A Place So Bitter
Rowan - June 20 2002

Spoilers: everything through the end of S6 is game, plus rumors for S7. This story would not be possible without the fantastic beta & collaboration by Julia, Dead Soul, and Lady Starlight.

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Mother, father, please explain to me
Why a world so full of mystery
A place so bitter and still so sweet
So beautiful and yet so full of sad, sad…

’Mother, Father’, Dave Matthews Band

Chapter 1: A Place So Bitter

Pain. It radiated from the center of his chest, forcing his body to bow backward under its weight. He bit his lip, trying to endure, trying not to give the demon the satisfaction of seeing him squirm. The coppery taste of borrowed blood filled his mouth.

‘Do you want it?’
‘Oh, yes! God, yes.’

William’s soul was lost in a wash of ecstasy under the harsh prick of Drusilla’s teeth and the greedy suck of her mouth. Its return was being paid in torment. The pain spread hot fingers across his limbs and then probed under his skull. His eyes rolled back in his head as he screamed.

‘Well, I haven’t been to a hell dimension just of late, but I do know a thing or two about torment.’

He smelled his own burning flesh; he felt it split and crackle underneath the demon’s claw. Heat encircled his heart, squeezing like a fist. He took a desperate, choking breath that spread fire through his lungs. Pride gone, he howled like an animal.

‘I know I’m a monster. But you treat me like a man.’

He collapsed onto the ground, a puppet with its strings cut. Sobbing and shuddering, he screamed again. The demon laughed. The small part of his mind that still functioned rationally wondered why he wasn’t dust yet. He tried to open his eyes, but he was blinded by golden light.

‘Ask me again why I could never love you.’

He stopped struggling and lay still as the demon finished his work. His entire body burned as if he were at the center of some exquisite sun, drowning in a hot sea of pulsing waves. ‘Buffy!’ he cried silently; then he let go.

Buffy closed the door to the bedroom gently. It shut out the sound of Willow’s soft sobs, but she could still hear the deep murmur of Xander’s voice. She rested her forehead against the door briefly. A hundred different emotions were tangled inside her. Pain. Joy. Anger. Sorrow. Guilt. Fear. There was no time for any of them.

She walked slowly down the stairs. The twinge of sore muscles reminded her that she was still, after all of it, alive. Giles was stretched out on the couch, his eyes closed. Anya had been administering first aid. She was perched next to him, carefully wrapping gauze around his injured left hand. Neither one noticed Buffy.

Dawn was sprawled in an armchair. She looked up when Buffy came into the room. Buffy smiled and sat on the arm of her chair. Reaching out to stroke Dawn’s hair back from her bruised and dirty face, she mouthed, “You okay?” Dawn nodded and leaned in to Buffy.

There was silence for a few minutes. Then Anya said, “Giles will need to go to the hospital.”

Giles opened his eyes. “No hospital.”

Anya finished taping the gauze in place and began to neatly repack the supplies in the first aid kit. “You may have broken bones. Or severe internal injuries. Uncontrollable bleeding. Lacerated organs. I’m a vengeance demon, not a doctor.”

Giles rolled his eyes. Buffy, watching him, suppressed a secret smile. She continued to stroke Dawn’s hair.

Anya continued, oblivious. “I think at least one of your ribs may be cracked. Humans of your age have brittle bones that are extremely fragile.”

“Being dropped repeatedly from the ceiling to the floor can render even the sturdiest bones fragile, Anya,” Giles said dryly.

“Even more reason why you should…”

“No bloody hospital!” he roared. It had been a very long, very trying day. Buffy stopped stroking Dawn’s hair and they stared at him, shocked. Anya just sniffed. Turning his head towards Buffy, he asked in a more reasonable tone, “How is she?”

“She’s…” She stopped, not quite knowing what to say. “Xander’s with her.”

Another silence fell. Then Dawn asked, “What happens now?”

Giles smiled tiredly. “We go on.”

Dawn sat up in her chair and shook her head. “No. I mean what happens now?” When no one answered, she continued. “Willow’s upstairs. In our house. She just tried to…” Dawn’s voice cracked. “She tried to undo the spell that made me. She tried to rebury Buffy. She tried to kill you, Giles.”

Giles’s voice was calm. “Willow needs us now, Dawn. All of us.”

“Don’t give me that crap!” The tears welling up in Dawn’s eyes spilled down her cheeks. “I’m scared. Right now, I don’t care what Willow needs. I care what we need. To be safe.” She turned towards her sister. “Buffy?”

Buffy reached out her hand and smudged away one of the tear tracks on Dawn’s cheek with her thumb. She looked at Giles. “Dawn has a point. We really don’t know how dangerous Will still is. What damage all this has done to her. How to help her.” She stared off into space and finished quietly, “How she faces what she’s done.”

Giles struggled to sit up on the couch, wincing. Anya reached forward to help him. After he was settled, he rubbed his eyes. “You’re right, of course. I wasn’t thinking clearly.” He smiled briefly. “One too many blows to the head, I expect.” He sighed and seemed to come to a decision. “I’ll take her back to England with me. To the coven. They can help her heal. We’ll leave in a few days.” His voice was inexpressibly sad. “After Tara’s funeral.”

Buffy nodded and pulled Dawn close again.

“Who’s leaving in a few days?” Xander stood in the doorway, looking at Buffy.

She avoided meeting his eyes. Finally Giles said, “Willow and I. For England.”

“Wait. Whoa.” Agitated, Xander ran a hand through his hair. “Who decided that? Was there a memo I missed? During the whole averting the apocalypse thingy? ‘Cause from where I’m sitting, Willow’s not exactly ready for world travel.” He looked at Buffy again. “You’ve seen her, Buff.”

Buffy said nothing. Giles continued. “We thought it would be best to get Willow some professional help. I’m taking her to the coven in Devon. They’ll understand her issues.”

“Her issues? We thought it best? I don’t think it’s anywhere near the vicinity of best. It’s in a whole different state from best. Will needs to be here, with the people who love her. We’re her family. We need to take care of her.”


He didn’t wait to hear it. “Is this the same thinking that had you on a plane out of the country while Buffy was having a nervous breakdown and boinking the evil undead? ‘Cause that plan didn’t work out so well.”

“Xander!” Buffy’s voice was sharp. “Willow needs…she needs more than we can give her. We couldn’t help her before. Now it’s worse.”

“Buffy, this isn’t…it’s just grief. Deep, loving grief. It made her go crazy.”

Anya spoke up. “It’s more than grief, Xander.”

Bitterly, he replied, “Yeah, you’d know about that, An. And by the way, you don’t get a vote here anymore.”

Anya stared at him. Then she got up and left the room. They heard the front door close behind her.

Buffy said quietly, “Anya was only trying to help.”

“We don’t need her help.”

“We’d all be dead right now if we hadn’t had Anya’s help,” Giles reminded sharply.

Xander shut up. Buffy tried again. “This isn’t the first time Willow’s gone off the deep end. We don’t know how much of a danger she still is.”

“She’s Willow, Buffy. She wasn’t before.” When Buffy didn’t respond, he pleaded, “Willow didn’t turn her back on you when you were poisoned and tried to kill us all.”

Buffy met his eyes squarely. “She murdered Warren. She tried to end the world. That changes a person.” She took a deep breath and continued. “She’s broken inside, Xander. We need to help her fix herself. If she’s ever going to be Willow again.”

Silence. Then Giles asked. “Then we’re all agreed? I take Willow to England?”

Buffy and Dawn nodded. Xander muttered, “I’m going back upstairs to Will,” and fled the room.

There was dirt in his mouth and in his clenched fists. He clawed at the ground in panic until he was able to push himself into a sitting position. He watched the world spin crazily around him as bile rose uncontrollably in his throat. He gagged, hacking up a mixture of blood, mucus, and dirt.

‘Yeah. That’s…what I had to do.’
‘Done it myself.’

He rubbed a shaking hand across his face. It came away covered with sweat and vomit. Not buried. Not a grave. Calmer, he looked down at his chest and immediately wished he hadn’t. The sight and the smell of burnt flesh had him gagging helplessly again.

‘What you did, for me, and Dawn….that was real. I won’t forget it.’

He rested. Eventually, he pulled himself to his feet. The dizziness and the pain had him clutching the cave wall in a cold, shaking sweat. He forced his feet forward, scraping his hands raw along the rocky wall as he used it to hold himself up. Pain cut through his chest like a knife. A sickening pulse throbbed in his temples. Harsh breaths rasped in his throat.

‘You belong in the shadows…with me.’

The sudden shift from the darkness of the cave to the dazzling sunlight disoriented him. He stumbled forward blindly and collapsed on the sand, unconscious.

She sat on the edge of the bed and stared out the window. An open suitcase lay next to her. Piles of clothing and toiletries were scattered across the bed. She clutched a green blouse in her hands.

“Do you need some help to finish packing?” Buffy came into the room. “’Cause I’m pretty good at cramming stuff into suitcases.” She laughed self-consciously. “Child of divorce. Lots of packing experience.”

Willow continued to stare out the window as if she hadn’t heard her. Buffy moved to the bed and began putting things haphazardly into the suitcase. “It was a lovely service,” she said softly. She noticed the blouse Willow was holding. “Do you want me to pack that, too?”

“It’s Tara’s.”

“Oh.” She finished packing the suitcase and then sat down next to Willow. She put an arm around her. “Will. I know it’s scary. What’s ahead. But the coven in England…they can help. It won’t be easy. But it’s for the best.”

Willow finally turned to look at Buffy. “Best for you, maybe.”

Buffy’s arm dropped from Willow’s shoulders. “What?”

Willow turned to look out the window again. “Where is Xander?”

“Right here, Will.” He smiled as he walked into the bedroom. “Ready for the big adventure?” He picked up her suitcase in one hand and held out the other. Willow stood up and took his hand, dropping the blouse to the floor. Buffy picked it up and laid it carefully on the bed. Then she followed them downstairs.

Giles and Dawn were waiting at the door. “Ready?” Giles asked, eyebrows raised. Willow nodded, not meeting his eyes. She clung harder to Xander’s hand. He gave it a reassuring squeeze. Buffy hugged Willow awkwardly before Xander led her out to the car.

Giles cleared his throat. Trying to be businesslike, he said, “I’ll call you after we get settled.” Buffy and Dawn nodded. They were both on the verge of tears. Fiercely, they hugged him. He whispered, “It will be all-right. I promise.” He pulled away, turning quickly to walk out. Buffy put her arm around Dawn. They watched together at the door, long after Xander’s car had disappeared from sight.

Chapter 2: So Full of Sad

There was a light tap on the kitchen door. Buffy continued to frown at the newspaper that she was reading. “Come in!”

Xander stepped into the kitchen. “Buffster.” He gestured at the papers. “Sudden interest in current events?”

She grimaced. “Sudden interest in food and shelter.”

“No more doublesweet leftovers?” Xander’s hand flew to his stomach in panic. “Say it ain’t so, Buffy.”

“Three strikes and Buffy’s out.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “Human burger scare. Riley and hatching demon eggs. Satanic temple and imminent apocalypse.”

Xander nodded sympathetically. “Tough luck. See anything?”

“Only more proof that slaying demons hasn’t prepared me at all for the real world.” She folded the paper up and sighed. “What’s up?”

Xander pulled a chair out from the table and sat down. “Have you heard from Giles again?”

Buffy fussed with the papers for a minute before answering. “Um. Yes. He called today.”

“Great!” Xander leaned forward in his chair. “When can we see Will? It’s been weeks; she must be homesick big time. I can get the time off from work right away.”

Buffy hesitated. This was hard. “No one’s allowed to see her. Not even Giles. That was the coven leader’s condition. No outside influences.”

Xander face darkened. “Outside influences? We’re her family. She needs us.” He shook his head. “This feels wrong. Cutting her off from the people who love her is just going to hurt her.”

Buffy put her hand over Xander’s where it lay on the table and squeezed. “We have to trust that we’re doing the right thing.”

Xander pulled his hand out from under Buffy’s. “Why should I trust these people? I don’t even know these people. They could be total nutcases. You seem pretty quick to accept all of this.”

Buffy was sure of one thing. “Giles trusts them. And I trust Giles. He wouldn’t leave Willow there if he weren’t sure it was for the best.”

“I still think Will needs us to be there with her, Buffy,” Xander said, frustrated.

Buffy seemed to struggle with something and then said, “Xander, when I first came back.” She played with a corner of the newspaper, folding and unfolding it. “I was so messed up. And all of you...you were…” She couldn’t look at him. “You all just loved me so much. But it just made it…harder.” She took a deep breath. “Sometimes things happen in your life that you just need to fix yourself. Nobody else can do it for you.”

Xander stared at her, stumped. “I just don’t get that, Buffy. I don’t get why you would want to shut your friends out at the worst moment of your life. That’s when you need your friends the most.” His voice went flat. “But Evil Dead made it easier? That’s why you went to him?”

Buffy’s felt her heart rate pick up a bit. How could she explain something she still didn’t understand herself? She tried to find the right words. “He…there was nothing he wanted from me. No expectations. I could just…be.”

Xander hooted in derision. “Yeah, right. He’s a totally unselfish soulless monster. As long as he’s getting some. Of course, after you cut him off, he figured he’d take it by force.”

Buffy’s hand fisted in the newspaper, crumpling it. “That’s not -- that’s not how it was.” She unclenched her hand and then she glared at him. “And you had no right to tell Dawn, Xander. I specifically told you not to.”

Xander refused to back down. “It’s about time one of the Summers women saw him for what he is. The best thing he ever did was to leave town. And if he has the nerve to show his pale face again, he’s dust.”

Buffy forced herself to calm down. Deliberately changing the subject, she asked, “Have you talked to Anya yet?”

Xander’s self-righteousness evaporated. “No,” he muttered.

Buffy refused to let him off the hook. “I think you really hurt her, Xander.”

“I know. I know.” Xander dropped his head into his hands and moaned. “I was just…out of my mind over Willow and over what happened.” He looked up at Buffy, anguished. “I’m a total jerk.”

Buffy thought for a minute. “You know, the grand reopening of the Magic Box is tomorrow. Dawn’s over there right now helping with some last minute shelf-stocking.” She smiled. “She still has some shoplifting debt to work off. It might be a good time to stop by. I’m heading over there, too.”

Xander wasn’t so sure. “I don’t know if this is such a great idea.”

Buffy stood up and pulled Xander out of his chair. “Come on Mr. Foot-in-Mouth. Time’s a-wastin'.”

“Hey!” Buffy walked into the Magic Box. Anya was standing near the cash register, making some notations in a ledger. Dawn was busy dusting some statues she had just uncrated. Buffy stopped and took a long look around the room at the shiny new display cases and the freshly-painted shelves. “The place looks great.” She wrinkled her nose. “Still a little new paint smelly, though.”

“Maybe the customers will get high and buy more. Sort of like the munchies,” Dawn offered encouragingly.

