Buffy and the rest, make her peace with Willow and Xander, wanted the embrace of those who had become her family.

Determined, she went to the phone and looked up the number for her airline. There was no need to stay in this place of bad memories one second longer. She was out of here. She was going home.

*                              *                              *

Those had been fine, high-sounding thoughts in a hotel room in L.A., but now, standing a block from The Magic Box, Tara felt assailed by doubt. What if they were angry with her for staying away so long? What if they didn’t like her anymore? Yes, Buffy wrote regularly, but that was probably out of some kind of Slayer sense of duty. She shook the thoughts away, knowing on some level they weren’t true. Even if they were, she had to see, had to know once and for all.

She moved cautiously down the block to the front door of the shop, feeling a stab of sorrow at the knowledge that Anya wouldn’t be behind the counter keeping an eye on stock and profit.

The bell jangled sharply as she entered, and it felt as if every eye in the store turned toward her as she hovered in the doorway. Not that there were many customers at this time of day.

Tara didn’t recognize the tall, dark-haired girl standing behind the register until she let out a screech, vaulted the counter, and hurled herself at the witch.

“Tara! Tara, Tara, Tara!”

“Dawn?!” She returned the embrace with slightly stunned enthusiasm. “I didn’t even know you. Your hair …”

“I know.” Dawn stepped back from Tara and grinned. “Isn’t it cool?”

“Yes, very cool. And … short.”

Short it was. Dawn’s waist-length mass had been chopped to about two inches all around her head, with one stripe at the front dyed bright red. She’d also grown several inches so that she towered over Tara.

But her smile was the same mixture of innocence and mischief as she released Tara and danced back a step.

“It’s my college look.”

Tara laughed. “And it’s a great one.” She flicked the gold ring that went through Dawn’s eyebrow. “What about this?”

The grin broadened. “That, too. I got the whole thing done the first week of classes and went home for dinner. I thought Buffy was going to implode.”

“In itself, a valid reason to have it done.”

“Dawn, there are customers wait–” Giles stopped in the middle of his progress through the store, and his face softened in surprise and pleasure. “Tara.”

“Hi, Mr. Giles.” He hadn’t changed much, the dark hair more peppered with gray, but that was it. Behind the glasses, his eyes were still keen, still watchful. Still kind.

To Tara’s surprise, he crossed to her and gave her a swift hug as Dawn dashed back behind the counter.

“I think we can make it Giles at this point, don’t you?” he said, a bit hoarsely.

“Sure.” She pulled back and smiled at him cautiously, amazed to see something that looked like moisture in his eyes.

“Yes. Well. You’re looking well.” He pulled his glasses off and began to clean them furiously.

Dawn groaned and looked ceilingward. “Careful, Giles. You’re showing emotion. The Council will be after you.”

Before he could respond, the bell jangled again, and Tara turned to see Buffy, Xander, and Willow enter the store.

“Hi, guys … oh, my God,” Buffy ran down, staring at her.

“Tara,” Willow breathed.

Seeing her again felt like being punched in the stomach. Dawn and Giles had changed noticeably, but Willow looked as if the previous five years hadn’t occurred. She stood white-faced and trembling on the threshold as if afraid to come any closer. But why …

She thinks I’m angry with her.

Unable to bear the thought, Tara wordlessly held out her hands. Willow flew across the store and crashed into her arms, almost choking her with the strength of her hold.

“I was so worried!” she wailed into Tara’s neck. “I missed you so much! I wanted … wanted to tell you …”

“You didn’t have to tell me.” Tara set Willow back on her feet and looked into her face, smoothing back the strands of red hair. “I already knew. It’s all right. Everything’s all right.”

Willow gave her a watery smile, and something passed between them along the old bond of love and witchcraft they had shared. Did still share. They had been each other’s salvation once, and part of them always would be. But there was room for other loves as well, and other lives.

She looked past Willow to where Xander still stood quietly, just inside the store. He, at least, looked very different. Older, more serious, the happy-go-lucky air that had been his constant companion was gone. There was fear in his eyes, as he looked at her, fear and shame in equal measure. Fear that she would take Willow back. Shame over what had happened.

Tara gently freed herself from Willow’s hold and went to him, wordlessly going up on her toes to put her arms around his shoulders. He bowed his head against her hair and she heard a breath like a sob tear out of his chest.

