"This is all wrong." Finding herself in the throes of a fierce contraction, sweat-beaded forehead dangerously close to being caressed by the only other person in the room, Buffy took a stand. "I can't do this."
"Yes, you can," Angel assured her, "I'm here for you."
Exactly her point. "Thanks, but can you not be?"
"Oh. Okay." He sat up, then reconsidered. "As soon as Giles gets back."
The contraction ebbed, and when she was finally able to speak without all the panting, she said, "I'm not a china doll, Angel."
"I never said you were."
"Look, I know I died in Cordy's vision..." Off of his surprise, she said, "Why else would you rush up here without so much as a phone call?"
"I would've--" He gave up. "Yeah."
"So I can't blame you for wanting to protect me; I'd do the same for you." Realizing that she was still clutching his arm, she let go. "And it doesn't help that whenever you're around, I turn fifteen all over again. 'Angel's gonna make everything better.'"
Brow knit, he stared unseeingly at the floor.
"But we both know that I can take care of myself," she said. "And all tonight's choose-your-own-adventure-vision proved is that nobody knows how it ends. Gods, prophets, the Powers that Be... they're hoping we make the right choices, but the future is still ours to make."
"And your future is with him?"
Their eyes met, and she looked away.
Angel walked to the window. "He could be on a killing spree right now."
"He could be halfway to Mexico right now, winning Drusilla back with a bouquet of baby hearts! Angel, the thought of what Spike 'could' be doing makes me so angry, and so scared that I..." She exhaled a shaky breath, and got to the point. "But I would rather be alone for the rest of my life than force you into second place. You're too good to be anyone's consolation prize."
He wanted to say something thoughtful, but all that came out was an incredulous, "Second place?"
Apologetic, she tried to explain, "He's like a... a virus. A flesh eating, biohazardous virus that gets into your system and never goes away, like rabies or ebola or that thing that's killing all the birds and..." her eyes welled, "I really wish he was here."
"Huh." Still perplexed, he tried, "So, not even if I miraculously turned human?"
"Well," she thought out loud, "I might not say no to a moment of perfect happiness, but..."
He cracked a shy grin.
"...that would be all." She blushed. "I'm sorry, I'm hormonal. This is why you should go."
With a sober nod, he took her hand and bent down to gently kiss her forehead. "I'll call you the second my heart starts beating."
"Here you are!" Joyce barged in, making the ex-lovers separate. "I brought you a change of clothes, your homework, every magazine on the stand and look!" She held up a small bag of Gummy Sharks. "Breakfast."
Buffy smiled. "Thanks, Mom."
"Where's the doctor?"
"She's on her way."
"Where's Spike?" Joyce asked, clearly not up-to-date on current events.
There was an uncomfortable silence, and Angel said, "I'll be outside."
* * *
"This is all wrong." Spike stumbled down an alleyway and collided with a dumpster, not sure where he was anymore. "This is... What's...?"
The pain had suddenly graduated from searing to excruciating, as if his blood had been replaced with battery acid ...and was his skin turning blue?
This was no standard bullet, no tranquilizer shot, no mystical poison arrow that could be remedied with a quick nip at a slayer's neck.
This was science. And nothing was scarier than that.
Determined to extract it, he clenched his teeth and probed the hole in his chest.
It felt like a tiny metal octopus, held in place by several prongs. Assuming the pain couldn't get any worse, he gave one a tug.
"Bloody HELL!" Spike toppled onto his back on the ground, shuddering, a hand over his bleeding heart.
He hacked up something strange and glutinous and thought, This can't be how it ends.
"I was supposed to die for her!" he shouted to the black sky in desperation. "Stupid lying gods with their fake visions. Well she won't have him now, will she? They'll all burn because I won't be there to save their useless hides. And good bloody riddance!"
It took him a moment to register the sound: a baby crying in an apartment facing the alleyway.
He blinked, vision blurring. "Hey little one! Did I wake you?"
It took a breath, and wailed again.
"Shhh shhh shhh! Hang on, hang on, I got a lullaby for you!" He thought for a second, then bellowed gamely, "Here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down to Sunnydale! Hippity hoppity, evil's on its way!"
The baby cried louder.
"You're right, you're right, that's a stupid song." He coughed, and ignored the pain that came with it. "I know better ones. Like, uh... Oh! Remember this one?" Hitting the dumpster for percussion, he sang off-key, "Death or glory-y-y! Becomes just another storyyy! Death or glor--"
"SHUT THE FUCK UP, ASSHOLE!" a man yelled from another window.
"Oi, sod off! I'm singing a bloody lullaby to my bloody fucking baby!"
"Your baby," came Drusilla's sotto voce lilt. "S'not your bloody baby."
