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Title: Of Chalky Perfection and Truth
Author: Cynthia Liskow
Feedback: Fed hourly on the freshest O-neg in town at
Spoilers: Through "The Gift"
Summary: Right, then. Let's make one minor change in "The Gift" and see where it takes us, shall we?
Rating: R for implied sex and disturbing imagery
Disclaimer: The characters in this story are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Sandollar Television, Kuzui Enterprises, 20th Century Fox, and UPN or WB, or both--I'm not really sure. Point being: They're not mine. I tried to play nicely with them, but they kept breaking!
Thanks: So many thanks to Rachel and Laura for a) reading this even though they turned their snobby noses down at Buffy in general, b) for saying "Hey, this Spike guy sounds pretty cool!" c) getting hooked on Buffy because of *my* story--my ego may never deflate, and d) having faith in my ability to actually finish a story, despite my terrible track record.

Of Chalky Perfection and Truth
By Cynthia Liskow

Through the shock and sharp, ripping pain, Spike became aware that he was surprised and slightly impressed--truthfully, a little embarrassed--that Xander had been the one to take charge of the group of bloodied, beaten, and heartsick survivors.

The boy's voice snapped into Spike's ringing ears and he lifted his face from his hands, looking up through the blood thickening over his eyelids.

"Spike?" Apparently it wasn't the first time he'd called the grieving vamp's name. When their eyes met, Xander continued. "It's almost sunrise. Take her and get to cover." Off Spike's blank look, Xander's command stance softened, which surprised Spike even more. "We can't leave her here, and we can't take her home. She can't... her sister can't see her like this."

Spike nodded as he stood and followed Xander's look as the boy shifted Anya in his arms and turned to face Giles, who was still staring at the body, shoulders shaking and face wet.

"Giles," again Xander's voice was gentle but firm, "Giles. I have to take Anya to the hospital. You, Willow, and Tara go back to Buffy's house--if Tara's okay?" He cast a questioning glance at the two witches. Tara nodded but didn't interrupt her soft crooning against Willow's cheek. "Rest up, and eat something. I'll be there as soon as I can, and then we need to get going on tracking her down and bringing her home."

Giles dug out his inevitable handkerchief and mopped his face, blowing his nose and breathing deeply as he rearranged the glasses he'd pushed out of the way.

Yes," he breathed, "Xander. Of course. Look after Anya." Giles's Watcher cloak was settling back over him uneasily; Spike could hear it in his voice despite the distant, distracted tone, or perhaps because of it.

Giles moved backward, eyes still on the unmoving, beloved form, toward the entwined girls.

"Willow..." Giles put his arm around the redhead's shoulder and pulled her into a half-embrace. Tara leaned with her lover's shift. "Come on, love. We'll go home. There's nothing more we can do here. We must wait... wait for her sister. We can still help her sister."

The quiet gasping from the young witch broke suddenly, and for a moment there was silence. Then Willow managed a loud, sucking breath and began to vocalize her grief, sobbing and moaning wetly. Spike felt his brittle new control crack as he watched Giles pull Willow the rest of the way into his arms, bringing the blonde with her, and lower his head to the top of hers.

What had Buffy done to him that this pitiful scene beat at his broken heart, where just months ago--weeks, even--he would have smirked at their sorry state and licked their blood off the pavement after they'd gone?

Her name, voiced in his head, jarred Spike back into motion. "Right, then, Summers," he muttered and comforted himself by letting his shoulders fall into their familiar cocky set. "Let's get you home, pet. This is no place for a pretty thing like you."

Spike knelt next to her and let his hand drift out to caress her hair indulgently--it was as silky as he'd imagined, even now. "Right," he repeated, and gathered the limp and clumsy body up into his arms. "No need to worry now, Dawn, Spike's got your back, same as always."

Spike emerged from the catacombs and rolled out onto the floor of his crypt. Cobwebs pulled at his eyelashes, snagged on the way up the ladder. Spike shuddered and swept them hastily away, then groaned at his reaction. God, he thought, you're more like them every day, you ninny. And then, Oh, fuck it. So I don't like spiders. So what? I've had a rough week.

He rested, feeling the pulse of the city beneath him. Going on as it always did, blithely ignoring the nearly averted apocalypse. Not caring a whit for the poor, lovely dead girl who'd saved the unworthy ignorami making up the general populace and condemned the unfortunate few who were in on the secret. For them, a lifetime of sorrow and self-recrimination--that sad, buggered group who knew they'd let the Slayer's sister die, who had to explain how they'd tried, but how their efforts had added up to an enormous heap of sod-all.

For once he was grateful that he couldn't move about freely in the sun. He remembered his return to Sunnydale almost two years ago--the rush of finding the gem that neutralized the sun for him, the thrill when he'd seen the Slayer's golden-skinned face blanch in the light as she took in his pale, shining glory, unburnt, ready to fight for real this time, on her turf, her safe place in the sun. Now he thanked the Powers that kept him off the search party. It would be Giles, or maybe Xander, but most importantly, not he, who would find Buffy and make their excuses. Spike admitted his cowardice unashamedly. There are some things that a man's just not strong enough to face.

Hell, his face was wet again. Spike heaved his arm up and draped it across his eyes. He should get up, he knew, but he lacked the volition.

His bones ached. Doc's stab wound was still paining whatever organ it had pierced. His insides were usually among his fastest-healing bits--most of them hadn't had anything *to* do but heal themselves since he'd died. The whole front of his body, which had only just returned to its normal color after Glory's little playdate a week back, was going to be bruised black again. His neck was strained from the fall, too. He'd bounced altogether wrong there at the bottom. Hundred-odd years of jumping or getting thrown from places, he'd learned how to bounce, but sometimes you're just off.

"C'mon Spike, old boy," he coaxed himself. "Many miles to go before you sleep, and all that."

He made another quarter-roll and pulled his knees up so that it took only a firm push with his left arm to end him up on his hands and knees. He rested again and then groaned to his feet.

"Good show," he grunted in congratulations. He scanned the comfortably dim room. Should really clear up around here before settlin' her in, he thought. First thing's first. Can't leave the girl down the hole now, can we? Too many filthy rats about.

The rambling thought sucked Spike back to the task at hand, prompting a surge of energy through his limbs and zinging it into his aching brain, setting off a crackle there not unlike the government's bug-zapper did. Panicked, Spike grabbed the tarnished urn he'd snitched from a neighboring tomb to chill beer in, threw it on the bed, and ripped a case off one of his pillows. He stuffed the torn satin into the urn and launched himself back down the trapdoor.

Only one of the vermin had ventured into Spike's lair, much to his relief, and it hadn't made it over to Dawn yet. Spike slapped some desiccated bones from a ledge and the rat scampered away, pathetically more afraid of the skeleton than of the vampire. Spike watched the femur and tibia rock while the patella spun between them, then headed toward the bedraggled body.

"This won't do," he said in the teasing, singsong voice that he knew Dawn appreciated. They understood each other, Dawn and Spike. Aside from the other-than-human factor, they were both outsiders to the Scoobies, in their own ways. And both loved Buffy above all, and were equal in their ability to piss the Slayer off in under three seconds.

"Your dress is all torn and dirty, love. Come on, we'll find you some proper duds."

Spike was only half aware that he was talking nonsense to a dead 14-year-old. On a certain level, he knew that he couldn't cope, and that this inane chatter was a defensive reaction, but mostly he just didn't think. It hurt when he thought, more, deeper, than his chip's electrical burns.

He gathered the limp, long-limbed girl up in his arms once again and tackled the ladder upstairs, leaving the urn and pillowcase forgotten on the floor. Once she was draped over him, helpless, his selfish grunts and groans ceased, sobered as he was by the weight he carried.

"Now we'll get you all cleaned up, pet," he murmured as he laid her gently on top of his crypt's most prominent sarcophagus. He ducked off to the corner he considered his boudoir. His vamp physiology may have eliminated his need for elimination, but he still liked to maintain a certain level of hygiene. In the corner stood a classic wash basin and pitcher setup, which he'd eaten a lovely Pottery Barn saleswoman for, just days before he'd been neutered. Spike lurched back down the hole to fill the pitcher with fresh water from Sunnydale's drinking supply--whose pipes, happily, crossed above the sewer line about twenty feet up the pipe from his playroom.

Before heading back up the ladder, Spike posed the pitcher on a ladder rung and rooted through a stack of boxes in a dingier corner of the vault--Harmony's things, left behind when she'd finally shoved off. In the third carton he found what he was after--a nightgown from the vamp's Madonna/whore phase. Spike remembered mercilessly mocking her when she'd asked him what he had against the Material Girl.

Minus the stockings, garters, and crotchless panties, it was quite chaste. In fact, he rather remembered his mother wearing something similar, if not as translucent. Its ankle-length skirt and multitudes of layered flounces made up for the sheerness of the expensive white cotton. He tossed the gown over his shoulder, collected the pitcher, and creaked up the ladder for the third time.

He made one more stop to gather up some of the plush washcloths he favored and a clean sheet and then returned to the slab that cradled his charge.

Dawn's skin was even paler than Spike's and just as cool to the touch, he observed as he began washing the dirt and blood from her face and throat, and when he reached scooped neck of the darkly mauve dress, which was so soaked with blood as to make Spike's head spin--it'd been days since he'd had a proper meal, but the smell made him retch--he eased the girl into a sitting position and deftly released the buttons down her back. Aware of the potential lechery involved, and as if to assure Dawn and himself that nothing untoward was going to happen, Spike pressed a firm, brotherly kiss onto the girl's uncreased brow and spread the sheet over the top half of the tomb.