Anya looked up from the ledger and beamed at her. “That’s the way to think like a capitalist, Dawn.”

Buffy frowned. “I so don’t want to know how you know about the munchies. Just don’t learn any more about them. Ever.”

Dawn rolled her eyes. “I’m fifteen, Buffy, not five.” She gestured towards the colorful display of crystals by the cash register. “Anyway, take a look at that. I created it. All by myself.” She walked over to the counter. “See? The people come over to check out and they can’t pass by the pretty stones. Impulse purchasing. I am a marketing genius,” she said proudly.

“Technically, you’re a marketing genius after we sell them,” Anya pointed out. “Until then, you’re just a poor person with a dream.” She returned to perusing her ledger.

Buffy gave Dawn a quick hug. “At least one of us might be able to make some money.” She looked at Anya. “How’s the training room?”

Without raising her eyes from the ledger, Anya sighed. “It’s ready. I’m sure you’ll manage to damage it as soon as possible, though,” she said dryly.

Dawn squealed. “Cool! That means we can start…”

Buffy interrupted. “No. No. A world of no.”

“But you promised to show me the world, Buffy!”

“How about we start with a part of the world that doesn’t involve learning how to kill things and work our way up from there?” Dawn sulked and Buffy grinned. “Well, anyway, Anya, it really does look great in here. Like new. Better than new.”

Anya stopped writing and said enthusiastically, “I’m very pleased. It’s amazing what thousands of dollars of insurance money can accomplish. I used to resent all those premiums Giles made us pay. Why have all that money going out, when we weren’t getting anything back in return? But if I had known all this money was available, I might have destroyed the place myself, instead of waiting for Willow to do it.”

Buffy and Dawn exchanged a look. The tinkle of the bell over the door saved them from having to reply. Xander stepped in, holding a huge bouquet of flowers. “Hey,” he said awkwardly.

“Hi Xander! What are you doing here? “ Buffy asked a bit too innocently.

Xander gave her a strange look. “Uh…delivering some flowers?” He walked over to Anya and held out the bouquet. “These are for you. You know, to celebrate the whole grand reopening thingy.”

Anya took the bouquet and laid it on the counter. “Thank you.” She picked up her pen and started writing again.

Uh oh. The temperature in the room seemed to drop about 10 degrees. Buffy elbowed Dawn in the ribs. “Dawn. We totally forgot. You asked me to help you tonight. With that thing.”

Dawn looked confused, but then her eyes widened. “Oh yeah. The thing. We’d better go right now. Gotta run, guys. See you tomorrow, Anya!” Buffy and Dawn hurried out of the shop.

Xander cleared his throat. “So. All ready for tomorrow?”

Anya came out from behind the counter and headed for the statues that Dawn had been dusting. She began placing them on shelves. “Why are you here, Xander?”

Anya was never one to beat around the bush. Xander had to admire that, even if it was a damned uncomfortable quality sometimes. “I wanted to apologize. What I said. I was way out of line. Big with the craziness of the day.”

Anya placed the statue she was holding very carefully on a shelf. As if it didn’t matter at all, she said, “Don’t be sorry. You were right to say what you did. I’m not part of the group anymore. I’m just the ex-fiancée.”

That stung. “What happened between us…what I did…that doesn’t change how everyone feels about you.” He walked over and stood next to her.

Anya avoided making eye contact. “They’ve always been your friends. And because they love you, they befriended me.” She paused and thought hard. “Except maybe for Giles. It’s hard to say. The British are so reserved.” The last statue in place, she began clearing away the packing material and the crate. “You are my best friend, Xander. But I have never been yours,” she finished sadly, walking away from him.

Xander followed her. “Um…translation, please. What does that mean?” Anya said nothing and continued cleaning up. “Do you mean Willow?” His temper flared. “Anya, she was trying to end the friggin’ world. I had to put her first.”

Anya looked directly at Xander, and for an instant, admiration and pride flashed in her eyes. Xander caught his breath. “I know that. You were very brave. You love Willow unconditionally. The way I love you.” Encouraged, Xander stepped towards her. But then her eyes turned cold. “But not the way you love me.”

“Anya, that’s not true.” He was desperate to convince her. “I love you so much. More than anything.” His voice broke. “I know all of this was totally my fault. I just want another chance for us, An.”

Something uncomfortably close to pity colored her voice. “You don’t love all of me, Xander. You love the parts you think are clever, or funny, or sexy, or…human. The other parts, the parts you don’t even like to think about -- they embarrass you or they scare you. You don’t respect me.”

“That’s not true,” he insisted.

Anya’s face transformed. Xander took an involuntary step backwards. “Do you love Anyanka?”

Xander reached out and gently cupped Anya’s shoulders. “You don’t have to be Anyanka. I know I hurt you and I understand why you did it -- but you can be human again. You can be just Anya.”

She smiled, and her human mask rippled into place. “I will always be Anyanka, Xander. It’s who I am, whether I’m wearing the pendant or not. And you can’t love her.” She paused. “But you could love Willow.”

Xander felt panic rising in his throat. Why couldn’t she understand? “It’s not the same thing at all, Anya! She was crazy with grief and the magicks. It wasn’t really her. I brought her back. With love.”

“And you’ll bring me back with love, Xander? Is that your plan?” Anya shook her head. “What Willow did is as much her as what I have done is me.”

Xander released her, and his shoulders slumped. He was tired of this argument. “You’ve always been jealous of Willow. And there’s no reason to be! You’re just trying to hurt me, to make me pay for hurting you. I thought we got past this.”

“You keep thinking this is about vengeance. It’s not. This is about me, about my feelings and my future. Do you think it doesn’t hurt me to realize these things?” Anya’s eyes were bright with unshed tears. She reached out and laid her hand on Xander’s cheek. He leaned into her it, closing his eyes. “You taught me what human love really is. What friendship really is. Now I want those things for myself.” She removed her hand from his cheek and Xander’s eyes opened. “But you can’t give them to me.” She looked at him steadily. “You need to move on. I’m going to.”

Xander stared at her in shock, before turning to stumble out of the Magic Box.

For a long time, he didn’t know who or where he was. There was just the pain. Sometimes it was hot, a vicious fire burning in his blood. Other times it was cold, sharp claws digging into his bones. He heard soft, musical voices around him that he couldn’t understand. Gentle hands would wipe him down with cool cloths when he was sweating and layer him in thick blankets when he was shivering. They spooned food in his mouth for him to eat and held water to his lips for him to drink.

The dreams were the worst: fever dreams, of people and places drenched with blood. It coated his hands and filled his mouth. The coppery smell of it sickened him. He wandered lost, crying out in horror and in terror at the things he saw; then the voices would come and find him, soothing him with smoky incense and sweet liquids.

Eventually, the medicines took hold. The fever abated and the illness left his body. He woke one night to find himself lying naked on a pallet in a dark hut. He was alone. His eyes struggled to adjust to the starlight coming in through the lone window.

He sat up carefully. When he finally had the strength to stand, dots swam in front of his eyes and he almost passed out. He had to sit for a bit more until he could try again. His body wasn’t used to being upright and the rush of blood made him dizzy. When he was able, he made his way over to a table underneath the window that held a bowl of water. He scooped some out, sluicing it over his face and neck. He rested his hands on either side of the table, letting it take his weight. When the water in the bowl settled, he saw his reflection – gaunt and severe, a broken Lucifer fallen from heaven.

‘So give me what I want. Make me what I was…so Buffy can get what she deserves.’

He knew who he was and what he was doing there. He was William the Bloody, Scourge of Europe. A neutered vampire with the temerity to love a Slayer and the audacity to think there was anything he could ever do to deserve her.

That was the bloody irony of the whole thing. The great, sodding cosmic joke of it all. He had won what he sought. But now that he had it, he knew…no, not knew…he felt…he finally understood…how futile his quest was. He was further now from what he wanted than he had ever been; and he only had himself to blame. “’Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell’,” he whispered.

He staggered towards the center of the hut, laughing so hysterically that tears began to stream down his face. He fell to his knees, now sobbing in earnest, and raised shaking hands to cover his eyes.

Chapter 3: Keeping Afloat

There’s no God above
And no hell below
Oh, it’s here with us
It’s up to us
To keep afloat

‘Mother, Father’ Dave Matthews Band

It was official. Xander’s pacing was going to drive her insane. She’d survived (mostly) six apocalypses, the death of a parent, and abandonment by three -- no, make that two, she mentally corrected -- boyfriends. But this pacing was going to do what The Master and a portal into a hell dimension had been unable to accomplish. She sighed. “Xander, sit down.”

Xander stopped pacing and for the third time he asked, “She’s on the flight?”

Buffy suppressed an urge to roll her eyes. Be one with the calm. “Yes. Giles called us, remember? He watched her get on the flight. He gave us the flight number. We checked the board. The plane has landed safely.”

Xander resumed pacing. “Then what’s taking so long?”

She shrugged. “Don’t ask me. International travel and Buffy are not mixy things.” She pursed her lips. “Well, unless you count travel to other dimensions or alternate realities.”

Xander wasn’t paying attention; something at the security checkpoint had caught his eye. It was a flash of bright red hair. “There she is!”

Willow walked towards them across the long hallway, struggling with her suitcase. Since it didn’t have wheels it kept slamming painfully into her shins.

“Will!” Xander yelled, waving to catch her attention.

A big smile broke out on Willow’s face. Dropping the suitcase, she raced forward. Xander grabbed her in a huge bear hug and then spun her around. “Need air soon,” she gasped.

Xander put her down. “I missed you, Will.”

She hugged him again quickly. “I missed you, too. Every day.”

Buffy caught up to them. “Can I hug you, or has Xander broken something?”

“Nothing’s broken.” Willow stepped forward and gave Buffy a hug. “Just watch the Slayer strength, though.”

“Slayer strength totally in check.” Buffy looked at Willow carefully. “You look good, Will.”

“I think…I feel good.” She nodded. “Yeah. That’s me. With the feeling good.”

Xander retrieved her suitcase and gestured grandly towards the parking garage. “Your carriage awaits, m’lady. Shall we go?”

“We shall.” As they walked out of the terminal, Willow asked “Where’s Dawnie?”

Buffy hesitated almost imperceptibly, and then said, “She had some stuff to take care of at the house. Party prep.”

Willow’s eyes lit up. “Party? There’s a party?”

Buffy put her arm around Willow and squeezed her shoulder. “Of course, silly. You’re back. Cake and ice cream are mandatory. There may even be balloons.” She gave Xander a sly look out of the corner of her eye. “No clowns, though.”

“Heh, heh. Funny, Buff. Mock a fella’s totally understandable clown phobia.” He shuddered. “Freaks.”

Xander stowed Willow’s suitcase in the trunk. Buffy climbed in the back, letting Willow sit up front. The last time they’d all been in a car together, Willow had been taking them to kill Warren. Each of them struggled silently to push away that memory.

Meaningless small talk was a possible antidote. “How was the flight?” Buffy asked.

“Long.” Willow wrinkled her nose. “I was trapped next to some huge, sweaty man. Next time I come home from England, I’ll teleport. Lots faster.” Startled, Buffy and Xander looked at Willow. Awkwardly, she said, “Just a joke, guys.”

“Sure,” Xander said. “We know. It’s cool.” He forced a smile.

It was time to change the subject. “Will Anya be at the house?” Willow asked.

Xander shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Buffy answered for him. “Uh, no.”

“Oh.” Willow felt a wave of guilt wash over her. “Is that because of me?”

Quickly, Xander said, “No, of course not.”

“Is she, still, you know -- big with the vengeance?”

Xander’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “Yeah.”

“Oh.” Another subject ended in an unpleasant dead end. They passed the rest of the trip in uncomfortable silence.

When they arrived at the house, Willow climbed out of the car slowly. There was a big banner over the front porch that said, ‘Welcome Home Willow!’ The house looked the same, but somehow it felt different.

Xander grabbed the suitcase from the trunk and they headed inside. Buffy pulled the door shut behind them and yelled, “Dawn? We’re home.” Dawn shuffled out of the kitchen. Her hands were shoved defensively in her pockets, and her eyes were wary.

She stared at Willow. Willow stood there, unsure what to do. “Hey, Willow.” After a minute, Dawn hugged her awkwardly. “There’s cake.”

“Uh, thanks, Dawnie.” They all just stood there, no one knowing quite what to say. Willow cracked first under the pressure. “Um. Can I go upstairs? I feel sorta grungy.”

Buffy jumped to action. “Sure. Of course. This is your home, too. You can do whatever you want.” Willow headed up the stairs, followed by Buffy. Xander brought up the rear, lugging the suitcase. “Will. Wait,” Buffy called. Willow stopped, her hand on the doorknob to her bedroom. “Actually, we sort of…changed rooms while you were gone.” Buffy pointed to her old room. “You’re over here.”

“You changed my room?” Willow asked, confused. Her hand fell away from the doorknob.

“We thought, you know…memories and stuff.” Buffy looked a bit uncomfortable. “Dawn and I tried to decorate it just the way you’d like.”

“Yeah. And I gave it a few coats of fresh paint. Cleaned it up a bit.” Xander added.

Dazed, Willow said, “Oh. Okay. I see. That’s good.” She walked into her new bedroom. Xander followed, putting the suitcase on the bed. Buffy stood in the doorway. Another awkward silence fell.

“Do you want help unpacking?” Buffy headed for the suitcase and began unzipping it. Xander moved away, showing a man’s instinctive fear of glimpsing female unmentionables. “’Cause I can…”

“No –- no.” Buffy stopped what she was doing. Sounding strained, Willow said, “It’s okay. I’ll do it later.” She looked around, more than a little disoriented. “I’m really -- I’m tired. Really tired. I think maybe I just want to go to bed.”

Buffy looked upset. “But we were going to make dinner. Well, order Chinese takeout.” Her voice got a bit smaller. “There’s cake. And ice cream.”

Willow rubbed her hand over her forehead. “I know, um…I just…I have a bad headache.” And suddenly, it was true. There was a strong, steady pulse right behind her eyes that was beginning to make her feel a bit sick to her stomach.

Buffy and Xander exchanged a brief look. Xander put his hand on Willow’s shoulder and squeezed. “You get some rest, Will. We’ll celebrate tomorrow.”

Willow smiled wanly. “Yeah. Eight good hours and I’ll be a regular party animal.” They left and she closed the door quietly behind them.

When they got downstairs, Buffy stopped and looked up at Xander. “Do you think she’s okay?”

Xander blew out a breath. “Sure. I mean, she’s tired. Long trip.”

Buffy wasn’t so sure. “I hope -- I mean I only switched rooms because Tara was…” She couldn’t finish that sentence.

Xander’s expression was full of sincerity. “She knows that Buff. Don’t worry.”

Dawn wandered over from the living room. “Are we ordering dinner now?” She looked around, puzzled. “Where’s Willow?”

Buffy tried to keep her tone neutral. “Willow’s tired. She’s going to get some sleep.”

