"No more," Spike groaned, leaning against the damp wall and clutching his head. "No bloody more portals!"

Xander mumbled something that might have been agreement, slumping down against the wall next to Spike. Giles didn’t even bother to speak, just closed his eyes wearily. Buffy was the liveliest looking of the lot, and at the moment, that wasn’t saying much.

They’d passed through almost a dozen portals already – and Spike and Angel, as official Scooby portal scouts, had taken the brunt of whatever waited on the other side of each one. The megribs had been a mere appetizer. Spike had fought ghouls, lagworms, Brenith demons, Arckra demons, ogres, and an especially memorable G’gnath slime devil. Everyone in the group was battered, bruised, scratched, and spattered with ichor, blood and other less definable substances. Spike was profoundly grateful for the cheap plastic poncho, and he knew the others were too – except for Buffy, whose poncho had fallen out of her pocket at some point along the way. Spike felt no inclination whatsoever to offer his, and to his vast satisfaction, even Angel apparently felt a similar lack of chivalrous obligation. Although Spike would admit, under considerable pressure, that Buffy had held up her end of the fighting.

So, to Spike’s great pride, had Xander. It was nothing new to see the whelp fling himself headlong into battle, but these days he did so with a good bit more skill – not to mention speed and strength. He’d made a fair mince out of an Arckra demon, and they were tough fighters, more than a match for a human and a hell of a good fight even for Buffy. In fact, Xander had dispatched the warty creature with such promptness as to occasion a few very sharp looks from Giles, and an even more suspicious glance from Wesley.

But now, like the rest of them, Xander was nearing the end of his resources. What surprised Spike was that Angel looked almost as bad. Well, no wonder, if he thought about it. The older vampire had been living on whatever bit of bottled animal blood he’d been allowing himself, and nothing else. The bottled blood tonight, such as it was, had probably been the best meal Angel had had in a long time, and a vampire just couldn’t keep fighting on such poor fare, not the kind of sustained effort they were having tonight. Hell, Spike himself was starting to wear down.

And there was a solution, too – Spike just wasn’t sure Xander would go for it. Well, without asking, he’d never know. Just ahead, the tunnel split into two smaller tunnels. Spike caught Xander’s eye, then Angel’s, and jerked his head slightly toward one of the passages.

Xander pushed himself wearily to his feet, then cleared his throat.

"Well . . . after all that, I need to take care of some business," he said uncomfortably. He gestured toward the tunnel Spike had indicated. "We’ll just call that the little boys’ cave, all right?"

"You shouldn’t go alone," Giles murmured wearily, although he made no move to get up.

"I’ll go with him," Spike said, following Xander.

"I don’t trust you out of our sight," Buffy growled.

"I’ll go along too," Angel said quietly, and there wasn’t much Buffy could say to that.

Glancing back at the others, Spike led them far enough down the new tunnel that he was sure they wouldn’t be disturbed, then wrapped his arms around Xander.

"How’re you holding up, luv?" he said softly.

"Hey, I’m fine," Xander said, grinning gamely. "Just a little tired and bashed around, that’s all, but what else is new."

Spike grinned and gave the side of Xander’s throat a quick kiss.

"Think you could use a bit of a pickup, though," he said. He pulled back slightly, meeting Xander’s eyes. "We all could, maybe."

Puzzlement gave way to realization in Xander’s eyes; he flushed and glanced uncertainly at Angel. Then he took a deep breath and nodded.

"Okay," he said.

It took Angel a moment longer to realize what Spike was saying; then for a moment he looked marvelously gobsmacked. Spike wished dearly he could have got a picture just then.

"You can’t be serious," Angel said hoarsely, even as he licked his lips involuntarily. Oh, yeah, he was in a bad way, no doubt of it.

"You need it," Spike said bluntly. "Hell, Peaches, I’m getting worn out and I’m eating regular. Besides." He met Angel’s eyes. "Both our blood’s a better protection for him than just mine." He reached into his backpack and fished out the last remaining bottle of blood – he’d drank one two portals ago, and the others had been broken in the fighting. "If you’re worried about your control, take the edge off first."

Another long moment while Angel glanced from Spike to Xander and back again. At last he nodded slowly, taking the bottle from Spike.

"All right, then," he said. "But make it fast, before they get worried and come looking for us." He opened the bottle and drank fast, joylessly.

