Buffy found herself lampooned six months back—the eve before she’d decided oh so wisely to show Angel who was boss by donning a pair of fangs and flaunt her goods in tight leather. Not much time had passed since she last saw him, but it might as well have been centuries. She felt so much older now. Jaded, wiser, broken and alone. The part of her that would have leapt giddily at the prospect of seeing her creature-of-the-night boyfriend had died the same night she had.
Still, she couldn’t deny the rush of pure gratitude that washed over her tired body. She’d screamed some rather unpleasant things at Giles before hanging up on him, the foremost being her outrage at what he’d done to her. How he could have brought down all this turmoil and guilt on her without so much as a postcard of warning. Logically, she knew any such indication would have had her soulless self running for the proverbial hills to avoid the curse that was her conscience, but no human being could understand the weight she carried.
She also knew that infecting her with a soul was the only surefire way outside of killing her to ensure the safety of others. She just resented the hell out of it, and she’d made sure Giles knew it.
Yet Angel was here, which meant the others likely knew where she was, and though she couldn’t help but feel a ripple of irritation, the rest of her all but collapsed in relief. Suddenly, she wasn’t alone anymore.
“I…ummm…” Buffy licked her lips and stepped to the side. “Do I need to invite you in?”
“No,” Angel said as he stepped over the threshold. “I take it whoever lived here…”
“I ate him.” She shuddered and tore her eyes away. “I was so…hungry, and he was—”
“There. Yeah, I know.”
He would. He was likely the only person with whom she could relate.
“When the person dies, the need for an invite becomes moot,” he explained. “It’s how you got in here.”
“Ah.” Buffy crossed her arms, suddenly aware of how little she wore. She’d just been reflecting on her lack of need for a bra and now Angel was standing just inches away from her, and she didn’t want him to see just how pointy the cold had made certain parts of her anatomy. Buffy in the buff was for Spike’s eyes only.
Her heart fell. She supposed it would be that way forever, and quite frankly, she was all right with it. She was barely twenty-four hours in to this whole soul-having thing; imagining a world beyond her current surroundings with someone other than Spike was pushing it. Every inch of her still belonged to him.
“Ummm…not to sound something other than ecstatic to see you,” Buffy said self-consciously. “But…”
“How did we know where to go?”
Her brows perked and a smile she didn’t feel tickled her lips. “Yeah, something like that.”
“Apparently, the Council had decided to start lacing the blood of the watchers they sent your way,” he said. “We were going to do a location spell after your…ahhh, abrupt conversation with Giles, but we received word rather quickly that it wasn’t needed.”
She swallowed hard. “Word?”
“Some guy named Travers. He’s been checking in with Giles every few days or so to give him updates. Those guys you and Spike—”
Buffy winced, and Angel noticed. He didn’t stop talking, though, and for that she was thankful.
“—crossed paths with the other night had ingested some sort of mystical tracker. They’ve had a beat on your locations ever since.”
She didn’t miss the plural on location, but didn’t inquire. It made sense they knew where Spike was if it had been so easy to find her. An icy sliver of panic shivered down her spine, and though she tried to shake it off, it refused to let go completely.
Spike could more than well handle himself, but he had to be preoccupied now. Preoccupied with her.
God, she hoped he watched out for himself.
“And here I thought I threw up everything I drank that night,” she said instead. “Guess that wasn’t enough. Where is here, anyway?”
Buffy balked. “I didn’t think we went that far.”
“I think you were traveling with a gang of elderly half-breed demons. The bus didn’t smell human when I arrived.”
“I didn’t notice.”
“Your senses aren’t as developed yet.”
“Uh huh. So even though I tossed my cookies—”
“Throwing up the blood wouldn’t have done any good by the time you, well, threw up. By then, the tracer would have already migrated to your immune system.” Angel inhaled sharply and drew his eyes back to hers. “It took a bit, but I found out which bus you took and where it was headed. After that, it was…well, I got to the hotel and smelled…it was just a matter of following my nose.”
She laughed humorlessly. “Well, that’s depressing. I’ve been on the run for all of a day and all it took was a human Doberman to find me.”
“It was just the timing.”
“Yeah. I seem to have really rotten timing.” Buffy sighed. “Is…anyone with you?”
“Giles is on his way. I couldn’t stop him. He had to deal with some stuff at the school so his flight was delayed a day, but he said he’d come regardless of whether or not I actually found you.” Angel took a step forward. “Buffy, he didn’t mean—”
She held up a hand. “I know.”
“He loves you. We all do. He was just trying to…I know what this feels like.”
A rush of irritation shimmied down her spine almost reluctantly, slicing through her sense of gratitude with bitterness she didn’t know she possessed. “Right. You know what this feels like. Sorry if that doesn’t make everything all better.”
