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‘I love you,’ she had said as the sunfire burned through him and he blazed with light. Knowing that he was dying and wanting to give him something in return for the death. At least those words that he had always wanted from her and which cost her nothing to say now.
But he had known she was lying. ‘No, you don’t, but thanks for saying it.’
And then the cavern was crashing down around her and she had left him there as she ran. Up through the Seal and through the toppling corridors of the high school as the sunfire consuming and exploding from Spike destroyed the Hellmouth and shook the ground under her. Flinging herself towards the bus as Giles and the girls screamed at her to hurry because the town was collapsing under them.
The bus had made it, screeching past the boundaries of the town just as Sunnydale folded into itself behind them. They had stopped then on solid ground and gotten out and stared with awe at the vast, vast crater that was now stood where the town had been. Hellmouth gone. Sunnydale gone. Nothing left but rocks and rubble and ruin. Nothing at all.
Buffy had looked at it and smiled. Thinking only that she was free now. Free of the Hellmouth. Free of Sunnydale. Free to go where she wanted, do what she wanted, the whole world opening up before her.
Not thinking of Spike or that his life had been the price of her freedom.
Others had died too. The battle with the First Evil had taken a toll. Some of the Potentials, Amanda for one, quiet and plain and so courageous, whom she had liked. Anya. She heard Andrew saying that Anya had saved his life and Xander joking about how she always did the stupid thing, his tone light and careless.
But he was unusually quiet on the ride to L.A. They were all chattering about silly things by then, about going to the mall and where they were going to stay now and the existence of the other hellmouth in Cleveland. There were wounded to see to and plans to be made. Giles—as one of the few, perhaps the only remaining member of the Council of Watchers—was saying that the Council’s bank accounts had certainly not been blown up and that Angel would find a place for them to stay while Giles looked into getting access to them. They had survived and they had a future. The whole world did, now that the First was defeated. They had won and they were all looking forward rather than back.
Reaction to all the danger and stress that they had endured? Perhaps. Shutting it all out, the terror they had lived with so long and didn’t want to think about any longer. But later—much later—Buffy realized that anyone overhearing them would have thought they sounded callous and unfeeling. She certainly had been, thinking only about her freedom and not about the cost.
Angel’s Hyperion Hotel provided them with a place to stay while they figured out what to do next. In the weeks that followed, they found out that Willow’s spell activating the Slayer inside the Potentials had had unexpected consequences. It had not only given the Potentials there in Sunnydale the power to keep themselves alive against the Turok-Han, but had awakened all the potential Slayers everywhere in the world. There were almost eighteen hundred of them, Giles estimated, and they had to be contacted and told what they were and taught how to handle these new abilities they found rising within them.
It was decided that England, where the Council used to be, was the best place for a central base. The Council’s funds and properties were there and Giles would also be able to make use of the Council’s contacts. Giles went ahead to establish Slayer headquarters there. Willow’s new abilities as a witch helped track down the newly activated Slayers in the States, and Buffy and the SunnyD Slayers fanned out to gather them in at the Hyperion in preparation for the move to England.
Those months should have been exciting. Seeing all those places Buffy had never been able to visit before—New York, Miami, Washington, Boston, Houston, all the rest. And later there would be all those other far more exotic places that Giles was certain to send her out to—London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo. The whole world lay open at her feet and yet she felt oddly flat. It was no fun exploring on her own. Well, occasionally one of the full-Slayers would be with her, but it was not the same as having someone special with her. Angel would have come if she had asked him, but strangely she didn’t want Angel.
“Come on, B,” said Faith. She and Robin Wood, now recovered from his wounds, had decided that they wouldn’t go to England with the rest of them, but would stay in the States and keep an eye on the Cleveland hellmouth. “No more FEs and crap to worry about anymore. Let’s go have some fun.”
So she and Faith and a lot of the SunnyD Slayers went clubbing and danced the night away.
“Nice buns on that one,” remarked Faith as the guy Buffy had been dancing with went off to get them both a drink. “Nice bulge in the front of those jeans too. He the one you gonna take home?”
“Haven’t decided yet,” shrugged Buffy. She had danced wildly with several partners. “I’m still playing the field. You?”
“The hottie down at the end of the bar there, I think.” She waved at the hottie who gave her back a hopeful and eager smirk.
