Echoes of Beljoxa by myrabeth [R]
Past Featured StorySummary: The Eye of Beljoxa made it clear that Buffy's resurrection triggered the rise of the First Evil. What if they actually listened? Buffy heads back in time to prevent the war she's losing, by attempting to erase the event that made it possible. She and Spike find themselves on a journey very different from the one they knew.
Goes off-canon during Chosen. Primary setting is the world of Season 5.
Sunnydale Memorial Fanfiction Awards Round 32 Winner for Best Characterization- Female, Best Original Character, and Best Plot. Runner up for Best Episode Re-Write.

Categories: Season 5, Time Travel, Claim, Award Winners Characters: Buffy, Ensemble, Spike, Tara, Whistler
Genres: Drama
Warnings: Adult Language, Buffy/Other (Temp), Character Death, Violence
Challenges: None
Series: The Echoesverse
Chapters: 53 Completed: Yes Word count: 274,166 Hits: 166,920 Published: April 28, 2015 Updated: August 07, 2015
Story Notes:

Scattered throughout this story are numerous references that do not exactly match what was seen on screen (primarily in season 7). None of these changes are significant alterations to canon (most are 'between episodes' sorts of details), and were made to better serve the story that follows.

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended. I own nothing but my own wish to tell a story.

 

1. Plan B by myrabeth

2. Bounce Factors by myrabeth

3. Safe House by myrabeth

4. Time's Colors by myrabeth

5. Fair Trades by myrabeth

6. Freedman's Chains by myrabeth

7. Precious Gifts by myrabeth

8. Heaven Sent by myrabeth

9. True Stories by myrabeth

10. Flash Forward by myrabeth

11. Pivot Point by myrabeth

12. Lost Pupil by myrabeth

13. Old Friends by myrabeth

14. Eternal Monkey by myrabeth

15. Tree Trunks by myrabeth

16. Flash Decisions by myrabeth

17. Implied Promises by myrabeth

18. Steps Behind by myrabeth

19. Dance Partners by myrabeth

20. Connective Issues by myrabeth

21. Unwilling WItness by myrabeth

22. Power Shifts by myrabeth

23. Friendly Detachment by myrabeth

24. Resident Strangers by myrabeth

25. Unfought Demons by myrabeth

26. Familiar Roads by myrabeth

27. Porcelain Translations by myrabeth

28. Inevitable Spin by myrabeth

29. Right There by myrabeth

30. New Foundations by myrabeth

31. Past Revelations by myrabeth

32. Surprise Preview by myrabeth

33. Slipped Words by myrabeth

34. Solid Bonds by myrabeth

35. Healing Soldiers by myrabeth

36. Patience Lessons by myrabeth

37. Underground Travelers by myrabeth

38. Hunkered Down by myrabeth

39. Broken Armor by myrabeth

40. Battle Ready by myrabeth

41. Opened Locks by myrabeth

42. Stripped Away by myrabeth

43. Eighty Proof by myrabeth

44. Distant Travelers by myrabeth

45. Fifth Wheels by myrabeth

46. Puzzle Pieces by myrabeth

47. Righteous Felons by myrabeth

48. Living Leverage by myrabeth

49. Dead Languages by myrabeth

50. Puppet Masters by myrabeth

51. Standing House by myrabeth

52. Kitchen Chaos by myrabeth

53. And Always by myrabeth

Plan B by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

The mission is simple. The relationships are anything but. A bit less of a 'fix it' fic and more of a roller coaster ride through reconciling personal history, juggling complicated interpersonal relationships, daring to hope for the future, and nail biting at the looming spector of a Hellgod with a rickety tower.

Also, the dates at the tops of the chapters matter. Skipping over them will leave you confused, more than once. Consider yourself warned.

Chapter 1: Plan B

May, 2003

“We did this,” Anya said, for probably the hundredth time. “The Eye made that very clear.”

“There’s no use in dwelling on it, Ahn. What we have to deal with is now, not two years ago.” Xander rubbed his temple under the strap of his eye patch.

“Sometimes I really hate being human. Everything seems to have uncomfortable consequences attached to it, like guilt and remorse. Life is easier when you can ignore all of that.” She caught Spike’s eye. “But then, I guess you don’t have to be human to be saddled with guilt.”

Spike put down his mug and left the kitchen without a word. Buffy watched him, fighting an urge to follow him to the basement. She turned to Willow, whose cheeks were red with shame again, as they were every time Anya repeated her lament. The guilt and anguish that surrounded them all was ever-present. This was one of the days it seemed to be on full display. Buffy bit her lip. “I guess now's as good a time as any.” She took a deep breath. “Wils, what if you didn’t do this?”

*~*~*

Buffy came down the stairs slowly. She stopped on the bottom step and sat down. “Plan B is a go,” she said. “With one adjustment.”

“What's that?”

“Earlier. Is that ok with you?”

*~*~*

“I hate this. I hate being here. I hate that you have to be here. I hate that there's evil, and that I was chosen to fight it. I wish, a whole lot of the time, that I hadn't been. I know a lot of you wish I hadn't been. But this isn't about wishes. This is about broken things. This is about fixing them. I believe we can beat this evil. Not when it comes, not when its army is ready, now… Well, two years ago, actually. Tomorrow morning I'm going to go undo the damage. I'm going to take away the opportunity for The First to rise. I'm finishing this once and for all… by making sure it never starts.”

Silence covered the living room like a fine coating of dust. Buffy looked around at the still young faces, their expressions etched with disbelief. She hoped she could pull it off, could save their lives before they were ever in danger, could save the lives of all the other potentials and watchers who never made it to her door, could save everyone around her the misery of the last few years… including herself.

Kennedy was the first to speak. “Two years ago? Making sure it never starts? You’re talking about time travel. Is that even possible?”

Willow stepped close to Buffy’s side. “It is. It’s big time magic, and kind of risky, but it’s possible. If we can stop me from resurrecting Buffy, The First never gets a solid foothold on this plane, not enough power to start all of this.”

“So you’re going to let Buffy stay dead?” Amanda squeaked, her eyes wide.

Buffy smiled tightly. “The goal is for me not to die in the first place, which is part of why I'm actually going back three years. But we’ll also have a backup plan in place.” The smile turned to a grimace. “I’m taking someone with me to make sure I stay dead if we can’t change that part.”

Dawn abruptly stood up and stalked out of the room without a word. Apparently, their private chat earlier had not made the girl more amenable to hearing those words.

Kennedy looked to where Faith stood, leaning against the door frame. “You?”

Faith replied with a choked laugh. “I’m not gonna be any good to her. I’m in lock down in the time she’s going to. I’m just glad she’s not going back to undo her first death.”

“I’m glad I don’t have to,” Buffy whispered over her shoulder to her sister slayer. Turning back to the room, she explained. “My first death was very brief, and I was brought back with CPR.” She threw a smile at Xander.

“It was all very simple and human. I drowned. I was resuscitated in a normal, human way. It was natural, and the calling of another slayer was natural. From that moment forward, I was not a regular slayer. I still had the power, but the slayer line flowed through a girl named Kendra. Then Faith was called when Kendra died. It was normal slayer-calling for them. On my end it was a little odd. Odd, but still a natural shift in the flow of the power, one that was corrected the second time I died. But I was brought back, through magical means this time, and it made things… unbalanced. If I could have been brought back without my power, as a full human, it might have been ok. But I came back as I was, as a slayer. The use of dark magics to do that is what made things lopsided enough for The First to come out and play. The shift of power was no longer natural and balanced.”

Buffy paused for a moment, again surveying the faces around her. They looked like they were struggling to take it all in, but were slowly getting it. “So I’m going back, memories in tact, to see if I can keep it from happening, keep any of you from ever having to go through all this.”

Rona shook the dumbstruck look from her face. “Ok, if –and that’s a big if- this crazy idea can even work, do we have time to try it?”

Willow piped up again. “If the spell works and Buffy is able to change what happened, we have all the time in the world. None of this will have ever happened. If either part fails, we’ll have only lost the time we’ve spent getting ready and performing the spell. They’ll be caught back up to our time almost immediately after the spell is complete from our perspective, but in the past, they’ll have lived through just under three years.”

“I don’t think I want to know how that works.” Kennedy shook her head. “So if it’s not Faith, who’s going to be your back up?” She lifted her chin defiantly, trying to look as strong and capable as she could, hoping to be chosen for this, at least.

“She can’t take any of us, Kennedy,” Vi said. “Faith said she can’t help because she was in prison. I think that means Buffy needs someone who was here at the time.”

Willow nodded at the other redhead, looking like a proud schoolteacher. “Exactly. None of you girls were with us back then, so you’re all off the hook. Buffy’s back-up person has to be someone who already knew us then, and can interact normally with past-me, and past-Dawn, and past-everyone. Otherwise, past-us will know something weird is going on. It might make an even bigger mess than the one we have. It has to be someone we already knew.”

“So it’s a Sunnydale local, a Scooby,” Kennedy sniffed, feeling left out of Willow’s inner circle yet again. “Your back-up person is one of the people who resurrected you in the first place? That’s who you’re trusting to not bring you back?”

“I’m taking someone who would have stopped the resurrection, had he known about it. And he can help me prevent even needing to make that jump.” Buffy watched the girls’ eyes swivel around the room when they caught on to her choice of pronouns, sizing up each man. She let them guess for a moment, smiling to herself as a couple of them even scrutinized Andrew.

“I’m taking Spike.”

*~*~*

Buffy threw her hands up in irritation. “Oh my god! Will you please stop pacing? I can’t think!”

Spike stopped mid-step to study her as she bent over her letter. “You not nervous? Magic is what got us into this mess.”

“And it’s going to get us out of it. Look at it this way: We're un-breaking something. The slayer line, the power balance on this plane, the Bringers killing all those watchers and potentials? That's all broken stuff. We can undo it. It's the best possible plan.”

“I suppose. Still don’t like it.”

She smirked at him. “Are you chickening out on me?”

“Buffy, we could change things we don’t even mean to.” Spike fell into a chair across the table from her. “Too much can go wrong. Could ruin something important, something that needs to happen.”

“Trust me, this feels right.” she shrugged. “Besides, it’s a hell of a lot better than Plan A.”

He eyed her warily. “Glad you didn’t let Red try that one. Fixing an unnatural slayer problem by making more unnatural slayers was about the most hare-brained scheme ever.”

Buffy shrugged again. “I was short on ideas. The First gave me one. It kept harping on how alone I was, how all slayers are alone. Then I realized it wanted me to think of making more slayers. That was the point of the conversation. After I picked up on that, I realized a better plan was right in front of me the whole time.”

Spike tilted his head at her, curious.

“You. You were sleeping across the room when it was talking to me. That’s when I put the pieces together.”

The curiosity on his face deepened into confusion, tinged with fear. “What do you mean?”

“I suddenly remembered you talking to me about the same thing, telling me I was alone, and all that kept me alive was having friends and family. You were right, about more than one thing. I'm still alive because I've had people around to help. People who brought me back and caused this whole First Evil mess, yeah, but the same people have helped me, countless times. If I tell them about Dawn sooner, let them help me sooner, all of this--” She waved a hand toward the ceiling and the sounds of teenagers chattering nervously in the rooms above. “--could go away.”

Spike stared at his hands in his lap. “Wasn’t them didn’t get the job done the first time ‘round.”

“Spike.”

He lifted his head at her commanding tone.

“We all could have done better, all of us. Besides, we aren’t going to let it get to that point this time. We know more; we can make sure things turn out differently. Memory is a huge asset, if it's used right.”

“So you’re gonna tell them when we get there?”

She nodded. “As soon as Glory shows up, if I can. They’ll need to know.” She glanced toward Spike's cot, squinting at her alarm clock on the floor beside it. “We should finish these and get upstairs. Willow wants to talk out the details tonight. She's pretty excited.”

“Wish I had her optimism. You lot should be wise to the problems with magic by now.”

Buffy pushed her pen into his hand and gestured to the envelopes on the table. “Start helping or I’ll have to beat some optimism into you.”

He tensed, and slowly turned his gaze up to meet hers. When he saw the twinkle in her eye and the smile on her lips, he visibly relaxed. She was only teasing. He gave his head a quick shake. Since when was she playful with him? She was so confident in this plan -so comfortable with him- that she was teasing? He reached across the table to grab her wrist.

She pulled back in surprise. “Ow! What the hell?”

Spike returned his hand to the envelopes. “Sorry. Just checking.”

Buffy nodded in understanding. “Making sure I’m solid?”

“Yeah.” He abruptly turned his attention to the envelopes. “What’s tomorrow’s date?”

“The twentieth. Also, I gave you the pen. The First can’t do that.”

“Should have noticed that.” Across the front of the envelope, in the elegant script of an older generation, he wrote ‘To be opened on twentieth May, 2003.’

“Do you want to hear it?” At his nod, she took a deep breath.

Dear Willow,

Today, in another timeline, you performed a spell that averted the granddaddy of all apocalypses. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s good. It means Spike and I didn’t have to break the rules. Of course, if you're reading this, I’ve probably been dead for the last two years. But that’s ok, too. Whatever has happened, if my mother’s home hasn’t turned into the sorority house from hell, it means you saved us all. As of today, Spike can answer all your questions. Thank you for sending us back. I wish I were there to celebrate with you.

Love, Buffy.

“Sound ok?”

Spike held out his hand for the letter. He folded it neatly and slid it into the envelope. “Good enough.” He took up his pen. “Which one is next?”

She handed him two sheets of paper, already folded together. “Letters to me, um, mostly notes about Dawn and Glory, in case the monks manage to screw up our… um, future memories. Is that right?”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “Not gonna get into the Star Trek past and future tense conversation with you. Harris and the junior whelp spent the whole afternoon yammerin’ about it.”

His annoyance was clear, so she kept her mouth shut. He wrote ‘To Buffy’ across the front of the second envelope.

“The date on the last one--”

“I know that date, Buffy,” Spike nearly growled.

She winced. “Just date it for the day after, ok?”

With a slightly shaky hand, he wrote, ‘To be opened on twenty-third May, 2001’ across the third envelope. Then he put down the pen. “Right, then. Read it off.”

Dear Willow,

If you’re reading this, I died last night. I guess I wasn’t able to stop the portal without jumping into it. I’m sorry I couldn’t do better. I can’t explain everything, but Spike will fill you in in a couple of years. Until then, please don't ask. Meanwhile, there are a few things I need you to do for me, since I’m not going to be around to do them myself:

1. Do whatever it takes to keep Dawn with the Scoobies. Give her all the love and support you can. And don’t keep her out of research. She loves it, and she can handle it.

2. Don’t try to resurrect me. You will literally be putting the world in jeopardy if you do. Don’t worry; I’m not in a hell dimension. Kind of the opposite, actually. Please leave me there. If you try to bring me back, Spike will do anything he can to stop it, even kill you if he must, and he would be right to do so. Don’t put him in that position. Let me go.

3. Focus on getting comfortable with your power. That’s a lesson you and I both learned too late. Ask Giles to contact the coven in Devon, get them to take you under their wing for training. You’ll be better for it, I promise.

4. Break Faith out of jail. Get her a new identity and ask her to stay in Sunnydale. Help her. Trust her. She’s a good slayer, and she will be a good leader with a little practice. Try to let the past go and start fresh. You need each other.

“And then I go on with some other stuff.”

Spike’s eyebrows lifted. He snatched the letter from her hand. Silently, he read what she had not.

5. That needing each other thing applies to Spike, too. He has a promise to keep, to take care of Dawn for me, so get him sobered up and back on his feet as soon as you can. Help him help you. He’s still learning what it means to be one of the good guys. He’s going to stumble. Someone should be there to help him up for once. Give him a chance. There’s a good man under all that Big Bad attitude, I promise.

Take care of each other.

Love, Buffy

He carefully folded the letter and tucked it into the last envelope. He took his time sealing all three of them, not daring to look into her eyes. He stood and crossed the basement with the envelopes still in his hand, headed toward the stairs. Finally, he stopped to look back at her. “Red’s waiting on us.”

Buffy stood to follow him. “I meant it.”

Spike rubbed the back of his neck in a nervous gesture. “Yeah, well, thanks for sayin’ it.”

*~*~*

Giles ran his hand through his hair in frustration. “How can I make this more clear? Your current selves will be integrated into your past selves. The former versions of you will house your-- your essence... um, essentially. There will only be one active pair in the timeline.”

Buffy held up a hand in surrender. “Ok, ok, I get it. Wils, you wanted to talk about the when?”

“Right!” Willow perked up, having withdrawn from the merry-go-round of ‘Who’s on first’ time travel conversation between Watcher and Slayer about five minutes prior. “We don’t want to put you in at the wrong time and interfere with the spell to make Dawn, so I’m working you in around the monks.”

Spike shrugged. “So we go just before the Nibblet arrives. You already told us that. Going back almost three years, right?”

Willow hesitated. “Well, see, that’s what I wanted to talk about. We don’t know when Dawn was created. We have a good estimate, but not an exact date. Also… um, I’m going to have to overshoot the mark a little.”

“How far?” Buffy frowned. “A week? A month?”

“Um, I don’t actually know. This isn’t an exact science, Buffy. I know you need to go to late summer of 2000 to be sure we don’t screw up your Dawn memories or make you immune to the Key spell. So I aim for then, putting my margin of error further back. You’re going to… bounce a little.”

Buffy glanced at Spike. Her concern was reflected on his features. “Bounce?”

Giles spoke up. “She’s saying you might go further back than intended, but not stay long before you move forward again.”

“Why?”

“Well, like I said, I’m aiming to overshoot the mark. Once I’ve moved you back, I can do the fine-tuning. It’s like when you're wrapping a gift, sorta? You unroll more paper than you need, to be sure you have enough to cover the box, then you roll the excess back up. I’m going to get you as close as I can without stepping on Dawn’s toes.”

“So how long is a bounce, Red?”

“A few hours, maybe up to a day? For you, anyway. It will only be a few seconds for me. I’ve got help teleporting in from Devon, to make sure I don’t go boom with the magic, but they’ll also help me make it a smoother and faster ride. The quicker, the better. You don’t want to risk changing anything before we’ve completed the spell… or you might change something that prevents us from doing it.”

“Try to act as normally as possible,” Giles threw in. “Make only the changes you feel are necessary. Don’t tell anyone about where…erm… when you came from unless you must. Time is delicate and deceptive. It doesn’t tell you what small actions will affect other, later events. Please be careful.” He cleared his throat. “Buffy, I must request again you take me in Spike's stead.”

“No.” Her response was quick and stern.

“We don't know for certain his soul will survive the traveling, or if he will be trying to find a way to kill you, despite the chip.”

“Hey! Sitting right here!” Spike interjected.

Giles continued. “I know I could stop the resurrection, without selfish motives getting in my way. I could even rein Willow in magically, if necessary.”

“Hey!” Willow looked offended. “I'm sitting right here, too!”

Giles kept his eyes locked on Buffy's, trying to convey to her that he was the better choice. “You need someone stable to back you up, who understands the nuances of this venture. Someone who--”

Buffy's expression was as cold as her words. “Someone who might insist on killing my sister if Glory snatches her again? Or go behind my back to do it?” To his silence, she replied, “Spike won't do that to me. I can trust him to fight to keep her alive. I can also trust him not to leave her. He goes. You're not qualified.”

A tense silence filled the dining room until Spike drew his eyes away from the glaring slayer and watcher to catch those of the witch. He held up the envelopes. “We need to take these.”

Buffy rested back in her chair, pointedly ignoring Giles as she explained to Willow, “Those are our insurance. Letters to you. One tells you not to bring me back if I die again, and one is dated to be opened tomorrow. The other envelope holds letters I've written to myself, in case the monks wipe our--” She looked at Spike, who rolled his eyes in anticipation of her next words. “Future memories.”

Giles nodded with reluctant approval, impressed by her attention to detail, despite his reservations about the plan itself. She ignored the gesture.

Willow scrunched up her face for a moment, lost in thought. Her face lit up with an idea. “I can enchant an item to move with you. You know, something that can hold stuff, a container of some kind… There’s only one hitch. It would have to be something you have now that already exists in the past, something you’ll have access to through the entire timeline. We'll just do a different version of what we’re doing with your essences. We move them through time, putting them in that time’s version of the same container or person.”

Buffy scrunched up her face in thought, too, mentally going through her collection of handbags to try to remember their ages.

Spike stood up and walked out of the dining room. He returned a moment later with his duster over one arm. He handed it to Willow.

She held the leather loosely in her hand for a moment, squinting at him in confusion. Then understanding dawned on her face. “Of course! You’ve had this forever!” She inspected the exterior pockets. “Plenty of room for a few letters, and any other little things you’ll need.”

Spike took the coat back for a moment, and dug Angel’s amulet out of an interior pocket. He gave the timeworn leather back to Willow, and handed the amulet to Giles. “This don’t work, might need that thing in a fight. It needs to stay here.”

Giles gripped the crystal, nodding. “I must say,” he addressed both Buffy and Spike. “I’m surprised at this willingness to take such a great risk with such small odds of success.”

“This is our best chance, Giles. I’m willing to try anything to make this madness stop.”

“Desperate times, Watcher,” Spike grumbled.

“There’s no coming back, you know. This is a one-way trip. The only way back to this time is to live through the intervening years.”

Buffy sighed in exasperation. “We know that, Giles. We know it’s going to suck at times. But if it works, it will be worth every day of it. We have thought this through, you know.”

Sensing another round of the ‘Buffy and Giles Almost-Silent Power Struggle’ beginning, Willow stood up and clapped her hands once to draw attention. “We need to finish getting ready. Spike, I’m going to get your coat prepared. You two figure out if there’s anything else you need to put in it. Then get some sleep. You could get dropped into the middle of a battle in the morning, for all we know. We don't need either of you getting knocked into coma-land on the first bounce.”

Nods and quiet ‘good-nights’ were exchanged. Willow went up to her room, and the time travelers returned to the basement. Giles, still in the dining room with his books, heard the tell-tale hisses of a whispered argument from below a few minutes later. He barely resisted the urge to slip down the stairs to eavesdrop.

*~*~*

She rarely came back after she left for her morning shower. He had learned not to expect her. She had to go be General Buffy. There weren't enough daylight hours to waste them with the vamp downstairs. This morning was different. She came down the stairs slowly, took only one step onto the floor of the basement, and then stopped. “They're ready,” she said quietly.

Spike, sitting on his cot, his back against the wall, turned to look at her. They studied each other for a long moment before he broke eye contact. He hopped to his feet. “Right. Curtains closed?”

Buffy nodded. But instead of turning to lead him upstairs, she stepped forward. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have argued with you last night.” She pretended not to notice his surprised expression. She felt uncomfortable at being reminded how unaccustomed he was to receiving apologies.

He stepped toward her, closing the gap. “Love, fighting is what we do. Wouldn't be us if we didn’t.”

“Taking photos with us was a stupid idea.” She moved to meet him, and rested her forehead on his chest. “I should have just let it go. I'm just scared. ...Of forgetting, of not having a connection to this life.” She shook her head as she lifted it to meet his gaze. “I'll miss...”

“Having a passel of baby slayers taking over your house?”

“Maybe a little. And I'll miss my friends, these grown up versions. I'll miss almost-grown up Dawnie. I'll miss... us, being close like this.”

Spike took her chin in his hand. “I'll still be around, love. You won't forget. As for the Nibblet, fair to say she'll remind you a lot, if you let her.”

Buffy smiled, turning her cheek into his palm. They stood that way for a moment, and may have stayed that way for a long time, had a loud whisper not drifted down the stairs. “Hey! If you two aren't busy boinking, can you get up here already? Willow is starting to nag. It's very unbecoming.”

She blushed.

He shook his head. “Be right there, Anya. Hold your horses!”

Buffy took his hand from her face and held it for a moment. “Ready?”

At his nod, they broke apart and headed upstairs, their focus shifting away from each other and to the mission at hand.

*~*~*

Spike slipped into his duster and reached into the right hand pocket to make sure the envelopes were present, suddenly glad she'd made him address them. He could claim them as his personal property if they fell out of his pocket. Her handwriting was hidden within, only his showed on the exterior. Photos were all she had wanted to bring along, and he didn’t know of anything else worth taking, so the letters would be all they had, their only connection to a truth they’d be unable to share with anyone else for years to come.

He stepped into a small circle of green sand and waited in silence, pointedly ignoring the bustle around him. After her last-minute detour to the powder room, Buffy waded through the chaos to get to the circle. She calmly surveyed the room from her place beside Spike.

Willow and Giles were checking their watches and chattering anxiously about the position of the sun and its significance to the spell. Xander was pushing the last of the furniture against the wall, making room for the arrival of teleporting witches. Dawn was ordering Andrew to the backyard with the Potentials. He reluctantly trudged out of the room, and was soon heard whining in the kitchen, over the voices of Faith and Anya, who were trying to drag the last stragglers away from their breakfast. Wood stood in the doorway, as far away from the activity as he could be without losing sight of it. His unease blended well with the anxiety of everyone else, but he eventually excused himself with a murmur to Dawn, opting to join Andrew and the girls outside.

Buffy took the sudden arrival of three unfamiliar faces in her living room in stride. These days, she didn’t know most of the people in her house. Strangers within its walls had become so common, they were barely noticed. She watched in silence as the elderly woman Giles and Willow greeted as Althenea flopped down on the sofa. Buffy waved Willow over to her. “Wils, she looks exhausted. Are you sure she’ll be able to help you?”

Willow gestured to the other two new arrivals. “That’s my help, Buffy. Althenea just came along to do the teleporting, so Bryn and Elsa wouldn't be drained when they got here.”

“Oh.” Buffy withdrew, comforted that the witches seemed to had thought of everything. She looked at Spike, who stood beside her in the circle of green sand, staring at the fireplace. His face was stony, giving nothing away. Buffy opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it again. What was left to say? Well, there was one thing. “Thank you, Spike.”

“Not doing it just for you,” he mumbled, his gaze still fixed on the cold hearth.

“I know. There are a lot of people this will help. And I’m sure you’d like to do a few things over. I know I would… But you don’t have to go with me. I just realized I hadn't thanked you.”

Spike finally turned to face her, about to form another response, when movement in their direction caught his eye. “Time to say good-bye, love.” He nodded over her shoulder.

Buffy turned to see Dawn approaching the circle. “Dawnie, I’m going to miss you,” she whispered. “It might be weeks –to me, anyway- before I see you again.”

“Hug Mom for me?” Jealousy shimmered in Dawn’s damp eyes.

“I’m going to try to save her, too, you know.” Buffy stepped out of the circle to pull her sister into her arms. “I’m going to make things better for you, as good as I can get it.”

Dawn buried her face in Buffy’s shoulder; her lanky body bent low to get closer. The distance that had been building between them for so long melted away. “Just don’t die,” she sniffed.

Spike stepped outside of the circle to join them. “I'm not gonna let her jump, Bit. I promise.”

Dawn released her sister and whirled to face him. “You take good care of her, or I’ll make what that Turok Han did to you look like a moonlight stroll.”

“Bit--”

“Dawn--”

Both Spike and Buffy were silenced by Willow’s loud clap. “Get in the circle now, you two. We're burning daylight. Dawn, back away,” she commanded.

All the tense conversation and thoughts of personal issues were brushed aside. The room grew quiet. Dawn retreated to the sofa to sit between Xander and Althenea. Giles stepped away from the witches, backing up to the doorway.

Buffy and Spike returned to the circle, this time facing each other. Each searched for second thoughts in the other’s eyes, ready to call a stop to it. But there was no hesitation to be seen, just two warriors with a job to do and no thoughts of failure. Each projected an air of complete confidence for the other to see. Whether it was real or not, it was enough.

As the chanting began, Buffy whispered, “If this works, I’ll owe you the world.”

Spike whispered back, “If this works, you’ll have time to explain what that means.”

End Notes:

Heads up to review page readers: A lot of reviews pertaining to later chapters ended up attached to chapter 1. If you read the reviews to this chapter, later events WILL be spoiled. I made some attempts to mitigate this problem, but unfortunately failed. If you like to read review discussions as you go through a story, you should be safe and spoiler-free starting in chapter 2. (So long as you don't mind theory and conjecture, of course!) ~myra

Bounce Factors by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

'Time travel' is sometimes literal. Some actual traveling may be required.


A nickname begins appearing in this chapter that is not fully explained for some time, and even then its reasoning and point of origin do not appear in the same chapter. There are a lot of long threads in this story that don't appear to be woven in at first glance. But eventually, they all are. This is just the beginning.

Chapter 2: Bounce Factors

November, 1999 – September, 2000

Buffy’s world was a blur of flashing light. Moments of her recent life reeled past her in rapid reverse, vague, colorful images between sharp, white flashes. The effect was dizzying, slightly nauseating, and she struggled to stay on her feet... until she realized she was no longer standing.

Spike was suddenly glad he'd skipped breakfast. That mug of pig's blood he’d been wanting would certainly have been threatening to return, and he was feeling a little lightheaded. The flashing light and picture show had gone on just a bit too long, and he was beginning to worry something was wrong, when he suddenly had a new concern. He was lying flat on his back and had no idea how he had gotten there.

When the flashing stopped, Buffy was straddling Spike’s body on a cold crypt floor, kissing him. Her thoughts were panicked. Oh shit! Did Willow screw up and only send us one year back? That’s not far enough! Wait. Willow screwing up a spell. This is familiar… Ooooh! I know when this is. This is early enough. Too early, actually. But did my time's Spike land in this moment with me? Going to have to test that... carefully, just in case he didn't.

She pulled away from his lips just far enough to whisper, “Were we really engaged?”

Spike’s reply came with a near-silent chuckle. “Once upon a time, yeah,” he whispered back.

She sighed in relief. “Good. It's you.”

“Guess we still are. Never officially broke it off.”

“It was implied!” She hissed, her face still positioned just above his.

“Well, it looks like it's back on... But we're gonna have to 'imply' it off again.”

“Play it from memory,” Buffy murmured, ending the awkwardly positioned conversation.

They were perfectly still for a few seconds, lips millimeters apart, listening to the fight taking place a few feet away. When the scuffle suddenly stopped, Buffy took the cue. She pulled herself up into a sitting position. She was still trying not to focus on the familiarity of the kiss, instead putting all her concentration into her performance. “Eeeww!” She spat to the side and wiped a hand across her mouth, trying her best to look completely disgusted. “Spike lips! Lips of Spike!”

Spike followed her lead with an equally disgusted look and some spitting of his own. “Oh, bloody hell!” They rolled away from each other, climbing to their feet separately.

Across the room, Anya and Xander stumbled into standing positions and turned breathlessly toward the door. Buffy stole a glance to marvel at the sight of these younger versions of her friends, then followed their gaze to Willow... a younger Willow, but still Willow. Buffy made no attempt to 'act.' She glared openly at the witch, projecting on her all the irritation and emotional confusion the older version of Willow had triggered by dropping them into that particular moment.

*~*~*

The five of them headed back towards Giles’ apartment to check on him. Anya and Xander marched down the street with Willow between them, both still fuming over the incident. Spike opted to hang back a few yards with a cigarette. Buffy walked with him, keeping a firm hand around his right bicep, giving a passable impression of dragging Spike back as a prisoner.

“I’m going to kill her. She timed this bounce on purpose,” Buffy hissed so low only he could hear. “This hint-dropping, Willow style.”

“You don’t know that,” Spike murmured against the filter of his cigarette. He took a long drag and turned his head away from her on the exhale, the smoke drifting off to his left. “Could be she didn't know when she was dropping us, just guessed at it. Not like she's usually spot on with her spells, is it?”

He raised an eyebrow, daring her to attempt to counter the point and knowing she couldn't, this day of all days. She let the matter drop without another word.

They walked in silence for a few minutes, neither willing to discuss the kiss, let alone risk being overheard. Their thoughts were drifting into memories that had not yet happened and emotions neither was prepared to deal with. They were almost glad they didn't have the option of doing so.

Willow, Xander, and Anya were already entering Giles’ apartment when the two stragglers stepped into the courtyard. Spike brought them to a stop just out of sight of the watcher's door. “What did you do with the ring?”

She removed her hand from his arm and pulled the silver skull off her finger. “I think it’s supposed to be in my pocket by now. I know it eventually ended up hidden at the bottom of my weapons chest.”

Spike raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t chuck it, then? … But not in the jewelry box?”

Buffy shrugged. “Can’t explain it. Can’t explain this, either.” And she shoved the ring into his coat pocket with the letters.

He gave her a look of surprise. “Getting sentimental, are we?”

“Maybe. Or maybe I'm just returning it to its owner.”

Spike reached into the pocket and retrieved the ring. “No need to change this if we can find it later, love. Weapons chest will do fine.”

“You don't want it back?”

“Hasn't been mine for a few years. Gotten used to it being gone. Glad it didn't end up in a rubbish heap, though.” He studied the ring, watching the silver catch the glare of a nearby streetlight as he turned it in his hand.

Buffy squinted at him, still unsure how to interpret some of Spike's quieter moods. I'm not the only one getting sentimental about that ring, she thought. Seeing that Spike had wandered off into his own thoughts, she cleared her throat to get his attention. “You're right. It hasn't been yours for a long time.” She snatched the ring from his grip and thrust it into her own pocket. “There. Happy?”

Spike raised an eyebrow, but remained silent.

“I can return it to you later if you want it.” She took his arm again and gestured toward the apartment. “We really should--”

A blinding flash of light cut off her words.

*~*~*

The stench of sweat and latex filled the closed room. He seemed oblivious to it. She knew immediately where and when she was, but her body was out of her control. As her brain angrily rejected the entire situation, her hand left a fresh set of scratch marks down his back.

*~*~*

When the flashing stopped, Spike found himself on a street corner, just south of the UC Sunnydale campus. Alone. “Bugger,” he muttered. He had hoped they’d land together on each bounce, so they could at least keep tabs on each other. He kicked open a nearby newspaper box and stole a paper. The date under the banner failed to trigger anything specific in his memory. He had moved forward about five months, but that was all he knew.

A group of young coeds brushed by him, holding a crying girl in the middle of the pack, making whispered conversation as they passed. Spike took off in a run as soon as he heard the words “party” and “Lowell House,” suddenly very aware of where Buffy had landed.

*~*~*

By the time he’d been thrown back on to the sidewalk by the invisible force field for the seventh time, his rage was visible on his face.

“What are YOU doing here?” Xander asked from behind him.

Spike kipped to his feet and tried to come up with something to say while his face morphed back into its human mask. “Um… Didn’t you ask me to help?”

Anya tapped the tip of her sword impatiently on the sidewalk. “He did. And you left, anyway.” She glanced at Xander’s red, angry face. “My guess is, Xander thinks you should have stayed gone. But then, Xander is occasionally difficult to understand…”

“Ahn, please,” Xander cut in. He narrowed his gaze on Spike. “You serious about helping?”

Spike nodded.

“Fine. We need the help. We won’t have much time in there. But we get to them and then you get gone.” He waved his machete at the vampire. “Understood?”

Spike held up his hands in surrender. “No problem, Superman. Won’t be your sidekick longer than I have to be.”

“Just so we’re clear on who the sidekick is.” Xander smiled in satisfaction.

*~*~*

Buffy could hear muffled movement outside the door. She hadn’t heard it the first time she’d lived through this night. Of course, she hadn’t been listening for it then. At least now she had the comfort of knowing Xander was coming for her, would soon release her from this very strange prison with her ex-lover, and set her free to locate… well, her other ex-lover, but that was beside the point. While her body ran on its forced auto-pilot, she listened. Xander would open the door any moment, any moment now.

The doorknob clicked as it turned. The spell was broken. Before the door was fully open she pushed Riley aside and brought the sheet with her as she came up to a sitting position. “Xander!”

The door opened the rest of the way to reveal it wasn’t Xander behind it. Buffy gasped at the sight of Spike in the doorway. He stood with his eyes lowered, having known what he would find when he opened the door. The flood of emotions pouring off him crashed into her in a wave. She shuddered, surprised at the feeling. Her voice was a faint whisper, “Spike... No...”

“Come on, Buffy,” Spike murmured dejectedly. “You should get out of here.” He turned and walked out of the building without another word.

*~*~*

By the time Buffy returned from her extremely long shower, everyone had left her dorm room save Willow, who was sleeping soundly. She sighed in relief. No more conversation. No more lying. No one to keep her from sneaking out. She dressed as quickly and quietly as she could.

Spike’s crypt was trashed. She’d forgotten that. The rifle butt sized hole in his TV spoke pretty clearly to what had happened. She glanced around, sensing Spike was close, but not seeing him. Automatically, she moved toward the hatch in the floor, but a voice startled her before she reached it.

“Nothing down there yet, love.”

Buffy whirled around to see Spike emerging from the darkness in the far corner of the crypt.

He took a swig from the bottle in his hand. “Figured you’d be too tired to go visiting tonight. Thought we’d see each other on the next bounce.”

She sank into a sitting position on the floor, pulling her knees up to her chin. “You weren’t supposed to be there. You changed that,” she said quietly.

Spike wandered over to where she sat and dropped down beside her. “Yeah, well, seemed like the thing to do.”

“Why? I mean you knew you couldn’t get me out any sooner than Xander did. You didn’t have to go in there and see... You didn’t have to come for me.”

“You know why.” Spike took another swig. He held the bottle out in offer to her, but she waved it away. They sat in silence for a few minutes, each in their own thoughts.

Buffy let loose a snicker, catching his attention. “You know, he’s not nearly as satisfying as I remember. I guess my standards have changed.”

He made a vain attempt to mask his surprise with a smirk. “Need a little monster in your man, do you?”

Buffy glared at him, but her eyes lacked the menace she was trying to convey. “Shut up, Spike,” she said reflexively, though her tone was light. She grabbed the bottle from his hand and took in a large gulp of whiskey. “Blech!”

“Not like you to say things like that,” he observed.

“And it’s not like I can go have a girl chat with Willow... especially now. No one knows who we are anymore. No one knows what we’ve been through, what our lives have been like. No one can. It hasn’t happened yet.” She took another swig from the bottle, punctuated with another disgusted expression. “Kinda sucks.”

He took the bottle back. “Guess we're hiding more than ever.”

“Yeah... It’s too late for a Plan C, isn’t it?”

He saw about to reply when he caught sight of her playful grin. She was teasing him again.

She gazed into the darkness as her mirth faded. “I think we can make this work, Sparky,” she whispered. “But we need to trust each other... a lot more than we have tonight.”

Spike absorbed the mild reprimand. “Guess I should have let Harris take care of it.”

Buffy nodded and pulled her knees closer to her chest. “I wish you had… But thanks anyway.”

Spike held up the bottle in a mock toast. “You’re welcome,” He replied bitterly. He swallowed a mouthful and stared into the darkness with her for a minute. “Captain Cardboard is around for another year, right?”

“Only until December, so about 8 months.”

“Bloody hell. That’s long enough.”

“Agreed. When we stop bouncing, we need to figure out what we can get away with changing.”

Spike smirked at the implication of her statement. She was talking about unloading her tin soldier early. Maybe he wouldn’t get stabbed with a plastic stake this time around. And maybe...

His silent contemplation gave her thoughts time to wander. “We need a place, somewhere to talk where no one will look for either of us. We can't risk people walking in on our conversations.”

“Or catching us talking at all, you mean.”

“Yeah, that too. Any ideas?”

Before he could reply, they were both overwhelmed with bright flashes of light.

*~*~*

Spike found himself outside Giles’ apartment, lighting a cigarette while wearing a suspiciously military-looking outfit. He instantly recognized the situation, and glanced in the window to be sure. Willow was hunched over her laptop at the watcher’s desk, a stack of discs beside her and Tara at her shoulder. This was during his last real attempt to betray her, just before they stormed the Initiative.

He searched his memory for something he could change small enough to go unnoticed, but big enough to make it less of a close call for her. He couldn’t think of anything off the top of his head. But he realized she probably could, so he stomped out his cigarette and took off toward the university.

He tracked her scent to her dorm room far too easily for comfort. There was slayer blood in the air. He gave the door a quick sniff to assure himself she was alone before he knocked. “Buffy? You hurt?”

A tired voice replied. “Come in, Spike.”

He entered the room to find her sitting on the edge of the bed, still wearing her jacket. He knelt before her to survey the injury to her forehead. “Bandages?”

Buffy smiled gratefully and directed him to a cabinet across the room. “I came to halfway across campus. I know I was walking here. I’m still trying to remember all the details, but I think--”

A knock sounded at the door, interrupting her. Their eyes met in panic, both mouthing ‘Angel’ as her memory and his senses caught up with the situation.

“Closet? Window?” Buffy whispered, as low as she could manage.

“He’ll already know I’m here.” Spike tapped his nose significantly.

“Shit. We wing it, then.” She lifted her face to the ceiling. “Sorry, Wils. I hope this isn’t too much of a change.” She opened the door.

“Buffy, are you alright? I sensed--”

Buffy sighed to interrupt him, ready to have it over with. “Angel, you can come in, but--”

He charged through the door before she could finish, spinning around behind her to see Spike still standing by the cabinet, the first aid kit in his hand.

Buffy rushed to close the door and get between them before Angel had time to react to the visual confirmation of what his nose had told him. “Angel, don’t go crazy. Spike is…” She furrowed her brow for a microsecond, trying to come up with something to say. “...just here to help with my injuries.”

Fortunately, Spike caught on to the idea quickly and took over. “Saw her stumbling across the campus, walked her back so she didn’t embarrass herself by tripping on her own feet.”

Angel threw a confused glance at Buffy, noting her bruised and bloody forehead for the first time. When he returned his gaze to Spike, there was nothing in his eyes but suspicion. “So out of the kindness of your heart, you helped an injured slayer home. Why am I not buying that?”

Spike shoved the first aid kit into his grandsire’s hands. “Fine. You take care of her. Was just looking to help things go a bit easier on the girl.” He started for the door, sneaking brief eye contact with Buffy, hoping she got the message.

She met him at the door. “Spike, I doubt there’s much anyone can do to make this day easier. I’ll just see you at Giles’.”

“Not right off, lo- Slayer. Somewhere else I gotta be just now.” He tried to look casual, as if what he was saying was not the least bit significant.

But it was enough for her to remember. “We’ll just see how it goes, ok? I’ll, um, see you later.”

Spike nodded, understanding. She either didn’t know what to change, or their witness was keeping her quiet. They would just have to play their roles until the next bounce, and hope this wasn’t the last one.

Buffy opened the door to usher him out just as Riley was reaching for the doorknob.

“What the hell?” Riley raised his pistol with a shaky hand and pointed it alternately at Spike and Angel. “Both of you, get the hell away from her, right now! Buffy, why is your room full of soulless demons?”

Both vampires opened their mouths to object. Buffy quickly pivoted around to face Angel. “Not now, Angel,” she commanded as she completed the turn and brought her heel down hard on Spike’s toes.

The steel toe caps of his boots protected him from the impact, but Spike got the message. He snapped his jaw closed just as quickly as Angel did, and hoped his grandsire didn't notice.

“Spike, I think you should go. I have my hands full here. Riley, put the gun down and we can talk.”

Riley pushed his way into the room, slamming an angry shoulder into Spike's as he passed. Spike sneered at the man, but said nothing. He only gave Buffy a worried glance as he exited the room.

Her response was a quick nod that she hoped was reassuring as she closed the door behind him.

He lingered in the hall, shamelessly eavesdropping on the conversation through the door.

Angel muttered, “He seems different.”

Buffy was just slightly too slow in responding. “Oh, it’s because he can’t hurt humans anymore. He has a microchip in his head, care of the U.S. Government.”

“Ok... that’s weird enough, but not what I meant. There’s something else.”

“Not really worried about Spike right now, not with the two of you all bloody and beaten and giving off strong vibes of having done that to each other.”

Spike shook his head as he walked away, glad Buffy would be the one to deal with those two, but dreading returning to his grisly business with Adam. Fortunately, he didn’t have to. He had just exited the dormitory when his vision was overcome with flashing white light.

*~*~*

Buffy was running through Restfield Cemetery, hot on the heels of her prey, when Spike intercepted her.

“Buffy?”

She slid to a stop just before slamming into him. “Damn! Spike, what do you want this time?”

Her response caught him off guard. He gripped her shoulders and peered into her eyes, worry etched across his features. “Buffy!”

She pulled away, her face curled into a mask of disgust. “Yes, I’m Buffy. And again I ask, what the hell do you want?”

He took a step back, realization dawning. “Oh. Um, nothing. Just saying hello.” He inched away from her, backing out of her path as she delivered an irritated eye roll.

“And now I’ve lost him. Spike, I swear, I think you exist just to ruin things.” She took off at a jog, hoping to catch up with the vampire she’d been pursuing.

Spike remained where he was, fear sinking into his bones. Buffy hadn’t made it through this bounce. Something had gone wrong. He watched her weaving around the headstones, still searching for her lost target.

She was near the top of the hill when she came to a jerky, stumbling stop. She stilled, gauging her surroundings. Then she began turning in a circle, peering into the darkness for the owner of the familiar signature on the edge of her senses. “Spike?”

Relief washed over him as he moved toward her, smiling broadly when she caught sight of him and strode to meet him. “Buffy?” He asked again when they were face to face.

“Yeah.” She squinted at him, taking in the worried look in his eyes and the smile that clashed with it so obviously. “What’s wrong? I do have the right vampire, don’t I?”

“Yeah, love, you do. But a minute ago, I didn’t have the right slayer. Think you were a little slow getting here this time.”

“Oh. I hope I didn’t slug you in the nose.”

“No, just insulted me and went on your merry. Gotta say, I don’t fancy that Buffy as much as I used to.” Spike gave her a wry grin. “Worried Red had screwed it up there for a minute.”

Buffy scoffed. “Willow mess up a spell? Never!” She held up a hand. “Oh wait, I’m having a flashback to the first bounce… Yeah, we’re lucky we’re still in one piece.”

He chuckled with her, feeling himself relaxing as they talked. But his expression sobered quickly. “Not showing up at the same time's not good. Think we changed too much already?”

She dwelt on that for a moment. “No, I don’t think so. What little we’ve changed so far should have no bearing on whether or not she does the spell to send us back. Besides, we haven’t been together at arrival since the first bounce. We may not have gotten in at the same time since.”

Spike nodded, accepting that. “So, time to figure out when we are, then?” He studied the sky. “Stars and temperature say it’s summer, but that’s all I know.”

Buffy surveyed the graveyard. “And this looks like any random night in my life. We aren’t going to get any information here. Home?” At his nod they started off in that direction at a casual walk. Then a thought occurred to Buffy: “Mom is there!” She took off running, Spike on her heels.

*~*~*

He grabbed her arm, pulling her to a stop at the end of the driveway. “Love, it’s late. Your mum is probably asleep. And you need to be calm and normal when you see her, right?”

Buffy nodded reluctantly. “But don’t you want to just sneak in and see her? We wouldn’t have to wake her. And we have to check on Dawn’s room. I remember from that trance thingy I did that it was a storage room before she arrived. And we need to find a calendar, or a newspaper, or something.”

She was pulling him toward the house as she spoke, but Spike dug in his heels. “You don’t want me to go in there with you, love.”

“Why not?”

“Cause you smell like solider boy. I'm guessing you were with him right before you went out.”

“You think he’s here?”

“Or somewhere else, wondering why you disappeared in the middle of the night.”

Her forehead creased for a moment before she went into motion again, this time headed for the tree below her bedroom window.

Understanding, Spike followed her lead. They looked up to find Buffy’s bedroom window wide open. Spike climbed up the tree, to just below the window, listened for a moment, then jumped back to the ground. “He’s up there. But I don’t hear any other heartbeats. No Nibblet, no Joyce. Possible your mum’s out of town?”

Buffy strained to remember her last summer with her mom, through the fog of merged memories the monks had created. Giving up, she shrugged. “Buying trip for the gallery, probably. I really don't remember, but she was gone a few days a month, usually.”

They were interrupted by a quick succession of white flashes. When it stopped, they were standing exactly where they'd been a moment before.

Buffy glanced at their surroundings and then at her clothes. “We didn't bounce. I'm in the same outfit I was in a minute ago. And we're still standing here. Is he still upstairs?”

“Yeah, the wanker's still--” Spike stopped in mid-sentence, suddenly overcome with laughter.

Buffy began giggling at almost the same time. “Oh my god. What were we thinking?”

“We weren't. But the way you sputtered and swore at finding yourself drinking with me in the dark... Just priceless!”

They covered their mouths to muffle their laughter, enjoying the new memory they'd created as they bounced through time. Catching her breath, Buffy whispered, “Were we really like that?”

“And worse, love. And worse.” Spike shrugged. “Guess Red's done with her part?”

“Probably. If we were going to get that memory before we finished bouncing, it should have been in the bounce right after it happened... Right?”

He nodded toward the open window above them. “Think we got a li'l loud, love. He’s stirring. You'd best get up there.”

“We still need a place,” she whispered as she reached for the first branch on her familiar trek up to the window.

“I’ll work on it. Find you tomorrow night if we don't bounce again.” He gave her foot a boost. “Get some rest.”

“Yeah, you too. It’s been years since we’ve slept.”

Spike shook his head at the bad joke as he watched her disappear inside the house and walked away, trying very hard to not focus on the fact that she wasn’t alone in her bed.

 

Safe House by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

And the enthusiastic reviews keep on coming.Your kindness is not unappreciated, I assure you.
So immediately after I dump 'Sparky' on you with no explanation, here's another set of nicknames. The source is... Well, I warned you I'd be strolling just a smidge outside of canon, didn't I? There's some explanation offered later, but I'm pretty sure you already get it.


Chapter 3: Safe House

September, 2000

It was so much like the previous night, Spike had another moment of questioning Willow’s magical abilities. He was returning from the butcher’s shop, walking toward his crypt with a brown bag in one hand and a cigarette in the other, when Buffy ran across his line of vision, hot in the pursuit of a fledgling vampire.

His first instinct was to follow, so he could enjoy the show and talk with her while she worked. But before he could change course, Riley came running up behind her. Spike glared after him and continued on toward his crypt. The sounds of an argument soon reached his ears.

“It was one vamp! One! I don’t even consider myself warmed up until I’ve had three times the fight that guy had to offer.”

“There’s gratitude for you! I was trying to help!”

“Riley, I didn’t need help. That was not a life or death situation. That wasn’t even a challenge. Why can’t you back off and let me do my job?”

“Fine! I’ll just go. You have fun; get yourself killed. But you’re a fool for not using backup when you have it.”

Spike stepped behind a crypt as Riley stormed back toward the cemetery gate. Buffy followed his path at a more leisurely pace, coming to a stop a few yards from where Spike hid. She watched her boyfriend march out of sight with a cool expression. “I have backup, Finn. Don’t worry about me,” she mumbled. “Spike, do you want to come out now, or should I stand here talking to myself all night?”

He sauntered out from behind the crypt. “Walk with me? Gotta get some things to the fridge.”

She nodded and fell into step beside him. They walked in silence all the way to his crypt. Once inside, Buffy perched on the arm of his battered chair while he tended to his groceries. “You’re being remarkably restrained.”

Spike closed the refrigerator door and turned to face her. “Nothing I can do about it. This is where-- when we are. You’re his and I can’t even hit him without a splitting migraine.”

“I’m not his, Sparky. I thought you knew that.”

“You were. And as far as anyone who isn’t in this room knows, you still are.”

“Well, I need to figure out how soon I can change that. I know there’s going to be a lot of lying over the next couple of years, but I… well, I’d rather do my lying with my words, not my body.”

Spike was silent for a long moment, absorbing her meaning. She's really going to do it. She's gonna dump that wanker earlier this time, admit to herself she didn’t love him. He stood there, awe in his eyes, trying to find something to say. All he could come up with was, “’Preciate it, love… Know it’s not for me, but still… Thanks.”

Buffy gave him a soft smile, and then stood abruptly, ready to change the subject. She straightened her shoulders. “So, have you found a hideout for us yet, Lieutenant?”

He shook himself out of his emotional state and matched her stance. “Got a couple of ideas, General. Figure you’ll hate ‘em, but they’re all I got so far.”

“Show me.”

*~*~*

“Left up here.” Spike waved toward the next corner as they walked down the dimly lit street. His muttered directions had been the only conversation since they had reached downtown. Both had been focused on their surroundings, making certain they weren’t seen together by anyone they might know.

Buffy visibly relaxed as they turned onto a narrow residential street. The houses here were old, maybe half of them occupied. They were more likely to run into a vamp nest than a friend of a friend in one of these houses. “You said this was your second idea. What was the first?”

“Old mansion on Crawford Street.”

“Oh, hell no.”

“Thought so. See what you think of this, then.” He ushered her into a darkened house.

Buffy squinted into the darkness until Spike shone his flashlight into the room. As her eyes adjusted, her expression changed slowly. First there was mild disgust. The living room of the abandoned house was filthy, covered in cobwebs and dust. Then there was worry, as the ancient floorboards creaked under her feet. Then came the dawning of recognition.

“Uh, Spike?” She frowned at the ceiling.

“Yeah?”

“Doesn’t that chandelier eventually end up in the basement?”

“Yeah.”

She stared at the light fixture for a long moment, and then broke into laughter. “All the empty buildings in this town, and you pick this one?”

He shifted his weight uncomfortably, not sure if her mirth was going to last. “Well, um, I figured it was a place no one but us knew about, and we know it’s going to be available for a while…”

“And we also know it was condemned with good reason!” She leaned against the wobbly staircase railing, still giggling.

“Seem to recall the cellar floor was sound. Could stay down there.”

Catching her breath, Buffy shrugged. “Alright, we’ll look at the basement.”

“Not like you haven’t seen it before.”

“I never took the stairs down, though.”

Spike smirked in a way she hadn't seen in a long time, a smirk she knew to be his way of saying he was biting his tongue against a hundred innuendo-laden comments. The residual smile from her fit of laughter renewed itself on her face. She'd missed that particular smirk more than she'd realized. It felt good to see a little of the old Spike coming back. She shook herself out of her thoughts and straightened her countenance.

“You've got the light, and better eyes. Lead the way.”

A dim glow from the main room of the basement became visible as they came down the staircase. She threw Spike a questioning glance, but his face only reflected her concern.

“We’re not alone, love,” he whispered as he sniffed the air and turned off his flashlight. “Smells not-quite-human. Demon, maybe?”

Buffy frowned. “I’m not sure this house can take a brawl,” she whispered back.

Spike gave her another dose of that long lost smirk and led them cautiously toward the lighted room. They stepped into the main area of the basement to see over a dozen dusty white pillar candles burning atop a large wooden table. Across the room was a man in a garish rust-colored suit, rummaging around in a dusty corner cabinet.

He addressed them without turning around. “Hey, kids. Got any hooch in this termite pit?”

Buffy’s eyes grew wide with recognition. The voice was familiar. As if to confirm her guess, the man chose just then to turn and face them.

His very human face earned a sneer from Spike. “Oh, so it’s a half-breed, is it?”

The man chuckled as he rubbed the dust from his hands. “Look who’s talking. Been held prisoner by any distant ancestors lately, Pratt?”

Spike threw a shocked glance at Buffy, unable to guess how this half-demon knew details about their recent troubles. ...And knew his surname. Buffy, however, didn’t look surprised at all, just angry. She crossed her arms over her chest. “What do you want, Whistler?”

“You know this bloke?”

“Yeah,” she replied, keeping her gaze on the intruder. “We met once, right before I had to run a sword through Angel. He is not a bearer of good news.”

“And you found a way to save the other one. Well played, Summers.” Whistler extended a hand to Spike. “Whistler, case agent for the Powers That Be, at your service. And you’re the missing guest at a dinner party with the bosses.”

Spike eyed him suspiciously, ignoring the offered hand. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I think it means you're supposed to be dead. Whistler, do you remember what I said about your rib cage the first time we met? I'm older now. I tolerate cryptic a lot less. What do you want?”

Whistler took a cautious step back. “Did you know the bosses expected you to go with the idea of making an army of slayers to fight the army of Turoks? Long term, it would have been a disaster, but it was a viable short-term solution. They just figured on fixing it later. But you had to go and change the game again, didn’t ya?”

“Let me get this straight: You waited until after Willow’s spell to tell me this was a mistake?”

Whistler paced the room with his hands in his pockets, studying the flickering shadows on the walls. “Truth be told, catching you as you traveled wasn't worth the effort. Your other witch really knows her stuff. She sent you through pretty fast. But no, I wasn’t trying to stop you. Thing is, if you pull this off, it should turn out better in the long run. The Powers were a little surprised, is all. Did anyone bring a broom? This place is filthy.”

He was evading, and Buffy had no patience for it. She stepped closer to him. “Last chance before Spike and I play football with your head. Why. Are. You. Here.”

“To help. Really.” Whistler put his hands up in surrender. “Man, you grew up scary. I liked you better when you were younger.” He addressed Spike. “How have you put up with her all these years? …Never mind. Forget I asked.” He dropped his hands. “Ok, kids. I’ll get to the point. You got a good idea here, and it’s got some definite potential for cleaning up the mess you left behind. But the odds aren’t great.”

Buffy gave an unladylike snort as she stepped back. “What else is new?”

“The bosses have plans for this little expedition, so they don't want it screwed up. They sent me to offer a little help. Come here, you two. I have a gift for ya.”

Spike and Buffy glanced at each other, communicating mutual apprehension and resigned agreement with little more than eye contact. They stepped toward Whistler in unison.

“Amazing,” the demon murmured. He reached out to touch their foreheads. “Remember!” he intoned, triggering a quick flash of blue light where his fingertips made contact with them.

“What the bleedin’ hell was that?” Spike shook his head, slightly disoriented.

“Just a little memory boost. Human memory is too fallible for time travel work. Neither of you may be fully human, but you both have that crappy human memory. This will help.” He turned to Buffy. “Pick any event from the coming years. Can you remember exact dates, times and details?”

Buffy frowned, and then her face lit up. “Wow. Yeah. Hey! You’re not completely useless!”

“Don’t sound so surprised there, kiddo. I’m not just another pretty face.”

Spike scoffed. “So you’ve added more magic to the mix. Bloody thrilling. Got anything else of use?”

“First, that’s no ordinary magic. Second, don’t check out the teeth on the gift horse, will ya? But in answer to your question, yeah. I have a little advice.” He turned to Buffy. “It’s not going to be easy, you know. Might not be a hell of a lot easier than last time.”

“Again with the what-else-is-new.”

“Play it as close to the way you remember it as possible. That’s why I gave you the boost. If any of you start acting differently, you could change more than you expect. Be subtle. You'll have a chance to get that hardware out of Pratt's head again soon. You gonna take it?”

Buffy glanced at Spike. “I hadn't thought about it, but we probably should.”

“He's thought about it, hasn't he?” Whistler eyed Spike, who gave a brief nod in response. “Do it if you want. But it won't change the big picture. And it won't help you get rid of Benny Boy, either. Too soon to tell, but I'm betting that job will go to the same person it went to before."

“Me?” Buffy asked. “Was it me? I wasn’t exactly around for the finale of that mess. I was busy getting myself dead.”

“He means your watcher, pet. Glory turned back into Ben after you knocked the snot out of her. Rupert finished him off.” At her confused look, he explained. “Got hammered with me a couple of nights while you were... gone. Got to talking.”

Buffy’s mouth hung open for a moment as she tried to absorb this information. When she finally spoke, her voice was low. “From confidante to conspirator,” she muttered, recalling Spike’s recent escape from Robin Wood’s garage. “How...?”

Spike shrugged. “Simple. You came back. He didn’t need me anymore. Didn’t need to drink himself into a stupor and didn’t need the hired muscle.”

“How can you be so casual about it?”

“’Cause that’s how it always was,” Whistler interjected. “You can't afford to forget that.”

Spike ignored Buffy's apologetic glance. He'd been expecting this. “So why can't I bleed the boy dry? If he dies, it's problem solved, far as I see it.”

“Glorificus gets weaker as Ben fights for control, making her more vulnerable. If he dies before he softens her up, she might be strong enough to break free, or at least jump into the nearest body.”

“Which would be Ben's killer.” Spike's plans were suddenly dashed away.

“You can't skip ahead to the end of this, kids. You have to go through it. Let go of the idea that you can just erase everything. It won't work. Life isn't that simple.”

“We have to let Glory take Dawn. Is that what you're telling me?” Buffy gave Whistler a dangerous look, ready to kill the messenger.

“You know another sure way of getting to her around that time? I didn't think so. I'm not saying you have to jump again, only that if you try offing Ben early, it could bite you in the ass. Stick with small, careful changes. After this thing with Glorificus is over, you'll be in a totally new situation with no obligations to the past you knew.”

“Get through Glory's key hunt, and then we're alright to do as we please?” Spike clarified.

“That's about the size of it. Listen you two, I gotta book. I’ll touch base later. Just one more thing: Summers, I know what else you want to change.” He shook his head sadly. “Take the opportunity to say a proper good-bye. That’s all you can have. Sorry, kiddo.”

There was another, larger blue flash as tears formed in Buffy’s eyes. Spike stepped up behind her to put a gentle hand on her shoulder. They stood that way in silence for a long time after Whistler disappeared.

*~*~*

She moved cautiously down the basement stairs, convinced the house would come down on her with one misstep. The glow of candlelight guided her toward the main room of the basement once again, but a very different scene greeted her.

The large wooden table, which had previously dominated the center of the room, was now pushed to one side, near the cabinets. Two leather club chairs had been procured from a source Buffy promised herself she wouldn't question and placed on either side of the table. On the other side of the room, against the wall, a mattress rested on the concrete floor, dressed in mismatched blankets. The large pillar candles that had nearly covered the table were now spread around the room, some still on the table, some on the cracked counter that ran across the tops of the cabinets, a few on top of the old wood burning stove in the corner, and one on the floor beside the makeshift bed.

Except for the last, all the candles were lit, giving Buffy a clear view of the new arrangement, and also allowing her to see that the new-looking broom in the corner had been put to good use. As she marveled at the change in the place and shook her head at the mental image of Spike cleaning away cobwebs, a door creaked behind her. She turned and followed the sound back towards the staircase, turning away from it when she realized the noise had come from the little room beside the landing. Stepping into the dark room, she ran straight into Spike, who immediately turned around. “Follow me.”

She obeyed, stopping just behind him as he flicked on his flashlight. “Perfect!” she exclaimed when she saw what the light had revealed. A metal ladder mounted to the cinder block wall led to a double door over their heads, that could be nothing other than a side entrance to the basement. “At least I can avoid those stairs now.”

Spike replied as he led them back toward the main room, “Figured it'd be good to use an entrance that's not in plain sight.”

“Thinking like a vampire.”

“Yeah, well.” He shrugged.

They sat at the table in awkward silence for a few minutes. “So here we are. It's been almost a week.”

“Yeah.”

Buffy shifted in her chair, taking another look at the room. “It looks like you're moving in.”

“Eh, not quite. Gotta keep the crypt. People expect to see me there.”

“But this is a place you can hide out?”

We, love.” Spike pointed at the bed. “I don't need that many blankets. You need a place to get away, too. That Whistler bloke was right. It's not gonna be easy, doing this all over again.”

“Yeah, I know. I guess it's time for us to get comfortable and make some plans.”

Spike went over the the cabinets and opened the largest one, revealing a bright red cooler. From the ice within, he dug out a can of Coke and a styrofoam container of pig's blood. He placed both on the table and retrieved a yellow legal pad and a black pen from another cabinet before sitting down again.

Buffy wiped the top of the can with her sleeve, preparing to open it. “Thanks. I guess you're going to let yours warm up for a while?”

“Uh-huh.”

Silence fell over them once again, punctuated with occasional tapping of Spike's pen against his notepad. The tension of the room finally popped when Buffy felt her nerves could take no more of it. “Ok, I give. What is wrong with you tonight? I haven't seen you in days, and when I finally get a chance to come by, you barely speak to me. What the hell? Were you expecting to see me every night?”

Spike scowled, but kept his tone low and calm. “Kinda used to every night. Used to having a home to go to, voices that aren't in my bloody head to listen to and talk to, and going out on patrol most nights. Gave all that up. Now I got two places to live alone, 'cept when Harm's about, which is worse. Gotta keep my distance from damn near every demon I don't plan to kill, in case they can sense the difference. Mostly been alone since the night I brought you here. So, yeah, it'd be nice to talk to you once in a while.”

Buffy bit her lower lip and brought her tone down to match his. “I'm sorry, Spike. I wasn't thinking. I was caught up in my own stuff and I forgot I was leaving you with no one... What about Clem?”

“Avoiding him as much as I am Harm. She's too bloody dense to notice, just annoying. Clem will know I'm different the second he gets close. Couple years down the line, he'll get it. But now?” Spike scoffed and fixed his gaze on the paper before him. “Doubt he'll understand getting a soul for any reason.”

“Oh.” Buffy couldn't think of anything else to say. In this time, Spike still lived mostly in the demon world, a world that could sense the change in him and would shun or kill him over it. Later, when he was living mostly in her world, getting his soul was viewed as a good thing, and he was somewhat accepted. She'd dragged him away from that and back into a life amongst demons, but they couldn't leave his soul behind in 2003, and now Spike was a man without a country... more than ever before.

He broke into her thoughts. “Least I'm not living like Angel did after Darla tossed him out.”

Buffy tossed a mild glare in his direction, but opted to change the subject. “So I guess you're wondering what I've been up to?”

“Can smell some of it, love. And how is your tin soldier today?”

“Don't get snippy, Spike.” She sighed. “You know, sabotaging a relationship on purpose is hard work! I can do it on accident easily--”

“Preachin' to the choir,” Spike mumbled.

“But trying to make it look gradual and authentic sucks. I've been picking fights with Riley all week. Little stuff, not enough to make us break up too fast, but enough to keep him at bay… most days.”

“You mean out of your knickers.”

“Other than that--” Buffy pointedly ignored his interjections. “I've been enjoying a lot of quality Mom-time. You should go see her, too. She asked about you.”

“Eh, probably shouldn't. Your mates might come by.”

“That didn't stop you before. According to Mom, you stopped by more often than I did during the school year. Why did you never tell me that?”

“You never asked. Besides, you never revoked my invite... up 'til a few months from now.”

“We'll change that. We can, right? You're not going to chain me up again, are you?”

Spike stifled a smirk, trying hard to appear nonchalant. “Wasn't planning on it, but wouldn't call it a necessary change. Maybe I should.”

“You're kidding, right? You don't actually plan to—” Buffy caught the glint of humor in his eye and relaxed back into her chair. “You aren't going to make me put on the big 'Spike is icky' show for Mom and Willow. You just said that to make me squirm.”

He shrugged. “Yeah, a bit. There's catches to skipping it, though. We gotta deal with Dru, for one. Also, that little admission of mine is the only reason your mates know for me to be about. We gotta give them something that makes sense. Else, you'll have to keep inviting me to hang around, and they'll think you're wrong in the head for it.”

“What about protecting Dawn? She'll be here soon. I can say I talked you into helping me keep an eye on her.”

“And why would I do that for you?” Spike leaned forward, bringing his face closer to hers across the candlelit table and pulling away his human mask. “Look at the exterior, love. That's what they see. Just a killer with a chip in his head.” His amber eyes flickered blue for an instant. “Nothing else. That's what you saw. You'd better start thinking that way again, unless you want to tell your mates and your watcher every detail about our real history.” He fell back in his chair. “Don't fancy that, myself.”

“We're going to have to plan this all very carefully, aren't we?”

“Every day of it. Gotten a bit of a start on you.” Spike shoved the legal pad across the table for her inspection. He had filled four pages with notes of upcoming events, possible changes they could make, and what events needed to be left untouched to preserve known chain reactions. After she'd looked over what he had written, he handed her the pen and reached for his container of blood. “Your turn.”

Buffy wrinkled up her nose as she began to write her own notes in the spaces he'd left between his. “I would have left us in our own time if I'd known there'd be homework. This is definitely going to suck.”

*~*~*

“Don't feel bad about it. I've been speaking the language about a century longer than you. Your vocabulary will catch up… eventually.”

Joyce swept the letter tiles back into the bag. “Don't get cocky. You only beat me by 30 points. That's not what I'd call a decisive victory.”

Spike grinned, glad she was taking the bait. “Sounds like someone wants a rematch. Tomorrow night?”

“You’re on.”

He stood up. “Shall I put the kettle on?”

“Maybe you shouldn’t, Spike. Buffy will be home soon, if she doesn't go to Riley's tonight.”

Spike turned away from her as he filled the kettle, hiding the flare of anger showing on his features. “She won't. Fact is, she's expecting me. Got business to talk. She'll be here soon.”

“Oh.” Joyce looked surprised, and a little worried. “This isn't world-ending stuff is it? Like the first time you two had a meeting here?”

“Nah. Just a li'l vampire problem we've got. Easily fixed.”

Joyce returned the game box to its place in the hall closet. When she returned to her stool, she watched him move around her kitchen. He was more relaxed than she’d ever seen him, and seemed very at home. He also didn’t appear to be dreading his meeting with her daughter. “Spike, if I ask you something, will you be honest with me?”

“If I can.”

“Don’t beat around the bush because I'm her mother, but is Buffy being any nicer to you?”

Spike nodded, recalling a similar conversation they'd had the first time around. “Yeah, a bit. Doesn't seem to object to me being around so much.”

“Good. I haven't been happy with the way she treats you.” Joyce put her hands up in mock surrender. “I know it's a slayer-vampire thing, and I can't expect to understand it, but I don't think it's fair. I shouldn't have to worry about having to sweep you off my kitchen floor if she comes home unexpectedly.”

“Buffy's not gonna stake me, Joyce. She'll yell and beat on me if it takes her fancy, but you needn't worry. She's never revoked my invite, remember? Girl's got a couple of witches at her beck and call. If she wanted me to stop calling here, she'd change the locks on me in a bloody heartbeat. Trust me.”

“Thanks.” Joyce accepted her cup of tea with a smile. She frowned a moment later, as Spike's attention turned toward the front of the house. “What's wrong?”

“Nothing.” He set out another cup, just as a key turned in the front door.

“Mom?” Buffy called as she closed the door behind her.

“In the kitchen! Are you armed?”

Buffy laughed as she came into the kitchen. “It's ok. I knew he'd be here.” She turned to Spike as she took the stool beside her mother. “You haven't been driving her crazy, have you?”

Spike pushed the third teacup toward her. “Shut up and drink your tea.” He casually sniffed the air around her. “So our mutual friend's in town, then? Any trouble?”

Buffy nodded. “Nothing unexpected. Probably talking to his new... buddy as we speak.”

Joyce looked from one to the other and stood up to leave. “I think I'll take my tea upstairs so you two will stop speaking in code.”

Her daughter blushed. “Sorry Mom. I didn't mean to be rude.”

Joyce patted her shoulder. “It's ok, honey. You two talk shop. I'll see you both tomorrow. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight” calls from slayer and vampire followed her out of the room.

“She likes your visits. You should be here more.”

“Likes you liking my visits more.”

“How's that?” Buffy wrinkled her nose at the taste of her tea.

“Worries you're not being nice to me.” Spike passed her the sugar bowl.

“What did you tell her?”

“That you won't dust me and you're improving... a little.”

“Oh for god's sake, Spike. You downplayed how well we're getting along? You're such an ass.”

“What should I say, then? ‘Getting on just grand, Joyce! In fact, it’s me she sneaks out of here most nights to crawl into bed with, not her cardboard boyfriend.’ That’d go over well.” Spike leaned on the counter. “Next, I can tell her why I know my way around her kitchen so bloody well.”

“She noticed.”

“Didn’t say anything, but had a funny look on her face when I skipped the mugs and went straight to the teacups on the top shelf.”

Buffy looked at her cup. “Yeah, we don’t use these very often.”

“Bloody Americans.”

Her glare turned to a yawn. “I wish I could do some of that sneaking out tonight.”

“Gotta get used to it, love. Even after you drive that ponce out of town, you need to be spending nights in your own house, so people won’t be looking for you. Leave the cellar-dwelling to me.”

“I don’t sleep well alone anymore.”

“Noticed that. Not looking your sprightliest.”

“Then let me come home with you tonight. I really need the rest.”

“Not while Drac’s about.” Spike took in his surroundings. “And the safe house isn’t home.”

Time's Colors by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Thank you all for your continued enthusiasm for this little story. I can't wait to see your commentary as posting progresses.

 

Some chapters, like Safe House (Chapter 3), take place over the course of weeks. Others take place over the course of only a few hours. Most are somewhere in between, covering a stretch of days, with the larger gaps of time falling between the chapters. Like the rest of this journey, the time between scenes varies wildly. It's just another part of the roller coaster Spike and Buffy have dragged us onto behind them. Enjoy.

Chapter 4: Time's Colors

September, 2000

Giles admitted the young woman into his apartment with apologies. “I'm afraid Willow has just left. I believe she plans to spend the evening with Xander.”

Tara smiled shyly as she stepped inside. “I know. She told me. I wanted to see you, actually.”

Giles stifled his surprise. He didn't know Tara well, but he had been forced to acknowledge that his paternal role in Buffy's life had at some point extended to her friends. He made the motions of a proper host while he waited for Tara to explain her errand.

He studied her as they sipped their tea. For the first time in his experience, Tara seemed confident and collected. She spoke with unexpected clarity. “Willow told me you're planning on leaving. I came to ask you to talk to Buffy first.”

“I intend to. I won’t disappear into the night without a word.”

“No, I mean you should talk to her about ...her. You know, make sure she's ok, and not having demon trouble or something.”

Giles was confused. “What exactly are you getting at, Tara?”

“Do you remember when Faith switched bodies with Buffy? And that I knew something was wrong because her aura was so mixed up?” At his nod, she continued, “We all went to the beach this past weekend, the first time we have all been together in a couple of weeks. And I saw something...” Tara took a deep breath. “Buffy's aura is wrong again.”

“In what way? Do you believe she is possessed by something?”

“Oh, no! Her aura is entirely hers, but... different. She still has mostly the same colors, but some are brighter, some more faded. And there's something in her eyes... She's Buffy, but not exactly her normal self. Something isn't right.”

Giles mentally tore up his plane ticket as he returned his teacup to its saucer.

*~*~*

Buffy crept into the basement of the old house via the basement door. She felt around for Spike's flashlight in the darkness, and then used it to guide her to the main room, where she lit a few candles on the table. She dropped into one of the club chairs and took up the legal pad that held their notes about coming events. She caught herself dozing in the chair soon after, and relocated to the bed. The next time she awakened, it was to the sound of an irritated roar.

“Dammit, Buffy! What the bloody hell are you playing at!?”

She jerked awake, taking a moment to get her bearings. “Spike. Hi.”

“Hi? Is that all you have to say for yourself?” Spike knelt beside the makeshift bed, eye level with her as she sat up. He gripped her shoulders and inspected her neck carefully, turning her toward the candlelight as she eyed him questioningly. “Good. You didn't just waste two nights of my life.” He released her and shook his head. “Stupid bint.”

“Do you mind telling me why you're freaking out?” Buffy ran a hand through her slightly tousled hair and scooted to the side as an invitation for him to sit on the edge of the mattress beside her.

“You know why.” He dropped into the offered space with a sigh. “You let your guard down in a place that needs no invitation. And this after I spent the last two evenings playing Scrabble with your Mum to keep that poncy bugger from setting up a coffee date with her. Thought we agreed you wouldn't sleep here while he was in town?”

“I was tired. I told you I haven't been sleeping well. And Scrabble?”

He growled softly. “Not the point, Slayer.”

“You haven't called me that much lately, not for a while.”

“Trying to get back into old habits, love.” He scooted back on the bed to lean against the wall. “Just had an unpleasant chat with your farm boy at the crypt. Let it play out like the first time. Didn't bother changing anything. You sure you'll be alright with ol' Drac?”

“Yeah. You blocked his chance to get into the house for a bite of enthralled slayer, but he's still got Xander at his beck and call. I can get Xan to lead me to him when everyone is still in research mode, and shoo him out of town before anyone else finds his castle. Should be pretty painless.”

“Hope so.”

Buffy grinned as she joined him against the wall. “You know what this means, right?”

“That you'll collect the eleven pounds he owes me? With interest?”

“Hmm. I guess I could do that. It might throw him for a loop. What's the going rate for debts nearly a century old?”

“Whatever's in his wallet.”

She snickered. “Anyway, Count Doofus being in town means Dawn's nearly here. I did some hard thinking about her after that zap Whistler gave us, and my first truly clear memory of her is right around this time. I think Willow only missed the monks by a couple of weeks.”

“Been missing the Nibblet, love?”

“Way more than I expected. I'm really enjoying the Mom-time, of course, but it doesn't feel right without Dawnie around, even knowing she'll be here soon. Haven't you been missing her, too?”

“A lot longer than you have.”

Buffy's exuberance faded. She drifted into thoughts about the last real year of their lives, and the distance that had developed in various factions of her makeshift family.

Spike drew them both back to the moment by jumping to his feet. “Come on, then. I'll risk walking you home so that bugger doesn't try to waylay you.”

*~*~*

Despite her fatigue, Buffy was in no rush to get home. She was trying to find the words to say something she'd been putting off, and hoping the walk would be long enough for her to speak.

Spike didn't know why she'd led them three blocks out of their way, but wasn't going to complain about extra time with her. However, the silence had grown uncomfortable. “Time to spit it out.”

Buffy jumped, surprised at the sudden break in silence. “What do you mean?”

“Been watching the wheels turning in your head for the last half mile. Talk.”

“OK… You know what you said about how I have to hate you in this time? I vote no.”

Spike kept his facial expressions still and his tone casual, completely belying his emotions. “Yeah? How's that gonna work?”

“Well, everyone knows by now you like killing things, including demony things. What if I convince them you're my new patrol buddy? Will that explain you being around a lot?”

“Your mates won't like it. Your Watcher even less. Thinking your boyfriend's gonna stake me and solve their problem, though.”

“Oh, don't worry about him. I've got things figured out there.” She pointed over her shoulder, vaguely referencing the safe house. “I just added that plan to our notes before my nap.”

He tried to hide the hope in his eyes. “Not smart to patrol together 'til that happens, I think.”

“What if we let it get out that you and Mom are friends? And you and Dawnie? Then they'll understand you staying close as protection.”

“Don't think Harris believes vampires can have friends. Likely stake me for just being near the house. They aren’t all like your mum, love. And not much like what they themselves will be in a few years, where I’m concerned.”

Buffy fought back the instinct to pout. This wasn't going as she had hoped. “Can we try it, Spike? I need... to have your help, and this is the best I can think of for making that happen without...”

“Telling them all about being chained up?” he supplied, hoping he was catching her meaning.

She nodded. “What you said then... It's really none of their business.”

Spike fell silent. On the one hand, he was shocked that she was respecting his feelings and his privacy, something she'd never done before. On the other hand, he wasn't sure if this was her way of telling him she meant to rewrite their personal history in a 'just friends' sort of way. Still, he nodded his assent. “Alright. We'll try it.”

Buffy's next surprising action did nothing to settle the question. Grabbing his hand, she pulled him around to face her, and into a warm hug. “Good. I've missed having you around.”

*~*~*

Buffy thought it had worked out perfectly. She'd driven Dracula from town without him gaining access to her neck or her house. She’d been able to expedite the matter, so now she was going to Giles' apartment in the evening, rather than the next morning, as she had done originally.

Everything had fallen into place just the way she wanted it. She'd go in, have a heart-to-heart with Giles to ask him to be her active Watcher again, and Spike would conveniently pop by to collect the money she'd taken from Dracula, just when she was about to leave. It would look totally natural if he left with her to patrol together... right in front of Giles. She could start sowing the seeds for justifying Spike's presence tonight, no need to wait until Drusilla came back to town, no need for her to crassly announce his feelings for her to everyone they knew. Perfect.

She knew something was off as soon as she saw Tara was there... and without Willow. But she stayed the course, babbling on about wanting to be trained and taught again and glibly asking what Giles had wanted to discuss, expecting a dismissal of the unknown topic. It didn't work out that way. Within minutes, she was getting an education on aura reading from Tara, a barrage of questions about recent slaying events from her watcher, and was silently begging Spike to be late. He wasn't.

Giles answered the door with a frown. He had dearly hoped this conversation with Buffy would go uninterrupted. His frown deepened with irritation at the sight of the vampire at his threshold.

“Watcher.” Spike nodded in greeting. “Nibblet said I could find the slayer here.” He brushed by without waiting for a response, entering the room as Buffy rose from her place on the sofa.

“Nibblet?” Buffy whispered. She sighed with relief at his subtle nod, glad to know her sister had finally arrived and their memories seemed to have survived the transition. She quickly recovered herself, changing her expression to something far more stern. “Oh yeah, what you came for...” She grabbed her bag and fished out a plump little leather pouch, which she tossed to him. “Just call me the Vampire Debt Collection Agent. You owe me one, Spike.”

Spike flipped through the wad of bills with a satisfied smirk. “Yeah, I'd say that covers the interest the ponce owes me. Nice haul, Slayer. You should have been a pick-pocket.”

“Dracula left it in plain sight like a moron.” She shrugged. “It wasn't exactly difficult. “

He stepped back toward the open door, where Giles still stood, frowning at the exchange. “I’m up for a bit of rough and tumble. Mind if I go with you tonight?”

Buffy eagerly grabbed the opportunity to escape. “Fine. Just don't get in my way.”

Giles closed the door before they reached it. “Putting aside the petty theft, which I'll not pretend to understand, are you saying,” he narrowed his eyes on them. “You intend to patrol... together?”

Tara finally spoke, her normally quiet voice capturing their attention with unaccustomed forcefulness. “You both need to stay. There's something much bigger here than patrol, Mr. Giles. They're connected.”

“Damn!” Buffy threw her bag into Giles' desk chair. They were stuck now. She couldn't see a way out of it. “Spike, can I see you outside for a minute?” To Giles she said, “We'll be right back. I promise.”

Giles reluctantly stepped clear of the door, allowing them to exit. He lingered by the window to listen, ignoring the disapproval on Tara's face.

“We were so close to getting this off on the right foot. But no, we missed one important thing in our little plan, something at least Willow should have thought of. Stupid! And why the hell didn't Whistler mention it? He had to have known! Stupid, stupid, stupid!”

“Buffy, take a breath. You don't calm down, people are gonna think we had the wrong one of us chained up in the basement, yeah?”

Giles heard Buffy release her tension in a breathy chuckle. “Point taken.”

“There now, there's my slayer. Alright, General, read me in.”

“We forgot about Tara. She reads auras as easily as most people read street signs. She noticed mine the first time she saw me. She told Giles, and you walked in on them grilling me about my aura being wrong. So now she knows about both of us. We've barely started and the game is up.”

“What a bloody balls up!”

“Yeah, that's putting it mildly. But what now? We'll have to tell them something.”

“Can't see any good in lying to them, love. Rupert can handle it, even if he doesn't like it much.”

“And we can trust Tara not to say anything, even to Wils, if she sees it's the right thing to do.”

“Shouldn't say too much just now. Don't know...”

“Yeah, I know ...I still feel really stupid.”

“Me too. But we'll be alright, yeah?”

They reentered the apartment and took places on the sofa. Giles followed and sat on the armchair beside the one in which Tara was perched. Silence settled over the room. All were poised for a heavy conversation, but no one seemed willing to be the first to speak.

Spike broke the ice. “How much do you know from listening in, Rupert? And don't insult me by denying it.”

Giles at least had the grace to blush at having been caught eavesdropping. “Well, I, um, gather there is something between you, some sort of … relationship.” He tried not to sound judgmental, but they heard it. Pained looks were exchanged between the pair on his sofa. His judgment clearly represented something terrible to them. “That, in addition to the variances in your auras Tara has seen... I hesitate to ask, for the answer may not be to my liking, but... Who are you?

Spike leaned back against the sofa cushions, settling in for a long conversation. Buffy took a deep breath before speaking. “We're time travelers. We're still us, just older versions. So that should explain the funny aura thingy. Ok?”

She tried to stand, but Spike's hand on her shoulder pushed her down again. “Not good enough, love, and you bloody well know it.”

She grabbed his hand and used it to pull him upright. “Then help. You aren't here to relax!”

Ignoring Buffy's baiting, he abruptly turned to Tara. “So, Glinda, what does my aura tell you?”

Tara had been observing them with interest. The Buffy and Spike she knew shared some sexual tension, and respect for each other as fighters, but were never comfortable together. The mixture of noisy restlessness and cool bitterness she knew as Spike seemed somewhat understated, muted by... Was that resignation? There was also a very distinct glow to his aura she couldn’t ignore.

Buffy's notorious flippancy had been sharpened into a weapon of retreat, her playfulness faded into cynicism and wry humor. To Tara, their eyes gave them away as easily as their auras, for she had finally identified what she had seen in Buffy's eyes at the beach: a deep, weary, sadness. She now saw that same sad look reflected in Spike's eyes.

Tara blushed under Spike's gaze, realizing she'd been lost in thought. “Um, you aren't the same, but not completely different, either. If you’re time travelers, I guess the changes fit. You both would have changed over the years --”

Buffy's derisive snort overlapped with Spike's muttered “Understatement of the century.”

“--so having auras that are different from the ones I know makes sense. It's just that... there are threads between you. I can see them now, with you close together. The big one is your bond to each other. It's strong and bright.” She blushed again, sensing innately she was treading on sensitive ground. “The others are small threads that seem to have been wrapped around your auras and your bond, and stretch between you. They're not a part of either of you. But the magic is... familiar.” Tara's brow furrowed. “Is that Willow's magic? Did she send you back in time?”

“Yeah, this trip is a Willow magic special: one way ticket, misery guaranteed.” Buffy patted Spike's knee with a wry smile. “At least I'm not the only sucker on the train this time.”

“Maybe this is the last train, eh?” At her raised eyebrow, Spike could only shrug.

Giles was skeptical. “That's not possible. A novice witch couldn't manage time travel. A decade’s training wouldn't get her even close to that ability. Exactly how far in the future is your home?”

Buffy stifled a laugh at Giles' underestimation of Willow. Spike's expression was more serious. “This isn't even the heaviest job she's done, Rupert. People, magic, everything -including things that shouldn't- can change fast. That's why we're here. It's gonna get ugly, and if we can make some adjustments, it can turn out better. If it doesn't work, well... end of the world. Again.”

Silence settled over the room once more. Giles took the opportunity to redirect the conversation. “So exactly how long have you been masquerading as our time's Buffy and Spike?”

“Not masquerading. Red shoved us into our own bodies, just in a different time. Same us, just more memories and experience. Got here a couple of weeks ago.”

“So the Buffy I know is gone? When will we get her back?”

“Sorry, Giles. You're stuck with this version of me. Like I said, one way trip.”

“What are you trying to change, exactly?”

“Lots of stuff. More than I can even get into right now. But the main thing is about protecting the slayer line from being damaged or destroyed.”

What the watcher heard in those words chilled him to the bone. “Buffy, did you die ag--?”

Spike’s growl interrupted him. “Yes. And it's not happening this time around.”

Giles was startled and intimidated by the vampire's severe tone... and the dangerous flash of amber in his eyes. The way Spike had spoken to Buffy outside and the protective attitude he displayed now bothered the watcher deeply, though perhaps not so deeply as Buffy's calm acceptance of such behavior. He cleaned his glasses, giving into an urge he'd been restraining since Spike's arrival at his door. “It seems quite a lot has changed in the intervening years. I must ask again, when do you come from?”

Buffy bit her lip, and glanced at Spike for encouragement. “May of 2003.”

Giles and Tara fell into stunned silence, both trying to wrap their minds around the idea that every change in the two of them -and everything they'd alluded to- had taken place over only a few short years.

*~*~*

Buffy closed Giles’ front door behind them and fell against it. “Well, that sucked.”

“Eh, I think we handled it alright.”

I think we’re lucky to have even gotten out. Giles looked like he wanted to perform a time traveler exorcism.”

“Couldn’t keep us there if he wanted to. Doesn’t know how you can fight now, does he?”

“He also doesn’t know—Oof!” Buffy fought to regain her balance as the door was opened behind her.

“Oh! Sorry!” Tara stepped outside. “I was wondering if you two would walk me back to the dorm. Since you’re here, you know?”

Buffy and Spike exchanged assenting nods and fell into step with her as they exited the courtyard. “You don’t seem as freaked out as Giles does,” Buffy observed.

“I also don’t seem to be as freaked out by Giles as you do.” Tara smiled to soften the harshness of her comment. “Can I ask what happens to change things between you?”

“It’s more than one thing. It’s a hundred little things and a handful of really big things. The short version is that it’s been a long time since I’ve really trusted him. I don’t like him knowing about this. It worries me.”

Tara blushed. “I’m sorry. I guess I could have come straight to you, but I didn’t know what was going on, and he’s your watcher, so…”

“You couldn’t have known, Glinda.”

“I just might have to find those chains again if it gets dicey,” Buffy grumbled.

“Don’t blame him for what he hasn’t done yet, Slayer. Still hope for the old man.”

Tara frowned at this apparent role reversal. She looked at Spike. “I didn’t tell him about the other thing I saw, but can I ask about it? How long ago were you cursed?”

