Wishes

Wishes

By CelesteAvonne

Rating: R
Summary: The story is set post-Angel Season Five, one year after Buffy and the Gang turned Sunnydale into a roadside tourist attraction. It's set in London, where Buffy and Giles have opened a self-defense school as a cover for training new mini-Slayers awakened by Willow's bloodline spell.
Disclaimer: BtVS trademarks and all concepts and characters belong to Mutant Enemy Productions, Sanddollar, Kuzui, UPN, and/or 20th Century Fox Corporation. No malicious infringement of copyright is intended. The story itself and original characters - Maya, Luxe, Nighna, Lalaine, Thellian, Morna, MK and Anjelica - are mine and may not be reproduced without permission.
Warnings: Some violence, and one minorly graphic sex scene.
Part Two of this story, Regrets, can be found here.

***

Wishes and Regrets
Part One: Wishes
Chapter One: London Flat

Through the chatter, Buffy could hear one constant voice. It rose to an excited treble, threading through the busy conversation of their weekly meeting like a strand of copper wire. It was the bright but often keening voice of her sister, Dawn. Buffy was quite sure that Dawn had remained affixed to her cell phone since the day they moved in to their house on Meteor Street. Not a house, though, she reminded herself. Giles called it a flat. It was three stories, not counting the basement, yet to the English, that was flat.

Across from her, Giles sat tapping ballpoint pen to steno pad. His terse expression told her that he was quite ready for the meeting to begin. The others obviously paid no heed to the uptight British man. Willow, Andrew and Kennedy were chattering lightly about Andrew’s newest lady friend, a school teacher named Nighna who came to London from Morocco. And Xander, bemused though he was, grumbled much over the idea that Andrew the comic-bookish geek boy could get more lovin’ than he.

"Oh my God, I know," Dawn squealed over her cell phone. "Oh my God.... I know! He so did not. Oh, bloody hell!"

Giles grimaced. He leaned forward, which indicated that he wanted to start the meeting. Still no one took notice, except for Buffy. She had a pad of her own, meant for taking notes. On it, she had drawn a big looping teardrop shape.

“Dawn,” Giles said, on the edge of losing his Britishness.

She rolled her eyes dramatically and flounced out of the room.

“Geez,” Xander said. “Were we ever that...”

“Energetic?” Willow cut in.

“I was going for annoying,” Xander said.

Giles leaned forward again. “If we’re ready to begin, I’d like to discuss the new Slayer the coven located. Willow?”

Willow sat up, studiously, folding her slim hands on the table in front of her. “The newbie’s in Scotland, in a romantic little fishing village called Plockton, near the Highlands.”

Simultaneously, Andrew and Xander said, “There can be only one?”

Andrew grinned. Xander looked abashed and lowered his gaze to an interesting spot he found on the back of his thumb.

“Do you have to say it every time?” Kennedy asked.

Buffy could feel Giles tensing from across the room. He said, “Willow. Please continue.”

Willow did continue. She talked about taking a train to this Plockton place, where there was a rustic two-bedroom cottage with a built-in jacuzzi and no one around for miles. Then Xander started saying something about the mission sounding more like a mini-break than Slayer collecting. Kennedy then mentioned giving him a mini-break in a painfully specific place.

But Buffy drifted. Their voices combined to weave a kind of net that let her swim off to the realm of elsewhere. She thought about the patrol route she was likely to take once this meeting adjourned, and about the Silver Edition 'Calvin & Hobbes' book she’d ordered from Amazon.com for Xander. And underneath all these surface-y thoughts, her inner voice was chatting away. And these days, surprisingly, her inner voice sounded just like Spike.

God, she thought, even as her subconscious mind, the guy would not shut up. Buffy scribbled on her note pad, making a crosshatch pattern on the top of the loop she’d drawn.

Buffy, he whispered. Buffy... You’re missing out, pet. Meal planning, mini-breaks... laundry detail. They need you to decide, Slayer. Will it be cutlets or chicken curry?

Shut up, she thought to herself. But she smiled. She looked down at her doodle on the page. She’d drawn a noose, which pretty much summed up her thoughts on weekly meetings. She covered it with her hand.

“What do you think, Buffy?” Willow asked.

“Hmm?” Buffy said. “What do I think about what?”

“Hello, Buffy,” Xander said. “London calling.”

Willow said, “Can you cover the school on Monday, in case Kennedy and I don’t get back in time? We have to cover the whole Slayer mission with her parents, and if she decides to, you know, join the gang, we may need more than just the weekend...”

“Sure,” Buffy said. “Um, no problem.”

“Great,” Kennedy said brightly. “We’re going up tomorrow. Our train leaves first thing.”

Dawn sauntered in, sliding her phone to the table with a clatter. “I wanna come,” she said. “I love riding the trains.”

Willow shot Kennedy a panicked look, then straightened. “Oh, it’ll be way boring. Just, you know, small town. Lots of sheep. And the cutest little fishing boats. But, we’re meeting the girl’s parents first thing. So, yea! Slayer mission.”

Dawn settled back for a good, long sulk, but her cell phone rang, rescuing them all from the wrath. She answered the phone with “hullo, mate!” then bounced from the room.

“Good. Good,” Giles said, making notes on his yellow pad. “And you, Buffy? How are you faring with the girls at the school?”

Buffy sat a little straighter. This was a point of pride for her. She ran the Summers School, which for Londoner passers-by specialized in martial arts and self-defense training. It also had the handy double as Slayer Training HQ, UK. Faith had her own school in New York; Robin Wood, son of Slayer and former Sunnydale principal helped out with that. Rona and Vi had another school in Cleveland. They saw a lot of action there, since Cleveland rested rather unpleasantly on another Hellmouth.

London was less demony. Vampires a-plenty, but nothing they couldn’t handle.

“The girls are good,” Buffy said, nodding to Kennedy. “We each have four now. Lots of girls, kicking ass. Handy with the stakes and holy water. I’m still doing solo patrols for now...”

“Not ready to share out with the vamp killing good times?” Xander put in.

“No,” Buffy said. “No, it’s not that. They’re not ready yet. I want to firm them with the footing, before they get knocked flat.”

Giles nodded his head once. “I think you’re right. Give them time to settle in. Rita’s been here the longest, and she arrived less than a month ago.”

“Plus, we haven’t worked out all the kinks with our training schedule yet,” Kennedy said.

Buffy chewed her lip. She said, “Getting up at 5 a.m. is the best way to go. That way they’re getting all worked out before the body grasps what they’re doing to it.”

“Yeah, but if they’re going to be patrolling at night, a 5 a.m. wake up call doesn’t leave time for sleep,” Kennedy said.

“Welcome to my world,” Buffy said.

Dawn re-entered the room, still chatting, her phone snugged between shoulder and ear. She dropped a stack of mail into the center of the table before breezing back out.

Giles reached for the bills straight away. Willow snatched a post card from the stack.

“Oh look, it’s from Robin and Faith,” she said. She turned it over, revealing a sparkling Jamaican beach on its front. She read aloud: “Dear Buffy & all. Hope this finds you well. Found one VS here in Ocho Rios... sending her to Rona and Vi in Cleveland. More soon, take care. Robin.. Huh, that’s nice.”

She held the card closer to her face. “There’s a scrawly bit, I can’t read it.”

Buffy took the card from Willow. “Wish you were here. Wait, no I don’t. Later, suckers. Love, Faith. Not surprised.”

Xander shifted in his seat. “Why does she get all the Baywatch Slayer assignments. I could so see me on a beach somewhere...”

“Add a striped shirt and a peg-leg and you’re a commercial for Captain Morgan’s,” Willow said.

“I hate the beach,” Andrew moaned. “All that sand. And sharks.” He shuddered.

“Yeah, but sun,” Xander said, gesturing expansively, “And sparkling water. And the br...”

Giles jumped in. “Andrew, you’re working on invocation lessons with Dawn?”

Xander slouched. Andrew perked up. Since moving to London, Andrew had gone into complete Giles Junior mode. The resemblance was somewhat off-putting, especially to Giles.

Tonight, he wore a brown flannel over-shirt and kept a cup of tea close at hand.

Andrew cleared his throat before beginning. “Thank you, Mr. Giles,” he said. “Um, Dawn is remarkably edacious. I’m happy to say she’s progressing in the demon invocation arts, and in demon vanquishing. Lately she’s been less attentive, but I’m thinking it’s a blip, due to this guy Lane she’s been talking to.”

“Lane?” Buffy and Xander said in accord.

“What happened to what’s his... with the orange hair and the piercing?” Buffy asked.

“What, Brody?” Andrew said, laughing. “Yeah, he’s like so yesterday.”

Buffy sat back. “Huhn,” she said.

“Speaking of boys,” Willow said. “How’s that thing, you know, with that Tom fellow?”

“Tim,” Xander corrected.

“Tim,” Willow said. She wiggled her eyebrows. “Right, so?”

The corner of Buffy’s mouth twinged almost imperceptibly, but Giles caught it and frowned.

“I dunno,” Buffy said. “Guys here are so hands-offy and gentlemanly. Not that that’s bad, but... they’re just so... British. No offense, Giles.”

Giles waved a hand. “Used to it,” he said.

Buffy continued. “Besides, we are way off topic now. Like Off Off Topic. We were discussing Dawn’s apprenticing with Andrew. God, does it sound weird to anyone else that I just said that?”

Everyone the table round shrugged, including Andrew.

Andrew cleared his throat again. “Well, I’m not sure how you all will feel about this, but... Dawn is like really young, and she knows so much already. She’s like Demon Vanquish Queen, which makes me a teeny bit jealous, but still I’m thinking this boy phase isn’t so bad a thing.”

“You’re right,” Buffy said.

“I am?” Andrew said. “Yes!”

“Dawnie’s finally getting to be a kid here. We don’t know long it will last, so let’s just let her enjoy it while it does,” Buffy said.

“Hear here for the brat chat,” Xander called out.

Willow craned her head to check the grandfather clock in the entry hall behind them. “Hey, here’s a thought, Giles. I don’t mind the weekly meetings. In fact, I love them in the same way I love mini-highlighter pens, but do you think we could move them to Thursdays? Some of us might have plans for Friday nights.”

“Yeah, like Dawn and Lane,” Kennedy said.

“Or Tom and Buffy,” Andrew added.

“Tim,” Xander corrected.

“Nope. No plans. Just patrolling,” Buffy said. “But Thursdays work fine for me.”

Giles scribbled the note on his pad. “Thursdays noted. Is there anything else?”

Willow and Kennedy both jumped up, practically knocking over their chairs. But they weren’t fast enough to evade Andrew, who approached with dreaded meal plans.

“I wanted to discuss next week’s menu with you since we need groceries and you’ll be out of town for the weekend,” he said, chasing after them. His voice grew smaller as they headed upstairs, with him behind them, still talking away. “I’d like to make a nice leg of lamb and we need some tofu since Dawn’s eschewed all meat...”

“Meal plans,” Buffy muttered. “Ah, God.” She scratched over her noose sketch with long, loose strokes of the pen.

Giles pushed his notebook away and sat back. “Nothing else then?” he asked.

Xander got slowly from his seat, stretching. “Nope,” he said. “Think I’ll head down to the pub, you know. Have a pint. Ponder some pretzels. Then I figure I’ll crawl back home to lonely, lonely sleep. What do you say, British one? Up for some Guinness?”

“In a while,” Giles said.

Xander cleared out of the room, taking his pea coat from the stand in the hall and heading out into the misty night.

Once Xander was gone, Buffy got to her feet.

“That was some meeting,” Buffy said.

Giles looked at her. It was the look a professor gives to a student when he knows said student has been zoning out during class.

She braced herself.

“Buffy, may I have a word?”

“Sure,” she said, trying to sound aloof.

“Is everything all right? You seem...”

“Sullen? Broody? Melancholy?” she offered.

“A bit,” he said. He took of his glasses and fastidiously cleaned the lenses.

“It’ll pass,” she said, trying at once to be brisk and reassuring.

“I’m sure it will, but if you’d like to talk,” he said.

Buffy stepped away from her chair and pushed it in. “Would it help? I mean, really?”

“I think so, yes,” Giles said.

“No,” Buffy answered. “I’m going to patrol. Kicking. Screaming. General violence. That helps. Plus, I have other things to keep my mind occupied. Like the school, and finding our girls.”

“Buffy, I...” Giles began.

“I just miss...” She caught herself. “I miss things, from before. I need to get them out of my system, is all. Since they’ve gotten me out of theirs.”

An expression flashed across Giles’ forehead. It may as well have been a giant Times Square billboard of disappointment. “Spike, I presume,” he said.

“Not just him. Obviously,” Buffy said.

“You know it’s for the best,” Giles said.

“It’s ridiculous, Giles. I know it. But you said it yourself. We relied on each other. And I thought... or I think, some days, that I did everything wrong.”

“I don’t see how that’s possible, Buffy. You saved the world and sealed the Hellmouth,” Giles said.

Buffy went on as if she hadn’t heard Giles at all. “He’s become the voice in my head, Giles. I hear him, talking to me. I know how pointless it is. That whole not-knowing-what-you-have-till-it’s gone thing’s really sinking in about now. I could just call him. He’s in LA. I could pick up the phone.”

“Don’t,” Giles said, darkly.

“You’re right,” Buffy said, revving up to a nice rant. “He didn’t call me. Why should I call him? ‘Hey, Buffy! I’m alive and in Los Angeles, working with our old pal, Angel.’ Of all people. Grr. You know what, I’m passed it. I’m going out. Now.”

Buffy strode over to the coat rack and took her own jacket. As she tugged it on, Giles rounded the table and came to stand by her.

“Buffy,” he said, gently. “This is a place for starting over. We left all of it behind us. I’m not saying it will happen tonight or tomorrow, but eventually, you will put all of it out of your heart. You’ll be better for it, I promise.”

Buffy zipped her jacket and shoved her hands deep into her pockets. Her fist closed around the stake she kept in the right one. “Putting it behind me,” she said, nodding. “I’ll be back whenever.”

She turned smoothly on the toe of her boot and headed out the door.

“Buffy,” Giles called.

She turned, hesitantly, her hand on the doorknob. “What?”

“Be careful,” he said.

Buffy gave him a thin smile, then stepped out into the chilly London night.

Chapter Two: City of Angels

Once the rain cleared, and demon bodies sufficiently blocked the alley entrance, Angel took a moment to assess the situation.

It was grim.

Gunn was gone. Dead, most certainly, but Angel had lost him. His body was probably somewhere beneath the pile of demon bodies that blocked the alley. Opposite him, probably a hundred yards ahead, Spike was using said pile of carnage as a barricade. Illyria was further ahead. He couldn’t see her, but knew from the constant grinding sound of bone against bone that she was still fighting the fight. Angel was hurting, oozing blood from two dozen not-so-superficial wounds. He couldn’t tell how Spike fared. There was a ruddy gash on Spike’s temple, but any other scrapes he had were hidden under his long leather coat.

So, as far as he could see, there were two very important things they had to face. One was the Khurasch dragon, which Angel had fought already, but it had turned and wheeled out above them like a big, great scaly chicken. No telling when it would return, but no doubt that it would be back. The second, more imminent danger was the rapidly approaching sunrise. Illyria would be fine; but he and Spike would be nice and roasty if they couldn’t find shelter, and fast.

“Angel!” Spike called. “I think we’ve got them scared.”

Angel climbed over a hill of slaughtered imps and made his way toward Spike. His boots squished in ankle deep pools of coagulating demon blood.

“I wouldn’t count on that, Spike,” he said, in a cautioning tone. “They’re regrouping, and we’re running out of time.”

Spike scanned the sky. “We can hide under corpses. No heartbeat. They’ll figure us for dead.”

“That’s great, Spike, except for when the demonic clean-up crew comes to forage on this flesh buffet, leaving us completely exposed.”

“We’ve beat back Legions, Angel. You telling me we’re gonna let the sun finish us off?” Spike climbed up the makeshift barricade to have a look. As he did so, a Bulwacki demon fired a crossbow, narrowly missing his left eye. Spike slid back down, cursing.

“Not so clear as I thought,” he said.

“Ya think?” Angel said.

Illyria came toward them. They heard her purposeful strides over the din of demons just outside the mouth of the alley.

“I can sense your concerns,” she told them. “You fear the dawning sun.”

“Well, yeah, Blue,” Spike said. “Vampires.”

Illyria leapt to the top of the demon-body barricade. Another crossbow bolt sailed by. She caught it without turning and snapped it in her fist.

“There is a grated opening into the ground at the front of this ravine. I can pry it open, if you can fight your way to it,” she said.

“A sewer grate,” Angel said. “We can do that. Live to fight another day.”

“Bloody right, we can. Blue, you’re brilliant!” Spike said.

Illyria cocked her head, half-smiling down at Spike. A second later, the smile faded. “You must hurry, half-breed. They are coming.”

Spike didn’t waste any time. He climbed over the deadfall wall, with Angel beside him. They could hear the sixteenth (or was it seventeenth?) wave gathering force. It was a baleful, groaning sound, like that of a gargantuan metal beast slowly collapsing beneath its own weight. Under that sound, there was an unnerving clicking, insectile and alien. It set Angel’s fangs on edge.

As soon as they cleared their barrier, a volley of bolts sailed at them. Illyria took point, with Spike and Angel flanking. She stretched her arms and the bolts incinerated mid-air.

“Nice trick, luv,” Spike whispered.

“Are you ready to run?” she asked.

Angel dug in. The blurred faces of demons filled the end of the alley. All they needed was to charge through, get underground and get out.

“Ready,” Spike said.

“Let’s go,” Angel said.

They plunged into the fray, closing the distance between them and the demon horde. Illyria struck the first thirty or so, driving them back under a wall of heat. Angel and Spike shielded their eyes, skirting the bodies that crumpled beneath their feet. But as they ran, the next wave swept in with pure demonic force. Hundreds, maybe thousands waited for them. Illyria charged, but they drove her back. Angel leapt in, slashing at what seemed like a wall of living flesh. Above him, a swarm some breed of bug-like demon scaled the alley walls, mandibles clacking like mad castanets.

Dimly, he heard Spike scream as he dived in. After that, the demons’ collective war cries drowned all other sound. Angel fought for every inch, snapping necks, tearing flesh, scraping, hitting, hell - biting, but still they pushed him back.

“Illyria!” he yelled. “I’m losing ground!”

Four demons, each twelve-footers, closed a tight circle around him. They wielded long halberds with black, barbed hooks on one end.

Angel took one, used it to sweep the legs out from beneath another, and climbed over the shoulders of the third. He leapt forward, flying over the heads of demons. In their surprise, they missed him as he fell. He rolled, then bounded up again, using his handy new weapon as a demon skewer.

Angel saw then how clearly out-matched they really were. The Circle of the Black Thorn had meant business. Beyond the alley lay the open gate to a dimension of hell that spilled out demons in droves. Tens of thousands of them, armed to their many, many rows of teeth.

Angel had known they couldn’t win. But they had lasted so long he had begun to think...

The Khurasch descended, this time for a face-to-face. The strafing maneuvers from their earlier scuffle had been a fly-by, just to test them out. Now, it was full of teeth and claws and mystical fire. Behind it, yet another Legion awaited. The Khurasch opened its dripping, gaping jaws to draw in breath.

Illyria stepped forward, palm stretched out to strike.

“No,” Angel yelled. “This one’s mine.”

“Get down,” she ordered.

Spike stumbled through the demons that now retreated from the Khurasch behind them. He dropped to his knees.

“The passageway is there,” Illyria said, pointing beyond Angel to the sewer grate. Her voice sounded thin and strained. Angel heard the clang of ripping metal. “Go. Now,” she said.

“Spike!” Angel called out. “Get inside!”

“What?” he answered. “And let you have all the glory?” Blood dripped in black pools from a wound in his shoulder.

The Khurasch dragon’s breath transformed from ragged moan to an ear-shredding keen.

“You must go. Now!” Illyria said. A shimmer of heat rippled the air before her.

Angel would later recall fragments and flashes. He would remember Spike standing to make a last charge. Angel would recall the hatchet that struck him down from behind. Fragments, like scales of glass. Blinding, searing whiteness, followed by dust. All around him, dust.

Somehow, by some means beyond him, Angel managed to crawl into the sewer grate. He was burned and broken, but alive. A day later, he emerged from a sewer tunnel and made his way to Connor.

But for days after that, all he could see when he closed his eyes, was dust.

Chapter Three: Wishes

The moon's a fingernail
and slowly sinking
Another day begins
and now I'm thinking

That this indifference
was my invention
When everything I did
sought your attention

You were my compass star
You were my measure
You were a pirate's map
A buried treasure

If this was all correct
The last thing I'd expect
The prosecution rests
It's time that I confess:

I must have loved you

Ghost Story, by Sting

Nights seemed darker in London. The cemeteries were older, and the night sky when it rained looked like worn black flannel. It was comforting, somehow. Buffy liked London. She liked the busy-ness of the city, with its topple-likely lorry buses and well-lit subway stations. She liked the scrubbed-ness of the buildings and the sidewalks and the shops. It was like in Mary Poppins, when she would say, ‘Spit spot’. That’s what London was for Buffy.

Even the vampires here seemed, well, polite. She sometimes hated to dust them. They were all, ‘Oh dear,’ and ‘Goodness, gracious me.’ She half-expected them to carry around their own dustpans, in order to clean up after themselves.

Buffy liked their apartment on Meteor Street. She and Dawn occupied one suite, a two-bedroom, on the second floor. Andrew had the other, much smaller bed and bath adjacent. Upstairs, Giles had a three-bedroom suite. Willow and Kennedy stayed in another two-bedroom there, even though Kennedy owned a house of her own in Westbury, near Devon. Xander had the one and only apartment downstairs, on the main floor. There, they also had a nice kitchen, a dining room, and a TV room. Oh, and there was a garden, which was really just a backyard, but in England, they were called gardens whether they had flowers or not. The basement served as a general spell-room. It was Willow’s design. She painted wards on the walls, stored all necessary items in locked chests of custom Xander design. They kept basement furnishings to the barest minimum, to cut down on damage done by spellage debris.

So they were all flat-mates. It was nifty. They all lived together, without living together.

And yet... Buffy preferred, or rather craved, her time alone. Xander had been partly right when he said that she didn’t want to share her vamp-killing time with the new Slayers. In a lot of ways, she still felt apart from them.

Buffy clutched the stake in her coat pocket. The path to the Wiltshire Cemetery was familiar enough to her feet that she could walk the path on cruise. She neared the gates, ready for just about anything. What she found did give her a bit of a surprise.

A pair of vampires, new ones by the looks of their clothes, wrestled over the carcass of a freshly slain rabbit. They were so intent in their bunny brawl they didn’t hear her approach.

Buffy casually walked up to them. “Hasenpfeffer, is it?”

They two vampires, both middle-aged men in tweed jackets, the professor-ly kind with suede patches on the elbows, looked up, wide-eyed and rightfully concerned. One had tufty white hairs poking out of his ears. The other would have been bald before Christmas, if he’d lived that long.

“’Cause I’m pretty sure it’s duck season,” Buffy said.

The vampires exchanged a look of confusion. Tufty Ears shrugged. Would Be Baldy just tilted his head.

“You know?” Buffy said, drawing her stake. “As in duck.”

She lunged for Baldy, and staked him before he could even drop his end of the rabbit. Tufty looked decidedly alarmed and, thankfully, gave chase. He leapt over a tombstone and bolted downhill, sliding on the dewy grass. She tackled, and they tumbled, until his head collided with a marble grave marker. He rolled over on his back, using the bunny as a shield.

“Oh, come on,” Buffy whined. “A rabbit?”

He tossed the rabbit aside and raised his hands in surrender.

“Sorry, guy” she said, feeling genuinely sad for him, “It’s my job.”

She staked him, then dusted her hands of his dust.

Needless to say, Buffy left the cemetery feeling less than satisfied. She thought about hitting one of the other cemeteries on her way home, the Carlyle, or the Wallace Home, perhaps. But it was late, and soon, cool drizzle began to fall. She opted, instead, on taking a new way home. There was a neighborhood park she’d always intended to visit during the day, but had not yet made the detour.

Buffy took the pathway into the park through stands of slender, graceful looking trees. The rain pattered pleasantly on the leaves, and her boots crunched the gravel under her feet. The path wound its way around a small lake fringed with reeds. As she neared the pool, the rain turned to mist. The clouds parted, revealing a sliver of moon that shone down in the smooth mirror of the water. A soft breeze whipped over the lake, stirring a flock of geese to flight. Buffy paused, feeling almost breathless at the scene. Chills coursed down her arms. She was suddenly, achingly aware of how quiet it was. Quiet, and still.

Buffy drew a deep breath to fill the void, then closed her eyes. Her thoughts were still, and below that, silence. She felt a momentary spell of lost-ness. It kinda made her dizzy. Buffy opened her eyes, and uttered an uneasy laugh.

“I really miss you, you idiot,” she said. “I wish you were here.”

Her voice was answered by more quiet, followed by more rain. A stronger wind blew across the lake, this time with more force. A storm was on its way, and Buffy could take a hint. She tugged her coat more tightly around her waist. As she mounted the path, she turned to glance over her shoulder at the pretty lake with his ring of silver-trunked trees.

“I must be finally losing it,” she said to herself, and struck off for home.

Chapter Four: Fruitless

Buffy awoke on Saturday morning with crusty eyes and tousled hair. The sun had fully risen, and everyone else in the house had as well. She shuffled downstairs to the kitchen, pajama clad, to find a note on the breakfast bar from Willow and Kennedy. It was a hastily scrawled ‘Gone to Scotland, see you later’ note. Buffy pushed past it to the box of Count Chocula. She poured herself and bowl and sullenly began to crunch.

A few minutes passed before Giles came downstairs, with Andrew in tow. They were in the middle of some discussion about official Watcher business, and when they paused in the entry hall, she could hear that Giles was nearing the end of his patience.

“Andrew,” he said, “I’ve been given the not-so-light task as rebuilding the entire Watcher Council. I’m afraid it’s not that simple.”

“Please, Mr. Giles. Let me come. How will I ever become a Watcher if you don’t let me in?” Andrew whined.

“It’s not like the Masons or the Elk Lodge,” Giles said. “You don’t get in on personal recommendation. Watchers are Called.”

“I wanna be Called,” Andrew said.

“It isn’t up to just me, I’m afraid. Keep up with your training, and we’ll see,” Giles said.

There was a pause in the conversation as Giles slipped past Andrew and toward the kitchen.

But Andrew caught up to him again. “Is there a secret handshake?” Andrew asked.

“Yes,” Giles said, sounding embarrassed. “Yes, there is.”

“I knew it!” Andrew said triumphantly.

Buffy laughed softly to herself as Giles came into the kitchen, Andrew still on his heels.

“Buffy,” Giles said, sounding unbelievably relieved. “You’re awake, thank heavens. Did Willow and Kennedy get off this morning?”

“Uck, yes,” she said. “You heard them too?”

Giles shot her a look of confusion, then went for his tea cup in the cabinet.

“Oh, you mean... Scotland.” Buffy said. “Yes, they did. They left a note. A non-sexy note.” She slid it toward him.

Andrew leaned on the bar in his very boyish manner, resting his chin in his hand. “Buffy,” he said. “Willow left a grocery list. We need eggs, bread, tea and um, sugar.”

“Groceries,” Buffy said. “Don’t you usually get those?”

“Grocery shopping is one of my normal Watcher-In-Training duties, yes. But I’m taking Dawn to Harker Glade this morning to practice conjuring and dispelling of Mushka Changelings, and we only have a few hour’s window this afternoon between the time when Mercury sets and Dawn’s soccer practice.”

Buffy looked distraught. “Oh... Giles?”

Giles was busy preparing a cup of tea. Over his shoulder he said, “I have Council business to attend to. I’m afraid I’ll be out all day.”

Andrew sat down on the barstool and pouted. “Some day, it will be my turn,” he grumbled.

“Yeah. Well, what about Xander?” she asked.

As if on cue, Xander breezed into the room, all spiffy in his charcoal gray suit and geometric-patterned necktie.

“What about Xander?” he asked “Did I miss something apocalyptic or interesting?”

“No,” Buffy said. “Just grocery shopping.”

“Hm. The dreaded produce aisle,” Xander said. He grabbed a croissant from the breadbox and headed for the door.

“You’re in a hurry...” Buffy said.

“Early day at the site,” Xander called as he left. “I’ll see you guys tonight. Good luck with the produce peril.”

Andrew scribbled away on the back of Willow’s note, sticking his tongue out over his lips as he wrote. Buffy watched him with a growing – almost stifling – sense of agitation. When he finished, he slid the note to her.

“Willow only likes the free range organic eggs and she can tell if you try to get the other kind, believe me. And Dawn doesn’t like regular white bread. Whole grain only. Oh yeah, and make sure the tuna fish is dolphin safe because those nets are really cruel to the gentlest creatures of the sea,” he said. He tapped the note twice with flourish, like an artist signing his masterpiece.

Buffy stared down at the list. “And where do I go for all of this stuff?”

Dawn burst into the room in a bright red vinyl raincoat, fidgeting with her cell phone.

“Hey guys,” she said, taking a banana from the fruit bowl. She began peeling it with her teeth while she checked her phone messages.

Andrew straightened. “Are you ready, Dawn?”

Dawn looked down at him as if awaking from a daydream. “Ready?”

“Conjuring and dispelling Mushka Changelings,” he said, sighing dramatically. “Mercury waits for no one, young lady.”

Dawn groaned. “I’m ready. Is it squishy outside? Cause I don’t want to ruin my boots.”

“Eighty-percent squishiness,” Buffy said, “but... isn’t it always?”

“The rain is part of the city’s charm,” Giles chimed in, in an almost obligatory tone.

“Yeah, well, the city’s charm spells doom for my footwear,” Dawn said. She ducked out of the kitchen, then bounded up to her room, taking the stairs by twos.

Giles glanced at his watch. “Better go now. Tonight?”

“Tonight,” Andrew said, saluting. He spun back to Buffy. “Dawn just ate the last banana. We now have a fruitless house. Better add that to your list.”

Buffy rolled her eyes at him. “Doesn’t anyone eat breakfast around here?” she asked. She stared down at her soggy Count Chocula. “Besides me,” she added.

“No time,” Giles said. “See you later?”

Buffy nodded, a little frowny. Giles left the kitchen, and Andrew, of course, followed. Seconds later, Dawn shouted a shrill goodbye from the door.

Then they were all gone.

Buffy took the shopping list in both hands.

“Shudder with terror. It’s Buffy the Grocery Shopper,” she said. For a moment, she just stood there in the kitchen, half-tempted to go back upstairs and climb into the oblivion of snuggly blankets. Or, there was a whole world of television to watch. Books to read. Correspondence to address and send. She had a whole day to herself, and how long had it been since she’d been able to say that?

“Whatever,” Buffy said. And she headed upstairs to change.

So grocery shopping was a snooze-fest. Stores in London weren’t like the ones in California. They were cramped, crowded and lacked the bounteous variety of the stateside Wal-Mart or Piggly Wiggly. They also smelled like damp paper and newsprint. Buffy found everything on the list, with the help of a bitty old shopkeeper who was like, blah blah blah petrol, blah blah blah Tory party, blah blah blah biscuits.

