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Maybe the others can't see it, but Fred is a woman: there's no way to hide these things from her. Spike is in love, completely, so much so that at times she sees him trembling with the force of it or maybe just with his inability to go to her. The Powers are cruel, she's always known that, but the way they're kicking around this Vampire with a Soul (and she always thinks of it that way, in capital letters, and has since she met Angel), like he's a playtoy that they can incorporealize and keep from the woman he loves after he helped save the world (she's pieced together what she thinks is the truth from Angel's evasiveness and Spike's own bragging, and she knows now that Spike is worth saving)…well, that's just sadistic.

She likes the challenge of drawing him out, asking him questions about himself. He obviously hasn't had anybody care in far too long, and at first it's all bravado and skirting around the facts before it finally starts to be the truth. The story, raw and rough and strangely, impossibly beautiful, makes Fred's heart ache, and she feels like a little girl listening to a fairy tale (the dark folk tales that the Grimm Brothers recorded, not the sanitized Disney ones she stopped believing in in the dark of a Pylean cave). She has to make adjustments in her own mind, because half the time Spike is morose and repentant, making himself out as the villain of the story and taking the blame for things even she knows couldn't possibly be his fault, and the other half he's ranting about the blindness, selfishness, insensitivity of everyone else, especially Buffy. But sometimes…sometimes it's different, and he speaks with a quiet, intense, barely-contained awe about the woman he loves, and those are the times when Fred thinks she can see his soul, the one he got for his Slayer.

And Fred can't help but wonder what it is about this woman, that she would draw superheroes to her, monsters who try to be men for her sake, who embrace their souls and fight for the light even while exiled to the dark. What kind of force of nature must she be, Buffy Summers, to inspire that kind of devotion in creatures who should long only for blood and chaos and mayhem? It's exhausting enough for Fred to try to deal with Charles's wistful eyes, Wesley's longing ones, and they're just men (powerful, dedicated men, but only men nonetheless). Was it too heavy a burden for Buffy to bear to be loved so intensely?

Because it's clear to Fred that Spike can't help but do everything all the way. She's never seen someone so in the moment: annoying Angel, ignoring Harmony, fighting, remembering, thinking about Buffy (she can always tell when he's doing that, and she feels like an interloper just looking at his face during such an intensely private moment)…he throws his whole soul (demon) into it.

It's why she doesn't understand why he doesn't immediately go to Buffy when he's corporealized (as soon as he and Angel are done "falling down stairs" and being selfish, competitive little boys that make her roll her eyes and sigh, "Men," to herself because Cordy isn't around to commiserate). Angel must know where she is, and even if he refused to tell, Fred herself would help Spike figure it out in a second. But Spike never mentions leaving again, and even though Fred is glad to have him around (the only time the dead, dogged look leaves Angel's eyes anymore is when he's arguing with Spike), she can't help but think that it's wrong, him not telling Buffy he's alive. He ignores her when she tells him that of course Buffy would want to know he's back, and it's just another item to add to the list of things about William the Bloody that she doesn't understand.

Fred can't help but believe that any woman would welcome a love like his.

--

Dawn sometimes hates the others for not seeing that Buffy is mourning.

Because wasn't that the problem, that long, horrible year after Buffy was brought back? (They all talk about that year in the passive voice as though to exonerate anyone of blame; Dawn desperately wants to use the active, to say: Willow, Xander, Giles, Buffy, Spike, Anya, Tara, me—to lay blame, to claim responsibility.) Nobody noticed the pain everyone else was in, no one reached out, because they were all so absorbed in their own personal hells that they couldn't do what they'd always done best: be there for each other.

It's happening to Buffy again—she's trying so hard to be okay for everyone else, and everyone takes it at face value, and Dawn herself doesn't know how to talk about it, and this can only end badly.

Her sister presents a lighthearted front, parties and shopping and dancing and dates with that wanker (it's hard to shake Spike's words from her vocabulary) the Immortal (and come on, seriously? Who calls himself that?), but there's a hysterical edge to every motion, every laugh. It makes Dawn feel tense, on edge, as though the ax is about to fall, but she doesn't know from where, and she may have done a lot of growing up in the last year or two, but she doesn't know how to help Buffy when her sister won't admit that anything is wrong.