“I’m so sorry,” he choked. “What you did … there aren’t words … I never meant for it to happen.”

“Of course you didn’t,” she whispered back. “I meant what I said. Everything’s all right.” She met his eyes directly. “And I’m not staying.”

Tara watched relief and embarrassment chase across Xander’s face as he realized that she hadn’t come back for Willow, but not for anything would she have disturbed their hard-won peace.

“You’re not staying?” Willow said, aghast. “You just got here!”

“I can stay awhile. Tonight,” she amplified. “I just … I just wanted to see everyone again.”

“And see us you shall,” Buffy decreed, stepping up for her own quick hug. “Demons will just have to go unmolested tonight, unless they want to attack the Bronze. You can crash at my place afterwards,” she finished, smoothly avoiding a potential pitfall.

*                              *                              *

Fortunately, no demons attacked the Bronze. They all sat around one of the tables, and it was like old times, except Tara sat between Buffy and Dawn instead of beside Willow, Anya wasn’t there to provide her acerbic-yet-accurate comments, and Angel had joined them.

So, okay, maybe it isn’t like old times. But it isn’t bad.

And it wasn’t. The feelings had changed a little, but they were still there, and the warmth of her friends’ caring surrounded her, the old sense of safety coming back. She would not be deliberately hurt here, by omission or commission, and if she felt pain from the changed circumstances, well, that was life. They had all come through it, forged in the fires of the Hellmouth, and out the other side.

The greatest change, even despite Dawn’s new look, was in Buffy, who had lost the tension that Tara associated with her. The sorrow that had always ridden at the back of her eyes even in her happiest moments was gone now, and she was relaxed. Her weight was up slightly, the almost gaunt thinness replaced by healthy strength, and her color was high.

That was down to the one who sat next to her, Tara knew. She’d never met Angel before and was having a hard time reconciling the stories she’d heard with the man she saw now. Gloomy and brooding didn’t fit anymore. Actually, if she had to pick a word that did, it might be … goofy. He seemed addicted to bad puns and horrible drinks with little umbrellas. And his eyes, when he looked at Buffy, were adoring.

There was one awkward moment when Buffy and Angel got up to dance. Xander automatically started to rise with Willow, when Willow looked at Tara and turned pale. Tara knew what she was remembering: the night of her birthday when they danced and their love and joy took them straight into the air. She wanted to tell them to go ahead, but the words wouldn’t come. Finally, Dawn stood and grabbed Tara’s hand, and they all moved to the floor in a group, dancing together without pairing off.

For an instant, as they moved to the music and forgot themselves, Tara felt the energy swirl around them again, and understood. The group might split apart, might go separate ways, might even die, but the bonds were still there, forged deep. It was a good feeling and almost made up for the loneliness of not having her own partner.

She ended back at Buffy’s house, Dawn safely ensconced in the dorm and Willow and Xander returning to their place — not the apartment he had shared with Anya, but a small townhouse.

“Dawn’s old room is in okay shape,” Buffy said as Angel took Tara’s suitcase upstairs. “She stays here sometimes.”

“That’s fine.”

“Only, I thought you might want to stay up and talk a little more,” the Slayer said neutrally with a glance toward the scarf Tara wore around her neck.

“Talk,” Tara said faintly, feeling the tension seep back into her frame.

“Yeah, talk. You know, where you open your mouth and stuff comes out?” Buffy smiled to take any sting from her words. “But only if you want to,” she added more gently. “I’m kind of the last one to urge communication on somebody.”

It would be so easy to shield, so easy to slip back into keeping secrets, so easy to stay alone. Tara swallowed. “No. I’d … I’d like to talk.”

“Great. Hey,” she added to Angel, “I think we’re gonna have a little gabfest. Girly stuff. Why don’t you go on to bed?”

He looked slightly hurt. “I can talk about girly stuff. I even know about the chocolate ice cream part.”

Buffy smiled and went to him, snuggling into his chest. “Yes. You are deeply in touch with your feminine side. But I think me and Tara need some one-on-one time. Okay?”

“Okay,” he grumbled teasingly. “I’ll just go await your pleasure.”

“Ooh. Promises.”

He called goodnight to Tara and vanished and Buffy headed kitchenward, returning with a container of ice cream and two spoons.

“You’re happy,” Tara said as Buffy settled on the couch. “That’s great.”

