The tension hung heavily in the small room as the four men waited for the young woman’s arrival. When Duncan, Spike, and Angel had reached the antique shop, Methos had been waiting for his fellow immortals. Recognizing the blonde, he assumed the vampires would have quite a few questions.
He had known the redhead before she had learned of her immortal status, and he knew how much she had changed from the girl they had known. It would be hard for the two vampires to except those changes, especially not knowing what she had gone through the last few years. And she had gone through a lot. Dealing with her knew life and the things she had to do to survive had not been easy on her. She had learned to live with the rules of the Game eventually of course, but at a price.
Methos remembered how difficult that first year away from her hometown had been on the redhead and he also knew discussing that time would be hard as well. She had put her time in Sunnydale, and the people she had known and loved there, in the past. She’d had no other choice. It was the only way she could handle the reality that she would never again live that life or see those people.
Now, of course, it seemed that wasn’t quite true. He didn’t know how she would deal with that. He was sure her former friends would want some kind of explanation, but he didn’t know how much of one she would be willing to give them. So they had waited for her to arrive so that she could make that choice herself. He wasn’t about to tell them anything unless it was ok with her.
This announcement had not been welcomed by the two vampires, however, and it was clear by their expressions that they would not wait much longer for answers. Thankfully, he felt the presence of an immortal nearby and heard a motorcycle drive by the front of the shop, then turn into the alley behind it; his friend and protégé had arrived at last.
"She’s here." As he said it, Duncan looked over at the older immortal, his expression showing that he too was worried about how she would deal with this turn of events.
"How do you know?" Angel glanced at the shop owner, distrust evident in his tone.
The Scottish immortal decided it would be better to not mention his ability to sense her, and instead pointed towards the back of the shop where his friend was cutting the roaring engine of her Yamaha. "That was her that just rode by. She’s out back parking."
The dark-haired vampire looked at him with disbelief. "Willow rides a motorcycle?"
"Willow doesn’t do anything; Willow’s dead." All four of the small room’s occupants turned to the door at the calmly spoken words. "Ash rides a motorcycle." The redhead slipped off her fitted leather jacket, lying it on the table next to the door before setting her helmet on top of the coat. She had felt her mentor’s presence when she had rode up and immediately sought out his face, finding him situated next to the antiquities dealer on the other side of the room.
Allowing the slightest of smiles to tug at her lips, she walked over to him, where the two friends exchanged a brief hug. The smile widened ever so slightly when she felt her mentor’s sword through his coat; oh how she had hated that sword when he’d first been teaching her to use one of her own. She remembered all the times he’d scheduled meetings with her only to come late or early, sneak up on her and attack.
Those surprise fights had gone a long way in getting her comfortable with the weapon she now trusted her life to. But she still didn’t like that sword. "Hey Methos. You’re back early." Her usually indifferent tone was light and affectionate as she addressed him. He was the only person she actually let herself become close to. Even Duncan was kept at arm’s length. The young immortal hadn‘t developed any real relationships since leaving Sunnydale. She found it easier that way.
Father and childe looked up at the girl that had spoken, not believing it was the same witch they had both known. She was dressed completely in black leather, from the jacket she had removed, to the heeled boots encasing her feet. The pants clung to her muscled legs, hugging her hips and flaring at the ankles. The sleeveless top had a scooped neck and thin elastic straps.
The long braids fell over her back, hiding it from their sight, but the straps crisscrossed over the alabaster skin, holding on the backless tank. The only color on the outfit was the sharp silver spikes on her dog collar. When his lover had described the girl’s makeup, Angel had thought she was exaggerating, but now he knew she was not.
Thick black liner outlined the dark emerald eyes and deep crimson eye shadow was applied to her eye lids. Her lips were painted with the same dark red, as were her nails. As she tucked her plaited tresses behind her ear in a painfully familiar gesture, the vampires noticed almost a dozen small silver hoop earrings running up her ear.
Angel ran his eyes back over her form as his childe sat in stoic silence next to him. The brown eyes stopped at her right bicep where he was surprised to find a tattoo. A blooming rose was situated on her shoulder with its stem wrapped twice around her arm. Small drops of blood seemed to well up under the thorns as if the stem was actually biting into the flesh of her arm. The deep scarlet petals themselves dripped crimson, seeming to bleed on their own. He absently noted that the tattoo artist that had done it was quite talented.
