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There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
- Thornton Wilder

 

Prologue

Run. Just keep running. Run and never look back.

She's not panicking. She's professionally urgent. She's engaging in a strategic retreat. She has a plan and by plan she means the flip side of the fight-or-flight—she already tried fighting and that woman, demony thing, was too strong, so now?

Running.

The man—the monk—in her arms stumbles and collapses to the pavement, slumping against the chain-link fence. He shudders and gasps for air.

"My journey is done, I think." He struggles to speak, voice weak and thin—she recognizes his tone. That tone, that feeling. It's the tone she fights off every night. That urge to give in, to give up, to lie down and just—

"Don't get metaphory on me," she insists, her voice quivering steel. "We're going."

She reaches for him—she'll carry him if she has to—but he grips her with surprising strength, his fingers digging into her arms. "You have to... the Key. You must protect the Key."

"Fine," she says, humoring him, knowing it'll be easier if he agrees to go willingly, knowing it's what he needs to hear. "We can protect the Key together, okay, just far, far from here."

He shivers, his entire body shakes, slurring his words, "Many more… die if you don't keep it safe."

The fear she's been beating back because she refuses to panic, the need to run turns sideways and slivers across her spine. The fear is worse now: the unknown. She can't fight what she doesn't know. She needs details, goals, strengths and weaknesses. She needs an opponent to slay and an innocent to protect. She needs rules—rules to break, rules to dodge, rules to twist to her advantage. More than that, she needs to shake off the uncertainty, the paralysis that comes from not knowing.

He tells her about the Key to a portal, of his brethren who fought for centuries to keep the Key safe from the trashy ho with cement for fists. The roles solidify in her mind, colored in black and white. The monster in a red silk dress is bad and the Key is good. The Key is good and she's human, created by magic and sent to the Slayer for protection.

The players line up in her mind, the face of evil sneering at her with lips painted bright glossy red, but it's only half the puzzle. She needs more pieces. "Who? Protect who?"

"Your… sister. You cannot abandon. She needs you. She's an innocent. Helpless. Please, you must…" He gasps, sharp and hollow, then his eyes glaze over and his body goes lax.

"But I…" She stares into his glassy eyes, his face frozen in a grimace of pain and surrender. Her stomach drops low, lead-heavy. Her arms release the body and fall limp at her sides, fall with the body, down to the ground, gravity pulling everything down. Her fingertips brush against bits of gravel and dirt on the pavement. Her hands are too numb to mind.

Her legs crumple beneath her and she falls back on her haunches. Her mouth contorts, opens and closes. She struggles for words, for sound, releasing a breathless gasp. Finally, her voice shaking and reed-thin, she whispers, "I don't have a sister."

 

*

 

Seven Months Later

"Death is my gift. Death. Just… death." Her brow furrows. "What kind of crappy gift is that anyway?"

"Well, uh, now, are we gonna throw down?" the vampire asks. "Or should I just get on outta here?" He hooks his thumb and points over his shoulder at the entrance to Restfield cemetery.

"What?" Startled, Buffy looks up from her perch sitting on top of a gravestone. "Oh no, we're totally gonna fight, Joe. I just need to vent first. Can I call you Joe? You look like a Joe," she says, studying his shiny belt buckle and scuffed cowboy boots. Arching her back, she pops her neck and sighs. "Where was I?"

"Death." His bumpy vampire brow furrows. "Not my death, I mean, you were sayin'…"

"Right, so my hokey pokey vision quest delivers the message that death is my gift and the first thing I wanna know is, do Slayer's have a special gift exchange policy at Fate's department store? 'Cause this gift? Sucks." Her shoulders slump, her gaze goes distant, then her voice drops low and weary, tinged with sadness. "I guess I always knew it, you know? The job description's right on the label. But in the back of my mind I'd always hoped I could be something… more. And I know my mom…"

Her throat tightens and she forcibly swallows the knot. "My mom's always wanted me to finish school and get out of Sunnydale." She blinks away at the moisture building in her eyes. "She's always wanted grandkids, too. But I'm pretty sure the college degree was a prereq to the whole 'having a family' scenario." She rasps out a laugh, her throat dry and tight. "Guess I can chalk this up to another way I disappointed her."

Joe's eyes widen and he sneaks a glance at his wristwatch.

"Death is my gift," Buffy mutters, before shaking her head and taking a deep breath. "And what does that even mean? Is that all I am? Just the Slayer. Just a killer. I slay until I get slayed by a bigger bad than the one before. Is it like an either or kinda deal? Killer or martyr—you're only one until you're the other?" She huffs out a breath then points in Joe's direction. "It's a trick question and those aren't fair and my English professor says they don't even measure how smart you are or what you've learned, so it's a stupid question and..."

Her indignation fades, her posture deflating. Her eyes droop down and she releases a sigh. "Killer or martyr," she whispers. "I don't wanna be both. I wanna be neither. Neither of the above. Except that's not a choice I get to make." She squeezes her eyes shut, briefly, then stares down at the ground. "It's just so… cold. I'm supposed to be all 'full of love', but I don't even love my…" She bites her lip. "I don't feel anything, and you're supposed to feel something." Her voice breaks and she blinks back tears. "So what am I? Just hard inside? What's wrong with me? It's cruel. I'm cruel."

"Aw, now, you're not cruel." Buffy flinches at the sound of Joe's voice, looking up at him as if she'd forgotten he was there, only now remembering that he's standing in front of her and oh yeah, vampire. "I, uh, I bet you're chock full of mercy. Hoo, daddy. Just look at ya. You've got—why, you've got a gentle soul."

"You're just saying that 'cause you don't want me to dust you." She rolls her eyes. "And what would a vampire like you know about a soul?" She shakes her head. "God, why am I even talking to you?"

Joe looks bewildered by her question and shrugs in a manner Buffy reads as 'aw shucks, ain't I cute for pretending to care about your issues, little lady.' In no mood to be pitied or patronized by a vampire, she cricks her neck and firms the grip on her stake. "Fine, let's get this over with."

"Whoa! Hey now, no need to get up." He takes a step back, throwing his hands up and gesturing for her to stay seated. "You look so comfortable. I'd really hate to trouble ya."

She narrows her eyes, all business now. "Don't make me chase you. You're just gonna make me grumpy. And in my condition…" Struggling to stand, she glances down at her swollen belly straining the stretchy waistband of her black yoga pants. Raising her gaze, she shoots him a Slayer's glare. "You really don't wanna see me grumpy."

Joe eyes the stake held with an easy grip in Buffy's right hand, then watches her press her left hand against the base of her spine, rubbing away at a persistent ache. She wobbles a bit, her center of gravity off. Vulnerable.

A split-second passes, his eyes flash gold, then he lunges for her neck, one hand swatting at the stake and knocking it from her grasp. He's all snarling hunger and chomping teeth until the Slayer's fist cracks into his jaw and sends him flying ten yards back to crash through a headstone.

"See?" Buffy cocks her head to the side, smiling at the sight of Joe doing his best impression of a bobblehead doll watching the pretty birdies dance around his head. "Told ya we'd get to the fighting part."

Scrambling to his feet, head still dazed from the impact to his skull, Joe squints at her and reassesses the situation. Pregnant, pissed off Slayer with a left hook that could pulverize stone and a stake ready and waiting.

Joe runs.

"Hey! I told you not to— Oh crap," Buffy curses, breaking into an awkward half-galloping trot. She shortens the distance between them, spins the stake in her hand and lets it fly through the air to pierce Joe dead between the shoulderblades.

Except not with the piercing because Spike leaps out of nowhere and tackles Joe to the ground. The two vampires are a rolling mass of punches, kicks, snarls and groans, so loud and annoying that the only appropriate response is a put-upon sigh and a glance upwards in supplication. So Buffy glances, sighs, then walks to where her stake's fallen to the ground. Bending her knees, she braces one hand on the base of her spine and leans to the side, contorting her body like this is a game of Twister, bending down till her belly's sticking up towards the sky.

She makes a desperate swipe for the stake, just barely grasping it with the tips of her fingers when Spike hollers, "Stake! Anytime now, love!"

Gee, how can she resist such a charming request?

Standing, stake in hand, she approaches the macho vampire smackdown, inhaling the testosterone in the air. Her lip curls in disgust. Finding an opening, she grabs Spike by the collar and lifts him up till his boots are dangling just above the ground, then she smashes the blunt end of the stake against his forehead—hard. She hopes his forehead gets splinters.

"Ow! Bloody hell, woman! Put me down!"

She smashes the stake into his forehead again. "Not until you get it through your thick skull that I don't need your help." And again. "That I don't want your help and that I… I …"

"That you're an independent lady who doesn't need a man to save her?" Joe suggests as he inches away in a slow backwards crawl, his face now bruised, blood trickling from his busted lip.