“Thanks. It’s nice. And a little scary, even now. I keep thinking this is a dream, and I’ll wake up and somebody will take it away.”

“Maybe it makes you appreciate it more.”

“Oh, yes. Every day without the world ending is a present.” She leaned back and eyed Tara. “So …”

“Dawn’s looking good,” Tara said hastily. “Hair, eyebrow, and everything. She said you freaked.”

“I freaked big-time, in best older-sister fashion.” Buffy grinned. “I was shocked and appalled, but slowly, I grew to understand that it was her hair and her life, and I had to accept it. And so on.”

Tara giggled. “You faked it? How sneaky can you be?”

“Hey, I’d much rather she rebel this way than with drugs or something. If it required an Afterschool Special moment over hair, that’s good with me.”

“You did good with her,” Tara said softly. “Your mom would be proud.”

Buffy’s smile wavered. “I hope so. Sometimes I think she’s sitting up there in heaven or wherever, snickering and saying ‘isn’t payback a bitch’, but I hope she’d think we did okay. And now,” she fixed Tara with a stern eye. “Let’s talk about you, starting with that.” She touched Tara’s scarf.

Tara sighed and undid the knot, and Buffy’s mouth tightened.

“That’s a deep bite,” she said. “Somebody went for a kill.”

“Not Spike,” Tara said hastily. “Like I told you on the phone, he didn’t bite me. He saved me.”

“Okay. It’s hard for me to picture Spike as saver and not biter, but okay.”

Silence fell and Tara slowly turned the spoon over and over in her fingers. “I need to tell you some stuff,” she said at last. “Can you let me go through the whole thing before you answer?”

Buffy set the ice cream container down and folded her hands in her lap. “Go for it. My lips are sealed.”

Tara fixed her gaze on the coffee table and began, “Five years ago, I had a dream about my mom …”

She told all of it, from fixing the chip through Spike leaving her hotel room two nights ago, never looking up until the end. It wasn’t as hard as she had thought it might be, especially since she didn’t allow herself to think about what she was saying. Buffy kept silent as promised, although Tara heard her breath hiss in a couple of times.

When she finally finished and looked up, Buffy was staring at her in a mixture of disbelief and something that looked like horror.

“Oh, God, Tara.” She stood up abruptly and began to pace the living room. “I’m trying to be really supportive here, but … ick.”

“I know,” Tara sighed.

“It’s not like I can point fingers … I still loved Angel even after he went bad, and there was the whole thing with Dracula … but still … ICK! This is not healthy!”

“I know, Buffy. This isn’t something I’m in control of. And it’s not like I chased him down or stalked him. I never even tried to find him. I didn’t know he was in L.A. until he rescued me from the demon. Spike just … got in my head somehow, and I wrote the books to try and get him out, but he doesn’t seem to want to leave.”

“Maybe a steam shovel?” The words were light, but Buffy sat down next to her and took her hand.

“Trust me, I’d be willing to try it.” She smiled back at the Slayer. “Besides, it doesn’t really matter, does it? He’s made it pretty plain he’s not interested, which isn’t all that surprising, I guess. I mean …” She made a gesture that encompassed her entire self and Buffy straightened and glared at her for real.

“If you even hint that you think you’re not good enough for Spike, I’ll … I’ll do something really bad to you! Tara,” she said more gently. “All the things your dad said about you are wrong. You are smart, and you are kind, and you are pretty. You help people. You write best-sellers, even if they are about really nasty subjects. You’re a powerful witch. Anybody would be lucky to be with you.”

She was stricken dumb by the words and leaned over to hug Buffy soundlessly.

“After all,” Buffy said seriously. “If I were gay? I’d be totally into you.”

Tara snorted with laughter and fell back against the pillows. “That’s sweet, but you’re way too butch for me.”

Buffy started to giggle. “Really? Because Spike never struck me as all that girly.”

Both of them howled at that one, and after a few minutes Tara wiped her eyes and gasped, “It’s the accent.”

“I’m sure Giles would love to hear that.”

A few minutes later, Angel called down plaintively. “If I can’t be there, you could at least not have that much fun.”

“Sorry,” Buffy called. “But I think it’s more hysteria than fun.” She looked back at Tara and sobered. “I wondered what happened to Spike. He was there one day, gone the next. And I would have helped with the Initiative, but I don’t think I could have gone along with taking the chip down. If I’d known you had, I would have been watching my back. He could have hurt us, Tara, and we wouldn’t have seen it coming.”