“Wasn’t.” Spike turned his focus to the movements of his feet.

“He chose to get it back,” Buffy explained. “He fought for it.”

“Whoa. That’s… That’s… Whoa.”

Buffy stole a glance at Spike. “And it should stay quiet, like everything else, ok?”

“Of course.” Tara shook off her stupor with a nod. “But can I ask one more question, Spike?”

Buffy’s gaze flicked again to Spike’s dark expression. “Something I can answer?”

“Um, maybe… Why isn’t he proud of it?”

“Because…” Buffy thought back to the last time she saw Spike before he went to Africa, to the incident she was sure had been a big part of his decision to go. “Because people sometimes do amazing things for the wrong reasons,” she whispered.

“There’s a story there.”

“There are a few.”

Tara didn’t push the issue, though she was gripped with curiosity about her companions. The bickering sworn enemies she had known had been replaced by an emotionally close pair who obviously relied heavily on each other. From what well had sprung such changes? Was it Buffy’s unexplained death and resurrection? Something even bigger? Tara shuddered, unsure she wanted to know, but fearing she would learn.

*~*~*

Buffy shocked Giles by requesting a slayer training and shopping day. She had chosen to retain this bit of their history, the rebuilding of the watcher-slayer relationship that had been a part of her strength for so many years. Spike had strongly encouraged her to give Giles another chance, and she’d been unable to argue that there would ever be a better opportunity. But she didn’t want to be alone with the watcher quite yet, not trusting what he’d do or say in her time travel partner’s absence. So she shocked her sister, too, by inviting her to tag along.

But even Dawn’s distracting, bouncing exuberance had moments of pause, particularly after chugging three glasses of Coke with lunch and walking across downtown to the Magic Box. She handed a package of incense to Buffy with a frown. “I don’t know what Nag Champa is, but it smells funny. Also, I have to pee.”

Buffy waved a hand toward the back of the shop. “Second door on the right.”

“Wow, you spend way too much time shopping with Willow.” Dawn shook her head and made her way through the crowd of shoppers to the door her sister had indicated.

Buffy watched her go with wide eyes. “Oops,” she whispered.

“Will you be spending more time here in the coming years?” came a murmur from her left.

“Enough to know where the restrooms are.” She turned her attention back to the incense display. “Shopping with Willow and Tara, of course.”

“Of course.” Giles was not convinced. “Will you at least answer one question for me?”

Her mind raced with the possibilities. “That depends on the question.”

“What need could you possibly have for training I’ve already given you?”

“I could use a refresher course. I’m an old slayer, Giles. I need to stay on top of my game.”

“You’re a terrible liar, Buffy. You’ll have trouble with this… mission if you don’t have help.”

“I have help. You know the guy. Bleach blond, leather coat, bad attitude? Ring any bells?”

“I’m referring to help that can be relied upon. Whatever sort of connection you have to him, it cannot change his nature. I fear your trust in him is gravely misplaced. Saving slayers is not exactly what he is known for, if you recall.”

She looked up at her watcher, seeing the same expression on his face she had seen on her last night in 2003. He was determined to have some element of control over the situation, and bore a deep mistrust of Spike. Nothing was different, save that he wore glasses instead of contact lenses, and had a bit less grey around his temples. “You never change,” she whispered.

“Which is something you need. Stability. I can help you avert this apocalypse. Only tell me--”

“No, what I need is someone who trusts my judgment and always has my back. That's not you.”

“And that’s Spike?”

“It has been for a long time. You can be my watcher. I’m willing to give you another shot at that, but you can’t replace him on this mission. No one can.”

The quiet conversation came to an abrupt halt as Dawn approached them. Buffy looked relieved. Giles looked frustrated. Dawn frowned at the package still in her sister’s hand. “You were arguing about buying that stinky Nag Champa stuff, weren’t you?”

Fair Trades by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

The relationship between slayer and watcher is beginning to change, and it isn't likely to be easy to navigate. At its heart, Echoes is about family: having complicated, imperfect relationships with people you love, and figuring out what to do about it. And there's a whole 'time travelers try to outmaneuver a Hellgod while they deal with a bunch of other stuff' story in there, too.

Chapter 5: Fair Trades

October, 2000

The next time Buffy entered the Magic Box, she had to feign surprise at the sight of Mr. Bogarty’s body, but not too much surprise. The only shopkeeper who would ever have any longevity there would be the one with a slayer in the back room, and he was only beginning to think of buying the place.

She was kind and patient with Riley when they went out that night, having realized she was already on the point of driving him away. She had a plan to execute where he was concerned, and timing was critical. She couldn’t afford to blow it by being careless.

She sat on the kitchen counter and giggled when she was told Harmony was trying her hand at being a Big Bad, for once finding it easy to do what was expected of her. She turned abruptly and appropriately serious when told Harmony had been invited into the house, and hopped off the counter, instinctively responding to that bit of old news.

But Buffy's instincts had changed over the years. She knew she had ranted to Xander and Riley about Dawn while gathering weapons the first time around, but this Buffy couldn't understand why she had done that. Instead, she tapped on Dawn's bedroom door frame as she stepped into the room.

“Dawnie, I just heard what happened tonight. Are you ok?”

Dawn, seated by her window, writing in her journal, looked up in shock. She had fully expected her sister to come in yelling. “Um, yeah. I'm fine.”

“You really should be more careful with your words. You know better than that.”

“I know.” Dawn was still wide-eyed at Buffy’s low volume. “I won't do it again.”

“See that you don't,” Buffy replied sternly, but still quietly. “Xander is calling Willow to ask her to come over and fix your mistake. Don't you think you should have something for her to say 'thank you?' Maybe something that Xander and Anya would like, too?”

“Like what?”

Buffy smiled. “Dawnie, you know my friends. They love sugar. It's not too late for a batch of cookies.”

Dawn's face lit up. “You're going to let me bake? Really?” she squealed the last word, her voice high enough to elicit a wince from her sister.

“Yes, but you will follow a recipe. None of your weird variations. All the dishes you dirty need to be washed before Mom gets home. And you will accept supervision if Xander or Anya think you need it.” Buffy stood up to leave. “I have to go take care of some baddies. Do we have a deal?”

Dawn gave her sister an impulsive hug. “Thanks!” She ran out of the room, bound for the kitchen.

Buffy let loose a satisfied grin as she headed to her own room to dig through her weapons chest for a good stake. “I guess that's one minor crisis averted.”

She met Xander on the stairs a minute later. “I'm going to see if I can get rid of Harmony's little friends. Are you ok with staying here for a while?”

“Yeah, we'll be fine. Willow is on her way over to undo the invitation. That's what I was coming up to tell you. Dawn said you okayed her making cookies. Are you sure that's safe?”

Buffy chuckled. “Not entirely, but I'm sure you'll survive it. I'm teaching her the Willow method of guilt management.”

Xander nodded in understanding. “Ah, the school of 'if I bake for you, you'll forget I'm a screw up.' Yeah, I like those kinds of lessons. Chocolate chip?”

“That's up to the baker. Don't let her burn the house down. I'll be back soon.”

She headed toward the back door, expecting at least one of her targets to be waiting in the yard. “Remember, Dawnie, those cookies are a gift and an apology, they're not for you to pig out on,” she said as she passed through the kitchen.

She opened the back door, ready to fight, but was met with silence. No one jumped out at her, nothing stirred. She walked out into the middle of the backyard and turned slowly, reaching out her senses. At first, there was nothing to be felt. Then, just as she was about to give up and start walking, a familiar signature came into range. She relaxed her stance, put her stake into the back of her waistband, and went to wait on her mother's garden bench at the far end of the yard.

Spike sauntered into the yard a minute later. “No worries, love, I got 'em all.” He sat down beside her.

“Even Harmony?”

“Nah, didn't have the heart for it. She's too dumb to be scary, anyway. Told her she only had one chance at making something of herself, and that would be to go to her old friend Cordelia for guidance. She'll be in LA by tomorrow night, I'd wager.” He snickered. “Peaches is gonna have a fun week.”

For the second time that night, Buffy fell into uncontrolled giggling. “If I ever said you weren't evil anymore, I totally take it back.” She gasped for air. “Angel is going to have a fit!”

They laughed together in the still night air, theories about Angel and Cordelia's responses to having Harmony under foot fueling their glee. It was a silly, stupid thing to be doing, Spike knew, which is why he later realized he shouldn't have been surprised when they got caught.

Riley Finn stepped out on to the back porch looking for his girlfriend, wondering why he'd not been invited to join her on this mission. He hadn't even been told she was leaving the house. He felt utterly forgotten. When he heard laughter coming from the other end of the darkened yard, he followed the sound until he was close enough to view the pair on the bench.

Spike noticed Riley's approach before Buffy did. His demeanor turned suddenly tense. “Well, Slayer, looks like I'm off. Give Joyce and the Bit my best.” He stood to leave.

Buffy wiped her eyes, calming herself. “What? … Oh. Hey Riley. Spike was just telling me what happened with Harmony's little gang.” She stifled a lingering giggle. “We don't have anything to worry about now, do we?” She turned to Spike for confirmation.

“All taken care of.” He took a step back, thinking it would be best to disappear before Finn had time to come up with a response to the scene he'd stumbled upon. Hopefully Buffy would grab the boy and tow him off to the house before that happened.

But Buffy seemed to be going in the other direction. She stepped toward him, her hand extended. He shook it cautiously, not sure what her goal was. “Thank you, Spike. I owe you one.”

He pulled his hand back and shoved it into his pocket. “We're even, if this covers the debt collecting.”

“Consider it covered. Thanks. Goodnight.” Only then did she take the hand of the dumbstruck Riley and lead him back toward the house.

Spike could hear Riley finally finding his voice as he slipped into the shadows. “Buffy, I'm really confused. Are you trading favors with that thing now? What did he mean about debt collecting? And what was so freaking funny?”

Buffy's voice still carried the echo of a smile. “Spike has his own issues with Harmony. He took care of dusting her little gang and came by to let me know. And, well, laughing at Harmony never gets old.”

“And the debt?”

“He owed me a favor because I stole Dracula's wallet-thingy for him. Drac owed him money. I had a chance to collect it for him, so I did it. And now we're even. All's good.”

“Uh-huh.” The skepticism in Riley's voice was evident. He brought them to a stop at the base of the porch stairs. “So you didn't go out to kill the vampires, but to meet up with one for a chat?”

“It wasn't like that.” Buffy became defensive. “I was heading out to find them when Spike found me.” She shrugged. “We had a laugh about it, that's all. I don't know what you're so bothered about.”

“Well, let's see. You sneak out on a mission without me, when I'm right there in your living room. Instead of actually out looking for the vampires, I find you whooping it up with the evil undead who claims to have done the job for you. No, that's nothing to be bothered about.” He pulled away from her in disgust. “What is wrong with you? Why are you even taking his word for it?”

“Riley, I'm going to make this very clear to you, so I only need to say it once. My home and my family were threatened. If you think I take that lightly, even from a joke like Harmony, you don't know me. If I had one shred of doubt Spike hadn't done exactly what he said he did to stop that threat, I'd still be out there, hunting. Spike said he took care of it and I believe him.”

A voice came from the porch above them. “And Spike doesn't take chances with this family. He's my friend and Mom's, and he knows Buffy would kick his ass if he got us hurt.” Buffy and Riley looked up at Dawn, who only smiled back at them, the unrepentant eavesdropper as always. “I could hear you guys from inside. You're kinda loud. Also, cookies are almost ready!” She bounced back inside.

“Don't forget the dishes!” Buffy called after her as the door closed.

“Friend?” Riley asked incredulously.

Buffy wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, he stops by and hangs out with them occasionally. It's a little weird.”

“A little weird! It's stupidly dangerous! Buffy, that chip is a prototype. If it fails...” Riley shuddered. “I can't believe you've let him be invited into your house.”

Buffy waved off his concern. “Oh, I invited him in long before he got the chip. He won't hurt them.”

Riley shook his head. “I don't believe what I'm hearing. How could you be so reckless? Let's go inside. Willow can de-invite him while she takes care of Harmony.”

“Whoa, hold up there, Take Charge Guy. I said it's ok. No need to change the locks on Spike. See me? Slayer? Actual resident of the house in question? If I say it's fine, it's fine.”

“I don't understand this, Buffy. It's bad enough Giles puts up with him traipsing through his apartment, but at least he's aware of the danger and doesn't have any kids to worry about. This,” Riley waved a hand toward the house. “This I don't get at all.”

“What's to get? Spike cares about my family. He won't let any harm come to them. It's not difficult.”

“He's a soulless monster. He doesn't care about your family. He's just waiting on his chance to --”

“Riley, I think you need to go home instead of finishing that sentence. I don't think I can stand to hear you questioning my judgment or how much I value the safety of my family anymore tonight.”

He hesitated.

“I mean it. Please go home before we have a conversation we regret. Goodnight.”

She sighed as he walked out of the backyard, his shoulders tensed and his steps those of a man trying to stomp out his anger. Once she was sure he was gone, she walked back out to the bench, far away from the porch light's glare. “Can you do me a favor?” she asked the darkness.

“Anything, you know that.”

“Go to the safe house tonight. I don't think you want to be at your crypt for a day or two.”

“Already planning to. Bloke might find his plastic stake sooner this time, mood he's in. See you there?”

“Mm, I doubt it. I'm kinda beat. I think I’ve got a good chance at getting some real sleep here tonight, for once. I’ll definitely see you tomorrow night, though.”

“Alright. G'night, Buffy.”

“Goodnight.” She turned and walked back toward the house, to see her friends off and get Dawn to bed before her mother came home.

*~*~*

Joyce came home to a kitchen that still smelled like chocolate chip cookies, care of Dawn, and a broken front window, care of Harmony. A few cookies and assurances that Xander would help Buffy replace the window pane had been all it took to get her to bed. Her evening had been an exhausting one, and she complained of a headache.

Buffy was restless. A hot shower hadn't been adequate to soothe her worried mind, and she was growing irritated at her inability to sleep. It was nearing sunrise when she finally gave up. She threw on some clothes and climbed out her window.

The basement of the old house was dark and silent, but she could sense Spike's presence. She didn't reach for the flashlight, opting instead to creep slowly in the dark until she made her way to the table, where she lit a candle.

Spike, asleep on the low bed, stirred when the flickering light struck his face. His hand reached across the mattress, seeking something. “Buffy,” he mumbled, not opening his eyes.

“Yeah, I'm here,” she replied.

“Not here.” He pulled the extended hand back, dragging it across the empty expanse of mattress. “Come sleep. Need your rest. Big fight coming. ”

Buffy squinted at him as realization dawned. “Spike, are you awake? Do you know where we are?”

“Basement,” he mumbled. “Quiet upstairs. Girls all asleep?”

She smothered a chuckle. He was definitely asleep. He had his basements mixed up, and his timelines, too. “Yeah, everything's ok. I couldn't sleep at home... upstairs, though.”

“Come sleep,” he mumbled again. “Cold without you.”

Buffy looked from his face to the pile of blankets he'd kicked to the floor. “Cold, huh?” She wanted to laugh at him, but his invitation was what she had hoped for. She kicked off her shoes and curled up beside him, pulling a blanket over them both.

Spike's arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her close. “Better.”

“Better,” she agreed, and quickly fell asleep.

*~*~*

Around noon, Spike woke to find himself with an armful of sleeping slayer. At first, he was confused. He was sure she hadn't been there when he'd fallen asleep. But he took his time enjoying the moment, taking in her scent, the heat of her body against his, the pleasant surprise of her presence. Eventually, his conscience got the better of him, and he resigned himself to the inevitable withdrawal. He kissed her shoulder and whispered in her ear. “Love, I don't think you wanna sleep the day away.”

“Hmm?”

“Buffy,” He kissed her shoulder again. “It's midday, love. Time you were up and moving.”

“Kennedy will keep the girls busy with drills,” she mumbled. “I can stay another hour.”

“Wish you could, General, but you're supposed to be Year 2000 Buffy, remember? Finn's girl?”

“Finn? Oh...” She opened her eyes and took a moment to gauge her surroundings. “Wrong basement.”

“Don't remember you showing up last night. Not a complaint, mind you.”

She rubbed her eyes and sat up. “I couldn't sleep without you, after all. I guess I needed...”

“You’re not the only one got spoiled to it those last couple weeks, love.”

She gave him a wry smile. “I didn’t even know what a habit it was until I tried to break it.”

“There are worse habits. What kept you awake?”

“Mom. The headaches are coming more often. And there's the Riley stuff. And Glory is going to be in town really soon. And...” She took a shaky breath. “You'd think I'd be used to all this by now, especially since we've been through it once already. I'm just… not ready to lose her all over again.”

He held out an arm, and she took the invitation, sliding down to rest her head on his shoulder. He let her cry quietly for a few minutes, gently rubbing her back, but saying little.

When she sat up again, it was with an apology on her lips. “Sorry. I'm a mess.” She wiped her tears off his bare chest with her shirt sleeve. “And I'm really cutting into your sleep time.”

“It's fine, love. You know I don't mind.”

“No, it's not fine. I came here so you could help me sleep, and now I'm unloading my baggage on you, and it just seems... like I brought another habit with me. You know?”

“Not hearing any complaints, are you?”

Buffy smiled in spite of herself. “With you, with us, that's not much of a guidepost. I don't want to just take from you.”

“Fine, then. You give me a few hours to sleep, and we'll call it a fair trade, yeah? Now go, keep up appearances. Scurry off to your watcher and your mates like a good slayer.”

“That's not what I meant.”

“Will do for now. You'll come back later?” At her nod, he closed his eyes. “Good enough, then.”

Buffy stared at him for a moment, then stood up, put her shoes on, and was about to leave when she impulsively returned to the bed. She knelt down to give him a gentle kiss on the forehead. “Sleep well, Sparky,” she whispered. “I'll see you tonight.”

*~*~*

Buffy had just exited Shady Hill cemetery when she became aware of someone behind her. She continued on, her stride unchanged, listening carefully to the quiet footfalls, reaching out her senses to assure herself the stalker was not a vampire. Once confident on this point, she stopped suddenly and whirled around. “Xander! What are you doing out here? Shouldn't you be at your new apartment, putting up curtains or something with Anya?”

Xander answered with a shrug. “Hey Buff. Nice night for a stroll... downtown?”

“Huh?”

“You're going toward downtown. Home is that way.” He pointed over his shoulder.

“Oh. I was just... Well I thought I'd enjoy a little off-duty walk, since patrol was easy tonight.”
 

Xander looked skeptical, but let it pass. “Uh-huh. Anyway, would you mind a little company?”

Buffy began plotting to casually change course from her destination before she even nodded her assent.

They walked in silence for about a block, until Xander mustered the courage to say why he sought her out. “Why are you still dating Riley?”

“What? What kind of question is that?”

He sucked in a breath, resolving to finish what he'd started. “You're pretending with him. I know you guys have been fighting a lot lately, but I don't know why. What I do know is that you're lying to him every time you're with him. I can see it. You're faking it.”

Buffy was caught completely off-guard by this conversation. This didn't happen before, she thought. What's different this time? Oh. Me. I'm different. And Xander noticed. Oops. Aloud she said, “I really think you're crossing a line here, Xan. Any problems Riley and I have are between us.”

“The last time I checked, you and I were friends. Also, I'm kinda buds with Riley. I'd say your relationship matters to me. But let's keep it simple: You're my friend. I care about you. Why are you in a relationship you don't want to be in, friend-I-care-about?”

“What makes you so sure you're right?” Buffy deflected.

“Hmm, it could be that you don't even smile at him like you mean it. That’s a pretty good giveaway that you aren't happy with him. It could be that you come up with some excuse almost every time he suggests you two spend some time alone together. It's starting to look intentional. That solo date the night Harmony stopped by was one of the few you've had lately. Not that Ahn and I mind the double date movie nights, but being the audience for the nit-picky fights is a little awkward.”

“Um, ok. Sorry? I'll try not to argue with Riley around you anymore. We good?”

“That's not what I'm asking for, Buff. I want the truth. What's up? Is there another guy or something? Someone downtown, maybe?”

“Xan, I love you, but you're way out of line.”

“It's amazing how much that sounded like a 'yes.' So that's it, huh? You're just going to shut me out like you've shut out Riley? Funny, I thought we were friends. But that's fine.” Xander threw up his hands and stopped walking. “Go on, break the guy's heart, a little piece at time. Lie to your friends. Let's see how well that works out for you.” He took a step backward, turning away.

Buffy was thinking fast. She couldn't tell Xander the truth, but she couldn't afford to alienate any of her friends right now, not with Glory's arrival so close, and her mother's illness besides. “Xan, wait.”

He pivoted back to face her, but said nothing.

“I don't mean to shut you out. I just...”

“I only want to know why, Buff. Why don't you just end it with him and stop pretending?”

She sighed. “Soon, Xan. I'm going to break up with him very soon. Happy?”

His expression softened. “I'm sorry. I'm not trying to break you guys up. I was actually kinda hoping you'd tell me I was wrong and everything is ok... but I guess it's not.”

“No,” she answered quietly. “We're not ok.”

“Is there someone else?” Her expression darkened, so he quickly backpedaled. “Wait! Don't answer. Let me change the question: Is there anything I can do?”

“Just be there for him. He might need a friend.”

“What about you? Don't you need to -want to- talk about this?”

Buffy smiled sadly. “I'm ok with it. From Riley's perspective, I guess that's the problem... I think I'm going to finish my walk alone. Are you alright to get home?'

“Yeah, I'll be fine. Goodnight, Buff.”

“Goodnight.”

*~*~*

“Sleeping in someone else's bed again, Goldilocks?” Spike whispered in her ear.

Buffy stretched and sat up, pushing the mismatched blankets to the floor. “Good, you're home. I was wondering if you would be here tonight.”

Spike stepped across the room to restock his cooler, checking the lids on styrofoam containers as they went into the fresh ice. “I don’t call this home, but yeah. Did some shopping, saw the banker, just running some errands. Had Clem over to the crypt for drinks earlier. Turns out he might be alright with the soul stuff. Good demon, that one.”

She shook her head, wondering for a moment if she were still asleep. “Wait. Back up for a second. Banker? At night? You have money? Do I need to go back to sleep and try to wake up again?”

“There's a lot you don't know about demons, love.”

“Enlighten me,” she demanded.

“Well, first off, demon banks are open at night. You can guess why. And yeah, I have money. Been investing in land and houses for over a century, leasing them out, mostly.”

“How have I known you all these years and not known that? And why am I finding out now?”

“'Cause we're gonna need to crack open the piggy bank soon. Unless you have some other plan for paying the mortgage and putting the Nibblet through university?” He raised an eyebrow, waiting for an answer he knew she didn’t have. “Not gonna turn down the help this time, are you?”

She shook her head absently. Her mind was busy dealing with the reality he was thrusting in front of her: She was about to lose her mom... again.

Spike studied her for a moment, taking in the slouched pose and distant expression. He moved to sit beside her on the mattress. “Sorry, love. Shouldn't be talking 'bout that.”

Buffy shook her head again. “No, no. You're right. We need to think about that stuff, and plan for the future. We can't waste the advantage of knowing what it is we're planning for.” She let loose a hollow laugh. “Mom's going to love the idea of you taking care of us. I remember how worried she was right before her surgery. She was afraid Dad would take Dawn away and I'd be living on Giles' couch. She'll be thrilled to know you're able to help... and she'll have a good laugh about it.”

He looked away. “Don't know if I should tell you this, but... never mind.”

“Oh, you can't just tease me like that, Spike. Spit it out.”

“The first time around... your mum knew... how I felt about you.”

“Well yeah, after I pulled your invite.”

“No, before that. Maybe even 'fore I did. Not really sure when she figured it out.”

“She never said anything to me.”

“Which is why I counted -count- your mum a friend.”

Buffy sat on that thought for a minute. “Yeah, good friends keep your secrets. Mine always interrogate me about them.”

“How's that?”

She briefly recounted her conversation with Xander from earlier that night. “I wasn't lying to him, not much, anyway. It's going to be soon, just before the symptoms of his heart problem become obvious. I don't want him to die, but I don't want him to think I'm dumping him for someone with superpowers, either. The best way to make that happen is to break up with him right before the Initiative surgeon gets to Sunnydale, so I can make sure he goes... and you can waylay the doctor on his way out of town.”

“Sure ‘bout the last bit, love? Last time the bugger cracked open my skull, I got nothing to show for it.”

“I'll be there for your surgery. The chip's coming out, if I have to threaten that doctor and the whole U.S. Army to make it happen. I won't wait two more years to watch you in constant agony and near brain-death because I didn't take care of you when I had the chance. Not again.”

The stern resolution in her voice surprised him, but he chose not to comment on it. Instead, he recalled something she'd said a few moments before. “Someone with superpowers?”

Buffy blushed. “Um, yeah. I guess I never told you about that. When I was trying to get Riley to go to the doctor the first time around, he implied he didn't want to go because they might make him normal, and he wouldn't be strong enough to be with me anymore. And I said...” She paused, taking in a deep breath. “I said that if I'd wanted someone with superpowers, I'd be dating... you.”

Spike cringed on Riley's behalf. “And when he came back to town a year later...”

She nodded. “Yeah.”

“Oh, bloody hell!” Spike fell back onto the bed, his expression alternating between glee and guilt. “And I told him he wasn't the long haul guy because he wasn't monster enough for you. Damn. I feel sorry for the poor bloke now. Why'd you tell me that?”

“Um, sorry?” Buffy gave him a playful smile. “Maybe if I have to suffer a bout of conscience, you get to suffer with me?”

Spike shook his head. “Never should have gone to Africa. If I hadn't, this would just be funny.”

She fell back onto the mattress with him, and flipped onto her side, so she could study his face at close range. “Do you ever regret it? Going to Africa, I mean?”

“Every bloody day. Between the nightmares and jumbled up emotions, it changed a bit more than I'd like.”

“So don't go this time. Make the nightmares stop.”

“What do you mean, ‘this time’?”

“I had a talk with Giles before we left our time. Not a conversation he wanted to have, I assure you. But I asked him what would happen to your soul if you came back in time with me. He said that if it made the trip at all, you might have to go back to the shaman who restored it by the time you originally got it, or you'd lose it, because you'll have never made any moves to get it in the new timeline.” She shrugged at the confusion on his face. “It didn't make much sense to me, either. I just know you have until the summer of '02 to decide if you want to keep it, because there's a chance it will leave you again if you do nothing.”

“Gotta keep it, love. You know that.”

“No, I don't. It isn't necessary. It's my fault you thought it was in the first place. You're still you, with or without it. I guess I didn't see that until I lived with it for a while.”

Spike studied her eyes for a moment, his expression unreadable. “We'll see.”

Freedman's Chains by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Thanks for the reviews! I'm dealing with a minor wrist injury tonight, so I'll be catching up on review replies tomorrow, when typing should be less painful.

Chapter 6: Freedman's Chains

October, 2000

Spike was lurking outside the hospital when Buffy emerged, shortly after sunset. She gestured to the building behind her as she neared him. “I saw you from the window. How did you know I'd be here?”

“Memory's a bit better than it used to be. Recalled the date.”

She stepped close to him, inviting him to wrap his arms around her as she finally broke down in tears, after hours of holding back. “I don't want to lose her again!”

He held her tightly. “I know, love. I know.

When she'd calmed down, he led her to a nearby bench. “Now tell me what you changed.

Buffy glared at him for the accusation. “Nothing. There's nothing to change. They're already scheduling tests to find out why Mom passed out, and why she's having so many headaches. I know she'll have the surgery in time. She did last time. It's after ...” She threw her hands into the air in frustration. “And there's nothing I can do about that, either.”

“I’m sorry, love. You know I'd stop it if I could.”

“I know,” she smiled softly. “But I don't know why that makes me feel better.”

“You know why.”

“Anyway, I do have some good news. The 'Ben is Glory' masking spell definitely doesn't work on me anymore. I was looking right at that man and I could remember there was a monster inside.”

Spike winced at her phrasing. It took her a moment to understand why. “His isn't a monster under his control, William. That makes a big difference.” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “You get me?”

Spike looked at her with an expression of awe, but his response was simple. “Yeah.”

“I have to go. I have a busy night ahead of me. I need to explain to Mom why she didn’t recognize Dawnie before she passed out. I want to do it here, so Dawn doesn’t overhear us talking about it at home. You know, get Mom prepared before Dawn hears it. And after I get them home, I have to go make a weird, one-sided phone call for Riley before patrol.”

“I'll stop in and check on them while you're out.”

“Thanks.” She stood and walked back toward the hospital. She stopped and came back a moment later, to pull him into a hug. “That came out way more cold than I meant it, Sparky. Thank you.”

“I knew what you meant, love.”

*~*~*

“Tara is willing to help.”

“And you see no folly in involving her? What remains of the Initiative could make a target of her, too.”

“Oh, don’t worry about those guys.” Buffy waved away that objection. “Their official policy on Sunnydale is to leave it under my management. In my time, they only sent people in four times after the Adam fiasco: Once on the trail of a demon, once to help Riley with another demon and offer him a job, and twice because I called them in for medical help. The first time they come back is tomorrow, of course. Are you in?”

Giles cleaned his glasses, buying himself a moment to organize his thoughts. “I was given to believe you didn’t trust me to participate in any of your time-altering work.”

“I don’t trust you with much of anything, to be honest. Spike thinks I should, that the you of this time is still an ally. This is your chance to prove him right.”

“Proving Spike right is not a goal I have ever expected to set for myself.”

“And I have serious doubts about your ability to achieve it over the long haul. But he’s been nagging me to give you a second chance, a favor you really don’t deserve from him.” Buffy closed her eyes for a moment, trying to force back the memories. “Contrary to appearances, Giles, William the Bloody has a very forgiving nature. Trust me. I know it better than anyone.”

“What will I do to lose your faith in me, Buffy?”

“Lose your faith in me.”

“Oh.”

They stood in silence for a long time, staring out into Buffy’s new training room behind the Magic Box, separated by their thoughts. Eventually she whispered, “When I look at you, I see a different man, someone who reminds me an awful lot of Quentin Travers. I can’t get past that. I have a lot of trouble seeing the man you are right now. Spike is older, better at putting things into perspective. He thinks a watcher who already knows who we are is an asset we should use, that trusting you with our secret can improve our odds. I disagree. I think we’re asking for trouble by getting you involved.”

“Then why are you asking for my help on this matter?”

“Because I trust Spike. I trust his judgment enough to take his advice on this.”

“I don’t trust him at all.”

“I know.”

“This mission in particular seems especially ill-advised.” Giles held up a hand before she could interrupt. “You can assure me again that it was done in your timeline, with no repercussions, but even you had no interest in doing so at this point in this time. You can’t begrudge me some hesitation.”

“I don’t. But you can’t begrudge me not wanting to make him wait again, make him suffer again. He doesn’t need it, Giles, and he doesn’t deserve it. Help me fix this for him. …Please? ”

Giles had more to say, but he kept his lips pressed tightly closed. He only nodded his assent.

*~*~*

Riley opened his eyes to the glare of florescent lighting above him and Buffy standing beside his hospital bed. “Hey. Am I gonna live?”

She smiled. “It sure looks like it. I just wanted to check on you. I can't stay.”

“Yeah… I didn't expect you to …unless you calling for help and dragging me here means something?”

She took his hand, giving it a quick squeeze. “It means I care about you. But what I said the other night still stands. You deserve someone who cares more.” She withdrew her hand and began to move toward the open door.

“If we're over, Buffy, I really don't have any reason to stay in Sunnydale. I'm going to check out Graham's new team as soon as I'm well enough to travel. He said they're recruiting.”

Buffy stopped, but didn't turn around. “I know.”

“That doesn't even bother you, does it?”

“It bothers me that you'll be in harm's way. But Sunnydale isn't your future. If it were, you'd have a reason to stay.” She turned around to face him. “It would be wrong for me to pretend to give you one. So I’ll just have to wish you luck.” She glanced at her watch. Instead of the quiet “Goodbye, Riley,” he'd expected to hear, she exclaimed, “Oh, shit! I’m going to be late!” and ran out of the hospital room.

*~*~*

The surgeon glanced around the medical classroom nervously as he worked. The older-looking vampire carried a sword as he paced the perimeter of the room, watching for any sign of activity outside the door and windows. The female vampires were stationed on either end of the operating table. The one with the baseball bat stood behind him, keeping an eye on his progress. The smaller female -who had been the last to arrive at the scene of his kidnapping- seemed to be the one in charge. She sat in one chair with her feet propped up on another. She had an axe in her lap and a dagger in her belt. Her focus flicked constantly between the surgeon's hands and the face of his patient.

After what seemed like hours, he dropped the little device into a metal tray. “It's done.”

The leader nodded to her compatriot, who took the tray and delivered it to the seated vampire. The leader picked up the tiny mass of plastic and metal and inspected it closely. Then she dropped it to the floor and raised one booted foot over it. She stopped herself suddenly, dropping her foot instead a few inches to the left of the offending object. “Ok, Doctor. Bandage him up. No stitches required. You'll be on your way soon.”

“I don't know why I should do any more. You're just going to kill me, whether I comply or not. Just like you killed my driver,” he grumbled.

She gestured to the vampire standing watch. “Will you show our friend here what we did to his government-issue chauffeur?”

The older-looking vampire leaned his sword against the wall by a closet door. He pulled the door open with one hand while the other reached inside. He yanked out the driver, a young man whose wrists and ankles were bound with duct tape, another strip covering his mouth. He was alive, apparently unharmed. The vampire shoved the driver into a sitting position on the floor in plain view of the surgeon. He took up his sword and resumed his patrol of the room without a word.

The doctor also kept his mouth shut. The room was again quiet as he worked to wrap tightly the wound he'd opened on his patient. When he was finished, he took off his gloves and stood. “Now what? You'll kill us both at once?”

The leader smiled menacingly around her fangs. She moved in slow motion, every move deliberately drawn out: standing, placing her axe on her vacant chair, pulling her knife from her belt as she approached the driver. She crouched down and pulled the tape from his mouth.

“No! Please, no!” were the first words the young man spoke, terrified they'd be his last.

The vampire only smiled again. She used her knife to quickly cut the tape binding his wrists and ankles, then pulled him to his feet. She turned to the surgeon. “Thanks for your services, Doctor. We appreciate it. Now you two should leave. And I do mean now.”

Exchanging incredulous glances, the doctor and his driver scrambled out of the classroom with no thoughts to their dignity. No one spoke until their car could be heard pulling away outside. Then the room was filled with laughter.

Giles put down his sword and took a deep breath between chuckles. “Oh, that was fun!”

Buffy looked at him in shock. “I had so much trouble talking you into this, and now you think it was fun? Who are you and what have you done with Giles?”

He cleared his throat. “I'm still rather uncomfortable with the purpose of this mission, but scaring those two was terribly entertaining. I do think I'm ready to have my own face back, however. Tara?”

Tara wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “Sorry. That bug-eyed look on the driver's face really got to me. I should be ashamed of myself for laughing at them, the poor guys. Here you go.”

With a muttered word from her, the glamour was lifted, and Spike was suddenly surrounded by three familiar, human faces. He applauded them as he struggled clumsily to his feet. “That was brilliant!” He gazed admiringly at Buffy as she loaded the weapons into her bag. “How'd you know he'd actually do it and not give me a penny for my thoughts again?”

Buffy put down her bag and rushed over to steady him before he fell. “Simple. I'm a hell of a lot scarier than Harmony Kendall. And better motivated, besides. How do you feel?”

“Got a raging headache, but glad to know it'll be the last.”

“That reminds me...” She guided him toward the chair she'd occupied during the surgery and pointed to the floor. “I thought I'd let you have the honors.”

Spike grinned broadly as he brought the heel of his boot down hard on the chip, crushing it into an unrecognizable mess. “Owe you a debt for this, Glinda, Rupert. Anything you need, just ask.”

Tara looked thoughtful at this offer, but said nothing about it. She smiled shyly. “I'm glad I could help.”

Giles retrieved his glasses from his jacket pocket and inspected them for cleanliness. “Yes, well, I ask two things from you, Spike.”

“Let me guess,” Buffy interjected. “Don't kill anyone?”

Giles threw her a glare. “Actually, yes. I ask that you prove Buffy's faith in you well-founded and not make fools of us for helping to rid you of that device.”

Those words did nothing to fade Spike's good humor. “Been working on giving her reason to have faith in me for years, Rupes. Also, this isn't the first time she's helped get that chip out. She told you that.”

“Yes, well, I'm sure that’s true. …Which brings me to my second request: I need answers.”

Spike and Buffy exchanged glances. Gaining her assent, Spike nodded. “Best be over a bottle of the good stuff, Watcher. I’m thinking you'll need it.”

“Fine. Tomorrow evening, you're both invited to my flat for a talk. Nine o' clock?”

Buffy's expression turned suddenly grim. “Sorry, Giles. I have ...plans. Spike can tell you what you need to know.”

Spike was more cheerful. “Sure thing, Rupes. You bring the bottle, and I'll tell you stories 'til it's gone.”

Buffy slung her weapons bag over her shoulder. “I need to get the patient home, guys. He's high as a kite and probably needs some blood. Thanks again for your help. I really couldn't have pulled it off without you.” Wrapping a steadying arm around Spike's waist, she guided him out of the classroom, grabbing up his duster from a chair near the door as she passed.

Tara and Giles followed them out, listening as Spike rattled on about the incident. “Love, you'd have made a magnificent vampire. That was a bloody brilliant performance! You sure I can't turn a little gang for you to command?”

“That's not even remotely funny.” Buffy shuddered. “You need to sleep off whatever it was that doctor doped you with. If you were in your right mind, you would not have said that.”

He slung an arm over her shoulder and leaned into her welcome support. “This feels familiar, eh?”

“Just like old times. And you're still heavy.”

“Didn't complain last time.”

“Do I usually complain about hauling your ass out of torture chambers?”

The pair behind them exchanged looks of alarm. “Maybe he'll tell me tomorrow,” Giles murmured.

*~*~*

Giles poured a round for each of them and leaned back in his chair, clearly exhausted.

“Long day at the shop, Watcher?”

“Heavens, yes. It's quickly become apparent I can't manage it on my own. I've hired Anya... but you knew I would, didn't you?”

“You won't regret it. That bird's like having an in-house accountant. More than just a clerk at the till.”

“Good to know.” Giles shifted his thoughts from those of a storekeeper to those of a Watcher. “You're planning on taking advantage of being without that microchip, aren't you?” His tone was not judgmental or accusatory, but his casual attitude could not mask his skepticism.

“Thought I might do a bit of sparring with Buffy, but that's it for now. Haven't been able to fight her at all since we got back into this time. Been missing it.”

“You sparred? After the chip was removed the first time?”

Spike took a sip of his scotch. “Wasn't much time for it then. But before, we had some knock-down drag-outs.” He smirked at the memory of his favorite fight with her.

“I don't understand. It stopped working?”

“On her, yeah.” At the look on Giles' face, Spike nearly choked on his drink, fighting back a laugh. “No, she didn't get turned. Don't look so bloody horrified. You know we lost her. Well, when she came back, she was a bit different, not quite as human as when she... left. At least, that's how the chip read her. She'd been back well over a year by the time the li'l brain zapper fried.”

They drank in silence for a few minutes, Giles studying Spike, who held his gaze in return. Finally, the watcher spoke. “You're the one who is different. Not at all who you were a month ago, from my perspective. Barely the same vampire. Does the time you spent carrying that chip have the credit?”

Spike nodded. “Some. Buffy for most. That woman's got a way of making a bloke wanna help her out. For me, that meant a bloody lot of change. The enemy isn't generally considered a source of help. But I helped, anyway. Took a while to not be the enemy anymore -and still sometimes was- chip or no chip.”

Giles switched gears. “So what exactly is your mission in this time? You’ve both been quite vague.”

“Simple. She stays alive. If I can't do that for her,” Spike took a long drink, composing himself. “I make sure she doesn't come back.”

Giles was momentarily speechless.

“Yeah, Watcher. That's the big master plan. Lovely, isn’t it?” He shook his head. “Part of why I needed the chip gone. It'll make it easier to take on the worst case scenario, if I have to.”

“You'd have to kill a human.” Giles absorbed this for a moment. “Who?”

Spike stared at the floor. “Willow,” he whispered. “If I can't stop Red from trying to bring the slayer back any other way, I'll have to kill her. Buffy's written a warning out for her in a letter, so she'll know we both mean it to go that way.”

Giles was flabbergasted. “Willow performed a resurrection? And that's worth killing her over?”

The vampire looked up, his eyes locking with the watcher's to show how serious he meant his words to be. “It is. It's about saving the world, Rupert. For me, if it comes to that, it's Dawn. Sod the rest of the world, but Red's not gonna ruin my Nibblet's life.”

“A life without her sister?”

“Some prices are too high, is how Buffy puts it. If we lose her again, the world -including Dawn- is literally better off without her, bloody lousy as it is. And the Bit won't be alone. She'll always have me, watching her back.”

“And Joyce, of course.”

“No.”

“Oh dear lord. You said you'd had a difficult few years, but I had no idea it was as bad as... These headaches she's suffering--”

Spike cut him off with a stiff nod. “Soon.”

Giles sucked in a long breath. “Oh my dear girl,” he muttered to himself. “To have to lose her mother, and then go through it again. However is she managing?”

Spike gave Giles a hard look. “Slayer's tough as nails. She'll make it. Do have some concerns about her losing her father, too.”

“Is Hank not going to come back for his daughters?” Giles asked innocently.

“Not talking about that worthless sperm donor Joyce divorced, Watcher. I mean her real father.”

As Spike's meaning sank in, Giles looked offended. “You're questioning my loyalty to Buffy.”

“I'm questioning if you're gonna be the man she thought you were back then... now, I suppose. I pushed her to keep you close, but we may both come to regret it.”

The recently canceled plan to return to England came immediately to Giles' mind. “I left her, didn't I?”

“Among other crimes.”

“I do care about her, you know.” Giles saw the challenge in Spike's eyes, and that it would not be easily escaped. “You have my word, then. I'll be where she needs me to be.”

“Spoken like a bloody politician. Just promise you'll let her have a say in where that is.”

“So be it, then.” Giles nodded his agreement to the terms and poured another round for them both. He leaned back in his chair once again, studying this unusual vampire for what seemed like a long time. “I never thought I'd say this, but I think I'm glad you're here. She needs someone who knows what she's been through, and is--” He emptied his glass in a single gulp. “And is... a friend.”

“Pour yourself another, Watcher. You're still too sober for this li'l chat.”

“This is no light matter, Spike.”

“No, it's bloody serious, every bit of it. But I know what you're asking. Just waiting on you to say it.”

“Are you the reason she ended her relationship with Riley?”

“Part of the reason. Ready to ask the rest of the question?” Spike smirked, already knowing the answer.

“I'm not going to ask that question, Spike. I'll wait to be told the answer.”

“'Cause you don't wanna believe I care for her.”

Giles glared, but continued as if having not been interrupted. “I'll give you this, at least. You are being a friend to her, one she clearly needs.”

“It's mutual, Rupert. Need her, too. Fact is, sometimes I think--” Spike stopped suddenly. He sat up and lifted his nose to the air as he placed his glass on the table. “Get your first aid box, Watcher.” When Giles hesitated, Spike's eyes glinted with amber. “Now, dammit!”

Spike rushed to the front door and out into the courtyard. By the time Giles returned to the living room with his first aid kit, Spike was carrying an injured Buffy into the apartment. Horrified, Giles ran toward them, nearly tripping over his desk chair.

Buffy handed Giles a glowing orb as Spike carried her by him. “Hi, Giles.” She smiled tiredly. “Keep that safe, will you? It's important.”

Spike placed Buffy on the sofa and wrenched open the first aid kit. He began with the cut on her forehead, cleaning it while wearing a look of anger only a vampire could manage. “She's loose, then?”

“Yeah. It's time to test out that theory of mine. Let's rally the troops. And Spike?” She winced as he inspected her swollen wrist. “Bumpies are showing.”

Spike shook his head, forcing his face back to its human look. “It's just that woman--”

“I know.” She turned to look at her watcher, who was taking in the scene in stunned silence, the orb still in his hand. “Don't worry, Giles. It's not as bad as it looks. I'll be fine tomorrow.” She pulled herself up into a sitting position with her good hand and winced again. “Mostly. Spike's overreacting. I'm a bit better at getting my ass kicked by Hellgods than I used to be. Practice makes perfect.”

“That's not funny,” Spike growled as he inspected the ankle he'd found her limping to protect when he'd scooped her up in the courtyard.

“Hellgod?” Giles repeated, suddenly stone-cold sober. “Is that-- Is that what killed you?”

“Technically, it was suicide.” Buffy's calm tone did nothing to bring Giles back to his senses.

“Suicide? What? Buffy? Why would you--?”

“It was not suicide!” Spike roared, slamming an open hand onto the coffee table, rattling the forgotten glasses and scotch bottle. He leaned Buffy forward and began to help her out of her jacket. His volume dropped to a near whisper. “It was sacrifice.”

Buffy opened her mouth to argue, but the look on his face stopped her. “Ok… Letting that one pass. Giles, pencil in a Scooby meeting. You’re all going to get some answers.”

Precious Gifts by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Your (much appreciated and consistently kind) reviews have left me with the nagging worry that many of you may be expecting definitive relationship statuses between the travelers and the Scoobies to emerge quickly and cleanly. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Every Scooby relationship is actually two intertwined ones: personal and professional. While Buffy and Spike are juggling that with each other, don't forget they are doing the same thing (plus time travel hindsight complications) with the entire gang. Each of those relationships will evolve differently, and at a different pace.

 

The good news is that we're finally getting to the part where this story starts getting fun. Enjoy!

Chapter 7: Precious Gifts

October, 2000

When Tara arrived at the Summers' residence, she was greeted warmly by Buffy. “Tara, hey! I'm glad you could get here early. I wanted to talk to you about something.”

Buffy led her through the living room, where Spike was playing cards with Dawn. “Spike!” Buffy admonished. “You are not teaching my sister to play poker!”

“Girl's gotta learn sometime. Best it be from someone who's not gonna cheat her... much.”

Tara’s giggle grabbed Dawn's attention. “Hi, Tara! Can we deal you in?”

“Sorry, Dawnie. Buffy needs me right now. You can teach me to play later, ok?”

Dawn nodded cheerfully and returned her focus to the game. She was in the best of moods. Buffy had not only invited her to this Scooby meeting, she had said she was an important part of it. Dawn had no idea what that meant, but she liked it. It was about time her sister realized she wasn't a baby anymore.

Buffy and Tara moved toward the kitchen, where Joyce was piling cookies onto a large tray. They waved to her from the hall and stepped into the basement stairwell, Buffy closing the door behind them. “Could you do a glamour-type thingy over the house that would last a couple of hours?”

“How do you mean?” Tara tilted her head in question. “Like, make the house look different?”

“Like make it look like we're having a fun little party, or something. So anyone looking in the windows or passing by hears and sees that, not a serious conversation.”

Tara shook her head. “I'm sorry, Buffy. I think that's a bit beyond me. I could do a sound-proofing spell, though, so no one overhears us.”

Buffy nodded. “Good enough. We'll close the curtains, too. That should be alright. What do you need?”

Tara smiled. “For that? Nothing, really. I learned that one young. My brother snored and his room was right next to mine. I just need a little help to make it strong enough cover the entire house. When Willow gets here, we'll do it.”

“Thanks. Really.” Buffy smiled.

“It’s no problem.” Tara reached for the door. “I'm going to go see if Dawn can teach me what a royal flush is. That will give you and Spike a few minutes to talk.”

Buffy's eyes widened in surprise. “Um, Tara, since when can you read minds?”

“I can't,” she laughed. “I can see it. You’re reaching out for him across your bond. You make it light up whenever you're thinking about him.”

The slayer blushed. “Oh.”

Tara laughed again. “Don’t worry, Buffy. It's not like everyone can see it.”

*~*~*

Spike found Buffy pacing the basement floor a few minutes later. “You drawn to dank, dark places, now? Thought I was the cellar-dweller.”

“I just needed a quiet place to think. Our basements have been my go-to for that for a while.”

“Worried about how the Bit will take it?”

Buffy stopped pacing. “I've thought of nothing else! If I don't say it right, she'll freak out. I already talked to Mom, so she won't go crazy in front of Dawnie. I don't know if that will help or not. All I know is that one wrong word from me could make this all blow up on our faces.”

Spike stepped toward her. Placing his hands on her shoulders, he looked into her eyes. “It's gonna be fine, love. She's a smart li'l bird, and strong like her big sis. Don't worry.”

Buffy held his gaze for a minute, her expression fading from anxious insecurity to an unspoken question. Then suddenly, softly, she tilted her head up and kissed him.

It was the briefest of moments, but Spike reveled in that kiss, in the gentleness and surprise of it. When she pulled away from him, he could only whisper, “Buffy...”

“Thanks, Spike. I needed the pep talk.”

Her business-like tone and abrupt step away annoyed him. He responded bitterly. “Saying 'thanks' the same way you say 'hello,' now, General?”

“What? No! That's not what I meant.”

“Oh, so it's normal for you to kiss a bloke like you mean it and then blow it off like it's nothing? Oh wait! I almost forgot; that is normal.”

“And what the hell is your idea of normal? Every kiss leads to either loud, raunchy sex, or a declaration of some kind, or it's just not worth even starting? Why can't a kiss just be a kiss with you?”

“Hey! Play fair! Who's been your bloody cuddle buddy for months, asking nothing of you? Even after you shoved your tongue down Angel's throat? And just a bit ago, when you were shaggin' the soldier boy again? Whose bed did you crawl into when you needed something he couldn't give you?”

“Me play fair? Seriously? You're blowing this all out of proportion!”

“Then tell me I'm wrong!”

“It was just a kiss, for god's sake! Is this your way of telling me you didn't want it?”

“You bloody well know better than that, and have for years, you stubborn bint. But I'm not gonna go down this road with you again. Not gonna be your plaything, and sure as hell not gonna end up like Peaches, with a snog for a favor every year or two and ignored the rest of the time.”

“So that's it, huh? You're picking now, right fucking now, to give me an ultimatum. Who deserves to be handed an ultimatum, Spike? 'Cause I'm pretty sure it isn't me. There's nothing new here. You know exactly where we stand, so why the anger?”

“'Cause I don't know where you stand. I never do. I just sit and wait. You're the one who knows how things stand. All I know is, that felt an awful lot like your little 'hello' to Angel looked.”

“You weren't supposed to see that. And if you hadn't been following me, you wouldn't have!”

“No, I would have just gotten to smell it when you came home. Like that's so much bloody better. And I was following you in case you needed help!”

“Well thank you, Riley Finn! You sound just like him.”

“Finn couldn't have dealt with any of that mess, and you know it!”

“Finn wouldn't have gone on a mind-jacked murder spree, either!”

He punched her in the shoulder. She countered with a blow at his face. He ducked, and swung around to kick her in the side. In a matter of seconds, they were giving each other the kind of fight they hadn't had in a long time. Rage, frustration, and the tension of their present situation fueled every strike. Some blows made contact, but most missed. They knew each other's moves too well not to avoid them.

Finally, Buffy managed to sweep Spike's feet out from under him and he landed on his back with a thud. She rested a boot on his chest and stood there for a moment, catching her breath. “I meant that kiss, you moron. I think you should know that.”

He grabbed her foot and pulled her off balance, knocking her to the floor as he rolled out of the way. He stopped beside her in a crouch, pulling her up into a loose throat hold, facing her toward the wall where his cot would later be. “And I meant everything that happened there.” He pointed with his free hand. “You should know that, too.”

He released his grip and she pushed him away. They were sitting a few feet apart on the floor, glaring at each other, when a cough on the stairs grabbed their attention. They looked up to see Giles sitting on a step, having come down just far enough to see what was going on and staying to observe.

“Fine friends you are, certainly.” He gave Spike a pointed look. “All of this is quite interesting, but don't you have more important matters to attend to just now?”

Buffy's eyes went wide. “Um, how loud was that?”

“Loud enough to draw attention, though the words themselves were mercifully muffled. The remainder of our party should be here any moment. You two had best make yourselves presentable.” Giles stood and climbed the stairs, slamming the door behind him.

At first, Buffy and Spike remained perfectly still. Then they made the mistake of making eye contact, and broke into laughter. “I feel like I just got caught with my hand in the cookie jar and sent to my room!” Buffy giggled. “He's really got that 'angry parent of a five year old' look down pat.”

“The man's a watcher, love. That's what they do: manage children.”

Proving his point, she stuck her tongue out at him. Then her smile faded as something occurred to her. “See where you're sitting right now? That's the spot.”

“Eh? What spot?”

“That's where I was standing when I had that last conversation with the First, right before you woke up.” She jumped to her feet and stepped over to pull him to his. Standing beside him, she continued, her voice soft and low.

“This is where I was standing when I saw that you -and everything you had said to me- held the answers I was looking for. I watched you as you slept and the First talked in my ear. It called you my lover -present tense- and I didn't argue the point, even to myself. But it didn't know what you really are. You're the entire inspiration for this trip. You were my strength that night, and have been quite a few times over the years. I appreciate that, but I don't usually say so. Hence, thanks for the pep talk.”

Spike turned her toward him and returned the kiss she'd given him earlier, making every effort to match the sweet, gentle brevity of the previous kiss. Then he pulled away, and looked her over critically. “You're a mess, love. You go upstairs like that, people are gonna talk.”

Buffy ran her hands through her hair and brushed the dust from her clothes. “You're the soul of romance, Spike. You might want to fix yourself up a little, too.”

He took off his coat and shook the dust from it. “You know I followed you with good reason.”

“Yeah, I know. But you do remember that I came home to you, right?”

“I noticed. Still smelled like him, though.”

“It won't happen again. I promise.” She crossed her heart for emphasis.

“Thanks for the pep talk.”

As they climbed the stairs, Buffy returned her focus to the mission. “You understand your role in this, right?”

“Keep my bloody mouth shut and don't let Nibblet run off into the night?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

Buffy stepped into living room to find it full of Scoobies and family. “Hi, guys. Thanks for coming by tonight. Tara, can you take care of that little sound problem for us before we get started?”

Tara nodded, taking Willow with her to the front door, where they could soon be heard chanting softly.

Meanwhile, Anya was looking Buffy over, her nose wrinkled in distaste. “Did you just come back from an early patrol? You look terrible.”

“What?” Buffy ran her hands over her hair again and glanced at her clothes. “Oh. Um, it was nothing. Just a vampire.”

“Like that one?” Anya asked, pointing over her shoulder, where Spike had just stepped into view.

Buffy tried to look irritated rather than amused. “Yeah, that one.”

Xander jumped to his feet in alarm. “The chip isn't working!”

“Whoa, Xan! Don't freak...” Buffy thought fast. “Slayers aren't as human as they look, you know. The chip doesn't work on me... consistently.”

“What? How do you know this? Are you sure that's normal?”

“Uh, yeah, Xander. I’m sure. Slayers are made from the essence of demons. Or did you think my power came from fairy dust?”

Spike hid a snicker as he slid by her and into the room. He grabbed a cookie from the tray on the coffee table and stepped toward the far doorway, hoping to be viewed by the assembly as out of the way and unimportant.

Tara and Willow brushed past him as they returned to the living room. “All set, Buff. No one can hear anything from outside, even if they cut a hole in a window. So what's so important?” Willow asked.

Buffy took a deep breath and stepped closer to the group. “Dawnie, will you come stand with me, please?”

Dawn complied happily. She was glad to be needed, even if she had no idea how.

Buffy took her sister's hand. “What I'm about to say is going to sound crazy, but I promise it's true. It's been researched and … verified. I can't explain how I acquired all of this information, so please don't ask. I will tell you eventually. I just can't right now. Right now, all I can do is ask that you trust me and never let any of this information out to anyone else. Our lives depend on it.”

She paused to look at each person in the room in turn, watching for nods of assent. She finished with her mother and sister, who followed the lead of the Scoobies, and agreed. She took another breath.

“Ok. Here goes. All of us, and many other people, have had our memories altered. This is not something we are going to fix. We're not even going to try. What we gained in exchange is far too precious.” She held up the hand still interlinked with Dawn's. “This is far too precious to lose. And that's why I need your help.”

To a sea of confused faces she briefly explained what she knew of the Key, its purpose, its keepers, and the Hellgod that sought it. “Apparently Glorificus is too strong to be contained. She's able to escape her human prison for short periods. The monks had to find a way of protecting the Key when she came looking for it, so they sent it to us. The weight of the world falls on us, guys. We protect the Key.”

“You have it?” Willow asked.

“In my hand this very moment.” Buffy held open her empty right palm. All eyes drifted to her left hand, still gripping Dawn's.

“Wh-what?” Dawn sputtered. “I'm a key?”

Buffy gave Spike a surreptitious glance for support. This was the trickiest part. She turned to Dawn, holding her hand tightly in desperation. “Dawnie, I'm not completely human. Slayers were made by infusing some demon essence into a human girl. It's dark, scary stuff that I sometimes wish I didn't know about myself. But it's in there, in my blood, a little bit of demon I carry with me. In your blood, there is another kind of magic, the kind that makes portals to other dimensions. I don't know if it will be something you can tap into when you're older. We'll have to look into that later. But right now, it's something that needs to be protected. It's too powerful for us to let a crazy Hellgod have. And she would kill you to take it.

“The only difference between us -besides that we have different magic in our blood- is that I was already here, and already a slayer. But I was an only child, and they meant this plan for my sibling. So they made me one. They altered everyone's memories -so no one would know that I hadn't always had a sister- and they gave you to the world. And they gave us the task of protecting you from Glory.”

Dawn tried to pull away, but Buffy held her firmly. “They made me?” she cried. “No, No. I'm real. I'm a person! Mom! Tell her!”

Joyce looked at her elder daughter. “Buffy, are you absolutely certain?”

Buffy nodded. “I wish it wasn't. I always thought of Dawn as your normal daughter, your reward for getting stuck with raising a slayer.”

Joyce tilted her head. “You were sort of right, just not how you thought. Dawn is our gift.”

Buffy smiled and cupped the teary young face before her lovingly. “Yeah, that's how I see it, too.”

Dawn stilled for a moment, looking from her mother to her sister, then broke free of Buffy's grip and fled upstairs. Every eye in the room followed her out of sight. When they looked back toward Buffy, Spike took the opportunity to slip quietly upstairs.

He tapped on Dawn's bedroom door as he opened it. “Nibblet?”

Dawn was at her bookshelf, pulling her journals from it and tossing them to the floor. “Go away!”

“No.” Spike came into the room and sat on the bed.

Dawn stood up, surrounded by the paper records of her life. “It's all fake.”

“Those monks wrote a blueprint. You get to do the building.”

“From what? Lies?”

“They gave you people that love you, brains, looks, health, and a mostly happy childhood. It's a better start in life than most people get, Bit.”

Dawn thought about that for a moment, then stepped over her mess to sit beside him. “What am I supposed to do now, Spike?”

He put an arm around her. “You just be Dawn and let Big Sis and me keep the monsters away.”

“Yeah, right. Like she's going to let you hang around to play bodyguard.”

“She'll surprise you, li'l one. Buffy will do anything to keep you safe. Anything.”

“Yeah, ‘cause I’m her job.”

“’Cause you’re her blood, Bit. You’re family and she loves you.”

In the living room, Buffy was getting tired of saying “I can't answer that” to questions about her information sources.

Finally, Tara broke in. “Uh, guys? I think what Buffy needs is help, not bibliography requests.”

Xander, Anya, Willow, and even Joyce fell silent, feeling reproached.

Giles followed Tara's lead. “What can we do? Can we identify the man this Glory is hiding within?”

“No to the second one, Giles. She has a masking spell in place. Anyone who finds out immediately forgets. It doesn't work on demons... or slayers. I know. Spike knows. But I could tell all of you right now, sing it in a song, hang banners from the ceiling, and you'd still forget you were ever told. You can see the transition in person, and it still doesn't help.

“As for helping with other stuff, I'd love it. The first things we need to do are practical. I need to move out of the dorms and be home. I'm going to drop out for the year. Mom, don't look at me like that. I promise I'll get my degree eventually, but this is not a time when I can focus on school. I'll need some help with leaving UC Sunnydale. Then I need Willow to lead a research team on a defense idea I've got. Wils, Giles has your prototype at his place. Also, I'm going to need backup for keeping an eye on Dawn. We can't shadow her at school or her friends' houses, but we can make sure she's never without someone to watch her back when she's at home or out in town. To that end…” Buffy braced herself for shouting. “Mom, I'd like to ask Spike to move in with us for a while, for extra security. We can fix up the basement for him.”

What!?” Xander and Willow shrieked in unison.

Anya shrugged. “That makes sense. He's the only one of us as tough as Buffy. You couldn't fight off a Hellgod, Xander Harris. But Spike might have a chance.”

“Ahn, that's not the point. He's not to be trusted.”

“I think that's for Mrs. Summers to decide,” Tara said, just as footsteps could be heard coming down the stairs.

Spike and Dawn appeared in the living room doorway. Dawn -her eyes still red-rimmed- shrugged into her jacket. “Ask for me,” she whispered with an elbow jab to his side.

“Joyce, mind if I take the Bit out for ice cream?”

Joyce smiled and waved off the request casually. “So long as Dawn remembers it's a school night. And we'll have a little mother-daughter chat about all this tomorrow?”

Dawn nodded. “Ok. Thanks, Mom. I won't be late.”

“No Key talk in public, Dawnie. Glory's minions are everywhere.”

Dawn glanced at Spike, who nodded. “Slayer's not being paranoid. Gotta watch what we say.” he looked up at Buffy's worried expression. “Safer with me than you.”

Buffy sighed sadly. “I know.” She waved them off. “Just be careful.”

“Have fun!” Joyce called after them.

They left with a wave to the rest of the room. Xander and Willow seemed stunned.

Joyce laughed. “Close your mouths, kids. It's not as if they've never gone out for ice cream before.” She glanced at Buffy. “Well, I guess they haven't, but I remember them doing it a couple of times.”

Buffy tried to explain. “I invited Spike into this house long before the chip. And he kept coming to visit, mostly when I wasn't here. He's been a friend to my family even when he wasn't a friend to me. I've learned most of this... recently.”

Xander frowned. “And why exactly is Dawn safer with a vampire than with you?”

“Glory knows I have the Key. If she figures out that I'm being protective of one particular person, that person will be on her suspect list. She's not watching Spike. She's watching me.”

“So he's the perfect choice for live-in protection: Strong, already a family friend, and under the radar.”

“That’s true.” Joyce agreed with Tara. “Have you talked to him about this, Buffy?”

“No. I didn't want to spring it on him without asking you first. He's not going to see this coming.”

“Do you think you could keep the arguing to a minimum?”

*~*~*

When Spike and Dawn walked into the kitchen through the back door, they found Buffy sitting quietly on a stool, her elbows on the counter, and her chin cupped in her palms.

“Slayer? You alright?”

Buffy smiled a little. “Just thinking. Did you two have a good talk?”

“Yeah,” Dawn sat down beside her. “I'm still a little freaked out.”

“You have every right to be. But I'm glad you didn't do something crazy.”

“Spike wouldn't let me.”

“Yeah, he's good for that. He likes to save doing stupid and crazy things for himself.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Anything, Dawnie. But like I told everyone tonight, I may not be able to answer.”

“What did they make me out of?”

“Me. They used me as a … template, I guess? I don't know exactly how it worked. I just know they made you genetically my sister. You weren't whipped up out of thin air.”

“Hmm.” Dawn looked thoughtful, but then abruptly changed gears. “Did mom go to bed already?”

“Yeah, as soon as everyone left. She had a headache. I’ll go get her prescription filled in the morning.”

“Is she gonna be alright?”

Buffy tried to look reassuring. “I hope so, Dawnie.” She glanced up at the wall clock. “You should get to bed. School tomorrow.”

“One more question: How old am I?”

“You are a fourteen year old human.”

“But how long have I actually been alive?”

“About a month. But the Key is thousands of years old. So I'd say fourteen is a better age, either way.”

Dawn nodded and slid off her stool. “OK. But I want to know more later.”

“Dawnie, when all this is over, you can spend the rest of your life studying the Key if you want. I'll even help. But right now, this is a protection detail.”

Dawn gave a mock salute. “Yes, Captain!”

“That’s General, thank you.”

Dawn saluted again. “Yes, General. Goodnight.” She gave her sister a hug and then turned to give one to Spike before heading upstairs.

Buffy jumped to her feet. “Ok, Smooth Talker. How exactly did you do that? No screaming, no fire-setting, no running away, no bleeding on the carpet. She's taking this better than if I had told her she couldn't watch TV for a week.”

Spike shrugged. “You did most of the work.”

“I just tried to tell her she was special and not a freak, at least not much freakier than a slayer.”

“And that helped. I told her she's got a life to live, no matter her past. And that you and me would do anything to protect her - which I happen to know is true.”

“Yeah, I guess I can't argue that point.” She led him toward the basement door. “Let's talk downstairs.”

Once in the basement, Buffy turned and looked him in the eye. “We need to fix something.”

“What's that?”

“We've got a problem. We keep almost talking about it, but then we end up dancing around it… You've been living alone, with no one to talk to, after you'd gotten used to a house full of people. I call our crappy safe house home sometimes, and you don't really like that. You never call your crypt home, either. Well, it's high time you got to go home, Spike. There won't be as many people around this time, but there are still a few.”

He looked around the basement, remembering it as it was in years to come. “You asking me to move back in, love?”

“Yes.” Buffy suddenly looked shy. “If you want to, that is.”

“What's your mum say?”

“If she doesn't have to listen to us yelling at each other too much, it's ok with her.”

“And your mates?”

“Xander and Willow nearly had a shared heart attack at the idea, but I think their girlfriends will talk some sense into them. It's good for Dawn to have extra muscle around. There's really no arguing that.”

“And you? This just for protection, 'til Glory's done with?”

“Things could be different by then. With Mom... you know. I'm hoping you'll want to stay with us.”

“Not what I was asking.”

Buffy took a slow, deep breath, gathering her nerve. “I want you to come home, Sparky. For me.”

Spike grinned. “Then I guess I'd best pack up the old place.”

“Your crypt?”

“Nah, keeping that. Just started work down below. I think I can make it exactly what we need. Should clear out of the safe house, though... And why are you looking so surprised? You thought I'd say no?”

“Not really. It’s more relief than surprise. It's just that with Xander catching me walking toward downtown in the middle of the night, and all the sneaking around to avoid getting caught by anyone else, that place is getting to be exhausting. Also, that's a long way to walk for a little sleep.”

“In other words, you got spoiled to having me just downstairs.”

She gave him a meek smile. “Maybe a little?”

“It's alright, love.” His gaze wandered around the basement once more. “I'll be home soon.”

Heaven Sent by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Settling in was supposed to be a job for two...

Chapter 8: Heaven Sent

November, 2000

“That wall needs something,” Buffy muttered, studying the space above the bed.

Spike looked up from the CDs he was stacking on the bottom shelf of a nightstand. “Chains?”

“No, smart ass. I was thinking about a painting, or a mirror, or something.”

“A mirror? Great idea, that.”

“Ok, so a mirror is a dumb idea. But an art piece, something interesting and exotic...”

“Joyce got any possessed masks available at the gallery?”

Buffy's eyes widened. “How do you know about that? You weren't in Sunnydale when that happened!”

Spike smirked. “Rupert.” He pantomimed drinking. “Talked about you when he was grieving, love. Know a lot I shouldn't. Know about your cute li'l pom-pom dreams and your sparkly parasol, too. Only got one question: Do you love your pig more than your shoe collection?”

Her face was bright red as she scanned the basement for something to throw at him. His laughter only embarrassed her further. “I'm going to kill him, then you,” she grumbled.

“Relax, Slayer. It's not like he knew you were coming back. Found solace in telling stories, is all. Can't really blame the bloke.”

“But I can blame you for waiting years to tell me you knew all that stuff.”

“Never came up.” He smirked again. “And you didn't answer my question. Pig or shoes?”

A flash of blue light interrupted the conversation. “It's the pig, Pratt. You should know by now, she likes pigs. Mr. Gordo just happened to be the first.”

Buffy glared at the intruder. “What do you want now, Whistler? Did we ruin your bosses' plans again?”

Whistler sat down on the edge of the bed, clearly exasperated. “You two geniuses really don't understand the idea of subtlety, do you?”

“Nice to see you too, mate.”

Whistler ignored the interruption. “I thought I said a few things about making small changes, not straying too far from how you remember things. In fact, I'm pretty sure your watcher said the same thing to you before left your own time. So I'm trying to figure out if that memory boost I gave you didn't take, or if you two just like ignoring people who give you advice.”

“I like ignoring you,” Buffy replied frankly. “And Giles didn't exactly do much to make me want to follow his lead.”

“Yeah, I guessed you'd say that. It was too much to hope you'd actually listen. But you're playing with fire here, kids. I'm struggling to figure out what you haven't changed. All your friends know something is different, and two of them know for certain you're not exactly who you claim to be. The kid already knows she's a walking inter-dimensional glow stick, and your mother knows, too. Everyone can tell you're keeping secrets. Hell, even carpentry boy suspects you've got something going with each other. What in the name of all that is Meant To Be are you two thinking?!”

Buffy, though angered at being called out in this way, kept her cool. “I think we're saving the world.” She sat down in one of the club chairs they'd brought from their safe house. “We may not be following your rules, but we're getting the job done. You're the one with a window on the future. You tell me if we've improved our chances of getting everyone out of this alive.”

“It's life, kiddo. No one makes it out alive. But I know what you mean. And I can't answer that.”

Spike dropped into the chair adjacent to Buffy's, putting himself physically in the conversation. “Then answer this: How were we gonna keep it quiet with an aura-reader in the mix? Your bosses forget that little snag? Or did you just forget to mention it?”

Whistler fidgeted with the buttons on his jacket and stole a glance at his wristwatch. “No one thought she'd run to the watcher. The odds said she'd go straight to you. She was supposed to be your help. That's why the bosses sent her back to join you.”

Buffy's jaw dropped. “Wait. What? She's the Tara from our timeline? Huh? How?”

“She doesn't know that. Not yet. And for the record, she was given a choice. She could stay safe and comfy where she was and we'd block this time's Tara from seeing the differences in your auras, or she could come back and take her chances, to help you and have another shot at her human existence.”

“Not much of a choice,” Spike muttered. “Girl she loves is here.”

Whistler nodded. “Yes, but so are pain, misery, danger, and the certainty of coming into this blind.”

“Like I said, not much of a choice.” Spike's words were meant for Whistler, but his eyes were on Buffy.

Buffy seemed oblivious to them for a moment, lost in thought. “She doesn't know it yet,” she murmured, paraphrasing Whistler's words back to him. “When does she get her memory back?”

“Hopefully, in about five minutes. That's why I'm here. This should be the day she accepts that she is a part of this mission and demands to be involved. While she was with us, she made it clear she thinks she was a weak person. She didn't fight the good fight like she thinks she should have. She didn't keep her girl in check like she thinks she should have. She thinks she could have done better. She's getting her chance now, but this time’s Tara has to want it, or it doesn't happen. She's the main reason I stopped by today, although you two really do need a good chewing out about how reckless you're being.”

Buffy shrugged off his irritation. “We haven't broken anything, or you'd be doing more than nagging us. And Tara wasn't weak.”

“She thinks she was. That's the point. And you haven't broken anything yet, Summers. You get that 'living dangerously' attitude from this one?” Whistler gestured to Spike with this thumb. “Not exactly the best lesson you could learn from a vampire, kid.”

She ignored that, focusing instead on what the demon had said about Tara. “Her birthday is tomorrow. You think she's going to choose to stay here out of courage instead of fear, don't you?”

“More like choosing to stay for the mission instead of for herself, but yeah. She gets all her memories back as soon as she makes the decision to be an active asset to the cause. You gain an ally who really understands the stakes. She gets the second chance she wanted.” Whistler shrugged. “That's the idea, anyway. If she doesn't make that call, she remains ignorant of her real history until her death. That's the deal she made.”

Spike threw an amber-eyed glare at Whistler. “So Glinda was safe in her grave and her heaven, and you bring her back? Thought we were here so shit like that didn't happen?”

“Hey! I'm just the messenger!” Whistler put up his hands in surrender. “The bosses made this deal with her, not me. I was sent here to do the job, and give you a heads up.” He looked at his watch again. “And heads up time is over. Hopefully, I'll be right back.”

In another flash of blue, he was gone. Before the two left behind could speak, there was the sound of someone moving upstairs. Both Spike and Buffy stood up. Joyce was at work, Dawn was at school, and no visitors were expected.

Spike sniffed the air as the soft footsteps came closer to the kitchen above. “It's Tara.”

Buffy let out a breath she didn't know she was holding. “Well, I'll say this for him: he has good timing.”

“Buffy? Are you home? Spike?” Tara's soft voice was little more than a muffled murmur to Buffy, but Spike could hear her calls clearly.

He stepped to the base of the staircase. “Downstairs, Glinda!”

The footsteps paused at the top of the stairs. “Spike? I'm sorry. I didn't wake you, did I?”

Buffy stepped into her line of sight. “No. I wasn't going to let him sleep until he got off his lazy ass and finally unpacked his stuff. Come on down, Tara.”

Tara descended the stairs with a resolved expression on her face. She locked eyes with Spike. “You said you owed me a debt. I'm here to collect.”

He invited her to sit with a gesture. “I guessed as much.”

Tara settled into one of the recently vacated chairs. “You've been through all of this before. You know what happens. Do you know my family is in town? And why?”

They nodded.

“Tell me what happens.”

Spike shrugged. “They tried to take you away. Said you weren't human. I punched you. Chip went off. Proved your father was lying. Sent 'em packing. You stayed.”

She studied him for a moment. “It sounds like you're leaving something out, but ok. Thank you.” She rose to leave. “One more thing: Why did I stay?”

“You have school, Willow, and your friends to stay for, plus freedom from your family.” Buffy shrugged. “It could have been any or all of those reasons.”

“What about you guys? Do you guys need me?”

Buffy tried to keep her expression neutral. “Things are different this time around. We know what's coming. It’s an advantage.”

“Is it enough, Buffy? Would my magic be helpful? I can do things for you. I don’t know how much help I was the first time, but I know I can help now. I could--”

Tara's words were cut off by a blinding flash of blue light immediately in front of her. Whistler studied her eyes at close range for a moment. Satisfied with what he saw, he placed a fingertip to her forehead. “Restore!” Another blue flash disrupted her vision. The demon stepped back to watch his magic work.

Tara blinked, winced, and was suddenly unsteady on her feet. Spike rushed forward to push her back into her chair before she hit the concrete floor. She doubled over, her face in her hands. For what seemed like a long time, they watched her and listened to her breathe into her palms. When she finally looked up, her eyes were wide. “Whoa!” was all she could say.

Whistler studied her eyes again. “You remember everything?”

She nodded. “I’ve never met you, though. You're the agent they told me they'd send?”

Whistler smiled. “Yeah, that's me.” He looked at Buffy and Spike. “You two can take it from here. And try to play by the rules once in a while, ok?” He was gone before anyone could respond.

Tara leaned back in her chair, and took a deep breath. Then she looked at the two people standing before her. “So you guys are the reason I now have two versions of the two months in my head?”

Buffy smiled. “That would be us. How much do you know about what happened after you... um...”

“Died? Just the basics. I know Willow went off the deep end with the magic. And the resurrection spell finally came back to bite everyone, upsetting the balance of power on this plane so badly that Willow set up a time-travel expedition with some other witches to try to undo the damage. They didn't tell me it would be you two that came back, but I should have known.”

She studied Buffy for a long moment before jumping to her feet and pulling her into a strong hug. “You should have beaten all of us to a pulp. I know what we took you away from now. I'm so sorry!”

Buffy returned the hug, albeit a little awkwardly. “It's ok, Tara. I've had time to get used to it. I'm just amazed you gave it up on purpose.”

Tara pulled away. “I think it will be worth it.” She turned to Spike. “And I really should have been a better friend to you.”

“It's alright, pet. You had other troubles to see to, like that bird of yours and her magic.”

“Yeah... I'm going to have to find a way to fix that this time around.”

Buffy grinned at Spike. “Hey! She sounds like us now!”

*~*~*

Xander walked into the Magic Box just as a customer walked out. Anya was at her register, happily tidying the cash within. Giles was behind the counter with her, focused on the vendor order form he was filling out. Willow and Tara sat at the round table with a pile of books, the thing Buffy had called a Dagon's Sphere nearby, tipping him off as to what they were researching. Dawn sat with them, doing a poor job of pretending to do her homework while she read from one of the books Willow had pushed aside. Everyone appeared oblivious to the noise coming from the back room.

After a warm exchange of greetings with Anya, and casual waves to the group at the table, Xander turned to Giles. “So what's the Buffster pummeling back there, anyway?”

Giles didn't look up. “Just Spike. Anya, how much thistle root should we order?”

Xander couldn't mask his grin as he moved toward the training room. “It's about time she gave him a good beating!”

His grin faded quickly when he cracked open the training room door to peek inside. The sound beating he’d been hoping for was merely a sparring session. Buffy and Spike were dodging attacks from each other easily, almost gracefully. Each seemed to be trying to hurt their opponent, not pulling any punches, but they were still making very little contact. They anticipated each other so well, the effect was almost that of a choreographed dance. Xander stood open-mouthed as he listened and watched.

“Dropping your shoulder like a Potential, love. You know better than that.”

“I think you spent too much time with them. You've gotten slow. Or is that just old age?”

Spike growled as he aimed a kick at her middle, which she barely dodged. “You'll regret that!”

“Not if you keep proving my point!” She laughed. “Come on, Sparky! Relish the fight! I know you’ve still got it in you!” She danced out of his reach, swinging around behind him to land a kick at his backside. “Pick up the pace!”

He turned on her with a flash of amber eyes, followed by a lascivious smirk. “You think you can keep up this time?”

Buffy's grin widened. “There's the Spike I know.” She bounced on her toes. “Come on. I've been waiting for this for a long time.”

“Me, too.” Spike lunged toward her, but stopped himself just before making contact, when the slight opening of the door came into his line of sight.“Think we got company, Slayer.”

“What?” Buffy's eyes followed his to the door just as it was opened the rest of the way. “Oh. Hi, Xander.” She stepped away from her opponent and reached for a bottle of water.

“Uh, hi. Question: A potential what? Also, 'Sparky'?”

Buffy and Spike exchanged a look Xander didn't understand. “I'll explain it to you sometime, Xan. It's not important right now.”

“Guess that's it for the warm-up.” Spike nodded to the clock on the wall.

She made eye contact with him, but didn't reply. She walked to the open door, ushering Xander through it ahead of her. Spike followed, but stopped at the training room entrance. Buffy moved through the store and took a seat on the stairs near the front door, trying to look casual about it.

Taking her cue, Tara picked up the Dagon's Sphere and scooted her chair back from the table. Then she waited, her eyes darting between Buffy and the front door. When the door opened, she dropped the sphere under the table. “Oops! Dawn, will you get that for me, please?”

Dawn ducked under the table just as the first Lei-Ach demons came through the front door. Buffy met them head-on, fists at the ready. Spike slipped back into the training room, the sounds of fighting a few seconds later left the rest of the Scoobies certain they had no easy exit. They were between two battles, one at each door.

Fortunately, it didn't last long. Slayer and vampire were able to dispatch the marrow-sucking demons quite easily. Buffy was standing on the stairs, catching her breath, when Spike reentered the shop. He gave her a nod, which she returned.

Dawn emerged from under the table. Tara's father came in the door, followed by his son and niece.

Tara immediately stepped forward, her eyes locked on her father's. “You should go home,” she said, her voice unusually strong. “I'm not coming with you.”

“Yes, you are. The camper's waiting outside.”

Willow looked at Tara in alarm. “You're going away?”

Tara shook her head, but kept her gaze on her father. “No. I'm no good to him. I know it's all a myth. I'm not a demon. It would be hard to make me a good housekeeper if I know I can be free, wouldn't it... sir?” She loaded the last word with strength and sarcasm, which only angered her father.

“The evil in you is playing with your mind.”

“Sorry, no. I'm not evil, not a demon. Am I, Spike?” She called over her shoulder.

“Passes the human test according to my li'l brain buzzer. Smells human, too.”

The Scoobies all understood this explanation, but Tara's family didn't. Buffy grinned. “If Spike's chip and nose say 100% human, she's human. He's a handy vampire to have around.”

“Vampire! I should have gotten you out of here sooner.” The intruder addressed the room. “Tara is going home. She needs to be with her family.”

Willow grabbed her girlfriend's hand. Tara smiled at her, and looked at the group standing behind her. She kept the crooked grin on her face as she returned her eyes to her father. “You're right, Dad. I need to be with my family. It's a good thing they all live in Sunnydale.”

Buffy eyed the man carefully. “Before you even think about trying to take her against her will, you should know that there is enough power in this room to bring down this entire plane of existence, and none of those people are your allies. You should leave.”

*~*~*

Joyce leaned against the kitchen counter, giggling. “I wish I could have seen his face!”

Spike pulled the dishtowel from his shoulder to dry his hands “Was some bickering from her brother and cousin 'fore they finally cleared out, but the poor old bloke looked scared. Didn't say much after that.” He threw the towel at Buffy's head as he stepped away from the sink. She stuck her tongue out at him as she caught it, and threw it back.

Joyce frowned at the interaction, but kept her focus on the conversation at hand. “Buffy, you were exaggerating a bit, though?”

Buffy shrugged. “Not really. Even Xan could find a way, with the access to mystical stuff he has. For me, it would probably be a matter of doing nothing when I should be doing something. Spike isn't much of an end the world type,” she smiled at him, thinking of their first truce. “But he could find a way. Dawn's full of untapped power we don't even understand yet. Anya could go back to vengeance demon work in a heartbeat, and trigger a nuclear war or something. That leaves two witches and a young-warlock-turned-middle-aged-watcher, whom I think you know.” She quirked an eyebrow at her mother, who had the grace to blush. “It's a good thing we're the good guys. Otherwise, we'd be dangerous.”

Buffy went upstairs to dress for Tara's birthday party, and hurry Dawn along, who had already been doing so for half an hour. Spike stepped outside for a cigarette. After a moment's indecision, Joyce followed him. She pulled her cardigan tightly around her at she stepped out onto the back porch, where Spike was leaning against the railing, closing his eyes against the wind with a soft smile on his face. She closed the door behind her. “There's a storm blowing in.”

“A right good one, I'm guessing. Worst thing about California is the weather. Always preferred places where I'd either see plenty of snowy winters, or plenty of stormy summers. California's got neither, but once in a while, it'll surprise you.”

“I don't know. I see two particularly stormy Summers all the time.” Joyce joined him at the railing. “I actually wanted to talk to you about one of them.”

“I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess you don't mean Dawn.”

“Good guess.” Another gust of wind whipped across the yard and into their faces. She waited until it had passed before she said, “I know this is going to sound like I'm prying, and maybe I am, but I've known you for a while now, and I'd like to think we're friends.”

“I think so, too. What's on your mind, Joyce?”

“Buffy went from fuming at the very mention of your name to having silly arguments with you about who's stuck with the dinner dishes in just a couple of months. She broke up with Riley -for no reason she could articulate- and had you moved into the house a week later. It was all very fast.”

“Your girl didn't stray on her soldier boy, if that's what you're asking.”

“I had hoped not,” Joyce murmured. “But she knows you're in love with her, doesn't she?”

“She does.”

“And that's what changed everything between you?”

“A bit more to it than that, but yeah.” Spike shifted his weight. “Gotta earn some trust 'fore it goes any further, you know? And right now, worrying about the Nibblet is taking priority.”

“Whatever is holding her back isn't a problem of trust. If she didn't trust you, you wouldn't be living in this house, and she certainly wouldn't be sleeping beside you, even if that's all it is.” She chuckled at his raised eyebrow. “I can see what's going on in my own house, Spike. She comes upstairs in the mornings dressed in either the clothes she'd worn the previous night or pajamas, and they've clearly been slept in, not spent the night on the bedroom floor. Yesterday morning, I even went downstairs to wake her up. I wouldn't have done more than call from the top of the stairs if I thought...”

“What are you getting at?”

Joyce sighed, not sure she should say what she was thinking. “Willow called me a couple of days ago. She seems very concerned about the possibility of something called a 'thrall.' She explained it, but--”

“Thrall's not my style. Wouldn't do that to Buffy, even if it were.”

“I didn't think so. But Willow is right; there is something very strange about all of this.” They stood in silence for a few minutes, as Joyce waited for an explanation to be offered. When none came, she whispered, “Just promise me this won't turn out like... that you won't turn on her.”

Spike tightened his jaw. “I'm not him, Joyce. Not fond of the comparison, either.”

“I'm not saying you-- Where are you going?”

“Out.” Spike stomped down the porch steps.

Joyce watched him leave the backyard with a frown. “What did I just do?” she asked herself. She turned to go back into the house, opening the door just as another gust of wind struck her back. She looked down at the kitchen floor with a sigh. “Perfect.”

A minute later, Dawn came into the kitchen, with Buffy a step behind her.

Joyce looked up from her sweeping. “You look great, girls. Buffy, honey, sit down for a minute. We need to have a little talk about Spike before you leave.”

Buffy noticed the broom in her mother's hand and her face went white. “Tell me you didn't stake him,” she whispered. “Please tell me... I know he deserves it a lot of the time, but you wouldn't--”

Joyce dropped the broom and rushed across the room to her side. “No, honey. No. Some leaves and dirt blew in on the storm, that's all.” She guided Buffy to a stool. “But the look on your face answers a few questions.”

“Where is he?”

“He went out for a little while, probably to get away from me.” At the look on the slayer's face, Joyce backed away. “I was... expressing some concern.”

“About?” Buffy's eyes were hard in the wake of her moment of shock.

“You and him. And if this might turn out like your last... involvement with a vampire.”

“Not possible. They're nothing alike.”

“I'll say,” Dawn snorted. “Angel was a big stick in the mud.”

“Are you sure, Buffy?” Joyce tried to keep her tone gentle. “I don't want to see you hurt again, or anyone else, for that matter. I know Spike is a little different from most vampires, but things have changed so quickly between you--”

“It won't happen again, Mom. It's literally not possible.”

“Is this a soul thing?” Dawn asked.

“No,” Buffy was quick to answer. “This is an 'I know Spike' thing. Mom, do you know what Angel I never were? Friends. In fact, it was Spike who first pointed that out to me. That whole Angel thing was based on cryptic comments and Romeo and Juliet attraction. Spike and I... It's a lot more than that, and it's more -I can't believe I'm going to use this word- stable. But don't you dare tell him I said that.”

Joyce picked up her broom. “I won't, honey. But maybe you should.”

“Are we done with the serious stuff now? I want to go to the Bronze.”

Buffy smiled at her sister in relief. “Yeah, we'd better get going.”

On their way out the front door, Buffy caught sight of the leather duster still hanging on its hook. She brushed her hand across it, her unease about Spike's sudden departure displacing the feeling of comfort the sight of that coat by the door usually offered.

*~*~*

Buffy struggled to find an opportunity to talk to Tara alone. When she finally did, it was in the crowded ladies' room. They held a whispered conference by the last sink while Buffy pretended to fix her wind-blown hair. “... So apparently, Mom made a comparison to... the other one, and he took off in a snit.”

“He'll be home by morning. He's your personal bad penny. You know he can't stay gone long.”

“Not really. He could be gone for days. I might have to go pull him out of a dark hole some place. He's been different since the... spark. I hate to say it, because it annoys him so much, but he gets kind of broody. Not day in and day out, like you-know-who, but he has these moods. He gets quiet and stuck in his own thoughts, and sometimes the guilt goes to his head.”

“The funny thing is, the one person who knows what he's going through is also the last person he'd want to talk to.”

“Trust me, Tara. The irony was lost on no one in our... place. But I'm not sure how much help he'd be, anyway. I've heard some stories over the years. Faith rolled into town with some real doozies on her last visit. The short version is, he didn't handle it well, and spent a cent- a very long time avoiding... normal food, because he had crappy self-control.” Buffy was watching her words carefully, keeping a close eye on the reflections in the mirror, making sure no one took an especial interest in their conversation. “William's path has been the total opposite.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Take Dawnie home and hunt his tantrum-throwing ass down. He knows these comparisons are going to come up, that they're unavoidable. He's just being pouty about it. Running out on Mom like that was odd, and unusually rude, even by his standards. They have such a good relationship. I'd hate to see him ruin it, especially right now, you know?”

“I know, but maybe dragging him home isn't the best option,” Tara said gently. “Maybe you should give him a little space to work out his thoughts.”

Buffy turned away from the mirror. “I guess I could, but if I don't hear from him by tomorrow night, I'll have to hunt him down, space or no space... just to make sure he's alright, of course.”

Tara's crooked smile took on a sly, indulgent quality. “Of course.”

