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where my heart was made (my feet will always land)

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"Are you sure you're ready for this?" Spike murmurs, his lips brushing her temple. "We can wait."

Buffy's breath is coming a little short; her fingers are trembling with anticipation. She nuzzles sweetly against his cheek and promises, "I'm ready," and—

Tightens the ropes binding him to the chair.

She stands up to admire her handiwork, resting one hand on her hip. "Think they'll hold?"

Spike tugs against his bonds. "How much does your mum like this chair?"

"... Demon attack?" Buffy suggests preemptively.

"Better than a rock band-related incident," Spike says with a smirk. He jerks his chin towards the door. "Go on, pet—get in character."

Buffy's stomach flutters nervously. She flits out of her bedroom and, closing the door behind her, closes her eyes in the hallway for a few minutes. Her weight shifts from foot to foot as she breathes in, channeling pissed-off college freshman Buffy.

Then she throws the bedroom door back open and stomps into the room, locking it behind her with a decisive click, and snaps at her captive, "Enough games, Spike. You're gonna give me what I want."

Spike is smirking at her, his legs spread casually like he's hanging out in her childhood bedroom by choice. "Am I, now? What'll you do to me if I don't?"

Buffy braces both her hands on the back of his chair, leaning in close enough to feel the hairs on the back of her neck stand up in warning. Her eyes are sharp; she smiles threateningly and says, "Trust me, you don't wanna know."

Spike tilts his face to the side, his eyes dropping low to her mouth. "Don't know anything more about those commando boys."

Jelly-like heat drips down from the pit of Buffy's belly; the chair creaks under her hands.

"Don't worry," she says, leaning in so their lips just barely brush—his shocked breath is cool against her mouth when she straddles his lap. "I don't want information."

He's already hard, the bulge in his jeans rubbing against her clit when she shifts her hips a little. Totally at her mercy and already begging for it. She licks her lips.

"And if I'm a good boy?" Spike murmurs.

"Then I'll give you what you really want," Buffy offers, leaning over to bite the shell of his ear.

Spike tongues at one of her earrings. "And what's that, Slayer—my freedom?"

"No." Buffy's fingers slip into his hair. She tugs a little, rubbing herself off against his crotch, and guides his mouth to her neck. "Something better."

His face shifts; the alarm bells get all mixy with the pleasure shooting up her spine, her throat going tight when she can't help but grind harder against him. "Think I should get a taste first," Spike mutters. His teeth prick at her pulse. "Make sure it's a fair trade."

Buffy leans back, wrapping her arms around his neck and arching her spine in a dramatic curve so her throat is out of reach.

"Naughty vampire," she scolds, pouting. "Ladies first."

Spike's golden eyes flash hungrily. God, he's so hot like this—all tied up and helpless for her and still dangerous. He flashes all his teeth and Buffy feels dizzy with want and it's so good. She was really afraid it wouldn't be, but all summer it's been so good.

He's been so good. Her sweet, sexy vampire. Her lover.

"Alright, love?" he asks quietly.

She almost breaks character just to kiss him.

"Just thinking," she says slowly, "about how I'm gonna do it."

"Perfectly serviceable bed right there," Spike points out.

Buffy tilts her head thoughtfully. "Hmm. Nah, I think I'll leave you tied up." She shifts back on his thighs, leaving room to squeeze his dick through his jeans. "I really only need this part, anyway."

Spike growls, squirming against her hand, and she flashes a grin at him as she undoes his pants.

Spike asks, "You sure you don't wanna—" and then goes totally rigid, which is really unflattering since she's about to sink down onto his cock. "Bollocks. Untie me."

Buffy frowns at him. "What—"

"Buffy?" Mom shouts, followed by the sound of footsteps up the stairs. "Spike? Are you still home?"

"Fuck," hisses Buffy. She scrambles off Spike's lap and tries to stuff his still-really-hard dick back into his pants. "Shit, shit—"

"Untie me, you daft—"

The doorknob jiggles aggressively.

"Moooom!" Dawn shouts, cheerfully sing-song. "Buffy and Spike have their door locked again!"

Buffy shoves Spike, still attached to the chair, towards the closet—she accidentally knocks him over and he hits the ground with a grumpy oi.

"Sorry!" she whisper-hisses, and ditches him to yank the door open a crack and snap at Dawn, "Shut up!"

Dawn is grinning from ear to ear. She tells Buffy, "You are so grounded!" and skips back down the stairs.

Buffy rolls her head back to glare at the ceiling.

Faintly, from in the foyer, she hears Mom say, "Honey, please don't yell."

Buffy shuts the door, locks it again because duh, and turns to face Spike.

He's got one eyebrow raised at her, which looks pretty funny since he's sideways.

Buffy sighs and crouches down to untie the ropes. "Thanks for not breaking the chair."

"Didn't seem like it'd do us any favors," Spike tells her. "You think I can eat the nibblet, her not really bein' human and all?"

"We don't even know what she does," Buffy reminds him. "She could give you, like, indigestion."

"Might be worth it," Spike grumbles.

She flicks him on the eyebrow.

Spike sighs and sits up; he finally tucks himself back into his pants and rubs at a red splotch on his temple from where his face made friends with the ground.

"I think we're cursed," Buffy tells him, offering a hand to help him to his feet. "The universe is, like, 'You were on thin ice with the mockery of your natures and the kinky is a step too far. No sexy biting for you!'"

Spike kisses her forehead. "Sorry, baby."

She gives him a quick hug, then drags him downstairs to face the music.

Mom and Dawn are in the living room with the overhead lights off; Mom is rubbing at her temples and Dawn is rocking on the balls of her feet in the doorway.

Buffy frowns, watching Mom's face. "Are you okay?"

"Oh, I'm alright," Mom says, waving a hand at her without looking up. "Just a headache."

Buffy glances at Spike, who's frowning too. He says, "Let's get you some tea, Joyce. Nibblet, give us a hand, will you?"

Dawn whines, "But I wanna watch Buffy get yelled at!"

Spike raises an eyebrow at her.

"... Fine," Dawn mutters, stomping after him in all her baby-teenage glory.

Buffy mouths, Thank you, at Spike and goes to sit on the coffee table across from Mom. She says, "I'm sorry about—"

"Buffy," Mom says. She sounds really tired. "I don't care if you lock your door. You're an adult now and I'm perfectly aware that you could just as easily be doing… whatever you're doing somewhere else. I was young once, too."

"... Okay," says Buffy.

There's the sound of laughter from the kitchen; a mean, jealous feeling twists in Buffy's stomach. 

"But I do want you to be careful," Mom tells her. "This is all moving very fast."

Buffy is only wearing a lacy tank top. She rubs at her bare arms. "I—I thought you liked Spike. And you said we—"

"I do." Mom finally looks up, her eyebrows all pinched together with big bags under her eyes. "But I agreed to this to help keep Dawn safe—not because I think it's a good idea for you to live with the boy you've been dating for four months."

"Five," Buffy says quietly.

Mom sighs.

"I'm sorry," Buffy says again, her nostrils flaring a little. "I mean, it's not like—Riley and the guys are patrolling, and I thought you and Dawn would be gone a while, and we haven't exactly had a lot of—"

"That's not what I mean," Mom says. "It's not about the sex, Buffy, it's about the—"

"Alright," Spike announces, his smile tight and weird enough that it's really obvious he was listening. "One headache cure, coming right up."

Mom looks over and warmly says, "Oh, thank you, Spike, this is very thoughtful."

"I helped," Dawn says stubbornly.

("Buffy?")

"I know you did, sweetie," Mom tells her.

Buffy stands up and goes to Spike, wrapping both arms around his middle and tucking herself into his side.

"Nothing good playing at the theater, then?" Spike asks lightly, pressing a kiss to the top of her head.

"We didn't look," Dawn says.

Spike's hand rubs soothing up and down Buffy's back. "Could pop over to the Blockbuster, see what they've got."

"Oh, I don't want to ruin your evening," Mom tells him. "You two wanted some alone time, didn't you? Why don't you go somewhere and have a nice time?"

("Buffy, love…")

Spike smiles at her, all vampire charm and William-y soft all at once, and says, "Always nice bein' with you, Mum."

Mom says, "Oh!" and takes a flustered sip of her tea.

Buffy pinches him between the ribs: suck-up.

He squeezes her hip.

"Can we watch something scary?" Dawn asks eagerly.

"Oh, I don't know," Mom says, clucking her tongue. "You'll be up all night, sweetie."

Dawn begs, "Please! It's Saturday and I can totally stay up if I want."

Mom sighs, leaning back against the couch which means yes.

"I'll see what they've got," Spike says, reaching for his coat.

"Nah." Buffy heads him off, kissing his cheek. "I'll go. You're on popcorn duty, mister."

"Well, that's a boatload of manly responsibility," Spike teases. He dips down to kiss her properly. "You sure I'm up to the task?"

("Buffy, please—")

Buffy nuzzles their noses together. "Positive."

"—look at me!" Spike begs. He takes her face in his hands, eyes wild and sad. "I'm so sorry, love. Buffy, please look at me."

Buffy stares through him to the body. Her mother, laying—

"There's nothing we can do," Spike tells her. "Please, baby, I don't want you to see—"

"What happened?" Buffy asks. 

There's a sound to the left—Giles, turning on the tap.

"We—we were having tea," Spike says. His throat sounds like it hurts. Buffy touches it gently, feeling it bob, but she doesn't think it makes it any better. "She was telling me about her date and she—she just—"

Buffy hugs Mom goodbye, sticks her tongue out at Dawn, and heads out the door.

It's a cool November night, just a few days after Halloween. Buffy wishes she'd grabbed a jacket, but at least she's wearing long pants. She breaks into a jog to get her blood pumping and forgets about the chill pretty easily.

It's a bright moon, even though all the streetlights make it harder to see the stars, and Buffy slays a vamp trying to eat some guy behind the video store. She comes home a little sweaty after all (just not in the way she was hoping she'd be tonight) and Spike is laughing with her mother and little sister on the couch, and she remembers—

"—just fell," Spike says. "And they couldn't—"

"We're here!" Xander bursts through the front door. "Hello? Spike, if this is some pra—oh, God."

He and Anya are staring at the body now, too.

Buffy shakes her head slowly.

Spike clears his throat. "I called everyone. I—someone should—before the witches…" He cuts off again. "The operator said CPR and I couldn't—I tried everything. Buffy, I tried—"

Her head snaps up.

"No," she says. "You didn't."

—that first time, when Mom and Dawn found out the truth. Buffy invited him in, and she hated him back then, but he was all she had.

And he sat in her living room and said, No, ma'am, I'm from London but I haven't been back properly in a real long time, and now he's from here, maybe. He could be from here.

Buffy's chest goes tight just watching them, all together: her uber-powerful mystical key of a baby sister and her retired mortal enemy of a boyfriend and her mother, just her mother, who really does keep trying to understand. Who just wants Buffy to be happy, probably.

I am, Buffy thinks, and smiles wide when she shakes the Blockbuster bag invitingly and kicks out of her shoes. I really am.

She puts Dawn on VCR duty and uses the opportunity to steal her seat next to Spike, who drapes his arm over her shoulders with a fond smile.

And Buffy snuggles herself closer, and kisses sweetly at his jaw, and whispers for the first time, "Hey, I—"

Spike is staring at Buffy in shock. "I did, pet. I swear, I—"

"No," Buffy says again, fighting back the urge to throw up. "No, 'cause you could've—you could've saved her. You could've brought her back."

The running water shuts off.

"Shit," Xander says quietly. "Did she—"

"You don't mean that," Spike tells her.

"She could've been like you, right?" Buffy asks. Her throat feels like she swallowed pool water. "We could've gotten her a chip or—or—"

Spike begs, "Buffy, you don't know what you're—"

"But you wouldn't do it?" Buffy asks, her voice cracking. "Why didn't you help her? You just w-watched her die and now she's cold and she's—she's—she's cold."

"You wouldn't want it," Spike tells her, all gently and—and patronizing and stuff. "Joyce wouldn't've wanted—"

Buffy's voice goes Slayer-flat. She looks at him and says, "You didn't want it."

He hits her—full force on the jaw.

Spike doubles over when the chip fires, sobbing hard, and Buffy digs her fingers into the stinging place on her mouth and feels for loose teeth. She doesn't find any. Spike is still sobbing even though the pain should be gone.

No one will touch him. No one will touch Mom, either, even though she's just gonna get colder. 

"—love you." Buffy smiles shakily, her eyes going all shiny when they meet his.

Spike brushes her hair away from her face, his eyes wide like he's never seen her before. "You mean it?"

"Yeah, I do. And this is how it's gonna be," Buffy promises, and presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth. "Forever."

Spike pulls his duster over his head and disappears into the sunlight.

 

~*~

 

Dawn screams and cries and calls her a liar right there in the middle school hallway, sinking to the floor sobbing, and Buffy still hasn't cried. 

She keeps meaning to, but other people keep doing it first.

 

~*~

 

Spike comes back that night, slinking in through the kitchen after Dawn is in bed and Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles are hunched over cups of hot chocolate in the dining room. Buffy wanted to make a plan for tomorrow. Places they'd have to go, things they'd have to do. She's seen so much death, but she's never thought about who picked out the casket that got ruined.

It just seems silly, in Sunnydale, picking out something so expensive that's gonna get all torn up. They should warn people. 

But Mom will stay in the ground.

That's what Buffy's thinking about when she hears the door open and her Spike tinglies patter up her neck. It makes the insides of her eyes itch and she doesn't look up, but she feels everyone else do it.

"... Maybe we should pick this up tomorrow," Xander says. "Unless you want us to stay."

"See you tomorrow," Buffy tells her list.

Her friends all shuffle home.

Spike is still standing behind her; he smells like graveyard.

Should they bury her in Restfield?

Eventually Buffy asks, "Where were you?"

"Went back to the crypt until sundown," he says. "Then I patrolled. Did a quick sweep of all of 'em, just to make sure."

"Run into anything I should know about?" Buffy asks.

"Just the usual," he says.

Buffy closes her eyes and presses the side of her fist against her mouth.

Spike drags over the closest chair and sits down next to, grabbing her free hand in both of his. "Buffy, I'm sor—"

"Not now," she begs, pushing her fingers into her hair. "I—I know we need to, but I just—can you just hold me?"

Spike pulls her into his arms. She chokes out a breath, tucking her face into the crook of his neck, and sucks in air again until it hurts.

"Wanna go to bed, love?" Spike murmurs, carding a hand through her hair. "You've been going all day, yeah? Need to rest."

"How?" Buffy croaks.

"I'll show you," he says. "I'll take care of it, alright? Let me take care of you."

Buffy nods shakily.

Spike guides her to her feet and leads her up the stairs. He runs the shower until it's boiling and her skin goes all lobster-red underneath it, her hair plastering to her skin after he tips her head back to rinse out the shampoo.

"You're cooking me," she says distantly, watching his hand drag the soap up her body. He's been wearing the skull ring on his right ring finger since July.

"'S my master plan," he mumbles, nosing tenderly at her ear. "Finally gonna eat you up."

Buffy tips her head back against his chest.

The steam makes it easier to breathe again. She's afraid to leave the water now that she's here, now that she can feel something on her skin, but after a while Spike turns the faucet off and scrubs her dry with the biggest, fluffiest towel they have.

(It was Mom's favorite. They came in a set but Buffy accidentally got demon goop on one back in high school and had to pretend it was nail polish. She forgot to ever come clean after Mom knew the truth.)

Spike sits her on the edge of the bed and rubs a comb through her hair. His hands are so gentle, keeping all the tangles away, and then he braids it in a low braid that'll make it easy to style tomorrow. 

She tries to cry again.

"Alright, love," he soothes when it doesn't come. She breathes raggedly against the collar of his old shirt. "It's alright."

They crawl under the covers together and Spike tucks her against his chest, holding her close and pressing kisses into her damp hair. He smells like her soap and stale cigarettes, from the shirt, and she's so close. She thinks about loving him and coming home to him bickering with Mom about Passions and wasn't there gonna be a wedding?

Mom's not gonna get to see the wedding.

But he loved her so much. He loved Buffy's mom and her annoying brat of a sister and he watched dumb movies with them when Buffy wasn't home. He drove Mom to the hospital when she was sick. He—

"Guys?" Dawn asks wetly, standing in the doorway with an old teddy bear dangling from one hand. "Can I sleep in here?"

Buffy swallows down the sob in her throat.

"... C'mere, little bit," Spike says, when he realizes Buffy isn't answering. "Plenty of room."

He scoots them towards the far edge of the bed, leaving a bunch of space for her, but she climbs in and koalas herself around Spike's arm, burying her face in the crook of his shoulder and sniffling miserably.

Buffy feels Spike tense up in surprise, but Dawn doesn't seem to notice.

"Why're you warm?" Dawn asks, her voice muffled.

"Took a shower," Spike answers quietly.

Dawn asks, "What's gonna happen to us?"

Buffy presses her lips together as the tears finally, finally roll down her cheeks. She sits up just enough to brush the hair away from Dawn's face, fingertips aching as she touches her cheek, and promises, "We're gonna take care of you."

 

~*~

 

The doorbell wakes them up the next morning. Buffy sits up groggily, scrubbing at the eye crusties on her face and hiding half-heartedly from Spike with her head between her knees.

"I'll get it," he says, crawling out from under the pile of blankets. He heads downstairs in his black sweatpants and holey t-shirt.

Buffy looks over at Dawn, whose eyes are still closed but expression is too unhappy to still be sleeping. She tells her, "You can go back to bed, okay?"

"Are you gonna talk about Mom?" Dawn asks.

"Yeah," Buffy says.

Dawn sits up too, her tangled hair falling in her face. "I wanna come."

Voices drift up the stairwell through the open bedroom door; Buffy hears Spike talking to Giles and… is that Riley?

She sighs and walks into the bathroom, peeking at her reflection in the mirror. Her face is all puffy and blotchy and basically screams I stayed up crying all night and I can't fucking do this anymore. 

Buffy tugs her hair out of the braid, carding her fingers through it; it falls in loose waves around her face. She brushes her teeth and then pads back into the bedroom to sit down at her vanity.

Dawn is sitting up in bed, staring blankly at Mr. Gordo, who she keeps trying to balance on top of her teddy bear's head. He topples onto the mattress again. She doesn't look up when Buffy snaps her foundation open and starts smearing it over her face.

"What's the point?" Dawn asks flatly. "Who cares if you look ugly?"

Buffy drags her fingers down her throat, blending the line of color into her neck. She says, "Go see who's downstairs."

Dawn marches out of the room.

Buffy clicks open a nude eyeshadow pallet and smears a single color all over her lids. She looks at herself in the mirror: girl with a dead mom.

She adds a little mascara and sharp eyeliner: Slayer who couldn't save her.

Berry-pink lipstick and too much blush high on her cheeks, like fake blood over her skin: with a boyfriend who will live forever.

Buffy caps her lipstick and zips up her makeup case. She blinks at herself one last time (her eyeliner is uneven) and switches out her earrings to just a pair Mom bought her for Christmas two years ago—or has it been three? 

They've got little stars on them.

Most of her laundry is dirty. She'd promised Mom she'd stop bribing Spike into doing it for her, mostly because he flooded the basement last time and shrank that fancy dress Mom bought her that was supposed to be dry clean only, but stuff kept coming up and she kept putting it off and now Mom is dead so it's not like anyone will know the difference.

There's a blouse in the back of her closet that's still nice. It's a little big on her now, like someone put her in the wash too. 

Maybe she'll buy something for the funeral.

Downstairs, the others are talking in the dining room while Riley lingers in the foyer. His hands are in his pockets and he's looking at the flowers Mom's date sent her that Buffy hasn't figured out what to do with yet.

Fuck, someone should call that guy.

"Um, hey," Buffy says quietly. "Did Spike not…?"

"Oh, no, he did," Riley says, looking up. "Uh, it's just that I can't stay—early class. But I came bearing casserole and, uh, I wanted to make sure I saw you."

Buffy hugs him and says, "Thank you."

Riley squeezes her back. "I'm so sorry, Buffy." He shoves his hands in his pockets again when she pulls away. "And I want you to know I'm here for whatever you need. I was thinking—I could call up some of the other guys who stayed in town, put a patrol together for a couple days."

"Oh," Buffy says. "That's sweet, but I think Spike can handle it."

Riley gives her a weird look. "I'm sure he can, I just figured—wouldn't you rather have him here? I mean, isn't he kinda…"

"What?" Buffy asks.

"Grieving too," says Riley.

Buffy looks to her left with a pang—Spike is hunched over a big stack of papers on the dining room table next to Giles, scribbling stuff on a piece of notebook paper while Giles punches things into a calculator. He looks so normal. His feet are bare and there's no gel in his hair.

"Sorry," Riley says. "Did I say something wrong?"

Buffy turns back to him.

"Um, no," she says, wrapping her arms around herself. "I just… haven't been thinking about anyone else besides Dawn, I guess. The campaign for jerk of the year is going really well."

Riley reaches out and squeezes her shoulder. "No one's their best self when they're grieving, Buffy. When my grandmother died?" He whistles. "But that's why we're all here. You can lean on us."

"Thanks," Buffy says distantly. She presses her lips together. "Um, the patrol would be a big help. But be careful, okay?"

Riley quirks his lips. "Yes, ma'am. Just holding down the fort."

"Thank you," Buffy says again.

She waves goodbye to him, leaving the door unlocked after he leaves, and then wanders into the dining room.

Spike and Giles are still muttering to each other. Dawn is sitting at the other end of the table, picking at her nail polish.

There's this empty space in Buffy's chest. She thought maybe she'd gotten rid of it, but it turns out it was just covered up—like when you drag a rug over a stain. She climbs into Spike's lap and hides her face in his neck.

"Beautiful girl," Spike murmurs, tilting her chin up with his thumb carefully avoiding her lipstick. "Got your armor on?"

"Yeah," she says quietly.

He kisses her temple and hugs her closer with his right arm. The left goes back to drawing little dollar signs with strings of numbers that make her stomach hurt.

"What're you doing?" she asks.

"We've been sorting out the finances," Giles answers. "As I, um—as I said last night, unfortunately there will be quite a few expenses and I'd like for us to be prepared."

Buffy nods; the words go unfocused on the page.

"The good news is that Joy—your mother kept very detailed records, and a consistent budget," Giles says gently. "Spike and I are simply calculating how to account for, ah, the—the details of—"

"Funeral costs," Spike says more bluntly. "Casket, flowers, even the sodding plot of land. And she was still paying off hospital bills."

Buffy nods again.

"What's gonna happen to the gallery?" Dawn asks.

"We, ah—well, I suppose it will depend on the will," Giles tells her. "Which we still need to review."

"It's not gonna go away, is it?" Dawn asks, her voice going scratchy and high-pitched. "Because she loved it and—and you can't just get rid of it and—"

"We don't know, okay Dawnie?" Buffy cuts in. "We've gotta find out what Mom wanted."

Dawn opens her mouth to answer, but the doorbell rings.

Nobody used to use the doorbell before.

Buffy shouts, "It's unlocked!"

The doorbell rings again.

Dawn rolls her eyes and gets up. As soon as she opens the door, Willow's manically-cheerful voice says, "Sorry, sorry! My hands were full on account of—with the casserole. My dad made a casserole. I don't really know what's in it but it looks like green beans? I would've told him you didn't like green beans but—"

"Thanks, Wil," Buffy says tiredly.

"Should I put it in the fridge?" Willow asks. 

Dawn says, "I'll get it," and takes the dish.

Willow drags a chair over and sits down on Spike and Buffy's other side. "I like your shirt, Buffy. Is it new?"

"Old," says Buffy.

"Oh," Willow says. "That's nice. Can I help with stuff?"

Buffy sighs. "I guess we should pick a graveyard, right? Um, so we can figure out when they'll let us have the funeral and stuff."

"Oh, that makes sense," Willow says. "'Cause then you can invite everybody and stuff."

"Spoiled for choice in Sunnydale," Spike points out.

Buffy traces a finger over the skull ring on his right hand. "Yeah. Um, she said—" Her voice wobbles a little. "Before the surgery she was, she said she wanted to be where the most bad stuff happened so—so she could—" It cracks. "She could hang out with me."

Spike tucks her head under his chin.

"Oh, Buffy," Willow says. "That's really sweet."

"Except there's just badness everywhere," Buffy says.

"Guess you can't go wrong then," Spike says.

Buffy says, "I guess I go through Shady Hill the most, because of where it is. And, um, Restfield is getting pretty busy again." She lifts her head to look at Spike. "I guess that'd change if you move out after we deal with Glory."

Spike lifts his eyebrows and one corner of his mouth. "If?"

The tips of Buffy's ears go warm.

Giles clears his throat. "I can give both of them a call, if you'd like. We'll need to inquire whether they have plots available and for what price."

"Thanks, Giles," Buffy says. "Um, and they need to be willing to do the burial after sunset, so Spike can come."

"I'll see what they say," Giles tells her. He grabs the notebook and pencil Spike was using and heads into the kitchen, where Dawn is just leaving.

She steals Giles's seat and leans her head on Spike's shoulder that Buffy isn't using.

"Okay, so that's one thing kind of down," Willow says. "Um, have you written the obituary yet?"

"No." Buffy rubs at her brow. "We should get that done today, I guess." She glances up at Spike, touching his hand. "Will you help with that? You're good at that stuff."

Spike shifts to look at her, frowning softly. "I'm really not, love."

"You'd be better at it than me," Buffy tells him.

"... Guess I'll take a crack at it," Spike says. He tucks her hair behind her ear. "If you'll be my editor."

Buffy's smile is watery.

"What can I do?" Dawn asks.

Buffy says, "You don't have to do anything, Dawnie. We're gonna take care of this stuff."

"But I wanna help," Dawn insists. She lifts her head up. "It's not fair."

Buffy frowns at her. "What're you… what?"

"She's my mom too," Dawn says flatly.

Buffy's stomach twists; she shoots Spike a worried look, which he returns before they both look back at Dawn.

"'Course she was, bit," he says.

Dawn's nostrils flare a little, but she doesn't say anything.

"Hey," Buffy tells her. "There's gonna be, um, speeches and stuff at the funeral, right?"

"They're called eulogies," Dawn says snottily.

Buffy grits her teeth. "Yeah, those. Why don't you do one? You can work on writing that."

Dawn narrows her eyes like she's gonna keep arguing, but then she looks down and nods. She pushes away from the table, making the chair legs screech against the floor the way Mom always hated, and stands up.

"I'll go get my notebook," she says.

Buffy sighs quietly with relief.

Dawn is halfway to the foyer when the front door swings open and Xander sweeps inside with a bunch of plastic grocery bags dangling from his arms.

"Hey, everyone!" he says loudly, then lowers his voice when he realizes they're all right there. "Uh, I told Anya people usually bring food in these situations and she handed me a twenty, so—" He gestures with the groceries. "I'm Breakfast Man. Omelettes?"

Dawn says, "I don't want anything."

"Mushrooms and extra cheesy coming right up," Xander tells her. "Buff?"

Buffy hasn't felt hungry since she saw her mother alive for the last time. She smiles and says, "Thanks, Xan."

"I'm on it," he says. "Spike, I stopped by the butcher's. You want a mug?"

Spike's head snaps up. "Uh, alright. Thanks, mate."

Xander squeezes Willow on the shoulder and then sweeps into the kitchen.

Buffy touches her forehead to Spike's cheek and then turns back to all the paperwork on the table. Listening to the sound of Dawn's footsteps heading up the stairs, she rubs at her temples and says, "Shit, I should try Dad again. And call like, a bunch of other people before the obituary goes out."

"Um, I can help with that, maybe?" Willow offers tentatively. "Um, well, I probably shouldn't call your dad, but some of the other people if you wanted?"

"I'll make a list," Buffy says gratefully.

"Want me to get writing?" Spike asks.

Buffy says, "Yeah. I'll get us some paper."

She stands up, squeezing back when Spike's hand lingers in her own as she pulls away, and waits, for a second, before she can move away.

An egg cracks in the kitchen. Giles's soft voice carries faintly over the sound of something sizzling in a pan. The front door got left open and birdsong is streaming in with the band of sunlight across the floor, and none of that has anything to do with her mother being dead. No one's ever died and made the world shut up.

The drawers on the big dining room desk creak when Buffy looks for another pad of paper.

 

~*~

 

It is with utmost sadness that the family of Joyce (Elizabeth) Summers, aged 43, has passed away after complications from illness in Sunnydale, CA. Joyce will be remembered for her determination, kindness, and fierce love for her two daughters, Buffy and Dawn. She had a great passion for art, particularly sculpture, and delighted in sharing her passion with others through the beautiful gallery she co-owned with her dear (best?) friend, Carol. Joyce was decent (welcoming) to everyone she met and made a damn good (can you swear in the newspaper?) cup of tea. She is survived by her daughters, ex-husband, Hank (fuck him.), and sisters, Darlene and Lolly. Charitable donations in Joyce's name can be made to the Sunnydale Art History Museum.

"And you," Buffy says quietly. "She's survived by you."

Spike's smile is so sad that for a second she's disgusted with herself. He cups the side of her face, his thumb stroking across her cheek, and softly reminds her, "I'm not alive, pet."

 

~*~

 

How could she forget?

 

~*~

 

They send the obituary to newspapers in Sunnydale and Los Angeles later that afternoon, once they figure out the day and time for the funeral. They make appointments to look at caskets and headstones and a million other things tomorrow. Xander cooks lunch too and they eat Riley's casserole for dinner. 

Buffy lets Dawn pick out Mom's dress. 

The house is really quiet once everyone leaves. Buffy curls up with Spike on the couch, her lipstick worn off and her hair starting to tangle because she never got around to brushing it out, and touches gently at his cheek.

"Hey," she says. "Are you okay?"

Spike furrows his eyebrows at her and folds his hand over hers. He says, "I'm here, love."

Buffy's eyes sting a little. She says, "That's not an answer."

"Yeah, it is," he tells her. His expression is so earnest. She's not sure she's ever looked like that. "I just wanna get you through this, Buff. There'll be time for me after."

"But I'm really sorry," Buffy says, her voice cracking a little. "For—for that stupid stuff I said. It was awful and I didn't—"

"I know," Spike soothes. He touches their foreheads together. "And I'm bloody angry with you, and angrier at myself for how I acted, and I've got a lot to turn over. But right now, we're getting through this."

Buffy closes her eyes and pulls him closer. "I should've thanked you."

"For what?" Spike asks.

"Being there," says Buffy.

Spike shakes his head a little. "Didn't make a difference in the end. I couldn't…"

"But she wasn't alone," Buffy tells him wetly. She leans away to look him in the eye, even though it means the tears start dripping down her chin. "She knew that you—that someone tried."

Spike wets his bottom lip. "Buffy…"

"Thank you," she rasps, and kisses him gently on the mouth.

Spike kisses back, a hand sliding up into her hair. He tastes like cigarettes, which he's been sneaking off to smoke in the basement. 

Buffy's chest feels like it's gonna collapse. She chokes back a tiny sob and pushes Spike down against the cushions.

"Buffy," Spike says again, his hands running up her arms, blinking at her with worry that makes her teeth hurt. "We don't have to—"

"I don't want us to be alone," Buffy tells him. Her throat quivers. "I wanna be close to you."

"You are," he says, but he still shivers when her hands slide under his shirt. His stomach twitching, his nipples perking up when her fingernails drag over them. 

He kisses so sweetly. Even when he's hungry and making her lips all bruised and fucking her so hard they break the furniture, he's kissing her sweetly. The first time they had sex it was in that stupid armchair in his crypt (because maybe beds were bad luck) and she rode him with her head thrown back until the the recliner cracked and flipped over and dumped them both on the ground in a heap and they just kept going, his teeth flashing delightedly when she drew him back inside her, and he kissed a hickey onto her neck that said: I love you.

He hadn't told her yet, but she knew. She was scared but she knew.

Spike kisses her like she tastes like birthday cake. He undoes her bra clasp under her blouse and cups her breast, circling his thumb over her nipple and lifting his hips a little when she tries to tug his sweatpants down his thighs.

Buffy kisses down the side of his neck as he works at her jeans. She helps tug them all the way off and then straddles him again, bracketing his hips with her knees on the narrow couch. 

They ate popcorn and pizza and drank hot chocolate on this couch. Her mom started putting slipcovers on it after Buffy turned sixteen and she realized the violence wouldn't stop. The next year Buffy sat here and stared at her birthday cupcake and just let the candle melt down because all she could think about wishing for was to just get to be fucking happy again and it didn't seem worth it to try.

But they were happy here, sometimes, and now Buffy is working Spike's dick inside her even though she's not that wet yet and he's brushing the hair out of her face and whispering, "I love you, Buffy. I love you so much."

It stings a little. Buffy rocks her hips, gasping when it feels good anyway, and hides her face in his neck.

"Darling girl," Spike murmurs. He kisses the shell of her ear. "My Slayer."

"Spike." Buffy's breath stutters when he starts to move. "I…"

He rocks up into her slowly, holding her close to him with their clothes all wrinkled and half-off and her knees sinking down into the space between two couch cushions and his cool hands touching her spine and her hair and his sharp hip bones digging into her thighs.

Buffy's eyes are closed. She wants it to be over. Not this—everything else. Why can't it just be over?

"Shh." Spike rolls them onto their sides, still rolling his hips just barely, kissing the damp spots on her cheeks. "'S alright, love. 'M here."

"I know," Buffy whispers. She wraps her leg around his waist to take him deeper, biting at his shoulder when her core twists in that pleasure-pain way and her toes curl up. "I…"

Spike shakes his head, pressing their faces together with his lips in her hair. "I know, love, it's alright."

Buffy lets out a tiny sob against his collar. Her arms are wrapped around his neck and his voice rumbles from his chest like a purring cat and she wants to pull him so far into her that he won't be able to find his way out and he won't ever leave and maybe she'll take him with her when she goes.