“I know,” Tara looked down. “I’m sorry. I really should have told you, at least about the chip not working anymore. I don’t think I would have done it, but he offered to hide me so fast, without thinking about what it meant for him.” She thought a moment. “Actually, I might have anyway. What the Initiative did was wrong, as wrong as anything the vampires do. They took away choice, took away the ability to grow and decide.”

“I didn’t like the Initiative either,” Buffy agreed. “You have to wonder about something that could attract Maggie Walsh. It was very simple for them. Demons / humans, good / bad. It used to be that way for me too, but I’ve seen too much since then. They would have put Dawn in a cage and studied her like a lab rat.”

“Probably. About Spike? I think he had changed. There was nothing in it for him helping me against my family, but he did it anyway. I think he really did like Dawn and your mom.” She paused and added quietly. “And he did love you.”

“Yeah,” Buffy rolled her eyes. “Nothing says ‘I love you’ like chains and a cattle prod. I don’t know why people waste their time on Hallmark.”

“Even he said that was a bad call,” Tara pointed out.

“No kidding. Okay, I’ll grant you he maybe changed. That still doesn’t mean I don’t think you could do better, like with just about anybody else!”

Tara stood up and stretched, preparatory to going to bed. “How about Parker?”

“Eww. No! Parker bad!”

“Cordelia? I hear she’s pretty hot.”

“So, maybe Spike isn’t that horrible a choice.”

*                              *                              *

All in all, Tara returned to her small house in Marin County in a much more peaceful frame of mind than she’d known in a long time. It was all right, it really was. She’d seen everyone, confessed all — to Buffy at least — without huge tears or recriminations. She had no real plans to move back to Sunnydale, as that would be too awkward, but visits would be possible. Major holidays at least. Watching the progress of Dawn’s hair could be an ongoing project.

As for Spike, nothing had really changed there, had it? They hadn’t been together before other than in her feverish mind, and they weren’t now. The only difference was that now, she had an actual kiss to incorporate into her occasional dreams. For her waking hours, she firmly pushed him from her mind, except as she needed for writing, and turned her attention to proofing the galleys for Dark Waltz.

A couple of weeks passed quietly, the season moving deeper into October. When Tara took her nose out of the pages long enough to notice, she appreciated the turning of the leaves and gave a few thoughts to the All Hallows ritual, the time when the borders between the living and dead thinned. It could be a time of discard, a time of leaving behind old things, old sorrows. Old loves? She’d have to see what felt right.

It was still cold that early morning when Tara went outside to perform the sun salutes she used to limber up for the day. She shivered in her thin cotton pants and tank, but set aside the discomfort, knowing the yoga would warm her up soon enough. Digging her toes into the dirt, she swung her arms up in the opening posture …

And staggered. Danger, panic, the sting of a hypodermic needle. Tara clapped a hand over her arm before she realized that whatever it was, it wasn’t actually happening to her.

Swirling darkness.

“Willow!” she cried, and spun, racing for the cottage.

Tara didn’t know Willow and Xander’s number, but she caught up her cell and punched in Buffy’s speed dial.

The phone barely started ringing before it was snatched up. “What?”

She could hear the fear and grief in the Slayer’s voice, and thought that she must already know what had happened.

“Buffy, what is it? What’s happened to Willow?”

“Tara? What do you mean what’s happened to Willow? Angel’s gone and some demon friend of his … and Xander? What? Oh, God.”

“She’s gone.” Buffy’s voice was quiet on the phone. “Tara? Do you know what’s happening?”

Tara swallowed hard. “Not yet. I’m coming, Buffy. I’ll be there soon.”

*                              *                              *

He stood outside the hotel room door for some time, even though he was perfectly aware that Tara was gone, her scent already dissipating as other occupants took her place. He could still find her, Spike knew. He had the name of her agent as well as various occult contacts. Lorne might help. Hell, the Internet made it difficult for anyone to disappear. No, he wouldn’t have any problem showing up at her door within a few days.

Sod that. If the bint wants to pull a vanishing act, let her. I’m not following her about.

He’d been that route. Lurking about, mooning over the Slayer, trying to show himself friendly. What had that got him but a punched nose and a face full of front door? No, he wasn’t going to do that again, not for the witch or anyone else.

