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The Ring Talks

Part 1: Taking Initiative

Chapter 13: Ex Factors When I walk into the crypt, Spike is asleep on top of the sarcophagus. I step close to him and lean over to whisper in his ear. “Psst! There’s a slayer in a really bad mood standing over you. Wake up and talk to her, or risk the consequences.”

“Those consequences involve her wanting me to make her mood better?” he mumbles, not opening his eyes. He sniffs, and the smirk that was forming on his face drops immediately. “Unless I just reminded you of what you really wanted?”

“Oh, joy. Gross-sniffy vamp jealousy.” I roll my eyes. “Seriously, Spike? You know why I went down there. It wasn’t for fun, and it sure as hell didn’t get fun.”

He finally opens his eyes, and looks up into mine. “If you dusted the big git, and didn’t let me be there to see it, I’ll never forgive you.”

I smile, in spite of my foul mood. “I know you wouldn’t. But I didn’t. There was arguing, though. And a little shoving. Hence the scent.”

Spike studies me for a minute, probably seeing how run down and stressed out I am. He’s a little too good at figuring me out, most days. I watch his gaze drift to my left hand, and a small smile plays on his face. He shifts onto his side, making room for me beside him on the slab. “Come on, then.”

I climb up to join him, letting him drape his blanket over me as I settle in. We’re on our sides, face to face, hands resting on each other’s hips, but otherwise not doing anything even remotely flirty, and -despite the unforgiving surface we’re on- it feels totally comfortable, totally normal. Which doesn’t make sense. We’ve never done this, never had any of our talks horizontal… or done anything else together horizontal.

I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t even be thinking about horizontal things with Spike. I close my eyes, feeling myself start to relax, in spite of those worries. “It’s good to be home.”

“L.A. not as charming as it used to be? Or is that just Angel?”

“Charming is always pushing it, as far as descriptions for Angel go.”

“Figured that out a long bloody time ago. You wanna fill me in?”

“Big mess. Big fight. Faith turned herself in to the cops. Angel and I did some yelling at each other, mostly him doing the yelling. …Can we talk about something else?”

He leans in to drop a kiss on my forehead. “Gladly.”

But we don’t. For a few minutes, we just stay there, still and quiet. We’re close, but not quite close enough to count as cuddling. I want to tilt my head up and kiss him, but I have a feeling I know where that would lead, so I stay still, my head pillowed on his arm, my eyes level with his collarbone. I should’ve made him put a shirt on before I crawled into bed with him. I really, really want to have my hands and lips all over him right now.

There is no scenario where this ends well. I know that. The problem is, the part of me that cares how it’s going to end isn’t as big as it should be. I sigh and shift a little closer to him. I really am way too comfortable with the evil undead. And it’s a pretty comfy moment. …I had no idea I was so tired.

“Slayer?”

“Hmm?”

“You gonna go to sleep?”

“If you don’t start talking or kick me out, it’s possible.”

“Do need to talk to you, actually.”

I make a little whimpering noise in disappointment. There goes the easy, quiet comfort I was falling into.

A low chuckle rumbles through Spike’s chest. “It’ll keep.” He adjusts his position, rolling his shoulder so he can settle back onto the pillow without moving me off his arm. “Could use some more sleep, myself.”

The next thing I’m aware of is the smell of coffee. I roll onto my back, and find myself on the edge of a very hard surface. I’m awake as soon as I feel my arm swing down over the side, and sit up with a gasp. It takes me a moment to remember where I am. I look around the crypt. Candles are lit. Spike is standing in his makeshift kitchen, laughing at me while he puts a mug in the microwave. And I still smell coffee.

“Forget where you were?”

“Uh-huh.” I run my hands through my hair and kick away the blanket as I turn to sit on the edge of the sarcophagus. “Should I be grateful for the lack of mirrors right now?”

“Nah. It’s not bad.” He presses a couple of buttons on the microwave. “Sun’s down. Took a walk down the street to the convenience store for you.”

“Coffee,” I murmur, looking around for the source of the smell. I spot the gas station coffee cup sitting on top of the TV and hop down to the floor to get it. There’s a key attached to a blue lanyard sitting beside it. “What’s that?” I ask, before taking a sip from the cup.

“Key to their Employees Only loo. Thought you might need it.”

I pick up the lanyard. “You stole this?”

He raises an eyebrow. “You’d rather use the public one?”

“Ew. No.” I shove the lanyard into my pocket and put down the coffee cup. “Don’t ever quote me on this, but right now, I like your brand of evil. I’ll be back in a few.”