"Now now, Platelet, no need to be shy. Ol' Spike here's given dozens of sponge baths. Used to bathe me mum, back in the day. She was sickly, you know. Too proper to let the hired help see her like that. Bit off, that was, though, now 'at I think of it. Proper Victorian lady like her..." He hooked his fingers at the dress's yoke and eased it over Dawn's shoulders.

Supporting her head with his left hand, Spike lowered the girl back to her bed, then hoisted her at the knees so he could further unfold the sheet beneath her. Finished, he slid his hands up her arms, gently tugging the snug sleeves as he went. Once it was past her elbows, the bodice came smoothly away, revealing her torso. Spike barely looked at Dawn's pale, unmoving chest before he lifted her slightly at the hips and slid the dress all the way off, hurling the filthy, cursed garment into a far corner with a violence equal to the gentleness he lathered upon the girl.

It was her underwear that broke Spike's control. The brassiere was modest and white, which was heartbreaking enough in its innocence. But her knickers... She wore Powerpuff Girls panties, in pale pink, he could see, where they hadn't been soaked with her blood. He remembered teasing her for watching the cartoon, asking why she bothered when she had the real thing right at home.

"Buffy can't fly," she'd responded automatically, with the teen eye-roll obvious in her voice, even if her face was glued to the telly.

Spike slumped to his knees and thudded his forehead against the stone box. "Why, why why didn't you get to her sooner, you worthless ponce?" He cried against the cool stone for a time and then pulled himself back together. "Come on, you stupid git, you can at least do this right, can't you? Go on, then."

He pulled himself up and shucked off his duster, wiping his face on the sleeve as he threw it aside, oblivious to the stains of salt and blood he'd left on the leather.

He took a deep, physiologically unnecessary breath to give him a moment to reassemble his cool exterior and then hitched a leg up and settled in on the side of the sarcophagus. Steeled and brisk with control, he removed the stained undergarments and set back to the bath. As he worked, Spike took in her nearly ripe body, allowing himself ever so briefly to see her as a young woman rather than his beloved Slayer's kid sister.

The limbs she'd so often tripped over, the joints that were awkward and unpredictable--she was no more than a year away from growing into them. Her neck gave way to some of the most delicate collarbones Spike had ever laid eyes on. The angles of her jaw, throat, and clavicle sang in perfect triumvirate harmony.

Her breasts were high and full, by no means mature. They had some downward settling to go, and there'd likely be a bit more to them before they were the perfect specimen of womanhood that was their destiny. Dawn's waist, like her legs, was long and tapered, swelling out slightly into hips that had only begun to spread to balance out the curves of her bosom.

Spike shook himself when he realized his washcloth had stopped mid-swipe, dripping darkened water onto the sheets.

"God above, pet," he sighed. "You're gonna be a bleedin' knockout."

He took a moment to rinse and wring the cloth out before setting back to business, washing away the Key's deadly essence, polishing Dawn's perfect skin until the only signs of the ordeal were the blood-letting slices themselves and a few bruises that hadn't had time to bloom fully.

The nightgown, once he'd settled its fluttering folds over her, covered the wounds well enough.

"There now, Snack-size, you're pretty as a picture."

Spike wiped his eyes one more time and then shook himself out of his reverie. His comb, retrieved from the primping corner, was the final step. He slid Dawn up to lean against his chest as he straddled the stone coffin and pulled the comb through her hair, soft and dark as mink.

"A hundred strokes before bed, love. That's what me mum told me. Keep it shining like silk."

When her mane was smooth and free of tangles, Spike slid off the stone slab and gently settled the girl on her back again, then stepped back to survey his work.

She really did look as if she were sleeping, he thought. Bit pale 'round the face, though.

He remembered Dru's secret and stretched his fangs against his lip enough to draw beads of borrowed blood to the surface and collected the drops on his index finger. Then, carefully, staying in the lines so as not to make her look like a sloppy eater, Spiked daubed the garnet blood onto Dawn's lips, then licked his finger and smudged some color into her cheeks.

"Pretty as a picture, pet," he repeated.

In his dream, Dawn had turned up at his crypt again, and he was torn between the ego-stroke of her adolescent worship and his general aversion to having his ass kicked in an unfair fight. Buffy'd warned them both about hanging out together, and she'd made no secret of whom she held to blame when she caught them. Never mind that the pint-sized one always turned up on her own accord.

This time, though, the slayer didn't bother with her usual pay-attention-this-time-'cause next-time-I'm-gonna-stake-you-but-good routine. The inner door screamed on its ancient hinges as the Slayer strode into his crypt and, arm extended, drove him back into the central column, invading his space in a way that made even his molars perk up to razor sharpness.

"You're the only one strong enough to protect her," Buffy said, lips unmoving. "Look at her!" the Slayer commanded, and Spike could do nothing else. Dawn was naked, obscenely slung across the stone box, bloody and dirty and used.

Spike tore his horrified stare from Dawn's defiled body and began to explain (though he couldn't for the death of him remember the explanation), but as he pulled his focus back, he realized that he, too, was naked, and freshly smeared with gore in places he hadn't been injured.

The Slayer's eyes burnt into his skin like high noon, and he found he had no words, no answer. Her hand, hot on his bare chest, crushed against him, the pressure splitting his skin like an overripe tomato. Her steely fingers tangled in his ribs and then were gone.

Spike felt a surge of power and righteousness flow through him. The old instinct to kill was there, fueled by rage at the injustice that had tormented him since he'd first set foot in Sunnydale, the injustice that gave every impression of being eternal. Now he'd settle it, once and forever. Show the Slayer what's what.

He hauled his arm back, not caring if he telegraphed the blow across the bloody Pacific, and let every twisted thing in him propel the swing. It hurt like blazes when it hit, and the shock knocked him back, slamming his skull against the cold, welcoming marble of the column. He embraced the pain, though; it made him alive.

" 's this what you want, Slayer?" he asked, surprised at the liquid slush in his voice.

Her face didn't change as she regarded him, and suddenly Spike was dizzy and sick and ripped to the core by her cold-as-ever reception.

"Take it, damnit! Buffy, please. It's for you. You and Dawn, only, ever."

Her porcelain fingers brushed his hand and then he felt them slide up his arm, his neck, to his face. The ice behind her eyes warmed a fraction.

"You keep it Spike," she said. "I wouldn't know what to do with it."

He followed her melting gaze to the slick, twitching mass he held between them in his shaking left hand.

Spike watched with a mixture of fascination and satisfied relief as his heart began to crumble in his hand, followed by his clasping fingers.

"It should have been me," he said as his dust sprinkled to the floor.

He watched her as long as he could, waiting for her to agree, until his view disintegrated into the fluttering ash that, to his surprise, tinkled prettily as it hit the stone, singing: "Til the end of the world."

Spike woke slowly, painfully. He lay very still and quiet, determining that he was not, in fact, a pile of plinketing dust. The wave of pain was a good clue, so he slivered an eyelid and confirmed it. Still undead. As he eased himself into a sitting position, he wondered why he wasn't happier to be intact, but the basin of bloodied water reminded him. He turned his head to the left and up, and saw three soft white toes, nails painted a chipper lavender, tipping over the edge of the box he was leaning against.

His eyes and throat burned at the sight, but Spike pushed aside the ache, along with the sharper of his pains, and hauled himself to his feet to check on Dawn. It wasn't until he was fully upright that he realized that he and the girl weren't alone.


She sat crosslegged at the corner of the sarcophagus's head, right hand combing rhythmically through Dawn's hair, staring down at her beautiful, silent face.

A lurching feeling swept over him, and he dimly realized he'd taken a step toward them. He stopped himself before he offended, though, and slumped to his knees again, letting the cool rock of the funerary box stifle the sobs that were working their way back up his chest to his throat. Buffy didn't need to see him like this.

Didn't need to see him at all. He, who'd pledged his protection, who'd been within an arm's length of saving Dawn, Buffy, the world, himself (when had he decided he needed saving?), and who'd failed most spectacularly.

The dream. It was as prophetic as the one that had woken him months before, sweating and gasping and praying to a god he'd ceased fearing a hundred-odd years ago. The Slayer had come to kill him, but if it was the last thing he did, he was going to save her the trouble--break up that bloody ladder and impale himself on it so she wouldn't have to leave her sister's side.

Spike wiped his face, clearing away enough blood and snot and tears to see and, he hoped, to present a somewhat dignified front for his final task. His hands gripped the coffin's cover for leverage and his legs bunched beneath him, but as he started to stand, he felt warm pressure on his head, soothing heat and movement.

Stunned motionless, Spike waited for Buffy's hand to pull away, storing away the feel of it for remembering in whatever hell he was destined for. When it didn't stop, he raised his head, cocking it slightly away from her touch so he could search her face without breaking the contact.

Buffy held his gaze steadily, unblinking, though tears flowed freely down her face. An eon passed, and then she spoke, voice as unwavering as her stare.

"You did everything you could, Spike."

His face crumpled in on itself, and Spike brought his hands up to hide it. He marveled as he felt Buffy's fingers move down to cover his, taking the chill from his skin.

"I was right there, Buffy," he gurgled. "So close. Nothin' 'tween her an' me but one lousy geezer of a demon we'd already killed once. If I hadn'ta stopped to chit chat... If I'd grabbed his bleedin' tongue when he shot it at me, and strung him up by it... If Dawn--"

He stopped there, unwilling to let himself finish the thought. That wanker Doc would've sensed him coming even if Dawn hadn't called out. It was his own fault, all his.

