Chapter 42: Stripped Away

May 2003 (flashbacks) / May 2001

“Bloody hell. You actually are as dumb as you look. Are you trying to make people ask questions?”

Buffy sat down on the edge of the cot and kicked off her boots. “I'm not talking about a whole photo album, Spike. Just a few things. Recent pictures of Dawnie, a couple snaps of the girls and the Scoobies...”

“And we'll have these time-traveling photos in my coat pocket, yeah? What happens if they're seen?”

“So don't get caught with them.”

Spike rolled his eyes and dropped into a chair by the wooden table. “Not in the mood to be reasonable tonight, are you?”

“Hey! I'm reasonable! I'm chock-full of reason! Three or four photos. I'm not asking for a lot, here.”

“Buffy, it's too risky, and you know it. A few sealed envelopes are one thing, but this?”

She pursed her lips, fighting back the instinct to pout. “Can we just go to bed? We're going to have to get up early for this, and it's already kinda late.”

He pulled off his boots. “Yeah. Best set an alarm.”

“Pfft! Like the morning kitchen chaos upstairs isn't going to wake you up.”

“First time for everything.” He watched her fidget with the buttons on her alarm clock. “Running out of opportunities to back out of this, you know.”

“It's still better than Plan A, Spike.”

“Most things are.”

“You just don't want to wear your pretty necklace,” Buffy murmured, still focused on the clock.

“Liz Taylor isn't exactly my style.”

She looked up at him, sitting across the room from her, leaning forward with his boots in hand. “I don't want you to have to wear it, either,” she whispered. “That thing makes me nervous.” She returned the clock to the floor and stood up, a silent invitation for him to come to bed.

Spike turned out the light as he stood up from the table. He put his boots beside hers and stretched out on his side on the cot, his back to the wall. Buffy curled up in front of him, and fought back the urge to sigh at the comfort she felt when his arm draped over her.

*~*~*

You're nothing but a tool to her, Precious. Something she can use to get what she wants. Why else would she be dragging you along on this stupid trip?” Glory shrugged. “Sure, you have a chance at saving her, but what else might go wrong? Who dies in her place? Little Dawnie? The redheaded witch? Her mousy girlfriend? You? Or maybe, just maybe, you have to bury her all over again. Oh, that scares you, doesn't it?” She grinned, enjoying his discomfort.“Tell her you've changed your mind, Precious. Tell her she should, too. She'll listen to you. All it would take is one word from you, and she'd drop this idea like a hot potato. Go on, tell her. You're the only one who can put a stop to it. ...Tell her!”

Spike woke from his nightmare with a jerk. He tightened his grip on the woman curled against him on the narrow cot.

“Bad one?” she mumbled.

“Bloody First again.”

“I hate those. Are you ok?”

“I'm alright. Go back to sleep.”

“I wasn't sleeping. ...Spike, are we making a mistake?”

“No.”

“You seem pretty sure all of a sudden.”

“I am, now. Get some kip, General. Tomorrow's gonna be a long day.”

*~*~*

Tara walked into the kitchen to find Dawn standing by the back door, looking through the glass. “Hey,” she said softly. “What are you doing up so late?”

“Keeping an eye on Buffy.” Dawn sagged against the wall beside the door. “She's completely wasted, and sitting outside alone like vamp bait. I'm just glad she hasn't tried to go on patrol like this.”

Tara put on the kettle and began preparing mugs of instant cocoa. “I'm not sure she's ever going to go on patrol again, Dawnie.”

“Yeah. Probably not. ...So what are you doing up?”

“Being interrogated, mostly. Willow's got a lot of questions, not all of which I can answer.”

“Are you guys going to be ok?”

“I've told a lot of lies, Dawnie. That doesn't usually lead to happy endings.” She sighed. “If it weren't for the 'I gave up heaven, mostly for her' thing, I think I'd be single right now.”

“She loves you. She'll be ok, once she's had some time to get used to the idea.”

“When did you get so reassuring?” Tara asked with a smile.