"Yeah, that!" Buffy slams the stake against Spike's forehead one last time.

"Oow," Spike drawls, lifting his lip in disgruntlement and scowling at her. "You gonna stop hitting me anytime soon?"

"You gonna stop interfering with my work?"

"Noo," he drawls out the vowel again as if she's too slow to understand the obvious, then points at her rounded belly. "'Cause you're the size of a house and you shouldn't be running around fighting in your condition. Especially not alone."

She blinks and shakes her head, eyes strained wide as she processes his words. "…did you just call me fat?!"

"Pfft, nothing wrong with a little meat on a woman. And it's not like I'm trying to be insulting, it's just…" He eyes her belly, his gaze trailing up to leer at her full breasts. He gives her a knowing look. "You're huge, pet, and you know it."

Struck speechless, Buffy's mouth drops open, her eyes sparking with the beginnings of an incandescent rage.

"It's natural enough, nothing wrong with it. It's an age-old process," Spike reassures her, somehow managing to shrug while suspended in mid-air. His placating expression tightens into a scowl and he stabs an accusing finger at her belly. "Which is why any idiot knows you don't send a walking, talking not-so-Easybake oven out to slay the nasties. Surefire way to put a dent in your Bundt cake." He pauses then raises a superior eyebrow. "Your Watcher should know better. Fact, bet he told you to stay home and you chose not to listen which just makes you ten times a fool. Any wonder I had to step in and save you?"

Jaw clenched, mouth pursed, Buffy grinds out, "No, you're not trying to be insulting. You just are. You exist and it's insulting. So just… shut up."

Spike rolls his eyes. "Sure, I'll shut it. Just as soon as you unclench. Oh, and Lonesome Dove's getting away."

"What?" Buffy drops Spike and whips around to see Joe scrambling to his feet and making a break for it.

Giving her slaying move an encore, she twirls the stake and sends it flying, watching it pierce her target. Poof. Dust. Bye-bye, Joe. Satisfaction rushes along her spine and settles warm in her gut. Her whole body feels alive, tingling from her toes to the tips of her fingers. Oh yeah, this is why she's out hunting in the middle of the night, even though her back aches and her feet are swollen. She just needed a good slay and all's right in her world.

Then she hears Spike mutter, "Ungrateful preggers bint," as he shambles to his feet and she remembers the other annoying vampire on her hands. She plants her fists against her hips, raises an eyebrow and stares at Spike.

He glances over his shoulder then looks back at her. "What?"

"What part of 'leave me alone, you creepy stalker vampire' did you not understand?"

He cocks his head to the side. "You said that? In those exact words?"

"Only a thousand times in a thousand different ways. Most of them involving me punching you in the face. I was hoping to make an impression, but maybe that's why you keep forgetting—brain damage."

"Yeah, must've missed that memo," he says, patting his pockets and pulling out a pack of cigarettes only to pause, glance at her, sigh and stuff them back inside his jacket. "Now, if one of those ways was by carrier pigeon, 'fraid I ate the messenger. Not the most reliable way to get your point across, love. Vampire here."

"Oh, my bad." She inches closer, head tilted back, arms crossed and resting just above the swell of her belly. "How about I tattoo it to your ass? I'm sure you'd notice it then since you stick your head up there every chance you get."

He jabs a finger at her. "And how about I paint 'stop being such a bossy bitch' on your ass? Except you wouldn't see it, would you? Not so limber anymore." He reaches for his smokes again, stops, growls and clenches his fists at his sides. "And even if I did get your soddin' memo, wouldn't have paid it any mind."

"Right, how could you forgo the joys of stalking the person destined to kill you?" She shakes her head in consternation. "Is this how you plan your night? You wake up and think 'huh, I'll go follow Buffy around, get in her way, be a complete annoying jackass and to top it all off, insult her, 'cause that'll win her over.'" She scoffs again, then sneers, "Wow, way to woo me."

Spike huffs out a scoff in return, his shoulders rising with the forced exhale, his entire body putting paid his derision—and Buffy can't help but think all they ever do is scoff at each other.

"That wasn't me wooing. That was the cheeky banter portion of the evening. You shove me around a bit, toss out a few insults, I do the same 'cept less with the physical 'cause you're all delicate and I'm all chipped—" He squints and tilts his head to the side, searching her expression. "Why? Did you want wooing? I can do wooing."

She jumps back and tosses her hand up to hold him off. "Oh god, please don't. Just… don't. I'm going home." She jabs a finger into his chest. "And you—you're not gonna follow me. Got it?"

"Bu—"

"No!" She slaps her hand across his mouth. "No arguing. No stalking. No littering under my mom's favorite tree—cigarette ash is the anti-fertilizer, just so you know. Oh, and by the way, Mom hates picking up cigarette butts and how much do you suck at stalking that you just leave the evidence right there for us to find? No, I don't care. Don't answer that."

Spike raises his eyebrows, his eyes full of mischief, and she can feel his grin spreading wide underneath her hand. Suspicious, she blurts out, "What?"

His eyes flick down to indicate her hand still covering his mouth and she jerks away, convinced he's about to lick her palm. Her cheeks flush. Her palm is warm and how can her palm be warm from touching a vampire? Ooh, bad question. Don't answer that.

"Hmm…" Spike rumbles. He smirks at her, but it's not his disgusted smirk. It's his secretive, all-knowing sexy smirk. His voice is soft, deep and—she hates herself for even thinking it—bedroomy. "Can't keep your hands off me, can you?"

"Ugh!" Buffy spins around and stalks off. She doesn't look back. She refuses to give him the satisfaction of looking back.

Not that it matters. She just knows he's watching her with that cocky expression, the one where he sticks out his tongue and his eyes are all provocative and she doesn't want to think about his tongue except she can see it in her imagination and she just knows he's doing it and ugh.

She hopes her mom has cocoa waiting for her when she gets home. She won't even complain that it's decaf so long as she gets extra marshmallows.

All the extra marshmallows will help her forget the tingle in her spine that tells her Spike's following her home.

 

*

Chapter Text

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The simple lack of her is more to me than others' presence.
- Edward Thomas

 

She's climbing her front porch steps when she hears a branch snap in the bushes to her right. Halfway tempted to ignore him, Buffy decides ignoring Spike comes off as tacit approval of his stalking and maybe it's time to try punching him in the face again. She's pretty sure he finds the physical punishment a turn-on and it's not like it's worked in the past, but looking on the bright side: the venting will make her feel better.

Her hand shoots into the bushes, grabs him by the collar and yanks him out. Now if the rattle of chainmail isn't enough to clue her in to the not-Spikeness of the man in the bushes, the Ren Faire outfit drives the point home. Sir Knight of the Dark and Wavy Hair grunts in surprise and reaches for the sword sheathed at his belt.

With her free hand, Buffy clamps down onto his wrist as his hand tightens on the sword's helm. She lifts him by the collar and shakes him, sending his chainmail jingling. "You really about to attack a poor helpless pregnant woman? Doesn't that go against your code? I guess chivalry really is dead."

"My honor is devoted to one purpose and one purpose alone," Sir Knight vows, struggling to release his wrist from iron grip. "The Key must be destroyed and any who protect it will fall by my sword."

Releasing her hold on his collar, she swipes the sword from his grasp as he falls to his knees. She points the blade's tip at his neck. "I think you're the only one who's gonna be falling tonight."

"Do your worst," he dares, staring at her with eyes free of fear. "More will come. I am not the first and I will not be the last."

"No, you're not the first," she agrees, her voice grim. She presses the blade against his throat. "More will come? When?"

"Soon. Soon you will know."

She grits her teeth. "How many more?"

His smile is defiant, his eyes alight with a zealot's faith. "An army of the righteous, great in number, pure of heart. You stand fast now, Chosen One, but you cannot hope to stand long. The Key will fall and your"—he glances at her rounded abdomen—"condition will not save you."

Buffy grabs him by the front of his chainmail and jerks him forward. The tip of the blade nicks his neck. First blood drawn. She pulls him closer, till mere inches separate them, snarls, "Get out of my town," then shoves him to the ground.

She climbs the front porch steps, turns to glare at him. "If I ever see you here again…"

"When you see me again, I will not be alone," he says, rising to his feet. "Your guardianship of the Key will end in bloodshed if you refuse to surrender. This I swear."

Her heart trips at his promise of an enemy she can't overcome. She steels her spine and refuses to allow fear to show in her eyes. Raising the sword, she adjusts her grip, aims, and throws it like a spear, the blade piercing the grass in between the knight's feet. "Take your sword and your honor and get out. You're not welcome here."

She opens the front door, walks inside and closes it, turning the deadbolt and peering through the adjacent window. The knight picks up his sword and retreats into the shadows.

