Beyond the Darkness

Chapter One

By Nichole (Neko-chan) Johnson

Rating: PG or TV 14

Pairings: B/S

Disclaimer: All BtVS characters and such are owned by Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy (bless that little paper monster…). The Red Bull, as well as the legend of the unicorns derives from an old cartoon movie The Last Unicorn based on the story by Peter S. Beagle, and is not mine, albeit being altered to fit this story. "You Don't See Me" is by Josie and the Pussycats.

Spoilers: Takes place during Season 5, immediately after "The Body"

Author's Notes: I slightly re-vamped the first 2 chapters, for those of you who made some helpful suggestions. To those of you who reviewed and made said suggestions, thank you! Your opinions and suggestions were and are highly appreciated!

I hope you'll agree with my editing—I agree that Spike did use some British slang too much, so I went back through and toned that down a bit. I also got rid of the description of Dawn's hair as 'strawberry blonde'—I'm still not sure how you'd describe her hair color, so I just stayed away from describing it at all…^_^;;

Chapter One

"Yeah, I'm fine, Willow. I just needed some time to…sort out my feelings."

"Are you sure? Maybe-maybe the two of us could have a, a girl's night out. Or in, or whatever, you know what I mean. We could have ice cream and watch chick flicks, or, or—"

"Will, really, I'm fine. Besides, I don't really think chick flicks would be the best idea right now."

"Oh, right. Well, if you need to talk we could just do that. I'm a great listener."

Buffy twirled the phone cord around her fingers lazily, sighing inwardly at the look of concern she just knew was on her best friend's face. Evening had fallen barely forty-five minutes ago and she had hardly made it in the door but five minutes ago when the phone had already rung. She couldn't really blame her friends, though, since she had been gone for a night and day with no word as to where or how she was—they were bound to get a little worried. The blonde appreciated the sweet brainy witch's concern more than anyone's, but being a Slayer, she had found that sympathy and pity were almost as hard to bear as the demons and evil she fought.

"I know, Will. I really appreciate the offer, but I think if I just get back into the swing of things right away, I'll be alright."

"Sure, Buffy. Do you want…Xander or me to patrol with you? I can always help Giles research some other night."

Buffy smiled to herself slightly. "Nah. Besides, it should be pretty dead tonight, what with Glory the Shoe Goddess in town. Not as many free-roaming baddies these days, y'know."

"Yeah, they're all organized now. You sure you'll be okay on your own, though?"

"You mean am I prone to waterworks at inopportune moments, such as in the midst of some heated staking?" She shook her head slightly, despite the fact that the young witch was unable to see the action. "Again, Willow, I really appreciate your concern, but I've got things under control. Really."

On the other end, Willow seemed to sigh and think for a moment. "Okay. I'll step down now. You can't even see my resolve face from there so I guess I'll just have to take your word."

Buffy smiled, mock glaring. "And you can't see my determined face so we'll just call it a draw. I'll stop by the shop after patrol to check in with all of you. You're having another research-a-thon on Glory tonight?"

"In progress as we speak!" crowed Willow in a gruff voice. "Which reminds me, I should probably be getting back to the books now. Giles keeps clearing his throat really loudly—I think he's trying to get my attention."

Buffy couldn't help but laugh at the thought of Giles' face. "You're probably exceeding his calling plan. Its okay, I'd better go, too. Daylight's wasting. Well, actually…no…light's wasting…never mind."

"I got it. Bye, Buffy."

"Bye, Willow. I'll stop by later, 'kay?" A frown crossed the young woman's features, suddenly remembering something. "Wait! Will, Dawn! How is Dawn?"

"Don't worry. Dawn stayed with Giles last night—we didn't want to bother you. She's doing okay…She's really quiet but I think she'll be okay. We can keep an eye on her here until you get done with patrol, Buffy, it's no problem."

The young Slayer looked troubled; slightly horrified she had completely forgotten about her little sister in the muddle of the previous night. Her little sister that was much more than a fourteen-year-old girl. You can't just lose your head like that again, Buffy! she thought, What would we do if something happened to the Key?

Losing your head…The Slayer felt herself warming pleasantly, remembering the feel of Spike's lips against hers. Is that what happened back at the crypt? Shaking herself mentally of the memory, she turned her mind back to present matters. She definitely couldn't afford to lose her head again. There was too much on the line when you were the Chosen One.