Shopkeeper politics, so not her thing. Politics in general, for that matter.

When she left the grocer’s, a brisk rain fell, but the sun was out too, turning all to soupy haze. Buffy cinched her raincoat and made her way across the street, carting her groceries in plastic mesh bags.

It was miserable. She felt all wilty and the whole-wheat baguettes were getting soaked. She figured that if she kept her head down and walked at a steady pace, the sooner the whole grocery/rainstorm extravaganza would end.

In keeping with keeping her head down, Buffy paid little attention to the roads as she went. Before long, she had crossed the wrong street at the wrong corner. Several blocks later, she realized her mistake, but rather than turning back, she just hung a left, figuring she would follow this road until she reached Meteor Street and double back.

Soon the rain let up. It was still sludgy and steamy, but with less rain to abate the smothery humidity. Then, sidewalk construction blocked the way ahead, plus lots of traffic – horns blaring, clouds of exhaust, mass confusion. Buffy crossed at the corner to avoid all of the above. When she did, she noticed the entrance to the park she had walked through the night before. There was something about that place, something inviting and calm. It wasn’t exactly a short cut, but pleasant enough to merit a change in course.

Buffy slowed her heel-grinding pace. The moment she stepped into the park, the mood changed. The lake spread out beneath the trees like a flat pane of opaque glass. Geese nestled in the reeds at the water’s edge. Not a breath of wind stirred the air.

Buffy stopped to stare across the water, despite the armloads of sodden groceries. There’s something about this place, she thought, something unusual. She made note to mention it to Willow when she and Kennedy returned from Scotland. Perhaps this place was once consecrated earth, like an Indian burial ground... except there weren’t any of their kind of Indians in England. Celtic burial ground, maybe?

Or, much more likely, just a picturesque little lake and meadow chock full of nature-y goodness.

Buffy decided to let it go. With a sigh, she returned to the path.

At that moment, the space in front of her filled with crackling, blinding white light. Buffy stumbled back, ready to use her groceries as weapons. A bubble of fire and energy erupted from the ground, like lightning in reverse. A single thunderous crack like gunfire split the air. Beams of light burst out, knocking her back. Sacks of groceries - everywhere. Buffy clambered to her knees. The energy orb thing was gone. In its place a man crouched, naked and trembling.

She knew who it was, of course. She knew before he turned his wild eyes toward her. It was impossible. Completely impossible. But it was him.

“Spike?” she said. Her voice was barely more than a whisper.

He looked at her. Then placed his hands, palms down onto the gravel path. Spike stared at the ground, but didn’t move.

“Spike,” she said, more forcefully.

“The world was ending,” he said.

“Isn’t it always?” she said. She took an unsure step in his direction.

He looked up at her again. “Buffy?”

“That’s right,” she said. She stripped off her raincoat and drew it around his shoulders. “It’s me. It’s okay. You’re naked and-and damp and trembly. But it’s okay.”

“It is?”

Buffy swallowed hard. She touched the line of his jaw, and he didn’t pull away. “You’re okay. Okay?”

He nodded. His brows furrowed.

“Here,” she said. She helped his get slowly to his feet. “Let’s just take it slow. One foot, then the other. I’ll get you home.”

“Home,” he said. Yeah, dazed didn’t cover his state of shock. Her own pulse had gone all rabbity, and she was just the eyewitness to... well, whatever it was that just happened.

Buffy pulled his arm around her shoulder. His body felt heavy against hers, and unmistakably warm. It took a full five steps before the truth of it dawned on her. She placed her palm over his heart. She looked up to find him staring intensely at her.

“That’s your heart beating,” she breathed. “You’re human.”

Chapter Five: Coming Home

Buffy led Spike to the Flat. Since his feet were bare, she tried to stick to the sidewalks. She was sure people watched them as they passed – two soaking wet and wilted blondes trudging through rain, one of them naked under a raincoat three sizes two small. If they did, she didn’t notice. She focused instead on the sound of his breathing, which was a slow, hushed sound, perfectly natural for a normal man.

Except Spike was not a normal man. He was a vampire. Ergo, no breathing. No heartbeat. No steady pulse thrumming softly beneath supple skin. This Spike moved with the slow deliberation of a man recovering from near-fatal illness. With every cautious step, she imagined him feeling the weight of his limbs for the first time in over a century. He said nothing, and kept his eyes fixed on the ground. When he did venture a glance around, he looked out at the city-street in utter disbelief.

Once they entered the empty, quiet house, Buffy closed the door securely behind them. She guided him then toward the stairs. Spike suddenly flinched away, dragging her with him. He cringed in the corner, with his face turned to the wall.

“What?” Buffy said. “What is it?”

Spike lay there, panting. Buffy looked back, catching her reflection in the mirror that hung in the entry hall.

“The mirror,” she said. “You’re reflection. I should’ve remembered...”

“The world was ending,” Spike said again. He looked somewhat ridiculous and helpless, kneeling there in her obviously ladies-wear raincoat.

Buffy knelt beside him. “You said that. Do you remember... anything?” She brushed her hand over his forehead, trying to soothe him.

Spike shook his head. But he said, “Rain.”

“Lots of that going around. Here,” she said. She covered his eyes with her hands. “We’ll face the whole mirror thing another time. First task – finding clothes. I think Giles leaves his rooms unlocked. We can find something there.”

“Giles?” Spike said. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought she detected a note of displeasure in his voice.

“It won’t be that bad,” she said. “Maybe we can pull off a grunge look. Not your speed, I know, but better than your present – might I add, rather revealing – selection.” Buffy helped him to his feet, then led him to the second floor.

As she suspected, Giles’ rooms were open. She brought Spike into the bedroom, stopping him in front of the closet door. It was strange, to see him so quiet, so watchful and still. She could just lead him around like a sleepy, complacent child. Obviously, there was confusion and disorientation. Rightfully so. Buffy knew that feeling. She understood how he felt. Her heart gave a small but painful lurch.

She turned from him to the closet, where she rifled aimlessly through Giles’ non-color-specific wardrobe of T-shirts and blue jeans. Finally, she tugged out at random a beige shirt and worn jeans from their hangers.

When she turned back, he had helpfully shrugged out of the wet coat. Problem was, there he stood, quite naked. But that was just it. He was unclad and unmoving. He looked way too lost for comfort.

Buffy stepped in. She drew the shirt over his head, pulled his arms through the sleeves, then smoothed it down, firmly, reassuringly over his chest.

“We’ve been here, you and me,” she told him. She helped him pull on the pants, one leg at a time. Again, with the general sleep-walkiness. He stared beyond her into empty space. “We were right here. Only, I was where you are. Remember?” she asked. She looked up into his uncomprehending eyes.

“Spike? Do you know where you are?”

Spike didn’t move for a long while. Then, he shook his head.

“It’s okay,” she said. “It’ll come.”

When she touched his arm to lead him back downstairs, a wave of chill bumps coursed across his flesh. Spike shuddered, bodily, but she caught the trace of a smile at the corner of his mouth.

That was promising.

“Are you cold?” she asked. Spike nodded.

Buffy pulled a flannel shirt from the chair beside Giles bed. She slipped it on him, then stepped back.

“Yep,” she said. “Grunge look. We may have to party like it’s 1992.”

No almost smile this time, just basic vacant stare. So not encouraging.

“It’ll come,” she said again, mostly to herself this time. Buffy led Spike back downstairs front parlor room, where they sat together in silence, listening to the sound of the falling rain outside.

Hours passed thus. Maybe it was hours, anyway. The passage of time lost meaning. Buffy stared at him, expecting some movement, something. He was so still he was almost unresponsive. He seemed at one point to realize that he was breathing, because he took a series of deep breaths, inhaling slowly, then exhaling, then repeating process.

Buffy wanted to talk, wanted him to talk, but all she could do was sit and watch him draw breath.

It was too surreal, and for her, that was saying a great deal.

The shadows in the parlor lengthened, and soon, there was spastic teenage girl commotion at the front door. Spike shrank away from the noise. Buffy immediately went to the entry hall.

Dawn, drenched, dark hair flying, ran inside and started up the stairs.

“Soccer’s called on count of rain. Could you guess?” she yelled down at Buffy. “A whole morning of tromping through marsh...”

Buffy rounded the base of the stairs. “Dawn,” she called to her, softly.

Dawn whirled. She recognized the tone in her sister’s voice right away.

“What is it?” Dawn asked.

“Come see,” Buffy said.

Dawn came back down the stairs, much slower than she had gone up them.

“What is it?” she asked again.

Buffy stepped toward the parlor, indicating with a twitch of her head that Dawn should follow.

Spike had gotten up from the sofa and crossed to the center of the room. When Dawn came to the doorway, he merely stood there, looking out of sorts.

“But...” Dawn said. She dived in for a hug that nearly toppled them both. “When did you get here? It’s good to see you. After we didn’t see you in Rome, we...” Dawn paused, then stepped back, gripping his forearms.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. She looked to Buffy. “What’s wrong with him?”

Spike blinked.

“N-Nothing,” Buffy said. “Nothing’s wrong. But I think,” she scanned her brain for the right words. “He’s been through something. Some kind of trauma, and he doesn’t know.”

Spike gave a little nod to that.

“Oh,” Dawn said. Then she hugged him again.

“Wait, Dawn,” Buffy said. “Maybe he’s not ready for the hugfest. You know, trauma and all.”

Spike lowered his chin to the top of Dawn’s head. “I’m good with the hugging,” he said, quietly.

“Oh,” Buffy said. She stood fidgeting for a whole three seconds before nudging in to hug him as well.

Dawn suggested they all move to the kitchen. Lightning and thunder had joined the rainy day games, and all the flashing and noise made Spike flinchy. They gathered around the table, and although Dawn brought out some Jaffa Cakes, no one touched them

“We have to call him,” Dawn said.

“He said he’d be busy all day with Watcher stuff,” Buffy said.

“This is kinda important, Buffy.”

“I know,” Buffy said. “I know. I just want it to be us right now. Everyone else will find out soon enough.”

Dawn looked over at Spike. “You should maybe eat, you know. Or, maybe drink? We’ve got like a hundred kinds of tea.”

Spike just shook his head.

“When will Xander be home?” Dawn asked.

Buffy looked to the clock on the wall. “Soon,” she said. “What about Andrew?”

“No, he said not to wait up,” Dawn said. “He’s got a date with Nighna.”

Spike chuckled softly at that.

“Oh!” Dawn squealed. “He laughed at Andrew. I think he’s gonna be okay.”

Buffy looked hopeful for a moment, then shrugged. “Nah. We all laugh at Andrew.”

The front door opened, letting in the sounds of wailing wind and pounding rain, plus one swearing and soaking wet Xander.

“Great shaken vermouth, it’s a downpour,” he called out. “Buffy! You home?”

Buffy looked from Dawn to Spike. “In the kitchen,” she said, weakly.

Xander came into the hall, shaking himself in dog-like fashion. “Hey, guess what,” he began, then turned, slowly, on the ball of his foot. “Something must be wrong with my eye,” he said.

“Xander,” Buffy said.

“Spike,” Xander interrupted. “Why are you here? Why are you dressed like Giles? And more importantly, why are you here?”

“Xander,” Spike said, carefully feeling out the shape of the name.

“Uh, what’s up with him? Buffy, what’s happened?” Xander said.

Chapter 6: Unwelcome

Giles closed his door, then faced Xander and Buffy.

“I need to know everything that occurred, right down to the last detail,” he said.

Buffy took a seat on the edge of his bed. She felt a little fluttery, like a witness in a crime investigation. Dawn was downstairs with Spike, trying to coerce him into eating, but the offer of week-old tofu nuggets didn’t set well with any of the living kind.

“Well, okay,” Buffy began. “I went out for groceries this morning. There was traffic, and with the rain, I took a detour through a park, the same park in fact that I passed by on patrol last night. It’s a sweet place, feels kinda charged somehow. I was thinking Willow should check its energy. Anyway, there was this white flash and a ball of crackly energy. It looked like a... I don’t know... a light porcupine.”

“Porcupine?” Xander said.

She nodded, “Beams of like shot out of it, and then, there was Spike.”

Giles scrubbed his forehead. “Just like that?” he said.

“Yep,” Buffy said.

“Did you hear anything? Chanting, or a song? And were there any smells, perhaps. Incense, sulfur?”

“Smells, no. Songs, no,” she said. “Nothing like that. One minute I’m walking home in dreadful, hair-damaging humidity and the next, ex-lover, ex-vampire magically appears in a crackling ball of plasma. I did mention the ex-vampire part, right?”

Xander leaned forward. “This is like Category 5 on the strangeness scale, Buff. I mean, you didn’t happen to make a wish, did you? Cause he’s used a vengeance demon before...”

“Wish?” Buffy said, quickly. “No. It’s not like that. It’s different. He’s different. Didn’t you see? I don’t know what’s happened to him, but we’ll find out once he’s settled in...”

“Settled in?” Giles said, sounding alarmed. “We can’t just...”

Buffy scoffed. “Can’t just what, Giles? Where would he go? We can’t just turn him out on the streets.”

“I think we’re the street-turning-out sort where he’s concerned, Buffy,” Xander said. “Something doesn’t feel good here. I’m sensing definite wrongness.”

Buffy shook her head. “You’re wrong. This feels... right,” she said.

Xander sputtered toward ungainly speechlessness. Giles studied Buffy for a moment more, making her insides go all squirmy in the CSI way.

“I’m gonna go check on Spike and Dawn. I think he needs rest. We’ll learn more tomorrow,” she said. Buffy got up to leave the room. “Don’t go all grave-faced with concern. It’s gonna be okay.”

Once she closed the door, Xander wheeled on Giles. “It is not gonna be okay,” he said.

“It’s not him,” Giles said.

“Oh, he is much with the blameliness,” Xander said. He caught himself. “Wait. When you say not him, you mean as in not Spike?”

Giles reached for a book on the middle shelf near the door. “Buffy’s judgement is clouded. We should call Willow. We need her back here as soon as possible.”

“I’m on that,” Xander said. “But Giles, if it’s not him, what is it?”

Giles leafed through the book. “It’s up to us to find that out,” he said.

Buffy went straight down to her room. Dawn sat in their sitting area with her cell phone in her hand. The lamplight carved deep shadows under the curtain of her hair and in the hollows of her eyes. These days, Dawn departed from looking anything like a little girl. Tonight was one of those times.

“What did they say?” Dawn asked when Buffy came in.

Buffy sighed. “That there’s something wrong.”

“But there isn’t. Is there?”

“Magic 8-ball says ‘try again later,’” Buffy said. She crossed the room to stand near her sister. “I’m not ready yet to ask those questions. I don’t think he could answer them, besides. And since we live nothing resembling normal lives, I’d say anything is possible.”

Dawn leaned forward in her chair. Her hair fell around her face, obscuring it completely. “I wanted to call my friends. Y’know, Lane or Mickey, or Tamryn. But how can I explain this? Hey, one of my old Sunnydale chums just popped in. Literally.”

“You could say that, Dawn. Abridged version suits most folks fine,” Buffy said. She ran her hand over Dawn’s super silky hair.

Dawn looked up at Buffy. “I think I’m gonna turn in, okay? Long day.” She slipped away from her chair and headed for the door. She paused, hand on the doorknob. “Is it okay, to be glad that he’s here?” Dawn asked.

“No,” Buffy said, surprised. “No, we’re glad. We should be glad. Brimming with gladness, see?” Buffy gave Dawn a toothy grin.

Dawn rolled her eyes. “That’s kinda scary. You, with all those teeth. You should never do that,” she said. She pointed to Buffy’s door. “He’s in your room. Sweet dreams.”

“You too,” Buffy said.

Buffy waited until Dawn’s door was securely closed before knocking on her own. There was no answer.

“Spike,” she whispered, pushing the door open. She found him sleeping, chin to his chest, in the chair beside her bed.

Buffy took his hands. “That can’t be comfortable,” she told him. “Come on, lie down.”

She moved him to the bed, pulled back the covers and helped him slip beneath.

“Resting,” he said.

“Yes you are,” she soothed. She tucked him in, feeling once again like the attendant to a weary child.

She waited for a long, silent moment, watching him. She realized after a time that she was watching the way his chest rose and fell with every intake of breath. When she was sure he had gone back to sleep, Buffy settled in to rest in the chair.

“Buffy,” he said, barely audible.

“Yes?”

“Why am I here?” he asked.

Buffy reached to take his hand.

Buffy dreamed.

In her dream, she walked along the shore of the lake where she found him. The scene glowed with a Thomas Kinkaide quality, the kind of glowiness that made Buffy immediately check the surroundings for lighthouses and quaint little fishing boats. She could hear a low humming noise, like the sound of machinery in the distance. Otherwise, all was quiet and still.

As she strolled along the bank, though, small caterpillars drifted down from the trees on silken webs. They were few at first. Followed by more. Followed by too many. And they gleamed faintly, like tiny pulsing stars.

Buffy dodged them. She didn’t want them to touch her skin, but soon there were so many she could not dart between them. The webs clogged the air. Soon what seemed beautiful suddenly seems repulsive and terrible. Buffy started to run. The caterpillars scraped her skin. The strands tangled in her hair. She could hear them – a continual clicking sound that made her eyes water and her stomach turn.

They were eating.

Suddenly, the air filled with water and webs turned to stinging rain. Lightning split the sky. Deafening thunder tore the earth from beneath her feet. As Buffy ran, the ground changed from spongy grass to rain-slicked cobblestone. She nearly tumbled, but a passer-by fleeing the storm caught her elbow.

“Hold steady, there,” he said. He tipped his soggy hat and disappeared behind curtains of blinding rain. Buffy reeled for a moment before hearing another separate thunderous sound behind her. It was hoof-beats on the cobbles, bearing down on her fast. Buffy leapt clear as a horse-drawn fire engine crashed by. She turned to see the sky ahead, low clouds tinged red with flames. People scattered, all of them reaching, shouting, searching. They climbed over her, pressing her backward. Buffy floundered among them, jostled along by frightened people in nightgowns and soaked overcoats.

But above all of this, Buffy heard the sound of someone crying.

No one else marked it. No one took note of one weeping child. Buffy elbowed her way through the crowd in search of the sound. She found her way to the mouth of a grimy alley, where a small boy cowered behind a filthy trash bin. The boy hugged his knees to his chest, rocking and weeping to himself. Beneath a wasted waistcoat, his pajamas were sodden. His one remaining slipper clung useless to his left foot.

“Hey,” she said. She came around to stand in front of him. He didn’t respond.

“Hey,” she said again, leaning closer.

The boy looked at her from his wide blue eyes, and she knew him.

Buffy awoke with a start. Spike still slept, still drew breath. All was well, creepy caterpillar dreams aside. But Buffy prickled with unease.

Something was coming. No, something was here. Downstairs, in fact, bumping around in the entry hall. Buffy crept across the bedroom. She took a stake from the dresser drawer. At the door, she tensed and listened. There was a jingling sound, followed by brisk, purposeful rustling.

Buffy slipped through the bedroom door and then the door to her suite. Footsteps. She heard definite footsteps on the hardwood. Since it was a something on the inside, Buffy ruled out a vampire threat. Demon, then. She traded the stake for a crystal candy dish from the table in the hall. Handy for head bashing, and also after-dinner mints.

She held it aloft and waited in the shadowy corner. The something came with slow and steady steps up the stairs. Buffy craned her neck to see it on the landing below. Lighting flashed, illuminating a halo of red hair.

“Willow!”

Willow shrieked. She danced a quick, silly little dance. “Buffy, don’t do that,” she said.

Buffy took one step toward Willow, candy dish still above her head. “What are you doing home?”

“Not getting dashed with a candy dish, I hope,” she said.

Buffy lowered the dish. “No, of course not. I was just...”

“Posing for a life drawing class?” Willow offered.

“Something was coming,” Buffy whispered.

“That would be me,” Willow said.

“Giles called you,” Buffy said. She crossed her arms. “He called you home from Slayer recruiting.”

“Actually,” Willow said, walking up the stairs to stand in front of Buffy. “Xander called. He said Spike’s here.”

“Spike is here,” Buffy said. “And you’re here. And Kennedy’s...”

“In Scotland. Enjoying our lovely weekend rental sans Willow. Buffy, Xander said there was something wrong,” Willow said.

Buffy took Willow by the elbow and moved them back downstairs, far from the possible hearing range of Dawn and Spike.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Buffy said. “He’s human, Wil. Heart beat. Pulse. The whole package. Walking on sunshine. Or, in sunshine. He’s a little shell-shocked.”

“Oh no. He wasn’t in the place of harps and lambs and happy white clouds, was he?” Willow asked.

Buffy shook her head. “No. Less happy, I think. It was either hell or LA.”

Willow shrugged, then nodded.

“And he sleeps a lot,” Buffy added.

“Of course he does. He’s been through hell,” Willow said.

“We think,” Buffy said. Then amended, “I think.”

“Right. Okay,” Willow said. “I kinda have to ask, Buffy, so don’t freak. We know the who, but about the how...”

“Short answer is, I don’t know,” Buffy said. “That’s pretty much the long answer, too. We just need some time to let him wake up. You know, move around. Adjust. It took me a while...”

“I remember,” Willow said, frowning. “Maybe you should try and sleep. We’ll all feel better in the morning.”

“Yeah,” Buffy said, distractedly. “In the morning.”

Willow stroked Buffy’s shoulder. They turned and went back upstairs.

Buffy paused outside her door. “I’m glad you’re here,” she told Willow. “And I’m sorry about your getaway plans.”

“Hey,” Willow said. “We live here, right? It’s all just a train-ride away.”

“You rock,” Buffy said. She stepped back into her rooms, and went in to sleep in her not-so-comfy comfy chair.

Willow continued to the third floor, but went past her own apartments. She went to Giles’ door and knocked softly.

“Giles?” she called. “It’s me.”

Chapter 7: Religious Experience, with Donuts

The next morning, things did feel better. The rain rolled back from the British Isles, leaving everything summery fresh and sparkly.

Dawn, Buffy, Willow and Spike converged in the kitchen. Buffy and Willow sat together at the table, with Willow pretending to skim the Daily Mirror. It had been Giles wish that she observe Spike, which she had done for all of about twenty seconds before getting wrapped up in Dawn’s endless chatter. Dawn was filling him in on all that he’d missed since his departure from Sunnydale. He listened intently from his place beside the fridge.

Willow leaned over. “He’s all non-talkie, huh?” she whispered. “It’s kinda sweet.”

“Yeah, I’m counting on wise-cracky Spike to surface at any moment,” Buffy said.

Spike cut his eyes to her, but still he said nothing. Buffy gave him what she hoped was an encouraging smile.

Dawn broke off from her narrative. “You know,” she said. “You should talk more. I need help with my accent.”

“Giles has an accent,” Willow said.

Dawn sneered. “I want a cool one.”

The barest trace of a smile creased Spike’s lips.

The front door opened, and within moments, Andrew glided in, turned a quick pirouette and bowed. He presented a flat box of Krispy Kreme Donuts.

“Helloooo, ladies. Spike. I come bearing real American donuts, a gift from fair Nighna. I’m convinced the creator of Krispy Kreme sold his soul to get this recipe, so we have to enjoy them before we erase evil from... hold the sherbet! Spike?”

Andrew faced Spike. Then he grabbed him in a clumsy but not wholly unwelcome hug. “Good to see you again. It’s been like months since you stopped in to visit us in Italy. What brings you to London town?”

Andrew slid the donut box onto the counter. He looked at Buffy and Willow, who seemed lost for words.

“I know,” Andrew said. “I was out all night. My date with Nighna went well. We watched old movies on her VCR, then went to this so-called authentic barbecue place where they served meat on sheets of butcher paper. But in Britain barbecue sauce is no more than glorified ketchup...”

Meanwhile, Spike moved on to the box of donuts. With Dawn’s encouragement, he chose a chocolate glazed from the box and took a bite.

It was like a sugar explosion in his mouth.

“Oh God,” he exclaimed, gripping the counter’s edge with his free hand. His jaw locked and his tongue spasmed.

“Oh!” Dawn squeaked. She rushed to the fridge for milk.

Buffy and Willow jumped from the table.

“What is it?” Willow said. “Are you hurt?”

Dawn slid a glass of milk to him. Spike chewed, swallowed, sipped. “God,” he said. “Donuts.”

“Okay, Homer,” Buffy said. She came over to the bar. “Diabolical, huh?”

Spike blinked, then drew in a deep breath.

“Almost worth an eternity in hell,” Andrew said.

“Just wait till you try double mind fudge cookie dough ice cream,” she said.

“I’ve tried that,” Spike said, catching his breath.

“Not as a human, you haven’t. Everything’s changed,” she said.

“Oh,” Willow said. “Caramel mocha frappucino. With chocolate sprinkles.”

Buffy said, “Cantaloupe bubble tea with milk.”

“Cranberry orange scones with clotted cream,” Andrew added. Then, “Wait. Spike eats.” He pointed at Spike. “You eat. I’ve seen it.”

Willow patted Andrew’s head. “Spike’s now in the Land of Those Who Need Food for Sustenance.”

“William,” Spike said.

“Suh?” Buffy said.

He titled his head to the side. “I should like to be called William. My proper name.”

After a protracted silence, Andrew whispered, “Son of Jorel...”

Dawn picked up another donut and passed it to Spike. “Here you go, William. Clog those human arteries.”

William took the donut, but stared down at it as though it had bugs crawling on it. Buffy covered his hand with hers. “You don’t have to eat it,” she said.

“We should have a party,” Andrew said.

“A dinner party,” Willow added. “How festive!”

“We can use the good china, and make one of those Indian recipes Kennedy’s mom sent...” Andrew said, already getting carried away.

The when’s and wherefore’s of the dinner party absorbed the collective attentions of Dawn, Willow and Andrew. Buffy leaned over to William.

“You okay?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Undone by donuts. Not a bad start to a day.”

“You’re adjusting,” she said. “You’ll be fine.”

“Promise?” he said. He looked up at her through his eyelashes, and for the briefest moment, she saw the old Spike in there, playing the way he always did before, edging up for a sympathy vote.

But then his eyes did roll back slightly, and he bumped against the edge of the bar. Buffy caught his elbow.

“Hey now,” she said. “Maybe too much sugar all at once. We should’ve started you off on a Twinkie or something.”

Willow looked over. “Are you...?”

“In tears,” William said. “Very nearly so. Are you sure we aren’t in heaven?”

“Certain,” Buffy said, too quickly.

“Want more?”

“Hmm. Yes,” he said.

Giles came around the corner, arms loaded with scrolls and books, to walk in on this scene of his girls (plus Andrew) feeding donuts to Spike.

“Oh, good God,” he said.

Willow looked up, guilt-laden. “Oh, Giles. Hi! William’s just had a religious experience with a Krispy Kreme.”

“Ah,” Giles said, flatly. “William.”

“What’s with the beau coup scrollage?” Buffy cut in. “Monsters afoot?”

Giles looked directly to Spike. “Something like that. Yes,” he said. But William did not lower his gaze.

Willow stepped in, taking some of the books from Giles. “Should I take these downstairs, or are they part of the Rupert Giles’ On-Loan to the Watcher Council Collection?”

“Downstairs, please, Willow. I’ve received word of an attack in California,” he said.

Buffy perked up, alarmed. “California?”

Giles directed his gaze now at Willow. “Yes. We know very little. Probably just random vampire activity. We’ll know more soon.”

“Random vampires,” Willow said. “Nothing Dana and our West Coast Slayers can’t handle, right?”

“Giles, should we call someone? Get a heads up?” Buffy asked.

Giles paused. “I don’t think so,” he said. “The network is in place. Now is a good time to test it.”

“Hey, and maybe Kennedy will have some good news with the new Scottish Slayer recruit. We’ll have two reasons to celebrate,” Willow said.

“Celebrate?” Giles said, confounded.

“We’re having a dinner party,” Andrew chimed in. “For William.”

Dawns said, “Our first in London.” She looked uncontainably excited.

“It’s set then,” Buffy said. “Tomorrow night, after Kennedy gets home. Dinner. Sounds... good.”

“Good,” William said, though he didn’t sound completely convinced. He scanned past Buffy to Giles, who watched the scene with a look of concern and disgust on his face.

Chapter Eight: Thoughts on Dinner and Death

Now, it was Sunday night. Kennedy had come home early, since she had no such success with convincing a middle-aged couple of Scottish school teachers that their daughter was in fact part of a grand mission to save the world from sundry creatures of darkness.

Despite this, the mood in the Flat was decidedly festive. Willow, Dawn and Andrew transformed the dining area/library into a regular party-style dining area with festoons of orange flowers, dark purply candles and crystal dishes full of sugared almonds, olives (black and green) and various spicy sauces from lands East.

Buffy and Dawn flanked William, to act as extra buffering against Giles and Xander. Neither men felt this party idea was a kosher plan, and made no attempts to hide their collective apprehension. Perhaps to leaven that bit of excess mood, Dawn brought her exceptionally perky friend Mickey to dinner. Mickey wore her dyed black hair tied up in random tousled pigtails. Mickey had Cordelia-esque metabolism, so she munch always on carrot sticks and soybeans. When she spoke, her voice sometimes hit notes so high only bats could understand her. Xander like to say she was so Goth it was precious. To which Dawn would roll her eyes and flounce out of the room. Dawn held a master’s degree in the whole eye rolling then flouncing thing.

Giles sat at the head of the table, as he always did, with Xander to his right, next to Mickey. Kennedy was to Giles’ left. She spoke incessantly about the failed Slayer mission, all the while stabbing black olives with a toothpick.

Andrew and Willow fussed companionably in the kitchen, finishing the last of their dinner preparations. Buffy caught only wisps of their conversation, which she found less irritating than Kennedy’s almost military-style depiction of the Slayer pitch she provided to the poor Scottish family in Plockton.

For instance: “It is not too much cilantro,” Andrew whispered harshly. “It is supposed to have kick.”

Willow said, “Not the kind to kick us off the British Isle, Andrew. It has to be subtle.”

“It has to be subtle,” Andrew mocked.

Buffy laughed. She noticed that William was smiling too. He seemed less spacey today. Progressing toward non-zombie with every hour that passed. He still did things you might expect from someone who’s been comatose for an age. Like, earlier, he lay down in the bath and let the water fill the tub so that only his nose and forehead poked out. When she asked him what he was doing, he’d said, distractedly, “Oh. Listening.”

And now, he dragged the tips of his fingers over the fringes of flower petals while Kennedy talked. He caressed each waxy leaf as if it was the most interesting thing he had ever felt.

“So this girl,” Kennedy said. “This Veronica girl had been in dance her whole life. Excelled in like, tap and Celtic dancing. I told her parents, ‘hey, dancing’s like fighting. It’s natural to her, because it’s her destiny.’ I gave them our whole Slayer school pitch, but they were so fixated on blood, blood, blood. And you know what they finally said? They said she was too young.”

Dawn leaned in. “Can we ix-nay on the odd-blay, Kennedy? Muggles present.”

Kennedy cast a quick glance to Mickey. “Metaphorical blood. Dance competitions. Brutal.”

Mickey took a handful of almonds and began to crunch between her front teeth in a cute but chipmunky sort of way.

