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'I love you' is a thing you say to people who are dying

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“I came because… You know why I came back here. I need your help. I never wanted to do this on my own; I don’t think anybody should be alone. But I know sometimes you have to be, and I know that this time I have to be. They need me to do this and I need your help.”



If Giles had been there, Buffy wondered if he would have been on her side. More than likely, he would have ganged up with the rest of them, but it wouldn’t really make sense. All this time he'd been pressuring her to take charge, to show all these girls how they were supposed to survive. So…

It wasn’t long after she’d come back from the Shadowmen. They were all still in the living room – Robin was packing the shadow casters away while everyone else, pretty much, milled around.

They’d asked her what had happened and she’d told, starting with the vision of the Hellmouth and what it was that lay ahead of them. Willow had looked spooked, turning to Althanea and Kennedy, which made Buffy suppress a frown. It seemed like the big gun wasn’t quite yet back up to power.

Maybe that was to be expected, but Kennedy caught her expression anyway. She was the one to snap at her. “Anything else you figured out on your road trip?” she said. “You know, anything useful?”

Nigel the Watcher chimed in, not so helpfully. “Yes,” he added. “I dare say this is the first time the casting ritual has been used in centuries, if not in all time.” He glanced at Robin, still annoyed, apparently, about the other man’s subterfuge. “There was a reason, after all, that the Council didn’t prioritise the apparatus’ return when we found it missing from our inventories.”

Buffy looked at Spike, still feeling a little winded from her fight. She didn't feel like talking straight away.

Even Spike, though, he seemed unrelenting. There was something different about him, at least to Buffy's eyes. Leaning against the doorway into the hall, he was wearing his coat again, swallowed up and sallow.

She didn’t know what it was about that jacket – maybe something in how no one made outerwear that heavy in California, not for the city. None of Buffy's leather clothes had a chance of lasting thirty years of fighting. It wasn't just the coat, though; it was something in the way he stood, the set of his face.

Whatever it was that was different, it meant Buffy had no back-up as she began to tell her tale. She wasn't an amazing storyteller, but she tried. Probably she didn't get across most of the themes, but she told them about the chains, the creepy ritual...

It didn’t seem to sink in. Everyone's expression was blank, their eyes only lighting up when she mentioned the power boost, and what that might have meant.

“Are you serious? When you stand there preaching at all of us about…? You’re a hypocrite!”

That was what Kennedy said, and it was like she was speaking for all of them. Somehow, they hadn’t got it, what Buffy had meant about power. With all the agreeing faces, as worn out as her mom's furniture, it seemed as though they thought she didn’t care where power came from. Or at least it seemed as though they didn’t care, not when Buffy was the one supposed to take it.

The accusation was thrown like a punch, as though Kennedy intended to hurt her. Getting hit, of course, was a regular experience for Buffy, so after a moment recovered and fought back. “No,” she bit out, looking at Kennedy and her reflection in the picture above the desk. “I’m standing here as the one who would have been able to resist – because I know the power I have inside me.”

“They said you would protect us.” Buffy turned towards the new voice. It was Rona, who was sitting on the arm of the couch with another group of Potentials around her. Vi and Amanda looked worried, not right in Buffy’s face, but not like they disagreed. “How are you gonna protect us from an army of those things?” Rona continued, framed by the beige-blue light that seeped in through the curtains. “If you won’t…”

What time was it? Buffy didn’t know. She’d been digging at sunset, then been thrown into the midday sun. It had been too long a day.

“She can’t protect us,” one of the other Potentials said; one of the ones whose name Buffy didn’t know. Unless… Was she called Caridad? She was from San Diego, that much Buffy remembered. She was talking over her shoulder, like Buffy wasn’t there. “Didn’t you hear what the First said? She knows she can’t.”

“Didn’t you hear what she said?” Another one accused, her hot eyes flicking to Buffy’s. “She doesn’t want to.”

“I’m not trying to protect you!” Buffy insisted, throwing up her hands as she walked straight into some remains of the coffee table.