God, he's gonna watch her die one day.

"I love you," Buffy tells him. She said it for the first time on this couch and her mother was right there, and she doesn't say it enough. How was she supposed to know she didn't say it enough? "I'm sorry."

"For what, baby?" Spike asks.

She sobs so hard he slips out of her, jolting away in shock, but then his arms are back around her and she's tucked against his chest and crying her throat raw. 

"I'm sorry," she says again. "I don't know what to do. I can't do it and she's gone and I can't I just can't—"

"Oh, love." Spike squeezes her tighter, curling his hand in her hair and rocking her back and forth like she's a fucking child. "You won't have to. I'm right here."

"Don't go?" Buffy begs.

Spike brushes his lips against her temple. "Couldn't make me. What'd you call me, once? I'm 'committo-man.'"

"That was the spell," Buffy says weakly.

"Wasn't," he promises. "Not that."

Buffy cries harder again. She smushes her face into his damp t-shirt and blubbers until it hurts behind her eyes and her mouth feels dry and sticky, and he pets her hair and calls her lovely and darling and his, and her body slumps in his arms with one last sniffle.

"Daft Slayer," Spike murmurs warmly, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. She grumbles and snuggles him closer. "You really think I'd go?"

"I forgot how into snot you obviously are," Buffy says, plucking at his super gross shirt. "And blue balls."

Spike huffs out a laugh and tugs his pants back up his hips pointedly. "There's my girl."

Buffy grabs a throw blanket off the back of the couch instead of dealing with her pants, draping it over their lower halves and pushing him onto his back so she can lay her head on his chest.

Spike cards his fingers through her hair and says, "There's not a part of you I don't want—don't love. You think I don't know what it means, that I get this side of you? Means the world, Buffy."

"I kinda hate it," she admits. Her fingers trace his ribs through his shirt.

"I know," he says. "And I love you."

Buffy lifts her head to look him in the eye and says, "Thank you."

Spike smiles, cupping the side of her face, and tilts his head a little. "Thanks for letting me."

 

~*~

 

They go shopping for caskets the next day. 

They meet with the funeral director, too, who is really nice. Really kind, and like he's genuinely sorry about their dead mom, which makes Buffy's stomach feel all acidy. 

When Giles drops her and Dawn back off at the house, they walk in to find Tara vacuuming the living room, Xander carrying a hamper of clean laundry out of the basement, and Spike making lunch in the kitchen.

Buffy hugs him from behind, tucking her face between his shoulder blades and closing her eyes.

Over the whir of the vacuum, Spike asks, "Go alright?"

"I guess," Buffy says. "Thanks for sandwiches."

"BLT or ham and cheese?" Spike asks. 

"Tuna," says Buffy.

He puts the bread knife down and turns around, resting his hands on her hips and raising an eyebrow at her. "I'll call that bluff one day."

She smiles faintly. "BLT, please."

Spike gives her a peck on the lips. "Fielded a lot of calls while you were out. I took down all the names and noted who needs a ring back."

"I love you," Buffy tells him. The vacuum shuts off in the other room. "Did Dad call?"

Spike says, "If I could get this chip out, I'd eat him."

Buffy's throat hurts. She says, "He'd probably taste bad."

"Do it for you," Spike tells her, and she kisses him again. 

"Where's the list?" Buffy asks. "I'll start on some calls."

Spike nods his head towards the dining room. As Buffy moves away, he raises his voice and calls, "Nibblet, you want tuna?"

Dawn shouts, "I'm not hungry!" from upstairs.

Buffy presses her lips together and sits down with the cordless phone. A beat later, Spike strides past her on his probably doomed mission to heckle a fourteen year-old into eating a sandwich.

Most of Spike's list is just people who wanted to express condolences and stuff. It's weird seeing them all written down, like there's all these people that Mom knew that cared about her that Buffy never met. 

Is it better or worse to have left so many people behind?

Buffy circles the names of people she needs to call back. The big ones are her aunts, who both called while she was out. She's working herself up to dialing Aunt Lolly when the phone rings in her hand.

"Hello?" she answers.

"Buffy?" asks Angel.

Oh.

The phone slips a little in Buffy's hand. "Um, Angel?"

"It's me," he says. "Buffy, I saw in the—are you okay?"

"Um—"

"Fuck, of course you're not okay. What happened?"

Buffy's not sure if she's actually had to say it out loud since she told Dawn. Giles and Willow did the rest of the telling. The idea of saying it to him—

"Buffy, is something—" Angel hesitates. "The obituary read a little weird."

"Spike wrote it," Buffy says distantly.

"Spike?" Angel repeats. "Did he do something to—"

"Dawnie, Mum would want you to eat something," Spike harps as he chases her back downstairs, mostly sounding nag-y but also a little desperate, if you know him. 

"Stop calling her that!" Dawn snaps shrilly. "She wasn't your mom!"

Angel asks, "What the fuck, is that him?"

Spike's head whips around the corner. "Bloody hell, is that Angel?"

God, with the vampire hearing.

"Yeah," Buffy tells both of them. "Let it go."

Dawn takes the opportunity to slip past Spike and out the front door, where it's still light out.

"Fucking hell," says Spike, who tears off in the opposite direction. "Xander! Tara!"

"—your house?" Angel is saying.

Buffy presses her fingertips into the really sore muscle above her left eyebrow. "I told you he was good now. Remember?"

"Yeah, I remember having that thrown in my face," Angel says tightly. "I just didn't think—Buffy, was Faith right?"

"Angel," Buffy says tiredly. 

Tara power-walks into the foyer and out the front door.

"I'm sorry," he says. "You're right, it doesn't matter. I just—I freaked when I saw the news. I hate this. I'm so sorry, Buffy."

Buffy stares at Spike's barely-readable cute little chicken-scratch scrawl until it goes blurry. She says, "Thank you."

"Was it—" Angel hesitates again. "The paper said she was sick."

"Yeah," Buffy says. "No… no demons or anything. She just—she, um, she had cancer and we—we thought she was better and then she—" Her voice wobbles. "Wasn't."

Spike walks back into the room. He points at the phone and then at his face.

No, Buffy mouths.

"That's terrible," Angel says. "Buffy, I really am—is there anything I can do?"

A muscle jumps in Spike's jaw. Buffy points forcefully towards the kitchen.

He stares at her.

Buffy's expression softens: please?

He goes.

"Buffy?" Angel asks.

"Sorry," she says, putting her face in her free hand. "Um, it's just—really crazy here. But we—we have a lot of help. Giles and… everybody."

Angel says, "Okay. If you need someone to come pick up the slack on patrolling or anything…"

"We've got that covered too," Buffy tells him. She hesitates. "But, um… if you wanted to come to the funeral? It's in two days."

"Yeah," Angel says. "Of course."

"It's just that, um—" Buffy closes her eyes. "Spike's gonna be there. Like, really there, and I really can't deal with you guys being weird about that, okay?"

Angel's huff crackles through the phone. "I can deal with it if he can."

The front door opens; Dawn and Tara walk towards the kitchen holding hands.

"He will," Buffy promises.

Angel says, "Okay."

"Um, so the service is gonna be at five," Buffy says, "and that's inside, and then the burial is at five-forty five which should be far enough after sunset. It's, um—she's gonna be in Restfield."

"Restfield's beautiful," Angel says gently.

Buffy swallows thickly. "Yeah. Angel, um, I didn't—Faith was wrong, before. I wasn't lying to you the last time we…"

"Fought?" Angel says.

She doesn't answer.

"I thought about coming up after that," Angel says. "I hated how we left things and I wanted to—but I didn't know what to say. Uh, I didn't know if it would've changed anything."

"Probably not," she admits.

"But I'm sorry, Buffy." Angel's voice is quiet, steady. "I should've at least told you that."

Buffy slides Spike's notebook out of the way before the first tear rolls down her chin. "I knew you were, I guess. I was sorry, too. Just… seeing you with Faith, after what she did…"

"Is that why you said that stuff about Spike?" Angel asks. 

"I guess," she says.

They're quiet for a moment. Dawn trudges back through the room with a tuna sandwich on her plate.

"Buffy," Angel asks, and all of a sudden he sounds his age. "Would you be lying now?"

Buffy wipes at her eyes. She glances towards the foyer, at the pair of bloodstained Doc Martens laying next to the shoe rack and the leather coat draped over the banister, and past that to the couch he carried her to bed from the night before. 

Her entire body hurts except for her mouth. She says, "Yes."

Angel just says, "Okay."

There's not really anywhere to go from there.

Buffy asks, "Are you still coming?"

"Yeah, I—" Angel cuts off. "Of course. I'm… listen, I don't think you'd wanna hear anything I'd have to say right now and I'm trying not to—I'll be there, okay? Because I care about you."

Buffy breathes out heavily, angling the phone away from her face. "Okay. Um, let me get you the address. We're gonna be there for a little while before it starts, so."

"Yeah, okay."

Buffy flips a few pages back in the notebook and finds where Giles wrote down all the details they've been giving to people over the phone. She reads it all off to Angel and then flips the page back before she can stare at it for too long.

"Okay, I should be able to drive up for the service," Angel says. "But I've got a few things to take care of here, so I might have to meet you at the cemetery."

"That's okay," Buffy says.

"I should let you get back to everything," Angel tells her. "Unless there's—should I bring anything with me? I mean, do you need—"

"It's okay," Buffy says. 

Angel says, "Okay."

Buffy rubs at her eyes again.

"I guess I'll see you soon." Angel pauses. "I'm sorry again, Buffy. I love you."

"Thanks," she says, and waits for the line to go dead. She puts it face-down over the notebook on the table and drifts into the kitchen.

Spike is cutting a sandwich into triangles; he hands it to Tara, who smiles weakly at Buffy and hurries out of the room.

He doesn't look over when Buffy walks in, but she knows he knows she's there.

"Hey," Buffy says, and ducks under his arm when he reaches for the loaf of bread so that she's bracketed between him and the counter. "I guess you could hear all that, huh?"

"Could've," Spike says. "Didn't."

Buffy leans back against his chest. "Thanks."

Spike's muscles are all tense; he drops his head to press a kiss into her hair anyway.

"... I told him about us," Buffy says quietly.

Spike slathers a Buffy-approved amount of mayonnaise onto both slices of bread. "When should I expect my court-appointed staking?"

"After the funeral, probably," Buffy says. "I told him he could come if he kept it civil."

Spike snorts.

"I promised you'd deal," Buffy tells him. "Should I take it back?"

"I'll behave myself long as he does," Spike says.

Which sounds like a great excuse for two testosterone-poisoned vampires to beat the shit out of each other and then complain: he started it!

Buffy squeezes her eyes shut and breathes.

"Hey." Spike nuzzles against her ear. "It'll be alright. I'll… you really told him?"

Buffy nods. She opens her eyes again, watching his hands lay lettuce leaves down like little beds. The one on the left is a little crooked; he fixes it.

Spike asks, "And he…?"

"Is probably wigging out," Buffy confirms. "But he wouldn't say it. I guess because, you know, with Mom and everything."

Spike hums carefully. 

"Hey," Buffy says, turning her head to look at him. "I don't need Angel's permission to be in love with you, okay? Or anyone else's."

Spike walks away to grab a tomato out of the fridge.

"What is it?" Buffy asks.

"Nothing," he says.

A little flash of heat shoots up Buffy's throat. "Spike, c'mon. You can't seriously think that after—"

"It's not about Angel," Spike says tightly. He stands next to her, his elbow knocking into hers when he drops the tomato onto the cutting board and grabs a knife out of the drawer.

Buffy asks, "Then what—"

She cuts off, taking in the disaster zone that is the kitchen thanks to Spike making a totally different kind of sandwich for literally every person who asked.

And some people have been more grateful than others.

"You know Dawn doesn't mean it," she says quietly.

Spike chops the top off a tomato.

"Hey," Buffy insists, covering his grip on the knife and coaxing him into putting it down. "Look at me."

Spike turns his head, but his eyes stay on their hands.

"Mom loved you," Buffy tells him. "I mean, God, she was friends with you before I was."

"Didn't like me staying here," he reminds her.

"Because she was a mom," Buffy says, wrapping her arms around his neck, "and she was, like, legally obligated to worry about that stuff. I mean, they'd take away her Mom Card otherwise."

"Ah," says Spike. He finally loosens a little, putting his hands on her hips and walking her back against the counter. "Maybe we shouldn't've called off the engagement, then—made an honest woman out of you."

Buffy swats playfully at him, a smile creeping onto her face. "Stop."

He hums and dips down to kiss her.

Buffy pushes up onto her toes, nibbling at his bottom lip. It feels so good to kiss him—to just be.

"Don't mind me!" Xander says loudly, stumbling through the kitchen with a hand over his eyes. "I'm fine! Who needs eyeballs, anyway?"

Buffy rolls her eyes and tucks herself against Spike's side instead. "Baby."

Xander opens the fridge and grabs himself a soda. "In other news, all your laundry is clean—except the underwear, because a man has limits."

"All of it?" Buffy asks. "Can we keep you?"

"I think Anya would sell me for the right price," he answers with a shrug, cracking open the can. "Speaking of, I've gotta head out in a little bit to pick her up from work. I'll come back after dinner, unless you need help with that?"

"I think we're of the casserole," says Buffy.

Xander says, "Roger that. Well, I'll make with the folding. How attached are you to your organizational system?"

"Best leave it on the bed," Spike tells him. "The last time I tried to redo the girl's closet, she—"

"Xander doesn't wanna hear that story," Buffy says quickly.

Spike squeezes her butt cheekily.

Xander says, "I saw that, buddy," and flees the room when Spike licks his teeth.

Buffy's little bubble of good mood fizzes out once he's gone. She sighs softly, folding herself against Spike's chest, and says, "Thank you."

"What for, love?" Spike asks, petting her hair a little.

"Making me feel normal for a second," she says.

Spike squeezes her once and then lets go. "You know what else normal girls do? Eat lunch."

Buffy rolls her eyes again. "Okay, lunch me up."

He bites the tip of her ear.

"Pig," she says warmly.

Spike hums his agreement and goes back to cutting tomato slices, keeping her bracketed between his arms. 

"Ugh," Buffy says. "How did my aunts sound on the phone?"

"Shocked, grieving," Spike says. "Confused to be talking to me."

Buffy frowns. "What'd you tell them?"

"That I was your boyfriend," he says. "I gave 'em the funeral information but they both wanted to make sure they talked to you."

"Aunt Darlene lives in Illinois," Buffy says. "I guess she's gonna have to fly in, if she comes."

Spike says, "Yeah. Lolly's just in LA?"

"Yeah." Buffy frowns. "They weren't ever super close, I guess, but I think things got kinda bad between them all after, um… my cousin died."

"M—Joyce mentioned," Spike tells her. 

"A demon killed her," Buffy says quietly. "I, um, found that out like years later. And then I killed him."

Spike arranges the tomatoes on top of the lettuce.

"I wish there was something I could—" Buffy presses her lips together. "But there's just…"

"Life?" Spike says softly.

Buffy nods.

Spike plucks three pieces of bacon from where they were cooling on a plate and adds them to the sandwich. He kisses her cheek and says, "She doesn't need you to kill anything, love. She just needs you to remember her."

Little baby tears spring to Buffy's eyes. She dries them on Spike's shirt and doesn't answer.

The sandwich makes a too-loud crunch when Spike cuts it in half. He puts it on a plate and fills a glass with water, then hands her both.

Buffy tells him, "You're kind of amazing, you know that?"

"Don't get too excited," Spike warns. "I'm making all these dishes someone else's problem. Fancy myself a smoke and a kip."

"Hmm," Buffy says. "You still win boyfriend of the month. Possibly the year."

Spike narrows his eyes at her. "Who else is in the running?"

"Mr. Gordo," says Buffy. "Duh."

Spike cracks a smile, shaking his head and kissing the corner of her mouth. "Love you."

"Love you, too," she says. She nudges him with her hip. "Go nap. I'm gonna make depressing phone calls."

He heads for the basement first. 

Buffy takes a deep breath and walks back into the dining room.

 

~*~

 

Spike finds her there a couple of hours later, after Xander and Tara have left but Willow's come back with a second green bean casserole and Dawn has come out the other side of her mood swing; she's working on her speech, keeping Buffy company while she talks on the phone.

"Hanging in there, pet?" Spike asks, but Buffy can tell from his voice that he knows the answer.

"I panicked and said Aunt Darlene could stay here," she says miserably.

Spike pulls up a chair next to her. 

Dawn explains, "Aunt Darlene is kinda…"

She makes a face.

"So I've heard," says Spike.

"Oh, have I ever met her?" Willow asks, coming in from the kitchen.

"Nah," Buffy says. "You met Aunt Lolly, I think. She visited for Mom's birthday one year."

"And Buffy dodged Thanksgiving with Aunt Darlene last year," Dawn says.

Buffy says, "Hey, if it helps? We almost died back here."

"Our first holiday together," Spike says fondly. He kisses her temple.

Buffy says, "Not if you count that Halloween."

"He was trying to kill you on Halloween," Dawn says skeptically.

"Yeah," Buffy says, "but not that well."

"Oi," says Spike.

Buffy says, "Anyway, the problem is gonna be where to put her, 'cause I feel like she'd think the couch is rude, and it's weird to ask her to sleep in Mom's room, probably?"

"What do you normally do when there's company?" Willow asks.

"I take the couch," Buffy says. "Which, you know, doesn't really fit two."

For sleeping, anyway.

Spike offers, "If you need me to—"

"No," Buffy says firmly. She rests a hand on his knee. "I need you here. We all do."

He smiles at her.

Buffy turns to Dawn, bracing herself for the inevitable brat attack. "Dawn, do you think you could—"

"Can I sleep in Mom's room?" Dawn asks.

Buffy blinks. "Um…"

"I'd just… rather do that than the couch," Dawn says, looking down. "And I think maybe… it'd be nice. I miss her."

Buffy's throat goes tight. She says, "Yeah, you can do that."

"And besides," Dawn says hesitantly, watching the nail polish chip off her fingers. "I can come sleep with you guys if I don't like it, right?"

Buffy glances at Spike, who nods.

"Totally," she says.

Dawn goes back to writing in her notebook.

Buffy breathes out, running her fingers through her hair. "Okay, so I've gotta figure out a ride to the airport tomorrow, and decide on the flowers for the service. And get programs printed. Sh—ugh, we've gotta write programs."

"Not to add more to your plate, love," Spike points out, "but you may want to start on your eulogy tonight, too."

"Oh." Buffy drags her teeth over her bottom lip. "I—I wasn't gonna… I thought, you know, Carol is gonna do one, and Dawn's kinda got it covered on the daughter front, and…"

Spike says, "Alright."

"Should I do one?" Buffy asks, looking around the table. "I mean, is everyone gonna be, like, 'Oh, look at that Buffy, she's the world's worst daughter,' if I don't do a speech?"

"No one's gonna think that, love," Spike says gently.

"Definitely not," Willow agrees. "I mean, you've put together this whole thing! You're taking care of so much, and like you said—Dawnie's is gonna be great, and—and you know, everyone's got different jobs."

Buffy smiles faintly. "Thanks, guys."

Spike tugs the planning notebook out from under Buffy's arm and says, "Well, let's draw up a program. Have we got the music yet?"

Buffy thunks her head on the table.

 

~*~

 

"Thanks for driving," Buffy says, clutching the little handrail thing near the passenger side window.

"You're welcome," Anya says pleasantly. "I've been unhappy ever since Joyce died and being helpful makes me feel better."

"That's nice," says Buffy. "I haven't tried taking my driver's test in a few years, but I think the yellow line means—"

"Oh, there's a test?" asks Anya. "How funny."

Buffy is gonna kill Xander.

 

~*~

 

On the plus side: they get to the airport five minutes ahead of schedule. 

Buffy waits near the gate, fidgeting with her cardigan and fighting the urge to retail therapy with those crazily overpriced headphones they sell in airport stores (but getting Spike one of those shirts that says I love Sunnydale would be pretty funny). 

When the passengers all start getting off the plane, Buffy stands on her tiptoes to look over the crowd, and waves when she finally recognizes Aunt Darlene. 

Aunt Darlene waves back and hurries over, dragging what seems like a really unnecessarily big rolling suitcase behind her. Her free hand flutters around as soon as she gets close enough to fret, "Buffy, sweetheart, you're even skinnier than I remember!"

"Hi, Aunt Darlene," Buffy says, giving her a quick hug.

"I'm so sorry, darling," Aunt Darlene tells her as she pulls away. "Oh, we're all so—Uncle Mitch sends his love. He wishes he could've come. But funerals are…"

Buffy has foggy memories of Celia's funeral, when she was young. She says, "I get it."

"And this is…?" Aunt Darlene looks at Anya.

"Oh, this is my friend, Anya," Buffy says. "Anya, this is my Aunt Darlene."

Anya gives Aunt Darlene a really enthusiastic handshake and says, "I'm very sorry for your loss," in her normal tone of voice. "I liked Joyce very much."

Aunt Darlene says, "Thank you, dear."

Buffy asks, "Um, can I get your suitcase?"

"Oh, don't worry, honey," Aunt Darlene tells her. "It's pretty heavy."

Buffy smiles politely and starts walking. "Um, we're in the parking deck over this way."

They head back through the airport, stopping so Aunt Darlene can use the bathroom, and hop into the car. Buffy tries to offer her shotgun, but she climbs into the back with her suitcase. Probably better for her sanity anyway.

"So, Anya," Aunt Darlene says with strained cheerfulness over the sound of a car honking loudly at them as they cut across like 3 lanes of traffic. "Have you lived in California long?"

"Yes, ma'am, all twenty years, born and raised," Anya says, even though she's suddenly talking in a really awful Midwestern accent that sounds pretty much exactly like Spike does when he's making fun of Riley. "Born on the Fourth of July, in fact, and don't think there weren't jokes about that my whole life, 'cause there were. 'My little patriot,' they'd say, when I was younger and therefore smaller and shorter than I am now."

"Oh. That's nice," says Aunt Darlene.

Buffy leans her temple against the window and watches the angry drivers blur by.

 

~*~

 

Anya drops them off at the curb and swerves off into the sunset. Buffy lifts Aunt Darlene's suitcase out of the car for her (definitely not passive-aggressively) and carries it into the house, which is weirdly quiet for this time of day: usually Spike will be playing music or watching TV while Dawn does her homework. Except Dawn's been out of school all this week and Spike smells like he's been chain smoking in the basement when he meets them in the foyer.

"'Ello, love," he says, kissing Buffy on the cheek. "You survive Anya's driving?"

"Barely," Buffy says. "I can't believe Xander lets her drive his car and not me."

Spike raises his eyebrow suggestively: it's because you're not shagging him.

Buffy ignores him. "Where's Dawn?"

"Upstairs," Spike says, "and in a mood. I'll run and tell her company's here. Good to meet you, by the way—I'm Spike."

"Oh," Aunt Darlene says, her mouth turning down a little when Spike offers a black-nail-polished hand. "That's… unique."

"Spike is my boyfriend, Aunt Darlene," Buffy says with forced brightness. "I think you guys talked on the phone?"

Aunt Darlene says, "Yes, of course, I'm sorry. It's so good of you to be helping the girls right now. Will you be staying for dinner?"

Spike looks at Buffy, whose brain decides to stop talking to her mouth. She says, "Um, Spike lives—he's been staying with us? So, um, with the dinner. Yeah. Honey, did you say Dawn's upstairs?"

"Uh… yeah," he says awkwardly. "I… I'll go get her."

Spike, the guy who once cackled like a psychopath after he ripped the head off a demon like it was a Barbie doll and got goopy brain guts all over Buffy's favorite jacket, flees up the stairs like a scared puppy.

Buffy's stomach flutters affectionately.

"He's been staying here?" Aunt Darlene asks skeptically.

Okay, butterflies gone.

Buffy puts the suitcase by the stairs and says, "Um, yeah, for a little while actually? Do you wanna sit? We can put on the TV or something before dinner."

"Oh, I brought some photo albums I thought we could look through," Aunt Darlene says. "Maybe something to put in the programs—unless you've printed those already."

"Um, no," Buffy says. "We're still working on them. But that sounds—"

"Hi, Aunt Darlene," Dawn says from the top of the stairs.

"Oh, Dawnie!" Aunt Darlene coos. "Look at you! You've grown so much this year—you're just as tall as Buffy."

Dawn heads downstairs and into a hug from Aunt Darlene, Spike following an awkward distance behind. Buffy grabs him by the wrist and pulls him over to her.

"Oh, sweetheart," Aunt Darlene asks. "How are you holding up?"

"I'm okay." Dawn's voice is muffled in her sweater. "Are you?"

Aunt Darlene smiles sadly. "I'm surviving. It's the most we can do. I brought some photo albums."

Spike wraps his arm around Buffy's waist; she leans into his side.

"From when you guys were kids?" Dawn asks. She even looks a little excited.

"Yes, but more recently, too." Aunt Darlene's eyes do that misty thing they do a lot. "I tried to take a lot of them, these past few years."

Dawn says, "I'm sure they're really nice."

Buffy glances at Spike: I thought you said she was in a mood.

He shrugs, his expression shuttering off a little.

Buffy says, "Why don't we sit in the living room and—"

The front door opens, which makes Aunt Darlene jump—but it's just Giles, blinking at the crowd in the foyer.

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry," he says. "Ah, Buffy—I thought we were finalizing the programs before dinner?"

"Um, yeah," Buffy says. "At six?"

Giles looks at his watch. "I thought that dinner was at six and—oh, nevermind. Do you want me to come back?"

"Nah, that's okay." Buffy looks between everyone. "Um, Giles, this is my Aunt Darlene. Aunt Darlene, this is Mr. Giles. He's, um, a family friend."

Giles reaches out to shake Aunt Darlene's hand. "I'm deeply sorry for your loss. You may call me Rupert."

"Darlene," she says. "You were a friend of Joyce's?"

"Ah, yes," Giles says. "And a—a mentor, of sorts, to Buffy, I suppose. I worked at the high school."

Aunt Darlene frowns. "Not anymore?"

"It blew up," says Dawn.

"Oh, dear." Aunt Darlene fidgets with her necklace. "I always thought Joyce was exaggerating when she said odd things happened in Sunnydale."

"She was underselling, I expect," Spike says. "Can I take your bag up to the room?"

Aunt Darlene says, "Oh, let me get the albums."

Spike waits while she pulls three heavy photo albums out of her suitcase and zips it up again, then takes it upstairs for her. It's weird watching him try to be polite; he did it to Mom, sometimes, but that was different—less defensive.

Buffy says, "Um, maybe you and Dawn can pick out pictures while me and Giles do the rest of the program stuff?"

"Oh, we can look through them later," Aunt Darlene says, but she carries all three into the dining room. "I want you to see them, too. Let's have a look at the program so far."

Buffy glances at Giles, who shrugs. She, him, and Dawn follow Aunt Darlene and pull up chairs around the dining room table. Giles takes the planning notebook and starts walking Aunt Darlene through what they have so far.

A few moments later, Spike joins them and drags his chair right next to Buffy's, so their thighs are touching and he can wrap his arm around her. She lays her head on his shoulder gratefully.

Aunt Darlene's mouth puckers when she glances up at them.

"Ah, one detail would be the pallbearers," Giles is explaining. "We do have five, but if you and your sister wanted to participate as well, I'm told the casket can accommodate eight."

"Oh, that's very kind. I'd like to." Aunt Darlene looks at the notebook. "Who are the others?"

Giles says, "Myself, Buffy, Spike, and two of Buffy's friends. I believe they're coming to dinner."

"I see," says Aunt Darlene. "Buffy, are you sure you want to help carry it? Caskets are very heavy."

Spike shifts in his seat a little. Buffy puts a hand on his knee and says, "I can handle it." 

Aunt Darlene's eyes keep scanning the page. "Oh, 'Wind Beneath My Wings' was always one of Joyce's favorites—that's lovely."

"Like mother, like daughter," Spike murmurs, pressing a kiss to Buffy's temple.

"What's that?" Aunt Darlene asks.

"Oh, nothing, ma'am," Spike says. "Just that Buffy's the one who picked the music."

Aunt Darlene hums. She grabs a pencil and scribbles something on the page. "Buffy, Dawn, how long do you think your speeches will be?"

There's an awkward pause.

"I think mine's kinda short," Dawn says. "I don't wanna start crying and stuff."

"It's alright if you do," Aunt Darlene says gently.

Buffy rubs her thumb across the side-seam of Spike's jeans and says, "Um, I'm not giving a speech. I might just, um, like thank everyone for coming and stuff and then introduce whoever's first."

"Oh, Buffy," Aunt Darlene says, a little like Mom used to sound when Buffy would come home suspended again. "You don't want to say something to honor your mother?"

Buffy's stomach twists. "Um, I do, it's just…"

"You know how much it will mean to her to hear both of you speak," Aunt Darlene continues, looking between Buffy and Dawn. "You were her greatest joy in life. You know that, don't you?"

"Listen," Spike says—not so much with the polite anymore. "She doesn't have to—"

"It's okay," Buffy says quickly. She tries to keep her lip from trembling. "Um, I can… maybe I'll go last."

Giles's voice is all gentle. He says, "It's quite common for loved ones to read poetry or—or scripture, as well. Perhaps you'd be more comfortable with that, Buffy?"

"I'll think about it," she says quietly.

Spike squeezes her arm.

Buffy wants to hold him. She wants to crawl into his lap and hide her face in his neck until all of this is over and nothing hurts anymore. She wants to go kill something.

Giles says, "I spoke to Carol on the phone this morning, and she expected her speech to take about five minutes."

"Has she been practicing?" Dawn asks. "M-maybe I should practice mine."

"I'll help you later, bit," Spike offers.

"I don't want your help," she says flatly.

Buffy says, "Dawn."

Dawn looks up at her, nostrils flaring a little, and says nothing.

"It's good to practice," Aunt Darlene tells Dawn. "Saying it in front of a crowd will always be difficult, but that will make it a bit easier."

"Yes," Giles agrees. "That's good advice."

Aunt Darlene smiles sadly at him. "I've given a lot of eulogies."

"Will you read mine?" Dawn asks. "Um, please?"

"Of course, sweetheart." Aunt Darlene squeezes her hand across the table. "Do you want me to take a look at it now?"

"Yes, please," Dawn says. "My notebook's in the living room."

Aunt Darlene follows Dawn into the other room. Spike watches them go, his jaw popping and eyes hard.

Buffy takes his face in her hands, turning his gaze back to her, and digs her fingers into the muscle there soothingly. "You okay?"

He laughs darkly.

"If it's any consolation," Giles says, "I've often found that children lash out at those they feel safest—"

"I need a smoke," Spike says suddenly, almost knocking his chair over when he gets up.

Buffy stands up too. "I'll go with you."

Spike pulls back the curtains and glances outside: the sun must not be finished setting, because he stalks down to the basement. Buffy shoots Giles an apologetic look before she follows.

There's an old beanbag chair from Dawn's tween days under the little row of tiny basement windows, which are all cracked open. Buffy sits down in it while he's grabbing his smokes and drags him down into her lap, and his weight is steady against her, pressing her deeper into the chair as it makes these little whisper-y noises and changes shapes.

Spike's face is tucked into her neck. She tugs the cigarette carton out of his hand and pulls out a smoke, tapping it against the box like she's watched him do. It's nice to have a job. She knows how to light a cigarette. She puts it between her teeth.

"Those things'll kill you," Spike mutters. His breath is cool.

Buffy flips his lighter open and strikes the spark on the first try. She gets the cigarette burning and plucks it out of her mouth without inhaling and says, "They can get in line."

"Don't want you takin' care of me," he says, but he takes the cigarette.

Buffy runs a hand through his hair. "I want me."

"Ain't right," Spike says, blowing out a stream of smoke. "I'm…"

Buffy waits. He sinks lower against her chest, his ear falling right above her heart, and doesn't say anything else. She kisses the top of his forehead and says, "I'm doing all this stuff, giving all this stuff, and it's like… it just keeps happening. It never stops."

Spike takes another drag.

"But I feel like…" Buffy presses her lips together. "I get it back, when it's for you. Does that make any sense?"

Spike nods; his eyes slip shut when she scratches her fingers against his scalp, the smoke puffing gently out of his mouth when he lowers his hand to rest it on her thigh. Ashes sprinkle onto her jeans.

"Thanks," Buffy whispers.

He smiles a little.

 

~*~

 

They hide out in the basement for three whole cigarettes before it's dinner time. Xander coughs exaggeratedly when they walk up into the kitchen and says, "Jeez, Buff, you know those things'll kill ya."

"We already made that joke today," says Buffy.

"Damn," says Xander. "I'll try again tomorrow."

Giles is pulling one of Mr. Rosenberg's casseroles out of the oven. "Ah, Buffy," he says, "Darlene wanted to know whether we'd be having wine with dinner."

"Um, I think Mom had some in the basement," Buffy says. She touches at Spike's hip. "Will you go check?"

Spike heads back downstairs.

Giles takes off his oven mitts and places a hand on Buffy's shoulder. "How are you doing?"

"I'm okay," Buffy says quietly. "I just—"

She pauses when Dawn walks in to grab a bunch of silverware, waiting until she leaves again.

"I'm just tired," says Buffy. "And things feel kinda… tense."

"I can imagine they would," Giles says. "Having family in town under these circumstances, and given the… unconventionality of your life."

"That's a word for it," Buffy says as Spike comes back from the basement with a bottle of wine in each hand: one white and one red.

"Not really sure what goes with green bean," he explains.

Buffy says, "All wine is a friend."

He quirks his lips at her.

They join up with the others in the dining room, where Dawn has the table totally set and everyone besides Buffy and Spike have drinks already, too. Buffy's chair is at the head of the table, opposite Giles, but she drags her seat around to be directly next to Spike's instead.

He puts the bottles down and asks her, "Water, love?"

