Heroes in Hell

Written by Glassdarkly, November 2007

PAVAYNE: Know all your hiddens, dirty red things you've done. Then fell in love. Won himself a soul. No more dirty things. Thinks himself special.

GLASS GHOST WOMAN: Thinks it matters.

HANGING GHOST MAN: Hell still waits.

PAVAYNE: Knows he deserves it, like all the others…

PAVAYNE: Beginning to understand, aren't you? The soul that blesses you damns you to suffer... forever.

AtS season 5, Hellbound

"But he's not supposed to be here!" Buffy winced at the Dawn-like adolescent whine in her voice, but she just couldn't seem to help herself.

The big, armoured-all-over horned demon sitting the other side of the high counter winced too. Then he adjusted his glasses, which were small pebble-rimmed affairs that kept sliding down his flat nose. Behind him, rows and rows of shelving divided into numbered pigeonholes stretched away into vertiginous darkness, making him look like a sort of weird hat-check guy for eternity.

"He's on the list," the demon said, in the tone of someone whose patience is being sorely tried. "I keep telling you that, lady. Why won't you listen?"

Buffy wiped a damp tendril of hair off her sweaty face. She shifted her weight from foot to foot. The Scythe, which was balanced on her shoulder, was beginning to feel heavy, like it wanted to drop into her hands and become a little more proactive. It was still too early for threats, though.

"I am listening," she insisted. "It's just that you keep not making any sense. Like I've told you a million times already, if he is on your list it's a mistake – because he's not supposed to be here."

The demon heaved a deep sigh. Little puffs of smoke issued from his nostrils as he exhaled, wafting gently downwards to mingle with the layers of smoke, like dry ice, that veiled the rough stone underfoot. Smoke wreathed around Buffy's ankles in curling white tendrils and blew in dense clouds from under the heavy wooden door with its brass lettering over the arch: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.

The effect was very sinister and would have been more so if not for the hand-written sign tacked to the door lower down saying Under New Management, and for the constant clattering of what sounded like an old manual typewriter from somewhere out back.

"Okay," the demon said, wearily. "From the top, explain to me again why the second worst vampire in the history of the world isn't supposed to be in Hell now he's dead, cuz I'm really not getting it."

They'd been through the whole thing several times already of course, but maybe Buffy hadn't explained herself very well? Talking wasn't her strong suit these days. She'd lost the knack a couple of apocalypses ago. She took a deep breath and forced herself to smile pleasantly.

"He was only the second worst vampire in history when he didn't have a soul. He got himself one and now he's a hero. He saved the world – died for it. I saw it all– well, until he told me to get clear. He burned up from the inside out."

It must be the tension, she thought, bringing the tears to her eyes. She blotted them on her sleeve.

When the demon behind the counter said nothing, she repeated her mantra for what felt like the gazillionth time: "Heroes don't belong in Hell."

She'd been saying this to herself over and over all through the wild inter-dimensional ride that had brought her to this place, and a bunch more times since she'd gotten here. The demon didn't seem too impressed by it, though.

"And anyway, " she finished lamely, when he still didn't respond, "he has a soul now, like I said."

The demon just twizzled a fancy-looking fountain pen between his big fingers and looked bored.

"Well, duh he has a soul," the demon said. "Otherwise he wouldn't be here in the first place."

"What?" Now she was getting confused. Hell was for bad people, right? Who could be badder than a vampire without a soul, except maybe lawyers or Michael Jackson? And she so shouldn't have thought about lawyers because it made her remember Angel and right now, Angel made her grouchy.

"Duh, he has a soul," the demon repeated. "If he didn't have, when he died he'd have gone like that – poof!" And he snapped his fingers to illustrate his point. "His demon would be gone to wherever vampire demons go when their human host dies and that'd be the end of him."

She gaped at the demon while she tried to process what he was getting at. This was deep stuff. She wished she'd paid more attention in Philosophy class during her one year of college.

"You're saying," she ventured in the end, "that he's only in Hell because he has a soul? But having a soul is a good thing."

The demon was doodling on his notepad now.

"Well, sure it is," he said. "For one thing, you can feel guilt, can't you, if you have a soul, and only the guilty go to Hell."

This sounded way too clever and maybe not quite kosher. Not for the first time, Buffy wished that Willow had been able to make the whole trip with her to handle the metaphysical side of things, but it just hadn't been doable. Opening the portal had taken too much out of her, not to mention playing all those games along the way with slippery Hell gods who wanted to cheat you rather than keep their promise to allow you safe passage through their domains.

Buffy had thought that final game of chess was going to last forever - so, so boring! – but it would've totally been worth it if things had been going a little better just now.

Instead, she decided she needed to sit down for a while. Her legs felt sort of wobbly and so did her lower lip.

"Give me a minute?" she asked, and at the demon's dismissive, "Sure," she retreated to the long lines of uncomfortable wooden chairs that were placed in rows facing the check-in desk, most of them already taken by the glummest bunch of people she’d ever set eyes on. Some of them wore weird old-fashioned clothes, like they'd been here for a long time, and all of them had the same grey, furtive expression. She didn't like the look of them much, but then they were the damned so she supposed that was only to be expected.

She sat down in the front row next to a fat guy in a cheap suit who was clutching a battered briefcase.

"Next!" the check-in demon said and the fat guy half stood up but then seemed to think better of it. Instead, he hunkered down in his chair and ducked his head, hugging the briefcase tighter.

"Whenever you're ready," the demon said to him, an edge of sarcasm in his voice.

The fat guy had gone pale. He wouldn't look at the demon but instead turned to Buffy.

"It's not the way I imagined it," he said, in a loud whisper.

"Huh?" Buffy jumped in surprise when the fat guy spoke to her. She'd been staring at the Scythe in her lap, not seeing it but instead the caves under Sunnydale while Spike went up in flames and the ubervamps burned like dry kindling.

"No, I guess not."

"I mean," the fat guy went on, "I was expecting fire and brimstone – devils with pitchforks – the whole nine yards – not this. It looks like a waiting room for something – maybe the DMV – you know, if it was in a cave? And that guy, well he's got horns all right but he's wearing glasses for fuck's sake."

"Yeah." Buffy didn't much want to talk to the fat guy but he obviously wasn't going to shut up unless she answered him. "He's probably short-sighted."

The fat guy stared at her as if she was crazy. Sweat was pouring off him in the oppressive heat of the room and there were big damp patches on the underarms of his suit jacket. He took a man-size handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his forehead. Then he held out his hand to her.

"Marvin Kreutz," he said. "And you are?"

Buffy regarded the proffered hand warily. It looked big and fat and sweaty, with fingers like raw sausages. In the end, she took the very tip of one finger in her hand and shook it once before letting go in a hurry.

"Buffy Summers."

Formalities over, Marvin became talkative.

"I'm – or I guess I should say I was – an insurance salesman," he informed Buffy, like he really thought she’d be interested. "At least, until the accident."

"Accident?" Buffy wondered how to tell Marvin to shut up without being rude. She thought of saying she had to go to the bathroom and then sitting somewhere else after she came back, but there didn't seem to be any signs for a bathroom. Maybe there were no bathrooms in Hell – or Hell's waiting room, or whatever this place was?

"That's right," Marvin was leaning towards her now – a little too close for comfort, what with the sweat. "I was driving to the airport – and I swear I wasn't speeding, or not much – but I must’ve run a red light and that's when the truck hit me."

"Oh." Buffy glanced up at the demon behind the desk, but he was busy ignoring them both. He must hear this kind of stuff all the time.

"Aren't you going to ask me why I was on my way to the airport?" Marvin said, but before Buffy could say no – or anything at all - he hurried on. "I was heading for Mexico with all the money I'd swindled out of my clients – every last one of whom was elderly or sick or vulnerable in some way. I was a con-man – a real shit – and I guess that's why I'm here."

"I guess." Buffy eyed the briefcase, wondering how much money was in it – not that it would do Marvin any good where he was going.

"If it helps," Marvin went on, "I feel real guilty about it."

"Er – that's good, I guess." Buffy glanced at the check-in demon again in time to see him roll his eyes. So he was listening to them.

"In any case," Marvin continued, a whining note creeping into his voice, "it's not like I did anything that bad, is it? I mean, I never killed anyone – well, there was the guy who committed suicide, but not directly. And anyway what did they need all that money for? They were sick. They sure as hell weren't gonna enjoy spending it like I would."

He wasn't speaking to her at all now, Buffy realised, but more to himself, and his face looked mean suddenly.

"You're not sorry at all, are you?" She edged away from him.

Marvin's gaze jerked back to her. His eyes narrowed.

"'Course I am. I’m real sorry. What would you know?"

There was an uncomfortable silence. The check-in demon was still looking down at his notepad but now he had a sort of I-told-you-so sneer on his face. Marvin drummed his fingers on the suitcase, looking shifty. Then, just like that, he'd shaken off the sudden awkwardness.

"So what are you here for?" he asked Buffy, brightly. He indicated the Scythe across her lap. "Did you kill someone?"

"No!" Buffy scowled at him. "Well – not lately, and only demons. I'm here to collect a – a friend of mine. He's been sent here by mistake."

"That can happen?" A look of wild relief appeared on Marvin's face. He leaned closer. "Do you think if I explain how guilty I feel they'll let me off with a warning?"

"I don't know." But judging by Buffy’s experience so far, it didn't seem too likely.

"You can ask," she suggested, but Marvin looked doubtfully at the demon behind the check-in desk. He shook his head.

"I'll think about it for a while." He waved a hand towards the forbidding wooden door with its brass lettering. "Not ready to face that yet."

"You do that." And since there really didn't seem much prospect of having any peace and quiet – probably in short supply here at the best of times, what with the constant type-writing, which sounded like the person doing it was mad about something - Buffy stood up, hefted the Scythe and marched back to the desk. Thinking wasn’t her strong suit anyway.

"Can that happen?" she asked.

The check-in demon looked at her crossly. Then he put his pen down – not that he'd been doing anything with it except more doodles. "Can what happen?"

"Can people genuinely be sent here by mistake?" A crazy idea occurred to her. "I mean, what if people's names are on the list but then they do something that ought to disqualify them from being on it but the list doesn't get updated?"

The check-in demon blinked at her. He sighed again, blowing out more smoke from his nostrils. Then he said, as if it was a vast concession, "Well – yeah, sometimes the paperwork gets lost in transit or sent to the wrong department or tied up in red tape. That's bureaucracy for you – it drives you crazy but the system can't function without it."

He leaned forward confidentially. "Between you and me, there've been some – let's say, teething troubles since the new management took over."

This sounded more hopeful. "I bet you your bottom dollar that's what's happened with Spike." Buffy tried to sound breezily confident. "Any moment now you’ll be getting the memo and you’ll realise I’ve been right all along."

The check-in demon stared at her. There was a long silence, during which someone coughed, setting off a whole chorus of coughs that eventually died away to an expectant hush. Everyone was listening. Even the typewriter paused momentarily before going on with its endless angry clattering.

"Well, okay," the check-in demon admitted at last. "If your guy really did save the world, it's a possibility, I grant you."

"Ahem!" Marvin cleared his throat. "Hey, buddy. How about if you didn't exactly save the world but you're just overwhelmed with guilt?"

The check-in demon looked over Buffy's shoulder at him. Marvin was sweating more than ever. His upper lip was shiny. The check-in demon frowned and his heavy brow furrowed like corrugated metal.

"Do I look like the kind of guy who's impressed by a guilty conscience?" he growled

"Hell, no," Marvin said, quickly. "I mean, no sir. Not. At. All."

"Good." The check-in demon glared at Marvin a little longer and Marvin sweated some more, like he might turn to liquid altogether and drain away into the ground.

Then the check-in demon said, in a somewhat less hostile tone, "Not that we don't welcome remorse here and hey, it could be worse. The hell for hardcore unrepentant sinners two blocks down is your classic hell – what you were talking about before? Fire and brimstone? Soundtrack by Napalm Death? This here's kind of the MOR version."

"Oh." Marvin looked relieved. "Thanks. That's very reassuring."

"Don't mention it." The check-in demon grimaced then turned back to Buffy.

"My brother used to manage Classic Hell," he said, morosely, "until he took off after some chick. Mom won't even have his name mentioned at home now. She finds it too upsetting."

"I'm sorry to hear that." Buffy hoped she sounded a little less insincere than she felt. "If we can just get back to the point –"

The check-in demon waved his hand irritably, displaying an impressive set of long, curved claws, very neatly manicured. "Can we please not go through all this again? Okay, so maybe your guy is here by mistake – maybe there will be a memo – but believe me, it won’t happen for a while and even when it does, think of the red-tape there’ll be to cut through. My best advice to you is to go away and try again later."

That sounded a little more hopeful, and Buffy did have stuff to do after all. Her friends needed her and Slayer armies didn’t build themselves.

"How much later?"

The check-in demon sucked in his breath through his teeth in a considering fashion.

"I’d give it a few hundred years to be on the safe side."

At this, Buffy felt her jaw drop. Her knees were wobbly again too.

"A few hundred years? I don’t have a few hundred years." Suddenly, there were tears in her eyes. "I’m human. We don’t live forever. I can’t wait that long."

The check-in demon gave her a sympathetic look. "That’s too bad." Then he went back to his doodling. "Have a nice day," he said.

It was the last straw. Although her eyes were still welling up, Buffy felt her temper snap like an over-stressed elastic band. Before she had time to even think about what she was doing, the Scythe was off her shoulder and flying down with a wicked-sounding whistling of air to bisect the check-in demon’s notepad – and his pen – neatly in two. The pieces of fountain pen went flying off in opposite directions, one to bounce off the wall, the other to disappear without a sound into the inky depths between the shelving. Buffy never heard it drop.

Fortunately, the Scythe blade didn’t stick in the wood of the desk. She spun it around so the pointy wooden stake at the other end was digging into the check-in demon’s throat – though whether he could feel it through that scaly stuff, which was either armour or skin, was impossible to tell.

He looked startled, though – maybe even scared – and behind her she was aware of a mutter of excitement going through the throng of depressed-looking onlookers. The sound of the typewriter, however, suddenly took on a jaunty note.

"Woah! Woah!" the check-in demon protested. "I don’t make the rules, lady – and besides, I said I was sorry, didn’t I?"

"Not good enough!" Buffy leaned in hard on the stake to make her point with its point and the check-in demon flinched.

"Listen, mister." She glared at him. "This is one pissed off Slayer you have here and one magical ancient weapon, Hell for the harrying of."

The check-in demon opened his mouth to say something but another jab with the stake dissuaded him. He shut it again with a snap.

"My guy is behind that door," Buffy went on, "and he shouldn’t be and I want him back, and I’m not waiting five more minutes, let alone a hundred plus years, so I suggest you fix it for me in a hurry or your mom’ll have something else to get all upset about."

The check-in demon swallowed hard, while behind Buffy, Marvin called, "Hey mister, need any help?"

Buffy glared at him over her shoulder. "Stay out of this – brown noser!"

She didn’t know what kind of look was on her face but it seemed to impress Marvin because he shrank down in his seat again, muttering about crazy chicks with permanent PMS.

"You didn’t say you were a Slayer," the check-in demon croaked. "How was I to know you were some kind of celebrity?"

It was on the tip of Buffy’s tongue to ask him, in as sarcastic a tone as she could muster, if he thought the Scythe was just the latest must-have fashion accessory. But she was beginning to think he was stalling her so she just pressed harder.

"Okay, okay!" The check-in demon held up both hands in surrender. His glasses had slipped down his nose again. "I’ll call upstairs – get them to expedite the paperwork- and in the meantime you can go fetch him."

"I can?" The relief was enormous but Buffy didn’t relax the pressure just yet. "What’s the catch? There has to be a catch."

There always was in these get-out-of-hell deals. She remembered that from the Greek mythology book Giles had made her read in school.

"No catch," the check-in demon protested, but when she dug deeper, "Well, only kind of. If you’ll just let me get a decent breath, I’ll explain it all, I promise."

Abruptly, Buffy reversed the Scythe in her grip again so the shining blade was right before the check-in demon’s eyes. "Okay then, but it’d better be good."

The check-in demon pushed his glasses back up his nose and regarded her sullenly.

"It’s like this. You may think this vampire of yours doesn’t deserve to be here – and can I just say - vampires and Slayers? Eww! What's that all about? -but your boy has a soul now. He may just not agree with you."

Buffy’s cheeks flamed up at the vampire/Slayer remark. Why did everyone think that? "That’s insane! Who in their right minds would want to stay here if they didn’t have to?"

The check-in demon gave her an inscrutable look. "Oh, you’d be surprised. And haven’t you read what it says on that door about abandoning hope? No one goes through it until they have."

He indicated the rows of people sitting in their chairs, staring at them both. The rows of people went right on staring, but then they had nothing else to do.

"Some of these people have been here for centuries. They all think they deserve to be made an exception for, so they sit and wait. But they all go through in the end. Your guy, though, he marched straight through that door –" and the check-in demon cocked his head towards it –"without a backward glance the moment he arrived."