Angel’s eyes darkened. “Buffy, I—”
“No, please. Continue. Tell me what this feels like. Tell me all about waking up in a hotel room on the other side of the planet next to…” She broke away and shook her head, wiping her eyes. “A-and…needing…God, I need…I feel like I can’t breathe—”
“You don’t really need to.”
“That’s not the point! Everything hurts, Angel. Everything. The further I go, I just can’t…it’s in my chest. I feel like I’m…”
He took a step forward. “Is it Spike?”
The cold, aching sickness she’d come to expect whenever anything reminded her of the vampire she’d left behind stampeded over her heart. It was getting worse—she felt it with every inch of her body. It wouldn’t stop hurting, and there was only so much fight she had to give. At some point she just needed rest.
She hadn’t been away from him but a day, and already felt the need to cave in.
Angel sighed. “It is, isn’t it? It’s Spike.”
“I can’t stop…”
“Those marks on your neck are not just bite marks.”
She frowned. Could he really tell the difference between regular bites and claim markings? That didn’t seem possible, or fair. “What do you mean?”
“He claimed you. You’re his…you’re his.”
Well, crap. Buffy reached for the place on her throat where Spike’s fangs belonged, the place marking her as his mate for all eternity. The angry patch of skin almost burned her fingers—as though punishing her for depriving it of the connection it craved. “To be fair, I did it first,” she said. “When we…before the whole vamp thing was official. It was one of the reasons he turned me.”
“You claimed him?”
“Not on purpose. It just happened.”
“Like, whups, he fell on your fangs, it just happened?”
She rolled her eyes. “Angel, get serious.”
“You don’t think I take this seriously? Buffy, do you have any idea what—”
Her eyes flickered dangerously. “If you’re about to ask me if I know what a claim is, I’m going to push you out a window. What the hell do you think? I’ve only been living with him for the past six months. I can’t even think about him now without feeling like a part of me has been amputated and is out there, crying for help and needing me, and the more distance I put between us, the more it…the more I hurt. I knew this would happen, I just didn’t know…this would happen.” She sniffed again, hating the cold incursion of tears but doing little to fight it. There was no sense battling off the inevitable. “I miss him.”
There was no missing the pain that flashed across Angel’s face; he didn’t try to hide it, and for that she was grateful. Lying to each other now seemed a fruitless effort.
“I know how that sounds,” Buffy continued. “And I know what he is. I know what…I am. And I don’t know how much of it is claim-related. All of it, maybe…but he makes me not hurt.”
“You think that’s it, then?” he asked, voice slightly hopeful. “You just miss Spike because of…”
She worried her lower lip between her teeth, her mind immediately launching down a familiar slideshow. A thousand different expressions colored on one unforgettable face. A thousand stolen moments. A thousand passionate kisses. A thousand dirty jokes. A thousand whispered promises. Over and over again, all coming in a soulless, unrepentant package—one she knew she should reject, even resent, but couldn’t. Spike wasn’t the problem. He wasn’t even a symptom, and though he might be a monster where it counted, he hadn’t shown that side to her. Not even when they hunted together. He always had more humanity in him than any beast she’d known.
He’d always need bloodshed, though, and that she couldn’t abide. Not with so much damage left in her own wake. However, she knew then what she couldn’t have known before. If Spike had been on her doorstep, she would have dragged him inside, mauled him with her lips, and begged him to make it all right even if she knew he couldn’t.
“No,” Buffy said at last. “I don’t just miss Spike because of the claim. We were…I loved him, Angel. And I know that’s wrong and confusing and…well, wrong, but this is something bigger than me or him or us or you or…any of it. And I’m having to deal with that plus this whole being of the undead thing and how I could have killed anyone and—”
“That wasn’t all you.”
“What do you know? You’re Mr. Likes To Brood.”
The corners of his mouth twitched in the shadow of a grin. “I see we’re getting some of your wit back. No, Buffy, I get the guilt. I do. And it’s easy for me to stand here and tell you that it wasn’t you, but we both know better. The thing that killed me when the gypsies enacted their voodoo was the knowledge that a part of me lived in my soulless half. This? The guy I am now? This isn’t who I was before. I was a drunk, skirt-chasing lazy son of a bitch, and I relished every second. That guy isn’t me, and neither was the incarnation I called Angelus. Being a vampire changes you, but you and I know, now, better than anyone, that being a souled vampire changes you more. You’re not the person you were or the thing you became…you’re a hybrid, and it took me a lot of years to come to terms with that.” He glanced down. “I can tell you it wasn’t you, but a part of it was…just not the part that counted. And I know that because Buffy wouldn’t have shed one drop of human blood. You can’t feel guilty for something that you wouldn’t do, just because this alternate you didn’t have the same scruples. And you can’t feel guilty for her, either, because she didn’t know better. For her, that was nature.”
