Chapter 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?”





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