"I don’t believe you." Buffy gaped at him. Then she shut her mouth and glared. He had to be kidding her. "Spike wouldn’t do that. Why the hell would he do that?"

The check-in demon was looking sympathetic again, which was worse than anything somehow.

"Because he believes this is where he belongs. In fact, he probably thinks he deserves worse. And unless you can persuade him otherwise, you’re wasting your time here, lady."

Buffy gripped the Scythe handle harder. "I’ll persuade him. I know what he needs to hear – what’ll give him hope again." She waved the Scythe at the check-in demon. "You just get on with this – this expediting thing."

The check-in demon heaved another of his exaggerated smoky sighs. Then, without taking his eyes off her, he suddenly shouted, "Tamika!"

Buffy jumped. Who was he yelling at? She half-looked over her shoulder, but none of the rows of people behind her looked much like a Tamika – certainly not Marvin, who was still trying to catch the check-in demon's eye and smile ingratiatingly at him.

There was a short silence, filled with a few coughs, some foot-shuffling and some increasingly angry typewriting. Then the check-in demon shouted again.


Abruptly, the typewriter stopped dead and an uneasy silence fell. The check-in demon had broken out in an unhealthy looking sweat – because sweat shouldn't smoke, should it? – and Buffy felt her ears ringing. She hadn't realised quite how loud the typewriter was until it stopped.

Then a girl's voice yelled from somewhere in the depths of the shelving, where faint lights, like distant stars, seemed to twinkle softly in the blackness, "Yeah?"

Whoever she was, she sounded pissed as hell.

The check-in demon wiped sweat from his brow. Then he wiped it from his horns.

"Call upstairs," he shouted, still looking at Buffy. "Tell them I said to take another look at the William the Bloody file."

There was another short, angry silence. Then the unseen girl's voice yelled back, "Okay, but these reports aren't gonna type themselves." Then, as an afterthought, "Asshole!"

The typewriter started up again.

The check-in demon gave Buffy a put-upon look. "That'll start the ball rolling."

Then he reached under the counter and brought out an inkpad and stamp. "Hold out your hand."

"Why?" Buffy glared at him suspiciously, but the check-in demon just held up both hands, palms open, trying to look unthreatening.

"Gotta give you a guest pass," and at her disbelieving look, "You don’t want to be stuck in there, do you?"

Of course she didn’t. She really did have things to do. "Okay."

Warily, she held out her left hand and the check-in demon turned it palm-down and pressed the stamp onto the back of it. It hurt, almost like burning, and when he released the pressure, there was a strange shape burned into the skin, like a dog all mixed up with a goat – and there was a moose in there somewhere too, or at any rate something with antlers.

"You have until that fades completely to get him back here," the check-in demon said. "And it has to be of his own free will or it doesn't count, okay?" He gave her a suspicious glare, like maybe he thought vamp-napping was a big feature on her resume.

"When the mark disappears, you’ll be returned here whether or not you've managed to persuade Blondie, and if you haven't, you’ll have to leave him."

He pointed at the Scythe. "Oh, and you’ll have to check that in, in Left Luggage"– and he indicated the creepily infinite spaces behind him. "You can’t really go harrowing Hell. Only one guy can do that. It’s written into our contract."

Hell looked a lot like Sunnydale on a really bad day, only without the bright California sun and with way worse humidity, kind of like a dirty outdoor sauna.

Buffy stood with her back to the big wooden door, which on this side had nothing special about it. It was just another door leading from the street into what looked like an empty, run-down warehouse. It might almost be the place where she and Spike had brought the roof down between them.

None of what she could see had been apparent from the other side, though. She'd opened the door on a rolling bank of fog that had swallowed her up so completely she couldn't see her hand in front of her face, and then she'd fetched up here. Not that it was much of an improvement.

The sky was overcast, like a big storm was coming, and the atmosphere was getting muggier with every moment. She jumped at a sudden bang, like a gunshot, and watched, her heart pounding, as a rusty old car drove past backfiring constantly, as if it had hiccups or something. A warm, damp wind blew little tornadoes of trash down the street. The dust made her nose itch.

Marvin was right. Hell wasn't at all what she'd been expecting.

Her hands felt empty without the Scythe so she wrapped them around herself and started walking. Somehow she had to find Spike, which probably meant she had to find a bar, the more of a dive the better.

Things didn't improve much out on the main drag. There were stores but half of them were boarded up and the ones that weren't had dirty flyblown glass in the windows and the things on display looked like thrift-store rejects. The people on the streets, men and women - no children – were normal enough looking, like you might see anywhere, but with this weird shabby air to them. It was like no matter how smart they appeared on the outside, you just knew they were as dirty as their surroundings underneath.

There were no couples either. Everyone was alone, and though many people glanced sidelong at Buffy as she passed, no one spoke to her. Instead, they looked away when they realised she'd noticed them, feigning a sudden interest in the nearest store window.

She walked a block. Then she turned right and walked another, and now she was already at the edge of Downtown, with what looked like a low-rent residential area in front of her. There was no sign of a bar. This place really would be hell for Spike if there were no bars.

She turned round and walked back the way she'd come – up Main Street, past the side road where the door was, and then on in the other direction. As she passed the stores again, she had the queasy feeling that none of them were the same as before – still dirty and still not selling anything worth having, but different, as if there were more interchangeable layers of hopelessness behind the one on display and they kept swapping around.

It was weird, like walking through a film set where someone kept changing the props. Still – as long as it was just the props and not the backdrop. As she'd passed the end of the side road, Buffy had been relieved to see that at least the warehouse with the exit in it remained where it had been. Hopefully, since she needed it to get out of here, that at least was a constant.

The road sloped uphill and into another residential area. Trees lined the sidewalks but their leaves were faded and yellow, like there'd been no rain for weeks. Just as she thought this, it began to rain – heavy and warm and somehow wetter than rain had any right to be. Now she was not only miserable, she was wet too – and nowhere nearer finding Spike.

She ran back down the road and huddled in the nearest shop doorway while rain sluiced down the gutters until they flowed like miniature rivers. She could see other people doing the same in other shop doorways but only one person in each. It seemed people in Hell didn't like to share.

That gave her the closest thing so far she'd had to a plan, which wasn't very close at all. Taking a deep breath, she ducked her head down and ran out into the rain again, across the street and into a doorway where a smartly dressed lady in a charcoal-grey pantsuit was sheltering.

"Hi!" Buffy said, brightly. "Lot of weather we're having lately, huh?"

Pantsuit Lady, who looked to be in her mid-thirties – career-type, beautifully tailored and manicured– glared at her and pointedly turned her back.

Buffy scowled, noting that when you looked more closely the woman's shoes were a little down at heel and the hems of her suit trousers were coming unstitched.

"I'm new in town." She decided to ignore the initial rudeness. "I was wondering if you could help me?"

"I beg your pardon?" Pantsuit Lady turned back to gape at her in astonishment. Her mascara had run in the rain.

"Okay, I know this is Hell," Buffy hurried on, "but I'm on a schedule here. I need to locate a friend of mine fast and I really, really would appreciate your help."

"I bet you would." The woman eyed her contemptuously. Then she tapped Buffy in the centre of the chest with one elegant fingernail on which the polish was a little chipped. "Like you said, this is Hell – and why the hell should I care about you? I have my own problems." And she turned her back on Buffy again.

"Yeah, I can see that." Buffy had been looking at the bloodstain all down the front of Pantsuit Lady's jacket. Now she caught her shoulder and spun her around again. "See – this is why you should care about me, because if you thought Hell was hellish before, think how much more hellish it'll be having me following you everywhere until you play nice. I mean, do you want everyone to know those Manolos are, like, two seasons old?"

At the look on the woman's face, Buffy thought that Cordelia would've been proud of her.

Pantsuit Lady eyed Buffy nervously. Then she said, "I'm so sorry, ma'am. You should've said you were Management. How can I help you?"

"Management?" Buffy blinked at her in surprise but she didn't deny it entirely. If the woman was scared enough to answer her, she might even make some headway with finding Spike.

"I'm looking for a guy named Spike," she told her. "Do you know him? He's yay high –" she held a hand up to really not that far over her own head – "platinum blond hair –scar on one eyebrow - doesn't get out in the sun much?"

Behind her, the rain was pouring down like a grey curtain and the street was well-nigh invisible on the other side of it so it was no wonder Pantsuit Lady rolled her eyes at the mention of the sun. In fact, there probably wasn't sun here, what with it being Hell, or if there was, there was most likely too much of it.

"I don't believe I've had the dubious pleasure," Pantsuit Lady said in a sarcastic tone, "but I'll take you to City Hall if you want. If he's around here someplace, they'll have heard of him."

"Okay, that'd be good." Much to Buffy's surprise, Pantsuit Lady pushed past her at once and plunged out into the rain which – stopped, as suddenly as it had begun.

"This way." Pantsuit Lady set off at a fast pace, heels clicking on the wet sidewalk. She seemed in a hurry and Buffy had to run to keep up with her.

"I hope you'll tell the other Management people I was co-operative," the woman said, sounding a little out of breath. "It really is bad enough that my nail polish is chipped again five minutes after I put it on and that this stain just won't come out of my jacket."

"Yeah – sounds like torture." Buffy couldn’t quite keep the sarcasm out of her own voice, but Pantsuit Lady gave her a look of such blank and utter hopelessness that her heart turned over in her chest.

"It is," Pantsuit Lady said. "Believe me."

They'd gone past all the stores now but turned left instead of right – and Buffy was sure that left turn hadn't been there before – coming out into a small square with a flower garden in the middle. Not that there were any flowers in it. Instead, there was bare dirt, all raked over for planting that would most likely never happen and now turned all to sticky grey ooze in the rain.

"City Hall," Pantsuit Lady said, pointing at a long, squat building that crouched like a malevolent toad the length of a whole block. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I really must get to the dry cleaners' before they shut."

"Sure." Buffy watched her hurry away. "Good luck with that."

Somehow, she had a feeling that Pantsuit Lady was wasting her time.

City Hall was as squat and ugly on the inside as the outside. Everywhere Buffy looked, there were lines of people, though what they were lining up for was impossible to make out. The people all had the same grey, hopeless look about them that made it hard to tell one from another, and suddenly she was stricken with fear that Spike might be among them and she wouldn’t even recognise him.

Unsure what to do, she went and joined one line, waited five minutes, shuffled forward one pace and then stopped again. In the meantime, another line nearby suddenly began to move much faster.

That looked more hopeful. Buffy thought of joining it instead, but everyone else in her line was way in front of her. When the ensuing mad scramble for places was over, the second line was twice as long as the first one and – surprise, surprise – not moving at all.

Impatient, she tapped the shoulder of the man in front of her.

"Excuse me, sir."

The man spun round to glare at her. Like Pantsuit Lady, he was smartly dressed until you looked closer, when it became apparent that the collar and cuffs of his once-white shirt were grimy and his silk tie was worn at the edges.

"What?" he said rudely, scowling from under over-bushy eyebrows.

Buffy held up her hands in a placating gesture. These people were so touchy! "What are you folks lining up for?"

"Transfers of course." The man’s scowl bit deeper and now a muscle ticked in his cheek. "There’s been a mistake. None of us are supposed to be here. I agreed to come because I was informed that mistakes could only be rectified on this side. I’ll be writing to my Congressman to complain as soon as the mess is sorted out."

"Yeah." Somehow or other, this didn't sound quite right but Buffy couldn't put her finger on why. Yet again, she wished Willow was with her to explain the stuff that needed explaining – or even Giles, though he'd probably just have stood around and wiped his glasses and looked disapproving.

She thought of Marvin. She could see him reaching the same conclusion as Touchy Guy pretty rapidly once he finally plucked up the courage to walk through the door.

"Hey," she said. "Knock yourself out with that letter writing. In the meantime, where do you go if you want to find someone who thinks he is supposed to be here?"

For a moment, she thought the man was going to laugh at her. His eyebrows went up and the corners of his mouth twitched in a mean, laugh-y sort of way. Then he said,

"This person, whoever they are, must be a real asshole if they think they deserve to be in Hell. But whatever. Try Housing Allocations."

He pointed towards a long, dark side-passage, overarched in dull grey brick.

"Thanks." Buffy found herself speaking to Touchy Guy’s back, because he’d turned it on her the minute he’d finished speaking.

As she left the line, it suddenly moved forward a good three paces, at which everyone in the second line rushed back to re-join it, only for it to come to a jarring halt again.

Housing Allocations bore a battered sign on the door saying Back in 10 Minutes, which looked as if it’d been there for years. Buffy knocked but no one answered. She tried the door handle – locked. She stood for a moment, undecided. Then she kicked it open.

A solitary demon – the traditional kind with horns and a tail – was sitting with its cloven hooves up on a desk reading a dog-eared paperback copy of Catch22.

"We’re closed," it said, without looking up.

"Well, it’s time you opened." Buffy lifted a foot and kicked the demon’s hooves off the desk. "I need some information and I don’t have much time."

The chair, which was on casters, skidded away from the desk with the force of her kick, rebounding off the wall and almost depositing the demon on the floor. It righted itself and glared at her.

"And you are -?"

Buffy put her hands on the desk and leaned across it, trying to remember how she’d done menacing pre-Scythe.

"I’m Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and no, I can’t say I’m pleased to meet you."

The demon’s mouth fell open in amazement, revealing rows of sharp pointy teeth that were far too close together.

"Get away!" it said. "No – really? Never had a Slayer here before. This is an honour."

Suddenly, it was all business. "How can I help you, ma'am? If it’s premier accommodation you’re after, I might have just the thing – or since this is a special case, you can name your own specifications, if you want."

It scooted the chair back across the floor to the desk and began to go through a precarious stack of papers in an in-tray but stopped when Buffy said, "I’m not here to stay. I’m here on a visitor’s pass. See?" and she held out her hand with the ink-mark then frowned at the sight of it. Had it faded a little already?

"Oh." The demon’s face fell. Now it looked positively grouchy. "And there was me thinking, at last someone else to help raise the tone around here. I mean - have you seen those people out there? Asswipes, the lot of them, and not a decent mortal sin among them – well, that they’ll admit to. Things aren't like they used to be -" it lowered its voice to a sibilant whisper and looked furtively over its shoulder–"since the new management took over."

Buffy ignored the diatribe. In the circumstances, it was kind of hard to feel sorry for the guy. "Someone else? Who’s here already?"

The demon was still griping. "Some vampire – didn’t look like I imagined him – kind of short for a great dark warrior – but he’s the real deal, and he has a soul, which is why he’s here of course." Suddenly, it grinned. "Boy, I wouldn’t like to be him. It must be hell inside that pretty white head after what he's done – not that it isn’t Hell outside it too."

Buffy said nothing and after a moment’s pleased contemplation of its thoughts, the demon looked back at her. But then the grin was gone from its face as if a giant eraser had wiped it away, leaving it with a sort of deer-caught-in-car-headlights expression, only not nearly as cute.

"What?" it said, sounding puzzled. "What’d I say?"

Buffy leaned forward a little more and was pleased to see the demon flinch away from her. She still had it, Scythe or no Scythe.

"I’ll say this only once." She was using her best, Me Slayer, You Imminent Dust voice. "Where is he and how do I get there?"

It was raining again as Buffy walked across the cemetery – and why there was a cemetery in Hell was anyone's guess. Could people here get any deader than they were already?

The sky overhead was a sullen roiling grey-black, lit by the occasional lightning flash, and the air smelt strongly of ozone. Or was it sulphur? Buffy had never been sure what the difference was. She just knew that this wasn't like rain back home because it didn't feel cleansing in any way and it didn't relieve the sullen tension of the air. Instead, it left her feeling hot and itchy and dirty somehow, like she might be covered in leeches - and wetter than she'd ever felt in her life.

She supposed it only made sense that in Hell, the rain would be hellish too.

She'd followed the Housing Allocation demon's instructions and counted crypts from the gate as she went through the cemetery, though it was hard to make them out through the sheeting rain. No angels on the gravestones, not surprisingly– just endless repetitions on a theme of the dog, the goat and the moose, like the mark stamped onto her hand, which was weird. Were dogs and goats and giant deer more evil than other animals?

She was trying to ignore the thumping of her heart, which seemed to grow louder with every moment. After all, it was just Spike – no reason to be scared. No reason to feel like she might throw up any second or that maybe turning tail and running was an increasingly attractive option.

And there it was – unmistakeable. As like the exterior of his crypt in Sunnydale as made no difference. She remembered what the Housing Allocations demon had said about naming her own specifications if she wanted. Spike must have asked for this.

For some reason, the idea made her feel more freaked out than ever, even though she remembered that he'd often referred to Sunnydale as Sunnyhell. He must have meant it literally.

She stood for a moment with her hand on the crypt door, the stone damp and slimy under her fingers. Would he sense her? He'd always been able to do that during the months they'd screwed around together – well, the months when she'd pretended to herself they were just screwing around, though she'd known in her heart of hearts it was a hell of a lot more than that to him.

