Ethan was lounging, or lurking, in his new favourite spot, the closed shop kitty-cornered to the Magic Box. It used to be the BookStew, and it was only natural that it had to wither and die, in this country of big malls and fast food. He’d visited the place with an agent, pretending to be interested, and procured the keys with Marcie’s help. Using only the back door, he was pretty sure to avoid meeting any old acquaintances. Turned out that the Magic Box was apparently Slayer Central, and Rupert was there most of the times… when not busy going for food runs or taking food deliveries! The little Cravings Curse was working brilliantly; his old friend was already looking fuller in the middle, and with a sickly complexion to boot. Ethan was not so sure from his surveillance point, but at this stage Giles should probably start having temper tantrums about food, and who knows what other more or less direct consequences of Ethan’s curse. Delicious. If only he could go have a closer look, perhaps plant a camera… but Marcie refused to go near the place. Since coming back to the mansion with a badly bruised arm she’d not been the same; didn’t say a word about what she was going to do to Buffy for revenge, didn’t brag about her power of infiltration. Only her sulking had remained the same. Too bad, he’d found her swagger amusing.
- - -
The house at Revello Drive had no lights on. There was water running all over the basement floor, and something in Buffy gave up. No more hope. She was totally broke. No money in the bank to carry her through the monthly bills, and the checkout lady at the grocery shop had given back her card. Maxed out. She’d had to put back the things she’d cautiously selected. Being alive was unbearably hard. Mom was dead, her father figure was acting like a raving lunatic, and now, to top it all, her basement was flooded. She wasn’t on the brink of desperation; she’d left that behind a while before dying. Now what? Dawn was coming home from school soon, and she would find an empty table, a dry faucet, and a hollow sister who should have stayed dead. Yes, it would have been so much better, for everybody. She sat on the steps to the basement, too numb to think.
That’s where Spike found her, and he had to physically shake her to get her attention. “Buffy, Buffy ! Look at me, don’t do that again, stay here!”
She glanced at him sideways from behind a curtain of hair; “What else can I do?”
“Bloody hell, Slayer, I thought you’d disappeared inside yourself for real this time.”
“Hush now, no wishes on the Hellmouth. Tell me what happened.”
She gestured helplessly to the flooded floor of the basement. “Broken pipes, I think. Looks like a river. I never took Hydraulics 101. Seems like I’m not prepared for anything useful. Or gainful.”
“Stay here. This happened once while you were—last summer. I know where to close the water.”
He took off his boots and socks, rolled up his pants legs and splashed to the wall where the washer/dryer were, and turned a knob up there.
“Here, at least no more water’s coming out. Did you tell anybody?”
At her lost look, he took charge. “All right, then, let’s see... I’m calling Tara, she’ll pick up Dawn from school so she can do her homework and have supper with them at the shop, then I’m calling Harris to see what he can do here, and the watcher better find himself another couch to sleep on, this place has seen enough of him for now. You go upstairs and change your clothes, they’re wet.”
Buffy stared, blinked, and a slow tear slid down her cheek. Then another, and another, and then she was sobbing. Spike debated within himself for all of half a second, then plunked down and hugged her, letting her cry all over his chest.
She cried like a child, no holds barred, and he patted her head and made shushing noises, trying hard to not burst into tears himself. Her pain was heavy, hot and unjust, and it broke his undead heart to see such a fierce warrior and kind woman crushed under its weight.
When the worst had passed, and she was down to hiccups and sniffles, he kept her close as he made the phone calls. Buffy felt emptied of some of her anguish: sure enough, nothing had changed, she still was miserable and destitute and with a flooded basement, but… not alone. Her head felt fuzzy. She found herself looking intently at his naked feet.
She started, looked up. Realized he’d been waiting for her. He was holding back a grin.
“When you’re done studying my very eye-catching toes, will you go get changed? I’m taking you out, Xander will let himself in.”
Buffy didn’t know when she’d become so meek and accommodating, but she’d done exactly what he told her, and now they were sitting in one of Willy’s back booths, eating nachos while waiting for their fried chicken and tomatoes. She was starving.