Spike pulled Xander close, biting into his own wrist quickly and offering it to his Consort even as he leaned in to Xander’s throat.

"Won’t let him hurt you, luv," he whispered softly. "Trust us." Then, oh, God, the glorious sensation of Xander’s flesh yielding to his fangs, the incredible taste of Xander’s sweet hot life filling his mouth. He took only a few swallows, feeling the bond flare as he and Xander both drank, then reluctantly withdrew – as always, Xander was aroused by the exchange, and Spike would have liked nothing more than a bit more private time for other types of fluid exchange. He sighed, glanced at Angel, then moved aside.

"I’m watching you," he warned the older vampire.

Angel nodded gravely.

"I won’t hurt him, Will," he promised. He turned to Xander, bit into his own wrist and offered it. "I won’t hurt you," he repeated.

To Spike’s great pride, Xander never even hesitated, just stepped forward into Angel’s arms, sealing his lips against Angel’s wrist. He moaned softly as Angel bit, wavering on his feet from pleasure rather than weakness, and sucked more strongly at Angel’s wrist. Then Angel released Xander, all but staggering backwards, reaching for the wall to support himself.

"My God," Angel gasped hoarsely. "You didn’t tell me – " He shook his head. "I’ve never taken a Consort. I can’t believe how powerful his blood’s become."

Spike smiled and pulled Xander into a hug, taking the opportunity to examine the bite marks on Xander’s throat. They were closed already, and no wonder, with the blood of two Master vampires running in his veins.

"We’d better get back," Xander said reluctantly. "I mean, I know Giles and Wesley wouldn’t want to come looking for me if they think I’m down here taking a dump, but we’d better not push our luck."

"You’re right," Angel said, nodding. Spike stifled a sigh. Angel looked noticeably . . . healthier. He actually had some color for a change. Somebody was sure to notice.

Spike was right, and it didn’t take long. It was, in fact, Wesley, not Buffy, who gave Angel a long, narrow look.

"You’re looking very chipper all of a sudden," he said warily.

Angel gestured at Spike’s backpack and his own.

"Spike brought along all the blood packets Giles he had, just in case," he said. "He let me have some of it."

Wesley’s eyes narrowed.

"How very kind of him to . . . share," Wesley said, and Spike grinned to himself. That was jealousy in Wyndham-Price’s tone, and no two ways about it. "Angel, after this is over . . . I believe we need to talk."

Spike chuckled; Angel looked distinctly guilty. Well, he pitied the poor bugger and his curse, but it was his mess to sort out – at least for now, although Spike reflected that, yes indeed, when this was all over, it might be time to do a bit more research into this curse.

"Well, if everyone has attended to their – necessities," Giles said, standing up wearily, "I suppose we should be moving along. Willow, have you any idea where we are?"

Willow shook her head tiredly, brushing bedraggled red hair out of her face.

"We’ve gone through too many portals," she said. "I’m sorry, I just – we could be anywhere."

Spike shook his head.

"We’re under Sunnydale again," he said, and Angel nodded in agreement.

"How can you tell?" Buffy asked suspiciously.

Spike shrugged.

"It’s a feel," he said. "Every plane’s got its own scents and sounds, its own feel. Don’t know where we are in particular, but we’re back on Earth, and I can feel the Hellmouth. Just a bit, it’s far off now, but I can feel it. Somewhere under downtown, I’d guess."

Tara nodded.

"He’s right," she said softly. "I can feel it too."

Buffy jumped to her feet.

"You mean all that fighting, all that tracking, and we’ve just come around in one big circle? All that, and we’re right back where we started?"

"More or less," Spike agreed. "Which is good news, actually."

"How is that supposed to be good?" Buffy demanded. "We haven’t gotten anywhere!"

Xander pulled a can of soda out of his pack and popped the top, holding the shaken can out to let it foam over.

"Well, for one thing," he said patiently, "it’s good, Buff, because if we’re on some weird alternate world or nether plane, we’ve got no guarantee that we’re going to get back to this one and not end up stranded. And for another, we know this Tiger in Red guy is working here, so if we’ve tracked him this far, then we must be getting closer. Does that make any sense? Are any of the ol’ mental light bulbs lighting up now?"

Buffy scowled fiercely at Xander.

"You know, you should never have moved in with Spike," she said. "You’re getting all rude and weird like him." She turned back to Giles. "So – going on?"