The delicate digits slipped under his hands and Buffy cupped his cheek in her palm, coaxing him to lift his face.

"You did everything you could," she repeated.

"I should'a done more."

"There wasn't any more you could do, Spike." Buffy pressed her fingers against his jaw, and Spike finally gathered his courage to look her in the eye again. "There wasn't any more any of you could do."

Something flickered darkly behind Buffy's eyes. There was a hardness there, behind the pain, a resolve that had nothing to do with the strength he'd seen there after Joyce's death, had nothing to do with getting past her grief. Though her eyes themselves sparkled with tears, the spirit behind them was flat.

He mouthed her name as he realized the root of the dullness.

"It should have been me, Spike," she said, reading his mind as easily as she read his face. She pronounced the phrase with conviction, not regret.

"Buffy, no..." He managed to speak aloud this time, but she narrowed her eyes at him and reiterated.

"It was meant to be me. The Slayer told me."

Spike tilted his head as the question formed in his brain but Buffy continued, not responding to his silent query, and he let her.

"Death is my gift, and now was when I was supposed to give it. I was supposed to give it to Dawn. My death for her life."

"But Buffy," Spike interjected as gently as he could, reminding her. "Dawn is the Key. Dawn's blood, not yours."

For a moment, as she uncrossed her legs and stretched out alongside her sister, the look of exasperation Spike was accustomed to flashed across the Slayer's face.

"Dawn's blood *is* my blood, Spike." She stared at him across the endless expanse of Dawn's throat. "My blood would have stopped it, but I ..." Buffy's voice trailed off and her eyes closed. Spike could see the tendons in her neck shift as she let her head roll into the cup of Dawn's pulseless neck.

His knees popped in protest when Spike pulled himself to his feet, and he could feel the bones in his ankles grind together as he limped around to lean on the edge of the tomb closest to the silent Slayer. He hesitated, battered white hand shaking above her head, the words "disgust," "loathing," "revulsion" echoing about his brain, but then he remembered how she'd touched him just minutes ago. Silly with love she might not be, but her attitude had changed in the last week, and even if it hadn't, he still had to do what he could now to ease her burden.

He watched her face intently as he lowered his hand to her temple and let it rest there for a moment before moving his thumb with the slightest of pressure through the hair tangled over the tender indentation. He could feel her heartbeat, slow and solid, under the pad of his thumb. Her eyebrows tightened microscopically, etching a fine vertical line above her nose, but otherwise her face was still.

"But you what, love? What could you have done at that point, after I'd let him get to her?" he asked, intending the question to be rhetorical, soothing. He needed to tell her the same lie that she'd told him: That there wasn't any more any of them could do. He didn't believe it in his own case, and he didn't figure she would in hers. But he had to say it.

When she spoke, her voice was smaller than he'd ever heard it. Even more delicate than the night he'd listened to her tell him about her mum being sick--and that voice had rocked him, frightened him with the depth of vulnerability behind it. He'd been stunned that anyone as strong as the Slayer could be so scared, and shaken to the core that she'd let him see a flash of that fear.

"But I let her go."

"Buffy, maybe... maybe by then, after Doc cut her, maybe it was what you had to do." The very words tore at his throat, made his lips and tongue burn with the betrayal of it.

The liquid in her eyes spilled over when she shook her head, and her voice was crushed in her throat.

"I got out there, and I untied her and all I could think was thank God, thank God she's here and she's alive and I didn't lose her and Glory lost and we won, we really won." Buffy's body lurched as her autonomic reflexes kicked in, forcing her to breathe.

Spike felt a moment of random gratitude that he only had to breathe when it suited him. His eyes ached with the pressure of new tears.

"And she was crying and I could feel her breath in my hair, and then she pulled away from me and showed me where he cut her, and she cried that it hurt, and that she loved me, and that she knew I would come for her. And when I saw her blood and that thing opening right under us, I didn't know what to do, but I knew I couldn't let go of her, so I just held on and held on and my brain hurt from trying to figure it out, and then I heard her."

He tried to murmur, a soft humming sound that would encourage her to go on, to let her know he was still listening, to remind her that he loved her no matter what, even if she would never want him. All he could push out was a croaking noise. Buffy didn't notice though, and he was thankful for it.

"I heard the First Slayer in my head, saying that death is my gift, and I knew. I knew that my blood would stop it all, would save Dawn and everyone, and I pulled back to tell her, to tell her to listen to me so I could explain why I was going to leave her alone. And she pushed me. She pushed and my hands were down and... and she went backwards off the end and down into that thing, and the light was terrible and I couldn't see and then it was gone, and she was gone, and it was supposed to be me."

Spike's hand froze in Buffy's hair. He felt her head tremble beneath his abruptly leaden fingers.

"She jumped?"

Spike closed his eyes against the sight of the Summers women before him, only to be assailed by imaginings of their last moments together at the top of that blasted platform.

"She jumped," he repeated and discovered that he was not surprised. Dawn had confided in him about the guilt she felt at the pain Glory'd caused in her search for the Key. She blamed herself, he knew, loathed herself more than the average 14-year-old. And she had a bloody good role model for noble acts of self sacrifice.

Buffy was heaving with her sobs now, and Spike opened his eyes again and tried to remember the comforting words one uttered at a time like this. Funnily enough, none came to mind.

At a loss, he decided to risk a dusty end (which, truthfully, he'd almost prefer at this point) and gingerly slid his legs up onto the tomb top, rotated on his hip, and stretched out beside the Slayer. When she made no move to decapitate him, Spike returned to stroking her hair with his right hand, his head resting on his bicep, and tentatively put his other arm over Buffy's shoulder. He fumbled for a moment over what to do with his left hand--normally, he would've just copped a feel when the opportunity presented itself--until he felt the fine cotton of Dawn's collar under his fingertips. He relaxed his searching hand and let it settle on the dead girl's shoulder. He lay, very still, and hoped he offered some comfort, cold or otherwise.

After a few minutes, which Spike spent memorizing the back of the earrings in the downy lobe before his eyes, the Slayer's sobs slowed to intermittent hiccups.

He didn't realize he'd dozed off until her voice filtered into his brain.

"Spike..." the soft utterance jarred him awake, and, fearing offense, he snatched his arm tight against his chest.

"Sorry, Buffy," he mumbled, made more miserable by the selfish pang he felt at her rejection. "Din' mean anything by it."

A warm hand stumbled over his flank to his hip, then found his elbow and followed his forearm to his hand.

"No, it's okay. Please," she murmured, and found his hand. She let it go briefly to unwind their elbows and then pulled his arm back across her, leading him into a more purposeful embrace than the one he'd initiated.

"Please," she repeated, and the bewildered vampire squeezed her powerfully tiny hand in his own.

"Please what, pet?" he asked, willing his voice not to crack with the desire he was fighting. The closeness, the smell of her--her tears, her sweat, her blood--were severely testing his resolution to be what Buffy needed--a friend. Not the psychostalker vampire she'd banished, but the comrade, the man she'd welcomed into her no-longer-merry-but-always-motley crew.

"Tell me."

Spike saw her free hand snake out to Dawn's hair, stroking it in time with her breathing.

"Tell me about my friends. Are they okay?"

Spike pulled in a deep, heavily Buffy-scented breath as he collected his thoughts.

"They're all alive, more or less in one piece. Anya--looked like she took a good one to the head. An' maybe there was something wrong with her leg," he added as he remembered the teeth-gritting grimace that crossed her dirty face when Xander shifted her weight. "Everyone else was up and about when I left with... " He trailed off to avoid mentioning Dawn by name. "I 'spect they're gatherin' at your house now. That was the plan."

He felt her nod, her hair brushing against his neck as her head moved.

"But how are they?"

Ah, there's the catch, he thought. How to answer this one?

"They're pretty well broken up over you and the little one. Imagine they're hating themselves near 's much as me, eh?"

He paused to think of something to add. "Tara's got her brain back." Another pause. "And Harris... He's okay, that one," he admitted grudgingly. "Snapped me out of a crispity sunburn, he did. Got the others moving."

It wasn't until he replayed Xander's directions in his head that he remembered what the other two objectives had been.

"They'll be looking for you." He carefully clenched the muscles in his arm to give her a slight shake. "We should head back to the house."

"No," Buffy snapped, sending a startled jolt through the vampire's body.

"No," she repeated more quietly. "I can't leave Dawn."

The question that'd been buzzing about Spike's brain finally gained a voice.


She hummed her response.

"Why did you come here?"

The second question went unvoiced, but they both heard it: Why did you come to me?

She pulled gently on his hand, bringing it up to her face. From fingers to elbow, Spike's hair sprang to attention as Buffy's breath skimmed across.

"I knew you'd take care of her."

The filthy memory of his dream darted across Spike's eyelids, and he shuddered with the shame of it.

"I didn' look," he stammered. "I... I didn't touch her."

He realized, of course, that this was a lie, so he tried again.

"I mean, when I cleaned her up. There was nothing..."

"I know, Spike. I know you would never hurt her."

Spike untangled his hand from the spun gold of her hair and pushed himself up onto his elbow.

"You should go, pet, be with your friends" he reminded her, though he was reluctant to lose sight of her.

Buffy's head moved again, shaking this time, and then she rolled over to look at her with endless eyes.

"I can't. I can't see them. I need to be here with Dawn."

Spike's mouth, which he'd opened to assure her that he'd watch over the little one while she went to her friends, snapped sharply shut when she cut him off.

"I need to be with you."