"Buffy? Is that you? Are you all right?"

Starting at the sound of her mother's voice, she checks to make sure the knight is gone, then calls back, "Yeah, I'm home, I'm good," and walks to the kitchen.

She finds her mother and Giles sitting at the kitchen island, a tea pot on the stove and ingredients for hot chocolate stacked neatly on the counter. Giles raises an eyebrow in her direction, sighs and takes a sip of tea. She reads disappointment in his lifted brow, frustrated acceptance in the sigh, and knows the sip of tea is meant to soothe and bolster his patience. She imagines him thinking, Dear Lord, give me strength.

"Buffy, we've been talking and…" Joyce trails off, looking to Giles for support.

"And you reconsidered the decaf cocoa?" Buffy offers, bright and hopeful. "'Cause I heard caffeine's okay in small doses."

"Buffy," Joyce says, sending out waves of gentle reproach.

"Okay, I officially feel like I'm caught in a time warp. You guys are acting like I'm still a teenager breaking the rules." Buffy walks to the counter and fiddles with the bag of marshmallows. "I get it. You're mad about my patrolling alone and you want me to stop. Except I can't. If I stopped… Giles, you know what would happen if I stopped. Demons would have a field day and not the kind where you hand out ribbons for participation 'cause everyone's a winner."

"No one's suggesting you stop." Giles sets aside his cup and leans forward. "Just that you take precautions."

"And I do. I'm a precautionary tale. I took a crossbow with me tonight—long distance slaying." Buffy bites her lip then adds, "It just got broken when I used it to smash in a Gravlok demon's face."

"And this happened moments ago? Naturally the loss of the crossbow ended your patrol."

"Yeah, not exactly." Buffy picks out a few marshmallows and starts rolling them into a ball between her thumb and index finger. "I might've staked a few more vampires first."

"Buffy, I don't understand." Joyce stands and pulls the bag of marshmallows away. "You've always complained about having to slay. And now you're responsible for your baby and yet you…"

"You continue to leap headfirst into danger," Giles finishes.

"It's not my baby," Buffy mutters.

Joyce frowns. "Buffy…"

"It's not." Buffy closes her fist around the marshmallows in her hand, squeezing the ball flat. "I understand what I have to do. I have to protect the Key. But just 'cause the monks decided to mess up their spell and mystically knock me up doesn't mean I'm gonna change how I… I'm still the Slayer. And I can't keep the Key safe if I'm not out there, showing everyone I'm still getting it done. If I stay home, the demons run wild. If I let anyone do my job for me, they'll think I'm weak. Or worse, one of you guys will get hurt." She sighs and drops the ball of marshmallow mush on the counter. "I know my limits, okay? I'm being careful."

"Not careful enough," Joyce counters. "You have to be responsible now."

"I am responsible," Buffy says, avoiding her mother's gaze. "I'm always responsible. Kinda getting tired of that."

"Buffy, you don't have a choice."

"I know that," Buffy snaps, hurt. "You think I don't know that?"

"And yet you've starting patrolling alone in the past few weeks," Giles notes, his voice calm. "You've ignored all the precautions we've taken thus far. The first being that you don't patrol alone."

"You and Spike should start a club," Buffy grumbles.

"As horrifying the thought may be that I agree with Spike about anything, it's worse knowing he's showing more sense than you."

"You're close to term, sweetheart," Joyce added. "I think cutting back now would be a good idea."

"Has it occurred to you that maybe I wanna keep my life as normal as possible? And I'm fully aware of the irony that normal for me means slaying demons. I… I can't control what happens to my body anymore. I didn't get a choice"—Buffy slashes her hand through the air—"but I'm in charge of what I do and how I do it. And I'm not gonna sit back and play happy homemaker. Not doing my job isn't gonna keep the Key safe."

"We're not asking you to stop," Joyce says, "just that you should slow down. Let us help you."

Buffy sighs and looks away. "I know."

"You've been pushing yourself harder these past few weeks," Giles says again, a question buried in his tone.

"It's been quiet on the Glory front," Buffy offers. "Quiet in a twitchy, bad way."

"You suspect she's planning something?" Giles asks.

"I think time is running out," Buffy says, remembering the knight's warning. "In more ways than one." She looks down and reaches to touch her belly, then stops and grips the edge of the countertop. "What if something else goes wrong? The monks' spell already shorted a wire right out the gate. What if…? It would've been so much easier if... It would've been better."

"There's no way to know, to anticipate how things might have gone differently. As for what's to come, I expect your mother has more insight."

"Dr. Freeman says everything looks normal—"

"Looking normal isn't gonna cut it, Mom. Whatever this is, it's not normal."

"It's a normal, healthy baby girl," Joyce adds softly.

"Right. Normal." Avoiding her mother's gaze, Buffy pushes away from the counter. "Rain check on the late night hot chocolate? I just wanna get some sleep."

"We'll talk strategy in the morning." Giles nods at her, his expression softening. "Get some rest."

Buffy nods, smiles on reflex when her mother squeezes her hand, then retreats to her bedroom. She lies awake for hours, hands resting at her sides, wishing she could forget the bump every time the baby kicks. She pretends she's not mystically pregnant, that she's just like every other college sophomore who lives at home to save money. That her boyfriend left town for a job and not because he was freaked out by the baby that came out of nowhere and is most definitely not his. She lets her mind drift back and imagine how things might have been, imagining a different life until the pressure on her bladder becomes unbearable.

She forces herself out of bed, feeling the weight of her distended belly change the way she moves. How she walks, how she stands, how she's different. She walks across the hall to the bathroom, turns on the light and looks in the mirror. She lays a hand on her stomach, her palm tingling, and blanches at the feeling of wrongness.

It doesn't feel natural, it doesn't feel right, it doesn't feel like her body anymore. Not hers. She turns off the light, not wanting to see herself in the mirror anymore, then sits on the toilet, wishing the bulk at her middle weren't so… in the way. It makes it harder to ignore when it's always there.

She walks back to her bedroom, climbs carefully into bed and lies on her back. When sleep finally takes hold, she dreams of an army of knights, of Glory discovering she's pregnant with the Key, of her wandering through a hospital corridor with blood draining from her body. She dreams of wounds bleeding, warm and slick, of pain leeching away life, each thread yanked loose by a cold, numbing grip. Death. She feels the world end, torn open, ripped at the seams.

She awakens to the echo of a scream.

Blinking, she shakes off the sluggish haze of sleep and glances at the bedside clock. 9 a.m. Her mom must've let her sleep in.

A crash sounds below, she hears a whimper, and the scream echoes in her mind again, not as a dream but a memory. She pushes herself out of bed and rushes down the hallway, racing towards the stairs. Her mom is crawling into the front hallway, clutching at her right arm, and Buffy flies down the steps, stumbling and nearly falling in her urgency. Then she sees Glory standing off to the side, in the living room, smiling and twirling a fireplace poker in her hand.

"Wakey wakey, Slayer runt," Glory drawls and lifts an eyebrow at Buffy's flannel pajamas, noticing her pregnant stomach. "Or not such a runt, huh? See, this is what happens when you sleep the day away—you start to lose that girlish figure. I told your mommy dearest you'd wanna join the party, but she kept insisting you needed your beauty sleep. Personally, I don't see how sleep is gonna improve that bird's nest hair you've got going on—"

"Save the fashion advice for the sycophants," Buffy snaps, resisting the urge to comb her fingers through her knotted hair. She steps in front of her mom, standing between her and Glory. "If I wanna downgrade my look to streetcorner ho, I'll give you a call."

"Rude! Here I am a guest in your dingy little suburban hellhole and you're insulting me? I should've figured. First you steal my Key and you refuse to give it back. Selfish, unreasonable, not what I'd call a gracious host. And now you're mouthing off. No no no. The insults keep adding up." Glory glances down at Joyce kneeling at Buffy's feet, then smiles and lowers the fireplace poker, aiming it at Buffy's belly. "You know how I balance out all those insults? Injury. I've never met a problem I couldn't solve with a whole mess of pain."

Joyce moans softly and the sound makes Buffy shudder and clench her fists. "Get out of my house."

"Humans are so fragile. Bones snapping like twigs. Just a little poke and you're gushing blood over these hardwood floors." Glory presses the poker against Buffy's belly, flicks her eyes down at Joyce and smirks. "You're lucky I didn't break her neck." Glory's grin reminds Buffy of a shark, a hungry heartless predator. "Now, I'd love to stay and chat, but I've got places to be and you've got a Key to rustle up and hand deliver. So consider this your first and only warning. Next time, the gloves come off." Glory taps Buffy's belly with the poker's edge. "Got it?"