His attention was still focused on the young woman who was in every way a complete contrast to the innocent hacker he had left in Sunnydale. He had had to force down a shudder when she had entered the room and spoken so callously about her own death; her eyes, cold and distant, her face void of emotion. He watched as the ghost of a smile formed on her face as she greeted the man Spike had told him was the one the blonde had seen with her in Sunnydale before she was killed. As he thought of the connection, a question arouse in his mind.
"Methos? I thought your name was Adam. Isn’t that what Willow called you that night?" Spike had told him every detail of that night many times over the years, and he was sure his childe had said that the hacker had called out the name Adam. As he looked over at the girl, he watched any trace of the small smile vanish as all expression left her face and her eyes turned cold once more at the mention of her past.
The dark-haired immortal looked at the brunette vampire, squeezing her hand in an effort to offer her some form of comfort. "It’s both actually. My name was originally Methos, but now a days I go by Adam. When you’ve lived as long as I have, it becomes necessary to change your name periodically. It tends to make things a bit easier and keeps me inconspicuous."
"Exactly how old are you?" His tone was somewhat sharp, annoyed at all the evasive answers he had received that evening.
"To be completely honest, I can’t quite remember the exact figure, but I’d say I’m roughly 5000." The souled vampire stared at the man, caught between utter disbelief and amazement. "You didn’t think vampires were the only immortal beings did you? Well, actually vampires are considerably more mortal than we are. Considering all the ways you can be destroyed."
Confusion and frustration fueled his anger and he had to force down his demonic face. "What are you? Are you a demon?"
"No, we’re not at all demonic. None of us are quite sure what we are, specifically. Or how we came to be. All we know is that we are born as normal people, well I’m not sure if you could say that for me, but the rest of us were born normal human beings. If we suffer a violent death, we are from then on, immortal. The only thing that will permanently kill us is decapitation."
Angel shifted his gaze to the silent redhead, briefly meeting her dull, impassive eyes before breaking the contact as a chill made its way up his spine. "So, you’re..."
She finished his sentence with indifference. "-stuck here until someone manages to chop my head off."
Her words brought back the fight he had witnessed between her and what he assumed was another immortal in the alleyway. As if reading his thoughts, Duncan nodded his head, saying, "Yes, many immortals try to kill other immortals. It’s all part of the Game."
"The what?" The former Scourge of Europe found himself confused once more. The witch’s disgusted voice cut into his thoughts.
"The Game. It’s like one big fucking pissing contest. The only rules are that fighting is forbidden on holy ground, and fights are one on one. One ‘team’ is made up of headhunters, out for power and supremacy. The rest of us try and avoid fighting when we can, but we live by the Game, and participation isn’t exactly optional. When you’re challenged, you fight, it’s that damn simple. And you’re gonna get challenged. See, when an immortal is killed, their life force, their power, is released in the Quickening. The immortal that killed them, or the one closest to them, absorbs the Quickening. Headhunters basically go around fighting other immortals, trying to get as many Quickenings as they can. There can be only one, ya see, and they all wanna be the last."
Her voice dripped with bitter sarcasm and her features twisted with repulsion. "That’s the thing. Nobody even fucking knows what the illustrious Prize actually is. Hell, the last immortal could be turned into a pile of horse shit for all we know. We all just run around cutting each other’s heads off, saying ‘there can be only one,’ for no apparent reason. Oh, there’s theories. Some think the last remaining immortal will get all the power and strength of every immortal that has ever existed, which if it ends up to be true and a headhunter is the one, could be pretty damn scary. And then there’s the other theory. A lot of us think the last will become mortal again, and be able to have kids, grow old and finally die."
Angel looked strangely at the witch at her last statement. "Oh, right, I forgot to tell you. Immortal’s can’t have kids. Some fucking asshole decided to take that away in exchange for watching everyone you know die around you." A sickly sweet tone colored the words, matching the sneer that shaped her dark lips.