"Yes, please," she answers, kissing him on the cheek.

Spike heads back to the kitchen, slipping past Giles who comes in with the casserole. They pass around plates for casserole and bread rolls; Giles uncorks the bottle of red wine. 

The last time everyone sat down together with a bottle of wine, Mom had cooked everyone Christmas dinner. Buffy takes an empty wine glass when Spike carries in a handful and fills it almost to the top.

"Oh," Aunt Darlene asks when Spike sits down again and everyone reaches for their forks. "Do you not normally say Grace?"

Buffy throws back half her wine.

"I'm terribly sorry," Giles says. "How forgetful of us. Would you like to do the honors?"

Everyone holds hands except Willow, who politely folds hers in her lap; Buffy shoots Spike a worried look: are you gonna, like, burst into flames?

He shrugs.

Aunt Darlene's prayer-thing is, like, pretty normal, probably, and then they go back to eating. The casserole probably tastes like green mush to Spike, but he keeps up appearances or whatever. 

Buffy picks at her bread a little and reaches for her wine again.

The conversation is a big fat none.

Willow asks, "Oh, Spike, could you hand me the butter?"

He hums, passing it across the table.

"I'm sorry," Aunt Darlene says, looking at Spike. "I don't mean to be rude, but that's not your real name, is it?"

Buffy sits up straighter and says, "That is really rude. Why does it—"

"My given name's William, ma'am," Spike says. "But mostly I go by Spike—an old joke 'tween me and some old friends."

"A really old joke," Dawn mutters.

"I see," Aunt Darlene says. She refolds her napkin in her lap. "I was just curious. It's an unusual nickname."

Spike says, "Yes, ma'am."

Buffy pours a second glass of wine. She concentrates on not shattering the bottle.

"So, ah, regarding the programs," Giles says, clearing his throat. "I believe they're almost ready. But, Buffy—you mentioned that Joyce didn't want a wake?"

"Um, yeah." Buffy tears off another tiny chunk of bread. "She said potlucks were depressing enough as it is."

Spike huffs out a quiet laugh.

"We may want to make a note of it in the program, then," Giles says.

"Um, good idea," Buffy says. She fidgets with her napkin. "'Cause otherwise people will probably expect one, right? Do you think people will expect one?"

"I think so, yeah," Willow says.

Buffy chews on her bottom lip. "Maybe something like, 'Following the burial, there will be no wake—'" She pauses. "Or… 'gathering?'"

"Maybe, 'At Joyce's request,'" Aunt Darlene offers.

"Or, 'At the request of the family,'" Spike suggests.

Buffy rubs at her temples. "Okay."

Giles says, "I'll put a line at the bottom of the second page—does that work?"

"Sure," says Buffy. She takes another drink of wine.

Quietly, Spike says, "You should eat, love."

She glances at him tiredly.

"Here." Spike scoops a bite of casserole off his plate and holds his fork out to her. "Try mine."

Buffy raises an eyebrow at him. "It's literally the same food."

"Tastes better when it's someone else's," Spike says lowly, his mouth quirking all suggestively as he wiggles the fork.

Buffy says, "You're literally so gross," and rests her hand on his bicep when she takes the bite he offers her. After, she tilts her face up for a kiss.

He tastes like cigarettes and green beans with cheese, which isn't, like, objectively a winning combination. She kisses him again anyway.

When she pulls away, everyone is staring at them except for Giles, who's really focused on buttering a piece of bread. She catches the end of an eye roll from Dawn.

Willow smiles faintly at her; Xander is making his I'm only pretending to be grossed out face.

Aunt Darlene asks, "So, William, what do you do?"

Spike blinks at her. "What's that?"

"For your job," Aunt Darlene says. "Or are you in college like Buffy?"

"Uh," says Spike. "Guess you could say I'm—between… I moved in a couple of months ago when Mum got sick—" Dawn's fork scrapes across her plate. "And mostly I've been helping around the house, sitting Dawn and the like."

"Oh," says Aunt Darlene. "So you're a homemaker."

"... Suppose," Spike says.

Buffy rests her hand on his thigh.

"But you're still in school, Buffy?" Aunt Darlene asks.

"Um, I… I guess," Buffy says. "I mean, um, I—I was, but I'm gonna have to withdraw this semester, I think, and maybe go back in the fall? There's just been a lot of, um—I've missed a lot of class."

Willow says worriedly, "Oh, but I could always help you catch up!"

Buffy smiles thinly at her. "I know."

"Well, how will the two of you be financially?" Aunt Darlene presses.

Buffy's hand might go a little bruise-y on Spike's leg. He doesn't react.

Giles intervenes, "There's, ah—we're still in the process of—the process of reviewing Joyce's financials. We've really only had a few days to—"

"No, of course," Aunt Darlene says. "I don't mean to overwhelm you all. There's just so much to do and I know that it's easy for things to slip through the cracks."

"There's not cracks," Buffy says. Her voice sounds weirdly hollow and kind of reedy. "We're just, um—" She looks at Spike. "I mean, maybe you could—"

"We'll find something," Spike promises. "I can get money, Sla—Buffy."

Buffy frowns; she's not sure Spike's version of getting money is Team Good Guy approved. But, hey, she'd love to not starve to death, so.

Speaking of, she stabs her fork into her casserole.

"Well, what did you do before?" Aunt Darlene asks.

"Before?" Spike repeats.

"Before you took a break from working to help with the house," Aunt Darlene says.

"Oh. Uh." Spike looks at Buffy, who's kinda busy chugging her wine. "Well, you see, it was—"

"Spike worked construction with me," Xander blurts. "Yep. Just some good ole manual labor. I'm sure he'll be able to hop right back on our next contract when it comes up."

Buffy shoots him a grateful look.

"Yeah," Spike says lamely. "That."

"Oh, so you two are friends, then?" Aunt Darlene asks.

Xander hides his face behind his soda can. "Yeah, I walked into that one, huh?"

"Is that how you all met?" asks Aunt Darlene.

"Oh, no," Buffy says with a laugh. "I've known Xander and Willow since high school, and for a while Spike was trying to kill me—" Xander kicks her under the table. "At lasertag?"

"Lasertag?" ask Spike and Aunt Darlene.

Buffy jabs him in the ribs as a panicked go with it.

"Uh, I mean, yeah. Lasertag," Spike says. "We were real competitive. Nasty stuff."

"Mom never mentioned I did lasertag?" Buffy asks innocently. "I mean, I was really into it for a while."

"Could say it was her calling," adds Spike.

"And Spike moved to town and was like, 'Grr, I'm so cool, I'm better at lasertag than you!'" Buffy says. "And we played on rival teams for a while."

Spike asks, "You thought I was cool?"

"You thought you were cool."

"Oi."

"So anyway, then Spike, um, couldn't play for a while—"

"Broken wrist," he supplies.

"—and we started hanging out, like, not at lasertag," Buffy continues. She turns to him with a smile. "And we kinda…"

"Fell in love?" Spike finishes warmly, his eyes doing that shiny thing they do.

Buffy leans in to kiss him. His tongue sweeps across her bottom lip and her stomach swoops.

"Wow," says Xander. "Can I just say? I really wish we had that on video tape." He pauses. "That legally insane story, not the kiss."

Dawn says, "You guys are literally so lame."

Buffy sticks her tongue out at her and goes back to her food; she feels hungry again all of a sudden.

Aunt Darlene says, "So, Xander, do you have a girlfriend?"

 

~*~

 

Xander, Willow, and Giles head out after dinner; Giles promises to get the programs printed first thing in the morning and to meet them at the funeral home before the service. 

Buffy, Spike, and Dawn sit with Aunt Darlene on the couch while she flips through her photo albums, sharing stories as she goes. The pictures start out mostly in black and white, but by the time Mom and Aunt Darlene are teenagers, all the pictures are in color.

Which is the kind of stuff Buffy gets excited to ask Spike about: weird things from history he was around to watch change. Did they even have cameras when he was born? 

She'll try to remember to ask him later; for now, she just leans her head against his shoulder while they listen to Aunt Darlene talk.

"Oh, and here we are on vacation in… I think this was the Catskills," Aunt Darlene is saying.

"Oh my God," Dawn says. "What's in Mom's hand?"

"I think it was a toad," Aunt Darlene says fondly. "Your mother loved animals. She wanted to be a vet for the longest time."

Dawn frowns. "Then how come we never got to have pets growing up?"

"Your father was allergic," says Aunt Darlene.

"Why didn't she become a vet?" asks Buffy.

Aunt Darlene smiles. "Oh, dreams change. She took an art history class in college and fell in love."

She flips to another page in the book. "Oh, would you look at that."

Buffy does: Mom is holding a newborn in her arms, beaming at the little scrunched up potato baby with her hair tied back by a bandana.

"Is that Buffy?" Dawn asks.

"No, that's my Celia," Aunt Darlene says. She taps on the picture. "See the timestamp? Born exactly a month apart."

She flips through a few pages of Celia's baby pictures, then pauses again on more pictures of Mom with another baby. "There you are, Buffy. We had the hardest time getting a single picture of you not crying."

"That's my girl," Spike teases, nipping at the shell of her ear. "Always brassed off about somethin'."

Buffy pokes him in the ribs. "Watch it, mister."

"Really only case in point," he says.

Dawn asks, "Was Buffy a bad baby?"

"There are no bad babies," Aunt Darlene says. "Buffy was a loud baby."

"I had spunk," Buffy says stubbornly.

"Yes, you did," Aunt Darlene agrees. "The first time you slept through the night, your mom called me crying because she was convinced something was wrong with you. Which, of course, woke you right up."

Buffy picks at her sleeves. "I guess I was always giving her a hard time."

"She loved you," Aunt Darlene says simply. "She swore you would keep her young."

Spike tightens his arm around Buffy's waist.

Aunt Darlene flips to the next page, which has pictures of Buffy and Celia at what looks like a birthday party. "Oh, I think you girls were two or three, here. You were inseparable at that age. This was before your mom and dad moved to that bigger house and we lived just down the street."

"I don't really remember that house," Buffy admits.

"You were practically still babies," Aunt Darlene says. "But you did everything together. Oh, Buffy, I think you were too young to remember, but—do you remember failing your swim test so Celia wouldn't be the only one left behind?"

"No," Buffy says, surprised. "I really did that?"

Aunt Darlene nods. "The instructor knew, of course. You were the best swimmer in the class. But you had such a big heart, even then."

Buffy's throat stings. She says, "Thank you."

"Do you still miss Celia?" Dawn asks.

Aunt Darlene smiles sadly and says, "Every day. She was my world—she had so many dreams. I think about that a lot."

"I think I'll miss Mom forever, too," says Dawn.

"I'm sure that you will," Aunt Darlene tells her. "You figure out how to keep living, but it never really goes away. Sometimes it gets a little smaller."

Buffy feels Spike breathing next to her. She tries to breathe like him.

"And it helps remembering that they're together now." Aunt Darlene touches one of the photographs. "My baby girl and my dear sister. Oh, Celia used to throw a tea party every time Auntie Joyce came to visit. Buffy, do you remember?"

"Yeah," Buffy says quietly. 

Aunt Darlene presses her mouth into a thin line as tears wobble and roll down her cheeks. She sniffles and laughs, embarrassed, as she dabs at her eyes.

"Oh, girls, I'm sorry," she says wetly. "I don't want you to see me like this."

"It's okay," Dawn tells her.

Spike leans over and grabs two tissues from the box on the coffee table and hands them to her. Her fingers shake a little when she takes them and says, "Thank you, William."

He just nods.

"You'll always wish you had more time," Aunt Darlene says. She sniffles again, wiping her nose. "My father was sick for years and I still just wanted—that's what I want you to know, girls. It's the most precious thing. I guess that's what these pictures are, really—just trying to have a little more time."

Dawn is crying too—big fat tears with her nostrils flaring, and Spike is rubbing circles into Buffy's back while she white-knuckles herself together. Her chest feels like if it opens it'll crack apart for good and she's got both hands squeezing her ribcage shut. She closes her eyes and feels dryness on her cheeks.

"Do I have baby pictures?" Dawn asks in a tiny voice.

Aunt Darlene dabs at her eyes one last time and steadies her voice. "Of course you do. Let's find them."

 

~*~

 

The pictures are right where they're supposed to be. Baby Dawn is smiling at the camera.

 

~*~

 

After Aunt Darlene and Dawn go to bed, Spike heats himself up a mug of blood and pulls Buffy into his lap in the big armchair in the living room. Her lips twitch for a second, before she goes back to frowning at the blank page in her notebook.

"Alright, love?" he asks, spreading his fingers out across her hip.

"I just…" Buffy chews on her lip. "Don't know what to say? It's like my brain just goes pfft! like vamp dust whenever I try."

Spike kisses her temple. "Want me to help?"

"No, it's… it's okay." Buffy leans back against his chest. "Maybe I'll just take a break."

"Sometimes it comes to you when you're not tryin' so hard," Spike says. "It doesn't have to be fancy or literary or any of that rot—just from the heart."

Buffy says, "Maybe that's the problem," and then goes really, really still.

Spike brushes the hair away from her face and waits.

"I loved—love Mom so much," Buffy croaks. She turns her head so her hair falls forward again and sticks to her cheeks. "But sometimes I don't know if—if she wanted me, or—God, I can't believe I'm saying this, Spike, I'm so awful, I—I—"

"You're not," Spike says firmly. His mug taps against the coffee table and then both his arms are holding her so tightly that she almost can't breathe, or maybe she already couldn't, and his voice is rumbling roughly up his chest. "You're just a daughter, Buffy. You just wanted her to love you."

"Did she?" Buffy asks.

"Yes," says Spike. "I swear it, love. Swear on anything you like."

Buffy hiccups miserably, pressing her nose into his throat. "Sometimes I think the monks just made Dawn, like, this—this perfect kid, and I was never gonna… I'm just me."

"'Just Buffy's' a damn good thing to be," Spike tells her. "I love 'Just Buffy'—and so did Mum."

"But not the same," Buffy says. "Not perfect."

Spike's fingers card through her hair again. He's always trying to look at her, even when she's ugly.

"Thought we weren't trying for that anymore," he reminds her.

But it'd still be nice.

Buffy takes a deep breath. She dries her cheeks against his shirt and sits up a little again, propping her head up higher on his shoulder. "I'm sorry."

"Nothin' to be sorry for," he says. Then, after a pause, "And for the record? Girl's a perfect hellion is what she is—just like you. Stomped on my foot the other day, did I tell you?"

Buffy snorts. Her expression softens, looking up at him, and she brushes her fingers across his cheek and tells him, "I'm sorry," again.

Spike kisses the tip of her nose. 

"Thanks for looking out for her," Buffy says quietly.

"'Til the end of the world," says Spike.

They kiss softly; Buffy's fingers nudge into the fuzzy hairs at the top of Spike's neck. And for a second, nothing's wrong at all.

"Um, Spike?" asks Dawn, standing in the doorway in her pajamas and fuzzy slippers, her arms hugged around her middle. She looks down when they both turn to her. "I… changed some stuff in my eulogy. Will you help me practice?"

Spike looks like he's about to cry. He smiles and says, "'Course, little bit. I'll help you."

Dawn smiles shakily back.

"Do you want me to listen, too?" Buffy asks.

"Um, no," Dawn says. "I wanna wait until it's done."

"Okay," says Buffy.

She and Spike untangle from each other so he can stand up; he cups her jaw and quietly asks, "You alright?"

"Yeah," Buffy says. "I'll, um, just work on mine a little more."

"Alright," he says, thumbing at her cheek before he pulls away. 

Then he and Dawn head into the other room, where Buffy can hear their voices drifting back towards her in that muffled, almost-not-real way instead.

The chair feels so empty. Buffy glances at her notebook and all the nothing in it and, fighting against the pang in her chest, reaches for a photo album instead.

 

~*~

 

"Thanks for coming," Buffy says. She hugs another near-stranger. "Thanks for coming."

Instrumental music is playing from two fancy speakers at the front of the room, DJed by Xander and picked out by Giles. Spike is stationed at the rear door, listening for Angel to run in from the sewers, and Willow is directing people to a memory book laid out on a little table and then to their seats. She keeps adjusting the flower arrangements right on the edge of Buffy's field of vision.

Riley walks into the funeral home wearing a dark suit.

Buffy's smile gets less wooden-y. "Riley, thanks for coming."

He hugs her, giving her a quick squeeze. "Of course, Buffy. You hanging in there?"

"Definite dangling action," Buffy says, pulling away. "Um, the casserole was really good, by the way. And thanks for, um—" She glances around. "The other thing."

"It's my mom's recipe," Riley tells her. "The casserole, not the other thing."

Buffy's lips twitch. "Um, you can basically sit anywhere except the front row. And, um, I know you really just met her a couple times, but there's a memory book if you wanted to sign or anything."

"Thanks," Riley says. He gestures in that direction. "Willow looks like she could use a break. Maybe I'll help her out, if that's okay."

"Good luck," says Buffy. "She's like one of those fish that dies if it stops swimming."

Riley makes his confused TA face at her, but he goes to talk to Willow anyway.

Just then, the back door clicks when Spike pushes it open; Angel stumbles inside with his coat pulled over his head, then quickly drops it and tries to smother the smoke coming off his skin.

Buffy watches the two of them stare each other down, a big knot forming in her stomach, until Angel says something she can't hear and smoothes down his hair, and Spike rolls his eyes and pushes him further into the room.

She locks eyes with Spike over Angel's shoulder and mouths: thank you.

Spike shoves his hands into his pockets with a nod. He goes to sit in the front row, leaving an empty seat for Buffy between himself and Dawn.

Angel makes his way across to her, nodding awkwardly to Xander and Giles when he passes by the little stage at the back of the room. 

"Buffy," he says, shifting a little like he's not sure how close he's supposed to stand. "Hey."

Buffy says, "Hey. Thanks for coming."

"Yeah, of course," Angel says. "I'm glad I made it before the service."

"Me too," Buffy says.

"Uh, I—" Angel glances around. "Can I help with anything? Uh, setting up, or…?"

Buffy says, "Um, we're okay. I think we should start pretty soon, so, if you wanted to sit?"

Angel says, "Sure."

"Um, so, the first row is for, like, immediate family and stuff," Buffy says. "So you can sit there if you want, or, um, anywhere, basically."

Angel says, "Okay," and walks away.

Buffy watches him take a seat in the third row. She takes a breath, for a second, and then turns back to face the entrance.

"Hi," she says. "Thanks for coming."

 

~*~

 

Giles announces that the service is starting and asks for everyone to take their seats; he joins Willow, Tara, and Anya on the end of the first row. 

Carol's eulogy is first: she tells the story of how she and Mom decided to open up their gallery together, plus a highlight reel of all the wacky (demonic) stuff they had to deal with over the years. A lot of people laugh. 

Aunt Lolly, who drove up this morning, and Aunt Darlene each read a poem, and then it's Dawn's turn. She brings her notebook up there with her and tilts the microphone down a little so it's at the right height.

She looks so small up there. Her hair keeps falling in her face when she looks down at her speech and she has to brush it behind her ears.

"Um, hi," she says. "I looked up what a eulogy was supposed to be like, and it said that you should try and tell people about the person's life. Um, like if you were talking to someone who had never met them."

Dawn looks up. "But I thought that was stupid, because you all knew my mom. That's why you're here. So I thought maybe I'd tell you something you might not know—my favorite thing about her."

She takes a deep breath.

"And, um, my favorite thing about my mom is that she always made me feel special." Dawn looks down at her notebook quickly, then back up. "Um, don't tell her I said this, but my sister is kind of the coolest person I know."

Buffy's chin jerks with surprise. She looks at Spike: did you know about this?

He squeezes her hand.

"I mean, I'm actually not legally allowed to tell you how cool my sister is. That's how cool we're talking," Dawn says. A lot of people in the audience are smiling; someone in the second row reaches forward to squeeze Buffy's shoulder. "And that's really great, 'cause the world needs a Buffy."

Dawn looks down again, and this time her hair stays like a curtain around her face. Her voice quivers a little as she says, "It's just that, um, it gets hard sometimes… being the little sister. Because I'm not important like that—I can't do all the amazing stuff my sister does, and I don't have a super cool boyfriend—" Spike's grip tightens on Buffy's hand. "—or a bunch of awesome friends."

Buffy's throat feels tight and fragile.

"But I always knew I mattered to Mom," Dawn says. She smiles a little. "She made a book club with me and I got to pick the book every time, and she let me stay up late and talk about boys even when it was a school night, and she was always coming up with nicknames just for me. When I thought I didn't belong here, she told me that—that I did."

Buffy presses her lips together.

"So, um, that's my favorite thing about my mom," Dawn says, looking out over the crowd. "I'm glad they made me her kid."

Me too, Buffy thinks. She wipes at her eyes, still clutching Spike's hand with one of hers, and watches with her mouth trembling as Dawn gathers up her notebook and walks back off the stage.

Only Buffy's eulogy is left. She hugs Dawn, whispering an I love you in her ear, and then walks up to the podium empty-handed.

The crowd seems a lot bigger from up here. All these people dressed in black, faces shiny and washed out by the lights. Willow's hair sticks to the tears on her cheeks like little streaks of blood.

Buffy feels a little woozy. She shouldn't have given Spike the runaround about lunch. She grabs the podium with both hands and it creaks under her weight.

She lets it go.

"Um, I—I didn't write anything down," Buffy says. "Which is, like, so typical. I mean, I can practically hear Mom now, being like, 'Honestly, Buffy, you never just do your homework!'"

Some people in the audience laugh.

"But I think the thing was—um, I mean, I tried to write stuff down, but I couldn't figure out… what to say." 

Buffy's chest feels all tight when she tries to breathe. 

"So I thought maybe if I just—" 

Fuck, it really hurts. 

"Spoke from… from the heart—" 

And they're all looking at her and they all need her to say it, to say anything, to make this better or worth it or to make up for the fact that her mother is a body in a casket, and last week everything was better. Last week should could do anything and her mom was gonna live forever and—

Dawn must've felt really special the summer Buffy lived in LA.

Buffy covers her mouth in horror. She looks at Spike desperately, who goes all blurry, and she chokes out, "I—I can't."

A second later, she's wrapped in his arms.

Spike cups the back of her head and angles her away from the microphone and she breathes his cigarette smell until her nose hurts, until her throat feels raw and sore from swallowing back sobs and the seams of his nice new shirt are ripping from how tightly she's clutching it.

"Just talk to me, love," Spike murmurs gently. "Like they're not even here."

"I can't," Buffy whispers.

The microphone stand creaks when Spike readjusts it to his level. Buffy keeps her face hidden against his chest.

"Uh, I didn't do the homework either," Spike says into the mic. "But Joyce was my first friend when I came to Sunnydale, and I didn't much deserve one at the time. I showed up pissed-drunk on her porch, going on and on about my ex."

Xander snorts; Spike shifts a little in his direction.

"Yeah, it was as classy as it sounds," he says drily, and Buffy makes herself smile a little. "But Mum took me in anyway. She listened to all my blubbering and, well, told me some things I needed to hear—like the fact that my ex was madder than a sack of hammers."

Buffy breathes out shakily.

"And after that, any time I was out of sorts, thinkin' maybe I was alone, she and I'd just talk," Spike continues. "She always invited me in—always had the kettle on for a cuppa or some hot cocoa."

Buffy pulls herself together and says, "Oh my God," looking up with a tentative flicker of a smile. "She made the best hot chocolate."

"That she did," Spike agrees. He smiles a little too, brushing her hair away from her face. "Always knew when you needed it, too."

"It was, like, her special Mom Power." Buffy drags her teeth over her bottom lip, glancing towards the crowd. Tara smiles encouragingly at her and she turns towards the mic a little, keeping both arms around Spike. "God, there were so many times when my friends and I would come home after—crazy stuff, and she'd make everyone hot chocolate and it was like it didn't even matter."

Spike rubs a hand up and down her back.

"And…and I think that's what she wanted for me, right?" Buffy says, looking up at him again. "She just didn't want the bad stuff to seem so bad. She hated that… that life had to be so hard. I'd come home covered in goop or something and she'd just clean it all up."

"She wanted to protect you," Spike says. "I'll never forget the night I met her—this was before the cocoa, mind you—she really laid into me."

Buffy sniffles and says, "You deserved it so much."

"I did," he agrees. He wets his bottom lip. "And she still treated me like family. Like I could be…"

"Not so bad?" Buffy asks.

Spike swallows.

Buffy remembers the audience. She looks out over them, cousins and moms from the neighborhood and people from the bank. People who loved the gallery. Angel's marble face and Dawn's splotchy cheeks that look exactly like Aunt Darlene's. 

She says, "Um, I guess the thing is that my mom didn't always understand me."

Someone's program rustles in their hands.

"Um, because—I got in a lot of trouble, and I sort of have this—this whole thing I've gotta do, and I don't think she really wanted that for me. She just wanted me to be safe and happy and—and I don't always get to be that stuff." Buffy swallows harshly. Her eyes sting. "But I think she was trying, and it—it was getting better, and it's not—"

She cuts off.

"It's not fair," Buffy says thickly. "It's not fair that I don't get to find out. It's not fair that she won't watch my baby sister grow up and she won't be there when I get married, and it's not fair that she's never gonna know how Passions ends, and we're just supposed to keep going."

No one says anything. They're not supposed to; they get to just watch. Just take.

It's not fair.

"So that's it," Buffy says, lifting her chin a little through the burn in her chest. "I'm sorry I couldn't make it better. But if someone could give me my mom back, that'd be great."

There's a weird high pitch buzz coming from the speakers. Have they been doing that the whole time?

Spike's knuckles brush the hair away from her face, his expression soft and broken.

She wants to hit him; she hasn't in so long.

The anger fizzles out and a tiny sob squeaks out between her teeth. She hides in him again, one hand covering her mouth and the other curled in his shirt. There are all these eyes on her and someone coughs in one of the back rows and she remembers something her mom said to her that time those creepy demon kids haunted the town: that she never actually makes things better.

Was that just the spell?

"Uh, we'll be heading for the burial shortly," Spike says into the microphone, his hand soothing in her hair. "So—if the other pallbearers could head up here? And, uh, just remember the burial's at Restfield and the address's on the back of the program there, or you can follow the hearse."

Silence. Xander's supposed to start playing the last song, but nothing happens.

The microphone makes a muffled kind of rustling sound when Spike covers it with his hand. He shifts towards Xander and asks, "Did you wanna—"

"Maybe it's not the moment," Xander says.

"Play it," rasps Buffy.

The music kicks in. Buffy turns her head just far enough to watch Willow, Aunt Darlene, and Giles make their way in a line up the stairs. She scrubs roughly at her face, which probably fucks up her mascara, and pulls away from Spike the rest of the way.

"Oh, Buffy," Willow says, throwing her arms around her. "I'm so sorry. I—I didn't even think about—"

"I just wanna go," Buffy says quietly. "Um, to the…"

"Of course!" Willow says quickly. "Just let me—" She licks her thumbs and wipes at the bags under Buffy's eyes. "There. Good as—um, new."

Buffy smiles faintly. "Thanks."

She and Spike take their places on either side of the casket in the middle. Aunt Darlene yanks her into a hug right as she's reaching for the handle, saying, "Oh, sweetheart, I'm sorry. I didn't—oh, I shouldn't have made you get up there, but you did beautifully."

She didn't. 

She says, "Thank you."

"And, William?" Aunt Darlene asks. She leans across the casket to pat Spike's hand. "So did you."

Spike clears his throat. "Thank you, ma'am."

Aunt Darlene takes her place in front of Buffy. 

Giles, across from her, says, "Right. On my count, shall we? One, two…"

They lift on three. Buffy's fingers slip a little with sweat, but she locks her grip in place with a little pain that shoots up her wrist in the panic of it.

Everyone in the crowd is standing, watching. Murmuring to each other a little under the pretty music that seems to bounce around the room. Buffy looks at Spike, who nods at her before turning his gaze back over the room.

Down the steps and through the aisle, a woman singing, You're everything I wish I could be, and Buffy's hair falling in her face. She should've worn it up.

The casket should feel heavier.

 

~*~

 

The burial is short; the priest didn't really wanna be out here after dark. Buffy can't blame him—it's not like he knows they're the safest funeral party in Sunnydale.

People take turns paying their respects, saying quiet words over the grave and touching at the headstone. Aunt Lolly takes Aunt Darlene with her back to LA, where they'll spend a day or two together before Aunt Darlene flies back to Illinois. 

Buffy hugs them both tightly, but not as tight as she could. 

Tara finds her as the crowd starts to thin, touching lightly at her arm. "Um, Dawn asked if she could stay with us tonight. W-we don't mind, but…"

"Oh." Buffy looks up at her. "Um, I guess that's fine. She doesn't…?"

Tara says, "I think maybe she wants to let you be alone."

Buffy glances over at Spike, who's talking with Anya a little ways away. She feels this ache for him that leaks past all the tired, hurting from her bones outwards.

"Okay," she says. "Thanks."

"Of course, sweetie," Tara says. "I think we might go now, unless—um, if you wanted us to stay?"

"Nah." Buffy tucks her hair behind her ear. "I'll just go say goodbye."

She walks with Tara back to Dawn, who's standing with Willow.

"Hey," Buffy says. "You're gonna go with the girls?"

"Um, yeah," Dawn says. "If that's okay?"

"Yeah, that's okay," Buffy tells her. "And you're at the Magic Box tomorrow, right?"

Dawn nods.

Buffy pulls her into a hug. "I love you so much. I'll see you tomorrow night, okay?"

"Love you, too," says Dawn.

Buffy reminds her, "Make sure you say bye to Spike."

Dawn heads his way; Buffy hugs Willow in the meantime, telling her, "Thanks for everything, Wil."

"Buffy, of course." Willow squeezes her super hard. "Anything you need, seriously—ever."

"You're the best," Buffy tells her.

Dawn comes back over, hugging her thin jacket around herself, and flatly asks, "Can we leave now?"

"Um, sure." Willow looks at Tara. "Do you want me to drive?"

"Oh, that's okay," Tara says. "I don't mind."

The three of them head out, leaving Buffy standing alone. She glances up at the sky, which is getting darker by the minute. It's weird how long it takes for the sun to go away.

"Hey," Spike says, resting a hand on her mid-back. "Nibblet didn't wanna come home?"

Buffy frowns. "I guess not."

She rests her temple against his chest, looking out over the graveyard.

"How long you wanna stay?" Spike asks her.

"Not much longer," Buffy says. "Um, I guess we should make sure the stragglers get home okay, though. We're kinda hitting—"

"Dinner time," says Spike.

Buffy's stomach rumbles.

"Something you wanna tell me?" Spike teases.

"Shut up," Buffy says, slipping her arm around his waist. She closes her eyes, feeling her body slump a little against his side.

Spike kisses the top of her head. He's lighting a cigarette when Buffy's tinglies go off again and he says, "Thought you'd become one with the night."

Buffy opens her eyes: Angel is standing with his hands in his pockets.

"Buffy," he says, ignoring Spike. "Can we talk?"

"Um… yeah." Buffy turns Spike to her by the lapels of his coat. "Wait for me?"

Spike blinks at her, the end of his cigarette glowing in the dark. "Yeah."

Buffy leads Angel towards the edge of the cemetery where it borders the woods, out of vampire eavesdropping range. It's a little cooler where the grass has been in the shade all day; she rubs at her arms and wishes, with a dull pressure behind her eyes, that she'd stolen Spike's coat.

"So, I…" Angel glances up at the sky. "It was a beautiful service."

"Yeah," says Buffy. "Except for the parts where I said words. Or, you know, said stuff that was supposed to be words."

Angel looks at her, the line of his mouth softening a little. "You had a complicated relationship with your mom. That's not your fault."

"It was stupid and humiliating," Buffy says. "Dawn held it together better than I did. I mean, I don't know what I would've done without—"

She cuts off guiltily.

Angel says, "I'm worried about you, Buffy. I told myself I wouldn't say anything—"

"You promised not to say anything."

"I said I could deal with it," Angel says. He gestures vaguely. "And I'm here, dealing. But I'm not just gonna go back to LA and act like everything's fine."

"Of course it's not fine!" Buffy's voice cracks. "Mom is—she's… we just buried her."

"Is that what—" Angel cuts off. "Are you with him as—as some kind of comfort thing?"

Buffy stares wetly at him. "No, I'm not just—God. It's been… we're together. We're really together."

"I'm trying to understand here, Buffy." Angel presses his lips together. "It's… Spike is a killer—you know that."

"He's not," Buffy argues. "Not anymore."

Angel looks at her in disbelief. "You're saying that, what—Spike fell in love with you and decided he was done being a mass murderer? 'Cause I'm sorry, Buffy, but I'm not really buying it."

"He can't hurt anybody," Buffy says. When Angel's face just gets worse, she explains, "Like, physically—he can't."

Angel asks, "What're you talking about?"

Buffy runs a hand through her hair. "It's kind of a—there was this top secret military group thing, called the Initiative, and they were running experiments on demons and stuff."

"Jesus," says Angel.

"And, um, they captured Spike and put this chip in his brain, and when he tries to hurt anybody—um, anyone human—it hurts him really badly." Buffy takes a breath. "I've seen it—it's pretty much impossible to fight through. But he can hurt demons, and he started—a lot happened."

Angel says, "How do you know he's not just buying time until he can get this chip thing fixed?"

"Because he could've already," Buffy tells him. She shakes her head a little, glancing over his shoulder into the woods. "Angel, what Faith saw that made her… we were just friends. Or, um, I think maybe I—I already had feelings, but I didn't… and he says he was already—that he's kind of always been a little in love with me."

("You were dancing first time I saw you," he murmured once. "Looked good enough—" He pressed a kiss between her breasts and trailed his mouth down through the sweat on her belly. "To eat.")

