Buffy's gaze travelled the vamp-filled room, her eyes finding Lindsey's. He gave the tiniest shake of his head, and she sighed and pushed her glasses back up her nose, resigned to playing the role of Lindsey's paralegal aide for however much longer was necessary. She scribbled unintelligible, meaningless notes, topped off goblets with the blood they'd drugged, and settled for evading wandering hands rather than chopping them off at the wrists. The time would come for that. Soon, she hoped.
Taking on thirty vampires, just the two of them, was foolhardy. Buffy knew that. But she was just so bored.
At last, several vampire heads began to nod. Lindsey removed his suit jacket, and folded it carefully over a chair in the corner. He loosened his tie and began to roll up his sleeves.
Buffy discarded her fake I'm-sexy-and-smart glasses and her own navy blazer, palming the pair of stakes from the pocket before she dropped it. She sidled over to the convention room doors and waited, adrenaline making her hyper aware of each and every twitch from the room's thirty vampires.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen," Lindsey said, drawing his new penknife from his pocket and shaking it out to full rapier length. "I believe this concludes the negotiation portion of the evening."
The worst of the blood-drugged vampires stared, befuddled, while the less greedy of their kin rose from their chairs, fangs bared. "What is this, lawyer?" a small, wiry brunette snarled. "Why does Wolfram and Hart betray us this way?"
"Oh," Lindsey said, feigning confusion. "Did I forget to tell you? I don't work for them anymore." With that, he spun, rapier glinting, and sliced her head from her body. "Your contract is null and void," he said as she exploded in a cloud of dust.
By the time her remains had settled to the ground, even the most dazed of the vampires had leapt to their feet. Most of them rushed the doors, where Buffy stood grinning, a stake in each fist. They stopped short, glancing between her and the man with the sword, who beheaded two more of their comrades without breaking a sweat. Deciding she was the easier foe, they rushed her again.
"Aw, don't leave now," she said. "Things were just starting to get interesting."
Buffy kicked away the biggest and most alert-looking of the vampires, and dusted the less threatening ones as she staked her way through the crowd. Before long, she was down to three opponents, two males and a female who circled her, growling. She circled with them, edging them closer to Lindsey.
"Thought you said these Phoenix vamps were going to be a challenge," Buffy said as she and Lindsey closed ranks, back-to-back, the seven remaining vampires forming a ring around them.
"You're outnumbered," the clan leader, a tall, thin brute with a scar running diagonally from temple to chin, pointed out. He sniffed and grinned, fangs glistening with saliva. "And bleeding. Smells de-licious."
"Bet you say that to all the girls," Buffy said. Lindsey's shoulders flexed against her back. He went left while she went right, and they were down to five vampires. "And, excuse me. I wasn't talking to you. Lindsey? This challenge you promised me?"
Lindsey laughed. "Didn't mean they were tough. Just that there were a lot of them. Like cockroaches."
Four of the vampires rushed Lindsey. Scarface narrowed his eyes and lunged for Buffy, snapping her head to the side with a sharp kick and following with an uppercut that sent her flying across the room to slam into the wall.
Dazed, Buffy could only watch as he bore down on her and hauled her to her feet by her neck. Shaking her like a kitten, he said, "Why did you come here? What game are you playing, Slayer?"
"Game?" Buffy croaked. "Thought it was obvious. You – vampire. Me – Slayer." She kicked out, catching him in the stomach, and slammed her stake home when he doubled over in pain. She fell to the ground with a thud.
Buffy dusted herself off and cast a glance Lindsey's way to make sure he was okay. He was facing off against the last two vampires, his sword an extension of his arm as he parried their feints. Fluid and lightning quick, his natural grace made for a riveting display, and she decided it was safe to catch her breath for a moment and take in the show.
They'd rid Phoenix of twenty-eight vampires tonight, soon to be thirty. It was a good night's work. From what Lindsey had said, Scarface and his clan were no Big Bads bent on world dominion, but a vampire was a vampire. Evil to the core, every last one of them.
She frowned. Well, except possibly the two souled vampires. Spike and Angel.
Ugh, she thought, and shook her head. That was why she was here, with Lindsey – so she didn't have to ponder these dilemmas anymore. Didn't have to worry about the old Buffy's life, or her moral quandaries.
Vampires Bad. Simple.
No souled vamps, no souled vamps in love with her, and certainly not two of them. Two. How did that even happen?
Across the room, Lindsey ducked a blow, got caught by kick from the other vampire, then rolled and came up, sword arcing out to slice neatly through both necks. He dropped his weapon and dusted his hands, giving her a cocky grin that set her blood humming and made her smile in return.