Buffy giggled, then caught herself up. “I think I’ve had too much to drink.”
“Gotta learn to loosen up, B. And hold your likker. You haven’t any capacity at all. I’ve had three times as much as you and I’m still five by five.”
“What the hell does that mean?” she had asked Spike once and he had laughed.
“Five by five? Really old radio slang for the strength and clarity of a signal. Each on a scale of one to five, so five by five stands for perfect. God knows where she picked it up. I think it goes back to WWII.”
She could still see the vivid blue of his eyes and that flash of bright laughter that had come so rarely in him that last year. Because of the soul? Because of her? The memory sobered her and she went home alone. She didn’t know why. But somehow some mindless, meaningless fuck with someone she picked up at a bar suddenly felt wrong. Had she rejected all of Spike’s love and devotion, held him off so determinedly, only to screw some hunk she didn’t know or care about? What kind of horrendous betrayal would that be? Of her ostensible principles. Of Spike.
Because he really had loved her. It wasn’t just obsession as she had so unrelentingly insisted. He had proved that when he had died for her in the Hellmouth.
She had wanted to think about it as obsession. Wanted to think about him as nothing but a vamp and soulless and evil. She had used him that time when she hadn’t been able to feel anything after Willow had resurrected her. ‘Make me feel,’ she had said, needing sensations that would bring her back to the world, bind her to it. And then when he had, she had hated him for making her feel, for making love to her while she just fucked him, for forcing her to live when all she really wanted was to die and return to that peace of the Heaven she had been dragged from.
Punished him for doing only what she had asked, flayed him with her scorn and her hatred, physically abused him with blows that he had never resisted which had left marks still there a week later even on a swiftly healing vampire.
Even breaking off that destructive relationship had been selfish. ‘It’s killing me,’ she had said. But what had it been doing to him? But she had never bothered to think of that. Even the time he had tried to force himself upon her was something she had driven him to, with her blindness and her lack of empathy, not seeing his pain and desolation, seeing it only as a try at rape, rather than a last disastrous attempt by him to somehow make contact. She had never forgiven him for that, even after he had gone and gotten his soul in his horror after coming back to his senses.
So that he would never hurt her like that again. But she had never valued that magnificent achievement of his, that thing no other demon had ever done before, not even Angel whose soul had been forced upon him. She winced now, thinking of how she and Xander had mocked Spike when he had been crazed with the guilt that the soul had brought him, how she had left him to struggle with it alone in the basement of the high school, how she had never been able to even look at him without that rape attempt flashing through her brain.
And then, when he had recovered his balance and the change the soul had made to him became apparent, she had been angry at him, publicly decried and humiliated him for no longer having those lethal characteristics that she had hated and condemned him for, but now needed in her fight against the First.
God, the things she had done! Sitting on her bed in the Hyperion now, she suddenly saw it all. Faced herself. Faced everything she had so carefully blocked out the last year. All the things she had never acknowledged and her own responsibility for them. Finally admitted to herself that most of the blame had been hers, not his. He’d made a mess of it, had done wrong, made some horrible mistakes; but she had done so much worse and made so many more.
He had tried so hard, but she had never given him credit for any of it.
She found that she was weeping. She didn’t make a sound, but the tears flooded down her face, just kept falling. Willow, coming in with a brief tap on the door and a wide smile to ask how the evening had gone, stopped short in dismay.
“Buffy! What’s wrong? I thought you had fun tonight with Faith and the others!”
“I didn’t. Not really. And I sat down to try to figure out why and...and...I really looked at myself, Will. For the first time.”
“But why should that upset you so much? There’s nothing wrong with you, Buff!”
“Everything’s wrong!” cried Buffy. And all of it came pouring out.
“That’s your guilt talking,” Willow said gently at the end. “You’re being too hard on yourself.”
“Better than being too easy and living on the Nile as I always have.” She took the handkerchief Willow held out and scrubbed furiously at her face. “I’m not going to do that again. Not ever.”
“It’s not all your fault.”
“So much of it is. I feel so guilty. If only there was a way to fix it! But there’s no fixing it. No way to make up for it. He’s dead, Will. Burned to ash being my Champion. And I never gave him anything. Not even a crumb.”
Willow just hugged her and didn’t say anything. There was nothing anyone could say.
