Note: Thanks to my beta t_geyer for her unending patience, perseverance and support.
"Where's Angel?" Buffy demanded, and regretted it as soon as Spike turned both the coldest of glares and his cutting tongue on her.
"Gee, Spike," the vampire said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Good to see you. Was thrilled to bits when I heard you weren't dead." He set his glass down on the table where he was seated between Illyria and Nina and took Illyria's hand in his.
"Spike..." Buffy really wasn't sure whether it was meant to be an apology or a warning not to get between her and the guy who currently had her extremely pissed off.
The vampire gave a snort of disgust. "Looks like some things never change. Your actual boyfriend had some shiny business proposal for him or something, just couldn't wait."
"He's not the actual boyfriend," Buffy protested.
Spike smirked. "Like that, huh? Poor little dumped girl looking for a shoulder to cry on? Well, if it makes you feel better he only kept Dru an' Darla around for the one night when he was using them to get at us. Guess that means the pair of you were practically engaged in comparison."
Before Buffy could get her breath back after that little bombshell Spike had finished.
"They're in The Immortal's suite. I'm sure you know the way," he concluded with a last raking glance from head to toe. Then, he turned to Willow and gave a shallow nod, allowing a little warmth back into his eyes and even smiling slightly. "Nice seein' you, Red. Fred would've appreciated what you did. Thank you." With that he turned back to face the table, put an arm around Illyria's shoulders and drank deep from the oversized wine goblet that definitely didn't hold wine.
Buffy was left with the distinct feeling that she had been dismissed. Sure they had always argued, but normally it was an anger born of passion, one that would end as rapidly as it was begun with them in each other's arms, but she'd only once heard him use that tone of voice on her, the time she'd accused him of being responsible for the nerds' video cameras. Just as she had no answer for it then, she had no answer for it now.
She turned, ready to go find Angel, and she made it about five feet before Spike deigned to throw a parting barb. "Oh and, Buffy, Blondie here has a thing or two in common with Red's guitar player. You wouldn't want to be poaching in her territory or it might just come back to bite you in the arse... literally."
The Immortal laid out an array of eight by ten colour glossies on the coffee table between him and Angel, two for each city that he named. "From my own personal holdings... Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego... One desirable residential property and one office building in each city, nothing the size of Wolfram & Hart's offices but all more than adequate for a small detective agency, all in the best areas, all ready-fitted with necrotinted glass. You could have an office in every major city on the Western Seaboard... Or you could dispose of these and buy The Hyperion outright, restore it to its former glory."
"In return for what?" Angel asked sceptically, though he had a feeling that he already knew.
"You allow some shamans to draw off a portion of the energy that you stole from The Senior Partners, enough to sustain my youth for say... another century or two. I'm not greedy. After that we can always renegotiate if need be."
Angel looked at the pictures, imagining Nina's face if she saw the Malibu beach-house...
"It would be but a fraction of the power you drew from Hamilton. You made the partners so angry that they just kept feeding their power into him until their reserves were all gone." He moved to the bar as he spoke and poured two glasses of Irish malt whiskey.
"You really think that, with our history, I'm going to agree to this?" Angel asked.
The Immortal shrugged, setting one of the glasses down in front of Angel and taking a sip from the other as he glided into a loose-limbed seat on the suite's sofa. "You'd be a fool not to. Wolfram & Hart have offices in every major city in the world, and in each city there is a liaison like me, all now cast adrift. What I ask is not one hundredth of what you took. I doubt you would even notice the difference... and look at what you would gain."
"And what guarantee do I have that your shamans wouldn't simply drain every last drop of power from my body and channel it straight back to The Senior Partners?"
The Immortal didn't even pause. He'd obviously been expecting this argument. "If that is your concern, then we could always ask Miss Rosenberg to perform the ritual. It would be difficult for a single mage but not beyond her capabilities, and I'm sure you would agree that she is a sufficiently neutral party."
Angel tilted his head on one side and then gave a nod. "If we do it, Willow would be acceptable." He gave a last longing look at the photographs and, as he drained his glass, a knock sounded at the door.
"Does that mean you will do it?" The Immortal pushed as Angel rose to his feet.