Inanely, his words from the previous night sprung to mind, and as the Slayer snaked a hot hand along his jaw and then around to cradle the bottom of his skull, as her eyes swam closer and her breath danced across his cheeks, he thought, "Presto. No barrier."

Her lips were as soft as he remembered from the chaste kiss she'd rewarded him with after his one-on-one with Glory, as purposeful as those he hazily recalled pillaging during their Willow-hexed engagement. They were wet with tears, and scorching as they slid over his own frozen mouth.

He couldn't think, couldn't move, close his eyes or even properly savor the sensations. Spike felt her nose bump his as she shifted and then her mouth was on his cheek. His brain kicked back into the strange reality of the moment, and he pulled his head back slightly, hands cupping the sinewy shoulders slanting toward his chest.

"Spike," the Slayer whispered, and he thought he could feel frustration on the air that moved past his ear.

Disbelieving his words even as they dropped off his tongue, Spike said the unimaginable. "No, Buffy, sweet, don't let's do this." He would have laughed at the situation and his unexpected response to it but for the lifeless form he could see over the halo of Buffy's hair. "This isn't what you want. Not really."

The hot, dry hand at the nape of his neck moved, firmly grasping Spike at the sharp corners of his jaw. Buffy's eyes were somber but stubborn.

"You're the only one who understands," she said, "the only one who knows."

And, while he mentally wrestled with what he might possibly understand, Spike felt his noble resolve melt away under the returning heat of her mouth, her tongue, descending on him again, devouring him with a fierceness he'd imagined in a thousand dreams. God, it'd been eons since he'd (marriage spells aside) kissed someone with a pulse. Someone willing, with a heart that raced for reasons other than terror. He was surprised, in the small portion of his brain that was still functioning, that intimacy involving no intentional pain or displays of power could be this arousing. He'd never felt anything like this before--the hot, soft flesh on the underside of a living tongue as it slicked over his own; the throb of thin, porous membranes of skin, tumescent with the blood it barely constrained; the desert wind of vital breath that hitched and caught in intoxicating and unpredictable rhythms; the furnace heat that rolled off of Buffy in waves that built upon themselves and pulled relentlessly at the cramping fingers that clutched so tenuously to reason.

With a growl, Spike's grasp slipped, and he crushed the Slayer in his arms, bracing himself with his knee so he could heave her beneath him, and then settled with satisfying weight atop her. Her legs sissored apart to make space for him, and Spike roared into her shifting mouth as all of his hard bits were pillowed by the soft strength of her body.

It wasn't until he tasted blood that he realized he'd vamped out, teeth stretching ravenously into the exposed flesh of her mouth, scoring her lips or tongue--something, anyway, because suddenly the heady rush of pleasure he was taking in her embrace became a frenzy. Her blood was thick and sweet, coppery syrup seeping slowly across his tongue and his lips. God, he was so hungry. Hadn't eaten in days, hadn't fed properly since Dru'd caught him his dinner that insane night, hadn't hunted for himself in forever. He felt the current of her pulse as he located and tongued the wound he'd made on the inside of her lower lip, and felt his own blood begin to boil as it mixed with hers.

Appetite whetted, Spike reared up, grinding his hips against the Slayer, and stretched his jaws to their widest so as to get the best bite possible. He surged forward, and the pain hit.

His roar of pain turned into an agonized groan, and Spike launched himself from the tomb, away, away from the taste, the feel, the smell of the woman whose quiet moans sounded like fear, but whose breath sounded like lust. Clutching his throbbing head, clinging to the lancenating spears the chip shot through his brain, down his spine, and out his limbs, Spike for once welcomed the punishment. The pain cleansed him, brought him back to his body, to his mind, and to the ugly reality of his crypt.

When he could see again, Spike lifted his head and located Buffy.

She was still breathing heavily, eyes wide, mouth slightly open in what Spike guessed was either revulsion or astonishment. Maybe both. Her skin was dead white, nearing his own coloring, and her savaged lips were unnaturally red. He could still smell her blood, smeared as it was on both of their mouths. The small trickle at the corner of the Slayer's mouth addled him even more. Sitting gory-mouthed on a tomb next to a young, beautiful corpse--Buffy looked as if she'd just fed.

Locking her eyes with his, Buffy wiped her mouth with a trembling hand and slid to the edge of the marble box.

"Don't," Spike gurgled as he saw that she was moving toward him. She paused momentarily and then, true to form, ignored him and did as she pleased.

When he felt her hand on his back again, claws sheathed this time, shame swept over Spike in a wave so thick he could feel it pull at his skin as it rolled. Somewhere within his revolting heart, he cursed at the very presence of that emotion. Vamps weren't altogether without the peskier of emotions--shame, sorrow, regret--they just rarely gave a damn about them. Worrying about that drivel... that's what a soul was for. That's what kept humanity occupied while the demons fed upon them. What kept Angel in line, miserable, and pathetic all those years. Shame wasn't something Spike wasted his time on. Not until recently.

Damn Buffy, anyway.

She must have sensed the curse, because she chose that exact moment to squat beside him and tip her forehead gently against his cheek.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

Her breath, breezing moistly past his face, was still rich with the metallic tang of her essence, her life.

For the first time since he'd been turned from that mealy mouthed little ponce more than a century ago, the pungent scent of blood turned his stomach. He yanked himself away from Buffy, sprang toward the nearest corner, and vomited as quietly as he could.

The smell of it bounced back at him, vampiric stomach acids and Slayer juice, making him retch dryly for a few moments before he managed to stop breathing altogether, thus cutting off some of his sense of smell. Enough for him to pull himself together so that he could crawl away from the corner, reminded pathetically of a dog punished by having his face shoved in his own mess.

Wretched and wishing heartily that he'd landed chest first on something sharp and wooden when Doc'd thrown him off that platform--at least he would have gone out in the line of duty--Spike huddled miserably against his armchair.

"Guess that'd be a 'no,' huh?" Buffy's voice sounded sane and normal for the first time in recent memory, but it wasn't enough to lure Spike out of his cocoon of self-loathing and humiliation. There was a heavy pause, and he could hear her moving close to him again.

"Okay how about, 'Is that a chip in your head, or are you just grossed out to see me?' "

Spike was too sick to give her the courtesy chuckle she was digging for, but was further shamed by the fact that Buffy was trying to make him feel better while her reason for being was lounging dead a few feet away.

His throat burned, but he managed to rough out a few words.

" 'm sorry, Buffy," he croaked, and hoped that she understood what he was apologizing for. He couldn't say exactly himself, when there were so many choices.

Her hand was on his face again, cooling the blood fever under his skin. "It's what I wanted," she said in the gentle voice he'd only heard directed at him a few times. "What I need."

Her use of the present tense raised Spike's head, led by his cocked eyebrow. But Buffy's sad smile, which did a lonely dance between her lips and her eyes but wasn't strong enough to join the two in a believable show of pleasure, defied interpretation.

While her non-violent touch still surprised him, Spike didn't try to stop her when Buffy slipped her arms around him and leaned her head on his shoulder, her mouth pressed into his neck. The bloody bouquet of her breath had faded to bearable levels, and instead of feeling overwhelmed by craving or nausea, he simply felt tired.

He felt hot tears slide down the collar of his shirt and onto his shoulder, scalding his abused skin. Too exhausted to come up with platitudes of everything being all right soon, Spike simply shifted his weight off his hands so he could wrap them around the Slayer's tiny frame and wet her hair with his own unworthy tears.

"C'm'on, love," he rasped before he dissolved into a weeping wreck again, "Let's have a drink, shall we?"

Buffy sniffed what he took as assent into his t-shirt, and he felt her push against him. He took her cue and pushed back, and they used each other's weight to lever themselves to their feet.

With a squeeze to her upper arm, he skirted around Dawn's tomb without looking at the girl and stooped to snag a corner of his duster. After a few experimental shakes to orient it correctly, Spike fished about in its pockets until he came up with his flask. He'd only managed to snitch a couple of hits off it before launching himself at Glory's scabby minions, so there was plenty to go 'round.

He gave the coat a slight hitch and caught it over his elbow, then turned back toward Buffy, who was again transfixed by her sister's quiet face.

"She looks beautiful, doesn't she?" the elder Summers asked without looking up.

"Always did, love. Runs in the family." He'd been finding it difficult, recently, to cull out the lechery that instinctively sprang into his voice when he spoke to the Slayer, but Spike was glad he'd managed it this time.

"Thank you," she replied simply, and he was grateful that she'd accepted his sincerity one of the few times he'd offered it to her. "Thank you for taking care of her, for cleaning her up." Her eyes, reluctant to stray from Dawn for long, flicked up to meet his for a nanosecond. "I know it must have been terrible for you."

Spike overcame the speechlessness at her unaccustomed compassion. "'S all right, Buffy," he mumbled, embarrassed again at having such intimate knowledge of the ill-fated girl who'd trusted him when no one else would, who'd depended on him for help, who'd welcomed him as an accomplice and a guide, and who'd made him feel cool for the first time in a good long while. "I didn't want ... I didn't want her to stay in that bitch's clothes, to have anything to do with last night. I owe her that."

"You loved her, didn't you?"

Spike chuffed at the unexpected question, and again at the equally unexpected answer.

"I s'pose I did at that," he admitted. "We got each other, you know? Had a good bit in common."

He wanted to add something deeper, more meaningful, like how Dawn'd helped him realize that you couldn't ignore how you'd started out in life (or unlife), but you could control the being you were now. How the trust Dawn had placed in him, misguided though it may have been, had helped Spike hold fast against the Scoobies' scorn, Buffy's loathing, and Glory's torture. How, though she'd been adolescently grossed out by his robot, she'd also understood the compulsion--after all, from a certain perspective, she was just as contrived as the Buffybot had been, though for much nobler reasons.

