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Spike looked up from the base of the tower. “Someone’s up there.”

Apparently, vampiric vision wasn’t the only thing that could detect the intruder. “Spike, can you hear me?” Willow’s voice reverberated in his head.

“Yeah. Loud and clear.” The others looked confused. Obviously, this was a private message.

“Is there someone up there with Dawn?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “Can’t tell who.”

“Get up there,” she insisted. “Go now.”

“Yeah, but ...” Glory’s minions made a sea of resistance.

“Go!” He ran through their midst, and the sea parted. Up he ran, blessing the fact that he couldn’t be winded. Meanwhile, Buffy held the hell goddess at bay.

Dawn wasn’t alone at the tower’s pinnacle. “Spike!” she cried, and her attacker turned towards the vampire. Doc had returned.

“Don’t a fellow stay dead when you kill him?” Spike asked, slowly edging towards the demon.

“Look who’s talking.” The creature was calm and cool, his diminutive frame belying the danger he represented.

Spike came even closer. “Come on, Doc. Let’s you and me have a go.”

Doc seemed to consider the proposal, all the while fingering the blade of the knife. A few little cuts to the young woman, the ancient key, and the portal between dimensions would open. Doc was a loyal little minion. “I do have a prior appointment.”

Spike was cocky. “This won’t take long.”

“No.” The demon was unexpectedly behind the vampire, plunging his knife into the leather of Spike’s coat. “I shouldn’t imagine it will.”

Spike sucked back the pain. “You don’t come near the girl, Doc.”

That took the demon aback. “I don’t smell a soul anywhere on you.” His question was almost clinical. “Why do you even care?”

“I made a promise to a lady.”

Doc’s eyes flashed cold, as his tongue lashed impossibly along the length of the ramp. Time to Spike seemed to slow down, the tongue the speed of oozing treacle. He grabbed out at it, catching it in his
hands. Doc’s eyes bulged with shock as the vampire swung him around with the tongue, and tossed him from the tower. “My mum always said not to stand around with your mouth hangin’ open,” he called down towards the shattered body lying on the ground below. “You might let in the flies.”

Dawn was sobbing with relief as Spike undid her bonds. “He was going to cut me. He was going to use me to open that, that thing, and destroy the world. He ...” She collapsed against his chest.

“It’s okay, Nibblet. Spike’s here.” He wrapped his arms around her.

Buffy came rushing to the top of the tower. She dreaded what she’d find. Dawn was leaning against Spike. “Is she ...?”

“Just fainted, is all. Glory?”

“She’s an ex-goddess.” She ran towards the pair, wrapping her arms around her sister. “Dawnie, oh Dawnie. It’s over.”

The rickety tower bent in the breeze. “We’d better get down, Slayer. Don’t trust this meccano set.”

“Right.” She looked down at his hand, stained red where he’d felt the wound on his back. “Are you bleeding?”

“S’nothing. It’ll heal.”

Buffy put her shoulder under Dawn’s arm, while Spike took the other side. She looked into his eyes. “You saved the world.”

“I saved your sister. The world’s just a perk.”

Chapter Text

The vampire was remarkably fast for one so corpulent. He picked Buffy up and swung her around, knocking Spike over. “Bloody hell,” Spike exclaimed, as he picked himself off the ground. Buffy lay where the vamp had thrown her. “You okay, Slayer?” he asked, offering her his hand.

“Oh, yeah,” she replied as he helped her up. “Much better than Chubby’s going to be.” They took off in opposite directions, circling around the vampire. When Buffy got to him, he was already in flames, while Spike leaned against a crypt wall, puffing on a cigarette.

“What kept you?” Spike asked. “My friend and me here were just sharing a cigarette. And they say three on a match is unlucky. Think he’ll vouch for two.”

Another vamp leapt out from behind a tree. Buffy threw a blow at hisface, but he ducked. Diving under the slayer, he tried to force her over, but Spike was there, kicking him away. After a brief tussle, the
second vampire was a cloud of dust.

“Yunno who’d come in handy on patrol?” Spike asked, as they headed through the cemetery. “Red. She could stand on top of a crypt, looking out for vamps, calling to us in our heads with that way she has. Could be bloody helpful.”

“Maybe,” Buffy replied. “Wouldn’t be as much fun with a lookout, though, would it?”

“Guess not.” He paused at his crypt door. “See you tomorrow night, then?”

“It’s still early. Why don’t you walk me home; come in and see Dawn. She loves spending time with you.”

“Yeah.” Spike followed after her. “Don’t mind if I do.”

*****

Giles leaned back in his easy chair, bathed by the sound of The Who. ‘Talking bout my generation ...’

But it wasn’t his generation. Not anymore. Buffy was a grown woman. The others didn’t need him. Anya could run the shop; would revel in it. He wondered once again why he was hanging around Sunnydale.

But would England still be home?

*****

Anya and Xander sat in their booth in the Bronze. “But I want to tell them. I want to share our joy. Don’t you want to share our joy?”

“Of course, Ahn. I’ll be big with the joy sharing.” He put his hand on hers. “Just not yet. I just want the time to be right. This is a big step.”

“But I have a lovely ring in a lovely box making a very uncomfortable bulge in my pocket. It would look much nicer on my finger. The ring, not the box.”

“We’ll tell them. Soon. Let’s cherish this secret for a little while longer. Something for the two of us alone, before we let the world in on it.”

“I don’t want to tell the world,” Anya pouted. “I want to tell our friends. I want them to give us happy wedding showers with many gifts. And I want to get married.”“Soon.”

*****

Buffy called up the stairs. “Hi guys? Where are you?”

Willow and Tara bounced down to the ground floor. “Hi,” the red-head smiled. “We’re going to meet Xander and Anya at the Bronze. Want to come with?” She saw the blond vampire standing off to the side. “Hi Spike.”

“Where’s Dawn?” he asked.

“Up in her room, doing her homework. Or, listening to music and planning to do her homework,” Tara replied.

“Want to spend some quality time with my sister. I’ll catch you another time.” Buffy ran up the stairs. “Hey, Dawn,” she called, “Spike’s here. Want to hang out with us?”

Dawn rushed out of her room. “Sure. We can play rummy.”

Spike smiled. “Rummy it is, then.”

“Um, Buffy?” Dawn asked. “Are you still coming to Parent Teacher day?”

Buffy gave Spike a knowing look. “Sure, Dawnie. I mean, much safer than Parent Teacher night.”

Spike nodded. “Much.”

Chapter Text

“It was so, ‘I don’t want to be here’, but there I was. Parents and kids, and Dawn staring at me like I was going to say something stupid.” Buffy leaned back in her chair and sighed.

“And did you?” Anya asked, looking up from the cash register. “Say something stupid.”

Xander rolled his eyes. “Ahn, I’m sure Buffy didn’t do anything to embarrass herself or Dawn.” He gave Buffy a comforting smile. “Did you?”

“I most certainly did not,” Buffy affirmed, crossing her arms. “I didn’t say anything.”

Willow and Tara giggled together. “Silence is golden,” Willow snickered.

“Oh, right. So easy for you, wiz kid. You like school.” Buffy leaned over the table and rested her head in her hands. “It was horrible. Just like being back in old lady Ritter’s class. Except she wasn’t there. And it was a different school. But other than that, totally the same.”

“It sounds horrible, Sweetie.”

“It was. Tara, next time you can go play mommy. I’d much rather slay vampires, thank you very much.” She bent down even further and lay her head on the table. “What a boring summer. It was great. Getting back to the grind sucks.”

Dawn burst into the shop, Spike in tow.

“Hey guys,” Buffy exclaimed. “I thought you were going to the movies. I ...” she stopped when she saw the tears in Dawn’s eyes.

“It was horrible,” Dawn sobbed. “We should have done something about it.”

Spike put his arm around her shoulder. “Wasn’t your fault, Bit. Bloody town shoulda done something months ago.”

“God, what happened?” Buffy stood and walked to her sister.

“The tower. The one Glory built. It collapsed.” Spike explained. “Buncha kids were playing around on it.”

“Jimmy Middleton. He got killed.” The teenager was shaking. “He was a nice guy. Not too bright maybe, but God ...”

Buffy threw her arms around her sister. “Oh, Dawn, I’m so sorry. How awful.”

Xander’s eyes flashed with anger. “I told my foreman we should take care of that thing, but no. Said why do a job if we didn’t get paid for it. Said it wasn’t our business.”

“So the town passed the buck, and none of us did anything, and now some poor kid is dead. I should have magicked it down.” Willow reached out for Tara’s hand.

“I don’t know that would have been the answer. You could have got hurt, trying something like that.” Tara looked around at the others. “But we did have a responsibility. We should have done something, petitioned the town, anything.”

“And now someone is dead.” Buffy held her sister tighter. “Damn Glory.”

Chapter Text

Spike walked them home. “It’s a bloody shame. Met the boy once, remember? At that movie. Okay kid.”

“Oh, yeah. We ran into him.” She stopped walking, choking back the tears again. “He was my friend, sort of. We worked on a science project together. I felt sorry for him. He was struggling so hard. His heart was in the right place; he just wasn’t good with school.” Dawn leaned against Spike, his arm around her shoulder. They were almost home.

“They shouldn’t have been playing on that tower.” Buffy felt two pairs of eyes bore into her. “Well, they shouldn’t. It was dangerous.”

“Pretty irresistible for a bunch of kids, I’d say. City should’ve taken it down long ago.” Spike stopped in front of the Revello Drive house.

“You’re right.” Buffy pulled out her key. “It’s Glory’s fault. Just such a pointless death.”

Dawn hugged the vampire, who kissed her on the forehead. “Night, Spike.”

“Night, luv.” He nodded. “Buffy.”

“Night Spike.”

*****

That night Buffy awoke to a darkened room. She tried to stretch, but her hands pressed against the low wooden ceiling. Her arms were confined at the sides. She pounded against them, gasping for air. All
around was the smell of raw earth. She screamed. She couldn’t stop screaming.

Willow and Tara burst into the room. “Buffy, what’s wrong?” Willow grasped her shoulders gently. “You’re okay. Everything’s okay.”

Tara sat down on the bed beside her. “Have a bad dream, sweetie?”

“Oh, god,” Buffy gasped. “It seemed so real. I was trapped in my own coffin, and I couldn’t get out. I wasn’t dead, I wasn’t a vampire. I was just there.”

“How horrible.” Tara put her hand on Buffy’s arm. “You’re safe now. Just a nightmare.”

“Yeah, I know. Must have been all that stuff about Jimmy.” She smiled. “I’m fine now. You guys go back to bed. Did I wake up Dawn?”

“Nope, don’t think so,” Willow replied. “You know her; she’d sleep through a tornado carrying her off and the house with her.” She and Tara rose to go. “Oh, by the way. You were asleep when we came in, so I left the rent cheque on the coffee table.”

“Thanks, guys,” Buffy smiled. “You’re the best.”

She had trouble getting back to sleep.

*****

Spike had a Bowie knife in his hand when Buffy walked into the crypt. “Sorry to startle you,” she said, “I just wanted to ask ...” She looked down at the hand holding the knife. “You’re bleeding.”

“Yeah, well, had a bit of a run in with a nasty a few minutes ago. Just got back when you came in. No big deal.”

He dropped the knife as Buffy took his hand in hers. “It looks sore. You should put something on it.”

He stood there a moment, letting her hold it. When she turned her eyes away, he said, “Not to worry. Not goin’ to get infected. Dead, remember? So, you were going to ask ...”

“Right. The visitation for Jimmy Middleton starts in half an hour at the funeral home. Dawn wants to know if you’ll come with us. She’s very upset. Would you?”

He was taken aback. “Um. Sure, I guess. Not in the chapel?”

“No. Just in one of those little living roomy things, I think. We can pick Dawn up on the way.”

“Wait a sec.” He took off his duster and disappeared down the ladder to his lower level. When he came back up he was wearing a dark grey jacket over his black t-shirt. “This might be more appropriate.”

Buffy nodded. “Yep, you’re right.” She paused, looking at him. “Very good.”

*****

Buffy spent the next afternoon with her friends in the Magic Box. She wanted to tell Willow that her sweater looked like a dead Elmo, but she resisted. She was proud of herself.

When she walked out the back door, she was surprised to see Spike sitting there with a cigarette in his mouth. “Buffy.”

“Spike,” she said, “It’s daylight and you’re not ...”

“On fire.” He took a drag of the cigarette. “Sun’s low enough. It’s shady enough here.”

 

“So, just lurking around?”

“I was gonna go in. Giles and the demon’d have my head if I walked in with a fag.”

Buffy gave him a confused stare.

“Cigarette.”

“Oh.” She sat down beside him. “Last year, Giles took me on this vision questy thing, and I met my spirit guide. Don’t look at me like that. It happened. Anyway, she told me death was my gift. What do you think that means? I’m good at killing things? I’m going to die soon? Because I think it’s that one.”

Spike tossed down his cigarette and crushed it. “Don’t talk like that.” He smiled. “I’m dead. Maybe she was talking about me.”

“Yeah, right,” she said sarcastically. “Must be it.” They sat in silence for a few minutes. “Spike, where do we go when we die?”

“Ah. Light conversation.” He tilted his head to the side. “You’d think I’d be an expert, bein’ dead and all. Wish I could tell you. But, to be honest, no idea. Dru turned me, William’s soul went somewhere, but heaven or hell? Don’t have the foggiest.”

“I don’t understand theology or dimensions, any of it, really. I was dead myself, but just for a few minutes. Do you think we go to a good place?”

“You’re thinkin’ of that boy.”

“And mom.” She let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t think about it. Not usually. But Spike, I don’t want to go to hell.”

He put his hand on hers, and she didn’t pull back. “Don’t worry, Slayer. You won’t.”

Chapter Text

Buffy stepped cautiously through the basement, ready to face the noisy peril that awaited her. She walked up to the pipe, as the water seeped to the concrete floor. “So, we meet at last, Mr. Drippy.”

Dawn taunted her about calling a plumber, but how difficult could tightening a joint be? She twisted the wrench, and water splashed everywhere. “There. All better.”

****

Xander’s friend handed her the bill. Dawn looked over her shoulder. “That’s a weird phone number.”

“I did what I can,” Tito said, “but you need a full copper repipe.”

“Great,” Buffy sighed, as the plumber left. “That does it, then.”

“Does what?” Willow picked an apple from a bowl on the kitchen counter and bit in.

“Does me.” Buffy leaned back against the fridge. “I was just hanging on, but things are getting tighter and tighter. Now, with this,” she waved the paper in the air, “I am officially broke.”

“Oh, God!” Dawn exclaimed. “Do we have to move to the poor house?”

“Let me guess,” Tara interjected. “You’re reading David Copperfield at school.”

“There’s a book about the magician?” Xander asked.

“Oh,” Willow exclaimed. “Oh! No problem. I could just magic up some money. Presto, no bills.”

Tara laid her hand on Willow’s shoulder. “I think you’re getting carried away. Money conjuring never goes right. I know you’re good, baby, but slow down.”

“I know,” Anya said calmly. “You could charge. For killing vampires.” She looked around at her unimpressed friends. “Not demons, though.” There was still no reaction, except for Xander’s rolling eyes. “Spiderman does it.”

“No, Ahn,” her boyfriend said. “Action is his reward.”

“You never take my side.” Anya ran out the back door, tears in her eyes.

“Ahn! Wait!” Xander followed after her.

“Man,” Dawn said, “something’s up with them. They fight like all the time.”

“No, they don’t,” Buffy replied in denial. “They’ll work it out, whatever it is.”

Tara took the bill from Buffy’s hand. “Ouch. What are you going to do?”

“And how did things get so bad?” Willow added.

“I had insurance money, from Mom, but her hospital bills ate it up. And house taxes. And food and clothing. And a million other things. The rent you guys pay helps, but it isn’t enough. I thought I had a little more time to deal with this, but I can’t keep that indoor pool.” She wrapped her arms around her stricken sister. “Don’t worry, Dawnie. I’ll think of something.”

*****

“So you see, Mr. Sabatsky, that’s why I need a loan.”

The personal banker smiled kindly. “I understand your situation, Buffy. Things have been very difficult for you. I can’t even contemplate being in such a situation of responsibility for another person at your age.”

“So, I get the loan?” she smiled.

“I really, really wish it were that easy. If your house weren’t losing equity, we could refinance. It’s the only collateral you have. I can’t give you a loan, or even a credit line, without some guarantee that you
could pay it back. If you had a co-signer ... Is there anyone?”

She thought of Giles. “There is. But I wouldn’t want to do that to him. He’s a friend.”

“What about your father? I don’t see any mention of child support for your sister. Could he help?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. And I’d be left with the lawyer’s fees.”

“Oh, I am so sorry.” The man sighed. “It’s not like I don’t want to help you. I do. But you have to face some hard facts.” He steepled his hands together and leaned forward. “I think it’s time to look for a
job. Someone your age should be in college, though, or you limit your future. Perhaps you could go part-time. Or you could sell your home and find something smaller, a condo perhaps.”

“But that’s my mom’s house. I don’t think ... I couldn’t ...”

With that a tall demon crashed into the branch and all hell broke loose, before Buffy fought him off. In the mayhem, someone robbed the bank.

****

“And he still wouldn’t give you the money?” Willow asked incredulously. “Even after you kicked the demon’s ass?”

“Nope.” Buffy sat back in her chair in the Magic Box, surrounded by her friends. “On the other hand, the bank did get robbed. Didn’t even seem like a good idea to ask him for a security guard job.”

“Is this the demon?” Dawn held up the book she was reading and showed her sister the engraving.

“Nope. And I’m really not comfortable with you doing research.”

“Why not?” Xander asked. “I did it at her age.”

“Me too. With computers, yet,” Willow added.

“I ...” Spike looked around at them. “Well, I would have. I’m sure.”

Dawn ignored her sister and flipped though the pages. “What about this one. M...m’vashnik? Like M...m’cookies.”

“Not exactly.” Giles took the book. “Mercenary demon. Works for the highest bidder.”

“Nasty blokes,” Spike interjected. “Owed one twenty quid. Had to kill him.” All eyes were on the vampire. “What?”

Buffy looked at the illustration. “That’s it.”

“Hm. Have to be someone bloody powerful to control one a them.”

*****

The demon burst into the lair, confronting his employers. Jonathan, Warren and Tucker’s brother sat in a circle. After some negotiation, the demon left.

“Wow,” exclaimed Tucker’s brother, looking with unguarded admiration at Warren, “You must have, like, Jedi powers.”

The demon clutched the address Warren had passed him in his claws.

*****

“I had no idea things were so dire,” Giles said to Anya, as they balanced the day’s receipts. “It’s true. Buffy’s in very bad financial difficulty. She needs to do something, and soon, but she doesn’t know what.”

****

Spike sat down beside Buffy on the porch. “There has to be something you could do. I could try to get some cash.”

“No,” Buffy put her hand on his, realized what she’d done, and moved it away. “I can’t ask you to do that.”

“The offer stands.” He smiled at her, and she returned it. “Just let me know.”

With a crash the demon burst into the living room. Dawn screamed. Buffy rushed inside and fought the demon. When Spike tried to help, she yelled, “I want him in the kitchen.” She forced the creature through the room and down the basement stairs, into the deep water. When he pulled off a piece of pipe to attack her, more water rushed forth. Buffy pummelled the demon with the pipe, crying “No more copper repipe!” until it floated lifeless before her.

“You’re right,” Spike commented from the stairs, “does look like an indoor pool.”

*****

As Xander made a valiant attempt to fix the coffee table, and Dawn called code blue on the designer lamp, there was a knock at the front door. Giles stood on the front stoop, and Buffy invited him in. “Can I see you in the kitchen?” he asked. She followed him there. “Anya told me how serious your debt is.”

“It’s not that bad, really,” Buffy blushed. “Not yet.”

“Buffy, this isn’t your fault. I know you’ll work something out, but in the meantime, this should handle the plumber’s bills, with some to spare.” He handed her a check.

“Oh, Giles, I can’t accept this, I ...” She heard another gurgle come up from the basement. She hugged her watcher. “Thanks.”

Chapter Text

“I guess I should think about making supper,” Buffy said, heading into the kitchen.

“I’ll help you.” Dawn followed her, watching as her sister pulled a large can from the shelf. “Oh. Spaghetti. Again.”

“Cheap and easy. Feeds a family of four on a limited budget, without the hassle of much actual cookage. Open the can, heat the insides, and voila.”

A loud knock at the front door ended the discussion, as Dawn ran to answer it. “Hey, Giles. What’s that?”

“I believe it’s called the family meal. Fried chicken, salads and such. Thought you might like a break from cooking.”

Buffy threw her arms around him while Dawn rescued the bag and bucket. “Oh, that’s so great. Thanks.”

“Much thanks.” Dawn added. “Rescued from the clutches of Chef Boyardee.” She called up the stairs. “Hey, guys! Soup’s on!”

****

Giles had taken the chicken and piled it on a platter, aiming for the semblance of a decent meal. They passed it around the table.

Willow reached for a piece. “I’m a breast girl, myself.” She looked knowingly at Tara. “But you knew that.”

“Yes, well.” Giles longed for the feel of his glasses, but was frustrated by the chicken in his hands. “Have you decided what to do, Buffy? Do you have any ideas?”

“Oh, you should go back to school,” Willow enthused. “You need an
education.”

“Why? It’s not like I have a bright and sunny future.” Giles looked at her with concern. “Anyway, it’s too late to enroll for this semester. And it’s not like I can afford the tuition.”

“No,” Willow insisted. “You could sit in on my classes. Audit. Get a feel for things.”

“I could try, I guess,” Buffy replied. “It’s not like I have anything else to do. Though I should really look for a job. Maybe I’ll talk to Xander.”

“Xander?” Dawn was surprised. “Why Xander?”

“Because he has a job. With a real company.”

Giles brightened. “Or you could help us at the Magic Box. We’d love to have you.”

“Right,” Buffy nodded, with feigned enthusiasm. “The store. See,” she said, forcing down her chicken, “many options.”

****

She tried sitting in on Willow’s sociology class, but she might as well have been listening to a foreign language. She wondered if her SAT scores had somehow been rigged by the Council, or if her mother had paid off the review board. She was about to try Tara’s art history course, when time went mad, jumping and speeding up, until she had to hide under a table in the courtyard to avoid being trampled by accelerated students. She found some sort of device on her sweater, but it disappeared in her hand.

She fared no better at Xander’s construction site, when a trio of demons attacked and spoiled her hard day’s work. She suspected her firing had as much to do with her efficiency and strength as it did the
unverifiable demons. Men had such fragile egos.

The Magic Box was hell. After repeated run-ins with a psychotic Mummy’s hand, and an unsatisfied customer, she finally found the solution to her problem and offered to ship the stupid thing to the woman. The experience left her drained.

As she did so often lately, since he had saved her sister’s life, she found herself at Spike’s crypt.

****

She hadn’t meant to get drunk. Really she hadn’t. She was a good girl. She didn’t even like the taste of the whisky. It made her gag. But as the evening went on, she found that the shots and conversation went down smoother and smoother.

“So, you think someone’s doin’ something to you. Testing you or something?”

“Trying to drive me crazy, more like. And succeeding.” She held out her glass. “More.” She giggled. “Driving me to drink.”

“We could try hitting the demon bars. See if anyone knows anything. Shake down some lowlifes for information.” He looked at her swaying body. “If you’re up to it.”

“Bars are good.” She tipped his empty bottle. “Bars have drinks.”

“Don’t think you’ve had enough, Slayer?”

“I so drunk not, am.” She smiled at him. “You know, you’re kind of cute.”

Spike considered taking advantage of her, but decided it might not be worth being staked in the morning. “Why don’t I just drive you home?”

*****

In their Lone Gunman surveillance van, the evil nerds totalled their points. Testing Buffy had been a game. Warren won. He always won.

Chapter Text

The Magic Box was awash in Halloween sale customers, much to Anya’s delight and her friends’ chagrin. She was less than pleased with Willow’s attitude as she hassled the customers over outdated witchy
stereotypes, but she was too busy with her own clients to go over and bop the redhead one.

Buffy had the stricken look of one whose retail experience had been a nightmare, and Dawn used the commotion to pocket an amulet she particularly liked. Xander did bad pirate impressions. Giles was not
amused.

When Anya said, “We need more mandrake root,” Buffy was down the stairs like a shot. She was digging through the basement when Spike startled her.

“You,” Buffy said, “bell.”

“Come with a nice leather collar?” he smirked. She turned red, and he enjoyed the reaction. He picked up a tangle of fibres. “Burba weed. Throw it in with the blood. Makes it all hot and spicy.”

“Oh.” She made a face. “You were gonna steal that.”

“No,” he considered her expression. “Well, yeah. That’s what I do. I go where I please and I take what I want.”

“Let me buy it for you.”

“What? No, Buffy. You can’t afford it. I’ll just nick it. Anya won’t even notice.”

“You’re right. I can’t afford it.” Her forehead creased in concentration before she brightened with a smile. “I know. I’ll steal it.”

“You all right, Slayer?” Spike was on the verge of putting the weed back on the shelf out of confusion.

Buffy took it from his hand. “There. I stole it. Now I give it to you as a gift.” She laughed. “Believe me, she owes me. I’ve worked my butt off all day, gratis.”

“Hm. If you’re sure.” He decided to go with the moment. “How ‘bout a little rough and tumble? You, me ...?” She blushed again. She was even cuter than when she was drunk. “Patrolling.”

“Oh, right. Maybe tomorrow.” She smiled at him. “You want to go upstairs?”

“That’s okay, love, but thanks for askin’. Great pumpkin’s on in twenty.” He flashed her one last smile before disappearing down the tunnel, the burba weed thrust in his duster pocket.

She caught herself smiling after him, considered the impropriety of her thoughts, and ran back upstairs.

As Xander watched Anya dance the dance of capitalist superiority, he exclaimed “I’m gonna marry that girl.” Anya was delighted that their secret had finally been revealed. Willow magicked a party for them at Buffy’s, ignoring Tara and Giles’ disapproving stares.

Xander soon seemed to regret his haste. Between Giles’ portents of the future, and Anya’s zeal for babies, the pressure built to a quick crescendo.

Buffy was caught up in the wedding fever. She was so happy, Dawn asked her for a tattoo, but settled for sneaking out with Janice.

The two teens quickly hooked up with Janice’s boyfriend and his buddy, Justin. The two girls talked about them as they walked the streets, embracing Halloween mischief. “He has that Clark Kent thing going for him,” Dawn enthused. “Not the geeky glasses one; the totally hot high-school one.”

After robbing a very strange old man in his home, Dawn found herself parking with Justin in his car. Her first kiss was sweet indeed, until her roaming fingers found the distinctive bumpy forehead of the vampire.

Meanwhile, Giles, Buffy and Spike tracked down the young vampires, defeating a park full of teen blood suckers. Buffy was shocked to find that Dawn had been parking with a vampire, especially one she hardly knew.

When Justin tried to turn the Slayer’s sister, he found that the acorn hadn’t fallen far from the tree. The last thing he saw as he exploded into dust was the tears in her eyes.

At the Revello Drive home, Buffy left Giles to ‘the talk’ with Dawn, after a prolonged gaze at Spike’s retreating form. Willow and Tara fought over magic, until the latter was enchanted by her lover.

All was quiet in Sunnydale. At least, as quiet as it ever was there on Halloween.

Chapter Text

Buffy prowled the cemetery, facing vampire after demon. She felt disconnected, as though she were walking through a haze. Every night, the patrol was getting harder. She didn’t know if she could keep it
up. The bizarre part, which had never happened before, was that she had burst into song, and the song reflected her fears.

“And I just want to be ... alive.”

****

Later, in the Magic Box, she discovered that she hadn’t been the only one with a musical interlude. The Scoobies speculated on the cause, and in doing so started singing again. They all had musical theories, and she grew impatient with them. Didn’t they realize what a resource they had in each other? They could beat this.

“What can’t we face if we’re together?
What’s in this place that we can’t weather?
Apocalypse, we’ve paid the price,
It’s do or die,
Hey I’ve died guys ...”

But that was the point, wasn’t it? Once was enough. For a long, long time. Yet every evil she faced held the seeds to her eventual, likely imminent, destruction. She couldn’t think about that. If she did, how
could she be the Slayer?

They established that the situation was widespread. She saw a chubby man singing about his dry cleaning. Something had to be done. Maybe Spike would know.

He was climbing into the upper level when she entered the crypt. “The sun sets and she appears,” he said. “Come to serenade me?”

“So you do know what’s going on.”

He smiled. “I’ve seen some pretty strange things the last few days. A six hundred pound Chirago demon making like Ima Sumac. Now, that’ll stay with you. I remain immune, happy to say.” He held up a bottle of tequila. “Drink?”

She waved her hand dismissively and sat down on the sarcophagus. “Any idea what’s causing this?”

He frowned. “Oh, that’s it then. Just came to pump me for information.”

“What else would I want to pump you for?” Her tone was flirtatious, but he didn’t seem to notice.

He walked over to the door and held it open. “Right then. If that’s it
...”

She didn’t move. “What’s up? You’re all bad moody.”

“It’s nothing.” To his dismay, he started to sing:

“I died, so many years ago, but you can make me feel like it isn’t so
And while you come to be with me, I think I finally know ...”

(What was with him? Hey, he had a nice voice.)

“You’re scared, afraid of what you feel, grateful to a monster whose
life is yours to steal.
Just because Dawn’s still alive, we’ve got this friendship deal ...”

(He was her friend. She was glad of that. Didn’t he want it too?)

“That’s great, but I don’t want to play, Cause being with you touches
me, more than I can say,
And since I’m only dead to you, I’m saying stay away,
And let me rest in peace.”

(Dead. He was more than that. Wasn’t he?)

“Let me rest in peace, let me get some sleep,
Let me take my love and bury it in a hole six feet deep
I can lay my body down but I can’t find my sweet release,
So let me rest in peace.”

(He doesn’t want me? Doesn’t want to love me? Look at him posing there. Such a drama queen. But so, oh my ... He’s getting awfully close. Is it hot in here?)

“You know, you’ve got a willing slave, And you just love to play the
thought that you might misbehave.”

(Oh, he’s on his knees. What an interesting position. No, Buffy. Don’t go there. Mind out of the gutter. Friends. Just friends.)

“But til you do I’m begging you stop visiting my grave,
And let me rest in peace.”

(Walking in the cemetery. How the heck did they get outside? What was he saying ... singing?)

“I know I should go, but I follow you like a man possessed.
There’s a stranger here beneath my breast
And it hurts me more than you’ve ever guessed.
If my heart could beat it would break my chest
But I can see you’re unimpressed to leave me be ...”

(Can’t believe he wants to end it. End the friendship. Be left alone. That hurts. Why does that hurt?)

He attacked a funeral procession while he sang the chorus. Threw some chairs around, and grabbed the preacher’s collar, though more as an act of desperation, supplication, than a real attack. At the end, he and Buffy fell into an open grave. She saw him laying under her, felt drawn to him, leaned down towards his lips, then jerked herself back. She couldn’t give him this, give herself this. It was wrong. So she bolted from the hole, running off into the night.

She went back to the Magic Box and trained with Giles.

“I don’t think we need to work on your strength,” he said, after a particularly difficult workout on the horse. “Did you speak to Dawn about that incident at Halloween?”

Buffy seemed surprised. “Oh, I thought you took care of it.” She warmed up for the next level of training.

“Right.” Giles knew. He knew she was too dependent on him. She’d grown beyond needing a Watcher, and he couldn’t be her father. He sang about that, and his need to leave her, but she didn’t hear it.

The other Scoobies were in the front room when Spike dragged in a puppet creature, who told them all that Dawn had been kidnapped and taken to the Bronze, before ducking out the door.

The gang was ready to follow after the creature, but Giles proclaimed, “Buffy’s going alone.”

Spike was angry, and confronted the Watcher. “Don’t be a stupid git. There’s no way ...”

But Giles was adamant. “If I want your opinion, Spike, I’ll ask forit.” He looked at the others. “And that goes for the rest of you.”

Spike looked at Buffy. “Forget it, Slayer. I’ve got your back.”

But Buffy was still stinging from his previous words. “I thought you wanted me to stay away from you. Isn’t that what you sang?”

Spike felt helpless, rejected, and it made him even more angry. “Fine. I hope you dance til you burn. You and the little Bit.” He stomped out the shop door.

Buffy blinked like she’d been struck. She thought he’d changed. Was she deluding herself? There was no time to think about it with Dawn in danger. She said to Giles, “You’re really not coming?”

“It’s up to you,” he replied.

Buffy was the one feeling helpless now. “What do you expect me to do?” When she left to find her sister, no one followed. She had never felt more alone.

She looked at a burning barrel in the street. Gazed down into it, and held her hand out towards it, jerking it back. Without even noticing, she started to sing:

“I touch the fire and it frightens me; its crackle burns me to the core.

I’ll be consumed, just ashes left exhumed. There’ll be no me anymore.”

But she could see her sister in her mind’s eye, terrified and lost. She started to walk down the street.

“Now through the smoke she calls to me, to make my way across the flame.

To save the day, or maybe melt away, she dies the tower was just a game.”

Her face grew more determined, as she tried to hide the cold feeling clutching at her heart.

“But I will walk through the fire, for where else can I turn?
I will walk through the fire and let it ...”

Spike sat alone, smoking in an alley, anger and frustration mixed with tears.

“The torch I bear is scorching me. She doesn’t want me I’ve no doubt.
I hope she fries, I’m free if that bitch dies ...”

But the thought overwhelmed him, and throwing his cigarette aside, he stood.

“I’d better help her out.”

Sweet smiled, knowing that the Slayer he sought to destroy was coming right into his grasp.

“Though she’s afraid of the fire, she will never learn,
She will walk through the fire and let it ...”

In the Magic Box, Giles was having second thoughts, seconded by Anya. He had made a mistake, and Dawn could pay the penalty. So together they followed Buffy into the night.

“So we will walk through the fire ...”

Buffy was approaching the Bronze, still dwelling on her fate.

“So one by one they turn from me. I guess my friends don’t really care.

To get in gear, I have to face my fear,
It’s getting far too hard to bear.”

But, together and apart, she and her friends were joined in one chorus.

“But we are caught in the fire, the point of no return.
We will walk through the fire and let it burn.”

Sweet was ecstatic. “Showtime.”

Buffy broke down the Bronze front door, as Spike headed for the rear. The rest of the gang approached.

The demon surveyed Buffy. “ I love a good entrance.”

Buffy saw Dawn cowering on the stage, terrified. “How are you at death scenes? Give me back my sister.”

Sweet flashed her his best evil grin. “You’ll have to earn her. Or take her place. In hell.”

Buffy was damned if she’d show him her fear. She started to sing:

“Life’s insane, it’s wild and mad and free
And anything can be, for anyone but me.

Love and peace, and neverending song
And though some things go wrong, your life still moves along.”

She sang as she fought off Sweet’s puppet minions, defeating them all in
choreographed turn.

“Where there’s life, there’s hope. Wishes can come true.
Every day’s a gift. Whistle while you work, so hard, all day.

Just be like other girls, and fit into this glittering world.
Don’t give me songs.”

Tara and Anya rushed in to support her, dancing behind her.

“Don’t give me songs. Give me something to sing about.
Something hopeful to sing about.”

Her friends dropped back. She would have to face this alone.

“Life’s insane, it’s full of pain and strife.
But also joy and light, when you get a life.”
She was close to tears now, but she kept singing.

“But my friends don’t have so much to lose,
They don’t pay these harsh dues
The Chosen One can’t choose.

All the joy life sends,
Husband, family, friends.
All the twists and bends.
Hoping it won’t end.
Well, that depends ...”

She was climbing the stairs, wishing she didn’t have to burden them with her fears and frustrations. But, in a way, it felt good to get it out.

“On if you get to live, or if your life is just a thing to give.
Cause there’s a catch. Don’t get attached.”

Her face grew drawn, etched with pain. She didn’t deserve to be the Slayer.

“What would I have done, if Dawn had been bled
Would I’ve taken her stead
To close the portal?

Glory would have won, if I’d been afraid
To make that trade, and close the portal.
Could I have closed the portal?”

So, they knew. Knew she wasn’t worth being a sister. Being their friend. Being the Slayer.

“So give me something to sing about. Something hopeful to sing about.”

Sweet’s face was gleeful as Buffy started dancing, whirling around the floor, caught up in the music. She wasn’t aware of the smoke rising from her body, as she started to incinerate, like the other victims of
Sweet’s spell. She only knew that dancing kept her from thinking.

Until Spike’s hands were on her shoulders, stopping her.

“Don’t be afraid, I’ve got your back, in any attack,
You’re a hero.”

He looked into her eyes. Tried to share his strength, his knowledge of who she was.

“If choices you’d made, I know you’d choose right, to fight the good fight.
You’re a hero,
I know that you’re a hero.”

Dawn looked down at her. “You’re my sister. You wouldn’t have let me die.”

Sweet clapped. He hadn’t gotten Buffy, but he could still take Dawn. He made ready to leave. But Dawn maintained that she hadn’t summoned him, and on further examination Xander took the blame. Since the carpenter wasn’t his type, Sweet left in a flurry of lights, after leaving a legacy of one last song. And the legacy of revealing their secrets and fears. Giles was going to leave, as was Tara, discovering
Willow’s mind control spell. Anya and Xander had deep seated insecurities about their relationship. If anyone had been paying attention, they would have realized that Dawn was a thief. All their relationships showed signs of degradation.

Except one.

“Where do we go from here? When does the end appear?”

Spike realized he was singing. “Bugger this.” Breaking from the spell, he went outside.