"Ah, thanks, Willow. Can I talk to her? No, no wait! Just tell her…Tell her I love her. And I'm sorry."

Willow was silent for a moment, but then she spoke warmly from the other end. "Right. 'Night, Buffy."

"'Night, Willow."

She continued to stare at the phone even after the line had gone dead. For a moment she regretted not asking for one of her friends to go patrolling with her, but then, remembering the previous day's activities, she decided it was just as well. She needed a cool-off, to think about things. And what better way to release stress than fighting the odd vampire or various night-roaming forces of evil?

Hefting her Slayer bag with a lightness of step she didn't quite feel in her heart, Buffy Summers, Chosen One, went out to kick some demon butt. For evil's sake, she hoped it would be a slow night.

Xander leaned back in his chair reflexively, pushing aside the book he had been going through with little interest for the time being. "Let me take a wild guess. She said she's fine and she appreciates your concern but she believes that her duty is more important than taking the time to mope pathetically and sort through the tangle of emotions she's experiencing?"

Willow nodded sagely, taking a seat at the large table currently littered with an assortment of half-opened books. "And she's going patrolling by herself in order to 'think things through'."

The young man sighed, a bit irritably, and reluctantly turned back to his reading. "Sounds like the Chosen One I know."

Across the room, Anya looked up from her work at the counter. The Magic Box was currently closed, but the demon-girl was still busily at work with the accounts. She seemed to have a strange perversion with counting the money, bordering on the greedy, but since she was so good at it, her obsession didn't seem to bother Giles. Too much.

"Is this…a bad thing?" she spoke up curiously, pushing strands of wheat-blonde curls away from her face.

"Bad for things that go bump in the night," muttered Xander, stifling a yawn. Research was definitely not his thing.

"Good for us, though," spoke up Willow, looking speculative. "I-if she doesn't get killed, that is."

Anya looked a bit confused. "Right. That would be bad." Reassured, she turned back to her accounting with eager diligence.

Nose firmly in a large dusty tome, Giles wandered in from the back room, hardly glancing at the others from across the worn pages. "I do believe you might be worrying just a bit too much about Buffy. I must admit I was quite concerned about how she would fare after such a travesty but I've been quite impressed by the maturity of her bereavement thus far. She seems to be dealing quite well, which is not so surprising considering the ordeals she has endured in the past."

Xander's face contorted into a slight sneer. "Yeah, she's a real brick wall." There was no mistaking the bitterness in his tone.

Giles looked inquisitive. "You don't agree, Xander?"

"No," he stated firmly, pushing his chair back. "Look, I've known this girl since the tenth grade—"

"Well that's not very long," commented Anya pointedly.

Xander looked slightly irritated at being interrupted but didn't reply. He continued: "—and though it doesn't seem a very long time, I do think I've figured her out a bit by now. She pretends to be all brave and 'over it' around her friends, and then she goes to her current boyfriend and bawls her eyes out for awhile until she decides to just tough up and forget about it. Or, in this case since she is minus one boyfriend, she bawls her eyes out alone, but nevertheless it's still the same cycle."

Willow looked slightly hurt at her friend's bluntness, fixing him with a stern glance. "Xander!"

"Ah, might I remind you that both Willow and I met Buffy the same day as you?" pointed out the Watcher tentatively. When Xander simply glared impatiently at him, Giles cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Yes, well, I do see your point, Xander. But don't you think you are being somewhat…"

"Insensitive?" The brown-haired young man eyed his best friend and mentor somewhat challengingly. But then he nodded acquiescence, sighing wearily. "Yeah. And I'm sorry. I just don't think bottling everything up is a great way of handling your mother's death. Especially when so many people count on you to be the strong one."

Willow looked hesitant to agree. "She is strong, though, Xander. And I don't think she's bottling it up, not really."

"I just don't want her going 'Carrie' on everyone because she refuses to ask for help. And don't think she won't."

"'Carrie'? Is that a bad thing? A demon?" inquired Anya, looking confused. Willow and Xander took a breath as if to explain, then shook their heads dismissively, deciding not to bother.

Giles seemed to have come to some sort of conclusion of his own, closing the tome gently and adding it to the pile of books already covering the table. "I appreciate your concerns, Xander…both of you, actually. But I think that the person that deserves most concern right now would be Dawn."

