DISCLAIMER: We know they're Joss', right? Which really is a shame, because most of the time, we're so much nicer to them than he was.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: The joining spell worked to allow Other!Spike defeat Adam, while Buffy managed to escape Riley's clutches with her Spike's help, killing him in the process, only to fall unconscious once she realized everything was okay...

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Her cheek felt hot against the pillow, the cotton unexpectedly soft against her skin. Groaning, Buffy lifted a hand to her aching head, trying by force of will to subdue the pounding inside her skull. “Next time I feel the urge to take on a super-demon with a heavy grudge against me, remind me I’m not as young as I used to be,” she muttered to whichever Spike she was sure was next to her.

“It is my experience that power grows over time,” an unfamiliar female voice said. Buffy’s eyes shot open to see a woman with blue hair standing at her bedside, her head cocked in curiosity. “Do Slayer powers diminish with the passing years?”

“Now who the hell are you?” Struggling to sit up, Buffy collapsed back onto the bed, wondering why her body felt like it was on fire. That was when she noticed the room she was in. No Initiative white or chrome anywhere to be seen, nor any of the grunge chic that exemplified the high school basement. If she didn’t know better, she would have thought from all the heavy wood and shelves crammed with books that she was in Giles’ spare bedroom.

“I am Illyria,” the woman said. “I shall fetch the Watcher. He will be very glad to see you have awakened.”

She was halfway to the door when her meaning sunk in past Buffy’s headache. She really was in Giles’ house. She was home.

Her heart twisted.

Where was Spike?

She had only started to gather enough strength to try sitting up again when Illyria returned with Giles – her Giles, no horns or huge powerful hands in sight – in tow.

“Buffy,” he said, relief shading his voice. Rushing to the side of the bed, he pressed her gently back into her pillow, his hand immediately going to her forehead. “You must rest. You’re burning up.”

“You mean that doesn’t automatically go away now that I’ve popped back to my own dimension?” she joked. Her heart wasn’t in it, though. Her brain was too busy mulling over the multitude of questions waking had sprung.

“Go get some cold water,” he instructed Illyria. Giles moved his hand from her brow to her wrist, checking her pulse against his watch. “It took time for your temperature to elevate, Buffy. It’ll take time for it to go back to normal, I’m sure.”

“I’m back, that’s the first step. But where’s Spike? He’s here, right? He kind of explained what you guys were doing, but where is he?”

“Relax. He’s in the next room. Now that you’re awake, I’ll go do the spell to bring him back.” When Illyria appeared at his elbow, he took the glass she offered and held it to Buffy’s mouth, helping her swallow some of the refreshing fluid. When it was half gone, Giles set it on the nightstand and straightened. “Rest. This won’t take long.”

Buffy watched him leave, but when Illyria didn’t follow, she frowned. “Don’t you have to help him?”

“The Watcher does not require my assistance,” she replied. “And I have strict instructions from Wesley to look over you.”

“Wesley? Wyndam-Pryce?”

Illyria cocked her head. “Do you know another?”

“No, but…” The ache in her head was growing worse. Spike had said Angel was as involved in seeing her wake up as he was, but Buffy had thought the entire LA crew had sunk to the lower end of the evil curve with their alliance with Wolfram & Hart. “Where’s Angel? Maybe it would help if he explained all this.”

“He and Wesley remain with the liaison and the so-called Immortal.” Illyria’s lip curled in disdain, her tone shifting to match. “His appellation is fraudulent. He is less than a millennia. At the height of my reign, I had slaves who were older than he is.”

All Buffy heard was Angel and Immortal in the same sentence. If Spike had reacted so vehemently against Paolo – twice – there was no telling what Angel was doing to him.

Summoning all of her strength, Buffy pushed back the blankets and swung her legs over the side of the bed. “Are they in the house?” she demanded, gripping the edge of the mattress until the vertigo had passed. “I am so going to kick his ass if he’s laid a hand on Paolo.”