Everybody looked at her, including Robin, who had a particularly unimpressed expression on his face. Anya seemed bored; Xander had his eyebrows knitted together as though he was trying to see her point.

“I’m trying to teach you,” Buffy explained, cutting away from Kennedy’s glare and back to the girls by the window. “How to be strong; how to be a Slayer; how to protect yourselves.” God, it was late and she was so tired; she didn’t know how else to put this; hadn’t they been over this hours ago? “When something chains you up and tries to force its way inside you,” were the words that came out of her, solid and full and with no small trace of sarcasm, “that is not the moment to say yes, please.”

It scared them, this idea. Buffy could recognise that. The expression in Rona’s eyes turned to hate and the group visibly shrank into itself. Behind her, Buffy didn’t hear anyone move, but in the periphery of her vision she noticed when Spike slipped out into the hall, then the depths of the house.

It was all happening again; rinse, repeat. He wasn’t wrong to leave, at least Buffy didn’t want to yell at him about it. Her eyes somehow caught Xander’s, and even he was looking at her like she was being harsh.

It was Lydia who broke the silence this time, her tone icy. “We don’t need any more of this tonight,” she said, her eyes burning when Buffy glanced at her. God, maybe she was right. “Girls,” Lydia continued stridently, over Buffy’s head, “you should be in bed. We have physical training early in the morning.”

They listened to her, that was the most ridiculous thing. This Watcher treated them like schoolchildren and they listened, shuffling off upstairs.

And that was that. Everyone took their cue that the meeting had broken up and started talking, moving around and getting ready for the night. Buffy was left in the middle of living room, standing amongst a pile of broken wood, still feeling the slick, sucking feeling on her legs where the demon energy had swarmed around her.

Before she left to help arrange upstairs for bedtime, Dawn came over and touched Buffy on the arm. No one paid them any attention. “Hey,” her sister said softly, snapping Buffy out of what was still an experience, pretty much, not a memory. “It didn’t…” What she was suggesting, Buffy was pretty sure neither of them knew. “Did it?” Dawn added, hopefully. “Are you OK?”

Looking into her sister’s big, caring eyes, it was easy to lie. “I’m fine,” Buffy said, forcing herself to smile.

Dawn was taller than her, these days, but she still acted like the baby, kicking at the pieces of wood around them. “What you said,” she continued, in a low voice. “About protecting us…”

I will always protect you, Buffy wanted to promise, because she should have been able to. Dawn didn’t deserve any of this, and she should have been able to avoid everything the others would have to learn. As it was, she’d learned better than them at a younger age.

When she thought about it, Buffy didn’t know what to do with the guilt. “Get some rest,” was what she said, because of that.


When the group of them first made it home from the Initiative, the house was empty. Giles and the girls weren’t back yet, clearly, but for some reason nearly everyone else was gone as well. The only light came from the kitchen, where Kennedy was staring at a steaming teapot.

“Kennedy?” Buffy asked, still holding onto Spike, who was still caught up in Althanea’s floating spell. He was unconscious, silent as a training dummy, but upright by her side. Really, Buffy didn’t want any of the Potentials to see him like this, but it didn’t seem like there were many other options. “I thought Will was making the tea for you?”

“Yeah…” Kennedy replied, not turning around. She didn’t seem all that interested in talking. Eventually she pulled herself into it, making the effort to look Buffy's way. “There was some role-reversing, magical…” As she caught sight of them all, however, her tone completely changed. “Oh my god, Ms. Chalmers?” The subdued sarcasm left her and spontaneously, it seemed, Kennedy was suddenly running over to Lydia and wrapping her in a hug. Buffy was forgotten. “I thought you were dead; I can’t believe it!”

OK, so there was really, really no reason to feel jealous of someone who seemed to have earned the respect and affection of a girl she’d been given to mentor. Someone who had earned Kennedy’s respect and affection. Like any good reality show contestant, Buffy hadn’t planned on making friends with these girls, so it couldn’t bother her that someone else had.

