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Double Life

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CHAPTER ONE: INTO THE NIGHT 

 

Is this what babies feel like? Buffy thought stupidly as she heaved herself up above ground, nails broken and knuckles bleeding as she gasped for air and choked on dirt. Was this why no one remembered being born? Because it was so traumatizing?

The soft perfection she had experienced mere minutes ago was fading like a dream, only the feeling lingering. So what was this now, this dark world she’d been forced into? (It occurred to her that babies weren’t typically born out of light into darkness. It tended to work the other way.)

Her body heavy, she glanced around and caught sight of a stone marker next to the hole from which she’d emerged. She took a shaky step toward it and, squinting, made out words she recognized as her own name. Dates. A silly epitaph.

She frowned at her surroundings and hurried off into the night.

 

***

 

He could have died in that moment, seeing her on the stairs. Realizing that it was her, really her, and not the foul mechanical stand-in he ought never to have acquired. Joy and horror fought within him, and he remembered the wretched spell the little bit had wanted to use on her poor mum.

“What did you do?” he demanded, but awe washed all other feeling from his voice.

“Me? Nothing!” Dawn’s voice wasn’t that of a teenager trying to avoid rightful blame. It was quiet, constricted, as awed as his own.

God, what had brought her here? Had some powers above intervened?

Didn’t matter right now. What mattered was her. Her. Her hands.

As gently as he’d ever known himself to be, he guided Buffy into the living room. Took her wounded hands in his. 147 days.

God, she looked tired. Small. No fight left in her now. Not after whatever sort of eternity she’d spent in whatever hellish place she’d thrown herself into. All because of him.

The aching silence was interrupted by the others tumbling in the front door, headed by Willow.

And then he understood what had happened.

Knowing they wouldn’t let him be of any use to her, he quietly removed himself from the house, relief, awe, and rage colliding into a sob that shook through him as he stepped out the door. But too soon, the wanker and his demon girl were outside with him. A taunt about obsession. He grabbed the stupid boy’s coat and shoved him against the tree, eliciting a twinge of pain from his chip. Tonight, the pain was easy to ignore.

“Look me in the eyes, and tell me when you saw Buffy alive, that wasn’t the happiest moment of your entire existence.”

He couldn’t, of course, but that didn’t discount the moments immediately following. His realization that these stupid, sorry fools had played with something so fragile, so dangerous, with nary a thought to the consequences.

Or maybe he was just the sorriest fool of all.

 

***

 

The morning was excruciating. The sun was so bright. She didn’t remember how harsh it could be. Like a hundred bright, relentless lamps. But, even worse than the sun, was how everyone was talking about what they’d done. It was wonderful, they said, that she was back. It was...important.

It didn’t feel very important. It felt hollow. She didn’t know how to respond to them. She told them about the photographs she’d seen change the night before. They told her there was a demon. It had hitchhiked. Did that make it her fault or theirs?

She was so tired of this. Fighting demons. Dealing in pain. Death was her gift, after all. She should have kept the receipt and left the tags on.

She’d thought she was finished.

 

***

 

He punched the jagged rock of the cavern beneath his crypt. Choked a laugh at the pain. A noise from upstairs shocked him out of his moment of mania, and he unsheathed a blade, carrying it with him as he ascended the ladder.

She was here. Awe revisited him. He made himself speak, but softly, as if he might frighten her away.

“Hard to get a good night’s death around here.” Insensitive git. Why did he say that? And now he was running his mouth about his furniture, which she didn’t need to hear about. What she needed to hear was that he was sorry. That he knew he had failed. That he had rarely stopped thinking about it all these months.

But of course his emotion was unnecessary. Undesired. Her expression didn’t change. And even he, a master of filth and foolishness, knew better than to mention anything else about that final night.

So they sat together in silence.

 

***

 

“Take Dawn out of here!” Why had they brought her here? The entire point of everything was to protect Dawn. That was all that mattered. Why did they bring her into the room while she was trying to kill the stupid thing that’d come back with her?

The head disconnected easily with a slice.

The others tried to explain what had happened, that it was their fault, that they’d created it. But she found it hard to focus on the particulars.

Was this the life she was doomed to? Slaying, forever? They really couldn’t do it themselves for once? They’d dragged her from her eternal rest for this?

They went down to the living room together, and she went with them. Dawn sat beside her on the couch and looked at her expectantly. Xander yammered something. Anya interjected. She heard none of it distinctly. She was too busy staring at the framed photo of Joyce on the end table.

“Buffy?” Dawn was trying to talk to her. That was important. Dawn was important. She should be paying more attention. She had to be Mom now. Again.

“What?” Her own voice sounded distant even to her, as though she were speaking from the end of a tunnel or the bottom of a hole. Maybe the others wouldn’t hear and they’d let her stay in the hole forever.

“Do you want to eat something?” Dawn asked. “Xander is gonna call Willow and Tara, ask them to pick something up. Nobody’s eaten yet today.” It was only then that she realized Xander and Anya had gone from the room. She saw them through the doorway, huddled in the kitchen. She didn’t care to listen in on what they were saying to each other. She wanted to tell Dawn she wasn’t hungry. But no... That wouldn’t do. An older sister needed to eat.

“Food sounds good,” she said, forcing a smile.

 

***

 

What right had he to be happy that she again walked among the living? He repulsed himself, really. Because something clearly was not right. She seemed hollow, hollower than he’d ever seen her. Or perhaps she had always been this way, and what he’d seen before had been a lovedrunk delusion.

She patrolled alone, from what he could tell. No help from the sidekicks, even the almighty Willow. And sometimes she would stop by his crypt. Her reasons were not forthcoming, and he continued the habit of making an ass out of himself before letting the need to speak retreat into quiet.

He realized he had no idea what course of action to take. And, if he let it, the realization terrified him. Retroactively trying to keep his broken promise was clearly worthless. What else was there to do? He had failed her. And to think he’d believed he loved her… Surely if you loved a lady properly, you would know how to make yourself useful. Perhaps he’d used up his one chance at that.

He’d been so eager to cling to any chance, any thread of hope that he’d get some part of her. And then she had jumped. And every day without her had felt like a suckerpunch. He could fight alongside her friends, sit the baby sister, keep her loved ones safe in her memory. It had seemed the only way to honor her. But of course, by then it was too late. It didn’t matter to her what he did. She hadn’t been there to see it. Honoring the dead was useless like that. And now that she’d been resurrected, he was even more unsure.

So how did you honor someone when they were alive?

 

***

 

Several hazy days passed. Willow and Tara sometimes disappeared to classes, but Buffy wasn’t able to keep their schedules straight. She spent hours on end lying in the gloom of her own bedroom, blinds shut, isolating herself in the least-changed room of the house. A few cords in a bin under the bed (from the robot, she was told), and a layer of dust in the closet were all that hinted at her recent absence. Dawn had apparently dusted and vacuumed all through the summer. Which was a first, Buffy thought dimly as she lay and stared at the ceiling.

And Dawn... Dawn must have school too. What grade was she in? Freshman year of high school. Right? She needed to go to school. Someone should make sure she did that.

Buffy rolled over in bed. If she didn’t get up soon someone would come barging in, offering her food. That had happened twice already. She’d had to act grateful for the breakfasts in bed, but they reminded her of when Mom was sick. She didn’t want to eat in bed and be treated like she was fragile. She wanted to be left alone, so she reluctantly pushed back the covers and slipped her feet out and onto the floor.

She took off her pajamas and put on clothes, which went a long way in the illusion of wellness. Then she made her slow way downstairs, ears involuntarily pricked for sounds in the house. Some music was playing softly on the radio. That probably meant Dawn was around; Dawn didn’t like the silence.

Her senses seemed too sharp here. She longed for the softer place.

Sure enough, it was Dawn. She was in the kitchen, setting an empty cereal bowl into the sink. She jumped slightly when she turned and saw Buffy standing in the doorway. “You’re up early.”

“Am I?” Buffy looked at the clock. It was 7:30. “Oh. Huh.”

“Everything still kinda weird?” Dawn asked solicitously.

She shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”

“I’m going to school today,” Dawn said, sounding apologetic. “I know we all talked about it over the weekend...and I figured I’d go.” Buffy had no recollection of any conversation about school, but she was relieved that it had happened. That was one less taking-care-of-Dawn thing to worry about.

“Good,” she said. “School is good. Willow and Tara aren’t around?”

“They went to get coffee before their lecture or something,” Dawn said, glancing at the clock as she rubbed a bit of orange juice off her face with the back of her hand. “I have to go get my stuff or I’m gonna be late.” And she stepped forward and gave Buffy a swift kiss on the cheek before ducking around her and tromping up the stairs.

Buffy stood in the kitchen. What would be a normal thing to do?

She remembered, fuzzily, someone mentioning the robot making sandwiches.

She started to move around the kitchen. Dawn was already rushing back down the stairs.

“Bye, Buffy!” she called before slamming the front door.

Well, Buffy thought as she looked down at the bread slices, berry preserves, and peanut butter laid out before her on the counter. So much for that. But no, there was time. She could be fast. And then Dawn would have something to eat for lunch.

She slapped the sandwich together and stuffed it in a bag before hurrying to the door.

“Dawn!” she called. Dawn paused, barely at the sidewalk, and turned to look at Buffy in alarm.

“What’s wrong?”

“Lunch.”

“You made me lunch?” She was happy! A sisterly exchange followed, some words feeling tedious and some words feeling almost normal. Normal until…

“It’ll be better now. Now that they can see you being happy. That’s all they want.”

Oh. Was that all they wanted?

 

***

 

“I’m counting on you to protect her.”

“Til the end of the world.” He swallowed and added earnestly, “Even if that happens to be tonight.”

She stepped closer to him then, eyes wide and glistening, her jaw firm. “Tell me that you love me,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper.

It disarmed him completely.

“I do,” he said reverently, bewildered. “You know I… I’ve said I do.”

“Kiss me.” It sounded so weak, so desperate. Not the command of a self-sure woman seeking an exchange of affection. It was the last wish of a girl who carried the world's weight and feared that weight would finally crush her. It was the panic in the lull before the last hurrah.

And who was he to say no?

The weapons he’d gathered slipped from his hands and clattered to the floor.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO: SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN

 

It happened quickly, the hesitant brush of lips rapidly giving way to the clumsy scrabbling of bodies aching in that moment to connect. It was over in mere minutes. She could have measured the time in Mississippis if she hadn’t been so distracted.

Once spent, there was no holding. No tender lingering. Only the realization, as they backed away from each other, that they were wasting time. That they needed to hurry back to the others.

“Right,” he said roughly, turning away to straighten himself up. “Go get your stuff.”

Yanking her pants back up her hips one-handed—holding the other hand away from her body after using it to wipe away the excess fluid between her legs—she headed for the stairs. Her body and mind had no time to stop and consider what she had just done. It wasn't like it mattered.

Once upstairs, she shucked her clothes and cleaned herself up before getting dressed in something different. The other outfit would be going on her mechanical self. But was there any difference between them now?

 

***

 

Perhaps he ought not to have selected these particular daytime hours to slink over to the Magic Box. Standing by the door, he could hear Buffy telling the others how grateful she was that they had brought her out of Hell and given her the world and all that tosh. It all sounded very weepy and sentimental. He scowled and edged away from the door, knowing his bitterness was in part on account of her saying nowhere near so many words to him lately.

He couldn’t go far, not unless he crept back through the sewers, so he leaned against a crate in the best of the shade. To his surprise, the door opened almost immediately.

“Buffy,” he greeted.

“Spike.” Some surprise colored her voice, a welcome change from its recent emptiness. “It’s daylight and you’re…”

“Not on fire?” he supplied. “Sun’s low enough, shady enough here.”

She seemed like she was folding in on herself. Her default look lately. And, of course, all he could offer her was a crack about her soppy, tenderhearted super-friends.

“Just wanted a little time alone,” she said in response.

And here he was, getting in the way. God, he was such a jerk. He should leave, then. Let her be alone. He stopped as his toes hit the end of the shade. Right. That.

“That’s okay,” she said, sounding tired. “I can be alone with you here.”

He thought he knew what she meant, but still couldn’t resist snarking, “Thanks ever so.” He wanted to kick himself immediately. What a wanker. He tried a small, apologetic smile but wasn’t sure it came across right.

“Right,” she said quietly, almost sounding like she too was trying to be apologetic. But that wouldn’t do. She hadn’t done anything wrong.

“Buff?” he said tentatively. “Slayer? Are you okay?” He watched her carefully as she swallowed shakily and nodded her head. This close, in the light of day, she looked even more subdued and ragged than she had at his crypt. Worse than in that moment before the final fight with Glory, when she had been so small and hours away from being broken and gone.

“I’m here,” she insisted. “I’m good.” It wasn’t convincing in the slightest. She’d once been bubbly, vibrant, assertive. He knew she had. He’d seen it. Loved it. Obsessed over it. He wondered whether, if he thought back, he could pinpoint the moment that had first shifted. Maybe he could, if he hadn’t been watching all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons. He crossed to her, stood by the crate.

“Buffy,” he started, choosing his words carefully, trying not to come across as quite so much of an insufferable git. “If you’re in… If you’re in pain...or if you need anything...or if I can do anything for you…” But what could he do? He said it anyway, let it hang.

“You can’t,” she said definitively, lifelessly telling him what he already knew. He was useless.

“Well, I haven’t been to a hell dimension just of late,” he tried, “but I do know a thing or two about torment.” Maybe, at least, she could talk to him, burden him with the details the others were too soft to hear. He perched on the crate beside her.

She spoke after a moment, still not looking at him. “I was happy.”

Taken aback, he said nothing as she went on to describe the indescribable, a place he would never, could never, touch. A place of formless warmth and perfection.

“I think I was in Heaven.”

His useless, dead heart sank. He understood the implications but found himself too dumbstruck to articulate them.

“And now I’m not,” she continued, sounding close to tears. “I was torn out of there. Pulled out...by my friends.” He wanted to clutch her to him, point out that, clearly, they were no friends of hers. They’d pulled her from Heaven and left her to claw her way out of the ground. Bloody fools. He could’ve barged into the shop that instant and ripped their heads clean off.

Only, he couldn’t. Chip business aside, he was suspended in this terrible moment. He had no words, no action. He could only listen to her small, wounded voice share with him what she hadn’t dared tell the others.

“This is Hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that…knowing what I’ve lost…” She looked up at him then. There were no tears on her face. He watched her deadened eyes as she realized all that she had said to him. No wonder she preferred not to speak.

She got up, went to the edge of the sunlight, and paused. She didn’t turn to face him as she insisted, her voice lacking the fierceness one might expect from the Slayer, “They can never know. Never.”

He said nothing. She didn’t seem to expect him to. She just walked away into the lonely sunlight.

 

***

 

The pipes were fucked up. And she’d fucked them up more trying to fix them. They would be expensive to have actually-fixed. She was broke. And Dawn hadn’t eaten breakfast and, from the looks of it, was gonna be late for school.

“It’s not the end of the world,” she tried to assure everyone as they stared at her and the pile of unpaid bills. No one else spoke, so she added, “Which is too bad, y’know, ‘cause that I’m really good at.” Nobody laughed. Or even smiled, really. Willow was giving her an unreadable look, and Dawn seemed deeply uncomfortable. What the heck? Was it too early in the morning for quips about apocalypses? She backtracked, directing her new attempt at reassurance at Dawn. “I’ll take care of this. I promise. I just don’t know how yet.”

And then Anya was talking. Buffy listened at first but, when it turned into an argument, she tuned it out. Anya left. Xander left. Then Xander came back and left again with Dawn. Willow and Tara said the bank opened in an hour.

Right. The bank. A loan officer to guide her through the paperwork. How hard could it be?

 

***

 

She didn’t come around anymore.

He supposed that was to be expected, what with the disclosure she’d made. He knew she didn’t actually trust him. No doubt she was hiding from him, hoping he’d forget.

He’d accidentally-on-purpose run into her nearly every night while she was out patrolling between the headstones. He would wait for her in the doorway of his crypt and then, upon glimpsing her blonde hair luminous in the moonlight, he’d dash to head her off, pleading coincidence.

And sometimes she’d let him fall into step beside her for a few minutes, communicating only through a morose gaze. Other times, when his need to reach her got the better of him, he’d make a crack about her clothes or the weather or the latest little nasty prowling about, and she’d roll her eyes wearily and—he thought, just maybe—smile ever so slightly.

And, thinking of that possibility of a smile as he lay sprawled in front of the telly to pass the daytime hours, he smiled too.

 

***

 

The loan applying-for had not gone well.

But now Giles was here! A real live adult. A competent doer of things. He would know what to do.

Too bad she barely knew what to say to him. After letting the whole Heaven thing slip to Spike, she hadn’t uttered a single word about it. If she saw Spike, they shared only silence, or the occasional inconsequential exchange.

She asked Giles about England because that seemed the thing to do. He had an apartment in some place called Bath. And he had friends. And he had met with the Council, though he didn’t elaborate. He didn’t elaborate on anything, really. He was so busy being enthralled by her resumed existence. It made her feel jittery. She could so easily confess to him the reality of it, that Willow had pulled her out of a realm of heavenly serenity. But why bother? He couldn’t send her back. Well, maybe he could… but he wouldn’t. None of them would. All she’d get in response was his shock and his pity, which would take even more effort to deal with. So she kept quiet, except for her small admission about sleep. She hadn’t told anyone about her terror upon waking, or her desperate dreams of Heaven and Hell. But they all knew, she was sure, because she sometimes woke screaming.

Back at the house, she was unable to cope with his tender looks of concern. Everyone was so ready to hear what she needed, not realizing they couldn’t give it to her. What she needed was someone who would understand what she was going through. And that counted all of them out.

She headed for the back door and found Willow in the kitchen.

“Hey, Buffy,” she said casually, shutting the fridge. “Going out to patrol?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Buffy shrugged. Mostly she was escaping the house, but that was pretty much synonymous with patrolling these days.

“Happy hunting!” Willow smiled before turning to look through the cabinets.

“Thanks,” Buffy muttered. Once outside, she stood for a moment and shut her eyes.

If only there was someone who could understand.

 

***

 

Now that Willow knew Buffy was really definitely one hundred percent okay, there was just one last person to tell. It was time; Buffy was truly back, she was acclimating. She’d thanked Willow for the amazing thing she’d done for her, and now she was out doing regular people stuff and facing down demons and showing human emotions like anger-at-the-bank-people.

Willow headed for the phone in the bedroom. Tara had gone to bed already, not as wired for nighttime action as the rest of them. By now she was probably deep enough in sleep that a murmured phone conversation wouldn’t wake her. Willow dialed the number from the business card she’d saved from back in May.

It was answered on the second ring. “Angel Investigations, we help the hopeless.”

“Uh, hi, Cordelia. Is Angel there?”

Willow?” She sounded surprised. “Yeah, he’s out trying to have a little talk with Fred.”

“Oh! How is Fred?” She remembered the gangly, bespectacled woman, so much like her younger self, if her younger self had been, y’know, insane.

“Still weird. And completely smitten with Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Handsome, if you ask me. Hence the talk. But, hey, Willow, if you’re calling about something Hellmouthy, Wesley is actually the one in charge now. So I’ll just hand the phone over to him, okay?”

“Wait, Cordelia, it’s about Buffy.” She didn’t want to get interrogated by an ex-Watcher at the moment, not after what Giles had said to her. “Buffy’s back. She’s alive. I brought her back.”

There was silence for a beat, and then: “You what?”

“I did a resurrection spell,” Willow said, glancing over to make sure she hadn’t woken Tara. “And she’s alive again. I think she just left for patrol but—”

“Willow! This is just...incredible! You’re able to do that? Oh, that’s not the point.” More distantly, Willow heard her say, “Wesley, come here and take this, I’m gonna go grab Angel!” Back to  Willow, she said, “I’m handing the phone to Wesley, but I’ll be back with Angel in just a sec!”

There was a muffled clattering of heeled boots, and Wesley was on the line. “Ah. Hello?”

“Hey, Wes, I don’t know how much of that you caught.”

“Based on what Cordelia is currently shouting into the courtyard, I gather Buffy is alive and well.”

“Yeah. Good as new, pretty much,” Willow said. “Listen, I can’t actually talk long. It’s kind of late and I think pretty much everyone is sleeping, so I just wanted to—”

“Give me the phone, Wes,” Angel’s voice demanded breathlessly in the background. The phone changed hands again.

“Angel, listen,” Willow said quietly with another glance at Tara’s sleeping form. “Buffy’s back.”

“If she’s back, then I need to talk to her,” he said urgently. “Is she there?”

“Uh, she’s not, no, but I just thought I should tell you because...well, y’know. Reasons and history and stuff. But listen, I can’t really talk a whole lot right now, so if you want, you can call the house tomorrow. Okay?”

There was an almighty crash from downstairs, and then the prolonged sound of Dawn screaming. Tara jolted upright in bed, a look of panic on her face.

“Sorry, Angel,” Willow said hurriedly into the phone. “I-I have to run. But call tomorrow! Okay?” And she slammed the phone down and rushed to the stairs.

 

***

 

She’d been back on the mortal coil for what, a week and a half, and demons were already invading her house and trashing the place. Everyone had gone to dispose of the unsalvageable furniture remains, leaving just her, Giles, and Dawn. Giles was trying to be helpful, insisting that she was indeed capable of managing her nonexistent money. And then, out of the blue, the phone rang.

“Who’s calling me?” she asked the room in general. “Everybody I know lives here.” She went to the kitchen to answer it.

“Buffy.” It was Angel. For a second, her stomach felt like she’d just had something fizzy to drink.

“Angel,” she said breathlessly.

“Oh my god, Buffy.”

“Yep. Me.”

“Can you…” he seemed to scramble for a moment. “Can you get to L.A.? Or I can come there.”

“No, don’t come here,” she said quickly. She didn’t want him here. She wanted to get out! “There’s, um… I think there’s a place where the bus lines make a stop, somewhere in between, if I remember right.”

He considered it. “Yeah. Yeah…. Yes. I think I actually know of somewhere near there. That works. How soon can you go?”

“I could go now,” she said simply.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THREE: A LITTLE DIFFERENT

 

Willow answered the phone and an officious voice on the other end asked, “Is this the Summers household?”

“Uh, yes. Yes it is.”

“And am I speaking to...Buffy?”

“Um.” Willow considered for a moment and then elected to lie. She’d been pretending to be Buffy for strangers on the phone for months. “Yes.”

“Hi, Buffy. This is the office at your sister’s school. Dawn isn't in class right now. We just wanted to make sure you know where she is and remind you that any absences require a signed note.”

“Oh,” Willow said. “Yeah, of course. Sorry, I’ll remember that next time.” They said their goodbyes and hung up.

Willow set the phone down and turned to Tara. “That was the school. Dawn cut class.”

Tara’s brow wrinkled in concern. “She hasn’t done that since…” Since before Buffy got back.

“I know.” Willow chewed her lip. “Still, she’s probably just at Spike’s, right?”

“Probably. Judging by the last five times.”

“Let’s do a locator spell to be sure,” Willow sighed. “He should really get a phone or something…”

“That reminds me,” Tara said. “Were you on the phone last night?”

“What?” Willow didn’t register the question at first. “Oh, uh, yeah, I was.”

Tara set down her mug of tea and asked curiously, “Who were you talking to so late?”

“Uh.” Willow, though she wasn’t sure why, felt some reservations about confessing she’d called Angel. But maybe that was just because Tara didn’t know Angel. Tara didn’t know Angel loved Buffy and would love her for, like, ever. He deserved to know she was back, needed to know she was back. And Buffy had wanted him to know! Why else would she have raced off to meet with him? “I was talking to Cordelia, actually. She works with Angel in L.A.”

“Oh.” Tara sounded surprised and a bit puzzled. “And you needed to talk to her at eleven p.m.?” Then a playful little smile appeared on her face. “Should I be worried?”

Willow smiled back gratefully and reached out to rub Tara’s arm. “No, baby, I just thought I should tell them all that Buffy was back. Because, I mean, I went down there and told them all that she’d died. So I figured I should tell them that she un-died. No, not un-died; undead is vampires. De-died?” She shook her head and removed her hand from Tara’s arm. Tara’s sly smile was gone.

“Why didn’t you tell them before?” asked Tara. “The night you told Giles. Why wait if they needed to know?”

“Didn’t think of it,” Willow lied, looking down at her own tea. Why was she lying? She ought to  be able to tell Tara anything. She hadn’t told her about the slight risk with the resurrection spell. But that had been to protect her, like the others, from the weight of worry. And everything had turned out fine, so why mention it? Except...it was the truth. But the retroactive telling of it might make people upset. Might make them call her a rank, arrogant amateur.

“Will, are you okay?” Tara asked, her concern evident. Willow realized she must’ve let her face get all mopey. “It’s okay that you forgot to tell them. They’re not part of your life the way Giles is.”

“You’re right,” she answered, relieved. “It is okay.”

 

***

 

“Are you okay?” Angel asked, his brow furrowed as he looked at her from across the table. She was already tired of him asking that and they’d only been together for about an hour and a half.

They were sitting in a secluded booth in a 24-hour diner. Across the road was a motel. Both had broad overhangs that offered some outdoor protection from the sun, and she sensed that several of the diner’s patrons weren’t entirely human.

“I’m fine,” she insisted, pushing the last bit of scrambled egg around her plate with her fork.

“You said that. It’s just, you haven’t really...talked.”

“I have too!” she retorted. “I told you all about the M’Fashnik demon and the stupid full copper repipe. And about the not getting a loan from the bank. And being broke.” She set her fork down and crossed her arms uncomfortably. Angel gazed at her, expression unchanging.

Why had this seemed like such a good idea?

“Can I get you two anything else?” the waitress asked, taking Buffy’s empty plate and Angel’s empty coffee cup.

“No, that’s it,” Angel answered absently. “Thank you.”

“Okay, dears.” She slipped the check onto the table. “You can pay at the counter.” And, with a customer service smile, she swept away to serve people who weren’t so much dysfunctional exes failing to have an actual conversation. Buffy fumbled with her bag, digging for her wallet as the two of them crossed to the counter.

“I got it,” he said, waving her away.

“Thanks,” she said weakly. Rather than stand next to him at the register, she went outside to his parked car at the edge of the overhang. His windows weren’t blacked out with paint like Spike’s used to be. And it was a convertible, of all things. He must go for a lot of nighttime drives or something. It somehow didn’t fit with her memory of him. He’d never had a car in Sunnydale. He’d never drunk coffee either.

He joined her and ducked into the car to drive them across the street to the motel, where they’d secured a plain but heavy-curtained room.

“Tell me more about your life,” Buffy insisted as he unlocked the door. “You’ve been running a supernatural detective agency in Los Angeles. You’ve got to have more than the, like, two stories you told me.” It made her feel almost normal to talk like this. Partly teasing, partly connecting about their shared demon-fighty lifestyles. But he sure wasn’t playing along. He’d seemed withdrawn the entire time. “C’mon,” she said once they were inside, giving his sleeve a tug and going over to the ugly-patterned, too-firm loveseat against the wall.

He followed and sat beside her. She felt goosebumps on her arms as she slipped off her shoes. This was closer than they’d been at the diner, or even in the car. Something about sitting like this, inches apart, was more tantalizing than actually touching. She decided to get talking again. If more followed the talking, then, well...all the better.

“We didn’t really talk when you, um…” Nope. Not thinking about her mom’s burial plot right now. This was supposed to be a vacation from dealing. “...last year,” she finished awkwardly. “But um, I remember from when I came to L.A. that first time, you have a friend? A vision-having friend?”

Angel cleared his throat, looked down at his knees and said succinctly, “He died.”

“Oh.” Her throat tightened for a moment before she could continue talking and apologize. “I’m sorry. I had no idea. Bad, bad Buffy…”

“It’s okay,” Angel cut her off. “He actually…” He laughed lightly. “He passed the gift to Cordelia. So now she’s the vision-having friend.” Something darker seemed to lie beneath his words but, since death had come up, Buffy was firmly against digging too deep.

“Yeah?” she said, aiming for a cheery, enthused tone. “So what’ve you all been up to?”

“Well, a few months ago we went to a demon dimension where they made Cordelia a princess.”

“No way,” she said, feeling a genuine smile stretch across her face. “Now this story I really need to hear.”

 

***

 

He was sprawled apathetically across his bed on the lower level of his crypt when he heard the gentle thump of teenage feet upstairs. Certain it was too early in the day for that to go down well with the witches and the school folk, he resigned himself to giving her another half-hearted speech about the long term importance of school. He oozed off the bed and made his way upstairs.

When he reached the main level she was already making herself at home, her jacket and school things strewn across the furniture as she fiddled with the telly.

“Dawn,” he said exasperatedly.

Her long hair swished over her shoulder as she turned her head and replied glumly, “Hi, Spike.”

“What’s this about then, niblet? School let out early?”

“No,” she answered sheepishly. “It’s just… Buffy’s gone.”

For the length of a second, his gut twisted and he feared the worst. “Gone?” he repeated.

“To see Angel,” Dawn elaborated. Then, with a little smack to the side of the television set, “Ugh, why isn’t it working?”

“Never mind that,” he said, gently nudging her away from it. “Angel?” It wasn’t so bad as the 147-days-sorta gone. But it was less than ideal. He was fairly certain she hadn’t run off to Angel for financial advice.

“Yeah,” Dawn sat back on the floor and slumped against the nearest chair. “He called the house, and she left. Just like that. She didn’t say when she’d be back. She didn’t even say goodbye.”

Spike frowned. “Ran right out to him, did she?”

“Pretty much,” Dawn confirmed, looking thoroughly put out. “I feel like she doesn’t even want to be around me. She barely even looks at me. Something terrible must’ve happened to her... didn’t it?”

Spike averted his eyes, ran a hand through his hair. So, little sis was out of the loop then. Watcher too, he’d wager.

“I can only imagine.” He hated to lie to the little bit. But then, it wasn’t exactly a lie, was it?

“But why wouldn’t she want to stay home? I mean, we’re all her family, right? I am. And everyone else is too. Why would she go away?”

Because her so-called family wouldn’t let her rest in peace. He lowered himself to the floor beside Dawn and reached into his pocket for his cigs.