With a decisive nod, he spun on his heel and left the hotel, anger growing as the events of the previous night and day played over and over in his head.

Couldn’t even wait about for a few hours or leave a forwarding address? And after he’d rescued her from certain death, too, ungrateful bitch. As for walking out on her last night, anyone else who did that would have been seen as sensitive and someone who didn’t take advantage. But not him, oh, no. This was just another good deed that was not going unpunished.

No, he was definitely the injured party here, what with Tara taking his identity for some poufy character in a book without so much as a ‘please’ or a royalty check. Downright embarrassing, that was.

He would remember from now on: no more good deeds or sentimentality. He was Big Bad, or at least Big Neutral, and would act accordingly. And as a start …

Spike yanked the wooden mouse from his pocket, dropped it to the pavement, raised his foot, and without letting himself stop to think about what he was doing, crushed it under the heel of his boot.

There, that’s better. One more encumbrance shed. Now, I can get back to business.

He looked down in satisfaction and saw that he hadn’t destroyed the mouse. He hadn’t even dented it. Angrily, Spike stomped on it a few more times, but it just lay there, looking smug.

“Right, then,” he snapped and gave it a kick, sending it spinning into the gutter. And firmly ignoring the sliver of grief in his heart, he walked away into the night.

*                              *                              *

At least there was plenty of business to see to. Spike and his group had obtained a quiet but solid reputation of doing the job they were hired for, and over the next couple of weeks, he traveled the West Coast on such assignments as overseeing the rescue of an infant from a sacrifice (bit of a new wrinkle on custody disputes, that was), accompanying a businessman during a payoff to demons that were known to take a bit more in trade, and making it clear to a voodoo-practicing lawyer that sending zombies around to terrify witnesses for the opposite side was carrying things a bit far.

He was about ready to take a break, when Phil came to him with a new project.

“This one’s pretty easy,” the ferrety little wizard said with his customary nervousness. “A mage in L.A. needs to collect some artifacts and wants us along to watch his back.”

Spike snorted, “You mean he wants to steal a certain magic rock and is afraid the bloke who already owns said magic rock might object?”

“Something like that,” Phil twitched. There was a sheen of perspiration on his brow, and he had the excessively eager look he normally got in mortuaries.

“Fine, then. Go see about it. You can spot magic traps well enough.”

“He wants us both. Thinks he might need muscle as well.”

“Oh, bloody hell!” Mojo-types drove him round the bend, always getting worked up over The Scroll of Infinite Wisdom — which never said anything remotely useful — or The Ring of Total Power — which always seemed to require an incantation that didn’t exist any longer. Some items were real, the Gem of Amarra for one, but mostly it was smoke and mirrors.

Also, he didn’t want to go back to L.A. for reasons he didn’t care to think too much about.

“He’s willing to double the fee if we both come,” Phil said.

That was interesting. Wizards were usually tight with the coin as well, needing all those supplies and such. This bloke must really want his magic rock.

Spike grinned. “If he’s that interested, add 10% because I’m going to be bored, and tell him we’ll be along. Who is this, anyway?”

“Some guy named Ethan Rayne.”

*                              *                              *

So, this is the chap who turned Giles into a Fyarl demon.

He hadn’t met the wizard during that particular encounter, but he recalled the name. Rayne didn’t look like much, a slim whippet of a man wearing a poufy looking shirt and slacks, but Spike didn’t discount him. As he recalled, Giles had a lot more going on than was suggested by all that tweed. For that reason, he didn’t bring up their mutual acquaintance, choosing to listen to part of his brain that he usually ignored, the part that suggested caution.

The man with Rayne was heavier and even more expensively dressed in a suit that looked as if it cost several thousand. The two outfits made Spike’s jeans and duster look even more aggressive than usual.

Just the way he liked it. He put an extra swagger in his walk and sat before being invited, sliding a cigarette into the corner of his mouth.

“I hear you need backup while you pick up some mojo supplies,” he said amiably enough, with only a slight sneer.

Rayne looked at him with displeasure. “Quite. We anticipate both physical and magical resistance, which is why we’ve hired beings of both your … talents.”

Spike shrugged. “Trying to humiliate me, are you? Put me in my place?” He smiled. “Sorry, mate. It’s not working. I’m not the one who has to hire help for something I want to do. You need me, not the other way round.”

