Fic: ‘To Apprehend Air’ (1/3) by Quinara [PG-13]

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series To Apprehend Air
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Hello, seasonal_spuffy!! It’s so great to be here for another round! Thank you, enigmaticblues, for setting us all up again – I can’t wait to see everyone else’s stuff.

I’ve got one (reasonably) long fic for everyone today, with possibly something extra later if I can wrangle it into shape in time… So here goes!

To Apprehend Air

Two days after LMPTM, Spike’s soul is stolen. But that’s OK; they can get it back, right? Simple. How hard is it to hop dimensions, anyway? Or storm a castle…

Author: Quinara
Rating: PG-13 for a little swearing and some fairly graphic violence.
Length: ~18,800 words (in three chapters of approx. 8000/8000/3000)
Other Pairings: Anya/Xander is around as well.
Warnings: Discussion of canonical attempted rape, otherwise none in particular.

Chapter One: Anaximenes’ Arche

To Anaximenes, air was the first element, where the cosmos began and where it would end, the cause and the result of life. Others disagreed.

The first thing Buffy noticed, coming home, was that the potentials weren’t training. She’d come round the back of the house, but there was no one there, the grass and sunshine incongruously undisturbed. She tried not to let it bother her; if Kennedy wanted to slack and pine after Willow while she was away, well, that was her prerogative. It was slightly strange though.

The second thing Buffy noticed, coming in through the door, was Vi not only slacking but drinking a can of Tab – her Tab – in plain view of the whole house, sat at the kitchen table. That bothered her. Pretty badly, actually, because of course that was her life these days: pettiness and casual crime fantasies before patrol and the nightly scramble for the bathroom. So far all of Vi’s possessions were being melted in a mental vat of generic cola.

The third thing Buffy noticed, however, once she’d pushed that gratifying image aside, was that Vi looked like she needed the aspartame. The girl was visibly shaken, eyes as wide as a rabbit’s above the can, slurping and then jabbering incoherently to Chao Ahn, who patted her free hand.

“… special cycle, so I can’t do it with everyone else’s, and it’s pretty late in the afternoon now, so I don’t understand what the problem is – I mean, yesterday…”

“What’s happened?” Buffy interrupted, immediately snapping her mind under control and scanning the room for weapons. Kitchen knives – always a handy standby. Though, if Andrew had put that First-friendly sacrificial death knife back in the cutlery drawer, he was dead meat. “Is it the First?”

All she’d wanted was one peaceful day, one lonely day, without a single immediate stress to worry about. Robin had still been off work and Giles was avoiding her, so she’d thought her odds were pretty good, but as Vi’s expression ran the gamut of fluffy animals from rabbit to puppy to Bambi in the headlights, she knew she might as well have wished for a pet stegosaurus.

Chao Ahn tried to tell her something, jerking her head to Buffy’s right. There wasn’t anything there though, apart from the basement door and more of their never-ending supply of clutter, ready to topple into actual mess the moment someone ran into the kitchen too fast. “Sorry;” Buffy replied, shaking her head in sympathy at Chao-Ahn’s scowl of frustration. “I don’t understand… Vi,” Buffy looked at the girl again, trying for that expression of firm trustworthiness her mom had always been so good at. Probably failing. “Just tell me what’s going on.”

A moment passed, and then Vi shook her head, filling Buffy with another flush of feeling, equal parts worry and frustration.

Just then, however, there came a crash from the basement, and everything began to make sense. Especially when it was followed by a barely muffled, “BUGGERING FUCK!”

OK, Buffy thought. She’d heard Spike swear before, obviously she had, but this amount of rage? It had been a while. “Wait here,” she told Vi and Chao Ahn, unnecessarily. Then, with the slightest itching of nerves, she made her way down to the basement, leaving sunny surfaces for the cool wannabe-dank.

The crash had been Spike’s bed, from what she could tell, kicked onto its side against the wall, the fluorescent light catching on the now-mangled frame. The vamp himself was shirtless and sockless, pacing – no, prowling – back and forth across the floor, head bowed and fists clenched as he muttered more curses.

There was something to be said about waking up on the wrong side of the bed, but she wasn’t going to say it. Not yet anyway. It was always best to keep a joke up your sleeve for the real badness.

“What’re you doing here?” Spike growled as he noticed her, still moving but distractedly so, shooting glares.

Don’t even try that, buster. “What’re you doing?”

Nostrils flaring, he snapped, “Told the little bird was down here before – not receiving guests at the moment.” Another glare, before turning away from her to prowl again. “Piss off.”

“Spike,” she said shortly, crossing her arms. She was approaching seriously cranky on the Willow Scale.

Abruptly he rocked back on one foot and stalked towards her, pointing an arm up the way she’d come. “Go back to your mates, Slayer – Spike’s having his thinking time.” As his eyes met hers she could tell something more was going on than a weird, post-trigger mood swing, but she couldn’t tell exactly what. “I mean it,” he added, though she wasn’t sure he did. “No normal household comes into the basement this much.” He span away, pacing once more. “Leave me alone for a bit, yeah, and I’ll have it sorted.”