The others seemed to wilt, an uncomfortable sorrow befalling the atmosphere. Willow was first to speak, eyeing the graying Englishman with concerned eyes. "How is she?"

Giles seemed to pause momentarily. Removing his glasses, he proceeded to clean them gently, sliding into an open chair at the table. "The same, I'm afraid. She's hardly spoken since last night. I do believe she's experiencing a slightly premature form of shock."

Xander looked pained. "Is she still back in the work-out room?"

Giles nodded, replacing his glasses with a long sigh. The others could see the strain he had been through in the last two days. As Watcher, he automatically considered matters concerning Buffy and the rest of the Scooby Gang as his responsibility, regardless of what anyone may tell him otherwise. He could feign un-involvement, but inwardly, the entire weight was on his shoulders. It some ways, it was his duty. In others, it was merely undying compassion for his young protégé and friends.

Calmly, Xander stood up. "I'll go check on her," he remarked tightly, leaving the others and heading towards the back room connected to the store which held Buffy's training and work-out supplies. Despite the solemnity of the action, they could see his relief at getting out of research duty.

Willow nodded, squaring her shoulders and turning back to her books business-like. "And we should get back to researching. We've got a long ways to go."

Finished with her money-counting, Anya joined the young witch and middle-aged Watcher at the round table, sorting through books methodically in hopes of finding something useful. "Alright, I'm through with my work. I'll help you."

Giles selected an old, threadbare volume labeled, Of Gods and Demons: A Resource Guide from the scattered pile, flipping carefully through the contents. "Yes. These last two days have been quite trying but we still have Glory to worry about. Currently, all we know is that she is a hell god, and a quite vengeful one at that."

"And that she wants the "Key", er…Dawn," added Anya helpfully, pushing away her current book in favor of another more promising one.

"That doesn't leave us with much to work with," commented Willow a bit sourly, pursing her lips in concentration. Anya nodded agreeably.

Giles raised an eyebrow curiously at something he was reading. "If we had more, ah, credible resources on gods and deities, we might be able to find some basis to work with." He turned the book so that Willow could read the passage he had found so interesting:

And the Goddess's shall rise from their ivory towers of the nether and bring either great rejoicing and bounty to the land of the Chosen or an unending plague that will strip all of their souls for the Sin they have brought upon themselves, the Unworthy and Damned. And so shall it be, in the dawning of the twenty-first century when the apocalypse is decided.

The redhead's voice was clear and barren as she read the passage aloud. She raised an eyebrow incredulously, clearing her throat slightly. "A little late for that. Like, a year late. At least we know we're safe somewhat. For now."

Anya didn't look up from her own reading. "There should be another apocalypse in another hundred or so years. They're set on this regular cycle sort of thing that goes off after a certain period of time unless some demon or other tampers with it. Then they just wait until the next allotted time and so forth. It's a very sophisticated system."

Her two comrades shared unlikely glances. "If we are even that fortunate…" murmured Giles a tad too darkly, shakily removing his glasses to wipe a handkerchief across his brow.

Willow shifted her shoulders uncomfortably, changing the subject. "Uh, anyway, maybe we should focus on information about the Key right now. Tara said she would look through her Wiccan books on anything about gods and hell gods, so if she finds anything she'll call us."

Both Giles and Anya nodded, the former still looking somewhat disquieted by Anya's revelation.

"Right. So what kind of Key is Dawn supposed to be?" asked Anya, eyebrows furrowing thoughtfully.

"Those who saw Dawn for what she truly was remarked that she was 'a thing' or that there was 'no data'—whatever that is meant to imply," reminded Giles gently, "I do not believe we are looking for information on an actual physical key, so to speak, but a key in the metaphorical sense."

Anya looked bewildered. "Oh."

Pulling her nose out of her book, Willow fixed the blonde demon with a helpful smile. "What Giles is trying to say, is Dawn isn't physically a key, she's the key to something. Like, in a spell. Certain ingredients are key to the spell's success."

"Well, if you must put it so succinctly…"

The over-a-millennium old demon seemed to grasp the young witch's concept more readily than the somewhat proper Watcher's explanation. After a moment, another concern seemed to have occurred to her, however. "That still leaves us with little to work with. If we knew what Dawn was the Key to it would be a whole lot easier."

Giles seemed a bit miffed. "Well, of course. That's what we're researching for."

Willow smiled cheerily, picking another book from the pile before them. "And so the search continues…"

"I still think I should get paid overtime for this," remarked Anya loudly, face expressionless as always.