I leave the crypt to the sound of Spike’s chuckles. There are far worse ways to wake up from a nap.

*~*~*

We’re sitting on the floor, leaning against the side of the sarcophagus, but the conversation ended not long after I finished my coffee. No, it didn’t end. It stopped. There’s a difference.

I really don’t know what to say. Should I apologize for stealing the file? Should I apologize for running off to L.A. and not being at Giles’ with him when he saw what I’d stolen? He didn’t ask for all of that. All he’d wanted was a name. It didn’t even have to be the same surgeon, just one who was capable of undoing what was done to him. I stole so much more.

I dumped three fat accordion files into a bag while Xander held that Colonel at gunpoint in the next room. One was labeled ‘Facility Security Systems,’ and included a number of discs, as well as some paper floor plans and lists of camera locations. One was labeled ‘Project 314,’ and was almost entirely discs. Spike says Willow is still trying to crack the encryption to get into both sets of discs.

The third file I stole was the one labeled ‘HST 17.’ I should have just flipped through the file folder, gotten the surgeon’s name, and left everything behind. But I didn’t. I took it all. The folder, the discs, and the video tapes. I should have at least left the tapes.

“I was in a hurry,” I whisper. “I wasn’t thinking ahead.”

“How’s that?” Spike asks, his volume nearly as low as mine.

“I didn’t have to take the tapes. I should’ve guessed what was on them.”

He leans his head back against the sarcophagus, closing his eyes. I haven’t watched the tapes yet, so I only have his description to go on, but I can imagine what he’s seeing in his head right now. I wonder what it’s like, seeing yourself go through things you don’t even remember happening.

The only upside to the tapes is that the reason he remembers only bits and pieces of his time there is obvious: He was drugged. Heavily. We suspected that. And now we have proof. But I don’t think that proof was worth what came with it. I doubt Spike does, either.

He says there’s footage of him in his Initiative cell, including one incident when he was clearly doped up on something. Growling, scratching at the walls, and pounding on the glass door. Reacting to his incarceration like a feral animal. He doesn’t remember that. He also doesn’t remember getting zapped repeatedly (for hours on end) with something that sounds like the super-sized taser Oz and Riley told us about. There’s footage of that, too.

There’s also video of Spike’s surgery. He was conscious for it, and apparently wasn’t given a local anesthetic. They let him feel it, and dosed him with more of whatever it was that was blocking long term memory formation after.

I shudder just thinking about it. I take his hand. “I’m sorry.”

His fingers tighten around mine. After another minute of silence, he says, “Sorry enough to help me with some plaster and painting work at the watcher’s place?”

“Huh?”

“Punched a hole or three in a wall. Rupert likely would’ve staked me, if he hadn’t been watching the same video. I think he gets it, but he’s still not happy. I don’t get it fixed, he’ll remove my invite.”

“I should have been there, watching with you guys.”

“Wouldn’t have changed anything.”

“Yeah, it would. Then Giles would understand why I’ll be there to help you with the repair work. Because some of the holes would be my fault.”

He turns to look at me. “Yeah?”

I nod. “So how did everyone else take it?”

“Xander acted like he felt genuinely sorry for me, if you want a baseline.”

“Whoa! Did I fall into an alternate dimension on my way home from L.A.? First, you deliver coffee, and now this?”

He laughs. “So you liked the coffee?”

I give him as serious a look as I can manage and hold up my left hand, which is still intertwined with his right. “You’d better watch your step. If you bring me coffee too many times, this might stop being a joke.”

Spike laughs again, kisses my knuckle just above his ring, and lowers our hands back to the floor between us. “That mean you’re gonna give me a chance?”

“Spike, you’ve spent the last two days reporting to my friends about Adam, when I wasn’t even around. You’re not really leaving me a whole lot of room to say ‘no,’ here.”

“Playing on the same side’s not what I meant. Not asking to be your ally. Trying to earn that part.”

“And you are.” I take a deep breath. “I know what you meant, but can we just play it by ear for now? I– I kinda like how it’s going.”

He looks a little disappointed, like maybe he was expecting something more.

But I don’t know what I have to offer. Should I be trying to put a label on this? We’ve been sneaking around to talk to each other for six months, and I’m still not sure what to call that. Now things are changing between us, and I don’t know what to call this, either.

“Don’t you like how it’s going?”

His disappointment is erased by a smirk. “Don’t be stupid, Slayer.”

I stick my tongue out at him. “Shouldn’t you be off talking to your evil co-conspirator by now?”