Buffy stands still, her hand on her mother's shoulder, unflinching, watching the front door close shut behind Glory. The panic freezing her muscles melts away and she slumps to her knees, holding her mom close, careful to avoid putting pressure on the arm Joyce's clutching to her chest. She notices a trail of blood at her mom's temple and chokes back a sob.

Staying safe at home isn't an option anymore.

 

*

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I am two fools, I know, for loving and saying so.
- John Donne

 

"I'll be right there," Giles tells her and the line clicks dead. Buffy stands with the hard plastic receiver still pressed to her ear, listening to the dial tone.

"Miss Summers?" a man asks from behind her and Buffy turns, phone receiver still in hand. The man is tall with sandy brown hair and kind eyes, a clipboard in one hand, a stethoscope hanging around his neck. The blue scrubs bring out the color in his eyes.

Blue. Her mom always loved that color. The ocean is blue and the sky is—

"Buffy Summers?"

Buffy blinks and refocuses on his face. "Yes?"

He smiles and it's impersonal, but still kind and sympathetic. "I wanted to give you an update on your mother's condition. She's been taken to get her arm x-rayed. Standard procedure. Your mother also has some severe blunt force trauma—"

"She hit her head," Buffy murmurs, her gaze losing focus. She imagines Glory throwing her mom across her living room.

"Right," he nods, "which is why she's going to need a CT scan. It's going to be a few hours before we have the results." He glances down at the phone clutched in Buffy's hand. "Is someone coming to wait with you?"

"Someone's coming," she repeats, the words simple, slow and measured.

"Okay, good. Look if you need anything"—he reaches to touch her shoulder, then stops and lets his hand fall—"just let me know. My name's Ben. Oh, and congratulations."

Her forehead screws up and she stares at him, confused.

Ben's smile wobbles and he fills the silence with an awkward laugh. "How far along are you?"

"Oh," she blurts out, laying a hand on her stomach. "Uh, far. A few more weeks."

"Right, well, if you need anything…" He's still smiling, waiting for her to respond and all she can think to say is she needs to kill something with her bare hands, but she doubts he's offering that as an option.

The muscles in her face feel stiff when she forces a smile. "Thanks, I'll—uh, let you know."

Buffy watches Ben walk away, then moves to sit in one of the plastic chairs in the ER's waiting room, only the metal cord jerks her arm and she realizes she's still holding the phone. She hangs it up with a quiet click and sits down. The background chatter plays in the distance: computer keys click, a phone rings, double doors swish open and shut, shoes squeak on the white linoleum tile, a drop of coffee plops into the pot, a wheelchair's spokes whir and hum, murmuring voices are interrupted by the occasional loud cough.

She sits quietly, perfectly still, and waits. That's what the room is for, right?

That's what rooms are for. Places are for specific activity. She trains in her training room. She sleeps in her bedroom. She slays vampires in graveyards. She researches demons wherever Giles is and Giles is almost always at the Magic Box aka research central. Her mom cooks in the kitchen and then Buffy puts the dishes in the dishwasher. The laundry goes in the laundry basket. Her weapons go in the weapons' chest at the foot of her bed. Everything has its place.

Only Glory doesn't belong in her living room and living rooms aren't places where you make death threats. There's a time and a place, but the rules keep getting broken.

"Are you all right?" Giles asks, and Buffy lifts her head, surprised to find him sitting next to her.

"Where is everybody?" she asks instead, unsure how to answer his question.

"Anya's minding the shop, I left a message for Xander at work, and Willow and Tara are in class, but coming over as soon as they can. Any word on your mother's condition?"

"Still waiting. X-rays and a CT scan," she recites. "Just standard procedure stuff."

Giles nods and lays his hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently before sliding down to rub her back. She breaks down at the comforting touch, her throat tightens, and she forcibly swallows the ball of emotion threatening to spill out. She takes a deep breath, then another and manages to say, "You said you wanted to talk strategy."

Hands now resting on his thighs, Giles shakes his head. "We can do that later."

Buffy turns to look at him, eyes clear and grave. "I think we should do that now."

 

*

 

There's a patch of moss climbing up the side of the crypt and she's never noticed the crack in the outer door before. Did she put that crack in the door? Maybe the last time she slammed through it. Or Spike busted it open in a fit of rage. Or he got into a fight with some demons and they vandalized his crypt—cracking doors is pretty weak in terms of demon vengeance, but maybe they're the more cuddly sort of demons. It also wouldn't explain the moss unless they were Moss demons. Algae demons?

"You planning on coming inside or is this payback loitering?"

She whips around to find Spike standing at arm's length, a paper bag full of groceries tucked in the crook of his elbow. He lifts an eyebrow.

"What?" she snaps and crosses her arms over her chest.

He nods at the crypt behind her. "You coming in or not?"

"No, I'm not coming in," she retorts, already feeling a scoff imminent. She feels her body go loose and suddenly she's absurdly happy for the normalcy of being annoyed with Spike.

"Suit yourself," he says with a shrug, walking past her and disappearing inside, the crypt's heavy door slamming shut behind him.

She stares at the door, incredulous, then darts forward, throws the door open and stomps inside. "I shouldn't have even come here," she tosses the words across the room at him where he's bent over, stacking pints of blood in his small, corner refrigerator.

"Probably right," he agrees, glancing at her over the refrigerator door, "but since you came all this way, risking life and pregnant limb, might as well state your business. To what do I owe the pleasure of your uptight, holier-than-thou, know-it-all, self-righteous, bugger-all-sense company?"

She flinches, raises her arms and crosses them just beneath her breasts, then turns her head to side. Her throat feels tight again, probably because her chest feels like it's being squeezed in a vice. She opens her eyes extra-wide hoping the stuffy air will dry them out.

"Oh, great. Silent treatment. You gonna scowl at me all night? Got better things to do, love. Not that I don't appreciate your disapproving looks—actually I don't, but—"

"Can you just not?" she whispers, and hates her voice for wobbling.

He stops, closes the refrigerator door and walks to stand in front of her, head cocked to the side. "What is it?"

She breathes deep, calms the jumping in her stomach, and faces him. Quiet and grave, she tells him, "I have to leave Sunnydale."

He squints at her. "And you came to say goodbye?"

She takes a deep breath. "And I want you to come with me. I—I need you to come with me." As soon as the words are out, she lowers her gaze, stares past his shoulder to the dusty corner above the refrigerator and starts noting the pattern of the cobwebs.

"All right," he agrees readily. Then his expression turns curious. "Go where exactly?"

"Where?" she echoes, then lets out a dry laugh. "Elsewhere. Someplace that's not here."

"Sunnyhell get a bit too lively for you? Right, then. Just you and me and the open road. Gonna need to round up some wheels first. When do you wanna leave?"

"Tomorrow. And it's not just you and me. That's the whole point. I need you to help protect my family. My friends."

"So, not a romantic getaway?"

"No!" She pushes away from him and paces, only to spin around and throw her hands in the air. "I've got an angry hellgod and an army of bad coming after me and you think I wanna take a romantic getaway? With you? God, is that all you think about?"

"Well, I'm in love with you, so yeah, pretty much. All goddamn day and all goddamn night."

She tosses up her hand, holding him off. "Stop. Don't say it. I don't wanna hear it. You don't even know what that means," she nearly snarls, feeling her voice turn bitter and hateful.

His eyes are blazing and insistent. "I know what love is."

She scoffs like she always does. "How could you?"

The fire in his eyes dims, no longer blazing, just soft and warm, a single focused light. "How could I not?" He laughs at himself, softly, bemused. "How could I not love you?"

"I told you I don't wanna hear it. I can't. So stop. Just stop." Her voice breaks and she closes her eyes. She crosses her arms again, hugging herself, head bowed. Then, she looks up and continues harshly, but quietly, "I don't have time for your games. Do you understand? Tell me you understand. Tell me I can count on you to do what has to be done. To protect them. And if you tell yourself you're doing it 'cause you love me, that's fine. I don't care why. Just do it."

He's the first to lower his gaze. Then he nods. "I keep my promises."

"Good." She walks past him, pauses at the crypt door and turns back. "Just don't say it, okay?"

He's half turned away, his profile to her. He doesn't turn to face her, just stands still as a statue when he says in a dull voice, "Right. Nothing to say."

Hand braced on the door, she says, "I'll see you tomorrow," and lets the door slam shut behind her.

*

 

"So the plan is to run away?" Anya asks, then nods approval at Buffy who's pacing the living room of Xander's apartment. "That's a solid plan. Nice to see you talking sense. Many women at your late stage in pregnancy are prone to hormonal mood swings and emotional fits. Maybe it's your Slayer genes kicking in."

"Right, because you can't trust the women folk to use logic when they've got buns in the oven," Willow snarks, rolling her eyes.