Dawn shrugged. “I was a little mad at first, too. But then I got it. I get why you guys had to come back, why it was supposed to be a secret. ...What I don't get is why Spike... Tara, what exactly happened up there?”

The response came after a long pause. “I think... I think Spike made a choice between protecting himself and protecting me.”

“Does Buffy know that? It might help.”

“Sweetie, I'm not sure there's anything anyone could say that would help her right now.”

Dawn returned to looking out the window. “We have to try something.”

Willow joined them in the kitchen. “Tara, I have another question. Or a theory, sort of.”

Tara picked up the whistling kettle and began filling mugs. “Go ahead,” she said with a sigh.

“Those friends you were hanging out with in the fall, from your Chem class? Joan and Randy? That was Buffy and Spike, wasn't it?”

“I'm sorry, sweetie,” Tara said, for about the fiftieth time. “You would have been suspicious if you knew I was with them. And you can thank your future self for the names.”

“Huh?”

“It's a long story.” Tara focused on the motions of her spoon in the mugs, moving from one to the next, until all four were ready. “The short version is that a spell went wrong. Dawn, come get yours and open the door for me.” She offered one mug to Willow, then picked up the remaining two.

The three of them joined Buffy on the darkened porch and sat down on the porch floor, gathered close to the woman seated on the top step. Buffy accepted the offered mug. “Thanks, Tara.”

“After this, you really should try to sleep.”

“Maybe.” Buffy's gaze drifted out into the backyard, obviously lost in thought.

Dawn studied her sister's profile. “Where are you right now?” she asked.

“Home,” Buffy whispered. “One of the good days.”

“I'm up for a story.” She looked at the witches. “You guys?”

Tara looked worriedly at Buffy. “Only if she wants to tell it.”

“Buff?” Willow asked.

Buffy closed her eyes. When she spoke again, her voice was very soft and low. “Kennedy is running training drills out here, on the left side of the yard, of course. Away from the graves. I go inside. Ahn and Xan have stopped with the bitter bickering for the moment. They're in the kitchen, talking to Robin about looting an abandoned grocery store, and getting back before sundown. Dawnie, you're in the living room, trying desperately to make Andrew shut up, so you can read some old book Giles left on the mantle.

“There are sleeping bags, suitcases, gym bags, and various improvised bedrolls piled up everywhere in there. The living room is kind of dark, even in the middle of the day. We've given up replacing the picture window. It's covered in plywood. Rona and Vi have conned Amanda into ditching afternoon training with them and have been whispering their worries to each other upstairs, not nearly as quietly as they think. Wils, you've just caught them, and I can hear you telling them to get outside before I notice, or Kennedy tells me. I sneak downstairs when no one is looking.”

She paused, her eyes still tightly closed. Her volume dropped even lower. “Spike is sitting on his cot, leaning up against the wall, staring into space. He's so quiet these days, always stuck in his own head. I'm not used to it yet. I'm still looking for the old, snarky, flirty Spike, but that guy hasn't been around in a while, and isn't back yet. He doesn't even say hello when I sit down beside him. Maybe he's just waiting to be sure I'm not another hallucination, or another image of the First.

“After a few minutes, I tell him we're going out to patrol tonight, that we'll just take a small group, immediately after dark, and come back early, before we run into any trouble. He doesn't answer right away. When he finally speaks, he says, 'Anything else, General?' I shake my head and start to get up, but he reaches for my hand, and I sit back down. He holds my hand while he stares into space. ...It's not a romantic gesture, it's an anchor. If he knows I'm real, he can trust me, can relax a little. And for just a few minutes, we can both feel safe, down there in his bleak, empty cell. Eventually, I start to doze off, leaning against the wall with him. I've been so exhausted for so long, any peaceful moment can end in a nap.

“Then someone calls my name from upstairs. They're looking for me. He lets go of my hand. I stand up and tell him to meet me and the girls upstairs as soon as the sun sets. I'm halfway up the stairs when I hear him whisper my name. I stop and turn to look down at him over the railing. He says, 'If it's safe to go out after... Drunken noodle?' I tell him I'd rather just sleep tonight. He nods and says, 'You know where to find me.'”

