Dusk was gathering when Spike ventured from a culvert at Kingman's Bluff, overlooking the Pacific. She held back until the sun ceased reflecting off the shimmering water before tramping through the sand to the surf. Rays of crimson glory adorned the sky, a reminder to vampires of sunsets they could never hope to see again, except in photographs, movies, or the moment of their death.
She let the sea foam around her ankles and wet the hem of her despised coat with its frilly borders and bullet holes. She tore the bandages off her head and threw them away.
With her eye shut tight she cursed fate. To be staked in a fight and crumble to dust would be a fitting end. Even a beheading by some ambitious fellow vampire held some dignity, but this? To languish as a female, throwing herself at sodding men like – like Buffy was now? She could tear the irony like base metal if she could only lay her delicate, alabaster hands on it.
Used. By a slayer. The memories flooded back, all those intimate, feminine things she had performed with Buddy Morrison, a.k.a. the slayer that she had ripped, fanged, eaten, murdered in dream and fantasy a hundred times. She had been his lover. His … she nearly dropped to her knees as she choked out the word.
"Wife."She shrugged out of the coat and let it fall. The water was cold as she walked in to her waist.
The worst part was that even now she felt like a woman, thought as a woman, longed for womanly things.
She sloshed up to her neck and began to swim.
The worst part was that the real Spike was gone, replaced by some freak with his memories but also large mammaries that made her back ache, and which required bras that itched and chafed. Her tummy puffed out for no reason and made her look fat. It seemed so damned important, for some reason. Water retention was a bitch.
She planed her body forward and drove her still powerful arms through the water, aiming for the darkling horizon. Red sky at night, sailors' delight. Fine weather ahead, no rain or storm. No clouds tomorrow to hide the sun.
The worst. The worst …
She swam faster, exhilarated by the reality of impending death. Sharks might pulp her to cutlets and she would wind up in their bellies, and in the mouths of the tiny Remoras that tagged along for scraps. Or she would survive to greet the sunrise, to marvel one last time at long forgotten beauty before rendering to ash.
She dug in and swam harder.
The worst part was that she missed her husband. Her heart ached for Buddy, who hated her as much as she should hate him. Yet she could not hate the one person who, over the course of her long and eventful life, had ever made her feel happy and complete.
Drusilla was desire disguised as love, but this was love true, this was forever love, love effulgent.
Buddy would never know her feelings. Her body could never be found; it would burn or be eaten, or sink and never rise again. Even if they did retrieve her and Buddy gazed uncaring at her corpse, would he notice and divine meaning from such a small detail?
She still wore her wedding ring.
Ethan Rayne lay on the floor of The Magic Box with his knees tucked to his chest. He shivered under two blankets, ignoring every question and command put to him. They gave him water but it made him cough horribly. He spat some blood and a tooth, which pocked onto the floor.
"I'm afraid he was quite tormented by our friend Surgat," Hermione said.
"Su – Surgat!" Rayne quavered, and tried to crawl away.
"Relax," Hermione said, and Buddy held him down. Rayne jerked his head around uncomprehendingly and wailed piteously. Where the whites of his eyes should be, broken blood vessels had painted solid walls of deep red.
"Don't be a baby," Anya scolded. "You're safe now, and here's your friend Giles."
"Ripper?" Rayne squeaked hopefully.
"Yes," Hermione soothed, patting his arm. "It's your old friend Ripper, Ethan. So don't worry, Surgat is far away. So reverse this spell, you stupid bint!"
Hermione applied a judicious foot against Rayne's backside. Rayne responded by whimpering for his mum.
Buddy ran a hand through his hair and said, "Knock that off, or I'll never get back to my wi -"
Hermione looked at him. "What?"
"I'll never get back to my … oh, crap."
"Thinking of Spike again?" Anya guessed.
Buddy nodded. "And not the evil, jerk-I-want-to-kill Spike either. The long-haired, big breasted Spike with the shapely –"
"Enough," Tara said. "Like Kendra already told you guys, the mob's coming, and they're not going to hesitate to shoot anyone who's with Spike."
Kendra nodded. "Vince and his boys mean business. They're posing as feds, remember, so they think they can't lose."