*~*~*

When Dawn awoke the next morning, she peeked into Buffy's room on her way to the bathroom. The slayer was asleep in her own bed, but the rumpled state of the bedclothes spoke to a night of tossing and turning. After her shower, she went downstairs and discovered a bouquet of daisies and daffodils in a simple vase in the kitchen. She grinned and started down the stairs to the basement, planning to congratulate Spike on choosing her mother's favorite flowers. But he wasn't there.

Tara opened her dorm room door and nearly tripped over a small box. Inside were a variety of essential oils in tiny apothecary vials and a note written in near-perfect script.

Happy Birthday, Glinda. Sorry to have missed your party.

She called Buffy as soon as Willow left for class. “I don't know if Spike came home last night, but I can tell you he's not wallowing in some dark hole.”

“Yeah, I gathered as much from the apology flowers he left for Mom. Also, he took his coat when he made the flower delivery, so I know he's ok.”

“That means something?”

“Um, yeah. The coat was in storage for months. Guilt about its source, I think. Wallowing Spike doesn't wear his favorite trophy. How did you know he was alright?”

Tara described the gift and note. “There wasn't a signature, but only one person in the world calls me 'Glinda,' so the source is kind of obvious. I guess this means he's working out his tantrum on his own?”

Buffy smiled against the phone. “He's bought himself a few days of not being hunted by a stressed out slayer. I'm glad I talked to you. Giving him some space seems to be a good idea... so far.”

*~*~*

Two nights later, Spike emerged from his crypt, enroute to Willy's. There was a note wedged in the door, which dropped to his feet as he stepped outside.

W-

Both your gifts were appreciated, but I think the recipients would have preferred to tell you in person. You're going to have to make your peace with it, Sparky. Comparisons are going to happen, even in this new timeline. We may be able to change a lot of stuff, but one thing we can't do is escape that big, broody shadow. All I can offer you is the promise that you aren't in his shadow to me. I moved past that long before I realized I did. Come home soon, and try not to get kidnapped in the meantime.

-B

PS- I finally bought that lock box. I put our notes in it. Now I just need the letters from your coat pocket, and to give the second key to its owner.

*~*~*

Spike slipped into her bedroom early the following morning. He crouched beside her bed. “Buffy?” he whispered. “I'm home, love.”

Buffy rolled onto her side to face him. “You smell like a distillery,” she mumbled. She opened her eyes. “And you look like hell.”

“I'll be alright. Sun will be up soon. Gonna get some kip.”

“Downstairs?”

“Downstairs.” He kissed her forehead as he stood to leave.

She smiled softly as she drifted back to sleep.

*~*~*

The tall, elderly woman rested her wrinkled hands on the ornate round table before her, her frustration visible on her face. “And there's to be no other support?”

“They have the guidance they need. They will follow the path set for them.”

She pointed to the short man standing across the table. “That isn't a guide.” She shook her head. “This is nothing but exploitation.”

“They are our weapons to wield.”

The woman looked around the white room, an idea coming to mind. “You should remember you aren't the only ones with weapons.” She turned to walk out of the room through the blue-framed doorway.

“This is above your position.”

“We'll see about that,” she replied without turning around.

 

True Stories by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Kick back and relax. True Stories is a simple, easy chapter. I think we could all use a breather. Thanks for hanging around!

Chapter 9: True Stories

November, 2000

Buffy went downstairs to sleep the next night, but found herself alone. Spike was asleep beside her when she got up to take Dawn to school.

When Spike woke up in the afternoon, an unfamiliar key was on the bedside table. He verified his suspicions by using it to open the small, fire-proof lock box under the bed. After adding the key to his keyring, he pulled all the 2003 letters from his coat pocket, along with the note Buffy had left on his door, and put them in the box. He helped Dawn with her homework, helped Joyce with dinner, and slipped out of the house as soon as Dawn was safely in bed.

Buffy came home from her Scooby meeting late. She made herself a snack, locked up the house, and crawled into Spike's bed. She rolled over sleepily when he joined her a few hours later. “She got it figured out,” she mumbled. “But they're tiny, like little glowy golf balls.”

“Red's version of the Dagon's Sphere? How many?”

“Two dozen. In a bag in the training room. She's going to make more. Tara's helping.”

“You want them all over the house and shop?”

“A few, but also all over town.” Buffy yawned and snuggled close to him. “Don't want to give Glory a lighted path, you know? And it might save Sunnydale a few crazies, if we're lucky.”

“I'll start on it tomorrow, General. Might stash a few at the hospital, too, just to keep Ben on his toes.”

“Sounds good. ...G'night, Lieutenant.” She didn't move again until morning.

Joyce shook her shoulder, whispering, “Honey? I need you to get up. I have an early appointment with the neurologist, remember?”

The next night, Buffy came home even later. She went up to her room to change clothes, and didn't emerge until morning. By that time, Spike had come home from what he felt was a very bizarre Easter egg hiding mission, and was fast asleep.

The following night, Buffy was covered in ashes and dust when she came home. She showered, and tried to wait up for Spike, but ended up dozing off in her own bed with a book in her hands.

Around four am, she woke to sounds from downstairs. A bag rustled. The refrigerator door opened and closed. The microwave beeped. She climbed out of bed and followed the noises to the kitchen.

Spike looked up from the microwave. “Sorry to wake you.”

She climbed on to a counter stool. “It's ok. I haven't seen you in a week. Not awake, anyway.”

“Didn't even see you asleep last night. You didn't come downstairs.” He tilted his head in question.

“Be glad I didn't. I was so tired, I fell into bed still dressed, with a stake in my jacket pocket. What have you been up to?”

Spike shrugged. “Moving some money around with the banker, playing phone tag with my estate agent, working on the downstairs of the crypt, hiding Red's miniature spheres around town, trying to help Nibblet study for her geography exam.” He poured a glass of milk and placed it in front of her.

“Thanks. I bet that was fun.”

He grabbed his mug from the microwave and took the stool beside her. “Thrilling. Pretty sure she still thinks Paraguay is in Asia. So what big nasty left you too tired to come visit last night?”

“Willow, actually. After patrol, I stopped by the dorm to talk to her about other Glory defense ideas. Tara was with her, and the three of us ended up researching stuff for hours. No joy. And this is was after I'd gotten up early to take Mom to the doctor. I was running on fumes before I even got there.”

“Ah, that explains it. Joyce came down and woke you up, yeah?” She nodded. “Thought I smelled her near the bed again when I got up yesterday.”

“Sorry about that. I should have stayed in my room that night.” She sipped her milk. “At least we were dressed. It wasn't awkward or anything. Mom knows I've been going down there. She probably expected it to be more awkward than it was, to be honest.”

“Is it gonna be?”

“Huh?”

“We going somewhere, Buffy, or just strolling along memory lane while the pressure's low?

She looked away. “Is that what you want?”

“You know what I want. I'm asking what you want.”

“I want... I want to do better this time around. That's why we're here, right? To do better? I want that. For everything.” It was an answer vague enough to push his buttons, but before he could demand clarity, she reached for his hand. Gently gripping his fingers, she asked again, “Is that what you want?”

Spike's irritation subsided with her touch. “How we gonna do that? We can erase it all from ever happening, but we still remember. No clean slate.”

She smiled. “Well, we have a date Tuesday night. How's that for a start?”

“We do?”

“Yes, and it's very romantic. First, we take out the nest of the vamp that staked me. Then we eat greasy bar food while you tell me horror stories about how you used to kill my kind. Our evening culminates in threats and insults in the alley where we first met, for a nostalgic touch.”

He nodded, remembering. “Joyce goes into hospital on Wednesday, and you've already heard those stories. What say we skip it and stay home with the family?”

“Oh, no.” She shook her head. “I know for a fact that's a good night to skip patrol, that no demons are going to be starting trouble, and that you'll be here after I talk to Mom. I'm not giving that up.”

“How's patrol on Monday night?”

“Pretty light. The only trouble was the stupid stab wound.”

“Right, then. How about Monday, I take you out someplace nice and we talk about something else? We can stay home on Tuesday.”

“As good as that sounds -and don't think the offer of a real date is going unnoticed- there's still the little matter of the guy who put a hole in my gut needing to be dusted.” She looked at her glass, suddenly shy. “And I kind of had my heart set on hanging out at the Bronze with you,” she whispered.

Spike tilted his head, studying her. “You've been thinking about this.”

“It's in our notes: 'Stake the vamp who staked Buffy, then go Bronzing together.' Right next to Tuesday's date.”

“You did not write that,” he laughed.

“Go look.” She gestured toward the basement stairs. “Seriously, I wrote it down.”

“You didn't. I'm calling your bluff, Slayer.” He went downstairs, pulling his keys out of his pocket. When he returned a few minutes later, he approached her slowly. “So you do want a real date?”

“Foreign territory, I know.”

“For us, yeah. ...At least Rona's not around to catch us sneaking out this time.”

“Every bite of drunken noodle was worth it,” she said decidedly.

Spike tilted his head, studying her. “That's not what you said at the time.”

“At the time, I was worried the girls would be gossiping about us instead of sleeping.”

“They were gossiping about us, anyway. Likely thought a lot more was going on than Thai food.”

“I know. Which is why I was willing to keep doing it.” Buffy shrugged. “The damage was done.”

“Monday night, then. Early patrol to clean that nest, then we'll go to the Bronze.”

She grinned. “Are you going to take me dancing?”

“All we've ever done is dance.”

*~*~*

Spike came down the basement stairs after his shower on Saturday afternoon and frowned at the state of his bedroom. There was a smell of sawdust in the air, and the sound of something being repeatedly rubbed against a rough surface. The lock box that held all the paper evidence of their time travel work sat on the bed. An array of debris sat directly below: sawdust, scraps of thin, papery white fabric, a ten inch chunk of lumber, a hacksaw, and two booted feet. “What the bleedin' hell?”

One of the feet kicked up and waved. “Hi!” came the muffled greeting from under the bed.

“Hi,” Spike answered slowly. “Are you taking my bed apart?”

“I already did that. Now I'm trying to avoid future splinters.”

Spike grabbed one of the boots and pulled, dragging Buffy out from under the bed. “If you want to break the box spring, love, I think we can manage it without cheating.”

“Well, obviously! We broke a house. This box spring was a lost cause from the moment you bought it.”

He frowned at the sandpaper in her hand. Then his eyes lit up at the realization that she had taken his joke seriously, that she viewed them breaking this bed together as a given, not a question. Then he looked at her face, and broke into laughter.

She was wearing a pair of over-sized sunglasses, coated with sawdust, which she now pushed down her nose to glare at him. “What?”

His laughter only increased. He gestured helplessly at his own eyes by way of explanation.

“I was sanding over my head and didn't want sawdust in my eyes.” Buffy looked at the items scattered on the floor around her and shrugged. “I don't see the funny.”

Spike managed to calm himself enough to speak. “Only because I don't keep mirrors about, love. Your face--” He fell back into one of the club chairs, still chuckling,

Buffy scrambled to her feet and made a mad dash upstairs. He followed her to the powder room, eager to see her reaction. He wasn't disappointed. “Oh my god! I think I came out of my coffin looking better than this!”

She dropped her sunglasses onto the counter and turned on the faucet, frantically washing away the fuzzy mask of pale yellow sawdust that covered her face, forming a perfect outline of the sunglasses around her eyes. Once her face had regained its natural color and texture, she began running wet fingers through her hair, in an effort to tame the bizarre, sawdust-y version of bed head she'd given herself by sliding around on the floor under the bed. When she was satisfied she looked human again, she looked in the mirror at the reflection of the wall over her shoulder. “Better?”

“Don't know. The blind woodchuck look sort of suited you.”

She screwed up her mouth, trying to think up a retort. When nothing came to mind, she began rapidly shaking her head. Her hair whipped around her, stinging Spike with the tips of damp tendrils, first from one direction, then the other.

“Hey!” He ducked and scrambled out of the powder room.

She followed him into the hall. “If I'm a woodchuck, you're a ...a mosquito!”

Spike turned to stare at her. “What? A bit early in the day to be smashed, isn't it?”

“I'm not drunk! And before you say it, I'm not crazy, either.”

“Then what's the mess all about?”

She put her hands on her hips. “Spike, don't you think keeping a locked box under the bed is a pretty clear sign we're keeping secrets, and presents an obvious place to start looking for answers?”

“So out of sight, out of mind, then?” He leaned against the hallway wall. “You that worried 'bout your mum and kid sis getting too curious?”

Buffy leaned against the wall with him. “A little more than I'd like to be. I don't like hiding from them, and we are hiding, even in plain sight. They're definitely curious about us, Mom especially. It's the little stuff we can't explain that's bothering her. You know, how you knew where the tea cups were, why you shower in her bathroom instead of mine and Dawnie's, why I don't know immediately if you're at home, and have to actually try to sense you...”

“'Cause you're so used to me being here.”

She nodded. “I expect your presence here. Your signature in the house stopped ringing warning bells in my head a long time ago.”

“Bigger things might be what's actually on her mind, love. Like why I'm here at all.”

“All the more reason to hide the box before anyone notices it. Also, if I know my friends...”

“They might break into the house to dig for answers one of these days.”

“Willow and Xan are still a little freaked that you're living here. They may get nosy. I've been playing Year 2000 Buffy with them, trying to be what they see as normal. But I'm not sure they're buying it.”

“Are we gonna be hiding again, love?”

“Just what's in the box, and the fact that there is a box. If they get too curious, they could find out the stuff we have to hide. It's the same reason I don't talk to Tara very much around other people. If we put the unusual stuff out on display too much, we're sunk.”

“But you don't intend to hide...” He put a hand to her cheek.

“No, I don't. But I warn you, the fallout could be pretty awful.”

“Can't be worse than anything we've already been through.”

“That's really not saying much.” They both turned toward the front door at the sound of Joyce's Jeep in the driveway. “Crap. I thought they'd be gone longer.” Buffy hurried back downstairs to finish her work.

*~*~*

Tara looked up from her book with a warm smile when Willow dropped into the chair beside her at the round table. “Hey, Sweetie.”

“Hi.” Willow gave her a peck on the cheek, then looked around the shop. “I feel like partying tonight. Who's in?”

“You're a little late for TGIF, Wils.” Xander laughed. “It's Monday.”

Willow shook her head. “Not for me. I spent the weekend finishing that huge paper Dr. Grandstone wanted turned in today and making that third batch of mini Dagon's Spheres Buffy asked for. With only one class tomorrow, and all that stuff done, this feels like a Friday... Speaking of Buffy, what's she up to? Maybe we can do a full Scooby Bronze night after her patrol.”

“We could join her on patrol, too. We haven't done that since the dark ma-- since Dracula was in town.”

“You aren't going to go out to a cemetery to try to get yourself killed tonight, Xander Harris,” Anya said from behind the counter. “Buffy said she was going to patrol early. She has a date tonight.”

Willow and Xander exchanged worried looks. “Ahn, did she tell you who her date was?”

“I didn't ask.” Anya shrugged. “But it must be someone really hot.”

The crease in Willow's brow deepened. “Why do you say that?”

Anya rolled her eyes at Willow's uncomprehending of the obvious. “Because she's living with Spike.”

Willow's nose wrinkled to match her brow. “You're not making any sense. But you're saying her date isn't Spike, right?”

“I'm saying,” Anya added a sigh to her eye roll. “That any sane straight woman with that living in her house must have a pretty yummy fish on her line if she's not staying home for sex.”

“Ew! Anya!” Xander waved his hands around his head. “Bad pictures! Bad pictures!”

Willow's face relaxed. “Despite the ooky Anya-logic, This is kind of a good thing. She hasn't been out with anyone since Riley.”

Xander dropped his hands. “Hey, maybe it's that Ben guy she met at the hospital when her mom passed out that one time. Dawnie said he seemed interested.”

“As long as she'slooking somewhere other than home, I'll take it as good news.”

Tara bit her lip and buried her nose deeper in her book

*~*~*

Her face was flushed. Her heart was racing. And the scent... Spike had to keep reminding himself they were surrounded by people, that the thumping music he heard was more than the heartbeat that held his focus. When the song ended, he let her lead him back to their table. “You sure you still want food?”

Buffy threw him a sly smile that reflected his thoughts as she climbed onto her bar stool. “Someone still owes me some stories, with a side of blooming onion.”

“Stories you've heard.”

“I haven't heard all of them. Tell me the other stories.

“A century of mayhem and killing? The slayers I fought to a draw?”

She shook her head. “Stuff I don't know. Tell me... Tell me about William Pratt.”

“That man's long dead, love.”

“I know better than that, Spike. You're from a master line. I know the man survives inside the demon.”

“Yeah? So what's your excuse for Peaches?”

Buffy screwed up her mouth. “I walked right into that, didn't I?”

“'Bout seven years ago, yeah.”

“Ok, so once upon a time, Liam wasn't the world's nicest guy. I'll give you that.”

“Liam was a drunken lout with a weakness for short blondes. You know how well that worked out.”

She snorted. “Lost the breathing, kept the fixation? Yeah, I caught that memo. And William?”

“Liked unattainable women.” He gestured across the table with his drink. “You know how that worked out, too.”

“Pretty well, from where I'm sitting.”

“Think so, do you?”

“Yeah, I do.”

After a long, heavy silence, Spike nodded toward the dance floor. “You wanna head back out there?”

She tapped the table emphatically. “Stories.”

“Or we could be dancing elsewhere...”

Buffy broke eye contact. “I thought we were going to order food and talk? Maybe play some pool?”

“Don't much feel like talking just now, love.” He leaned across the table. “Neither do you.”

“Please?”

Spike was slow to tear his eyes away from her pouting lip. He leaned back. “Short version is that William lived up to his surname. Not a man worth your time.”

Buffy stirred her drink with her straw. “I don't know, I think I would have liked him. From the little I know, he was kind of nerdy, but very sweet.”

“Bit more nerdy than anything else. Wrote bleedin' awful poetry. Everyone said so.”

“To unattainable women?”

“Every syllable.”

“Give me a sampling.”

Spike slipped off his stool. “Too sober for that, love. Should I order food while I'm at the bar?”

“And another rum and Coke for me, please. Being under-aged again really sucks.”

*~*~*

During the band's break, a familiar laugh caught Xander's ear. He turned toward the sound. “Buffy?”

Willow, Anya, and Tara followed his gaze to the pool tables on the far side of the dance floor. Buffy and Spike were smiling as they talked, only half paying attention to their game.

“I was afraid of that,” Willow said. She dropped her forehead to the table. “Giles is going to have a fit.” She lifted her head. “But at least he'll set her straight. He's let Spike hang around too long already.”

Anya propped her chin on her hand as she studied the scene across the room. “I don't get it. She already has him at home. Why the wine and dine? And the symbolic handling of long sticks?”

“Bad pictures, Ahn,” Xander reminded her, his eyes still locked on the pair at the pool table. “Not that this one is a whole lot better.” He stood up. “I think I'm going to go say 'Hi.'”

Tara bit her lip. If only they could see what I see, she thought. She put a hand on Xander's shoulder to stop him. “Or you could respect their privacy. Do you want Buffy to intrude on your dates with Anya?”

Xander stepped out of her reach. “If Anya were a soulless, serial killing demon, I hope Buffy would intrude.” He walked resolutely toward the pool tables.

Anya stirred the ice in her soda with a frown. “Anya was,” she whispered.

*~*~*

“If it weren't for all the clouds and rain, I'd have never seen 1970. Was still too buggered up to seek shelter in the morning.”

Buffy laughed as she put down her drink on the table's edge. “I'm trying to picture you blending in with a bunch of hippies. It's just so... so not you. But then, I guess this was before your punk phase?”

“The sixties were a weird time for everyone, dead or alive.”

“You aren't going to tell me how you blended in?”

Spike focused on the table as he planned his shot. “Your turn, love. Tell me something I don't know.”

“Um... I used to ice skate.”

“And thought Dorothy Hamil was the best thing since stuffed pigs. Try again.”

Buffy was silent for a moment. “You know that time I came down to the basement and found you talking and smoking with Faith?”

“You thought she was making a play for your leftovers again and got royally brassed off. Try again.”

“Shows what you know.” She fidgeted with the chalk block. “I was jealous.”

He looked up. “Yeah?”

“Green to the gills. Faith... well, you know the history. And really, you two are alike in a lot of ways...”

“Harris.”

“Huh?” Buffy jumped when Xander tapped her shoulder.

“Hey, Buff. What's up?”

“Xan! Hi. I didn't know you were coming out tonight.”

“It was kind of spur of the moment.” Xander gestured across the room to the Scoobies' usual table. “Willow wanted to hang. We would have invited you, but Anya thought you had a date tonight. It's not too late to join us.”

Buffy's fingertips were turning blue from the turning of the chalk block in her hand. She put it down beside her drink and turned her focus to rubbing the remnants from her fingers. “I do,” she said quietly. “I mean, I'm on a date.”

Xander looked to the other end of the table, where Spike stood perfectly still with a pool cue in his hand, listening to the conversation with an unreadable expression. “I was hoping you wouldn't say that. ...But I kind of thought you would.” He waited for Buffy to offer some explanation or apology, but she stood there, as quiet as Spike. “Um, ok, then. I guess I'll get out of the way.”

As he shuffled back across the crowded room, Buffy let loose a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. “Ok. That could have gone worse.”

“How long you think 'til they go running to the watcher?”

“They might hold out until tomorrow afternoon.”

“Red told your mum she thinks I have you in a thrall.”

“Make that first thing in the morning.”

Spike came around the table to stand in front of her. “But that's still tomorrow. Would rather get back to tonight.” He ran a finger along her jawline, and gently pushed her chin upward, so she was looking him in the eye. “You were saying something about jealousy?”

She faltered under his gaze. “Um, yeah. You and Faith.”

“You forget the part where I like unattainable women? Not much unattainable about that one.”

“Good point.” Buffy smiled. “I should have known better.”

“Damn right you should... She's not you.” Spike lowered his lips to hers, drawing her into a heated kiss. When he broke away to allow her to catch her breath, he whispered. “Two options, love. Plan A, you look across the dance floor, see if your mates are watching us, and go into a panic. Plan B, you finish your drink and let me take you home.”

She kept her eyes locked on his as she drained her glass.

Flash Forward by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Remember what I said about chapter date headings being important? This is a time travel story, if you recall...

Chapter 10: Flash Forward

May, 2003 / November, 2000

Willow and the witches who flanked her slowly lowered their hands, dropping the ring of white light surrounding Buffy and Spike back into the circle of sand on the floor.

Dawn jumped to her feet. “Buffy? Did you do it? Are you--? Willow, why aren't they moving?”

“They're still traveling, child.” Althenea put a gentle hand on Dawn's shoulder. “Give them time.”

Xander frowned at the perfectly still pair in the circle. “I thought you said they'd be caught up immediately, Wils.”

“I said 'almost immediately.'”

“And how many minutes of freaky statues staring at each other are in an 'almost,' exactly?”

The witch at Willow's right, Bryn, started to answer Xander's question, but was cut off by a flash of light. The earth shook beneath them. The walls began crumbling away with a roar. “Don't panic, everyone. Stay just where you are!” she called over the noise.

“It's only an image,” the other witch, Elsa, shouted from Willow's left. “It isn't real!”

There was another flash, and the earthquake was over. An image of Buffy appeared in the suddenly restored room. She was kneeling on the floor, clutching a familiar leather coat, sobbing.

“Oh dear lord,” Giles said from behind the witches. “Is this what I think it is?”

After another flash, Dawn saw herself walking in the front door with a book bag over her shoulder. She called toward the kitchen. “Hey! Guess who aced her algebra final?”

Faith's voice came from the kitchen. “Way to go, kid! But what are you doing home so early?”

“We're on half days for finals week. Where's Spike?”

Faith came down the hall, into the line of sight of their audience. “In his room with the door locked. Probably already smashed. The anniversary is coming up.”

“Oh.” Dawn dropped her bag. “Wait. This is the twentieth, right? This is a different anniversary. Call a Scooby meeting for tonight. Spike has to talk to everyone.”

“He doesn't feel like talking. And I'm not gonna ask him to, not in the mood he's in.”

“He has to hold a Scooby meeting tonight, Faith. Buffy told him to.”

“Dawn, Buffy's been gone for two years.”

“Trust me on this.”

There was another flash, and Dawn came in the front door again. This time she dropped her bag so that she could pick up the toddler who stood at the bottom of the stairs, trying to figure out the baby gate. “Hey, you! Are you trying to get into trouble again? You're just like your dad, you know that?” She called out to the house at large. “Anybody around here missing a kid?”

Spike came from the kitchen and took the child from her arms. “I turned away for ten seconds...”

“Never turn your back on toddlers or vampires. Nothing good can come of it.”

“You think you're cute, don't you?”

“How'd she rope you into babysitting again? After the last time...”

“Threatened to kick Andrew out and give him our house key. Crazy bint plays hard ball.”

“You know she wouldn't do that.” Dawn took the child's tiny hand in hers. “But I think you secretly like babysitting... I bet you would have been one of those super hands-on dads if you hadn't met Dru.”

“Nah.” Spike led her into the living room, and placed the toddler in a playpen. The child whimpered. “It's just for a minute, mate, 'til I get your lunch ready.” He turned back to Dawn. “Wasn't how things were done then. Might have been more involved than the average, but standards were different.”

Dawn leaned over the side of the playpen to tousle the child's hair as Spike headed back toward the kitchen. “You'd have made a great dad, either way.”

“Nice try, Bit, but you're still grounded!” Spike called over his shoulder.

She called back, “You can't blame me for trying!”

The real Dawn finally managed to close her jaw. “What is this? And whose kid is that?”

“They've started changing history, child,” Althenea whispered. “What we're watching is today, or what today might be, depending on the changes they make... or don't make.”

Willow was still watching the image of Dawn leaning over the side of the playpen, playing with the toddler. “I'd know those brown eyes anywhere, Xan.”

Xander stepped closer to the image of the playpen and peered inside. “Really?”

There was another white flash. The room was suddenly dark and musty. The windows were boarded over, dust covers shrouded the furniture, and the only sign of life was a mouse scampering across the floor to a gap in the baseboard beside the sofa.

Giles gulped. “I get the distinct impression only one of them will make it back to this day, at most. We have yet to see any scenario in which they are both present. So far, most have hinted it was Buffy...”

Willow held up crossed fingers, her eyes locked on the pair in the circle. “They aren't finished yet. I'm not giving up hope.”

There came another brilliant white flash, and an image of Dawn came in the front door once again. She dropped her backpack and hurried into the living room. “Sorry I'm late. Janice and I were talking. Where's the banner going to go?”

The woman draping streamers from the fireplace mantle turned around. “Right there on the coffee table if I can't find the step ladder,” she answered with a crooked smile.

“Tara,” Willow breathed.

“I think it's still on the back porch. The porch light burned out a couple of nights ago. They argued about who left it on all day, and I ended up changing the bulb myself. But it still begs the question...”

Tara laughed. “How many superheroes does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Yep. And the answer is 'None. Leave the human stuff to the humans.'” Dawn pulled her phone out of her pocket. “This little soiree needs grub. Pepperoni ok?”

“I don't know, Dawnie. I think we can do a little better than pizza.”

“The people at the Thai restaurant on State street know their order by heart. We could order from there, feed their addiction.”

“Hmm... Thai food isn't a bad idea. But you'd better order now. We're already behind schedule.”

Dawn looked for the restaurant's number on her contacts list. “There it is! I had it listed under 'Doghouse Escape.'”

Tara laughed. “Spike told me you try to bribe them with food when you're in trouble, but I didn't believe him. I should have known better.”

“Hey, you try living with those two and their 'if you want to get into a good college' nagging without a back up plan. ...I learned from the best.”

“Always have a Plan B?”

“It seems to be a good idea.” Dawn shrugged as her call was answered. “Delivery order for 1630 Revello Drive, please... No, this is Dawn. But I am placing an order for her. Yes, him, too. Their usual will be fine. And could you set us up with a variety of your less spicy dishes, besides? I need to feed a total of 12 people... His card will be fine. Ok. Thanks!”

“Did you just charge dinner to the guests of honor?”

“It's ok, I do it all the time. They know he's good for it.”

Tara smothered another laugh. “Do you think that might be why the food bribery doesn't work?”

Willow wiped her eyes as another flash came. When she looked up, the room was filled with images of many of the Potentials they'd sent to the backyard prior to the spell, all of them bruised and dirty, half of them tending to the more severe injuries of the other half.

Xander met Giles near the living room doorway. “Spike's still not talking,” he reported. “I'm not sure he can. He's in really bad shape, Giles. Burns, broken bones ...and I think he's in shock.”

“He should be in an urn!” Giles hissed. “I told her for years not to trust him, but she insisted. And what did he do? He left her down there.”

Xander rubbed his temple under the strap of his eye patch. “I'm not so sure that's what happened. Give him some time. He'll tell us how she died when he's ready.”

Giles frowned. “Since when do you offer the benefit of the doubt to Spike?”

“Since I brought him home, and saw the look on his face. He looks a lot like how I feel right now.” Xander headed for the front door.

“Where are you going?”

“To break into Willy's bar. I'm sure he left some stuff behind.”

The door slammed, and Giles was alone in the hall, watching his charges bind each other's wounds.

Xander looked around. “Wils, I don't think I like this version. Can we flash back to the last one? That seemed pretty happy.”

“I'm not driving, Xan.” Willow gestured to the stationary pair in the circle. “They are. They're building us a new timeline. But I don't understand why we're seeing so many variations.” She looked at Bryn. “Shouldn't they all be similar? Different versions of the path they're on?”

Bryn shook her head.“I can't be certain, but I suspect too much is in flux for there to be a defined path at this point. I'm sure a pattern will emerge soon.”

“They're changing too much, too fast,” Elsa murmured. “I hope they understand the repercussions of such recklessness.”

“I tried to stress the importance of maintaining most of their history, but I suspect they did not feel obligated to heed my advice.” Giles looked across the room at the image of himself. “Willow, this particular scene looks like ill results from...”

“Plan A. I know. It's as if they relived three years and the only thing they changed was not going back in time in the first place.”

“No-impact variations,” Althenea murmured. “Some of the variations we're seeing could easily be from unaltered or nearly unaltered timelines, versions wherein the time travel had little to no impact.”

Xander turned to her. “I think I speak for most of us when I say, 'Huh?'”

“Me,” Dawn whispered. “It could happen because of me. If they lost their memories when the monks created me... All of this was for nothing.”

Althenea's wrinkled hand squeezed her shoulder again. “Any number of events could occur to cost them their foreknowledge, child. And we don't know that has happened. We know only that it's a possibility, one we already knew could be.”

There was another flash. Xander looked around, taking in the changes. “Uh, guys? Should we be seeing this?” He gestured to the images of Buffy and Spike, standing almost exactly where their real counterparts stood, kissing. A knock on the front door drew their attention, and they broke apart.

“Come in, Red!” Spike called as he moved to the bar that stood in the place of Joyce's old desk.

An image of Willow walked in, waving an envelope. “Is it silly that I'm excited about this? I'm dying to know what's in here.”

Buffy laughed. “Are you telling me I gave you two years to cheat and you didn't do it? Really?”

Willow shook her head. “No way was I peeking at this. First, you made it sound super important. Second, I like having a surprise to look forward to... This is a good surprise, right? It doesn't say the world is going to end tomorrow, does it?”

Spike and Buffy exchanged a look, and both burst into laughter.

Willow looked back and forth between them. “What? What's so funny?”

Buffy wiped her eyes. “It says,” she gasped. “It says it almost did.”

“Huh?”

Spike turned back to his drink mixing. “Just read the letter. Then we'll talk.”

Willow began to tear open the envelope just as another flash emptied the room. The furniture changed. Photos of strangers decorated the mantle.

“The letters,” Willow said. “If they lose their foreknowledge, they still have the letters.”

“If Spike still has his coat,” Giles said. “We've only seen it in one variation thus far. And in that one, I suspect...”

“Spike didn't make it.” Dawn looked across the room at the watcher. “You know that's why she was crying. And you know it's a real possibility. She could lose him along the way.”

“It would destroy her resolve, I fear,” Bryn whispered.

“I don't think it would be that bad,” Xander said. “Sure it would mess up her plans, and rock her back on her heels for a while, but she'd handle it ok.”

Dawn followed Bryn's gaze to Buffy' still face, to the eyes that looked into Spike's with such confidence. “No,” she whispered through another flash. “I don't think she would.”

Willow frowned. Everyone in the room had an image of themselves standing in nearly the same spots, staring at the pair in the circle of sand. The image of Dawn said, “Willow, why aren't they moving?”

Giles shook his head. “I should have known. There's a possibility they'll repeat the same mistakes and have to go back again. We're seeing the second attempt at the spell.”

“Whoa, that's some seriously bad Groundhog Day,” Xander said. “Can you imagine living the same three years over three times in a row? Or more?”

Willow crossed her fingers again. “Please don't let us stop on this one,” she whispered. “We could be stuck here watching two or more layers of time shift echoes for hours.”

“Hours!” Dawn squeaked. “That's not anywhere close to 'almost immediately,' Willow.”

Willow blushed. “It could only be another few minutes. Like I told Buffy, this isn't an exact science.”

“Given what we've seen so far, with the vast differences in possibilities, I daresay 'hours' is a more accurate guess.” Giles ran a hand through his hair. “At some point, the images must narrow down to fewer -or at least less wild- variations.”

“And soon after that, we won't remember any of this... I think.”

Dawn and Xander exchanged worried looks. “You think?”

There was another flash, and an image of Dawn was again leaning over a playpen, tousling the hair of a chubby, brown-eyed toddler, with Spike standing beside her.

*~*~*

Spike turned away from the playpen to stare at the fireplace, remembering something.“You know what today is, don't you, Bit?”

“The day you can safely tell Willow what she did.”

“Wasn't supposed to tell that story alone.”

“You aren't alone. Tara is going to stand in.”

“Glinda wasn't supposed to be the one that made it this long.”

“The world isn't ending, Spike. That was the mission. And you got it done. That's what she wanted.” Dawn turned to their unseen audience and said again, “Tara is going to stand in. Let her.”

“It's not supposed to be this way,” Spike whispered in the same direction.

Buffy woke from her dream with a gasp. She rolled away from Spike carefully, trying not to wake him.

She failed. He watched her dress through half-open eyes. “This is familiar,” he grumbled.

“Don't be an ass, Spike. If you're going to stay awake, come upstairs for breakfast.”

“That's new. Not the morning after pillow talk, that's as charming as ever. But breakfast with you after? Could get used to that.”

She shrugged. “I'm starving, and we need to talk.”

“Should've known it was too good to be true.” Spike watched her climb the stairs with a feeling of dread. “You've done it now, William,” he muttered to himself. “Got all poncy and sweet, and now she's over it. Bloody brilliant.”

When he finally forced himself to follow her to the kitchen, the coffeemaker was gurgling, and Buffy was presiding over the griddle. “Do you want some pancakes?” she asked without looking up.

“Yeah, sure.” Spike pulled a container of pig's blood from the refrigerator and emptied it into a mug. While the mug was in the microwave, he leaned back against the counter, crossing his arms over his chest. “This the part where you tell me you want me to pack up and bugger off at sunset?”

“What? No. Of course not.”

“Then what's with the Ice Queen Slayer flashback?”

“It's just... how I woke up. The first batch is almost ready. Grab a plate.”

Spike clenched his jaw as he handed her a plate. “Woke up and realized exactly how the general is rewriting her history, eh? Tangled up in the sheets with the cellar dweller again.”

“I took the stairs to the basement this time. I think that counts as progress.”

The words were flippant, but the tone was cool and distant. He placed a second plate on the counter and backed away from her. “If you've got something to say about last night, Buffy, spit it out and be done with it. No games. Not this time.”

“I don't... Maybe I do.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Last night was... different. New. It felt like... like starting over.”

“Yeah, a bit like a first time for us. A second first time, but I'll take it.” He shrugged. “There not gonna be a second second time?”

“Don't get too attached, William. I could be dead in six months.”

“A bit late with the warning,” Spike scoffed. “Should've dropped me that memo a few years back.” He came up behind her and rested his hands on her shoulders. “I'm not gonna let you jump. Last night sure as hell doesn't change that.”

“That's just it. Something has changed. And I'm sure it's something that just happened. I woke up this morning from a slayer dream- a time traveling slayer dream. Something has changed.”

“Doubt the wheel of time spins 'round our bed, love.”

“We changed two things last night, Sparky. The other was the Scoobies seeing us on a date.”

*~*~*

“You certain the rugrat belonged to Harris? I thought Anya was smarter than that.”

Buffy drained her coffee cup. “I can't promise Anya was the mother, but I would know those eyes anywhere.”

“Figures it would be the eyes. Poor bloke.”

They were silent for a few minutes, as Spike absorbed the details of the dream she had related to him. “If I told you it's not supposed to happen that way, I'd guess that means you're supposed to be there. So why would Nibblet tell you to let Glinda cover for you when I told them about the traveling?”

“That's what I don't get. Mixed messages, much?”

“Better question is why you had that dream when you did, love. This the first since we came back?”

She nodded. “And I'm seriously wigged about it. The timing makes me think we've just blown it, that we're about to lose our Scooby support -except Tara- and be on our own. You know it will take more than just the three of us to bring down Glory and her minions, even if I jump.”

“If I'm gonna cost you your mates, pet, why would the Bit and me expect Red to pop by for a chat? And Harris' kid in my care? And Dawn herself, besides?”

Buffy pushed aside her empty plate to drop her head on the counter. “I don't know!” she whined. “I'm all time loopy and confused. I hate slayer dreams. They only make sense in retrospect.”

“Retrospection, we have. In spades. Don't have a hell of a lot else.”

“Then why doesn't the dream fit with what we know? Or the changes we've made so far?”

Spike began gathering the dishes from the counter and putting them in the sink. He was elbow deep in sudsy water before he spoke again. “That makes sense,” he murmured to himself.

“I'm glad something does.” Buffy looked up. “Share, please?”

“You think you got the dream now because we've finally changed something that counts, yeah? If we're on a new path, that dream could be a guide for how to walk it.”

She wrinkled her nose in thought. “...Oh. I get it. Because hindsight can't help us with the things that are different.” She stared off into space for a minute, processing that idea. “So what happened last night that was so momentous, if it wasn't alienating the Scoobies?”

“Thanks, Slayer. My ego needed a fresh dent or two.”

“I thought the wheel of time didn't spin around our bed?”

Spike shrugged. “It may not, but I'd accept it as a possibility.”

“We have to be missing something else, something important.” She caught the dishtowel in mid-air and threw it back, laughing. “I'm messing with you. Sort of. You know I'm right.”

*~*~*

“I hate that look on your face, honey. Please don't worry. I'll be fine. The doctors just need to know a little more. When they figure it out, they'll fix it. This will all be forgotten by Christmas, I'm sure.”

Buffy's lip quivered slightly. “And what if it's, you know... Not something they can fix? Or they try, and it doesn't stop you from...”

“Oh, honey. You worry too much.” Joyce's arm went around her daughter's shoulders. “The only thing you two need to worry about is how you're going to talk Dawn into going to school tomorrow.”

Spike leaned back in his chair. “Best give up that dream, Joyce. Lost cause from the start.”

“I know. Maybe it's for the best, since you can't travel during the day.” Her gaze drifted back to Buffy.

“I'm a grown up, Mom. I can handle my hospital phobia. I don't need anyone to babysit me. If Dawnie's not going to go to school, she can stay here with Spike.”

“Take her with you, love. She'll insist, anyway.” Spike stood up. “Gonna put the kettle on. Joyce?”

“Nothing for me, thanks. I need to get to bed.”

“Slayer?” Spike nodded toward the back of the house. “With cocoa?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Spike stepped close to the sofa to give Joyce a peck on the top of her head. “G'night, Joyce. Best of luck with the doctors.”

She smiled up at him. “Thank you, Spike. Goodnight.” She watched him leave the living room before turning to her daughter. “What with cocoa?”

“A talk. He, um, can tell when I feel like talking. We'll be on the back porch for a while.”

“That's sweet. And last night's date went well?”

“Yes, very.” Buffy chuckled nervously, and tried to hide her blush. “This is awkward.”

“You're certain I can't get any untimely grandchildren out of a 'very well,' right?”

The chuckle returned. “Certain. No grandchildren, timely or otherwise. And again with the awkward.”

“But you're happy, right? You plan to keep seeing him?”

“Yes. Yes. What's with the prodding?”

Joyce bit her lip. “You know Spike is in love with you, don't you?”

“Yeah... but you do?” Buffy's eyes widened. “Exactly how much do you two talk when I'm not around?”

“Enough for me to call him a friend, so I want to keep tabs on things from both sides. But you don't tell me much. You never even told me why you broke up with Riley, though I have a good guess.”

“Riley... Riley and I weren't nearly as good a match as I once thought. He's a great guy, but...”

“He's not Spike.”

“I didn't say that.” Buffy looked away. “Riley never really got me. You know, like how my brain works? He was very thoughtful, but it was intentional thoughtfulness. I know he meant it genuinely, but it was never... intuitive.”

“Like planning to meet you on the back porch for a talk without being told you need it?”

“Exactly. I know it's not a fair comparison.” Buffy smirked. “Spike's been studying slayers for a century, and me for years. He knows me better than I do. Some days, I feel like I'm still trying to catch up, trying to get to know him as well as he knows me. Some days, I think I'm already there, interpreting his silences as easily as his words.”

“I wonder if there's too much silence,” Joyce mused. “There seems to be a lot you don't say to each other. If you care about each other the way you seem to, I think you should talk about it.”

“He'd like nothing better. But there's all this baggage. You know, ex stuff, former sworn enemies stuff.”

“Everyone has baggage, Buffy. You kick it into a ditch or you carry it together. There aren't any other options -none that actually work, at any rate. And it sounds like none of the baggage you're worried about has any bearing on the here and now. The question is, how do you feel about Spike today, not when you were enemies, or were with other people, or whatever.”

“Think in present tense,” Buffy murmured, her thoughts racing.

“Trust me, honey. It's the only way forward.” Joyce patted Buffy's knee. “You'll talk to him, then?”

Buffy's brow furrowed. “I'm having trouble figuring out if I'm talking to Spike's friend or my mother.”

“Both. Does that give me extra pushy privileges?”

“Not really, but whatever makes you feel better,” Buffy grumbled playfully.

Joyce was laughing when she stood up. “Go on outside before your cocoa gets cold. G'night, honey.”

Buffy stood and gave her mother a hug. “G'night. And thanks for the girl talk. I think I needed it.”

“We'll talk about that problem after the doctors are finished poking at me.” Joyce gave Buffy a significant look as she headed for the stairs. “Don't stay up too late. We have to be at the hospital early.”

*~*~*

They sat on the top step in silence, staring out into the backyard. Spike's arm was around Buffy's shoulders, and she was leaning comfortably against him. Their empty mugs sat on the porch rail, forgotten for the moment. “It feels like a hangover,” she whispered. “Like a bad night of drinking came back to haunt me twice over. And this is just the beginning of it.”

“Seemed to be having a good chat while I was in the kitchen. Tried not to listen.”

“I know. I heard you humming. That 'good chat' came with some seriously awkward poking and prodding... She wanted to talk about us.”

“Bloody hell.”

“My thoughts exactly. And I mean that literally. I've officially been around you too long. My internal monologue cusses in British.”

“You're welcome.” Spike smirked and kissed the top of her head.

“She gave me some relationship advice, but I think it applies better to something else. The reason the dream doesn't make sense is that we're putting it in the wrong tense, the wrong timeline.”

“Back up, love. I'm not on this train with you.”

She pulled away so she could turn to face him. “Ok, so we keep thinking the thing about Tara standing in is about 2003, because that's the setting of the dream. But I had the dream in 2000. Maybe this is when it's applicable. It's not a 2003 Scooby meeting I need to let her stand in for. It's something much sooner. We're mentally stuck in our own time, and it's messing with our perspective.”

“Right. I can follow that. And it's sound enough. But how is your mum giving you advice about time travel dreams? You didn't...”

“Of course not. But honestly? I think I'd be ok with her knowing. She was actually giving me a speech on not looking at past baggage with you, with us. That's just what I got from it. Also, I hadn't realized how much she was an interested third party.” Buffy glared. “My mother, Spike? You couldn't have those conversations with anyone else on the entire planet?”

Spike shrugged. “She sees what's happening in her own house, love. Reads people pretty well, besides. Never had to tell her much.”

“You had to have told her something. She knows way too much.”

“Again, we're living in her house. She sees us together more than anyone else, save Nibblet, who likely thinks the same things, doubtful with much nuance, of course.”

Buffy slapped her hands on her knees. “That's it! I'm moving out.”

“Yeah?” he laughed. “Where you gonna go? Move in with Rupert? Take over my crypt?”

“Hmm... Talk about shortening the commute to work...”

“Add that to the list of reasons you and the Farm Boy shouldn't have blown it up.”

Pivot Point by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Really, the title covers a lot of ground on this one. Welcome to the Pivot Point.

 Chapter 11: Pivot Point

November, 2000

“I'll take the sewers and be there soon. Singed, but there.”

“No, don't.” Buffy looked across the wide corridor to the unshaded windows. “It's not safe for you here. Too much daylight.” She sighed into the payphone. “It's not like anything is different. It's the same nightmare it was the first time around.”

“I'm sorry, love.” Spike sank down into the sofa cushions. “Any luck with Doctor Boy, at least?”

“I haven't gotten a single useful thing out of him, and flirting with him makes me feel like I need a shower. We've gotten far enough that he's given me his phone number. I think the next big conversation is going to land me with a coffee date.”

“Perish the thought.”

“You're supposed to be jealous, Spike. Try to act like it.”

“It's for the job, love. Don't have to like it to live with it.”

“He's kind of handsy. I might come home smelling faintly of Ben.”

“Speaking of showers...”

“It's not just that. It's... Once I broke things off with Riley, I kinda thought I was done with all that stuff, you know? I didn't think I'd have to deal with anyone else... showing an interest.”

“Calling yourself off the market, are you?”

“Aren't you?”

“I was asking you.”

“I should go. Dawnie's alone. I'll call back soon.”

Spike frowned at the phone when the call disconnected. He paced the main floor of the house, glaring at the covered windows as he passed them. Then he picked up the phone again.

*~*~*

Buffy's mind was elsewhere as she played idly with Dawn's hair while she napped. Two hands appeared in her line of sight, draping a tweed jacket over the sleeping girl. Buffy looked up in surprise.

“Any word?” Giles whispered.

She shook her head. “Nothing yet.”

Willow handed her a cup of coffee and followed Giles to the row of seats under the windows across the corridor. Tara leaned over to give Buffy a hug. “Just tell us what you need.”

“Ladies room,” Buffy whispered before breaking the hug. Tara gave her a smile that was meant as confirmation before retreating to sit with her girlfriend.

Xander took the empty seat on Buffy's left. “Ahn's manning the store, or she'd be here, too.”

“I- I don't understand, Xan. I didn't tell anyone we were here. I thought everyone would still be mad about me going out with Spike. I mean, I didn't hear from anyone yesterday.”

He shifted uncomfortably. “The truth? We were trying to drum up support for a little intervention when Spike called and told us what was going on. He asked us to come and wait with you, since he couldn't.”

Buffy smiled softly. “He never stops surprising me,” she whispered.

“He surprised us, too. And talk about changing the vibe of the conversation.” Xander looked down at his own paper coffee cup. “Ahn's mad at me again. We got into another argument the other night. Now I'm getting shown up by Spike, and she made sure I knew it before we left the shop.”

“Will you guys be ok?”

“Yeah. I just gotta quit putting my foot in my mouth about her history. If I don't, well, just call me Snoopy, because I'll be living in the doghouse.”

“Think in present tense,” Buffy murmured.

“Huh?”

“Just a conversation I had with Mom. What matters is now, not the past. Ditch the baggage or help each other carry it. Otherwise, you'll fall flat on your face for not talking to each other.”

“Hmm...” Xander seemed to be trying to interpret this tangled message. “What were you and your mom talking about, exactly?”

“A certain pain in the ass vamp who couldn't be here today.”

“Ah. So she's not wigged?”

“She likes him. You would, too, I think. If you two ever gave each other a chance.”

Xander looked skeptical. “Not likely. But he called in the Scoobs when he thought you needed moral support. That counts for something.”

*~*~*

“I know this is terrible timing, and I hope it doesn't make me a callous daughter, but we need to talk shop, and getting you alone is kind of difficult.”

Tara leaned against a stall door frame. “No one thinks you aren't worried and upset, Buffy. Least of all me. And I needed to talk to you, too. You have no idea what things have been like since we saw you and Spike smooching at the Bronze. It's like the Buffybot panic, but with more guilt and paranoia. Xander is stuck somewhere between freaked and confused. Willow ran to Giles. Giles acted surprised, then pretended it wasn't important. So she went into research mode, studying thralls and talking about possible residuals from that spell she did when she and Oz broke up. She also questioned me.”

Buffy perched on the counter between the sinks. “She asked you about our auras, didn't she?”

“Yep. And I'm embarrassed to say how proud I was that she bought my lies.”

“Welcome to the club. Lying to people you care about is misery number one in the time travel game.”

“Speaking of lies, I had an idea about dealing with Glory I wanted to talk to you and Spike about. Can I come by your place later?”

“Sure. We'd love some new ideas. And I need to get your opinion on a slayer dream I had. Spike and I have turned it over in our heads, and made some progress, but we've kind of hit a wall. It was 2003--”

Willow poked her head around the bathroom door. “Hey. You guys ok? You've been in here a while.”

Tara gave a reassuring smile. “We're fine, sweetie. We were just talking about when my mom got sick, and all the medical paperwork stuff.”

Buffy gave Tara's quick thinking a nod of approval as they followed Willow out of the bathroom.

*~*~*

Spike answered the phone on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Thank you.”

“They showed up, then?”

“Everyone but Anya. She's at the Magic Box. If we're lucky, she'll tell Glory she's out of the ingredients she needs, and I won't have to strangle a giant snake tonight.”

“She's there alone? Not fond of that.”

“She's the one who knows what goes into a transmogrification spell. I'm willing to bet she lies to Glory about her inventory and sends her packing. She'll do this job for us, without even knowing it.”

“Still, think I'll hit the sewers, go keep an eye on Demon Girl. You talked to the doctors yet?”

“It's the same news as before: scary shadows. Dawn's visiting with Mom now. I'm going back in there in a sec. ...God, this is hard.”

“I know, love. Wish I could change it for you.”

“I know. I should go. Be careful.” She hung up the phone and went to sit with Giles. “I think Spike is feeling caged in by the evil sunshine. He's taking the underground route to the Magic Box.”

“Spike and Anya in my shop unsupervised? Should I be worried?” Giles chuckled slightly, trying to get her to smile. “They could conjure up something... Buffy? I'm only joking.”

A strange expression had crossed her face. “If there's anything to worry about, I'll stake him myself.”

His smile fell. “I suspect there's a story there.” He took her hand. “How are you managing all this?”

“Somewhere between numb and worried. Numb because... you know.”

Giles glanced around and lowered his already quiet voice to a whisper. “Familiar roads?”

“And tired feet. I don't want to be here again.” She forced a smile. “But I'm glad you guys are here. It helps.”

“Were we not... before?”

“No. This is something Spike changed for me.”

*~*~*

Anya's eyes lit up with recognition as she read the list. She schooled her expression quickly. “I have everything except the last item.”

The woman across the counter noticed the change in demeanor. “Are you lying to me, girlie?”

“I want your money, lady, but I can't take all of it. I'll get the rest of the items together for you.” Anya started to turn around, but found her arm caught in a vicious grip. She was yanked back against the display counter with enough force to break its glass.

“You have what I need, mortal. Don't make me dig through this place like a common thief to get it.”

“Hey! 'Mortal'?! Do you have any idea how old I--” Anya's words were cut off by violent shaking.

“Where. Is. It?” The woman ground out, nose to nose with her over the remains of the counter.

Anya shook her head resolutely.

“Ugh!” Glory threw her against the wall in frustration. She came around the counter, paying no attention to the glass grinding under her stilettos. “Never mind,” she sighed. “I'll find it myself.” She picked up the dropped list and began searching the broken shelves behind Anya's unconscious form.

*~*~*

Spike crouched on the floor behind the counter. “Anya! Wake up!”

“Xander?” Anya whispered.

“Hardly,” he scoffed. “Open your eyes, pet.”

“Spike?” Her eyes fluttered open. “Spike, I think I found Buffy's Hellgod.”

“Seems likely. Can you sit up?”

“I-- I don't think I can move my arm. It hurts too much.” Anya lifted her head to look at the debris around her. “My inventory...”

Spike's eyes followed hers. “Shh... Stay still. The mess will keep.” He spotted the new phone book laying open on a surviving section of counter. “Pet, I need to make a call. You'll be alright for a minute?”

“Lock the door,” she whispered. “I can't make money like this.”

*~*~*

“Buffy Summers, please visit a nurse's station courtesy phone. You have a telephone call on line 3.”

The page brought every Scooby head up at full attention. Buffy dropped the magazine she was pretending to read and hurried down the hall to the nearest nurse's station. She reached for the phone on the corner of the counter, but a hand got in her way. She looked up. “Great. Just what I needed today.”

“Nice to see you, too, kid.” Whistler removed his hand from the phone. “Go ahead. I'll wait.”

She gave him a suspicious look as she picked up the phone and pressed the button for line 3. “Hello?”

“I'm sorry, love.” Spike's voice was barely above a whisper. “Looks like I bollixed it up.”

“What's wrong?”

“I'm at the shop. A bit late to do any good. Looks like the bitch didn't like being told 'no' and just took what she wanted.”

“Is Anya...? She isn't...?”

“She's conscious, barely. Gonna need to join Joyce in hospital, I'm thinking.”

“I'll send someone to come get her. She's... coherent, right?”

“No less than usual. Got lucky on that score... Buffy, I made this happen. I--”

“We'll talk about it later. Go take care of Anya.” She hung up the phone. “Is that why you're here?”

“I'm here because you are. That phone rang because you geniuses stopped looking for the big picture, stopped using the one tool you have.”

“I'm not above killing you in front of witnesses,” Buffy hissed. “Make sense or make tracks.”

“You want sense? Figure out what this mission's really about, before you make things worse.”

Whistler disappeared in a flash of blue. Buffy looked around her, wondering if anyone had noticed. Seeing no reaction, she returned to her friends. “Giles, Xan, you need to get back to the shop. Glory paid us a visit. Anya's been attacked.”

Giles whispered to her as he reached for his jacket. “You seem surprised.”

“I am.”

*~*~*

At the Magic Box, Spike knelt on the floor behind the counter. Anya's eyes were drifting shut again. “Anyanka! Stay awake! Help's coming, pet. Just don't go to sleep.”

“And I thought slayers hit hard,” Anya mumbled. “They're nothing like that.”

“I know, pet. Trust me, I know.”

“My head hurts. And you're a little blurry.”

“Blurry, eh?”

“She knew I was lying.” Anya winced as she tried to move her shoulder. “Knew I recognized the spell. Transmogrification...” She tried to focus her gaze on the ceiling, but a pair of blue eyes got in her way.

“Pupils are uneven,” Spike muttered. “Think you've got a concussion, pet.”

“Great... Now I'm Giles.”

He fought back a chuckle. “Nah, you're just a typical Magic Box shopkeeper, earning her bones.”

“Hmm. I guess so.” She winced again as he gingerly inspected her arm. “Ow, ow, ow! ...Spike?”

“Yeah?”

“She's kind of pretty, you know the form she's taken. But she has chipmunk cheeks.” Anya lapsed into silence for a few minutes, her mind drifting between her pain and the urge to sleep. “But Spike won't let me sleep,” she muttered, finishing her train of thought aloud.

“Sorry, pet. Can't.”

She furrowed her brow. “Wait a second... I thought you were stuck at home?”

“Just couldn't go to a bloody hospital that doesn't cover the waiting room windows.”

“You want to be with Buffy. I so called it.” She tried to smile through her pain, but it came out as a grimace. “I knew Buffy wasn't dumb enough to not have sex with you.”

Spike teetered between his reluctance to have this conversation and the need to keep Anya alert. “What makes you so sure I'm shagging the slayer?”

Silence. He nudged her good shoulder. “Anya? Still with me, pet?”

“I'm not dumb, either,” she mumbled, struggling to keep her eyes open. “You don't have to live with her to help her with Dawn... or patrol with her. Buffy wants you close.”

“Think you might be the only one to figure that out, save maybe her mum.” Spike leaned back on his heels. “Harris picked up on it?”

“Xander thinks...” Anya started to drift off again, then forced her eyes open. “He thinks anything he doesn't want to believe isn't true if no one says it out loud... At the Bronze, you forced the conversation to start.” She reached out with her good hand to take Spike's. “I can't tell Xander this, but I like the conversation... It's better for me if Buffy's not available.”

Spike's eyebrow shot up at this admission, confirming his old suspicions, but he didn't have an opportunity to reply. Keys jingled outside the front door. A moment later, Xander and Giles came running in.

“Ahn! Anya?”

“Back here, Harris!” Spike called. “Watch your step!”

Xander caught himself on the corner of the counter's metal frame as he came around it, nearly losing his footing in the sea of broken glass. “Ahn?”

“Hey. There you are.” Anya managed a small smile. “I think my arm is broken.”

Spike relinquished her hand to her boyfriend and rose to his feet. He turned to Giles, who was looking around in dismay. “Concussion and a broken arm. Wearing her tongue out making herself stay awake.”

“We'll get her to the hospital. Is this why you came here?”

“No one was supposed to get hurt.” Spike started toward the stairs to the basement storeroom.

Giles watched him go, taking in the slumped shoulders and slow steps. Not for the first time, he found himself questioning the changes in the time traveling vampire.

*~*~*

“Hello?”

“Mom's back in her room. So far, so good. But she's not going to be awake for a while. Dawnie and I are coming home for the evening.”

“Gonna let the snake sniff her out here, then?”

“Well, word on the street is that the Magic Box is already a wreck. And I'd rather have both of us on this job. Last time was too close of a shave, and we've had enough mistakes for one day.”

Spike absorbed the sting of her words with a sigh. “How's Anya?”

“In a cast and loaded up on painkillers. She's staying overnight for observation, so we'll all be making hospital rounds, between her and Mom.”

“You sound tired, love. Come home and get some kip before Glory's new toy comes to call.”

“We'll be there soon.”

*~*~*

Dawn was staring blankly at the television, barely noticing the images on the screen, when someone came in the front door and into the living room. She looked up. “Hi, Tara.”

“Hi, Dawnie.” Tara shifted the satchel strap on her shoulder. “Um, don't you want to grab a nap or something? You're going back to the hospital with Buffy tonight, right?”

“Yeah, I guess I could try to sleep. But then, Buffy said the same thing when we got home.”

“What is she doing?”

Not sleeping.” Dawn hit the mute button on the remote control. “Listen.”

With the rest of the house in silence, Tara could hear muffled voices coming from below. She frowned. “I can't make out the words, but the tone...”

“Yeah, I think they're arguing.” Dawn shrugged. “One of them is always making the other one mad about something. I think this one is about Anya getting hurt, but I'm not sure.”

“Go upstairs for a little while, Dawnie. Try to have a nap. I'll keep them from getting too loud, ok?”

Dawn hit the power button on the remote control and stood up. “Thanks, but I'm still going to put on some music. Not that I don't have any faith in you, but if they come upstairs...”

Tara came down the basement stairs just as the first punches were thrown. She jumped between the two combatants with her arms outstretched. “Hey! That's enough!”

Buffy was the first to back down. “He started it.”

“I did not!” Spike argued. “If you hadn't been so sure Anya saying 'sorry, sold out' to that crazy bitch would be enough, I might have hurried, might have gotten there in time.”

“In time for what?” Tara asked. “In time to get your butt kicked? How exactly would that have helped Anya?” She turned to Buffy. “And you! It was a sincere gesture, and you appreciated it at the time; I could see it all over your face when we got to the hospital. But when it backfires a few hours later, you're suddenly mad at him about it? How is that fair, Buffy?”

Buffy looked chastened. “I'm not mad at Spike. I'm mad at both of us. We got reckless, and the changes spun out of control while we were thinking about... other stuff.”

“I noticed at the Bronze Monday night that you were a little distracted from the mission. But that gave me the idea I wanted to talk to you about.” She gave them each stern glares. “If, that is, you aren't going to kill each other before Glory gets her chance at any of us?”

Spike fell into one of the club chairs and gestured to Tara to take the other. Buffy flopped onto the bed. “Ok, you have our attention. What's your idea?”

Tara took the offered seat. “When Willow and Xander went all bug-eyed at seeing you two on a date, I was thinking they'd be ok with it if they could see what I see, you know, the bond between you. And that made me realize something: The way to keep Dawn safe from Glory -and to keep the portal from opening- is to use what I've seen to distract and misdirect.”

Buffy shook her head. “I don't understand.”

Tara pulled a large, leather-bound spell book from her satchel and opened it to a marked page. She handed it to Buffy. “This is what I want to do.”

“That's not English.”

“You don't read Latin?”

“Um, no? Why would you think I could?”

“In your line of work, Buffy, you really should know Latin.”

“I do.” Spike took the book from Buffy and read over the spell. “Hmm. Reads like a glamour, but I didn't think they were that complicated.”

“They aren't, generally. This is a specialized type. It's longer-lasting, strong enough to stand without maintenance, and only visible to those to whom it's directed. I want to use it on myself.”

“To do what, exactly?”

“To make myself look like the Key to unhinged minds.”

This simple statement was met with shouts of anger. “Absolutely not!”

“Oh my god, Tara! Are you high?”

“Think about it: I'm the only one who knows what Dawn actually looks like to them, because I was one of them. Do you have another witch hanging around who has seen her original form?”

“Well, no. But--”

“I'm also new to your lives, at least compared to everyone else. I'm the best person to play decoy.”

“We don't need a decoy, Glinda. Can find another way to keep that bint's paws off Nibblet.”

“A decoy Key would improve the odds, Spike. You have to acknowledge that.”

“Why can't you do the spell on someone else, Tara? What about me?”

“She knows you're the protector of the Key, Buffy. And she knows it's newly created. She wouldn't believe it's the slayer, not for a minute. Me, on the other hand, I'd be totally believable.”

“You could die trying to pull off this stunt, pet.”

“That's the worst-case scenario, which is why it's so perfect. Even if I fail, I've slowed her search and confused her a little. And I'll only die a year earlier than I did before, this time for an actual reason.”

Her calm approach to her death brought an uncomfortable silence. “I don't think I like where this is going,” Buffy whispered. No one replied. She looked to Spike. “Don't you have anything to say to that, Mr. 'It's not suicide, it's sacrifice'?”

“Buffy...” Spike's eyes met hers as a realization struck him. “'Tara is going to stand in. Let her.'”

*~*~*

“It's just a test run. See that addendum at the bottom of the page? It's instructions for a light-weight, short-term version of the spell, something closer to a traditional glamour. It will only last about an hour. I thought I could try it on Glory's transmogrified snake, since you guys are going to be nearby to kill it, anyway. If I get a response from him, but look normal to you, I know I'm doing it right, and I can do the full version geared toward the mentally unsound.” Tara looked at the floor. “After I talk to Willow.”

“You're gonna tell Red what you're up to?”

“I have to. The full version takes more power than I have. She's a source of mystical power I can draw from. She has know what we're doing.”

Spike furrowed his brow. “Maybe not... Love, when you went to see the Shadow Men, Red had to pull power from other sources to reopen the portal to get you back. She grabbed Anya--”

“A vengeance demon. There's a lot of power there,” Tara interrupted.

“Former vengeance demon, actually.”

“Again?” Tara shook off her confusion. “Still, residual power.”

“--And Kennedy.”

Buffy's eyes lit up. “Then I'd be a good enough second source!”

“Who's Kennedy?”

“Um...” Buffy's elation faded. “She was -is, I guess- a potential slayer.”

“Point is, Glinda, if a Potential and a former demon have enough mystical power to help Willow fuel a portal to wherever and whenever that bleedin' carousel trinket sent Buffy, a full slayer definitely has enough juice to do this job with you.”

Tara frowned. “You'll have to explain this story to me sometime, but it can wait. This could leave you weakened for a while, Buffy, maybe even a couple of weeks.”

“Kennedy and Anya were alright after Red sucked the power from them. Tired for a day or two.”

“Willow had a lot more power then than anyone has now. I'm not sure she needed more than a little boost.” Buffy suddenly found her fingernails interesting. “She had already taken so much...”

Tara waved a hand to draw her attention. “I know the basics, remember? You don't have to coddle me about her. I know what she became. But that insane amount of power is also how you two got to come back to this time, so -hopefully- it will balance the scales. In the meantime, Spike, the two people she took from were carriers of power. Since they weren't actively using it, they wouldn't have known the difference. And Buffy's also right that she probably didn't need to borrow much. But I'm not her, then or now. I would need a stronger power source, and if it's someone actively using it -like you, Buffy, or Willow- I'd probably leave that person noticeably weakened. We'll have to choose our timing carefully, and be smart about which of you I use. Guys, we have to consider getting Willow's help. I don't like the idea of weakening Buffy in the middle of all this.”

“What we need is an alternate power source,” Buffy murmured. “Not a person.” She looked to see if Spike was following her train of thought.

He was. “Plan A had one of those.”

Buffy turned to their confused friend. “Tara, we can hook you up with some big time slayer power, without draining me. But it will take a while to get. We have to dig for it. Literally. Shovels and pick axes. Are you ready to get your hands dirty?”

*~*~*

Tara stood the hallway, listening for her cue from one of the open doors. Buffy crossed her line of vision, tapping the sidewalk in front of the house with her sword as she paced, looking in every direction for their target's approach.

Spike's voice came from the back porch. “Glinda! He's coming!”

Tara relayed the message. “Buffy! Out back!” She ran through the kitchen and out the back door, bolting down the porch steps and out the gate, trying to put as much distance between herself and the house as she could. Spike stayed close behind her, and Buffy was quickly catching up.

The snake found her in the narrow alley between the backyards, three houses east. He reared up in alarm at the sight of her, then abruptly turned north. He was moving toward Glory, not Dawn.

“It works!” She shouted. “Go!” She stepped aside as Buffy and Spike sped past her to tackle and stab the monster before it could get out of the neighborhood.

*~*~*

They walked back to the house, put away their weapons, and closed the doors. They fell into the living room chairs with smiles that were a mix of relief and excitement.

“It works,” Tara said again. “You get me that power source, and I'm your decoy. She won't get anything but annoyed from my blood.”

“So...” Spike looked at Buffy. “In retrospect?”

Buffy nodded. “The dream makes sense. And I was right about what we changed the other night that was so momentous: The Scoobies saw us on a date.” She pointed to Tara. “This Scooby in particular.”

Tara blushed. “I'm only a Scooby by association.”

“Who needs the bleedin' Scoobies, anyway?” Spike looked around the room. “Got muscle, magic, and some decent brains right here.”

“True.” Buffy said. “It took all three of us to solve that dream. We planned what to do about it, and ran a successful test of the plan, complete with slayed monster. Together. Sounds like a team to me.”

Tara laughed. “If I'd known this felt so good, I'd have forced you two to get along and joined in the fight the first time around.”

“You'll change your tune when we're digging under the vineyard together,” Spike grumbled.

Lost Pupil by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

The changing relationships of now face the baggage of tomorrow. I think this is a chapter a lot of you have been waiting for.

Chapter 12: Lost Pupil

November, 2000

From the Watcher's diary of Rupert Giles

22 November, 2000
I continue to be fascinated by their partnership. Much of their communication is silent- eye contact and nods- occasionally supplemented with monosyllabic murmurs. How much of this is prearranged signals and how much is a simple matter of knowing each other extremely well, I'm unsure.

In truth, I am sure of very little where they are concerned. I know they have suffered great trials that have changed them into virtual strangers to me. I know I trust them more than they trust me. Both these facts bother me greatly. Trusting Spike is a foreign condition, but one I find myself adjusting to more readily than I would have imagined. Perhaps it is because he is so different from the vampire I knew. Perhaps it is that Buffy has such unwavering faith in him. Or perhaps I've begun to see that the man behind the demon has a voice in matters. He has evolved, and I find myself respecting that.

I still struggle to reconcile these two versions of Spike in my own mind, however. The differences are as pronounced as the differences between Angel and Angelus. And yet, I find something unsettling in even making that comparison. This is not the first time the idea of Spike being cursed with a soul has occurred to me. I've had some suspicions from the day I met this time traveling version of him. What unsettles me is not the idea of an ensouled Spike, but of an ensouled Spike at Buffy's side, caring for her as obviously as he did the night she first fought Glory. It reminds me of a mistake made once before, of trust and care placed in the shakiest of hands.

Admittedly, Spike is proving himself trustworthy, protective, and -by Buffy's own word- is encouraging a stronger relationship between me and my slayer. I should be thrilled with these changes in him. But what if he has in fact been cursed? What happens to her -to all of us- if the curse is broken? Why is she not asking herself that question? Has she forgotten our experiences with Angelus? Has she forgotten Jenny?

*~*~*

“No, you're not listening to me. I am certain Tara would be able to detect by aura reading if anything like that were amiss. I believe your problem is personal, Willow, not mystical.”

“I'm listening, but I don't understand why you seem to be ok with Spike weaseling into her life like this. First, he moves into her basement. Then she goes on a date with him. With kissing. And now she's asking his opinion on her mother's care. It's too weird, Giles. Admit it. I mean, why should he have any say in whether Mrs. Summers comes home or stays in the hospital while she's waiting for surgery?”

He held his glasses up to the light, checking for smudges. “Do you consult Tara on important matters?”

“Well, yeah, of course. But what does that have to do with--” Her bluster faded. “Oh. You're saying they're acting like a couple.”

“I'm saying Buffy is a grown woman who can make her own questionable decisions.” He glanced at his watch. “Now, if you'll excuse me, the delivery from the lumber yard will be here any--”

Willow held up a hand to stop him from walking away. “I didn't tell you everything. I think there is something mystical going on, and somehow Tara can't see it.”

“Oh?”

“I tried a few thrall breaking spells. They didn't work. So I decided we needed an insurance policy, to make sure Spike doesn't turn on her, doesn't betray her to Glory.”

Giles put his glasses back on to give her a hard look. “What did you do?”

“Nothing. I tried something, but it didn't work. I don't know why. Something might be blocking me. Or my equipment is wonky. Maybe he's already teamed up with Glory, and she's blocking the spell.”

“Willow, what did you do?” he asked again.

“Well, um, I have an orb of Thessulah...”

*~*~*

When Xander arrived at the Magic Box, Giles asked, “How is Anya?”

“Tired. Cranky. Bored. Dawn's staying with her tonight, so I can get these shelves rebuilt for you. Ahn's still not used to operating with one arm in a cast and sling. She'll adjust in another couple days. The main thing is to get her back to work before she goes nuts and takes me with her.” He put down his toolbox and circular saw beside the sawhorses and lumber in the training room. “I'll be here all night.”

“I'm in a hurry to reopen, but not so big of a hurry that you--”

“I am. Ahn really wants to get back to work. Soon. Besides, Dawnie only agreed to stay one night, and I think Buffy had to talk her into that much. Go home, Giles. You look beat. I'll be fine.”

“You'll keep the door locked?”

“Except when the pizza guy shows up.” He waved toward the door. “Go. Get some rest.”

Giles tried to not look relieved at his dismissal. “Alright. I'll see you in the morning. Please be careful.” He left the shop, but he didn't go home.

*~*~*

“You didn't tell me everything,” Giles accused the man who opened the door.

“Obviously. But what else do you need to know?”

“The truth. What did you do to deserve such a punishment?”

“Eh? You wanna run that by me again?”

Giles brushed past him. “We're having this conversation, Spike. Playing dumb won't get you out of it.”

“We're having what conversation? You been hitting the bottle, Watcher?”

Giles sighed in exasperation as he entered the living room. He stopped short when he saw Tara sitting on the sofa with a spell book open in her lap. “Tara? What are you doing here?”

“Hi, Mr. Giles. I'm helping Spike and Buffy with a demon tonight.” She repeated his question in a teasing tone. “What are you doing here?”

“To be honest, I'm wondering why the three of you have been lying to me. You had to have seen it-- Wait. Where is Buffy?” His question was promptly answered by the slamming of the back door.

“Stupid fucking vampires!” The refrigerator door opened and closed. “Spike?”

Spike kept his eyes locked on Giles'. “What'd I do this time?” he called.

“Not you, but pretty much the rest of your species.” Buffy followed his voice, appearing dirty and disheveled in the living room doorway. “I got vamp-mugged on my way home from the butcher's shop. Business must be slow at that bitey bordello up on Fifth. I recognized a couple of them, hanging around the butcher's back door. They have three fewer mouths to feed now, and your dinner's in the fridge. I'm really in the mood for a little arson right now. ...By the way, is there a reason you and Giles are giving each other death glares?” Neither man spoke. She looked to the sofa. “Tara? Fill me in?”

“Mr. Giles was asking what Spike did to deserve some punishment.”

“Huh? Giles, what are you talking about?”

“Buffy, it's time to tell me the truth. What happened to make Spike get his soul?”

The blood drained from her face. “Giles, I-- we-- we don't talk about that. It's ...personal.”

“Ah, so that's it.” Spike crossed his arms over his chest. “Tell us what you know, Watcher.”

“Will you reciprocate?”

Spike looked uncomfortable. “Maybe not in detail, but yeah.”

“Willow has been trying to help you, Buffy. She made some futile attempts to break Spike's supposed thrall over you.”

Tara sighed. “I told her not to waste her time with that stuff. She wouldn't listen.”

“Then she decided the best method for keeping Spike's loyalty to our cause -presumably in lieu of the romantic involvement she witnessed- was to curse him with his soul.”

“Like the brooding Poofter?! What the hell is she thinking?”

The slayer grumbled, “That I shouldn't have a sex life, apparently.”

“Buffy!” Tara admonished. “You're getting as brazen as Anya!”

“She rationalized that -despite Spike's recent behavior- you would not risk repeating history.”

A snicker went around the room.

Giles glared at them and sank into a chair. “From Willow's perspective, the reasoning is sound.” He addressed Spike. “Cursing you could force some distance between you and Buffy, and would likely make you want to expose any ulterior motives in remaining close to her during such a dangerous time.”

“But it didn't work.” Buffy leaned against the door frame. “And now she knows.”

“Not yet. Willow believes she either has a faulty orb of Thessulah, or she's being blocked by some unidentified counter magic. I have a better understanding of the mechanics of what she's attempting. If that soul were out in the ether, the orb would have found it, whether it could be returned to its owner or not. The logical conclusion, then, is that the soul in question is either being forcibly contained somewhere -which is unlikely- or has already been restored.”

The back of Buffy's head tapped the door frame in time to her words. “Dammit, dammit, dammit.”

Spike raised an eyebrow at her. “Yeah? How do you think I feel? It's not you she's gonna expose.”

“She could bring down the whole mission if she doesn't back off. She's well on her way to figuring out we aren't who we say we are. ...Tara, any Willow-wrangling ideas springing to mind?”

“Nothing ethical.”

“Might have to put the ethics in the drawer, pet, if she gets too close.”

“I know. And you know what you're asking me to do.”

Buffy studied Tara's expression. “Let's table that for now. We'll cross that bridge when it catches fire.”

Giles followed her gaze. “I see the soul isn't the only thing that's been omitted. What else did you fail to tell me, Tara?”

“I... um...”

“I wasn't cursed,” Spike interjected, earning a grateful glance from Tara. “Went out and got the thing myself. Don't know yet if I'll lose it when that time comes back around. You had a theory -you from our time- but weren't certain. In another year and a half, it might be gone, unless I try to get it again.”

“Is it wise to keep you so close, then?”

“It didn't change as much as you might expect,” Buffy put in quietly. “Not in good ways, at least. I've asked him to consider letting it go.”

“You've what?!” Giles was back on his feet. “Buffy, have you lost your mind? If the soul is released again without the chip to restrain... You know better than to be so reckless. The repercussions...”

Buffy stepped close to Spike's side. “Giles, do you even know what the big, scary repercussions would actually be?” She counted off on her fingers. “One: the nightmares might stop. Two: he'd be able to move more freely among other demons. Three--” She held up her other hand. “Hang on, I'm thinking. I'm sure I can come up with something scary. Give me a minute.”

“I think you've made your point, love,” Spike whispered.

“No, I don't think I have. Oh, wait! I know what number three is! He'd have one less thing in common with his grandsire... Not that there's very much in common to start with. You getting me, Giles?”

“Yes, I believe I am. You're allowing an emotional attachment to inhibit your judgment, blind you to a danger we all know quite well. We've worries enough, with Glory about. Another ensouled vampire at your side is a liability you can't afford right now. You need to be reasonable about this.”

Those words stuck a chord in Buffy. In seconds her demeanor shifted from mildly irritated to barely contained rage. “Liability?” she repeated through clenched teeth. “Reasonable? How dare you say those words to me. You didn't get kidnapped, tortured, and thrown off the top of a tower while trying to protect my sister. No, you thought it better to threaten to kill her. You left me when I needed you most. Spike didn't. And when you finally stopped by to play Watcher, you conspired to have my most reliable support murdered. From where I'm standing, there's only one man in this room who needs his soul worked on, only one man who's a liability, and it's the one with a pulse.” She spat the last word, leaning forward with her fists clenched and shoulders tensed for a fight.

Spike put a restraining hand on her arm. “Love...”

Giles shifted his weight. “Buffy, I haven't done those things. I'd like to think I wouldn't. I'm not the person you're so angry with.”

“Not yet, but you're damned close. You walked in here accusing Spike, making assumptions, proving you don't trust me to--” She quoted with a sneer, “'make the difficult decisions.' I know where this road goes, Giles. I've seen the crosses on the walls.”

Spike tightened his grip on her arm. “Buffy, love, take it easy.”

“No.” She jerked her arm free. “I can't. You may be all stoic about it, because you never expected mutual trust and respect with him, but I did. I was trained to it. I relied on it. And then it wasn't there.” She turned her focus back to Giles. “It took me too many years of thinking you'd come back around to being who I thought you were, too many years of thinking I was the problem, for me to figure out the simple truth: My mortal enemy is a better ally than my watcher.”

Buffy stormed out of the room and up the stairs, leaving Spike, Giles, and Tara staring at each other.

She came back down a minute later, brandishing a sword. Spike called to her as she wrenched open the front door. “Where are you going?”

“Out. I need to go kill something.”

“Don't forget--”

“Slime attacks. I know.” The door slammed behind her.

Tara held up her book. “What about the containment spell?”

“Mood she's in, the Queller doesn't stand a chance, even without our help.” Spike ran a hand through his hair and dropped onto the sofa beside her. “Bloody hell. Was hoping she'd hold out a little longer.”

“That was intense.” Tara laid aside her book and rubbed her temples. “It really got that bad?”

“By the time we left, it was a little shop talk, and naught else. If we hadn't been in a war, it'd have been nothing at all. But the general needed her soldiers.”

Giles frowned. “If you saw this coming, Spike, I would have appreciated a warning, before the volcano erupted... Though I'm finally beginning to understand why she's been keeping me at arm's length.”

“Only reason you're that close is 'cause I asked her to.”

“It seems she's not willing to give me a second chance.”

“Second chance was years ago, Watcher, even from your perspective.” Spike looked up at the watcher and spoke in a low tone, “I'm gonna have to ask you to leave, Rupert.”

Giles nodded. “I suppose you do. It's clear Buffy doesn't want me here right now.”

“You wouldn't let that stop you, that much I know. But she's not the one asking you to go. I am.”

He opened his mouth to argue, but Tara interrupted. “This is Spike's home, too, you know.”

A few seconds later, the front door slammed again. Tara cringed. “Are we going to regret that?”

“Got through a hell of a lot without him, and got put through hell of a lot because of him.”

“So in other words, probably not.”

*~*~*

Giles poised his pen over the next line of his watcher diary as he reread the preceding entry. With a sigh to himself, he began writing.

26 November, 2000

Not for the first time, I fear this may be my last entry, or nearly so. I don't believe my slayer is likely to die tonight, nor is the Council likely to send anyone to “rein in” myself or my slayer, as they've repeatedly threatened for nearly two years. Buffy and I, as well as Faith, have been classified as “rogues” for quite a while. The fact that we are all three breathing is a testament to their uncertainty. They really don't know what to do about us. There is some humor to be found in that, though I'm finding it difficult to laugh tonight.

This evening, my suspicions about Spike's soul were confirmed, though not in the way I had imagined. He does in fact have it, but apparently by his own choosing, and not via that curse concocted by Jenny's ancestors. The reasoning behind such an unprecedented act was not offered. Both time travelers were tense and tight-lipped about the matter.

I admit I bungled my way into the conversation, but I still don't understand exactly how it ended the way it did. Buffy's temper exploded in my direction. She laid years of wrongs at my feet -wrongs I have not yet even committed- and left in a snit. And then Spike threw me out of the house (verbally, not physically), with Tara's support.

Tara was noticeably less surprised than I at Buffy's rage. At one point, she also seemed to be participating in that perpetually “half spoken, half implied” conversation that has so marked my interactions with Buffy and Spike since their arrival in this time. I don't know what to make of that, except that perhaps she has been told far more of the future from these two than I have, that she shares in their secrets.

I doubt such a privilege will be offered to me, at least not anytime soon. Buffy has been honest with me about her distrust, even openly comparing my future self to Quentin Travers. But until tonight, I did not even begin to understand the depth of her disappointment in me, or the depth of her wish to protect Spike from me.

I never thought we'd be here again, my slayer and I, standing on opposite sides of a line, with a vampire between us. As I've previously written, this time traveling version of Spike is not someone I find myself wishing to oppose, but relying on the inherent instability of a soul's grip on a demon is not something with which I can ever again be comfortable.

It was easier to trust his reformation when I thought it possible he had merely made good use of the time he carried that microchip, when I could believe he'd made himself an ally without any outside personality influences. Learning that the changes in him are attached to a soul brings the question of Spike himself back into play, and -without the chip- it's a treacherous game.

In saying so, perhaps I have made enemies of them both, depriving myself of their foresight, and ruining what may have been my last chance at a strong, adult friendship with my slayer... and her very unusual paramour.

Giles heard the back door slam, and the hum of Xander's saw in the training room came to an abrupt halt. He opened his office door to listen.

“Hey, Buffster. Eww! What did you get into?”

“Slime monster. I'm on my way to the hospital to check on Mom, but I need to clean up first.”

“Dead slime monster?”

“Dead slime monster.”

“Good.”

Giles listened to the water running in the bathroom until the restarting of the saw drowned it out. He stepped out of his office to find the bathroom door wide open, and Buffy's head under the sink's faucet. He stopped in the doorway. “Can we talk?”

She tried to raise her head instinctively, banging it on the faucet. “Ow! I didn't know you were here.” She continued rinsing her hair for a moment before she answered. “I really don't want to.”

“I do.” Giles fought to keep his voice low. “I don't understand what happened this evening. I'm not even certain I should. What I do understand is that you've been seething with resentment against me since your arrival, holding me responsible for crimes I have not committed. I don't think it's very fair.”

“You assumed Spike's soul was a punishment. As soon as you found out he had it, you assumed I was endangering everyone by sleeping with him.” Buffy pulled her head away from the sink and reached for the towel she'd brought from the training room. “That's not very fair, either.”

Giles watched her dry her hair, waiting until the towel was no longer blocking her face to speak. “I know Spike is not Angel, but I can't shake my concerns.”

She hung up the towel and ran her fingers through her damp hair. “And I know you haven't done all those things I was yelling at you about. But those thoughts are stuck in our heads, in both cases. Neither one of us seems to be able to get rid of them.”

“It appears we're at an impasse.”

“Actually, I think we're at a stopping point.” Buffy reached into her pocket and pulled out two keys, already separated from her key ring. She handed them to him. “Your apartment and the Magic Box. I was going to leave them on the counter, but since you're here...”

“Buffy, this is not what... I don't think this is the answer.”

“This is a small town with a big Hellmouth, and only one magic shop. Plus, we have a lot of mutual friends. It's not like we'll never see each other again.” She brushed past him without making eye contact. “Take care, Giles. I'll see you around.”

Giles was still standing in the bathroom doorway, holding the keys loosely in his hand, when the hum of the saw stopped again.

“No more hair gel from hell?”

“Nope. But I think the smell is lingering. Here, sniff.”

“Eww, yeah. Maybe it will be better when it dries. By the way, where's your undead shadow tonight?”

“Spike's not my shadow. Why do you ask?”

“Well, with Dawnie over at my place tonight, I thought you two might be... together.”

“We had planned to patrol together, but I went out on my own instead. He's probably gone out by now. I'll see him in the morning.”

“I have a hard time figuring you out lately, Buff. You and Spike-- hella weird, just to put that out there, but sometimes you act like his girlfriend, and sometimes like his slayage boss. Hot and cold. I mean, the rest of us are getting that, too, but I wonder if he's getting the worst of it.”

“Holy crap. Is Xander Harris worried about Spike? Did hell just freeze over? 'Cause Glory is going to be super pissed if it has.”

“I'm not worried about Spike. I'm worried about you. If you two are just patrol buddies with occasional kissage, maybe you should just say so. Let yourself off the fangy hook.”

Buffy's hollow laugh echoed against the training room walls. “You know what? I'd be more inclined to take demon dating advice from someone who wasn't trying to hide the demon he's dating.”

“Ex-demon. Also, not hiding.”

“A demon's lifetime, a demon's memories, a demon's mind. And you think shoving her into the human world should make it all fade away. Do you love her for her, or for what you think she should be?”

“Whoa, whoa! Where did that come from? And how are we talking about Anya?”

“I'm getting a lot of stuff off my chest tonight. Cleaning house. And you're evading. Tell me, do you really want to be with her, Xan?”

“Well, yeah, of course I do. Do you really want to be with the bleached menace?”

“Yes, I do. Lock the door behind me, will you?”

Giles returned to his desk.

As a rule, a slayer does not outlive the records of her exploits in the diaries. They are meant to die together. But then, Buffy has never been one to follow the rules. The Council knew that, learned from Merrick's reports and diary entries what kind of girl had been called to the cause. I suspect that is why she was assigned to me. My own youth was full of rule-breaking and general rebellion. Perhaps the Council thought I would see myself in her, and be understanding. More likely, they thought I'd be forceful in correcting her free-mindedness, knowing from experience where it may lead.

I wasn't forceful. I was understanding. And then, it seems, I wasn't. At some point in the future, I wasn't there for her when I should have been, wasn't the ally she needed. I abandoned my charge.

She can't see past those yet unmade mistakes, can't continue the ruse of being comfortable in the watcher-slayer paradigm. It isn't normal for her anymore. I suspect it hasn't been for quite a long time, something for which I have my future self to blame, perhaps also my past and present selves.

And so my charge has abandoned me.

*~*~*

Joyce opened her eyes, focusing them on the figure beside her bed. “The flashing one,” she murmured.

Buffy leaned forward in her chair. “What did you say?”

“One shimmers in green; one flashes in white... You aren't the one who was here.”

“No,” Buffy said gently. “Dawnie was here this afternoon. Is that what you mean?” She glanced over her shoulder to make sure they were alone. “Dawnie is the one who shimmers, remember?”

“Between flashes, you're the one who was here, the real one.”

Buffy fell back in her chair as understanding dawned. “Oh.”

“Where is the original?”

“I'm the original, Mom. You might be seeing a little... time displacement, but it's still me.”

Joyce ignored her. “Where is the original?” she shouted. “Stop flashing! Show me the real one!”

A nurse came in and prepared a needle with a sedative. “It's alright, Mrs. Summers. Just relax.”

“White flashes! Where's the real one?”

Buffy backed out of the room. She stumbled to a row of chairs in the corridor, and slouched into one, her head bowed and mind racing.

Someone sat beside her. “There's a little too much pressure on certain parts of her brain right now. Her perception of reality is very... fluid.”

“I'll say.” Buffy looked up. “You again. What did we screw up this time?”

Whistler took off his hat and waved it in front of his face. “Not showering after getting slimed by a Queller, for one. What makes you think you screwed up? Regretting ditching your watcher already?”

“The last time I saw you was when Anya got hurt because me and Spike...”

“Were thinking about yourselves instead of the mission.”

“Is that why you're here tonight? To drop a hint that I need to keep Giles around for the mission?”

“Summers, I'm not here to talk about your watcher daddy issues. Get a shrink.”

“So why are you here?”

“Just so you know, I figured out a while ago that glare is code for 'Go away.' Lucky for you, I take hints about as well as you do.” Whistler settled his hat back into place. “Actually, this is a pep talk visit. I kinda came down heavy on you last time.”

“What? Implying we were tanking a world-saving job? Nah, that wasn't heavy at all.”

“Yeah, you've definitely been around Pratt too long. Your sarcasm used to have duller teeth.”

“Since it was directed at you, I'll take that as a compliment.” She waved a tired hand. “Go on, pep talk away. I can take it.”