The girl’s manner was quite shocking to the blonde vampire, who had known only the happy, sweet hacker from Sunnydale. Both vampires were having a hard time taking in everything they had been told, although Spike gave little sign of it. He sat next to his sire, still trying to accept that the woman he had loved, had grieved for, was alive. He had been watching her, and it was obvious that her new life had greatly affected her, hardened her. Still coming to terms with everything he had learned, he let Angel ask the questions.
And that’s exactly what he was doing, his chocolate brown orbs landing on the now tense witch. "So, tonight-"
Her clipped tone cut him off. "I was challenged. I fought. I won. End of story." Obviously uncomfortable with the direction in which the conversation was headed, the young woman stood and walked briskly over to her jacket. "If you don’t mind, I’m gonna go outside for a bit." Without waiting for a reply, she picked up the leather coat, opened the door, and went out into the alley, closing the door firmly behind her.
Several minutes after the young immortal had gone outside, the blonde found himself having a hard time processing all of the information that he had been given that evening. Finding out that his love had been alive for the last five years while he had painfully mourned her death, was too much for him to handle in combination with the discovery that she was not only alive, but immortal. He stood, his restlessness no longer containable as he headed to the door. "I need a smoke." Hoping that it would calm his raging emotions, he stepped out into the dark alley behind the antique store.
Shutting the door, the vampire fished out his pack of Camels and was searching for his lighter when he saw the young woman leaning against the building’s wall, smoking her own cigarette. He noticed that she had pulled the hundreds of long braids into a single ponytail.
For the twentieth time that night he tried, unsuccessfully, to figure out how the sweet, innocent, optimistic, lighthearted girl he had fallen in love with could have changed so drastically. Shaking his head, he continued his hunt for the lighter he was sure he had put in his trench coat. He stopped suddenly as the topic of his thoughts held a hand out in front of his face. Floating above her index finger was a small flame with which to light his cigarette. Holding the tip in the flame, he took a deep breath, igniting the end, before pulling away to lean against the wall next to her. Crystal blue eyes watched the flame disappear before she dropped her hand back to her side.
A sarcastic smirk twisted his lips as he turned to look at the silent redhead. "Ya know, those thing’ll kill ya."
"So I’ve been told." His eyebrow rose in a silent question as he glanced back and forth between her blank face and the cigarette in her right hand. She shrugged her shoulder in response.
"They help me calm down, give my hands something to do. Besides, there’s just something about the smell of leather and cigarettes. Reminds me of someone I knew once." Her shoulders rose once more as she tilted her head to the side, expressing the impossibility of explaining it further.
He nodded his head once in understanding and gestured towards her left hand. "You seemed to have learned a few new tricks since we last saw each other." He didn’t have to mention the fight earlier that night for the witch to know he was referring to more than her magical method to lighting a cigarette.
"Not really much of a choice. We all have to do things we don’t want to, it’s just the way things work." From the underlying bitterness in her voice, Spike could tell she was no where near as accepting of the situation as she would have him believe. Silence enveloped the dark alleyway as he tried to think of something to say, but it was the petite immortal that finally broke the silence. "Eleven."
The word was said quietly, but the utter disgust with which it was spoken caused it to practically bounce off of the brick walls around them. "Eleven challenges, eleven heads, eleven Quickenings. Eleven lives. Eleven people killed with my sword, by my hand." The anger and self-loathing darkened her words and hardened her eyes as she looked over at the blonde vampire.
"In the four years I fought with the slayer, I barely dusted that many vamps myself." Her failure to use her former friend’s name did not go unnoticed by the still neutered vampire. Nor did the shadows of guilt and sadness that fell on her pale face right before she lowered it, escaping his gaze. "Kind of ironic, isn’t it? I spent four years fighting evil, only to become it myself."
"You’re not evil pet." Pain laced through his chest at the hollow sound of her voice.
"Aren’t I? Think about it Spike. We killed vampires because they killed humans. They had to kill to survive, and that was evil. Well, I kill to survive too. I kill human beings. They may be immortal, but they’re still human. So tell me, how am I any different? How am I any less evil?"
He had never heard the hacker speak as harshly and with as much anger and self-recrimination as did the woman next to him. He could scarcely believe it was the same girl. Shaking his head sadly, he forced a sigh from his dead lungs.