“Have what ‘sorted’?” she replied, taking the last step down to floor-level. All he did in response was shake his head, not looking at her even when he came back her way. “Spike?” As the silence grew she began to worry, and she could hear it in her voice as she spoke again, that pinched note she couldn’t stand. “What’s going on?” No reply. “Tell me and I can help you fix things – was it the First? Did it come back?” Shaking off her anxiety she tried to think rationally through the possibilities. “We knew things were gonna start heating up again, but whatever it said, whatever it told you –”

“Wasn’t the First,” Spike ground out, his stride seeming to shorten. “Though I’m sure it’ll be along to the show soon enough, Thursday night bloody prime time…” At last he let out a strangled laugh, stopping now with his face in his hands.

Giving him a chance to wipe away any angry tears, the bane of her own rages as well as his, Buffy made her way over to the kicked-in cot, righting it easily and bending straight the frame, smoothing the covers back to approximately where they should be. It was weird, the combination of Spike-bed smell and virtuous blue sheets, but it was getting familiar. Or maybe the sheets were just getting less virtuous – after all, the pillow still had blood stains from the great chip-degradation fiasco.

Whatever. Admiring her handiwork, she promptly wrecked it, planting a shoe on the top sheet so she could hop onto the bed and sit with her back against the wall. The structure shook a little, but it felt less like it was about to collapse and more like they were never going to get it folded up again. She knew she was supposed to care more about that than she did.

After maybe a minute of to-ing and fro-ing Spike’s pace slowed and he sank onto the bed’s edge, head still in his hands and both feet set firmly on the floor. She stared at the tension in his muscles, across his shoulders and up his neck, raising a mental eyebrow that his soul-induced modesty reflex hadn’t kicked in to get him dressed, but mostly appreciating the view. In a wholly platonic, partners-against-evil kind of way, of course. “Spike,” she said at last, with a sigh. “I’m trying to think of what could have happened while you were sleeping and I’m coming up…” Well, she was coming up bodily fluids, so maybe it was best not to go there. “No one’s dead and Vi’s foiled attempt at a woollens cycle is pretty low on my list of possible tragedies. What happened?”

He looked at her over his shoulder, glancing at the space beside her before clearly deciding against it. In a second he was back on his feet, standing with no small amount of uncertainty and his right hand unconsciously tracing the tapestry of scars over his heart. “It’s like this,” he said, jaw clenching as he stared at her knees. “Went to bed and everything was fine – or, well, fine as can be expected, anyway. Wasn’t exactly expecting dreams of puppies and moonshine…” She nodded encouragingly, hoping he could see it in his peripheral vision, since she didn’t want to break his flow by speaking. “And when I woke up I thought everything was fine too. But it wasn’t – cottoned onto that pretty quick. And I can’t figure it, you know, till the little laundry robin comes down and I realise…” He trailed off, lapsing back into silence.

With a scoot to bring her up off the bed, Buffy stood in front of him, still watching his fingers trace the First’s marks and his own old carvings. Her stomach was churning with the sickness of premonition, so instead of speaking she tried to bring her own hand forward, to take his in reassurance.

However, that didn’t go to plan. The moment their fingers touched he flinched, violently stepping away as if burned. A second later he growled, hands clenching into fists, and with a few steps and a turn he was at the opposite wall – faster than she could anticipate he punched it, knuckles smacking into the breeze blocks. “Spike!” she cried out against the crack of bone, rushing over. He was laughing now, slapping the wall with both hands and grazing his palms roughly down the concrete. “Tell me!” Her voice rose with something that felt a lot like panic. “What is going on?”

“Should have known,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Should have bloody known.” Growling he slammed his fists sideways against the wall and all Buffy could do was pray he wasn’t adding to the blood already there and on his hands. “Take the chip out, take the trigger out, only one thing left, isn’t there? Gotta go for the hat trick, every sodding time…”

And that was when she worked it out.

No way.

Cold flushed over her; unbidden tears flooded her eyes and her feet took her one step backwards. “Your soul?” she asked, though she barely recognised as her voice, high and young and not who she was anymore. “Your soul’s gone?”

He’d spun to face her and now he stared, the expression on his face showing more heartbreak than he had a right to feel.

Still Buffy’s tears were building and she couldn’t help but ask through a gulp, “Was it something I did?”

“No!” he said sharply, eyes wide – before adding, “Or if it was then I don’t remember it,” quick and defensive as that time they’d made the deal by the police car. Before her life had turned to complete hell and she’d had to run away, all because she’d killed –

Her mind skittered away from that memory, but a flash of clarity came to her. The speed of his voice, the tone; it was like when they’d made that deal against Angelus, who, she forced herself to realise, was not in her basement. This was Spike. Unchipped, unsouled and undoubtedly going to be pissed if she told him she was comparing him to Angel, but not so immediate a threat. She hoped. She prayed.

Her heart was hammering and with a shudder of adrenaline her mood flipped 180. “Did you know this could happen?” she demanded shrilly, wincing as Spike blinked with shock. Really, she needed to pull herself together, but it wasn’t happening, and she could feel panic coming fully now.