“Oh.” Dawn’s eyes widened and she nodded knowingly.

“’Oh’ what?” Xander asked, starting to get a little pissed off at Dawn’s tone.

“’Oh’, as in ‘oh, like before.’” Buffy and Xander looked confused. “The bottles of water. The sleeping all day. You know the drill.”

Xander lost it. “No! No drill. She’s just tired,” he insisted.

Dawn shrugged. “Denial much?”

Xander stayed on the attack. “What’s with the attitude today, Dawn? Show a little compassion.”

Dawn had an incredulous look on her face. “Compassion? She tried to turn me back into a blob of green energy! Sorry if I’m having a problem with it.”

“But if Spike walked in the door…”

“Okay, so not gonna go there,” Buffy said firmly. “This isn’t helping anybody. Let’s just order some dinner.”

Xander sighed and shook his head. “I’m wiped out. I’m just gonna head home. Maybe grab a beer at The Bronze. I’ll stop by tomorrow and see how she’s doing.”

“All right, Xander.” Buffy reached up and kissed him on the cheek. “Good night.”

After the door closed, Buffy turned to Dawn. “What?” Dawn asked, automatically sinking into abused teenager mode.

“We talked about this,” Buffy reminded her.

“Sorry if I’m not all ‘yippee, the witch who almost killed me and my sister is home.’” Dawn’s tone was bitter.

“Dawn…” Buffy said warningly.

“Whatever. Your house. Your rules. I just live here.” She stuffed her hands in her pockets. “Can we eat now?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Our house. Our rules. We live here. And yes, we can eat now.” She herded Dawn towards the kitchen.

Dawn opened the door to the crypt. “Clem?” She had learned the hard way not to sneak up on him. The last incident with the Spaghetti-Os had taken forever to clean up.

He was standing over by the refrigerator, emptying some snacks into a bowl. “Hey Dawn! What’ll it be tonight? ‘Harry Potter’?”

Dawn stepped further into the crypt, scuffing her sneakers on the ground. “Uh. Yeah. Sounds good. I’m not sure how long I can stay, though.”

“Okay.” Having finished with the snacks, Clem opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle. He handed Dawn an ice cold YooHoo. “Have a seat anywhere.” He smiled happily and went to put the tape in the VCR.

Dawn curled up in the armchair. Clem settled himself on the couch with his snacks and his YooHoo. “Want some? Baked Lays.” Dawn shook her head. He contemplated a chip. “Less cholesterol than Bugels. The doc says I gotta cut back.” He put it in his mouth and chewed. “Not as tasty, though,” he said sadly.

“Demons go to -- wait, just forget it.” Dawn took a sip of her drink and watched the credits as if they fascinated her. Nonchalantly, she said, “Willow’s back.”

Chips flew up in the air and landed on Clem’s lap. “Whoa,” he said, eyes big.

“Yeah.” Finally, someone with a normal reaction. Or as normal as things on a Hellmouth get.

“Is she…feeling better?” he asked cautiously.

“Guess so.” Dawn shrugged. “She hasn’t tried to kill anyone in the last three hours.”

Clem nodded, Sphinx-like.

Dawn put her YooHoo down and started playing with the laces on her left sneaker. “So…heard anything from Spike?” Her tone was casual, as if the answer didn’t matter very much at all.

Clem paused with a chip halfway to his mouth. “No. He said it could take a while.” He sighed and then ate the chip, chewing thoughtfully. “He’s not great at keeping in touch.” He took a swig of his drink.

“I hope he never comes back,” Dawn said, her voice low and vicious. Shocked, Clem choked on his YooHoo. “He tried to rape Buffy.” Her face was sharp with pain.

Clem’s expression was mournful. “Oh, Dawn. He felt terrible about that. It’s why he left town.”

“Ran away, you mean,” Dawn remarked snidely.

Clem sighed. “Some demons…well, some demons just wanna live in peace. Not attract attention. Raise families. Maybe play a little kitten poker every once in a while.” He smiled nostalgically. Dawn made a face. “Not vampires. Vampires are another kettle of fish.” He shivered a bit. “They have issues. All sorts of dark stuff going. Never knew a vampire who wasn’t a mean, vicious killer totally out for number one, you know what I’m saying?” He emphasized his point by waving a chip at her. Dawn nodded. “’Cept for Spike. He’s…well, he’s an odd guy. Loves the Slayer. Loves you.” Clem shook his head, ears flopping. “Never seen anything like it.”

Dawn wrapped her arms around her upraised knees and rested her head on them. “If he loves Buffy so much, then why’d he hurt her?”

Clem shrugged. “It’s hard for him, having to act against his nature. A chip’s not a soul. Don’t think he knew he could hurt her, though. He surprised himself.” He thought some more. “Scared himself. So he left.”

Dawn wasn’t satisfied with that answer. “What good did leaving do? How does that fix anything?” Why does everyone leave when things get hard?

Clem shifted uneasily in his chair. “You’ll have to ask Spike that.”

Dawn turned her face away from Clem. “He didn’t even say goodbye.” Her voice was muffled. “He broke his promise.”

Clem didn’t have an answer for any of that.

Dawn lifted her head a bit and surreptitiously wiped tears from her face. She hopped out of her chair, a bit embarrassed. “I’d better go. Buffy’ll wonder where I am.” At the crypt door, she stopped and said quietly over her shoulder, “Thanks, Clem.”

Giles turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open. He shut it behind him and then leaned back against it, closing his eyes. It had been a long day. A very long day. Forcing himself to move, he checked the answering machine on the table in the foyer. No messages. He frowned, irritated. Couldn’t they at least have called? Let him know that she had gotten home safely? Of course not. England was an ocean away in more than just miles. He threw his keys down and headed for the study. He needed a drink. A very big drink.

He didn’t even bother turning on the light. He went right for the bottle of Glenfiddich sitting out on the bar and poured several fingers into a glass. He picked it up, swirling the liquid around.

“Drinkin’ alone again, Rupes?”

Giles dropped the glass, spilling whiskey everywhere. Slowly he reached out to snap on the light and then he turned toward the voice. It was him: sitting nonchalantly in Giles’s best leather chair, one leg slung over a padded arm. “Spike.” His voice was flat. “What in God’s name are you doing here?” He looked annoyed and then, “How did you get into my house?”

Spike shrugged. “Fancied a jaunt back to the motherland, mate.” He smirked a bit. “Still got a dab hand with a pick, too.”

“Well, your visit’s not done much for you by the look of you.” Giles examined him more closely. Spike’s hair had grown wild and he had stopped bleaching it; only the tips were platinum, with the roots a much darker blond. And he was skeletally thin. “You look as though you haven’t eaten in days,” he said bluntly.

Spike laughed: a thin, peculiar sound, as if he were somehow hollow on the inside. “Special diet.”

Stepping towards him, Giles continued to inspect Spike. Something was off. Despite the casual pose, Spike gave off vibrations as if he were strung just a bit too tightly, like a rubber band about to snap. I don’t need this today. Willow was enough. “I don’t have time for your little games, Spike. Tell me what you want or get out. I don’t care which one you choose.” He paused. “On second thought, just get out.”

Spike stayed put, slouching down in the chair a bit as if afraid Giles might remove him bodily. “Need some help.”

Giles snorted. “And what could possibly induce me to help you?”

“Because it’s what you do.” he answered quietly.

That brought Giles up short. Something was definitely off. The tone in Spike’s voice and the look in his eyes both confirmed it. He seemed desperate. But not in his usual drama queen way. Not in any way Giles had ever seen before.

Spike looked up at him, waiting. Something nagged at Giles. He watched the rapid rise and fall of Spike’s chest. Rise and fall. Breathing. ‘Still got a dab hand with a pick, too.’ Hoarsely, Giles demanded, “How did you say you got in? No one invited you.”

Spike raised an eyebrow. “Better sit down before you fall down, mate.”

Giles felt a cold shiver start to crawl up his spine at Spike’s tone. “I’m not your mate,” he protested faintly. But he took the advice and sank down in the other armchair. “You’re alive,” he accused, incredulous.

Spike smiled mirthlessly. “’Fraid so.”

“How is that…possible?” Giles felt dazed. Spike was alive.

“More’n heaven and earth, Horatio, and all that rot. Should know that by now. Keep gettin’ bitten on the arse by it enough,” Spike said bitterly.

Giles pulled off his glasses and absently began to clean them with a handkerchief he took from his pocket. He had a million questions racing around in his head, all struggling to be asked first. “Was it an accident? A curse?”

Spike ran a shaky hand through his unruly hair. “No,” he ground out. “Just another bollixed up plan.”

Giles was starting to organize his thoughts. “And where exactly did this happen? When? Who did it?”

“Africa. Couple months ago. Big, ugly demon. Twenty questions over now?” Spike slid his leg off the arm of the chair and sat up.

Giles carefully put his glasses back on. “Do you have a soul?”

Spike was silent for so long that Giles wasn’t sure he was planning to answer that question. “Yeah. Got the whole bleedin’ package.” Something passed through his eyes that Giles couldn’t quite decipher.

“I would have thought you’d have gone back to Sunnydale.” Then, very deliberately he added, “To Buffy.”

Spike visibly flinched. “No.” He refused to meet Giles’s eyes. Hm. Giles was certain there was something Spike wasn’t telling him; something more than just the breakup with Buffy. Spike had the demeanor of someone tensing up to meet an anticipated blow.

When whatever he was expecting didn’t happen, Spike continued. “Just need some help.” He swallowed hard. “Some...cash. ID. Bloody hard to get ‘round when you don’t exist.” He looked again at Giles, his eyes hopeful but wary. “Then I’ll be off to parts unknown and out of your hair.”

Spike, begging for help to get away from…Buffy. Wonders never cease. What the bloody hell happened? Back in Sunnydale, Xander had tried to tell him something when Giles had asked where Spike was, but Buffy had cut him off sharply.

Pulling himself back to the present, he said, “Spike, you have to let me research this. Test you. Document findings. This is unprecedented. We need to know more about what happened. I’m sure the Council of Watchers will want to know all about this.” He started to stand up, muttering, “Perhaps we should consult the Compendium of…”

In low voice, Spike said, “The Council can sod off. Not some pathetic lab rat for you to poke and prod, Watcher.”

Giles sat back down in his chair. He felt a wave of shame wash over him. “Yes. Of course. You’re right.” Whatever Spike had been, there was no getting around the fact that he was now human.

Spike stared at him in surprise. Then he stood up, rather unsteadily to Giles’s eyes. “Look, need an answer here. You helpin’ me, or shall I piss off?” Despite the bravado, Spike looked as if he might fall over if he tried to make any sudden moves.

Giles was very tempted to tell him to go to the devil. Spike had been a thorn in his side for years. Dawn will be devastated if anything happens to him. Especially now. And Buffy… Giles cut off that train of thought before it could reach its destination. He made a decision he hoped he wouldn’t regret later. “I’ll help you.”

Chapter 4: Nothing But Shadows

We're wearing nothing
Nothing but our shadows

"Tripping Billies" Dave Matthews Band

This wasn’t her room. Willow drifted around in a circle, letting her fingertips skim over the surface of the dresser and then the bed. None of her memories were here. It wasn’t the place where she had made love with Tara. It wasn’t the place where she had cried after Tara had left and where she had laughed when Tara had come back.

And where she had cried when Tara had left again.

Willow stopped in front of the nightstand to look at a framed photograph of the two of them. She trailed her fingers gently over the smooth surface, tracing Tara’s laughing face. All the little things Tara had left behind had been removed. Half-empty lipsticks. Discarded hairbands. Her scent on their sheets. All the smudged fingerprints of Tara’s life had been wiped clean.

Willow left her new bedroom and wandered downstairs to the kitchen. She could hear the soft murmur of Dawn and Buffy’s voices, interspersed by an occasional giggle. They were seated at the island, eating breakfast. They both looked up when Willow entered the kitchen. “Hey, Willow. Up for a short stack?” Buffy jumped out of her chair and headed for the stove. “You’re in good hands. I’m a grill professional.” She grimaced. “Was a grill professional.”

Dawn rolled her eyes. “Welcome to IHOP. My name is Buffy. May I help you?” Buffy threw an oven mitt at Dawn’s head that she easily caught.

“I’ll -- I’ll just have some juice.” Buffy opened the cabinet to get a glass while Willow pulled out a chair and sat down. She frowned slightly. “No more slinging of the burgers?”

Buffy came over and poured some orange juice for Willow. She made a face. “Um. No. Fired. Too many emergency absences.”

Willow’s face burned. “Was it because of me?” she asked anxiously.

Quickly, Buffy replied, “No. Of course not. All me.” Sitting back down in her chair, she smiled ruefully. “Slaying and gainful employment. Hello oil, meet water.” She tapped the folded paper lying next to her. “But the new and improved Buffy Summers does not give up quite so easily. Sunnydale Gym has an opening for a self-defense instructor. I figure I’ve got to be way qualified for that.”

“Yeah. I can vouch for that.” Willow smiled tentatively. “Maybe you should use me as a reference.” That remark produced an uncomfortable silence. “I mean, I’m sure you’ll knock ‘em dead. Not literally, though, ‘cause then there’d be no one to hire you,” she finished lamely. Willow decided to try a different subject. “No school today, Dawnie?”

Dawn stopped eating long enough to give her a strange look. “Still on summer break,” she mumbled through a mouthful of pancake.

“Oh. Yeah. Right.” Willow looked confused for a minute. “I have to visit the Registrar today and see if I’m still persona grata at UC Sunnydale. I think my parents took care of that while I was, um, away.” Willow suddenly seemed very far away for a moment. Then abruptly, she asked, “Where’s Miss Kitty Fantastico? With Xander?”

Buffy and Dawn exchanged a look. “Uh, Will.” Willow waited, not yet sensing anything wrong. “There was sort of an accident.”

“An accident?” Willow asked faintly.

Dawn tried to explain. “Well, not really an accident.” She stopped, feeling the weight of Buffy’s glare. “Maybe Buffy should tell this.”

“Yes, Buffy should tell this,” Buffy said dryly. Her tone softened. “Xander collected Ms. Kitty from Tara’s dorm room. But she must have been upset or something, because she just sort of….” Buffy’s voice trailed away.

“Wandered off,” Dawn supplied, weakly.

Willow looked perplexed. “She ran away?”

“Yeah.” Buffy’s face was a study in guilt.

“Did you look for her? How long ago was this?” Willow stood up quickly, the legs of her chair scraping loudly across the floor. “Maybe we could put signs up? Offer a reward? Try the animal shelter?”

Buffy looked even guiltier, if that were possible. “Will, this happened weeks ago. We tried, but she’s just gone.”

Deflated, Willow sank back into her chair. “Oh.”

Dawn stood up awkwardly, wiping syrup from her mouth with a napkin. “Uh -- I gotta go. I promised Anya I’d work at the Magic Box today. I’m gonna be late.” She looked hesitant, as if not sure she should leave.