“They are not. They are in the Immortal’s home in the city. I do not know how to get there except by traveling through dimensions.”

Inwardly, she sighed. If she never saw another dimension, Buffy would be a happy camper. But for the time being, she’d do what she had to. “Take me there.”

“I do not think—“

“Which makes it a good thing I’m not telling you to think. I’m telling you to do whatever you can to get me to Angel. And please tell me it has nothing to do with a clock.”

Illyria stood up straighter. Buffy thought that if she stiffened any more, she’d turn into a corpse. Of course, some of that strength would be really good to have right about now. “In light of their negotiations, I do not believe that would be a wise decision. I refuse.”

Buffy’s eyes widened. “Negotiations? For what?”

“For the white-haired one’s life.”

Buffy sat agog as Illyria briefly delineated the plan she’d been a part of. “And Paolo was privy to all this?” she demanded.

“It would appear so.”

“Nobody’s going to kill Spike.” She stood, anger her primary motivation now. “Please, Illyria. I’m not going to just lie here and do nothing.”

The silence stretched. Illyria never blinked.

“Perhaps there is a way for us to do as you request without destroying their treaty,” she finally said.

Buffy exhaled with relief. “Good. Let’s go.”

*************

One moment Spike was leaping into the waiting van, his smoking blanket wrapped around his shoulders, his other self’s hand helping haul him to safety.

The next he was staring into Rupert’s clear eyes, with the junior Watcher standing at the foot of the bed, shaking like a leaf.

“She’s here, right?” Spike said, sitting up. “She vanished right in front of me. Tell me she woke up and we didn’t take too long to kill that wanker.”

“Yes, Buffy’s awake,” Giles replied. “She’s resting. Who did you have to kill?”

“Long story.” Pushing past the Watcher, Spike marched out of the room and across the hall, shoving open the closed door to see her for himself.

He was greeted by an empty bed.

“Rupert!” He whirled, only to find Giles standing right behind him. “You left her alone? Have you gone completely addled in your old age?”

“I did not leave her alone.” It was Giles’ turn to shove past, knocking Spike into the jamb as he went into the bedroom to see for himself. “Where could she have gone? I left her with that woman Wesley brought. Illyria.”

Spike frowned. “What the hell is Blue doin’ on this side of the pond?” He listened as Giles explained about Ilona’s price, following when the Watcher headed downstairs to see if maybe Buffy had gone down there. It was a shock to hear the lengths Angel had gone to get out of paying his bill with the Senior Partners, but as soon as he heard Angel was still there, he knew exactly where Buffy had gone.

“We’re not goin’ to find her in the pantry,” Spike said when Giles headed for the kitchen. “She’s gone. Back to her new honey. Hope she sticks in it.”

“The Immortal? Why on earth would she do that? He’s the one responsible for this entire mess.”

Flopping onto the couch in the front room, Spike shook his head. “After everything I saw her do in that other dimension? I’ve stopped tryin’ to guess what’s goin’ through Buffy’s head.” He closed his eyes, trying to block out the look on her face as she’d insisted on going back for the Other Spike. There had been moments when he had thought – when he had hoped – that maybe she’d be open to working things through when they got back. It stung to think she hadn’t even waited around to see him before scarpering off back to the bloody Immortal.

There was a soft creak of springs as Giles took a seat opposite. “But you convinced her to come back,” he said. “And you explained what his involvement was in all this, correct?”

“I did. Didn’t exactly do any convincing, though. All I did was make sure she didn’t get herself killed.” He snorted. “And even then, almost didn’t make it. Daft bint.”

“Why don’t you tell me everything that happened?”

“You won’t like it.”

“Let’s reserve judgment on that, shall we?”

Spike opened his eyes and leered at Giles. “Wanna hear all the sordid details ‘bout how you’re shacking up with Joyce, then, Rupert?”

The look of shock on the Watcher’s face was a mild respite. “Pardon?”

