Chapter 52: Kitchen Chaos

July, 2001

The front door of the Magic Box flew open and Xander rushed in.

Lydia was the first person he encountered. She squeaked in surprise as she was lifted in a spinning hug. “Xander! What in heavens' name--?”

“Lydia, everyone's coming home! Do you hear me? Everyone's coming home!” He set her down and looked to the counter. “Anya?”

Faith, sitting on the metal stairs behind the research table, jerked a thumb toward the back of the shop. “Ladies room. You high on something?”

“He's back,” Xander said, grinning widely. “I don't know how, and I don't know why, but Spike is back.”

“Way to go, B,” Faith murmured, drawing Willow's attention.

She turned around from the table to look at the slayer. “That's what they're are doing in England? A vampire resurrection?”

Faith pulled the lighter out of her pocket to study. “More like a retrieval op, from what I've heard. B was planning to cross the PTB. I guess she went through with it.” She looked up at the sound of the bathroom door opening. “Brace yourself!” She called to Anya.

Xander went barreling to his girlfriend and lifted her in another exuberant hug. “Tell me you'll wear it now, Ahn. Everyone's coming home! With Faith here, we can have breakfast for ten, just as soon as the Time Scoobies get themselves on a plane home.”

“What are you talking about?” She asked, frowning as she was returned to the floor.

“Spike is back,” he explained, his words rushed and breathless. “I saw him with my own eyes. I talked to him. I hugged him. I saw him being teleported out to the Folly.”

“You hugged him?” Faith asked. “Holy crap. Maybe you are high.”

Xander ignored her. He pulled a ring box out of his pocket and opened it. “Eggs and waffles for ten, Anya. Can we plan that engagement party now?”

“Eleven,” she said quietly.

“Huh?”

Anya stepped back into the bathroom to retrieve something not much larger than a pen from the counter. She held out the small, white object to show him. “Eleven.”

Xander barely noticed the ring box dropping from his hand.

*~*~*

A blue and white flash brought General Pratt's dirty, tired, exuberant army to the dining room at William's Folly, with their prize standing at the front of the group by her side. She turned to face them. “Put the weapons back in the corner. We'll worry about cleaning them later. Right now, everyone gets yourselves cleaned up, patched up, and get some food plans together.”

“I gotta go check in on the fallout, Firecracker,” Doyle said. “I'm expecting a lot of yelling.”

She looked up at him, biting her lip. “Don't get fired, ok?”

He grinned. “You'll see me soon, I promise.” He nodded to Henry. “Someone's gotta send the kid home, remember?”

“Good point. But still...”

“We've got the Guardian on our side, sweetheart. Don't worry.” Doyle gave her a wink and flashed out of the room to the sounds of weapons clattering to the floor, and Giles' instinctive wincing at their treatment.

Buffy lifted the second scythe from Spike's hand and turned to head out of the room.

He watched her leave with a frown. “She alright?”

“I think she's just a little overwhelmed,” Tara said, following his gaze. “We all are.”

“William,” Elise said quietly. “She asked for a price, offered to pay it herself, but none was named. I believe she may be worried about the possible outcomes.”

“It can't be too bad, right? I'm still here, aren't I?” Henry said with a chuckle. “And so is--” He looked across the dining table, his chuckle dying with a murmur. “Aunt Tara? Where is it?”

“I left it right in the middle of the table, where we could all see it, just in case.” She, Dawn, and Giles joined him in digging through the stacks of books and pages of notes scattered around the table. “Oh, goddess. It's gone.”

“What are you lot yammering about?” Spike asked. “What's gone?”

Henry sank into a chair. “My timeline, maybe. And probably my luggage. Bloody hell.”

“But you're still here.” Dawn wrinkled her nose. “How does that work?”

“Gateways are protected places,” Elise explained. “If the likelihood of a specific future has been altered by our adventures, Henry's presence in the gateway would have guarded him from the effects.”

“But we left the note here, on this plane,” Tara added. She looked around worriedly. “Now what?”

Angel shrugged. “Now we wait on Doyle to report back, I guess. He said there'd be fallout. He'll get it straightened out.”

Henry stood up, his focus on the sideboard, which had been cleared of bottles and glassware the day before. “I think I've just figured out the the real reason Mum drinks. What a bloody mess.”

As he headed for the kitchen, the phone began ringing.

“Gotta be the Scoobies,” Spike said with an eye roll. “I landed in Sunnyhell, met up with Harris. That lot couldn't give us ten minutes to catch our breath could they? Wouldn't be their way.”