* * *
"If it's not his, then whose is it?" Joyce implored. "What kind of demon can make a baby? What is it you're not telling me?"
"Nothing," Buffy lied, unwilling to reveal the scale of danger they were in. "That's all I know."
"Well, you're safe and Willow is okay, and that's what matters."
"One more ounce of blood and she wouldn't have been okay at all." She shut her eyes, fresh tears forming. "I didn't think he had it in him."
Joyce sat beside her and sighed. "I can't say I'm surprised."
"Mom, I really don't need to hear the 'men are scum, vampires are scummier' speech--"
"He's been an emotional wreck ever since Angel got here."
Buffy blinked at her mother. "Huh?"
"And without any reassurance from you..."
"You're saying I drove him to drink?"
"Of course not. All I'm saying is, think about how rejected he felt. How terrified he was of losing everything he thought he had." She watched Buffy consider this. "That last ounce may not have been an accident. Maybe he was testing the limits of your trust."
"I don't test well. And he knows hurting my friends is a deal-breaker."
Her mother had a point. She'd forgiven Angel his past transgressions; why was Spike, a vampire capable of being a near-model citizen without a soul, judged on a harsher scale?
It hit her that she'd spent the past twenty-four hours trying to prove something to Angel, not to Spike -- she just assumed his slavish devotion wouldn't waver, and once Angel was gone and satisfied that she wasn't making a grave mistake, they would pick up exactly where they left off.
But how could she expect that from someone who'd suddenly been forced to accept that his lifelong rival was still a threat, the baby he'd given his heart to wasn't his, and his brightest future lay in sacrificing himself so his girlfriend could find happiness with another man?
Guiltily, she recalled their quickie in the bathroom, where she soaked up all of his adoration and gave none of it back -- not even when he begged her for it.
"Even if it wasn't," she said, "I wouldn't know how to make things right."
"Stop trying to make sense of everything," Joyce advised. "Deep inside, you trust him, I know you do. You'll make things right when he sees that."
"Since when do you trust Spike?"
She looked at her levelly. "We're talking about your feelings, not mine."
"Then why are you telling me this?"
"Because he's what you want." She placed a palm on Buffy's belly. "It's a Mom thing. You'll understand in a few hours."
* * *
"Dru?" Spike tried to focus as she crawled up his prone body. "Drusilla? What are you--"
"Shhhh." She placed a long fingernail over his lips, then trailed it down to his chest, patronizingly clucking her tongue. "Poor little thing. Love's golden arrow at him should have fled, not Death's ebon dart to strike him dead."
A tear spilled down his temple. "Help me, Dru. Please help me."
"But you've been such a naughty boy." Eyes darkening, she jabbed her razor-sharp talon into the hole in his chest, wiggled it around. "Made a little bunny rabbit with the Slayer and now it's gone and gobbled up your heart."
"I couldn't help myself." The pain became an oddly comforting sensation as it radiated outward to every nerve ending in his body. "She made me weak."
"It's all right, my love. I'm the gleaming black starling come to carry you away."
He searched her face. "You've always had wings, haven't you?"
"Great big wings to fly us far from here, where no magic sun will find us."
"I need to see the baby first. I have to give her a name."
"Shhh, they're watching you." She kissed his ear and warned, "You mustn't stay. They'll take you to her and make you one of them."
Her voice and body and face became Buffy's. "One of us."
"Buffy." He touched her flaxen hair, her neck. "Oh Buffy, thank god it's you. How'd you find me?"
She sat up and brought his hands to her naked breasts. "I saw you in the mirror."
Watching her mount his growing erection, he noticed there was something different about her: her body was slender, back to Buffy-sized. "Where's the baby?"
"There was never any baby, Spike. It's all been a test. We're testing you to see if you have what it takes."
He frowned. "Did I fail?"
She opened her hand and unspooled the amulet. Dangling it over his wound, which had miraculously healed, she said, "That all depends on what you do next."
"What..." He held onto her swiveling hips, "What do I do next?"
"Quit feeling sorry for yourself, for starters. Then come and meet me outside the hospital." She flattened the amulet on his chest and bent down to brush her lips against his. "We're gonna make history tonight, Pureheart. We're gonna change everything."
Her last words echoing off the alley walls, she vanished, leaving him alone and hard. All over.
When did paralysis set in?
The wound was still there, of course. He was hallucinating, and he was dying.
Seconds before the world went black, Spike sensed someone approaching. One, two, three sets of footsteps? Four?
The foot soldiers of death had come to drag him away.
* * *
Something was wrong.
Tip-off one was the broken glass scattered all over the courtyard. Two was the classic Plymouth hubcap in the potted plant by Giles' front door... and when Oz knocked, the door gave as if it had been busted open.
