Chapter 36: Patience Lessons

May, 2001

Dawn's eyes shifted nervously around as the judge spoke. She had expected a courtroom, but instead found herself in what looked like a conference room. The judge sat at the head of the long, narrow table, with a stenographer in the corner behind her. Mrs. Kroger, her supervisor, and a man Dawn had been told 'represented the state' sat on the opposite side of the table. On Dawn's left sat Spike, looking uncomfortable in a button down shirt and dress pants, his curly hair un-moussed, at Buffy's insistence.

“I need you to not look like so much of a badass today, Sparky,” she had said that morning, as they were getting ready. “Call it poncy if you want, but it's softer... and kinda cute.”

“It'll be cute and burnt if we don't get there early enough to get a space on the lower level of the bloody parking garage,” he had replied, shooing her hands away from his hair irritably. “Go, get yourself ready. I should iron this shirt again.”

On Dawn's right, Buffy sat with her hands in her lap, below the table, so no one on the other side could see the nervous fidgeting. Her hair was in a neat, slightly loose bun, a mimic of Lydia's regular style.

“It'll be alright, love,” Spike had said, when she was rearranging her hairstyle for the third time. “They'll keep us together, whether you're gussied up like a watcher or not. We've done everything possible.”

“Are you sure I shouldn't go back to the French Twist? That looks mature and responsible, right?”

On Buffy's other side, their family court attorney was leaning over to look at her. “Dawn? The judge is speaking to you.”

Dawn's eyes widened. “Oh!” She looked to the head of the table. “Sorry. My mind was wandering.”

The judge, a kind-eyed, motherly type, looked interested. “May I ask what you were thinking about?”

Dawn pointed to Buffy and Spike with her thumbs. “These two, freaking out while they were getting ready this morning. They were afraid that if they didn't look just right, you wouldn't let me go home today. ...Are you? I mean, I do get to go home after this, right?”

The judge smiled. “Is that what you want?”

She nodded emphatically. “Definitely.”

“And do you think Buffy and William can be good guardians?”

“They already are. I mean, losing Mom has been rough, but they're doing ok, so far.” She caught a look of fear passing across Buffy's face. “Better than ok!” she quickly amended. “They're great. Really. They make me do homework, and clean my room, and everything.”

The judge chuckled. “Of course, of course.” She leaned back in her chair. “Your father has not officially relinquished his rights to you, Dawn. Do you understand what that means?”

“That if he wants to take me away, he can?”

“Not exactly. It means that we'll be back here, talking again, if he later decides to come for you. As of now, and until such time as that happens -or your eighteenth birthday- your legal guardians are William and Buffy Pratt. Full custody, with the caveat that Mrs. Kroger will perform scheduled, quarterly welfare checks, due to the young ages of your sister and brother in law.”

Sighs of relief came from either side of Dawn's chair. Her eyes lit up. “Really? They can keep me?”

The judge nodded. “I understand you have friends waiting in the hall?”

“Tara and Giles, yeah. Do you need to see them?” Dawn jumped to her feet. “I can go get them for you.”

“Dawnie, calm down,” Buffy murmured, though her own expression was anything but sober.

The judge chuckled again. “Why don't you just go out there and sit with them for a few minutes, while we take care of some paperwork, ok?”

“Ok.” Dawn bent to grab her sister's shoulders in a hug, then turned to do the same to Spike.

“Go on, Bit. No need to let them know how crazy you are, bouncing about at being saddled with us.”

She squeezed him again. “Ha! Do you think I don't know you're bouncing, too? You just hide it better.” She race walked out of the room and into the wide corridor, where Tara and Giles were waiting on a bench.

They stood at the sight of her, and broke into smiles at her excited nod.

“They did it!” she exclaimed. “Custody, not probationary guardianship. I could kiss that attorney! He laid it all out, telling the judge that what I need is people who are actually here,and want to be. Not foster care. And not someone whose recent parenting record is nothing but occasional greeting cards from Europe. It was beautiful! After this, I don't know if Dad could take me away if he did show up to try!”

