The blue moon was rising as Buffy poked her head gingerly out through the tent-flap. Cold, like a slap in the face, tightened the skin over her bones and made her lungs ache. She pulled her scarf up to cover her mouth and nose, staring out across the undulating razor-sharp waves of the frozen sea, gilded with moonlight, while a fine frost of ice crystals settled on her eyelashes.
From behind the tent, where the sled dogs were fighting yet again, Spike's voice rose into a furious snarl, then was drowned in the dogs' answering snarls and yelps.
"Trouble?" Wesley's soft, cultured tones speaking right behind her made Buffy jump. She pulled her head back into the warm fug of the tent.
The wind-burned skin around Wesley’s eyes crinkled with amusement. "Spike really does have a way with animals, doesn't he?"
She scowled. "That's rich, coming from you. They're antsy around you too. And anyway, Spike's a vampire. Of course they're not gonna like him."
Wesley's eyes drifted back to his book. "Yes, it's unfortunate. One would imagine that they sense the dark magic in my aura, just like they sense Spike's unnatural - er, nature."
Damn him, she thought. He hadn't changed. Still with that superior British air and the giant stick up his ass.
Outside, the snarling of dogs rose to a crescendo, to be followed by a loud yelp of pain that died away into whimpers. A moment later, there was the sound of boots crunching in snow, and Spike's voice again. "That'll teach you, you little bastard."
Sullen silence followed
Wesley turned a page. "Whatever the trouble was, Spike appears to have sorted it out. Permanently this time, one hopes."
"Yeah. Doesn't one just."
When he ignored her sarcasm, she made a face at his bowed head before slumping down in a corner and opening her pack. Her hairbrush was right at the top, along with her toothbrush – the only two items of all the toiletries she'd brought on this mission that she'd used regularly. Her soap and deodorant were at the bottom, untouched.
Somehow, knowing you smelt like a skunk didn't matter so much when everyone else smelt the same. In fact, she was kind of getting used to it. Clean underwear was overrated anyway.
As she was brushing her hair, which was so way past the greasy-needing-a-wash stage that it felt almost okay again, the tent flap opened, letting a blast of freezing air inside. Spike spat noisily before zipping the flap shut behind him. He was in game face, heavy brow ridges drawn down in irritation.
"Bleargh!" He spat again. "Fucking dog hairs – get everywhere."
Buffy stared at him.
"You bit them?"
He shook his vampire features away, though his human face looked just as irritable.
"Only the one. You know which. Gotta keep remindin' him who's boss."
"And did it work?" Wesley hadn't turned around. He didn't even look up from his book.
"Too bloody right it did. Wanker's not gonna fuck with me again." Spike pushed back the hood of his parka. Ice beaded his lashes and the heavy, dark blond stubble on his upper lip and chin. His face was pinched and white, a hectic flush across the cheekbones.
"I hope you're not being overconfident." Wesley spoke without looking around. "Again."
"And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
At once, Spike was all vamped up, across the tent, and hauling Wesley to his feet. He held him in front of him, dangling above the ground, hands fisted in his clothes.
"I don't." And with every word Spike shook him. "See. You. Being. Much. Bloody. Help. Tosser."
Buffy set her hairbrush down. "Spike – let him go."
Spike flashed her a nasty, fang-filled grin. "When I'm done with him." He shook Wesley again – so hard she heard his teeth rattle.
"Spike!" Buffy put on her Slayer voice this time. "I said, let him go. Now!"
Spike hesitated, mid-shake. He gave her a defiant glare, shook Wesley one last time and dropped him in a heap on the floor. "Your wish is my command, love."
"My command is your command too, and don't you damn well forget it."
Wesley coughed. As Spike bent down to retrieve the fallen book, Wesley gave him a look of sheer unadulterated malice and his fists clenched.
"Don't," Buffy snapped. "I'm watching you."
Wesley's hostile gaze swung around to her. "I didn't mean…He's…" His voice trailed off.
"Annoying?" she finished for him. "I know that, but I'm the only one who gets to tell him so. And don't you damn well forget it."
When Wesley opened his mouth to reply, she held up her hand for silence.
"Especially not when the two of us are taking so much of what you say on trust. Not that I do trust you, because hey, not crazy."
"I assure you –" he began again, but she shook her head.
"Told you, Wes. I don't wanna hear it."
Spike was flipping through the pages of Wesley's book. "Still readin' the same bloody thing, Percy? 'The Worst Journey in the World'. Sounds more and more apt every day." He dropped the book back into Wesley's lap.
Buffy picked up her hairbrush. "The book about that Captain Scott guy, huh? Or was it Stott? I don't remember. Sounds like a barrel of laughs."
When she looked up, Spike and Wesley were exchanging what she'd come to think of as their 'British' look.
"It's Scott," Spike said, with laboured patience. "It's the story of Captain Scott's journey to the South Pole, remember? Written afterwards by one of the rescue party."
"Oh -right." She blinked. "They were rescued? I thought you said they all died."
The British look again.
"They did," Wesley said. "That's the point."
"This place hasn't changed a bit." Spike hunched his shoulders and stuck his hands in his duster pockets. "'Cept for who's sittin' behind that desk."
Wesley leaned back in the heavy swivel chair, fingertips pressed together. He looked totally at ease, Buffy thought. Like he'd always been there.
"In actual fact, it's changed a great deal. One might even say, out of all recognition."
Spike indicated the plush carpeting, the broad wooden desk, the array of weapons on the wall behind it. Through the plate glass windows, the lobby was full of bustling business-suited people.
"Only difference I can see is that there's no Harmony answering the phone out there. Otherwise, it looks the same as the day we all volunteered for that suicide mission."
Wesley's voice was cool. "Interesting, isn't it? Of course, appearances are very important to Wolfram & Hart. Our clients rely on us to provide stability in their time of need."
He leaned forward, planting his elbows on the desk and resting his chin on his hands. The light reflected in his glasses, making it hard to see his eyes.
"When the Senior Partners reconstituted these premises, they were careful to replicate every single detail. It would never do to let our enemies think they'd gained anything meaningful from their treachery."
Spike's lip lifted in a faint sneer. "Whereas Wolfram & Hart…"
"…gained my services in perpetuity. Exactly." Wesley leaned back again, looking smug, an answering sneer on his own lips.
Spike frowned, but before he could speak again, Buffy interrupted.
"And you've been a busy boy in the last five years, haven't you, Wesley? Quite the little brown noser. Or are you gonna tell us it's all a front – that Wolfram & Hart helping to wreck Kyoto II was just a clerical error and that those devastating floods in Northern Europe last year were a natural disaster?"
"Not to mention that little business with the infestation of sabre-toothed Grinder demons in Indonesia," Spike cut in. "We'll be sorting the mess out for years."
Wesley's smug expression didn't change. "I don't see how you can hold me responsible. I'm C.E.O. of an L.A. law firm, not the devil incarnate."
"Like hell!" Spike's face rippled. "People died, you twat – thousands of them, and that's all you can say?"
Wesley's gaze flickered from Buffy to Spike and back again.
"The loss of life is…regrettable," he conceded, "though the excess of moral indignation is a little hard to stomach, given the source."
"The hell you say!"
Buffy put her hand on Spike's arm to restrain him. He was literally trembling with rage. She felt close to violence herself.
"In fact," Wesley leaned back in his chair again, "that's why I requested this meeting. Wolfram & Hart wish to make a charitable donation to the victims, and since your organisation has been so involved in the clean-up, we thought you were best placed to advise us where to channel the funds appropriately."
Spike threw off Buffy's hand and walked away across the room. "I don't sodding well believe this!"
Buffy met Wesley's bland gaze – a politician's, or a lawyer's. "I do. It makes perfect sense."
"Good." Wesley picked up a plastic folder on the desk in front of him and held it out towards Buffy. "The details of our proposal are in here. Perhaps once you've read them, we can schedule another meeting? I'm very busy, of course, but I'm happy to work weekends if that will expedite matters."
Buffy looked from the folder to Wesley and back again. "I don't think so."
Abruptly, the smug look was gone. Instead, the skin on Wesley's gaunt face tightened. He took off his glasses and leaned forward, his gaze intense - almost desperate.
Buffy blinked. There was something – odd about his tone of voice, and not just because he was a dead man walking. Like he was trying to tell her something without actually telling her.
She found she'd reached out and taken the folder just as Spike swung around, shouting, "No fucking way."
Wesley didn't even look at him. "Please," he said, again, softer this time. "If not for my sake…" His voice died away into silence, but the unspoken name rang loud.
Buffy tucked the folder under her arm before anyone could notice her hand trembling. "I'll have my people check it over – in every sense. Legally, magically, you name it."
"Buffy –" Spike was beside her, glaring at Wesley like he was dinner.
She frowned at him. "It can't hurt to just read it."
Spike didn't take his gaze off Wesley. "Yes it can. This is Wolfram & Hart. You shouldn't even be here. It's too dangerous."
Wesley leaned back in his chair yet again. The smug expression was back, but this time it didn’t reach his eyes.
"I assure you," he said, "there's no harm meant. In fact, the terms are positively advantageous."
"We'll see about that." Buffy turned on her heel, very aware of Spike's angry shadow at her elbow, and of Wesley's eyes boring into her back.
The angle of the slope became steeper and steeper as they climbed the frozen wave, until the sled hung teetering on the curling crest.
"Mush, you bastards! Mush!"
Buffy set her shoulder to the rear of the sled, crampons dug hard into the icy surface, pushing in time with the frantic pulling of the sled dogs as Spike urged them on.
For one horrible moment, the sled threatened to fall back and crush her. Then, there was an almighty jerk and the weight was gone off her shoulders, the sled up and over the lip. She yelped as her precarious toehold crumbled away, arresting her slide only by a frantic jab and twist of her ice axe.
She lay, plastered to the slope, panting, cold seeping through her clothes. This was no fun at all.
"Are you all right?" Wesley's face, framed in his parka hood, appeared over the crest of the frozen wave above her.
"Here." He held out his hand. "Let me help you."
"I'm fine." She kicked at the glassy surface with her crampon until she'd made herself a foothold, then another, and another, until her face was almost on a level with Wesley's. "Thanks for the offer, though."
Wesley had let his hand drop. He backed away from the edge and stood up.
As she hauled herself over the edge, to sprawl on her belly on the gentle down slope, she saw his eyes narrow and his jaw tighten. He wasn't looking at her any more, though, but instead back the way they'd come.
She got to her feet. Spike had brought the sled to a halt some distance down the slope. He was putting his skis on, all set to come back and help her. When he saw her, his shoulders sagged with relief.
Turning back to try and see what Wesley was looking at, she gasped in awe at the view.
They were on the crest of the highest of a series of waves that descended like a precipitous, gleaming grand staircase to what, for want of a better word, she was forced to call a valley. It was like a series of tsunamis had frozen instantaneously.
On either side, the wave crest went on and on, until it disappeared from sight to north and south, lost in the perpetual moonlit gloom. Two of the moons were up at the moment, the red one and the blue one, and where their light struck the ice, it was frosted with lavender shadows.
"It's beautiful," she whispered, awed.
"Indeed." Wesley was still staring back the way they'd come.
She frowned, peering in the same direction, but she couldn't see anything. The ground at the bottom of the rising ladder of waves was lost in a deep pit of darkness, their precarious path out of the depths so narrow that, looking at it, she could hardly believe they'd climbed it with a sled and sled dogs.
"We should keep moving."
Wesley turned away suddenly, skiing easily down the gentle slope towards Spike and the dogs at the bottom.
Her skis were stowed on the sled so she was forced to plod after Wesley's gliding form, feet sinking through the icy crust, thigh muscles straining. Slayer strength or no, she ached all over, and she was so hungry! It didn't help that she was eating for two.
"You all right, love?" Spike had skied some of the distance towards her, not as graceful as Wesley yet, but getting there. He set a hand on her elbow, and just for once, she was happy to lean on him.
"I'm okay," she assured him, "but next time it's your turn to push."
"Fair enough." He shrugged. "S'long as you don't mind bawling out Wanker when he misbehaves."
"Wanker?" she blinked at him, and he grinned, splitting the chapped skin on his lips. His long pink tongue darted out of his mouth to lick up the bright bead of blood.
"Yeah, thought I might as well just call him that and be done with it. 'Cos he is one."
They'd drawn level with the sled by this time, and Spike turned to snarl at the lead sled-dog. "Wanker!"
The dog put its head down on its paws and regarded him with soulful blue eyes. It whined deep in its throat. The bite mark on its nose had scabbed over but it still looked sorry for itself.
Spike gave the dog a baleful glare. "Yeah, you're not the boss any more, you little bastard, and don't you bloody forget it."
"Aww!" She limped across to the sled and leaned on it. "Don't be mean to him."
"Mean?" Spike looked outraged, but not with her.
"Brown noser!" He glared at the dog some more, while the dog just gave Buffy a pathetic look and whined again.
Buffy couldn't help laughing, though the cold was so intense her throat hurt, and now the sweat was drying on her, she was beginning to shiver.
"You should travel in the sledge for a bit." Spike's voice was edged with concern. "Recover your strength."
She opened her mouth to say no, but then thought better of it. She wasn't the only one relying on her strength.
"Okay." She unfastened her crampons and climbed onto the sled, and he piled blankets on her and drew the waterproof cover right up to her chin. It always made him feel better if he was allowed to fuss over her.
"You're worried, aren't you?" she said, when he finally had her tucked up to his satisfaction.
He glanced at her sharply. "How d'you make that out, Slayer?"
"Dumbass! I know you, that's how – and even if I didn't, you calling me 'Slayer' instead of Buffy is kind of a giveaway."
He looked caught out, and she frowned.
"If you're hiding anything from me, Spike…"
For answer, he glanced over his shoulder to where Wesley was standing some distance away, half-turned away from them, leaning on his ski poles. He wasn't looking forward, but back the way they'd come. Again.
Spike hunched his shoulders. "Bloke's lying to us. You know that, don't you?"
"Sure." She shrugged. "I've always known it. Kind of comes with the territory, him being a minion of evil. Like he said before we set off on this mission, it's not really his fault."
Spike frowned. "That's not what I meant. Doesn't it strike you as a little too bloody convenient that nothing mechanical works in this dimension? This would've been a piece of piss if we could've used a snowcat."
Buffy indicated the tsunami, frozen forever in the act of breaking. "I don't think so."
"All right," Spike conceded, "maybe not, but we're stuck moving at a snail's pace, figuratively speaking – and Wanker there might as well be a snail – completely reliant on Percy's magical inner compass, or whatever the fuck it is, telling us which way to go, and even magic's hit and miss here. Bloke could be leading us into a trap – or more specifically, leading you."
He shrugged. "I mean, stands to reason, Wolfram & Hart'd like to get rid of you if they could – leader of the Slayers, greatest force for good left in the world, etcetera, et-bloody-cetera."
"All true," she agreed, "but it doesn't seem to have bothered you that much until the last few days. Something's changed, Spike. What is it?"
Spike glanced at Wesley again. When he turned back, his eyes flashed yellow. "There's something followin' us. I can sense it - and Percy there knows it perfectly well. In fact, I think he expected it right from the start."
She frowned. "And you've known this for how long exactly?"
He had the grace to look a little sheepish. "Didn't know, just guessed. But now I'm certain of it. Look at him."
Wesley did look antsy, it was true, shifting from foot to foot and throwing agitated glances in the direction of the icefall. As they watched, he turned to them and called, "We really have to get moving, I think. There's still a long way to go."
"Okay," she called back, waving at him.
"See?" Spike muttered.
"I do." She was still frowning. "What I don't see is why you didn't say anything before."
He froze in the act of walking around to the rear of the sled. He licked his lips. "I didn't wanna worry you?" he said, in a tentative voice.
"Dammit, Spike -"
"Okay, okay." His shoulders slumped. "It's just – I know why you agreed to come on this mission, and it has nothing to do with the bloody apocalypse. I mean, stop one, and another'll be along a year or so later, yeah?"
His face had gone very pale, the raw patches where the skin had been burnt by the wind standing out startlingly. "I'm just saying, you don't owe him anything, Buffy. Angel did it to himself."
A white-hot flare of anger burst inside her. For a moment, she saw red – literally. When she could see again, Spike had taken several paces back, which was just as well, because for a moment she wanted to pummel him into dust.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Not my bloody business. Spoke out of turn."
She breathed in and out, until she could trust herself to speak.
"Not so. If you think my judgement is off, it's your duty to tell me."