Quietly, he picked up the hubcap and ventured into the apartment. Things were worse inside: furniture upturned, books strewn everywhere. Like there'd been a struggle.
He called out, "Giles?" and startled as the phone rang in response.
His quest for closure had brought him here: Before leaving Sunnydale for good, he had to see Willow. A brief talk, even a quick goodbye would be enough...
But now he was afraid he was getting much more than he bargained for.
He answered the phone. "Giles residence."
"No," Oz said, still looking around. "He's, uh, not here right now."
"This is Quentin Travers. It is imperative that I speak to him. Do you know where he is, where I can contact him, or Buffy Summers?"
"You're from the Council," Oz deduced.
There was a pause. "Yes. Who is this?"
"Uh, I'm a friend of--"
"Never mind. You must find him and tell him that the song holds the key. Do you hear me? The fate of the world depends on you delivering this message. The song holds the key."
"Mr. Giles will know." Click.
Facing the kitchen, he heard a creak behind him, and turned to catch a shadowy figure leaving the apartment.
He hung up the phone and sniffed the air. Winiqua.
And something worse.
There was a dried spot on the floor. Two more towards the door.
Hubcap in hand, he crept out to the courtyard and spied the demon slinking away.
Adrenaline on his side, he pounced on it and bashed its skull with the heavy steel disc until it was pretty much dead and he heard himself sobbing, "What did you do to her? What did you do to Willow?"
Hair sprouted on his hand, and he dropped the bumper, shaking.
I won't change, I won't change, I won't change.
The transformation reversed, and he exhaled in relief.
Then he noticed the book.
Prying it out of the dead demon's fingertips, he read the cover. The Song of The Lilin.
"Get out of here! I'm not afraid to use this!" A woman brandishing a small .22 lurched toward him, and he backed away, hands up. "I've had it with you hooligans, your cars crashing into the courtyard, your ambulances at all hours of the night--"
"Hospital," Oz said, and sprinted to his van while the woman screamed at the morbid sight he left behind.
* * *
In the hospital parking lot, Sanvi emerged from her car and strode quickly toward the doctor's entrance.
Her cell phone twittered an Abba song. "Yes, this is Doctor Patel."
"Doctor Patel. Quentin Travers."
"Oh." She stopped walking. "Hello."
"Listen to me very carefully." He sounded agitated, unusually distressed. "You are a weapon fashioned for a single purpose."
She looked around the empty lot. "Is this a joke?"
"I'm afraid it isn't. We should have known you'd be the one, but we had so many false alarms with your mother... with all of them."
"My mother... What are you saying, Quentin? What do you mean, I'm a weapon?" There was no answer, and she remembered how frustrating it was to be a pawn in their top-secret schemes. "What have you people done to me?"
"The Council has... prepared you for what you'll be facing."
"Prepared me?! Prepared me how?" Again, no answer. "At least tell me what I'm facing, for god's sake."
"There isn't time. All you need know is you have the power to invoke the spirit of the three. You must--"
Suddenly, Sanvi checked out.
"--know when to open your--" There was a great clatter and he gasped. "No! Oh god no! No, don't--"
Lamashtu smiled. "I'll be sure to do that. Ta ta."
As Travers choked and pled for his life over the line, she crunched the phone in her hand and headed for the woods.
"You can thank me for that later, Sanvi."
* * *
Buffy growled as another contraction racked her body. "Where the hell is she?"
"She should be here any minute," Giles said, barely withstanding the pain she was inflicting on his wrist.
"Why does she have to deliver it?" Joyce pressed. "It's human, isn't it, and Spike said he didn't trust her to do it, something about old associations..."
Giles looked to Buffy. They'd agreed that keeping Sanvi away from the baby would only postpone the inevitable and could put more people in danger. Above all, they needed to work with someone they knew could survive a possession.
"Giles trusts her," Buffy said, and her mother was quieted.
There was a rap at the door, and Angel came in. "He wanted to talk to you; I told him it wasn't really the best time--" Riley appeared behind him, pale and clearly shaken.
"Riley?" Buffy squeaked between breaths, "Kinda... in the middle of something here."
"Yeah. I uh... can I talk to you privately?"
"Not really." The contraction abated, and she let out a long exhale. "What is it?"
He looked at her mother, at Giles, at her. "There's something you need to know. ...It's about Spike."
"What?" She sat up, heart pounding. "Did you see him? What happened?"
"He, uh..." He couldn't figure out how to break it to her gently, so he just came out with it: "He's a vampire."
Buffy laughed in relief. "God, I thought you were gonna tell me you staked him."
"You... you knew he was a vampire?"
"Well, yeah. He's been one for over a century."
"Why are you...? What were you doing with a...?" He looked around, on edge. "Who else here is a vampire?"