“You aren't tanking it, kid. You're doing ok. Just keep your eyes open, find the big picture.”

“See? This is why I always want to pummel you. Our big picture, the reason we came back, was to stop my resurrection, preferably in the 'not dead Buffy' way. Then you tell me we don't even know what the big picture actually is. What the hell do you expect us to do with that lovely bit of trivia?

“I see I've picked a bad night. I should have known you didn't let it all out on the watcher.”

“Oh, I keep a special reserve of rage set aside, just for you.” Buffy struggled to keep her volume low. “I don't think you're even capable of appearing without some kind of bad news. I certainly haven't seen any proof of it. Hell, when you brought Tara in, which should have been your redeeming moment, it came with a side of Giles-style nagging and 'by the way, we can yank people out of heaven, too!'”

“Bloody hell. You again.”

They looked up to see Spike approaching. “Hey. You're just in time for a very twisted PTB pep talk.”

“I'm trying to tell you, it's not that bad,” Whistler said as Spike sat on Buffy's other side.

Spike sniffed. “Slimed?”

Buffy sighed. “Yes, yes. We have a consensus. I need to wash my hair. Demon slayed, by the way.”

“And she dumped her watcher faster than you can say 'emotional baggage.'”

She threw a glare at Whistler. “Thank you. I never could have managed tell him so eloquently.”

“Damn, Summers, you are in a mood tonight.” He addressed Spike. “Like I was telling Miss Sunshine And Roses here, you guys are doing ok, for the most part.”

“He's leaving out the part where he reminded me we don't know what our mission actually is, and he still hasn't offered to tell us, because -and I'm just guessing at the reasoning here- he's an asshole.”

Spike looked at Whistler. “Nothing personal, mate, but if the slayer decides to off you, I'm just gonna sit back and enjoy the show. Right now, I figure you've got about two minutes 'til curtain.”

Whistler glanced at Buffy's clenched fists. “You're probably right... So that fiasco at the Magic Box was a warning. You lose your focus, get reckless with your foresight, people get hurt. Lesson learned.”

“The hard way,” Buffy grumbled. “...Oh. That was the point.”

“You're thinking ahead now, and it shows. Tonight, you all told the watcher he was expendable, and you did it with an eye to the future, considering the consequences. You're ready for the big leagues.” He leaned forward. “Your idea of the mission, what you view as the big picture, isn't far off, it's just a touch too narrow. Look at the sources, the hows and whys of events, not just the events themselves. It's a lot easier to catch the stone in mid-air than to try to contain the ripples.”

In a flash of blue, he was gone. Buffy wrinkled her nose. “Huh?”

“He's talking about the ripple effect, love. The idea is, if you throw a stone into a still pond, the stone sinks out of sight, but the impact ripples outward 'til it changes the whole pond.”

“And that means what? That we're looking at the wrong stone?”

“That we're looking at ripples, when we think we're looking at the stone. It's not the resurrection that needs stopped, so much as the causes of it.”

“My death. We knew that.”

“Sure, if you don't jump, there's no need for the resurrection. Simple chain. But the source of the resurrection, the 'hows and whys' of it being possible, still exist. It doesn't have to happen to be possible. So if the resurrection is a ripple, what's the stone?”

The prompting made Buffy bury her face in her hands. “Ugh. Two things I hate: philosophical questions and cryptic demons.”

Spike pulled her hands away from her face and held them until she looked up at him. “You know the answer, love. You know where the problem is. You've known it since the night you crawled out of the ground. What's the stone, Buffy? And who threw it?”

*~*~*

The walk home was quiet, each focused on their own thoughts. When they entered the house, Buffy went straight to the phone. She dialed an international number she'd memorized in the summer of 2002. “Hi. This is Buffy Summers. I'd like to arrange a meeting with Althenea Grace.”

*~*~*

After showering off the Queller slime odor, Buffy came downstairs and crawled into bed. “So I never did ask about your night. Did you guys go to the vineyard?”

“Yeah. Broke in, showed her around. No trap door to go below the cellar. Preacher must've put that in.”

“That sucks. That was my best point of reference. The Bringers found the scythe about twenty yards from the door. They basically dug a big cavern down there.”

“Assuming the cavern wasn't already there.” Spike put his book on the nightstand. “Pretty sure it isn't under the casks, at any rate. If I remember the door right, twenty yards puts the scythe 'bout five or six yards outside the cellar wall.”

“You think we can go straight down?”

He shrugged. “Maybe. Get Glinda to try to dowse it for us, make sure we're right. The three of us should go together next time, compare memories, have her search for it.”

“I should have been there tonight.”

“That was the plan, yeah? At least you got the Queller. Seems like it was a close shave, though.”

“My hair doesn't still smell like slime spit, does it?”

He kissed the top of her head. “Apple blossoms and vanilla.”

“Good.” She bit her lip. “About the thing with Giles...”

“Don't think I've seen you that brassed off since Red dropped us into our first bounce.”

“Stuff boiled over, stuff I've been sitting on for a while. But I didn't say anything tonight I didn't mean.”

“I know. That's why I told him to leave right after you did... Was the thing with Wood that set you off, wasn't it?”

“Giles was saying things that sounded so much like what he said to me that night, I just snapped. How did you know?”

“You mentioned crosses on the walls. Glinda asked about it later.”

“How much did you tell her?”

“Everything relevant, from 1977 on. She was surprised you didn't come down on me for biting the bastard. 'Course, I was in the same boat for a while, before I understood why.” He looked at her. “You'd have finished the job, in my place.”

“It would have been justified. Simple self-defense.” Buffy let her head sink back into her pillows. “Whoa. I never thought I'd say that out loud. I'm not supposed to think that about a human, let alone say it.” She closed her eyes. “I'm a bad slayer, Spike. I've broken a lot of rules, and I don't seem to be able to stop. And tonight, I broke up with my watcher.”

“Just a little falling out. You'll patch it up.”

“I saw him later, at the shop. That's what Whistler was referring to, not my tantrum upstairs.” She held up a hand. “Don't freak. I kept it peaceful. No shouting. No violence.” The hand dropped. “I tried, Sparky. I really did. I just can't do it. Neither can he, apparently. When he looked as us in the living room tonight, he saw a time traveling version of the Angelus scenario, playing over again, Jenny's body in his bed, being tied to a chair with Dru standing over him, and all that. I could see it on his face.”

“The old man still doesn't know who made sure he lived through that, does he?”

“Probably not. And when I look at him, I see someone who tried to hurt people I love. I know he meant to serve the greater good, but I don't agree with his interpretation of what that is.” Buffy opened her eyes and climbed out of bed. “I think I need a snack. I'll be back in a few. Want anything?”

He shook his head, and watched her go upstairs. “Is that what you meant, Cassie?” he whispered.

Old Friends by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

She can't work with them quite the same way she used to. She doesn't trust them quite the same way she used to. She can't even talk to them quite the same way she used to. But they don't know any of the reasons why. To them, she's the one who isn't quite the same. Well, this seems perfectly simple. ...Right?

Chapter 13: Old Friends

November, 2000

Xander slipped into his bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. He studied the occupant for a long time before he spoke. “Ahn, wake up.”

Anya shifted and winced, her pain waking her. Xander helped her adjust the pillow under her cast. “Hi. Did you finish the shelves?”

“Yeah.” He stroked her hair. “And I'm sorry.”

“For what?” She blinked against the morning sunlight. “Are they crooked?”

“For arguing with you before you got hurt. For not respecting your history. For not telling you where I think you should be.”

Anya struggled to sit up against the headboard. “We fight about that stuff all the time. And where am I supposed to be? You invited me to stay here until I felt better, right?”

“I should have asked you to move in.” Xander studied the tiny spots of wood stain on his fingernails. “I stayed at the store all night, getting it ready to reopen, because I know you want to go back to work.”

“And I'm making you crazy here.”

He smiled. “A little. But that's your shop, as much as Giles'. You belong there. And here.”

“Do you mean that?”

“Yeah.” Xander took a deep breath. “I can't explain how much I freaked when I heard Glory had attacked you. I'm not sure I have ever been that scared... About anything. Ever. It scared me into silence, if you can believe such a thing.” He looked at her. “I don't think you know... I don't think I've made it clear... I'm in love with you. Powerfully, painfully in love. The things you do ... the way you think ... the way you move ... Even with a broken arm, a bump on your head, and loaded up on painkillers, you're still amazing. You make me feel like I've never felt before in my life. I get excited every time I'm about to see you. I want more of that. I want us to... to come home to each other. Every day.” He shrugged. “I just needed to say that.”

Anya was silent for a moment. Then she tried to lean toward him, but her cast and its cushion got in the way. She frowned at her arm. “I want to be kissing you, but...”

Xander hopped off the bed and ran around to the other side to sit down beside her. The warmth of the kiss more than made up for the brief wait.

When she pulled away, Anya looked around the bedroom. “Ok.”

“Ok?”

“Ok, I'll move in.”

*~*~*

“Giles is here,” Buffy said into the payphone.

“How are you faring with that?”

“I expected him to show up, for Mom's sake. And it's fine. We're civil and stuff. He just took Dawnie down to the cafeteria to get snacks.”

“How's everyone else?”

“Tense and worried. Anya decided not to reopen the Magic Box alone, and came to wait with Xander. I can't say I blame her, after last time. He's holding her good hand. Willow is cuddled up against Tara's shoulder. It's very... couple-y in here. Everyone has someone to lean on, to worry with them.”

“Jealous?”

“Someone should invest in heavy curtains. Or invent some kind of mystical sunscreen.”

“There was a gemstone, but I didn't get to give it more than a test drive.”

She sighed and rolled her eyes. “I'm sorry, ok? But you were really being an ass that day, and you were still pretty dangerous back then.”

“Hey! I'm still dangerous!”

“This morning I saw you padding around my mother's kitchen in your bare feet, making an omelet for my sister, and drinking from a mug with tulips stenciled on it. Yes, you're dangerous and scary.”

“Bugger off.

She chuckled. “You're so fun to rile up.”

“Glad to be of service,” Spike grumbled.

“I'll check in again soon.”

“I'll be here.”

*~*~*

Buffy jumped up sit on the counter between the sinks. “So I think the crazies can see time travelers.”

“How do you mean?” Tara asked, leaning against the frame of a stall door.

“The other night, Mom was babbling about me 'flashing in white.' She saw what she thinks of as the 'real' Buffy between the flashes. I think she's seeing where I was merged into this time's Buffy. There was a lot of flashing white light in the spell that sent us here. I bet Spike is flashing, too. And possibly his coat. You might be, depending on how the PTB transferred you in.”

“Crap. I don't know how to mask that. I mean, I'm sure the Key glamour will cover it in me, if I am flashing, but there's no way I can mask you and Spike, on top of that, even with your super-charged power source. It would still be too much for me.

Buffy shrugged. “I figured as much. I just wanted to let you know what Mom told me.” Her gaze drifted to the restroom floor. “If only the news we're about to get was as good as everyone will think it is...”

“You don't know that the aneurysm will form again.”

“Why wouldn't it? Everything about her medical situation has progressed exactly the same way, at the same pace. I tried early on to get a couple of her appointments moved up, but there was never an opening. I even tried to find a better neurosurgeon, but this one is among the best in California. He's got a great survival rate on cases like Mom's ...I guess someone has to make up the statistics, but I wish they didn't have to come from my family.” She chuckled at herself, shaking her head. “Listen to me. Heartless and selfish. I guess everyone thinks that, but most people aren't crass enough to say it.”

“Most people don't have to go through it twice, Buffy. I think you're allowed a little extra selfishness.”

The gentleness in her voice made Buffy's smile shift from rueful to grateful. “It's good to have you here. I really need a friend with me right now, someone who gets it.”

“And can hang out near the windows?” Tara giggled. “I know I'm the second choice, but I still appreciate the sentiment... I'm also not the only friend you have here, you know.”

“You mean Willow.”

“For starters. She misses you, but this 'you and Spike' thing still has her freaked out. She came here for your mom, but also because she's hoping you'll make the next move.”

“I've already made my next move. I've called a reputable coven.”

“To train her or restrain her?” Tara looked worried. “I know she'll be a problem later...”

“Which ever needs to be done. We have to get to her before her first book-sucking rage-magic incident, Tara. If we're going to put you in the line of fire with Glory--”

“I could get hurt again. Or worse. And I'm her biggest trigger.”

“She has more love for you than she has good sense.” Buffy shrugged. “We either don't have your help, and keep you even more protected than Dawnie, or we risk Scary Black Eyed Willow. The only alternative is to get ahead of her, stage a magic intervention.”

“She's not going to take it well.” Tara sighed. “You want me to lead her into it, don't you?”

“We're not doing anything until we talk to the witches. For now, all I'm asking is that you'll be a part of the conversation.”

“Absolutely. You don't even have to ask that. But I won't force her into anything.”

“I don't want to force her, either. But I'm willing, if I have to. Let's just see what the pros say, ok?”

“You'll talk to her in the meantime? You know, about friend stuff?”

“I'll try.”

*~*~*

When Dawn broke out of the spontaneous group hug, she raced to the bank of payphones and called home. “She made it through surgery. She's going to be ok. The doctor says everything went exactly right.”

“That's grand, Bit. Any word on how long she'll be in hospital?”

“He said he'll decide when the test results start coming in. Hang on, Buffy wants to talk to you.”

A moment later, Buffy's quiet voice came over the line, a stark contrast the excitement of her sister's. “Hey, Sparky.”

“I know that tone. What's wrong?”

“My Mom relief is all mixed up with my Scooby tension. Everyone is being kind and supportive, but there's this undercurrent...”

“Sounds like you need to have a chat with your mates, love. What say I watch the Nibblet tonight, and you lot go out for drinks?”

“Spike, we're all under-aged. The only place we can get drinks in town is a bar they won't want to go to.”

“Then take the children out for a bloody soda pop at the Bronze. The beverage isn't the point.”

Buffy looked over to her friends. “I don't know... Maybe it is. And maybe you need to be there, too.”

“Yeah? And who's gonna stay with the Bit?”

“Clem?”

“You haven't met him yet, love.”

“I can call Janice's mom, maybe arrange a sleepover. Chandra's cool about this sort of stuff.”

“Chandra's cool about it when she knows you, a year from now.”

“It's worth a shot.”

*~*~*

Buffy expected more resistance than she got. When she told Chandra Miller she wanted to celebrate the good news with friends, but there would probably be alcohol involved, Chandra praised her for planning ahead and readily agreed to have Dawn spend the night with Janice. Dawn was elated at the idea of a school night sleepover, and eager to get away from the tension of the hospital waiting room. Willow and Xander were so surprised at the invitation, their girlfriends didn't even have to talk them into accepting.

When the three couples walked into Little Bangkok, the Thai restaurant on State street, a waitress near the hostess' stand greeted the vampire warmly. “Spike! You brought us friends! Not a take out order tonight?”

“No, Mae. We'll be dining in. A quiet table, if you can, pet.”

“That's easy.” Mae threw him another smile, then looked over the group. “Which of you ladies is the Drunken Noodle with Chicken, extra hot?”

With a nervous chuckle, Buffy raised her hand, earning strange looks from her friends.

“Aah. She's a pretty one, Spike. You'd better keep her happy.” Mae grabbed four menus from the stand and led the group to a table near the back of the dining room.

They settled in and placed their beverage orders. “So... drunken noodle?” Xander asked.

“It's really good. You might want to get it mild or medium, though. Extra hot is pretty much for non-humans and actual Thai people.” Buffy took a sip of her water. “Most people can't take the heat.”

“That's not what I was asking. Also, you're human.”

“Only mostly, Xan. Slayer, remember?”

“Do you never bring your girl food?” Spike asked him. “Why do you let him live, Anyanka?”

A snicker went around the table, but Anya didn't see the joke. “He orders pizzas sometimes.” She lifted her injured arm. “And carries things. Also, good sex can make up for a lot of little annoyances.”

“I'll drink to that,” Spike raised his water glass. “Ow! Dammit, Slayer!”

“Behave yourself, and you won't get kicked again.”

“Who's not behaving? Emily Post said fuck all about kicking your date.”

“Emily Post didn't have to put up with you.” Buffy smirked. “You're not wrong, Anya. ...Ow!”

Everyone laughed, save Willow, who looked profoundly uncomfortable. “I guess that answers that question,” she muttered from behind her menu.

Buffy turned to Tara as the laughter died away. “What are you ordering?”

“Um, I liked the Pad Thai. I might get that again.”

Willow lowered her menu with a frown. “You've been here before?”

“I, um, got take out once, with... my other friends.”

“Oh.” Willow explained to the table, “Tara's been branching out lately. At least that's how she puts it. She's been hanging out with some non-Scooby friends from her Chem class, Joan and Randy.”

Buffy choked on her water. Spike bit back his impulse to laugh as he patted her back.

“We should invite them next time,” Xander said as the coughing subsided. “You know, assuming Buffy remembers that the windpipe is not where water goes, and doesn't drown right here. Am I going to have to give you CPR again?”

Tara shifted in her seat. “They aren't Scoobies, Xander. That's kind of the point. I like having friends that aren't demon hunters.”

Buffy, when she was finally able to breathe again, fanned her red face with a napkin. “Are- are you guys ready to order?” she gasped. “Mae will be back any minute.”

To her relief, the conversation subsided as Willow, Tara, Xander, and Anya returned to looking over their menus. Spike caught her eye, still fighting back a smile. She kicked him again.

*~*~*

“Can we talk about the elephant in the room?” Willow asked, pushing her plate aside. “I'm not trying to ruin anything. We're having a fun night, but I kinda feel like it's a little forced.”

Anya looked around. “There's an elephant? Oh, in that gaudy mural by the kitchen door. Yeah, someone needs to talk to them about that. Definitely not realistic.”

“I think she means the proverbial elephant, Ahn. The one with fangs.”

“Oh. Spike hasn't put on weight, as far as I can tell.” A chuckle went around the table. She adjusted her sling with a pout. “I'm not trying to be funny.”

“And you're right. It isn't funny.” Buffy's firm voice drew everyone's attention. “Willow's right on one point: We're having fun. Normal, Scooby fun. And there's nothing wrong with that.” She waved for the waitress. “Mae, I need an outsider's opinion, please. When you look at the six of us, what do you see?”

“I'm not sure what you're asking. A group of friends having dinner?” Mae looked uncertainly at Willow and Tara. “Three... couples?” Tara's nod relaxed her expression. “Is that what you mean?”

“That's exactly what I mean. Thank you, Mae.” Buffy addressed her friend as the waitress stepped away. “So where's the elephant, Wils?”

“Sitting between us.”

“Pineapple fried rice?”

“Silence.” Willow sat up straight, gathering her nerve. “You don't talk to me much anymore. Or Xan.”

Xander held up his hands, one of them still holding a fork. “Hey, keep me out of this.”

Willow turned on him. “Oh, so you don't mind feeling like you're only a friend sometimes, and a nameless soldier in Buffy's Hellgod war the rest? That's not what you told me.”

Buffy closed her eyes. “We're all soldiers,” she whispered. She opened her eyes and looked around the table. Willow, her hair short, the haunted look in her eyes noticeably absent. Tara beside her. Anya, her arm in a cast and sling, the expression on her face more concerned than bitter. Xander, slim and fit, looking at her with two kind eyes, rather than one resigned one. Spike, his hand reaching for hers under the table, his eyes darting worriedly to Tara's. “Never mind. This isn't the war you think it is. And you're all welcome to walk away.”

“No one is saying we want to, Buffster. We're here to help. We just want to feel like we're helping a friend. You know, someone who talks to us and hangs out with us? This is the first time we've all been together just for fun since Tara's birthday party.”

Willow nodded her agreement with Xander. “We want to be in on your life, trade stories and worries, and just be like we used to be, like before...” Her eyes drifted to Spike.

“Before I had a boyfriend you didn't approve of.” Buffy threw her napkin on the table.

Spike's eyebrows lifted. “Boyfriend?”

“Just roll with it, ok?” She turned back to Willow. “It's ok to say it, Wils. Hell, it's ok to tell me to my face that you think I'm enthralled. I didn't have to hear about it from Mom and Giles.”

Willow leaned back in her chair. “I would have, but you aren't exactly as ...approachable as you used to be. It's not just Spike, Buffy. It's you. You're distant, closed off. It's like you have to force yourself to trust us, and that's about as far as you can get. Being a friend is just asking too much. That's why I thought there was a thrall. But I get it now. There isn't a thrall, is there?”

Spike shook his head.

“No, you're shutting me out by your own free will. You dumped Riley, without even talking to your best friend about it.” Willow pointed to herself. “You had Spike move in pretty much immediately after, and at some point started dating him. Again, no girl talk. You fired Giles from watcher duty, and he's pretty upset about it, but neither of you has even offered to tell me why. And the best part? I had to find out your mom was sick from Spike. I'm not going to pretend to understand this.” She gestured between Buffy and Spike. “But I've figured one thing out for sure: I'm not your best friend anymore.”

Willow swiped at her damp cheek. Tara put comforting arm around her. Xander offered a spare napkin to use as a handkerchief. Buffy sat open-mouthed. This wasn't the anger she'd expected. This was hurt and disappointment. “Wils, I'm not closed off on purpose. I'm trying, really. The whole point of tonight is to just hang out, as friends.” She reached over the plate of rice to take Willow's hand. “All the Glory and Dawn stuff, and Mom being in and out of the hospital, has just shifted my focus toward home.”

“Which is conveniently where you keep your vampire,” Xander grumbled.

“Which is where she needs me to be,” Spike snapped. “Don't see any of you lot willing to move in to play bodyguard and help run the house while Joyce is ill.”

Willow shook her head. “Who are you? And what have you done with Spike?” She dabbed her nose with the napkin. “If you keep talking like that, people aren't going to want to stake you so much.”

A snicker went around the table, breaking the tension. “We should do this more often,” Anya said decidedly. “Catharsis and spicy food, to clean out all the systems at once. But people aren't supposed to have these conversations sober. It isn't natural.”

Spike smirked. “Yeah, I think a few drinks are in order. Let's get out of here.”

*~*~*

“Spike. Slayer.” Willy nodded in acknowledgment as they walked into his bar. He saw the two couples behind them. “Hey! You're not going to fill this place up with your white hat humans! You'll drive off my clientele.”

Buffy looked around the half empty bar and raised an eyebrow at him. “Yeah, your week night crowd is pretty wild. I'm not even sure we can get a table.”

He sighed, relenting. “What'll it be?”

“That's what I thought.” Buffy walked away from the bar to choose a table.

Willy looked at Spike. “Captain and Coke and Jack on the rocks?”

“And start a tab for me. Might be here a bit tonight.”

After the humans put in their orders, Xander leaned against the bar beside Spike to wait for the drinks. “So you order Thai takeout often enough that Mae knows your girlfriend by her favorite meal and the two of you come here often enough that Willy knows your drink orders?”

Spike shrugged.“We swing by for a nightcap after patrol sometimes.”

“And Willy is going to put Buffy's drinks on your tab without a second thought.”

“What are you getting at, Harris?”

Xander shrugged. “Nothing. I'm just making sure I'm reading this right. 'Cause, honestly, Spike? You and Buffy? It doesn't make sense. Like, none of it. From the very concept to the fact that you guys seemed to go from what I assumedwas a first date to being like a settled couple really, really fast.”

“Some things just work, Harris. Even when there's no reason they should.”

A curvy redhead in her late thirties put the tray she carried on the bar beside Spike. “Not even a hello, Spike?”

He turned and gave her a warm smile. “Evening, pet.” He kissed her cheek. “Didn't see you. Thought you might have the night off.”

The waitress gestured to Willy behind the bar. “Working for this slave-driver? Are you kidding me? I'm still holding out for you to take me away from all this.”

“I would, Trix, but there'd be 110 pounds of slayer rage blocking the door.”

“Worse, she'd probably call my husband.” She smiled at Xander. “Hi. I'm Trixie.”

“Don't even bat your eyes, pet. His girl's sitting with mine.” Spike nodded toward the table the women had gathered around. “And she's a retired vengeance demon.”

Trixie gave a friendly wave to the table, where Anya was watching them with narrowed eyes, and Buffy was rolling hers. “Go on, get to your women. I'll bring your drinks.”

Spike gave her another kiss on the cheek as they stepped away. “Still my best girl, you know.”

“If I thought you meant that, I'd be divorced by now.” She waved them on.

Spike was chuckling when he took the empty chair beside Buffy.

“One of these days, William... some jealous husband is going to have himself a real good day.”

He laughed and put his arm across the back of her chair. “Doubt he could take me.”

“I might help.”

“Which one? Me or the husband?”

“I haven't decided yet,” she grumbled, but she was smiling.

Everyone laughed, save Willow, yet again. She looked around. “It's nice to not get carded and laughed out the bar, but guys, we're hanging out at Willy's.”

“I kind of like it.” Anya said. “It's dive-y, but homey. We should come here more often, Xander.”

He glanced around at the scattering of demons, trying to reconcile his worries with his wish to make her happy. “Um, if you want you, I guess we can, once in a while.” He looked at Buffy. “Is it safe to be here without a slayer escort?”

She shrugged. “Most of the demons in town know who you are, Xan. I'm pretty sure being my friend puts you on the 'do I really want to bruise this guy?' list. Ah! Thanks, Trix.” She accepted her drink from the waitress. “Keep this up, and I'll forget to call Greg when you and Spike run off together.”

“I wish!” Trixie laughed as she served the other drinks.

“Willy wouldn't let you get hurt in here,” Spike added when Trixie had moved to another table. “Knows Buffy would make him suffer for it. Besides, the weeknight regulars are mostly peaceful types.” He tapped Buffy on the shoulder and pointed to the far end of the bar.

Her eyes lit up. She nodded, and Spike sauntered back to the bar. He gestured for her to join him a minute later. “Clem, meet the slayer. Buffy, this is the bloke I've been telling you about.”

“Hi,” Clem said with a nervous wave. He cringed as Buffy stepped toward him.

“I'm not going to attack you. I've heard so much about you from Spike, I feel like I know you.” She held out her arms, inviting a hug. “Let's just start out as friends, ok?”

Clem hugged her readily. “She's not nearly as scary as everyone says,” he said over her shoulder.

“Not to you, anyway.”

Buffy pulled out of the hug and took Clem's hand. “Come on, you should meet my friends. They might be a little tense at first, but they'll like you.”

“By the third round, at any rate,” Spike mumbled.

“That's kinda the point.” She stopped a few steps from their table, when she spotted a tall, bumpy-faced demon slouched in a corner booth with his claws wrapped around an empty glass. “Rudy?” She released Clem's hand. “Spike will introduce you to the gang. I'll be right back.”

Willow forced herself to accept Clem's offered handshake. “Um, hi. It's nice to meet you.”

Clem chuckled, shaking the loose skin of his face. “It's alright to be nervous, human. Just don't try to kill me, and we'll be ok.” He took a seat at the table. “I didn't know Rudy knew the slayer.”

Xander peeled his eyes away from the booth in the corner. “Is Rudy the demon in the purple robe?”

Spike nodded. “We met him on patrol a few weeks back. Some young vamps were trying to mug him.”

“So Buffy's saving demons now? That's a little weird.”

Anya shrugged. “Not really, Xander. Jalferstalf demons might look like big, sharp-clawed scary things, but they're really just overgrown kittens.”

Clem nodded his agreement. “Rudy's a nice guy and all, but geez! His species makes mine look tough.”

Buffy came back to the table alone. “Sorry, everyone. I had to check on an acquaintance. I tried to get him to join us, but I think he's busy being miserable.”

“What's wrong with him?” Tara asked. “He looks really depressed.”

“He lost his favorite bicycle in a poker game.”

Xander took a sip of his drink. “I think I'm going to need more liquor to process this night. My brain is already sending me mixed signals about fear, sympathy, and the hilarious mental image of that big, nightmare-looking dude riding a bicycle. And we're barely into the first round.”

Buffy threw Spike a quick smile, anticipating success. “So we're going to be here for a while? Good. Does anyone have any quarters for the juke box?”

*~*~*

Buffy was sipping her coffee and reading the newspaper when Tara came into the kitchen. “Morning,” she said, without looking up. “Coffee's fresh. Do you remember where we keep everything?”

“Yep.” Tara pulled two mugs from the cabinet above the microwave and filled them, then reached for the sugar bowl. “Willow's hungover.” She dropped the sugar spoon on the floor and cringed at the noise. “I'm not in the best of shape myself.”

Buffy didn't even flinch. “You didn't have that much to drink.” She glanced over the top of the newspaper. “Also, Joan and Randy? Really, Tara?”

“I had to explain why I was going out without her some evenings, and those were the first names I thought of.” She shrugged. “And it's not just the alcohol. It's waking up in your mom's room with Willow. I looked out the window, half expecting you and Xander to be in the backyard.”

“Sorry, I wasn't thinking of that. I should have put you guys in my room.”

The clatter of the spoon dropping had woken the guest on the sofa. He shuffled into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes. “Everything ok? And do I smell coffee?”

“'Morning, Clem. We're fine. Mugs are in the cabinet above the microwave.”

The sounds and smells from the kitchen slowly brought everyone else from their borrowed beds. By the time Spike came upstairs, the kitchen was full. Clem and Anya were debating the merits of cereal advertising. Willow was starting a second pot of coffee, Xander and Tara were scrounging around the refrigerator and cabinets, trying to come up with breakfast for seven. Buffy sat seemingly oblivious in the middle of it all, calmly reading the newspaper. Spike whispered in her ear, “Just like old times, eh?”

“No,” she whispered back. “This is quieter.”

Spike snickered and began the well-practiced maneuvers of moving around the humans to warm a mug of blood for himself. “Downstairs?” he asked over the noise of the other conversations.

“Good cloud cover this morning. A little foggy.”

“Suits me.” When the microwave beeped, he grabbed his mug and slipped out the back door.

Buffy joined him on the porch after she'd refilled her own mug. “Don't you dare laugh, but...”

“You've missed this?”

“You have, too. Admit it.”

“Maybe a bit.”

She leaned against the railing. “It just feels so... normal to me now. It shouldn't. And I really, really hope it doesn't have to become normal again, given why it was before. But there was something comforting and familiar about coming upstairs this morning, knowing the house was full of people and the kitchen would soon be in chaos.” She sighed. “I wonder how long we've been gone.”

“A few minutes. An hour, maybe. Red wasn't clear on how long it would take.”

“It's been months, plus the bounces. But they'll never even have time to miss us.”

“As soon as we prevent the resurrection spell, it'll have never even happened.”

“It's kind of sad. I know it's better this way but they--” She gestured toward the house. “will never know why we are the way we are, why morning kitchen chaos is comfortable, why assigning beds to a handful of drunk people was no big deal... why I can't connect with them the way they expect me to.”

“Seemed to do alright last night.”

“I got them liquored up and made them blow off some steam.”

Spike shrugged. “Worked for Faith.”

“And I gave her a serious chewing out for it. There's got to be a better way to bond with them again.”

“So why'd you want to take them to Willy's in the first place? I know you don't want to hear it, Slayer, but Faith got that part right. Easiest way to turn strangers into friends is booze and dancing. If you're gonna use her methods, you need to admit she knew what she was doing.”

“It's still not the same as Faith and the girls.” She pointed to the house again. “They aren't strangers.”

“No,” Spike said slowly. “We are. That's kinda the problem, isn't it?”

Eternal Monkey by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

There's more than one offer on the proverbial table. Any takers?

Chapter 14: Eternal Monkey

December, 2000

Giles looked up at the sound of the bell over the door. “Buffy.” He tried to keep his tone cool and detached. “What can I get for you?”

Buffy glanced at Anya, who was talking to a customer. “Can we talk in your office for a minute?” She followed him into the cluttered room, and closed the door behind them. “First of all, Mom says thanks for the flowers.”

“How is she?”

“Good. Really good. Every test they've run for the last three days has come up with 'best case scenario' results. I want to buy that surgeon a car, but I figure Mom and the insurance company are going to do that, anyway.” She shrugged. “They're releasing her tomorrow.”

“I'm happy to hear it.” He leaned against his desk, his arms crossed. “And the real reason you're here?”

“I've reached out to the Devon coven, trying to get ahead of Willow's dark magic use. You know, stop it before it starts. Althenea Grace is coming to talk to us about our options. She'll be at my place in about an hour. She's asked for you to be present, and I promised to extend an invitation.”

“Well, I do have a history with the coven.”

“And you haven't only been my watcher. You've been Willow's too, in a sense. Your input might be useful to them.”

“You know far more than I do. ...But it would be nice to see Althenea. Yes, I'll join you.”

“Thank you.” Buffy turned to open the door, but Giles' voice stopped her.

“Althenea is a seer, Buffy. She doesn't advertise it to outsiders, but she has the gift. She's also a master aura reader. The combination of the two means very little escapes her notice. She'll already know who you really are, and possibly some of your personal history you brought back with you. ”

Buffy bit her lip, thinking of the other guest. “Thanks for the warning, but you're probably the one who needs it. Brace yourself, Giles. She might tell you some stories you haven't heard yet.”

*~*~*

The living room furniture was pushed back to make room for the arrival of teleporting witches. When they flashed into the room, Spike shoved the chairs back into a vaguely conversational arrangement near the sofa while Buffy poured glasses of water from the pitcher she'd put on the desk. When she looked up at their guests to offer the first glass, she nearly dropped it. “Spike? Are you seeing this?”

“Yeah.” He turned to the elder witch. “Althenea, right? You wanna introduce us to your friends?”

The old witch smiled to her coven mates and gestured to their hosts. “Meet the anomalies: Buffy, the slayer who fell out of the lineage, and William, the vampire who sought his soul. Buffy and William, I believe you've already met Bryn and Elsa.”

The handshakes offered to the two younger witches were stiff with shock. Althenea laughed as she hugged a greeting to Giles. “I do enjoy giving the warrior types an occasional reminder of where the real power lives.”

“While I agree seeing them stunned is entertaining, I don't believe I understand.”

“In their timeline, Bryn and Elsa helped your Miss Rosenberg send them back in time. In fact, if their timeline has not yet crumbled, Bryn, Elsa, and myself are with their bodies in this room, right now, in 2003, waiting for them to either catch up or destroy that possible path.”

“Oh, goody. Paradoxes. This is going to get fun.” Buffy grumbled.

Someone came in the back door and called from the kitchen. “Buffy? Spike? Am I late?”

Althenea clapped her hands together. “Finally! The one I've been dying to meet!”

“In here, Glinda. You're just in time.” Spike looked at Althenea's excited face. “For what, I'm not sure.”

Tara entered the living room to find herself face to face with a short, smiling old woman, who was scrutinizing her closely. “Um, hi?”

“It's beautiful work,” Althenea murmured, studying Tara's aura. “If I didn't know better, I'd say she was the original.”

The three time travelers traded glances, then looked to Giles, who could only repeat, “The original?”

“No merging markers, no distortion of the aura, no evidence of the Beast's mind alteration scarring.” Althenea shook out of her reverie. “But you remember everything, don't you, child?”

As Tara nodded, Giles sputtered. “Distortion? The Beast? Remember what?”

“Being dead, Giles,” Buffy whispered. “I'm not the only resurrection case in town.”

*~*~*

“I don't understand. Why would you reveal Buffy and Spike to me, but not yourself?”

“I didn't know I'd been sent back until after that,” Tara explained. “My future memories were blocked.”

Buffy slapped Spike's knee. “I told you that was the right term!”

Giles turned to her as if just remembering she was in the room. “And how long have you known?”

“Oh, we were there when she got her memories back. Our PTB handler stopped by to nag us, and stayed to give us our Tara back. So far, it's the only time he's been genuinely useful.”

Bryn frowned. “Your PTB handler? As in, an agent of the Powers?”

“Yeah. A half-demon, half-human guy named Whistler. I met him years ago, but I didn't see him again until we came back. And now he won't go away.”

“What's it been, love? Four visits now?” Spike asked. Buffy nodded. “Bloke seems pretty interested in what we're up to. Guess his bosses are convinced we're gonna bugger it up.”

“That's not how it works,” Elsa said quietly. “Our coven has a long history, with excellent records. We have detailed accounts of some of the work agents of the Powers have done on this plane. It's common for them to put in an appearance -sometimes two- to ensure a job is properly done. They'll give a nudge in the right direction and disappear. But four visits in as many months? That's far less common.”

Buffy threw up her hands. “So we're record-breaking screw ups. Fabulous.”

“There's no need to come down hard on yourself, child. More likely, this agent's assignment is you, not your work.” Althenea smiled kindly. “It's a compliment from the Powers, for them to take an interest. They must have plans for you. Don't be surprised if you still see this Whistler gent after you've completed your mission.”

“Assuming I live that long,” Buffy grumbled. “'Cause if I have to die this time, it's a one way ticket.”

Spike took her hand. He pretended not to notice Giles' raised eyebrows at the openness of the gesture.

Buffy continued, “Which is why you ladies are here. If we can shove some magical ethics into Willow's brain, maybe she'll be less likely to bring me back if I don't make it.”

“How much of the time travel has been revealed to Miss Rosenberg?” Bryn asked.

“We've kept her completely in the dark,” Tara said guiltily. “But she's suspicious. ...She's already tried accessing Spike's soul, but gave up before she figured out why she couldn't find it. At least for now. It's the end of the semester, so she's got too much studying to do to spend a lot of time on wild goose chases.”

“She's definitely interested in wild geese, though. She'll probably get back to it after finals.” Buffy bit her lip. “Not to mention she's definitely noticed how different I am.”

“And assumed the slayer and me stopped fighting because I had her enthralled.”

Tara gave Spike a crooked smile. “You two stopped fighting? Since when?”

He shrugged. “Comparatively less, then.”

“In short,” Althenea looked at the three time travelers, “It's likely she'll expose at least one of you at some point in the near future. Yes?”

Buffy nodded. “Pretty likely.”

“Then I'm afraid we'll have to consider magical restraint.”

“Please don't,” Tara whispered. “I don't want to do anything to her behind her back.”

Althenea reached across the coffee table to pat Tara's knee. “I know you don't, child. But time travel is delicate work, and preventing an uprising of the First Evil is no frivolous task. The--”

“Oh, dear lord.”

“Yeah, Watcher. The First.”

“How bad was it?” Giles asked faintly.

“Kidnapping, torture, mass murder, psychological taunting, and outright mind control,” Buffy said. “And that's just the crap it put Spike through. The tip of a big damn iceberg.”

“Worldwide uprising, not just local to the Hellmouth. Most of the Potentials and nearly all the Watchers were dead by the time we left. We told you it got ugly, Rupes.”

While Giles cleaned his glasses, Althenea finished her thought. “The risks associated with being exposed by an undisciplined witch -one who may learn by the exposure she was the source of the traveling- are many and great. Her reaction could be extreme if she learns the truth.”

“Oh, no... The trance thingy,” Buffy whispered. “The spell to see spells. She already knows it. It was earlier than this the first time around when she showed it to me.”

Tara leaned back on the sofa. “If she thinks of it, she'll do it. She won't even hesitate. And she'll see it, all of it. Maybe not me, because of the source, but definitely you two. The flashing caused by the merge, the different versions of you in the flashes, and her own magical signature all over you both.” She rubbed her eyes with the bases of her palms. “Buffy's right: Willow already knows that spell. If she tries it, we're in trouble. And she has the means to do it at any given moment.”

“Will you consent to restraint, then?” Bryn asked.

Tara brought her hands away from her face and into her lap, where they clasped each other nervously. “What are our other options?”

“Under such serious circumstances, the only other option is to remove her from the situation.”

“Gee, that doesn't sound ominous.” Buffy frowned at Althenea. “I thought you were the good guys.”

“It's not like the Council's wet works team, Buffy,” Giles said quietly. “She's talking about what she did for me, thirty years ago. She had me cloistered at the coven's sanctuary in Devon, for what I suppose you might call rehabilitation.”

“Magic rehab. Yeah, you took Willow there after...” Buffy gestured to Tara, but her eyes were drifting back to Althenea. “This is why you asked me to invite him.”

“The act would be pre-emptive, in this case,” Elsa said. “She would need to be willing.”

“And that's the other reason I want Rupert involved. He can recommend she come to us for training. Someone she already trusts should lead the way.” Althenea looked to Tara. “And you--”

“I know,” Tara whispered sadly. “I have to support her leaving.”

“And how's Glinda supposed to explain not coming along? Our witches come as a pair 'round here.”

“Tara's situation is entirely different from Willow's, even from Willow's single timeline perspective,” Althenea said. “I can explain the differences in their needs, and the need for Willow to come to us alone, quite easily. I only need someone to facilitate the introductions.”

“And if she won't go?” Spike asked.

“We'll have to restrain her magically.”

“How are we going to explain that?” Buffy scoffed. “'Yeah, Wils, that's what happens when you don't go for training. Your magic just goes poof overnight.' No way will she buy that.”

“There will be no need to lie to her,” Bryn said. “I see no reason why she can't be told she is verging on a dangerous path, and these are her options.”

“Ultimatums. Bloody wonderful.”

“Only if she refuses to go, Spike.” Giles looked thoughtful. “And I think I know how to make her willing to accept. We're fortunate you're here just before the holidays, Althenea. I'm certain you'll have a new pupil in January.”

*~*~*

While Giles and the witches were telling Tara more about the sanctuary, Buffy and Spike slipped out to the kitchen to talk. “There's no possible way this is what Whistler meant,” she whispered. “We've basically prevented the resurrection and all the other Willow-with-dark-magic stuff with one international phone call. It's too easy. Even if she starts to go off the rails after this, the coven will be watching her, will pull her back before she goes too crazy.”

“I know. That li'l bugger is up to something.”

“Oh, I think I know what he's up to. It goes something like 'Dance, monkey! Dance!'”

“You aren't the first to feel like a puppet,” came a voice from the doorway. “But there's a reason for it.” Althenea came into the room and took a stool at the counter. “Obviously, getting Willow proper training is extremely important, and could have wonderful ramifications down the line, but you already had what you needed to solve this problem. You only needed a nudge to use it.”

“The sanctuary's phone number.”

“As well as Rupert's presence. He would have happily served as intermediary, had you asked him.”

“I can't see past the man he became, Althenea. There was just too much damage done.”

“I'm not chastising you, Buffy. I understand. You don't get to go back to your time. This is your life now. You have to serve your own needs, as well as those of the mission at hand, same as anyone else.”

“Try telling Whistler that. Bloke seems to think we're better off living everything exactly the same as we did, save what has to change to stop Glory a different way.” Spike shook his head. “That's not the plan we came into this with.”

“We want to do better with everything,” Buffy said. “I don't think that's asking too much. But our PTB babysitter likes to nag us about it. I don't think it hurts to get a better life as a bonus for all the crap we went through.”

“I agree. I also think any agent could have been assigned to give the nudge that inspired you to call me. And it wasn't necessary that an agent even be seen to perform the spells to strengthen your memories and restore Tara's. ...What was the other visit? You said their were four.”

“I think that one could be summed up as 'Bad monkey! Dance better!'”

“Aah. I believe I understand. You made a mistake?”

“Big enough to get someone hurt,” Spike murmured in the direction of his boots.

Althenea gave him a sympathetic smile. “That conscience is still rather raw, isn't it?” She turned to Buffy. “There's absolutely no indication you need your hands held to complete this mission. You both seem to have a firm grasp on your goals. The most likely explanation for this agent hovering over you is that he is using this time travel expedition to learn about you, to study you.”

“So we're downgrading from dancing monkeys to bugs in a jar?” Buffy looked at Spike. “Plan A is sounding better and better. We break it, the PTB fixes it later.”

“Got my vote. Be glad to see the back of Whistler, at least.”

The old woman chuckled. “I've read of this a few times, as I've gone through the coven archives. There's a pattern to it. They seek out young, righteous warriors, witches, and mediators. It's always the independent types- no coven witches, no slayers, no watchers, no military servicemen, etc. An agent starts visiting the subject during a difficult trial, observing the journey. At the successful conclusion of the job at hand, if there is such, the subject finds himself offered an opportunity to become an agent of one type or another. The Powers are clearly considering you for something. It's quite an honor, not to mention the security and safety that comes along with it. Don't underestimate the value of being able to teleport at will. That ability alone is extremely valuable.”

“I'm not sure that applies to us, Althenea,” Buffy said. “I'm definitely a slayer, and there are no young independent types in this room.”

“Relatively speaking, William is quite young. As for you, you may carry a slayer's demon essence, and bear the responsibility of guarding this Hellmouth, but you haven't been the Chosen One, haven't been a part of the slayer lineage, since your first death. You're a freelance demon hunter, Buffy, same as William has become. The slayer title is merely an honorific.”

“I swear, you die for like, two minutes, and it haunts you forever.” Buffy rolled her eyes. “Six feet under for five months? Yeah, that sucks, and coming back breaks things, but what really counts is that you drowned in a puddle when you were sixteen. Can we at least pretend the second and third ones count for something?”

Spike's eyes went wide. “There was a third? When--”
Althenea held up a hand to stop his question. “My point, Buffy, is exactly that. Three deaths puts you not only as an anomaly among slayers, but as a separate entity altogether. And you, William, are as separate from your own species as you can be, with a profound knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the Powers' mortal warriors, besides. The two of you are uniquely equipped for the sort of work the Powers have difficulty achieving through normal means.”

“The slayers,” Spike said, understanding. “They not good enough for the Powers, now?”

“I spoke to an agent directly once, many years ago. I've been one of the people who has needed a one-time nudge, believe it or not. She told me the thing this plane needs most is warriors with some wisdom, who live long enough -and want to live long enough- to accumulate experience for themselves, rather than being dependent upon the books of the Watchers.”

“Slayers without death wishes?” Spike clarified. “Good luck with that!”

“And now they've got one,” Buffy said, realization dawning. “I'm all 'been there, done that' with the death and reward thing. I don't plan to go back until I absolutely I have to. They want to get a full human lifetime out of me to support the next few slayers.”

“I would think they'd want more than a few decades, Buffy. Generations more.”

Buffy stole a glance at Spike without making eye contact. She shifted her weight uncomfortably. “Althenea, if you're talking about children, I'm not exactly leading the kind of life where that happens.”

“No, of course not.” Althenea chuckled. “And I think you know what I mean. You're leading the kind of life that puts you at ease with the idea of immortality, and have been for many years, specifically with the immortal who stands beside you. Do you really think that's a coincidence?” The old witch climbed down from her stool and turned to walk out of the room, intending to leave them alone with that thought, but Buffy's voice stopped her.

“Althenea, if it's not too personal to ask, what was the nudge you needed?”

“I was waffling about taking in a troubled young warlock who had dropped out of Watcher training. It seems the Powers thought it important I get him back on track. Thirty years on, I'm beginning to understand why.”

“Oh.” Buffy watched the woman leave the kitchen, then took a seat on the recently vacated stool. “I know she's only theorizing, but that's a huge idea to take in. I accepted it, you know? I got some time bought for me, more than once, but I accepted the reality: Slayers die young. Period.”

“Familiar with the concept.” Spike narrowed his eyes on her. “Some of them three times.” His expression softened. “We've never talked about... Do you understand what she's hinting at? What it is Glinda sees between us?”

She looked down at her hands. “I do. I've... I've read some things.”

“Not Council books, I hope.”

“Um, the first time I got curious, yeah. ...A few years down the line, I realized they had some stuff wrong, so I looked deeper.” She didn't look up. “But I didn't know it would already be... um, active. Tara mentioned seeing it light up when I wanted to talk to you.”

“That's a bit off from what I expected, too. Seems early.” He studied her for a moment, trying to interpret her silence. “You mean to fight it, when the time comes. To reject...” He sighed. “Figured as much.”

Buffy slowly brought her gaze back to his. “There are other ways I could be pulled out of time, Sparky. Ways that don't get you involved at all.”

“So it's not the idea of it. It's me. Thanks, Slayer.”

“That's not what I mean.” She reached for his hand, trying to calm his rising temper. “Can we please talk about something else? Anything else?”

“Yeah...” Spike shook away all signs of emotion. “So, about that third time, General?”

She was visibly relieved at his choice of subject. It felt like safer ground. “When Tara got shot, I was the actual target. She caught a stray bullet in the back, that went right through her heart. Willow said she was gone in a matter of seconds. I got hit in the shoulder. Xan was with me. He called the paramedics, and I got to the hospital, but I flat-lined in the ER. Willow came in before they'd given up on me, all rage-magicked up. She pulled out the bullet, and healed my wound. So technically, she's brought me back from the dead twice, both times with dark magics.”

“And you never mentioned this because...?”

“By the time you came back, and weren't on the verge of ten kinds of crazy, it had been like six months. It wasn't exactly news.” She shrugged. “Besides, anything after the first one apparently doesn't count.”

“No need to be flippant about it,” Spike grumbled. “Three's enough for now. Fourth time should be a century or two down the road, at least. One way or another.”

Buffy shrugged again. “Or, you know, this coming May.”

“I told you, I'm not gonna let you jump.”

“And I hear you. Really.” She squeezed his hand. “But we can't count on Althenea's theory being right. I won't count on it. There might be a big pot of anti-aging cream and teleporting blue awesomeness at the end of the rainbow, or there might just be a painfully zappy portal to a hell dimension.”

“You just sap the fun out of every little daydream, don't you?”

“Oh, please! Like you really want to have to put up with me for centuries! Even you aren't that crazy.” She slid off her stool and went to the living room to check on their guests.

Spike whispered to the empty kitchen, “Some days, I think I am.”

*~*~*

Dawn was at school. Buffy was at the hospital pharmacy, picking up a refill for her mother. Joyce was in her own bed, resting. Spike was sprawled on the sofa, talking on the phone.

Tara was pacing the floor of her dorm room. “I'm still not sure I can go through with this,” she said into the phone. “It feels like a lie. Not like a little white time travel lie, but like a big, fat scam. I don't want to do that to her.”

“She needs the training, pet. She's going to get it this way, and know that's what she's agreeing to. Where's the lie in it?”

“I don't know,” Tara whined. “I just feel off about it, you know?”

“Maybe it's not about getting her to go. Maybe it's about her being gone.”

“Maybe.” She sighed. “If I weren't needed here, I'd go with her in a heartbeat.”

“Me, too. Grab Buffy, Joyce, and the Nibblet, and run off to the old country, hide out at the farmhouse 'til it all blows over.”

“The farmhouse?”

“Got a place in Bath, right near England's sleepy little Hellmouth. It's the one house that's not leased out. Figure the crazy bitch and her Doctor Boy box would run out of time 'fore they tracked us down.”

“It's an idea... There's just one problem.”

“We can't take this bloody Hellmouth with us. I know. She'd never leave it unguarded, or leave Glory to run loose without being around to keep an eye on her.”

“And whether we stay or go, Glory stays dangerous, in addition to the thousand other weird things that are drawn to the Hellmouth stirring up trouble.” Tara dropped onto the edge of her bed. “So I'm needed here.”

“She'll still be your girl, even apart for a while.”

“I hope so.”

“She will be, pet. I know it.”

“Spike, I've tried not to ask, but after I died...”

“Eventually, there was someone else, but she still had you on her mind, more than a little. Never dealt with the grief right, and it bit her in the ass. Got most of that story secondhand, though. Buffy did, too. We were busy with something else at the time.” Spike rubbed the back of his head and sighed into the phone. “Point is, it'll take more than living apart for few months to break you two up.”

There was a brief silence. “Thanks, Spike. I needed to hear that.”

“You think you can do it now?”

“I think so.”

“Good luck, pet.”

*~*~*

Tara met Willow after class, and walked with her to Giles' apartment.

“Did Giles say why he wanted to see me?”

“No, he just said it was important,” Tara lied.

“I bet it's about Buffy. He probably wants to explain why she dropped him like a bad habit, and ask for help getting her to come to her senses about going watcher-less.”

“Hmm... Maybe.”

“But why wouldn't he want to do it at the shop? That's where most of the spell books are.”

Tara frowned. Willow was apparently closer to giving Buffy a magical inspection than they'd thought.

When they were admitted to Giles' apartment, he ushered them to the sofa. “Willow, Tara, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine, Miss Althenea Grace.”

Althenea offered her hand to them each in turn. “Althenea, please.”

Willow and Tara introduced themselves, and accepted cups of tea from Giles. Willow seemed confused. “This meeting isn't about Buffy, is it?”

“She is part of the reason for it, certainly.” Giles took the chair across from Willow. “Among many other things Buffy has said of late to give me pause, she reminded me that I have been, in some ways, your watcher, as well as hers. And I believe I have failed in that duty.”

“Huh? No way. Giles, you've been great... I don't understand.”

“You've been a practicing witch for a few years now, and I have neglected to provide you with proper training. I'm attempting to correct that error.”

Althenea, seeing that Giles was struggling, cut in. “I am part of a large coven, based in Devon. Rupert told me about you, Willow, and I suggested inviting you to come to us for training.”

“Like, over winter break?” Willow grabbed Tara's hand excitedly. “That would be great! We'd love to!”

“Willow,” Giles said quietly. “There's a reason we're having this conversation before you register for the spring term. We're suggesting you have a lengthy and thorough training session, that you take some time to develop a firm understanding of the power you possess, and how to use it. Think of it as a semester abroad. In fact, that might be the best way to phrase it to your parents, your adviser, and any other outsiders.”

Willow's elation faded. “The whole semester? But what about Glory? Buffy will need a witch.”

“She'll have one,” Tara whispered, lowering her gaze to the floor. “I'll be here.”

“What? You won't come with me?” Willow released Tara's hand in dismay.

“The invitation is just for you, child. Tara doesn't need the same guidance you need.” At Willow's pout, Althenea continued. “She was born of a witch, and trained in using her innate abilities from the moment she could speak. She has a good grasp of balance and wise uses of magic. You have none of that background, and have acquired a significant amount of power.”

The startled dismay had developed into an expression of mild horror. “You think I'm dangerous.”

“I think you have only a superficial understanding of your capabilities, and an untamed view on how they should be used.” Althenea kept her voice low and soothing, despite her words. “Being well-meaning does not make you a good practitioner. Training does. One does not grow wise from time alone, but how one uses that time. Yours is being wasted. You could easily find yourself traveling a treacherous path if you are not soon properly educated.”

“I didn't get into her hands in time, Willow,” Giles said. “I'd already done quite a bit of harm to myself and others by the time the coven took me in. I don't wish the same to happen to you.”

Willow was silent for a few moments. “You really think I might... like you did?”

“Unfortunately, it's possible. And I never had the degree of power you already possess.”

“You're saying I could do more damage.”

At his nod, Willow fell silent again. “A semester abroad, huh?” She reached for Tara's hand again. “I guess it's worth considering.”

Tree Trunks by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Some gifts can't wait until Christmas.

Chapter 15: Tree Trunks

December, 2000

Joyce admitted Anya to the house with a smile. “How is your arm, dear?”

“Itchy. How's your brain?”

“Anya!” Dawn admonished from the stairs.

Joyce laughed. “Much better, thanks. I'm glad to be up and about again, that's for certain. I've grown so tired of lying in bed, I barely want to sleep at night.” She led her guest into the living room, with Dawn trailing behind. “Have a seat, Anya. Buffy is almost ready.” She returned to her desk, where she'd been sitting before Anya had knocked on the door.

Dawn crossed her arms over her chest. “Mom, what are you doing?”

“Trying to figure out this insurance form and paying a few bills.”

“You're supposed to be resting.” Dawn called toward the stairs. “Buffy! Mom's doing stuff again!”

“I'll be down in a minute!” Buffy called back.

Joyce stuck her tongue out at her younger daughter. “Tattle-tale.”

“The doctor said to rest.”

“I've had just about all the rest I can... take.” Joyce seemed distracted by something she'd noticed on the piece of paper in her hand. “What...?” She glanced up to see Anya and Dawn watching her closely. “Um... So do you girls know what it is you're shopping for?”

“Not really,” Dawn admitted. “I have a basic idea of what I want to get for some people, but for others, I'm waiting on inspiration to strike.”

“Xander is getting clothes,” Anya answered promptly. “Some for him to wear at work, and some for me to wear at home.”

Buffy, coming down the stairs in time to hear this, rolled her eyes. “We are not taking my sister to any of those stores, Anya. Let's just get the clothes Xan will wear on this shopping trip, ok?”

“I'm not a baby, Buffy. I understand the concept of sexy lingerie.”

“Let's keep it limited to a 'concept' for a little longer, please,” Joyce murmured, still staring at the paper.

Buffy joined them in the living room just long enough to kiss her mother on the cheek. “Spike's downstairs if you need anything. Get some rest.”

Joyce nodded and exchanged goodbyes with the three young women. As soon as they'd left, she took the surprising piece of paper from her desk and marched down to the basement.

Spike was lounging on the bed, reading. He looked up at her arrival. “Joyce. How're you feeling?”

She held up the paper. “What is this, Spike?”

“Looks like a bank statement.”

“This line, right here.” She pointed. “I seem to have developed the amazing ability to make large deposits from my hospital bed.”

“Congratulations. There are worse superpowers to have.” He dropped his gaze back to his book.

“Don't you dare play coy with me, William. I know you have to be behind this.”

“Call it rent.”

“Rent?! For an unfinished basement? This is three mortgage payments!” Joyce looked at the deposit again. “Actually, this is exactly three mortgage payments. How did you know--? Oh, well of course you had to have a co-conspirator. I'll deal with her later.”

“Leave her out of it. Call it rent and your Christmas gift. Happy?”

“I can't accept this, Spike. I'm coming home tomorrow with a cashier's check.”

“Your jailers are letting you out?”

“Finally! But only for a few hours. And don't change the subject.” She waved the paper around. “What are we going to do about this?”

Spike shrugged. “You can accept it graciously, or I'll take your first born in trade.”

“Very funny.” She dropped into a chair. “And I think you already have her. Things are going well between you, right? I haven't heard much yelling lately.”

“Been saving the worst of it for patrol, so you could rest.”

“I'm really starting to hate that word.”

*~*~*

“Evening, Glinda. Safe to talk?” Spike said into the phone.

“Yeah. I'm alone. What's up?”

“You get your hands on the stuff for that dowsing spell yet?”

“Three days ago. I told Buffy. She didn't tell you?”

“No. Shouldn't be surprised, though. She's all caught up in gift shopping and such, not thinking of much else. Seems to want to make a big deal out of Christmas this year. Trying to make her mum happy, I think. Didn't even say a word against inviting Rupert when Joyce mentioned it.”

“Well, the reasoning is sound. You know, just in case.” Tara sighed. “If I'd known what she knows, I'd have gone a little nuts about the last Christmas with my mom, too. ...What's she up to now?”

“Climbing on the front porch roof, hanging lights. Can hear her cussing from the living room. Likely to break her neck up there, messing with those bloody things.” He shook his head. “It's been a while since this place was gussied up for the holidays. Didn't even think it mattered much to her.”

“I take it you guys didn't get to do much celebrating last year?”

“Short version? I spent Christmas chained up in a cave, with a twitchy Turok Han and the First dressed up like Dru... when it wasn't looking like Buffy.”

“Ouch! Ok, so not a good Christmas.”

“Haven't been much for religious holidays since I was living. Just another reason to hate 'em.”

“The holiday may not mean much to you, Spike. But do you think maybe Buffy's not just going all out for her mom? Maybe she wants to have a normal-ish Christmas with you, too? Something better than the last one?”

“Wouldn't take much,” he grumbled.

“You know what I mean. And maybe you should try to participate?”

“You're hinting for me to go gift shopping, too, aren't you?”

“Uh-huh. Tomorrow, though. 'Cause I'm guessing you called to try to schedule a field trip for tonight?”

“Yeah. If you've got your stuff, we oughta go out there again, get a feel for what the excavation will be like. I can coax Santa Slayer off the roof, drag her along with us. If we're lucky, she won't find another watcher to scream at 'fore we go this time. ...Red gonna notice you're gone?”

“Probably not. She's locked up in her own dorm room tonight, writing out another pro-con list.” Tara sighed. “I'm glad she hasn't switched her focus back to you, but the obsessive streak is continuing, just with something else now.”

“So no decision yet.”

“Not yet. Spike, I'm starting to worry. What if she says 'no'?”

“Then those coven birds will likely take charge of her, anyway. Like it or not.”

“Oh. I see. You're with Buffy in the 'I don't care if they restrain her' camp. I was hoping to not be out voted on this.”

“Pet, we can't just let her run loose. You know that. Even if Whistler's playing a bigger game -and it sure as hell seems like he might be- he's right on that score. Red's gotta get under control 'fore she goes wild, one way or the other.”

There was a brief silence. “I know you guys are right, but I still feel like... I don't know? A traitor?”

“Greater good, Glinda.”

“I know, I know.” She sighed. “You'll pick me up?”

“Yeah. We'll see you in a bit.”

*~*~*

Tara finished the spell and looked up. They were still arguing. She made a notation on the floor plan sketch in her notebook. She gathered her other supplies and put them back in her satchel. They were still arguing. She leaned against a cask and waited.

“I'm telling you, your perspective is off! They're going to move this big cask! It was about six yards further that way. So the trapdoor would have been right here!”

“They don't shift those giant things around on a whim like the armchairs in your living room, you stupid chit! They're right where they will be! That puts the bloody door right here!”

“If you were right, the cask you broke would line up with the trapdoor, almost exactly. I'd remember that. It lined up with where Caleb was standing when he killed Molly and shoved in Xander's eye!”

Tara winced. “Ouch!”

“And that was about four yards from the cask he threw me into. So the trapdoor was right here! That damned memory boost did you no good.”

“That makes no sense. I remember the scythe was about twenty yards that way from the door, which would put it--”

“In the foundation of the bloody building! Six yards further east, and it's outside that wall.”

“There's no way it's that far over! You don't remember, because you only came down here to fight. I was here after, alone, and I walked it.”

“You remember why you were alone? 'Cause you left me some twisted love child of a thank you note and a Dear John and slipped out while I was still asleep!”

“Hey! I put a lot of thought into that letter!”

Tara sighed. “Oh, dear. Here we go.”

“I've known you a lot of years, Buffy. I know what your primary school scrawl looks like when you're in a hurry. If you had taken your time--”

“Fucking hell. Now I'm going to get handwriting lessons from a leftie. How's that going to work? Mirrors? Oh, wait...”

“My penmanship is miles beyond yours, and you didn't have to learn to write with teachers rapping your knuckles raw with a ruler five days a week!”

“That's because you're so old your teachers still believed in Dark Age superstitions about you left-handed freaks. The truth is far simpler. You're just backwards! And you have zero capacity for measuring distances!”

Tara cleared her throat. “Are you two finished yet?”

“I am not backward! And I seem to recall you actually complimenting my handwriting once, when you were digging in the lock box.”

“And I should have taken it back the next time you asked me to translate mine!”

“Well, some of us were educated in English before we learned Sanskrit! But to be fair, Sanskrit is actually easier on the eyes!”

“If my handwriting is so unreadable, and my notes are so twisted, why did you come home that night?”

“Because you asked me to!”

“Oh so you could read it.”

Tara tapped her foot.

“Fortunately, I had all day to figure it out. You know, after you went off to play the solo hero.”

“I'm the slayer! That's the job!”

“No, you've just got a bloody martyr complex!”

“Are you kidding me? Martyr complex? This from the vamp I had to forcibly drag off a stone cross before he went up in smoke?!”

“Hey! That doesn't count! I was nearly out of my gourd at the time!”

“You're telling me! You were so nuts, I wanted to hunt down that shaman myself, so he could undo it!”

“Why the hell didn't you?”

“I was busy! Or don't you remember that very active Hellmouth you were living on until I brought your crazy, mind-jacked ass home?”

“Bollocks. Just admit you had no idea what to do and were winging it, as usual.”

“Fine! I had no idea what to do with a man who had nearly destroyed himself for me. There. I said it. Are you happy now, Sparky?”

They stood perfectly still, staring at each other, for a long time.

Buffy broke the silence with a whisper. “And I still don't.”

Spike ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “You wanna take a trip to Africa this summer, see what we can do about it?”

“To get rid of it, or make sure you don't lose it in a time shift thingy?”

“Honestly? I don't even know.”

“We'll go when you do.”

“And if it goes in the meantime?”

She smirked. “I'll still call you Sparky.”

Tara shook her head. “I'm so glad I was dead for all of this.”

They turned to look at her, finally remembering her presence. Buffy smiled sheepishly. “Um, so, did you do the spell? Was I right?”

“Nope.” She held up a hand before Spike could gloat. “And neither were you.” She waved toward the stairs with her notebook. “Come on, let's go outside.”

They followed her upstairs and out the door they'd left propped open when they broke in. Once behind the winery, Tara flipped on her key chain flashlight and pointed it at her sketch. “Ok, so here's how it breaks down. Buffy, your estimates put the scythe directly under the foundation, right under that window.”

“Told you so,” Spike interjected

“Spike, your estimates put it directly behind us, under that old oak.”

“No way,” Buffy said. “There were no tree roots dangling overhead down there. It was all stone.”

“The spell I did to detect a mystical power source put these four scorch marks on the page. The three big burns are us, in the winery. Here's me, and here's you guys. The light scorch line between you is the energy of your bond, which I totally didn't expect. The little burn I circled is right below where we're standing now, about halfway between the two estimates you gave me.”

“Oh. So I guess we were both wrong.”

“About more than one thing. Buffy, there's no way that area is completely stone, not with that giant tree so close by. It has to have roots down there. That means dirt, not solid rock.”

“It was a big, stone cavern, Tara. Trust me, my memory is not failing me on this one.”

“Maybe it's the drop you don't remember right, love. Could be it's further down than you thought?”

She shook her head. “No...” She turned around to look at the oak tree. “Spike, do you even remember this tree?”

“Come to think of it, no. Bringers tend to kill every living thing around their nests, though.”

“It might have died, sure. Like the one near the front door did. But I don't even remember a fallen tree here. Something's not right. It's not the same.”

“Maybe the scythe's surroundings were altered to protect it from the Bringers?” Tara offered. “That seems like something the Powers would do, right?”

“Maybe... At least the Guardian lady would.” Buffy studied the grass at their feet thoughtfully. “I had to King Arthur it out of the stone. They couldn't pull it free. It would only respond to a slayer. ...If it's in loose dirt right now... Stand back, guys. I want to try something.”

Spike and Tara backed away a few feet. Buffy knelt in the grass and slowly put her open palm against the ground. The earth around them began to shake. Spike and Tara backed up another couple of steps. The earthquake intensified, with audible rumbling. Dirt, sod and small rocks flew out of the ground. Buffy closed her eyes tightly and turned her head toward her shoulder, but she kept her hand where it was. Spike pulled Tara close to him, and tried to shield them both from the onslaught with his coat.

When it stopped, Tara hurried back to the slayer's side. “Buffy? Are you alright?”

Buffy was still kneeling in the grass, filthy with the dirt that had burst out of the ground ahead of the prize she now held, its curved blade glinting in the moonlight. She was staring at it with a puzzled expression. “It's not the same,” she murmured.

Spike came to kneel beside her and looked at the weapon, familiar in every aspect -except its dark green color. “What the hell are they playing at? Trying to confuse us?” As he leaned over to study it more closely, his palm came to rest on the ground. The quake started again. “Oh, bloody hell...”

“Tara? I thought you only saw one power source down there?”

“Yeah, and I thought you said the scythe was red,” Tara answered over the rising rumble from the earth. She ran toward the oak tree, seeking shelter from the coming debris storm. “Buffy! Come on! You don't have to go through it twice!”

Buffy stared after her for a moment, but elected to remain still. This time, when the onslaught came, she tucked her head behind Spike's shoulder. When it stopped, she turned back to the scythe still held under her right hand. Beside it, under Spike's left hand, was another dark green scythe.

They were still staring at the twin weapons when Tara came back from behind the oak tree. “Ok, so also not red.”

Spike took both scythes as he stood up. He walked over to the oak tree and dropped them near the base, a few feet apart. “Try the spell again, Glinda. Unless you fancy putting your paw on the ground, too?”

“Uh, no. Thanks. I already feel like I've been through a tornado.” She pulled her satchel off her shoulder. “We'll just see what we can find out the dirt-free way.” While she was setting up the spell, Buffy and Spike staked out places in the grass that were away from the scythes and the hole they'd left in the ground.

“I really need a shower.”

“Yeah, you do. You come out of your grave looking that bad, Woodchuck?”

“What did you look like coming out of yours, Mosquito?”

He shrugged. “Hungry, most likely. Ask Dru.”

“I think I will. I probably won't understand the answer, but it could be a fun conversation.”

“You think she'll show up here again?”

“Probably. Aurelians seem to like Sunnydale.”

“We're a posh bunch. Won't hang out in bloody Cleveland, but we do love a good Hellmouth. Dru's fond of the energy. Me, I like the scenery.”

“Rows and rows of headstones?”

“Mostly the bird that likes to walk between them.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah.” They traded sly smiles.

“So what are you going to do when your girlfriend comes back to town?”

“You going someplace, love?”

“Hey!” Tara called over to them. “If you two are finished flirting, come check this out!” She flipped on her little flashlight again when they were standing on either side of her. “Ok, so there's the original burn mark, from the first spell. Nothing new showed up, so I think the hole you just made is empty now. Here's three new large burn marks, corresponding to our positions, with the scorch between you guys. The oak tree is here. Do you see what I see?”

Buffy squinted at the page. “Two little burns with a smudge between them?”

“That's not a smudge. That's a lighter burn, from the energy passing between the scythes. I guess they must have been too close together when I did the first spell for me to see it. But with them separated... Guys, those two scythes are connected to each other, just like you are.”

Buffy went to the tree to retrieve the weapons. She tossed one into Spike's hand. “Get your stuff together, Tara. We have one more stop to make before we go home.”

“Really, Buffy? It's really late and I'm desperate for a shower and some clean clothes.”

“You'll want to see this. If this goes like last time, as soon as these things came out of the ground, a temple-slash-tomb thingy appeared just outside the southern border of Restfield cemetery.”

“Whoa.” Tara hurriedly refilled her satchel and slung it over her shoulder. “And no one will mind if we go in there all dirty?”

“We're going to meet the Guardian of the slayer line. I'm pretty sure she's seen young women in all kinds of rough conditions over the years.” She looked at Spike. “You might be her first vamp, though. Run your fingers through your hair a few times, try to knock some of the dirt out.”

“Bad?” he asked as he raked through his hair.

“It's almost its natural color.”

*~*~*

They stepped into the tiny, candle-lit structure and were promptly greeted by a tall, elderly woman with long white hair, streaked with silver. “Welcome, travelers.” She gestured to three cushions on a curved bench. “The heaven sent witch, the vampire who defeated his nature, and the slayer who isn't The Slayer. Please, sit. Three who should not be, arriving together. History should note this moment.” She knelt on the floor in front of them, and held out her hands. “The weapons?”

Buffy and Spike handed over the scythes. The Guardian held them for a moment, then handed them back, each to the other one. Buffy frowned as she accepted the scythe Spike had carried in. “They aren't the same?”

“One is yours. One is his. You will come to know them.”

“Expected a red one, encased in stone. Instead, we got two green ones, that flew out of the dirt. Can you explain that?”

The Guardian frowned at Spike. “You expected a weapon for her, but not for yourself?”

“Yeah, that's about the size of it.”

“Are you not allies and partners?” The Guardian seemed confused. “Are you not each other's best weapons of war? Should you not be equally equipped to protect each other?”

“Not complaining, pet. So long as I don't stake myself with it, it'll suit me fine. Just wondering 'bout the changes.”

The Guardian ran her hand along the handle of Buffy's scythe. “Red is raw, fiery. Untamed, unfocused. It stands alone in a barren world. Green is life, connectedness, stability. A tree of two trunks, twisted together for greater strength.” She looked at their faces. “You didn't notice? Look again.”

“Trees and paint colors aside, are they they same as the one from our time?” Buffy asked. “Conduits to PTB power and slayer demon essence?”

“Just the same. Power from both your plane and mine.”

“Well, that answers that question. I had been wondering if you were just another kind of PTB agent.”

The Guardian smiled, letting loose a low, raspy chuckle that surprised her solemn audience. “Not exactly, my fallen slayer. The Guardianship of the Lineage operates... separately, in many ways.”

Buffy wrinkled her nose. “Like a PTB branch office?”

“I suppose that's an accurate description.” She turned to Tara. “You don't know why you're here.”

“I came with my friends. ...Is that ok?”

“Today, your path is with theirs, a path of partnership, of friendship. When you transition to your next path, you will find this time not wasted, but an honor you have bestowed upon each other.”

Tara nodded slowly. “I think I understand. Thank you.”

The Guardian turned back to Buffy and Spike. “You both fear you will never know rest, never know peace. You will. You will also know war and worry. That is the path you were born to. No respite in life is eternal, particularly for warriors.”

Buffy bit her lip. “Um, speaking of eternal... There's a theory that the PTB might want some extra time out of me. I was wondering...”

“You will have the opportunity to choose, if he offers you his time.”

“When,” Spike quietly interjected. “Not if.”

“I'm asking about other methods.”

The Guardian rose to her feet. “You will not see me again. My duty is to the slayers, and those who watch them. You are not of the lineage, are above my duty. I came only to see the weapons found. I wish you well, travelers.” She gave them a slight bow as they rose to their feet. Each returned the bow and offered thanks before exiting the tiny structure.

Tara looked behind them and watched the building disappear. “Wow. Sometimes, it's worth putting up with the arguing. I had no idea this night would turn out this way.”

“Only sometimes?” Spike threw an arm around her shoulders as they walked away. “Come on, Glinda! You know we'll always keep things interesting.”

“Or at least yell out tons of future blackmail material for you,” Buffy said with a shrug. “We're potentially lucrative. Well, Spike is. I'm broke.”

Tara laughed. “You're entertaining, at least. I think I can live with that.”

*~*~*

Xander pulled into the driveway just as Buffy was coming outside to check the mail. She met him on the porch. “Hey, Xan. What's up?”

“I stopped on my way home from work to see your mom, but the Jeep is gone.”

“She's at the grocery store. Her second solo trip out of the house since her surgery, and it's food shopping the week before Christmas.” Buffy shuddered. “She should have let me go with her.”

“She'll be fine. If some old biddy tries to grab the last turkey, she'll just whack her with it.”

Buffy laughed as they went inside. The sound of an argument drew Xander to the dining room.

“I'm telling you, the Canadians took that hill. I was there -a few hours before the Americans even showed up, for the record. They were late for the party.”

“Only you would think of a battlefield as a party.”

“Not the point.”

“No, the point is that if I don't answer based on the book, I'll get the question wrong!”

“The bleedin' book is wrong! By the time you lot got there, it was nearly over. But then, that goes for the whole damned conflict, doesn't it? Doubt your book points that out.”

Xander looked at Buffy, who had followed him. She was calmly ignoring the pair at the table as she sorted through the mail. He waved to get their attention. “Hi. What's the hubbub?”

“World War I,” Dawn answered. “The old fart thinks he knows better than the people who wrote the textbook.”

“I do. Didn't see any of them out there, getting their hands dirty.”

“Because they aren't older than the dirt!”

Buffy tossed a bright red envelope onto the table. “Christmas card from Dad.”

“What's the postmark?”

“Madrid again.” Another envelope hit the table. “William.”

Dawn picked it up. “Spike, since when do you get mail here? Or anywhere?”

Spike snatched the envelope and handed it back to Buffy. “Put that one with the bills, love.”

“My mother is not going to open your mail.” Dawn rolled her eyes. “Hello, federal offense?”

“First, I'm not an American citizen. Second, I think there's an exception for the deceased, Bit.”

“Female handwriting.” Dawn glanced at Buffy. “Young female handwriting. You see that, too, right?”

“I see it.” Buffy shook her head in mock sadness. “And I always figured him for a hard-core monogamist. I should have known.” She fought back a laugh.

“Wait.” Xander looked around the table. “So there's another woman, she knows where you live, and Buffy's not mad?” His eyes narrowed. “So there isn't actually anything serious between you two?”

Spike gestured for Buffy to hand back the envelope. “Bird's name is Jenna. Works for my banker.”

“Ah. Hence having the address.” Dawn nodded, understanding . “Somebody has a crush?”

“Somebody is in charge of handling my money.” Spike tore open the envelope and pulled out a cashier's check, which he handed to Buffy. “Bottom of the pile, love.”

She frowned at the amount. “You know she won't accept this.”

“She will when she sees what's above.” Spike shrugged. “Managed to talk her into accepting the rent money, didn't I?”

“That wasn't rent, Spike. That was the mortgage for the entire first quarter.”

Dawn frowned. “You know how much the mortgage is?”

“Well, yeah! I've paid--” Buffy caught herself. “--attention to stuff. You know, so I can help Mom.”

Dawn started to close her history book, but Spike's hand blocked her. “Aw, come on. We're just hanging out and talking. And Mom will be home soon.”

Spike waved Buffy and Xander away. “Out. The Bit's got an exam tomorrow.”

“No gory stories!” Buffy said over her shoulder as she led Xander out of the dining room.

“It was a bloody war, Slayer. They weren't firing rose petals.”

Xander watched Buffy arrange the bills on the desk, carefully sliding the check below the envelopes from the hospital. “So where did Spike get a bunch of dough all of a sudden?”

“He had it squirreled away.” She turned a couple of envelopes to make the bill pile look more natural. “This one is going to start a fight. Once, she'll accept it. Twice in a single month?” She shook her head. “Mom's always complaining about me and Spike arguing, but the fact is, everyone argues with Spike. Including her. And this one is going to be a doozy.”

“My money's on your mom. She's pretty tough, even if she did just have brain surgery.”

Buffy fell into a chair. “You have no idea how stubborn Spike really is, Xan. Mom will yell and threaten and maybe even throw something at him, but he's not the type to give in. He's tenacious.”

“Well, that explains why you fight with him so much. You know, aside from the whole 'he's an evil vampire' thing, which I hope accounts for a lot of it. You're stubborn, too.” Xander took the chair across from hers. “That's why I'm trying not to get in your way with this thing too much. I know I'd lose.”

“You would,” she said quietly.

“I'd also have to fight with Anya about it. She seems to like the idea of you two being together. She said -and I quote- 'Spike has been a good influence on Buffy. She's much less annoying now.'”

Buffy laughed. “I notice she didn't say anything about him being less annoying.”

“I don't think she thought he was to start with, which puts her in the minority.”

“More like unique. 'Minority' implies at least one person in the world agrees with her.” Her smile faded. “Tell me seriously, Xan: what are your thoughts, besides 'don't fight it, you'll lose'?”

Xander looked at his hands. “I don't understand it at all, Buff. It was like someone flipped a switch one day, and poof! You and Spike aren't enemies anymore. Then he moves into your house, and the next thing I know, you two are acting like a long-term couple. It's all kind of left my head spinning. I do have one question, and you don't have to answer it if you don't want to.” He looked up at her. “Was Spike living downtown before he moved in here?”

Buffy bit her lip. Her words came slowly. “Yes. But I never cheated on Riley. I went to Spike's place to talk, and to sleep. I... I find his presence ...comforting.”

“That's not a word I ever would have associated with William the Bloody.”

“I used to think the same thing, before I really got to know him. He's not all fangs and British curse words, you know.”

Xander frowned. “I really don't.”

“Maybe you should try to find out?”

*~*~*

Spike intercepted Xander on his way out. “Harris, I was wondering if I might ask a favor.”

Flash Decisions by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

It's Christmastime in Sunnydale, and everyone has gifts on their minds.

Chapter 16: Flash Decisions

May, 2003 / December, 2000

“Uh, guys? I think we're moving backwards. I just got shorter.” Dawn watched an image of herself walk into the living room. Th image dropped onto the sofa and picked up a magazine, which she flipped through with a decided pout.

An image of Spike followed her into the room. “Bit, there's nothing we can do.” She ignored him. He sat beside her. “You only get one father. Ought to spend some time with him.”

Dawn threw down the magazine. “You're the evil undead, and you can't find a loophole? Please! I'm not buying that for a second. Also, I'm not even sure he is my father. I may be genetically Buffy-ish, but that might make Hank Summers my grandfather or something. We don't even know who the other DNA contributor was that the monks used, 'cause I'm clearly not a clone.”

Spike ran a hand over her long, dark hair. “Don't know, but my money's on the other slayer. ...But your dad's still got legal rights.”

“There's got to be something we can do. We could run away. You could hide me until I'm eighteen.” She frowned at his expression. “You have found a loophole, haven't you?”

“There's a law firm, specializes in dirty pool for demons with a bit of dosh. Peaches has had some run ins with them. He thinks they might be able to help, but it's a big risk, them finding out what you are, getting their mitts on you. Best case, they take something from me instead... and not just money.”

Dawn's head fell back against the sofa cushions. “I'm sorry,” she whispered. “If you've talked to Angel about it, you've definitely pulled out all the stops. And that law firm sounds like a really bad idea.”

There was another flash, and the pair on the sofa were replaced by an image of Willow, taking notes from a thick, yellow-paged book.

The real Willow gasped. “Oh, no... I know that book. I'm working on the resurrection.”

The group watched the image scribbling in her notebook, their expressions worried. “Yeah,” Xander whispered. “This is gonna be one bad Groundhog Day.”

Dawn whispered, “We've been here for over an hour, and they haven't changed it yet. She jumped.”

“We may be seeing earlier images, but that doesn't remove the possibility of no-impact variations,” Elsa said. “The only thing this proves is that they were successful in traveling back.”

There was another flash, and an image of Buffy stood alone by the fireplace, looking at the pictures on the mantle. She turned around and studied the room with a smirk.

Dawn shuddered as she looked into the image's eyes. “Guys, I don't think that's Buffy.”

The First Evil laughed. “You really think this is going to work, don't you? You really think you can smack me down so easily?”

“We can at least make you stop appearing like her!” Dawn snapped.

“Actually, you can't. Even if all of this is successful -and I have my doubts, with you screw-ups at the helm- she has still tasted death. In fact, all three of them have, though they're likely to try to erase the death of the other one.” It gestured to the pair in the circle. “These two are all mine to mimic as I please, and always will be. But that's the least of your worries. If I were you guys, I'd be more concerned about not existing anymore.” It leaned toward Willow tauntingly. “You sent them back so they could make you go away.”

“Wha- What do you mean?”

“You've given them the perfect opportunity to trade up, and they've done just that. Such a shame, too.” It shook its head in mock sadness. “You girls used to be so close.” The First disappeared, leaving the group in silent dismay.

Xander was the first to speak. “Three? Is there a mouse in Spike's pocket?”

Willow shook her head. “No. I think I know what it meant. A death they could erase? Trading up from me? There's only one person that could be.”

“Tara,” Dawn whispered. “Buffy's recruited a different witch this time.”

Giles was carefully watching the expressions playing across Althenea's face. “Which is precisely what you hoped would happen, wasn't it?”

The old witch let loose the smile she'd been holding back. “The First Evil clearly meant to entice you to break the spell before it destroys this timeline, but has instead given us the best possible news.”

“I'm not too sure about that. Tara never had the kind of power I had. She may not be able to handle the last couple of years without my help.”

Elsa spoke up. “Forgive me for saying so, but isn't much of the difficulty of the intervening years triggered by your power and misuse of it? I don't mean to be rude, but perhaps the First Evil is right: They have traded up.”

Willow opened her mouth to argue, but no sound came out. All actions ceased. The army of teenaged girls disappeared from the backyard. The chains on the basement wall vanished. The plywood wall behind the sofa was again a picture window. A playpen appeared in the living room, folded and leaning against a wall, beside a wooden toy box, replacing the pile of sleeping bags. The picture frames on the mantle changed and grew in number.

'Well, that's one possible future off the books,' Bryn thought, just before the people in the living room and the 2003 they'd known winked out of existence.

*~*~*

Spike came into the living room, slipping on his coat.“The slayer took an early patrol. She'll meet us at the shop later,” he explained to Tara, who was nervously pacing the length of the room.

That's probably better, anyway.”

She seems to be settling into the routine.”

Uh-huh.” Tara glanced at her watch. “We're going to be late.” She called upstairs,“Come on! Let's go already!”

Just hold your horses, Glinda. There's no rush. A few more minutes won't kill either of you.”

It's been five months, Spike. If you could have made your five month wait a minute shorter, would you have done it?”

He tilted his head toward the ceiling. “Get your arses down here! Plane's touching down any minute!”

Dawn came rushing down the stairs. “I'm ready! Buffy's still playing with her hair and makeup.”

She picked a bad day to get vain about it,” Tara grumbled. She yelled again. “Buffy! In about thirty seconds, you're going to be walking to the airport!”

Buffy woke up from her impromptu nap with a smile on her face. She stretched until her hand bumped the table lamp behind her head. She sat up to steady it as Spike walked into the living room.

“Do we need to have a talk about which one of us is the nocturnal creature?”

She giggled through a yawn. “Vamps don't have exclusive rights to sleeping during the day, you know.”

“Bloody hell. Now you tell me. They left that out of the brochure.”

“You're in a good mood.”

“Just got some good news. Glinda called. Red's--”

“Decided to go to Devon. I know. I just woke up from the PTB memo about it.”

“Another time-traveling slayer dream?”

“And this one made a lot more sense.”

“Yeah? You wanna tell me about it?”

“Not yet.”

*~*~*

Buffy came out to the back porch. “You've been out here for a few hours now.”

Spike shrugged.

She sat on the top step beside him. “So while you were out here, I decided to do something stupid.”

“I'm almost afraid to ask,” he mumbled around his cigarette.

“I'm going to ask you what you're thinking about.”

He watched the smoke drift off on the exhale. “There aren't any shackles downstairs,” he whispered.

She raised an eyebrow. “Should there be?”

“Your sis keeps a sign for her bedroom door, to warn me when the curtains are open upstairs.”

“I keep telling her to move it to the top of the staircase railing, so you'll see it a few steps sooner. You didn't get singed this afternoon, did you?”

Spike shook his head distractedly. “And your mum bought a fourth stocking the hang from the mantle.”

“So? I'm no math genius, but I'm pretty sure there are four of us.”

“Like it's normal,” he muttered, shaking his head. He turned to look at her. “Do you know where I was last evening?”

“You said you were going gift shopping.” Buffy frowned. “What are you getting at with all this?”

He shook his head again and took another drag from his cigarette. “It's just... different. All of it. Not even sure I recognize our lives anymore.”

“Oh, it'll get familiar again. You can be sure of that. Right about the time Glory's spewing threats the living room, the Knights of Byzantium are joining in the 'hunt and kill the Key' party, and I'm scaring the shit out of a few watchers to make them behave, it'll all come rushing back.”

“Not quite as familiar to me. You were still keeping me at arm's length back then. Further, usually.” Spike put out his cigarette in the little sand-filled flowerpot Joyce had placed beside the steps for that purpose, right after he'd moved in. “'Bout time to clean this out again.”

Buffy leaned around him to look at the butts sticking out of the sand. “Yeah, it looks that way.”

“You ever think about why it's there?” Spike shook out of his thoughts. “Never mind.”

“No 'never minds.' Tell me what you meant.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “You really wanna know?”

“I told you I was going to do something stupid. Talk.”

“Your mum and sis, they treat me like family.”

“'Cause you are.”

Spike jerked in surprise at this reflexive response.

“What? You know it.” Buffy frowned at his uncertain expression. “Unless you're planning on bailing out on us...”

“You know better than that.”

“This is about all the 'family Christmas' stuff, isn't it? We're throwing way too much garland and domesticity at you at once.”

“After the amount of laundry that came with you running a bloody refugee camp here, I think I've built up an immunity to 'too much domesticity.'”

She chuckled and leaned against his shoulder. “So we're not scaring you away?”

“You do remember who the scary one is in this house, don't you?”

“The Slayer?”

“The Slayer of Slayers.”

“Two words: Tulip mug.”

He pushed her off his shoulder. “Bugger off.”

She laughed and shoved him back. “You're evading.”

“I used that mug exactly once.”

“Still evading. Out with it.”

He stared out into the yard, gathering his nerve. When he spoke, his voice was a whisper again. “Don't ever revoke my invite, Buffy. Please.”

Understanding his meaning, she put a hand to his knee and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I won't.”

“Promise?”

“Promise. You're stuck with us until the girly domesticity, open curtain warning signs, and cheesy Christmas decorations scare you away.”

He pulled her close to him, so she was again leaning on his shoulder. “Should know by now, I'm not easy to scare off.”

“That's what I'm counting on.”

*~*~*

Dawn danced to her favorite funny Christmas carols as she hung up the ornaments, nearly tripping over her mother, who was kneeling on the floor, smoothing the tree skirt. “Oops! Sorry, Mom!”

Joyce stood up and studied her work, giving the skirt one last nudge with her toe. She looked to the sofa, where Buffy was unwrapping and attaching hooks to ornaments as fast as Dawn could grab them. “What do you think?”

“Tree skirt: good. Dawn's dancing: not so good.”

Dawn stuck her tongue out at her sister as she snatched another ornament from the coffee table. “Buffy's just cranky because she hasn't finished her Christmas shopping.”