"I don’t know." Giles polished his glasses tiredly, frowning as he only rubbed new streaks on them. "Having got this far, I wonder if it might not be wiser to find out where we are, then begin again at this point after some rest."

"But the portals," Tara pointed out. "We don’t know they’ll still be there later."

"I don’t know which is more dangerous," Wesley said. "Risking losing the trail, or risking a battle when we’re no longer at our peak."

"Well, I say – " Buffy began.

"Hush," Angel said, listening. "Do you hear it?"

Spike listened, and despite the inevitable chorus of "Hear what?", he did, indeed – footsteps approaching, and from more than one direction. And they weren’t human footsteps.

"Something’s coming," Spike said. "A whole lot of somethings, and I suggest we don’t want to be here to meet them."

Everyone was on their feet then, weapons in hand.

"Which way, then?" Tara asked, clutching the case holding the Tooth of Ryla tightly.

Angel listened sharply, then nodded at the tunnel he, Spike and Xander had used.

"That way," he said. "I don’t hear anything from that direction."

Willow raised her vial, nodding when the small ball of light in the liquid drifted in that same direction.

"That’s the way to the next portal," she said.

"Then I suggest we proceed with all due haste," Giles said.

Angel and Spike took the lead again, but with a threat so close behind them, they didn’t dare draw too far ahead of the others, in case they might be needed. That meant that the lights carried by the humans negated most of the advantage of their keen night vision, and the noise of the group didn’t help their sharp hearing, either.

Which is most likely why the group was taken totally unawares when the tunnel abruptly widened into a small cavern inhabited by approximately three dozen Nasperus demons.

If Spike and Angel had been following their noses, they would have had plenty of warning.

Nasperus demons weren’t especially impressive fighters – stronger and faster than a human, but easy enough to dispatch. Angel and Spike waded in with battle axes, plowing a path through the nest for the rest of the group to advance, refraining from breathing as the incredibly foul-smelling Nasperus blood flew. Wesley, smart bloke, kept his distance and plugged away with his crossbow, but Buffy, who’d taken only hand-to-hand weapons, was in the thick of it. Xander, too, kept his distance, staying back by Willow and Tara and carefully picking off demons with, of all things, a pistol.

The Nasperus population in the cavern was rapidly decreasing, and Spike, caught up in the joy of battle, would have happily fought on to the last stinking creature, but Willow cried out, "There’s one leaving! Follow it!"

Instantly Spike seized the Nasperus he’d been fighting, lifted it and flung it into the three trying to get close enough to attack, then lit out after the fleeing demon, Angel close behind him. He heard the others finishing off whatever they were fighting and join in; a glance over his shoulder showed Spike that Xander had taken the rear, pistol drawn, covering their backs lest any of the Nasperus come after them. A smart gesture, but Spike knew there was precious little danger of that. They’d routed the Nasperus good and proper; the few that were left would stay behind to lick their wounds and eat their dead.

Meaning that the one fleeing the scene was on its way to warn someone.

Spike worried that the humans wouldn’t be able to keep up – Nasperus were fast, and Spike was pushing himself just to stay with his target, much less close the distance between them – but the problem turned out to be academic. Spike rounded a turn in the tunnel just in time to see the Nasperus leap through a large portal.

Well, no time to stop and strategize this time. They had to stop that Nasperus before it sounded the alarm and brought who knew what down on them from all directions. Without hesitation, Spike leaped through the portal, Angel right beside him.

Spike hit a soft surface and rolled, coming up on his feet. Traveling by portal hadn’t gotten any easier, and for a moment he was completely disoriented while his senses adjusted. Dimly, he heard the others come through the portal – yes, they were all there, that was good. Spike had a vague sense that they were in a large cavern, but the floor seemed too regular for that – no, it was a room. A large room. Carpeted, that was the softness he’d landed on. And somewhere nearby was that stinky Nasperus demon; he could hear it.

But his senses had to be totally scrambled, because why in hell was he smelling soy sauce and ginger?

Oh, bloody fucking Hell.

"Welcome, noble guests," a familiar voice said. "I am so very sorry to see you here."

Blinking to clear his eyes, Spike turned to stare at Ravyadha. As far as evil demonic sorcerors went, the Tiger in Red was actually something of a disappointment. He certainly didn’t look like a tiger, although there was a certain feline cast to his features; he could almost have passed for human, in a dark alley, maybe. At least the robe he wore was red. His eyes were solid red, with no pupils. He didn’t move, just surveyed them calmly. He fairly radiated power. Behind him was a small army of assorted demons, vampires and the like.