Buffy nodded. “Go ahead. We’ll see you later for dinner.” Dawn smiled and rushed out, letting the kitchen door slam behind her. Buffy turned back to Willow, who was staring at the countertop. “I’m really sorry. Things were so crazy.” Hesitantly, she offered, “Maybe a new kitten? Clem could….”

Willow looked up and shook her head. “No. No. It’s okay.” She closed her eyes briefly, her fingers massaging her temples as if she were in pain. Then she looked at Buffy. “Things seemed so clear when I was in England, you know? I knew what I had to do when I got back here. How to behave. What to say. But now everything is…” Willow stopped, struggling to find the right words. “It doesn’t quite feel like me in my own skin. It’s like everybody has moved on, but I’m still stuck.”

Buffy reached out and placed her hand over Willow’s on the table. “I get that. I totally get that.” Her voice was quiet. “It just takes time. Maybe a lot of time.” She squeezed Willow’s hand. “But it’ll happen. I promise.”

“I need to -– there are things I need to say to you.” She broke off, unable to finish.

Buffy withdrew her hand from Willow’s. “When you’re ready, we’ll make with the talking.”

Willow nodded. Something else occurred to her. “Where’s Tara’s stuff?”

“Her stuff?” Buffy asked, bewildered.

Willow sat back in her chair. “Her clothes. You know. Her, uh, effects.”

“After we cleaned out her dorm room, we donated her clothes and things to charity. We thought she’d like that.” Willow looked dejected. Buffy thought for a minute and then said, “Ooh, I almost forgot. We did pack up some mementos and things. The box is in the basement. Let me get it.”

Willow stood up slowly. “No. I’ll do it.” She smiled briefly. “You should get ready for that job interview.” Without waiting for Buffy’s response, she headed for the basement.

She found the box on a shelf in the corner, neatly labeled in Buffy’s handwriting. Putting it on the ground, she knelt down, gently running her hands over it. She pulled the flaps open and breathed deeply. She smiled. It smelled like Tara.

‘The moon to the tide/I can feel you inside.’

Willow’s hands slid over the jumbled pile of photographs, crystals, and books. Unexpectedly, she felt the caress of silk against her fingers. She tugged feverishly until she had pulled the green blouse from the box. She wrapped it around her shoulders, hugging herself. She rocked back and forth, surrounded by Tara’s scent, with cold tears slipping silently down her cheeks.

Giles would never have admitted it (not even under pain of excruciating torture or horrible death) but he missed the old Spike. He missed the cynical attitude. He missed the biting honesty. He missed the snarky wit -- well, that was still present in small, yet intensely irritating quantities. He even missed the brash, blustering façade of big badness. The old Spike had been tolerable. On occasion, he had even approached amusing.

The new Spike was neither tolerable nor amusing. He was (not to his credit) quite a bit like the old Angel. But whereas Angel had been tremendously earnest in his pursuit of misery, Spike’s suffering was tainted with a whiff of melodrama that made Giles grit his teeth.

Spike spent a good deal of his time just sitting about, lost in a funk of what Giles could only presume was self-loathing, remorse, or self-pity –- or some wretched combination of the three. He had acquired a soul and apparently, at the same time, had lost the power of speech. Considering how fervently in times past Giles (and everybody else Spike had ever encountered, in all probability) had wished for Spike to just shut up, there was a rather bitter irony in his current clamlike state.

Obtaining information from Spike required an application of mental force that invariably exhausted Giles. Painstakingly, Giles managed to assemble the jig-sawed pieces of Spike’s story. He had headed off to Africa to consult a demon that reputedly performed ‘restorations’. After enduring a series of trials, Spike had laid claim to his reward. The demon had severely burned Spike while granting his boon; he had subsequently suffered from what sounded like infection and heatstroke. Native tribespeople had nursed Spike back to health. Once he was back on his feet, Spike had wandered aimlessly until he finally showed up in Bath. Giles’s repeated questions about precisely what Spike had requested and had received were met with stony silence. Spike had functioning bodily processes and claimed to have a soul (surely the broodiness was evidence of that); other than that, Giles knew next to nothing about the cause or effect of the transformation.

Giles couldn’t ferret anything more specific out of Spike about his future plans other than his desire to disappear into a sea of humanity as far away from Sunnydale as possible. Giles had even told Spike of the recent events there, including Buffy’s near death, hoping to shake him out of his torpor. The news only appeared to depress him further. The only blessing was that the new version of Spike was silent in his misery, unlike the prior version.

Giles wasn’t sure if Spike was determined to exile himself as some sort of ill-conceived compensation for his crimes or out of an inability to face them. Despite his own very conflicted feelings about Spike’s sudden transformation, the sheer uselessness of it offended Giles.

By means of the various contacts available in the Council’s network Giles had obtained the documents that Spike required. The forgeries were expensive, but they were expert. He had also done a great deal of thinking. It was time to get answers out of Spike, one way or another.

Buffy rushed down the street, clutching a newspaper in her hand and muttering to herself. “I can handle this job. I mean, ‘Slayer here’.” A young couple passed by her on the sidewalk, staring and snickering. Oblivious to the impression she was creating, Buffy continued her pep talk. “Slaying is just…reverse self-defense.” She frowned a bit. “With killing.” A woman carrying several shopping bags approached from the opposite direction. She stopped and abruptly crossed the street to avoid Buffy.

Arriving at the Sunnydale Gym, Buffy adjusted her ponytail nervously and took a deep breath before opening the door. She blinked, her eyes taking a few seconds to adjust to the harsh fluorescent light bouncing off the blank white walls. The room was small; it contained little more than a registration desk. There was an open doorway to the right of the desk. Buffy couldn’t see through it, but she could hear weights clinking together and the murmur of voices. She wrinkled her nose. It smelled sweaty. The customers obviously weren’t coming for the ambiance.

Pasting a bright smile on her face, Buffy marched over to the big, beefy man sitting behind the desk. She tried to look perky, yet competent. “Hi! I’m here to answer your ad.” Mr. Big ‘N Beefy raised his eyes from the body building magazine he was reading and eyed her dubiously. Too BuffyBot. She turned down the wattage of her smile and reduced her perkiness quotient. “For the self-defense instructor.” He continued to stare at her. Her smile faded a bit more. She held up the folded newspaper. “In yesterday’s paper?” she asked hesitantly.

Mr. Big ‘N Beefy gave her the once over. “Nah. Don’t think so.” He returned to reading his magazine.

“Have you already filled the position?” Buffy asked anxiously. “Because I’m --”

He didn’t even bother to lift his head. “Nah. Not right for the job.”

Buffy struggled to control her temper. “Listen, er --.” She looked at the name sewn on his polo shirt. “Joe.” He closed the magazine slowly. Leaning back in his chair, he crossed his arms and resumed staring at her inscrutably. She gave him what she hoped was another winning smile. “I really, really, need this job. Need as in they turn off the telephone and the electricity if I don’t get it. And I’m very qualified. Really.” She tried to project as much sincerity as possible into her voice.

Joe was remarkably unmoved. “Listen, miss. You seem nice. But you’re just too….” He thought for a minute. “Fragile. We got night classes to teach. We got classes at the local high schools. You gotta be able to handle the work. Lots of weird stuff in Sunnydale. We’re teachin’ people how to fight dirty to survive.”

Buffy suppressed an urge to roll her eyes. Tell me about it. “But if you’d just…”

“Nah.” Joe cut Buffy off before she could finish. “Try the health club two blocks over. They might need an aerobics instructor.” He reached for his magazine.

Buffy grabbed the magazine out of his hands. Condescending jerk. “Hey Joe.” Perky hadn’t worked. Neither had sincere. Now it was time for plain pissed off. “Just give me a tryout. That’d be fair, right? Let me show you what I’ve got.”

Joe sighed. Apparently he wouldn’t be able to get rid of her unless he agreed. He shrugged. “Your funeral. Nothin’ much goin’ right now anyhoo.” He stood up and nodded towards the training room. “Over here.”

Buffy walked into the training room, noticing several men lifting free weights near a Universal machine in the corner. They ignored her. She felt her feet sink into the spongy training mat.

Behind her, Joe said, “Okay, let’s…”

Buffy spun quickly on her toes, bringing her right elbow up to slam into his throat. Joe fell to one knee, choking, his hands clutching his injured throat. The guys in the corner put their weights down and began to watch with interest. Buffy brought her right foot up quickly and slammed it down on the side of Joe’s knee. He crumpled in agony to the mat, now grabbing his leg. The guys in the corner began laughing uproariously.

Buffy dropped the crumpled magazine on to the mat next to Joe. “Sorry.” Well, that was only a teeny white lie. “Didn’t realize you were all fragile.”

Joe looked up at her, tears of pain in his eyes. Hoarsely, he said, “You got the job. In fact, honey, you got the calling.”

Buffy grimaced. “You have no idea.” Then a moment later, her eyes brightening, she asked, “Are health insurance benefits included?

Giles found Spike in the study. He stopped in the doorway, still rather unused to the sight of Spike in the sunlight. Giles often stumbled upon him napping in a sun-drenched corner somewhere in the house. During the night, Giles frequently heard Spike prowling about; he wasn’t sure if Spike was unable to make the adjustment from a nocturnal to a diurnal schedule or if something else was bothering him. Spike never said so, but Giles suspected he was having nightmares, judging from the rather haunted look about his eyes.

Over the course of the last few weeks, Spike had gained some much-needed weight, despite having to be continually reminded to eat. Giles had forced him to cut his hair, since the untamable riot of curls in combination with his blue eyes and sharp features made him look like some sort of depraved cherub. His new soul apparently required abstinence from hair gel, since he still wasn’t slicking back the shorter (and now entirely dark gold) curls. He looked both like and unlike the Spike that Giles had known. It was profoundly disturbing.

Giles crossed over to the desk, watching Spike carefully. Idly he fingered the Kukuri knife that he used as a paperweight. “Spike.”

Spike jumped, startled. He had been napping. He rubbed his eyes sleepily. “Watcher. Watcha want?”

Giles hurled the knife towards Spike’s chest with considerable force. Spike leapt out of the chair as if he were shot from a cannon, simultaneously deflecting the knife with the heel of his left hand. The knife skittered across the floor and slammed into the baseboard. “Holy bleeding f -- you tryin’ to kill me!?” Spike trembled with rage and fright, massaging his left hand with his right one.

Giles snorted. “Nonsense. You’re like some type of noxious weed. Unkillable.” He opened the desk drawer to retrieve some documents. “Besides, that knife has an entirely blunt edge. I merely needed to ascertain something.”

Spike fell back in the chair, his heart still pounding. “Right. Glad to assist your Watcherly pursuits.”

Giles walked over and perched on the arm of the other chair. “You’re not curious about what I discovered?”

Spike yawned and closed his eyes. “Hardly.”

Giles was undeterred. “No mere human has reflexes like that, Spike. Nor would any mere human have survived those burns you sustained.”


Giles pressed on. “What did you ask the demon for Spike?”

“Bugger off.”

Giles decided a change in tactics was required. “I have your documents. Passport. Birth registration. Driver’s license. Social Security Card. You have dual citizenship in the UK and the United States.”

Spike opened his eyes. He looked conflicted. Nevertheless, he said, “Means I can shove off now.” He reached out a hand to take the credentials.

Giles withheld them. “I have something I want to discuss with you first.”

“What? Payment schedule for the dosh I owe you?” Spike snickered.

“I’m sure you’re good for it,” Giles said dryly. “Actually, I want to talk to you about an offer of gainful employment.”

Spike’s mouth opened. He shut it with a snap. “You offering me a job?”

“Yes, I believe that’s what I said.” He cleared his throat and continued. “I’m concerned about the implications of the temple Willow raised on Kingman’s Bluff. I feel the Council could use someone on site to…assist with any eventualities that might arise.”

Spike raised an eyebrow. “Council of Wankers wants to hire me as informant on the Hellmouth?”

“Crudely put, but yes. In point of fact, though, I’m hiring you. I have that authority.” Giles waited for Spike’s response.

Spike rolled his eyes at that last bit. “Isn’t keepin’ an eye on nasties in SunnyHell the,” he hesitated a bit, but got it out, “Slayer’s raison d’etre?”

“There are other issues at play.” Giles shifted uneasily. “The situation is rather complicated.”

Spike eyed him shrewdly. “Bollocks. Want me to keep an eye on Red, just say so.”

That astute observation made Giles visibly uncomfortable. “A Hellmouth attracts strange things. Willow may have inadvertently stirred something up. I’m not sure we’ve heard the last of that incident.”

Spike shook his head and slumped back into the chair, as if the conversation had suddenly exhausted him. “Not your man.”

Giles still had a trump card to play. “And of course, there’s Dawn.”

Spike sat up, suddenly tense. “Bit? What of her?”

Giles shrugged elaborately. “She’s of an age now when certain characteristics begin to manifest themselves.”

“What exactly are you sayin’? Dawn’s a Slayer?”

Giles took off his glasses and squinted at them, looking for smudges. “Summers blood. It’s always a possibility. One that Buffy certainly won’t like and will in all probability refuse to see. And we hardly know what Dawn’s continued status as The Key means.” He put his glasses back on and looked directly at Spike. “I don’t like to leave them unprotected.”

“Yeah, done a right good job protecting ‘em thus far,” he muttered. For a moment, Spike appeared torn. Then he turned away from Giles, his face sharp with regret. “No. Don’t plan to go back there. Sorry.”

It was time to tell a few home truths. “So what exactly do you plan to do, Spike? Head off to parts unknown, donning a hair shirt along the way, to do penance for sins you’d commit all over again given the same set of circumstances?” He laughed; but the sound had a nasty edge to it. “You’re more like Angel than you care to admit.”

Spike flushed an ugly shade of red and flew out of the chair. “I am bloody well not --” He cut off in mid-roar when he caught the look in Giles’s eyes. He sat back down. “That’s not Marquess of Queensbury rules, Watcher.”

Giles smiled wryly. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Spike drummed the fingers of his left hand on the arm of the chair in an angry tattoo. “Why do you even care? I’dve thought you’d be glad to see the back of me.”

Giles raised his eyebrows and inquired again. “What did you ask the demon for, Spike?”

Spike stopped drumming and gripped the arm of the chair so tightly that Giles feared his fingers would burst through the leather. He exploded. “I asked to be what Buffy deserves! Satisfied? An’ this is what I got.” He sneered. “Put this down in your soddin’ journal: William the Bloody was ever and always a stupid git.” He shook his head in frustration. “Stupid git enough to imagine that was even possible,” he finished bitterly.

Giles raised his eyebrows. “Buffy deserves better than to have another man walk out of her life for her own good. I thought at least you’d be man enough to allow her to chuck you out, if she so chooses,” Giles challenged.

Stung, Spike hit back. “Like you were, Rupes?”