"Buffy –" he began, but she held up her hand for silence.
"Likewise, if you hide anything like that from me again, you won't like the consequences. Understand?"
He'd gone stiff. "Understood."
"Well, good." She settled back down in her nest of blankets, while he kicked the sled into motion.
Soon, the barking of sled dogs had drowned out the uncomfortable silence.
"This place is a bit bloody quiet." Spike's hands were jammed in his duster pockets again. "Never seen it this quiet. Not ever."
Wesley pressed his fingertips together in that infuriating way of his. "Well, it’s Sunday."
Spike laughed. "So? No rest for the wicked. Isn't that what they say?"
"They are wrong."
Buffy looked from Spike to Wesley and back again, in time to see Spike take his hands out of his pockets and sort of swell. The two men had been glaring daggers at each other ever since she and Spike had entered the room.
"Guys," she interjected, "can we have a little less of the macho posturing and a little more of the useful talking?"
Spike tore his eyes away from Wesley’s with difficulty and when he looked at her, she saw a brief yellow flash.
"Sorry, love. This pillock used to annoy me when he was alive. Now he’s dead – or whatever the hell he is - he’s twice as bad."
"That’s probably truer than you think." Wesley leaned back in his chair, fingertips still pressed together. "Wolfram & Hart do have a certain reputation for corrupting the innocent. And though I don't claim to have been innocent, it’s not really my fault. I made the ultimate sacrifice, and yet, here I am – trapped by the fine print."
Spike’s lips pursed. "There is that," he said, reluctantly. "Can't deny you had a rough deal, even if you are a self-serving tosser."
"And," Buffy cut in, because, as so often, Spike seemed to have lost track of the bigger picture, "he’s trying to make amends here."
The pursed lips became a thin line. "So he says," Spike growled. "Proof's in the pudding innit?"
Wesley sighed. Taking off his glasses, he wiped a hand across his eyes. He looked tired, Buffy thought, and also, she couldn't help noticing, kind of hot now he was all scruffy, which he never had back in his Watcher days.
"I know it’s hard to believe," Wesley said. "Here I am, bound by contract to serve Wolfram & Hart in perpetuity, completely dependant on them for my continued existence, and to all intents and purposes gleefully doing their will, and yet I’m trying to subvert the most cherished item on their agenda."
Buffy glanced over her shoulder, to where a security camera turned its blank, black eye on the room. "Aren’t you worried they might be listening?"
"No, not really. Being C.E.O. does have its advantages. Not least of which is access to the kinds of magic that will throw the Senior Partners off our trail."
Wesley stood up and moved over to the window. "Besides, I've done more than enough in the last five years to earn their trust, wouldn't you say, and I think their suspicions would be far more quickly raised had I arranged to meet you elsewhere."
Buffy watched him devolve from a man into a silhouette - a shadow shape- outlined in the glare from outside.
"Sounds kind of – convenient."
Spike was leaning against the wall, arms folded, cold gaze on Wesley "Yeah," he said. "I thought so."
When he looked her way, he was frowning. Nice to see they were on the same page.
Wesley turned back into the room. Now, all that could be seen of him were his bright, glittering eyes.
"I understand why you feel that way about me, and believe me, if I could have done this on my own, I would have. But I can’t. I need your help."
Buffy folded her own arms, mirroring Spike's pose. "Why us? Okay, so you know Spike a little bit, but it's not like you two get along, and as for you and me, Wesley – we haven’t met since I was in High School, and we weren’t exactly best buddies back then either."
Wesley turned to stare out of the window again, into the bright, breezy daylight.
"Because there is no one else. I’m alone here. I’ve been alone ever since – since…" His voice faltered to a stop.
Buffy cleared her throat – and damn her eyes for prickling.
"You’re asking us to take an awful lot on trust – on the word of a man who, by his own admission, belongs to Wolfram & Hart body and soul. And like you say, you haven't exactly covered yourself in glory since they brought you back. Thousands of deaths, Wesley."
"I know that." When Wesley turned to look at her, his eyes were still glittering but this time with moisture. His face was wet too. The prickling in Buffy's eyes grew worse.
"I may be their slave," Wesley said, "but ultimately I’m not their creature. I may not be able to prevent lesser evils, but I won’t let them end the world while I still have a chance to prevent them."
"Lesser evils," Spike sneered. His lighter snapped –once, twice – and the scent of cigarette smoke filled the room.
"Sit down, Wesley." Buffy indicated the desk chair. When Wesley just looked at her, she indicated again. "Sit."
After a moment, he did as she said, sliding back into his chair while keeping a wary eye on her. She heard Spike give a small, derisive snort.
"Okay, spill. What’s the exact sitch, because you were being all Cryptic Guy in your proposal thing, and not just because it was so encrypted it took Willow a week to – er, decrypt it."
Wesley put his glasses back on. Was it her imagination, she wondered, or was his skin kind of – greyish? She hadn't noticed before.
"The situation is as follows: Wolfram & Hart have a long-standing desire to bring about the Apocalypse on their terms."
"That again!" Spike muttered.
"Shush!" She glowered at him, eliciting another shrug and a raised eyebrow. "Go on, Wesley."
"As you know," Wesley went on, "Angel tried to ruin their plans once and for all by killing the Senior Partners’ agents on this plane, the Circle of Black Thorn. However, with an organisation like Wolfram & Hart, if you cut them down in one place, they just spring up elsewhere even stronger."
Spike was looking at her, Buffy knew, but she couldn’t meet his eyes.
"Angel hurt them," Wesley said, "but not enough, and now they’re back, stronger than ever, and ready to try again. Unless we stop them for good."
He opened his desk drawer and drew out a carved wooden box. The wood was glossy, with a pinkish lustre to it. Wesley’s hand smoothed over its surface.
"What’s that?" Spike had pushed away from the wall. "Don’t you fucking dare open it near the Slayer."
"It’s okay, Spike." Buffy half-smiled at him. He could be over-protective sometimes, but then he took his Executive Officer duties very seriously. "What is it, Wesley?"
"It wouldn’t hurt her," Wesley said, in a soft, almost dreamy tone. "It’s taken me every day since I was revivified to track this down, but at last I have it. We take the contents of this box to the right place, and Wolfram & Hart's apocalypse will be indefinitely postponed."
"And this right place would be?" Buffy asked.
Wesley looked up at her. "That other dimension I mentioned in my proposal– the one where Wolfram & Hart have no influence."
She indicated the box. "Open it."
"Buffy –" Spike came to her side.
"It’s okay." She hoped it was.
Wesley’s fingers fumbled with the catch. As he opened the box lid, the light in the room seemed to dim, or rather it seemed to flow into the heart of the blue-and-white crystal in its bed of velvet and make it glow more brightly.
"It’s beautiful," Buffy whispered.
"Isn’t it?" Wesley was staring at the crystal, obviously entranced.
"Soo-" Spike sounded very unimpressed. "What? We take this crystal to the Fortress of Solitude in the Dimension of Doom, or whatever the fuck it’s called. Then what?"
"The world doesn’t end," Wesley said, simply. "And hopefully, no one will even notice."
Buffy caught Spike’s eye. "Sounds like a plan."
Spike frowned. "You believe this tosser?"
Buffy shrugged. "Not exactly, but after what happened last time, I'm not willing to take the risk."
Spike opened his mouth to answer, but then seemed to think better of it. Instead, he turned on Wesley again.
"Just one more thing I want to know. If we do this thing, why do you have to tag along? And won’t your bosses realise you’re missing and send out a search party? That'll give the sodding game away."
Wesley shut the box with a snap, immuring the crystal and its stolen light.
"Not really," he said. "As it turns out, perpetuity clause or no perpetuity clause, the terms and conditions of my original employment contract still stand. I’m owed a vacation, and I think it’s past time I took it."
"Depot ahead." Wesley pointed with his ski pole.
Buffy halted beside him. Through the moonless murk, she could just make out a dark heap of something far away on the ice.
Over to their left, Spike was yelling at the dogs – his usual brand of encouragement, which even at this distance turned the air blue around him. The dogs seemed to like it though, because the more Spike swore at them, the faster they ran.
"I don't remember him being quite so foul-mouthed," Wesley remarked, "back when we were – let's say, comrades in arms."
"He's not usually like this." Buffy set off skiing again, a perverse part of her wanting to make the depot before the dogs did, even though turning her back on Wesley gave her the creeps.
She heard him coming after her, moving easily, as if he'd been born to it – but then he'd had enough practice the last five years.
"I still can't believe you laid all these supply depots by yourself." She raised her voice over the whine of the wind and the barking of the dogs. "It must have nearly killed you. That is – I mean –"
"If I weren't dead already?" he shouted back. "Quite."
"How long did you say it took you?" Maybe he'd slip up when he answered the question this time – contradict himself?
When he didn't reply, she looked back over her shoulder, to catch him in the act of doing the same – staring back the way they'd come, as if he were looking for something.
Spike's fears from earlier came back to her. Not that she believed them. If Wolfram & Hart wanted her dead, they would have killed her long ago and back in their territory. But that didn't mean Wesley was on the level. Whatever cards he was holding, he kept them very close to his chest.
The depot drew nearer, the boxes of supplies stacked neatly and covered with tarpaulin to keep them dry. There was another, smaller mound some distance from the main one, irregular in shape and half-buried in snow.
"What's that?" But she kept moving, and again Wesley didn't answer. The dogs, meanwhile, were going crazy, their barks and yelps drowning out Spike's hoarse-voiced obscenities.
"Oh my God!" Buffy dug her ski poles in hard to bring herself to a stop. She put her hand over her mouth, staring in horror at the heaped corpses of a dozen sled dogs.
She rounded on Wesley. "What happened here?"
Wesley had halted some distance away. He was doing the stone-faced thing again.
"I would have buried them if I could," he said. "But as I'm sure you understand, it wasn't possible."
"You killed them?" She gaped at him.
He looked away. "I had to. They became completely unmanageable."
"That's…" She'd been going to say 'barbaric', but then he looked at her again, and his face was so bleak that the word died in her mouth.
"Why do you think I never offer to help Spike with the dogs? I'm perfectly competent, Ms Summers. It’s just that it would be counter-productive."
"Yeah." She eyed him dubiously. "I bet you're competent at all sorts of things."
Behind her, the dogs' barking had turned to furious snapping and snarling.
"'Oi!" Spike shouted. "Manners, you bastards!"
She began to turn towards the sound, but Wesley said, "I wouldn't look if I were you."
Something about his tone grated on her last nerve. "Screw you, Wes."
The sight that greeted her eyes made her gorge rise and the sweat break out on her forehead, but somehow or other she swallowed the nausea back down.
"That's – that's just eww!"
Spike was standing beside the sled. He'd set the dogs loose and they were busy tearing the frozen corpses limb from limb before wolfing down the scattered pieces.
She drew in a deep breath, trying not to gag, but she made herself go on looking. She wouldn't give Wesley the satisfaction.
Spike was staring at Wesley with hostile, suspicious eyes. "No wonder you didn't want to hire dogs from somewhere your face was known. You really are a cold fucking bastard, aren't you, Percy?"
Wesley's voice was remote. "When I have to be. In this instance, as I told Ms Summers, I had no choice. I was on the way back from laying the final depot and I think being in such close proximity to me for such a great length of time drove the dogs mad. It was me or them."
"Know how they sodding well felt," Spike muttered. He aimed a kick at two of the dogs that were trying to tear chunks out of each other rather than out of the dead animals. "Stop that, you fuckers! Don’t be so sodding greedy. Plenty there for everyone."
"You made your way back alone – from here?" Buffy gaped at Wesley in astonishment. "Down the ice-fall?"
Wesley shrugged. "Needs must when the devil drives."
Ain't that the truth, she thought, but didn't say. Instead, she skied over to join Spike beside the sled, leaving Wesley isolated, alone on the ice.
Spike shook his head. "Not yet. Storm's coming, though."
"Not again!" Her shoulders sagged. This would be the third time.
"'Fraid so." Spike was still staring at Wesley. "Gonna be stuck here. Could be this is where we find out the truth about Percy, love."
"You mean –"
"Yeah. Is he running from what's behind us, or is he waiting for it."
"A world with nothing but shrimp?"
Buffy realised her mouth was hanging open and shut it with a snap.
Spike was slumped in the corner of the diner booth, one arm resting on the seat back.
"Sounds like a fun place."
"Not really." Wesley stirred cream into his coffee. "In actual fact, the whole world is one perpetually frozen sea. The shrimp live under an ice-sheet several miles thick."
"Frozen?" Buffy shivered, glancing outside to where the edges of the sidewalks were piled high with mounds of dirty snow. "Worse than this?"
"Much worse," Wesley assured her. "Nothing can live there – apart from the shrimp. Hence the Senior Partners' total lack of interest in the place. There's nothing, and no one, to exploit."
Spike turned his unlit cigarette around and around in his hand. "So it's an ice-hell? Haven't visited one of those in a while. Not unique, though."
"True." Wesley sipped his coffee. He made a face as he swallowed, like he wanted to spit it out but was too polite. "This one, however, has one vital unique attribute."
"Lemme guess." Spike stuck the unlit cigarette in his mouth. "S'a good place to hide your apocalypse busting –thing- whatever – from prying eyes."
"Exactly." Wesley set his mug down on the table, almost untasted. Around them, the buzz of conversation filled the muggy air of the diner. The windows were smeared with condensation, obscuring the view of downtown Anchorage.
"It's a curious place," Wesley went on, a faraway look on his face. "Where the crystal has to be taken, I mean. When I first saw it, I couldn't believe my eyes. But it's there, and it'll do the job."
"And you know this how?" Buffy sipped at her own coffee. Black, it tasted okay.
"Like I told you," Wesley said, "through years of patient research. Ever since I was reinstated at Wolfram & Hart, first in my old position, and latterly as C.E.O., I've been looking for a way to finish what Angel started. With your help, hopefully this time I'll succeed."
Buffy could almost feel Spike's eyes boring into her at the mention of Angel's name. She studiously didn't look at him.
"You haven't said how come they reinstated you."
Wesley had been in the act of taking another sip of his coffee. Maybe he hadn't quite believed what his taste buds had told him the first time?
"I beg your pardon?"
"Why did they reinstate you? You turned on them – betrayed them. Dead or alive, why would they put you back in a position of trust?"
Wesley put his mug down again very, very carefully and clasped his hands together.
Buffy folded her arms, pleased. "I thought so."
She did look at Spike this time, to see his wintry blue gaze go from her to Wesley and back again. The unlit cigarette was lying on the table.
Wesley cleared his throat. "From what I understand – from what I've been told – the Senior Partners had their eyes on me even before Angel's attempted coup. Since loyalty has always been rewarded at Wolfram & Hart, my decision to help Angel, rather than telling against me, was a point in my favour."
Spike laughed his dirty snigger of a laugh. "You mean you lived down to their expectations?"
"You could say that."
Spike shook his head. "Maybe I should've signed that sodding contract after all? Would probably have made C.E.O. myself by now."
Wesley's knuckles went white.
"Believe me, Spike, if you've ever done a single intelligent thing in your life – hard to credit, I know – not signing a Wolfram & Hart contract was definitely it."
"Watch it, Percy!" Spike snarled, the people in the next booth turning around to stare at the sound of his raised voice. But Buffy interjected.
"That's enough, both of you."
Spike kept his hostile gaze on Wesley. "Sorry, love. Like I said back in L.A., never could stand the stuck-up smug bastard, and he's even worse now he's dead."
"At least I'm not a hypocrite." Wesley's tone dripped acid.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Spike was half on his feet, but once again Buffy broke in.
"Spike, I said that's enough. Any more of this, and I'll leave you behind."
That got his attention. He opened his mouth to protest, then seemed to think better of it. Dropping his gaze, he sat down again and folded his arms.
"And you." Buffy turned on Wesley. "Stop trying to provoke him. Like you said, he was smart not to sign anything, and it's not his fault you did."
Wesley frowned, and Buffy repressed a smirk. She must have hit a nerve.
"This is getting us nowhere," she said. "Or at least, only as far as Alaska. How do we get to this shrimp world, and once we're there, where do we take the crystal?"
"Don't see why we had to come to sodding Alaska in the first place," Spike muttered. "And in winter. S'bloody freezing."
Wesley half-smiled. "Think of it as a dry run. It'll be a lot colder where we're going."
He turned to Buffy. "In answer to your questions, we get to the ice world through a portal. Once we're there, we follow the trail of supply depots I laid to our destination at the very heart of it."