Buffy stood still and dumb for a second. Of all the speeches she’d expected, that wasn’t one of them. “And I guess…with you…”
“With me, it’s different,” he said simply. “I have to live with what I did, you don’t. You have to live with what you did, and I don’t. It’s easy for me to say it wasn’t Buffy because I know Buffy wouldn’t have done what you did. You can say the same for me, but I won’t feel it. I’m too close, and you are, too.”
“You’re one with the fortune cookie wisdom today, aren’t you?”
He sighed again, irritation rolling off him in waves. “Buffy—”
“Look, I know you’re right, and that’s all well and good, but this…this feels so…”
“There’s an understatement for you.” Buffy heaved herself into the rocker that had once belonged to the kid now lying dead in a dumpster some twenty blocks away. She tried not to think about it. “I know what the books told me, and I know what Giles told me…about vampires and the person who dies isn’t the person who wakes up, and all that jazz. But if that’s the case, then why am I so…miserable?”
Angel frowned. “Do you want me to give you the obvious answer?”
“If I’m not the person I was, why do I miss Spike so much? It’s more than just this…hurt in my chest. I miss him, and if it wasn’t me who did all that stuff, then why should I? Why should I miss someone who represents that?”
He was quiet for a long second, a silent war waging behind his typically pensive eyes. She knew that look, and she hated it. She always had. It made her feel like a very small spec in a world only he understood.
“What do you know about claims?” he asked.
“We’re seriously on this again?”
“I mean beyond the definition. I don’t peg Spike for having done much research, and if you claimed him on the spur of the moment—”
“I didn’t know what I’d done until he told me.”
“Yeah. And he wasn’t too upset, was he? Funny enough, I don’t see the Spike I know reconciling the fact that you were the Slayer just because you had a pair of fangs.”
“Do you know Spike at all?”
“Yeah, I do. Do you?”
“When he’s ruled by love, it’s one thing. God knows I spent twenty years with him following Dru around like a sick dog.” He paused and tossed her a glance. “Dru is—”
She waved a hand impatiently. “I know who Dru is.”
“Yeah, and even if he had just split up with her before Sunnydale, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t going back to her. Do you have any idea how often they split up? It was usually Dru’s doing, but I figured Spike grew some backbone and decided to let her know how it felt. Had it not been for you, he would’ve crawled back to her eventually. That was the way he was, because he loved her.” Angel gestured. “You claiming him would’ve pissed him off had it been anything other than what it was.”
“Yeah?” she snapped. She always grew a tad testy whenever the subject of Dru was raised. “What was it?”
“And now we’re back to this. What do you know about claims?”
“A bond—a really big bond, or whatever. Spike said it was like marriage, but he wasn’t wild about the comparison. It was the best way to describe it. Marriage that never ends.”
“And that’s all he knew?”
She shrugged. “He told me a while back that he once wanted to claim Dru, but she never accepted.”
“Yeah, because even with as crazy as she was, she knew what it meant.” He shook his head. “Claims aren’t meant to be spur of the moment, Buffy.”
Her eyes widened. “Gee, sorry. I’ll try to keep that in mind from here on.”
Angel ignored her. “And there’s a reason they’re so rare. Numerous vamps have tried the claiming ritual and failed because they weren’t fit for each other. Their personalities would clash too strongly, and the claim would suffer and ultimately fall apart. Only those vampires who truly connected with each other ever managed to perform a successful mating ritual, and very rarely with such little ceremony. To do it so fluidly wouldn’t make sense to us.”
Buffy considered this for a few long seconds, frowning. She was almost sure Angel had confused the claim with something else, because none of what he said described anything she and Spike had discussed, or anything she’d experienced since the fateful words were exchanged.
“Are you sure?”
“Your ritual consisted of—”
“It wasn’t a ritual. It was…words. I said he was mine, he wigged, told me what I’d done, and that was the end. Or rather…” She averted her eyes quickly, her mind dragging her back to that night for just a second. He’d had her splayed across a worktable, licking her clit and caressing her wet flesh with his tongue. She had never known such pleasure until that night…and then he’d straightened and slid his cock into her aching body. It had been heated and spontaneous, but perfect.
Then her thoughts took her to the body she’d dumped tonight, and the blush in her cheeks vanished for the sake of shame. Pleasure was something she didn’t deserve, and those memories should inspire disgust instead of longing.
“So,” Angel said, his voice invading the sudden fog around her head. “You just said the words, and that was it?”
Buffy shook her head dumbly and returned to herself. “You know,” she drawled. “You’re really making me wish we’d had this whole thing video recorded.”
“Buffy, claims aren’t supposed to be that easy. Don’t you get it? Vampires are very passionate creatures, and we’re greedy. Whenever we’re intimate with someone, we take ownership of them. The word ‘mine’ isn’t something we can really avoid in the heat of the moment.” He paused. “And submission to that isn’t uncommon, either. If claims were performed that simply, the whole vampire population would be linked.”