Angel shook his head. "It means I'll discuss it with the others." Last time he had made a decision like that on his own he had ended up at Wolfram & Hart. He wasn't in a hurry to repeat that mistake.
There was another knock, less patient this time and accompanied by an ineffectual turn of the door handle.
"I'll leave you to your visitor," Angel told the demon, releasing the lock and pulling the door open to find himself face to face with Buffy.
"Ouch!" said Nina after Buffy had left. "I've practically got freezer burn just being within a mile of that conversation."
"Your point being?" Spike asked.
"My point being that, according to Angel, she was meant to be the love of your life, too," Nina suggested, raising an eyebrow. "My point being that you knew Angel was wrong when he said she had blue eyes."
Spike pulled out cigarettes and lighter and lit a cigarette before he bothered to reply. "Alright, so I'm in love with her. Doesn't mean I have to like her."
"Shouldn't it?" Nina asked.
"You tell me?" Spike suggested, drawing deep on his cigarette. "How'd you feel if for years the guy you loved only ever seemed interested when there was no one else interested in him? Evil doctors, unfaithful ex-boyfriend soldiers - an' you're the student here, but correct me if I'm wrong... a TA as screws his students, so far outta line that even she should have realised the corn-fed Iowa goodness was just a front -..."
Spike paused and raised an eyebrow, gratified when Nina's face screwed up into an involuntary grimace.
"Her TA?" she asked, as if hoping Spike might at least confirm that Buffy hadn't been in any of Riley's classes.
Instead, the vamp gave a self deprecating smile and continued on. "...Creepy principals, morally ambiguous immortal demons? Anyone but you... How would you feel if he shagged you blind one minute but he wouldn't be seen talking to you in public? How'd you feel if half an hour - half a bloody hour - after he tells you that there's a chance at something real but it'll have to wait until after the next apocalypse to work it all out, you find him with his tongue down his ex's throat?" Spike's voice began to crack slightly and his eyes were suspiciously bright. "How would you feel if you died for him and then you come back and you travel half way around the planet and when you track him down he's so busy partying in public with the latest guy who isn't you that he doesn't even notice you're there? The best damn slayer in the last century, if not ever, and two master vamps walk into the room with her - her senses would have been screaming at her like a ten-engine fire - but she couldn't even peel herself off her latest boy toy long enough to acknowledge the fact we were there."
Nina's hand reached out to cover Spike's in a gesture of sympathy. "I heard she told you she loved you," she added, trying to put together the snippets she had heard from Angel, what were likely the more honest bits Spike had just admitted and the looks that Buffy had given her when Spike had come to offer comfort.
"Yeah, right and there's a guy works down the chip shop swears he's Elvis."
Nina didn't say anything more but he felt the pressure of her patient gaze.
"She said what she thought she needed to to get me to stick it out to the end... maximum damage. Waited until there was no chance she'd ever have to back it up. No way I'd live long enough for her to have to tell her friends. Another dirty secret between her and a dead man. That's all... Words are cheap."
The ensuing silence was broken by the thump of Illyria's glass returning to the table. "This bores me, the mewling imbecile is not worthy of a warrior such as you, and your self-pity sours the air like cheap perfume." She pushed her chair back and rose to her feet. "We will dance again."
Without preamble Buffy punched Angel square on the nose... and without conscious thought on his part Angel returned the favour, only Angel's punch sent Buffy staggering back the width of the corridor and drew a trickle of blood. Buffy's punch didn't even make the vampire flinch.
"You hit me," Buffy whined.
"As I seem to recall saying once before, you hit me first. You want to be more careful when it comes to picking on people you think are weaker than you are. Sometimes you miscalculate."
"Ask your boyfriend." Angel wet his forefinger and wiped a smudge of blood off of his other hand. "Now, if we're finished with the unprovoked attack section of the evening, I'll be getting on with my life and leaving you two to get on with yours. That was what you wanted, wasn't it, Buffy?"
Buffy ran the edge of her hand under her nose, not so much wiping the blood away as moving it around.
"Oh, no you don't, mister! Where the hell in our agreement did you decide that leaving me alone meant sending stalkers with cameras to detail my every move?"