As the two caught up, in any case, and the others started joining in, Buffy found herself distinctly uninterested, and not overly impressed about being ignored in her own house.

Still, she ignored them, leading the floating Spike over to the basement and heading down into the more familiar dark. Soon she had him settled back on the cot, able to manipulate his body into lying down. Buffy took a seat on the floor by his head, waiting.

Before the others came down, however, Spike started to stir, roused by the comfort of the blankets or for some other reason. “Where am I?” he asked.

Buffy figured that it might have been a good idea to switch the light on. “We’re home,” she said shortly, still annoyed that she was annoyed. Was this how it was going to be? The Watchers were now here to take over the operation, leaving her as little more than a landlord? “We were… I guess we were rescued. Some of the Watchers survived.” She glanced at him. “Including your fanclub.”

Rolling over, Spike shot her a look as if to say she was the silliest cow in existence. Or some other Spike-like insult. “Right,” he said, as if he didn’t have the energy to articulate anything more. “We got a – Ow; fuck.” He winced, and with a jerk of adrenaline Buffy remembered the real current crisis. “Ow; ow; ow…”

“Shh…” she soothed immediately, turning onto her knees and leaning over Spike’s head. He was grinding it into the pillow. This time Buffy didn’t even hesitate to graze her fingers across his helmet of hair, lean close and try to comfort him. “Don’t…”

This can’t happen now, she told herself, willing reality to bend towards her desire as Spike lost even the ability to swear. There were tears in her eyes, which Buffy really didn’t want to be there. Things were not on schedule for Spike to make her care this much about him, not now. I refuse to let this happen, she continued to think, not quite sure what idea the feeling was in response to. Please, she wanted to say out loud.

“Dunno how much more of this I can take,” Spike breathed out after a few seconds, his voice small and quiet. Buffy frowned, meeting his eyes but not sure what to say.

Ultimately, Buffy decided the best course of action was, well, action. After allowing herself one more second to be with Spike, something unspoken changing between them, she stood up and marched over to the stairs. “Althanea!” she bellowed up into the kitchen, not entirely recognising the harsh tone of her own voice. “Will you please…”

“No need to shout, Miss Summers,” the witch interrupted, appearing in the kitchen doorway. After flicking on the lights she made her way down at a leisurely pace. It was hard not to read Travers-style superciliousness into every step. “Now; where’s the patient?”

Wordlessly, Buffy led her over to Spike. He was lying back, staring at the ceiling like a corpse, and Buffy’s heart was in her throat.

“Ah, William,” Althanea addressed him – and he moved, turning his head too look at her like she’d taken him by surprise, or he hadn’t sensed she was there. “What’s causing all this bother, hmm?”

Buffy didn’t trust this witch, but she let her come close. She knelt down beside the cot and pressed a hand to Spike’s forehead, that now-familiar pink glow spreading from her fingers. It made Buffy feel warm and comforted, but she still didn’t trust it, crossing her arms as she watched.

“Well,” Althanea said, her hand still glowing. “You’ve had rather a few people rummaging around in here, haven’t you?”

Spike groaned, but it was hardly a response. Buffy stepped forward, and as if she had sensed her Althanea turned her head.

“I can feel the microchip,” she told Buffy, her grandmotherly face serious and professional in contrast with all the drapey embroidery she was wearing. She had every earth mother cliché figured out to a T. “The General suggested I might like to repair it, but it should be easy enough to dissolve, if you wanted to have it gone entirely.”

“Have it…?” Buffy repeated, not entirely certain what the other woman was asking. She just wanted Spike’s pain gone; she didn’t care about the chip.

“I can remove the chip,” Althanea confirmed. “Or fix it up.”

Caught by surprise, Buffy glanced at Spike. It felt like he should have been the one making the decision, but he was out of it, scowling again with his jaw clenched shut. As it was, she knew she would be the one the others would expect to have control over this; she was the one they would expect answers from.