“Spike,” she started again, her tone somewhat fearful. “The night she came back, she went to that tower. I think she was gonna jump again.” Spike froze, cigarette pack halfway out of his pocket. “And I...I begged her not to. And I told her I would do better, now that she was back. But…” she hung her head guiltily, “here I am, skipping class still.”

“For what it’s worth, pet,” he said in a measured tone, “her running off to Captain Forehead would have me skiving off as well.”

Dawn snorted. “Why do you call him that?”

“Excuse me,” he said, with a melodramatic scowl. “You’ve met him, haven’t you?”

“Oh, shut up.” She shoved him playfully before standing up, heartbreak and gloom temporarily forgotten. She grabbed her backpack. “Do you know how to do algebra? I have a ton of make up work to do.”

 

***

 

For once, she felt herself drifting gently from sleeping to waking. Before she opened her eyes, she felt the crisp clean of sheets, the gentle cushioning of a pillow beneath her head. She scrunched her face, certain that she didn’t remember the falling-asleep-in-a-bed part that preceded this. What she remembered was dozing off on the stiff motel loveseat, entangled in Angel’s arms. She opened her eyes curiously and glanced around.

“Hey.” Angel was sitting in the chair beside the bed, fingers tented and one ankle resting on the opposite knee.

“Hey,” she yawned back, smiling. As she stretched, she realized she was, in fact, fully clothed. “Ugh, I can’t believe you let me in the bed with my gross bus clothes.” She eyed the bathroom door. “I’m gonna go wash up, get rid of the eau de bus seat.”

“Sure. Motel soap might not be much better though,” he deadpanned. She smiled a little, and then he smiled a little, and then they were just caught in a moment of stupidly smiling at each other about motel soap.

“I’ll be right back,” she said, snapping herself out of it.

 

***

 

Willow nearly jumped out of her skin when the phone rang. The evening had been quiet. A rather subdued Dawn—who had been returned to the house after sunset by Spike—had gone to bed early. Giles had disappeared to the magic shop to see if further research might point them toward the master of the M’Fashnik demon. So really it had just been her and Tara and, to be honest, that was how Willow liked it. But the shock of the phone jolted her as she brushed her hair in the silent house.

“Hello?” she answered, wondering who on earth called people so late. Besides, well, her.

“Willow.” She recognized Angel’s voice immediately. “Are you sure Buffy came back...the same?”

“The same how?” she asked nervously. Had their meeting been fraught with emotional coolness and off-kilter attempts at humor?

“I don’t know,” he said. “She...smells different.”

“What?” Willow frowned, involuntarily thinking of all the parts of Buffy that might smell. “Different how?”

“It’s like her...blood’s a little different. Or her body. Or something.” He seemed to think it over for a moment, uncertain. “None of you have noticed anything?”

“Well, no…” Her frown deepened. “We don’t really have super sniffers around here. You’re a vampire. We’re just, y’know, human people.”

“Yeah.” He sounded distracted. “Yeah, no, you’re right. Sorry.”

“No problem,” she replied awkwardly. “So, um, how’s the visit going?”

“I’m not sure. I mean, it’s Buffy,” he said, sounding both awed and confused.

“Yeah,” Willow concurred. “It is. It is Buffy.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOUR: TOO MUCH

 

When she got out of the shower, Angel was still sitting in the same chair, only now the television was on. It was showing some kind of...hockey game?

Buffy dropped her bag on the nightstand. She’d brought her largest purse, hastily packed with a change of clothes and a hopeful set of pajamas. “You never told me you liked hockey,” she said as she crossed to the bed, faintly self-conscious in her yummy sushi pajamas. She had ditched the matching top (y’know, to conserve space when packing) and instead wore a black camisole.

Angel looked over, eyes skimming her exposed shoulders. “I didn’t always,” he admitted, “but I realized it’s the perfect sport.”

“How so?” she asked as she perched on the bed, thrown by this revelation.

“Indoor stadiums, lots of nighttime matches.”

“Oh. Right.” She nodded, understanding. “Perfect as in practical for those who can’t go out during the day.”

“I never would have realized it,” he added, “if you hadn’t loved ice-skating so much.”

Her stomach did a little flip at his tone and at the small smile he gave her. This. This was why she had wanted to come meet up with him.

“Yeah?” she said coyly. “Are you telling me I inspired you?”

He looked over at her and clicked the mute button. “Something like that.”

She circled around the bed and sat on the edge, facing him.

“Did you want to talk more?” he asked gently.

“I was thinking more we’d do this,” she answered softly, and leaned in to kiss him.

 

***

 

Willow rested her elbows on the kitchen island. “Okay, how are we doing this?” she asked briskly, trying to woman-up and put her foot down. How did anyone raise teenagers? As much as she loved Dawn, a few months of this routine had her ready to snap.

“Doing what?” Dawn asked, chomping a spoonful of chocolate cereal.

“Dawn, you skipped out on periods five and six yesterday,” Willow pointed out, her sharp tone wavering as she reached for the cereal box herself.

“So?” Dawn said moodily, pushing her bowl away and crossing her arms.

“You’re not gonna, you know, do the same thing today, right?”

“What if I do?” Dawn shot back. “You’re not in charge of me; Buffy’s my legal guardian. And Buffy doesn’t care if I skip class. She used to do it all the time.”

“She had to run around doing field research on oogedy-boogedies twenty-four-seven.”

“Right. Got it,” Dawn grumbled. “She’s special; I’m not.”

“Dawn, that’s not… Buffy wants you to go to school, okay? She does care.”

Dawn pushed away from the kitchen island. “If she cares so much, why did she leave to go see Angel without even saying goodbye to me?” And with that, she grabbed her backpack and stomped to the front door.

Poor chit’s hurt big sis ran off, Spike had said the night before. In between his attempts to fish for information on what exactly Buffy was doing with Angel and when she might be returning, he’d also mentioned Dawn’s worry about letting her sister down by cutting class. It seemed Dawn had now decided to funnel that guilt into patent teenage sass.

But how come Spike got the upfront deets on how Dawn was doing, and not the hormonal rage smokescreen that Willow and Tara had to deal with? Why, for that matter, was Dawn more honest with Spike than with her bonus big sisters? And what, Willow wondered, did Buffy think about that?

 

***

 

She saw a highlight reel of horrible moments flickering together. Angel being sucked into Acathla’s portal. Angel appearing again, months later; savage, animalistic. She had done that to him. She had done that to him and he had loved her still, although he had ultimately decided to leave.

She felt suffocating darkness as she gasped for air, trapped in her casket, denied oxygen by several feet of soil. The fires. The demons. Hell. Hell she had been sentenced to by people she loved.

Her fingers twitched, scrabbled against the crushing sheets of dirt.

Was anything ever going to feel okay again?

She shuddered awake in the motel bed beside Angel, a shout dying on her lips as she realized where she was.

“Shh,” Angel whispered into her hair. “It’s okay. Whatever it was, it’s okay.” But it wasn’t. Oh god, it wasn’t.

“Angel?” she asked, voice too-high and shaking. “What was it like? When I sent you to Hell?” He sat up, pulled away from her. “Angel, no—” She grabbed at his shirt, stared into his face beseechingly. “Please. Please tell me if you really loved me the same after that. Please, Angel. Please.” She wanted to cling to him, ask the blubbering questions in the comfort of his embrace, but he was holding her at arm’s length, his grip on her shoulders firm.

“Buffy,” he asked, bewildered, “what is this about?”

“I died,” she sobbed. “I died, and I was happy.” She shook her head, as if she could refute her own confession. Strands of her hair stuck to the tracks of her tears. “I was okay, wherever I was. And Willow brought me back, and now everything’s so hard. And they want me to be happy, but I can’t. Angel, I can’t.” She struggled for breath through the suffocating tears.

Angel stiffened as she spoke. “You were—”

“I was in Heaven,” she gasped desperately.

“And you didn’t tell somebody?” he demanded.

Oh god, why was he angry? Oh god, oh god. She couldn’t answer, just let the tears continue to fall silently.

He gave her a little shake. “Buffy, you don’t think they’d wanna know? They could, I don’t know—”

“Kill me?” she suggested hollowly. “Kill me and send me back where I wanna be?”

He released her as though scalded, and she lay limp and stared up at him, exhausted by the explosion of dormant emotion.

“Buffy,” he struggled. “Buffy, everyone thinks you’re okay. Willow said you were completely normal.”

Willow? So that was how Angel had known she was back. It wasn’t important now. She felt the tears drying on her face.

“Normal,” she echoed flatly.

“How long did you say you’ve been back?”

She shrugged. What did it matter? “Week and a half,” she mumbled.

“And you haven’t talked to anyone about this?” He sounded pained. And that’s why she hadn’t wanted to talk to anyone about it. Because it would hurt them.

“I… I told Spike,” she admitted.

Those three words were enough to immediately eject Angel from the bed. He jumped up, nostrils flaring.

Spike?” he repeated, looking completely disoriented.

She nodded infinitesimally.

“Buffy, I… I don’t know what to say.” He shook his head, shock fading into disappointment. “Of all the people, Buffy. He’s not someone you can confide in. I thought you were smarter than that.”

That’s not fair, she wanted to say. You don’t know what he’s done for me and my sister. But all she could do was wheeze as she tried to steady her breathing.

Minutes passed. Buffy curled up and clutched the duvet, cocooning herself in its softness. Angel remained standing, occasionally opening his mouth to speak, then closing it, never meeting her eyes.

Finally, he shook his head and looked down at her. “Buffy, you have to go home.”

“I don’t want to,” she whimpered.

“I know,” he said gently, “but you have to. Go be with…your friends.” The sentence ended a bit sourly, she suspected because he thought of Spike as he said it. But his tone was kinder when he continued, “I can’t fix this for you. I wish I could, but I can’t. Avoiding everyone isn’t going to help.”

 

***

 

“Any word from Buffy?” Giles asked as Willow entered the dining room with her laptop and schoolwork.

“No.” Willow set her things down at the end of the table. “How are the bills looking?” Giles had spent the afternoon combing through the heaps of money-related mail that the others hadn’t been sure what to do with...other than count and cringe.

“Ah, formidable,” he answered, taking off his glasses and rubbing his fingertips against his temples. “I imagine there must be a reason the Summers household’s financial straits didn’t come to light until the day before yesterday,” he said wearily.

Willow fidgeted, then knelt to plug in her laptop cord to delay answering. “We...planned to do the spell,” she said carefully as she straightened, not missing the way Giles’s face hardened. “So we thought she’d be back, and we could handle it then.”

“And your plan in the meantime,” he said slowly, “was to ignore all the bills that needed paying?”

“Giles, we weren’t just freeloading,” she shot back defensively. “Tara and I—and Xander and Anya too—we’ve all been taking care of Dawn. And making sure the Hellmouth was protected. And, if it weren’t for me spending all my free time reprogramming the bot, we’d all have been in deep trouble.”

“Yes, Willow,” he said, exasperated. “And perhaps, if the world worked differently, the utility companies would take that into account.” He put his glasses back on and looked around the room, shaking his head. “I hope you appreciate the tremendous strain you’ve put on Buffy by failing to deal with this yourselves.”

The front door opened; Dawn was home from school. “Buffy back yet?” she asked hopefully. Willow and Giles shook their heads.

 

***

 

Okay, maybe he didn’t understand all the fancy specs, but he had to admit…

The van was pretty cool. Maybe a little ostentatious, but Andrew was painting over his inaccurate Death Star mural.

Testing Buffy with their spells and gadgets was also pretty cool. Cooler than killing her, anyway, which he was glad they weren’t talking about anymore. After that M’Fashnik guy had gotten off their case, everything had been RPGs and VR headsets while Warren finished tricking out the van. Warren had also managed to set up cameras in a bunch of places, including Buffy’s own yard. It was impressive.

Sometimes, Jonathan wondered if Warren really planned to hurt Buffy. The thought made him uncomfortable, but he didn’t really want to ask any questions.

The three of them were just having too much fun.

 

***

 

She walked home from the Sunnydale bus depot as dusk fell around her. She could’ve called Xander and asked him to pick her up but, after the day she'd had, she didn’t feel like talking.

Angel had insisted that she try to get more sleep and, when that had proved unsuccessful, he had driven her back to the bus station and handed her money for the ticket back home. She’d taken it numbly and spent the better part of the day sitting on a bench next to the ticket office, mentally cataloging all the bills she had no way of paying. There hadn’t been a Sunnydale-bound bus scheduled for several hours, and Angel had opted to leave before checking, speeding off in his stupid closed convertible with its stupid shades suction-cupped to the stupid windows.

All in all, not the great romantic getaway distraction she’d hoped for.

She passed Chicken Hut, then doubled back and went inside. Food was good and normal. If she showed up with food, everyone would be happy.

And, finally, a few minutes later, she was home.

“Hello?” she called as she crossed the threshold. Didn’t look like anyone was in the living room. Hmm.

“Buffy?” came Willow’s voice from the dining room.

Buffy swiveled and followed Willow’s voice. “Yep, it’s me, and I brought dinner,” she said as she stepped into the room. “Deep fried chicken parts. Hope you’re…” She trailed off, noticing the mostly-cleared plates. “Hungry,” she finished lamely. Strike number whatever for resurrected maladjust Buffy. “You already ate.”

“No!” Giles denied at once. Buffy raised her eyebrows. “Well, yes,” he amended. “Obviously.”

“We didn’t know when you’d be coming back,” Dawn said apologetically.

Buffy shrugged and approached the table. “It’s okay. More for me.” She set the bucket of chicken on the table and sat down. It was quiet for a moment, and then Tara spoke up.

“I don’t know about everybody else, but I would love some chicken,” she said kindly, and the bucket was passed around the table.

“So?” Dawn said, eyeing Buffy.

Buffy stared back blankly. “What so?”

“So...how was it? Seeing Angel. Him seeing you,” she elaborated. “Was it weird?”

Buffy shifted uneasily in her chair, searching for a suitable answer. “It was...intense.”

“Well, if you wanna talk about it…” Willow offered.

But Buffy shut her down immediately. “I don’t. It’s…” What was it? “...not important. Past. I’d just rather keep this one to myself, if that’s okay.”

Dawn was the only one to respond. “Sure, whatever.”

And then Giles asked Buffy what her plans were. Finally, a question she was ready for! Only, no one seemed to like her answer. She saw Willow’s smile fall away. Tara looked concerned. Dawn looked uncomfortable.

“I meant, with your life,” Giles finally interrupted.

Well, that one was a stumper.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FIVE: WINE AND WHISKEY

 

 

“Spike?”

He jerked awake at the sound of his name. A soft light was visible beyond the trapdoor. Day. Early. Who the hell was here at this hour?

His eyes alighted on Dawn.

He sat up and hastily made sure the covers obscured his lower body from view.

“What are you doing down here?” he demanded blearily. “Shouldn’t you be at school?”

“It’s only, like, seven,” she answered from where she stood at the bottom of the ladder. “Also known as ‘before school’? I didn’t want to risk being around when Buffy got up.”

That woke him up. “She’s back then?” he asked, hating the eagerness in his voice.

“Yeah, she got back on Friday.” Dawn rolled her eyes. “And now that she’s done moping about Angel, she’s moved on to moping about being an academic dummy. Didn’t want a second helping of that after last night.”

“What are you on about?” He held the sheet against his waist as he scooped his clothes up off the floor.

“She tried to go to school with Willow yesterday,” Dawn explained. “But of course Willow takes crazy-complicated classes like it’s no big.” Her nose wrinkled. “You’re naked, aren’t you?”

“Might be.”

“Ugh, okay, I’m going back upstairs.”

Once she’d cleared the landing, he kicked back the sheets and dressed swiftly. Buffy was back. Had been back all weekend. Why hadn’t he seen her? (He knew the answer to that: he’d been too busy sulking.) And why on earth was she suddenly trying to go to classes?

He had half a mind to go over to the house. It wasn’t good for her, running off to Angel in the state she was in. Angelus understood raw human emotion, made an art of exploiting it. But souled-up Angel? Brooding, distant, and useless.

Ah, there was that word. Useless.

Perhaps he and the poof had something in common after all.

 

***

 

Buffy scowled at Willow’s sociology textbook as she passed a heap of Willow’s school stuff on the way to the kitchen. All she wanted was Tylenol and big glass of water. She was feeling kinda ookie and crampy, and she wondered how long her body would take to get back into the swing of things after being brought back from the dead. Willow had offered only vague assurances that she was sure Buffy would snap back soon.

It was late evening. She had done a Slayerific pass through town already, giving Restfield Cemetery a very wide berth (surely that block could manage without her for a few more nights). It wasn’t that she was avoiding Spike, it was just that she didn’t want to see him right now.

Okay, so maybe ‘yes’ on the avoiding.

Since auditing classes had been a fiasco, Xander had suggested she try helping at his construction site. He was supposed to call soon to let her know if his high-ish ranking at the construction firm would let them swing a temporary contract despite Buffy’s lack of résumé.

As she downed the painkillers, she heard a familiar knock at the front door. It opened to reveal Xander carrying a file folder in one hand.

“Xander!” she greeted, faintly confused. “I thought you said you were gonna call. On the phone.”

“Yeah, thought I’d come in person though. Because I have to give you these.” He handed her three slim packets of paper. “Safety stuff. Legal stuff. Aaaand personal information paperwork so you can get paid.”

Buffy looked down at it and grimaced. The page on top was a list of safety guidelines. “I have to read things?”

“Hey, I had to pull a lot of strings to get you in,” Xander said good-naturedly. “It’s all basic stuff anyway. If I can read it, so can you.” He gave her a small smile before he glanced at his watch. “I have to go though; I was just dropping these off. See you in the morning?”

“See you in the morning,” Buffy echoed, looking down at the pages in her hand as Xander left. Paperwork. No fun. But maybe working with Xander would be yes fun. She doubted she would need to demonstrate understanding of any sociological theories on the construction site.

Buffy yawned as she wandered to the couch. She’d been so tired these past few days. Very low on Slayer pep, even after getting back into slaying regularly. Maybe Anya was right about the jet-lag from Hell, at least partly.

She had just gotten into a nice reclined position to read Xander’s paperwork when Dawn came into the room and announced, “I’ll be at Janice’s for Halloween.”

“Uh-huh,” Buffy answered, not looking up from the page she was reading about something called OSHA.

“Just...thought you’d wanna know or whatever,” Dawn said moodily. Well, that was no good.

Buffy lowered the paperwork and looked over at Dawn. “And now I know,” she said. “So...good.” She raised the page back to her face and continued reading.

 

***

 

It had been tough coming up with something likely to beat Warren and Andrew’s challenges. And he had gotten nervous for a second there that the mummy hand was gonna strangle the shopper-lady to death, but the time loop had restarted once it was clear the outcome wouldn’t satisfy the customer. So, net result? Pretty cool.

Still, he couldn’t shake his discomfort at Warren’s words: It’s not over.

How much longer were they going to keep messing with Buffy? It was fun and everything, to test some of the spells he’d found, but he didn’t want to actually hurt anyone.

He gave himself a mental kick. Be cool, JonathanYou’re a magic-slinging criminal mastermind and this is how the game is played.

 

***

 

“There was flower wine left over from Tara’s birthday last week. I drank it.”

It wasn’t the greeting Spike expected, but it had potential. “That so, love?” he asked, grinning at the glint in her eye as she stepped into his crypt.

“Yes, and I am here for more drinking please!” Her eyes scanned the room and landed on his coat thrown over a chair. She strode to it purposefully and thrust her hands into each pocket in turn until she located his flask of bourbon.

“You are not drinking all that,” he intervened before she had a chance to unscrew the cap. It was the last of his cache. “Got glasses downstairs.” He held out his hand for the flask but instead Buffy walked past him and headed for the trapdoor. He chuckled and followed.

Downstairs, he watched Buffy hop up onto a battered old casket and wait, flask in hand, while he retrieved two shot glasses. It was peculiar, this tipsy visitation. No contact for a week, a stint in Angel-land, a failed day of collegiate study, and who knew what else...and now here she was, lounging in his crypt and sharing his booze like she did it all the time. If only she could’ve been like this a year ago, he thought wryly.

“This is gonna be great,” she declared, pouring their shots. She threw hers back and made an adorable sound of distaste. He smiled and tossed back his own drink.

“Life is stupid.”

“I have a dim memory of that, yeah,” he said with a soft smile. “And I didn’t figure you were cadging my whiskey ‘cause life’s all full of blood and peaches.”

“No,” she admitted. “There’s this thing… Someone’s doing stuff to me.” And she went on, in that Buffy-way that eschewed standard grammar almost entirely but somehow still managed to make sense. It seemed she’d had mishaps not only at school but also at multiple jobs in the past few days. What had she been getting up to, wasting her time on things like that?

He made a jab at Giles and felt less tempted to immediately kick himself for it than for other recent jibes. Their tone tonight was different. It was okay if his honesty was caustic; Buffy’s drunkenness equalized it.

“You’d do better?” Buffy retorted, her indignation diluted by wine and whiskey.

“Damn right,” he insisted. “I’d hit the demon world. Ask questions, throw punches, find out what’s in the air.”

Buffy didn’t contradict him, just proceeded to refill their glasses, so he added enticingly, “It’s fun, too.”

“Not my kinda fun,” Buffy slurred.

“Yeah, it is.” He had her attention now, even if it was muddled by drink. He lowered his voice. “And your life’s gonna get a lot less confusing when you figure that out.”

She scoffed. “You have had so too much to drink at this point, I am cutting you off.” And again they each drank, Buffy shuddering as she gulped the liquor down.

“You’re not a schoolgirl,” he pressed. “You’re not a shop girl.” Buffy wasn’t exactly paying attention, distracted by the task of pouring the last trickle of whiskey into her glass. “You’re a creature of the darkness,” he continued earnestly. “Like me.” He had her attention now, for what it was worth. “Try on my world,” he appealed. “See how good it feels.”

“Are there drinks in your world?”

He grinned. “Come on. We’ll take the bike.”

“Okay,” Buffy answered, hopping to her feet.

“You sure?” he asked skeptically. But he moved to climb the ladder all the same.

“Yeah,” she said with sloppy enthusiasm. “Lead the way.”

He grabbed his coat on the way out and headed to the stolen motorbike, propped against the side of the crypt and hidden from passersby by a cover of shrubbery. Buffy followed close behind.

As he hauled the bike out from the bushes, she blurted out, “You know that thing we did?” Her voice was absurdly loud in the dead quiet of the cemetery. “The thing with the naked parts?”

His muscles stiffened. He hadn’t imagined she’d ever broach the subject quite like this. He gave himself a shake as he pulled the bike upright. “Yeah?” he replied levelly. “What of it?”

“I think about it sometimes,” she said matter-of-factly.

He looked at her and saw the alcohol-inspired intensity on her face. “Do you, now?” He kept his tone conversational. Under different circumstances he might have leered, might have groped. But this seemed a night of too-good-to-be-trues, and he wasn’t about to overstep. Didn’t rightly want to, either. Her eyes, though… They were so bright, and they had him pinned. He tilted his head and examined her warily.

“Yep, I do. Aaaand...sometimes it’s nice.” She said the last bit like a challenge.

“Yeah?” His mouth was incredibly dry. Because, sometimes, he thought about it too. And, as wretched as it was, it was sometimes nice, remembering the feel of her in that moment. A bittersweet memory of physical closeness he’d clung to for the months she was gone (and clung to even now, now that she was back but still so distant). A shared secret that neither spoke about.

“So are we going to…” She gestured at the bike expectantly.

“Er, right.” He tore his gaze from her and started walking the bike along the path. He supposed he ought to get proper helmets if taking Summers women on the motorbike was to become any sorta regular occurrence. There was probably some stuffy law about it. But if any coppers pulled him over tonight, he’d sic the drunk Slayer on them. He smirked at the thought. In any event, the Slayer’d manage without the protection for one night.

When they reached the curb, he steadied and mounted the bike without looking at Buffy. “Come on, then,” he said briskly.

“Yeah, yeah,” she half-laughed, bracing her palms on his shoulders as she got on behind him. She hummed contently as she settled against him, and he held in a shudder at the feel of her arms around his torso. It was proving to be an odd night.

 

***

 

She was sore the next morning. Even her boobs were sore. Actually, mostly her boobs were sore, which was just weird. But she supposed strange body aches just came with the getting-ridiculously-drunk territory. Had she been sore after drinking all that enchanted beer back in college?

She dragged herself out of bed and went to the bathroom cabinet for painkillers. Willow popped in, partially dressed for a class Buffy was glad not to be attending.

“Headache?” Willow asked in an offhand way as she pawed through hair accoutrements on the vanity.

“My boobs are sore,” Buffy corrected as she unscrewed the lid.

“Oh, mine always get sore before my period,” Willow said sympathetically. Then, having found the comb she sought, she left.

Buffy frowned. “Mine...don't,” she answered to the empty room.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SIX: AMAZING

 

“What do ya wanna do tonight, Dawnie?” Willow asked cheerfully as they left the Magic Box with Tara.

“Pretty much anything that’s not algebra or demon research,” Dawn answered. “Had enough of that for one day.”

“It’s Friday night though,” Tara chimed in. “We could do something wild like go see a movie.”

Dawn shook her head. “I kinda just wanna stay at home. And maybe Buffy will wanna hang out tonight,” she added, sounding cautiously hopeful.

Willow met Tara’s eyes briefly.

“Um, sweetie, I think Buffy’s having a really hard time this week,” Tara said softly. “She might not feel up to hanging out with us.”

“Or maybe she will!” Willow countered. In her opinion, Tara was seriously overdoing the concern for Buffy. “What’s a couple rocky days to a slayer, right?”

 

***

 

Buffy patrolled distractedly that evening. When she thought she caught a glimpse of bleach-blond hair in Restfield, she booked it in the opposite direction. After an uneventful night—besides the possible Spike-sighting, she’d only seen one other vampire, who was now dust—she started towards home. Her feet were practically dragging on the sidewalk, so strong was her reluctance to make the stop she knew she had to make.

She could feel her pulse thudding in her ears as she stood under the drugstore’s fluorescent lighting. Number-one-rated name brand? Or store brand? In the end, she grabbed one of each and avoided eye contact with the cashier.

Boob-soreness, as far as she knew, was a hormone thing. Plus, there was the cramping. It wasn't quite like period cramps and, tellingly, was yet to be followed by an actual period.

So it was boob-soreness and period-missingness.

No one seemed to know exactly what Willow’s spell had done, just that it had achieved the goal of creating a live Buffy. What if it had—

“No,” Buffy muttered to herself as she stalked up Revello Drive. “Don’t even go there.” She was just gonna rule out the possibility, and then maybe Willow could help her figure out what the hell actually was going on.

She stuffed the shopping bag under her jacket and entered the house. Dawn, Tara, and Willow were in the living room, the sound of the television and their chatter so much muffled noise in Buffy’s thumping ears. She rushed up the stairs without greeting them. That wasn’t too weird, was it? Nothing wrong with a girl just really needing to pee and not taking two seconds to say ‘hi’, right? Ugh.

She nearly slammed the bathroom door behind her.

She didn't actually have to pee that bad but, nevertheless, she took a test and unfolded the directions. Very straightforward. And terrifying.

Get it together, Buffy. Just pee on the damn stick so it can tell you you're obviously not pregnant and something else magic-wacky is going on instead.

She sat on the toilet, her nerves reducing the world to this one room, which suddenly felt suffocatingly tiny and unbearably bright.

She peed. She waited. She looked.

It was one line for pregnant, and two lines for not pregnant, right? Or...was it the other way around? She grabbed the directions again and gulped. It was absolutely the other way around.

What did the number-one name brand know? Store brand. Store brand would set things straight.

The store brand displayed a plus sign. Unacceptable. She stared down at the tests, then crammed them into the bottom of the trash.

Stepping out of the bathroom, she crossed to her bedroom, feeling distant and trancelike. She went over to the mirror and stared at herself. She couldn't be pregnant. She didn't look pregnant. Weren't pregnant people supposed to look all glowy or something?

A gentle knock on the doorframe made her turn. Willow stood in the doorway with a laundry basket balanced on one hip. “Dawn and I did some laundry while you were out on patrol.” She crossed to the bed and set down a stack of clothes. “We might have made a teeny mistake with my new red shirt, but I think everything that matters turned out okay.”

“That’s good,” Buffy said blankly. Could Willow tell she was pregnant? Could everybody tell by looking at her? Would they all just think she was dumb for not knowing?

“We had breakfast for dinner,” Willow said animatedly. “There’s leftover pancakes keeping warm for you in the oven, if you wanna come down.”

“Thanks,” Buffy answered automatically. Bun in the oven, her brain hissed at her. Shut up, brain.

Willow backed out of the room and Buffy went back to staring at herself in the mirror. She needed help. She needed best-friend Willow. She whipped away from the mirror and headed down the hall before she could chicken out.

“Will, can I...can I talk to you?”

“Sure, Buff!” She must have read something in Buffy’s stance because her expression morphed to concern. “Uh oh. Is it about your sushi pajamas? I swear I didn't think the color would bleed that much.”

“No, it's not that. It's… Can we sit down?”

Willow frowned. “Sure.” She stepped toward the bed. “The floor? Or I can clear this?” And she reached to push a stack of laundry over to one side of the bed.

“Yeah, bed’s good.” Bed, floor. It made no difference. She perched on the edge and Willow joined her, brow furrowed in concern. Buffy tried to take a deep breath, but felt as though all the air had gone from the room.

“Willow, I think… I think I'm pregnant.”

Willow blinked. “Why?” She shook her head slightly. “Well, I guess probably the normal reasons why. But...when? And who? Buffy, when you saw Angel—” She looked alarmed and even more puzzled at the thought.

Buffy shook her head vigorously. “No, it has nothing to do with Angel. I haven't...been with anyone—like that—since you brought me back.” She felt an urge to screech into Willow's face for what she'd done. And for the apparent side effect of what she'd done.

“Okay,” Willow said slowly, “then I'm not sure I follow.”

“Willow, do you think that your spell could have done this?”

Willow considered this. “Well...the spell did make that demon thing,” she allowed. “But I don't think it could've made a...another life. Not from scratch. A pregnancy, you need more genetic material for that, or some super specialized magicks that I haven't even heard of.”