Buffy opened her eyes. “If I could go back, right now, I'd have said yes. One more night sneaking out of the house for a dinner date. One more long talk in a corner booth, away from everything else, pretending the world wasn't ending, pretending he didn't walk down the street with his arm around my shoulders to try to mask my scent with his own, but did it because it was something we both wanted. A few more precious hours...”

Tara, her eyes damp with tears, pulled her friend into a hug. “Sweetie, the hours don't matter. The feelings do. He knew. You know he knew.”

Dawn shook her head. “Even your 'good days' sound like the stuff of nightmares. Graves in the backyard? Plywood windows? Abandoned grocery stores? Scoobies, including you and Spike, worried about being out after dark? Xander and Anya bickering? Spike having hallucinations? You two not constantly talking to each other? It sounds horrible.

“It was hell.” Buffy stood up and stepped around them, bound for the house. She stopped at the door, her hand on the knob. “But it was home.” She shook away her thoughts. “Dru was probably right. Being homesick isn't good for me. But how did she not see this coming?”

Dawn watched her sister go into the house. “I told you she was wasted.”

“She's certainly saying a lot more about her time than usual,” Tara agreed. “She once told me she only 'gets talky' about that year when she's drunk. This is the most she's ever said about it at once.”

“And the drunkest she's ever been, that I know of,” Dawn added, shaking her head. “Slur city.”

Willow tore her eyes away from the closed back door. “I-- I think it's finally starting to sink in.”

“What? That I've been living with a bunch of time travelers?” Dawn asked.

“No... Well, yes. But I mean all of it. It's real. Time travel. A war. Buffy and Spike with this long history we didn't even know about. All of it.”

Tara took a sip of her cocoa. “It was real, Willow. It isn't anymore, but it used to be.”

“And there's only one person left in the world who remembers it all.” Dawn looked out across the yard. “I didn't think the Powers could be so cruel.”

*~*~*

Xander had just joined Willow, Tara and Dawn in the kitchen, delivering more doughnut bribery to try to coax Buffy to eat, when there was a scream from the room below. “Spike!”

All four of them rushed downstairs to find Buffy sitting up in bed, gasping for air. Tara sat beside her and held her tightly. “It was just a dream. Breathe, sweetie. It was just a dream.”

Buffy gripped her friend's arms with shaking hands. She swallowed hard against the anger her dream had left her with. “That liar,” she said through gritted teeth. “He said we had time.”

“Whistler?”

She opened her mouth to answer, then thought the better of it, shaking her head at herself. “Never mind. It doesn't matter... Has Charlie returned my call yet?”

“Not yet, sweetie. But there's no hurry. Things will be quiet for a while.”

*~*~*

Buffy found Xander sitting on the bottom of the staircase, staring at the coat hanging by the front door. “Hey.” She sat down beside him. “I thought you'd be at work.”

“I took a few days off. I thought you might need me.”

“I bet you could use a little time, too.”

“Probably.”

“Probably?”

“Ok, definitely. ...Rough weekend in Scoobyville.”

“Yeah.”

Xander swiped at his eyes with his shirt sleeve, but didn't lift his gaze from the coat. “Why is it still there, Buff?” he asked quietly.

“Because that's where it belongs.”

“Hanging there... It looks like you expect him to come home.”

“Xan, please don't ask me to put it away.”

There was a long silence before he said, “That PTB guy said he was going to give it back to Wood. Who's that?”

“The son of the coat's original owner.”

“The guy who has the slayer emergency kit?”

“That's the guy.”

“Giles said there were 'issues.'”

Buffy closed her eyes, seeing crosses on the walls in her memory. “Putting it mildly.”

“You're not going to give it to him, are you?”

“In our time, he tried to... get his revenge. I'm far more likely to give that man the beating of his life than Spike's favorite trophy.”