"Vampires kill to survive, yes. But they also kill for pleasure, for sport. Vampires don’t feel guilt or remorse for the person they murder, trust me. I’ve killed a hell of a lot more people than you have, and I don’t even feel even a fraction of what you do. I’ve killed for food, and I’ve killed for fun. Somehow I doubt you can say the same."
Dropping the burnt out cigarette to the ground, he smashed it into the pavement with the corner of his boot as he continued. "I’ve tortured and maimed, and loved every minute of it. I’ve bathed in my victim’s blood with a smile on my face. That’s evil, ducks, and it ain’t you."
Sighing, the witch took out another Marborl from her pack and lit it with her finger, turning away from the intense blue gaze. She spoke calmly with an almost indifferent tone as she remembered a discussion she had with her mentor over five years before.
"When Methos first told me about immortals and the Game, I didn’t really think much about the killing. I didn’t think about the number of heads he must have taken in his lifetime. It wasn’t until I realized that I was immortal and a participant in the Game, that I began to think of what that entailed, of what I would have to do to stay alive."
With a fresh cigarette of his own dangling from his fingers, he asked the question that had been plaguing him since he had learned that she was alive. "Is that why you left?"
Taking a long drag on the nicotine filled paper cylinder, she let the question hang for a minute before she could force herself to form an answer. "In part, yes. When I woke up, I was in a body bag in the morgue. I remember how dark and cold it was in that damn bag. I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared in my life. The last thing I could remember was being in the alley. I remembered an enormous pain in my stomach, and that there was a lot of blood. And I remembered you, picking me up, holding me, saying something about needing to go to the hospital, and..." Her voice broke off, as if she didn’t want to continue, and instead changed the topic slightly.
"Methos told me later that he had seen me die and went straight to the morgue after packing his things. He miscalculated how long I’d be asleep and how easy it would be to get access to my body though, and by the time he got into the morgue I’d been awake a couple of minutes. When he got me out, he told me what had happened; that I had died, that I was an immortal. I could tell by his expression that we had to leave, that I couldn’t stay. I never argued, just left with him. I didn’t really want to go, Sunnydale was all I’d ever known, but I had to. With your experiences with the hellmouth and everything, I’m sure my immortality would have been relatively easy for you guys to except, but I had still died. I wasn’t the same person you all knew. Even before my first death I was changing, but that night I ceased to be Willow Rosenberg. I had a new life ahead of me, one I couldn’t lead in Sunnydale. I had to become someone else, someone who could play the Game and win. I couldn’t be that person with the people that knew only shy, innocent Willow."
During her speech, he had walked up and down the alley, stopping to examine the motorcycle parked in the corner. As she finished, her emerald eyes followed his movements and took advantage of the opportunity to switch the topic to a more lighthearted and less memorial one. "Nice, isn’t she?"
Sitting down, and leaning against the wall, she indicated the bike with a slight tilt of her head. He nodded, walking around the machine to get a better look. As he continued his appraisal, he noticed a fairly large design on the side of the gas tank. A sizable flame burnt brightly in intermingling shades of red, orange, and yellow. Overlaying the fire was the word ‘Ash.’ The top of the name was a dark charcoal gray that got lighter towards the bottom where the letters appeared to crumble and disintegrate. Icy blue pools moved from the image to the jaded expression of the young immortal in silent inquiry.
Her voice was flat and her face betrayed no remnant of emotion as she spoke. "I’m not sure who it was, but I remember someone having said something about my fiery spirit matching my flaming hair." Blowing out a lung full of smoke she glanced at the word. "When a fire burns out and dies, all that’s left are ashes, right?. Well, I needed a new name, and it just seemed to fit."
The nonchalance with which she said it sent a shiver down his spine as he watched her put out her cigarette and rest her arms on her knees. Pushing the disturbing feeling aside, he casually added, "Plus, it’s got the tree thing going for it." At her questioning glance, he elaborated unthinkingly. "You know, Willow, Ash, MysticTree."
His eyes were scanning the motorcycle so he didn’t see her head jerk in his direction, her emerald orbs wide. "Now, if I remember correctly, there’s a Celtic Tree Month of Willow, and one of Ash. I assume that’s what the Mystic part refers to. That and your whole magic thing anyway."