“What if...what if there was genetic material, but it was just...dead.”

“Huh… I don't know. But I think it'd have to be a lot more recent than anything you did with Riley. Sperm don't last forever, you know,” she said teasingly. “They die and then I'm pretty sure your immune system clears ‘em out.”

“Not Riley,” Buffy said, struggling to get words out.

“Then who?” Willow looked confused, then startled. “Not Xander—”

“Oh my god, no, Will. It was … There was… I…” She swallowed and started again. “I had sex with Spike. On that last night. The night I died.”

“Oh,” Willow said. Then her eyes widened. “Oh.”

None of these reactions were very helpful. And now Willow’s shock was giving way to a broad smile.

“This is incredible!” Under different circumstances, Willow's geeking out might be considered charming. “I didn't even think about whether the spell would bring back anything besides you. I mean, the human body is filled with bacteria and stuff living and dying all over you all the time! And I must have brought that all back too or you’d have, like, zero gut bacteria and that wouldn’t work obviously.”

Buffy grimaced but Willow didn’t notice, the gears in her scientific mind clearly turning as she went on, “Undead vampire sperm must be able to swim. And fertilize an egg. Or try to, anyway. The sperm’s not properly alive though, so if that ever happens, it just doesn’t do anything. But, because it joined with your egg, it physically counted as part of you for the spell, and the spell made it actually alive.”

She broke off with a look of wonder, then said with a hint of pride, “Wow. Wow. Buffy, do you realize how amazing this is? The spell, my spell, made life from a vampire!”

Buffy crossed her arms over her belly, wishing she'd chosen to confide in literally anybody else.

“We have to tell the others!” Willow declared. And, without waiting for assent, she rushed out of the room.

 

***

 

“You guys, I don’t know how accurate the footage is,” Andrew said reluctantly, turning away from the monitor playing clips from the previous night. “I mean, the construction site stuff was from kinda far away because Warren was only able to rig a camera on the outside of the office trailer. And the stuff from yesterday? I think she was, like, sick or something. In the rear view camera footage, it looks like she almost fell over. Or possibly threw up.”

He frowned and replayed the clip. “Jonathan did that thing with the smoke though, so it’s kinda hard to see.”

“Well, she kicked me and it hurt,” Jonathan said, looking up from his Doctor Who novelization.

Warren leaned over Andrew’s shoulder and jabbed a finger at the clouded footage on the screen. “Who’s that guy with her?”

“I dunno.” Andrew’s face scrunched in thought. “I think I saw him at the butcher shop one time when my mom and I were in line for salami.”

“You know what this means, don’t you?” Warren said conspiratorially. “We need to get cameras on him, find out who he is.”

“Does that mean we’re not testing Buffy anymore?” Jonathan asked hopefully. Whenever he thought back to Warren’s reluctance to vote not to kill Buffy, it gave him the heebie-jeebies. His question might have come out overeager though.

“Calm down, Sparky,” Warren laughed. “All it means is we’re gonna have to test both of them.”

 

***

 

‘The others’, thankfully, didn't include Spike. But, within half an hour, Tara, Xander, Anya, Giles, and Dawn were all in the living room as Willow informed them of her magical accomplishment. Buffy, meanwhile, curled up in a chair and avoided directly meeting anyone's gaze.

“Giles, see!” Willow was saying. “If I hadn't done the spell, we wouldn't have Buffy back and we wouldn't know something this amazing was even possible! I mean, who knew that conception, regular human conception, was possible with a vampire?!” There was that word again. Amazing. Willow sure was amazed at herself. Giles seemed to be amazed at her too, though in a different spirit.

“It is remarkable,” he said slowly, leaning forward with his glasses dangling from his fingers. “But Willow, I'm not entirely sure you're right. We can't know whether it is, as you say, normal human conception. In fact, I'd venture to guess that it's not.” Buffy felt his eyes on her and stared down at the upholstery fibers.

“Well, then we get her checked out!” Willow said energetically. “And then we just, you know, see what happens!”

“Do we want to see what happens?” Anya interjected skeptically. “Demonic pregnancy? Pretty much never ends well.”

No one spoke for a moment.

“Buffy?” Dawn asked carefully. “Are you okay?”

Buffy lifted her head and forced herself to look Dawn in the face, if not quite in the eyes. “Sure, Dawnie,” she lied mechanically. “It’s just kind of a big deal I guess.”

“The biggest!” agreed Willow. “I mean, woah, mom-to-be right here!”

“Okay, everybody hold up,” said Xander. “Before we start the mom-to-be talk: Buffy, what do you want? You’re being pretty quiet.”

Before Buffy had a chance to respond, Tara piped up, “Listen, guys. I...I don’t think any of this is really our business.” Her tone held a quiet kind of power—resolute and ready to defend. Buffy heard her take a step closer to her chair.

“Yes, but Willow called us all here,” Anya pointed out. “So, Buffy,” she said in a businesslike manner, “what do you want? Abort the demon spawn or, you know, not?”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SEVEN: BREAKING THE NEWS

 

Spike slunk through the basement, scanning the shelves, hoping demon-girl had restocked the burba weed. Yes, there it was. Today was his lucky day.

Taking the jar off the shelf, he paused and pricked his ears for any sound of Buffy upstairs. He’d felt a bit of a bastard after escorting her home drunk off her face the other night, and now she was avoiding him. If he wasn’t very much mistaken, she’d passed through Restfield Cemetery the previous night but hadn’t come to call.

Truth told, it was the vague hope of finding Buffy that had prompted his visit to the Magic Box rather than a pressing need for burba weed. He didn’t hear her voice, though. Sighing, he grabbed a handful from the jar, stuffed it in his pocket, and made to leave. And then he heard Buffy’s name.

“It’s the Buffy having sex with Spike that’s throwing me,” Harris said. “I mean, I know I’m not the only one who was out of the loop on that, right?”

“Well, he is ruggedly handsome.”

Spike rolled his eyes. Had a feeling the strange bird fancied him a bit.

“Ahn? So not what I wanted to hear right now.”

“What! I’m just saying—”

“Perhaps we might turn the conversation in an entirely different direction,” Giles suggested. “Please.”

There was silence from upstairs until the bell on the door rang and Anya started jabbering at the new customer.

Odd turn of events, the Slayer telling her friends about the sex. Unless it had slipped out while she was drunk...which might make it at least partly his fault. He ought to go see her; enough of this ‘waiting for her to come round’ rubbish. It was daylight but he could cover up. If she wasn’t at the shop with the others, she was probably at home.

Mind made up, he set off.

 

***

 

It was an uncomfortable Saturday which followed an uncomfortable night. Though Buffy had retreated to her room during Willow’s ‘look at what I have created’ meeting, she hadn’t been able to fall asleep for hours. The others’ indistinct voices had continued in her absence and, when silence had finally fallen, it had felt prescient and eerie. Eventually the quiet had been broken by Willow’s indignant shouting and—from what Buffy had gleaned over breakfast—Tara had called a friend to pick her up at around eleven pm.

A pretending-nothing-was-amiss Willow and an anxious Dawn were now out for a day of shopping and movies, and everyone else was at the Magic Box. Buffy was glad everyone was out; she didn’t want to deal with their pitying sidelong glances all day. Or, for that matter, with Willow’s self-congratulatory excitement.

She didn’t know what to do with herself though. She puttered around the house, finally put away the laundry Willow had done (including her now-pink-tinted sushi pajamas), and then decided that she might as well take advantage of the empty house and have a bubble bath while there was no one around to interrupt her.

She was checking the bathroom cabinet for bubble bath when she heard the front door open, followed by a slam and some muffled swearing.

“Buffy?” Spike’s voice echoed through the house.

Her heart sank. This was so not on the list of things she was ready to do today. But it wasn’t like she could hide in her own house. “Yeah?” she called back, sitting down on the floor, resigned. If he wanted to talk to her, he could come up here and find her.

Moments later, he stuck his face around the open door. A flicker of confusion crossed his face at the sight of her sitting on the floor. “What are you doing?”

“Looking for soap,” Buffy answered blandly. “What are you doing? In my house. In the middle of the day.”

He raised a brow but then his expression smoothed and he shouldered the door the rest of the way open. “We need to talk,” he said heavily.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “Yeah, I think we do.” Or maybe, if she could break the news gently, he would let them not talk. She gathered herself, took a deep breath, and said, “There’s actually something I need to tell you.”

But he started talking over her before she could finish.

“Look,” he said, sounding agitated. “It’s alright that you don’t want to come near me so much anymore, after what you told me. About...about where you were.” He started pacing the small space. “But your sis keeps coming around, and I don’t know what to tell her. That you’re okay? As smashing as your bender the other night was to witness, I highly doubt you’re well.”

He was gesticulating passionately, and it was weird to see how much he cared...maybe not about her specifically. But maybe about Dawn. Or maybe just about himself and being caught in the middle in the situation. “And I heard the others talking about us at the shop and—”

“Spike,” she interrupted, slapping her hand against the floor in frustration. “I’m trying to tell you something. I’m pregnant.” So much for breaking the news gently.

Spike looked...what was the word Giles sometimes used when things were unexpected and didn't make sense? Flummoxed. Spike looked flummoxed. He froze and frowned at her, eyes roaming down to her abdomen before snapping back up to her face.

“You’re… But it’s not…” His eyes flickered to her belly again.

“The spell Willow did… It, uh, brought stuff—your stuff—back to life.”

He ran a palm down his face and gave himself a slight shake before meeting her eyes again. “Uh, right then. So you'll be getting it taken care of.”

“I...haven’t decided what I’m going to do. But yeah. Maybe.”

He laughed. It was a too-high, strained sound. “Haven’t decided,” he repeated.

“What?” Buffy said, nonplussed.

“No.” He shook his head. “Buffy,” he said, sounding pained, pleading. “You don't need this. You don’t want this. You’re in a bad enough way as it is. Just…” Jaw clenched, he looked up at the ceiling. “Just get rid of it. Don’t make things harder on yourself.”

She shrunk away slightly. “I’m the Slayer,” she said defensively. “You really think I couldn’t handle having a—”

Stop,” he said harshly. “Listen to yourself. You don't want to have my—” His tone turned flat. “Actually, do what you like. But don’t expect me to stick around for it.”

And, with a cold glare, he was gone. She heard his boots on the stairs, the slam of the door, and then she was alone in the house again.

She tucked her knees up under her chin and cried.

 

***

 

“Don’t you think we should go home and see if Buffy’s okay?” Dawn asked.

“I’m pretty sure she’s glad we all cleared out,” Willow answered, continuing to flick through the clearance rack at April Fools. “She didn’t seem to be in a very people-y mood today.” She glanced over at Dawn, who was standing away from any of the clothing racks, looking dejected. “Come on, Dawnie, don’t you like shopping anymore?”

“Yeah, but we don’t have the money to actually do any shopping.”

“Shopping doesn’t have to be all about buying,” Willow said with a smile. But deep inside, her heart ached. She didn’t want to think about last night’s argument with Tara, and normally Dawn was a good distraction. But she was being such a downer today.

 

***

 

Some time after Spike’s departure, the front door opened again.

“Hello?” Tara's voice filtered up from downstairs.

Buffy pulled herself to her feet. So much for having a relaxing bath with no interruptions. Nothing was really going according to plan lately.

“I’m up here,” she called from the bathroom doorway.

Tara came upstairs. “No one else is home?” she asked, glancing toward Willow's room.

“Just me,” Buffy confirmed.

Tara seemed relieved. “I came to get some more of my stuff. And to see how you’re doing.”

“I’m fine,” Buffy said automatically before grimacing and correcting herself. “Okay, no, I’m not.”

“Do you want to talk?” Tara offered. “I have some time.”

Buffy chewed her lip. It might be nice to talk to someone less opinionated. So far, there was Willow who thought the whole thing was her own masterpiece, Spike who thought the whole thing had to be stopped, and...everyone else, all of whom were just too alarmed to be any use.

“Okay. Yeah.” Suddenly feeling awkward, Buffy added, “Do you want help with your stuff first?”

“I think I’ve got it,” Tara said. “Why don’t you go downstairs? I’ll be down in just a minute.”

Buffy nodded and headed down to the dimly lit living room. She perched stiffly on the edge of the couch cushions, eyeing the new pictures on the mantel. She hadn't spent much time in the rest of the house since being wrenched back to her body. There were so many slight changes and every one of them made her uncomfortable.

What a mess Willow had made. Buffy wanted to lose herself in the anger but the fury just wouldn't come. Emotion was too much work. Lately it mostly resulted in crying, which only left her feeling tired and raw. And Spike’s response to her news left her rawer still.

“I’m here,” Tara announced softly from the bottom of the stairs. She set the packed cardboard box down and came over to join Buffy on the couch. “Do you want to talk?”

“I just…” Buffy cast about for something to say. Something true and uncomplicated. “I wish my mom was here.”

“Oh, sweetie, I can only imagine,” Tara said, face pinching with feeling.

“I told Spike,” Buffy blurted out.

“Oh.” Tara seemed faintly surprised. “And...wha-what did he say?”

“He thinks I shouldn’t...that I should, y’know…”

“Terminate the pregnancy?” Tara supplied gently.

“Yeah,” Buffy said. “That.”

“I’m sorry.”

Buffy frowned, confused; Tara’s tone was apology rather than sympathy.

“Not about that,” Tara clarified hurriedly. “Or maybe about that, but, well...there was a time last year. With the...with the robot? When I heard what the others thought you were doing, I said you were crazy.” She cringed. “I just want to say that I’m sorry for saying that.”

But I didn’t even hear you say it, Buffy wanted to say. You don't have to apologize.

“Thank you,” she said, her voice thin. “I...I don’t know that you were wrong though.”

“About being crazy?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think you’re crazy?”

Buffy stared down at her hands. “I...I guess not,” she answered slowly. “And I wasn’t having sex with him,” she added firmly, in case that was unclear. “I just...had sex with him. Once. On that last night, the night I...the night I jumped.” She hadn’t told anyone about any of the details. The words now came, slow but necessary. “I don’t know what made me do it, I just felt like I needed it. Is...is that crazy?” She looked to Tara, desperate for some answer.

Tara sighed contemplatively. “I don’t know. But you don’t have to explain yourself to anybody. It doesn’t need to be right or wrong, it can just be something that happened and might happen again. Or might not,” she tacked on. Then, curiously, “Do you love him?”

“God, no,” Buffy answered without a second thought. “Does that mean I’m not crazy? Or does it mean I’m extra crazy?”

Tara shook her head. “I don’t think it means either of those, Buffy,” she soothed. “But do you agree with him? About what he said you should do?”

Buffy heaved a shrug. Then, wishing the couch would swallow her, she voiced a niggling thought: “What if this is my only chance?”

“What do you mean?”

“Slayers don’t live long. I’ve died two times, and this last one really should’ve been for keeps. I won’t be able to plan for a family. I have to be the Slayer and then I’ll die.”

Tara asked quietly, “You want to...seize the chance while you have it?”

“Hello! Did you miss the part about how I have to be the Slayer and then die?” Buffy snapped. Tara looked down at her lap and Buffy rushed to apologize, “Ugh, I’m sorry. I...thanks for letting me rant about this. I don't really expect anyone to have any useful advice.”

A long moment passed in silence.

“Well,” Tara began again, “I think my only advice is...if you want to have the baby, have the baby. If you don’t want the baby, then don’t have it. The decision begins and ends with you.”

“I feel like that oversimplifies things.”

“It does,” Tara agreed. “But you do have some time before you need to decide for sure.”

“How much time?” She didn’t have the faintest idea how these things worked.

“Not a lot. But some.”

 

***

 

He was to her in an instant, brushing his thumb across her cheek and softly tilting her chin upwards.

“Tell me,” she whispered.

Her eyes were bright with a mix of fierceness and despair he found deliciously compelling. He wanted to let himself get lost in them, but there wasn’t time.

“I love you,” he murmured, inches from her lips. She made no reply, just stared at him hard. His senses tried to soak in the scene, as disconcerting as it was. She didn’t smell like sex, or arousal. She just smelled like Buffy. And she’d told him to kiss her.

So he did, though a mite cautiously. He touched his lips very lightly to hers, an echo of the kiss she’d given him after he’d been pummeled by Glory.

Glory. There was no time for this.

He pulled his face away, about to utter a pained insistence that they needed to get a move on if they were going to return to the others in time. But one more look in her eyes was his undoing, and he crushed his mouth to hers.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER EIGHT: ADVICE

 

He pressed her against the wall, his hands at her hip and shoulder as their mouths overlapped, overeager and sloppy. She didn’t know why she needed this. But he was there, and he was willing. And oh, he was inside her. She moaned weakly into his mouth and felt more than heard the soft growl that rumbled in response. Her legs were mostly encumbered by clothing, but her hands were free to grab fistfuls of his shirt. His face slipped against hers as she hauled him closer.

“Buffy,” he breathed.

She scrunched her eyes shut tight.

 

***

 

Spike awoke with a twinge in his jaw. Touching it lightly as he rolled over in bed, he felt the tenderness of a monstrous bruise. He poked his tongue around his mouth. Teeth had all stayed put at least.

He’d gotten into a series of very stupid fights, with a series of very stupid demons. None of them were worth his time, but he’d had to do something after having the news dumped on him like that. The news...that he’d managed to knock up the Slayer.

Never, ever, in all the sex he had ever had, had this outcome been on the table. He’d died a hapless virgin and the consequences of sex had therefore never troubled him. He was a vampire. Virile in some ways, but sterile in that one. He was immune to the human illnesses transmitted through sexual contact, and his swimmers didn’t swim. Or if they did, it was for naught. The only way he could create life was by taking it away. He knew this.

What they’d done... It had been a moment’s reprieve in what they had assumed would be their final hours. A small mercy for both of them. It wasn’t about passion. It was about desperation and willingness; acquiescence and need.

And sure, he’d wanted her. But that wasn’t why he’d done it. It’d been the look in her eyes. It’d been the way she’d requested it. He’d known it was supposed to be fleeting, known it wouldn't mean anything in the long run.

But now she was—he gritted his teeth at the thought—pregnant.

A cruel joke, is what it was. God, if only he’d...what? Used a condom? He shook his head. He’d no reason to think to use one, even if he’d had one on hand.

Cursing under his breath, he sat up and looked down at his clothes. He’d not undressed past removing his coat and boots, and his jeans and shirt were soiled with dirt, blood, and grime. He needed to clean up, pull himself together. And then what? Go back to the house and insist again that Buffy pursue an abortion—the only option that would erase the evidence both of their relations and of Willow’s meddling?

There’d be no point in it, though. For better or worse, he’d said his piece. And he’d said it without kindness or consideration. With both eyes on the solution and none on the girl.

He punched the wall, scraping his already scuffed knuckles. He’d bollocksed things up good and proper.

 

***

 

Don’t expect me to stick around for it.

Buffy pressed her palms over her eyes. What had she expected? Nothing, really. The conversation had occurred so unexpectedly that she hadn’t had time to think beforehand about what she wanted the outcome to be.

In retrospect, ambivalent advice like Tara’s would have been preferable. But she’d have been foolish to expect that. Spike was nothing like Tara, after all. Tara was soft, calm, considered. Spike was brash, aggressive, spontaneous. Well, except for the day she’d told him about Heaven. Though that day was blurred in her memory, she did remember him asking her if there was anything he could do for her. Funny how news like this made things change.

She strummed her fingers over her abdomen agitatedly, just as she heard a faint tapping at her bedroom door. Ugh, who was coming to assault her with their opinions now?

“What?” she grumbled.

The door opened slowly to reveal Dawn. “Can I come in?”

“Sure, why not,” Buffy said, annoyance evident in her voice even as she tried to rein it in.

Dawn edged around the door and into the room. “You can come out if you want,” she said, though she shut the door behind her anyway. “Everyone’s at the Magic Box. Giles and I just came back because he didn’t want to eat takeout for lunch again. And I...I wanted to talk to you.” She sounded hesitant as she took a few steps into the room.

Buffy glanced at the clock on her nightstand. It was a bit after noon.

“Willow left her laptop downstairs,” Dawn started tentatively. “I was able to look up some things. And, um, if you do want to get an abortion, it doesn’t seem that hard to get one in California, compared to other places.”

Buffy cringed and slapped a hand to her forehead. Could this situation turn into any more of a disaster? “God, Dawnie, I don’t want my baby sister reading about that stuff.”

“Why not?” Dawn challenged, crossing her arms defiantly. “I’m fifteen. People my age have abortions. There are abortion laws about it.”

“Great.” Buffy kicked aside the blankets and got out of bed, her prolonged mopey half-nap clearly not meant to be.

“Buffy, I… You died to save me. I just want to be able to help.”

The words very nearly stirred something in Buffy’s chest, but it was easier to just follow the frustration. “You can help by not borrowing Willow’s computer without asking,” she insisted, “and by not making me crazy thinking about whatever you’ve been reading.”

“Buffy—”

“Does Giles know what you were doing?” Buffy asked, jerking the blankets into a rough approximation of a neatly made bed.

“I told him I was doing homework.”

Buffy sighed huffily. Some responsible adult he was.

“Tara was at the shop this morning,” Dawn said quietly. “She said Spike might not be around much anymore.”

“Yeah. He might not.”

“Why?”

Buffy sat heavily on the end of the poorly made bed. “I told him about...that I’m pregnant.”

“When did you tell him?” Dawn asked, looking a little lost.

“He came to the house. Yesterday.” Avoiding Dawn’s eyes, she added, “I told him. He freaked. He left.”

“Freaked how?”

“Dawn, I don’t want to talk about this right now.” She stood and made for the door but Dawn blocked her way.

“Buffy, you don’t talk about anything anymore. You just stay up here or go out on patrol.”

“I talk,” Buffy protested. “I talked to Tara yesterday. And…” And I talk to Spike. Except that was clearly of the past. “I talk, okay?”

“Buffy,” Dawn's voice turned wheedling and she uncrossed her arms to throw them down emphatically at her sides. Then she sighed, sounding resigned. “Just...let me know if you need anything, I guess. I’ll be downstairs doing my fifteen-year-old-appropriate homework.”

She made to leave but Buffy reached out and gripped her arm. Dawn looked down at her hand, then to her face hopefully.

“I love you,” Buffy told her. “You know that, right?” She was suddenly struck by the need to know that it was known, even though she felt so little lately.

Dawn’s face relaxed a little. “Yeah, I know,” she said. Then she nodded toward the stairs. “Giles is making curry.”

“Curry sounds good,” Buffy said. And it wasn’t even entirely a lie.

 

***

 

“Oho! Wasted!” Warren shouted with a laugh.

To Jonathan’s relief, Warren’s plan to start surveillance on Spike had yet to be put into action. Jonathan hadn’t said a word about having recognized Spike, not wanting to be the source of information that led to more harassment of Buffy, and neither of the others had spent any time scrutinizing the footage in the past couple days. They’d unanimously agreed to divert their attention to a more important matter: Grand Theft Auto III for PlayStation 2.

As the three of them sat in Warren’s mom’s basement and took turns shooting up Liberty City, it became easier to shrug off Warren’s nefarious schemes.

“I almost had it though!” Jonathan protested. He’d been so close to completing the mission but had let himself get cornered by the cops.

“Hand it over,” Warren said, “and let a pro show you how it’s done.”

 

***

 

Dawn was at the dining room table, homework spread before her, Willow’s laptop mercifully closed. Buffy caught a hint of Dawn’s relieved smile as she passed through to the kitchen.

“Hey,” she greeted Giles, who was standing at the stove fluffing a pot of rice with a fork.

“Ah, Buffy,” he said, glancing toward her. “Curry?”

“Spicy?”

“Very mild, actually.”

“Sure, I’ll try it.” She sat at the island as he spooned curry and rice into two dishes. He set one down in front of her and took the other to Dawn in the dining room. Rather than serve himself when he returned, he leaned against the counter and studied her appraisingly. She turned her attention to the island countertop. Moments passed. Dawn hummed to herself and flipped through a textbook. Buffy cleared her throat.

“Um, the other night, you said something about being a...rakish uncle?” She tapped her fork against the countertop. “I’m not sure what that means, but do rakish uncles give good advice?” She looked up to see that Giles’s head was tilted toward her slightly, his expression difficult to read.

He stepped around the island and gestured to the back door. Relieved, she picked up her curry and followed him outside.

“Okay,” she said as soon as the door shut behind them, ready to hear the wise and mature counsel he considered unsuitable for Dawn’s ears. “So, what should I do?”

Giles sighed and stepped down the back porch stairs. Leaning against the railing, he took off his glasses and cleaned them with the hem of his shirt. “I'm afraid I know too little of the situation to be of much help. However”—and she was hopeful for a moment he was about to drop some sage advice regardless—“I did happen to overhear something Tara said to Dawn at the shop today. Something about Spike, eh, not being around anymore? Was that your decision?”

Buffy slumped. Why couldn’t anyone just give her answers? They kept wanting her to explain things and make decisions. “No,” she muttered. “No, that decision was his.”

“Might I ask—”

“He came here yesterday,” she said, cutting him off. “He came to the house and I told him...about me.” There was just something uncomfortable about saying ‘I’m pregnant’ to Giles.

“And he…?”

“Told me to get rid of it,” Buffy said, looking down at the bowl of curry. “And then he got the hell away from me.” Replaying the conversation, she suddenly recalled something. “He said he’d heard my friends talking about us. What, are you guys trying to lure in a demon tabloid reporter? I’d kinda like to keep my life private.”

“There was brief discussion of Friday night’s...conversation, as I’m sure you can imagine,” Giles said somewhat apologetically. He slid his glasses back on. “I did my best to redirect it.”

Buffy sighed and mumbled, “Thanks.”

“I can’t say I understand, or necessarily approve of, the circumstances that led you here, Buffy. But I think you should trust yourself far enough to choose your own course. In the years I have known you, I have seen you make and cope with many difficult decisions, and please know, no matter what you do, you will have nothing but my respect.”

It reminded her of a brief speech he’d delivered across the gearshift of his old car nearly four years earlier. But that was different. She’d had sex that had made a monster that time. This time, she had had sex that had made...whatever the heck the spell had made. Maybe a Slayer-vamp hybrid monstrosity. Maybe a regular non-superpowered human. There was no way to know.

She sank down on the top step and avoided responding by eating a forkful of curry. “This is good,” she said, trying to sound like she wasn’t in the throes of panic and despair.

“Buffy.” Giles lowered himself to sit on the bottom step. “Not a single person is going to be able to truly decide what’s in your best interest, except you. Even your mother couldn’t make this decision for you.”

She found it was easier to look at her food than at his face. “I’m screwing up, Giles.”

“I’ve already told you, I hardly think that’s true.” There was a firmness in his voice that took her back to the countless days of training and studying in the high school library, when it was his job to teach and mentor her. There was a gentleness, an authority, and an exasperation in it. She felt a lump rise in her throat.

“Now,” Giles went on, as though about to detail a plan for a cemetery stakeout, “I have some money from the Council. I should tell you we didn’t report your death to them. Even when I was back in England, there seemed no way to inform them without inviting undue interference in Sunnydale. They’ve never known a Slayer to have such a network of friends, and I’m sure they’d have liked to conduct many invasive interviews about your passing.”

“Then what did you meet with them about?” Buffy interrupted, curiosity getting the better of her distress.

“I inquired about expanding my collection of diaries,” he answered. “I wanted to read more final passages. It was true, your remark last year about Slayers’ deaths being treated with brevity. But those books were only a small selection and, in some cases, only notes summarizing the original entries. I thought perhaps I could find solace in someone else’s writing. Make sense of the loss.” His voice had lost its certainty.

Buffy swallowed and mushed some curry and rice together with her fork.

“In any case,” he continued, tone steadying, “I’ve been compensated for acting as your Watcher even in your absence. And now that you’ve...returned, there is no immediate likelihood of that compensation ceasing. I’d planned to set a portion of this summer’s money aside for Dawn eventually, which I am still happy to do. But what I need you to understand is that I am happy to pass the Council’s money along to you whenever needed. I daresay you’ve earned it.”

Before she could offer him a watery ‘thank you’ he spoke again. “I recommend that, as soon as you feel ready, we sit down together and calculate a budget, even if you haven’t made a final decision about school or work.” He rose to his feet and added wryly, “And if you want to consult anyone with professional experience in women’s health guidance, I suspect your sister can direct you. She was using Willow’s computer for at least half an hour.”

“You did know what she was doing!”

“She loves you,” he said simply. “We all do.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER NINE: HALLOWEEN

 

Taking advantage of the temporary absence of Giles’s hairy eyeball, Willow snuck along the shelves. She made sure Anya was occupied with a customer on the other side of the store, and opened the jar. Theft, technically, but just a small one: a single sprig of Lethe’s bramble.

She tucked the stem into her bag and slipped back behind the counter, rubbing a hand across her face. Her eyes felt permanently raw and puffy from crying all weekend. Tara had come into the shop on Saturday to collect a few things and had pointedly ignored her, and Willow had had to slip away to hide her tears. Tara was back again today to help with the predicted onslaught of Halloween customers, and the coolness with which she had greeted Willow had broken Willow’s heart again. 

It wasn’t fair. On Friday night Tara had gotten so upset, as though Willow had done something wrong. But she hadn’t done anything wrong! She’d done something miraculously powerful, and she had counted on her Wiccan girlfriend to be proud of her. Of course, months ago, Tara had expressed her negative opinion of Willow’s magickal prowess, but Willow had thought that the summer had proven just how useful a boost of magic here and there could be. Sure, she hadn’t managed to magickally fix the dishwasher, but she had found a spell to unstick leftover food bits from dishes (because who wanted to stand at the sink and clean up right after eating, anyway?).

Willow just didn’t understand it. Nothing bad had happened. Nothing had gone wrong. It had just gone extra right! Righter than anyone could have expected. It had brought Buffy back even on the smallest, cellular level. And whatever happened with the baby, well, it was still remarkable. Willow hoped Buffy would keep it so they could all see how it turned out. And she suspected that Buffy might just do that—why else would she have let Xander, of all people, (admittedly with help from Willow, Anya, and Giles) take over patrols? Why protect the pregnancy if she didn’t plan on letting it continue?