“No, lo-, Buffy – no!” He floundered and looked like he wanted to hit the wall again, fists curling. “I had a plan; I had a bloody plan and it was going to work and I wouldn’t feel like this ever –” With a feral growl he turned halfway to the wall, but, before he could smash his knuckles even more to pulp, her hand whipped out and seized his wrist. Her fingers clenched tight. It was like she could feel every bone, every strand of muscle and tendon straining, the non-pulsing vampire blood that still was shifting round his system, ready to be spilled by his own self-destructive stupidity. It felt like Spike’s wrist, Spike as he’d always been. She could let that anchor her, right?

Again he looked her way and she could accept how crushed he had to feel. Silence and stillness seemed to settle her snap-change jumble of emotions and at last she blinked her tears away, raising her chin as they ran down her cheeks, unashamed. Who could have done this? she thought furiously, weighing up the fear in his eyes. It seemed more like a punishment than anything else. A strange, ironic punishment, but a punishment nonetheless.

The question was, what enemies did Spike have now that wouldn’t have done this six months ago? Apart from –

Oh, god.

It seemed obvious.

“Spike,” she said, the calm of purpose flooding through her. She didn’t want to think it was possible, but there were time for questions after – after other questions. “You have to excuse me for a moment.” He looked nonplussed as she gave him back his hand, pushing his wrist gently against his chest and letting her fingertips linger for only a moment on his skin. “There’s something I need to check upstairs.”

The calm was an illusion, a total fairground magic trick, and she realised this the moment she started moving, storming up out of the basement and into the kitchen. Anger surged through her, closing off her vision. There was no calm, not anymore; just white-hot, disbelieving fury.

The floor vanished beneath her stride and she was in the living room, carpet and couch, target acquired and –

SLAM. Giles was up against the wall. His tea went flying and people were screaming, but her eyes zeroed in on him. She loved him, so her hand was on his chest, not his throat, but the voice that came out of her mouth was the one that belonged in her weapon bag. “What did you do?”

“Buffy?” Beady eyes behind glasses were pleading with her, confused. Scared.

She shoved again. “What did you do?” Part of her had been expecting something like this, had been on edge for days.

The old man coughed, and she knew if she pushed harder she could break ribs. But then there was a body against her back, strong hands around her forearms pulling down and dragging her backwards. The grip on the left was slick with something sticky. “Christ, Buffy,” came the growling voice in her ear. “Even Rupert’s not that stupid.” Unexpectedly then a heel jabbed the front of her ankle, tripping her and forcing all three of them to collapse away from the wall.

Now all she could hear was the sound of Giles wheezing, loud against the sudden silence of the inevitably full room. Her arms had thin smudges of Spike’s blood on them, brown-red marks on her skin, and they were shaking. “I told you to stay in the basement,” she snapped at Spike, focusing on all the annoyance she could summon because of that. Even if she hadn’t, had she? Whatever; she couldn’t think; she couldn’t even remember running up the stairs. They were upstairs now, right?

“Fat lot of good I was doing down there,” Spike grumbled, scowling and resilient beneath the eyes of others, still shirtless with his hands covered in smears and crusting rivulets of blood. It took a moment for her to remember the wall-punching.

“What’s going on, Buffy?” came Dawn’s voice, full of worry.

“Yeah,” added Xander. “And what’s Giles got to do with it?”

“Giles has nothing to do with it,” answered the man himself, between coughs. “I’m more than aware of the – eggshells beneath my feet, so I assure you I’ve been – keeping my – ‘doing’ with things to the absolute minimum.”

There were too many voices, so she squeezed her eyes shut, slightly worried she was about to cry again. The facts were beginning to resurface in her mind. She had a vampire in the house with no chip and – oh, God, she was actually going to think it – no soul, no soul, with nowhere where she could put him except manacles or the sunshine, neither of which she wanted to do.

Of the two people she could think of with a motive, one clearly had no idea what was going on and the other was somewhere not here and probably still up to his eyeballs in pain meds – and showed all signs of having no magical prowess at all. Not to mention that, in the harsh light of day – or filtered sunshine at least – ‘teach Buffy a lesson by taking her vampire’s soul away’ seemed more foolhardy and cruel than either Giles or Robin were capable of.

Crap. So much for trying to maintain a working relationship with her watcher…

Who could have done this? she thought, promising herself she’d be embarrassed later. The First had the power, maybe, but the motive was sketchy; soulless vampires, as a rule, had nothing to lose, so sending them insane was tricky. She was also fairly sure the First had more interest in souls-gone-bad than demons without them, because otherwise there were bigger fish to fry than Spike. Rationally this made no sense with the enemies that she had, which meant there was someone new on the horizon. Which was, honestly, freaking unnecessary.

And, dammit, dammit, Willow was still in LA.

Taking a deep breath, Buffy came back to the world. The living room was full of people, expressions a mixture of fear, worry and mocking incredulity – though that last one was mostly Kennedy. Dawn was frowning with concentration, probably about three minutes from working out the whole situation on her own. Andrew was eating a snack. Xander looked like he wanted one.