"Speaking of buns," Xander announces, closing the front door and holding up a white rectangular box. "I've got Cinnabuns fraternizing with glazed and jelly donuts. Gotta carb up for the cross-country fleeing."

"Guys, keep it down. My mom's resting in the other room," Buffy says, still pacing the room. "And dibs on the chocolate glazed."

"Don't eat all the jellies," Giles mutters, peering up from inspecting a highway map spread out on the kitchen table, his glasses dangling on the tip of his nose. Tara swipes a jelly donut from the box, lays it on a plate, carries it over and rests it on the table next to Giles' elbow. "Ah, thank you," he murmurs, smiling and taking a bite as he continues plotting course.

"So what's the what?" Xander asks, chomping down on a classic glazed donut. "When are we hightailing it? Isn't it time to hit the road, Jack? Gotta get outta Dodge, pals? I'm just gonna keep going until someone answers."

Anya smiles and pats Xander's knee, her mouth busy chewing on a Cinnabun.

"We're…" Buffy sighs. "We're waiting for Spike."

"We're what?" Xander spits, then begins to choke on a piece of donut caught in his throat.

"We're waiting for Spike to show up with a stolen vehicle large enough for everyone," Anya explains, pounding Xander on the back.

A loud horn honks repeatedly from down below. Buffy opens the living room window, waves, then rolls her eyes when the horn keeps honking. Realizing the sun is out and Spike won't be looking up to see her, she grabs a donut, aims, and lobs it at the windshield of the battered Winnebago. The horn stops honking.

"Okay, guys, downstairs in five minutes," Buffy orders, heading to the back room to wake her mom.

"Time to pack your bags and get gone," Xander quotes.

"You're gonna stop doing that once we're on the road, right?" Willow asks, slinging a bag over her shoulder and helping Tara lift a suitcase upright on its wheels.

"Sure. Once we're on the road, I'm gonna start ninety-nine bottles of beer."

"Oh, I know that one!" Anya jumps in. "And then we can sing ''Enry the Eighth' like Patrick Swayze in Ghost."

"God help us all," Giles mutters, shaking his head.

Willow leans in close to Giles. "I thought we were getting out of town to avoid the violence?"

 

*

Chapter Text

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Love, free as air at sight of human ties, spreads his light wings, and in a moment flies.
-Alexander Pope

 

"How are you feeling?" Buffy asks, closing the door to the back room of the RV behind her.

Joyce is lying on the small sofa bench, her cast resting on her stomach, her other arm thrown over her eyes to shield her from the sunlight sneaking through the blinds.

"Better. Still tired, but better." Joyce sighs and sits up, allowing room for Buffy to sit next to her. Buffy shuffles forward, swaying with the motion of the Winnebago, and sits. "How are you holding up?"

"I'm…" Buffy stares down at her feet. "I'm fine."

"It's not your fault," Joyce says, resting a hand on Buffy's knee and squeezing.

"I was being reckless and you got hurt. Seems pretty clear to me. I wasn't thinking. I wasn't planning ahead. And I let this happen." Buffy presses her lips together and blinks back tears. "I'm sorry, Mom."

"Oh, Buffy, you couldn't have planned ahead for this." Joyce pulls Buffy into a hug, tugging her head down to rest against her shoulder, then stroking Buffy's hair. Joyce sighs into her daughter's hair and kisses her temple. "You have too much responsibility. I see that. Too much to handle all at once. Everyone feels they make mistakes."

"Except when I make mistakes, people get hurt. People I love. She could've killed you," Buffy breathes, tears overflowing, her fingers clutching at her mom, squeezing tight.

"And I'm right here and everything's okay." Joyce brushes away the tears on Buffy's cheeks. With an encouraging smile, she asks, "So, how's everyone else?"

"Well, Giles just threatened to stake Spike if he didn't hand over the wheel. Spike's idea of driving is trying to run over any car not going fifteen miles over the speed limit."

Joyce chuckles. "That would explain the nausea earlier."

"I dunno," Buffy says, looking around the worn décor of the tiny back room. "These orange plaid curtains make me wanna vomit."

"Buffy, was it really necessary to bring him along?" Buffy looks away when her mom says 'him'. "You're—it's almost like you're encouraging him. I just…"

"I'm not. This is not personal. It's one hundred percent not personal," Buffy insists. "Spike's a good fighter. One of the best. And if it gets bad, I'd feel better knowing he's there to keep you safe."

Joyce sighs and strokes Buffy's arm. "And what about you?"

Buffy gives her best reassuring smile. "I can keep myself safe."

A resounding crash sounds as a javelin slams through the back window, spraying shattered glass around the room.

"Mom, get down!" Buffy shouts, grabbing her by the shoulders and pushing her to the floor. Together, they crawl to the door and slide into the main compartment, closing the door behind them. "Giles! How many?"

He checks the side mirrors. "A dozen, at least."

"Looks like the Renaissance brigade's come to throw down." Spike's standing in the middle of the cabin, hand braced against the wall. "They couldn't've waited till nightfall for the hijinks?" He notices Willow sitting in the corner, eyes closed, murmuring to herself. "What's with her?"

"She's doing a protection spell," Tara explains, leaning over to watch Willow anxiously.

"What?" Buffy asks, letting go of the blinds she'd been peering through. She turns to look at Tara. "I thought we couldn't do a protection spell 'cause we're moving."

Tara clasps Willow's hands to ground her. "It's dangerous, but not impossible."

"Oooow," Willow groans, opening her eyes and wiping at her bloody nose. "That didn't work."

"I'm ready!" Anya shouts, holding a cast iron frying pan high above her head.

Xander eyes her choice of weapon skeptically. "Ahn, honey, we're not fighting Looney Tunes here."

"Arrgh!" Spike yelps as another javelin breaks through the window to his left and slams into the opposite wall, the broken window letting in sunlight that sears his eyes, forcing him to jump back.

A gloved hand and an arm covered in chainmail reaches through the window, the knight's helmet following, only to be met by a solid whack to the skull. Anya swings the skillet again with all her strength.

"Take that! And that!"

"Everyone, don't panic," Buffy orders, "stay calm and keep your heads lo—"

A sword slices through the ceiling, slamming down towards Buffy's head, only to be stopped by Spike's lightning fast reflexes. Buffy jerks around and stares at Spike.

"Now would be a good time for something heroic." Spike grimaces, barely holding onto the blade as it slices through his hands.

Searching the cabin, Buffy notices the trapdoor in the ceiling, pulls over a chair and gets ready to jump up.

"Uh, Buffy?" Willow says, eyeing Buffy's pregnant belly. "You're not gonna fit through that. And even if you did…"

Jumping back down, Buffy rifles through the kitchenette drawers and the storage closet, finally stopping when she finds a shank of rope in the utility closet. "Anya, I need that frying pan."

"Get your own weapon," Anya retorts, gripping the skillet firmly with both hands.

Buffy rolls her eyes and grabs the skillet out of Anya's hand, then threads the rope through the eyelet at the skillet's handle. "Spike, stop playing with that sword and help me up."

"Who's playing?" Spike growls and bends the sword up towards the ceiling till it breaks in two. "Not exactly katana-strength, mate."

Buffy waits, standing on the chair underneath the trapdoor, then gestures for Spike to turn around and bend over.

"What are you on, woman?"

"I'm gonna stand on you."

"Harris is right. This isn't Looney Tunes, it's the bloody circus!"

"Spike! Less arguing, more doing what I tell you to."

"Buffy, be careful," Joyce calls out from her perch underneath the kitchenette table.

"Be back in a few, Mom," and then Buffy's rising up out the trapdoor, standing on Spike's back while he bends over, clutching his coat over his head to keep the indirect sunlight from singing his scalp.

The second her head pops through the trapdoor, a knife is slicing at her throat. She blocks with the flat base of the iron skillet, upsetting the knight's grip and knocking the blade from his hand. The knife skitters across the roof and falls off out of sight. Undaunted, the knight punches her in the temple and she slams back against the trap door's edge, her feet slipping across Spike's back. The skillet drops from her grip and slides off the edge of the roof, snapping the rope taut and jerking her wrist where it's tied.

"Hold on!" Spike calls, shuffling beneath her. He grabs her feet and lifts her up to stand on his shoulders, his hands grasping her feet to hold her steady. She dodges another punch and catches the knight's foot mid-kick, twisting his leg and tossing him to the side, watching him slip off the rooftop.

"One down," she mutters, and starts pulling the rope to get the skillet back in hand, but not quick enough. A knight grabs hold and clambers on top of the roof, holding an axe. Firming her grip on the rope, she yanks it hard and starts swinging the skillet in the air, building momentum before she aims and releases it. The skillet strikes, thunking against the knight's head—he stumbles backwards, trips and falls off the roof.