And beside him was Leng Chi.


In the adventure movies Xander loved, when the hero finally confronted the villain, the villain usually made some length speech, gloated about capturing the hero, outlined his evil plan, attempted to seduce the hero to his side. It was Spike’s experience that in real life, the demon, monster, sorceror, et cetera, was far more likely to take full advantage of the element of surprise and flatten the hero instantly with whatever they had to throw. Which was why Spike wasn’t really all that surprised to find himself diving to one side, dodging the fireball hurtling toward him.

What surprised him was that it had been flung by Leng Chi.

No time to ponder these mysteries, not when half a dozen Genesh demons were bearing down on him and a glowing green globe was flying toward the group. Spike was on his feet again instantly, spikes in hand – Genesh demons, hunt in total darkness, only vulnerable to iron, wood or glass, vulnerable spot’s the lower torso, right behind the thorax, don’t breathe, they spray a paralyzing gas – fighting with a cool deliberation, but a small part of his attention trained on the group behind him. Good, Xander remembered the plan, he was pouring the potion, forming the circle. Willow and Tara were already chanting, raising protections, Giles joining in. Angel was wreaking havoc on a group of fledglings who fought with more enthusiasm than skill. Buffy looked almost out of her depth, fighting alone against a six-armed Meshrin overlord, and she wasn’t going to get far with that curved sword in her right hand – Meshrin were immune to steel – but thankfully she had a stake in her left hand, and it was always possible that she might actually get close enough to use it. Wesley was firing away carefully with his crossbow, but he was nearly out of bolts.

And speaking of bolts, Spike had to duck and roll again to avoid a sizzling finger of lightning that took out two of the Genesh in front of him – that one had come from Ravyadha. Dodging was reflex; Spike spun one of the Genesh around and used it as a living shield against the claw-swipes of another. The Genesh he was holding screamed as its guts spilled out over its feet.

"The first priority," Giles had said in their last briefing, "is to protect Willow so she can get ready to use the Tooth when the opportunity arises. The second priority is to keep Ravyadha busy, off balance, too occupied to launch an organized attack or to cast a gate to escape."

Right now, however, Spike’s first priority was maintaining a dust-free state of being. He wondered, almost idly, if the Watcher had had any idea of how badly they’d be outnumbered.

A pack of ghouls leaped into the battle. Distracted by the Genesh, Spike dodged an instant too late and felt teeth sink into his arm almost to the bone. He pulled away and snapped the ghoul’s neck with a single twist, but now his left hand was nearly useless; it would take precious moments to heal, even with Xander’s blood fresh inside him. Then the Genesh were on him again and he knew he couldn’t hold them off –

A brilliant flash of light dazzled Spike but did far more damage to the Genesh – they fell back, howling in agony, paws futilely covering their already blinded eyes. Spike didn’t bother finishing them – they wouldn’t be any further threat – and turned on the ghouls, scattering them with savage efficiency. He glanced over at Willow and Tara and nodded his thanks for the flash spell; Willow, already chanting again, gave him a brief nod of acknowledgement. Xander, Spike was glad to note, was staying within the circle as he’d been told, using his pistol and a crossbow to carefully pick off from a distance attackers who were vulnerable to such things. Two crossbow bolts, in fact, piercing the Meshrin’s throat and belly, had apparently distracted it sufficiently that Buffy was beginning to make some headway with the thing.

Another lightning bolt knocked Spike’s feet out from under him – he rolled out of the way, wondering why the hell Willow was still casting, not flinging that bloody spear as she was meant to do. A quick assessment of the room answered him. There was too much fighting going on between the witches and Ravyadha. There was no way she could get a clear shot, not until the rest of the Scoobies either thinned out their attackers or drew the brunt of it off to the side somehow. Even at the best, it was going to be one hell of a long throw for the witch, but there was no way to get her any closer. Hell, as worn out and outnumbered as they were, just keeping everyone alive was going to be quite an accomplishment.

For the moment, Spike actually had a little space around him, and he was catching his breath, metaphorically speaking, when Angel yelled, "Will!"