“How do you know?”
“How do you think? I’ve lived it. Darla and I were together for over a century, and while we satisfied urges with others, we belonged very much to each other. Hell, I did it with Dru just to piss Spike off. If claims typically came with those words, I’d have—”
Buffy held up a hand, her nose wrinkled. “I get it. You’re an undead man-whore.”
“No, you don’t get it. A real claim takes preparation and an exchange of blood. It takes more than what happened that night.”
“So you’re saying Spike and I aren’t really mated.”
Angel sighed, his shoulders falling. “No,” he replied. “That’s exactly what I’m not saying. You are mated, Buffy, and that’s what I’ve been getting at. It’s not supposed to happen as easily as it did for you, but for whatever reason, it did. Spike knew it immediately, didn’t he? He felt what happened.”
“Yeah, and that’s the funny thing. Spike didn’t know much about claims since Dru told him she would never go through with it.” He shrugged. “He looked it up, sure, but never what the full ritual entails. He likely only saw the part where claims were a mystical promise between vampires and other demons that, when performed correctly, last eternally. I doubt he ever knew that most claims are never sealed and most are weak and fall apart because of incompatibility. There already has to be a bond in order to create a foundation. With you two…”
Angel met her eyes again. Buffy pressed a hand to her aching stomach.
“It shouldn’t have been that easy for you to claim him,” he said. “But it was.”
“And this…the reason I hurt…it’s falling apart?”
She knew then that he’d give anything in the world to tell her yes, but the true answer surfaced in his dark gaze before words reached his lips. “The reason you’re hurting,” Angel said slowly, “is because a bond like this isn’t meant to be stretched. Not at first. Whatever sealed you two together is trying to hold on. It hasn’t had enough time to fortify itself on its own strength and survive independent of you and him. That’s why you miss him so much.” He inhaled. “Spike is a part of you. You feel like this because a part of you is somewhere else, and you can’t survive without it.”
Buffy swallowed hard. “It won’t always be this way…”
“Not after the claim matures.”
“We knew that much.”
“Yeah. I figured.”
“But…how can it…I have a soul—”
“It still brought you two together.” Angel sighed again and rolled his eyes. “You can’t imagine how thrilled I am, but I know enough about claims to know about this. Trust me, the first time Darla tossed me through a wall for daring to tell her she was mine, I did as much reading as I could. I didn’t want a mate and neither did she, and the misconceptions about the ceremony were enough to have us both worried we’d sealed the deal for eternity. I learned then that claims take more than just words, but I doubt Spike ever got that far.”
“Maybe not.” Buffy grew still for a long minute, her eyes fixed on the door. As though simply by thinking about him, Spike would come through the door and this messed up world she’d entered would suddenly right itself again. At the moment, though, she didn’t really know what she wanted. Everything seemed up in the air.
“I’ll be a friend to you,” Angel said when she didn’t continue. “Always.”
“Believe me, you being Spike’s mate is a big pill to swallow, but I can adjust.”
A dry smile tickled her lips. “Can you?”
“Because I don’t know how to deal with the guilt on top of everything else.”
“We’ll work on that. And when Spike gets here—”
Buffy’s heart nearly leapt. “What? Gets here?”
Angel looked at her for a long minute before gauging she was serious. “Really,” he said, “you can’t honestly think he’d let you go so easily.”
“The way I left him…”
“Trust me,” he deadpanned. “He’ll be here.”
For whatever reason, rolling over the WELCOME TO CLEVELAND sign didn’t hold the same appeal as running down the one on the outskirts of Sunnydale. Still, Spike mused as he wedged a cigarette between his lips, it did infuse him with a sense of satisfaction. A testament to a job well done.
He stuck his left hand out the open window as his car bumped over the twisted metal, wind caressing his fingers. The burning rage in his chest began to calm at last. He already felt closer to her, already felt the gnawing hole in his gut piecing itself together. Soon she would be within an arm’s length again. He would have her in his arms, her skin against his skin, her lips against his lips. Soon she would be where she belonged.
And he would know exactly why she’d fled.
“Yes. Thank you.” Wesley Wyndam-Pryce slammed the gas station payphone back onto the receiver and heaved a sigh. “Cleveland,” he said over his shoulder.
Faith’s brows perked. “Cleveland?” she repeated, smacking her gum.
“That is where the bus stopped. It makes sense, actually. It’s one of America’s four most active hellmouths.”
She frowned. “How does that make sense?”
“The bus she took happened to be occupied by a group of pacifist humanoid demons.” He beamed a grin and straightened the already annoyingly-straight lapels of his suit. It made her want to ruffle him up all dirty like. “Are you ready?”
“For another road trip? Sure thing, big daddy.”
Faith winked and pushed herself off the wall, slapping his ass on a whim.
Damn, the boy could blush.
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