Dawn reached for the phone. “Slayer Scoobies, Spike. You have to be specific, these days. ...Hello?”

“If that's Faith, say hi for me. Otherwise, I'm staying out of this.” Angel followed Henry out.

Spike slipped out of the room behind him. He went upstairs, finding Buffy standing in the master bedroom, staring at the open case in which she'd placed the scythes. He stopped in the doorway and looked around, finding all the missing objects from their basement bedroom in Sunnydale. His gaze settled on Buffy. “Looks just like home.”

She looked up at him. “Yeah. I, um, brought a lot of our stuff.”

“Really wasn't talking about the stuff.”

Before she could reply, she was wrapped up in his arms, being kissed with such force, she would have stumbled backwards if she weren't being held so tightly.

When Spike pulled back to let her breathe, he whispered, “You're amazing, Mrs. Pratt. Just thought you should know.”

“Spike, the ripples from this... We don't know--”

He kissed her again. “Don't care. Got my arms full of you, in a bedroom that looks like ours, and the old farmhouse is full of family. Let the ripples come.”

Buffy ran her hands over his chest and shoulders, soaking in the feel of him. “I still can't believe you're really here,” she whispered. “We actually won.”

“Am I the only one 'round here who isn't surprised by you? Always knew you were bleedin' amazing, love. This is just extra proof.” He started to lift her by the waist, and immediately set her down when she winced at the pressure on her wound. “But we really oughta see to that.”

“Yeah, I guess we--”

Thumping feet on the stairs were accompanied by a shout. “Buffy! Buffy! I just got off the phone with Lydia! You aren't going to believe this!”

*~*~*

Elise found Buffy, Angel, Spike, and Henry in the kitchen, chatting over drinks while Spike bandaged his wife's wound. “Should have warned me 'bout this before I punched you there, love. Tore it open all over again.”

“What? The smell of slayer blood in the air and the stain on my shirt wasn't a tip off? Did you leave your senses with the PTB?”

He looked up from her injury to glare at her. “Was a little distracted, Slayer. And as I recall, you weren't at your sharpest when you first got back, either.”

“Yeah, well, I had to dig my way out of a coffin like one of you freaks.” Buffy waved a hand at him and Angel. “I was legitimately wigged.”

Elise's gasp brought their attention to the doorway. Henry raised his glass to Buffy. “Well done. You're kind of a pro at this trauma stuff, aren't you?” To Elise, he said. “She gets slightly more tactful when she gets older, but don't expect too much.”

“Elise, have a seat. Sparky, I've totally changed my mind about the whole kids thing.” Buffy reached for her own rum and Coke and raised it to Henry, mirroring his actions. “Adios, Junior.”

“Sorry, Mum. You're stuck with us. Guess who else always comes home?”

She took a drink. “Wonderful. As stubborn as your father. Motherhood is gonna be great.

Over the ripple of laughter that followed, Henry said, “Elise, did Tara tell you when she and Dawn would be back with the food?”

“They just left. I imagine it will be a little while.” She poured herself a glass of water from the pitcher on the counter before joining them at the table.

“We should have had them detour to a butcher's shop,” Angel said. “I don't suppose you have anything in the house?”

Buffy tilted her head back against the top of her chair. “Dammit! I knew I forgot something! Henry, you said you know a place?”

Henry stood up. “Yeah. I can make a butcher's run. One catch, though. I don't have any cash from this era... Or this country.”

Buffy waved him toward the front door. “I doubt it's the first time you've ever taken money from my purse. It's on the hall table.”

“Car keys, too?”

Buffy and Spike traded glances. He stood up. “I'll drive. Need to find out where the place is anyway.”

Henry grumbled as they left the room, “I can drive a bloody car, Dad. I'm not some dumb kid.”

“A car from this time? When you've been drinking?”

“Even your old classics. Usually sober, though.”

Buffy called after them. “He said he wrecked my BMW!”

“I was seventeen!”

“Bloody hell, Junior! Don't tell her stuff like that! The woman put me in a wheelchair for less!”

“Hey!” Angel shouted. “She did that for me!”

“I rest my case!” Spike called back, just before the front door closed behind him and Henry.

Buffy finished her drink and laughed as she set the glass down. “No, this is why I drink!”

Elise looked uncomfortable. She shied her eyes away from Angel. “The butcher's shop? For blood?”

“It's either that or Dawn,” Angel said, refilling his own glass.

“And she probably tastes like monk magic and Cheetos,” Buffy mumbled. She tried to restrain her laugh at Elise's horrified expression. “We're joking. Well, not about the Cheetos... And you have no idea what Cheetos are.” She reached out to take Elise's hand. “You'll settle in. It'll be alright.”

