Give Your Thanks (And Join The Fray)

By Leni
Author's Notes

Prologue

“We shouldn’t have done that.” Angel would have sounded more convincing if his left hand wasn’t sweeping along her hip, skimming the edge of her buttocks a little lower with each pass. Or if he wasn’t still holding her against him, right arm curved below her breasts. “We’ll run out of hot water.”

Buffy threw her head back to rest it against his collarbone. “It’s your own fault.” She managed to inject some wryness in her tone, when in fact her thoughts were drifting to a hazy self-congratulatory hurrah for having decided to let her hair grow out again. It felt delicious trapped between her back and his chest, a different texture teasing her with every movement. Certain that he’d keep both of them upright, she set out to experiment further, rising on her toes and letting out a satisfied smile when the movement shifted the sensory pattern along her spine and mixed it with the already familiar feeling of his smooth skin. “Oh yeah. I’m good.”

“So I’m the bad one?” He kissed the tip of her ear before she could answer him. “How is it that I’m at fault when you’re the one who invaded my shower?”

Oh, right. She’d been teasing him. Still on her tiptoes, Buffy stretched so her fingers could tug on his hair. “You were taking too long.”

He leaned into her touch, and accommodated their new position by letting his left hand wander across her body to her waist. “You have a curious notion of time when you’re waiting,” he laughed. “I’d say I’ve been here twice as long since you came in.” It was too affectionate a comment to be a reproach, and if the teasing twist of her nipples was punishment, Buffy had wasted too many hours of good behavior on him. “Did you at least get a good wash before you… pounced?”

She wouldn’t debate the term. It was a good description of her actions when Angel had refused to leave the shower. But, since his defense technique had been limited to bringing her closer and licking her neck, Buffy suspected there’d been a plan in motion. Between the two of them, he’d always been the better strategist; she was starting to appreciate how he used his talents outside the battleground. Such good, good talents, she thought as she tapped her fingernails against the bone of the wrist holding her. “I’m all clean, yes.” When his hand abandoned her breasts to travel up her throat, Buffy maneuvered so his knuckles brushed her lips. “Close to godliness, really,” she whispered before nipping his finger. “But I seem to have missed the shampooing part.” She planted her feet back on the shower floor, glad that the water was still warm. He waited a second for her to secure her balance, and let go – moving on to rub his hands along her arms. Buffy responded by lifting one foot so her toes wandered up his ankle and shin. “Got distracted.” At least this time she’d remembered to close the bottle lid. Last time they’d ended in an orange bubbly mess that smelled like pomegranate. Which would have been an amusing anecdote, if their informant that night hadn’t taken a blatant sniff at them and started laughing in their faces.

But back to the matter – or vampire – at hand…. “Wanna help?”

Angel kissed her shoulder. “And then you’ll let me go?”

“You wanted to stay,” she reminded him, adding a pout.

“You were promising to make it worth my while,” he laughed, then let go of her and stepped away to rescue the shampoo bottle from the opposite corner.

Buffy forced her eyes away from the appealing view. “I never said a word.”

Angel looked over his shoulder, busy pouring the red liquid into his palm. “You didn’t need to.”

She knew she was grinning back. To stop herself from leaping toward him again – and probably leaving them with a strawberry scented memento for the next forty hours – she turned on the shower, just enough to soak in the hot water without splashing him.

“That’s why.”

Buffy blinked against the water. Angel was a blurry figure until she rubbed her eyes again. “Why what?”

“Why we shouldn’t spend so long in here. It’ll take hours before we have hot water again,” he said. “You realize that once the girls come -” That was when he lifted his shoulders. Nice, big, strong shoulders…. They always felt so good under her hands. Rubbing. Caressing. Massaging…. Buffy wondered if she should have turned on the cold water instead. The smirk that appeared on his face said that he was reading her mind. “Are you listening to me?”

No. “Hair!” She had the feeling the reminder served her more than him. “I want clean hair. Because it’s Thanksgiving and we have guests and….” Why hadn’t she noticed his hair was wet, too? A small drop was falling down his temple, mimicking the path of a sweat drop. What would it take to make Angel sweat? “Hair. Now.” Buffy shut off the water and closed her eyes, telling herself it was so no stray bits of shampoo would make them sting. It had nothing to do with the vampire she could hear coming closer. Nothing at all with the weight of his hand on her shoulder as he entreated her to spin around, nor the sensation of his fingers as they finally drifted into her hair.

When she’d been younger, in those few months they’d had as a couple between That Birthday and his departure, Buffy had discovered a few dozen ways to achieve some measure of intimacy without being intimate. Back then, she’d been proud of her resourcefulness. Not-too-happy tricks, she’d named them as she shared some with a wide-eyed Willow. Later, when Angel left despite all her efforts, she’d called herself an unrealistic fool. Of course little things like taking naps together or exchanging happy childhood memories couldn’t keep two people together; they’d been silly desperate attempts by a school girl. Later still, after the honeymoon phase with Riley was over, she’d more or less panicked when he attempted any of those things. In her mind, details like indoor picnics or poetry reading by the fireplace were sure signs of doom for a relationship.

It would be years until – an evening she woke up still achy and moody after an unsuccessful hunt through L.A. sewers, with Angel wordlessly picking up her hairbrush to work out the tangles in her hair (something he hadn’t done so in oh so long) – that the correct name came to her: romantic gestures.

No wonder her relationships had crashed, when she hadn’t grasped such a basic concept.

“Am I pulling too hard?”

Angel’s voice brought her back to the present. His fingers were working the lather along her scalp, and she’d been frowning. “No.” She smoothed her features. “You’re perfect.” ‘It’s perfect’, she’d meant; but she didn’t correct her statement. “Drifted off for a sec. Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” He applied some pressure to the back of her head, and she obediently tipped it forward, leaving him full access to her nape.

She spent the next few minutes caught between a thorough soothing massage that languidly made its way back to her temples and behind her ears, and the growing desire to reach for him and, well, pounce.

“Almost finished,” he told her.

Buffy focused on the squishy feeling of lukewarm soapy water running through her toes when she curled them against the floor tiles. She let out a long breath when his hands paused and ran down her hair one last time. Angel shifted behind her, and she felt him raise one hand to unhook the shower head. Eyes still closed, she tilted her head back so the suds at her hairline would wash away first, then let him do as he wished.

“There,” he announced once her hair had been rinsed.

Bubbly patches floated around her ankles, tickling her skin as they headed to the drain. Angel was quietly placing the shower head back, so she took the chance to sneak her arms around his back and blindly step forward until she could burrow her nose into his chest. The scent of sandalwood soap, fresh on his skin, enveloped her. “You feel warm.”

“With all the steam around us, I’m surprised I’m not cooked,” he chuckled, but brought his hands to the small of her back.

“Sh. Don’t say the c-word.” She would have pouted if her lips weren’t busy drawing zig-zag lines across his Adam’s apple. “I’m still not over losing the battle against Practice Turkey.” Her hands reached up to cup the shoulders she’d admired minutes ago, sinking her fingers into the taut muscles. “Besides, I’m trying to cajole you into sex.”

“I noticed.” His left hand trailed down her hair until it caught one thin strand. “Not that I’m complaining, but why the enthusiasm?” He started twirling the long hair around his finger. Buffy pressed herself closer, moving one hand down his side. A soft sound at the back of his throat indicated approval at the destination of that hand. “A good dream, perhaps?” The hand at her back started a lethargic movement along her spine. “Because I can get to like these dreams of yours. Much better than the average package.”

Buffy let him go and, to his obvious consternation, stepped back.

She could have told him that Dawn had promised to stay over the weekend, and that having her little sister a room away all but banished any lustful thoughts she might have. Call her irrational, but as far as Buffy was concerned, Dawn and sex lived in different dimensions. Angel may not have batted an eye when Connor told them about his live-in girlfriend, but if Buffy got her way, Dawn wasn’t having sex until she was fifty – and then only over the ‘net.

She could have told him that Willow’s presence would put a further damper on her libido. Ever since she and Angel had announced their renewed relationship, everyone who’d survived the Sunnydale fall of ‘97 tensed when they so much as kissed. Her best friend might be more subtle than to carry an Orb of Thesulah in her bag, but Buffy was sure that a handy spell to call in the ingredients for a soul-party had been found and memorized.

In short, she could have told Angel that this was their last chance to enjoy the physical side of their relationship until the next week, but that would probably put a damper on his libido. Buffy in no way wanted to risk that. So she tilted her head to the left, baring the side of her neck which still carried a trace of an old scar, and brought her hands from between her thighs up to caress that slightly darker patch of skin.

“Cajoling,” – she pointed to herself. Then her index finger turned towards him: “Shutting up.”

So her strategies lacked refinement.

They could discuss it at a later date if he had any complaints.

In fact, she thought blissfully as Angel pushed her back against the wall and hoisted her up with one hand at her rear, they could discuss it much much later.

From her bedroom window, Cielo Mershmeier, née Moreno, could see the park across the street. It was her source of entertainment on quiet mornings like this. Ever since her oldest granddaughter had declared her music system outdated (“Oh, Nana. They don’t make these anymore!” the girl had wailed, such a distressed expression on her face that Cielo, ever the doting grandmother, had allowed her to replace her old cassettes with CDs and DVDs and what not), Cielo had found that decades of listening to her favorite songs in a particular order had left her unable to enjoy the change.

She hadn’t told Sabrina, of course not. The girl had meant well.

But now she preferred to sit by her vanity table and watch her neighbors walk about, guessing how much their personal lives reflected their daily habits (like poor Mrs. Carter, from around the corner. For five days she’d trailed behind during the morning jogging she and her best friends did, and yesterday Cielo had found out that the youngest Carter girl had been readmitted to an addiction center. Why, that girl couldn’t be older than Sabrina!).

Today, only the most stubborn had decided to face the uncooperative early morning weather and headed outside. There was the Lanes’ newest nanny, the one who’d surpassed all her predecessors and survived the month with the Lanes’ middle twins. Cielo thought to herself that the clever woman had found out that the recipe for a quiet morning at home – the Lanes home-schooled their five children – was to allow the boys half an hour of running, climbing and general mayhem every day. Today they’d brought a ball with them, and their older brother was playing goalie against both one-man ‘teams’ with the twins announcing the score to the whole neighborhood with every goal.

Cielo watched them for a long time, shaking her head in amusement as the three boys debated whether a play was valid or not. The oldest one, apparently fed up by his brothers’ noisiness, stalked out to join their nanny and their sisters and fished out some earphones from his jacket. Cielo gave a little sigh at the sight. Kids grew up too quickly nowadays.