“Well,” Buffy said. “How old was she? This Veronica?”

“Sixteen,” Kennedy said, sitting back like she’d just cast the cincher argument in a courtroom battle.

Buffy and Dawn scoffed simultaneously.

“Still,” Kennedy went on,” I’m sure we could have closed the deal if Giles hadn’t called Willow home. She way better on the persuasion end.”

Willow entered the room bearing a tray full of saffron rice. “Way better on what end?” she asked.

“Persuasion,” Xander said. “Kennedy thinks you shouldn’t have come home early.”

Willow looked from Xander to Giles, and then to William and Buffy.

Giles pursed his lips. “Yes, well,” he said, taking the tray from Willow. “We’ll keep an open file on Veronica James. Willow, Andrew, this looks extraordinary.”

Andrew came along behind Willow, wearing oven mitts the size of boxing gloves. He carried a massive and elaborate serving dish to the center of the table with calculated flourish.

“Bon appetite,” he said, grinning.

As Willow and Andrew took their places at the table, the others all leapt unceremoniously into the food and conversation, passing platters and sauces and serving spoons.

Out of nowhere, William said, “Witches make the best chefs.”

In the lull that followed, Xander breathed, “Uggles-may, Spike.”

“Thanks,” Willow said. She gave him her shy Willow nod.

“It’s true, you know,” he went on. “Cooking is a lot like magic. When someone does it right – just the exact right and perfect combination of ingredients – it becomes greater than the sum of its parts.” He picked up a forkful of rice. “Just like this,” he said. “Like magic.”

“Aw,” Willow said, actually blushing now. “I’ve never thought of it that way before.”

Willow looked from Buffy to Xander. The latter was doggedly unimpressed.

Andrew said, “Spike’s a big fan of culinary television...” And the conversation of around the table resumed as reasonably normal as ever.

Buffy squeezed William’s knee under the table. “How’s it going?” she asked him, quietly.

He nodded. “You’re a teacher now?” he asked.

Giles sent a worried look to Xander, but Buffy paid no notice. She proceeded to tell William about Summers School.

“It was kinda my idea, actually,” Buffy said. “But Giles set everything up. We started the first in Cleveland, you know, over one of the other, more perky Hellmouths. Once it was on its feet, we branched. Robin and Faith run the one in New York. It’s officially the biggest. New York – full of the big bad...”

“I recall,” William said.

Buffy went on, “Now we have schools in Chicago, Houston, Mexico City, Tokyo, here. And, we recruit. We’re like the army, but without pensions or tuition reimbursement. The best part is that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of Slayers in the world. Actual, real Slayers. Our goal now is to build...”

Xander leaned in. “So, um, Spike,” he said, spitting out the words. “When did you start dressing the part of lumberjack? Cause I gotta say, the plaid flannel...”

“Xander!” Willow hissed.

“Actually,” Dawn chimed in, “it’s your jacket, Xander. We didn’t think you’d mind. William was cold earlier, and you haven’t worn it in...”

Xander sat back in his chair. It was clear he would gain no ground with the Summers women. “It looks huge on you,” he finished, lamely.

Andrew offered a bowl to Xander. He said, “Dear, would you like some chutney to go with the foot in your mouth?”

William managed a weak smile. Buffy continued talking, but he and Xander had entered a kind of macho staring match which drained all of his limited ability to focus.

“Besides,” Dawn said. “You can have it back tomorrow. We’re going shopping to buy William new clothes of his own.”

“What?” Xander and Giles said, in accord.

“Oh yeah, Kennedy” Buffy said, “I need you to open the school tomorrow so I can take care of that. Plus, William and I are going skating.”

“Skating?” Giles said.

“Y’huh,” Buffy said.

At the other end of the table, Dawn and Andrew had launched into a separate conversation with Mickey regarding a prior mishap in the kitchen. For a moment, they were all drawn in by the bubbliness of Dawn’s narrative.

“So Andrew stored the pie in the freezer, so it would be slightly chilled for dinner,” she said.

Kennedy picked up the thread seamlessly, “Oh, but Willow had all these reagents in baggies up there, too...”

“Reagents?” Mickey said, shaking her head with uncertainty.

“They were all slippy,” Willow added.

Dawn was laughing now. “Right, slippy. So then Willow comes in for some newt’s eye popsicles and... and the whole pie just slides right out.”

“No,” William said, mildly amused.

“Newt’s eye what?” Mickey said, still unsure that maybe they were all pulling a sneaky one on her.

“Yep,” Willow said. “Pie slid out, onto my foot. Pie-d a terre.”

Andrew was sneering. Willow, Kennedy and Dawn shuddered, giggling.

“Stop it, stop it,” Andrew cried. “We are not discussing the banoffee pie incident.”

Maybe it was because he seemed as lost in the current conversation, Mickey sat forward looking at William.

“So, William. You’re new, right? How d’you fit in?” she asked.

“Well, no,” William began, slowly. “Actually...”

“Actually,” Xander said. “Spike’s been around for ages. Isn’t that right?”

“Xander,” Giles said, in a cautionary tone.

“No. We’re all here. I’m thinking now’s a good time. Enlighten us, please. How do you fit in?"

“Xander, what is wrong with you?” Buffy said.

“It’s an easy thing to see,” Xander said. “Even one-eyed jack like me can see it.”

“See what?” Buffy said.

Everyone fell quiet around the table.

Xander stood up. “Buffy, I can’t do this.”

William got to his feet as well. “No. I’ll go. Need some air.” Before rounding the table, he squeezed Buffy’s shoulder and then went out back to the garden.

“What’s with you tonight?” Buffy said, glaring at Xander.

“Xander does have a point, Buffy,” Giles said.

“Point? What point? He’s made lumberjack quips about his own coat...”

“It’s not him, Buffy,” Giles blurted.

“What?” she said.

Xander shook his head slowly. “It’s not Spike. Or William. Or whoever you want it to be.”

Buffy stood up. “What do you know about what I want?” she said, slowly.

Giles got quickly to his feet. He said, “Maybe now is not the time, Xander. Buffy.”

“Right,” Willow said, trying to keep things all smoothie. “We have dessert!”

William stepped outside into the unwelcoming arms of muggy London night. Still, it was more pleasant than curry chicken with pissed off Scoobies. He sat down on the uneven flagstone patio step and looked up at the cloud-strewn, moonless night sky. He drew a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of Xander’s lumberjacket, then toyed with outer plastic wrapper.

Minutes passed thus, before someone rattled the back door and came outside. William looked over his shoulder, and was slightly disappointed to find Andrew standing there.

William returned his gaze skyward. “Wasn’t expecting you.”

Andrew fidgeted, stuffed hands in his pockets, then came to stand beside William. “Came to get you for dessert,” he said.

“Yeah? Banoffee pie?”

Andrew snitted. “Mangolassi cheesecake. Really tasty, with fresh mango puree and sweetened condensed cream. But the cardamom is the secret... you know, those will kill you,” Andrew said. He sat down next to William.

William turned the cigarette pack in his fingers. “So I’ve heard.”

“Where’d you get them?” Andrew asked.

William shrugged. “Nicked them from the bureau drawer. Think they belonged to Rupert.” William shook the pack.

“They cause cancer,” Andrew said.

They heard muffled shouting inside. Andrew looked over his shoulder and sighed.

“Do people still die from tuberculosis?” William asked.

“Yeah,” Andrew said. “But only in third-world countries. And in inner cities where there are high levels of poor people, indigents and migrant workers.”

“Bloody awful,” William said.

“Yeah, but there are tons of worse ways to die. In non-third world countries, too,” Andrew said.

William looked at Andrew, faintly disgusted. “You don’t say?”

“Cancer. Car crashes. The ebola virus...”

Back inside, Willow, Dawn and Kennedy tried to diffuse the situation with cheesecake, to no effect. Mickey looked fairly lost and sorry for having started the whole mess.

“Buffy,” Giles said. “What Xander is trying to say is...”

“I know what he’s trying to say, Giles,” Buffy interrupted. She wheeled on Xander. “Can’t take it that he might be worth a second chance?”

Xander revved. “Second chance? Buffy, Spike was well-known for collasally squandering chances. He may have redeemed himself in Sunnydale. Fine. But we can’t forget that Spike would do anything...”

“It’s not Spike,” Buffy said.

“My point exactly,” Xander shouted, gesturing like a scarecrow, if they could in fact gesture.

“You’re not making any sense,” Willow said, evenly.

Giles tried valiantly to keep his head. “What Xander is rather incoherently trying to say is that if Spike is out there, we need to think about how it is that he actually came to be here, given his propensity for...”

“It was me,” Buffy said, quietly.

“You?” Xander said. He looked confused. “Please clarify.”

She shook her head. “It’s not important. What is, is that he’s back. He’s human. Xander, you’ll have to deal.”

“Have to deal?” Xander said. His face reddened. “Oh, Buffy. Grow up.”

Outside, Andrew continued to gruesomely recount the many causes of human death.

“There’s ecoli, too. Nasty bug. And anthrax, which used to belong only to cows but the government manufactured it and mailed it to itself,” Andrew said. “And then you have all your basic STDs. AIDS. Syphilis. Gonorrhea. Chlamydia.

William grimaced. “Not that you’ll have to worry for those, right mate?”

Andrew shrugged. They overheard the shouting within. Andrew looked uncomfortable.

“Do you think they think we can’t hear them?” he asked.

William said, “I think they’re beyond caring.”

Buffy smiled at Xander.

“No,” she said.

“Huh?”

“Not this time, Xander. This time, I’m going to enjoy what I have. I’m gonna risk the pain. I’m gonna skate in the park, sing in the rain, eat ice cream, splash around in a fountain like...”

“Oh, like Sylvia and ‘La Dolce Vita,’” Kennedy pitched in.

“Not helping, Ken,” Xander said, pointing at her.

“Guys,” Buffy said. “I want this. I don’t want to hold back. He’s not a vampire. I’m not the Slayer. See? The stumbling blocks from before are gone and we have a chance for something normal and real. I don’t expect you to understand. But... but would it kill you to be happy for me? You know, to just take this for what it is?”

Xander scowled. “I’m well-versed in the world of wishes gone wrong, Buff. For all we know, old Spike may be just demon of the month out to prey on your weaknesses.

“That’s ridiculous,” Buffy said.

“Demons? Vampires?” Mickey said. “Are we still speaking metaphorically? Cause, I thought the witchy thing was a bit weird...”

Xander plowed on. “Ridiculous, Buffy? Like the likes hasn’t happened before?”

“This is different,” Buffy said.

Outside, Andrew went on, getting more creative by the second. He’s added train derailments, shoe bombs and the Titanic to his list of things that regularly kill humans.

“Andrew,” William interrupted. “Not that this isn’t riveting...”

“I haven’t even covered the full spectrum of cancers – pancreatic, colon, rectal...”

William practically jumped to his feet. “Bloody hell,” he said, annoyed. He pulled a cigarette from its pack. Stared hard at it. “Do you know why evil wins, Andrew?” he asked.

“Because they have money, cool clothes and speak with English accents?”

William handed him a blank look. “No,” he said. “It’s because people – humans – are stupid. It’s because they can’t see beyond their tiny lives. They kill themselves. They kill each other. They wreck everything. And for what? Fleeting breaths between birth and death. They just... reach for each other in the dark and get flashes. Of love. Of happiness. Pleasures so thin. They – we – see nothing.”

William looked up into the patchy clouds and saw stars winking out. He nodded to himself. “But I get it,” he said. “I see.” He strode toward the door.

But paused with his hand on the doorknob. Over his shoulder he said, “All those little killers lurking about you. You can’t let ’em keep you from living. You gotta live while the blood’s in your veins.”

He looked down at the cigarette in his hand. “And these things are...”

“Bad for you?” Andrew suggested.

“No,” William answered. He tossed the cigarette aside. “They’re inconsequential.”

He opened the back door and walked in.

Buffy was still facing off with Xander in the dining room.

Buffy said, “We have all been through hell. Some of us, literally. It’s so hard, Xander. I know how difficult things have been since Anya.”

“Don’t,” Xander said, but less with the forceful.

Buffy went on, “Sometimes something you want comes true, and when it does you have to hang on to it. Take it at face value.”

“At face value, then?” Giles spoke up. “Let’s have a look then at the face of William the Bloody. Before he won back his soul. Buffy, he was a murderer. A manipulator. And an insufferably bad poet.”

“Hey!” Willow said. She looked down. “That’s low.”

“Point is,” Giles continued, “he left thousands of corpses in his wake, cut a swathe across continents. Buffy, the things he’s done to you...”

“Old song, Giles. Besides, he’s changed,” Buffy said.

“It feels wrong, Buffy,” Xander said. “I don’t trust it.”

“Why? Make me understand. Because I just don’t”

William moved closer to the dining room, but stealthily so. He could see plainly that Mickey, poor girl, wished to be elsewhere. She shrank against the window seat, face ashen. No one else took note of her. Giles had removed his glasses. He looked around at all of them. When he spoke, his voice took on the stony, blunt edge of disappointment. “It comes to this, Buffy. Only this. There is no way in hell that creature deserves a happy ending.”

William heard every word and cringed.

But Buffy uttered a half-laugh. “Oh, I see,” she said. “Creature, is he? Willow, Dawn. You felt him. You know.”

“She’s right,” Willow said. “He’s human, Giles.”

“Nice and huggably soft,” Dawn added.

“Yes, well, he may have the appearance of humanity,” Giles said. “It does not change what he is...”

“You know what,” Buffy said. “I don’t care. Maybe he doesn’t deserve a happy ending. Really not for me to say. But I do. I should get the big Hollywood ride into the sunset. And damn you both for wanting to take it away from me.”

Buffy moved away from the table.

William stepped into view then, his boots echoing hollowly on the hardwood floor.

“Buffy?” he said.

She shrugged.

Xander flopped down and glowering.

Mickey stood up behind Dawn.

“So,” she said. “I guess I’m gonna... flee now.”

She bolted past Dawn and ran away.

After Mickey fled, Dawn slammed her hands palm down on the table.

“Well, guys. That’s the death of my social life in London,” she seethed. “Less than one month. So, thanks. I’m going up to my room to sulk. Not that any of you care.”

Dawn sprinted past Buffy and William, then pounded up the stairs.

Andrew, who had just come in from the garden, said, “I care.” Dawn, who couldn’t have possibly heard and probably would not have cared that he cared, slammed the apartment door behind her.

Willow sat back in her chair. “Our first dinner party in London,” she mused.

“Went great,” Xander said.

“Yeah, you guys always did know how to throw a shindig,” Kennedy said. She took Willow’s hand. “C’mon, Sweetie. Night’s not a total loss.”

Andrew came in. “Yeah, we still have dessert.”

“I’m down with that,” Kennedy said. “You desire?” she said to Willow.

“In a minute,” Willow answered. “You go on.”

Andrew and Kennedy went into the kitchen to serve up his mangolassi cheesecake.

With no one from the dining room watching, Buffy took the cue to exit stage right. She gestured for William to follow. She led him upstairs to the roof, where they spent the rest of their waking hours watching the stars play hide-and-seek with clouds.

But downstairs, Giles was busy deep thinking. He said, “Willow, Xander. Meet me downstairs. We need to have a discussion.”

So, they met up in the basement-slash-spell room. The design did not lend itself to meetings since there was no furniture, but they each sat on the colorful, overlarge pillows that lay scattered about for just that purpose.

Without preamble, Xander said, “This is bad.”

“Yes, you have it,” Giles said, massaging his forehead.

“But it’s bad, Giles. Really bad. Baddy-bad as in Greek morality play bad,” Xander said.

Willow caressed Xander’s arm.

“You’re not helping, Xander,” Giles said. “Do remain calm.”

Xander got up and entered pace mode. “You saw them,” he said. “He’s got a foothold. He’s working his way up to knee-hold. And after that...”

“I’ll go to the Council archives first thing tomorrow morning. No. I’ll go tonight. I’ll look up what I can on resurrection spells, mystical constructs, transfiguration...”

“Doppelgangers,” Willow offered.

Giles turned to her. “I’ll need you to run a search on his last known whereabouts, starting in Los Angeles. I’m doubting he could just appear as Buffy says.”

“She wouldn’t lie,” Xander cut in.

“No, she wouldn’t,” Giles said. “But whatever this thing is, it may have the ability to warp reality or change perceptions. We really have nothing to go on at the moment.”

“It does seem extra broad,” Willow said. “But what if the explanation is as simple as she says. What if she...”

Xander wheeled on her. “Made a wish, Wil? Like, blow out the candles and your lost lover returns from the undead? Wishes don’t come true, at least not in the way you want them to. We both know that.”

Willow gave him a look of defeat. “I know. But what if...”

“It didn’t,” Xander said. His voice came out raspy and harsh.

“Look,” Giles intervened, “the only thing we can say for certain is that there is a potential for danger. If someone is using him as a tool for acquiring information, he’s just walked in our front door. All of your concealment spells to protect this house are for naught.”

“So we watch him?” Willow asked.

“Until we know more, yes,” Giles said. “It might be best for all involved if we keep our suspicious between us. For the time being.”

“I’m on board with that,” Xander said.

Willow shrugged.

“Wil?” Xander said.

“Fine. Me too. For now,” she said.

Giles patted her shoulder. “My resources at the council are growing daily. We’ll know very soon what course to take.”

Chapter Nine: The Kitchen Witch

That night, William dreamed.

He was downstairs in the kitchen, cleaning up dishes, putting away food, covering bowls with plastic wrap, which confounded him because he had never used it before and it seemed to stick to everything, including itself, but not to the actual bowl. He wound up tearing off great sheets of it and wrapping several dishes together.

He heard Buffy enter the kitchen, but he didn’t turn around because he was slightly embarrassed over the plastic wrap fiasco.

“What are you doing here?” she asked. Her voice sounded smoky and playful. He was about to be ribbed. He smiled at that.

Over his shoulder, he said, “Clearing things. Earning my keep.”

“Don’t you dare,” she said, coming to stand beside him. She took the wooden spoon he held in his hand. “You shouldn’t do that. You’re the guest of honor. Party was for you.”

She turned on the faucet and let the water run. She immediately began to hum as she rinsed the dishes.

William looked over at her, then sprung away when he realized. It wasn’t Buffy; it was Anya.

“What are you...?” he began.

“Doing here?” she laughed, still scrubbing. “Oh, you know. I always complained that Xander never took me places. Now here he is in merry old England.”

“What?”

“I’m haunting the place,” she whispered, conspiratorially.

“Haunting?”

“It’s the cool new thing. I get to be here with the one I love, but I can never, ever touch him. And, he will never know,” she said.

She tackled the baking pan, scrubbing vigorously at the red gunk around its edges. William took a step back. He watched it swirl down the sink drain in horror.

“But that’s not the best part,” Anya continued. “No, the killer is that I get to daily witness his bitterness. Then, I get to watch it fade in tiny increments undetectable by him, until finally one day he’ll come around. He’ll forget me and eventually move on. Meanwhile, I’m here, watching and watching because time doesn’t move like it did. It moves, but I’m not stuck in it. I’m just outside, looking in.”

Anya sighed. “Damn this grease. There’s no Palmolive in Purgatory. My skin gets so red and cracked.”

She looked down, watching the water as the drain sucked it down. He noticed then the diagonal gash across her back. He reached to touch it, but she whirled on him.

“But hey!” she said, in a falsely cheerful tone. “It’s all part of the luxury atonement package, right? It’s what I get for reaping a thousand years of vengeance on hapless, undeserving souls.”

Anya hopped up to sit on the lip of the sink. Behind her the water ran and ran.

“Oh, blah,” she said. “Enough of my woes. Ta-da! You’re here.”

“I’m here?” William said.

“You’re like a newly resurrected parrot. You know that?”

The water in the sink swirled red. William felt absurdly embarrassed for her. His urge to lean in and turn off the tap was almost unbearable, but when he reached for it, she caught his arm.

“Don’t do that,” she warned.

William stepped away.

“How is it I can see you?” he asked.

“Oh,” she said. She swung her dangling legs like a child on a swing. “Ooooh,” she said again, this time mockingly sympathetic.

“You’re dreaming, William. William – you’re dreaming.”

Now it was his turn to awake with a start. Actually, to him, that was the best way to wake up. Awakening with a stop was no way to begin.

So he awoke with a start. He was in the bed, with Buffy, but they were both fully clothed and above the covers. She was asleep with her head resting on his shoulder.

“Unbelievable,” he whispered. He stroked the fringe of her hair.

Then, he edged out of bed, careful not to disturb her. Downstairs, he heard breakfast table chatter. Though he didn’t know who it was meeting over bran flakes and OJ, he found the sound distinctly comforting. That kind of noise signified normal, regular morning things. No ghosts in the kitchen. No blood in the sinks. Just morning.

William went into the bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror. He ran his hands through his hair. He checked his teeth, checked his skin. He squinched his eyes tight in an imitation of his former demonic state. Then he just stared at himself for a long while.

Downstairs a door slammed with such force, he jumped. He paused, listening for breaking glass or monsters trudging upstairs. But, no, nothing. He laughed at himself, and returned to the bedroom.

He slid back into the bed beside Buffy. She made a sleepy-head sound and curled toward him.

“That was Kennedy,” she whispered. “Slamming the door reaffirms her presence.”

“So she’s the earliest early-bird?” he asked.

“Yep. She opens the school at 5 a.m. He students view her as the Anti-Christ,” Buffy said.

“Most days you go with her?

Buffy stretched a little. “No, not most days. I’m more the mid-morning shift. We both patrol every night, but I’ve been in it longer. I pull rank. One of the few perks.”

“And the Minis? They don’t have their own circles of patrol?” he asked.

“Nah. London’s a lay-low place where vamp activity’s concerned. I’m not the One and Only anymore, but I do still have a job to do,” she said.

Downstairs, the door slammed again. William raised an eyebrow.

“That’s Busy Bee Xander, off to work. Giles helped him get the contract for rebuilding the Watcher’s offices,” she said.

William recalled a flash of dream, of Anya scrubbing pans for eternity.

“He’s not doing so well, is he?” William asked.

“Noticed, huh?”

“Poor bloke.”

“He’s tough, though. More than he looks,” Buffy said.

“Yeah, the old lumberjack facade. Got it,” William said.

The door slammed again.

“And that would be?” William led in.

“Andrew. Reporting for Watcher training,” Buffy said. “He’s not actually a Watcher, or in training. But he tags along for good measure. Faithful little Watch-er dog.”

The door closed again, softer this time.

“Andrew again,” Buffy said. “He always forgets something.”

William laughed. “How do you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Live with it. The chaos. The noise. Day in...”

Buffy sat up. “It’s not so bad. I just... I hear them every morning, coming, going. There’s a rhythm to it. It’s... I don’t know, comforting.”

“Strength in numbers,” William said, watching her closely.

“That,” she said. “Plus, rent in London...” She made an explode-y sound.

The door closed again, but this time with a sense of purpose and dignity in the sound.

“Willow, off to see the Wizard.”

“The Wizard?”

Buffy smiled. “He’s part of the Coven. They’re studying life-force magics to build an enduring protective circle around this place. It’s been done before, in places like Stonehenge and Easter Island, but the level of magics involved is supposed to be like...”

William sat up. He shook his head.

“Something wrong?”

“Um. No. No no.”

Buffy craned her neck to the side. “One ‘no’ good. Three ‘no’s’ bad,” she said.

“Buffy, I heard what Rupert said last night. What if...” he paused, shaking his head again. “What if I don’t belong here?”

Buffy’s brow creased. “Don’t even think it,” she said.

“You said you made a wish. How often does that come out candy and roses?”

“To date? Never,” she said. She looked down at her hands. “But I’m getting used to re-writing rules to fit my situation.”

He smirked. “That a fact?”

Downstairs, someone clicked off the TV and left the house. Suddenly, it was strangely still and quiet in the Flat.

“That was Dawn, off to catch her train for class,” Buffy said. “Which means...”

“We’re all alone,” William said.

Buffy arched her brows. “Hmmm. So, William, what do you want to do today?” she asked.

He leaned against the headboard, folding his arms. “There was this one thing,” he said.

She bit her lip. “Thought you’d never ask,” she said.

Chapter 10: Kensington Park

So not what you were thinking.

Buffy had wanted to try out her roller blades since she bought them in Rome six months earlier, but thus far had not found someone to go with. She even went as far as to buy a pair each for Xander and Dawn. Dawn declined, citing that it was not cool to be seen skating with the all the wannabe sk8-punks in the park. Xander bowed out due to limited depth perception. Then, in a desperate last-ditch effort to have a warm-bodied somebody to go skatng with her, she tried to give the roller blades meant for Xander to Andrew. But Andrew said, “those indie kids are just too scene.” Whatever that meant.

Xander’s skates fit William, so whether he liked it or not (he did), he was going with her to skate.

Since it was a Monday morning, they found the park quite empty. No wannabes or indie scenes to be found. And this park was really nice, too. It bordered The Strand with a nice view across the Thames and up to Westminster. Plenty of sidewalks, shrubbery and a nice stretch of riverfront overlooking some of the older London business centers.

It was soon clear that Buffy had lots of skating experience, and that William had none. She whirled around him, literally skating circles.

“This is something you always wanted to try?” she taunted.

“They make it look all easy on the telly,” he said. He made an effort to move forward by waving his arms in front of him.

Buffy scraped past him, showing off now. She turned to skate backwards, away from him. “It’s not like swimming,” she said. “Use arms less.”

William rolled his eyes. He put one toe forward, then shoved off with the other. He moved all of five inches.

“You’re all wobbly,” Buffy said. “Like Bambi.”

William glared at her. “All those years I was a bad ass...”

“Wasted,” she said, skittering away. “It just takes practice. And you know, once you learn, you never forget.”

“Like some other things,” William said. Since he had minor success, he tried the toe forward maneuver again. This time, though, gravity disagreed. He wheeled his arms to keep his balance, but he was sidewalk bound. He stumbled, scraping his leg on the curb.

“Oh, oh!” Buffy said. She skated over and knelt beside him. “Are you all right?”

William was laughing. Hard. “I’m fine. Better than that...”

She sat down on the curb and began rolling up his pants leg. “Let’s have a look,” she said.

He watched her closely. “Buffy,” he said.

She ignored him. “You’ve violated the cardinal rule of roller-blading,” she said. “Stay upright-ski, don’t fall down-ski.”

He titled his head to the side. “Hurt my knee-ski?” he asked.

She pushed the cuff over his knee. He winced.

“More like shin-ski,” she said. The not-so-attractive scrape fell just below the kneecap. “Ouch,” she said.

“Does sting,” he admitted.

“Let’s see the other one,” she ordered.

He pulled way. “It’s not so bad as that,” he said. “Besides, I don’t hate it so much.”

Buffy scoffed. “What? You came back as some kind of masochist?”

William pursed his lips.

“Right,” she said. “My bad.”

He nodded. “I do love the way the air feels in my lungs. A not-unpleasant burning. Humans live their lives on fire. I had forgotten that. And the sun!” He raised his face to catch the sunlight. “What a curse not to feel it.”

Buffy laid her hand on his leg. “You know what,” she said. “You’ll live.”

William began tugging his pants leg back down, when Buffy stopped him. The blood that oozed from the scrape was rapidly vanishing into the skin.

“Hang on a tic,” he said. “It’s not supposed to do that.”

“I’m thinking no,” she said.

“Buffy?”

She looked at him. “Do you feel all right?

“Right as rain. Right as – as daisies and caterpillars. What is this?”

“You have heal-y power,” she said.

They watched in stunned silence as the wound closed up, leaving nothing but unscarred skin. Not even a bruise.

“Confused is the word,” he said.

“Let’s get you home, okay? We’ll call Willow. She’ll help,” Buffy said.

They got shakily to their roller-bladed feet.

William looked at her. “How did I get here?” he asked. He looked lost, and felt lost.

“It was me,” Buffy said. “I did it. We’ll figure it out, though. We’re good with the figuring.”

“Right,” he nodded. “Right.”

They hobbled together all the way back to the house.

Chapter 11: Aura

Dark as roses, fine as sand
Feel your healing and your sting again
I hear you laughing and my soul is saved
On forgotten graves you cry
Crawl like ivy up my spine
Through my nerves and into my eyes
Cuts like anguish
Or recollections of better days gone by
But it’s all right
When you’re caught in pain
And you feel the rain come down
It’s all right
When you find your way
Then you see it disappear
It’s all right
Though your gardens grey
I know all your graces
Someday will flower
In the sweet sunshower
Eyes like oceans so far away
A feather trail to a better way
Worried mornings turn into days
Then into worried nights
But it’s all right
When you’re all in pain
And you feel the rain come down
Oh it’s all right
When you find your way
Then you see it disappear
Oh it’s all right
Though your gardens grey
I know all your graces
Someday will flower
Oh in the sweet sunshower
Oh in the sweet sunshower
In the sweet sunshower
I know all your graces
Someday will flower
In the sweet sunshower
And it’s all right
All you’ll be you are today
Are today
It’s all right
All you’ll be you are today
Are today.........

Sunshower, Chris Cornell

When Buffy and William arrived home, they found that Willow had already returned from her visit with the Wizard. They explained what had happened in the park. Just as Buffy expected, Willow had something in mind to try out.

They gathered around the carved altar in the basement. Willow arranged some milky blue crystals and sprinkled powdered pink coral dust on the floor around the altar.

Afterward, she read an incantation:

“Coradis, vendi, septulis mouri. Elafem, radres. Courdis.”

Willow sat back on her pillow and drew in a deep breath.

“Okay,” she said. “You fell down, got scabby, then got better?”

“As in, rapidly,” Buffy said.

“That’s about the size of it, yeah,” William said.

“Hmmm,” Willow said, looking over at Buffy. “Not get the ‘why this is bad.’”

“We need to know more about it. Is it permanent? How’d he get it? And why?” Buffy said.

Willow placed her hands on the corners of the altar. “It would help a little if Sp...” Willow looked up, then corrected, “William. It would help if William could tell a little more about where he was before he was here.”

“He doesn’t remember,” Buffy began.

“Rain,” he said.

“A rain dimension?” Willow offered.

“Not a dimension. A place,” he said.

“A place?” Buffy said.

“Dark alley,” William said.

“You know, I hear those places aren’t safe,” Willow put in.

“Well, what else?” Buffy said.

“Demons. Legions of the buggers. And a...” he strained to recall. “A dragon? Complete with fire. Something’s not right.”

William swallowed hard. He tried to hide the fact that his hands were shaking.

Willow saw, though. She said, “I have an idea. Something we can try.” She stood up and crossed to the stack of books in the corner. She selected a thin volume with a green cover and returned to the altar.

“Here,” she said, flipping through the book to a specific, pre-dog-eared page. “This won’t tell us where you’ve been, but it might help in telling what you are.”

“What am I?” William asked, hollowly.

“Clearly... not human,” she said.

“What?” Buffy said, both looking and feeling sold out.

“Guys, super healing action? Not even Slayers heal right before your eyes. Point is, I can read your aura,” Willow said.

William and Buffy exchanged questioning glances. Willow went on.

“It’s simple. Really. All creatures have auras. Good auras are like clear, wavery energy. Sometimes even regular people can see them.”

“Like a heat mirage?” William said.