Eventually her eyes landed on Spike’s. She wasn’t sure what she expected to see in them, but he still would only look like Spike to her, gutted but stubborn, which was either going to make this whole situation much, much easier, or rip her heart out and make her eat the aorta. If someone could toss the coin already, that would be helpful.

He took pity on her, dropping his head to one side. “Fancy I share with the class?” he asked, arms crossing defensively over his chest, blood catching on scars. “Know where I’m headed, don’t worry, but they probably deserve to know why I’m in chains again.”

That caused another flurry of whispers, which both she and Spike took a moment to let settle. Of course, that was when Dawn decided to pick up on whatever difference there had to be that Buffy couldn’t see. “Oh,” she said and they both stared at her. Her eyes were as wide as saucers. “No way.” She shook her head. “Nuh uh.”

In the silence after that Spike swallowed, and Buffy watched him shrink into himself. But then, with a swell of demonic confidence, he stood tall once more, hands on his hips as he eyed down a wary Giles. A quick snort of breath and then he spoke, quick and to the point. “Some bastard stole my soul. If the gang could get their heads together and nick it back, it’d be much appreciated. Ta.”

No one seemed to know how to react, not that Buffy could blame them; she suddenly found herself trying to hold back a smile, for some reason. With a nod in her direction, Spike took the opportunity to retreat, walking soundlessly past a group of shrugging Latina potentials, into the kitchen and then down to the basement once more.

Buffy turned back to Giles, who looked like he was about to keel over. “I’m – sorry,” she said. “Giles, I’m sorry.”

She felt ashamed to have leapt to conclusions. She felt anxious that she’d messed this up. She felt a dozen things, dark and miserable, all of them still husting for dominance, yet the strangest feeling of all, she now realised, distracting her from sincerity and filling her mind with Spike’s face, sane and so lacking in cruelty, was pride. Enough to make her want to laugh.

She got the gang on it. An unfair biographer would probably describe it much less casually than that (‘ordered’ would probably get in there somewhere), but Buffy had long stopped caring about the history books.

The thing was, she meant to research with them, honestly she did, but within five minutes of reading she became so restless that the words wouldn’t sit straight on the page. Her muscles had minds of their own and she left for the basement, the flimsiest excuse of ‘watching him’ barely more than a murmur from her lips.

Still restless when she’d descended the stairs, she did exercises and punched the bag, working out for a long time while Spike watched her from her cot, not saying anything. His eyes were haunted, but lazy, and enjoying the view with a set of such contradictory reactions to her that it shouldn’t have been allowed. Under his gaze Buffy found herself kicking just a stretch higher, taking more pleasure in her punches, stepping faster in her footwork – not that she was trying to put on a show, but the urge to impress was there. Who didn’t want to impress their enemy-cum-colleague-cum-most recent romantic partner?

Eventually her movements slowed and she stood at rest, muscles loose and soft with endorphins in such a way that let the silence seep into her bones. With something that felt like inevitability she sat down with Spike on the cot, staring into gloom or at his shoulder, arms, chest, hands…

In the end she just asked, trying to read his face, “How does it feel?”

And he told her, “Bloody awful.”

For a moment that was enough and Buffy nodded. However, the question wouldn’t go away. “Really?”

Spike sighed. Then, closing his eyes for a second, he continued, confiding in a near-whisper because that was what they did these days, “The guilt was easier, you know? I think it was.” His hands were still bloody in the manacles. “Bit overwhelming, at times, and about all these people I thought I’d forgotten, but easier, yeah, definitely.”

She wasn’t sure she believed it, but, drawing her knee close to her chest, she found she had to ask, “Why?”

“Because…” He looked at her for a moment, eyes crinkling as he concentrated on her face. She was struck by the thought that this, this burgeoning conversation, it felt like a strange and somewhat ugly gift: something she wasn’t sure she’d wanted, but something she’d never thought she’d get. Listening to him speak was like fingering the insides of a Magic 8-Ball; he said, “Believe me, no human language has words for what I feel now, no way of describing it. What I did – ” Pausing, he sucked in a breath and she clutched her leg more tightly. “Christ, Buffy, compared to what I wanted, for us – for you – that was never…”

His voice trailed off and she nodded, accepting his lack of words. She wanted so badly to leave it there, and she knew he accepted that she didn’t owe him anything verbalised, but there was one thing she had to articulate about that whole horrible incident, if only for herself. “If I thought your intentions matched your – what you did – I would never have let you back in my house. You’d be dust in the school basement.” She had to believe that.

First Spike nodded, with a certain sense of gratitude. “I’m sorry –” But then his head rocked back against the wall, thumping forcefully as his fists clenched. “This, this is the bloody pisser – because I am sorry, Buffy, I’m – I know I’m sorry, but, now? Sitting here? I can’t feel it right. It’s not in there.”