"Well, good-" Buffy began, but Wesley's gaze was back on Spike.
"As for why we've come to Alaska, I've found it a convenient place to practise the necessary skills required for the trip, plus it seemed a more likely vacation spot for me than, say, Siberia, in case anyone back in L.A. had become curious during the last five years about my plans. As it is, they think I've taken up a nice, healthy outdoor hobby, which I indulge in once or twice a year."
"S'pose," Spike conceded. "When you say 'necessary skills', you mean –"
"Cross country skiing," Wesley said, in a patient tone. "Polar travel survival techniques. I'm reasonably proficient now, but you two will need to learn fast." He smiled a conciliatory smile. "I know it's a tall order, but I thought with your superior strength and co-ordination, you would find it easier than we mere mortals. Then there's the sled and sled dogs to be hired."
"Sled dogs?" Buffy exclaimed, as the same time as Spike's mouth dropped open.
"What the fuck? Who the bloody hell do you think you are? Captain Scott?"
Wesley smiled his insufferable, superior smile.
"I would hope not."
Spike gave Wesley a dark look. "Me too."
"Who's Captain Scott?" Buffy asked.
She stared from one of them to the other, while they gaped at her in astonishment. The hostility in their expressions had evaporated instantaneously. Instead, they had this weird, almost conspiratorial look, like they were sharing some special kind of British secret knowledge to which she, and other dumb Yanks, weren't privy.
"Tell me!" she insisted.
Spike’s lips thinned. "Captain Scott was this complete and total wanker who led the British expedition that reached the South Pole in 1912."
"Oh." She blinked. "Good on him."
"Not so good, in fact," Wesley cut in. "Scott's party had aimed to reach the Pole first, but they were beaten by a Norwegian expedition led by Amundsen, and…"
"…and they all died on the way back," Spike finished for him. "'Cos Scott was, as I said, a complete and total wanker."
"I don't agree," Wesley said, sharply. "If you're thinking of Huntford's biography, it's my opinion that he maligned Scott to the point of libel."
Spike glowered. "Not talkin' about any sodding book. Bloke was a wanker. Take my word for it."
"Oh." Wesley sat back in his seat, looking half-stunned, while Spike had a smug expression on his face – a self-justified cat that had got the cream.
Buffy sighed. The way these two were acting around each other, this road trip, or sled trip – whatever – was shaping up to be a whole lot less than fun.
The sky had gone grey. Down near the horizon it was charcoal-coloured. Not a good sign.
"That storm's coming fast." Spike indicated the overcast with a nod of his head as he struggled with the tent. "And fuck this thing! Thought it was supposed to be easy-assembly."
"Let me." Wesley did something – Buffy wasn't sure quite what – and the next moment, the tent was fully raised, its bright orange dome a cheerful splash of colour in the gloom.
Spike scowled at Wesley's back as Wesley began unloading the sled and carrying things inside the tent.
"Was just gonna do that myself."
"Of course you were," Wesley said, over his shoulder, and Spike's upper lip lifted from his teeth in a half-snarl – which looked way weird when he was in human face.
Buffy tensed, expecting another fight, but after a moment, Spike turned away.
"I'll sort out the dogs," he said. "Get 'em fed before the storm closes in."
"Good idea." Buffy busied herself with helping Wesley, while the usual cacophony of barks and yelps greeted Spike's arrival amongst the dog-pack.
Something soft and cold brushed Buffy's cheek, and she looked up to see the air full of snowflakes – more and more of them spiralling down in the rising wind.
It still amazed her that the dogs could survive outside through a storm. Once or twice, they'd had to dig them out from under foot-deep drifts, only to find them curled up underneath, bodies huddled together in a warm, smelly heap, fast asleep.
"Looks like a bad one," Wesley muttered. Yet again, he was squinting back the way they'd come. Not that you could see a damn thing in the gathering murk.
"Yeah well, if it stops us in our tracks, it's gonna stop whatever's after us too."
Wesley blinked. "Ah."
"What?" She pushed past him into the tent with the last box of supplies. "Shocked to discover we're not as stupid as you thought?"
Wesley's face remained a careful blank. "Not at all, I assure you."
"Like hell." She glowered at him, but let the subject drop. Right now, she was hungry and they needed to get the stove going, which was never easy when it was extra-windy.
By the time Spike pushed his way into the tent, zipping the flap behind him, she'd succeeded in nudging the damn thing into stuttering life, but the gas canister was obviously getting low.
"How many canisters left?" Spike asked, as she set a pan full of snow on the stove to melt.
"Some. Good thing we made the depot." She cleared her throat, unwilling to discuss their situation in front of Wesley. It was more than possible that Spike had been right about him all along.
"Yeah." Spike tore off his gloves and threw them down on his pack. He pushed back his parka hood, revealing unkempt hair all gone to curls and a full, though scanty, beard much darker in colour.
"How much further is it to this – wherever we're heading, and why exactly are you so cagey about it anyway?" Spike was talking to Wesley, who was huddled in the corner he'd staked out as his own, book in hand as usual.
Wesley looked up, still in poker-face. "Not cagey at all. Like I said, it's a place at the centre of this dimension – its cold, dead heart, if you will. As for a timescale, I'd say no more than a week – if this storm doesn't hold us up."
"That's a very big if." The snow in the pan was melting fast. Even so, it would be a while before she could put their supper on to cook, and she had to eat before Spike could.
"True." Wesley spoke in his habitual calm voice that had the unfortunate effect of making him sound extra-British and superior.
Buffy bristled. She couldn't help it. After weeks of it, that voice was getting to her the way it was getting to Spike.
"And will the storm hold up whatever's on our tail? You never did say."
Wesley put his book down carefully – the same one, she saw, about the dumb British guys who died at the South Pole. "I wasn't aware it was a question."
"Well, it is. And you've been acting spooked ever since we came up the ice-fall." She was on her feet. "What the hell is your problem?"
"Easy, Slayer." Spike's voice was a low murmur, but he was standing right behind her, getting her back, as always.
That's rich, coming from you, she wanted to say, but instead she kept her eyes fixed on Wesley.
Wesley's face was deathly pale, a pallor accentuated by all the unkempt black beard, and with that weird greyish tinge to his skin more pronounced than ever.
"It's – unfortunate," Wesley said, at last, "but it seems my –er, theft has been noticed rather sooner than I’d hoped."
"Theft?" She glared at him. "What the hell did you steal, and who from?"
He cleared his throat. "In actual fact – the crystal. And I stole it from Wolfram & Hart."
"What?" Spike lunged forward but Buffy stuck out an arm and held him back.
"Let him talk – finally."
Wesley's eyes darted from one of them to the other, but they had him cornered now – literally. Outside, the wind had risen to a scream.
Wesley raised his voice above the sound.
"I'm sorry. I thought if I told you, you might think the mission not worth the risk."
"Not think calling time on the apocalypse for good is worth the risk?" Spike was snarling, in game-face. "This is the Slayer you're talking to – the greatest champion of good left on earth - not a fucking mercenary."
Buffy's face grew warm at Spike's words. "Hush, Spike. Let him finish."
Wesley cleared his throat again. "I'm very aware of Ms Summers' –er, status, Spike, I assure you. Why else do you think I turned to her for help? However, as head of your organisation, I knew she would weigh the pros and cons of this mission, and it occurred to me that if she knew every single detail she might well conclude it was more practical to try and find a different solution to the problem."
"And what's wrong with that?" Spike didn't sound much mollified.
Wesley's lips were a firm white line. "I don't think there is one."
The water on the stove was bubbling merrily now. Buffy's empty belly grumbled – boil in the bag meatballs, yay! – but she ignored it.
"There's always a different solution."
Wesley shook his head. "Not this time."
"Arsehole!" Spike muttered. He was still straining against her arm, like a dog waiting for the signal to go for the throat.
She tightened her grip on him. "Okay, say just for the sake of argument that you're right. You stole this crystal from your evil employers, to whom you're bound body and soul for eternity, and you thought they wouldn't notice?"
"Oh, I knew they'd notice," Wesley admitted. "I just hoped it wouldn't be so soon. The crystal was kept in the Wolfram & Hart vaults. I – liberated it, and replaced it with a magical replica. Easily good enough to fool all but the closest scrutiny."
"Well, it looks like it's been scrutinised," Spike snarled. "What have they sent after us, you tosser?"
Wesley looked down. "I don't know – just that it'll be fast, strong and unrelenting. That's why I needed you along – for protection."
"Great." Buffy threw up her hands. "Just – great."
"Shall I kill him?" Spike's tone was so matter-of-fact that she gaped at him in astonishment.
"Not like it'll do him any real harm," Spike protested. "Bastard's bound by his contract. He'll be back ten minutes later."
She rolled her eyes. "What would be the point, then?"
His eyes met hers, sparking like topaz. "Oh, no point. It'd just feel so fucking good."
"I'm sorry," Wesley said, not sounding sorry at all. "I knew you wouldn't trust me, and it seemed politic to gloss over certain facts – for the sake of the mission."
Buffy dropped a foil-wrapped carton into the boiling water. "Actually, Wes, it's not quite a bad as Spike suspected."
Wesley blinked again. "It's not?"
"No. He thought you'd brought me here on Wolfram & Hart’s orders - to assassinate me."
"Oh." Wesley looked non-plussed. Then he picked up his book. "Well – I'm glad we've cleared the air, then."
Later, belly full as it could get on these kind of rations, she crawled into her sleeping bag next to Spike's. He was lying on his side, curled up with his back to her, but he wasn't asleep, she knew. It would be hard for anyone to sleep with the wind screaming like this and the tent booming and flapping, like it was about to take off.
She moulded her body to his, wrinkling her nose slightly at the funky way he smelt – a combination of unwashed vampire and sled dog, but then she probably smelt pretty funky herself. He wriggled a bit, and she squirmed closer, knees tucked into the curve of his ass, with the layers of down sleeping bag in between.
"Here." She stuck her arm out of the sleeping bag and put her wrist to his mouth.
He shook his head. "I'm okay."
"Don't be stupid. You haven't fed since yesterday."
He turned his head to look at her. He was in human face, but his eyes were still bright as a cat's.
"Not hungry. Can grab a bite off the dogs tomorrow."
She sighed. It wasn't the first time they'd had this conversation.
"The dogs are off limits, mister, and you know it. Feed - and that's an order."
Their gazes locked, but he was the first to look down. "Doesn't sit right," he muttered.
"Well, it sits just fine with me." She offered her wrist again, and this time, he pressed a quick kiss to where the vein throbbed under the skin.
"I love you," he said.
"Love you too. Now don't keep me waiting."
His eyes flared yellow and she felt the delicate prick of fangs.
The first thing Buffy noticed was the noise – the constant raucous barking that never stopped. The next thing she noticed was the smell.
She clapped her hand to her nose.
"It stinks here."
Wesley was breathing carefully through his mouth. "Unfortunately, yes. I've seen enough of these places over the last five years, and they're all the same, though this is a great deal worse than some."
"You haven't used this outfit before then?" Spike glared at him suspiciously. "Place is a fucking dump. Why not go back to where you already know the dogs'll be up to snuff?"
Wesley smiled his superior smile. "This may be a small, backwoods operation, but it comes highly recommended by the online dog-sledding community. As to why I choose not to return to somewhere I've patronised before, I would have thought that was obvious to the meanest capacity."
Spike's eyes narrowed. "Patronised is the right sodding word."
"Let's go see the dogs, okay?" Buffy cut in quickly. "Sounds like they loathe each other even more than you two."
Spike blinked. "Loathe? Nah - bastard's not worth the effort."
"My sentiments exactly." Wesley shrugged. "Lead on, Ms Summers."
They crunched their way across the snowy yard in the direction of the racket. It was weird, Buffy thought, to see Spike dressed the way he was, in hiking boots and parka - and the fact that he’d managed to find a black parka amid all those primary colours in the store still made her want to laugh.
The sled dogs were tethered out in the open, with no kennels or shelter of any kind. As they approached, the barking grew even more frantic. Every dog was on its feet, straining against its leash, snapping and snarling like mad things.
They were beautiful looking creatures – more like wolves than dogs, with thick coats that ranged in colour from smoky grey to cream. But they looked fierce and their eyes were wild. Buffy liked dogs, but she had no desire whatsoever to pet one of these.
"Friendly bunch, aren’t they?" Spike had his hands thrust in his parka pockets – standing, in fact, the way he stood when he wore his duster, but the effect wasn’t quite the same, and again Buffy had to stifle a snort of laughter.
While he was speaking, the noise had died down a little. Buffy saw one of the dogs – smaller than the others but with a sly look about it, which might be down to the extra-slant-y bright blue eyes – cock its head, as if listening.
The minute Spike had finished talking, the noise was back redoubled, but there was a different note to it this time – more snarl-y than bark-y – and now all the dogs’ venom was directed Spike’s way. Buffy had the feeling that if anyone had untied them, they would have gone for him in a pack and torn him to pieces.
"I suppose they sense what you are, Spike," Wesley remarked. "As I understand it, animals can."
As if Wesley's voice had been a signal, several of the dogs re-directed their fury towards him, lips pulled back from their teeth, straining against their leashes until they almost choked. Wesley took a step back, frowning.
"Yeah, probably." Spike smirked, then winced at a particularly loud burst of barking. His eyes were on the dog pack the whole time, looking from one animal to another, as if trying to decide which would be tastiest.
Suddenly, vampire-fast, he’d darted forward and seized the small, sly-looking dog by the scruff of the neck, dragging it out from amongst its fellows and across the snowy ground as far as its tether would stretch.
The dog snapped and snarled, twisting its lithe body frantically, but it couldn’t break Spike’s grip. Meanwhile, the other dogs were still barking, but with less enthusiasm, as if afraid it might be their turn next.
Spike shook the dog hard, still holding it by the scruff, while his other hand clamped around its open mouth and forced it closed, pinching its nostrils shut with two gloved fingers.
"Spike!" Buffy reached for him. "What the hell are you doing? You’ll suffocate him."
But Spike had crouched down, eyes only for the dog. Their gazes were locked, Buffy saw, while behind her, Wesley muttered, "Interesting."
Spike vamped out. His lips drew back to reveal his fangs and he snarled at the struggling animal, just as savage as any of the dog pack.
The dog’s eyes widened. It ceased struggling and instead began to whimper and cower.
"Yeah," Spike lisped through his fangs. "Mine’r bigger, and don’t you bloody forget it. Wanker!" And he shook the dog again, before letting it go and nudging it away with his foot.
As it retreated to its fellows, tail between its legs, Buffy saw it look back at Spike in a way that struck her as almost calculating, like it was weighing up its options.
"You’ll have to watch that one," Wesley said.
Spike had risen to his feet. He shook away his vampire features.
"Just gotta show the little bastard who's boss, that’s all."
At that moment, a door slammed behind them, and they turned to see a tall man, built like a linebacker, in a lumberjack shirt and fur hat, standing in the cabin door, underneath the handwritten sign, nailed slightly askew, that read Sam’s Adventure Trails. He had a huge, bushy beard. Buffy didn’t think she’d seen a single man without one since they’d driven out of Anchorage.
"I see you folks know about sled dogs," the man said. "You the Summers party?"
"That’s us." Wesley shook the proffered hand and Buffy saw him wince as the man squeezed it. She held out her own hand.
"Sam Wilson – call me Sam. Pleased to meet you Mrs Summers." His eyes widened in surprise at the strength of her handshake.
Spike didn’t offer to shake hands. Instead, he teased a pack of cigarettes out of his parka pocket, opened it and lit one. He kept glancing at the dogs, Buffy saw, especially the one with the blue eyes.
"You have to watch him," Sam said, echoing Wesley. "He's a crafty one – good lead dog, though, even though he's kind of scrawny."
Spike exhaled smoke through his nostrils into the frosty air. "Clocked him for the leader right away. Looks like a troublemaker to me."
"No way!" Sam shook his head. "He just needs a firm hand, that's all. He'll be fine, you'll see, ‘long as you folks know what you’re about."
"We do," Wesley assured him blandly, and Buffy supposed that for Wesley this was true. Not that he’d made any attempt to go near the dogs himself after their hostile reception.
Sam grinned. "Well, sure you do, or you wouldn't be here. But I’ll need to see that for myself before I let you take ‘em out alone. There’s a practise trail behind the cabin. You can put ‘em through their paces – get back into the swing of it."