He kept these thoughts to himself, though, partly because he didn't know how to express them without incensing Buffy, and partly out of his own selfish desire to keep something of this beautiful spirit for himself.

"C'mon, now, pet," he said, diverting the discussion, "let's sit down and have a nip in honor of our Niblet."

He slipped his hand around hers and moved back to his chair, drawing Buffy along. Spike draped his duster over one of the chair's arms while Buffy perched unsteadily on the other. He sank carefully onto the cushion, aches and pains singing out at the change in position. A bent spring he'd never noticed poked a newly bruised spot on his lower back. He shifted out of its way as he twisted his flask open and saluted in Dawn's direction.

"Here's lookin' at you, kid."

He tipped back a healthy slug of the bourbon, and the alcohol fumes sent a satisfying burn through his sinuses; finally, a sting that didn't indicated tears.

"You do a pretty lousy Bogart," Buffy said as she reached for the flask.

Spike felt his eyebrow betray mild surprise. "Didn' think you'd ever seen a movie that wasn't in Techicolor."

"Oh, please," she said. "It's a classic."

She sucked back too big a mouthful and sputtered a bit, unaccustomed to booze with bite.

He smirked sadly as he took back the flask she held out to him, and she wiped at her mouth with her forearm.

"You gotta sip at it, pet," Spike advised her. "It's not Kool Aid, you know."

He took another pull and swirled the bourbon over his teeth and tongue, its rich flavor and antiseptic sting washing away the savory confusion of Buffy's essence.

Buffy slid off the chair's arm onto the oversized cushion, and her body added external warmth to match the liquor warming his throat, heating his blood temporarily. She took another drink, just a sip this time.

"How's the head?"

It ached, it reverberated. "It's fine," he lied in an attempt to forget the reason it hurt.

She shifted her weight so that she was leaning slightly against him and slid an arm over the back of the chair, resting incidentally across his shoulders. Touchy-feely Buffy was unnerving, and Spike's hands jittered on the flask as he had another hit to give him something to do.

"Haven't fed in a while, have you?" she asked, and he got the distinct impression that she was trying to make a point.

"Look, Buffy," he started, and had another quick nip of bourbon, "I didn't mean to... I mean, I wasn't trying to kill you, you know. I just got--"

"Hungry?" she finished for him with a hint of teasing in her voice. "Swept up in the moment?" Buffy leaned in even closer, and he could feel her breath again, loamy this time, thick with peat and tannins. "I felt how carried away you were, Spike." Her voice vibrated against the tight skin of his ear. "I tasted it. I know you did, too."

Spike plucked her hand away from his shirt as politely as he could, trying to cover the movement by handing her the flask.

"Buffy..." He stammered when the fingers of her free hand combed through the short hair at his nape. "What--I don't want to sound hypocritical, 'cause we both know that I--But what exactly are you playing at, pet?"

The finger-dance on his neck faltered, then started fresh.

"I'm not. I'm not playing, Spike," Buffy stated, but not in her most confident voice.

He turned his head to find her face alarmingly close to his own.

"Are you daft?" he blurted, almost laughing. "Off your rocker?" The shock, he thought. The shock's got to her, driven over the brink.

Her fingernails were maddening, so he slapped them away, gently enough to keep the chip happy, and backed into his corner of the chair.

"Buffy. Think, girl."

God, her chin was quivering. What did she think he was made of, anyway?

But when she looked him in the face, her eyes were resolved.

"I am thinking, Spike. And I'm not crazy."

"Beg to differ, Slayer," he protested. "You hate me, remember? I'm revolting, a pig, loathsome, worthy only of your disdain and disgust. I'm evil, a.... a handicapped serial killer, and a dead creepy stalker to boot."

He was surprised at how quickly the hurt welled back up in him, even after her recent apparent change in judgement. What could he say? He was male, after all--human or not--and the male ego is a delicate thing.

Dark eyelashes fluttered as she looked down at the hands she'd dropped back into her lap; her chipped manicure tapped out a random tattoo on the curved silver vessel she held.

"I don't hate you, Spike," she said. "Not after... not after what you've done for us."

A bruise was rising along her jaw, he noticed. Glory'd given her a good hammering before Buffy'd hammered back for good.

His hand lifted, seemingly of its own volition, and he traced the outlines of the bruise with his black-tipped finger.

"What's this about, then, love?" he asked, feeling the slight, mottled swell of hematoma beneath his touch. "Not that I'm complain' overly."

Buffy studied the engraving on the flask for a moment, then raised it to her lips again, pausing long enough before sipping to ask "Who's WRL? Are those your initials?"

"The moron who offered me a drink way back when," he answered lightly, "Didn' realize I wasn't after his Schnapps. Nice piece, though, innit? Sterling, you know. Doesn't leach into the liquor the way steel does."

Busy swallowing, Buffy murmured an idle response, and Spike brought the discussion back on track before she could dodge again.

"My accumulation of antiques is fascinating, I know, but I'm more interested in hearing about what's goin' on in that shiny little head of yours. For instance, why you'd rather be here snogging a vamp you loathe than be with your faithful band of Scoobies, who are, as we speak, pulling their Glory-whupped asses together for a proper search and rescue operation."

Buffy's shoulders slumped, and her lip started shaking again.

"They can't... they don't know," she whispered. "I told Giles--I told him, and even then he didn't realize. And the others, they're so good and strong. They couldn't ever."

Her eyes overflowed again, and blistering tears splashed onto Spike's hand. None too stable, my brave little Slayer, he thought. He slid his hand under her wobbling chin and tipped it up gently so he could peer into her eyes.

"What don't they understand, love?"

The answer was startlingly simple, so simple that Spike knew he was lagging.

"Death," she listed flatly. "Life. Blood."

Spike opened his mouth to respond, but the final item on her list stopped him cold.


Buffy was moving in on him again, her gaze looking straight into the windows where his soul used to live, but that now reflected only her.

"Buffy..." he breathed, grasping again at illusive reason.

"You love me, don't you, Spike?" The sweet, warm shimmer of bourbon weighted the breath that carried her voice.

"God, Buffy, yes, but--"

Entrancing, they were, those eyes that narrowed ever so slightly as she came closer, millimeter by millimeter.

"You know about it, Spike, about me. You've seen our death, twice now. You know my life. Here, and then--before. And you know me now, my blood, my life."

Spike choked on her name as he tried to stop her, stop the chaos in her mind from taking over his.

But she was strong, and she was sliding across his lap, dropping the flask with a clatter of silver on stone, and she was fiery against him and she was the Slayer--his Slayer-- and he loved her.

"You know, Spike," she breathed against his cheek, her nose brushing his eyebrow. "Show me. Help me know, too."

Buffy's humid mouth slid to his ear, then up his jawline, and he thought he would turn to dust on the spot when it captured his lips. Her hands were scratching at the neck of his filthy t-shirt, then at the hem.

Spike's mouth had just begun to warm under her when she pulled back abruptly, the chill air of the crypt shocking a reflexive gasp out of him. He opened his eyes, not having known they were closed.

The woman on top of him radiated strength and power, and her voice was deadly serious, though breathy and rough.

"I need you, Spike," she husked, and the words struck him deep, searing themselves into his brain, into his unbeating heart. "I need you to show me. Teach me the dance."

The feast was laid out when Spike arrived. Heavily laden candelabras threw flickering orange light against the crypt's shadows, digging a dome of light out of the darkness that pressed in on the table. The silverware flashed, serrated edges on the knives lancing spears of light into the thick black.

Spike stood at the table's head for a time, taking in the elaborate banquet exquisitely spread before him. The presentation was perfection, he noted appreciatively. The deep red of the tablecloth foretold the repast to come, and the six hammered copper bowls shimmered magically in the candlelight.

A second copper piece stretched most of the length of the table, an elevated tray beautifully designed for both function and style. Its surface was slightly convex, with a narrow gutter along the inside of the perimeter. The edges curved gracefully back up, forming a shallow trench. At each of the four corners, the outside edge arched out to form a spout, and under each spout a bowl was placed.

And artfully set on the service was the Slayer, naked, sleeping, and pale but pulsing with life.

He took a moment to appreciate the magnificent body displayed for his pleasure, then sat. Her hair poured off the tray and rippled in a golden pool just on the other side of his place setting. Fastidiously, he picked a stray strand from the edge of his bowl.

From the darkness at the foot of the table came a voice.

"Shall I carve?"

"Please," he answered, and his teeth perked up at the rough-smooth schwick of the knife sliding out of its sheath.

Spike turned his head to watch as the butler stepped forward from the shadows. Discreet but purposeful, and with a polite nod, Giles bent slightly at the waist to make the first cut.

Even before the blood rose on her skin, Spike's salivary glands jumped with anticipation. He closed his eyes and swallowed, then breathed in slowly through both his mouth and nose so he could savor the taste to the fullest.

When he opened his eyes again, Giles had moved around to the other side of the table to make the second cut, opposite the first. The triangle of soft brown hair was accentuated by the careful slices to the femoral arteries near the groin. Her blood, thick and deeply red, spurted messily out, splattering her flat stomach and wilting wrists before it sheeted down the slight grade of the platter and gathered at the lip.

"Do you prefer the brachial or the ulnar, sir?" Giles asked as he moved up the table.

Spike considered for a brief moment. "Brachial, don't you think, old boy? Always best closer to the source, isn't it?"