Tara had also made it clear that she thought the pregnancy wasn’t any of Willow’s business. But it kinda was, wasn’t it? It was her spell, after all. Without her, it wouldn’t have been possible. None of the others would’ve had the guts or the know-how to pull off magicks like that. So it was totally her business! Plus, she and Buffy were best friends. It would be her business even without the spell.

She’d just do a little memory spell so Tara’d forget about the fight on Friday, and then she—and everyone else—would come around.

 

***

 

Buffy was almost glad to be helping out at the shop tonight; she was sick of sitting alone in the house with her constantly oscillating thoughts. Dawn had presented her with a list of local healthcare providers, but so far she’d barely even been able to read it. Every time she actually considered taking any kind of action, she felt a heat at the back of her neck and a pounding in her ears...and threw the list aside. After all, Tara had said that there was time.

The bell jingled as she and Dawn stepped into the store. Anya was sitting in a chair lacing her feet into roller skates, and Willow was milling about glumly near the counter. A festive banner hung from the ceiling.

“‘Halloween Bone-anza’?” Dawn read.

“It’s a pun!” Anya replied. “Because humans think Halloween and bones are both spooky. Also, we’re having a sale on bones.” She gestured to a display of small animal vertebrae.

“Sorry she asked,” Buffy grimaced. “Where’s Giles?”

“He and Tara are looking for the crate of miscellaneous bones Giles swears he put somewhere downstairs,” Anya answered. “They’ve been down there for at least ten minutes. If you ask me, for a former librarian, Giles is not very organized.”

The basement door opened then, and Giles emerged, closely followed by Tara, who was carrying an unmarked storage bin.

Anya adopted a very broad smile. “Did you find them?”

“They’re here,” Tara said, bringing the box over to the counter. “Hi, Buffy. Hi, Dawn.” After setting the box down, she drew Buffy aside and asked, “How are you doing?”

“Um, I…” Tara’s eyes were so kind and concerned, Buffy wanted to give her a real answer. But before she could manage one, the bell jingled again as Xander entered the store.

“Sorry it took so long,” he said. “The first two stores were out of the good stuff, but I found name brand miniature chocolates in the end.” He raised his shopping bag of spoils. “I’d say it’s time to brace for impact. Trick-or-treating is already happening farther up Maple Court. We’ll be swamped in no time.”

The next few hours passed in a whirlwind of restocking shelves, redirecting questions to Anya and Giles, and attempting to gift wrap animal bones.

“It’s good to see you out of the house,” Xander commented as he handed her a new sheaf of colored tissue paper. His tone was gentle, accompanied by a small but genuine smile. “How are things?”

“They’re…” What, a disaster? She knew Xander leaned more towards Spike’s opinion than Willow’s. So what was he expecting? “...complicated.” She stuffed her hasty wrap job into a bag and handed it across the counter.

“Hey, if you ever want to talk,” he began before being interrupted by Giles’s request for assistance fetching a crystal ball for a customer. “Now’s probably not the time,” he finished regretfully before heading toward the crystal ball display.

Not the time, Buffy thought to herself as she rang up the next person in line. Using the antiquated till demanded most of her concentration but, at the back of her mind, the possibilities continued to swirl overwhelmingly. Now’s probably not the time.

She wasn’t even twenty-one. She wasn’t married. She didn’t even have a boyfriend. Or a job. Or money, except for Giles’s, which she didn’t think counted toward her personal financial stability. She didn’t have any family to help her raise a child...if that was even what she wanted to do. Which it wasn’t! As a kid, sure, she’d imagined growing up, getting married, and becoming a mom. But it had never been real, just a far-removed fantasy that was frequently superseded by Power Girl imaginings. 

She couldn’t keep a man. And, as evidenced by last week’s disasters, she couldn’t keep a job either. She could barely keep her teenage sister safe. What hope had she to care for a baby? A baby, she reminded herself, that might not even be fully human.

All these thoughts had become familiar and recurring in the past few days. If she tried to settle on one direction or the other, panic would start to set in again. And it wasn’t as if she could go to one of the clinics on Dawn’s list and ask them for advice. They couldn’t know the whole story. No one knew the whole story.

Except for Spike, she supposed. But he didn’t want to talk to her anymore.

“I’m going over to Janice’s,” Dawn announced from amidst the cluster of people at the counter.

Buffy froze with her hand in the cash drawer. “Woah, woah, wait, why? Since when?”

“Because she invited me, and a week ago,” Dawn answered. “And it’s a sleepover, so don’t wait up!”

“On a school night?” But Dawn was already halfway to the door.

 

***

 

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown wasn’t distracting him the way he’d hoped it would. Spike flicked through the channels but soon circled back to Linus pontificating in the pumpkin patch. It was no worse than anything else that was on.

He’d loathed the past few days. He’d loathed himself the past few days. Loathed simply waiting to learn whether Buffy’d done as he’d said. Yet, at the same time, found he was reluctant to seek out the answer because there was the slight (and genuinely insane) possibility that she had made up her mind the other way. And he couldn’t face that.

He tilted his head toward the door at the sound of clumsy trampling outside, accompanied by anxious, girlish voices. One sounded very familiar. The other, not at all. The footsteps reached the threshold of the crypt and, with a clunk and a drag, the door pushed open to reveal Dawn. She smelled faintly of sweat and arousal, and her eyes were wide. She was wearing an oversized crimson and yellow letterman jacket. He could smell blood, but it wasn’t hers. He frowned and rose to his feet as Dawn half-tumbled into the crypt, followed by a girl with curly brown hair. The girl’s hand was clasped to her neck, and beneath the scent of blood was a mix of titillation and panic similar to Dawn’s.

“The hell have you been up to, niblet?” He approached the pair slowly, eyes raking over them and nostrils flaring as he tried to piece together what had happened. There was a lingering smell of close contact with strangers. Vamps, he thought, which explained the girl’s neck. He expected there was a good story there, or what would be a good story if it didn’t happen to feature Buffy’s kid sister.

“Dawn?” he said in a low, urgent voice. “What happened?”

She didn’t appear to be hurt in any way at least. And her friend couldn’t be too badly harmed. Smelled like barely a cut.

“Uh, this is…” Dawn paused and caught her breath before continuing, her voice high and tense, “Janice. We, um, were with these boys and they weren’t so much boys as...well, you know. Justin tried to bite me but I ran, and Zack bit Janice, but I don’t think it’s bad. I shoved him and pulled her away, and we ran.”

“Janice.” He knew the name from the disjointed snippets Dawn shared about her schoolmates. He reached for the girl’s elbow and guided her over to the chair.

She looked uncertain and alarmed, glancing at Dawn before casting her eyes around the interior of the crypt; looking at Spike, then at the television which was still playing Charlie Brown.

Spike jabbed the power button. “Never mind that,” he said, pulling her hand away from her neck. “Let’s have a look at you... Boy barely nicked you,” he assured her, scrutinizing the small punctures. A negligible amount of blood continued to ooze, but the smears on her palm and neck were already drying. “Still should clean it, though. I haven’t got much here, but your sis could probably fix her up proper,” he said to Dawn, who had come to stand at his shoulder.

“About that...” Dawn said reluctantly.

Spike’s eyes narrowed.

“Buffy thinks I’m at Janice’s, and Janice’s mom thinks she’s at our house,” Dawn explained, wincing. “So…”

Spike waved a hand to stop her and went to find his battered first aid kit. There weren’t any decent ointments or disinfectants, as he didn’t personally bother with them, but he took out a swatch of gauze and a roll of medical tape.

“That’ll keep it from getting dirty at least,” he said as he applied the dressing to Janice’s neck. “Where did all this go down, anyhow?” He eyed the dirt they’d tracked in on their shoes. “You weren’t messing about in the cemetery, were you?”

“No, we were in the woods,” Dawn replied nervously. “On the other side of the cemetery there’s woods, and there’s this spot where a lot of people park.”

“Park?”

Dawn’s cheeks pinked slightly. “You know,” she said, avoiding his eyes. “Like, go make out and stuff.”

“Right.” He put away the first aid kit as he considered. “I’ll walk the two of you back to Revello. You tell your sis what happened, get Janice taken care of.”

“I’m not telling Buffy!” Dawn squeaked. Then she continued with an attempt at composure, “She has enough to worry about right now, doesn’t she?”

He supposed he couldn’t argue with that.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TEN: WELL IN HAND

 

“Store go boom,” Xander remarked, collapsing onto a chair once the last customer was out the door.

“Pretty much,” Buffy agreed from the chair next to him.

Anya immediately started counting the bills in the register. Meanwhile, Willow fiddled with her sleeves and shot sad glances at Tara, who was wishing them all a good night and heading out.

Giles surveyed the somewhat bare shelves. “We certainly did sell an impressive amount of merchandise.”

“And we could sell just as much tomorrow!” Anya enthused.

“Tomorrow?” Buffy asked. “What’s tomorrow?”

“Oh, post-holiday clearance!” she explained, beaming. “The cornerstone of retail.”

Buffy thought she saw Giles roll his eyes, but he didn’t argue as he grabbed his keys.

“So,” Xander said. “We still on for pizza and movies?”

“I guess,” Buffy shrugged, pulling on her jacket. She didn’t care much either way.

“Great, we’ll pick up the pizza and meet you back at your place,” Xander said, heading out with Anya and Willow in tow.

Giles locked the front door behind them and then nodded toward the other entry. “Let us not linger,” he sighed. “I’ve spent enough time here for the day.”

Buffy grinned and followed him.

Just as he slipped the key into the lock to close up the shop, the phone rang. “Now who on earth could that be?” Wrenching the door open again, he said, “I suppose I’d better answer it.” He handed the car keys to Buffy before going back inside.

Buffy strode down the alley to Giles’s car and let herself into the passenger side. Two minutes later, Giles was on his way out of the store again, looking flustered.

“So, who was it?” Buffy asked as he started the car.

“It was, erm, someone,” he answered unhelpfully. “I need to, ahh, run an errand. I shall drop you off at home first.”

“An errand?” Buffy repeated, surprised, as the car exited the alley. “Wouldn’t it be faster if I just came along?”

“Certainly not,” he insisted.

“Okay.” She was too tired and hungry to argue the point. Pizza sounded great right now, even if hanging out in the same room as everyone else sounded not-so-great.

A minute or so passed.

“Are you sure?” she prodded. “What kind of errand is it?”

“One that I’m afraid would...bore you,” he replied. His tone was off, like he was hiding something. But, before she could question him further, wailing sirens approached, and Giles jerked the steering wheel to pull over as an ambulance passed.

“That can’t be good,” Buffy muttered.

They reached the ambulance’s destination shortly thereafter. Paramedics were loading a woman onto a gurney. There was blood at her throat, and Buffy craned her neck to see the wound.

“Vampire,” Buffy told Giles. “Vampires in a residential area on Halloween, when kids are wandering around.”

“Yes, it would appear that way,” Giles said.

“‘It would appear’...?” She shook her head. “I’m gonna get out and have a look around.” The car was idling anyway, giving the ambulance and scattered onlookers space.

“Buffy!”

She turned to face him, one hand on the door handle and one on the seat belt release. “What? It’s my job Giles. It’s been really great of you all to pick up the slack, and don’t think I’m not grateful, but it should be me out there. I’m supposed to be fighting the forces of evil, not sitting in my house worrying about this damn pregnancy!” Or was it the other way around?

Giles’s gaze was both severe and solicitous, and she let her hands fall back to her lap as the ambulance doors swung shut and the vehicle took off back up the street.

“Fine,” she relented as Giles lifted his foot from the brake. “Just take me home.” She leaned her head against the window and looked out at the TP’d trees and decorated lawns as they went by. “Don’t you always claim the bad guys take it easy on Halloween?” she grumbled.

 

***

 

Spike lounged on the bench near the gates of Restfield as the two teenagers huddled together a few meters away. The Janice girl kept glancing over at him. He supposed Dawn was trying to give her some kind of explanation for his apparent residence in the middle of a local cemetery, but he was doing his best not to eavesdrop. His focus jumped around everything else: the breeze in the leaves, the buzz of a partly-busted streetlight...and the fact that Rupes was taking ages to arrive.

Janice had a mobile phone, which Dawn had convinced her to allow Spike to use to ring Giles at the shop. Giles would come (with decent medical supplies) fetch the two teens and deliver them to their respective homes. The girls would claim to have broken their plans on account of some girly argument, Spike would go take out the vampires, and Buffy would never have to worry about it. And, someday soon, Spike would have a word with Dawn about not going into the woods with strange boys.

A decent plan, Spike thought, if Giles would get a bloody move on.

At last, the Watcher’s car rounded the corner at the end of the block. It was midlife crisis transport for sure, all red and shiny and expensive. The old Citroen had suited him better. But Spike supposed he’d done the Citroen in, hadn’t he.

“Rupert,” he greeted as Giles pulled up.

“Spike.” He stepped out of the car. “Janice, are you alright?”

“Uh, yeah, I think,” the girl replied, stepping forward and lightly touching her neck. “You have anything for this?”

“Er, yes, come sit down here.” He waved Spike off the bench before producing a shopping bag from the car. He pulled out a package of sterile wipes and delicately tugged the temporary dressing off Janice’s neck. A sigh of relief escaped him. “That really isn’t bad,” he remarked.

“Told you,” Spike shot back. Then he extended a hand to Dawn. “Give me the coat.”

Dawn looked down at it and seemed to want to argue, but shrugged the jacket off and handed it over. Spike bundled it up and tucked it under his arm.

“I’m off,” he said, heading in the direction of the woods. “Goodnight, all.”

 

***

 

As hungry as she was, Buffy was only able to down about half a slice of sausage and onion pizza before she started to feel queasy. She curled up in the corner of the couch and sipped a can of ginger ale while the others discussed movie options. Xander had rented everything from slashers to Casper, and Anya was intently listening to descriptions of each. Buffy knew if Dawn were here they’d be watching The Nightmare Before Christmas for the thousandth time.

She didn’t join the discussion; she was too busy trying to make other decisions. Would it have been bad to go patrol tonight? Giles had told her he would investigate the vampire attack after running his errand, but she doubted he was all that effective flying solo. She was the one with Slayer strength; the rest of them were safer sticking together. But Giles had rushed off, assuring her he had the situation ‘well in hand’ (whatever that meant) and telling her not to worry.

Which was a funny idea. Well, not funny ha ha, but: Her? Not worry? When a little blip of potentially demonic life was developing inside her like some kind of parasite? (She was glad Xander hadn’t deemed Alien a Halloween movie.)

But, to be honest, it wasn’t the demon-ness that was causing her worry. It was the possibility of normalcy, of carrying a regular pregnancy to term like a normal girl with a typical life, that was worrisome. She couldn’t give up slaying. It was her duty. Letting the others try to make do without her for a few nights to let her mull things over and get over the shock of it was one thing (and she supposed Xander’s offer had made him feel more useful than usual), but requiring them to take over for eighteen years was another thing entirely. She couldn’t ask that of them. And she couldn’t risk it, for their sakes or for the sakes of everyone else in Sunnydale.

Part of her was sure that, if she’d been patrolling the past few nights, she could’ve slayed the vamp that had bitten that woman. And another part of her was sure that wasn’t true, knew that there would always be vampires and as long as someone was fighting against them, things would be okay. After all, Sunnydale had been a hellmouth long before Joyce Summers had decided to move here. The town had survived without a slayer for years.

Ugh, why was she thinking about this? She should just do the obvious thing and call up a clinic to schedule an abortion. Logical and straightforward. There didn’t need to be a fuss. She could move on. She’d be free to keep living her originally scheduled life. Except, of course, her life was originally scheduled to have ended back in May… But that didn’t matter.

She felt a pang in her chest as the memory of heavenly warmth and safety danced across her thoughts. Oh, what she wouldn’t give to have that back. But no, she was here, and now, and pregnant. And she had to deal with that before thinking of anything else.

She shook her head vigorously and set her half-eaten pizza down.

“Okay, so that’s a no from Buffy,” Xander declared, misinterpreting the motion.

“No, I… What movie were we talking about again?”

The Addams Family,” Willow said, holding up the case.

Ah yes, with the wacky family of creepy yet kind-hearted freaks. “That’s fine.” It would be easy to tune out. She’d seen it before.

“I still think you should’ve rented Rosemary’s Baby,” Anya interjected. “It was on TV the other night,” she added as an aside to Willow and Buffy. “Very compelling.”

“Ahn, we discussed this,” Xander said wearily, straightening the pile of VHS tapes.

“Right, of course,” Anya said, nodding and taking a sip of her soda. “Thematically sensitive.”

Willow looked over at Buffy, then at Buffy’s plate. “Not hungry?”

“No, I just…” She felt the uncomfortable warmth of her uncertainty creeping up the back of her neck again. “I think I just need some fresh air.” She pushed off the couch and headed for the front door, grabbing her jacket from the newel post. She was just reaching for the handle when the phone rang. What was with the phone ringing when she was on her way out of places tonight? She went to answer it.

It was Mrs. Penshaw.

“Who am I speaking to?” the woman asked snappishly after identifying herself.

“This is Buffy.” Why was the lady so annoyed? Had Dawn and her friend set the house on fire?

“Oh, you’re Dawn’s sister.”

“Yep, that’s me.”

“Well, that man, Mr. Giles, just dropped Janice off at home, and I don’t know what you let the two of them get up to over there…”

“Over...where?”

“...but I want an explanation for the injury to my daughter’s neck!”

“Injury?” Buffy’s mind was working fast. Poorly supervised teenagers. Halloween. Vampires.

The front door opened and she heard Xander greeting Giles and Dawn. Dawn.

“Barbecue fork,” Buffy said hastily. “Sorry, I have to go. Have a nice night!”

She hung up and rushed to the front of the house. Dawn was stepping into the living room with a general aura of struggling to act natural. Buffy grabbed her arm and pulled her aside before she could reach the pizza.

“Where were you?” Buffy demanded.

“Janice’s?” Dawn squeaked unconvincingly.

“Try again. Because I just got a call from Janice’s mom.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Giles slap his hand to his forehead. She turned her attention to him. “Giles? What. Happened?”

“Nothing!” Dawn answered before Giles could speak. “Well, not nothing, but Spike—”

“Spike?!” Buffy whipped back to face Dawn. “Spike did something to Janice?”

“Buffy, no!” Dawn said pleadingly. “Spike didn’t do anything. He called Giles for us!”

Buffy closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said when she opened them again. “Start from the beginning, and explain everything.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER ELEVEN: SOME KINDA CELEBRATING

 

Spike trod through the underbrush, taking deep steady breaths to sniff out the boy who’d attacked Dawn. Bloody teenagers, he thought, live in a place like Sunnyhell and still think it’s a bright idea to wander around the woods at night. Dawn had never pulled anything like this over the summer, thank fuck, and he’d thought she’d be a bit more cautious given everything she had seen. He wondered what she’d been like when she was younger. Or, at least, how Buffy remembered her... He supposed, prior to last year, Dawn hadn’t really been at all. What kind of child had the monks made her?

And here he was again, his mind on the subject of children. His insides twisted at the sick gratitude he felt at having never eaten children. That was more Darla’s vibe. Sometimes Dru’s. But at least he didn’t have that to reckon with now that Buffy was—

No. She wasn’t having a baby. She couldn’t have a baby. Not this baby. Not his baby.

Baby. Not for the first time in recent days, he thought he’d quite enjoy driving a stake through the head of whatever linguistic pioneer had coined the word. Baby. In his vocabulary, the word was cold-blooded: a euphemistic treat for Dru, a playful and placatory endearment for Dru herself, a flimsy throwaway word delivered to the likes of Harmony... But now it thumped with meaning, warm-blooded and achingly literal.

He was glad of the distraction when he found the place: a clearing with half a dozen cars parked under the bright full moon. It stank of pheromones.

A seventh car was parked some distance from the others, two blokes leaning against it, talking and sniggering in low voices. He walked up to the floppy-haired one. “This your coat?”

“Uh, yeah,” the boy replied apprehensively.

Spike held the jacket out to him. “Dawn won’t be needing it anymore, so here you are.”

“Who are you, her boyfriend?” he said, shooting an amused look at his friend. No doubt he thought they could have a spot of fun overpowering Spike. Stupid sods were young, apparently unable to sniff out his demon in this clearing filled with the stench of blooming sexuality.

“No,” Spike answered evenly. “Much worse.” And, in a moment, he’d tossed the coat to the ground and curled his fingers around the boy’s neck. “Justin, is it?”

Justin looked bewildered by the turn of events and tried to scrabble out of his grip, but Spike gave him a swift shake, knocking him off balance.

Justin’s friend—Zack?—shifted into his vampire face and growled in a way he probably thought was menacing but Spike just found pathetic.

“Not even worth a fight, really,” Spike taunted as his hand pressed into Justin’s trachea. “You’re just a couple of losers, looking for the easiest, youngest thing. On the other hand,” he went on, slamming his elbow into Zack’s jaw, “quick might be too kind.”

Zack struck out in retaliation, his swing sloppy but forceful. Spike staggered and threw Justin to the ground, muttering, “Fine then. Quick it is.” He slipped a stake from his coat pocket and crouched over Justin, socking him once in the face before driving the sharpened wood into his chest. Then he straightened and turned to Zack.

“After a bit o’ fisticuffs, are you?” he sneered, internally hopeful. Would be a good diversion from what-all was going on lately.

Zack threw another scrappy punch.

A good diversion...for about thirty seconds. Until Zack burst into dust at the end of Spike’s stake.

Then the car doors in the clearing began popping open and the game changed.

“Oh, balls,” Spike muttered as a pack of snarling, new-ish vamps emerged. He’d come prepared for two. This was decidedly more than two. 

The fools were feisty, if not clever, and what followed was a respectable scuffle, fast-paced and loud in the otherwise empty woods. Spike wasn’t throwing any punches to be proud of, but he wasgradually thinning the herd.

As he rose from the ground panting after yet another staking, Spike fancied he caught a whiff of Buffy on the breeze. He squinted around and spotted her rushing into the fray, stake in hand.

“What is your malfunction, man?” demanded one of the vamps. Spike wrenched his eyes away from Buffy and lunged at the vamp, knocking him to the ground.

“It’s Halloween, you nit,” he spat. “We take the night off.” He fumbled in his pockets for another weapon, having lost his stake in the last vamp he’d dusted. “Those are the rules.”

“Coulda fooled me,” Buffy said, appearing at his side. She kicked the vamp in the ribs as he started to stand up and punched her stake swiftly through his chest.

“Are there more?” she asked, whirling around to face him.

“Er,” Spike said unhelpfully, still startled by her sudden appearance. Some thread of his plan must’ve snagged.

But a snarl from the direction of Justin and Zack’s car answered Buffy’s question. She bounded over, seized the snarling vampire, and unceremoniously slammed his head in the passenger side door. The dust had settled on the ground before Spike could even catch up.

“How many were there?” Buffy asked, brushing dust off her clothes.

“Five.”

“Well, I got three. You?”

“Two,” Spike answered. “Plus the two who were messing with your sis and her friend.”

He glowered around the clearing and noticed one vehicle with doors still shut. He didn’t like to think what might lie within, and rushed over to yank one of the doors open. Inside were two sweaty, tousled teenagers entangled in the back seat.

“Hey!” snapped one of them. “Mind your own business, you creep!”

He rolled his eyes and slammed the door, heading back to the wooded path. That was the thing, wasn’t it? He should mind his own business.

“What are you doing?” Buffy demanded, rushing to head him off.

“Heading back to my crypt,” he said sourly, pointing in its general direction.

“I know what happened,” Buffy said fiercely. “Dawn told me everything. Or most of everything.” She frowned. “But why did you try to hide it from me? It’s my job to protect her now, not yours.”

“Sis said you had enough to worry about,” he countered. “Figured she had a point. Decided you didn’t need to deal with it.”

Buffy seemed taken aback by his explanation, but irritated nonetheless. “I am sick of people deciding things for me,” she bit out, jaw firm. Her fingers twitched toward her abdomen before she seemed to notice the motion and pulled her hand back to her side.

There was something very slightly different about her presence, he realized. He combed over her with as many senses as he could, but her physical subtleties were masked by the sounds and smells of the woods.

“Right,” he said. “You’re still…?” And, not meaning to, he looked at her belly.

She crossed her arms over it, hugging herself and glancing away from him. “Yeah,” she replied quietly. “I’m still.”

He supposed he should say something, but he hadn’t any idea what. And, looking at her, his mind leapt to imagining her as a mother. Her own mum had been decent, after all. Did those things run in families? She was already practically Dawn’s mum and she was okay at that, generally. Even died to save her. But none of that was worth mentioning, was it? He needed something neutral, something kind, something that wouldn’t make things harder for her…

Before he could climb back out of his head, she had stood up a little straighter and looked him in the eyes a little more firmly. “Spike,” she said decisively. “Can I talk to you?”

 

***

 

They walked to the crypt in unsettled silence, several paces separating them. Once there, Spike slammed the door open and gestured for her to enter.

“Um.” She knew she had to speak but first bought herself a few seconds by turning away from him and carefully shutting the door.

Spike, who had crossed to the shadowy side of the crypt, spoke when she failed to. “I...might’ve changed my mind. About what I said.”

She felt a little flutter and asked nervously, “What you said about what?” 

“‘Bout… Well, no,” he laughed humorlessly, a dark shape topped with a shock of paleness in the crypt’s deepest shadows. “It’s how I said it.”

Before she could ask for clarification, he continued, “Shouldn’t’ve…” He sounded like he was gritting his teeth. “Shouldn’t’ve said quite what I did, is all. I know that. Been thinking about it. Driving me mad, these past few days.”

“It has?” She was feeling a rush of adrenaline that had lately signified fear and indecision. This time, though, it felt more like the rush that came when she was about to best an opponent. To slay something gruesome. To live another day.

“Course it has.” His clothes rustled as he paced in the shadows, in the recesses the moonlight shining through the grimy little windows didn’t reach.

It was infuriating, to be finally talking to him, and not be face-to-face. Or maybe it was better that they weren't sitting down with each other and talking like regular people. The situation wasn't regular, after all…except for in the ways it was.

“Can I tell you something?” she asked. “Something that I haven’t told anyone else yet?”

There was a pause before he questioned, “About where you were?”

“No. About...something else.”

“Alright,” he finally answered.

Buffy felt as though she was standing on the edge of a precipice. “I think I want to have this baby.”

“Come again?” His voice was brittle, tense. But she’d made up her mind, somehow, in the last half hour. She’d remembered her parents bringing Dawn home from the hospital. She remembered asking her mother…

Mom? Can I take care of her?

Joyce had been twenty-three when Buffy was born. Buffy was just a few months shy of twenty-one. But did two years make that much difference? Well, she knew they could, but perhaps the better question was: Would she still be alive in two years?

Seize the moment ‘cause tomorrow you might be dead. Buffy’s motto from the age of sixteen, uncannily echoed in Tara’s recent question: You want to...seize the chance while you have it?

He’d started to step out of the shadows while she was thinking. She took a breath and said what she had to say: “Spike, you don’t have to be involved, but...I think I have to do this. I want to.”

“Two different things, love.”

She shook her head. “I know...I… When I say I have to, I don’t mean other people think I should. I’m pretty sure nobody thinks I should. Except maybe Willow. But I want to. I think.” Whenever she got too thinky she got all flip-floppy. But she’d decided. She had. It was just...she’d never done this whole pregnancy thing before. “So I’m, um, I’m going to try.”

Spike’s expression was hard, thoughtful. “That so,” he said slowly. He was emerging from the shadows with a strange look on his face, his eyes directed at nothing in particular. “Shh,” he said, seeming suddenly distracted.

“What?” Buffy said, bemused. She listened for suspicious noises. “I don’t hear anything.” Spike was stepping slowly toward her, eyes unfocused, an ear cocked in her direction. “Spike, what is it?” she asked, alarmed.

“Be quiet,” he insisted.

“Didn’t think I was making a whole lotta noise—”

Shh,” he repeated more urgently. She watched curiously as he came to a halt in front of her and very slowly sank to his knees. “I can hear it,” he said disbelievingly.

“Hear...what?”

His eyes turned toward hers, a look of bewildered wonder on his face. “I think...I can hear its heart.”

 

***

 

In all the kerfuffle about Dawn, and still awash with lingering sadness about seeing Tara at the shop, Willow wasn’t really up for sneaking away to do the memory spell.

Or maybe she was just being a big ol’ chicken about it.

Buffy had rushed out alone despite everyone’s protests and Willow was conflicted. It was safer for the little developing baby, obviously, for Buffy to not get kicked or punched in the gut, but on the other hand...Buffy was the Slayer. Her body was extra resilient. She could handle herself, especially against two teenage vampires Spike had probably already beaten the fluff out of.

It was weird, that Dawn hadn’t called the house. Well, maybe that wasn’t the part that was weird; Dawn clearly didn’t want to spill that she’d lied about her plans for the night. What was weird was that she trusted Spike so much, liked him so much. Admittedly, there were times when he seemed worthy of that trust. He’d fought beside them all summer, had babysat Dawn at least a dozen times. And yet...he was soulless. Twisted. Perverted. The bot had been proof enough of that. And she couldn’t even imagine what he must’ve done to get Buffy to sleep with him while the rest of them were gearing up to face down Glory.

But he had gone out to actually deal with tonight’s situation. Buffy needed to calm down.

“Do you think Buffy’s mad at Spike?” Dawn asked in a small voice as she selected a slice of pizza, wrinkling her nose (presumably at the lack of anchovies).

“I don’t know, Dawn,” Willow answered wearily.

“Seemed kinda mad,” Dawn observed.

“She just worries.” It was the truth.

“Yeah, but,” Dawn said between bites of pizza, “she has other stuff to worry about right now, doesn’t she? I mean, I’m fine. She doesn’t have to worry about me.” She seemed partly defensive and partly fishing for reassurance.

“I didn’t realize this was all creepy clay puppets,” Anya interjected as the opening song of The Nightmare Before Christmas played. “I was expecting one of those B-movies with humorously inaccurate practical effects.”

Willow glanced around for backup but Xander was in the next room talking to Giles...leaving her to deal with Anya.

“Nope, not one of those,” Willow said, trying to mask her irritation. Anya was almost tolerable some days, but she was just so oblivious.

“Hmm.” Anya absently nibbled her pizza crust as she scrutinized the animation.