"Of course." Wesley continued to smile, as Sam led them in the direction of the outhouse.
"Sled is through here," Sam said. "I don’t get many calls for the old-fashioned wooden ones, but you can’t beat 'em for sturdiness."
As they followed him into the barn, Buffy turned and looked back at the dogs again. The small one was watching them intently, head down on its paws, narrow face tilted, all blue eyes and doggie cheekbones.
"What?" Spike took a final drag on his cigarette and ground it out beneath his heel.
"It's that dog." She grinned at him. "It sort of reminds me of you."
His mouth dropped open. "Sod that."
The wind sounded like tortured souls in agony. The tent boomed, straining against its guy ropes. If the storm got any worse, it would fly away altogether
Buffy was tempted to put her hands over her ears to block out the noise, but she resisted the urge. Besides, if it was bad for her, what must it be like for Spike, with his vampire-sensitive hearing?
"Are you sure the dogs are okay in this? It seems even worse than last time." She raised her voice above the din, addressing Spike, who slumped next to her on top of their sleeping bags, unfastening his boots.
"Think so." Spike licked dry, chapped lips. "S’long as their picket lines don’t come loose. If they do, the wankers’ll be off, no stopping ‘em."
"That’s – not really what I meant." Buffy winced, as the wind seemed to pick up yet another notch.
"What then?" Spike had one boot off. He began to unfasten the other.
"I meant, won’t they freeze to death out there?"
Spike paused. He looked up at her, one eyebrow raised. "Don’t think so, love. In case you hadn’t noticed by now, they come ready equipped with nice, weatherproof fur coats."
She scowled at his tone.
"Enough with the sarcasm, buster. You’d better be right. It’s not like we can go back and get more dogs."
"Yes," Wesley agreed, mildly. "And, alas, if we fail to return the dogs and sled to Mr Wilson, I’ll lose my deposit, which was no small sum."
Spike rolled his eyes. "Well, boo-fucking-hoo. Wouldn't be a first for you, would it, Percy?" He attacked the stubborn bootlace again. "I know what I'm doing. They’re fed. They’ll be fine. Stop worrying." He jabbed a finger at Wesley. "And it's not like you don't already know that. Done this journey yourself enough times, haven't you?"
Buffy turned to Wesley. "Speaking of which, how far is it again?"
Wesley was holding the wooden box containing the crystal. At her words, he opened it and peered inside before shutting it with a snap. All she saw was a brief silvery flash.
"As I said, distance-wise, it’s not far now. But the terrain between here and our goal is…difficult, as I discovered when I was laying the food depots. And the weather – well, you can see for yourself it's being rather uncooperative."
"Uncooperative!" Spike snorted. "Deadly, more like. Very British and understated way of putting it, Percy, not to mention fucking selfish of you keeping quiet about certain facts before we came here, considering it’s not just your life on the line."
Wesley’s expression seemed to freeze. "I’d forgotten just how much you value your own skin, Spike, even though your continued existence is testament to that fact. I’ll know better next time."
Buffy grabbed Spike’s arm as he made to get to his feet. She couldn’t see his face but Wesley could, and it was telling that Wesley had flinched.
"Sod you!" Spike said, bitterly. "You think you’re so clever, but you know fuck all about me– and even less about her." One finger stabbed in Buffy’s direction. "Don’t you even fucking dare try to second-guess her motives."
Wesley’s exposed throat jerked as he swallowed. He licked his lips. "Forgive me, Ms Summers. I was rude."
"My name's Buffy. And for the hundredth time, could you guys cool it with the macho crap?"
"He started it," Spike muttered, half under his breath. "Fucking ponce! And he's a fine one to talk."
"Enough!" Buffy snapped, but it was too late.
"What are you implying?" Wesley's voice was tight, like he was trying not to grit his teeth.
Spike glanced her way, glaring defiance. Then he sighed. "Nothing."
Wesley's face twisted, and for a moment he looked almost ugly. "You think I made some kind of underhand deal, don't you, to get myself reinstated – perhaps even before our attempt on the Black Thorn Circle? I can assure you that's not the case."
Spike had gone very still. "Why're you here, then? You and not –"
"Spike!" Buffy put her hand on his arm, while her belly clenched itself into knots.
He rounded on her. "It's not like you haven't thought it yourself."
"It's not," she agreed. She turned back to Wesley, who was watching them, blue gaze going from one to the other in a way that struck her as kind of - measuring. "Well?"
Wesley's gaze dropped. "I could just as soon say the same to Spike, and he didn't even have to die first."
Abruptly, Spike shook off her hand and stood up. "You know what? Not sure I can stomach sharing a tent with this arsehole just now. I'm off to see how the dogs're doing. Even those evil little bastards are better company than he is."
He jammed his feet back into his boots and, laces flapping, exited the tent, leaving a blast of icy air, full of snow, in his wake. "Don't turn your back on him, Slayer," he snarled. "Man's a fucking snake in the grass."
Buffy unclenched fists she couldn't remember clenching.
"Whatever you think about him, you're wrong."
Wesley shrugged. "So is he." He rummaged in his pack and brought out his book. Holding it very close to his face, he began to read. She realised she hadn't seen him in glasses since Anchorage.
She watched him for a while, but his face gave nothing away. He hadn't been so good at the inscrutable thing back in Sunnydale, but now he had it down pat. Suspicion gnawed at her. She felt behind her, to where the comforting shape of the Scythe lay in the folds of her sleeping bag.
He looked surprised to be addressed again. "What about it?"
"We get it where it needs to go, it really will do what you say? Stop Wolfram & Hart from ever bringing about this Apocalypse of theirs?"
Wesley considered the matter. "Perhaps not forever, but it will certainly hurt them badly– far worse than what Angel did, and for a great deal longer."
She took her hairbrush out of her bag and began to brush, wincing when it caught in the windblown tangles.
"Then why now? Why didn't you do it before – before Angel…" She couldn't finish the sentence – and dammit, it was a good thing Spike wasn't here.
Wesley's gaze hadn't softened. "If I'd known about it," he said, "I would have tried it. Unfortunately, it was one of those things one doesn't really learn until one enters the belly of the beast."
"Oh." She hoped he would put her watery-eyed look down to the tangles. "That's too bad."
"Agreed." His gaze was on his book again. "Still, better late than never."
When Spike returned, shoulders shelved with snow and smelling horribly of raw meat and dogs, she was lying with her face to the tent wall, ears humming with the force of the wind outside, eyes dry as stones.
"I still can't believe Sam bought that you knew what you were doing." Buffy had to raise her voice above the barking of the dogs and the swishing of sled runners on snow.
How the dogs could bark while they were running, she didn't know, but they could. The sled jerked and swayed this way and that over bumps and potholes, but overall it ran smoothly. On either side of the trail, tall pines, caked in snow, raised dark branches to the night sky. Somewhere, off amongst the trees, an owl hooted.
Spike was standing on the runners, leaning forward over her head. Sometimes he'd shout 'mush' or 'dig, dig' to get the dogs to pull harder, or 'easy, easy' to make them slow down. He glanced down at her.
"Dunno what makes you think I don't."
It certainly seemed that he did. "I guess I just…" Her words trailed off.
He raised his voice over a particularly loud burst of barking. "Told you way back when in Sunnydale that I loved dog racing, didn’t I? What did you think I meant?"
"Er.." She had no come back to that either.
"'Course," he conceded. "Things've changed since I last did this stuff. For a start, was in Russia at the time. Had to yell commands at the dogs in sodding Russian."
"I didn't know you knew Russian." She grabbed hold of the sides of the sled as they bounced over a snow-covered rut, and Spike yelled, "Easy, you bastards! Easy!"
"I don't," he said, when they'd settled down to a steady rhythm again. "At least, just enough to get by with. Angelus was the linguist. I just muddled along – pointed at stuff and spoke slowly and clearly– typical Brit abroad, in fact."
She smiled. "Typical American abroad too."
The mention of Angelus made her nape hairs prickle. Spike rarely talked about the old days, and he never talked about Angel – not any more. Not since that day she’d found him lying under a pile of dead demons in an L.A. alley and had to tell him that Angel was dead.
She hunkered down in the sled, under the blankets and water proof cover, imagining the two of them, Spike and Angelus, driving at night over some snowy Russian steppe – which were- confusingly- flat, so she'd read. They'd have a fancy sleigh, like Santa's, and they'd crack their whips over the racing dogs' heads and laugh together about their last kill, while Darla and Drusilla sat snug behind them, with those big Russian fur hats on their heads and a fur wrap over their satin-gowned knees.
Spike didn't have a whip. He'd said no sled driver worth his salt needed one. And anyway, she thought, dogs could never have pulled a sled that big.
Away to their right, Wesley was keeping up pretty well on his skis. He moved quickly on them, almost running, his breath clouding the air around his face. She was getting better at skiing, after the crash-course at Alyeska. It was fun, but it made her legs ache.
Overhead, ribbons of coloured light danced in the sky – red, blue and green. She stared up at them, dazzled by their beauty. Whatever else happened on this trip, she wouldn't regret seeing the aurora.
Wesley shouted suddenly. He'd stopped and was pointing with one ski pole towards where a dark rock formation crowned with a spinney of pines loomed out of the snow to the side of the trail.
Spike shouted commands, and the sled veered in the direction of the rocks. When they were almost in its shadow, he yelled "Whoa!" and the sled came smoothly to a halt. The dogs all turned around to stare at him, panting. The leader was doing its Spike-like head-tilt again.
"Nicely done," Wesley said, as he skied to a halt nearby. "It seems you have an affinity with the beasts."
Spike took offence at once. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
Wesley smiled, though his eyes didn't. "Nothing."
"Like hell!" Spike muttered, and the dogs seemed to take their cue from him, snapping and snarling at Wesley, until Spike yelled, "Shut the fuck up!"
The silence after that was absolute, while above them, the aurora flowed across the sky in great, indifferent sheets of colour.
"Magnificent, isn't it?" Wesley had noticed Buffy staring.
"Yes," she agreed, while Spike muttered, "Saw better in Russia back in the day."
"That's enough!" She kept her voice low, even though the antagonism between the two men was getting on her nerves more and more.
Spike didn't answer. He was staring at the lead sled dog, which was staring back at him, clever blue eyes narrowed. "Wanker!" Spike hissed, though whether he meant the dog or Wesley was impossible to say.
Wesley cleared his throat. "This is the place I usually open the portal. It’s as good as any. In fact, better."
"And you work that out how exactly?" Buffy climbed out of the sled and stretched her cramped limbs.
"Well," Wesley bent down to unfasten his skis, "it's not an exact science, but this spot is distinct. Easy to remember. A good anchor point."
"’S’true." Spike had taken his gloves off and lit a cigarette. The scent of tobacco seemed stronger in the crystal clear air. "Pick your spot and angle right and the portal'll be almost invisible viewed from this side – like a tunnel in the rock. If things're like Wes says on the other side – no land, no vegetation of any kind, just a frozen ocean - it'll show up from miles away. You couldn’t bloody miss it, even if you didn’t have a nose like mine that can sniff out magic a mile off."
"Exactly." Wesley stood his skis upright in the ground, his ski poles beside them. He went over to the rock and pressed his ear to it, as if listening.
Buffy unloaded her own skis from the sled. "What the hell is he doing?"
Spike shrugged. "Some dark mojo or other. Best not enquire too closely."
"Yeah, you’re probably right."
Buffy patted the comforting shape of Willow’s magical homing beacon in her pocket. Even if Willow couldn't be here in person to scope out whether Wesley was on the level, it was good to know she was only a spell away. Or as good as magic ever was.
"Christ!" Spike muttered under his breath, like he'd read her thoughts. "I fucking hate this stuff."
"Me too." Buffy busied herself putting her skis on, which she managed better this time around.
Wesley was standing back from the tower of rocks now. He'd taken the box containing the crystal out of his parka pocket and was holding it outstretched, like he was offering it to the rock formation as a gift. Then, he opened the box.
Buffy threw up a hand to shade her eyes at the same time as Spike did, while the dogs, which had hunkered down in the snow, startled to their feet, yelping.
The light wasn't soft as it had been back in Wesley's office in L.A. but bright – pulsing rapidly. It seemed to come equipped with sound this time too, a low-pitched hum that set the ground trembling and the dogs barking like mad things.
Above the sound, Buffy could hear Wesley's voice chanting, though she couldn't make out the words. The air seemed to throb, growing difficult to breathe. She could smell ozone.
Suddenly, the lead dog made a break for it. The ganglines went taut and the whole pack was careering off back down the trail. Only Spike's safety rope kept him from an ignominious fall off the sled.
"Whoa, you bastards! Whoa!"
"Spike!" Buffy made to go after him, but tripped over her skis and fell.
"Dammit!" She came up, spluttering snow, to find Wesley standing over her.
"Need a hand?" He held out his.
"Thanks." Hot-faced, she allowed him to haul her to her feet and hand over her ski poles.
The air still throbbed, but less so, and the light had gone, with the crystal, back into Wesley's pocket.
Buffy blinked, peering at the rocks, but she couldn't see anything, except maybe a vague shimmering on the ground at their foot. "That's it?"
"Indeed." Wesley was putting on his own skis again. "I’ve hidden it at the base of the rocks, where the snow will conceal it from the idly curious. All we need now is the sled."
Back down the trail, lost in the trees, they could hear Spike shouting, and a cacophony of frantic barks.
When the sled finally reappeared, Spike looked thunderous and the sly-faced lead dog was - Buffy was sure it was grinning a self-satisfied grin.
Spike brought the sled to a halt beside them again.
"What the fuck are we standing around here for, then?" he growled. "Where's this sodding portal?"
"This way." Wesley pushed off smoothly on his skis and Buffy followed him, while the sled brought up the rear.
"Easy, easy!" Spike growled, and, as they came into the shadow of the rock, half under his breath, "This is bloody stupid."
In front of them, Wesley winked out of existence and the next moment, Buffy felt a horrible, whirling, churning sensation. She heard herself cry out. Then she was spiralling around, tighter and tighter, like travelling the whorls in a seashell. She almost expected to meet herself coming back the other way.
The impact of her skis hitting the ground jarred her whole body while the darkness of night gave way to what at first she took for daylight.
"Spike – get down!" But she'd done no more than turn around to grab hold of him as the sled drew level when she realised she was wrong.
Spike hauled back on the bridle. "Whoa! Whoa!" and the sled glided to a halt.
"Bloody hell!" he muttered under his breath
Buffy swallowed her nausea. She drew in a lungful of air and almost choked on the sheer, pure clarity of it.
"Oo-oh, boy!" She gazed around her in wonder.
They were on a snow-covered plain, which stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see, undulating gently in places. Above their heads, the sky was indigo blue, paling to azure at the edges and in the nimbus around the bright silver-gold moon right above them in the sky.
"Look." Spike pointed, and she followed his gaze towards the horizon, where another moon - a crescent - hung like a question mark. This moon was blue, shading to lilac where the light of the silver moon struck it.
"It's beautiful!" Buffy realised her jaw had dropped and shut her mouth with a snap. Breath gusted out of her nostrils like smoke. It was cold – far colder than the Alaskan winter they'd left behind. The frigid air seemed to burn her nostrils when she breathed in. Hurriedly, she pulled up her scarf to cover her mouth and nose.
Spike shrugged. "S’pose. If you like that sort of thing." But his eyes shone with excitement.
Wesley skied to a stylish, snow-churning halt a few feet from the sled. He pushed back the hood of his parka. "That went rather well, I think."
Buffy glanced behind them, then did a double-take. From this side, the portal was, like a hole in the air, with the black rock formation and its crown on trees on the other side clearly visible, except upside down.
"Weird." She shivered.
"Just so," Wesley agreed. "And sorry if it's all rather…disorientating."
She frowned. "I'm fine. Not the strangest thing that's happened to me by a long way." She hoped she sounded convincing.
"Quite." Wesley smiled in a way that struck her as extra-patronising. Fishing in his parka pocket, he brought out the box containing the crystal and opened it. The crystal glowed softly in its velvet bed.
Buffy peered closer to look, but Wesley turned away from her a little, blocking her view of the gem.
She craned around him, trying to see. "So - which way is it?"
Wesley's gaze was fixed on the crystal. Shutting his eyes, he bent near to it as if listening to something. Then, abruptly, he shut the box lid with a snap and pointed.