Buffy ran after him. “Hey.”

“You should go back inside. Get your kumbayayas out.”

She took a step towards him. “I don’t want to.”

He tried to protect his unbeating heart. “Buffy, I can’t ...”

“I touch the fire and it frightens me ...”

“I died ...”

“It’s crackle burns me to the core ...”

“So many years ago ...”

“I need to deal, and you can make me ...”

“... feel.”

Their lips met with passionate yearning. This wouldn’t be the end.

“Where do we go from here?”

Chapter Text

Buffy was patrolling through the cemetery when she saw Spike. She blushed, and walked away in the other direction. He followed after her. “Buffy, can we talk?”

“About what?” she called over her shoulder. “Nothing to talk about.”

“We have to talk.” He put his hand on her shoulder and spun her around to face him. “We kissed, Buffy.” She dropped her eyes, not meeting his. He tipped her head up with his forefinger. His voice was gentle. “We kissed. All ‘Gone With the Wind’ with the rising music and the rising,” the shock on her face amused him, “music.”

“I’m sorry, Spike. Sorry you got the wrong idea. It was a mistake. Just part of Sweet’s spell.” She pulled away from him and started walking away again.

“Not just part of a spell. We kissed, and something happened. To both of us.”

She hesitated. “Suppose it did. It couldn’t work. I’ve tried it before.” She faced him again. “It didn’t work.”

He stepped closer. “I’m not him.”

She threw him to the ground as a stake whizzed through the air where his chest would have been and imbedded itself in a tree. “Easy, boys,” said a greasy voice. “No need to get physical.” He looked down at the vampire. “Mr. Spike. There’s the matter of those thirty Siamese you owe me.”

Spike was brushing the dirt off his pants, Buffy beside him. “Siamese?” she asked him. “Like cats? I don’t get it. You tried to dust Spike for cats?”

“She’s a funny one. Just get me my kittens, Mr. Spike. Now.” The shark headed demon licked his teeth.

“I got in too deep in a poker game. Bloody foolish. We play for kittens, we demons do.”

Buffy narrowed her eyes. “That’s ridiculous.” She eyed the biggest of the creature named Teeth’s henchmen and kicked him, knocking him backwards. She dusted him and headed for his associate.

Teeth was impressed. “Have you ever considered a career in debt collection?” Buffy replied in the negative, as they both realized Spike had disappeared.

****

Willow and Tara were sitting at a table with Anya and Xander at his apartment, playing Monopoly. Xander rolled the dice. “Double sixes. Whoohoo.”

Anya compared his pile of money to hers. “You are doing very well with capitalist accumulation, honey. I’m surprised.”

It was Willow’s turn, but she seemed distracted. “I’m worried about Buffy. She seems really spooked. I had no idea her self confidence was so shot. I’m afraid she’s going to go out patrolling one night and not
come back.”

“Come on, Will,” Xander replied. “She’ll be fine. Maybe we just need to spend a little more time with her. Remind her that she has friends who care no matter what.”

Anya smiled. “Like Spike.”

Xander frowned. “Do not go there.”

Willow brightened up. “I can make her feel better. I know a spell.”

Tara’s face clouded, and her voice was angry. “No. No more spells. You know how powerful magic is; how dangerous. You could hurt someone. You could hurt yourself.”

Willow was insistent. “I could do a spell that would take away her fear. Make her hero Buffy all over again.”

Tara slammed down her coffee mug. “God, what is wrong with you?” Xander and Anya shared an embarrassed look, excused themselves, and disappeared into the other room. “Do you think I’m stupid? I know you used that spell on me.” Tara’s words grew more and more angry as she discussed Willow’s forgetting spell, and compared her to Glory. Willow was shocked.

“I didn’t mean anything like that. I just wanted us not to fight anymore.”

Tara was disgusted. The argument escalated, until Tara, full of grief and pain, exclaimed, “I don’t think this is going to work.”

Willow was desperate. “I could go a month without doing a spell. Not one single spell. I swear.”

“A week,” Tara sighed. One week without magic.”

While Tara threatened to leave Willow, Giles was saying goodbye to Buffy. She was devastated. But he thought she needed to be on her own, or she would always be too dependent on him. “I’ve taught you all I can about being the Slayer, and your mother taught you all about life.”

Buffy didn’t want to listen to his words. Giles was leaving, and all she could feel was pain.

****
Willow wasn’t ready the next morning, as Tara and Dawn left for the Magic Box and Giles’ latest briefing. As soon as they were out the door she magically dressed and ran downstairs. Taking a packet of dried
flowers from their hiding place on the bookcase, she set fire to a stem and held a quartz crystal to the smoulder. “For Tara’s sake I do thee char; let Lethes’ Bramble do its chore.” As the crystal started to
blacken, she chanted, “Tabula rasa, tabula rasa.” She stuffed the crystal into the front pocket of her jeans and headed out the door, not seeing the sparks hit the entire packet of bramble. It took flame and
started to burn.

****

In the Magic Box, Giles told the others he was leaving. Buffy was resentful, and the others were shocked, except for Anya, who would finally get the store to herself. Spike came running in wearing a brown tweed suit, pulling off a very unflattering and smoking winter cap, and the Scoobies stared. “It’s a disguise,” he stated. “To hide from Teeth. You know, Buffy.”

But Buffy wasn’t listening. She was too busy blinking back the tears. “Giles, you don’t care if I live or ...” She fainted, prone on the floor. The rest of the gang followed.

When they awoke, without memory, they made false assumptions. Giles and Anya thought they were engaged, Willow and Xander that they were dating, Spike that he was Giles’ son Randy. Buffy and Dawn realized they were sisters, but Buffy, not knowing her real name, chose Joan. When Teeth’s
henchmen attacked, the gang split up, Spike and Buffy into the street, Xander, Willow, Dawn and Tara into the sewers, while Anya and Giles stayed in the Magic Box. All were put in peril, but all survived until
Xander stepped on Willow’s fallen crystal, and their memories returned.

As Buffy remembered who she was, she was knocked out by a vampire, who started kicking her as she lay on the ground. Spike screamed her name, as he fought off Teeth’s minions. Teeth decided he’d had enough. “You’re an odd duck, Mr. Spike.” He offered to absolve the vampire of his debt, but Spike refused.

“You’ll get your kittens. I’m no welcher.” He reached out his hand to Buffy. “You alright?” She grasped it as he pulled her to her feet.

*****

Later that night, everything had changed. Tara came back to the house on Revello Drive and packed her belongings, as Willow grieved their love. Giles was on a plane to England. Buffy sat crying in the Bronze,
desperately missing the only real father figure she had.

Spike saw her crying, and walked over to her. He lay his hand on hers, and she looked up at him. With his other hand, he wiped a tear from her cheek. Her eyes held such pain, he couldn’t stand it. He drew her to her feet, and she started to walk with him, but as they were leaving the club, she stopped. She put her arms around him and pressed her lips to his. As the kiss grew more intense, time stopped. Nothing mattered but his lips, his hands.

Chapter Text

Buffy and Spike were walking downtown on their way to patrol when they heard a scream. Ducking into an alley, they found a young couple being threatened by two assailants. Buffy grabbed one and swung him around, pulling a stake from her pocket. She realized her error just as Spike wound back to punch the other one. “Spike, no. They aren’t ...”

It was too late. The vampire groaned in pain as one attacker ran off. Distracted, Buffy let the other go. She looked with concern as Spike held his head in his hands. “You okay?”

“Will be.” He drew in a deep breath. “Oxygen. Helps. I think.”

The victims of the attack stood in shock. “Um, what’s with his face?” the man asked.

“Just go.” Buffy stared at the couple who remained standing. “Sunnydale at night? Not a happy place. I said go.” She watched the couple disappear into the night.

“Humans. Bloody chip. I’m no help at all.” He leaned against the wall, the pain starting to ease as his human face resurfaced.

Buffy laid her hand on his shoulder. “Come on. It’s been ages since I saw a mugger. And you’re a big help. Usually.”

“Yeah?” He leaned towards her, his lips inches from hers. “Am I?”

Buffy was almost caught in the moment again, but she stepped back. “I told you. This is a mistake. I can’t do this.”

“You could last night. At the Bronze.”

“That wasn’t about you. It was about Giles.”

Spike raised his eyebrow. “Really. I always wondered about you two.”

“What?” She realized what she’d said. “Oh, ick. No. I mean I was upset he left. I wasn’t thinking.” She turned to go. “Listen. I think it would be better if I skipped patrol tonight and went home.”

“Right,” Spike muttered as she walked away. “Better for whom?”

*****

Willow sat alone and lonely in the room she had recently shared with Tara, cuddling Amy the rat. Wishing she could help the poor creature, she was suddenly struck with the knowledge of how. “Reveal” she exclaimed, as a printed spell appeared in her hands. Suddenly, Amy was a rat no longer.

 

*****

In the local museum, Andrew, Warren and Jonathan froze a guard with a ray gun and stole a huge diamond. Luckily for them, as Warren said, “The security system here is a guy named Rusty.”

*****

Confused about her feelings, Buffy entered Willow’s room. “Can I talk to you about something?” She sat on the edge of the bed. “You know how we all make choices? Sometimes they’re good, and sometimes they’re ... less good.” Willow didn’t understand, and the Slayer was about to explain when Amy walked into the room.

“Hey, Buffy,” she said.

Buffy stared at her, looked at Willow’s grin, and looked back at her old classmate. “Hi, how you been?”

“Rat, you?”

“Still slaying.”

“Uh huh.”

At Buffy’s insistence, Amy decided to sleep over, and went downstairs in search of cookies. The blonde waited until she left the room. “Wow.”

Willow explained what had happened. “I just realized I could. It’s nice, having another magically inclined friend around.” She focused on her friend. “So, what were you going to tell me? You were sounding all serious.”

But Buffy had lost her nerve. “Oh, it’s nothing.” She went downstairs, where Amy was watching a TV news report about the frozen guard at the museum. She rushed out the door.

*****

Spike was waiting for her in front of the museum. “So, what do you reckon caused this?”

She walked across the lawn at his side. “Is this really about the guard?”

“Yeah. Sure.” He stopped and noticed her intent glare. “No.”

She sighed. “You seem awfully fixated on a couple of kisses, Spike.” “And you seem awfully quick to forget about them.” They stood, eye to eye, until she turned aside.

 

“I can’t deal with this. I told you, we can’t do this. You vampire, me slayer. Been there. Didn’t work. And you don’t even have a soul.”

“Maybe not.” He started to smile. “But then, I have nothing to lose.”

She laughed, a chuckle at first. But the laughter grew in intensity. A little too loudly. A little too wildly. She couldn’t catch her breath. Everything was crashing down on her. Her father. Her mother. Raising her sister. Her money problems. Giles. Spike. Her fears.

The vampire slapped her face, and they both recoiled. “Oh, bloody hell.” He sat on the grass while the pain eased. “Sorry, Slayer.”

“That’s okay.” She took his hand. “I needed that. Really. Always wanted to say that.” She pulled him to his feet. “Let’s go to the Magic Box and figure out what did this.”

*****

Tara and Dawn had been out on a buddy date. The older girl brought her home and prepared to leave before Willow returned, but Dawn used guilt to convince her to stay.

*****

Willow and Amy arrived at the Bronze, where they proceeded to raise a little magic hell.

*****

Xander and Anya sat with Buffy and Spike at the big table in the Magic Box. “What about this one?” Xander asked. “Diamond eating frost monster.”

Spike snorted. “That’s a Dungeons and Dragons manual, you git.”

“Buffy, what exactly is Peroxide Boy doing here again?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Helping us look for the demon. He knows all sorts of, well, demony stuff.”

“And how does he know about gaming manuals?” Anya asked, with genuine curiosity.

Spike quickly picked up another book. “This is it.” He looked closer. “No it’s not.”

Xander felt Anya rubbing his leg under the table with her foot. He yawned widely. “I’m getting really tired. Anya, you getting, you know, tired?”

“No,” she replied. “But I am bored and would like to go home and have sex.”

Buffy hid her smile behind her hand. “You two go home. Spike and I will work a little longer. We can lock up.” They watched the couple leave, and sat her book on the table. “I’m bored too.”

Spike tilted his head and looked at her hopefully. “Really?”

“And I think I’m going in the back room to work out.” She stuck her tongue out at him. “Gutter brain.”

“Fancy a sparring partner, love?” he asked.

“Won’t that set off the chip?” she asked, as she headed towards the back room.

“Only if I really try to hurt you. Won’t be a total workout, but it’ll help.”

He took off his duster and she took off her frilly blouse, revealing the tank top underneath. He lay a few mats down on the floor. “Okay. Be prepared.” She lunged at him, and he feinted back, sending her flying against thin air. She rolled and jumped to her feet. “Good one.”

“Give me your best shot.” To her surprise, he stood her ground and let her hit him.

“Spike. I have a punching bag for that.”

“Not the same, is it?” He dove at her and wrestled her to the ground. “Try to kick me off. Got no leverage, do you?”

But she wasn’t listening. She was panting heavily, and not from exertion. His eyes were so blue, and his body lay tight against hers. She bent her head up and kissed him. He responded vigorously. She
found herself pushing him away, so she could pull off his t-shirt. His chest was firm and muscular. She gasped as she felt him push his hands under the fabric of her top. Felt him reach higher and higher, until
they cupped her breasts. Her hand reached for his belt.

“Buffy, are you sure?”

“No.” She pulled at his zipper.

They made love most of the night, until finally, exhausted, they fell asleep on the mats.

Chapter Text

Light was flickering through the small windows of the training room. It was early yet, as Buffy opened her eyes to find her back sticking to the plastic of a mat. She was disoriented. Not in her own bed. As her eyes adjusted to the dawning light, she realized where she was. Looking beside her at his naked form, she realized who she was with. What she had done. Colour draining from her face, she grasped the closest item of clothing she could find, and covered her body. Covered her breasts. It smelled of tobacco and leather. She was under his duster.

“Spike. Spike, get up.” She almost reached for his arm to shake him, but her hand pulled back. She couldn’t touch him. Look where touching had gotten her.

“Buffy?” Spike sat up, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Mornin’” The look on his face as he saw her, clutching his coat to hide her nudity, was a mixture of amusement and a leer. “You look good in leather.” He reached for the coat. “But even better without the wrapping.”

Looking into his eyes, she almost lost her grip on the duster, but she came to her senses and tightened her hold. “This. This was a mistake.”

“Right. You call it a mistake.” He stood up and stretched, as her eyes grew wide. “I call it the bloody best shag of m’ life. Unlife. Whatever.”

“I have to get home.” Buffy tried crawling around the room with the coat covering her like a turtle’s shell, pulling articles of clothing under it as she attempted dressing discreetly, her eyes averted from his
body. She was only partially successful, and his eyes followed her, delighting in each flash of bare flesh. “Where the hell are my underpants?”

He watched until she was dressed, then stepped towards her, pulling her into his arms. If she wanted to resist, she was doing a poor job of it. They fell back onto the mats, and he kissed her. Her tongue was
soft and warm in his mouth. He had only allowed her to climb back into her clothes because it was so enjoyable removing them.

As the sun’s rays shone a little brighter into the room, she pulled away. “I have to go.”

“What’s the hurry, love?”

She forced a coldness into her voice; an evenness. “The hurry is I left Dawn alone all night. Besides, you really want Anya walking in on us?”

“Would that be so bad? She’s a big girl. She’d understand.”

“I wish I did.” Against her better judgement she looked back into his eyes. They belied his age. They were dancing. His mouth was so soft, so tender. She reached out and touched his lower lip with her thumb. So soft. Thoughts of her sister vanished as she let him draw her back into a kiss. Her hands moved up and down the sinews of his back. She broke the kiss to nuzzle his throat.

“I knew,” he sighed, “the only thing better than killing a slayer would be fu...”

She pushed him away. Hard. “Is that what this is about?” she gasped, rising to her feet. “Doing a Slayer?” Tears stung the backs of her eyes.

He looked up at her, not comprehending her pain. “You seem to be quite the groupie yourself. I’m just saying, vampires get you hot.”

“You. How could ...”

“Are you crying?” He jumped to his feet and reached for her, but she wouldn’t allow it. “Buffy, I didn’t mean ... I was just playing. You know I love you. You know it.”

“Get dressed Spike. I have to go. You can leave through the tunnels.”

“No.” He spun her around. “I’m an idiot. Do you know how long I’ve waited for this? For you? I’ve known that you don’t care. Can’t care. But last night ...”

“I really have to go.” She started walking away. “I don’t know what this means. It’s wrong, and we both know it.” She paused at the door. “See you on patrol.”

****

When Tara and Dawn awoke on the couch in the morning, they were the only ones in the house. Willow and Amy arrived as they made breakfast pancakes, as Willow awkwardly introduced the ex-rat to her ex. Amy enthused about what a powerful witch Willow had become. An angry Tara left as Buffy came through the door, exhausted, and apologizing to Dawn.

“You been in a fight?” Dawn asked.

“Something like that. Why?”

“Because you’re all sore and limpy.” She pointed to Buffy’s throat. “And bruised.”

Buffy tried to hide the hickey under the collar of her blouse, but it was just too flimsy. “Right. Fought a Big Bad. All night. Couldn’t call.” She tried to distract her sister. “Everyone’s safe. You’re all right.”

“I’m fine.”

“Great. I’m going to bed.” She followed Willow up the stairs, after seeing Amy head home.

“Get some rest.” Dawn called up to her. “You’re obviously beat from monster wrestling all night.” She added under her breath, “I’ll just go find some awake people.”

*****

Buffy was a little nervous as she entered the Magic Box for her research date with Xander and Anya, but the vampire was gone and the couple seemed oblivious to the events of the previous night. When she checked the back room, she realized that Spike had replaced the mats in their proper order. With a sigh of almost regret, she sat at the table with her friends and picked up a book.

“We aren’t getting anywhere this way,” Xander said. “Let’s get Spike to help.”

“No,” Buffy replied, a little too sharply. “I mean, it’s daytime. Don’t want to wake him up.”

“How about Willow?” Anya asked. “If we have to research, so should she.”

“Willow’s going through some things, I think.” Buffy sat her book down on the table. “Tara’s worried with the magic usage. I mean, that’s Willow’s business. Maybe she has reasons for acting this way. Who are we to be all judgy?”

Xander looked confused. “Who’s judgy? I’m never judgy. Anya, am I judgy?”

“Usually.” Anya handed him another book. “Read.”

*****

Willow was showing an extreme lack of judgement as she followed her friend Amy into Warlock Rack’s house of Evil Magic. She was hopped up with magic hallucinations, until the intrusion of a frightening demon interrupted her bliss, and she teleported from place to place, finding herself finally in her own room.

Hours later, she stumbled down the stairs to find Dawn cooking peanut butter quesadillas on the stove. She convinced the teen to come to dinner and a movie with her instead.

*****

Spike walked Buffy to her door after an early, uneventful patrol. “See you tomorrow night,” she said, her voice emotionless. As he leaned over to kiss her, she jerked back. “I said no. Let’s keep this on a
business level. We can be friends.”

He folded his hands over his heart, a look of mock pain on his face. “Oh. Ouch. Not the ‘let’s be friends’ speech.” He leaned towards her as her back pressed against the door, a hand on either side of her
shoulders, his palms pressed against the wood. “Think we’re a little beyond friendship, don’t you, Slayer?”

She let him think she was going to kiss him, as she slowly reached for the door knob. With a twist she had entered the house, leaving him outside. “Night, Spike,” she called through the door. She brushed the wood with her fingertips, sighing deeply before she turned and headed towards the stairs.

She stopped at the witch’s door, hearing a sound inside. “Will?” When her friend didn’t answer, she found Amy stealing magic supplies. The intruder was nervous, strung out, and Buffy got her to reveal that Willow was most likely at Rack’s. With Dawn. And no, Amy didn’t know where to find the constantly moving magic house.

****

Dawn waited impatiently in the seedy waiting room with even seedier clients, as Willow let Rack service her in his office.

****

Not knowing where else to turn, Buffy entered the crypt. Spike was napping, and lay naked in his bed. She stopped to look at him. He looked almost innocent in his sleep. An innocent little boy with washboard abs and muscular arms, and a body ... She called his name, but he was unconscious. She picked up one of his pillar candles and prodded him with it until he woke up. “Buffy?” He looked at the candle in her hand. “Knew you couldn’t stay away. Someone should teach you about the use of candles in foreplay.” He took it from her hand, his fingers brushing hers as he did so.

“We don’t have time for this. Dawn’s with Willow.” She paused, expecting him to understand the gravity of the situation.

“And this is a bad thing. Because ...?”

“Because they went to a place called Rack’s.”

Spike jumped up, causing Buffy to blush. “I know who he is. He deals in the black stuff. Magic.” He bent over to pick up his jeans. “Place moves around. Cloaked. You have to be a big bad to find it. A witch, or
a vampire.” He realized that she had turned her back while he dressed. “Oh, that’s right,” he sighed. “Hide your blushing eyes.”

*****

When Willow was finally ready to leave, she refused to take the teenager home. Dawn was angry, until they were both distracted by a particularly ugly and frightening demon.

*****

Spike and Buffy looked all over the downtown for the Warlock’s lair. “Big Bad. Right.” Buffy rolled her eyes.

“Shh. Not so easy to find. Especially for non clients.” He looked hopeful for a few moments, then his face fell. “Nothing.”

“Thank you for helping. I know you care about Dawn.”

“You’re my girls.” When Buffy didn’t object, he continued. “I know you think this is wrong. Us. I know you’ve been here before, and it went badly. But I’m not Angel. I’m not Finn. Not even your father. I
won’t leave. I love you.”

“I know. It’s just ... I can’t do this. Not now.” She let him slip his hand into hers. “But it meant something. Last night. It meant a lot.”

He smiled, a troubled smile. “I know.”

*****

The demon attacked the young women, scratching Dawn across the face. “You summoned me.” They broke away and ran down the street, jumping into a parked car. Willow started it magically, and drove it with her mind. Dawn was terrified, and rightly so, when the car crashed. When they stumbled from the car, the demon was in front of them.

*****

She pulled her hand away at the sound of the scream. Spike hurried to Dawn’s side, trying to comfort her, while Buffy attacked the demon. She fought bravely, but it was strong, and exuded evil. When she froze, it made its move, knocking her to the ground. She struggled back up, not knowing if she could continue, as the demon started shaking. It trembled and exploded into a oozing cloud, as Willow stood staring at Buffy, her eyes black and fingers crackling with energy.

Buffy ignored her as she walked to her sister, and she and Spike helped Dawn to her feet. Willow tried to help too, and Dawn slapped her face. As the trio walked away, Spike told Buffy she should speak to Willow. Reluctantly, she let Spike help Dawn towards the hospital, as she confronted her grovelling friend. “I’m sorry,” the witch moaned. “I need help.” She reached her hand towards Buffy. “Please.” Buffy hugged her without compassion. Part of her wanted to squeeze until Willow was crushed in her embrace.

*****

Later that night, after Spike left his girls at their door, and Dawn and her broken arm were tucked into bed, Buffy sat in Willow’s room, trying to understand. “I just lost control. No more spells. I’m finished.”

Buffy sighed. “I think it’s right. To give it up. No matter how good it feels.” No matter how good he feels.

*****

Willow lay in her bed, tossing and turning, drenched with sweat. Beautiful visions from Rack’s spells haunted her dreams.

*****

Buffy lay quietly on her bed. She could feel his hands on her, feel him in her. She rose and went to her window. When she saw the narrow wisp of smoke rising from behind the tree in her yard, she relaxed, lay back down, and went to sleep.

Chapter Text

It was the “everything must go” magic clearance, but for Willow it lacked the festivity of a sidewalk sale. Buffy and Dawn packed up all the witch’s supplies, to Dawn’s dismay, including the candles and Joyce’s fertility figure.

While rooting though the couch cushions for loose sage and other sundries, Buffy felt a cold metallic object. “Isn’t that Spike’s lighter?” Dawn asked, her fractured wrist supported by a sling. “How did that get there?”

“Don’t know,” Buffy blushed.

Dawn reached out her hand. “Want me to give it back to him?” but Buffy pulled it away.

“It’s okay. I can do it.” She thrust the silver lighter into her front jeans’ pocket.

*****

The Nerds of Doom toyed with Warren’s latest experiment, an invisibility ray, powered by the diamond stolen from the museum. Jonathan enjoyed playing on his invisible chair, but Warren had bigger plans. “I’d say this makes us pretty much unstoppable.”

*****

Willow hands were steadier than they had been for the last few days as she prepared her omelet. She offered some to Dawn, but the teen was curt. She was not any more civil to Buffy. Both of them had hurt her, Willow with her strange attention, and Buffy with her lack of it.

Willow was confused. She knew that the accident had been her fault, and Dawn was justified in being angry, but she didn’t know what Buffy could possibly have done wrong.

“Because I let it happen,” the Slayer said. “Besides, she’s fifteen. You remember that, don’t you? Being in a crowd of people, and feeling like nobody cares; that you’re alone.”

“Sure.” ‘Still do,’ Willow thought.

Spike came bursting through the back door, his blanket smoldering. Buffy was surprised to see him. She tried to cover her happiness.

“Just went for a stroll. Found myself in your neck of the woods.” He raised his eyebrows, looking for approval.

Buffy smiled. “Couldn’t have found a less flammable time of the day?”

Willow didn’t know what was going on between her two friends, but she felt like a fifth wheel. She excused herself and headed upstairs.

“So,” Buffy asked, “why are you really here? Came to see me?”

“Came for my favourite lighter. May have left it here. The other night.” He backed her against the wall. “You remember the other night.”

“Yeah.” She swallowed. “I remember the other night.”

He feathered her hair through his fingers.. “I love your hair. So soft. My Goldilocks.”

She looked hard into his eyes. “I’m no babe in the woods. And this isn’t a fairytale.” She pushed him away. “We have to stop this.”

“You keep saying that. Not what you want though, is it?” He leaned towards her. “Not what you need.”

Xander walked through the living room door. “Hey. I’m here to pick up Dawn.”

Spike stepped back. “Harris. Kinda you.”

“Spike. You’re here early. As in, daylight.”

“He’s looking for his lighter.” Buffy looked at Spike, trying to share a silent communication. ‘Don’t tell my friends.’

Dawn came barrelling out of the kitchen to drag Xander out the door. When she opened it, a heavyset woman with a disapproving stare was standing on the doorstep. “Doris Kroecker. We had an appointment.”

“An appointment?” Buffy asked.

“I’m with Social Services.”

Dawn said a brief “hi”, combined with “Gotta go. Don’t want to be late for school,” and Buffy and Spike were left alone with the caseworker.

“Um, Spike. Shouldn’t you be going?” Buffy asked.

“Spike. That’s an unusual name.” Doris reached out her hand and Spike grasped it.

“Nickname,” he answered. “Call me William.” He smiled as charming a smile as he could muster. “Buffy’s a right good mom. Takes good care of her little sis.”

“That’s good to know.” She turned to Buffy. “I didn’t know your boyfriend was joining us for the interview.”

“He’s not ... I mean, he was just going. Right, William?”

“Ah, right.” He picked up his blanket and headed towards the kitchen.

Doris cast a disapproving eye at Buffy. “A blanket. He sleeps here?”

“No, it’s, um, it’s his security blanket. He has issues. Just me and Dawn here.”

Willow called down the stairs. “Buffy, I’m not feeling so hot. I’m going to go back to bed.”

Doris raised an eyebrow. “Back to bed?”

“That’s Willow. She lives here to. Not with me. Nope. I’m not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

“I assumed that, Miss Summers. I just met your boyfriend.” The caseworker picked through the various boxes lining the living room, picking up a plastic bag.

“That’s not what you think,” Buffy stuttered. “It’s magic weed.”

“So that’s what they’re calling it now,” the older woman muttered under her breath. “Miss Summers, I think I’ve seen enough. You’re an unemployed young woman. Dawn’s grades are slipping, due in some part to her frequent absences. I’m recommending immediate probation, with the strong possibility that you’ll be stripped of your guardianship.”

Spike walked back into the room. “I never got my ... Oh, hello. Still here, I see.”

“Spike.” Buffy rolled her eyes. “Not now. Please.”

“I know. I should be going.” He turned to leave, then stopped. He stood in front of the caseworker. “I wasn’t kidding. Buffy’s done a great job, all things considered. She’s looking for work, she’s helping
out her friend Willow through a hard time, and Dawn couldn’t find a better role model. And this,” he picked up the plastic bag from the couch and opened it, holding it under Doris’ nose, “is oregano.” He
dropped the bag on the couch. “I’ll help Dawn with her homework. Know Willow will, and she’s a right brain. So please give Buffy another chance. Kid means the world ta her.”

“I can see she’s important to you, too.” She looked at Buffy, her gaze slightly softened. “Okay, Miss Summers. I’ll give you another month before I make my final report. But if things don’t improve ...”

Buffy’s eyes lit up. “Oh, they will. Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“Thank your friend.” The social worker, put her papers in her briefcase and headed out the door.

“Thank you, friend,” Buffy said, stepping towards Spike.

“Thank me how?” he asked, as she took his hand and led him towards the stairs.

“I’ll let you look for your lighter.”

*****

After a quiet, so as not to disturb Willow, but satisfying morning, Buffy watched Spike and his smoking blanket head toward the sewer grate, then walked downtown for a few groceries. She was heading towards the Piggly Wiggly, when the sound of a struggle and an errant beam of coloured light hit her. When she looked down at her hand, it was gone. So were her feet. She tried to see her reflection in a
storefront window, but she was gone too. All gone.

*****

Anya and Xander were arguing about seating arrangements for their reception when the Magic Box door opened. “Hey guys.”

“Buffy?” Xander looked around the room. “Where are you?”

“At table four, apparently,” she replied, looking at the ever changing chart.

“That remains to be seen,” Anya stated. “As do you.”

“I’ve come down with a little case of the transparents.” Buffy juggled a pair of casting balls in her hands. “Don’t know why.”

“Sounds like a spell.” Anya followed the bouncing balls. “Something that went wrong. And we all know someone suffering from magic disfunction.”

“I’ll go see Willow.” Xander turned in the direction from which he’d last heard her voice. “Want to come, Buffy? Buffy?” The balls lay back in their display. The Slayer had left.

*****

Willow was chugging bottled water and looking through files in her laptop at the Expresso Pump when Xander entered. She was chagrined to find him jump to the conclusion that Buffy’s blinvisibility was her
fault. “Now when anything nasty happens, I get blamed for it?” After he left, she realized why he had jumped to the conclusion. She decided to do something proactive to change his mind.

She bought a can of red spray paint and went to the area where Buffy had told Xander she had disappeared. As she sprayed the can, she found other invisible objects. Her friend found her there, and when he tripped over something, the paint proved it to be a traffic cone.

*****

 

Spike was opening himself a jar of blood when the crypt door opened. He put the blood down untasted. “Whatever beastie you are, I know you’re here - and I hurt beasties.”

He felt something brush across his cheek. “Ghost?” But the invisible fingers undid his shirt, and something pressed a kiss to his chest, at a certain height. “Buffy?” Invisible lips nuzzled his neck. “Oh,
Buffy.”

*****

Anya and Xander examined the pylon in the Magic Box. Anya touched it. “Ooh.” She pushed her hand deeper into the side of the cone. “Feels like pudding.”

“Oh God.” Xander’s face went white. “We have to find Buffy.”

“Why does Buffy need a puddingy pylon?” his fiancee asked.

“Because whatever is happening to that cone is probably happening to her.”

*****

Warren worked on the fried circuits of his ray gun. He realized that Buffy’s molecular structure was most likely deteriorating, and he told the others with a grin. Jonathan was appalled. “I don’t want to kill
her.” Warren pretended to care.

*****

Xander had no luck finding Buffy. In despair, he headed towards Spike’s crypt. As night fell, he would be able to help in the search. He couldn’t find him in the upper level, so he climbed down the ladder.
Spike was moaning, pushing himself up and down on his bed, his nude body covered by a thin sheet. “Spike? What the hell are you doing?”

“Harris? I’m a, exercising. Right. Undeath, no reason to let a body go.” As he pumped harder onto the bed, soft little girly squeals came from his direction.

“Allll right. I’m looking for Buffy. She has a slight case of invisibility”

Spike sat on the bed, the sheet draped over his lower body. “Haven’t seen her.”

“You wouldn’t. If you talk to her, tell her I’m looking for her. It’s important.” He turned to leave. “You know, all kidding aside Spike, you really ought to get a girlfriend.”

A heavy sign came from nowhere. “Xander.”

“Buffy?”

“He already did.”

Xander stumbled back as realization settled in. “You and Spike?”

“That so hard to believe?” Spike asked, feeling his lover’s arms drape around his neck.

“Well, yeah.” Xander tried to pull himself together. “Look. We don’t have time for this. Something’s happening to Buffy. I think her molecular structure’s falling apart, or she’s disintegrating, or something. We need to fix her, and we need to do it fast.”

A shiver ran down Buffy’s invisible spine. “Disintegrating?” Spike put his arms around the approximation of her body and held her close.

*****

Dawn opened the back door of her home, later than her curfew. “Buffy?” she called. “Willow?” But there was nobody home. As usual.

*****

Willow tracked down the van licence number and found the trio’s hideout. In the basement there were schematics for the ray gun. Invisible arms captured her. “Congratulations,” gloated a cruel voice.
“You’re our first hostage.”

*****

“If Willow can’t help, I don’t know what our next option is,” Xander stated as he opened Buffy’s back door.

“Spike, I don’t want to die.” She was shaking in his arms, easily felt though unseen.

“I know, love.”

The phone rang and Buffy answered. Warren told her he had Willow and where to meet them at the arcade. The three Scoobies ran back out the door.

Dawn called down the stairs. “Buffy?” No answer.

*****
The trio held Willow at the Arcade, when Buffy, Xander and Spike entered. “Hold up that Air Hockey Puck,” a voice said, “and I’ll fix you.” The magnet rose from the table.

“No, Buffy. The settings are wrong.” Willow called. “He’s trying to kill you.”

Xander and Spike stuck out around the room. Xander missed, but Spike connected with something, as his chip fired and pain flared behind his eyes. “Human,” he gasped. “They’re human.”

Buffy followed the sounds of the voices coming from midair. She connected a few times, but couldn’t tell if she was making headway. While she distracted them, Willow picked up the gun and fired, restoring Buffy, as well as Jonathan, Warren and their associate.

“Jonathan?”

“Hi Xander.” The little villain stepped back. “How’s things?”

“Warren?”

“Spike. How’s that bot working out?” Buffy popped him on the nose.

They all looked at Andrew. “Who’s he?” Buffy asked.

“I summoned the flying monkeys. At the school play.” They stared without recognition. “I’m Tucker’s brother.”

Willow, Xander and Buffy nodded in unison. “Oh.”

“So,” Buffy asked Warren. “What is this?”

“We’re your arch nemesisises.” He threw something on the ground and smoke filled the room. Unfortunately for the Nerds, the back door was locked. Fortunately, a security guard came in and provided enough of a distraction for their escape.

*****

Willow sat beside Xander on the curb. “So, how’d you find those guys?” he asked.

“I used the old fashioned way. Simple computer hacking.” She glanced over to where Buffy stood, leaning against Spike. “Are those two ...?”

Xander made a strange clicking sound in his throat. “Oh, yeah. Something is oh so rotten in the town of Sunnydale.”

“I don’t know. They’re kind of cute.” Willow pulled a bottle of water out of her pocket and chugged it.

Spike pulled Buffy’s collar up around her neck. “You’re still tremblin’, Slayer.”

“I was afraid. I didn’t want to die.”

“And you didn’t. You fought them, and you won.”

“Yeah, I guess I did. Except for the them getting away part.”

Spike planted a kiss on her forehead. “That’s my Goldilocks.”

Chapter Text

Dawn sat at the dining room table, tapping at the keys on Willow’s laptop. The attempting to be former witch stood over her, her arms crossed. “Good so far, Dawnie. You’re really picking this up. I’m glad you let me help you.”

“Doesn’t mean everything’s okay now. You know that.” Dawn hit the enter key, pulling up the website she needed for her research paper. “Helping with the homework helps. But if you really want me to make with the forgiveness ...”

Willow was leery. “What?”

“Teach me to hack.”

Xander walked out of the kitchen with a bowl of popcorn, followed by Anya with the sodas. “Speaking of computer nerds, what happened when you busted the lair?”

“Nothing. They’d cleared out. Buffy found a few things. Spell books ...” she swallowed, “parchments. But no nerds.”

“Buffy should hurry,” Anya remarked. “She’ll be late for her first day of gainful employment.”

“I can’t believe she applied there,” Dawn sighed. “I mean, Ricky Westerman works there, and he’s in my class. How will I ever live it down?”

“How will YOU ever live it down?” Buffy asked, appearing at the foot of the stairs in her pylon orange and white striped uniform, her chicken cow cap perched less than jauntily on her head. “Say hello to Buffy the geek.”

Xander almost choked on his popcorn. “Nice hat.”

*****

Buffy’s stomach turned as she watched the training video. Slaying demons was one thing, but mooshed together cows and chickens went beyond the pale. Her hunchy manager Manny’s voice belied the enthusiasm of his words. There wasn’t much enthusiasm from the staff, either. Buffy felt like she’d walked into the middle of “Night of the Living Dead.” When the manager thrust a Doublemeat Medley at her and commanded her to eat, she wondered if brains might be more appetizing. No one seemed to know what the secret ingredient in the medley of beef patty and chicken slice on a bun was. Only that it was a “meat process.” The meat certainly tasted processed. Just didn’t taste like meat.