“I'm thankful the judge saw reason,” Giles said, his relief obvious. “I'm not sure how Buffy would have handled another outcome. What did the judge say?”

“Um, prior to 'yes,' I wasn't really listening, but-- Eeeee!” She squealed in excitement and hugged Tara. “The 'yes' is what matters!”

“Congratulations, sweetie!” Tara squeezed her tightly. “I'm so glad we get to keep you!”

Dawn pulled out of the hug. “I want to do something for Buffy and Spike. Something big. Like, maybe we could throw them a real wedding or something. Maybe they'd even try being romantic at this one.”

Tara laughed. “That's a pretty tall order.”

Giles shook his head. “Now is not really the best time for that sort of thing, Dawn. Perhaps after...”

Dawn's smile faded. “Yeah, I guess you're right. They're... working a lot right now.” Her eyes lit up again. “But maybe later? We could ask Mr. Carrouthers to come back, and coax them into writing personal vows. And throw a big, fancy party. With dancing.”

“We'll see, Dawnie. I'm not even sure they'd want that sort of thing. I don't exactly see them pulling off a white dress and tails with a straight face.”

Dawn's expression turned into a decidedly evil grin. “I know. That's the part where it's fun for us.

*~*~*

Buffy sat down on the porch step beside Spike. She handed him one of the mugs of cocoa she held. “Here you go, Mr. Legal Guardian.”

Spike held up the mug in a toast. “Mrs. Legal Guardian.” He took a sip. “Worth marrying me for?”

“We'll see.” She gave him a smirk. “It's early, yet.”

He nudged her shoulder with his own. “Thanks, loads. I hear you.”

She shook her head. “I can't believe it's not probationary. We actually pulled it off.”

“Poor li'l Bit.”

“Yeah, she's now officially our practice kid.”

“Think we'll ruin her, too?”

“I'm sure we'll find a way. The impossible is sort of what we do.”

They looked at each other, and broke into laughter.

*~*~*

Buffy read over Lydia's notes and handed them off to Spike, who was perched on the metal stairs behind her. She looked at Lydia, sitting across from her at the Magic Box's round research table. “So nothing on the swords we stole, after all? At our last meeting, you said you had a promising lead.”

The watcher shook her head. “I'm sorry, Buffy. It didn't pan out. They're six fine blades. Old, well-maintained, and of good craftsmanship to start with, but that's all they are.”

“But the Dagon's Sphere repellant magic turned into a cloak is definitely workable,” Tara said, from her seat beside Lydia. “I think I can do something with that idea.”

“Like what?” Spike asked.

“Like put it on myself, so if Glory gets her hands on me, she won't be able to get those hands in my head. She'll think it's because I'm the Key.”

“I'd really prefer it not get that far, Tara,” Buffy said, quietly. “Even if she figures you out...”

“Our best bet is to run out the clock,” Spike finished. “Have her chasing you until she and her human cage kill each other off, or her window of opportunity passes, to break her will.”

“But what if it needs to get that far? Admit it, guys. You need a wide open chance at her, when she's vulnerable and distracted. Thinking she has the Key in hand and being busy preparing to use it is as good as it's going to get.”

“Natural course of events,” Buffy murmured. “Tara, I don't want you to be right about that.”

Spike held up the notes he'd been skimming. “What's this bit about Weapons of the Guardians, pet?”

Lydia adjusted her glasses. “I was also researching the twins for you, to see if they had any properties -aside from the obvious- that would be of a benefit against Glory. Unfortunately, there's almost nothing written about them that I can find, and what there is is only vague references to their existence.” She frowned at the expressions on the faces of the couple. “I have the name right, do I not? That is what you call your scythe weapons?”

Spike shifted his feet on the stairs. “Um, yeah. It was. We're trying to come up with a better name.”

“Something more... suitable,” Buffy added. She abruptly changed the subject. “So, did you find that book Tara needed?”

“Oh, yes! Excuse me a moment.” She hurried off to the purple-walled office.

While she was gone, Tara asked, “So the scythes aren't 'the twins' anymore?”