He was pinned by a piercing jade gaze when he turned around, and as she spoke, he realized his mistake. "How the hell did you know about that?"
In a desperate attempt to evade the question, he plastered an innocent expression on his face, saying, "About the Celtic Tree Month thing? Well, I did used to help out in the Magic Box occasionally, and I picked up a couple-"
She cut him off, her tone sharp. "No, the name. I only went by MysticTree online, and I know I never spoke to you on the net. So how exactly did you know what my screen name was?" The slow, calm voice matched the icy glare aimed in his direction.
Cursing his own stupidity, he stamped out his cigarette and ran his fingers through his bleached locks. This particular topic was not one he wanted to discuss. While he had spent many nights and days after arriving in LA talking with Angel about the hacker and the events surrounding her death, he had never told his sire about this.
The information he had inferred from his findings had not been the type he had even dared to believe, let alone speak aloud. It seemed that he no longer had that choice, however, and he reluctantly explained what he had done that had given him such knowledge. Only by sheer will power did he keep the majority of emotion from his voice as he spoke. Keeping his eyes firmly planted on the ground, he slowly made his way to the mouth of the small alley.
As his story unfolded, his mind became lost in a tumultuous sea of questions to which he had not answers. After he had taken her body to the hospital and contacted her friends, he had wandered the town’s dark streets.
Ending up at her parent’s home, he had let himself into her room, and during his visit had found a discarded printout of an IM conversation between the hacker and her immortal mentor. In it, Adam had explained the proper way to perform an illusion of an individual. At the time, he had forcibly extinguished the burning hope that his findings had lit in his nonexistant soul.
His mind now conjured the same crucial question which he had contemplated that night so long ago. Could she possibly harbor feelings for a demon such as himself? He had witnessed first hand her use of his visage in her illusion. Could that possibly mean he had met the criteria for the subject of the magical lesson? And if he had, would he still, after all this time?
An identical battle of doubt and hope raged amongst the witch’s thoughts, as his words took her back to that night five years before when she had experienced her first death. Fear gripped her as she realized what conversation he must have found. She remembered having studied one particular printout that night in preparation for her lesson on illusions from Adam.
Throughout the conversation the immortal had told her the best way to perform an illusion of a person for the first time was to use someone that she had strong feelings for and saw or thought of often so as to create it most realistically. The possibility that he had seen her project his own face in the illusion fed the flames of panic within her.
She recalled how she had let her emotions show as she died, thinking at the time that it would not matter if he learned the truth. But now she knew better and her anxiety increased as the possible repercussions suddenly seemed inevitable.
She had been aware that she might one day meet up with the blonde vampire again, though she had never thought it would be so soon. She had also contemplated the perceivable outcomes of such a meeting, knowing all along that whether he learned of her feelings for him or not, he would surely not return them. If he never knew, at least she could still indulge in the fantasy that he might care for her. The icy claw of fear tightened around her heart at the chance that he might have figured out what she really felt for him.
She loved him, that she knew. She had known it for almost six years. Though she had never thought that he would ever return that love, the barely discernible pain and sorrow that colored his words as he spoke of her death caused hope to ignite within her. *Could he actually feel the same?* With that question formed another; one she had to ask, had to know that answer to. Out of all the places in Sunnydale, why would he have gone to her room? "Why? Why there?"
Her unsteady voice drifted to his ears from somewhere behind him, neither having found the courage to face the other. He felt his own hope flare to life and somehow managed to answer despite his fear at her reaction. "You were dead. I guess I needed to be somewhere..."
For what must have been the first time in his vampiric existence, Spike was at a loss for words, not knowing how to express the solace his grief had forced him to seek amongst her possessions. "I just had to be with..." His voice trailed off and he had to swallow a lump that had formed in his suddenly dry throat.
He was angry that he was forced to admit the truth, and that he couldn’t seem to figure out how. His frustration mounted, and mentally berating himself for his own cowardice, he blurted out the truth. "Bloody hell, woman! That shit was all that was left of you. I had to have time there. If I couldn’t be with you then I sure as fuck was gonna be with your crap, ok?"