“What do you feel?” Buffy asked quietly, wanting to know. Watching him like this, his whole body tense against the wall, her mind was strangely calm. Last year felt like another country these days, somewhere she remembered but incomparably different to where she was living now, her memory coloured by the knowledge that she could never physically remember every detail. The idea of sitting with Spike in her basement, the gang all upstairs, it would have seemed crazy to her old self, as crazy as popping Spike’s jeans like a Twinkie wrapper did now. Sitting here with this version of him, after everything, it seemed easy to talk about feelings. She wished she knew if that was good or not. “Is it, like, just a thought, or…”

“No,” he replied in an equally quiet voice, strained and forceful though his words were. “It’s everything – everything but being actually sorry. It’s horror and it’s anger, rage, you know, all against myself. Dulled a bit over the year, but it’s still there, boiling up and pounding and driving me out of my skull.” It was almost like she could see it, in the shadows clouding the blue of his eyes. “Can’t deal with it now; I couldn’t stand it then.” He laughed shortly, remembering as he looked away. “In the time between – I wanted to destroy myself, crawl out of my brain and rip me up from the outside. Get torn apart.”

Two tears pricked Buffy’s eyes as she took it all in. “You got your soul back as… Punishment?” That felt wrong somehow. The soul was important to her, she could admit that, be proud of it, but Spike’s quest for it was important too. The idea that it was, well, a self-imposed version of the curse? That hurt. This was supposed to be the bad state. This was supposed to be the curse.

Again Spike’s eyes returned to hers. She knew her face was begging him to lie, say he hadn’t been trying to punish himself, but he wasn’t going to do it. “Yeah,” he replied, making her heart sink. “That was part of it. Part of the reason why I got it.” He winced, she imagined in response to her as she paled. “I’m not a noble vampire, Buffy, not even close.” His words didn’t sound true though, not as he continued so earnestly, “I wanted to do something you’d want, take vengeance on myself on your behalf. The soul was the best thing I could think of – didn’t think much beyond that.”

The irony was that his eyes looked as soulful as ever, filled with that ugly desire to end it all she’d seen back in the church, that same expression she’d stared at for months in the mirror.

She’d managed to leave that time behind, in the end, but now she wondered whether Spike ever had.

And, wow, did that thought seem callous now that she actually thought it. Of course he’d just get over getting his soul back! Completely redefine your position on the metaphysical spectrum? No big, really. Absolutely no problem at all…

“Pain works in a different way,” she found herself saying, keeping her sarcasm to herself. “For you, right, without the soul?” Considering the pain was caused by what he’d done to her, she couldn’t work out whether she even wanted to console him, let alone how she should go about doing it. She wanted to understand though. “It’s not the same – but it’s there.”

Spike snorted, apparently picking up on her irony anyway: “‘Not the same’ being the pertinent bit of that little description.” He stared down, looking once again at the chains on his wrists. “It’s all selfish, useless stuff, these feelings I have. Can’t believe they got me as far as they did.”

That wasn’t right. “But they did,” she insisted, meeting his frown as his head jerked up. “They got you a long way, got you working for good, got you the soul…” She wracked her mind, not sure where she was going with this, but the urge to defend Spike against himself was rising as strongly as it had done before he’d been kidnapped. Maybe it was something the basement did to her – the dank did make her feel righteous. “The whole saga with Glory, you were there. That wasn’t selfish, not all of it, it couldn’t have been when you were putting your life on the line. And everything you did after that, for – Dawn and the others?”

She rocked forward onto the floor, drawing his gaze to follow her as she paced in front of the cot. The fact she’d picked up the thinking-better-while-moving habit from him was probably disturbing, but she was on the edge of something here, she could tell. “Maybe you hate yourself now,” she considered, “and maybe you should hate yourself a little bit – but that hate, that’s important, that’s…” Spinning round, she pointed a finger in his surprised face, remembering something. “You told me you never hated yourself!” she accused, with a sharp jolt of conviction. “Before Christmas, you stood there and you told me you never hated yourself!”

Caught out, Spike shrugged, mumbling something and looking down at the sheets. Apparently the soul actually made him a better liar.

“Newsflash, Spike,” she interrupted, putting her hands on her hips and stared down his frown of defiance. Hello, epiphany, nice to see you again. “Hating yourself for not hating yourself enough, or not feeling enough guilt, or not feeling the right amount of feelings or however you want to classify it? That stuff still counts. And when you get your soul back I’m going to make sure you know it and I’m gonna make sure you remember everything you were capable of like this. And I’m gonna make sure you know it now, because – dammit, I’m not helping you get your soul back if it’s just a way to kill yourself!”

Her heart was beating furiously, incongruous as Spike stared back in shock. Seconds passed.

“Bloody hell,” he muttered eventually, eyes rolling to the ceiling as a smile flickered across his lips. He looked delighted. Clearly, admitting that she wanted him alive, even soulless, was pretty high on the admission-scale.