After that, it wasn’t long until the group of six picked up dolls and ball and headed back to the smaller blue house in the next block. How they could fit eight people – nine if you counted the maid, but she didn’t sleep there – was something Cielo could never figure out. She remembered her own house being crowded when her three children had been little, what with Carolina and Marcus chasing each other over some broken toy or another, and Johan running up and down the stairs as many times as possible from the time he learned to walk until he moved out a married man. “He still doesn’t know how to stay quiet. I think poor Rosa has threatened him with a straitjacket if he won’t stay for tonight’s dinner. Can you believe it?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “It might have done some good when he was ten, and Mrs…. Was it Green? Yes, Mrs. Green threatened to keep him back a year if he didn’t shape up.” She smiled and picked up a pot of skin cream. “But shape up he did.” Two fingers dipped into the almond colored mixture, and she coated her forehead and the bridge of her nose with it. “Clever man, our Johan. He fits so well in the world he chose, too.”

There was no reaction.

“He does, Robert. Even if it isn’t the world you’d have chosen for him.” The pot was already closed and in its place by the time she was finished. An admittance that she was right. “I’m sure Rosa’s exaggerating. What kind of husband would miss Thanksgiving dinner?”

As she waited for the cream to take effect, she looked out the window again, and smiled. On the bench closest to the sidewalk, two men took turns with different sections of the newspaper. “It’s been twenty years and those old fools are still saving for their boat, one newspaper at a time.” She snickered quietly, then realized her husband’s old golf club friends couldn’t hear her. “Probably wouldn’t be able to, even if I was sitting between them, right there on that bench,” she said, voice loud and clear. “I should invite them for dinner, one of these days.”

Metal clashed against metal as the window closed with a bang. The latch fell into place with a sharp snikt.

Cielo laughed. “Now, now. No need to be jealous, amor.” She put her right hand on the armrest of her plush chair, meaning to rise to reopen the window. But a soft push sent her back into her seat. “Robert,” she warned.

The window slowly creaked open and a pale pink rose floated up through the open space and drifted down into her lap. “Thank you, dear.” She picked up the flower and bent slightly to smell its soft petals, careful not to smear the edges against her face cream. “Apology accepted.”

CHAPTER ONE

That was a knock,” Angel said to the inside of Buffy’s wrist, tonguing her slowing pulse point.

“Door-to-door salesman,” Buffy mumbled, eyes closed in a blissful expression. Never mind that no matter how methodical, no salesman would venture to the eighth floor of a building, especially when the first seven were full of people who did not welcome strangers. “Don’t need the vacuum cleaner. Or the set of knives. We’re chock full of encyclopedias already.”

“We do need a meat knife. The last one broke against that…” He searched for the right name; Buffy’s drowsy touch fogged his memory. “… that demon’s hide.”

“Bad knife.”

The knocking came again.

“Persistent salesman,” Buffy insisted.

The salesman used Dawn’s voice next: “Buffy!”

Body tensing, Buffy rolled away from Angel as if suddenly burned by the skin-to-skin contact. Then she sighed and threw her head back against the jumbled covers. “It can’t be eight already. What is she doing here before eight?” she groaned, turning her head to catch sight of their alarm clock and blinking when she found nothing. “And how did we end up upside down on the bed?”

Angel shrugged. He honestly didn’t know. “You should open that door. It’s Dawn.”

“Door, open,” she commanded. One eye cracked open. “Did it work?”

“Sorry.” He found that he actually sounded apologetic. Casting around for their clothes, he sat up and tugged on her upper arms to bring her along. Then he put her shirt in her hands. “You love Dawn,” he reminded her. “She’s your only sister.”

“The only sister who would bring one of my exes with her.” Angel had never asked what kind of ex Spike was to her. He’d rather not know anyway. “We don’t even have extra space for him this time. Willow will turn him into a rat if anyone suggests they share the living room.”

“I like Willow,” Angel grinned, passing her a pair of jeans. She would have to forgo underwear, he thought as he looked between the sheets for the scrap of material. It was a deep scarlet color, he remembered well. During the last months, half of Buffy’s lingerie had made a slow transition from beiges, grays and blacks into an astounding array of reds. The fact that he’d provided that half, as her older sets needed frequent replacement, may have had something to do with it. Nina had mercilessly paraded him through all kinds of stores during their relationship, sometimes for a legitimate purchase and others as a lark. He still wasn’t sure in which category their trips to Victoria’s Secret had been supposed to fall, but he’d learned to like the experience, and he was putting it to good use now. He’d already ordered a teddy in ruby silk for Christmas, and he was contemplating a matching robe to complete the set.

“But you don’t like rats,” Buffy retorted, wrenching him from a happy vision of Christmas night to throw him back into a reality where Spike might be standing behind his own front door.

“Ugh,” was the only possible comment.

“Exactly.” Buffy swung her legs over the bed, and quickly slipped into her shoes. “I don’t think even Dawn could be convinced to take him like that,” she mused as she hurried to the bedroom door. Stopping before opening it, Buffy gave her lover a slow look from head to toes. “Much as it pains me to say, get dressed.”

Angel sighed. Buffy’s family, both blood and adopted, tested his patience in many and varied forms. But she’d invited them over for the festivities, and even if only Dawn and Willow had agreed to spend Thanksgiving in LA, Buffy had been happy. It couldn’t be that bad, right? Family dinners were supposed to be a positive experience. And if the worst came to pass, he thought as he pulled his pants over his hips, he’d spent worse Thanksgiving Days. Much worse. What was Spike’s new best buddy and a powerful witch against that? He stood up and headed for the closet. If he remembered correctly, his wife beater had been near rent in two by an eager Slayer – she’d been really enthusiastic this morning, and from her reaction at Dawn’s arrival, he could guess why that was. But, worse days had been survived. Now that was a thought to keep him upright until Monday.

The next round of knocking was even more insistent. “Open up, Buffy!”

“Coming!” Buffy yelled back, opening the bedroom door with one hand while the other zipped up her jeans. Glancing down to check that her shirt was buttoned correctly, she started in long rapid steps to the front door. “You couldn’t be the patient sister, could you?” she snapped as she twisted the doorknob open.

Dawn scowled back and shouldered the purse she’d left on the floor while she knocked. “A little more patience and I’d be standing here ‘til New Year’s.” She waited until her sister had opened the door completely, though, and then came through the doorway, pulling a heavy wheeled carry-on behind her.

Buffy’s eyes widened at the size of her luggage. It was as wide as a Persette demon and nowhere near as small. “Please tell me you don’t have Spike in there,” she rushed out, eyeing the printed fabric for any signs of poking from within.

“As if!” The younger girl chuckled at the imagery. “I picked the biggest so I could pack in tomorrow’s shopping. These are just a few things to tide me over.” More than a tide, it looked like a flood – but Buffy bit her tongue on the comment, aware that she wasn’t any better. “Since someone is too stingy when it comes to letting her little sister borrow some essentials.”

Buffy stared at the cheeky girl. “Six-hundred-dollar Pradas are not essentials!” she burst, “And you stretched two of my sweaters, Dawn.”

“Well, forgive me for having boobs.” Dawn had walked further into the living room, looking around her at the small changes since her last visit. “Nice color. But I liked the burnt orange better.”

Buffy lifted her shoulders and allowed the subject to be closed. They’d been having that discussion since Dawn was fifteen, when she couldn’t pretend innocence as to why her sister’s clothes turned up wrinkled, out of their place and baggier than Buffy remembered them. “I’m in a blue phase,” Buffy continued the conversation as she followed Dawn into the guest room. “I decided to do something lighter for your room, though. Maybe it’ll let you sleep a little more,” she added pointedly. While she always looked forward to these visits, she couldn’t deny that Dawn’s schedule created havoc in hers. A new day started with a berserk mix of dinner and breakfast, and sleeping the morning away next to Angel was pushed aside in favor of driving to Dawn’s favorite places – such as what had been Mom’s preferred deli. (When they were younger, they’d often turned their noses down at their mother’s banana splits, choosing bigger, frothier concoctions instead. Now they both cut their fruit in small pieces and mixed it with the ice cream as they exchanged college tales and supernatural cases – and laughed at how often the amount of research needed was larger for the second.)

Dawn studied the powder blue walls. She’d only seen this color in movies, and always with a retinue of plush bears and horses in a corner shelf and a mural of cowboys or boats along the width of the room. “It looks like you’re about to have a boy,” she sighed. The only saving grace was the bed, with its flowery pattern instead of some large puppy in a blue ribbon depicted on the comforter.

Buffy’s mouth quirked down. “It does, doesn’t it?” She gazed around the room contemplatively.

“No.”

Dawn raised her head at the voice, smiled at the newcomer and returned Angel’s wave.

Angel’s eyes slanted towards her sister. “No,” he repeated, “I will not have my home turned upside down because it’s a shade too yellow or the kitchen suddenly doesn’t match the bathroom.”

“That was the dining room, honey,” Buffy answered. “And you have to admit that green was too bright; it looked as if we were being squeezed out of a lime every time we stepped out.” It sounded as if they’d had this argument many times. Buffy was even tapping her fingers against her opposite elbow, sure sign that her attention was elsewhere.

Angel stopped that hand and held it between his bigger ones. “I say this with all the love in the world, Buffy -” Dawn’s head snapped up at that. While a younger Buffy had bubbled in excitement when she’d first dated Angel, Dawn had never seen the vampire behave as openly. “-but just because you have a clan of cross-dimensional elves in your debt, it doesn’t mean they must paint the apartment every few weeks.”

Dawn blinked. It wasn’t fair that her sister hadn’t only recovered the love of her life, but also had a whole clan playing Seven Dwarves to her Snow White. Meanwhile in Boston, Dawn had a moody vampire and a trio of lusty blondes running downstairs to her apartment every time said vampire made his appearance known. Of course, if one had to live Buffy’s life to get that kind of good Karma…. Dawn shivered despite the warmer weather. Spike was quite interesting when he was in a good mood, and while Danielle was the worst gossip in the East Coast, Christine and Brigitte weren’t half bad.

“And what would you have me do?” Buffy shot back at her boyfriend. “They insist on repaying the debt. They’d follow me into patrol if I let them, and get killed in nastier ways than what I saved them from.”

“That’s their choice.”

Buffy smiled. “No, it’s not.”

The smile made Dawn tighten her hand around her purse strap; it brought back uncomfortable memories from their last days in Sunnydale. “Guys?” she interrupted them. “I’m playing the ‘impressionable youth’ card here.”

Angel sighed and passed a weary hand through his hair. “Sorry, Dawnie.”

Dawn felt relieved enough by the easy capitulation to forgo correcting the childish nickname.