"Anya, do be quiet."

"Okey-doke!"

The three went back to their reading, noses deep in the old and scattered books before them, deep in concentration. Putting aside his current book with slight frustration, the old Watcher reached for a large book balanced precariously in the very center of the pile. As if on cue, a small thin book hardly an inch in width tumbled noiselessly from underneath it, landing open in the slightly surprised Englishman's lap. Putting his chosen book aside, he picked up the book from where it had fallen, staring at what was written on the open page with unbridled curiosity.

"How peculiar…" he muttered, somewhat to himself.

Willow looked up from her reading with curiosity. "Hmm?"

Laying the open book on the table, the Watcher continued to read, his confusion and curiosity evident. "This book. I believe it is the same book that I found lying open on the table this morning once you and the others had left."

The young witch looked even more confused. "Do you know where it came from?"

"I have no idea," remarked Giles, befuddled. "I do not recall even having such a book in stock."

Anya shifted inquisitively, trying to read over the baffled man's shoulder. "What does it say?"

The Watcher cleared his throat reflexively. "It appears to be some sort of…children's story. A fable, if I must. It reads,

…Said the butterfly to the Unicorn, "You can find the others if you are brave. They passed down all the roads long ago and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints." With a courtly bow, he landed before the great creature's ivory hoof, inclining his head respectfully. "His firstling bull has majesty, and his horns are the horns of a wild ox! With them he shall push the unicorns, all of them, to the ends of the earth!"

Giles trailed off, looking at the blank space where the rest of the words had been smeared into an unidentifiable whirl of black ink and browned paper. "It ends there. Something appears to have spilt and smeared the rest of the text."

Both girls seemed to ruminate on the appearance of the strange book momentarily, forgetting their earlier research. "Perhaps the-the title can tell us something," suggested Willow finally, marking the open page with her finger and turning the book over to its cover. The cover's only identifiable marks were the words "Metulj Srce" in worn gilt letters, leaving the three researchers further perplexed.

"What's 'Metal-J…Certs' supposed to mean?" asked Anya bluntly, stumbling over the strange words.

Giles seemed just as perplexed as the demon-girl, pushing his glasses up on his nose in discomfort. "I…I'm not sure. I don't quite recognize the language. It may be an old gypsy tongue but I can't be sure."

"It's a little strange that it just suddenly appeared, but obviously it's not going to help us discern the importance of the Key," pushed Willow slowly. Giles nodded in agreement, taking the book from her and bringing it over to the store's counter.

"Yes. Butterflies and unicorns are of no use to us right now. I'm sure the book must have been left by some customer. I'll just keep it over here until it's reclaimed."

Stretching somewhat in her chair, Anya looked reluctantly at the piles of so far useless books before them. "So…more research?"

Giles and Willow both nodded, resuming their relentless search. "Right. More research."

The punching bag swung uselessly on its tether, the teenaged girl's half-hearted punches barely denting its thick bulk. Staring at the far wall of the room with blank, unseeing eyes, she struck it again with stiff, mechanical movements. Her heart wasn't in it, wasn't in anything. Every sense felt numb, overcome with an emptiness that hovered just out of reach on the edges of her consciousness, and if it weren't for the solid feel of the punching bag under her hand, she was sure that it would swallow her.

Pulling her eyes from their dazed stare, she focused on the worn object beneath her hand. It felt real. She felt real, her pulse humming slowly and methodically in her ears in time to her heartbeat. But she was not real. Suddenly the punching bag on it's gently spinning tether seemed miles away, her pulse a half-forgotten memory in her ears. She was not real.

It perplexed her and pained her. How could she not be real? She bled, she cried, she felt such pain overwhelming her in numbing torrents. She remembered, and the memories hurt. Her mother was dead and she was devastated. But it wasn't her mother. And she wasn't real.

Biting her lip in frustration and despair against the tears, the Key punched the hanging bag angrily, relishing in the pain it brought to her tightly bunched fist on contact. Physical pain was real. She needed more of that kind of pain.

So intent in her frustration, she didn't even notice when someone else entered the gym-like room.

"Helps, doesn't it?" remarked Xander softly, crossing his arms uncomfortably in the doorway.

Dawn gasped in surprise, upset at being caught off-guard. She nodded numbly, turning back to the punching bag with a firmly set jaw. "It hurts. But I control it, so it doesn't have to hurt."