Willow grinned. “Yeah. Good. Exactly. But evil auras are...”

“Black?” Buffy said.

Willow looked over the book proudly. “Good students both. I’m so proud. Anyway, auras also sometimes show streaks, or um, blips, kinda like an electromagnetic pulse recording of a charged event. For instance, a close brush with an uber-evil. Or, like a trip to another dimension.”

“Like heaven?” Buffy asked.

“Yeah,” Willow said, nodding. “Like that. Also, vampires, werewolves, demons – all creatures great and supernatural – they have distinctly separate auras. Which this spell should show us.”

Buffy looked to William. He nodded. “It could be an interesting read, all I’ve been through.”

Willow said, “You don’t have to. It’s just a spell. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”

They all paused, as if waiting for the other to say something.

Buffy said, “Will it... hurt?”

“Not at all,” Willow said. Then, she amended, “It’s supposed to tingle.”

William sat forward. “Good then. Let’s have it,” he said.

“Just give me a sec and I’ll be set,” Willow said. She closed her eyes to center herself in preparation for the spell.

Buffy took William by the arm and pulled him to recline against the pillows they had arranged around the altar.

“You okay with this?” she asked.

“Need to know,” he said. He was distant now. Determined.

“Know what?” Buffy said.

He shrugged.

Buffy said, “If your aura comes out all hot pink with yellow spots, it won’t change a thing.”

“I need to know if there’s a reason for me being here,” he said.

“Other than me wishing it?”

“Does my heart good, lamb. Can’t deny it. But...” he gave a weak smile.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I get it.”

“Do you?”

Willow lighted candles on the four corners of the altar. “Okay, you two. If you’re going to make with the kissing, I can make a hasty exit.”

William sat up, all business. “No. We’re ready,” he said.

“Right,” Buffy said, taking her place between them. “Ready.”

Willow began to invoke the spell, muttering a series of lyrical chants beneath her breath. Seconds later, the candle flames flickered. The powder around the altar sparkled like embers stirred from a fire. The embers shimmered, turning to vapor in the air. As it coalesced, the spindrifts turned to feathery curls in the air above the table.

“Good,” Willow said, breathlessly. “It’s working. And, for the record: I don’t need a spell to know. Your energy... it’s like butter.”

William gave her a good-natured sneer. Willow took his hands in her own across the altar.

“Hold tight,” she said.

The wisps of vapor converged in a pattern above the candles. A deep red-gold color spread up through the smoke, like sunlight through red wine. A shape emerged – a deep crimson rose with velvety petals.

“Is that supposed to happen?” Buffy asked.

“Wait,” Willow said, concentrating.

The rose spiraled inward and upward like a galaxy of tiny stars. A mist gathered then into small glowing spheres like miniature suns. A wind gusted, guttering the candles and rattling the basement door. It rose to a gale, and a deafening keening sound filled the room.

“Willow!” Buffy yelled.

Willow held tight to William’s hands. She began an incantation in Latin, but the words were ripped away by the wind. The shining mist floated up between them. It gathered into larger, brighter pulses of radiant light that settled over him, setting his skin aglow.

“Oh,” Willow mouthed.

William clenched his teeth, but mostly to guard against the sound. He closed his eyes as the pulses of light bore into his shoulders, his neck, his chest and his arms. Traces of light moved through his veins, still visible beneath his skin.

“Wil!” Buffy called out. “Stop this!”

William tightened his grip on Willow’s hands.

Through clenched jaws, Willow said, “Not yet. Power...”

William groaned. His head snapped forward to his chest. The pulses converged on William’s heart. The sound of its beating drowned out the wail of the wind. William tried to restrain. He tried to hold on, tried not to scream, but he slid right over the edge into realm of blistering pain.

“No,” Buffy yelled. She touched William’s arm, but the voltage of the contract threw her back. She hit the wall then scrambled to her knees. So she didn’t see as Xander rushed onto the landing of the basement stairs. He called out to Buffy and Willow, but they couldn’t hear him. Then he tried to run in to the rescue, but he boinked off of some unseen force that barred him from entering.

William struggled. Willow’s hands glowed white, but she fought to keep her contact.

William threw his head back. His eyes were rimmed with light. A wave of energy erupted from him, smashing all of the crystals and flattening the candle flames.

“Oh God,” he panted. “I see...”

The violent winds abated. The storm passed. William sat within a sphere of pale light that emanated from him in waves. It enveloped him, then spread outward like pond ripples to encompass Willow and Buffy.

“Wow,” Willow breathed.

The light that fell around them appeared like the evening sky following a storm. A faint hum replaced the keening, and the air seemed to shimmer and vibrate around them.

William sat up straighter, relaxing his grip on Willow’s hands.

Buffy ran her fingers through the palpable energy that flowed from William. “Wow,” she said, echoing Willow.

The three of them looked up at once to see even blue-white stars swirling in the dark ceiling of the room like a constellation. As they watched, the stars faded gradually then finally disappeared.

Willow drew a deep breath, then released William’s hands.

“Good,” she said.

William, still breathless, could only nod.

“Great!” Xander shouted from the landing. “Broken stuff. Thought we left all that back in Sunnydale. But look! I get to be useful after all.”

He came down the stairs toward them.

Willow got to her feet quickly. “Xander! How was your day?”

Xander ignored the question. He pointed at William.

“You,” Xander said. “You come back. Things get broken. Wanna try explaining what just happened?”

Buffy got up too, dusting her hands on her jeans. She looked down at her watch. “Yes,” she said. “But no. I’ve gotta go.”

“Go?” Willow said.

“Meeting Dawn at the shops after school. I can just catch the train if I go right now,” Buffy said.

Xander sputtered. “Shopping?”

“Yep,” Buffy said. “William, you okay?”

William made no effort to stand. But he nodded that he was fine.

“Do you wanna come with?” Buffy asked. “Our sight-seeing, skating fun was cut short, but...”

“No,” William said, dismissing her with a wave. “You go. I’ll hang here with Glinnda and the Scarecrow.”

Xander glared at him.

Buffy took William’s hand, squeezed it.

“There’s no place like home?” she said, lamely.

“Indeed not,” William said.

As Buffy passed Willow, she said, in a hushed voice, “We’ll talk later, okay?”

Willow gave a curt nod, and Buffy left.

As far as uncomfortable silences go, this one rated at least an eight. Xander eyed William. William eyed Xander. Willow made an effort to break up the macho stare-down, without much success.

Finally, Xander said, “What’s with the spellage, Wil? Learn anything... of use?

Willow shrugged, uneasy. She cut her eyes to William.

“No worries,” William said. He stood up. “I’m beat. Think I’ll go for a nap.” He managed, despite utter exhaustion, to swagger past Willow to the base of the stairs. From there, he started to say something to Xander.

“Don’t even start,” Xander said.

William climbed toward him, slowly, deliberately. When they stood shoulder to shoulder, he said, loud enough for Willow to hear, “Don’t worry, Harris. You and I don’t have the answers. But they do.”

And then he left the room.

Willow continued to clean the basement, righting her candles, picking up pillows. She kept up her purposeful performance under Xander’s disbelieving eyes.

“Okay, Willow,” he said, finally. “Tell me what just went on, cause it looks like you were meddling with unseen forces of the breaking kind.”

Willow looked over her shoulder. “It was an aura detection spell,” she said.

Xander descended to the bottom of the stairs “Aura?” he said “Detection?”

Willow made a makeshift dust pan out of a scrap of paper, then started sweeping up bits of shattered crystal. She talked as she swept. “We read William’s aura. Very basic spell, basically. Tells you if a person’s a person, or a demon, or good or evil.”

“Am I off in guessing some touch of evil with all the abundant destruction?”

Willow whirled on him. “I know what you’re thinking, Xander. I know you don’t like having William here...”

“For God’s sake, Wil. It’s Spike,” he said. “And something is up. Something you aren’t telling me. Should I head for a bladed something and take it on upstairs, or what?”

“No,” Willow said, urgently. “And, no. Nothing’s up. I just don’t...”

“Don’t what?”

“I don’t know how to read the reaction we got. His aura’s like nothing I’ve seen or read about. It was primal, and pure, and the power...”

“None of these things I’m liking,” Xander said.

“Buffy wants to wait to talk about it, so I think we should,” Willow told him.

“Again, not liking,” Xander said.

Willow crawled along the floor, sweeping up. “Xander, I don’t know what we’re dealing with. Something just happened. Something big... I need to dive into some texts to figure it out.”

She found an unbroken clay vase in the corner. Willow poured her collected crystal shards into it.

Then, she looked up at him, puzzled.

Xander took her by the elbow, helping her to her feet. “Willow, what is it?”

She stared at Xander for a second. She said, “William’s not human.”

Chapter 12: A Round In

Once Buffy had gone, William went up stairs. He stood idle for a moment, focusing on returning his breathing to an even rhythm. Then, once his heart had stopped its crazy trip-hop, William went back down stairs. As he pulled on his borrowed lumberjack coat, Andrew walked in the front door.

Andrew gave William the suspicious eye.

William handed it right back.

“Where’re you going?” Andrew asked. He sounded more than inquisitive, though. To William, it seemed he was looking for an invite.

“Out for a drink,” William said.

“Where is everyone else?”

William shrugged. Andrew remained stubbornly in the doorway.

“Fine,” William said, caving. “Buffy and Dawn are shopping. Willow and Xander are downstairs on clean up detail. Willow did a...” he waggled his fingers in the air, “spell.”

“You did magic? Without me? I miss everything,” Andrew said.

“Well, bye,” William said, striding past.

“Wait,” Andrew said. “Do you know where you’re going?”

Impatiently, he said, “I did live here...”

“Yeah, like a hundred years ago.”

“It’s London. Pub on every corner,” William said.

“Do you have any money?”

William paused. “No.”

Andrew stuffed his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Falling back on old habits?” he asked.

William rolled his eyes. “You buying?”

Andrew beamed, triumphantly. He put down his folder on the entry hall table and headed for the door. “There’s this place we go around the corner called Shepherd’s. Hey, maybe we can play darts.”

William followed him out into the busy night, playing things cool.

The pub was the ordinary sort. Neon beer signs. Cracked vinyl booth seats. Threadbare carpets. And a half a dozen tired-looking middle-aged patrons lost in pints.

Andrew and William sat among them, at the bar, also with pints. William looked the picture of boredom. Andrew was extra conspicuous.

“So,” Andrew said. “What was the spell all about?”

“Aura detection,” William said.

“Interesting. And?”

William leveled his eyes on Andrew. “I’m not a vampire,” he said.

Andrew nodded, slowly. “Cool,” he said. He sipped his beer.

“What’s your story, Andrew?” William asked, suddenly inspired.

This surprised Andrew so much he almost spilled his beer.

“When last we saw you, you were Tuxedo Man living the life in Italy. Now you’re starring here as Giles Junior. I’m missing the cue for costume change,” William said.

“Yeah, well. Italy was cool. Night life. Women.”

William nodded. “But?”

“Well, when we were attacked, Giles thought it best if we, you know, castle up here,” Andrew said.

William leaned in. “Attacked? Who attacked you?”

“Demon cult,” Andrew said. “Remains unsolved, though. It was dark and kinda confusing. We spent a few days hiding in these catacombs... creepy.”

“What were they after?”

“I don’t know, Spike,” he said, frustrated. “I was a little unconscious at the time. And I lost the tippy end of my pinky.” He poked out the abbreviated finger, then looked down into his pint, ashamed. “Buffy had to save me. She and Dawn could’ve gotten out a whole much sooner, if I hadn’t first been head-bashed, then finger mashed.”

“So it was just the three of you?”

“Not at first. You know, the Immortal...”

“I know him,” William said. He sneered.

“Well, he kinda split.”

“Poncy bastard,” William said. “Was he part of the demon conspiracy? Or did he just flee to save his own skin.”

“In the camp of the latter. He hid out the first night, but by morning...”

“Gone.”

“Yep.”

“And Buffy?”

“Upset by the whole can of Pringles. But you know her. She’s tough,” Andrew said.

“She’s the Slayer,” William said. He watched the homeward bound worker’s traffic filling up the streets. There was so much going on, and he was just waking up. He had the sense that there was something he just wasn’t getting yet. Something just beyond his ability to grasp. He reached for it, but came away with... nothing.

He returned to his conversation with Andrew. “So. What else then?”

“We came back here. Giles used money from insurance claims we filed in Sunnydale, plus FEMA assistance, which he invested in high-yield undisclosed investments. Giles isn’t much for sharing trade secrets. So, he used that fundage to buy the Flat and the building that houses the school. Willow and Kennedy have a house in Westbury, but they stay here so Kennedy can help with the school. Meanwhile, Giles is taxed with the heavy responsibility of rebuilding the Watcher Council. And Dawn and I are helping out. We’re really making contributions, I think. Dawn’s way gifted, you know. Like connected to the powers.”

“Runs in her blood,” William said.

“Yeah. We all have our purposes, doing the good work,” Andrew said.

“And Xander?”

Andrew frowned. “He does his share. But he’s still sad, you know. Losing a woman like Anya? Like he’ll ever find another girl like her in a thousand years.”

“Hear that,” William said. He touched his pint to the rim of Andrew’s and drained down the rest of his beer.

“And he’s so not adaptable. Like, he hears the word ‘snog’ and goes all Beavis,” Andrew said. “Then, like two weeks ago he crashed his car into a phone box...”

William got up abruptly. “Think we better head back,” he said.

“Oh. Okay,” Andrew said, following along. “But you wanna get a round of pool in? Maybe play the quiz game. Willow and I have a team. Pretty much unbeatable. Or, oh! Fruities?”

William considered for a second. “No,” he said. He turned on his heel and strode out.

“Okay,” Andrew said. “Maybe another time.”

Chapter 13: Patrol

Xander was snarling-mad in the kitchen, in full pace mode, with Kennedy, Dawn and Andrew. Outside, the yellow evening sunlight opaqued the windows and coaxed out long shadows under the eaves and alleyways.

“Couldn’t she take him another time? Maybe like when we’re more sure? Or how about never?” he said.

“Calm down,” Kennedy said. She tried to get in front of him, to square off with him.

“She’s taking him on patrol,” Xander said, pushing past her. “Oh here, mysterious back-from-where-ever guy, come out into the dark, dank London night. Have some pointy weapons. Now, wait till I turn my back...”

“It’s kinda romantic,” Dawn said. She took a bottle of water from the refrigerator.

“Two lovers reunited beyond death. It’s like Brandon Lee in ‘The Crow,’” Andrew said.

“No. No. It’s not like ‘The Crow.’ It’s like ‘Evil Dead,’” Xander said. “Why is it that only the women in this house have gone all wacky for William the Bloody?”

“Hey,” Andrew said.

Xander came to a sudden stop. “Wait. Maybe it’s a love spell...”

“Just let them have their peace, Xander,” Kennedy said. She put stakes into her pockets, then slipped on her jacket. “Buffy knows what she’s doing.”

Giles came in to the kitchen, looking equal parts tired and frazzled.

“Giles, man!” Xander said. “Please tell me you found something.”

Giles slid a thick brown file folder onto the bar. “Where’s Willow?” he asked.

“She’s upstairs,” Xander said. “I take it you found nothing.”

Giles rubbed his forehead. “There was an earthquake in LA last week,” he said.

“Yeah, I read about that. Something unusual about it?” Xander asked.

“The building that housed the law offices of Wolfram & Hart was destroyed,” Giles said, in a hushed tone.

“Oh,” Xander said. “Angel?”

“... is listed as missing, as well as the others,” Giles said.

“And Spike?” Xander said.

“Presumably.”

Dawn and Andrew gathered in. Kennedy lingered in the hall.

“We should tell Buffy,” Dawn said.

Giles looked over at her. “Let’s wait until we know more. Where is she, by the way?”

Xander’s lips puckered like he’d bitten into a raw lemon. “Taken Spike out for patrol,” he said. “We were just heading down to Shepherd’s for a much needed night cap. Wanna join?”

Giles heaved a sigh. “No. Not tonight, thanks. I need a word with Willow,” he said. “It seems we have a grave situation on our hands.”

Buffy and William had a grave situation of their own, but only in the literal sense. Graveyards were not the same in London as they were in Sunnydale. Many of them lay adjacent to quaint, peaked-roofed churches, or nestled next to neighborhoods. Plus, they were so old. Moss covered the weathered headstones and statuary, most of which had lost limbs and definition over the ages. Even still, cemeteries the world around had the same creepy energy to them. When the mist rolled in, shrouding everything in pale luminescence, Buffy always got a case of the chills.

Tonight was no different. Except that for the first time she’d come to London, she was not on her own for patrol. William walked quietly along with her, hands shoved deep into the pockets of the new coat she and Dawn picked up for him on Oxford Street. He was watchful, and slightly nervous, she could tell.

“You should’ve come with us,” Buffy said, trying to ease his tension. “Dawn was all about the earth tones. Said she always pictured you in greens and beige. I told her black was more your line...”

“Can’t go wrong with basic black,” he said. “Goes with everything, you know. You both did me fine with the urban camouflage. And the boots. Now they’re top-notch. How’d you figure my size?”

“Length of my forearm,” she said.

“Beg pardon?”

“Measured a bruise once. Your foot equals...” she measured the length of her arm, “this long.”

A look of displeasure crossed his face. “Resourceful,” he said.

“I’m kidding,” Buffy told him. “The skates, William. I knew your size by the skates.”

“Oh,” he said.

They walked on a bit in silence.

She was the one who spoke first: “Leather pants, leather coat - standard. Perfect combo of form meets fashion function.”

“The coat is right smart,” he said.

“Don’t worry,” Buffy said.

He looked over at her. “I’m not worried,” he said, quietly.

“Really? Because you look like Richard Hatch at an IRS hearing.”

“What?” he said.

“Never mind. I can take these guys on my own. We’re just here to see if you came back with skills other than the Wolverine factor,” she said.

“Wolverine?”

She shrugged. “Guess I do listen to Andrew.”

“How can you not, the way he prattles?” William said.

Buffy stopped him. “It’s okay.”

“I’m fine,” he said. He looked away, then back to her. “I’m concerned, is all. It’s just, I rather liked the blood and brawling. Being handy in a fight. It was kind of my thing. And, what if I have lost that? What use...”

“You’ll be fine,” Buffy said. “And just in case, wear this.” She passed a small white box to him.

William opened it. Inside, he found a tiny gold cross on a chain.

He was speechless. He touched it tentatively with the tips of his fingers.

“It’s a cross,” he said.

“The necessary accessory for today’s active demon fighter,” she said. “Here, I’ll put it on.”

She took the cross from its webbing of white cotton and fastened the chain around his neck.

“Color me Agent Scully,” he said, smiling.

“It’s good,” Buffy said.

He turned to face her. “It’s perfect,” he said.

“That’s touching,” a voice called from behind a lop-sided, moss-slimed angel statue. A female vampire stepped around the monument and folded her arms. “They’ll bury your corpses in them pretty chains,” she said.

“How rude,” Buffy said. “We were having a moment. It’s all right, though. We’re ready to move on.”

The lady vamp leapt for Buffy. Behind her, another vampire, this one male and reeking of scotch, headed straight for William.

William dodged. Scotch Boy took a header into a headstone, but recovered quickly enough to sweep William’s legs. He didn’t dodge so well that time. Two other vampires joined the fun. Buffy staked one on a fly-by. She returned to her scrap with Missy Doolittle. The second, figuring William for the weak link, dived in with Scotchie to keep him on the ground.

Buffy continued to tangle Lady Vamp, but she saw that perhaps William had lost his hand-to-hand gift. He swung wide, overbalanced, went down again, this time headfirst. William rolled, though. He got up just as the second male vampire charged in.

William reacted without thinking. He drove his elbow into the vampire’s chest. Scotchie grabbed William’s arm from behind, but William dropped, pulling the vampire down with him. He straddled this one, then realized a second later that he had no weapon.

“Will!” Buffy yelled. She tossed a stake his way. He caught it, but just as he was ready to hammer it home, the second tackled. They tumbled. William sprung up, spun and struck the heart. As he finished the turn, Buffy swung Doolittle into his path.

The Lady Vamp batted her eyelashes at him.

“Not my type, luv,” he said. He staked her just as Buffy finished off the last one.

When it was done, Buffy and William stood face to face in a drift of dust.

William shouted to the clouds. “Did you see that?”

Buffy hooked her thumbs in her jeans pockets. “That’s my guy,” she said.

Chapter 14: Aura Deflection

That same night, Willow knocked on the door to Giles’ rooms. She had her notebook folded studiously under one arm, to which she had added scores of detailed, highlighted notes about the aura detection spell she had performed. She included the cobbled together star references she had found online at short notice, plus drawings – sketches, really – of the symbols the spell had revealed.

After a moment, Giles called from within for her to enter.

“Hi,” she said, trying to sound breezy. One look at the drawn expression on his face, and the breeze blew out.

Giles motioned her to sit down in the chair beside his writing desk. He scanned the lines of hand-written Latin scribbled in what looked like a sand-worn journal from about five centuries ago.

Willow sat on the edge of her chair, now in studious mode. She waited. Giles read.

Finally, she said, “I took notes from our encounter with William earlier. Thought you might want a look.” She slid her spiral onto the table’s edge.

Giles raised his eyes to meet hers, but said nothing. Willow could feel a blush spread from behind her ears to the peaks of her temples. She’d seen that look before. The steely stare of Watcher reproach.

“Giles? What...”

“You were supposed to watch them,” he said.

“What?”

“I asked you to watch them. If you could not, I would have left Andrew in your stead,” Giles said.

Willow’s brow creased. She stammered, which always reminded her of Tara, like she was somehow channeling Tara. That only made things worse.

“Willow, of everyone here, you should understand the gravity of this situation. I expected your help in this,” he said.

“Giles, no. I had to go to Westbury. I needed supplies for the spells. Plus, I have students of my own, of both Wicca and Technophile variety. I had to at least explain to them that I would be out...”

“Could you have used the phone? Wiccans are not so archaic as to avoid them,” he said.

“Wait a minute,” Willow said, sitting up straighter. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of the others, but I think you’re wrong. I read William’s aura today, and it didn’t feel like it could be...”

“Rubbish,” Giles said, flatly.

“What?” she said, taken aback. She blinked. “But Giles, I...” Willow turned the notebook to face him. She flipped to the pages containing her notes. “These are the symbols I read. But it was more than the symbols. It was the energy. It was like wholesome-y oatmeal cookie goodness, without the pesky fat and calories.”

Giles rounded on her. “Do you think that someone who was once so evil as Spike could suddenly come out without a streak of that taint in his aura?”

“Well, I...” she said, stammering again.

He went on, his words clipped with restrained anger. “I’m familiar with aura spells, Willow. I know how they work. Our auras are records of our life experiences. And Spike has lived for a long, long while. Most of that time was passed going down dark avenues upon which he performed unspeakable crimes. I’ve read the journals. I know. Even with the recent addition of his soul, that brand of dark dealing would leave its mark.”

“What about redemption, Giles?” Willow asked, but even to her ears it sounded weak.

Giles scoffed. “Don’t be so naive. Not even God is that forgiving.”

Her chin fell. “I just thought.”

Giles leaned in. “Willow, you killed a man. Tell me what kind of imprint is left.”

She looked at him, horrified. “Giles!”

“Spike has killed thousands. Men. Women. Children. No matter. We could fill these streets with the blood he has spilled. We won’t even speak of torture because it’s – it’s unspeakable. So do not talk to me of redemption,” Giles said. He sat back, tugged off his glasses and gave them a rough scrub.

“He saved the world,” Willow said.

“He did. Once.”

Willow frowned, darkly. She hated so much to think of Giles being disappointed in her. It gave her belly grumblies. But still, they had seen something.

“What was it, Giles? What did we see?” she said.

“A trick, Willow. A magic trick. Someone played you, just like they are playing Buffy. Now I have nothing concrete as yet, but I do have a mission for you,” he said.

“A mission?” She sat forward. “Will it help us figure this thing out?”

“It may,” Giles said. “I’ve just learned that Angel and his associates have disappeared. The building that housed Wolfram & Hart was destroyed in last week’s quake. Since then, there has been no sign...”

“But Angel? And Wes? And... and Spike?”

“No sign. However, one of Angel’s colleagues did appear in France. And empathy demon, fellow named...”

“Lorne! Yeah, I met him. Dethwok Clan. He was nice,” Willow said.

“He seeks asylum, Willow. We’re going to grant it. He may help us solve this mystery,” Giles said. “I need you to bring him here. But he’ll need a glamour to hide him.”

“I can do that,” Willow said. “Make him look all Joe Regular, sans horns and bumpy skin.”

“Good, good,” Giles said. He suddenly looked very tired, and much older than normal Giles old. “You may want to take Kennedy with you. Just in case.”

Willow stood up. “Good to have a Slayer bodyguard. Plus, Paris – Romantic. Even if you’re smuggling out green faced demons on the lam. And hey, we still haven’t unpacked from our last botched outing to Scotland. So.”

Giles looked down at her notebook. He flipped idly through the pages with her notations about the aura spell.

At the door, Willow paused. “About earlier,” she said. “about Spike. I guess, maybe it’s possible that Buffy’s not the only one happy to see him. It’s just been a long time since we’ve seen her happy, you know?”

Grim peered up at her, grim-faced. “Willow, if it’s false happiness, we do her disservice to prolong it.”

Willow opened the door. She slipped out into the hall, feeling a strong pinch like a king crab trying to squeeze under her shoulder blades. She swiped her hands over her face, then headed toward her rooms to tell Kennedy of their impending trip to Paris.

Chapter 15: Connection

Sometimes you make me feel
Like I am living at the edge of the world.
(Like I am living at the edge of the world.)
It’s just the way I smile, she said.

Plainsong, The Cure

Willow booked a flight to Paris online right away. Kennedy didn’t have to say whether or not she was happy about the trip. She spent the better part of an hour humming “Come What May” from Moulin Rouge while Willow finalized their plans. By 2 a.m., Xander was driving them to Gatwick, complaining the entire time about the fact that they never made travel arrangements for the sane, rational people of the world.

Buffy and William had dusted another pair of vampires in an alley near a Leicester Tube Station. The streets were empty by now. All the tourists had long tucked in, and the natives, with the exception of random ravers and dealers, avoided this area due to chance contact with said intrusive tourists.

“Shall we go again?” William said. He leaned against the whitewashed wall. “Think I’m getting a second wind.”

Buffy crossed the alley. She placed her hand on his chest. His heart beat beneath her palm. She looked up at him.

“It’s late,” she said. “We should call it a night.”

William fell still. She stepped closer, then reached for him. Reached to kiss him.

He put his hand up to stop her.

“What is it?” she said. Her voice was soft. He felt the warmth of her breath on his skin, and his new ability to breathe abandoned him.

She laughed, lightly. But he was not smiling.

“Will,” she said.

“Don’t. Unless you mean it, please don’t,” he whispered.

Buffy reached again. Again he pulled away. She took his arms in her small yet capable hands and pinned him.

“Let go, William,” she whispered.

He searched her face with his eyes. She looked about as playful as she was serious. He gripped her arms at the elbows and eased her back.

William bowed his head then, to almost touch her forehead.

“If I let go, I’m gone,” he told her, evenly. “Understand? No turning back. You know me.”

Buffy raised her fingers to trace the scar above his eye. She followed the line of his cheekbone to his lips.

“Good,” she whispered. She cupped his chin and drew him down to her, but waited. Waited, with her eyes closed, for him to reach for her.

William resisted for one second more before everything came crashing down.

They kissed lightly at first, but it was clear that would not do. Later, neither would be able to recount how they made it home. The moment they were inside, the tore at each other. They bumped against tables, almost up-righted Willow’s English ivy. They managed to take the stairs – god knows how – but the whole time, he was doing things to her, touching her. Clothes were clearly in the way.

Into the bedroom. Both shirtless now, working comically to remove pants; his, hers, didn’t matter. In the way.

Buffy pulled him to the bed, taking his hands in hers. He watched her eyes, the subtle changes in them. She was there with him, watching him. Her gaze burned right through him.

He knelt on the bed. She drew herself around him. Astride, eyes level with his, but not yet joined.

William lifted the hem of her undershirt, frilly thing, may as well have been paper. He drew it slowly up the length of her arms, over her head, loving the way it ruffled the fringe of hair that framed her face. She brought her arms down, skimmed her nails along the lines of shoulders, down the arch of his back, to the curve of his buttocks. Her hands came to rest there, and she waited again.

He was aware of his breathing. The way it hitched now in his throat. The way he raced to catch it when she touched him.

Buffy nipped his ear. Her breath, his skin.

“Let go, William,” she breathed. “Let it happen.”

But he fought to control, to keep control. He recalled with aching clarity how their love – no, his love, her need – had once destroyed everything that it touched. No.

“Yes,” she said. She moved her hands to his shoulders. “Yes. William.”

He buried his face into her neck. Sank his teeth, not fangs, into flesh. Buffy cried out, bucked against him. It was maddening. He could taste her.

She found his eyes again. “Do it,” she said. “Let go. Be with me.”

He brought his body to meet hers. For a moment, he looked down at the place where their bodies met, this nexus, this fulcrum of their being. It was different now. All different. He moved within her, feeling her heart beat, feeling his quickening, answering...

William ran his tongue along the sweep of her neck, the curve of her jaw, the cup of her throat where rested the silver cross, twin to the gold one he wore. He skimmed the palm of his hands over her breast, then dipped to take it in his lips.

She moved to meet him, brought her body to fit his. She ran her hands through his hair, over the arch of his spine. Chills spread over his skin. This, he knew, was what it meant to be alive, to be vulnerable to this touch. He fought to breathe. He brought his mouth to hers, meeting the need to devour, to drink her in. Teeth and tongue and blood. It wasn’t enough. Not enough...

Buffy parted their kiss. She pinned him with her eyes. “There you go,” she whispered. She nodded, breath rising in chest.

William swept her backward, eyes never leaving hers. He moved and she met him, caging him with her legs. Every breath they breathed together. Every stroke, every beat, matched.

It built in him, this climax, this culmination. He knew that what he sought, he found. This completion. Still, he held on, lacing his fingers in hers, pressing against her, answering until she cried out. Buffy curved against him, drawing into his arms, driving deeper, driving him deeper. He felt the blood rushing in his ears, running its course, coursing... until he broke within the circle of their joining.

His molecules hummed. The objects around him – table, lamp, dresser – they all stood out in sharp focus. Never had he felt so alive. Not in his life before, not certainly in death.

After a long silence, Buffy was the first to speak.

“Well, now? How do you feel?” she asked. Her voice was gruff and full of sexy.

He said, “Strong as a kitten. Upgrade from small white mouse.”

She laughed. She stirred beneath him, sending fresh ripples of chills down his chest.

“We didn’t destroy anything,” she said. “Kind of a first for us.”

“Not true,” William said. “I think we wrecked the shrubs.”

“Ugh. Not the shrubbery,” she said. Buffy brushed her hands over his hair. She may have had something to say, but he stopped her mouth with a kiss. He wasn’t quite ready to part from her yet.

Buffy arched her brow. “What are you all smirky about?” she said.

He smirked.

“Oh, is that right?” she said.

“That’s right, luv,” he said.