Buffy peered in the direction Wesley indicated. It looked pretty much like the other three directions– an undulating plain of ice, covered in a fine spindrift of new-fallen snow, stretching towards the horizon. She became intensely aware suddenly of layers of ice beneath her feet, miles thick, and underneath them, a bottomless ocean full of nothing but shrimp.
She shook her head. Okay, so maybe this was the strangest thing that had ever happened to her, bar falling for Spike.
"Watch it, you!"
Spike's voice snapped her out of her reverie. She turned to find him out of the sled and almost nose to nose with the lead sled dog, which was regarding him sleepily out of blue, almond-shaped eyes.
"Bastard!" Spike muttered, busy untangling tug lines. "You did that on purpose."
The dog's long pink tongue poked out of its mouth. It panted, looking pleased with itself, while the other dogs crowded close, fawning on it.
"Get back – bunch of arse lickers!" Spike nudged them away with his knee and they went, but reluctantly.
"Trouble in paradise?" Wesley asked, and Spike rounded on him.
"None of your fucking business."
Buffy sighed. She'd never known Spike so consistently bad-tempered before. This macho stuff had really gotten old real fast – to the point where it was hardly worth telling him to rein it in.
"We should get going," she said. "Guess I'll stick to the skis. Wes can hitch a lift on the sled, if he wants."
Right now, the thought of being ahead of the sled, and well away from the two men and their constant bickering was very appealing.
Wesley pulled up his parka hood. "I'll stick to the skis too, I think."
"Don't want your company anyway." Satisfied with his untangling, Spike crunched his way around to the rear of the sled again, refastened his safety line and stepped up on the runners. His chin, Buffy noticed, was getting kind of bristly, though he had a long way to go to catch up with Wesley, whose heavy five o'clock shadow had become beard some days ago.
"It's not my fault, you know." Wesley said, suddenly. "It really isn't."
Spike gave him a bleak glance.
"You're here, aren't you?"
Buffy wasn’t sure to start with what had woken her. Nothing had changed. The wind was still howling outside, and Spike hadn’t moved. But he was awake. She could sense it. In fact, he'd probably never been to sleep.
She began to sit up, only to feel his fingers close around her wrist and squeeze. He was looking back over his shoulder at her, eyes glowing gold.
"Spike?" she mouthed at him. "What is it?"
He motioned with his head towards the wall of the tent, which thrummed as the force of the wind made it vibrate.
"There’s something out there."
A chill ran down her spine, and not with the cold.
He let go of her wrist and began to struggle out of his sleeping bag, while she did likewise. Meanwhile, in the far corner of the tent, Wesley slept like the dead man he was.
Spike was pulling on his boots. "Whatever they are," he hissed, "they hurt the dogs or damage the sledge, we’re sodding well finished."
"I know that." She fumbled her own boots on, then scrabbled amongst their supplies for the weapons bag. "Here." She tossed him an axe and he caught it clumsily in his gloved hand.
All the while, his head was cocked, straining to hear noises from outside, while his nostrils flared wide, chasing after scents.
Suddenly, he put his finger to his lips and pointed towards the front wall of the tent. Buffy gripped the Scythe more tightly. "How many?"
He held up three fingers. "Dunno what they are," he mouthed back. "Never smelt anything like ‘em."
Great, she thought, but didn’t say aloud. She watched Spike track the progress of whatever-it-was in the direction of the flap.
Suddenly, he whirled. "Wes, wake the fuck up!"
Even as he shouted, the tent wall split apart right next to where Wesley lay sleeping and something – she couldn’t get a bead on it, some kind of walking darkness, vaguely man-shaped– slid inside.
"Spike, two o'clock!" Another shadow shape pushed its way through the flap, while the skin of the tent burst apart in two other places, allowing two more to enter, along with a blast of freezing air filled with whirling snowflakes.
The ceiling of the tent bellied upwards and Buffy heard the creak of straining guy ropes.
"Fuck!" Spike moved forward, axe swinging. Light from the wildly swaying lantern flashed on steel as the blade came down and there was a snarling grunt of pain from one of the shadow shapes. It went staggering backwards to collide with its fellows.
Buffy had only time to observe that whatever the shadow shapes might be, at least they had some kind of substance, before leaping across the intervening space to engage an opponent of her own.
The Scythe sheared through darkness and there was another of those grunting noises, but in spite of that, and in spite of the fact that the shadow shape retreated several paces – or rather flowed away from her- it didn’t feel like she’d struck anything solid.
"Slippery buggers, aren’t they?"
Buffy risked a glance over her shoulder to see the shadow Spike was fighting recover from his initial blow and move back towards him. Meanwhile the third was closing on her from her left. They slipped and slid as they moved, difficult to watch, like an oil spill. She narrowed her eyes to lessen the effect and slashed left, then right, leaping back again while they tried to flow around her.
"Ms Summers – Spike! Help!" It was Wesley's voice.
The original shadow shape had Wesley in a headlock and was attempting to drag him out of the tear it had made in the tent skin. Wesley was clinging on to one of the supports, but his grip was loosening.
"Help me!" he shouted again.
"Hang on, Wes!" Spike lunged forward, plunging his axe blade into what appeared to be his opponent's torso and retreating again. It howled – an eerie, ululating sound – but it barely faltered in its advance. Instead, it brandished its own blade above its head in a showy display of swordsmanship, forcing Spike towards the opposite corner of the tent from Wesley.
Meanwhile, Buffy's two adversaries were still trying to outflank her, but only to her left, where Wesley still struggled. If she moved right towards Spike, they let her go.
Spike had noticed it too. "Fuckers're after Wes, not us!" She heard his roar of fury as he went into vamp face and, all thoughts of finesse forgotten, threw himself on the shadow shape, like a lion on its prey.
Buffy seized the central support of the tent and used it to launch herself into the air and pivot, delivering a thunderous roundhouse kick to her two foes in passing. They staggered back, and before they could flow forward again, she was past the barrier they'd made and barrelling into Wesley's would-be abductor at full-on Slayer speed.
The shadow shape flowed away from her at the last minute, but even so, she managed to dislodge its grip on Wesley's leg. He went staggering forward, colliding head-first with the tent support he'd been clinging to.
"Unh!" Wesley slumped to the ground, while Buffy took up a defensive position in front of him as the three shadow shapes advanced on her.
Beyond them, Spike and his opponent rolled this way and that on the tent floor. It looked like Spike had the upper hand, because as Buffy's eyes flicked from the fight to the three shadows in front of her and back again, the fourth shadow seemed to be coming apart, patches of darkness ripping away from the central column as Spike tore at its outer edges. But even as she watched, she could see how the shreds stealthily knit themselves together again.
"Spike!" Buffy put on her Slayer voice, because even now, he could get lost in a killing frenzy. At the sound, his head came up, fangs bleeding darkness, and he howled. Outside, the dogs howled back. Then, they began to bark.
The other three shadow shapes didn't halt their advance. As one, they raised their weapons, while through the rents in the tent fabric, the wind whistled and wailed, and the dogs went on barking like mad things.
"Come on, then. What're you waiting for?" Buffy raised the Scythe, while the shadow shapes flowed forwards and then back again, wavering, making her dizzy.
She parried the first blow, and the second. The third passed right over her head – too close for comfort – like the cold blast from outside, and she felt a chill settle into her bones.
She took the fight to them, the Scythe blade flashing up, then down, taking shreds of darkness with it – but there was nothing to be seen behind that darkness, except more of the same, flowing back together, indivisible. She parried, stabbed, gave ground – and again, but they kept advancing. She was jammed right into the corner of the tent now, with Wesley at her feet. He groaned. He was regaining consciousness.
"Wes, how the fuck do you kill these damn things?" Spike's yell became a snarl of frustration. He was still tearing, but fighting a losing battle to stop his foe reconstituting itself.
Wesley groaned again. "It's no good ripping bits off it," he slurred. "You have to go for the core – disrupt the energy matrix. From the inside out!"
"Like this, you mean?" Buffy twirled the Scythe around and jabbed the pointed wooden stake on its haft right into the centre of one of the cloaks of darkness. She felt something give, and again came the horrible, ululating howl, which turned to a scream as she ripped up and then downwards.
Suddenly, the shadow began to shrivel, crumbling at the edges like butterfly's wings. Underneath, was just your average demon, it seemed, all spines and horns and claws, its lumpen body covered in scaly hide, like a lizard's. Black blood gushed from its ruined innards, soaking Buffy's arm to the elbow.
"Eww!" She leapt back, bringing the Scythe with her, and the lizard demon crashed to the ground and lay still.
The other shadows hesitated. It seemed that with their dirty secret exposed, they'd lost their mojo. When she lunged at them, they turned tail and ran, out through the tear in the tent wall and away into the storm, Spike’s battered opponent limping after them.
Spike was on his feet, still in vamp face, breathing hard. "What the hell –"he began, voice lisping through bloodstained fangs. But then there was a particularly loud outburst of barking. "Fuck! The dogs!"
The next moment, he was out of the tent in hot pursuit.
"Spike – wait!"
Buffy made to follow him, but Wesley grabbed her arm.
"Ms Summers, if you get lost out there, you'll die."
She shook him off. "I won't get lost, and for crying out loud, Wes, my name's Buffy."
"Spike!" Buffy raised both hands to her mouth and shouted.
The wind whipped her voice away, and she choked as its icy breath entered her throat. Pulling her scarf up to cover the lower part of her face, she peered into the murk.
The wind had dropped a little, but even so, snowflakes whirled crazily in front of her, blasting into her face with stinging force. She could feel her eyelashes beginning to ice up.
Glancing over her shoulder at the tent, she saw Wesley on the inside, attempting to fix one of the rents with the repair kit. They had a spare tent of course, but it was still packed onto the sled and trying to put it up in this storm wouldn’t be easy.
The sled! That was where Spike would have gone. Going back to the tent, she oriented herself carefully, feeling her way along the straining fabric in the direction where the dogs were tethered. They were silent now, which couldn't be good.
Round back of the tent, protected from the wind in its lee, she could see for herself that the dogs were gone. Their picket lines lay slack on the ground, half-buried already under new-fallen snow. Beyond them, a dark shape hulking in the gloom signalled that at least the shadow demons hadn't gotten away with the sled too.
In the circumstances, it was cold comfort - literally.
"Spike, dammit!" Buffy made her way over to the sled, hoping to find Spike there, but there was no sign of him. Again, she peered into the storm. Again, nothing.
Of course, he couldn't die out there, but he could still get lost. Her imagination went into overdrive. Spike – turned to a pillar of ice, frozen into the very substance of this world, still un-living. Forever.
"Buffy." When the voice spoke in her ear, she almost jumped out of her skin. She whirled around, right fist clenched, left forearm raised.
He backed up in a hurry. "S'okay, love. It's me."
She pulled her punch, but just barely. A sock to the jaw was the least of what he deserved for scaring her so badly.
"Spike – where the hell have you been?"
He grabbed her arm, steering her back in the direction of the tent. "In this? Not far. I tracked the dogs for a few hundred yards, but it's difficult to pick up scents in this muck. I had to turn back."
"Good thing too." She wound her fingers tightly into his parka sleeve in case he bolted again. In front of them, the lamplight inside the tent dipped wildly as Wesley set the lamp down on the floor.
Things weren't a whole lot better back inside. Two rents were shored up and Wesley was busy repairing the third, but already, the fabric of the tent was straining at the seams, tearing away from his handiwork.
"Here!" Buffy snatched the repair kit off Wesley and set about fixing the final rent, while Spike heaved the dead demon's body out into the storm, zipped up the flap behind them and shook snow off himself like a dog.
The repairs completed, Buffy threw back her parka hood.
"What were they?"
Wesley answered with his back to her, still meticulously working. "Fortunately for us, a standard Wolfram & Hart retrieval team – Unsichtbar demons, I believe. The cloaking is part of their natural armament, but as you can see, they're not invulnerable."
"Fortunate in what way?" Buffy gestured around them at the chaos in the tent. "They took the dogs, Wes, or drove them off. We're stranded."
"Ah." Wesley paused in his task. "That's very…that's not good."
"You think?" Buffy realised she was shivering. She picked up her sleeping bag and shook it, dislodging snowdrift onto the ground. The air in the tent was icy.
"We should get the stove going." Spike moved forward and crouched down to re-assemble the thing, which had been kicked apart during the fight.
"Agreed." Wesley stood up. "In the circumstances, a cup of tea would be very welcome."
"Tea?" Buffy felt her fists clenching again. "Is that your answer to everything?"
"No, of course not." Wesley almost smiled his superior smile, but seemed to think better of it. "But it can't hurt, can it?"
"Nor can telling us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the sodding truth," Spike muttered with his back to them. "Just for once."
"I don't-" Wesley began, but Buffy held up her hand for silence.
"They were after you, Wes. They weren't interested in us at all. We both noticed that. Care to explain?"
"Yeah." Spike looked back over his shoulder. "Care to explain that –Percy?"
Wesley's face went still again. His forehead looked clammy and his skin was greyer than ever.
"As I said, that was a standard retrieval team, armed only with its natural armaments. I would imagine that, once the theft of the crystal was discovered, it wouldn't have taken long for the Senior Partners to put two and two together and link the theft to my vacation request."
"That makes sense, sure." Buffy shrugged. "And I guess they'll keep trying until they get you – and the crystal - back."
Wesley cleared his throat. "Indubitably. In fact, once they know I have help – which I'm sure they didn't expect, because –well, no one likes Wolfram & Hart employees, we don't have - friends – I would imagine they'll send something a great deal more formidable."
There was a faint whomp! of igniting gas behind Buffy and a clattering as Spike looked through their tumbled belongings for a saucepan.
"Good to know," he muttered. "Would've been even better to have known it before we lost the sodding dogs."
Buffy kept her eyes on Wesley. "What he said."
Wesley had the grace to look apologetic. "I'm sorry. Usually, Unsichtbar demons are focused on their target to the exclusion of everything else. I wouldn't have expected them to take the dogs. They're not known for their strategic thinking."
"Well, you were wrong. Not for the first time."
Wesley looked away. "I know. On the plus side, I think we’ve proved we’re far too formidable for them to take down on their own. And at least you know I wasn't lying when I said I hadn't brought you here to assassinate you."
"I suppose so."
Buffy wiped her hand across her face. She felt unutterably weary suddenly.
"Here, love. Have a seat." Spike turned solicitous at once, throwing a blanket around her shoulders and urging her down into a nest of tossed sleeping bags.
"Don't fuss!" She batted his hand away angrily, but she sat down all the same.
He looked stubborn. "Gotta look after you, Buffy. S'my job. ‘Sides, anything happens to you, the other Slayers'll have my guts for garters."
She sighed. It was true – and the blanket's warmth was very welcome. She let herself zone out for a while, eyes half-closed, listening to the hiss of melting snow in the pan.
A while later, sipping watery hot chocolate, she turned her mind to their very big problem.
"How far to this place, Wes, and break it down for me this time?"
Wesley was cradling his own drink in his hands to warm them. Outside, the wind had dropped to a sullen howl, still hard on the ears but nothing like its earlier scream. "If we had the dogs, another five days' march, I'd say. Without them – I don't know. Twice that long, if we dump some of the supplies to make the sled lighter."
Buffy grimaced. The idea of hauling the sled by hand didn't appeal much, but there was no other option.
"We've come this far. I'm not turning back now. We'll take the spare tent, our sleeping bags, the stove, the lamp and the food. Everything else stays here. We'll pick it up on the way home."
"Fair enough." Wesley nodded.
"Yeah," Spike growled. "How about you leave that sodding book behind an' all."
Wesley took a long swallow of his drink. "Which 'sodding' book would that be?" His tone dripped sarcasm.
"Don't piss about. You know which one. S'like we're doomed to follow in that Scott tosser's footsteps whether we like it or not."
"That's ridiculous!" There was an edge of contempt in Wesley's voice now, and Buffy practically heard Spike's hackles rise in response to it.
"Guys!" She interrupted quickly. "Cool it. We're in enough trouble as it is, okay?"
She turned to Spike. "What does Wesley's book have to do with anything?"
Spike shrugged, looking half-defiant, half-embarrassed.
"S'what Scott did – man-hauling. Except he chose to do it, because he was – as aforementioned many times– a wanker. His men hauled their gear to the South Pole on foot –no dogs – and it killed them. Now, through no fault of our own, we're in the same bloody boat."
"Great." She sipped her chocolate, which tasted kind of oversweet and artificial. "Just great."