Xander nodded wisely, watching her continue to hit the bag with fierce intensity. "You're just like your sister. Buffy usually goes out to kick some undead-ass when she's upset." He seemed a bit embarrassed momentarily. "Of course, you already knew that."

Dawn didn't answer, but he saw the pained look on her face. He cleared his throat uncomfortably, not so sure that offering himself as a comforting shoulder was going to be as easy as he thought. Granted, he had meant well when he told the others he would check on Dawn, but once here, he wasn't so sure of what to do, as he often was.

"So, mind if I join?"

The fourteen-year-old paused for a split-second, and then nodded slightly. "Be my guest."

Careful not to hit it too hard, Xander joined her at beating on the worn punching bag, adding a few experimental kicks he had observed Buffy doing before. Glancing at the younger girl out of the corner of his eye, he mulled over his words for a moment, and then turned back to his half-hearted work-out.

"You think its dead yet? It's not putting up much of a fight," he commented ruefully, abandoning his former words of comfort for his usual humorous attempts.

Dawn was still silent. Xander cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Hey, you seen any good Hong Kong action movies lately? Those kung-fu guys can dish out some pretty wicked moves."

The girl was silent for a moment, and then she paused in her bored attacks, fixing Xander with a pained yet blank expression. "You don't have to talk. I know you're trying to help but…I've heard enough talk for now. I don't want to think about it." She turned back to the punching bag with renewed ferocity, nearly knocking the bag into the young man's face with the force of her blows. "I just want to hit something right now."

Xander was silent for several moments, watching the look of concentration on Dawn's face. Finally he nodded, smiling wanly, and joined her again in her endless fight with the beleaguered bag.

"Bloody hell…"

Flicking the ashes of his last cigarette into the wind, Spike gave the empty pack one last hopeful tap then tossed it away with disgust. It had been over three hours since he had dropped the Slayer off at her house. Three hours of pacing, thinking, and smoking. His pack empty, he looked around for something else to still his mind, but there wasn't much to find in an empty graveyard. He regretted not bringing another pack. Or his flask.

The bad habits didn't bother him in the least, seeing as he was dead—or rather, undead—but sometimes he regretted having started them in the first place, because when you got down to it, they were all he had. No friends, no place to go, and no hobbies. Well, other than his little-spoken Passions fetish and a few other strange pastimes, but those didn't count. No, he was a vampire, an immortal being, with no place in life. And it was getting rather boring.

So here he was. What better place than a graveyard for a vampire with nothing better to do but wait and hope…and relieve a little frustration on some unsuspecting demon? Currently he was experiencing a lull in the current evil undead population, which irked him somewhat.

As if in answer to his thoughts, the shadows shifted slightly behind a nearby mausoleum with the movement of some unseen attacker. Grinning tightly, Spike noted the movement out of the corner of his eye and snuffed the exhausted butt of his cigarette on a nearby gravestone.

"And here I thought I'd have to wait another hour for any action."

Realizing it had been spotted, the lone vampire relinquished its shadow skulking, coming into the pale moonlight that lit the vacant cemetery. Game face already on, it crept forward with a cautious predatory step, and Spike smiled inwardly to himself at the obviously newly-awakened vampire's jerky movements.

Things were looking up.

Running its tongue over its newly-sharpened teeth, the undead creature continued to creep forward, eyeing the casual looking peroxide-blonde with an ancient hunger Spike was all too familiar with. "Action, huh? I don't think you know what kind of action you're getting yourself into, blondie."

Spike stifled an amused laugh, smiling at the other vampire with his familiar "Big Bad" grin; lips parted, teeth slightly biting his lower lip. "Alright, mate. And just what type of action would that be?"

Instead of answering, the other vampire leapt forward, hopping a headstone with ease and rushed the smiling, leather-clad Brit. Chuckling slightly, Spike easily dodged the amateur attack, straightening up from his casual position against a stone angel and casually hooking his thumbs into the belt loops of his jeans.

"Well, sod it all! You were trying to attack me!"

Regaining his footing, the newbie vamp spun around angrily, hissing in annoyance. "What the—? I'll get ya this time, smarty-pants!" He prepared to rush the British vampire again but Spike put up a hand, halting him.