“Forgive me, Buffy, but you're all so very... strange. The way you speak to each other is so... forward and disrespectful, but everyone seems to be having a good time.”

“Elise, the truth is, we're all exhausted to the point of silliness. We'll start acting more normal tomorrow. Normal for us is still pretty strange, but it's not always this nutty around here. Personally, I'm looking forward to the first good night's sleep I've had since a Hellgod tried to crack my skull open.” Buffy sighed. “I'm so glad to be done with her and her stupid tower. First me, then Spike... I need to head home to knock that rickety thing down. Again.”

“This isn't your home?” Elise asked. “But Henry will grow up here?”

“Sometime down the line, the Folly will be home. Right now it's...” Buffy smiled. “Just a place to make a stand.” She refilled her glass and raised it. “Mission accomplished.”

Angel clinked his glass against hers. Elise followed suit. “What about Barcelona?” he asked.

“Hmm... Good point. I guess I need to finish that up first. I'm going to miss working with Lucy, but Tara misses Wils pretty badly. She really wants to try to patch things up. And I think Dawnie's a little homesick. None of her friends are here.” To Elise, she explained, “We're from California. Angel lives in Los Angeles. The rest of us live in Sunnydale.”

“The most powerful Hellmouth currently in existence. As dangerous as such a place sounds, I'm eager to see the States. I've kept up on history as it has unfolded, all over the world, but the development of the States after my death has been a particular point of interest.”

“Great,” Buffy grumbled. “Another brain in the family. Just what I needed.”

Angel emptied his glass. “You'll be in safe hands with the Scoobies, Elise. They're a good bunch, when they aren't trying to kill you.”

Buffy stuck her tongue out at him. “You totally deserved it. And for the record, they declared war on Spike bunches more times.”

“Because he was dumb enough to keep coming back for more.”

“I told you, Angel. He always comes home, even when he freakin' knows better.” She laughed. “I really didn't think he could top coming home mind-jacked and soul-crazy, but I think he actually has. I'm still claiming the crown, though. I was dead longer.”

Elise shook her head. “You speak of death so casually. Even experienced field agents are less... nonchalant.”

Buffy shrugged. “Someone once told me, 'Death is your art. You make it with your hands, day after day.' I'm a retired slayer, Elise. I've crossed death's door three times, killed countless vamps and demons, and I even sent this mass murdering vamp to hell once.” She jerked a thumb at Angel. “And the guy who said that to me? He's got a lot of bodies behind him, too. You're going to have to get comfortable with that, or it's going to be a rough road, for all of us.”

“William,” she whispered. “I know some of his history.”

“History's a good start,” Angel said. “But what Buffy means is that you're going to have to accept the demon and the man, and what the last 120 years shaped him into. Your brother's been dead nearly as long as you have. The demon in his place remembers you, and fondly, but he's not quite the same man. In some ways, he's not even close.”

“Such as greeting his wife by trading punches?” Elise tried to manage a smile. “I was expecting a kiss, or at least an embrace.”

Buffy laughed. “Yeah, well, we don't do what's expected of us, as a matter of habit. But to tell you the truth, guys? I'm desperate for a little one on one time with him. We haven't even had a real chance to talk yet, let alone anything else.”

“Tell you what: After dinner, I'll try to disperse the crowd, give you guys a little space.”

“Thanks, Angel. A back porch date is so necessary right now.”

A blue flash brought Doyle into the kitchen. “You got your chosen mate back less than an hour ago, and you're hanging out with Angel? Sweetheart, step away from the bottle.”

“My chosen is getting in some 'Dad' time,” Buffy explained, gesturing for him to join them at the table. “So how'd the royal ass-chewing go?”

“As loud as expected. I lucky I'm not fired.” He leaned against the refrigerator. “And we've got some minor issues to work out. Henry's exact timeline is off the table. Odds are officially zero.”

Buffy gasped and jumped to her feet. “Oh, god. That's why his suitcase and the note are gone. Is he going to be ok? And Anne?”

He held up a hand. “Don't panic Firecracker. What's replaced it as most likely is nearly identical. Shouldn't be a problem. We'll just have to do some minor merge work to send him back, so this version lives, but with his history corrected.”

“I don't like the sound of that, Doyle. ...What did we change?”

“Mostly, it was the Guardian who changed the odds. The life Henry remembers has a different Time Scooby arrangement with the bosses, and less direct connection to the Lineage than the life he's going back to. There's also the little matter of Elise.”

“What of me?”