“He saved us all. Saved the whole world really, all those billions of people that the First would have destroyed. But he didn’t care about that. He didn’t do it for them. He did it for me. And I didn’t even grieve for him.”
Willow stroked her hair. “You’re grieving now.”
“It finally hit me. What I’ve done. What he did. I’ll never forgive myself.”
“He’d forgive you.”
“Yes, he would. He always did. That’s why I can’t.”
“Maybe you can’t now when it’s all raw and fresh. But you do get past it,” said Willow from the depths of her own grief over Tara’s death and the knowledge of the evil she had done herself as Dark-Willow. “You can’t change it, but you do learn to live with what you’ve done and to try not to do it again. That’s all one can do.”
Two of the saddest words in the world and Willow had said them countless times herself in the stillness of her own mind.
“Yeah,” she sighed. “But you can’t destroy yourself with guilt and grief, Buff. Because they wouldn’t want it.”
Buffy gave her a glance of painful understanding. “You too?”
Willow nodded. “And Xander over Anya. He hurt her, but still she came and fought for us.”
“And died. And I didn’t even mourn her,” said Buffy sadly. “What’s wrong with us, Will?”
“We’ve all had blinders over our eyes. But they’ve come off now and we can change. We’ve all made mistakes that can’t be fixed. All we can do is not let it happen again.”
“But it won’t help them,” said Buffy with self-hating bitterness.
“Don’t,” said Willow, catching that. “You can’t let it break you. He did it for you and it kind of lessens his sacrifice to break, if you see what I mean.”
“Oh, God.” Buffy swiped at her face. “How do you stand it?”
“You just do,” said Willow out of hard experience. “You just take it day by day and step by step, and do the best you can.”
“Live with it.”
So she lived with it. But the guilt didn’t lessen and she didn’t want it to. She deserved it. And the pain only grew. She didn’t know why. Maybe it would have helped if she had been able to really talk to Willow about it. But though Willow now had a whole different perspective on Spike after his sacrifice in the Hellmouth, she didn’t really know what Buffy had done to him or the full weight of the guilt on her heart. Buffy had told her some, but not all. The rest of it was between her and Spike, and she couldn’t allow even Willow in on something that personal, just as Willow couldn’t tell her all that had happened between Tara and herself that was hurting Willow so badly.
Giles called and said that everything was ready for them in England. The Sunnydale Potentials and the newly activated Slayers that had been collected were all excited by the move. Angel came to see them all off.
“Thank you for letting us use the Hyperion,” Buffy said to him. “I don’t know what we would have done without it.”
“It was a pleasure having you around.” But his glance betrayed that he had hoped for more, that he had hoped her cookies had done baking. She felt strangely awkward around him and the little frown in his eyes told her that he had noticed her faint stiffness and distance.
But what could he expect? His curse was still there and any relationship between them was as impossible as it had been from the start.
“You’ll let me know where you are?” he said.
“Yes, of course.”
“In case I shanshu,” he said with careful lightness. Turning human, that meant; the promise the PTB held out to him like a carrot under his nose. If only it would happen, Buffy thought; if only he would turn human. They could be happy then.
He bent to kiss her and, to her own surprise, Buffy found herself unthinkingly turning her head so that his lips only grazed her cheek. She saw his brows snap together.
Now why had she done that? she thought in the bus carrying them all to the airport. She hadn’t meant to. It had just happened.
And then she realized why. Because the last time they had kissed, Spike had seen them and had been so hurt. Yet another betrayal that kiss had been and subconsciously she hadn’t wanted to repeat it.
Giles was there to meet them at Heathrow. He had another bus waiting for them, since it seemed the base he had found was in Hertfordshire, in a town called Caxley. The Council owned a huge old house there on sixty-three acres of ground and Giles had had the three floors above ground converted into dormitories, offices, libraries and messhalls for all the Slayers they would be collecting. He had also created three sub-levels below ground that were still in the process of being turned into the training and security centers that he wanted kept hidden from the public eye.
Here in England too, there were newly activated Slayers to be collected. Willow located them and Buffy and the others went out to bring them to where they could be told what they were and then could be properly trained. Vi and Andrew were talking about creating a television commercial to advise all the others across the world of their natures and the existence of the Council, in the hopes that they would contact Caxley Hall of their own volition instead of having to be searched for.