"But I didn't… we didn't," Buffy says, digging her thumb into the soft underside of her opposite elbow. "Until there was this monster guy—a creature the Initiative made, and he told Spike he could get his chip taken out, and all he'd have to do is betray me."

Angel doesn't say anything.

Buffy's eyes go a little misty. She says, "Spike turned him down. He told me it—" She laughs, sad and warm. "It wasn't a fair trade."

"Spike had a chance to kill again," Angel says. "And he chose you."

Buffy presses her lips together and nods.

Angel turns half-away from her, his expression closed off and stormy. She still feels that urge to smooth out the wrinkles on his brow—to make his face flat and clean again. She still wants him to be something she can touch.

That's not them anymore. Was it ever?

"Angel, I… I never blamed you for—for not loving me when—" Buffy swallows thickly. "Without your soul." She wishes he'd look at her. "I guess I kinda blamed myself."

He turns. Insists, "Buffy, nothing about what happened was—"

"I know," she tells him. Smiles a little. "Um, I know that now. But… I don't know why, when—when he can."

"It's not even a question to you that he does, is it?" Angel asks quietly.

"No," Buffy says. Her mouth wavers dangerously. "It's really not."

Angel sighs; he turns all the way around and then jerks back again, running a hand through his hair.

"I don't get it either," he says. "It shouldn't be possible."

"You saw him today," Buffy says. "He loves me and Dawn. He loved Mom."

Angel says, "When I told you I wanted you to have a life, this isn't exactly what I pictured."

Buffy smiles wryly. "Me neither. But you kinda gave up your vote."

"Yeah, I guess I did." Angel closes his eyes for a second, his eyebrows furrowing, before he looks at her again. "Are you happy? Uh, I don't mean—not right now. But with him? Is he… he's good to you?"

"Yes," Buffy says.

Angel nods, his gaze dropping a little. "Do you wish things could've been different, between us?"

"I wish a lot of things could be different," Buffy says.

"Me too," says Angel.

"But I'm happy, sometimes," Buffy tells him. "Um, not as much, lately, but… it was a lot of the time, before. I think maybe I will be again?"

Angel looks up at her. "I hope so."

"Me too," Buffy says. "And I hope you can be, too. I mean, in a soul-having way. There's a lot of happy that isn't perfect."

"Yeah." Angel smiles at her. "I'm working on it."

Buffy smiles back.

"I'm… I should probably go," Angel says. "I'm sure you wanna… unless you want me to stay?"

Buffy shifts awkwardly. "Um, if you needed to stay in town overnight?"

"I can make it back before sunrise," Angel says. 

"Okay," she says. "It really does mean a lot that you came."

"I'm glad," Angel says softly. He hesitates, hunching his shoulders a little. "Buffy, you know I—I'll always love you."

"I know," she tells him. "I—me, too. You know how much I—I didn't think I'd ever love somebody again."

Angel says, "I'm glad you were wrong."

Buffy nods, her bottom lip trembling. "But it won't ever be like you."

"I'm pretty sure I'm glad for that, too," he says.

"Yeah," she agrees in a whisper.

Angel asks, "Can I…?"

He opens his arms.

Buffy hugs him, tucking her face against his chest. He smells like cologne, sharp and sad. His big hand cups the back of her head.

Her chest tries to untangle itself and ends up in a different knot. 

They pull away, looking at each other for a long moment, and then Angel says, "You know you can always call."

"I know," she says. "You can, too."

"Yeah," Angel jokes, "but then I might have to talk to Spike."

Buffy huffs out a quiet laugh. 

"Uh, I guess I'll head back to the car," Angel says. "It's back the way we came."

"We can walk together," Buffy says.

They head through the cemetery, wandering past new and old gravestones that Buffy's eyes drift over with a detached ache. One of them has a crack in it, which she thinks might be her fault.

She leaves a lot of damage behind.

Spike is the only one left at Mom's grave. He's sitting cross-legged facing her headstone, his wrists draped over his knees—if he were someone else, she'd think he was meditating or something. 

But it's Spike, and she catches the glint of a flask being tucked back into the inside pocket of his coat.

"Ready to go, love?" he asks, pushing to his feet.

"Yeah," Buffy says. She touches briefly at Angel's wrist. "Take care of yourself, okay?"

"You, too," Angel says. He glances at Spike, gives him half a nod, and turns away towards the street.

Spike waits until he's a melty shadow in the dark. "Alright, pet?"

"Yeah," she says again. "Can we walk home?"

They took Spike's car that morning. He slips his hand into hers, a single ring cool against her fingers, and lets her lead the way.

 

~*~

 

The house is so dark. Buffy used to come home to all the lights off all the time; she'd climb through her bedroom window and there'd be nothing coming through the crack in the door, just her normal family asleep in their normal beds and the street lamp casting a tiny glow from outside. 

Lately she's been coming home to Spike: the glow of late-night TV through the porch window or a reading lamp next to her bed. Tonight they walk through the front door and switch on all the lights; it hurts her eyes.

"What do you want for dinner, love?" Spike asks.

Buffy says, "I'm not hungry."

She follows him into the kitchen.

Spike pulls the second casserole from Willow out of the fridge and cuts into it with a butter knife. 

"Bossy," she says.

"It's for me," he says. "You're not getting a bite."

Buffy hops up onto a stool and lays her head down on the island counter. "Maybe I'll drink all your blood."

"Novel roleplay idea." Spike sticks a plate of casserole in the microwave and waggles his eyebrows at her. "A little role reversal."

"I could get those fake teeth," she says, then frowns. "Is that, like, offensive?"

"I'll let it slide if you let me stake you."

Buffy rolls her eyes, then closes them. She breathes out heavily enough to loosen some of the tension between her shoulder blades.

The microwave whirs around and around.

"'S too quiet in here," Spike says, well, quietly. "Unsettling."

"I know." Buffy props her elbows up on the counter and rubs at her eyebrows. "God, a week ago I would've killed for an empty—"

There's something sharp in her throat. 

She looks up at him, wide-eyed and trying to swallow it.

Spike asks, "You wanna talk about the eulogy?"

"What eulogy?" Buffy asks wetly.

The microwave beeps. Spike pulls out the plate and puts it and a fork in front of her. He grabs a deli container of blood out of the fridge and pours himself a mug.

Buffy says, "Thanks for… you know."

"Yeah," he says. "'Course."

She takes a bite of casserole. The cheese burns the roof of her mouth and for some reason it makes tears spring to her eyes when she does the breathing out like a dragon thing, her chest going all tight around the pain. 

Buffy slams her fist on the counter and swallows, letting out a tiny sob when Spike's hand is suddenly running up her spine. 

"Fuck," she says, hunched over her plate with the side of the metal fork digging into her palm. "Is it just gonna be like this?"

"I don't know," Spike says quietly. "I don't… it's been so long."

"Since you felt like this?" Buffy asks.

Spike says, "Don't think I grieved Darla properly—like it wasn't real, not being there when she went. Dru, she—I thought she had a vision she'd come back, maybe, or maybe she just didn't want to believe it either."

Buffy looks up at him.

"Feels like she'll just be around the corner," Spike says. "Going on about some new fashion trend or other. She liked being modern."

"She was in a Catholic schoolgirl outfit when I met her," says Buffy. "And she tried to fucking shoot me."

Spike snorts fondly. 

Buffy takes his right hand, rubbing her thumb over the skull ring—he toned down the jewelry for the funeral; it's the only one he kept.

"So, yeah," he says. "Suppose I haven't really… there hasn't been much death—that I cared about."

"It's weird," Buffy says. "I thought maybe you'd be, like, a pro at it or something."

"Not really how it works," Spike says, curling his fingers around her hand. "Don't think it helped Darlene."

Buffy shakes her head in agreement. She stares at the skull's ruby-eyes glittering in the light and asks, "What about your mom?"

Spike turns away from her, moving back around the island for his abandoned mug of blood. 

"Not tonight," he says, spilling a little on the counter when he puts it in the microwave.

Buffy says, "Okay," and goes back to her casserole.

Spike sighs, bracing both hands on the counter with his back to her, and says, "Sorry. Just—"

"It's okay," Buffy says. "I mean, I don't really wanna talk about my thing either. I need a vacation from my thing."

Spike turns to her again, a tentative smile on his face. "What do you say we take a little trip to the old days, then?"

Buffy smiles at him.

 

~*~

 

"You know," Buffy tells him, "when you said 'good ole days,' it was like fifty-fifty on whiskey or attempted murder."

Spike hums, settling next to her in the big armchair in front of the TV. He hands her a glass and says, "What, you thought I was doing a little DIY neurosurgery in the basement?"

"We live in Sunnydale," says Buffy. She takes a sip of her drink and coughs, sticking her tongue out in disgust. "Ugh, with the jet fuel."

Spike is making his supreme mushy face. "Can't believe I'm in love with a bird who still can't shoot whiskey."

"Yeah, but—" Buffy bats her eyelashes at him. "If I learned, you wouldn't look at me like that."

"How d'I look at you?" Spike teases, leaning in a little with his eyes all lit-up and glittery.

Buffy's throat feels tight and sore and like all her words are too small. It makes her cheeks burn.

"I wish you could see it," she whispers.

"Show me," he murmurs. His hand brushes her hair away from her face, cupping the side of her jaw.

Buffy closes her eyes, fighting the shiver running up her spine, and he kisses her like he used to.

She pulls away when he tries to deepen it.

Spike furrows his eyebrows at her, confused, and she reminds him, "We're in the good ole days—we don't make out." She pouts playfully. "Because that would be wrong."

Spike's eyes glint mischievously.

"Maybe we're under a spell," he suggests, and his hand is sliding up her thigh. "Couldn't keep our hands off each other, then."

"Mm," Buffy agrees. She winds her arms around his neck and pulls him in. "Which one—the frat house?"

"Wil's," Spike mumbles into her mouth.

Buffy smiles into their kiss. "Giles is asleep. We snuck off so we could be alone?"

"Can't wait any longer," Spike tells her. His teeth tug on one of her earrings. "Need you, baby."

"Oh." Buffy's toes curl up; she wraps her legs around his waist. "Let's—upstairs?"

"Hang on a mo'," Spike says. He untangles from her just enough to take her hand in his. 

Buffy's stomach goes backflippy when he slips the skull ring onto her left hand. Her chest hurts so much she almost bites through her own tongue.

"There." Spike kisses her knuckles, looking up at her from under his eyelashes. "Perfect."

Buffy says wetly, "Spike—"

His smile shrinks a little. "Should I—"

"Upstairs," Buffy begs. "God, please."

Spike surges forward again, kissing her so hard that the chair rocks right off its front legs and almost tips over. Buffy squeaks, wrapping her legs around his waist again and pulling him flush against her, and he gasps desperately into her mouth.

"Love you," he mutters, his hands finding the backs of her thighs as she grips his shoulders. "Buffy, God."

One of their glasses knocks over when he lifts her, smacked into by an elbow or hip or who fucking cares. There's gonna be a stain somewhere. Buffy holds herself against him with one arm and tightens her other hand into a fist in his hair.

Spike walks them up the stairs, still kissing her the whole time and nipping at her with his teeth. She pulls away to suck a hickey onto his jaw and giggles when he rumbles at her from deep in his chest.

He drops her onto the bed and braces over her, leaning her back against the mattress with his mouth leaving wet kisses down her throat.

"You sure you're ready for this, ducks?" Spike asks, looking up at her with his chin resting on her collarbone. "Don't good little Slayers wait until their wedding night?"

"I don't wanna be good," Buffy tells him. She bites her lip, her fingers breaking up the gel in his hair. "I wanna be yours."

Spike beams at her.

"Um, I'm kinda nervous, though," Buffy says, letting her voice go all shy.

"Why's that?" Spike's grin turns predatory; he digs his fingers into her ribs. "Afraid Big Bad's gonna eat you up?"

Buffy shrieks with laughter, kicking out at him with a heel as she tries to wriggle away. "Oh my God, you're so lame!"

Spike bites playfully at her shoulder, spitting out a mouthful of blouse, and then nuzzles at the underside of her jaw. "You're the one marryin' me."

Buffy's chest flutters. She turns more serious again, bumping their noses together and blinking slowly at him. "Uh huh."

"Love you," Spike reminds her, pressing a sweet kiss to her mouth.

"I know," Buffy whispers. She plays with the little baby hairs at the back of his neck, letting them tickle her fingertips, and part of it's just a game but it's so easy to get that lonely feeling in her chest again. "It's just that, um, I've only… done it twice. And it didn't…"

Spike runs a soothing hand up her side. "I know. But this's different, yeah? Not takin' that ring back."

She hopes one day he'll mean it.

Buffy kisses him again, pulling him down to her so that his hard-on is rubbing against her crotch—rough black jeans dragging against her sleek pants, weird friction that makes her fingers and toes tingle. She moans, flicking her tongue playfully into his mouth.

"Could do this for hours," Spike tells her. "Kissing you…" He rolls his hips. "Feelin' you melt. Think you can come like this?"

He's made her before. She almost begged him by the end, except words seemed stupid and dumb and she would've had to stop kissing him. 

"Spike…" she mumbles, grinding harder against him. "Hurry up."

"Bossy," Spike taunts with a click of his tongue, but his hand sneaks between them to undo her pants. "I like a woman in charge, Slayer—where d'you want me?"

She shoves him down by the shoulders. Pretty much game over, because college freshman Buffy was not so much with the getting her pussy eaten, but she got over the red-faced thing pretty much the second he first—

"Oh, fuck," Buffy hisses, her back arching off the bed when he buries his tongue inside her. "That is so not how you— ah, did it the first time."

Spike lifts his head just long enough to raise an eyebrow at her and then goes back to work.

Yeah, yeah: not complaining.

Buffy claws at the sheets first, then gives up on that when he sucks back hard on her clit and yanks on his hair instead. His hips jerk where he's rubbing off against the mattress, still totally dressed and probably so hard it's hurting him that way he likes.

It makes Buffy's mouth water a little. She gasps, throat bobbing, and bites hard on her bottom lip. His tongue slips back inside her and he lets her ride the bridge of his nose. She can feel herself dripping down his chin when her thighs squeeze just right.

"God." Buffy moans, fucking herself on his face and breathing so hard it hurts, zero to sixty so fast the ceiling goes all blurry and she can't tell how hard she's pulling his hair anymore, can't tell what day it is or what game they were playing. "Spike—"

Her left hand feels heavy. She comes biting her own palm out of habit even though no one can hear, the metal ring digging into her jaw, and the pinpricks from her little human canines zap all the way down to her clit.

Spike's mouth is all shiny and swollen when he grins up at her. "Might be a record."

Buffy drops her head to the mattress. "No sex for, like, five days was a record."

"Missed you," he says, slinking up her body with a hand tucking under her blouse. He didn't even take off her socks. "Love you."

"Dork," Buffy says, and feels like crying when she tastes herself on his lips.

Spike's hand massages her breast through her bra. "Be anything for you."

"Uh huh." Buffy twitches a little and turns her head, whimpering when his thumb strokes the edge of her nipple and her socked feet slip against the bed. "Oh."

"Darling," Spike says warmly. He kisses her jaw wetly. "You want to go back to our game?"

"Mm," Buffy asks, nuzzling his cheek. "Do you?"

Spike says, "Wanna be close to you."

Buffy cups the side of his face, turning him to look her in the eye. "You are."

"I know," he says softly.

An idea tickles at the back of Buffy's brain.

"Ooh, wait!" she says, scrambling out from under him and reaching into her nightstand. She starts shuffling through all the junk she keeps stuffing in here to deal with later. "Ugh, I know it's—" The crystal bracelet is under the old wedding planning notebook, tucked into a little velvet jewelry bag. "Ha!"

Buffy holds it out for him and asks, "Remember these?"

Spike quirks his lips. "'Course I do."

Buffy slips the bracelet onto her wrist, tweaking the copper wire tighter so it won't slip off. "Do you still have yours?"

"'Do I still have mine?'" Spike repeats, sounding all offended—which is fair, because he reaches into his nightstand and pulls out the matching bracelet without even having to look.

Buffy watches him put his on his right wrist: the crystal has a little chip in it from that time Buffy accidentally dropped it in his crypt (she hadn't known it was there, okay?) and the copper is bent out of shape in a couple places.

"Do you think they actually do anything?" she asks. "We never, like, tried them."

Spike hums thoughtfully. "She said they were love charms, yeah? 'Peace and understanding?'"

"Uh huh," says Buffy.

Spike tilts his head at her. "You feel any different?"

"Hmm." Buffy looks down at her super half-naked self and wiggles her fingers. "Maybe a little, but it could just be the placenta."

Spike stares at her in blank horror.

Buffy furrows her eyebrows at him. "You know, the thing where, like, someone tells you a thingy does a thing so you trick yourself into thinking the thing happened?"

"Oh, bloody hell," says Spike. "Placebo."

"What'd I say?" Buffy asks innocently.

He tackles down to the pillows.

 

~*~

 

Buffy wakes up first, her cheek all smushed against the pillow with half a vampire draped breathlessly on top of her. She keeps her eyes closed for just a second, smiling a little at the weight of him and how warm their bodies are under the covers. At how easy and quiet it is except for that cute little bird that always sings in the tree outside and how when it's like this (just like this) there's nothing else to do besides loving him.

The bank people are expecting her at nine. 

Buffy crawls free of the blanket nest, carefully avoiding waking up Spike, and sits up cross-legged against the pillows. The cooler air makes goosebumps on her overheated skin and leaves her with a half-hungry feeling in the pit of her stomach, staring down at Spike's naked belly-sprawl across their bed.

His hair is a disaster of curls; his mouth is hung open just enough to glimpse a hint of teeth and his hands are bare of polish and jewelry, and something about it hurts Buffy's throat.

Eyes stinging, Buffy slips the skull ring off her finger and back onto his, and kisses the nape of his neck before moving away.

 

~*~

 

Buffy goes to the bank, where she learns that she and Dawn have college funds and she can use hers to pay the hospital bills.

She goes to the lawyers, where they re-read the will with her and confirm that Mom left everything to her and Dawn—except for the electric kettle, which she gave to Spike.

(She goes to the tiny little restroom, where she clamps both hands over her mouth and cries.)

 

~*~

 

The house is dark and empty that night when she finally gets home. Spike was supposed to walk Dawn home from the Magic Box after sunset; they must've stopped somewhere, like for ice cream or a movie. Hopefully they get some bonding time in.

Buffy orders a pizza for dinner, glances at the stack of paperwork still sitting on the dining room table, and curls up on the couch with HGTV. 

She's already paid the pizza guy and is working on a third slice when the front door finally swings open. Dawn, her arms wrapped around her middle, stomps right up the stairs without even saying hi; her bedroom door slams so hard the pictures on the landing shake.

Spike is holding a book that screams stolen from Giles's personal collection and ranks somewhere between an eight or a nine on the ooky scale based on the weird cover (evil warlocks really aren't big with the subtle, huh?). He elbows the door shut and works his jaw so hard Buffy's teeth hurt.

"Hi, honey," Buffy says. "What the hell?"

Spike tosses the book onto the coffee table with a dull thud. "Promised I wouldn't tell if she called it off."

Buffy holds open her throw blanket; he curls up under it with her, resting his head on her shoulder as she says, "You're really getting the brunt of it from her, huh?"

"Yeah," says Spike. "'Least now I know why."

Buffy cards her fingers through his hair. "Why?"

"Same reason I caught it from you," he says.

Buffy's stomach twists. She says, "Spike, I never meant—"

"Part of you did," says Spike. "It's alright, love. Your mum is dead and you're looking at a monster who gets to live forever."

Buffy pulls away, forcing him off her shoulder so he has to look her in the eye. "You're not a monster."

"You know I am," he tells her, and she can tell he's trying to make his eyes flat in that way they've never been: a dead person's eyes. "You get off on it, sometimes."

"I get off on you," Buffy says, her voice even.

"Then what do you call me?" Spike asks.

Buffy steadies her mouth. "The man I love."

"Not a man," he says softly. "Can't be."

"Why are you saying this?" Buffy asks wetly. "What happened tonight?"

"It's been happening, pet," Spike tells her. He holds her gaze. "Said I'd get you through the funeral and we'd need to talk."

Buffy feels like she's gonna puke. She should've stopped at two slices of pizza. She asks, "Are you leaving me?"

Spike's eyes widen; he grabs both her hands, clutching them tightly even though they're all greasy, and says firmly, "God, no. Buffy, I—you know I couldn't. Never."

"Then what?" Buffy asks, her chest still tight. "What's going on?"

"You told me I should've turned her," says Spike.

The throw blanket slips where it was draped over Buffy's shoulder and puddles near her hip.

"I—I know, but you were right," she says. "I didn't really want it."

"I know," Spike says. "And neither did I."

She made it an accusation, before. And he took it as one.

"What's that say to you?" Spike presses.

Buffy shakes her head helplessly at him.

"Buffy, you say you love me," Spike says, and his throat sounds all sore and slimy. "But you'd be disgusted if I made her like me. I'd be disgusted with myself."

Oh.

Oh, God. Buffy cups a hand over her mouth, trying desperately to keep the stupid fucking tears out of her eyes, and her other hand touches at his throat like she can fix it, like there's something she can put back or make him swallow but there's not. There's just not.

"I'm sorry," she chokes out. "Oh… oh my God, Spike, I never—I never wanted you to—"

"Don't." Spike turns away, scrubbing both hands over his face. "Fuck, it's hard enough—I need to—there's more I need to…"

"What?" Buffy asks. She presses her lips together. "Tell me."

Spike says, "I turned my mum."

Buffy should've shut off the TV; there's a commercial for Gatorade playing.

She asks, "What?"

"She—she was…" Spike drags his hands down his face again, taking a breath. "You call it Tuberculosis now. It was consumption then. And I was watching it… take her. She used to ride horses. She used to sing to me."

Buffy wants to hold him; she hasn't been afraid to in so long.

"And then Dru… and I clawed out of that coffin and I felt—the same, better. Free. Finally alive." Spike won't even turn his head. "And I thought of her. God help my damned, pathetic soul, Buffy, I just wanted my mum."

Tears are streaming down Buffy's face. They drip down her chin and onto the blanket and she holds her breath as long as she can because she's so scared of what sound she'll make. She's so scared of him hearing.

"So I… did it," Spike says simply. "And when she woke up…"

Buffy waits a long time. 

She finally has to breathe so she can ask, "What happened?"

Spike finally looks at her, his cheeks wet and as pale as always. The only other time she's seen him cry was the first time they made love.

"She—she said… things," he says. "I—I don't want you to hear them. I don't want to hear them."

Buffy cups his face in her hands, thumbing at the tearstains. "You don't have to."

"She never loved me," he says flatly. "Never."

"Spike—" Buffy tries, and then she—

And then it clicks. What is she supposed to say: it was just the demon? 

There's a demon under her hands, in her bed. 

"So you see?" Spike asks her, his voice wavering. "Why I couldn't—I couldn't save her for you. Because if she—if she was like Mum to you, I'd never…"

Buffy presses their foreheads together.

"And if she wasn't," Spike says quietly. "Then Mum just didn't… then it was real."

"I'm so sorry," Buffy whispers.

"So what am I, Buffy?" Spike asks. He tilts his head up just enough to look at her, their noses almost brushing. "Why did I wake up loving Mum, and why can I—can I feel this way about you?"

"I… I don't know," Buffy admits. She sniffles shakily and says, "But I'm really glad you do."

Spike closes his eyes; all the air sounds like it rushes right out of him and he feels smaller, all of a sudden, when he folds himself up into her lap and buries his face in the crook of her neck.

Buffy wraps her arms around him and pets his hair, touching her lips to his temple, and closes her eyes too. She thinks about loving him and the gnawing pit in her ribcage. She thinks about her mom.

"She left you the kettle," she says, eventually.

Spike shifts a little, turning his face up.

"Um, Mom said so—that she wanted you to have it," Buffy tells him. "It was in the will. And there's, um, I mean, there wasn't really a reason for her to do that unless—unless she loved you, right?"

Spike blinks at her slowly.

"So, um, I don't get anything about your mom or—or anything, but—" Buffy smiles shakily, even though fresh tears jump right into her eyes. "But you can share mine."

Spike is looking at her with his eyes all glittering and—and not sad, really, but if sadness had a cousin. Something softer and prettier and hungry in the middle.

He sits up, brushes the hair away from her face and says softly, "I think anythin' could fall in love with you."

"Not anyone," Buffy tells him. "You."

He kisses her—not anything like the first time, but still like he's terrified. 

Buffy pushes him down against the cushions, cupping a hand around the back of his head to soften the thump against the armrest. Her fingers trail down the side of his face, tipping him up by the chin to deepen the kiss.

Spike tangles a hand in her hair, arching up into her touch.

"Is Dawn asleep?" she whispers, peppering little baby kisses all along his jaw.

Spike turns his head to listen, twitching when she nibbles on his ear. "No."

Buffy grins mischievously at him and pulls the blanket over her head as she slinks down his body.

"Fuck," Spike breathes, spreading his knees to make room for her. She shoves his shirt halfway up and tickles his ribs with wet kisses, giggling when he jumps and squirms with his feet kicking out. "Buff…"

Scrunched up under the blanket, she can't see his face anymore. She pictures it, though: the hungry look he always gives her when she undoes his belt.

Buffy tugs Spike's jeans down just far enough to pull out his dick, stroking it gently in one hand and pressing a kiss near the tip. His fingers flex and reach for her hair.

She tips her head into it, humming a little when he gives her an affectionate tug, and takes him into her mouth.

Buffy would be lying if she said she was super into sucking dick. Which, you know, she used to feel bad about, because Spike and her pussy? They're kind of best friends.

But she doesn't hate it, either. Especially when it's like tonight.

She just—there's all this stuff, right, that's knocking around in her chest, and she's not big with the words. Not like he is. And it hurts when he hurts, which is probably the stupidest part of loving somebody, and when she sucks back her cheeks and he sobs like that maybe it gets a little better.

Does she make it better?

It's really humid under the blanket and spit is dripping down Buffy's hand where it meets her mouth near the base. She tightens her grip a little and feels her cunt throb when he tugs harder on her hair.

Buffy's jaw is starting to hurt a little when Spike curses and says, "Want you… here—"

She pulls off and crawls forward, sucking in a breath of fresh air when her head pops out from under the blanket. The breathing thing is short-lived: Spike yanks her down into another kiss.

Buffy is wearing a pencil skirt; she shimmies out of her panties and straddles his hips, letting the skirt ride halfway up her ass when she spreads her thighs. He's warm from her mouth and he slips inside her like it's nothing, so easy, and it makes her wanna cry so she bites down hard on his bottom lip.

"Buffy," Spike pants. "Fuck."

She pulls back to look him in the eye when she starts to move.

Spike's lips are gently parted, looking at her like she's glowing or something—like it's not even that he's got his dick in her but that he gets to touch her at all. He used to look at her like that all the time.

It used to be flattering; now it just makes her sad.

"You, with the weepy," Buffy tells him, thumbing at his bottom lip. She shudders when he lifts his hips just right and hits that spot inside her. "I— ah. Love you."

The smile is better.

"Love you, too, ducks," Spike says, tangling a hand in her hair again and sitting up just enough to kiss her. It changes the angle a little in a fun way; she gasps, digging her nails into his shoulders.

Buffy rides him harder, muffling the noises she makes into his mouth and then against his neck, sinking her teeth in. He curses against her ear, bucking against her with the metal bits of his jeans digging into her skin.

The couch starts to squeak.

"Fuck." Buffy nips at the bruise she left on his throat. "Don't—break it."

"Not really… up to me," he says breathlessly.

She fists his shirt in both hands and rolls them onto the floor.

There's a loud thump when they smack into the coffee table legs; she winces, waiting for the wood to snap or for Dawn to come running downstairs, but their luck holds.

Spike ends up on top. He slides back inside her and bites down on the crook of her shoulder, nosing the collar of her blouse out of the way. His blunt teeth slip a little against her sweat-shiny skin.

God, she almost tells him to do it. She's wanted it for so long—felt hungry and dirty and yes-yes-wrong for it for so long, but she thinks it'd hurt him right now. 

She wants him to feel like a man.

The bite will leave a bruise, anyway, even though it doesn't break the skin, and she arches her back and pulls hard on his hair when she comes.

"Spike," she gasps, a leg hooked around his waist. "Fuck."

"Buffy," he murmurs. He kisses back up her neck and to the corner of her mouth; she turns her head to meet him.

His kisses get sloppier when he gets close; Buffy bucks harder into his thrusts, clutching at him with their teeth clacking when they both try to bite and he laughs into her mouth.

"There's my girl," Spike rumbles, going for her earlobe instead. He tugs a little; she moans.

"Are you…?" she asks.

"Come with me," he coaxes.

She drags one of his hands down to her clit.

Spike rubs little circles with his thumb, sending those little sparks of lightning up through her center that feel so good they almost hurt, and Buffy has to bite down on his shoulder through the leather coat to muffle a sob when she comes again.

He follows her, making this little choked-up noise that tickles against her throat, and sinks his weight down onto her while her thighs are still twitching with aftershocks.

"Oof," she complains half-heartedly.

"Bah," he mutters, and squishes her harder.

Buffy kisses the tip of his ear and cards her fingers through his hair. They should probably get up, like, ASAP, since this definitely is not the stealth fuck it (kinda) started out as, but…

"Could jus' stay here," Spike murmurs. "Anywhere w'you."

"Yeah," Buffy whispers, and then the phone rings.

Spike whines when she shoves him off.

Buffy sighs, grabbing a clean napkin off the coffee table to cup between her thighs and the cordless phone from the charging station near the TV. She glances at the caller ID and answers fake-grumpily, "I'm harshing afterglow for you."

"Oh," says Tara, which, whoops. "Um… I'm sorry?"

Buffy makes a face of moderate regret. "Uh, no, I'm—sorry, with the rude. I thought I was getting Willow."

"That's okay," Tara tells her. "Con-congrats on the sex? But, um, there's kind of a—a problem."

"What kind of problem?" Buffy asks, and kicks Spike on the ankle to get him off the floor.

Tara says, "Um, it might be nothing, but—it's just that last night Dawnie asked us, um, if you could—if you could bring someone back."

Buffy freezes, eyeing Spike and the weird book on her coffee table with equal suspicion. "Like, from-the-dead back?"

Spike is really focused on re-doing his belt.

"Yeah, and there was a book missing from my room today," Tara says. "It was just a history book, but it has the name of specific resurrection spells and potions in it."

Buffy tilts her head to read the book cover upside down. "Like you could find in Rituals of O-somebody?"  

"U-um, yes?" says Tara.

"Great!" Buffy says cheerfully. "We'll take care of it."

By the time she says goodbye to Tara, Spike is dressed again and finishing off her half-eaten pizza slice on the couch.

Buffy chucks her sticky napkin at him.

"Oi," he complains, letting it bounce off his face.

"You really weren't gonna tell me?" Buffy demands.

Spike drops the casual act; he glances at her all mopey and mutters, "Promised her, didn't I? Bit's angry enough with me as it is."

Buffy sighs, coming to sit next to him and laying her head on his shoulder. "I just wanted, like, half a night for us. Or, you know, hey—five more minutes on the floor. I woulda taken that."

"No rest for the wicked, love," Spike says, pressing his lips to the top of her head.

Buffy closes her eyes tiredly.

"Could pretend they didn't call," Spike offers. "She doesn't have what she'd need for the spell, anyway."

"I should talk to her," Buffy says. "Mom would talk to her."

It hangs heavy in the air.

"You mind if I tap out of this one?" Spike asks. "Not sure my being there would help. And…"

Buffy gives him a squeeze. "Of course."

He kisses her head again.

Buffy grabs her panties off the floor and steps back into them, then stops by the downstairs bathroom to take her major sex hair down to minor sex hair. Ugh. She can't really do anything for the bags under her eyes—she's already wearing makeup.

Dawn is in her room with the door shut; Buffy knocks twice before stepping inside. 

"What do you want?" Dawn asks flatly, not looking up from writing in her diary.

"Hey," Buffy says. She closes the door behind her. "Spike wouldn't tell me what happened—" She pauses, but Dawn still doesn't look. "But Tara did."

Her head snaps up at that.

Buffy crosses her arms. "You wanna give me your version?"

"What's the point?" Dawn says darkly. She snaps her diary shut and sits back against the pillows. "You're just gonna take his side anyway—even though it was your idea."

Buffy furrows her eyebrows, shifting a little closer. "My—what're you talking about?"

"At the funeral," says Dawn. "You said you wanted someone to give her back."

Buffy's stomach sinks. She sits down at the edge of the bed, reaching for Dawn's hand—she pulls away.

"Dawn," Buffy says. "I was—I was just sad. I didn't really mean…"

"But why not?" Dawn demands, her nostrils suddenly flaring angrily. "We can. You know we can!"

"I don't know that," Buffy says. "Magic is… it's complicated, Dawnie. Trust me—way less complicated spells have gone super wrong."

Dawn laughs bitterly and accuses, "God, you're so selfish."

"Selfish?" Buffy repeats. "What the hell are you—"

"Your boyfriend is dead," Dawn snaps shrilly. "He eats people and you won't let me have Mom back. I know he didn't even try."

Buffy is stunned silent.

Dawn says, "You didn't love her like I did. Neither of you," and opens up her diary again.

Buffy snatches it out of her hands and throws it across the room.

"Hey!" Dawn shouts.

"Listen to me," Buffy says, her voice shaking harshly. "You think I didn't love Mom? You think I'm fine with this? This is killing me. That dead guy downstairs is pretty much the only reason I am remotely keeping it together right now and I said things to him I can't ever take back because, yeah, I thought about it too."

Dawn asks wetly, "Then why not?"

"Because she wouldn't be Mom," Buffy tells her. "Dawn, people don't come back the same, okay? They just don't."

"But Spike—"

"Eats people," Buffy says. "Or—or he did, for a long time. And I love him—I love him so much—but you know, I don't think… Spike did something really hard when he decided to be good. Being good is really hard even when you're human."