Buffy shrugged. “They shouldn't have been in the first place. They aren't actually identical, just because we don't know the differences right now.”

Tara leaned back in her chair, understanding. “This is about what the Guardian said, about you guys being able to tell them apart later. One is yours, one is his.”

Spike followed Buffy's lead. “Best to not call them something now we already know will be wrong later. You know, 'fore the name gets to be a habit.”

“So what do you plan to call them?”

“Um... They're just 'the scythes,' for now. The conversation hasn't really moved past agreeing that the name needs to change.”

“Could name them when they've proven themselves, maybe,” Spike suggested. “One of them might be named for killing a Hellgod, if we're lucky.”

Lydia returned from the office with a book. She handed it to Tara just as the bell over the front door rang, announcing the arrival of a group of high school-aged customers. “Excuse me, my other job calls.” She walked away to greet the newcomers.

With quick glances at the customers, all three stood to leave. Tara slipped the book into her bag. “What time are you picking up Dawnie?”

Spike glanced up at the wall clock. “Chandra should have supper over and done with by now, so I guess I'll head on over. Don't want her to think I've forgotten it's not a sleepover night. You birds go and grab a bite for yourselves. We'll meet you at home.”

Buffy gave him a quick kiss before he slipped out the training room door, to take the alley shortcut. She and Tara caught Lydia's eye and waved their goodbyes as they exited the front of the shop.

“The next generation of Sunnydale witchery,” Buffy commented, once they were outside.

“Not likely,” Tara laughed. “They're probably only looking for things to scare their parents with.”

“You're probably right. A few runic symbols, a couple of black candles-- What?”

Tara had suddenly taken her friend's hand in a tight, nervous grip. “Very carefully, look across the street. Do you see that guy, the one in the baseball cap?”

Buffy turned her head just far enough to catch a glimpse. “The one who's kind of wandering? He looks familiar... and so does the other baseball cap guy walking up behind him. Oh, crap.” Buffy's eyes darted around, looking for an easy escape route. “Keep walking,” she whispered. “Very calmly, go into the Espresso Pump. The fire exit by the bathrooms will get you to the alley. Spike might still be in sight. If he's already gone, double back to the Magic Box. The training room door will still be unlocked. Stay there -out of sight of the customers- until one of us comes for you.”

Tara took a deep breath as they neared the front of the coffee shop. “What are you going to do?”

“Distract the wandering one. Let's see if all this flashing is useful.” Buffy pulled her hand free and promptly crossed the street, moving straight toward two Knights of Byzantium.

Tara stepped into the Espresso Pump and maneuvered through the after dinner crowd toward the restrooms. With her hand on the emergency exit, she murmured a spell for silence. There was no alarm ringing when she closed the door behind her. She called toward the man turning a corner at the end of the alley as she ran toward him. “Spike!

He turned around and retraced his steps to meet her. “Barely two minutes gone, pet. What's happened?”

“Knights on Main Street, in regular clothes. One of them was wandering and looking around... I think he might be one of Glory's victims. We don't know if I was spotted. Buffy sent me through the coffee shop and went to try to distract him with her merge flashing.”

“Two's better than one, in that case.” Spike led her back toward the Magic Box. “Let's get you indoors and I'll see if I can't make the bugger's head spin.”

Ahead of them, the training room door flew open and Buffy charged into the alley. “Tara!” She turned as the door slammed shut behind her. “Oh, thank god. I was afraid you'd missed him.”

“She nearly did. What's our status, General?”

“I don't know if he identified Tara. When I got close, he started ranting about flashing white lights, and his friend dragged him into the hardware store before he could cause a scene. We're ok to get home, but... Guys, they have a Key tracker of their own now, no question. If he didn't spot you tonight...”

“He will soon,” Tara finished. “They'll be watching you, at least.”

*~*~*

Tara pushed the open book across the dining table. “This is what Lydia found.”

Buffy frowned at the page. “Latin?” she whined. “Again?”

Spike rolled his eyes. “We'll have to do something about your education, one of these days.”

“I'm a slayer, Spike, not a researcher. I hunt. I kill. I read Cosmo.”