"Can't you recognize your soddin' brethren, moron?" he demanded in an impatient tone, showing the other vampire his game face for a brief moment. He reverted back to his human face, preferring it as a sign of experience.

The other vampire was taken aback, staring at Spike with stupid amazement. "You're a…vampire, too?"

"Last time I checked, pillock."

He continued to stare at the older vampire with awe, befuddled by his human appearance. "How'd you do that? With your face?"

Spike flicked an eyebrow in amusement. "You really are a newbie, aren't 'cha, mate?" He shrugged his shoulders casually, inwardly getting impatient. He was tired of this game. It was time to end it. "It's simple. Just concentrate on pushin' aside the hunger…"

He watched the young vampire close its eyes in concentration, its features slowly reverting back to its former human form. With a casualness borne of experience, Spike pulled the stake hidden within his duster and hefted it experimentally, sidling over to the trusting demon.

"…And don't forget to watch your back." With an almost offhand flick of the wrist, he plunged the stake into the unsuspecting vampire's back, dusting it before it could even remark on its newfound talent. Dusting his hands off methodically, he returned the stake to his duster, one hand automatically straying to the pocket that usually held his pack of cigarettes. He frowned irritably, looking down at the pile of ashes with obvious frustration.

"Bloody hell. Should've asked the bloke if 'e had any fags on him." Shrugging, he turned his back on the former vampire to further patrol the mostly uneventful graveyard. Maybe his next victim would be a chain-smoker.

Buffy looked at her watch impatiently, stifling a yawn. It had been roughly three hours, and so far she hadn't seen as much as a rat, let alone anything undead. Just as she had expected, it was a dead night. Good for the citizens of Sunnydale, bad for her jumpy nerves.

"What I wouldn't give for a crazy, bloodthirsty vampire to leap out at me right now," she sighed in frustration, easing a cramp out of her neck. She was dying for a distraction, any distraction, to get Spike off her mind. Ever since that afternoon…in his crypt…For the life of her, she couldn't seem to get him out of her head, despite her best efforts. She would have liked to brush it off as just a kiss but it was obvious it hadn't been just a kiss. Both of them had known it and she had felt the spark. There was no denying it was there now.

Of course, that hadn't stopped her from trying to deny it. To him, just as before, and to herself. Here, alone with her thoughts in an empty cemetery, she couldn't seem to escape the truth of the matter, though. She had feelings for Spike. Wrong, bad, icky feelings, she thought to herself sourly. Wrong, wrong, unforgivable, disgusting—

Hot, lusty, longing, wonderful feelings. She sighed to herself, picturing his strikingly handsome features and imagining the feel of his cold lips against her fevered skin. Stop it, Buffy! It's Spike, for the love of God! The memory of her hands on his hard, firm chest stopped her in her mental berating, and her body betrayed her once again. Yes…Spike…

"I think it's about time to call it a night," she muttered to herself aloud, shaking away her romantic daydreaming and retrieving her Slayer gear from a nearby headstone. She was just about to leave, when a tiny sound stopped her. It was brief, and hard to decipher; had it not been for her Slayer senses, she wouldn't have caught it at all. She froze immediately, scanning the darkness for signs of an attack. When no attack came, she resumed her walk cautiously, senses on the alert.

She was nearly out of the graveyard when she felt another jerk in her Slayer senses. Following the feeling with her eyes, she spotted a nearby grave-marker. It was an expensive looking oddity, an enormous white marble pillar with the conflicting figures of a snarling, wicked looking gargoyle and utterly innocent looking cherub perched cozily on its smooth base. Guessing by the cleanliness of it and the fact that she hadn't seen it there before, it had to be quite new.

And bathed in heavy shadow, it was the perfect place for a predator to hide in wait of prey.

Silently slipping a stake from the inner pocket of her jacket, Buffy continued her casual walk, eyeing the sculptured marker with anticipation. It seemed she would see some action tonight, after all.

Still creeping silently, she was just flanking the darkened pillar when a figure rushed her from behind with calculated cunning. In a flash, she had spun around to face her attacker, one arm up to block a blow and the other ready with the stake, leg poised for a kick. But her attacker had backed away just in time, narrowly missing her kick, just as caught off-guard as the Slayer.

"Well sod it all, it's just you, Slayer," grumbled the familiar bleach-blonde vampire, half disappointed, half glad to see her. He straightened his duster self-consciously, seething inwardly at being caught so completely off-guard.