Manny put her on the counter, and Gary, her fellow employee, tried to help her understand the cash register and its myriad of buttons. An elderly woman’s order of a coffee and cherry pie was not difficult to fill, once Buffy pulled her eyes away from the woman’s oddly plastic head of hair, but the family behind her wanted a complicated order. The buttons swam before her eyes. She wondered if Xander’s construction crew might give her a second chance. Even with the demons.

She was left with a strange feeling of disquiet. As she prowled around the back on her break, Manny interrupted her. “You don’t need to be in there.” Even the keg of dehydrated pickles seemed ominous.

Her friends showed up to wish her well, though Xander seemed more intent on scoring a free meal. When Buffy brought him a doublesized medley “on the house”, Dawn considered what the medley cost her sister, and what she’d have to steal to make up the price. Soon she’d be stooping to canned goods instead of jewelry. Goodness knew this job wouldn’t pay more than minimum wage.

Later, that evening, Buffy contemplated the nice warm bath she would have when she finally got home. Or the nice long footrub she could get from Spike. His name no sooner came to mind, when he walked through the door.

He looked up in the menu. “What’s in the doublemeat nuggets?” Where had he gotten that sweater? Verigated black and white, making it look grey. Appropriate, she thought. And nicely tight.

“You really don’t want to know,” she whispered. “Not that I do.” Louder, because Gina next to her suddenly seemed to be paying attention for the first time that night, she asked, “What can I do for you sir?”

“You’re in the service industry now,” he leered. “Serve me.”

“I really can’t deal with this right now.” Her voice had dropped again. “Soda?” she asked so Gina could hear. “Sure. Medium or large?”

Spike leaned in to the counter, his face suddenly concerned. “You’re not happy here.”

What an understatement. “Please don’t make this harder,” she begged.

“You don’t belong here. You’re better than this.” He reached his hand towards hers as it rested on the counter, but she pulled back.

“I need the money.”

“I told you. I can get money.” Of course he could. She didn’t want to think about how. “Walk with me now. Come on.”

The last thing she needed was a fight with her boyfriend, ‘Did I just think boyfriend?’ on her first night on the job. “I need to help Jerry with the fries.”

Spike wasn’t listening. “You’ve got to get out of here. This place will do stuff to you.” He pulled out the big guns. “This place will kill you.”

She blinked back the tears. “If you aren’t going to order sir, I’ll have to ask you to leave. People are waiting.” She set her jaw firmly as he spun around and walked out the door.

“Boyfriend trouble?” Gina asked.

“That obvious?” Before Buffy could say anything more, she was confronted by an obese man in a too tight ‘Do you think I’m shagadelic, baby?’ t-shirt. “How can I help you?”

*****

When Gary didn’t show up for the morning shift, Manny put Buffy on grill duty. Her trainer was most likely a serial killer escaped from prison, by the look of him. Buffy listened as he extolled the virtues of a body saturated with grease. It was going to be a long shift. Then Manny told her to work an extra eight hours because they were short staffed, and long stretched into eternity.

*****

Xander was startled by the appearance of an ugly, veiny demon in his living room, threatening inconceivable tortures. It turned out to be Anyanka’s old buddy Halfrek. Hallie was not happy to hear about the planned wedding. Xander felt he was being inspected like a piece of
meat, and one that was judged far from grade A.

*****

Buffy was finally called to her break, just as she saw Spike heading by the window. She knew he liked the smell of blood. Grease she wasn’t so sure of. She hurried out the back door. He was waiting in the alley behind the restaurant.

“Buffy, I ...”

“No time to apologize. No time to argue.” She pushed him back against the wall. “I’ve got fifteen minutes.”

“Here?” he asked, as she wrapped herself around him. “Why, Slayer ....”he smiled.

“It’s you, or I take up smoking.”

She cut off his snappy retort with her lips.

*****

Amy dropped by Willow’s room looking for her old cage. She seemed friendly enough, but there was a bitter resentment underlying the pleasantry. Part of her was still firmly rat. After taunting Willow
for her self control, she zapped her with a magic fix. “It’s your birthday.”

Willow gasped as Amy left. She felt days of hard work slip away. And part of it felt good.

*****

Buffy, still playing Nancy Drew, investigated the meat in the grinder. She found something that hadn’t been in the training video, a human finger. Manny tried to pass it off as the result of an accident, but
Buffy had a sudden revelation about the secret meat process. She ran through the restaurant shouting “The Doublemeat Medley is people,” until Manny fired her.

*****

Hallie tried to understand Anya’s fascination with Xander. She wasn’t used to her friend’s lack of confidence. “Who told you that it isn’t easy to love you?” The answer was obvious. “He corrects you.” For the first time, Anya wondered why Xander loved her. If Xander loved her.

*****

Dawn and Xander were playing cards in the Magic Box when Buffy ran in. She was so upset with her discovery, she even showed her sister the distasteful sight of the finger. Dawn wasn’t so sure, for a second, whether being treated like an adult was a good thing. While they discussed Buffy’s discovery, Xander ate the evidence of cannibal burgers. When Willow came in, she found enough meat on the wrapper to analyse it. Xander turned an odd shade of soylent green.

*****

Back at the palace, Buffy found Manny’s shoe. It was still attached to Manny’s foot. It wasn’t attached to Manny. “Gee,” she said, talking to the loafer, “You really were a lifer.”

*****

Dawn bemoaned Buffy’s sad state of careers. She realized that her sister had few options in life as the slayer. Her day jobs would all be “crap.” Xander and Anya argued over demons and the true nature of
beauty. It wasn’t easy for Willow to concentrate on her chemical analysis, but she did discover that Doublemeat wasn’t people. Hard to believe what it really was.

*****

Buffy found a human scalp on one of the machines. Plastic scalp. Wig? “The wig lady?”

And there she was. Her now bald head gave way to a snake-like demon. ‘Well,’ thought Buffy, ‘not exactly a snake.’ The penis demon sprayed her with paralysing venom, while its wig-lady host moved in for the kill. “You’re my favourites. You’re so full of Doublemeat burgers, and you slide down so smooth.”

*****

Willow looked in the window of the Palace, but she couldn’t see into the back. Assuming Buffy was somewhere inside, she spoke into the drivethru cowchicken. She told the Slayer the burgers were actually a vegetable product, and felt compelled to confess Amy’s magical effect on her.

Buffy wasn’t listening. The penis demon’s teeth were chewing a hole in her shoulder.

It was unaware of Willow, suddenly severing the head from the head. She tossed the emasculated demon in the grinder and ground. She never ate another Doublemeat burger again.

*****

Amy showed up at the Revello Drive house, but Willow wouldn’t let her in. If she was her friend, she would stay away. If she wasn’t her friend, she should stay away. There was steel in the threat.

*****

Buffy dropped off her uniform at the Palace, and met the new manager, Lorraine Ross. She manipulated herself back behind the counter. All it took was a little meatless blackmail.

Spike would be so proud.

Chapter Text

Buffy cried out in pleasure, and Spike flipped onto his back. “Slayer, the things you do to me,” he cried, stretching out his arms. She cuddled next to him, afterglowing.

“Ditto.” She turned her head and looked up at the ceiling. “You know, that mirror was pretty redundant when I was invisible.”

“Yeah,” he smirked, “but the sheets were right interesting.”

“They would be now, if you were under them.” She turned her head so she could see him. “No, don’t move. Not on my account.”

“So much for your blushing eyes.” He ran his fingers through her long, golden hair. “Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?”

“Sometimes.” She traced his jawline with her finger. “When I see it in your eyes.” She looked back up at the mirror. “I have to pull back my hair at work, and my cap really doesn’t fit properly. I’m thinking of cutting it.”

“Your hat?”

“No, silly.” She smacked his chest. “My hair.”

He flipped back on top of her and held her down, his hands clutching her wrists. “Don’t you dare.” He nuzzled her neck. “The things you do. I’ve never been with such an animal.”

“Really? What kind?” She giggled, “A bunny? A kitten?”

“A golden cougar. A wild jungle cat.”

“Hm. I like that.” She was delighted to discover his arousal had returned. Again. “Come here, my big albino tiger.”

He laughed at that, but it didn’t stop him from shagging her silly

*****

Warren cruised the bar, looking for a worthy victim, while his cohorts in crime surveyed him from the Lone Gunmen van. They’d had to find a new lair since Willow had found the old one, and while the others complained, he was happy for the closer quarters, so he could keep his eyes on them. He felt for the silver ball in his pocket, the cerebral dampener, powered by demon musk. “With this,” he had told them, “we can make any woman we desire our willing sex slave.” He looked for a suitable candidate, as Andrew and Jonathan’s whiny voices reverberated into his earpiece. There she was. He dropped the listening device into a nearby martini, and moved towards his ex-lover.

Katrina did her best to give Warren the brush off, making it clear she never wanted to see him again. It was to no avail when he pulled out the dampener and activated it.

*****

Buffy dragged herself into her living room after another difficult shift. To her chagrin, she found her three friends with her sister. Ascertaining that Dawn and Xander’s dance was a reception rehersal and
not another musical spell, she begged off their invitation to the Bronze and planned quality time with her sister. He plans were cut short when Janice’ mother arrived to pick Dawn up for a sleepover. She decided to head to the Bronze after all. “Frothy nectar. Now please.” Besides, hadn’t Spike said something about playing pool there tonight?

*****

The other nerds had to admit that Katrina looked pretty cute in her French Maid’s outfit, complimented by her vacant, mind-controlled stare. Warren still wasn’t satisfied with their opinion of her choice.
“She’s perfect.” He took her into the back room, his mind conflicted with his affection for her, his attraction to her, and his anger with her for walking out on him. Anger won out, and he sent her to her
knees. Before she could show him that he really was “Master”, the dampener’s effects waned and she came to her senses.

When she stormed into the other room, Andrew and Jonathan found out that she had been no random victim. They were appalled when she called them rapists. The thought had never occurred to them. Warren, on the other hand, knew exactly what he had been doing. When Katrina tried to escape up the stairs, he hit the back of her head with a champagne bottle. She dropped, lifeless.

While the other two broke down with fear, Warren considered how to deal with the situation. And how to use it to their advantage.

*****

It was swing night at the Bronze, and Xander and Anya pulled Willow and Buffy to their feet. The Slayer wasn’t sure about dancing to this music, expecially when she saw the moves Xander and Anya had
choreographed. She swayed back and forth, not really enjoying the music, when a hand tapped her on the shoulder. She spun around and smiled. “Spike.”

“Not how we did it in my day, Slayer. And no, I have no intention of showing you how to jive.” He reached out his hand, and she linked her fingers with his.

“Not very jivey, myself,” she laughed. She left her friends, wondering how Xander managed to dance and glare at the same time. She let him lead her up the stairs to the empty balcony, where they looked down at the crowd.

“Your friends are having fun,” Spike commented. “But you weren’t, were you?”

“Too much on my mind, I guess. Sore feet, doublemeat. A grease smell you’ve been far too kind to mention. Bills that keep piling up. Checking the want ads for something better. Mothering a teenager.
Life.”

He wrapped his arms around her. “Sleeping with the undead.”

“You know,” she whispered, “I don’t feel like sleeping.” She pulled his head down and kissed him. As the kiss grew more intense, and she broke for air, she felt his hand pushing up her skirt. “Not here.”

“Why not?” he pouted.

“I really don’t think I want to give my friends that kind of show.” She pushed her skirt back down. “And the angle here ... guaranteed eyeful if anyone looks up. Making out behind the Doublemeat is one thing, but
...”

“Ah, then, love, how do you suggest we solve our dilemma?” He breathed the question into her ear, and she gasped.

“Your place. Now.” She pulled him down the staircase. “Works for me.”

*****

Willow looked up at the catwalk. “They left.”

“Great,” Xander grumbled. “And they didn’t even say goodnight.”

*****

The next afternoon, Willow and Xander headed to the Magic Box, complaining about their dance inflicted aches and pains. Willow stopped in her tracks as Tara exited the store. She felt awkward, but it was so good to see her former lover, even though she was carrying a grimore Willow was dying to take a crack at. “I’m doing better,” she said. “No spells for thirty-two days. Even go in the Magic Box if someone’s there with me at all times.”

Tara was happy for her. But she didn’t offer to stay.

*****

Buffy was heading to the crypt so she could meet Spike to patrol. At least, she was sure they would patrol eventually, when she heard a woman scream. Running to a clearing near a hill, she found Katrina weeping on the ground. Suddenly Spike took her place, rubbing his bleeding nose and asking “Bloody hell? Why’d you do that for?” Then Buffy was surrounded by demons. A demon. Nothing made sense. She started lashing out, kicking demons and apparently hitting Spike in the nose. More demons. Her fist connected with one of them, but it wasn’t a demon, it was the girl. Buffy chased the rolling body down the hill, Spike close behind, but when she found it at the bottom, Katrina was dead. Buffy looked up
at the vampire, tears in her eyes. “I killed her.”

“We have to go.” Spike was adamant.

Buffy was in shock. “What happened?”

Spike pulled her away from the body. “We have to go before someone sees you.” Neither of them saw a living Katrina observing from behind a tree.

Buffy didn’t want to move. She was overcome with the horror of her act. “All right. Listen to me, Buffy,” he grabbed her shoulders and forced her to look at him. “Buffy! It was an accident. “I’m gonna get you home, and you’re gonna crawl in your warm, comfy bed. We’re gonna sort this out. Trust me.” She let him take her to her home.

*****

The other Katrina entered the Nerds’ van. She morphed into Jonathan. He’d been crying, and not because the part called for it. He was thoroughly terrified of Warren now, but there was no way out.

*****

Buffy tossed and turned in her sleep. She was troubled by nightmares of death, feelings of guilt and grief and loss of innocence. Getting up, she finished dressing, and scribbled out a letter. Entering her
sister’s bedroom, she stared down at her, wishing she could spare her pain. Some things were bigger than family. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered quietly, not disturbing Dawn. She placed the envelope on her
sister’s pillow and left.

*****

Buffy walked through the alley across from the police station, a determined look on her face. She could still be a hero. She knew she could.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Spike’s words stopped her.

“The right thing.” She tried to keep walking, but he was blocking her way.

“Sorry, love. Can’t let you do that.”

Buffy tried to hold back the tears. Why did he have to be here? “I have to let them know what happened.”

 

Spike clicked his tongue impatiently on the roof of his mouth. “Nothing happened. Demon’s in the wood? Time going wonky?”

Buffy was undeterred. “I’ll show them.”

“Show them what?”

She realized what he must have done. He was used to hiding bodies. He was a killer himself, after all. “What did you do?” She wanted to hear him say it. Needed to hear it.

“I took care of it. Doesn’t matter, now. No one will ever find her.” Two cops leaving the station belied his statement. Her body had been found in the river. He was desperate now. He couldn’t lose her. “It
was an accident.”

She stepped towards him. “I have to do this.” He grabbed at her, and she pulled away. As he tried to stop her, he could feel the chip burning in his head. He tried to ignore the pain. Nothing mattered but
stopping her. In despair, he felt her fist connect with his jaw, and he went flying back against the wall. He looked up, but she was gone. Frustrated tears stung his eyes.

*****

In the police station, before she could turn herself in, she heard the desk sergeant identify the girl as Katrina Silver. She knew the body had looked familiar. It was Warren’s girlfriend. She’d been set up.

She went back out into the alley, but Spike was gone.

*****

Willow, Xander and Anya researched in the Magic Box. They had been time distortion demons that had attacked Buffy. Warren was more than a annoyance now, he was a killer, and Buffy had to stop him.

*****

Warren was happy to note that the coroner’s report they hacked into ruled suicide. Jonathan heard Andrew’s words, and a chill ran down his spine. “We really got away with murder. That’s ... cool.”

*****

Spike sat in his crypt, nursing a bottle of Jack Daniels. Buffy was gone. He took another swig.

She walked through the crypt door, and joy spred over his face. “You didn’t ...”

 

“It was a trick. A frame. I didn’t turn myself in.” When he threw his arms around her, she stiffened. “I came to talk to you. It isn’t going to work. We just see things too differently.”

“Slayer?”

“We’re too different. I can’t see you anymore.” She held her face firm, almost crumbling when he touched her cheek. “No. It’s over.” There was so much pain on his face. It broke her heart. “I’m so sorry, Spike.”

He stared in shocked silence as she walked out the door.

Chapter Text

Some people believe that every step we make, every choice in one direction or another, divides reality into a myriad of dimensions. Some worlds will be totally different, others almost the same, depending on the choices made. This is one such reality.

One Step Prelude - The Gift

Spike looked up from the base of the tower. “Someone’s up there.”

Apparently, vampiric vision wasn’t the only thing that could detect the intruder. “Spike, can you hear me?” Willow’s voice reverberated in his head.

“Yeah. Loud and clear.” The others looked confused. Obviously, this was a private message.

“Is there someone up there with Dawn?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “Can’t tell who.”

“Get up there,” she insisted. “Go now.”

“Yeah, but ...” Glory’s minions made a sea of resistance.

“Go!” He ran through their midst, and the sea parted. Up he ran, blessing the fact that he couldn’t be winded. Meanwhile, Buffy held the hell goddess at bay.

Dawn wasn’t alone at the tower’s pinnacle. “Spike!” she cried, and her attacker turned towards the vampire. Doc had returned.

“Don’t a fellow stay dead when you kill him?” Spike asked, slowly edging towards the demon.

“Look who’s talking.” The creature was calm and cool, his diminutive frame belying the danger he represented.

Spike came even closer. “Come on, Doc. Let’s you and me have a go.”

Doc seemed to consider the proposal, all the while fingering the blade of the knife. A few little cuts to the young woman, the ancient key, and the portal between dimensions would open. Doc was a loyal little minion. “I do have a prior appointment.”

Spike was cocky. “This won’t take long.”

“No.” The demon was unexpectedly behind the vampire, plunging his knife into the leather of Spike’s coat. “I shouldn’t imagine it will.”

Spike sucked back the pain. “You don’t come near the girl, Doc.”

That took the demon aback. “I don’t smell a soul anywhere on you.” His question was almost clinical. “Why do you even care?”

“I made a promise to a lady.”

Doc’s eyes flashed cold, as his tongue lashed impossibly along the length of the ramp. Time to Spike seemed to slow down, the tongue the speed of oozing treacle. He grabbed out at it, catching it in his
hands. Doc’s eyes bulged with shock as the vampire swung him around with the tongue, and tossed him from the tower. “My mum always said not to stand around with your mouth hangin’ open,” he called down towards the shattered body lying on the ground below. “You might let in the flies.”

Dawn was sobbing with relief as Spike undid her bonds. “He was going to cut me. He was going to use me to open that, that thing, and destroy the world. He ...” She collapsed against his chest.

“It’s okay, Nibblet. Spike’s here.” He wrapped his arms around her.

Buffy came rushing to the top of the tower. She dreaded what she’d find. Dawn was leaning against Spike. “Is she ...?”

“Just fainted, is all. Glory?”

“She’s an ex-goddess.” She ran towards the pair, wrapping her arms around her sister. “Dawnie, oh Dawnie. It’s over.”

The rickety tower bent in the breeze. “We’d better get down, Slayer. Don’t trust this meccano set.”

“Right.” She looked down at his hand, stained red where he’d felt the wound on his back. “Are you bleeding?”

“S’nothing. It’ll heal.”

Buffy put her shoulder under Dawn’s arm, while Spike took the other side. She looked into his eyes. “You saved the world.”

“I saved your sister. The world’s just a perk.”

One Step - Bargaining pt. 1

The vampire was remarkably fast for one so corpulent. He picked Buffy up and swung her around, knocking Spike over. “Bloody hell,” Spike exclaimed, as he picked himself off the ground. Buffy lay where the vamp had thrown her. “You okay, Slayer?” he asked, offering her his hand.

“Oh, yeah,” she replied as he helped her up. “Much better than Chubby’s going to be.” They took off in opposite directions, circling around the vampire. When Buffy got to him, he was already in flames, while Spike leaned against a crypt wall, puffing on a cigarette.

“What kept you?” Spike asked. “My friend and me here were just sharing a cigarette. And they say three on a match is unlucky. Think he’ll vouch for two.”

Another vamp leapt out from behind a tree. Buffy threw a blow at hisface, but he ducked. Diving under the slayer, he tried to force her over, but Spike was there, kicking him away. After a brief tussle, the
second vampire was a cloud of dust.

“Yunno who’d come in handy on patrol?” Spike asked, as they headed through the cemetery. “Red. She could stand on top of a crypt, looking out for vamps, calling to us in our heads with that way she has. Could be bloody helpful.”

“Maybe,” Buffy replied. “Wouldn’t be as much fun with a lookout, though, would it?”

“Guess not.” He paused at his crypt door. “See you tomorrow night, then?”

“It’s still early. Why don’t you walk me home; come in and see Dawn. She loves spending time with you.”

“Yeah.” Spike followed after her. “Don’t mind if I do.”

*****

Giles leaned back in his easy chair, bathed by the sound of The Who. ‘Talking bout my generation ...’

But it wasn’t his generation. Not anymore. Buffy was a grown woman. The others didn’t need him. Anya could run the shop; would revel in it. He wondered once again why he was hanging around Sunnydale.

But would England still be home?

*****

Anya and Xander sat in their booth in the Bronze. “But I want to tell them. I want to share our joy. Don’t you want to share our joy?”

“Of course, Ahn. I’ll be big with the joy sharing.” He put his hand on hers. “Just not yet. I just want the time to be right. This is a big step.”

“But I have a lovely ring in a lovely box making a very uncomfortable bulge in my pocket. It would look much nicer on my finger. The ring, not the box.”

“We’ll tell them. Soon. Let’s cherish this secret for a little while longer. Something for the two of us alone, before we let the world in on it.”

“I don’t want to tell the world,” Anya pouted. “I want to tell our friends. I want them to give us happy wedding showers with many gifts. And I want to get married.”“Soon.”

*****

Buffy called up the stairs. “Hi guys? Where are you?”

Willow and Tara bounced down to the ground floor. “Hi,” the red-head smiled. “We’re going to meet Xander and Anya at the Bronze. Want to come with?” She saw the blond vampire standing off to the side. “Hi Spike.”

“Where’s Dawn?” he asked.

“Up in her room, doing her homework. Or, listening to music and planning to do her homework,” Tara replied.

“Want to spend some quality time with my sister. I’ll catch you another time.” Buffy ran up the stairs. “Hey, Dawn,” she called, “Spike’s here. Want to hang out with us?”

Dawn rushed out of her room. “Sure. We can play rummy.”

Spike smiled. “Rummy it is, then.”

“Um, Buffy?” Dawn asked. “Are you still coming to Parent Teacher day?”

Buffy gave Spike a knowing look. “Sure, Dawnie. I mean, much safer than Parent Teacher night.”

Spike nodded. “Much.”

One Step - Bargaining pt. 2

“It was so, ‘I don’t want to be here’, but there I was. Parents and kids, and Dawn staring at me like I was going to say something stupid.” Buffy leaned back in her chair and sighed.

“And did you?” Anya asked, looking up from the cash register. “Say something stupid.”

Xander rolled his eyes. “Ahn, I’m sure Buffy didn’t do anything to embarrass herself or Dawn.” He gave Buffy a comforting smile. “Did you?”

“I most certainly did not,” Buffy affirmed, crossing her arms. “I didn’t say anything.”

Willow and Tara giggled together. “Silence is golden,” Willow snickered.

“Oh, right. So easy for you, wiz kid. You like school.” Buffy leaned over the table and rested her head in her hands. “It was horrible. Just like being back in old lady Ritter’s class. Except she wasn’t there. And it was a different school. But other than that, totally the same.”

“It sounds horrible, Sweetie.”

“It was. Tara, next time you can go play mommy. I’d much rather slay vampires, thank you very much.” She bent down even further and lay her head on the table. “What a boring summer. It was great. Getting back to the grind sucks.”

Dawn burst into the shop, Spike in tow.

“Hey guys,” Buffy exclaimed. “I thought you were going to the movies. I ...” she stopped when she saw the tears in Dawn’s eyes.

“It was horrible,” Dawn sobbed. “We should have done something about it.”

Spike put his arm around her shoulder. “Wasn’t your fault, Bit. Bloody town shoulda done something months ago.”

“God, what happened?” Buffy stood and walked to her sister.

“The tower. The one Glory built. It collapsed.” Spike explained. “Buncha kids were playing around on it.”

“Jimmy Middleton. He got killed.” The teenager was shaking. “He was a nice guy. Not too bright maybe, but God ...”

Buffy threw her arms around her sister. “Oh, Dawn, I’m so sorry. How awful.”

Xander’s eyes flashed with anger. “I told my foreman we should take care of that thing, but no. Said why do a job if we didn’t get paid for it. Said it wasn’t our business.”

“So the town passed the buck, and none of us did anything, and now some poor kid is dead. I should have magicked it down.” Willow reached out for Tara’s hand.

“I don’t know that would have been the answer. You could have got hurt, trying something like that.” Tara looked around at the others. “But we did have a responsibility. We should have done something, petitioned the town, anything.”

“And now someone is dead.” Buffy held her sister tighter. “Damn Glory.”

One Step - Afterlife

Spike walked them home. “It’s a bloody shame. Met the boy once, remember? At that movie. Okay kid.”

“Oh, yeah. We ran into him.” She stopped walking, choking back the tears again. “He was my friend, sort of. We worked on a science project together. I felt sorry for him. He was struggling so hard. His heart was in the right place; he just wasn’t good with school.” Dawn leaned against Spike, his arm around her shoulder. They were almost home.

“They shouldn’t have been playing on that tower.” Buffy felt two pairs of eyes bore into her. “Well, they shouldn’t. It was dangerous.”

“Pretty irresistible for a bunch of kids, I’d say. City should’ve taken it down long ago.” Spike stopped in front of the Revello Drive house.

“You’re right.” Buffy pulled out her key. “It’s Glory’s fault. Just such a pointless death.”

Dawn hugged the vampire, who kissed her on the forehead. “Night, Spike.”

“Night, luv.” He nodded. “Buffy.”

“Night Spike.”

*****

That night Buffy awoke to a darkened room. She tried to stretch, but her hands pressed against the low wooden ceiling. Her arms were confined at the sides. She pounded against them, gasping for air. All
around was the smell of raw earth. She screamed. She couldn’t stop screaming.

Willow and Tara burst into the room. “Buffy, what’s wrong?” Willow grasped her shoulders gently. “You’re okay. Everything’s okay.”

Tara sat down on the bed beside her. “Have a bad dream, sweetie?”

“Oh, god,” Buffy gasped. “It seemed so real. I was trapped in my own coffin, and I couldn’t get out. I wasn’t dead, I wasn’t a vampire. I was just there.”

“How horrible.” Tara put her hand on Buffy’s arm. “You’re safe now. Just a nightmare.”

“Yeah, I know. Must have been all that stuff about Jimmy.” She smiled. “I’m fine now. You guys go back to bed. Did I wake up Dawn?”

“Nope, don’t think so,” Willow replied. “You know her; she’d sleep through a tornado carrying her off and the house with her.” She and Tara rose to go. “Oh, by the way. You were asleep when we came in, so I left the rent cheque on the coffee table.”

“Thanks, guys,” Buffy smiled. “You’re the best.”

She had trouble getting back to sleep.

*****

Spike had a Bowie knife in his hand when Buffy walked into the crypt. “Sorry to startle you,” she said, “I just wanted to ask ...” She looked down at the hand holding the knife. “You’re bleeding.”

“Yeah, well, had a bit of a run in with a nasty a few minutes ago. Just got back when you came in. No big deal.”

He dropped the knife as Buffy took his hand in hers. “It looks sore. You should put something on it.”

He stood there a moment, letting her hold it. When she turned her eyes away, he said, “Not to worry. Not goin’ to get infected. Dead, remember? So, you were going to ask ...”

“Right. The visitation for Jimmy Middleton starts in half an hour at the funeral home. Dawn wants to know if you’ll come with us. She’s very upset. Would you?”

He was taken aback. “Um. Sure, I guess. Not in the chapel?”

“No. Just in one of those little living roomy things, I think. We can pick Dawn up on the way.”

“Wait a sec.” He took off his duster and disappeared down the ladder to his lower level. When he came back up he was wearing a dark grey jacket over his black t-shirt. “This might be more appropriate.”

Buffy nodded. “Yep, you’re right.” She paused, looking at him. “Very good.”

*****

Buffy spent the next afternoon with her friends in the Magic Box. She wanted to tell Willow that her sweater looked like a dead Elmo, but she resisted. She was proud of herself.

When she walked out the back door, she was surprised to see Spike sitting there with a cigarette in his mouth. “Buffy.”

“Spike,” she said, “It’s daylight and you’re not ...”

“On fire.” He took a drag of the cigarette. “Sun’s low enough. It’s shady enough here.”

 

“So, just lurking around?”

“I was gonna go in. Giles and the demon’d have my head if I walked in with a fag.”

Buffy gave him a confused stare.

“Cigarette.”

“Oh.” She sat down beside him. “Last year, Giles took me on this vision questy thing, and I met my spirit guide. Don’t look at me like that. It happened. Anyway, she told me death was my gift. What do you think that means? I’m good at killing things? I’m going to die soon? Because I think it’s that one.”

Spike tossed down his cigarette and crushed it. “Don’t talk like that.” He smiled. “I’m dead. Maybe she was talking about me.”

“Yeah, right,” she said sarcastically. “Must be it.” They sat in silence for a few minutes. “Spike, where do we go when we die?”

“Ah. Light conversation.” He tilted his head to the side. “You’d think I’d be an expert, bein’ dead and all. Wish I could tell you. But, to be honest, no idea. Dru turned me, William’s soul went somewhere, but heaven or hell? Don’t have the foggiest.”

“I don’t understand theology or dimensions, any of it, really. I was dead myself, but just for a few minutes. Do you think we go to a good place?”

“You’re thinkin’ of that boy.”

“And mom.” She let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t think about it. Not usually. But Spike, I don’t want to go to hell.”

He put his hand on hers, and she didn’t pull back. “Don’t worry, Slayer. You won’t.”

One Step - Flooded

Buffy stepped cautiously through the basement, ready to face the noisy peril that awaited her. She walked up to the pipe, as the water seeped to the concrete floor. “So, we meet at last, Mr. Drippy.”

Dawn taunted her about calling a plumber, but how difficult could tightening a joint be? She twisted the wrench, and water splashed everywhere. “There. All better.”

****

Xander’s friend handed her the bill. Dawn looked over her shoulder. “That’s a weird phone number.”

“I did what I can,” Tito said, “but you need a full copper repipe.”

“Great,” Buffy sighed, as the plumber left. “That does it, then.”

“Does what?” Willow picked an apple from a bowl on the kitchen counter and bit in.

“Does me.” Buffy leaned back against the fridge. “I was just hanging on, but things are getting tighter and tighter. Now, with this,” she waved the paper in the air, “I am officially broke.”

“Oh, God!” Dawn exclaimed. “Do we have to move to the poor house?”

“Let me guess,” Tara interjected. “You’re reading David Copperfield at school.”

“There’s a book about the magician?” Xander asked.

“Oh,” Willow exclaimed. “Oh! No problem. I could just magic up some money. Presto, no bills.”

Tara laid her hand on Willow’s shoulder. “I think you’re getting carried away. Money conjuring never goes right. I know you’re good, baby, but slow down.”

“I know,” Anya said calmly. “You could charge. For killing vampires.” She looked around at her unimpressed friends. “Not demons, though.” There was still no reaction, except for Xander’s rolling eyes. “Spiderman does it.”

“No, Ahn,” her boyfriend said. “Action is his reward.”

“You never take my side.” Anya ran out the back door, tears in her eyes.

“Ahn! Wait!” Xander followed after her.

“Man,” Dawn said, “something’s up with them. They fight like all the time.”

“No, they don’t,” Buffy replied in denial. “They’ll work it out, whatever it is.”

Tara took the bill from Buffy’s hand. “Ouch. What are you going to do?”

“And how did things get so bad?” Willow added.

“I had insurance money, from Mom, but her hospital bills ate it up. And house taxes. And food and clothing. And a million other things. The rent you guys pay helps, but it isn’t enough. I thought I had a little more time to deal with this, but I can’t keep that indoor pool.” She wrapped her arms around her stricken sister. “Don’t worry, Dawnie. I’ll think of something.”

*****

“So you see, Mr. Sabatsky, that’s why I need a loan.”

The personal banker smiled kindly. “I understand your situation, Buffy. Things have been very difficult for you. I can’t even contemplate being in such a situation of responsibility for another person at your age.”

“So, I get the loan?” she smiled.

“I really, really wish it were that easy. If your house weren’t losing equity, we could refinance. It’s the only collateral you have. I can’t give you a loan, or even a credit line, without some guarantee that you
could pay it back. If you had a co-signer ... Is there anyone?”

She thought of Giles. “There is. But I wouldn’t want to do that to him. He’s a friend.”

“What about your father? I don’t see any mention of child support for your sister. Could he help?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. And I’d be left with the lawyer’s fees.”

“Oh, I am so sorry.” The man sighed. “It’s not like I don’t want to help you. I do. But you have to face some hard facts.” He steepled his hands together and leaned forward. “I think it’s time to look for a
job. Someone your age should be in college, though, or you limit your future. Perhaps you could go part-time. Or you could sell your home and find something smaller, a condo perhaps.”

“But that’s my mom’s house. I don’t think ... I couldn’t ...”

With that a tall demon crashed into the branch and all hell broke loose, before Buffy fought him off. In the mayhem, someone robbed the bank.

****

“And he still wouldn’t give you the money?” Willow asked incredulously. “Even after you kicked the demon’s ass?”

“Nope.” Buffy sat back in her chair in the Magic Box, surrounded by her friends. “On the other hand, the bank did get robbed. Didn’t even seem like a good idea to ask him for a security guard job.”

“Is this the demon?” Dawn held up the book she was reading and showed her sister the engraving.

“Nope. And I’m really not comfortable with you doing research.”

“Why not?” Xander asked. “I did it at her age.”

“Me too. With computers, yet,” Willow added.

“I ...” Spike looked around at them. “Well, I would have. I’m sure.”

Dawn ignored her sister and flipped though the pages. “What about this one. M...m’vashnik? Like M...m’cookies.”

“Not exactly.” Giles took the book. “Mercenary demon. Works for the highest bidder.”

“Nasty blokes,” Spike interjected. “Owed one twenty quid. Had to kill him.” All eyes were on the vampire. “What?”

Buffy looked at the illustration. “That’s it.”

“Hm. Have to be someone bloody powerful to control one a them.”

*****

The demon burst into the lair, confronting his employers. Jonathan, Warren and Tucker’s brother sat in a circle. After some negotiation, the demon left.

“Wow,” exclaimed Tucker’s brother, looking with unguarded admiration at Warren, “You must have, like, Jedi powers.”

The demon clutched the address Warren had passed him in his claws.

*****

“I had no idea things were so dire,” Giles said to Anya, as they balanced the day’s receipts. “It’s true. Buffy’s in very bad financial difficulty. She needs to do something, and soon, but she doesn’t know what.”

****

Spike sat down beside Buffy on the porch. “There has to be something you could do. I could try to get some cash.”

“No,” Buffy put her hand on his, realized what she’d done, and moved it away. “I can’t ask you to do that.”

“The offer stands.” He smiled at her, and she returned it. “Just let me know.”

With a crash the demon burst into the living room. Dawn screamed. Buffy rushed inside and fought the demon. When Spike tried to help, she yelled, “I want him in the kitchen.” She forced the creature through the room and down the basement stairs, into the deep water. When he pulled off a piece of pipe to attack her, more water rushed forth. Buffy pummelled the demon with the pipe, crying “No more copper repipe!” until it floated lifeless before her.

“You’re right,” Spike commented from the stairs, “does look like an indoor pool.”

*****

As Xander made a valiant attempt to fix the coffee table, and Dawn called code blue on the designer lamp, there was a knock at the front door. Giles stood on the front stoop, and Buffy invited him in. “Can I see you in the kitchen?” he asked. She followed him there. “Anya told me how serious your debt is.”

“It’s not that bad, really,” Buffy blushed. “Not yet.”

“Buffy, this isn’t your fault. I know you’ll work something out, but in the meantime, this should handle the plumber’s bills, with some to spare.” He handed her a check.

“Oh, Giles, I can’t accept this, I ...” She heard another gurgle come up from the basement. She hugged her watcher. “Thanks.”

One Step - Life Serial

“I guess I should think about making supper,” Buffy said, heading into the kitchen.

“I’ll help you.” Dawn followed her, watching as her sister pulled a large can from the shelf. “Oh. Spaghetti. Again.”

“Cheap and easy. Feeds a family of four on a limited budget, without the hassle of much actual cookage. Open the can, heat the insides, and voila.”

A loud knock at the front door ended the discussion, as Dawn ran to answer it. “Hey, Giles. What’s that?”

“I believe it’s called the family meal. Fried chicken, salads and such. Thought you might like a break from cooking.”

Buffy threw her arms around him while Dawn rescued the bag and bucket. “Oh, that’s so great. Thanks.”

“Much thanks.” Dawn added. “Rescued from the clutches of Chef Boyardee.” She called up the stairs. “Hey, guys! Soup’s on!”

****

Giles had taken the chicken and piled it on a platter, aiming for the semblance of a decent meal. They passed it around the table.

Willow reached for a piece. “I’m a breast girl, myself.” She looked knowingly at Tara. “But you knew that.”

“Yes, well.” Giles longed for the feel of his glasses, but was frustrated by the chicken in his hands. “Have you decided what to do, Buffy? Do you have any ideas?”

