[ Spike ]

This is a good city to be lost in, Spike thought to himself. Small enough to know all the haunts, but large enough to spread your wings and have some space.

In Sunnydale, there's no such thing as space. In Sunnydale, you couldn't have come to a place like this without knowing the faces, if not the names. In Sunnydale, you wouldn't be able to forget the memory of her dark eyes and long hair, slender white fingers and a voice as ethereal as cobwebs...

So that is why he has come to this city by the sea, to this fanciful party with people he does not know, and now he is determined to enjoy himself. He's warm and fresh-fed, strange women smile at him from beneath their half-masks, and the music makes him glad to dance these old steps again, with their soft mortal arms around him. And doesn't it feel so damn good to cut loose now, after too long nursing his wounds in the darkness, too long in that bloody wheelchair and then the long months afterwards he's spent alone and lamenting...

But wait, he's here to forget all that, not to belabour the painful details one more time. Please pay attention. Don't recall the day that she left you; just fix the mask a little more securely over your eyes and remember to smile.

Dance with every woman in this room, he tells himself without much belief, and you'll forget her soon enough.

* * *

[ Willow ]

Crying will only make your eyes red, she tells herself sternly, so don't do it.

Willow has lingered at the bathroom mirror long enough already, so she slips her mask back on and tries to stay calm; the mask only covers half her face, ending midway down her nose, but already she feels safer and more anonymous behind it. Then she takes a deep breath and plunges back into the buzzing atmosphere of the ballroom. But the music makes her ears hurt, the bright costumes hurt her eyes, and, no matter what she tells herself, she very much would like to cry.

She is alone. Her cousins left her behind hours ago, whirling onto the dancefloor and into the arms of strangers. Willow simply stood on the sidelines and watched forlornly as her only companions were borne away into the masked and anonymous crowd, arms by her sides and defeat in the slump of her shoulders.

The weekend of escape has been a failure. The party that promised to shake her out of her doldrums has come down to this - waiting in the shadows, unseen and unnoticed, while furtively comparing the men to the one that has left her. All of them fall short of the mark: she can hear nothing to match his laconic wit, or see anything resembling his quiet confidence, can perceive nothing of worth in these hundreds of strangers at all.

She sips at her glass of strawberry wine and wonders why she bothered to come.

And then a shadow falls over her and her gloomy thoughts - a man dressed from head to toe in black, who bows gracefully over her hand and deftly relieves her of her drink. Before she can protest or even realise what is happening, he has drawn her into the dance.

* * *

[ Spike ]

It's quite a while before he realises who his reluctant partner is. Perhaps the clue is the sleek tendril of red hair that slips out of its net to shyly nestle behind her left ear. Maybe the creamy fairness of her skin, flushing deep rose when he pulled her out of the darkness. Or the way she unexpectedly smiles, eyes shining from behind the sombre mask of gray satin.

Then again, it is probably none of these things - oh, they surely helped him to this realisation, there's no doubt about that. But the thing that really clinches it is her scent.

Remember this? Imagined taste of lavender, fear, and the sweetest, most tender blood.

That smell... Your neck...

He could do it now. He could pull her into the shadows and press his hand to her mouth and his mouth to her hand, or her throat, or her breast, and taste the memory for real. He could drain her body dry and arrange her to sit on a chair just so, the deception to be discovered hours later with cries of disbelief and horror. He could lure her outside, to the silvery sand beneath the palm trees. Away from prying eyes he might take it as far as he wanted to before leaving her slender corpse sprawled across the dunes like a discarded doll, the ocean whispering her lament while the waves broke on the beach and washed away his footprints.

He feels a rush of excitement, for this woman that now lives and breathes, that now moves lightly across with floor with him, could be dead within moments, merely upon his whim. He wonders at how calm she looks - how can she not know how close she treads to danger?

Yet despite these violent fantasies, he hesitates. Yes, he thinks to himself, he could do all those things. But for now... For now...

He tightens his grip on her waist, and spins her around so that her full skirts billow, a swirl of black and gray. Her mouth opens and a laugh falls out, and she smiles at him with such gladness that in that very moment the decision is made for him: the ocean need not lament tonight.

For as it turns out, he was half-right after all. He didn't have to dance with every woman in the room to forget Drusilla - just this one.

* * *

[ Willow ]

This is the best moment in her life since Oz left her, now, in the arms of an anonymous man who refuses to speak to her and kisses her hand when the dance is over. She lets her hand linger in his, the slight pressure of her fingers through the satin glove telling him not to go.

But there is something not quite right.

She is aware of this even as she smiles at him, even as her blood warms and her pulse flickers. Her suspicions rise when, as she begins to ask him his name, he puts a finger over her lips in the gesture for silence. He smiles apologetically and shakes his head, for he doesn't want to know.

The touch of his skin on hers is a shock, as though he has put an icecube to them. That cold, that bloodless. He brings that same cold finger to his own lips, in the exaggerated movements of a mime, and as she watches his face intently she begins to understand why their silence is necessary.

The revelation is not such a surprise. Only a fool could miss the clues - cropped white hair, bright blue eyes, and the chipped black nail-polish adorning the hands that hold her so close. She can only suppose that she was in denial. Pretending that this feeling, this sudden exhilaration, could never be brought in the form of an enemy. Pretending that desire is something one can control; and she shivers as he brushes a strand of hair away from her shoulder, letting his fingers trail against her collarbone.

And even knowing who and what he is, what he has done and might do in the future, she finds herself accepting the offer of his arm when the music begins again. She leans her head against his shoulder and pretends that she never saw the flicker of golden eyes behind the black mask. She listens to the sound of her heart thumping in her ears, and weeps a few silent tears into the lapel of his coat.

She does not do this because she is afraid. She does this because she is lonely, and sad, and heartsore, and if solace can only come by dancing with a lie, with an illusion - well, so be it.

* * *

Don't utter a sound, don't say a single word, and we can pretend forever.

Yes, we'll pretend that I don't know you, and that you don't know me. That we are strangers, complete and utter strangers, and so this heat inside me can be free of any taint of past bloodshed and threats of violence. Just give me this moment of innocence, when we dance as close as lovers, and I promise to forget everything else. I'll remember this hand, and these lips, and this body against mine; but only as those of a stranger.

And when the music stops, and I walk you to the door - I'll let you go.


October 2000
Beta: Elissa Hooker.

[Rowan's Fanfiction]