"Quite right, sir," he answered with the condescending approval reserved for butlers and Watchers.

Giles leaned forward again and flicked the blade skillfully at the inside of the Slayer's upper arm, then slipped behind Spike to make the mirror cut. The pressure behind the blood was less this time, but still enough to scatter garnet drops so brilliant as to leach the pink out of the nipples that topped the flawless white flesh of her breasts.

Beneath the tray's spouted corners, the glowing copper bowls began to fill.

"Last cut, sir," came the stiffly accented voice again, closer to Spike's ear than he expected. "I leave the honors to you."

Spike pushed his chair back and stood. He rested his hands on the table momentarily, breathing in the sauce's heady aroma, then nodded sharply and took the knife extended to him. It left a red curve on the damask napkin draped over Giles's forearm to protect his sleeve and the cuff that peeked crisply from under it.

A few steps to his left gave Spike the perspective he needed to fully examine the planes of her neck, where the leaping pulse was weakening. Satisfied that he'd picked out the correct angles, Spike leaned across Buffy's shoulders and quickly drew the knife in a steep, sharp curve from one corner of her jaw to the other, neatly slicing through the left and right carotid arteries.

"Oh," breathed the Watcher in genuine appreciation, "well done, sir. Jolly good show!"

Spike didn't acknowledge the praise, however; he was deafened by the sound of her life pouring out to nourish him.

He leaned in closer and felt her shallow, cooling breath against his cheek as he kissed her goodbye, holding the embrace until the flutterings of air stopped altogether and her lips went cold.

A thousand scurrilous thoughts he'd had about the Slayer, and Spike had never gotten anywhere near the reality of her. A good lot of thought had gone into the specs for his robot, but he'd gotten all but the most superficial details wrong. He was an idiot, plain and simple.

For there'd been no game of cat and mouse, no fighting, no declarations of his evil intentions, no breathily conflicted Slayer struggling passionately between her bloodbound duty and her sex kitten libido.

There had just been Buffy.

Just Buffy--her mouth devouring his with a hunger that matched, then surpassed, his own. Only Buffy's hands pulling desperately at his clothes, her throat vibrating under his muted lips as she growled her impatience. Buffy's chest, where the skin was so thin that it was translucent and revealed a map of flooded blue veins that marked a meandering path, branched and split like the Danube's delta, to her breasts.

It was just Buffy pulling at his belt, pushing at the waist of his jeans, using the time it took him to get his boots untangled from their black denim trap and kick them off to shed the rest of her own clothing. There was only the stormy green ocean of her eyes, which stayed open and locked on his face the whole time.

There were no musical, gasping sighs floating prettily from between her lips like rose petals. In fact, there was very little in the way of sighs. There was heavy breathing, and the occasional growl from one or the other of them; there was the sticky catch of sweaty skin adhered to sweaty skin, the soft squish of interlocking flesh, the rude pop of lips parting unexpectedly.

No whisper touches, no feather kisses. Instead there were strong, grasping hands and clasping arms and legs. There were her teeth, straight and white and clamped on the muscle that held his neck to his shoulders when she rolled her back and used his armpits for leverage to push her wet heat against him until she found the angle that let him slide fiercely home.

There was very little dignity, and even less concern for its absence. There was not room for both of them in this bloody chair, he noticed as his ass scraped for the thousandth time against the seam of the upholstery at the front corner of the arm. There was the perplexingly conflicting visual before his eyes: Buffy's pale and bruised upper body, mottled with lust and framed by the golden curtain of her hair, swaying over him, and on every one of her downward thrusts, as his bum pushed into the old stuffing and his leg extended, his pale and bony left foot swung into his field of vision as if sprouting from her ear.

And, when she finally gave in, pushing against him and collapsing onto his damp and tender chest with a series of shudders that tore everything on the inside of him out, there were the sweet swells of her ass under his grasping hands as he arched his back and clenched the muscles of his legs to pull her as close as possible so that they would never have to get out of the chair, never have to look around them, never have to remember why they'd come to this.

Afterward, they slept where they lay, bypassing the pillowtalk and nuzzling for the deep sleep of the battleworn.


Her lips were still cold on his mouth, but they moved now, and his ear itched where warm liquid was pooling like tears. When Buffy's lips released him and she spoke, he jerked violently awake, disoriented and ravenous.


He clapped a hand across his eyes and regrouped, trying to clear the simultaneously revolting and reverent images from his mind. God, but he was a sick fuck.

Buffy moved over him, soft then firm skin brushing past his shoulder. A tit, he realized, incredulously. Buffy was naked. Naked with him. Naked on him, and naked against him.

Something splashed on his hand, warm and fluid, coaxing speech from him.

"Baby, don't cry," he said, and then grimaced at what an idiotic thing it was to say to her on this day. Though, to be fair, his brain was still muddled from that dream. Shit, he could still smell her blood, could see the copper bowls gathering it up for his dinner.

He steeled himself for the upcoming unpleasantness. She'd threatened his parts the last time he'd been this close to her in this state of undress, and he imagined she'd be suffering from some fairly serious morning-after regret right about now, seeing as how--sibling martyrdom aside--shagging him ranked real low on Buffy's to-do list.

When he opened his eyes, though, Spike saw that Buffy was not crying. Her face was dry and placid. He felt his eyebrows knit and raised his hand to wipe the stickiness out of his ear.

She sat up to give him room, and Spike heard a sharp, wordless cry come from his throat, for Buffy's naked body was lined with trails of blood, enough that he couldn't tell where her wounds were. He wiped desperately at his face, panicking, wondering if he were still dreaming, but when his hands came away bloody, when the visceral smell and feel of it hit him full force, he knew it was all too real.

"Buffy!" he finally managed to yelp, "Oh, God, Buffy! You have to..."

Amid the flood of sensation barraging his nervous system, Spike heard a rational voice in his head: Get pressure on the wounds.

Spike seized Buffy by the shoulders and flipped her off of him into the chair, then scrambled on the cold stone of the crypt's floor for their clothing. There, her sweater. Cotton. That would help.

But when he snatched it up and whipped back around, Buffy had wrapped herself into a ball, smearing blood all over her and masking the source.

He clapped his hands on either side of her face. "Buffy. Listen to me, love. Tell me where you're hurt. Show me so I can help you, pet."

Buffy's expression hadn't changed. Her face was unlined, unclouded, but when he jostled her, she smiled slightly and shook her head.

"Don't, Spike," she murmured. "I'm all right."

He felt the panic rising in him again, heard it in his voice.

"Bloody hell you are!" he cried, his voice hitching like an adolescent's. He wiped frenetically at her body, trying to find a wound that he could bandage.

Sharp pressure at his neck stopped him, and he felt his head being tilted, iron fingers guiding it.

"Spike. Listen to me."

He felt the tears start.


"Listen! This is what I want."

He shook his head and sobbed, disbelieving. "No, Buffy. You can't."

The fingers at the base of his skull relaxed slightly, and he felt her hand slide wetly up the side of his head, her thumb tracing his eyebrow.

"I quit, Spike. Remember?"


She smiled indulgently, shaking her head. "I already told Giles. I told you, too. Before."

"Buffy, no..." He could barely force the words out of the thickened channel of his throat.

"You were right, you know," she intimated, leaning in close and boring her eyes into his. "Every Slayer has a death wish. I didn't want to believe you then. I wasn't ready. But now... I've fought the good fight, Spike. I've ..."

The break in Buffy's voice sent a surge of hope into Spike's broken and rebroken heart.

"I did everything I could for Dawn, and it still wasn't enough. She ... she had to die to save us." Tears mingled with the blood on her face. "And I'm not sure we're worth it anymore. I know I'm not."

A tearing, animal groan ripped its way from Spike's chest, and he fell forward, burying his face against the outside of Buffy's crossed legs .

"You're everything, Buffy. Please... I didn' mean it. I didn' know what I was saying. All fucked up with loving you, and you hated me so much, and I just wanted to hurt you like I hurt, but you can't listen to me. God, I was so wrong."

He felt her hands tangle in his hair, and then her lips on his scalp. "No, Spike. You were right. Every Slayer has her time, and this is mine. And, Spike?" Buffy's hands slipped under his jaw and coaxed him to look at her again. Through the fog of tears and blood, he did.

"I'm giving it to you, Spike. Do you understand? I need you to help me. To share this with me."

One of her hands held his chin still while the other drew near his mouth.

"Drink me. Help me."

Horrified, Spike stuttered. "I... No, I... I can't."

"I want it. The chip won't hurt you."

He choked on a disbelieving laugh. "No. No. I can't. Me, not the chip. I won't."

Buffy's lips pursed in a brief show of annoyance.

"You don't have to bite me, Spike," she said with resolution. "Just drink. I'll make the cuts. All you have to do is drink. It won't be you. It'll be me. You haven't fed in so long, love."

Spike's heart contracted, mimicking life, at her use of the offhanded endearment.


Her eyes were hypnotizing, and the smell of her made him ache in ways he hadn't felt since he'd fed the first time, dying in an alley with a bewitching woman seeing into his soul, showing him his true potential. Back in his present, the Slayer smiled, knowing she would win.

"You can't stop me, Spike," she said almost coyly. "I'm ready now. The only question is, do you love me enough to help?"

He dropped his head in defeat when he saw her draw a knife she'd located, stashed somewhere, and used while he'd slept and dreamt of his future and hers.

Buffy's voice was honeyed as she combed blood into his hair, her touch at once soothing, loving, and terrifying.