Buffy fixed the punk rock vampire with a stern glare, ignoring the flush in her face. "Spike, what are you doing here?" she demanded harshly, finding herself avoiding his eyes despite her best efforts to appear indifferent. Silently she cursed herself for not being able to recognize him with her Slayer senses in the first place.

Spike eyed the young woman uncomfortably, noting the uncertainty in her stance as well. He felt oddly off-balance after that afternoon. Shrugging his shoulders casually so as not to let her see his discomfort, he gave her a self-assured glance. "Same as you, I'd guess. Out for a stroll, lookin' for a good spot 'o violence." Much to his pleasure, he noticed the rise of color in her face.

Uncharacteristically flustered, Buffy lowered her stake, staring at the blue-eyed vampire with an unreadable expression. Finally she seemed to shake herself uncertainly, turning back on her original path. "Go home," she insisted, almost pleadingly, eyebrows furrowed uneasily.

He watched her go for a moment, puzzling over her anew. Then he hurried after her. "You look like you could use some company, pet," he offered, catching up with her.

She didn't look at him, staring intently forward, but he could see the twitch in her cheek. "No."

Even from his distance, Spike could sense the quickening of her pulse. He continued diligently, matching her pace for pace as they continued their walk, a slight smile touching his lips.

"Come on, Buffy. Don't tell me we've gone back to the 'cold shoulder' bit, now."

"No," bit out Buffy with controlled features. "We're at the 'I don't want to see you anymore' bit, now."

Spike pursed his lips thoughtfully, mulling over her reply for several seconds. "No. I don't think that's it, luv."

Finally, Buffy spun on her heal, halting them both as she turned to glare at him. Once again, Spike noted her glare held little animosity, but he kept his features blank.

"Then what is it, Spike?" she demanded sharply, frustrated. Frustrated because she for once honestly didn't know what to do. She hadn't been prepared to face him again just yet, and yet there he had been, practically waiting for her. Half of her wanted to grab him by the lapels and kiss him until her lungs burst, while the other half wished he would just disappear forever. No! I don't want him to go! I want him to stay, stay forever in my arms…

Reflexively she shook away the thought that had sprung unbidden into her mind, recoiling at the intensity of it. "What, do you think things have changed between us? Because of…what happened?" She was raving, her frustrations and confusion overcoming her. "It was an accident! It was just…an accident! You…me…It wasn't suppose to happen! Never! Forget about it, Spike, because—"

"Forget about what?" His features were tight, hardened by years of violence and emptiness.

Forgetting his doubts, he stepped closer, frustrations of his own taking over. "Forget about the dreams? The ache? The hollowness I feel without you?" He sneered derisively, waving a hand with an indecisive movement. "You're telling me to forget about something I have no control over, damnit, something I never wanted to feel in the first place but, bloody hell! here I am, loving you more than ever!"

She was turning away and he grabbed her shoulders firmly, forcing her to look him in the eyes. Blue eyes, pained and deep and brimming with passion. "You think you're the only one, the only one who's fighting what you feel. But I did. I did for a bloody damn long time, Slayer! But there's no getting over it, pet, believe me. I've learned that now." His features softened, eyebrows furrowing with the pain of his longing. "I'm stuck with this curse for all eternity, whether you love me back or not. And don't say you don't, Slayer! I can see it in your eyes." He closed his eyes in an attempt to collect himself, feeling her heat wash over him; a painful reminder of his own lack of true humanity. "Can…feel your blood rush…God, can I feel it!"

She stared back at him, feeling the desire wash over her in a rush at his heated words. She was gasping, her mind weakly attempting to fight it, but the longing was so strong. "Let go of me," she whispered hoarsely, but she was frozen, making no move to push him away.

He pierced her with a firm glance. "If you really want me to let go, push me yourself, Buffy. But you can't make me do it. Not anymore." She seemed to hold her breath; desire, longing, and desperation flashing in her olive-green eyes. He stepped closer then, gaining little resistance, and his lips just grazing her neck, spoke softly against her ear, "You can't do it, can you?"

Her only reply was a soft moan escaping her lips. Pulling away again, he gently brushed her hair aside from her face, looking at her with tenderness unbefitting his vicious reputation and gently caught her chin with his thumb.

