They were all silent as they left the cemetery; they often were, lately, Willow reflected glumly. Too tired to banter, too aware of how many close calls there had been yet again to even pretend everything was fine. Giles had a slight limp to his stride; Xander was holding his side and grimacing with each step under Anya’s concerned gaze; but Tara’s face was what made Willow’s stomach clench. The scratch across her cheek had stopped bleeding, and it would undoubtedly disappear within a couple of days, but it was still undeniable proof that a demon had laid its claws on her girlfriend, and Willow couldn’t and wouldn’t accept that.
“I’m going to swing by Buffy’s house,” she announced just as they reached the graveyard’s gates, and although quiet, her voice seemed to echo in the night. As though by an unvoiced agreement, they all stopped and stood silently on the sidewalk. Giles took his glasses off and, predictably, pulled out a handkerchief to clean them. There were shared looks, cleared throats, but eventually, Tara spoke first, giving Willow a pleading look.
“Now?” she asked tiredly. “It’s late, they’re probably in bed already.”
“Then I’ll wake Buffy. I’m sure she won’t mind.”
Even if she did mind, Willow couldn’t say that she cared much. She loved her friend as much as ever, she understood her grief as much as anyone who had ever loved and lost could, but she simply couldn’t wait anymore without saying a word. She couldn’t wait to see if Buffy would or wouldn’t emerge from her mourning and stubbornness before someone got seriously hurt.
As though in counterpoint to her thoughts, Xander’s voice rose in the night. “She needs time, Wills.”
Willow shook her head. “We don’t have time. We’re all exhausted and hurt and… and… we’re not the Slayer! She is!”
“That I am. But I think you’re doing a super fine job too.”
Everybody save Giles looked at the obnoxiously perky robot that had just jumped into the conversation. No one answered its comment. There were times, and they were becoming more and more frequent, when Willow regretted having fixed it after the battle against Glory. It had been nothing more than a challenge at the time, one she had explained to the others by pointing out that the ‘bot could help with patrol in the beginning while Buffy was too bad off to slay. But the few days Willow had anticipated using the ‘bot for had turned into weeks, then months. Buffy was better, functioning as well as could be expected, but still adamantly refusing to patrol, claiming that she had made a promise and returning to her slaying activities would break it.
“Buffy is the Slayer,” Giles said suddenly, glasses back on his nose and hands thrust deep inside his pockets. “But she is also free to do as she pleases. As much as I believe she ought to resume her duties, I do not think that forcing her to patrol would solve anything. She has to be ready for it; else, she’ll get herself killed her first night out.”
Willow wanted to argue and point out that maybe an intervention was needed, but, already, he was striding away with barely a nod for goodbye. Within seconds, the BuffyBot caught up with him, throwing a wide smile and “Good night all!” over her shoulder toward the group. Even from where she stood, Willow could see Giles’ shoulders hunch a little more; he made no secret that he hated when it was his turn to host the robot between patrols. Willow was rather certain he hated the ‘bot, period. It wasn’t Buffy, wasn’t a Slayer, yet it served as a substitute, and was a constant reminder that Buffy was home rather than slaying. She could have bet that Giles wanted just as much as she did to grab Buffy and shake her until she saw reason, but so far he had hid whatever he thought behind repeated comments about Buffy being free to do – or not do – anything she wanted. Tonight had been the closest he had ever come to criticizing her decision to refuse to act as the Slayer.
“Willow…” Tara said gently. “I thought… I thought we agreed to leave Buffy in peace until we got him back.”
“You’ve given up?” Anya chimed in. “Because if you did, I need to know and…”
“I am not giving up,” Willow interrupted her. “But I’m not going to let any of you get hurt, or worse, while we wait to be ready.”
“No one’s going to get hurt,” Xander said strongly, although his statement might have been more convincing if he hadn’t been holding his ribs. “We’ve held on all summer, we can hold on a bit longer until we do the spell. For Buffy’s sake.”