“So the son of a slayer wasn't an ally?”

She opened her eyes. “He was at first, and he stayed on with us after, but it wasn't a good situation. This time, I won't be making the mistake of allowing him in, and I sure as hell won't be going on a date with him.”

Xander turned to look at her, surprised. “There are still a lot of stories I haven't heard, aren't there?”

“There are a lot of stories no one should hear.”

“Spike said basically the same thing to me, once.”

“He was right. But I guess it doesn't matter, now. None of it ever happened, and none of it will.”

Something is still happening. You're working on something. ...Who's Charlie?”

“Spike's ID guy. He's one of the best forgers in the demon world, with connections to a group of hacker warlocks who make Willow look like a hunt-and-peck novice. He can put anything on paper or plastic. They can put it in computer systems at all levels of government. If you want a lie to turn into truth, Charlie's the guy you call.”

“I didn't think demons worked together like that.”

“They have to for some things, Xan. Interacting with the 'records of everything' human world while maintaining secrecy and privacy takes a certain amount of cooperation to pull off. Spike had to cultivate relationships with some of the best in the business to protect his investments.”

“What investments?”

“Real estate.”

“Aah, so the money he had squirreled away...?”

“Came from a century of investing in and leasing out land and houses. Still does. Come from that, I mean.”

Xander glanced at her. “He left you pretty well off, didn't he?”

“Financially? Yeah, I guess so.” She shifted her weight uncomfortably. “But real estate is a field where public record is a huge issue. A guy who doesn't age ends up repeatedly becoming his own heir on paper, to retain his own property. Not to mention needing a damned good estate management firm to handle the day to day stuff that a wandering vamp would never keep up with.” Buffy shook her head. “He never could do anything the easy way. He had to get involved in a business that required extra work in every direction. Typical.”

“And you're sure you can trust these demons?”

“They aren't really dangerous. They're just felons.” Buffy smirked. “A bit like a certain slayer I know.”

Understanding dawned on Xander's face. “Faith.”

“She needs a new identity, Xan.”

“You're not wasting any time, are you?” He paused for an answer that didn't come. “Buff, there's no reason to rush into this. We'll be happy to help out with patrols for a while, give you some time to reconsider.”

She shook her head. “You need a slayer.”

“We have one.”

“No, you don't.” The phone rang, and she jumped to her feet. “That had better be Charlie.”

Xander followed her into the living room and listened to her side of the call.

“Hello? ...This is Buffy. ...Hey, Charlie. I was hoping you got my message. ...I was calling about the photos and stats Spike gave you a few months back. This is your green light. …I need your best work, but I'm in a bit of a rush. …Use the address marked 'LC' on the list I sent. I think I can make it work on my end. … Oh. Wow. I didn't think you'd have done any of the prep work... No, no. That's great. You've earned yourself a hell of a tip already. Same drop location? …Perfect. Thanks, Charlie.”

“I still think you're making this decision too fast,” Xander said when she ended the call. “I mean, we're going to support you, no matter what. And if you're sure Faith can be trusted to take over, we'll back her up, too. ...But Buff? It's only been a day and a half. Take some time, get your bearings.”

“I'm fine, Xan. Really.”

*~*~*

“What's wrong?” Anya asked. “You've been tossing and turning for an hour. If we're not going to get any sleep, we may as well talk. So spill. What is it?”

“The whole list?” Xander switched on the bedside lamp. “Or should I stick to the obvious?”

“Spike.”

“And Buffy. She's soldiering on, making Faith her next big project, and pretending everything's ok.”

“I know. Dawn said she hasn't even cried.”

“She wasn't like that with her mom. And that was something she knew was coming.”

“She also wasn't drinking as much. She was pretty well toasted by the time I left the house tonight.”

“Should I call Clem to cancel?” Xander asked. “Am I just asking for trouble?”

“You're assuming she'll even show up. After dinner, she spent the evening on the porch with a formerly fresh bottle.” Anya shrugged against her pillows. “Maybe she just needs some time alone.”