Meanwhile Buffy’s smile had shifted into a warmer version. “Next time try the ‘Divorce child’ one,” she advised, moving forward to plump a pillow that didn’t need to be plumped. “It works better for silly fights between adults that should know better.” She put the pillow down, and then bent to shift the daisy-printed comforter so that it rested parallel to the headboard. “I’m sorry.” Buffy never turned around. She simply straightened and relaxed her body, and she hadn’t finished leaning back when Angel was there to support her.

Once Dawn had walked in on them while the couple said their goodbyes at Buffy’s bedroom window. She’d carried that image through her teenage years, called it back long after Angel had left and even though it’d been briefly replaced by another stolen impression of Buffy and Riley as they kissed on the front porch, she dug the memory back after Riley was gone. Buffy, blissful and serene as she leaned into Angel – that picture had comforted her in the long summer after they’d buried her sister.

Dawn smiled at their unconscious mirroring of their past and put her purse at the feet of the bed, unwilling to disturb the sudden silence that’d descended over the room.

Angel kissed Buffy’s crown once, which moved her into turning her head. They shared a lazy smile that confirmed Dawn’s suspicions as to why her sister had taken so long to answer the door. She bet they hadn’t even heard her buzzing from the main entrance. If she hadn’t thought to ring their neighbor’s apartment, she’d still be downstairs with an irate taxi driver growling at her back. “Oh right,” she remembered. “You owe Mrs. Schwend twenty-five dollars.” The way they turned toward her in unison was eerie; even their expressions matched, and when their displeasure wasn’t aimed at each other, having a disgruntled Slayer and vampire in the same room was quite stifling. “And sixty cents,” she told herself not to squeak out that last part. It was their own fault, after all.

“Why?” Buffy asked slowly.

“Because I hopped onto my bag and rode it here from the airport.” Dawn rolled her eyes. “Why do you think?”

“Oh.” Buffy looked at Angel; he replied with a nod. They’d give the older lady her money later. “You could have told us you were coming earlier,” Buffy told her, resting more fully into her boyfriend when his arms circled around her. “I’d have picked you up.”

Dawn’s eyebrow shot up. She looked pointedly at Angel’s linked hands at her sister’s belly and then shrugged. “I figured you might be busy,” she said in an innocent tone.

Buffy flushed while Angel only chuckled and whispered something in his girlfriend’s ear that prevented her hot reply. In the end, Buffy chuckled too.

Dawn smiled to herself and took the chance to roll her bag closer to the closet and turn her back to them. The low whispers continued, and she might have been able to catch every other stray word if she’d tried; but she preferred to give them some privacy. She knew that their time together was shortened during her stays, and wasn’t oblivious to her sister’s pains to accommodate her visits. As someone whose Mondays were a living torture after a weekend of Spike waltzing her around his favorite haunts, Dawn understood that Buffy’s constant yawning during their meetings said little of boredom and all of the sacrifice made to spent those hours with her.

She could certainly give them some extra moments as she shuffled her clothes and cosmetics from her baggage to the enormous closet and matching dresser. Buffy’s last email had reminded her that Willow would be a guest over the long weekend as well, and that she should reserve half the space for the witch. But Dawn knew Willow; even Spike carried more odds and ends in his duster than Willow packed clothes in her bags.

But if Spike was correct – and he often was when it came to the primary Scoobies - then the redhead would bring a moderate arsenal of charms and wards with her, just in case ‘the old fool decides the witch under his roof is one female too many and snaps free of that curse.’ If that happened, she was to call him up immediately because ‘your sister needed an Apocalypse to finish that bastard, and I can do without all the foreplay.’ At least, Dawn reasoned as she hung a third light jacket on the hanger, he hadn’t sounded hopeful.

Of course, Spike knew Buffy better than he knew Willow and Xander. Just like Dawn, the blond vampire hadn’t bothered to second-guess Buffy’s decision to pick up and mend her much battered first serious romance. They weren’t privy to the details (nobody was, not even Giles); but when her sister had announced that Angel’s soul wasn’t going anywhere, Dawn had avoided the resulting pandemonium (she’d forgotten Xander could be so loud) and taken the first flight back to Boston.

To tell the truth, she’d felt vindicated.

Dawn had never believed that her sister’s relationship with Angel would stay platonic for long. Xander and Giles could rant on about Buffy’s sense of responsibility, but they hadn’t lived with her in Sunnydale. They’d never banged on the bathroom door while their enamored older sister took forever in the shower, and when she finally came out, didn’t even have the decency to answer Dawn’s enraged threats but just patted her head and ushered her into the steamy bathroom, all the while humming some awfully romantic cliché song. Dawn still couldn’t hear an early Sarah McLachlan song without flashing back to such an encounter.

Ten years later, having moved from sweethearts to enemies to strangers, the fact that they’d found themselves living in the same apartment and fighting the same foes would have clued in a Pishki demon high on tea leaves – and Dawn would know; Brent had started the Boston betting pool and lost quite a few boxes of his precious teas when Buffy and Angel crossed the two-year mark without getting involved.

(“Your sister must have a heart of ice, smartie,” Brent had whined in their next meeting as Spike collected his payment.

“She’s gun-shy,” Dawn defended half-heartedly, following the blond vampire’s inspection of his new possessions, “She’s had a few bad breaks.”

Spike’s snort had echoed through the one-room apartment. “She did some breaking of her own, pet. Best don’t forget big sis gives as good, and as bad, as she gets.”

Brent’s copper-colored antlers had almost reached the ceiling. Dawn had wished she could still be surprised by Spike’s bitter tone. But then the blond perked up, and followed his nose to one batch in the far corner. Noticing Spike’s new focus, Brent had whimpered louder, dropping his shoulders until his three-inch nails dragged against the floor.

“Well, Red. Seems you were saving the best for last.” Spike picked one box out and tossed it at her. “I’d recognize that stinker anywhere. Offer Rupert a pound of that and he’ll be throwing the doors of his mystery library open.”)

It had taken all twenty pounds and three months of negotiations to make it happen, and even then she’d been under Andrew’s close supervision. Thank goodness. Only Andrew could be so easily distracted that she’d taken three of the slimmer tomes back to Boston.

The last one was at the bottom of her bag, waiting for her to use the next four days to work up the nerve to ask for Angel’s help. Buffy’s boyfriend was her best resource outside the Council, and between her own observations and Spike’s caustic remarks, Dawn had concluded that if the untranslatable pages were indeed related to the Slayers’ final battle, Angel would prefer the information be outside the Council’s control. Too many battles had been lost because Watchers held greedily onto –

“Are those my white pants?”

Dawn looked down at the item in her hands, cringing at her own forgetfulness. She wanted to shove it next to its cousins that were already in a small pile in the drawer; but Buffy yanked the pants out of her grasp. “I asked if you’d seen them,” Buffy was mumbling as held them up for closer inspection. “They are!”

Dawn twirled towards Angel, silently pleading for his intercession; but it seemed that in the last months her sister’s boyfriend had been inured against the Summers’ trademark pout.

Damn.

“I bet my maroon blouse is in there, too.” Buffy opened a lower drawer and started sifting through its contents. “I knew you were looking at it too much!”

A quick prayer for patience was sent up with Dawn’s signature at the bottom. When the gods gave her the busy signal, she reverted into the easiest way to deal with an angry big sister. She yelled louder. “Oh please. If I looked at it, it was because you look forty in that color.”

Buffy whirled around, green eyes wide with furious disbelief. “TAKE THAT BACK!”

Dawn set her jaw. “Make me.”

“Girls….” Angel tried. When both sisters turned to glare at him, he found his way to the doorway in an instant. “Remember that Willow’s flight arrives at nine,” he told them, and was gone in another flash.

The master bedroom closing echoed down the apartment.

“I don’t look forty!” “I didn’t take your blouse!”

Angel grinned at the twin shouts. After all, family wasn’t all that bad.

Cielo tore her gaze away from the impromptu volleyball game in the park when she heard the grandfather clock in the downstairs living room ringing in the ninth hour. “Dios santo! Where did the time go?” She pulled her wool shawl tighter around her. Cielo couldn’t explain it, but the sunnier it got outside, the colder she felt. “Must be old age,” she muttered again, rubbing her arms to keep warm as she stood up.

A second, thicker, shawl was presented to her. Cielo smiled and shrugged off the one she was wearing, “Thank you, Robert.” But when she reached for the offered garment, it seemed to lose whatever support it’d been given and dropped to the floor. “That’s strange,” she commented, bending down to retrieve the garment. Then she chuckled. “Don’t say old age is affecting you too, amor.”

She didn’t expect an answer. Since the day a fifteen-year-old Cielo Moreno had met the dashing Robert Mershmeier in her father’s office, she’d known that vanity was his main fault – and that, as far as she was concerned, it was well deserved. More than thirty years of marriage had acquainted her to his little idiosyncrasies, and Cielo knew that if that coward hit-and-run hadn’t happened not two blocks away during Robert’s jogging, the rather small collection of pots and bottles lined up on her vanity table would have tripled its size. ”You’ll never be old for me,” she softened her earlier teasing.

The shawl hugged her a little tighter.

“Maybe you should close the window a little bit,” Cielo said, rubbing her arms again. “Or I’ll never have the nerve to get undressed in this cold.” The adjoining bathroom door opened, giving her a full view of the tan shower curtain being pulled aside. “A hot shower?” She wrinkled her nose. She’d never been fond of those; they left her feeling clammier than when she’d started and the foggy mirrors and glasses when she came out annoyed her to no end. But when the sound of rushing water started, it came from the lower tap. “Ah.” Cielo grinned. “You’re so sweet. A bath would be wonderful.” The round alarm clock at her night table told her she still had enough time for pampering. “Sabrina said she’d be here around ten, which means she’ll arrive at eleven. Love that girl,” she said as she picked her favorite bath salts, “But I don’t know how she missed the punctuality training. Poor Johan. He was so embarrassed that she missed the beginning of her own graduation. But of course he forgave her within the hour – I’m telling you, Robert. That girl has her father more tightly wrapped around her little finger than Carolina ever had you.”

She continued the conversation in such a vein throughout her bath, sharing beloved pieces of the family life in which her husband could no longer participate. Noises drifted in from the next room, but Cielo assumed that her things for the day were being set up. Her daughter-in-law hadn’t only invited her for dinner, but also had asked, as it was tradition, for her help with the preparations. “In truth, Rosa can make a better mashed potatoes with her eyes closed, but it’s so nice of her to ask,” she confessed as she rose from the bathtub. Ten chimes filled the bedroom just as she switched off the hairdryer. “Well, no time for dawdling.” She knotted her bathrobe belt tighter and headed back to the bedroom.

Or would have, if the bathroom door hadn’t been locked.