“No,” he admitted quietly. “I wasn’t.” That shocked Spike into silence. “But I never thought I’d see the day you’d give up, slinking off because you aren’t good enough to black her boots.” He looked at him contemptuously. “You’re absolutely right. You have never deserved her and you never shall. What does that matter? If all we ever got was what we deserved…” Giles shook his head. “It would be a sad, sterile world indeed.”

Spike ran both hands through his hair, tearing at it. “You don’t bloody well understand!” he yelled. “It’s not just all the killin’ I have to my account. It’s what I’ve done to her!” His voice was anguished.

Sterner measures were obviously required. Giles crossed his arms and stared at Spike. “Are you familiar with the Cruciamentum?”

Confused and exasperated, Spike demanded, “What does that have to do with the bleeding price of tea in China? We havin’ a lesson in Latin now? ‘Cause I’m a bit rusty, Professor.”

“The Cruciamentum is a coming of age ritual that the Council of Watchers imposes on every Slayer, should she make it to her eighteenth birthday.” Giles checked to make sure Spike was paying attention.

“Case you’ve forgotten, my interest was in the killing of Slayers, not the educating of ‘em,” he said sarcastically.

Giles continued. “The Cruciamentum requires the Slayer to be rendered helpless and locked in a tomb with a vampire. She must prove her cunning and resourcefulness by killing him without her strength.” His voice hard and flat, Giles confessed, “I injected her with a drug without her knowledge. I would have let her go through the test, if the vampire hadn’t escaped. As it was, I almost got Buffy and her mother killed.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, then pinned Spike with a steely glare. “So don’t bleat at me about forgiveness and trust. If you want her forgiveness, her heart’s big enough to grant it. If you want her trust, go back there and earn it.” He put his glasses back on. “Or go find Drusilla and have her turn you back into the worthless, damned creature that you were.”

He threw the documents down on the table and walked out of the room.

Chapter 5: String of Memories

Sometimes I feel lost
As I pull you out like strings of memories
Wish I could weave them into you
Then I could figure the whole damn puzzle out
"If I had It All", Dave Matthews Band

Her neck was stiff. House keys dangling in her hand, she let her head fall to the side and then rolled it gently around – right, back, left, front. The tension eased a bit. She could fight demons all night long, but teaching self-defense to a dozen women for an hour wore her out. She had to hold back; she was afraid of accidentally hurting one of her students. The effort made her muscles ache. She thought about taking a hot shower. Or maybe a bubble bath. But there was dinner to make, quality time to spend with Dawn, and a cemetery to patrol left on her to-do list. Pampering Buffy just didn't fit into the plan. Again.

Buffy sighed, unlocked the door, and headed upstairs to her bedroom. She pulled the scrunchie out of her hair and shook her head to get rid of her ponytail. Kicking off her sneakers, she picked them up and wandered over to the closet. She groaned when she opened the door. Here was another thing she had no time to do. Clothing hung in a tightly-packed, disorganized mess. The floor was a jumble of shoes. She threw her sneakers on top of the pile. Then she unzipped her sweat jacket and took it off. Shoving an arm into the closet, she rooted in the back for a hanger.

She knew what it was as soon as she touched it. It had a different feel than any of her own leather jackets. Softer. Heavier. Worn. She knew its feel as well as she knew the feel of her own skin; as well as she knew the feel of his skin.

Buffy let her jacket slip to the floor unnoticed. Using both hands, she pulled Spike’s duster out of the closet. She ran a hand over it and then frowned. Tracing a finger over an imperfection on the back of one shoulder, she idly wondered if it was a poorly-repaired knife or axe cut. Was it a new wound? Something she had inflicted? Or was it an old scar made years ago, before he even knew her?

She held the coat up to her face. It stank of liquor, tobacco, vampire dust, and assorted demon goo. But underneath all that, it also smelled in some indescribable way like Spike. Dangerous and comfortable. Repellent and attractive.

‘Do you even like me?’


Buffy jumped. She whirled around to face Dawn, who was standing in the open doorway. Her face flamed scarlet. "Hi. You're home from school early."

Dawn raised an eyebrow. "What are you doing?"

Buffy felt her face grow even hotter, if that were possible. "Just, um, hanging up my jacket."

"On the floor?" Dawn sounded skeptical.

"No! Of course not. I was looking for a hanger." She held up the duster. "I found Spike’s coat." She folded it carefully over her arm. Her eyes slid away from Dawn's. "I forgot it was here."

"Do you miss him?" Dawn’s voice held no expression whatsoever.

Buffy remained motionless, giving nothing more away. "Things are simpler this way."

Dawn crossed her arms. "Simpler because if he never comes back then you don't have to face what he did to you?"

Simpler because then I won’t have to face...anything. "Look, no biggie. I’ll get rid of the coat and we’ll forget about it."

Something like panic flashed across Dawn’s face. "N-no." Now it was Buffy’s turn to raise an eyebrow. "I mean, it’s...he’ll...we should return it. It doesn't belong to us." Buffy said nothing. "I’ll take it to Clem at the crypt."

Buffy hesitated, then relinquished the coat to Dawn. "I’ll go start dinner." She brushed past Dawn and headed downstairs.

Her eyebrows drawn together in a troubled frown, Dawn watched her sister walk away.

Xander shielded his eyes from the glare of the late afternoon sun with his hand. "Want me to carry those, Will?"

Willow buried her nose in the bouquet of fall blossoms. "Nope. I'm good." She looked up and smiled. "It's a beautiful day for a walk, isn't it?"

Xander reached out a hand to cup her elbow in order to help her over a rough spot of ground. "In a cemetery?"

"At least there's no fangy or grr during daylight hours," she replied.

"True." Xander pointed his finger at her. "But you, miss, are avoiding my question. How are classes?"

Willow shrugged. "The technical term is dull." She stepped carefully around a newly dug grave. "Why is it all the way out here?"

"Tara's father insisted they take her home. He made a big, obnoxious scene." He made a face. "Bully."

Willow stroked the back of her hand across the delicate petals of a daisy. "We were the only home she's ever known."

Xander put an arm around Willow's shoulders and squeezed. "Yep. But we figured we'd need a place where we could remember her. A special place."

"Remembering is of the good." Willow fiddled with the paper wrapped around the flowers, nervously folding and unfolding it. "Uh, I'm thinking of moving out. I mean, moving in." She took a breath and tried again. "To the dorm, that is."

Xander stopped walking and stared at her incredulously. "Why would you do that?"

"Feeling kinda like a fifth wheel." Willow tugged at Xander's arm to get him moving again.

He frowned. "Is Dawn giving you problems?"

Willow raised her eyebrows. "Dawnie? No. I mean, not really. It's just that it's like the Dawn and Buffy Club. And I don't know the secret password."


"It's like they have this secret language and all these special rituals." Willow struggled to explain. "Like Summers Movie Night. One night every week they rent a movie and watch it."

Xander felt his temper flaring. "They don't include you?"

"Sure they do. But they have all these little things that they do. They make popcorn and argue over whether to mix in the peanut M&Ms. They drink YooHoo through Twizzlers."

Xander shuddered. "That's just gross."

Willow grimaced. "Tell me about it. And then they talk about, well, everything. But I don't get the jokes and the references. It's like some language I don't know anymore." Willow waved a hand to chase a bee away from the flowers.

"You'll learn the language again, Will."

"Maybe. But it feels weird." She paused. "It feels weird without Tara."

"I understand that. It's weird to be a couple for so long and then suddenly... not be." Xander moved a low-hanging branch out of their way. "I think you should talk to Buffy. Tell her how you feel." Willow remained silent. "At least give it a little longer. Give things a chance to settle."

Willow sighed. "Okay. Enough about me. I'm tired of me. Speaking of weird couples, what's up on the Anya front?"

Xander dropped his eyes and stared at the ground. "Nothing. A cease fire has been declared. The troops have withdrawn. It's over."

Willow raised an eyebrow. "Ain't over 'til the fat lady sings."

Xander stooped and picked up a twig off the ground. He brandished it like a sword. "The fat lady is sitting on my chest singing her third encore."

"Xander, you can't give up. There's always hope. Look at me and Tara."

Xander snapped the twig in his hand. "I dunno, Will." He tossed the broken twig aside.

They had arrived in a small clearing, shaded by willow trees. Buffy's headstone was gone. Now only a small, red marble marker sat on the grass. It was surrounded by wildflowers. Willow broke into a tremulous smile and said, "It's pretty."

Xander pulled at his ear, a bit self-conscious. "Yeah, well, Dawn helped me pick it out. She planted the flowers." He gestured with his hand. "I'll hang back. Give you some space." He turned and walked a few steps out of the clearing.

Willow knelt and placed the flowers in front of the stone. "Hey baby." She traced her fingers lightly over the carved letters that spelled Tara's name. "I miss you." Tears welled in her eyes. "I'm better. I promise. Don't worry about me." A tear streaked down her cheek and landed on the wildflowers. "No more bad stuff." She pressed two fingers to her lips and then touched the marker. "I promise."

"Oh no." Anya clicked on the e-mail to open it. As she read, a crease began to form between her eyebrows. "This is not good at all." She frowned harder. "Not good at all," she repeated. A customer who was perusing a shelf full of books about love spells peered nervously around the bookcase at Anya.

"Hallie." Nothing. Anya tried with a little more force. "Hallie!" The customer, alarmed, dropped the book she was holding and hurried out of the store. "Great. Now I’ve lost a sale on top of everything else." Taking a deep breath, she yelled, "Halfrek! Get your ass down here now!"


Hallie smoothed a hand over her hair. "There was absolutely no need to yell, Anyanka. I heard you the first two times." She straightened her skirt a bit. "I am a guidance counselor, you know. I can’t just teleport over here at the drop of a hat. If I go back and find that poor child in my office has shot up the school, you’ll be to blame."

Anya waved her hand dismissively. "That’s not important now. I’m having a crisis."

Hallie raised her eyebrows. "Well, what is it?"

Anya looked a bit frightened. "I received an e-mail from D’Hoffryn’s secretary today. It’s time for my semi-annual performance review."

"Ah." Hallie smiled like a cat that was contemplating a very large saucer of cream. "Is now the time I say 'I told you so?'"

"That’s not even remotely funny, Hallie." Anya bit her lip. "Do you think I can have it postponed?"

The trill of Hallie’s laugh was like nails scraping across a blackboard. "Postponed? Anya. Dear." She shook her head pityingly. "You’ve been a vengeance demon for what? Over a thousand years? Even taking into consideration your little leave of absence, you should know that no one gets D’Hoffryn to postpone a performance review." She studied her nails, looking for chips in the polish. "I gave you my advice weeks ago, but you didn’t want to hear it. You don’t have time for anything big. But you’d better get some small stuff under your belt." She thought for a minute. "You know. Induce a minor case of syphilis. Cause a few boils on a penis. Inflict a bit of leprosy or shingles. Something."

Anya wasn’t feeling very confident in her ability to take that advice. "It’s not that easy finding an appropriate wish to grant." She frowned, disgusted. "So many people are just in it for themselves. I think..."

Hallie interrupted, triumphant. "See -- that’s your mistake. Don’t think. Just do it. And do it quickly." She smiled brightly, confident that she had solved the problem. "Call me next week and we’ll do lunch. Ta!"


"Ooh." Anya crossed her arms in frustration. "I absolutely hate it when she teleports and runs."

Buffy twirled her stake in her hand. She was feeling restless, unsettled. Lonely. She shook off that thought. She really needed to kill something tonight. Where's a nice, big T'zarnik demon when you need one? There weren't even any fledglings around. She could usually count on bagging at least one during patrol since they were too stupid to put up much of a fight. But the night was as silent as the grave. Buffy giggled. Why was she always alone when she came up with these gems?

She shuffled her feet along the ground. She wondered if she should stop by the crypt to see Clem. After all, it would only be polite. He was the nervous type. It would reassure him to know she had everything under control. It was neighborly, especially after all the time he had spent with Dawn.

It had absolutely nothing to do with Spike.

Suddenly, she was standing outside the door to Spike's crypt, not really sure how she had gotten there. A wave of panic rushed over her. She should have brought the coat. She'd go back home right now and get it.

Apparently her hand didn't get the message from her brain, because it started moving of its own accord to knock on the door. Before her hand reached its destination, the door flew open.

"Aarrggh!" Buffy fell back a step, instinctively raising her stake. Clem huddled against the door, shaking with fear.

Buffy tucked her stake away quickly. "Clem, I'm so sorry." She reached out tentatively. He flinched, but then let her pat his shoulder. "Are you okay?" He nodded, but his ears continue to quiver. "I just stopped by to make sure you were all right. Kinda like Neighborhood Watch." She grinned. "Buffywatch."

Clem had almost all the trembling under control. "Thought I was a goner when I saw that stake. Almost tossed my cookies." He held up a box of Nilla Wafers.

And the guilt just never ends. "I'm sorry," she said again.

"That's okay, Slayer. You were just doing your job." Clem pulled himself together to give her a sweet smile.

Buffy looked a little more closely at Clem. Was that a tie he was wearing? An ascot? Or just some excess skin? He seemed more dressed up than usual. "Were you on your way out?"

Clem hung his head bashfully. "Gotta blind date." It was a tie. Was he blushing? It was hard to tell with all that loose skin drooping all over the place. "My cousin fixed me up. Her name is Mary Sue."

Buffy grinned. "That's great, Clem. I hope it works out." She reached out and brushed some cookie crumbs off of his tie. "I'd better finish patrol. Let you finish getting all dateworthy."

Before she could turn to go, Clem asked, "Did you want something, Slayer?"

"Oh." Buffy struggled to make up an excuse. "Uh, it's been so quiet lately. I was just wondering if you knew anything. It seems strange." Brilliant, Buffy.

"Nope. Everything's right as rain, as far as I know." He smiled widely. "I can check with my poker buddies, though."

"Good." Buffy bit her lip and then tried to appear nonchalant. "Um, Dawn was wondering. Any news?" Clem looked confused. "From Spike?"

"N-no. Nothing. Nada." He shook his head, ears flopping wildly.

He's lying. Buffy felt her heartbeat hitch and then speed up. Clem's expression was soft, full of compassion. He's not coming back. For a moment, breathing required a conscious effort. Then she shrugged elaborately. "Oh. Well. Doesn't matter. Just wanted to return his coat." She realized again that she didn't actually have the coat with her. "I mean, uh, Dawn'll come by with it." She turned and began to walk away. Over her shoulder, she said, "Have fun on your date, Clem."

Clem waved, although Buffy couldn't see him. "Goodnight, Slayer."

The old man enjoyed sitting in front of his window and watching the people pass by. He often wheeled his chair over to the window at just this time of day to observe them as they scurried home from work like busy ants that were building their little hills of sand. "Better come closer, boys. These old eyes can't see as well as they used to."

Two hobbit-like creatures sidled across the room. Reaching the wheelchair, they stopped and bowed obsequiously. The old man continued to stare out the window. The taller of the two minions spoke. "O Wise One, we come bearing glad tidings." He elbowed the second minion.