Spike looked over. Angel was fighting three demons Spike couldn’t even identify, but although he was pretty well occupied, he seemed to be doing okay. Then Spike caught the direction of Angel’s frantic glance. It was Wesley – he’d exhausted his crossbow bolts and was fighting hard with a mace in one hand and a sort of short sword in the other, but the K’kth demon he was fighting had at least three hundred pounds on him, didn’t seem the least bit impressed by the weaponry, and already had Wesley backed up almost to the wall.

Fuck. K’kth demons – hell, nothing but fire, sunlight – oh, right, then, copper! Spike mentally reviewed the weapons he was carrying. Fuck. No copper.

Well, no time to fret about it. Spike headed for the ex-Watcher at a dead run, leaping on the K’kth’s back. The surprise distracted the demon momentarily, allowing Wesley to get a good whack at the demon’s left knee. Vulnerability or not, balance was balance, and the K’kth stumbled and fell to one knee, in turn giving Spike enough distraction to drive one of his knives into the demon’s eye to the hilt. An idea occurred to him.

"Got any pence?" he yelled at Wesley.

For a moment the ex-Watcher merely looked confused; then he dug in his pocket. Spike ground the knife about, trying to keep the eye from healing even as he fended off the K’kth’s agonized flailing. The sight of Wyndham-Price sorting through his pocket change in the midst of combat might have been amusing under other circumstances. Then Wesley held up a sparse handful of pennies.

"What now?" he cried.

"Mouth," Spike grunted, shoving the knife in hard. As he’d hoped, the K’kth howled in absolute agony, throwing its head back – fanged mouth open wide. Wesley darted in and, at considerable risk to life and fingers, jammed the pennies down the K’kth’s throat and darted away again. As soon as Wesley was out of reach, Spike pulled out his dagger and leaped away, already braced for a counterattack.

He might as well not have bothered. The K’kth pawed at its rapidly healing eye for a moment before it even noticed the pennies it had just swallowed – then it froze, with an almost comical expression of puzzlement on its warty face. Then it let out a wet, gurgling shriek as noxious fluid spewed from mouth and nose as the copper dissolved it from the inside out. Spike ducked as it exploded, once again glad for the cheap poncho – he’d never get this mess off his duster otherwise. Then he was too busy fighting off two werewolves to worry about the mess.

Abruptly one werewolf howled and dropped, then the other. Spike glanced up and met Xander’s worried gaze as he lowered his pistol.

"Silver," Xander mouthed, although Spike couldn’t actually hear him through all the din. Spike grinned and gave Xander a thumbs up before jumping back in to help Angel mop up the unidentified demons he was fighting.

A few moments later, demons taken care of – salt did the trick nicely – Spike sized up the situation. The demonic army in the huge room seemed to have thinned out just a bit, enough that given a break, Red might actually be able to get a clear shot at Ravyadha. If they could clear a path for her, that is.

That was the good news, such as it was. The bad news is that the already-weary Scoobies were looking downright ragged now. Buffy was covered in gore and favoring her right leg, and there was a wicked gash on her left forearm. Angel looked like he’d been chewed on liberally, but was still on his feet. Giles’ glasses were broken and he looked more or less like somebody had used his head for an anvil; he’d retreated to the magic circle and was huddled on the ground, looking dazed. Wesley was still fighting and more or less intact, but he looked like he was exhausted and was definintely slowing down. Same with the witches – they looked like they were on the dregs of their magic, and the charred and fractured floor around the circle testified as to just how hard they’d been fighting in their own way. Only Xander was still reasonably fresh, but he’d apparently exhausted his pistol and crossbow ammunition, and was down to guarding the girls with an axe. Three dead ghouls on the floor, and a couple piles of dust that probably used to be fledglings, testified that he’d been far from idle.

Well, this was it. They had to clear a way for Red to make her throw; they weren’t going to last much longer otherwise. Spike worked his way back over to Angel, grabbing a charging Phelket demon and throwing it to knock down the two Yargai Angel was fighting. Angel turned and sized up the situation just as Spike had, giving Spike a nod.

"Start working your way toward Buffy," Angel said. "I’ll get Wesley, we’ll try to draw them that way."

Spike nodded back, but took the opportunity to glance over at Ravyadha. The Rakshasa was still concentrating his efforts on Willow and Tara inside the circle – possibly because he could see the Tooth of Ryla in its opened case at their feet – and just from the ripples his spell was causing, Spike thought the barrier wouldn’t hold much longer. Surprisingly, however, Leng Chi wasn’t casting anything – in fact, the elderly Risza demon was looking pretty damned ragged himself. Then Spike realized that after that initial fireball, he wasn’t aware of any magic Leng Chi had thrown.