“Tattle-tale.”

Joyce sat in the armchair nearest her daughter. “Honey, tomorrow is Christmas Eve. You're running out of time.”

“I know, I know. And I have most of them. You know how I always get Willow seven of her favorite candies and one big gift for Hanukkah? Well, I can't decide what the eighth thing will be. It's sort of a going away gift, too, and we haven't been super close lately, so I want it to be something really good.”

“Anything she can take with her will be appreciated, especially something to remind her of home.”

“I thought about a photo album, but Xander's doing that. He's got stuff from childhood, so he can do it better than I could, anyway.”

“I got her an English dictionary,” Dawn said proudly. She shrugged at their expressions. “Well, I thought it was funny. And Giles always complains about you guys butchering the language. Spike does, too, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't have any room to talk.”

“And that's the other present I haven't figured out,” Buffy said. “What do you get for the vamp who wants nothing?”

“You could always take Anya's suggestion.”

“Dawn Summers! Don't ever repeat anything Anya says while walking by Victoria's Secret.”

Joyce covered her face with her hands. “Quiet, girls. I need to pretend you're both little toddlers in pigtails for a moment.”

The sisters exchanged grins, then turned to their mother and whined in unison. “Moooooommmmy!”

Joyce pulled her hands away. “Ok, I'm over it. Dawn, have you picked out a college yet?”

Spike came in the front door to the sounds of laughter. “What's so funny?”

“We were just torturing Mom,” Dawn answered.

Joyce stood up. “Spike, now would be a very good time for you to save me from my children. Are we still on for coffee?”

“Yeah. Just came back to pick you up.”

The young women watched in surprise as their mother grabbed her jacket and followed Spike out.

“Uh, Buffy? I think Mom just ran off with your boyfriend.”

*~*~*

They sat down at a small table, with three cups of coffee between them. “So, how'd you make out on that li'l job, Joyce?”

She pulled a ring from her pocket. “I found it. And I gave it a thorough cleaning and polishing.” She pushed it across the table. “But I don't understand why you couldn't look for it yourself.”

“Because your daughter is a slob. She's spilled so much holy water over the years, the bottom of that chest is practically consecrated.” Spike pocketed the ring. “Thanks. I owe you.”

She pulled the cashier's check out of her other jacket pocket placed it on the table. “No. You don't.”

“Joyce...”

“The insurance covered a lot, and my savings has helped. Not to mention that alleged 'rent' deposit. You don't owe me anything, Spike.”

“You could use the help, and I've got it to give.”

She tapped on the check. “Put this in savings. Earn some interest on it. As simply as you live, this check could fund an entire decade.”

“You don't take it, I'll just blow it on whiskey and smokes. Maybe a bauble or two for Buffy.”

“Baubles for Buffy? Are we talking last minute gifts? 'Cause I've got you covered. I am so the man.” Xander dropped into the chair across from Spike's as Joyce discreetly slipped the check back into her pocket, pausing the argument. “It's in the car. But you still haven't told me what it's for.”

“We will.” Spike pushed the third coffee cup toward the newcomer. “Thanks for doing it on short notice.” He reached into his pocket. “What do I owe you?”

“$30 would cover the materials. As for the labor...” Xander bit his lip. “How about a beer? …Um, you and me? At Willy's sometime soon?”

Spike raised an eyebrow.

Joyce laughed at the vampire's expression. “My thoughts, exactly. Xander, are you feeling alright?”

“Well... the truth is, Buffy wants us to get along, like be buds or something.”

“She said that?” Joyce asked.

“Not in those exact words, but that's the hint she's been dropping. And I guess I'm willing to give it a try.”

“This keeps up, I might start believing in miracles.” Spike handed Xander $30. “Next week alright?”

“Ha. ha. And whenever is fine. So... did you get the pictures?”

“I left it to Spike,” Joyce said. “My boxes of duplicates are stored in the basement.”

Spike pulled an envelope out of his coat pocket and slid it across the table. “See if you can make any of that work for your album. Got some good ones in there.”

Xander pulled out a few pictures. “Aww! Itty-bitty Buffster and even tinier Dawnmeister.”

“A little young for your clock to be ticking, aren't you, Harris?”

“You can't tell me you didn't melt when you saw those chubby cheeks, Spike.”

“No, but I questioned the '80s all over again. What made you dress her that way, Joyce?”

She shrugged. “Freudian revenge on my own mother? I was a child of the '60s. You can guess how horrible my childhood wardrobe was.”

Xander's eyes lit up. “Ooh! Pictures!”

“Absolutely not.”

“No worries, Harris. I know where she keeps 'em. I'll go digging tomorrow, while Buffy and the Bit are keeping her occupied with party preparations.”

“No, you'll be upstairs helping me. Buffy will be gone all day.”

Spike frowned. “First I've heard of it.”

“She asked to borrow the car to drive out to Valley State.”

“Oh,” Xander said. “I didn't see that coming.” He glanced at Spike, whose expression had grown very dark. “And I'm apparently not the only one.”

“I didn't think you even knew...”

“I know enough, Joyce.”

*~*~*

Faith sat down and picked up the phone receiver, staring hard at the woman on the other side of the glass. “What do you want?”

“Ok, so I guess we're skipping the 'how are yous.'”

“If you were going to come to gloat, you'd have done it sooner. And I know you didn't drive all the way out here to check on me. So what do you want?”

“Your word as a slayer,” Buffy whispered into the receiver. “I need to know you'll be on the job, that you'll fulfill your destiny. You know... if...”

Faith's glare faded into something Buffy thought might be genuine concern. “What've you gotten yourself into?”

“Hellgod. She's laying low right now, but it's going to get bad before it gets good again. I might not live to see summer. I need to know Sunnydale will be guarded after I'm gone.”

“B, have you noticed where I am? You remember why?”

“I remember that you're a slayer, and there's a Hellmouth right down the interstate, one that will need you if things don't go right. I need your promise. I need to know you'll get out of here and do your job if you find yourself the 'one girl in all the world.'”

Faith scoffed at the quotation. Then she leaned close to the glass. “You really mean it, don't you?”

“I do. Get your head on straight while you still have some down time. If any of the Scoobies come to see you, get the hell out of here and go home with them. Replace me.” Faith didn't respond. “I need to know you'll be on the job,” she said again.

Faith nodded slowly. “Alright. I promise. ...But I have to know: Why do you trust me with this?”

“Because you're a damned good slayer, and I happen to know you've got leadership potential. You're the current Chosen One, Faith. Not me. I'm the spare slayer.” Buffy fidgeted with the phone cord.

“What else is on your mind, B?”

“I have another request. And you don't have to promise me this one. I just want you to think about it.”

“Uh... Ok. Shoot.”

“If it's me that comes to see you, will you consider coming back, anyway?” She stood up. “I have to go. Hopefully, I'll see you before summer. Wish me luck.”

“Good luck, B.” Faith watched Buffy hang up the receiver and walk out of sight. “Merry Christmas.”

*~*~*

Joyce stepped out onto the front porch at the sound of her Jeep in the driveway, leaving the door open behind her. “How much higher will my insurance rate be next month?” she called to the driver.

“The car is fine, Mom.” Buffy rolled up the window and climbed out of the Jeep. “And so am I, thanks for asking.”

“And Faith?”

“She's holding up ok.”

“It was very kind of you to pay her a Christmas visit, after all she's put everyone through.”

“She's a slayer, Mom. She may have gone off the deep end, and royally pissed me off more than once, but she's still a slayer.” Buffy joined her mother on the porch and handed her the car keys. “Thanks for the loan.” She peered into the house. “It's awfully quiet in there. Did you have to tie up your elves?”

“Dawn has just locked herself up in her room to finish wrapping gifts. Spike helped us all afternoon, but he left a few minutes ago, as soon as the sun had set.” Joyce fidgeted with the keys. “Honey, he's very upset about this trip. Did you fight about it?”

“The 150 year old man is having another childish tantrum, that's all.” Buffy rolled her eyes. “Is there time for me to find him and coax him home before he ruins Christmas?”

Joyce looked down at her watch. “If you hurry. The guests will be here by eight.” Buffy's feet had hit the sidewalk by the time she looked back up.

*~*~*

When Buffy walked into Willy's Bar, she was surprised to find it packed. Willy gave her a significant look, his eyes darting around to some of the unfamiliar faces. “If you're here for information, Slayer, I got nothing to offer you.” He put down his bar towel. “Except a Christmas drink? On the house?”

Buffy played along with the ruse, knowing a good relationship with a slayer could prove bad for Willy's health with some demons. “Sure, I'll take a bribe. Just this once, for Christmas.” She pointed down the bar to her destination. On receiving his nod, she went in that direction. When she reached the far end of the bar, she tapped a brunette woman on the shoulder. “Excuse me. You're in my seat.”

The woman turned away from the man she'd been talking to. “No, I'm not, Slayer.” Her eyes flashed golden. “Find your own seat. Preferably in another bar.”

“You're wasting your time, you know. He's not going to go home with you.”

“Yeah? How do you know that?”

“Because he's going home with me.”

“Sure he is.” The brunette snorted. She turned back to face the bar, and resume her flirting.

Buffy tapped her shoulder again, causing her to whirl around with another golden-eyed glare. Buffy matched it with her own angry expression. “I'm done playing nice. Get away from my boyfriend or you leave here in Willy's dustpan.” She reached under her jacket to the back of her waistband.

The brunette's hands went up. “Ok, ok. I'm gone.” She grabbed her drink and edged away, keeping one eye on Buffy until she had reached a corner table.

Buffy took the vampire's seat just as Willy delivered her rum and Coke. “Thanks.” She glanced at the vampire the brunette had been flirting with. “Hi.”

“There's that B word again,” Spike muttered, his eyes on his drink.

“It seems like an appropriate word... Do you disagree?”

“What's it matter if it's only for five more months?”

She propped her elbows on the bar and dropped her forehead into her palms. “Can we please not have this argument again?” She was careful to keep her volume as low as his. “They're called contingency plans, Spike. I'm not going to drop them. If you recall, contingency planning is a big part of the reason you're even here.”

“That's what you thought. I never had any intention of letting it get that far.”

She looked up to study his profile. “No matter what we do, jumping is still a possibility.”

“No, it's not. Got a contingency plan of my own, if it gets that bad.” He sipped his whiskey. “Told you not to go out there to see her. No need for it.”

“We could have dozens of contingency plans and still have things blow up in our faces.”

“Not likely.”

“Not impossible.” She took a drink. “Will you at least look at me?”

He finally made eye contact. “I'm not gonna let you jump. I keep telling you, and you won't listen.”

Buffy bit her lip. “I'm listening. I hear you, loud and clear, every time you say it, subtext and all.” She looked back at her glass, her voice dropping even lower. “And I love you, too.”

There was no reaction from the neighboring stool, only stillness and silence. She slowly brought her gaze back to his. He was staring at her, dumbstruck. Eventually, he reclaimed his composure with a shake of his head. “It's about bloody time.”

“That wasn't the response I was expecting.”

“Seems like the response you deserve.” Spike drained his glass and set it on the bar. “Right then, Slayer. Go ahead. Stake me now, and be done with it. You'll never get a better chance to catch me off guard.”

She leaned in close. “Can I tell you another secret? I was bluffing when I reached under my jacket. Where I was today? You can't take weapons in there. I've got nothing on me.” She sat up straight and resumed sipping on her drink. “So who was the little vamp tramp, anyway? I don't recognize her.”

“Eh, just some young thing looking for a good time. Very young thing. Couldn't see past the sense of power she got from me.” He gestured to Willy for a refill.

“Ah. Hence the flirting. She didn't notice the spark.”

“Or that I smell like a bloke who shares his bed with a slayer.”

“Not too bright, huh?”

“She stood up to you, at first. Points for that. Was older than her when I first stared down a slayer.”

“Great. In another century, she'll steal your title.”

“The hell she will!”

Buffy smirked. “Ego, much?”

“Feeling pretty good just now, love. Don't ruin it.”

*~*~*

“Last Christmas sucked. Worst. Christmas. Ever.”

“Oh, yeah? You got tortured, too?”

“Ok, so yours was worse. Hey, Willy? Another?”

“What are we gonna do about this Christmas?”

“Enjoy it. Glory's not up in our faces right now, and Mom... you know.”

“I mean about the bloody Scoobies, Red and Rupert, mainly. Harris may have taken the edge off his hate, but I'm sure Red's still looking for answers, and I think Rupert wants me gone. Again.”

“I think it's me -you know, this version- he really wants gone. But they can both suck it up and behave themselves. I'm a resident of the hostess' house, and so is my date. Thanks, Willy.” Buffy took a sip of her fourth drink. “Besides, she's leaving in ten days, and he's not my watcher anymore. So screw 'em.”

“Won't work out too well if you go in with that attitude.”

She looked at him, her eyes wide with surprise at this reproach. Then she noticed his poorly hidden smile. “You like it when I get bitchy, don't you?”

“Not directed at me, now is it?”

“I sometimes wonder if you like that, too.”

He ignored that comment. He caught Willy's eye and nodded toward his empty glass. “You know, I was starting to think you'd never get around to actually saying it.”

“Yeah, well, me neither.”

“You gonna make a habit of it?”

Buffy shrugged. “Probably not. You ok with that?”

“Wouldn't mind being reminded once in a while.”

“I think I can manage that.” She took a gulp of her drink.

He watched her, shaking his head. “Some days I still wonder what happened to my slayer making faces every time she had a drink stronger than apple juice.”

“She discovered mixers. I still have no idea how you tolerate any of this stuff straight.”

“Practice. And a lot of years of self-loathing.”

“You're in an honest mood. I should take advantage of it.”

“Still not drunk enough to quote you any poetry.”

“Dammit.”

Implied Promises by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

The good news: We're finally seeing the emotional dam beginning to break with Buffy. Also, it's Christmas in Sunnydale, and Glory's not stirring up trouble (giving us time for some fun stuff).

The bad news: The author is both evil and crazy. This is the part where you start questioning if I've lost the plot, both literally and figuratively. All I can ask is that you trust me. In the big picture, everything matters, and everything pays off. Even Christmastime silliness.

Chapter 17: Implied Promises

December, 2000

By the time Buffy and Spike got home, the living room was full of Scoobies. “Bloody hell. We're late.” He called toward the kitchen. “Joyce! You need any help?”

“Spike! Thank god! I thought you'd be gone all night.” Joyce sounded stressed. “Get in here!”

Buffy slipped out of Spike's coat, and then out of her own thin jacket, hanging both by the front door. Willow joined her in the hall. “He loaned you his coat?”

“Chivalry died sometime after William did.” She shrugged. “But then, he also made a stupid vampire comment about it being an historic moment. This coat hasn't seen a slayer's shoulders in really long time.”

Willow wrinkled her nose. “Does that mean what I think it means?”

“Yeah, Wils. It's a trophy.” Buffy ran a hand along the leather. “Her name was Nikki,” she whispered. “She loved this coat. She fought in it, and she died in it. It took Spike two tries to bring her down, and she still didn't die until she was ready to go.”

“Uh-huh. I'm sure that's how he tells it.”

“I know the feeling. Every slayer does, if she lives long enough. When I'm ready, and I'll leave something with Spike, too. Just like his other slayers.”

“Buff, you're scaring me. Do you think Spike is going to kill you one day?”

“I just know I'll have to leave something for him, that's all.” Buffy snapped out of her reverie. “I'll be right back.” She grabbed the keys to the Jeep from the foyer table and ran outside. She returned with two small boxes. “It's no slayer trophy, but it will do for now. I just need to make one little addition before I wrap it. The other one is for you.” She called into the living room. “Dawnie, is the wrapping paper still in your room?”

“Yeah. Do you need help?”

“No, thanks.” She rooted around in Spike's coat pockets until she found a stake, which she tossed to Willow. “Guard the stairs. I'll be right back.”

Willow frowned at the weapon as Buffy ran up the stairs. “That must be a pretty serious gift.”

A few minutes, later, Buffy returned with the boxes, now wrapped in festive paper. She smiled smugly. “Twenty-four hours ago, I had zero ideas. But tonight, I'm so getting the award for best gifter. I am officially awesome. Just wait until you see yours.” She took back the stake and returned it to the coat. “You didn't have use that, did you?”

“No... But Buffy? You're acting a little weird.”

Buffy chuckled as she led them into the living room. “I've had a weird day. FYI, being groped by a prison guard? Not fun.”

“Well, it really depends on the guard,” Anya said from the sofa. “Male or female? Hot?”

“Female. And no.” Buffy sat beside her after putting the gifts under the tree. “What did the doctor say?”

“My x-rays look better than expected. She wants to take the cast off this week.”

Xander leaned forward from the other end of the sofa. “Can we go back to the 'Buffy with a female prison guard' part of the conversation?”

“Did you miss the 'not hot' part, Xan?” Buffy laughed. “I went to see Faith. She's got a bit of a reputation in there, and no record of visitors. They were suspicious, so I got pawed at.”

“I didn't think you'd go through with it. You know, with Spike being all 'grr' about it.”

“You knew I was going?”

Giles spoke up for the first time since Buffy had entered the room, unwittingly rescuing Xander from his slip up. “What possible purpose could visiting Faith serve?”

“Guys, I just wanted to talk to her. Why is everyone looking at me like I beat up a puppy?”

“Because you went to visit Faith,” Willow said slowly, as if explaining something to a child. “Why would you even want to talk to her?”

“Um, because she's a slayer?” Buffy looked around the room. “Did anyone else notice the Hellgod running around town? The one who beat the crap out of me, had us all attacked by marrow-sucking demons, and threw Anya into a wall?”

Willow's nose was still wrinkled. “So?”

“Glory is easily strong enough to kill me, and since her target is someone I'm willing to die to protect, it's not an unreasonable assumption that she might. If she does, Sunnydale will need a slayer, and there will only be one left in the world.”

Giles fidgeted with his tie in the ensuing silence. “Buffy, do you really think this is the appropriate time and place for this discussion?”

“I sure as hell don't.” Everyone looked up to see Spike in the doorway, holding a tray of appetizers.

“I know that look,” Dawn said. She glanced at her sister. “And that one. Make room, everyone. They're about thirty seconds from hitting each other.”

“No, we're not.” Buffy crossed her arms and settled further into the sofa cushions. “We are not having this argument again, William.”

“It'll stop being an argument when you admit you're not actually over it.”

“Oh, bite me!”

“One of these days, Slayer, I just might.” Spike's eyes glinted with amber.

“I dare you to try.”

“Don't think I can't. I'm not that out of practice.” He put the tray on the coffee table. “So what else are you lying about tonight?”

Buffy was suddenly on her feet with her fists clenched. “You son of a bitch. Don't you even imply--”

Dawn jumped between them. “It's Christmas, remember? Goodwill towards men and mortal enemies?”

Joyce stepped into the doorway behind Spike. “Outside. Both of you.” They didn't move. “Now!”

“Fine. Let's go.” Buffy brushed past them and headed for the back door. Spike followed, detouring to grab his coat.

“Don't come back until you're ready to act like civilized humans!” Joyce called after them.

“One of us doesn't qualify!” Buffy called back.

“He's not the one I'm worried about!” Joyce turned back to face her guests. “I'm so sorry. I don't know what's gotten into them tonight.”

“Rum, I think.” Anya said. “I could smell it on her breath when she was sitting with me.”

“He smells pretty boozy, too,” Dawn said. “And they're usually so good about keeping their arguments downstairs and their fights out of the house.” She shrugged. “Well, sometimes.”

Tara abruptly stood up. “I'll be right back.” The back door closed behind her a few seconds later, drawing the attention of the pair in the yard, who looked like they were about to prove Dawn right. “Hey! You two need to sober up and behave yourselves,” she said, walking toward them. “Another little display like that could raise questions none of us want to answer.”

“Then tell this woman to make up her bloody mind! One minute, she's acting like we've got all the time in the world. The next, she's practically planning her funeral. Been going back and forth like that for months, but this...” He looked at Buffy. “This is probably the worst you could make it.”

“I'm a slayer, remember? If I'm not expecting it, I'm a really, really stupid slayer.”

Tara shook her head. “I have a feeling the subtext here is none of my business, so I'm not going to ask. I will say this, though: You're both stupid.”

“Hey!” they said in unison, looking offended.

“Spike, no one knows slayers like you do. No one knows Buffy like you do. You know she has to prepare for the possibility, especially since we know when and where that possibility is. And Buffy, you know Spike needs to know where you stand. You never like to say what you're thinking, and nothing good ever comes of it. So just say it, already.”

“I already did.”

Tara looked back and forth between them. “Ok, so I found the subtext. ...But that's not what I meant, and you know it.”

“I know.” Buffy took a deep breath. “There's a difference between expecting it and wanting it, Sparky.”

“And what happens when you cross from one to the other? It's a thin line, love.”

“Make it a quick talk, guys,” Tara said, turning back toward the house. When she got back to the living room, she returned to her chair with a proud smile. “Mrs. Summers, your demons will be back in a minute, behaving themselves.”

“Buffy's not a demon!" Xander objected.

“Technically, she is part demon,” Anya said with a one-shoulder shrug. “All slayers are.”

Willow frowned. “Maybe so, but it's not enough to call her one.”

“Guys, guys! I was speaking metaphorically...”

Outside, Buffy allowed the soft, time-worn leather to be draped over her shoulders for the second time in an hour. “I do know it isn't likely anymore, but I still feel compelled to prepare for it. Tara's right--”

“On both counts, I'd say.”

“I should be more upfront with you. You deserve frequent reminders that I'm not looking for it.” She sat down on the garden bench. “And maybe other frequent reminders.”

“Guess I should know better than anyone that you're gonna expect it. ...Just afraid you'll start to want it again.”

“How the hell did we survive without Tara around to keep us in line?”

“We barely did.” Spike joined her on the bench. “You don't want it, do you?”

“I meant what I said to Althenea. I'm over the death wish. But that doesn't mean death won't find me.”

“I'm not gonna let you jump.”

“And I know why.” She sighed as she looked toward the house. “I should have said it sooner. I've been holding onto that for a while.”

“Figured that part out on my own. Any special reason?”

“There's never a good time to say stuff like that. There's always a Turok to hunt, a war to be fought, time travel spells, or something going on.”

Spike leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “Before we left. Suspected as much.”

“Last Christmas was when it hit me. Until then, I wasn't even sure I'd forgiven... what happened. But when I couldn't get to you, couldn't get you out of there, I realized I was way past forgiving. The dreams were the big giveaway.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Every night, I saved you.”

“Further back than I thought.” Spike clenched his jaw. “A whole bloody year, and you never said...” He shook his head. “Taking everything I've got not to knock you off this bench right now.”

“It's only been about nine months. For us, anyway.”

“And that's so much better.” He threw her a glare.

She gave him a pleading smile. “Will you forgive me if I promise to remind you sometimes, and not die until I have to?”

“I'm gonna hold you to that.”

*~*~*

Something in the kitchen crashed to the floor. Spike scooted his chair away from the dining table. “Slayer?” he called. “Joyce?”

The only response from the kitchen was giggling.

“Ok, so I guess no one's hurt,” Xander said. “But was that the sound of a pie falling to its death?”

“I'll check.” Dawn started to stand up, but Joyce's appearance in the doorway stopped her.

Her face was flushed, and she was smiling. “So... How about ice cream instead?”

Tara frowned, a memory surfacing. “Buffy slayed the pie, didn't she?”

Joyce nodded, giggling again.

Tara shook her head. “Of course she did.”

*~*~*

“An English dictionary?” Willow fought back the urge to laugh with everyone else. “Thanks, Dawnie.”

“Heaven knows you need it,” Giles muttered.

“I so called it!” Dawn smiled proudly.

Anya shrugged. “It's better than the candy and dirt Buffy gave you.”

“It's not just dirt, Anya!” Buffy pointed out the handwritten labels on the vials. “That's from the burnt lawn of Sunnydale High. This one is from the gate at Restfield. That one is from the quad at UC Sunnydale. That one is from her parents' yard. And that one is from the flower bed in front of the Magic Box.”

“Ok, so it's local dirt.”

“It's sentimental, Anya,” Tara explained. “So Willow can take her homeland with her.”

Dawn reached for the largest gift under the Christmas tree. “Well, I hope this box isn't full of dirt, 'cause it's huge.” She read the label. “Buffy, this one is yours... From someone with beautiful handwriting.”

Tara snickered.

Buffy glared at Spike. “You so put her up to that.” She gave the large package a shake. “What is it?”

“The point is to unwrap the thing, Slayer.”

She tore open the paper to reveal a sturdy wooden case, finished to a warm honey color, with ornate, wrought iron hinges and latches. She ran a hand across the smooth surface. “Ooh! Pretty!”

“Harris did the woodwork.”

“It's lovely, Xan.” Buffy opened the case. The inside was lined with thick, sturdy foam, with a foam divider running the length of the middle, all of it covered in a velvety black fabric. “I think I know what this is for.” She closed the case and looked at the wood again. “This is oak, isn't it?”

“Yep,” Xander confirmed. “Spike insisted on oak for some reason.”

“It's perfect,” she whispered, looking at Spike. “I love it.”

Anya looked bored. “Dirt, dictionaries, and boxes? What's next? Socks?”

Dawn studied the pile of unopened gifts. “Not that I know of. Mom?”

“Even I'm not that practical,” Joyce laughed.

Tara gave Dawn a nudge and pointed out a package. “I think this is a good time for that one.”

Dawn read the label. “To Spike and Buffy. From Tara.”

Spike opened the shallow gift box to reveal two simple, silver picture frames. One frame held the familiar sight of the oak tree at the vineyard, its leaves catching the moonlight. The other was of the same tree in broad daylight, with its twisted trunk clearly visible. Spike studied the base of the tree in the sunlit photo. “I think I see it now.” He handed the frame to Buffy. “Look close, love.”

She scrutinized the photo. “Yeah... Two trees. Huh.” She passed around frames to show everyone. “This is a really great gift, Tara. Thank you.”

“Only way I can see it in mid-day. Thanks, Glinda.”

Joyce looked at the photos. “It's certainly a beautiful tree, but I don't understand the significance.”

Giles looked uncomfortable. He glanced at the time travelers. “Perhaps we shouldn't.”

Spike and Buffy held a silent conference, looking at each other just long enough to catch the attention of the others. Spike stood up and went downstairs. Buffy picked up her wooden case again. “Spike and I told Tara about a trip to the outskirts of town that we haven't gotten around to sharing with the group yet, and I guess we inspired her gift with that conversation. The tree in those photos overlooks the place a slayer dream sent us to get what goes in here.”

“Ah. Hence the oak.” Xander nodded in understanding. “What was it?”

“A pair of really nice weapons.”

Spike came back into the room with the scythes. “Too good to be tucked under our bed like they've been, sitting loose. Love?”

Buffy accepted one of the scythes and placed it in the case. “Perfect fit.” He handed her the other one. “You know, I still can't tell the difference?”

“Me neither.” Spike looked at the sets of curious eyes. “They're powerful. Should be a big help with Glory, when the time comes.”

Buffy handed the second scythe to Willow. “Do you feel it?”

Willow's eyes went wide. “Wow. There's a lot of juice running through there.” She handed it off to Tara. “I bet they didn't tell you this when they told you about that tree!”

Tara accepted the weapon gingerly. “Um, no. They just, um, told me where they found them. And yeah, I think this will be very... helpful.” She gave the scythe back to Buffy, who put it in its case, and closed the latches. “So what are we opening next?”

*~*~*

Willow followed Joyce into the kitchen. “Buffy has officially joined the old folks. She said she'll have tea with Giles and Spike. Everyone else is still on the eggnog train. I can help.”

“Thank you, dear. Will you fill the kettle for me?”

“Sure.” She took the tea kettle to the sink and looked over her shoulder. “So were you just faking being happy with that book Spike gave you? '101 Fun and Fruity Cocktail Recipes' doesn't seem like it's exactly your style.”

Joyce chuckled. “Actually, I think it will be fun to experiment with. When you're older, Willow, you'll appreciate silly, impractical gifts. They become rather rare by the time you reach my age, when almost everyone looks at you as a serious adult, or just as somebody's mom.”

Willow put the kettle on the stove and turned to face her hostess. “So can I ask you another question, as a mom?” At Joyce's nod, she continued. “Why are you letting Buffy... um, shack up with Spike under your roof? He said they were keeping those axe thingies under his bed, but he called it 'our bed,' and you didn't even blink. Neither did Dawnie. Buffy's with him every night, isn't she?”

Joyce put down the tin of nutmeg. “Willow, have you noticed anything different about Buffy lately?”

“Oh, yeah. Lots. She's like a totally different person. She doesn't talk as much, to anyone or about anything, for starters. She always seems to be holding something back. We're struggling to still be friends, mostly because she's not really there, you know?”

“What else have you noticed?”

“Besides the chipped up vampire attached to her hip, not much. Again with the not talking problem.”

“She's finally comfortable in her own skin, Willow. Even with her constant worrying about this Glory person, she's more settled than I've seen her since before she became a slayer. She's not faking at being at ease with herself. She actually is. Trust me, a mother can tell.”

“You think he's good for her.”

“Something has certainly changed her attitude. Spike is the most obvious culprit. And if she ties him a little closer to the human world, that's good, too. Right?”

Willow shifted her weight. “Yeah, I guess so.”

Just then, in the living room, Dawn was exclaiming, “Holy crap, Buffy! What's in there? I think the vampire is on the verge of blushing.”

“I bet I know,” Anya said. “But lace would be more expressive than paper. Unless there's a photo?”

Spike slammed the book shut. “Nothing like that. Nibblet, grab the next gift.”

When the group's attention drifted away from him, Spike fidgeted with the silver pen, running a fingertip along the engraved initials, 'WHP', while he looked at the dark red leather of the book. The cover and spine were blank. He glanced around again, assuring himself no one was watching, and opened the book again. 150 lined pages, just waiting for ink. The only writing inside was on the flyleaf.

William-

I don't care what your peers thought. I know whatever you create in these pages will be worth reading. I'm looking forward to you getting drunk enough to let me see it. Take your time. I'm in no hurry. I hope I don't need to be. And if you later find I should have been, remember where I went, and that you still saved me, in ways you'll never even know. I love you, Sparky.

-Buffy

*~*~*

Buffy came downstairs to find Spike sitting on the bed, staring at the flyleaf of the book again. She placed the scythe case on top of the dresser. “I think it looks good there. What do you think?” There was no response. “Hey! Earth to Spike! Are you still trying to translate my handwriting?”

He closed the book. “No. I can read every word.”

“So you've finally gotten used to Buffy Sanskrit. Took you long enough.”

Spike was on his feet and in front of her in a second, burying her joke in kisses that left her breathless.

She pulled away, gasping. “Ok, I think that means I did good with the gift stuff.”

“Much better than socks.”

“Big achievement.”

He took her face in his hands and looked into her eyes. “I love you.”

“I hear you.” After another heated kiss, she led him to the bed and waited while he moved his book to the nightstand. Something shiny on her pillow caught her eye. “What's that?” She picked it up, frowning when she identified the object. “You took it back. And you put it on a necklace?”

“Eh, it was loose on your finger, anyway.”

Buffy studied the familiar skull ring, which had been cleaned until it shone brightly enough to hold its own against the new silver chain it was attached to. She narrowed her eyes. “What is this, Spike?”

“It's... It's a request.”

“Technically, that's what it was the first time. Spit it out.”

“I'm just asking you to wear it.”

“To represent what?”

“Isn't that what human blokes your age do? Put their rings on chains for their girls to wear? And weren't you about to rip my clothes off?”

“I'll get back to that in a minute.” She jingled the jewelry in her hand. “A girlfriend necklace? What does that mean?”

He thought for a moment. “That we're exclusive?”

“That was kind of implied.”

“So was the end of our engagement, according to you.”

“And according to you, it was ok that I kept this, and put it in my weapons chest. And now I find out my engagement ring has been downgraded to a girlfriend necklace. That's just... awesome.”

“You pissed off that I took it out of the chest or pissed off that I gave it back?”

“I'm pissed off because I thought it meant more than... this.

“If you'd rather wear it on your hand, Slayer, go right ahead. Won't get any argument from me.”

“That would be a first,” she scoffed. “Wait. Are you serious?”

“Sure sounds like you are. You're the one still calling it an engagement ring!”

“That's still how I think of it, ok? Don't read so much into it. It was just a stupid spell! We could barely even hold a civil conversation back then.”

“And that's changed?” He raised an eyebrow, challenging her.

“The only thing that changed was you letting me keep it when we were bouncing. That's what I thought actually meant something. ...Something a little better than a stupid girlfriend necklace!”

“It was already yours. Told you as much at the time. Not like you ever listen to a damn thing I say!”

“Oh, I'm listening. I'm getting this lovely little message loud and clear. And you know what? You're probably right. It didn't mean anything. Hell, getting along with you even well enough for girlfriend status would be my greatest achievement.” She put the silver chain around her neck. “There! Officially downgraded. Happy?”

“It wasn't meant as an insult, you stupid bint!”

“Too late! The damage is done. It's a girlfriend necklace now. So if you decide you want to marry me, William Pratt, you're going to have to ask me all over again!”

“Don't tempt me!” he threatened. “I'll march your stubborn ass down the aisle so fast, people will think I've knocked you up.”

“And how exactly to you plan to pull that one off, genius? We're surrounded by people who know that isn't possible, and think we've only been seeing each other since last month!”

“Then just wear the damn necklace, pretend to be my girlfriend--”

“Pretend?!” she interjected.

“--and marry me on the sly!”

Spike slowly sat down the edge of the bed, visibly surprised at his own words.

Buffy leaned against the bed beside him, and stared across the basement. “Whoa.”

He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, his head bowed. “Yeah,” he agreed.

There was a long silence. “Are you still drunk?” she eventually whispered.

Spike looked up to stare across the room with her. “Stone cold sober. You?”

“Same.”

“Fairly sure we can't blame this one on Red, either.”

“Safe bet.”

He threw up his hands. “Oh, why the hell not? May as well. Already been through bleedin' everything together. We put each other through most of it.”

“If this is you talking yourself into it, I'm willing to pretend I didn't hear anything that sounded even remotely like a proposal.”

“Maybe I'm talking you into it.”

“Or maybe you've lost your damned mind. Again.”

“Possible.” His gaze fell on the space they'd recently agreed to fill with a wardrobe, so Buffy could move more of her clothes downstairs. From there, his eyes traveled around the room, taking in the furniture, decorative objects, and casually intermingled belongings that had slowly crept in over the last two months, turning half of an unfinished basement into a cozy, homey little nest for two. “Look around, love. What do you see?”

“Um, our room? Full of our stuff?” She glanced at him. “What are you getting at?”

“In here, it already looks like we're long past arguing about engagement rings.”

“We don't just live in this room, you know. What about the rest of the world?”

“What counts is in here. Been that way for a while now.”

“Don't start getting romantic on me now, Spike. We're way past that. For tonight, anyway.”

“So the plan of ripping my clothes off...?”

“Don't change the subject, either.” She sighed. “The rest of the world doesn't know about all that stuff we've put each other through. They wouldn't understand... We'd be hiding again. You hate that.”

He ran a hand through his hair. “Just wanted to see you wearing my ring again. That's all I was asking.”

“Well, if you'd been straightforward about it, like you are with pretty much everything else, we wouldn't have ended up screaming threats of marriage at each other.” She sat down beside him. “It's been sitting in the back of your mind for a while, hasn't it?”

“A little, I suppose. Mostly the other... the thing you don't want to talk about.”

“Same here. But this? This is just an old fantasy, a leftover from a spell gone wrong.” She smiled. “It's not like we could even follow through if we tried. I'm pretty sure California doesn't have a statute that covers marrying undead illegal immigrants.”

“We could follow through. That's not a problem.” Spike shrugged at her look of surprise. “How do you think I keep ownership of all the properties? I have all the paper needed to pass for a living human, love, and it's kept up to date. Anything I don't have, I can get. It'd be legal.” He paused as something occurred to him. “Bloody hell... Buffy, it would be legal.”

She wrinkled her nose. “You already said that.”

“Think about it. What changes a few months down the line if you're hitched? And to a man with a bit of dosh, besides?”

“I buy a new car?”

“Sure, if you want. After you ace the custody hearing.”

“Oh... Oh!” Her eyes lit up. “Marriage and money are major stability markers. We wouldn't be constantly on the verge of losing Dawnie. ...You realize you might be her legal guardian, too, right?”

“Used to taking care of the Nibblet. Got too much practice a couple years back.” He took her hand. “Hoping not to get the same sort of practice again.”

“And if you had to... Spike, you might have a chance at keeping her. It would be a long shot, but not impossible. I'd want her to stay with you. ...Sorry, sorry. I know you hate the contingency planning.”

“Yeah, but you're right. Could work in her favor, later... But since you're not gonna jump, we'd just be using it to get custody in the first place. Right?”

“Mom would have to be told some stuff. I wouldn't want to hide this from her.”

“She already knows we aren't who we say we are, love. She saw the flashing.”

“She doesn't know what it means yet, assuming she even remembers it.” Buffy tapped her lower lip with one finger, thinking. “The name change stuff takes a while. I'd probably still be using my maiden name for a couple of months... So hiding from the Scoobies until spring should play out fine.”

Spike's eyebrows shot up. “You'd change your name?”

“Yeah. I mean, if it's ok with you.”

“There are some old fashioned streaks in my modern California girl, then?”

She laughed. “Buried deep, but yeah, I guess so.”

“We know Glinda would stand up for us. If we need a second witness, think Joyce would do it?”

“Probably.” She started tapping her lip again. “...Justice of the Peace. Here at the house. In the evening. Shouldn't take more than half an hour. We'll just have to get the license in advance. Pick a cloudy day, and swing by the County Clerk's office...”

“Sometime soon, 'fore Glory pokes her head out of her hole again.”

“Yeah, we should do it while we're not busy. We don't need the officiant witnessing a surprise demon attack or something. That wouldn't help our case later.”

Spike held up a hand to pause the impromptu planning session. “Before this goes any further, I gotta ask: You agreeing to this just for the Bit's sake?”

Buffy exhaled slowly. “I don't know... 'Yes' sounds like the wrong answer to that question, but for the timing, at least, it's an honest one.” She looked up at him. “That's not what you wanted to hear.”

“It's not much of an answer at all.”

“If it weren't for Dawnie, I'd probably be trying to talk you into starting this argument up again in a few years, so there would be a simple answer. At least, I hope there would be a simple answer by then. 'Cause right now? We kind of have a world to save. And this is pretty low priority stuff we're talking, Lieutenant.”

“Thanks loads. About not being straightforward...”

“You know what I mean. You usually do. This is not the time to start pretending you aren't a Buffy translation expert.” She shook her head. “And if we didn't know custody would be a struggle, it would also be a really, really stupid time to try to play out that ridiculous Will Be Done spell.”

He gave her a pointed look. “No 'Wind Beneath My Wings.'”

“God, no. I have no idea why I even suggested that. 'Highway to Hell' would have been more appropriate, anyway.” They traded smirks. “And no personally written vows.”

“Fine. No tux.”

“That's fair. No frilly white dress.”

Spike shrugged. “Not like anyone would buy that lie, anyway.”

She tried to glare at him, but couldn't help expressing how amused she was by the negotiations. “Do we have a deal?” she asked through a chuckle.

Spike studied her smile for a moment before he reached around her neck to undo the clasp on her necklace. “Need to borrow the ring for a minute, love.”

She grabbed the ring and chain before they could be lifted away. “Oh, no. Don't you dare.”

“We can't let all that yelling stand, Buffy. You should have a real proposal.”

“I've had a proposal.” She secured her necklace back into place. “We're good. Leave it alone.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “You're not counting the first time, are you?”

“I'm counting tonight. I'd rather have spontaneous yelling from my angry, impulsive vampire than some gooey, romantic crap you've probably been rewriting in your head since you were human. I'll quit while I'm ahead, thanks.”

The eyebrow rose higher.

“Don't even try to deny it. You think I don't know you, William?”

“Oh, yeah.” He shook his head at himself. “This'll end well.”

Steps Behind by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Many thanks to all of you who are reading and reviewing, especially those of you who offered me the huge compliment of nominating me for author of the month. You are far too kind. I hope Steps Behind will serve as an adequate espression of my gratitude.

Chapter 18: Steps Behind

December, 2000

Spike walked into the living room and over to the desk. “Enough with the paperwork, Joyce. Come on outside with me.” He handed her one of the mugs of cocoa he carried.

“Sure. I could use a break.” She grabbed her shawl and followed him out to the back porch, taking a seat on the top step beside him. “Is everything alright? I know Buffy comes out here with you when she's worried about something.”

“Just need to talk to you.”

“If this is about that check... Spike, I'm not going to deposit it.”

“Yeah, you are. You need it. I don't.”

“No.”

He gave her a dangerous look. “You're housing a vampire in your basement, Joyce. Best not to oppose him much.”

She glared back. “You're housing my daughter in your bedroom, an arrangement I could very easily bring to a sudden stop. Who has the leverage?”

“Stubborn woman.” Spike shook his head. “You play hard ball.”

“Uh-huh.” She gave him a smug grin. “Where did you think she got it from?”

“She's why I wanted to talk.”

Joyce nodded for him to continue, her smile fading at his serious tone.

“What do you remember, 'bout what was going on when you were in hospital, waiting for surgery?”

She blinked. “Oh, no... It wasn't a dream.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Dawn shimmered and glowed. I already knew about her, but seeing it was very different from being told.”

“And?” he prompted. “What did you think was a dream?”

“It was nighttime, and Buffy was in my room. She left when a nurse came in. You came to the doorway a little while later, when I was feeling very drowsy. Both you and Buffy were flashing, like white lights with images of slightly different people between them. You didn't look that different from one image to the other, just very stressed and tired in one of them. Buffy had the same kind of look in one of her images. But she was also very thin, and... I don't know? Maybe a little older? In the other image, she looked more like she does now. I know, it doesn't make much sense.” She shook her head. “I really thought it was a dream. But if you're asking, I know it wasn't.”
“It wasn't.”

She took a deep breath, bracing herself. “Ok. Tell me what it was that I saw.”

“The truth.” He took a sip of his cocoa. “You saw who we really are. Two versions, merged together. Present and future. We got those looks on our faces from living through some bloody awful years. Got ourselves sent back into our own pasts to fix it.”

“Time travel.”

“Yeah. Time travel. Tara reads auras pretty well. Knew we were imposters as soon as she laid eyes on us. Could see the differences, and the magic around it. You can ask her, if you want someone to verify.”

“You'll understand if I do?”

“Won't be offended. Just don't try to send my girl back to the funny farm, alright?”

“She talked about the clinic?”

“When the situation was bad enough she had to.” Spike ran a hand through his hair. “Almost lost her over that one, in about the worst way we could have. Told you, bloody awful years.”

Joyce was silent for a few minutes. “How long have you been here, in this time?”

“Since September.”

“Ah. That explains a lot. Buffy has seemed... different for the last few months. I thought it was mostly about her getting closer to you, but that makes sense. Why September?”

“This Glory business is why we're here, but we had ourselves sent back to right before the Bit arrived. Didn't want to risk messing that up. Couldn't lose our Nibblet, but we couldn't afford to lose our memories, either. Was still risky, but we were desperate.”

“Were things really that bad?”

“End of the world bad.” Spike lost himself in thought for a few minutes. “After the mutiny,” he eventually whispered, “me and the general came back home, and they let her take the reins again. Not long after, she put two options on the table, and lobbied for this one. Me? I didn't feel good about either of 'em, not at first. Too much magic, too much that could go wrong. But I backed her up, as usual. And here we are.”

“The general? A mutiny? This sounds like... was Buffy leading a war?”

“And we were on the losing side. Theory is, if we'd taken the other option, I wouldn't have made it. Odds are, I wouldn't have been the only one. This way, should be a lot less bloodshed. Too soon to tell if it'll work out. We're still in that war, Joyce, just fighting it differently. Getting ahead of the causes.”

“I see.” Joyce fell silent again. “We,” she finally whispered. “You keep saying 'we.' You two have been together a lot longer than a couple of months, haven't you?”

“A few years. Off and on, hot and cold, but always around... when we could be.”

“That sounded like a disclaimer. What kept you apart?”

Spike shook his head. “There's a lot I shouldn't say. Do want to tell you a couple of things, though.” He waited for her nod. “First, the chip in my head is long gone. I've been off the bloody leash for months. Back in our time, it nearly turned me to a vegetable when it buggered up, zapping constantly. Buffy called Finn's people for help, had it removed. She just did it a lot sooner this time around.”

“Well, then I can thank her for that, for saving you that pain. But you haven't been, um...”

“Hunting? Nah. Get my kicks these days out patrolling with the slayer.” He smirked. “And fighting with her. All these years, and she can still sometimes throw a punch that surprises me.” He sobered his expression. “The other thing I want you to know: A year before we left our time, I broke the trust with Buffy, did something she should never have forgiven. Soon as I realized what I'd done, I took a trip to find a certain shaman, a demon who specializes in hard requests, and makes you earn it in blood and misery. Barely made it through the trials, but... I came out of there with my soul.”

Joyce sucked in a breath.

“It's not a curse, not as shaky as Angel's. But it might get gone further along the timeline.” Spike looked away. “Buffy's leaving it to me whether I risk letting it go. Doesn't seem to think I need it as much as she used to. But the risk I'm hinging on is maybe making her have to be my conscience again, like she was before I went. Don't want to be a burden. Been enough of one, already.”

“How's that?”

“Shove a dozen decades worth of conscience in a vamp all at once, he'll go a little mad. Still don't know how I managed to find my way back. Hardly remember the trip. Curled up close to the Hellmouth, too plagued with nightmares and flashbacks and confusion to function, too driven by instinct to dust myself... or stay away from Sunnyhell. Buffy found me. Kept an eye on me. Eventually, she brought me home. Was another Big Bad in play, made it more complicated than that, but that's the gist of it. ...This isn't the first time I've lived downstairs, Joyce, and not the first time Buffy's made a habit of staying down there with me.”

She studied his profile. “You didn't need to tell me all of this, Spike. Or any of it, as far I can tell. I appreciate it, don't get me wrong. A lot of things make more sense now, not the least of which is why you and Buffy don't act like any new couple I've ever seen. Because you aren't.”

“Not at all.” He turned to look her in the eye. “That's why I told you. Wanted you to have the facts in front of you before I asked for your daughter's hand.”

*~*~*

“This is such a bad idea.”

“Oh, come on! I know you missed the last year, and in a lot of ways, that one counted most, but I really want some custody insurance, and this will work.”

“That's a terrible reason to get married, Buffy.” Tara closed the door behind them. “But I was referring to breaking into the Magic Box.”

“Well, I turned in my keys on the spur of the moment, and I didn't get everything I should have.”

“Spur of the moment? You mean 'heat of temper,' right? Also, why can't you get your stuff during the day?” Tara's tiny key chain flashlight barely lit their path through the darkened store.

“Because it's not mine to take.”

“Buffy Summers! I did not sign on to rob Mr. Giles' store!”

“Shh! I just need some information. In the office.”

Tara tried the knob. “It's locked. Are you going to pick this one, too?”

“Yep. Point the light for me.” Buffy dropped to her knees and pulled the tiny leather case of lock picks out of her pocket again. “By the way, I didn't say custody was the only reason.”

“No, you just made it sound like it was the main one. I get that you have to be practical, Buffy. I'm in this boat with you. And I understand you're not really the romantic type, but...”

“But what?”

“Spike is. How do you think he feels about a marriage of convenience?”

“There!” Buffy opened the office door. “I'm starting to get good at this. Spike will be so proud.”

Tara followed her into the office. “Maybe... After he yells at you for stealing his lock picks from his coat pocket.”

“He'll get over it.” Buffy closed the door and turned on the desk lamp. “Ok, you're on Rolodex duty. I need names, addresses and phone numbers of any office of -or anyone obviously connected to- the Council. First priority, Quentin Travers. And if you see a woman named Lydia listed, I definitely need her info. That's the watcher who was all swoony over Spike. She could be very helpful.”

“You do realize that half the straight women on the planet would get swoony over Spike?”

“But they aren't Watchers. Lydia's swooning could be useful.” Buffy scanned the bookshelves, looking for a particular volume. “The rest can keep dreaming. Those cheekbones are mine. Ah! Here it is!”

Tara frowned at the book Buffy pulled off the shelf. “You don't own a copy of The Slayer Handbook?”

“No,” Buffy gave a vague imitation of a pout. “Giles said it would be useless with me.” But this isn't what I'm after.” She reached to the back of the shelf, behind the Handbook's space, and pulled out what looked like the same book, only larger. She dropped it on the corner of the desk with a proud smile. “Watcher Edition. Annotated.”

Tara nodded. “Now that could be useful. She handed Buffy a sheet of paper, and took one for herself. As she began flipping through the Rolodex, she glanced at her friend, who was perusing the book's table of contents. “He's going along with it to make you happy. You know that, right?”

“What? Getting hitched? Totally his idea. I mean, not in a planned way, but still...”

“What I'm saying, sweetie, is that this is just another version of that weird fling you had. He wanted more out of it, and should have backed off, because you weren't ready to give it, but he hung on, because he thought it would make you happier. Also, he's stupidly optimistic where you're concerned. Back then, he thought if he waited patiently, you'd catch up with him, be in the same place in the relationship he was. I doubt that's changed.”

“Thanks, Dr. Freud. Or is it Dr. Ruth? And Spike doesn't do patient.”

“With you, he does. Sometimes. And I'm being serious, Buffy. This is a lot harder to back out of than an affair. And I don't mean that just in the legal sense. If you do this for the wrong reasons, you might not be able to repair it this time.”

“I don't see it as important, the marriage part, that is. This is going to be a long-term thing, probably until the next time I die, whenever that turns out to be. Nothing's going to change because we sign a marriage license. We're not exactly aiming for white picket fences and fat babies, here.”

“No, you're just solidifying commitment in a way that meant way more in his time than it does in ours.”

“His time,” Buffy whispered, biting her lip. She shook off her thoughts. “I'm changing my name. Even he called that old fashioned. I think we're good.”

Tara sighed, exasperated. “Just think about it, ok? Promise me you two will talk about this before Sunday? Without yelling at each other?”

“Ok, ok. I promise.” Buffy turned her attention back to her book.

*~*~*

After seeing Tara back to her dorm, Buffy cut across Restfield cemetery, letting her mind wander as her feet traced a familiar path. She was so deep in thought, she didn't notice the vampire behind her until he reached for her shoulder. Her elbow flung back reflexively, knocking his hand away. She gave him a jab to the nose as she turned around. The next punch sent him reeling away from her.

“Aw! Come on! You've got to have more fight in you than that! I could use the workout.” The vampire lunged toward her, and she grinned. “That's a good boy.”

When she tired of toying with him, she swept his feet out from under him and drove her stake home, dropping into a crouch to do it. When she looked up through the settling ashes, she saw a familiar pair of boots in a familiar doorway a few feet away. She stood up and dusted herself off. “Friend of yours?”

“No, I just came out to enjoy the show.” Spike grinned. “Feels like old times.”

“Not so much. I can't kick your door in if it's already open.”

“You'll get over it.” He waved her into the crypt. “What brings you, love? Something wrong? You knew I'd be home before sun up.”

“I think I was running on auto-pilot. I was passing this way, and wanted to talk to you, so my feet brought me here. Old habits.” Buffy looked around the inside of the crypt. “Oh, wow. It's all... gone.”

“This isn't what I've been working on.” He started toward the hatch in the floor.

“I can tell. It's so ...bare.”

“It's a crypt again.”

She couldn't tear her eyes away from the empty spaces where the television, refrigerator, and orange recliner used to sit. “It doesn't look like it's yours anymore,” she whispered.

“Yeah, 'cause I don't live here. You are the woman I've been waking up with for months, right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Then what's the problem?”

She walked the room. There were no forgotten whiskey bottles, no t-shirts thrown into corners. “It's like you were never here. When you moved back home, you said you were keeping it.”

He shrugged. “Turns out I didn't need to. Farm Boy's long gone. Your mates know where to find me. Clem and me meet up at Willy's. Any demons I have business with, I go to them.”

“You're the master vamp in town, Spike. Your banker, your ID guy, and whomever else you're dragging around by the nose to do things for you, should all be coming to you. Like they used to.”

“Not worth keeping up the crypt just to play the pretentious git. Only took advantage of it the first time 'round for my ego. 'Sides, Jenna and Charlie know how to reach me. Lucy's got the number, too. The rest of the demon world has no clue where I hang my hat. Lends an air of mystery.”

“I'm sure enough of them have seen us together by now that they can figure it out.”

“And who's going to bother either of us, if they do?” He grinned. “No human will mess with a family with a vamp in the basement. And no demon will mess with a vamp in the slayer's house.”

“Tell that to the Bringers who kidnapped you from that very same basement.”

“Well, there's that. Come look. It's nearly done.” Spike led her down the ladder to the lower room.

She jumped off the last rung and turned around. “Damn. I think this is even more depressing.”

Her eyes roamed the large room. What was in their memories a cozy, candlelit love nest now had the appearance of an emergency shelter for a group. The electricity routed from the Restfield caretaker's house was now run to the lower level instead of the upper, and powered a few appliances and bright overhead lights. Near the ladder, a bookcase full of bedding sat beside a wooden bin full of pillows, both tightly wrapped in plastic to keep the dampness out. The rest of that long front wall had plastic-wrapped mattresses butted up against it, with candles sitting in the spaces between them. There was another mattress to the right of the ladder, in the place Spike's bed had been in their time. But this one sat on a low frame, with large drawers beneath it. Buffy opened one. He had already started building a weapons stash.

She walked the rest of the room. On the other side of the bed, in the recessed area, there was a kitchen of sorts. Two more plastic-wrapped bookcases, one full of dishes and cookware, the other full of dry goods, sat on either side of the refrigerator. Two small tables held a microwave and a small television. A much larger table dominated that side of the room, surrounded by metal folding chairs. At one end of it was a two-burner camp stove. At the other end, there were more candles. She ran her hand along the table's surface as she passed it. “You brought this from the safe house.”

“The candles and the mattress on our bed, too. No point in leaving 'em there to rot, just 'cause we'd gone back to our other basement.”

She didn't return his smile. She went through the hole in the far wall, that led to the sewers, and turned into the little alcove that had once been her bathroom. “You've already tapped into the water line.”

“Yeah, still gotta get the shower head hooked up, and get Glinda to stockpile some spell supplies in a drawer, but in the main, it's done.” He watched her pace the room again, a strange expression on her face. “So if we need to come here, we pack overnight bags and hit the grocer for perishables on the way. That's it.”

She looked at him, forcing a smile. “You've covered every base. This is so much better than a Winnebago and an abandoned gas station.”

“Familiar territory. Home field advantage.”

“Exactly.”

“So what's with the fake smile? This is what we planned to do with the place isn't it?”

Buffy nodded. “This is what we planned. I just didn't think it would hit me this hard. You're not going to agree with me on this, but I think this is worse than blowing it up.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “You're right. I don't.”

“It's like upstairs. It's not yours anymore. And down here... It's not mine, either.”

“Don't get nostalgic on me now, Slayer. We're way too late to start working on a Plan C.”

She sat on the bed. “I know, I know. It's just bad timing, I guess. I talked to Tara tonight.”

He flopped down on the bare mattress beside her, his hands behind his head. “Yeah? What'd she say?”

“She made me think about things... things that mostly happened here, when this place was ours.” Buffy looked around the room again. “When things between us were... unbalanced. She reminded me that they still are.”

“Don't.” He closed his eyes. “Don't come back here, for the first time in months, and start a conversation that sounds like it's going to end in you walking out with an apology on your lips. I can't take that again, Buffy.”

“Ok,” she said slowly. “Then I'm just going to say what I'm thinking, and you have to promise not to interrupt me.” She nudged him. “Sit up and look at me. Please?”

He sat up, opening his eyes. “Alright, I'll hear you out. But--”

“No buts. Just listen.” She reached for his hand. “Me wishing we could put it off until later? It's not just because of the mission.” She took a deep breath. “I'm not too sure about this, Spike.”

“Here it comes,” he muttered. His hand started to pull away, but she held it firmly.

“You said you'd hear me out.” He stopped pulling. “You know how things turned out with my parents' marriage. After Mom found out about the second affair, their arguments were as bitter and hateful as ours at our worst. I think she hated him for talking her into a second chance, and herself for giving it to him. You and I have already had so many second chances, I'm terrified of the day we run out.”

“Love, we aren't your parents.”

“No, but we're wading in some serious commitment waters, and that's the example I'm working from.” She shook her head. “Not exactly 'happily ever after' stuff.” Her grip on his hand tightened. “I know you expect getting married to start that other conversation, the one that's even more terrifying. But talk about pushing our luck on second chances!” She shuddered. “That is not how I want your story to end.”

“My story?” Understanding dawned in his eyes. “Ah. I get it. You're avoiding even talking about it 'cause you think you might still have to jump.”

“Or drown. Or get shot. Or any number of other things. Have you seen my track record? I'm not willing to take the risk that... Not with you.” She shook off a shudder. “For Dawnie's sake, getting married is a smart move to make right now, no question. But I need to be totally clear on this before we go any further: I need a little more time. I'm willing, but I'm not where you are, Sparky. I'm a few steps behind, as usual. ...I'm not actually ready for this stuff.”

Spike's hand started to pull away again, and she let it go. It was buried in her hair a moment later, holding her in a deep kiss. When he broke away, he whispered, “I know you're not. But thanks for sayin' it.”

*~*~*

Buffy opened her eyes and looked around, realizing where she was. “Oh, crap.” She lifted her arm over her head to look at her wristwatch. “Make that an 'oh, shit.'” She pushed aside the leather coat that was serving as a blanket and rolled off the bare mattress. She scrambled around, trying to piece together the outfit she'd worn the previous night. “Have you seen my underwear?”

Spike half-opened his eyes to watch her. “Bloody hell. It's too early in the morning for flashbacks.”

“That's the problem! It's morning! The sun's already starting to come up.”

“Maybe when I wake up again, you won't be running out of here like you used to.” He let his eyes drift shut again.

A partially dressed Buffy pounced on him, straddling his waist and bending down to make her hair tickle his nose. “Wake up! You have just enough time to get dressed and take the sewers to Revello. The sun should still be low enough for you to make a run for it from there.”

“Or I can spend the day here, asleep. Finally got this mattress broken in. Gotta take advantage of it.”

“Not today. Come on. Up. It's Friday.”

“So? It's Friday, then. You staying or going? 'Cause I kinda like where you are.”

“Sure, I'll stay, but we won't be getting married this weekend if I do.”

He opened his eyes. “Friday. The marriage license.” He knocked her sideways onto the bed as he jumped up and started looking for his clothes.

She was laughing by the time she hit the mattress. “You remember details of World War I battles I'm pretty sure you were lying about attending, but you forget about going to the County Clerk's office? The single most important part of prep for your own wedding? You're going to be a terrible husband!”

He threw her panties at her. “That's what nagging wives are for, remembering the little shit.”

“You don't have to go through with it, you know,” she said as she dressed. “Seriously.”

“If I don't, your mum might stake me. Got all misty-eyed when I asked for your hand. What's she gonna be like if I disappoint her?”

Buffy's jaw dropped. “Asked for my...? Oh my god. What century are you from?” She held up a hand before his eyebrow was fully raised. “Forget I said that. You just really show your age sometimes.” She slipped on her boots and stepped over to kiss him as he reached for his. “I'll take the surface streets home. See you soon.” She climbed the ladder and could be heard hurrying out of the crypt above.

“Couldn't you have left like that every time?” He asked the empty room.

*~*~*

When Spike pushed aside the manhole cover and put a hand out onto the quiet street to gauge the sunlight, he felt something soft. He pulled it back into the darkness. It was the wool blanket he usually kept by the front door, tucked behind the umbrella stand.

Buffy was crawling out from under the bed when he came downstairs. “What are you up to, Woodchuck?”

“Just adding some new notes to the lock box.” She sniffed. “No crispy?”

“You raced me home to make sure of that.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Because I kept us at the bunker too long.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Why didn't I marry you sooner?”

“Ha! You'll change your tune.”

He smirked. “Don't be so sure.”

She pulled a tiny leather case from her pocket. “I stole your lock picks.”

“Dammit, Buffy!”

*~*~*

“Remind me to bite that meteorologist,” Spike mumbled from under the blanket in the back seat. 'Overcast all afternoon'? There's barely a cloud in the sky!”

“Just be glad there's a parking garage, with its own entrance,” Buffy said from the Jeep's driver's seat.

“I really need to work on the DeSoto.”

“The blanket is doing its job. Quit your bitching. I'm not going to put this off until we get lucky on the weather, because it could end up too close to my birthday. We're not doing this anywhere near my birthday. It would be a disaster. Three weeks is already uncomfortably close.”

“Just so you know, love, I'm never throwing you a birthday party.”

“Thank you. The first time was enough.”

“Hey! That was mostly Dru!”

“I'm sorry, whose minions gathered up Judge parts for her?”

“Alright, no more birthday parties, then. ...But I still plan to come watch the chaos at the parties other people throw for you.”

“I was hoping you'd be there to help me get out of whatever death and destruction I get tangled up in.”

“Sure, I can do that. After I've had a good laugh about it.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “I really should turn this car around. I already want a divorce.”

*~*~*

Dawn let Xander into the house. “Hey, Xander. Buffy's downstairs with her punching bag.”

“What'd he do this time?”

“No, the real one. Spike's in the shower.”

Xander descended the basement stairs, stopping a few steps from the bottom. “Heya, Buffster.”

“Hey,” she said, still working the punching bag hanging from the ceiling. “Almost done. Have a seat.”

“Take your time.” Xander looked around as he made his way to the pair of club chairs.

The floor of the bedroom area was covered in faded tufted rugs, layered two deep in places. The bed was made, but the pillows were propped up against the headboard, stacked together, with a red, leather-bound book and a silver pen resting beside them. A cream colored robe hung over a corner of the foot board. One nightstand held a lamp and a stack of secondhand books, the other an alarm clock and the framed tree photos. Both had stacks of books and CDs on their lower shelves. The scythe case nearly covered the top of the dresser. A laundry basket, mostly full of black clothes, with a few items of denim, grey, and white mixed in, sat between the dresser and the wardrobe. Between the club chairs was Buffy's tiny dorm room refrigerator, with two liquor bottles and two glasses sitting on top.

Xander's gaze traveled to the five small canvas prints hanging on the wall above the bed. Each depicted a different landscape, partially obscured by text. “'Always forgive your enemies - nothing annoys them so much',” he read aloud from the one nearest the nightstand with the lamp. “That suits.”

Buffy stopped the swing of the bag with both hands and turned to look at the wall. “Dammit. He did it again.” She jumped up onto the bed. “He's always moving that one to his side. He thinks he's funny.” She lifted the print from the nail on which it hung and switched it out with the one nearest the other nightstand, which read 'True friends stab you in the front.'

Xander laughed. “Where did you get those?”

“Spike stumbled onto them at a secondhand shop. He had to have them. Oscar Wilde was a college friend. ...At least, that's the story. You know how vamps are about colorful histories.” She hopped off the bed and went to the mini-fridge to get a bottle of water. “Thirsty? I have Coke, water, Jack Daniels, Captain Morgan, and... ice. But there's lots of stuff upstairs.”

“Caffeine sounds good.” Xander accepted a can of Coke. “And Spike went to college?”

“Uh-huh. He's just good at acting like he didn't.” Buffy dropped into the neighboring chair. “So what brings you down to see the cellar dwellers?”

Xander glanced around again. “Actually, this is pretty nice for a vamp nest. Cozy.”

“Yeah, Spike's good at making subterranean holes feel homey. He's been adding stuff, a little at a time, since he moved in.” She pointed to the wardrobe. “We just got that this week. There's a serious lack of closet down here.”

“He mentioned that when we went out to Willy's. Did he really threaten to drop it on you? And live to tell the tale?”

“For now,” she grumbled. “Did he also tell you he's the jackass who started an argument while we were carrying that giant thing down the stairs?” She took a sip of her water. “How did Wednesday night go, anyway? Spike didn't say much.”

Xander frowned. “Surprisingly good. Clem joined us, and we had a good guys' night.”

“And the frowny face is because...?”

“Surprisingly. Like, very. As in, 'I think we're going to make a habit of it' surprising. And I'm seriously weirded out about being willing to do that.”

Buffy laughed. “I told you so.”

“I'm hearing enough of that at home, Buff. I don't need it from you, too.” He threw her a playful glare and looked around the bedroom area again, noticing something odd under the stairs. “I'm going to guess the pile of stakes beside the stereo is your contribution to the decor? ”

“Sort of. That's where they get thrown when they're noticed. I tend to leave them laying around. Spike hates it.”

“Gee, Buff. I wonder why?”

“You should have seen his face the first time I left one under my pillow.” She shrugged. “It's an old habit, you know. A good slayer is always armed.”

“A good slayer wouldn't keep the kind of lover who worries about finding stakes in the bed,” Spike grumbled, coming down the stairs. “Lesson the first be damned.”

“Does that make Faith the good one?” Buffy asked.

“What lesson? Also, please tell me there's a door number three.” Xander faked a shudder.

She stuck her tongue out at him. “Why are you here, again?”

“Well, tomorrow is New year's Eve, and we have nothing planned. With Wils leaving on Tuesday, it's our last best chance for a big Scooby party. Shall we Bronze it? They're throwing a huge shindig. Formal, but black tie optional. Word on the street is, the bartenders won't be carding the regulars.”

Spike fluffed the pillows and sat on the bed against them, pushing his book aside. “Don't see why not.”

“I was thinking maybe we could all meet up someplace before, order some pizzas, let you girls do each other's hair or whatever, then walk to the Bronze together.”

“Uh-huh.” Buffy looked at her friend with narrowed eyes. “I can see straight through this. Our place is bigger than yours, big enough to host everyone, and Anya wants you to help her with her hair.”

Xander gave her a big, pleading smile. “Please, Buff? She got rid of the cast, but she's still wearing a brace, and using the sling a lot, because her arm is achy and weak. Pretty please? Bail me out?”

Spike stole a glance at Buffy. “What time were you thinking everyone would come calling?”

“Eight-ish? Things don't kick off at the Bronze until 10, and no New Year's party gets fun until 11 or so.”

“Well... It would give Dawnie a chance to feel like she's part of the group, without taking her out to a boozy party.” Buffy looked at Spike, then back to Xander. “Make it 8:30, then. We have plans for the earlier part of the evening. I'd better go warn Mom.”

Xander watched her run up the stairs. “What's on the agenda?”

“Just a date.” Spike turned around to kneel on the bed, and switched out the two canvas prints nearest the nightstands. He shook his head as he turned back around. “She thinks she's funny.”

*~*~*

“Honey, this is actually good news. You'll get a reception, sort of. You were going to go clothes shopping this evening, anyway. It should be easy enough to get something you can wear straight through. You already said you weren't getting anything white or fancy. I bet the party won't even have to influence your choice.”

Buffy paced her mother's room. “What if the officiant runs late? What if he's not gone by the time the Scoobies show up? How will Tara explain coming over early, and telling Willow she can't come with?”

“Buffy, breathe. Did Spike agree to this?”

“He acts like he thinks it will be fine.”

“Do you know why? Because it will be. If all the jitters you have are about handling back to back events, you're doing very, very well.”

“Jitters? Mom, this isn't jitters. This is serious worry about plans going totally sideways.”

Joyce kept her tone low and soothing. “Take another deep breath, honey. There you go. This is panic over nothing, instead of the big stuff you're afraid to panic about out loud. That's jitters. It's normal. I'll call the Justice of the Peace first thing tomorrow, and ask if he can get here a little earlier. You call Tara tonight, work out some excuse she can make to meet Willow here, and we'll say she arrived just ahead of the others. How does that sound?”

Buffy started to relax. “Ok. That might work.”

Her mother pulled her into a hug. “Oh! My baby's getting married tomorrow!”

“Mom!” She rolled her eyes. “I'm eloping with a 150 year old vampire, and we're living in your basement. You are not supposed to be happy about this.”

“Would you please let me have my moment?”

Dance Partners by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

The secrets that escape aren't necessarily the ones you expect.

Chapter 19: Dance Partners

December, 2000 – January, 2001

Dawn was in the living room when Buffy and Spike came home, both carrying garment bags. She followed them downstairs. “You missed dinner.”

“We stopped by Little Bangkok for drunken noodle.”

“And green curry.”

Again? I'm starting to think you're addicted. Let me see the clothes. What'd you get?”

Buffy hung the bags from the open wardrobe door. “Have at it.” She sat on the bed with Spike.

Dawn unzipped one bag to find a black suit and a black silk shirt. “Predictable, but snazzy. No tie?”

Spike shook his head. “Gave those up decades ago, and haven't missed 'em.”

She opened the other bag to reveal a black cocktail dress with a ruffle-edged, angled skirt. The shoulder straps were silver ribbons, braided together, with a matching braid at the waist. “Ooh! Buffy! This is gorgeous! What about shoes?”

“My strappy black heels are in good shape. I think I've only worn them twice.”

“I've got a pair of patent leathers, buried in the bottom drawer.” Spike waved toward the dresser.

Dawn was still staring at the outfits. “I wish I could go to the Bronze with you. I miss all the fun.”

Buffy glanced at Spike. “Now? It feels like now.”

“Bit, have a seat.” Spike patted the bed beside him until she sat. “You aren't gonna miss all the fun.”

“I know, everyone's going to have dinner here, and get ready for the party.”

“Something before that.” Spike leaned toward her. “How well can you keep a secret?”

“Is that a trick question?” Buffy muttered.

Dawn slapped her sister's knee. “Hey! I can do it! ...For how long?”

Spike shrugged. “Could be months.”

He had her attention. “Oooh! This sounds big. What is it?”

“Before we tell you anything, Dawnie, we need your solemn word that you will not mention it or discuss it around anyone but us, Mom, and Tara until we tell you it's ok.”

“Um, sure.”

Buffy shook her head. “Not good enough.”

“Ok, ok! I promise. I won't say a word about it outside the house, and never when we have guests. Tara is the only exception. I got it. Cross my heart. Now tell me, already!”

“Tomorrow, we're getting dressed up before everyone else gets here, to do something we're pretty sure would cause a serious Scooby wiggins if they knew about it.”

Spike pointed to the bags on the wardrobe door. “Nibblet, those are our wedding clothes.”

A few seconds later, Joyce came running downstairs. “Dawn! Is everyone alright? I heard a scream.”

“We just told her about tomorrow.”

Dawn looked from Joyce's nod of understanding to Buffy's calm demeanor, and then to Spike, who was clearly fighting back the urge to grin. “You're serious? You two? The same you two who fight like cats and dogs, pretty much constantly? And Mom? You're ok with this?”

Buffy took her sister's hand. “One day, we'll explain to you why this happened so fast, I promise.”

Dawn narrowed her eyes on Spike. “You definitely can't get her pregnant, right?”

Buffy laughed and pointed at him. “You totally called it!”

*~*~*

Spike tipped the officiant generously as he was seeing him out. He shook his hand. “You have our gratitude, Mr. Carrouthers. Know it was short notice.”

The kindly old man patted his hand before releasing it. “Still nervous, son? Your hands are stone cold.”

“Poor circulation, is all.” Spike withdrew his hand quickly.

“Take good care of your new wife, William.” He took his hat and coat from their hooks and stepped onto the porch. “And congratulations.”

“Thanks,” Spike nearly whispered as he watched the man depart, the words echoing through his mind. He returned to the living room after shaking off his thoughts. “Good bloke, that one. Didn't even blink at being asked for an atheist ceremony.”

“Yeah, I liked it. Straight, simple, and to the point. Also, no one had to fight back a laugh at the phrase 'holy matrimony,' which I'm sure would have happened with the standard version. 'Til death us do part' was hard enough to get through with a straight face.” Buffy glanced out the window. “I'm starved. When is the food getting here?”

“The pizza guy is due in about 30 minutes,” Tara answered. “Everyone else will be here in about 15. And fair warning, I think Xander invited Giles.”

“Seems like he's around more now than when he was Watcher On Duty,” Spike grumbled.

“Because he's their family, too,” Buffy said quietly. “I may be the original link between them, but they have their own ties to him now, after all these years together. I'm ok with it. I'm not going to cause problems if they want to hang out with both of us at the same time.”

“That's a very mature attitude, Buffy,” Joyce said approvingly.

She shrugged and held up her left hand. “I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to be a grown up now.”

Dawn snorted. “I'm not holding my breath. For either of you.”

“Speaking of...” Tara wiggled her own fingers. “What are you guys going to do about those?”

Spike looked at the band on his left ring finger. “Guess we have to put them away,” he said reluctantly.

Buffy slipped her matching band off and held out a hand for his. “Gimme. I'll take them downstairs.”

He slowly slid off his ring and handed it to her, watching as she put them back in their boxes. “Wouldn't mind us wearing them.”

“We will eventually.” Buffy grabbed her black clutch purse and walked out of the room.

Spike jumped up as something occurred to him. “Hold it right there, Slayer.” He met her at the doorway as she stepped back into his line of sight.

“What?”

“As long as we're living here, that basement's home, love.”

“So?”

“Threshold.”

“Oh, hell, no.” She caught the look in his eyes and rolled hers. “Someone should have married you when you were human, so you'd have all this stupid wedding crap out of your system already. ...Fine. Go ahead. But just this once.”

Spike scooped her up and carried her down to the basement, leaving behind three snickering women.

“'Stupid wedding crap'?” Joyce repeated. “That's no daughter of mine.

“My sister, the great romantic!”

Tara shook her head. “He says he knows what he's getting into. I hope he's right.”

“I raised a sweet little girl who dreamed of a big, princess wedding, but somewhere along the line...” Joyce shrugged, still chuckling.

“She turned into a slayer,” Tara finished. “It's not your fault she grew up, um...”

“Cold and borderline heartless?” Dawn offered.

I was going to say 'practical.' ...Oops! They left some evidence behind.” She grabbed the copy of the marriage license off the coffee table and hurried out of the living room. She knocked on the basement door frame. “Guys? You forgot something.”

“It's alright, Glinda. Come on down.”

Tara came down the stairs to find the bride opening the lock box while she argued with her groom. “I can so dance!”

“Shaking your ass in a club isn't the same thing.” Spike turned to Tara, accepting the license. “Thanks, pet. Tell me, have you ever heard of a figure skater who doesn't know how to dance?”

Buffy took the paper from him and added it to the lock box with the ring boxes. “Club dancing is a kind of dancing. Hence the name.”

“It's sexy as hell, but it's not exactly a proper waltz.”

“Haven't we already had enough 'old Victorian fogey' for tonight?”

“Carrying the bride across the threshold is still done! Even by you bloody Americans!”

“Hey!” Tara pointed to the new additions to the box. “Remember those? You've only been married for about ten minutes. I think calling a truce for one night might be a nice wedding gift... for the rest of us.”

The newlyweds exchanged smiles, and fell silent. Buffy locked the box and Spike took it from her, sliding under the bed to return it to its hiding spot. She put her keys back in her clutch. When Spike came out from under the bed, she offered her hand to pull him up. “Alright, fine. Teach me.”

Spike pulled the portable stereo out from under the stairs while Buffy rifled through the CDs stacked on the lower shelf of his nightstand. Tara watched them, confused. “Ok, I give. What did I say that made you go all quiet and smiley?”

His smile returned. “That's how all this started, you know. How we went from wanting to kill each other to ...this. I asked her for a truce, just for one night.”

Buffy shrugged. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. I should have known better.”

A minute later, the sound of music brought Dawn down the stairs. “Am I interrupting the first dance?”

“More like the first dancing lesson.” Tara answered with a crooked smile.

Buffy looked up at Spike. “And here I thought we'd always been dancing.”

He gave her a warm smile. “All we've ever done, love. All we've ever-- Ow! Bloody hell, woman! Would you watch your feet?”

*~*~*

Willow, Xander, and Anya came into the living room to find it decorated with silver streamers and a 'Happy New year' banner, but no people. Joyce closed the front door behind them and followed them into the room. “I think I decorated the wrong room. The party has ended up downstairs.”

They left their dress clothes in the living room and Xander led them to the basement stairs, the sounds of music and laughter growing louder as they approached. They were met with the sight of Dawn being led by Tara, and Buffy being led by Spike, in an attempt at a waltz that was hindered by the fact that all three women were watching Spike's feet.

Dawn threw up her hands. “I give! This isn't working.” She went back into the bedroom area and flopped onto the bed to watch the action.

“You'll never learn that way, Bit. Glinda, come here.” Spike pulled Tara to take his place and stayed behind her, guiding her movements.

Dawn looked up to see their audience on the stairs. “Hi, guys! Welcome to the Hellmouth's weirdest dance studio.”

Xander shrugged. “Why not?” He led Anya into the open area beyond the bedroom rugs that was serving as a dance floor.

Willow sank into one of the club chairs and turned to watch the dancers. “You guys got dressed up early. I thought we were getting ready together.”

“Had a date with my girl,” Spike answered casually.

“I got here a little early, and wanted to be free to help you and Anya with your hair and make up,” Tara lied, just as Giles came down the stairs.

“For a couple of brawlers, they clean up pretty nice,” Xander commented as he attempted to give Anya a dip, between other improvised dance moves. “Tara always looks good, but Spike and Buffy are usually covered in dirt and bruises.”

“Bruises mostly inflicted by each other,” Dawn snorted. “Hey, Giles.”

“Good evening, Dawn, everyone.” Giles looked around the room, studying the mismatched furnishings and personal touches, the little signs of shared habitation scattered around freely, openly. “Dear lord.”

Willow followed his gaze, landing on two distinctly different pairs of black boots on the floor by the dresser. “They look pretty... settled, don't they?” she asked, thinking back to her conversation with Joyce a week earlier.

“Yes, I suppose that's one way of putting it.”

“If all this can happen in just a couple of months, I'm afraid of how much things will change while I'm gone.” She looked over at the dancers again. Tara looked happy and at ease with Spike's hand on her back and her own hand at Buffy's waist. She was laughing at the instructions from behind her being countered with sarcasm from in front of her. Willow sighed. “I feel like I've already been replaced.”

Dawn turned her attention from the dancers, and gave away that she'd been listening. “Yeah, like you would ever be where Tara is now, dancing between the 'brawlers,' laughing it up.” She shook her head. “Tara's not replacing you. She's taking a place you wouldn't want to take.” She rolled off the bed and went to the stereo, hitting the Stop button. “Let's go upstairs, guys. I smell pizza.”

Buffy and Spike watched everyone else file up the stairs. When they were alone, he whispered, “Did you hear all that?”

“What? The latest round of the Willow Pout Festival? I caught some of it.”

“Red still wants to be chums, love. Maybe you shouldn't be trying so hard to shut her out.”

“I'm not, not really. It's just that... It's easy to do. Tara knows us better, and can work with us. Anya is way more fun to go shopping with than pretty much anyone. Xander is almost to the point of being cool with us. He's clearly trying. Willow just wants me to be year 2000 Buffy, and I think I've proven I totally suck at that.”

“Few more hours, it'll be year 2001 Buffy.”

“Oh goody. 2001. A year so awful, I missed almost half of it, and it still royally sucked.”

“Should be better this time around. We've at least gotten a good start on it.” Spike touched the silver chain around her neck. “That's not actually a girlfriend necklace, Mrs. Pratt.”

*~*~*

At midnight, Joyce looked up from the letter she was writing to watch the ball drop on the television screen. After watching the cheering crowd for a couple of minutes, she finished her letter, tucked it inside a greeting card, and slid both into an envelope.

She took the envelope upstairs to the blue bedroom and looked around. It was beginning to take on the feeling of a museum, a neglected shrine to teen hood. Forgotten photographs and posters graced the walls. Little-used make up and costume jewelry filled the vanity. Rarely worn, brightly colored clothes hung in the closet. The bed was used so infrequently, the linens hadn't needed changing in weeks. Even Mr. Gordo had abandoned the room, having recently taken up a post on top of the new wardrobe downstairs, standing guard over the basement.

“You put it right out there for me to see, didn't you?” Joyce whispered to the room. “This was your way of warning me you haven't been nineteen for a long time.” She took the envelope to the only frequently used item left in the room, and placed it where she'd found a tarnished ring, less than two weeks before.

*~*~*

“Aaaand Buffy's officially drunk,” Xander said, laughing.

She tugged on his arm. “Come on, Xan! Dance with me!”

“Isn't that what your own date is for?”

“He was giving me shit about my club dancing, so to hell with him. This is just the right song for it. Let's go.”

Xander looked at Spike and Anya, who were at the table with them. “Guys? A little help?”

Anya pointed to the sling she'd been forced to put back on. “I need a break. And I think Spike is still a little too sober for all this.”

“Got that right.” Spike waved them on. “Go. Get Twitchy Toes out of our hair.” He watched as Buffy and Xander found a place on the crowded dance floor near the end of the bar and lost themselves in the music, moving together and apart again, drifting to various partners around them and back to each other in the easy rhythm of long time dance partners.

“Don't get jealous,” Anya said, watching with him. “The three of them -those two and Willow- have been able to do that since I met them. I can almost do it with Xander now, but it's taken a lot of practice. And one of us still sometimes ends up dancing alone for a few seconds before the other notices. I can't seem to get the timing. He says he doesn't mind, but I know it's just not the same for him as dancing with Willow and Buffy.”

“It's not that,” Spike murmured. “Was just thinking, that's almost the same place they were dancing the first time I saw her.”

Anya studied his expression. “Wow. You're really head over heels and goo-goo eyed, aren't you?”

“Hilariously so,” Tara said as she delivered their drinks and sat down to join them. She pointed to the end of the bar, where Willow had made her way through the throng to join her friends on the dance floor. “There they are, the original Scoobies, doing what they do.”

While the three at the table watched, Willow fell into the rhythm with Buffy and Xander, cycling between them and other nearby people with incredible ease. They had just come back together again when Buffy's head jerked in the direction of a man passing by them, leading a woman toward the door. She mouthed one syllable to her friends. She and Willow split up, taking different routes to the exit, so they wouldn't be noticed following the couple. Xander made a beeline for the table, grabbed Buffy's clutch without a word, and hurried out.

Spike took a sip of his drink. “Now, that's the original Scoobies, doing what they do.”

Anya frowned. “Should we follow them?”

“Nah, it's one vamp. How much trouble could he be?”

Tara laughed. “Yeah... That's not ironic.”

*~*~*

“So much for the first vamp of 2001,” Xander said.

“So much for the first buzz of 2001. Stupid slayer metabolism. One little fight, and I'm already starting to sober up. I'm going to have to fix that.” Buffy tossed her stake back to him and began brushing off her dress. “Wils, check my back.”

Willow swiped at the back of the skirt. “You're a little dusty, but it's not too bad.”

“Good. I really like this dress, and dresses I like tend to get ruined.”

Xander looked around the alley. “Man, this is just like when we were in high school. The three of us, the Bronze, and a little slayage action between dances.”

“Except for the formal wear and alcohol, yeah.” Buffy shrugged.

Willow's eyes grew wide. “And except that we all left dates in there. Together.”

“Oh god. They're probably talking about us.” Buffy hurried toward the door, her friends on her heels.

“Anybody seen the G-man, lately? What if he's with them?”

“The last time I saw him, he was hanging out on the catwalk, doing the watcher thing,” Willow said.

“Xan, get me some cash out of my bag.”

*~*~*

Xander and Willow returned to the table, taking seats beside their dates. Xander put Buffy's clutch back on the table. “I really should not be used to carrying her purses around.”

“It was good training,” Anya said. “You've been very good at carrying mine for the last six weeks.”

Spike raised an eyebrow. “You two forget to bring something back with you?”

Xander grabbed the purse again. “Stake's in there. We're good. ...Oh! You must mean your girlfriend.” He grinned. “I'm just messing with you. She's talking to Giles.”

“Shame. I'm ready to head back out there.” Spike looked around the table. “Who's game?”

Tara gave Willow a nudge under the table, prompting her to speak. “Um, I guess I can.”

Spike stood up and offered his hand. “Come on, then. I don't bite... lately.”

Willow wrinkled her nose as she placed her hand in his. “That's not funny.”

“Sure it is.” They made their way out to the dance floor at the beginning of a slower song. “Sway or dance, Red?”

“I can follow pretty well, and I know a few steps.”

“Dance it is.” About thirty seconds into the dance, a grin spread over his face. “You're pretty good. Lots of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs when you were young?”

She rolled her eyes as she came up from a dip. “Tons. By the time mine came around, I was beginning to think my parents knew every Jewish family in California. After mine, I was sure of it.”

Spike chuckled. “How do they feel about you going to England?”

“Well, they don't know it's a witchy studies thing. They just think I'm going to explore around and play intellectual tourist. I hope I can get out enough to build a believable photo album.”

They stepped back from each other and close again. “Sure, you will. You're not going to prison, Red.”

“It feels like it, leaving Tara and everyone for a whole semester. The worst part is, I feel like I should go, even let Althenea lock me up if she has to. If Giles really thinks I'm in danger of going the way he went when he was young...” She shuddered. “I know he got to a pretty dark place. People died because he lost control of his magic, and he has to live with that. ...But then, look who I'm talking to. You wouldn't get it.”

Spike was slightly too slow in responding, and tried to cover it by focusing on his steps. But the pause caught her attention. “Maybe I do,” he murmured in the direction of his shoes.

Her eyes lit up with realization, but she managed to hide her surprise before he looked up again.

“It'll be worth it, Red. Make good use of the time. Get every bit of training and discipline you can get from those old birds, and come home a better witch, with no regrets.”

They danced in silence for a minute, while she turned some thoughts over in her head. Finally, she asked, “Will you still be here when I get back?”

“Where would I go?”

“You could go anywhere in the world, Spike. Spain, Los Angeles, Central America...”

Spike gave her another dip and stole a glance up at the catwalk, where Buffy and Giles were deep in conversation. “I'm not gonna leave her, if that's what you're asking.”

“Not even 'for her own good'? That was Angel's reasoning.”

He fought back the urge to growl. “What's better for her than having Big Bad watching her back?”

“I don't want to see her hurt, Spike. We may have drifted apart lately, but that doesn't mean I don't care about her. I'm just not sure what to say, and she doesn't say much at all. But she's still one of my best friends.”

“I know.” They stepped back from each other and came close again. “She still cares about you, too.”

“I know she does. She tried to give me all of Sunnydale -in travel size- for Hanukkah. But she's changed, and I don't know how to get through the walls around her.”

“Been there,” Spike mumbled as he gave Willow another spin.

“What did you say?” she asked when they were facing each other again.

“If we're lucky, this Glory thing will be over by the time you come home, and the slayer will be less stressed and distracted.”

“I hope so... But Spike, you're one of the walls, too.”

“You asking me to stay or get gone, Red? Make up your mind.”

“That's not what I meant. She talks to you. She's been getting closer to Anya and Tara, but you're the one who's replaced me. These days, she acts like you are her best friend.”

“Some days, maybe. But who's she gonna bitch about me to when I'm not? She still needs you.”

“I'm not so sure.”

*~*~*

Buffy brought two glasses up to the catwalk. She handed one to the man who was already standing there. “Scotch on the rocks. Top shelf.”

Giles accepted the glass. “Thank you. That wasn't necessary.”

She shrugged and sipped her rum and Coke. “I was at the bar, anyway.” She leaned on the railing and looked out across the dance floor below. “Do you remember the first time we ever stood up here?”

“Of course I do. I asked you to use your senses to locate any vampires present.”

“And I'm still not very good at it. I think I got a little gypped on that superpower.”

“How many can you sense right now?”

She closed her eyes. “Well, there's the signature I know better than I know my own name, below and about four yards in front of us... And that's all I got. Just the one.” She opened her eyes. “ The one who is dancing with Willow. Would you look at that!” She shook her head. “There was another signature hovering on the edge of my senses for a little while. It was weak, and I had trouble pinpointing the source until he got close.” She brushed at her dress. “I think I'm still wearing a little of him.”

“I'm not surprised you can easily identify Spike. He's around you so consistently. And if my math is correct, you've known him more than six years.”

“Something like that. I've kind of given up on the math. It gives me a headache.” Buffy fell silent for a moment, watching Spike and Willow dancing below. “Six years. It feels like a lifetime,” she whispered. “It's funny, our PTB handler gave us a memory boost to help us out, but I guess it doesn't cover emotions. I have trouble remembering how scared I was when I met him, and what it felt like the first time we fought, when he came so close to killing me.”

“That's a dangerous condition, Buffy. Fear is a slayer's best defense. It keeps you on your guard.”

“No,” she said quietly. “Trust is the best defense. It's misleading sometimes, but then, so is fear. Trust builds relationships, teams of people to help keep a slayer alive. I trust him, Giles, with my life. More importantly, I trust him with the lives of the people I love. A slayer is disposable--”

He sucked in a breath.