Willow didn’t reply, and when the others started walking again, she let Tara pull her toward their dorm, and away from Revello. A few more days, she promised herself. She would wait a few more days, no more, and then if they still didn’t have everything needed for the spell, she would tell Buffy what they all thought – that Spike hadn’t died so she could spend the rest of her life cloistered in her home, crying over him and pretending she was a normal girl. And if that didn’t work, maybe there were other spells that might be able to help Buffy. She had targeted the obvious way, a spell that would bring Spike back and fix things completely; but unlike Buffy, she wasn’t that stubborn that she wouldn’t consider other options.
It had been months, but it was still easier for Dawn not to say some words together – like ‘mom’ and ‘died’. The man on the other end of the line didn’t seem to notice however, and he continued trying to make her believe he gave a damn about her.
“Dawnie, you know I wasn’t in the country when…”
“Good excuse,” she interrupted. “It would be better if it didn’t include ‘vacation’ and ‘girlfriend’, too.”
She heard her father take a deep breath, and when he talked again, there was nothing but cold in his voice.
“Put your sister on the line. Now.”
Without a word, Dawn left the receiver on the tile counter and took a few steps out of the kitchen and to the bottom of the staircase.
“Buffy,” she called out. “Dad’s on the phone. He wants to talk to you.”
She didn’t wait for an answer and returned to the kitchen to prepare a sandwich for her lunch. Once upon a time, unpacking her lunch bag at school had been a little like unwrapping a present as she never knew what her mother would have packed for her that day. It was hard to surprise yourself when you fixed your own meals.
After a few seconds, Buffy finally walked in and picked up the phone. Dawn kept an eye on her, and on the conversation, imagining all too clearly how the other side went.
“Hi Dad, it’s good you called back, we…”
Buffy slowly turned toward Dawn as she listened.
“She said that, huh?”
Dawn tried hard to decipher Buffy’s expression and tone, but they were both beyond her reach.
“No, she does not. She knows better than to talk to me like that. I guess she’s upset with you for some reason.”
Dawn’s eyes dropped to the food in front of her and she started clearing up the island. She knew better, indeed; Buffy was trying so hard to act as though everything was fine that Dawn was more than a little afraid to break the bubble and see what would happen if she did act up.
“No. I can take care of her.”
That caught Dawn’s full attention again. He wasn’t trying to take her away, was he? She had no desire whatsoever to go live with him and his skanky girlfriend. Or at least, she imagined the girl was skanky, and she didn’t want to be proved otherwise.
“Dad, we’re not moving to LA. Our home is here. Our friends. Our schools. Speaking of which, the first part of my tuition is due next week and…”
Wincing, Dawn packed her lunch and leaned against the island, hoping to read what the answer to that particular question would be on Buffy’s face. This was the reason why they had tried to reach their father in the first place, and if he didn’t play along…
“I see,” Buffy said flatly. “Then I guess I’ll have to call Child Services.”
Dawn barely suppressed a groan. This was bad. This was very, very bad.
“A threat? You think it’s threatening to be asked to put food on our table? Always a pleasure talking with you, Dad.”
With that, Buffy hung up, and the phone clattered onto the counter when she dropped it with a little less care than necessary. Dawn gave her a concerned look; she hadn’t seen her sister react that strongly to anything since the beginning of the summer. Since Dawn had given her Spike’s last words. Buffy had barely managed to hold on by her nails and not fall apart in front of her sister back then. It was good, incredibly so, to see her slip out of her usual detachment, even if it was to show anger instead, and even if her reaction accentuated how difficult their financial situation seemed to be. In seconds, though, the anger was gone, and Buffy shook her head, dismissing the question Dawn had been about to ask.
“Ready? We’re going to be late.”
With a forced smile, Dawn followed her sister out of the house, noticing only then the stern dress and cardigan she was wearing. She was really taking that parent teacher day seriously, if she wanted to make such a serious impression, and it was good to see her talk to other people, even smile and attempt a lame joke with the literature teacher. Buffy didn’t smile nearly enough anymore, and Dawn had long ago run out of ideas on ways to cheer her up.