"Well, Xena, think we've cleaned up this town."
Buffy wrinkled her nose. "Nope. Definitely not Xena. Or Gabrielle."
She'd thought about taking a new name to go with her new life – apparently a habit of hers – but nothing had appealed so far. They'd been tossing around alternates for the past month, ever since they'd decamped from Los Angeles, and each had struck her as more ludicrous than the last. Only 'Anne' tempted, and Buffy figured she'd already played that scene out. She didn't need a daily reminder of what she'd been told was the precedent for abandoning those who loved her.
"How about She-Ra?"
"That's even more ridiculous than Buffy," she said gloomily.
Still chuckling, he reached out a hand and pulled her to her feet. Hand clasped in his large, warm one, Buffy found herself close enough to feel the heat radiating off Lindsey's body, close enough to catch the masculine, pleasant scent of his sweat mixed with the smell of his cologne. Her eyes travelled from his lips to his blue, blue eyes that seemed to darken as they locked gazes.
Seconds ticked by. Buffy recognized the feeling of residual battle-inspired adrenaline snaking through her veins, seeking an outlet. With nothing left to fight, her blood lust had morphed into just plain lust. It made her skin feel tight and itchy, and desire pool in her belly.
It wasn't the first time she'd had this reaction post-slaying, nor was it the first time she'd felt attraction to Lindsey. Maybe she didn't exactly remember sex, but her body hadn't gotten the memo that you couldn't miss what you didn't know, and it was quite insistent that sex, now, would be of the good. Before, when Lindsey had styled himself as her Watcher, she'd pushed the lusty badness away. Now –
Now he was a partner, not a guardian figure. Now, it wouldn't be so wrong.
His gaze flickered between her eyes and her lips, and then down to her still-heaving chest and back up again. Buffy felt balanced on the edge of a precipice. Her next move would define their relationship.
With a regretful smile, she stepped back, pulling her hand from Lindsey's grasp.
Buffy knew he was still mourning Eve, and beyond that, she'd found some measure of peace and comfort in his company. She didn't want to risk losing that. There was also the question of his trustworthiness – Lindsey might be batting for the white hats just now, but she wasn't sure he wouldn't change his mind again, especially if he perceived a chance to take Angel out. Right or wrong, Lindsey blamed Angel for many things, including Eve's death, and hatred was a powerful motivator. She didn't want to take the chance that she'd someday have to choose between the man she was sleeping with and doing the right thing.
Lindsey gave her a half-smile and stepped back too, and Buffy knew she'd made the right choice. She wanted him as a fighting partner more than she wanted a lover.
But still. Why did he have to smell so damn good? How was that any kind of fair?
"I think we've cleared Phoenix out, or at least as well as we can without attracting attention," Buffy said, breaking the tension between them. "Where to now?"
He picked up his sword and gave it a shake, and it shrank back to pocketknife sized. "How do you feel about cowboy country?"
If Lindsey was anything to go by, Buffy felt just fine about cowboys. "You mean like... uh..." Where did cowboys live? Texas, right? What was in Texas? Maybe she could blame not knowing on the amnesia. "Dallas?" she tried.
"Sure, Dallas. Big city, ought to see some action. Then, maybe Tulsa."
Buffy sensed them before she saw them – rather, she sensed the vampire before she saw it. She faded into the wall behind a fake potted tree, taking advantage of her unexplained ability to disappear from sight. From there, she observed the mall patrons, searching for the source of the sudden prickling of fine hairs on her arms.
She'd spent the afternoon at the mall, intent on restocking her ravaged wardrobe. Though Lindsey had some sort of secret fund, enough to live off of, it didn't allow for lavish spending sprees. Or so he said, and since it was his money, Buffy didn't feel right asking for more than she really needed. She'd limited herself to new jeans and tops, and comfortable, utilitarian running shoes rather than the cute pair of sandals that had caught her eye. After grabbing something at the food court, she'd window-browsed, putting together the fabulous outfits she would buy if she were a normal girl with a job and a lifestyle that didn't demolish her wardrobe on a nightly basis.
From behind her potted plant, Buffy caught a flash of peroxide blond. She sucked in her breath, heart hammering, and went up on tippy toes. The blond drew closer, and with him, a girl as familiar as – her own sister.
Buffy starfished back against the wall, her mind spinning. She couldn't breathe. Black stars burst in her field of vision. In front of her, the unlikely couple hurried past, towards the food court.
Hands grasping at the plaster and paint behind her, opening and closing in a desperate attempt to find purchase, she forced herself to take a breath. And another.
Dawn. And Spike. Here. In Tulsa.
Looking for her?