Cielo twisted the knob, but when she made to open the door, the mechanism clicked shut again. “This isn’t funny,” she told her husband. “I still need to get dressed, Robert, and it won’t do to set a bad example for our granddaughter by being tardy myself.” She tried releasing the lock again. And again it opposed her. “Robert Alfons Mershmeier! That’s enough.” A strong current rushed in through the small rectangular window near the ceiling, and Cielo shivered as it touched her bare legs. She put all her strength behind her next attempt, and breathed in relief when the door cracked open.

“I know you think Sabrina is a careless driver,” she said as she walked through the doorway. The wooden panel vibrated visibly, as if caught between two opposing forces. Cielo’s dark eyes widened. “This is just not acceptable, Robert. It’s –“

Behind her, the bathroom door slammed closed and immediately Cielo felt the change in her surroundings. Her shoulders relaxed under the sudden heat, a normal temperature for a room that hadn’t been ventilated in an hour during a warm day. But when she turned around….

The bedroom was a picture of complete disarray.

The cosmetics on her vanity table appeared to have been swept to the side, but her favorite lipstick and the eye shadow that complimented her outfit for the night had stubbornly remained in their place. Cielo had the sudden certainty that when she opened her closet she’d find the same chaos, with only that forest green ensemble she’d bought last week especially for the occasion in its proper hanger.

“I don’t understand,” she told the room.

As all response, the window opened again, allowing a soft breeze in. “I forgot my hairbrush in there,” Cielo nodded at the shut bathroom door.

Contrary to their routine of the last ten years, the door wasn’t opened and neither did the forgotten item helpfully hover into her hands. Cielo found that she didn’t want to enter that room. “I don’t understand,” she repeated, this time barely above a whisper.

Robert didn’t explain.

“I can’t believe Mrs. Schwend still hasn’t moved out,” Willow sounded mystified. “She really doesn’t know what you and Angel do?”

Buffy waved one hand, the other grasping onto the elevator rail. “By now, the only thing I know for sure is that she’s human and almost deaf without her hearing aid.”

“Must be.” Willow jumped off onto the paved sidewalk. “With all the racket you and Angel must make.”

Dawn snickered.

“Because of the fights!” The redhead was blushing. “Not the…. Not that you’d racket. Just fight, fighting noises.”

“There are fights, too.” Buffy was grinning at her friend’s embarrassment. “But you’re right. I can’t believe she’s actually making dinner tonight. She’s like a fairy godmother, if fairies had a German accent.”

“Some do,” Dawn piped up, moving to the lead and quickening their pace. “Can we move, people?” She eyed Willow’s bag. “That can’t be so heavy. You’d go a lot faster if you –“

“Had a wheeled set, I know.” Willow rolled her eyes. “Xander said the same thing last week. Oh girls, you should have seen the place where he’s working from this time. The sights are amazing, and it’s so quiet that meditation is the easiest thing.”

“No such monster in L.A., Will,” Buffy laughed. “Traffic was freaky on the way in.”

“That’s because mortals freak when you drive past them,” Dawn told her sister, only half-kidding. Then she turned to Willow, “Next time, make sure your flight comes at night. Angel drives like a dream.”

Willow, who’d been smiling at the first part, sobered by the end of Dawn’s advice. She’d tried, but she still couldn’t understand the trust both sisters put in souled vampires. “It’s okay.” She hoisted the bag straps higher onto her right arm, setting them against her elbow. “I’d forgotten these places could go on forever,” she commented, letting out a sigh.

“Will. Over here!” Buffy called when the redhead would have continued further into the parkway. She raised the hand with Angel’s keys and disengaged the car alarm. Willow’s eyes widened when she noticed which car’s lights blinked in response.

Beside her, Dawn laughed as she opened the passenger door and slipped in. “Must be love, huh?” she called back through the window

“It’s not black.” Willow gaped, then noticed she and her luggage were still standing in the middle of the road and hurried back to her friends. “I didn’t know Angel knew other colors existed,” she remarked, mostly to herself but loud enough that the sisters sniggered. “I mean.” Flustered, Willow stopped near the open trunk and gazed at Buffy, who didn’t look at all discomfited by her comment about her partner. “You know what I mean,” the redhead kept on, fitting her medium-sized sports bag into the car. “Even in high school, he was rather color-challenged – and whoa.” She gave the trunk a considering look. “You could fit a football team in there.” Her awed expression turned into a contrite one. “Not that you would!”

Buffy laughed again and snapped the lid shut. “Or a couple of rowdy drunk half-Merbis brothers after a baseball match,” she replied. At her friend’s look, she lifted her shoulder. “Long story. Let’s just say that I have strong half-demons cleaning the outside of the windows for the next year. Merbises have incredible balance, you know?”

“It’s the extra dozen ligaments at their soles,” Dawn told them, having opened her sister’s door. “Now can we go? Mrs. Schwend said I could have a piece of pie as soon as it left the oven.” When she noticed the look the older women were giving her, she tilted her head questioningly. “What? I can’t have warm pie now?”

“Extra ligaments?” Buffy shook off her surprise and locked the door. Behind them, Willow did the same. “Since when do they cover the Merb races in an Arts program?”

Dawn rolled her eyes. “So I’ve been doing some research. I translate all these texts for Giles; of course I get curious,” she snapped, immediately regretting the defensive tone. Hopefully Buffy would accept that explanation; she didn’t want to explain why she’d needed extensive data on Merbal habits – Merbals, while smaller, were a more aggressive branch of the Merb family. Buffy would freak, and Dawn could live without a repeat of her sister’s last surprise visit to Boston.

“Giles said to thank you,” Willow remembered, at the same time defusing the situation. Dawn offered her a thankful smile over the rearview mirror, but the witch was busy upending her bag on the backseat. “He sent you this….” Her hand hovered over the cluster of tissue paper, scribbled notes, chewed pens and pencils, and a manila envelope. “Hah!” She fished out a tiny box that peeked from under the envelope, then flailed her arms around when Buffy took a sharp turn.

“Oops.” Buffy flipped the sun visor to the left and offered her passengers a sheepish smile. “Sensitive brakes,” she explained.

The other two occupants shared a worried look.

“And she asks why I took a cab,” Dawn muttered when they were back on a straight lane. Tugging at the seatbelt with one hand so it didn’t chafe against her neck, she twisted around to accept the gift, shaking it near her ear. “Well, it’s not jewelry.”

Willow arched an eyebrow. “It’s Giles.”

Buffy snorted. “Will’s right. I don’t think Giles ever noticed what we wore.” She pointed with her chin at the little box. “Well?”

“All right,” Dawn drawled, using her thumbnail to cut through the wrapping. “Huh” She tipped the box on its side and showed them the contents.

“That’s…” Buffy spared it a short glance, then did a double take. “…really weird?”

Willow also looked surprised, though not in the same way as the Summers sisters. “Actually, it’s kind of sweet.”

“It’s a piece of paper,” Dawn picked it up, examining front and back before laying it on the dashboard. On one side there was a series of numbers and letters, but that was it.

“Maybe it’s old paper,” Buffy ventured, not sounding very impressed herself.

“It’s his password,” Willow informed them. “He’s giving you full access to the Council archives.”

“Oh.”

Buffy spotted a yellow light ahead and slowed down. “Oh?” She took the chance to look over at her sister. “I don’t have full access, Dawn. Me. You can’t just ‘oh’ us.” Noticing Willow’s amused expression, she returned to her position and fixed her gaze on the traffic light. “Well, she can’t,” she muttered peevishly.

Dawn played with the edge of the note. Giles couldn’t have planned a better guilt trip if he’d flown in and showed everybody the journal she’d pilfered. Not that journals such as that one ever made their way into the computerized Council annals. “I wasn’t expecting this,” she said truthfully, folding the note and slipping it into her jacket pocket. Then, because Buffy would pick at her reaction until she discovered the real cause, she added in a snippy tone, “And it was your own choice not to get involved with the Council’s inner workings.”

She regretted it at once.

Buffy pursed her lips, the car lurching as she slammed her foot against the accelerator. The traffic around them also moved forward, but Dawn bet none of the other drivers had such a tight grip on their steering wheels. Maybe she shouldn’t have reminded her sister why she’d needed to make the choice. Not even Giles had been able to convince the new board to trust someone who worked so closely with the ex-CEO of Wolfram & Hart’s L.A. branch, no matter under which circumstances he’d presented his permanent resignation.

Dawn still remembered the day Giles had walked into the common room and asked to have a private word with Buffy – she and Angel had arrived two days before, to help with a nest of demons in the outskirts of London; but Buffy had come downstairs alone. She’d had breakfast with the rest of the house, choosing a seat between Xander and Faith, and then the three had moved the conversation out of the dining room. A tense silence had followed her and Giles as he walked her to his office; everybody had known what the conversation would be about.

(“I’d love to be a fly on that wall,” one of the younger Slayers had chirped, nudging a friend.

Xander had let out a dark laugh. “No, you wouldn’t.”

“Be grateful there’s that spell around the office,” Faith had stated dryly.

When Dawn had looked at them askance, Xander had dropped his head between his hands and started massaging his temples. “One lost eye doesn’t make me blind, Dawnie. Doesn’t matter what they are, they’d rather be it together.” He’d sighed. “I wish Willow were here; Buffy’s scary doesn’t scare her.”

“It’s never a good idea to make Buffy choose between Angel and the rest of us,” Faith had translated, fingers following a line across her belly, “Her record is nearly spotless, and the way I hear that story, that spot was the end of the world.”)

Now Buffy chuckled once, but it was a poor excuse for an amused sound. “With Angel hounding me to go through those demon encyclopedias every time we hit a slow week, I’ve got enough.” Her hold on the wheel loosened, but the imprints on the leather were slow to rise back to their regular shape. “If it weren’t for you guys, I’d spend Thanksgiving reading some awful print from a guy who lived before they invented actual printers.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Dawn retorted, scoffing at the notion.

Buffy’s shoulders relaxed, as she too recognized how unlikely that situation was. “All right, I would not. But Angel would try to talk me into it!”

“So you two are doing good?” Willow questioned from the back, putting her things back in the bag, with scarce more care than before they’d come out.

“They do nauseating quantities of good,” Dawn informed the witch. She twisted around in her seat again, and cupped her mouth in a mock attempt to leave her sister out of the conversation. “You should have seen them earlier. Can’t even get through a fight without making eyes at each other. ‘Oh, Angel. I’ll never let anyone but you paint our love nest’,” she started in a high voice, “’just as long as you do it shirtless and let me hold your –‘ Ouch!” Rubbing her suddenly screaming knee, she glared at Buffy. “You’re so violent.”

“Brat.” But this time her sister’s smile was for real.

Willow shook her head at their antics. “So you’re painting the apartment?”

Dawn burst out in laughter.