But the good intentions didn’t last – they never did – and by midmorning, just when the parents of Dawn’s homeroom were gathered into a classroom and treated to a speech by an assistant principal, Buffy had that sad, faraway expression that could only mean she was thinking of Spike.
I miss him too, Dawn wanted to shout. She had wanted to say the words all summer long, but she hadn’t found the courage to do it so far. She was afraid that reopening that particular scar would prompt the accusation that Buffy had never voiced until now but that Dawn was sure would come eventually. It was her fault that Spike had died. He had jumped to close the portal opened by her blood. And every time she saw her sister fighting back tears, Dawn was reminded of that simple but cruel fact. She should have died, not Spike.
Xander sighed and brought a hand to his temple, massaging the beginning of headache away. He and Anya had had that particular discussion a million times already, or so it seemed.
“Anh, we already talked about it…” She started pouting but that did not stop him. “…and we agreed to wait until Buffy felt better.”
“It would be cruel to shove our engagement in her face when she just lost her boyfriend.”
Anya’s eyebrow twitched irritably. “Just? It’s been almost five months already! Five months of hiding that damn ring. If you didn’t want me to wear it…”
“I do. And you will. Let’s just… wait a bit more, OK? Now that you’ve found that urn for the spell maybe…”
He didn’t notice he had lowered his voice until Anya answered in the same tone. Giles was on the other side of the store, but the subject was far more sensitive than their wedding.
“Maybe,” she repeated where he had left off. “But what if it doesn’t work? It’s serious magic Willow wants to do, and so many things could go wrong…”
“Then let’s just hope they won’t,” he cut in, unwilling to hear any more about this. He already had enough doubts and fears without adding to them. On one hand, Spike had never been his favorite person, and he still couldn’t silence that little voice that Buffy had always deserved much better than a vampire. On the other, Buffy wasn’t getting over the fact that the guy had given his life for her and Dawn, and to see her that miserable for so long was upsetting. She had never had it easy to begin with, and to lose her boyfriend in that fashion, even a boyfriend of the undead kind, was a cruel trick from fate.
That was probably why he had agreed to Willow’s plan of bringing him back. In truth, he had been more than reluctant, at first, but once Willow had assured him they could give Buffy the human boyfriend she ought to have had, it had been easier to accept. He still thought they should have told Anya and Tara about that part, too, but he understood Willow’s concern that they might have insisted to bring him back as he had been; neither of them had ever seemed concerned that he was a vampire.
And now they were really going to do it.
“Can we at least discuss the wedding’s colors again?” Anya asked sulkily.
“The reason I asked you to come,” he started, shifting slightly so that he could see her more easily, “is to tell you I am leaving Sunnydale.”
He counted three heartbeats before she reacted in any way, and then it was only a light twitch of her eyebrow.
“Where are you going?” she asked, almost emotionlessly.
“Back to London. Permanently.”
Her lack of reaction was unnerving, and Giles stood and started pacing.
“I am a Watcher,” he explained when she had remained quiet for too long. “If you refuse to act as the Slayer, I have no purpose in Sunnydale. Sparring with a robot after it has been repaired to make sure it’s up to par isn’t what I signed up for. So I might as well leave.”
Lie upon lie. The only true words in all of that were that he had spent his afternoon training with that damned robot as it had apparently gone out alone and encountered more than it could take care of by itself.
Even if Buffy wasn’t slaying, he still could fight, night after night, keep an eye on the Hellmouth, wait for her to see reason, and if he wasn’t willing to do that, he couldn’t call himself a Watcher. If nothing else, he had a store to run in Sunnydale, and for that alone he should stay. And that was without even considering the paternal feelings he had developed for her, for the others over the years. But he had hoped that announcing his departure would shake her out of her apathy, and it justified the lies.
To his surprise, and dismay, she smiled. A small, sad smile, but still a smile.
“I understand,” she said quietly. “I’ll miss you, but I understand.”