She peeled herself off the wall and followed, staying to the edges. The pair stopped at the food court, and Dawn pointed to the table where Buffy had sat earlier.
Check and mate on the why they were here.
Spike swiveled his head, eyes narrowed, scenting the air. Searching for her. Buffy went still, praying whatever camouflaging powers she'd been blessed with worked on vampire senses.
They must have, because a moment later he and Dawn hurried away, weaving in and out of the shops as they passed. Buffy let out her breath and turned and hurried the opposite way, bags forgotten behind the tree where she'd dropped them.
By the time she reached their apartment, she'd regained control of her breathing. The panicky dread she'd been fighting had eased, but she still banged her way through the front door, muscles painfully tight with coiled tension.
Lindsey appeared at his bedroom door. One look at her face had him striding across the room to grip her by the shoulders. "What happened?" When she didn't answer immediately, he shook her a little. "Buffy. What is it?"
"They found me. They're here."
"The Shamaya are here?" He craned his head to the door, eyes tracing the painted glyphs on the doorjamb. "Did they follow you? How many?"
"There were two of them." She shook her head, brow creased. "The Shim-yam-who?"
"Shamaya. The keepers of the divine. Did you engage them?"
Buffy's frown deepened. "Last I heard, Spike and Dawn weren't the keepers of anything. And no to the engaging. I gaged. Degaged. Did a fade and flee."
"Spike and…" Lindsey's shoulders dropped, and he closed his eyes. "Oh."
Realizing he'd expected someone else, Buffy said. "Who are these Shim- these keepers?"
Lindsey let go of her shoulders and moved to take a seat at one of the bar stools at the kitchen counter. "They taught me a lot of things. Before. When I was in Nepal. And they're not too keen on how I've put some of that knowledge to use," he said with a cynical twist of his mouth. "They've been looking for me since."
"That little old monk guy in Los Angeles."
"Bingo. Ironically, the knowledge they gave me," he said, and pulled up a shirtsleeve to expose his tattoos, "is what allows me to pull a witsec, even on them." Lindsey dropped his sleeve and contemplated her. "You're a target too."
There was a long pause. "By association," he finally said. "And, little old monks or not, they're dangerous, even to a girl like you."
Buffy crossed her arms. "You know, Lindsey, I'm pretty sure you're keeping something from me. And I intend to get it out of you. But – right now, it's time to make like a tree. I'm going to go pack."
She crossed to her bedroom. Lindsey intercepted her at her door. "You really want to run?"
"The last several months didn't make that obvious?"
"You miss your sister."
"She's not my sister," Buffy said automatically.
"You still miss her. Why don't we wait? See what they want."
Buffy hesitated, torn. She didn't remember Dawn, at least not from before, but she did feel guilty about abandoning her. And she had sort of liked the kid, as much as she could like anybody right now and feel like it was real. But, god, she didn't want to go back to that life. She couldn't. She couldn't be a sister, or a friend, or a leader. The only thing Lindsey expected from her was to be the Slayer, and that was all Buffy had to give.
Lindsey sensed her reluctance. "Just check in with the kid. See how she's doing. We can always Thelma and Louise after if you don't like what they have to say."
Scowling, Buffy said, "It's not like we exchanged calling cards. I have no idea how to find them."
"Something tells me it won't be too hard."
"Why do you even care?"
Lindsey stepped out of her doorway, heading for his own room. "I figure wanting what's best for somebody else is part of this whole redemption gig. Like it or not, you care about the kid more than you let on, even to yourself," he said as he walked away. He stopped at his bedroom and turned back to look at her. "What kind of pretend Watcher would I be if I didn't notice?"
Buffy scowled harder.
"By the way – we can't leave just yet. Go turn on the news."
She was down to the last demon when Spike materialized beside her.
" 'Lo, Slayer." He caught the beast by one of its four arms, jabbed a hard elbow into its plated middle, and swung it back her way. "How things been with you?"
With several hundred pounds of scaly, vicious demon bearing down on her, Buffy chose to focus her attention on timing the swing of her axe for maximum impact rather than on her unsought companion or the sudden tightness in her chest. Her weapon connected with a solid thwok to what might have been the neck, and stuck. The demon roared past her, came to a juddering stop, and turned. It stomped the ground, snorting like a bull.
Ignoring the vampire at her side, and the knots in her stomach, Buffy called, "Lindsey? I need another axe."
One came whistling through the air. She snagged it and widened her stance in anticipation of Scaly's next pass.
"And there's the Invisible Man," Spike said. "Whatcha going by these days, champ? Doyle? Giles? JFK?"