No, she told herself. Don't think about it. Don't think about the misery and the wishing you were dead – again - and his face all bruised and bloody in an alley and hard tiles on the bathroom floor and his hand going where you didn't want it to and that blind look on his face, like he'd suddenly gone insane. Think about how he loved you. Think about how he died for you.

Screwing up what remained of her courage, which seemed to have washed away in the deluge, she knocked as loudly as she could on the door.

There was silence except for the steady drumming of the rain on the crypt roof and then, abruptly, the door flew open and he was standing there. Light streaming from inside outlined him in gold and there was the gleam of metal in his hand.

"Piss off!" he shouted, waving the metal object in her face. "Not bloody interested in double-glazing, I've told you a million times!"

He shoved her hard, his touch icy on her shoulder, and somehow she couldn't say a word – could only stumble backwards and fall on her ass in the mud and rain and watch as he turned to go back into the crypt.

But then he stopped, and she heard him inhale sharply through his nose. His whole body tensed up. There was a long, long silence. Then he turned back and she saw his face for the first time, thinner than it had ever been and white as chalk, the eyes deeply sunken and glittering in the gloom.

"Buffy," he said. Not a question, just a fact quietly stated.

"Yes," she managed, though her voice had an annoying tendency to wobble. "It's me."

Moments passed. He made no move towards her – didn't offer to help her up – just stared at her.

"You can't be here," he said, at last. "Not in Hell. Not you. Someone's made a cock-up."

He looked wildly around as if searching for the culprit, but there was no one in sight save the two of them.

"Oh." She wiped strands of wet hair from her eyes and pushed herself to her feet. "No, I'm not dead or anything. I have a visitor's pass. See?"

She held out her hand towards him so he could see the ink mark on the back of it, afraid suddenly that it might look more faded already or have run in the rain. But it was still there, stark and black on her hand, and the dog was looking sort of – wolf-like.

He gazed at it as if he couldn't process what she was saying either, looking from her hand to her face and back again. A muscle twitched in his cheek.

At last, she said, "Kind of soaked to the skin here – also cold –" which was true, she was beginning to shiver. "Mind if I come in?"

For a horrible moment, he looked like he was going to slam the door in her face rather than say yes, but then he took a step back and moved to one side.

"All right, then."

She followed him into the crypt and he slammed the door shut behind them. Then there was a loud clatter and clang as he dropped a heavy metal bar into place. Now that they were in the light, she could see what he’d been holding in his hand. It was a large butcher’s knife, the blade wickedly sharp. She wondered what kind of double-glazing salesman warranted that kind of response.

He was still staring at her, like he expected her to go up in a puff of smoke or maybe turn into some huge scary demon with teeth and claws to match.

"You look like a drowned rat," he said, at last.


Now she was here – now she could see him – the reality of what she’d done was sinking in. She was in Hell. Willow had opened a portal for her and she'd come to Hell to get him out. Suddenly, she felt overwhelmed and dizzy and the room began to go round in crazy circles. Then everything went black.

When she became aware of herself again, she was lying on a bed and someone had taken her shoes off. The ceiling above her head was low and festooned with cobwebs and she frowned at the sight. Mom must have forgotten to vacuum for, like, centuries!

No, that wasn’t right, was it, and this wasn’t her bedroom in Sunnydale. This was Spike’s crypt – except not, because this was Hell and Spike was dead.

Cautiously, because her head was throbbing, she looked to one side and saw him there, staring at her anxiously and holding her sodden sneakers, with her socks tucked into them, in his hand.

"Slayer, you okay?" His voice was strained. He didn’t seem pleased to see her at all.

"Yeah, I’m fine." She sat up, thinking, as so often, that this wasn’t what she’d been expecting. "Don’t suppose you have any spare clothes I can put on while mine dry off, do you?"

His hand clutched the sneakers tightly to his chest and the muscle in his cheek twitched again. Then he said, "I’ll see what I can find."

She watched him move off across the crypt, which, though well-lit with candles, still felt dank and uninviting. She couldn’t imagine herself ever thinking it was comfy the way she had his old one, which in most ways it closely resembled. There was even a TV tucked away in the corner, though the screen was dark.

She hadn’t thought there could be television in Hell. What programs would be on it? Most likely endless no-talent contest reality game shows or maybe Fox News 24/7.

There was a metal chest next to the battered armchair. Spike was kneeling in front of it and rummaging around inside. His hair shone glorious silver in the candlelight. Her eyes couldn’t help travelling down the curve of neck and shoulder to his arms with the corded ropes of muscle. He was thin – she could see his backbone through his black t-shirt, which had to be the one he’d died in. Was he eating at all, she wondered? Did you need to eat in Hell?

Then he was coming back towards her with a long chocolate-brown shirt in his hands. She thought she recognised that too. Hadn’t she ripped it off him once?

"Here," he said. "Put this on," and he dropped it into her lap, turned and walked away again, slumping down into the armchair with his back to her.

She changed quickly, draping her wet jeans and shirt over a nearby sarcophagus. Her bare feet flinched away from the cold stone floor, which felt damp – even faintly slimy - not dusty and dry like the floor of the Sunnydale crypt.

"Spike?" She felt diffident now. His reaction to seeing her was so far from what she’d expected that she didn’t know how to proceed.

He’d been staring off into the corner where the TV stood. At the sound of her voice, he jumped and looked up at her. His eyes were stony.

"If this is some trick," he said, "another way to torment the stupid vampire, say so now. Ha-bloody-ha. Very funny."

"Oh!" Well, that explained some things, she supposed. "It’s no trick, Spike. It really is me. I’ve come to take you out of here."

He blinked. "Come again. Don’t think I heard you right then, Slayer."

"Buffy. It’s Buffy, remember? We’ve been on first name terms for a while now. I said I’ve come to take you out of here. You’re not supposed to be in Hell. There’s been a mistake. Heroes don't belong in Hell."

He tilted his head in that familiar way of his, that made her breath catch in her throat, and then he began to laugh. "Pull the other one!" he said.

"What other one?" She wrapped her arms round herself, remembering what the check-in demon had said about him being difficult to persuade. It certainly wasn’t going well so far.

His laughter stopped as suddenly as it had begun, much to her relief. She hadn’t liked that aching quality in it. And she also didn’t like the way his face turned savage, the ridges and bumps pushing forward on his forehead, his yellow eyes slanting and glowing bright as sulphur. He snarled at her, showing his fangs.

"Abandon hope," he said, "all ye who enter here. Do you think I didn’t read it, or what? I wasn’t born yesterday. Piss off back to your little demon friends and leave me the fuck alone!"

Now he was on his feet, looming over her, and she could hear that familiar vibrating rumble in his chest as he growled. He took a menacing step forward.

For a moment, she almost quailed and gave ground, but then she told herself not to be stupid. It was just Spike and she knew how to handle him.

"Dumb vampire! It’s not some demon playing games with you. It’s me – one hundred per cent genuine Buffy. I’ve come to take you home with me." At least, that was what she hoped.

He tilted his head again but the rumbling growl didn’t stop.

"Oh yeah? And why exactly would you want to do that? For that matter, where is home these days?"

She wanted to say – for you, it should be where I am, but the look on his face told her that might not go down too well. She was pretty certain he still didn’t believe she was who she said she was.

"Home is in Scotland," she told him. "I’m – doing stuff there, but I’ll tell you all about it later. And as for why I want to take you with me, it’s because – " and suddenly the words she’d meant to say felt heavy as stones in her mouth. What if he didn't believe her this time either? "It’s because I need you," she finished lamely.

The moment the words left her lips she regretted them. Way to go, Summers, with making him feel wanted for more than just muscle.

He laughed again, and the bones of his face crunched as they realigned themselves. Now he was human-seeming and beautiful, but he looked just as angry. He bent down and picked up a pack of cigarettes that lay on the table, tapped one out and stuck it in his mouth. The lighter needed three attempts to make it work but once it did, he inhaled deeply until the cigarette tip glowed, poised all his weight on one hip and regarded her through the smoke with a faint sneer on his face.

"So you need me, do you?" he said. "What, the Ponce let you down again?"

"Who?" She blinked at him in surprise and then coughed, waving her hand through the smoke to clear it. Not that it helped much. Instead, it seemed to wreathe her more closely.

He rolled his eyes. "Angel. I meant Angel."

"What does Angel have to do with this?" He wasn’t making any sense.

He flopped back down into the armchair and sat gazing up at her, smoking and regarding her through slitted eyelids.

"Because you’re in love with him?" he suggested, in a sarcastic voice. "He’s the love of your life – your soul mate or whatever the fuck. Least – looked that way to me the last day in Sunnydale, the way you two were swapping spit."

"Eww!" He’d seen her kissing Angel of course, but she'd managed to reassure him pretty well at the time that it wasn't what it looked like. Or at least, she'd thought she had. Apparently he'd had second thoughts.

"I told you there were no tongues involved. Why won’t you believe me? Angel’s an old – friend -" and dammit, why did her voice have to hesitate on the word? – "I was just glad to see him, that’s all."

His voice turned bitter.

"Thought I told you once you two would never be friends? Think I stand by that," and he took another long drag on his cigarette.

She was getting annoyed now. "Soo – let me get this straight. I come to take you out of Hell and you say no, because you’re still sulking about me kissing Angel?"

That startled him. "Wouldn’t call it sulking," he said, crossly. "Just not what a bloke wants to see after the best night of his life – the girl he spent it with kissing some fat git with a terminal case of bad hair."

"Angel is not fat!" The words were out before she could stop them but then she took a deep breath. She had to keep her temper because somehow she knew that if there was a way for things to go from bad to worse in Hell, it was sure to happen.

"Knew you’d defend old lardarse," he groused. "Dru was just the same. Daddy could do no wrong. What is it about him that makes women go all soft in the head anyway?"

She found she’d wrapped her arms about herself again and frowned in annoyance because she knew it made her look weak.

"I am not here to talk about Angel. Whatever you might think, he and I aren’t together. In fact –" and the memory deepened her frown –"we’re further apart than we’ve ever been."

Now he looked interested. He tilted his head again. "Oh yeah? Why’s that?"

How to begin, she thought, but it seemed he wouldn’t leave the subject alone until he knew everything so maybe it was best to just tell him.

She hugged herself even tighter. "I think he’s sold out. He’s not helping the hopeless any more or whatever he was supposed to be doing. He’s C.E.O. of this big L.A. law firm. Giles says they’re really bad news - big with the evil, maybe even the biggest."

He looked genuinely shocked for a moment, but then he laughed, though not like he thought it was funny.

"This law firm – it wouldn’t happen to be Wolfram & Hart, would it?"

She stared at him. "Yes. How did you know?" At the same time, she found herself trying to tease the name apart and then looking again at the mark on her hand. "Is a hart anything like a moose?"

He leaned back in his chair, smoking thoughtfully.

"Got it in one, Slayer. And old Rupert’s right. They’re very bad news indeed." His gaze went distant. "What the fuck is Angel up to?"

But she was still putting the puzzle together. "Does Wolfram & Hart have something to do with this place, because I don’t see why else I have a dog and a goat – or a sheep, I guess – and a deer stamped on the back of my hand?"

He stubbed his cigarette out in a glass ashtray that was overflowing with butts.

"Full marks to the lady. They run the joint and a whole bunch of other hell dimensions– bought the franchise recently, so I believe, from the original owner."

She decided she didn’t need to know who the original owner had been. There was enough to process already. Like – was Angel somehow in charge of Hell now and if so, how did that work? The things she’d have to say to him when she saw him next!

It seemed Spike’s thoughts were running on a different track, however.

"Might’ve guessed the useless old tosser would fall on his feet," he grumbled. "S’pose when he finally meets the pointy end of a bit of wood, he’ll have his own little niche all staked out in an exclusive Hell for jammy bastards– or maybe he’ll even be Management. That’d be just like him – give him a chance to go on lording it over everyone even after he’s dead."

She opened her mouth instinctively to defend Angel again but then closed it. There really was nothing she, or anyone, could say.

"You wanna know what Angel’s up to? Why don’t you ask him yourself after we get out of here? You two should have loads to talk about. You could compare notes about this place, for one thing."

Even as the words left her mouth she remembered that taking Spike out of Hell didn’t necessarily mean taking him back home with her. It just meant he wouldn’t be in Hell any more. This wasn’t like when Angel had come back from Hell in Senior Year. He’d fallen into it alive. Spike had been burned to ashes – dead as a vampire could be.

The thought made her heart hurt, but she reminded herself that whatever happened she was here to right a wrong – to save him from Hell. If she got him back, that would be a bonus – a very big bonus – but it wasn’t – couldn’t be - her main consideration, no matter how she felt about him.

Then Spike’s words broke in on her thoughts again.

"As if Angel’d ever be seen dead in this place!" he fumed. "He’s far too up himself for that. He’d have been in Classic Hell, I’ll be bound – all fire and brimstone and whatnot. That's where all the toffs go."

She remembered what the check-in demon had said about the Hell for unrepentant sinners.

"I don’t think so."

But he wasn’t really listening. Instead, he sighed morosely and shook another cigarette out of the packet.

"In any case, it doesn’t matter," he said. "I’m not going anywhere."

For a moment, she watched him – watched his hand go to his mouth and back – the way his cheeks hollowed when he sucked in smoke. He had to be kidding her!

"What do you mean you’re not going anywhere? You can’t stay here, Spike. You don’t – " her chest was beginning to ache –"don’t belong in Hell."

His eyes when he looked at her now were like cold blue stones.

"That’s where you’re wrong, Slayer." Then he looked away into the corner where the TV stood. "Should be starting any minute."

As if conjured by his words, a white spot appeared in the very centre of the blank, black screen. It grew rapidly and with it came colour and movement. In spite of herself, she couldn’t help staring at it, curious to see what it would show, while Spike’s eyes were fixed on it as if they couldn’t look away.

The sound of screams filled the room.

Eventually, she said, "What is this?" though she already knew.

His face was painted with silver shadows as the screen flickered and changed to show yet another horror – a young girl this time, who cowered down, hands held out as if to beg for mercy. She had a bloody scratch on one cheek and the spaghetti straps of her dainty little camisole were torn.

As Buffy watched, he moved forward into view – unmistakeable with his white hair and the long black duster that flowed round his body like a living thing. His face was a merciless mask in alabaster until the feral grin split it.

"Don’t," the girl whispered, voice denuded of hope. "Please – don’t."

And his voice – the deep, resonant voice that could still thrill her when he spoke, "Oh, don’t worry, love. I won’t hurt you – much."

Then he grabbed the girl by the shoulders and backed her into a wall, pinning her there while one hand ripped the torn fabric apart and fastened on an exposed breast, twisting the nipple cruelly.

"Oh Christ!" Buffy put her hand to her mouth. It was obvious what was going to happen next – and now she was remembering that same face looming above her as she struggled on the bathroom floor – the intense blue eyes, the face devoid of reason or anything to appeal to.

She shut her eyes. No! That had been different. He had hurt her – had nearly raped her, in fact – but he hadn’t meant to. That hadn’t been his intention.

"Now do you see?" he said, dully. "Even if you really are Buffy - and the jury’s still out on that, love – I couldn’t go with you. I do belong here, with the scum – the damned -belong here more than most of them."

"No." She forced herself to open her eyes. Spike on the TV was in vampire face now. He had the girl on the ground, his body jerking rhythmically at the hips, forward and back, harder and harder, as he raped her. She was crying and as Buffy watched, he bent down and licked the tears away and then set fangs to her throat.

Spike who sat in the armchair staring, had his mouth open and suspicious damp patches on his cheeks. "I don’t remember where or when I killed her," he said, softly. "I don’t even remember her face."

"No!" Buffy said the word again, louder this time. "That wasn’t you. You didn’t have a soul then. You were just a monster like all the others."

He half-glanced at her but his eyes never truly left the screen. "Wasn't me? Tell yourself that, Slayer, if it makes you feel better."

Abruptly, the picture on the screen changed and now TV Spike looked very different – all ripped jeans and safety pins and punked-up hair in a white halo round his head. The muscles in his bare arms rippled. He seemed to be in a Subway train, the flickering lights as it hurtled through the tunnels casting crazy shadows on his face. There was a black chick there too – very cool with the ‘tude and the afro and the long leather coat.

Buffy recognised the coat at the same time as she realised what she was seeing.

"Yeah." Spike seemed to have divined her thoughts. "Nikki Wood – Robin’s mum – the second Slayer I killed."

His eyes still seemed fixed to the screen. In fact, he even leaned forward to see better, resting his weight on his forearms.

"God, she was something!" he said, a touch of awe in his voice.

The battle swayed backwards and forwards the length of the Subway carriage and in spite of herself, Buffy couldn’t not watch. How could he have beaten Nikki, she wondered? The woman – and she was very much a woman, not a girl – looked unstoppable. She remembered, too, he’d told her the first time they met that the last Slayer he’d killed had begged for her life. Nikki didn’t look like the begging kind either.