“But you're not a bloody idiot, either.”

“Is this just because you don't want to be doing translations for me for the rest of our lives?”

“No, it's because you ought to be able to read a language that's important to your job.”

“It's important to people in my field of work, but not my job, specifically.”

Tara bit her lip. “He's right, Buffy. You really shouldn't be forced to lean on us for anything that's not written in English, especially since so much of it... isn't.”

“A lot of stuff is. And I can help with that research, even stuff that's not totally in modern English.”

Dawn walked into the dining room to the sound of frustrated growling. “Hey, Time Scoobies. What are we arguing about this time?”

Buffy waved a hand. “It's nothing, just the smart witch and the old English guy nagging me about my education again.”

“Oh, well, that's probably needed.” Dawn offered the plate of cookies she carried to each of them in turn. “For the smart witch. For the old English guy. For the uneducated slayer.” Dawn took a cookie from the plate for herself. “And some sugary goodness for me!” She paused, frowning at the plate of cookies in her hand and the people around her. “ Um, guys? Why didn't anyone tell me I was Xander?”

The three adults followed her gaze around the table, and burst into laughter.

“It's not funny,” she said, sitting down. “If we're like the Scoobies, version 2.0, I want to be someone with some power.”

“Do we need to send you to Devon, too, Dawnie?” Tara asked, still smiling.

“No, I think I'd rather be able to boss Buffy around, like a watcher.”

Spike and Buffy's coffee mugs were raised and tapped together. “Called it,” they said in unison.

Dawn pointed at their smug expressions. “And my first order is no more of that.”

“Ignore them, Dawnie. Are you serious about becoming a watcher?”

She shrugged. “I don't know. Maybe. You know, assuming I don't decide to ditch all of you freaks and go to culinary school. You know, get a job out in the normal world.” She scrunched up her face for a moment, thinking. “Yeah, watcher is a little more likely.”

“Just do me a favor, then. When you choose your language course for next year, take Latin.”

“Ugh. With all the future pre-med and pre-law geeks?”

“Watchers use it even more than they do, Bit.”

“I guess you're probably right...” She pulled the open book over to rest in front of her. “It looks enough like English. It shouldn't be that hard.”

“Latin's at the root of all the Romance languages, Bit. French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian. Learn Latin, and you're halfway to getting the gist of all of 'em. English isn't as closely related, but there's some old French in English, mixed in with all the Germanic roots. I figure you'll manage.”

“Starting with Latin worked for me,” Tara said. “I'm not great at speaking languages. I break down a lot of my spoken spells phonetically, to ensure accuracy. But I can read enough of just about any Romance dialect to understand the general meaning.”

Spike gave the witch an approving nod. “Likely get better with it as the years pass. I did.”

Buffy turned to look at him. “Exactly how many languages do you know, anyway?”

Spike took a sip from his mug. “Written and spoken combined? Not fluent in many, but passable in about twenty five.”

Twenty five?” Dawn squeaked. “Holy crap.”

“Eh, some are demon tongues, some are dead languages, like Latin. Only need to read it.”

Buffy scooted her chair away from the table. “I think I'm going to leave this to the brains. You three have fun. The dumb slayer is going to go hunt for this month's Cosmo.”

Spike's hand on her shoulder kept her in her chair. “Plenty of time for you to catch up, love.” He nodded to the spell book. “Might even start today.”

She sighed. “Alright. Fine. But it's your fault if I look like an idiot. Dawnie, give me the book.”

“Butcher it all you need to. It stays in the family.” He threw a look at the others. “Yeah?”

“Cross my heart,” Dawn said, passing the book to her sister as Tara nodded her agreement.

Slowly, Buffy tried to sound out the words at the top of the page. “Restituendis Mentis?”

“What English word does the first word look like?” Tara prompted.

“Um, well, the first part kind of looks like 'restitution.' Buffy looked up. “Is that right?”