Dawn didn’t speak again. Willow sat in glum silence and watched the movie. Xander and Giles reappeared just as Willow heard footsteps on the front porch. The door opened to reveal an anxious Buffy and reluctant-looking Spike. Buffy stepped into the living room and looked around at the others, while Spike lagged behind hesitantly in the foyer.

“We...have some news,” Buffy announced.

 

***

 

Buffy faced the others, wishing they would stop staring at her so intently. Though, she supposed, she had announced news and, when a person did that, naturally the surrounding people would tend to stare expectantly.

She cleared her throat. “Hey, um, so you all know about the pregnancy... And we’ve—Spike and I—talked and we’re going to have the baby. Maybe,” she added as she felt a twinge of panic mingled with excitement.

Surprise rippled around the room. Then evidence of everyone’s responses crept silently onto their faces. Giles was giving her the same appraising look he’d been giving her a lot in the past few days. Willow looked pleased, Xander looked contemplative, and Anya looked mildly interested. Dawn’s eyes didn’t leave Buffy’s. Buffy glanced away quickly.

Finally Anya spoke, her tone a mix of confusion and eagerness. “Xander and I are getting married!”

Everyone turned to stare at her. She stood and smoothed her clothes, entirely unruffled by the staring.

Xander sighed. “Not to steal your thunder or anything, Buff.”

“You’re getting married?” Dawn asked brightly.

Xander stepped closer to Anya and curled an arm around her. “Yeah. We are.”

Buffy could feel her mouth gaping slightly. “Did anybody know about this?” she asked the room at large, glancing around.

Willow shook her head, looking dumbfounded.

“So!” Xander cut into the silence. “Marriage. Baby. Let’s all stop standing around and do some kinda celebrating.” When Dawn was the only person to give a markedly positive response, he added, “Please?”

Giles said something about getting celebratory drinks and met Buffy’s eyes. She followed him into the kitchen. 

“You’re sure about this?” he asked as soon as they were alone. She could tell by his tone that he sought honesty, not a change of heart.

“Yeah,” she said. “I think. At least right now. Y’know?”

He nodded once, slowly, and selected a bottle of wine from the rack. Buffy glanced around the kitchen and grabbed a stack of plastic cups from the disposable collection reserved for movie nights and birthday parties. She handed the cups to Giles, then went to stand by Spike, who had stepped into the living room and was watching the proceedings with the appearance of someone who didn’t quite belong and didn’t quite want to. Anya had put on her engagement ring, and Dawn was fawning over it while Willow remained seated, an expression of puzzled discontent on her face.

“To the baby!” Xander said, distributing drinks. “Although…” He pulled the cup back from Buffy. “If baby is maybe, then maybe no drinky.”

Spike swore under his breath.

“What?” Buffy asked.

“Drinking,” Spike said. “You. Me. Not a week ago.”

“Oh. Oh! You’re right. Do you...do you think that’s okay?” She directed the question at Xander, who was closest.

“I cannot stress enough how much of an idea I don’t have.”

“We don’t know that it’s bad,” Willow asserted, rising from the couch to accept some wine. “I mean, it’s probably not good…”

“Obviously,” Anya agreed. “You probably poisoned it or something.”

“Anya!” Xander seemed to be struggling to remain patient. “We don’t know that.”

“That’s right,” Willow said, frowning at Anya. “Everything could be fine… Is probably fine.”

“Can I have wine?” Dawn asked hopefully, eyeing the cup in Xander’s hand.

“No,” Buffy replied emphatically, stepping away from the others to sit on the vacant couch.

Dawn opened her mouth to protest but Xander handed the cup to Spike, who uttered a word of thanks before following Buffy. Coming to a halt beside the coffee table, he turned to Buffy and asked hesitantly, “Alright if I sit here?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Yes, Spike. I give you permission to sit on my couch.”

He took off his coat, set down his wine, and sat down stiffly, eyes looking past her face, his other senses focused elsewhere.

“You’re listening to its heart again, aren’t you?” she asked, reading his expression.

“You can hear it?” Dawn asked, grinning eagerly. She hunched down and pressed her ear to Buffy’s belly. “No, you can’t,” she frowned.

He can,” Buffy explained, “with his freaky vampire hearing.”

“What’s it like?” Dawn asked curiously.

Buffy watched Spike’s eyes flicker to hers and then, tentatively, towards her abdomen.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she muttered. “I give you permission to put your head on my lap, okay?” At her encouragement, he rearranged himself to rest his head on her thigh, his ear to her belly.

“So,” Dawn prodded, “what’s it sound like?”

“Small,” Spike said after considering for a moment. Dawn looked over his head at Buffy, who shrugged.

“Actually,” Spike said abruptly, twisting around to face Dawn. “That school teach you anything about human biology?”

“Uh…”

“Get your textbook,” he insisted. Dawn, though clearly puzzled, grabbed her biology book from her backpack. She handed it over to Spike, who flipped through until he found the section about human reproductive biology toward the back of the book. He was quiet as he scanned the pages.

“I suppose it’s not a heart yet,” he said thoughtfully. Buffy tilted her head to look at the diagrams in Dawn’s textbook. There was a series of blobby illustrations labeled with weeks of development. Before she could read the text underneath, Spike gently shut the book, his thumb holding the place as he pressed his ear to Buffy’s body again. “Which accounts for why it sounds so strange.”

“Strange?” Buffy repeated, concern bubbling up. “You never said it sounded strange.”

“It’s...small,” he said, frowning and shutting his eyes. “Quiet. And not quite like a heartbeat yet.” Then his eyes opened and met Buffy’s. “It’ll be a heart eventually, love. Don’t fret.” He gave her the slightest rueful smile, perhaps in apology for his invasive awareness of her body. Her skin warmed involuntarily at the smile. His face was barely a foot from hers…

“Give me that,” Dawn said, tugging the book away from him. He let it go easily, his eyes still on Buffy’s, his expression curious and calculating.

Xander turned on the stereo and the radio started gushing danceable pop music. Spike’s eyes snapped away from Buffy’s as he sat up and surveyed the scene.

“I should go,” he said brusquely. “You’ve got”—he gestured around the room—“all this going on.” And, barely looking at her, he grabbed his coat and headed for the front door before Buffy could even speak.

His wine still sat on the end table, untouched.

“Huh,” Dawn said, sounding intrigued.

“‘Huh’ what?” Buffy asked, sitting up straighter. Had Dawn noticed something about Spike’s weird exit that she hadn’t?

“Did you know your placenta is an entire extra organ your body grows just for pregnancy?” Dawn replied conversationally, looking up from the textbook.

Buffy relaxed back into the cushions and rolled her eyes. “Great.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWELVE: HEALTHY CHOICES

 

“I was thinking a June wedding, but those always had the highest rates of calls for vengeance. Plus, you know, Buffy will just be incredibly large in all the photos. So, we either have it as soon as damn possible or wait until after the demon baby is born. I mean,” she amended, “after the completely normal human child is born.”

Willow was slowly losing her mind, sitting around the shop and trying to get her sociology reading done while Anya gushed incessantly about all things wedding. She really wasn’t feeling patient enough or enthusiastic enough to weigh in on all the color and table setting options Anya kept pointing out in magazines.

She was grateful each time the bell above the door signaled the arrival of a new customer to distract Anya, even though each customer did represent another dashed hope that Buffy was back from her appointment.

She wasn’t sure how much a doctor would be able to tell this early in a pregnancy, but they’d probably at least be able to tell whether it was a human embryo or some kind of...lizard monster or something.

Just as Anya was starting on about relative venue capacities, the bell jingled again. “Hi, guys.”

Willow smiled and jumped out of her chair. “How did it go?” she asked eagerly, trying to rein in her grin.

Buffy shrugged. “It...went.” She seemed to remember something. “Oh! The doctor said the drinking might not have been really bad after all.”

“See! What did I tell you?” Willow shot a look at Anya, who was too engrossed by her bridal magazine to notice.

“Now she’s in front of me, I’m not so sure about the green,” Anya pondered, looking from the page to Buffy. “Bridesmaids dresses,” she supplied in response to Willow and Buffy’s blank looks.

Buffy surveyed the store. “Anyone else around?”

Willow jumped in. “Xander’s at work, Dawn’s at school, and Giles is setting up a cot in the training room so he doesn’t have to sleep on your couch every night,” she recited helpfully. “Something about giving you space.”

“Oh,” Buffy said, looking faintly surprised. “Neat.”

“Did you vote yet?” Willow asked, hoping for a nice update-y chat on the way to the polls.

“Yeah, actually,” Buffy replied, holding up an ‘I Voted Today’ sticker still stuck to its paper backing.

Willow, though disappointed, smiled encouragingly and gestured to an empty chair. “Wanna sit? Talk about anything?”

But Buffy had a sort of distant look in her eyes. “I, um, I’m gonna go home actually,” she said, starting back toward the door. “Tell Giles everything went fine.”

Willow frowned and watched her go. If she wasn’t very much mistaken, something...was not right.

But she didn’t get the chance to dwell on it. As the door shut behind Buffy, Anya muttered, “Of course, if nothing else works, there’s always the traditional burlap and blood larvae.” And the one-sided wedding talk resumed.

 

***

 

She hoped Willow hadn’t picked up on it, but Buffy had purposely scheduled the appointment to start while Willow was in class so Willow couldn’t come along.

But it was true, what she’d told Willow: the doctor had said alcohol wasn’t necessarily bad for the baby. Well, she’d said, alcohol certainly doesn’t help fetal development, but it doesn’t necessarily cause harm in every case. Trust me, you’re not the first person to have a wild night before discovering their pregnancy. She’d added reassuringly, I recommend putting it out of your mind and focusing on making healthy choices from here on out.

So that was all fine. Blood pressure—fine. hCG levels—fine. Ultrasound—fine. All fine. But then the doctor had asked if Buffy had a history of depression. And Buffy, surprising herself, had given a hesitant ‘yes’ in response. So now she had a therapist referral folded up in her back pocket along with her ‘I Voted Today’ sticker. Not, of course, that she could call the number and expect them to help. There was, however, someone she could call.

So, when she got home to the empty house, she went straight to the phone and called Tara. Or rather, she called Tara’s friend, with whom Tara was staying for the rest of the semester.

“Hi. This is Buffy. I’m a friend of Tara’s,” she said when an unfamiliar voice answered. “Is she there?”

“Oh!” Tara’s friend replied. “She’s been hoping you’d call. I’ll go grab her.”

Buffy waited a moment, then Tara was on the line.

“Hi, Buffy!” she said with more enthusiasm than Buffy had ever heard from her. “How are you doing?”

“You sound happy,” Buffy said, smiling a little despite herself. 

“I am,” Tara said earnestly. “It’s nicer than I thought, having some time away from...everything.”

Buffy thought she mostly meant Willow.

“And time not-away from Miss Kitty,” Buffy suggested. She knew Tara’s cat had been rehomed at her friend’s apartment when Tara had come to live at 1630 Revello Drive. Apparently, with a robot and miscellaneous weaponry around at all times, it had been deemed safer to keep the cat far away from the Summers household.

“Yes, that’s also good,” Tara agreed. There was a faint meow in the background. “I think she says hi.”

“Hi, Miss Kitty,” Buffy said before cutting to the chase. “Um, Tara, I’m calling because I could really use someone to talk to. Could we meet somewhere?”

“Oh, of course,” Tara responded at once. “Is something wrong? Did something happen?”

“Well, you weren’t there when I told the others...” Buffy began, “but I decided to keep the baby. Or at least,” she amended, “that’s what I’ve decided for now. Until… Unless anything changes.”

“Oh! Um, congratulations,” Tara said uncertainly.

“Thanks.”

Neither spoke for a moment. Another soft meow from Miss Kitty Fantastico sounded in the background, followed by Tara’s friend’s cooing.

“So, can we meet somewhere and talk?” Buffy asked again. “Soon?”

“Oh, yes,” Tara answered immediately. “Sorry. Um, how about the Espresso Pump in half an hour?”

 

***

 

Spike paced the lower level of his crypt. His thoughts, as usual, centered around one girl.

She’d had her first appointment today. Without him. Without anyone.

He knew she didn’t need him there, but surely she should have brought someone. Dawn would’ve delighted in the opportunity to leave school early. Giles, ersatz father figure though he was, could have at least saved her the walk to and from the place. One of the lady-witches might have been good company. Even Xander, for all his flaws, might have offered Buffy some support.

But no. Buffy, from what he’d gathered when he’d stopped in after his patrol the previous night, wanted no one but her mother. And, in her absence, she’d opted to go alone.

He wondered how long she’d manage to keep that up. She wasn’t meant to be alone. Her continued survival, made possible by her group of friends, was proof enough of that. She needed them in order to survive. Of course, he knew, after being wrenched out of Heaven, she didn’t necessarily want to survive. But now that she had decided on having this baby, she had to survive. So she needed to start being proper friends with the lot of them again. Needed to trust them and rely on them again.

And to do that, she needed to come clean about Heaven.

 

***

 

Tara gave her a little wave as she arrived at the Espresso Pump. There were two drinks on the table and Tara slid one toward her as she sat down.

“I got you a decaf latte,” Tara said. She frowned. “That’s okay, right?”

Buffy eyed the drink. ...healthy choices from here on out. “I...I’m not sure.”

“Do you want a juice?” Tara was already reaching for her purse. “I can order you a juice.”

“No, Tara, it’s okay, you don’t have to,” Buffy said hurriedly. “A little bit of decaf is probably no big deal.” She hoped. She held the cup in her hands and stared down at its contents as she decided how to broach the topic. She was starting to doubt her decision to tell Tara about this in such a public setting. Or at all.

She leaned across the table and met Tara’s eyes. In an undertone, she asked, “Is it okay if I tell you something kind of big? Something that might be hard to hear?”

“Anything, Buffy,” Tara encouraged. “You can tell me anything.”

“Okay.” Stalling, Buffy raised the latte partway to her mouth, then found she didn’t especially want it and set it back down. Finally, she looked at Tara again. “When I died, I didn’t go to a hell dimension. I think I was in Heaven.” She might have said more...if there had been more to say.

“Oh, Buffy.” Tara’s expression was soft but tragic. “Willow—all of us—just assumed the worst because the hell dimension was open. I’m...oh, I’m so sorry.” She shook her head miserably and raised a napkin to her face to dab tears from the corners of her eyes. After taking a few shaky breaths, she asked, “Have you told any of the others? Does Willow know?”

Buffy shook her head and went back to looking at her latte.

Tara slipped a hand across the table and lightly touched the back of her wrist. “I think Willow should know,” she said softly, entreating with eyes still wet with tears. “I know it’s your decision, but I think she should know. It might… It might make things better.”

“I know,” Buffy answered. “I know I should tell her, tell everyone.” She looked up to Tara’s face, feeling moisture in her own eyes now. “But not today. Tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow.”

 

***

 

Wednesday evening found Spike ruminating in his crypt yet again. Despite his nearly overwhelming curiosity to discover what more about Buffy’s body had changed, he kept away.  He was, he knew, hardly welcome and barely tolerated. And yet, whether he was there to hear it or not, that tiny life was still developing inside her.

As though his thoughts had summoned her, he heard footsteps outside and caught her scent through the door.

“Hey,” she greeted with an unconvincing show of casualness as she entered, a shopping bag hanging from her arm.

“What are you doing out and about?” he asked, sounding snappier than he intended, even to himself.

She raised her eyebrows. “What? Am I supposed to be under house arrest or something? I had to do some shopping.”

Agitated, he stood and pulled his cigarettes from his pocket. “Shopping,” he repeated skeptically as he lit a cig. “At night, at the overpriced corner store you typically avoid at all costs.”

Buffy shuffled the bag between her arms, her nonchalant facade slipping away. “I decided we needed some food. For a meeting we’re having tonight.”

His shoulders stiffened and he took the cigarette from his mouth so he could speak more clearly. “Meeting? What about?”

“About...something I need to tell everyone.”

He narrowed his eyes and scanned carefully, allowing his other senses to reach out to her. Something about her scent seemed denser, and that faint little proto-heartbeat was still pattering away deep inside. “Yeah?” he said with some trepidation.

"Yeah. And... I decided I wanted to stop by first. For a second opinion.”

“On…?”

“I’m going to tell the others about Heaven.”

His shoulders relaxed. “Good.” Finally, something sensible.

Her eyes widened and she stared at him. Had he said the wrong thing?

“Smoking!” she exclaimed, tone suddenly colored with alarm.

He raised a brow. “What of it?” he asked, taking another drag.

“It’s bad! Healthy choices. Healthy choices.” She seemed to be talking half to herself.

“Not gonna have much of an effect on me, is it?” he replied, nonplussed.

“Not on you, you dummy.” She looked a bit panicked. “The baby!”

“Er, right.” He swiftly dropped the remainder of the cig onto the floor and ground it out with the sole of his boot. “Sorry,” he mumbled, just as she said the same.

They stood in uncomfortable silence for a moment, gazing at each other. Buffy was the first to look away.

“You got nothing to be sorry for,” he told her quietly.

She adjusted her grip on the shopping bag. “I should go.” And she was off.

 

***

 

It felt very silly to be setting out chips and salsa to accompany a ‘Surprise! You wrecked my death and my life! Sorry I didn’t mention it sooner!’ meeting. But here she was.

She hadn’t given much thought to what she was going to say, figuring it would be easiest to just blurt the news out without a big lead-up. It had worked for telling Tara.

Maybe she should have asked Tara to come to the meeting. Or maybe she should’ve asked… Well, no, she didn’t really want to ask Spike for anything. Even stopping in to see him for a couple minutes earlier had left her feeling all twisted and confused. And the smoking! She wondered if all the secondhand smoke she’d inhaled in his company had hurt the baby.

Not necessarily, she told herself. It’s probably fine. Just like with the drinking. Not good...but not definitely bad.

She heard Xander’s familiar knock at the front door. 

He let himself and Anya in and greeted her with a wave. “So,” he said, “What’s up? Is this meeting patrol-related, or…?”

“Not patrol-related,” Buffy answered, starting to feel even more anxious.

Willow, Giles, and Dawn drifted into the room at the sound of Xander and Anya’s arrival, and soon everyone was gathered around the snacks. Giles moved to lean in the doorway; Dawn stood near him while the others took the couch. Buffy looked around at them all nibbling passively on chips, and took a bracing breath before speaking.

“I have something I need to tell you. Something that might hurt. Well, something that does hurt, and might hurt you too.”

“About the baby?” Willow responded immediately, concern scrunching her brow. “But you said everything was fine.”

“No, everything is fine with that. This is something else. Something I realized I want you all to know.”

“We already know you boinked Spike,” Anya said. “That was part of Willow’s meeting a week and a half ago.”

“Would everyone just be quiet and let me talk?” Buffy said, exasperated. The longer this took, the more difficult it felt.

“Yes, Anya, Buffy has the floor,” said Giles, scrutinizing Buffy curiously. 

Buffy tore her eyes from him and cleared her throat as she looked around at the others. “When I died… I know I told you that I was in Hell. It...it felt like the easiest thing to say, just because everything was so hard already, being back here and readjusting, and all of you…” All of you ignoring my pain. God, she should’ve rehearsed this speech. This was a disaster. “All of you were so happy to have me back,” she said carefully. “But I think…”

She couldn’t look at any of their faces, didn’t want to see the pain her words caused. Her eyes found the framed photo of Joyce and locked on it. “I think I was in Heaven,” she confessed, making sure to speak slowly and clearly so nothing could possibly be misunderstood. “I felt...formless. Warm. Complete. I had nothing to worry about, nothing to do. And I knew everything, everyone I cared about was okay. Was going to be okay. And I was finished.”

She shut her eyes, willing the tears back. She didn’t want to deal with the others’ self-flagellation and she didn’t want their pity. “And now, I’m here, and there’s just so much to deal with—which is okay, and I’m doing it,” she added, warding the pity away. “It’s just… It’s hard. It’s really hard to deal with things without having friends who actually know the whole story.” 

She opened her eyes finally, swallowed, and looked to the others at last. “So now you know.”

Anya glanced between Buffy and each of the others as though trying to ascertain what the correct emotional response was. Xander stared at Buffy, then at Willow, whose lip was trembling, and put his head in his hands. Giles took an uncertain step toward Buffy, looking dumbfounded, as though at a loss as to how to comfort her. Dawn, however, bounded forward and threw her arms around Buffy, who could feel the dampness of Dawn’s tears.

After a moment, Willow rose from the couch, her face absolutely bereft. “I’m sorry, Buffy,” she choked out before rushing away up the stairs.

Buffy shut her eyes again and clung to Dawn more tightly.

 

***

 

Willow could barely think; she needed to expunge this clawing feeling of guilty despair. She pawed through her bag for her journal, her vision blurred with tears. Maybe if she could just get the feeling out and onto the page, it would help.

She paused as her fingertips brushed dried plant matter: the abandoned sprig of Lethe’s bramble. It was still intact.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: BIT OF A RUBBISH IDEA

 

Buffy lay awake after going to bed. The whole group, sans Willow, had lingered uncomfortably in the living room after her announcement. There was hardly any talking. After all, there wasn’t really anything more to say. 

Eventually, Xander and Anya had headed home (Anya shooting Buffy a sorrowful look, Xander giving her a shaky bearhug). Giles had departed soon after, giving her a gentle squeeze on the shoulder and a brief earnest glance. She and Dawn had sat up together for a bit after the others had gone, and then made their way to the quiet upstairs. Willow had perhaps gone to sleep; Buffy hadn’t bothered to check.

There was a tapping at her bedroom door. Glancing at the clock, she saw it was nearly one. She must’ve been lying awake for a while.

The door cracked open to reveal Dawn’s silhouette, backlit by the hallway night light as she asked, “Can I hang out in here?”

“Couldn’t sleep?”

Dawn shook her head.

“Me neither,” Buffy said, scooting to one side of the bed.

Dawn kicked off her slippers and climbed under the covers. Even in the faint light filtering through the curtains from the streetlamps outside, Buffy could see her eyes were puffy from tears.

Dawn settled her head on the pillow. “If you don’t want to talk to everyone else, you can talk to me,” she offered in a worn voice.

“Thanks,” Buffy said automatically. “I think I said everything I want to say right now though.”

“Okay.” 

Silence stretched between them. Buffy looked up at the ceiling, waiting for Dawn’s breathing to slow and signal sleep. She glanced at the clock again—a quarter past one.

“Buffy?” Dawn broke the silence. “If you need anything, you can ask. I mean, probably not me, but Giles. You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” she said dismissively. But what more could she possibly ask of him? Rolling away from Dawn, she added, “I’m gonna try to get some sleep.”

The next time Buffy looked at the clock it was nearly six. She hadn’t really slept all those hours, but at least her eyes had been closed. That counted as resting, right? Even if she had kept herself awake cataloguing everyone’s reactions to her latest news…

There was no need to be up this early; she could go back to sleep. She fluffed her pillow and resettled under the blankets but, as expected, sleep didn’t return easily. 

Eventually she felt Dawn stir beside her. “Buffy, are you awake?”

“No.”

Dawn sat up and announced, “I’m gonna take a walk.”

“A walk?” Buffy repeated, puzzled enough to open her eyes and squint at Dawn.

“Yeah.” Dawn was already shoving her feet into her slippers. “That’s a thing grownups do, isn’t it? Like, when they have to process complicated grownup stuff?”

“I guess,” Buffy sighed. Maybe she should try it sometime and see if it helped.

“I’ll get dressed first and take my school stuff and everything.” Dawn paused with her hand on the doorknob. “I love you, Buffy,” she said softly before she departed.

 

***

 

As daylight crept across the sky, Spike retreated downstairs, abandoning the heap of books beside his armchair. He’d gone through his entire collection the previous night but none had held his attention. He was just about to strip down and throw himself into bed when he heard the door open upstairs.

“Spike?” Dawn’s footsteps crossed to the hatch as she called, “Are you down there?” 

In lieu of answering, he strode over to the bottom of the ladder and looked up. 

Dawn peered down at him through the darkness. “Can I come down?”

“Fine by me,” he answered, arms crossed. “But shouldn’t you still be asleep?”

“It’s almost seven,” she said as she started down the ladder. “Couldn’t really sleep anyway. I don’t think anyone could.” She hopped off the second-to-last rung and turned to face him.

“Hey now, what’s this about?” he asked, scrutinizing her face. She’d caked on more makeup than usual, and it did little to disguise her red-rimmed eyes.

“Okay, fine, I cried a bunch last night,” she admitted snippily. “Like you’ve never done that?” She flipped her hair over her shoulder and brushed past him to sit on the bed.

“She had the meeting then,” Spike surmised. Good on her.

“You already knew.”

“I did, yeah.”

“Well then, don’t you think you should go over there or something?” Dawn said irritably. “She feels like she has, like, no one to talk to right now.”

“Stopped in a few nights ago, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, for about two seconds. And you didn’t even chew me out about Halloween,” Dawn pointed out resentfully. “Giles had to, and it was just weird.”

Spike sighed and went over to the bed. He placed a finger under her chin and tilted her head up. Her expression was all firm resolve. 

“Makeup’s horrible,” he commented. “Doesn’t suit.”

She swatted his hand away. “I know, okay?” He felt the corner of his mouth twitch. “But I didn’t come over here for you to make fun of how dumb my face looks. I came because of Buffy.”

His half-smile went slack. “What do you propose, niblet?” he sighed, sitting heavily beside her. “Don’t figure she wants me around much.”

“She doesn’t want anyone around much,” Dawn countered. “She mostly just hides in her room looking really sad. Can you, I don’t know, bring her a trashy magazine and chocolate? Then she’ll at least have something to do while she’s hiding.”

“A trashy magazine?” he asked incredulously. It was a bit of a rubbish idea but, in fairness, Dawn was only fifteen.

“You know, like, something full of celebrity gossip. Just so she can spend five minutes not thinking about how messed up her own life is.” She seemed to brighten as she expounded. “And chocolate. Like, a ton of chocolate. She always likes chocolate when she’s hurt. Or sick. Or sad. Or, like, anything.” She nodded. “Get her magazines and chocolate.”

“And it’s me who’s gotta do this?”

She looked at him like it was obvious. “Well, yeah!” When he raised his eyebrows, she elaborated, “Because...because I don’t have money. Or, I mean, I have...this.” She drew a small wad of bills out of her pocket and held it out to him.

“Where’d you get this?” he asked, taking it from her and counting it. It wasn’t much, but it was more than Dawn ought to have on hand, given that she and her sis had been so strapped for cash lately.

“Kaltenbach,” Dawn answered, her voice barely more than a whisper.

“Come again?”

“Kaltenbach,” she repeated shakily. “This old guy I think Justin must have killed on Halloween. He took his wallet.”

Spike looked down at the money. How many times had he killed, had he stolen? And he’d never bothered with remorse. But he felt it now, in a way, looking at Dawn. He crumpled the bills in his palm and stuffed them in his pocket, out of Dawn’s sight.

“Not your fault, Dawn,” he assured her.

“I know,” she said glumly. “But there’s something else.” Her expression turned hesitant. “Do you promise not to get mad?”

Spike’s eyes narrowed as Dawn swung her backpack off her shoulder and she extracted a makeup bag. She opened it and shook the contents onto the bed. Sleek tubes of lipstick tumbled out, not particularly upscale brands but all clearly more expensive than a teenager living with her unemployed sister could afford.

“Dawn…” he said slowly, picking up one tube and seeing the tape seal was still intact.

“I stole them,” she confessed, her voice anxious and steadily increasing in pitch. “They’re all shoplifted. Just from the drugstore, nowhere expensive. And I don’t even need them! There’s more, that I’ve actually used already, but these are all the rest.” She tugged on a fistful of her own hair and looked over at him, her overly done-up eyes wild. “Spike, I don’t know what to do with them!”

Part of him wanted to laugh. The girl was nearly in hysterics over a few stolen lipsticks. But Buffy wouldn’t want her own sister stealing. And, fact was, the petty theft was clearly causing Dawn herself distress.

“Well,” he started, somehow managing to keep a straight face, “you could go back and pay for them.” He thought the money now stashed in his pocket would just about cover it. “Or,” he went on, “you could just go return them.”

“And tell them I took it all?” she asked doubtfully.

“Yeah,” he answered, dropping the lipstick back onto the bed. “Or you could just keep it all.”

Dawn shook her head vigorously.

Spike sighed. “Right,” he said. “I’ll take care of it. You just take your klepto little self off to school. How’s that?”

“Okay,” she agreed in a small voice, almost but not quite cracking a smile.

Spike brushed the lipsticks aside and handed the empty case back to her.

“So,” Dawn said awkwardly, her voice still small. “Are you gonna go over and talk to Buffy today? She’s probably at home by herself again. She pretty much always is.”

“She hasn’t been talking to the others?” He’d thought as much, but had held onto a sliver of hope he was wrong.

“I don’t think so,” Dawn said. “I mean, she talked to Giles like two days after we all found out about the pregnancy thing. And now he’s helping with bills and stuff.” She looked into his eyes searchingly and asked a bit apprehensively, “She said that you freaked when she told you. Did you?”

He rose to his feet and gave himself a shake. “You could say that.”

“Well, then you can make it up to her! With the magazines and the chocolate… Okay, that’s totally lame. Forget it.” She sighed. “Neither of us could sleep last night. I told her she should try to talk to Giles, but I don’t know if she will. He’s the only real grownup around anymore, but he’s all awkward and old and stuff.”

Her words had the markings of a sleep-deprived ramble, so he cut it off, asking, “Buffy know you’re over here?”

Dawn tugged at her sleeve uncomfortably. “Well...well, I told her I was going for a walk. And I did! I walked here.” She checked her watch. “I guess I should go to school soon.” Hands fluttering to her face, she asked anxiously, “Is my makeup really that bad?”

He shrugged. “No worse than what plenty of other girls your age’ve got on, I reckon.”

 

***

 

Willow lingered in the hallway a few doors down from Tara’s classroom, anxiously watching the clock. She would just flag her down casually, maybe try some small talk, ask to borrow the book. Easy peasy.

The door to the classroom swung open and the first few students rushed out, clearly on tight schedules. A few more trickled out and then Willow saw Tara, who was tucking her notebook into her shoulder bag as she walked, a calm, cheerful expression on her face.