When neither sister would answer, the redhead lifted one shoulder and returned to her messenger role. “Here, Buff.” She waited until Buffy looked up at her through the rearview mirror and waved the manila envelope Dawn had noticed earlier. “Xander sends his love. And a little something from China.” Her free hand reached out to the long earring she was wearing. “He got me these.”

Buffy smiled. “They’re beautiful, Will. Give it to Dawn, please.”

Once in her hands, Dawn followed the implicit request and opened the envelope. A card came out first, and she placed it into the glove box without reading it. Then she picked out the second part of the gift, and grinned at the sight. “It’s so cute!” The miniature panda fit in her palm, and it took her a second to recognize the glint around its right paw. “Oh, there’s a ring, too.”

“Mine was a giraffe,” Willow commented. “He said they’re handmade, both the toys and the jewelry.”

Buffy patted the panda’s head with her index finger, then one-handedly took the ring and after deliberating on which finger it’d fit better, put it on and admired the sight.

“Eyes on the road,” Dawn and Willow said in unison.

Buffy did look up, but not before scowling at the other women. “You’re as bad as Angel.”

“He lets you drive?” Willow didn’t hide her surprise.

Having placed the little panda on top of the card, Dawn spied her sister’s face as she nodded. There was a pinched set to her mouth and her eyes had narrowed slightly. Dawn clucked, amused, and knew what Buffy wouldn’t admit. It was so great to be the younger sister, especially the younger sister who got to embarrass the older one. “When he’s bleeding or unconscious. Or both,” She smirked mischievously, then added a wise nod. “It’s a vampire thing – I mean, survival instinct. It’s a survival instinct.” She was making it worse and couldn’t stop herself.

The car swerved to the right, and the three occupants ignored the shouts from fellow drivers. Dawn wished her seat would swallow her; the other two stared at her. Finally it was Buffy who spoke, “If that has anything to do with Spike, I don’t want to know.”

“He’s in L.A.?” Willow’s tone didn’t speak of reproach – a rare thing since the witch had been the one to propose one of the younger Slayers do the routine check on Dawn instead of having Spike do it – but of active interest.

Buffy noticed that, too. “Not this time,” she answered, glancing at Willow from the corner of her eye. “Why?”

“Xander said he could use an extra hand in Asia. Spike’s probably forgotten more dialects than what Xander has managed to learn.”

“And after a hundred years, those dialects must be extinct,” Dawn rejoined the conversation. “Besides, Xander and Spike working together? A word comes to mind… I think it’s the superlative to ‘disaster’.”

“Bad hair day on the Apocalypse’s eve,” Buffy agreed.

Willow shrugged. “Can’t be all that. Dawnie gets along with Spike,” she pointed out.

“Because I like him.” Dawn noticed the worried looks on Willow and Buffy; but decided not to comment. Buffy had set a terrible precedent for the relationship between a Summers girl and a souled vampire, and protesting wouldn’t help. Buffy had also made sure that heavy denial was part of that relationship, so instead of denying Dawn had to tell the truth. “I like him so much that I’d have made the cross-continental drive – again, mind you - if he hadn’t found himself a better Thanksgiving party with Candy and Bubbles.”

“I really don’t want to know,” Buffy groused, veering into a smaller road. “And I don’t like you knowing about it.”

Dawn smirked. “I guess I should say that the party found him. The girls broke in last night and kidnapped him.”

“They what?”

“No worries. They promised to give me back my keys.”

“Your what?”

Dawn cringed as a nearby honk protested their sudden movement. “Relax, Buffy. They’re nice girls, really. Their great-grandmother was a succubus, so they’re gorgeous. Drop-dead, eat-your-tongue gorgeous. It’d be easy to hate them if they weren’t, like, the sweetest strippers in town.”

“Strippers!” Willow gasped.

The wheel suffered again under Buffy’s temper. “Spike’s… friends… visit your place?”

“Um.” Actually, he’d met them there. “They’re my friends, too. Kinda. Martha – that’s Bubbles’ real name – works at my hairdresser’s, and I kinda discovered that they were being hounded by some uncle to get into the soul-sucking business. They’ve done my hair ever since.” Dawn shook the short mane. “See the bounce? The bounce is all theirs.”

“It does look nice,” Willow allowed.

“You’d love them. And it isn’t as if they want to stay at the Scarlet forever.” She turned to her sister. “They’re saving for their own salon.”

Buffy snorted. “How entrepreneur.”

Dawn rolled her eyes. “Exes don’t get an opinion, sis. And they are a huge improvement on the batch from when you and Angel got squeezy.”

“So dramatic,” Buffy sighed, reaching out to turn the blinker on.

“Wouldn’t be Spike without the drama,” Dawn pointed out, glad that they weren’t skidding along the curves anymore.

“So Spike is dating two strippers?” Willow surmised. “At the same time?”

Dawn had no idea why the redhead sounded surprised. “They’re one-eighth succubus sisters; the men that don’t trip over their feet before them are worn out too quickly,” she explained. “A vampire with a soul is the answer to their prayers.”

“Is it scary that it makes sense?” Buffy asked.

The question was directed at Willow, but it took the witch a few moments to answer: “Terrifying.”

Dawn shrugged. “Said the Slayer heading into common-law with a vampire, and Denial Witch. What?” She pressed herself against the car door at their glares. “You are!”

At least, she thought as the older girls’ annoyance didn’t fade, there was a piece of pie waiting for her.

Cielo heard the front gate opening, and the roar of an Audi engine as it drove to its spot at the front of the house. It was already 11:13. By the time she and Sabrina had cut through the city traffic and reached her oldest son’s home, everyone would be there already. Even Carolina and her girls. In their last conversation, her middle daughter had seemed to take savage pride in having to go to the office even on Thanksgiving Day; after the long battle over custody that’d just taken place, after having to prove over and over that she was capable of supporting her two children, Cielo couldn’t find it in her to tell her daughter to slow down, that the worst had already passed. She was stubborn, her daughter, but Cielo expected her to discover soon that the daughters she’d fought so fiercely over were waiting for her at home….

“Nana!” Sabrina’s cheery voice called, and rapid clicking followed it as the girl walked to the front door.

“Such energy,” Cielo chuckled, taking her purse and the clothes bag with her evening ensemble. It had taken almost an hour to bring back some measure of order to her room, and then only with Robert’s quiet help. At first she’d been quite shaken, but when the bathroom door had finally been allowed to open, none of those frightening signs had reappeared. “We’ll talk tomorrow, querido.” Cielo reached for her house keys, and blew a kiss at the air.

She heard the front door opening at the same time that she stepped into the hallway.

And discovered that whatever was happening, only her bedroom had been shielded. Her arms covered in goose bumps immediately. “Oh dear.”

“Did something happen to the thermostat?” Sabrina was saying, and instead of waiting at the door, the girl made her way to the kitchen. “I was thinking to grab an iced water, but now I’ll make do with some cookies. There are cookies, right?”

“Take only one,” Cielo called back, pressing the clothes bag against her chest as she hastened down the stairway. “The rest are for tonight. Since you’re there, bring the platter outside – would you, sweetheart?” There was no response. “Sabrina!”

Her granddaughter came into view. Her eyes were mischievous, and Cielo knew that the cookie she was chewing now – the reason for which she’d remained silent – was the second, or maybe her third. She breathed in relief. Whatever this other energy was, she’d investigate it tomorrow when she didn’t need to worry about visitors. A little cold wouldn’t drive her away from her own house and, Cielo thought as she squared her shoulders, it wasn’t as if she lacked extra help. “You’re as bad as your father,” she told the girl, with a touch of affectionate disapproval. Noticing that Sabrina was already carrying the decorated platter in her hands, the older woman nodded toward the door. “Well, let’s go. Your parents may be used to your being late all the time, but I’m not.” Raising an eyebrow when Sabrina attempted to protest, her mouth still full, Cielo descended the few last steps.

She would have reminded her granddaughter of the advantages of punctuality, but an almost forgotten pair of hands grabbed her arm and pushed her to the side.

“Nana!”

Cielo recovered her balance quickly, as those same hands wouldn’t let her fall to the floor. “Oh dear,” she said again, looking around incredulously. For the first time in almost a decade, she expected the familiar presence of her late husband to materialize before her. “Robert?”

Instead it was a concerned girl who’d rushed up to her. “Are you okay?” Cielo was about to nod, when the girl’s brown eyes widened as she took in something behind her.

Cielo turned her head slowly, knowing it would be worse than a ransacked room. Behind her, a hair’s breadth from where her head had been, a knife was embedded through the picture that decorated the staircase.

“What’s…. What’s that?”

“My wedding picture,” Cielo answered needlessly. She took Sabrina’s wrists in her free hand, pushing the many bracelets upwards, and led the girl to the bottom of the stairs. Thanking her luck that she’d forgone her favorite china platter in favor of a plastic one she’d spent the last afternoon decorating for the occasion, Cielo summoned a smile. “Pick that up, sweetheart.” She gave her granddaughter a fortifying squeeze. “Time to go.”

Sabrina’s eyes were fixed on the shards of glass that’d shattered out of the picture frame. “But….”

“Let’s not keep your mother waiting, Sabrina.” Cielo nudged the girl forward. She wanted her out of the house. Today there was an important family dinner; tomorrow she could pause and make sense of the madness. “Let’s go.” She picked up the fallen platter herself and continued on to the door. “Let’s just go.”

CHAPTER TWO

Small noises had drifted in and out of Willow’s consciousness for the last fifteen minutes, but it was a relentless beeping which tore apart the last of her dreams.

“Sorry!” Dawn’s voice hissed and, with her eyes still closed, the redhead could hear her steps rushing from the guestroom to the kitchen area.

The annoying sound stopped, but Willow’s sleep was well and truly gone. She stretched one arm over her head, feeling along the edge of the side table behind her. Curling her fingers around her phone, she brought it to her eyes to look at its clock. “It’s barely seven,” she grumbled around a yawn, pushing the covers to her waist and sitting up. Last night’s reunion had wrapped up long after midnight, so she hadn’t planned to be up until nine or so, with plenty of time to get ready before she, Dawn and Buffy headed out for some shopping. “Why are you up already?”

Dawn was sitting on the outside of the kitchen landing, feet tucked underneath the tall stool, and she paused mid-typing to turn to her. “First draft for my term paper.” She lifted one hand to rub her forehead, letting the other drop on her laptop keyboard. When a shriller beeping started, Dawn jerked her hand back and gave a sheepish look. “Sorry again. And for waking you up.”

“It’s okay.” Willow passed a hand through her hair, wincing when it got caught on her new earrings. She’d forgotten to take them out before going to sleep. “Classes giving you a hard time?”