"Either be helpful or get lost," said Buffy. "Or, hey. Just get lost." Scaly rushed her, and she swung her new axe, aiming for one of its legs. Lindsey copied her actions on the opposite side with his sword.
Spike leapt on the demon's back as it passed, using the weapon lodged in its neck as an anchor. He swung himself up, wrapped his legs around the thing's neck, and yanked on the haft of the axe. His actions wrenched the beast halfway around. It screeched and stumbled straight toward Buffy, the earth shaking beneath its heavy steps.
"Damn it," Buffy said, leaping out of the way. She swung her axe high, aiming for an eye. The demon turned, and Spike had to fling himself free to avoid decapitation.
"Watch it!" he said.
"Go find your own party." Buffy got the leg again, hamstringing Scaly. It tottered on one leg, thundering sideways, and went down.
Lindsey leapt forward with his sword and drove it through the demon's eye. Scaly burbled, and fell still.
"Nice," she said, collapsing to sit on the ground next to an equally winded Lindsey. "Good work."
Spike hovered by them, hands in the pockets of his jeans, shoulders up around his ears. Buffy continued to ignore him – she hadn't asked him to come to Tulsa, hadn't asked for his help in killing the demon. Whatever he wanted, it was up to him. She owed him nothing.
Determined to cold-shoulder the vampire, Buffy turned her head, and saw Dawn on the other side of the park, mimicking Spike's pose. "Oh," she said, breath whuffing out of her. She turned to Lindsey, eyes wide.
Lindsey nodded Dawn's way. Leaning in, he said, "I'll see you back at the apartment."
"What?" Buffy grabbed his wrist. "Nuh uh. Stay."
Still whispering into her ear, he said, "You can do this." He brushed a kiss across her cheek.
Buffy turned so she could look into his eyes, a mute appeal in her own.
"Remember how we trained?" Lindsey said. "Push yourself. Reach deeper. You let fear get hold of you now, and it'll never end." When Buffy tightened her grip on his wrist, he gently pried her off. "I'll be waiting for you, Slayer," he said, brushing a kiss across her mouth this time.
Lindsey stood to leave. Buffy gnawed her tingling lip, bemused by his kiss, and contemplated using brute force to keep him at her side. She sighed and let him go with a nod. He was right. She needed to do this.
"Want a word with you, mate," Spike said, eyes hard, the muscle in his jaw ticking.
"Sorry, champ, you can't always get what you want." Lindsey sauntered off, sword slung over his shoulder.
When Spike strode after him, Buffy stepped in front of the vampire, daring him to take her on. He cocked his head, assessing her. "Right," he said with a single, sharp nod, backing down. "Brought someone by to see you."
Buffy turned to look at Dawn. Her long brown hair had formed a curtain, concealing her expression, but her body language was easy to read. Hope, anxiety, and fear of rejection all came through in the way she jittered in place, tense, straining Buffy's way but holding herself back.
Taking a tentative step in Dawn's direction, Buffy said, "Hi." She opened her mouth to say something else, then closed it. She had no idea what else to say. 'Glad you're here' wasn't true. Neither was 'I missed you', not entirely. 'How have you been?'? Lame.
Dawn tucked her hair behind her ear. "Hi," she said back, biting her lip.
"So," Buffy said. She rocked forward on her toes, wondering if she could outrun the vampire, or whether he'd even follow her. "Here you are. In Tulsa."
"We were looking for you."
"Got that," Buffy said. She stared at her boots. Shifted her weight from one foot to the other. A quick glance sideways revealed Spike resting against a tree, expression inscrutable. "How have you been?"
"Okay. I was worried about you."
"Oh. Yeah. Um…" Buffy swallowed. "Not that it means much, but I was worried about you too."
"Wonderful," Dawn said. "Funny way of showing it."
And this was why she had run. They expected so much of her. "I –" Buffy said, leg muscles coiled tightly, ready to bolt.
"Wait," Dawn said, her sullen, accusatory tone replaced by panic. "I understand why you left, really. And – can we just – please? Don't go? We're not here to drag you back, or anything." She flicked a look to Spike. "But even if you don't remember me, I remember you. I love you."
Buffy backed up a step, "Look, I know –"
"We can email," Dawn said hurriedly. "Or text. Or send Christmas cards once a year, stuffed with impersonal form letters. But, please, Buffy. I can't let you go, not completely. You're the only family I have."
"I'm not her," Buffy said.
"You're not not her."
Spike had come to stand by Dawn, his hand on her shoulder. They'd told her he was reformed, a good guy now, but even so, Buffy cringed to see a demon so close to the girl. "Where are the others? Willow and Giles and Xander?"
"Back home," Dawn said. "In England."
Buffy frowned. "Who's here with you?"