“Oh, you should go back to school,” Willow enthused. “You need an
education.”

“Why? It’s not like I have a bright and sunny future.” Giles looked at her with concern. “Anyway, it’s too late to enroll for this semester. And it’s not like I can afford the tuition.”

“No,” Willow insisted. “You could sit in on my classes. Audit. Get a feel for things.”

“I could try, I guess,” Buffy replied. “It’s not like I have anything else to do. Though I should really look for a job. Maybe I’ll talk to Xander.”

“Xander?” Dawn was surprised. “Why Xander?”

“Because he has a job. With a real company.”

Giles brightened. “Or you could help us at the Magic Box. We’d love to have you.”

“Right,” Buffy nodded, with feigned enthusiasm. “The store. See,” she said, forcing down her chicken, “many options.”

****

She tried sitting in on Willow’s sociology class, but she might as well have been listening to a foreign language. She wondered if her SAT scores had somehow been rigged by the Council, or if her mother had paid off the review board. She was about to try Tara’s art history course, when time went mad, jumping and speeding up, until she had to hide under a table in the courtyard to avoid being trampled by accelerated students. She found some sort of device on her sweater, but it disappeared in her hand.

She fared no better at Xander’s construction site, when a trio of demons attacked and spoiled her hard day’s work. She suspected her firing had as much to do with her efficiency and strength as it did the
unverifiable demons. Men had such fragile egos.

The Magic Box was hell. After repeated run-ins with a psychotic Mummy’s hand, and an unsatisfied customer, she finally found the solution to her problem and offered to ship the stupid thing to the woman. The experience left her drained.

As she did so often lately, since he had saved her sister’s life, she found herself at Spike’s crypt.

****

She hadn’t meant to get drunk. Really she hadn’t. She was a good girl. She didn’t even like the taste of the whisky. It made her gag. But as the evening went on, she found that the shots and conversation went down smoother and smoother.

“So, you think someone’s doin’ something to you. Testing you or something?”

“Trying to drive me crazy, more like. And succeeding.” She held out her glass. “More.” She giggled. “Driving me to drink.”

“We could try hitting the demon bars. See if anyone knows anything. Shake down some lowlifes for information.” He looked at her swaying body. “If you’re up to it.”

“Bars are good.” She tipped his empty bottle. “Bars have drinks.”

“Don’t think you’ve had enough, Slayer?”

“I so drunk not, am.” She smiled at him. “You know, you’re kind of cute.”

Spike considered taking advantage of her, but decided it might not be worth being staked in the morning. “Why don’t I just drive you home?”

*****

In their Lone Gunman surveillance van, the evil nerds totalled their points. Testing Buffy had been a game. Warren won. He always won.

One Step - All the Way

The Magic Box was awash in Halloween sale customers, much to Anya’s delight and her friends’ chagrin. She was less than pleased with Willow’s attitude as she hassled the customers over outdated witchy
stereotypes, but she was too busy with her own clients to go over and bop the redhead one.

Buffy had the stricken look of one whose retail experience had been a nightmare, and Dawn used the commotion to pocket an amulet she particularly liked. Xander did bad pirate impressions. Giles was not
amused.

When Anya said, “We need more mandrake root,” Buffy was down the stairs like a shot. She was digging through the basement when Spike startled her.

“You,” Buffy said, “bell.”

“Come with a nice leather collar?” he smirked. She turned red, and he enjoyed the reaction. He picked up a tangle of fibres. “Burba weed. Throw it in with the blood. Makes it all hot and spicy.”

“Oh.” She made a face. “You were gonna steal that.”

“No,” he considered her expression. “Well, yeah. That’s what I do. I go where I please and I take what I want.”

“Let me buy it for you.”

“What? No, Buffy. You can’t afford it. I’ll just nick it. Anya won’t even notice.”

“You’re right. I can’t afford it.” Her forehead creased in concentration before she brightened with a smile. “I know. I’ll steal it.”

“You all right, Slayer?” Spike was on the verge of putting the weed back on the shelf out of confusion.

Buffy took it from his hand. “There. I stole it. Now I give it to you as a gift.” She laughed. “Believe me, she owes me. I’ve worked my butt off all day, gratis.”

“Hm. If you’re sure.” He decided to go with the moment. “How ‘bout a little rough and tumble? You, me ...?” She blushed again. She was even cuter than when she was drunk. “Patrolling.”

“Oh, right. Maybe tomorrow.” She smiled at him. “You want to go upstairs?”

“That’s okay, love, but thanks for askin’. Great pumpkin’s on in twenty.” He flashed her one last smile before disappearing down the tunnel, the burba weed thrust in his duster pocket.

She caught herself smiling after him, considered the impropriety of her thoughts, and ran back upstairs.

As Xander watched Anya dance the dance of capitalist superiority, he exclaimed “I’m gonna marry that girl.” Anya was delighted that their secret had finally been revealed. Willow magicked a party for them at Buffy’s, ignoring Tara and Giles’ disapproving stares.

Xander soon seemed to regret his haste. Between Giles’ portents of the future, and Anya’s zeal for babies, the pressure built to a quick crescendo.

Buffy was caught up in the wedding fever. She was so happy, Dawn asked her for a tattoo, but settled for sneaking out with Janice.

The two teens quickly hooked up with Janice’s boyfriend and his buddy, Justin. The two girls talked about them as they walked the streets, embracing Halloween mischief. “He has that Clark Kent thing going for him,” Dawn enthused. “Not the geeky glasses one; the totally hot high-school one.”

After robbing a very strange old man in his home, Dawn found herself parking with Justin in his car. Her first kiss was sweet indeed, until her roaming fingers found the distinctive bumpy forehead of the vampire.

Meanwhile, Giles, Buffy and Spike tracked down the young vampires, defeating a park full of teen blood suckers. Buffy was shocked to find that Dawn had been parking with a vampire, especially one she hardly knew.

When Justin tried to turn the Slayer’s sister, he found that the acorn hadn’t fallen far from the tree. The last thing he saw as he exploded into dust was the tears in her eyes.

At the Revello Drive home, Buffy left Giles to ‘the talk’ with Dawn, after a prolonged gaze at Spike’s retreating form. Willow and Tara fought over magic, until the latter was enchanted by her lover.

All was quiet in Sunnydale. At least, as quiet as it ever was there on Halloween.

One Step - Once More With Feeling

Buffy prowled the cemetery, facing vampire after demon. She felt disconnected, as though she were walking through a haze. Every night, the patrol was getting harder. She didn’t know if she could keep it
up. The bizarre part, which had never happened before, was that she had burst into song, and the song reflected her fears.

“And I just want to be ... alive.”

****

Later, in the Magic Box, she discovered that she hadn’t been the only one with a musical interlude. The Scoobies speculated on the cause, and in doing so started singing again. They all had musical theories, and she grew impatient with them. Didn’t they realize what a resource they had in each other? They could beat this.

“What can’t we face if we’re together?
What’s in this place that we can’t weather?
Apocalypse, we’ve paid the price,
It’s do or die,
Hey I’ve died guys ...”

But that was the point, wasn’t it? Once was enough. For a long, long time. Yet every evil she faced held the seeds to her eventual, likely imminent, destruction. She couldn’t think about that. If she did, how
could she be the Slayer?

They established that the situation was widespread. She saw a chubby man singing about his dry cleaning. Something had to be done. Maybe Spike would know.

He was climbing into the upper level when she entered the crypt. “The sun sets and she appears,” he said. “Come to serenade me?”

“So you do know what’s going on.”

He smiled. “I’ve seen some pretty strange things the last few days. A six hundred pound Chirago demon making like Ima Sumac. Now, that’ll stay with you. I remain immune, happy to say.” He held up a bottle of tequila. “Drink?”

She waved her hand dismissively and sat down on the sarcophagus. “Any idea what’s causing this?”

He frowned. “Oh, that’s it then. Just came to pump me for information.”

“What else would I want to pump you for?” Her tone was flirtatious, but he didn’t seem to notice.

He walked over to the door and held it open. “Right then. If that’s it
...”

She didn’t move. “What’s up? You’re all bad moody.”

“It’s nothing.” To his dismay, he started to sing:

“I died, so many years ago, but you can make me feel like it isn’t so
And while you come to be with me, I think I finally know ...”

(What was with him? Hey, he had a nice voice.)

“You’re scared, afraid of what you feel, grateful to a monster whose
life is yours to steal.
Just because Dawn’s still alive, we’ve got this friendship deal ...”

(He was her friend. She was glad of that. Didn’t he want it too?)

“That’s great, but I don’t want to play, Cause being with you touches
me, more than I can say,
And since I’m only dead to you, I’m saying stay away,
And let me rest in peace.”

(Dead. He was more than that. Wasn’t he?)

“Let me rest in peace, let me get some sleep,
Let me take my love and bury it in a hole six feet deep
I can lay my body down but I can’t find my sweet release,
So let me rest in peace.”

(He doesn’t want me? Doesn’t want to love me? Look at him posing there. Such a drama queen. But so, oh my ... He’s getting awfully close. Is it hot in here?)

“You know, you’ve got a willing slave, And you just love to play the
thought that you might misbehave.”

(Oh, he’s on his knees. What an interesting position. No, Buffy. Don’t go there. Mind out of the gutter. Friends. Just friends.)

“But til you do I’m begging you stop visiting my grave,
And let me rest in peace.”

(Walking in the cemetery. How the heck did they get outside? What was he saying ... singing?)

“I know I should go, but I follow you like a man possessed.
There’s a stranger here beneath my breast
And it hurts me more than you’ve ever guessed.
If my heart could beat it would break my chest
But I can see you’re unimpressed to leave me be ...”

(Can’t believe he wants to end it. End the friendship. Be left alone. That hurts. Why does that hurt?)

He attacked a funeral procession while he sang the chorus. Threw some chairs around, and grabbed the preacher’s collar, though more as an act of desperation, supplication, than a real attack. At the end, he and Buffy fell into an open grave. She saw him laying under her, felt drawn to him, leaned down towards his lips, then jerked herself back. She couldn’t give him this, give herself this. It was wrong. So she bolted from the hole, running off into the night.

She went back to the Magic Box and trained with Giles.

“I don’t think we need to work on your strength,” he said, after a particularly difficult workout on the horse. “Did you speak to Dawn about that incident at Halloween?”

Buffy seemed surprised. “Oh, I thought you took care of it.” She warmed up for the next level of training.

“Right.” Giles knew. He knew she was too dependent on him. She’d grown beyond needing a Watcher, and he couldn’t be her father. He sang about that, and his need to leave her, but she didn’t hear it.

The other Scoobies were in the front room when Spike dragged in a puppet creature, who told them all that Dawn had been kidnapped and taken to the Bronze, before ducking out the door.

The gang was ready to follow after the creature, but Giles proclaimed, “Buffy’s going alone.”

Spike was angry, and confronted the Watcher. “Don’t be a stupid git. There’s no way ...”

But Giles was adamant. “If I want your opinion, Spike, I’ll ask forit.” He looked at the others. “And that goes for the rest of you.”

Spike looked at Buffy. “Forget it, Slayer. I’ve got your back.”

But Buffy was still stinging from his previous words. “I thought you wanted me to stay away from you. Isn’t that what you sang?”

Spike felt helpless, rejected, and it made him even more angry. “Fine. I hope you dance til you burn. You and the little Bit.” He stomped out the shop door.

Buffy blinked like she’d been struck. She thought he’d changed. Was she deluding herself? There was no time to think about it with Dawn in danger. She said to Giles, “You’re really not coming?”

“It’s up to you,” he replied.

Buffy was the one feeling helpless now. “What do you expect me to do?” When she left to find her sister, no one followed. She had never felt more alone.

She looked at a burning barrel in the street. Gazed down into it, and held her hand out towards it, jerking it back. Without even noticing, she started to sing:

“I touch the fire and it frightens me; its crackle burns me to the core.

I’ll be consumed, just ashes left exhumed. There’ll be no me anymore.”

But she could see her sister in her mind’s eye, terrified and lost. She started to walk down the street.

“Now through the smoke she calls to me, to make my way across the flame.

To save the day, or maybe melt away, she dies the tower was just a game.”

Her face grew more determined, as she tried to hide the cold feeling clutching at her heart.

“But I will walk through the fire, for where else can I turn?
I will walk through the fire and let it ...”

Spike sat alone, smoking in an alley, anger and frustration mixed with tears.

“The torch I bear is scorching me. She doesn’t want me I’ve no doubt.
I hope she fries, I’m free if that bitch dies ...”

But the thought overwhelmed him, and throwing his cigarette aside, he stood.

“I’d better help her out.”

Sweet smiled, knowing that the Slayer he sought to destroy was coming right into his grasp.

“Though she’s afraid of the fire, she will never learn,
She will walk through the fire and let it ...”

In the Magic Box, Giles was having second thoughts, seconded by Anya. He had made a mistake, and Dawn could pay the penalty. So together they followed Buffy into the night.

“So we will walk through the fire ...”

Buffy was approaching the Bronze, still dwelling on her fate.

“So one by one they turn from me. I guess my friends don’t really care.

To get in gear, I have to face my fear,
It’s getting far too hard to bear.”

But, together and apart, she and her friends were joined in one chorus.

“But we are caught in the fire, the point of no return.
We will walk through the fire and let it burn.”

Sweet was ecstatic. “Showtime.”

Buffy broke down the Bronze front door, as Spike headed for the rear. The rest of the gang approached.

The demon surveyed Buffy. “ I love a good entrance.”

Buffy saw Dawn cowering on the stage, terrified. “How are you at death scenes? Give me back my sister.”

Sweet flashed her his best evil grin. “You’ll have to earn her. Or take her place. In hell.”

Buffy was damned if she’d show him her fear. She started to sing:

“Life’s insane, it’s wild and mad and free
And anything can be, for anyone but me.

Love and peace, and neverending song
And though some things go wrong, your life still moves along.”

She sang as she fought off Sweet’s puppet minions, defeating them all in
choreographed turn.

“Where there’s life, there’s hope. Wishes can come true.
Every day’s a gift. Whistle while you work, so hard, all day.

Just be like other girls, and fit into this glittering world.
Don’t give me songs.”

Tara and Anya rushed in to support her, dancing behind her.

“Don’t give me songs. Give me something to sing about.
Something hopeful to sing about.”

Her friends dropped back. She would have to face this alone.

“Life’s insane, it’s full of pain and strife.
But also joy and light, when you get a life.”
She was close to tears now, but she kept singing.

“But my friends don’t have so much to lose,
They don’t pay these harsh dues
The Chosen One can’t choose.

All the joy life sends,
Husband, family, friends.
All the twists and bends.
Hoping it won’t end.
Well, that depends ...”

She was climbing the stairs, wishing she didn’t have to burden them with her fears and frustrations. But, in a way, it felt good to get it out.

“On if you get to live, or if your life is just a thing to give.
Cause there’s a catch. Don’t get attached.”

Her face grew drawn, etched with pain. She didn’t deserve to be the Slayer.

“What would I have done, if Dawn had been bled
Would I’ve taken her stead
To close the portal?

Glory would have won, if I’d been afraid
To make that trade, and close the portal.
Could I have closed the portal?”

So, they knew. Knew she wasn’t worth being a sister. Being their friend. Being the Slayer.

“So give me something to sing about. Something hopeful to sing about.”

Sweet’s face was gleeful as Buffy started dancing, whirling around the floor, caught up in the music. She wasn’t aware of the smoke rising from her body, as she started to incinerate, like the other victims of
Sweet’s spell. She only knew that dancing kept her from thinking.

Until Spike’s hands were on her shoulders, stopping her.

“Don’t be afraid, I’ve got your back, in any attack,
You’re a hero.”

He looked into her eyes. Tried to share his strength, his knowledge of who she was.

“If choices you’d made, I know you’d choose right, to fight the good fight.
You’re a hero,
I know that you’re a hero.”

Dawn looked down at her. “You’re my sister. You wouldn’t have let me die.”

Sweet clapped. He hadn’t gotten Buffy, but he could still take Dawn. He made ready to leave. But Dawn maintained that she hadn’t summoned him, and on further examination Xander took the blame. Since the carpenter wasn’t his type, Sweet left in a flurry of lights, after leaving a legacy of one last song. And the legacy of revealing their secrets and fears. Giles was going to leave, as was Tara, discovering
Willow’s mind control spell. Anya and Xander had deep seated insecurities about their relationship. If anyone had been paying attention, they would have realized that Dawn was a thief. All their relationships showed signs of degradation.

Except one.

“Where do we go from here? When does the end appear?”

Spike realized he was singing. “Bugger this.” Breaking from the spell, he went outside.

Buffy ran after him. “Hey.”

“You should go back inside. Get your kumbayayas out.”

She took a step towards him. “I don’t want to.”

He tried to protect his unbeating heart. “Buffy, I can’t ...”

“I touch the fire and it frightens me ...”

“I died ...”

“It’s crackle burns me to the core ...”

“So many years ago ...”

“I need to deal, and you can make me ...”

“... feel.”

Their lips met with passionate yearning. This wouldn’t be the end.

“Where do we go from here?”

One Step - Tabula Rasa

Buffy was patrolling through the cemetery when she saw Spike. She blushed, and walked away in the other direction. He followed after her. “Buffy, can we talk?”

“About what?” she called over her shoulder. “Nothing to talk about.”

“We have to talk.” He put his hand on her shoulder and spun her around to face him. “We kissed, Buffy.” She dropped her eyes, not meeting his. He tipped her head up with his forefinger. His voice was gentle. “We kissed. All ‘Gone With the Wind’ with the rising music and the rising,” the shock on her face amused him, “music.”

“I’m sorry, Spike. Sorry you got the wrong idea. It was a mistake. Just part of Sweet’s spell.” She pulled away from him and started walking away again.

“Not just part of a spell. We kissed, and something happened. To both of us.”

She hesitated. “Suppose it did. It couldn’t work. I’ve tried it before.” She faced him again. “It didn’t work.”

He stepped closer. “I’m not him.”

She threw him to the ground as a stake whizzed through the air where his chest would have been and imbedded itself in a tree. “Easy, boys,” said a greasy voice. “No need to get physical.” He looked down at the vampire. “Mr. Spike. There’s the matter of those thirty Siamese you owe me.”

Spike was brushing the dirt off his pants, Buffy beside him. “Siamese?” she asked him. “Like cats? I don’t get it. You tried to dust Spike for cats?”

“She’s a funny one. Just get me my kittens, Mr. Spike. Now.” The shark headed demon licked his teeth.

“I got in too deep in a poker game. Bloody foolish. We play for kittens, we demons do.”

Buffy narrowed her eyes. “That’s ridiculous.” She eyed the biggest of the creature named Teeth’s henchmen and kicked him, knocking him backwards. She dusted him and headed for his associate.

Teeth was impressed. “Have you ever considered a career in debt collection?” Buffy replied in the negative, as they both realized Spike had disappeared.

****

Willow and Tara were sitting at a table with Anya and Xander at his apartment, playing Monopoly. Xander rolled the dice. “Double sixes. Whoohoo.”

Anya compared his pile of money to hers. “You are doing very well with capitalist accumulation, honey. I’m surprised.”

It was Willow’s turn, but she seemed distracted. “I’m worried about Buffy. She seems really spooked. I had no idea her self confidence was so shot. I’m afraid she’s going to go out patrolling one night and not
come back.”

“Come on, Will,” Xander replied. “She’ll be fine. Maybe we just need to spend a little more time with her. Remind her that she has friends who care no matter what.”

Anya smiled. “Like Spike.”

Xander frowned. “Do not go there.”

Willow brightened up. “I can make her feel better. I know a spell.”

Tara’s face clouded, and her voice was angry. “No. No more spells. You know how powerful magic is; how dangerous. You could hurt someone. You could hurt yourself.”

Willow was insistent. “I could do a spell that would take away her fear. Make her hero Buffy all over again.”

Tara slammed down her coffee mug. “God, what is wrong with you?” Xander and Anya shared an embarrassed look, excused themselves, and disappeared into the other room. “Do you think I’m stupid? I know you used that spell on me.” Tara’s words grew more and more angry as she discussed Willow’s forgetting spell, and compared her to Glory. Willow was shocked.

“I didn’t mean anything like that. I just wanted us not to fight anymore.”

Tara was disgusted. The argument escalated, until Tara, full of grief and pain, exclaimed, “I don’t think this is going to work.”

Willow was desperate. “I could go a month without doing a spell. Not one single spell. I swear.”

“A week,” Tara sighed. One week without magic.”

While Tara threatened to leave Willow, Giles was saying goodbye to Buffy. She was devastated. But he thought she needed to be on her own, or she would always be too dependent on him. “I’ve taught you all I can about being the Slayer, and your mother taught you all about life.”

Buffy didn’t want to listen to his words. Giles was leaving, and all she could feel was pain.

****
Willow wasn’t ready the next morning, as Tara and Dawn left for the Magic Box and Giles’ latest briefing. As soon as they were out the door she magically dressed and ran downstairs. Taking a packet of dried
flowers from their hiding place on the bookcase, she set fire to a stem and held a quartz crystal to the smoulder. “For Tara’s sake I do thee char; let Lethes’ Bramble do its chore.” As the crystal started to
blacken, she chanted, “Tabula rasa, tabula rasa.” She stuffed the crystal into the front pocket of her jeans and headed out the door, not seeing the sparks hit the entire packet of bramble. It took flame and
started to burn.

****

In the Magic Box, Giles told the others he was leaving. Buffy was resentful, and the others were shocked, except for Anya, who would finally get the store to herself. Spike came running in wearing a brown tweed suit, pulling off a very unflattering and smoking winter cap, and the Scoobies stared. “It’s a disguise,” he stated. “To hide from Teeth. You know, Buffy.”

But Buffy wasn’t listening. She was too busy blinking back the tears. “Giles, you don’t care if I live or ...” She fainted, prone on the floor. The rest of the gang followed.

When they awoke, without memory, they made false assumptions. Giles and Anya thought they were engaged, Willow and Xander that they were dating, Spike that he was Giles’ son Randy. Buffy and Dawn realized they were sisters, but Buffy, not knowing her real name, chose Joan. When Teeth’s
henchmen attacked, the gang split up, Spike and Buffy into the street, Xander, Willow, Dawn and Tara into the sewers, while Anya and Giles stayed in the Magic Box. All were put in peril, but all survived until
Xander stepped on Willow’s fallen crystal, and their memories returned.

As Buffy remembered who she was, she was knocked out by a vampire, who started kicking her as she lay on the ground. Spike screamed her name, as he fought off Teeth’s minions. Teeth decided he’d had enough. “You’re an odd duck, Mr. Spike.” He offered to absolve the vampire of his debt, but Spike refused.

“You’ll get your kittens. I’m no welcher.” He reached out his hand to Buffy. “You alright?” She grasped it as he pulled her to her feet.

*****

Later that night, everything had changed. Tara came back to the house on Revello Drive and packed her belongings, as Willow grieved their love. Giles was on a plane to England. Buffy sat crying in the Bronze,
desperately missing the only real father figure she had.

Spike saw her crying, and walked over to her. He lay his hand on hers, and she looked up at him. With his other hand, he wiped a tear from her cheek. Her eyes held such pain, he couldn’t stand it. He drew her to her feet, and she started to walk with him, but as they were leaving the club, she stopped. She put her arms around him and pressed her lips to his. As the kiss grew more intense, time stopped. Nothing mattered but his lips, his hands.

 

One Step - Smashed

Buffy and Spike were walking downtown on their way to patrol when they heard a scream. Ducking into an alley, they found a young couple being threatened by two assailants. Buffy grabbed one and swung him around, pulling a stake from her pocket. She realized her error just as Spike wound back to punch the other one. “Spike, no. They aren’t ...”

It was too late. The vampire groaned in pain as one attacker ran off. Distracted, Buffy let the other go. She looked with concern as Spike held his head in his hands. “You okay?”

“Will be.” He drew in a deep breath. “Oxygen. Helps. I think.”

The victims of the attack stood in shock. “Um, what’s with his face?” the man asked.

“Just go.” Buffy stared at the couple who remained standing. “Sunnydale at night? Not a happy place. I said go.” She watched the couple disappear into the night.

“Humans. Bloody chip. I’m no help at all.” He leaned against the wall, the pain starting to ease as his human face resurfaced.

Buffy laid her hand on his shoulder. “Come on. It’s been ages since I saw a mugger. And you’re a big help. Usually.”

“Yeah?” He leaned towards her, his lips inches from hers. “Am I?”

Buffy was almost caught in the moment again, but she stepped back. “I told you. This is a mistake. I can’t do this.”

“You could last night. At the Bronze.”

“That wasn’t about you. It was about Giles.”

Spike raised his eyebrow. “Really. I always wondered about you two.”

“What?” She realized what she’d said. “Oh, ick. No. I mean I was upset he left. I wasn’t thinking.” She turned to go. “Listen. I think it would be better if I skipped patrol tonight and went home.”

“Right,” Spike muttered as she walked away. “Better for whom?”

*****

Willow sat alone and lonely in the room she had recently shared with Tara, cuddling Amy the rat. Wishing she could help the poor creature, she was suddenly struck with the knowledge of how. “Reveal” she exclaimed, as a printed spell appeared in her hands. Suddenly, Amy was a rat no longer.

 

*****

In the local museum, Andrew, Warren and Jonathan froze a guard with a ray gun and stole a huge diamond. Luckily for them, as Warren said, “The security system here is a guy named Rusty.”

*****

Confused about her feelings, Buffy entered Willow’s room. “Can I talk to you about something?” She sat on the edge of the bed. “You know how we all make choices? Sometimes they’re good, and sometimes they’re ... less good.” Willow didn’t understand, and the Slayer was about to explain when Amy walked into the room.

“Hey, Buffy,” she said.

Buffy stared at her, looked at Willow’s grin, and looked back at her old classmate. “Hi, how you been?”

“Rat, you?”

“Still slaying.”

“Uh huh.”

At Buffy’s insistence, Amy decided to sleep over, and went downstairs in search of cookies. The blonde waited until she left the room. “Wow.”

Willow explained what had happened. “I just realized I could. It’s nice, having another magically inclined friend around.” She focused on her friend. “So, what were you going to tell me? You were sounding all serious.”

But Buffy had lost her nerve. “Oh, it’s nothing.” She went downstairs, where Amy was watching a TV news report about the frozen guard at the museum. She rushed out the door.

*****

Spike was waiting for her in front of the museum. “So, what do you reckon caused this?”

She walked across the lawn at his side. “Is this really about the guard?”

“Yeah. Sure.” He stopped and noticed her intent glare. “No.”

She sighed. “You seem awfully fixated on a couple of kisses, Spike.” “And you seem awfully quick to forget about them.” They stood, eye to eye, until she turned aside.

 

“I can’t deal with this. I told you, we can’t do this. You vampire, me slayer. Been there. Didn’t work. And you don’t even have a soul.”

“Maybe not.” He started to smile. “But then, I have nothing to lose.”

She laughed, a chuckle at first. But the laughter grew in intensity. A little too loudly. A little too wildly. She couldn’t catch her breath. Everything was crashing down on her. Her father. Her mother. Raising her sister. Her money problems. Giles. Spike. Her fears.

The vampire slapped her face, and they both recoiled. “Oh, bloody hell.” He sat on the grass while the pain eased. “Sorry, Slayer.”

“That’s okay.” She took his hand. “I needed that. Really. Always wanted to say that.” She pulled him to his feet. “Let’s go to the Magic Box and figure out what did this.”

*****

Tara and Dawn had been out on a buddy date. The older girl brought her home and prepared to leave before Willow returned, but Dawn used guilt to convince her to stay.

*****

Willow and Amy arrived at the Bronze, where they proceeded to raise a little magic hell.

*****

Xander and Anya sat with Buffy and Spike at the big table in the Magic Box. “What about this one?” Xander asked. “Diamond eating frost monster.”

Spike snorted. “That’s a Dungeons and Dragons manual, you git.”

“Buffy, what exactly is Peroxide Boy doing here again?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Helping us look for the demon. He knows all sorts of, well, demony stuff.”

“And how does he know about gaming manuals?” Anya asked, with genuine curiosity.

Spike quickly picked up another book. “This is it.” He looked closer. “No it’s not.”

Xander felt Anya rubbing his leg under the table with her foot. He yawned widely. “I’m getting really tired. Anya, you getting, you know, tired?”

“No,” she replied. “But I am bored and would like to go home and have sex.”

Buffy hid her smile behind her hand. “You two go home. Spike and I will work a little longer. We can lock up.” They watched the couple leave, and sat her book on the table. “I’m bored too.”

Spike tilted his head and looked at her hopefully. “Really?”

“And I think I’m going in the back room to work out.” She stuck her tongue out at him. “Gutter brain.”

“Fancy a sparring partner, love?” he asked.

“Won’t that set off the chip?” she asked, as she headed towards the back room.

“Only if I really try to hurt you. Won’t be a total workout, but it’ll help.”

He took off his duster and she took off her frilly blouse, revealing the tank top underneath. He lay a few mats down on the floor. “Okay. Be prepared.” She lunged at him, and he feinted back, sending her flying against thin air. She rolled and jumped to her feet. “Good one.”

“Give me your best shot.” To her surprise, he stood her ground and let her hit him.

“Spike. I have a punching bag for that.”

“Not the same, is it?” He dove at her and wrestled her to the ground. “Try to kick me off. Got no leverage, do you?”

But she wasn’t listening. She was panting heavily, and not from exertion. His eyes were so blue, and his body lay tight against hers. She bent her head up and kissed him. He responded vigorously. She
found herself pushing him away, so she could pull off his t-shirt. His chest was firm and muscular. She gasped as she felt him push his hands under the fabric of her top. Felt him reach higher and higher, until
they cupped her breasts. Her hand reached for his belt.

“Buffy, are you sure?”

“No.” She pulled at his zipper.

They made love most of the night, until finally, exhausted, they fell asleep on the mats.

One Step - Wrecked

Light was flickering through the small windows of the training room. It was early yet, as Buffy opened her eyes to find her back sticking to the plastic of a mat. She was disoriented. Not in her own bed. As her eyes adjusted to the dawning light, she realized where she was. Looking beside her at his naked form, she realized who she was with. What she had done. Colour draining from her face, she grasped the closest item of clothing she could find, and covered her body. Covered her breasts. It smelled of tobacco and leather. She was under his duster.

“Spike. Spike, get up.” She almost reached for his arm to shake him, but her hand pulled back. She couldn’t touch him. Look where touching had gotten her.

“Buffy?” Spike sat up, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Mornin’” The look on his face as he saw her, clutching his coat to hide her nudity, was a mixture of amusement and a leer. “You look good in leather.” He reached for the coat. “But even better without the wrapping.”

Looking into his eyes, she almost lost her grip on the duster, but she came to her senses and tightened her hold. “This. This was a mistake.”

“Right. You call it a mistake.” He stood up and stretched, as her eyes grew wide. “I call it the bloody best shag of m’ life. Unlife. Whatever.”

“I have to get home.” Buffy tried crawling around the room with the coat covering her like a turtle’s shell, pulling articles of clothing under it as she attempted dressing discreetly, her eyes averted from his
body. She was only partially successful, and his eyes followed her, delighting in each flash of bare flesh. “Where the hell are my underpants?”

He watched until she was dressed, then stepped towards her, pulling her into his arms. If she wanted to resist, she was doing a poor job of it. They fell back onto the mats, and he kissed her. Her tongue was
soft and warm in his mouth. He had only allowed her to climb back into her clothes because it was so enjoyable removing them.

As the sun’s rays shone a little brighter into the room, she pulled away. “I have to go.”

“What’s the hurry, love?”

She forced a coldness into her voice; an evenness. “The hurry is I left Dawn alone all night. Besides, you really want Anya walking in on us?”

“Would that be so bad? She’s a big girl. She’d understand.”

“I wish I did.” Against her better judgement she looked back into his eyes. They belied his age. They were dancing. His mouth was so soft, so tender. She reached out and touched his lower lip with her thumb. So soft. Thoughts of her sister vanished as she let him draw her back into a kiss. Her hands moved up and down the sinews of his back. She broke the kiss to nuzzle his throat.

“I knew,” he sighed, “the only thing better than killing a slayer would be fu...”

She pushed him away. Hard. “Is that what this is about?” she gasped, rising to her feet. “Doing a Slayer?” Tears stung the backs of her eyes.

He looked up at her, not comprehending her pain. “You seem to be quite the groupie yourself. I’m just saying, vampires get you hot.”

“You. How could ...”

“Are you crying?” He jumped to his feet and reached for her, but she wouldn’t allow it. “Buffy, I didn’t mean ... I was just playing. You know I love you. You know it.”

“Get dressed Spike. I have to go. You can leave through the tunnels.”

“No.” He spun her around. “I’m an idiot. Do you know how long I’ve waited for this? For you? I’ve known that you don’t care. Can’t care. But last night ...”

“I really have to go.” She started walking away. “I don’t know what this means. It’s wrong, and we both know it.” She paused at the door. “See you on patrol.”

****

When Tara and Dawn awoke on the couch in the morning, they were the only ones in the house. Willow and Amy arrived as they made breakfast pancakes, as Willow awkwardly introduced the ex-rat to her ex. Amy enthused about what a powerful witch Willow had become. An angry Tara left as Buffy came through the door, exhausted, and apologizing to Dawn.

“You been in a fight?” Dawn asked.

“Something like that. Why?”

“Because you’re all sore and limpy.” She pointed to Buffy’s throat. “And bruised.”

Buffy tried to hide the hickey under the collar of her blouse, but it was just too flimsy. “Right. Fought a Big Bad. All night. Couldn’t call.” She tried to distract her sister. “Everyone’s safe. You’re all right.”

“I’m fine.”

“Great. I’m going to bed.” She followed Willow up the stairs, after seeing Amy head home.

“Get some rest.” Dawn called up to her. “You’re obviously beat from monster wrestling all night.” She added under her breath, “I’ll just go find some awake people.”

*****

Buffy was a little nervous as she entered the Magic Box for her research date with Xander and Anya, but the vampire was gone and the couple seemed oblivious to the events of the previous night. When she checked the back room, she realized that Spike had replaced the mats in their proper order. With a sigh of almost regret, she sat at the table with her friends and picked up a book.

“We aren’t getting anywhere this way,” Xander said. “Let’s get Spike to help.”

“No,” Buffy replied, a little too sharply. “I mean, it’s daytime. Don’t want to wake him up.”

“How about Willow?” Anya asked. “If we have to research, so should she.”

“Willow’s going through some things, I think.” Buffy sat her book down on the table. “Tara’s worried with the magic usage. I mean, that’s Willow’s business. Maybe she has reasons for acting this way. Who are we to be all judgy?”

Xander looked confused. “Who’s judgy? I’m never judgy. Anya, am I judgy?”

“Usually.” Anya handed him another book. “Read.”

*****

Willow was showing an extreme lack of judgement as she followed her friend Amy into Warlock Rack’s house of Evil Magic. She was hopped up with magic hallucinations, until the intrusion of a frightening demon interrupted her bliss, and she teleported from place to place, finding herself finally in her own room.

Hours later, she stumbled down the stairs to find Dawn cooking peanut butter quesadillas on the stove. She convinced the teen to come to dinner and a movie with her instead.

*****

Spike walked Buffy to her door after an early, uneventful patrol. “See you tomorrow night,” she said, her voice emotionless. As he leaned over to kiss her, she jerked back. “I said no. Let’s keep this on a
business level. We can be friends.”

He folded his hands over his heart, a look of mock pain on his face. “Oh. Ouch. Not the ‘let’s be friends’ speech.” He leaned towards her as her back pressed against the door, a hand on either side of her
shoulders, his palms pressed against the wood. “Think we’re a little beyond friendship, don’t you, Slayer?”

She let him think she was going to kiss him, as she slowly reached for the door knob. With a twist she had entered the house, leaving him outside. “Night, Spike,” she called through the door. She brushed the wood with her fingertips, sighing deeply before she turned and headed towards the stairs.

She stopped at the witch’s door, hearing a sound inside. “Will?” When her friend didn’t answer, she found Amy stealing magic supplies. The intruder was nervous, strung out, and Buffy got her to reveal that Willow was most likely at Rack’s. With Dawn. And no, Amy didn’t know where to find the constantly moving magic house.

****

Dawn waited impatiently in the seedy waiting room with even seedier clients, as Willow let Rack service her in his office.

****

Not knowing where else to turn, Buffy entered the crypt. Spike was napping, and lay naked in his bed. She stopped to look at him. He looked almost innocent in his sleep. An innocent little boy with washboard abs and muscular arms, and a body ... She called his name, but he was unconscious. She picked up one of his pillar candles and prodded him with it until he woke up. “Buffy?” He looked at the candle in her hand. “Knew you couldn’t stay away. Someone should teach you about the use of candles in foreplay.” He took it from her hand, his fingers brushing hers as he did so.

“We don’t have time for this. Dawn’s with Willow.” She paused, expecting him to understand the gravity of the situation.

“And this is a bad thing. Because ...?”

“Because they went to a place called Rack’s.”

Spike jumped up, causing Buffy to blush. “I know who he is. He deals in the black stuff. Magic.” He bent over to pick up his jeans. “Place moves around. Cloaked. You have to be a big bad to find it. A witch, or
a vampire.” He realized that she had turned her back while he dressed. “Oh, that’s right,” he sighed. “Hide your blushing eyes.”

*****

When Willow was finally ready to leave, she refused to take the teenager home. Dawn was angry, until they were both distracted by a particularly ugly and frightening demon.