“We're sending Henry back to a life where he grows up knowing his field agent aunt.”

Elise's eyes went wide. “Field agent? Do you mean it? I'm no longer barred?”

Doyle shrugged. “The damage is done, now. You've met the reason you were kept upstairs. The Guardian's trying to work out a deal for you, so you can work with the family, besides. You're sitting pretty for now, while they hammer out the details. No one's going to object to you spending a few days here. Henry's getting top priority, right now, anyway. They want me to take him home tomorrow, as soon as that bunch of bookies checks their math and they figure out how to do a forward memory merge.” He laughed. “We made a lot of history today, folks, including leaving heads spinning on two planes.”

“And Whistler?” Angel asked.

“I'm sure they'll reassign him to some poor sucker, but they don't dare send him back here, not after the Guardian refused to revoke the scythes.”

“They wanted her to take them back?”

“Well, yeah. You weren't supposed to use them against an agent. Hell, you weren't even supposed to figure out you could. You've got them nervous, Firecracker, more than any of your previous shenanigans ever managed to make them.”

“I'm pretty sure the rise of the First Evil was a lot scarier than me threatening Whistler.”

“Not really. That, they could undo, and they were prepared to do it, if you recall. But what can they do when the problem is the very slayer they'd need to send back in time to correct the problem? You've got 'em by the balls, and the Guardian is tightening the vice as we speak.”

“Oh, my.” Elise blushed at the imagery. “So very crude.”

“Welcome to my world, Elise,” Buffy said distractedly. “Doyle, this isn't going to lead to either me or Faith losing our power is it? Making one of us the true slayer, and kicking the other one totally out of the lineage?”

Angel looked worried. “Tell me that's not a possibility.”

“Why would correcting the Lineage be a problem?” Elise asked innocently.

“Because I'm screwed, either way. If I kept the power, I'd be back on slayer duty, either a short life ending in leaving Spike behind again, or a long one where neither of us would ever get a break. If Faith did, I lose my inner demon, and my, um, connection to Spike.”

“I don't think it's gonna go that way, Firecracker. I don't see the Guardian making any big concessions right now. She's got all the leverage, here.”

The front door opened and closed. “Buffy?” Dawn called. “Food is here. Also, there's a possible freaky Mortal Kombat mirror match about to take place in the driveway.”

“Uh, what?” Buffy asked as Tara and Dawn brought takeout bags into the kitchen.

“Henry and Spike got back from wherever they ran off to just ahead of us,” Tara said, setting down the bags she carried. “And now they're arguing over driving skills.”

Buffy drained her glass and stood up. “I'll be right back.” She went down the hall and opened the front door. “Henry Alexander Pratt! If you're dumb enough to pick a fight with a vamp who hasn't fed in 48 days, you deserve to get your ass handed to you! Get in here, both of you!” She slammed the door and came back to the kitchen, smiling broadly. “Damn, that's a welcome sight.”

“What? Domestic violence creeping into the next generation?”

“No, Dawnie. The coat isn't on the rack by the door anymore. He's wearing it.”

“Which means you're probably about to get busted,” Tara said. “Between the lighter and the lock picks...”

Buffy returned to her chair. “He'll get over it.”

The front door opened and closed again. Spike and Henry came into the kitchen, the latter carrying a bag from the butcher's shop. “I'll get the first round into the microwave. Angel?”

“Thanks, Henry.” Angel stood up. “I'll go drag Giles away from those books he's napping over, get him in here for dinner.”

Dawn frowned. “What's he been reading? We're kinda past the research phase.”

“He wants to know more about what we just did.” Angel started out of the room. “I guess he still can't leave well enough alone.”

Spike leaned against the end of the counter, out of the way of the women plating take out food and the man operating the microwave. “Love?”

“Yeah?”

“Only 48, and you went to those lengths?”

“47 days yesterday. 48 today. Except--”

“Today doesn't count.” He shook his head. “You're a hell of a woman.”

She smiled. “The last time you told me that, I was gone the next morning, and left you nothing but a twisted Dear John thank you note behind.”

He shrugged. “So long as you won't be snogging Peaches again tomorrow night, we'll manage.”

Dawn, Tara, Doyle and Henry turned and stared at her. Elise looked confused. “Peaches?”

“Bloody hell, Mum! Really?”

“It was nothing. Totally blown out of proportion.”

Tara put down the take out box she was holding. “Wait a minute... That note was from right before you left your time. Is this the reason for the sketch on the punching bag when Whistler showed us your old basement room?”

Dawn's eyes lit up. “Oh! That makes sense, now! ...Oh my god, Buffy! You didn't!”