“Probably already late. Gotta go sell him on the idea you lot are all at each other’s throats.” He uses our joined hands to pull us both to our feet before breaking away. “Don’t suppose you plan to hang around?”

“No. I promised the other Initiative fugitive I’d check in on him when I got back to town, so I’m pretty late, too.”

We walk to the door together. He slips on his coat and puts one hand on the door, waiting for me to stop fidgeting with his ring and actually take it off. “What else is on your mind?”

I look up at him. “I think– I think I need another outsider’s opinion from you …about the Scoobies.”

“About the story I’ve been feeding that twisted science fair project?”

“Is there any truth to it, Spike? Is that what you see? People who have drifted apart and just happen to still be working together?”

He leans against the door. “How long you figure the witches were playing footsies ‘fore anyone caught on, or Red felt she could say so?”

“I don’t know. A month or two, maybe.”

“How long you think Xander’s felt like he’s the outsider, with you and Willow both off at uni, with your uni friends?”

“You really think he feels like he’s not a Scooby anymore?”

“That’s what it looks like from here.” He shrugs. “Rupert, too, in some ways. Why else would he rather me fix his wall than yank my invitation? …An invitation he’s already let stand for half a year?”

I sigh and shake my head. “Because he’s lonely enough to be willing to put up with you, which is pretty depressing.”

Spike gives me a light shove. “You like putting up with me.”

“So you’re definitely right. The entire Scooby gang is a dysfunctional mess, myself included. I mean, if I’m hanging out with you, there must be something seriously wrong with me.”

He corners me between the large decorative urn and the wall by the door, trapping me with one hand on the wall by my head. “Say that again, Slayer,” he growls, adding a flash of amber in his eyes for effect.

I swallow against the urge to laugh. “You’re cute when you pretend to be offended, you know that?” At the surprised look on his face, I crack up. “That’s even better!”

He stops my laughter with a kiss. It isn’t as passionate, as forceful and desperate as the kisses we shared outside Giles’ building. This kiss is gentler, sweeter. “You think I’m cute?” he whispers after, still very close to me.

“Yeah. So? Is that news?”

“Don’t think I’ve ever heard that word used to describe me.”

“Get used to it.” I duck under his arm and go back to the door. I take off the ring and return it to its safe place on my keychain. “I should go. I have a date with my ex.”

Spike rolls his eyes. “Charming.”

“And you have some conspiring to do.” I give him one more quick kiss before opening the door. “Go be evil. I’ll see you at Giles’ later.”

We walk out of the crypt and go our separate ways. Part of me wishes we could’ve stayed. I think I like the world a little better when the two of us are in our isolated little bubble. …Even if that bubble is frequently in a dusty old crypt.

*~*~*

I can’t help but laugh at myself as I walk toward the remains of the high school. I gave Spike a goodbye kiss at the front door, and it was a quick peck, almost like… no, exactly like those old sitcoms we watch together. Only in those shows, it’s usually the woman who is scheming or causing trouble. I think the scheming crown currently goes to the vampire double agent. I’m not doing much at all right now, not really. I’m mostly waiting for Spike and Willow to get us some info. ‘Intel,’ Riley calls it.

Riley. I should feel guilty about this. We’ve been broken up for, like, half a second, and I’m getting all kissy-face with another guy. But I don’t feel guilty. I didn’t cheat, so there’s nothing to feel guilty about, right? I’m just glad I ended things when I did, because -in retrospect- cheating could have easily happened. Spike and I are already pretty well-practiced at sneaking around without anyone catching on.

But even so, I wouldn’t have cheated on Riley. …Would I?

There’s also Spike’s timing to consider. He didn’t make a move until I clearly stated I was single. You know, for a guy with over a century of practice at it, he kind of sucks at being evil. He didn’t even try to kiss me when I was dating someone else? On an evil vampire scale of one to apocalypse, something like that would’ve barely even registered. He’s such a freak.

I’m so wrapped up in my thoughts, I don’t notice the fight noises until I’ve passed the alley they’re coming from. I double back, seeing the bodies of four Initiative guys near the walls as I move toward the sounds. I check them. Unconscious, but alive.

But I know two guys who aren’t going to be, in about thirty seconds. “Angel? Riley? What the hell?”

I jump between them, shoving Riley to the ground and giving Angel a good, cathartic, right cross as I pivot to face him. “You first. What are you doing here? Did you think of something else you needed to say that would just be more insulting in person than on the phone?”

“No, actually–”

“Buffy,” Riley says, struggling to stand up. “Back away. He’s up to his old tricks again.”