Because this is what's wrong: Dawn realizes that her sister never learned how to mourn. Jenny Calendar had been more the idea of loss to everyone but Giles; after Angel she just ran away instead of facing it; with Kendra, Mom, Tara, there just wasn't time, not with apocalypses around the next corner.

But now (poor Buffy), there's nothing but time—all the time in the world—and Dawn can see that that scares her to death. She's obviously still thinking of Anya, the Potentials they lost, her special "only Chosen one (two)" status…

Spike.

She never says his name, but Dawn learned long ago to recognize the look that rises in her sister's eyes when she thinks of him, and some nights she wakes up to find Buffy climbing into her bed, shaking with silent sobs that never find an outlet in tears. Dawn wraps her tight in her arms and tries to speak the soothing words that Mom was so good at but that neither of the Summers girls seem to have inherited (and wouldn't the face of the world be different if Mom were still here?).

She tries to bring him up, sometimes, in the softer, sister moments that they can have now, that they never had before: gelato and Italian sunsets and memories of the Sunnydale days. But as soon as Dawn brings up his name, Buffy clams up, her eyes going blank, and she usually hurries out to slay something as soon as she can get away (and who does she think she's kidding, anyways? Buffy could no sooner stop being the Slayer than the Earth could stop turning). And for a few days afterwards, she'll be distant, all far-away eyes and skittishness.

This only proves to Dawn that she's right. Buffy still isn't over him.

--

Gunn isn't too busy with his own healing that he doesn't notice that something else is going on. Angel and Spike are disagreeing about something again, and though that's nothing new (they take disagreeing to the level of art), this time it feels more brittle, less playful (like the Cup of Perpetual Mountain Dew, all over again) and it's too soon after the battle to let this shatter.

There isn't so much that he can do, though. He's the worst off of them all—he's lived on the streets long enough to know how close he came to death, and it was close—while Illyria is barely hurt at all. Spike nearly lost his leg, though he won't admit it, and if he'd been a man and not a vamp, he would have bled to death from other wounds, and Angel was covered nearly head to toe in deep burns, the scariest thing Gunn's ever seen (his fault for going after the dragon when he's flammable), his skin now too pink and itchy as it heals.

They're holed up in Spike's basement apartment—he keeps muttering something about it always being basements—because they had to drag themselves there after the battle to patch themselves up again: it's the only place that's safe (Lindsey was the only one who knew where it was, and now, Angel says, he's dead, even if Gunn can't quite bring himself to wrap his mind around the idea that Lorne could have killed him). It's also far too small for two vampires, their shared history, and their tempers, not to mention whatever it is they're disagreeing about.

It takes a couple of days before Gunn figures out that it's Buffy, of course. He may never have met her, but he hung around Cordy and Wes (and oh, God, how their memories hurt, like Alanna all over again) long enough to have some idea of Angel and Buffy's "big epic angstfest" (as Cordy always called it) that they called a romance. And he knew that Spike got a soul for Buffy, or at least that's what Fred said (ohFredFredFredFredFred—"I've never had a Fred before"—and now there isn't a Fred at all), so he really isn't the least bit surprised that this is what they're arguing over, though he thinks it idiotic (if he had the time back, he would have mended his relationship with Wes, because it was stupid to let a woman—even that woman—rip them apart like that).

The two vamps snipe and snip at each other for a few days (days of aches and pains and steadily-mounting tension) until it all explodes, just as Gunn knew it would. He and Illyria sit there silently, watching as they both vamp out (and no matter how long he lives, he still won't ever reach the point where he can see that and not feel the need to reach for the nearest weapon), yell; then Spike swishes out, a blur of black leather and half-healed scars, and the door slams behind him.

No one doubts where he's going (even if Gunn hadn't heard the argument, Angel's sulking would have given it away).

--

If Willow hadn't chosen that exact chair, positioned at just that place in the room, she never would have seen it, and then she wouldn't have known to pay attention to what happens next.

But she had picked that chair, plopping down into it because from there she could see everyone in the room (and her heart almost burst with the sight of all the Scoobies together again—joy because they're here and sorrow because of who isn't). It's the first time they've all been together since the aftermath of the closing of the Hellmouth, when they all split up and went their separate ways (and how strange did that feel, after years of living so close together that they were more surprised when they didn't turn around and bump into each other than when they did). Yes, there are ghosts and tension hanging in the air that were never there before (when they were still so young and had everything to lose), but it's a small price to pay for Scooby togetherness.