“How come I never knew Willy served food? It’s really good, too.”
“Demons like eatin’, don’t they? Not like they can go to that French place downtown. I know the chef here, ‘s a half Bracken. Decent cook, and he plays a mean game of billiards, too.”
“A mean game, you say? It’s clear you never played with me.” Buffy didn’t know how those words had left her mouth, she sounded like she was… flirting? Maybe it was the effect of the shock, maybe all those problems together had made her snap, but since her resurrection she’d been so controlled, so practical, and now she had felt a little of the weight lift from her shoulders, to land on Spike’s. He would probably shrug it off, like that thing with the water and the duck, and propose to burn down the house for insurance or some other outrageous solution. Why was there an image of Spike, and water, and a yellow squirty duck in her mind?
He was laughing outright. “Slayer, I’ll play with you anytime, just say the word.”
Great, now he was flirting back. To bring them back to less, or differently upsetting territory, she asked, “Did you know that Giles literally ate everything in the fridge?”
Spike frowned. “What?”
“Everything. Like, there’s no more sauces, or, or popsicles. Also the breakfast cereal, the pop-tarts, saltines, everything. I didn’t know what to give Dawn for dinner.”
“I saw he’s always munchin’ on one thing or another, but I’d no idea it’d gone so far. When did this start? Why didn’t you say something?”
“I’m telling you now! He arrived, made tea as usual—because he doesn’t trust me with it—settled down to chat… all normal. But it’s been like this from that very night. He eats, eats some more, calls for all kinds of food delivery, barely shares—which by the way is the weirdest thing—the he gets really sick, throws up, gets cramps, heartburn, swallows tums like there’s no tomorrow, and after a while he’s eating something else... and you should have seen him when Dawn took an extra slice of pizza yesterday. I thought for a moment that I should sock him one.”
Spike was dumbfounded. “You must be kidding. You realize this is not normal, right? What about the witches, didn’t they notice something was amiss?”
“Willow and Tara have finals coming; they’re at the college library most of the time, usually eat at the cafeteria, or have something at the shop. And well, I…this is the first time I’ve said it out loud, because, you know, he’s buying all the food, and I tried not to be, you know, judgy… and now I’m worried.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Bloody hell, Slayer! Don’t tell me you’re strapped for money, too?”
She looked away, gulped, and said nothing.
“Enough of this bollocks. Finish your chicken. This is no trifling matter, you need to tell your mates, see what’s wrong with him.”
- - -
When they arrived at the shop, it was closed for business but full of scoobies. They had sandwich wrappers and drinks on the round table, and Xander looked up. “Hey, Buffster! Dead boy Jr said I didn’t need to get you a sandwich, but I saved you one of those giant cookies, okay?”
“Thanks, Xan, I’m all set. …is it snickerdoodle?”
Giles’ ears went a little red: “I-I didn’t know you were saving it for Buffy—”
“And this,”-said Spike ominously,-“is one thing we should talk about.”
“Cookies?” said Xander, disbelieving. “I think Buffy’s plumbing failure is a far more pertinent subject for, you know, us humans type.”
Dawn’s eyes widened to cartoon size. “Buffy’s plumbing? What’s wrong with Buffy’s plumbing?” Tara side hugged her.
Xander was chagrined. “No, not Buffy’s, the house’s plumbing. It needs to be re-done, like, completely. I had my friend Tito from work come take a look, and he said it’s rotted, disintegrating, probably only lasted this long because there weren’t as many people living in the place.”
Willow was miffed. “So what, we should have left Dawn by herself? It was just the three of us, not much of a change, and we’re out most of the day in any case.”
Tara winced. “N-no, sweetie, he didn’t mean it like that-”
“Well, didn’t he? Everything was working just fine, it’s only now that there’s been a full house!”
A embarrassed pause followed. Buffy kind of let herself drop on the step between the two sections of the room. “I knew it,” she whispered. “I knew I should have stayed dead. I couldn’t help it. God knows I couldn’t.”
Everybody exclaimed at that, but Willow’s voice was heard above the others. “I really don’t believe this, Buffy! We saved you from unspeakable horrors, and you aren’t happy, you don’t even talk to us, and now you say you should have stayed in hell instead of with us?”