Tara nodded encouragingly. “Exactly. But in English, the word's meaning and useage has shifted a little over time, so the translation is not quite direct. It will make more sense when you know the context, but we -as modern English speakers- would think 'restitution' an odd word choice. We'd say 'restoration,' instead. Does the other word ring any bells?”

“Um... A legal term I've heard... Doesn't 'non compos mentis' refer to crazy people?”

“Getting there, love. So what does 'mentis' probably mean?”

“Mind? Restoration Mind... Restoration of Mind?” She smiled, proud of herself. “That's it, isn't it?”

“Close enough. Who's the dumb slayer, again?” Tara asked, chuckling.

“I think you've earned this.” Dawn handed her sister another cookie. “You could take Latin with me next year.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Oh yeah, because high school was so fun the first time.”

“I mean you at college, doofus. They have beginner language classes as UC Sunnydale, right?”

“Yeah, but... I hadn't really given any thought to going back to school. I mean, I promised Mom I would eventually, but next semester?” She looked at Spike. “What do you think?”

“Don't see why you shouldn't.”

“You know, if we can keep the exploding, time-shifty lint off of you,” Tara added with a giggle.

“Huh? Is this another future thing?” Dawn asked.

“Something we're so going to prevent, Dawnie.” Buffy shuddered. “I think the highlight of that entire week was getting drunk with Spike.”

“Well, one of us was drunk, at least.” He shook his head. “Wasted might be a better word for it.”

Dawn laughed and pointed at the book. “So, 'Restoration of Mind'?”

“We told you what Glory did to me in our time, right?” Tara waited for Dawn's nod. “Willow performed a spell, with her hands to both my head and Glory's, that took back my... grip on reality, I guess? The spell saved me, and weakened Glory.” She reached across the table to tap on the book in front of Buffy. “I'm pretty sure this is it.”

Dawn wrinkled her nose. “You're not planning on getting brain-sucked again, are you?”

Tara shook her head. “The opposite, actually. I'm going to layer another spell on myself, over the Key glamour, that should prevent that being possible.” She turned her gaze on Buffy and Spike. “But if we want to get her on the ropes, when the showdown happens, all we need is this spell and any one of her victims. If I'm... not available, call in Willow.”

Slayer and vampire exchanged looks. Buffy shifted in her seat. “Are you sure we should? I mean, if this does go a lot like the first time, won't she go all ragey and crazy?”

Dawn looked around the table. “Ok. I'm confused. Spill.”

“Dawnie,” Tara said, her eyes still on the couple across the table. “I might let myself get kidnapped by Glory, to force her into her end game.”

“Whoa.” Dawn leaned back in her chair. “Speaking of non compos mentis...”

“I'm not thrilled with the idea, myself,” Buffy said. “But it does have some merit.”

“If suicide counts as merit,” Spike grumbled. “Not to mention what Red might do... to all of us.”

“Trust in Althenea, guys,” Tara said. “She hasn't been keeping Willow over there for a vacation. She'll stay in control of herself, do the right thing.”

“And if you're wrong? I'm sure those coven birds are doing their jobs, but your girl's a loose cannon, always has been.”

“And she's got one big trigger we know all too well,” Buffy added quietly.

“Me. I know. But I think she'll respect that I've made these choices, for the greater good.” Tara locked her eyes with Spike's. “She can handle being brought in. And she'll be a benefit. I know it.”

“We'll see. Love can bring out the worst in some people, and we know Red's among them.”

“And so are you two.” Tara arched an eyebrow. “I have a year's worth of Grade-A Prime blackmail material in my head, Spike. Don't make me use it in front of Dawnie.”

Buffy looked worried. “You wouldn't.”

“Probably not, but it's always an option. Is Willow going to be called in as a back up witch, or not?”

“If you're wrong on this, Glinda, could be the end of the world on your shoulders, sooner or later.”

“It already has been. We all know I could probably have prevented the resurrection, if I'd had the guts to really try. I'm not nearly as queasy about this. I'm taking that as a good sign. Let me get taken, and then call Willow in. You're going to need her.”

After a quick glance to his general for her assent, Spike gave the witch a stiff nod. “Alright, then. But only if we have to.”