“Tara!” Willow blurted awkwardly as she approached. “I mean, Tara. Hey.”

Tara looked up from her bag. “Oh! Willow. Hi.”

“Do you still have that copy of Magique Psychologique? That one with all the theory stuff and the complicated but handy guide in the back?”

Tara seemed puzzled. “Uh, yeah, I do.” Her expression cleared for a moment and she added, “That book is mine, Willow.”

“I know that,” Willow agreed hurriedly. “I just wondered if I could borrow it. For something super important.”

“Uh, I guess,” Tara said uncertainly, glancing at the clock. “Look, Willow, I don’t have a lot of time right now. I’m between classes and I need to go get lunch…”

“But you have time to run back to your room and grab one little book, don’t you?”

“Willow, you know I don’t have a dorm room yet. I’m living off campus and I can’t go all the way there now just to get the book for you.” Tara said with a hint of impatience. She started down the hallway and Willow kept pace alongside her. “What do you need it for anyway? Is it for Giles?”

“No. It’s… I want to do a spell to help Buffy.”

“With that book?” Tara questioned. 

“Yes, see...” Willow began eagerly. Tara would understand. Willow needed her to, if she was going to get that book. “Buffy told me...something...about where she was before we brought her back, and I want to help her deal.”

Tara froze as they turned a corner and Willow bumped into her. She started to apologize, but Tara spoke first, her tone firm. “No, Willow.”

“What do you mean? It’s to help Buffy forget...bad stuff. Bad stuff that hurts her to remember.”

“Willow, how could you? How could you think that’s okay?”

It was not the response she’d expected. “Tara, what? It’ll help. And that’s what we do—help Buffy! I just need that book to be extra super safe and make sure there’s absolutely no risk of vegetable Buffy, or loopy Buffy, or anything-not-right Buffy.”

“There’s always risk with magic, Will. How have you not learned that by now, after what we all did?” There were tears in Tara’s eyes and, suddenly, Willow realized Tara knew.

“Did someone tell you?” she asked. “About what Buffy told us last night?”

“Yes,” Tara answered tremulously.

“Was it Anya? Because, hey, maybe she doesn’t realize it’s not the sort of thing you go telling people willy-nilly. Or was it—”

Buffy told me, Willow.”

“She… Buffy? But—when?”

“Tuesday.” Tara sniffled, then turned to continue down the hall. “I have to go. Food. Class. Everything.”

“Tara, wait—”

“And I’m sorry, but I can’t give you that book, Will.”

“She told you? She told you before she told the rest of us? Before she told me?”

Tara made a little convulsive movement that could have been a shrug of apology, then hurried toward the exit, leaving Willow standing in the hall alone with her confusion and disappointment.

 

***

 

Giles had turned up on her doorstep with the makings of curry for lunch. Rather than go hover around him at the stove, Buffy had flopped down on the couch.

Curry, she decided, would be good. She hadn’t had much of an appetite lately, but curry sounded nice. When she turned on the television, she found an infomercial for a knife collection; she didn’t bother changing the channel.

After a while, just as the smell of curry was starting to waft through the house, a knock sounded at the door. If someone else was going to parade in with an offer of tasty foods, she supposed she couldn’t complain. She opened the door to reveal a fraught-looking Tara.

“Buffy,” she said nervously. “Is Willow home yet?”

“Uh, no, she’s not,” Buffy answered, confused. “Why? Do you need to pick something up?”

“No, no, um… Is it okay if I come in?”

“Yeah, of course.” Buffy stepped back and gestured to the couch. 

Tara sat down, her fingers fumbling anxiously with the strap of her bag.

Buffy joined her on the couch and shut off the TV. “Tara, what’s going on?”

“It’s Willow. She...she wants to do a spell.”

“Do you think it’s dangerous?” Buffy asked, startled.

“No!” Tara replied immediately. “I mean… I know she means well. She wants to help. But it...it could be. Dangerous. And even if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be fair to you.” Tara took a long, shaky breath and was opening her mouth to say more when Giles came into the room.

“Tara,” he greeted. “I thought I heard your voice. The curry is ready, Buffy. And Tara, of course you’re welcome, too.”

“Curry can wait,” Buffy said. “Tara was telling me about a spell she thinks Willow wants to do.”

“I know she wants to do it,” Tara corrected. “And I told her it wouldn’t be right. She...she wants to do a spell to erase your memory of Heaven, Buffy.”

Buffy felt a chill set in. “She can do that?”

Giles pulled the armchair closer and sank into it. “That’s very complex, nuanced magic.”

There was an insistent rap at the door, at the back of the house this time.

“Willow?” Tara said, looking uncomfortable.

“No.” Buffy stood and headed for the door. “She has a key.”

She could make out a familiar figure through the slats of the blinds and rushed the last few steps.

“What are you doing here?” she asked as Spike swept into the kitchen, draped in a tattered blanket. Tendrils of smoke streamed from his sun-blistered fingertips.

“Brought you these,” he answered, depositing two shopping bags on the counter and letting the blanket fall.

Perplexed, Buffy opened the shopping bags. The first contained what seemed to be a copy of every publication on the magazine rack at the drugstore—everything from Tiger Beat to Time. The second contained a large box of chocolate truffles. The drugstore variety, but one of the nicer brands. “Uh…?”

“Dawn’s idea,” he said twitchily. “If it’s too much—” Seeming frightened that, indeed, it was too much, he made to grab them back. 

But Buffy cut him off, scooping up the bags and stepping out of his reach.

“No, it’s...great.” She flicked through the stack of magazines. “I’ve never actually read, uh, Cook’s Illustrated. So I’m sure that’ll be very exciting.” Her eyes turned toward the chocolate. She grinned. She couldn’t help it! Not with that much chocolate… “We’re talking in the living room. Tara and Giles are here,” she explained.

“Oh. Er…” He stooped and picked up his blanket. “Suppose I should just shove off.”

“You can stay,” Buffy offered. “It’s less blistery in here where the sun’s not.” She looked pointedly at his fingers.

“Right,” he said awkwardly, looking down at them too.

Buffy strode back into the living room and resumed her seat on the couch. 

Rather than joining her, Spike sat on the floor. “So,” he asked casually, “what’s the confab about?”

Giles looked mildly put out by Spike’s presence but answered him nonetheless. “Tara has just brought it to our attention that Willow intends to do a memory spell on Buffy.”

“But I think she knows she can’t even try to do it without the book she wanted to borrow from me.”

Magique Psychologique?” Giles queried.

Tara nodded.

“Well,” Giles said with a hint of skepticism, “even with that text, it would still take an exceptional amount of power—”

“Giles, hello,” Buffy interrupted. “She’s got the power. The proof’s sitting right here in my seat.” She thought she saw, out of the corner of her eye, Spike shift uncomfortably but she ignored him and continued, “I really don’t like the idea of her using me as her weird science experiment every chance she gets.”

“So tell her to stop,” Spike said flatly.

“Do you think it might help if she wasn’t living here?” Tara suggested. “Maybe then she wouldn’t feel like she needs to jump in and fix everything all the time?”

“So tell her to get out,” Spike intoned as though he were stating the obvious.

Buffy turned to Giles. “Can I do that?”

“Buffy, it’s your house,” Giles reminded her. “It’s up to you to decide who stays here.”

“Right,” she muttered. “Right.”

There were footsteps on the porch.

“Willow,” Spike announced. 

“I should go,” Tara whispered urgently. “Um…”

“Might I suggest the back door?” Giles proposed with a wry glance, rising to escort her. The two of them had just passed out of the living room when the door opened. 

“Hi, Buffy!” Willow greeted her. “Is that curry I—? Oh. Spike. Hi.”

He nodded, then cleared his throat loudly to cover the sound of Tara slipping out the back door.

“Will, can I talk to you?” Buffy asked. “Um, maybe outside?”

“Sure!” Willow said, clearly a bit apprehensive as she opened the door again and stepped back onto the front porch. “About what?”

Buffy gently shut the door behind them and said bluntly (because that was just the easiest way to say things these days), “I think it would be best if you didn’t live here anymore.”

Willow’s tone was pure shock. “What? Why?”

“I know about the spell you were going to use on me. To make me forget.”

Willow looked temporarily stunned but rallied immediately, racing to explain unconvincingly, “Oh! That. Well, you know I wouldn't have done it without asking you first, right?”

Buffy didn’t know that, but moved on regardless. “And before that, you were super pro-baby, from the first second, without even asking me what I wanted or needed. And that’s not okay, Will. It’s pretty much all with the awfulness.”

“But—” Willow looked confused. “You decided to keep it, didn’t you?”

“You know that's not the point. Right?”

“Buffy, I just wanted to help.” Her eyes were shiny with unshed tears, her face wrinkled in desperation. “You’re kicking me out for that?”

“I’m not kicking you out. I’m asking you to find somewhere else to stay. Actually...no, I’m not asking. So yeah, I’m kicking you out. And, um,” she went on awkwardly, unsure how to segue to anything else, “Giles made curry, if you want any.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: THE REAL WORLD

 

Ira Rosenberg had been visibly surprised by Willow’s abrupt decision to move back home the previous afternoon. Sheila, however, had merely nodded clinically and observed that it was good Buffy was finally feeling stable enough not to need her friends’ help twenty-four seven. Willow (who had originally justified the move to Buffy’s as necessary to help Buffy adjust to life without her mom) had managed to eke out a feeble murmur of agreement in response. But, given the truth of her present circumstances, Sheila’s comment was a knife twisting in her gut.

Willow had endured two uncomfortable family dinners before her parents had departed for the weekend; Sheila was giving a lecture about something significant at some prestigious campus…somewhere. Now, at least, Willow had the house to herself. And yet she couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t that the bed was uncomfortable or that the room temperature was off. It wasn’t even the fact that her bed was Tara-less.

One thing was brutally clear: Buffy had decided she didn’t need Willow’s help. Ironically, all because of a spell, a spell that would’ve helped Buffy. All the more galling was the fact that Buffy seemed plenty happy to accept help from Giles—and even Spike.

Willow sighed as Amy’s exercise wheel creaked. “At least I have you, Amy.”

Then she sat up, realizing something: she hadn’t tried to de-rat Amy lately. All summer, her main project had been resurrecting Buffy. And that had gone off without a hitch...well, as far as the magicks went, anyway. Surely, if she could pull that off, she could turn Amy back into her human self.

Willow pushed back the covers and stood, racking her brain for relevant magicks. In all the research she’d done to put the resurrection spell together, there had to have been something. And then a possibility came to her. Of course...the possibility was Italian, and she didn’t really speak Italian, but...

Rivela!” she commanded. A tattered parchment materialized before her. Grabbing it, she looked over the writing. She could only understand intermittent words, but it seemed like a straightforward incantation. Something about the danger passing and undoing what was done. Yes! This could be it.

She removed Amy from her cage, set her on the bed, and read the incantation aloud. There was a sizzling flash of light and then suddenly Amy was Amy again.

Willow grinned; Amy merely screamed.

 

***

 

Its scents were more pungent than they had any right to be, but she turned down the fetid alleyway nonetheless. After more than eight months (and twice as many visits to shamans and seers), she was back in southern California and enormously heavy with whatever perversion of nature was growing inside her. She was, quite frankly, about ready to stake herself but, after all this effort, it just seemed like a waste.

She’d heard murmurings of a magnificent dark power in Sunnydale. Pressing for details, she’d learned he kept his location heavily cloaked and the entrance constantly moving. Only someone touched by the supernatural—a real witch, a demon, a vampire—could find it.

So here she was, wandering the godforsaken streets of Sunnydale at two o’clock on a Saturday morning looking for the stupid place. A sleazy Italian barkeep had told her that, if you had the magic touch, you would feel it when you got close. But, after three hours of searching, she was yet to feel a thing.

She’d already tried every other notable shaman and seer in the western hemisphere, to no avail. No one seemed to understand what the hell was inside her. Not that she really needed to know what it was. She just wanted it gone.

But perhaps this magic man would be different. Rumor had it he dispensed power the user could channel however they wished. Which sounded ideal because, in her experience, if a lady wanted something done right, she was generally better off just doing it herself.

She was tired though. Dragging all the extra weight around was draining. And she hadn’t rested since she’d left the useless traditional healers at the Hopi Reservation back in Arizona; she’d been too focused on shaking down Sunnydale’s seedy mystical underbelly.

And she was hungry.

As she passed a neon-lit dive called the Fish Tank, a stocky, alcohol-addled man called from the doorway, “Hey, cute little mama!”

She paused and studied him. He’d do.

“What’s your name, mama?” he asked as he hopped off the stoop and started toward her.

“Darla,” she answered sweetly.

 

***

 

“So,” Amy asked, “do your parents know about the magic?”

Once Amy had gotten past the initial shock of being re-humanized, Willow had led her down to the living room and caught her up on the past three years of Sunnydale events. They were now sitting on the couch with what little junk food they could scrounge up.

“Not so much,” Willow answered. “After the whole trying-to-burn-us-at-the-stake thing, I kinda decided not to bring it up again.”

“That makes sense.” Amy nodded seriously as she inspected a pack of root vegetable chips. She tentatively popped one into her mouth and made a face. “Can we go out and get some real food?” Her face brightened. “Can we get cookies?”

Rather than point out that cookies were hardly any realer than veggie chips, Willow replied, “I think the only places open right now are Doublemeat Palace and that one convenience store, which is kind of a walk.”

“Mm, no,” Amy said distractedly, eyes darting around the room. “Why are you staying here anyway, if you’re in school?”

“Oh. That.” In her updating, Willow hadn’t said a lot about Buffy, but she supposed she might as well mention it. Amy might sympathize with her current predicament. “Well...Buffy kinda died and I went to stay in her house while she was gone. And then I brought her back, and kept staying there.”

“Wait, you brought her back? Like, brought her back to life?” Amy demanded. She didn’t seem shocked or angry, just impressed.

“Yeah, because...well, because we thought Buffy was in a hell dimension. But it turned out she was...not. And I wanted to do a spell to make her forget that she was in a nice place while she was dead, but she got mad and kicked me out.” She left out the pregnancy part, not wanting to have to talk about Spike and Buffy. The two of them still kinda wigged her out.

“Her loss,” Amy said, fiddling with the corners of the veggie chip bag. “You could still do the spell for her anyway though.”

“Amy, memory magic is complicated stuff,” Willow said regretfully. “And this is a huge thing to make her forget. I would have to do more research before trying it, if I wanted it to turn out right. I spent months on that resurrection spell.”

“If you can raise the dead, you can do anything,” Amy pressed. “You just need someone to give you a boost.”

“Yeah?” Willow questioned. Amy’s confidence was reassuring, even if she didn’t know of anyone boosty. Amy had to be out of practice after being a rat for so long, and Tara certainly wouldn’t be any help.

“Yeah,” Amy said, nodding eagerly and setting the chips aside. “I actually know a guy who might be able to help you out. He’s probably wondering where I’ve been all this time…”

“A...guy?” Willow asked, fishing for details.

“Come on,” Amy said, standing. “He knows spells that last for days and the burnout factor is, like, nothing.”

Willow stood too. “What kind?” she asked. “Of spells, I mean.”

“Oh, I don’t know. All kinds,” Amy said as she slipped her feet into the shoes Willow had lent her. “Come on,” she insisted.

“He’s a warlock?” Willow asked, reluctantly putting her shoes on as well. She didn’t think sheer power was what was needed for delicate psychological magicks, but she’d never heard of this guy before. She was curious.

“I guess,” Amy shrugged, heading for the door. She shot a sly glance back at Willow. “Maybe we can stop for cookies on the way.”

“Where exactly is this guy?” Willow asked as she locked the front door behind them. “Near the convenience store?”

“He could be,” Amy answered. At Willow’s confused look, she went on, “His place is cloaked. There’s an area it usually sticks to, but it’s always moving to stay hidden.” She set off eagerly up the street, taking long strides. Willow followed. She would have been happy to spend a quiet night at home with Amy, but her curiosity was definitely getting the better of her.

After about half an hour, Amy’s pace slowed. Another ten minutes and she turned to Willow, grinning. “Found it.”

“Where?” Willow glanced around the squalid alleyway but didn’t spot any hints of magic.

“You have to feel it,” Amy directed her, extending her hand to touch the air in front of them. “There.”

Willow followed suit. “It feels...hot.”

Amy whirled around and backed into the sheet of warm air. The air around her shimmered and rippled. And then the shimmering and rippling stopped and Amy was gone.

Frowning, Willow followed. Her step took her into a dingy beige room. A couple people sat hunched on ratty furniture and a stale misery hung in the air. The only clean thing in the room was the water cooler.

“Cool, right?” Amy said as Willow took in the room.

“Um… Yeah,” Willow answered not altogether truthfully.

A door opened and the heads of the miserable people snapped up in unison.

“Rack, it’s my turn,” one of them said desperately.

“No, man,” the other appealed, “you said I was up.”

“Bull!” the first protested. “I’ve been here for hours.”

But the man who’d emerged from the door looked past them and raised a hand crackling with magickal energy. “I believe these two were next,” he said. His voice was rough, but not as rough as his appearance. His hair was scraggly, his face scarred. His presence exuded a thick, heavy energy, like a hot, humid day with a storm on the way. He stood aside, his expression blank, and gestured for them to enter.

Willow hesitantly accompanied Amy across the threshold, aware the man’s eyes were locked on her even as Amy spoke to him.

“Thanks, Rack, for taking us,” she said, an unsettling coyness slipping into her voice. “I know it’s been a while. You’ll never believe—”

“You were a rat,” Rack said, his tone betraying no emotion.

“How did you—?” But he cut her off with a look.

“Hope it taught you not to mess around with spells you can’t handle,” he went on. “You should leave that in the hands of a professional.” With another crackle of energy, he turned back to Willow. “This one is giving off vibes,” he remarked as he stepped toward her.

“I-I don’t mean to,” Willow stammered. “Vibe at you. If it’s in a negative way.”

“I mean you have power, girl,” he explained, “coming off you in waves.”

“Um. Maybe?” Willow said shakily. “I mean, I can do stuff. But I can’t do...everything.”

“And what do you want me to do about it?” Rack asked, still staring at her.

She thought what she really wanted was for him to stop looking at her so she could leave and go back home. But instead she mumbled, “I don’t know. I thought… Amy said—”

“Amy said I could help you,” he interrupted, stepping closer still. “But did she say how you could help me?”

“No,” Willow said, trying to keep her voice steady. “I have money, a little. Or, uh, maybe I could help you with your computer or—” She flinched as his hand moved toward her.

“Relax,” he insisted. “I’m not going to hurt you. But you have to give a little to get a little, right?”

Willow shot Amy a glance she hoped communicated, ‘Get me out of this!’

But Amy merely whispered, “It’s okay. It’s over fast.”

“That’s right,” Rack encouraged. “I’m just going to take a little tour.” And he placed his gnarled, dry hand flat against the skin of Willow’s chest.

Willow felt a surge of power course through her from a source deep within. It sparked her senses alive, zapped through her chest to bounce back off Rack’s hand. She blinked as he let her go; the shapes and colors of the drab room seemed a million times more vivid than before.

Rack brought his face close to Willow’s ear and murmured in a tone that raised goosebumps on her skin, “You taste like strawberries.”

 

***

 

When Buffy arrived at the Magic Box on Saturday afternoon, a notebook of budget-related scribbling tucked under her arm and a homework-laden Dawn in tow, she was surprised to find Xander as well as Giles waiting for her. Anya was there too of course, but she was absorbed in shop-running activities, not sitting at the table and watching the door expectantly.

“Hi,” Buffy said as she set her notebook down. “Sorry I’m a little late. Had some so-called morning sickness in the not-morning.”

“All she’s been eating all day is leftover curry,” Dawn said as she pulled a textbook out of her backpack. “Is it possible to overdose on curry?”

Dawn.”

“What? Who eats curry for breakfast?” Dawn shot back. “And lunch. And dinner. And snacks.”

“Ah, erm, well… I’m happy to make more,” Giles offered awkwardly. “Are you feeling alright now?”

“I’m fine,” Buffy answered, waving away his concern. “Can we get started? I want to finish getting things figured out.” She opened her notebook and slid it toward Giles. “I’ve been keeping track of everything, but I don’t want to keep needing help paying for it. So I’m thinking of getting a job. I, um, don’t really know where yet, exactly. But there has to be somewhere, right? And I have the time now, since I’m not so much with the slaying lately, and I’m not going to school.”

She’d thought it over and, while not the most exciting idea, it seemed to be the most sensible one. Willow was a student. Xander was a construction worker. Buffy was a sad pregnant person who sat alone in her house every day. It was obvious who needed a change.

“There’s actually been some discussion on that subject,” Giles said. “I’d like to offer you a job here at the shop. Not in a retail capacity,” he added quickly at the look on Buffy’s face. “I know your opinion of sales is, ah, unfavorable, to say the least.”

“Yes, and most importantly, Giles will pay you directly, as a partner of the Magic Box,” Anya said, striding over from behind the counter. “You won’t actually be getting any of the store’s money.”

“It’ll all check out bureaucratically too,” Xander chimed in. “It’s an actual job title, so you can file income tax and do all that boring stuff.”

“Okay,” Buffy said slowly, looking around at the others, wondering what on earth they’d come up with. “So what is the actual job title?”

“Paranormal consultant,” Xander said, handing her a typed sheet of paper. “We even wrote up this whole ad that’s never going to be posted anywhere.”

Giles recited with a faint smile, “Duties include identifying magical artifacts, researching preternatural beings and events—” 

“In other words,” Xander summarized, “watcher stuff. Or all the Slayer stuff that doesn’t require going out and slaying anything.”

Dawn looked up from her homework and gazed at Buffy hopefully.

“And all for significantly higher pay than you would get at, say, Doublemeat Palace. And possibly the phone sex line,” Anya added contemplatively.

Buffy looked around at all of them as the reality sank in. “Wow, guys, this is amazing.” Then she shook her head. “What am I saying? I can’t let you do this.” She turned to Giles. “It’s really great of you to help, but this is my problem and I have to deal with it. Ergo, actual job-getting.”

“Buffy,” Giles said earnestly, leaning in. “I am offering you this job. And it’s one that you’ve already done for years. Isn’t it time you were compensated?”

“I still think the Council should pay Buffy,” Dawn piped up.

“Yes, Dawn,” Giles replied. “And I still think it unlikely that the idea would appeal to Quentin Travers.”

“Wait,” Buffy said, looking between Dawn and the others. “Still? You’ve all talked about this already?”

“Well, yeah,” Dawn answered sheepishly. “It was kinda my idea.”

“And a good one at that,” Giles stated definitively. “But you can think about it first, Buffy. As you should before taking any job, of course.”

Buffy gazed down at the page:

Wanted: paranormal consultant for local occult goods retailer. Flexible hours, with some evening and weekend availability preferred. Competitive pay. Duties include identifying magical artifacts, researching preternatural beings and events, and advising staff and associates regarding field research and self-defense.

In other words: digging up info on miscellaneous objects that showed up, staring at demon illustrations, and helping the others figure out how to do the job she no longer could. All Giles-type stuff that he was surely already doing. They didn’t need her. And the books and organization side of things had never come to her as easily as the slaying.

“Buffy?” Dawn asked.

Buffy set the page down. If it had been Dawn’s idea, Dawn was probably waiting for an enthusiastic ‘yes’. “I don’t know, Dawn. I thought maybe it would be good to get a job in the real world.”

“This is the real world,” Dawn countered categorically. Clearly deciding the matter was settled, she changed the topic and asked, “Do you remember any algebra? Willow’s not around to help me with this stuff.”

The next couple of hours consisted of long stretches of Buffy and Xander frowning over the letters and numbers on Dawn’s homework, interspersed with lengthy bouts of Buffy and Giles frowning over the letters and numbers in Buffy’s budget. But, at the end, there was finally a budget. It accounted for bills and groceries, the more immediate pregnancy-related expenses like vitamins and books and her next prenatal appointment, school supplies and wild growth spurt wardrobe for Dawn…pretty much everything Buffy could think of.

Around sundown, Giles looked at his watch. “I’ve an appointment to view a flat downtown,” he announced.

Xander looked out the window at the sun sinking below the horizon and said casually, “I guess I’ll go do a quick patrol.”

Buffy raised her eyebrows.

“What?” he said. “It’s not like I haven’t done it before.”

“Yeah,” Dawn said, flipping her algebra textbook shut, “with, like, four other people.”

Before Xander could retort, Giles turned to Dawn and Buffy and said, “I’ll drop the two of you at your house, shall I?”

 

***

 

Darla was in an irritable mood by the time she found the damn warlock. Aside from her annoyance at not having found him on her first try, she was now also displeased by the lack of useful offerings at the local magic shop. She’d stopped in just after sundown and bluntly asked the woman at the counter, Know anyone I can see about getting this thing out of me? The woman had given her a very plastic smile and rattled off a list of difficult-to-find ingredients, then mused about an abortion clinic in Colorado before wishing her luck and telling her to have a nice night.

This place didn’t lift her spirits. It reeked of weak, pathetic humanity. Addicts. Frenzy. She sat on the dismal sofa and eyed the door, trying to get a sense of who was behind it, but the air was so dense with magic that the details of humanity didn’t escape the shut room. So she waited.

At last, the door opened. A scrawny young man walked out of the room as though in a daze, and behind him emerged an older man with a hard, scarred face.

Darla pushed off the couch and strode briskly past him into the room before whirling around and declaring, “I want you to do whatever it takes to get this thing out of me. I need this thing out of me.”

With a sardonic sort of grunt, he shut the door behind them. “Name’s Rack.” He circled around her, surveying her as energy buzzed in his hands. “Interesting,” he said as he came to a halt in front of her again.

“Is it?” she replied impatiently.

He scrutinized her impassively. “Unfortunately, I can’t help you.” 

Figured. “I’m not surprised,” Darla said acidly. She’d just kill him and head off to L.A. Maybe Angel and his guilt would be good for problem-solving for once.

But before she could make her move, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “I’m a hedonist,” he explained slowly, his eyes raking over her. “I don’t deal in life and death stuff. But I just might know someone who can get you what you need.”

Now they were getting somewhere.

“This someone have a name?”

Rack grinned mysteriously. “Strawberry.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: A LONELY GIRL

 

The night was young and Spike was just beginning to consider going out for a stroll (or a patrol) when he sensed someone approaching the crypt. He caught the familiar but unexpected smell of one Alexander Harris.

Glaring, Spike wrenched the door open before the boy could knock. “What’re you after?”

“Nice to see you too, Spike,” Xander replied levelly, wincing as the handaxe he carried bumped against his knee. “I was out for patrol and I figured—”

“Patrol?” Spike questioned coolly, stepping back from the doorway. “Cowering among the tombstones with an axe passes for patrol these days?”

Xander looked irritated but his tone was carefully friendly. “Look, I came to talk to you about something.”

Ah, and so it began: the superfriends showing up one by one to harangue him about all the things he had and had not done.

Xander entered the crypt and continued, “I know you were at the house the other day when the thing with Willow went down, so I figured—”

“The ‘thing with Willow’?” Spike repeated. “You mean Red being so in love with her own magic touch that she can’t seem to keep her hands to herself?”

“Uh…” Xander seemed to take a moment to wrap his head around the concept. “Yeah. Yeah, pretty much, but that’s not the point.”

“Get to it then.” His patience with Xander was thin to begin with, and droopy-boy’s prevarication was starting to annoy.

“Look,” Xander said, friendliness evaporating quickly now. “I just know you were at the house. So I figured you might care.” And Spike felt a pang, suddenly suspicious that there was bad news about Buffy afoot. But Xander went on, “Giles offered Buffy a job at the shop today. She didn’t say she’ll definitely take it, but we’re all hoping she will. So, I dunno, if you talk to her again soon, can you tell her it’s a good idea?”

“You think she’ll listen to me, do you?”

“I have no idea who she’ll listen to. But right now she seems to think she has to do everything herself.”

“Maybe that’s because you lot are too oblivious to be useful,” Spike said reflexively, and then instantly wondered if he regretted it. After all, the boy was apparently trying.

“Alright. Okay, fine,” Xander snapped. “You just go back to being your lurking, miserable self. I’m gonna go patrol.”

But that wouldn’t do. If the boy ran into a big nasty, he’d last about two minutes. Which, unfortunately, would cause Buffy even more unhappiness.

“Like hell you are,” Spike growled, grabbing his coat and stalking past Xander on his way out the door.

 

***

 

“So, when are your parents getting back?” Amy asked as she opened another package of cookies.

“Today,” Willow yawned. She looked at the clock on her way to the fridge. “A few hours from now, I guess.”

“And you’re just going to, what, live here with them without magic?” Amy asked.

Willow could feel Amy watching her beadily as she opened a jar of applesauce. It was just about all she could stomach this morning. Ever since their visit to Rack’s, she’d been feeling jittery, frazzled, and slightly sick. Amy had tried to tempt her into returning last night, but she had resisted and the two had stayed in and watched many hours of mind-numbing television.

“I mean, I guess,” she finally answered. “I can’t get on-campus housing until next semester.”

“Maybe you should get a place off-campus,” Amy suggested. “Somewhere that’s not here.”

“You don’t have to stay here, Amy,” Willow said wearily. It was nice to have a magic-inclined friend around but—after Tara, and now Buffy, pushing her away—Willow was feeling too gloomy for high-maintenance company. For the past twenty-four hours, Amy had barely left Willlow’s side. It was understandable—company was probably really important to help her readjust to being a person—but it was also exhausting. “Does your dad still live nearby?”

“I don’t want to go see my dad yet,” Amy said. “He’d want to know where I’ve been and how I got there. And I’d just be so...bored.” She ate another cookie.

Willow forced down a spoonful of applesauce. “Well, you can stay here for a couple of days, maybe,” Willow offered uncertainly. “I mean, my parents know you. But...I think they’re gonna want an explanation.”

Amy licked crumbs from her fingers. “What if we got our own place?”

Willow set the applesauce down and raised her eyebrows. “Where?”

“Oh, there has to be somewhere,” Amy answered airily. “I have some money, you know.”

“So do I,” Willow said cautiously.