Buffy passed her fingers through her hair, took a deep breath, and then started; “I’m so, so sorry. But I can’t take this any more. I can’t be all sunshine and roses, Willow, because Hell is not where I was.”
Giles jumped up, his glasses in his hand, his eyes serious and worried. “Dear… If not Hell, where were you?”
“I don’t know, really. But I felt so happy, and loved, and I knew Dawn was all right… I think it was sort of my reward... Heaven.”
Dawn looked stricken. Xander sputtered and took a couple steps back toward Anya. Willow scrunched her face with guilt. “Buffy, I-we-I didn’t know, all kinds of monsters were coming out of the rift, it seemed logical that you were… ”
“Shut up! Shut the fuck up!”, roared Spike, “You lot are blinder than moles!”
Giles coldly said, “I really don’t think you have any right to speak. What are you even doing here?”
Spike gritted his teeth, his eyes flashing yellow.
“I’m here with the Slayer. She can tell me off, you don’t get to. As. I. Said. Can’t you people see that there’s a problem with the watcher? Way I heard it, he’s hungrier than a fledgling, and just as patient with it!”
All eyes turned to Giles, and naturally it was Anya who exclaimed, “It was about time someone said something about it. Thank you, Spike!”
“I… I don’t think my eating habits are a subject for public discussion.” He’d lost his glacial glare in favour of a deer in the headlights look.
Tara dried her own guilty tears and stated, softly. “Mr Giles, you have been eating in a very unusual way, for you, I mean. You’re kind of…aggressive about it. And it doesn’t look like it agrees with you, I have to say.”
The Watcher’s face was overly pale, with red splotches on his cheeks, and dark circles under his eyes.
“See, Tara has seen it, too!” Anya was glad to point out.
Giles looked cornered.
“Erm. I will admit to having been somewhat—voracious, all right, but maybe the jet-lag… and I spent this last Summer in England… now that I’m back here I thought I should try some of the local flavours that I left previously untested.”
Dawn looked to be teetering on the verge of tears or tantrums, but she had to say her piece, “You ate stale crackers yesterday, with Crisco and ketchup on top.”
A momentous silence followed.
Xander had a full body shiver. “Cookies, it is. Let’s talk about those cookies.”
Willow was mutinous. “Fine, if you think Giles’ bad appetite is worse than Buffy’s problem… ”
Buffy went to stand near Dawn, and put her arm around her sister’s shoulders. “Yes, that’s it exactly. We are discussing Giles’ monster appetite. We are not going to talk about ‘Buffy’s problem’. I haven’t got a problem, the problem is not me.” Her eyes showed pain, but they were clear of tears.
Giles’ face went greenish. “I’m not feeling very well.” He had a hiccup and ran to the bathroom locking himself in. They could hear him throwing up from where they were.
“All right, kiddies, fun and games time is over. Put your thinking hats on and find out what’s wrong with the watcher.”
While they were hesitantly comparing stories about what all Giles had swallowed in the last days, the man came back, sickly pale and sweaty.
“I think I have a problem.”
He sat down heavily. “By the way, aren’t there any of those pizza fries left?”
“Ok, this is disturbing. Is it disturbing?”
“Can we call a doctor? Giles, do you have a doctor?”
“We could bring him to the hospital if he doesn’t have a doctor.”
“He should eat crackers for the nausea, not fried stuff.”
“Oh, I know! Let’s make a potion to make him stop eating.”
“You mean c-completely?”
“I’ll make him some chamomile tea.”
“Ginger ale! My mom always gave me ginger ale when I was sicky!”
“Aliens have invaded Zimbabwe!” shouted Spike at the top of his voice. When everybody hushed, bewildered, he continued in a normal tone “There’s no time for rational solutions. This isn’t a rational thing that you can fix with niceties.”
“When I was a venge-pardon me, Justice demon, I would have cursed someone to be always hungry—only, D’Hoffryn was partial to a little more bloodshed than that.” Anya was now busy cleaning the table of wrappers and paper cups, unaware of the stir she’d caused with her comment.