In the end, the decision didn’t take very long. “Remove it,” Buffy instructed, her voice certain.

Althanea nodded, turning back to her glowing hand. Tension seemed to thrum through her for a moment, but then Spike slumped as if released.

It was over. Even if it looked like Spike had lost consciousness again, Buffy was certain it was over.

By the way Althanea frowned, though, it didn’t quite seem as though she agreed. The glow hadn’t faded from her hand. Catching Buffy’s eye, she said, “It’s done. But –” she continued, before Buffy could say anything, “there’s something else in here.”


For some reason, Spike realised later, it was as though Buffy didn’t seem to think the witch's plan would be a terrible, terrible idea. “It was only a suggestion,” the Slayer explained while he stared at her, a stabbing pain in his cranium and her eyes putting needles through his heart. “Althanea,” the girl defended herself, sorrowfully, “she said that this would be a way to diffuse the trigger…”

“I’m sure, love,” Spike replied, because he was. That part was hardly the problem. Whether she’d see it without him wringing her neck he didn’t know. “Just think you're forgetting this frying pan's sitting on a giant pile of burning petrol.”

“And what does that mean?” Buffy asked, thankfully now just annoyed. She had a habit of doing that when Spike got figurative. She wasn’t a particularly poetic soul, their Buffy. It made Spike wonder what he saw in her, those times when she decided to want for nuance.

Battling the tick in his jaw, Spike was little more combative than he should have been, but again he had the pain in his skull to contend with. “It means,” he bit out emphatically, hoping for this to be over, “that the trigger might be dangerous, but at least we know what’s going on with it. Putting yourself in my head on the say-so of a witch who’s spent the last thirty years or who knows what married to the biggest bastard in the supernatural world – well, I shouldn’t need to explain that it’s a recipe for disaster…”

They were downstairs, in the basement, like they always were. Buffy was about to head off for the day and Spike was awake far too early, thanks to the chip knocking around the rhythms in his head. It was nice to know that it was gone, but it was dangerous. He couldn’t quite see why Buffy didn’t take the whole thing as suspicious. That thing had been in his head for years; earth witch or no earth witch he didn’t quite see why this random, ridiculously-named woman had found it so very easy to take out of his skull.

Sitting on the end of the mattress, Buffy was a picture of rejection. She was about a foot from Spike's feet and her skin had a harsh pall in the humming basement light. Her mouth was tight and she was looking out over to the other side of the room. He got the most of it, but Spike didn't know why she was sitting so close. “You know,” she said, like she’d decided to pick this particular argument, “maybe you do need to explain. Willow’s been in my head; it was fine.”

“Yeah,” Spike agreed, feeling the crick in his wrists as he nodded. He was sitting up; leaning back on his hands. He couldn’t talk to her like she was thick; that just made things worse. “But that jaunt was a little different, don’t you think?”

“Why?” Buffy asked, like she actually didn’t get it. She raised her chin at him. “D’you not trust me or something?”

“What?” Spike asked, before he’d even had much chance to take the question in. Eventually he parsed the words, eased them out one by one – and then he found himself annoyed. The point was that some geas planted by the greatest and most primary force for evil the world had ever known was not entirely comparable to whatever feedback loop of catatonia had paralysed Buffy back when Dawn had been taken. The point wasn't whatever pantomime they were playing out this week.

Buffy said nothing, her gaze burning.

Yet it was more fool Spike, really, because he was rather invested in this particular pantomime. “Why would you ask me that?” he challenged her.

Buffy rolled her eyes, as if he was the one being emotional. Spike figured she was probably right. “Well, it seems pretty obvious,” she said, sarcastic as she rose to her feet and walked three paces away from him. Great. “Althanea’s the real deal,” she claimed, turning back and putting her hands on her hips. “You know that as well as I do.” She paused; Spike stared at her again, not quite taking all of this in. “So all I’m seeing is that you don’t want me getting anywhere near your thoughts. I understand, you know, I do,” she added, looking down at her feet. “And you know,” she repeated, turning that thought back over itself, more seriously. “I do,” she finished, as if she did.