“Well, I’m not,” she stammered, trying to explain. “It’s – ooky.” She felt like she’d had this conversation before somewhere, but she couldn’t work out when it might have been. “Soulful-you may not agree, and you-you probably don’t either, but my duty ends with making sure you help us fight the First. There’s no reason I have to help you get it back.” She could ignore the fear in her stomach that he would never have a soul again; it would be difficult, but she could do it. Maybe.

He raised an eyebrow, unconvinced.

“OK,” she admitted, regaining composure. “Yes. I want you to have a soul. Sue me; I like souls. They’re reassuring, in the most part.” After a moment’s decision she sat back down on the bed, taking his hand in hers and clutching it to prove her earnestness. “But, Spike, I want you to want it.” Maybe that was too much to ask, but she had to ask it; it didn’t feel right otherwise. “I don’t want it to be a curse – I mean, they never end well.”

Now he smiled fully, obviously touched as he squeezed her hand in return. Comfortable silence fell and she smiled back.

It was weird that this was happening now, after all of Giles’ intimations about her and Spike, when she’d been beginning to accept just how important to her Spike was. She didn’t want him gone and she was beyond grateful that he pulled his weight enough to let her stand against Giles and Robin. Thing was, she’d mostly put that down to the soul – yet here they were, having what qualified these days as major physical contact, despite there being only one soul between them. More than that, she felt pretty good about it. What the hell did that mean?

“So we’re heading out after sunset?” Spike asked eventually, relaxing his hold on her hand and settling back against the wall. He looked calmer now, almost peaceful.

“Yeah, if you want to,” Buffy replied, looking at her watch. That gave them half an hour. “Did you make your decision that quickly?”

She was incredulous, but he shrugged, clanking his obviously unnecessary chains. “Not much to decide. Went after the soul as an all-or-nothing deal; this chance to reconsider doesn’t change that.” Looking at her, his face was filled with barely suppressed awe and, god help her, a not unimpressive amount of love. “I can’t tell you what it means,” he continued, “that you care what I want. But this isn’t me, not anymore.” He swallowed and twisted his wrists in his manacles. “This is a spell making me something else. Temporary regression.”

Taking the key to his restraints out of her pocket, a constant presence she didn’t feel the loss of, she slipped it into his hand and promised, “We’ll get it back.” Because, really, what else could she say?

He closed his fist around the key and nodded, the tears in his eyes matching her own.

She came back upstairs to an argument, and Giles’ agitated voice filtering through to the kitchen. “I understand that, Xander!” he said. “But the truth remains that Buffy’s life until this point has been defined by the fact it should be her own; she should have been free from the constraints the council and world wanted to put on her.” The potentials were outside, belatedly being boot-camped in the slowly dimming sunshine; she edged closer to the living room. “What I have been trying to stress these last few weeks is that it we cannot do things her way any longer. The council is gone; we are all these girls have, and they are the hope of the future. She is the adult now and they are the priority, not – not anybody’s social life. And certainly not Spike.”

She paused in the doorway, not wanting to announce her presence until she’d at least heard Xander’s reply. It was odd, looking at them all sitting around a table without her, and the strange thought crossed her mind that this was probably how Dawn had felt two years ago, that the only way of hearing what the Scoobies really thought was by eavesdropping. Though, if they saw her, she wasn’t going to hide. She still owned this house, last time she checked the mortgage payment.

Of course Xander obliged her, shifting a book with a resolute ga-thunk. “And what I’m trying to tell you, Giles, is that you’re not helping.” He pushed his fingers through his hair with a sigh. “How do you think it looks, you constantly undercutting Buffy’s decisions? Stressing her out to the point she thinks you wanna make things more wrong? Most of the girls don’t speak English, so it’s not like they really understand what’s going on. All they see is the person who’s supposed to look after them being told she’s not doing it right.” Shaking his head, he continued, “I don’t want to get all ‘hearts and minds’ here, but as veteran doughnut boy I know a few things about morale.”

Dawn continued his point with a soft, detached sincerity, “If one of us lost our soul, started running around all ethics-free? We’d make it our priority. You know we would.”

Watching Giles clean his glasses, frown pronounced, Buffy tensed in anticipation of his declaring Spike was not one of them. It never came, however, and another movement at the table distracted her: Anya turned her way.

For a second their eyes locked and Anya opened her mouth – only to promptly shut it. Buffy stared for a few more seconds, hardly believing it as Anya purposefully looked back to the conversation, pretending she hadn’t seen.

Right, gift horse, Buffy thought eventually. No need to count fillings. Taking a breath and rolling her shoulders, she strolled casually into the room. “How’s it going, guys?” she asked, and it was like she hadn’t heard a thing.

They all jumped, though Anya reacted on a delay. Someone kicked the table hard enough that three Cheetos slipped out of their overfilled bowl. (Andrew quickly picked them up and crunched through the silence.)

No wonder Dawn had always known when something was up. “Guys?” Buffy asked again, trying to sound confused rather than as if she was busting them red-handed. Or red-mouthed, maybe? “Did you find anything?”