He watched both men tense at the insult, then trade glances and slowly relax.

“Very well,” Rayne said stiffly. “I won’t belittle your business and you won’t belittle mine.”

“Seems fair.” Now that the pecking order was settled (Spike knew Rayne thought he’d won, but the wizard was wrong), he settled to business. “When’s the pickup and where?”

Rayne gave a tight little smile. “When is now, Mr … ah … Spike, and where is unimportant since we’ll be taking my car.”

As patiently as he could, Spike said, “That won’t do. If I’m to help you, I need to check the place over, let Phil look for traps, see what kind of weapons I’ll need, that sort of thing. I’m not going in blind.”

“We already know what and who is there,” Rayne said coolly. “Your lad and I can deal with any surprises of an occult nature. As for weapons, surely, my dear sir, you can deal with anything that might come up. Your reputation precedes you, or are you not William the Bloody, killer of two Slayers?”

The part of his brain that had whispered caution before was screaming now, but in the face of the other man’s challenge, Spike ignored it. “Right, then. But since you’re changing the terms, the fee’s going up.”

The other man slung a large duffel bag onto the table and opened it, to reveal stacks and stacks of money. “The fee’s been doubled.”

“Count it, by all means,” Rayne added.

“Phil,” Spike called without dropping his eyes from the wizards’. “Everything on the up and up?”

His second held his hands over the bag for a moment. “It’s clean. And all here.”

Spike stood. “After you, lads.”

*                              *                              *

He rode slouched in the back seat, keeping a wary if sullen eye on the surroundings. He didn’t want to be here. L.A. was kicking off all kinds of memories for him. He didn’t want to be doing this particular assignment, either, no matter how well it paid. Contact with anything that had to do with Sunnydale was not something he was interested in.

Oh, well, not much to be done now. He was paid and would see it through, and then he would go somewhere with good beer and scantily-clad females.

“Here we are,” Rayne said as they pulled onto a street that mostly contained the backs of various establishments.

Doing what they were paid for, Spike and Phil exited the car first, Spike moving carefully, senses extended, Phil with his eyes shut, turning in a slow circle. There was no one on the street, and due to the lateness of the hour, the establishments themselves seemed dark, even the help gone home for the night.

He nodded to signal the all-clear, and Rayne got out of the car, looking to Phil.

“There’s no magic but the geas,” Phil said.

“What geas?” Spike said, subduing a shudder at the memory of the chip, which had acted in a similar fashion.

“He showed it to me on an earlier run,” Phil explained. “It’s nothing, just a protection spell. I can take it down.”

“Fine. But we’ll need to do it just before we go in. I imagine your mojo guy’s going to know when his spell goes down.”

“Excellent,” Rayne purred. “I knew you were the correct man for the job.”

He started to clap Spike on the shoulder, caught the vampire’s look and dropped his hand to his side instead.

Rayne, Spike, Phil, and the car’s driver, a thick-necked man who was apparently part troll and communicated mostly in grunts, moved quietly across the street. As Phil began to scribble something on the side of the building and Rayne raised his hands in best mumbo-jumbo prescribed fashion, Spike continued to scan the street, trying unsuccessfully to get the hair on the back of his neck to lie down.

In, out, snatch and run. He’d done it thousands of times. There was no need to be this spooked. It was just the Sunnydale connection, plus being back in L.A. He wrenched his hand out of his pocket when he realized that he’d been feeling around for the carved mouse, wanting to run his fingers over it like a worry stone.

“Got it,” Phil called.

“Showtime.” He splintered the door with a kick from his boot and they went pouring in, he and Phil taking point.

It was a storeroom, Spike saw as they charged through, and apparently for a bar from the cases of alcohol, mixer, and blood lining the walls.

Wait a minute … blood? He threw his senses forward and caught two familiar scents. Spike tried to come to a halt, but he was caught by pressure from behind and half-ran, half-stumbled into the main room of Caritas.

Lorne was already on his feet, wide-eyed with fear and shock. Angel was up, too, and headed for them with grim silence, a broken bottle in his hand. He caught sight of Spike and grimaced, throwing the bottle aside and catching up a wooden stool. He smashed the stool down across a table, keeping hold of the jagged stake that resulted.

“Spike,” he growled, his voice picking up hints of the lilt that it carried under stress. “Why am I not surprised to be seeing you?”