*****

Spike and Buffy looked all over the downtown for the Warlock’s lair. “Big Bad. Right.” Buffy rolled her eyes.

“Shh. Not so easy to find. Especially for non clients.” He looked hopeful for a few moments, then his face fell. “Nothing.”

“Thank you for helping. I know you care about Dawn.”

“You’re my girls.” When Buffy didn’t object, he continued. “I know you think this is wrong. Us. I know you’ve been here before, and it went badly. But I’m not Angel. I’m not Finn. Not even your father. I
won’t leave. I love you.”

“I know. It’s just ... I can’t do this. Not now.” She let him slip his hand into hers. “But it meant something. Last night. It meant a lot.”

He smiled, a troubled smile. “I know.”

*****

The demon attacked the young women, scratching Dawn across the face. “You summoned me.” They broke away and ran down the street, jumping into a parked car. Willow started it magically, and drove it with her mind. Dawn was terrified, and rightly so, when the car crashed. When they stumbled from the car, the demon was in front of them.

*****

She pulled her hand away at the sound of the scream. Spike hurried to Dawn’s side, trying to comfort her, while Buffy attacked the demon. She fought bravely, but it was strong, and exuded evil. When she froze, it made its move, knocking her to the ground. She struggled back up, not knowing if she could continue, as the demon started shaking. It trembled and exploded into a oozing cloud, as Willow stood staring at Buffy, her eyes black and fingers crackling with energy.

Buffy ignored her as she walked to her sister, and she and Spike helped Dawn to her feet. Willow tried to help too, and Dawn slapped her face. As the trio walked away, Spike told Buffy she should speak to Willow. Reluctantly, she let Spike help Dawn towards the hospital, as she confronted her grovelling friend. “I’m sorry,” the witch moaned. “I need help.” She reached her hand towards Buffy. “Please.” Buffy hugged her without compassion. Part of her wanted to squeeze until Willow was crushed in her embrace.

*****

Later that night, after Spike left his girls at their door, and Dawn and her broken arm were tucked into bed, Buffy sat in Willow’s room, trying to understand. “I just lost control. No more spells. I’m finished.”

Buffy sighed. “I think it’s right. To give it up. No matter how good it feels.” No matter how good he feels.

*****

Willow lay in her bed, tossing and turning, drenched with sweat. Beautiful visions from Rack’s spells haunted her dreams.

*****

Buffy lay quietly on her bed. She could feel his hands on her, feel him in her. She rose and went to her window. When she saw the narrow wisp of smoke rising from behind the tree in her yard, she relaxed, lay back down, and went to sleep.

One Step - Gone

It was the “everything must go” magic clearance, but for Willow it lacked the festivity of a sidewalk sale. Buffy and Dawn packed up all the witch’s supplies, to Dawn’s dismay, including the candles and Joyce’s fertility figure.

While rooting though the couch cushions for loose sage and other sundries, Buffy felt a cold metallic object. “Isn’t that Spike’s lighter?” Dawn asked, her fractured wrist supported by a sling. “How did that get there?”

“Don’t know,” Buffy blushed.

Dawn reached out her hand. “Want me to give it back to him?” but Buffy pulled it away.

“It’s okay. I can do it.” She thrust the silver lighter into her front jeans’ pocket.

*****

The Nerds of Doom toyed with Warren’s latest experiment, an invisibility ray, powered by the diamond stolen from the museum. Jonathan enjoyed playing on his invisible chair, but Warren had bigger plans. “I’d say this makes us pretty much unstoppable.”

*****

Willow hands were steadier than they had been for the last few days as she prepared her omelet. She offered some to Dawn, but the teen was curt. She was not any more civil to Buffy. Both of them had hurt her, Willow with her strange attention, and Buffy with her lack of it.

Willow was confused. She knew that the accident had been her fault, and Dawn was justified in being angry, but she didn’t know what Buffy could possibly have done wrong.

“Because I let it happen,” the Slayer said. “Besides, she’s fifteen. You remember that, don’t you? Being in a crowd of people, and feeling like nobody cares; that you’re alone.”

“Sure.” ‘Still do,’ Willow thought.

Spike came bursting through the back door, his blanket smoldering. Buffy was surprised to see him. She tried to cover her happiness.

“Just went for a stroll. Found myself in your neck of the woods.” He raised his eyebrows, looking for approval.

Buffy smiled. “Couldn’t have found a less flammable time of the day?”

Willow didn’t know what was going on between her two friends, but she felt like a fifth wheel. She excused herself and headed upstairs.

“So,” Buffy asked, “why are you really here? Came to see me?”

“Came for my favourite lighter. May have left it here. The other night.” He backed her against the wall. “You remember the other night.”

“Yeah.” She swallowed. “I remember the other night.”

He feathered her hair through his fingers.. “I love your hair. So soft. My Goldilocks.”

She looked hard into his eyes. “I’m no babe in the woods. And this isn’t a fairytale.” She pushed him away. “We have to stop this.”

“You keep saying that. Not what you want though, is it?” He leaned towards her. “Not what you need.”

Xander walked through the living room door. “Hey. I’m here to pick up Dawn.”

Spike stepped back. “Harris. Kinda you.”

“Spike. You’re here early. As in, daylight.”

“He’s looking for his lighter.” Buffy looked at Spike, trying to share a silent communication. ‘Don’t tell my friends.’

Dawn came barrelling out of the kitchen to drag Xander out the door. When she opened it, a heavyset woman with a disapproving stare was standing on the doorstep. “Doris Kroecker. We had an appointment.”

“An appointment?” Buffy asked.

“I’m with Social Services.”

Dawn said a brief “hi”, combined with “Gotta go. Don’t want to be late for school,” and Buffy and Spike were left alone with the caseworker.

“Um, Spike. Shouldn’t you be going?” Buffy asked.

“Spike. That’s an unusual name.” Doris reached out her hand and Spike grasped it.

“Nickname,” he answered. “Call me William.” He smiled as charming a smile as he could muster. “Buffy’s a right good mom. Takes good care of her little sis.”

“That’s good to know.” She turned to Buffy. “I didn’t know your boyfriend was joining us for the interview.”

“He’s not ... I mean, he was just going. Right, William?”

“Ah, right.” He picked up his blanket and headed towards the kitchen.

Doris cast a disapproving eye at Buffy. “A blanket. He sleeps here?”

“No, it’s, um, it’s his security blanket. He has issues. Just me and Dawn here.”

Willow called down the stairs. “Buffy, I’m not feeling so hot. I’m going to go back to bed.”

Doris raised an eyebrow. “Back to bed?”

“That’s Willow. She lives here to. Not with me. Nope. I’m not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

“I assumed that, Miss Summers. I just met your boyfriend.” The caseworker picked through the various boxes lining the living room, picking up a plastic bag.

“That’s not what you think,” Buffy stuttered. “It’s magic weed.”

“So that’s what they’re calling it now,” the older woman muttered under her breath. “Miss Summers, I think I’ve seen enough. You’re an unemployed young woman. Dawn’s grades are slipping, due in some part to her frequent absences. I’m recommending immediate probation, with the strong possibility that you’ll be stripped of your guardianship.”

Spike walked back into the room. “I never got my ... Oh, hello. Still here, I see.”

“Spike.” Buffy rolled her eyes. “Not now. Please.”

“I know. I should be going.” He turned to leave, then stopped. He stood in front of the caseworker. “I wasn’t kidding. Buffy’s done a great job, all things considered. She’s looking for work, she’s helping
out her friend Willow through a hard time, and Dawn couldn’t find a better role model. And this,” he picked up the plastic bag from the couch and opened it, holding it under Doris’ nose, “is oregano.” He
dropped the bag on the couch. “I’ll help Dawn with her homework. Know Willow will, and she’s a right brain. So please give Buffy another chance. Kid means the world ta her.”

“I can see she’s important to you, too.” She looked at Buffy, her gaze slightly softened. “Okay, Miss Summers. I’ll give you another month before I make my final report. But if things don’t improve ...”

Buffy’s eyes lit up. “Oh, they will. Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“Thank your friend.” The social worker, put her papers in her briefcase and headed out the door.

“Thank you, friend,” Buffy said, stepping towards Spike.

“Thank me how?” he asked, as she took his hand and led him towards the stairs.

“I’ll let you look for your lighter.”

*****

After a quiet, so as not to disturb Willow, but satisfying morning, Buffy watched Spike and his smoking blanket head toward the sewer grate, then walked downtown for a few groceries. She was heading towards the Piggly Wiggly, when the sound of a struggle and an errant beam of coloured light hit her. When she looked down at her hand, it was gone. So were her feet. She tried to see her reflection in a
storefront window, but she was gone too. All gone.

*****

Anya and Xander were arguing about seating arrangements for their reception when the Magic Box door opened. “Hey guys.”

“Buffy?” Xander looked around the room. “Where are you?”

“At table four, apparently,” she replied, looking at the ever changing chart.

“That remains to be seen,” Anya stated. “As do you.”

“I’ve come down with a little case of the transparents.” Buffy juggled a pair of casting balls in her hands. “Don’t know why.”

“Sounds like a spell.” Anya followed the bouncing balls. “Something that went wrong. And we all know someone suffering from magic disfunction.”

“I’ll go see Willow.” Xander turned in the direction from which he’d last heard her voice. “Want to come, Buffy? Buffy?” The balls lay back in their display. The Slayer had left.

*****

Willow was chugging bottled water and looking through files in her laptop at the Expresso Pump when Xander entered. She was chagrined to find him jump to the conclusion that Buffy’s blinvisibility was her
fault. “Now when anything nasty happens, I get blamed for it?” After he left, she realized why he had jumped to the conclusion. She decided to do something proactive to change his mind.

She bought a can of red spray paint and went to the area where Buffy had told Xander she had disappeared. As she sprayed the can, she found other invisible objects. Her friend found her there, and when he tripped over something, the paint proved it to be a traffic cone.

*****

 

Spike was opening himself a jar of blood when the crypt door opened. He put the blood down untasted. “Whatever beastie you are, I know you’re here - and I hurt beasties.”

He felt something brush across his cheek. “Ghost?” But the invisible fingers undid his shirt, and something pressed a kiss to his chest, at a certain height. “Buffy?” Invisible lips nuzzled his neck. “Oh,
Buffy.”

*****

Anya and Xander examined the pylon in the Magic Box. Anya touched it. “Ooh.” She pushed her hand deeper into the side of the cone. “Feels like pudding.”

“Oh God.” Xander’s face went white. “We have to find Buffy.”

“Why does Buffy need a puddingy pylon?” his fiancee asked.

“Because whatever is happening to that cone is probably happening to her.”

*****

Warren worked on the fried circuits of his ray gun. He realized that Buffy’s molecular structure was most likely deteriorating, and he told the others with a grin. Jonathan was appalled. “I don’t want to kill
her.” Warren pretended to care.

*****

Xander had no luck finding Buffy. In despair, he headed towards Spike’s crypt. As night fell, he would be able to help in the search. He couldn’t find him in the upper level, so he climbed down the ladder.
Spike was moaning, pushing himself up and down on his bed, his nude body covered by a thin sheet. “Spike? What the hell are you doing?”

“Harris? I’m a, exercising. Right. Undeath, no reason to let a body go.” As he pumped harder onto the bed, soft little girly squeals came from his direction.

“Allll right. I’m looking for Buffy. She has a slight case of invisibility”

Spike sat on the bed, the sheet draped over his lower body. “Haven’t seen her.”

“You wouldn’t. If you talk to her, tell her I’m looking for her. It’s important.” He turned to leave. “You know, all kidding aside Spike, you really ought to get a girlfriend.”

A heavy sign came from nowhere. “Xander.”

“Buffy?”

“He already did.”

Xander stumbled back as realization settled in. “You and Spike?”

“That so hard to believe?” Spike asked, feeling his lover’s arms drape around his neck.

“Well, yeah.” Xander tried to pull himself together. “Look. We don’t have time for this. Something’s happening to Buffy. I think her molecular structure’s falling apart, or she’s disintegrating, or something. We need to fix her, and we need to do it fast.”

A shiver ran down Buffy’s invisible spine. “Disintegrating?” Spike put his arms around the approximation of her body and held her close.

*****

Dawn opened the back door of her home, later than her curfew. “Buffy?” she called. “Willow?” But there was nobody home. As usual.

*****

Willow tracked down the van licence number and found the trio’s hideout. In the basement there were schematics for the ray gun. Invisible arms captured her. “Congratulations,” gloated a cruel voice.
“You’re our first hostage.”

*****

“If Willow can’t help, I don’t know what our next option is,” Xander stated as he opened Buffy’s back door.

“Spike, I don’t want to die.” She was shaking in his arms, easily felt though unseen.

“I know, love.”

The phone rang and Buffy answered. Warren told her he had Willow and where to meet them at the arcade. The three Scoobies ran back out the door.

Dawn called down the stairs. “Buffy?” No answer.

*****
The trio held Willow at the Arcade, when Buffy, Xander and Spike entered. “Hold up that Air Hockey Puck,” a voice said, “and I’ll fix you.” The magnet rose from the table.

“No, Buffy. The settings are wrong.” Willow called. “He’s trying to kill you.”

Xander and Spike stuck out around the room. Xander missed, but Spike connected with something, as his chip fired and pain flared behind his eyes. “Human,” he gasped. “They’re human.”

Buffy followed the sounds of the voices coming from midair. She connected a few times, but couldn’t tell if she was making headway. While she distracted them, Willow picked up the gun and fired, restoring Buffy, as well as Jonathan, Warren and their associate.

“Jonathan?”

“Hi Xander.” The little villain stepped back. “How’s things?”

“Warren?”

“Spike. How’s that bot working out?” Buffy popped him on the nose.

They all looked at Andrew. “Who’s he?” Buffy asked.

“I summoned the flying monkeys. At the school play.” They stared without recognition. “I’m Tucker’s brother.”

Willow, Xander and Buffy nodded in unison. “Oh.”

“So,” Buffy asked Warren. “What is this?”

“We’re your arch nemesisises.” He threw something on the ground and smoke filled the room. Unfortunately for the Nerds, the back door was locked. Fortunately, a security guard came in and provided enough of a distraction for their escape.

*****

Willow sat beside Xander on the curb. “So, how’d you find those guys?” he asked.

“I used the old fashioned way. Simple computer hacking.” She glanced over to where Buffy stood, leaning against Spike. “Are those two ...?”

Xander made a strange clicking sound in his throat. “Oh, yeah. Something is oh so rotten in the town of Sunnydale.”

“I don’t know. They’re kind of cute.” Willow pulled a bottle of water out of her pocket and chugged it.

Spike pulled Buffy’s collar up around her neck. “You’re still tremblin’, Slayer.”

“I was afraid. I didn’t want to die.”

“And you didn’t. You fought them, and you won.”

“Yeah, I guess I did. Except for the them getting away part.”

Spike planted a kiss on her forehead. “That’s my Goldilocks.”

One Step - Doublemeat Palace

Dawn sat at the dining room table, tapping at the keys on Willow’s laptop. The attempting to be former witch stood over her, her arms crossed. “Good so far, Dawnie. You’re really picking this up. I’m glad you let me help you.”

“Doesn’t mean everything’s okay now. You know that.” Dawn hit the enter key, pulling up the website she needed for her research paper. “Helping with the homework helps. But if you really want me to make with the forgiveness ...”

Willow was leery. “What?”

“Teach me to hack.”

Xander walked out of the kitchen with a bowl of popcorn, followed by Anya with the sodas. “Speaking of computer nerds, what happened when you busted the lair?”

“Nothing. They’d cleared out. Buffy found a few things. Spell books ...” she swallowed, “parchments. But no nerds.”

“Buffy should hurry,” Anya remarked. “She’ll be late for her first day of gainful employment.”

“I can’t believe she applied there,” Dawn sighed. “I mean, Ricky Westerman works there, and he’s in my class. How will I ever live it down?”

“How will YOU ever live it down?” Buffy asked, appearing at the foot of the stairs in her pylon orange and white striped uniform, her chicken cow cap perched less than jauntily on her head. “Say hello to Buffy the geek.”

Xander almost choked on his popcorn. “Nice hat.”

*****

Buffy’s stomach turned as she watched the training video. Slaying demons was one thing, but mooshed together cows and chickens went beyond the pale. Her hunchy manager Manny’s voice belied the enthusiasm of his words. There wasn’t much enthusiasm from the staff, either. Buffy felt like she’d walked into the middle of “Night of the Living Dead.” When the manager thrust a Doublemeat Medley at her and commanded her to eat, she wondered if brains might be more appetizing. No one seemed to know what the secret ingredient in the medley of beef patty and chicken slice on a bun was. Only that it was a “meat process.” The meat certainly tasted processed. Just didn’t taste like meat.

Manny put her on the counter, and Gary, her fellow employee, tried to help her understand the cash register and its myriad of buttons. An elderly woman’s order of a coffee and cherry pie was not difficult to fill, once Buffy pulled her eyes away from the woman’s oddly plastic head of hair, but the family behind her wanted a complicated order. The buttons swam before her eyes. She wondered if Xander’s construction crew might give her a second chance. Even with the demons.

She was left with a strange feeling of disquiet. As she prowled around the back on her break, Manny interrupted her. “You don’t need to be in there.” Even the keg of dehydrated pickles seemed ominous.

Her friends showed up to wish her well, though Xander seemed more intent on scoring a free meal. When Buffy brought him a doublesized medley “on the house”, Dawn considered what the medley cost her sister, and what she’d have to steal to make up the price. Soon she’d be stooping to canned goods instead of jewelry. Goodness knew this job wouldn’t pay more than minimum wage.

Later, that evening, Buffy contemplated the nice warm bath she would have when she finally got home. Or the nice long footrub she could get from Spike. His name no sooner came to mind, when he walked through the door.

He looked up in the menu. “What’s in the doublemeat nuggets?” Where had he gotten that sweater? Verigated black and white, making it look grey. Appropriate, she thought. And nicely tight.

“You really don’t want to know,” she whispered. “Not that I do.” Louder, because Gina next to her suddenly seemed to be paying attention for the first time that night, she asked, “What can I do for you sir?”

“You’re in the service industry now,” he leered. “Serve me.”

“I really can’t deal with this right now.” Her voice had dropped again. “Soda?” she asked so Gina could hear. “Sure. Medium or large?”

Spike leaned in to the counter, his face suddenly concerned. “You’re not happy here.”

What an understatement. “Please don’t make this harder,” she begged.

“You don’t belong here. You’re better than this.” He reached his hand towards hers as it rested on the counter, but she pulled back.

“I need the money.”

“I told you. I can get money.” Of course he could. She didn’t want to think about how. “Walk with me now. Come on.”

The last thing she needed was a fight with her boyfriend, ‘Did I just think boyfriend?’ on her first night on the job. “I need to help Jerry with the fries.”

Spike wasn’t listening. “You’ve got to get out of here. This place will do stuff to you.” He pulled out the big guns. “This place will kill you.”

She blinked back the tears. “If you aren’t going to order sir, I’ll have to ask you to leave. People are waiting.” She set her jaw firmly as he spun around and walked out the door.

“Boyfriend trouble?” Gina asked.

“That obvious?” Before Buffy could say anything more, she was confronted by an obese man in a too tight ‘Do you think I’m shagadelic, baby?’ t-shirt. “How can I help you?”

*****

When Gary didn’t show up for the morning shift, Manny put Buffy on grill duty. Her trainer was most likely a serial killer escaped from prison, by the look of him. Buffy listened as he extolled the virtues of a body saturated with grease. It was going to be a long shift. Then Manny told her to work an extra eight hours because they were short staffed, and long stretched into eternity.

*****

Xander was startled by the appearance of an ugly, veiny demon in his living room, threatening inconceivable tortures. It turned out to be Anyanka’s old buddy Halfrek. Hallie was not happy to hear about the planned wedding. Xander felt he was being inspected like a piece of
meat, and one that was judged far from grade A.

*****

Buffy was finally called to her break, just as she saw Spike heading by the window. She knew he liked the smell of blood. Grease she wasn’t so sure of. She hurried out the back door. He was waiting in the alley behind the restaurant.

“Buffy, I ...”

“No time to apologize. No time to argue.” She pushed him back against the wall. “I’ve got fifteen minutes.”

“Here?” he asked, as she wrapped herself around him. “Why, Slayer ....”he smiled.

“It’s you, or I take up smoking.”

She cut off his snappy retort with her lips.

*****

Amy dropped by Willow’s room looking for her old cage. She seemed friendly enough, but there was a bitter resentment underlying the pleasantry. Part of her was still firmly rat. After taunting Willow
for her self control, she zapped her with a magic fix. “It’s your birthday.”

Willow gasped as Amy left. She felt days of hard work slip away. And part of it felt good.

*****

Buffy, still playing Nancy Drew, investigated the meat in the grinder. She found something that hadn’t been in the training video, a human finger. Manny tried to pass it off as the result of an accident, but
Buffy had a sudden revelation about the secret meat process. She ran through the restaurant shouting “The Doublemeat Medley is people,” until Manny fired her.

*****

Hallie tried to understand Anya’s fascination with Xander. She wasn’t used to her friend’s lack of confidence. “Who told you that it isn’t easy to love you?” The answer was obvious. “He corrects you.” For the first time, Anya wondered why Xander loved her. If Xander loved her.

*****

Dawn and Xander were playing cards in the Magic Box when Buffy ran in. She was so upset with her discovery, she even showed her sister the distasteful sight of the finger. Dawn wasn’t so sure, for a second, whether being treated like an adult was a good thing. While they discussed Buffy’s discovery, Xander ate the evidence of cannibal burgers. When Willow came in, she found enough meat on the wrapper to analyse it. Xander turned an odd shade of soylent green.

*****

Back at the palace, Buffy found Manny’s shoe. It was still attached to Manny’s foot. It wasn’t attached to Manny. “Gee,” she said, talking to the loafer, “You really were a lifer.”

*****

Dawn bemoaned Buffy’s sad state of careers. She realized that her sister had few options in life as the slayer. Her day jobs would all be “crap.” Xander and Anya argued over demons and the true nature of
beauty. It wasn’t easy for Willow to concentrate on her chemical analysis, but she did discover that Doublemeat wasn’t people. Hard to believe what it really was.

*****

Buffy found a human scalp on one of the machines. Plastic scalp. Wig? “The wig lady?”

And there she was. Her now bald head gave way to a snake-like demon. ‘Well,’ thought Buffy, ‘not exactly a snake.’ The penis demon sprayed her with paralysing venom, while its wig-lady host moved in for the kill. “You’re my favourites. You’re so full of Doublemeat burgers, and you slide down so smooth.”

*****

Willow looked in the window of the Palace, but she couldn’t see into the back. Assuming Buffy was somewhere inside, she spoke into the drivethru cowchicken. She told the Slayer the burgers were actually a vegetable product, and felt compelled to confess Amy’s magical effect on her.

Buffy wasn’t listening. The penis demon’s teeth were chewing a hole in her shoulder.

It was unaware of Willow, suddenly severing the head from the head. She tossed the emasculated demon in the grinder and ground. She never ate another Doublemeat burger again.

*****

Amy showed up at the Revello Drive house, but Willow wouldn’t let her in. If she was her friend, she would stay away. If she wasn’t her friend, she should stay away. There was steel in the threat.

*****

Buffy dropped off her uniform at the Palace, and met the new manager, Lorraine Ross. She manipulated herself back behind the counter. All it took was a little meatless blackmail.

Spike would be so proud.

 

One Step - Dead Things

Buffy cried out in pleasure, and Spike flipped onto his back. “Slayer, the things you do to me,” he cried, stretching out his arms. She cuddled next to him, afterglowing.

“Ditto.” She turned her head and looked up at the ceiling. “You know, that mirror was pretty redundant when I was invisible.”

“Yeah,” he smirked, “but the sheets were right interesting.”

“They would be now, if you were under them.” She turned her head so she could see him. “No, don’t move. Not on my account.”

“So much for your blushing eyes.” He ran his fingers through her long, golden hair. “Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?”

“Sometimes.” She traced his jawline with her finger. “When I see it in your eyes.” She looked back up at the mirror. “I have to pull back my hair at work, and my cap really doesn’t fit properly. I’m thinking of cutting it.”

“Your hat?”

“No, silly.” She smacked his chest. “My hair.”

He flipped back on top of her and held her down, his hands clutching her wrists. “Don’t you dare.” He nuzzled her neck. “The things you do. I’ve never been with such an animal.”

“Really? What kind?” She giggled, “A bunny? A kitten?”

“A golden cougar. A wild jungle cat.”

“Hm. I like that.” She was delighted to discover his arousal had returned. Again. “Come here, my big albino tiger.”

He laughed at that, but it didn’t stop him from shagging her silly

*****

Warren cruised the bar, looking for a worthy victim, while his cohorts in crime surveyed him from the Lone Gunmen van. They’d had to find a new lair since Willow had found the old one, and while the others complained, he was happy for the closer quarters, so he could keep his eyes on them. He felt for the silver ball in his pocket, the cerebral dampener, powered by demon musk. “With this,” he had told them, “we can make any woman we desire our willing sex slave.” He looked for a suitable candidate, as Andrew and Jonathan’s whiny voices reverberated into his earpiece. There she was. He dropped the listening device into a nearby martini, and moved towards his ex-lover.

Katrina did her best to give Warren the brush off, making it clear she never wanted to see him again. It was to no avail when he pulled out the dampener and activated it.

*****

Buffy dragged herself into her living room after another difficult shift. To her chagrin, she found her three friends with her sister. Ascertaining that Dawn and Xander’s dance was a reception rehersal and
not another musical spell, she begged off their invitation to the Bronze and planned quality time with her sister. He plans were cut short when Janice’ mother arrived to pick Dawn up for a sleepover. She decided to head to the Bronze after all. “Frothy nectar. Now please.” Besides, hadn’t Spike said something about playing pool there tonight?

*****

The other nerds had to admit that Katrina looked pretty cute in her French Maid’s outfit, complimented by her vacant, mind-controlled stare. Warren still wasn’t satisfied with their opinion of her choice.
“She’s perfect.” He took her into the back room, his mind conflicted with his affection for her, his attraction to her, and his anger with her for walking out on him. Anger won out, and he sent her to her
knees. Before she could show him that he really was “Master”, the dampener’s effects waned and she came to her senses.

When she stormed into the other room, Andrew and Jonathan found out that she had been no random victim. They were appalled when she called them rapists. The thought had never occurred to them. Warren, on the other hand, knew exactly what he had been doing. When Katrina tried to escape up the stairs, he hit the back of her head with a champagne bottle. She dropped, lifeless.

While the other two broke down with fear, Warren considered how to deal with the situation. And how to use it to their advantage.

*****

It was swing night at the Bronze, and Xander and Anya pulled Willow and Buffy to their feet. The Slayer wasn’t sure about dancing to this music, expecially when she saw the moves Xander and Anya had
choreographed. She swayed back and forth, not really enjoying the music, when a hand tapped her on the shoulder. She spun around and smiled. “Spike.”

“Not how we did it in my day, Slayer. And no, I have no intention of showing you how to jive.” He reached out his hand, and she linked her fingers with his.

“Not very jivey, myself,” she laughed. She left her friends, wondering how Xander managed to dance and glare at the same time. She let him lead her up the stairs to the empty balcony, where they looked down at the crowd.

“Your friends are having fun,” Spike commented. “But you weren’t, were you?”

“Too much on my mind, I guess. Sore feet, doublemeat. A grease smell you’ve been far too kind to mention. Bills that keep piling up. Checking the want ads for something better. Mothering a teenager.
Life.”

He wrapped his arms around her. “Sleeping with the undead.”

“You know,” she whispered, “I don’t feel like sleeping.” She pulled his head down and kissed him. As the kiss grew more intense, and she broke for air, she felt his hand pushing up her skirt. “Not here.”

“Why not?” he pouted.

“I really don’t think I want to give my friends that kind of show.” She pushed her skirt back down. “And the angle here ... guaranteed eyeful if anyone looks up. Making out behind the Doublemeat is one thing, but
...”

“Ah, then, love, how do you suggest we solve our dilemma?” He breathed the question into her ear, and she gasped.

“Your place. Now.” She pulled him down the staircase. “Works for me.”

*****

Willow looked up at the catwalk. “They left.”

“Great,” Xander grumbled. “And they didn’t even say goodnight.”

*****

The next afternoon, Willow and Xander headed to the Magic Box, complaining about their dance inflicted aches and pains. Willow stopped in her tracks as Tara exited the store. She felt awkward, but it was so good to see her former lover, even though she was carrying a grimore Willow was dying to take a crack at. “I’m doing better,” she said. “No spells for thirty-two days. Even go in the Magic Box if someone’s there with me at all times.”

Tara was happy for her. But she didn’t offer to stay.

*****

Buffy was heading to the crypt so she could meet Spike to patrol. At least, she was sure they would patrol eventually, when she heard a woman scream. Running to a clearing near a hill, she found Katrina weeping on the ground. Suddenly Spike took her place, rubbing his bleeding nose and asking “Bloody hell? Why’d you do that for?” Then Buffy was surrounded by demons. A demon. Nothing made sense. She started lashing out, kicking demons and apparently hitting Spike in the nose. More demons. Her fist connected with one of them, but it wasn’t a demon, it was the girl. Buffy chased the rolling body down the hill, Spike close behind, but when she found it at the bottom, Katrina was dead. Buffy looked up
at the vampire, tears in her eyes. “I killed her.”

“We have to go.” Spike was adamant.

Buffy was in shock. “What happened?”

Spike pulled her away from the body. “We have to go before someone sees you.” Neither of them saw a living Katrina observing from behind a tree.

Buffy didn’t want to move. She was overcome with the horror of her act. “All right. Listen to me, Buffy,” he grabbed her shoulders and forced her to look at him. “Buffy! It was an accident. “I’m gonna get you home, and you’re gonna crawl in your warm, comfy bed. We’re gonna sort this out. Trust me.” She let him take her to her home.

*****

The other Katrina entered the Nerds’ van. She morphed into Jonathan. He’d been crying, and not because the part called for it. He was thoroughly terrified of Warren now, but there was no way out.

*****

Buffy tossed and turned in her sleep. She was troubled by nightmares of death, feelings of guilt and grief and loss of innocence. Getting up, she finished dressing, and scribbled out a letter. Entering her
sister’s bedroom, she stared down at her, wishing she could spare her pain. Some things were bigger than family. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered quietly, not disturbing Dawn. She placed the envelope on her
sister’s pillow and left.

*****

Buffy walked through the alley across from the police station, a determined look on her face. She could still be a hero. She knew she could.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Spike’s words stopped her.

“The right thing.” She tried to keep walking, but he was blocking her way.

“Sorry, love. Can’t let you do that.”

Buffy tried to hold back the tears. Why did he have to be here? “I have to let them know what happened.”

 

Spike clicked his tongue impatiently on the roof of his mouth. “Nothing happened. Demon’s in the wood? Time going wonky?”

Buffy was undeterred. “I’ll show them.”

“Show them what?”

She realized what he must have done. He was used to hiding bodies. He was a killer himself, after all. “What did you do?” She wanted to hear him say it. Needed to hear it.

“I took care of it. Doesn’t matter, now. No one will ever find her.” Two cops leaving the station belied his statement. Her body had been found in the river. He was desperate now. He couldn’t lose her. “It
was an accident.”

She stepped towards him. “I have to do this.” He grabbed at her, and she pulled away. As he tried to stop her, he could feel the chip burning in his head. He tried to ignore the pain. Nothing mattered but
stopping her. In despair, he felt her fist connect with his jaw, and he went flying back against the wall. He looked up, but she was gone. Frustrated tears stung his eyes.

*****

In the police station, before she could turn herself in, she heard the desk sergeant identify the girl as Katrina Silver. She knew the body had looked familiar. It was Warren’s girlfriend. She’d been set up.

She went back out into the alley, but Spike was gone.

*****

Willow, Xander and Anya researched in the Magic Box. They had been time distortion demons that had attacked Buffy. Warren was more than a annoyance now, he was a killer, and Buffy had to stop him.

*****

Warren was happy to note that the coroner’s report they hacked into ruled suicide. Jonathan heard Andrew’s words, and a chill ran down his spine. “We really got away with murder. That’s ... cool.”

*****

Spike sat in his crypt, nursing a bottle of Jack Daniels. Buffy was gone. He took another swig.

She walked through the crypt door, and joy spred over his face. “You didn’t ...”

 

“It was a trick. A frame. I didn’t turn myself in.” When he threw his arms around her, she stiffened. “I came to talk to you. It isn’t going to work. We just see things too differently.”

“Slayer?”

“We’re too different. I can’t see you anymore.” She held her face firm, almost crumbling when he touched her cheek. “No. It’s over.” There was so much pain on his face. It broke her heart. “I’m so sorry, Spike.”

He stared in shocked silence as she walked out the door.

One Step - Older and Far Away

Buffy stuffed an assortment of weapons into her carryall. “I’ll be back later. Finish dinner, do your homework, and don’t stay up too late.”

“Are you going to Spike’s?” Dawn stood in the living room, her arms folded across her chest.

“You know I’m not.” Buffy picked up the bag, hoisting the strap over her shoulder. “I told you. It’s over.”

“He still loves you, you know.” Dawn looked at her sister with disapproval.

“I know.” Her head dropped slightly. “Sometimes love isn’t enough.”

“Do you love him?”

Buffy opened the front door. “I’ll be late. Don’t wait up.”

*****

The Slayer walked through the cemetary, trying not to think of her vampire. Her vampire. No wonder things didn’t make sense. She missed knowing he was at her back, watching out for her, but she couldn’t face him. Not yet. She was looking in the general direction of his crypt when a huge, red, horn headed demon attacked her, seemingly out of nowhere. She kicked at it, and it dropped its long, sharp sword. Picking up the weapon, she ran the demon through. She didn’t see where it went. Figuring it had run off somewhere, hopefully to die, she picked up her souvenir. “Ooh, shiny. Happy Birthday to me.” The demon peered out from the blade, biding its time.

*****

Xander, Anya and Willow sat in the Magic Box, planning Buffy’s birthday party. Xander thought they should include Tara, and Willow agreed. What was one more temptation when you were sitting in a room full of them? A lonely Dawn walked through the door. “Hey, guys. Willow, can you help me with my computer homework?”

“Sorry, Dawnie. I have a Spellcasters Anonymous meeting.” The others stared at her. “We’re trying to come up with a better name.”

“Oh.” She approached Xander and Anya. “Want to do some Buffy present shopping with me?”

But Anya had to do the books, and Xander was making up a crew schedule for work.

“Where is Buffy, anyway?” Willow asked. “Out with Spike?”

“Nope.” Dawn sat down at the table, her chin in her hands. “They broke up.”

Xander’s eyes lit up. “They split? Really?” A smile lit up his face. “Ten points to the Buffster for coming to her senses.”

Willow was less enthused. “They broke up?”

Anya was confused. “I thought you thought they were a bad idea.”

“No,” Willow exclaimed. “Well, yeah, sort of. But I already invited Spike to the party. What if he shows up?”

“Then I’ll have at least one friend there.” Dawn pushed herself up from the table and headed out the door.

*****

Dawn carefully opened the door to her Revello Drive home. Ascertaining that Buffy was still out, she went to her room, emptying her pockets of purloined makeup and jewellry. She took off her coat and looked at herself in the mirror. The stylish black leather jacket was just Buffy’s style. The product control tag was still firmly attached to the sleeve.

*****

In school the next day, Dawn was called down to the guidance office. The new counsellor asked her about her home life, her grades, and how she was coping with the loss of her mom. It was so good to have someone to talk to, even a stranger. Dawn was upset with the losses in her life. Her father, her mother, even Riley. Buffy never home. Now Spike wouldn’t be around either, not that she’d had much one on one time with him since he’d been with her sister. “I wish I could just make them stop going away.”

The counselor smiled.

*****

The night of the party, Xander surveyed the array of food laid out in the kitchen. “So, who’s coming? The initiative back in town?”

“Bite your tongue. Just the usual suspects,” Buffy replied. “And I invited Sophie from work.”

“Cool.” Xander popped a cracker into his mouth. “We’re all over the new friend thing.”

Anya beamed. “We invited someone for you. A guy.”

“A guy?” Buffy sputtered. “A date? I’ve been single less than a week and you invited me a date?” Her eyes flashed with Slayer fire. “See, Xander.” Anya said. “I told you it was a bad idea.”

Xander coughed on his cracker. “But it was your idea.”

The couple was saved by the door bell, as Buffy rose to let Tara in. “Hey. How are you?”

“Fine. You?” Tara looked at Buffy, and saw a kindred spirit. “Maybe not so fine.”

“Maybe not me either.” Buffy hugged her friend. “It’s hard to be the strong one, isn’t it?”

“Hard?” Tara asked. “Try hell.” With that, Willow came hurrying down the stairs. As the exes awkwardly said their hellos, Buffy made herself scarce.

*****

Buffy returned to the kitchen, ready to take a strip out of her matchmaking friends, when the door opened. “Hey,” Spike said.

“Hi. Didn’t expect to see you tonight.”

“Willow invited me. Didn’t want to appear antisocial. Besides, I’d promised my friend Clem he could come.” With that a bald, wrinkled head with floppy ears poked through the doorway.

“Hi,” the creature said, holding out his hand to the birthday girl. “I’m Clem. Clement. You must be Buffy. Spike’s told me all about you.”

“Hi Clem.” Spike had a buddy. That was good. She turned to him. “I’m glad you’re here. Really. I’d hate it if we couldn’t be friends.”