“An, honey, let that go, are you saying it was a vengeance wish?”
“I don’t see why not. Either that, or some other kind of curse. Do you have enemies, Giles?” she asked, the picture of innocent practicality.
“Oooh! I could do a general reversal spell!”
Spike couldn’t believe it. The recklessness! “No, not around Buffy, you don’t.”
Willow blanched. “I didn’t think…”
- - -
From the dark book shop, Ethan could tell that something big was happening, but the hiding spot was such, that he could only see the group of people gesturing a lot and talking loudly. He thought he’d heard something about Zimbabwe, at one point, but of course it must have been something else. Now they all were settled at the back of the shop, where he couldn’t see them very well, apparently reading and passing books around. Could it be possible they were onto Giles’ case already? Bummer. He grumbled to Marcie. “See, this is why you should have gone and planted that Resonating Charm in there. I could have heard anything they’re saying! But no, little Miss I Spy could not go there at all. What made you so scared?”
“I’m not scared. Why didn’t you go?”
“They know me, don’t they?”
“If you say so… Anyway, I don’t think I want to do stuff to Buffy anymore. She wasn’t really one of those bitches, we may have had our clashing but now I think it might have been more of a misunderstanding.”
“You said she threatened you.”
Marcie sighed, pursed her lips. “…I may have knocked her out first… drugged her… and locked her friends in the boiler room with the gas open…”
“Christ, weren’t you a bloodthirsty bird! It’s funny, though, I drugged her myself back then.”
“Why, what did she do to you?”
“Nothing to do with something she’d done, I merely needed her to stay unconscious long enough for me to give her a nice tattoo.”
“Can you do them? Really? I always wanted a tattoo! They weren’t allowed at the Academy, for secrecy reasons, they said. But now I could get one! What would my spirit animal be? I could have a snake done around my ankle—you know, coming up to you unseen until he strikes…”
- - -
In the Magic Box, research was in progress on two fronts: identify the possible curse, and locate the source of it. There was some difficulty with Giles himself, who tried to convince them that research would go much better with some pastries on the side, and had an angry outburst until they allowed him to order something from the 24 Hors Deli. Buffy had seen how much Dawn had been shaken by her statement, and had taken her into the exercise room for some sisterly talk. Spike badly needed a cigarette, and avoided going to the back alley as was his usual, so as not to disturb the two girls’ emotional moment. Out the front door he went, cherishing the cool night air and the lack of squabbling as much as the nicotine hit.
Things were starting to look up. Buffy had finally come clean with her bumbling friends, the Watcher’s absurd behaviour was being considered and, with a bit of luck, on the way to be solved, and the lack of money… Well, he had to see what Buffy thought about scavenging treasures. After all, the Amara’s vault was by no means the only cache in this burg. Perhaps involve the Niblet in the venture, too, that could be fun. He lost himself in rosy dreams for a few moments, but vampire senses being what they were, he soon caught a sound of voices coming from a supposedly empty shop nearby. Something fishy was up. He edged closer, listened. Bloody Hell! The exchange seemed to be about the merits of curses against bodily assault! The miscreants smelled human, magic, and, actually, one of them he recognised as their self-styled Marion Jones. He went to call the Slayer’s minions to arms.
- - -
“Chaos requires finesse”, Ethan was saying, “when you put the smaller pebble in motion and it becames an avalanche, that’s where you really have the beauty of it.”
“But, an avalanche!? What if you get caught in it, too? I say a direct hit to the head is quick and solves the problem just as well.”
“You just don’t get it! I’m not into Chaos for solving problems, but for causing them!”
“And you did cause some problems, Ethan,” said Buffy amiably from where she’d snuck in, near the back entrance.
Ethan gave a unmanly screech and tried to run to the front door, but there he found Xander and Willow blocking the way. Marcie vanished, and tried to get as far as possible from Buffy, but Spike had come in from the back door, too, and pointed toward her corner; “I don’t see her anymore, but she’s still here.”
“Keep covering the doors,” said Buffy, “it must be the same someone I felt the other day.”
“Reveal,” Willow said, and gradually Marcie took form under their eyes.
- - -