“We’ll need other centers too,” said Giles. “A base in America for certain. Not at Cleveland though. Faith and Robin will have their hands full with the hellmouth there. They don’t need more problems dumped on them. New York perhaps. And at least one in Europe. Paris? No, Rome. Would you be willing to go out there and set one up, Buffy?”
“Sure.” She didn’t care one way or the other and Italy was full of exciting things to see and do.
So she and Dawn went to Rome and got themselves a little apartment there. Willow and Xander came along but, since the two of them would be returning to England once the base in Rome was properly up and running, preferred to stay at the almost completed center. That had once been a private college which had gone bankrupt and had been falling into genteel decay when Giles acquired it. It was just outside Rome and it had the grounds and the basic infrastructure of dorms, halls and lecture rooms that Giles wanted, so it wasn’t all that difficult to convert into a setup similar to Caxley Hall.
Xander was supervising the renovations, Willow was busy setting up a network of Wicca that would link with the one Giles had at Caxley, and Buffy had her hands full with collecting the activated Slayers in Europe and then establishing their training program. There was no time to think, which was a blessing.
She had thought being in such a fascinating place as Rome would lift her spirits, but it didn’t. She and Dawn had seen all the sights and taken all the tours and gone to all the museums. To Buffy’s surprise, Dawn had enjoyed it. Buffy hadn’t. It was all beautiful and glorious, but she hadn’t really felt anything. It was all somehow flat. Well, she had never really been interested in Culture with a big C anyway. Night life, now that was what was important.
And Rome had a very varied and vibrant night life, and a lot of very varied, vibrant and virile Italian men who were vociferously happy to show it to her since blonde American girls on their own devices in the Eternal City offered a lot of interesting possibilities to them. They however offered almost none to Buffy. They all wanted the same thing and they all seemed the same, running into each other like faceless mannequins; and if Luigi had shown up one evening instead of Marco or Giuseppe instead of Benvenuto, she wouldn’t have known the difference, or cared.
It was almost as if she were going dead inside, the way she had when Willow had resurrected her. She just wasn’t interested. Not in anything. She just felt numb.
Giles had found a boarding school for Dawn, well reputed and for the well-to-do, with a good curriculum and the lessons taught in English. They had gone to visit it and Dawn had liked it. That was a relief, because with everything that was going on, Buffy hadn’t had much time for Dawn and had been feeling guilty about that too.
Xander was coming to drive Dawn to the school. Dawn didn’t want Buffy to come with her because the other girls might think she needed her sister to hold her hand and she considered herself way too old for that. But Buffy didn’t want her going off alone either, so Xander was the compromise. Xander didn’t mind and even said he’d be happy to drive Dawn back and forth on the weekends she wanted to come visit. So that worked out all right.
She could hear Dawn’s voice out in the corridor, talking vivaciously to a teenager from the next apartment. Male, of course. Smiling wryly, she glanced into Dawn’s bedroom. As she had expected, piles of clothes to be taken were still scattered over Dawn’s bed and her suitcases were half empty though at least the trunk she was taking was filled and locked. Xander would be arriving in half an hour. Buffy shook her head ruefully and went in to finish the packing.
She had one suitcase closed and the other almost done. She lifted the last pile of clothing and packed it neatly, then turned over the silver picture frame that had been lying on its face under it. A picture of Joyce was already in one of the suitcases, but Buffy expected this to be another. Or of Hank Summers, or maybe even of her.
It wasn’t. It was of Spike.
She froze, staring at it. It wasn’t a professional studio shot with precise lighting and focus. It was the kind of grab-shot with background blur showing noise pattern that made her think of a video frame from a cheap camcorder rather than a shot from a camera.
But it was utterly Spike, his head tilted in the middle of lighting a cigarette, that teasing grin on his lips and his scarred eyebrow flying wickedly.
She felt as if something had just thudded hard into her guts. Her knees suddenly weak, she sank down onto the side of the bed, unable to take her eyes off the picture.
It was abruptly snatched from her hand.
“That’s mine!” snapped Dawn. “You had no right to snoop!”
“I wasn’t snooping. It was lying on the bed. I was only going to pack it when I saw...” Buffy stopped, unable to speak through the painful constriction in her throat. “How...?”