"Don't let it go to waste, Spike. You're the only one who will appreciate it, who can use it, who needs it. Give me some meaning, in the end."

Shaking his head, face wet with his tears and her life, against her flank, Spike tasted the mix involuntarily as he opened his mouth to protest. No words came to him, dumbed as he was by the utter devastation of the last twenty-four hours.

Instead, he found himself turning his face up to meet her magnetic stare. He felt Buffy's skin on his cheek again and stayed where her eyes anchored him while she slid her wrist across to his lips, leaving a burning trail in her path.

The cut was small but deep and well placed. Though not the pumpers he'd dreamed of, she was nonetheless bleeding in a swift stream, and his mouth filled faster than he'd expected. He couldn't bring himself to swallow, though, and pulled away, sputtering sloppily.

"Oh, please, no," he choked, still unable to look away from her.

Buffy smiled beatifically and coaxed Spike to pull up closer to her.

"Don't fight me, Spike," she whispered with the intensity of need he remembered from earlier in the day. "Let me give you this. For helping us. For loving me."

She unfolded her legs and drew him into her embrace, wrapping arms and legs firmly about him in an imitation of their coupling. Or was that an imitation of this embrace? Spike couldn't remember. Was there a difference? He didn't know anything anymore.

Her hands coiled in his hair and pulled him in, and then her mouth was on him again, lapping at his lips, at her own blood, as she coaxed her way in and kissed him with all that she was, sharing it all with him.

He tried to resist, but she was too much. Her taste, her body, her tongue, her need and want. It was everything he'd wanted since he'd had that first Slayer, everything he'd sought since he'd arrived in Sunnydale--even in the hate, there'd been desire; even in the torture of his twisted love, there'd been the bloodlust. Spike gave himself over to her. Blissful, agonizing surrender.

He hardly felt the sharp pain in his ribs, and it wasn't until Buffy broke the kiss that he realized he'd been nicked by the blade she was raising.

"You'll take care of things." she stated, and he wondered what things she meant. "For my friends. Like you did with Dawn." It wasn't a question, and he understood that he would be prettying her up, protecting her friends from the brutal reality she was foisting upon him.

"Anything, love," he heard himself answer from somewhere that was not inside his body.

Buffy nodded and closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, they were sparkling, ready to overflow.

"Tell my friends, Spike," she said shakily, "tell them that I love them." She pressed her lips together, her throat constricting visibly. "Tell them I wouldn't have changed anything, ever."

He couldn't speak, so he asked the question in his head, and hoped she would hear it.

"No," she answered, and stroked over his eyebrow and cheek to his temple. "I wouldn't take it back. You were what I needed. What I still need."

Their eyes locked for a stretched second, and she tightened her grip on the knife's hilt. She closed her eyes, and Spike averted his, slumping and hiding his face in her breasts until he heard her breath catch and felt the first spurts of hot liquid hit him.

Buffy's blood ran between their bodies, heating his torso and overwhelming him with its power. He heard the knife bounce off the floor with a sharp clatter, and then her hands clutched his neck to her and began to pull.

With a tearing moan of despair, rage, and hunger, Spike pulled himself up straight and took in the sight of his beautiful Slayer, bathed in her own blood. Her mouth was moving, but there was no voice behind it. The pumping gouge in her neck gaped and narrowed, and he couldn't bear to watch it.

"Buffy... Love..." he whispered, and then Spike lunged forward and clamped his mouth over the wound, noting with vague detachment that his fangs hadn't sprung into action. He drank, locking one arm around her back and pulling her firmly against him, cradling her head with the other.

He had no sense of time, no idea how long they clutched at each other until Spike was alone, clinging to her body, sobbing into her neck, beating his fist against her back, and finally collapsing on top of her, climbing clumsily to join her in the chair, wrapping her up in him, stroking her hair and rocking, rocking.

Spike couldn't remember needing a cigarette this badly. The quaking in his hands made shaking the fag from the box easy enough, but lighting it was another issue altogether. Finally, after bracing his wrists against his knees, Spike managed to get the blasted thing alight and sucked in greedily, waiting for the bones in his hands to stop rattling.

The cigarette's calming attributes, whether physiological or psychological, kicked in as he lit the fourth from the ember of the third. He was trembling less, true enough, but her blood was still singing through his veins, ringing in his ears, making his skin tingle around him. He remembered the rush of Slayer in the system, but this time 'round, the ecstasy of it, the soaring energy, the strength and power of it, the pre-orgasmic high, was unbearable.

To survive it, Spike had curled himself tightly around his Slayer's body and keened his way through the rampaging fever in his body, and once the very worst (best?) had passed, he put the fierce energy to work. She'd given him chores, Buffy had, and Spike meant to complete them.

Keeping in mind that Buffy insisted that her Key-spawning blood not go to waste, Spike had lapped every drop from her body. Aftershocks caught him off guard, and he fought them down, fought to keep from vomiting up her precious being.

Once the red smears were gone, Spike had washed Buffy thoroughly and with the same deference he'd shown Dawn. He'd brushed her hair, then taken some time to arrange it in an elegant, shining coil about her crown, a skill he'd picked up in a century and a quarter with Drusilla.

Buffy's nudity had seemed inappropriate, given the circumstances. He'd rustled briefly through her discarded clothing, but they were crusted with gore and dirt; they would hardly do for such an occasion. Harm's leftovers were all wrong, too, as Dawn had gotten the only garment not specifically made for a hooker.

In the end, he'd opted for another sheet. Creatively folded, wrapped, and draped, the red satin made a surprisingly elegant sarong that showed off her flawless, creamy shoulders and neatly sliced throat. Her arms were bare as well, mismatched wrists displayed under open, supplicating palms.

She was stunning. They both were. Christ, but that family had good genes.

I have those genes now, Spike thought as he lit his fifth fag. Almost out, he realized. Should probably pace myself.

Sunset was approaching; he could see the shadows shifting quickly along the east wall, the color of the light changing. Surely the gang would be checking in soon, popping by to see he'd made it back with the little one on their way out to hunt for their friend.

He'd have to hurry.

Suddenly filled with purpose, Spike leapt to his feet and fairly flew down the ladder. His various aches and pains were mending much more quickly than usual. Slayer blood was quite the elixir.

He bathed quickly and donned his Sunday best--sharply cut black wool trousers, soft cotton undershirt, and a tight black cashmere turtleneck Harmony'd stolen for him in a fit of freakish good taste. He combed his hair and slicked some gel through it, and then Spike sat down to work out the details.

As usual, the Scoobies were bollixing up a perfectly good plan. He'd promised to pass on Buffy's message, and he couldn't well leave without doing it. He mulled over the best manner of delivery, taking time to properly savor his second-to-last cigarette. When he'd worked it out, Spike set about the preparations.

He rooted around the crypt's various cubbies until he found a good, sturdy stake, point not yet dulled by thick muscle and bones. Humming his satisfaction, he brought it over to Dawn's sarcophagus, where he'd laid Buffy at her sister's side.

Her limbs were beginning to lose their elasticity, the stiffening process no doubt hastened by the lack of fluids. Carefully, he pursuaded her elbows to bend and rotate, then curled her fingers around the base of the stake so that she held it straight out from her sternum. Spike squeezed her hands and wrists and held them for several seconds so they'd settle, then went to find some rope. The pillowcase that matched her dress worked well enough. He used her knife to slice it, peeling it like an apple, in one long ribbon.

Spike tied her hands around the stake and stepped back to admire his work. She looked perfect. Ready to fight, acknowledging her power and her destiny, protectress of the ethereal waif who shared her tomb.

He felt a tremor run through him, a flutter in the region of his heart, but he steeled himself against it.

"Well, ladies," he said snappily, and the sound of his voice bounced off the cooling stone walls, the first words he'd uttered in an age. "You look smashing, if I do say so myself. Lucky bloke, I am. Couldn't catch two finer birds if I had a mind to."

He moved close again, hovering over Dawn for a moment before leaning down and kissing her cold lips, then her gracefully curving brow.

"Ta, Bit," he said simply, then moved around to her sister's side.

There wasn't much to say, really. Or anything at all. So he kissed her, too, and allowed himself the luxury of pressing his cheek firmly against the smooth silk of hers for the space of three heartbeats, had there been a living heart to keep track.

Spike was just reaching for the knife when he spotted his duster lying in a heap near the armchair. He swooped down and swiped it up, giving it a good shake as it hissed off the floor, then scanned the crypt for an appropriate place to hang it. At a loss, he folded it into a neat rectangle and set it at the Summers' feet.

Satisfied, he turned and surveyed his canvas. Then, with a strong and purposeful movement, he sliced through the base of his left fingers.

The graveyard was creepy this time of day. Xander rarely came there when it wasn't pitch black, and he wasn't used to the strong, dark shadows and amorphous sillouettes that the barely-set sun threw. Funny that full night could feel safer, just by way of familiarity.

Okay, not funny. Nothing was funny today. But interesting.

He could see the jumping orange light of a torch or two in the window of Spike's crypt and turned his head enough to aim his voice at Giles but still keep an eye on the terrain in front of him.

"Looks like he's home," Xander called in his military-guy yelling-without-making-a-lot-of-noise voice.

Giles answered in his double-oh-librarian version of the same. "Good. We'll send Spike to check out the Initiative caves, then. We can cover more ground if we split up."

Xander harrumphed a general agreement to the strategy and raised his stake out of habit as he stepped up and into the marble entryway, pushing the outer door open with his free hand.

"Spike?" He waited for Giles to catch up, exchanging a raising of eyebrows with him before shouldering open the inner door. He waited for the hinges to stop screeching before repeating the hail.