Dawn asks, "You don't think Mom could've done it?"

Buffy looks down, pressing her lips together. "I think if—if she didn't, and we had to… you know what we would've had to do, right?"

"Yeah," says Dawn. "The guy told me."

Buffy's head snaps up. "What guy?"

"The demon guy Spike took me to, who knows all about resurrection spells and stuff," Dawn says. She picks at her nail polish. "He told us how to do the spell and he said sometimes it goes kinda wrong and you have to… he taught me how. All you had to do was rip up a picture. I could've done it."

Buffy's stomach feels like it's bleeding. She never asked what happened to Spike's mom.

"Dawn, I've had to kill people," she says. "People I loved. And it's awful. I never want you to feel that way—ever."

"But I could've," Dawn says stubbornly, her eyes wet. "If there was a chance it would've saved Mom I would've done it."

"Is that why you're mad at Spike?" Buffy asks. "Because he stopped you?"

Dawn looks at her like she's stupid. "He didn't."

Buffy blinks. "I—what're you talking about? What?"

"Spike didn't stop me." Dawn glances at her hands in her lap. "He said he'd help me if—if it was what I needed to do. But he looked… I've never seen him look like that."

Buffy presses her lips together.

"I guess I knew it wasn't right," Dawn admits quietly. "But it's not fair. It's so not fair."

"I know, sweetie," Buffy says wetly. She reaches out, brushing the hair away from her baby sister's face. "I'm so sorry."

Dawn wraps both her arms around Buffy's middle and starts sobbing, these little choked-up noises that start like hiccups and turn sharp and miserable by the end, and Buffy lets herself cry, too. Not all the way, but enough: her shoulders shaking and tears dampening Dawn's hair, fingers unsteady where they curl in Dawn's sleeve.

Enough to prove she can. 

They stay like that for a long time.

 

~*~

 

"I'm gonna figure it out," Buffy whispers later that night, looking up at him where her head is resting on his chest.

Spike is carding his fingers through her hair; Dawn is asleep on his other side, clinging to his arm. "What's that, love?"

"For you," she says, reaching up to touch the bewildered curve of his mouth. "Who you are."

Spike breathes out with a loving flash of teeth, his smile warm with disbelief, and touches his lips to the top of her head.

 

~*~

 

The Magic Box is mostly empty on a Wednesday afternoon: a couple people are browsing the kitschier (amateur, according to Anya) stuff that they keep up front, and Anya is locked in an animated discussion about frog versus toad guts with a customer near the register who probably has horns under that giant hat.

Buffy waves to Giles, who's dusting one of the bookshelves, and asks, "Can we talk?"

Giles says, "Of course," and nods to the back room.

She follows him into the training room, which hasn't been touched since before the funeral. The vamp scarecrow grins toothily at her from the corner; someone (probably Xander) thought they were being really funny when they drew a scar over the left eye in sharpie.

"How are you holding up?" Giles asks her once she shuts the door behind herself.

"Um, okay, I guess." Buffy sits down on a stack of mats pushed against the far wall. "Some minutes are harder than others. But I'm kinda here for Watcher stuff."

"I see." Giles sits down next to her, folding his hands in his lap. "Regarding?"

"Spike," says Buffy. She runs her thumb over the copper wire of her bracelet; she hasn't taken it off since that night. "Um, I'm here for Spike."

Giles frowns softly at her. "Did something happen?"

"Not like that," Buffy says. "Um, but you—you were there when we found Mom, and I… said what I said."

"Yes," Giles prompts.

Buffy leans her head back against the wall. "But the thing is that—Giles, I've heard all your vampire speeches. Mer—my old Watcher gave them, too."

Giles hums carefully. "I can imagine that it must be… complicated, then, to love Spike as you do."

"It's not," Buffy insists. Then frowns. "As long as I don't think about it for more than five minutes."

Giles laughs ruefully, taking his glasses off his face. "If it's any consolation, it is my understanding that love manages to confound all of us, eventually."

Buffy smiles weakly. She nudges her fingers into her hair. "Did… do any of your books or anything say that, you know…"

"I'm afraid I don't," he says.

"That vampires can love?" Buffy asks.

Giles looks at her, still fidgeting with his glasses in his hands. "I believe the first documented case is in my own diaries—when Angel fell in love with you."

Buffy's chest feels weirdly dry. She asks, "Is Spike in your diary?"

Giles wets his bottom lip.

"Then how do you explain it?" Buffy asks. 

"The—ah, the prevailing…" Giles sighs heavily and puts his glasses back on. "Vampire behavior has been extensively documented, as you know—mostly for the purposes of, ah, killing them. And we do know that they exhibit certain behaviors—loose pack structures, forming nests—that could be considered pseudosocial."

Buffy says, "Sue-do?"

"Mimicry, if you will." Giles's mouth makes a thin line. "To put it another way—vampires are thought to create what, to our eye, appear to be social attachments, but in reality are—perhaps 'shallow' is the word. Borne out of self-interest and convenience."

"So it's fake," Buffy says flatly. "That's really what you're trying to tell me right now."

Giles says, "Buffy, you asked for a Watcher's perspective. I'm not saying that I personally—"

"God." Buffy laughs sharply, scrubbing her hands over her face. "You must think I'm so stupid. Like, really, really stupid—poor, stupid Buffy can't tell when a guy really—"

"No," Giles says firmly. She cuts off, looking at him. "No, Buffy, I don't think that you're—I believe that… it's simply not something our—our existing framework is equipped to explain."

"Try," Buffy says.

Giles sighs again. He looks like he wishes he'd stayed in bed today, but that's how Buffy's been feeling all the time, lately, so she doesn't have it in her to care that much. He says, "Perhaps any vampire with sufficient behavior modification—"

"You keep talking like he's an animal!" Buffy snaps. "He's not. He's…"

"I know." Giles's voice is so gentle it makes her skin crawl. "And I believe that—that you feel loved by him. And that, in his way, he loves you."

"'In his way,'" Buffy repeats.

Giles says, "Buffy, there are—there are mechanics, that… I'm loath to upset you further and I don't believe I've done you any good."

"Tell me," she says.

"To become a vampire is to become a host for possession," Giles says carefully, a little like he should be behind a podium. "Or, rather, the host dies and is replaced. The demon that takes up residence has access to the memories of the host—it does, essentially, remember what it meant to be human. But it will always be an imitation, you see—occasionally successfully, and frequently a poor one."

Buffy thinks about laughing so loud they drowned out the cheesy explosions on TV, about sobbing into Spike's chest after her body had belonged to someone else and how he said he only wanted it if it was really her.

She thinks about walking with him in a graveyard and wearing his heavy coat.

"What makes us so special?" she asks distantly.

"I'm sorry?" asks Giles.

Buffy blinks at him, her fingers curling around the milky crystal on her wrist. "It's… Spike asked me that, back before we were together. He said, um, humans were just animals too."

"Well," Giles says slowly. "One could point to the presence of a soul."

Buffy asks, "So what's a soul do?"

He furrows his eyebrows at her.

"I mean it," Buffy insists. "It's not, like, your memories or what's happened to you or anything, because the demon keeps all that, doesn't it? I mean, and non-vampire-y demons can learn things. They can understand stuff. They can want things."

"Yes, I—" Giles hesitates. "Of course."

"So what's it do?" Buffy repeats. "Why's it mean he's not supposed to love me?"

Giles says, "Buffy, I can tell that you care very much about these ans—"

"God," Buffy says, her voice hitching up like she wants to laugh. "I really don't."

Giles looks at her.

"I don't care about any of this stuff," Buffy tells him. She stands up quickly, turning to face him. "You can say whatever you want, call it whatever you want, but I know what I feel when I'm with Spike and you're wrong. He loves me, Giles."

Giles asks, "Then why ask me any of this?"

"Because he thinks he's a monster," Buffy says. "And I won't let him."

"... I see." Giles makes his thinking face for a minute. "There is… another source. A—something I've read about in the Watchers’ diaries."

Buffy asks, "What is it, a book?"

"Not a book," says Giles. "A… I suppose you could call it a quest."

Buffy frowns. "Like finding a grail or something?"

"Not a grail," Giles says with a hint of humor. "Maybe answers. I'm not certain that this kind of question is under the typical purview, but… then again—" He smiles wryly at her. "You are remarkably stubborn."

She smiles back, relaxing her posture a little. "But isn't a quest kinda, you know, time-intensive?"

"The quest is primarily spiritual in nature," Giles explains. He stands, gesturing for her to follow, and leads her back into the shop. "There's a sacred place in the desert nearby—it would take a—a day or two at most."

"I can do that," Buffy says. "Spike will watch Dawn."

Giles climbs the ladder to his private collection in the loft area. She climbs up after him, watching him scan the shelves. "I'll need to, ah, gather some supplies, but we could likely leave tomorrow. Unless you'd rather wait?"

"No, we should—I wanna go now." Buffy leans back against the railing. "If there's an answer out there, he deserves to have it."

"And if there isn't?" asks Giles.

Buffy says, "Then I'm stubborn."

 

~*~

 

"Just one night?" Spike asks, making with the koala around her when she tries to get out of bed the next morning. "Promise?"

"Oh my God, literally just one night." Buffy turns her head, nuzzling at his cheek. "Clingy, much?"

Spike growls a little and tightens his arm around her waist.

Buffy sighs, turning all the way around and straddling his lap on the edge of the bed. She drapes her wrists around his neck. "Okay, what's the deal?"

Spike blinks up at her earnestly. "Nothing. Just…" He glances away. "What if what you find out isn't…"

"Hey." Buffy tilts his chin up. "You never used to talk like this. What's going on?"

Spike shakes his head a little. He wets his lip and says, "Funny thing—closer I get to you, more I realize I don't deserve it."

Buffy's heart pangs. 

"That's because you're an idiot," she says. "Like, just so fucking dumb."

Spike grins at her. "Love you too, ducks."

Buffy kisses him softly, stroking her thumb across his cheek. His hands slide up her bare back, sending tingles up her spine.

"Hey," she says, smiling against his mouth. "When I get back, we should do the biting thing."

"Yeah?" Spike murmurs. "You sure?"

Buffy sits back a little, resting her weight on his thighs. "I wanna, don't you?"

"Uh, yeah, I—" Spike shakes his head, raising his eyebrows at her. "Do you have any idea how incredible you are?"

"Mm, maybe you should show me, like, three more times before Giles gets here," Buffy says playfully, planting both hands on his chest and shoving him down to the mattress. "Gotta make up for tonight."

Spike licks his teeth with a grin.

 

~*~

 

"Wow," Buffy says, squinting at the horizon through Giles's windshield. "This sure is some sand. I was just thinking to myself, 'Gee, you know what the worst part of the beach is? How there's all that water instead of more sand.'"

Giles side-eyes her as he drives the car off the main road.

They park in what's definitely just the middle of nowhere. Giles kills the engine and walks around to the back of the car.

"What's in the trunk?" Buffy asks.

"Supplies," he says, popping it open.

"Supplies? I was wondering about that," Buffy says. "Like, food… water… maybe a compass?"

Giles asks, "What about a book, a gourd, and a bunch of twigs?"

Buffy frowns. "I don't think I'll be that hungry."

"They're for me," Giles says drily. "Come on, this way."

They make their way further into the desert. As they go, Giles explains, "You see, the location of the sacred place is a guarded secret—I can't take you there myself. I'll have to perform a ritual to—" He puffs a little as they hike up a dune. "Transfer my guardianship of you temporarily to—to a guide."

They find a patch of flat ground totally out of sight from the road.

"This'll do," Giles says, looking around.

Buffy watches him start setting the stuff up. "A guide, but no food or water? So, it leads me to the sacred place, and then a week later it leads you to my bleached bones?"

"Buffy, please," Giles scolds. He looks up from his circle of sticks. "It takes more than a week to bleach bones."

Buffy smiles at him. She suddenly remembers his face when she and Spike were under that first spell—the way he poured himself drink after drink but still forgot all about it, for a second, when she asked him to walk her down the aisle.

"Hey," she says, more seriously. "Thanks for helping with this. I know you don't…"

Giles looks up at her, his eyes all pale and sincere in the desert sun, and tells her, "All I want is for you to be happy."

Buffy's smile is kinda shaky. She says, "I'm working on it."

"Yes, well, let's hope that upon learning your approach to happiness, your guide doesn't accuse you of being an irredeemable traitor to your very calling," Giles says casually. He fusses with the placement of a stick.

"Is that, like, an option?" Buffy asks. "I didn't bring my axe."

Giles shakes his gourd at her.

 

~*~

 

After watching Giles do the hokey pokey, Buffy wanders off further into the desert. She's thinking about shrugging out of her jacket (it might be winter, but, hey! Never too early to start on a tan) when all of a sudden some weird big cat appears in front of her.

Buffy tilts her head. "Hello, kitty."

The cat makes some kind of purring-growly noise that reminds her of sleepy-Spike and slinks away the way it came.

So, you know, probably the vision guide or whatever, but, boy, is she gonna be red in the face if she's wrong.

Buffy follows the cat even deeper into the desert, trying to keep a mental map of where she is compared to Giles—she thinks they've turned left too many times—until she passes through these weird stone archways that kind of obviously say secret spot lays beyond! and finds herself staring out over miles and miles of desert from an outcropping.

The back of Buffy's neck prickles in recognition. 

"I know this place," she tells her guide. 

She fought the First Slayer here, in that freaky dream she had after they did the enjoining spell—where she dreamed about her mother in the walls and coming with Spike's teeth in her throat and being a killer.

In hindsight, it was weird she didn't dream about Dawn.

She sits down on a rock and waits.

 

~*~

 

It gets cold in the desert after dark. All the stars light up in the sky and the moon is that sized crescent where the little boy from DreamWorks movies can sit on it and go fishing.

Buffy waits, and sleeps, and wakes up to a blazing fire that doesn't throw off any heat.

There's something moving on the other side.

"Hello?" Buffy asks warily, sitting up a little. "Who's there?"

There's no answer, but Buffy catches a glimpse of dark skin and chalky face paint through the flames. And the way the figure is moving…

"I know you," she realizes. "You're the First Slayer."

"This is a form," the figure answers. "I am the guide."

Buffy's skin goes all goosebumpy uneasily. 

"I, um, I have… questions," she says, pressing her fingertips into the rock a little. "Or, um, I'm asking for a friend?"

"You are here for the blood-drinker," says the guide.

"Um, yeah." Buffy shifts in her seat. "I guess you're big on the whole 'you are what you eat' thing, huh?"

"He is in your heart," says the guide.

Buffy says, "He is. Will you help us?"

"I will answer," the guide says.

Buffy sucks in a deep breath; she braces herself to inhale smoke, but the air is clear. "I… we wanna know why—why Spike can love me."

"I cannot answer," says the guide.

"What?" Buffy demands. "Why not? You just said—"

"I am younger than love," says the guide. Flames flicker brightly across their face. "Love is older than this world. It is older than your soul."

Buffy's throat feels tight. She asks, "Then—then you don't need a soul to love somebody?"

"Water does not need the earth," says the guide.

"Then—" Buffy hesitates. "Then what's a soul do?"

The guide says, "You belong to your soul."

Buffy asks, "I belong—"

"To your soul."

"I don't understand," Buffy says.

"There is a soul in everything." The guide creeps closer; Buffy's heels dig into the sand. "In your hands. In the water. We belong to each other."

"Except for demons?" Buffy realizes faintly. "Except—except for Spike?"

"The blood-drinker belonged to nothing," says the guide. "He was empty. Free."

Buffy asks, "Was?"

The guide tilts their head demon-far. "He gave himself to your heart. He has made a nest."

"Then we belong to each other," says Buffy. Her chest loosens a little.

The guide says, "You belong to your soul."

An animal screams somewhere far away.

"That's not fair," Buffy says, nostrils flaring. She tries to move, but her spine aches. "That's—you're wrong. I won't let him be alone like that. I won't."

"You will be like water in his hands," the guide tells her. "You will fall to your soul."

Buffy snaps to her feet, her eyes sharp and stinging like the crack of a rubber band, and spits, "Listen, you son of a—"

"Your question has been answered," says the guide, and Buffy is alone.

It's colder than before.

"... What the fuck?" Buffy asks the desert.

 

~*~

 

It takes maybe ten grumpy minutes to trek back to where she left Giles: the sticks are still on the ground, but he's not there anymore. Buffy huffs and marches back towards the car, then stops short when she takes in the scene.

"—the desert to find her!" Giles is arguing to Xander, who's standing between Dawn and Anya with his chest all puffed up.

"What happened?" Buffy asks, a pit of sludge sinking into her stomach. "Dawn?"

Dawn's hair is a total mess; there are drying tearstains on her blotchy cheeks. She says, "It's my fault."

Buffy steps forward. "Dawnie, what is? What's wrong?"

"Buffy…" Xander says. "Glory took Spike."

Buffy looks at him, her hands half-lifted to touch Dawn's face. "What?"

"He made me run," Dawn croaks. She starts to cry again, her eyes all big and red, and clutches at Buffy's jacket. "I'm so sorry, I—I just left him and I sh-should've—"

"No," Buffy says firmly. She cups the back of Dawn's head, pulling her closer with stone-turning relief. "You did the right thing. Spike would never forgive himself if he let someone hurt you—you know that."

Dawn just sobs harder.

Buffy looks between Xander and Anya. "What else do we know?"

"Not much," says Xander. "I guess Dawn ran all the way to our place. She said a bunch of those toady guys grabbed Spike and said—something about the Key. Tara and Willow are working on a locator spell."

"Okay." Buffy keeps her voice even. "Anya, take Dawn back to your place and hide. Xander, you're with me and Giles. We're mounting up."

"No!" Dawn argues. She pulls away, rubbing the snot off her face with the back of a hand. "I have to help."

Buffy tells her, "You can help by staying safe like Spike wanted—like we all want."

Dawn glares defiantly at her for a long moment, and Buffy thinks, God, they really did make you out of me.

"Dawn," she says gently. "Please."

Finally, Dawn sniffs and turns to Anya. "Can I drive?"

"Oh, absolutely not," Anya tells her cheerfully. "Let's go!"

Xander tosses her the keys. He climbs into the back seat of Giles's car and Buffy takes shotgun, resting her arm on the edge of the rolled-down window.

Giles turns them onto the main road and peels off down the highway.

"Buff," Xander asks, his voice somehow still sounding quiet even though it's raised to make it over the roar of the engine. "You don't think Spike would…?"

"No," Buffy says. The wind whipping past her face brings stinging tears to her eyes. "I think he'd let her kill him."

 

~*~

 

The living room is a disaster zone: one of the lamps is shattered on the floor and shards of lightbulb glass are everywhere, a mug of spilled blood is seeping into the hardwood, and the coffee table is splintered right down the middle.

(She really liked that coffee table.)

Willow and Tara are sitting cross-legged on opposite sides of a giant map of Sunnydale. Their heads snap up when Buffy and the others walk in, but they relax when they see who it is.

"What've you got?" Buffy asks, bypassing them for her weapons chest.

"Well, um, we had to get the ingredients, so… just this?" Willow says nervously. "We were about to cast it."

Buffy tosses Giles a crossbow. "What is it?"

"A general demon-locating spell. It'll show us all demonic presences in the city," Willow explains. "There's, um—not something more specific for a single vampire, Buffy, I'm sorry."

"It'll work," she says. "Do it."

Willow and Tara both say a chant together, then blow colored powder across the map at the same time. For a split second nothing happens, and then all of a sudden the map is lit up like a Christmas tree in all different colors.

"Wow. Can I just say?" Xander peers at the map. "This visual? So not comforting."

"U-um, that dark red is vampires, so…" Tara gestures at the map. "Oh, they're all over. I'm not sure if—"

Buffy plants her finger on an apartment complex on the north side of town. "He's that one."

"Uh," says Xander. "Okay. Do you guys have some kind of weird… mate-bondy thing that—"

Buffy side-eyes him. "That really bright dot next to him is the only one that color, and this building is right next to where I killed that giant snake-thing that Glory summoned before."

"Got it," says Xander. "I'm an idiot."

"Tara," Buffy says, "go to Anya's and help protect Dawn. Everyone else is with me."

 

~*~

 

Giles drives them to the apartment complex, circling around back and parking away from the rising sun. They grab their weapons from the trunk and head up to the main entrance.

"Okay, we'll split into teams of two," Buffy says. "Xander, you're with me. Giles and Willow, take even-numbered floors—but I'm betting she's in the—"

The lobby is swarming with stringy little hobbit guys, who are rushing the elevator, which opens to reveal Spike covered in his own blood, swaying on his feet with his fists up.

"—penthouse?" says Buffy.

Spike collapses in the elevator.

Buffy starts killing things.

She tosses bumpy minion after dead bumpy minion out of her way, cutting a path to the elevator, and drops to her knees at Spike's side.

"God," she says worriedly, afraid to touch the pulpy wounds on his cheek. "Spike—"

"Buff," he wheezes, his face lolling into her hand. "Knew you'd…"

There's movement behind her; Buffy reaches around, drags a minion towards her, and snaps its neck.

The crunch feels good under her hands.

She brushes her fingers through the blood-sticky hair at Spike's temple and promises, "We're getting you out of here."

"Buffy!" Xander shouts, his voice strained. "A little help?"

"Go," Spike tells her. His lips twitch a little. "'M not dyin'."

She kisses his forehead and jumps back into the fight. 

They send the last minion packing back up the stairwell; Giles looks a little worse for the wear, but otherwise everyone else is okay. 

Buffy scoops Spike up bridal style ("And bitch said I wasn't pure," he mutters, even though she's got no idea what that means) to carry him to the car, a blanket draped over them both to shield him from the sun. 

Giles puts the convertible top up to drive them back to the house. Xander takes shotgun and Willow edges all the way to the far window in the back so Buffy and Spike can lay half-sideways and he doesn't have to stay sitting up on his own.

His injuries look worse and worse the longer she looks. 

Buffy wants to puke; she lays him against her chest and pets his hair with her bottom lip quivering.

"Glory…" Spike mutters slowly. He keeps breathing in at the hollow of Buffy's throat. "Knows… Key's human."

Buffy's hand stills. She asks, "She thought it was you?"

"Precious," he murmurs.

"You are," she says wetly.

"Didn't…" Spike winces when Giles hits a bump. "Tell her."

"I know, baby," Buffy tells him, pressing her lips together. "I know you didn't."

Spike wheezes raggedly; Buffy helps him sit up a little more, taking his weight in her arms.

"Think I'm—" Spike coughs harder. "Down a lung."

Buffy feels like she is, too. Her vision keeps going blurry when she tries to look too hard at all the bloody marks on his chest. It looks like someone dug—

"Spike," she chokes out. Her voice sounds far away as she tips his mouth against her throat. "Here. Drink."

Spike's whole body goes rigid, which makes him shudder in pain. He rasps, "No."

Buffy can feel Willow staring at her; a car blares its horn at them when Giles runs a stop sign.

"You need to heal," she says shakily. "I—I need you to—"

"No," he says again. His head lifts, the one eye that can open glassy and hard. "Not like him. Not… taking."

Buffy's voice is so tiny. She says, "I need you."

"'M here," Spike says. He coughs again; she should stop making him breathe. "'Ll heal. Won't leave you."

Buffy tucks him back against her chest and closes her eyes.

 

~*~

 

Spike sleeps for fourteen hours.

That night, Buffy pours a fresh blood pack from the hospital into his mug and sticks it back in the microwave. There's music turned down low playing in the living room—something old and hoarse, with a lot of guitar. When I was a child, I had a fever. Buffy splashes water on her face from the sink.

The microwave beeps.

She pulls out the mug and dunks the silly straw back in it.

Spike is where she left him on the couch; his good eye cracks open when she sits down next to him and says, "Drink more."

"Not hungry," he says, lifting the corner of his mouth.

Buffy rolls her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I get how annoying that is now. Fucking drink, you baby."

"Ta, love." Spike leans over and takes the straw between his teeth, raising his eyebrows at her as he slurps up a mouthful. "Yours is a gentle touch."

"It's helping though, isn't it?" Buffy asks quietly. "You're not all… wheezy anymore."

Spike lifts his hand, wincing, and cups the side of her face. "'S helping."

Buffy takes a breath. She kisses the edge of his palm and says, "You sound okay enough to call Dawn now, if you want."

"Yeah," Spike says, his voice going a little rough again. "That'd be good."

They agreed to have everyone else hide out at Xander's tonight—partly in case Glory tried to come back for Spike, and partly because Buffy's pretty sure Dawn will freak if she sees how badly Spike is hurt.

Buffy leaves the mug on Spike's thigh and reaches for the phone. She takes her time dialing, watching him drink down about half the blood, and then puts the phone up to her ear.

Xander answers on the second ring. "Hello?"

"Hey," Buffy says. "Can you get Dawn?"

"Yeah, one sec."

There's some muffled talking, and then Dawn's voice comes on the line. "Hello? Buffy?"

"Hey." Buffy smiles a little. "Someone wants to talk to you."

She hands the phone over.

Spike takes it, shifting against the cushions to help prop it against his shoulder, and says, "Hey, platelet. … No, none o' that. You did right, sweet bit. Got big sis right on the case, didn't you?" He laughs a little, then turns his face away from the phone to cough. "I'm sure you could've. … Just a scratch or two, it is. Had worse."

Buffy really hopes he's lying.

"Better not, tonight," he says. "Hey, you know what you can do for me? Does Harris still have that Gatorade in the fridge? … Uh huh. So, you get that, and you look under the sink for— … Atta girl."

Buffy tucks herself carefully against his side, resting her cheek gingerly on his shoulder as she listens to Spike walk Dawn through like six different pranks to play on Xander. They are so gonna get it in the morning.

The music is still playing; she listens to that a little, too.

"Better run off 'fore they get suspicious now," Spike warns Dawn. "Yeah, you give me a call in the morning and say—say how it goes. … Dunno, bit. Might be better to— … Well, I'll ask the missus. … 'Course I am, have you seen 'er? … Hey, you asked."

Spike covers the receiver with his hand and asks Buffy, "Bit wants to know if we're getting back together tomorrow."

"Um, probably," says Buffy.

"She said 'probably,'" Spike tells Dawn. He chuckles. "Well, you can have at her yourself. I've taken enough lickings today, thanks. … Yeah, I—" His throat bobs. "Me, too, nibblet. See you soon."

He hands the phone back over. Buffy takes it and says, "We have to do what's safest," before Dawn can argue.

"I feel safest with you and Spike," Dawn says. Her voice is all nasally.

"I know, sweetie," Buffy tells her. She glances at Spike. "But sometimes feeling something doesn't make it true."

"Whatever," Dawn says grumpily. "You guys just like not having me around so you can make out all the time."

Spike, obviously eavesdropping, huffs out a pained laugh.

"Uh huh," Buffy tells her. "I'm gonna, like, ravage him right now."

"Ravish," says Spike.

Dawn says, "Gross. Bye."

"Bye. I love you."

"Love you, Buffy."

Buffy hangs up the phone. She sighs, putting it down on the couch, and props her cheek on Spike's shoulder again with her fingers tracing little shapes on his knee.

Spike sets his empty mug on the end table.

"Do you want another one?" Buffy asks.

"Stuff doesn't grow on trees, Slayer," Spike teases.

"Oh my God," Buffy says lightly. "How gross would it be if it did?"

Spike's breath rattles a little when he shifts to kiss the top of her head.

"You should have another one," Buffy says, pulling away to stand. "You're still not—"

Spike grabs her wrist, stilling her. She looks at him, pressing her mouth into a line so it doesn't tremble.

"Buffy," he says firmly. "You've fed me enough today to drain a human. I'll heal when I heal, ducks."

Buffy sits back down, turning her gaze down to their hands in her lap and the rubbed-raw marks the chains left behind on his. "You'd heal faster if you'd let me…"

"Said no," Spike reminds her. A flicker of irritation leaks into his voice. "You're not a sodding Happy Meal."

"Spike." Buffy turns to him, feeling the wide-wetness of her eyes and heat rising to her cheeks. "That's not why I—what you did for us is…"

Spike smiles sadly at her; it looks like it hurts his face. His bruises are turning an almost-pretty color.

"Just wanted to…" He pauses, gaze going unfocused for a second. "Just trying, love."

Buffy shakes her head. "Trying what?"

"To be good," he says softly. "Think it'd be nice."

His mouth tastes like blood. Buffy's breath comes all shuddery and her collarbones hurt (all her bones hurt) from being so gentle. This beautiful, sweet body underneath her that needs her to be tender, that doesn't want a killer.

Buffy starts sobbing.

"Buff?" Spike asks worriedly. "What's wrong, love?"

"I can't do this," she chokes out, her face in his neck and her fingers gripping the couch so she doesn't re-break his ribs. "I can't. Please—please don't make me. Fuck, I can't."

"What?" Spike's hand is in her hair. "Can't do what, love?"

Buffy sobs, "I'm so—tired."

"Of what?" Spike asks. "Buffy, tired of what?"

She can't make herself answer. It hurts to breathe. He looks like something took him in its mouth and shook and his hand is in her hair.

"Buffy," Spike begs. "You're scaring me, love."

"I can't," she repeats. "I can't keep doing this."

Spike goes really still.

"No one should be here this long," Buffy says wetly. "No one should have to do this. I should be dead."

Spike leans away from her, his expression desperate with a hand on her jaw forcing her to look. 

"You should live to a hundred," he tells her.

"I don't wanna," Buffy admits. The tears stream down her face and drip off her chin. "Not like this."

Spike's voice sounds like he swallowed glass. He asks, "What can I do, baby? Let me make it better."

"You can't," she says. "You do, and look what happened."

Spike thumbs at her bottom lip. "Made my own choices, pet. What happened to me—'s not your fault."

"But I almost lost you," Buffy says. Her chest stutters when she tries to breathe. "And—and Mom is gone, and I—I couldn't—"

"Mum died of cancer, love," Spike tells her. He shakes his head. "There's not a power on Earth could've changed it."

Buffy asks, "Then what good am I? What am I supposed to do?"

Spike blinks at her; his expression tries to change shape and a cut splits back open above his forehead, dripping down into his good eye.

"You're Buffy," he says, like it's the most important thing in the world. "Just be Buffy."

Buffy shuts her eyes, letting fresh hot tears roll down her cheeks. They sting under her eyelids and make her throat itch and there's nothing to kill. All Buffy ever learned how to do is kill.

"My beautiful girl," Spike whispers, and she likes the way it sounds. Like her mother stabbing a trowel into the garden at the start of spring. 

"Say it again?" she asks.

Spike's knuckles brush the hair away from her face. "Beautiful."

She opens her eyes and says, "Yours."

Spike laughs a little, or his lung is hurting again. He blinks the blood out of his eye and tells her, "I'd trade the world for it. Guess I'm not so good yet."

Buffy's smile wavers dangerously. She kisses the corner of his mouth, delicate around the bruise, and confesses, "Me neither."

 

~*~

 

"Buff?" Spike mutters drowsily.

"I'm up," Buffy answers quietly, stroking her fingers across his temple. He's been in and out of sleep all morning, laying with his head on her chest and the tiniest hint of filtered sunlight hitting his face through the curtains. "What's wrong, honey?"

"Never said… how th' quest went." Spike tips his face into her neck. "Learn anythin'?"

Buffy's chest tightens. She says, "That I love you."

His smile is cool against her skin. "Revelations."

"Uh huh," she says. Hesitates a little, her fingers still playing with his hair. "They… wouldn't help me. I'm sorry."

"'S okay." Spike nuzzles her tenderly. "Thanks for tryin'."

Buffy swallows thickly. 

"I'm not giving up," she tells him. "I believe in you, Spike."

His body slumps against hers in sleep.

 

~*~

 

"Are you sure this leg is healing okay?" Buffy fusses, making a squished face she's pretty sure Mom used to make at her all the time as she helps Spike hobble down the stairs.

"'S getting there," he says, and slips his hand off her hip to squeeze her butt.

Buffy swats at him playfully.

"Good to see you two back in good spirits," Giles says drily, making them both jump.

"Giles!" Buffy says. "You're early."

"I can assure you I'm not," he says, raising an eyebrow in a really judgy dad way.

Buffy's cheeks heat up a little. "Um, I guess showering took a little longer with the—"

Giles clears his throat.

"—injuries," says Spike.

Giles's mouth twitches a little.

Spike asks, "Fancy a cuppa?"

"Oh, don't trouble yourself," Giles tells him. "I'd hate to cause you undue… exertion, given that you are clearly still invalid."

"Yup!" Buffy agrees brightly. "No exertion here. We are of the… not… exerty."

There's the sound of footsteps racing up the porch, and then the front door flings open—almost smacking Giles in the face. He steps quickly out of the way, which also clears a path for Dawn to fling herself across the foyer right into Spike's arms.

He grunts in pain—Buffy stabilizes him with a hand at his back—and wraps his arms around her anyway.

"Hey, li'l bit," he says. "You get taller?"

"Ha. Ha." Dawn drops back down to the ground, crossing her arms as she squints at his face. "You don't even look that beat up. I don't get why everyone was making such a big deal out of it."

Buffy bites the inside of her cheek; Spike shoots her an amused look.

"Spike, buddy!" Xander says, coming up the porch steps with Anya behind him. "Did you get work done? I've gotta say, it's done wonders."

"Thanks ever so," Spike says drily, but he does one of those weird guy handshakes with him anyway.

Tara and Willow bring up the rear; they're holding hands and Tara is carrying something in a little bag.

"Hi, Spike!" Willow says. "How're ya feeling?"

"Right as rain," he says. "Thanks, Red."

Tara holds out the paper bag. "Um, we made you something. It's a healing salve, for cuts and stuff? I've—I've never tried it for a vampire before but hopefully it w-works."

Spike quirks his lips, taking the bag from her. "Ta, pet."