“I don’t have any ID or a debit card or anything,” Amy went on, the words tumbling out in a rush. “But I’ve got money in my savings account, so I’ll just need to enchant an ATM to let me into my account. Or, you know, anyone’s account, really. And then we’d just need to find somewhere to rent.”

“I...guess,” Willow said, reluctantly. “But without ID, how are you going to sign a lease?”

“Well,” Amy said, staring at Willow intently, “you could sign the lease. And I’ll pay part of the rent.”

“Uh, I don’t know.”

“Come on, you know you can’t stay here,” Amy said emphatically. “It’s like two months until the next semester starts, isn’t it? You’re really gonna live in a magic-free house for that long?”

Willow hadn’t thought of it like that. The idea didn’t appeal but, at the same time, dashing off and getting an apartment with Amy didn’t especially appeal either. They’d been close in junior high, and had been sort-of friends at some points in high school...but Willow didn’t really know what Amy was like now, or what she was into. And her talk of enchanting an ATM made Willow more than a little uneasy.

“Or…” Amy said in an offhand way when Willow didn’t answer immediately. “I suppose I could just enchant a realtor.”

“Uh, no, don’t do that, Amy,” Willow said, distracted, the thought of two months without magic suddenly making the house feel oddly airless and oppressive. “I...I guess we could find a place.” She grimaced at the thought of a housing hunt. “Do you know any places?”

 

***

 

“Guys,” Andrew whined, “this is boring.”

They’d finally gotten back to surveilling Buffy. All the cameras were still in place...except for the one at the construction site. Warren was still grouchy about losing it when the construction crew finished their job and took away the trailer it had been mounted on. Personally, Jonathan was of the opinion that Warren should spend less time yapping about the camera they’d lost and more time upgrading the cameras they still had. Despite all Warren’s promised updates, they still needed to be in close range to pick up the feed from any of them.

“Just keep an eye on her and quit complaining, alright?” Warren shot back, rifling through the deluxe pack of trading cards they’d just bought.

“Why?” Andrew said, crossing his arms and swiveling around in his chair to pout at the two of them. “She’s not doing anything. She’s just back to being a selling-stuff person or something.” He lunged at the trading cards, but Warren held them out of reach. “Come on,” he complained. “I haven’t had a chance to look at the new cards yet.”

“Uh, fine, whatever,” Warren relented. “Jonathan, why don’t you keep an eye on the monitor for a minute?” He jerked his chin in the direction of Andrew’s chair.

Jonathan would’ve liked to point out that maybe Warren should take a turn staring at the monitor, since it was his camera and his van. But he didn’t want to risk losing the special collector’s foil Warren had given him from the trading card pack.

Buffy was in the Magic Box, talking to Xander. Jonathan yawned. And then he realized that Buffy and Xander were both about to step out of the front door of the shop, putting them approximately twenty feet away from the in-plain-sight van.

“Quick, quick,” he spluttered. “She’s coming!”

Warren, eyes wide, dove into the driver’s seat.

“Of course something exciting happens when it’s your turn,” Andrew muttered resentfully. 

 

***

 

“So,” Xander said, “where to for lunch?”

But Buffy was distracted by the screech of rubber as a nearby vehicle whipped around the corner out of sight. She squinted down the street, faintly intrigued, but the vehicle was long gone.

Turning her attention back to Xander, she said, “I kinda want something fried and greasy.” Then inspiration struck. “Wait, no, I know exactly what I want: Krispy Kreme.”

Xander grinned as they started off down the street. “I don’t think that counts as lunch,” he pointed out. “Not that I’m complaining.”

“Nah, you’re right,” Buffy agreed. She was supposed to eat well so the baby would be healthy. But all she could think of now was doughnuts. And french fries. Anything delicious and greasy, loaded up with sugar or salt.

But if she couldn’t have any of that, curry would do.

“There’s that little hole-in-the-wall Indian place,” she suggested. “Does Anya like Indian?”

“I think so,” Xander said. “We’ve had it before; Willow and I got takeout there once.”

“Have you heard from Willow?”

“She called Thursday night to say she’s staying with her parents for now,” Xander answered. “I haven’t heard from her since.”

Buffy tugged at her sleeves. “Did she sound okay?” She was trying not to worry about how Willow was doing, or to second-guess her decision, but it was proving difficult. Giles seemed to think it was the right thing to do. And so did Spike, if his opinion counted for anything. Even Xander (after he’d gotten over his initial surprise) had ultimately agreed the decision made sense. And Buffy knew it did. She knew her reasons were reasonable. But she didn’t like that her core friend group was so fractured now.

“Buffy, she’ll deal,” Xander said solemnly, pausing on the sidewalk. “She has to.”

Buffy stopped beside him. His expression was grim.

“How did we get here, Xand?” Buffy asked quietly. 

“I don’t know,” Xander said, stuffing his hands in his pockets and looking down at his shoes. “I thought we’d weathered the worst of it, back when you two started school and I was paying basement rent. But we pulled through and we were still us. But now…” He looked up, his face taut and his eyes glistening. “Man, Buffy, I’m so sorry. We didn’t know. God, there was so much we didn’t know.” He shook his head angrily. “We were so stupid.”

“Okay, stop,” Buffy said emphatically. “Stop with the sorry-ing.”

“Sorry,” Xander muttered.

“Watch it,” Buffy warned. “Ugh, look. So you messed up. Hugely. And now we’re in this messed-up situation, and ‘sorry’ doesn’t help. ‘Sorry’ doesn’t make me forget.” She thought of Willow’s spell and added, “And ‘sorry’ wouldn’t change what happened, even if I did forget.” She bumped Xander’s foot with her own. “So stop.”

He surreptitiously wiped his sleeve across his eyes. “You’re right,” he said. “Sor—I mean, Indian food?” He made a noble attempt at a smile. “Or does the embryo have a new culinary request?”

“You know what’s hardest?” Buffy sighed. “Making decisions.”

“I take it we’re not talking about curry.”

Buffy shook her head. “Life stuff. I barely learned how anything worked because Mom always handled everything. Even right after she died, everything was sort of pre-ordered…awful but straightforward. And then died.” She hurried on, wanting to arrive at a conclusion (whatever it turned out to be). “And now I’m back and I’ve got to make decisions about...everything. It’s a lot.”

Xander was quiet for a moment, then said hesitantly, “Not everything has to be on your shoulders, Buffy. We made this mess; let us help you clean it up.” He looked over at her carefully. “Speaking of which… Have you decided about the job?”

“I...thought about it. A little.” She’d spent part of the morning at the shop helping with odds and ends. It hadn’t been too bad, though she wasn’t sure she wanted to go there every day. Plus: “I feel like I’d be mooching.”

“Ah, yes,” Xander said with a slight smile. “Mooching by being compensated for your labor.”

“I don’t want Giles to feel like he has to bail me out.” Buffy turned and started heading down the street again. “I don’t want anyone’s pity.”

Xander fell into step beside her. “I don’t think he sees it that way.”

Buffy didn’t reply.

“Have you talked to Spike?” Xander asked suddenly, an oddly cautious tone to his voice.

“What? Why?” Buffy asked, bemused by the change of topic.

Xander shrugged. “It’s just… The mess we made. Well, it’s his mess too, right?”

 

***

 

Turned out, there were a handful of crummy studios available for immediate rent in Sunnydale. They even managed to find one available to view on a Sunday. It was located a few blocks from UC Sunnydale, above a little tea shop, and owned by the tea shop’s proprietor. After filling out paperwork and handing over an envelope of Amy’s cash, Willow got back to the Rosenberg household just in time for Ira and Sheila’s return.

Willow explained that they were going to move into a place close to campus and her parents seemed satisfied, even offering to help with the move. Willow (growing increasingly eager to start her new life without any anti-magic housemates) declined. She unearthed a hand truck from the garage and trekked back across town, hand truck laden with as many boxes as she could stack upon it. The result? Now, at about eight p.m., Willow was exhausted. And she had work to do for class the next day.

She sank onto the futon that had come with the apartment (along with a rickety side table, and two spindly stools at the counter that divided the tiny kitchen from the main room) and sighed. Amy had left to go to Rack’s a while ago, and Willow had set to unpacking. She’d already hung her clothes in the tiny closet and put her small collection of mugs into the kitchen cabinet, and was rapidly coming to the realization that she was thoroughly unprepared to have her own apartment. Amy had nothing, and Willow only had enough to half-fill a dorm room.

Dispirited, she tossed a couple throw pillows and a fuzzy blanket onto the futon. She felt as though she’d been awake for days straight. And she kinda had. Her sleep hadn’t been great since Buffy had kicked her out, and the remaining residue of Rack’s thick, heavy magicks wasn’t helping.

Moving had felt so exciting for about two hours. Now it just felt like she was a lonely girl in an underfurnished apartment.

She reached for her box of knickknacks, hoping to find something to cheer up the place, and opened it to see the framed photo at the top. It was of her, Xander, and Buffy back in high school. Back before things had gotten so messed up. She sighed sadly and placed the photo on the side table, then went to scope out the kitchen. She’d seen a few pieces of cookware while looking for a good spot for her mugs and maybe there was...yes! A kettle. She inspected it, rinsed it out, and filled it up with water. Once it was heating on the stove, she returned to the main room to look for her little tin of tea bags. A cup of chamomile to dispel her worries sounded good right now.

Just as she unearthed the tin, there was a knock at the door. She went over to it apprehensively. Making sure the chain was bolted, she pulled the door open and peeked through the crack. An extremely pregnant woman stood in the dimly lit hall.

“Y-yes?”

“Are you Strawberry?” the pregnant woman asked. Her voice sounded faintly familiar, but Willow couldn’t place her.

“I guess?” Willow answered, her voice ticking upward. Rack was the only person to call her that. Had Rack sent this woman?

“Great,” the woman said brusquely. “I need your help. A...mutual friend sent me.” What might have been an attempt at a beguiling smile stretched her mouth but didn't reach her tired, dark-circled eyes.

Willow considered. Anyone sent by Rack probably wasn’t all rainbows and puppies. But the woman was very, very pregnant and she clearly wasn’t just desperately jonesing for something the way the people at Rack’s had been. Plus, Willow reasoned, it would be nice to help at least one pregnant lady. Wasn’t that the point of moving here? To be free to use magic to help people? So she unlatched the chain and opened the door.

“Come in.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: CAREFULLY

 

“Do you need water? Or, um, I’m making tea,” the Strawberry girl offered.

“Whichever,” Darla answered airily, crossing the threshold and heading to the ratty futon against the far wall. She felt the girl’s eyes on her for a moment, but then the kettle began screeching and the girl hurried away to take it off the heat.

Darla’s eyes combed over the apartment as she sat. It was plain; a lot shabbier than the room the lawyers had provided for her after wrenching her back into earthly existence, but not quite as shabby as the room she’d had to wait around in these past two nights. Her gaze lingered on a photograph in a tacky frame. Three adolescent kids clung to each other: a dark-haired boy, a blonde girl, and a redheaded girl. They seemed familiar.

The Strawberry girl came back into the room with a chipped coffee mug and a glass of water.

Darla scrutinized her face. “Oh god,” she said scathingly. “It’s you.”

“It is?” the girl responded, bewildered, as she held out the glass. Then her eyes flicked to the photo. “Oh, yeah. It is.” Her brow wrinkled. “Why ‘oh god’?”

“It’s nothing,” Darla said quickly, taking the water. If the girl didn’t recognize her, that would keep her from flagging the damn Slayer. Assuming the Slayer hadn’t croaked already.

“I didn’t make you pregnant too, did I?” the girl asked, still looking at Darla without a hint of recognition.

“I highly doubt it.”

The girl’s frown deepened. Darla took a sip of water. This person was actually supposed to help her?

“I’m Willow,” the girl said, sitting at the opposite end of the futon and fiddling with a tin of tea bags. “Strawberry is a nickname. Kind of.”

“Well, Willow,” Darla said, trying to inject a note of seductive kindness into her voice, which was difficult when she was this fed up with everything. “I need a spell. Something Rack couldn’t do but thinks you can.”

Willow’s affect brightened very slightly. “Really?”

“Really,” Darla confirmed. Then she demanded imperiously, “I want you to get this...this thing out of me. I’ve been trying for months and nothing works.”

“Oh. Um… I’m not sure I’m able to do that,” Willow said, sitting up straighter and glancing down Darla’s body apprehensively. “What did you say your name was?”

“D—” Darla started, then broke off and gave the nom de guerre the Los Angeles lawyers had manufactured for her: “DeEtta.” She took another sip of water and grimaced as she felt a tiny kick inside her body. It wasn’t the first, and she loathed the feeling every time. “Damn you, Angel,” she muttered through gritted teeth.

“Angel?” Willow repeated, looking taken aback. “How do you know—? I mean, Angel who?” She scrambled, still frowning, “I know an Angel.”

“Do you?” Darla said as nonchalantly as she could, raising an eyebrow and taking another sip of tepid tap water.

“Yeah, um… This is maybe gonna sound crazy, but crazy things tend to happen around here, so, uh… Is Angel human?”

“No, he isn’t.”

“What?” Willow set her tea carefully on the floor by the leg of the futon. “But he…? And you…?” She gestured to Darla’s belly.

“Yes, he. And I,” Darla answered bitterly.

“We’re talking about vampire-with-a-soul Angel here, right?”

Darla hummed in assent, “Mmm, yes.” It was entertaining, the consternation blooming on the girl’s face.

“And the baby happened in...y’know, the normal way?” Willow asked urgently, lowering her voice as though for propriety.

“Apparently, yes,” Darla replied sourly.

“But Angel loves Buffy.” The Slayer. She must still be around after all.

Darla shrugged. “Maybe, but he screwed me.”

“Did he turn all soulless and evil?”

“I wish,” Darla grumbled. “But no, he didn’t.” She set her glass on the floor and rested her hands on her stomach. “So, are you going to help me get rid of this thing or what?”

“Um…” Willow stood and looked around the room as though expecting guidance. “Let me go make a phone call.” She crossed to the door, grabbing a jacket from on top of a pile of boxes, then turned back to Darla. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Darla sighed, already anticipating the tedious probability that she’d have to kill Strawberry-Willow and move on.

 

***

 

Willow hurried to the nearest payphone, fumbling in her pocket for her wallet and pulling out a now-crumpled business card.

“Hello, Angel Investigations.” Oh, thank god, he’d answered the phone himself this time.

“Hey, Angel.” Willow wasn’t sure where to start. “There’s this blonde lady here, and she mentioned you. I don’t really understand but there’s something weird. I mean, there’s a bunch of things weird, but she seems kinda familiar. Like, I swear I’ve heard her voice before. Her name’s DeEtta and—”

“DeEtta?” Angel repeated urgently. “DeEtta Kramer?”

“I guess. Angel, what is it? Who is she?”

“Stay away from her,” Angel said as if he hadn’t heard her questions. “Tell her to leave...leave the country if she can.”

“What?”

“Willow, just tell her to leave, and then get away from her. Is she there with you now?”

“No, I’m calling from a payphone.”

“As soon as you hang up, call Buffy. Is that clear?”

“Uh, I guess…?”

“Good.”

Click.

Willow stared at the phone, perplexed. But she didn’t dial Buffy’s number. As far as she knew, she and Buffy weren’t on speaking terms at the moment. And what would she tell Buffy anyway? That there was someone named DeEtta Kramer in town? She was pretty sure Buffy didn’t know a DeEtta Kramer. And it wasn’t like Angel had bothered giving her any useful details.

Something weird was going on, and she was rapidly coming to the conclusion that it was up to her to figure it out.

Willow re-entered the apartment to find that DeEtta hadn’t moved.

“Well?” DeEtta asked.

“I talked to Angel,” Willow said, shedding her jacket and approaching warily. There didn’t really seem to be anything especially dangerous about her. She was just pregnant...and possibly slightly sick. “He said you should leave the country.”

DeEtta raised her eyebrows. “Leave the country?”

“So,” Willow asked, “you don’t know why he said that?”

“Who knows why men say anything,” DeEtta replied dismissively. “I can be wherever I want.”

“Yeah,” Willow said slowly, still scrutinizing the woman. Her powers of observation might be a little drowsy and distracted, but DeEtta just didn’t seem dangerous. Regardless, she proceeded cautiously. “And the spell? You just want to end the pregnancy, right? Nothing else?”

“Yes, end it. Do you think you can do that for me?”

“Maybe,” Willow said tentatively. It was possible that she could find a way to mystically induce a miscarriage. It had been in the back of her mind in that period of time before Buffy’s first prenatal appointment. (After all, if the embryo had turned out to be of the evil demon variety, it probably would have been up to her to terminate it.) It seemed pretty late in DeEtta’s pregnancy though. Which begged the question: “Why haven’t you been able to do it before now, exactly?” Surely she must’ve encountered someone more suited to doing this in her travels.

“I don’t know, because it’s an indestructible spawn of evil?” DeEtta suggested impatiently. Her eyes narrowed. “So can you do it or not?”

Willow had a lot of questions. She wanted to know more about how this had happened. But she didn’t think she’d be getting any answers tonight.

“Let’s say I can,” she replied carefully. “Why should I?”

“I can get money,” DeEtta offered immediately.

Willow drummed her fingers against her leg and looked around the sparse, grimy apartment. Money could be good.

 

***

 

“You’re up early.”

“So are you,” Dawn challenged, eyebrows raised as she poured cereal into a bowl.

Buffy crossed to the fridge and took out the last of the leftover curry. 

“I still think you’re weird, eating that for breakfast,” Dawn said, wrinkling her nose as Buffy placed the tupperware in the microwave.

Buffy sighed and leaned on the counter. “It’s the only thing that sounds good right now. Well, except for things we don’t actually have in the house.”

“Shouldn’t you eat something...else?”

“Like what,” Buffy shot back, “cereal made out of sugar?”

“We have, like, eggs and stuff,” Dawn grumbled. “Eggs that don’t make the whole house smell spicy. I could cook you something else sometime,” she proposed. “If you just...don’t feel like cooking. Or something.”

“You? Cook?”

“I can make eggs!” Dawn protested.

“So can I,” Buffy replied. “I tried making eggs the other day and the smell almost made me throw up. Happy?”

“Oh.”

“Why are you up this early anyway?” Buffy asked as Dawn consumed her cereal at a brisk pace. “It’s not even seven and you look like you’re already about to leave for school.”

“Yeah, I uh, thought I’d go early today,” Dawn said, not meeting Buffy’s eyes as she turned to set her empty bowl in the sink.

“You’re not by any chance going to see, oh, say...Spike, are you?” Buffy asked. She had a hunch.

Dawn grimaced. “Would that bother you?”

“No,” Buffy said lightly. “Just wondering.” She knew Dawn liked Spike, knew she felt safe with him. If only it were as easy for Buffy to go over and talk to Spike. “Can you, um…?” she started to ask, then trailed off when she couldn’t figure out how to complete the thought.

“Can I what?” Dawn asked, pausing at the end of the counter. Then she added hopefully, “You want me to tell Spike something for you?”

“No,” Buffy replied. “Never mind.”

“Oh. Um. Okay.” Dawn lingered awkwardly, fingers jammed in the front pockets of her jeans. “So...what are you doing today?”

“I thought I’d go to the Magic Box,” Buffy answered, turning to take her curry from the microwave. “Not that I’m definitely taking that job,” she clarified. “I just...wanna see if I like being over there all day...at least more than I like being here all day.” She exhaled. “And I might also…and I might call a therapist.”

She hadn’t talked the idea over with anyone. She’d stuffed the referral into her bedroom vanity, out of sight but certainly not out of mind. Could a regular therapist really help her escape the loneliness that came with a magic pregnancy? Help her navigate a lifetime of Slayerness? Advise her regarding strained interpersonal relationships with demons and lingering resentment toward friends who had damned her to the real world?

“A therapist?” Dawn repeated, surprised.

“Yeah, the doctor gave me a referral,” Buffy replied as casually as she could.

“Oh. Then...I guess you should call.”

“Should I?”

“You’ve got the number, don’t you?” Then she offered timidly, “Want me to stay while you call?”

“No, you go,” Buffy waved her away. “Go...wherever you said you’re going. I can handle a phone call.”

 

***

 

“Buffy’s thinking about calling a therapist.”

“Come again?”

Dawn was apparently making a habit of visiting in the early hours of the day. Spike had stayed up past sunrise, glad of the distraction of early morning news programming.

“A therapist. Buffy said she might call a therapist today.”

“Oh.” 

“That’s really all you can say? ‘Oh’?”

“Don’t figure it’s my place to say much of anything, to be frank,” he said irritably, standing and turning off the telly.

“Did you talk to her at all when you went over there the other day?” Dawn asked. “You two were both really quiet when I got home.”

“Told her to kick the witch out,” he answered. “That was about it.”

“That was your idea?” Dawn asked, eyebrows raised.

“Hardly,” he retorted. “Tara brought it up. But she’s a bit quiet, so I, er...amplified the idea.”

“I see.” Her tone turned eager. “She listens to you…”

Spike could sense her train of thought and tried to head it off at the pass. “You got to scamper off to school, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” she said reluctantly. “Do you think you could go over to the house again? Could you see if maybe she’ll talk to you?”

“She’s got no reason to talk to me, Dawn,” he said dully. “Better to keep out of it.”

“Why? She needs someone to talk to and, for some reason, you’re the person she keeps choosing to get confession-y with.”

Bird had a point.

“Please, Spike?” Dawn appealed. “If you care about her at all—”

The look he shot her shut her up sharpish.

“Okay, well,” she said levelly, trying to maintain composure but not meeting his angry glare. “I guess I’m going to walk over to the school now.”

“You do that.”

 

***

 

Willow woke to find Amy curled up in a nest of blankets on the other side of the futon. She shut off her alarm clock and started to get ready for the day. She and DeEtta had agreed to reconvene at the apartment Wednesday night. That gave Willow time to do a little research, not only on potentially useful spells, but also on DeEtta Kramer herself. 

“Morning,” Amy yawned.

“Uh, hey, Amy,” Willow responded, heading for the kitchen and caffeinated tea.

“Did that blonde lady find you?” Amy asked, sitting up. “She was at Rack’s and said she needed to talk to you, so I told her we’re staying here.”

“Swell, Amy,” Willow said as she filled the kettle. “Do you know her?”

“Mm, no. I thought you did.”

“Well, I didn’t,” Willow answered curtly. “I’m not sure giving out this address was a great idea.”

“Seriously? You saw her, right? That lady is, like, majorly pregnant. I don’t think she’s about to hurt you.”

“You’re probably right,” Willow relented, and grabbed a coffee mug from the cupboard.

 

***

 

It was stupid, he thought, going over to the house again on Dawn’s say-so. It was probably stupid to have brought the magazines and chocolates as well. He ought to trust his own thinking, just keep out of things until Buffy called on him.

On the other hand, niblet had an up-close look at how Buffy was doing day-to-day. And, even if this visit was a bit of a fool’s errand, her heart was in the right place.

Rather than risk a locked back door again, he bounded onto the porch. There was something dauntingly formal about it, but at least there was shade. As soon as he knocked, he heard Buffy’s rushed footsteps from the living room.

“Hey,” she said as she opened the door, almost as though she’d been expecting him. “Come in.”

He followed her inside and threw his blanket over the arm of the couch.

“You came here to talk?” she asked in a businesslike sort of tone, fussing with throw pillows and not looking at him as he sat down.

“I suppose,” he replied.

Finally she too sat down and grabbed her purse from under the coffee table. “Good.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I, um...I have something to show you, actually,” Buffy said, pulling out a slightly bent manila envelope. “I mean, not to show you, exactly, but that you can see. If you want. I haven’t shown it to anyone yet. I’ve just been carrying it around in my purse for almost a week.”

“What are you on about?” he asked, watching her carefully. Her movements and tone had taken on a nervous edge.

She opened the end of the envelope and drew out a black and white photo. He barely got a glimpse of it before she yanked it back and said, “I feel like this sort of thing usually involves some kind of staged event caught on tape with a bunch of happy-crying or something. But, um…” She held the picture out to him. “It’s my six-week sonogram.”

Spike took it gingerly and stared, gripping the very edges of the shiny paper lightly with his fingertips. There...wasn’t much to see. It was a very grainy image, all black and grey and white.

Buffy reached over and pointed to a darker area. “This is where my, uh, uterus is, and then the fuzzy white blob at the edge of the big black blob is...you know...the baby-blob. It’s early, so there’s not really anything to see. Obviously.”

He glanced at her, then back to the picture.

“Can you say something?” Buffy asked. “I...I know it’s kinda personal—really personal—but I thought maybe you’d want to see it.”

Exhaling jaggedly, he set the image on the coffee table and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “I do,” he said, looking not at her but at the blurry little sonogram picture. “We just...bloody hell, we’ve barely even talked about this.”

“I know,” Buffy admitted. “I don’t really know how to. I mean, we’re not a...couple. And I’m not really sure how involved I want you to be. Or how involved you want you to be.” Then she asked, her voice getting quieter and more uncertain, “How involved do you want to be?”

He fell back against the couch cushion and looked up at the ceiling, shaking his head. “I hadn’t really…” But he trailed off, realizing something. “Six weeks, you said?” That certainly didn’t add up.

“Yeah, um. They calculate the weeks based on the first day of your last period. I mean, my last period.” She tripped over her words a bit as she explained, “Only I was dead for the past four months, so they just added two weeks to the day I must’ve conceived, which matched their estimate based on the ultrasound.” She paused, sinking back into her side of the couch, a good two feet between them. “I can’t believe we’re talking about this.”

“Yeah,” he said gruffly.

“I’m not really totally sure I’m doing the right thing,” she confessed hesitantly.

He sat up straighter and looked at her. She pulled her feet up onto the couch and wrapped her arms around her knees.

“How’s that?” His eyes flicked involuntarily back to the sonogram picture, then back to her uncertain face.

“I...I remember what you said, when I first told you,” she said. “Do you...do you think I shouldn’t go through with this?”

God, there it was. His response was ingrained in her mind. Bastard, he was.

“No,” he answered immediately. Was that true? “Well, yes. But no.”

“Yes but no?”

“I think it’s a hell of a lot to cope with,” he said carefully. “Not that you can’t handle it. But you don’t have to.”

“Don’t I?”

“Buffy, I know how miserable you are.”

“And you think this’ll make me more miserable?”

He scratched his nails against the threads of his jeans. “Might.”

She was silent for a moment then asked, “Are you okay with talking about this?”

“Well, you’ve hardly been talking to anyone else about it, I’d wager.”

“No, except a little bit to Tara, a while ago.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “And that wasn’t a yes.”

“I just...can’t see why you want to go through with this.”

“Why, because it’s yours?”

He shrugged, shrinking away from her slightly.

“Because it’s mine too, Spike. And kind of more mine than yours at this point because I’m the one who has to make the decisions.”

“Alright.”

“And when I thought about it, I realized it was something I kinda wanted for myself. Maybe not exactly now, and maybe not like this, but—”

“So don’t do it now and don’t do it like this!” Why was she insisting on making things more difficult for herself? “Just…” He shook his head, still amazed this conversation was happening between them, and turned to her, practically pleading, “Just go for an abortion and then you can try this again, on purpose, with someone...someone you actually want to be with.” He swallowed thickly. “And when you’re not already dealing with so much.”

“When am I not dealing? I mean, I know the whole pulled-out-of-Heaven thing is new, but I think I’m kinda gonna be dealing with that for the rest of forever.”

He slumped, elbows back on his knees, and touched the corner of the sonogram photo. It was real then; she was keeping it. But he made one last attempt anyway and murmured, “I just reckon it’d be easier on you not to do all this right now.”

“I don’t think anything I choose is going to be easy,” she replied softly. “An abortion isn’t exactly a tiptoe through the tulips.”

“Right,” he said. “Hadn’t thought of it like that.”

“I just… My life has already changed. Hugely. And I get to pick how it changes next. And maybe my decision would be different if I’d made it a year ago. Or a year from now. Maybe I’ll even think differently tomorrow. But right now, what I’m doing feels okay. So I’m gonna do it. And I still have time to take it back, y’know? Other things...other things you can’t take back.”

He supposed that was true. He could think of nothing to say in response, so they sat in silence. Spike could hear the tiny heartbeat as if it were reverberating in his skull. And Buffy’s body smelled unlike it ever had before. The pregnancy was changing things and he could sense the extra blood pumping in her veins. His nostrils flared on his next inhale. He couldn’t help thinking she smelled absolutely delicious.

“Thanks for the magazines last week,” Buffy said out of the blue.

“Don’t mention it.” Without proper conversation to distract, the bloodlust was creeping up intolerably.

“I don’t think I want this to be a big thing,” Buffy said. “Us, I mean. Just because of what happened.”

“Right.” He looked over at her. God, her hair was so...grabbable. He curbed the absurd impulse.

“Like, I’m going to do this myself.”

“Alright.”

Silence fell. As an act of self-preservation, Spike stopped breathing. It wouldn’t do to lunge at Buffy’s neck, for myriad reasons, not least of which was that it would give him a bugger of a headache.

After what seemed an age, Buffy abruptly spoke again: “Do you think I need therapy?”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: A BIG HELP

 

Spike had laughed when she had asked his opinion on the therapy situation. But then they’d gone on to have a brief conversation about how she’d been feeling (Not great.) and how the house was without Willow or Giles in it (Lonely.), and Spike had told her she might as well call. And if the shrink’s rubbish, he’d said, don’t go back. It was...actually sounder advice than she’d expected.

So she’d called the number on her referral—Emma Behrmann, clinical social worker—that very afternoon. As it turned out, Emma was about to take an extended Thanksgiving holiday to Aruba and didn’t have a regular appointment until December. But she did have a last minute cancellation and could squeeze Buffy in for a session that Wednesday. Buffy had figured, if she was gonna do this, she might as well get the ball rolling.

Which meant she was now sitting on a floral couch, clutching a mug of tea while Emma Behrmann looked over her intake form.

“Okay,” Emma said. “So, now that’s taken care of: What brings you here today?”

“Um.”

“What’s been going on for you lately?” she prodded.

Buffy hadn’t realized talk therapy was going to feel like an interrogation.