“How did I get the picture?” Dawn looked sadly down at it. “It isn’t a real picture, just a still. Remember when Andrew was taking video of all of us? Well, he let me borrow the camcorder and take some too.”
That explained the relaxed, teasing expression on Spike’s face. He wouldn’t have looked at Andrew that way; there would have been an irritated, half-scornful distance. But she could see Spike looking up at Dawn like that, with that intimate flicker of vivid laughter and challenge that was so utterly him.
“Andrew still has the camcorder. He showed me all the takes while we were in London and I pointed out the frame I wanted and he made a still for me. It’s mine!” said Dawn defiantly and placed the picture protectively into her suitcase. “You don’t care about Spike and I do!”
“Of course it’s yours,” said Buffy numbly as Dawn hurriedly closed and locked her suitcase. Maybe Andrew would make a copy for her if she asked.
Not care about Spike? Maybe it seemed that way to Dawn, to all of the others. Buffy had never been open about her feelings. It looked like she had been all too successful in hiding her pain. Only Willow had even the slightest inkling of it.
There was a knock on the front door of the flat and Dawn went to answer it. It was Xander. The bustle of helping him wrestle Dawn’s trunk and suitcases down to the car and then waving the two of them off kept her from thinking for a little while. Then she was alone. She went back up to the flat and sat down on the couch. Her heart was hurting her.
No, she wouldn’t ask Andrew for a copy of that picture. That look was for Dawn. He had never been so relaxed with Buffy that last year, or even the year before. All Buffy had seen on Spike’s face that last year was pain. Like that time she had run into him in the hallway when she was dressing to go out with Robin Wood and he had known it. God, she had been so unthinkingly, unnecessarily cruel! Hadn’t even thought about what he must have been feeling. She had been moving on, moving away from him, leaving him behind. And he had known that too, accepted it.
Oh, God. She bent over, hugging herself, her forehead on her knees, understanding and agony flowering at last.
She hadn’t lied. She had loved him. She did. It had just taken her this long to realize it.
Too late. She sat there, holding herself and breathing harshly through her mouth. No tears. She had gone past that. Way past that. There was no use in tears.
Picture? She didn’t need a picture. His image was etched into her brain, was burned into the back of her closed eyelids. The wistfulness and the yearning in his face, those vividly blue eyes looking at her with all that love and devotion she had refused to see. She had thrown it all away.
She was seeing it all now, every step of their long, complicated, tortuous relationship. The slow growth and change in him from that lethal, unrepentantly evil vamp who had first come to Sunnydale to the shining Champion burning into ash in the Hellmouth.
A sudden sensory memory overwhelmed her, vivid and agonizing. His body upon hers, within her; the feel of his skin satin against hers; the scent of him; the taste of his mouth; the way he kissed her, looked at her. All gone and never to be again.
Why hadn’t she pulled that amulet off him? She hadn’t even thought to do so. The Turok-Han had been destroyed. There was no need to bring the Hellmouth down, no need for him to die. She could have saved him. He could have been with her.
He could have been alive.
Even if she never saw him again, he would have been alive. That was all that mattered. It was all her fault. She had destroyed him and never seen what she was doing, never valued what she had or all that he had given her.
She knew now. And now she looked into her future and saw only emptiness. All those endless days of loss and guilt and regret that stretched before her and which she deserved.
“What’s up with you, Buff?” asked Xander.
It was a couple of weeks later. Buffy looked up dully from the whiteboard on which she was listing where each Slayer or SIT on patrol tonight was going to be.
“You’re kinda like Robo-Buffy these days. Except not the perky, happy one. You missing Dawn?”
She hadn’t thought her misery showed. “I guess.”
She was going numbly through the motions, doing her duty, training the SITs. Being what they all expected her to be, while keeping her grief and pain to herself. But it seemed she hadn’t been as successful at that as she thought.
“We’re all tired, Xand,” said Willow with careful lightness, running interference. Buffy gave her a grateful glance. “We’ve been working pretty hard these last couple of months and I know I’ll be glad when the College is complete.” That was what they were calling the Rome base, to distinguish it from Caxley Hall in England.
“Nearly there,” said Xander. “Won’t be long now. We should go out and celebrate once it’s done. We’ll have earned it.”
“We will,” agreed Buffy, then sighed. “If we have time with all these vamps.”