Buffy closed her eyes expectantly, resolves dissolving under the intensity of his words. A warm tremble worked its way down her spine, and she felt his lips graze hers…

…And with a vicious jolt, he pushed her roughly to the ground, pulling her into an evasive roll across the hard dirt. "Duck!" he yelped gruffly in belated warning. She heard the rush of cloth on air and the muffled thump of a body making impact with a tombstone, just as the second vampire that had been lying in wait rushed at them, hissing angrily.

Kiss forgotten, Spike leapt to his feet, immediately falling into full combat mode. With true martial artist's grace, he spun his leg up in a smooth arc, catching the vampire across the chest with a well-aimed kick. Caught off-guard, the vampire stumbled under the hit but was quickly back on its feet, lashing out at the peroxide-blonde with a heavy fist. Spike dodged the punch, ducking to grab the vamp's offending arm. Using its own leverage against it, he flipped the vamp on its back, pinning its arms down at its sides.

Still in his human face but clearly enraged, he snarled viciously into the downed vamp's face, eyes flashing. "Interfere with my love-life, will you?!" Snarling, he grabbed the other by the collar and jerking him to his feet, tossed him with offhanded disgust into a nearby headstone.

Meanwhile, Buffy had jumped to her own feet and was easily fighting off the first vampire's attacks. Knocking away its initial attack with a swift roundhouse to the jaw, she followed through with a well-aimed elbow to the solar plexus, further disabling it for the time being and buying her just enough time to scramble for the stake that had fallen from her jacket when she'd hit the ground. Her back to it for a moment, the angry vamp—having recovered quicker than she had hoped—took the opportunity to attack her supposedly unprotected back, fangs bared. Spinning around just in time, she swung her leg about, knocking its feet out from under it, and grabbed her stake from the ground next to her, back-flipping away as it swung at her in retaliation.

Weapon finally in hand, she faced off with the angry vampire, legs akimbo in a fighter's stance. "Okay, buddy, you picked the wrong time to try and kill me. Where were you earlier when I was looking for a fight?"

The vampire didn't answer her, snarling in irritation. It rushed her again, swiping at her with wicked claws.

Nearby, Spike and the other vampire had each other firmly by the shoulders as they danced around the headstones in fierce, head-to-head combat. Cursing angrily, Spike rammed his opponent into the large pillar Buffy had noted earlier, loosening its grip on him enough to disentangle himself. The vampire roared in pain and anger, bringing its knee up hard into the punk rocker's gut, but Spike merely ground him harder against the polished marble, waiting until he heard the crack of bones to relinquish his hold. Panting angrily, he gave the smaller vampire several fierce blows to the face and retrieved the stake from his duster, prepared to end their deadly dance.

His opponent had other plans, however. Catching Spike by surprise, the seemingly beaten vamp dove at him in a football tackle, driving him heavily into the dirt. The two rolled about the dusty ground, each trying in vain to gain an advantage over the other as they tumbled between the scattered headstones.

So far, Buffy had been able to avoid her opponent's erratic attacks. Seeing its comrade's methods working, the vamp now came at her with slightly more cunning, hitting her with a similar tackle and knocking her into a nearby tombstone, sending the stake flying from her hand. She grunted in pain, hearing the crack of her skull against the cold stone and feeling the warm trickle of blood roll down the back of her neck. The smell of blood seemed to encourage the vampire further, and it dove on her hungrily, preparing to sink its fangs into her unprotected neck.

Still slightly dazed from the impact, Buffy lashed out with her fists in the nick of time, boxing its ears viciously. If she had been a normal person, the blow would have dazed it, maybe even popped its eardrums. Being the Slayer and having superhuman strength, it crushed its skull.

Pushing the crumpled, unconscious form off of herself, she struggled to her feet, preparing to stake the vamp at last. "Okay, time to end this. Like they say, 'Ashes to ashes and dust to dust'…"

Without warning, there was a violent rush of wind and a brilliant flash of crimson light, blinding her until she was forced to raise her arms to shield her face from the violently whipping wind. Sand and grit bit into her flesh and she gasped, choking, as the smoldering air burnt at her lungs. Above the rush of the wind a cry met her ears; a chilling, unearthly cry of pure animal rage cut through by the mournful lowing of some immortal beast. She tried to tear her eyes open against the light and rushing air, but the heat and dust overwhelmed her and she could no longer gasp for breath in the cloying, dust-filled torrent.

Lungs burning, she lurched forward and faded unwillingly into unconsciousness.

TO BE CONTINUED…