Nikki had Spike on the floor now, hands at his throat, throttling him. He seemed done for, but then suddenly, the carriage lights went out, flickered madly and then came on again, and when they did, Nikki was the one underneath.

Spike leaned even further forward, a look of intense concentration on his face.

"Just watch," he said. "This is a good bit."

But Buffy tore her eyes away.

"I can’t - not any more," she whispered, just as she heard Nikki’s choked voice pleading, "Please – I have to get home to my son – to my Robin."

Spike didn’t look at her. He waved a vague arm in the direction of the bed.

"Have a kip if you want. You must be tired."

"What about you?" She couldn’t believe he meant to carry on watching. Why would he do this to himself? But he shrugged off her question as if he’d barely heard it.

"Think I’ll just watch telly for a bit, if it’s all the same to you."

She was tired, she realised – so tired that her legs wobbled under her as she wove her way back across the crypt. She felt sick to her stomach, her resolve all in tatters.

The bed was hard but she collapsed onto it gratefully and lay there, trying to ignore the periodic sounds of ugly death.

When Buffy woke, she couldn’t remember falling asleep in the first place and she didn't feel much rested. Instead, a sort of dull exhaustion seemed to have sunk right into her bones. She lay staring up at the low stone ceiling, feeling disoriented and out of sorts.

There was no natural light in the crypt so it was impossible to tell how much time had passed but at least the TV was – thankfully – silent.

"Spike?" She sat up, then winced. Her mouth was dry and her head was pounding like it had that time with the kitten poker and all the whisky, which didn't seem fair, as she hadn't drunk anything.

Spike was asleep in the armchair, though as usual when he slept he just looked dead, like a marble effigy on a tombstone.

She swung her legs off the bed and padded silently across the floor to stand in front of him, staring at his face – at the soft down of blond hair on his arms, the blunt fingernails, the way his hands gripped the armrests of the chair so hard, even in sleep, that the knuckles stood out in stark relief on the backs of them.

One platinum curl made a crescent moon on his forehead. She lifted a hand and brushed it gently back. The hair under her fingers was soft – not gel-encrusted like he'd worn it in Sunnydale. Maybe, she thought, you couldn't get hair gel in Hell?

God, he was beautiful still! All compact and sleek like a white-haired hunting cat. Yet the sharp angles of his face distressed her now. He looked like he was starving and she didn't think it was from lack of food. No, this place was slowly killing him and yet he could never die from it.

Her hand moved from his forehead to trace the line of his cheek – to run fingers over his soft lower lip. He didn't move but he seemed to be aware of her touch even in sleep because he was frowning slightly now, no longer statue-perfect.

Suddenly, she felt a profound tenderness for him. She wanted to smooth that frown away – to give him hope again. In fact, she had to as a matter of urgency, because when she looked at her hand the mark had definitely faded, the lines greying and blurring. There was no telling how much longer it would last.

"Spike?" She bent down and set her lips to his. His mouth was cold but his lips were soft just as she remembered them, parting a little for her tongue as if in reluctant welcome. She hadn't kissed him, she realised, since the night that Riley had found her with him in the crypt in Sunnydale – the night she'd decided to stop seeing him for her own sake and his. He'd tried to kiss her that time in the bathroom but she hadn't let him – and why did she have to remember that now? She hadn't time to dwell on it.

She'd closed her eyes without realising it so it was a shock when she felt cold fingers on her lips, prising them away from his.

"You shouldn't be doing that." His voice was hoarse – a smoker's voice. "Forgotten what was on telly last night already, have you? Making nice with the bloody rapist."

She opened her eyes. He was looking at her now and his waking face had set instantly into familiar lines of despair. He raised a hand and touched her cheek. Then he pushed her away and stood up, turning his back on her.

It didn't look as if sleep had improved his mood at all.

She frowned. "I haven't forgotten. But I knew about that stuff anyway. Don't you remember what you said to me in Sunnydale, Spike – all that crap about how I'd never seen the real you? You painted a pretty graphic picture."

He was lighting a cigarette.

"Not the same as seeing it with your own eyes though, is it?"

This was true. She wrapped her arms tight about herself yet again.

"Okay, I admit it shocked me. But it doesn't change anything. Yes, you did those things, but you didn't have a soul then. See – I remember what I said to you too that time. I've seen you change. I've seen your penance."

"Penance!" His voice was full of scorn. "As if I could ever atone for that!"

He pointed at the blank TV.

"I raped and I killed, Buffy – for a hundred years I gloried in every moment of it. You think getting a soul is like some kind of magic sticking plaster- that it's gonna make it all better? Grow up, for God's sake!"

When had her elbows gotten so bony, she wondered. They were digging into the skin of her palms and it hurt.

"That's kind of ironic," she said. "You sound just like Angel."

"What?" He swung round to glare at her. "No way in hell do I sound like that sad old twat! Don't insult me."

"Oh, so sorry." She avoided gritting her teeth somehow. "Did I hurt your sensitive vampire feelings? You're the one who needs to grow up, Spike. You have to get over this stupid need to punish yourself for something you didn't do. That Spike on the TV wasn't the one that died in the Hellmouth – not the one that's so wracked with guilt he can't see a way out when it's offered him. You haven't been that Spike for a long time."

She was in full-on rant mode now and he could only stare at her.

"Okay, I get that you feel bad about what you did – you should!-but if you really wanted to make up for it, you'd stop sitting here feeling all sorry for yourself and come with me."

There was silence for a moment. Then he said, "When I burned up in the Hellmouth, I thought I was finished – that that was it. Never expected this, Slayer – not in a million years. Believe it or not, I never expected to end up in Hell. God, I was so stupid."

"Not really." She tried to smile at him. "That demon on the check-in desk in the – waiting room, was it? He did agree that you might have been sent here by mistake."

He shook his head. "No mistake. I'm meant to be here. I know that now." He indicated the TV again. "So many victims – how can there ever be forgiveness for that? There can't. Your check-in demon was just stringing you along."

She took a step towards him. Then another.

"Speaking as one of those victims, I forgive you."

He watched her coming with a strange, trapped look on his face. Then he took a step backwards to her one forwards, another, until he was flat against the crypt wall with her right in front of him, pinning him in place.

He shook his head. "I believed you had, all those times near the end when you lay in my arms and slept. But the more I think about it, the more I realise you can't have. How can you forgive that, Buffy? I tried to rape you."

"No." She reached out a tentative hand towards him and touched his cheek again. "You really believe if I thought that – that you'd deliberately set out to hurt me – to rape me – that we'd be having this conversation? Come on, Spike. Credit me with having some sense."

He shook his head stubbornly. "What difference does it make whether I meant to do it or not? Fact is - I did do it. How can you –" the muscle jerked in his cheek again. "Dunno how you can even bear to touch me."

"Silly." She moved closer, pressing her body to his, where it fit perfectly, just like it always had. "It makes all the difference in the world – and I can bear to touch you just fine." And to prove her point, she stood on tiptoe and kissed him again.

He let her at first, but then he pulled away and she had to exert her full Slayer strength to keep him in place.

"No," he whispered. He'd closed his eyes now. "Leave me alone, Slayer – please!"

For a moment, she almost did what he asked. The pain in his voice was unbearable. But his body didn't seem to be on the same page as his thoughts because she could feel him growing hard against her and at the same time softening, yielding to her. He wanted her, just like always.

She drew a deep breath. It was time to take her courage in both hands and say what she should have said when she'd first gotten here. Maybe if she backed up her words with actions, he'd believe her this time.

"Spike – please! Look at me."

When he wouldn't open his eyes, she took his chin in her hand and shook it gently.

"Look at me!"

At last, his eyelids fluttered open. Blue eyes full of - she wasn't sure quite what, were staring into hers.

"I love you." There, the words were out now – out in the open - could never be recalled. She'd kept her eyes on his while she said them, willing him to see the truth.

When he didn't answer, just stared at her with that drowning expression on his face, she pressed closer.

"Didn't you hear me? I said, I love you."

"I heard." His voice was little more than a whisper but the flatness in his tone sent her heart plummeting into her boots – not that she was wearing boots, but whatever.

"You still don't believe me, do you?" She could hear an edge of irritation creeping into her voice. What did it take to convince him? "I know you didn't last time – thought I was just saying what a dying man would want to hear – but you're wrong, Spike. I did mean it."

He shook his head. "No."

"Yes!" In spite of his denial, she could feel his body thrilling to her words – to her touch. "You think I'd come all the way to Hell to save you if I didn't mean it?"

"Dunno." He sounded frightened – like she'd rocked his bitter little world. "You might do. Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes, you are."

"Dummy!" She had her hand under his t-shirt now, sliding the palm over smooth skin and taut muscle – and ribs. She could feel ribs, much too near the surface for her liking. "You're so thin. Have you been eating? Do you even need to eat here?"

As she spoke, her fingers were worming their way south, undoing his belt buckle in passing and popping the buttons on his fly.

"Oh God!" He had his head thrown back against the wall behind him, eyes closed again. He was trembling faintly all over, like a wire vibrating in the wind, and when her hand closed around his thick cock with that kink in it that she'd always loved, though she'd never told him so, he groaned and bit his lip.

She thought he wouldn't be able to resist her– that he'd lose it and next moment she'd find herself impaled on him, cool hands cupping her ass, strong fingers digging into her as he braced himself to support her weight.

That didn't happen, though. Instead, he remained with his back to the crypt wall, arms outstretched like a crucified Christ, fingers gouging into the rough surface as if he was doing all he could not to touch her. Given what they'd been talking about, it was only too obvious why.

"Spike!" She shook him a little. "I won't have this."

She tugged on his dick hard enough to hurt and his eyes flew open in shock.

"Oww! Take it easy, Slayer!"

"Well, listen to me then!" She gentled her touch but she didn't let go. Instead, she began to move backwards and whether he wanted to or not, he had to come with her - literally led by his dick - across the floor of the crypt to the bed and down onto it. He hung above her, supported on his arms, which were trembling uncontrollably, staring down at her in something close to terror. When she leaned up to kiss him again, he groaned and let her, rolling onto his side and then his back and pulling her with him.

Now she found herself looking down at him.

"You can't want this," he said. "You just – you can't."

"Ah-ah!" She put her finger to his lips again. "Don't tell me what I can and can't want, Spike. That's for me to decide, isn't it?"

He nodded dumbly and she went back to fisting his cock, teasing the silky flesh until she felt it grow moist under her fingers, her eyes on his face all the time. As he grew harder under her touch, his expression became softer, more open, with that wondering look she'd seen so many times when they'd had sex before – as if he couldn't quite believe what was happening.

"Believe it!" she wished him and when she kissed him again, finally he let go.

There was a moment's frantic jerking and tugging while they tore at each other's clothes, at the end of which, he was naked down to the knee, jeans trapped there by his ridiculous boots, while the shirt she wore was torn open at the front and her breast was in his mouth.

He suckled on it until the nipple felt heavy and swollen – almost painful. One hand yanked her panties down, clever fingers strumming her like a well-remembered instrument that needed tuning before it played right.

"Oh God!" Until this moment, she hadn't realised how much she'd missed this – missed his voice telling her how much he loved her – how he adored her. And this time, it didn't feel dirty or wrong. It didn't make her want to hurt him – to pay him back just for making her feel alive. It felt more right than anything had in a long time.

In fact, she'd needed this for so long it almost hurt - like if he didn't fuck her right now she might curl up around the pain of wanting him. She ground her crotch against the heel of his hand. Then she rolled them again so he was on top of her. She'd show him she wasn't afraid to be under him.

He seemed to divine her thoughts because he hesitated again, the thick head of his cock nudging at her, still unsure of its welcome. She caught his face between her hands, forcing him to look at her.

"I trust you, silly. I thought you got that before. Now I'm asking you to trust me."

His mouth fell open at her words. He groaned once – her name, she thought – and then he thrust forwards.

She must have fallen asleep again. It was easy enough to do. She was tired and sticky and well-fucked and his weight half on top of her was comforting. When she woke, she lay staring at his face close to hers – the jutting nose and the spectacular V of cheekbones, narrowing towards his jaw. She could see the structure of his skull under the skin, which was inhumanly smooth and pale.

He was gazing back at her, long cat-like eyes half-closed and sleepy. But he didn't look happy – quite the opposite. Instead, his face was set in an expression of subdued misery. Giles would probably have said he was morose.

She propped herself up on her elbows and, as if he couldn't help himself, he put out a hand to cup her breast. Soon he was rubbing his thumb repeatedly over the nipple and she was damp again between her thighs. Then suddenly, his hand dropped and he rolled over onto his back.

"Spike." She touched his cheek with a gentle finger, squirming closer, willing him to continue. But he lay still, staring up at the ceiling.

She frowned and sat up. Her nipple was tingling and swollen and the ache between her legs in urgent need of soothing, yet he just lay there. She put a hand on his flat belly, like a slab of cool marble. Maybe he still needed some encouragement? But when she moved her hand lower, into soft golden-brown hair and ran one finger down his semi-tumescent length, he put out a hand and grabbed her wrist.


"Why not?" She shook him off. "You're beautiful. I like touching you – I want to."

"Well, I don't," he said. "In fact, I want you to go."

"What?" She couldn't believe what she was hearing.

Abruptly, he sat up. He was still wearing his boots and his jeans flapped absurdly round his knees. When he got to his feet to pull them up, he gave her a grandstand view of his ass – and a very fine ass it was. She managed to resist the urge to reach out and squeeze one cool cheek, though it was difficult. But it didn't look as if he was in the mood.

He wrestled with his fly but couldn't button it because his half-hard cock wouldn't let him. Swearing under his breath, he reached for his discarded t-shirt and pulled it on over his head.

"Bugger this!" he muttered.

She sat watching him with her mouth hanging open. What the hell -?

"Spike, what’s wrong?"

He was already lighting up again.

"Bloody everything, that's what."

Suddenly, she felt very naked and didn't like it. Wincing her way across the slimy floor, she ran a hand over her clothes. Her jeans still felt damp but at least her shirt was dry. She dressed quickly while he paced the crypt and smoked. While she was buttoning her shirt, she noticed the mark on her hand was even more faded. The sight made her blood run cold. It couldn’t last much longer.

Dressed, she set herself in the way of his pacing and folded her arms.

"What's happened? Tell me."

He gave her a wild look. Then he said, "I dunno how you could do that to me. Come here, say you love me then make it all bloody meaningless. Might've known it was all bollocks. After all, this is Hell."

"What?" She gaped at him. She hadn't a clue what he was talking about.

He smoked furiously and she coughed. The air in the crypt was thick with cigarette smoke and idly, she wondered if there was a different Hell for non-smokers. If so, she was putting her name down stat.

"Sex," he said, suddenly. "It's just bloody sex to you, isn't it? It doesn't mean anything. You – whoever you are - you think I didn't learn my lesson back in old Sunnyhell?"

Now she could only stare at him.

"What do you mean, whoever I am? It's me – Buffy. And what lesson? Spike – this wasn't just sex, I swear." There was a pleading note in her voice that she didn't quite like because he was being a jerk. "I wanted to show you I love you and trust you. Why can't you understand that?"

But it seemed he couldn't because he just laughed, finally succeeded in buttoning his fly and turned his back on her.

"I need a drink," he said.

He got down on his knees and rummaged in the trunk again, throwing shirts and t-shirts this way and that. "There it is," he muttered. "Bloody knew it would be."

When he stood up, he was holding his black leather duster - the one Nikki Wood had been wearing when he'd killed her on TV.

Buffy watched him put it on. It draped gracefully around him as if it had been made for him, like a second skin. Suddenly, the sight made her feel a little queasy. She wanted to ask him how he could bring himself to wear it, but now didn't seem like a good time for that either.

He marched across to the crypt door and lifted the heavy metal bar while she watched him, speechless. But then, with the door half-open, he paused and looked back at her over his shoulder.


"Okay." She sat down on the rumpled bed to put on her socks and her still-damp sneakers. The sheets still smelt deliciously of sex and she felt a pang of loss go through her. But she shouldn't have done it – she could see that now. Like he said, she should have remembered this was Hell and that everything she said or did would end up twisted out of its proper shape. It seemed she was further away from persuading him to come with her than ever.

"Get a bloody move on, Slayer."

"All right, already!" She finished tying her sneakers and hurried after him out into the sullen not-daylight of the cemetery. Now she could see the place a little better, it was plain how neglected it was, tombstones all laced with ivy leaning at odd angles like rows of broken teeth, unkempt grass all brown and dry and parched-looking.

"'Heaps of dishonoured graves and stones, hemmed in by filthy houses… on whose walls a thick humidity broke out like a disease'."

Spike was gazing around him with a dull look on his face – grey like the rain had been. He intoned the words rather than spoke them.

She went to stand beside him. "Sounds like a quote."

"Bleak House." He stuck his hands in his duster pockets before she could grab one. "Not inappropriate here. Come on." And he led the way across the cemetery back in the direction of town.