There had been a recent surge in the number of vamp attacks in Rome. The full-Slayers had their hands full dealing with them. Even a few of the SITs had run up against a couple and were very proud of having succeeded in dusting them while only half-trained, even though they had had to gang up to do it
Rome had a Master. Which was a possibility Giles should perhaps have considered when he decided to establish a base there. When one thought of how ancient the city was, maybe that was only to be expected. Understandably, Rome’s Master was not at all happy about a bunch of Slayers suddenly installing themselves right in the middle of his turf. His minions had clearly been told to drive them out if they could possibly do so without harm to themselves. That caveat became obvious when they didn’t attack in force, only harassed the Slayers, trying to get at them when they were alone and hopefully vulnerable. It seemed that the Master didn’t want to diminish his power by losing too many of them.
Buffy was searching for him, but in a city of almost four million people spread over roughly five hundred square miles finding one individual who was keeping himself well-hidden was almost impossible.
“I still say it’s that Immortal,” muttered Xander.
Buffy didn’t think so. The Immortal. As if. Anyone who called himself that couldn’t be taken seriously. Any vamp was potentially immortal. To claim to be the only one was just plain silly and pretentious. Buffy had gone out of her way to ‘accidentally’ run into him at a nightclub and, from the way he had preened and postured, she had judged him to be mostly vanity and brag. She would have dusted him if he hadn’t taken one look at her and run. After that, she hadn’t seen his face anywhere in Rome and she had a feeling he had fled the city entirely. No, the Master was someone else.
“There’s a new vamp in the Colosseo district,” one of the full-Slayers reported that afternoon. She wasn’t a SunnyD Slayer. Philippa was one of the ones activated by Willow’s spell. They had located her in London and she had shown real aptitude, had graduated into a full-Slayer while almost all the others were still in training.
“Is?” said Willow in surprise. “You mean he’s still alive? Well, undead. You weren’t able to dust him?”
“Too fast and too clever,” said Philippa. “This one likes to play games. He’s a tease. He doesn’t attack, just turns up on the periphery of your awareness so that you pick up the vamp vibe, then when he’s got your attention takes off like a will-o’-the-wisp. You end up chasing him all over the landscape and he’s laughing at you the whole time.”
“He doesn’t attack?” Buffy asked, frowning.
“Nah. Just wears you out running after him. I don’t think he’s one of the Master’s minions,” Philippa said, considering it. “Loose cannon, I’d say.”
“Around the Colosseum? I’ll check it out tonight,” said Buffy. “With Rome’s Master sending his people after us, all we need is some idiot playing games. With any luck I can dust him and that’ll get him out of our hair. What’s he look like?”
“Some Billy Idol wannabe. What?” asked Philippa, surprised, when both Buffy and Willow jerked around to stare at her.
“Well, it’s just an impression. Hair that looks white under the streetlights, black clothes, long black coat...”
“Like a duster?”
“I guess. No one gets close enough to get a really good look.”
“Buffy...” Willow began worriedly.
“When did he show up?” Buffy asked in a squeezed voice.
“Two nights ago.” Phillippa was starting to look worried as well. “Is something wrong?”
“No, no.” Willow grabbed Buffy’s arm and pulled her away into the room Willow was using as an office. “Buffy, it’s not Spike!”
Buffy was white, staring right through her and not listening. “A hundred and forty-seven days. That’s how long I took to resurrect. And two nights ago would have been...”
“Buffy, don’t. Spike’s dead. He burned to ash.”
“I died. You brought me back. Maybe...”
“No. You just want it to be that way.”
“Oh, God!” Buffy sat down heavily and hid her face in her hands. “Oh, God, yeah. I want it.”
“Sometimes I turn my head and I see some girl with long brown hair and that general height and shape and I think, ‘It’s Tara!’” Willow swallowed hard. “But it never is and it never will be. I just want it to be.”
“But what if...?”
“It’s not Spike. C’mon, Buff. How many people want to look like Billy Idol? There’s always someone trying it on.”
“Why not? Spike had a rep. Some joker’s cashing in on it.”
That was both possible and likely—some ambitious fledgling thinking to steal the mantle and appropriate the dazzling reputation he didn’t have balls enough to earn for himself. Buffy’s face went grim and hard.
“He’ll pay,” she said through her teeth. “How dare he! If someone’s playing games like that, he’ll be sorry. I’ll dust him for it.”
