Chapter 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.”





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