He didn't make any concessions to her shorter legs and she had to walk fast to keep up. In the end, she caught hold of his sleeve and tugged it hard and when he didn't shrug her hand off, kept hold of it and they continued arm in arm.

"I looked for a bar yesterday," she panted. "Didn't see one, though."

He gave her the head-tilt – and even with that grim expression on his face, the effect was pretty devastating. She sighed, thinking how good it was that she didn't have to fight her reaction to it any more now that he wasn't evil.

"Thought I'd be drowning my sorrows, did you?"

"Something like that. Anyway, in the end, I went to City Hall and they told me where to find you."

He raised one eyebrow. "Yeah? And you actually got information out of those jumped up bureaucrats who call themselves Management round here? Nice one, Slayer."

"They were very helpful actually."

She thought of the Housing Allocation demon. The demons in this place were soft and used to getting their own way. They didn't know what to do when someone stood up to them, which made them easy to menace. Who needed the Scythe anyway?

"Next time you want to find something here," he said, "don't look for it, yeah? That's the trick. There's never anything here when you want it."

She tugged on his arm. "I'm not thinking of staying – and you'd better not get too cosy because you're not staying either."

"Bugger that!" he said again, and he picked up his pace. Soon she was half-running.

"How are you gonna find a bar, then? If that's what you want, you won't find it, will you?"

"Depends what I want it for, doesn't it?" was his surly response.

They were back on Main Street now, passing the dingy stores with their meagre displays. Again, she had the impression that the displays had changed since the last time she'd looked at them- not that there'd been any noticeable improvement. If anything, things were even worse. One store appeared to be a kind of Hell version of Home Depot – that is, if you wanted your home to look like the set of a cheap 1970s sitcom.

"Does anyone ever buy anything?" She tugged on Spike's arm again.

"What do you think?" His tone was edged with sarcasm and suddenly she felt her eyes prickle. Did he have to be so hateful?

"You could be a bit nicer. It's not every day your lover –" and she emphasised the word –"comes to Hell to try and bale you out."

"Didn't bloody ask you to, did I?" But he slackened his pace.

Across the street, the smartly dressed woman from yesterday was hurrying by. She wore the same clothes and her arms were crossed over her chest to hide the bloodstain on her jacket.

"Hi!" Buffy waved at her. "Remember me?" She indicated Spike. "Thanks for your help yesterday. Look, I found him."

Pantsuit Lady just gave her a sour look and hurried on.

Buffy frowned. "What's her problem?"

"She's in Hell, Buffy." Spike's voice was bleak and when she looked up at him, his face was bleak too. Then he shrugged. "Not that she doesn't deserve it – the murderous bitch."

Buffy glanced back at Pantsuit Lady, who was almost out of sight. "What did she do?"

"Killed her mother. Seems the old girl was gaga so she kept her in a cage like an animal – used up all her savings living the high life."

He made a disgusted face. He did seem to have a Thing about moms.

"Then she wanted to liquidate all the assets so she killed the poor old cow. See that bloodstain on her jacket? Her mum's blood. She takes the jacket to the dry cleaner's every day. They get the stain out, and the next morning there it is again."

"Forever?" Buffy realised that she was clinging to his arm very tightly now.

He shrugged. "This is Hell. Just because it's not your classic eternal fire and brimstone Hell but instead the Hell where everything's shite doesn't mean it's not Hell."

They were passing the side street where the exit was. Buffy glanced longingly in that direction. If only she could hit him over the head and take him through it right now – sort things out on the other side -but the check-in demon had said he had to come willingly or it didn't count. It'd be even worse to get him out of here and have him snatched away again.

Suddenly, Spike exclaimed in satisfaction.

"There it is." He led her down a flight of rickety cast-iron steps to where a metal door splashed with lurid unreadable graffiti opened out onto a small courtyard piled high in the corners with a scurf of discarded fast food cartons and other trash.

At the door, Spike had already raised his hand to pound on it, when she stopped him with a tug on his arm.

"Spike – do you have something like that lady's jacket that keeps coming back to haunt you?"

She already knew what he would say.

"'Course I do. I'm bloody wearing it."

Then the door opened.

The bar reminded her of Willy's – or at least of how Willy's had gotten when Willy himself had gone on his extended leave of absence and left the hired help to run the place. The ceiling was low and the walls were stained yellow with nicotine. The ugly brown naugahyde seats in the booths were torn, their stuffing all exposed – and it didn't look as if anyone ever wiped the tables.

Spike stared about him with satisfaction.

"This'll do," he said.

He walked up to the bar, elbowing the other customers roughly aside while she trailed after him, fighting the urge to apologise for him.

Not that any of these guys looked like they'd know what to do with an apology if one up and bit them on the nose. They seemed to be demons to a – well, to a demon, so she supposed they must be Management. Most of them had horns, some had tails and all of them had claws.

They parted for Spike, but there was an angry muttering and the crowd closed in behind him, looking hostile even for demons.

"Sorry – excuse me." At last, she fetched up at the bar, to find Spike with his elbows already planted on it lighting yet another cigarette. Behind the bar, a demon with a huge belly and legs like tree trunks was polishing a glass with a bit of dirty rag.

"Whiskey – straight-up." Spike indicated Buffy with another head tilt. "Make that two."

"Out of whiskey," the bar-demon said, in a voice that sounded like boulders rolling down a hillside.

Spike's eyes narrowed and he blew smoke through his nostrils like a small, angry dragon. "'Course you bloody are. JD, then."

The demon spat on the rag and polished harder.

"JD's out too."

Spike shrugged.

"Whatever the fuck you've got. And make it a double."

The demon muttered something under its breath – pebbles shifting over pebbles – and slammed the glass down on the counter. Then it bent over and began rummaging under the bar.

"I am not drinking out of that." Buffy pointed at the glass.

"Suit yourself." Spike sounded like he couldn't care what she did. He didn't even look at her. Instead, he stared at the empty glass and kept staring when the bar-demon resurfaced with another glass that didn't look any cleaner than the first, and a cobweb-covered bottle without a label. As the demon slammed the bottle down, a big black spider burst out of the cobwebs and skittered back under the bar.

In view of the surroundings, Buffy couldn't blame it for not liking the change of scene.

"This here's all we got." The demon poured a meagre shot of a dull brown liquid into both glasses. "Like it or leave it."

The liquid was hard to look at somehow. Plus, it was smoking gently. Buffy laid a hand on Spike's arm. "What is that stuff? You're not gonna drink it, are you?"

For answer, he picked up one of the glasses, tilted his head back and emptied it in one long convulsive gulp. She watched his Adam's apple bob up and down in his throat as he swallowed – so fast, like he was dying of thirst or something.

He wiped his hand across his mouth, put the glass down, and turned to look at her. Then he belched loudly, breathing fiery fumes in her face.

"Now that's what I call Fire Water," he said.

"Eww!" She wrinkled her nose in disgust while he reached for the other glass. That one was emptied as quickly as the first and then he was demanding a refill.

Around them, the crowd had never really dissipated. Instead, the assembled demons stood in threatening groups, quiet for the most part, staring at them with open hostility – or rather, staring at Spike. No one was taking any notice of her, Buffy realised, almost as if she wasn't there at all, which was kind of insulting.

Meanwhile, Spike was on his third glass and his second cigarette, and he was busy ignoring her too.

She frowned. She was getting mad now. How dare he treat her this way? It occurred to her too that he hadn't even asked about the others – Dawn and Xander, Giles and Willow and the new Slayers. Didn't he care at all?

Thinking of the others reminded her of Anya. He'd had sex with Anya once, for crying out loud, and now it seemed he didn't care to know whether she was dead or alive. What was his problem?

She watched as he downed a fourth glass of the nameless brown liquid, her anger simmering. If he was going to be this way, what was the point of prolonging the agony?

"Spike –" She put a hand on his arm to attract his attention, but the face he turned on her was so closed-off, so devoid of hope, that she drew in a sharp breath. Abruptly, she realised he was doing the big Could Care Less act on purpose to drive her away. God, even in Hell, he was so transparent!

She seized his hand as it reached out for a fifth glass.

"Enough of this. We're going."

He looked at her, eyes sickly bright in a face gone brittle as broken glass. But as he opened his mouth to retort, they were rudely interrupted.

"Not leaving already are you, vampire?" It was a particularly huge, particularly huge-horned demon at the front of the crowd. "Didn't think you were whipped as well as yellow."

"What the f-" The word died on Buffy's lips as Spike's expression changed in an instant. Suddenly, he was grinning a feral grin. Then he was in vamp face and pushing her out of the way as he bellied up to the demon, who towered over him by a good head and shoulders.

"Not whipped," he sneered, "and not yellow. Just waiting for you gents to stop wetting your knickers at the very sight of me and get down to bloody business."

Then he leapt for the huge demon's throat.

This seemed to be the signal for a general melee, as if some invisible film director had suddenly yelled, Action! Buffy staggered back against the bar and then jumped over it to safety as fists bigger than her head traded blows with each other.

She tried to keep Spike in sight. It shouldn't have been hard, what with the white hair and the swirling black duster, but everyone except her was taller than him and twice as wide, and soon he was lost to view.

"Spike!" She shouted his name as loud as she could but there was no way he could hear her above the uproar.

"Forget that loser," a voice said right next to her ear. "You want a real man, baby? I'm standing right here."

"What?" She turned to stare incredulously at the bar-demon, who was leaning on the counter way too close to her, surveying the fight with open enjoyment. When he saw her looking, he actually winked at her.

"He'll never amount to nothing." The demon tilted its head in the general direction of the fight. "Great dark warrior, my ass. He's just a damned soul here, same as all the others – always picking fights he knows he can't win. Me now –" and it winked again –" stick with me and I can hook you up to the good stuff, none of this crap." And it waved a hand at the empty glasses." Know what I'm saying?"

"Actually," Buffy closed her hand into a fist, "I think I do."

Her right jab caught the bar-demon on the point of the chin, and though its face felt like rock and for a moment she thought she'd broken her fingers, it went down at once, not gradually with a sagging of the knees and a groan, but sideways like a tree toppling in the forest. The ground shook as it hit the floor.

Buffy kicked it in the head just to be on the safe side but it looked like a kayo in the very first round. Pleased, she licked her sore knuckles and turned back to the fight.

While she'd been distracted, something about it had changed. The lesser brawls had petered out and stopped. The assembled demons were gathered round one spot, yelling encouragement while one of their number grunted with effort followed by the sound of a horrible squelching impact.

Spike! Buffy was over the bar and into the midst of them before she'd even processed what she was seeing.

"Out of my way!" There were no thoughts of apologies now. One demon went down to another punch, which gave her room to deliver a roundhouse kick to the jaw of yet another, then another, and in spite of their size, they went over like ninepins.

Now they were giving way before her and she was out in an open space, empty except for herself, the huge horned guy who'd started all the trouble – and Spike, who lay curled in a foetal position on the floor, arms over his head, trying to protect himself from the rain of kicks and blows.

She was shaking with fury as she faced the last demon.

"Step away from him – now!"

For a moment, the demon peered at her as if it couldn't quite make out who was speaking to it, which was weird since she was standing in plain sight. Then, it seemed to get her in focus. Then, its huge knobbly face split apart in a gap-toothed grin.

"Who're you, little girl? Some kind of vamp groupie? Take my advice and leave now. This ain't your fight. This is Management business."

It turned back to where Spike was trying to push himself to his feet. Buffy couldn't see his face but the floor where his cheek had rested was dark with blood.

"Had enough yet, bloodsucker?" The demon's foot went back all ready to deliver another bone-shattering kick.

"Excuse me." Buffy tapped it on the shoulder, which was quite a stretch. "That vamp-groupie thing? Kind of debatable – unlike this."

It had lumbered round while she was speaking so she punched it straight in what she hoped was the demon equivalent of the solar plexus.

"Oww!" Her hand really hurt this time. She shook her fingers hard while the demon doubled over, gasping. Fortunately, this brought its chin in contact with her knee and then, when she'd danced back a pace, the side of her foot straight to the jaw.

This demon didn't go down quite as easily as the others so she followed up her initial blows with a flurry of well-placed kicks, knocking it sprawling onto the floor. She was good and mad now and it took all her self-restraint not to do a Faith and just go on kicking and punching – with maybe the odd gouge for variety – until the demon was unrecognisable.

"Slayer –"Spike had put a hand on her arm. She didn't look at him – couldn't make herself, she was so angry with him. Instead, she took his hand firmly in hers, ignoring the sticky dampness on the palm, and addressed the assembled demons, who were gathered around them in a ring, like the crowd at a boxing match.

"We're leaving. Any of you want to take on a pissed off Vampire Slayer, you're welcome to give it your best shot."

But it didn't seem as if anyone did. They shrank back before her as she moved towards the door, none of them meeting her eyes. If they hadn't really noticed her before, now it seemed they couldn't bear to.

Outside, it was raining again – sheeting down in filthy torrents that swirled trash into the gutters and blocked them. As Buffy and Spike emerged onto the street, a car went by, spraying them with water.

It felt like the last straw. Buffy closed her eyes. She took a couple of deep breaths. Then she turned and glared at Spike ready to let him have both barrels. This was all his fault.

But her angry words died on her lips when she saw his face, which was contorted and bleeding, its beauty in ruins. One cheekbone looked to be smashed, and his nose, while one eye was sealed shut under a huge purpling bruise. He was almost unrecognisable – except that she'd seen him look this way before once.

She put her hand to her mouth. "Oh God!"

At that moment, he swayed on his feet and nearly fell and she moved instinctively to support him, though there was nothing much there to support. He felt almost insubstantial. Before she'd even thought about what she was doing – about what he might think of being treated this way – his manly dignity – she'd swung him into her arms and was heading back towards the cemetery at a fast jog.

She couldn't say she was glad to be back in the crypt but it did feel like a haven of sorts after the perils of the outside. The sound of the iron bar clanging into place was oddly comforting.

Spike lay on the bed where she'd put him, sprawled on his back with his muddy boots dirtying the comforter. His limbs looked all spiky and odd, as if things were broken underneath the surface.

"Spike- can you hear me?" She could hardly bear to look at his terrible face as she pulled his boots off. He looked even less human now than he did in vamp face.

He didn't respond to her words, though his chest continued to rise and fall as he breathed shallowly. His body was limp beneath her fingers as she stripped him. Under his clothes, he was a mass of bruises, blood pooling in his elbows and behind his knees. She could see broken ribs. If he'd been human – if he weren't in Hell – this would have killed him.

She was still angry with him but abruptly tears filled her eyes again. How had he come to this? Was it something to do with her? Had she conditioned him somehow to need the pain? Suddenly, it seemed only too likely.

Her face was wet. She ran the back of her hand over her eyes but they just filled up again – and the mark was little more than an outline now.

"Spike – please!" she tried again. He had to listen to her before it was too late.

But there was no response. He was deep inside somewhere, healing. Had she even told him about the mark, she wondered – and if she had, was he deliberately stalling her -hoping she'd give up and leave him? After all, he'd walked through that door, hadn't he – abandoned hope? She hadn't managed to give it back to him yet.

"I need more time," she said aloud, but the dank air seemed to smother her words, stuffing them back into her mouth so that she felt choked on them. She was cold now too and beginning to shiver uncontrollably.

"Slayer?" It was the merest thread of sound – his voice, as if heard from a million miles away. "Buffy – you there?"

"I'm here." She began to strip off her wet clothes. Then she got into bed with him and pulled the comforter over them both.

"Love – you're freezing." An arm enveloped her, drawing her close, and she allowed herself to rest against him, feeling his lips on her hair like a blessing.

When she woke, it was to a wild feeling of panic, though she couldn't for a moment remember what she was afraid of. When she did remember, she couldn't make herself look at the mark.

Instead, she lay, clenching and unclenching her fist. Hadn't the check-in demon said that when the mark faded completely she'd find herself back in the waiting room? Well – in that case, it couldn't be gone yet, could it? This wasn't over. She was certain now too that she hadn't told Spike about the time limit. Maybe when he heard about it, he'd be more amenable?

Even as she thought it, she didn't believe it – and where was Spike anyway? He wasn't lying beside her.

She sat up, becoming aware as she did so of the sound of the TV. "Please don't!" someone begged – those words again - and then there was screaming.

He was sitting in the armchair staring blankly at the screen, his face a white mask of misery. He wore his jeans, which were still damp and muddy at the bottom, but his torso was bare and covered in a rainbow array of bruises. He did look better, though – or at least, both eyes were open. It seemed that even in Hell, vamp healing still worked wonders.

She wrapped the comforter around herself and stole across the floor towards him. He flinched a little when she reached out and touched his cheek but he didn't pull away from her like he had done last time.

She refused to look at the TV screen. It was there to distract her, she was sure, as much as it was to remind him of his sins- to make her lose faith in him and abandon him. Instead, she caressed his face gently.

"Dummy! What was that all about? Getting yourself beaten up – so not the way to impress me."