Buffy drew her arms around him. It was going to be a long night.

Chapter 16: Morning After

Dawn practiced what she would say to Buffy when her sister opened her bedroom door, all sleepy-eyed and sheepish. But after knocking twice, she went in to find the room empty, bed tousled, clothes everywhere.

Then she heard them, downstairs, trying to be quiet as if they hadn’t made noise enough to wake a five-block radius the night before.

She found them in the kitchen, eating what was left of the mangolassi cheesecake. They ate from the same dish – why bother with plates, right? They leaned over the bar, across from each other, talking in hushed voices. William was without shirt.

Dawn watched the pair for a moment. Then, she said, “If you guys are gonna go all '9 ½ Weeks', I can vacate.”

Buffy stammered. William just smiled. Dawn floated in, feeling as smug as she no doubt looked. She took a bottle of water from the fridge and edged up onto the counter.

“Hey,” Buffy said. “How do you even know about that movie?”

Dawn did her obligatory eye roll. “In Sunnydale, you were out most nights.”

Buffy stabbed her fork into the cheesecake. “I knew I should’ve figured out that child-block thingy. I’m a neglectful parent,” Buffy said.

“Like she never saw worse in her real life at Hellmouth High?” William said.

“Yeah,” Dawn said, looking grateful.

“Not helping,” Buffy said.

“Oh hey,” Dawn said. “Giles wanted me to tell you. They found something or other in France. Nice or Niece, or someplace. He sent Willow and Kennedy to fetch. So Kennedy won’t be at the school.”

“France?” Buffy said. “Such short notice? Did he say when they’d be back, or what it was?”

Dawn shrugged expansively. “And I have soccer practice after, so I won’t be home till seven. Giles also said he’d be leaving early for Amesbury. Or Amersberry. I didn’t follow. He was all Hugh Grant...”

“Stonehenge?” William asked.

Dawn shrugged again. “Just the messenger. Can I have some of that?”

“Oh. Yeah,” Buffy said. She slid the cheesecake toward her. Dawn slipped from the bar and took a spoon from the drawer.

“So,” she said, taking a bite of cake, “How’d it go last night?”

Buffy shot William a big-eyed look of surprise.

Dawn smirked. “I was talking about patrol,” she said.

“I-it was good,” Buffy managed to say.

“I’ve still got it,” William said.

Dawn narrowed her eyes at him, grinning. “So I’ve heard.”

“Dawn,” Buffy said.

“I do know about these things,” Dawn countered.

Xander chose that moment to walk in on their pleasant kitchen tableau. Everyone fell silent.

“I trust everyone slept,” he said. Then he shook his head. “Not even gonna,” she said. He swiped a croissant from the breadbox and headed for the front door.

Buffy followed him. “Hey, Flash...” she said, catching his elbow.

He gave her an exasperated sigh. “Look, Buff. I can’t even begin, so let’s don’t.”

“But Xander,” she began.

“Look, um. I gotta go.”

“Willow’s gone to France,” Buffy said.

Xander stopped. “I know.”

“Do you? You do know? Do you know why?”

Xander scratched his head with the croissant hand, then let it drop. “A Slayer?” he offered.

“Maybe, but...”

“Do you like it here, Buffy?” he said.

She blinked. “What?”

“Here. Do you like it? Us, this house? Snug bugs in rugs, right? No attacks. No broken windows. No wounds or near deaths in like, months.”

“Xander,” she said.

Xander’s tone turned to bitter oranges. “No, you listen,” he said. “It’s been three months since I’ve even peeked in the first aid kit, and then it was because I cut my finger slicing blood sausage.”

In the kitchen, Dawn and William exchanged questioning glances.

Buffy squared her shoulders to Xander’s.

He looked hurt. “Are you willing to put us all at risk? Because it is just so possible that our undoing walked through this front door with you last Saturday. You don’t see it cause you never have. He just rides along in the ever-present Spike Blind Spot.”

“Blind spot? Xander...”

“He means danger for us all,” Xander said.

“Not now. There’s no reason.”

Xander whispered, “You’re forgetting the attack in Italy.”

Buffy’s brows knitted tight. “I am not forgetting. We just don’t know... And, it was months ago. Chalked up to random demons pulling a ‘when in Rome.’ Remember? That’s what Giles said, not me.”

“Just,” Xander drew a deep breath. “You know what. I’m not gaining any ground with the broken Spike-Is-Evil 45. Just take care, and for all our sake’s I hope you’re right. You’re taking a lot on faith here.”

Xander stepped out of the front door. Before closing it, he said, “And if you need me, call.”

“I will,” she said. “It’ll be fine.”

Buffy came back in to find William and Dawn pretending not to have heard everything that had just transpired.

“It’s okay,” Dawn explained to William. “He’s in permanent bad-mood mode these days.

William stared down at the cheesecake. His head slowly cocked to one side. Confusion clouded over his eyes.

“It’s slipping,” he said. “Right off the shelf. Off it goes.”

“Hello?” Buffy said, snapping her fingers under his chin. “Nothing’s slipping. No slipping.”

Dawn flicked Buffy’s arm. “It’s like the donut episode,” she said. “Sugar makes him all wonky. Or maybe it was last night...”

“Last night,” William said. He looked at Buffy. “All so neat. Neat as row houses. Are you sure we’re here?”

Buffy smoothed her fingertips over his brow. “Okay, so not liking the Drusilla meanderings right now. We are here. And you... Are you remembering?”

“Trembling earth,” he said. He bobbed his head once, matter-of-factly. He took a deep, steadying breath and laughed. “I’m here. I’m...”

William snapped back to himself. “This kitchen is odd, you know. Special? Something here, all cozy’ed up.”

“Yeah. Willow’s doing. Goddess of the Hearth. Wholesome-y with the love and nurturing. Like Keebler’s Elves.”

Buffy nodded, curtly. “Yep. You’re coming with me today,” she said. “It’d be good to see the school. Hey, maybe you could even help out?”

William nodded. “Sure. Yeah. Why not?”

“I wanna come to the school,” Dawn said, pouting.

“Please,” Buffy said. “You don’t even know where Amesbury is.”

“Do so,” Dawn said. She eyed Buffy through her lashes. “It’s in England.”

“You have your own school to attend,” Buffy said.

“Uck. Like they have anything valid to teach me...”

“They do,” Buffy said, turning grave. “Means to an end, Dawnie. You can go to Oxford, or the Sorbonne, which is in France. Point is, you can get our of here and into a normal life.”

“Why would I want that? Normal? So boring. It’s...” she searched for the right word then locked her eyes on William’s. “Inconsequential. Am I right?”

William looked from her to Buffy. “No?” he said.

“Thanks,” Dawn said, looking scandalized. She left the kitchen and clomped up the stairs.

“Inconsequential?” William asked Buffy.

Buffy inched in his direction. “Okay, Mr. Former-Iconoclast: Dawn is college-bound. No discouraging.”

“Wouldn’t dream, Slayer,” he said.

Buffy was closing in on a kiss when Andrew walked in.

“Blah,” he said. “Get a room, you two.”

“Where does this one sleep? In the space under the stairs?” William asked.

“Heh heh heh,” Andrew said, not laughing. “My room’s next to yours.”

William sucked in his cheeks.

Andrew came around to pick at the cheesecake. “Hey, so I thought, what with Giles out on his Watcher research trip, and you’re gonna be hard at work the schooling of Slayers, maybe Spike and I can clock some Play Station hours,” he said.

“Well, I...” Buffy said. “We better...”

“Yeah,” William said, picking up her cue. They made a hasty exit from the kitchen.

Andrew called after: “I have Knights of the Old Republic!”

Seconds later, he heard the door slam to Buffy’s apartment.

With a theatrical sigh, Andrew sat down on the stool. “Whatever,” he said.

Chapter 17: Slayers In Waiting

Summers School looked exactly like a 1970s movie dojo. It also looked exactly like a 1970s movie dance studio. Windows lined the length of the brick facade out front, revealing one large, open room and a spread of hardwood floors. The back wall was mirrored, of course, so that the Slayers could watch themselves getting knocked down on a daily basis. On the right there was office space, which Buffy and Kennedy begrudgingly shared, and another, smaller practice area. In the back left-hand corner, the school boasted one shower room, one changing room and a storage closet housing hand-to-hand weapons of all varieties: axes, maces, crossbows, swords, knives, clubs, stakes (whittled by Xander himself), daggers, throwing stars, darts and books.

A replica of the Slayer’s Scythe hung above the door to the office. It was a replica because the real thing lay in a custom-made carved mahogany case beneath Buffy’s bed in the Flat. It was far too valuable to hang up for display.

William counted eight girls - all of them in their teens - assembled within, talking, stretching, practicing fighting moves and meditating.

“Perfect plan, really,” William said. He looked up at the sign above the door. The words ‘Self Defense and Martial Arts Training’ were carefully stenciled beneath the Summers School name. “Can’t think why you didn’t do it before. Teaching self-defense in Sunnydale would’ve beat the Doublemeat gig.”

Buffy followed his gaze to read the sign. “Yeah. Hindsight. Although, I did learn valuable life experience at the DMP.”

“Such as?”

She shrugged. “Never, ever eat fast food.”

“Hear that,” he said.

When Buffy pulled the door open, William stepped in to the tiny glassed-in lobby that stood between the office and the practice floor.

“Place feels good,” he said. “Willow’s work?”

“Yep. All sizzly with protection. Kinda like a bug zapper for evil,” she said.

“Handy.”

“Wanna meet the girls?”

“That’s why I’m here,” he said.

Buffy entered the room. The girls immediately lined up in two rows of four each. When Buffy took her place in front of them, they all bowed to her.

William was impressed.

Buffy bowed back, then straightened. “Kennedy won’t be joining us today,” Buffy said. “Or tomorrow. She’s gone to France on official secret Slayer business.”

William noted that a few of the girls looked undeniably relieved at this news. He also saw that Buffy had changed. In the moments between the little glass lobby and right now, she had gone from being regular Slayer girl Buffy to Buffy the Teacher. The transformation was complete, from the way she tilted her chin to the commanding yet approachable tone of her voice. From where he stood, she belonged there. Training.

In her place,” Buffy went on, “we have William.”

The girls turned together to look at him. Buffy pointed to each one, putting names with their faces. “Rita. Althea. Jess. Gwen. Anjelica. Renee and Carmen...”

“Twin Slayers?” he interrupted. “They make ’em in pairs?”

“And, Mikayla,” Buffy finished.

“M. K.,” the girl said. She had to be no older than 13, if that.

In following with the custom set forth, William bowed to them.

Buffy circled the girls, talking as she walked. The girls remained at attention, marking her motion in the mirror. “William here is very familiar to our struggle as Slayers. He has fought more demons and vampires than I hope you will ever see in your lives. He was instrumental in defeating the First in Sunnydale. He’s been to hell and back. Maybe more than once.”

Buffy came to rest at William’s side. “Point is, he’s a testament to what you can achieve through strength of will.”

Buffy dropped from speechifying. “Uh, no pun intended,” she said.

The girls smiled. Buffy continued her walk. “He’s here because some part of him on some level refused to give up, just would not leave the game. No matter what, he never quit fighting. You can learn from him.”

Buffy had returned to the front of her class. She said, “Don’t give in. Because as long as we fight, we win.”

William feigned a bashful smile. He rocked forward on the balls of his feet.

“So,” Buffy said. “We’ll divide up. Rita, M. K. and the twins with me. Will, you take the others. Let’s show these girls how to fight.”

Chapter 18: Go Ask Alice

Giles rang Xander on the construction site. This was something Giles never, ever did.

“I have need of a book,” he said, with no preamble whatsoever.

“Good thing you’re surrounded by them,” Xander said.

“No, no,” Giles said. “This is a specific book and I need you to fetch it for me. Today.”

“Fetch it?” Xander said. The corner of his mouth began to twitch.

“Yes. There’s a bookshop on Charing Cross Road. But this is a very special place called Go Ask Alice. Write down the address...”

“Giles,” Xander interjected.

“1742 Charing Cross Road. Do you have it?”

“Giles, you call here with no preamble whatsoever, and might I remind you that I’m working,” Xander told him. “Someone must bring in poundage to pay our astronomical rent and feed...”

“You’ll have to go on your lunch hour. Now, the book is the Vendregills Grimoire. Do you have it?” Giles said.

“Book fetching’s not what I wanted to do on my pittance of a lunch break,” Xander told him. He was trying very hard now not to lose his patience, but he had hard salami and a hoagie roll hanging in the balance.

“Yes, well, normally I’d ask Willow but she’s quite obviously out of pocket,” Giles went on. “I would go, but I’m on the road at the moment...”

“How about Andrew? He’s always itching to score Watcher points,” Xander said. Xander also had a hard-boiled egg and Zapp’s Dill Pickle chips in his lunchbox. He’d been saving the chips for a God-I-Miss-Things-American-Day, and it was really turning out to be that day.

“Andrew is otherwise occupied, Xander. I have him keeping tabs on Spike,” Giles said.

Andrew was keeping tabs on Spike.

For about 18 minutes and 28 seconds.

During that brief time, he stood on the corner of Cheltenham and Garamond, watching rather conspicuously from behind a copy of The Christian Science Monitor. From what Andrew could see, Spike and Buffy were taking turns wailing on tiny Slayer girls. Looked like a hell of a time. Then, to Andrew’s hyperactive imagination, the Slayer training class morphed into a highly choreographed dance montage amalgamated from equal parts of 'Riverdance', 'Stomp' and 'West Side Story'. Bizarro.

After about four minutes of that, two things occurred to Andrew. One was that he wanted cantaloupe milk tea with tapioca beads. The other was that seemingly choreographed fight/dance scenes made him hanker hardcore for the latest issue of 'Lady Death'.

So, Andrew abandoned his street corner. He visited McBride’s Heroes, where he picked up copies of 'Lady Death' and 'Fables.' Lately, he had diversified in his comics of choice. He had begun to read Neil Gaiman’s 'The Sandman', which Warren and Jonathan considered a girl’s comic. But he found the darkly humanistic story coupled with rich yet disturbing vignettes into mythology to be wholly satisfying. He thought Dawn would like them as well. Especially the concept that a person could also be a place, like Fiddler’s Green. Plus, Death as a quirky pale Goth chick was way hotter than some creepy tall guy with a scythe. So he picked up 'The Kindly Ones' in trade paperback as well.

On the way back to the corner of Cheltenham and Garamond, Andrew stopped by Momiko’s Tea House, but he decided on a fire apple tea with mint instead of the cantaloupe milk. He drank it until he got brain freeze, then spent his recovery time browsing the imported Japanese DVD titles before he suddenly remembered that he was supposed to be watching Buffy and Spike. Giles was depending on him, and here he was, trying to decide between the 'Tri-Gun' or 'Escaflowne'.

Andrew returned to the corner. Yep. Buffy, Spike. Still kicking ass. But he scribbled a few notes for good measure, such as, “Buffy looks good in lycra,” and “Those twin Slayers are kinda cute even when Spike is knocking their heads together.”

“So I need you to get it,” Giles told Xander. “It may help us ascertain more about Spike.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Xander hopped in. “1742 Charing Cross. Vendregills Grimoire.”

“Very good, Xander. Go Ask Alice,” Giles said. “Oh, and, um, thanks.”

Xander shelved his hero sandwich and his pickle chips in favor of fetching books on Charing Cross Road. What Giles had neglected to tell him was that Charing Cross Road was back to back with bookstores. And though he looked the street up and down twice, he never found one with the name of Go Ask Alice.

He did find one place wedged in between a delicatessen and a place called Foyles, but the address was 1742 ½ Charing Cross, and the chalkboard sign on the sidewalk declared that this place was called Where the Wild Things Are.

Xander figured on taking his chances. He walked in guessing that perhaps 1742 was either upstairs or downstairs from here. In any case, he found that this had to be a bookshop, on account of all the heaping piles of books. Dusty, musty, cracked and moldy... the place was perfect for Giles.

Through the grimy front windows, a trickle of pallid sunlight fell. Dust rolled lazily in it. Xander crossed the creepy, creaking floor to the front desk. Here, a stack of faded calendars leaned against the wood support beams. The topmost calendar – Hawaiian Islands! – was from 1992. Xander couldn’t say why, but that vivid blue water and sky struck him as profoundly sad given the context of wiggy old bookshop. He decided then that the sooner he left, the better.

Problem was, the place seemed abandoned.

“Hello?” Xander called.

A sprightly blonde woman sprung up from behind the counter.

Xander leapt like a scalded cat.

“Oh!” the woman cried. “Hi! Sorry.”

“You did that on purpose,” Xander said, gulping for breath.

“No. Promise. I didn’t mean to surprise you,” she said.

Xander leaned on the support beam. He took a second look at the girl and had to take a third for good measure. Blonde hair, green eyes, loose, wild curls framing round countenance. In short, adorable.

“S’okay,” he said, trying to recover. “Surprises, I love ’em. Surprise is my middle name.”

“Can I help you?” the woman asked.

“Yes, you can. I’m looking for a shop. A book shop, actually. Like this one, but it’s called Go Ask Alice,” Xander said.

“That’s me,” she said.

“Alice?”

She smiled. “No. Maya. The shop’s Alice.”

Xander took a step closer to the counter. “Your storefront says Where The Wild Things Are,” he whispered.

“Does it?” Maya said. She laughed. “Mind of its own. But you’ve got the right place. How can I help you?”

Xander shook his head to shed some of the confusion, but it didn’t work. He said, “You, um. Maya. Books. I need one.”

“I have lots,” she said.

“This one’s special. The Vendregills Grimoire.”

“Oh, Giles sent you,” Maya said.

“Who? Oh. Giles. You know Giles.”

Maya leaned on the counter. “I know friends of Giles. Hang on a sec. I’ll go fetch it for you,” she said. She disappeared into the back of the store.

Xander watched the door through which she’d left with rapt fascination. But rapt for Xander was not so long. Soon he started to snoop around the counter at some of the pictures gathering dust on the desk. They were all snapshots, of Maya and friends. Maya and friends on a train. Maya and friends at the Eiffel Tower. Maya and friends on a Mississippi River Boat. But one thing was the same in all of the photos. Maya stood out in clear focus. Everyone else was blurred. This fact did not strike Xander as odd, however. He was too busy noticing how pretty Maya was, and how her hair curled like a feather cap around her head.

Maya re-entered the room quickly, so Xander had to pretend that he had not been ogling her vacation photos.

She seemed not to notice.

“Here you go: Vendregills Grimoire.” Maya said. She looked up at him. “Your eye...” she began, then stopped herself. She looked perfectly horrified. “Oh God, I’m sorry!”

As he watched, a deep, almost purple blush crept into her cheeks. He thought she really might cry, and he just couldn’t have that.

Xander grinned at her. He crooked his index finger. “First day with me hook,” he said, invoking his best pirate accent, which was pretty spot on. He’d had lots of practice.

“Oh,” Maya said. She clamped her hands over her mouth. Through them, she mumbled, “You’re funny.”

“You’re American,” Xander said.

Maya wiped at her eyes. She tried looking at him, but couldn’t. “I am,” she said. “But I’ve been here long enough for it not to matter any more. Tea’s a drink with jam and bread.”

“Speaking of tea. You should pop by for some sometime,” Xander said.

Maya went all purple again. “Ah, well. That’s very Mister Darcy of you, asking me to tea. But, um,” she looked down at her hands. “I don’t get out much.”

“Oh. Then I should bring it to you. Full service tea service,” Xander said.

Maya beamed at him. Then, her smiled fell and faded away. “Maybe, really, not such a good idea. See, I just got out of a bad relationship. So.”

“I understand,” Xander said. “I truly do.”

Maya held on to the counter, averting her eyes.

“How much do I owe for the book?” Xander asked.

Maya brightened. “It’s on the house,” she said. “But you have to return it. How’s that sound? You have to return it.” She brought her eyes to rest on his.

“Sounds... capital,” Xander said.

“Good then. Good luck,” Maya said.

“You too,” Xander said.

He went back out side into the dazzling sun and smacked himself in the forehead with the Vendregills Grimoire. “You too?” he grumbled to himself. “Smooth, Harris. Good luck... you too.”

Chapter 19: Watchers Junior

Dawn returned home after 7 p.m. Thick, chalky clouds foretold of yet another late summer storm. She was tired. Her shins were bruised from soccer practice (football, she amended. In Britain, it’s football). Her day had been perfectly wretched. Mickey spilled to everyone that Dawn roomed with a flat full of freaks that believed in vampires, demons and witches. In between classes, random idiots charged at her, yelling ‘Expelliarmus!’ So juvenile.

She entered the quiet flat to find Andrew in full-on research frenzy, with books piled all willy-nilly and his laptop open to Google.

“What’re you doing?” she asked.

Andrew jumped. “What? What am I what?”

“Doing, dorkface. As in, what, comma, are you?”

Andrew straightened. “Giles says Watchers are Called. So I’m call worthy. Always on the ready, not matter the situation. Like His Girl Friday, or,”

“Dr. Watson?” Dawn said. She came into the dining room and took the chair beside him.

“Yeah. See. I didn’t waste my day with useless games or petty diversions,” Andrew said. “Although I did learn that if you take the ‘S’ out of cosmic, you get comic.”

Dawn picked up a book. “What did you study?”

Andrew fidgeted. “Mixed bag, really. Old World conjurations. The theories of spirit manifestations and their relation to water and electromagnetic activity.”

“Neat,” Dawn said.

“Oh. And, did you know that any demon can be conjured, you just have to know the right watchwords? Also, it’s best to have the vanquishing spell on hand otherwise you have rogue demon on your hands, all dressed up and nowhere to...”

Dawn was nodding. “This is good,” she said. “Really good. This is what I should be doing. After all we’ve been through, after all we’ve seen, the real world stuff falls pretty flat.”

“Tell me about it,” Andrew said. “But, well, you’re already way ahead of the game though. You started out as a ball of energy, which means already connected to the big power source. Plus, you learned Turkish in auto-didactic Keanu mode. I’m sure Giles will call you.”

As if on cue, the telephone in the hall rang. Dawn and Andrew froze. After the second ring, Dawn sprinted into the hall to answer it.

“See!” Andrew called after her. “Calling. I knew it!”

“Hello?” Dawn asked. On the line, she heard only a dull humming followed by a series of clicks.

“Hello?” Dawn said again, louder this time.

The humming turned into static, then the connection broke.

Dawn replaced the receiver. She came back into the dining area.

“Nothing, huh?” Andrew said. “No ‘seven days’ or ‘don’t you watch scary movies’?”

Dawn sat down heavily in her chair, pulling a book in front of her. “Probably a wrong number,” she said. She skimmed the page, flipped to the next. “Don’t you have a date with Nighna or something?”

Andrew simpered a little. “Not till Friday. School night.”

Dawn sat back. Andrew sighed.

“So,” Dawn said. “You wanna practice invocations or something?”

“Girl, I thought you’d never ask!” he said.

Chapter 20: London Bumpy

William was manic. He was more animated than she had seen him since his return. They spent the morning training the Slayers, then the afternoon hours with Buffy’s regular students. The latter were bona-fide file clerks, teachers, news correspondents, housewives, moms and sisters who felt the need to get their defense on.

“It’s good, Buffy,” he told her. “Being a teacher suits you. It’s a calling, the work you’ve done.”

They walked together along the misty street toward Leicester Tube Station and the warehouse district where Buffy planned to patrol. Autumn crept around the edges of London, tingeing the fog with a bitter chill.

“The Slayer-lings are untried, as yet. But we’ve been training for less than a month. I don’t see much point to rushing. Don’t want to miss any steps along the way,” Buffy said.

“No. No danger there. They are Slayers, though. Gave me a run, they did,” he said. He smiled at the memory.

“You did well with them. Got ’em scared. I thought Rita was gonna bolt after that sweep kick you pulled,” Buffy said.

They heard a rumbly sound in the distance. William paused mid-step, straining to hear it.

Buffy nudged him. “London: It rains here. I miss the sun part of Sunnydale. Less demony here, though.”

William listened a moment longer, but heard nothing. They resumed their walk.

“They should put that in the travel brochure,” he said. “More rain, fewer demons.”

“Yeah,” she said. They walked along a few paces more.

“There’s a thing,” he said. “About vampires. Something your girls ought to know.”

Buffy gave him a sidelong glance. “Go on.”

“It’s about creation. That’s part of the whole vamp allure, you know. To make life. To give it. For humankind, it’s only women can do it. But any bloke with fangs can sire...”

“Hang on,” Buffy said. “What you gave was unlife. It’s not the same thing.”

“No,” William said. “No, it’s not. But close. Vampires give power. Just as a mother gives power by giving life to her child. Get it?”

He looked at her, puzzled at himself.

Buffy studied him closely.

“Think I’m onto something. I think I’ve sussed it out... Something,” he said.

Buffy arched her brows. “You’ve been doing that a lot lately,” she said.

William nodded. “I know. I have.”

Buffy touched his arm. “It’s kinda scary.”

“I won’t go all Good Will Hunting on you. But, somehow, my mind is... freer,” William said. He looked up at the blank gray clouds. He could almost feel the synapses firing. His mind was waking up, but still, somehow, he slept.

They entered an alley between a warehouse and a high chain link fence. The warehouse bays were open, spilling burnt orange light in oblong stretches across the glass-strewn ground. Several towers of recyclable cardboard bales stood thirty feet high on the loading bays. To Buffy, they looked like wobbly stacks of children’s blocks. The place seemed ideal for an ambush. She reached into her pocket and closed her fist around her stake.

William scanned the area. He knew as well as she did the kind of creature they might encounter in a place like this.

“Hey, weren’t we supposed to keep our voices down, being that we’re on the prowl and all?” he whispered.

Buffy didn’t lower her voice when she answered. “Nope. This is part of the plan, see. We look like an ordinary couple on our way to the nearest coffee house where we can get all existential about this play or that movie, completely oblivious to the possibility of danger lurking.”

“Ordinary couple?” William said.

A crew of five vampires ran into the opposite end of the alley.

“Speaking of lurking,” Buffy said. She struck her Slaying pose, arms crossed, stake at the ready.

The vamp crew came to a crashing halt. They wore rave wear – flashy chains, baggie pants, silly caps turned sideways on their shaved heads. The tallest of them screamed something completely unintelligible.

Buffy looked over her shoulder to William. “Were they speaking in rewind?” she asked.

“Scottish,” he said, sneering. “They’re Scottish vampires.”

The tall one rushed in. Buffy dusted him before he had a chance to land a blow. The other four fell within seconds; hardly a fight by her account.

“Scottish vampires, huh?” Buffy spun on her heel. “Kilt ’em.”

William groaned. He tucked his stake into his pocket and sauntered over to her. “That was bad, Summers. I think you’ve lost your edge.”

Buffy leaned against the wall, pulling him toward her. “Care to test that theory?” she said.

She kissed him, but they were half laughing so they wound up bumping teeth. Which made them laugh even more.

Behind them, they heard footsteps slapping pavement. Outside the alleyway, a voice called out, “Dad! Over here. They went in there.”

Buffy and William parted, but remained as they were in their near-embrace.

When the young man rounded the corner, he skidded to a stop. “Hey,” he said. “I know you.”

Buffy and William exchanged looks of mutual confusion.

“I don’t know you,” William said.

“You should. We’ve met,” the man said.

William studied him: flat mop of tawny hair, wide-set green eyes, Jimmy Olsen good looks. Yeah, bells did ring, but where...?

The pieces fell jarringly into place when Angel came to stand beside his son.

“Connor,” William whispered.

“Angel?” Buffy said.

“Well, well,” Angel said, flatly. “Look who survived.”

“Survived?” William echoed.

He felt the muscles in Buffy’s arms stiffen, then go slack. “Angel?” she said.

Angel uttered a bitter laugh. “You know, Spike, I expected to find a lot of things in England. But I gotta admit, this one’s a shock.”

Buffy stepped out of William’s embrace. She closed half the distance between them. “Angel? What are you saying? What are you doing here?”

But Angel ignored her. To Connor, he said, “I should’ve seen it all along. How long did you wait? Huh? How long before you...” Angel leaned heavily on Connor, wincing.

“Angel,” Buffy said, stepping closer. “What are you talking about?”

That’s when things turned from weird to flat-out freaky. Seven new guys – nomadic warriors, judging by their sand-colored clothes and gauzy cowls over their faces – miraged into the alley. Each wore a pair of curved triangular blades, which they drew from well-oiled scabbards the moment they emerged into this plane. One bore an ornate silver crest on his right shoulder.

William cocked his head to one side. “Friends of yours?” he asked Angel.

Angel flinched. Connor got his arm around him for support.

The fighters closed in.

Buffy said, “Now is not really a good time, I’m afraid. But if you’d like to come back later...”

The main fighter, the one with the silver crest, skirted Buffy. She caught his arm and tried to sling the fighter into the fence. Normally, this maneuver sent the strongest man or vamp soaring. The Nomad Warrior slipped from her grasp like water through sand. He wasn’t after Buffy. He singled out William.

“Or maybe not,” William said, ready to strike.

But the fighter stopped short. He said, “N’galeck t’ll nesthul gal aconda.”

William blinked. “I don’t follow...” he said. Nomad Warrior slashed out at William’s chest.

William dodged, caught the fighter’s wrist and flung him away. That was the cue for wacky mayhem to ensue. The others six fighters jumped into the fray. One of them hefted Angel over his head and merrily tossed him out of the alley.

Not liking this, Connor threw the fighter full force into the chain link fence. The fighter shattered spectacularly into a million shimmering particles, then reformed into Nomad fighter shape once the pieces rained down on the ground.

“Oh not good,” Buffy muttered. She shot a glance to William, who was equally petrified.

The fighter thrown by Connor re-engaged. Though Connor could hold his own, he saw Angel out in the street trying to get up and not succeeding. Connor decided then to leave the fight. He fell back, drawing the fighter along with each retreating step. Connor figured Spike and the girl would have to get scrappy by themselves.

Buffy took on two of the warriors. The remaining four encircled William. The rain-swollen clouds chose to burst, turning the fight from unpleasant to really sloppy. Buffy saw Connor beyond the curtain of rain. He managed to get Angel to his feet, and the pair of them fled.

“Will!” she cried out, but he couldn’t hear her.

She continued to fight. The Nomads deflected her best roundhouse, then parried her uppercut. She was outmatched. Caleb had this kind of strength, but there was only one of him. Buffy rolled in gutter sludge, then came up to kick out some shins. Before she could strike, the attackers froze in one accord, then miraged out.

Buffy and William stood there, dumbfounded and soaked.

“What the bloody hell?” William said.

She turned slowly to face him. “Do you feel that?” she asked. Panic dawned in her eyes.

“No? What?”

The ground trembled. A wave of earth pitched beneath them. The warehouse walls came tumbling down, burying Buffy and William under tons and tons of cardboard rubble.

Chapter 21: Honeymoon’s Over

Willow and Kennedy entered a smoggy demon bar in Paris called Luxe. It was a dark, decadent place decked out in red neon and black lights, which turned the various demonic faces of the patrons into wildly contorted masks.

Kennedy continued the conversation they were having outside, while Willow scanned the bar.

“All I’m saying is we’ve gotta be prepared in case he’s like some kind of spy,” Kennedy said.