“And now I'm queasy,” Buffy murmured.

*~*~*

Dawn answered the phone on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Buffy?”

“No. Who is this?”

“Greg Yarborough. I need to speak to Buffy or Spike. It's urgent.”

“Um, ok. Just a second.” Dawn offered the phone to her sister with a frown. “It's some guy named Greg. He seems pretty upset about something.”

Buffy paused the movie they were watching and raised an eyebrow at Spike.

He held up his hands in surrender. “Didn't touch his wife, I swear.”

“Uh-huh. Sure.” She took the offered phone. “Greg? This is Buffy. ...Huh? Oh, god. ...No, no, that's exactly why she carries it. It's good that you called. We'll be right there.” She ended the call and hopped off the sofa. “Gear up, Lieutenant. We're going to Willy's.”

Dawn followed them downstairs. “What's going on? Who's Greg? And who's his wife?”

“Greg is Trixie's husband, Dawnie. He went by the bar on his way home from work, and found the place a wreck. Willy and Trix were knocked out, tied up, and left in the store room, along with a handful of human customers.”

“And the demons?” Spike asked, opening the scythe case.

“Not a single one in the place was left alive. Greg said the humans are starting to come to. Trix gave him her order pad as soon as she was conscious.”

“Huh?” Dawn asked. “What's her order pad got to do with anything?”

“She keeps our number in the back of it, Bit, in case of emergency.”

They started up the stairs the second Buffy's boots were laced. “Where's the DeSoto?”

“Alley behind Grand Ave., as usual. Take it you don't want to walk?”

“I don't want to risk whoever it was coming back for the humans before we can get there. Dawnie, run upstairs and tell Tara what's going on. Call Xander. Ask him to meet us at Willy's. If you don't hear from us in an hour, tell Tara to take the Jeep and get you both to Lydia's. I have no idea what this is about.”

*~*~*

There were a few piles of vampire dust on the floor, along with nearly a dozen demon bodies. Buffy knelt beside the corpse of a tall, purple-robed demon, whose long, claw-like fingernails were torn and jagged. She lifted one hand and studied the injuries. “So much for natural defenses, huh, Rudy?” she said quietly. “What were you striking at that could do this?”

Xander came and knelt beside her. “The good news is that Clem and Tinker aren't here,” he said. His gaze fell on a pile of ash on the floor nearby. “I hope Eddie didn't decide to stop by tonight.”

“We'll have to run by the bunker to check on him.” Buffy pulled two small loops of metal from Rudy's damaged claw. “Dammit. I know what did this.” She gently returned Rudy's hand to his chest and rose to her feet. “Spike!” she called toward the store room.

“Just a second, General,” he called back.

Humans began to emerge from the store room. Willy surveyed the broken chairs and scattered bodies with a shake of his head. “Some days, I think I should have set up shop in Cleveland.”

Buffy held up the evidence as Spike guided the last human into the bar room. “So did anyone here get attacked by anything that wasn't a knight in armor?”

As the victims shook their heads, the only human who didn't look roughed up came and took the metal loops from her to inspect them. “Chain mail?” the man asked. “So Trix isn't hallucinating?”

“Oh, please! Like that's the weirdest thing I've ever seen in this bar!” Trixie leaned against the bar and gestured casually to the man. “Buffy, meet Greg. Greg, meet the slayer.”

The man handed back the chain mail links, taking the opportunity to shake Buffy's hand. “It's nice to finally put a face to the voice. I've been waiting for a chance to thank you in person.”

“For what?” She pulled out of the handshake. “Interrupting a handful of 'pass the phone down the bar' drunk dials? You don't need to thank me for that.”

“For taking that vampire off the market. I have to worry about Trix on this job, you know.”

Trixie stuck her tongue out at her husband. She turned to give Spike her sweetest smile. “Spike, honey, if I get a divorce, will you?”

“Bloody hell, Trix,” Spike said from behind the bar, where he was pouring shots for the survivors. “Don't ask right in front of them. I have to say no.” He gave her a wink. “We'll talk about it later.”