He leaned into her touch as if he craved it, but his eyes remained on the flickering screen.

"Wasn't trying to impress you – s' just you drive a man to drink, that's all."

"You didn't go to that bar to drink," she said, patiently. "You told me yourself, if you want something here you can never find it. No – you wanted to get yourself beaten up and they obliged you because this is Hell and they thrive on your despair. Why did you do it, Spike? Did you think it'd disgust me – make me stop loving you? Because it hasn't."

"Don't say that." He spoke through gritted teeth. "I know you don't bloody mean it."

"You don't know anything." Her patience with him – the tenderness she'd felt – was dissipating rapidly. "You're not thinking straight – like usual."

Now he spared her a sidelong glance and wonder of wonders, he almost smiled.

"Maybe," he conceded. "Anyway, you were bloody magnificent as always. Tossers couldn't stand up to you, armed with all that Slayer righteousness."

She perched herself on the arm of the chair, blocking his view of the screen, and now he had to look at her. He hadn't buttoned his fly, she noticed. She could see the soft, pale curve of his cock nestling amongst dark-gold curls at the base of his flat belly.

"They didn't even seem to notice me at first. Why was that?" She was still stroking his cheek and he was still leaning into it, like a stray cat that wanted petting. She had a sudden absurd desire to tickle him under his chin – to rub her thumb up and down his throat until he started purring. Did vampires even purr? She'd always thought they must. After all, they roared like lions sometimes and lions were just giant kitty-cats, weren't they?

He'd closed his eyes. "They didn't notice you because they didn't expect to see someone like you there. You weren't theirs to torment. You're not one of the damned, Slayer. You shouldn't even be here."

"Well, I won't be for much longer." The words were out before she could stop them, and now she couldn't help looking at her hand again. The mark was so faint she could barely see it – just a silvery outline on the skin, like fish-scales, when she tipped her hand into the light.

"Seen sense, have you?" He didn't even open his eyes. "After all, I'm not one of the righteous, Buffy. Those demons in the bar had no trouble seeing me, did they?"

He looked almost smug as he said it, and his tone was so I Told You So, it was just – oh, infuriating. She shook him a little and at last he opened his eyes.

"Just who the hell are you?" she said, crossly. "Because I'm beginning to wonder if I'm the one being made a fool of here. Are you really Spike, because you sure don't sound like him."

He blinked in surprise, on the back-foot suddenly. Then he'd gotten that stubborn look on his face again.

"What're you on about, Slayer? 'Course I'm Spike. Who else would I be?"

"See – that's the question, isn't it?" She grabbed his hand as it reached for the open pack of cigarettes on the side table, holding it tight in hers. "The Spike I remember would never give up like this. He fought – every day of his life he fought – and okay, he fought mostly for evil, but that'd all changed before he - he died."

"Bollocks!" he started to say, but she put her finger to his lips.

"I know you think I'm just a naïve little girl, Spike, but I'm not. I do know you were a bad, bad man. I know that when you died in the Hellmouth you'd only just stepped onto the path of righteousness or whatever you wanna call it. But the thing is – you did step on it, of your own free will, and that's why this abandon hope stuff is all just bullshit. You really and truly don't belong here."

She waved her hand in front of his face, showing him how the mark had faded. "That check-in demon guy told me I had until this mark was gone completely to persuade you to come with me. Now – are you coming or not?"

There was a long silence, punctuated by the intrusive sounds of the TV with its daily show of horrors. She watched his white face, his Adam's apple bobbing in his throat. He bit his lip and she felt a surge of hope.

Then he said, "No."

Although after all that had happened, she’d been half-expecting it, her reaction still surprised her. Was this what despair felt like? She ought to remember, oughtn’t she? After all, she’d felt it enough times that year when Willow had brought her back from the dead.

She knew she should get good and mad – punch him in the nose, maybe – try to make him fight back. But suddenly she couldn’t. She just knew that she loved him, that she needed him more than she'd ever needed anyone, and he wasn’t coming and she didn't want to leave without him.

He was staring at her. He looked – kind of curious, like he was waiting to see how she’d react to his refusal. Maybe he expected her to give up on him finally– storm out of here? What would it take to convince him that would never happen?

"Okay then," she said. "I’m staying too."

He gaped at her then pursed his lips and frowned.

She felt weird now the words were out – she’d never intended to say them. But they were said now and she'd have to stick by them. So what if the mark faded, she told herself, and she ended up back in the waiting room? She’d just march on through that door again – and again, until he stopped being such a dummy.

Suddenly, he laughed – the full-on Spike dirty snigger that reminded her of too many moments stolen from her life – stolen from Dawn – getting groiny with the nasty vampire in back alleys and crypts when she was supposed to be patrolling. And he had been nasty sometimes, when she’d wanted him to be – whispered filthy things into her ears, done stuff to her she’d never even heard of. But then she’d been nasty too.

When the laughter just went on and on though, and the mocking note in it became harder to ignore, she began to lose patience again. She got up from the arm of the chair, putting distance between them, wrapped her arms round herself over the comforter and scowled at him.

"What? What’s so funny?"

At first, he couldn’t answer her. Instead, he wiped tears of laughter from his eyes and shook his head weakly. Then, as suddenly as he’d started, he stopped – like he was a TV program and someone had switched him off.

"You’re good," he said. "I’ll give you that – but not good enough."

As usual, he wasn’t making sense. "Huh? What do you mean?"

He reached out for the pack of cigarettes again, stuck one in his mouth and lit it. His eyes narrowed as he inhaled and now he looked angry.

"I mean that if I bloody want my intelligence insulted I’ll go and talk to Angel. He’s had more practice."

"I don’t understand!" Her voice came out a wail, which made her want to claw the words back and not have said them, and made him roll his eyes.

"Had me believing you, didn’t you?" he sneered. "Thought you had to be the genuine article after all – driving those demons off in the bar – beautiful you were, like an avenging angel. Pity it was all a sham."

"But it’s not!" Suddenly she felt at her wit’s end. "Why would you think that?"

He breathed smoke in her direction. "If you can’t see why – just proves my bloody point."

Then he looked away from her and back at the TV screen, where a Spike she didn’t recognise, with old-fashioned clothes and black shiny hair, like someone had poured a bottle of ink over his scalp, was busy strangling some girl wearing a cute little shell-shaped hat with the girl's own pearl necklace.

Suddenly – awfully – it seemed there was no more to be said. Nothing was working and maybe this being Hell, it never would. Maybe the check-in demon had known she was doomed to failure and played a cruel trick on her by allowing her to even try?

Buffy thought of the long lines of people at City Hall thinking they were going to be transferred out of here– of Pantsuit Lady with her blood-stained jacket hurrying to the dry-cleaners. What were those things if not cruel tricks played over and over on people who deep down must know there was no escape. Ever.

"Spike –" she tried one more time, but he ignored her, eyes on the TV screen. She saw the fragile skin around his eyes tighten as he watched. The girl with the pearl necklace was purple in the face now, gasping like a beached fish.

Maybe, by accepting his fate – by putting on the duster every day - he was just being a realist – not letting the bastards win?

She wandered away across the crypt, ignoring the slimy feel of the bare stone under her feet. She’d been stupid to say what she’d said about staying with him, she knew that now - because she couldn’t stay. She never could have. It was impossible when so many people were relying on her and he must know that. Maybe he’d heard the lie in her voice?

She remembered his words to her when she’d come back from the dead, about how every night he saved her in his dreams to try and make up for not saving her on Glory’s tower. Was that how she’d feel about him now - for the rest of her life?

Her chest ached. In fact, everything ached. She unwound the comforter and put it back on the bed. Then she wrestled herself back into her wet clothes and sodden sneakers, trying not to look at her hand as she did so. She didn’t want to see when the mark disappeared.

The very thought made her want to scream – to run to him -shake him and shake him until he saw sense.

"Why is it so different this time?" She hadn’t meant to say anything but she couldn’t help herself.

"Why is what different?" His voice was dull – uninterested; like he’d already dismissed her from his mind. He was looking at her, but only because the TV had suddenly gone dark. It seemed the horror show was over for today.

"I mean, I’ve saved you from Hell before remember? From the cave where the First Evil had you chained up. You believed in me then. Why won’t you now?"

He stubbed out his cigarette in the overflowing ashtray. "Told you – if you can’t understand why, you’re just proving my point."

His voice took on a yearning note. "In any case, even if I had believed you, what difference would it make? Our moment – hers and mine - it passed. S’gone."

She wasn’t sure why that was the cue for her patience to snap again, finally and completely. She almost thought she heard it this time - that same elastic band stressed beyond endurance. Suddenly, she was so furious the blood was pounding in her head and her vision had gone all blurry at the edges.

She marched towards him, and whatever was in her face must have been scary because suddenly he looked daunted. He even shrank back into his chair.

"What’s twisted your knickers?" he blustered, as she leant over him, but he didn’t fool her. At last, he was scared of the Slayer – as well he should be.

"Asshole!" A fleck of spittle struck his cheek and she wasn’t even embarrassed about it. He deserved to get himself spat on. "Do you have any idea what I went through after you died? Do you?"

He opened his mouth to speak but she shook her head once and his mouth shut with a snap. He swallowed.

"Of course you don’t ‘cos you’ve been hiding in this hellhole – literal hellhole – being all mopey and stuff - poor little vampire, big bad world wouldn’t cut him a break even after he died for it."

"Hey!" he began. "That’s not f-" but she interrupted him. "I’m not done talking."

She had a full head of steam now and there was no way he was getting a word in until she was finished.

"I tell you I love you, you say, no I don’t – that I still love Angel. Well, you know what, Spike – I do love him, and what’s more I always will – ah-ah! –" this to him as he tried to get up –"but I’m not in love with him. I’m in love with you, you selfish, insufferable – rude –"Just for a moment, words failed her.

His eyes were fixed on her face now, as if he couldn’t look away, but she grabbed his chin and held it just in case.

"I come all the way to Hell to rescue you – to take you back with me – and what? Is that not good enough for you? Maybe you’re still thinking I would’ve done the same for other people – for Dawn? For Angel? Well, you’re right. I’d have gone to Hell in a heartbeat for him if I’d known how. In fact, I’d still do it – but that doesn’t change the fact that I came here for you."

"Take it easy, love. You’re hurting me," he almost whimpered. She gentled her grip but only by a little.

"You had no right to walk through that door – abandon hope! How could you? How could you be so – so – " Her vision was a lot blurrier suddenly and she realised she was crying – which was exasperating because she hadn’t meant to.

Abruptly, she let him go and backed off. "You don’t believe you deserve to be saved so I can’t be the real Buffy – fine. I don’t know what else I have to do to make you see sense – but anyway, I’m sorry."

"For what?" He was staring at her, like a drowning man trying to keep his head above the waves.

"I shouldn’t have said I’d stay with you no matter what, because I can’t. People are relying on me, Spike – people you haven’t even asked about – Xander and Willow, Giles – Dawn. They need me, and so do the new Slayers. I have work to do and I’m gonna go do it."

She couldn’t look at him any more – couldn’t let her last sight of him be the white, tormented face of a man who’d let himself be defeated.

She turned her back on him. "You know what? I’m not gonna remember you this way. Instead I'll remember the man who held me in his arms and gave me the strength to face down the First Evil. That’s the man I love, and you aren’t him."

Mind made up, she lifted the iron bar on the door and flung it aside. The door yielded to a hard push, letting foggy night air into the crypt – and then two things happened.

In front of her, Marvin jumped out of the way as the door swung open and then, without missing a beat, he held out a pudgy hand towards her, smiling. "Hey, great to see you again, Buffy. You don’t mind me calling you Buffy, do you?"

And behind her, Spike said, "Hold your horses, Slayer. I’m coming with you."

"What?" She stared at Marvin's hand like it was a loaded gun about to go off.

Marvin was still smiling. "I beg your pardon?" he said.

"I said, I'm coming with you. You going deaf or something?" Spike's voice sounded completely different suddenly – breezy, confident, even a touch smug at her expense.

She whirled round on him, to find him busy buttoning up his fly and pulling on his t-shirt. By the time she could think of anything to say, he had his boots and duster on and was stowing his pack of cigarettes and lighter in one pocket. When he saw her staring, he gave her the patented Spike head-tilt.

"What?" he said, innocently.

"Excuse me." Marvin tapped her on the shoulder. "You have a lovely home here but even the best home can be improved. Have you ever considered double-glazing?"

"Huh?" His words didn't seem to make any sense. In fact, suddenly nothing did. When he shoved a glossy brochure into her hands she took it without thinking – even opened it and began to leaf through it, staring unseeingly at the pictures of happy WASP families showing off their new PVC windows.

Then she frowned and shook her head.

"What do I want this for?" She thrust the brochure back at Marvin, forcing him to take it. "What are you doing here anyway?"

Marvin beamed at her. "Starting over. Well – when I say starting over, I'm still a salesman but home improvements are a change from life insurance."

For a moment, his smile faltered but then it was back, bigger and brighter than ever. "And when we start over, better to start from somewhere familiar, right?"

"Who is this twat?" Spike was standing right next to her now. He looked Marvin up and down, his expression showing all too clearly how unimpressed he was.

"Is this your friend?" Marvin's smile never faltered for a moment. "Guess you found him after all."

"Yes." Still feeling weirdly detached, like none of this was real, she turned in Spike's direction and then, before she could stop herself, her hand had balled into a fist and connected with his jaw.

"Bloody hell!" He hadn't been expecting it and, at the impact, he went staggering backwards to bounce off the crypt wall. Then he landed on his ass at her feet with a satisfying thump.

"Oww!" He looked up at her, rubbing his jaw ruefully. "Still sling a mean right hook, Slayer."

"Buffy." Her eyes were smarting again. "That's Buffy to you."

Marvin's smile had disappeared somewhere around the time her punch landed. He was clutching the brochure to his chest protectively. "If this is a bad time –" he began, but she interrupted him.

"Not at all." She reached out a hand out towards Spike. "We were just going."

Spike took her hand warily and allowed her to pull him up. A new bruise was blooming on his jawline but the sight of it didn't make her feel sorry at all.

"That was a mean trick to pull," she groused at him, while Marvin looked from one to the other of them in bewilderment, "keeping me waiting till the last minute like that."

The smug look was gone from Spike's face. He reached out a finger and touched her cheek, as if he still couldn’t quite believe she was real. "No trick. I honestly didn't believe it was you until a few minutes ago."

"I don't understand. Why now? Why not before?" Her voice had that wailing note in it again. His lips tightened. Then he pulled her into his arms and held her, as if he never meant to let her go. She felt his lips on her hair.

"God, Buffy! I'm so sorry!"

For a moment, she allowed it, but then she set a hand to his chest and pushed him back. She wanted to see his face while he tried to explain himself.

He was staring at her, his eyes full of – she didn't know what. Hope, maybe?

"You love me." There was a touch of awe in his voice. "You really do love me."

It wasn't a question but she still had to answer it. "Yes, I do – but that doesn't mean you're not a total jerk. Why wouldn't you believe me till now?"

His jaw worked. "Because – because this is Hell. There's no hope here. You could've said you loved me till you were blue in the face and I wouldn't have believed you, 'cos I couldn't believe it really was you. Thought you were some trick, even though you smelt right. Wouldn't be the first."

"Oh?" She'd have to find out what he meant later. Now, there was no time. Suddenly, her weird detachment was gone and that awful sense of time running out took over again. They had to get back to the door before it was too late.

Grabbing his hand in hers, she dragged him after her, out the crypt door and into the gloom of the cemetery, which seemed gloomier than ever somehow. Plus, there was a wind rising – a strong one, that seemed to be doing its best to push them backwards. And it was raining again.

She gritted her teeth and put her head down, battling into the rising gale, Spike behind her. Dimly, she was aware of Marvin behind both of them.

"Wait up!" Marvin called. "I have all these great offers to tell you about. And how about this door, huh? Don't you think it'd look so much more welcoming with a nice, glassed-in front porch?"

Buffy ignored him.

The hissing of rain as it struck the bare ground was almost as loud as the wind. She was completely soaked in seconds. Glancing back over her shoulder at Spike, she saw him clutching his ribs tightly as he struggled to keep up with her. He must still be hurting from the fight in the bar, but there wasn't time to spare him. The mark could be gone any moment and they had a long way to go. She began to run but his hand in hers dragged her back. She could hear his laboured breathing.

In spite of that, she had to know. "What swung it, then?" she shouted to him, above the noise of the wind. "How come you realise it's me now?"

"Because you turned your back on me –" he shouted back. "Because - oh sod it, because you were ready to do your duty and leave me."

"But –" This was crazy. She slowed down a little to let him catch up, but before she could say any more, it was his turn to put a wet finger to her lips and shush her.

"Learned my lesson well in the school basement in Sunnydale, love. My Buffy – the real Buffy – she doesn't turn her back on her duty for anyone. Not for Angel – put a sword through his heart to save the world, didn't she? – and not for me. And I wouldn't have you any other way."