“It's ok. I accepted it a long time ago. But trustworthy people who will band together and risk their lives for the greater good, when they don't even have to? That's not disposable. That's the best kind of family a slayer could ask for.” Buffy gestured to the dance floor. “I trust him with her. And that trust isn't misplaced. I'd like to think what we're watching right now is her realizing it. I'd chain his ass up in the basement again if he was a danger to them, and he'd probably end up asking me to kill him. We've been there before.”

“That sounds like an interesting story.”

“I think I mentioned the First had Spike under some kind of mind control? Well, when things were really bad, he tried to talk me into dusting him, to protect the girls from him. And when it seemed like he was finally ok, and I wanted to take the chains off, he asked me not to. He wanted to be sure it was safe, that he wouldn't hurt any of them. That's the man you think is inhibiting my judgment.”

“The girls?”

“We had a houseful of Potentials at the time, refugees turned soldiers. And by houseful, I mean full. Between the girls, the Scoobies, and the few who were neither, the place was packed to the rafters. I eventually gave up on having a bedroom to call my own and moved down to the basement with Spike.”

“No wonder you're so comfortable down there.”

She shook her head. “It wasn't like it is now. Now, it's a bedroom. Then, it was a cell. Chains and shackles on the wall, a camp cot, my alarm clock on the floor, and not much else.”

“And yet you speak of it as though you miss it. You seem almost homesick.”

“I miss some things,” she whispered, taking another sip of her drink. “Stupid, little stuff. Waking up to the kitchen swarming with people. Drill Sergeant Kennedy shouting in the backyard. The look on Vi's face when Spike would get the jump on her in training. Rona catching us sneaking out for Thai food after we brought them home from patrol. Dawnie being mature enough to be mad at me quietly, but still make her point. Andrew, driving us all crazy with his video camera, looking for happy endings and hero stories in a place and time where they didn't exist.” Buffy's eyes drifted back to Spike with a smile. “Andrew would have paid to film this night. He'd be on his third camera battery by now.”

He followed her gaze. “The reliable supporter you said I conspired against ...was Spike, wasn't it?”

“My loyal lieutenant,” she said, her voice still low. “The only person who had my back, no matter what. He kept me alive, Giles, kept me from curling into a ball and letting the First walk all over me. Every general should have someone just like him. It's the only way to survive the battles when you already know you're going to lose the war.”

Giles sipped his Scotch. “You said hero stories didn't exist then. You just told me one.”

“There are a lot more stories with no heroes at all.” She finally turned to look at him. “Like you and Robin trying to take out my lieutenant when I needed him most.”

“And who was Robin?”

“Nikki Wood's son.”

Giles immediately made the connection. “He was looking for revenge?”

“He was being stupid! Nikki went out like a slayer should: Clean and simple, a straight fight with a demon worthy of taking a slayer. She and I are among the lucky ones. We got taken out by badass Aurelians on a mission, not by nameless fledges who happened to have a good day. Robin may have been raised by a watcher, but he didn't still get it.”

“He didn't understand that Spike had reformed.”
“My point is that it shouldn't have mattered. She was a slayer. She ran into an annoyingly tenacious master vamp with a slayer fixation when she'd already reached the death wish stage. It ended predictably. It really is that simple. I've been there. I know. Once you reach that point, the only question left is 'when.' Robin didn't get it, and couldn't move past it.”

“I've never spoken to you about that, about slayers tending to develop the urge to... let go.”

“No, but Mr. Annoyingly Tenacious has had some watcherly moments over the years. He figured out I'd reached that stage before you did.” Buffy shrugged. “He'd seen it before with Nikki.”

“So what happened to her son?”

“He tried to get his revenge on Spike, in a pretty underhanded way. Spike beat the hell out of him for it, even gave him a nice bite scar, but wouldn't kill him. I nearly finished the job myself, I was so pissed off at Robin for chasing a vendetta in the middle of a war.” She took a deep breath. “You helped him plan it, and were in charge of keeping me from stopping it. That night was the final straw with you and me. There was a lot leading up to it, but trying to kill my lieutenant, my lifeline, and telling me it was for my own good? I couldn't forgive that. I still can't.”

“You almost talk like you're still that war. Maybe that's why you can't let go of those events.”

“We are still in that war, Giles. We're taking a different tack, going the preventative route, but we're still in it. ...And I think we might finally stand a chance of winning it.”

Giles studied her eyes, shining not with the glee of a young woman at a fun party, but with the rising hope of a seasoned veteran, seeing tides of battle begin to turn. “I'd like to ask you something, General. Do you need this soldier in your ranks?”

“You're thinking of going home to Bath.” It was stated as a simple, emotionless fact.

“I gave my word to a certain lieutenant that I wouldn't go if you needed me.”

Buffy smiled. “See? I told you he was always watching my back.” The smile faded. “No. I don't need you. But I think you should stay.” She gestured to her friends below. “They need you. Do you think Willow would have agreed to go to Devon without your input? Do you think Anya is in any condition to run the shop by herself right now? Do you think Xan invited you tonight out of politeness? No. He wanted you here. This is your family, Giles. They need you. They want you around.”

“And you?”

“I'd love to fix things between us, but I'm not sure we even can. The older you broke the faith, and the repercussions rippled back through time on my memories. I can't have a soldier I don't trust to walk behind my lieutenant, whose advice is suspect. I had to allow it before, a little. But I'm not that desperate anymore. I think... I think our relationship is still a casualty of that war, one of the costs of making this trip back. …Magic always has consequences, and the piper must be paid.”

“I planned to escort Willow to Devon, to get her settled in.”

“You didn't buy a round trip ticket, did you?”

Giles shook his head. “I had every intention of talking to you before leaving. I just didn't expect it to be tonight. You may think me an untrustworthy git, Buffy, but I keep my word.”

“Then make one more promise,” she whispered. “Remember the feelings I've forgotten. Remember what it was like, when you were the person who always had my back.”

“I will.” Giles drew her into a hug. “Dear girl. I never wanted to disappoint you.”

She swallowed hard, then pulled out of the hug, her ability to make eye contact with him failing again.

“If you find you need me, I'm a phone call away. Althenea--”

“Will teleport you in an emergency. I know.”

“When you're ready to start dropping your war baggage, Buffy...”

“I'll let you know.”

She watched him go down the spiral stairs, headed for the exit, before she followed him down. She turned away from the Scoobies' table as she neared it, but intentionally caught Spike's eye. He excused himself and went in the same direction, finding her near the far end of the bar, leaning against a pillar, waiting on him. He took one look at the familiar expression and pulled her into his arms.

“When's he going?”

“With Willow. One way ticket.”

“Was too much to hope for, wasn't it? One perfect night?”

She sniffled against his shoulder. “I knew it was too close to my birthday. Only this time, I'm the monster who ruined it.”

“No, you didn't.”

“I did.” She pulled away from him. “I finally told him the story. He knows why I don't trust him.”

“Crosses on the walls?”

She nodded.

He studied her as she tried to regain her composure. “Wanna go find something to kill?”

“I'd ruin my dress.”

“Alright, we'll find something to do that gets you out of the dress, then.”

She wiped her eyes. “Spike!”

“Love, there are some traditions you really should respect.” He leaned in close to whisper in her ear, “Come on, Slayer. You know you wanna dance.”

He could tell by the way she grabbed his hand that he would get his way.

Connective Issues by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

How much do you know? How much do you say? What do you choose to hold back?

Chapter 20: Connective Issues

January, 2001

“Shouldn't you be scampering off by now?” Spike mumbled against his pillow. “Sun's been up for a while.”

“New Year's resolution,” Buffy mumbled back, not opening her eyes. “No more scampering.”

“Not holding my breath. ...Not that it matters.”

She opened one eye to glare at him. “It's way too early for vampire humor, Sparky. Shut up and let me sleep.”

“Nope. Time to scamper.” He shoved her out of the bed. “Go.”

She barely managed to land on her feet. “Hey! What the hell?”

“Had a chat with Red last night, while you were with Rupert.”

“I know. I saw you guys dancing and talking. So? What's that got to do with you being a jackass first thing in the morning?”

“You should be there today. Make the effort.” Spike pushed back against her attempts to get back into bed. “I mean it, Slayer.”

She threw a pillow at his face. “I'd love to know why you've gotten so pro-Willow all of a sudden.”

He threw it back. “Maybe 'cause I've spent a lot of time where she is, on the other side of your walls.”

Buffy withdrew, frowning. After a moment's thought, she put on her robe and started for the stairs. “I really hate you sometimes.”

He rolled over, settling back to sleep. “I hear you.”

*~*~*

“So do I need to ask why you two disappeared last night?”

“The wedding night had to start sometime.” Buffy looked around the dorm room. “Where's Amy the rat?”

Tara added another book to the box she was packing. “She's already been teleported to Devon, to be de-ratted and rehabbed. If we ever see her again, it will probably be a while.”

“Good. She's a list of Willow magic problems all by herself. Thank god for Althenea.”

“Elsa, actually. Amy's going to be her -pardon the pun- pet project. So about the wedding night...?”

“Geez, Tara. I thought Anya was bad about pushing for details.”

“You know what I'm asking, Buffy. You guys did have that talk beforehand, right? Like before you actually signed the marriage license?” Tara closed the box and picked it up, struggling with the weight. “Ok, this is a slayer box.”

Buffy took the carton of books from her with ease. “I told him I wasn't ready, and it turns out, he already knew. It felt good to say it, though. And he appreciated hearing it. Which pile?”

“Those are moving in with me. Right side of the door.” Tara began pulling the candle holders from the top of the bookcase. “Count that as a lesson, Buffy. Saying stuff is a good thing.”

“You're as bad as he is,” Buffy said as she tore pages of newspaper to wrap the candle holders. “Wanting me to be all talky and stuff. I apparently only get talky when I'm tipsy.”

“How's that?”

“I spilled a lot of thoughts out on Giles last night. Heavy thoughts. Slayer stuff, mostly. And the stuff that breaks a slayer from her watcher. ...He's leaving tomorrow, too.”

“I suspected that would happen.”

The tearing stopped. “You aren't surprised?”

“Buffy, you don't need a watcher. You know that. You've said that. It was only a matter of time...”

“Isn't everything?”

Tara rolled her eyes at the interjection. “If you aren't going to keep him around as a watcher, even in a limited, advisory capacity, he has no reason to stay.”

“I asked him to stay, for the others. He didn't seem to even consider it.”

“He doesn't look at the rest of us as his kids, Buffy, even if some us of think of him in that role. You were the assignment that brought him to the States. You were the person he got fired for, and that he stayed for after. It's not about the group for him. It's about the slayer at the center of it.”

Buffy began tearing paper again. “And I'm the one breaking up the group, sending them both away.”

“You're the only one who could. The only one who could make those decisions, and the only one who could make them willing to go.” Tara climbed onto Willow's desk chair to reach the last of the candle holders. “That doesn't make it wrong to do it. He'd stay for you if you asked him to. You know he would. It's not like the first time around. And Willow wouldn't have even considered leaving if she thought you couldn't get by without her.”

“That's about you, Tara, not me. She knows I have you for witchy stuff.”

“That's not the only way she thought she was needed.”

Buffy was opening her mouth to reply when the dorm room door opened. “Hey, baby. Would you like to break for-- Buffy. I didn't expect you to be here.”

“I thought you guys might want a hand packing up. Your books are heavy.”

Willow shifted her weight. “Well, thanks. I was going to take Tara to lunch before I took the next load of stuff to my parents' house. ...Will you join us?”

“I wouldn't want to be the third wheel at your last date before you leave.”

Tara stepped off the chair. “You wouldn't be. I'm taking my girl out tonight. Why don't you guys go ahead? I can have this finished by the time you get back.”

“Are you sure, baby?”

She waved them toward the door. “Bring me back a sandwich or something.”

With another look at her girlfriend, Willow shrugged. “Ok, we'll be back in an hour or so.”

Buffy shook her finger at Tara as they headed out the door. “Don't lift anything that can wait for me.”

*~*~*

Willow unlocked the passenger's side door, and Buffy climbed into the car. “How did you talk Xander into loaning you his car?”

“I told him he could either let me have the car for the day, or have to haul all my stuff to my parents' house himself after work. He practically threw the keys at me.”

Buffy laughed. “I wonder when his lunch break is?”

Willow started the car and looked at the clock on the dash. “Now-ish, actually. We should have time to catch him. What did you have in mind?”

“Traditional Scooby lunch, with dessert.”

The driver grinned. “The deli next door to the bakery.”

“I've had daydreams about pastrami on rye with a lemon filled doughnut. It's been forever.”

“Why haven't you gotten them?”

“I don't know. I guess it doesn't seem right without you and Xan.”

Willow tried to look solemn and spoke in a slow, serious tone. “I hereby officially grant you two permission to have pastrami in my absence.”

Buffy bowed her head over the dash. “Thank you, my liege. We shall fill your chair with only the worthy.”

“My beautiful proxy?”

Buffy bowed again. “We shall endeavor to teach your lady the wondrous ways of the doughnut.”

They broke into giggles.

“I'm glad you and Tara are finally starting to get to know each other, you know. I guess I haven't been acting like it. ...And I'm actually impressed that you've started hanging out with Anya. How do you put up with her?”

Buffy shrugged. “I try to appreciate her perspective. It's pretty different.”

“I'll say. Sometimes, it's like she's not even trying to fit in with the group... or with humanity.”

“That's the best thing about her, Wils. She's her own woman, playing the social game by her own rules. Honestly? It's kind of fun. You never know what's going to spill out of her mouth next.”

Willow glanced at her passenger. “You don'tmind hearing random tidbits about Xander's sex life?”

“And she doesn't mind hearing stuff about Spike's in trade.” Buffy laughed at a memory. “Now, when we went Christmas shopping with Dawnie, that was a challenge. Anya's lack of filter between mind and mouth versus a teenager who is just old enough to be super curious.”

“How did you survive that?”

“I just kept telling myself, 'Mom doesn't have to know, Mom doesn't have to know.' Of course Dawnie dropped the ball, gave Mom a hint as to the line of conversation. I tried to cover it, make it sound like a passing comment instead of a long conversation, but I know Mom saw right through it.”

“I would have loved to have seen the look on her face.”

“She shifted into denial mode. You know, 'my kids are innocent little children,' that sort of thing. Then Spike came to her rescue, got her out of the conversation. I think she wanted to kiss him for his great timing.”

Willow pulled into the parking area near Xander's work site. “I asked her about you two. I don't know if she told you.” Buffy shook her head. “I wanted to know what made her ok with the whole 'you and Spike' thing. She's happy that you're happy.”

“I'm just glad she puts up with the arguing.”

“I should have been, too. I should have seen that you're happy. But can you blame me for freaking out a little? You're--” Willow gulped. “--sleeping with Spike.” Buffy opened her mouth to speak, but Willow held up a hand to stop her. “I'm working past it. Really. I'm even starting to get it. But I should have been hearing about it from you, from minute one. I should have been sitting at the Espresso Pump, drinking a latte and listening to you spill your guts about the guy you were interested in, before the first date ever even happened. I might have had to pretend not to be horrified, but I should have had the chance to listen. ...There hasn't been any gut-spilling, haven't been any lattes. And now I'm leaving, and I don't know what to do about it.”

“I do.” Buffy opened her car door. “On your second day back, after you've had a day with Tara, the three of us will have pastrami and doughnuts. Then we'll send Xander away, and go get some lattes.”

“And in the meantime?” Willow asked, stepping out with her.

“I have the sanctuary's phone number, Wils. We'll do some old-fashioned, high school style gut-spilling, talking all night.”

Willow wrinkled her nose as they headed for the foreman's trailer. “How's that going to work with an eight hour time difference? As it is, Tara and I are struggling to plan a phone date schedule.”

“I'm a slayer, which is mostly a night job, living with a nocturnal creature who thinks he can also pull off being a day-walker, and ends up napping a lot. And I have friends and family who are mostly on 'nine to five' type schedules, for whom seeing 2am is reserved for special cases. Do you think I have any understanding of day or n--” Buffy was drowned out by the electronic beeps blasting through the speaker attached to the outside of the trailer. She leaned against the structure, waiting on the noise to stop. “--Of day or night anymore? My sleep schedule is so far gone, I've taken up napping, too. Trust me, we'll still be able to have occasional binge bedtime phone calls.”

Willow leaned with her, watching the group of men entering the trailer and exiting through the door nearest them. “Won't that be expensive?”

“Not to us. If Spike's going to rag on me for napping like he does, he can pay for international calls at weird hours.”

“I'm not sure I follow the Buffy logic.”

“Buffy has logic?” Xander asked as he came down the trailer steps. He jumped over the bottom of the railing to join them beside the building. “That's new. Where'd you get it?”

“Spike's wallet, apparently,” Willow answered.

“Thanks, guys. I love you, too.” Buffy feigned a pout.

“Are you done with the car already, Wils? I thought you said you'd need it all afternoon.”

“We're here for an official Scooby lunch date.”

“Oooh! Pastrami and Bavarian cream!”

Willow shook her head as they walked back toward the car. “You two are never going to learn. The perfect combination is pastrami and a strawberry jelly, powdered.”

*~*~*

Buffy looked up from the notepad in her lap. “Hey, Mom. What's it like to be back amongst the employed people?”

Joyce dropped into a chair and kicked off her shoes. “Exhausting. It's going to take me a little while to get back into the swing of things.”

“They offered you two months of part time, to ease back in. You should take it.”

“No, I need to get some more money flowing into this house.”

Buffy tapped her notepad. “I'm working on helping you with that, right this minute. And there is another source, you know.”

“Another source who is likely to outlive us all. He'll need that money later.”

“Mom, a master vamp can get whatever he needs, handed to him on a silver platter, if he plays his cards right. Don't worry about Spike. Also, you aren't going to -excuse the phrase- drain him dry.”

“Buffy, if I may ask, how much is there?”

“Well... There's been some pretty heavy real estate investing over the last hundred years or so... Um, let's just say that if you wanted the rest of the mortgage to disappear overnight, it wouldn't hurt him to make it happen.”

“Us, love,” came a voice from the kitchen. “Wouldn't hurt us.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Stop eavesdropping, Super Ears!”

Joyce called toward the kitchen. “Hi, Spike! What smells so good?”

“Enchiladas Verde. Should be alright if Nibblet didn't under season the chicken again.”

“Hey!” came another voice from the kitchen. “Not everyone thinks food should require a fire extinguisher.”

“Eh, maybe I'll just throw some chile powder into a mug of that swine venom to make up for it.”

“Eeeewww! Buffy! Make him stop talking!”

“I'm pretty sure that's impossible,” Buffy called back.

Joyce leaned back in her chair, a relaxed smile spreading across her face. “It's good to be home.”

“I thought you hating the arguing?” Buffy asked.

“Sometimes, you and Spike get a little too crude and loud. But this--” she waved a hand toward the kitchen. “--This is normal family bickering. I like it.”

“Except that there's a serious lack of normal in this family. You're the only one who qualifies.”

“The normal part isn't what matters, Buffy.” She closed her eyes. “Just listen.”

Buffy stopped fidgeting with her pen and listened for a couple of minutes. “Cooking noises,” she whispered. “Something about roasting tomatillos... And a guy in her art class. He's giving her advice on talking to the boy.”

Joyce nodded slowly. “And she's listening. And learning more about cooking than I've managed to impart on either of you.”

“We just like to eat.”

“I noticed that.” Her smile ended in a sigh. “At least I know my girls won't starve.”

“What do you mean?”

Joyce lowered her voice until it was barely audible, in case Dawn overheard. “Spike told me a little about how things... become. He never mentioned me, even in passing. He did refer to Dawn in a way that implied he was used to playing the role you hear him playing now, that you both were. You know all the details of my finances and insurance plans. The household ran perfectly smooth while I was in the hospital. I'm not a fool, Buffy. I can add up the obvious. ...How long do I have?”

Buffy gulped. “You're making a big assumption,” she whispered back.

“That sounds a lot like confirmation.”

“I'm going to try to stop it.”

Joyce opened her eyes and reached for her daughter's hand. “If you can't, it's ok. I'll know you tried.” She saw tears forming and moved to sit beside her. Buffy grabbed her in a hug. “Oh, honey.”

The sudden lack of conversation from the living room brought Spike out of the kitchen. He found the two women embracing, both of them teary-eyed. “Buffy? Everything alright?”

She nodded as she pulled away. “Mom... Mom figured it out.”

“Oh.” He sat down on the edge of the coffee table in front of them. “Gave it away, did I?”

Joyce wiped her eyes. “Sort of. You both did. You're both a little too fond of spending time with me, and a little too good at keeping things in order around here without me.” She looked him in the eye. “You'll take good care of my girls?”

“'Til the end of the world.”

“Spike!” came Dawn's voice from the kitchen. “I'm not ready to fly solo in here!”

“Which might be tonight, if you don't get back to the kitchen,” Buffy said with a sly smirk. “She'll try to set the house on fire.”

“Bloody hell. Not again.”

Joyce watched him hurry out of the room. “I'm going to do myself a huge favor and not ask.”

Buffy patted her hand. “Smart move.”

*~*~*

Dear Mr. Travers,

It has come to my attention that I am an anomaly among slayers beyond the age of majority, in that I am not being compensated for my guardianship of the Hellmouth financially. In my research, I have found no fewer than five adult slayers in the twentieth century alone that have received a generous monthly stipend from the Council of Watchers, to allow them to support themselves in practical ways, because the calling inhibits attempts to do so through normal human methods.

I cite for you specifically the case of Slayer Nikki Wood (1974-1977), as I see many similarities in her situation to what mine is and may soon become. While I do not have a child, my mother has recently suffered a bout of ill health, and her future health is not assured. She has a minor child, my sister Dawn, who would fall under my exclusive care should the worst happen, and who is partially under my care now, with my mother's health still in question. Like Miss Wood, I am in need of support for myself and a minor who does not deserve to suffer because I was called as a slayer.

As an aside, I thought you would be interested to receive an update on the current status of the Sunnydale Hellmouth. Of late, there have been no attempts to open the Hellmouth. Vampire and demon populations are manageable, slightly lower than usual, owing to some highly productive extra patrols. However, it is worthy of note that the Hellgod Glorificus is in town, and would like to see me dead.

I look forward to hearing from you regarding the monthly stipend.

Sincerely,

Buffy Summers, Slayer

*~*~*

Miss Lydia Chalmers-

Would love to talk about your thesis in person. There might be a chance for you to come to the Hellmouth in California sometime soon. Take it. Offer to be the Council's representative. You show up without those wankers in tow, I guarantee you an interview. Contact the Slayer. She knows where to find me, and will assure your safety for the duration of our meeting. Hope to see you soon.

-William the Bloody

*~*~*

Dawn nudged her sister awake. “You guys must have had a doozy of a fight last night. How did I not hear it?”

“Huh?” Buffy rolled onto her back and squinted at the sunlight streaming through the window. Her hand instinctively went to the unoccupied space beside her, and a surge of panic shot through her. She relaxed just as suddenly. “Oh, yeah. He's downstairs.”

“Yeah, I figured he would be. The question is, what are you doing upstairs?”

“There wasn't room for all three of us, and it's too bright for Spike up here.” Buffy waved toward the window as she yawned. “Hell, it's too bright for me.”

“Three? Is this like one of those conversations you try to make Anya stop when I'm around?”

“Dawn!” Buffy rolled out of bed. “Nothing like that!

She went into the bathroom. Dawn was waiting in the hall when she came out. “Ok then, like what?”

“Like Tara having a bad night. She came to us to talk, and fell asleep in our bed. She was so tired, I didn't have the heart to wake her up and send her upstairs, so I went myself. No big deal.”

Dawn followed her down to the kitchen. “You left another woman in bed with Spike. On purpose.”

“It's Tara, Dawnie. They aren't exactly each other's types.” Buffy started the coffeemaker and filled a mug with pig's blood. When she turned around from putting it in the microwave, she added, “I'm just glad she isn't alone, that she has us to come to.”

“Willow's been gone for a week. Even I know Tara being so upset she needs to come see you freaks in the middle of the night isn't healthy.”

“It's hard being apart, even when it's for a good reason. A bad night now and again is totally understandable.”

“How would you know?”

“Um, I'm just guessing. You know, based on what Tara was talking about.”

Dawn pointed to the microwave. “So you're going down to wake him up?

“No, he's awake now.”

“How do you know?”

“Just a feeling.”

The microwave beeped as the basement door opened. Spike came into the kitchen, still looking sleepy. He dropped onto a stool. “Morning, love. Morning, Bit.”

Buffy filled a second mug with coffee and put both on the counter in front of him. “Pick your poison.”

He took them both, and gave Buffy a grateful smile. “Keep that up, and I might have a different woman in my bed tomorrow morning.”

“I hope so. If for no other reason than it will mean Tara's not so upset. I don't know how to help her.”

“Ok, how did you do that?” Dawn asked her sister.

“What'd she do?”

“Buffy knew you were awake. That's why the blood was warmed by the time you got up here.”

“It's not a big deal, Dawnie. I just knew, that's all.”

Dawn glanced at Spike, who looked tense. “Well, somebody thinks it's a big deal.”

“Nah, Bit. Was just thinking 'bout Glinda. Had to wait a while on a girl to come home to me once, too.”

“Dru?” Dawn asked.

He flicked his eyes at Buffy, who was pouring herself a cup of coffee. “Someone else. Bloody long wait. Spent some nights at the bottom of a bottle. The nights between, what kept me going was having something else to do, someone besides myself to worry over.”

“You're saying Tara needs a new hobby? Or maybe a puppy?”

“He's saying it's time to put our witch to work.” Buffy grinned. “Operation Decoy?”

“ And stocking the bunker. Maybe working on some defenses, see if she can do Red's bubble thing.”

“Yeah, that would be good. It's not Glory proof, but it's knight proof. An extra batch of mini spheres could be handy, too. They're all scattered around. What we need are some we can have on us.”

“Make it two batches, and we could get a golf ball launcher.”

“Ooh! I like that! They're just the right size for it, too. But priorities first. We need better protection on the house, something we can have prepped, then put up in a hurry.”

“Ah, I see what you're thinking. Don't want to tip your hand, love?”

“And I don't want to use the bunker until it's necessary. I'm sorry, Spike, but-- ”

“It's a one-shot deal, most likely. I know.”

“Wait. What? Decoys, bunkers, bubbles, knights, and golf balls? Are you guys even speaking English?”

“Not exactly, Dawnie. We're just warming up our battle plans.”

Spike raised one of his mugs. “Welcome back, General.”

Buffy raised her mug. “Thank you, Lieutenant.”

“How was your honeymoon?”

“Pretty good, but it's time to get back to work.”

Dawn looked from one to the other as they sipped their coffee, waiting on one of them to laugh, or at least say that ridiculous conversation was only a joke. They didn't. Instead their eyes drifted away from each other, as they lost themselves in thought.

Spike broke the silence. “Told you so, Slayer, but you wouldn't listen.”

Buffy looked up from her coffee. “Huh? Told me what?”

“Weren't you just saying you think there's a chance-- Bloody hell. Never mind.” Spike stood up and drained his mugs, one after the other. “Gonna go wake up Glinda. Got an idea for her first project.”

*~*~*

Dear Miss Summers,

In the case of Miss Wood, and in the other cases you referenced, the Slayer in question worked with the Council, and under the direction of a watcher. Neither is the case for you. In fact, it has come to our attention that Rupert Giles, who has been acting in a watcher capacity at the California Hellmouth since the termination of his employment with the Council two years ago, has relocated to his home on our side of the proverbial pond.

Now, if you would consider accepting a new watcher, and resuming your position as the Council's active Slayer, the conversation about a monthly stipend may progress. Until those circumstances are met, you are not an employee of the Council, and not entitled to monetary compensation.

In the meantime, we intend to dispatch a team to check your fitness for the duty to which you are called, and would appreciate updates about your encounters with Glorificus.

Quentin Travers

Chairman, The Council of Watchers

*~*~*

“Whistler!” Tara called toward the ceiling. “I need to talk to you!”

A flash of blue announced Whistler's arrival in the dorm room. “Not the most elegant way to summon me, but I guess it will do.” He looked at the boxes stacked in the corner. “Going someplace, Maclay?”

She stopped pacing. “Those are Willow's. I'm so glad you showed up.”

He sat in her desk chair. “Wow. That's not something I'm used to hearing around here. Summers and Pratt don't exactly welcome me with open arms. But they're why I'm here, aren't they?”

“How did you know? Better question: How did I not know the bond between them was more than just an emotional connection? And why didn't anyone tell me? Buffy's never said a word about it, and Spike didn't either... until yesterday.”

“It's called denial, kiddo. She's a pro at it. And he's damned good at playing along to keep the peace.”

“He's not playing along anymore. He asked me for a bonding suppressant, and recommended a book.” Tara pointed to the volume laying open on the bed. “But I'm confused by a couple of things.”

“Ok, so the gist of it is, some pairs of demons -if they're well-matched- will choose to mate, to bind their fates together. As in, one dies, the other dies. Meantime, they gain each other's strengths and are connected more or less at the brain and nervous system. You know, feeling what each other feels, sensing each other's thoughts, stuff like that. The details vary by species, of course, but--”

Tara held up a hand. “That much, I'm clear on. I get fuzzy on the cross-species aspect of the situation.” She sat on the edge of the bed and held up the book. “Sixty two pages of bonding suppressant spell variants, covering all kinds of demons, but not one word about different species choosing each other.”

“Because they don't.” Whistler gestured to the book. “The vampire version is all you'll need. A slayer's demon is in the same general family, descended from the same Turok Hans.”

“The ancient vampires they told me about?” She frowned. “Buffy's related to them?”

“Ever wonder why slayers can sense vampires, but no other demons? We can all sense our own kind, kid. And since all of the modern descendants of the Turoks are human hybrids of one type or another, they have less control over the mating than a lot of other species. Basically, the demon within chooses, and takes the rest of the person along for the ride. Driven by instinct, that sort of thing.”

“Fuzzy point number two: The bond is supposed to take a long time to develop, right? And even longer in hybrids? Time traveling or not, they haven't been together nearly enough years to reach the point of...” She fidgeted uncomfortably. “You know.”

“The inner demon asserting itself, and having to deal with the instinct to make a claim?”

Tara nodded and flipped to a bookmarked page. “According to this section on delayed claims, the bond isn't strong enough for accidental telepathy until right before the instincts start to take over, but it's rarely a problem, because by that time, a pair has had many years to either agree to mate or begin taking suppressants.” She looked up. “You and I both know that Spike and Buffy haven't been together long enough. By even the most generous definition, it's been less than three years.”

No one, not even the bosses, expected it to go this fast, not until your little girlfriend -the 2003 version, that is- used their bond to keep them together as she moved them through time.”

“I saw the magic wrapped around it... Was that not supposed to be there?” Her frown returned. “Did Willow do this to them?”

“She sped up the bond's development. Big time.” He took off his hat and turned it in his hands. “It was bound to happen, yeah, but not right now. Eventually, Mr. and Mrs. Denial would have been in this situation, anyway, if they kept putting it off. You know, assuming...”

“They both survived their war with the First,” Tara finished. She studied the expression on the demon's face. “They weren't expected to, were they? One of them was going to die.”

“Probably. Their best chance of winning the battle that was coming was a weapon Angel had brought them. Either one of them could have used it, but the plan was for it to be Pratt. It was a suicide run, but they both knew it was the best odds for winning the war.”

Tara rubbed her forehead. “So what they call 'Plan A' would have broken the bond.”

“Not necessarily. You know as well as anyone, death can be undone.”

“But there's always a price to pay, like with any magic. I'm still waiting to see what mine is.”

“You're paying it, kiddo.” Whistler nodded to the boxes in the corner. “Consider that your down payment. The price for Pratt would have been a short term assignment to helping Angel. He'd have gotten back to her in a few years. The idea was, he'd pay the debt off before the bosses put the two of them to work.”

“I'm sure he would have loved that. Just talking about Angel makes him crazy. Wait. What? Put them to work? What Althenea told them about a possible agent assignment for two immortals... She was right?”

He shook his head. “That crazy old witch knows too much. But no claim, no follow up. Summers is still mortal without it, and that's not exactly what the bosses want.”

“So what if it went the other way? What if Buffy changed the plan and took the weapon for herself?”

“Her price would have been a change within herself. She would have come back with her demon way more evolved, strong enough to influence her personality and make her cross the line from 'mostly human' to 'mostly demon.' They'd likely mate quickly if it went that way, with her demon all charged up like that, and we'd be looking at a totally different ballgame.”

“Changing her like that, though... Buffy would never accept it.”

Whistler chuckled. “It's amazing what dropping a prophecy or two into the distant past can make people willing to accept. The bosses even pulled that stunt on me once, with that Angel and Acathla business. That's how I got tangled up with Summers in the first place.”

“So this was going to happen, no matter what.”

“Most likely. When they decided to go with their Plan B, the bosses were surprised, but thought it was for the best. Among other perks, it would buy them a few years to get their act together and stop pretending their demons hadn't already chosen. No one counted on Rosenberg pushing the schedule by taking a magical short cut.” He shook his head. “Man, I'm glad she's finally getting some training.”

“Me, too. It's hard, though.”

“It'll be worth it, kid. You already know that. So, anyway, the Great Procrastinators have run their Rosenberg Special Six Hour clock out, ignoring the bond until it can't be ignored anymore.”

“Spike says she isn't ready. As in, they haven't even had a real conversation about it, just a few sideways mentions here and there. I thought we were talking about the human marriage when we had that 'not ready' conversation, but apparently, the demon marriage is what she was worried about most.”

“The human marriage is a footnote by comparison. This is bigger, and she knows it.” Whistler put his hat back on. “It's not her own commitment that scares her, though. It's his.”

“Buffy's afraid a claim would be a death sentence for Spike.”

“That's about the size of it.”

“I guess I should go ahead and order supplies for the suppressant spell, then. As much as they argue about her death contingency planning, he's not likely to be able to change her mind on that.”

Whistler grinned. “Maybe not right now, but he will. Give it time, kiddo. They'll give in eventually.”

“And in the meantime?” Tara held up the book again. “Is it ok to do this to them? You know, if he can't talk her into not needing it?”

“The spell is safe. Those two geniuses can hang out by a river in Egypt a little longer, if they insist.”

Unwilling WItness by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Past, present, and future are constantly intermingling, and the shadow of the untrained witch is long enough to cover all.

Chapter 21: Unwilling Witness

January, 2001

Buffy's words came in time with the motion of her fists. “What. The hell. Is wrong. With. You?”

The skinny vampire growled through his fangs. “I'm hungry!”

She kicked him to the ground. “I'm not talking to you.”

He tried to trip her as she came toward him, wielding a stake. She stepped back to avoid it, simultaneously giving him a chance to regain his feet. He threw a glance around. “Then who? You're not some kind of nut, are you? I've heard this town's got a lot of crazy these days.”

“Welcome to the Hellmouth,” she replied with an eye roll, slipping her stake back into her waistband and attacking him with her fists again. When he tried to back away from her, she let him. “Feel that?”

“What?” The vampire frowned. “Oh, that. Man, Slayer, I think you've got bigger problems than me. If you want to go deal with it, I can just get out of your hair.”

“Sorry, bub. We have to finish this.”

“It's Eddie, actually.” He threw a jab at her face, that she easily blocked. “And you're willing to prioritize me over that? Thanks. That means a lot, coming from a slayer.”

She kicked him in the gut, sending him back a few steps. “You're welcome.”

He called out to their unseen audience as he moved in for another attack. “I don't know who you are, but you should know: I'm not sharing my first slayer.”

Buffy closed her eyes, giving herself a small challenge as she blocked the young vampire's onslaught of weak punches. “Eddie, that master signature is William the Bloody.”

“Whoa. The Slayer of Slayers? He's famous.” He called out again: “Am I being scouted for something? He's watching, right?” He attacked Buffy with renewed vigor. “No offense, Slayer, but I'd rather have you be my first than his third.”

She laughed. “He's not here to steal your spoils, either before or after you kill me.” She grabbed his wrist as his fist came toward her again, giving it a pull as she raised one knee to lift his body weight, flipping him over her shoulder. He landed on the ground with a grunt. “Because I have news for you, Eddie: You're not going to kill me, and neither is he.”

“You sure 'bout that?” came a voice. “Some days, it's tempting.”

“Yeah, Slayer, are you sure?” Eddie jumped to his feet behind her and lunged for her throat.

She turned around just as he was about to grab her shoulders and gave him a hard punch to the chest, sending him flying. “Oh, I'm pretty sure. In fact, if he doesn't spit out what's on his mind, I might just kill him.”

“Would you just dust the poor git already?” asked the voice. “Starting to feel sorry for him.”

Buffy opened her eyes and moved toward where Eddie had landed. His darting eyes gave away that he was looking for a way out. “Please don't run,” she requested. “I'm really not in the mood for it.”

He scrambled to his feet as she neared him, and began to back away, matching her slow pace. “You know, Slayer, you really don't want to waste your energy on me, not if you have to deal with William the Bloody next. Save your strength. I'll just go.”

“He's right, love. Don't wanna wear yourself out before I have a chance at you.”

Buffy rolled her eyes at the innuendo. “Eddie, a vamp with bravado that has a thirty second shelf-life won't last very long. You have to be able to take a few punches, and still come up smiling. You've already shifted into full-on Chicken Mode, complete with lack of fangs.”

Eddie stopped backing up and touched his own face. “Huh. When did that happen?”

“Bloody fledges.”

“Hey!” Eddie called to the voice. “I'm no fledge! I was turned three years ago, thank you!”

“You're still a fledge,” Buffy said. She was now standing in front of him, not moving any closer. “And I'm genuinely surprised you've lasted this long. Three years, huh?”

Eddie nodded and tried to back up another step, before realizing why she'd stopped pursuing him. He hit the wall of a crypt with a whimper. “Uh-oh.”

“What were we doing three years ago, Slayer?” The voice sounded very close.

“That's a matter of perspective. You were either trying to kill me, or trying to help me.”

Eddie looked confused. “Ok, so you two definitely know each other.”

“Well enough.” Spike jumped off the top of the crypt, landing right next to Eddie, still cowering against the wall. Spike gave him a look of disappointment. “You're an insult to the species, Fledge. Slayer, if you don't stake him soon, I'm gonna do it.”

“I don't know. The longer I let him live, the more you'll talk. You've said more in the last five minutes than you have in almost two days.”

“Dust him, then we'll talk.”

She looked Eddie over. “I want insurance. If Eddie makes you stop brooding, Eddie lives.”

“I don't brood!” Spike looked from one to the other with a sigh. “Alright, then. Have it your way.” He started to walk away. “Fledge, come with me.”

Eddie's eyes widened. “Really?” He looked at Buffy, who waved him on. “Ok! Great!” He scrambled away from the wall, hurrying to catch up to the master vampire. Buffy followed them at a slower pace, taking the time to enjoy the quiet, starry night.

*~*~*

“This isn't what I had in mind,” Eddie said, as he was tied to a metal folding chair. "I thought we were going to hang out. Maybe trade slayer stories?”

“I've already seen yours. It was depressing.”

The hatch opened, and Buffy came down the ladder. “Hey! What's she doing here?”

“She thinks having you around will make me talk. I'm humoring her.” He nodded toward the open drawer below the bed. “Love?”

Buffy found a bandana in the drawer and tossed it to Spike. “Sorry, Eddie.” She kicked the drawer closed and sat on the bed.

“For what? What exactly is going-- Mmm!” The young vampire's words were cut off as he was gagged.

“The lady requested your presence. She said fuck all about your conversation.”

“So what's on your mind?”

Spike sat on the bed beside her. “Mostly the conversation you've been avoiding.”

“Let me guess: You want to talk about it.”

“I want you to stop pretending we have a choice. The conversation's officially overdue, Buffy, and you know it.” He ran a hand through his hair. “But I can't seem to suss out how that happened so fast.”

Buffy shrugged. “We're involved. Weirdness must follow.”

Her casual attitude caused him to raise an eyebrow. “You know what's happening to us, don't you?”

She looked at her hands, her flippancy fading. “Yeah. I thought we'd have a few more years, at least. But it's already starting. ...I didn't realize it until we were filling out the marriage license, but you never actually told me your middle name. I just knew what initials to have engraved on the pen. The information was already in my head. …And then there's the apple juice thing. Tell me what you know.”

“You used to drink apple juice from a rocks glass at your parents' parties when you were little. Thought it made you look like a grown up.” He shrugged. “What of it?”

“Spike, I didn't tell you that story. I've never told anyone that, and I doubt Mom told you. But when we were at Willy's on Christmas Eve, you made a joke about it. And then yesterday morning...”

“You felt me waking up, didn't you?” She nodded. “And I could've sworn I heard you say something to me, but you never opened your mouth.”

A blue flash drew their eyes away from each other. “Do you two geniuses really think it just started manifesting in the last few weeks?”

Buffy's brow furrowed, and she started to stand up, but Spike held a hand in front of her. “It's alright, love. Think we might want him around this time.”

Whistler smiled. “This is great. I like this. You're the second person today to be happy to see me. You guys are starting to like me, aren't you?”

Buffy raised her hand. “I still hate you.”

“Well, two out of three ain't bad.” He jerked a thumb at Eddie. “What's with the hostage?”

“He's a...” Buffy wrinkled her nose. “He's kind of a conversation starter.”

“What? Like an art piece?” Whistler took an empty chair from the table and put it near the bed. He straddled it, facing the couple. “You guys are a little weird. You know that, right?”

“Nibblet tells us that all the time.”

“Man, if she knew half the story... So anyway, no, it didn't start manifesting Christmas Eve. That was just the first time it was obvious enough for you two thick heads to make note of it. It started manifesting as soon as you came back in time. Thank your other witch for that.”

“Willow screwed up a spell? Gee, I never could have seen it coming.” Buffy rolled her eyes. “What did she do to us?”

“She used a binding spell around your auras and -by extension- your bond, so she only actually had to move one of you through time, and the other would be dragged along without her having to worry about keeping you together.”

“Me,” Spike whispered. “She must've focused it on me. That's why you were late arriving on the last bounce, love. You landed--”

“A few steps behind. As usual.”

“And that binding spell sped up the maturity of your bond, big time. I came to see you when you'd been settled into this time for what? A day? And it was already manifesting.” He noted the confusion on Buffy's face. “You don't actually think it's normal that you two have entire conversations that aren't much more than eye contact and a nod, do you?”

Buffy looked uncomfortable. “We just know each other really well...”

“You mean you can get a feel for what each other is thinking when you focus on each other. Face it, kiddo, you two have the whole telepathic bond thing, prepped and ready. It's just waiting on you to open the door.”

“I'm not ready for this,” she whispered.

There was a bright blue flash, and Buffy found herself in a small, cluttered bedroom, sitting on the edge of a very different bed. She looked around. “I know this place.”

Whistler sat on the overstuffed recliner near the bed. “You ought to. You two had a pretty big moment in this ugly little room.”

“The abandoned bungalow on Hillcrest.” She frowned. “Where's Spike?”

“Still in your bunker, and doesn't even know you're gone. Same with the hostage. But this place isn't abandoned, kid.” He jerked a thumb toward the hallway beyond the bedroom door. “The owner's watching TV in the living room.”

“And why exactly are we in his house?”

“To talk.” Whistler leaned forward in the recliner. “You said you're not ready for the claim.”

“I'm not. Whistler, it's been less than a year since I visited the Shadow Men, since I found out exactly what it is...”

“What? That you're part demon? Pfft! You suspected it for years before that. It's the only explanation that makes sense. What else explains a slayer's power? A slayer's senses?” He gestured to the bed behind her. “Snuggling up with the undead for comfort when your world is crashing down around you?”

“'Drawn to the dark,'” Buffy quoted with a shake of her head. “I hate it when he's right.”

“Tough cookies, Summers. That's your life, and you've known it for a while now. As for not being ready, I call bullshit. On both of you. Your vampire is sneaking around, trying to support your idiotic hesitation by talking to your witch about suppressant spells to buy you some time, but that just makes you both fools, wasting time and energy putting off the inevitable.”

She nodded slowly, rising to her feet. “Yeah. Sure. Inevitable. And I'm supposed to believe it's necessary?” Her fists clenched at her side.

The demon stood up to face her. “Come on. Just hit me and get it out of your system. You've been wanting to do it since we met. May as well stop waiting on this, too.” He dodged the first punch, barely. “Hell, why not take him as your mate? You've already married the man once! Make it count this time.” He ducked again, and glanced behind him, making sure he wasn't about to fall over the recliner.

Buffy jumped at the opportunity. Whistler hit the floor before he'd even turned around, “No.” she looked down at him. “I'm not going to be the one to kill him. There's got to be another way.”

Whistler vanished, leaving Buffy standing alone in a stranger's bedroom. She started to walk out of the room, but found the doorway blocked by an invisible barrier. “You've made your point,” she whispered. “You're in charge... for the moment. Now let me go back to him.”

There was another flash, and Whistler was again sitting in the recliner, wearing no evidence of their altercation. “It wasn't my doing. It wasn't the bosses, either,” he said quietly. “Some demon couples are just good matches. The bosses want to make use of it in your case. That's all there is to it.”

“The timing's fishy as hell, Whistler. Willow and Giles -the two people who would freak out the most- are barely gone. We've been married less than two weeks. I'm not buying that this is a coincidence.”

“Well...” Whistler hesitated. “I may as well come clean on that. I put an emergency telepathic block on you at Christmas, trying to buy you just a little extra time. You'd just decided to get married, and I was hoping for a rapid leap to round two. So much for that daydream. Instead of letting the human marriage lead to something, you used it as an opportunity to declare you still won't talk about the claim.A few of the more obvious exchanges made it through before I put the block in. I guess I wasn't fast enough. I got lucky, though. You two talk to each other so much, you didn't immediately notice the information wasn't passed verbally, and just assumed you'd forgotten mentioning it.”

“Like the apple juice thing. And that he was christened William Henry.” Buffy sighed and returned to her seat on the edge of the bed. “I've known this was coming for a while now. He's probably known it a lot longer. Spike's always a little ahead of me on the relationship stuff.”

“Then do something about it, already.”

“No. Just because I've got enough demon in me for it to choose a mate doesn't make taking that mate a good idea. If you haven't noticed what I do for a living...”

“Save the world? With your lieutenant?”

“I die. A lot. Whistler, I could deal with becoming an immortal. I think I could adjust to that, eventually. But I need another method. A claim puts Spike in too much jeopardy.”

Whistler choked back a laugh. “Pratt's going to fight beside you, no matter what. Even if he didn't, you and I both know living a safe life isn't his style. Even by vampire standards, that one courts danger on a professional level. You have that in common. Summers, you're a vampire slayer. You know better than most that even immortals have to kick it eventually.”

“I refuse to be the cause for Spike,” she whispered. “I've read some stuff. I know demon mates have some advantages, but the 'the death of one is the death of the other' clause is a major drawback.”

“Take the risk, Summers. This is the path you're on. You just have to come out of your denial and walk the damn thing. So you don't have the time you thought you had to get settled into the idea, since this stuff usually takes a lot more years to get to a critical point.” He shrugged. “It is what it is. Rosenberg yanked your time cushion by sending you back. Ironic, huh?”

Buffy exhaled a long breath with a shake of her head. “Freakin' Willow. Again.

“Yeah, but only the timing is her fault. You were going to have to make this decision eventually.”

“I was hoping we could at least get through May of 2003 before I had to deal with this. Hell, May of this year might be good enough. If I knew for certain I wouldn't have to jump, wouldn't have to worry that I'd either kill him or...” She fell back on the bed and addressed the ceiling. “I know he blamed himself for it. I think he still does, still thinks it was his fault I jumped. But it was my fault, really. I should have gotten to the platform soon enough to help him with Doc. I was too late.”

“Newsflash, Summers: Shit happens. That's just the way it went down. You aren't responsible for it coming down to a choice between you and your sister, and neither is Pratt. As much as he might think you're Slayer Number Three on his body count sheet, you aren't. And as much as you might think that was a suicide jump, it wasn't. You both played it out as best you could, and that's how the cards fell.”

“Luck. Not fate,” she whispered, sitting back up to face him. “But it was when I came back that things changed between us. Was that luck, too? I'm still not buying it.”

“You were a little more in touch with the inner demon when you came back,” he said. “A little more aware of it. That's all.”

“My inner demon should not have chosen a mate, Whistler. Ever. I'm a slayer. Born to die young.”

“That crazy old English witch you brought out here? She was right about you. You haven't been a true slayer since before you even met your chosen mate. Your record may be pretty awful, but past isn't prologue for everything, kid. Things can change. Luck can change.”

“Yeah. It can get worse. And here I was hoping that wasn't possible.”

Whistler stood up and pulled her to her feet, putting them face to face. “I know you think of me as the messenger of doom, but you need to listen to me, for once: That vampire is desperate to offer you immortality, and he'll ask the second you even hint you might say yes. The bosses aren't going to stand in your way. But they aren't going to offer you an alternative, either. Either you take him up on the offer he wants to make, or you're a short term asset, who gets the award for shooting herself in the foot.”

“For choosing not to risk dusting Spike with my bad luck?”

“For choosing to spend your life doped up on suppressant potions instead of letting your instincts lead you to greater strength, and a chance at some serious longevity. What was it you said to the watcher? That Pratt kept you alive when you were facing the First Evil? Let him stay on that job for another century or two. See how it shakes out.”

“Stupid demons,” she grumbled. “A slayer and a vampire, choosing each other? It's a disaster story.”

“No, genius. It's a natural fit. You've been listening to Watcher's Council garbage too long.”

She shook her head. “I should have shooed him out of town years ago. He'd have been safer that way.”

“You can keep talking yourself in circles of denial and regret if you want to, but it's not going to go away. Have the conversation, Summers. Make a decision.”

“My name isn't Summers,” she whispered. “Not for long, anyway.”

“Yeah, well, maybe that means something.” Whistler studied her profile. “You two have gone through a lot of crap, together and apart. And time after time, you chose each other over other options. Other people. Other priorities. Give in to the recurring theme.”

“I'll think about it.” She sighed. “How much time do we have?”

“Ah, the eternal question...”

“I'm not in a joking mood, in case you haven't noticed.”

“Before it becomes a problem? Not much. Days, a couple of weeks at the outside. When I said I put in an emergency block, I meant 'emergency' in a very real sense. Rosenberg's magical shortcut really did a number on you two, and it's catching up, big time. The clock's ticking.” Whistler smirked. “Well, not this very second. I hit the pause button in here and your bunker as soon as you started on that 'not ready' bullshit. Stopped time. The only question I have for you now is, how much do you want him to know about this little chat?”

Buffy was silent for a moment. “All of it. Give him all of it.”

“And the hostage?”

“Yeah, sure. Whatever.”

A blue flash returned them to the bunker, standing between Spike and Eddie. They were both perfectly still. Another blue flash came, and Whistler was no longer standing with her. The vampires began to move. Buffy bit her lip, watching as Spike stood up, shaking his head. He looked at her for a long time, working through the memory he'd just been given, and hoping she'd speak. When it became obvious she was waiting on him, he broke the ice with “You could have let me have the first punch.”

“Sorry. I've known him longer. I called dibs years ahead of you.”

“So we're having this conversation, now? Finally?”

“The impossible conversation,” Buffy muttered. “Did you know the Council thinks the connections, the bond, the instincts -all of it, really- is total bull? Their literature says mating is just a long term relationship between demons, with that one dangerous little string attached.” She halfheartedly pumped a fist in the air. “Way to go, Council.”

“Could be less dangerous than you seem convinced it is. The upside of being bound straight through to the dusting is that it could be a long ways down the road.” He shifted his weight. “So your hope for another way to stay with me for the long haul...”

“Denied. Apparently, my only ticket to immortality comes with the caveat that staking you is suicide.” She gave him a playful shrug. “I guess that's one way to tone down our fights.”

Spike raised an eyebrow at her attitude. “Always when you're stressed,” he mumbled. “You either get sassy or silent. Haven't ever seen you find a middle ground.”

Her smile faded. “I'm trying not to freak out, you know. I'm trying to act like it's totally ok that I thought I had at least a few years to consider this, to see how things play out, and it turns out, it's a few days.” She took a long, slow breath, then straightened her shoulders, adopting the stern expression he knew as General Buffy. “Ok,” she said, her level voice masking any sign of emotion. “Let's talk this through. How does this play out over the next week or two?”

He followed her lead, matching her straight shoulders and crossed arm pose. “Say we do nothing: We could be driven to do it. It's animal level stuff we're talking about, love. Instincts.”

She shook her head. “The Guardian said I'd get to choose. This doesn't sound like a choice.”

“Three options: You say no, and we get Glinda to suppress the telepathy and mute the instincts, and plan to keep renewing it, likely every few months. You say yes, and let the chips fall where they may. Or we can put a hell of a lot of distance between ourselves and hope we don't eventually go mad.”

“I'm going to make a judgment call right now and take Plan C off the table.”

“Got my vote.”

“Tell me about the suppressant.”

“A good witch, like we got, can do it, easy enough. Risk is in if it's not strong enough. It wears off too fast, instincts take over, and we do it, anyway. Go overboard at the outset, trying to cover for that risk, Glinda could block more than she means to.”

“The basis of the bond. Fabulous. Ok, so Plan A is iffy.”

“You could accept me, love. Then it's you and me, looking at a few centuries or so of fighting, shagging, and talking, but with every awareness of each other heightened. I get hurt, you'll know it. You get a craving for drunken noodle, I'll know it. Wanna talk privately in a room full of people or from the other side of the world? All it takes is a little focus.”

“Unless I continue my lovely little habit of kicking the bucket. In which case, I take you with me.”

“You know I'm up for that risk. Have been for years.”

“Obviously. That's why you're still running around with the death prone slayer. That doesn't make it smart.” She shook her head at him. “I'm well aware that you and caution are loose acquaintances, at best, Spike. I was avoiding the conversation in part because I already knew there was no way I could talk you into seeing this my way, into agreeing that it's a stupid risk to take.” She looked him in the eye. “Plan B isn't perfect, either, no matter how cute that hopeful expression on your face is.”

“You gonna let me at least ask this time, make a proper proposal?”

“It might be better for you if you don't.”

“So that's a 'no,' then.” The hopeful expression was rapidly fading.

“I'd like to be asked, actually. I think I'd love it. But I haven't decided yet, and I might end up saying no. I'd... I want some time to think about it.” She gave him a demure smile. “Will you ask me later?”

“So you do want me to ask you?” Spike narrowed his gaze at her. “What the bleedin' hell goes on in that head of yours?” He paced the floor. “Half of what you say makes no sense at all, and the other half only a little. You treated getting married like it fell somewhere between a chore and a joke, and two weeks down the line, you decide you want ritual and tradition, and time to think about it?”

“Tell me how getting married changed things between us?”

He didn't have an answer.

“That's what I thought. This would actually change stuff. Big stuff. Big, permanent stuff.” She stepped closer to him. “And there are other factors at play here, Spike. This obviously isn't the end game with Whistler. If it was, he wouldn't have put a temporary block on us. Hell, he wouldn't have talked to me about it at all, just let the stupid instincts decide for us sometime in the next week or two. Althenea's right: He's looking at the long term with us. This is just a step on the road for him. Do we really want to help that little weasel?”

“We can take this step without signing on to be his dancing monkeys. We do this or not, it should be about us, not the bloody Powers and their Earthly Minion wish list.”

“And what if I still have to jump?” She fought to keep her emotions in check. “It's dangerous. I'm dangerous. To you. And I'm still not ready for you not to be here, even if I'm gone.”

“Buffy--”

“I don't know if I can go into this, putting you at that kind of risk. I'd rather make you a widower than a dust bunny.”

“I'm voting for neither.”

“Admit it, Sparky: I'm right about this. We both know you're a hell of a lot safer if you never ask the question, if we stay doped up on suppressants and never discuss this again.”

“So no, then. You don't really want to be asked. You've already decided to reject me.” He tensed his jaw. “So what was all that rigamarole 'bout not deciding yet?”

“What I want and what I need are two different things. I need to know you'll be here. No matter what happens, you have to survive me, Spike. That's how it works.”

“This about me or the mission, love?” Spike asked quietly.

“Both.”

The long silence that followed was broken when Eddie managed to knock over his chair. Buffy lifted it to set it upright. “Sorry, Eddie. I should have staked you an hour ago.”

“Mmm! Mmm!”

She took off the gag. “Again, please?”

“Please, let me go! I don't wanna be anywhere near an immortal slayer!” Eddie looked up at Spike, his eyes wide. “Oh, god. Could you walk in the day?”

Spike shrugged. “Suppose it's possible. Wouldn't count on it, though.”

“Huh. I hadn't thought of that,” Buffy murmured as she untied the knots of rope.

Eddie shook off his loosened restraints. “Thank you! Thank you! I promise, I'll get out of this town. You'll never see me again.”

She laughed. “I've heard that before.”

“I thought I meant it at the time, love.”

“No, really! I mean it! I'll never tell anyone I even visited the Hellmouth.” Eddie was on his feet, his hands raised in surrender.

Buffy dropped into his vacated chair. “Now I don't even want to stake you. You're kind of helpless. It wouldn't be right.”

“Heard that before,” Spike murmured. “Ends about as well as me staying gone.”

“Hey! We took care of you... sort of.”

“Sort of. And then you found new ways to torture me. Do yourself a favor, Fledge. Get gone before you look into her eyes one too many times.”

Buffy reached out to grab Eddie's narrow wrist before he could take the advice to run. “Hang on a second. Where are you going?”

“Out of town. Away. Far, far away.”

She studied at him for a moment, an idea dawning. “If I let you leave here, you can stay in town, safe from us. But there are two conditions. One: Humans are off the menu. Butcher's blood. Period. Non-negotiable. Two: You'll be around to take care of odd jobs in the demon world for us from time to time.” She gestured to Spike. “You can talk to the people he can't.”

Eddie seemed to be thinking about this. “But I like warm blood,” he whined.

“The mighty hunter.” Spike rolled his eyes. “He's never gonna behave, love. He may be a sad excuse for a vampire, but he still is one.”

“That's what they said about you after the chip.” Buffy looked at the young vampire again. “Doesn't he remind you of someone?”

“Andrew, a little.”

“Yeah. I think it's in the whine.” She addressed Eddie. “There's a microwave and a refrigerator, right over there. There's sewer access over there. You can come by to use them.”

He looked around with hungry eyes. “Can I stay here, too?”

Buffy looked to Spike for approval of the idea, but his focus was on Eddie. He seemed to be looking over the fledgling for the first time. “How old were you when you died, Fledge?”

“Fifteen.”

“Just a kid, then. And living on the streets, were you?”

“How'd you know?”

“You got the look of a bloke hasn't known a home for a while.” Spike waved a hand. “Alright, then. But if you're going to nest down here, there are ground rules.”

“Like what?”

Spike pointed to the only bed that wasn't simply a mattress on the floor. “That's ours. I get even a whiff of you on that bed...”

“I gotcha.”

“And you take damned good care of this place. Bedding doesn't get mildewed. Food and blood don't sit around rotting. We need it to stay ready to house a group of humans in a pinch.”

“I can keep it clean.”

“One other thing: Me and the missus might like the place to ourselves once in a while. Some nights, you might have to settle someplace else.”

Eddie fought back a smirk. “I understand. No human blood. Clean... whatever this place is...”

“We call it the bunker, these days.”

“So no human blood, clean bunker, I sleep over there.” He pointed to the mattresses on the floor. “And I come and go when you need me to. Is that it?” His eyes started roving around the room again, taking in the size of the space, the bookcases full of supplies, the television, microwave, and refrigerator, the easy sewer access. “I'll do it.”

Buffy slowly released his wrist. “Ok. But the first body that can be associated with you will be the last. Are we very, very clear on that point?”

“Oh, yeah.” Eddie waved a hand casually as he moved to the kitchen area. “That's fine. As long as it's warm, I'm happy. Is this microwave new?”

Spike raised an eyebrow. “Minion sire of a minion sire,” he mumbled.

“He's what?” Buffy wrinkled her nose.

“It's not just the body that's weak. It's the demon. Barely had enough blood to turn him, from a vamp who'd had the same. And there's something else... You notice anything about his signature?”

“Nothing special. Why?”

“Probably 'cause I'm here.” Spike headed for the sewers. “Answer again in a minute.” He walked out of the bunker, leaving Buffy studying the young vampire left behind.

She watched Eddie walk around the room, inspecting the makeshift kitchen, pushing against the plastic on the bookcases to touch the items inside, bending low to push his hands against the mattresses, testing their softness. She focused her senses, feeling Spike's distinctive signature growing distant, moving toward the edge of her range, leaving Eddie's the only one near her. Her eyes grew wide with realization. “Eddie, when exactly were you turned?”

“March of '98. In Ventura.” He sat down on the mattress nearest the corner, looking pleased with his choice. “That's where I'm from.”

“But your sire was from Sunnydale. That's the only way...”

“Really? Cool! How do you know?”

“Because you're descended from a clan whose only presence in the entire western US at that time was at the Hellmouth.”

“Hey! That's a pretty cool trick. Do you know my sire's name, too?”

“I was hoping you did.”

Eddie shook his head. “I just know she was kinda pretty.”

Spike reentered the bunker. “You sense it, love?”

“He seems like he's related, but that's definitely not a true Aurelian signature.”

“No, too weak for that. I couldn't even feel the connection 'til I focused on him. Suspect he was turned by an Aurelian's minion.”

“He doesn't know who his sire was, Spike. He only knows it was a woman, who made it down to Ventura in March of 1998. Which of the three of you had female minions back then?”

Spike returned to his seat on the edge of the bed. “We all did, but Dru is out of the running. Only women she turned here, you and Kendra took care of.” He looked across the room to Eddie, who was lounging comfortably on his chosen mattress. “The kid is either from Peaches' minion line... or mine.”

“Fifty-fifty shot.”

He turned to find her also staring at the fledgling, but with her mouth set in a hard line. “Love, there were a lot of minion sires over the decades. This may not be the last time we run across the results. You gonna be able to make your peace with that?”

Buffy sighed. “It's not that. I don't expect 120 years of murder and mayhem to disappear into the ether.” She sat on the edge of the bed beside him. “But I just realized... We'll have to take care of him. Blood money, money for other stuff, checking in on him to make sure he behaves, playing his moral compass because his is all screwed up... I don't know if I can do it again. No offense, but you were exhausting.”

“Kinda hoping he won't wear you down the same way, Mrs. Pratt.”

“I'm being serious, William.”

“You want serious? How's this: That kid over there may not know his own history, but someone, sometime, told him some of mine. He respects me. Understands his place in the hierarchy. He also already knows I'm married to the slayer, and might eventually be her mate. He's not just looking at us as benefactors, Buffy. He's looking at us as leaders. His leaders. Last time you came here, you talked about me not taking advantage of being the master in town anymore. Well now I am, love, and you're in it with me. The current master of Sunnyhell's got a minion. And so does the mistress.”

She fell back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. “I couldn't have hooked up with nice, normal, human guy?”

Spike scoffed. “You tried that. And you were bored to tears.”

Power Shifts by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Of cake, cookies, and the sweet taste of a small victory

Chapter 22: Power Shifts

January, 2001

Dawn marched out of the kitchen and into the living room. She thrust a piece of paper at Buffy. “Forge Mom's signature and deposit this, or I will.”

Buffy frowned at the cashier's check. “It's cold.”

“Because he put it in the freezer!”

“I guess that's fair. The last place she put it was in our mini-fridge downstairs.”

“And before that was the coffee canister.”

“And his sock drawer.”

“Her bathroom mirror.”

“The scythe case.”

“And before that was a solid week of coat pocket trades and the whole pillowcase fiasco.” Dawn threw her hands up in frustration. “Neither one of them will give in, so we're going to have to do something about it, before they drive us crazy.”

Buffy sighed and glanced up at the clock on the mantle. “I think I can make it to the bank before it closes.”

*~*~*

Spike rolled away from her with a frustrated growl. “I guess not, then. Your mind is elsewhere, love.”

“The telepathy again?”

“No need for it. Know that look a li'l too well. You're not with me right now.”

“I'm sorry.” Buffy sat up against her pillows and pulled up the quilt. “I'm just thinking about Willow.”

“Great timing for that. Changing teams on me?” He settled against the headboard beside her.

“Not like that... I'm thinking about her screwing up that spell.”

“Bloody hell. Which one?”

“The one that got us Olaf's hammer. We have no way of recreating the accident she and Anya had that brought him here. If we can't get him here, we can't get his weapon.”

“Can do without the hammer, Slayer.” Spike waved to the case on top of the dresser. “Got the twins with us this time around.”

“Do you think that will be enough?”

“Willing to bet they'll slice Doc up into a few dozen pieces pretty well. And they've got some power behind 'em. Should be good for taking on the bitch herself.”

She snuggled close to him. “You seem awfully sure we're going to make it through this.”

“All I know is, I'm not gonna let you jump.”

“I hear you.”

*~*~*

Buffy woke up from her dream with a start. She reached out for Spike, and shook him awake. “Sparky?” she whispered.

“Yeah?”

“Don't go back to that demon shaman. Please.”

He opened his eyes. “What? Where's this coming from?”

She shifted to her side to face him. “Don't go there for me.”

“And if I wanna go there for me?”

She bit her lip, her mind on the images in her dream. “Just promise it won't be for me. I don't think I can handle... Just don't. Please. Don't even go unless you really feel like you have to.”

He reached out to turn on the bedside lamp. “You gonna tell me what brought this on?”

“Um, I don't know. Maybe the thing with Eddie has got me thinking. No chip, no soul, and he's still a nice guy. Sort of.”

“If you're comparing me to some minion sire fledge, Slayer...” Spike's eyes flashed amber.

“This isn't about your ego.” Buffy fought back the urge to roll her eyes. “Eddie's choosing to behave himself.”

“So far. No doubt he'll bugger it up eventually.”

“Probably. But you chose to turn your life around, too. It was a little less of a free choice for you, though. ...And it wasn't right.”

He frowned, trying to piece together what she was saying. “The chip wasn't your fault, love.”

“The soul is. And some days? I'm not sure I can live with that.”

There was a long silence before Spike turned the lamp off again. He pulled her close. “One day, love,” he whispered. “Maybe we'll both be proud of it.”

*~*~*

Dear Mr. Travers,

I was called to a sacred duty as a teenager, given power beyond that of a normal human girl, upon the death of the last one to be called. I risk my life night after night to help rid the human world of the demons who would cause it harm. I stand guard over the mouth of Hell, and am willing to die to ensure it stays closed. I don't know what dictionary you're using, but I'm pretty sure that makes me the active Slayer.

Whether the Council claims me as its own or not, I am the Slayer. And you can afford to keep me in battle axes and cheeseburgers. Do you think I don't know you just blew millions on a new watcher training academy near the Bath Hellmouth? Or that your archive vault has more gold than paper in it? Come on, let's be honest with each other. It's not about money.

It's about power.

You see my request for a monthly stipend as an opportunity to exert some influence, retake the reins I've been holding more or less since I was called. But they aren't your reins to take. They belong to me. I fight the battles. I lead the soldiers into war. I have the essence of ancient demons, of the Turok Hans, running through my veins. (Yes, I know that, too.)

I have the power. I am the Slayer. You have money and books, mostly sitting around, gathering dust. Just like the watchers who handle them. And no Slayer to help. Don't you get bored? You guys are out of the game unless I let you in. Well, here's your chance.

If my financial needs are met, I'll consider allowing Council help. In the meantime, you can keep your team. I have my own.

Magic: I have a damn good witch on hand, and another one on call, as well as the entirety of the coven with whom the latter is currently cloistered, learning greater control of her already significant power.

Research: I have at my disposal the memories and experiences of a 150 year old vampire and an 1100 year old ex-demon, as well as a fairly vast library (both physical and virtual) of books on demons, prophecies, rituals, and history. I also have a certain ex-watcher on call, and connections to another. What I need to know, I can usually find out.

Muscle: In addition to the witches, the vampire, and the ex-demon, there's a human man who has clocked more field time than any dozen current employees of the Council combined could claim. Plus, there's me. And I'm kind of a bad ass.

Now, if you would like to send a single watcher to join my team, in an advisory capacity, I will accept one, on a probationary basis. I officially request Miss Chalmers, for her background as a researcher. If she is not available, at least send me someone who can handle a sword. I've got a Hellgod in town, gearing up for a fairly epic showdown. What I need most is good soldiers.

It really is this simple: Help me out, or stay out of my way. I don't have time to play political power games with you , Quentin. I've got a world to save.

Buffy Summers

The Slayer

“Uh, Buff,” Xander said, handing back the letter. “I'm pretty sure this is the official request form for another wet works team.”

She folded the letter and slid it into an envelope. “Let them come. I'll kill them, if I have to.”

“Whoa.” He stepped away from the desk.

“I mean it, Xan. There are some lines I have to be willing to cross, when it's necessary. If they stand between me and winning this war, they're the enemy. Species is a non-issue.”

Downstairs, Spike nearly dropped the boot he was putting on, as he felt a sudden wave of barely contained rage wash over him, with images of a wall covered in crosses, and a man slouched against it, bruised and beaten, bleeding from the neck. The point of view shifted, and he saw himself, standing just outside the door, with his back to the room. He shook away the images, put on his boots, and ran upstairs.

“I don't know, Buff. That seems like a pretty harsh way of looking at things.”

“What's harsh is knowing there's a chance some of us will die, not doing everything in my power to mitigate that risk, and having to look the survivors in the eye when its over. Let alone having to face myself. If Travers decides to send his wet works guys, or anyone, he's welcome to do so, provided they are here to help, not hinder. If they're going to get in my way, they'll be given two choices. They can leave under their own power, or leave via mine.”

Xander looked up to see Spike standing in the living room doorway. “You alright, man? You look like you've just seen a ghost.”

“Sort of. You ready to head to Willy's? Clem's joining us again, and there's a kid I want you to meet.”

“Yeah, whenever you are. I'm just hanging out, trying to keep the Buffster from turning into something scary, and apparently failing.”

“Be ready in a tick. Slayer, can I see you in the kitchen?”

Buffy followed him to the kitchen. “What's up? Are you worried about Xan and Eddie hitting it off?”

“You just slammed me with your memory of Wood's garage, complete with your impulse to kill him,” he whispered. “It's getting stronger, Buffy. We either put a stop to it, or we take control of it. Can't put it off much longer. I need a decision.”

“I'm working on it, ok?”

“Well, work faster. Anytime now, your mum's gonna start noticing the bitten through pillows in the rubbish bin, or catch you bringing home the replacements. Getting to the point I'm wondering if I need to move to the bunker.”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Alright, alright.” She opened her eyes. “You'll have a decision by sun up.”

*~*~*

“Ok, guys, this is where I go my way.” Clem threw an arm around Spike's shoulders, pulling him into a half hug. “It's been fun.”

Spike pulled away, chuckling. “Sure you're alright to get home from here, mate?”

“Yeah, yeah. I'm fine. It's only another block, and the worst thing in this neighborhood is my cousin Tinker's wife. She's like a cross between a pitbull and Mack truck... with a lit stick of TNT in her hand. You think your woman is scary. She's just a slayer. You should hear some Rowena stories.”

Xander couldn't control his laughter. He struggled to breathe. “We're-- we're on for next week?”

“Sure! You guys want me to bring Tinker? He didn't get the brains in the family, but you'll like him.”

“Bring him!” Xander caught his breath. “Let's have some Rowena stories. I think I'll like not being the only guy with a crazy woman at home.”

Spike raised an eyebrow. “Harris, have you met Buffy Summers?”

Clem waved his goodbyes and turned down a side street while all three were still laughing.

Xander and Spike turned the other way, toward Xander's apartment. “Speaking of crazy Buffy, can I ask you something?”

There was a moment of hesitation. “What's on your mind?”

“Whatever it is that changed about her this past fall, that made her start getting all cozy with you and all quiet with everyone else... there was something else. The vocabulary changed. She started using words like 'war' and 'soldiers.' Do you know what's up with that? It's oddly... formal for Buffy.”

“It's appropriate, though.”

“Yeah, I'll give you that.”

“You ever think that what changed about her might have just been a little growing up? Slayer sees the job for what it is: a series of battlefields. It's not the romantic hero bollocks she tried to pretend it was when she was younger.”

“I guess that makes sense.” Xander fell silent, busy watching his slightly unsteady feet.

“What'd you think of Eddie?” Spike asked, as they neared Xander's apartment building.

“Eddie... Eddie's a new experience. I've never met a vamp who made me want to pat him on the head like a little puppy. Does he even know how to kill people?”

“The kid was turned three years ago, so I figure he's got some bodies behind him. Not all that many, considering he's already put on a bit of weight since he started getting his from the butcher.”

“He's put on weight? He's still so skinny... I'm not surprised Buffy didn't stake him. I think I might hesitate, too. He's just so.... so...”

“Pathetic?”

“Yeah.” Xander frowned. “I kinda wonder how she even managed to fight him.”

“Wasn't much of a fight. I was watching, you know. The kid tried to act tough, but he's kinda terrible at it. Buffy was blocking him with her eyes closed, and did more pushing away than actual beating on him. And he was still so scared, he couldn't keep his fangs out.”

“Aw, poor kid.” The frown returned. “See? This is why I shouldn't hang out with you. I'm supposed to want the 'poor kid' in a dust pan. You're seriously messing with my world view, Spike.”

They came to a stop at the entrance to Xander's building. “That mean you're out for next week?”

“Oh, hell no. First, guys to hang out with are scarce in Scoobyland. I'll take what I can get. Second, Clem's made one too many references to Tinker and Rowena. I'm dying for some stories from the horse's mouth. If Tinker's coming, the only way I'll miss it is if the world's ending.”

Spike chuckled and nodded toward the building. “Think you can manage the stairs?”

“Um... I think I can manage the elevator?”

“Give Anyanka my best.”

“Tell the Buffster I'll see her tomorrow.”

*~*~*

Joyce looked up at the sound of the back door closing. “Buffy? Is that you?”

“Just me, Mum.” Spike came into the living room. “What are you doing up? Everything alright?”

“I'm worried about Buffy. She said she was going for a walk, by which I assumed she meant a patrol, and that was four hours ago. It's coming up on two o'clock. You haven't seen her, have you?”

He shook his head.

“And you don't seem worried.”

“Slayer's just got something on her mind, needs to work it out. She'll be home in the morning. Go on to bed. I'll wait up for her.”

“You're sure she's alright? We don't need to go looking for her?”

He shook his head again.

“Is this a time travel thing?” Joyce whispered.

“Not exactly.” Spike waved toward the stairs. “Off with you now. Don't worry about Buffy. She's survived the likes of me. She'll be fine.”

*~*~*

Buffy came down the basement stairs slowly. She stopped on the bottom step and sat down. “Plan B is a go,” she said. “With one adjustment.”

Spike put his book aside and looked over at her, overwhelmed with competing feelings of relief and deja vu. “What's that?”

“Later,” she whispered, her gaze on her shoes. “Is that ok with you?”

He went over to the stairs and crouched in front of her. “Later is fine.” He took her chin in his hand. “Look at me.” She slowly brought herself to make eye contact. “Later is fine,” he repeated.

“Are you sure?” Buffy's eyes shone with unshed tears. “I know this isn't the answer you wanted.”

“I'll tell you what I know, Slayer. I know I got all the time in the world for you to catch up. And if you let me, I'll give you just as much time for anything else you want.”

A slow smile broke over her face. She threw her hands in the air. “Now I get the official asking stuff! It figures.” She leaned back on the stairs, her weight on her elbows. “Is that how it works, now? You get sweet when I give you crumbs instead of cake?”

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Maybe I've gotten used to living on nothing but crumbs.”

“Hey! You got cake! You got lots and lots of cake.” She gestured into the basement. “This bedroom looks like a big ol' hunk of cake to me. Not to mention the part where I freakin' married you, with the goofy carrying across the threshold, and everything. That's some serious cake.”

“You're never letting that go, are you?”

“It's goofy. It's archaic. And you wore a ridiculous shit-eating grin the whole trip down the stairs.”

“Might've been better if we'd taken advantage of the time after, instead of arguing about dancing.”

“Alright, fine. You want to take advantage of the next 'time after'?”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Demolition. The night after you get the whole damn cake, you and I are going to the safe house basement, and we are not taking the stairs. Argument pre-show totally encouraged.”

He grinned. “It's date. ...For when?”

“After I make damned sure you aren't going to be a widower or a dust bunny.”

*~*~*

Eddie jerked awake at the sound of the hatch opening. A woman came down the ladder. He jumped to his feet. “Uh.. hello?”

She turned around when she reached the floor. She gave him a kind, slightly crooked smile. “You must be Eddie. She started toward him, her hand extended. “I'm Tara.”

He cautiously shook her hand. “You're one of the humans this place was made for? Like Xander?”

“Yep.” She looked around. “This is the first time I've been down here since Spike finished it, though. When he showed it to me, it was still half empty.”

“If you call this finished. I think I'm going to add some stuff. He said I have to keep it clean and ready for use as a bunker. He didn't say I can't fix it up a little.”

Her smile widened at this sudden burst of confidence from the young vampire. “Like what?”

“Well, I want to get all the beds off the floor. Just simple little frames, you know? Nothing fancy. And I want to get a second table for the kitchen area. One for cooking and counter space, and one for eating and stuff. And if I can make a couple of holes in the walls over there, I can run pipe, and put a sink in the kitchen, so I don't have to take a dishpan to the bathroom to fill it up anymore.”

“Eddie, do you even have the skills to do all of this? You're very young.”

“No... But Spike did the plumbing in the bathroom, and Xander has woodworking tools. I think, if I keep going to Willy's with them, after a few weeks, they'll let me talk them into helping.”

“It's ambitious,” Tara said, looking around the room again. “I really wish you luck, but there's something else you need to consider.”

“What? You think Buffy wouldn't like it? She likes this place. Maybe she doesn't want it changed.”

“Buffy likes this place for how it was, Eddie. Before it was a bunker. She likes it for its memories. That's not what I'm worried about.” Tara pointed to the bed. “Do you know what's in those drawers?”

Spike said it was weapons, but not to get into them unless I had to.” Eddie's sly expression gave away his youth. “He's protective of their bed... you know?”

“Yes, I know.” She fought back a chuckle at his wiggling eyebrows. “But you need to understand why we have weapons here. If we have to come here, use this place as the emergency bunker it was intended to be, our enemies might come here, too, looking for us. There could be... destruction. It may not be liveable afterward. That's why Spike didn't bother fixing it up too much.”

Eddie's smile fell. He looked around the room with suddenly sad eyes. “But... But this is my home now. Where would I go?”

Tara gave into the urge to put an arm around the fledgling's thin shoulders. “We would find you another place.” She guided him to a chair and took the one beside him. “We aren't going to put you out on the street, Eddie. So long as you keep your word, we will take care of you. Do you understand that?”

“We? You, too? But you're a human.”

“So is Xander. And he had drinks with you, didn't he?”

“Xander thinks I'm a dumb little kid. It's like he doesn't even know I'm a vampire.”

“He knows, dear. He just... doesn't think you're scary.”

“I'm probably not. Buffy doesn't think so... And speak of the slayer.” He nodded toward the ladder.

“I see you guys have met.” Buffy skipped the last rungs to jump to the floor. “Eddie, do you have any news for me?”

“Right now?” he whispered, with a glance at Tara.

“Tara is the only exception to the rule. She knows pretty much everything. But she's the only exception until we tell you otherwise, ok?”

“Ok. So I met a R'Onchai demon. She's really nice... and kinda hot, but she's too old for me. She knows some people, and she introduced me around. No one has seen any knights, but they'll tell me as soon as they do. We have a meeting place set. Not here.”

Buffy smiled. “You're really doing great, Eddie. Have you been hunting?”

His eyes lit up. “Yeah, but not in a bad way.” He scrambled to his bed and picked up an object beside it. It was a hand-held electronic game. “Some moron left it on a park bench. I just had to buy batteries.”

Buffy fought back a laugh. “You really are just a kid, aren't you?” She pulled an envelope out of her pocket. “There's a little more this week, but you understand what you're supposed to do with it?”

“Leave some at the cemetery caretaker's door,” he recited. “With a note thanking him for the electricity and telling him I'll keep helping with the bill if he doesn't look into it. ...Are you sure that will be ok? Wouldn't it be better not to say anything at all?”

“It's better not to steal from him. Don't worry. The man is from Sunnydale. He'll figure it out, and he'll let it pass.” She handed him the envelope of cash. “We're keeping you from your sleep. Tara, are you ready to go?”

Tara was beside the bed, pulling items out of her bag to put in one of the drawers. “I just need to add a few things to the stash. My order came into the Magic Box today -the supplies I've been waiting on, for your... situation. I bought a few little extras while I was at the shop.”

“Your situation? She's the witch?” Eddie asked.

“That's our witch. We have another, but she's out of town right now.”

He frowned. “What I heard when I was tied up... You only need a witch's help if... Oh. I was sure you would... Never mind. I guess it's none of my business.”

“I'd be inclined to agree, except that we pretty much forced you into making your business.”

“That's ok, Buffy. But wouldn't you be happier if you were claimed? It sounds amazing.”

“It might be totally amazing, Eddie. And I hope I find out sometime later. But I might have to die to finish a big job I have coming up, and I don't want to take Spike with me. Do you understand?”

“I get it. You're a slayer. It's dangerous... Not from me, apparently, but from other demons. So it won't be as dangerous after this big job?”

*~*~*

They were passing through the front gate of Restfield cemetery when Tara finally said what was on her mind. “He's right, Buffy. The job isn't going to get any safer after Glory. Is she just an excuse?”

“I just have to get past the jump, Tara. Everything, present and future, hinges on the jump.”

“So you're sure about having me do this?”

Buffy nodded. “I'm sure. Monday?”

“Alright. I'll come over after my morning class. You do realize what day that is, right?”

“Please, don't say it out loud. Something terrible will happen.”

“Buffy, you're cutting off your connection to Spike. Something kind of terrible is going to happen.”

*~*~*

Joyce pulled the Jeep into the driveway just as a conservatively dressed woman in her thirties was coming up the walk. The stranger paused on the front porch to wait for her. “Hello,” she said in a clipped English accent when Joyce joined her on the porch. “You must be Mrs. Summers. My name is Lydia Chalmers. I'm Buffy's new watcher. Is she home?”

“I don't know, but you're welcome to wait for her if she isn't.” Joyce opened the front door.

They were greeted by a scream, coming from the kitchen. “Buffy! Save me!”

The two women exchanged looks and followed the sound.

“Absolutely not. You deserve it. But I think water-boarding goes against the Geneva Convention.”

“Good thing for the crown it doesn't have to answer for me. 'Sides, drowning's easier.”

“No! Don't to it!”

“Speaking as someone who's drowned, it's better if you partially drain her first, just enough to knock her out.”

“Buffy!” Dawn cried. “Not helping!”

“Nah. She probably tastes like monk magic and Cheetos.”

The two women at the kitchen doorway saw Buffy standing on a counter stool, retrieving a rubber spatula that had somehow gotten caught on the overhead light fixture. Spike, wearing the signs of having had flour thrown at him, was carrying a flailing Dawn over his shoulder while he ran the faucet at full blast, filling the sink. Joyce cleared her throat, drawing their attention.

“Oh, crap,” Buffy whispered, scrambling to the flour-covered floor.

Spike turned off the water and gently put Dawn back on her feet. “Nibblet,” he said quietly, his eyes on the new arrivals. “Best get the broom.” He brushed at his t-shirt, creating a little cloud of flour around them both.

Dawn glanced at her mother's angry face. “Yeah, cause I think we're going to need it for you.

Buffy threw the spatula at her sister, then offered her hand to their guest. “You must be Lydia. It's nice to meet you. I'm Buffy. This is my sister, Dawn. And this is--”

“William the Bloody, the Slayer of Slayers,” Lydia finished, staring at the vampire.

Spike tilted his head slightly and gave her a soft smile. “Hello, pet.”

Buffy threw him a glare. “Save the charm, Spike. I think that boat has just left the dock.”

He kept his focus on the watcher. “I don't think it has.”

Lydia blushed under his gaze. “Um, well, this is very interesting.”

“That's not the word I was thinking of using,” Joyce grumbled. “Dawn, clean up this mess on the counter. It's obvious there's no saving... whatever that was going to be.”

“Buffy didn't want a cake, so we were making cookies.”

“Sure, that's cookie dough. I'll try to believe you. Buffy, get the broom. Spike, put the kettle on. Let's just pretend we're normal enough to receive guests. Please?” Joyce led Lydia to the living room, and offered her a chair. “I'm so sorry. I think they have a button in their brains that turns them into children the second anyone comes to visit.” She sat on the sofa. “But I suppose I should be grateful they were just having fun. More often than not, it's Buffy and Spike's fights our guests have to endure.”

Lydia looked uncomfortable. “Mrs. Summers, is the vampire a resident of this house?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, my... Mr. Travers warned me Buffy is an unusual slayer, with an unusual arrangement with some of the locals, but I assumed he meant human locals.”

Joyce frowned. “I'm not sure I understand what you mean by an arrangement.”

“She's talking about the Scoobies,” Buffy said, coming into the living room. “I think I'll sweep the kitchen when the cranky old English guy quits walking around, fussing over making tea, and the giggling little hellspawn stops brushing flour from the counter to the floor.” She took the chair across from Lydia's. “Most slayers don't have a team, Mom. They work alone, and they die alone.”

“That sounds terrible! I'm glad you haven't had to live that way.”

“Me, too. I'd be long dead without the Scoobies' help.”

“Slayer,” came Spike's voice from the kitchen. “You wanna do introductions tonight?”

Buffy shrugged. “Lydia? Would you like to meet the team?”

“I suppose I should.”

Buffy called back to the kitchen. “Make the call.”

*~*~*

Dawn closed the front door and carried the food into the dining room. She handed the bags to Tara and Joyce, who began setting out their Italian feast on the table. “Spike, that delivery driver apparently works for both Uncle Linguini's and Little Bangkok. He said to tell you your Thai girlfriend sends her love.”

“So much for the hardcore monogamist.” Xander laughed. “But seriously, I like Mae. She's sweet.”

Anya frowned. “Don't you start flirting with waitresses too, Xander Harris. Buffy might not mind her boyfriend making eyes at every third woman he meets, but some girls do.”

There was a tense silence as every eye shifted to Lydia, who looked shocked. She looked at Buffy. “That is why he lives here?”

“Not exactly,” Dawn said, drawing the watcher's attention away from her sister. “The main reason he moved in in the first place was to help protect me. I'm the Key Glory is looking for.”

“That's the mission right now, Miss Chalmers,” Tara said softly. “Protecting Dawnie. That's why I'm setting myself up to be a decoy Key.”

“You're what?” Xander asked. “Does Wils know about this?”

She shook her head. “She'd never have gone to Devon if she knew. I'm going to wear a glamour that only the mentally unsound can see, that makes me look like Dawn does to them.”

“It's going to take a lot of power to pull off, so Glinda's gonna use the twins to get some extra mojo.”

“The twins?” Anya asked.

“That's what they call those matching scythe things,” Dawn explained.

“I've agreed to let Tara move in with us for the duration,” Joyce added. “It's important that she appears to be under Buffy's protection.”

“I'm going to make sure I'm seen escorting her around town by Glory's minions,” Buffy said. “And not seen with Dawn much at all outside of the house. Spike will be Dawn's escort whenever it's dark, and her protection at home when I'm asleep or out someplace. We're also moving into a split patrol schedule, so one of us will hit the cemeteries while the other stays home.”

Anya glanced at Xander, who still looked worried. “I guess that puts us on daylight Dawn duty.”

Buffy gave her a smile. “Thanks. I was going to ask, as soon as we told you the decoy plan. Xan? Are you on board, here?”

“I don't know, Buff. Wils made us both promise to take care of Tara for her while she was gone. I'm pretty sure offering her girlfriend up to a Hellgod isn't what she had in mind.”

Tara reached out to him. “Xander, this was my idea, and my choice. We'll tell Willow when it's over.”

“And what will we be telling Willow if you end up dead or on the short bus to crazy town?”

Tara tried not to flinch at the memories. “That I was willing to take the risk. That I wanted to help.”

He sighed, easing into the idea. “I guess it's a safe bet no one told the G-man, either?”

“Oh, hell no,” Buffy said. “Giles would have a major wiggins. Don't you dare tell him about this unless we reach a point where we have to, Xan. He'd get himself and Willow teleported back faster than you can say 'shoot the messenger,' and they'd let us all have it, at Wils' full witchy capacity.” She looked around the table. “We're all in this, guys. And we're all going to take some risks. Tara is just choosing to take one of the big ones.”

“Playing decoy or putting up with the bickering mortal enemies on a full time basis?” Dawn asked.

“Both,” Joyce said with a chuckle. “Tara, I hope you're as patient as you seem to be.”

Tara shrugged. “I can handle these two. My summer job in high school was at a daycare.”

“Hey!” Buffy and Spike said together.

As the laughter died away, Lydia asked quietly. “What can I do to help?”