She's just in the middle of giggling at Xander's lame attempt at a joke (the giggles are more sheer relief that he's finally joking again; he's done that so little since Anya), when there's a knock at Buffy's apartment door, and her friend rises to answer it. Willow isn't particularly interested in who it could be—everyone who counts (and is still alive) is here—XanderBuffyGilesDawn. But by chance she glances up, and so she's the only one who sees Buffy's face go pale as she opens the door.

Later, Willow tries to catalogue all the emotions she saw on her friend's face (Willow used to be good at cataloguing, but she hasn't done it in years, and she's a bit rusty now): disbelief and awe and fear and joy and relief and maybe, just maybe (though Willow doesn't like to think about it) love. For one horrific moment, Willow thinks Buffy is going to faint (which is nearly enough to rock her worldview, because Buffy's like this feminist icon, strong like an Amazon, and so not the fainting type). But then her hand (such a small hand, to sculpt death and life with equal dexterity, to have been covered with blood and ash) reaches out, oh, so tentatively, and rests against an expanse of black cotton-covered chest.

Two sets of eyes, in faces unnaturally pale (with death, with shock), stare hungrily at each other as if trying to drink each other in (a fitting cliché, really: this is a vampire, after all), and Willow feels the voyeur. It's a suspended moment like a few Willow has known through the years, a fragile piece of glass hanging from the thinnest of threads, beautiful as the light lances through it and shatters into rainbows on the ground, all the more beautiful because the thread could snap at any moment, and then everything could shatter.

The next moment, it does, silence and privacy shattering against Xander's stunned curses and Dawn's half-manic shriek and Giles's stilted questions. Willow herself is silent as the rest of the world comes crashing in around Buffy and Spike, watching them physically draw back, even if, to her keen eyes, they're still no more than a breath apart.

--

Her voice is furious on the phone, the fire of righteous indignation that only Buffy Summers could ever smolder with. Angel can see her eyes flashing, though she's on the other side of the globe, and it's been such a long time since he's seen her like this (it doesn't matter; he could never forget anything about her, even if she isn't his to hold anymore). Her voice is so sharp and demanding, with questions he winces at, even if he knows they aren't fair: after all, if Spike had really wanted to, he would have let her know he was alive long before this.

But he knows Buffy, knows that she's feeling raw and betrayed, and since she has to lash out at someone, it might as well be him (he's a safe target for her anger, now). Angel learned long ago how to play the martyr (even if he has always hated it about himself).

But then suddenly, her anger peters out, and he can imagine her in her apartment in Italy, resting her forehead against the wall, letting her eyes fall closed. Her voice, when she speaks, is incredibly weary (and as long as he walks the earth, he's never going to not want to do anything necessary to take that weariness away, only he can't do that now and maybe never could), a long sigh: Why does this have to be so hard?

And he understands, because he's always understood her (that was never the problem, or maybe it was): why this dance of life and death, ebbing and flowing, blurring the edges till you can barely tell the difference between the two? With other people (normal people, such as he's now learning they will never be), there's a clean line, a break between the two: life on this side, death on the other, and ne'er the twain shall meet. But it's never been that easy for the Slayer (or for a vampire, soul or no), and even death can't be counted on for constancy (which leaves only unrelenting taxes, and isn't that half of what almost killed her again after Willow brought her back? Irony is this: bills laying the mighty Slayer low).

Because no one can see a pattern here: Angel himself comes back from hell, but Jenny Calendar stays dead (though she will always live in his memory, eyes accusing, the sigh she made before he snapped her neck echoing in his dreams), then Buffy is dragged back but her mother gets no return ticket, and now here is Spike, but no Anya or Tara (people Angel never really knew though he knows their memories and her own perceived failures weigh heavily on Buffy's mind). No clean breaks, but festering wounds poisoned by hope and bitterness because there's no way of knowing (the Powers are cruel).