"You are impossible!" She didn't know what else to say. It was bizarre – that he didn't believe she loved him until she was ready to leave him to his horrible fate. It was all backwards.

"I know," he said smugly, while rain sluiced down his pale face. "But that's why you love me, yeah?"

For two cents she would've punched him again then, and maybe he sensed it, because he ducked his head and looked contrite.


"Oh you will be." In fact, she thought, as they hurried on, when she'd gotten him home, she was going to put him over her knee and tan that lilywhite ass of his until it glowed. No need to tell him that, though – or at least, not until he was all tied up and at her mercy.

If they made it to the door in time. She didn't dare look at the mark again. Maybe, as long as she didn't look at it, it would still be there.

They came out of the cemetery gate and onto Main Street, where the tawdry stores were all shuttered up for the night. As they battled their way along the deserted sidewalk, rain lashed at their faces, vicious as stinging insects, and the branches of the stunted trees thrashed wildly in the wind.

Marvin was still with them, Buffy noted. He was lagging badly now but still smiling away and waving his brochure. It seemed he hadn't given up hope of making that sale just yet.

In the meantime, the events of the past day or so – if you could call them days – were beginning to fit together, like a bizarre sort of puzzle, inside her head.

"So did you ever think it was me before now?" she asked, as they squelched through puddles like miniature lakes, which the wind blew all into ripples. "Ever at all?"

His hand tightened on hers. "On and off. Wanted to believe it so much when we fucked - then thought no, the real Buffy'd never do that with me again after – what happened. Only some demon screwing with my head – trying to make me believe all was forgiven."

For a moment, she was tempted to stop. It seemed important to look him in the face when she said what she had to say, but there was no time, so she carried on half-walking, half-jogging, towing him along behind her.

Instead, she said, "But it was forgiven, Spike – maybe not right away, but the moment I knew you'd gotten your soul back."

His voice was full of pain. "Don't –" he began, but she squeezed his hand in turn.

"It's okay. We can talk about it, you know. In fact, maybe we should – clear the air? I'm not – I'm not traumatised or anything. I'm a super-powered Slayer, not a helpless victim."

"Maybe one day," he conceded, the wind whipping his words away even as he spoke them. "Dunno what good talking about it'll do, though."

She decided not to argue the point – not now anyway. Maybe there were therapists that treated vampires. If so, she was getting him to a shrink stat.

At last, they rounded the corner into the side street where the exit stood, and there was the warehouse in the distance, through the sheeting rain. Suddenly, the wind was buffeting at them harder than ever, trying to keep them back from their goal– which couldn't be a coincidence. They had to lean into the blast to make any progress at all.

They managed about fifty yards, Spike lagging more and more until both their arms were at full-stretch, connected only by the tips of their fingers. Then he said, "Wait, love – can’t go any further. Chest hurts. I need a rest."

He planted his back to the nearest wall and braced himself with his legs apart, panting like a marathon runner who’d reached his physical limit. Then, in spite of her protests, he tugged on her arm and reeled her in tight against his body.

"No time –" she began. She glanced frantically down at her hand, but he covered it with his own so she couldn't see if the mark was still there or not. He brushed a strand of hair off her face and then set up a gentle stroking motion. In the end, she leaned against him, while Marvin stood some distance off, hands on knees, trying to get his breath back.

The guy was persistent, she had to give him that.

"I didn't believe it was you after we had sex." Spike's eyes were on hers all the time. His breath wheezed in his throat. "Wanted you to bugger off but didn't want you to, if you see what I mean, hence the trip to the bar – the fight – wanted you to see the worst of me."

"And you almost believed it was me again after that, didn't you?" They shouldn’t be standing here like this. She ought to be hurrying him across the street to where the door – the way out of here – could be dimly seen through the blowing curtains of rain.

But it was nice here, held in the shelter of his arms. She rested her head on his shoulder and listened to his voice purring in his chest as he answered her.

"Like I said, the way you threw those demons around, you seemed like the real Buffy, all righteous and golden. But then –"

"Then?" She gazed up at his face. He looked like a drowned rat now too. In fact, they probably both did.

"You said you'd stay here with me – and Buffy would never do that. See, that's something else I learned in the school basement. When you were telling me what I wanted to hear, it was never you. It was the First."

"Spike –" Her chest hurt too now, though not for the same reason. He reached out and brushed moisture from her eyelashes, tears or rain or both.

"Don't even think of apologising, love. You were in the right then and you were in the right now. No one's worth turning your back on what you are for. Think Angel knew that too all those years ago, if it helps."

She hadn't been thinking about Angel but in spite of that, she felt lighter suddenly – as if a burden of guilt she hadn't known she was carrying had just been lifted. Still, she had to be certain.

"Spike – it's great that you're so understanding and all, but you do believe I love you now? You're not just saying that?" Somehow, whether they made it to the door in time or not seemed to depend wholly on his answer.

His eyes were steady on her face. "I believe it. After all, you came all the way to Hell for me, didn't you? And like you said, the fact that you'd do it for other people too – even the old man - doesn't change that you did it for me."

This felt like her cue to kiss him so she took it, leaning up on tiptoe to set her lips to his. He held her tight – then tighter still, and a familiar sort of ripple seemed to go through him. His breath was loud in her ear.

"Wanna fuck you," he hissed. "God, Buffy, you smell so – wish we were still in the crypt. Wanna throw you down on that bed right now and fuck you senseless."

And just like that she was wet between the legs again and her heart was racing. For a wild moment she even wondered if there was time to go back before the mark faded. But then the sound of hands clapping brought her back to reality.

"That was beautiful!" Marvin's voice broke. When they turned to look at him, he was wiping his eyes with his pocket handkerchief. The soggy remains of the brochure lay on the sidewalk at his feet.

Buffy pushed away from Spike but she kept hold of his hand. They were going to make it. Suddenly, she was sure of it, and just as suddenly, the wind dropped, as if an unseen person had turned off a wind machine, and then the rain stopped.

She glanced up at the sky and frowned, not trusting the seeming reprieve. Then she set off towards the warehouse. The road was more like a stream now and her sneakers made a horrible squelching noise with every step. Spike followed her, still holding onto her hand, and Marvin brought up the rear.

"What are you doing here?" she asked Marvin, because she was still curious, especially in face of his incurable optimism, which seemed all wrong in this place. "What made you go through the door?"

Marvin stuffed his sodden handkerchief back into his pocket.

"I'm glad you asked me that, Buffy – do you mind if I call you Buffy? You never said."

"No," she said, at the same time as Spike growled, "Yes, she bloody does mind."

He was scowling at Marvin. She tugged on his hand.


Marvin didn't seem to have taken offence, though.

"After you went through the door," Marvin said, indicating it with his head, "Skep said maybe I should think about following you."


"The guy with the horns behind the desk?" Marvin was beaming again, in spite of being soaked to the skin. "Nice guy – not that scary when you get to know him."

Then suddenly he'd gotten a critical expression on his face. "Do they have mains drainage in this town? It smells kind of funny after all that rain."

"Stick to the bloody point, can't you?" Spike was still half-growling at Marvin, but then he did seem to have taken a particular dislike to double-glazing salesmen while he'd been in Hell, for some reason – which was another story for later. Buffy tugged on his hand again and shook her head at him.

However, Marvin seemed unconcerned by Spike's rudeness.

"Anyway, Skep told me that mistakes happen all the time around here – something to do with the change in ownership. He said he's sure that once the new owners really get a feel for things, it'll be better – more cost-efficient – more profitable for the shareholders."

"The new owners being Wolfram and Hart," Spike muttered. "Which reminds me – what you said about Angel, love – the old man and me'll be exchanging words on that subject sharpish, I can tell you."

That is, she thought, if you’re allowed to come back home with me. Of course, that might not happen but she wasn't going to tell him so because she didn't want to think about it. She just wanted to get him through that door while there was still time.

They’d reached the other side of the street and the door was almost within reach. A moment later, she had her hand on the handle.

She tugged on it hard. It wouldn't give. She frowned and tugged again.

"I think it's kind of a one way deal," Marvin said, helpfully. "I tried to go back myself when I first came through, but no luck. It just won't open from this side."

"This is Hell, you twat," Spike snarled at him. "'Course it's a one way deal. You're the damned. You don't get to change your mind about being here just because you don't sodding well like it."

Buffy shook the door handle harder and harder. It still wouldn't move. This couldn't be happening – not now, when she'd so nearly gotten him back.

Marvin gave Spike a superior look.

"There's no need to get personal. Anyway, I'm not planning on staying. Skep told me there'd clearly been a mistake in my case and that if I'm only patient, it'll all be cleared up. Look."

He fished in his pocket and brought out a damp slip of paper with a familiar symbol stamped on it. "He said if I take this down to City Hall, they'll sort it out in no time."

"Sound familiar?" Spike raised a cynical eyebrow, while Buffy went on tugging at the door handle.

It did sound familiar, but it sounded sort of wrong too. She was so rattled by the door's refusal to open that at first, she couldn't quite put her finger on why, but then it struck her. Abandon hope all ye who enter here. Could Marvin really be said to have abandoned hope if he expected to get out of here? No, it was more like he'd been tricked through the door under false pretences.

Suddenly, Buffy felt almost sorry for the guy, even though he was a total asshole.

Not that any of that mattered right now. She had to get the door open. She set her shoulder to it and brought her full Slayer strength to bear but still no luck. It wouldn't budge. It was unbudgeable.

"Spike – help me!"

She was becoming more and more frantic but from the look on his face, he didn't seem to share her anxiety. Instead, he seemed almost peaceful, like he'd suddenly gone all zen on her.

"Doesn't matter, love," he said, gently. "All that matters is that you tried."

"Spike –"But whatever words she might have said got lost somehow – jumbled around and around as Marvin and the grey, drowned-looking street melted away to resolve themselves into the familiar waiting room.

The room was still packed – every seat taken. And there was Skep behind his desk with his glasses slipping down his nose as usual, and from the darkness beyond the rows of shelving behind him, the noise of the typewriter kept up its incessant bad-tempered clatter.

Buffy swayed on her feet, only to feel a strong hand supporting her elbow.

"Steady, love. I got you."

He was here. Spike was with her. She turned to look at him. He was grinning – maybe even smirking - and the dull patina of hopelessness that had overlaid his whole being was gone completely. She'd done it. She'd saved him.

Skep's eyes went from her to Spike and back. Then he said, "See you had to rough him up a little to get him to come with. Those are some bruises, feller."

Buffy took Spike’s hand in hers again and marched over to the desk to confront Skep at close-quarters. Behind them, the long lines of people were all whispering to each other in voices touched with awe.

She planted her elbows on the counter and glared. "I thought when you said I had to get him back here, you meant I had to get him back through the door, not that we'd both end up here anyway when the mark faded."

She could feel herself beginning to steam – literally - in the airless heat of the room.

"Instead, we go running through the streets, get soaking wet yet again, and I nearly end up with a heart attack. Why can't you explain things properly?"

Skep gave her a look of injured innocence that wasn't fooling anyone. "I explained the deal to the best of my ability. The legalese is kind of complicated, I guess, but is it my fault if you misunderstood me?"

"Well – yeah." Had he just called her stupid? She glared harder at him. How long was it since she'd slain anything? "You're kind of a jerk, aren't you, even for a demon."

There was more whispering from the crowd behind them. Someone at the back yelled, "All ri-ight!" and there might even have been some air-punching.

Skep’s gaze swung round in that direction. He glared too and the room fell silent again except for the endless background noise of the typewriter. Nothing seemed to stop that.

"So," she said, elbows still on the counter, while Spike leaned against it next to her, body half-turned towards the room.

He was lighting a cigarette, hands cupping the lighter flame as if to protect it from a non-existent wind. In spite of being wet through, he looked cool and dangerous, like a panther poised to spring. She realised he was showing off to the crowd and the knowledge made her glad. That was more like it. That was more like him.

"So –" Skep echoed her, sarcastically. "What can I do for you now?"

She drummed her fingers on the counter-top. He hadn’t done much for her so far.

"So – I’ve persuaded him he doesn’t belong in Hell. Now I’d like to take him home with me. You okay with that or are we gonna fight about it?"

Skep pursed his lips. Smoke erupted from his nostrils in disapproving clouds

"Tricky," he said.

"Oh?" She might have known it wouldn’t be that simple. "Tricky how? Did you send for that paperwork or not?" Beside her, Spike still lounged, louche and hipshot, but she could tell he was listening hard.

"Paperwork?" Skep looked puzzled for a moment, but then his face cleared. "Oh sure, the paperwork’s back there in the office. Tamika!" He shouted the name so loudly it made Buffy jump again, especially as, just as before, he kept looking at her the whole time, like he was shouting at her.

There was an almost-silence punctuated by the furious sounds of the typewriter. Skep frowned.

"Tamika!" he shouted again.

Abruptly, the typewriter stopped and at once the room seemed too quiet without it. The darkness between the shelving seemed to deepen and bulge, like a gathering storm cloud, and behind Buffy, the crowd stirred and muttered uneasily.

"Yeah?" The same girl’s voice, sounding grouchier than ever.

"You got the paperwork from upstairs, right?" Skep still kept his eyes on Buffy.

"Yeah," the girl’s voice said again.

"She says she’s got it," Skep told Buffy quite unnecessarily. Buffy rested her chin on her folded arms and glared at him some more. She said nothing and beside her, Spike carried on smoking, all cool insouciance.

There was a long, pregnant silence. Then Skep’s gaze dropped. He sighed an exasperated sigh and glanced back over his shoulder. "Guess I’ll go get it, then."

"You do that."

He got up from his chair and disappeared into the billowing blackness, which folded round him and swallowed him whole. There was more silence that was somehow more silent than the average silence. Whoever this Tamika was, it seemed she and Skep had a whole lot of nothing to say to each other.

Buffy drummed her fingers on the counter-top again, then stood on tiptoe, staring down the long rows of pigeonholes that made up Left Luggage, trying to spot the Scythe, even though looking into that darkness gave her the creeps.

"This place is shite," Spike said in her ear, making her jump. She nodded. She had to agree.

He was still smoking, narrowed eyes scanning the room. "Glad I didn’t stick around here with this lot. Sad bunch of pathetic wankers."

Buffy looked back over her shoulder. The damned were pretty non-descript for the most part – dull, almost grey-looking, some of them more than others. She wondered if those were the ones who’d been here the longest. Maybe, after a while, they started to fade into the background.

"Guess they all think they don’t deserve to be here," she said. "In fact, so far no one I’ve met thinks that, except you – which is kind of ironic, seeing as you definitely don’t."

"That’s all down to you, love." His eyes were bright as he looked at her – adoring, almost. She couldn’t help leaning in for a kiss, even though he was giving her way too much credit as usual and she ought to break him of the habit.

"Hey, I didn’t get your soul back for you," she admonished, sternly. "You did that all by yourself, remember?"

He was about to reply when Skep re-emerged from the gloom with a thick manila folder tucked under his arm. He looked flustered. His glasses were awry and there was a deep scratch on one cheek.

"Just can’t get the help these days," he muttered, crossly. "How’s it my fault if she gets herself dusted while she’s still under contract?" He gave Buffy a look of appeal as he adjusted his glasses. "I mean, she worked in the steno pool when she was alive, right? Typing is her job so what's the diff? If some blonde bimbo got the promotion she wanted instead of her, it’s not my problem."

Buffy had no idea what he was talking about. Meanwhile, the typewriter started up its noisy clattering again. It sounded angrier still, if that was even possible. She pointed at the folder. "That it?"

"Indeed." Skep sat down in his chair and cleared his throat pompously. Then he steepled his fingers together and regarded them both from under the rims of his glasses.

"See – as regards you taking Mr The Bloody here home with you, I’m afraid that may not be possible. He’s dead, you see. D-E-A-D. If he doesn’t belong in Hell, ergo he belongs in the other place and he’ll have to wait here until he’s sent for."

He smiled sympathetically at her. "Thank you for pointing out the mistake, though. Much appreciated."

"Here – hold on a minute!" Spike was up in arms at once, while Buffy felt her heart plummet once again into her non-existent boots. She’d known it might happen, of course, but hearing the words made it feel all too final.

"Buffy –" There was a frantic note in Spike’s voice. She turned to him, set a hand to his cheek.

"It’s okay, Spike. It’s good there– believe me, I remember."

Did she? Sometimes she thought she did – the peace – the sense of fulfilment. They still came to her in dreams.

Her eyes were brimming again. "If you see my mom, tell her I love her."

Spike had hold of her hand - tight, like he’d never let go. "Bollocks to that!" he said, rudely. Then he looked contrite. "Sorry, love – didn’t mean that about your mum – meant about the Heaven thing."

Then he leaned across the counter, getting right up into Skep’s face.

"Listen here. Maybe the Slayer’s right and I don’t deserve to be in Hell – jury’s still out on that. But I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I don’t deserve – the other place. I’m a sinner, mate – big time. There’re books written about what a sinner I am – well, some Watcher bint wrote a thesis anyway."