She was in a cold fury when she went on the hunt that night. If this upstart was stalking Slayers, he’d get more than he bargained for. It wasn’t a Slayer in training or even a recently graduated full-Slayer that he’d be facing. It would be the most experienced Slayer that existed and one with a grudge.
She took the Metropolitana, Rome’s subway system, arriving at the Colosseo station before eleven thirty when the Metro stopped running. She crossed the Via dei Fori Imperiali which cut through the center of the Colosseo district, running from the Colosseum to the Piazza Venezia, with the Roman Forum on one side and Trajan’s Forum and Market on the other, all must-see tourist attractions that she and Dawn had already visited so she knew the basic layout.
She still hadn’t become accustomed to the incredible age of Rome and it gave her a thrill to step onto the cobblestones of the square surrounding the Colosseum. It was one of the few places in Rome that was on the same level as in ancient times. The ancient city was anywhere from twenty-four to forty-five feet below the current one, what with the layers and layers of buildings and roads that had accumulated over the centuries. But when she walked on these cobblestones, she was walking on the same stones the ancient Romans had walked on two thousand years ago.
Even though it was close to midnight, there were still plenty of pedestrians around. She wove her way through them, moving clockwise around the square, the magnificent looming bulk of the Colosseum on her right, its three rows of archways and top row of windows spectacularly lit, as was the huge victory Arch that the emperor Constantine had built a little way to the west to celebrate some triumph.
With her senses extended as far as they would go to pick up that quiver that would alert her to vamp presence in the area, she walked all four sides of the square. She was bait. All the other Slayers had been warned to stay away from the area. If the vamp was stalking Slayers, the only one available would be her and then he would find he wasn’t the hunter but the hunted.
It was almost three a.m. now, but she wouldn’t give up until the sun rose. The streets had emptied, with only a couple of pedestrians still around. No vamp signature had turned up so far and maybe would not until a couple more nights had gone by. She couldn’t really hope to hit paydirt the very first night. But she was patient, making forays into and out of the cross streets around the Colosseum to establish her presence in the area, but always returning to the square as the center of her web.
She was up at the northwest side of the square when that little shiver of vamp awareness crisped her nerves. She spun, her gaze searching the area. There! Movement under an olive tree halfway down the west side of the square. She raced forward.
A dark shape broke from under the olive, ran south, leaping lightly over barriers, silent on the grass, the wave of a raised arm urging her on mockingly. Playing games as Philippa had said.
Pale hair gleamed under the streetlights and the spillover of light from the Colosseum. Dark tee and jeans. The swirl of a black leather duster. But now that she was closer, that hair didn’t seem white. It looked more like a light honey-brown. It wasn’t Spike, as she had hoped against hope down in the depths of her heart. It was an imposter just as Willow had said.
“You!” she yelled, her voice carrying in the night air. With any luck, it would startle him into pausing long enough for her to catch up with him and dust him with the stake she had ready.
He looked back over his shoulder and laughed. And her heart nearly stopped. It was Spike’s laugh, vivid with mockery through an open mouth whose shape she knew so well. Fangs flashed, but even full gameface couldn’t hide that profile—that spectacular cheekbone and the strong, clear jaw and the scarred eyebrow and the particular shape of his eye looking back at her, though its iris was gold rather than blue.
“Spike!” she gasped.
He wasn’t a ghost. He had moved silently across the grass, but he was crossing cobblestones now and she could hear the scrape of his boots—Docs!—on the stone.<
At the sound of his name, he spun to face her. He had reached the Arch of Constantine and the lights spotlighting it backwashed over him. She could see every detail. He was in full gameface, but that didn’t matter. Every gameface was unique and she knew his as thoroughly as she knew his human face. It could be no one else’s. And she knew every ripped muscle of his body under that duster and the tilt of his head and his stance, thumbs hooked into his belt like that. She knew everything about him. It was Spike.
Then he laughed again and whipped around the Arch.
When she ran after him, he was gone. She raced around all sides of the Arch. But there was no one there or any sign of him in the square or the cross streets. Even the vamp signature she hadn’t been able to come close enough to know for sure was his had faded away, insubstantial as a dream.
But it hadn’t been a dream. She wasn’t hallucinating. He had been there.
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