At the ‘f’ word, a cloud passed over the vampire’s face. “Sorry I didn’t bring a present. I did have a case of beer.”

“I told him to leave it. He’s been drinking enough lately.” Clem walked through the kitchen and into the living room, introducing himself to the other party goers as he went.

Buffy’s voice grew quiet. “You’ve been drinking?”

“Just for medicinal purposes. Dulls the pain. So, why don’t I go make myself ta home, then?” Spike left her standing in the kitchen. She wished he’d brought the beer.

*****

Xander introduced his friend Richard to the group. The handsome young man was immediately taken with Buffy. Spike glared at him. Buffy tried to make Xander’s co-worker feel comfortable, but she had no personal interest in him. “Maybe you should introduce him to Dawn,” she whispered to Xander. “She likes the Backstreet Boys.” She looked over at Spike, hating the pain on his face. ‘Just as well there isn’t any beer,’ she thought.

*****

Buffy was opening her presents. She looked at the massager Willow had given her, then looked over at Spike. No comparison. Couldn’t think that way. She had done the right thing. She was distracted by a big box from Dawn. In it was the black leather jacket, complete with inventory control tag. “The store must have forgotten to take it off.”

Before Buffy could question it further, Xander wheeled in a beautiful, hand carved weapons chest. All other gifts paled in comparison. Dawn sulked on the couch, forgotten again.

The bell rang, and Buffy’s friend Sophie arrived. The gang treated her politely, even with her extensive food allergies, and Clem seemed particularly taken with her. Before long, the two were dancing in the
living room, as everyone enjoyed the party. Dawn sat grinning on the couch.

*****

Buffy was heading towards the kitchen for a drink when Richard stopped her. “Great party,” he enthused. “Look what time it is and nobody’s thinking of leaving.” He smiled a lovestruck smile. “Can I get you a drink?”

“I’m good.” She stood with her best disinterested non stare. “Thanks.”

“Okay.” Richard headed back towards the living room.

Spike was standing behind them in the hallway. He’d heard the exchange. “Oooh. Buf-fy. Can I get you a soda pop? I think I’m in lu-uv.”

“Stop it Spike.” She turned to leave, but he’d cornered her. His hand pressed against the wall, he leaned towards her. His voice was cold.

“He think like you, pet? That your type?”

“Xander invited him. I don’t even know him. Now let me go.” She pushed him aside. “This is hard for me, Spike. You don’t know how hard. But this is my birthday party, and I want to have fun.”

“I miss you, Buffy.” His voice had softened. She heard the pain in it. The desire. She turned back towards him, looking into his clear blue eyes.

“Spike, I ...” She realized that Tara was watching them. Blushing, she headed back into the living room.

Spike stared after her. Tara put her hand on the vampire’s shoulder. “Give her some space. I’ve been there. Don’t think it’s because she doesn’t care.”

*****

In the kitchen, Xander and Anya, Sophie and Willow discussed making a beer run. Nobody moved.

*****

At two in the morning, all the partiers were engaged in poker or Monopoly. Nobody left.

*****

At seven the next morning, some of the guests were flaked out on the couch. Xander, Dawn and Clem watched cartoons. Richard tried to drag his coworker away. It was almost time for work.

Spike looked up at the young man. “You can’t skip breakfast, Richie. Growing boy like you.” He ignored Buffy’s glare. “Me, I used to love breakfast.” He eyed Richard appreciatively, like a good cut of sirloin. “You work out?”

Buffy dragged Spike into the hallway. “We do not joke about eating people in this house.”

“Maybe I should just leave then.”

“Maybe I should,” Buffy retorted.

“Fine.”

“Fine.” But neither of them could head for the door. “You realize, if you did go out there, you’d get all toasty dusty,” she said.

“Would you care?” He realized she was staring at him.

“Of course I’d care.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I don’t want you to burn up. I don’t even want you to go.”

“I don’t want to go. Well, I want to be able to go, but ...” His words were cut short by the small figure hurling herself into his arms.

“I know there’s things we have to work through, maybe things we never can, but I hate being all smart and right. I hate missing you.” She pulled him into a passionate kiss.

*****

Dawn was upset when everyone said they wanted to leave. She ran upstairs and threw herself on her bed. It wasn’t her fault. Why were they all blaming her, just because she was happy they were there? The Scoobies followed her upstairs, and into her room. Xander made a disapproving face when he saw Spike’s arm around Buffy’s waist.

Back downstairs, Buffy asked Tara to try to release them through magic. Willow brought her a secret stash of magic paraphenalia, and Tara tried to remain calm. She sent her ex-lover out of the room. She attempted a release spell, not realizing that the only thing released was the demon in the sword. It jumped out of nowhere, slashing Richard across the chest before disappearing.

Night had fallen again, and the demon made ominous creaking noises in the walls. The combination of danger and claustrophobia set everyone on edge. Anya was convinced that Richard was dying, and that they’d all be next. She panicked. Xander tried to calm her down, but inside he was just as frightened.

He descended the staircase to the lower floor, where Buffy had left Spike in charge while she patrolled upstairs. She would rather have had him watching her back, but the demon could be anywhere, and they were the best fighters. As Xander entered the living room, the demon slashed
at his arm, leaving a bloody swath. Spike tried to wrestle with the creature, but it knocked him to the floor, and he hit his head.

Anya and Buffy ran into the room, tending to their respective mates. Buffy cradled Spike’s head in her lap, as Anya gingerly held her wounded lover. The creature had vanished again.

*****

Buffy went back up to her sister. She figured the poor kid must be terrified. Dawn did not believe in her concern. She had faced worse pain than this demon. “You have no idea what it’s like, being alone.”
Buffy was at a loss for words.

*****

Anya tried to get Willow involved in the struggle. “We’re sitting here with an incredibly powerful witch.”

The self confessed addict refused to get involved, as Anya grew more angry, but Tara sprang to the other witch’s defense. “Back off. You’re not going to make her do something she doesn’t want to do.”

The frustrated woman ran up the stairs, determined to do something to set them free. She decided Dawn held the answer, just as the teen had confessed a wish she had made to her guidance counsellor. Ransacking the girl’s room, to Dawn’s protest, she found the jewellry box containing the stolen items, and they fell as she shook it open. Buffy looked in disbelief at the evidence of her sister’s kleptomania, then remembered the plastic tag on her new jacket.

When Anya discovered that Dawn had made the wish, she understood the truth. “Hallie, get your ass down here!” she cried, back in the living room, and the vengeance demon appeared. Immediately, the creature of the sword stabbed her through the heart, and she collapsed.

Buffy and Spike fought the demon, as it slipped away back into the wall. “The sword,” Spike shouted, and Buffy skewered the creature through the wall. When it was drawn back into the blade, Buffy snapped it in two.

Anya grabbed for Halfrek’s pendant, but the demon stood, only her dress a little worse for wear. For a moment she seemed to recognize Spike. In fact, Buffy was sure of it, when the demon called him “William,” but the moment passed. Halfrek justified her position as a justice demon, and as Dawn’s defender. The child was being ignored. “I could hear her crying out everywhere I went in this town. You people deserve to be cursed.” She ended her statement with a flourish, but not the spectacular exit she had hoped for.

“It’s the curse, Hallie,” Anya taunted.

“Fine.” Hallie downplayed her disappointment. “The curse is lifted. We can all leave now.” And she did.

*****

Tara and Willow said their goodbyes, as the former packed away the magic equipment. “I was never gonna use it,” Willow muttered.

Tara was remarkably understanding. “I get that. But it’s time to work without the net, Will.”

For the first time in a long time, since Tara had left, Willow felt a glimmer of hope.

*****

Finally, the party goers were able to leave. Xander and Anya helped Richard out the door, as Anya threatened her young shoplifter with “punitive damages.” Willow left, Tara following, and Clem waved a happy, “Great party,” leaving Buffy to wonder just what kind of festivity he was used to. Sophie couldn’t wait to get out the door.

Spike lingered with Buffy. “You know I want to stay, but I think you’ve got some things to discuss with the Bit. We okay, now?” he asked, hope written on his face.

“We need to talk.” Buffy traced the line of his cheekbones with her fingertips. “But I think, yeah, we might just be okay. And thanks for watching my back. All our backs.” They both smiled as she pulled him into a gentle kiss.

Dawn looked at her two favourite people, grinning. Buffy watched Spike leave, then turned to her sister. “I don’t know what you have to smile about.” She shut the door on the night, but Dawn kept smiling. For the first time in a long time, she didn’t feel alone.

Chapter Text

Buffy’s life had been better. For the most part. Her pseudo-intellectual assistant manager liked to flout his education, pointing out Buffy’s lack of it. This was not helpful, not while she scraped grease from the grill. On the way home from work, a dirty, overweight vamp taunted her about her greasy smell. Dusting it was the most fun she’d had all day.

She was dragging herself home, when she found Spike leaning against his customary tree. “Hey, she called. “Want to join us for dinner?”

He looked at the Doublemeat bag in her hand. “Very tempting,” he said. “Delicious, I’m sure.”

“Very funny.” She sighed, starting from her toes and working up through her body. “I know. Pathetic. Anyway, Dawn would love to see you.”

He followed her through the door. Dawn gave her friend a hug, but her smile faded when she saw the burgers in her sister’s hand. “Again?”

Buffy frowned. “I made them myself. I made hundreds, actually, but yours is the very best one.”

Willow came flouncing down the stairs. “Hey, guys. Dawnie and I are headed to the Bronze. Want to come?”

Dawn smiled. “They have food. The flowering onion is back on the menu, Spike.”

The vampire’s eyes lit up, but he could see his Slayer was dead on her feet. “You two go. I’ll take care of big sis.”

After the girls left, Buffy curled up on the couch with Spike. “You’re working yourself too hard. That place will kill you.” He started massaging her shoulders, and she let out a contented moan.

“I’ll be okay. I have to do it. No choice.” After a few minutes, he realized she was asleep. He covered her with a comforter, kissed her forehead, and left.

*****

At the Bronze, Anya and Xander stressed over wedding plans, while Dawn and Willow discussed Tara, the hopefully getting back together therewith.

*****

Buffy woke up in the morning, still lying dressed on the couch, alone. Dawn came in, having made her breakfast, bringing the mail. Buffy opened a letter from the University of Southern Cal, Sunnydale with
trembling hands. Her face fell when she read the rejection. She had applied too late.

Things weren’t made any better by her preppy manager, extolling the virtues of higher education. Surely, the day wouldn’t get any worse. She was wrong.

She looked down at the cash register, ready to take the next customer’s order. A familiar voice caused her to look up. It was Riley Finn, back from the jungle, decked out in combat wear. She blinked her eyes to make sure she wasn’t hallucinating. He was still there. “Sorry to drop in on you like this.” He cut straight to the business, almost as though he hadn’t flown out of her life with an ultimatum. Almost like he hadn’t ripped her heart out. “I’ve been up forty-eight hours straight tracking something bad. Now it’s come to Sunnydale.” He leaned over the cash register. “I need the best. I need you, Buffy.”

Beat flipping burgers. She told the assistant manager there was a family emergency, and ran out with Riley.

The commando pulled out a beeping device. “Suvolte demon. Rare. Lethal. Nearly extinct.”

Buffy laughed. “You still carry around all that James Bond stuff.” Boys and their toys. “Sorry. Carry on.”

Riley’s face was deadly serious. “You put one Suvolte down, a dozen more take its place.”

Buffy was no math genius, but she was confused. “But I thought you said they were nearly extinct?”

Before he could answer, a large, Geigeresque demon attacked, bile dripping from its massive, pointed teeth. Riley ran though the crowd, flashing his badge. “US Forestry Service. We’ve got a wild bear.
Everybody stand back.”

Buffy raised her eyebrows. “Bear?” The people of Sunnydale were used to excusing strange sights, but that was pushing it.

She tackled the demon, but it threw her to the ground. They chased it, and Riley got off a shot with his tranquillizer gun, which didn’t start to slow it down. It jumped with amazing strength. They pursued it withRiley’s Humvee. “Nice wheels,” Buffy said.

“Came with the car,” the soldier replied. Buffy rolled her eyes. Was that what passed for a sense of humour in the army? Riley was no Hawkeye Pierce.

“How are you doing?” her ex-boyfriend asked.

“That’s a complicated question.”

“I hear you,” Riley said. “I’ve got some big stories to tell you. I ...” He paused as Buffy took off her coat, her uniform underneath. “You look like a pylon.” He handed here some combat wear and she wriggled into it. He didn’t peek. Much. “You know,” he said, “There’s not many people I’d ask to risk their life for me, Buffy.”

“Gee, thanks,” she replied. “I think.” She started to say, “There’s something I think you should know about me ...” but he pulled the car over.

They stood at the top of the local dam. As Buffy looked down over the edge, she couldn’t help but be reminded of Glory’s tower. The height was dizzying. In her mind’s eye, she saw Spike throw Doc from the apex, saving Dawn’s life. Riley grabbed hold of her waist and attached a chord to them both, and jumped over the edge. It was a long way down.

No sooner had they reached the bottom of the dam, when the demon attacked Riley. Buffy fought it off, then went to see that the commando was uninjured. “Hey there,” a female voice said, “What exactly are you doing with my husband?”

Buffy looked at the tall, auburn haired beauty. Evidently, Riley had moved on. Her name was Sam, they had been married four months, and they worked together like cogs in the same wheel. “So, you’re a husband and wife tag team. Demon wrestling, eh?” That sounded familiar. She was about to tell Riley about Spike, when the Suvolte returned.

Buffy hit the demon, killing it. She was surprised by the couples’ disappointment. Riley had neglected to tell her they were supposed to take the creature alive. Evidently there were a few things he had
neglected to tell her.

Sam cut the demon open. “Too late.” She looked at Buffy. “You got a safe house?”

“I’ve got a house. I think it’s safe.” They drove back to Revello Drive, Buffy not able to get a word in edgewise as Sam rambled on about weddings, rifles and Riley Finn.

*****

Xander was ecstatic to see his old friend. Willow tried to be supportive to Buffy, but she couldn’t help but be drawn to Sam, who was doing her best to suck up to all Buffy’s friends. The soldiers explained the gravity of the situation. “The demon came to the Hellmouth to spawn.” Since there were no eggs in the demon’s body, the nest had to be somewhere in Sunnydale. “We think they’re going to be sold on the black market. There’s a dealer, calls himself ‘The Doctor’.

Riley decided to hit the demon bars for information, while Buffy and Sam checked out the cemetary.

Sam did her best to be complimentary to Buffy. She certainly seemed to have an overwhelming need to be liked. They discussed her relationship with Riley, and what he had told her about Buffy.

“He thinks I let him go,” the Slayer said, remembering her frantic chase the night his helicopter flew out of her life.

“Do you wish you didn’t?”

“No.” Buffy considered her words. “Things aren’t what I expected them to be, but I’m okay. Mostly.” She smiled at the other woman. “I’m glad he’s over me.”

Sam returned the smile. “So, you seeing anyone now? Anyone special?”

Buffy thought for a moment. “Special. I guess you could call himthat. Different, anyway.” She realized they were almost at Spike’s crypt. “Sam, I think we should split up.”

The soldier nodded. “I’ll look for Riley. He probably needs me about now.” She waved to the Slayer, as Buffy headed in her lover’s direction.

Spike was sitting on his sarchophagus, reading. His eyes lit up when he saw Buffy. He reached for her, but she kept to the matter at hand. “I need to find a dealer. Calls himself ‘The Doctor’.”

“Human?” Spike asked.

“His traffic isn’t.” She tried to concentrate. He was wearing the shirt she’d given him. Was that cologne? Hm, no, just Spike. “I need to find him. Soon.”

“Soon.” Spike pulled her close. “But not now.”

Maybe the Finns were over reacting. Maybe the eggs could wait. “Tell me you love me.”

Spike’s face practically glowed. “I love you.”

Some things were just more important than stupid eggs. “Tell you that you need me,” she sighed.

“I always need you. In point of fact ...” His words were cut short by her lips, as she practically threw him onto the sarchophagus.

*****

They were wrapped naked in each others’ arms when Riley burst into the crypt. Buffy pulled the sheet over her breasts. “Riley Finn. Don’t you know how to knock?”

“Knock? This is a crypt.”

Spike leaned back. He’d waited for this moment for years. “Well, lookey here. I don’t usually use the word delicious, but I gotta wager this little tableaux must sting a bit.”

Buffy smacked him on the chest. “Shut up, Spike.” She looked up at the soldier. “I was going to tell you.”

“Xander already did.” He looked down at Spike. “That’s not why I’m here - Doctor.”

Buffy stopped wriggling into her pants. “Huh?”

Spike was undeterred. “Last time I saw you, if memory serves, you were having the juice sucked out of you by some undead ladies of questionable virtue.”

Riley ignored him, trying not to watch Buffy dress. Much. “Where are they, Doctor?”

“Where are what, and why do you keep calling me that?” Spike asked, as he pulled on his jeans. “Look, crewcut. She’s not your bint anymore. And if I might say, she always had a little thing for me, even when she was shagging you.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Can it, Mr. Insecurity.”

Riley pointed his rifle at Spike. “Where are the eggs?”

“Eggs. You’re off your nut.” Spike was getting nervous. Things were falling into place, and not a place he wanted to go.

Riley struck him across the face. “Where are the eggs?”

He was going to hit the vampire again, when Buffy grasped his hand, holding it in mid swing. “Stop that. He can’t hit back. And what are you talking about? Spike wouldn’t do that. He’s not your Doctor. He’s
changed.” She gave Spike a pointed stare. “Though he is still a pig.”

Riley pushed past her. “I’m taking this place apart until I find that nest.”

Spike stood his ground. “Over my dead body.”

“I’ve seen enough of your dead body for one night, thanks,” Riley spat. The commando headed down the stairs. After a few seconds he called out, “Buffy, get down here!”

Spike looked lost as he followed his Slayer into the lower level. Half his bedroom was filled with sticky demon eggs. “I can explain.”

Buffy put her hands on her hips, her eyes blazing with betrayal. “So, explain.”

Riley looked at the dangerous cache. “We need more weapons.”

“I’m hiding these for a friend of Clem’s. Didn’t think it was any of soldier boy’s business.” He jumped as one of the eggs started to split
open. “Weapons?”

Riley gritted his teeth. “You didn’t keep them frozen, did you, Doc?”

The name brought up some very painful memories. “You can stop calling me that anytime.”

One by one, the eggs broke apart, as crab-like killer babies burst forth. Spike stared in shock. “Bloody hell!”

Buffy grabbed Riley’s rifle, but she wasn’t fast enough to hit the creatures. Even when she did connect, their kevlar strength shells ricochetted the bullets into Spike’s furnishings. The three ran up the
ladder. “We need a way to contain those things!” Riley shouted.

Spike pulled a grenade off Rileys’ belt and tossed it into his bedroom. The explosion rocked the crypt.

*****

Spike stayed in the crypt, while Buffy stood alone with Riley, saying their goodbyes. “I don’t know how you can stand to be with that creature,” Riley grimaced.

“I’m a big girl,” Buffy replied. “I make my own choices. Just like you did.”

“I don’t understand,” Riley continued, “but I want you to know. You’re still the first woman I ever loved, and the strongest woman I’ve ever met.”

“I appreciate that. Sometimes I don’t feel so strong. It’s good to hear.” She took his hand. “Riley, that night ... I never got the chance to say ... how sorry I was about what happened between us.”

Sam appeared with the rest of the Scoobies. She was still trying to bond. Buffy wondered how secure the seemingly brave soldier girl really was. The military couple said their goodbyes, then disappeared into the night, rising into a helicopter. All in all, it seemed a lonely life.

*****

Buffy walked into the tunnel below the crypt. Spike was standing, dejected in the devastation. The Slayer had only one question for him. “Why?”

“I wanted the money.” He picked his Sex Pistols album off the floor, barely recognizable now, and tossed it aside. He couldn’t face her eyes. “I couldn’t stand to see you suffer at that bloody job.”

“It was a stupid thing to do.”

Spike looked down at his boots, waiting for the axe to fall. “I know.”

“And I love you for it.”

Spike’s head shot up, shocked wonder written across his face. “Buffy
...”

She reached into the rubble. “Now help me clean this stuff up. We have a lot of work to do.”

Chapter Text

Buffy and her Scoobie gang had faced untold terrors over the years, but none could compare with the horror that was - Anya’s bridesmaids’ gowns.

If anything could compare, it would be Xander and Anya’s rehearsal dinner, where Anya’s demons vied with the Harris family for the title of worst monsters. The Harrises won. Buffy’s purse was a major casualty, thanks to Mr. Harris and his weak, booze laden stomach.

Anya, however, loved Xander and the green satin dresses. Then again, she loved burlap and blood larvae dresses too.

*****

Xander had opened up his apartment to Anya’s demon friend Krelvin, along with his cousin Carol and her daughter, and his Uncle Rory. Pandemonium reigned.

Somehow, he got to the lodge where the wedding would be held without anyone killing each other. Including his parents.

*****

With the best man, or woman, otherwise engaged in flirting with her ex, Buffy tried to fit an overstuffed Xander into his cummerbund. Tuxedo fully engaged, Buffy shed tears of happiness. Xander was living her dream.

*****

Willow and Tara dressed Anya as the former demon rehearsed her unusual vows.

*****

Dawn’s bridesmaid duties consisted of greeting the diverse assortment of guests. She was chagrined to note that Halfrek had arrived, and although dressed as a bridesmaid, seemed in no hurry to help with
anything. D’Hoffryn was imposing, and his gift was restless. Dawn was relieved to spot Spike. “Whoa, nice suit.”

“Too much? Couldn’t see in the mirror, but it seemed appropriate. Never been a bridesmaid’s date.” He looked around the crowded room. “Where’s Buffy?”

“Helping Xander. Why don’t you mingle?” She pointed across the room. “Hey, isn’t that your friend Clem?”

“Yeah, it is.” He walked over to his friend. “Hey, mate.”

“Oh, hi Spike,” Clem replied. “You look nice.”

Spike looked over at the bar with longing. “I’d get a drink, but I’m under orders.” He noticed Mr. Harris getting well lubricated. “This wedding might be interestin’ after all.”

*****

Xander was ready to greet his guests. Buffy had a few last words for her single friend. “You’re one of the decent ones, Xander. I hope I’m as lucky as you are some day.”

The groom couldn’t let that one pass. “You might be. If you were dating a decent guy yourself.”

“Xander.” Buffy didn’t want to frown. Only wanted happy tears. “I know you don’t trust Spike. I know you don’t understand what I see in him. But it’s my business. He’s changed, and if you can’t see that,
fine. But don’t spoil this day, for either of us. Think happy Anya thoughts.”

“Okay.” He kissed her forehead. “But if I were you, I wouldn’t go planning a wedding anytime soon.”

She pulled back. “Just stop this. Now.” His words cut her. What kind of future could she have? At the moment, she couldn’t imagine one without Spike in it.

She left the dressing room and walked into her sister. “Buffy,” Dawn said, “Spike’s here. And you should see his suit.”

*****

Xander wandered among his guests, greeting them. He was pulled aside by an old man, who dragged him off. ‘Wonder what all that’s about?’ Spike thought. Before he could follow, he was distracted by Mr. Harris’ toast to Xander’s mother. Only the thought of a major migraine kept him from decking the wanker. That, and the wrath of Buffy.

Clem was talking to him. “Does this jerk ever shut up?” Evidently not. Spike had decided to at least say something to the man, when Buffy took the groom’s father by the arm.

He heard the git say something suggestive to Buffy, and his fists clenched. Chip or no chip ... But the Slayer was in control. Spike was proud of the way she handled the situation. “That’s my girl.”

*****

Xander had a heart stopping glimpse into the future, literally for Anya. His future self, for so the old man claimed to be, showed him a lifetime of regret and disfunction, culminating in murder. “You can’t marry Anya,” the old man affirmed.

*****

Buffy finally found a moment to speak to Spike. Dawn had been right about the suit. Italian cut, grey silk. She dwelt only a second on wondering how he had paid for it. He looked so good.

He was smiling at her. She looked down at her dress and blushed with embarrassment. “Beauty contestwise, I think you win,” she muttered.

He took her hands. “The dress is hideous.” Buffy’s face fell. “But you look beautiful. Even with that thing growing in your hair.” He touched her cheek. “You always look beautiful to me. You know that,
don’t you? Even covered in vamp dust, or coated with demon goo. Always my exquisite Slayer.”

Buffy had bridesmaid duties. They didn’t stop her from pulling Spike into an alcove and kissing him passionately.

*****

Xander was overcome with emotion. The last thing he wanted was to hurt Anya. Now Willow had tracked him into the kitchen. He told his best friend he loved her, then disappeared out into the rain.

*****

Anya went over her vows with Tara, oblivious to the groom’s absence, or his emotional turmoil. Tara listened, at first with polite disinterest, then with growing affection. Anya may not be a politically correct writer, but she wrote with her whole heart.

*****

The guests seated and ready, Buffy went to collect Anya. She was shocked when Willow told her of Xander’s disappearance, but luckily Anya was naive enough, or distracted enough, to believe that the minister was also a doctor, called away on a medical emergency. The “minitor” story.

*****

Buffy told the minister to delay the service, and Spike followed her out of the room. “What’s wrong, love?” he asked.

“Oh, God, Spike,” she sighed. “Xander ran away.” Before she could explain further, cousin Carol pulled her aside. Mr. Harris was drinking even more heavily, and his wife was blaming the bride for the delay.
Buffy had to do something. She tried playing charades, even juggling in tandem with Krelvin, but it was a temporary stopgap. Xander’s father insulted his demon, supposed circus folk guests, and a fist fight broke up.

“Do something,” Buffy urged Spike. “Stop them.”

“How?” Spike raised an eyebrow. “Too many humans.” He pointed to his head. “Chip.” He leaned back against the wall and enjoyed the show.

In the corner, Buffy saw a large demon threatening Anya. When it slashed the bride’s arm with his claws, both vampire and Slayer hastened to help. Buffy ripped her dress with a satisfying tear, kicking the demon while Spike punched it with a grin. They forced it to the floor just as the newly returned Xander squashed it with a decorative pillar.

Anya was ready to start the service, but Xander wasn’t. He called off the wedding and left, leaving Anya to deal with their guests. If he hadn’t wanted to hurt her, why was she crying so much?

*****

Later, that evening, Dawn sat, stunned, in her living room. Willow sipped tea, and Buffy curled up on the couch next to Spike. “This hurts my heart,” Buffy uttered.

Willow had been crying. “I feel like I should be hating Xander, but I can’t.”

“Oh, I can,” Spike said.

Buffy nudged him with her elbow. “Shut up, honey.”

*****

In the nether realms, D’Hoffryn offered his best vengeance demon her old job back.

Chapter Text

The Three Nerd villains saw Buffy as she approached their new underground lair. Or, more accurately stated, the basement in the new home they had rented. She looked down at the list of new rentals she
had already investigated, as Andrew reached for his demon summoning diggery doo.

An ugly, uptight, waxy, bald-headed demon attacked the Slayer. As Buffy fought him into submission, a pointy extrusion thrust from the creature’s wrist, stabbing the girl in the shoulder. She screamed in pain.

*****

She was still screaming as she lay on the table, feeling like her abdomen was being ripped in two. “Push, Buffy,” a voice said.

*****

And she woke up in the driveway. Disoriented, she abandoned her nerd hunt and headed home.

*****

The next day, Willow stood in the hall of her campus, trying to get up the nerve to talk to Tara. She saw the young woman, and her heart leapt, only to drop, crestfallen again, as Tara greeted another girl
with a kiss.

*****

Buffy stood at the french fryer, feeling dragged out. She could barely concentrate as the potatoes started to smoke. “Buffy,” Lorraine said sharply.

*****

Lorraine was wearing a nurse’s uniform, standing over her bed. “I know you’re in some pain, but because it can pass into the milk, we don’t recommend ...”

*****

“Drugs.” Lorraine was saying, as the fries burned. “I said if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were on drugs.”

*****

Willow stood behind Dawn, as the teenager navigated with her laptop. “You’re getting really good.”

Dawn smiled. “I have a good teacher.”

Buffy entered the living room. “What’s up, you two?”

“Checking for an email from Xander. Nothing yet.” Dawn hit a few keys. “Want to see me hack?”

Buffy cast a disapproving glance at Willow, as the doorbell range. A sheepish Xander entered the foyer. “Hi, I’m back,” he said.

He was overwhelmed by the three female bodies hurling themselves against him at once. After the relieved hugs, he inquired about Anya. The girls were all shocked that he considered himself her boyfriend still. When he realized she was gone, and considered their relationship over, the total reality of his actions hit him. He had screwed up, big time.

*****

Later that evening, Buffy patrolled the cemetery. She saw Spike navigating between the headstones, a bag of groceries in his arms. “Looking for me?” he asked.

“Yeah.” They sat together on a stone bench. “Xander showed up today. He’s okay. Wants to start again with Anya.”

“Burned that bridge behind him pretty thoroughly, didn’t he, love?” Spike took a last drag on his cigarette, and ground it under his boot. “Besides, the demon scampered, didn’t she?”

“Nobody knows where she is. The Magic Box has a closed sign, which has Xander totally freaked.” She leaned against him. “You wouldn’t leave like that.”

“Never.” He was about to kiss her, when Xander and Willow appeared. “Ah,” he said, looking up at the erstwhile groom. “The Great Houdini returns.”

“Watch it, Blood Breath.” He pulled Spike to his feet. “I forgot. Willie Wantabite can’t hurt me. Good time to pick a fight, I guess.” Buffy jumped up from the bench.

Willow tried to stop him, crying “Xander,” as Buffy collapsed on the ground.

*****

The man at the foot of the bed must have been her doctor, because he was wearing a stethoscope. “Congratulations, Mrs. Whyte. Her tests are complete, and she’s a fine, healthy little girl. The nurse will be bringing her in shortly for her dinner. She’ll be able to assist you with everything you need to know about breastfeeding.”

*****

Buffy looked up at her friends, not sure of where she was. Spike was holding her, “What’s wrong, pet?” Her head felt like it was splitting in half.

*****

She was lying on the hospital bed again. Her mother was gushing. “Oh, Buffy, she’s beautiful. We’re so proud.”

Her father smiled. “Guess I’ll have to get used to being called Gramps.”

*****

“Let’s get her back to my crypt,” Spike said. He helped her to her feet, as Xander supported her other shoulder.

“I’m okay.” She grabbed Spike’s hand. “I just want to go home.”

“Okay.” The quartet walked in the direction of Revello Drive. “And we’ll put a little ice on the back of your neck.”

She smiled wanly at the vampire. “Sounds good.”

*****

Buffy curled up against Spike in the corner of her couch, Willow beside them, as Xander took the easy chair and Dawn the floor. “I’ve been having hallucinations, I guess. Ever since the night before last. I
was looking for the nerds, then ‘Bam’, some sort of gross waxy demon thing poked me.”

“What?” Spike looked at her face with concern.

“Poked me in the arm. And then, it was like ... no, it was ... I was in a hospital. Doctors and nurses. And I was ... having a baby. It was so strange, but it felt so real. It seemed,” she snuggled against
Spike, “and I know it sounds crazy, realer than this.”

Xander tried to be encouraging. “Ah, come on, that’s ridiculous. You telling me this doesn’t seem real because of all the vampires, and demons and sister who used to be a big ball of universe destroying
energy?” He thought for a moment. “Now I’m not sure I’m real.”

Buffy ignored him. “Mom was there.” She felt Spike squeeze her hand.

Dawn jerked up her head. “Mom was there?”

“Dad too. They were together. Like they used to be. Before Sunnydale.” She sighed.

Spike raised an eyebrow. “And who did the father of your little tyke happen to be, if I may ask?”

“I think ...” Buffy knew, but she didn’t say. “I’m not sure.”

Willow didn’t want to waste another moment. “Spike and Xander can hit the local demon haunts. Dawn can help me research online.”

“Right. Off we go, then.” Spike bent down and kissed Buffy’s forehead.

*****

“You look beautiful, darling. I just peeked in on the baby. I have the two most beautiful girls in the world.” He took her hand. “I love you so much, you know that, Buffy?”

“I know, Spike.”

He sat on the bed beside her. “Spike? That’s a new one. I think I prefer Honey.”

She ran her fingers through his curly brown hair. “Sorry, William. I’m still a little groggy.” Pain pierced her head. “No, that’s not right. This isn’t right. Warren and Jonathan, they did this to me.”

“Who? Did what?” He massaged her temples with his fingertips. “Headache, sweetheart?”

“Yeah, I ...” She looked around the room. “Dawn. Where’s Dawn?”

“It’s okay. The nurse will be bringing her in a moment. She’s fine in the nursery.” When her look of panic didn’t subside, he took her hands in his. “Buffy, you’re worrying me.”

She pulled away from him, tears running down her cheeks. “None of this is real.”

“Oh, baby.” He dabbed at the tears with a kleenex from her nightstand. “This must be that postpartum depression the doctor warned us about.”

*****

Warren and Andrew entered the makeshift lair, to find a very jumpy Jonathan. He knew they were cutting him out of their plans, he knew they were killers and he knew he was trapped.

The head nerd had been observing the poison’s effect on Buffy, and was ecstatic. “We’ve got her tripping like a Ken Russell film festival.” He pulled up a screen image. “There’s the vault.”

Jonathan didn’t like the game anymore. He was a player, whether he liked it or not.

*****

Buffy sat alone in her living room, staring at a photo of little Buffy and her parents. She could be a daughter. She could be a mother. Maybe she was.

Willow bounced in with an internet printout. “Look Buffy. I found the demon. Fits your description and symptoms perfectly. Its pointy stinger carries an antidote to its own poison.”

Buffy was barely listening. “I feel so lost.”

“You’re confused,” Willow replied. “It’s just that crazy juice that’s inside of you.”

“It’s more than that.” Buffy put down the photo and hugged a cushion to her chest. “That other life. It’s everything I ever wanted. Everything the Slayer can never have.”

“It’s a dream, Buffy. Just a dream. Xander and Spike are tracking the demon down right now. We’ll get that antidote, and you’ll see.”

*****

Spike and Xander were arguing about Buffy, about Anya and about whether humans were more or less responsible than demons, when the demon responsible for Buffy’s condition suddenly appeared. The two men fought the creature until Xander could subdue it with a tranquillizer dart.

*****

Buffy lay in her room. Her sister brought her a cup of tea. “I’m okay, Dawn.”

“The thousand yard stare really helps sell that.” She felt her sister’s forehead. “You’re burning up.”

“Everything’s falling apart.” Buffy spoke as if she were in another place. “We have to do better. Your grades. Stealing.” She looked up at her sister. “Dawn, I should be taller than you.”

*****

The nurse brought Buffy her baby. The young woman took her daughter in her arms, overwhelmed by her warmth and sweetness. She reached down for her baby’s cheek. “Dawn.”

*****

Confused, her hand was on her sister’s cheek. Tears filled her eyes.

“I’m not even there, am I?” the former key asked bitterly.

“You are. You’re my little girl.”

“What? I’m the baby?” Dawn stomped out with anger. “You don’t want a sister.”

*****

After Spike and Xander helped her harvest the demon’s poison, Willow prepared the antidote. She brought the thick, unappetizing liquid in a mug to her friend. “Got yummy antidote goodness for you. It took longer with no magic. Drink it down, and everything should go back to normal.”

Spike walked in the bedroom. “How is she?”

“She’ll be fine. Just make sure she drinks it down.” Willow left them their privacy.

Buffy looked up at Spike. “You. You aren’t you. You can’t be. You don’t belong in my world.”

“I thought you didn’t want me to leave.” He tried to walk farther in, but a shaft of sunlight stopped him.

“You think I want this? Want some undead creature in my bed? Just get out. Get out of my life.” She screamed at him. “Go!”

Blinking back the tears, he ran down the stairs, grabbed his blanket from the downstairs couch and headed out the door. He didn’t see her dump the antidote in her wastebasket.

*****

William was wrapped around her on the hospital bed, the baby between them. She kissed the baby’s head, then her husband’s lips. “I don’t want to go back there.”

*****

Buffy walked down the stairs with deliberation. She looked around the living room, clenching and unclenching her left fist. The right hand held tightly to a stake. She heard Willow coming into the room from the kitchen, and ran out the door, slamming it behind her.

“Buffy?” Willow called.

*****

Buffy yanked open the crypt door. “This ends now.”

Spike looked up at her from his comfy chair, cradling the mug of pig’s blood in his hands. “What now, Slayer?”

“I almost killed my friends. I wanted to. Because they aren’t real. None of you are real. You just get in the way.” She took a step closer, raising the stake. “What’s more real, an ordinary woman with an
ordinary life, or some kind of Supergirl, chosen to fight demons and save the world? That’s ridiculous. A Supergirl whose boyfriend’s a vampire?” She lunged at him. “You aren’t William.”

*****

She looked into her husband’s clear blue eyes. “Sweetheart?” he asked. “Where did you go? You drifted off.”

*****

Spike held her wrist with all his strength, pushing the stake away from his heart. “Buffy. It’s the poison.”

“You aren’t real!” she screamed. “Vampires aren’t real!”

*****

Joyce was sitting beside the bed, her grandchild cradled in her arms. “I believe in you,” she said to Buffy, “You’ll be a good mom. Don’t be afraid. Be strong, baby.”

*****

Buffy looked down at the vampire she fought. “Spike?”

*****

“I know you’re afraid. I know the world seems a hard place sometimes, but you have people who love you. Your dad, William and I.”

Buffy looked up at William, standing beside the bed. She loved him so much.

“And little Dawn.”