And he has no answer to her question, but she clearly doesn't expect one (and he can't help but be thankful for that). Instead, she takes a deep breath, and he can imagine her straightening, squaring her shoulders, pushing weakness and weariness away: the hero, first and always. Now her voice is still soft but sincere, even if the words sting him: Thanks for taking him in, for keeping him alive for me.

Oi! he hears in the background, and the indignation makes Buffy laugh, a real, genuine laugh if short and quiet and almost delicate (and God, but doesn't that hurt? He's there with her, making her laugh, and Angel isn't and won't be again).

He can hear Spike, who's clearly just entered the room, voicing his disgust that she would even suggest that he needs anyone to keep him alive, and then with another delicate laugh (so fragile it might break at any moment), Buffy says, Goodbye, Angel, and he's left with a phone in his hand and the echo of her laughter in his ears.

--

Andrew had been so sure that if Buffy only knew that Spike was alive, that everything would turn out the way it's supposed to. Andrew is a great believer in movies (and the rule that says: "Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end"), and in movies heroes always get their rewards. Buffy and Spike's happy ending had just been delayed for a little while (like Westley says, "Death cannot stop true love; all it can do is delay it for a while"); eventually, things would be set to rights (he has to believe that things can be set to rights or he'd never be able to get up in the morning without seeing Jonathan's betrayed eyes accusing him).

He'd imagined a tearful reunion where Buffy rushes into Spike's strong arms and he sweeps her off her feet with a kiss (as perfect as the one at the end of The Princess Bride), and then them closing themselves up in Buffy's room and not emerging for several days (and there his mind abruptly stops, of course. Of course). But Dawn says it wasn't like that at all, and though Andrew's been paying close attention, always making sure to be wherever Spike is so that he doesn't miss anything (and ignoring any sighs of annoyance), he has yet to see Spike and Buffy even touch.

But they're nearly always together, as though each is scared to let the other out of sight, and they look at each other whenever the other isn't looking (Andrew knows all about looking when no one is watching), and Buffy's eyes sort of go all soft and shiny, which isn't something Andrew has ever seen before (but she kind of really reminds him of Princess Leia, who kicks ass and never misses a shot, but looks a lot like that when she tells Han Solo that she loves him before he's put in the carbonite, and oh, yeah, Spike is definitely Han, only with a way cooler jacket and without the Millennium Falcon, and Andrew really misses his Star Wars models that are at the bottom of the crater that used to be Sunnydale or maybe they went to heaven and Jonathan is playing with them right now. He kind of likes the thought of that).

He sees them a lot, sitting together and not saying anything or really looking at each other, just side by side and staring into nowhere, and he doesn't know what to make of that at all, because that is not how heroes in epic love act (case in point: Han and Leia). But when he mentions it to Dawn, she glows and tells him that it means everything is alright and murmurs something about getting them a back porch, which Andrew doesn't really get. And then one day he sees them on the balcony, deep in shadow but watching the sun set out over the city, and Buffy's head is on Spike's shoulder, and her face doesn't look quite so hollow and taut and pale like it has for such a long time now, like it did back in Sunnydale when the First kept coming and coming and no one really thought that they would win (except for Andrew, who never doubted it, because the good guys always win in the end and he should have remembered that back when Warren threw out the whole arch nemesis…es thing). And for the first time Andrew decides that something is too private and slips away, leaving them alone (together) to watch the stars come out.

--

They've picked up right where they left off, and Giles finally realizes there's nothing he can do (he's stopped trying to convince himself that Buffy does anything but exactly what she wants; he doesn't have the energy for self-delusion anymore). Maybe he should have realized it when she closed the door in his face after Wood tried to kill Spike (and never had he felt shut out of her life as he had at that moment—her hard eyes repeating far more coldly what the closing door said), or before that when she took the chip out or maybe even way back when, when she didn't stake the bloody pillock when he showed up at Giles's own door that Thanksgiving. He kept telling himself that sooner or later she'd come to her senses, but no longer. No, he doesn't have the energy anymore (and that, maybe more than anything, tells him just how old he's getting).

Because they're acting like they acted that last year in Sunnydale, like they're best friends (they move with a constant consciousness of each other, and it terrifies Giles), like their lives are one. Every time she has to make a decision, from what kind of pizza to order to which of the Slayers to station where, her eyes seek Spike's, as though it's the most natural thing in the world to ask for his opinion (though it seems to Giles that she stopped asking for his own long ago). The vampire mostly shrugs, tells her that Slayer knows best, but when he does have something to say, she listens as he's never seen her listen before (and he can't help but remember her sitting in the Sunnydale High library, clearly daydreaming away when she should have been listening to one of his own lectures on Lurite demons or Drokken beast).