Skep just gave him back look for look. "Hey," he said, as he'd said before, "I don’t make the rules." He leaned back in his chair seeming awfully smug, like he was enjoying himself – like watching their pain was a great spectator sport.

And there was pain. She thought she’d felt it before when she couldn’t persuade Spike to come with her and everything had seemed so hopeless – but this was worse. It was selfish of her, she knew, but suddenly it seemed unbearable to have him snatched away now – and even more so because he’d be happy without her. He’d be in Heaven. What else could he be but happy?

But then her gaze was drawn to that writing above the door again. Abandon hope all ye who enter here. She thought of all the times she'd felt something didn't sit right. Then she thought of Marvin and his brochures and his annoying sales patter.

"Actually," she said. "You do make the rules."

"I beg your pardon?" Skep’s big clawed hands were folded complacently on his belly but she saw him tense a little in spite of himself. Oh yes, she was good!

"I said you do make the rules." She waved a hand in the direction of the door. "People are supposed to go through that door of their own accord when they've given up all hope. But you’ve been persuading them to go through, haven’t you – telling them there’s been a mistake and it’ll all be straightened out if they do."

Beside her, Spike muttered, "Bloody hell!" Now they were both leaning across the counter, elbows touching, and Skep was looking hunted. In fact, he was beginning to smoke gently all over and sweat had broken out on his forehead. Any minute now, she thought, he’d be asking her how she knew all this.

He didn’t, however. Instead, he produced a large white handkerchief from – well, she didn’t want to know exactly where, just as she didn’t want to know if that armour stuff all over him was actual armour or just skin. He wiped his forehead with it. Then he put his head in his hands.

"I can’t take much more of this!" he wailed. "You don’t know what it’s been like!"

"What what’s been like?" She kept her voice carefully in neutral, though it was hard not to sound smug in her turn.

"The changeover." Skep’s voice came out muffled. "It’s not like it used to be. This used to be a family business. Everyone knew each other. Things were simple then – uncomplicated. People came here. I checked their names off the list – they took a seat – time passed – in the end they lost hope and went through the door – little damned lambs to the slaughter."

He dabbed at his eyes and now the handkerchief was smoking too and when he looked up at them he was weeping fiery tears.

"There was job security then. Not now. Now we're part of a soulless – literally - multi-dimensional mega corporation. There’re shareholders to please and tax returns to complete. I have performance targets – a monthly quota. My job depends on filling it. Can you believe that?"

"That’s the free market for you," Spike said. "I blame the running dogs of capitalist imperialism. Or maybe that should be the running wolf, ram and bloody enormous deer. "

She laughed. She caught herself wondering, too, what Anya would have thought of it all, what with her Dance of Capitalist Superiority. No time to get sidetracked now, though. She tried to make her face look sympathetic.

"Do your bosses know," she probed gently, "that you’ve been bending the rules when it comes to the abandoning hope thing? Isn’t that still sort of important?"

Skep dabbed at his eyes again. "Sure it is. Hell with any kind of hope isn't really Hell at all, is it?"

Spike's elbow bumped hers again, but she forced herself not to look at him. He might make her cry because she wanted so much for this to work and it might not. Or worse still, he might make her laugh.

She traced a pattern on the counter-top with her index finger. "It'd be awful then, wouldn't it," she said, "if your bosses found out."

Skep's eyes got huge. Then they narrowed down to slits. "You wouldn't!"

She met his eyes and held them. "It just so happens that I'm great friends –" and she gave Spike a quick, defiant sideways glare –"with the C.E.O. of Wolfram & Hart's L.A. branch – and the subject just might come up in conversation, yes."

She gave Skep her patented Slayer glower that had been terrorising vampires and demons since she was fifteen years old, or if not terrorising, at least worrying them a tad.

"In other words, I so would."

Now Skep looked agonised. "Wish I'd taken a leaf out of Skip's book," he moaned.

She blinked at him. "Skip?"

"My brother." He blew his nose loudly and at once the handkerchief burst into flames and then dissolved into a damp cindery residue. Buffy wrinkled her nose.


Skep didn't even notice. "Pity that thing with the former Power That Was chick didn't work out for him," he went on. "If he wasn't dead, he could've put in a good word for me."

"Well, I can do that too," Buffy said, quickly. "All those years of loyal service – I'm sure my friend would be very impressed."

Beside her, Spike gave a small derisory snort and she nudged him hard in the ribs.

Skep looked from one of them to the other again. He sighed.

"I'd like to help you," he said, "I really would, but I can't. Those who've died a natural death – even vampires – can't just go back and pick up where they left off. It's a fundamental law of metaphysics, a big no-no – the biggest one there is - and even the bosses can't get round that without some kind of get-out clause."

He heaved another deep sigh. Buffy felt her eyes begin to prickle again. It seemed they were out of options.

"Spike –" She turned to him, but he was fishing in his duster pockets.

"Get-out clause?" he said. "Something like this, you mean?" Then he'd dumped that skanky-looking amulet he'd worn in the Hellmouth – the one that had burned him to a crisp – on the counter in front of Skep's nose.

Skep stared at it. He seemed to go a shade paler.

"Where did you get that?" he whispered.

Spike grinned. "Off the same friend the lady’s talking about." He gave her a sidelong glance. "’Cept I wouldn’t call him a friend, more a great big stupid wanker. Ouch!"

She’d elbowed him again. But he was definitely on to something.

"That’s right," she said quickly, to Skep. "So you see, he didn’t so much die a natural death – more get mystically incinerated by a magical soul-channelling doodad."

Skep was turning the amulet over and over in his big, clawed fingers. It looked even tackier suddenly, if that were possible.

"Hmm," Skep said, at last. He sounded relieved. "I think you may be on to something there. I can run it by our legal department anyway."

"How long’s that gonna take?" She was beginning to lose her temper now. What did it take to cut through all this red tape? "And if you say a couple hundred years, I am warning you, your ass is so slain."

"Not to mention," Spike cut in, "your bosses’ll have your guts for garters when she spills the beans to dear old Angel."

Skep looked from one of them to the other. He heaved a deep, defeated sigh.

"Oh, okay!" he said. "I’ll sign the paperwork myself and have the guys in Contracts sort out the legal details afterwards."

Now he’d said it, Buffy couldn’t quite bring herself to believe it.

"Spike can come back with me – be alive again?"

"Well, technically," Skep said in a weary tone, "be undead again, but let’s not quibble over details."

"No, let's not." She indicated the manila folder. "You gonna sign whatever needs signing?"

"Sure." Skep began to open the folder, but then Buffy remembered the Scythe.

"Before you get too deep into that, can I have my weapon back?"

He blinked. Evidently, he'd forgotten about it. "Oh," he said, "you mean that axe thing?"

"It's a Scythe." Buffy scowled at him.

"Weirdest looking scythe I've ever seen," Spike muttered beside her. She resisted the urge to give him another hard dig in the ribs. Why did everyone say that?

Skep, meanwhile, heaved another deep, put-upon sigh, got slowly to his feet, and stomped off into the depths of Left Luggage, scanning the rows of pigeonholes as he went and muttering to himself.

"Bloke doesn't sound too happy," Spike observed.

"Yeah well –" she couldn't help feeling a little sorry for the demon in spite of everything–"we probably outraged his demon morals or something, not playing fair like that. We're supposed to be the good guys."

"Bollocks!" Spike took her hand in his, raised it to his lips and kissed it. "He was the one caught with his trousers down, love. You just told it to him like it is."

She supposed that was one way of looking at it. Skep was out of sight now, folded into the darkness again, giving her the dizzying sensation of depths of time and space hidden behind the desk that you could easily get lost in. Firmly, she told herself not to think about it. It was the only way to cope with the insanity.

"So –" Spike was still holding her hand. "Did you say home was in Scotland now, of all bloody places, or was I imagining things?"

She moved closer to him, and at once he put his arm round her, nuzzling into her neck, heedless of their audience. "You heard me."

"Hope you've got a nice big bed waiting for us there," he purred, making her ear vibrate. "Firm mattress, nice thick quilt to keep out the cold – can get bloody freezing in Scotland - good strong bedposts to fasten the chains to?"

She felt a deep shiver of need run down her spine. She remembered, too, that she owed him a spanking –not that she was giving him advance warning of that fact. Oh no. Where would be the fun in that?

She ran her hands down his back under cover of his duster and squeezed his ass. This was gonna be such fun and she was so owed it.

"I think that can be arranged."

"Can't wait." He was mouthing her jaw, tongue wet and loose, and she felt that sensation between her legs again, like a dam about to give way.

"Spike –" she pushed him back a little. "Behave."

He nipped her lower lip gently with his teeth, a not-sorry-at-all look on his face. "Sorry, love. S'just it's been so bloody long – in fact, it's been never. You wanting me, I mean, and not hating yourself for it."

She set a hand to his cheek. "About that – " But he wouldn't let her finish, and now he did look sorry.

"S'okay, Buffy. I was an arsehole – and an evil one to boot. No need to say a sodding thing. S'over."

She could see he meant it, and besides, this wasn't the time or place, so she smiled at him and changed the subject.

"We have a castle, as a matter of fact, way up at the top of this deserted – glen, is it? It belonged to some relation of Giles."

"Castle?" His face clearly said he thought she was kidding him. "What d'you need a sodding castle for?"

"You'll find out." She felt smug again now. She had plans for him – and as for the bitty Slayers, they were gonna love him. "Xander's there and Dawn when it's the vacation – she's in school – and Willow drops by whenever she's in the neighbourhood."

She wanted to tell him that he owed his second chance to Willow and her magics, but there'd be time enough for that now. All the time in the world.

"What about old Rupert?"

"Oh, he's down in London mostly. He keeps in touch by email."

For the first time since they'd fetched up back in the waiting room, he looked dubious.

"What's he have to say about all this, then? About you coming to Hell, I mean, just to rescue me?"

She thought of Giles's tirade on the phone. She'd let him have his say. Then she'd had hers and there'd been no more arguments.

"He's fine about it," she said. "Couldn't be happier."

His face told her he didn't believe her, but at the same time, his eyes took on a wicked glint.

"It'll be a pleasure proving the old Watcher wrong."

"You do that."

She could see Skep coming back now, slowly re-emerging from the inky shadows with their faint hints of distant starlight.

"How about Anya?" Spike said, suddenly. "She and Harris make it up and tie the knot yet?"

"Oh." She'd forgotten he didn't know – that he hadn't even asked about the others while they were still in Hell and he'd been so wrapped up in his own misery.

"What?" Then his mouth fell open in dismay. "She didn't make it, did she?"

She shook her head. "No, she was cut to pieces by the ubervamps – saving his life, Andrew said."

"Fuck" He didn't let go of her but suddenly he'd gone all grim and grey again.

"Lots of the girls died too," she said, gently. It was sort of a rebuke, but he wasn't really listening.

"Fuck," he muttered, again, at the same time as Skep put the Scythe down on the counter in front of her with a decisive clank of metal.

The demon opened a battered old ledger, sending a cloud of dust up her nose. "Sign here."

She signed her name with a flourish and picked the Scythe up. The hilt fit into her hand, as always, like it was made for it. Beside her, Spike was fishing in his pockets for his cigarettes, his eyes suspiciously damp-looking. She wondered if he was thinking about the time that he and Anya had had sex on the table in the Magic Shop, and if so, was it a fond memory or was he ashamed of it?

"O-kay." Skep had sat down in his chair again. "About these papers."

He opened the manila folder and began to leaf through it. Then he frowned.

"Oh my!" he said.

At once, she was on the alert. They were so nearly out of here. Surely nothing could go wrong now, could it?

"What's the matter?"

The look on Skep's face wasn't at all reassuring. He went on leafing through the folder. Then he shut it and gave her a scared look.

"I'm sorry," he said. "This is the wrong file."

"What? What do you mean it's wrong? Whose is it, then?"

Spike had snapped out of his black mood at the exchange and he joined her in glaring over the counter at the unfortunate demon.

"Don't slay me!" Skep held up both hands. "It's totally not my fault. Tamika!" The name was shouted at top volume, while, like before, he still went on looking straight at Buffy.

There was no answer save for the pounding of the typewriter and then a zing! noise as Tamika hit carriage return.

Skep sighed. "Tamika!" he shouted again and, once again, suddenly, there was way too much silence.

"What?" the hidden girl's voice said, crossly.

Skep's hands balled into fists. "These are the wrong papers."

The watching ranks of the damned appeared to have realised there was a problem now. The room was filled with a breathless, listening hush during which no one even coughed.

Then Tamika said, sullenly, "So what'm I s'posed to do about it, asshole?"

Skep gave Buffy and Spike a tight smile. "Excuse me." He got up and disappeared into the darkness again.

Spike rolled his eyes. "Might've known it wouldn't be that easy."

She gripped the Scythe tighter. "Don't talk like that. We're leaving here – together. If these papers need signing so bad, well they'll just have to fax them to us or email or – I don't know, send them by flying carpet."

"Right." He didn't sound wholly convinced but he did manage a tiny grin. "You're indomitable, aren't you, Slayer?"

She squeezed his hand in hers. "If that means something good, then yes I am."

He moved closer. "Daft bint! It means you never give up. That's my Buffy."

She looked him solemnly in the face, met his eyes and wouldn't let him look away. "You were the same once, Spike. One day soon, you're gonna remember it."

For a moment, he looked shaken. "Slayer –" he began. "Buffy-"

She didn't have a free hand so she waved the Scythe at him. "If you were gonna say I shouldn’t have such faith in you, don't. I wouldn't be here, Spike, if I didn't."

His eyes looked over-bright again. He bit his lip and said nothing, just squeezed her hand in answer.

Time passed. The watching people shifted in their seats and coughed. More of the omnipresent smoke blew under the door to wreathe around everyone's ankles. Spike drummed his fingers on the counter top. He pursed his lips, obviously bored.

Then he leaned across the counter and picked up the folder. "Wonder who this belongs to, then?"

Buffy was trying to peer into the darkness out back without getting dizzy and see what the hell was going on with Skep, but then Spike exclaimed aloud.

"Bloody hell! It's hers. It's Anya's."

"What? Let me see!" She set the Scythe down on the counter top again and snatched the folder from him. Just inside the front cover was a document, like the sort of form you filled in at the DMV for a driver's licence, with a small passport sized photo of Anya stuck in the top left hand corner.

It wasn't a very flattering picture, she thought. Anya would've hated it. For one thing, she had her eyes half-closed, which made her look kind of - dopey.

"Anya Christina Emanuella Jenkins," she read, "a.k.a. Anyanka, a.ka. Aud. Who on earth needs that many names?"

"She's here," Spike said. "The poor cow's stuck behind that door." He gestured in the direction of abandoned hope.

Buffy leafed further through the folder. "She shouldn't be, though, any more than you should. Look here." She showed him the date-stamped entry on the back of the registration form or whatever it was, under which was written in a neat lawyerly hand, Query legitimacy of placement: return to registration dept.

There was another silence. The whole room seemed to be holding its breath. Then Spike said, "You did tell me heroes don't belong in Hell."

"I did." She put the folder down on the counter and picked up the Scythe again. This time, she wasn't leaving it behind. She just wouldn't harrow – or at least not much. "But maybe sometimes they do, when they're rescuing other heroes."

They headed towards the door just as Skep reappeared out of the dark. This time, he looked even worse for wear. One of the lenses of his glasses was cracked, like someone had hit it with something heavy, and he had a big bruise on one cheek to match the scratch on the other.

"So sorry," he said, as he came. "I've sent for the right papers. If you'd like to take a seat –" Then he stopped dead. "Where are you going?"

Spike grinned at Buffy and she grinned back. "Seems he's not the only friend of mine you have here under false pretences."

"Huh?" Skep looked at the folder and back again. He swallowed hard. "This isn't gonna become some kind of trend, is it?"

"Not our problem." Buffy's hand was on the big brass door handle. All eyes in the room were on her. Then they swung back to Skep. Then they looked at her again. Was it her imagination or were there glimmers of hope in them?

She pulled the door ajar and a blast of cold, foggy air entered the room, setting everyone coughing. At the same time, the hand-written sign that said Under New Management fell off and wafted face down onto the floor.

"Wait!" Skep called frantically. "What about your visitors' passes?"

She shook her head at him. No way was she falling for that again. Besides, knowing Anya, she was running the only successful business in this whole sorry place. She might take a deal of persuading to come away with them.

"Take it up with your new boss," she said. "Or tell you what, when I see him next, I'll do it myself."

Skep swayed and clutched the counter. "I need a lie down," he moaned, weakly, and this time she didn't feel sorry for him at all.

Instead, she pulled the door wide open on the swirling fogbank. Spike's hand was clutched firmly in hers and when she looked up at him, his face was full of wild excitement. Any minute now, he'd be laughing.

"Ready?" she asked him, and when he nodded, she stood up on tiptoe and kissed him hard on the mouth. "Then let's go be heroes in Hell."