Both The Immortal and Angel looked embarrassed and uncomfortable but it was the more recent ex who spoke first. "Perhaps it is I who should leave?"
Buffy swung her fist as she turned to face him. This punch had the desired effect and the demon sailed six feet across the room and landed on the sofa. "Nope, I just got me a twofer."
"But I have done nothing..." The Immortal protested as he levered himself into a sitting position and checked his nose for breaks.
"Except forget to tell me that you had some screwed up relationship with two of my exes. Or did you just happen to forget that you fucked Dru and Darla?"
"Is not so cut and dried... Your friends they have very fine taste in women..."
"Yeah," Angel added sarcastically. "That'd explain why you had to have us jumped by a mob of your lackeys and chained up in a dungeon so you wouldn't have any competition."
"Yeah, right," Buffy piped up. "And your good friend Ilona inviting them here, that was just pure coincidence? Nothing to do with you wanting to rub all our noses in it?"
"Bella, I have never done anything to hurt you... Your friend Angel and I had business to discuss, business that is quite urgent."
"And Spike?" the slayer demanded. "What was that, huh?"
"William I ask for another reason." He shrugged. "In your sleep you cry out always for a ghost who is not a ghost... and I know I will never have you. I think maybe you see your ghost and you both go live happily ever after... Or maybe you see him-."
"And she screws everything up right royally, gives up on the dream and you don't need to compete with a memory any more?" Nina asked from the doorway.
All the others turned to stare at her. "Ilona gave me directions. I thought it was Angel you were looking for?" She gave Buffy an inquiring look.
"I was looking for Angel when I found out he paid some sleazebag to stalk me. When Spike let slip that I was just another way for him ," she nodded toward The Immortal, "to score a few points in whatever sick game the three of them are playing, then my priorities shifted slightly."
Nina glared at Angel. "You were stalking her?"
"No," Angel floundered. "It wasn't like that. I just paid a private detective to keep an eye on her and make sure she was alright and that she wasn't in any sort of trouble..."
"You were stalking her. Paint it any way you like," Nina replied firmly. "Later, once we get back to LA, I am going to explain very slowly and loudly just how warped that is..." She turned on Buffy. "This one is my problem now, not yours.
Your problem is that you take too long making up your mind about what you want."
"Huh?" Buffy looked from Nina to Angel to The Immortal as if to see if the men were as lost as she was.
"Illyria's right. You really are a mewling imbecile," the student continued. "I saw the way you were looking at Spike. What I don't get is why when he's so obviously the guy you want, you're in here with these two instead of out there trying to get him back."
"You heard what he said. He doesn't want me any more. He has some goddess or something..."
"No, you're right. He doesn't want you," Nina pronounced bitterly. "He wants a girl who's willing to say she loves him in front of the whole world. He wants a girl who makes him feel like he belongs, not one who treats him like a dirty little secret."
"I-I I told him I loved him... At the end. I did."
"You left it too late. If you'd told him one day earlier... An hour earlier, even. If you'd got on that bus and given him a great big kiss for good luck in front of the whole parade, then maybe he might have believed you, but who can blame him for thinking you were just playing him one last time when you waited until he was dying and that's all you've ever done."
"I didn't... He knew. I said we'd work it out after..."
"And this would be right before he caught you with Angel? Get real."
"So that whole cookie dough thing?" Angel asked, sounding pathetically like a small child.
"Was me trying to let you down easy," Buffy answered bluntly before turning back to Nina, her eyes glistening with tears. "He has to know."
Nina shook her head. "You cried wolf too often. You used him over and over and that's all he's come to expect from you. You waited until the words were meaningless and now you're too chicken to go back in that room and show him that you really meant them."
Buffy glared at Angel's new girlfriend as if she wanted to punch her on the nose, too, but instead she just swept from the room. The Immortal grinned, grabbed the pictures up off the coffee table and pushed them into Angel's hand. "Show her the one in Malibu, but come. This , we do not want to miss." He ushered the others from the room, locked it and then took off down the corridor at a jog in the direction of the ballroom.