“Well, my mom died,” Buffy answered hesitantly. “Around nine months ago, actually. But, um, more recently I...had a near death experience.” She watched Emma make a note. “I died,” she continued carefully, molding her story as she went. “And—just for a second—everything seemed so soft and warm and safe. And then I was back, and everything was just so...so hard.” She didn’t want to be a weepy psych patient so blinked back her tears.

Emma hummed in an active-listening sort of way and asked, “Is there more you want to say about that?”

“No,” Buffy answered quickly.

It was going to be a long hour.

 

***

 

“What do you think she’s doing in there?” Andrew asked, lowering his binoculars.

“Buying insurance?” Jonathan suggested, squinting at a nearby sign.

They were parked next to a small office building. The sign outside listed the businesses contained within: an insurance broker, an acupuncturist, a wedding planner, a tax consultant, and a psychotherapist. The psychotherapist wasn’t actually listed on the sign; her nameplate had fallen off about a week ago. She’d mentioned it in Jonathan’s last therapy session. (And it was his last-last; his parents had switched to a new health insurance plan and decided they couldn’t afford his therapy costs anymore.)

Was it possible Buffy had been so upset by the Trio’s tests she’d decided to seek professional help? The idea didn’t make Jonathan feel very good, so he brushed it aside. Or tried to, anyway. But he remembered her stopping him from killing himself in the school clocktower their senior year. He remembered presenting her with the glittery parasol at prom. And he remembered seeing her mom’s obituary in the paper last year.

But what did any of that matter? He shook his head slightly as Andrew handed over the binoculars. She was the Slayer. Surely she could handle anything they threw at her.

 

***

 

Willow’s preliminary computer research hadn’t turned up much. DeEtta Kramer had had a husband named Stephen, who had died last year. But the obituary didn’t list the cause of death or include a photo. Neither DeEtta nor Stephen were notable enough to have any information in news archives. Nothing was becoming any clearer.

DeEtta hadn’t seemed especially ready to spill the nitty-gritty details of how she’d landed in her current predicament. And she was strangely adept at dodging interrogation, which left Willow with nothing but questions and pure conjecture. Perhaps some resurrection plot had transpired in L.A. and DeEtta’s situation was like Buffy’s. In which case, learning about DeEtta might actually shed some light on the future of Buffy’s pregnancy. Not that she’d be able to share any information; she hadn’t spoken to Buffy or any of the others in days.

Regardless, the obvious conclusion was: Willow needed answers and a truth spell might be in order. Which was, technically, easy enough to do. She knew the incantation was in one of her books and Anya probably had all the ingredients stocked. It was as good as done.

But would it be enough? DeEtta might not have all the information needed to see the full picture. Maybe, Willow pondered, she could find a way to assess the pregnancy using magic. That seemed way out of her league...but the resurrection spell had seemed out of her league too, and she’d pulled it off. Was Amy right? If Willow could resurrect Buffy, could she really do anything?

But even if it were possible, she couldn’t do anything without more resources. Her own collection of witchcraft texts didn’t include any pregnancy-related magicks; she needed to get her hands on some of Giles’s books. Which were all at the shop. Although she didn’t feel quite ready to show her face there, between the books and the truth spell ingredients, she needed to make the trip. So, once she was done using the campus library’s internet, she headed to the Magic Box.

The bell jingled as she pushed open the front door of the shop. Willow felt as though she had stage fright, her eyes darting around to confirm Anya and Giles were the only ones there. No Buffy or Xander or anyone else.

“Hi,” she said uncomfortably, trying for a bright smile but feeling it slip almost immediately. “I have to get some things.”

Anya glanced to Giles, who was watching Willow guardedly as she stepped into the shop.

He cleared his throat. “Some things of what sort?”

“Uh, I have a list here,” Willow said, brandishing the ripped-out notebook page on which she’d scribbled the ingredients. “It’s for a truth spell?”

Giles frowned, taking the list as she proffered it. “A truth spell for whom?”

“A...friend?” Willow answered uncertainly.

Giles and Anya exchanged a look.

“It’s not Buffy,” Willow assured them. “It’s for someone else.” To move the topic away from Buffy, she added, “I de-ratted Amy.”

Giles looked at her blankly as he handed back the list.

“Amy!” Willow repeated. “She was a rat. For years. And now she’s a person again.”

Giles’s eyes widened. “That’s very impressive, Willow.” Then his frown returned. “And the truth spell is for her, you say?” There was a hint of cold suspicion in his eyes.

“No, it’s for someone else. Someone we both know from...somewhere.” This was why she hadn’t wanted to come here. “I was also wondering if I could look at some of the books.”

“You’re free, as always,” Giles said, “to look at any of the items we have in stock.”

“I, um, meant the other books. The ones up in the loft.” Why did this feel like such a big deal? She used those books all the time! It was Dawn who wasn’t allowed up there, not her.

“What, ah, what exactly are you looking for, Willow?” Giles asked.

“I don’t really know, exactly,” Willow admitted. She stared down at her list and considered telling Giles what was going on. But no. He wouldn’t care to hear about her working potentially big magicks for someone. She was a rank, arrogant amateur in his eyes, wasn’t she? But she needed something more than the truth spell…

Ducking away from Giles, she paced along the wall of jars, trying to pretend she couldn’t feel Anya’s eyes on her. Maybe she didn’t need something pregnancy-specific. Maybe she just needed something that could detect what kind of magicks were at work (since magicks had to be at work for a vampiric impregnation to have occurred).

Oh. Oh! There was that Tirer la couverture ritual trance. Maybe she could use it to get some kind of idea of what magicks had been employed to cause the pregnancy, and then she could use that as a starting point for more research. If only she could remember the requisite supplies…

“Hey, Anya,” she tried, keeping her voice low. “Do you know, off the top of your head, what’s needed for that pull-back-the-curtain spell?”

“Why?” Anya asked, disgruntled, glancing over at Giles. But Giles, it seemed, had decided his supervisory role began and ended with barring Willow from the loft, and had turned his attention to a newly arrived customer.

“Because I want to use it to help someone,” Willow replied, exhausted by the endless need for justification. “A non-Buffy someone. Okay?”

 

***

 

“So, how was it?”

“How was what?”

“Uh, you went today, didn’t you?”

Buffy and Dawn were eating dinner (which was not curry and Dawn better be happy about it) in front of the TV.

“Right,” Buffy said, setting down her bowl of butternut squash soup (which, okay, had curry powder in it). “Should’ve known I’d have to talk about talking about what I talked about in therapy.”

“You don’t,” Dawn said awkwardly. “I was just wondering...do you think it’ll help?”

“Maybe.” Buffy shrugged. “It’s hard to figure out how to talk about the things I wanna be able to talk about though. The things I could use help with, I mean.”

“Yeah?” Dawn prodded encouragingly. She paused, clearly wanting more and not getting it. Eventually, she noted, “Soup’s good. It’s from one of those magazines?”

Cook’s Illustrated,” Buffy answered, picking her bowl up again. The curry part of the recipe had caught her eye. (The strata recipes had caught her eye too, on account of their easy casserole-ness and breakfasty goodness, but she didn’t want to think about all those eggs.) She’d augmented the meal with a bucket of fried stuff from Chicken Hut. So, overall not the healthiest meal possible...but it was healthier than just Chicken Hut, and there was something satisfying about having made at least the soup herself.

“Buffy?”

She’d spaced out evidently. “Yeah?” she said, facing Dawn and hoping it was only Dawn’s first attempt to get her attention.

“I was...just wondering...if you’ve talked to Spike,” Dawn said guardedly. “I mean, you did talk to him on Monday, didn’t you?”

Dawn had clearly passed along Buffy’s unspoken summons and was responsible for Spike’s visit. Which was a good thing. He didn’t exactly have a number she could call if she ever wanted to talk.

“I did,” Buffy said, reaching for a chicken leg. “I...showed him my sonogram.” Dawn liked Spike. She’d like this news.

What?” Dawn slapped her arm and Buffy nearly dropped her chicken.

Startled, Buffy turned to look at her, eyebrows raised.

“Buffy!” Dawn exclaimed, eyes wide and her tone both excited and slightly accusatory. “I didn’t know you got one of those!”

Buffy shrugged. “I haven’t really felt like talking to anyone about this stuff.”

Dawn gripped her arm and gave it a gentle shake. “I wanna see it!”

Her eagerness made Buffy laugh. “Okay, fine,” she acquiesced. “I’ll go get it.” And she went to fetch her purse. 

 

***

 

Willow decided to start with the Tirer la couverture. Anything it revealed could be used to shape the questions she’d ask DeEtta under a truth spell.

When DeEtta arrived, Willow briefly explained the spell and DeEtta sat herself on the futon. Willow poured the sand in a circle on the floor, lit the incense, read the incantation, and sat cross-legged at the center of the circle. She shut her eyes and did her best to push all thoughts from her mind. It took a while. She was thinking about how Buffy was doing; about whether Anya and Giles had mentioned her appearance at the shop to any of the others; about whether they were making any weird assumptions. She thought, too, of Amy (who had departed for Rack’s some time ago) and felt an increasing nervousness about Amy’s apparent love of the dirty and dark. But eventually, her mind went clear.

When she finally opened her eyes, the room had taken on a trippy, darkened appearance. She blinked slowly and looked toward a clearly bored DeEtta.

Willow focused her attention on DeEtta’s belly. There was a faint shimmer there but no specific indicator of magickal interference.

“It wasn’t a spell,” Willow concluded, her voice sounding echoey and strange to her own ears.

As her gaze drifted over the rest of DeEtta’s body, she saw something strange overlaying DeEtta’s image in her vision. A skeletal figure, a shower of dust, then the skeleton again. And then nothing. She stepped closer to DeEtta, extending a hand unthinkingly as the flickering overlay repeated itself. She felt a radiating coldness.

“Weird,” she said slowly.

But as she tried to piece it together, the effects of the trance began to fade. The room became brighter, the edges of things harder, and she was standing in front of DeEtta with her hand reaching awkwardly forward. She lowered it.

“The...the pregnancy isn’t because of a spell,” Willow said, frowning. “I don’t really know what to do next.” She’d just have to move on to the truth spell, interrogate the heck out of DeEtta, and see what happened.

“I thought it might turn out like that,” DeEtta confessed.

“You did?”

DeEtta rose to her feet surprisingly quickly. For a moment, Willow thought she was about to storm out of the apartment, but she turned back to face Willow after taking only a couple steps toward the door. “The people of Sunnydale are just...so helpful,” she spat.

“I’m sorry,” Willow apologized uncomfortably.

“Don’t be,” DeEtta said, a dark grin curling her mouth. “At least you got me dinner.”

“Dinner?”

DeEtta’s face shifted, ridges appearing on her forehead and sharp teeth descending from behind her sneering lips.

Willow cast about for something to use as a stake. The sad little side table, maybe, if her rush of adrenaline and fear enabled her to instantly karate chop it into pieces. But she’d barely glanced toward it when DeEtta stepped forward and grabbed her by the shoulders.

“Thanks, Strawberry girl,” she spoke into her ear. “You’ve been a big help.”

 

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: NORMAL THINGS

 

She hadn’t expected Strawberry-Willow to shove her so forcefully. Caught off guard, she staggered and fell to the floor.

The girl’s eyes widened in alarm. “Sorry!” she said, starting to extend a hand to help Darla up. Then she shook her head and stepped back hastily. “Wait, not sorry. You’re...you’re a vampire! The whole pregnant-lady thing is throwing me off, but you’re a vampire!”

Darla sat up and glared. “Throwing you off?” She braced her hands against the floor and heaved herself upright. “Anyway, you can barely hurt me, and you definitely can’t hurt it.” Having returned to her feet, she straightened her clothes and brushed her hair out of her face. “Kind of the whole point of me coming here, Strawberry. Nothing I try works.”

The girl had sidestepped toward the table, as if she were considering busting its spindly legs for use as weapons.

Darla sighed, feeling her demonic face slip away. “You know I can just grab you again,” she pointed out.

Willow’s eyes darted to the table and back.

“But, before I do that,” Darla said, as patiently as she could, “is that it? Is that the most powerful magic you have for me? Because, if so, I’ll have to go tell Rack what I think of his false advertising.”

“No! Um…” Oh, watching victims flounder never got old. “I just...I don’t exactly understand what happened, and I’m even less with the understanding now, with you being a vampire and not a person.”

“I had sex with Angel, and now I’m stuck with this,” Darla shot back, gesturing to her belly. “There’s nothing else to explain.”

“No…” Willow said, frowning. Her fear and alarm were fading into curiosity and puzzlement. Maybe there was hope for her yet. “So you don’t know anything about why this happened?” she queried. She looked at Darla apprehensively as she added, “I thought maybe something resurrection-y was involved, but I guess not.”

“Well, I was resurrected,” she supplied dispassionately.

The girl blinked rapidly, her head twitching like a bird’s. “But who—?”

“Would resurrect a vampire?” Darla finished. “Lawyers.”

“Lawyers?”

“Lawyers,” Darla repeated irritably. “Brought me back a pathetic human, then had me remade and all this happened.”

“Huh.” She seemed to be trying to solve something, but distractedly, on account of the fear that was now creeping back across her expression.

They stood there, Strawberry-Willow almost visibly calculating her chances of escape, while Darla watched her fear-blanched face with an eyebrow raised in challenge.

Finally, Willow spoke again. “And your not-biting me is contingent on my helping you?”

Darla nodded and shrugged casually.

“Well, what if I can’t help you exactly now, but might be able to later? Like you give me a day to do more research and maybe I can—”

“Oh, please. Like you’re not going to just disinvite me as soon as I leave,” she snapped. “If you think you can find a way, then I’ll give you one more chance. But I’m staying.”

 

***

 

“You didn’t tell me she showed this to you!”

Spike groaned. Normally he wouldn’t have especially minded the li’l bit fronting up mid-afternoon, but he’d finally just been on the brink of deep sleep.

“Showed me what?” he grumbled, turning over in bed and making sure he was well covered before sitting up.

“This!” She waved a picture in front of his face. It was the sonogram photo. But it didn’t seem to be quite the same one he’d seen on Monday. (He’d stared at it long enough to have it memorized.) The paper was different, and it was slightly crooked. 

“It’s for you,” she insisted, proffering it for him to take. “I begged Buffy to let me make copies, and then I begged my art teacher to let me use the scanner. So we each have a copy.”

“Oh. Er…” He took it from her, trying to prepare his drowsy brain for whatever delighted teenage yammering came spilling out next. She was a good kid, but he didn’t feel fit to talk about any of this with her. Especially when so much about it was so undecided. His role wasn’t clear yet; all his visit on Monday had done was make the pregnancy itself more real.

The awe hit less violently each time he thought about it. When Buffy’d first told him, the alarming notion had completely floored him. When he’d actually heard the heartbeat for the first time, another punch of awe had hit; bewildering, but not so horrifying. And seeing the picture had made the reality of it wash over him anew, but in a gentler way. It was happening. It was real. It was...theirs. A life in the making, made from them.

“Are you happy for her?” Dawn asked curiously. She’d sat down on the edge of the bed, without any of her standard utterances of disgust at his sheet-shrouded nakedness. And yet he felt barer in front of her than he ever had, holding her sister’s sonogram photo and pondering his part in it.

“I’m happy if she is,” he murmured, hoping it was enough.

“She seems to be doing better now,” Dawn said in a hopeful tone. “She seems happier than she did when she first got back. Don’t you think?”

But he wasn’t sure that was quite it. It wasn’t that she was happier, exactly. But she was more...lively (and he shook his head wryly at the thought). She no longer flattened herself into a mask of poorly-concealed pain. She actually spoke what was on her mind, instead of shutting herself away in the dark and the quiet. Which was good, even if less time in the dark and quiet meant less time with him.

“You should come over,” Dawn suggested.

“You don’t see enough of me, coming over here every other day?”

“Not for me. For Buffy,” Dawn said impatiently. “I can just come here whenever I want to see you. Buffy…”

“She can come here too, pet,” Spike pointed out wearily, “if she ever wants to see me.”

“I think she does want to see you. She seems to do a little bit better after she talks to you.” She shrugged and rolled her eyes. “And I know you’re totally into her. So come over later.”

He looked at her face, slightly pink from her hurry here from the school. There was something sweet and young about her. Her face wasn’t that of a teenager who was caught in the messy aftermath of loss. It wasn’t the face of a girl who was distractedly worried about her newly-resurrected sister. It was the face of a girl who was excited and hopeful. Maybe Buffy really was doing better lately.

“Be a peach and let me sleep for a few hours, yeah? Then I’ll see about coming around.”

“Okay.” She smiled, seeming satisfied, and gave him a little nod before rushing up the ladder just as quickly as she’d come in.

He fell back onto the mattress, photo in hand. Resolving to find a better place for it upon waking, he tucked it under the pillow for now and went back to sleep.

 

***

 

Amy wasn’t especially cogent when freshly returned from Rack’s. Willow had tried to explain about DeEtta, who had watched the two of them through narrowed eyes, but Amy had been so out of it she’d only “hmm”-ed in response to the revelation that there was an on-the-brink-of-murderous vampire in their apartment.

But, even if Amy was too out of it to do more than laugh eerily and snack endlessly, she was juiced up with magicks. Between her and Willow they had magicked a cot for DeEtta and arranged it beyond the counter that divided the main room from the kitchen. It was the least-sunny spot that an adult size vampire could fit in horizontally. The blinds on the two smallish windows of the main room were battered enough that plenty of sunlight snuck in around them, but the kitchen lacked a window.

Willow didn’t trust DeEtta exactly, but she trusted DeEtta’s distress about her situation. And attacking Willow or Amy wouldn’t solve her pregnancy problem, so Willow figured they were safe...for the moment at least. Still, Willow hurried back to the apartment from her after-library trip to the butcher shop with time to spare before sunset, her heart and mind heavy with the task she'd been charged with. The spell last night hadn’t given her anything new to work with. The weird skeleton dusty thing must’ve been a representation of the resurrection spell. If only she knew the specifics of the resurrection...or perhaps it didn’t matter; DeEtta had had sex with Angel after her resurrection, after all. The resurrection didn’t seem to be directly connected to the pregnancy the way Buffy’s was.

Amy was sprawled on the futon, eating from a sleeve of saltines. DeEtta was standing in the kitchen, far out of reach of any of the light that entered the apartment. She looked bored and grouchy. Not the best sign.

“Hey,” Willow said uncomfortably. “Everything good here today?”

DeEtta scowled as Willow set the beef blood on the counter. Amy shrugged.

“Great.” Willow set her school things down next to the futon and fished out the thin packet of pages she’d printed at the library that afternoon. “I found some mentions of vampires getting pregnant, but mostly in obscure message board posts with pretty much no background information. I can’t even tell if they’re purely hypothetical or not.” She’d only printed it all because she hadn’t wanted to return to the apartment empty-handed. “I think this is going to be a book thing. So I guess I can try to get past Giles again.”

“I bet Rack knows spells that could help,” Amy suggested. “And you could skip all the boring book stuff.”

“Thanks, Amy,” Willow replied, trying to keep her voice even. “But I don’t think this is really his area of expertise.”

“He has connections all over town, though. All over the world, probably.” The casual awe in her voice made Willow’s skin crawl. 

“Yeah. Maybe,” she humored Amy.

Amy rummaged through Willow’s things, seeking entertainment, and remarked that all Willow’s books were dull. DeEtta stalked out of the kitchen, and Willow eyed her nervously, not sure of the best way to interact.

“We, uh...we don’t really have any new information yet, like I said,” she told DeEtta nervously. “But I’m thinking that if it’s been resistant to whatever you and the people you’ve been to have tried, then it must be intrinsically warded. Which means we can’t...destroy it. But maybe we can get it out.”

“Planning on getting around to it anytime soon?” DeEtta asked, her displeasure evident. She was circling around Willow’s box of magic supplies.

“I...yes, but it’s not something I can just do—”

“Whatever.”

DeEtta browsed the contents of the box and pulled out a book. She flipped through it and paused on a page, glancing down into the box again.

“This the spell you use to rescind a vampire’s invitation?” she asked.

“Yes?” Willow answered automatically, regretting it instantly.

DeEtta ripped the page out of the book swiftly and crumpled it up before stuffing it in her pocket. “Hm, looks like you don’t have everything you need anyway,” she observed, poking through the miscellaneous supplies. She looked up at them with a cruel smile. “Oh, but don’t bother going out for more on my account. I’ll be back soon.” And she strode out the door as Willow looked on feeling helpless.

 

***

 

Perhaps she should have just settled for a few sips from the redhead or the magic junkie. But she was in the mood to drain someone, not sip daintily or chug cow swill. The local college was nearby; she’d grab the first person she saw, take a good long drink, and hurry back to the horrid little apartment before the witchy girls had a chance to put up any guards. Maybe it was idiotic to return, but she suspected Strawberry-Willow could get her closer to a solution if she was put under enough pressure.

A couple blocks from the apartment, she veered from the sidewalk and started through the trees to one of the more secluded campus paths. She’d wandered this area years ago. It was an easy place to blend in. College students came in all sorts and often walked alone at night.

She paused at the sound of rustling and low voices nearby. Proceeding carefully, she pushed aside a branch and peered through the leaves.

Four red-robed figures were conversing in the opening in the trees. Their voices were low and urgent, sounding human, which was odd because their glistening grey faces didn’t appear to have the right kind of mouth. Before she could hone in on what they were saying, they fell silent. One of them had noticed her. It gestured at her, and the other three rushed toward her. The one in the lead grabbed at her. She swiped at its mouthless grey face with her fingernails, leaving gouges, and slammed her elbow into the chest of the next one that approached. It staggered into the others, and they clambered to right themselves. Irate, she hurried back through the trees before the stupid things had a chance to catch up.

 

***

 

There was a knock at the door around 6:30.

“Hey,” she greeted. “Dawn said you might drop by; I was wondering if you’d show.”

“Yeah, well, works out better once the sun’s down.” Spike waggled his fingers at her to indicate the smooth, unblistered skin. As he slipped off his coat he added, “I didn’t do a pass through most of the regular places, just kept an eye along the way. Didn’t see any uglies out and about.”

“That’s...good.”

“I can make proper rounds later,” he offered. “If no one else is planning to.”

“Willow’s been kinda MIA. I think Xander and Anya and Giles do a cruise through town after closing the shop most nights, but they don’t all do a full-on patrol every night. Almost like it’s too much work or something,” she remarked wryly.

He followed her to the living room, where a couple of the magazines he’d brought the week before were strewn across the coffee table, well-read and rumpled. Buffy felt her stomach do a nervous flop at the idea that Spike would realize she’d been actually reading them all cover to cover. She turned away from the sight of them and kept walking.

“Dawn’s upstairs,” she told him over her shoulder as she strode into the kitchen, “doing homework and blasting pop music into her headphones. We ate dinner already, but do you want a…?” Big ol’ cup of blood I don’t have? 

Fortunately, she reminded herself, he also liked food-food. She rummaged through the fridge for guest-worthy snacking. But all her snacking lately had been things like hunks of cheese and handfuls of nuts, which seemed distinctly unglamorous for company, even Spike. She instead took two bottles from the refrigerator door. “Xander told me to try this Jamaican ginger beer because it’s more gingery than ginger ale, and ginger is supposed to help with morning sickness.” She returned to the living room and held out a bottle to him. “Wanna try it?”

He took it from her, seeming faintly entertained, and sat down on the couch.

Buffy sat at the opposite end, leaving plenty of space between them.

“So, er…” Spike started, drumming his fingertips against the side of the bottle. “You alright?” The question felt tentatively upbeat.

“Yeah,” she said after some consideration. “Things aren’t too bad right now I guess, but I’m sick of people telling me what to do.”

“Who’s telling you what to do?” Spike inquired with a slight frown.

“Everyone...everyone wants me to take this fake job Giles is trying to give me. But I don’t want a fake job. I want a real job.” She sighed. “In theory, anyway. I guess I don’t even know what real job I could do right now.”

“You ever worked before?” Spike asked conversationally, leaning back against the couch comfortably as he inspected the label on his bottle and twisted off the cap.

“I waited tables for a couple months one summer,” she answered. “In L.A. at this awful diner. I got paid under the table. The owner was pretty repulsive, but he wasn’t too much of a pain.”

“This was in ‘98?”

Buffy paused with her own fingers frozen on the cap of her own drink. Dawn must’ve babbled every bit of Summers family history to Spike in the months when she was gone. And he’d catalogued the details away.

“Yeah,” she confirmed, finally twisting the cap off. “When I ran away. I guess you know about that.”

He nodded once and took a swig. She followed suit.

Her eyes started watering immediately. “Very gingery,” she remarked, trying not to splutter.

“Bit fruity and soft, if you ask me,” Spike said dismissively. She glared. He grinned. “Can’t even handle non-alcoholic beverages, Slayer?”

“Oh, be quiet,” she grumbled, taking a large sip just to spite him and nearly choking on it as it burned her nose and throat.

Still smiling, he went on, “So you want a waitressing job, is that it?”

Buffy grimaced, setting her ginger beer on the coffee table and pulling her feet up, angling herself to face him with her back against the arm of the couch. “No. I don’t know. I want to do something useful.”

“Thought killing foul beasties was useful. Change your mind after all this time?”

“I mean something useful in a normal way. Something I could put on a résumé when trying to get future jobs doing other useful, normal things.”

Spike tilted his head as he surveyed her, then shifted so he was leaning against the arm at his end. “Tell me more about these useful, normal things,” he said as he used one hand to loosen his boots from his feet.

“Like, some kind of office job, like professional adults have.”

Spike snorted as he put his feet up on the couch too. “Yeah. Very useful, that.” He extended one leg along the back cushions, the other bent as he held his bottle of ginger beer in his lap. “You really want to spend forty hours a week in a stuffy cubicle being an automaton for a corporation?”

“Spike, obviously that’s not why I’d want a job like that. It’d be the...stability.”

“Stability.”

“With the benefits and the promotions and the paid vacation time.”

“And Giles is, what?” he asked dubiously. “Trying to enslave you?”

“No, he’s not,” Buffy admitted, a little annoyed that Spike was spoiling her vague fantasy of Real Work. “But he shouldn’t have to be the one who pays my bills for me. And taking the job would just be an excuse to let him do that: Take care of everything because I can’t be an adult by myself.”

“So you want to be by yourself?”

“Spike, I had therapy yesterday, with an actual therapist,” she said, disgruntled. “I don’t need the third degree from you too.” But getting subjected to the questions wasn’t what was bothering her. It was the way the questions shot holes in the seemingly reasonable checklist she’d made in her head. Getting a normal-person job was high on that list.

Spike waved a hand. “Forget it then. I just reckon the bloke’s been trying to look after you for years, and it seems like a right foolish time to tell him to stop.”

Buffy huffed and looked down at her hands before looking back over at Spike. His expression had turned unsettled and thoughtful.

“You can’t see me wearing a pantsuit and leading meetings all day?” she asked. She was kind of kidding, because she couldn’t imagine it either. But it sounded very mundane and profitable.

Spike snorted. “That’s not who you are, and you know it.”

“Yeah,” she sighed. “Yeah, you’re right.”

Something Willow had said to her once came swimming into her mind: You can’t walk around pretending you’re less than you are.

But it wasn’t that pantsuit-Buffy or waitress-Buffy was less than slayer-Buffy. Slayer-Buffy was just the one that had fit best for the past six years.

The phone rang. Buffy grabbed the cordless from the coffee table, half-expecting it to be some cosmically-arranged call from Willow.

But it was Xander. “Hey, Buff. Heard from Willow tonight?”

“No. Why, did something happen?”

“If by ‘something’ you mean ‘Willow’s friend running into a non-barbershop quartet of demons’, then it sure did. Will called the shop and had us try to ID ’em. Lilliad demons, we think.” He paused for an aggravated sigh. “Demon mugshots kinda hard to confirm over the phone, but she said she couldn’t come over for the research herself. Do you think she’s avoiding us?”

“Lilliad demons?” Buffy repeated, ignoring the closing question. Willow’s motivations weren’t important right now if there were four demons running around town in an organized group. “I have no idea what those are. Where did her friend see them?”

“Outskirts of UC Sunnydale campus,” Xander answered. “They’re wearing red robes, and they’re kinda people-shaped but have greyish skin and, y’know, demony facial features.”

“Like horns and big teeth?”

“Not so much. More...ghoulish I guess. No teeth, from what I can see. They don’t really go for combat, but they can use magic.”

“What kind?” Buffy asked, considering the best form of offense.

“It’s connected to the lunar cycle,” Xander answered, sounding like he was reading from a book. “Anya thinks that means it’s more powerful at a full moon.”

“Guess I lucked out,” Buffy said. “New moon tonight. Anything else I should know?”

“Well, they like making broth from children’s bones. That’s pretty much the highlight of their monster book profile, other than the moon magic thing.”

“Gross. Well, Spike and I’ll go take ‘em out before they get their greyish ghoulish hands on any kids.”

“Be careful,” Xander said cheerily.

“Thanks.” She set the phone down and turned to Spike. “That was Xander. There are four—”

“Yeah, I heard,” he said, setting his bottle down and pulling on his boots. “Lilliad demons. Don’t get many of those around here.” Then he froze, foot halfway into his boot.

Buffy raised her eyebrows. “What?”

“You should stay here,” he told her, jamming his foot the rest of the way into his boot and standing.

“What? No!” Buffy dismissed, getting up and going over to the stairs to retrieve her own shoes. “Dawn!” she called up the stairs as she zipped her boots. “We have to go out and kill something. We’ll be back soon!”

“Okay!” Dawn shouted back.

Buffy checked the back doors of the house to make sure they were locked before circling back into the living room and opening the weapons chest. She grabbed an axe, a dagger, and a couple of stakes for good measure. Spike was shrugging his coat on by the front door.

“You should stay here,” he repeated decisively. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Four of them?” Buffy challenged. “It’ll be so much easier with two of us, it’ll probably take, like, two minutes.” Then she realized his reasoning. “Oh, come on. Children’s bones. You see a child around here?”

He looked at her midriff pointedly.

“Spike. It barely has the beginnings of bones yet. If they try to disembowel it out of me, they’re really not getting much bang for their buck.” She handed him the dagger and a stake. “Anyway, they don’t sound super fighty, and their magic is supposed to be weak right now. Let’s go.”

He gave her a pained sort of look but relented, and the pair of them headed out the door.