Thing was, she didn’t. “Now, hang on…” As far as Spike could tell, from the wounded glance she shot at him, she was making this into something that it really was not. “That’s not fair.” A year ago he’d have thrown himself at this moment, but Buffy… She didn’t get to test him like this, not when it came to his feelings. Hadn’t he waited for her in the First’s torture chamber, for weeks? He’d barely known his own name by the time she’d come, and still he’d waited.

Buffy, naturally, seemed to get some perverted joy from playing dense.

Leaning forward, Spike swung his legs around so he could face her on the cold cement floor. Every limb he had ached to do it. “Don’t you get it?” he asked, standing up anyway, suppressing wobbles. “I’m not having you in my head…”

She interrupted, though, before he could finish that point. “No,” the girl said, shaking her hair and still not looking at him. “It’s no big, really.” And then she was leaving, turned on her feet and heading up the stairs. “I’ve gotta go to work.”

Spike watched her go, shaking trying to figure out what had just happened.


“It’s darkness, like a web,” Althanea explained. As though she was expending effort for the first time, the witch shut her eyes and tilted her head slightly to one side. “It’s not the demon part of him; it’s not demonic. It’s tied into…” She paused for a moment. “Feelings; memories; actions – I’m not sure…”

“The trigger,” Buffy said, suddenly sure she knew what the witch was talking about. God; she’d thought that had been deactivated. “The First,” she explained, as the witch withdrew into herself and turned to look at Buffy again. “It brainwashed him; put something in his brain – we don’t know…” This news made Buffy’s heart sink, seriously deep. “It was able to make him kill again, even with the chip. He didn’t remember when he’d done it; didn’t know who he was.”

Althanea was silent for a moment, apparently listening carefully. It was almost vindicating, to be listened to, but Buffy didn’t dwell on that. “That sort of magic,” the witch said eventually, withdrawing her hand from Spike’s head so the glow faded. “It’s an act of manipulation. Or, at least, that would be the most efficient way to construct something so powerful.” Slumping back on her heels, she was silent again, apparently thinking this time. “Compulsion spells are difficult,” she added, glancing at Buffy as if to be sure she was listening.

There was no question, though; she had Buffy’s full attention.

“Without a focus and without contact, retaining control over a subject requires a great deal of energy," the witch continued. "But,” she answered herself, her gaze wandering away, “to make something happen that already has, to provoke a reaction based on remembered stimuli… Maybe an emotional reaction, which may be tied to a physical response? It’s possible. It’s certainly possible…”

“How do we get rid of it?” Buffy interrupted, moving her hands to her hips and watching as Spike slept. That seemed to be what he was doing; he was breathing again, like she remembered he used to breathe until sleep had entirely come on him. His eyes were still shut, but he looked peaceful now. “Break the spell?” She could only imagine that a blow to the First that would be, if they could get rid of this now. The day wouldn’t have been entirely wasted.

Althanea prevaricated, even though Buffy was already set, as far as she was concerned. “Well, it would depend how the spell worked,” the witch said, slightly flustered. “If there is a ‘trigger’, as you say, we would need to know what it relates to, what memory it conjures in his mind.” She waved a hand, uncertainly. “Either,” she continued, “we would need to break the connection between that memory and the physical response the First has associated it with, or – which I suppose would be the most reliable solution – we would need to resolve the, er, emotional hang-up, which, well…” The witch frowned, finally, looking at Spike again. “It must be what’s powering the the compulsion.”

“So,” Buffy asked, trying to take it all in, “he needs a shrink?” She couldn’t quite believe it, but after she’d said it the whole idea did sort of make some sense. At the end of the day, if people did get enough psychological help, would there still be evil in the world?

Shaking her head, Buffy dismissed that thought. Way too philosophical for this point in the apocalypse. Also, Maggie Walsh was so the exception to that rule.