"Nobody," Buffy said firmly. "Look, he's not one of the bad guys, okay? He's different."
"Didn't seem any different when he tried to bite me."
"He tried to bite you? God, that is so typical of him!" She threw her hands up in frustration. "I'm sorry, he's acting out, big time. Where did you see him?"
Riley swallowed hard, unable to answer.
Her eyes widened in fright. "Riley? What did you do?"
* * *
"Oz!" Xander stopped him in the hospital corridor. "Where you been, man?"
"Around. Hey, do you know where I can find Giles?"
"Oh, he's probably in Buffy's room. Upstairs. I'll take ya."
"What happened to Buffy?"
"She's having a baby." He frowned. "Didn't you see Will yet?"
Oz had already peeked into the room. Willow, bandage on her neck, tube in her arm, holding hands and giggling with Tara. He didn't want to intrude. "Yeah. I just um, gotta get this book to Giles before I forget."
"Yes, do that and go away," Anya said, then turned to Xander. "Can we go to the broom closet now? I need to have unprotected sex before the world ends."
Xander cleared his throat and steered Oz toward the elevator. "She's in room 314. Have fun!"
* * *
"You did what?" Buffy said again.
Riley took the capsule gun out of his holster, showed it to her. "It's an experimental technique. Burrows into the heart. It... works as a coagulant. Petrifies things from the inside out."
"Things. You mean vampires."
"Yeah... but... this is the first time it's been used on a free-ranging hostile, so--"
"And the first 'free-range' you choose happens to be my boyfriend?"
"He was going to kill me, I used it in self-defense!"
"If he really wanted to kill you, you would be dead," she said with confidence. "There's got to be a way to stop the effect, an antidote..."
"I'm sorry," was all Riley could offer.
"Well then where is he?" She retied the back of her gown. "Where did this happ--?"
As Buffy was immobilized by a sharp contraction, Joyce said, "Honey, I hate to say it, he's not your priority right now."
"I can't let him die out there. I have to find him."
"Someone else will have to. Angel?"
After a pause, he looked at Buffy and said, "Yeah. Of course. I'll bring him back to you."
Buffy gave him a grateful smile. "Thank you."
"The capsule has a tracer," Riley said. "I'll contact base, have them tell me where the signal stops."
Oz walked in, demon guts caked on his t-shirt and an antique book stowed under his arm. "Bad time?"
"All day long, I'm afraid," Giles said. "What brings you?"
"Council called," he handed it over. "Said this holds the key. Pretty sure it's yours."
He rifled through The Song of the Lilin, wishing he could remember just one thing it said. "This holds the key?"
"Well it's either that, or the broken cell phone in the parking lot playing 'Take A Chance on Me'."
"'Take a Chance on Me'? The Abba tune?"
"Yeah. You a fan?"
"No," Giles said, and peered out the window. "But Sanvi is."
"That's impossible," Riley was saying into his radio. "The same coordinates as last night? How could he have gotten that far?"
"Her lair," Buffy snapped her fingers at Angel, "It's in the woods."
"She was underneath us," Angel realized, shaking his head. "I'll go check it out, look for a way in." He turned to Oz. "Is that Winiqua on your shirt?"
"If they're blind, it might throw them off the scent. You can let me borrow it or come along, your choice."
"I'm feeling oddly imprudent tonight," Oz decided, and followed him out.
Riley turned to Buffy. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Yeah," Buffy said. "You can get the hell away from me before I have the strength to kill you."
Jaw flexing, Riley nodded, and left the room.
"Well then," Giles broke the tense silence that followed, "I think I'll try Sanvi again. And I suppose I should ring the Council, evidently they know something."
As he walked out, Buffy and her mother failed to notice that a leaf of paper slipped out of the book and flitted under a chair.
On one side, a reflective surface with golden eyes etched into it. On the other, the side that was glued to the book, four lines of music notation.
* * *
Spike woke up screaming, shards of unendurable agony splintering through his veins.
"Ah, you're awake," Lamashtu said, and held up the blood-soaked capsule that she'd extracted from his chest. "Clever cocktail. Human enzymes, synthetic toxins, and a dash of devil's milk. Some things never change."
He could barely see, but he recognized his surroundings: smack in the middle of the rabbit hole, Queen of Hearts on his lap.
"But, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, yes?" She licked his wound and waited for him to stop groaning. "Or in your case, what does kill you."
"Fuck off," he took great pains to say, "you bloody. fucking. hellhussy."
"I just brought you back from the dead, a simple 'thank you' would suffice."
That's when he noticed the deafening thud reverberating in his ears. The sweat dripping from his brow.
The inexplicable need for oxygen.
She smiled at him. "Enjoy it while it lasts."