She smiles shyly at him.

"So, uh," Xander says, craning his neck. "Is the first item on the agenda fixing the living room?"

Shit. Buffy hasn't even had time to clean up the shattered lamp.

"It's not that bad," she says defensively.

"It's very 'abducted chic,'" Anya says cheerfully.

Willow says, "Oh, poor coffee table."

"Guys, that's not why we're here," Buffy says impatiently. "We can fix the living room later. What we need is—"

"Hey, sorry I'm late," says Riley, nudging the door shut behind himself. He glances at the living room. "Yikes. What happened here?"

Buffy thunks her head on Spike's shoulder.

"The dining room, then?" suggests Spike.

They all pull up chairs around the table, Spike on Buffy's left with his arm wrapped around her waist. 

Xander sits down last, sliding a grape soda across the table to Dawn and cracking open his Diet Pepsi. "So, what's the word?"

Spike squeezes Buffy's hip.

"So, um, Spike and I have been talking," she says. "And we think that—"

"Are you engaged again?" Anya asks. "Because I'd personally like to verify there isn't a spell involved before we buy you any gifts."

Buffy raises her eyebrows at her. "We're not engaged again."

"Did you say again?" Dawn asks.

"No one ever told you that one?" Xander asks her.

Tara says, "It's okay, Dawnie. I don't know what they're talking about either."

"Consider yourself lucky," says Giles drily.

"Guys," Buffy says.

Dawn asks, "Was I gonna be a bridesmaid? Was Mom soo mad?"

Spike tells her, "You were the flower girl, nibblet. Didn't get to tell Mum before the spell broke."

"Guys," Buffy snaps.

They all look at her guiltily.

Buffy takes a deep breath. "We need to leave town—all of us."

"... What?" asks Willow.

"Glory knows that the Key is human, and she's convinced it's one of us," Buffy says. "There's nothing stopping her from picking us off one by one until she figures it out."

No one says anything.

"Uh, Buffy?" Xander says eventually. "I kinda thought, you know, you were the thing stopping her."

Buffy looks around, taking in their confused faces. "Guys, get real—every time I've tried to fight Glory, she's kicked my ass. I can't protect us. I mean, if Spike were a human, he'd be dead."

Xander says, "Buff, we get that you're freaked right now, but this isn't like you. We can't just run away."

"We can. We have to," Buffy says. "Guys, this isn't me wigging out—this is me being smart."

"It's a sensible plan," says Anya. "I've always found running away in the face of apocalypse to be preferable to dying in it."

Willow asks, "Buffy, are you sure about this?"

Buffy nods. "We still don't know why Glory wants the Key. Maybe—maybe if we buy time, we can figure that out, but we won't have a chance if we're, you know, dead."

"She does seem to be able to target us with impunity," Giles says. "One could assume she knows where most, if not all of us, live."

"Exactly. It's not safe in Sunnydale," Buffy says. "I mean, less so than usual."

Willow chews on her bottom lip for a second, then says, "Okay, I'm in."

"Me—me too," Tara agrees.

Anya gives her a double thumbs up, then swats at Xander insistently.

Dawn says, "Guess I don't have to study for that math test."

"Alright, alright," Xander tells Anya. "I'm in. Call me Rocket Man."

Buffy looks at Giles.

"I trust you to do what is best," he tells her. "I'll be behind you all the way."

"Thank you," Buffy tells all of them.

"Uh, Buffy?" Riley says. "Maybe I should stay behind. I'm not really sure that this 'Glory' gal knows me, and me and the boys can keep an eye on things for you."

Buffy turns to him appreciatively. "I was actually kinda hoping you'd say that. Um, sorry—I know you keep trying to get out of the game…"

"Hey, don't worry about it," he says, flashing her an aw shucks smile. "It'll be more interesting than grading midterms—trust me."

"I'll see if I can get a pager or something," Buffy says. "And I'll give you, um—we've got some old friends in LA who can give you a hand if you need it."

"Sure thing," Riley says. "And let me know if you guys need any papers or anything—stuff that'll get you out of work or class. I still have some contacts."

Buffy says, "That'd be a big help. I'm not sure Dawn's allowed to miss any more school."

Dawn is chipping at her nail polish. She glances up and asks, "Is there, like, a rule about that?"

"Thanks for being on board, guys." Buffy rolls her shoulders back. "Get your stuff together and make plans as fast as you can—I wanna be gone tomorrow night. And make sure you don't tell anyone where we're going."

"Um, Buffy?" Willow points out. "You… didn't tell us where we're going."

"Good point!" says Buffy.

They stare at her expectantly.

"Best get a move on, then," says Spike. "Miles to go before we sleep."

"We'll meet here when it's time to go," Buffy tells them. "Seven PM, okay?"

"Uh, Buffy?" Xander asks. "One last thing—how are we goin'? I mean, are we talking Greyhound, or…?"

Willow says, "Ooh, my grandma's minivan seats eight!"

Buffy glances at Spike, then says, "We'll have a ride. But thanks."

Everyone gets up to go, chattering about how many clothes to pack and if they should bring Xander's poker set. Buffy writes Angel's number down for Riley and hugs him goodbye.

When they're all gone, she leans her head back against the front door and sighs loudly.

Spike limps over and pulls her against his chest, his hand cupping the back of her head.

"You're making the right call," he tells her quietly. "You need this."

"I know," she says. Her fingers curl in the back of his shirt. "I just wish I didn't."

"Guys?" Dawn asks, standing in the stairwell. "Do I have to go to school tomorrow?"

Buffy frowns at her. "Don't you wanna say goodbye to your friends?"

"... I guess," she says.

Spike turns, leaving his arm wrapped around Buffy's middle. "Should have plenty of time to get you packed after. We could start tonight if that's what's worrying you."

Dawn says, "I can do it myself." She hesitates, then tacks on, "But thanks."

"'Course," says Spike.

"What are you guys gonna do?" Dawn asks.

"Um." Buffy runs a hand through her hair. "We've gotta pack too, and stock up on food and blood, and find a camper."

Dawn wrinkles her nose. "We're running away from a hell god in an RV?"

"'S got running water," Spike offers.

Dawn thinks about it for a second, then says, "Okay, that's kinda cool."

"We'll go looking tomorrow at sunset," Buffy tells her. "You can help pick if you want."

"Like, where, at a dealership?" Dawn asks.

"God, no," says Buffy. "Do you know how expensive those things are? We're totally stealing it."

"Cool," says Dawn. "Can I learn how to hotwire it?"

Buffy rolls her eyes and tilts her face up to kiss the underside of Spike's jaw. "That's your department."

"You'll be a natural in no time, bit," he says.

Dawn jumps up and down, clapping her hands excitedly, and says, "Awesome! I'm gonna go start packing right now."

She practically skips up the stairs. Huh, who knew grand theft auto was the key to wrangling your bratty teen? 

"We are such good parents," says Buffy.

 

~*~

 

"We're the world's shittiest parents," says Buffy.

Spike grunts at her, messy blonde head poking out from under his nest of blankets, and doesn't get up.

Buffy chucks a balled-up shirt at him. "Get up. We've gotta go to the school."

"'S like ten, baby," Spike whines. He yanks the covers all the way over his head when she throws a pair of pants. "I'm still convalescing."

"That's not what your dick said last night," says Buffy. 

A smug-bastard snort.

Buffy rests a hand on her hip. "Spike, c'mon. I don't wanna do this alone."

That gets her a visual up to the eyebrows.

"It's serious?" he asks.

"The kind where they won't even tell you what she did over the phone," Buffy tells him. "And, speaking from years of experience, that's the worst kind."

Spike sighs and crawls out of bed.

Most of his injuries are healed now, except for some of the deeper cuts and bruising on his face and whatever's wrong with the leg—he winces when he puts weight on it to step into his jeans. Which, in the grand scheme of stuff, is kind of fucking incredible. 

Perks of dating the undead.

"You just gonna ogle?" Spike teases, raising an eyebrow at her. "Or is Smokey the Bear part of the plan of attack?"

Buffy looks down at her pajamas. "Shit. What should I—"

"Tan blouse is on the vanity," he says.

That'll work. Buffy grabs a pair of nice pants off the edge of the laundry hamper and tosses them over to him. "Sniff test?"

He chucks them back in approval.

Buffy gets dressed and does just enough makeup to hopefully say: I'm a competent adult.

Spike slides a pack of deodorant wipes in front of her, kissing the top of her head on the way. "Breakfast?"

Buffy scrubs quickly under her arms. "Fast?"

He hums, heading down the stairs.

Buffy tosses the wipe in the trash, gives her hair a quick brush, and ties it up in a ponytail on her way downstairs. She catches the apple Spike throws her on instinct.

"Brown Sugar Cinnamon or Strawberry?" Spike asks, reaching into the pantry.

"Ooh, sugar-sugar," she says sing-song, crunching into the apple. 

His cute little smile still puts butterflies in her stomach.

"Blood for the road?" she asks, opening the fridge.

"Coffee," he says.

Buffy pours the rest of the pot into the big thermos and adds a splash of hazelnut creamer. She swirls it around with the lid on to mix it and takes another bite of her apple.

Spike leans back against the counter near the toaster and just looks at her, and for a second she feels so normal it makes her throat hurt.

The toaster dings.

Spike plucks the PopTarts out and double-wraps them in a paper towel, then nods for the door. "Ready?"

Buffy pouts at him. "Can we go kill something instead?"

"Maybe there'll be a demon on campus," Spike says temptingly.

Buffy grabs the thermos and loops her arm through his. "A gal can dream."

 

~*~

 

"You lied to us?" Buffy demands, glaring at Dawn, who's slouched halfway out of her seat between Buffy and Spike.

Dawn says, "Umm…" and flicks her eyes guiltily to Spike.

Who quickly looks up at the ceiling.

Buffy turns on him immediately. "You knew she was skipping school?"

"Well," Spike says, "the thing is—"

"You're unbelievable," says Buffy. She looks back at Principal Stevens, who is frowning at the three of them as a kind of unit. "I—I don't know what to say. I—I'm sure you're aware that the past few months, you know, have been kind of hard for Dawn." She winces, adding quickly, "Not that that's an, um, excuse."

"I understand," Principal Stevens says, firmly but kindly. "Your mother was a lovely woman, and we'll all miss her very much. I know how difficult it must be."

Buffy's stomach twists uncomfortably. She says, "It is. Especially for Dawn. She—she's just a kid."

Principal Stevens says, "Well, I think we all know that Dawn is a lot more than 'just a kid.'"

Buffy glances quickly at Dawn, then Spike, who shifts purposefully in his chair.

"She's a talented young girl," Principal Stevens continues, leaning forward to look Dawn in the eye. "With a sharp mind—when she puts the effort in."

All three of them sit back in relief.

Buffy says, "Look, obviously there's been some, um, ball-dropping—I mean, we're still figuring out the parenting thing, but I'm sure this will all—"

"Dawn," Principal Stevens cuts in. "Why don't you and, ah—" 

She glances at Spike.

"William, ma'am," he reminds her.

"Why don't you and William wait outside for a few minutes?" she says.

Dawn looks at Buffy, wide-eyed and scared, which Buffy gets: she's been that half of the equation more times than she can count.

Now that she's older, she's not sure she would've wanted to hear how they talked about her.

Buffy nods for Dawn to go, but she touches at Spike's arm. He pauses, looking at her curiously, and she tells Principal Stevens, "Um, if it's okay, I'd—I want him to stay. You know, in the spirit of, um… better balls?"

Principal Stevens frowns a little, but she waves for Spike to sit back down.

Better balls. Fuck, she's so screwed.

Spike takes Dawn's seat and scoots it a little closer to her, resting a reassuring hand on her knee. 

"So, um," Buffy asks. "What is it? I mean, is she fighting, or, um…?"

"It's not really about Dawn, Buffy," Principal Stevens says. "I'm… well, frankly, I'm concerned about you."

Spike's grip tightens on Buffy's thigh.

Faintly, she asks, "What?"

"What I mean to say is… well, I hope you understand that it comes from a place of compassion," says Principal Stevens. "My first priority must always be what is in Dawn's best interest."

"Wow," Buffy jokes. "You're really different from my old principal."

Stevens doesn't laugh.

"Buffy, there have been several signs that Dawn's home life is… unstable." Principal Stevens steeples her fingers on the desk. "Signs that I'm afraid, from an ethical perspective, we can't ignore."

"... Unstable?" Buffy repeats.

Principal Stevens explains, "Dawn's truancy is at a level beyond what we'd consider normal, even for a girl in her situation. Other students have accused her of stealing things—" Buffy shifts uncomfortably. "And, most troubling, one of Dawn's teachers overheard her telling a friend that there are… instances of violence."

Principal Stevens's eyes land pointedly on Spike's bruised face.

"Oh, my God," Buffy says quickly. "You don't think—it's not—"

"Like hell," Spike says hotly.

"We're not hurting each other!" Buffy insists. "I mean, we—we bicker sometimes, and there's, you know—um—um—"

"For work," Spike scrambles.

Buffy sits up bordering on manically. "Yeah! Work!"

"Work?" Principal Stevens repeats.

"Judo," says Spike.

"Yep," Buffy says. "And, you know, all the—the ones. Sp—William teaches self-defense classes? That's—"

"How we met."

Buffy says, "Uh huh. I was, like, his best student. Oh, but not in a creepy way. That sounds creepy but it's not creepy, right, honey?"

Spike says, "No."

"Just, you know, we do a lot of… sparring," says Buffy. She puts her fists up. "Grr."

"These're, uh, not even from her," Spike says, gesturing at his face. "They're from… work. Things."

They both stop talking.

Principal Stevens stares at them for a long time. She sighs, glancing down at the papers on her desk, and then looks up again.

"Buffy, William," she says in the exact same tone as before. "I believe that you're both trying your best in a difficult situation. Unfortunately, that does not change the fact that I have a responsibility to Dawn."

A lump forms in Buffy's throat. She asks, "What's… what?"

"After what Dawn's teacher learned this morning, we were obligated to make a report to Child Protective Services," Principal Stevens explains calmly. "But please understand—"

"CPS?" Buffy asks, her voice going small. "But those are—those are the people who take… who take kids away, aren't they?"

Principal Stevens says, "I can promise you that having Dawn removed from the home is a last resort. There are many steps that can be taken…"

She trails off; her posture goes a little rigid.

Spike's face is stone-flat and deadly. Buffy reaches over and grabs his arm, fingernails digging in through the t-shirt, a little terrified that he'll vamp-out right here.

"You can't take her," he says flatly. "Girl just lost her mum, and you want to rip her from the only family she's got left 'cause she doesn't fancy your shit edu—"

"Spike," Buffy says sharply. "You're not helping."

His head snaps to her. The hairs raise on the back of her neck. 

"You expect me to just sit here and—"

"No," Buffy tells him. "I don't. Take a walk."

Spike's lips curls for half a second before he deflates. He slouches out of the room, slamming the door behind himself so hard the picture frames on the principal's desk shake.

Buffy scrubs both hands over her face.

Principal Stevens says, "Buffy—"

"I know how that looked, okay?" Buffy heads her off. She looks up, trying to keep her voice steady. "But I… he's—my mom was basically his family too. Um, his only family, um, besides me and—and Dawn, and he's taking it really hard."

Principal Stevens clears her throat.

"It's not uncommon for people to feel angry when faced with this kind of inquiry," she says, but her voice shakes a little now. "But as you said, it won't help your situation. We can all be on the same team here, Buffy."

Buffy really doubts that. She presses her lips together and asks, "What can I do?"

 

~*~

 

"Okay," Buffy says brightly, standing in front of her family with one hip cocked. She looks at Dawn, who's hiding behind a peanut butter and banana sandwich like it's a Buffy-crucifix. "Telling your friends that your sister and her boyfriend 'get totally beat up all the time?' Not cool!"

Dawn mutters, "It sounded normal in my head."

"And you," Buffy says, turning to Spike. "Growling at the principal? Really?"

"I didn't growl," Spike says, crossing his arms defensively.

"Right, you just went all serial-killer-eyes and threatened to eat her."

Dawn gasps and wheels on Spike in a fit. "You can't eat Principal Stevens! I actually like her!"

"I'm not gonna eat your sodding principal!" Spike snaps. "Give us a bit of credit here."

Buffy rubs at her temples and sits down between them on the couch. "I know you weren't literally—ugh. I just…"

Spike rubs a tentative hand up and down her back. "I'm sorry, pet."

"Me too," says Dawn.

Buffy shakes her head a little.

"... Could they really take me away?" Dawn asks.

"I… yeah, they could." Buffy looks over at her. "She said, um, it was like a last resort, but if… if things don't get better, they'll—they could say you can't stay here."

"What're we gonna do?" Dawn asks nervously.

Buffy sits up straighter and stretches a smile onto her face. Brushing the hair away from Dawn's face, she says reassuringly, "We make things better."

A pause.

"You know," Buffy adds with strained cheer, "after we go on the run from Hell Bitch for an unknown period of time."

"We're screwed," says Dawn.

"We're—we're not screwed, okay?" Buffy insists. "Because, um, next week is spring break, anyway, and Riley said he can forge papers and stuff, so maybe we'll, um, say you have the flu?"

Dawn blinks at her. "The flu?"

"A really bad flu?" tries Buffy.

"God," Dawn says, rolling her eyes and smiling a little. "You guys have the worst excuses for stuff. How did you keep being the Slayer a secret for, like, three years?"

"Mom was really good at denial," says Buffy.

Dawn looks down. "Yeah, I guess she was."

Buffy presses her lips together.

"Um, on a scale of one to ten, how grounded am I?" Dawn asks.

"Twelve," says Buffy.

Dawn makes anxious puppy dog face. "But I can still help steal the RV, right? You guys promised Spike would teach me."

Right. With the stealing, and the secret school-skipping alliance.

Buffy runs a hand through her hair and then tells Dawn, "We'll see. Why don't you go finish packing, okay? Let me talk to Spike for a while."

"Ooh," Dawn taunts, making a face at Spike. "You're in trouble."

Spike makes a scrunched up face back at her.

Dawn heads up the stairs. Spike waits for the sound of her door shutting, then tells Buffy, "Let's have it, then."

"You lied to me," Buffy accuses.

Spike tilts his head up to the ceiling, "I didn't—it wasn't like that."

"Then what was it like?" Buffy asks.

"She—it…" Spike sighs heavily. "Alright, maybe it was like that."

Buffy picks at her sleeves. "Why?"

"Because I thought she'd hate me," he says quietly.

"Spike," Buffy says exasperatedly, turning and drawing one leg up onto the couch to face him. "Dawn adores you. You know that."

Spike looks at her, his expression earnest. "Do I?"

Buffy bites her bottom lip. "I know the last month has been—really hard. But she… you can't just make me into the bad guy because you don't wanna tell her no."

"That's what you think I was doing?" Spike asks in disbelief.

"Yeah, I kinda do," Buffy says. "It used to be, 'don't tell Mom,' and now it's, 'don't tell Buffy.'"

"So you want her to just be brassed off at both of us all the time," says Spike.

Buffy stares at him. "That's not fair."

"The bit's had a rough go," Spike says. "Not like either of us knew she'd get in this kind of trouble over it."

"She fucking knew," Buffy says, her nostrils flaring a little. "And if she didn't, I guess she gets to learn how the world works."

Spike frowns at her. "Where's this really coming from, pet?"

"What're you talking about?" Buffy snaps. "It's coming from Dawn needing to grow up! It's coming from you needing to have my back."

"Since when've you wanted that for her?" Spike asks gently. "Thought we were protecting her from that rot."

"Since—" The pain in Buffy's chest catches up to her. She digs her fingers into her sternum and breathes against the pressure, feeling her muscles tremble. "I… because—it…"

Spike says, "You said you were in that room a lot, yeah? Mum got a lot of calls home?"

"But I had a—" Buffy looks up at him, blinking. "I had a reason. I—I had this whole life! I couldn't just be a normal kid who sat in class all day and—and studied and talked about boys, and she's throwing it away."

"Yeah," Spike says, "'cause she's, what—just your sister?"

Buffy shuts her eyes guiltily.

"What do you wish Joyce'd done?" Spike coaxes gently. "Could she've made it better?"

Buffy makes a tiny hiccupy noise and tucks her face into his neck. He puts his arms around her, tangling a hand in her hair, and her chest hurts a little less.

"She could've listened," Buffy mumbles wetly. Her fingers curl in his shirt. "She… I wish she'd just be on my side."

Spike kisses the top of her head. "You were right—wasn't good of me to lie. I won't again."

"Thank you," Buffy whispers.

"But she needs us on her side, love," Spike tells her. "Girl shouldn't be alone."

Buffy holds him tighter, brushing her lips against the tendon in the side of his throat. "I know. You're right."

Spike laughs quietly. "Can I get that in writing?"

"Fuck you."

"Don't think we have time."

Buffy lifts her head, nuzzling against the side of his face. "Hey, look at us—being all functional-parenty."

"Is that how you see us now?" Spike asks softly. "Her parents?"

"Um, not—not exactly." Buffy frowns thoughtfully. "I guess it's… easier to explain that way. But, I mean—" She smiles teasingly. "We had her majorly out of wedlock."

"Still got the ring," Spike teases, cupping her face with that hand. "Could rectify that."

Buffy kisses him. "I'm pretty sure it doesn't work retroactively."

"Worth a shot," he murmurs, leaning into another kiss.

"Mm." Buffy makes it a third, then pulls away. "We've still gotta go to the store. And pack. And steal a car."

"Yeah, baby, talk dirty to me."

She flicks him on the eyebrow.

Spike grins lopsidedly. 

"I'm gonna go talk to her again," Buffy says. "Can you make a list for the store?"

"Sure," says Spike. "Non-perishables and the like, mostly? Fridge space'll be at a premium."

"Ugh, we're gonna have to find you fresh blood," Buffy says.

Spike shrugs. "Don't need to eat as much as I have been. I can go a little hungry."

"I don't want you to," Buffy tells him.

"Can I eat Harris, then?"

Buffy smacks him upside the head. "List, please."

"Yes, ma'am." Spike pecks her on the forehead and heads for the kitchen.

Buffy quirks her lips fondly, watching his cute little butt disappear around the corner, and then makes her way upstairs.

Dawn is rolling her clothes up into little tubes and stuffing them into her suitcase, how Mom taught them to pack. She looks up when Buffy walks in and asks, "Did you yell at Spike a bunch?"

"Nah," says Buffy. She sits cross-legged next to the suitcase on the bed. "I'm not gonna yell at you, either. I'm gonna make you a deal."

Dawn looks at her like she's got two heads.

"First of all, we're using our car-stealy powers for good, okay?" Buffy says. "No joyriding for fun or to impress your friends. This is an emergency."

"That wouldn't hold up in court," says Dawn.

Buffy blinks at her. "What?"

"The emergency thing," Dawn explains. "You've been planning to steal it for like, two days. It's premeditated."

"Okay, well, it's a premeditated emergency," says Buffy.

"That's an oxymoron," says Dawn.

Buffy huffs, "See, I'm trying to give you a break here and you just call me names!"

"Oh my God," Dawn says. "Nevermind. What's the second thing?"

Buffy says, "You can learn how to hotwire a car if you finish one of your makeup work assignments before we go."

Dawn drops the sweater she's holding in her excitement. "Oh my God, really? Any of them?"

Right. Because her sister’s big with the brainy, and some of them are probably really easy for her.

Buffy bargains, "If you do two, we'll stop for Dairy Queen."

"Deal," Dawn says. "Can I start right now and finish packing tonight?"

Buffy rolls her eyes and says, "Yeah, go ahead."

Dawn grabs her backpack and takes off running downstairs. Her voice echoes through the house as she shouts, "Spike! Help me with my English homework!"

Okay, so Buffy's gonna go ahead and call that one a win.

She leaves Dawn's door open and goes into her own room, where she starts packing her and Spike's bags. 

Buffy's suitcase gets loaded up with clothes—mostly practical Slayer-y stuff, but she tucks her favorite lingerie set and a cute dress under a set of pajamas just in case.

Then she fills an old weapons bag with Spike's clothes (six shirts, two pairs of sweatpants, and his second-favorite pair of jeans because he's wearing the first), toiletries, and a deck of playing cards. She's looking through his bookshelf, trying to decide which ones to bring, when the phone rings.

Someone gets it from downstairs. 

Buffy tosses a poetry book into the duffel bag; maybe she'll have some time to read again, too.

Dawn runs up the stairs and careens into Buffy's room at full tilt.

"Buffy," she says. "Something's wrong."

Buffy asks, "What?" but she's already following Dawn back down the stairs.

Spike is on the phone, talking quietly with his face all pinched up. "—might be. We can—Buffy, it's Anya."

"Anya?" Buffy grabs the phone. "Hey, what's going on?"

"Glory thinks that Tara is the Key," Anya says. "Giles is driving to her dorm and Willow is checking the culture fair. She thinks Tara is probably there."

"Okay. Are you safe?" Buffy asks.

Anya says, "I think so. I'm at the Magic Box."

"Stay there. Call Xander," Buffy says. "I'm going after Willow."

She hangs up without waiting for an answer and hands the phone to Spike. 

"What's going on?" Dawn asks.

Buffy is stepping out of her kitten heels; she chucks them in the direction of the front door. "Stay here with Spike. I've gotta go."

"Buff, the fair's across town," Spike says. "Let me drive."

"No," Buffy tells him. She pulls her hair back into a ponytail. "You can't leave Dawn and I don't want her anywhere near Glory." She glances over at him. "I don't want you anywhere near her."

Spike opens his mouth to argue.

"Stay near the phone," Buffy says. "I—I love you guys."

She takes off running.

 

~*~

 

By the time Buffy gets to the fair, Glory is already gone. Willow is holding Tara and crying, and there's blood on their clothes and for a second Buffy thinks—

"Can't wash clean. It's dirty underneath," Tara says when she sees Buffy, whimpering with a mangled hand held close to her chest, and for a second Buffy thinks, God, it's worse.

She recoils from herself, from the pretty ribbons and music and her sobbing best friend, and feels the sweat dripping down the underside of her breasts.

"Oh, God," she says. "God, I'm so sorry."

Willow looks up at her, her eyes suddenly flat and dark, and says, "We're going after her."

"What?" Buffy comes closer, kneeling in front of them. "Wil, we can't."

"Look at—at what she did!" Willow insists. "I can't let her get away with this!"

"You have to let her get away with it," Buffy begs. She reaches for Willow's hand; she pulls away. "Wil, even I'm no match for her—you know that."

Willow's voice is stormy. "But maybe I am."

"On the inside," says Tara, looking at Buffy with her head tilted. "Dirty blankets. He hasn't done his laundry."

"Willow," Buffy says desperately. "I can't let you do this. We will get Glory, I promise, but this isn't the time."

"When, Buffy? When is?" Willow asks sharply. "She almost killed your boyfriend and it wasn't the time. I mean, God, what's it gonna take? When it's Dawn?"

Buffy stands up abruptly, her nostrils flaring. "When we have a chance. We fight her when we have a chance. You wouldn't last five minutes with her, Willow, she's a god."

Willow stands up too, angry tears streaming down her face with her shoulders squared, and for a second Buffy's instinct is to hit her.

She uncurls her fists and says, "Look, Tara's hand looks really messed up. We should at least get her to a hospital."

"So you take her," Willow says, moving to shove past her, "if you're such a coward now."

Buffy leans away from her in shock, but Tara starts wailing as soon as Willow gets out of arm's length, reaching for her with both hands and shouting, "No! No!" over and over again.

People walking by start to look over.

Willow immediately rushes back to the bench, her expression melting as she takes Tara's face in both hands. "No, no, I'm here, baby, don't cry."

"Wil, I—I think she's in a lot of pain," Buffy says carefully. "And she must be really scared. She needs you here with her."

Fresh tears are dripping down Willow's face. 

"Okay," she says. "Okay. Will you—please, help me?"

Buffy's throat is burning. She says, "Yeah, I will."

 

~*~

 

Buffy uses a payphone to call a cab to take them to the hospital, then dials the house.

"Hello?" Spike answers.

"Hey, it's me," Buffy says. "Can Dawn hear you?"

"Yeah," he says. 

"Don't freak her out, okay?" Buffy says.

Spike calmly says, "Yeah, I can do that."

Buffy stares out into the street, watching the cars go by. "Glory, she—Tara's hurt, um, physically. We're taking her to the hospital. And—and she… Glory did the brain-sucking thing and she's…"

"Got it," Spike says tightly. "What do you need?"

Buffy forces herself to breathe out slowly. "Stick to the plan, okay? We still need to get out of town as soon as possible. I—I don't think Tara told Glory anything but… I can't exactly ask her."

"Are you hurt?" Spike asks quietly.

"She was gone when I got here," says Buffy.

A sigh crackles through the phone. "Alright."

"Um, I'm gonna go with them to the hospital. Can you call the others and tell them to meet us there?" Buffy asks. "I'll try to meet you, but if I'm not back by sunset you should get the car without me."

"I've got it, love," he answers. "What should I say?"

"Tell them what I told you," Buffy says. She closes her eyes for a second. "Um, you can—Dawn needs to know, I just…"

Spike says, "I'll fill her in. It'll be alright."

It really won't. Buffy says, "Thanks. Talk to you soon."

"Yeah. Love you."

"Love you too," Buffy tells him. "And… Spike?"

"I'm here, love," he says.

Buffy says, "Be careful."

"You know me," Spike says, which makes her laugh a little into the phone as the line goes dead.

A few minutes later, the cab rolls up.

 

~*~

 

"Um, hi," Buffy tells the receptionist as she hands the intake forms in. "This is—um, we filled out all the paperwork, but I was just wondering if Ben—if, um, Dr. Ben was working today?"

"I'm sorry?" asks the woman.

Buffy says, "Oh, it's just that, um, he's kind of been our doctor before and he was really good, so if he could get assigned our case or something—"

"No, I'm sorry," the receptionist cuts in, "but Dr. Wilkinson doesn't work at this hospital anymore."

"Oh." Buffy frowns, shifting uncomfortably. "Did—is he okay?"

"I'm not at liberty to say," the receptionist says. "But I promise our next available doctor will be with you soon."

Buffy nods and hands over the clipboard. She hesitates on her way back to where Willow and Tara are waiting. She hopes Ben is okay. He was really great to Mom and they had coffee a couple times which was nice, and there was that one time—

"Buffy," Giles says, striding into the waiting room. "Are you alright? Where are the girls?"

"Oh, um, I'm—" Buffy nods to the back of the room. "They're over there."

 

~*~

 

It's an hour past sunset when Xander drops Buffy off at the house. Spike's car is in the driveway, so either the errands went really well or really not. She pushes the door open, untensing a little when she hears their voices in the kitchen.

"Hey," she says, eyeing the Dairy Queen containers on the island. "Didja get me one?"

Dawn scrambles off her stool and hugs Buffy tightly instead of answering. "I'm so sorry—it's all my fault."

Buffy locks eyes with Spike over Dawn's shoulder; he presses his lips together.

"No, sweetheart, it is not your fault," Buffy promises, cupping the back of her head. "None of this is your fault."

"Are we still leaving?" Dawn asks.

Buffy starts petting her hair. "We're gonna go in the morning. The hospital is keeping Tara overnight."

Spike's expression says the same thing Buffy already thought: maybe we should go without her.

She shakes her head.

He clears his throat and says, "Got us a van—it's stashed at Restfield, out of the way. And your ice cream's in the freezer."

"Thanks," says Buffy.

Dawn sniffles and pulls away. "How's Willow?"

Hitting below the belt. Repeatedly. But it's not like Buffy's never been there.

"She tried to go all payback-y on Glory for a minute, but I cooled her down a little," she says. 

Spike raises an eyebrow at her. "So she's not gonna do anything rash, then?"

"No," Buffy says, frowning. "I… explained there was no point."

"No point?" Spike repeats.

"In trying to fight Glory," Buffy says. "I—I told Willow it'd be like suicide."

Spike looks at her with the kind of softness that sets her teeth on edge.

"Love," he says. "That is the point."

Buffy's mouth waters with nausea. 

Spike tells her, "It's what I'd do," and for a second she hates him.

She hates him for handcuffing his life to hers and for always fucking looking at her like that and for the second half of the sentence he doesn't say, which is: even though you didn't.

Because all she did was hold him and fucking cry about it, and how fucking useless is that?

And then it passes, and she loves him so much that she wishes she was willing to die to prove it and she thinks—maybe if she wasn't so tired—and that's pretty close, isn't it? Maybe it's good enough.

Buffy looks between Spike and Dawn, at the fear on their faces, and runs again.

 

~*~

 

"I'm sorry," Buffy whispers that night, after Willow's been rescued from Glory and Dawn is finally asleep. 

"For what, pet?" Spike asks. 

They're laying in their bed, facing each other on their sides with their noses almost touching. Buffy can see the pale shimmer of his eyes in the dark. "For—for not…"

"Hey," Spike tells her, clucking his tongue. "You think that's what I want?"

"It's what you'd do," Buffy says.

"Well, yeah. I'm an idiot," says Spike.

Buffy says, "Spike—"

"You think I'd live knowing you were gone 'cause of me?" Spike asks. He brushes his knuckles across her cheek. "You think that's what Tara wanted?"

Buffy's voice is small. She asks, "Then what do you want?"

"Just love me, pet." Spike smiles sadly. "Be my Buffy."

Buffy says, "I—I am."

"I know," he murmurs.

Buffy kisses him softly, once. She hovers with her lips right above his, all this aching in the bottom of her mouth, and asks, "Spike?"

"Yeah, love?"

"When something happens to me, I…" Buffy breathes out slowly. "I want you to keep going. I—I need you to—"

"Nothing's gonna happen to you," Spike cuts in flatly.

"It will." Buffy pulls away, looking him in the eye. "You know one day it will."

He holds her gaze, jaw clenched.