Buffy stalked into the ballroom like a huntress in search of her prey, but then stalled abruptly at the sight of Spike slow-dancing with the blue-haired goddess. Suddenly she was convinced that this could only end in humiliation. Nina had to be wrong. It wasn't as if she'd been there at the time. She couldn't know how things had been between the two of them. There was no way anyone on the outside could understand.
'And who do you suppose she got that second-hand information from?' a tiny voice inside herself asked.
"Allow me," suggested a familiar voice at her elbow, and glancing over her shoulder she noticed that Angel, The Immortal and Nina had caught up with her. It seemed The Immortal wasn't about to give her an excuse to back out. He strode toward the couple on the dance floor and tapped Spike on the shoulder. Spike and Illyria stopped moving and then Spike relinquished his hold on the goddess and The Immortal took his place.
Buffy was just about to move off again when Nina caught her wrist and pressed a tissue into her hand.
"Blood," she reminded the other blonde. "Pretty sure that he'd clean it off for you but probably not the impression you want to make."
Buffy cast impatient glances Spike's way every other second while the art student scrubbed at her nose, upper lip and hand until she was satisfied that the evidence of Angel's punch had been erased, at least to human sight. The slayer couldn't help thinking that if she took too long then Spike would disappear onto some balcony or into a quiet corner and if Nina was right then this had to be done as publicly as possible.
However, Spike seemed in no hurry to abandon his plus one. He quit the dance floor but waited at its nearest edge to where The Immortal had interrupted and lit up a cigarette, his eyes never leaving the pale-skinned godling, as if Immi needed only to cross some unspoken bound of propriety and Spike would go rushing to Illyria's rescue.
Buffy waited just long enough for Nina to pronounce herself happy with her appearance before she made her way across the dance floor. Her first couple of steps were hesitant but she soon threaded her way between he dancers with an unstoppable sense of purpose.
Spike never looked her way until she passed between Illyria and him, and when he did look at her it was with a scowl that seemed designed to make her turn aside.
Her heart sped even faster in her chest, certain, yet again, that she had finally tested whatever relationship they might once have had to the point of destruction. If gaining his soul had made Spike realise how badly she had used him, then who knew how his attitude might have changed when he came back from the dead. She was shaking inside at the idea he might walk away but that horror paled in comparison to the idea that he could be walking around, not breathing under the belief that she had only said those words as some sort of sop for a dying man.
"Slayer," Spike greeted her coldly when she was four feet away, using her title as a means of distancing himself from her.
Buffy just kept going. She plucked his cigarette from his unresisting hand and tossed it aside and then her body collided with his at a speed that knocked her breath from her body, her arms wrapped around his neck, drawing his head down and before he could protest further her lips captured his, taking no prisoners.
For a fraction of a second his lips softened against hers, but then he was pulling away, and one strong hand was grasping each of her upper arms, holding her at arm's length.
"Don't!" the vampire warned, a hint of gold flashing briefly in the dark-lashed ultramarine of his eyes.
"Why?" Buffy argued. "Because you think it's a game? What part of me saying I love you was too difficult for that vamp brain of yours? I know I should have said it sooner, but I thought we'd have time. I thought once it was over we'd have all the time in the world to do it right and then I was losing you..."
"Nice try, sweetheart. I might even have fallen for it if you hadn't been so damn determined to ignore the fact we even existed last time me an' Angel hit town... Or if your pet geek hadn't been so keen to let us know how happy you were with your nice new life with your nice new boyfriend."
"Andrew? When the hell were you talking to Andrew?" Buffy scowled and wrenched her arms free. "And he's not my pet geek. He's Giles' pet geek."
"Yeah, that'd be why he was livin' in your apartment." Spike replied, sounding less than impressed. "And that depends on whether you mean the time we were here and he was telling us how you moved on and were so cute snuggling up on the sofa with lover boy, or whether you mean the time your psycho slayer hacked my hands off and he brought The Spice Girls to grab her out of the clutches of the Evil Empire, making it pretty damn clear you wanted nothing to do with any of us in the process."