“A spy?” Willow said. She was watchful and alert. It had been years since she’d seen a place like this. Even though she was a witch of considerable power, and her girlfriend was a Slayer of considerable power, Willow felt all creepy with the out-of-place itch.

Kennedy went on. “Yes, a spy. What, like we haven’t encountered that before?”

“Giles is wrong on this one, Kennedy. I can feel it.”

They waded through demon bodies, which is actually even more unpleasant than it sounds.

Kennedy said, “Well, maybe Buffy’s not the only one affected by the spell.”

Willow stopped. She faced Kennedy. “I would know, wouldn’t I? I’m connected to the power. I would feel if someone used it against me.”

Kennedy held up her hands in submission. “Okay. Got it. Backing off.”

“Fine,” Willow said. “Let’s find our guy.”

They meandered through the crowd. Willow felt ruffled. It was affecting her ability to seek out with the magics. Kennedy said she’d back off, but Willow knew. Kennedy didn’t know how to do that.

“It’s not like you’re invulnerable,” Kennedy said.

Willow held her breath.

“All hail the great and powerful Willow,” Kennedy said. “People – witches – they can still get to you.”

“Kennedy,” Willow said, in a tone she hoped sounded put-out.

“Whatever. Just admit it.”

“Stop pushing, Kennedy. I know what you’re getting at. The answer’s a big, resoundy NO.”

“No?”

“No.”

Kennedy pouted. “Fine. Just let him walk in and slaughter us all while we sleep. Hey, why not give him a gas can...”

“That’s enough,” Willow said, louder than she hoped.

The demons in the nightclub stopped and stared at them. Willow took Kennedy by the elbow and maneuvered her to a dark, quiet corner.

“We have a mission here,” Willow said, sternly. “We’re doing what Giles thought was best. If he thought the situation was super dire back in London, we’d be there.”

“Right. That’s because he’s infallible,” Kennedy said, sarcasm dripping.

Willow crossed her arms. “What are you doing? Because this ‘Question Everything’ routine – it’s not sexy.”

Kennedy said, “I’m saying we should have more say. Where we go. What we do. Who we allow in our house, our circle. You and me, Willow. We know better than Giles or Buffy what’s going on. They’ve been in the game so long, they can’t even see what’s coming.”

“’Kay, first: The house belongs to Buffy and Xander and Giles just as much as it does to me. Second: I’ve been ‘in the game’ just as long as they have,” Willow said. “Besides, they got us this far...”

Kennedy laughed. “You’re right. Can’t argue with that whole ‘What’s worked in the past’ bit. But Buffy – she’s burned out, babe...”

Willow sputtered. “Whoa, Kennedy. Gift horse? Mouth?"

“Huh?”

“Buffy’s the reason we’re here. And Spike played a big part in our whole Surviving Sunnydale thing. Or have you forgotten his incendiary finish? I haven’t. I was right above the seal when that amulet opened a skylight over his head. You can only stand there and trivialize all we’ve been through cause you showed up in the final act,” Willow said.

Kennedy seemed unfazed. She said, “Willow, I’m the next generation. I’m ready to take our battle to the next front. I wanna see a New World. And I want you beside me.”

“I want a New World. I’m a regular New-World-wanting Columbus. But not at the expense of my friends,” Willow said.

Kennedy tilted her head. “It’s not like we’ll ditch ’em, Red. They deserve a little sideline time.”

“What if they don’t want sideline time?”

“They do. It’s all over Buffy. She’ll take any excuse to blow off her classes. And she’s so ready to snuggle up to the Suburbian Idealsville she’s willing to hop in the cal-du-sac with Spike. And she can’t even see it isn’t him...”

“But it is Spike,” Willow said.

Kennedy stroked Willow’s arm. “No, honey. It’s not.”

“I am not continuing this conversation,” Willow said. “We have a job to.”

“But Willow...”

Willow pushed her way through the crowd toward the bar. Just before arriving, she ran headlong into a tall and outlandishly dressed demon with green skin.

He looked down at her, getting ready to toast her with his cosmopolitan, when he recognized who she was.

“It’s you!” they said together.

After a moment’s pause, Lorne fled.

Willow took a blue crystal from her pouch and crushed it in her fist. When she held up her palm, a wave of blue energy spread out through the room, paralyzing everyone it touched. Willow walked up to Lorne and brushed his shoulder. He unfroze, shook himself, then turned to face her.

“That is one show-stopper you’ve got there. Make no bones. But I’m not sticking around for an encore,” he said.

Willow went all business. She said, “The spell gives us about five minutes before the stronger-willed ones start to wakey. You sought asylum from the Watcher’s Guild in Switzerland. I’m here to grant it.”

Lorne sipped his drink. “I’m supposed to be in hiding,” he said.

She looked him up and down. “In that tie?”

He waved his hand. “Call it glitter camouflage,” he said.

“Look,” Willow said. “You know what went down at W&H, right?”

“I do. But I’m out. Which means this bird don’t sing,” Lorne said.

“Spike survived,” Willow said.

“Good for him. I’ll send a post card,” Lorne said. Then his shoulders sagged and he dropped the act for a beat. “Is he the only one?”

Willow nodded. “We were hoping you could tell us.”

Lorne waggled his finger. “No. No no no no no no,” he said, in a sing-song voice. “Why would I do that?”

“Because I can protect you. In London,” she said. She closed her eyes to slits and said, “I can hide thee from thine enemies.”

“It’s kinda crazy with a spooky little girl like you,” Lorne said.

“Turn around. See for yourself,” Willow told him.

Lorne turned, then dropped his drink. In the mirrored panel behind him, he saw his reflection – same clothes, same features – but no demon.

He grinned at himself. “I am a handsome devil even as a man.”

Lorne faced Willow again. “Look. I’m not so sure your glamour, sweet though it may be, can help. We unleashed... something.”

“Unleashed?” Willow said. “Always bad with the claws and pointy teeth imagery.”

“Claws. Fangs. Eyes on Stalks. Heh. Tentacles and poison quills. Do you have any idea, Red? Any clue at all what lurks underneath?”

Willow stared up at him. “No,” she said.

Lorne took a deep, dramatic breath. “Neither do I, but I think we’re gonna find out.”

Kennedy came up then to stand beside Willow.

“What’s this? The brute squad?” Lorne asked.

Kennedy folded her arms. “I’ve got a witch mad at me and you might get into trouble,” she said.

“Strong-willed,” Willow said, with a nod.

Kennedy struck a tough-girl pose. “You in or what? We’re almost out of time.”

Lorne craned his head to look at his human face in the mirror. “You want a story, right? In exchange for safe-keeping in the old GB?”

“That’s right,” Willow said.

“But mainly, you want the last known whereabouts of ours truly, the Brooding Avenger. Am I right?”

Willow lowered her eyes. “Giles thinks it’s important,” she said.

Lorne picked up on Willow’s reluctance. And Kennedy noted his notice-taking.

“Well, I’m in,” Lorne said, straightening his lapels. “Besides, France was starting to feel like a moldy crust of baguette. When do we fly?”

Willow looked at Kennedy. “Tomorrow morning,” she said.

Lorne linked arms with the both of them. “Say, then we have hours to kill and the City of Love at our feet. Did I ever tell you about the time I played kill-screw-marry with Cher? Now there’s a hot buttered croissant...”

Back at the Flat, the earth had stopped its quaky quaky shake. Andrew muttered comforting words to himself as he swept up the glass from the front foyer windows. Dawn sat at the dining room table with the first aid kit at her elbow. She swabbed triple antibiotic onto a cut on Xander’s forehead.

Outside, sirens blared. People were yelling. A street lamp showered sparks onto the sidewalk. A fire truck zipped by, followed by an ambulance.

Andrew peered out of the window.

“Oh God,” he said. “There’s panic on the streets of London.”

Dawn came up behind him. “It doesn’t look that bad.”

Andrew sent her a shocked look.

“Relatively,” Dawn said. Then, “Any sign of them.”

“No,” he said. “Should we try the phones again?”

“Yeah,” she said. Andrew passed the broom to her then headed to the phone stand.

“Wait! They’re here,” Dawn called. She darted out of the door to meet Buffy and William on the steps.

A few seconds later, William and Dawn returned, supporting Buffy between them.

“We tried the cell phones,” Dawn said.

Xander barreled around the corner. “Where the hell have you been? It’s 2 a.m., and hello? Earthquake.”

William and Dawn helped Buffy get to the chair that Xander had just vacated. Andrew, Xander and Dawn crowded in, all talking at once.

“We need ice,” William said.

“Internet’s down,” Andrew was saying. “The city’s ground to a halt. Panic. Mayhem.”

“Guys,” Buffy said.

“Oh, I see,” Xander said to William. “Buffy’s hurt and you walk away unscathed?”

William tore off the leg to Buffy’s blue jeans. “Ice, Harris,” he growled.

Buffy held up her hands. “Guys! What’s the damage?”

Andrew said, “Glass in the foyer. Knick knacks. Dishes. Xander’s head.”

“No damage there,” William said.

Xander glared at him, nostrils flaring and manly. “This is your doing, Spike. I don’t even know how, but it is...”

“Oh, right. Because I’ve been known to cause earthquakes,” William said, approaching a rolling boil. “Wait. No. You’re reaching.”

Buffy said, “Well, there was that time you turned Sunnydale into a gaping crater.”

William opened his mouth to speak, then closed it.

“Guys, I...” Buffy said.

Xander shouldered up to William. “Someday, Spike, we’re gonna have a disagreement.”

William gave him a shove. “Back off, Harris. Do something useful. We. Need. Ice.”

Dawn came back in from the kitchen with an ice pack and a towel. She glowered at Xander and William. Both kept a healthy temper-keeping distance.

Buffy pressed the ice pack to her leg, wincing at the pain. Bruises, scrapes and nasty paper cuts covered her body, but the bone in her knee may have actually snapped. It was on its way to healing up Slayer-style, but still, it hurt like a bitch.

“Thanks, Dawnie,” Buffy said. “Giles. Is he still in Amesbury?”

Andrew whined, “We think so. We haven’t heard. Phones down. Chaos abounds...”

“Someone stop him,” Xander said.

Buffy looked up at Xander. “We saw Angel,” she said.

She waited a moment for someone to say something, for one of them to zing a snappy one-liner or sputter off an incoherent line of questions. But they were all too stunned to say anything. So she went on. “And, we were attacked by some super-powerful demon clan just before the big shake and tumble. I’m thinking larger things are at work than just William. So let off the throttle, all right?”

Xander looked from Buffy to Spike. He saw a flicker in Spike’s eyes. He tried to hide it, too, but Xander saw the way he swallowed hard and clenched his jaw. Spike was afraid. For that flash of a moment, Xander actually felt sorry for him. So yeah, he backed off.

“Angel attacked you?” Dawn said, finally.

“No. Someone else,” William answered. “Powerful someones.”

Xander gingerly tested the area around his bandaged cut. “So, while you were out on patrol, you encountered Angel, and then a pack of powerful someones that may or may not have caused an earthquake?”

“And some Scottish raver-vamps,” William added.

Xander sat down heavily in the chair beside Buffy. “Guess the honeymoon’s over. Ain’t it, Buffy?”

They all stared in silence at the table for a moment. Xander toyed with the opened packet of triple antibiotic. Outside, sirens and car alarms continued their discordant hip-hop beat.

“I’m going upstairs. I need a bath. And then...” Buffy breathed a heavy, tired sigh. “Well, let’s just start with a bath.”

“What should we do, Buffy?” Dawn asked. “Want us to research those baddies who attacked?”

“Yeah, you can tell us what they look like and we’ll start compiling the data,” Xander said.

Buffy got shakily to her feet. “No. Without Internet there’s not much point. It can wait till morning. Maybe Giles...”

“But Buffy,” Andrew said.

She sent him a withering look.

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll go huddle in a corner and chant protection spells.”

“And I’ll board up the windows,” Xander said. He stood up, shaking his head. “I was so glad to eliminate that sentence from my weekly repertoire.”

Buffy hobbled to the stairs, then leaned on William to make the rest of the way to her rooms.

After taking a challenging bath with her non-bendy knee, Buffy sat at the little table in the sitting room between her bedroom and Dawn’s.

William was pacing around the room, not talking.

“Will you stop pacing?” Buffy said. “I can’t pace. I have pacing envy.”

He stopped.

She said, “Bring me that lacquered box, on the shelf behind you.”

William went to it. When he placed his hands on the box, she said, “Don’t open it!”

He turned to face her. “What’s your game, Slayer?”

Chapter 22: Still In The Game

Xander and Andrew tried to fit one board over the shattered foyer window, but it was too wide by two inches. Frustrated, Xander tossed the piece of wood through the front door and dusted his hands.

“I’m telling you, she’s under a spell,” Xander said.

“Obsessive much?” Dawn said.

Xander shook his head. “Did you see her reaction when she mentioned Angel? Cool as gazpacho. The old Buffy would have never...”

“What,” Dawn said. “Chosen Spike?”

He slashed the air with his hand. “Never,” he said.

“He’s changed,” Dawn told him.

“Old song. Still not catchy,” Xander said.

“I kinda like Spike. Even though he did once bite me...” Andrew chimed in.

Xander put down his hammer. “It’s not that I don’t like Spike, or couldn’t given the right circumstances. No, strike that, never could. Point is: that thing is up there right now. It isn’t him. Can’t be him. Doesn’t even act like him. But he’s up there, with Buffy. Who knows what unspeakable things it’s coercing her to do...”

Dawn looked incredulous. “Coercing Buffy?”

Xander wilted. He walked down the steps and hefted the scrap of wood onto his shoulder. “I’ll just stick to hammers and nails,” he said. “But something’s not right, and it begins and ends with him.”

Upstairs, Buffy said, “Is that all you got?”

“Oh, I’m just getting started,” William said.

“Good, because... getting a little bored.”

“Oh. Oh? Do you have any... tens?”

“Go fish,” Buffy said.

She faked a yawn. He stifled a laugh.

“Do you have any Jacks?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “Wait. Yes.”

Buffy rolled her eyes in a way that would have made Dawn proud. “Are you cheating at fish?”

“Old habits, luv,” William said. He passed her the Jack of Clubs. “Besides, my game’s poker.”

“Well, we’re short on cash and don’t have kittens, so...”

“We could play for other things,” he said, flicking a flirtatious glance her way.

“Hello? Injury?”

William looked at her over his cards. “Not what I meant,” he said.

They stared at each other, then both smiled.

William said, “Bet you never had this much fun with the Immortal.”

Buffy gave him a speculative glance. “Card games weren’t his thing. He did other things...”

“I’d rather not hear about,” William cut in. He fanned his cards. Then said, “But did hear about.”

“Did you?” she said, looking pleased.

William’s expression was not full of happy. “I did,” he said.

Buffy avoided his eyes. “It was great, you know. Learning from Andrew that you were among the living again. And with Angel. And in Italy. Ah, the laughs we had over...”

“That was a whole life ago,” William said.

“You could’ve called. Sent a postcard.”

“Word was, you had moved on,” he said, carefully annunciating his words. “Didn’t want to get in the way of that.”

Buffy stared hard at him. “You have a lot of nerve to say that to me,” she said.

William pushed back in his chair, fighting the urge to get up and stalk around the room some more. Buffy watched him, watched his face for fleeting signs of remorse or regret, but all she got was the furrowed brow of stubborn resolve. Fine, she thought, she could play that too. She could be as stubbornly resolved as he ever was.

“Your turn,” William said, coolly.

“Twos,” she said.

“Go fish.”

She drew.

William said, “Why did you leave Rome?”

Buffy kept to her cards. Stubborn resolve, she told herself.

William continued. “The Immortal’s quite the catch. Three hundred plus years, they say. Picture of suave. Rides around in his limousine saying ‘ciao!’”

“He left,” Buffy said.

William pursed his lips, but said nothing.

Buffy nodded. “We were attacked, and he left.”

“You don’t keep your neck so long by sticking it out for others now, do you?” William said. “Got any sevens?”

“Fish,” she said.

He drew.

“Whatever,” Buffy said, going for breezy had-a-summer-fling tone, “We had our fun. It’s not like he was perfect. And what’s with the whole ‘There can be only one’ thing anyway. That’s, like, so last year.”

“Who attacked you?” William said.

“Unsolved mystery.”

“But Rupert thinks it’s bad enough to gather you all ’neath his wings...”

Buffy scoffed. “He thought London would be a good location for a school,” she said.

William leaned in. “There are other Slayers could run that school. You could run yours in Tuscany, or Paris or Wichita if you wanted.”

“Threes?” Buffy said, lamely.

He passed one to her. She put down a set.

“And Willow, and Xander, back from their various pilgrimages,” William said.

“Give me your Aces,” Buffy said.

“Go fish. Rupert knows, and I’m thinking you do, too.”

Buffy drew. “I got what I asked for,” she said, showing him the Ace of Spades.

He glowered darkly at her.

“The attack in Italy, Buffy. The re-group, the protection to hide this house. Something is going on.”

“I don’t even know what you mean,” Buffy said.

“It means you’re still a player, Slayer. That’s what I mean.”

Buffy flashed him a look of alarm. “Just stop... talking,” she said.

William was nodding. “You can hole up here all you like, host your dinner parties and play your card games. But how long can you hide?”

Buffy tried to get up, but she was chair bound due to her knee.

“You’re off base, William,” she said. “I’m not THE Slayer any more. Merely one of many.”

He rested his elbows on the table and bent close. In a harsh whisper he said, “And I’m here because of a wish.”

She yelled, “Why do you always do this Spike?”

William winced. He sat back in his chair. She’d stung him. She could tell by the way the muscles in his jaw flexed, the way he pursed his lips. It hurt.

A dead stillness passed between them. The sirens of various emergency vehicles still sounded all around, but they had moved off to other parts of the city. It was raining again, giving the whole Flat an under-the-blanket feel.

Quietly, William said, “It’s what I do, Slayer. Call it a calling.”

“Gimme your eights,” Buffy said.

“Fish.”

Buffy drew. When she put her card into her hand, William could see that she was shaking. Just slightly, but it was a tremble more than what was comfortable. When she spoke, her voice wavered, too. If scaring her was what he’d meant to do, he had done the trick.

She said, “You think you can just show up here all deus en machina and deliver us your insight? I’ve fought for the last seven years to get here where it’s safe, and somewhat normal. And there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of other real-life, fully-amped Slayers out there who can wear out the mantle for a while...”

“Buffy,” William said, sternly. “It is all about you. Deal with it.”

Buffy shook her head. “No. Can’t be.”

“Can’t it? Now we have Angel & Son and the Seven Mystery Mirage Men, plus a major earth tremble. You think that’s all just some odd coincidence? Oh, maybe he’s looking for cookies...”

Buffy glared. “Angel has his own agenda,” she said.

“Always. But never without some grander purpose. Give me your Kings.”

She slid one across the table to him. King of Diamonds. He put down a set.

“So we find him. And we ask him. If he knows anything, he’ll have no reason not to share,” Buffy said.

“We, Slayer?” William said, searching her face. She didn’t look up from her cards.

“It’s your turn,” she said.

“Fours.”

“Fish.”

He drew.

“Of course, we. You think I go all Bridget Jones any time he shows up?” Buffy said.

"If history repeats,” William said.

“Give me your fives.”

William frowned. “Got three of those,” he said.

“I know,” she said.

“I was holding them,” he said.

Buffy put down her set, and she was out. She showed him her sleepy smile.

“We’ll find him,” she said. “We’ll start in the morning. I’m tired of talking about this tonight.”

“All right,” William said. He stacked the cards in a nice pile and placed them back in their lacquered box.

Buffy got up on her own and limped to the bed. She lay down and he followed, curling up beside her. Buffy rested her head against his shoulder like it was the most natural thing ever. Soon, Buffy’s breathing let him know that she’d crossed over into dreamland. But William lay wakeful for a long, long time.

Chapter 23: No Angel

It was almost dawn the following morning, when William, dressed in his new coat, picked his way through the wreckage of an ancient Victorian building. His footfalls echoed hollowly on creaking floorboards. Creeping things rustled in the dark fringe of shadows, under the cracked plaster and shattered staircase. As William neared the wall, he ran his hand almost lovingly over the faded paper on the walls.

William entered what appeared to have once been a lobby area or perhaps a grand hall. Heavy damask curtains hung in dank clumps over boarded up windows. In the center of the room, weak, watery sunlight dappled the debris. A ragged piece of heavy cloth trailed down from a skylight, further obscuring the pale luminescence.

At the far end of the room, there was a raised dais that might have once been a stage. The wrecked skeleton of a piano rested on its side, like he exposed bones of an excavated dinosaur.

William skirted the growing pools of sunlight. He came to rest near the place where the moldy strip of cloth trailed from the skylight to the floor.

“Looky here,” William said, turning toward the back wall of the room. “Angelus is brooding. Who’d have guess it?”

A barely perceptible movement betrayed Angel’s location. He crouched (or slumped?) in shadows at the base of the ruined stage.

William took a step in Angel’s direction. “Thought I might find you here,” he said.

“Had to see the old neighborhood, you know,” Angel said. “Your quaint row house burned, but the lake’s still there. This place, though... It’s really gone to hell.”

“What are you doing here?” William asked. He scanned the darkness, looking for Connor. The boy had to be around, somewhere.

“See, that’s supposed to be my question,” Angel said. He uttered a low, guttural groan, like an animal in pain.

William said nothing. He folded his arms behind his back. He remained intentionally close to the light.

Angel got slowly to his feet. He laughed, but it was a bitter, mirthless sound.

“How’d you manage it, Spike? How’d you beat me here? Cause I gotta say, I’m floored. And that’s saying a lot, given our particular history,” Angel said.

William shrugged. “Can’t say as I know,” he said, lightly.

“You know. You arranged a contingency. Behind our backs. You left us to die,” Angel said. Every word he spoke sounded pained.

“Bollocks,” William said. “You give me far too much credit.”

“If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you get all the credit that’s due, Spike. You’ll do anything, stop at nothing... to ensure your own survival,” he said. Angel moved a few shuffling steps closer.

“It’s William now,” he said.

Angel laughed darkly. “Changing the name doesn’t change what’s inside,” he said.

“That right? Angelus?”

Angel moved among the shadows. William stood still, listening to every step.

“You ever ask yourself ‘why?” Angel said, still circling.

“Why?” William said.

“Why is it that we remain, while others fall aside? Why are they so fragile?”

William shrugged.

“Buffy understands it. The question. The reason. All of it. But do you?” Angel said.

“Better than you may think,” William answered.

“What I would really like to know is, why can’t we fall aside? Why are we not forgotten?”

William scoffed. “You are a sad creature, Angel. We are what we are because we dared to be what we are. We took power. Crushed the weak. We opened ourselves to forces we don’t understand. How can you not get that?”

Angel circled around to flank William, but kept his distance.

“This, from you, Spike. You would know. About taking,” Angel said.

“Get over yourself, Angel,” William answered. He turned his head to show Angel that he still marked his movements. “We’re bloody Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It’s not about us. It’s about her.”

“The girl.”

“Hardly a girl, mate. You haven’t been ’round to notice, but she’s grown up a bit,” William said.

“It is about her. She’s why we fight. The embodiment of all that’s good...”

William made an impatient sound. “You got a point you’re heading to? I haven’t got all day,” he said.

Angel continued to move, slowly. Soon, he stood behind William, but William did not turn.

“We seem an odd choice to fight on the side of good. Two vampires with souls? How ironic is that?”

“Blessed irony. You do love to preach,” William said.

Angel lunged in from the opposite side, taking William a lot by surprise. Angel hit him once, a good jaw shot, but William pushed him back. Angel swung wide, a wildly careless blow, and William understood that Angel was more than merely injured. Whatever wound Angel carried, it was draining him down.

William went into defensive mode, returning to the shadows.

“I don’t know why those around us fall,” he said. He made his voice louder, more strident. He wanted Angel to see his strength. “It’s not up to us to decide when and how they go. Why do we keep coming back? I dunno. Don’t even bloody care. Guess we’re not through playing fate’s bitches.”

Angel jumped in again, but William dodged. Angel clutched at his arm and swung William toward the sunlight. William caught the edge of the curtain and dragged it down. He spun to regain his footing, but twisted around to stand in a pool of brilliant morning sun.

Angel’s hand shot out, gripped William’s throat. The skin seared and smoked.

William tilted his head to the side. “Guess the irony’s lost on me, mate.”

Angel made an anguished sound. He pulled his hand back and stared at the cross-shaped brand in his palm.

“I knew...” he growled. “I knew it. Winner takes all. The glory. The girl.”

William stepped forward. “Angel, you’re hurt. You...”

“You hi-jacked my prophecy!” Angel yelled.

“No. I didn’t,” William said, trying to soothe him. “I didn’t hi-jack anything. I’m not...”

“You’re human,” Angel said.

“I’m not,” William insisted. “Will you...”

“You’re standing in sunlight!” Angel said

Connor came into the scene at a dead run, making no attempt to hide his presence. He leapt at William. They scuffled wildly, tangling in the shredded curtain. Connor managed to bloody William’s nose before Angel pulled Connor back.

“You don’t know, do you?” Angel said. He leaned on Connor.

“Know? What?” William said, wiping gingerly at the blood on his nose.

“I signed it over. You ungrateful bast...” Angel fell silent. He craned his head sideways.

“What the?” Connor said.

They watched as the blood from William’s nose vanished into the skin.

“I’m not human,” William said. “Exactly. So unless that Shanshu hullabaloo includes a clause for invulnerability, I think you owe me an apology.”

Angel slid down from Connor’s shoulder and sat down heavily on the floor. He looked up at William, but shook his head in disbelief.

“You’re hurt,” William said again. “I’ll call Buffy. Willow’s out just now, but maybe Dawn or Andrew can help.”

“Does she know you’re here?” Angel asked.

“We both went out searching. I knew where to look,” William said. He looked around the room. “I like what you haven’t done with the place.”

Angel slumped forward. He covered his face with his hands.

William stepped aside to call Buffy. He gave her the address for the Royal London Hotel.

When William stepped back, Connor had knelt beside Angel.

“What happened to him?” he asked, quietly.

Connor stood up. “Mystical fire,” he said. “Took on a dragon.”

“Yeah,” William said. “That part I recall.”

“You don’t know how you got here,” Angel said.

“Can’t say as I do,” William said.

Chapter 24: Aftershocks

It’s sometimes surprising how places bounce back from catastrophes. The earthquake that shook the southwest coast of England registered 2.4 on the Richter scale, but for an area unaccustomed to such things, it had taken everyone by surprise. However, having weathered the thing that went bump in the night, every person who met on their front walks to collect their morning papers greeted each other with chipper conversation and sunshiny smiles.

Giles met half a dozen of his neighbors in this manner as he came up from the corner toward the Flat. They all had something to say about it having been ‘quite the thing’ and ‘wouldn’t it be one for the records.’ Giles nodded to them as he hurried briskly along with a leather satchel full of books and papers tucked beneath his arm. The neighbors would not have noticed the way his hair stood up in spiky patches, nor would they have seen the dust and bits of grass ground into his tweed coat. The would not have guessed that he spent the night in the bottom of a very dark, disagreeably damp hole in the ground less than one-quarter kilometer from the epicenter of their novel little earthquake.

When Giles entered the Flat, Dawn peered out of the kitchen. Upon seeing him, she bounded into the entry hall to tackle him with a hug.

“You’re okay,” she said.

He winced slightly. “Is everyone all right?”

“All good here. But you? Are you?”

“Fine. Thanks.” He grimaced. “You’re not in school.”

“Closed on count of earthquake. Just like old times, huh?” she said.

“Painfully,” he said. “Where are the others?”

Dawn hooked her arm in his. She led him to the kitchen.

“Perhaps,” she said, pulling out a chair. “Here, sit.”

“I’d rather stand. What is it?”

“Okay. Buffy and Spike went out this morning to find Angel,” Dawn said. She smiled.

“Angel?”

“Yeah-huh,” she said.

Giles sat down, took off his glasses, began to scrub. “He’s alive,” he said.

“So to speak,” Dawn answered.

Giles replaced his glasses. He said, “Right. Dawn. Gather the others. Meet me in the library. I’ve found something, and I think it’s important.”

Xander came into the library with a speculative look on his face. Whenever Giles spread out a plethora of scrolls - then scattered same scrolls with various relics and runes - it invariably meant Bad. If the scrolls contained pictographs of any kind, as these scrolls most certainly did, the pictographs depicted Certain Doom, and it was best for him to run straight away to the nearest hardware store for duct tape, plastic tarps and plywood.

Dawn stood beside Xander, but she looked all Alias cool with her arms loose at her sides and her chin out at a dignified tilt. She had her scholar on.

Then Andrew came in, all huffy. He said, “This is the library? I thought this was the dining room.”

“It’s the place with all the books. Even I know that,” Xander said.

Giles finished unfurling the final scroll on the table. He stood back, ready to connect the dots for them in old-school Watcher fashion.

“What are we looking at?” Dawn asked. She scanned the texts. “Sumerian?”

Giles looked impressed. Then, back to business, he said, “Yes. It details an ancient Kabalistic rite for the creation of a – a golem. A kind of mystical construct.”

“Oh!” Andrew said. “Does it want the Precious?”

They all ignored him. Pointedly.

Giles continued. “There are legends of these types of constructs throughout the world, throughout recorded time. In most cases, they are crafted from earth and enchanted with the distilled essence of a life force to create a willing servant.”

Giles waited.

“In this case, Spike,” Xander said.

Giles nodded.

“Well, okay,” Dawn said. “Someone makes a golem of Spike and sends him our way. Why?”

Giles rifled through some of the pages. He drew out a stack of photocopies.

“In this particular text, it states that a golem is produced for a specific purpose. In the past, they were designed for laboring, for doing tasks that normal people felt was beneath them or distasteful.”

Dawn tucked her hair behind her ears. “I’ve read something about that. Sorcerers used them for menial tasks like grave-robbing or letting blood.”

“Always with the letting of the blood,” Xander said.

“But Spike...” Andrew said. “He’s been here four days already.”

“He could be out robbing graves even as we speak,” Xander said. “Or digging ours.”

Giles said, “This one was created for specific tasks. If I’m right, this is a construct of exceptional cunning. And I believe it has been sent here to watch us. To gather information.”

“It’s a sorcerer’s snitch?” Xander asked.

“Precisely. But there is more, I’m afraid. A golem is produced for a specific task, but more importantly, from a specific desire,” Giles said.

Dawn looked up, cool exterior finally rippled. “Buffy?” she said.

“It has preyed upon her affections and memories to give it form,” Giles said. “It was her – longing, for lack of a more palatable word – for Spike that gave the spell’s caster a mold.”

Dawn thought for a moment. Then, she said, “So it could’ve taken any form she desired? Like Angel, or Mom?”

“Your mother, yes,” Giles said. “But not Angel. As you’ve already said, Angel is here, in the city. A golem isn’t able to take the form of someone who resides in this plane of existence. The life force must be drawn from someone who is no longer on this plane.”

“So Spike is dead and gone,” Xander said. “Otherwise this thing couldn’t exist?”

“How do we kill it?” Dawn asked. Her voice had gone glacial.