Sweat ran down Buffy's back in rivers. Her shoulders and arms ached more than she'd ever thought they could ache, and her thigh muscles weren't in a much better state. Every step forward was agony, the sled resisting their attempts to tug it smoothly forward.
Just their luck that they'd come to this area of rough ice –a swell in the frozen sea - just when they started man hauling.
Spike was in the harness next to her, while Wesley skied alongside, helping to steer the sled over the bumpiest bits of terrain. He'd had a turn pulling, but quickly become so exhausted, she'd told him to stop. He might be some kind of weird zombie without a zombie's bad eating habits, but in the ways that counted he still seemed all too human.
"How're you holdin' up, Slayer?" Spike's words came in gasps, each one articulated separately with a hard-won breath in between. When she turned to look at him, the hectic flush was back across the sharp bridge of his cheekbones, his flesh sinking away beneath them into deep hollows, making his face look almost skull-like. His eyes were feverishly bright.
"I'm fine," she lied. "You?"
"Not too bad," he said, which made her realise he must be in a pretty bad way. Vampires didn't do well without regular meals.
"Another five miles to the depot," she said. "We can do it."
"'Course we sodding well can." But his head sank onto his chest and he didn't speak again.
Above their heads, the red moon shone alone, its rays casting an eerie sunset glow across the ice. Buffy wondered idly how the three moons could be such different colours. Were there three suns too? There could be blue suns, couldn't there, and red ones, as well as yellow ones. And where were they? They never saw them.
She shook her head, blinking sweat out of her eyes. This world made no sense at all. Maybe that was why Wolfram & Hart had had no interest in it. Either that or they had a big hate-on for shrimp.
The sled bumped up and down another wavelet, while Wesley hauled back on it as hard as he could. But he couldn't quite stop its inexorable forward momentum, and Buffy half-ran, half-staggered a couple of paces forward before it caught the backs of her legs.
It was only when the danger was past that she realised she'd been dragging Spike with her, and that he was on his knees now and struggling to get back on his feet.
"Dammit!" She shucked herself out of harness and skis while Wesley hauled on the sled again. "Spike – are you okay?"
Spike shook his head. He looked half-dazed. At the same time, his game face was flickering in and out of view. "Felt better," he muttered, and he shook his head again.
"Maybe I can –" Wesley came forward, but Buffy stuck an arm in his way.
"Stay away from him, Wes. I'm warning you."
"But I'm not –" Wesley began, only to jump back with a yelp as Spike vamped out and lunged at him. "Oh God!"
"Spike! Get a grip, and that's an order!" Buffy put on her Slayer voice, but Spike didn't respond. Instead, he lunged at Wesley again, snarling like an animal, only restrained by the harness that still bound him to the sled.
"He's ravenous," Wesley said.
"That's right." Buffy didn't lower her arm. "He hasn't eaten in four days now – not since we started man hauling. His body's devouring itself."
"But-" Wesley's voice petered to a halt. He cleared his throat. "I would imagine you're not quite up to providing – er, the requisite nourishment just at present."
"You imagine right." Her knees felt weak, even as she spoke. "Guess I'm gonna have to, though – provided we can get him calmed down. He’s no use to anyone like this."
Wesley cleared his throat. "I'm sorry," he said. "I should never have involved you two in this. You don't owe me anything."
She flashed him an irritated glance, then pushed him back again as Spike made another lunge. She was probably going to have to knock Spike out and hog-tie him before she could feed him, and that would delay them yet again.
"We're not here for you, Wes. We're here to save the world, remember? Prevent the apocalypse forever?"
"Oh." Wesley sounded startled. "Of course. I forgot." He indicated Spike. "I'm very sorry this has happened to him, though. Not pleasant."
She scowled. "If you don't like it, don't damn well watch."
He looked hurt. "You misunderstand me. I meant it's not pleasant for him."
"Oh. Gotcha." She was circling to her left, towards the sled. An axe-haft to the back of the head should fell Spike temporarily, but she'd have to be quick and careful.
"And believe me," Wesley went on, "if I thought my own blood would be of any use, I'd willingly donate some. It wouldn't be the first time."
As she fished in their baggage, she decided not to think through the full implications of that statement.
Turning, axe in hand, she gestured to Wesley to move aside. "Out of the way, Wes."
Wesley took one step. Then he froze. "Watch out!"
Even as he spoke, something heavy landed on her back, knocking all the wind out of her and crushing her face into the snow. She struggled, but was held down with ease. A forked tongue flicked her right ear.
It was the Unsichtbar demons. It had to be.
She struggled again, but the Unsichtbar demon was astride her now, knees dug into the snow on either side of her body, pinning her down.
Stale breath, smelling of meat, even worse than the dogs', wafted into her nostrils and she almost retched, while a warm, wet drop of what felt like saliva dripped onto the exposed back of her neck. Where it touched her, it burnt.
Terror gave her strength. Bucking her body wildly, she succeeded in throwing the Unsichtbar demon off, rolling desperately to one side and staggering to her feet. It lumbered after her, squat body blocking her escape, arms with clawed hands spread wide.
The axe haft was still in her hand. She spun the weapon blade up and adopted a defensive stance.
"Bi-ig mistake, letting me back on my feet. I know how to kill you now."
The Unsichtbar demon's tongue flickered in and out of its mouth. It gave no sign it had understood her. Over its shoulder, she could see two of the others dragging Wesley away, while at the front of the sled, Spike was trying to chew his way out of the harness, so far gone that he'd forgotten how to use his hands.
"Spike!" She tried the Slayer voice again. "I need you." If that didn't get through to him, nothing would.
As she spoke, the Unsichtbar demon lumbered towards her. She swung the axe, but before the blade could connect, blackness flowed over the demon's skin, cloaking it from sight, and the blade glanced aside without doing any damage.
"Wes, dammit! Get Spike out of that harness."
A glance Wesley's way showed that wasn't going to happen any time soon. He hung from his captors' grip, limp as an unstrung puppet. His skis lay abandoned on the ground.
A sudden flurry of movement brought her eyes back to her opponent. She dodged to one side as a blade came down, to shear across the surface of the sled, taking chips of wood with it. After that, things got a little confusing. She struck, the Unsichtbar demon parried, she struck again and hit only swirling darkness.
She was panting, and there were coloured spots in front of her eyes. She was moving on autopilot now, only able to block and parry, not to attack, limbs and back aching. And she was giving ground, each step taking her further away from the sled and Spike, feet scrabbling and slipping on ice.
There was sweat in her eyes. She felt a sharp pain in her side just as her feet went out from under her and she fell on her back on the ground. Later, she thought that her sudden fall had probably saved her life, turning what should have been a killing strike into a glancing blow.
The darkness loomed above her. Then it fell away, revealing the face of her demon opponent, grinning down, forked tongue flickering. It raised its sword.
She gritted her teeth. No way was it ending like this.
Even as she dug her boots in hard and flipped back onto her feet, coming in low under the Unsichtbar demon's guard to plunge the axe blade into its belly, there was another flurry of movement and a horrible roaring scream. She rolled clear, to find herself caught in the middle of a frenzied vamp attack.
"Spike!" Buffy staggered to her feet, leaning against the sled with her hand pressed to her bruised side, watching as he tore the Unsichtbar demon apart, ripping the limbs from the trunk, turning it practically inside out. But she had to turn away when he buried his face right inside the exposed guts and began to feed.
"Jesus!" She couldn't help it. This morning's scanty breakfast came back to pay an unwelcome return visit.
She rested her face against the sled, breathing deeply, listening to the sounds of feasting behind her and thinking that she was glad it wasn't often she had to confront this side of Spike's nature.
"Buffy?" His voice was hoarse, but at least it was his voice, not an animal's snarling.
She raised her head to find him attempting to clean the blood off his hands and face with snow. He looked human again, which made the bloodstains around his mouth all the creepier.
He must have guessed her thoughts, because he ducked his head, looking embarrassed. "Sorry, love. Hate you seeing me this way."
She shrugged, hand still pressed to her side. "It's not the first time. Besides, at least you've had something to eat."
He grimaced. "Yeah, tasted fucking horrible, but beggars can't be choosers." Then his brow creased with concern. "You're hurt."
"I'm fine – just bruised. We need to get after them – rescue Wes and the crystal."
"I'll do it," he said. "You stay here." Then, "Did you hear that?" And before she could answer, he was off, loping wolf-like, sure-footed on the icy ground.
"Spike – wait!"
She strained her ears, but heard nothing. Fumbling her skis back on, she hurried after him.
In the end, she didn't have far to go, and it wasn't long before she heard what Spike’s more acute hearing had heard before– the frenzied barking of dogs. At the sound, her heart lurched in her chest and she tried to ski faster despite her protesting muscles.
When she caught up with him, it was like walking into an abattoir. Shreds of dead Unsichtbar demon were strewn across the pristine snow while the sled dogs fought over the tastiest morsels. She stared at the carnage, unable for a moment to take in what it meant. Then, a wave of relief washed over her, so powerful it put her exhaustion to temporary flight.
Wesley lay on the ground nearby, with Spike standing over him. Wesley was conscious, but he didn’t look good. His complexion was greyer than ever.
Buffy skied smoothly to a halt beside them. "What happened?"
Wesley's voice was weak. "Not sure. The dogs came out of nowhere, and they – well, see for yourself. A good thing Spike turned up when he did, or I think they might have gone for me too."
Spike had a big, self-satisfied grin on his face. "Knew they'd be back if they weren't dead. They know who's boss, the bastards."
When Buffy turned to look at the dogs, the blue-eyed one was gazing at Spike, long tongue lolling out of its mouth, its shit-eating grin a mirror of his.
"Good boy. Go-od boy!"
Spike was crouched in front of the blue-eyed sled dog, stroking it and pulling its pointy ears. As Buffy watched, he leaned forward and rubbed his cheek against the dog's furry face. "Knew you'd be back, you wanker! Couldn't live without me, could you?"
The dog panted, looking vastly pleased with itself.
Spike pushed himself to his feet. He went around each of the dogs one by one, insulting and praising them in equal measure as he fastened them back into harness. Task completed, he turned back to Wesley.
"How far to the depot?"
Wesley still looked grey and strained, but he was back on his feet. "Not that far – and it's the last one. After that, it's a straight run to our goal – the heart of this place - where we have to take the crystal."
Spike was staring over Wesley's head, back in the direction they'd come from. "Just as well. Don't like the look of that sky at all."
Buffy glanced around, to see the horizon behind them sunk into a deep wall of blackness, dark as the pit at the bottom of the ice-fall – and the blackness was spreading by increments across the sky. As she watched, lightning zig-zagged through it.
"Another storm?" She sighed. "No fair. We've only just gotten through the last one."
"No ordinary storm." Wesley's face had gone very pale under the greyness. "No more soft-pedalling with retrieval teams. They're coming for us, and they mean business."
"Listen." Spike had gone into vamp face, head cocked. "You hear that?"
"I don't –" Buffy began, but at that moment, the blue-eyed sled dog put back its head and howled, and the others joined in, their voices rising and mingling in eerie chorus.
"Shut i-it!" Spike's voice rose above the noise. A moment later there was silence, save for the constant background whine of the wind.
Buffy cleared her throat. "What do they – what do you hear?"
Spike shrugged. "What I heard five years ago in a dirty alley in L.A. Was raining, and Charlie's life-blood was draining away onto the ground."
Wesley dug his ski poles hard into the snow. "Ironic," he said, as he skied past them. "I missed all that the first time."
The dogs snapped and snarled at him as he went by, like always. Then he was gone and heading off into the distance.
"Come on, love. Jump in." Spike was fastening his safety harness. He indicated the sled.
Buffy shook her head. "I'm fine."
He frowned. "No, you're not. You’re hurt."
As if reminded by his words, her bruised side gave a twinge. She frowned back at him.
"All right, but only for a little while, okay?"
"You're the boss," he said.
The depot stop was brief this time – long enough to feed the dogs and restock the sled and for Buffy to cram some hot food down herself. It was astonishing how much she'd eaten on this trip, and yet she was sure she hadn't gained a single pound – quite the opposite, in fact.
Best diet regime ever.
Her hasty meal finished, she turned to Spike and held out her wrist. He had to be hungry again by now. Demon blood wasn't very nourishing for vampires – the equivalent of fast food, Spike said, only not as tasty
"Feed – and that's an order, mister."
Spike licked his lips. He glanced at Wesley, who was standing well away from the dogs, leaning on his ski-poles, observing them with his usual inscrutable expression.
Buffy frowned. "Never mind him. Just do it – and hurry up before I freeze."
"Fuck!" He seized her wrist in his gloved hands, rubbing the fingers to keep them warm, while he bent his head and vamped out. Fangs pierced her skin with delicate precision and she felt the familiar strong drawing sensation as he began to feed.
She gave him two minutes, but even before she could order him to stop, the cat-rasp of his tongue soothed the incision closed. When he let her go, she jammed her hand back into her glove and took hold of her ski-pole.
"We should get going."
He glanced back at the louring sky. "Yeah."
The world narrowed down to the steady rhythm of their progress, arms and legs moving like clockwork, the ache of protesting muscles forced to the back of the mind – something to think about when there was time to think.
She kept abreast of the sled, Spike's shouts of encouragement and the dogs' answering barks very loud in the icy stillness. Above their heads, the red moon still shone alone, while behind them the darkness spread further up the sky, engulfing the stars as it climbed.
Wesley was some way ahead, but suddenly he stopped and pointed with his ski-pole.
She came up beside him, while Spike brought the sled to a halt.
"What the fuck .?" Spike's mouth had dropped open in astonishment.
"I know," Wesley said. "When I set eyes on it for the first time myself, I thought I'd gone insane."
In front of them, the ground fell away suddenly into a vast, circular pit, the ice at its edges precisely cut as if with a saw. At the bottom of the pit there was open water, an intense dark green in colour, little wavelets, tipped with white foam, breaking against the smooth ice-walls.
Sticking up out of the water, just offshore, like an ominous dark finger, was a tall column of rock, as black as a starless night – so black as to not seem real, like an image seen in negative, throwing the white of its surroundings into an intense, and surreal, relief.
"It's land," Spike said, softly. "Fuck me, if it isn't land."
"That's right," Wesley agreed. "The only solid land in this entire world."
Buffy couldn't take her eyes off it. It was like it had trapped her gaze somehow.
"How can it be here? And how come the water's not frozen? That's – freaky."
"It's a null point," Wesley said. "Its effects are felt to varying degrees throughout this dimension, increasing as you near this place, but here, the effect becomes total. On that outcrop of rock, nothing works – not machines, not magic, not even simple physical laws. That's where we have to take the crystal."
Buffy looked from the finger of rock to the edge of the pit and back again. The water was a very long way down. There was no sign of the fabled shrimp.
"This another reason why you couldn’t do it alone?"
"Exactly." Wesley was unfastening his skis. "I decided I couldn't take the risk. If I'd fallen trying to reach the null-point – well, all those years of planning – all that effort laying the depots - would be wasted, and Wolfram & Hart would still have their apocalypse."
Spike had unfastened his safety line. He came to stand next to them, while the dogs settled down to rest, heads on paws, coats steaming.
"That's just…the whole thing's fucking insane."
"Yes." Wesley smiled wryly. "Or possibly very, very sane."
He swung his pack off his back and set it on the ground. "The quickest way to get across, I think, is if I rope myself up and you literally throw me. It's not that far. With your superior strength, between you, you should be able to manage it."
Buffy shrugged off her own pack. "And then what?"
Wesley blinked, as if he didn't quite understand the question. "I place the crystal on the null-point."
"And?" She rolled her sore shoulders. "It nullifies Wolfram & Hart's Apocalyse-y plans for good?"
Wesley was fishing in his pack for ropes and karabiners. "Something like that."
"Sounds awfully convenient-" she began, but then the sled dogs leapt to their feet barking raucously and Spike muttered, "Too late."
It had gotten very dark. In the sky, the red moon was obscured behind a black blanket of cloud – cloud that was twisting itself into discrete dark funnels, like small tornadoes, and spiralling down to touch the ground.
She could hear the sound now too, a horrible noise, a mixture of hoarse yells and screams, and a roaring, like something large and fierce were very angry indeed.
"Buffy!" Spike had flung aside the sled covers and brought out weapons. She caught the Scythe almost by instinct when he threw it at her handle-first. The shadows had reached the ground, pulsing and glowing before coalescing into a horde of very pissed off looking demon soldiers, bristling with weaponry. Behind them, vast and lightning-lit, there was an honest to god dragon.