And suddenly –

Their path will eventually lead them to my door.

I cannot tell you how to find your foe. Couldn’t tell them. Not that he hadn’t known.

But I can tell you how he may be defeated.

-- it all became very clear.

Spike grabbed Angel, shouting in his ear to be heard.

"It’s Leng Chi!" he yelled. "He’s Ravyadha’s bloody focus!"

He could see the sudden understanding in Angel’s eyes. Ravyadha was biplanar, only partially existing in this world. That made him only partially vulnerable to magics and weapons of Earth, but it also kept him from fully realizing his magical power here. He needed a potent magical source to draw upon. The Hellmouth, yes, but the Hellmouth was closed. He could use the smaller amount of power emanating from it, yes – if he was close enough, and if he planned and placed his magics carefully to draw upon that power, like the portals. But he couldn’t stay near the Hellmouth; that area was too busy, drew too much attention for a Rakshasa. So he needed another power source, another focus that he could draw upon for emergencies.

And Leng Chi appeared to be his backup battery.

"Get the others," Spike said, right in Angel’s ear. "Clear the way for Red. I’ve got a promise to keep."

It wasn’t so hard, really, to work his way around the edges of the fighting. The demons were focused on trying to reach Willow and Tara, not prevent one lone vampire from slipping around them. Spike had to dust a half dozen fledglings, but most of the rest of the force was moving to engage Angel, Wesley and Buffy, now united off to one side.

Willow had her clear shot.

Spike was nearly there when Leng Chi spotted him. The filmed old eyes sparkled cunningly. Ravyadha spotted Spike almost at the same time. The demon raised his hand, conjuring a ball of swirling red light –

Just as Willow raised the Tooth of Ryla.

Immediately Ravyadha shifted his attention to the greater threat. He snapped out a single command in some demonic dialect Spike didn’t understand, but apparently the Leng Chi did, because the Risza raised one hand, gesturing.

Willow threw the spear, hard and straight, screaming with the effort, and Spike, running full out toward the demonic sorcerors, thought, wonderingly, Damned good throw, Red!

Just before the Tooth froze in midair, halfway across the room, then dropped to the floor.

Ravyadha raised his hand again, Leng Chi mechanically mirroring the gesture. A beam of blood-colored energy shot out from between them, striking the barrier of the circle solidly. The wall became visible, blue-green energy slowly becoming tainted with the reddish glow.

Spike drew the gold-plated sword and raised it. Leng Chi saw the movement and turned his head, gazing at Spike.

The elderly Risza smiled.

Ravyadha saw the motion too, and turned to look, but too late. Spike swung the sword with every remaining bit of his strength. It was damnably sharp; he barely felt the blade bite as it struck its mark.

Leng Chi was still smiling, his eyes sparkling with wicked mirth, as his head tumbled to the floor.

The beam of red light faltered and broke just as the magical barrier fell. But whatever power Ravya had drawn from Leng Chi was apparently not yet exhausted; Ravyadha raised his hands and chanted, and a shimmering disturbed the air as a portal began to form in front of him.

A scream from Willow – "Xander! No!" and Spike turned to see Xander charging across the room. It took a precious, irretrievable moment before Spike realized Xander’s goal.

"No!" Spike howled –

-- just as Xander seized the Tooth of Ryla and picked it up, and even as he screamed in sudden agony, threw it with every bit of his strength.

Dimly Spike heard Ravyadha howl as the Tooth struck, impaling him solidly. Dimly Spike saw the forming portal collapse, sucking the disintegrating Ravyadha and several other nearby demons into it. Spike didn’t care. He was too busy fighting his way to the convulsing body of his Consort; his ears were too full of Xander’s screams. He scooped up Xander and raced toward the witches and Giles, who had apparently shaken off his stupor. Carefully Spike deposited Xander on the floor, barely noticing Willow and Tara raising some kind of wards around the circle.

"He did it," Giles said blankly, smoothing back Xander’s hair with one trembling hand. "My God – "

"Fuck that," Spike roared. "Help him!"

