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Previous Chapter: Chapter 8
Next Chapter: Chapter 10

Spike slipped into the lab as quietly as he could, steps feather light despite the clunky footwear he preferred. His prey was just standing there, bent over a microscope and all unawares. Closer. Closer. There. He pounced, fingers skittering along Fred’s ribs as she squealed in apparent surprise.

“Boo,” he whispered in her ear before pulling away with a grin.

“Spike, you scared me!” she said accusingly, the twinkle in her eyes belaying her stern tone.

He snorted and shook his head. “The hell I did. You always seem to know when I’m about.” He appreciated her willingness to pretend, though. It allowed him to indulge in predatory behavior and have it be naught but a harmless little game. “What’s this you’re working on, then, love?”

Since it was Fred, he’d have asked no matter what, but he actually did want to know. Dru hadn’t much cared for it beyond things like the telly, but Spike had always been fascinated by technology and science. Was why he was already a fair hand with the fancy laptops common about the place while Angel could barely manage his bloody cell phone.

“Have a look,” Fred offered, stepping aside and gesturing towards the microscope.

No hesitation or any other indication that she thought he might not have the brains to use a microscope. Definitely one of the things he liked about her. She didn’t treat him like he was some kind of brainless git who could barely tie his own shoes like the others did at times. That general attitude was why he’d stayed quiet when his wits actually had seemed to be going down hill a few days back. He’d been about to talk to Fred about it when it’d just sort of… stopped and reversed itself.

Now that he thought on it, it had happened around the same time that Charlie-boy had been slipping a bit. Maybe something in the air. Or too much exposure to the grand poofter, he thought as he bent to peer into the microscope. Bound to destroy a few dozen brain cells, that.

He fiddled with the dials a bit until the translucent green blobby thing was more in focus. There were all sorts of odd squiggles run through it. He had no idea what it was, but it did at least look pretty neat.

“Now look at this one.”

The slide was changed out. Another translucent green blob, but…. “Squiggles on this one are different,” he said, looking up at Fred.

“Exactly,” she said with a grin. “Both are skin cell samples from a grolork, but not the same grolork. It means one of our clients is actually innocent.”

She looked down as she said it, obviously feeling guilty and uncomfortable. If it were Angel, Spike would have twitted him right proper, but this was Fred.

“Hey now, none of that, love,” he said gently. “Makin’ this place good? It’s a bloody daft idea, but, well, I’d be a mite bit of a hypocrite if I said evil could never be turned.” He thought about what he’d just said, feeling a little uncomfortable himself. “Not, not that I’m precisely good, mind, just….”

“You are good, Spike,” she said with a simple sincerity that was a comforting balm to his sense of self-worth. “You’re a champion, remember? Enough of one that the universe tried to rip itself apart because it couldn’t handle you.”

Ah, that sweet Texas charm. Knew how to put a bloke right to sorts, didn’t she? “Well, when you put it like that…,” he trailed off with a slight smile.

He watched quietly for a moment – tapping lightly on the microscope table to keep himself from poking at things – as Fred prepared two evidence bags and put the samples inside. She looked happy. Almost glowing, she was, and not, he’d wager, just from helping someone who was actually innocent.

“So, you and the head boy, then, eh?” he said. “Office gossips have been all atwitter about it.”

She blushed a little, a schoolgirl grin of pure delight transforming her from pretty to stunning. Wesley didn’t deserve her. Wasn’t anywhere near good enough. But Fred deserved someone who made her happy, and it seemed the ex-watcher fit the bill nicely in that regard.

He reached out to her and gently tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “He ever hurts you, I’ll rip his kidneys out through his nose.”

Her eyes widened, and she suddenly looked uncomfortable again. “I… Spike, I….”

“Not like that, pet,” he assured her with a smile. “Only one woman for me, when it comes to that.” And he couldn’t bring himself to go to her. Was a bit like that poor sodding cat in the box, wasn’t it? Until he actually talked to Buffy, it was all up in the air. Until she actually said that he’d been right, that she didn’t love him, there was still that hope that maybe he’d been wrong. “Love comes in all different shapes and sizes, don’t it?”

He did love her, but it was the way he loved Dawn. Protective and somewhere between brotherly and fatherly. Fred was an adult though, and not a grieving girl desperately trying to find someone to cling to. She would never look to him as some kind of role model, thank God. She just needed a friend and older brother type. He could do that. Be a shoulder to cry on at times and to twit her mercilessly at others. Step in to protect her the few times she wouldn’t be able to do it herself.

He could do all that, easily. He may have completely bodged things up with his little bit, but he wouldn’t fail Fred.

 

 

Angel stared at the last page of the report in front of him, feeling sick. He’d almost let this thing through customs. If one of the Powers hadn’t pulled Cordy out of her coma, he would have signed off on it, unleashing some ancient god king into the world. It would have brought Cordelia’s body out of the coma, but it wouldn’t have been her in there. She would have been used as just a shell. Again. Only this time, her soul would have been devoured instead of just displaced.