Buffy threw up her hands. “Just great! Turn them against me, why don't you? Barely home, and you're already triggering the next mutiny.”

“Which is how you ended up leaving me that note in the first place, General.”

She caught his eye and smiled. “The war is finally over, Lieutenant.”

He returned the smile. “Best news I've heard in years.”

*~*~*

“Don't worry about it, Elise. I have a queen-sized bed in my room, and you're close enough to my size to borrow some clothes.” Dawn looked over Elise critically. “Maybe Buffy's jeans, though. You're kind of short.”

“Jeans?” Elise squeaked.

“Speaking of borrowing clothes, I seem to be having a luggage shortage of my own. Dad?”

Spike shrugged at Henry. “So long as you don't try to borrow my coat, too.” He noticed Henry's stolen glance at Buffy. “Bloody hell. You didn't.”

“Doyle's idea!” Henry raised his hands in surrender.

“It was for good reason, Spike,” Buffy added. “I promise.”

Angel shifted in his chair. “As for sleeping arrangements, what's the rest of the plan?”

“Well, there are bunk beds in Henry's room.”

“Mum!” Henry protested. He sighed at her stern look, then addressed Angel. “At least tell me you don't snore.”

“Of course not!” Angel looked offended. “I don't even breathe consistently.”

“He snores,” Buffy and Spike said in unison.

Silence fell over the room as every eye focused on them, most zeroing in on Spike.

“I did not just hear that,” Dawn said, shaking her head.

“None of us did,” Tara whispered. “Because if we did, we'd have to think about it.”

Giles stood up from the table. “On that disturbing note, I'll thank you for supper and say goodnight. I'll be back in the morning.” He caught Angel looking at him, clearly hoping for an invitation to a spare bedroom. “Not a chance in hell, Angel.”

Henry stood up, as well. “I'm going to crash early, and pretend I fell asleep five minutes ago, before my life got even more traumatic. Goodnight, everyone.”

Angel caught Tara's eye, and flicked his gaze at Buffy and Spike. “Tara, do you think you and the girls might want to, um, do something?”

Catching his meaning, she stood up and gestured toward the sitting room. “Dawnie? Elise? Why don't we worry about the dinner dishes later? Maybe we could play a board game?”

Buffy threw Angel and grateful smile and turned to Spike. “With cocoa?”

He looked relieved. “I thought you'd never ask. Meet you there.”

*~*~*

Buffy came out to the back porch, carrying a mug in each hand. “So Giles has gone home, Henry's gone to bed, Angel's on the phone with his team, checking in, Doyle won't be back until morning, and Dawn and Tara are supposedly teaching Elise to play Monopoly, but it sounds more like a course in modern slang and our in-house terminology.”

“Got yourself a houseful of soldiers again, General.”

“I had to. I needed them to get you back.” She sat beside him and handed him one of the mugs.

“It's a hell of a compliment.” He put an arm around her and smiled against the rim of his mug as she leaned into him. “Wish I could say for sure I missed you, too.”

She snuggled against his shoulder. “Do you want to fill me in? ...It can wait if you don't, if you need some time.”

“Thanks, love.” He kissed the top of her head. “But it's alright. ...I got dumped back in Sunnyhell, right where I left.”

“The tower.”

“Right below, in the middle of the bleedin' day. Headed for home. Found it looking like you'd moved out. Not ashamed to say, I panicked. My first thought was that I'd been gone a hell of a lot longer than any 48 days. Then Harris stopped by, ringing up the plumbers to bellow at 'em for not showing up. Can't believe I forgot about the pipe work.”

She shrugged. “You've been a little busy this summer. It's a legitimate excuse.”

“Busy wasn't the term I was thinking of.” He took another sip of his cocoa. “More like dust bunny.”

“I wish I'd never said that.” There was a long silence before she whispered, “What do you remember?”

“Not much. Whatever I was doing, the memories got wiped.”

“Whistler told me to expect that, but I wasn't sure if it was true.”

Spike stared out into the darkened yard. “Only got to keep one memory. Got to stop by here to see you, when the kids were about primary school age.”

“Wow. ...I don't suppose you know what year that was.”

“Didn't ask, and you didn't offer.”

“Good, so the question stands.”

He took a sip from his mug. “Meanwhile, you managed to brass off the High and Mighties enough to get me kicked off their minion squad, and in under two months. Mind if I ask what the rush was?”