Buffy grins only to fall against the side of the roof opening as the Winnebago veers sharply to the left.

"Don't hit the horsies!" Willow calls from down below.

Then Spike growls, "Hit 'em harder!"

The Winnebago changes course, careening to the right and Buffy hears the sounds of horses neighing. Seconds later, she sees half a dozen horses halting in the middle of the road and bucking on their hindquarters, tossing their riders to the ground.

Seeing the roof clear, Buffy bends down to peer into the cabin. "Everyone okay?"

A sound of glass shattering, and Giles groans, the Winnebago jerks hard to the right and runs off the road, tires bursting. The vehicle tilts off balance and rolls on its side, metal screeching against the ground. Spike grabs Buffy's knees and pulls her down into the cabin, wrapping his arms around her and hugging her close as everyone's tossed around the cabin.

"Buffy?" Spike's lying beneath her, both hands gripping her arms to hold her up, her belly pressing into his abdomen. His back is braced against the cabinets, the wood paneling now making up the floor in the overturned cabin.

"I'm good." She nods and pushes herself up, scanning the room, seeing Willow and Tara rising to their feet, Xander holding Anya in his arms. "Mom?"

Joyce climbs out from behind the overturned kitchenette table, a shaken smile and a nod all she can manage. Buffy untangles herself from Spike's legs, yanks the rope off her wrist and crawls towards the front, climbing through the narrow doorway turned on its side. She finds Giles lying on top of the passenger side window, tossed from the driver's seat when the Winnebago flipped.

"Giles?"

He doesn't answer so she reaches for his arm, then pauses at the sight of blood staining his shirt. She looks up and sees the front windshield is broken, a hole punched through it by a spear now dangling above the driver's seat. Her heart stutters in her chest and she falls forward, grabbing Giles' wrist with one hand, the other reaching to touch his throat—she searches for a pulse, her hands shaking from adrenaline and shock.

She whimpers, "Giles?" and feels the blood rushing from her head.

He doesn't answer.

 

*

 

"Spike, get the door," Buffy orders, adjusting her grip under Giles' armpits. Xander and Anya stumble behind her, holding his legs upright. "Guys, hold him steady."

She hears Spike growl behind her, then the sound of him kicking the rusty door in and rushing inside the ramshackle gas station a half-mile from where they'd crashed. The sun's beating down hot, baking the sand till it burns through her shoes. Buffy spies a table inside the main room and guides Giles toward it, waiting for Spike to shove it clear before setting him down.

"Buffy, he needs a doctor," her mom says, laying a hand on Giles forehead.

"I know. I—Willow?" Buffy turns and sees her friend sitting in the middle of the room, chanting. Confused, she says, "Tara?"

"Protection barrier," Tara explains. "We can set one up now that we're not moving."

"G-good. What about a healing spell?"

Tara stands closer and lays her hands over the wound at Giles' abdomen. She's quiet, eyes closed, then says, "If we can stop the bleeding…"

"Here," Xander hands his jacket to Tara, who bundles it up and presses it down on the wound.

"He still needs a doctor," Joyce adds. "He could have a concussion."

"So we're trapped in an abandoned gas station with an army on our tail? You suck at running away," Anya says, shaking her head at Buffy.

"No more running," Buffy murmurs, holding Giles hand. His breathing is shallow, so faint she almost misses it each time his chest rises and falls, but it's there. "I need a phone."

 

*

 

The hours pass. Everyone hunkers down and waits. Tara remains standing, chanting and channeling the healing energy of the Earth through her hands, all in hopes of keeping Giles stabilized. Buffy paces, unable to stay still, pausing only to grimace when a sharp pressure reverberates through her belly. She ignores the pain. Too much to worry about as it is.

"We've got company," Xander says grimly, peering through the window. Buffy joins him, standing at his side.

An army of knights stand outside, surrounding the building. A real army. How many? A hundred men? Oh, god. Two men dressed in monks robes stride to the front, rosaries dangling from their hands. They press closer to the protective barrier and begin chanting.

"Wills, how's the barrier holding up?" Buffy shoots a tense look over her shoulder.

Leaving Tara's side, Willow walks to the center of the room and sits cross-legged on the floor. She closes her eyes, brow furrowed, and reaches inward. "It's holding, but it's not gonna last long. A few hours, maybe less."

"We're all gonna die," Anya says. She's sitting on a dusty countertop, an empty bag of potato chips clutched in her hand.

"Ahn…" Xander frowns.

"We are!" Anya jumps down off the countertop and stalks over to Xander. "Giles is bleeding like a stuck pig and he's unconscious and—and Willow's magical barrier's gonna fall down and she'll be so exhausted from keeping it up that she'll flop over like a limp noodle. Joyce has only one good arm and she's old and has no fighting experience. Tara feels guilty when she accidentally swats a mosquito, so she's useless. Spike can't hit humans 'cause he's a neutered puppy." She points at Buffy. "And Buffy's pregnant so she's got a huge handicap to keep her from going all fierce Slayer. And—and she stole my frypan and never gave it back, so I'm completely unarmed." She pauses in her rant and frowns at Xander. "And you're mortal and vulnerable to swords with the cutting and the maiming which is just gonna lead to me screaming and doing something stupid to save you." Anya swallows back a sob. "So we're all gonna die!"

"Ahn…" Xander pulls her into his arms.

"She's right," Spike says, tightening the piece of cloth wrapped around the cuts in his hands.

"No," Buffy counters. "We're good, we just have to—"

"What? Wait for the barrier to fall so they can come in and slaughter us?"

"Like stuck pigs," Anya whimpers into Xander's chest.

"We need a plan. A diversion. Something," Spike insists.

Buffy clenches her jaw, riding out another wave of pain in her abdomen. She pushes past it. "We stand our ground and fight."

"We stand our ground—this ground—and we'll lose. Can't win like this, love. You know it."

"Buffy, you can't protect all of us," Joyce says, standing close. She lays a hand on Buffy's belly. "You have to protect her first. I want you to protect my granddaughter. You hear me?"

"Mom…? I'm not—I'm not leaving you. Even if I could, I wouldn't. But I can't—we're surrounded. No way out."

"I could make a way out," Willow says. "A door in the barrier."

"It wouldn't work," Buffy denies. "The second we walked through it, they'd be all over us."

"We—we could do an invisibility spell. Like w-what I d-did before to…" Tara trails off.

"The 'see no demons' spell?" Willow asks. "It might work on a Slayer if we tweaked it."

"Still works on demons, right?" Spike adds.

Buffy slashes her hand through the air. "No, I'm not leaving you guys."

"Of course you're not, Buff," Xander agrees.

"Yes, you are," Anya insists, lifting her head from Xander's chest. "Because they're all coming after you and maybe if you're not here, they won't kill us all. Giles is as good as gone. Who's next?" Anya finishes on a sob, prompting Xander to pull her back into his embrace.

The accusation twists in Buffy's gut and she drops her gaze, flinching at the sight of Giles lying prone on the table from the corner of her eye.

Joyce squeezes Buffy's hand. "You have to go, sweetheart. There's a better chance for everyone if you go."

"Mom, no…"

Joyce smiles and squeezes her hand again.

"So," Spike says, breaking the silence, "When do we leave?"

 

*

Chapter Text

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There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
- I John ch IV v 18

 

They wait until nightfall.

"Hurry up, Slayer."

"Why don't I strap a bowling ball to your stomach and see how fast you go on an uphill sprint?"

"Want me to carry you?"

"And that would make us go faster how? Gah." Buffy stops and bends at the knees, her belly tightening. She pants, breathing through it, waiting for the pressure to fade away.

The sprint takes them a half mile away from the gas station, the army's bonfire glowing in the distance. Spike stands a few yards off, further up the sandy hill. A moment later, his hands grip her shoulders, causing her to flinch, then she growls and snaps, "Don't even try it," when he starts to lift her.

"Either you let me carry you or you get up and move your ass."

She glares and pushes forward, her flat shoes sinking into the ground, the cuffs of her maternity jeans collecting grains of sand. When she stomps past him, she says, "Happy now?"

"Ecstatic."

They trudge on, up and down the sandy dunes glistening in the moonlight, Buffy pushing in the lead only to stop every few minutes from the tightening pain shooting across her abdomen, Spike then goading her on with insults and impatience. On the crest of a dune, the tightening in her abdomen bursts and liquid flushes down her legs.

"Oh, god," Buffy breathes, frozen in place.

"What?" Spike sniffs the air. "That what I think it is?"

Hand splayed across her stomach, she groans. "My water just broke."

His eyes go wide with panic. "Well, put it back. Unbreak it."

"I can't 'put it back', you idiot," she snaps, panting.