“No, it’s nothing like that. He’s just being a jerk. In my town.” I turn back to help Riley to his feet and look him over, gauging the severity of his injuries. “Angel, if this is your reason for showing up–”

I hear the subtle sound of Angel sniffing behind me. Oh, crap.

“You have got to be kidding me!”

I whirl around to face him, knowing exactly what he’s just noticed. “One wrong word from you, and I’ll ship your ass back to your city in a Ziploc bag. Got it?”

He opens his mouth to speak, but I think he’s a little too stunned to form the words he wants. Good. It serves him right.

I revert my attention to Riley, who looks confused, not having any idea what I just threatened Angel about. “First things first. Do you need a doctor before I start beating the crap out of both of you?”

“I’m fine. …But this isn’t him being evil?”

“Not even close, unfortunately.”

“We’ve got company,” Angel says, gesturing toward the street.

I can hear vehicles speeding our way. Great. My night just keeps getting better and better. Why did I leave the crypt, again?

“Back up is rolling in. We need to go.” Riley reaches for my hand, but I don’t let him take it.

“This close to the school, Ry… I think your campsite is about to be found.” To Angel I explain, “He’s kind of a fugitive right now.”

He rolls his eyes. “Of course he is.”

“We need to get someplace safe. I can yell at you both when we’re not in imminent danger.”

Angel nods in the general direction of Crawford Street, and gives me a questioning look. “It’s not too far.”

“That was going to be my suggestion. Back way, though. We need to get off the streets.”

*~*~*

I join Angel out in the garden after I spend a few minutes convincing Riley to let us talk alone. “You roughed him up pretty good.”

“I don’t think I’m doing as good a job of it as you are.”

“I broke up with him, Angel. If you came up here to beat up my boyfriend, you missed your window.”

He looks slightly disgusted. “No, I just misjudged the target. …Spike? Really?

“Spike’s not my boyfriend. He’s… You know what? I don’t even know right now. Can we just not deal with the Spike of it all? It’s very weird and very complicated.”

“Yeah. Sure. He’s not exactly my favorite person to talk about, anyway.” He shifts his weight. “I actually came up here to apologize. Beating up Riley wasn’t the plan.”

“Apologize?! Like that’s going to fix anything! I can’t believe how you treated me! We may be ex, but the last time I checked, we were still on the same side.”

“We are. And I shouldn’t have gone off on you like that.” He points into the mansion. “But I’m not going to apologize for this. I come into town and get jumped by a bunch of soldiers, and the next thing I know, that lovestruck oaf is in my face, threatening me. He wasn’t really forthcoming with the benefit of the doubt, and he’s pretty possessive about you.”

I shrug. “Fresh break up. Things are still pretty raw.”

“Raw isn’t the word I was going to use, Buffy. Tense, maybe. But that would be an understatement. Riley is still hooked on you, and slightly crazy about how he shows it. There are demon hunting soldiers prowling the streets of Sunnydale, attacking indiscriminately. And I can smell Spike all over you, which may be a sign of the apocalypse. I’m not dumb enough to think we got into it in L.A. just over Faith. You’re stressed out and looking for level ground, a situation you can control.”

I nod. I really can’t argue with that assessment.

“Something big is going on here, isn’t it?”

I shrug. “It’s not ‘insane evil vamp is going to suck the world into hell’ big, but yeah.”

“I’m never living that down, am I?”

I give him a smug smile. “Nope.”

Angel studies my expression. “You’re ok?”

“Yeah. I think I am.”

“You’re not going to ask me to stay and help, are you?”

“My town, Angel. My problem.”

“I guess I should go, then. But just so you know, if it ever gets bigger than your town…”

“I know I can call you. It’s mutual, ok?”

“Thanks.” He takes a step toward the garden gate before turning around. “And for the record, your recent taste in men? Terrible.”

That makes me laugh. “Thank you.”

I watch Angel leave before I go back inside. Riley is wandering around, inspecting his surroundings.

“You can stay here, if you want. Aside from a few vamp residents and their …guests, it’s been abandoned for years.”

“I guess Angel was one of the vamps. That’s why you two thought of this place so quickly.”

“Yeah.” I look around. “There’s a lot of history here. The world almost ended about five feet from where you’re standing.”

He turns to face me. “Because you accidentally turned Angel evil?” I must look pretty surprised that he knows that, because he quickly adds, “Xander told me about the curse.”