"And you're gonna have to take care of her," Buffy says wetly. "I—I know it's not fair, but you need to take care of Dawn and… and our friends. And I—I need you to be happy again."

"I don't think I can," Spike says. His voice is thick and his eyes are turning glassy, and he looks so small. "Buffy, not without you."

"Promise me," she says. Her mouth shakes when she tries to smile. "I know you'll do it if you promise."

Spike croaks, "Cross my heart and—"

Buffy shushes him. Her fingers touching his lips, her forehead pressed to his temple, her tongue slipping gently into his mouth. He whimpers, all these broken little sounds, and pulls her closer.

They make love, rustling out of their clothes and kissing with damp cheeks, shuddering and shuddering until their bodies are damp with her sweat, and she holds him when it's over.

"Slayer?" Spike murmurs, a deep rumble in his chest and so faint it almost feels like a dream.

"I'm here, honey," she whispers.

Spike lifts his head, propping his chin on her chest, and says, "Seen a lot of death. Lot of violence. No one's ever cried for me before."

Buffy's fingers stutter like tiny sobs in his hair.

 

~*~

 

Tara gets released from the hospital the next morning. Buffy and Dawn agree to go over to the dorms to help Willow pack the two of them up before everyone meets up at the house to go on the road.

Buffy is pouring herself a coffee into her thermos in preparation when Spike's arms wrap around her from behind. She smiles, tipping her head back against his shoulder for a kiss.

"See you in a bit," he tells her. "Be safe."

"You know me," she says. "Dawn, are you coming?"

"One second!" Dawn shouts. Her feet pound down the stairs. "Okay, I'm all packed."

Buffy screws the lid on her thermos and grabs the bag of muffins Spike picked up at the grocery store the night before. She wraps her arms around his neck for one last kiss, pushing up onto her toes, and says, "Make sure you eat, too. No bloodlusty boyfriend on the RV."

Spike hums, pulling her flush against him. "What about other kinds of lusty?"

"Eight people," says Buffy. "One RV. Even I can do that math."

Ugh, he looks so kissable when he pouts.

"Guys," says Dawn.

"Okay, I'm coming, jeez," Buffy says, swatting Spike away when he tries to grab her ass. "You're not even wearing shoes."

"Yeah, but I'm wearing eyeballs."

"They're supposed to go in your head, bit."

Dawn asks, "Can I live with Aunt Darlene?"

 

~*~

 

Buffy and Dawn keep running after the truck hits Glory until Buffy almost can't carry her anymore, and she realizes that if Glory was still trying to catch them she would've by now. Buffy fumbles for change in her pockets and dials on the nearest payphone.

"Hello?" Spike answers.

"She knows," says Buffy.

"Where are you?" 

"Near Maple Court. I—we lost her, somehow. I don't know." Buffy runs a hand through her hair. "But we got split up from Willow and Tara. Spike, we need to go now."

Spike says, "Everyone else is at the house. I'll send Xander with the car."

"We can't stay here and wait," Buffy says.

"I know. Keep moving towards home. He'll intercept you."

Buffy says, "Willow and Tara—"

"Will find us or won't," Spike says. "You and Dawn are what matters. Go."

Buffy says, "Spike—"

The line goes dead.

Buffy takes Dawn's hand and leads her forward. They walk for maybe a quarter of a mile before Xander's sedan runs a red light and screeches to a halt on the opposite side of the street.

Willow and Tara are in the backseat.

Buffy takes shotgun; she waits until Xander's turned the car around to ask, "You guys okay?"

"Well, you know," Willow says. "... No?"

There's not really much to say to that. Buffy scans the sidewalks as they blur past, keeping an eye out for signs of Glory or little evil hobbit minions, but the way is clear all the way home.

Back at the house, Spike, Anya, and Giles are waiting inside. Spike hugs Dawn and then pulls Buffy into a relieved kiss, his fingers snagging on her tangled hair.

"I'm okay," Buffy says quietly. "We're okay."

Anya asks, "Is it time to run away now?"

"Is there a stronger word than 'run?'" Dawn jokes.

"Nibblet, you remember where we stashed the van, yeah?" Spike asks.

Dawn nods.

"And the other thing I taught you?" he asks.

"Yeah," she says. 

"Grand. Which one of you is driving it back here?" Spike asks the group. "Pops?"

Giles clears his throat. "I'll go."

"I'm coming too," Buffy says. "In case Glory shows up."

Giles nods at her. 

The three of them head out for Restfield, Buffy's head swiveling as she scans the streets. She relaxes a little when they hit the cemetery gate: her turf, now.

"How are you holding up?" Giles asks her quietly, falling back a little from where Dawn is leading them with her arms swinging determinedly.

"I think I might just be hoh- ing," Buffy tells him. She glances at him. "Giles, I've got no idea how we got away. She should've—she was moving so fast. I—I don't know how we're gonna do this."

Giles gives her the same look he always does when he's trying to be reassuring. "What we always do—keep trying. She must have—there must be some weakness, or—or—"

"There's no weakness!" Buffy says, fighting to keep her voice down, watching Dawn carefully. "Giles, she's a god. What are we supposed to do?"

"Buffy, you've faced foes that seemed unbeatable before," Giles says. "I don't understand—"

"Not like this," Buffy tells him. "I know you guys think I can—I can just do anything, and, okay, usually it's big with the flattering, but you're wrong. I can't do this."

Giles purses his lips.

"Spike and I have tried," Buffy says. "I mean, even Willow's tried."

Giles's face changes a little. "Willow?"

… Oops.

"Um." Buffy chews on her bottom lip. "She—she went after Glory last night, after we left the hospital? I kinda… had to drag her out of there."

"I see." Giles frowns, taking his glasses off and worrying at them. "Yes, I feared as much."

Buffy brightens her voice a little. "But, hey! She actually did pretty well! I mean, she was definitely gonna get squished like a bug, but like, a really annoying—"

"Okay, so—" Dawn comes running back to them, talking in a rush. "It's behind these trees and I know it's kinda ugly but we worked really hard to steal it so don't be mean okay? Especially to Spike—he's, like, majorly sensitive about this stuff."

Buffy's lips twitch a little. "Is he?"

Dawn nods very seriously and takes off again.

Buffy shoots Giles an amused look and follows, and, okay, she gets why Dawn warned them because: parked in a little clearing that veers off from a camping trail is a literal dinosaur of a Winnebago RV, with aluminum foil stuck up on all the windows, a missing windshield wiper, and what looks like an inch of grim on what's left of the paint.

Giles makes a British noise of displeasure.

Dawn says, "We named her Margaret!" and pounds her fist on the door three times; the latch unhooks and the door swings open.

"Bloody hell," mutters Giles, and gestures for Buffy to go first.

She rolls her eyes and follows Dawn into the RV, which, you know, definitely has… a smell. It's fine! She swallows a mouthful of dusty air and coughs really hard.

Giles pats her forcefully on the back.

The Winnebago makes a wheezing sound and comes to life. Dawn's head pokes out from behind the curtains separating the driver's area and says, "Did you guys see that? I started it on my first try!"

Buffy smiles encouragingly. "That's awesome."

Giles shoots her a confused look.

"Okay, Giles, you're up," Dawn tells him. "Unless you wanna let me drive."

"That's very funny," Giles says drily. "Move over."

Dawn plops down in the passenger seat. Buffy sits down at the little dinette area in the main room, where a map of California with someone's road trip route scribbled on it in red marker is spread out on the table. 

So, uh… hopefully this really nice hypothetical family had good auto insurance! It's fine. Welcome to Sunnydale.

Giles reverses Margaret back onto the road and drives them home. 

 

~*~

 

"Are we being Punk'd?" asks Xander, standing in the doorway. "Legally you have to tell me."

"Aww," Willow says, wandering out onto the lawn with Tara following behind. "I think it's kinda cute." 

"Her name is Margaret," says Giles. 

"Spike!" Dawn skips up the driveway and into the house. "I got the hotwire on the first try!"

Spike is hefting the weapons bag over his shoulder. He smiles and says, "Good show, nibblet. Knew you'd be a natural."

Buffy rolls her eyes fondly, pushing up onto her toes to kiss Spike on the cheek.

"Hi, honey," he says, squeezing her hip. "You like your present?"

"I love it," says Buffy.

"You do?" asks Xander.

Buffy tells Spike, "Thank you."

"Welcome." Spike pecks her on the lips. "Everyone ready to go?"

Buffy grabs the weapons bag off his shoulder and her suitcase in her other hand. When he raises an eyebrow at her, she reminds him, "Get your blanket."

"Can carry a bag and the blanket," Spike grumbles, but he grabs it off the banister anyway.

"Is there, like, a caravan option here?" Xander asks, raising his hand. "Because I could totally follow you guys in my car. You know, my car that isn't older than Giles?"

"Bah," says Giles grumpily.

Anya pats Xander stiffly on the arm. "Aww, sweetie, are you worried that you'll get carsick again?"

"I'm not gonna get carsick," Xander tells her.

Willow asks, "Are you sure? Because I know some spells that can help with the queasies."

Xander insists, "I'm not gonna get carsick!"

 

~*~

 

"I'm gonna puke," says Xander.

"Well, do it over there," Spike says, shifting a little in their seat; Buffy grumbles sleepily and resettles in his lap. "These boots're real leather."

"You know wha— urk —buddy? Now I'm gonna aim for 'em."

Willow flips a page in her book.

Anya asks, "Shouldn't somebody be asking, 'Are we there yet?' Isn't that what small entertaining children do?"

Dawn says, "That kinda only works when you know where you're going."

Anya hums thoughtfully, then shouts, "Do we know where we're going yet?"

Ugh, with the yelling. Buffy makes another grumbly noise.

"Buff," Xander asks. "How are you sleeping right now?"

When Buffy was a bratty toddler who wouldn't ever stop crying, Mom would put her in the car and drive and drive until she fell asleep.

("That was my Buffy," Mom had said fondly, one night post-surgery when she was all misty-eyed and poring over photo albums with Spike. "She always had somewhere to be.")

Spike rubs his hand soothingly up and down her back.

"'M not sleeping," Buffy mutters. "Loud face."

"You wanna lay down in the back, baby?" Spike murmurs, brushing his lips through his hair.

"Mm," she declines.

Dawn asks someone, "Any luck?"

Willow answers cheerfully, "Uh, if you define luck as the absence of success? Plenty! There's a couple of barrier spells, but they only work on a fixed locus—nothing that'll work while we're moving."

Buffy frowns a little.

"So pretty," Tara says. She reaches across Buffy and Spike, jostling them; Buffy opens her eyes and realizes her hand is stretching for Dawn. "Can I have one?"

Buffy's stomach twists uncomfortably as Willow coaxes Tara back into her seat.

"... Anyone hungry?" Dawn asks.

"Ooh, snacks!" Anya says. "The secret to any successful migration." 

She pulls out an entire fucking frying pan.

Buffy lifts her head to raise her eyebrows at Spike, who quirks his lips at her.

Anya asks, "Who's up for some tasty fried meat products?"

Tara lunges for the window and flips the blinds open.

"Shit," Spike swears, jumping in his seat, and Buffy and Dawn try to scramble out of the way so he can get out of the booth.

"Oh, honey," Buffy says worriedly, helping him smother the flames on his hand. The RV rocks and the three of them stumble back into the kitchenette. "Are you okay?"

"I'm sorry," Willow says, sounding all panicky. She's cradling Tara's head against her chest. "She—she didn't mean to."

Spike nods, his mouth still twitching a little in pain.

"It's okay," Buffy tells her.

"She doesn't know what she's doing," Willow continues.

Dawn says, "We know."

"No biggie," says Spike gently. He holds out his hand, addressing Tara. "Look, the skin's already stopped smoking. You play peekaboo with Mr. Sunshine all you like—keeps the ride from getting boring."

A flutter of warmth blooms in Buffy's stomach. She wraps both arms around his middle and squeezes him quickly, tucking her face against the edge of his shoulder. 

Spike moves to go sit in the booth again when Tara starts to wriggle in Willow's hug.

"All the light is gone!" Tara cries, reaching for the blinds again. 

"No, shh, baby," Willow soothes desperately. Buffy shares a worried look with Spike. "The light's still outside, okay?"

"All dark," Tara whines. She shakes her head, cradling her injured hand. "All dark."

Spike is pressing his lips together. He says, "Hey, how's about this? Those of us that're flammable will be in the back, alright? You get all the light you can stand, Sunshine."

"Oh, you really don't have to do that," Willow tells him guiltily. "I'm sure she'll—"

Spike is already giving them a mock salute as he disappears into the back room.

Willow reaches over and opens the blinds for Tara, who presses her face to the window with both hands to the glass. 

"Soon," she says, sounding mournful. "Soon."

The hairs stand up on the back of Buffy's neck.

"... Soon what, baby?" Willow asks.

"All dark," says Tara.

"That sounds unpleasant!" Anya says cheerfully. "You know what is pleasant? Fried meat products."

She climbs out of the booth and shoves her way between Buffy and Dawn to get to the stove. 

Dawn says, "I'm gonna go hangout with Spike," and follows him into the back room.

Buffy plops back down next to Willow and Tara.

"Uh… guys?" Xander says warily. "Does anyone else, uh, see… okay, so, hear me out here—"

An arrow lodges itself in the wall three inches from his face.

"—a bunch of knights attacking us on horseback?" Xander finishes in a yelp.

God, it's always fucking something.

Buffy grabs the weapons bag and tosses it to Spike, who's striding back into the main room.

"What the bloody hell was that?" he demands, unzipping the bag and rustling around in it.

Two more arrows lodge in the wall. Giles curses and swerves the RV.

Buffy says, "Dawn, under the table, now!"

Dawn and Anya both dive under there as Willow pulls Tara away from the window.

"Horsies!" Tara announces happily.

"Weapons?" shouts Giles.

"Hello?" Spike snaps at him. "You're driving one!"

Willow's eyes go wide. "Don't hurt the horsies!"

Buffy says, "Don't worry, we won't," and then throws herself to the front of the RV next to Giles. "Aim for the horsies."

He swerves towards the nearest knight.

"Slayer, what're we dealing with here?" Spike asks. He's crammed in the corner, avoiding the sunlight streaming through the window. "Human?"

"Yeah." Buffy stumbles into the wall when Giles swerves again; the tires screech. "You know how the enemy of your enemy is supposed to be your friend?"

A sword stabs through the ceiling.

"These guys aren't so much with the memo." Buffy yanks the blinds closed again. "Everyone stay low. Watch out for the—"

Spike catches the sword right before it connects with her skull.

Buffy stares at him in shock—the blood dripping down from his hands, the horror on his face.

"Go," he says.

Buffy snaps out of it; she looks around and notices the roof access.

"Xander," she says, nodding to it, "hatch!"

She jumps onto the table and flings it open; he gives her a boost onto the roof, where she comes up behind the knight holding the sword. There are more all around them, horses galloping towards them on all sides, and she's so tired.

The knight wrenches his sword free. Flecks of dark blood splatter onto the roof.

Buffy dodges his first two swings and then sweeps his legs, taking him down onto his back, and grapples to disarm him. The sword clatters out of his hand but he nails a blow to her head that sends her rolling off the edge—she grabs the railing on instinct, wincing when the hot metal burns her hands (thinks about Spike's hands) and her feet slam into the side of the RV. 

There's the sound of hoofbeats below her.

The knight from above tries to knock her off, but she hauls herself up to kick him backwards and flips back onto the roof. He's still disarmed; she's not sure where the sword went.

Grappling hooks shink against the railing. Glass shatters somewhere below them and someone shrieks.

Dawn. 

Buffy sends the first knight flying off the roof; there's a crunch and two more knights. She scans the ground and sees the sword glinting in the sun (sees the blood) and wields it, fights the urge to wipe the blade clean (focus) and twirls it in her hand. It feels good to have something in her hand. 

She thinks about Spike's—

(Focus focus focus)

Did it used to be easier?

Another knight falls, taking the sword with him. Buffy throws a third off the roof and takes his axe and puts it in the chest of a fourth, and there's no other word for that besides killing. 

The road is quiet.

Buffy's palms have shiny pink streaks on them, where the metal burned her, turning red and angry and she curls up her hands into fists and lets the pain keep her in her body. Her body still has a job to do, planted on this roof with the wind trying to pull her off it. 

There's always a job to do, and then the Winnebago jerks like a dying animal and Buffy has to throw herself off the damn thing anyway.

Go figure.

When she rolls to her feet, covered in dust and future bruises, it's just in time to watch the Winnebago fly off the road and flip onto its side with a sickening crunch.

Buffy runs.

Xander crawls free of the wreckage first, a thin line of blood running down his temple. He locks eyes with her briefly and dives back through the shattered window, shouting, "Anya?"

Buffy rips a curtain right off the warped curtain rod and climbs in after him. "Dawn? Spike?"

"We're back here!" Dawn shouts hoarsely. "We're—we're okay."

Xander gives Anya a boost out of the wreck, then goes back for Willow and Tara, who are both shaken but conscious. Buffy touches at Willow's arm on her way by.

Dawn and Spike are huddled together against the narrow doorway that divides the main room from the back; Dawn is holding a blanket over them both, shielding Spike from the light pouring in from the broken windows.

Buffy tosses the curtain aside.

"Are you hurt?" she asks, touching carefully at Dawn's face.

"I—I'm okay," Dawn stammers.

"Okay." Buffy takes Spike's arm, tugging. "We've gotta go."

Spike winces. "Buffy, I don't think I can go out there. It's—"

"You have to," Buffy tells him. "We can't stay here."

He looks at her for a second, holding her gaze, and then he stands up with Dawn still glued to his side.

Spike takes half a step forward, then freezes.

"What is it?" Buffy asks.

"There's… blood," he says.

Buffy says, "We're all bleeding. Spike, we've gotta—"

"No," he says, and all of a sudden his eyes are— "It's Giles."

Buffy slams her shin into the kitchenette when she tries to scramble back to the front. She bites back a curse (Giles wouldn't like it) and begs, Answer me, answer me— and realizes she never called his name.

"Giles?" Buffy kneels next to him, her eyes shaking over the spear lodged in his stomach. "Giles, wake—wake up."

His chest is still moving shallowly and his glasses are shattered, and he's warm when she touches his cheek and feels the pulse at his neck. 

(Her mother was cold.) 

There's the crunch of glass, burning flesh and British cursing, and then Xander is next to her.

"Fuck," says Xander, his fingers barely pushing against the wooden handle. "Oh, fuck. Shit. Shit, do we pull it out?"

Giles wheezes, "You'll have to."

"Shit. Shit, okay," Xander says. He looks at Buffy. "I'm gonna puke."

"Do it over there," says Giles weakly.

Buffy tells Xander, "Get something to stop the bleeding," and wrenches the spear out as soon as his back is turned.

Xander vomits somewhere behind them.

He comes back with a shirt from someone's battered suitcase, which he hands to Buffy with a cut-up hand—from the glass, maybe. 

A bunch of blood bubbled up when Buffy pulled the spear out; it soaks right through the cloth, wetting her hands. 

"Shit," Buffy says. "Get me something else."

"Buffy!" Spike shouts. "Are we moving?"

Fuck. 

Buffy asks Giles, "Can you move?"

Wincing, he pushes up onto his elbows. "S-some assistance would be…"

Xander comes back with three more shirts. He stuffs them into the waistband of his pants and asks, "We moving?"

Buffy says, "Help me get him up."

They help Giles to his feet and boost him out of the wreckage, Willow and Anya helping to pull him free. Spike is hunched under his blanket, steaming in the sun.

Buffy and Xander hold Giles up between them, taking most of his weight.

"Dawn," Buffy warns, "stay with Spike. Don't look back, okay?"

Dawn takes one edge of the blanket from Spike and holds it above his head. They all start walking.

Even Buffy can smell the blood now. She wonders if it makes Spike hungry—or is it like when you look at food that came out a little wrong and it makes you sick?

There's not much she's afraid to ask him, anymore.

"We gotta find shelter," Xander says.

"Yeah, right bloody quick," Spike says, his voice a little tight. "I'm burning up out here."

Buffy squints into the sun. "Is that a building?"

Spike stumbles a little. He says, "Think so."

"Okay," Buffy says. "Let's hurry up."

"Fine by me," says Spike. He breaks into a jog, Dawn keeping pace with the dust kicking up behind them. 

Giles manages to move a little faster too, leaning heavily on Buffy's side. The building is a rundown gas station that looks like it hasn't been used in years: Spike can kick the door right open and run inside. 

"Careful," Buffy warns Giles, helping him stumble over the raised threshold. He sags hard in her arms and she calls out, "Spike?"

Spike, his skin still smoking a little, comes to help her and Xander move Giles towards an old counter. He grunts in pain, carrying his hands—which are wrapped up in makeshift bandages—weirdly.

"Careful," Xander says, looking a little nauseous in a way that only gets worse when he looks down at a bloodstain on his hand. "Up?"

More blood oozes from the wound when Giles sits on the counter. He groans thinly; there's sweat dripping down his forehead and he looks all clammy like people do in movies when they have the flu.

Buffy asks, "Wil, can you…?"

"I'm on it," Willow tells her, grabbing one of the shirts from Xander and coming to Giles's side. Spike moves out of her way as she balls it up under Giles's head.

Buffy leaves them, going to check on Dawn, who looks majorly freaked.

"Are you sure you're okay?" Buffy asks, touching her shoulder.

"I—I'm okay," Dawn tells her. "But Spike's hurt."

Buffy turns, finding him standing near the wall, away from the sun filtering through the boarded-up windows. She squeezes Dawn's arm one last time and goes to him, taking his hands in hers.

It's hard to see how bad the cuts are under the rags tied around them, but a little blood has seeped through. His fingers curl around the backs of her palms, sticking to the blood-and-dust that's turning tacky on her skin. None of it hers. 

Buffy looks up at him; his face goes blurry.

"They'll heal," he says softly.

She moves away to check the windows. There's no sign of more knights—or anything else that wants to kill them, besides the desert. Fuck, they'll need—no one grabbed anything from the RV. So stupid. They'll need food and water, probably soon. Maybe she could send someone back.

"Um, you have another plan, right?" Anya asks nervously. "One that doesn't involve pointy knives and a Winnebago?"

Buffy turns to look at the others, who are mostly already staring at her. She stammers, "We—we… we'll rest here for a minute, but then we have to keep moving."

"Where?" Xander asks incredulously.

"I don't know!" Buffy snaps. She pushes her hands into her hair. "We just—we—we can't stay here, i-it's too close to the wreck. We're too easy to find."

God, they were already too easy to find. They can't even run.

"Buffy!" Willow calls.

Buffy rushes back to Giles's side. His eyes are closed again and he's breathing all funky, like it's hurting him. There's a trickle of blood coming out of his mouth like—like when Faith—

She asks, "Wil, how is he?" anyway and thinks, God, please just lie.

Willow's hands are pressing hard against Giles's bloody stomach. She doesn't answer.

"Wil?" Buffy prompts.

Willow's voice is shaking. "I—I think I stopped the bleeding, but…"

They're not gonna be able to move him like this. It's stay here and die together or leave Giles to die alone. 

(And die together further down the road.)

If they hang on until nightfall maybe Spike will make it.

"Okay," says Buffy. "Okay. Just—just give me a minute to think."

She gets three seconds.

The arrows are on fire this time.

"Dawn, get down!" Buffy shouts. She rushes forward and gets between her and the outer wall, steering her behind the counter Giles is laid out on. More arrows come whizzing into the building; she hears Spike curse and the sound of stamping boots.

"We got company!" Xander announces. "And they brought a crusade."

They need that barrier spell. Buffy shouts for Willow.

"I'm working on it!" she replies. Buffy leaves Dawn behind the counter and catches sight of Willow flipping through a book, her other hand still on Giles's stomach.

Spike meets Buffy near the door and helps her shove some machine in front of it; they tip it onto its side and stand back as it slams into place.

"Did anyone bring the weapons bag?" Buffy shouts.

No one answers.

An arrow grazes her cheek and lodges in the far wall.

There's the sound of splintering wood, followed by Dawn screaming her name.

Buffy rushes towards her, fighting off another knight on the way—no idea where the others are, barely registering the blow she saves Spike from. Glass is shattering. A man with fancier armor and the same mark on his forehead breaks through and levels his sword at Dawn.

"The Key," he says, his voice all deep and dramatic like he's about to monologue to an arch nemesis, and while he's busy doing that Buffy knocks him unconscious against a pillar.

Suddenly, Willow's voice rings out above the sounds of battle.

"Enemies, fly and fall," she booms, and when Buffy looks over her eyes are pitch black. "Circling arms, raise a wall."

She gestures dramatically and there's a lot of shouting from outside; the hairs on the back of Buffy's neck stand up in thank God you're on our side terror.

Then everything goes really quiet.

"Wil?" Buffy asks. She relaxes a little when Willow's eyes go back to normal. "How long will it hold?"

"... Half a day, maybe?" Willow guesses, moving towards the window. Buffy follows and looks outside, where two really old dudes with beards are chanting at them. "Or until Heckle and Jeckle punch a hole through it."

Buffy shifts away, pressing her lips together. 

Spike is standing over the unconscious knight, nudging the guy with his foot. "Think he knows anything?"

"Let's find out," says Buffy.

They carry the guy's body into the back room and tie him up to a pillar—Buffy checks the restraints twice. Willow and Anya stay behind to watch Giles and Tara; Xander joins Team Interrogation on account of queasiness and Dawn refuses to leave.

"Dawn," Buffy is trying to argue. "I don't want you hearing this."

"This guy knew I was the Key," Dawn argues back, her nostrils flaring. "And he looks all religious-y like you said those monks were, so maybe he knows something. Don't I deserve to know something?"

Buffy says, "I just don't want you to—"

Dawn jumps when the knight wakes up, rattling his chains as he realizes he's trapped.

Buffy turns her gaze to him, steely and with an eyebrow raised in challenge. He looks at her and says nothing.

Spike, who was leaning against the wall looking bored, saunters over to stand on Buffy's left. "Alright. You want good cop or bad cop, pet?" 

Their captive spits at Spike's feet.

Spike sneers. "On second thought, maybe you better take bad cop—you hit harder."

"Oh, we are so beyond bad cop," Buffy says sweetly. "We're at the part where our new friend here talks or you get lunch."

"I have nothing to say to a Slayer who makes such a vile mockery of her calling," the knight says darkly. "Allowing this perversion of nature to defile you—"

Spike growls and lunges forward, but Buffy stops him with a hand on his chest.

"—even if it is kept on a leash."

Buffy brightens her voice even more and says, "You know, we've been meaning to try the leash thing, but it is just so hard to get a weekend to yourself these days. Like, between stopping apocalypses and all, where's a girl find the time for a little recreational affronting of God?"

"You will not stop the Beast," the knight tells her, and his venomous gaze falls to Dawn. "Not unless the instrument of chaos is destroyed."

When Buffy's vision comes back, she's crushing his face between her hands.

"Look at her that way again," she says, her voice shaking with anger, "and she'll be the last thing you ever see."

"You consort with a blood-drinker," the knight sneers. "You protect the Key of the Beast. And yet you believe yours is the righteous cause?"

Buffy drops her grip when she feels the bones start to crack. She curls her fingers into fists and digs her fingernails in when Spike rests a hand on the small of her back. "It's not that simple."

"None of us lie above the will of God." The knight looks at Buffy, his lip slightly curled. "It matters not that the Key has been given breath, life. The Key is the link. The Key must be severed."

"She doesn't remember anything about being this Key you're all looking for!" Buffy snaps. "The only thing she remembers is growing up with a mother, and—a sister that love her. What kind of god would demand her life over something she has no control over?"

The knight says nothing.

"We are not your enemy." Buffy holds his gaze. "Tell your men to stand down."

"No," he says, turning to look at Dawn again. "The Key is too dangerous—"

"Why?" asks Dawn.

Buffy blinks at her.

"What do I do?" Dawn demands, her eyes wet. "What makes me so horrible?"

"Nothing," Buffy says firmly. "Dawn, don't listen—"

"Let him answer," Dawn tells her flatly. She doesn't take her eyes off the knight.

Spike presses his palm flat along Buffy's spine. She looks to Xander, who's staring at his shoes.

"Fine," she says. "Tell us."

The knight says, "The Key… is almost as old as the Beast itself. Where it came from, how it was created—the deepest of mysteries. All that is certain is that its power is absolute. Countless generations of my people have sacrificed their lives in search of it—to destroy it before its wrath could be unleashed."

Dawn says, "But the monks found it first."

"Yes," says the knight. "And hid it with their magicks."

Buffy asks, "Why didn't they just destroy it, if the Key is as dangerous as—"

"Because they were fools," the knight spits. "They thought they could harness its power for the forces of light. They failed, and they paid in their blood."

So have you, Buffy thinks. Broken bodies in the sand. Who made them before her?

"What do I do?" Dawn asks. "What was I created for?"

The knight says, "You were created to open the gates that separate dimensions. The Beast will use your power… to return home and seize control of the hell she was banished from," and Buffy—

Laughs. 

It snickers out of her, her hand coming halfway up to her face, but it's already over by the time she thinks about muffling it.

The knight stares at her in shock.

"That's it?" Buffy asks incredulously. "That's Glory's master plan? To go home?"

She glances at Spike. It's like, get in line, right?

"You misunderstand," the knight says, and Buffy turns back to him. "Once the Key is activated, it won't just open the gates to the Beast's dimension—it's going to open all the gates. The walls separating realities will crumble."

Okay, well… no one else is getting in line for that. Probably.

"Dimensions will bleed into each other," the knight continues. "Order will be overthrown and the universe will tumble into chaos—all dark—forever."

All dark.

Buffy looks at Dawn, who is staring at the knight, wide-eyed and jaw clenched shut. 

Spike asks, "How—"

"Time!" Tara cries from the other room. "Time! Time!"

Buffy's head snaps around—there's the sound of Tara shrieking over some kind of struggle, and Willow and Anya's voices in desperate conversation.

The others hurry into the room. Willow is trying to restrain Tara, shushing her over and over with her face all pinched up with worry. Buffy looks at Anya and asks, "What happened?"

"I—I don't know," Anya says helplessly. "She just went nuts."

Tara wrenches free of Willow and runs for the windows; her nails scratch horribly against the wood, splintering it under her hands and crying louder.

Buffy watches, rooted, as Willow tries to pull her back away and she runs for the door instead—trying to go somewhere. Trying to get away?

"Tara!" Willow begs, finally pinning her arms to her sides. "We have to do something! She—she can't stay this way, Buffy. Buffy?"

Tara keeps repeating the same word: time.

Time for what?

"You listen to me," Spike is saying fiercely, from somewhere behind her. "I know something about evil."

For it all to stop?

"You're not it."

"Maybe I'm not evil," Dawn says slowly. "But I don't think I can be good."

Do they have time left?

"Well, I'm not good," says Spike. "And I'm okay."

Willow asks, "Buffy, what are we gonna do?"

Buffy says, "I…"

"Hey, Anya," Spike calls. "You wanna join our club?"

The others turn to look.

"What club?" Anya asks.

"Former Evil-doers Anonymous," says Spike. "Patent pending."

Anya asks, "Are there membership dues?"

"Yeah," says Spike, "but you get a free t-shirt."

Just a little more time—

"I'm in," Anya says, and sits right down on the floor across from Spike and Dawn. "Do you need a treasurer?"

—with someone you love.

Giles wheezes, "Buffy," from where he lays on the counter.

"Giles?" Buffy goes to him, taking his clammy hand where it rests over the blood-soaked shirt covering his wound. "I'm here."

Giles's eyes are a little unfocused, crinkled up around the edges as he looks at her. He says, "There are… things I want to say to you. Things… I should have—"

"No," Buffy says.

Giles frowns at her like the old days—when her problems weren't so hard and just as serious. "Buffy, please. You must listen—"

"No," she says again, her voice cracking. There's a tight feeling all over her hands that she thinks might be drying blood. "No, 'cause—'cause you're doing that thing people do. Where they say stuff and then they go away, and you can't—"

"Buffy—"

"You can't go," Buffy tells him. It's so hot in this abandoned building and her tears feel like nothing on her face. "Giles, you can't."

"I am so proud of you," he says.

Buffy says, "Shut up."

Giles's eyes crinkle even more. "You've come so far. You're everything—"

"Stop it," Buffy begs.

"—everything that I…" Giles pauses, his throat bobbing with effort. Willow cleaned the blood off his mouth. "Buffy, do you remember… what you said to me under… under that dreadful spell?"

Buffy swallows thickly, squeezing his hand. "The one where Spike and I were gonna get married?"

"Yes," he says.

Buffy says, "Of course I do."

"It would have been—" Giles's eyes flutter shut. His breath rattles out, then in again with a shallow gasp. "The honor of my life."

"But it will be!" Buffy tells him desperately. His hand starts to slip in her grasp and she clutches it harder, the wrinkles near the knuckles and the weird calluses right on the fingertips, her Watcher's hand, her father's— "Just don't go. Just stay."

Giles's chest goes still for a brain-numbing second—before it rises shakily again in sleep.

His hand slips from her grasp.

Just a little more time.

Buffy feels her tears dry up. She feels her shoulders roll back and sees the expressions on her friends' faces when she says, "Willow, open a door. Xander, you're with me."

 

~*~

 

Buffy and Xander re-enter the building, getting Spike's help to bar the door again. Buffy announces, "Okay, they're gonna let someone in to help Giles. Wil, there's an old payphone out back—can you get it working?"

"Yeah," Willow says, the black fading from her eyes again. "That should be easy."

Buffy runs a hand through her hair, feeling shaky with a sudden burst of energy. They can fix this. They're gonna save Giles and they can wait out these knights somehow and… and they can fix this.

"Spike," she says. "Do you still know Ben's number?"

Spike raises an eyebrow at her. "Uh, yeah. Gonna be an awkward call."

"Do you know any other doctors?" Buffy asks drily.