"But we don’t know what the curse is," Willow said, squatting down beside them. Tears were running down her face, and she sobbed as Xander convulsed, screaming hoarsely – his throat was already raw. "Oh, God, Giles, we’ve got to do something."

"I don’t know," Giles said helplessly. "Some kind of generic healing spell, perhaps – "

But Spike had caught something else – the faint scent of blood, Xander’s blood. And another scent, one that seemed vaguely familiar. He seized Xander’s tight-clenched hand, forcing the fingers apart. There in the center of his palm was a tiny puncture, the smallest bead of blood. Despite Willow’s shocked cry and Giles’ gasp, Spike raised Xander’s hand to his lips, sniffing, then tasting the drop of blood.

Recognition set in, and he gave a short bark of laughter, to Willow, Tara and Giles’ astonishment.

"Curse my bloody arse!" Spike snorted. "Wasn’t never no curse. Was a bloody trap, that’s all – a needle poisoned with hydra venom."

"Hydra venom!" Willow’s voice wailed. "But there’s no cure – "

"There’s one," Spike growled. He bit hard into his wrist, tearing the flesh deeply so it wouldn’t heal too fast, then pressed the wound to Xander’s mouth. "Hold his mouth open."

Willow gave a soft gasp of realization, and Tara was already moving, pressing Xander’s jaws firmly apart even as Willow moved to hold Xander down with her own weight.

"My God, you can’t!" Giles gasped, pushing weakly, futilely at Spike. "That quantity of vampiric blood, the shock alone will kill him – "

Giles froze, staring at Spike, who hadn’t budged.

"Unless," the Watcher whispered, "he’s already accustomed – my God. I should have seen it, the way he’s been fighting. How long?"

"Long enough," Spike said flatly.

Giles turned to Willow.

"You knew?"

Willow nodded, blushing guiltily.

"Giles – " She didn’t look at the Watcher; she was stroking Xander’s throat, forcing him to swallow reflexively. "He’s been . . . happy. It was his choice. He deserves to be happy. To be – loved."

Giles stared at Spike a long moment, then sighed, removing his hand from Spike’s arm.

"I suppose it’s too late to protest now," he said resignedly.

Xander gave one last heartwrenching groan, then subsided, blessedly unconscious. Spike took his wrist away, absently rubbing it as the wound closed.

"There you are, luv," he whispered, stroking Xander’s cheek, his dead heart almost leaping with relief as he saw the lines of pain smooth out of the mortal’s forehead. "That should put you right in a few minutes."

Giles straightened, propping his broken glasses on his nose.

"Xander will be safe inside the wards," he said. "We’ve still got work to finish here, and the others need our help." Wearily he picked up an axe and stumbled out of the circle.

Spike looked up, realizing Giles was right. The others were almost out of it, battered and exhausted. Buffy had sustained another gash across one cheek; she was retreating to the wards herself, leaving Angel and Wesley fighting on alone. There weren’t many of the demonic army left, most dead or fled when their master fell, but those that were left appeared willing to fight it out to the last.

"Right," Spike said, pushing himself to his feet. He glanced at Willow and Tara. "Got any mojo left to keep the wards up?"

"We’ll manage something," Willow promised, helping Tara up, reaching for their bags.

Pressing a brief kiss to Xander’s brow, Spike grabbed his axe and a couple of stakes and waded back into battle, sheer relief lending strength to his weary limbs.

He’d just dusted half a dozen fledglings when he tripped over something, almost falling. Glancing down, he realized he’d stumbled over Leng Chi’s head. He felt a brief pang of grief – he’d liked the wicked old lizard.

Then Leng Chi’s eyes snapped open, fixing their gaze solidly on Spike.

"Fucking hell!" Spike swore, freezing briefly and almost getting beheaded by Angel, who was swinging an axe at the Benlith he was fighting.

Those serpentine eyes held Spike’s.

Keep your promise. Return my body to Leng Mei.

Then the scaly eyelids closed.

"Fucking hell," Spike breathed again, this time ducking before Angel’s backstroke could split his skull. He joined the attack, and between the two of them, they hacked the Benlith open, both of them sighing with relief as the creature collapsed, dying. Across the room, he saw Giles and Wesley dust the last fledgling, and the room settled into silence.

Then a horribly recognizable snap echoed across the room, and Spike whirled to see Xander lying still, so still, as Buffy, tears streaming down her face, gently lowered Xander’s lolling head to the floor.

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