Giles took off his glasses again. “It can’t be killed. According to my reading, it’s virtually invulnerable. It can only be disenchanted...”

“Then how do we disenchant it?” Dawn interrupted. “If this thing is preying on Buffy’s feelings, we have to stop it. You’ve seen her with it.”

“She’s thinking she’s been able to hang on to something,” Xander said. He tucked his hands in his pockets.

“Yes,” Giles said. “The sooner, the better. But here is the unpleasant catch. The only way to trace the spell is to disenchant the golem. And the only one who can do that is the object of the enchantment.”

“Buffy,” Dawn said.

“Spike’s the Precious,” Andrew said, his eyes widening.

Giles replaced his glasses. “The difficult part will be convincing Buffy. And she’s the only one who can break the spell.”

They all stood silent, staring at the scrolls strewn over the tabletop. Dawn sighed and sat down.

“It just seemed so perfect,” Dawn said. She skimmed the edge of a scroll, then dragged it forward for closer inspection. She looked back at Giles.

“How old are these?” she asked. “And where did you find them?”

Giles started to answer when Xander’s cell phone rang.

Xander picked up. “Oh, hey Willow,” he said. “Yeah, we’re fine as hamsters. Giles, too. All right. One o’clock. Gatwick. Flight 2026. I’ll be there. And hey, Will... be careful.”

Connor waited by the door for Buffy at the ruined Royal London Hotel. William stood in the center of the grand hall, toying with the sunlight through his fingers while Angel watched from his crippled throne – a legless, moldy wing-backed chair.

“Spike,” Angel said.

William ignored him.

“I saw a flicker there. Earlier. You actually looked afraid,” Angel said.

William ran his hand, palm up, under the sun’s dappling light. He looked back at Angel and smirked. “Here for a purpose, mate,” he said.

“You saying all things happen for a reason, Spike? Because that sounds real idealistic, even for you.”

William tsked. “I was never an idealist.”

“You were. Once,” Angel said. “How’d you do it?”

William clenched his fist. “Brood more, Angelus. Talk less.”

There were remnants of anger like splinters of glass that William still felt toward Angel. He had discarded them, or tried to, but Angel was doing his best to bring them out. God, he wished that Buffy and the Scoobies would just hurry...

Yet Angel kept speaking. “All that fancy talk,” he said, “higher callings and being fate’s bitch. It’s a smoke screen. Gotta be. You were never a leader, Spike. You don’t even know what you are.”

William swooped on Angel and heaved him to his feet.

“What am I?” he growled.

And Angel was laughing.

“Someone’s coming!” Connor called from the next room.

William and Angel sprung apart, but stood glowering at each other.

Connor came in seconds later, with Buffy beside him.

“You boys playing nice?” she asked.

No one spoke. Buffy crossed the distance to stand between them.

The word ‘tense’ didn’t cover it. More like, ‘volcanic pressure cooker.’

“Guess not,” she said.

William straightened his shoulders, smoothed his coat.

“He okay?” Buffy asked William.

“He’ll live. But...” He took her a few steps aside and quietly said. “Something’s not right. He needs strong medicine. Willow strong, I suspect. And blood, of course.”

Buffy looked over William’s shoulder to get a better look at Angel. She saw how waxy pale and drawn he looked. Though his eyes were lost in the gloom, he watched her. She could feel him, staring right into her. It was a little unsettling. She drew her attention back to William and to the problems at hand. Those, she could handle.

“What do we know?” she asked.

Connor came around to join them. “Mystical fire,” he said, sounding almost proud. “Dragon.”

Buffy said, “Come again?”

“A Khurasch dragon,” Connor said.

“You took on a dragon?” Buffy said.

“Well, yeah,” Angel said.

William crossed his arms, trying to give an unimpressed impression.

“Way to go with the supernatural sunburn, Saint George,” she said. She turned to William. “Willow won’t be back till later this afternoon, but I don’t think it’s safe here.”

Behind them, Angel sulked. “I was trying to save the world,” he grumbled. “How was I to know they’d have a Khurasch dragon...”

“The shimmery warriors might make a reappearance,” William said.

“Right,” Buffy said. “And this place doesn’t look so stable-like. We should call Xander. Have him bring the car. And blankets...”

Angel continued to lament. He said, “Here I was in an alley swarming with 40,000 legions, face to face with a dragon and no backup.”

William turned abruptly. “No backup? I had a hatchet between my shoulder blades.”

He blinked. Then staggered backward. “The Circle of the Black Thorn,” he said, breathlessly. “We fought them.” He looked at Angel. “We survived?”

Angel paused. Buffy looked from one to the other. Connor watched the whole scene with protracted interest.

Buffy grazed her hand down William’s arm. William looked to her, then nodded. Angel watched this exchange with growing anguish. Such a simple thing, that subtle touch, the reassurance held in one small moment. It left Angel feeling cold and hollowed-out.

William’s brow furrowed. “Illyria? Gunn?” he said.

“Gunn fell early on. You saw him. It was pretty much over before he...” Angel dropped his gaze. “Good man. Charles Gunn. Illyria was still fighting when I went down. And you, I figured you for dust until last night. The only way out was the sewer grate. Unless you...”

William was shaking his head. “No. No, something’s not right here. Illyria...”

“Was still fighting,” Angel said.

“Who’s Illyria?” Buffy said.

William was frustrated now. “Blue girl. Made us look like wind-up dolls. But, how did I...?”

Angel shrugged, an action that seemed to cause him no meager amount of pain. He said, “There was a flash, like being face-to-face with a supernova.”

“Mystical fire,” Connor put in.

“I crawled underground. Made my way to Connor,” Angel said.

An idea dawned in William’s eyes. “She incinerated us,” he said.

“What?” Angel said. “Impossible. She wouldn’t.”

William laughed. “She did. Us. Them. Alley flambé. She bloody roasted us, get it? She offed herself to end it.”

“We don’t know that. Can’t know it,” Angel said.

“I do,” William said. He lowered his head. “I don’t know how, but I do.”

An uncomfortable silence passed between them. Not having known Illyria, Buffy couldn’t understand the gravity of what William had said. Nor could she understand Angel’s skepticism over Illyria’s proposed sacrifice. What Buffy did know was that the tension in the room was like a noose on her neck slowly tightening. She needed action. She needed air. And later, there would be need for ice cream.

Buffy took out her cell phone and left them. For a few moments, Connor, Angel and William heard only the muffled sound of her talking to Xander.

She returned to the circle. “All right,” she said. “Xander’s on his way. Giles is back. And with Willow and Kennedy returning in a few hours, the Flat is going to be packed in New York City transit fashion.”

“Where has the summer gone?” William said.

“Yeah,” she said.

At that point, it seemed they’d all run dry of things to say. William, no fan of idle chat, trailed away from them, giving them space, giving himself space. He slipped away to stand by the door. Behind him, he heard Buffy strike up a conversation with Angel. He clenched his teeth, cursing to himself. He twitched aside the heavy curtain over the window just enough to look out on the street.

In a brief, indulgent fantasy, he envisioned himself tearing back the curtain to spectacularly broil Angel in sunlight where he sat.

Connor stepped up. “Any sign of him?”

The boy’s stealth surprised him, but William played it all James Dean. “No sign. Do wish they’d hurry along.”

Connor leaned against the wall. “You know, I didn’t figure you the type to run,” he said. “Dad – he’s pretty hurt. Doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

“He knows,” William said.

“We were tracking her. Last night,” Connor volunteered.

William studied Connor closely. “Because phones are just so passé,” he said.

“Tried the phone,” Connor said. “Tried finding the house, but...” he shrugged.

“So you followed random vampires in hopes of crossing paths with a Slayer?” William said.

“It was Dad’s idea,” Connor answered.

“Not one of his more brilliant plans,” William said, returning to gaze out of the window. “Guess the whole ‘bathed in mystical fire’ thing baked his brains a bit.”

Connor laughed. He said, “He doesn’t think so clearly when she’s involved.”

William arched his brows.

“Maybe he’s not the only one,” Connor said. He raised his eyes to the curtain where William’s hand rested.

“I’d be there to stop you,” Connor said. “Don’t even think...”

William started to balk, but just shook his head. He looked back over his shoulder to Buffy and Angel, talking companionably. He seemed to shrink just a smidge. “No cause for concern, besides.” William said. “I think I’ve lost my edge.”

Connor put his back against the door. “I don’t think you have,” he said.

William just kept his eye on the road. This cursed, condemned husk of hotel held nothing but memories and ghosts for him, and for Angel. He was ready to be rid of it.

As he watched, a boxy black car pulled up to the curb. Xander got out, arms bundled with blankets.

“He’s here,” Connor called.

Buffy got up. She gripped Angel’s hand, then crossed the room. William watched her move through the light at the room’s center, then back into the murk.

“Hey, Buff. How’s it going with the no longer evil dead, the freakishly back from the dead, and,” he looked at Connor, and said, “Skippy here?”

“Angel’s in pretty bad shape,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve seen him this bad since...”

“Hell,” William said. Buffy looked at him then as if she’d forgotten he was there.

“Yeah,” she said. She put her head down.

“Well,” Xander said. “I brought the Holocaust cloak if you guys want to get him in the car. ’Cause as fun as hanging out in condemned buildings with dead guys may be...”

Connor took the cloak and went to help Angel.

“Maybe I should walk back,” William said. “Seems a bit crowded for the Volvo. Plus, baking vampire flesh: none too savory.”

“Yeah,” Buffy said. “Maybe I’ll walk back, too.”

William actually bit his tongue in shock.

“No,” Xander said, too quickly. To compensate, he added, “Maybe we should stick together in case the Seven Shimmering Samurai decide to make a comeback.”

Buffy hesitated. William gave Xander a scrutinizing look.

“He’s right, Will,” Buffy said. “Those mirage-y demon fighters might still be out there.”

She looked back at Angel. The way he walked, lurching alongside Connor like Quasimodo, made her want to laugh and cry all at once. And she suppressed the urge to whisper ‘sanctuary’ under her breath, which was clearly inappropriate and insanely juvenile.

“All right,” William growled, so that only she could hear. “But you get shotgun.”

“What? Wait,” Buffy said. “Whatever.”

Connor and Angel waited by the door,

“Okay guys,” Xander said. “On the count of three, let’s run out like it’s a Chinese fire drill.”

On an ordinary day, the people at street level by the old Royal London Hotel would have remarked upon the mad group who ran out of the crumbled building and leapt into a parked car. They would have said how peculiar it was that one of them was practically carried along wrapped in heavy black wool blankets. And didn’t it seem strange how that one sort of smoked like sausages in a fryer?

But it was not an ordinary day in London. They had just weathered a minor cataclysm. Never mind that in California, car crashes scored higher marks on the Richter scale. The tube was down all over London. Traffic clogged the roads in and out of town. Cable and phone lines were not restored. The power grid was still spotty. But crews all over town labored to put things right.

And everyone was right nice about it, too.

So no one bothered much about the straggly group who bolted from The Royal London.

Buffy just thought London was swell.

Chapter 25: Crowded House in the Middle of the Street

Willow closed the door to Giles’ bedroom. She knocked once and spoke the words ‘n’antendé secot’. A puff of red smoke wormed its way into the cracks of the door, sealing them in and soundproofing the room.

“How’s Angel?” Buffy asked.

They formed a loose circle around Giles’ desk – Giles and Xander, Buffy and Willow.

Willow said, “He’s complain-y guy. Says he doesn’t need healing spells. And there was more than burned skin. He has some pretty bad cuts and scrapes. And a nasty knife wound that may or may not be poisoned.”

Buffy wrinkled her nose. “Doesn’t need healing spells?”

“Always with the macho,” Willow said. “I’m big bad Angel. I’m all rugged and glower-y.”

“Did he do the forehead thing?” Buffy said.

Giles, who grew more harrowed as the conversation continued, finally said, “Buffy, we need to talk.”

Buffy turned to Xander and Giles, holding up her hands. “I know we do,” she conceded. “It is way crowded here, what with Angel and Connor and Lorne, but...”

“Has nothing to do with them, Buff,” Xander said.

“It’s about Spike,” Giles said.

“Spike?”

Willow nodded. “Buffy...” she said.

Giles interrupted. “We have reason to believe that he’s a...”

“Golem,” Xander said.

“A what-em?” Buffy said.

“A mystical construct created to infiltrate this house,” Giles said.

“Exploit you. Determine weaknesses,” Xander added.

Buffy panned from one to the other, mouth slightly parted. “Are you insane?” she asked.

Giles rubbed his forehead. “I’m afraid we’re quite sober. We’ve all done our research.”

Buffy looked to Willow, but Willow did not meet her eyes.

“We had to be sure before we brought our findings forth,” Giles said.

“Brought your findings forth? Giles?” Buffy said.

Xander looked down at the space on the floor between his feet. He said, “It’s true Buffy. There’s a spell. An enchantment. It’s affected you, made you feel...”

“Made me feel what?” Buffy said, raising her voice.

Willow hugged herself.

“An attachment,” Giles said.

“Oh, I get it. Some super-powerful demon or witch cast a spell to make me fall in love with Spike,” Buffy said. She uttered an abbreviated laugh. “Why would they even bother? I mean, how lame is that?”

Xander finally raised his head. He had to work hard at keeping an even tone. He said, “He was someone close. And also dead.”

For a moment, Buffy felt her knees go jiggly. It was like a tiny earthquake beneath her feet. “He’s not dead,” she said. “He’s not. Obviously.”

Willow reached for her, but Buffy pulled away.

“No. I know what you’re trying to do,” she said. She raised an accusatory finger at Giles. “You never understood. And it isn’t like this is the first time. And Xander...” Buffy felt a twinge of an ache in her temple. She massaged it and closed her eyes. The room seemed to spiral behind her eyelids. When was the last time she felt this tired?

Giles came closer, trying the comforting patriarch approach. “This isn’t like it was in Sunnydale, Buffy. It’s preying on you. Drawing strength from your feelings for him.”

Buffy backed away again. “You don’t understand,” she said.

Willow covered her mouth. Xander looked miserable. Giles gaped.

“It’s impossible. This is the most ridiculous and impossibly stupid thing any of you have ever said. Ever. Drawing strength from my feelings for him? I never l-” she choked on the words, but tried again. “I never...”

“We know. You never loved him, Buffy,” Xander said. “It’s all right. That’s part...”

Buffy shook her head. “I never looked at him,” she said. Her shoulders dropped and she didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands.

“Oh,” Willow said, softly.

Buffy massaged her temple again. “It’s not right. It can’t be. He’s so real,” she said. “And he knows things. And what I feel when I’m with him. Who could – create that?”

“They didn’t,” Giles said. “You did.”

Buffy sniffed, then straightened. Her forehead creased in a figuring-it-out way. “And Angel’s here. My Angel. Actually here, in this house,” she said, laughing at herself. “I’ve barely even looked at him.”

“There is a spell,” Giles said, trying to soothe her. “A disenchantment. It will remove the golem and allow Willow to trace its origin.”

“Let’s not tiptoe, Giles. Destroy it, you mean. Kill him,” she said. Her chin trembled. “Will it – hurt?”

“We don’t know,” Xander said.

Willow said, “But we know... that is, we know you...”

“I have to be the one to do it,” Buffy said.

“Yes,” Giles told her.

“Because it’s all about me,” she said, again with the bitter.

Gently, Willow added, “You don’t have to decide right now.”

Giles and Xander sent piercing glances Willow’s way.

“Good,” Buffy said. “Good. I believe I have had enough for one day.” She tried her best not to scurry out of the room, but looking dignified was difficult when you were storming out in blind fury.

“Wait,” Willow said, urgently.

Buffy stopped but did not turn around.

“About the spell. If we’re wrong, nothing happens. And we’ll all know,” Willow said. “We’ll all know.”

“But if we’re right...” Buffy said. She shook her head. “He can’t know.”

She stepped outside and leaned against the door. It took all of her copious strength to keep from sliding down to a heap on the floor. There was noise, upstairs and down. So many people crowded in -Kennedy, Lorne, Andrew, Connor, Dawn, William. She craved quiet, but there was none. She was home, but somehow, once again, she felt all alone.

Buffy went upstairs and lay down on her bed. Later, when William came up to join her, she pretended to sleep.

Xander came downstairs with a wicked craving for stringy cheese. And maybe some cashews. He needed salty snack foods to assuage his great big guilty conscience at having to break unpleasant news in such a bad way. As he passed by the dining room, he spied Dawn in the big swivel chair usually designated for Giles. She sat with her knees drawn to her chest. In her lap, she cradled an ancient text, which she highlighted furiously as she read.

Xander slid into the room. He said, “Speaking from experience: Giles really hates it when you do that.”

Dawn looked up, not full of joy.

“Seriously,” Xander said. “I think I still have the notch on my ear where he pinched...”

“This is from my personal collection,” Dawn said, swiveling away from him.

Xander felt the chilliness of icy Dawn scorn like brain-freeze.

“Personal collection?” he said. “You have a personal collection?”

Dawn spun the chair back to face him.

“You think you know,” she snapped. “You don’t.”

“You think I think I don’t know what?” Xander said.

“The little conference you had upstairs. With Giles and Willow and Buffy. Do you think I’m stupid? You’re gonna do the spell. You’re gonna get rid of him,” Dawn said.

Xander put his hands palm down on the table. Suddenly, his desire for salty snacks anted up to include pretzels and pints of Guinness.

“Dawnie,” he said. “If he is what Giles says, some sorcerer out there throws a magical power switch and Spikey sells us out. Goodbye peaceful, well-put together house...”

“No, Xander. You’re wrong,” Dawn said. She hugged her book to her chest. “I know there’s something else. Something missing, that you’re all missing.”

“Dawn,” Xander said.

Dawn returned to her reading. With nose planted firmly in book, she said, in her most icy tone, “If you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of reading to do if I’m going find it in time.”

Buffy left William’s side after moonrise.

She walked slowly past closed doors, then went downstairs to find Willow standing barefoot in the garden. Pale green sand flowed from Willow’s cupped palms. Her upturned face glowed in the moonlight. Her eyes were closed, and Buffy noticed how at peace she seemed.

Buffy paused at the door, unsure if she should disturb her. Just as Buffy started to leave, Willow turned. She beckoned for her to come outside.

Buffy stepped out. The night felt balmy and serene, which was quite the contrast to the crowded-ness of inside.

“Am I disturbing the magics?” Buffy asked.

“No. The dew replenishes my energy. It’s good dew,” Willow said. She dusted the remaining grains from her fingertips. “And the sand helps to restore strength. Angel’s healing spells were kinda tricky.”

Buffy hugged herself. Willow leaned over so that their shoulders were touching.

“About earlier...” Willow began.

“The yelling,” Buffy said.

“Yeah. You okay?”

“Bit hoarse,” Buffy said.

“You don’t have to.”

Buffy turned to her. Her voice went all crackly. “What if they’re right?”

“Buffy...”

“What if he’s a... thing? A thing sent to hurt us?”

Willow said nothing.

Buffy went over to sit down on the stone step. “Who would do this, Will?”

Willow sat down too. She took Buffy’s hand in her own. “A villain,” Willow said.

“Damn them.”

“That is part of the mission statement,” Willow said.

Buffy rubbed her face with her free hand. She said, “I haven’t been this tired since...”

“Sunnydale. I know,” Willow said. “The amassed crowd doesn’t help. This place was already full to brimming, but now with Angel and Connor and Lorne...”

“Who’s not a Slayer, by the way,” Buffy said. “Notice: tall, male and demon.”

“Seeking asylum,” Willow said.

Buffy nodded. “Lorne knows Angel, and he knew Spike. Giles had a plan.”

“Yeah, you know, it was kind of a shock to find that the reason Lorne was here is, well, here,” Willow said.

Buffy watched the moon as it sailed between the clouds. There was so much noise in her head, so much crowded into her thoughts.

“I don’t think I...” Buffy said. She couldn’t complete the sentence.

“It’s okay,” Willow said. “I know.”

“No,” Buffy said firmly. “You misunderstand. I don’t think I can fight any more. The last few days – earthquake notwithstanding – they’ve been good days. Normal. Fun, even. And things just fit. They fit. It’s been what regular people must have, Willow. And if it’s all been the product of a spell wrought to weaken our guard, to weaken us...” Buffy laughed. “It’s just the last in a string of cosmically bad jokes with me as the punch line.”

Willow gripped Buffy’s knee. “Buffy,” she said.

Buffy got quickly to her feet. When she spoke now, her words held a rusty razor blade’s edge. She said, “It felt nice. Being with him. It felt – all right. Guess that should’ve been my first clue, right? Safe to say things never felt ‘all right’ with Spike.”

Willow stared up at Buffy’s face.

“When can we have it done?” Buffy said. Her tone had turned from rattling on the edge of breakdown to full-speed resolve. Sometimes Buffy’s hairpin course changes left Willow with the dizzies.

“The spell?” Willow asked.

“To gather what you need for it,” Buffy said. “How soon?”

“Tomorrow night. We can arrange everything. I’ll have to go to the Westbury house to get some things, but... Buffy, are you sure?”

“I will be,” Buffy said. She stood still for a long while, not moving. Willow tried to read Buffy’s expression, but the light from the house cast them both in deep shadow.

“Buffy,” Willow said. “You’re zoning.”

“I am,” Buffy said, distracted. “I need indecorous amounts of sugar and caffeine, followed by brutal slaying. And then, binge sleep.”

“You mean patrol? Tonight?”

“I can’t stay in this house tonight, with Angel upstairs and William in my bed,” Buffy said. “It’s best I go out and kill something evil.”

“But the shimmery warriors. They’re still out there,” Willow said.

“You know what? Let them find me. I could use a good fight,” Buffy crossed the flagstones and opened the back door. She said, “Tell Giles and Xander. No one else. We’ll work the spell tomorrow night.”

Dawn watched Willow and Buffy in the garden. Even though she could make out about one of every five words they said, she got the whole grim picture.

Giles told them about the golem theory. And they were going to work the spell.

Dawn hid in the downstairs bathroom until Buffy went out to patrol. She waited for Willow to come in, but when she didn’t, Dawn slipped like smoke back upstairs. But she didn’t go to her own room. She knocked instead on Andrew’s door.

After what seemed like five minutes of near constant tapping, Andrew threw open the door. His tousled hair was like a nest on top of his head, and his bleary eyes opened no more than slits.

“I have a plan,” Dawn said.

Andrew blinked, mouse-like, and said, “Does it involve musk glands or pipe organs? ’Cause, if not, you just woke me from a Dark Phoenix dream for nothing...”

“You’re babbling,” she said. “Musk glands?”

Andrew blinked again. He waved a hand for her to go on.

“Are you in?” Dawn asked.

“I don’t know. What’s the plan?”

They heard the back door open and close. Willow was coming in.

Dawn pushed past Andrew, closing the door behind them. “I’ll tell you,” she whispered. “But you have to play cool.”

Andrew folded his arms and looked down at her. “I’m all about the cool,” he said.

“You’re wearing Star Wars pajamas,” Dawn said.

“What ofit?” he asked, narrowing his eyes.

“Are you in or not?”

“Is it about Spike?” Andrew asked.

When Dawn didn’t say anything, Andrew said, “What did you find?”

“Maybe something,” she said. “Maybe nothing. But I need your help.”

“Well then, I’m in,” Andrew said.

Dawn nodded. “Good.”

Buffy woke up just enough to pound the hell out of the snooze button. But her spider-sense told her that someone watched her trying to sleep. She rolled over to find William perched in the chair.

“You keep hitting the snooze,” he said.

“Gives me the illusion of control over my own destiny,” Buffy said. Her throat felt all snargly from patrolling in damp conditions. She sat up on the edge of the bed and rubbed her eyes.

“Where’s Dawn?” she asked.

“Downstairs. Scrapping with Andrew over the last banana. I think she poked him in the eye,” William said.

Buffy chuckled at that. She moved zombie-like to the dresser and slipped on her robe.

“Angel’s down there, too,” William went on. “Regaling everyone with tales of the Black Thorn Circle. I’m paralyzed with... not caring much.”

Buffy laughed again. She went into the bathroom to wash her face.

William appeared at the door.

“How was your night?” he asked. “You two have fun together?”

Buffy whirled on him. “Excuse me?” she asked.

“You left last night. I figured...”

“You figured I what? Popped upstairs for a quick tumble then come back here to sleep beside you?” Buffy asked.

“Well, I...”

“Who would do that?”

William gave her a sheepish shrug.

“Oh,” Buffy said, flatly. She shook her head. “I went on patrol.”

She washed her face, then strode out past him. Her movements were efficient now, brisk and over-purposeful.

He said, “But... The Knights of the Shimmering Badness?”

“No sign. Of them or anything else. Earthquake must have scared them all underground, so to speak,” Buffy said. “It was very non-gratifying. Not that killing is gratifying...”

“Crowded house brings out everyone’s demons,” William said.

“Get that in some freaky fortune cookie?” Buffy asked. She looked hard at him, then continued to dress.

William edged onto the arm of the chair. He said, “It’s changed, hasn’t it? Something...” He shrugged. “The Scoobies are all cranked to 13. Willow and Kennedy, sniping at each other. Lesbian sniping – not as sexy as you might think. Xander complaining about storing pints of blood in the house. And you... you look past me.”

Buffy turned, almost tripping over pants legs. “I’m not,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed, is all. A lot has happened.”

“I can let go, Buffy. Couldn’t before, but I can now. So.”

“Don’t you dare,” Buffy heard herself say. “Don’t even think that way.”

“Fine. Fine. You don’t have to be shrill about it,” William said.

“I am not shr...”

Dawn knocked on the door, then walked right in. Buffy finished pulling on her pants.

“I’m heading down to the trains now. Just wanted you to know,” Dawn said. She glanced at William, but quickly averted her eyes.

“Good. Okay,” Buffy said. “School’s all open today? No chance of train derailment?”

“With us, anything is possible. But should I die in some random fiery train crash, I promise I’ll just come back,” Dawn said.

“Don’t joke like that,” Buffy said.

“Who’s joking?” Dawn said, deadpan. She looked back at William, then turned to leave.

Before she closed the door, she said, “I don’t have soccer practice today, so I’ll be home by 5. And, Spike, Andrew and I found some stuff on those demon fighters who attacked you. You might wanna check with him.”

“Thanks, niblet,” William said.

Dawn left. Buffy looked at him.

“See?” he said. “Bit strange.”

“Dawn making odd remarks about dying in horrible ways is not strange. She is the girl who once trapped us all in a house. No doubt you remember that,” Buffy said. “Let’s just go downstairs and face them, okay?”

William followed her out of the room.

Halfway down the stairs he said, “Can I hit some of them?”

“No.”

“One of them?”

“Is it Andrew or Kennedy?”

“They’ll do,” he said.

“No,” Buffy said.

“You used to be fun,” he said.

Chapter 26: Adding Low to the Lowdown

The looks all around when they entered the kitchen together were priceless. It was the kind of open-mouthed gape that the old Spike would have gone in for. It was the kind of shock that meant no one expected this. It was the showstopper.

As William expected, everyone fell quiet when they came into the room.

Giles, who sat with Angel at the breakfast table, merely sipped from his mug. Xander, beating the hasty I-don’t-want-to-see-your-face exit, came to Buffy, squeezed her hand and fled through the front door. Xander never was keen to the subtle.

Andrew came in from the dining room. “Ah, Spike,” he said. “Just the man I need to see.” He tapped his notepad with a pencil. He also had a pencil tucked behind his ear like some rookie reporter. “I would like to go over your shiny warriors story again, but this time I’ll make a sketch and take down detailed descriptions to aid in our search.”

“Sure thing, Squarepants,” William said. He looked not at all delighted, but assented to follow Andrew back to the dining room to work.

Connor manned the skillet. He took the big risk in breaking the kitchen tension between Buffy and Angel.

“I made breakfast,” he said. “Bachelor eggs. Xander loved them.”

Buffy peered into the skillet. She crinkled her nose. “Those have potatoes in them,” she said.

“Hence with the bachelor. You just take what’s left in the fridge. Trick I learned in college,” Connor said.

“Connor attends Stanford,” Angel said, proudly. “He’ll be returning there as early as next week.”

Connor smiled. “Like I’m going back to college if the world is gonna end.” He turned the eggs as they set.

“World’s not gonna end,” Angel said.

Giles sipped. “It might,” he said.

“No, it’s not,” Buffy said. “Listen to your father. Dropping out of college is a bad idea. Even when it seems necessary.”

Angel gave what passed as a smile to Buffy.

She looked away. She said, “No thanks on the eggs. Sugary carbs for breakfast gives me energy aplenty for training with the Slayers.”

Connor spooned the eggs onto his plate and Giles’. Buffy went to the pantry for her cereal. From the other room, they heard William say, rather loudly, “I already told you that bit. Move on.”

Giles shook his head. He said, “You sure it’s wise, going to the school today?”

“Really should,” Buffy said, not really looking at him. “School was closed yesterday, and I missed earlier in the week.” She flicked a brief glance Angel-ward. “Plus, Uber-Bads and earthquakes. It’s best we’re well prepared. Not to mention, Kennedy will give me hell...”

Connor said, “She gave lots of that this morning.”

“Apparently she and Willow had a disagreement in Paris,” Angel said.

“Well, aren’t you all gossipy hen types,” Buffy said. “Will said something about sniping Lesbians. I thought it was just pre-coffee Kennedy. Anything serious?”

“She’s a spitfire, Buffy,” Angel said. “Teeth and claws. Good qualities for a Slayer to have.”

“Not if she’s scratching and biting at us,” Buffy said.

Angel said, “Willow might not always mind.”

Everyone looked at him like he just said the most unbefitting thing ever.

“What?” he said.

Giles got up. He said, “Thank you for the eggs, Connor. Angel. Buffy.” He tipped a nod to everyone as he left out.

Buffy looked down her cereal. She decided to pass on eating breakfast altogether.

“I’d better go, too. I probably should have a word with Kennedy before we start class. So.” She turned to Angel.

“So,” he said.

You know that feeling when you’re standing on a narrow board in a high up place and you misstep and almost fall? That was how Buffy felt at that moment, looking at Angel in her kitchen. It was too much.

He said, “Till this evening?”

“Okay,” Buffy said. She went into the hall. In the dining room, William was looking over Andrew’s sketch.

“Not like that,” William said. “He looks like Princess Jasmine.”

“You said Middle Eastern,” Andrew complained.

“We couldn’t see their faces, lack-brain. They wore scarves,” he said.

“Yeah, well, Princess Jasmine is hot,” Andrew said.

William looked on the verge of pounding Andrew. Buffy stepped in. “Will,” she said. “I’m going. Be good, okay?”

William deflated, but recovered his cool facade in seconds. “Course,” he said.

“Have a nice day at work,” Andrew called after her.

Buffy took her bag from the hall closet and left.

“Shut up,” William said.

“What?” Andrew said.

Giles came back downstairs, with Lorne in tow. Lorne was going on about the Halloween party he’d thrown for Wolfram & Hart, in which he’d been the surprise guest because he’d had his sleep removed, which caused his psyche to fragment, and oh what a hit that had been...

Giles interrupted by saying, in his distracted way, “Andrew, are you quite ready?”