“Not really.” Dawn returned to her essay. “This isn’t due until the second week of December, but –“ she gave a short chuckle “- watch me taking what quiet times I can.”

Willow smiled. When Dawn had first taken an active interest in attending college, Giles had showered the girl with a list of institutions where the Council had some weight and, more preferable still, where demonic presence was low enough not to be considered a threat. Willow remembered having pulled the girl aside for what she’d thought would be useful advice. She really should have taken into account whose blood ran in Dawn’s veins, she mused now. Dawn had given a cursory look over Giles’s list, nodded at the appropriate intervals during Willow’s lecture, and then announced she’d been accepted at Boston U.

That Dawn had chosen a place far from her sister while remaining in the same country had not been lost on anybody, least of all Buffy. Willow remembered a phone conversation held during those weeks. “Was I ever that bad, Will?” Buffy had asked, a whine in her voice that the redhead hadn’t heard since their high school days. “Don’t answer that. At least she isn’t running away – I guess I should have seen this coming, shouldn’t I? I mean, look at Connor. The only reason Angel isn’t going crazy at the communication lack is because the Reillys get just as little. Oh, Will. Did she have to grow up so quickly?” The maudlin mood hadn’t lasted long. “Dawn will be prepared, though. If she wants to live on her own, I won’t stop her. But I’ll make sure she’s ready for it.”

Buffy had been true to her word. She’d flown to London the next day, and after an hour-long meeting in Giles’ office – the only one with an auditory shield so nobody could eavesdrop on Council matters or, in this case, sibling shouting – the terms for Dawn’s freedom had been set. A training regime no Slayer would envy, a set of wards cast by Willow herself wherever Dawn settled down, and continued visits to make sure she was doing okay.

It was Buffy’s choice of who’d perform those visits which had disconcerted them. While Willow could understand giving Spike the reins of Dawn’s physical training – as she’d explained it to Xander: the new Slayers were still in the learning stage, Faith’s style would never fit Dawn, Buffy herself was too busy in California and any Watcher who wasn’t Giles couldn’t be trusted – sending the vampire to Boston every few weeks was akin to letting the wolf oversee the sheep.

Buffy had heaved a long, tired sigh at that. Dawn had railed at being called sheep. They both, no matter that they hadn’t talked to each other in more than three-word sentences since their initial meeting, insisted that despite how well-intentioned she, Xander, and Giles were, Dawn’s move was ultimately a family matter. Buffy trusted Spike. Dawn trusted Spike. And Spike, to the surprise of everyone except the sisters, was agreeable to the arrangement. When Willow had cornered him later, demanding to know why it’d been so easy to convince him when he’d shown disdain for the other missions the Council had proposed, those more adventurous and bloodier than watching over a girl, Spike had laughed. “First off, Buffy’s no longer Council no matter what noises Rupert makes, and we all know it. Second,” – he’d tapped her nose, making her jump back more effectively than if he’d pushed her away, – “I’m getting a get out of jail free card, far from the lot of you. So it’s only babysitting for a couple days a month; I’ll make do.” He winked. “Boston’s a great town, witchy. I’m sure I’ll find the time to enjoy it when baby Dawn’s safe in bed.”

Except that Dawn seemed to be far from safety while Spike cavorted about. Willow couldn’t understand Buffy’s reaction, or lack thereof. The Buffy she knew would have charged to Boston, dragged the vampire from his lovers’ home and demanded an explanation, probably at the point of a sharp stake. But yesterday they’d heard more of Dawn’s tales at the dinner table, and while they had been screened for their hostess’s benefit, recollections of club fights and being chased by the police weren’t stories fit for a college girl. Buffy had frowned several times over the evening, but in the end she’d been more preoccupied with dissipating Mrs. Schwend’s worries over Angel’s seeming lack of interest in her food than with the hanging threat to her little sister.

Having folded both sheets and the bedcovers while she ruminated over her next step, Willow stood and started toward the bathroom. Her plan of action was ready by the time she headed for the kitchen. “Want some breakfast while you work?” Buffy had always been big on breakfast food, and indeed, in the third cabinet she found four different boxes of cereal. Having found two bowls, Willow chuckled as she remembered that Buffy’s cooking skills only included those food groups that didn’t need to be chopped, seasoned, and watched over so they wouldn’t burn. No wonder she’d ended up with a guy on a strict liquid diet. “I’m not sure how I feel about milk kept right next to blood,” she said aloud when she opened the fridge.

Dawn shrugged her shoulders. “Not worse than when you microwave cups of both together.”

Willow grimaced at the thought. Sometimes she couldn’t believe she’d been that supportive of Buffy and Angel’s relationship when she’d been younger. But then, when she’d been younger she’d never considered the logistics. Life with a vampire had so many drawbacks, and the months Spike had been a constant presence at the Summers house had only been a taste of the real thing. After all, back then there’d been limits – limits Spike had tested at every step, but they’d been there. It seemed that Spike still tested every limit. “So why the lack of quiet in Boston?”

The typing halted, but after a few seconds resumed again. “You’ve met the Trio; there’s no quiet when they’re around.” Dawn gave a sigh, but kept her voice low. “Lately they’ve been dropping in more often than usual, too. If I ever meet Brigitte’s ex, I’m telling you, I’ll wring his neck.”

Willow raised her eyebrows as she poured the milk. Dawn’s upstairs neighbors were the younger girl’s surest source of both entertainment and exasperation. No email from her was without at least a couple sentences dedicated to the three blondes, who after a year still couldn’t decide whether to put a curse on Dawn for being so familiar with Spike, or fawning over her because she was the reason Spike visited the building at all. “What happened?”

“Broke up with her.” Dawn rolled her eyes. “Which somehow translated to Danielle and Christine bringing her down to my place for ‘intensive therapy’.”

“Girl talk?” Willow guessed, pulling the Oats & Raisins out and putting the box next to the bowls.

“Hah! Thank goodness, no.” Dawn eyed the preparations and gave the redhead a pleading look. “Can I please have the chocolate-y one?” Willow nodded and lowered the brown box. “Therapy includes, but is not limited to, looking at Spike, drooling over Spike, exchanging whatever piece of nonsense with Spike and, how could I forget? Worshipping Spike.”

Willow chortled at the imagery. “Bet he loves it.”

The brunette gave her a considering look, shook her head. “Actually, they always end being glared by Spike. A lot.” She grinned as she accepted her bowl, putting her laptop to the side. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a vampire more tempted to walk outside into daylight.”

“But come night time he’s the one riding you about town, huh?” Her innocent voice was out of practice. Willow knew it as soon as the other girl’s spoon stopped midway to her mouth.

“Don’t.” Dawn set the spoon back in her bowl, watching the round flakes float back to the surface. “Don’t make this Spike’s fault, okay?”

“I’m not….”

“Yes, you are.” The girl pushed back her hair, and after a huffy breath, snapped the hair band at her wrist. She said nothing while she tied her hair into a short ponytail, but the look she gave Willow spoke great lengths. “Look, I know you’re worried. I even understand why you’re worried. But it’s been over a year and Spike hasn’t killed, drained or turned me. Isn’t it time you cut the guy some slack?”

“But, Dawnie.” Too late, Willow reflected it wasn’t the time to use Dawn’s much hated nickname. Nonetheless, she charged on. “He’s irresponsible, and he clearly is not interested in your priorities.” Willow pushed her own breakfast aside and reached over to take Dawn’s right hand. “I know he can be charming, but –“ She was surprised when, instead of yanking her hand away, the girl grabbed onto hers.

“Of course Spike is charming.” Dawn wasn’t hissing, but it was a near thing. “He charmed the pants off of my sister, remember? Right in the middle of her let’s-hate-the-world zen. Which, okay, not the best example but it gives you an idea as to why every female in my building remembers his name better than mine, and why they remind me to bring him along when there’s a party.”

“He takes you to parties?” She would have stood up and started pacing, but Dawn’s grip kept her in place.

“You’re missing the point,” Dawn whispered. “I take him. I ask him to get me away on weekends. Because he’s fun,” she rushed out before the redhead could interrupt. “He knows all these people, and tons of things from way before. And he’s got an open invitation to places –“

“Dangerous places,” Willow interrupted anyway.

“-places you can’t even imagine, Will,” the younger girl continued, eyes bright at whatever memories came to mind. Then her gaze met Willow’s, and the witch was reminded of another kitchen, another trusting girl extolling the virtues of a vampire. “Is it so difficult to believe he won’t let anything happen to me?”

“You are in love with him.”

Dawn’s mouth dropped open, and she released her sister’s best friend so that she could cover her face with both hands. Shaking her head several times, she finally drew in a long breath and exhaled slowly. “I give up.” Giving Willow an amused smile, she dug into her cereal again.

“Dawn….”

“No, really.” The girl licked off a drop of milk from the corner of her lips. “I’m done with the subject. Already had the most hypocritical lecture in history from my sister, so I know how to avoid falling for a vampire.” She tapped the spoon against the rim of the bowl as she considered her next words. “Thank you for the concern. But I’m okay, all right?”

Willow wondered if the invisible ‘Do Not Trespass’ sign always came to the Summers women with a ‘Die If You Do’ footnote. “All right,” she capitulated. “But, with Buffy being so busy these days, you know I’m here for you, right, Dawnie?” Dawn arched an eyebrow. Willow rolled her eyes at her own blunder. “Sorry. Dawn.”

“That’s sweet.” Dawn jumped off her stool, grabbing the empty bowl and her spoon. Her voice was still low, but she turned it up as she walked around the landing. “But we’re talking about Buffy. You know, that sister who died for me – Buffy?” She grinned before she put her load into the dishwasher, then reached out so Willow could give her hers. “Even when she’s deliriously blissful she’ll make the time to call me. Believe me, she has.” Dawn made a face. “If I never know what Angel was doing the last time she phoned, I’ll die happy,” the girl lamented.

Willow found it hard not to laugh. “So everything is okay?”

Dawn had returned to her seat and flipped her laptop back open. “As long as I don’t fail any classes or lose any limbs, things are peachy. In fact, the four limbs are optional – which is why I need a good grade.” Willow watched her call in the archive, then sit back and drum her fingers as she waited for the Word document to load. “And if His Highness doesn’t work more quickly,” she grumbled at the appliance, “maybe I’ll hunt for a Mac later.”

“There aren’t really sales on computer ware,” Willow told the girl, fighting a smile at the picture she presented. Was it any wonder that they found it hard to treat her like an adult when Dawn still played the annoyed little girl so well?

“I’m going with a damn great witch and a Slayer.” Dawn’s pursed lips relaxed when the screen spat out the proper window. “I’ll find what I want.”