"Perhaps he's gone out to look for her already," Giles suggested, hearing the same lack of response Xander did.

Xander stepped in and took a quick survey, squinting in the weirdly shifting light, and saw people-shaped shapes lying on one of the tombs. One of them was Buffy-shaped, and he reached behind him and grabbed Giles's arm.

"Hey," he whispered, and pointed with a tip of his head. "She's here."

Giles nodded and lifted a hand to his mouth, signaling for quiet. Xander nodded. They shouldn't wake her. Not yet. Let her sleep for now, next to the shape he assumed was Dawn's body but couldn't bear to examine more closely, for fear of losing the control he'd amazed himself by exerting throughout the day.

The Watcher raised his arms and shoulders in an exaggerated shrug, frowning for emphasis, and mouthed "Where's Spike?"

Another quick look around gave Xander an idea. He pointed to the open trap door, ladder poking out, gave a shrug of his own, and widened his eyes in the universal symbol for "I dunno."

A toss of Giles's head urged Xander further into the crypt, and he meandered to the left, drawn toward the TV like any good American boy.

"You smell something?" he asked quietly as they moved away from napping Buffy.

Giles scrunched his nose as he sniffed and frowned, deepening the weary lines that his time on the Hellmouth had etched into his face. He shook his head, but Xander could tell from the way Giles's eyebrows twisted that it was more of a question than a negative answer.

With a sigh, Xander slumped into the armchair and allowed himself a moment of rest, closing his eyes and propping his head against the palms of his hands, supported in turn by a careful balance of knee and elbow.

Crap, but he'd had a bad day. Xander felt a bubble of hysteria threaten to break through the surface on the back of a senseless giggle. Understatement of the eon. He managed to smother the crazy laugh he'd felt fighting through, held his breath until it died inside him, then took a deep breath through both mouth and nose and blew it back out.

Keep it together, man, he thought, and took a second breath.

The smell hit him more strongly, and as Xander was trying to identify it, he felt cold dampness on the backs of his legs. He turned his head and dropped a hand to the seat of the chair, wiping it curiously and feeling something sticky come away onto his skin. Frowning, Xander twisted to catch some of the dim and irregular light across his hand.

"Giles?" he said uncertainly as he closed and reopened his hand, then lifted it to smell. He stood up hastily, calling out this time, "Giles."

Xander whipped around to find Giles staring at the wall, which was dirtier than he remembered.

"Giles," he said forcefully, and the Watcher finally turned to him, face frozen in a perplexed frown. "Blood. On the chair," he stated, and then specified, "Lots of it."

"I... yes, it's just that..." Hearing Xander's chuff of impatience, Giles cleared his throat and pointed. "There..."

The dirty streaks on the wall weren't dirt, Xander saw, and was very afraid he knew what they were.

"The days will rally, wreathing" Xander read, stumbling over the unfamiliar words. "Their crazy tar... tarantelle; And you must go on breathing, But I'll be safe in hell."

"It's Parker, I believe," Giles said. "Or perhaps another of that circle, I can't quite place it. Certainly this past century, and American."

"And written in blood, Giles," Xander snapped, exasperated with Giles's inability to get the point. "Blood. All over the wall. All over the chair. And," he added, looking around more carefully, "all over the floor."

"Oh dear lord," Giles breathed, and Xander knew it was bad.

In six long steps he was at the tomb. As he'd suspected, Dawn's body was the shape next to Buffy, who clutched a stake to her chest.

"Buffy!" She was too pale, dressed in an odd toga thing.

Giles was right behind him, and as Xander leaned to gently shake his friend awake he felt the Watcher's shaking but firm hand on his shoulder, pulling him back.

"Xander, don't," he said in a voice too calm to be real.

Ignoring the command, Xander put his own hands on Buffy's shoulders, somehow sharper, bonier than he remembered.

"Buffy, come on now. Wake up. Come on."

Her head lolled only slightly as he shook her, less than it should have.

It was then that Xander understood that the red stripe on the side of her neck was not attached to the improvised dress she wore, that it was part of her.

"Oh no," he sobbed, and shook her harder. "Buffy, no, you can't. Wake up, Buff, please. Please wake up."

Xander felt Giles's hands tighten on his shoulders, pulling, and his gentle voice cutting through the noise in his head.

"Xander, let go," the voice said. "Let her go."

The control and courage Xander had been clinging to was ripped from his grasp like a footbridge in a flash flood. The torrential wave of emotion overtook him, and he grabbed at Giles to keep from being swept away entirely.

Giles caught him as he fell, arms clasping him about the shoulders, and Xander felt a strong hand cradling the back of his head in a way that Xander imagined a father's would.

"We have to let her go," Giles said, the strain and hitch in his voice revealing his own tears.

"He killed her, Giles," he sobbed. "She trusted him, and look what he did." Xander violently pulled away from the Watcher and turned back to look at Buffy. "He says he loves her? Look what he did!"

Buffy's hands were tied to a stake, he saw, and Xander was further incensed at Spike's mockery of the woman he'd tried so hard to convince everyone he loved. Sick bastard.

He was nearly blinded with rage and tears as he tore ineffectually at the fabric that bound Buffy's hands.

"Gonna boil that bastard in holy water--drip it all over him with an eyedropper," Xander ranted, voice rising and cracking. "Burn bitty crosses into his skin, every inch of him."

He couldn't get the ties off, couldn't get Buffy freed, and he cried again at the frustration of it, then, with a mindless howl, Xander threw himself blindly away from his friends' bodies and smashed the first thing he could close his hands around, then the next, and the next.

"Stake's too good for you! You hear me, Spike?? Freaking axe to the neck's too quick. You're gonna pay for this! You killed her!"

Xander hit something solid and pain shot up his forearm, stunning him momentarily, and in the second it took him to suck in musty air, he heard Giles speak softly.

"What? What did you say?" he asked as he turned to rail on the Watcher.

But Giles was sitting quietly at Buffy's side, folds of red ribbon shimmering in his hands as he worked at the knots.

"I said," Giles intoned, "I don't believe he did."

"What?" he repeated, incredulous at the betrayal of taking Spike's side at this moment. "How can you say that? He bit her, Giles. For all we know, she's gonna rise up tonight and kill us all."

Giles's ministrations paid off, and the stake slipped from between the Slayer's stiffened hands, rattling to the floor with a noise that matched the hollow racket in Xander's chest.


The librarian looked ancient as he pulled his glasses from his face and tucked them away in his pocket, then wiped a shaking hand across his face. When he looked up at the younger man, his eyes revealed the emotion that was absent in his stiff-upper-lip voice.

"I believe that Buffy... she seems to have killed herself, Xander."

It was a ridiculously long time before Xander could use his voice again.



"No. She would not do that."

Giles' composure cracked with his voice, and he snapped at Xander.

"Look for yourself!"

Xander moved closer, still shaking his head.

After a deep breath, Giles's voice was gentle again.

"No bite marks, Xander. Her neck is cut, as is one of her wrists. Her left wrist, and the left side of her neck, which suggests that she cut it herself."

"Spike could have done it."

Giles looked down at the knife he'd picked up from between the two sisters. "The chip, Xander. You're forgetting about the chip."

"So? He's hit me with the chip in. So he has a headache for a while..."

"The cut on her neck is made from the top down; an attacker would have come at her from behind, cutting back toward himself. Spike is left handed. The cut would have been to the right side."

Xander continued to shake his head, searching for explanations. Spike could have come at her from the front. That would put the knife in the right place, right?

Giles stood up and replaced the knife, then moved toward Xander, speaking soothingly, as one would to an injured animal.

"Xander. None of wants to believe that Buffy would commit suicide, but we have to look at the evidence." He placed a hand on Xander's forearm. "She hinted at this to me last night. I should have understood then, but I didn't. I couldn't."

"It was Spike," Xander repeated with little conviction.

"Look at the girls, Xander. They're covered in dust. Spike's dead. Killed himself on the stake he tied into Buffy's hands." He turned the boy toward the writing on the wall. "He even left a suicide note."

The neat, bloody letters stood out like neon now, and he saw the torn clothing tossed in a careless circle around the armchair: two pair of pants, various shirts and underthings, Buffy's white sweater, splotched an angry red.

"Oh, God, Giles."

Xander's knees gave out, and he found himself thumping bonelessly to the floor next to the sarcophagus. He felt sick, faint, and let gravity pull him the rest of the way down to keep from passing out. Stretched on the cold stone, Xander rolled his aching head to the side, away from Giles, away from the unthinkable act the ripped panties suggested, away from that poem on the wall, written in Spike's blood. Or was it Buffy's?

But there was more writing, more blood, on the side of the marble death box, and Xander was startled to hear his own voice responding nonsensically to it.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah."

For, in neat, straight rows of fingertip-sized letters that appeared to continue around the corners like a cheerleader's spiral entry in a three-dimensional yearbook, was another message.

"She loves you."


Authors Notes: The title of this story comes from a song by The Who called "Imagine a Man," which some say would have been Pete Townsend's suicide note to the world, had he--you know--killed himself. The verse I pulled the title from goes "Imagine a girl/You long for and have/And the body of chalky perfection and truth," which just sort of felt Spikey to me. Giles was correct: Spike's suicide poem is, in fact, by Dorothy Parker. It's called "Braggart," and I'm not going to quote it here, because I may well use it in another story, and I don't want to give too much away :-) It also proves that I'm incapable of excluding Dotty from anything I write, much as I try.

Thanks again, Rachel and Laura. Y'all're the best.

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