At first that was all, and if it had stayed that way, he could have ignored it. But now there's all the touching, and Giles is still enough of her father (and Spike once again ruins one of Giles's fondest memories: of Buffy asking him to walk her down the aisle because her day was about family, and for a moment he was so touched he could barely speak, but then he remembered that it was just a spell) to see it all and for it to make him uncomfortable.

It's only little touches, nothing the slightest bit objectionable, as Giles's more rational side reminds him. But Buffy is always grabbing Spike's hand to lead him into the other room, sitting so that their legs touch, touching his arm to get his attention, kicking his foot when he makes a crude comment (though Giles can't help but note that she doesn't seem all that displeased by the vampire's innuendoes). Spike almost never returns the gestures, as though he's afraid to press his luck, but occasionally Giles sees him lay a hand on the small of Buffy's back or tuck a lock of hair behind her ear (and Giles pretends that he doesn't see her flush under the vampire's steady gaze). The only reason he hasn't said anything is because Dawn swears he's sleeping on the couch (though how much longer that will last, only the Powers know).

But perhaps it's the training that tells him the most. She drags him along now when she gives the younger Slayers lessons, makes them run at him (and Giles can see that he's holding back, being gentler with them than he has to be till they get used to him, and for the first time, he starts to acknowledge the reality of Spike's soul), lets him scare them with a flash of fangs and golden eyes. And even he can't deny the brutal beauty of their dance when Buffy and Spike spar together (all the baby Slayers, as Buffy calls them, are absolutely enthralled), holding nothing back, anticipating each other's movements, falling into a graceful, violent exchange that should be a travesty but that simply looks so very right.

No. Giles can't lie to himself any longer.

--

Now Xander has to hate him again.

In the aftermath of Sunnydale, he didn't have the energy (all he wanted to do was climb into a bed and sleep and sleep for days and then wake up and find that it was only a nightmare) or the room for hate (not when his whole soul was full of sorrow and the memory of Anya's eyes when she laughed), and so he could be generous enough to admit that, yes, Spike had died for them and to (help) save the world, and so he just stopped hating him (what was the point, anymore?).

It wasn't like he thought of the vampire often, anyways (his every heartbeat so loud: AnyaAnyaAnya, drowning out everything else), but occasionally, in one of his memories, the Bleached Pest would be lurking in the background (Scooby meetings at the Magic Box, patrolling the summer Buffy was…gone, that last year when they all spent way too much time in the Summers house), and even then, Xander couldn't summon up much animosity. He likes to think he was being very magnanimous (a Willow-word), extending forgiveness and maybe even a bit of gratitude to a demon he's always hated. He could be proud of himself.

Only now the cockroach (impossible to kill) is back, and so is all the hatred.

Xander stopped expecting life to be fair long ago (Dad drunk and Mom yelling and Jesse dead forever), but this is too much. He can't stop the fury from bubbling up: Spike is back and Anya is not, and if he believed in the Powers, he would hate them, too. But he doesn't, so there's only Spike to hate (and he's more than enough).

(He tells himself that) It doesn't matter that Buffy laughs now or always looks so shiny-happy to see the vampire or that Dawn is glowing with happiness over having her "best friend" back. (Tells himself) It doesn't matter that Spike presents him with a quiet, sincere little speech about Anya being quite the woman and him hating to see her go (how does he dare? Not after that night in the Magic Box). (Tells himself) It doesn't matter that apparently Spike helped to save the world again.

And seems prepared to keep on doing it, for he trains with the young Slayers, goes on patrol with Buffy every night, and then comes the night that he goes out after the ghora demon—alone.

When he returns, bruised and bloodied but grinning cockily (and Xander would never, ever admit to practicing such a grin in the mirror back when Spike lived in his basement), Buffy is white-faced and furious, and she marches across the room, and punches him, hard (in the nose, of course, because where else?).