Greg gave Buffy a sympathetic look. “I wish I could say I have no idea why you put up with such an unrepentant flirt, but unfortunately, I know from personal experience.”

“Love makes us all idiots, Greg,” she mumbled. She addressed the humans. “Guys, we owe you an apology. This happened because of us.”

Spike handed a shot to a middle-aged man in a cowboy hat. “Carlos.” He nodded his agreement with Buffy. “Those 16th century types are after us.”

“But why would the knights be looking here on a quiet Sunday night?” Xander asked. “If it was a Wednesday, sure, it would make sense, but why tonight?”

“Maybe because I stop by here after patrol some nights, and they've seen me.” Buffy shrugged. “Or maybe they haven't, and were here for some other reason. All I know is that the whole reason they're in Sunnydale is us.”

“If you wanna call out a slayer,” Spike said, his voice distant and thoughtful. “You get her distracted. Put some innocents on the line. Make your presence known. Get her on the ropes, then wait for your opening. She'll give you a chance to strike.”

“The voice of experience,” Willy said, knocking back a shot. “But we see what experience is worth, these days.” He jerked a thumb toward Buffy. “This one catch you off guard?”

“He's right,” Buffy said quietly, ignoring the sniggering Willy's comments had triggered. “We've just been put on notice. They're ready, and they're looking for their opening.”

“And what happens when they find it?” Greg asked.

“Soon as they get the answer they're looking for, they're gonna come in force.” Spike downed a shot and jumped over the bar, reaching for the scythe he'd left on a stool. “I'm not ready for this,” he whispered when he reached Buffy's side.

“None of us is.” Buffy picked up her own weapon from beside Rudy's body. “Xan, go check on Eddie. Tell him to stop by the house tomorrow night. We may need him to run some errands. We're going into lock down.”

*~*~*

Dawn came downstairs in the dark and made her way to the kitchen. She turned the light on when she entered, and jumped at the sight of the open back door. “Oh, crap,” she whispered, beginning to back out of the room, edging toward the basement stairs.

To her relief, Spike's voice came from the back porch. “What are you doing up at this hour, Nibblet?”

She began moving forward again, going to the refrigerator to get the milk. “I couldn't sleep.”

“Wanna talk?”

Dawn grabbed a glass from the cabinet. “Just a sec.” She poured herself a glass of milk and joined him on the porch steps, where they sat in silence for a few minutes. “You haven't been talking much.”

“Just got a few things on my mind, is all.”

“No, I mean all three of you. For, like, a week and a half, now. Ever since the attack at Willy's. You're spending a lot of time staring into space and thinking. Buffy is working out like a fiend, and Tara's got her nose in her books so much, I've caught her falling asleep over them.”

“Glinda's in final exams, Bit, same as you. How do you think you did in Geography?”

“Don't change the subject. Only half of what Tara is working on is textbooks. The other half is spell books, with pages of notes and translations, and sending you to the Magic Box to shop for her.”

“Well, she and Buffy are trying to stay out of sight, only traveling between home and university. Same thing we're all doing, keeping a low profile.”

“That's what I'm worried about.” Dawn took a sip of her milk. “Things have gotten so tense and quiet here because you're getting ready for something. You're going to war, aren't you?”

Spike sighed. “In some ways, me and your sis have been in a war for about a year and a half.”

“And this is what it comes down to? Fighting an old war over again to win the one you left?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Pretty astute. Been thinking about this a lot, have you?”

“Mostly what I'm thinking about is the three of you putting your lives on the line to protect me.

“That's what family does, pet.”

“This family, yeah. Most families just tell you to buckle your seat belt and keep pepper spray in your purse. Most families aren't full of time traveling superheroes, trying to save the world.”

“Guess you just got lucky.”

Dawn studied his profile for a long time, watching him stare out into the yard. “You think you're going to lose her again.”

His silence ended in a whisper, his voice cracking slightly. “I can't, Dawn.”

“And you won't.”

“How are you so confident?”

“I really don't think the Powers are awful enough to make Buffy sacrifice herself for me twice.”