“Dawn?” Buffy looked at her mother. She looked at her husband. She saw her sister’s eyes, burning into hers, filled with pain and rejection. Saw the pain in Spike’s as she told him to leave.

Joyce smiled. “Believe in yourself.”

“You’re right. Thank you.” She took one last look at Joyce and William. Touched the baby’s forehead. “Goodbye.”

*****

She dropped the stake at her feet, and threw herself into Spike’s arms. “This is real.”

Willow and the others ran into the crypt. “See, Xander,” Dawn said. “She didn’t stake him.”

The redhead offered a jar of the antidote to Buffy. “I have more. Drink it, for god’s sake.”

*****

William sat crying beside the hospital bed, Joyce in shock beside him. His wife had slipped into a sudden coma. “Buffy.” He kissed her hand.
“Come back to me.”

Chapter Text

Two vampires ran frantically through the cemetery, as though the Slayer herself pursued them. They were, in fact, being chased by three nerds on three-wheeled motorbikes, who needed the disc one of them carried. The creatures thought they were safe when they ran beyond the bikes’ range, until they ran straight into the arms of Buffy and her undead paramour, neither of whom noticed the metal disc as it fell. Their work done for them, the nerds scooped up the disc and fled the scene.

*****

Xander Harris sat on his floor in a drunken stupor, an empty bottle in his hand. As he rose, he didn’t notice that his apartment was strewn with beer bottles. He walked out into the night air, a spurned Anya peering from behind the bushes.

*****

Willow noticed Tara in the campus hallway. She hadn’t spoken to her since seeing her with her ‘friend’, the one she had kissed in the hall. She wanted to talk to her, but fear of rejection overcame her, and she
hurried away in the opposite direction. She didn’t notice the hurt expression on the brunette witch’s face.

*****

Buffy and Dawn walked through Sunnydale’s outdoor mall, as the teenager made note of all the stores they couldn’t enter, due to the repercussions of her sticky fingers. A young mother with a stroller
passed by. Seeing her sister’s sad expression, Dawn squeezed her hand. “Someday. It could happen.”

“Maybe. If I wasn’t the Slayer, and I didn’t have a thing for dating vampires.” She smiled at Dawn. “Don’t worry about me. I still have you. Being mom to a teenager is enough.”

*****

Jonathan worked on his latest spell. He hoped it would be his ticket for getting away from Warren and Andrew. Deep down, he knew that would never happen. He knew they were conspiring behind his back. With growing fear, he felt his days were numbered.

*****

Xander opened his apartment door. With delight, he saw Anya sitting at the table. He tried to explain, tried to make her see that he still loved her, but with each syllable he dug his grave a bit deeper. Literally, if her curses had worked. She was frustrated to see him still alive, and all his pains emotional.

*****

Later, Anya joined Hallie for a coffee. The dark haired demon was bemused to discover that Anya had tried to wreak vengeance for herself.
Anya would have to find someone else to make Xander wishes for her.

*****

Buffy continued trying to be the perfect mom to her less than perfect sister. She still felt guilty for some of her recent actions; leaving a note the night she went to the police station, even though she’d
retrieved it unread, and hallucinating Dawn as a helpless infant instead of her hard to manage sister. Dawn’s suggestion that Buffy include her in patrol fell on deaf ears.

*****

Anya started on her quest for revenge. She tried Tara, but the young woman made excuses for Xander. “It’s complicated. There’s a lot for him to deal with.”

Anya tried a different, less personal track. “You’re a lesbian, so the hating of men comes natural.”

Tara smiled. “It’s not so much about hating the men; more about loving the girls.”

Anya was undeterred. “And men like watching that sort of stuff. Men like Xander.”

Tara was a little surprised with Xander’s interest, but who was she to judge. “I guess it’s natural for guys to be interested.”

Anya, getting nowhere, moved on.

*****

Dawn showed up at the Magic Box to discuss working off her debt. Not only could Anya not persuade her to make a wish against Xander, she couldn’t even get her to say the word ‘wish’. Hallie’s lesson during Buffy’s birthday party had been deeply engrained.

*****

As a last ditch effort, Anya confronted Buffy on her porch. Try as she might, she couldn’t get the Slayer to say anything negative about her friend. She pointed out the number of Buffy’s men that had run
roughshod over her heart.

“Men?” Buffy asked, taken aback. “Just three. And Spike, but that’s working out, so far. I think. I guess we could talk about Angel.”

“Not really.” Anya sighed. “Xander. We were talking about Xander.”

She had almost coerced Buffy into some sort of wish, which at least was a start, when the object of her vengeance came walking into the yard. “Congratulations,” she said, not attempting to conceal the bitterness in her voice. “They all still love you.” She shoved past him as she left.

Xander was frustrated. Why couldn’t she see how he still loved her? Angrily, he kicked a garden gnome, and it shattered.

Buffy walked over to the remnants. “What the hell is that creepy little thing doing in my yard?” She picked up a black object from the wreckage. “And what the hell is this?”

*****

“It’s a camera.” Spike turned the surveyance equipment over in his hand. “Why am I holding this?”

“I want you to help me trace it.” Her voice was cold. “Someone’s spying on me, and I’ve got a pretty good idea who.”

*****

Hallie and a dejected Anya sat together in the Magic Box. “No luck. No luck at all,” the newly restored vengeance demon complained. “And I want Xander good and cursed.”

Willow wandered into the store, with a guilty expression on her face. “I know, I know. I shouldn’t be in here. I just wanted to ... I don’t know, breath the air for a minute. It’s been so hard.” She looked at
Hallie. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Just going.” Hallie patted Anya’s hand. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.” She waved at Willow. “Bye, dear. Nice seeing you again.”

Anya looked up at the frustrated witch. Her eyes narrowed. “Didn’t you and Xander used to have a thing? Before you went gay, I mean.”

“That was a long time ago.” Willow sat on a stool at the counter. “I used to think it was men that were the problem. But that’s not it. Xander, Oz, Tara ... they all break your heart. Maybe it’s me.”

Anya nodded sympathetically. “I have something that will dull the pain.”

“No,” Willow said. “No magic. I should go.”

“Oh, it isn’t magic.” Anya pulled a bottle of Jack Daniels from behind the counter. “Giles left this here.”

Willow looked at the bottle. “Booze? No, I ...” She reconsidered. “I guess one glass couldn’t hurt.”

*****

Spike stood with a protective arm around Buffy’s waist. Xander tried not to notice. Dawn sat in front of Willow’s laptop, open on the kitchen table.

“I wish Willow were here,” Buffy stated.

Dawn looked up from her keyboard. “No, really. I’ve learned a lot. I think I can track these feeds.” She looked at the screen, and typed at the board. “I’m going to use the feedback relay to route their signal
into our system.”

Xander was impressed that she even knew the words. “You can do that?”

“Hey, I have fast fingers. Besides, keyboard, key.” There was a distinctive lack of laughter in the room. “Never mind. Willow just thought hacking would be a more productive use of my talents than stealing stuff. Well, technically hacking is sort of stealing, but really, it’s not the same, and ...”

“I want to find those guys.” Buffy said. “Whatever it takes.”

Spike held her closer. “We’ll find them. I want them, too. Nobody messes with my girl.”

*****

The spell was ready. Jonathan dropped his potion crystals over the disc, set up on a stand over a map. “Reveal.” The map caught fire.

*****

Willow poured herself another shot. “And then she says, ‘Willow, you’re using too much magic,’ and she’s a witch; she helped get me into it in the first place, so what does she expect? And just because I’m better than her now, she wants me to stop. So she walks out on me. On me.”

Anya interrupted. “Getting back to Xander.”

Willow gulped her drink. “Xander was a mistake. I don’t want to talk about him. Oz really got hurt, and I don’t want to think about it.”

“I really got hurt,” Anya sighed. “And nobody cares.”

“I care.” Willow thought about that. Surprisingly, it was true. “I mean, I know we haven’t always gotten along. But I know what it feels like to get dumped. Xander was wrong, what he did. It stank, really.”

“Shouldn’t he pay?” Anya thought she finally had a nibble. “Don’t you wish he had to pay in some horrible way?”

Willow picked up her glass and the bottle, and headed to the table. “He’s really upset. He’s sorry. But I get what you’re saying. If he’d done that to me ...”

Anya’s heart started pumping quicker. “What would you wish would happen to him? In some hypothetical way?”

“I don’t know.” Willow looked into the amber liquid in her glass. “Something really gross, I guess.”

Anya chugged a shot in eager anticipation.

*****

Jonathan wined as the other two put out the fire with his spacescape blanket.

*****

Dawn’s eyes lit up. “Hey, I think I’ve got something.”

*****

Anya poured another drink from the now less than half-filled bottle. “None of this was my idea. I didn’t ask for this.”

“And I didn’t ask to be addicted to magic.” Willow filled her glass.

Anya pouted. “I just wanted to know what I was missing.”

“Me too. I mean, there was something about it, something forbidden. But it felt right.”

Anya’s eyes glazed over with the memories. “And he was bumpy, in all the right places. And he was nice to me.”

“She was, too. Bumpy. In a good way. And so sweet. And loving. And soft. Did I say sweet?”

Anya’s voice took on a sharp edge. “And next thing you know, I’m changing to please him. I’m off my guard. Happy. I’m singing in the shower. Doing my sexy dance.”

“She loved my sexy dance.” Willow frowned. “Talk about changes. And then, I’m giving up magic for her. Magic! I love magic.”

*****

Dawn paused at the tangle on her screen. “This is pretty complicated. Firewalls and booby traps.”

Buffy held her breath. “Can you do it?”

“I don’t know,” Dawn replied. “Let me think. Maybe.” She hit a key. “Whoa.”

*****

Anya was sitting on the table, downing another drink. “Screw ‘em.”

“Not my choice of words,” Willow said. “but yeah.”

As the bottle level subsided, the women grew more maudlin. “I did everything for that man. Was it ever enough?”

“Never.” Willow sipped a bit from her glass. She’d felt better. Then, with a mental, ‘what the hell,’ she gulped it down. “The Scoobies needed my magic ... how many times? I would never have gone to Rack’s if she hadn’t left. Amy. I bet she was jealous of Amy.”

“I hate Amy,” Anya spat out.

“Me too.” She looked up at her friend. “I used to hate you, too. I think because you had my Xander.”

“You can have him back now.” Anya poured another shot for Willow.

“No thanks. You know, you’re okay. You wanted me to use magic, at the party. You speak your mind.”

“That’s not how Xander puts it. He thinks I’m rude.”

“Well,” Willow stated, “he was wrong. And so was I.”

Anya beamed. “Really?”

Willow looked up into the other woman’s eyes, holding them with her own. “Really, really wrong.”

*****
Dawn’s eyes were wide open, partially with shock with what she’d found, and partially with surprise that she’d found it. “Look at this. The Doublemeat Palace. The Bronze. The college. Some pile of dirt.”

Xander looked over her shoulder. “That’s my construction site.”

“What?” Buffy was finding it hard to process.

Spike clenched his fists. “They’ve been spying on all those places. Spying on you, love.”

“There are more feeds.” Dawn let out a heavy breath. “This is hard. I wish Willow was here.”

*****

Sitting side by side, Willow emptied the rest of the bottle into Anya’s glass, and held it out to her. “Here.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem,” Willow said. “It’s your bottle.”

“No.” Anya put her hand on Willow’s. “Thank you.” She dropped her hand, not sure why. “It’s just ... It feels good to be with someone else who understands. This whole time I’ve been coming on all hellbent
and mad. Wanting his head. When really, I can’t sleep at night. It has to be my fault, somehow.”

“Aw, no.” Willow shook her head.

“What if he’s just pretending? What if he never wanted me the way I wanted him?

Willow touched Anya’s cheek. “He’d have to be more than the jerk he’s been.” She brushed her fingers through the blonde’s curls. “He’d have to be crazy. God, Anya, I never noticed before. Your eyes have these little flecks of golden light. They sparkle. You are so beautiful.”

Tears filled Anya’s eyes. “Then, why? Why didn’t he want me?”

“I don’t know.” She ran her thumb over Anya’s lower lip. “Right now, I don’t care. Their loss.”

Anya’s eyes opened wide. She was surprised by new feelings, unlike any she’d had before or after being human. Feelings she was curious to explore. “Too hot to handle.”

Willow smiled. “Too hot.” She leaned in towards the other woman.

She looked into Willow’s luminous eyes. “I’ve never done this before.”

“You’ll learn.” Willow brought her lips towards Anya’s. They were soft and sweet. Suddenly, the kiss grew more passionate, and the witch was delighted by the feel of the demon’s tongue touching hers.

*****

Dawn was becoming excited. “I’ve almost got a picture, I think. I’m just going on instinct, now, guys.”

Buffy clenched Spike’s hand. “You’re doing fine. Willow’s a great teacher.”

*****

Anya pushed Willow away. “You know I’m only doing this because I’m lonely, and drunk and ... Is that strawberry lip gloss?”

*****

A red warning light went off in the lair. “They’ve tapped into our feed.”

*****

Willow pulled up Anya’s top, as the other woman undid the buttons on her blouse. Together, they pushed everything off the table top.

*****

The nerds ran around their basement in a panic.

*****

The two women fell together onto the table.

*****

“I think I’ve got the Magic Box,” Dawn said triumphantly. The image was clear. “Oh. My. God.”

*****

The nerds fought over their computer, as an image appeared on the screen. “Oh, holy crap!” Warren shouted.

“Oh, my god,” Jonathan exclaimed.

“What is that?” Warren asked. “Porn.” He considered the screen. “Hey, they’re good.” He tore his eyes off the two women to look at the picture more closely. “Is that the camera in the Magic Box?”

Jonathan was stricken. “Is that Willow?”

Andrew barely looked at the screen. “Hey, guys. Someone’s tracing us.” The other two ignored him.

*****

Willow kissed her way down Anya’s midriff, as the lens, hidden in a skull’s eye, saw all.

*****

Xander was still looking over Dawn’s shoulder. “No. Oh, God, no.” He turned away. “What is she ... what are they ...?”

Dawn was sitting in front of the laptop with her eyes shut. “Did they stop yet, Spike? Spike?”

The vampire was mesmerized by the image in front of him. Buffy punched his arm. “That’s enough.” While she was trying to get her lover’s attention, Xander ran out the door.

Buffy realized he was gone. “What do you think he’s going to do?”

“What would you do?” Spike replied.

As they went after the distraught Scoobie, Dawn slammed the laptop shut.

*****

As the depressant properties of the alcohol took effect, and the afterglow proved less than shining, Willow and Anya found their way back into their clothing. Neither woman could meet the other’s eyes. Anya stared down at her shaking hands, as Willow stepped outside the Magic Box. Xander was waiting. “How could you?” he cried. “How could you do that to me?”

Willow stared at him in horror. How could he know? “Xander, what ...”

Anya stepped out into the street. Xander tried to overcome his urge to hit out. “Don’t even try to deny it. Because I saw it all.” The vengeance demon blanched visibly. “The whole beautiful show. If I’d
known you weren’t really interested in men, I wouldn’t have made so much effort.”

“Effort?” Anya wanted to slap him, but the realization of what he had seen hit her. “It was just a thing. I was hurt, and she was there.”

“You had to do it, both of you, because she was there. Like I used to be.”

“And then you weren’t.” Anya didn’t even notice Willow, cowering silently in the door frame. Buffy and Spike watched from the shadows, watching the young man, ready to protect their friends. “I don’t owe
you anything.”

“So you have sex with my best friend behind my back. Very mature.”

Anya was angry now. “No. The mature thing is to call off a wedding before the day. You’re just a scared, insecure little boy.”

Willow was crying. “Please, don’t tell Tara.”

Xander turned away. “You both make me sick.” He stomped off down the road.

Willow collapsed into Buffy’s arms. Anya and Spike looked awkwardly at each other.

“He brought this on himself,” the vampire said. “You know, I wish ...”

Anya sagged back against the store wall. “Don’t.”

*****

Later that evening, Willow lay crying on her bed. “Things fall apart,” a voice said. “They fall apart so hard.”

The redhead sat up, wiping her eyes. “Tara?”

“I’m sorry, Will. I know you saw me that day, with my friend. Just a friend. I tried to come here to explain, but you weren’t here. And then, at school, you were so cold to me. I know what you must have
thought. But it isn’t true. There’s nobody else for me. Nobody but you.” She took a deep breath. “I know you’ve been trying so hard. I want to trust you. And I miss you, so much.” She held out her arms to the other woman. “Can you just be kissing me now?”

Willow ran into her arms, thoughts of the evening’s indiscretion receding to the back of her mind. Tara’s lips were all that mattered.

Chapter Text

Willow and Tara had made love through the night, twisted together in cotton sheets, when they realized it was morning. “I forgot how good this could feel. Us, together, without the magic.”

Tara smiled. “Oh, there was plenty of magic.”

A flicker passed over Willow’s eyes, thinking of the Magic Box, but she shook it off.

“Do you want to get up?” Tara asked.

Willow cuddled her head into the lover’s lap. “No. Oh, god, no.” She wrapped her arms around Tara’s waist. “I didn’t hear Buffy come home last night. Do you think she stayed at Spike’s?”

“Maybe. Do you have a problem with that?” Tara’s face grew serious for the first time.

“I don’t think so. It’s just, well, he tried to bite me once. And he kidnapped me, and threatened me. It’s hard to forget.”

“Hard to forgive?” Tara ran her fingers through the red hair.

“No. I believe in forgiveness.” She turned her head and looked into the brunette’s eyes. “Tara, I ...”

“Yes, Will?”

“Nothing.” She forced her mind back onto Spike. “What if his chip stops working? He’s still a vampire. Do you think she loves him?”

“I don’t know. You can sleep with someone without loving them.”

“I know that.” Willow’s tone was sharper than she intended. “I don’t want her to get hurt.”

“I know. You’re a good friend. But Spike loves Buffy; I’m sure of it. And I don’t think she’s the kind of person who’d have sex with someone she didn’t genuinely care about.”

Willow climbed out of bed and pulled a nightie out of the drawer. “I have to go to the bathroom.”

*****

Willow pushed Buffy’s door open. The bed was still made. She turned and almost ran into Dawn. “She’s at the crypt,” the teenager stated. “She was kind of shell shocked, after last night.” She folded her arms and looked at Willow. “I think we all were. She wasn’t going to leave me, but I told her I’m a big girl. Really don’t feel like a kid after
...”
Hearing voices, Tara stuck her head out of Willow’s bedroom door. “She home yet?”

“Tara!” Dawn exclaimed. “I, a ...” She looked between the two women. “You guys back together?”

“Yeah,” Tara glowed.

Dawn caught Willow’s pleading look. “That’s great,” the girl said. “Really.” She forced a smile. Just great.”

*****

As soon as Spike fell asleep, Buffy headed over to the address Dawn had tracked down. She was proud of her little sister. She entered the abandoned house and descended the stairs to the basement. They had left in a hurry. Their action figures were still on the shelf. Buffy showed an obvious distaste for the little plastic Vampirella. As she picked up some papers, and flipped over a chalkboard, the ominous sound of buzzsaws cut through the room. She gathered what evidence she could as a plethora of whirling blades sundered the lair.

*****

Buffy was in the living room when Tara and Willow came down the stairs, “ready for action.” Dawn had already filled her in on the couple’s reconciliation, and she bit her tongue and pulled out the papers and
books, some in pieces.

“This could take awhile,” Tara said, as a large volume came apart in her hands.

“Anything we can do to fast forward?” Buffy asked. “We really need to find Warren and the others before anyone else ...” Her mind flashed on Willow, cowering in the Magic Box doorway. “gets hurt.”

“What about Anya?” Tara was trying to be helpful. “She might be able to help with the demon texts.”

Willow swallowed, and nodded.

*****

Anya tried to coax a spurned young woman in a bar to wish for vengeance. Her boyfriend had slept with her sister. Her overweight sister. “It isn’t always about looks, or body parts ... Sometimes intimate sweaty relations with the wrong person seems like a good idea at the time.”

She didn’t notice when the girl was ready to wish. The demon’s mind dwelt on Xander. “First he’s all he loves you, and you believe him and get all tingly with the anticipation. And then there’s the relatives
and the pretending about circus folks, and by the time you’re standing there in that beautifully expensive white dress he goes all heeby geeby and says, ‘I’d rather just go steady.’”

The girl tried her best to make a wish, but Anya wasn’t listening.

*****

A large, veiny demon attacked Andrew in a cave, while the other two nerds looked on. Warren stunned it to death, and handed Jonathan a knife. The hapless little criminal had stripped the demon of his skin
in no time, and was now wearing it. They stood in front of a barrier only penetrable by the demons, and Andrew threw Jonathan through. To their surprise, the ruse worked, and Jonathan lived to retrieve a box from deep in the cave. Warren picked up the Orbs of Nezlacon, imbued with demonic super power. He killed a demon with his bare hands, and roared in triumph.

*****

Worried about her friend, Buffy arrived at Xander’s apartment. The young man had been drinking steadily, and his room was strewn with even more beer bottles. “How are you?” She sat down on his couch and took his hand. “She loves you. You know that. Anya was just ... She was hurting. And she did this really stupid thing.”

“With my best friend?” Xander picked a bottle from the table, twisting the neck in his hands. “How? Why?”

“I wish I could tell you. Sometimes we all do stupid things.”

Xander’s head shot up. “Like you and Spike?”

“Xander, what I do with my personal life is none of your business.” She saw the hurt increase in his eyes. Softer, she said, “You’ve fought side by side with him.”

The young man swirled the amber fluid around in the bottle. “But I’ve never forgotten what he really is.”

“What he is ...” She struggled not to lose patience. “He’s the one who saved my sister. He’s the one who’s watched my back, all our backs, over and over. He’s the one who loves me.”

“Love. Right.” Xander met her eyes with his. “He doesn’t have a soul, Buffy. Just some leash they jammed in his head. Have you ever thought about what would happen if that chip ever stopped working?”

“I trust him,” she said quietly.

He stood up. “Well, I don’t.” He slammed his own door behind him.
*****

Anya cleaned the shop alone. She felt like everything needed cleaning. Xander watched her through the window, but he didn’t go inside.

*****

Willow lay on her bed with her laptop while Tara watched. The computer wiz’ eyes lit up when she decoded a floppy full of blueprints and schematics.

*****

Xander sat at a local bar, where an attractive girl saw him sitting by himself and tried to get to know him. He put her down with his patented fish analogy. “I’d leave you at the altar in your white dress and you’d
spawn with another fish with the same kind of gills, my best friend fish. Then there’d be fighting, and again with the flopping.” He saw the girl was confused. “Chicken of the sea’s not doing too well with
the women these days. Sorry, I’m looking to curl up with a quiet alone tonight.”

But fate had other plans. Warren, Jonathan and Andrew checked out the bar.

*****

Buffy and Spike patrolled together in the cemetery. A vamp who was stronger than he looked attacked, and as Spike staked him, the creature kicked out at Buffy, thrusting her against a headstone. The marble
cracked in two against her back. “Buffy!” Spike shouted, rushing to her aid.

“I’m okay.” She tried to stand up and fell against him. “I guess I am a little sore.”

Spike helped her home. While she undressed, he ran hot water with some scented oils into the tub. “Want to join me?” she asked.

“Oh, that would be great for your back.” He helped her ease into the tub, noting the bruises that covered her spine. “You sure you’re okay?”

“I’ll be fine. Slayer healing kicking in as we speak.” She sighed as he ran hot water onto a facecloth and held it against the injury. “You really know how to treat a girl.”

“I really know how to treat my girl.” He pushed a stray hair behind her ear. “You worried me tonight. And I said I’d always watch your back.”

“You do. Always. I said I’m fine.”

“Yeah. Tough girl.” He worked some soap into the cloth and rubbed it across her shoulders. “I love you, Slayer. You know that.”

“I know.” She caught his face between wet hands and pulled his lips towards hers. “I love you too.”

His eyes opened wide as he pulled back from the kiss. “Buffy. You never
...”

“‘Bout time, then. Isn’t it?”

*****

Warren was using his orbs, picking fights with patrons and hitting on women, when Xander stepped out of the bathroom. He tried to stop the superbully, but Warren taunted him. “Can you put in a word for me with that Anya chick? ‘Cause if she swings both ways, we could have a real good party.”

Xander hit Warren, but the self proclaimed crimelord only laughed. “No wonder she’s screwing a girl ... You hit like one.” The nerd threw Xander across the room. Before he could finish him off, Jonathan
stopped him. They had other plans that night, plans that didn’t involve murdering people who treated Jonathan decently in high school. Andrew wanted to kill Xander, in case he drew the Slayer to them. Warren was invigorated. “Bring her on.”

*****

Bloodied but not bowed, Xander rushed to Buffy’s to tell her he had spotted Warren. He ran up the stairs and bumped into Willow. “Where’s Buffy?” he asked coldly.

Willow pointed to Buffy’s bedroom door. “I think she’s occupied.”

“Unoccupy her. I have news.” He turned his back on his oldest friend and went back down the stairs.

*****

Slightly dishevelled, Buffy and Spike joined Xander in the living room as he described the fight in the bar. Willow opened her laptop and showed Buffy the decrypted blueprints. “I think there’s one they may hit
tonight.”

“Off we go, then,” Spike headed towards the door.

“Yeah, chiphead,” Xander said. “And how you gonna stop them?”

“Any way I can.” He took Buffy’s hand. “Come on, Slayer.”

*****
Clem dropped by the crypt with a bucket of wings, but nobody was there. “He’s always out, lately,” the demon said to himself. “Oh, well. Maybe tomorrow. ‘Murder She Wrote’ marathon.”

*****

An armoured car picked up the gate at the amusement park. As the drivers tried to pull away, they found the truck stalled. Warren held on to the axle as the wheels spun. He flipped the armoured car on its side and pulled open the back door, money spilling everywhere. “Hi,” a voice called out from the top of a building. Buffy stood beside Spike, as they looked down on the robbery. “This your bank? Cause if not, there’s gonna be a fee for that.”

Warren smiled up at the Slayer. “I was wondering when Superbitch would show up.”

“Hey,” Spike called down. “Watch how you speak to a lady.”

Buffy jumped off the roof and landed near Warren, and Spike was instantly beside her. “You’ve really got a problem with strong women, don’t cha?” she asked.

“So strong you have to hide behind your boyfriend.”

Spike raised his hands, shrugged, and stepped back. “He’s all yours, Slayer.”

Buffy threw herself at Warren, but he equally exchanged punch for punch and kick for kick. Buffy caught Warren’s arm and swung him against a stone pillar. “Is that all you’ve got?” he asked, as the arch gave way over him, burying him in rubble.

“No!” Andrew screamed, as Spike walked over to the two remaining nerds. Not knowing he couldn’t hurt them, they cowered against a wall.

Buffy looked over at them. “There’s only two ways this can end, and I’m thinking they’re both going to hurt.”

Warren climbed out of the rubble, as Buffy spun around in surprise.“What’s the matter, baby?” he taunted. “You never fought a real man before?”

“Oh,” Spike said, taking a step towards Warren and Jonathan, “I wouldn’t say that.” The two boys whimpered.

Buffy struck Warren. “Wow, that almost hurt, kitten,” he laughed.

“Kill her,” Andrew muttered, stopping in horror as Spike glared at him.

Warren’s fist connected with the young woman’s jaw, and she fell hard against her recently injured back. “Buffy!” Spike cried, rushing towards Warren, but as he approached him in anger his chip fired. The pain forced him to the ground.

Warren looked down at his adversary. “Oooh. Big scary vampire.” He stepped towards the Spike, as Buffy struck him again.

Warren paused and looked at her. “You know who I am, Slayer?”

“You’re a murderer,” she spat.

“That too.” He reached out for her throat. “But more to the point, I’m the guy who beat you. And it’s not the muscles, baby. It’s the brains.”

Spike glared up at Warren, hate flashing yellow in his eyes, as the chip
throbbed.

Suddenly, Jonathan was on Buffy’s back, as she tried to shake him off. “The orbs,” he whispered in her ear. “Smash the orbs.” He fell behind her.

Warren wound up for a killer punch. “Say goodnight, bitch.”

Buffy grabbed the pouch from around his waist and slammed it into the ground. Mystic energy drained from Warren’s body.

“Goodnight, bitch.” She hit him. “You’re nothing but a sad little boy, Warren. But it’s time you grew up.”

Warren stepped back. “Stay away from me. I swear to god, I’m going to take you down.” He pulled off his jacket, revealing a rocket pack. He pushed down on a switch, the engine fired, and he disappeared into the night sky.

Andrew revealed his pack to, to Jonathan’s dismay, but when he tried to fly upwards his head hit an overhang and he fell back against the ground.

Spike walked over to the nerds, as Buffy gathered them up. “Call the police for me?”

“At least I can do something,” Spike muttered.

*****

The next day, Willow and Tara had finally dressed. “Xander,” Tara exclaimed.

Willow jumped nervously. “Where?”

“Outside. With Buffy.”

*****
The Slayer was poking around her garden with a stick when Xander came in. “Just making sure there are no more cameras,” she said. “Warren pulled a rocket man and got away.”

She sat down beside Xander on the stone bench. “What you said. About Spike’s chip. He would have been a lot more helpful last night without it.”

“Bite your tongue.” He looked towards the house. “Willow home?”

“Yep. You want to talk to her?”

“Not really. Not yet, I ...” He saw Warren enter the yard. “Buffy!”

“Did you think I’d let you get away with that?” The frustrated thief pulled a gun from his jacket, and started firing.

*****

In the upstairs bedroom, the glass broke. A tiny, perfect hole. It matched the one in Tara’s chest.

*****

Warren ran from the yard, gleeful. He had seen the red stain spread over Buffy’s heart.

*****

Xander held his friend. Her eyes stared, blinked, and stared.

*****

Tara lay lifeless in her lover’s arms. Willow looked up. Her eyes flashed red, then darkened to a deep, empty black.

Chapter Text

The sun shone brightly over the town of Sunnydale. An ambulance screamed on its way to a suburban home. In the yard, a dying girl lay bleeding.

Upstairs, another girl lay dead, her lover screaming in grief. Her entreaties and demands to the gods went unheeded. Tara would not rise.

Willow went downstairs. Saw the ambulance. Heard that her friend had been shot. Heard who had done it.

Xander, distraught with fear, forgot his anger at his best friend. Only Buffy mattered.

Willow walked away. Only Warren mattered.

*****

In a local jail cell, Jonathan was shaking with fright. Andrew survived on the sure knowledge that the man he loved would save them.

But Warren didn’t care. He was the big man in the demon world, or so he assumed. A newscast in a demon bar proved him wrong. Buffy was alive.

*****

Willow burst into the Magic Box. “Where do you keep the black arts books?” Anya tried to stop her, but the witch paralysed her. She thrust her hands into the arcane tomes, as the magic texts crept across
her skin and into her very pores. She had become magic, and even her hair grew dark.

*****

Dawn came home from school to a quiet house. She searched the rooms until, looking beyond Willow’s bed, she saw Tara’s lifeless body on the floor.

*****

Warren paid a magic junkie to lead him to Rack’s. He wanted protection from Buffy, but was informed of a far greater danger. Willow would find him, and he would die. He begged the warlock for protection.

*****

Xander watched the emergency ward doctors through the glass window. He heard snatches of conversation. They were losing her. He was losing her.

Suddenly, the lights dimmed as Willow stepped past him and into the room, demanding that the doctors leave. With cold determination, the witch levitated the bullet from her friend’s body.

Xander saw Buffy waken, and sit up. “You’re okay!” he exclaimed.

“I’ll explain later.” Willow told him. “We have to go.”

*****

Willow’s motivations in healing Buffy were not selfless. She wanted Xander to help her pursue Warren in his car, and she wanted Buffy to help her kill him. Buffy feared Willow’s use of magic, but the witch
was relentless. She would kill Warren.

She stopped the bus carrying the killer out of town, but when she crushed his throat, realized he was a robot. She knew she had been tricked into tracking him, but vowed to find him another way.

Her friends were horrified to learn of Tara’s death, but Buffy still wouldn’t assist her. Willow struck them with an energy spell, and disappeared.

*****

Darkness fell over Sunnydale. Spike stretched and sat up, seeing his friend Clem in front of the television. “Still watchin’ Murder She Wrote?”

“Spike.” Clem’s voice was small. “I think you should see this.”

Spike stood in front of the television, where a local newscast continued. “... shooting of a young woman at this suburban home. The woman, identified as Buffy Summers, was shot in her backyard this morning ...”

Spike felt the chill in the pit of his stomach. It spread throughout his extremities, as his jaw clenched with pain. The word forced itself from his lips. “Buffy.” He blinked back tears.

“No, look, Spike. It’s okay.” Clem pointed at the television. “She’s okay.”

The newscaster continued. “ ... left the hospital in the company of two young people of approximately her own age, a man and a woman. In the words of one intern, it was ‘A miracle’. Doctors confirm the young woman was in critical condition mere moments before they were sent out of the room by the other woman. ‘I don’t understand it. She seemed to be fine.’. Attempts to contact Ms. Summers for comment remain fruitless. Police are looking for this man in connection with the shooting. If you have any information, please ...”

“Warren.” Spike sat hard in his chair and rested his head in his hands. “I shoulda stopped him. Last night. It’s this bloody chip.” He looked up at Clem. “Turn it off.” The demon complied. “But she’s fine, now, Spike. You should go see her. Maybe she’s at home.”

“Willow. Musta been Willow or Tara. At the hospital. Some spell. She saved her. I couldn’t.” He hopped out of his chair. “What good am I to her, Clem? What help? She loves me, and I can’t protect her.” He paced around the crypt. “I’ve been putting this off too long. Gotta do this. I’m nothing if I can’t help her. Nothing if I lose her.” He put his hand on the demon’s shoulder. “Take care of this place for me. Don’t know when I’ll be back. If I’ll be back. But I gotta try.”

Clem looked into his friend’s face with confusion. “But where are you going?”

“A long, long ways.” He picked up a text he’d stolen from the Magic Box. “And just around the corner.” He pulled an envelope from between the pages of the book. “Give this to Buffy. Tell her I love her.
Always.” He headed towards the door.

“Wait, Spike? Shouldn’t you tell her yourself?” But his friend was gone.

*****

Buffy looked through the house for her sister. She found her, huddled in the room with Tara’s body.

*****

After the men from the morgue carted the body away, Buffy sat down to talk to her sister. Dawn wanted revenge. Her tone frightened her sister. Human evil was a subject for human justice.

Buffy’s main concern was Willow. Her friend was heading for a dark place; a place with no exit door. She had to look for the witch, and Xander offered put aside his pride and ask Anya for assistance.

Dawn wanted to go with her sister, but Buffy wouldn’t allow it. “You’ve been through enough. You should be someplace you feel safe. I’ll take you to Spike’s.”

*****

Willow sat in Tara’s dorm room, her own blouse stained with her lover’s blood lying on the floor in front of her. “Blood of the slain, guide me.” The red pattern became a map. She had found Warren.

*****

Clem jumped as Buffy and Dawn stepped into the crypt. “We’re looking for Spike,” the Slayer said.

“Um, well.” He scratched his head. How to tell her. “Spike said to say that he loves you always. But he’s gone.”

“Gone? What do you mean? Out buying cigarettes? Out patrolling?”

“Just gone.” The demon picked up the envelope from the top of the television. “He left this for you. I don’t think he’s coming back for a long time.”

Buffy fought the tears. If there was a worst possible time for the news, this was it. “Can Dawn hang out with you for awhile?”

The demon brightened at the prospect of company. “Sure. I’ve got snacks, and games. Or we could rent a movie if you like.” He looked at the pained expression on Buffy’s face. “Are you okay? Spike really freaked when he found out you got shot.”

“He knew?” She tried to process the thought. “He knew what happened? And he left anyway?” The betrayal cut her deep. “He said he’d never leave.” She shoved the letter into the pocket of her jeans. “I don’t have time for this now.”

*****

A swirling portal formed on the outskirts of a small African settlement. Spike walked through and into the night. One of the villagers tried to stop him. Spike ignored him, “Not asking for permission, mate,” and stepped into a cave entrance. The walls were decorated with scenes of vivid torture.

A guttural voice sounded from the gloom. “You seek me, vampire?”

“You do the finger paintings?” Spike asked, with a touch of false bravado. “Nice work.”

The dark demon stared with glowing green eyes. “Something about a woman. The Slayer.”

“Yeah, the Slayer.” Spike stared into the depths of the creature’s eyes. “I used to be a monster. The monster. Now, ever since I got this chip in my head, everything’s gone to hell.”

Without a mouth, the demon smiled. “You want to return to your former self.”

“Yeah.”

The faceless creature laughed. “Look at what she’s reduced you to. You were a legendary dark warrior and you let yourself be castrated. And you have the audacity to crawl in here and demand restoration.”

Spike’s resolve deepened. “I’m still a warrior.”

The statement was greeted with a snort. “You’re a pathetic excuse for a demon.”

Spike’s anger grew. She had brought him to this. His life had changed, whether he wanted it to or not. “I’ll show you pathetic. Give me your best shot.”

For once, the demon seemed surprised. “You’d never endure the trials required to grant your request.”

Spike stood in total defiance. “Do your worst. But when I win, I want what I came here for. Slayer’s gonna see a change.”

*****

Xander was concerned for Anya. He tried to rub her still partially paralysed neck, but his ex-fiancee pulled away. He asked if she could trace Willow. Do a locator spell.

“I don’t need a locator spell,” Anya said. “I can feel her.”

“Feel her? So, what? You have sex with her one time, and now there’s some bond between you? Cause when we were together, no mention of bondage.”