Shaking his head at the uncharacteristic sentimentality of his actions and mad that he had lost his temper, he took control of the fear that raged through him from the fact that he had finally told her how he felt without even knowing how she would take the news. He had always convinced himself that she wouldn’t feel the same, but he still clung to the hope that he was wrong. After all, she had chosen to create his likeness in the illusion, knowing that she should use a subject for whom she cared deeply. And she had looked at him with such tenderness as she lay dying in his arms…
An offhand comment she had made less than an hour before took the opportunity to make itself known to the neutered vampire. Looking down at his leather duster, he turned around and made the largest gamble of his unife.
At some point during his speech, she had moved over to the bike, and stood facing the back of the alley. When he reached her, he swept aside the large mass of braids, his eyes falling on the image of an intricately designed dagger that was tattooed on her back, between her shoulder blades.
With the tip of his index finger, he slowly traced the outline. The grip, or handle, of the dagger was the long body of a dragon, whose tail curled into a circle behind it to wrap around a pentacle forming the pommel of the weapon. The dragon’s outstretched wings made up the hilt while the blade seemed to extend from the beast’s opened jaws. He felt her muscles tense as he grazed her porcelain skin with his finger. Leaning forward, he spoke quietly into her ear. "Leather and cigarettes luv?"
Her dying words to him floated into his mind and when he spoke again his voice was soft, but his tone serious. "I never did forget you, pet. Hell, I don’t think I’ve gone a single frickin’ day without thinking about you. Those first few months I damn near talked peaches’ ear off, goin’ on about how much I bloody missed you."
Grasping her shoulders, he turned her to face him, meeting her eyes with his own. Fear, and uncertainty were clear in the emerald depths as she allowed the carefully constructed walls around herself to fall away for the first time in five years.
"Really?" The tentative voice reminded him of the innocent girl he had known on the hellmouth. She looked down after he nodded in reply. She had spent the last five years hardening herself to the world, building her defenses, and in less than an hour he had reduced her to the shy, insecure girl she had been before she met Buffy.
"Goddess, Spike, I missed you so much." He titled her face upwards with his thumb and forefinger, gazing into her eyes in a silent exchange before he swooped down, capturing her lips in a passionate kiss.
Remembering that she had to breathe, he pulled away, gently caressing the side of her face. "I love you, you know. Have for over five years."
"Six." A puzzled look overcame his features at the statement. "I’ve loved you for six." A wide grin spread across both faces and they met in another needy kiss. Teeth and tongues clashed, years of pent-up emotions freed at last.
Reluctantly, lips broke apart, his husky voice filtering through the lustful haze that had enveloped the witch. "See luv, you’re not dead, that fire still burns. Of course, I might have to conduct a few, more thorough exams before I can be sure. But I’d say you’re anything but ashes." He ran his hands up and down her arms, his cool touch soothing her heated flesh.
"Well, we wouldn’t want there to be any question, now would we?" Flashing him an impish grin, she went on. "So, maybe you should conduct those exams. Maybe back at my place?"
His lips curled into a sexy smirk. "I think you may be right. Why don’t you let me tell pops I’ll met him at the hotel in the morning, and we can get to work." He slipped back into the shop, returning a minute later. As they prepared to leave, he looked over at her quizically. "So, you won’t ever die?"
"Not unless I get real sloppy and let someone chop off my head."
"Well, you know what that means, don’t ‘cha luv?" A slight smile played at his lips as he waited for her answer.
"What?" One delicate eyebrow rose, her tone playful.
"That you’re gonna have to put up with me for eternity," he said, shooting her a large grin.
"And how’s that?" She wrapped her arms around his neck, staring into the bottomless sapphire pools.
His expression turned serious as he cupped her cheek with one hand. "I won’t let you leave me again, pet. Not now that I’ve got you. These last five years, thinking you were dead, they were hell. I won’t do it again."
"Don’t worry Spike. I’m not going anywhere." Lips met and tongues played, as the two melted into each other’s embrace. A few minutes later, they mounted the Yamaha and rode off into the warm night. Together. After all, they only had eternity, and they didn’t want to waste a moment.