"Wait, that cute doctor guy who helped your mom?" Willow asks.

"Why do you know his number?" Xander asks. "Why would it be awkward?"

Buffy looks at Spike, her cheeks going a little pink. He licks his teeth.

"Nope," says Xander, putting his hands up. "Nuh uh, no thanks. Don't need that visual." He turns half-away, then whips back around to look at them again. "Actually, I have questions."

Buffy says, "We're kind of in a—"

"Penises," says Xander.

"... Yes?" says Buffy.

Xander asks, "What do you do with two of them?"

Dawn takes Tara's hand and leads her into the other room with a full-body eyeroll.

Buffy asks, "Like, me, personally, or?"

Xander's eyes glaze over.

"Never had a three-way then, mate?" Spike asks.

"I keep trying to convince him," Anya says. "But he's still too insecure in his sexuality. I'm hoping the situation will improve in three to five years. Maybe this conversation will be educational."

"Who was on top?" asks Xander, a little distantly. "Was someone on top? Was it like a sandwich? Who was the bread?"

Spike says, "Don't hurt yourself, mate."

Buffy decides the easiest way out is gonna be through. Also, it might be funny.

"Well, I was on top," she says, tilting her head thoughtfully at Spike. "And then Ben was kinda underneath, and would you say you were—"

"Towards the side, yeah."

"And then me and Ben were the bread," Buffy says, grinning mischievously. "And then I was on top."

Spike laughs fondly. "God, his face when you—"

"Yeah, but then you—"

"Yeah, that was bloody brilliant, wasn't it?"

Xander says, "You know this doesn't help, right?"

"So… why is it awkward now?" Willow asks. 

"Well," Buffy says. "Um…"

"Maybe they scared him off with their—" Xander makes a spazzy hand gesture. "Buffy-and-Spike-ness."

Buffy frowns a little. "No, I mean, I think he had fun. Do you think he had fun?"

"I'd call 'im a satisfied customer," Spike agrees.

"I mean, there was that part where he passed out in the middle," says Buffy, "but we got some Pedialyte in him and bam!" She snaps her fingers. "Good as new—"

"For rounds three through five."

"Plus," Buffy reminds him, "you did the tongue thing."

"That I did, yeah."

Xander raises his hand. "What's the tongue thing?"

Spike waggles his eyebrows. "Better as a demonstration."

Xander puts his hand down.

"So anyway," Buffy says. "It's just kinda awkward because he totally asked us to call him sometime and we… didn't?"

Willow says, "Aww, Buffy, that's mean!"

Buffy sticks out her bottom lip defensively. "We just got really busy, with the… everything. And we said no strings up front! None with the strings."

Spike says, "Except for the—"

"Well, yeah," she says. "Duh."

"Heh." Spike smiles fondly. "That bit was pretty good, wasn't it?"

Buffy smiles warmly at him.

"Okay, summarizing now," Anya says. "You guys boinked your mom's hot doctor, gave him the good ole 'wham, bam, thank you ma'am,' and now you're gonna call him out of the blue and ask him to perform illegal life-saving surgery in the middle of the desert?"

Spike says, "Yeah," at the same time Buffy says, "Uh huh!"

The group stares blankly at them.

"... Spike's tongue thing is really good?" Buffy offers.

Willow says, "I'll get the payphone working."

 

~*~

 

"So," Ben says conversationally, finishing a neat line of stitches on Giles's stomach. "You, uh, forgot to mention the costume party outside."

Buffy winces. She leans a little into Spike's side and says, "Sorry. We, um, didn't really know who else to call."

"No, it's okay," Ben reassures her. He smiles shyly. "I mean, yeah—not… how I pictured seeing you guys again, but I'll take what I can get."

Spike has his hand slipped into the back pocket of Buffy's pants, even though that must hurt—which is an honestly ridiculous show of territorial-ness coming from a guy who deepthroated the other guy's dick the last time they were all in the same room, but whatever. He says, more or less sincerely, "Thanks for coming, mate."

"My pleasure," says Ben. He glances at something over Spike's shoulder—probably the others, who are lingering in the room—before looking down at his medical bag again.

He looks a little wigged.

Buffy says, "Look, I know this must seem extra Outer Limits to you…"

"This?" Ben teases. "Nah. I've seen things you wouldn't believe—you know, emergency room, full moon on a Saturday night. I mean—here, help me lift him?"

Spike and Buffy each move around to lift Giles gently by a hip so that Ben can wrap gauze around his stomach.

"I mean," Ben continues, "I don't think this is even the weirdest thing I've seen from you two."

"That's fair," says Buffy, her lips twitching a little. "But, you know, if it gets too weird, just tell me. I'll understand."

Ben finishes the gauze situation; they lay Giles back down and Spike comes to stand on the same side of the counter as Buffy again, draping an arm over her shoulders immediately.

"You don't have to worry about me, okay?" Ben tells her. "I won't leave until I've worn out my welcome."

Buffy wraps her arm around Spike's waist and says, "I'm sorry we didn't call, um, after."

Ben looks up from his medical bag, his eyes soft and kind; her stomach wriggles a little. "It's okay. I was really sorry to hear about your mom. I… know how much you both cared about her."

Buffy presses her lips together. Spike's voice is a little strained when he says, "Thanks, mate."

Ben nods and checks Giles's heart with the stethoscope again, frowning a little while he does. After a minute or so, he moves away and takes the stethoscope out of his ears.

"Alright, I think I've got him stabilized," he says. "But there was a lot of damage—we need to get him out of here."

"Well," Buffy says half-jokingly, "I think the guys with pointy swords kinda have other ideas."

Ben smiles a little. "Don't they always?"

Buffy smiles back.

Spike quietly says, "Buff, can we talk? Alone."

"Um, sure," she says, following him into the back room where the knight is still tied up. Once they're out of earshot, she says, "Look, if this is about you being jealous—"

Spike looks at her all offended. "It's not!"

"You just seem a little jealous," says Buffy. "And grabby."

"It's not about that!" Spike insists irritably. "It's—" He cuts off, then throws his hands up. "And you bloody well know why I'm jealous, so don't give me that."

"Yeah, I know, but—" Buffy takes both his hands, holding them carefully so it doesn't hurt, and looks him in the eye. "Hey. I love you. I'm not gonna ditch you mid-apocalypse for some other guy—give me a little credit here, okay?"

Spike looks down, his jaw working hard, but he softens a little and mutters, "You sure? He's pretty cute."

"He is," Buffy agrees.

"Got a nice prick, too."

"I've seen it."

"Knows how to use it," says Spike.

Buffy pouts. "Maybe you're gonna run away with him."

"Tempting." Spike looks up, smiling softly and lopsided, and brushes her hair back with his knuckles. "But not a fair trade."

She pushes onto her toes to kiss him gently, sighing softly against his mouth. 

"So what was this about?" she asks, rubbing a thumb over the little bone in his wrist.

Spike makes his I'm gonna say things you don't like face and then says, "We need to run again. You, me, and Dawn—we take Ben's keys, use Scarface as a shield and hit the road."

"No," says Buffy.

"Buffy—"

"We can't just leave them here!" she argues. "Giles—"

"Is stable," says Spike.

Buffy says, "The knights—"

"Only care about getting Dawn," Spike says. "They see us making a break for it, they'll leave the others alone. Maybe they can even get Giles to a hospital."

"We don't know that," Buffy tells him, her eyes flashing. "And you don't care."

Spike's jaw pops. "I care about you and her."

"I'm not leaving my friends to die!" Buffy drops his hands, running hers through her hair. "I—I can't just… they've been with us through everything. Through things we never thought we'd—" She looks at him, swallows. "They'd never leave us."

Spike takes a breath, glancing at the ceiling before refocusing on her. He says, "Maybe you can't save everyone."

Buffy recoils, something hot and sharp shooting up her throat. Her voice tastes sour.

"How… how could you say that?" she asks. "To me. To—"

"You've been saying it, love," Spike says gently. He reaches for her and she takes a half-step away. "Saying you can't. Can't do this. And I'm telling you it's alright."

Buffy's chest is tight. It hurts to breathe.

"It's alright, Buffy," Spike says again, tenderly. "We can still save her."

Buffy holds air in her lungs, glancing around the room—through the open doors, where she sees Anya walking by, at their captured knight, facing away from them. Back at her vampire, her Spike, who loves her so much he wants her to fail.

Her bottom lip starts to tremble. She's not sure what's about to come out of her mouth when she opens it to say—

"You have to let me out!" Ben shouts, rushing into the room. He looks around frantically. "Please, you don't understand—"

"What's wrong?" Buffy asks. She and Spike move closer in unison—towards Dawn, who's following after Ben into the room.

"I've gotta get out!" Ben repeats. He wheels around, looking right at Willow. "Open a door, now!"

Buffy looks at Dawn. "What's going on?"

"I—I don't know," Dawn says nervously. "He just freaked out."

Ben begs, "Let me out!" again.

"O-okay," Buffy says, going for soothing but probably hitting wigged. "Wil, open a door."

Willow nods, dropping Tara's hand to lift both of hers. She starts to chant and—

Something weird happens, like Buffy whites-out for a second, and when she blinks all of a sudden Ben is gone and Glory is looking around the room with a feral smile.

"Well, whaddya know?" she asked, sounding pleased. Buffy locks eyes with Dawn over her shoulder and jerks her chin. "Little Ben finally did something right."

Dawn starts to back away slowly, towards Giles.

The captured knight snarls, "The Beast."

"Hey, it's Gregor!" Glory says excitedly. She grabs the metal part of an old tire and tosses it like a frisbee; it lodges halfway into the knight's neck. "Now it's not."

Willow's head is down and her mouth is moving silently as Anya tries to pull Tara away from Glory. Xander has his hands curled into fists.

Buffy taps Spike on the elbow; they move at the same time, charging at Glory.

Glory reaches an arm backwards and backhands Willow across the face without even looking—she flies into Xander with a crack that Buffy doesn't see—and kicks Spike so hard in the sternum that he crashes into the far wall.

Buffy goes in for a hit while Glory is still mid-kick, but Glory catches her with a bone-crushing grip on her forearm and swings her into the doorframe.

She drops.

When Buffy lifts her head, queasy-colored lights floating in her vision, it's to Dawn screaming as Glory drags her out the front door.

Buffy scrambles to her feet and runs. Her feet scrape across the concrete when she tries to make them move faster and the door feels too heavy against her hands. Outside, Glory rips a hole in Willow's barrier like it's plastic wrap and pulls Dawn through.

Buffy bounces off the barrier when she tries to follow. The knights are charging at Glory and the sounds as they fall— crunch and squelch and—

She turns and runs back inside, one leg dragging dangerously, and looks at Willow whose eyes are already dark. "Get it down, now!"

Willow starts to chant.

Buffy runs back outside without waiting for her to finish. She stumbles once, her knee popping with a sharp pain, and comes face to face with a graveyard.

So many bodies—these corpses glinting in the moonlight like those beetles Mom used to flick off her flowerbeds. All this life gone, and she killed them. Did they have families? She would have killed them all herself if it meant saving Dawn, and now it's all for nothing.

There are voices behind her. Voices she knows—voices of her friends, and she killed her friends. She killed the whole world.

Isn't it funny how every Slayer dies, but somehow the world's never ended? 

Maybe it's because she's been here too long. They're not good past their expiration date. The punchcard's all full.

Maybe the next girl could've saved Dawn. She would've been a better sister, a better friend—

"Buffy, you have to get up, love. Listen to me, we have to go. Look at me, you stupid bitch, we have to go!"

A better lover.

"What the fuck is your problem, Spike? You can't talk to her like—"

"Get off me! We can't just leave her like this, we've gotta snap her out of it. Buffy? Buffy!"

She can't. She can't look at him like this. Can't look at any of it—at this world she failed, with all its dust and football games and shiny pink shoes, and they're driving past it and she's in a backseat with her head cradled against his chest, and his bandages snag in her hair and scratch against her wet cheeks.

He says things to her. He calls her cunt and love with the same desperation and repeats Dawn's name until none of it means anything. He presses his mouth to her hair and that used to mean something.

She told him she couldn't do it. She should have mentioned he wasn't special.

They're in a room, and Buffy thinks a lot about things that used to happen. She held her baby sister when they were small. She smothered her sister until the fucking screaming stopped. She took her to the mall and bought them both ice cream with her allowance. She—

"What was that one in the middle?" asks Willow.

Buffy blinks. She's watching Dawn and Spike sleep, her own fingers carding through Dawn's hair. Their mother just died.

"I bought her ice cream," she says.

"No," says Willow. "The other one."

Buffy says, "They've gotta go in order."

She held her baby sister when they were small. I can help take care of her if you want. She always had a big heart. Did the monks make it bigger?

Life was probably easier before.

She smothered her sister until—

"Buffy, you have to stop this!" Willow begs.

Buffy looks over at her. "Why?"

"Because it's—it's not real!" Willow insists. "This never happened, Buffy. You didn't kill Dawn!"

Dawn's face was smeared with strawberry ice cream. She hated strawberry ice cream, but it was Buffy's favorite and she said she wanted to be like her. Buffy's fingernails had grave dirt under them.

"Didn't I?" Buffy asks.

Buffy was standing across from Spike in the abandoned gas station. His hair looked so cute, all curled up and messy from the car crash, and he said, Maybe you can't save them.

"Oh," Willow says. "That's new."

Buffy watched Glory realize Dawn was the Key. She sobbed into Spike's chest and said, I should be dead. She watched them put her mother in the ground. She—

"Buffy," Willow asks, "what is all this?"

—listened to Spike say, Of course I lie to you. She stuck a knife in Faith's belly and watched the blood spurt out. 

"I gave up," Buffy says.

She watched Acathla's mouth open and weighed it against the tears rolling down Angel's face.

"It's every time I gave up."

She put on a pretty white dress.

"Or wanted to."

Merrick said, The next time you miss the heart, it could kill you.

"Don't you get it?" Buffy asks Willow, turning to her. 

(Spike said, Maybe you can't save them.)

"I made this happen," she tells her. "Some part of me wanted it."

(Glory realized Dawn was the Key.)

"And in the moment that Glory took Dawn, I know I could have done something better." 

(Buffy said, I should be dead.)

"But I didn't. I was off by some fraction of a second. And this is why—"

"Holy crap!" Willow snaps. "Will you cut the bullshit?"

They're standing in Buffy's bedroom.

"What?" Buffy asks.

"Buffy, I am sorry you're in so much pain," Willow says. "I really am. If I could take it away from you, I would. We all would. But, Buffy, look at what you're missing."

She reaches out and takes Buffy's face in her hands, pressing their foreheads together, and Buffy sees—

Spike told her it was alright, and kissed her so gently, and Xander showed up in his car. Spike held her, and Anya drove her to the airport and Riley made a casserole and Willow called a list of people she'd never met and Dawn said, My sister's the coolest person I know. 

And there was popcorn and coconut rum and a kiss on the forehead in a hospital bed and I'm not giving up on her, and a friend at the end of the world, a black leather jacket and two, three, five friends at the end of the world, and getting the heart on only her second try. There was strawberry ice cream on her sister's mouth.

"You've carried the weight of the world on your shoulders since high school," Willow tells her. "And so you wanted out sometimes—so what?"

Buffy says, "This time it got Dawn killed."

"Um, hello? Your sister? Not dead yet!" Willow reminds her. "But she will be if you stay locked inside here and never come back to us."

Buffy's chest hurts like a whisper. "What if I can't?"

"Then I guess you're right," Willow says. "And you did kill your sister."

She turns to walk away.

"Wait!" Buffy calls after her. "Where are you going?"

"Where you're needed," Willow says. "Are you coming?"

Spike said, We can still save her, and Buffy looked between him and the room all her friends were in and said—

"Oh, Buffy!" Willow says, holding her tightly in her arms, "Thank—thank everything that you're back!"

And Buffy starts to sob.

 

~*~

 

The cute little bell chimes when Buffy pushes open the Magic Box's door, Willow following behind. There was a Closed sign hanging in the window even though all the lights are on, and her friends are gathered around the big table near the register. 

Someone says, "Buffy?" and then Spike is crushing her to his chest.

She wraps her arms around his neck; he lifts her right off the ground and spins and a tiny, nostalgic laugh tickles her throat.

"Thank God," he murmurs fiercely. "Buffy, I couldn't—I thought you were—"

"I'm sorry," she whispers. 

Spike clears his throat, lowering her back to the ground but keeping his arms around her, and cracks a strained-looking grin. "Think I might have something to cheer you up."

"What's that?" Buffy asks, running her hands down his biceps to squeeze near his elbows.

Spike waggles his eyebrows and says, "We shagged a god."

Buffy rolls her eyes fondly. "Yeah, so I'm told." She grabs his hand and pulls him with her towards the table. "I also heard you found the ritual texts."

"Me and Spike had buddy time," Xander tells her. "So glad you're back."

Spike snorts. He plops down on the loft stairs where he was sitting before; Buffy sits a step below him, draping her forearms across his knees.

"What do we know?" she asks.

Giles looks up at her, then back down at the tattered papers he was reading from. "Um… well, uh—according to these scrolls, uh, it's possible for Glory to—to be stopped." He pauses, wetting his lip nervously. "I—I'm afraid it's, um… well, Buffy, I've read these things very carefully, and there's not much—margin for error. You understand what I'm saying?"

That tightness is back in Buffy's chest. She says, "Might help if you actually say it."

Giles smiles tightly, nodding in a jerky motion, and pinches his glasses between two fingers.

"Um, Glory… plans to open a—" He hesitates again. "A dimensional portal, by way of a ritual bloodletting."

"Dawn's blood," Buffy guesses.

"Yes," says Giles. "Once the blood is shed at a certain time and place, the fabric which separates all realities will—will be ripped apart. Dimensions will… pour into one another, uh, with no barriers to stop them. Reality as we know it will cease to exist and—" He looks up at her. "Chaos will reign on Earth."

Yeah, just like the knight said. All dark.

Buffy asks, "So how do we stop it?"

Giles looks down again. 

Spike shifts a little, his calf brushing against her thigh.

"The—the portal will only close once the blood is stopped," Giles says slowly. His glasses tap against the table. "And the only way for that to happen is, um—" 

Giles lifts his head, and he looks so old and sad that she almost cries out, almost begs him like he's still on his deathbed, and she understands what it means before he even says it.

"Buffy," he tells her. "The only way is to kill Dawn."

Spike is on his feet faster than Buffy can stop him. "What the hell did you just say?"

Giles puts his glasses on wearily, but his voice is firm. "I wish that—"

"You're wrong," Buffy says. She gets up too, coming to stand on Spike's right. "Th-there must be some kind of—like you translated wrong or—"

"The texts are in English," says Giles.

"Well you—you read it bad!" Buffy tells him. "You can't seriously—there's always another way!"

Giles says, "Believe me, I wish that there were."

"Well, what does it… actually say?" Willow asks. "Um, maybe there's a loophole or something."

Giles sighs and explains, "When the Key was pure energy, the ritual simply required that the energy be poured into the specific location at the specific time, which would open the door between dimensions. Glory would walk through the door to get home, and then one would simply… stop pouring the energy—it would no longer flow. At that point the doors would close and the dimensions would separate once more."

"But… now that Dawn's human, the energy is in her blood?" Willow asks.

"And the energy can't just stop," Anya concludes.

Giles quotes, "'The blood flows—the gates will open. The gates will close when it flows no more.'"

Xander raises his hand. "Okay, help me out here—why don't we just, you know, stitch her up wherever she's bleeding from? Then, bam, no more blood in the lock-thing."

"Because it's in her, you nit," Spike says quietly. "It's flowing… in her. Only way it stops is when—"

He cuts off, staring at his own pale-dead hand, fingers flexing. His palms are milky and smooth again.

"It doesn't matter," Buffy says. She looks around at them as they all turn to her. "It doesn't matter, because I won't do it."

Giles says, "Buffy, the entire—the entire universe is at stake. You may not have a choice."

"You're right," Buffy tells him evenly. "It's not a choice. I won't kill my sister."

There's a horrible screeching sound from the chair as Giles shoves away from the table.

"Would you kill Willow?" he demands, waving one hand at Buffy. "How about Xander? Anya? Perhaps you should have left me to my death." He takes a step towards her. "Would you kill Spike?"

Buffy clenches her jaw.

"I thought I was beyond my days of lecturing foolish girls. This is what's at stake," Giles says. "You bargain all our lives—the fate of the world—in exchange for one—"

Spike stalks forward, his big black coat rippling like panther skin, and gets right up in Giles's face. "Be a lot harder to threaten the bit without a tongue, Watcher."

Giles doesn't move a muscle—except for the hand he rests over his stomach.

"Careful," he warns softly, and his eyes flick to Buffy over Spike's shoulder.

Spike turns and looks, waiting.

For a second, Buffy thinks about dropping the leash.

She jerks her chin.

Spike laughs darkly and steps back; his shoulder brushes hers as he slouches away into the back room, leather coat still swishing. The door slams behind him.

Giles says, "Buffy—"

"Look again," Buffy tells him.

Giles purses his lips. "I promise you that I've tried—"

"I don't care," says Buffy. Her eyes are hard and flat. "You want me to save the world for you—again? Find me another way."

She turns and follows the way Spike went, the sound of her heels echoing in the dead-silent room.

 

~*~

 

Spike is abusing the punching bag in the training room when Buffy walks in; his nostrils are flaring even though he's not really breathing, just working his jaw and pounding against the vinyl. His knuckles aren't wrapped.

"Hey," Buffy says quietly.

He doesn't look over.

"Did you hear the end of that?" Buffy asks, drifting closer.

"Yeah," says Spike.

Buffy grabs his wrist before his next strike. He finally turns towards her, all that rage melting off his face and leaving him so young and sad that she almost starts crying.

Her voice is wet when she says, "I'm so tired of killing people I care about."

Spike says, "So don't," and cups the side of her face. 

"But what if—" Buffy blinks up at him. "What if we can't stop it. What if we're too late to…"

Spike draws her closer, pressing his forehead to hers. "World had a good run."

Buffy sniffles. "I thought you liked the world."

"Not like I love her," he says. "Not like I love you."

And, God, she just wants him to hold her. She wants him to be the only thing that does, the only thing that—

There's a panicked shout from outside somewhere, probably in the alley.

They both sigh as Buffy pulls away.

"Want me to go?" Spike offers softly.

"No, I…" Buffy smiles faintly. "Maybe it'll help. Get my… my focus back a little."

He kisses the top of her head; she grabs a stake on her way out the door.

 

~*~

 

"I imagine you hate me right now," Giles says, stepping over the broken punching bag carcass on the floor on his way to the couch. 

Buffy stares at the punching bag, the chain glinting in the light.

"I love Dawn," says Giles.

Buffy says, "Not like we do."

"No, I suppose not," he agrees. She can feel his eyes on her, but she's not ready to look. "But don't think for a second that this is easy for me. I've sworn to protect this sorry world, and sometimes that means saying and doing… what other people can't. What they shouldn't have to."

Buffy turns her head. 

"That's something that you used to understand," Giles reminds her.

She laughs flatly. "You think I don't?"

"Buffy," Giles says slowly. "I've tried to… refrain from inserting myself into your personal life. You're a grown woman who is—"

"You don't like Spike," Buffy cuts in tightly. "I get it. You're not exactly subtle about it."

"It's not that simple," Giles insists, a little impatiently. "It's… Buffy, it is more than plain to me how happy he makes you. Your relationship is certainly, um, quite special. But I worry that he's made you…"

He trails off, plucking his glasses off his face.

"What?" Buffy asks. "He's made me what?"

Giles wets his bottom lip.

"Giles, c'mon." Buffy crosses her arms. "We're saying things other people can't, right? You can tell me to kill my sister but you can't—"

"Selfish," Giles snaps, looking up at her. "And unfocused."

Buffy stares at him. Her collarbone hurts.

Giles says, "When you began this relationship, you assured me that you could do what needed to be done. What was necessary."

"You mean killing someone I love?" Buffy asks. "Yeah—been there, done that, didn't like the t-shirt. I can't believe you of all people are saying this to me."

"You have a Calling," Giles says sharply. "I know you didn't ask for it and I've never once pretended it was fair, but you have it all the same. Your friends understand that. Angel understood that."

"You think he doesn't?" Buffy's voice cracks as she gestures towards the other room. "He gave up everything for me! He's trying so hard every day to be a better person because it's what I need and he puts me first."

Buffy swallows thickly.

"No one puts me first," she says. "Not even me."

Giles says, "Buffy—"

"Do you wanna know what the vision guide told me?" Buffy asks.

Giles frowns. "I thought they refused to help you."

"They said that Spike gave himself to me," Buffy tells him. "But I can't give myself back—because of my soul, because he doesn't have one and I belong to something else."

Giles puts his glasses back on.

Buffy shakes her head a little, tears welling up and catching on her stinging eyelashes. "The way he loves me, Giles, it's… beautiful, and terrifying, and the best thing anyone's ever given me and I can't give it back. If anything makes me selfish, it's that."

"Buffy," Giles says in disbelief. "You cannot think for one second that your love isn't—"

"I don't know." Buffy pushes her fingers into her hair and, her chest still aching, comes to sit next to him on the couch. "I don't know anything anymore. When I was younger, I—I was so sure. I knew what was right."

Giles says nothing.

"I killed Angel because I knew it was right," Buffy continues. She closes her eyes. "I loved him so much, and I still… but I don't know how to live in this world if these are the choices. If everything gets stripped away—I don't see the point."

Giles says, "Then let me help you. You don't have to… I—I can do this for you, Buffy. If it comes to it."

Buffy lifts her head to look at him. "She'd still be dead. Because of me."

"None of this is your fault, Buffy," Giles says gently.

"Cool," Buffy says. "Then I quit. That's okay, right?"

Giles blinks at her.

Buffy stands up again, her rubber-soled shoes slipping a little against the concrete, and tells him, "If Dawn dies, I'm done with all of this. How's that for selfish?"

He watches her leave.

 

~*~

 

Buffy pushes open the back door and leans out into the alley, where Spike is smoking a cigarette against the wall. He looks tired; she wonders when he last slept.

"Hey," she says. "Come with me?"

Spike flicks his cigarette into a puddle on his way to her. "Where to?"

"Back to the house," Buffy tells him. "It's almost time and I wanna grab weapons."

They walk back through the shop, where the others are all gathered around the table. The Dagon Sphere that Xander and Anya found in the basement is sitting in the center.

"We'll be back," Buffy says.

"Do hurry," Giles says. "Remember that our window is quite narrow."

Buffy says, "I know."

Maple Court is busy tonight: lots of people are laughing and window shopping, early summer haircuts ruffling in the breeze and glass window displays getting smudged under happy fingers. It must be the weekend.

Buffy slips her hand into Spike's, lacing their fingers together. They walk slowly—slower than they should. Her head turns, once, for a second look at a dress in a window, and fresh coffee mugs wave their steam at her when they pass the Espresso Pump.

It could be the last night for all of this. All these people with their smiles and shaking hands walking out of the flower shop, and she wants to buy him flowers. She kept thinking it'd be nice, if she did that, because he was always bringing them to the house and putting them in pretty vases and she thought he should be the one coming home to them for once, but she kept forgetting and now it's the last day.

Spike lifts his hand from hers and cards his fingers through her hair a little before draping his arm over her shoulders.

"Quiet tonight," he says.

Buffy glances at the crowded street.

"You, I mean." He rubs his thumb over her bicep. 

Buffy leans into his side. "There's nothing left to say."

Spike hums.

They drift through the neighborhood, where some people are sitting on their porches. Smoke rises from a fire pit in the back of someone's yard even though it's a warm day.

At the house, Buffy turns to face him in the foyer, all the sound suddenly shut out in the whole world, and pushes up onto her toes to kiss him. He kisses back just as gently, a kind of full-body sigh drooping him down to meet her with his hands barely brushing up her ribs, and it hurts.

The house feels so empty.

Buffy pulls away, her fingers stroking the soft skin on his sharp cheeks, and says, "I want you to bite me."

Spike says, "Buffy—"

"I know it won't be like we wanted," Buffy says, her voice going a little thin and watery. "But I…"

Spike is frowning softly, something murky and guarded in his eyes.

"You know we're not all gonna make it," Buffy tells him.

"I know," he says.

Buffy swallows, that sharp hot pain in her chest, and thinks about the desert. "If this is… if this is how it all goes, if it's all we—" Thinks about tea parties, shiny photo paper. "If we don't get more time."

Spike begs, "Don't talk this way, love."

"I want us to have this," Buffy says, and her voice goes steady even though her cheeks go wet. "I want us to know it was ours and—and you were mine and I was yours and we…"

Spike cups the side of her face, his head tilting a little with his lips gently parted.

"We belonged," Buffy whispers. She smiles at him, the wonder on his face. "We belonged here."

Spike says, "You need your strength."

"You won't take that much," Buffy says. She touches lightly at his bottom lip. "Just enough to know."

Spike holds her gaze for a long moment, teetering there with her, and she can feel him give over to it the same way he falls asleep—slipping, slipping gently down and then slumping all at once, cradled in her hands.

Spike kisses her fingertips, his eyes fluttering shut with a trembling sigh. He kisses down to her wrist, cool mouth against her aching pulse, and she sways a little with anticipation. He pushes her sleeve up over her elbow and kisses all the vulnerable skin of her forearm and noses up to her throat, breathing hard.

Buffy cards her fingers through his hair, coaxing him over to the side where there aren't already marks.

Her little neck hairs prickle when his face changes.

"I love you," she says, and he bites down.

Buffy gasps, her toes trying to curl even though she's standing on them, and buries her face in his hair. She clutches at the back of his jacket and breathes wet hot air against the shell of his ear.

Spike drinks gently for one, two seconds, then pulls away. His eyes are shiny and gold and she cups his demon face in both hands before he can take it away.

"Don't go," she says softly.

He watches her with a bead of blood glittering on his lip.

Buffy kisses him clean, the hot taste of iron against her tongue and a warm little trickle tickling her collarbone and wetting her shirt. She kisses the sharp teeth, the ridges of his forehead, his cute little scrunched up nose and his damp cheeks. She presses her hand against his beautiful dead heart until she swears she can feel it beating.

Spike sobs quietly and finally lets the demon hide away.

They stay there without speaking, the wrong one of them breathing.

Eventually, Buffy says, "I'm gonna get changed. Can you get the weapons?"

He nods, moving away.

Buffy climbs the stairs slowly, letting each one creak under her weight. How many times did she go through the window to avoid this feeling?

"I'd do it all again, you know," Spike calls, stopping her when she's halfway up. Her hand hovers over the banister. "Every minute of it, every miserable year—if it meant a moment more with you."

Buffy finishes her climb.

 

~*~

 

There's a hole in the sky. It shimmers different colors, like one of those screensavers on the computer, and it would almost be pretty, maybe, if it was happening to someone else. If it was further away. A dragon shrieks and beats its wings in the hot dry air.

"Buffy, you have to let me go," Dawn begs. "Blood starts it, and until the blood stops flowing it'll never stop."

And Buffy looks at her—her brave, beautiful sister in a beautiful dress, so ready to die to save the world. So selfless.

("I wanna be like you," she said, when they were young.)

The monks must have made her like this. They made them the same, down to the stupid big heart, because they knew this might be how it went and she would need to be ready. 

Someone made Buffy ready, too. Years of making, and shaving down, and breaking bones that heal too fast for it to matter, and whoever it was must be really proud. 

(She and her friends counted on the way over—seven stopped apocalypses. Maybe it's a record.)

There's a lot left to do—she has to sell her half of the gallery and get back to college, and she has to figure out how to keep those beetles from eating Mom's rose bushes so they turn out okay this year. The other week, she and Spike made a bet on whether Xander and Anya will get married before Xander turns twenty-five, and she wants to find out who wins.

She'd still like Giles to walk her down the aisle, and there's a lot of ice cream in the freezer that someone should eat.

But Buffy is so tired, and the stars are so pretty, and it would really suck if they all went away. She wants Dawn to be able to look at them tomorrow. 

"Buffy," Dawn says, wide-eyed. "No."

Buffy says, "Dawnie, I have to."

"No!" Dawn repeats.

"Listen to me—please." Buffy takes Dawn in her arms, smiling a little with relief. "There's not a lot of time."

Dawn pleads, "No, Buffy, please. Let me—"

"Dawn, listen to me," Buffy tells her. "Listen. I love you—I will always love you. But this is the work that I have to do." She takes a breath, her eyes shining. "Tell Giles that I… I figured it out, and—and I'm okay."

Dawn shakes her head wetly.

"And give love to my friends—you have to take care of them now." Buffy thumbs the tears from Dawn's cheeks. "You have to take care of each other. You have to be strong."

"I can't," Dawn croaks. "Not—not without you."

Thunder booms over their heads, rocking the tower dangerously.

Buffy says, "Dawn, the hardest thing in this world—" Her smile wavers a little. "Is to live in it. Be brave. Live."

"Buffy," Dawn sobs, clutching at her sleeves.

"For me," Buffy tells her. She looks in her sister's big blue eyes, the grief there, and feels herself washing clean. "Can you do it for me?"

Dawn whimpers, her bottom lip trembling, and nods.

Buffy nods too. She turns to go, Dawn's desperate fingers clinging to her sleeves, and hesitates with her eyes slipping shut.

"And… Dawn?" Buffy asks. "Can you tell Spike something, too?"

Dawn doesn't answer her.

"Tell him…" Buffy casts her gaze over the melted-amber horizon, suddenly so bright it makes her eyes water. "Tell him I don't regret it either. Tell him to keep his promise."

The metal groans under Buffy's feet. She runs, feeling it shake, the wind blowing back her hair and carrying away the sound of Dawn shouting her name one last time, and she thinks about it that split second as she runs out of runway and spreads her arms wide: you will fall to your soul.

And somewhere else in the world, there's a beautiful light in the sky.