*~*~*

Lorne came as far as the office doorway and stopped, listening.

Bloody hell, Peaches. Never around when you're actually needed... Sending someone to you for a few days. Take good care of her for us. Keep your guard up.

Angel rewound the tape and played the message again.

“You're going to wear out that tape, Angelcakes.”

Angel looked up. “I can't help but think about how much of a wreck Buffy must be right now.” He shook his head. “It's strange.”

“Not so strange. That's kind of how it goes with married folks. One dies, the other goes through as many tissues as a showing of Steel Magnolias at a quilting bee.”

“What's strange is that I always thought I'd feel a little relieved when Spike dusted. He's always been such a thorn in my side. I don't feel relieved. I'm worried about Buffy. And I kind of feel like...” Angel fast forwarded the tape and played another message.

Where are you, Liam? Likely the first time I've wanted to hear your voice in... well, ever, and you're nowhere to be found. Was hoping you'd take care of my Nibblet for me, but--

Angel pointed to the answering machine. “I feel like I never got to know that Spike. I think I would have respected him as more than a thorn in my side.”

“Wes can hold the fort for a few days.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean, Angelcakes, is that Spike's widow deserves to hear that.”

“Spike's widow,” Angel echoed. He shook his head. “I shouldn't be there. This isn't a good time for an ex-boyfriend to roll into town, even if I am an elder of the clan she'd planned to join.”

“Then pick up that telephone and check in on her,” Lorne ordered. “Be the elder. Be her friend. And for once, be his friend. Making sure she's alright is the least you can do.”

*~*~*

Xander stepped out onto the back porch, just as the sun was setting. “Angel called. I told him I'd ask you to call him back.”

“Thanks. ...I think I'd like to talk to him.”

“Maybe you should call him tomorrow. You know, after you get some sleep?”

Buffy looked up at him. “Did Tara send you out here? She's been nagging me for two days to get more sleep.”

“Sleep's important, Buff. And head injuries aside, you tend to avoid it when you need it most.” Xander sat down beside her. “We can move Tara to your Mom's room, if you want. You can go back to your old room. Maybe that would be better than the basement? More sleep, less need for Jack Daniels?”

“No. Tara likes the blue room. It's hers now, as far as I'm concerned. And I'm not moving to Mom's room, either. My room is downstairs.” She sighed. “I just feel like I'm missing something.”

“Well, yeah. That's kind of expected.”

“No. I mean, besides the obvious.”

“Maybe a memorial service? I know it's not generally done for a vamp, and it sounds really odd now that I say it out loud...”

Buffy put a hand on her friend's knee. “That's a sweet idea, Xan, but no. Thank you.”

“Me, Clem, and Tinker are getting together at Willy's tonight. It's sort of going to be like a wake, you know? For Spike and Eddie. You're welcome to join us. Actually, we've invited everyone. I even coaxed the uptight watchers into hanging at a demon bar, if you can believe it.”

She jumped up. “A demon bar. That's the answer.”

He followed her inside. “What was the question?”

“Somewhere I can think.” Buffy led him through the house to the front door, where she picked up the keys to the Jeep. “Tell Tara and Dawn I'll be back before sun up. Say 'hi' to Trixie for me.”

“Buff.” He grabbed her arm before she could open the front door. “I doubt going out alone is the answer, no matter what the question is. Come to Willy's with us. Hang out. Talk. Reminisce. It will be good for you. For all of us. You should be there.”

“There's a really blurry line between past and future in my reminisces, Xan. I shouldn't.”

“Then take your own advice. Think in present tense. Hell, just be present. You don't even have to talk.”

“Think in present tense,” Buffy furrowed her brow. “Present tense... Bloody hell...”

“Ok, that's a little weird, coming out of your mouth.”

She broke free of his grasp and ran up the stairs, shouting. “Tara! Tara!”

Tara opened her bedroom door and stepped out into the upstairs hall just as Buffy reached the top. Willow was right behind her. “What's wrong?”