“I’ve got to quit calling myself psychic,” Lorne said quietly. “I didn’t think you’d do this.”

“I’m not … wait just a bloody minute!” Spike snapped as the troll moved toward Angel, grinning. “What’s all this?” he demanded of Rayne “What are you doing? I thought this was a supply run!”

“It is,” Rayne smiled. He nodded at Lorne and Angel. “They’re my supplies, the sacrifices that will open a gate to the world of souls that I might take their power. Stop him!” he shouted as Lorne opened his mouth for one of those screeches.

Phil muttered a phrase, and Lorne’s hands flew to his throat, mouth working soundlessly, eyes growing huge with horror.

Taking his voice. Somehow, Spike understood that this was the worst thing that could be done to Caritas’ Host.

“Back off!” he shouted at Phil just as the troll lunged at Angel.

Spike spun back to see his grandsire swing his club viciously, sending the troll staggering back for an instant. Angel might be human, but he was still one hell of a fighter. The troll, however, recovered quickly and closed with the former vampire.

Phil started waving his hands in Angel’s direction, but Spike struck his arms down.

“NO!” he said furiously. “We are done with this. Assignment over. Reverse whatever you did to green-skin there and we’re leaving.”

Spike couldn’t believe what he was saying even as the words came out of his mouth. Since when did he give a damn about Angel? He’d tortured Angel, and enjoyed it. Or Lorne? He’d seen the green-skinned freak once, which was no reason to give up a paying assignment for him.

An image crossed his mind, his own hand catching a small carved mouse, the girl who’d thrown it smiling down at him, giving him a choice, a chance to make something of his existence.

Oh, bloody hell.

“Sorry, mate,” he said to Rayne, trying for calm. “I’ll return the fee. Should have been more specific about what you wanted. Meanwhile …” Spike moved to help Angel who was holding his own against the troll, but that was all.

As he did so, Lorne reached for the phone on the bar, only to have it blow apart almost in his grasp.

“Phil!” Spike snarled. “I said we were out of this.”

And then he was stumbling, falling, his feet feeling as if they’d been tangled in a net. The more he struggled, the more he became entwined until even his mouth was covered, and he lay bound in some sort of invisible cocoon.

Rayne stepped up and smiled at him, and Spike watched in sick horror as Phil shot some sort of black beam of light at Angel that sent him staggering to the ground. He then turned his attention to Lorne, sending him down as well.

“Too bad, old chap,” Rayne smiled. “But necessary. I knew that taking her lover would have the Slayer down on me like an avalanche, and she’s remarkably hard to kill, so I took the liberty of cutting off any way for her to find me until it’s too late. I know that normally you’re the last person she would go to, but I’m afraid that the poor dear won’t have any choice. Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you, and you’ll have lots of friends where you’re going.”

Phil knelt beside him as the troll carried Angel’s limp body from the club. “Sorry, boss. Ethan said you’d fight once you knew what was happening, and I couldn’t let you walk away. All those dead people … just waiting.” He smiled dreamily.

*                              *                              *

One day later:

“Good afternoon,” Wesley said pleasantly. “I’m Wesley Wyndham-Price. I’m sorry our manager has just stepped out, but if you’ll come through to my office I’ll be glad to …”

The silenced gun went off with a soft pop, without even time for Wesley to react beyond a look of mild surprise as he slid to the ground.

Cordelia did enough reacting for both when she returned with the coffee and bagels she’d suddenly craved.

On that same day:

Willow was rooting through the tiny supply closet at the back of the classroom, making sure she had enough empty disks for next period when she heard the door open.

“Can I help …” was all she got out before the sense of danger hit out of nowhere. She was whirling, fingers beginning to weave, when a large body crashed into her, an arm went across her throat, a needle stabbed into her arm, and it all went black.

On that same day:

Giles finished straightening the store and headed for the exit, casting a sad, fond eye at the counter. Anya had been gone for four years and had almost driven him to distraction while she was here, but he missed her.

He flipped off the light and closed the front door. He was fitting the key in the lock when he heard a car pull up to the curb. He turned with the caution that was a survival trait for inhabitants of Sunnydale, but the man looked human and had his head down, apparently trying to find something.

He turned back to the store, realizing something was wrong when he felt the sting like a mosquito bite at the back of his neck and the world began to sway and grow dark.

Buffy, he thought as he collapsed. Buffy, be careful.

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