“Erm…” Dawn replied quickly, flicking over the pages of her notebook. “Not much.” She was scanning the writing as if she were a little too embarrassed to take it in. “Spike’s been kind of here for a while now, or at the Bronze, so, um, he hasn’t had much opportunity to piss people off this bad…”

“We thought maybe Clem would have some ideas,” Xander added, slightly defensively as he glanced at Giles, who was carefully sipping tea – from a different mug to the one Buffy’s attack had broken earlier. “I mean, Buff, we can’t find much to research here; there’s nothing on vampires with souls nayway, let alone ones who lose them again afterwards.” He took a breath, looking at her and gesturing at the books and papers on the table, seeming to regain his balance. “Maybe when Will gets back? We don’t know where to start.”

Buffy joined them at the table and tried to suppress her annoyance at their conversation, letting the news sink in instead. Xander was right, she realised. Yet at the same time, with everything they had on the table, dictionaries and compendiums and demonic travel guides to hell dimensions, she felt like they should be able to do something. This was what they did.

“I had an idea,” Anya offered, fiddling with a biro between her fingers and staring a little mulishly at the books. “I mean, we’re guessing the plan was to throw Spike off-balance, right? Or maybe you?”

“Yeah…” Buffy replied, now unable to catch her eye. Whatever had passed between them before seemed to have faded into indifference once again.

“Well, if we think about this objectively –” Anya’s eyes slid to Xander’s. “– or at least from a demon perspective, which I know is not ‘normal’ – this whole situation exudes elegance. Nothing’s visibly changed, but nothing’s the way it was before: there’s so much dormant pain here.” At last she looked at Buffy, who was surprised to realise that she didn’t just mean in the sense of everyone not Buffy getting their throats ripped out. On the contrary Anya seemed to realise how hard this could have been, just to deal with emotionally. It was weird. “It’s textbook vengeance work. D’Hoffryn’s calling card. Or someone trained by him.”

“You think…” Buffy’s mind was whirring. “Someone cast a vengeance spell against Spike?” She looked around the table, to a chorus of shrugs.

All apart from Andrew, who interjected, “Or maybe against you. Someone who knew how close you are to Spike would totally think about using him to get to you.”

Giles snorted into his tea, drawing the full force of Buffy’s attention. She might have reflexively avoided everyone’s eyes on that statement, and started blushing, but apparently her anger with Giles was still stronger than embarrassment. “What’s that, Giles?” she asked.

His response was a flinty stare and a refusal to back down. He’d probably repeat what he’d said to the others, if he got a chance. “I was merely expressing surprise that Andrew could articulate so clearly the very weakness I have been trying to make you understand.”

At her side, Dawn shifted, probably uncomfortable, but Buffy didn’t take her eyes from her watcher. “Well, huh,” she said, fists clenching under the table as Giles’s expression refused to yield. “I was gonna tell you how this whole situation proves that there is nothing to worry about. You’d know that too, if you ever actually spoke to him like a person.” Xander coughed, so she conceded, “Even if we still need to fix things, which we do, Spike’s committed to this fight – soul or no soul.” Now she looked around, meeting everyone’s eyes in turn, embarrassment cooling to conviction. “If something new comes up and we have to put this to one side, Spike is still fighting with us. He fought with us against Glory and the chip didn’t make him do that; he’s fighting with us now.”

“I, uh…” Anya began, setting her jaw. Buffy gestured for her to continue. “It might not be about you, not ultimately. Or Spike.”

“Oh.” OK, maybe she should have stuck with blushing.

“D’Hoffryn wants me dead and Spike stopped one of his assassins…”

“Oh.” The table fell silent. “I guess that makes sense too.”

No one said anything. Giles rolled his eyes, looking like that was the only thing keeping him from exhausted tears of frustration. Dawn snuck a Cheeto.

“Well, if you’re sure about that,” Buffy continued at last, scratching her nose as she tried not to feel bad about stressing Giles out (because, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t she more stressed?), “shouldn’t we go and find him? Make him take it back?” Anya looked at Xander again, who shrugged. Still Buffy tried to regroup. “Isn’t there that dimension, where he lives? Spike and I can go there, and – ”

Immediately Giles sighed, interrupting her, “Buffy, this is no time to be haring off into who knows –”

“We can’t even be sure if it was D’Hoffryn.” That was Dawn.

“And is it even possible?” Xander added, looking incredulous. “Arashmaharr isn’t – you can’t just mount up with Girl Scout cookies and press the buzzer.”

All right, she supposed that was fair. “Anya, couldn’t you guide us?” Buffy looked at Anya across the table, but the other woman didn’t seem to take the request too kindly, pursing her lips.

“Oh, sure,” she replied sarcastically, détente lost again to mutiny as she rolled her eyes. Apparently that request was going too far. “I mean, it’s everyone’s lives for the team right? The team being you and…”

Tersely Buffy pointed out, “Clearly we need to sort out his vendetta against you anyway, so don’t worry about being too selfless.”

“Hey, hang on a second,” Xander replied, incredulous as Anya scowled. “Buffy, think about what you’re asking.” He gestured as though he didn’t have enough words, using the same incredulous tone he’d spoken to Giles with earlier. “And what you’re trying to make us believe! Six months ago – well, you made your feelings about Anya pretty clear; what’s so different now?” She winced. “Last time it was all pistols at dawn, but now Spike needs his soul back you decide it’s time you and Anya are suddenly best pals?”