“A Prokaryote stone would probably be the best place to begin,” Althanea continued as if Buffy hadn’t even spoken. “Though where on earth you’d get hold of one at this time of year I do not…” Then, glancing Buffy’s way, she tuned back in. “No, not a shrink,” she said, clapping her hands together in her lap. Leaning on her thighs, she rose steadily to her feet. “He must confront what will be, presumably, one of the darkest points in his emotional memory – and make peace with it.”

Buffy gulped, gaze falling yet again to the figure on the bed. She liked to think that she knew Spike pretty well, but she couldn’t imagine what sort of thing Althanea meant. The only emotional low point she could think of, the one that had sent Spike to get a soul, that didn’t seem quite like the thing the First would be able to make use of. He was an old vampire, by most standards, and if her life was anything to go by, all those extra years just meant more and deeper regrets.

“I could set the process in motion,” Althanea was now saying, apparently able to think out loud and nonetheless reach a conclusion inside her head. “It won’t be as – emphatic, or force the issue, the way we might still well need a stone to help us with. But I could set his mind in the right direction.”

Buffy blinked at Althanea's kindly face, which didn’t seem to be saying anything all that kind. The woman was in front of her now, their gazes level.

“You might be able to help him,” Althanea added, as if Buffy had a better nature she could appeal to. Buffy herself wasn’t so sure these days. “It should be possible for someone to observe the memory with him; help him think it through.”

“I…” Struck by the possibility, Buffy hesitated. It would be one thing to have the trigger out of Spike, but quite another for her to have a hand in doing it. She didn’t like to think of herself as someone who shied away from emotional intimacy, but – who was she kidding? If that had ever been her speciality, it had long since gone by the wayside. She had the bitter ex-boyfriend and the half-crazy ex-something to prove it. “I’ll have to ask him about it,” Buffy told Althanea. She couldn’t even be sure Spike would go for it, anyway. He was all about the emotional revelations, but that was in circumstances he could control. And it was her, so…

The witch nodded, smiling with something that looked like sympathy. “It’s not a decision to take lightly,” she agreed, even after they’d zapped Spike’s chip out in about two seconds flat.

“Thanks –” Buffy began, thinking this was the moment to end the conversation. She was interrupted, of course, as Willow came barrelling down the stairs, apparently feeling chipper now she’d heard about the new members of the household.

“Althanea!” she said, looking excited, starting to babble. “I had no idea you were coming!”

“Oh!” The witch said, her expression brightening as she turned away. “Miss Rosenberg…”

Immediately they ignored her, their faces brighter than anyone’s who looked at Buffy’s. She let them catch up, distracted again by the figure now deep in sleep, no longer breathing on the basement cot.


“I don’t understand this,” was what Buffy told them all, when everything came out. At the gravesite, she had channelled her anger, kept it at a low smoulder, but now they were looking at her, hungry and needing. It was like they were expecting some sort of memorial, some lengthy funeral service that would take them through the night. They wanted it from her.

Standing by the mantelpiece, the entire idea filled Buffy with rage. Before she could stop herself, she threw her shovel across the floor, about three foot so that it clanged dramatically on the wood. “What happened today should not have happened,” she told them, livid with her anger. “What do you have to say for yourselves?” she asked, looking around and meeting the eyes of anyone who dared look up. “Any of you?”

Because you could only ever take the nerd out of high school, Willow was the first to own up. “Buffy, I’m sorry,” she said, clearly ridden with useless, wretched guilt. “I thought I felt something, but I didn’t know if… I couldn’t be sure…”

Althanea was somewhere else, so Buffy couldn’t find her to glare at alongside Willow. Kennedy, though, was right there, and seemed to think her girlfriend had nothing to apologise for. As Willow continued, she interrupted, brusquely comforting, “Stop beating yourself up. It’s a tragedy; no one could have known…”

“Wrong,” Buffy said, because she was sick of this. Kennedy stared back, shocked as Buffy told her, “Chloe could’ve known. God, if no one else, Chloe should have known.” They all stared at her; Buffy took their attention and ran with it. “She should’ve been smarter and she should have fought back.”