"You didn't believe anything Andrew told you?" Buffy asked in exasperation. "And I am so-o-o going to kick his proto-watcher ass the next time I see him. I didn't even know you were alive until I saw you tonight. If I had had the least clue you were back I'd have been on the next flight to LA... which is probably why Giles made sure I didn't find out. Spike, I meant it when I said I loved you."
"Make me believe you," Spike asked.
'Make me believe you,' Buffy thought. 'How the frilly heck am I meant to do that? Since it seems that walking over and kissing you in front of a hotel full of people including my best friend and my first love apparently isn't enough.'
Suddenly, she was pulling open her purse and rifling through it. The seconds it took her to find her cell phone and dial the number for their apartment seemed more like hours.
"Dawn?" she demanded when her sister finally answered. "You know I love Spike, right?"
There came a world-weary sigh. "Well, duh! Who else sits up with you in the middle of the night and shares your ice cream?"
"And you know if I got a second chance I couldn't let it go?" Buffy asked.
"Buffy?" Dawn's voice sounded trapped between disbelief and hope.
"He's back, Dawn. Don't ask me how. I don't know. Seems like he's been in LA with Angel, but he's leaving soon. I already told Giles I quit and if we can get everything packed up in time I figure maybe we can leave same time he does."
"You're serious?" the teen asked, obviously still not totally convinced that this wasn't some cruel joke on her sister's part.
"I'm serious. We've got to find you a new school before term starts. Just start packing... We've got 'til...?" She raised an eyebrow in Spike's direction.
"Tomorrow night, about nine, if you want to hitch a ride with us."
"That was him!" Dawn almost screeched. "You really mean it! Buffy, tell him I'm sorry about the bed thing, ple-ease! Okay, I'm packing. I'm packing right now." With that the line went dead.
This time when Buffy slid into those familiar arms she met no resistance. His mouth came down to meet hers in a tender kiss and the slayer held her phone out at arm's length to take a picture before it got too heated. When they finally drew apart Spike cast her a curious glance as she added a message to the image and then he moved so he could watch over her shoulder. The accompanying text was brief and to the point, just three words - "I love him!" - and when Spike saw that it was Xander's name she picked out from her contact list to send the message to, then that was as much proof as he needed.
"Wanna dance?" the vampire asked.
Buffy grinned. Tomorrow was another day and it looked like it was going to be a fairly hectic one. She had a hundred questions but she could get explanations later. Tonight it was enough that he was here and with her and that they could try to make up for all the things they had missed out on first time around... starting with a slow dance.
Willow sighed as she watched the couples swaying on the dance floor. 'Times like these, all the guys in formal wear, well, all the guys except Spike in formal wear... Kinda makes me sorta wish I wasn't gay any more,' she thought, 'Especially when I've got as much chance of some hot chick asking me to dance as I have of being picked for the next space shuttle mission.'
She picked up a fork, consoling herself that at least the buffet still had great pasta. They had to be changing the trays out every ten minutes to keep it as fresh as this.
"Hi," came a slightly unsure voice from by her elbow.
Willow spotted a pair of dark pants and just an inch or two of white shirt in her peripheral vision, so close she'd have had to crick her neck to see his face. Great... the last thing she needed tonight was some guy hitting on her.
"Look, I'm sort of stuck here," the guy rushed out. "I came with my agent but his wife went into labour... and, well, I figured the last thing they want is some guy hanging round so I thought I'd stay here rather than end up stuck alone in a hotel room for the night but I don't know any Italian and the hostess said that you and your friends were American and that the guy you came with had had some sort of an accident and had to go to the hospital, so you were kind of with your friends but sort of on your own as well, and I was sorta wondering if it'd be okay if maybe I hung out for a while."
The witch rubbed at her hands with a napkin as the guy finished his babbled explanation. She could do babble and, strangely enough, she found herself actually believing that he really was looking for company rather than hitting on her. "Sure," she agreed and extended one newly scrubbed hand. "Grab a chair..."
The guy pulled out the seat beside hers and sank into it, letting Willow get a decent look at him for the first time.
"John," the guy corrected her. "Mr Cusack makes you sound like my tax accountant. So... How's the ziti...?" He paused.
"Willow, Willow Rosenberg... and the ziti's pretty damn good."
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