Of course, the next moment she's flung herself into his arms and Xander has to turn away, but that doesn't help much, because he can still hear the smacking (and Giles takes off his glasses and immediately pours himself a glass of Scotch). And then Buffy drags a dazed, grinning Spike into her room and slams the door.

Dawn laughs right out loud, and Willow hurriedly suggests they go out for dinner, which everyone agrees to wholeheartedly. And when they get back the door still isn't open, and Xander hesitates at the idea of leaving Dawn in the apartment when her innocent mind could be tainted with who-knows-what sound effects. He mentions something along those lines to her, but she just rolls her eyes and tells him to get used to it.

Don't you get it? she asks in that exasperated voice that makes him feel so much younger than her (and kind of reminds him that she's really centuries old). She smiles, wide and sure. He makes her happy. They've finally figured out how to make each other happy.

Maybe (just maybe) Xander doesn't hate him quite as much as he thought.

 

--

The only things more fun than teasing B about her vampire are slaying and screwing, and honestly, Faith hasn't been getting nearly enough of either one lately. To make up for the lack (being responsible for training baby Slayers is like the Big House all over again), she just teases more. B turns pink, protests, still prim and proper whenever Faith is around (even if Faith now knows that Buffy is anything but prim and proper behind closed doors—she's never forgotten cigarettes and conversation in the basement with the vampire), but Spike winks at her from the corner and Faith grins back (it's weird, but she's always felt like she and the vamp understand each other, that they've walked down the same road and then fought their way back and are now equals in the redemption they laugh off but so crave).

Faith can't help but laugh—who does B think she's fooling anyway? Even if the Scoobies (and Faith still doesn't think of herself as one of them and still can't quite admit that she wishes that she was) don't ever mention Buffy and Spike's relationship—except for Dawn, who has no such reason not to—their exchanged looks prove that they're more than aware. And if that wasn't enough, B and her vamp are a constant source of gossip for the fascinated baby Slayers, who are divided into two camps (and when did Faith start thinking in military terms, anyway? That was always General B's arena): those who think it's swooningly romantic (and if Faith hears one more Romeo and Juliet reference, she's going to do some asskicking) and those who think it's a perversion of nature.

The latter group (which Faith has nicknamed "the Kennedys," even though the actual Kennedy is still off in South American somewhere, thank God) has been increasingly vocal of late, recruiting members to their side, making impassioned but whispered speeches about how Buffy must be in a thrall and how they don't understand why everyone around her is humoring her. They understand the real danger this vampire in their midst poses (though Faith knows for a fact that none of them have had to face down anything more powerful than a newly-risen fledgling, green as they are, even though she can feel in her bones the next apocalypse coming). They become more and more vocal about it till one day one of them has the nerve, right during training sessions, to tell Buffy that it's her duty to stake the vampire, not sleep with him (okay, so the whole, "Buffy the Vampire Layer" nickname is pretty damn funny).

Faith hadn't thought that any of them would actually be stupid enough to voice any of their objections to B, but it turns out that she was very wrong.

Faith doesn't remember the last time that she'd seen that look in B's eyes (though she remembers it distinctly from their fight at her apartment, the one that ended with a dagger in her stomach and a scar that's never going to heal), and though she smirks (because, after all, it's not aimed at her this time), she has to fight the inward urge to step back. She has no doubts at all that this is exactly the same look that vamps and demons see right before B slays them, and while the Kennedys might be stupid, even they aren't stupid enough not to recognize just how dangerous that look is.

B's voice is low, barely contained fury masked by too much politeness—she's so sorry that there's been this misunderstanding, that everyone wasn't aware that Spike was a hero, a champion who died to save the world and had done more good and killed more demons than all of the younger Slayers combined. She'll just have to rectify that situation.

And it's then that B launches off into one of the overly familiar lectures she's grown so good at (Faith used to sit through them during that last year at Sunnydale, pretending to yawn, though even she has to admit that there were moments that she felt a little thrill as B talked about every girl who could be a Slayer actually becoming one), though this one is all about how heroic Spike has been and how much the baby Slayers have to learn from him and how he'd fought for his soul and defeated his demon, which no other vampire had ever done before, and that she's sure none of them would ever, ever again suggest that he should come to any harm.