"Hold it in, then."

"Are you brain deficient?" Buffy groans, her back bowing as another contraction shudders through her.

Spike scans the terrain then swoops in and lifts her, ignoring her protests as he carries her further down the dune. Down and then up again. Down and up.

"Spike, put me down," she orders him for the thousandth time, then grabs him by the ear and yanks hard until he yelps and lowers her to her feet.

"We're not far enough off. Gotta keep moving, pet." He reaches for her again, but she shakes her head.

"I can't. I have to lay down. I…" She stumbles forward and he catches her by the elbows, guiding her into the tall grass at the top of a dune. They go further in, until they're standing in the center of the brush.

Spike whips off his duster and lays it on the grass, then offers his hand to Buffy. She holds his hand and allows him to help her lay down, still panting. The pain isn't unbearable. She deals with worse every night, but it feels different. Foreign and strange. When she slays, the pain is like a sharp flash. It's blinding, but the ache immediately numbs and she regains focus. Now, the pain is deep, abiding, pulling her apart—she can't push past it, she can only bow to it, ride it out and hope for it to soon retreat. This pain refuses to be ignored.

"So you thought of a name yet?"

Buffy slumps back, falling to the ground as her latest contraction recedes. She blinks up at Spike. "Name? No, I…"

"Names are important. Should give her a name that means something. Judith's a lovely name—means 'praised'."

"Look, Spike, I'm just trying to get through this moment," Buffy grits out. "And when I get through this one, I'm gonna try to get through the next. That's how this works. I'm making it up as I go. I've been making it up ever since I found out the monks stuffed a Key inside me. So no, I haven't picked out a name. 'Cause I really don't care about that right now."

Spike reaches out, moves to lay his hand on her belly, but stops a fraction's space from touching her. "Seems a bit unfair," he muses. "Everyone blaming her for something out of her control. Sorry lot in life and she's not even born yet. Poor sprog." He drops his hand at his side and looks at Buffy. "Good thing she's got her mum to look after her."

"Nobody said it was her fault," Buffy whispers. "I just… I don't know how to do this."

"Scary, isn't it? Something primal about it. Completely out of your control. Like falling in love—you lose a bit of yourself."

"Yeah, scary," Buffy murmurs, eyes closed.

"It changes you in ways you can't understand. Can't predict. Can't know until it's done."

"Maybe I don't wanna be changed." She opens her eyes and stares at him, frowning. "Anyone ever think of that?"

"Life never asks—just gives and takes. And we roll with it or we lay down and die." He quirks his mouth. "'Course, some of us keep rolling with it even after we die." He cocks his head, listening to sounds in the distance, then moves closer and kneels at her side. "Gonna keep you safe, Buffy. I promise."

"I don't need you to save me. I—gah!" Her grip clenches down hard on his fist, her body undulating, riding out the waves of a strong contraction.

"More important battles to be won, love." He lays his hand on her belly, his long fingers knitting into her strained flesh, his touch soothing her. "You seem a bit occupied at the moment, so what's say I play this round and you get the next?"

She grabs his hand on her belly, squeezing it tight. "You can't—you can't fight them. The chip…"

He looks at their joint hands then returns her gaze, solemn and serious. "Can't not. Comes a point it doesn't matter what you can do. You do what you have to."

"Don't be stupid," she whispers. There's tears in her eyes and she's not sure why.

He smiles, soft, and his gaze is fond. "What other way am I gonna be?"

She laughs, only it sounds more like a whimper, so she squeezes his hands as if to reassure him she's strong, as if to comfort herself with his own strength. He leans forward, slowly, and kisses her on the forehead, gentle and soft, and she's surprised to find her chest tight, her eyes overflowing.

"Don't forget to push, love."

And then he's gone. He's gone and she's ensnared in another wave of pain—she rolls with it.

 

*

 

The Zippo lighter in his hand sparks and flares. He lights the cigarette dangling from his lips, inhales and throws his head back, sighing. He blows out a smoke ring and watches it rise up towards the stars.

"Been dying for one of these all day," he says, inhaling deeply. A raspy chuckle rises from his chest and he rolls on the balls of his feet, full of restless energy. He surveys the dunes surrounding him and the sandy ditch in which he stands, set in the space between Buffy and the ramshackle gas station. He blows out another smoke ring, then tosses his cigarette to the ground and grinds it under his boot. "Let's see if I can't get your attention."

He gets to work, dragging branches, tall grass and leaf fronds into the center of the basin, piling them high. He lights the dried brush and watches the fire kindle bright, waits until the blaze is fierce before he strips off his shirt. The black is too noticeable against the white sand. He walks off a ways and burrows into the sand, digging down deep, letting the sand cover him.

He watches the fire blaze bright and flicker as the hours pass. He watches the fire and waits.

They come. Of course, they come. Who can resist a beacon in the night?

He rises, silent, the sand washing from his body to land at his feet. He prowls up behind the nearest knight facing the fire. When he snaps the knight's neck—after, during, before, time blurs caught in the wake of his vampire speed—the shocks scream through his brain, down his spine, a pure agony demanding he shrivel up, demanding he fall and curl into himself, cry and beg and plead for mercy, to be merciful, to just let him be.

He pushes past that instinct to survive. Because that's what pain is—the instinct to survive, a primal need, an insistent demand to go on existing. The pain warns of death, turn back now, but he's already accepted death, so he doesn't heed the pain.

There is no turning back. His survival isn't the point. Their deaths aren't the point. He knows only this: they shall not pass.

He becomes the fury of his demon. He becomes the rage. He's a monster. That's why she'll never love him. So he'll be a monster and she'll live. That's all that matters now.

She'll live, he chants, and you shall not pass.

The pain is brighter than the fire, the first blood drawn sprays onto the sand and stains it a murky red, the blades shine in the glow of moonlight, the chainmail shifts and glints in metallic waves. They surround him. He kills them, screaming murder, eyes bloody from the firing synapses breaking under the strain, a strain he embraces and channels into his fists, his fangs. The firing screams death and his hands deal it.

Ripping out throats, snapping necks, tearing off limbs, twisting and clawing and snarling. He eats them alive, hungry for their death, not their blood. Hungry for more stillness in the night's air.

They tear him apart, blades piercing his body, stabbing him, everywhere, again and again. The fools never fought a vampire before, he can tell: never bring a blade to slay unless it's for beheading. Fools, all of them fools.

A blade burns below his right elbow, cutting clean through him, so he rips out the other's throat with his left hand.

Die, he snarls. Be no more. If no more, you cannot pass. Cannot, cannot, cannot. No more. No more you.

He collapses, the only sound the blood sluicing from mortal wounds not yet cold, blood sinking into the sand. No heartbeats. No more. Blood covers him, surrounds him, igniting hunger, and he licks his lips, only to find the blood is his own, his cheek slashed open and spliced in two. He moans and realizes it's over as he finally hears his body's desire to retreat from the pain.

But no, not yet. His right arm hangs limp at his side, a bloody stump below his elbow. He crawls up, crawling up from the sandy ditch he lies in, pulling forward, clawing for purchase, clawing into the sand. Just a little further, almost there.

He grasps a root and pulls himself up the final measure, only to stare at a pair of red stiletto heels sinking into the sand. Color of blood, those heels. Only color in the desert is red.

"Lookee what I found. It's a vampire." A vice grip closes around his throat and he groans as gravity pulls on his broken body suspended in air, a hanging fish caught on a hook. "Well, where is it? Where is that Slayer bitch who stole my Key?"

He groans, whatever words formed in the back of his throat quickly drown in the blood filling his mouth.

"What's that?" She jabs a finger into a tear in his abdomen, digging in, clawing at his insides. "Come on, share. You know you want to."

His vision goes black, then sparks run across his eyes like reddish purple flecks of dust, and he remembers how to move beyond the pain. He murmurs, waiting for her to lean closer, then spits in her face, watching the blood splatter. He grins as best he can, the mangled muscles of his face telling him at best he's sporting a lopsided, monstrous smirk. A chuckle builds, rattling in his chest, climbing past her punishing grip on his throat, rumbling across his blood-soaked tongue.

She squeezes his throat, nearly crushing his windpipe, snarls, "Where's. My. Key?!" then loosens her grip, waiting for him to speak.

"S-sod…off…bitch…" he slurs, still grinning, and curls his tongue against his front teeth, his eyes dancing mockery.

A baby cries in the distance, recognition lights in Glory's eyes, then her fist crushes his throat. The moment bursts, it all bursts, and he thinks:

Never was monster enough.

 

*

Chapter Text


Photobucket

 


Unable are the loved to die for love is immortality.
-Emily Dickinson

 

The last furious push, the feeling of pressure on the verge of breaking, and then a bewildering release, overwhelming and exhausting. Buffy hears the baby cry, feels the warm little body between her spread knees, her legs now bare since she'd removed her jeans. She struggles to sit up, to reach down, to hold and embrace her baby.