Her mouth dropped open in wonder. That was a first, even for her.
"Deja fucking vu." Spike was busy unfastening the dogs' tug lines from the central gangline. "A sodding dragon – just like the one that did for Angel five years ago. All we need now to complete the nostalgia-fest is for it to start raining."
The demon horde was no longer shadow of any description. Solid, red moonlight glinting off scales and armour like a slow tide of blood, it moved steadily towards them while the screaming and howling grew louder. The sled dogs milled uncertainly around Spike's feet, whining.
"Fuck off, will you?" he snarled at them. "Gerroff out of it, you stupid mutts. Run!"
The blue-eyed dog yelped as Spike kicked it, but it only moved a short distance away, the other dogs staying close to it. Wesley, meanwhile, took no notice of the approaching horde, busy with ropes and harnesses.
"Hurry!" he called. "We have to do this before they get here."
Buffy hardly heard him. She was staring at broad leathery wings, clawed like a bat's, a pointed snout with gaping nostrils from which fiery breath steamed into the cold air, a forked tongue that flickered in and out of a mouth armed with two rows of teeth, like daggers.
"That – thing –or something like - killed Angel?"
"Yeah. Could even be the same one. Who knows?" When she glanced sidelong at Spike, his face shone wetly –the sight all the more bizarre with his vampire fangs and ridges. "Almost the last thing I heard him say – "I kind of want to slay the dragon." Didn't work out that way, though."
She'd heard the story before, but that didn't prevent the pang, like a hard fist gripping her heart.
"Payback time, then."
When she looked at Spike again, he was grinning. "Too fucking right, Slayer."
"You can exact revenge afterwards," Wesley protested. "Help me first. That's more important."
As the foremost skirmishers reached them, Buffy gripped the Scythe tight and leapt forward, Spike close behind her.
The Scythe met another blade in a clash of metal – a horrible shearing sound as they slid past each other. Instinct took over at once. Don't think, just fight. Become one with your weapon - a single-minded engine of destruction.
Shapes flowed past Buffy’s legs and it took her brain a moment to understand that it was the sled dogs, throwing themselves joyfully into battle. A demon soldier went down with the blue-eyed dog at its throat.
She was dimly aware of Spike away to her left, guarding her weaker side, as he always did, while she returned the favour. Another demon went down, clumsy feet skidding on the icy ground, and, as she reversed the Scythe and stabbed into an exposed throat, she had time to think that Wolfram & Hart must have been in an awful hurry, because they hadn't sent their army very well prepared.
Leather and metal and the stench of angry demon pressed close about them, and behind her she heard Wesley yell aloud in frustration. "Not now. We're so damn close. Not now."
Then, she broke through the ranks of demon soldiers to find the dragon looming above her. She was in its shadow, under its belly, which was soft and un-armoured, like a worm's. The great, wedge-shaped head swivelled as the beast tracked her. Fire scorched the ground and she threw herself clear, the Scythe blade small and impotent-looking next to the dragon's bulk.
"Slayer! Watch out!"
She rolled clear again, as fire erupted from pits of nostrils black as tar. One of the dogs howled and she smelt burning hair.
The dragon opened its mouth and roared, a column of flame shooting up into the sky. Buffy wiped sweat and stray bits of hair from her eyes, and staggered to her feet. Several of the dogs, one of them the blue-eyed one, were on the dragon's back, worrying at it like it was dinner. Under the dragon's body and spread wings, a wide circle of ice had turned to slush from the heat of the flames and many of the heavily armed demon soldiers were half-sunk in it, struggling to extricate themselves.
As she wobbled upright, she saw a demon head go flying, to bounce across the ice almost to her feet. Spike's white hair was visible through the melee, blade flashing up and down, machine-like, while beyond the struggle, Wesley stood, desperation stark on his face, alone on the lip of the pit, looking as if he was considering jumping into it.
She felt oddly cut off from everything suddenly, islanded in a moment of stillness, but even as that moment telescoped out into eternity, her legs began to move. Then they'd propelled her towards the dragon, feet digging into its scaly sides as her momentum took her to sit astride its back, while it roared and flapped its wings, trying to buck the dogs off.
"Oh, no you don't." Raising the Scythe, she plunged the pointed wooden stake through the gap between armoured plates deep into the base of the dragon's skull, a killing blow if the beast bore any resemblance at all to anything found in nature.
"Buffy!" Spike's shout was drowned in the dragon’s bellow. Its head thrashed from side to side while she clung on grimly. You killed my Angel, she thought, as she saw first one dog and then the others flung off onto the frozen ground. You don't get to walk away.
Fly away – whatever. She redoubled her grip as the dragon's wings flapped again, the wind from them scattering the demon army like dead leaves. Then it was airborne, wings dipping crazily, while she grabbed hold of the Scythe handle and pushed downwards with all her strength.
If this thing even had a brain, that should mess it up good.
The dragon lurched, tipping her this way and that. On the ground, the demon soldiers flung themselves down to avoid the beating wings as the dragon passed overhead, but even so, they couldn't escape the gouts of flame from its mouth. Demons burned like kindling in the dry air. She saw Spike, head down, with his arms around one of the dogs, shielding it, and, as the dragon opened its mouth to flame again, dug her heels hard into its side. It sheared off at the last minute, and the flames struck another phalanx of demons, and then another, turning them into living torches.
The dragon was slowing. It banked and turned, coming lower, and then she saw Wesley. He was still standing on the edge of the pit, the rope and safety harness around his waist, the box containing the crystal in his hand.
His eyes met hers and he held out his free hand. "Ms Summers – Buffy – for God's sake, help me!"
Later, she wasn't sure what exactly it was that had made her reach down and seize his hand in hers. Maybe it was the urgency in his voice, the desperation in his eyes? Whichever it was, she twined her fingers about his wrist and, as the dragon flapped lower and lower over the open pit and the finger of rock loomed below them, she released her grip at the same moment he did.
He dropped like a stone, the nylon rope connecting him tenuously to the piton buried in the ice trailing after him. At the same time, a strange sensation – an absence of sensation – overwhelmed her. The null point loomed like a crack in reality – a glimpse into the nothingness between dimensions.
Her mind reeled. She groaned, plastering herself flat to the dragon's back and digging her left heel in hard, forcing it to turn again towards the land.
"Buffy! For fuck's sake, jump!" Spike's voice seemed to come from very far away, but somehow she made herself do what it said, just as the dragon's wings folded up, like a dying moth's and it plummeted down towards the tossing waves. Her hands scrabbled, trying to find purchase on ice as smooth as glass. Then cold fingers closed around her wrist, at the same time as sharp teeth seized the sleeve of her parka, and Spike and the dogs between them hauled her over the lip of the pit to safety.
She looked down just in time to see the dragon hit the water far, far below and disappear from sight with hardly a splash.
Spike gathered her into his arms and hugged her tight. "You were fucking amazing. Buffy the dragon slayer."
She didn't feel amazing, as she pushed him away and puked up her guts on the ground. Not in the least.
"Take it easy, love. It's okay." His hand smoothed her hair. "We won. We beat the bastards, thanks to you."
Tears squeezed out of her closed eyes as she listened to his soothing nonsense. But then he tensed.
"Wes? What the fuck…"
Pushing away from him again, she turned, to see Wesley balanced precariously on the very tip of the null-point, looking like at any moment he would fall backwards into its black maw. He was holding the box close to his chest, cradling it like it was something precious. His lips moved, but she couldn't hear what he said.
Then, he opened the box, and blue-white light erupted from the crystal in a sudden blaze so bright she flung up her arm to shield her face while the dogs howled their distress. When the glow faded, red spots danced in front of her eyes, which felt hot, as if the retinas had been burned.
"What just happened?" Spike was rubbing his eyes, in no better state than she was, and when she managed to focus again, it was to see Wesley still standing on the null-point, holding an empty box.
He was crying, tears streaming uncontrollably down his cheeks. As she watched he crashed to his knees and hid his face in his hands.
There was an excited burst of yelping from behind her, and she turned to see the dogs set off in pursuit of the poor remnants of the demon horde – a few strays, some of them burnt and bleeding. All that remained after the dragon-induced carnage. It didn't surprise her when the dogs pulled them down easily, swarming over them in a seething mass of fur and teeth, until nothing was left save twitching corpses on the ground.
"Thorough little bastards, aren't they?" Spike's voice was tinged with admiration as he watched them. His arm was still tight around her shoulders and when she made to get up, he helped her.
"Have we won?" Her voice sounded strange to her, hoarse – like her vocal cords were singed.
"I dunno." He shook his vamp face away. "The old man'd be proud of you, though."
She shuddered, feeling again the sensation of the Scythe cutting through flesh and bone, the wooden point sliding between scales the colour of poison to pierce the dragon's brain. Then she gasped.
Not that they could have done anything to prevent Wesley’s swan-dive off the null-point.
She watched, mouth open, as he arrowed downward. Then, her eyes met Spike's and they flung themselves at the rope, hauling on it with their full strength as it went taut and jerked, trying to drag the piton out of the ground.
Spike peered over the edge.
"Bastard's lucky. The rope isn't long enough to reach the water. Otherwise he’d be shrimp food." He grinned at her. "What say we haul him up, Slayer? See what he has to say for himself – that is, if he hasn't broken every bone in his body?"
Wesley's hand shook. Hot tea slopped over the rim of his mug onto his fingers. He seemed shock-y, more grey-faced than ever, livid patches of dead looking skin standing out startlingly on his face.
Buffy glanced sidelong at Spike, to see him flare his nostrils and frown.
"Drink up, Wes." She patted Wesley's knee and tried to smile when his gaze came back from whatever faraway place it was staring into and met hers, but what she saw in his eyes made her shiver.
"Is that it, then?" Spike asked, suddenly. "Did your precious crystal do its stuff? Have we stymied the bastards' apocalypse for good?"
Wesley blinked. He looked down at his hands and up again. Then he drew in a deep breath and set his mug down. "No."
Buffy’s hand stilled mid-pat. "Huh? What do you mean- no?"
Next to her, Spike had tensed. "He means he lied to us – again." He leaned forward suddenly, scenting the air around Wesley. "What did you just do, Wes? And why the fuck do you stink like grave dirt?"
Wesley gave him a wan smile. "Because I'm dying. That's why." He picked up the mug and took another sip, the smile going all lop-sided. "Must admit, I thought it would be quicker – instantaneous even. But I suppose that would have been too easy."
Spike had moved half in front of Buffy, arms widespread. "Dunno what your game is, but if you so much as breathe too hard around Buffy –"
Wesley laughed. Tipping back his head, he drained the contents of his mug. "I don't know why you assume Wolfram & Hart would want the Slayer dead. She's a known quantity, and maintaining the status quo is good for business." His eyes, when he looked at Spike, were bleak. "Even now, after what's just happened, she's perfectly safe, and so are you. They were never interested in you."
Spike didn’t lower his protective arm. "Think you can get under my skin, Percy, think again. Know I'm nothing special. No prophecies about me, are there? But here I am, the joker in the pack - and you know what? I like it that way."
Wesley's face softened a little. "It's true. You are difficult to quantify. Some might even call you a chaos bringer. But to Wolfram & Hart, you’re an irrelevance."
Spike tilted his head. "Suits me."
Wesley coughed – a rattling old man's cough. "It's why you survived the alley fight, you know. Unconscious, buried under a pile of dead demons, they just forgot about you."
Spike growled deep in his chest. "Stop trying to psych me out, Percy. I’m over that ‘beneath you’ crap. It won't fucking work, believe me."
"I'm not –" Wesley began, but Buffy interrupted.
"Okay, this is absolutely the last of this macho bullshit I'm gonna take from you two. Fess up, Wes. What did you do? What was that crystal really? "
Wesley coughed again. He looked down at his hands. "Like I told you, nothing works at the null-point. Not machines, not magic -nothing that relies on any kind of physical law. Everything is null and void, and that includes a Wolfram & Hart contract."
When he looked up again, his eyes were bright in his grey face. "I freed them," he said. "All of them."
They stared at him. Buffy opened her mouth to speak but no words came. It was like she'd suddenly forgotten how to talk.
After a moment, Wesley said, gently, "I know it's hard to take in."
Spike was on his feet. "Hard to take in? Understatement of the fucking century. So – you're saying that crystal was…"
"…the storage facility for those souls bound to Wolfram & Hart in perpetuity by their contracts. Yes." Wesley nodded. "It was explained to me once. Apparently, it takes a great deal of magical energy to revivify a dead body, so Wolfram & Hart tend to opt for one at a time. For reasons of their own, for the last five years, that's been me. The others are kept in storage until needed. It's rather neat really."
"Neat!" Spike's hands had clenched into fists. He hung over Wesley, looking mere inches from tearing him apart. "You're saying that Charlie's soul was in that crystal?"
Wesley remained calm. "Oh yes. Lorne's too – they caught him before he got far, I don't know if you knew that – also Lindsey Macdonald's, though I doubt you care about him. Lilah Morgan's – an old flame of mine, you don’t know her -so many others, many of them quite evil of course, but some mere innocent dupes."
"And Angel?" Buffy heard Spike's sharp intake of breath as she said the name he couldn't bring himself to say.
Wesley gazed at her solemnly. "Oh yes – the soul of the vampire with a soul; the jewel in their collection. And in fact their apocalypse is rather compromised without it."
Spike's hands were around Wesley's neck before she could stop him. He shook Wesley hard, vamp-faced and furious.
"You bastard! You fucking bastard! Angel’s soul was in that box, and you didn't tell us?"
"Spike!" She wrestled with him but she couldn't tear his hands away. "Let him go. You're killing him."
Wesley laughed a choked laugh at her words. He crowed for breath, tongue protruding from his mouth. There was a smell about him too, like death and decay. Spike was right. The smell of graveyards.
"Spike!" She balled up her fist and punched him, an uppercut to the jaw that snapped his head back and sent him sprawling. Standing in front of Wesley, arms spread wide, the way Spike had stood in front of her, she looked down into yellow eyes that sparked like burning sulphur. "Get a grip on yourself, mister. I won't tell you again."
He stared up at her. Then he flung back his head and howled, like one of the dogs. The next moment, he was on his feet and out of the tent and she heard him scream again, and again, lost in his anguish, while the sled dogs barked in sympathy.
Dry-eyed, she turned on Wesley.
"Why didn't you tell us?"
Wesley fingered his throat. His voice came out a rasp.
"I thought you might try to stop me - that you might think you could find some other way to break the contract – bring him back. You loved him. I’m well aware of that. In fact, I relied on it."
Her eyes prickled, but she kept her voice calm. "You really don't know me at all, do you?"
Outside, the ice-world reverberated to the sound of one man's grief and its eerie chorus of mourners. Buffy shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.
"I did love him, but I'm not the only one. And you might have had a point, Wes, but you've gotten the two of us confused. I wouldn’t have tried to stop you."
"Ah." Wesley cleared his throat. "I must say, he kept it very well hidden."
She felt bone-weary suddenly. Sinking down to the ground beside Wesley, she indicated his grey skin, more and more breaking out in livid patches, like leprosy. Not that she'd ever seen leprosy, but she could imagine.
"What's happening to you?"
Wesley's Adam's apple jerked. "As I said, I'm dying. My contract is null and void and the spell that reanimates my body is broken. I thought I would die at once, but it seems I’m not to be granted that small mercy." He looked away into the corner of the tent. "I would imagine that quite soon, I shall become very unpleasant to be around."
She managed to stop herself saying, "Eww!" Instead, she said, like she might have said to one of the younger Slayers, "Don’t give up, Wes. You did a good thing, and I’ll always be grateful to you for Angel's sake – and so will Spike when he comes to his senses. We'll take you back with us. Willow and Giles will find a way to help you, you'll see."
He shook his head. "Very unlikely, I'm afraid."
Outside, Spike’s anguish had fallen silent, but the wind was getting up, the sullen whine turning into something a great deal more serious. She clambered to her feet, every muscle in her body protesting.
"Never say die, Wes. At least, not until you are dead."
As she exited the tent, he said, "But I am."
Spike was sitting among the sled dogs, the blue-eyed dog resting its head in his lap, while he pulled its ears and petted it. It lifted its head when it saw her coming and whined.
"Spike?" She crouched down and put her hand on his shoulder, and after a moment, he looked up at her with haunted eyes, the hollows under his prominent cheekbones darkly sculpted.
"Sorry about that, Slayer," he muttered. "Didn't mean to fucking lose it."