Buffy looked extremely pleased at this offer. “Thank you. Welcome to the Scoobies, Lydia.” She raised her water glass to the watcher.

Spike followed suit. “Congratulations, pet. You've just been adopted.”

Tara lifted her own water glass with a quick smile at Buffy and Spike. “You asked the magic question.”

The rest of the group raised their glasses. “To the new watcher in town,” Xander said. “May she be as good for us as the last one.”

“And far less prone to concussions,” Anya added.

They all drank to the the blushing woman. Buffy put down her glass. “So how good are you in a fight?”

“I'm actually quite proficient at-- Oh! I'd nearly forgotten! Excuse me a moment.” Lydia pushed back her chair and hurried to the living room, where she'd left her briefcase. When she returned a minute later, she handed Buffy a sheet of paper, folded in thirds. “He said you'd understand the message.”

Buffy opened the paper, and a check fell into her lap. She picked it up, and her eyes widened. “Wow. That's more than I expected.” She handed the check to Spike and read the letter.

Miss Summers,

Miss Chalmers is in fact excellent with a sword.

Quentin Travers

Enclosed: Battle axes and cheeseburgers

Buffy gasped. Then she laughed out loud, deeply and heartily. She handed Xander the note. Then she pushed back her chair, stood up, and danced with joy. “Woo hoo! Capitulation! Capitulation!”

“Buffy!” Joyce rebuked. “Sit down!”

She kept on dancing, not caring at all that everyone was staring at her. She made a lap around the table, giving excited shoulder squeezes to everyone she passed. “Nope! I've been waiting years for this moment. I'm going to enjoy it.”

Xander put down the note. “I guess it pays to blackmail the bookish types. That's what that stuff in your letter about the vault and the academy was, wasn't it? Blackmail?”

“A little bit. And I didn't even have to play my trump card!” Buffy took Dawn's hand and pulled her to her feet. “Dance, Dawnie! Dance! The slayer finally has an income!”

Xander joined them on the next lap around the table, doing the cha-cha to Buffy's repeated chants of 'Capitulation'. “I'm doing this for Giles, for the record. He'd be dancing, too, if he were here, after Travers fired him for the crime of giving a damn.”

“Come on, Spike!” Buffy urged. “This is a party moment!”

Spike kept his eyes on the table and put one hand up beside his face, pretending to hide in embarrassment. “I don't know that woman,” he muttered.

“Sure you do. In the biblical--”

“Anya!”

Friendly Detachment by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Sometimes foreign territory looks a lot like home.

Chapter 23: Friendly Detachment

January, 2001

What do you know, Precious? What can I dig out of you?”

Spike's roar of pain brought Buffy awake and gasping. She reached across the bed, finding it empty. She dressed in record time, grabbed the first weapon she thought of, and sprinted up the stairs in panic. She flung open the back door and took off running, with images still flashing through her mind.

She nearly ran into Spike in the alley between the back yards. He held out a hand to stop her before she made him drop the bag he carried. “What is it? Is it Dawn?”

“You,” she gasped. “You're ok. I was sure... I felt... Pain... Glory...”

Spike eased the scythe out of her hand. “Can it keep 'til we get to the back porch?”

She nodded, still trying to catch her breath. “Just... just stay close.”

He shifted the scythe and bag to one arm, and put the other around her as he walked her home.

Most of the newly purchased pig's blood went into the refrigerator. The rest went into a mug. While it was in the microwave, Spike poured a glass of milk for Buffy. By the time he brought the mug and glass out to the porch steps, she was breathing normally again. She related the dream. “...It was so real. I heard you scream, and when I woke up, I was sure she had you again.”

“That wasn't a dream, love.”

“I know. It was a memory. Yours.”

“Not one of the more pleasant ones.”

“I felt it. And I kept seeing and feeling more of it after I woke up. Your escape plan was to get yourself literally kicked out? That's crazy.”

“Eh, it worked.” Spike looked up at the sky. “No wonder I was feeling peckish. It's nearly morning. You know what day this is, don't you?”

“The day that shall not be named,” she said in a warning tone. “Just mentioning is like an engraved invitation to badness.”

“It's also the day Glinda suppresses our connection.”

“I think I'm going to miss it. Not the torture flashbacks. That part sucks. But the little glimpses of insight, knowing what you're feeling or thinking once in a while... It's nice.”

He looked at her. “And the idea of being able to know all the time, and having some control over the memory exchanges besides, isn't enough to change your mind?”

“Not right now.” Buffy looked up at the softly lightening sky. “I'm sorry, William.”

Spike looked back up, too. “The last night before things change,” he whispered. “Reminds me a bit of the other 'last night.' The night before we left.”

“We argued over putting photos in your coat pocket, were asleep long before the sun came up, and you were the one who woke up from a nightmare. I fail to see the similarities.”

“Not what we did, love. The tension in the belly. The unsaid words. The sinking feeling of putting all we have into a witch's hands, and hoping for the best. ...Telling ourselves it's all about the mission, all about the greater good, that putting ourselves last is the right thing to do.”

“It was. And it is. The mission is what matters.”

“I know.” He gave her shoulder a playful nudge with his own, trying to break the tension. “You might not believe it, General, but I know a bit about these things. Got some history with slayers.”

She smiled. “I think someone might have mentioned that, once or twice.”

“Even talked one of 'em into marrying me.”

“How the hell did you manage that, Lieutenant?”

“A few hard years of fighting, shagging, magic, and waiting.”

“You really are a glutton for punishment.”

*~*~*

Tara poured the potion into two glasses and set them inside the circle. Slowly, she stood up from the basement floor. “Are you absolutely sure you want me to do this?”

Buffy nodded.

“And you're sure about the potency?”

Spike nodded.

“Then we're ready. I'm going give you guys a few minutes alone before I begin.” She went upstairs.

Buffy watched her go. “Why'd she leave?”

“Wants to give me one last chance to talk you out of it, I'm guessing.” Spike sat in one of the club chairs. “Must think I'm more persuasive than I am.”

“Oh, you're pretty persuasive, Sparky. How do you think we got into this mess?”

“We got into this because I don't know when to walk away, won't let things go.”

Buffy crouched on the floor in front of him and took his hand. “That's one of the reasons I love you. You're just as pig-headed as I am. We're a hell of a match.”

“Who's getting sweet at bad moments, now?” he asked with a smirk. He used their joined hands to pull them both to their feet. “And I love you, too. ...Even if you are the most stubborn, infuriating person I've ever known.”

“I needed to say it again.” She looked into his eyes. “I may not feel like saying it for a while.”

“Might be mutual.”

“Should we tell her to ease off the potency?”

“Only if you're willing to risk uncontrolled memory flashes in the heat of battle if it doesn't take... and maybe not having a choice about when and where we go to Plan B.”

“I know. It's take control or hit the stop button. No middle ground.”

“Never seems to be, for us. ...Buffy, I gotta ask, if only because I haven't... Is there any way around this for you? Any way you'll accept me as your mate now?”

“There's only one way,” she whispered. “If you can look me in the eye and tell me, with one hundred percent certainty, that I won't make you a dust bunny in May.”

“I'm not gonna let you jump. You know that.”

“You say it, and I know you believe it, but that doesn't make it impossible. Things could go pretty much like they did the first time, and the portal still opens, with you too hurt to do much of anything. And that's not the only way I could die. I could fall. I could take one too many Hellgod punches to the head. Glory could grab my scythe from me. Anything could go wrong, and then it's game over. ”

“The power a claim would give us, drawing on each other's strengths, might be just the thing that makes the difference.”

“And if it's not enough? I need you here. Alive... ish. Not just for me, or for us. But for Dawnie. And the rest of the world. Remember why I wanted back up on the time travel expedition in the first place? You are my ultimate Plan B, Spike. If everything else goes wrong, you're the final backstop, the one thing I can count on.”

“Love, you're not gonna make me a widower.”

“But if I do, I die knowing you're still on the job. If we don't do this--” She pointed to the glasses Tara had left on the floor. “I lose that. I lose the right to say I did everything I could to save the world. I need you to have my back, Lieutenant. Just like always. Even if I'm dead.”

He kissed her slowly, gently, putting every bit of feeling he could into it. When he pulled away, he trudged upstairs and into the kitchen. “Glinda, it's time.”

Tara sighed. “I was hoping...”

“Me, too. Come on. The general is waiting.”

*~*~*

Dawn slowly backed away from the front door and closed it.

Joyce came into the hall. “Who was that?”

“Vampire,” Dawn answered. “A vampire just came to our door and asked if the slayer was home.”

“That's certainly unusual.”

“Oh, it gets better. He told me he was a vampire, and not to invite him in. Then he said to tell Buffy and Spike to bring weapons, and that he'd be waiting on the porch.”

“Do vampires experience suicidal thoughts?” Joyce mused.

Dawn pointed to the door. “This one apparently does.”

“I think I'd better wake them.”

“What's with them today, anyway? They were asleep when I came home from school. They each came up to raid the fridge at different times, and went right back to bed. Are they going into hibernation or something?” Dawn followed her mother down the hall. “Maybe this is her way of avoiding her birthday, and Captain Nocturnal is just along for the day-sleeping ride. But it's been dark for two hours. At least he should awake by now.”

“I heard the back door just before sunrise. They must have had a difficult patrol. I'm sure they'll be fine tomorrow.” Joyce headed down the stairs. She turned on the lamp on Spike's nightstand. He winced at the light so close to his face, then settled back to sleep. Buffy didn't flinch. Joyce watched them for a moment. They were dressed and curled up together on top of the quilt, as if they had been too tired to even turn down the bedding. She felt guilty for waking them, but also felt obligated. “Spike,” she whispered. “Spike, wake up.”

“Joyce?” he mumbled, not opening his eyes. “Nibblet ok?”

“Dawn is fine. But I need you and Buffy to wake up. There's a vampire on the porch, asking to see you both.”

“Hmm. Probably Eddie.” Spike's eyes popped open. He shook Buffy's shoulder. “Buffy! Wake up! Eddie's here.”

She rolled onto her back. “Ugh. I'm in no shape for a fight.” She opened one eye to look at him. “And neither are you. Can we wale on those cult freaks in the morning?”

“One of us can.”

She rolled back onto her side. “That's fine. So long as I don't have to do it tonight. I'd probably get killed anyway. Today's my you know what.” She felt him get out of the bed behind her, but was already dozing off again.

Spike reached for his boots, but had a second thought. He led Joyce back upstairs barefoot, not even bothering to run a hand through his sleep tousled curls or straighten his half-tucked in t-shirt. He opened the front door. “Fledge.”

“Spike, hey. You look kind of rough. Are you ok?”

He glanced over his shoulder at Joyce and Dawn, hovering nearby. “Our witch took care of things today,” he whispered. “Left us exhausted as a side effect.”

“Oh. That sucks, 'cause those knights you wanted me to watch for have shown up. They've made camp outside of town. They don't seem to be doing much yet, just settling in. They're really like the knights in old stories, though. Horses and chain mail and everything!”

“Yeah, yeah. I know.” Spike reached for his coat, hanging beside the door, and fished some cash out of the left interior pocket. “Hire a couple of demons to keep an eye on them during the day, and give you an update at sundown. Come back tomorrow night, show us to the place then. Alright?”

“Ok. I got it.” Eddie took the money and started down the porch steps. “See you tomorrow!”

Spike closed the door and headed back toward the basement stairs.

“Who was that?” Dawn asked as he passed her.

“Just our minion.”

Our minion? Spike, you didn't... You couldn't...”

“Indirectly. The kid might've been turned by a minion I made a few years back. Not sure. He's answering to us now, at any rate.”

Dawn followed him down the stairs. “Ok, the history is almost understandable. But how is he answering to Buffy? Is it because she's the slayer?”

Spike went around to Buffy's side of the bed and lifted her sleeping body enough to work the quilt out from under her and drape it over her. “It's because she's my wife,” he whispered.

Dawn watched him walk back around the bed and crawl under the quilt with Buffy, curling up behind her with an arm wrapped protectively around her outside of the quilt, looking very much like a normal human couple, not an infamous killer guarding a superhero while she slept. “You know, sometimes, I think I get you guys. Being in love is the great equalizer, isn't it? It makes you just like everyone else.”

The only response to this teenaged epiphany was a faint “Guess so,” from Spike, who was already drifting back to sleep.

“Goodnight, Mr. and Mrs. Pratt,” Dawn whispered. She turned off the bedside lamp before she went back upstairs, closing the door behind her.

*~*~*

Spike opened one eye. There was a woman sitting on the bed beside him, watching him. “Yes?”

“Are we at least still friends?” she whispered.

“I bloody well hope so.” He opened the other eye, and looked up into hers. “Not feeling much for me this morning, eh?”

She shook her head.

Spike closed his eyes again. “Guess we're back to where we were, then. Don't think the potion did quite as much to me. Still a few steps ahead of you.”

“So... the option of chaining me up with Dru to get through to me is back on the table?”

“You know, Slayer, if you want me to chain you up, all you have to do is ask.”

“Spike!” she rebuked with a smile. The smile quickly faded. “It might be a while, you know, before I feel like... But if I try to start things up for the wrong reasons, I need to know you'll turn me down. We do not need to go down that road again.”

“Never have gotten good at saying no to you.”

“Promise me you'll try. Really try.”

Spike shrugged. “Eh, I guess I could go elsewhere. Mae or Lydia might go for it. I know Trixie would.”

“I'm going to have to stake you before this is over, aren't I?”

“I promise to try. Now get back under the covers and have another nap with me.”

*~*~*

“Buffy! Your minion is back,” Dawn called from the hall.

Buffy turned off the television and ran to the top of the basement stairs. “Spike! It's time to take the twins out for a test drive.”

He came up the stairs a minute later, and handed her one of the scythes. “You sure 'bout these, love? Remember, those wankers are human.”

“Sides of the blades. Blunt force. Give them a few cartoon birdies around their heads. I mostly just want them to understand who they're messing with.”

“And if there's an accident? One of 'em doesn't get up later?”

She used her scythe to point at Dawn. “She's worth it.”

*~*~*

When Eddie came home to the bunker, just before sunrise, he opened one of the large drawers below the bed and dumped a half dozen newly acquired swords into it. “I wish I could fight like that,” he said to himself. He pushed the drawer closed and went to the far corner of the room to fall into his own little bed, exhausted from his first battle at his master and mistress' sides.

*~*~*

“You think any of 'em are dead?” Spike asked, closing the latches on the oak case.

“There's a couple I'm not sure about.” Buffy kicked off her boots.

“How're you faring with that?”

“They want to kill Dawn. They're the enemy. It's that simple.”

“For your sake, I hope so.”

“It really is.”

*~*~*

Lydia met Dawn outside of her school at precisely 3:35pm. “Good afternoon, Dawn. Your sister asked me to see you to the university campus.”

Dawn shifted the book bag on her shoulder. “Ok, but I want to run home first, to change clothes before I start hauling boxes and stuff.”

The watcher shook her head. “I'm not to allow you to go home this afternoon for any reason.” She faltered under Dawn's suspicious gaze. “I'm, um, sorry, Dawn. I've been assured all will be explained, provided I follow directions.”

So you don't know what she's up to, either?” The narrowed eyes relaxed. “Welcome to the club. Alright, let's go to Tara's.”

*~*~*

“Who are you?” She sniffed at him. “A vampire with a soul? Eww!”

He didn't reply.

“And why do you smell like...?” She sniffed again, her eyes widening in realization. “Oh! Buffy likes to play footsies with the enemy, does she?” She turned to Buffy. “That's kind of kinky. I almost respect you for it.”

“Get out of my house,” Buffy growled through clenched teeth.

Glory turned back to Spike. “Did you know your little love toy took my Key, Vampire? And she won't give it back! I bet you know where she put it, don't you?”
“Leave him out of this. This is between us.”

She softened her tone, nearly pleading. “You can help me out, Vampire. Be a good demon. Rise above your weak, half-breed heritage. Tell me. What little secrets has she whispered between the sheets?”

Spike crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head.

“I could drag it out of you, you know,” she said, almost regretfully, turning her focus back to the picture frames on the mantle. Buffy's sharp intake of breath grabbed her attention. “Oh, we don't like that idea much, do we?” She leaned in close to Buffy's face. “I could make your undead snuggle bunny disappear on the wind so easily, you'd be jealous of the ability, Vampire Slayer.” She pointed the fireplace poker at Spike, and then at the photos. “I'll kill him. I'll kill your kid sister. I'll kill your mom. I'll kill your friends. ...And I'll make you watch when I do.”

Buffy stared at the intruder, her face a stony mask.

“Just give me the Key. You either have it or you know where to find it. Obviously, this is a one-time-only deal. The next time we meet, something you love dies bloody. Or slowly, if I choose your pet vampire.” She put down the poker. “It's time to accept reality, Buffy. You know you can't take me. You know you can't stop me.”

Spike and Buffy watched her leave the house in silence. When Spike finally spoke, it was with another shake of his head. “I think she's gonna kidnap me again. This time on purpose.”

Buffy marched out of the living room and down the basement stairs. After a moment's pause, he followed her. By the time she opened the case on top of the dresser, he was at the bottom of the staircase. She tossed one of the scythes into his hand. “I dare her to try.”

“So something did survive the suppressant.”

“Enough.” She brought the other scythe out of the case, and studied the blade at close range. “I'll show that bitch how to peel an apple.”

*~*~*

By the time Joyce drove from the gallery to Tara's dormitory, the sun had set. She parked the Jeep beside Xander's car in the building's guest lot, and was almost to the door, when she heard a metallic scraping sound. She jumped and turned to see a nearby manhole cover sliding open. Buffy climbed out of the hole, and reached both hands back inside. She was holding the scythes when she straightened. Spike climbed out of the hole behind her and kicked the cover back into place as one of the weapons was returned to him. They turned in Joyce's direction, marching purposefully.

“Shouldn't be hanging 'round at dusk alone, Mum,” Spike said as he stepped past her to open the door. He nodded for them to go through while he held it. “Never know what kind of monsters might come out of the sewers at night.”

The joke failed to earn a smile. “Something's wrong,” she said. “We were supposed to meet here to help Tara move, but you two look like you're ready to kill something.” She gestured to the scythes as they climbed the stairs. “Unless you plan to use those to cut packing tape?” Her eyes widened. “Oh, god. Where's Dawn?”

“Here. We had Lydia pick her up from school.”

Joyce sighed with relief. “Then what is it?” She looked at their faces as they approached Tara's open door. “What happened?”

The group packing up the dorm room turned at these words, their conversation coming to an abrupt halt. “Uh-oh,” Xander said when he saw the pair walking in with Joyce. “Those are some serious faces, with some serious weapons.”

Spike closed the door behind them. “Harris. Ladies. We need to talk.”

“Glory came to the house today,” Buffy began.

“Oh, my!” Lydia exclaimed. “You aren't hurt, are you?”

Buffy shook her head. “We're fine.”

“So that's why you had Lydia pick me up,” Dawn said. “You were afraid she'd come back later.”

“Um, yeah.”

“So what did she want?” Anya asked.

“Just to talk. She told me I'm a bug, I'm a flea. She could squash me in a second. She threatened all of us with horrible deaths. Only she didn't hurt anyone. She came into my home, and we had what in her warped brain probably passes for a civilized conversation. Why? Because I have what she wants. And she's just tipped her hand. If she thinks flat out asking for the Key is a viable play, she's getting desperate. Lydia, see what you can find out about how the Key would need to be used. I think Glory's on a deadline. We need to know when it is. Maybe we can wait her out. And see if you can get any more information on her weaknesses, anything we can use besides the Dagon's Spheres.” Buffy lifted her scythe. “And the twins, of course. Start with the swords of the Knights of Byzantium. I'd like to know if we can make use of what we already have.”

“You have their weapons?”

“Six of 'em,” Spike said. “Stored in a safe place. We'll bring you one to look over.”

Lydia adjusted her glasses. “I'll see what I can do. Of course, I'm dependent on the library Mr. Giles left for you until my own books arrive. They'll be shipped next week, with the rest of my belongings.”

“You've found an apartment already?” Joyce smiled at the watcher's nod. “That's wonderful, Lydia.”

“Anya has been extremely helpful. I've leased a flat in the building she and Xander call home, in part because she introduced me to the manager. She's also secured permission from Mr. Giles for me to take a part time position at the Magic Box, to simultaneously relieve the burdens on her shoulders and provide me with an acceptable reason to be there for hours on end, accessing the private collection.”

Dawn looked at Anya. “That's actually a really smart idea.”

“Well you don't have to look surprised,” Anya replied with a mild pout.

“I'm not,” Buffy said.

The pout turned into a vindicated grin. “Thank you, Buffy. I'm not surprised when you're smart, either.”

During the snickers that followed, Buffy made brief eye contact with Tara. Receiving a subtle nod, she said, “Tara, can you set us up with some form of protection for the house before we all head over there to move you in?”

“Well...” Tara pretended to be thinking about it. “I can put up wards to warn us of approaching demons. I'm not sure it will work on Glory, but it would certainly be effective against anyone she sends.”

“Like a barrier?” Joyce asked. “Like uninvited vampires encounter?”

Tara shook her head. “Unfortunately, no. A barrier spell would be a continual power drain on me, not something we can leaving standing. Home protection wards are more like alarm systems. You'll hear the sounds of ringing bells if a demon gets near the house.”

“What about Spike?” Dawn asked. “Is he going to set off the alarm every time he comes home?”

“Wards like this don't cover vampires,” Tara assured her. “They don't need to. The only way a vampire can enter is if he's invited by a resident.”

“And one of you Summers ladies just had to invite Spike in, didn't you?” Xander joked.

Buffy shrugged. “Hey, when someone offers to help you save the world, the least you can do is invite him inside to talk about it.”

Xander looked confused. “Uh, Buff? What are you talking about?”

“I was invited to the house three years ago,” Spike said from behind her.

“Angelus and his stone monster?”

“Um, yeah.” Buffy looked uncomfortable with the conversation she'd accidentally started.

“Who'd you think kept Dru and Peaches from killing Rupert?”

“Does he know that? 'Cause I sure didn't. And I'm the one who hauled him out of there.”

Buffy shook her head. “Until just now, we've never told anyone. Mom's the only one who knew we'd made that truce, the only witness.”

Lydia's eyes were on Spike's. “So your partnership is not a new arrangement?”

Buffy glanced over her shoulder, stealing Spike's gaze from the watcher. “Not exactly.”

*~*~*

“So do you still see a connection between our auras?” Buffy asked Tara as they walked toward the house.

“Of course. It's a part of you both. A permanent part. It's just not as bright and glowy now.”

“Are you sure it's still there?”

Tara patted her friend's shoulder. “You poor dear. Nothing feels quite right these days, does it?”

Buffy shook her head. “It's worse than that. It feels like it used to, like the bad old days of knowing he has some feelings for me, and not being able to reciprocate. I just feel sort of numb and hazy where Spike's concerned. ...Why didn't the suppressant effect us both the same way?”

“Because it's not an off switch, Buffy. That's the simplest way to describe it, but that's not the actual mechanics of how it works. It's more like shifting things into reverse, turning back the clock on the bond's development.”

“Emotional time travel?”

Tara chuckled. “I guess you could call it that. That's why, if a pair stays together, but doesn't want to mate, the suppressant ritual has to keep being repeated. The bond bounces back to its natural stage of development as the effects of the potion and spell fade. In your case, the development wasn't entirely natural, but the principle holds.”

“And our bond developed unevenly before... Spike's always been a few steps ahead of me. Now he's back to being the only one on the road at all.”

“Do you really think there's nothing left on your side?”

“Maybe a little, but it's like... It's like what I feel for you, or Xander, or Anya. I care about him, and feel protective of him, but mostly in a 'friends' sort of way. There's not much more than that.”

“Maybe that's a good thing.”

Buffy frowned. “How exactly is that good? And weren't you with Eddie in the pro-claiming camp?”

“I was. I am.” Tara waited for Buffy to let them into the house. She started pulling prepared bags of herbs out of her bag as soon as the door closed behind them. “But you guys were only sort of friends before you died, and barely friends when you first came back. This time around, you get to be friends first, and maybe even enjoy the journey for a little while. It could be good for you.”

“Dating. You're talking about dating.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I think we're a little past that, Dr. Ruth. Like three years and two wedding rings past that.”

“The rings, I'll grant you. But even those are in storage. And the rest? It never even happened, and now the bond between your auras looks like it didn't.”

“Until it bounces back. Also, wouldn't that be pretty awkward?”

“Give it a shot, Buffy. It could be fun.” Tara opened a spell book to a page she'd bookmarked the week before. “You know that die-hard romantic you married? He'd love getting to start all over with you, in a better way, and you know it.”

Resident Strangers by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

I think we're due for a break from the craziness, so let's just kick back at the Summers house for a while.

Chapter 24: Resident Strangers

January – February, 2001

From the journal of Dawn Summers

So things have started getting weird around here. Not that it hasn't always been weird. I mean, Buffy lives here. Weird sort of comes with the territory. But lately, we've upgraded our weird. I sometimes wonder if there's some kind of mystical, spooky, unwritten rule that says a slayer and a vampire shouldn't live in the same house for too long. It's a confluence of two special kinds of weird, and the world will probably blow up or something.

Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure the Council has a rule about that stuff. They had to have covered “Don't marry a vampire” somewhere in their giant handbook. And if they didn't, they probably should.

Of course, I'm still trying to figure that whole wedding thing out. Why on earth did they do that? I mean, I watch those two fight in the backyard pretty often, and I can say for certain they put all those domestic violence PSAs to shame. None of those ads feature a married couple that beats the crap out of each other that severely... especially for fun. And fun is definitely part of the equation. They argue, they crack jokes, and they pummel each other... while smiling. Slayers and vampires are very strange creatures. Especially together.

But around here, the fighting and stuff is sort of normal. (Scary, right?) The weird part is that it suddenly stopped. They did this hibernation thing for her birthday, and now everything is different. No more arguments. No more backyard fights. Less joking around. They don't act like they're mad at each other, or anything like that. They're still nice to each other (mostly), and they still talk to each other. They're just much more calm now. And it's starting to make me question my “world blowing up” theory. Maybe all the yelling and punching and bickering and laughing is what keeps the end of the world at bay, and the calm is what brings it.

All I know for sure is that I don't like the calm. Constant Buffy and Spike craziness and chaos was more fun. Chaos was more comfortable. Chaos was Buffy and Spike. I'm not really sure what calm is. I hope they get over whatever it is soon.

The other big weird thing this week is our new housemate. Tara just moved in. I'm not stupid, I get why having her here helps with their plans. But I overheard most of the conversation where Buffy and Spike were getting Mom's permission... and it was way too easy. Mom agreed to it really fast. Part of me wants to believe she did it for me, part of me thinks she's starting to get into the Scooby spirit, wanting to help with “the mission,” and part of me thinks it was a little bit for herself, too. She likes Tara, and something about Tara moving into Buffy's old room makes her smile. She's been coming upstairs all day, poking her head into the room to watch Tara settle in and offering to help.

Tara keeps turning her down. The only help she allowed was Buffy, having her take down her old posters and pictures, and clear more of her stuff out of there. Buffy's move to the basement was kinda gradual. She moved things down there a little at a time, as she needed them, until all the stuff left upstairs was stuff she didn't use much. One of Mom's visits was while Buffy was tossing all the pictures from the bulletin board and mirror frame into a shoe box. Mom looked a little sad when she passed my bedroom door after that one. She wasn't smiling as much. Sometimes, I really don't get grown ups.

*~*~*

Dawn came to the doorway of the blue bedroom and looked around. Buffy's old posters had been replaced with brightly colored, abstract art prints. The vanity had been emptied of Buffy's piles of old make up and costume jewelry, replaced with Tara's modest collection of make up and hair care supplies, with room left for it to be used as a small desk. A little cup of pens and a notebook were already sitting on top. A low bookcase had been placed below the window. It was completely filled, with the overflow stacked on top and more books on the lower shelf of the nightstand. A framed picture of Tara and Willow together sat on top of the nightstand with the lamp and a purple alarm clock. Another framed photo, of a woman Dawn didn't recognize, hung on the wall over the bulletin board where Buffy's collection of Scooby snapshots used to live. She invited herself into the room to study it.

Tara turned from the closet, where she had been shoving clothes around, to address her visitor. She put her hand over the phone wedged between her head and shoulder long enough to explain, “My mom.”

While Dawn nodded in acknowledgment, Tara turned her attention back to her phone call. “Don't get so worked up about it, sweetie. It isn't like she's ignoring you. She called, didn't she?” There was a pause, and then a sigh. “I agree, twenty minutes isn't exactly a binge girl talk, but it's not ignoring you, either. I'll ask her to call you again this week, ok? ...I love you, too. ...Goodnight.” She ended the phone call and returned the phone to its cradle. “So what do you think?”

“It looks good in here.” Dawn gave the room a look of approval. “It's definitely neater than it was when it was Buffy's. But then, it's still sort of Buffy's. Unless you want to live with her weapons chest and her old clothes.”

Tara laughed and sat down on the bed. “I won't have to, not for long. Spike's trying to talk your mom into letting them move the weapons to the living room, and Buffy's going to get the rest of her clothes out of here soon. Most of what's still up here is probably going to charity. Have you started spring cleaning your closet yet?”

Dawn wrinkled her nose. “Ugh. No. It's way too early for that. Maybe in a few weeks. But Buffy should do hers early, so you have room for your stuff.”

“I have enough closet space for now. I can wait.”

“Where's all the witchy stuff?”

“Under the bed.” Tara looked worried. “You're not thinking of getting into my supplies, are you?”

“Just curious.” Dawn turned the vanity chair to face the bed and sat down, looking around the room again. “But can I ask you something about it?”

“Sure.”

“Did you do something to Buffy and Spike?”

Tara's eyes widened. “Um, what makes you think I did?”

“Ok, so that look is definitely a 'yes.' It was on her birthday, wasn't it? When they slept for like a day and a half? They've been all civil and quiet ever since then. It's not normal.”

Tara took a moment to gather her thoughts before answering. “Yes, I did something to them. But it was something they asked me to do. I really can't tell you more than that. ...And you shouldn't ask them, either. It's a ...a personal sort of thing. They'll tell you when they're ready.”

“Hmm.” Dawn thought about that answer for a minute. “It isn't permanent, is it? They're going to be yelling and fighting and stuff again soon, right?”

“Maybe. At least a little. The spell I did will wear off gradually. Unfortunately, by the time they get completely back to normal, they'll probably be asking me to do the spell again.”

“I can't ask why, can I?”

Tara shook her head. “I'm sorry, Dawnie.”

“Then maybe you can tell me something else. …How far ahead of time did you guys know Glory was going to come to the house?”

Tara squeaked in surprise. “Um... What do you mean?”

“The morning after you stayed over downstairs, Buffy and Spike were talking about their battle plans, and they talked about having some sort of protection on the house, but not putting it up, just having it ready, so they wouldn't 'tip their hand.' I didn't think too much about it at the time, but the other day, when we were packing up your dorm room, Buffy used that phrase again, talking about Glory. And then you two came over here ahead of us, and had the wards on the house completely done by the time we got here... Like you had it ready.”

Tara bit her lip, but had no reply.

“So you can't tell me what's up with that, either.” Dawn sighed. “I'm not a baby, Tara. I can handle knowing what's going on. All of this Glory stuff is mostly about me, after all.”

“Dawnie, no one is saying you're a baby.”

“So you guys don't trust me. Is that it?”

“No, sweetie. It's not that we don't trust you. We do, all of us.” Tara took a deep breath. “I'll tell you what; I'll talk to Buffy, let her know you want to know what's going on. But you have to promise you won't push the issue, ok? Like the thing that made them sleep, they'll have to talk to you about that stuff when they're ready.”

Dawn hesitated, her eyes drifting to the bed skirt, wondering was what hidden behind it.

“Please, Dawnie? Part of being a grown up is respecting people's privacy, accepting what is and isn't yours to know. Right now, this stuff isn't yours. Can we trust you not to snoop?”

“If you can, does that mean you'll trust me with the other stuff?”

“Eventually.”

“Alright.” Dawn sighed, relenting. “I promise not to push, and not to snoop.”

“Thank you.”

“Can I ask you one more thing?”

“Sure, but I may not be able to give you an answer.”

Dawn furrowed her brow. “You know, Buffy said almost the exact same thing to me once, right after she told me where I came from.” She shook her head. “Why is Mom so excited about you moving in?”

“Because she wants to help, I think. This is just a part of the decoy plan, Dawnie. It makes sense for me to be close to --”

Tara was cut off by Joyce's voice, calling from the bottom of the stairs. “Girls! Dinner's ready!”

Dawn chuckled. “It's been a while since she's gotten to say that. Buffy and I aren't usually upstairs together at dinner time anymore.”

“And there's that. I think your mom's been feeling a little bit like the nest was getting empty.”

“She didn't lose a daughter, Tara. She gained a vampire. ...Wait. They aren't planning on moving out, are they? Like, after they kick Glory's butt?”

“No, I don't think they have any intention of leaving. But a married daughter two floors away with her husband isn't the same as having a single daughter across the hall.” Tara's gaze drifted to the photo of her own mother. “I don't mind standing in. It's been a while since anyone wanted to be a mom to me.”

*~*~*

From the journal of Dawn Summers

I think we can call Tara officially settled in. I think we can call all five of us settled in, actually. Buffy's old room is Tara's now, and everyone's gotten used to calling it that. We've gotten into a routine too. Mom takes me to school. Anya or Lydia ditch the Magic Box long enough to bring me home, unless I'm going over to Janice's, in which case, Spike comes to pick me up from there after sunset. I like our walks together. He's always telling me stories, and asking about my day, and joking around. It's fun. More than once, I've pretended to not remember I need to run to the store for a new notebook or something until the sun is setting, so we can have another walk.

It's not like we don't talk at home, too. We do. But I lucked out on the escort arrangement, big time. I know I wouldn't be having nearly as much fun if I was stuck with Buffy, like Tara is. I'm going to take advantage of it. Besides, when Spike and Buffy are home and awake at the same time, “the calm” seems to affect the whole house. I don't think anyone feels quite right when they're just hanging out, sometimes barely even talking. It's not tense, but it's not totally comfortable, either. I guess we just got used to the way things were with them, all noisy and chaotic. I never thought I'd miss the arguing. But I think I do.

Tara and Buffy, on the other hand, talk constantly. I think I totally called it on New Year's Eve, when Willow was griping about Tara, like she was Buffy's new BFF. 'Cause I think she might be. You'd think, since Buffy goes pretty much everywhere with Tara -even auditing her classes- they'd be sick of each other, and not talk much at home. Nope. I think Buffy spends more time in Tara's room than she did when that room was hers. Some days, it's like they're having an endless sleepover party, except for when there's actual sleeping (since Buffy lives downstairs) and when Tara kicks Buffy out so she can study or have a phone date with Willow.

And I finally found out what it was that Tara and Willow were talking about when I stopped by Tara's room last Saturday. So the deal is, Buffy promised Willow a bunch of long phone calls, like the kind I have with Janice when Mom doesn't know I'm staying up late. And the follow through on that promise has been kind of weak. They're talking, but it's not super often, and the calls are under half an hour. I remember when Buffy would talk to Willow for hours on end at night, calls long enough to put me and Janice to shame.

Maybe it's because they aren't teenagers anymore. Maybe it's because Buffy's all married and stuff now (not that Willow knows that), and is trying to be a grown up. Maybe it's just because the schedule is so weird around here now, and there aren't a lot of good opportunities to call.

'Cause let me tell you, “the schedule” is a phrase that gets used a lot these days. I don't think Buffy had to schedule stuff this much when she was trying to be a slayer and a high school student at the same time. And I know for a fact living on a schedule isn't something Spike is used to. It's kind of impressive that they're managing it. Neither one of them is flaking out, forgetting when and where they're supposed to be, oversleeping, or anything like that.

Spike goes to sleep as soon as Mom and I leave in the mornings. By that time, Buffy's up and getting ready to leave with Tara. He rolls out of bed by the time we start coming back, so he's on guard duty in the house until it gets dark outside. If Buffy and Tara aren't going to be home right after me, Buffy calls to check in. Then, after dark, one of them will stay home while the other patrols. A lot of nights, Buffy will run an early patrol, and Spike will run a late one, coming back after Buffy's gone to bed, and hanging out until we're leaving again in the morning.

It's an endless cycle of tag-team guard duty. At least one of them is almost always home and awake. Buffy stays where Tara is, whenever possible. Spike does the same for me, with daytime help from Mom and the Scoobies. Weekends are easier, so far. Everyone is home. Any errands or shopping can be done without too much scheduling. Everyone even eats dinner at the same time on the weekends, which isn't always the case during the week.

Well, there are two exceptions to that. Spike joins us for dinner most nights, but he never eats much. He's in it for the flavor, not the fuel, so he just sort of nibbles and samples things. Yeah, the guy who calls me “Nibblet” habitually nibbles at his food. I'm not sure if that's funny, ironic, or just makes “Nibblet” an even creepier nickname than it was before he moved in and I learned his eating habits. Riley once said the chip in Spike's head is a prototype, that it could fail. Given that, I should probably be nervous about hanging out with the evil, fangy nibbler. But I'm not. I seriously doubt my brother in law would put this much time into protecting me if he thought of me as food.

The other exception is when I have a sleepover at Janice's. Don't get me wrong, I love hanging out with the family, but sometimes it's really nice to forget the schedule and the calm for a night, to forget that at least one of the super people is probably pacing the floor at home while I'm away, and just be me, hanging out with a friend, dishing about what Brandon said in art class, laughing about Stacey's crazy sense of fashion, and taking quizzes from Seventeen magazine while we paint our toenails in bright colors. You know, normal girl stuff.

I think I'm starting to get why Buffy used to have those long, late night calls with Willow when they were in high school, and tried to hide from Mom that she was a slayer for so long. It's good to remember that not everyone is keeping pig's blood in the fridge, weapons stashed in their bedrooms, and plotting to save the world. And it's fun to pretend the world is just like non- Scooby types think it is sometimes. But it's only pretend, and you can't do that forever.

Eventually, you have to come home to reality. I'm just glad I figured that out faster than Buffy did. Maybe my teen years won't suck like hers did. If the slayer, the witch, and the vampire have any say in it, they won't. At the very least, I'll be alive to find out. It's kind of comforting, knowing that, even if they are still holding out on me about the details.

Some days, I really wish I hadn't promised Tara not to snoop. But I'm not stupid enough to break that promise. If I snooped, whatever I found out would be all I'd find out. They'd never trust me with anything again, and all the effort I'm putting in to not mentioning to anyone that Buffy and Spike are married would be totally wasted. I'd be the “blabbermouth kid” -and kept out of all the adult and Scooby stuff- forever. No way do I want that. If keeping my mouth shut and not digging for the rest of their secrets is my ticket to being a real Scooby, then that's exactly what I'm going to do.

*~*~*

Tara wrinkled her nose and put down the glass. “Oh! That's awful! What's in that?”

Joyce frowned at the cocktail recipe book on the counter beside her. “It's supposed to be sweet.”

Spike picked up Tara's glass and gave it a cautious sip. “Hell, that's as bitter as Buffy on a bad day. Mum, I think you left out the simple syrup.”

“Oh. Oops. ...See? This is why you're supposed to help, so I don't forget things.”

Tara slid off her stool. “Sorry, Joyce. I have a paper to write, and I really should get back to it.”

“It's alright dear. I understand. Homework is important.”

Xander walked into the kitchen in time to hear Joyce's last sentence. “No, homework is evil. That's why I gave it up.”

Spike scoffed, “The way Buffy tells it, you gave up homework long before they gave you a diploma.”

“True,” Anya said, entering behind her boyfriend. “Ooh! Cocktails!”

Tara pushed the glass toward her. “Taste at your own risk. Joyce forgot the syrup.”

“You know, you could stop pointing out my failures and help me try again,” Joyce pouted.

Tara waved as she left the room. “Sorry! Homework calls!”

Spike nodded to Xander. “Sorry, Mum. It's Wednesday. We're headed out.”

Anya took a sip of the drink and immediately set it down. “That's terrible! Where's Buffy?”

“Downstairs,” Joyce answered, watching as everyone left the kitchen. She was still looking around the suddenly quiet room when Spike came back to the doorway.

“Tomorrow night. Try this one again?”

She gave him a grateful smile. “It's a date.”

“G'night, Mum.”

“Goodnight, Spike.” She called after him as he went down the hall. “And try to stay out of trouble!”

*~*~*

Anya kicked her feet up on the side of the bed and dropped her head against the faded rug. “Purple, I think. Something deep and rich. Like eggplant, maybe?”

Buffy matched her pose, staring at the unfinished basement ceiling with her. “Giles would have your head.”

“He left me in charge of the shop. That extends to painting the office, right?”

“I'll bring purple flowers to your funeral.”

“So you think he'll come back?”

Buffy shrugged against the rugs. “At least to check on his investment. I mean, I doubt he thinks you're going to run it into the ground, but I'm sure he'll do an occasional check-in.”

“You're probably right.” Anya fell silent for a moment, letting her thoughts wander. “What do you think he'll say when he finds out?”

“Finds out what?”

“That his slayer has a chosen mate.”

Buffy turned to look at her friend with wide eyes. “Tara told you?”

“She didn't have to. You do know where she orders her supplies, right? Some of those ingredients aren't exactly common. I've been around long enough to know what reluctant pairs need to keep themselves under control.” She shuddered. “I don't envy you, taking a potion with Flower of Norggran in it. Foul-smelling stuff.”

“It wasn't too bad, once it was mixed in. Tara put a little mint in the potion, to make it go down easier. ...Tell me you haven't told Xander.”

Anya shook her head and turned her gaze back to the ceiling. “I've also been around long enough to know that claim-related stuff is supposed to be private, kept in the family.”

“Thank you.”

“But can I ask who voted for stinky Flower of Norggran over actually going through with it?”

Buffy sighed. “That would be me.” She fidgeted with her necklace. “World's worst girlfriend.”

“Nope. Sorry, Buffy. That title is mine.”

“What did you do?” She pulled her feet from the edge of the bed and sat up, looking worried.

“It's not what I did, exactly. It's what I thought.” Anya screwed up her mouth. “Stupid human stuff, you know? I get paranoid, and emotional, and think maybe I'm the one who needs a scorned woman's wish granted... over nothing.”

Buffy pivoted on the rug to lean her back against the side of the bed. “Tell me.”

“I thought Xander was in love with you.”

“There was some puppy dog crush stuff in high school, Ahn, but that's about it.”

“No, I was sure he was still carrying a torch.”

“But you don't think so anymore?”

“Well, obviously it wouldn't matter now, since you and Spike want to get all bitey with each other. It's a safe bet you aren't ever going to be looking for a new orgasm buddy, like ever again.” Anya sighed. “But no, I don't. Not now. Not when Xander's hanging out with Spike, and talking about you guys like you're a long-term thing, even though he doesn't know you're chosen mates. It wasn't like that when you were with Riley. Back then, he would say things like 'when those two eventually break up,' and 'I don't know how much longer they can make it work.' It was like he wanted it to be temporary, like he was waiting on his chance to make a move with you.”

“I think that's less about me and Spike, and more about you. Xan's in love with you, like totally.”

“Do you think that's new? Like, maybe it took him a while to get from seeing me as someone to have sex with to someone he loves?”

Buffy wrinkled her nose. “I'm not sure what you're getting at. Xan's loved you for a long time.”

“But over the last few months, we've stopped fighting about my demon stories, and he asked me to move in, and he's not looking at you the same way. ...I'm not jealous of you anymore, 'cause he's not making me.”

“Maybe he's finally really appreciating what he has.” Buffy fidgeted with her necklace again and let her gaze wander around the basement bedroom. “And for the record, if being insecure makes you the world's worst girlfriend, we're still vying for the title.”

“Pfft! What do you know? You've got so much relationship security, you drank a stinky potion to have less of it.”

“If only it were that simple.”

And you let Spike get away with flirting with waitresses. Lydia, too.”

“It's not the relationship that I'm insecure about, exactly...” She gave Anya a warm smile. “You're so easy to talk to. I wish --”

“Buffy!” Anya admonished, wagging her finger. “Watch your mouth!”

Buffy raised an eyebrow. “Since when did D'Hoffryn give you a new amulet?”

“He didn't. It's the principle of it. You know better than to say things like that, missy.”

Buffy studied the reproachful expression on her friend's face, and burst into laughter. “Yes, ma'am!”

Anya's frown broke into a fit of giggles. “Am I showing my age?”

“A little bit. But that's ok. I'm used to hanging out with demon fogies.”

“Good. Get comfortable. You're going to be among us one day. You know, when you quit having Tara drug you up with mint-flavored Flower of Norggran.”
“I hope so.” Buffy looked like she wanted to say more, but she suddenly jerked her head in the direction of the staircase. “Shh! Super Ears is home. And he probably brought Xander back from the bar with him.”

“So much for talking about them.”

“So eggplant, huh?”

Anya nodded against the rug as Spike and Xander came down the basement stairs. “The way I see it, so much of the walls are covered in bulletin boards and bookshelves, it won't be overwhelming. I bet Giles won't even notice the color right away.”

Spike shook his head at the sight of the two women on the floor, surrounded by empty ice cream bowls, potato chip bags, and Coke cans. Two empty glasses and a half-empty bottle of rum were on his nightstand. “Had fun, did you?”

Xander followed his gaze to the bottle. “Ahn, you were supposed to stay sober enough to drive us home. Now what are we going to do? I have to have the car in the morning.”

Buffy and Anya pointed at Spike. “Vampire,” they said together.

“He's probably the least drunk.” Anya sat up and pulled her car keys out of her pocket. She tossed them to Spike. “Or at least the best drunk driver.”

Spike pulled her to her feet. “Some nights, I think I'm just convenient to you lot,” he grumbled.

“Nope,” Buffy said with a grin, standing to join them. “Just the best undead taxi service in town.”

He rolled his eyes as he followed their guests up the stairs. “Bloody lush.”

“But I'm your bloody lush!” she called after him.

“Don't remind me!”

*~*~*

“So is Willow still liking her classes?” Joyce asked, when there was a lull in the dinner conversation.

Tara wiped her lips with her napkin. “ So far. She seems to be getting a lot out of it. She says her instructors are really nice, and none of them treat her like a novice. She was afraid they would. Like, talk down to her and make her feel like she doesn't know anything? She says everyone is treated like an equal there, like they're there to learn from each other. It sounds like a very nice environment, exactly what she needs.”

“Buffy?” Joyce asked, when no one added to the conversation. “What has Willow told you about her training?”

There was an awkward silence. “Umm... Not much. Just that she's busy, you know? Lots of meditating, and tutoring, and... stuff.”

Dawn, Tara, and Spike traded glances across the table in the next tense silence. He jumped in to pull the focus from Buffy. “Red getting out to fill up that photo album she was planning to fool her folks?”

“A little,” Tara answered in relief. “She and Bryn are planning some day trips to various towns and historical sites. In the meantime, Willow's taking snapshots of the countryside when she goes out for walks. She's going to use them as filler photos, to make the rest of the album seem bigger.”

Dawn piped up to keep the conversation going. “Is she going to go up to Hadrian's Wall?”

“In the spring. It's a long drive, so that might be a weekend trip.”

Joyce put her napkin on the table and stood up. “Buffy, will you help me get dessert, please?”

Buffy followed her mother into the kitchen. “Ooh! Blueberry cobbler!”

Dawn quietly made her way to the doorway behind them, listening just out of sight.

Her mother did not look happy. “Don't change the subject. It's very cute, the four of you, thick as thieves, sneaking looks around the table when you think I'm not paying attention, trying to cover for each other whenever one of you has messed something up. I told you I'm not a fool, Buffy.”

“I don't know what you mean.”

“You know exactly what I mean. You told me not to worry about you and Willow, that you promised her lots of phone calls while she was away. She's been gone for well over a month. How much have you talked to her?”

Buffy looked meek. “Four times.”

“They weren't very long calls, were they?”

“No.”

Joyce sighed. “Honey, you need to keep that promise. You need your friends. Especially if--” She lowered her voice to a faint whisper. “Especially if I can't be there for you.” She shook her head, letting her voice come back up just enough for Dawn to hear it. “I know things aren't how they were, but I don't want you to fall into the trap a lot of young married girls fall into. They let their friendships wither on the vine, and suddenly find they aren't there when they need them. I did that, and I eventually found myself divorced with two kids, and no one to lean on but my sister, who lives halfway across the country.”

“Mom, I'm not going to end up divorced with two kids. I promise.”

“Don't get smart with me, young lady. You need to nurture your friendships.”

Buffy gestured toward the dining room and opened her mouth to speak, but her mother held up a hand to stop her.

“The ones outside this house. Tara's too close. Maybe Willow is exactly who you need to talk about whatever it is that's not right between you and Spike.”

“Spike and I are fine, Mom. Really.”

“That sounds a lot like the empty assurances I got from him.” Joyce studied her daughter's face. “Are you sure, honey? It's gotten awfully peaceful around here lately, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. I know you aren't getting much time together with this new schedule...”

“It's not the schedule. It's... It's fine. Cross my heart.”

“But you'll talk to Willow, anyway?”

“I'll try.”

Dawn took the rattle of bowls being pulled from the cabinet as a cue that the conversation was ending, and slipped back to her chair at the dining table. “Well, I think Buffy's going to live.”

Spike raised an eyebrow at her. “I bloody well hope so.”

“But it might be at the cost of the phone bill. You know, even more than the phone dates are already costing.”

Tara glanced at Spike. “I don't think that will be a problem, Dawnie.”

*~*~*

From the journal of Dawn Summers

...Janice was a little jealous about it. She and I always have lunch together. We sit with different groups on different days, but we're always together. She wasn't invited to Brandon's table, and I think she felt left out. If Brandon invites me again, I'll have to ask if Janice can join us. Maybe she'll like one of his friends. Ooh! Maybe there could be a double date in the future. I mean, not a real date, or anything. Both of our moms are anti-dating until we're 15, and I've got a scary vampire standing over my shoulder all the time, besides. But meeting up at the mall or something is possible. Ronnie is kind of cute. Maybe I can play matchmaker for him and Janice...

So I'm apparently not the only one who has noticed the calm. Mom confronted Buffy about it, while she was chewing her out for not talking to Willow more. I get being a little worried about them. I'm right there with her. But what I don't get is Mom worrying about Willow. I don't think Buffy really misses her all that much. They barely talked most of last semester. There isn't that much to miss.

Besides, Buffy's got herself a new witchy BFF, whether she's saying so or not. And she hangs out with Anya occasionally, too. I bet I know what they talk about. It isn't an accident that Buffy tries to keep me away from their conversations, and it isn't a secret that Anya loves to talk about sex.

Mom did say one thing when she was ragging on Buffy that kinda stuck with me. She talked about the four of us -me, Buffy, Spike, and Tara- like we're sort of a single unit. She said we're“thick as thieves.” I think that's her generation's way of saying we're tight. I guess she's right. I mean, I always feel like I'm out on the edges, like the super people (since Tara's a witch, I guess that's sort of all three of them) are keeping me out of the loop on some things. Tara's even admitted they're keeping secrets. But when it comes to home stuff, to family stuff, I'm always in it with them. Those are secrets I know.

I know about the wedding and the near silence between Buffy and Willow, obviously. I know that Tara still has bad nights sometimes, and will spend hours on the couch talking to Spike while he's on nighttime guard duty. I know Buffy misses college sometimes, and almost likes auditing Tara's classes. I know that when Spike bought me and Buffy chocolate cupcakes when we ended the Cold War of the Cashier's Check, Buffy kept the tiny, plastic“thank you” flag that was on top of hers. I threw my flag away with the cupcake wrapper. I don't know why she kept hers.

*~*~*

“'Morning,” Buffy greeted, stepping out onto the back porch.

Spike looked up at the sky as she sat down beside him. “Almost. Up a bit early, aren't you?”

“Nightmare.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

“TTFN.” She nodded to the corner of the yard.

He looked in the same direction, understanding. “Chloe. Been a while since you've had that one.”

“How have yours been?”

“The usual. Old victims, being chained up in a cave, things like that.”

“The tower?”

He sighed. “At least twice a week, lately.”

They sat in silence for a long time, watching the sky gradually growing lighter in advance of the rising sun.

She took his hand. “Maybe it would have been easier if we'd come back blind, without so many bad memories to wake us up at weird hours.”

“Wouldn't know the job then, love. Probably wouldn't prevent it.” He turned to look at her. “That's not what you're wishing for, is it?”

Buffy shook her head. “I really am over it, Spike. I promise. ...But the first time around, right now, it didn't feel like this. Fuzzy-brained and kind of numb.” She looked down at their joined hands and sighed. “Disconnected. And seriously confused about it.”

“You saying life was simpler when you hated me?”

“I think that goes without saying.” She threw him a smirk. “And I sort of didn't. And I sort of knew you didn't hate me, either. It wasn't exactly simple, and I was kind of tangled up in my gut about it, but it was still clearer than... now.” Her voice dropped to a whisper as she looked at the sky. “I think I hate this, Sparky.”

“That makes two of us.”

They slipped back into silence.

As the first hints of sunlight crept over the horizon, Spike sighed. “Much as I enjoy having a little porch time with you, love, I don't fancy burning up from a ray of sunlight while you hold my hand.”

She stood up, using their joined hands to bring him with her. “Go, get some sleep. I'll see you tonight.”

He kissed the back of her hand before breaking away. “I miss you.”

“I know.”

Unfought Demons by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Sometimes the things you don't talk about are as important as the things you do.

Chapter 25: Unfought Demons

February, 2001

Tara walked slowly through the hospital's Psyche Ward, listening carefully to the mumbles and comments of the people in the rows of beds on either side of her. There was no noticeable reaction to her presence. When she reached the far end of the room, she turned around.

Buffy followed her in, matching her pace. A chorus of commentary announced her at each step.

“Like white Christmas lights.”

“Two girls. One shadow.”

“Too fast, too fast!”

“Which is the real one?”

“This is not your place! This is not your place!”

“Can they break apart again?”

Buffy took Tara's arm and led her out of the room. She took a deep, shuddering breath when they were safely out in the corridor. “Ok, that was a little unnerving.”

“You didn't have to go in there. I only need a control for me, so I'll know how different the responses will be after.” Tara pointed to the room they'd just left. “They'll tell me if the glamour takes.”

“I needed to be sure it wasn't just Mom who could see me flashing... I guess not.” She shuddered again. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“I asked you the same thing, last month. You said yes. You made your sacrifice to the cause, Buffy. You and Spike both. This is mine.”

“You realize that if this gets you killed, it won't matter if I don't jump. Willow will kill me.”

They started down the corridor. “I'm kind of afraid you mean that literally.”

“I do.”

Tara looked at Buffy as they walked, trying to determine if she was completely serious. Her distraction caused her to bump into a man as they stepped around a corner. “Oh! Sorry!” She looked up at him, and her eyes went wide. “Oh, goddess,” she said under her breath. She tried to act normally. “Hi. Um, I'm so sorry. I should have been watching where I was going.”

He chuckled. “It's no problem, really.” He noticed the woman beside her. “Buffy! Hey! I haven't seen you around here in a while. How's your mom?”

“She's good.” Buffy made the gestures of introduction, somewhat stiffly. “Tara, this is Ben. Ben, Tara.”

“Hey. It's nice to meet you.” He gestured to the area they were leaving. “What brings you girls out here to crazy land?”

“Just stopping by to see an acquaintance. We should get going.” Buffy reached for Tara's arm again, intent on leading her away, but Ben grabbed her hand.

“Hang on a second. I'd like to talk to you for a minute. Alone?”

Buffy gave Tara a glance that spoke volumes before replying in the most casual tone she could manage. “Sure.”

He led her into an empty exam room, and offered her one of the rolling stools, taking the other for himself. “I haven't seen you in a while. After your mom was checked out of here, you said 'hi' when you came in to get her prescription from the pharmacy, and that was it.”

“I know, but...” Buffy's thoughts were panicked. 'This didn't happen before. What did I screw up?'

“I'd understand not calling me. Maybe you lost my number. But you know where to find me. I'm right here, usually well over 40 hours a week. I don't want to be pushy, Buffy, but I thought you were interested. We had some good talks, didn't we?”

“You helped me get through Mom's illness, and I appreciate that, but I didn't really think it was leading anywhere.” 'Oh,' she thought. 'All the chattiness and getting his number when Mom was in for tests.'

“You didn't act like comfort in the waiting room was all you wanted. You asked a lot of questions about me, like you really wanted to get to know me. Then nothing. I really don't understand.”

Buffy shifted her weight, causing the stool to roll a little. Ben grabbed her thigh to still her, and kept it there. 'Uh, excuse me?' she thought.She struggled to tear her eyes from his hand and bring them back to his face. “Ben, I didn't mean to lead you on, and I was a little interested at the time...”

“And you're not now? That boyfriend you'd just broken up with, right before your mom got sick...” The hand shifted further up her thigh, and Ben's stool rolled a little closer.

'Ok,' she thought. 'This playing normal human girl thing officially sucks. And I can't throw his ass into the wall, which he really deserves right now, without bringing her out.'

“What was his name again?”

“Riley.” She furrowed her brow. 'Why is he talking about my ex? Oh, 'cause I led him on to try to dig information out of him, and now he thinks he's in line for the boyfriend role. Bloody hell. Real smooth, Slayer. ...Dammit, I'm thinking in Spike-speak again.'

“Riley. You got back together with him, didn't you? I see this stuff happen around here all the time. A crisis comes, and people go looking for old comforts. You wouldn't believe the number of relationships I've seen get a second chance in hospital waiting rooms.”

“No... Not Riley.” 'Sorry, Hellgod Storage Box, I'm kinda married. Can we remove the hand, already?'

“Oh. Someone else.” The other hand came to rest on her hip, and the stool rolled closer, Ben's knee pushing into the gap between hers until it bumped the edge of her seat. “Buffy, rebound guys aren't long-haul guys. You've had a little time now, maybe you've gotten Rebound Guy out of your system.”

“There isn't... isn't a rebound guy.” 'This normal and demure act is making me want to hurl. Paws off, Doctor Hellbeast! And you think you're the long haul guy? Please! The real long haul guy wants to make me immortal. Top that, you wanker. ...Dammit. I couldn't have hooked up with an American vampire?'

“Then give me a chance.”

Her eyes darted around the room, gauging different impromptu weapon options. 'Tiny scalpel. Tiny scissors. I need bigger stuff. Built-in cabinets. I could probably throw the exam table, but these stools might be my best bet.'

“Nothing heavy. Dinner, maybe a movie or something.”

'Ok, not a coffee date.' “Um, I'm kind of busy...” 'You know, trying to figure out how to stop the monster inside you without getting myself portal-zapped to death. Nothing heavy.'

“Just a couple hours of your time. You owe me at least a few answers.”

Buffy blinked. “Answers? To what?” 'Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.'

“Well, when we first met, you asked a lot of questions about me, and didn't answer many about yourself. I'm... intrigued.” The hand on her hip moved to stroke her hair. He cupped her cheek in his palm, holding her gaze. “I really want to get to know you, Buffy. I want to spend a little time with you. I thought we had a connection.”

'Talk to me about a connection when you start biting through pillows to fight your instinct to claim a vampire. You don't know shit about connections. Also, enough with the hands!' she thought.

“And if you aren't still with some rebound guy, maybe you can make a little time in that busy schedule of yours for something a little more substantial?”

“More substantial than--”

“Than chatting in a hospital, yeah.” Ben smiled. “On the plus side, at least I didn't pick you up at a bar or something. This is at least... sterile.” He was the only one who laughed at the joke.

'Hey! Watch it, you stupid git. I met my husband at a bar.' Buffy abruptly pushed her knees against the edge of his stool to push her own away, forcing him to break his grip on her as she stood up. “Ben, I'm... seeing someone. Not a rebound guy. I'm very sorry. I have to go.”

She left the exam room before he could respond, closing the door behind her. She started down the corridor before she realized Tara was standing by, waiting.

“Did she...?” Buffy shook her head and kept walking. Tara struggled to keep up. “I called Spike, just in case. He's on his way.”

“Who's staying with Dawnie?”

“Your mom. He said he'd tell them to go to Lydia's for the night if they didn't hear from us soon.”

“He's going to freak out,” Buffy said as she pushed open the side door and led them out into the night.

“Buffy, what happened in there?”

“Ben... was hitting on me. Heavy. Handsy.” Buffy leaned against a tree at the edge of the parking lot and let herself sink to the ground. “And I couldn't do anything about it.”

Tara sat down with her. “You didn't want to risk bringing her out.”

Buffy shook her head again. “I'm not used to... Men don't normally make me feel so... trapped.” She looked up at her friend. “Speaking as someone who's just had the human girl problems with men shoved in her face for a second time, let me tell you: You're so much better off without them.”

“A second time?” Tara frowned for a moment. “Oh. That's what it was, wasn't it? The thing you don't talk about?”

Buffy nodded, her eyes closed. 'I shouldn't have said that. Stupid Ben. He's got me all twisted up and not thinking clearly. I was just so sure I was done with that stuff, with any other man touching me...'

“The 'wrong reason' Spike got his soul back. Buffy... Tell me he didn't...”

“Almost. It was right before the shooting... I was tired, and injured. And you know how bad things were. I definitely played a part in driving things that direction... But that's not why I forgave it.”

“Why did you, then?”

“Because I may have pushed him away, but I didn't actually stop him. I'm not sure I even could have, with the shape I was in. Spike is the one who stopped it. Stopped himself. He backed up, gave me this horrified stare when he realized what was happening, and he left. The next time I saw him, he'd been gone for months, and he wasn't the same vamp anymore.”

“Penance.”

“I guess that's one word for it. Self-destruction might have been more accurate. It took a long time to start to get my Spike back, and he's still not quite the same.” Buffy opened her eyes. “I've been scared a lot in my life, Tara. End Of The World scared, more than once. I can handle the kind of scared that comes from knowing I might lose a fight.” She shrugged. “That's the job. But what scares me the most is when I can't fight.” She shuddered, for the third time in an hour. “I can still feel Ben's hands on me, holding--” She looked up. 'I haven't been this relieved to see Spike since the mutiny. What does that mean?'

Spike put the scythes he carried on the ground and knelt in front of her. “Buffy? You alright?”

“Yeah, I'm--”

Her words were cut off by a growl. Spike reached for one of the scythes and was back on his feet before either woman could react, his demon face at the fore.

“Spike, no. It's fine. Really.” 'Actually, it's not. I wish we could chop him up, hands first.'

“I can smell him. He's all over you.”

“I'll take a shower as soon as we get home.” Buffy hopped to her feet and held out her hand to pull Tara to hers. “I just couldn't take the risk of pissing him off or showing my strength.”

Amber eyes bored into hers. “He didn't try--”

She shook her head. 'God, no. I don't know if Ben would have stopped himself.'

He dropped the scythe to pull her into his arms, his human mask slipping back into place while he held her. Tara looked away, sure Spike wouldn't have wanted anyone to witness the moisture in his eyes.

Buffy gripped the familiar leather coat tightly. 'I'd fall apart if I didn't have you around,' she thought. 'I hope you know that. But the suppressant left me so foggy and numb. I don't know what I feel for you anymore.'

*~*~*

Spike came downstairs to find Buffy in her pajamas, her hair still damp from her shower, sitting on the floor beside the bed. She had the lock box open beside her, and a ring box sat open in her hand. She didn't respond to his arrival. He sat on the floor with her.

“You think you wanna put that on sometime soon?”

“I mailed off the forms and stuff to the Social Security Administration weeks ago. I should hear back anytime now.”

“What does that mean?”

“I've started working on changing my name.”

“That lets out the secret to the few who might need your full name, and knew your maiden name to start with. Doesn't answer my question.”

“If I'd had this on tonight...”

“I know.” He took her free hand. “You sure I don't need to kill him? I'll take my chances with the magnificent skank.”

Buffy chuckled and squeezed his hand. “Don't. I can't risk losing you. But thank you.”

He used their joined hands to gesture to the ring box. “Put that on whenever you like. I'll wear the other the second you give me the go-ahead.”

“Even if it's now, when we're... not quite us?”

“You're still wearing the girlfriend necklace, even now. Is it much of a difference?”

She touched the ring hanging around her neck. “I guess Ben didn't notice this is a man's ring, didn't put it together.”

“Or didn't care.” Spike leaned his head back against the side of the bed. “Didn't care that you weren't his to touch... or was hell bent on making you his.”

There was a long silence before she whispered, “Let's go upstairs.”

“Why?”

“Because we're in the wrong place for this conversation.”

“Buffy, I'm not going in there.”

“Please? For me?”

“This is not a topic where batting your eyelashes will get you anyplace. No.” He stared across the room, his tone softening. “I'm just not up for it, love. The flashbacks, the look on your face...”

“Then make me a promise, for later.” She waited for him to look at her. “Promise me, that when we can go through the flashbacks together, you'll walk into that bathroom with me.”

“You like slaying all kinds of demons, don't you?”

“You're not the only person carrying one around, you know. ...Once in a while, I still have the dream I had while you were gone that summer. The look on your face, horrified and disgusted with yourself, that moment of silence after I yelled at you, and the nagging worry that I didn't see you after because there was nothing left to see. A morning stroll, you know? I'm ready to get rid of my nightmares, too.”

Spike lifted their joined hands so he could kiss the back of hers. “You have my word.”

“I do have one more thing to ask of you tonight.”

“Name it.”

“About the thing with Ben...” Buffy put the ring box aside and turned to face him, looking him in the eye. “Make me forget.”

*~*~*

The first thing she said when she caught her breath was “Lucky bed.”

Spike rolled onto his side to look over at the bed. “It's a wonder it's lasted this long.” He glanced over at her, his smile fading. “You had fair warning. You knew I couldn't turn you down.”

“You promised you'd at least try! That wasn't much of an effort.”

“There was effort! All kinds of bloody effort.”

“Uh-huh. Sure.”

He caught the twinkle in her eye. “You're not actually mad about it.”

“Hell, no.”

He tilted his head. “What does that mean?”

Buffy pretended to think about that for a minute, putting a finger to her lip. “Umm... that I like sex?”

That, I knew.”

“That I kinda knew you wouldn't be able to turn me down, promise or not?”

“Yeah, yeah. I made a promise I couldn't keep. You gonna lord it over me 'til the end of time?”

“Probably.” She grinned.

“Feeling a bit more than friends now?”

“I don't know, but I like the benefits.”

He dropped his head against the rug. “Opened Pandora's Box again, haven't I?”

*~*~*

Tara sat on her bed, catching clothes as they flew out of the closet, folding them before putting them in the box beside her. “So you're using him. Again.”

“It's not exactly the same thing.” Another dress flew out of the closet.

“You're right. This time, it's worse. This time you're fully conscious of what you're doing to him. And you're supposed to care.”

“I care. And he's enjoying himself, too.”

Tara sighed. “This is not what I meant by dating, Buffy.”

“Why not? We've added something back to the relationship. That's a good thing, right?”

“You've put the cart before the horse, again. I'm sure some couples can get away with that, and it works for them. But you guys... It's just a bad idea. And you know it.”

“Come on, Tara! We went weeks without, after having gotten used to almost every night. Buffy needs.”

“No, Buffy needs her head examined.”

A bright pink sleeveless top came flying out of the closet. Buffy followed it out, and snatched it back. “Never mind. I might need that one.”

“You might think of this as a short term 'friends with benefits' situation, but Spike is still feeling a little in love with you, and is fully aware you aren't returning the sentiment. You're not playing fair with him, and he's too smitten to put a stop to it.”

“For the record, he promised to try.”

“Yeah, and I'm sure you did everything you could to hold him to it.”

“Ah! There it is!” Buffy grabbed a pleated ivory skirt. “The other half of the outfit.” She pulled the pink top out of the closet again and held both pieces in front of her.

“Oh, no! Not that again. Can we just... not?” Tara glared at her. “Obviously, Spike doesn't need it.”

Buffy chuckled and returned the skirt and top to the closet. “I think I'm done. Finally. Everything I wear often is downstairs in the wardrobe. The only clothes I'm leaving up here are things I want to keep for occasional use, and my wedding dress. You now officially have bunches of extra closet space. And floor space, since the weapons chest finally got moved to the living room, to ruin Mom's decor.”

Tara looked through the charity box she'd been filling. “Everything here is colorful. Most of what went downstairs is black, white, beige, or grey. Are you sure you don't want to keep a little color?”

“I'll never wear it if I do. The stuff I actually wear has been drifting in a neutral direction for years. By the time Spike and I left, I'd pretty much given up wearing colors altogether.” She shrugged. “I guess neutrals are my war uniform.”

“And when the war is over?”

“Maybe I'll go shopping. You know, before the next one starts.”

That's a cheerful view to take.”

“It's a realistic one. Especially if Whistler really does want to get us working for the PTB on a long term basis. We'll probably stop dealing with just slayer crises, and get dropped into other people's messes.” She fell back on the bed. “Oh, god. Maybe even Angel messes. You know he stirs up trouble wherever he goes. I think it runs in the family.”

Tara smiled. “They're vampires, Buffy. Even if they aren't hunting, causing trouble is in their nature.”

“See! That's why you can't be mad at me for sleeping with Spike! It's totally his fault.”

“You just keep telling yourself that. See what happens.”

“So far, great sex. Really great sex. The kind we haven't had since the first time around.”

“Ah, so that's what you weren't saying.”

“I love you, Tara, but shut up.”

Tara laughed and pushed the box toward Buffy's head. “Get up and get out of my room. I have a phone date to keep.”

Buffy sat up. “I haven't talked to her in over a week. Let me say hi, and I'll get out of your hair.”

Tara dialed a phone number she'd already memorized. When the sanctuary operator answered, she said, “Willow Rosenberg's room, please. ...Yes, it is.” She frowned. “Yes, actually, she is. I'll pass along the message... Thank you, I'll hold.” She held her hand over the mouthpiece. “You can talk to Willow later. Althenea is sending someone to see you, like right now. I think they were waiting on my call.”

“Or they knew it was coming. I think Althenea likes to show off with people who are in the know, even if she does keep it quiet with outsiders.” Buffy grabbed the box of clothing and headed for the door. “Tell Willow I said hi.” She closed the door behind her and headed downstairs. She was just setting the box down near the front door when there was a flash in the living room. She walked in to find Giles standing beside the coffee table. “Um... Hi?”

“All these years, and you never told me?” He came toward her, his arms opened for a hug.

“Were we in the middle of a conversation I've forgotten? 'Cause you've been gone for like six weeks, and I don't care what the PTB does, the Buffy memory is never going to be perfect.”

“I'm so sorry.” He pulled her into the hug, which she returned awkwardly.

She pulled away. “Ok. Now that you've -hopefully- gotten that out of your system, what's so urgent you had to teleport back?”

“Not urgent so much as important.” He offered her a folded letter.

Buffy frowned as she skimmed it. “This is from Lydia.”

Giles sat down in an arm chair. “Read it.”

Buffy took the letter with her to the sofa.

Dear Mr. Giles,

Having been here for a few weeks, and gotten my bearings, I feel it important to write to you to express my profound respect for the work you have done here these last four years. I am only beginning to see how being trained as a Watcher does not in the least prepare one for the rigors of field work. And I hope you'll understand my meaning when I say no training could have prepared me for Buffy Summers.

The girl you have trained as a Slayer is a woman, mature beyond her years. There is a bit of the battle-hardened warrior about her. Some moments she seems little else. Other moments, she's a free-spirited young lady, enjoying the small things in life. I find this mercurial temperament fascinating. I have tried to learn its rhythms and patterns, but have thus far failed.

What I have learned is that Buffy does not in any way actually need a Watcher. She utilizes me primarily as a researcher. I also serve as an extra hand to assist with the care and protection of her sister, whose safety is our team's primary focus. 'Our team' is a pleasant term to use, I must say. I was honored by Buffy's request of me for this assignment, and again by her friends accepting me into their ranks. They have made no attempt to imply I have filled your shoes, but have offered me my own place.

Anya has taken me under her wing, befriended me. I believe what she likes most about me is that I am eager to hear tales from her time as a vengeance demon. Speaking of fascinating! I might one day write a book about her exploits.

I've found Tara to be an excellent witch, whose ethics and understanding of her power are beyond reproach. She has had some difficulty adjusting to Willow's absence, but has found herself on a more even keel since she moved into the Summers' home. Tara and Buffy are very close, and Anya has commented more than once that this is a new state of affairs.

I quickly caught on that while Xander is the only one among the group lacking special powers or knowledge, he is as integral to their cohesiveness as the Slayer herself. Anya tells me his weekly outings with the vampire are another new development, that such a routine would have been unthinkable six months ago. It seems things are changing here. Thus far, it appears to be for the best.

And then there's William the Bloody. Oh my, how my research has failed me! After years of study, reading a veritable mountain of material for my thesis, I expected to have a clear understanding of this infamous vampire. I apparently knew nothing at all. But then, one does not expect to find a teenaged girl and her sister's undead paramour arguing over an algebraic equation. Nor does one expect to find that same vampire calmly bandaging a Slayer's wounds after a difficult patrol. I am not at their home often, but what I see when I am there turns my research on its head.

Spike is the rock on which your Slayer leans, which I suspect is part of the reason for your parting of ways. I can see why that might be a difficult state of affairs to accept. No one has told me exactly why you and your Slayer are no longer close. I have only suspicions.

I may be betraying a 'Scooby' trust, but I will tell you something that was related to me, in the interest of mending this apparently damaged fence. Years ago, when you were held captive by Angelus, Spike sought out Buffy for the purpose of calling a truce. According to Joyce, they hashed out a deal in her living room that included Spike preventing his supposed comrades doing you any irreparable harm. Obviously, he played his part, and Joyce believes that truce to have been the catalyst to a series of on-going adjustments to the relationship between vampire and Slayer.

I mention this because -for some unknown reason- this truce was kept a secret among the three who were present for the event. No one told you the vampire who seemingly stands between you and your Slayer once saved your life. Perhaps he does not actually stand between you. Perhaps he happens to stand at the Slayer's side, and you feel a bit crowded out.

I hope this admitted speculation on my part does not offend. Again, my intention is to aid in mending the situation. As I stated, Buffy does not need a Watcher, and I am thus far quite pleased with my advisory position, so I am not speaking in a professional capacity when I request your attention to this matter. I am speaking as a recently adopted Scooby, who finally understands why the Council terminated your employment, and that you remained in Sunnydale for the very same reason.

If you were to pay a visit to Sunnydale in the near future, I know most would welcome you gladly. The only person in question is Buffy. That is not how things should be. No matter my assignment, you are her Watcher, and always will be.

We're all still fighting the good fight, as Scoobies are wont to say. Everyone is well. I hope this letter finds you in a similar condition, and enjoying your retirement.

Lydia Chalmers

Buffy put the letter on the coffee table. “Well, it was nice of her to give you an update.”

“It's been three years, Buffy. Six from your perspective. You've never told me what happened that night. Did you tell me in your own future?”

She shook her head. “I never thought I needed to.”

“Well, you did. If at no other time than when I made an ass of myself -apparently more than once, counting your timeline- worrying that Spike's soul and chip were the only things standing between him and the bloody mayhem for which he is famous.”

She leaned back against the sofa cushions. “So? Now you know the horrible truth: Spike is more than his leashes, and always has been. What does it change?”

“That I'm repentant enough to make up for the crimes of my future self, I hope.”

“That's a pretty big job.”

“Where is he? I'd like to speak to him.”

“Patrol. Well, he was. I can sense him getting close. He'll be home any second.”

“Spike is patrolling?” Giles looked confused. “And without you?”

“We're running split patrols these days, so one of us is here with Dawn. We're not going to leave Mom and Tara alone to fight off a potential attack. Either me or Spike is pretty much always home.”

“Your lieutenant is serving you well, General.”

The front door opened and closed. “Is there a reason no one checked the mail again today? Houseful of bloody women, and I'm left doing the dishes and bringing in the mail.”

“Pig!” Buffy called toward the hall.

“Slob!” Spike came into the room, sorting the mail. He nodded at their visitor. “Rupert.” There was a slow double take. “Rupert.” His eyes went to Buffy. “Everything alright?”

“I come with a white flag, Spike, not as a harbinger of doom.”

“Hope so. Be a step up from dropping girls on our doorstep.” He sat on the sofa beside Buffy, holding up an envelope. “Got Jenna to send me another little goody for Mum. Think she'll take it?”

“Don't you dare start that up again. She's still a little mad at me for depositing the last one. Also, Dawn might kill you both.”

“I can talk her 'round.” Spike handed off an oversized envelope. “Here's one you'll want, love.”

She looked at the envelope, addressed to 'Buffy Anne Pratt,' and stared at it until the feeling of Giles' gaze on her made her blush. She turned it face down in her lap. “So... should I leave you two here to talk?”

Spike was back on his feet, delivering mail to Joyce's desk. “You two talk. I'll put the kettle on. Glinda still up?”

“Phone date. How was patrol?”

“Fine. I'm being tailed, though.”

“Glory's minions?”

“All the way through Shady Hill and halfway to Restfield.” Spike went into the kitchen.

Buffy closed her eyes and sighed. “Glory's threatened all of us, but she's a little too excited about the opportunity to torture the information she wants out of a vampire,” she explained to Giles. “She got her paws on him the first time around, and it was pretty brutal. ...I think we may have to change the arrangement. I've been keeping my distance from Dawn in public. Spike is her escort around town after sunset, with Xan, Anya, and Lydia helping during the day, so Glory doesn't suspect there's anything special about her that would warrant my direct attention. But if the minions are stalking Spike, he may not be the best person to keep with her right now.”

“I can stay in town for a little while, help you out.”

“No offense, Giles, but there's a reason Spike's the person primarily assigned to Dawnie.”

“I may not be as strong as a master vampire, Buffy, but you know I can hold my own.”

Just then, unseen bells began to ring all over the house. Buffy stood up in alarm, with Giles close behind. Spike ran down to the basement. Bedroom doors began to open upstairs. Tara's voice could be heard from the top of the stairwell. “It's ok. False alarm. Go back to bed.”

Spike reentered the living room and tossed a scythe into Buffy's hand. The ringing suddenly stopped, leaving the faint whistle of the tea kettle in the background. Tara came down the stairs, with the phone still held to her ear. “Sorry guys. Willow and I were trying to tweak the wards, to see if we could make them work on Glory herself. Uh, hi, Mr. Giles.”

Spike gave her an amber-tinged glare. “Phone. Now.” He took the phone from her. “Hello, Red. Trying to wake the dead from a distance, are we? ...No, I just got home, but the idea holds. ...Alright. Apology accepted. Just be more careful? Nibblet and Joyce need their sleep.” He glanced over at Giles in time to see the man pick up the envelope that had fallen, forgotten, from Buffy's lap when she stood. “Gotta go, Red. Talk soon.” He handed the phone back to Tara.

Giles was staring at the envelope in his hand. “This... Social Security Administration... The name...”

“I think the kettle is going to boil over.” Tara turned her attention back to the phone as she edged toward the kitchen. “No, sweetie. Nothing's wrong. We're just having a cup of tea.”

“Buffy... what is this?”

She grabbed the envelope from him. “Mine. Unless you know another Buffy who lives here?”

“Who's surname is that, Buffy?”

“Mine, now.” She clutched the envelope in one hand, still holding a scythe in the other. “This should be my new Social Security card.”

Giles' eyes drifted to Spike. “No.”

“'Fraid so, Watcher.” Spike returned to the sofa to stand beside Buffy. “The name is mine.”

Familiar Roads by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Some mirrors only reflect what isn't the same.

Chapter 26: Familiar Roads

February, 2001

“So where is Giles, now?” Dawn asked, between bites of cereal.

“Somewhere over the Atlantic, is my guess. Got himself teleported home to pack a bag. Said he'd fly back in as soon as he could get a plane ticket.”

“He's mad about the whole marriage thing, isn't he?”

Spike pulled his mug out of the microwave. “Shocked, is more like it. Didn't say much after that. Nothing coherent, anyway. There was a good bit of stuttering. When he got his wits together, he asked Buffy if she'd talk to him later, and told us what hotel he'd be in when he got back.”

“But he's coming back. That's a good thing, right? It means he and Buffy are good again?”

“Not sure yet. The two of them didn't seem to hash out much in the way of old wounds last night.”

“I think that's why he was here, though. To patch things up.”

Spike's gaze narrowed on the girl. “What do you know, Bit?”

“Hey, he left it on the coffee table, where anyone could read it.”

The mug of pig's blood was abandoned on the counter.

When Dawn came into the living room a few minutes later, her book bag over her shoulder, Spike was leaning back on the sofa cushions, rereading the letter. “I like Lydia even more now,” she said.

Spike refolded the letter. “Me, too.” He looked up at her. “You're running early for a change.”

“Yeah, well, I think the demon alarms going off at one in the morning messed up my sleep.”

He waved her toward the kitchen. “Your mum will be down to drive you to school any minute. Go get her a cup of coffee. Her travel mug is in the dish rack.”

“You're trying to get rid of me.”

Spike got up and reached for the phone on the desk. “Take the hint.”

When Dawn walked by the living room a second time, right behind her mother, he was speaking quietly into the phone. “Was just about to call it a night, actually. Couldn't do it 'til I talked to you... Wanted to say thanks, pet. May not matter much to me, but it'll matter to her.”

A few minutes later, he crawled into bed beside Buffy. He gave her a nudge.

“Hmm?”

“Shouldn't you be up by now?” he whispered.

“It's Saturday. No classes.”

“Love, it's Friday.”

Her eyes popped open, and she rolled out of bed. “Is Tara up?”

“Heard her upstairs, moving around.” Spike glanced over at the alarm clock. “Figure you've got about fifteen minutes 'fore she's ready to leave for her morning classes.”

He watched her run over to the wardrobe and grab some clothes. “Ok... Quick shower, a couple of weapons...” She looked over at him. “Go to sleep. She's going to put the glamour on this afternoon, so she'll need to get to the twins.”

“I'll sleep as soon as you're on duty.” He waved her toward the stairs. “Go.”

Buffy stopped at the bottom of the stairs. “You know, I was kind of hoping you'd wake me up early again. You know, since we don't have a lot of other opportunities...”

“Yeah? Enjoy the early wake up calls, do you?”

“I think you know that answer to that.” She bit her lip. “Don't you?”

He shrugged. “Crumbs are better than starving.”

“That wasn't a 'yes,' Spike.”

“Wasn't a 'no,' either.” He waved at her again. “Don't make Glinda have to leave without her escort.”

*~*~*

“So shiny!”

“Can I touch it?”

“Pretty green shimmers!”

Tara closed the door to the Psyche ward. “I know those comments a little too well. I think it's safe to say the spell is working.”

Buffy's eyes scanned the corridor. “Good. Let's get the hell out of here.”

“Are you worried about running into Ben again?”

“Or worse.”

*~*~*

Just after sunset, Buffy and Tara returned home. Spike met them at the door. “Gonna fetch Nibblet from Janice's and drop her off home. Then I got an errand to run. Glinda?”

Tara nodded. “I'm officially Decoy On Duty.”

“Good.” He gave Buffy a kiss on the cheek as he passed her. “Be home in time for you to patrol.”

As the door closed behind him, Tara looked at Buffy. “You know, I thought something was weird when you two barely spoke to each other this afternoon.”

“You were busy with a big, energy hog of a spell. We didn't want to interrupt.”

“As if something like that has ever kept you two from talking. Remember all the arguing and flirting at the vineyard, when I was trying to track the energy from the twins?”

“Well, that was before...” Buffy shrugged. “Things are different now.”

Tara shook her head. “I'm not buying it, Buffy. There's something else. The cracks are starting to show, aren't they?”

“I like you less when you're right.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

Another shrug. “I guess we'll have to start acting like real married people. You know, a peck on the cheek, 'Hi, honey, I'm home,' and a lot less fun.”

“Why do I get the feeling you're only humoring me, and nothing's going to change?”

Buffy leaned against the front door. “Because... I like it when he makes the distance go away, makes me forget there's something missing.”

“And you're totally ok with loveless sex. Because you don't learn from your mistakes.”

“It's not loveless... Not totally...”

“That's kind of the point, Buffy.” Tara sat down on the bottom of the staircase, facing her. “The more you pretend to give, the more obvious it becomes to him that you are just pretending. Would you please, please consider taking my advice? Back off on the sexcapades and focus on the relationship. If you don't, I'm not sure you'll be the one to vote for the suppressant when renewal time comes around.”

Buffy looked panicked. “No way. He wouldn't.”

Tara stood up. “I'm going to call the shop to see if Lydia, Anya, and Xander can be on duty tomorrow night. We'll go over to their building. You're going to ask your husband for a date.” She gave Buffy her sternest expression. “A real date, complete with cutesy hand-holding, but with clothes on.

“You're the worst Dr. Ruth ever.”

“I love you, too, Buffy.” Tara started up the stairs, then turned around. “As for the thing with Mr. Giles--”

“You know, Whistler told me to get a shrink. He didn't tell me he'd assigned one to me already.”

“I'm living with you two walking disasters. It's right in my face.” Tara shrugged. “Also, I'm bored.”

Buffy sighed. “I can't wait until Willow comes home.”

*~*~*

Giles opened his hotel room door. “I just checked in, not an hour ago. How did you know--?”

“You're not the only watcher I know.”

“Miss Chalmers gave you my room number.” Giles stepped aside. “Come in.”

Spike stepped inside the room and chose a chair while the door was closed and locked behind him. “Lydia's a good sort. Fond of me, too. That helps.”

Giles sat across from him. “Which is why you and Buffy requested her, isn't it? You knew she had studied you.”

The vampire nodded. “Agreeing to take on a watcher was Buffy's best chance at getting on the Council payroll. Lydia was the only one we knew of who wouldn't balk at my presence.”

“You seem to have made the right choice. She sings the praises of the entire group.”

“I know.” Spike pulled Lydia's letter out of his coat pocket and returned it to its owner.

“You've read it?”

“A few times.”

“Buffy doesn't seem to think it's important that I know about the truce.”

“Buffy also thinks not needing you for the job and not needing you for herself are the same thing.” Spike looked the watcher in the eye. “Think you might stay on for a bit?”

“Ah. That's why you're here.” A strange look crossed Giles' face, but he shook it off.

“What I told you, not long after we came back to this time... about Joyce...”

“'Soon,' you said. But that was months ago. I thought the surgery...”

Spike shook his head. “After. 'Soon' has a different meaning at this juncture.”

“I'll stay in town, then. But only if Buffy welcomes me to do so.”

“Stay even if she doesn't, Rupert. It'd be a favor. I'd owe you.”

Giles was silent for a minute. Then he got up and began rummaging in the minibar. “I never thought I'd hear myself say any such thing, but I think the role suits you.”

Spike accepted a tiny bottle of whiskey. “What role is that?”

“Husband.”

*~*~*

“Would you stop looking at me like that? I'm trying to drive, and that stare is distracting.”

Spike forced himself to look out the passenger's side window instead. “Could always tell me what you're up to. Might cut down on the staring.”

“I told you. Patrol. I got us the night off Key and Faux Key duty so we could patrol together.” Buffy shrugged. “It's been a while since we've done a team patrol. I think we're due.”

“Don't usually take your mum's Jeep for patrol. So what's the real story?”

“You'll find out soon enough. Now shut up and enjoy the ride.”

After giving her another hard stare, he fell into silence, not speaking again until the car pulled into a dead end alley beside an old warehouse. “I know this place.”

Buffy grinned. “Open the glove compartment.”

He did, and pulled out a flask. With another glance at the alley, he burst into laughter.

“You have to say it, or you'll ruin all my fun. I know you remember.”

Spike struggled to contain his laughter long enough to say, “Is this a date?”

She fought back her own giggles. “Do you want it to be?”

“Absolutely.”

“Good.” The Jeep went into reverse, backing out of the alley. “Any preference on where we go?”

“Anywhere you want.”

“Well... We have the car... Let's head up to Galvin's Tavern, off the interstate.”

“Slayer, that's a demon bar.”

“I know. You're not the only one with stories from when the other was gone for a whole summer.”

“Oh, yeah? And what drove you all the way out to Galvin's?”

“Mostly, the beer cheese and soft pretzels. But the first visit? I was looking for you.”

“And you kept coming back for cheese?”

“It was nice to get away. Galvin's was the only place I found where it felt ok to be missing you.”

“Couldn't miss me anywhere else?”

She shook her head. “Not freely. At Galvin's, I could have a cocktail, chat with a stranger, listen to a local band, and be just another lonely barfly. No explanations. No funny looks about who I was missing. No judgment.” She fell silent for a moment, watching the road. “My visits there felt like mini-vacations, escapes from everything that was complicated, full of memories, or just plain shitty.”

Spike put his arm across the back of the driver's seat and played with her hair. “And this visit?”

“Have you had their beer cheese and pretzels?”

“Actually, no.”