The strained muscles in her abdomen flutter, but refuse to take hold and she falls onto her back, moaning. There's a new pressure in her belly, one that's holding her down.

You'll be immobile until you've passed the placenta, Dr. Freeman says. It's the final stage of labor.

She groans and tries to sit up again, failing. This isn't how this was supposed to happen. There's supposed to be someone to hold her baby, to gently lay her baby in her arms.

But she's alone, alone in a new and painful way because she's not alone, her baby needs her, but she can't reach her baby, not yet.

The sound of footsteps approach and Buffy hopes it's Spike, that he's letting his nimble feet kick up sand so she'll hear his approach and know it's him. She clings to the lie, helpless to do more than hope.

The brush is pulled aside by strong, masculine fingers and she squints in the darkness.

"Ben?"

He comes closer, kneels before her, taking in the sight of her lying on a leather coat soaked in afterbirth, her baby lying between her knees.

"Are you all right?" he asks, and she sees him holding a knife, the hilt covered in elaborate decoration. Like the knight's swords she'd seen up close. He steps closer, raising the blade and reaching for her baby.

"What are you doing? Nooo," she moans, clenching her fists.

"You called me for help and left a message, remember? Don't worry, I'm just cutting the umbilical cord," he explains. He's holding a silver lighter in his hand, flicks it open, sparks it to life and heats the blade. "It's not exactly the most sanitary method, but it'll have to do." She hears him go to work, watches him lift her baby and kneel at her side. A minute later, he asks, "Do you wanna hold her?"

"Yes. Yes, please." Her voice warbles—high, uncertain, hopeful.

"Sure," he says, smiling. "Can you hold her?"

She nods, and her arms agree, rising up and reaching for her daughter. She lays one hand underneath her baby's head to support her fragile neck, hugging her daughter close, resting her baby on her chest. It's dark, almost too dark to see, but she spies a hint of light reflected in her daughter's blinking eyes. "She's beautiful. Oh…"

"She's a mess," Ben says, eyeing the blood covering Buffy and the baby. "We need to get you two cleaned up."

"She's perfect. And don't say perfectly gross or I'll punch you," Buffy says offhand, exploring the tensile strength of impossibly tiny fingers. Wet tufty curls graced the curve of her daughter's head. "She's even got hair! I thought…"

"All babies are bald? Not always. What are you gonna name her?"

"Dawn," Buffy says simply, her eyes never leaving her daughter's face.

"Almost dawn, just a few more minutes. Oh, you mean… It's a beautiful name."

"Thanks," she says, turning to look at him. The pink light of sunrise turns the sky to lighter shades of gray. She peers up at Ben and blinks. "Why are you—why are you wearing that?"

Ben looks down at the red dress stretching its seams across his broad chest. "Oh, I…uh, it's a long story."

A whisper skitters across her spine and she clutches Dawn tight in her arms, curling up her legs and leaning away. "Stay back. Don't come any closer."

"Buffy, I'm not gonna hurt you."

"You can't have her. You'll never touch her."

"Her?" Ben's face goes blank. "She's the Key? Your baby is the Key." He falls back and sits at her feet. Long minutes pass with only the sound of Buffy's labored breathing, the soft exhales from Dawn landing against Buffy's cheek.

"She's not human, you know," Ben murmurs, staring off into the surrounding brush. "She's not. She's not real. It's not real. It's just a blob of green energy and magic. It's not real. It's not a person."

Muscles trembling, Buffy flops on her side, struggling to her knees, only to feel Ben's hands clasp her shoulders and shove her down. He's pushing her down, knife in his hand, and he shouldn't be stronger, but he is—her body's already telling her to lay down, the pressure in her abdomen making her feel impossibly heavy.

She can't run, not anymore. She watches the knife flash down, Dawn cries in protest as Buffy's arm tightens around her, and then snap goes the switch: she's grabbing his wrist, snarling "No!" and wrestling for control.

Ben grapples for the knife, but Buffy's stronger now and she turns the blade away, wrenches it around, and Ben falls, the blade slides into his chest, pierces the wall of his ribs and he's gasping, slumping to the side. Lying on the brush, gasping for air. His eyes are terrified, he gasps once more, then goes quiet, his body going loose, the life fading from his eyes.

Buffy rolls away, sobbing, cradling Dawn in her arms. She's alone again, just her and Dawn. Her arms shake with the aftershocks of adrenaline, but she's steadying fast.

"Shhh, it's okay, Dawnie," she whispers, her baby crying in her arms. "Shh, shh, shh."

She rocks back and forth, just rocks, not ready to move, not sure where to go, just knowing that she needs to rock back and forth, and to hum because it's soothing and it's important she's soothing because Dawnie's scared.

An hour later, Xander finds her lying on Spike's duster, covered in blood, holding Dawn in her arms, only a yard from Ben's body. He takes off his shirt and helps wipe her legs clean, averting his eyes as Willow joins them and helps Buffy back into her jeans. They help her stand, then Xander asks if she'll let Willow carry the baby, nodding his understanding when Buffy violently shakes her head.

"D-don't forget his coat," Buffy struggles to speak.

Xander grimaces at the mess. "Buffy, it's ruined…"

"He's a vampire. It's not like he'll think it's gross. And he'll want it back. I… I was just borrowing it."

Xander lifts the coat by the collar, holding it away from his body, nodding at Buffy to go ahead. With Willow clasping her elbow, Buffy walks outside the brush to find her mother waiting. Joyce hugs her tight, not minding the mess, just gasping, "Oh, Buffy, oh baby," and then Xander and Willow join in, and for the first time in so many days, Buffy feels safe.

Smiling, but still weary, Buffy pulls back when Dawn cries. "Okay, guys, go easy with the hugging." She looks around and asks, "Where's Tara and Anya? Giles? Is he…?"

"He's okay, they're all okay," Willow says quickly. "We came looking for you as soon as we could. Everyone's okay."

The sun's rising above the horizon, turning the sand a pinkish orange. She turns Dawn to face the sun, letting the light touch her face, watching her blink as the light kisses the blush of her cheeks. Buffy hums, a deep sound of contentment that settles warm in her chest.

Hugging Dawn close, she turns to her friends and asks, "Where's Spike?"

 

*

 

She sits in the nursery's rocking chair and watches the sunrise. Dawn always sleeps the night away, but awakens hungry at twilight. So Buffy sits and rocks her daughter, lulling her to sleep after she's fed.

Buffy's used to the quiet. The quiet of the night, the quiet necessary for hunting, for slaying. She's never known the quiet of the morning. Mornings have always been a time for noise, from the shrill buzz of her alarm to the pounding of feet running downstairs and hurrying out the door.

So it's different, this feeling of light and peace. She wonders at the happiness unfurling inside, then squeezes her eyes shut at the thought of a vampire's dust lost in the desert. It pierces her heart, tears and sadness and regret, and she finds her memories of him shifting, memories she'd thought solely hers now joining with him, his form, his image.

Love is sacrifice. She's known this ever since she was Called, known it and fought it with a desperate selfishness stirred to a fever pitch by all her instincts of self-preservation. But in the end, always in the end, love brings her to the brink.

What wouldn't she give for love?

For her friends, her family, her daughter.

Oh, for Dawnie.

She hugs Dawn to her breast and feels her heart fill to bursting, making her chest tight and yet somehow weightless. Her body seems as if nothing more than a pair of arms that cushion and shelter this tiny creature pursing her lips and cooing nonsense.

And why should it make her cry? To feel such joy? Oh god, just to feel so much.

The First Slayer was wrong. Death wasn't her gift.

It was his.

For he had loved. Truly, madly, deeply. He had loved in such ways she'd thought him a fool. Her very own foolish knight errant vampire, pledging devotion in the same breath as her sworn disavowals.

She'd refused him. Refused to believe, refused to even listen. Of course. And it had made perfect sense.

Only now her world floats free on new hopes and endless reserves of faith. Her rules of mind and heart have been rewritten in blood and birth. A new day for she once chained to night.

Gleaming bright, the sun rises, painting the nursery in warm pink light, chasing away the shadows on the floor. The warmth caresses the tips of her feet as she rocks back and forth, pushing back, then leaning forward, the cascading light of the sun kissing her brow.

Is this perfection? Contentment? Happiness?

There are too many ways to describe this moment, this feeling, this certainty—all of them right yet all of them wrong. All save one.

Love.

She holds the proof of love in her arms. His gift of love, of life, to her.

For he had loved. And now, so did she.

 


~Finis~

 


To love and to be loved is to feel the sun from both sides.
- David Viscott