“You’re out of line,” Kennedy replied immediately. From the gasps in the room, she wasn’t the only one who thought it – but she was the only one who dared speak up.

Taking in how the Potential looked, framed by the back living room wall and her hand on Willow’s arm, her feet spread easily like she was ready for a fight, Buffy had the thought she sometimes had, that this girl was the only one who acted like a Slayer. Not like the way that Buffy would, but she had it in ways that the others didn’t.

It still didn’t mean that Buffy wouldn’t smack her down. “What?” she asked Kennedy bluntly. “You thought we were gonna stand here and cry about her? She’s dead.” In among the other reactions, Buffy's peripheral vision caught Spike raising a particularly sarcastic eyebrow. It pretty much enraged her further. “Dozens of girls just like her have already died,” Buffy continued, still addressing Kennedy. “The First’s already killed them.” She shoved an arm towards Nigel and Lydia, who were standing by the desk. “The First’s already killed pretty much everyone they know, but d’you see us crying about them?”

“But we knew her!” It was Amanda who said that, gathered with the other Potentials on and around the couch.

It was all empty words. Buffy could feel it, that emptiness, if not much of anything else. She turned to look at them, taking in their traumatised faces, the way they held themselves like they’d already been defeated. “None of you knew her,” she told the girls harshly, wondering if they’d ever get it. “You figure because you remember her favourite cereal, what she liked to read before she went to sleep, what, that makes you all experts?” They all looked down, and Buffy didn’t know how to make them get this, to make them see what they could become. “Who was she when she was all alone, huh? When death was staring her in the face? Who was she then? Did any of you know?”

They had no answer, and Buffy wanted to scream. It was locked inside her head.

“You girls,” it came out of her in words, all her frustration. None of them wanted this – she knew none of them wanted this – but they acted like they thought she did. “You came here to fight, to survive, and – and all you do is sit here in my house, waiting to die.”

Some of them looked pissed off, which was really better than nothing. If she’d been feeling optimistic, Buffy even wondered if she might have been getting through to them.

For some reason, though, that was the moment when Spike thought it was time to disrespect her and start walking out of the room. Like he was a special case, just because of what she felt for him. Like what she was saying didn’t apply.

“And where the hell are you going?” Buffy called after him, annoyed.

Spike stopped in the doorway, turned back around. “What?” he asked, mostly nonchalant but still a little pissed off, it seemed to Buffy, from Wood’s tour that afternoon. God damn him. “Sorry,” he said, clearly not meaning it, “I’ve got things to do. Not this.”

“Right,” Buffy said, warningly. He didn’t get it, though, even after a second or two. Clearly he thought everything she was saying didn’t apply to him. “So,” she asked, “if I need a consult on running away, should I, you know, call you? Or d’you figure I can just rescue you from wherever you end up?”

They hadn’t spoken all that much since the night after her date. From the way Spike’s eyes narrowed, he clearly thought it was more than a little unfair for her to turn on him now. “Got something to say to me as well, then, is that it?” he asked her, his own warning in his voice.

Buffy didn’t tend to heed warnings. Hands on her hips, she stared Spike down. “I just said it. You hold back any more, you’re gonna fall over.” We’re all holding back.

“Hold back?” Spike took a step forward. Everyone else was silent, and Buffy imagined they were watching the two of them. She didn’t lose Spike’s gaze, even when he laughed at her. “Buffy, I’m not holding back. What I have,” he added, finally flinging the accusation at her, “is a concept called privacy.”

“Oh, you have a problem about what I said, do you?” Buffy replied, forgetting for the moment that they had a public audience. “Gee, you could’ve fooled me.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Spike challenged her.

“That soul has been making you a walkover,” Buffy told him bluntly, betraying every moment of tenderness between them, trying to explain how she would always betray him.