Resigned, he admitted to himself that he had lost the gamble. She wasn’t going to ask him to stay, which, he could admit to himself at least, he had hoped. She wasn’t going to promise she would start slaying again. Rather, she was willing to let him go rather than come back on her promise. He could almost hear her past words echoing in the room again, strong and filled with all the determination she possessed.
I can’t lose Dawn. Can’t lose anyone else I love. And if I do tonight, I'm done with it, Giles. I'm quitting.
And she had done just that, he had recently realized. She hadn’t simply taken a few weeks off as he had first hoped. She hadn’t put down her stake to give herself time to mourn. She had simply done, once again, what no other Slayer had dared do before her, not without quickly being ‘removed’ by the Council. She had quit. And the only reason she was still alive was that the Slayer line had already passed through her and now rested on another’s shoulders. Was she even aware of the pardon she had received?
“When are you leaving?” she asked after a few instants. “We could… I mean, the gang could do something, maybe, to say goodbye.”
Giles shook his head. “I’d rather avoid that,” he said, and tried not to choke on the words. “I’ve made all the arrangements, I’m leaving tonight.”
The decision hadn’t been easy to make, but he was glad he had made it. To continue watching Buffy as she appeared so indifferent to what was going on around her was beyond him, and as far as he was concerned, she had proved that nothing he could do or say would change anything. He felt a little guilty about leaving the gang to deal with patrols, but they all had choices to make, and he would return if they needed him, he had told them as much. Somehow, he was rather certain that Anya at least wouldn’t mind his departure, not when he was leaving the shop to her care; the others had expressed concerns about having one less fighter by their side, but they understood his decision.
“I’ll miss you,” she repeated as she stood. Coming to him, she gave him a quick hug and, with another sad little smile, left the training room.
“I miss you too,” he replied with a sigh.
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes for a second and centered herself. When she opened them again, she was ready, filled with the utter confidence that soon Spike would be back. She looked at Tara, Xander, and Anya in turn; shadows created by the candles they held were dancing on their faces, making their expressions hard to read. Tara seemed nervous, more than she had ever been so far while they had talked of the spell and gotten ready for it. She hadn’t voiced any outright objections, but there had been times…
Giving a slight shake of her head, Willow focused again. Now wasn’t the time for doubts. She heard herself give a few last recommendations, but already her mind was ahead of that, on the task she was about to perform, on the incredible magic feat that she would accomplish. It wasn’t without dangers, she knew that, but she was confident in her powers, in her preparation, and in the simple fact that what she planned was possible.
Spike’s death had been anything but normal, no stake, beheading or fire, and these instants where he had lain as though sleeping before crumbling to ashes were only further proof of that. He had given his life so that Dawn could live, and, beyond her, Buffy, the gang, the world. Whether his essence had disappeared, or been drawn to hell because he was a demon, or to a hell dimension because of the nature of the portal that had killed him, Willow didn’t know, but she was sure of this one thing – she couldn’t leave him there when it was possible to bring him back. She owed it to him to try, for his sacrifice; she owed it to her best friend, because Buffy deserved to be happy; she owed it to herself, simply because she could. She could already see in her mind’s eyes Spike’s and Buffy’s gratitude, Tara’s and Giles’ pride at what she had proved able to accomplish.
With some trepidation, she plunged a finger in the urn, coating it with blood and then brought it to her forehead. The words rolled off her tongue without a hesitation.
It had begun.
The second time was a bit less pleasant.
It had been months since I had been buried, and the ground was hard and packed. Thankfully, the ashes of what I had been turning into a full, corporeal body cracked the soil, raised it in places, so that it was eventually possible for me to claw my way out. But while I did, I couldn’t see, I inhaled soil when I tried to shout, I was naked and could feel the earth pressing on me from all sides, I…
OK, you get the picture I think. Not pleasant. At all.
But what made it all worse was that when I finally emerged, coughing and dry heaving, bleeding and trembling, I was alone. No one to welcome me into the world, this time. No one to smile at me, hold me, help me.
Nothing but the night, the cold, and the demons.