Anya looked at him with thinly veiled disgust. “I can feel her thirst for vengeance. It’s overwhelming.”

Xander’s eyebrows knit in concentration. “Left over from your vengeance demon days?”

“No. Not left over.” She looked away from Xander, as he thought about her words. Realization hit.

Buffy entered the store, hoping for progress. Xander informed her of Anya’s newly regained status, but the demon couldn’t trace Willow; couldn’t grant vengeance. “She doesn’t want me.”

“She wants to do it herself.” Buffy looked at her friend. “Anya, we don’t have much time. What side of this are you on?”

“I’ll help. But I’m doing it for Willow.” With her words, jealous anger flared in Xander’s heart. “She’s close to him. He’s in the woods.”

*****

Warren ran between the trees, Willow following slowly and deliberately. When she caught him, he buried an axe in her back. It barely phased her. He tried a few binding spells, but she easily broke through. She caught him up with roots and vines, spreadeagled between two trees. She brought an apparition of his first victim, Katrina, to torment him. As he pleaded for his life, she slowly pressed the bullet he had used on Buffy into his chest. He started to die slowly, his protests blocked by his lips sewn shut. Willow almost enjoyed the torture. She could almost feel it.

*****

Anya led Xander and Buffy through the woods. “He’s still alive.”

*****

Willow released her victim’s lips, but his cries wearied her. “Bored now,” she sighed, as the skin stripped from his flesh. His body incinerated and turned to smoke.

Buffy finally caught up with her. “What did you do?”

“One down,” Willow smiled as she disappeared.

Horrified, Anya, Xander and Buffy stared where the bloodied corpse had hung, imprinted now forever in their memories.

Chapter Text

Buffy, Anya and Xander ran through the woods, each step taking them farther away from the horror in the grove. Taking them closer to Willow. Andrew and Jonathan were in danger, and Anya teleported away to the holding cell.

Xander couldn't believe his best friend might be beyond redemption. "This is Willow we're talking about."

"Killing changes you. I know. I think that with all that she's going through ... We have to stop her."

Xander wasn't angry with Willow anymore. He only wanted his friend back. A gnawing fear grew in his chest that it wouldn't happen.

*****

As Andrew and Jonathan bickered about Warren's commitment to them, Anya teleported into their cell. Jonathan was relieved that Warren was dead. Andrew was heartbroken. Neither had time to dwell on the news; Willow was coming.

A surprised guard saw the young woman in the cell, but her entreaties to set them free fell on deaf ears.

*****

Willow materialized in a thunderclap outside the police station. She started pulling apart the cell wall, brick by brick at first, then with great chunks of masonry. She levitated into the hole she had opened in
the upper floor wall. The cell was almost empty. Buffy had bent the bars and set them free.

Willow drove Anya into the wall and gave forth an ear piercing shriek.

*****

Xander picked up Buffy, Andrew and Jonathan in a stolen police car. They would look for a safe place. If there were a safe place.

*****

Willow walked out of the station and into the night.

*****

Jonathan was shocked that the creature causing so much destruction was "just Willow." A truck loomed behind them, pushing into the car. Willow stood tall on the cab roof, guiding the wheel with her mind. The truck sped faster and faster, hitting the back bumper of the car again. Suddenly Willow dropped, her power draining. She watched with frustration as the car sped off and away.

*****

In the crypt, Clem tried to entertain Dawn. The teenager wanted nothing less than to help find Willow and stop her. She tried to manipulate the demon into helping her. "Spike would have."

"Spike's gone."

*****

Spike prepared to face the test that would win him his goal. He didn't expect to fight a WWF reject. Certainly not one with flaming fists.

*****

Dawn led Clem through the rougher part of Sunnydale, looking for Rack's. Clem tried to talk her out of it, but the girl was persistent.

*****

Buffy and Xander brought the fugitives to the Magic Box. Anya looked through the one remaining magic text for a protection spell. Jonathan knew that Willow would need to recharge her drained magic. She'd be looking for a way to do it.

*****

Rack was waiting for Willow. He tried to seduce his little protégé, but she was now way out of his league. Holding his body in the air, she drained him dry.

*****

Finally, Clem led Dawn into Rack's. She bravely walked into his office, where she found his body suspended. Willow was standing in the room, her face veined with dark power. She was happy to find Dawn. She had a score to settle. Dawn had learned her computer skills from the best, and she used them to spy on her teacher. She taunted the young girl's grief for Tara. Dawn wasn't human. She was just a big mystic ball of energy, and Willow had use for her.

Buffy stood at the door. She had no intention of letting Willow touch her sister.

*****

Xander looked at the text over Anya's shoulder, annoying her. In the corner, Andrew plotted to get away by attacking Anya and Xander with magic. Jonathan could see Warren's face when he looked at Andrew. But, as Andrew pointed out, what was to keep Willow from going after the others after she'd finished with them? Anya agreed.

"She won't," Xander vowed.

Anya rolled her eyes. "You don't know that."

"She's our friend, Anya." He looked at the woman he loved, remembering the image on the computer screen. "She won't hurt us, especially you. She won't hurt me."

Anya clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "She tried to use you for a hood ornament, Xander." She tried to look at him, but couldn't face his eyes. "What we did, she and I, you think that will
make her all soft? She hates me for that. She doesn't care if I live or die. Or you."

Xander's jaw set with pain. "I guess you don't either."

Anya looked him in the eyes. "I care if you live or die. I'm just not so sure which one."

"I need to know if you're going to go all vengeance on me. Turn on me."

"I can't." The demon frowned. "I tried. I can't hurt you."

"Oh, right," Xander sighed. "Because doing the nasty with Willow couldn't possibly hurt."

"That wasn't vengeance." Anya's voice dropped. "That was solace. Or an attempt at it. And, in retrospect, it wasn't the best move I ever made. I've had more satisfying sex. Not that I knew she was going to turn evil and kill Warren. Or us."

*****

"You're attacking the people who love you now?" Buffy asked.

Dawn rushed towards the door, but Willow spelled it shut.

Buffy plead with her friend. "You have to remember you're still Willow."

"She's a loser." Willow recounted her feelings of inferiority, her pain all through school. Her subservience to Buffy. "The only thing I had going for me were the moments when Tara would look at me, and I was wonderful. And that will never happen again." If possible, Willow's eyes grew darker. "And look how I repaid her."

"She would have forgiven you. I know she would." Buffy saw the coldness on Willow's face, and tried another tactic. "If you let loose you lose everything. There's so much to live for."

"So, you love the world so much. I get that." Willow took a step closer to Buffy. "You love it so much you would have destroyed it to save your sister. And if Dawn had been hurt, and opened the portal, what would you have done? What would it have been, you or the world, if you'd had the choice? Leaves a little chill, doesn't it? Right in the pit of your stomach.

But Spike was there, and he saved her. Lucky you. Where is Spike, anyway? Don't see him around for our little showdown. He left you too, didn't he? Just like all the others. What a beautiful life you have."

The blow hit harder than any fist, but before Buffy could reply they were in the Magic Box. With Jonathan and Andrew. Willow tried to incinerate them, but something shielded them. Unaware of Anya's spell, Willow assumed that the two young men were self protected. Willow shut the door against them as they tried to escape, and they vainly picked up a pair of swords.

*****

In the cave, Spike, battered and burned, continued to fight Flame Fist. He fought the demon to a standstill and broke its neck. "I get what I came for," he said to the glowing eyed demon.

"You have passed the first stage of the test."

"Bugger."

*****

Unable to penetrate the protection spell magically, Willow dosed herself with superpowers to beat them physically. She hadn't counted on Buffy.
As they fought throughout the shop, breaking shelves and display cases, Xander led Dawn, Andrew and Jonathan through the door and into the street.

Willow wanted to be the Slayer. Wanted to be Buffy.

Buffy stood before her in defiance. "A Slayer is not a killer."

Willow smiled. "I'll show you what a Slayer is."

*****

As Xander paused in the street, Andrew pressed his sword to his throat, demanding to escape. Jonathan held his sword on Andrew. They would go back to jail. They would face the consequences of their actions.

*****

 

Willow found Anya chanting in the shadows. "Looks like I've been beating on the wrong girl."

"Help me," Anya screamed, but Willow locked her fingers around the throat of her one night stand.

"You can't do your spells if you can't chant. You can't chant if you're sleeping." She threw Anya against a bookcase and knocked her unconscious.

Willow grinned at Buffy. "The Slayer thing isn't about the violence, it's about the power." She punched Buffy against a wall and her world went dark.

Willow exulted in victory. "There's no one in the world who has the power to stop me now." With that, a blast knocked her across the room. She looked up in anger at the intruder.

"I'd like to test that theory," Giles said.

Chapter Text

Buffy and Anya were shocked and delighted to see Giles. Willow was blase. “Daddy’s home. Uh, oh.”

She tried to get up and attack him, but he gestured, “Stay down,” and she was pressed to the floor. She mocked his borrowed power. He may think he was stronger than her, but she would prove him sadly mistaken.

She rose to carry on the fight with her new, powerful adversary, and he trapped her in a green containment field. She was paralysed.

Buffy threw herself on Giles, hugging him tight. Anya started to join them, then stopped and looked at Giles. “I’m not gay,” she said with a serious face.

“That’s, ah ... pardon?” Giles looked at the girl in confusion as she threw her arms around him too.

“This won’t hold me forever,” Willow hissed.

*****

As Anya tidied the shop, Giles took Buffy into the training room for some privacy. He explained to her that a coven in Devon knew of the danger Willow presented, of her grief for Tara and the dark magic she
wielded. They had shared their power with him and teleported him to Sunnydale.

Giles was shocked by his former student’s deterioration. “Willow’s been abusing magic, that much is clear. What else has happened since I’ve been away?”

She looked up at him and sucked in a deep breath. “Xander left Anya at the altar, and she’s a vengeance demon again. Dawn’s a total klepto. I’ve been slinging burgers at the Doublemeat Palace.” She met his
eyes. “And I’m in love with Spike.”

Giles’ eyes narrowed. Surely he’d misunderstood.

“Don’t worry. He left.” She tried to blink back the tears. “They all leave.” She felt a little trickle down her cheek. “Like you did.” The sob started deep within her. Soon her body was wracked with them.

He put his arms around her. “I’m here now.”

*****

As Anya picked up a candle and put it in her cardboard box, she heard Willow’s voice. “Anya.” It was in her head. “I need you. I need you to do something. You like it when I need you, don’t you Anya?”

 

“I know what you’re doing,” Anya replied out loud, putting her box on the counter. “You think I owe you something. That I have some sort of special feeling for you now. Well, I don’t.” She felt compelled to
look at Willow, and she forced her face sideways. “And you don’t for me, either. You’d better not try any of that mind control nonsense on me ... It doesn’t work on vengeance demons.”

“Shut up,” Willow ordered.

“Okay.”

Willow’s voice was commanding. “You need to free me.”

“No.” Anya turned away. She looked towards the training room.

“You don’t want to call out to them, do you baby?” She reached out to Anya, turning her towards her again. “You want to take away this binding spell.”

“I don’t know how.”

“I do.” Anya was staring at her now. “Do you want me to tell you?”

Against her will, Anya nodded.

*****

Buffy sobbed, held fast in her watcher’s arms. “I wasn’t the Slayer. And I had a baby. A sweet little baby. Like I’ll never have. And it hurt so much ...”

“You’ll be all right, Buffy.” He stroked her hair gently. “It will be all right.”

She took a deep breath, and stopped crying. Giles was here, and he was holding her. She almost believed things would work out.

“Can you ever forgive me?” he asked.

“For what?” she replied, wiping her tears with her sleeve. He pulled a cloth handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to her. She smiled.

“I should never have left.”

Buffy stepped back from him, considering his statement. “Maybe.” She thought of the last year, the joy and the pain. “No. You were right about everything.” She handed back the now soggy handkerchief. “It was time we grew up. I’ve been afraid, ever since Glory. Afraid of who I am, of what I might have to do. I was just a girl, and you expected so much of me. But I’m not just a girl anymore.” She placed her hand on his arm. “I think I can handle it now, even if I have to do it alone.”

Giles reached his arm around her shoulder and pulled her back towards him. “You aren’t alone.”

Buffy stepped away, this time her face marked with determination instead of tears. “No, I guess I’m not. But what’s going to happen to Willow?”

Giles leaned back on the training horse. “We’ll try to find a way of extracting her powers without killing her. And if she should survive, you ought to know Buffy that there’s no way to guarantee she’ll be as
she was. Willow’s killed a human being. How will she be able to live with herself?”

“I wouldn’t worry about that.” Willow stood at the doorway, suspending Anya with one hand. She smiled as she licked the side of Anya’s cheek, then dropped her to the floor. “Willow doesn’t live here anymore.”

She shocked Buffy into a wall, knocking her unconscious. Giles tried to repeat his binding spell, but Willow shook it off. She attacked Giles with knives. He fought back with a force field. Their battle raged
throughout the shop.

*****

Xander led his little band into the night, with no knowledge of where to lead them. Dawn wanted to go back and try to stop Willow, but Xander was too deep into self despair to consider it. “Spike would go back,” Dawn said.

“Gee,” Xander said, not breaking his stride. “And I thought vamp boy took off on your sister when she needed him. Was I wrong? ‘Cause I sure don’t see him around tonight.”

*****

The head of a horned creature flew from the shadows, as Spike stepped in front of the demon once more. “Well, that was a bloody dawdling piece of piss.” He dropped to his knees, almost spent. “You got any more ruddy tests to do, ponce? I’ll take anything you can throw at me. Long as I can take care of the Slayer. Give her what she needs. You just bring it on.” He felt a tickling feeling on his legs, moving onto this chest. Little jaws started biting. “Bloody hell!” he exclaimed, as a myriad of large scarab beetles swarmed over his body and onto his face.

*****

Willow stood strong in the devastation that had been the Magic Box. Giles was obviously weary. Books and their cases lay everywhere, some flaming as fires caught, making bonfires of Anya’s stock. Nothing
touched Willow emotionally. Not even the thought of Tara. As the upper level fell, Buffy pushed Giles out of danger. Willow wanted rid of her. She sent a fireball into the sky, through the now gaping hole in
the ceiling, threatening to consume Andrew, Jonathan and anyone with them. Buffy looked at Giles with regret, only for a moment, and took off after the projectile.

Her attention undiverted, Willow overcame Giles. She levitated him against the ceiling, then left him to gravity. He fell hard against the floor, again and again. Still he wouldn’t admit defeat. She would
weaken with the expense of power. Since she had a ready power source in front of her, that wasn’t daunting. She drained Giles as he screamed with pain.

She fell back against what remained of the counter. At first she delighted in her new high. Then, as the feeling of connection with the world overcame her, and she faced the grief and pain of humanity, their
pain became her pain. She couldn’t understand how the world could stand such suffering.

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” Giles groaned. “You can stop it.”

The idea gave Willow new resolve. “I’ll make it go away.”

*****

Xander and Jonathan worked on two crypts, trying to gain entrance. Andrew argued, first with his fellow trio member, then with Xander, his would-be protector.

Dawn noticed the fire ball coming as Buffy caught up with them. “Get out of here. Move.” she called. The flaming globe hit the ground like a meteorite, opening a pit into the tunnels beneath. Dawn fell into the resulting hole, and as Buffy tried to catch her, she fell in too.

Seeing Xander lying unconscious, Jonathan lost his brave resolve. Mexico suddenly seemed a very viable option.

*****

Anya, conscious, stepped into what used to be her shop, her pride. None of it mattered as she saw Giles lying on the floor. He knew it all, everything that Willow felt; everything that she would do.

Anya refused to accept that Giles was dying. Giles knew that if Willow had her way, the whole world would die with him.

*****

As the sun pierced the morning sky, Buffy tried to pull her way out of the pit. The roots pulled out in her hands. She called for Xander, tried to pull out the coffins that protruded into the hole. She had to
get out and stop Willow.

Dawn looked at the tunnels running off from the hole. “These look familiar. Maybe we could find our way to Spike’s place.”

“I can’t handle that, Dawn. Not now.” Jonathan and Andrew’s swords had fallen into the hole with them, and Buffy tried to use one to cut toe holds. “Just let me look after you. Protect you.”

“You can’t.” Dawn put her hand on her sister’s shoulder. “Look around, Buffy. We’re trapped here. Willow’s killing and people I care about are dying. And you can’t protect me from that.”

At ground level, Xander leaned over the hole. “Hello?” Buffy urged him to find some rope.

Suddenly, Anya was standing beside the two girls. She told them what Giles had told her. Told them Willow was going to destroy the world using the Satanic temple on Kingman’s Bluff.

Buffy was confused. “There’s no temple on Kingman’s Bluff.”

*****

At Willow’s bidding, a long buried steeple, covered with dark icons and images, pushed out of the bluff and into the sun.

*****

Anya explained that the temple had been swallowed up some seventy years earlier in an earthquake. Now Willow was going to channel her energies into it and destroy the world. There was no magic or supernatural force that could stop her.

She had to get back to Giles. He was dying.

*****

Willow heard Buffy in her mind as she tried to pull out of the pit. She knew the Slayer couldn’t stop her, but she offered her the chance to go out as a warrior. She awakened creatures from the earth and roots to fight her. Deadly revenants that would not stop coming until the end.

Buffy picked up a sword and began slashing at them. So did her sister.

*****

Willow called on the elements as she attempted to channel her powerinto the temple. “Burn away the suffering souls and bring sweet death.” The ground shook as the earthquake spread throughout Sunnydale.

*****

Anya poured out her heart to her dying partner.

*****

As the temple sucked in Willow’s energies, Xander blocked the flow with his body. “Hey, black-eyed girl. Watcha doing?”

“Get out of here,” Willow commanded.

But Xander stood firm. “You may be a hopped up Uberwitch, but this carpenter can dry wall you into the next century.

“Get out of my way. Now.” She hit him with an energy burst that sent him flying. But there was something in her face.

*****

“There,” Giles smiled.

*****

Dawn held her own beside her sister as the monsters kept coming.

*****

Willow started to channel the power again, and again Xander blocked her.

“You can’t stop this,” Willow cried.

“I get that.” He wasn’t moving. “But it’s just ... You’ve been my best friend my whole life. World gonna end, where else am I going to be?”

“Don’t give me that crap,” Willow spat. “You hate me now.”

“Why,” he asked, “because of Anya? I was mad, yeah, but Will, one night can’t cancel everything out. I love you.” He knew what she was going through, what she had become, but he didn’t care. “Yeah, I love you. If you want to kill the world, start with me. I’ve earned that.”

She hit him with energies like shards. They cut, but he loved her. She struck out again, but he loved her. Every time she hit him, he countered with the words, until she had nothing left to throw. She
pommelled him with her fists. He loved her. She broke down, grieving in his arms. He loved her. All the pain flowed from her into his love, until she was just Willow.

*****

The monsters in the pit disappeared.

*****

Giles woke up. The threat was over. Anya realized that Giles had dosed Willow with empathy, “the essence of magic”. He told her that Xander had saved them all.

*****

Dawn looked around them. “I think it’s over, Buffy.”

The Slayer sat on a coffin and cried, tears of relief. Tears of joy. Her sister held her. “You were brave, Buffy. You fought and you didn’t care if you were afraid. You fought for me and you fought for the
world. You’re a hero.”

Buffy hugged her sister tight. “I think you are too. I think maybe I’ve been wrong about a few things. Wrong about needing to protect you.”

Dawn felt a sharp corner press into her midriff. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing to the envelope protruding from Buffy’s pocket.

Buffy pulled it out. “Spike’s letter.”

“Don’t you think you should read it?”

Buffy thrust it back into her pocket and reached for a tree root. “I think we should get out of here first.”

*****

Xander hugged Willow as she wept.

*****

Anya helped Giles out of what was left of their shop.

*****

Buffy and Dawn, after great effort, finally reached the top of the pit, and pulled their way on to the grass. Dawn laughed. “It’s over.”

Buffy opened the envelope and read.

“My darling Buffy,

I love you. I will always love you. But you told me that you loved me, and everything changed. I’ve put this off too long. You deserve so much more than I can give you. You need someone that can stand beside you against any enemy. Someone who will always have your back. I want to be that someone. I can’t give you the things you want; a family, a walk in the sun. So I’m going somewhere, and I hope to be able to give you what you need when I get back. If I get back. If I don’t, remember, I love you.

Spike.”

Buffy traced his name with her fingertip. “God, Spike. What have you done?”

*****

Spike lay broken and lifeless on the cave floor, his body covered with burns and bruises.

“You have endured the required trials,” the demon’s voice echoed through the chamber.

“Bloody right I have,” Spike moaned. He slowly pushed his way up until he was kneeling. “So, you’ll give me what I want; make me what I was. So Buffy can get what she deserves.”

“Very well. We will return,” the demon placed a taloned hand on Spike’s head, as a glow spread over him and he screamed with pain, “your humanity.”

Chapter Text

When he awoke, the sun was beating down on his half naked body. The sun. He lifted a weak hand to shield his eyes. Everything was bright around him; the huts, the sand. The sand glistened with a billion tiny sparkles. So beautiful. He tried to sit up, but he was so tired. So thirsty. As he looked down at his arms he saw they were already red and burned. How long had he been lying here? Hours? Days?

His hands were the worst, as far as he could see, the knuckles cracked and blackened. Must have been that big fire fisted git. Everything ached. He had taken a beating, but it looked like he’d won. Beating.
He put one hand to his chest and felt it. The rhythmic pounding, thumping, of a beating heart. A human heart.

He was alive. He could do it now. Be everything she wanted. Everything she needed. He saw her face, flooding his memory. Filling him with love. Filling him ...

Other faces. Willow. Terrified of the broken bottle. Dru. Jerking with the cattle prod. Buffy. Chained to the wall of his crypt.

Faces he didn’t know. Faces growing paler as he drained the life from them. Men. Women. Children. Babies. God, the babies. His eyes filled with tears. His heart filled with pain. He was nothing. He was
less than nothing. Human or not, he was a monster.

How had Buffy ever stood to touch him?

*****

Willow ran through the Devon field, the other wiccan fast at her heels. She tripped, tumbling onto the grass. Abby dropped to the ground beside her. “Caught you.”

“No fair,” Willow laughed. “It was an accident. No way you could outrun me.”

“Didn’t want to,” the raven-haired Brit replied. “Wanted to catch you.” She started to pull Willow to her feet, but lost her balance and tumbled on top of her. They lay together for one intense moment, eyes locked. Abby leaned towards her, and Willow rose to greet her.

Then pushed against her. “I’m sorry. I can’t. It’s too soon.”

*****

Spike opened his eyes to a clean, white room. The young nurse rushed to his side. “So good to have you with us.”

“You speak English. Where am I?” Cliched, he thought, but to the point.

“You’re in the hospital. You were very ill. Mr. Kabira said you were incoherent when he found you, passing in and out of consciousness. Your fever has been very high.” She stuck a thermometer in his mouth. “Quiet please.”

Spike lay in frustration. How long had it been? He raised an arm and noted the sunburn had cleared. His hands were wrapped in bandages, so he couldn’t tell how badly they still were burned. He was hooked up to an IV. The nurse took the glass rod from his mouth and studied it.

“Very good. Normal. I will send the doctor in to you. He will be pleased.” She turned to go.

“Wait,” he said. “How long have I been here? And who is this Kabira?”

“Mr. Kabira is a very generous man. You were very lucky that he found you. He said he would cover your expenses.” She smiled at him. “You can not do better than Mr. Kabira. And how long? A month.” She walked out the door.

A month? Buffy would be frantic.

*****

“Buff, you should eat.” Xander sat a container of fries in front of his friend. “Gee, I thought you were thin before, but...”

“I’m fine. I’m not hungry.” Buffy pushed away the potatoes. “You eat them.” She rested her chin on her hands, her elbows supported by the picnic table. “Dawn’s doing really well. Training, I mean. I’m proud of her.”

“You should be.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “But you weren’t really thinking about Dawn, were you?”

“Still shows?” She tried to grin, but it was a poor attempt. “Where do you think he is?”

“I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t care.” He stared into her eyes. “He was a jerk to leave you. Heck, I’ve been there, but at least I told Anya to her face. I didn’t leave her a damned ‘Dear Joan’ letter.”

“You know it wasn’t like that.” She fought back the tears again. “Something’s happened to him. Something bad.”

*****

“This sucks.” Dawn lay down her Teen Beat. “Big time.”

“What?” Janice pointed at her headphones, the music bleeding out through her ears. “Can’t hear you.”

“I said this sucks!” Dawn screamed.

Janice pulled the earpieces out and let the cord hang around her neck. “Geez. You don’t have to yell so loud. What is it?”

“It says here Britney Spears is doing Smallville next year, for like six episodes.”

“As if.” Janice flopped back on Dawn’s bed. “Just a stupid rumour. Never happen. Besides, who’ll have time to watch TV with all the homework they’re going to pile on our heads? Stupid new school. Stupid
new textbooks.”

“Janice, you don’t do homework now. Why do it next year, just cause it’s a new school?”

Janice smiled. “True. Plus, new school, new boys. Might not be so bad.” She pulled the magazine away from Dawn. “Is there a picture of Tom Welling?”

*****

“She’s doing as well as can be expected.” Giles watched the circle outside his window. Willow sat, cross legged, eyes closed, with the other members of the coven. “You know it would be impossible to stop
her altogether. She’s a natural adept. But it seems as though the power of the white has all but eradicated the power of the dark.”

“All but. Not good enough.” Anya stood defensively, arms folded across her chest. “You saw what she did to our shop. What she did to us. How can we ever trust her again?”

“What do you suggest we do, Anya? Kill her?” Anya stared at him, until he looked away. “I don’t think that’s the answer. She’s doing well. Truly.”

“I like your contact lenses. Your eyes are very blue.”

“You have a remarkable facility for non sequiturs.” He took her hand and pressed it to his lips. “Thank you.”

She smiled. “It would be customary to reply with a compliment about me.”

“How’s this, then?” He pulled her into a kiss. “You have the softest lips.”

“Thank you Rupert,” she sighed. “That will do nicely.”

*****

Spike awoke with a gasp. The nightmares were just as fierce, but at least he’d started to calm down sooner after wakening. This one had been particularly nasty; he and Dru, painting their faces with the blood of a toddler. That it had been Dru’s idea was no compensation. He reached for the glass of water on his nightstand and drank it down. As he looked up, he saw he was being watched. “Who’re you then? You look familiar.”

“I’m your doctor. And you seem much more coherent today, Mister ...”

Spike put the glass down. “Doe.”

“As in John?” the doctor asked.

“Call me Bill.”

The doctor chuckled. “Bill Doe it is. I’m Doctor Mamba. You’re finally making some progress. I’m taking the bandages from your hands for good today.” He put a sheet of paper on the nightstand. “And
here’s your menu. As you see, the IV is out, and you’re starting solid food.”

Spike picked up the paper and choked out a laugh. “No flowering onion, I see.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

“I didn’t expect you to.” He looked down at his choices. “Since you’ve already checked broth and toast, I suppose I’ll have that.”

“Yes,” the doctor smiled. “I assumed you would.”

Spike suddenly realized he was missing something. “My book. I had a book.” He reached into the nightstand, which was empty, and started to get out of his bed.

The doctor held him down. “Please, try not to become agitated, Mr. Doe. You had no book.”

“But I need it.” Spike was frantic. “Please, help me find it.”

“Mr. Doe, I was here when we admitted you. There was no book.” He released his now quiet patient.

Spike lay against the pillow, fighting back tears. “Bloody hell. How am I going to get home now?”

“What did you say, Mr. Doe?” the doctor asked.

“Nothing,” Spike muttered.

*****

Dawn and Buffy moved through their Tai Chi exercises in something close to unison. Dawn was getting bored. “I want to do the swords again, Buffy.”

“Shhh,” Buffy replied. “Concentrate.”

Dawn made a noble effort for another five minutes, before flopping on the ground. “Swords yet?”

Buffy did a handstand on the grass. “Nope. Gymnastics.”

“Aw, gee. You know that was the only class last year that I didn’t cut.” Dawn sprang across the lawn in a series of backflips, ending with a split. “See?”

“Hm.” Buffy reconsidered. “Maybe a few minutes with the swords.”

*****

As she always did, Anya teleported out of the room as Willow came through the door. “Hey, Giles,” she called. “What’s for supper?”

“Lamb curry,” he replied, walking out of the kitchen and wiping his hands on a dishtowel. He looked around the room, even though he knew that Anya had left without saying goodbye. He knew she couldn’t bear to see Willow, and it hurt to compartmentalize the two most important areas of his life. He wondered what Willow would say if she knew of his relationship. He thought it best to keep it to speculation.

“Cool.” Willow flopped down on the sofa. “Good session, today. Good energy. And I didn’t feel the least bit dark. Not once. That’s a personal best.”

“I’m very glad for you.” He sat beside her. “The Mother thinks you may be almost ready to go back to the outside world.” He was aware of the distress that registered on the young woman’s face. “Not permanently, mind. Just a visit.” He patted her hand. “Would you be up to a trip to California?”

“No.” Willow’s voice was panicked. “Maybe. I want to see Xander, and Buffy. But I’m afraid.”

He made an attempt at a reassuring smile. “Xander loves you. He wants to see you. So does Buffy.”

“Right. I’m sure she’s dying to see me. After I tried to kill her sister, and destroy the world. Bet the welcome mat is already in front of her door.” Willow sat with her arms crossed, hugging herself.

“She does want to see you. She told me so. She says she doesn’t blame you.”

“She should.” Willow jiggled her leg nervously. “I want to go. And I don’t. Do you think I should?”

“The Mother thinks so. The Council has appointed her advisor. I bow to her wishes.” He put his arm around her shoulder. “Off the record? I don’t know. But remember that you tried to kill me as well, and I forgave you.”

“I’ll go.” Willow sighed deeply. “Wow. Home.” She thought for a moment, then turned to Giles with a pleading face. “Can Abby come?”

“Why Abby?” Giles asked.

“I just think it would be good if one of the coven came with me. For support.” Willow stared up at him.

He smiled. “I think that could be arranged.”

*****

Xander sat alone in front of the television. The baseball strike had been averted. He didn’t seem to care. Might have something to do with the four empty beer bottles at his feet.

He tried to concentrate on the news. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the hurt in Anya’s eyes when he walked away.

He saw the pain radiating out of Willow with an electric force. He’d hugged her until she cried. Now his arms were empty. No Willow. No Anya. Just a lonely apartment.

He looked at the half-filled bottle in his hands. His own private getaway. He brought it to his lips, then grimaced with disgust. He would not become his father. He jumped up from the chair and hurled the
bottle at the wall. It smashed, leaving an amber stain on the paint.

He spent a half hour cleaning up the mess, before calling Buffy and asking if she and Dawn wanted to go out to a movie.

*****

“You can’t mean it.” Anya stiffened in Giles arms. The bed had suddenly grown very cold.

He stared up at the ceiling. “It’s time. She has to go now. It’s all decided. We’re going back to Sunnydale for a brief visit.”

Anya pulled the sheets tightly over her breasts. “You know what will happen. Sure, she’s doing fine now. But put her back home, with all the memories of Tara, and the evidence of what she’s done, and
everything will fall apart.” She raised herself on one elbow, contemplating him. “And what if she tries to kill me? Or you? Or destroy the world? It’s not like she can be cured. Believe me, I know.”

“And the alternative? Keep her here forever? Never let her try?” He traced a path along her shoulder with his fingertip. “Darling, I wouldn’t even consider taking her back if I didn’t think she was as ready as she’ll ever be.”

“I’m afraid. I’m a big, strong vengeance demon, and I’m afraid.”

He wrapped her in his arms again. “I would never let anything happen to you.”

“Or you?”

“Or me.” He kissed her forehead. “It will be all right. Trust me.”

“When is she getting back from that camping retreat?”

“Tomorrow.”

Anya rolled on top of him. “Good.”

*****

The doctor came by for rounds. “Congratulations, Mr. Doe. I’m releasing you this morning.”

“Today?” Spike was surprised. “You think I’m well enough? I still feel weak.”

“Of course you do. You have lost muscle tone. You need to exercise, and we do not have the facilities. And you need to get on with your life.” He handed Spike a mirror. “And perhaps you’d like to shave.”

Spike has seen himself many times over the last month. The first time he looked in the bathroom mirror, he had stared, transfixed, for ten minutes. He was a stranger to himself. His hair was long and dark, with platinum tips, his face covered with a ragged brown beard. He wondered what he really looked like.

“Can you get me a razor before I go?”

“I believe that can be arranged. But first, there is someone who would like to speak to you.” He opened the door to the room. “Mr. Kabira?”

The visitor entered. He was short and slightly built, though immaculately dressed. He took Spike’s hand and smiled. “I am very gratified to hear you have made a miraculous recovery, Mr. Doe.”

“Call me Spike.”

His benefactor smiled. “Ah, so it is not Bill. I did not think so.” He sat in a chair beside the bed. “Ready to face the outside world?”

“Honestly? Don’t know.” Spike stared at the man beside him. “Why? Bringing me here, a stranger. Paying my bills. Why did you do it?”

“I have a philosophy, Spike. Reality is a vast circle. What we do to others may return to us. The good we do may come back as good to us. I try to do good where I can. You needed help, and I had the ability to help you.” He leaned forward and steepled his fingers. “I have no family. I have more money than I can ever use. I could have ignored you, or I could have helped you. I chose to help. This surprises you?”

“Me? Yeah. You don’t know how much.” He looked down at the hands folded in his lap. “Thanks, mate. Now I just wish I knew how to get home.”

“I take it that is very far away.” The man started. “Oh, I almost forgot.” He pulled a small leather bound book from his jacket pocket. “I think this may be yours. I found it beside you.”

Spike’s hand shook as he took the volume from the other man. He held it to his chest. “Thank you.”

“I know what that book is, Spike. I would not be surprised if that were the reason you are here.” He leaned forward in his chair. “Take care. Next time there may not be a good Samaritan to find you.” He stood up. “I will take my leave, now.” He shook his hand again. “Be well, Spike. I have left a few things with the nurse. We can not have you going home in a hospital gown.”

Spike shook his head. “You’ve been so kind. I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”

“You are most welcome. Goodbye.”

Spike could have sworn Mr. Kabira’s eyes flashed green, just for a second. It must have been a trick of the light.

*****

Giles would have taken the window seat. He knew from experience that women needed to get up from their seats more than men, and he didn’trelish constantly being climbed over by the two wiccans. Abby, however, had never been in a plane, so she sat against the window, Willow between them. The two girls spoke with animation through the flight, meaning he didn’t have a moment’s rest.

Ironically, he was the first to need the facilities. He excused himself and walked toward the tiny washroom. He pushed open the door, and jumped. “Anya,” he whispered. “What are you doing here?” He forced himself into the little room and closed the door.

“Don’t worry Rupert. I’m not trying to join the Mile High club. I just wanted to know how she was doing.”

“She’s doing well. Abby is a stabilizing factor.” He shifted, and found that instead of making more space, Anya was even closer. She didn’t seem to mind.

“Of course she is.” Anya somehow managed to get her hands on her hips. “She’s in love with Willow. Haven’t you seen the way she looks at her? I’ve only seen them through the window and I can tell.”

“I’m sure you’re reading too much into this. They’re friends.”

“Yes, Rupert. Friends. Just like us.” She pulled him down to kiss him, then disappeared with a pop. Giles almost fell into the toilet.

*****

The portal opened on Revello Drive. Spike was momentarily disoriented. He looked around. Nothing had changed. Buffy’s home was standing where it always had. He started up the driveway, then paused. What if she didn’t want to see him? He’d been gone for months without a word. Who
knew what she thought?

What if she didn’t want him like this? What if it was the vampire she was attracted to? Why hadn’t he thought about this ahead of time? Why hadn’t he thought of this before he went to Africa? Bloody hell, what if she didn’t love him anymore?

*****

Xander drove down the road towards the airport. He tapped out a rhythm on the steering wheel with his fingers. He’d been sober for a week. Life was looking better. Willow was coming home. His best friend was coming home.

*****

“I’ll be at Janice’s,” Dawn called up the stairs. “I’ll be home in a few hours.” She pulled open her front door. He was standing there in a white t-shirt and blue jeans. He was home. She squealed. “You’re
back!” she exclaimed, wrapping herself around him.

“Yeah, Niblet,” he sighed. “I’m home. Buffy here?”

“Buffy!” she shrieked. “Get your butt down here.” She stepped outside as he walked to the bottom of the staircase. “Janice is waiting. I’ll see you,” she pointed, “later.”

“What now?” Buffy called as she came to the top of the stairs. “I thought you were going out. You ...” She paused, her voice caught in her throat. Silently, she descended the stairs, her eyes on his the
whole way. She stopped at the bottom and took his hands. She saw the scarred knuckles. “You’re hurt.”

“Not anymore,” he replied softly.

“You’re so thin.”

He smiled. “So are you.”

She threw herself into his arms. “Spike, oh Spike, you’ve come back to me. Where have you been?”

“Long story. Come in the living room, and I’ll tell you everything.” He led her to the couch and sat beside her.

“You’re hand is warm.” She leaned against him and put her arms around him, then pulled back. “Your heart is beating. Oh, my god, Spike, your heart is beating. You’re alive.”

“Surprise?” He avoided her eyes. “Disappointed?”

“Are you kidding, you jerk?” She pulled him into a gentle kiss. “I love you, and you’re home. That’s all that matters.”

“I want to tell you the story.”

“I have a few things to tell you, too.” She stood up and took his hand, pulling him up beside her. “Let’s go upstairs. We can talk in the morning.”