“Whistler said they might keep you for years,” she whispered. “I couldn't take that chance. I need you here. We all do.” She pressed her cheek against his shoulder, savoring the feeling of his arm tightening around her. “I went pretty wild, if you haven't guessed. My little demon has been off its leash. I've been drinking almost every night to keep myself calm. It was a lot, at first, before I got it under control. ...Angel's been my rock while you've been gone. Almost daily phone calls and a standing offer to come out here the second I needed him. When I finally said I did, he was on the next night flight out. He's been pretty worried about the crazy stuff I've been up to, with the hostage-taking and everything.”

“Might understand if you considered going out shopping for another bloke, love, but not that one.”

She shook her head against his shoulder. “Not like that. I think... I think Angel and I are finally friends. I know you said it would never happen, but it did. And he wants that with you, too. He said something one night that stuck with me. It was 3 a.m., and I was totally wasted, as was usual during the first few weeks. He said, 'I should come out there and knock the bottle out of your hand, since your mate isn't there to do it.' He wasn't babysitting me just for himself, Spike. He was doing it for you.”

“Be right back, love.” Spike gave her another kiss on the top of her head and went back into the house. He found Angel in the parlor with a sketch pad in his hand. “Angelus.”

Angel looked up. “Hey. I thought you guys needed some alone time.”

“Just need to say something to you.”

He put aside the sketch pad and rose to his feet at the serious expression on Spike's face. “She told you about the phone calls.”

“She did.”

“I wasn't... I guess it probably sounds like I was making a move...”

It took Spike a moment to force out the words he needed to say. “Owe you a 'thank you,' Liam,” he whispered. “For keeping an eye on her for me.”

“I told you, I want us to be like family... She chose you. I get what that means for me, and I've been trying to live up to that.”

“As a clan elder.”

“And an old friend. To both of you.”

“Hell of a start, joining the general's army to get me back.”

Angel shrugged. “The Powers should know better than to mess with Buffy.”

“That they should.”

There was a brief silence before Angel whispered, “It's going to be soon, isn't it? The claim?”

“Hope so.”

“Congratulations.”

Spike tilted his head at his grandsire. “I think you actually mean that.”

Angel shrugged. “I think I might. Or I will mean it. I'm still struggling with it, some days.”

“At least you're being honest about it. Points for that.” Spike started to back out of the room. “If you'll excuse me, it seems I've got someone waiting for me.”

“And she's as impatient as you are,” Angel said, returning to his sketch. “Lucky for you.”

“Yeah. Lucky.” He stopped at the doorway. “She still hasn't told me what's wrong.”

“Why do you think something's wrong?”

Spike raised an eyebrow. “A response like that, for one. You've been talking to her nearly as much as Glinda. What's on her mind?”

Angel looked down at the sketch he was working on, of a woman with a scythe in her hand leaning over a large, round table with a fierce look in her eyes. “Nothing that's my business to say.”

“That's all I'm gonna get from you?”

“Just be grateful, William. Be grateful she'd do anything for you, and wait it out. You'll know the rest, soon enough.”

Spike narrowed his eyes on his elder, waiting for more, and wondering if the antiques in the parlor were in danger of destruction. When Angel refused to look back up from his sketch, he headed back to the porch.

He found Buffy on her back, staring up at the stars. “Please tell me they aren't talking to you.”

She giggled. “I didn't expect Dru to show up, but I should have known she would. I'm pretty sure she's already adopted me into the clan... Maybe she's always known that's where I'd end up.”

“Yeah, about that... Round two is long gone, isn't it?” He returned to his place beside her.

“It is. And I think it was for the best. I needed to feel everything at full strength, to know I was on the right path... and to let it roar.” She sighed. “I also wanted to prove the general could still fight without her lieutenant, and I can. But it's so much harder than I remember.”

He looked her over as she sat back up. “You look like hell, love.”

“I'll be ok, now. You know I don't sleep well alone, even drunk. And the nightmares have been awful.”

“Every night?”

She took a deep breath, pushing back the images and emotions of the spectator dream. “Not lately, but at first, yeah. Every night. ...Mostly about the one that counted.”

“Someone wrote me a note in a book, once. Said I'd saved her in ways I'd never even know... It's mutual. Thought you knew that.”

“I guess I did. But knowing that really wasn't enough.” She took his hand, holding it tightly as she looked back up at the stars above them. “It just wore me down. Keeping up the brave face, telling everyone I was sure I'd get you back... and being filled with doubt every day. That's when I talked to you the most, when I needed to tell someone I wasn't all that confident. ...You're the strong one, Spike. You probably want to argue about it, but I know I'm right. I couldn't survive it without falling back on you. Even... gone, you were still the one thing holding me together. I need you.”