Buffy's eyes darted to Willow and back to Tara. “Um, Dawnie hasn't been out of her room in hours. I think she might need a ceiling chat. Will you stand in?”

Tara frowned at the obvious lie. “Uh, sure. I mean, of course.” She gave Willow an apologetic look. “We won't be long, sweetie.”

Buffy knocked on Dawn's door as she opened it. She ushered Tara in before closing it behind her.

Dawn sat up on her bed, pushing aside her pen and journal. “Thanks for knocking,” she grumbled.

Tara looked at Buffy. “This isn't a ceiling chat, is it?”

“No. This is a Time Scooby meeting.” Buffy grinned. “We're still dancing monkeys.”

Dawn wrinkled her nose. “And that's something to be happy about?”

“The little weasel was talking in present tense, guys. He said, 'This is how it's playing out.'”

Tara sat on the edge of the bed beside Dawn. “Buffy, he could be talking about big picture stuff again.”

She shook her head. “No. It's more than that. I know it.”

“Like what?” Dawn asked worriedly.

“Like I haven't been imagining things. Tara, what has my aura been telling you?”

“I've kind of been intentionally not looking,” Tara said quietly. “I'm not sure I could handle seeing such an abrupt...” She forced herself to focus on Buffy's aura. “...Change. Huh? I expected... something different.” She held a hand up to stop her friend's widening grin. “But I'll have to do some research, because I'm not certain what it should look like. You know, under the circumstances.”

“As soon as you can, please. I think you'll see that it's good news.”

“How much have you had to drink?” Dawn still looked distrustful of Buffy's exuberance.

“Nothing, yet. I was just about to head out to fix that, though.”

“Oh, good.” Tara breathed a sigh of relief. “Xander was hoping you'd agree to join us.”

“I'm not going to Willy's. You guys go, have a good talk with the gang. Tara, tell Willy if Dawn touches anything stronger than Coke, he'll be missing parts by tomorrow night. Trixie has kids. She won't give a teenager anything she shouldn't. But Willy won't care unless you make him care.” Buffy grabbed them each in a hug. “Have fun. I'll see you in the morning.” She opened the bedroom door. “There's an answer somewhere. I just have to find it.”

“Where are you going?” Dawn asked, following her into the hall, where Xander was talking to Willow, having followed Buffy upstairs.

“To the one place in Sunnydale I can be lonely. It's a good place to think.”

*~*~*

Jasleen leaned against the bar. “I remember you,” she said to the woman sitting on the stool beside her. “But I didn't expect you to come here alone.”

“I have before. But that's kind of a long story.”

“I put an order of pretzels in for you.”

“Thanks, Jasleen. Spike was right. You're a gem.”

“It's funny, though. The bartender says you're drinking Jack and Coke. A combination of his drink and yours? Is that the idea?”

“I don't know. There isn't really a plan in place. I'm just sort of winging it.”

“Maybe there should be.” The waitress looked concerned. “Slayer, where is your vampire?”

“Not here,” Buffy answered distractedly. Her brow was furrowed in thought again. “Wait... Actually, there is a plan in place. There has been for a while, complete with contingencies.” Her eyes lit up. “Jasleen! It's not about our plans. It's about theirs! There were contingency plans!”

“Um, ok... I'm sorry, Slayer, but I'm going to have to tell the bartender to cut you off. I'll bring you a glass of water with your pretzels.”

*~*~*

Buffy came home from Galvin's just before sunrise. She went down to the basement, kicked off her boots, switched the two Oscar Wilde prints nearest the nightstands, and collapsed on the bed, pulling the quilt over her. She whispered to the pillow beside her, “I told you I'm not ready for you not to be here. Who doesn't listen to a damn thing the other says, again?”

A few hours later, Buffy woke up screaming Spike's name. By the time Dawn reached the basement, her sister was throwing the rage she'd carried out of her dream at the punching bag. It swung wildly from the impacts of her fists, the minor tears at its middle growing larger with each blow. Dawn quietly went back upstairs to look for the duct tape.





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