The second minion nodded. "Yes, it is as Jinx says. We have glad tidings, Most, er, Mobile One."

Jinx rolled his eyes, then continued. "Our tortuous days of waiting are nearly at an end."

The old man chuckled. "Saw the temple, did you?"

Jinx nodded. "Yes, Your Magnificence. It is exactly as you said it would be."

The old man stopped looking out the window. He reversed his wheelchair, turned it, and then rolled forward so that he faced the minions. "And the witch?"

"We have observed that she now lives with The Slayer." Jinx paused to increase the dramatic effect of his announcement. "And with The Key." The old man's hands tightened briefly on the arms of the wheelchair. Jinx continued. "They appear unaware."

The old man laughed harshly. "In time, boys. In time, they'll see."

The minions bowed again. "We have our orders, O Gracious One."

Doc blinked slowly, his reptilian eyes opening and closing like blinds across a dark window. "Soon, we're all gonna see something, boys."

Chapter 6: Sweet Like Candy

Sweet like candy to my soul
Sweet you rock,
And sweet you roll,
Lost for you...I'm so lost for you
"Crash Into Me", Dave Matthews Band

Juggling several pillar candles in her arms, Anya struggled to pull the training room door closed behind her. When she reached the center of the room, she carefully set the candles on the floor to mark the four points of a sacred circle. She moved to stand within the circle, wiping her sweaty palms down the sides of her skirt. She pulled a lighter from her pocket and began to light the candles, moving from the east to the south, then to the west, and finally to the north. Her hand trembled and the flame wavered, forcing her to make three attempts to light the last candle. "There's no reason to be nervous," she whispered. "None at all." She wished she believed that.

Anya struggled to kneel in the center of the circle. "Ooh!" Her stupid skirt (specially purchased for this meeting, along with an incredibly expensive silk blouse) was too tight, too straight, and the slit was useless. Wriggling, she managed to awkwardly fall to her knees while yanking her skirt up her thighs. Scooting around so that she faced east, she took a deep breath to calm herself and began to chant. "Blessed be the name of D'Hoffryn. Let this circle now be a gateway to Arashmaharr, the place where demons are spawned."

"Anyanka. Welcome, my dear. It's been too long." D'Hoffryn materialized out of the thick, inky darkness that now surrounded Anya. His pale skin and seafoam-colored robes made him appear to glow. "Why so formal? You could have teleported in and saved yourself the trouble."

Anya blinked, a little dizzy from the inter-dimensional trip. "Oh, you know. I didn't want to disturb you if you were busy."

"Pish tosh." He reached out his hands to grasp hers, leaning forward to lightly kiss her left cheek and then her right one. "What a lovely outfit! Have you done something different with your hair?" He squeezed her hands gently before he released them. "And you look divinely thin. Positively sylphlike."

Anya smoothed a hand over her painstakingly coiffed hair, preening a bit. "Well, I have been working out."

"One's body is one's temple." He patted his flat stomach. "I myself do two hundred crunches a day."

Anya's eyes were starting to adjust to the darkness. Squinting, she took a closer look at D'Hoffryn. "Is that a new robe?"

D'Hoffryn stroked his mustache, trying to hide a pleased smile. "Yes, it is. Business has been looking up, so I decided to treat myself. And since it was a total steal at the Heimdall Day sales, my wife can't complain." He waved in the direction of what was presumably a chair. "Please."

Anya reached out a hand, fumbling blindly in the darkness, until she found the chair. "You really do need to do something about the poor lighting in here." Sitting down, she crossed her legs and demurely tugged her skirt over her knees. "It's absolutely primeval. And it's also a liability claim waiting to happen."

D'Hoffryn fussed with the long sleeves of his robe until they draped to his satisfaction. "Ah, well." He shrugged. "It suits the mood. Dark void between dimensions and all that. Track lighting would hardly say 'vengeance', would it?" He sighed. "My, how time flies. I must finally be getting old. It seems like just yesterday that we sat here after that unfortunate incident with your human."

"You look wonderful. No one would ever refer to you as old." Anya tilted her head and considered him. "Well-preserved, possibly."

He shook his head. "I'll be 8,500 on my next birthday."

Anya raised her eyebrows. "But you don't look a day over 7,000. And with the surprising array of pharmaceutical products now available, there's no reason you should experience any diminished capacity."

D'Hoffryn chuckled. "You always know just how to flatter an old man. Now enough of this small talk, however pleasant it may be." He moved to stand next to her chair. "Tell me, my dear, what have you been up to?"

Anya gave an abrupt little cough. "Well, amazingly enough, it's been fairly quiet in Sunnydale. Not much call for vengeance at all, really. Oh, there have been a few minor things, here and there; but all in all – very quiet." D'Hoffyn folded his arms, but said nothing. "Frankly, I'm beginning to wonder if something unnatural is causing it." D'Hoffryn continued to stare at her. Her fingers strayed to her throat, fiddling with her necklace. "Maybe sunspots." She swallowed. "Or bunnies?" Her voice trailed off.

"Hm." D'Hoffryn waved a hand and a Palm Pilot appeared. "Let's see, shall we?" He carefully took the stylus out of the case. Tapping the screen several times, his eyebrows drew together in a frown as he read. "Anyanka. You have not granted a single vengeance wish since your reinstatement."

Anya cleared her throat, tugging again on her necklace. "Oh no, that can't be right." She bit her lip, giving the impression that she was thinking very hard. "I'm sure I, er, well, there was that young man and the boils, I think. And that woman who wanted to sever...."

"Anyanka." D'Hoffryn's voice was stern. "No wishes granted. Two hundred and thirty-four ignored wish opportunities. My files are never wrong." Anya hung her head and said nothing. D'Hoffryn sighed. He tapped the stylus against the screen again. "I also see that you attempted to trick someone into making a wish on your behalf against that puffy young man you had planned to marry?"

"Hallie," Anya muttered under her breath. "I'll kill her."

D'Hoffryn eyes twinkled. "I can't say that I blame you. I shall let that one slide." The stylus clicked again. Anya flinched. Each click felt as if it were boring a hole through her skull. "Most disturbing, however, is this report that you actually prevented a witch from the pursuit of proper vengeance."

Anya uncrossed and recrossed her legs, tugging on her skirt. "Well, that was Willow. You remember her. My red-headed bridesmaid. The one with all the vengeance potential." She picked at a loose thread in her hemline, avoiding D'Hoffryn's eyes. "She was grieving over the murder of her girlfriend and not really in the right frame of mind to make life-altering decisions. Plus, she was having a really bad hair day."

D'Hoffryn raised his eyebrows. "So you aligned yourself with The Slayer to stop her?" He frowned. "It's our job to fulfill vengeance wishes, not to prevent them. Have you forgotten our mission statement?" He waved his hand again and a framed poster appeared, suspended in midair.

Anya rolled her eyes. "Yes, I remember. 'To consistently provide high-quality pain and suffering in order to increase shareholder value and delight our customers.' The consultant you hired made us memorize it." She looked up at him, her eyes wide and sincere. "It's just that...I've seen what vengeance can do. How it can consume you until there's nothing left inside. How it becomes more important than anything. More important than justice. Than mercy. Than love."

D'Hoffryn snorted. With an impatient flick of his hand, the poster and the Palm Pilot disappeared. "I see your time amongst those humans is still affecting you. I had hoped that by now you would have shaken off these foolish notions."

"Are they foolish? Shouldn't vengeance be about serving what is right?"

D'Hoffryn began to pace in front of her. "And who will tell us what is right, Anyanka, so that we can serve it? We do not mete out justice. We are not omniscient beings. We are demons. We keep the balance. That is all."

Anya leaned forward in her chair, trying desperately to make him understand. "But isn't it possible to bring balance in a way that doesn't cause so much pain?"

D'Hoffyn stopped pacing and stared at her. "Who are we to cancel the debts of karma?" He suddenly seemed taller and his voice rang through the darkness. Anya drew back in her chair. "Pain purifies. Suffering purges. You used to believe in this cause." D'Hoffryn moved behind her, resting his hands lightly on her shoulders. "The choice before you is clear, Anyanka. Resume granting wishes, or...well, you know what happens to vengeance demons who are judged unfit." Anya stiffened and she felt a bead of perspiration trickle down her neck. D'Hoffryn patted her shoulders lightly. His voice softened. "But I am foolishly fond of you, my dear, as fond as if you were my own daughter. I don’t want to see it come to that. I am willing to give you some more time." He removed his hands and his voiced hardened again. "Do not disappoint me."

Anya squeezed her eyes shut and whispered, "I – I won't."

Willow shuffled listlessly into the house. She threw her bookbag onto the stairs and slumped down next to it. The paper was rolled up and stuffed inside the bag, but she could see the grade in her mind as clearly as if she were actually staring at the paper. F. Willow had never gotten anything below a B in her entire academic career; not even in PE, although she had gone through a period where the term 'klutz' would have been generous. Only her friendship with Xander had kept her from being the perennial last pick for any team activity. What made the entire thing unbearable was that the paper was for her Mythology & Folklore class – it should have been a cakewalk, considering she lived the subject 24/7.

Willow rubbed her temples. She'd been fighting a doozy of a headache ever since she had picked up the paper. She hadn't even tried pleading with the professor for another chance. She'd just fled the building in a sort of stunned shock, certain that everyone she met could see the shameful, scarlet 'F' emblazoned on her chest. She stood up and started upstairs, deciding that she'd try meditating to see if that could relax her.

Willow lit some sage incense and marked a circle on the floor with some votive candles. She sank down in the center of the circle and crossed her legs. "I call upon the Earth to strengthen me. I call upon the Air to enliven me. I call upon the Fire to warm me. I call upon the Water to cleanse me." Breathing deeply, she visualized a circle of blue light surrounding and protecting her. The circle slowly appeared, bounded by the candles. For a moment, the circle of energy flickered as a vibrant purple. Willow frowned and refocused herself. The circle instantly glowed again with cool blue fire.

Closing her eyes, she imagined herself standing in a sunlit meadow that was strewn with wildflowers. She let herself relax into the visualization. She began to walk, feeling the flower petals stroke her bare legs and kiss the palms of her hands. It was a warm day and the light breeze lifting her hair was perfumed with the scent of the meadow. The pain in her head began to subside.

At the edge of the meadow, a dark line of trees appeared. Willow frowned, trying to erase the image, but it only became clearer and more detailed the harder she struggled to get rid of it. Although she didn't want to leave the meadow, she felt compelled to investigate. Arriving at the edge of the woods, she squeezed between two large cypress trees and took a few steps forward. The woods swallowed her. When she turned to look back, she could no longer see the meadow nor the path she had taken. The air was dank and felt thick to breathe.

She could hear the relentless, throbbing beat of a drum. Voices chanted rhythmically somewhere in the distance, but she couldn't make out the words. She felt something pulling at the very core of her, forcing her further into the woods. I'm here. I'm waiting for you. The voice was soft and seductive, whispering directly into her ear. Her blood pulsed in time with the drums. Despite the coolness under the thick shade of the trees, Willow felt her entire body heat and flush. Her clothes clung to her and her hair was plastered wetly to her forehead. Branches trailing from the trees reached out to stroke across her arms, her thighs, her breasts.

Finally, the trees began to thin. Suddenly she was in a clearing containing a small stone temple. She stood panting, pushing her wet hair back with a trembling hand. A figure cloaked in black stood in the doorway. Willow moved forward and then knelt in front of the figure. "Who are you?" she tried to ask, but she was unable to form the words. You know me. A cold hand, white as alabaster, reached out to caress her cheek. Willow moaned. "Yes."

"No!" Dawn walked through the circle of blue energy, dissipating it, and kicked over one of the votive candles. The flame hissed as it was extinguished and hot wax spilled across the carpet.

Willow, startled out of her meditation, slumped to the floor in a heap. "Wh-what?"

"Stop it! Just stop it." Dawn stood over Willow, trembling with rage. "No magic. You're not supposed to be using any magic."

Willow struggled to sit up. "Dawnie, I was just...."

"Shut up! I don't want to hear it." Dawn's face and neck were a mottled red; she practically smoldered with anger. "You're a liar. You told us you were better."

"I -- I was meditating." Willow reached out a hand towards Dawn.

Dawn slapped it away, screaming. "Don't touch me!"

The front door flew open, crashing against the wall. Buffy raced up the stairs and into the bedroom. "What's wrong? Is anyone hurt? I heard a scream."

Tears pooled in Dawn's eyes. She pointed accusingly at Willow. "It's her. The junkie. She's back on the magical mystery tour again."

"Dawn!" Buffy's voice sliced through the air like a whip.

Willow tried to interrupt. "Buffy – I was just –"

Buffy ignored her and grabbed Dawn's arm. She gave her a shove towards the door. "Go downstairs. I'll talk to Willow."

Dawn's lower lip began to quiver. "But...,"

"Just go downstairs." Dawn stormed out of the bedroom.

Willow stood up slowly. Buffy scanned the room, taking in the candles and the incense. She prodded at a bit of cooled wax on the carpet. Then she looked up at Willow. Her eyes were cold. "Are you doing magic again?"

"I was meditating." Buffy raised her eyebrows. "Yes, I was using a form of white magic, but it's harmless."

"So Dawn just overreacted?"

"Yes. No. I don't know. She was upset." Willow crossed her arms across her chest, hugging herself. "Buffy, I know I should have explained sooner. About the magic. I'm not avoiding it. It's part of me, just like being the Slayer is part of you. I have to learn how to live with that."

Buffy pressed her lips together tightly. Then she said, "Willow, you know I can't – I can't have it in the house. It's too risky."

Willow lowered her gaze to the floor. Her body ached with the effort of keeping her voice steady. "Fine. I'll move into the dorm. I was thinking about it anyway."

"Will, I'm sorry." Buffy reached out a hand toward Willow and then withdrew it. "I realize that this is what you need to do. If it was just me, I'd...but I have to think of what's best for Dawn."

Willow nodded. "I understand. I'll be out this week." She continued to stare at the floor.

Buffy took a step towards Willow. "No, that's not – I mean, take your time."

Willow bent down and began to gather up the votives. "I think I'll pass on dinner tonight. My head's really pounding."

For a moment, Buffy watched Willow clean up the remnants of the circle, unsure what to say or how to make the situation better. Finally, she just turned and walked out of the room.

Willow closed the door quietly and lay down on her bed. They don't trust me. They've been waiting for me to screw up. "No. That's not true. I just scared them." They'll never trust me again. They don't know who I am anymore. "I should have explained sooner about the magic." Turning on her side, Willow curled herself up into a ball, clutching a pillow to her chest. Soon, they'll see who I am.

Dawn pushed open the crypt door, forgetting to knock in her agitation. "Clem? You here? Can we talk?" She stopped, transfixed, and stared at the figure standing in the center of the room.


He slowly turned around. And there she was.