“I see.” Right now, I don’t know if I should kill Xander or kiss him. The nasty little detail I left out of my explanation to Riley might just be the one that puts him over the edge, makes him fall out of love with me. Maybe I shouldn’t have left it out. “That’s just one story, Ry. My life -my world- is very unusual, even by slayer standards. The thing with Faith… Maybe that’s the way it needed to happen, maybe us splitting up is your chance to realize I’m not the normal girl you want. I can’t be. It’s physically not possible.”

“I never said I wanted a normal girl. I want you. I don’t know how many more times I need to apologize for that night with Faith, but I’m willing to keep doing it.”

“I don’t want another apology. I just want a friend and ally.”

“You have that. And more. Give me another chance.”

I wander around the room as I try to organize my thoughts. Angel’s been gone for a year, and the place is dustier than ever. Not that he ever kept up with the housekeeping when he was here. I bet, if I walked around long enough, I’d still find some of Spike’s wheelchair tracks in the dust, some of Drusilla’s clothes under a bed, and faint bloodstains from victims sprayed on a few walls. Such a lovely family, from the Master on down. And somehow, I can never seem to be rid of them.

“No,” I finally whisper, when I’m looking down at the chains and shackles on the floor by a cracked wall and a broken light fixture, remnants of Angel’s other attempt to get through to Faith. “I can’t, Ry.”

“Why? Because I freaked out when I thought you and Angel…?” He shakes his head. “No. This is still because I didn’t realize it wasn’t you that night.”

“It’s because you should have. Because if you knew me well enough to be sleeping with me in the first place, you would have. But you saw the exterior, the human girl who was really into you, and didn’t see who was underneath.” I look up at him. “I don’t know who it is you think I am, but I’m not her. You say you don’t want a normal girl, but you do. You say you want me, but you don’t even know me. It’s not about Faith, Riley. It’s about me. I really like you. I care about you. But I can’t be with a guy who confuses me for someone else, be it as crazy as a slayer body swap or as simple as understanding what a slayer truly is.” I take a deep breath. “A slayer isn’t a fry cook, Ry. It’s not a job. It’s me, inside and out. I still don’t think you get that, and I don’t know if you ever will.”

His gaze has shifted to the floor while I’ve been talking. He doesn’t respond.

“I’m not saying that’s your fault. It just is, and I don’t think either of us is up for living a lie. I can’t pretend to be the normal girlfriend who just happens to be a fellow demon hunter. You can’t keep pretending to understand that I’m not. I live my life with one foot in the human world and one in the demon one, straddling a land mine. I have to keep disarming it, over and over again, until I fail and another slayer comes to take my place. That’s who I am, what I am. You don’t get it. You don’t see it for what it is, see the realities of my life and my world for what they are. It’s messy. It’s dangerous. And it’s rarely black and white. …Though it would be nice if it were. I know you’re starting to see that now, since the thing with Oz. And that’s great. It makes you a Scooby. But I need more than a start from a boyfriend, and you don’t have it to give.”

“I might. Eventually,” he murmurs.

“Maybe. But that isn’t right now, and we both need to accept that it might never happen.”

“I thought the break up was over the Faith thing. I guess that wasn’t exactly true.”

“That was just the final proof of what I told you months ago: It’s doomed.”

There’s another silence, and I fight the urge to fill it. I’ve already said way too much.

“I have to go.” Riley turns and heads for the door.

“Ry, wait! You should stay here, where you’re safe. I’ll leave if you want me to.”

“I have to go,” he says again. His voice is emotionless, almost monotone.

I watch him walk out the door, and sag against the wall. I probably shouldn’t have said all of that. It was better when he thought we were just breaking up over the Faith fiasco. The truth is a lot less pretty, a lot less simple.

The truth is, I was comparing him to Spike, and I have been for months.

I kick the shackles across the floor in frustration. What the hell is wrong with me? Riley is a perfectly normal, kind, loving, human guy, and I not only dumped him, I can’t seem to stop alienating him, even after the fact.

I can’t seem to stop thinking about Spike, either. But then, that isn’t exactly new. That’s been building up since we first started sneaking around to see each other, back when Riley and I first started dating.

Maybe I should feel guilty. Maybe I was cheating on Riley all along, in a way. No, no. I can’t think like that. Spike and I were just talking, just hanging out. If that counts as cheating, I was cheating on Willow and Xander, too, which is silly. Talking doesn’t make me a cheater.

But it might make me a bad friend, part of the reason Spike can see fractures in the group. I haven’t been talking to them, trading stories and secrets, not like I used to. I’ve been having most of those conversations exclusively with Spike, or not having them at all. I’m just as insecure and closed off as the rest of the Scoobies. I’m part of the problem.


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