There was a long silence. Spike watched her, staring up at the sky. He lifted their joined hands, studying her wedding ring as it caught the light from a window behind them. He kissed the back of her hand. “You think we're about done with being separated?”

“I sure as hell hope so.”

“Buffy, will you finally take me as your mate?”

She turned to look at him, a smile forming on her face. She opened her mouth to speak, but the back door flew open, interrupting the moment.

Dawn stepped out onto the porch, with Elise right behind her. “Will you two please explain to this girl that 'bad ass' is not a diss? She thinks I'm insulting you behind your backs.”

Tara stepped to the doorway behind them. “Girls! I thought we were going to leave them alone for a little while.”

“It's a crude compliment, if that's what it really is,” Elise said. “Those two words put together do not sound like something someone would wish to hear about themselves.”

Buffy and Spike traded glances, and broke into laughter. He climbed to his feet and took Elise's hands. “'Lise, pet, it's a compliment, I promise,” he said, still chuckling. “It means someone who can be intimidating, and put up enough fight to back it up.”

“And calling Dawn 'Nibblet' is not an insult, either? Speaking of her as if she's... food?”

Tara and Dawn joined in the chuckles. “Elise, sweetie, as far as the planted memories go, he's been calling her that since she was about ten years old. All it means is that she's the little one among us.”

Spike shrugged. “Wouldn't bite her, anyway.”

“Monk magic and Cheetos?” Elise asked with a sly smile.

“That one didn't take long to get to you, did it?” Spike pulled Elise into a hug as he chuckled. “Welcome to my new family, 'Lise. You'll do just fine.”

Behind him, Buffy's laughter faded away as tears began to roll down her cheeks. Spike pulled away from his sister as the bawling began in earnest, kneeling beside Buffy and wrapping her in his arms. By the time Tara had ushered Dawn and Elise back into the house, nearly seven weeks of restrained tears were escaping in a torrent.

“It's alright, love. I'm here now,” he murmured soothingly.

When Buffy finally calmed enough for words, they were muffled against his chest, but he heard them clearly. “I love you, Sparky. Don't leave me again.”

“That a 'yes,' love?” he whispered over her head, still holding her tightly.

She sniffled. “Of course it's yes.” The chuckle vibrating through his torso brought her head up. She smiled as she wiped away her tears with the back of her hand. “Dammit. We're never escaping the shadows of Willow's magic, are we?”

“Don't know about that. Wasn't Red and her magic brought me home, love. It was the same stubborn slayer that got me out of that bloody cave. My unstoppable general, on the warpath. Time we had that argument 'bout who the strong one is, don't you think?”

Buffy sniffled again. “I think I need a box of tissues first. And maybe a good night's sleep.”

“It can wait. Got all the time in the world.” He lifted her chin with his fingertips, drawing her eyes to his. He saw a flicker of something that looked like anger on her face, but it was gone as soon as it had come. “I still don't mean to rush you, even after all this. Later is fine, love.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Are you second guessing me, Lieutenant?” she asked, her voice as stern as she could manage. “I believe I said Plan B is a go.”

He kissed her forehead, chuckling. “I hear you, General.” He glanced at the house, then back at her. “It's good to be home.”

“Are we?”

*~*~*

In the master bedroom at William's Folly, Spike woke up to the feelings of a warm body tangled up with his own, two familial signatures in the house, and the instinctive dread of the rising sun. He looked toward the window, but no light came through the heavy curtains Buffy had carefully closed the previous night. He listened to the faint whispers of heartbeats, enjoying finally living in a time when the old farmhouse was occupied, rather than being promised it would happen. One of the heartbeats was faster than the others, and seemed to be coming from downstairs. Someone was awake. He slowly moved away from Buffy, trying to disentangle them without waking her.

She grabbed his arm without opening her eyes. “Spike?”

He stopped moving.

“You'll still be here when I wake up?”

“No further than downstairs. I promise.”

She pulled her hand away. “Everything's ok?”

“Seems to be.” He kissed her forehead, sighing at the all too familiar sight of a fresh tear in her pillow. “Back to normal, I suppose.”

Buffy's response came in a slow mumble as she drifted back to sleep. “As long as you're here.”

He climbed out of bed, pulled on his jeans, and went downstairs, finding Tara in the dining room, reading an old, yellow-paged book.

She looked up at him. “What kind of creature of the night gets up with the sun?”

“The kind in need of coffee, I guess.”

“It should be finished brewing any minute.”

“I'll bring you a cup. You up for a chat?”