"They're tracking the car," Buddy reminded her. "The car's gone."
"Don't forget," Tara replied, "they also have your address."
"Sit up," Hermione snapped at Rayne, and slapped the back of his head.
"With Mom and Dawn cleared out, there's no danger at home." Buddy kneeled next to Rayne. "I'm with Giles, let's get this jackass up."
He tugged at Rayne's shoulders. "If you don't do what you're told we'll give you back to Surgat."
Rayne shrank into his blankets and abject terror contorted his features. After Buddy nudged him with his foot, he whispered hoarsely, "What must I do?"
Buddy looked at Hermione. "What does he have to do?"
Hermione adjusted her glasses. "Well, uh, simple really. To recant the spell, that is, reverse the curse, he must merely –"
Rayne bawled and shook his head furiously.
"He must summon Surgat and request it."
Rayne's tears sprinkled to the floor.
Buddy said, "I thought you could only summon him once."
Anya looked smug. "No, you can only make one request. Recanting is in the Principles, every spell can be reversed. Well, almost every spell."
Kendra headed for the door. "I've warned you, now I'm out of here. Tara, you want to come along, you can."
Hermione hurried to her side. "Kendra, do you remember me? No, of course you don't, never mind that. But … we're friends – well, not friends, but colleagues. Hmm, that's actually rather a stretch, but we associated, and I – that is, my former self, well, you and I had a sort of mutual –"
Kendra said, "Can I have a coffee break?"
Hermione pouted. "Damn. Listen dear, you're not really Kendra, a pretty girl, you're Xander Harris, a man. It would be wise if you stayed. Willow is coming, actually Alex – but really Willow, as a man. She can help you to regain your identity, as she did with me. Or he, as he currently is a man."
Kendra shook her head disbelievingly. "Wow. You mean I can be as squared-away as you if I wait for this man-woman? I know I'm being madcap, but I think … no.
"Good luck, Tara." she ran out and jumped into her rented car. Alex was just walking up, and he ran after her and knocked on the driver's side window.
The car's tires screeched as it bucked forward. Alex jumped back and watched her go.
Inside, he took off his jacket and tossed it over the cash register. "Your mom and Dawn are safe," he told Buddy. "My mother was a bit jerky, but she came through with a little coaxing."
Buddy looked at him. "You talking to me?"
Alex slapped his cheek. He hurriedly raised his hands and said, "Don't hit back, you'll flatten me. Remember, Buddy? You're really Buffy Summers, come on, focus."
Hermione slapped herself. "Yes, that's the stuff. But we can't stand here slapping ourselves silly. We need this curse lifted, soonest."
"Let's summon Surgat, and if Rayne doesn't do what we say, we hand him over."
"Wonderful idea, Buddy," Hermione returned. "But Rayne has to give the incantation himself, or it won't work. Moreover, if we hand him back Surgat will kill him. We'll be stuck in our assumed identities for the rest of our lives."
"That won't work," Alex said. "My mom told me to be a girl again, or don't darken her doorway ever." He brightened. "Actually, that part's not so bad."
Anya took hold of Rayne's arms and shook him. "Get up you little toad. This gang is bad enough without changing sexes every five minutes."
"Anya," Hermione said, stepping forward.
"Back off, Giles or Julie Andrews, or whoever you are at this minute. He's okay. Men get raped all the time. In fact I made it happen in some of my past exploits. Threaten him enough and he can function just fine. Give him some liquor, he'll perk up."
Hermione shrugged and filled a coffee mug with brandy. Alex and Anya lifted Rayne to a chair and he sipped slowly at first, then more eagerly, snuffing a bit through his nose. He coughed then drank the rest.
Hermione poured two fingers more. "Not too much, you're not getting drunk. You will summon Surgat, Ethan. Or I promise you, Surgat will have you."
Rayne gulped the brandy and slammed the mug on the table. A portion of his confidence showed in his posture, and he said calmly, "May I at least have a pair of trousers?"
"Why?" Hermione retorted. "If you slip up, it'll be that much easier for you and Surgat to resume your honeymoon. Now let's go."