"It's okay." Her voice shook. She cleared her throat. "S'okay, Spike. I understand. I've had years to learn how to live without him – since the day I put a sword through his heart and sent him to hell. But you -"
"Buffy –" His voice broke again. She squatted lower, holding him while he shook and sobbed.
"S'okay," she soothed. "He's free, Spike. He's safe. You don't have to be angry with him any more."
"You should leave me."
Wesley's voice was weak – barely heard over the swish of the sled runners and the excited barking of dogs. He coughed - a harsh phlegm-y rattle.
Buffy glanced sidelong at him. The sled was going slowly to spare Wesley discomfort, but he still looked to be in agony with every bump in the ground they went over. On the plus side, at least the dogs seemed to have gotten over their dislike of him, pulling him without protest.
"Don't be stupid, Wes. We aren't gonna do that."
"But why not?" Wesley coughed again. "There's nothing you can do for me and you don't need me to find your way back to the portal. Spike can perfectly well follow the trail of magic, can't you, Spike?"
He glanced up and back, to where Spike stood on the sled runners, leaning forward over Wesley's head to yell encouragement to the dogs.
"Could," Spike agreed. "Magic has its own stink. Can't mistake it."
"Besides," Wesley went on. "I'm slowing you down, and you need to get back to the portal as soon as possible. Despite the fact that insinuating their army into this dimension must have depleted their magical energies enormously, Wolfram & Hart might find a way to trap you here. It could take even Ms Rosenberg a while to locate and retrieve you."
Buffy shook her head. "Not much concerned about that. Before we left home, Willow gave me this magical tracking doodad. She’ll find us, no problem. "
"Ah." Wesley sounded surprised. "And you’ve had that all this time, and never mentioned it?"
"Yeah." She tried to smile at him. "You're not the only one with secrets."
"So it seems." He coughed again. "Even so, you still have to get to the portal, and the sooner, the better. You're mentally and physically exhausted and supplies are getting low."
Buffy kept moving, but she could feel both men's eyes boring into her this time. She knew if she looked at them, they'd be doing that British thing again. When she turned back, Spike flinched slightly and looked away. He pretended to be busy with the dogs.
"Easy!" he shouted. "Easy, you bastards!"
As the dogs slowed yet again to negotiate another ripple in the smooth ground, Buffy said, "No way in hell are we leaving you, Wes. We don't abandon our friends. No man left behind, remember?"
Spike looked back at her as she said it, and it was her turn to flinch. She licked her chapped lips.
"S'okay, Slayer," Spike said. "Was my choice."
"And this is mine," Wesley said, in a more forceful tone. "There's nothing for me, back in our world. And even if there were, I'm dying in the worst way possible. Please – just let me go."
She ignored him again. After a moment, he went on, "I'm really not worth it, you know. If it's not enough that I tricked you into helping me, knowing full well Wolfram & Hart would come after us with ultimate force once they discovered the theft of the crystal, think of all the terrible things I did – the lives ruined – the innocent people dead – all to make them trust me. I don't deserve your pity. Best to just leave me."
This time, she rounded on him. "We're not having this conversation again, Wes. That's between you and your conscience – none of my business. My business is to look after my people and get them home."
Taking a deep breath, she tried to quell her anger. She was so damn tired!
"And I have had it up to here with all the doom and gloom. You're not dead yet, and while there's life, there's hope – and I bet your precious Captain Scott would say the same."
He met her eyes steadily. His were deep sunken in his face, on which the flesh seemed to be falling away, leaving his features skull-like and exposed, mouth a rictus grin.
"My point exactly."
"Give him to me, Slayer."
"It's okay. I can manage." Buffy glared at Spike, who stood below her on the precarious path down the ice-fall. Wesley's raspy breathing was loud in her ear, his weight on her back heavy as lead.
"I know you can." Spike's voice was gentle. "But come on, love. You're exhausted and he's too tall for you. His feet're draggin' on the ground, and state he's in, they'll come right off if you're not careful."
"Eww!" She tried to shift Wesley higher, then gritted her teeth not to scream out loud when he slid back down again.
"You could…" Wesley began, but she interrupted him.
"For the last time, Wes, we are not leaving you, so don't even say it."
"All right." Wesley gusted a sigh, and she wrinkled her nose at the mouldering smell of him, which was growing worse by the day. "I could walk for a bit," he said. "I'm not a complete invalid."
She almost said yes, but then her eye was caught by the deep shadow just to their left. They were still a long way up.
"I don't think so."
"I wouldn't jump," he insisted, but she shook her head. "No."
Spike shifted slightly, glancing back over his shoulder down the path, which zig-zagged out of sight just below them. At the edge of hearing, far below, Buffy could hear the dogs barking, while overhead the red moon and the blue were rapidly disappearing in a blanket of thick grey cloud.
"Come on, love," Spike said, again. "Another storm's comin' and we've spent all bloody day man-handling the dogs and sledge down here. You're absolutely bloody knackered, anyone can see that, but I still have a bit of juice in me, thanks to you. Give him to me."
She almost said no again, but then she glanced up at the sky. A storm was coming, no doubt, and it probably said a lot about how she was feeling right now that she was glad of it.
Right now, she couldn't think of anything she wanted more than to curl up inside the tent and sleep until the storm blew itself out, except maybe to not have to pee into a plastic funnel stuck inside her pants ever again.
Her shoulders sagged. "Okay."
The manoeuvre to transfer Wesley from her shoulders to Spike's without slipping and falling into the abyss was tricky, but at last they were on the move again, Buffy in front and Spike behind her, moving as sure-footedly on the ice as one of the dogs.
The shadow at the base of the ice-fall loomed up, swallowing them. Buffy looked up and back, beyond Spike, to where the crest of the highest wave was blackly outlined against a lavender-grey sky. It was still beautiful, but she was glad to see the back of it all the same.
Spike was humming under his breath. Suddenly, he burst into song.
"The road is lo-on-gg, with ma-ny a wi-inding turn!"
Wesley groaned. "Please, Spike. It's bad enough being jolted around like this without you singing as well."
Spike laughed. "Dunno what you mean, Percy. Nothin' wrong with my voice." He hummed for a bit, then burst out again, "He ain't heav-yy! He's my brotherrr!"
"Oh lord!" Wesley groaned again. "I wish I was dead already."
Spike huffed through his nose. "Watch it, Percy. You're not careful, we'll go back up the ice-fall and go the long way round, just to see how many of your bits have fallen off by the time we get to the portal."
"Charming!" But Wesley laughed too.
"Great!" Buffy couldn't help joining in the laughter. "You two snap and snarl your way around this dimension like bears with sore heads, and now, when we're nearly home, you decide to make nice with each other. Why wait so long?"
Wesley stifled another groan, but this time of pain. "In my defence, please remember that I was a minion of evil when I said those things. Besides, I can't help it if he's incorrigible. Oh, and bloody annoying to boot."
"And I can't help it if he's a poncy, lying git," Spike chimed in, but without malice. "And just for that 'incorrigible' crack, Percy, you get this." This time his voice was more bellowing than singing. "I am an antichrist-a, I am an anarchist-a!"
Buffy winced. That Scott guy might have been a loser, but at least he never had to put up with Spike's singing.
The sound of it echoed off the frozen cliffs, reverberating back to them, until the ice world rang like a discordant bell. Down below, the dogs joined in, yet their joyful chorus couldn't quite hide the rising whine of the wind or Wesley's stifled groans.
They'd barely set up camp at the bottom of the ice-fall before the storm hit. The red moon had set and the world had sunk gradually into a lightless, grey gloom. It was never completely dark – the ice seemed to retain some ghostly reflection of moonlight, even when there was no moon to be seen – but they pitched the tent in a sullen twilight, filled with a bitter swirling of snow.
Soon, the whine of the wind had risen to an insistent howl that numbed the senses and made sleep impossible.
Buffy lay in her sleeping bag. She'd gone beyond exhaustion now, into a weird place where she was too tired to sleep. Instead, she watched the eerie shadows the flickering lamplight cast on the underside of Wesley’s face and on the tent wall behind him.
Wesley was reading – the same book he’d been reading for the entire trip – the one about the dead British guys and their stupid, pointless journey.
Spike’s cool breath gusted on the back of Buffy’s neck, making her shiver. He was curled up around her, inside his own sleeping bag, arm thrown across her waist. She thought she’d gotten used to the smell of dogs, but this close to him, it was pretty overpowering. Even so, the feel of him – the weight of his arm – was comforting.
"It’s not gonna happen to us, Wes," Spike said, suddenly.
"I beg your pardon?" Wesley looked up from his book, and Buffy felt her stomach begin to churn. Wesley’s good looks were long gone. More and more, he looked like what he was -a living, breathing corpse. His fingernails had fallen off, and the tips of his fingers had a greenish tinge, while his nose was – kind of lop-sided and weird looking, like it was in danger of imminent collapse.
"I said, it’s not gonna happen to us. We aren’t going to die like that wanker Scott."
Wesley put his book down, very carefully. "I believe you, Spike." He coughed again – a horrible, wet sound, like he was about to cough up his lungs - literally. "However, yet again, I wish you would reconsider my request."
"Stop it!" Buffy sat up suddenly. "Like I keep saying, Wes, once we get home, Willow and Giles will find a way to help you."
"Buffy –" Spike began, but she shook her head. Whatever happened to Wesley in the end wouldn't happen from lack of trying on her part to keep him alive.
"Don’t say anything, Spike. We don’t kill our own. You know that."
"I-" For a moment, he looked like he might argue, but then his shoulders slumped.
"Right you are, Slayer."
Wesley coughed yet again. "Thank you," he said, "for considering me one of your own, Buffy. I appreciate that more than I can say."
"You’re welcome." She tried to smile at him.
"Spike," Wesley said, suddenly, "if you don’t mind telling me – you implied that you’d met Captain Scott in person and formed a rather poor opinion of him. Is that true?"
Spike pursed his lips. Then he sighed and lay down again, arms folded behind his head.
"S’true all right. Hero-worshipped him, if you must know. Me and Dru crashed some stuck-up society bash just to meet him and he and his snobby wife cut us dead. Couldn’t have my Dru disrespected, could I? Told the bastard to come outside and settle it man to man. Waited for him, he didn’t come. A few days later, he sailed on the Terra Nova."
Wesley was smiling his rictus smile. "I see."
There was a short, irritable silence. Then Spike sat up again. "I know it sounds stupid now. But it meant something back then. And it wasn't like he had any excuse. We even had a proper introduction, courtesy of some stupid toff we killed. Was bloody insulted, if you must know, especially for Dru's sake. "
His voice had changed while he was speaking, Buffy realised – grown softer, more cultured, like Wesley’s. She looked from one man to the other. They were staring at each other in that way she didn’t understand, but in the end Spike’s gaze dropped.
"All right, all right," he muttered sullenly. "Maybe I’ve been a bit harsh on Scott. Maybe he wasn’t so much a wanker as just blinkered and out of his depth."
"More likely," Wesley agreed. "And Huntford is undoubtedly right when he says that what killed Scott was his lack of faith in sled dogs."
"Speaking of which –" Spike wormed his way out of his sleeping bag and began to put on his boots. "I’d better make sure ours are okay before the storm gets any worse."
"Don’t be long." Buffy couldn’t help smiling as she watched him leave the tent. It was pretty clear the blue-eyed dog had wormed its way thoroughly into his affections.
Wesley half-laughed, half-coughed. "I suspect you'll be lucky to get my deposit back."
"Yeah," Buffy grimaced. "It's love all right. This goes on, I may have to move my whole operation to Alaska."
Wesley picked up his book again, but he didn't open it, just held it close to him. "You'd do that – for him?"
"I would, if it keeps him happy."
"Astonishing." Wesley shook his head. "I had no idea he could inspire such - devotion."
She scowled. "Just don't tell him, huh, Wes?"
Wesley set the book to one side and lay down. He closed his eyes and breathed out a long, sighing breath. "Wouldn't dream of it."
She huddled back down into her sleeping bag. Wesley was quiet, and it wasn’t long before she began to feel sleepy at last despite the roar of the wind. Her eyelids fluttered closed and then open again, closed, open, closed.
A voice spoke. She thought she knew it, but it was so far away, like in a dream.
"I am just going outside," it said, "and may be some time."
The next thing she knew, Spike was back, stamping snow off his boots and pulling off his gloves. He grinned at her, but then he looked beyond where she lay and frowned.
At the words, a cold hand seemed to grip her heart. She sat upright with a jerk. Wesley’s sleeping bag was empty. "You haven’t seen him?"
Spike had half-turned back towards the tent flap. "Should I have?"
She half-crawled half-fell out of her own sleeping bag in her haste to get up.
"I fell asleep. I thought I was dreaming. He said he was going outside and might be a while, but I don’t know how long ago that was. What?" She stared at the look of horror on his face, then yelped as he grabbed her shoulders.
"What exactly did he say? What were his exact words?"
She shook off his grip. "Let go of me. It was something about going outside and being some time. What’s the big deal?"
But he was gone, across the tent, and out through the open flap.
She heard him shouting. "Wes, you bastard! Come back. Don’t do this."
She put on her boots in a hurry, jammed on her hat and gloves and joined him outside. The wind cut like a knife. Curtains of snow, like ghosts, blew past, obscuring their vision in every direction. There was no sign of Wesley.
She put her mouth close to Spike's ear. "We have to find him – quickly!"
But as she made to go back to the tent for – she wasn't sure what. Ropes? Torches? Spike grabbed her arm.
"Let him go."
She wasn't sure she'd heard him properly. "What did you say?"
For answer, he pulled her in the direction of the tent. Once they were back inside, he said, "He's made his choice, and I can't say I blame him. What’s happening to him -not a nice way to go."
She gestured towards the blizzard. "And that is?"
He gave her a sombre look. "Better than the other."
"This is crazy!" She shook his hand off again and began to scrabble in her pack, unsure what she was looking for. Her eyes prickled. It was her fault. She should never have fallen asleep.
"Buffy –" Spike spoke again. "Don't blame yourself. It was his decision."
She paused in her frantic search for she didn’t know what and looked up at his gaunt face.
"And you're telling me you approve of what he’s done?"
"Maybe. I dunno. He was a right bastard, but a brave one." He picked up Wesley's book and leafed through it. Then, he shut it with a snap and stowed it away in his pocket. "Seems he wasn’t Scott after all. Instead, he was Captain Oates."
"You’re not making any sense," she protested. Outside, the wind howled and moaned, like a hundred lost souls in mourning.
The storm blew itself out on the third day. When Buffy looked outside, snow was piled high around the tent on the windward side, almost burying it.
Above her head, the sky was lavender coloured, the blue moon and the red close together. There was nothing to be seen in any direction except a pristine blanket of white, smooth as the surface of a millpond.
She stared, searching for any sign of Wesley – a dark shape half-buried in snow. But there was nothing. In her mind's eye, she saw him trudging onwards into the storm while his body deteriorated beyond hope, like the guy in the story, Captain Oates, going further and further away from all help until he lay down in the snow and died, alone.
She hoped it had been quick. She wished she didn't feel like a failure.
Spike had come up behind her. He put his arms around her waist and kissed her neck. His bearded lips still felt strange, though now he'd gotten past the stubble stage, at least he wasn't quite so scratchy.
"You can't save everyone, love." He nuzzled her again.
She turned in his arms, pulled his head down and kissed him hard on the mouth.
"I know that. Doesn’t stop me trying, though."
"And that," he said, "is why I love you so much."
She rested against him a moment, eyes closed, but then he said, "Bloody hell!" in a tone of wonder and she opened her eyes again – to find that she had to shade them with her hand.
"Will you look at that?"
She gazed up at the sky in astonishment, at where the third moon, the silver one, had risen to join the other two, bathing the ice-world in an eerie lilac-tinted glow, almost as bright as daylight.
Spike nodded, seemingly lost for words. Then he shrugged and smiled at her.
"It is at that, but our world's better."
"Oh yeah. No contest."
The land flowed away in a southerly direction, the curling crest of the ever-breaking wave behind them black and stark. Due south, the land was gentler, sloping down towards the portal.
Spike put his hand over his eyes, squinting into the bright moonlight. She heard him inhale.
"Portal's close," he said. "Weather holds, another day and we should see it."
Buffy felt a ripple of excitement run down her spine, while from behind the tent, the sled dogs put their heads back as one and bayed at the moons. She glanced at Spike, almost expecting him to join in, and he grinned at her.
She smiled back. "Let's go home," she said.