Spike had always known he loved Dawn, although he had never admitted it to her -- or to anyone else for that matter. It was one thing to play love's bitch for Buffy; after all, that was romance, passion, and well, sex. His affection for Dawn, while more easily stirred, had always been harder to show. He had hidden his feelings beneath his promise to protect her and hoped no one was any the wiser.

Some soft, pathetic memory of poncey William’s love for his sisters still lived inside him somewhere. But Spike had been unacquainted with the reality of this emotion until Dawn had wound fiery little tendrils around his heart while he wasn't paying attention. Now they couldn't be removed without killing him.

God, he had missed her. He wasn’t quite prepared for the wave of love that washed over him at the sight of her, stealing his breath. She looked as if she had grown at least an inch since he had left. Had her hair always been so shiny? It seemed to glow like fire in the candlelight. He wanted to do something stupid and reckless like hug her.

It was now official. He was a right pillock. "Bit." He was surprised his voice didn’t tremble.

"Don’t call me that!" Dawn's voice was high and thin. She made a visible effort to compose herself. "I can’t believe you had the nerve to come back here."

She knew.

Spike felt the bile rise in his throat, choking him. He had realized he’d have to tell Dawn at some point; he hadn’t really thought Buffy would. Coward that he was, he had hoped for this to happen later, rather than sooner. But then, what else did he really deserve? He swallowed hard and then cocked an eyebrow. "Where else would I go, Bit? This is home."

"I told you, don’t call me that! My name is Dawn." She was quivering, like a thoroughbred anticipating the start of a big race. "And this isn't your home. You left."

"Now I'm back." Spike watched Dawn slip the stake out of her sleeve and into her hand. Either Buffy had been teaching her some moves or the Nibblet had been paying closer attention than they had all thought. "Might want to rethink your attack strategy, pet. If I was the sort you ought to stake, you’d be a Scooby snack by now."

Dawn raised the stake in her hand. It was shaking. Her eyes were wide, dark and deep with pain. Pain that he had put there. "Why shouldn’t I stake you? Why shouldn't you pay? You tried to rape my sister."

He stared back at her, his own gaze steady and unblinking. "That I did, Bit."

"Stop it! Stop using that name! Stop looking at me like that!" Tears began to slip down her face. "You don’t have any right. You weren’t here. You promised to protect us and you weren’t here." The stake clattered unheeded to the floor. Spike took one cautious step toward her. "Warren shot Buffy. She almost died." Dawn's words were now intermingled with big, gulping sobs. Spike took another step forward. "And T-tara. She did die. Willow went c-crazy. She k-killed Warren." The words kept tumbling out, tangled with tears. "She t-tried to k-kill all of us. And she tried – she tried –." Dawn put a hand over her mouth, choking.

And then she was caught in Spike's arms, crying incoherently against his shoulder. "I know, sweetheart. I know." He stroked her hair. He murmured all the impossibly foolish things he had always imagined himself saying when faced with Dawn’s tears. And she didn't push him away.

After a while, she rested still against him, taking deep calming breaths punctuated by an occasional hiccup. Suddenly she stiffened and slowly pulled back. Her face was filled with fear and a sort of wonder. “Your heart is beating.”

He smiled, unexpected joy bubbling in his blood and making him dizzy. He pushed the hair off her hot, damp forehead. "No flies on you, Bit."

Chapter 7: Forever Pay

I'm a long way
From that fool's mistake
And now forever pay.
"The Stone", Dave Matthews Band

Dawn pulled open the door to the Magic Box so that she and Buffy could enter. "I can't believe we're finally doing this." She practically vibrated with excitement.

Buffy groaned. "I know I'm so gonna live to regret this."

As they headed for the training room, they passed by Anya, who stood lost in thought behind the counter. Dawn bounced over to her. "Hey Anya! Today's the big day -- I learn the esoteric secrets of slayage." No response. "Anya?"

Anya jumped, startled out of her reverie. "What? Oh. Very good." Then she went back to staring off into space.

Once they were in the training room, Dawn asked, "Did you notice anything weird about Anya?"

Buffy shrugged. "Nope. I mean, maybe she was a little quiet."

"Catatonic, practically. She didn't even complain about us using the training room during business hours. Or remind us that we'd have to pay for any damages."

Buffy walked over to the bench and dropped her gym bag next to it. "Well, she probably has stuff on her mind. Business stuff."

"Are these the same keen observey skills you use as a Slayer? 'Cause I'm kinda seeing why you've died twice."

"Those only work on demons. Anya's not a demon." Buffy frowned, confused. "Well, wait, I mean, she is a demon, but...do you want to do this or not?" she demanded.

"I guess." Dawn wandered over to the weapons rack and pulled down a quarterstaff. "Can we start with this first?" She began to twirl it with both hands, losing control of it almost instantly. It spun away from her and flew across the room, smashing into the wall with a loud clatter. "Oops."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Okay, klutzy. Step away from the weapons." She sighed. "The monks can't possibly have made you from me. I have coordination." She began to pull her hair into a ponytail with the scrunchie she had retrieved from her bag.

"Yeah and a big head, too," Dawn muttered.

Buffy turned around and looked at Dawn. "What'd you say?"

"And a big heart, too," Dawn said sweetly.

"Flattering the instructor gets you nowhere." Buffy walked over to Dawn and gave her a big hug. "But the sister likes it."

"Buffy, you’re talking about yourself in the third person. Stop it. It's creepy."

"Just instructor-speak." Buffy bent her right leg, heel to butt, and grabbed her foot to enhance the stretch in her quadriceps. She released her foot and repeated the move with her left leg. Then she shook her arms to loosen them up. "Let's just start with a few basic self-defense moves." She stepped behind Dawn. "I'll pretend I'm a vamp. You're walking through the cemetery, minding your own business. I come up behind you, looking for breakfast."


p> "Dinner," Dawn corrected.

Buffy shook her head. "No, it's his first meal since he woke up. Breakfast."

"But it's nighttime. So it's dinner."

"Vampires are nocturnal, so their meals are reversed."

Dawn looked at Buffy as if she were crazy. "Meals are meals."

"Who's the Slayer here, huh? This is my area of expertise. Anyway, it doesn't matter what meal it is! It's a snack, okay? He wants a snack."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Geez, overreact much?"

Buffy ignored her. "Let me show you a couple of standard moves to break his hold if he grabs you." Buffy put her arm around Dawn's neck in a loose chokehold. "When you feel my arms tighten around you, put your hands up between my arms and your neck, and then snap them outward to break my hold."

Dawn tried, with minimal success. "Ow. You're pulling my hair, Buffy. Stop it."

Buffy loosened her grip slightly. "If I'm a vamp, baldness is the least of your problems right now, 'cause you're dead."

Dawn pulled her ponytail away from Buffy's reach. "Just lay off the hair, okay?"

Buffy suppressed a sigh. "Let's try something else. This time I'll sneak up behind you. When you feel me about to grab you, I want you to bend, dip your shoulder, grab my arm, and let me flip over your hip. Use my own body weight against me."

The next few minutes were fairly intense. The fourth time Buffy knocked Dawn to the floor, she didn't get up. "That's it. I quit." She leaned on her elbow and began to rub her sore butt.

Buffy stared at Dawn in amazement. "You quit? You're the one who has been pestering me for weeks to train you."

Dawn gave her a resentful look. "Well, I didn't know you were such a sucky teacher. I can't believe they pay you to do this." She stood up slowly and headed for the bench, wincing.

Buffy followed her. "Hey! I'm a great teacher. All my students love me."

Dawn snorted. "Yeah – keep telling yourself that, Captain Torture." She sat down on the bench and pulled a water bottle out of the gym bag. "My bruises are going to have bruises."

Buffy sat down next to her. "You're such a wuss."

"Am not! I killed the first vampire I ever kissed. That's not wussy." At Buffy's look, she said, "Okay, so I shouldn't have been with a vampire in the first place. But still."

"Well, we could try to enroll you for a class at the gym. Maybe if you were with a group of other students, I could teach you properly." Buffy paused. "On the other hand, it's been so quiet lately that it's no biggie."

Dawn gulped some water. "Quiet?"

"Yeah, it's weird. I hardly ever see a vampire anymore when I patrol. It's like they've cleared out or they're hiding from me. And last night, I found this huge Fyarl demon dead in the middle of the cemetery. No idea what killed it. But it wasn't old age. It was hacked to pieces."

Spike. Dawn willed her cheeks not to redden. "Maybe you can take a few nights off, then?" she suggested weakly.

"If this keeps up, I'll think about it." Buffy leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes.

Dawn ran a finger around the opening of the water bottle. "Buffy?"

She opened her eyes. "Yeah?"

"I've been thinking. About Willow." She took a swig of water and then continued. "Um, I overreacted. About the magic, I mean."

"I may have overreacted, too," Buffy admitted.

Hope blossomed in Dawn's eyes. "Maybe we could ask her to stay?"

"I don’t think she wants to." She reached out and tugged Dawn's ponytail. "But it'll be okay anyway."

Dawn leaned over and put her head on Buffy's shoulder. "I want to forgive her. I thought I had."

Buffy stroked the hair back from Dawn's forehead. "Forgiving is easy. It's forgetting that's hard."

"I keep remembering how she tried to undo the monk's spell." Dawn's voice was low; Buffy had to struggle to hear her.

"It takes time to rebuild the trust. You have to both want it really badly."

Dawn lifted her head from Buffy's shoulder and sat up. "Buffy. What...." She hesitated for a second and then forged ahead. "What happens when Spike comes back?"

Buffy bent over to fiddle with one of her sneakers, hiding her expression behind a curtain of hair. "He's been gone so long now. I'm not sure he's coming back."

Dawn wasn’t giving up that easily. "But if he does?"

"It's complicated, Dawn." She concentrated on retying her left shoelace.

"That's code for 'it's none of your business.' Talk to me, Buffy." Dawn touched Buffy's shoulder gently. "Please."

Buffy straightened up and stared across the training room. Everything about their last encounter was sharply clear in her mind. Pain, shooting across her back as she bent to turn on the water. Spike, a black silhouette of misery cut out against the white glare of the tiled walls.

'Why do you keep lying to yourself?'
'I'm not saying that I don’t have feelings for you. I do. But it's not love. I could never trust you enough for that.'

Buffy avoided meeting Dawn's eyes, absorbed in tracing mysterious symbols on her knee with an index finger. "It's -- it's not that I can't forgive him. I just can't trust him. Ever."

"But you still trusted him with me." Dawn paused; then said quietly, "After Warren."

Buffy turned to Dawn, tucking a wayward strand of hair that had escaped Dawn's ponytail behind her ear. "That’s different. Spike would never hurt you. He loves you."

"That makes no sense." She frowned at Buffy's twisted logic. "He loves you, too, but he still tried to hurt you. Why would you trust him with me, but not with anything else?"

'You were going to use a spell on me?'
'It wasn't for you. It was for me. I wanted something -- anything to make this feeling stop. I just wanted it to stop. You should have let him kill me.'

Desperate, forceful kisses. Hard hands, ripping at her robe. The look on his face as he realized what he had almost done. Buffy forced the memories back. "When he tried to...," she stopped, not liking the image that sentence evoked, and tried again. "I don't think he knew what he was doing, Dawn." She paused again, rubbing a hand across her eyes. "He was very upset. Out of his mind."

"And that makes it okay?"

Buffy shook her head, the anger and the fear from that night washing over her again. "Of course not." Those feelings drained away suddenly, replaced by a sad sort of resignation. "But he is what he is."

"But if he tried -- really tried -- to change? Could you trust him then?"

"That's not an option, Dawn. He has tried." Buffy stood, her body tight with tension. "He's a demon. He gets off on violence and pain." Her eyes darkened, full of shadows. "He can't change. No matter how much he wishes he could." No matter how much I wish he could. She closed her eyes briefly, struggling to stop that train of thought.

Dawn's eyebrows drew together in a stubborn frown. "Just answer the question."

Buffy crossed her arms, frustrated at Dawn's persistence. "I can't! I – I don't know." She began walking across the training room, her movements stiff and jerky. "I didn't know he could hurt me like that." She stopped pacing. "I didn't know I could hurt him like that," she whispered, almost to herself. She turned around to face Dawn. When she spoke again, her voice was casual, but the look in her eyes was not. "You know what? I'm over my limit for discussing the horror that is Buffy Summers' love life. Can we get out of here and go grab a pizza for dinner?"

Dawn stared at her for a moment, realizing she had pushed Buffy as far as she could. For now. Dawn stood up. "Okay Buffy," she said quietly. "Sounds good." She picked up the gym bag and walked over to her. In silence, they headed for the door.

Before they got there, Anya appeared in the doorway. "I'm going to close up early tonight. Would you mind locking up when you leave?"

"Sure." Buffy caught the keys that Anya tossed to her. "Everything okay?"

Anya ran a hand through her hair. "What? Oh, yes. Fine. Good night." She left the training room and then they heard the tinkle of the bell over the door when she left the shop.

Dawn looked at Buffy. "That was seriously weird."

Buffy nodded in agreement. "Yeah. Scary."

Xander pocketed his change and picked up the bag containing his dinner. "Thanks, man," he said to the teenager who had waited on him. He headed for the door and then stopped abruptly. Anya was seated in the booth near the door, staring blankly into what was probably a double latte. He couldn't leave without passing right by her. For a minute, he thought about asking to exit through the kitchen. Once more into the breach, my friend. Steeling himself for the encounter, he walked up to her booth. "Hey." She didn't move. She was ignoring him. No, wait. She didn't even know he was there. Judging from the expression on her face, it looked like she barely knew she was there. "Earth to Anya. Hello?" He waved his hand in front of her face.

Anya flinched, almost spilling her latte. She looked up at Xander, confusion giving way to wariness. "Oh. It's you."

Let the games begin. "I was picking up some dinner, and I saw you sitting here. Thought I should say hi."

"And now you've said it. You can move on. Your duty is fulfilled." She swirled the stirrer around in her latte, dismissing him.

He knew he should just do what she had said and leave. But something stopped him. His spidey sense was tingling. Something was wrong. "Taking a break for dinner?"

Anya kept staring at the coffee swirling in her cup. "No. I closed early."

Closed early? His spidey sense was right; something was definitely wrong with her. Anya never closed the store early. Without asking her permission, he slid into the seat across from her. That got a brief reaction from her: she glared at him. "Something wrong?"

"And why would you care if it was? Are you looking to gloat?"

Xander laced his fingers together and rested them on the table. "An...we used to be able to talk about stuff."

Anya sniffed. "You mean that I talked while you tried to drown out the sound of my voice by watching sporting events on television."

Xander held his temper in check. "Not all the time."

Anya's expression softened slightly. "You're right. Not all the time."

Score one for the Xanman. He opened the paper bag containing his dinner and began setting the contents on the table. "Since you haven't eaten, why don't we split my dinner? I have two sandwiches and I'm ready to share." He offered her the second sandwich.