“I think I'm up for anything.” Tara smiled. “I sucked up a lot of power from the scythes to be able to do those teleports. Being able to sleep might be an issue for a few days, until I start feeling normal again.”

“Hopped up on the extra mojo, and still drinking coffee?”

She shrugged. “We all have our vices.”

“And yours comes with hazelnut creamer. ...You haven't asked what I want to talk about.”

“I assumed you wanted more details about... well, everything.”

“That'd be a start.”

Tara bit her lip thoughtfully as she watched Spike leave for the kitchen. By the time he returned, carrying two cups of coffee, she'd completely forgotten the book in her hand.

“Glinda? Where are you, pet?”

“Huh?” She jerked out of her thoughts and accepted the mug being offered to her. “Thanks. Sorry, I guess I'm just not used to you being here yet.”

He sat down across from her. “Get used to it. With any luck, you lot will be stuck with me for life.” He took a sip from his mug. “By the way, you're a bloody awful liar. What's really on your mind?”

“Spectator, mostly. I didn't hear it last night. I mean, I didn't expect to, and it's not like it's every night these days, anyway. It's been less frequent since she cut down on the whiskey and started the Barcelona project. It's been even less lately, but the few times it's shown up have been pretty bad.”

“What spectator?”

Tara set down her coffee cup. “She hasn't told you about it?”

“Not yet. Still haven't managed to get a lot of talking time in. She mentioned the Barcelona project, but hasn't gotten around to details.” Spike smirked. “Had other priorities by that point in the conversation.”

“Ok, so I guess I should start from the beginning.” She frowned, realizing something. “Speaking of things that didn't happen last night...” She gestured to him, showing a lot of skin in his shirtless state. “I was expecting to see something different about you this morning.”

“That makes two of us. Lucy's people happen to stock spare pillows in the linen closet?”

She sighed. “Please don't tell me I have to buy more Flower of Norggran.”

“Not if I can help it.” He leaned forward in his chair. “What's on her mind, Glinda? What's she holding back?”

“If I had to guess, I'd say it has something to do with the spectator dream, or her crossing some pretty big lines, legally and with the Powers.”

Legally?” He settled back into his chair. “Best give it to me from the top.”

“Spike, did you happen to notice two things missing from your coat pockets?”

*~*~*

When people began waking up and making their way downstairs, Tara went to the kitchen to begin breakfast preparations.

Spike went upstairs to shower. By the time he was dressing, Buffy was the only other person upstairs, and she was still reluctant to roll out of bed. “Trust me, love,” he whispered in her ear. “You'll have a lot more nights to catch up on your sleep. I'm not going anywhere.”

“I've heard that before.” She rolled onto her back. “What's so important?”

“Throw some clothes on and come find out. It's perfect, Buffy. Every sound of it. You won't regret getting up to see it.”

“Fine. But only because I love you.” She rolled off the bed and made her way sleepily to the bathroom. “This had better be good, Spike. That was the first decent night's sleep I've had in a long time.”

Spike went downstairs, intent on getting to the microwave before Angel did. He was in the kitchen when she came into the room, stopping at the doorway to observe.

Giles had bought doughnuts on his way to the Folly, and the box was sitting open on the table between him and Elise he sipped his coffee and she made faces at hers. Tara was at the stove, scrambling eggs. Dawn and Henry were leaning against the counter by the sink, deep in a conversation about time travel paradoxes. Angel was struggling with the coffeemaker, trying to get another pot to start brewing. Spike was standing by the microwave, tapping his fingers on the counter impatiently while his mug of pig's blood warmed.

Buffy leaned against the door frame, watching the scene with a huge smile on her face, reveling in the sounds of cooking, appliances at work, and overlapping conversations filling the room.

Doyle flashed into the room in front of her. “Morning, sweetheart.”

She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him aside, so he wouldn't block her view. She nodded to the room before them. “Do you see this? Do you hear it?”

He followed her gaze. “A kitchen full of people?” He shrugged. “Listen, Firecracker, I need to get Henry back. They've worked out the details and--”

She stopped him with a raised hand, not taking her eyes from the kitchen. “Later. Right now, I'm basking.” She lowered her hand to wave him into the room. “Go get a doughnut or something.”

“Uh, sure. Why not?” With another shrug, Doyle headed for the table, passing Spike, who was making his way toward Buffy with a mug in each hand.

He handed her the one full of coffee and took up a post beside her, grinning in response to the smile she still wore. “Told you so.”

“You were right,” she whispered, reaching out to take his hand. “It's perfect. ...We're finally home, Sparky. We're finally really home.”





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