Willow glanced at her, so obviously struggling, and then over at the wall that separated the office space from the kitchen. For a pair who claimed no knowledge about computers, the one sitting on its own desk next to Angel’s was impressive. “Wouldn’t it be easier to borrow their computer? I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.” A full bodied shudder, accompanied by a disgruntled grimace was not the reaction Willow had expected. “What’s wrong?”

“There was an online lingerie catalogue marked as a favorite,” Dawn muttered without looking up from her screen. “Next time I’ll find a sex toys page, I’m sure. That’s the kind of luck I have.”

“I’m sure they wouldn’t….” the redhead drifted off at Dawn’s snort. Clearing her throat, Willow found she was caught between sincere joy at her best friend’s apparent fulfillment, and just as sincere worry. “Right.” She moved until she was almost behind Dawn. “What about I leave you to your…” – she stretched her neck to catch the document’s title – “… Pointillism, and I move on to a shower?”

Dawn scrolled up to the beginning of her work. “Good luck getting hot water.”

Willow chuckled, and barely stopped herself from patting the girl’s head. “You got a cold one yesterday, too?”

“Try freezing,” Dawn muttered, her attention half focused on what she’d already written. Her hand hovered over the keyboard, ready to correct any misspelled word. If Buffy felt half as proud, Willow mused, it was no wonder Dawn was allowed to run her life as she wished. If only she could trust Spike. “But maybe it’s only a morning thing because later it was fine.”

Willow remembered they were talking about the shower and gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Maybe.”

Half an hour later, she was toweling off her hair when Dawn knocked on the guest room door. “Sorry, Will,” the girl whispered as she stepped in. “I forgot some of my notes here.”

Willow halted her humming and reached over to the thick folder she’d found on the bed. “Any idea why the sudden need to redecorate?” She waved her other hand about the room. “I know Buffy needed to find something for that tribe to do but, blue and gray stripes in the shower? They seem scarier when I’m not jetlagged.”

Buffy’s sister gave a chuckle. “She says it’s a blue phase.”

“Still.” With a headshake, Willow handed the girl her folder. “Well, at least it was Buffy’s choice.” She looked at the walls pointedly. “I was starting to wonder whether Angel was sending subliminal messages to his son. Who’s Raoul Dover?” She gave Dawn a sheepish look at the sudden change of subjects. “I sort of read through the first page. Sometimes I miss college life,” she confessed.

“It can be missable,” Dawn allowed. “Dover was a minor artist. He was on the rise in Paris for a couple of years, but….” She paged through the collected data, looking somewhat flustered. “Well. Some say he lost his muse.”

Willow arched an eyebrow. “You found personal information? That’s huge, Dawnie!” She grinned. “And it was a good idea to focus on him; everybody else will be writing about the major players, so your paper will show more work on the research from the get-go.”

“Yeah….”

But Dawn was shifting on her feet, and her face had turned red. It took Willow only another moment to understand. Her hands froze, and the unsupported terrycloth drifted onto the mattress. “Oh.” She picked her towel back up and resumed her actions, as if she’d never paused. “I didn’t know Spike had ever been interested in the arts.” Dawn shrugged. Willow went over the girl’s words. “Or perhaps he was the reason that muse got lost?”

“They were models,” the brunette told her. “Drusilla wanted to pose, and she grew frustrated when he always picked someone else.”

“She never did good first impressions.”

With a dismissive gesture, Dawn continued, “Dover favored blondes.”

“Hair dye hadn’t been invented yet?”

Dawn snorted. “You know vamps, always looking out for the bloodier solution.”

Willow shook out her hair, giving herself time to process this new development. “Dawn –“

The girl didn’t give her the chance to continue. “You almost ended the world, Willow.” Once the unmentionable had been mentioned, Dawn didn’t avoid the redhead’s betrayed expression. “And I’m the key to a hell dimension.” She pressed the folder against her chest and laughed nastily. “She who hasn’t almost destroyed Earth may cast the first stone.”

“I wasn’t….” Willow stopped herself. Because she was, and stones weren’t what she’d been tempted to cast against the blond vampire. “You shouldn’t act embarrassed on his behalf,” she said instead.

Dawn shook her head so forcefully that her hair band fell out. Her haircut did have a pretty bounce, Willow noted, amazed that they’d had that discussion not twenty-four hours ago. “I was embarrassed because you were all oh! and ah!, and all I did was listen to Spike’s story!” Dawn then stopped and cast around to look at the closed door, biting her lip before expelling an anxious “Damn.”

Willow sighed. “What now?”

“You don’t think they heard me, do you?”

In times of peace, Buffy was a heavy sleeper. In their months together at the dorms, many mornings Willow had finished changing her clothes, packing her things and making a quick good morning call to Oz, and later Tara, and still she’d needed to shake Buffy awake for class. As for Angel…. Well, she had to admit she had no idea as to the vampire’s habits. “Their room is far enough, Dawn.”

The girl gave her a look. “We’re in a vampire’s home, Will,” she said, volume back to the whisper it’d been through the morning. “Far is never enough with their hearing.” At the witch’s disbelieving look, Dawn rolled her eyes. “Look. I’ve got a quasi permanent guest and he delights in telling me all that happens in my neighbors’ homes. Or you thought it was coincidence that Giles asked for that spell in his office so soon after Angel moved back to LA and started getting dragged into Council quarters by Buffy?”

“I….” She hadn’t realized the importance of the timing, and now Willow realized that she should have. “That’s why you’ve been whispering all the while?”

Dawn lifted her shoulders. “They’ve slept less than us; they can use the extra time. After you fell asleep, Buffy decided to make a quick sweep around the neighborhood – or that’s what she claimed.” At the redhead’s look, she added, “I saw them leave. She looked pretty surprised that I was still working on this -“ Dawn waved the folder “- when they headed off. Never heard them come back, but they’re in there. I heard their shower before you woke up.”

“So why haven’t they come out?”

“Do you really want to know?” Dawn challenged, wiggling her eyebrows.

Willow rolled her eyes at the girl’s suggestive tone, then laughed. “No, I guess not.” Satisfied with her hair, she wrapped the towel over her arm and headed outside. Dawn followed her, intent on returning to her work. “All I care about is that we have a peaceful, happy day.”

“We’re shopping on Black Friday,” Dawn remarked. “Peace and happiness aren’t the landmarks of hundreds of men and women in tiny stores. Violence might be necessary.”

Willow waved off those worries, turning toward the bathroom. “You said it, Dawnie. We’re bringing in a Slayer and I’ve brought extra good luck charms. We’ll have a great day.”

That was when the deep, loud buzz from the main gate interrupted.

Both women stopped in their tracks, glancing towards the ringing appliance nestled between the fridge and the light switch.

Dawn dropped her folder next to the laptop. “I can’t believe we’re still jinxing ourselves.”

Willow, wet towel still hanging in her hand, looked contrite. “Oops?”

Buffy’s sense of reality was thrown back to her college days. Willow’s raspy contralto sang in the background, accompanied by a full-on shower, and she could feel the warm presence of sunlight against her arm. Willow must have forgotten to close the curtains again. Ugh. Must be one of those days – usually she could sleep through Willow’s preparations, but the fact that her shoulders felt tense and her hands were curled into fists indicated that it was Battle Week. Double ugh. Now if only her mind provided her the enemy’s identity…. There were so many to pick from, though. Her college days sucked. Classes sucked. Exam results sucked. The Initiative sucked. Riley….

She shifted to her right, using the arm on top of the covers to blindly search for her bedmate. Riley hadn’t sucked. Not until they’d broken up. She made a distressed noise at the back of her throat as that piece of her memories returned to her half-awake mind; buried her face against her pillow. The college experience had so sucked; she couldn’t believe Angel had tried to convince her to give that nightmare anoth---

Angel.

Right. She wasn’t at college anymore.

Eyes still closed, Buffy reached out a bit further. Maybe Dawn was right, she reflected as she still couldn’t find her lover. Maybe their bed was truly an oversized monstrosity. As it turned out, she and Angel had different concepts of space. If she hadn’t been traumatized out of her mind, and then too busy denying her heartbreak, his moving to the Crawford mansion, and then to an abandoned hotel would have been evident tells. The only reason they didn’t have seven floors of empty apartments was that half-demon families or peaceful demons needed a roof over their heads, and when that roof was topped by Angel and a Slayer, they were willing to pay a pretty sum for their living space.

Their bed was another symptom of Angel’s inclination. At first Buffy had been skeptical, but before a week she’d admitted that being able to stretch along, across and in every other direction was a luxury she hadn’t known had been missing in her life. That she needn’t worry that they’d roll off the bed at any minute was another plus.

So the bed had stayed.

Angel, on the other hand….

Half asleep again, she strained her senses until his low voice reached her from their bathroom – Willow was still singing somewhere beyond their room. Then there were doors closing and opening, Willow’s shower turned off completely. Silence. “Why did you leave?” Buffy asked when, minutes later, the mattress shifted under her. So she had abandonment issues; she dared any woman with her story not to have them.

“Needed a shower.”

He was probably leaving half the bed empty in his quest to press closer to her. Buffy had no complaints. “You feel dry,” she commented as she put her arm around his naked back. Cold skin, warm air around it. Sometimes she had trouble believing life had brought her back to Angel, sharing a life and a bed enfolded in sunlight. Until she’d started sharing a bedroom with him, Buffy had never appreciated waking to a light room. Now necro tempered glass was her favorite invention since automatic crossbows. Who knew life could be so sweet?

“All right, Miss Christie.” He kissed her forehead. “I also had calls to make, and I’d rather not let your sister and best friend know we need a cleaning crew so early in the morning.”

Ugh.

“Foil will charge extra,” she groaned, rolling onto her back and opening her eyes to the less sweet aspects of her life. “His men hate working on holidays.” As a former employee of Wolfram & Hart, Buffy distrusted Roger Foil on principle, and the man hadn’t done anything to elevate her opinion. Still, his training had paid well, and when it came to removing demon bodies and erasing signs of a battle from public view, Buffy admitted he was a professional. “On the other hand,” she chuckled, “he loves his job.”

“He sounded bored when he answered my call,” Angel agreed.

“Not enough mayhem on Thanksgiving?”

“Not enough involving people who’d pay his fee.”

“I’m sorry.” She met the hand that’d sneaked around her waist, stroking along his wrist with a slow touch. “I really thought it was a vamp nest.”

Angel shrugged one shoulder. “It’s okay.”

“I shouldn’t have dragged you away with me so close to sunrise. We wouldn’t have needed Foil if we had more time.”

“It’s okay. They were big. We couldn’t have stashed all of them in the trunk anyway.”

“They were big.” Buffy sighed. “Good thing you carried that sword with you.” Her fingers threaded between his. “Swords are good and I shouldn’t have gotten angry when you offered me one.”