Anya hesitated and then accepted the sandwich. "Xander, you know you're supposed to be watching your sodium intake. And your cholesterol level."

He unwrapped his sandwich and waved a hand at it. "Hey. I'm all about the wellness. Whole grain roll. Lean, low sodium turkey. No mayo. Lots of lettuce and tomato. No chips." Anya struggled to hide a smile and started to unwrap her own sandwich. "Now why don't you tell me what's putting those little lines on your forehead?"

Anya's hand flew up to her forehead in dismay. "There are lines forming on my forehead? The sales associate who sold me that ridiculously expensive alpha-hydroxy cream assured me that I'd never have lines. Do you think I can curse her? Or maybe just sue? Yes, litigation. That's the answer."

I miss this. Xander was disoriented for a minute, afraid he had said it out loud. But Anya was hunting in her purse for a mirror, so he must not have. "Anya, put the mirror down. You look beautiful. I just meant you seemed worried about something." He picked up his sandwich and took a big bite.

Anya put her purse down. She looked unsure about whether she wanted to confide in him. Hesitantly, she said, "It's work."

Xander swallowed a bite of sandwich and washed it down with some iced tea. "The Magic Box? What's the problem?"

"No. Not the Magic Box." Her hand strayed to the necklace at her throat.

"Oh. The vengeance stuff." A vision of Warren skinned alive flashed into Xander's mind. He imagined Anya doing that – and worse – in cold blood. He wiped his mouth with a napkin, feeling a bit sick.

"Let's just forget I said anything, Xander." Anya began to slide out of the booth.

"No, wait." Anya sat back slowly. Xander carefully took another sip of his iced tea and then said, "Tell me."

She stared at him, surprised. "Um, well, I've just had my performance review."

It was Xander's turn to look surprised. "Demons have performance reviews?"

"Vengeance demons do," Anya said defensively. "We take the quality of our work very seriously."

"Yeah." Xander raised his eyebrows, skeptical. "Halfrek seemed real concerned about maiming the wrong guy."

"Hallie was just joking about that, Xander. She doesn't maim the wrong guy." Anya frowned. "Well, not with any regularity." She waved her hand dismissively. "Anyway, this isn't about Hallie maiming the wrong guy. It's about me maiming the wrong guy. I mean, me maiming the right guy."


Anya leaned forward and whispered, as if afraid someone would overhear. "I'm having, er, well, difficulty granting wishes."

Xander raised his eyebrows. "Like wish impotence or something? It's a medical condition?"

"No! I'm not impotent!" The couple in the next booth turned to stare at them. Anya crumpled a napkin in her hand and lowered her voice. "I'm not impotent. I'm just having trouble finding the right wish to grant."

Xander's mouth dropped open, giving Anya a view of half-chewed turkey sandwich. She wrinkled her nose in distaste. He closed it with a snap and finished chewing. "You mean you haven't granted a wish yet? Since the, uh, you know."

Anya raised her eyebrows. "Do you mean since you ran out on our wedding and left me to handle a room full of our friends and relatives? Yes, since then."

Xander wisely kept silent.

Anya opened up her sandwich, scrutinizing it. She picked off a pallid tomato slice and made a face at it before discarding it. She looked up at Xander, annoyed. "I've been busy, you know. First I was trying to get someone to make a wish against you. We all know how that turned out." She removed another offensive tomato slice. "Then there was that whole mess with Willow and having to save the world again." She started removing excess turkey from the sandwich. Her voice altered in tone and became softer, more tentative. "And after that...." She stopped picking at her sandwich. "I just don't want to hurt anyone anymore."

Holy crap. "But the whole demon thing. That kinda means you will hurt people, right?"

"But what if I only hurt the bad people? The ones who hurt other people? The ones who really deserve it?" Anya's eyes were alight with sincerity.

Xander grimaced. "Kinda hard to tell who's who sometimes without a scorecard."

Anya nodded, deflated. "That's basically what D'Hoffryn said."

Xander wasn't sure if he liked the comparison. "What else did the big guy say?"

Anya bit her lip. "Well, he said if I didn't start granting wishes, he'd have to take action."

"What kind of action? Confiscating the pendant? Suspending you without pay?" Anya's expression became increasingly troubled. Fear began to work icy fingers into Xander's heart. "What? Tell me."

"I really don't know. Unfit vengeance demons are pretty rare. The recruitment process ensures that only the cream of the crop is selected. But I've heard rumors. Something to do with exile into a formless hell dimension."

"An." Xander reached over and grabbed her hand. "What are we going to do?"

She stared at him. "We?"

"I just meant – I can’t just turn my back on this, on you. What's the plan?"

She shook her head. "I don't know."

Xander thought for a minute. "Maybe you could just grant some wishes a little differently? Maybe like make the pain temporary? You know – inflict the funny syphilis, but only for a week. Or make it recurring if the guy cheats again."

Anya brightened up a bit. "You know, that might actually work. Of course, it would violate a few rules."

Xander smiled. "Well, make the rules bendy, not breaky."

Now Anya gave a full-fledged smile. "It’s worth a try." They both suddenly realized that Xander was still holding her hand. He released it abruptly.

Flustered, Anya stood up. "Well. Thank you. For dinner. And for the useful advice. I appreciate it."

Xander stood up, feeling awkward. "Yeah. Well. Let me know how it turns out."

Anya nodded. "Okay. Well. Goodnight." She turned to go.

"An?" She stopped and turned around. Xander shifted nervously on his feet. "Want me to walk you home? It's getting dark."

"Um. Okay. That would be nice." She smiled tentatively. "Thank you."

Xander held the door open for Anya as they left the coffee shop. And suddenly, the fat lady sitting on his chest wasn't singing quite so loudly.

Dawn knocked on the crypt door and then pushed it open without waiting for an answer. She staggered inside, an over-stuffed shopping bag in one hand and a small space heater in the other. She dumped them on the floor. "Hey Clem."

Clem was sitting in the armchair, a box of kittens in front of him. He was counting them while they meowed piteously for their freedom. "Hey Dawnie."

Dawn wrinkled her nose. "Poker winnings?"

Clem smiled brightly. "Yeah. Got real lucky."

"You're not gonna..."

Clem cut her off. "No. I promised you, Dawn. I'll find good, loving homes for all of them. Maybe the Sunnydale Senior Center." One of the kittens leaned its forepaws against the side of the box and stretched up on its hind legs to lick Clem's hand. He chortled.

She smiled. "Thanks Clem." Looking around, she asked, "Where's Spike?"

Clem cocked his head towards the opening to the lower level. "Downstairs." He rolled his eyes. "He's in a mood." He noticed the bag on the floor. "Whatcha got there? Presents?" His ears perked up.

"Just some stuff to make Spike more comfy."

Clem nodded in approval. He knew a lot about comfy. He appreciated comfy. "Need any help?"

"Nah." Dawn picked up the bag and the space heater. Heading for the entrance to the lower level, she yelled, "Hey Spike! Incoming!" She dropped the shopping bag through the hole. Carefully, she started down the ladder, gripping it with one hand while she carried the space heater in the other. When she got halfway down, she said, "Come grab this, Spike."

Spike walked over to Dawn and took the space heater from her. "Told you to stop coming here."

Dawn jumped off the ladder and landed lightly on the floor. "Yeah, yeah. I don't listen to Buffy; why would I listen to you?"

Spike stared at the space heater as if it were a particularly noxious demon. "What's this?"

Dawn spoke slowly, enunciating each word as if he were a simpleton. "It's a space heater."

"Yeah. Can see that. What the bloody hell's it for?"

"Hello? Warm-blooded now. It's freezing in here at night. Do you wanna be a human popsicle? Or are you planning to spoon with Clem?"

Spike made a face. "That's just gross, Bit." He walked over and put the space heater by the bed. "Anyway, been taking care of myself for over a hundred years. No need for you to take a hand now."

Dawn rolled her eyes. She was starting to understand what Clem meant by 'a mood.' "Oh, is this penance for all your many sins? Let me tell you something, Spike. Going without heat doesn't count as making amends for killing half of Europe."

"First off -- didn't kill half of soddin' Europe. That's a bunch of codswallop. The bleedin' plague didn't kill half of Europe."

"O—kaay. Am I supposed to know what codswallop is?" Spike opened his mouth as if to answer her, but Dawn held up a hand to stop him. "I don't wanna know. Just -- eeww. The soul hasn't cured the attitude much." She looked at him slyly. "And should you be cursing in front of me, Mr. Shiny New Soul? Impressionable young mind here." Spike made a disgusted noise.

Dawn ignored him and stooped to pull something out of the shopping bag. She held it up for Spike to see. "I brought another blanket, too." Spike crossed his arms, refusing to take it. Dawn shoved it back in the bag. "If you'd just let Buffy know that you're back, you could come stay at the house and Clem could get his crypt back. Willow's moving out, so there's room."

Spike's jaw dropped. "Are you stoned? Let me see your eyes." He stalked over to Dawn and grabbed her upper arms, squinting to look at her pupils.

She pulled away. "Cut it out, doofus."

"She'll more than likely stake me on sight."

"Well, that’s gonna get messy, considering the whole newly human deal. And besides, I don't think she's mad at you for...the thing. But that's between you and Buffy."

"Well, she should be angry." His voice rose mockingly as he imitated her. "For the thing." Suddenly, the joke wasn't funny anymore. He stared at the floor, his eyes shadowed. "Very angry. You should still be angry." More to himself than to Dawn, he muttered, "It was unforgivable."

Dawn sighed. "Okay, I thought we settled all this the other night. And who says I've forgiven you, anyway? Maybe I'm just keeping you alive with space heaters and blankets so I can prolong your suffering." Rooting in the bag again, she triumphantly held up some socks. "I also brought these." Spike looked up. They were thermal rag wool socks with bright orange toes and tops. She cradled them against her face. "Mmm. Toasty."

Spike eyed the socks with something akin to horror. "Wouldn't catch me dead in those LL Bean rejects, Bit." Off Dawn's look, he warned, "Don't say it." He threw up his hands in disgust. "You're like a bleedin' mother hen clucking over her chick. Don't you have dolls or something to torment instead of me?"

Dawn was outraged. "Dolls!" She sniffed. "If you don't want my help, fine. You don't have to insult me."

Spike's expression softened under the threat of Dawn's tears. He walked over to stand in front of her. "Truth be told, Bit, you're reminding me of Joyce." He tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

"Well, what would Mom say if she were here, Mr. I Can Take Care Of My Bloody Self?"

Spike snorted. "Huh. First she'd thump me for teaching you British curse words." Dawn smacked his arm. His expression grew sober. "Most likely she'd say, 'Stay away from my daughters'. Probably while laying an axe upside my head again." He smiled a little, remembering the sight of Joyce's maternal rage in action.

Dawn shook her head. "No. She'd say something comforting like, 'There's always tomorrow for dreams to come true.'"

Spike frowned suspiciously. "That's from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"Is not!"

"Is so!"

Dawn giggled. "Okay, maybe she wouldn't say that." Her voice grew soft and serious. "But she'd tell you that everybody's weak. That everybody makes terrible mistakes. We all need forgiveness. But as long as we fight, as long as we don't give up, as long as we can love, there's hope."

Their eyes met in a moment of total understanding. Spike reached out a crooked finger and tapped Dawn under her chin. "When'd you get so bloody wise?"

Dawn smiled. "It's a Summers' family trait. Except it skipped Buffy. She's totally without clue." Her smile faded. "You need to tell Buffy that you're back. Soon. This sneaking out to see you stuff is getting old. And Buffy and I aren't supposed to be keeping secrets from each other." Spike said nothing. Dawn sighed. "Okay, change of subject." Her eyes sparkled. "Ooh, I have an idea. Let’s make hot chocolate. I'm sure Clem has some."

"Don't think so, Bit." Spike crossed his arms. "Now, you'd better scamper off home before Buffy starts looking for you. And I've got business to attend to."

Dawn pushed her lower lip out, sulking. "You're no fun." She took the blankets and the socks over to the bed and set them down on it.

Spike rubbed his jaw. "By the way...Red's moving out?" He kept his voice casual, as if merely curious.

Dawn turned around to look at him. She began to twist a hank of hair. "Yeah. There was sort of a scene. About using magic."

Spike's voice was sharp. "She's using again?"

"No. I mean, not black magic. Just white magic." She made a face. "It's part of the therapy or whatever that the coven suggested. I don't really get it. But Buffy asked her to move out."

"That must've been hard."

"Yeah." Dawn scuffed the toe of her shoe on the ground and didn't say anything for a moment. "And what business have you got anyway? Killing the baddies before Buffy has to? Or more rending of clothing and gnashing of teeth?"

Spike loped over to the ladder and yelled into the opening. "Clem better start keeping his pie-hole shut." Upstairs, something crashed to the floor. Spike shoved his hands in his pockets and faced Dawn. "Just trying to give her a bit of a break. No need for her to patrol every night. She should relax." His throat tightened, but he forced the words out. "Maybe find a nice guy. Go out on a date."

"Oh. My. God." Dawn put her hands on her hips and stared at him, wide-eyed. "You are truly pathetic. Yeah, that's a genius plan. You secretly patrol every night so that Buffy can find some nice normal guy to date in her suddenly free time. I'm sure she'll never catch on. I said she was clueless, not vegetative." She rolled her eyes. "I'm starting to see why the whole Big Bad thing never worked out for you. Besides, martyr complex much?" Dawn raised her voice so it would carry upstairs. "Clem, we may need to take Spike back to Africa. I think the soul's defective. It's addling his brain." They heard another crash.

Spike gave her a laser-sharp look. "Being serious here, Dawn."

"You know what's serious here? The lameness that is your new look. Where's the bleached hair? The cool clothes? You made fun of the socks, but is that a cardigan you're wearing?" She shuddered.

Spike ran a hand self-consciously through his hair. "It's cold in here," he muttered.

Dawn threw her hands up in the air. "That's what I've been telling you. Anyway, you look like Giles."

"Do not! Take that back."

She shrugged. "Whatever." She headed for the ladder. "I'll bring your duster the next time I come over to save you from total fashion disaster. We kept it for you."

Surprise and then pleasure flashed across Spike's face before he pressed his lips together, a line of white ringing his mouth. "No. Don't." Dawn gave him a puzzled look, but decided to drop it. "And stop coming over here at night. Christ only knows what beasties'd like a taste of you."

"I can take care of myself." She started climbing up the ladder.

He eyed her sourly. "Yeah. Sure. Just humor me."

Dawn paused halfway up the ladder, turned to stick out her tongue, and then resumed climbing. Spike walked away, chuckling in spite of himself. "Hey Clem." Dawn's voice carried down from the upper level. "Spike wants hot chocolate. Got any with the little marshmallows?"

Spike yanked off the cardigan and threw it across the room in a fit of pique. Head bowed, he slunk over and picked up the space heater. He didn't want the Nibblet to get cold while they drank their hot chocolate.

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