Spike scoffed. “If you ever get stuck spending more time with Whistler, you'll change your tune.”

“He hasn't been around lately. What does that mean?”

“I'm hoping it means things are going right.”

Dawn stared out into the yard with him. “Me, too.”

*~*~*

When Dawn came home from school, she dropped her book bag at the bottom of the steps and headed for the kitchen, in search of a snack. “One day to go, Spike!” She called ahead of her. “Twenty-four hours until summer vacation!”

“Hey, Dawnie.” Buffy's voice carried down the hall. “Is Giles with you?”

“No. He said they're trying to work out some issue with a vendor, and the shop's been busy all week, besides. So he dropped me off and hurried back to help Anya and Lydia,” Dawn answered as she joined her sister in the kitchen. She found both Buffy and Tara in the room, both with worried looks on their faces. “Oh, god. What's happened? Where's Spike?”

Buffy's voice was low and tense. “He's downstairs, spending some quality time with the punching bag. Dawnie, some of the knights were staked out in the woods near campus. We think the crazy one was with them.”

Tara's volume matched her friend's. “Sweetie, I'm pretty certain I was spotted this time.”

*~*~*

Glory frowned at the shaking tray that was being carried to her. “Straighten up, Murky. You're going to spill my champagne!”

Murk bowed as he placed the tray before her. “My apologies, Your Greatness. My shoulder is still--”

“That nasty little slayer's friends didn't hurt you nearly as much as I should have, after you useless little freaks let that vampire escape.”

Murk backed away a few steps as Glory turned her attention to the tray. He bowed, trying to hide the state of his nerves. “Perhaps Your Wondrous-ness would prefer to hear my report later.”

She snapped to attention. “Report? You have news?”

“The slayer has still not been seen in town. It has been many nights, nearly a dozen.”

“What about the girl?”

Murk shook his head.

The champagne flute crashed against the wall. “They've gone to that tall friend of hers, haven't they? Tell me you've figured out where he is.”

Murk shook his head again, and backed up another step. “We have not seen him, before or since that night in the cemetery. After so much time, we're certain Braxa is dead. If the tall man is nearby, he is hiding well.”

“Ugh!” The champagne bottle followed the arc of the glass. Glory rubbed her hands through her hair, wincing at the feeling of Ben fighting to regain control of their body.

Jinx bowed as he entered the room. “Do not fret, my most lovely Glorificus. The slayer has not run away. The Knights of Byzantium are still camped outside of town, and still patrol near the places the slayer is known to visit. If they find daytime surveillance useful, perhaps we will, as well?”

Glory threw up her hands. “Those backward idiots use livestock as cars! What could they possibly know that the slayer's rude, game show watching, pet vampire doesn't?”

“We do not know that the vampire was ignorant, Highest One. Only that he was resistant to your... methods of gathering information from him.” Murk ducked as the tray sailed in his direction.

Jinx jumped in to protect his comrade before Glory could find another object to throw. “Great One! Perhaps you wish our next step to be to visit the Knights? To find what they may have learned?”

She seemed lost in thought for a moment, then abruptly snapped her fingers in their direction. “Well! You heard me! Get to it! Get this mess cleaned up and bring me a better pair of shoes. We're going on a field trip.”

*~*~*

Not long before sunrise, Eddie hurried into the backyard. He started toward the porch, but stopped when he heard a voice behind him.

“Awful late to stop by for errand running, Fledge. Good thing we didn't need anything tonight.”

Eddie turned around and headed for the bench at the far end of the darkened yard, where Spike was sitting, staring at the house while he chain smoked. “I know. Sorry I didn't come by earlier.” He sat down on the bench. “Spike, I need to talk to you.”

“'Bout what?”

“The demons you've been having me pay? To watch the knights' camp? One of them just reported in.”

Spike took in the scared expression on the younger vampire's face, then waved for him to speak. “Go on, then. Can't be much worse than the news I got this afternoon.”

“Um, actually? It might be. The report ended with, 'Tell your master we quit.'”

“And how did it begin?”

“With a story about a woman in a skimpy red dress.”





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