Everyone’s eyes joined Xander’s, sending Buffy up from her chair and onto her feet, staring at her hands on the table’s edge as she tried to work out how she could explain. It was different, Spike’s situation – a whole host of dead bodies was missing, for a start, but she didn’t want to base an argument on that. After all, the earth was full of bodies Spike had put there over the last century. She hadn’t forgotten. It was the change that mattered, not the lack of killing; it was the soul not the chip. The getting of the soul. “The First,” she began at last, in what she hoped were reasonable, measured tones. The First was always a good place to start. “It wants us –” like this “– divided and – disoriented, not trusting anyone on our side.”

Yes, she thought, looking up to meet the eyes of her family again. As she continued she spoke to Xander, “Look, I mean; we shouldn’t think about our friends above everybody else. I still believe that. None of – our lives aren’t more important than the world.” Not anymore, she thought, as she avoided her sister’s gaze and met Anya’s frown. “But, we should still help each other – trust each other. If you want to get Lifetime about it, the thing is, back then with you, Anya – I was wrong. And I’m sorry.” Anya’s eyebrows rose and Buffy felt a sharp spark of remorse at her shock. She’d been sorry for a while; hadn’t Anya realised that? “There’s something more important than justice, and that’s…” What she was feeling now. “The desire to change, to do right, to be good.” Again she looked around the table, staring down a petulant Giles and trying to find the part of him that she knew liked her speeches, even if it spent most of these days buried under stress. “The First is building an army, not only underground, but here, where we are. It’s making agents out of us, by trying to convince us that we aren’t good enough, that there’s no point in fighting, that others are giving in. It wants us not to trust anyone but ourselves, so that in the end it doesn’t have so much work to do.”

Stepping back from the table, Buffy took a moment to glance through to the kitchen, where outside the window she could just make out their supposed army of potentials going through their drills. None of them had known each other before, living separately even if they’d had watchers. It seemed wrong. “You always told me,” she continued, on a roll now as she looked again at Dawn and Giles and Xander, “that I couldn’t fight alone. Even if that was what the books said, or what the First Slayer told me, that that wasn’t how I was strongest.” Xander was frowning, as if he could see where she was going and wasn’t sure yet where he stood. She argued harder, “Well, you know what? We can’t fight alone. As a group we’re too small. Evil is everywhere and we’re only a small group of… Under-resourced vigilantes in southern California.”

Biting her lip, Buffy paused before carrying on, suddenly aware of the tingle on the back of her neck that told her Spike was climbing the basement stairs. “If we want to beat the First’s army, we need to start recruiting ours. We can’t give up on people, just because it’s inconvenient; if the First sets people down the path of evil, we should show them the way back.” She was so not meeting Andrew’s eyes. He was practically jumping in his chair with self-important glee. “We should trust they have good in them, the way the First trusts they have bad.”

It would have been so much easier, Buffy thought, if she liked Anya, but, “That was why I should have helped you, Anya,” she said, offering a smile though the other woman’s expression was one hundred percent shock. “Not because you’re our friend, but because you wanted things to be different. And that – that’s amazing.” And that’s why we need to help Spike now.

The silence as she finished was heavy, only to be broken by the basement door opening and snicking closed. Spike made his way into the room, coat across his shoulders as he glanced at her and the closed faces of those around the table. “What’d I miss?” he asked, slouching against the doorframe.

“Some first-class speechifying,” Xander told him, though whether this was a good or a bad thing he didn’t seem to have decided yet.

Bemused, Spike looked at her again, clearly remembering how well some of her other speeches had gone down. She told him, “Anya thinks it could have been that head vengeance honcho guy who took your soul. Or someone who works for him.”

“All right then,” he replied, shrugging as if to agree that was plausible. “Take it we’re not hitting up the Alibi Room?”

“No.” She frowned, slightly unnerved by the lack of response from the table. “Or at least…” Maybe they would have to beat up demons to get a portal open.

But then, surprising possibly everyone, Anya spoke up. “I’ll take you to Arashmaharr,” she said, rising to her feet a little awkwardly. “I mean, I’m a valuable member of the team, right?”

“Anya, you don’t have to…” Xander’s voice was full of worry, and suddenly Buffy felt horrible for wanting to take his not-a-girlfriend somewhere so obviously dangerous. “D’Hoffryn wants you dead.”

“I know that, Xander,” Anya replied as Buffy glanced again at Spike – he gave her one of those nods that somehow convinced her she wasn’t a horrible person. “But Buffy’s convoluted speech aside, if Spike had a vengeance spell cast on him because of me, then I owe him my help.”

Buffy almost laughed. Mostly out of relief, but also because she really should have realised it could be this simple. She should have realised that Anya might actually want to help.

Hadn’t she just heard her speech?


[Chapter Two: Aether, Born of Shadow]

Originally posted at

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