“The crossbow didn’t do badly,” he offered.

He never let her give a proper apology. Buffy hoped that was part of the honeymoon; she felt like a bitch every time he found a reasonable excuse for her behavior. “We got lucky. Those demons didn’t even have scales to protect them.”

Angel cleared his throat rather abruptly.

Buffy turned toward him. “You’re laughing?”

His arm tightened around her, and he brought her along when he sat up against the headboard. “Love, you were in a bad mood.” He kissed her hair before she could protest. “Those guys could have been wearing armor and they still wouldn’t have had a chance. In the end I was there mostly for damage control.”

She smiled at his description. Ever since they’d started working together, he’d cheered her occasional blood-thirstiness and encouraged some wildness in her fighting style – as long as it was aimed elsewhere. Being celebrated for her prowess, not because she’d saved him, but because he was impressed, was a feeling Buffy hadn’t remembered missing until she had it back.

“Thank you, then. You didn’t need to do it.”

Angel grinned. “You mean, I didn’t need to make sure you wouldn’t snap at us for the rest of the weekend? Or I didn’t need to watch the most beautiful woman on earth win a battle almost bare-handed?” The grin showed teeth. Six months ago, she’d have feared for his soul. He seemed to read her thoughts, because his expression softened and he kissed her again. “Oh yes, I’m a martyr,” he whispered contently.

Buffy spent the next minutes contemplating the last hours.

Unknown to both, Angel’s thoughts reflected hers.

(After leaving Mrs. Schwend’s, Buffy said cheery goodnights to Dawn and Willow, and reminded them that they needed to leave the house at ten at the latest if they didn’t want to miss the best sales. Then she walked into her bedroom and, upon hearing Angel close the door behind them, she sagged against him and sighed, “Tell me again why I won’t stake Spike.” Her hand fisted around an imaginary stake.

Angel held her loosely for a moment before answering, his voice as level as it could be considering the subject. “Because, for some unfathomable reason, you trust that self-loving, brash prick.”

“Right.” Her hands relaxed and she started to nod. Angel watched her as she walked away from him and towards the bed, and started counting to ten. He hadn’t reached five when she swiveled around, looked at him and started pacing across their room. “That’s not enough,” she said at last, “A police record, Angel. My sister could have a police record because she hangs out with that excuse of a babysitter.”

Angel decided to stay where he was. She had the bad habit of expressing her frustrations physically, and seldom toward the responsible party. He hoped the responsible party was having a twinge of conscience in Boston, then he snorted at himself at the notion. But, the fact remained, Buffy and Dawn would be together for the next few days, and he’d already been treated to one of their grimmer quarrels this year. He’d been proud of Buffy’s restraint during dinner – though he was sure Mrs. Schwend’s presence had been the reason his girlfriend hadn’t sworn to stake/behead/maim Spike around the lady’s Thanksgiving table – but if she vented her anger to her sister…. In their last visit to Boston, they’d discovered that the easiest way to incur Dawn’s temper was to threaten her unlikely roommate. “Dawn likes her excuse of a babysitter.”

“Dawn likes half my wardrobe, too. Doesn’t mean I’m letting her have it!”

He considered telling Buffy that she couldn’t ‘let’ Dawn have Spike, because Buffy didn’t have any claim on Spike in the first place. Then he realized that was a path he didn’t want to follow. He’d accepted that Buffy and Spike had been involved, he’d witnessed the signs of camaraderie when they weren’t growling at each other, and deep down he couldn’t fault Buffy’s decision to keep Spike close to her kid sister. If nothing else, the prick was loyal.

In the last few months, though, the subject of Spike had been closed and shoved to the side unless it related to Dawn in some way. In his opinion, they had plenty other relationship issues to solve, and if a tacit agreement not to mention Spike had developed, Angel would keep it. Avoidance may have never worked well between him and Buffy, but addressing raw matters had always proved a worse idea. “It’s not about that, Buffy,” he settled for saying. “You wanted Dawn to make her own decisions. You insisted that you wouldn’t meddle in her choices, and last month you decided Dawn did indeed deserve that trust.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Not fair. I’m afraid my sister will appear in the Most Wanted list, and you’re being reasonable!”

Angel hid a smirk. Only Buffy would blow what, at worst, would have been a speeding ticket and a severe talking-to into multi-state felony charges. “That’s a bad thing?”

“It is when I’m trying to pick a fight and you won’t let me.” She started pacing again. “You’re right, too. Because it does suck when you’ve got it all mapped out and everybody keeps saying that you can’t mark the X right, and Dawn isn’t even in high school! She deserves to live her life without people who’ve got no right to make decisions for her, making them!” Her strides became longer, quicker, more predatory. “I won’t have my baby sister come full circle after a decade, just because someone decided to meddle when they weren’t invited.”

At least Buffy wasn’t glaring at him. There were dozen of responses to her ire; none that wouldn’t provoke an argument not fit for their guests’ ears. “You’re her sister. You wouldn’t be meddling,” he had to say it. He owed that much to himself. “You want the best for her.”

“I’d be a meddler with good intentions and with enough authority that she’d need to be more than a confused school girl to defy me.” Buffy’s laugh spoke more of old pain than irony. “Yay me.”

“Buffy….” He wasn’t surprised when she sidestepped him and continued her back-and-forth pacing.

“That doesn’t matter. Dawn matters. The fact that I want to storm the guest room and make her see reason, matters.” Then she stopped and searched his eyes, a wild intensity in hers. “Can we crash that nest Laurie phoned me about?”

It said something about them that they’d rather kill vampires than discuss the past.

Considering past such discussions, though, that something was probably screaming of survival instincts.)

Buffy stirred, pushing the blanket away, when she realized she was about to fall asleep again. “Three hours of sleep are not enough,” she said around a yawn, already regretting having to leave the pillow she’d made of Angel’s arm. She dropped one kiss on his shoulder as thanks, and then swung her legs to the side of the bed. “Cereal is not gonna do it for me this morning.” She glanced down at him over her shoulder. She’d never tire of how he looked under the sunlight. “Care to make proper breakfast for three women in need of balanced proteins and extra carbs? We’ll need the energy; this is D Day, after all.”

He grinned. “Fool me, thinking yesterday was the important day where we thanked the Fates for the good things –“ He extended his arm until he brushed the edge of her night clothes. “ – the very good things – “ Commandeering his t-shirts and the occasional wifebeater was Buffy’s signal that she expected a quiet and reposed rest, and while Angel had been known to defy the unspoken edict, it was because he felt confident to differentiate between a real protest and an incentive to have him seduce her further. He wondered if she guessed at the effect of his clothes on her. Objectively, white cotton shouldn’t compare to cherry-colored silk or a matching lacy thong; his libido didn’t react with objectivity.

“You were saying?”

His eyes snapped up from where he was rubbing the white fabric against her thigh. She looked a bit perplexed, and Angel knew that if she hadn’t known before, now she had an inkling that oversized, almost shapeless garments on her didn’t necessarily give the ‘I’ve got a headache’ message. He loosened his shirt and gave the spot a soft pat. “I was saying, how disappointed I am that celebrating our successes with friends and family doesn’t rate as high as a shopping massacre.”

“Massacre!” She laughed. “Make me breakfast while I take a shower, my grouchy man, and I’ll give you appropriate thanks.” She advanced with quick steps towards their closet, as if she’d known he was a second away from grabbing her and forgetting that Dawn and Willow were not ten yards from their room.

Instead, he watched her as she picked her clothes for the day, chuckled when she put a finger to the corner of her lips as she considered the many rows of shoe ware at her disposition. “It’d be breakfast for one,” he informed her. “Your friend and sister seemed content sharing the cereal.”

“Not the honeyed one, right? I didn’t bring extra Choco-Bears and Oats just for them to eat my favorite.” Buffy took out a high heeled black pair.

Angel had a vision of that model in ruby, and added it to his Christmas gift list. Maybe Buffy was right; there could never be enough shoes. “I don’t think so.”

Buffy put the heels back, and selected a more comfortable set of sandals instead. “Have they been up long?”

“Dawn, mostly. She woke up early to continue her paper.” It was a miracle that the infernal beeping hadn’t woken Buffy up. In the mood she’d gone to bed, it wouldn’t take a wrong move to wake her. Then he remembered that she hadn’t slept since Wednesday afternoon – playing hostess always skewed her schedule. “Is there a reason she can’t work in the guest room?” Buffy shrugged. He’d probably hear her lap top screech anyway. If Dawn was set on finishing her work during the weekend, he’d offer the use of their computer. It wasn’t as if Dawn hadn’t used it before….

A knock brought both their attentions to the door. “Buffy?” It was Willow. “There’s a… girl downstairs, looking for you.”

There was enough of a pause before the visitor’s description that Buffy set her clothes down and walked closer to their weapons chest. Angel sprung from the bed.

“Actually, she’s looking for Angel Investigations,” Dawn corrected. “She said to ask if you’re still… what’d she say?”

“Helping the hopeless?” Willow supplied.

Angel was at his side of the closet, yanking out a set of clean clothes before Buffy had time to ponder the request. “You know her?” was the only thing she could think to ask.

He shook his head as he pulled on his pants. “Could be an old client.” He nodded towards their bathroom. “Take your shower, sweetheart. I’ll see about it myself.” He’d slowed down by the time he was shrugging on a black shirt. “I promise, I won’t let anything come between you and those Pradas you’ve been eyeing for months.”

Buffy offered a responding smile. “All right.” She stepped toward him for a kiss.

Angel smiled and traced his hands up the short sleeves of the shirt she’d appropiated. “You look beautiful, by the way.” Their kiss ended only because Dawn was wondering whether to let the stranger come up.

“Sure, buzz her in,” Buffy called back. Then, to Angel, “But if this girl tries to kill you and I have to fight her in the nude, you’re sponsoring the shopping trip. For all three of us.”

“As long as you let me video the actual fight,” he joked, then laughed when she pushed him away and stalked to the bathroom, muttering about horny males and how Willow had made the right choice. “Help the hopeless,” he told himself when the bathroom door slammed shut, and smiled wryly at the memories that accompanied the phrase. “Let’s find out where this girl heard it.”

TBC.....

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Author's Notes:
Rating: R
Summary: It’s Thanksgiving ’08. Buffy and Angel celebrate their first holiday as an official couple – or at least, they try to. WIP.
Notes: Part of
Boston’verse. Set roughly two years after ‘Agape’ and some months before ‘Knowing Everything’.
THANK YOU to Sharon, Kairos and Ares, without whom the pov would jump more than the plot-bunny that started this, the semi-colons would rise and conquer, and you’d trip and fall into a plot hole or two. Not to mention the grammar and spelling. *loves beta-readers*

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