With a sigh, Spike propped his boots up on the table. If he was stuck waiting for Angel to come back, with or without Buffy, he might as well have a spot of fun. “See, it was like this…”

*************

As soon as he saw Wesley disconnect from his call, Angel rose from the table and crossed the room to him, taking him by the elbow and pulling him to the side. “Who was that?” he murmured, glancing back to make sure the Immortal wasn’t paying attention.

“Illyria.” Wes frowned. “She wished to know whether or not you’d made a new deal regarding Ilona’s price yet. I told her Hamilton left five minutes ago with the new contract.”

“Illyria knows how to use a phone?”

“She’s a fallen god, Angel. She’s not stupid.”

“She put a Petri dish in her mouth once.”

Wesley sighed. “She’s come a long way since then. Though I’m curious why she wanted to know. She didn’t seem particularly interested in the mechanics of it when I sent her back to the house to watch over Buffy.”

“We’ll worry about that la—“

He didn’t get to finish the sentence. A thickening in the air, in the same spot Illyria had appeared with Ilona, caught Angel’s eye, and he turned in time to see her materialize yet again. She wasn’t alone. A wan but conscious Buffy stood at her side.

“Well,” Wes murmured. “I believe that answers my question.”

Though he met Buffy’s eyes, Angel hung back as the Immortal sprang forward and slipped an arm around Buffy’s waist. Gritting his teeth, Angel could only watch as they moved to the couch, his hands clenching into fists at his sides as he tried not to listen to the endearments that fell so easily off the Immortal’s tongue. The only thing that made it more palatable was seeing the hardness of Buffy’s jaw. Angel hoped as hell that she was pissed. That would make this infinitely more entertaining.

“I’m all right,” Buffy kept repeating, even after she’d sat down. “I didn’t come here to get petted, Paolo. I came here to talk.”

The mild rebuke did nothing to stop him from pushing back the hair that clung to her reddened cheeks. “You are so flushed, cara mia,” he said. “We must get you back home, yes? I’ll tell Donatella to prepare her special remedies. We will have you alive and well soon enough.”

“In case you hadn’t notice, I’m already alive,” Buffy said. “The heartbeat pretty much gives me away.”

The Immortal seemed determined to argue. “But you are not well. You cannot deny this.”

Though her skin blazed still from the fever, her eyes were clear and bright as they met the Immortal’s. “Kind of like you can’t deny it’s your fault I’m like this in the first place?”

Angel bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling. There was the Slayer he knew and loved.

Her direct accusation didn’t make him falter. “I am not the one who went exploring when she was not invited to do so,” the Immortal scolded. “You should not have gone in there, Buffy.”

“And maybe you shouldn’t have kept the room a secret from me.” She sighed, and Angel caught the slight shift in the rate of her pulse. He wondered if the Immortal could tell how weary Buffy really was. “We could do this all day. But really, I’m not interested in laying blame. If I’m walking away from this with any afterschool special message, it’s that it’s all a matter of perspective anyway. You did what you did and I did what I did, and nothing’s going to change any of it. Not now.”

Some of the Immortal’s good mood seemed to be fading, his even features smoothing to an implacable mask with Buffy’s passing words. “So we move on from this, yes?” he prompted. “It was unfortunate, but as you say, it is over now. There is no point for us to belabor with the blame.”

“You’re right. It is over.”

Slowly, Buffy reached for the nearest of the Immortal’s hands, lacing her fingers through his in such an intimate way that Angel bristled just watching. He braced himself for the tender reunion about to ensue – and wished for a second that Spike was here to see it, too, because at least he would be able to count on Spike to leap forward and tear the two apart – but neither of the pair on the sofa spoke. They simply sat there, Buffy gazing with level eyes at the Immortal, the Immortal doing the same.

Until he pulled away.

“You cannot be serious,” the Immortal said.

Angel and Wesley exchanged a glance, both of them frowning, as he edged back from Buffy, putting distance between them so that their knees were no longer touching. She remained still, folding her hands into her lap.

“Nobody will ever treat you like I have,” the Immortal continued. “They cannot know as I do what it is you need.”