Dawn frowned in return. "Spike," she said, the duh implied.
"Just – him? A vampire?"
The teenager stiffened. Spike squeezed her shoulder, and she glanced up at him. Something unspoken passed between them, then Dawn said, "You don't remember. Spike – you've always trusted him to take care of me. And he always has."
Right. Just another reminder she didn't belong in that world anymore.
Buffy decided to throw the girl a crumb. Maybe it would get them to back off. "If you want to penpal it, I – I would like to try." Dawn's face split into a huge grin. "But…" Buffy crossed her arms, then uncrossed them. They hung limply at her sides. "I can't promise anything."
"Okay," Dawn said, her smile dimming. She stepped forward, reaching for Buffy, then stopped, hands fisted at her sides. "Okay, that's – yeah."
"Okay, then." Buffy scooped up her axe, knowing she'd disappointed the girl, but unable to offer more.
Guilt warred with resentment, and resentment won out. Stomach churning, she hurried off, sparing a single backward glance, just long enough to see the vampire enfolding Dawn in a sympathetic hug.
Buffy wished she could blame her upset stomach on the nachos she'd eaten yesterday for lunch, or maybe a virus, but the truth was she was nervous. Nervous, anxious, unsure of herself, you name it, it all added up to lurking in a hotel hallway, trying to work up the courage to knock on the door at the end of the hall.
Slayer, here, she told herself. And this was what Lindsey had wanted for her. Right?
With ten quick steps, Buffy reached the door, and knocked on it with far more confidence than she felt. Before she could change her mind and retreat, Dawn was in the doorway. Her eyes widened.
"Hey," Buffy said. "Funny story. Lindsey left me."
"When I got back last night, after talking to you? He'd cleared out." And left nothing in his room but a note telling her it was for the best. "So I thought, hey – why not see what Dawn's up to?"
Because being alone when you couldn't remember your past? Possibly worse than being with somebody who expected too much from you.
On the way to the hotel, Buffy had almost convinced herself that, with just Dawn, it wouldn't be so bad. There wouldn't be as much pressure, or as many expectations she couldn't meet. She could probably do that.
Besides, no better way to assuage the lingering guilt over abandoning the girl than by being the one to reach out when it was least expected.
Dawn opened the door wider, grinning hugely, oblivious to Buffy's internal turmoil. "I'm so glad you felt like you could come to me," she said. "This is…!" She squirmed like an overgrown puppy, trying to contain her excitement and pleasure at seeing Buffy, and failed.
"Come in!" she squealed, half bear hugging Buffy, half ushering her inside. "I can't believe you're really –" Expression contrite, Dawn glanced and the closed bedroom door and lowered her voice. "I forgot Spike's sleeping. I should – but I'm just so –"
Buffy laughed. "Gotta say, it's nice to feel so wanted."
She gave Dawn an awkward hug, and the girl led her to the couch. "Should I wake up Spike?"
"I'd rather you didn't, if that's okay. He's – it's too much."
"Good." Buffy looked at her knees. "In fact, I kind of wanted to talk to you about something."
Besides a fear of being alone, Buffy had had another reason for coming to see Dawn. Leaving a young girl alone with a vampire, souled or not, didn't sit right with her. That couldn't be a healthy environment for a teenage girl. It would be better for Dawn if Buffy stepped in and took over. Or so she told herself.
"How would you feel about coming to live with me?"
Dawn started, surprised. "But what about school? I'll be starting uni soon..."
"Oh. Right." Buffy hadn't remembered, because she'd purposefully distanced herself. Realizing how long it had been since she'd seen Dawn, and how much she'd missed, Buffy felt even more awkward. "You're going back soon?"
"Of course. That makes sense. Um, well… we could spend the rest of your time here together?"
"If you want!" Dawn bounced on the couch, eyes sparkling. "Did you mean like live together? Because, you can totally share my room here, or we can go live with you, or get a new apartment, or –"
Buffy cringed. "I was thinking – just you and me?"
"Oh." Dawn stilled. "Oh," she said again. "Spike and I had plans..." she said uncertainly.
"I know you're attached to him, but –"
"You're damn well right I'm attached to him!" Dawn said, turning fiercely indignant. "Spike was the one who took care of me when you abandoned me last year! He stayed. You didn't."
Buffy looked away. "I know."
Raising her chin, Dawn said, "Spike and I are a package deal."
"All right," Buffy said. "If that's what you want." She could get rid of the vampire later. Once she had Dawn out from under his thumb.
And if she couldn't, well. The next few weeks were no more than a test run, and then Dawn would be back to England and her own life. Buffy wouldn't have to worry about her any more.