I would have lost her forever, he realized. The thought left him feeling empty and numb. He didn’t want to admit it to himself, but Cordy being gone… the possibility of it tore at him even worse than when he’d found out about Buffy’s death. Despite that, the idea of Buffy moving on, of finding happiness without him, didn’t sit well with him. He knew that was wrong. Knew that he –

The door was suddenly flung open by a wild-eyed Dawn, distracting Angel from his thoughts. “Happy thoughts, Angel! Willow needs you thinking happy thoughts,” she said.

“What’s going on?” he asked, standing up and heading towards the door. Dawn got out of his way and followed as he headed towards the medical wing. “We aren’t being attacked by Captain Hook, are we?”

“What? No.” Dawn looked at him like he was crazy. “That stupid amulet was messing around with its version of Gunn, taking away his brain upgrade to make Spike dumb.” She shot him a glare as they hurried down a hallway, the look promising painful retaliation if he made any comments about Spike’s intelligence. Angel wisely kept his mouth shut. “Willow fixed it, but now the amulet is using it to do something awful to Fred. Willow thinks she might be able to fix that too, if you can try to focus on things working out right.”

They walked into Spike’s room, where Buffy was pacing anxiously while Willow focused intently on the scene she was projecting. It was him and Spike, standing together against a group of enemies.

“Just hold my hand,” the Angel in the projection said.

Spike raised a brow at that, but did as he’d been told, slipping his hand into Angel’s.

That brought back a lot of memories, and not just St. Petersburg. The younger vampire had always been a bundle of contradictions, as eager to please as he was to rebel. Sometimes it was easy to see how Buffy could think she loved him.

“What’s going on? Dawn gave me the basics, but what’s all this?” He nodded towards the projection.

“Fred’s been infected by something nasty from the deeper well,” Willow said without taking her eyes off of things. “Since this thing is tied to your psyche, I thought maybe some positive thoughts might help me fix it.”

Something nasty from the deeper well? That sounded a lot like the thing that he’d almost allowed into the country to take over Cordelia. Reading the report and thinking about the implications must have influenced the amulet hellscape.

“I think it’s been planning something like this,” Buffy said quietly. “Fred’s been nice to him. Treating him like a person. And now it’s trying to take her away.”

Angel looked from her to the projection. He knew he should be clearing his mind and trying to focus on some kind of better scenario, but… part of him really didn’t want to. It wasn’t like the real Fred was in any danger. Spike was losing someone he cared about, just like Angel was losing Buffy. They were going to get him out of there eventually. Did it really matter how much he suffered along the way?

Yes. Yes, it did matter how much Spike suffered. His suffering hurt Buffy. And besides, Angel was was supposed to be a champion. That meant putting aside petty jealousies and doing the right thing. He closed his eyes. And tried.

 

 

“There’s a hole in the world,” Spike said, staring down into the abyss. All full of coffins like the stars in the sky. A hole in the world. A hole in his world. Fred…. “Feels like we ought to have known.”

Angel didn’t say anything. Just stood there beside him and looked down, lost in his own thoughts and regrets. There was nothing either of them could have done, but he knew that Angel had to be blaming himself. Truth to tell, Spike was in the same boat, shouldering blame for what had happened while the waters of what if…? and if only… seeped inside, threatening to drag him under.

Neither one of them had had a thing to do with Illyria pulling a runner and ending up where it could take over Fred. Also wasn’t their fault that there was nothing they could morally do to put a stop to what was happening. Knowing that didn’t make it any easier. Didn’t take away the guilt. Spike almost wished he didn’t have his soul. That he could just say damn the consequences and draw the bastard out of her anyway, no matter all the lives lost and people destroyed in the process.

Even without the soul, though, he knew he wouldn’t have done it. For one thing, Angel would still have said no. And… it wouldn’t be what Fred would have wanted. All those people…. Entire cities full of people all dying in agony as Illyria tried to fight being pulled back to the Deeper Well. Fred would have hated him – and worse, herself – if they’d been sacrificed for her sake.

Would have…. God, he was already thinking of her in the past tense. Probably not even gone yet, but he could already feel her there. A horrible weight inside, nestled in with all the others he’d lost. The ones he’d failed. His mum, Buffy, Dawn. Even Dru. He hadn’t been able to be who or what she’d needed, no matter how he’d tried. He always failed the people he loved, and he couldn’t help thinking this was all his fault. If he’d just let the girl alone…. If he hadn’t been her friend, maybe this wouldn’t have happened to her. Maybe sod’s law would have passed her over and just let her be.

He knew it was self-centered to think that way, and that Fred would be the first to tell him as much. Didn’t do much to make it stop. Feelings weren’t logical. They didn’t take in facts and analyze situations. They didn’t weigh the pros and cons of various things before descending and making their presence known. They just… were.

And Wes’s had to be even more in turmoil, the poor sod. Didn’t matter if he thought the man was a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, Wesley and Fred had been happy.  They’d had something warm and giving with a touch of giddiness to the mix. It had been… golden. And nothing gold could stay.

“Nature’s first green is gold,” he recited softly, taking some small comfort in Frost’s poem. “Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; but only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf, so Eden sank to grief. So dawn goes down to day….” He couldn’t finish it. His throat closed up, and the words refused to come.

“Nothing gold can stay,” Angel murmured beside him.

 


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Previous Chapter: Chapter 8
Next Chapter: Chapter 10

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