“Oh my god. So, so good. Worth the drive.” She stole a glance at him. “And it would be nice to not be lonely at Galvin's for a change.”

“But it's mostly about the cheese, is that it?”

Buffy looked meek. “A little. ...I'm a terrible date, aren't I?”

He smirked. “Not like I didn't know you're always thinking with your belly.”

“Says the vampire. Pot, meet Kettle.”

“Doesn't make me wrong about you.”

“And it's worked in your favor before. Or don't you remember getting me hooked on Thai food and sneaking me out for drunken noodle dates?”

Spike leaned against the head rest. “Some of the best moments of that entire bloody year. I miss that, some nights. Stealing you away from all the chaos, seeing you relax a little, and just talking.”

“You know, in my head, we went out bunches of times, spent a hundred hours talking in that corner booth. But really, it was only what? Four, five times?”

“Four, I think.”

“Four dates... There should have been more.”

“That what tonight's about? You making up for lost time?”

“More like taking advantage of found time.” Buffy paused, sorting out her thoughts while she drove. “I know we do everything all wonky and backwards, and I'm usually the reason we do. This might be the closest we ever get to a second chance to do things right.” She took one hand off the wheel long enough to touch her necklace. “Or third, or fifteenth. I'm really not sure. We keep starting over, and I keep messing it up.”

“A bit past a true fresh start, love. Only thing standing between us and the biggest commitment two demons can make is Glinda, and she was so reluctant, we may have to threaten her to get a renewal.”

“I'm not looking for a fresh start, Spike, just a chance to do the steps I keep forcing us to skip. Right now, we have that chance. As soon as the suppressant stops working, that chance goes away.”

“Dating?”

“Uh-huh. You know, when we can get out of our obligations for it.” She glanced at him again. “Do you think we could do it again? Sneak out for late night dinner dates? Talk in a corner booth for hours about everything and nothing?”

“You wanna relive the best part?” He shrugged. “I'm game.”

“It was pretty much the only part I didn't manage to screw up.”

“Wait a minute... You said 'when the suppressant stops working.' You not planning on getting her to renew it?”

“Honestly? That depends on when round one wears off. But I'm seriously hoping we don't have to. Feeling like we're not much more than friends still sucks, even with the fun benefits.” Buffy fell silent again, pretending to focus on her driving.

He sighed. “A lot of this, these days. Reminds me of before... A bloody lot of silence.”

“I know.”

He waited for her to say more, but she kept her focus on the road.

“I miss you, too,” she eventually whispered. “I miss us. And I shouldn't have to make the drive out to Galvin's to feel ok with saying that.” She bit her lip. “I want it all back, Sparky. The long talks. The loud arguments. The fun fights. The flashes of insight. The warm feeling in my belly when you touch me. The buzz of excitement when I sense you close, knowing I'm about to see you...”

“So what you're saying is--”

“I want to be in love with you again.”

“Pull over for a second, love.”

She frowned. “Why? We're less than a mile from the exit. Galvin's is right down the road.”

“'Cause I don't think I can wait another mile to snog the hell out of my date.”

*~*~*

The scarred sign above the wall of wide, deep cubbyholes read 'On your honor or with your life.' Buffy smiled at the sight of it, already feeling the comfort of an old, familiar sanctuary. She dumped the stake and dagger she carried in an empty cubbyhole, and waited for Spike to do the same.

“Don't know why they're so sure that'll work,” he grumbled.

“Mostly because the staff is almost entirely Chorbra demons. They can sense deception, among other things. You haven't really been here much, have you?”

“Eh, once or twice, years ago. More for local haunts than roadside ones.” They settled at a booth. “Got taken to the cleaners playing poker with a Chorbra, once. Bugger called every bluff. End of the night, he told us what he was, gave the whole table back half our losses as an apology for toying with us. Good bloke, but I wanted to strangle him there for a bit.”

Buffy was still chuckling when a young waitress approached their table. She gave Buffy a funny look. “The Slayer?” Buffy nodded. “Did you disarm?”

“On my honor.”

The waitress turned to Spike. “And you, Vampire?”

He ran the tip of his tongue slowly across his teeth. “Much as I can, pet.”

The young woman struggled to tear her gaze from his mouth. “Um, yeah... Of course. I-- I should get your drink order.”

“Captain and Coke, please.”

Spike leaned toward her slightly, looking into her eyes. “Jack on the rocks, if you can, pet. What did you say your name was?”

“I'm, um, Jasleen,” she answered, blushing.

“Tell you what, Jasleen, you bring the lady here some beer cheese and soft pretzels, and maybe you and me will have a chance to... talk while she eats.”

“I-- I can't. I'm working.” The blush on her cheeks grew impossibly dark as she backed away. “I'll go... put your order in.”

Spike winced at the kick from under the table.

“Good god, you're laying it on thick tonight. You're taking waitress flirting to a whole new level.”

He leaned back in the booth. “Figure I gotta make an impression, if you like the place so much. Might be here more often. Should start establishing relationships.”

“There are ways to earn the treatment of a regular without implying you're going to take her out behind the kitchen for a little break time fun,” Buffy hissed.

“Speaking from experience, are we?”

“Put that smirk away, Spike. I'm trying to be mad at you.”

“Yeah, well, keep practicing, Slayer, 'cause that looks a lot more like jealousy than temper.”

She threw her hands up in the air. “Now he can tell the difference. It figures.” She brought her hands back to the table and looked him in the eye. “Let's get one thing straight: If you take anyone behind a restaurant kitchen, it'll be the same woman you used to.”

“That a hint or a promise?”

Buffy broke eye contact, her blush beginning to echo Jasleen's. “I'm trying to behave myself, you know. With the dating and the trying not to get too stuck in old habits that make you miserable...”

“Like the dating. Like the idea of spending a bit more time enjoying where we are.” He leaned in close to her across the table, drawing her eyes back to his. Under the table, one booted foot rested against her side of the booth, between her knees. “Also like bringing out the animal in you,” he said in a low growl. “Making you forget. ...Forget everything.”

Buffy focused on her breathing, trying to keep it calm and even under his intense gaze.

“Been a while since you wanted that, wanted me to wipe the world away for you like that.”

“I-- I didn't think you liked the reason for my... different approach.”

“Didn't say I did. Doesn't mean I'm not finding a silver lining.” He took her hands in his. “All kinds of middle ground to be found, love. You wanna take the time, go out for drinks, have a bloody midnight picnic, or whatever else, I'm there. Happily. Nothing says we can't have a rough shag after.” He tightened his grip. “We're still us. Still drawn to each other's demons, and still gonna bugger up what's expected of us, no matter what. Finally starting to make my peace with that. It's about time you did the same.”

Jasleen returned with their drinks, looking from one to the other with curiosity as she placed them on the table. “Captain Morgan and Coke. Jack Daniels. The pretzels will be up shortly. Do you want to order anything else?”

Spike looked up at her with his most charming smile. “Thanks. You're a gem, pet. And a beauty to boot. Should've met you when I was single.” He looked at Buffy. “How're the hot wings here?”

“Drool worthy.”

“Alright, Jasleen, we'll do that, too. ...Unless you're due for a break? Still thinking about a little... talk?”

“You... But you're...” The young woman's gaze went to their joined hands. “You just said you're not single... and that's the Slayer.”

Buffy shook her head at Spike. “I really shouldn't take you out in public.” To Jasleen, she said, “I'm sorry. I'll leave you something extra for putting up with him.”

“It's ok... It's just...” Her voice dropped to a shocked whisper. “Slayer, I think he's sincere.”

“He is,” Buffy grumbled. “He sincerely wants to flirt with you, proposition you, and make you blush.”

“And that's ok?”

“That's the other cost of putting up with him.”

Jasleen looked uncomfortable. “I think I'll go, um, put in your order. How hot do you like your wings?”

“Very,” they said in unison. They were smiling at each other as she walked away.

“So, were where we?”

“Pretty sure you were 'bout to throw your ideals out the window and give in to your baser nature.”

“Again.”

Spike broke his hold on her hands to grab his drink and lean back in the booth. “It's what we are, Slayer. Who we are. Only ask one thing of you.”

“Name it.”

“Eh, maybe two.”

“Don't push your luck, Sparky.” She grinned around the rim of her glass, then took a sip. “What?”

“For one thing, when you stop needing me to make you forget what you're feeling, you remember how fun it is when you let me try.”

“Definitely an arrangement I can live with. Next?”

He nodded to the band warming up at the other end of the bar room. “Dance with me?”

“You're really ok with letting me string you along for a while?”

“Way I figure it, we're not gonna stop dancing this time, just change up the music. Not ideal, but I can live with it.”

“And if the music stops? There's still a chance I'll have to j--”

“Not gonna happen. You're mine, Slayer. It's only a matter of time.”

*~*~*

“So... you didn't tell me how your date went.” Tara gave Buffy a playful nudge as they folded the laundry.

“Well, for starters, the King of Flirting has added to his harem.”

“Oh, dear. Another waitress?”

Buffy nodded. “So now there are five members, and that's just the ones I know of.”

Tara counted off on her fingers. “Jenna, Mae, Lydia, this new waitress.... and?”

“The other waitress. Trixie. You remember her from Willy's? Wait, make that six. Lucy Varnes, his middle-aged estate agent.” She sighed. “All the men in the world, and I had to hook up with a vampire who thinks making women stammer and blush is an important life skill.”

“You roll your eyes, but you're still smiling. You enjoyed the show.”

“Maybe a little. Meanwhile, we did manage to finally find the middle ground on something, for once.”

Tara looked pleased. “Really? That's great. So you're going to take advantage of this time to just date?”

“Dating... with benefits. Eddie got thrown out of the bunker last night.”

“Dammit, Buffy!”

“Tara Maclay! I think that's the first time I've ever heard you curse.”

“You'd drive a saint to it.”

Porcelain Translations by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

The definition of family is always in flux.

Chapter 27: Porcelain Translations

February, 2001

“You're sure the DeSoto is up for the trip?”

“You're a bloody mother hen, you know that? The car's fine. Been working on it some. 'Sides, it's not that far to the next station south.”

“And you know what you're going to do when you get there?”

“Keep her from boarding the bloody train. What's with the interrogation, Glinda?”

“It's just... she's a seer, Spike.”

“Pretty sure I caught that memo, 'bout twelve decades back.”

“She's probably going to know everything.”

“And it'll be so garbled in her head it'll come out gibberish, like most everything else.”

“What are you going to say to her to keep her off the train?”

“Whatever it takes.” Spike leaned forward against the back of the vanity chair he was straddling, taking a closer look at the woman sitting across from him on the bed. “You're worried about me.”

Tara's gaze drifted to the blue striped walls. “It's just, with you and Buffy in such a weird place right now... You might want to take the opportunity...”

“To take my past out for a spin? Is that it? Glinda, you know better.” He stood up. “As for me and the slayer, contrary to what you may think, it's alright. It's not exactly new territory. Just gotta make it through to the happy ending this time. Wasn't much hope of one before.”

She stood to join him. “And you still held out for one. There are no guarantees, Spike. Better odds, but no guarantees. Do neither of you ever learn from your mistakes?”

He pulled her into a hug. “Be home as soon as I can, pet. And thanks for worrying.”

He left Tara's room and went downstairs, grabbing his coat from its hook by the door and walking into the living room while he slipped it on. “Gotta go, Mum. Might be a day or two.”

Joyce looked up from the television. “Where are you going?”

“Leaving your daughter for an older woman.” He kissed her cheek. “Take care.”

“I'm going to pretend I know you're joking, and not try to stake you. Does Buffy know about this?”

“Has for years.”

“Oh.” Joyce nodded. “This is one of those things. Ok, well, be careful.”

He went to the dining room. “Gimme a hug, Bit. Headed out of town.”

Dawn frowned as she looked up from her homework. “Where are you going?”

“Got a li'l errand to run, is all. Vamp stuff.”

She put down her pencil and stood to hug him. “You'll stay out of trouble, right?”

“If I can. Be safe. Listen to your sister.”

“Just hurry home. You're a much more fun babysitter. Tara can keep her.

Spike's laugh carried him out to the back porch, where Buffy and Giles were talking. “Love, it's time I headed out.”

Buffy stood up. “I knew it would happen eventually. Giles, my husband is leaving me for his ex.”

Spike's laughter renewed at the look on Giles' face. “Glinda certainly acts like it. Worried I'll take the chance to relive some other memories.”

“Yeah, sure. Like that goth girl you brought to Xan and Anya's non-wedding. I could tell by the look on your face you weren't going to sleep with her.”

“Was I that obvious?”

Giles' eyes went wide. “Xander and Anya's...?”

“Total train wreck. I'll tell you about it sometime.” Buffy turned back to Spike. “Speaking of trains, you'd better get going.” She gave him an evil grin. “Tell Dru your missus says hello... And you'd better call me if you feel like chaining her up. I'd hate to be left out.”

That earned her a smirk. “Could be worth repeating.”

“The time travel in-jokes are getting rather tiresome, you know.”

“Sorry, Rupes.” Spike gave Buffy a quick kiss. “Call you tomorrow.”

Giles was still shaking his head when Buffy rejoined him on the steps. “He's going to see Drusilla?”

“He's going to stop her from massacring a train full of people on her way to see him.”

“And you aren't at all worried about them... reconnecting?”

“I'm not dumb enough to think a long history doesn't mean anything. It means a lot, actually. But it'll be fine.” Buffy shrugged away his concern.

“You're very confident.”

“I have reason to be.”

Giles hesitated, trying to decide if he should ask the other question on his mind. “...And if she entices him with something else? Human blood, perhaps?”

“You do realize he still has a pint of O Neg at Willy's once in a while, right? Spike's got his cravings under control, Giles. All of them.”

“But no one has Drusilla under control, not even a little.”

Buffy smiled. “Only two people have ever been able to claim to come close: the psychopath who turned her in the first place, and the idiot who took care of her for over a century. The psychopath hasn't returned my calls, so I'm sending the idiot.”

*~*~*

“You were right,” Giles said after a long silence, staring out into the back yard.

“About what?”

“Spike being reformed isn't the point.”

Buffy was very still, waiting on him to continue.

“His history, the changes in him, aren't what matters. What matters is that you trust him and I didn't.”

“Past tense?”

“I'm getting there. I'm taking it all in steps. I knew him to be your time travel companion, your wartime lieutenant, and a romantic attachment. That was enough. Too much, if I'm to be frank. And now, after Lydia's letter...” Giles trailed off. “I learn that it wasn't reform at all. Something about you brings out the human side of him, makes him more of a man than a demon. It was always there, wasn't it?”

“Giles, the truce wasn't that earth-shattering. It was just a deal we made, as much for his benefit as mine. He's loyal to a fault. Dru played around on him, but he still wanted to protect her, still wanted her back... With a side order of 'please don't let Angel destroy the world,' of course.”

“But through that truce, you acquired his loyalty, his trust, for yourself. That's why he came to you after the chip was installed, wasn't it? He trusted you.”

“And I blew it. I've taken his trust and stomped on it a lot over the years.” She looked down at her hands in her lap. “I told you, he's very forgiving.”

“Because he's in love with you.”

“Yes.” She kept her eyes lowered.

Giles frowned at her. “You've never said it to me. With Angel, you were very open about your feelings. With Spike, you're a closed book. I understand I may not be your first choice of confidante, and you have matured beyond high school romances, but... you married him, Buffy. I believe it's socially acceptable to state your feelings about him.”

Buffy struggled against the impulse to lie. “My feelings for Spike... are kind of a mess right now. We--” Her head shot up as a powerful vampiric signature came into her range, a signature very similar to Spike's. “She knows.”

“Who knows what?” Giles followed her gaze to the open gate, watching for movement in the darkness.

Lydia walked slowly into the yard. Behind her, Drusilla danced in, humming to herself.

Buffy jumped up and ran toward her new watcher. “Lydia! Are you alright?”

Lydia didn't respond. Giles came down the porch steps, but kept his distance. “Buffy, be careful.”

The slayer looked toward Drusilla, who had stopped dancing and stood at Lydia's side, smiling softly. “Dru, cut her loose. She's not why you're here.”

“The stars told me the truth. You've come to change the world.” Drusilla stroked Lydia's hair, her nails pulling tendrils from the woman's bun. “Such a pretty dolly.” Her eyes drifted to Giles. “Prettier than the one you used to keep.”

Buffy dared to make eye contact with the vampire. “Dru, please. Let the watchers go into the house, and you and I will go someplace to talk. I really can't have you hanging around here right now.”

“Ooh! A secret rendezvous!” Drusilla clapped her hands together excitedly. “Must avoid the eye of the Key Hunter. Mustn't make her think I know.” She tilted her head. “Mustn't learn to fly again.”

Buffy glanced over her shoulder. “Giles, go inside. Dru, Weatherly Park. I'll be right behind you.”

Drusilla snapped her fingers in front of Lydia's face and danced back out of the yard.

Lydia came back to her senses with a gasp. “Buffy!” She looked around. “How did I--? Mr. Giles? Oh, my.” She rubbed her forehead. “I believe I've been put in a thrall.”

Buffy put her arm around the woman's shoulders and led her to the porch. “Yeah, that's what she does.”

“Was that Drusilla? Spike's...?”

“That's her.” Buffy and the watchers went into the house. “For future reference, don't ever look into her eyes. Giles, back me up on this.”

“Eye contact with her is extremely dangerous,” he agreed with a shudder. “Buffy, you aren't thinking of actually meeting with her, are you?”

“If you don't mind staying here while I'm gone, keeping an eye out for trouble.”

“Of course. I'd be glad to... to step in for your lieutenant.”

“Good. Thanks.” Buffy pulled the stake out of the back of her waistband placed it on the kitchen counter. “The weapons chest is in the living room. The twins are in their case downstairs.”

He grabbed her arm to stop her as she headed back toward the door. “You are not going to face Drusilla unarmed. I may no longer be your watcher, but--”

“I am,” Lydia said. “I would not recommend such recklessness, Buffy.” She squinted at her charge. “She didn't put you in a thrall, too, did she?”

Buffy shook her head and pulled out of Giles' grasp. “She didn't need to. I know what she wants. Me.”

“And you think you ought to give her what she wants?”

“She could have killed you, Lydia. Easily. She didn't. She brought you here as leverage, without a scratch on you. She clearly wants to talk. I'm game.”

“Buffy...” Giles rubbed his forehead. “What do you think Spike is going to say about this?”

“He'll have a fit. And that's why we aren't going to tell him.”

“And if he comes home to find you've been killed?”

“Bigger fit. Also, tons of Jack Daniels. Buy stock.”

“You're being flippant.” Giles picked up the stake and held it out to her. “At least prepare for the possibility that she means you harm.”

“That who means harm?” Tara asked, walking into the kitchen. “Lydia? I didn't hear you come in.”

Buffy pushed down the hand that offered the stake. “Giles, I'll be fine. Tara, don't let him follow me.”

Tara frowned at the tense faces. “Buffy, what's going on?”

“Spike's gone to catch the wrong train.” She walked out into the night, unarmed.

*~*~*

Buffy sat in a swing and pushed off, trying to match the rhythm of the swing beside her, already in motion. “I thought you'd want to see him, but you showed up pretty much the second he left town.”

“Family I know. Family I don't. Past time to greet the new one.” Drusilla frowned. “But my prince is untasted. His bride unmarked. Pixies tell me lies.”

“Your pixies are just a little off schedule. Or maybe we are. Either way, I've not been claimed into the family yet, Dru.”

“You mean to be. You mean to bring light to shadow, shadow to light. Be of us, be as a daughter.”

“Can I just say, phrasing it that way is a little creepy?”

Drusilla brought her swing to an abrupt stop. She giggled. “Human mind, demon heart. So alike, light and shadow. Demon mind, human heart.”

Buffy slowed her swing. By the time she stopped it, Drusilla was spinning her own around, looking up at the twisted chain with an expression of pure glee. Sh watched as the vampire lifted her feet suddenly, throwing herself into a wild spin in reverse, laughing as she went. “Sometimes, I think you can't be as crazy as I remember you being. And then you remind me.”

The laughter died as the spinning swing jerked to a stop. Drusilla stepped off the swing and knelt in the sand in front of it. “Come to me, daughter to be.”

Buffy frowned. “You're not planning to kill me, are you? 'Cause I was kind of banking on you... not.”

Drusilla shook her head and patted the ground before her.

“Alright, but if I end up dead, you're the one who has to face the wrath of Spike.” She knelt in the sand, nearly knee to knee with Drusilla.

“I made him for me, but I've known he could never be, since long before Jamaica fell.”

“Kendra,” Buffy whispered.

“Not the one I wanted. Time flies, to and fro on the shuttle, unwoven on the witch's loom.” Drusilla swayed in time to her words. She stopped, and looked into Buffy's eyes. “It couldn't be undone. What is bound to be bound, is bound to be. Daughter of Henry. Son of Anne. Called at the christening.”

“You've always known it would come to this.”

“Not always. Miss Edith withheld her secrets until Stockholm fell. The prince wished for west. I begged for east.” Drusilla shook her head. “Prague was a mistake.”

Buffy wrinkled her nose. “Stockholm? The slayer before me? You're saying Spike wanted to come to California as soon as I was called? But he never even met the Stockholm slayer.”

“The time had come. Westbound trains to the new frontier. The singing of the rails, vibrating bone deep. He couldn't know he'd lose me here, lose me to his own road.” Drusilla took Buffy by the shoulders. “The bloodline, tainted with light. Requires shadow in payment. Be as you're called.”

“Ok, I think you've officially lost me.” Buffy didn't fight the vampire's grip, only held her gaze, studying her. “Spike might understand you, but I haven't had a century or so to learn.”

Drusilla slid one hand up to the slayer's neck, stroking the faint scar of Angel's bite. “Lose one. Gain another. Father for son. One lighted Aurelian warrior for another. Only one gives rise to the Aurelian Slayer.”

“Aurelian Slayer? Well, technically, yeah. I kinda killed the head of the family... Oh. That's not how you mean it. You mean me as an Aurelian. Claimed to the clan. Gotcha.”

“The mighty, the dangerous. The three, the many...” Drusilla dropped her hands to Buffy's lap, and took the slayer's hands in her own. She swayed to music only she could hear, moving their hands in time to it. “A waltz, a timeless dance.” The silent music stopped, and she frowned tilting her head to the side. “From beneath you, it devours.”

Buffy jerked her hands free. “What do you know about that?”

“Yearning for it, for the battle that never began. As good as dead.” Drusilla grabbed her hands again. “Stop seeking it,” she growled, her fangs suddenly bared. “That's not your road to take him down.”

Buffy took a deep breath. “I'm not seeking it, Dru. Really. It's just sort of... there.”

“Be as you're called! Home is in the bloodline!” The demon face slipped away into the smooth lines and soft smile of the human mask. The growling voice was as sweet and whimsical as it had been before the display of temper. “Be as a daughter. ...Little flowers on a farm, where memories grow.”

Buffy gave the hands that held hers a reassuring squeeze. “I will, Dru. Eventually. But you know what I have to ask in exchange.”

“Distance from the lost prince. Distance from the sharp ends.” She tilted her head again. “From the twins?”

“I can't have you anywhere near where I might have to stake you. Low profile and far away. That's the only way this works.”

Drusilla looked up at the sky. “Lost love. Lost bride,” she sighed. “Such funny, pretty sparks.”

“I'm sorry. You know that's how it has to be. I know there's no stopping you from popping up occasionally, but it has to be rare, and the body count has to stay low.”

The vampire's eyes came back to Buffy. “Face of his salvation, is it?” She grinned. “Red blood will change. Blue eyed cherubs will question. Green blades will promise. Bright sparks will ensure. ...One day, it will be time, and glad welcome, as when you once knew flight.” She shook her head solemnly. “Only once. Anchored in blood soon. Clipped wings for longer travels.”

Buffy broke their joined hands again, dropping onto her back in the sand. She rubbed her eyes, then stared up at the stars. “I feel like I've just lost a few million tons of pressure off my shoulders... But I think translating you is starting to give me a headache.”

Drusilla crawled up beside her and fell onto her back as well, studying the stars. “Hear them speak?”

“No, Dru. I hear you speak. And I'm pretty sure that's enough.”

“Blurred lines,” Drusilla whispered. “You talk like your mate.”

Buffy gestured vaguely to her neck. “Do you see a claim mark anywhere? I don't have a mate. Not yet.”

“You will, daughter of the blood. Your demon chose. Your demon waits. As impatient as his.”

“I know, I know,” Buffy sighed.

They fell into silence, staring up at the stars together.

*~*~*

There was a screech of tires in the driveway. A few seconds later, the front door flew open. “Buffy!”

Giles stopped his pacing and came into the hall, Tara and Lydia on his heels. “What's wrong?”

“I was too late. Couple of bodies at the train station. Drained dry, like someone hadn't fed in a while or was trying to heal in a hurry. A doll wearing a blindfold. Dru's gotta be in town by now.” Spike looked at the worried faces of the watchers and witch. “Rupert,” he said slowly, a feeling of dread creeping over him. “Where's my wife?”

“Wife?” Lydia squeaked.

The men took no notice of her. Giles gulped. “Weatherly Park.”

The front door slammed closed.

Joyce came to the top of the stairs, looking sleepy. “What's going on? Is everyone alright?”

Tara bit her lip. “We don't know.”

*~*~*

Drusilla's humming came to an abrupt halt. “Shh! Stop the music. The prince rides for his bride, as in tales of old. Fear in the roar of the engine.”

There was no reply.

She lifted her head to look at her fellow star-gazer. “No rest for the wicked.” She kissed Buffy's forehead and climbed to her feet. She was almost to the street when the DeSoto pulled up to the curb.

Spike jumped out of the car and ran to her. “Where is she?”

Drusilla tilted her head at him, curious. “Too much time in the light, sweet William? You expect nightmares in place of dreams.”

He took her by the shoulders. “What have you done, Dru?”

“Told a bedtime story. Told the bride of happy endings and sad ones. She understands, now. Hears the stars with me.” She turned her head and nodded in the direction of the swing set.

Spike followed her gaze to a still body in the sand in front of the swings. His knees weakened. He held onto Drusilla's shoulders to keep himself upright. “God, no...”

“She sleeps now, better for the dreaming.” She took his hand to lead him to the swing set. “Eased her worries.” He allowed himself to be numbly dragged along, too shocked to notice the heartbeat he was hearing as they neared the body. When they were only a few feet from the swings, Drusilla left him to resume her place at Buffy's side. She whispered in the slayer's ear. “Come back, come back, Daughter of Henry.”

Buffy's brow furrowed. “Dru? Sorry, I must have dozed off on you.” She raised one hand to rub her eyes, the movement pulling Spike from his stupor. “I had no idea how tired I was.”

“Buffy?”

“Spike?” Buffy lifted herself up on her elbows. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“You're alright?”

“Yeah, yeah. I'm fine. Just... sleepy.” Buffy took in the look on his face, then frowned at Drusilla, who was giggling. “Dammit, Dru. You actually let him think... That was evil.”The giggling intensified. “You really are mad as a hatter, aren't you?” She fell back onto the sand. “I just don't get how I managed to fall asleep.”

“No more worries,” Drusilla said, still giggling. She stroked Buffy's hair. “You'll be as you're called.”

Spike, regaining his composure, came to stand over them. “Should stake you both.” He held out his hands to pull them to their feet.

With glances at each other, the women accepted the offer. Buffy tried to brush the sand from her clothes. She turned her back to them. “How bad is it?”

“Ooh! Like beaches! Will there be a picnic?”

“Thanks, Dru. That's really helpful.” She tried again to brush at the back of her shirt. “Spike?”

Spike's eyes were on the waistband of her jeans. “Lesson the first, Slayer.”

She turned back to face him, noting the angry amber glint in his eyes. “Oh, boy. I'm going to be hearing about this one for centuries, aren't I?”

Drusilla started to back away, but Spike's arm shot out and he grabbed her by the shoulder. “Dru, stay. I wanna know what the hell you two have been up to.”

The women exchanged looks again. Drusilla's attempt to look meek sent Buffy into giggles, which were soon joined with the vampire's own.

Spike was not amused. “What?” he roared.

Buffy struggled for air. “What... What you're so freaked about is... She told me... what Althenea and the Guardian wouldn't say... Bonus of a seer without ethics, I guess. Dru said...” She gasped. “You're pissed off about the best news ever... She told me... I won't have to jump.”

“Anchors. Not flight,” Drusilla agreed.

Spike took a step back, absorbing this information. He addressed his long time lover in a low, gentle tone he knew to be effective. “Drusilla, princess, did the pixies tell you that?”

“Messages from all, pixies and stars. Miss Edith has always known. Your chosen would be of The Chosen, would see Miss Edith's last days.”

“Buffy, love, don't take this the wrong way.” He took Drusilla in his arms and gave her a tender kiss. When he pulled away, he whispered, “Thank you.”

Buffy returned to her swing. “I should have knownyou two had unfinished business.”

Spike opened his mouth to argue, then closed it when he saw the playful grin on her face.

Drusilla returned to her swing, too. “Catch stars with me?”

“Sure.” They pushed off together, and began swinging in time. “And I'll pretend you aren't in such a good mood because you just got kissed by lips that belong to me.”

“No marks, she says. Not yet.”

“Ok. I walked right into that one.” She looked down at Spike as her swing rose higher. “I'm going to have to fix that, aren't I?”

“That depends,” Spike said with a wry smile. “Dru, how long you staying in town, pet?”

“Hey!”

*~*~*

The second time Spike came home that night looked much like the first, with the addition of Joyce to the group who met him at the front door.

“Did you find her?”

“Is she alright?”

“Where's Drusilla?”

He held up his hands. “It's fine. They're just talking... mostly about me, I expect. Dru says she'll be out of town by morning. Something about catching a boat to China. Buffy will be home soon.”

In the flurry of commentary about the dangers of leaving Buffy with Drusilla, Spike caught Tara's eye and gave her a significant look. Tara slipped off to the basement.

Spike joined her a few minutes later. He fell into the chair adjacent hers, and read aloud from one of the prints on the wall over the bed. “'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.'”

“What happened at the park?”

“They had a talk that relieved Buffy of so much stress, she fell asleep star-gazing. Dru says the jump isn't gonna happen.”

“Do you think she's right?”

“That's been the plan all along.” Spike ran a hand through his hair. “But yeah, I think she's sure. Leastways, she's made Buffy sure. That's good enough for me.”

“Why would she come here just to reassure the slayer she wasn't going to die?” Tara looked confused. “That's not very evil of her.”

“Evil is meeting me a bit too far away to sense anything and pointing out Buffy's body on the ground.”

“She didn't!” Tara shuddered. “That's cruel!”

“And this is Dru on a good day. She's even nearly coherent.” Spike sighed and looked back at the prints on the wall. “Suspect she came 'cause I never chose to continue the bloodline. Was always too fixated on her. I'm finally gonna add someone to the clan, just in a different way. So she's doing for Buffy what Angelus did for me... albeit in the most twisted ways he could think of.”

“Welcome to the family?”

“More or less. As in less torture, more giggling.”

Tara smiled. “And apparently good news.”

“My guess? Dru sees the change in the family happening, that's been happening since Peaches first came to Sunnyhell to put on a white hat and Buffy took out Old Bat Face. Then we came. I dusted the Anointed, met the slayer, and all hell broke loose. Dru knows the line's shifted in our branch of the clan, and she's the one on the outs. Wants to get in good with the next member, earn herself a little leeway.”

“She's kissing up to Buffy before the claim even happens.”

“Seems like. Thing I don't get is, she could do that without encouraging it. She's pretty strongly in favor.”

“She's a seer, Spike.”

“Told you, I got that memo.”

“She's known this was coming, and she probably knows there was no way it wasn't going to happen, even if you guys stuck with Plan A instead of coming back in time.”

Spike turned to look at her. “What do you know about Plan A?”

Tara blushed. “Oh, dear. I've stuck my foot in it.” She tilted her head toward the ceiling. “Whistler! A bail out would be nice right now.” Nothing happened. The blue eyes bored into her with intensity that made her squirm. “He picked a fine time to stop swinging by for visits.”

“Glinda...” His tone was low with warning, edging on a growl.

“Whistler told me what the game plan was, and that you and Buffy would eventually end up mates, no matter how the war with the First played out.”

“Not bloody likely. Plan A included a probable one way ticket to hell, for me.”

“You mean the weapon Angel brought?”

“That li'l demon's been telling a lot of tales, has he?” Spike shook his head. “It was an amulet.”

“He said Buffy might have decided to take it from you and die in your place. But the PTB had plans for bringing back whichever one of you went, and eventually, you'd claim each other.”

Spike sank down in his chair. “Never had a chance, did I? Powers had plans. Dru knew. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if even Peaches... Bloody hell.” He sat upright. “Whistler's the one brought Buffy to Angel's attention in the first place. If Angel hadn't been around when Dru and me came to Sunnyhell, everything would have gone differently. And things with me and Buffy, if they'd ever even started, wouldn't have been the same at all. ...That sneaky son of a bi--”

A blue flash came into the room, and bells began to ring all over the house. “Hey, now! My mother was a good woman. A touch too fond of swatting me with the broom handle, but she was alright.”

Tara murmured a few words, silencing the bells. She ran to the base of the stairs and shouted, “False alarm! Sorry, everyone!” She returned to her chair in time to see Spike glaring at Whistler.

“So how far back does it go?” he asked, his jaw clenched. “You get involved earlier than that?”

Whistler leaned against the foot board of the bed. “Not me. I can't speak for anyone else, but my assignment began right before Buffy Summers became the Slayer.”

“And where exactly does it end?”

The demon shrugged. “We're all playing a long game here, not just me.”

“Dammit. I was having a pretty good night,” Buffy grumbled as she came down the stairs. “Who summoned the cryptic asshole?”

Tara and Spike pointed at each other.

“Ok, so both of you.” She sat on the bed and kicked off her boots. “What are we talking about?”

“Angel, sort of,” Tara said. “You know, how Whistler brought him to you and triggered pretty much everything involving you and the Order of Aurelius.”

Buffy took off her socks. “Yeah, we never have really talked about that...” She stood up and faced the demon. Then she punched him in the face. Hard. “Was that really necessary?”

Whistler nearly lost his footing from the unexpected blow. He pulled himself upright with the corner of the foot board, rubbing his jaw with the other hand. “I could ask the same thing. Holy shit, Summers! You been holding on to that one for a while?”

“Yeah, like six years or so.” She punched him again. “And my name isn't Summers!”

Spike grinned and leaned back in his chair, enjoying the show. He caught Tara doing the same and winked at her. “This could be fun,” he whispered.

“Alright, fine, Mrs. Pratt. Yeah, it kind of was. That cheesy-ass Romeo and Juliet thing yo two had going put a lot of stuff in motion, not the least of which is your new name. It was a necessary evil.”

“Evil, I'll grant you. But there had to have been a better way for Spike and I to find each other that didn't start with me being lucky number three on his slayer wish list.”

“Yeah, I mean, it wasn't impossible...”

“So why did I have to go through all of that, then?”

“It wasn't done for you, genius. It was done for him.”

She took a step backwards. “Huh?”

“Angel needed ties to the human world. You were just the ticket. I didn't know exactly how deep the plan went at the time. I just got told he needed to be close to you before Acathla was dug up, to stop its rise. I didn't find out until later he could trigger it, and what was expected to happen if he tried.”

“The truce. The trip to Hell. The decision to branch out on his own.” Buffy tapped her forehead with the base of her hand. “Of course! You and your bosses used me to turn Angel into an active asset. And you thought I'd accept in the long run because I got Spike out of the deal.”

“Greater good?” Whistler asked with a meek smile.

“To hell with the greater good.” Buffy threw another forceful punch. “I don't like being used, Whistler.”

“Some things are luck, kid. And some things aren't.”

“So let's talk about what isn't. What's the real game, here?”

Whistler vanished.

The three time travelers stared at the space he'd occupied in silence.

Finally, Spike whispered, “If that much planning went into setting up that Acathla business...”

“Then none of what it triggered was an accident. And not just Angel going to LA.” Tara looked back and forth between the two of them. “There's a lot more going on than we know about, isn't there?”

“Uh-huh.” Buffy crossed her arms over her chest. “We're being played. I don't know what that little weasel is up to, but he's definitely up to something. And it's big.”

Inevitable Spin by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

There's always at least one plan in motion...

Chapter 28: Inevitable Spin

March, 2001

Spike stood in Tara's bedroom doorway, watching as Buffy held a bright pink top up in front of her and performed a series of unnaturally wide smiles and exaggerated pouts for her reflection in the vanity mirror. “Think I've changed my mind. I don't want to know what goes on in that head of yours. Best tell Glinda we'll be needing a round two, and soon.”

She looked up, finally noticing him. “You're kidding, right? If anyone should be worried about getting an all-access pass to Scary Brain City, it's me. And what are you doing here, anyway? Don't you have a date with Xander? It is Wednesday, isn't it?”

“Told the blokes I'd catch up later. Mum's making lasagna.”

“And the smell is driving me crazy.” She frowned. “But you don't usually skip Jack for Emeril.”

“Time's running short, love. I don't need the food as much as I need...”

Buffy sighed. “Yeah, I'm trying to take advantage of every minute with her, too. Just in case. I'd be down there with her right now if she weren't having some kitchen-bonding time with Dawnie.” She gave the top one last critical look before tossing it into a small cardboard box on the bed.

Curious, he stepped over to the bed and picked up the shirt to study the other items in the box. Piled inside were pictures of her and note cards listing facts about herself and her friends, along with a familiar pleated skirt. As realization dawned, he turned to her. “No!” he roared, throwing the shirt on the floor. “You're off your nut if you think I'm going to that bastard to have him build that thing again!”

She jumped to her feet in response to his anger. Returning the shirt to the box, she said sternly, “It will be useful, Spike. You can't deny that. A pair of decoys is better than one.”

“No. We'll find another way!”

“I'll go to him myself, if I have to!”

“You'll do no such thing! I don't want you anywhere near that bloody maniac!”

“I will! And you have no say over who I deal with!”

“The hell I don't! Stay away from him, Buffy.”

“What are you going to do if I don't? Divorce me?”

“I'll knock you on your ass so hard, you'll think you're trying to stop me handing myself over to the bloody cops.”

She gritted her teeth. “That's a low blow, Spike. Bitter and low.”

“I'll do it.” He leaned in close to her. “I'll break a lot of bones, if that's what it takes.”

She stepped closer, bringing herself nearly nose to nose with him. “The last vampire who dared to threaten me was a fucking Turok Han. Do you remember what happened to him?”

“You dusted him, General.” Spike nearly spat the last word.

“You're damn right, I did. Trying nearly got me killed, but it was worth it, because I got you back.” Buffy picked up the shirt again, and shook it at him. “This isn't half as serious! Doing this doesn't get you kidnapped and tortured... Unless of course you want to fuck it in the middle of a cemetery!”

“Hell, why not? It'll be warmer than the ice queen I have at home!”

She shoved the shirt against his chest. “Then place the damn order and get me my decoy!”

A loud whistle drew their attention to the doorway. “That's enough!” Tara stepped into the room, closing the door behind her. “I was hoping you two would start arguing again. I thought it might mean you were getting back to normal. ...But this is not what I had in mind. I've never heard you be so vicious to each other.”

“That's 'cause there weren't witnesses to most of it.”

“Well you have them now. Joyce and Dawnie are wondering what's going on up here. They've certainly never heard you two out for blood like this. I'm just grateful they can't make out all the words from the kitchen, because the dirty laundry hit parade is on full display tonight!”

“Doesn't matter.” Spike threw up his hands and turned to leave. “The general does whatever the hell she likes, no matter what anyone says.” He tried to brush past Tara, but she put a hand to his chest to stop him.

“You're right,” she said in a low tone. “People told her to leave you to be dusted -or do the job herself- how many times? And here you stand.” She turned to Buffy. “And you! Don't think I don't know what you're up to. I already told you, we don't need the bot. And I seriously doubt handing Warren a bunch of personal information about yourself is going to do any of us any favors later on.”

Buffy sucked in a breath. “You think that had some bearing on how things went?”

“At the very least, it told him where to put the cameras.” Tara followed the looks they gave each other. “And I should not have mentioned the cameras while you two are in such a dirty pool mood.”

Buffy waved a hand. “No, it's alright. We'll behave.”

“Yeah, one of these days,” Spike scoffed. He dropped his volume to a whisper. “He's dangerous, love.”

“That's a long time from now.” Buffy said. “Right now, he's just a guy with a really creepy hobby.”

“Still the same man. Don't want you near him.” Spike glanced at Tara. “Either of you.”

Buffy picked up the box and offered it to him. “Then you'll have to place the order yourself.”

He refused it with a shake of his head. “Don't need it this time. Got some foreknowledge going for us. And the twins, and glowy Glinda, here. Can do without. Won't need it after, either. We'll still have you.”

“We will if we pull out all the stops.”

“But Dru said--”

“Dru didn't say squat about whether we'd need the bot to prevent the jump. ...Stop growling. You know I'm right. It's a good decoy. We know it will help. We should use it. It really is that simple.”

“What's simple is that the bloody bot's not too far from the top of my list.”

“List?” Tara asked.

“Stuff I buggered up.”

After a moment's thought, Buffy put the box back on the bed and returned the pink top to the closet.

“Thanks, love. Appreciate it.”

“You still have to see him, you know. Someone has to lead April to Warren, so she won't hurt anyone. And I can't go. I have to make certain I'm home and awake early the next morning, so I'm not going out that night at all.”

“Can't change that, he said.”

She focused on clipping the skirt to its hanger. “I don't care what Whistler said. I have to try.”

Spike leaned against the vanity table, letting his thoughts wander through the tense silence. “If I'm gonna have to get involved, anyway, it's time the three of us have the conversation we've been avoiding. ...Bot or no bot, dealing with Warren's the bigger issue.”

Tara gave him a sideways glance. “You mean Willow.”

“No, I mean me.”

The women looked at each other, momentarily speechless.

“The bastard put bullets in both of you. Doesn't need a second chance at it.”

“You'd regret it,” Buffy whispered. “Do you really want Warren haunting your nightmares?”

“Be worth it.”

“Spike...” Tara seemed to be struggling for words. “I can't stop you, but I-- I don't think I can support it. What if things go differently this time? He might end up a better person, or at least not a...”

“A murderer,” Spike finished. “Yeah, sure, he might not end up actually deserving what Red did to him. Or you might end up dead in her arms across the bloody hall.”

Tara winced. “In her arms... I'd never thought about that.”

“That's the story went around, anyway.” Spike's casual shrug clashed with his hard expression. “Not up for a second round of that, are you?”

She took a deep breath. “I'm willing to take the chance. I-- I can't endorse a pre-emptive murder. Buffy, back me up.”

“No,” Buffy said quietly. “I'm sorry, Tara. I can't.” She looked up at her friend's shocked face. “I know there's a lot of murky grey territory between a death that should happen and a death that has to happen, and this puts us wading right in the middle of it. In my gut, I think he needs to go, the sooner the better.” She held up a hand to stop Tara's pending interruption. “But honestly, I don't give a damn about him. He could get hit by a bus tomorrow, or live to be eighty, for all I care.” She turned her gaze on Spike. “You I give a damn about. Tara's right to call it a pre-emptive murder. It isn't clean and simple. It isn't a fair fight, or an honest hunt. I'm not sure you can live with it.”

He shrugged. “Still say it'd be worth it.”

“I'm not so sure. You barely survived becoming aware of the minion sires the First forced you to make, even knowing you had absolutely no choice in the matter. You aren't the same vamp anymore, Spike. You can't just shrug off a fresh body like you used to, and I don't think you'd be as good at pretending you can as you seem to think.”

“So what's your vote, Buffy?” Tara asked. “Yes or no?”

She shook her head. “No vote. This is between Sparky and his conscience.”

“Alright,” Spike said slowly. “Make you ladies a deal: The boy lives, for now. If he's still going the same way later, we have this talk again, before he starts killing girls. Say, around the turn of the year, before Katrina?”

Tara took another deep breath, then nodded. “I can live with that.”

Spike looked at Buffy.

“Can you?” she asked.

“I can if you can.”

“We'll talk about it at New Year's.”

“Won't that be a bloody wonderful anniversary.”

Dawn knocked on the door as she opened it. “Hey. You guys went from screaming to quiet pretty quick. Mom said to tell you dinner's ready, and you can eat if you promise you aren't going to kill each other. What are you talking about, anyway?”

“What our first anniversary will be like,” Buffy answered. “Tell mom we'll be right down.”

“Those are some pretty serious faces for massively early party planning.”

“Go on, Nibblet. We'll be right behind you.”

As Dawn ran down the stairs, Buffy glanced at the outfit she'd returned to the closet. “Tara...”

“They'll be in the next charity box, and the back of the closet until then.”

“Thank you.” Buffy took Spike's hand as she passed him, leading him toward the stairs.

Behind them, Tara shook her head and made a mental note to restock her suppressant supplies. The bond between slayer and vampire was already beginning to regain its glow.

*~*~*

Spike came down to the basement to find Buffy sound asleep, with one hand resting on his pillow. He kicked off his boots and stripped off his t-shirt. He moved her hand out of the way and slid under the covers to join her. To his amusement, she put her hand back where it was, effectively slapping him on the cheek.

His quiet snicker was enough to stir her awake. “Hey,” she whispered.

“Honey, I'm home?”

“You smell like a distillery. What time is it?”

“About four.”

“Oh, god. Anya's going to kill Xan.”

“Don't worry 'bout poor little Harris. He went home hours ago.”

“Good.” She snuggled close to him. “Sleep now? I have to get up early to go to hell.”

“Come again?”

“They call it the DMV, but I've visited a hell dimension. It's not that different.” She yawned. “I need to update my license.”

“Sleep in a minute, love. I wanna say something, first.”

“Hmm?”

“Owe you an apology, for that crack about the cops.”

“No, you don't.” She sighed. “But I owe you one for that thing about you and the bot.”

“Call it even and pretend it never happened?”

“Sure. Besides, technically, it didn't. Like, none of it.”

Spike chuckled and bent forward to kiss her forehead. “Love you, Slayer.”

Her body tensed against his for a moment, just long enough for him to regret his words. “You haven't said that in a while.”

“Sorry. Just a slip of the tongue.”

“No, it's ok. I think I like hearing it, getting a piece of what's been missing.”

“Alright if I remind you once in a while, then?”

“Sure, as long as you don't mind waiting for a reply.” She reached over him to tap on the red leather book on his nightstand. “That's the best I can do right now.”

“Good enough.”

*~*~*

Dawn picked up her empty ice cream bowl and stood up from the vanity chair. “I hate to look like the grown up, but it really is past my bedtime.”

Tara, who was stretched out on her stomach on her bed, frowned. “Uh-oh. I think we're in trouble. The world is already ending.”

Buffy, sitting on the floor beside the bed, looked up from the magazine she was flipping through. “Well, that sucks. I was hoping to paint my toenails before that happened.”

“Very funny, guys. I'm just tired, ok?” Dawn reached for the doorknob.

“Vampire,” Buffy murmured, turning her attention back to the magazine in her lap.

“Huh?” Dawn opened Tara's bedroom door just as Spike raised his hand to knock. She jumped in surprise and immediately turned to glare at her sister. “Thanks for the warning, Super Senses.”

“You're welcome.”

“G'night, girls.” Dawn stepped out into the hall. “Just so you know, your wife is evil.”

“Why did you think I married her?” Spike gave her shoulder a squeeze as she passed him. “'Night, Bit.” He closed the door behind him when he entered the bedroom. “Thought this was a party for four?”

“Joyce went to bed an hour ago,” Tara explained. “That's when we moved up here. But we had a good night. Funny movies and lots of popcorn. Operation Happy Memory is coming along nicely.”

“I still say it's preventable, if she's not here alone. Dawnie could have a lot more time for a lot more happy Mom memories. All I have to do is be here.”

Spike turned the vanity chair to straddle it, facing the women. “Love, you need to...” He shook his head. “Never mind.”

“I need to what? Let you have your contingency planning?” Her hard stare was a challenge.

Tara's voice was a warning. “Don't start this again. Either of you.”

Buffy tilted her head back against the side of the bed to give her friend the same stare. “Don't think I've forgotten who his partner in crime with this Happy Memory crap is.”

“Slayer, we've known for months this was coming. You acted like you accepted it...”

“The only thing I accepted was that it was likely. You two are acting like it's certain.”

Tara softened her voice. “Buffy, sweetie, even if you're right, there's no harm in what we're doing. We had fun tonight, didn't we?”

“Yeah,” Buffy answered reluctantly. “Dawn and Mom seemed to enjoy the girls' night in.”

“See? And no matter how things go, Dawnie gets to have this night to remember.” She looked back and forth between slayer and vampire. “Also this is a constructive way to deal with the worry and tension, which is more than I can say about anything you two have managed lately.”

“We haven't been that bad, Glinda.”

“No, of course not. You've just been at each other's throats at the drop of a hat for days. Things have been going really well, guys. Don't blow it just because you need a target for your stress.”

Buffy looked up at her again. “Why do I get the feeling that was mostly directed at me?”

“I'm an equal-opportunity nag. I mean both of you. The sooner you take a step back and remember that neither of you married a punching bag, the happier I'll be.”

“Dr. Ruth strikes again,” Buffy muttered.

Tara reached down to give her a playful slap on the top of her head. “Then stop giving Dr. Ruth a headache.” She looked up at Spike. “You, too.” She sat up on the bed. “So how was patrol?”

“Not bad. Dragged the fledge along for part of the route. Doubt he'll want to make a habit of it.”

“You were really easy to convert on that score.” Buffy shrugged. “But then, you were pretty starved for a little violence by the time you tried it.”

“Not much of the predator instinct in that one. No real love for the fight.”

“And not enough skill to back it up if he did.” Buffy climbed to her feet. “So how about some of that constructive tension relief?”

He stood to join her. “Suits me.”

The said their goodnights to Tara and went downstairs. She followed them as far as the upstairs hallway and listened for the back door to close, expecting them to go outside to spar. Instead, the door she heard closing was the basement door. She rolled her eyes as she returned to her bedroom.

“It's fine, Tara,” she said to herself, in a mocking version of Buffy's voice. “Wild sex instead of talking through our stress always works out so well!” In her own voice, she grumbled, “Why do they insist on making things more complicated than they have to be?”

*~*~*

Joyce stopped spinning. “So is anyone going to talk about my dress?”

“It's lovely,” Tara said from the sofa.

Dawn, sitting beside her, grinned widely. “I like it.”

“Are you sure? It's not too mom-ish?”

“Oh.” Dawn seemed sorry to disappoint her mother. “That was why I liked it.”

“You're both crazy. It's not mom-ish at all. It's sexy. It screams, 'Randy sex kitten, buy me one drink and I'll...'” Buffy frowned. “Oh, wait, that's not really good either. Tara? A little help?”

“Well, I think it falls somewhere in between. You know, sexy without being easy or cougar-ish.”

“Cougar-ish?” Dawn asked. “What's that mean?”

Buffy threw a wide-eyed silent reproach at Tara. “Nothing!” she answered quickly. “So how old is this Brian guy, again?”
“He's only slightly older than me. He works for a publishing house. He's a nice, normal guy.”
“I think I've heard of those,” Buffy grumbled.

“Maybe you read something in Cosmo.” Dawn laughed. “Speaking of the serious lack of normal in Buffyland, what's Spike doing?”

“Enjoying the easy life of a nocturnal creature who gets to nap freely whenever I'm home and awake.”

“Honey, wake him up for me. Please? I want a man's opinion on this dress, while there's still time to change.”

“Mom, it's not even 4:30. You have tons of time before seven. Also, do you really want your son in law checking you out in your sexy dress? That's creepy.”

Joyce frowned for a moment, considering this. “Yes, I think I do. He'll be honest, and he won't make me spin around until I feel like a ballet dancer, unlike some people in this house.”

Tara and Dawn fell into giggles. Buffy went downstairs. She returned a few minutes later, with a somewhat sleepy vampire in tow.

Spike leaned against the door frame. “Alright, Mum, let's see it.”

Joyce turned to face him and held her arms out to display the dress. Behind her, Dawn and Tara made spinning motions with their fingers, prompting him. “What do you think? Will Brian like it?”

“Don't know, yet.” He smiled. “Give us a spin.”

The girls on the sofa fell against each other, laughing. Beside Spike, Buffy was struggling to maintain her composure, and failing.

“Buffy Anne Su-- Pratt! You told him before you brought him upstairs!” Joyce whirled around to face Dawn and Tara, failing to hide her own smile as she reproached them. “And you two! What were you doing while my back was turned?”

Spike's chuckles drew nearer, and made her turn back to face him. He took her hand in his, and put his other to her waist. “Looks like a dancing dress to me.”

As he led her around the living room floor, Tara began to hum in time to their steps, giving them background music. Dawn soon joined in, intentionally speeding up the rhythm, a little at a time, and nudging Tara to join her. Buffy sighed and took Spike's place against the door frame, smiling as she watched.

When Joyce began to struggle to keep pace, she threw a playful glare at the sofa, and the improvised music ended in another round of giggles. She pulled away from her dance partner. “You knew what they were up to, and you helped.”

“What's the point in having a houseful, if we're not keeping you on your toes?”

“I don't know. All I know for sure is that all four of you have made it pretty clear you think me having a real date is just a big joke.” She shook her head in mock sadness. “My heartless, ungrateful children.”

“Children?” Dawn laughed. “Tara's brand new to the family, and Spike hasn't been a child since Lincoln was president.”

“Close enough.” Joyce waved a hand. “My point stands.”

The 'ungrateful children' exchanged glances. “Wrinkle the dress?” Spike asked Dawn.

She nodded. All four of them pounced on Joyce, surrounding her in a crushing group hug.

“Ok! Ok! I surrender!” Joyce said from the middle of the group. “I love you goofballs, too!”

*~*~*

Spike stepped out of the alley as the cheerful looking girl passed by. “Are you April?”

She turned around. “Yes. I'm April. Do you know Warren?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.” Spike held up the small, metallic bag he carried. “Sent me to give you this.” He stepped closer to the robot. “Warren's worried 'bout you. Says your battery pack won't last long enough for you to get to his place, and you've no place to charge up. He gave me a spare, and sent me to find you.”

Her smile was impossibly wide. “Warren's a very good boyfriend. He takes care of me.”

“Well, today, he's taking care of you through me. He's too busy to come looking for you, but he'll be home when you get there. Alright?”

“But Warren says no one else knows how I work.”

Spike gently guided her to a bench. “Warren gave me instructions.” He pointed to a spot near her waist. “Battery goes in right here. Open the panel, switch it out, close it up. Quick and simple. Am I right?”

She tilted her head at him as she sat down. “Yes... I guess he did send you. No one else knows where my battery pack is located.”

“Alright, then? We'll get you all charged up so you can get home to Warren?”

April nodded. “Ok.” She undid some of the middle buttons on her dress, and pressed a hidden pressure panel in her abdomen, opening the battery compartment.

Spike yanked the battery out. He pulled a deck of cards out of the metallic bag, shoved it in his coat pocket, and put the battery in the bag. He closed the empty battery compartment, re-buttoned the dress, and scooped the robot up in his arms. “Was really hoping to never touch one of these things again,” he mumbled to himself as he carried April and her battery to be dropped at Warren's doorstep.

*~*~*

“911. What is your emergency?”

“My mother. She's just collapsed. 1630 Revello Drive. Hurry!”

“We're sending someone out now. Is she breathing?”

The frantic female voice dropped to a stunned whisper. “No... I don't think she is. ...Oh, god. She's already...?”

The dispatcher heard the phone hit the floor.

An accented male voice came on the line a minute later. “You might want to send for the coroner.”

Right There by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Apologies for the tardy chapter. If any of you knows the insane stress of a retail store's annual inventory, you understand why. Even if you don't, you'll at least understand the math of fitting two full shifts into a space of 22 hours. Yeah, I've been too tired to think straight. Over the next week, I'll gradually catch up on review replies and shift us back into the usual "even numbered days" posting pattern. Thanks for your patience.

Chapter 29: Right There

December, 2000 (flashback) / March, 2001

Joyce looked out into the darkened backyard as she absorbed everything she'd just heard. “My first instinct is to say that it's very sudden, but I guess it isn't.”

“No, you'd be right. Didn't plan to ask her. It just sort of happened in the heat of a row.”

“Spike...” She shook her head, a smile playing on her lips. “I'm not sure you're helping your case.”

He chuckled. “It's who we are, Joyce. It's never gonna be peaceful, and it's never gonna be simple.”

“I think I'm beginning to understand that... And she said yes?”

“In a way only Buffy could manage: by making it feel like a 'no.'”

Joyce studied him in the ensuing silence, her mind wandering through all the fantasies she'd harbored over the years, of the kinds of men she'd like to see her daughter marry. None of those imaginary doctors, lawyers, or artists would ever fit into Buffy's life as a slayer, would ever go to such extremes for her, or would ever propose -and be accepted- in the heat of an argument. She swiped at her eyes with her sleeve.

“I know,” he said, quietly, guessing at her train of thought. “I'm not what you had in mind for her. Probably had your heart set on a human son in law, at least.”

“I had my heart set on someone who would be good for my baby,” Joyce whispered. “Someone who would love her and try to make her happy.”

“Don't suppose mortal enemies fall into that category.”

“No, they don't.” She put an arm around his shoulders. “I can't wait to see you in a tux.”

A smile lit up his face as he took in her meaning. “Yeah?”

“Of course.”

“No tux. And I'd put away any fluffy white dress dreams you're keeping for Buffy, if I were you. Doubt even you could talk her into that.”

Joyce sighed and withdrew her arm, trying to look pouty and disappointed, despite her smile. “I expected as much. I guess I'm going to have to let go of a few other daydreams, besides. I don't see a fancy church wedding or an afternoon reception in the backyard as viable options.”

Spike snickered. “Mr. and Mrs. Big Pile of Dust,” he murmured.

“What?”

“Nothing.” He looked down at his mug of cocoa. “One other thing, Joyce...”

“I think we've crossed the line into 'call me Mom' territory, William.”

He jerked in surprise, then abruptly shook it off. “This needs to stay under wraps for a bit...” He stumbled slightly over the next word. “Mum. Buffy's mates--”

“Don't know you've been together for a while. I understand. I'm not exactly thrilled about keeping secrets like that, but I understand.” Joyce sighed again. “So no guest list, either.”

“Upside is, no big expenses, for anyone. Elope and be done with it, is Buffy's stance.”

“And yours?”

Spike shrugged. “Suppose this counts as progress. It's not much, but...”

“Not much? Are you kidding? What more could you possibly want?”

Another shrug. “Eh, maybe in a few years, it'll stop feeling like a 'no.'”

*~*~*

“Magic Box. How can we help you?”

“Lydia? Rupert at the shop today?”

“Spike? Yes, he is. Should I get him for you?”

“Just send him to the house. It's urgent.”

“Oh, my. Is it Glory? Should we gather the team?”

“Later. Send Rupert alone. We'll be in touch.”

Lydia put down the telephone and returned to the research table. “Mr. Giles, I've just had a very strange call from Spike. He needs you at the Summers house, urgently. ...But not with the rest of us.”

A look of dread passed over Giles' face. “'Soon,' he said,” he murmured. He jumped to his feet and grabbed his jacket.

*~*~*

The little red convertible followed the coroner's van down Revello Drive, pulling over two houses shy of its destination, away from the emergency vehicles. The driver ran the rest of the way, through the open front door, coming to a stop in the living room doorway. He stared into the room, at the two young men kneeling on the floor, their bags of equipment sitting closed beside them, and at the still woman between them. “Oh, dear lord.”

He looked across the room to the other doorway, where Buffy stood with her arms crossed in front of her, fighting back a fresh wave of tears, her back resting against Spike, who looked utterly helpless to do anything but stand behind her with a hand on her shoulder. “Giles?” she whispered weakly, as the coroner's team came in the house behind him.

Giles walked down the hall to the kitchen, and came around to them from the other side, completely avoiding the living room. Spike stepped aside when he arrived, allowing the watcher to take the slayer in his arms. “Dear girl. I'm so sorry.”

*~*~*

“Dawnie...”

“It isn't true! It isn't true! You're lying!”

Her shouts reverberated against the glass separating the art room from the hall, drawing the attention of some of her classmates. They watched as she collapsed on the floor in tears.

*~*~*

“Bryn? This is Tara Maclay. I was wondering if I could request a teleport on Willow's behalf. I-- We need her home for a few days. There's... There's been a death in the family.”

*~*~*

“Mrs. Pratt?” the woman behind the counter asked.

Buffy stood up from the bench seat in the dimly lit morgue waiting room, where she'd been sitting between Tara and Dawn. “Yes?”

Willow and Xander exchanged looks of confusion. Anya tried to relay her surprise to Lydia in the same way, but found Lydia's attempt to match her expression rather weak.

“Dr. Kriegel will be out to speak with you shortly.”

“Thank you.” She was still standing when the corridor door swung open, drawing everyone's eyes. Spike walked in, his usual swagger noticeably absent. “Has the sun set already?”

He shook his head. “Made a run for it. Had to get here.” He pulled her into his arms.

Dawn stood up beside her sister, and soon found herself wrapped up with them. Willow and Tara gripped each other's hands. Anya sat pressed close against Xander, who was bent forward in his chair, his elbows on his knees. Lydia sat alone, looking lost. Giles watched the long, still embrace taking place a few feet away from him.

Dr. Kriegel's entrance forced the hug to break. Buffy turned to face him, Dawn on one side of her, Spike on the other, holding her hands. She heard achingly familiar words, different only in that her mother hadn't been alone. She listened intently for any other variation from that which was seared into her memory. There was nothing. The only thing she'd changed was being there to see it happen.

“What's the next step?” Spike asked.

The doctor rubbed his forehead. “Well, there are some forms... decisions Buffy will need to make.”

Spike nodded to Giles, who had stepped closer. “How much of that can we take care of?”

“Well, Buffy is the legal next of kin, so...” Dr. Kriegel looked at her, her face an unreadable mask. “You'll have to do some of it, signing off on things, at least.”

Giles cleared his throat. “I believe the next of kin's spouse can see to much of it, legally. And I'd be willing to assist.” He gestured toward the door beside the counter. “Uh, William?”

Spike gave Buffy's hand a kiss before breaking away from it. He followed Giles and the doctor out.

Buffy remained unmoving, still holding Dawn's hand. Tara separated from Willow to replace Spike at her side. “Buffy,” she said gently. “They'll be a few minutes. Let's have a seat. They'll let you know when they need you.”

“I-- I couldn't stop it,” Buffy whispered. “I was right there. And I couldn't stop it.”

*~*~*

“I remember,” Buffy said softly, when she and Tara were alone in the waiting room. “I remember telling you I'd never done this before.” She tried to laugh, but it came out as a low, choking noise. “I asked for it, didn't I?”

“You asked for a second chance to set things right. Maybe... Maybe this was already right. A natural death, a natural cycle of life. It doesn't have to feel good to be right.”

“Is that what you told yourself when your mom died?”

Tara nodded. “It took me a couple of years to start to believe it.”

“I've had that distance. And I gave it up. I thought, even if I couldn't stop it, it would be easier.”

“It doesn't get easier.”

“So I notice.”

They lapsed into silence until a can of Coke was held in front of Buffy's face. “No, thanks.”

“Where's Dawnie?” Xander asked, sitting down beside her.

“Bathroom.” Buffy's eyes went wide as a memory came through her clouded mind. “I'll be right back.”

*~*~*

The body disintegrated under the crude motions of the scalpel at its throat, having never even moved. Buffy dropped the blade on the dusty sheet and walked slowly across the room to her sister's side. “Dawn?”

“Is she cold?”

*~*~*

The living room was full of Scoobies, talking quietly as they waited on dinner to arrive. Xander broke off from the group to go to the kitchen, where Spike was pouring some of Buffy's Captain Morgan into a glass of ice. “Everyone's taking the polite route, deciding not to ask right now. Me? I'm not as polite, especially when it looks like my drinking buddy has been holding out on me. Spike, is your last name Pratt?”

“Uh-huh.” He reached for a two liter bottle of Coke, and opened it slowly.

“So... Married. To Buffy. Long enough that she's had time to change her name.”

“New Year's Eve.” Some Coke went into the glass.

“After dating only two months? Wow. Super fast.”

“Guess so.”

“And this was a big secret because...?”

“Figured all kinds of Scooby hell would break loose.” Spike stirred the drink and set it aside. He leaned on the counter. “Will it?”

“I'll talk to Willow, make sure she understands it's cool. Everyone else should be ok.”

“Thanks, Harris. I owe you one.”

“Make that two. You should have told me you married one of my best friends. So should she have, really. You both need a good chewing out for keeping secrets.”

“Just throw it at me, for now. Alright?”

“Maybe later.” Xander studied the vampire, his irritated expression fading. “I always get the feeling there's more than you're letting on when you and Buffy talk about each other. Finding this out should make that feeling go away. ...But it's not happening. When am I going to hear the rest of the story, Spike?”

“One day, Harris, I'll tell you the basics. The whole story? I hope it never has to be told.”

“And Giles?”

“Knows more than he's letting on, but not all. Both watchers found out about the marriage by accident.”

Xander turned to leave the kitchen, then immediately pivoted back. “One more thing, because I know Willow's going to ask: That Will Be Done spell... The necklace Buffy wears is actually what she says it is, right? Just a joke about it? The spell didn't leave any sort of leftover stuff, right?”

Spike shook his head. “We got here all on our own, no help from Red,” he lied. “But Buffy started wearing it when it became her engagement ring again.”

“Gotcha.” He turned around and nearly ran into Buffy as she entered the kitchen. He gave her a hug. “Hey, Secretly Married Lady. How are you holding up?”

She returned the hug. “Hey. Not so secret anymore, I guess. I'm, um, kind of numb? I feel like I've been hit by an ice truck.” Spike handed her the drink he'd prepared. “Thank you. I think I need this.”

“Nibblet asleep?”

Buffy nodded. “I wish I could be sleepy.” She held up her glass. “I think I'm going to take this out front to wait on the pizza guy.”

“You want company?” Spike asked. “Harris and me, and the rest of the tribe, are standing by.”

She shook her head.

“Buff, maybe you shouldn't be alone right now.”

“I think I need to be, Xan. I haven't been all day.”

“Grab some cash from my coat, then, if you're not taking me with you.” Spike watched her leave the kitchen, then bowed his head over the counter. “I don't know what to do for her, Harris,” he whispered. “Feel like I've spent most of the day just standing around. Making arrangements with Rupert was the only thing I could do.”

“And that's kind of huge. Also, from what I've seen, you're standing in the right places. I'm no expert on this stuff, obviously, but it looks like you're doing ok from here.”

“Hope so.” Spike reached for the bottle of Jack Daniels. “Have a drink with me?”

“I thought you'd never ask.”

*~*~*

Willow came out to sit on the front porch steps beside her friend.

“I never said 'welcome home,'” Buffy whispered.

“That's ok. I can wait for a real, enthusiastic 'welcome' when I come home for good.”

Buffy tried to smile. “I'll see if I can manage that for you.”

“Good. We saved you some pizza. I thought you might eat with us, but you came in, traded the pizza boxes for another drink, and came back outside. It's kind of weird, you know, having what's basically a wake without the chief mourners. Dawnie is hiding in Dreamland. You're hiding out here.”

“Spike's in there.”

“Spike is hiding in the kitchen, playing bartender. He's got a lot to work with.”

“My rum, Spike's whiskey, and Mom's gin, plus the stuff the two of them bought to experiment with that cocktail recipe book he bought her for Christmas...” The tears threatened to well up again. “They'd just started on mojitos...”

Willow's arm went around her friend. “I know. Tara told me she was their official taste-tester, and Dawnie got a couple of virgin daiquiris out of the deal. It sounds like everyone was having fun.”

Buffy nodded against her friend's shoulder, trying to calm herself.

“I've missed a lot, haven't I? Not just from being gone, but what was happening around me before I left. And now I find out you aren't Buffy Summers anymore.”

Buffy pulled away.

“I'm not angry. I'm a little 'Huh? How'd that happen?', and a little wigged, but not angry.”

“You're not?”

Willow shook her head. “I'd love to know the story behind it, though. There's got to be something you aren't telling me. Why would you elope with a guy you'd just started dating? Especially that guy?” She waited for information to be offered, but was met with silence. She sighed. “So Xander gave us the run down, which he apparently just found out. It looks like I attended your reception, and didn't even know it. I danced with the groom, too.”

“I know. I was on the catwalk with Giles, watching. You two looked pretty sharp out there.”

“I'll say one thing for the evil undead: definitely not two left feet. ...But it wasn't the dance that mattered. I asked him if he would be here when I came home, if there was any chance he'd leave you. He promised he'd stay. Apparently, that was the second time that night he made that promise, but I didn't know that. And I don't care about the other one, not really. I don't get it, and it's super strange, but it doesn't really matter. I care that he promised me he wouldn't leave my best friend.”

“And that's good enough? You know, despite the evil undead issue?”

“Sort of.” Willow leaned back on her elbows. “I figured it out, you know. He gave it away while we were dancing. I don't know how or when he did it, though I have a Buffy-shaped theory about the why. But I figured out that my Orb of Thessulah wasn't broken.”

“You never said anything.”

“I wasn't sure what to say, at first. I mean, here's this big, important thing, and neither of you had even mentioned it. Then I thought, maybe I could use it as a -I don't know- like a friendship test? If you opened up to me enough to tell me, I'd feel like we were best buds again. But then, we didn't have half as much phone time as I expected, and you still never said a word about it when we did talk.”

Buffy was silent, waiting for the bitterness to overtake Willow's calm tone. But it didn't happen.

“Still failing the test, Buff,” she said in a lightly teasing tone. This barely earned a half smile from Buffy. Willow sighed again, giving up for the moment.

“I'm sorry, Wils,” she eventually whispered. “But I was trying to respect his privacy. It's not something Spike goes around announcing, you know? He's not like Angel.”

“I noticed that a while ago, in a few different ways. I also figured out that there's no possible way this one has the same... issue.”

“It doesn't,” Buffy whispered.

“It's definitely permanent?”

“Not definitely. He seems to be leaning toward yes, but we'll see.”

“So it's a decision? His decision?”

“Same as getting it was.”

“What happens if the answer is no?”

“My husband stops having so many nightmares.”

Willow frowned at that simplistic reply. “But--” She stopped herself from continuing the interrogation. After another brief silence, she said, “So I guess the friendship test was bigger than I thought.”

“A final exam?” Buffy asked, biting her lip.

“I hope not. ...But I'm not your best friend anymore, am I?”

“I never said that.”

“You didn't have to. There's a whole lot of silence that said it for you. And Tara, of course.”

Buffy's brow furrowed. “What did she say to you?”

“Nothing specific.” Willow sighed yet again. “But when she talks about you -and about Spike, oddly enough- it sounds like you guys are all super chummy.”

“We're living together, Wils. We're in each other's faces all the time.”

“I think it's more than that. ..Buff? What's it going to be like when I come home for good?”

“I don't know.”

“I was hoping for a better answer.”

“Me, too.”

Willow chewed on her lip while she studied her friend's tense face. “I'm here now, you know. All of us, actually. You've got a full contingent of Scoobies in the house, Buff, including your spanking new watcher. They might be a little tipsy by now, but they're here. Tell us what you need.”

“Funeral planning. And then a good family court attorney. ...But right now?” Buffy reached out for her friend's hand. “Just sit with me.”

*~*~*

Buffy found Willow and Tara in the kitchen when she came upstairs. She gave them a sleepy wave, detoured to the powder room, and returned two minutes later. A cup of coffee was placed in her hands. She sucked in the aroma. “Tara, you are a goddess. Where's Dawnie?”

“She pretended to eat some eggs, then she went back to her room.” Tara nodded toward the basement stairs. “How's Night Shift?”

“Exhausted. He ran a late patrol after everyone left. He dragged me off to bed when he came home, just before sunrise. He's staying on the schedule, even when everything else... isn't. And after not sleeping yesterday, either, we should give him a few hours, or he could be super cranky, like 'toddler with fangs in dire need of a nap' cranky.” Buffy poured a glass of juice for her sister. “I'm pretty sure no one in this house wants to put up with that.” She took the juice and her coffee mug up to Dawn's room.

“Night Shift?” Willow asked, when they were alone again.

Tara took a sip of her coffee. “Lately, they're working in shifts, for security. Spike's gone back to being nocturnal for the duration.” She leaned on the counter. “It's hard on them. They can't patrol together or go out together without scheduling it first, and basically clearing it with the rest of us. They see each other at home, but with living and sleeping on different schedules, even that's not a lot.”

“Some honeymoon.”

“It's only until we take down Glory. Then things can start to get back to normal around here. Or, you know, what passes for normal.”

Willow grinned as footsteps could be heard on the basement stairs. “My girl talks like a Scooby now!”

Spike came into the kitchen. “Ought to. She is one.” He nodded to them as he opened the refrigerator. “Morning, Red. Glinda, be a love...”

“I've got you covered.”

By the time his mug of blood was in the microwave, another mug, full of coffee, was being handed to him. “You're a bloody wonderful woman.”

“And you're not supposed to be awake.” Tara placed a hand on his shoulder. “You should sleep. I'll keep an eye on them for you.”

He shook his head and retrieved the other mug from the microwave. “Gotta see to my girls. You alright, pet? Figure Red here's probably the only one who's asked.”

“I'll be ok. But we don't need to be caught with our defenses down, Spike. One of you has got to get more than two hours of sleep.”

“Then it'll be her.” He picked up a mug in each hand. “Nibblet's room?”

Tara nodded. She called after him as he left the kitchen. “I have ways of making you sleep, you know!”

“Don't you dare, Witch. I'll have you for lunch.”

“You know a sleep spell... that works on vampires?” Willow was genuinely impressed.

“It's not a sleep spell, not really. It was just a little something I had to do for them, and the side effect was that it knocked them both out. They slept for almost 36 hours. Not straight through, but like a series of long naps.”

“That sounds like powerful stuff. What was it?”

Tara bit her lip. “Um, I don't think it's my story to tell. I've said too much already.”

“Tara? What are you hiding from me?”

The conversation came to an abrupt halt with the sound of a knock on the front door. Tara sighed in relief as she went to answer it. When she returned, it was with a stranger. “Willow, this is Carol. She's Joyce's assistant at the gallery.”

“Good morning, Willow.” The woman put the covered casserole dish she carried on the counter. “Tara, Joyce told me all about the cooking situation here, and you and William could use one less thing to worry about today. Where is he? And the girls?”

“They're in Dawnie's room. I'll get them.” Willow went upstairs to find Buffy, Dawn and Spike lying on their backs across Dawn's bed, staring at the ceiling together while they talked. Three mugs and a juice glass sat abandoned on the nightstand. She tapped on the door frame. “Uh, sorry to interrupt, guys, but there's a lady here to see the three of you. Carol?”

“So it begins,” Buffy muttered. “Brace yourselves. The playing host thing could go on for days.”

*~*~*

Dawn read the tag on the most recent flower arrangement to arrive. “'...From Clem, Tinker, and Eddie.'” She looked at Spike. “Isn't Eddie the minion?”

Xander chuckled. “Yeah, pretty much. He all but kisses Spike's feet. That's our Wednesday night crowd.”

Willow frowned at this exchange. “Why do I get the feeling I don't want to know?”

Anya shrugged. “From what I hear, Eddie's just a sad excuse for a vampire who thinks Spike and Buffy hung the freakin' moon because they introduced him to the convenience of the butcher's shop and a microwave.”

“Oh. Um, ok. So you guys have brought another one into Chip City, without the actual chip?”

Tara glanced at Spike, who glanced worriedly at Dawn, who frowned back at him. “What?”

“Chip's long gone, Red. Had it out in October.”

“Wow. Ok. Wow.” Willow shook her head. “I'm going to go out on a limb and assume Buffy knows about this?”

“Buffy made it happen.” Spike's gaze again drifted to Dawn.

“Quit looking at me. I'm not going to freak out about it. If you were going to test the Cheetos theory, you'd have done it a long time ago.”

His expression relaxed. “Smart girl.”

Xander looked thoughtful. “So when Buffy said the chip didn't work on her, she was just covering?”

Tara suddenly found the fireplace interesting.

Spike nodded. “That's about the size of it.”

“It's like the whole getting married thing, then? You thought we'd freak?”

“In October, you would have.”

*~*~*

Buffy fell behind Lydia and Giles, a certain display casket catching her eye. She stopped and stared at it for a long moment. She reached over it, and ghosted her fingernails along the lining of the open lid. She withdrew her hand quickly, and with a shudder, but she kept staring at it.

Giles, having noticed her absence, came back to join her. “Is this the one?”

She jumped. “What?”

“Is this the one you want for your mother?” He frowned at her. “Buffy? Are you alright?”

“This... is the model I was buried in,” she whispered. She reached over it and skimmed her fingernails along the lining again. “I was confused. Struggling for air. But I think... I think this might be the one.”

Giles gulped. “You were gone long enough to be buried?”

“147 days... Um, about five months.”

“Oh, dear lord. And when you were brought back, you were...”

“At Restfield. In an isolated corner, under some willow trees,” she whispered. “'Buffy Anne Summers, 1981 to 2001. Beloved sister. Devoted friend. She saved the world. A lot.'”

“Your epitaph,” he murmured. “Forgive me, but that's rather chilling, especially in the current year.”

“I'm pretty sure the definition of chilling was clawing my way out, not what I read after.” She shook her head. “I usually think I'm over it. But this... this brings it all rushing back.” She withdrew her hand from the lining. “Mom's is the third one from the left, second row. I'll go pick it out in a minute.”

Giles nodded and walked away, leaving her staring at the display casket.

*~*~*

Dawn came down the basement stairs to find the bed unoccupied. She went back up to the kitchen, and thought she heard something outside. She stepped onto the back porch and watched as what looked like a light sparring session devolved into Spike standing perfectly still while Buffy pounded on his chest with both fists, crying.

“She wasn't supposed to die. I was there! I was right there. It isn't right. I should have been able to stop it!” Buffy sank down to the ground, and Spike knelt with her, gathering her in his arms.

“I know the feeling, love. I know the feeling.”

Dawn watched them for a few more minutes, waiting to see if they would get up again. When they didn't, she walked across the grass in her bare feet to join them. Spike looked up at her approach. “Nibblet, you should be asleep.”

“So should you guys. The sun will be up soon.”

Buffy sniffled. “I'm so sorry, Dawnie. I tried. I really tried.”

New Foundations by myrabeth
Author's Notes:

Making peace with the past for a war in the future.

Chapter 30: New Foundations

March, 2001

“Buffy, you have to tell him. Before it happens.”

Buffy fell back on the bed that used to be her own. “I knew I shouldn't have told you.”

Tara turned away from the vanity to look at her. “You can't come to me for advice and then get all moody when it's not the answer you want to hear.” She turned back to the mirror. “Has anyone ever told you, you're kind of obnoxious when you're sleep deprived?”

“Worse words have been used.” Buffy frowned at the ceiling. “That's the other thing. I need sleep. Good, restful, Spike-cuddles sleep. The kind of sleep I've been pretty short on lately and that I definitely won't be getting after I get thrown out and have to crash at the bunker with Eddie. Which is what will happen if I tell him.”

“No, that's what's going to happen if you don't tell him,” Tara explained slowly, as if trying to convey the obvious to a child. “If you tell him -upfront- what's going to happen, he'll be ok with it. If you don't, and break your promise, I'll be mixing up another batch of sleepy juice and you'll be in divorce court.”

“My opinion stands. You're the worst Dr. Ruth ever.”

“I'm being serious Buffy. How many promises has he ever asked from you?”

“Besides the truce and the whole 'in sickness and in health' thing? Um... Not very many. Why?”

“Don't you think maybe he saves it for important stuff?”

“Technically, he didn't ask for this promise. I volunteered it.”

Tara threw up her hands. “That's even worse!”

“What's even worse?” Willow asked, coming into the bedroom.

“Buffy the Sleep Deprived Slayer apparently left her good sense in the washer with Mr. Pointy.”

“Hey!” Buffy said to the ceiling she was facing. “I said I was sorry about that. Like, five times.”

Tara shook her head sadly. “I really liked that sweater. You're just not good at domestic stuff, are you?”

“Some stuff. Just not cooking. ...Or putting my stakes away.”

“And maintaining a marriage?”

“I'll vouch for the stakes. Jury's still out on the marriage,” Spike said, coming to the doorway.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Buffy grumbled.

“And we'll talk about the cooking. ...Sun's setting. Should head out soon. You birds about ready?”

Willow ran a hand through her hair and looked at Tara, who was putting on her shoes. “I think so.”

Buffy sat up on the bed. “I need to run downstairs for a second before we go. Dawnie?”

“Just about to check on her.” He studied her tired eyes. “You gonna sleep tonight, love?”

“We'll see.”

Willow watched as Buffy and Spike left the room. One bound for the stairs, one for the closed door across the hall. She turned back to Tara to find a worried expression focused in the same direction. “What are you thinking, baby?”

“That they're both terrible actors,” Tara whispered. “They're trying so hard to act like this is any other day.” She glanced at the framed photo of her own mother on the wall. “It really isn't.”

*~*~*

The mourners began to drift away, walking in twos and threes across the darkened cemetery to their cars, after offering hugs to Joyce's daughters, and handshakes to the son in law most of them had never met. The Scoobies were the last to go.

Lydia gave Buffy a warmer hug than anyone had thought her capable of. “When you're ready to get back to work, let me know. I have some ideas for you. They'll keep for the moment.”

Xander wrapped her in a bear hug that put Lydia's unexpected warmth to shame. “Love you, Buffster. I'll swing by tomorrow.” He bit his lip before stepping away. “And don't tell anyone I did this.” Next to her, Xander pulled a surprised Spike into a friendly hug.

Anya whispered to Buffy as they embraced, “I don't really understand this part of the ritual, but if shopping this weekend will make you feel better, call me. Ok?”

Giles' handshake with Spike ended with Giles' left hand clapped over their joined right ones. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, pulling his hands free and stepping away with a nod. Next, he took Buffy in his arms. “I'll look in on you in a day or so, alright?”

He got the same reply as everyone else: a simple nod.

When the four residents of the Summers house and their house guest were the only ones left at the graveside, Buffy stole a glance at her wristwatch. She spoke for the first time since before the casket was lowered. “Tara,” she whispered. “Will you and Willow take Dawnie home, please?”

“Of course.” Tara put her hand to Dawn's back to lead her away.

Dawn resisted. “Wait. When are you guys coming home?”

Spike read the expression on Buffy's face, a strange mix of mourning and tension. “In a li'l while, Nibblet.”

She hesitated, still resisting Tara's nudging.

He gave her a stern look. “Dawn. Go. We'll be home later.”

After one more look at the patch of disturbed earth, Dawn turned away, to walk home in the dark between the witches. When they were out of sight, Spike turned to Buffy. “No one left 'round but us, love. You wanna tell me what it is you're waiting for?”

She pulled their wedding rings out of her coat pocket. “The second I give you the go-ahead, right?”

He looked at the smooth titanium bands in her palm. “Yeah... But why this second?”

She put her ring on and offered him his. “Because I never told you about this night. I should have, and I didn't. But I'm telling you now, before I break a promise.”

Spike cautiously slipped on his ring. “What promise?”

“The one I made about not coming home wearing a certain scent.”

It took him a moment to catch her meaning. “Angel's coming to see you.”

Buffy nodded. “Any minute. The first time, he found me here alone. I thought about sending you with Dawnie, and letting it play out the same, except things wouldn't be good when I came home.”

“No, they wouldn't,” he grumbled. He looked at the ring on his finger. “But this counts for something.”

“I hope so.” She sighed, her focus shifting back to the grave. “Mom would be thrilled.”

“I know. She wasn't too happy about the hiding.”

“You had that in common.”

“Some days, Buffy, there are enough crumbs to count as cake.”

“And others?”

“I'm just glad she never knew what we made Glinda do to us, that we made getting married...”

“ A farce. It's ok. You can say it. It's a marriage of convenience. For now, anyway.”

“Told you I knew you weren't ready. Accepted it.”

“But you still want...” Buffy turned back to the grave. “See? This is exactly why I wanted Whistler to be wrong. We needed her around to help make sense of things, to throw a little Mom wisdom into the conversation, to straighten us out. We needed to have the time to talk to her, tell her about ourselves, the real us, and get hugs from her we didn't deserve. We needed her to be there for Dawnie, to see her graduate, and find her calling, and make terrible dating decisions along the way.” She looked up, tears forming in her eyes. “Who's going to make hot cocoa and make our problems feel small and manageable? We know what it's like without her, Sparky. The whole house is colder. We need her.”

Spike wrapped his arms around her and held her close. “Guess this is where we come in, love. Keeping the house warm for Nibblet falls on us now. See her through school, stake her Halloween date, and watch her turn the bloody Council on its head when she joins.”
“You thought she was going that direction, too?”

“Was pretty obvious, I thought.” He kissed the top of her head. “I'll make the cocoa, and you'll make her problems manageable. Deal?”

She sighed against his chest. “How can I do that? I mean, I'm not even sure it's manageable, and I've already been through this.”

“Then we tell her that.”

“You've been listening to Tara's hint-dropping, haven't you?”

“We already know how much the Bit can handle, love. We've seen the junior watcher in action.”

She thought about this for a moment. “I guess you're right. And she probably deserves to know.”

“I once read another obituary,” came a voice from the shadows. “That had William Pratt listed under 'survived by.'”

Spike and Buffy pulled apart, and turned toward the voice.

“It was a newspaper clipping, faded and torn from being carried around for almost a decade.”

“So you read it before you burned it, then?” Spike asked bitterly. To Buffy, he explained, “Elise's.”

“13 March, 1874. Margaret Elise Pratt, aged seventeen years, of scarlet fever. Daughter of the late George William Pratt. Survived by her mother, the former Anne Hartley, and her elder brother...” Angel shook his head as he stepped into view. “I never thought I'd see another obit with you listed as a survivor, Spike.”

Buffy looked disgusted. “You burned Elise's obituary?”

“It was a different time. I thought I could get Dru's fledge to let go of his grip on his human life, to the human world.” Angel shrugged. “So much for that idea. Today, he's listed as a surviving son in law.”

“Yeah. Kinda happened when I married her daughter.”

Buffy looked at Spike out of the corner of her eye. “Wipe off the smug smirk, Spike. This is not the time.” She waved him away. “Go check on Eddie or something. You're just going to make this worse.”

“Hell no, Slayer. I'm staying for the whole show.”

Angel stepped closer, his fists tightly clenched. “What have you done to her, Spike?”

The smirk held. “You want the whole list? Could be here a while.”

“Guys, don't start. Can we at least be civil? For Mom?”

“Spike's never been one for thralls, Buffy. Most likely, he's gotten a witch's help to make this happen.”

Buffy made the mistake of making eye contact with Spike, and they both gave in to the urge to laugh. “Sorry, Angel. It's just that... there have been a couple of, um, magic incidents over the years. They've had a little influence. But it's ok.” She held up a hand. “Really, Angel, it's fine.”

“Buffy, do you understand what you've gotten yourself into? Spike doesn't have a--”

Spike stepped close to Angel, locking eyes with him. He waited a minute for the surprised look to dawn on his elder's face. “What were you saying, Peaches?”

“So that's what was different about you the last time I was in town. I knew something was off.”

“Getting a bit slow on the uptake, old man?”

Angel ignored the insult. A knowing smirk spread over his face. “So, not much of a married life, huh?”

“Fantastic, in point of fact. Told you, it's a long list.” Spike matched the smirk with his own. “And half of it was before. Some of us don't need it quite the same as others, you know.”

Buffy's voice was a warning. “Down, Sparky. There's no need to rub it in.”

“It's not a curse?” Angel asked. “Then how...?”

Spike finally broke eye contact, turning away with a shrug. “Find the right shaman, you can get whatever you want, if you survive what the bastard puts you through along the way.”

“You sought it out. On purpose?”

“He did,” Buffy said quietly, as Spike returned to her side. “The idiot went out there, put himself through hell, and came home a different vamp.”

“Came home,” Angel echoed.

He stared at Buffy, taking in her calm demeanor. She had shown no signs of taking up his concerns for her well-being, only laughed them off. She didn't look to him for protection, or even comfort. In fact, she looked very comfortable right where she was, with Spike beside her. They were a couple of feet apart, not touching at all, but seemed to be presenting themselves as a single unit, a united front.

Angel frowned when he noticed her necklace, expecting to see some source of mystical interference hanging around her neck. Instead, he recognized the ring Spike used to drive him crazy with at the factory, tapping it against the arm of his wheelchair to the wandering tunes of Drusilla's humming. It wasn't a mystical object. It was a personal one.

“Came home,” he said again. He relaxed his fists. “I guess those two words explain everything.”

Her volume was still low. “They do.”

“So this is real.”

She nodded.

“Married.”

She nodded again.

“To Spike.”

“Yes. Willingly married to-- Dammit, William! Wo