Throughout the speech, Spike plays it cool, arms crossed, reclining against a wall, his unreadable eyes on B. But Faith likes to think that she gets him enough to see the awe he's fighting to keep from revealing, the slight trembling he's controlling, the incredulity that Buffy would be speaking about him this way (and it's about time B admits what she feels about him and acknowledges him in public; she and Faith might be stumbling toward something like friendship now, but that doesn't mean that Faith isn't aware that B can be a real bitch).

B finishes with a steely flourish: And even if he didn't deserve your respect for all of that, I would still break any of you for even hinting that you were thinking of hurting the man I love. So watch your tongues--and your backs.

And with that, B sweeps out of the room, sweeping up a dumbstruck Spike in her wake (and Faith knows exactly where they're going and exactly what they'll be doing. For the next six hours. Good for her). Faith grins, lights a cigarette, and turns to the stunned and chastened girls (after all, the next big battle is looming, and someone's got to get them ready to fight it).

So. Who's up for some training?

--

The white-headed half-breed has always behaved strangely, but his behavior now is even more perplexing than Illyria remembers, and she notices the differences at once when she, Angel, and Charles arrive in Italy to join in the preparations for battle. Perhaps she had grown unused to him, not being in his presence every day for the last several months. She had thought that all half-breeds were the same, almost as below her notice as those weak, breakable humans, but she has to reevaluate both positions: Wesley was certainly breakable, but he defied her expectations of weakness. And the two half-breeds that she has come to know—and perhaps grudgingly respect—are even less alike than any two creatures she could imagine. She learned to respect their dedication as warriors some time ago, but she is beginning to believe that she will never be able to understand them. Her only consolation is that she is quite certain that they will never understand her.

But now as she is reunited with the smaller half-breed, she examines him closely, certain that there must be an explanation for his strange behavior. It is not the battle looming ahead that they have gathered to fight, this she knows: the army sent against them is not as strong in numbers or skill as the ones she and her companions fought in the alley, and she and her comrades have gained new allies.

It is one of these allies that the half-breed's strangeness seems to center around. She is small, shorter than Illyria's vessel, though Illyria has seen her fighting with the half-breed, and she seems as strong as him, if not even stronger. Or perhaps fighting is not the right word. Illyria considers it; rejects it. They moved in all the proper ways warriors do in battle, but they had quite a different intent: not to harm, but as though to test each other, to take satisfaction from their own movements. They were well-matched, and fought bare-handed, and even Illyria was quite fascinated as she watched them move through the motions of what Charles calls "sparring."

When they are not sparring, they are just as fascinating. Nearly always together, they touch each other in ways that she has seen in that strange black box with the moving pictures—pressing their mouths together, interlocking their hands, sitting close, side by side. And their eyes seem different when they look at each other, though Illyria could not describe how, nor does she understand the strange noise they often make when together—Angel says it is laughing and that it means someone is happy. Illyria is quite certain that she feels no desire to ever laugh.

But she remains fascinated, watching closely whenever she can. One day, she decides to speak to him about it.

This woman they call the Slayer. You behave differently with her. Explain to me why.

He makes a grimace that Illyria has come to recognize as displaying humor or happiness—Angel calls it a grin. That's because I love her, Blue.

This is not a concept she is familiar with, though she has memories of Fred speaking words of love to Wesley, to Charles. She must have more information before she can understand it.

At her prompting, he speaks again. It's like—it's like she's my mate.

This she understands. She will bear your offspring, then.

For a moment, the half-breed seems to have difficulty breathing, making a strange choking sound in his throat; this is odd, she had not thought that half-breeds required oxygen. Uh. Somethin' like that. We live and fight together and…enjoy one another's company…and I guess I'm still a bit more Victorian than I thought. He sighs. What I mean is, I live my life with her and she lives hers with me, and we're both willing to die for each other. See?

Illyria nods slowly as she has been taught that that gesture implies agreement. You are companions, allies, and mates.

Well, yeah. That's about the gist of it.

And then the enlightening and yet perplexing conversation is over, for the battle is upon them.

But Illyria starts to believe that she understands as she watches them in the moments before the battle clashes down upon them: the half-breed rests his forehead against that of his love, and they speak quiet words that Illyria cannot hear or guess at, a quick press of their lips together and then….

Then they are all leaping into the fray.

--

End.