Buffy grew thoughtful. “No offense, Paolo, but some people don’t need special powers to figure out what’ll make me happy. They just do it by caring.”

Abruptly, he stood and crossed to the window, turning his back on everyone in the room. “I did not consider that you would not wish to return home, cara mia. You disappoint me.”

She rose as well, though her efforts were spoiled by the slight sway in her posture. Angel stepped forward to go and steady her, but Wesley’s grip on his elbow stopped him.

“I have the feeling you would have been disappointed sooner or later anyway,” Buffy said. “I mean, let’s face it. You’re still single after a thousand years? Odds are good, you’re never going to be satisfied.”

Nobody said a word. Everybody seemed to be waiting for the Immortal to respond.

“Are we done now?” Illyria said. “This silence is awkward and makes me wish to leave.”

When the Immortal didn’t move or speak, Buffy turned to Angel. “What’s the sitch with Spike? Do I need to kick some evil lawyer’s ass or just yours?”

He grinned. He couldn’t help it. It was too good seeing her up and swinging again. “We’ve negotiated a new payment. Spike’s safe. For the time being.”

“Do I wanna know what that new payment is?” She held up her hands before he could answer. “Never mind. Stupid question. I already know I don’t.”

“The Senior Partners will not be pleased to discover you were bluffing, signore,” the Immortal said without turning around. “I would be mindful of their new price if I were you.”

“There shouldn’t have been a price in the first place,” Buffy said, heading for the door. “If you really cared about me like you say you do, Paolo, you would’ve given them the spell and the clock for free.”

Buffy didn’t see the sudden jerk in the Immortal’s shoulders or hear his soft exhalation, but Angel did. He grinned as he followed her out.

“Tell Hamilton I’ll see him back in LA,” he called back to the Immortal. “I’m sure we’re going to have plenty to discuss.”

*************

Buffy sagged against the wall of the elevator as soon as the doors whispered shut behind Wesley. “I am so ready to sleep for a week,” she murmured, closing her eyes.

“What just happened in there?” Angel asked.

“It’s called a break-up. You remember those. I’m pretty sure you and I have had a couple ourselves.”

“I think Angel is referring to the fact that the Immortal seemed to understand what you want without you actually having to say it out loud,” Wesley offered. He appeared thoughtful when Buffy opened her eyes. “He can’t be telepathic or he would have recognized Angel’s bluff sooner.”

“He can feel emotions,” she explained. “But he can only do it through touch. That’s how come everybody likes him so much. Have you seen how touchy feely they are in Italy? One kiss on the cheek and he knows exactly what to do to in that moment to put you on cloud nine.” She shrugged. “He’s probably the easiest boyfriend I ever had. I never had to tell him what I was in the mood for. He always just knew. And he had great taste in shoes.”

Angel was frowning. “So what did he sense in you?” he pressed.

Good old jealous Angel, she thought affectionately. She never thought she’d miss the day when she could deal with such a simple issue.

“You sent Spike to bring me back,” Buffy said. “What do you think he sensed?” She didn’t wait for a response. “And speaking of Spike, I need to talk to him when we get back. Can you guys leave us alone so we can have some privacy? I have a feeling things might get a little loud.”

The elevator doors slid open, but Angel didn’t budge. “Aren’t you going to tell us what happened?”

“Yeah.” Since nobody else was moving, Buffy decided to take the first step to get off. “Eventually. Maybe.”

“What do you mean maybe?”

“I mean…maybe.”

“Are we ready to return?” Illyria interrupted. Though the hallway was deserted, the distant sound of voices carried to greet them. “I grow weary of your small arguments.”

Buffy’s smile was wide. “Then it’s definitely a good idea if you’re not around when Spike and I talk,” she said. “And as grateful as I am for the offer, I think I’m going to take a good old-fashioned cab back to Giles’. I’m just a little sick and tired of all this dimension hopping.” She had only taken a few steps before she stopped and turned back. “Anybody got any money?”

 

To be concluded in Chapter 29