Spike’s eyes narrowed dangerously. Buffy didn’t back down, but as he took one look around the crowded room, she was a little worried about what he was going to say. “You tell them all about me,” he snapped at her, and Buffy knew she’d won this game of chicken. “You hang all my private business out for public consumption and you never mention once how I do it all for you.”

Everyone apart from Buffy jumped on that last word; she could feel them. She was pretty sure they were all staring at her, but she didn’t drop her gaze from Spike’s eyes, trying to figure out when he would realise that all of their private business was expendable, including this. More than this.

Why he thought roaring at her would get a reaction, Buffy didn’t know. Sure, she got a kick of adrenaline, but all that did was bring everything into sharper focus. “You did it for yourself,” she told Spike, not trying to be harsh but hearing it in her voice all the same. His nostrils flared – and Buffy knew that she was hurting him. Thing was, it had to be said. “You couldn’t live with what you’d become, so you threw it all away.”

“How –” Spike began, taking one step towards her.

Buffy wouldn’t let him speak, challenging him, “And what’s that done for you, huh?” She’d seen his fear of her, of everything; the First was slowly destroying them all. “You may have your soul, but there’s still blood on your hands. Blood that wouldn’t have been there without it.”

He looked away, wounded. A few people fidgeted; there were one or two whispers that went around the room.

Naturally, Buffy didn’t let them distract her. “You’re gonna have to kill again, Spike,” she finished, her voice still harsh. “That part of you, you’d better find it.”

“Everything I do is for you,” Spike told her, the words dark and unashamed. It was private, this bitterness – the intimacy of it. Looking at her again, Spike’s expression burned with every moment that they’d spent together and if Buffy had been weaker, less tired, she would have been embarrassed to have everybody see it. Possibly that was Spike’s intention. It still didn’t work. “Every nasty little thing you see in me… It’s for you – it’s for loving you – I try to wipe it clean.”

“It’s not enough,” was Buffy’s answer to that, just like the First Slayer had told her.

There were definitely some sounds of indignation from the audience then. Buffy didn’t listen to them, though, not until Spike proved her point and surrendered. He glanced around the room at all the gathered faces, then promptly he switched on a heel and stormed out of the house.

Really, Buffy didn’t figure he’d go far, but she was starting to shake. It wasn’t like she wanted him gone; it wasn’t like she wanted to hurt him. As many of them as possible, they all had to get through this, and right now it felt like she was the only one who saw it.

Keeping herself together, Buffy turned herself abruptly to the only person in the house she knew might get through to Spike. Who might find it to be gentler to him. “Dawn,” she commanded, zeroing in on her sister.

Dawn got it, just the way she’d clearly got a hell of a lot more of that conversation than the rest of the room. “Oh no, Buffy,” she said, eyes wide and shaking her head, apparently not ready to forgive or even move on. “Not me. I don’t…”

Clearly Dawn didn’t want to, but it wasn’t complete disgust she had on her face. After all, she was a Summers, so Buffy hoped she might figure out what Buffy long had, that at some point they would all get over what had happened in this house, and so they might as well do it quicker. “Get him back,” was all Buffy said to her sister, not quite ready to have that part discussed in public. She turned away as the girl began to leave, stormy-faced but obedient. “Lydia!” Buffy then picked on the other person she needed. “Get the book. I think we’re calling this an emergency.”

It should have been easy. These were Watchers; they watched. Surprisingly, though, Lydia looked pissed, like the last thing any Slayer should do was try and talk a vampire into playing hardball. “Nigel is the better linguist, I think,” was what she said, waspishly, crossing her arms over her chest.

Buffy rolled her eyes, suppressing the fear that she was losing the game she’d started tonight. As it was, this chick might have written the book on Spike, but she really knew nothing. “Fine,” she exclaimed, turning to the other Watcher, who just looked like he wished he could be inconspicuous in this sea of people. Buffy could work with that. “Nigel!” she commanded him. “You’re up.”