Andrew snapped to vibrate-with-excitement mode. “I’m going to the Watcher Council today,” he told William.

“We done then?”

Andrew made quick work of scraping together his notebook, pens and sketches. “Oh yeah. Thanks, Spike. It will be very helpful. And with all the collected Watcher archives, I’m sure I’ll find something useful to aid our cause.”

William left the dining room behind Andrew. He fetched his coat from the rack in the hall.

“Where are you going?” Giles asked, sounding confounded.

“If you think I’m staying housebound all day with King of the Damned here, you’re bent,” William said.

Giles shrugged. “Fine. I don’t care what you do. Go.”

Lorne stepped in. “Come on, Spike. Keep a fugitive demon company.”

“The demons who attacked you are still out there,” Giles added. “They may not be able to kill you, but it’s possible they can repeatedly crush your bones.”

William pursed his lips. “Knew there was a downside to speedy recovery,” he said.

“Well then,” Giles said. “I’ve left numbers where we all may be reached in case of emergency. But don’t call me. I’ve got enough on my hands than to baby sit the lot of you. Andrew?”

“Si, capitan,” Andrew said. He didn’t actually salute, but they could see that he really wanted to.

“Stop that,” Giles said. He picked up his satchel and they left the house.

Connor came into the hallway. “So,” he said. “What’ll it be? Poker, or Grand Theft Auto?”

“Vice City or San Andreas,” William said.

Lorne said, “San Andreas is two player.”

“We’ll switch off,” Connor suggested.

“I go first,” William said.

“I’m down with that,” Connor said. He went past Lorne and William into the back TV room where Andrew stored his numerous game consoles. And toys. And D&D modules.

Lorne sighed heavily. “I’m going for wine.”

William hung up his coat and joined Connor in the TV room.

Lorne found Angel in the kitchen, hanging in the shadows and looking a little more than slightly punchy.

“Hey Anj,” Lorne said in a pseudo-bright tone, “Wanna join the All Day GTA Tourney?”

“What are we doing here?” Angel said. “Don’t we have more important things to do? You know: Fight evil. Save the world. Beat up Spike.”

“We don’t clock daylight hours, Muchacho. Besides, you qualify for down time. Red says you won’t be full speed till later this evening,” he said.

Lorne located a bottle of red wine in the pantry. He took it out, then hunted up some nice crystal wine flutes.

Angel read the bottle’s label. “That’s for cooking,” he said.

“I’m not saying it’ll go down pleasant, Big Guy, but we gotta have something to take the edge off,” Lorne said.

Angel sat forward. “Is he playing?”

“Not to add low to the lowdown, Angel Cakes, but he is presently man of the house,” Lorne said.

Angel sank back in his chair.

“Maybe you should just rest and contemplate,” Lorne suggested.

“No. No, I’ll play,” Angel said. He got slowly to his shaky feet.

Lorne clapped him lightly on the shoulder. “That’s a man. Still in the game.”

As they walked into the hall, Angel said, “But I get to be first.”

They arrived in the TV room to find William and Connor already manning the controls.

Angel made a derisive sound through his teeth. Lorne poured a glass of wine and passed it to him.

Chapter 27: The Sisters

Dawn crouched behind a tumbled down bale of cardboard and waited. She heard the grating whir of a lone forklift inside the warehouse, driving back and forth, bundling recyclables.

Beyond that, she heard the sounds of the busy London street. She knew this was the spot where Buffy and Spike had been attacked. She figured that one of these big bales of paper had been responsible for knocking Buffy’s knee out of joint.

Dawn had already made a preliminary sweep of the area in search of clues. She found dust, but couldn’t really tell if it was vampire dust or earthquake dust. She had scooped some into a plastic baggie, but then didn’t know if it would be of much use to them. Other than that, it was an anonymous alley. So she hid herself to wait for the rendezvous.

Andrew thought he picked up a tail twice on the way down from Wapping, where Giles and Company was working on the Watcher Council rebuild. Andrew ducked through alleys and slipped through an old couple’s garden, which warranted him a smack on the head with a bit of wood, but he arrived at the rendezvous point almost on time.

He entered in secret agent mode. He scanned the area expansively, clutching at a folio folder like a mad scientist fleeing from international terrorists. Dawn couldn’t help but laugh. And then she couldn’t help but sneak up behind him and flick his ear.

She had known exactly what kind of reaction to expect from Andrew. For all his quirkiness, he was wicked predictable. He flung his folio to the ground and leapt around, striking a laughably non-threatening kung fu pose. For laughs, Dawn kicked him hard in the shin.

“Ow!” he shouted. He danced around in a tiny circle, theatrically gripping his leg. “Ow. You kicked me. Fiendish girl. I should knock you out!”

Dawn folded her arms. She wished for a second that she smoked so that she could casually flick the butt of her cigarette at him like some daring heroine from the black and white days of movie-dom. She settled instead for tossing her hair over one shoulder.

“You’re late,” she said.

Andrew straightened. He tossed his own hair.

“Yeah well, punctuality is the virtue of the bored,” he said.

“I am bored,” she said. She nodded to the folio on the ground. “You dropped that.”

Andrew scooped it up. He was acting all indignant now, with the sneering and the jerky movements.

“You ready?” she asked.

He fixed her with a questioning and half-suspicious gaze. “We’re supposed to comb the area for clues,” he said.

“Nothing here. Already checked. But there is another place, not far,” she said.

Andrew looked into the deserted alley behind Dawn. “You sure you did the full perimeter scan?”

“Got nothing but dust,” Dawn said. She patted the pocket of her coat. “Picked up a sample. C’mon.”

She struck out to the street, not turning to see if he followed. Of course, he did follow. He caught up to Dawn and walked along beside her for a while in baffled silence. This was Dawn’s preferred method of dealing with Andrew. The more she kept him guessing, the longer he was likely to stay quiet. It was a trick she picked up in Italy when he came to stay with them. Over the summer, she’d had time to tweak it for finesse. Dawn couldn’t figure most people, especially guys. But where Andrew was concerned, she thought she had him down flat as a flapjack.

After a few blocks of Dawn striding purposefully along with Andrew scampering to keep up, Andrew said, “So, what’s this other place all about? You’re all big with the secret-ness.”

Dawn said, “Did you have any trouble ditching Giles?”

They came to an intersection. Dawn looked both ways and crossed without waiting for the ‘Don’t Walk’ sign to change.

Andrew trotted along behind her. He said, “No way. I was all Kitty Pride in the archives. Told him I’d be in the basement researching the shimmer-demons...”

Dawn cut in. “Do you have the sketches from this morning?”

“Check,” he said. Andrew opened the folio folder to the sketch he’d drawn from William’s description.

Dawn glanced at it. She said, “That looks like Princess Jasmine.”

Andrew waggled his head. “Does not,” he said, mockingly. “Besides, I also got this.”

He pulled out a spiral-bound sketchpad with a green gloss cover. Dawn stopped. She recognized the notebook.

“That’s Willow’s,” she said.

Andrew narrowed his eyes. “I know it.”

“Why do you have it?”

“Nicked it from Giles,” Andrew said.

“Nicked it?” Dawn asked.

“I stole it. When he was talking to Robson and some of the other Watcher recruits. Look,” Andrew opened the notebook and flipped to the pages containing Willow’s sketches and notations about Spike’s aura spell.

Dawn read over them. Her eyes widened.

“You took this from Giles?” she asked.

“Yeah. What of it?”

“It’s brilliant,” she said.

Andrew looked immensely pleased with himself.

Dawn turned and started walking again. Andrew put away the notebook and caught up to her.

He said, “You’re cutting class again. Headmaster will not be pleased. Aren’t you afraid Buffy’ll go Professor Snape on your ass?”

“Please,” Dawn said. “This is way more important than a dumb chemistry practical.”

“Sure, well, you’re already Miss Vegan Expatriate. May as well add Truant and Delinquent to the list,” Andrew said.

“Wow,” Dawn said, sticking out her chin, “Not a 'Star Wars', Harry Potter or comic book reference in one whole sentence...”

“I speak the colorful language of pop culture,” Andrew said.

“You speak the language of lonely geekdom.”

“Yeah? Well, geeks rule, little girl.”

“They so do not,” Dawn said.

Andrew started to say something else, but Dawn stopped him.

“Look,” she said, pointing. “Mercer Street. We’re here.”

“Where’s here?” Andrew said. He looked across the busy intersection to the gothic cathedral on the corner. Faded sheets of plywood covered its windows and doors. In the cracks of the sidewalk and along the unkempt lawns, gnarled and viny weeds grew in twisted tangles.

“The Temple of the Sisters,” Dawn said. The light at the intersection turned red. Dawn struck out across the street, leaving Andrew to stare up at the contorted cathedral spires that towered like black cutouts against the bright midday sky.

Dawn found that the front doors to the cathedral, which looked out at a perfectly normal neighborhood children’s park, had been boarded over and then secured with a bulky chain and almost cartoonishly huge padlock.

“Um,” Andrew said, as Dawn rattled the chains, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

“We have to get inside,” Dawn said.

“Yeah, but why?”

Dawn knocked on the plywood.

“Stop that,” Andrew whispered. “There could be some Call of Cthulu beast in there ready to go 'In the Mouth of Madness' London-style.

“There isn’t,” Dawn said.

“Oh, and you’re sure of that how?”

“It’s not Cthulu. It’s the Temple of the Sisters,” Dawn said.

“And they are who, exactly?”

Dawn stepped back from the door and looked up as if trying to determine the best way to Spider-man the building. She said, “I found something. In the new texts that Giles brought home. I’m not five out of five on the translation, but I think this is a church that was once dedicated to an ancient religious sect called The Sisters.”

“So they’re like fighting nuns?”

Dawn shook the chains again, harder this time. Her hands came away grimed with dark orange rust. She wiped them on her jeans.

“Sorta,” she said. “More like some kind of protectors. And they fit Buffy’s and Spike’s descriptions of the shimmery demon guys.”

Dawn went around the other side of the building, with Andrew following close behind. Here, the sidewalk was pushed up in places by the roots of three hoary oak trees.

“I don’t get it,” Andrew said. “If they are protector-types, why did they attack Buffy and Spike?”

Dawn looked up at the sturdy branches of the oaks. She said, “Not sure. That’s what we’re here to find out.”

“We are so not climbing those,” he said.

“Maybe not you,” Dawn said. She stretched up on tiptoe and hopped to catch the lowermost branch of the middle tree. Andrew walked back and forth making exasperated sounds as she pulled her legs up to lace them around the branch. So she was hanging there, hair streaming away from her face, when Andrew tossed his folio folder to the ground.

“Just hang on one second,” he said. He hurried around the corner toward the front doors. Dawn did her best to hoist up onto the branch, but all she managed was a shimmy in the direction of the wall. Seconds later, she heard Andrew rattling the chains on the door.

“Andrew!” she called out.

Then, Dawn heard a loud distinct ‘pop.’

Andrew came quickly around the corner.

“What did you do?” she asked, still hanging upside down.

“Just hurry, okay?”

Dawn swung down. She picked up the folio folder and joined Andrew.

When they rounded the corner, Dawn saw that the padlock was opened and a piece of ply board was pulled back just enough that they could squeeze through.

“How?” she said, gaping at him.

“I was a super villain,” he said. “Remember?”

“Huh,” Dawn said. She stepped past him into the dim interior.

It was empty inside, save for a few piles of crumbling stones. Against the far wall stood an altar. Most striking, though, was that everything – walls, floor, windows, stones – was shrouded with gossamer threads of spider webs.

“It’s very Tim Burton in here,” Andrew whispered.

Dawn took a few hesitant steps inside. Andrew remained by the door. Bands of pallid light fell through the high windows. Beyond them, Dawn saw a dark recess to the left of the altar. She thought she saw something there...

“Hello?” she called out.

Andrew slapped the sleeve of her coat. “Have you learned nothing from '28 Days Later'?” he whined.

“Is that the one with Sandra Bullock?”

“No,” he said, in a harsh whisper. “It’s the one with the rageaholic zombies who shred their victim’s limbs every time they yell out ‘hello’.”

Dawn rolled her eyes. She walked further into the small chamber. Soon, she stood alone in the center of the room.

She felt a weight of disappointment settle into her heart. She had hoped that she would find all the answers right here, perhaps even spelled out for her plain English on thick, elegant stone tablets. She had not imagined the place might be abandoned and desolate.

“I don’t think there’s anything here,” she said.

“Check the altar,” Andrew called. He still had not dared venture into shadows beyond the open front door.

Dawn walked toward the altar. As she drew closer, two lamps on either side of the altar began to glow with a weak but sanguine light. With each step she took, the lamps glowed brighter.

“Um, Dawn,” Andrew said. His voice sounded far away. “Is that supposed to happen? ’Cause it’s kinda cool. But also, weird.”

She took the small step that led up to the altar and stood before it. Drapes of spider’s silk drifted in the faint breeze conjured by the open door. There were objects – indistinct yet alluring shapes – hidden beneath the threads. She reached to touch them...

And something caught her wrist.

Dawn leapt. She screamed, and it echoed wildly into the rafters. But when she turned, she found that it was just Andrew.

“What?” she said, pulling her hand back.

“I was calling you for a whole five minutes,” Andrew said. “You were in a trance or something.”

“No I wasn’t,” Dawn said. “I was looking...”

She looked down at the objects arranged on the altar. The shroud of webs had fluttered back, revealing a collection of heavy silver medallions. Each one bore a different geometric symbol, like a knot-work design, on its face.

“Twenty-one,” Andrew said, counting them. “There are twenty-one...”

“Get out the notebook,” Dawn said, breathless.

Andrew opened Willow’s notebook.

They held the pages between them and close to the pale light of the lamps.

“Look,” Dawn said, pointing to the centermost medallion in the arrangement. “That’s it.”

Andrew squinted. “What’s it?”

“The connection,” she said. She folded the page over to bring Willow’s sketch next to the medallion. Both showed a collection of seven stars – the Pleaides. Dawn smiled to herself. She traced the pattern on the medallion with her fingertips.

“So, what?” Andrew said, quietly. “How does this help in our plan?”

“I think we know who created William,” she said. She closed Willow’s notebook and stepped away from the altar. “Now all we need to know is why.”

Chapter 28: Disenchanted (Part One)

There was this tiny spot at the edge of her eyes when she smiled. They were miniscule lines that would, in thirty year’s time, turn into crow’s feet – should she live that long. But now, they were creases that appeared only when she really laughed. William would find himself fixated; he would watch Buffy’s face when she spoke just waiting for those elusive lines to show up...

He made a promise to himself, sentimental fool that he was. Should she give him half a chance, William would kiss that cherished little spot at the edge of her temple. And then, he would go. He would just go.

Rain soaked London and all parts south on the British Isle. Buffy left Summers School with the Big Dread knotting her in stomach, and the closer she got to the Flat, the tighter it twisted inside. Kennedy agreed to take the whole patrol route for the night. She also agreed, though with much debate of the heated kind, that she would go it alone for at least a little while longer.

So Buffy had the night off to go and work her Slayer magic on yet another love interest. As she walked home, her only thought was that she just wanted it all to end. She did want answers. But at what cost? Why did the choice always involve the lives of those close to her?

When the Flat came in to view, Buffy stopped at the corner and watched through the curtains of rain. It looked like a normal house, one of many just like it on this average-looking English lane. Squares of gold light shone through front windows, making the torrents of rain seem less glum and more like something from a Dickens novel. Why couldn’t she just keep on walking? There were other places, weren’t there? Exotic, far off places where she could go so they could go on.

Except Willow would use some fancy locator spell and they’d show up in a dirigible or a snow mobile and bring me right back, Buffy reminded herself. And she knew she didn’t really want to leave. She just sometimes wished for simple.

Inside the Flat, things seemed simple. Willow met Buffy at the door.

“Dawn called,” Willow said right away. “She forgot to mention she’s meeting with a study group. Something about a chemistry practical.”

Buffy peeled off her raincoat. She thought she actually heard a soft piano concerto playing in the background.

“That’s odd,” Buffy said. “She said she’d be home.”

“Is Kennedy...?” Willow said.

“Taking patrol,” Buffy said. She hung up her coat. “Yeah. Where are…?”

“Giles and Xander are downstairs. Waiting,” Willow said.

Buffy dropped her gaze. “And... the others?”

“Lorne, Angel and Connor went up to the roof earlier. William was up there. Now I’m thinking he’s in your room,” Willow said.

“And the thing,” Buffy said. “Did you get what you...?”

Willow nodded once. “Everything. But one thing.”

Buffy looked hopeful. “Yeah?”

“Blood,” Willow said.

Buffy’s shoulders folded forward. “Blood?”

Willow leaned over to whisper into Buffy’s ear. “I need some of William’s blood,” she said.

She crumpled again. “Oh my God,” she said. “We’re doing this, aren’t we? And are we just... with him in the house?”

“Giles thought it best. The spell doesn’t... it won’t take long,” Willow fidgeted the way she always did when she had to be the bearer of unpleasant tidings. “Also, he has some mission for Angel. There’s this church... So they’ll be out of pocket. About the...”

“I can get the blood,” Buffy said. “When he banged his knee the other day. I haven’t done laundry yet. Will that work?”

“Yeah,” Willow said. “But that wasn’t what I was gonna say.”

Buffy knew what Willow planned to say, and stopped her. “Don’t,” she said. “We can’t. We have to know. And if I’m going to get through this...” Buffy shook her head roughly, “No swerving.”

Willow took a deep breath. “Right. Swerve-free.”

She gave Buffy a brief hug, then left Buffy standing alone in the entry hall.

Buffy had to force herself to take every step up to the second floor landing.

She placed her hand on the doorknob, then, whispered to herself, “No swerving,” as she pushed the door open to their rooms.

William was not in the sitting room. Buffy breathed a little easier, because it helped her immensely to think that perhaps he was napping. If they were going to disenchant him, wouldn’t it be best if he could go (or not go) in his sleep? She listened for sleepy sounds in the next room, but heard nothing. Buffy decided it best to stick to the task at hand. Just stay focused.

She went to the laundry hamper that stood in the corner of the sitting room, behind a folding Japanese screen. She dug through it in the dark, trying to determine which pair of dark black jeans he’d been wearing that day when they were skating in the park.

The memory of that day came back to strike her like a sledgehammer to the chest. How she’d laughed at him when he fell. How the sunlight looked on his skin as it fell in wavering dapples through the trees. And how the scrape on his skin had healed...

“Laundry detail, is it?” William said.

Buffy leapt so high she almost toppled.

“Yeah,” she said, feigning a laugh. “You know, it never goes away. It’s like it’s teleported in from the demon hell dimension of dirty clothes...”

William gave her the ‘I know you’re lying’ look. Inside, Buffy was slowly imploding. She couldn’t look at him and she couldn’t look away.

“Something’s up,” William said.

“As in up up?” Buffy said, lamely.

“Right. Rupert’s found himself a lead. He’s sending Angel and the boy to have a look. Figured I’d tag along,” William said.

Buffy’s eyes went round. “You’re going with them?”

“I’m not staying here,” he said. “Everyone’s all twitchy. See, the good guys... you’re all such terrible liars. I know what’s going on.”

Buffy’s brow pinched. “You do?”

“Buffy,” he said. He uttered a derisive laugh. He stepped close enough to touch her, but held back. She stared up at him. She couldn’t breathe, or think, or move. He trailed one finger down the curve of her temple, around her cheek all the way to her chin.

“Don’t wait up, okay?” William said. He took a step back, turned and was gone.

Buffy covered her face with hands that were shaking. She stood there in the dark for a long time, trying to steady her breathing, trying for all that was sane and rational to remember why she was standing there in the first place. Then she remembered that she’d come for blood. That was always the way. She came for blood, and she got it.

Unfortunately, he got it too.

“Let’s get this done,” Buffy said as she came down the basement stairs. Her lips felt bloodless and her fingers and toes had gone numb. She tossed William’s black jeans to Willow, then took her place in the circle between Giles and Xander. She did not look at them. Could not.

Xander’s face made the Grim Reaper look chipper. He said, “It’s okay, Buffy. This is for the best.”

Buffy didn’t hear him.

With an elegant pair of silver scissors, Willow trimmed the bloodstained patch from William’s jeans. She dropped it into a slender clay vessel that rested amid runic charms and bundles of grassy herbs at the center of the altar.

Willow sat back on her heels and held out her hands.

“With this I cast the spell of Unmaking,” she said. “With this blood, we consecrate to thee: take back this creation unto the earth. I call upon the elements to make our measured offering. Take back this creation unto the earth.”

Willow pulled a heavy canvas pouch out from beneath the altar. She passed it to Buffy.

“This is for you,” Willow said, quietly.

Buffy slid a chunk of amethyst geode from the sack. She turned it her hands, testing its weight.

“When I give the signal, you have to crush the vessel... with that,” Willow explained.

“God almighty,” Xander said.

“Crush it,” Buffy said, nodding vacantly. She caressed the craggy surface of the stone, then raised it, ready for Willow’s signal to strike.

Giles motioned for Willow to continue.

And Buffy waited.

Chapter 29: Watchers In Crime

When Dawn and Andrew left the Temple of the Sisters, storm clouds had begun their late summer simmer over the south part of town. Andrew looked repeatedly skyward. It was clear he did not fancy Dawn’s plan of sneaking in to the Watchers Council Building in Wapping to do stealth research on The Sisters. After all, he pointed out, he had worked so hard to ingratiate himself shamelessly to Giles.

“And if I get caught with my hands in the Watcher Council cookie jar now, it means no more career as a budding bureaucrat for the paranormal,” Andrew told her. “Or is it biscuit jar in England?”

Andrew had been given a key to the outer doors to the Watcher Council Headquarters. They entered the simply furnished front lobby to find the building was deserted. Apparently, even the new Watchers thought highly enough of themselves to keep a British banker’s hours. Dawn reasoned, though, that Giles had gone home early to prepare for the spell. Which gave them very little time, if they were going to be useful.

Dawn knew, also, that all of the worthwhile information would be securely locked away in Giles’ office. Andrew did not have a key to that door. Dawn crouched in front of it, trying to pick the lock with a paper clip she found in her book bag.

“I think we should not be doing this,” Andrew told her, for the millionth time. “This storm’s kicking up the pollen count. You do not want to deal with Allergy Me right now.”

Dawn was nonplussed. She had been practicing a little freelance locksmithery since their demon scare in Italy. Some things just seemed like advantageous skills. She had been kidnapped enough by now to know that picking locks was one of the many.

“Why robes?” Andrew said.

Dawn did not look up from the lock.

“Did we miss some form-meets-fashion mandate from the 1500s? Because all the Big Bads, yeah, they wear robes,” Andrew said.

“They don’t all wear robes,” Dawn said. She jiggled the straightened end of the paper clip. She felt the tumblers in the knob wiggle, but they would not turn.

“Well, enough to perpetuate a stereotype. Robes, hoods, sandals: All part of the demon ensemble. Hey, do crosses work on Jewish vampires?” Andrew said. He leaned against the wall and stroked his chin.

Dawn looked up at him. “Andrew, ignore all external stimuli.”

Andrew watched her struggling with the lock. He said, “My brain equals internal stimuli, thanks very much. Besides, it’s a valid question.”

Frustrated, Dawn combed her hair back behind her ears. “No. It’s not. We’re not fighting vampires. We’re breaking and entering. Second time today. We’re racking up the whole array of felonies here, and you’re talking vampire theology. How did you get into the church, anyway?

Andrew looked embarrassed. “It was just a knock spell,” he said.

“Well, can you knock again? This lock’s looking unpickable,” Dawn said.

Andrew crossed his arms. “Giles would have protection against it. It’s pretty basic, really...”

“Try it?” Dawn suggested. She got to her feet and moved aside.

Andrew covered the doorknob with his fist and muttered something in a demonic tongue Dawn didn’t recognize. An ember-red glow fanned out from his fingertips, but... nothing.

He shook his head. “Got a credit card?” he asked.

Dawn flounced in her theatrical teen manner. “I wish. Oh, but I have my ID. How’s that?”

“Sufficient,” Andrew said. She passed it to him. He ran it between the door and the jamb. “This is an old building. Xander’s crew is working on updates and overhauls, but these things take time.”

Dawn watched Andrew as he worked the ID card over the catch. He slipped his tongue out over his lips in concentration.

“More leftovers from your days as Crime Lord of Sunnydale?” Dawn asked.

Andrew popped the lock open and swung the door out. He looked down at her through squinted eyes.

“More like every crime movie in existence, babe,” he said.

Dawn slipped by him. “Finally a pay off for all those hours watching 007 marathons...”

Andrew flicked on the light. Giles’ office looked a frightful mess for one so fastidious as they knew him to be. At first Dawn ignored the smeared mud tracks and haphazard piles of books. She went right for the bookshelf behind his desk.

“Willow told me he keeps his secrety texts on the top shelf,” Dawn said.

Andrew dragged his finger through the caked mud on the desk set. “I’m thinking he’s got them scattered here in plain sight. Kinda cheeky.”

Dawn went around to the other side of the desk. There, she found a mud-crusted crate full of sodden books, a pick ax and a worn leather map.

“What are these?” she asked.

Lightning flashed brilliant white outside.

Andrew took the map between his hands. “Mr. Giles has gone Dr. Jones on us. Been holding out on the goods,” he said. “Seems like.”

“Yeah, but why? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Andrew unfolded the map. “Amesbury,” he said. “He’s not cooking with the fresh, but he knows his way around the kitchen.”

Dawn snatched the map from him. “Can you be more random?” she said. “What does that even mean?”

Andrew huffed. “It means Giles found something. An archive. A hidden one. Look,” he said. He pointed to a spot on the map that someone had marked with a black grease pencil.

Dawn was shaking her head. She knelt beside the crate to get a better look at the books inside. Her jaw went slack as she ran her hands over them. She said, “This is amazing, Andrew. I don’t think these books have seen sunlight in like 500 years.”

Andrew knelt across from her. “Think they contain usefulness regarding the Sisters?”

“We don’t have time to go through them all,” Dawn said. “There are dozens. Unless... can you speed read?”

Andrew snorted. “No.”

“Well how long do we have before Buffy goes home from the school?”

Andrew checked his watch. “She leaves around 6, which gives us less than... one hour.”

“It’s no good. We need more time,” Dawn said.

“We need one of those time turners that Hermoine uses in Prisoner of Azkaban,” Andrew mused.

“Andrew! Reality, will you?” Dawn said. She tossed a number of the slimmer volumes from the top of the crate at him. “Take these. I’ll get the ones down from the shelf. Flip through them. Look for something – anything – resembling those symbols we found at the church.”

They flipped through the books frantically. With each one, Dawn got the feeling they were trapped in a well with the water quickly rising. To punctuate this, the rain spattered the windows in fierce nips, with strokes of lightning thrown in like exclamation points.

Andrew suddenly stood up. “Wait...” he said.

Dawn looked up at him. “I’m waiting... note the impatience.”

He said, “ Na galleck till nestful gal a conga.”

“If that’s a spell from Harry Potter, picture this book upside your head,” Dawn told him.

“The Sisters said it to Spike. Right before they attacked,” he said. He pulled out his notebook, then dragged out Dawn’s laptop. She watched him with rough curiosity as he plugged in the computer and waited for the startup screen.

“What does it mean?” Dawn said, in an icy tone.

“It’s a recipe for ancient tofu tacos for all we know,” he said. He pulled the laptop onto his knees. “I wrote it down phonetically, but maybe someone else has a translation...”

Dawn watched him in disbelief. “Andrew, you can’t Google a dead language,” she said.

He began to type in his phonetic translation. “If we can match some of the words, even one of them, we might have square one,” he said.

“It’s impossible,” Dawn said.

Andrew ran out his tongue again in concentration. “So says you, but...” he said. And then, “Ponderous...”

“What?” Dawn said.

Andrew read from the browser window: “Did you mean “N’galeck t’ll nesthul gal aconda.”

Dawn slid around to sit beside him. They shared the laptop between them.

“No way,” Dawn whispered. “Click it.”

Andrew clicked on the hyperlink. A web site appeared which contained scholarly looking information about the Pleiades, complete with sketchy star charts and images of the blue-white stars in the cluster.

“I’ll be damned,” Dawn said, pointing at the screen. “Galeck n’al aconda – ready for the light. Light of what? What light?”

Andrew went scholarly. “Patience, paduwan,” he said. He clicked the link in the text. They read in silence. Lightning flashed again outside, followed by the hollow rumble of thunder.

Dawn pointed again. Andrew cringed. “Do not touch the screen.”

Dawn touched it. “It’s my computer, weirdy,” she said.

Andrew sneered. Dawn ignored him. She pointed at another section of text. “This part talks about a trial,” she said. “It’s Kabalist legend, Andrew. And the Sisters...”

Andrew scrolled the page down. He looked disappointed. “All just surface-y descriptions. This is just someone’s Master’s thesis. It’s all information, not connection.”

“Wait,” Dawn said. She pulled out the book she had been highlighting so furiously the night before.

Andrew glanced at it. “The Habbalissa Codex?” he said.

“It’s mine,” she said. “It’s like the demonic companion reader to Herodotus...”

“I know what it is,” he said.

“Here.” She flipped to pages she had marked. “The Pleiades. The Sisters. The Habbaliss called them sacred protectors. And here...” she flipped again, then showed him a section she had outlined in pen. “This talks about a kind of test – a rite of passage for proving their worth.”

Dawn sat back on her heels. “Andrew...”

“They attacked him,” Andrew said.

“It’s a test. Oh my God.”

Andrew pushed his hair back from his forehead. “If the Sisters aren’t evil...” he said.

“And they created Spike, then he’s been sent as a kind of...”

“Helper? Like C-3PO to Princess Leia. Except Spike would be more of an IG-88 than a protocol droid,” Andrew said.

Dawn snatched Andrew’s wrist and squeezed it. “They’re gonna disenchant him. Andrew!”

“Ow,” he said. He reclaimed his wrist and checked his watch. “It’s raining and we’re 20 minutes from the Flat.”

Dawn got to her feet. “Stash the books and laptop in the broom closet. We’ll have to run if we’re gonna stop that spell.”

“Right,” Andrew said. His lips pressed into a thin smile.

“You up for it?”

“I am so up,” he said.

Chapter 30: Bad Blood

William felt like tread on shoes when they left the Flat, but he was doing his best not to show it.

It was dark out, and raining. With the traffic sounds, the rain sounds and the almost constant growl of thunder, they weren’t at conversation volume. For that, William was grateful. Angel had the address to the church Giles wanted them to investigate. They plodded along, wet and sullen. It was a regular dead man’s walk.

Somewhere between High Street and Knightsbridge, Angel just couldn’t take it any more.

He said, “So, you gonna tell me?”

William worked at remaining aloof. “Tell you what, exactly?”

“You and Buffy,” Angel said.

William laughed. “Kills you, doesn’t it.”

Angel grimaced.

Connor quickened his pace to stand right behind the both of them.

William shrugged. “Nothing to tell,” he said.

“Good,” Angel said.

They turned south toward Kensington. The rain slackened, but the pulse of thunder continued unabated. They traveled for another few blocks in silence.

“So you’re not going to tell...” Angel said.

Connor placed his hand on Angel’s shoulder. “Dad. Maybe now is not the time for girl chat.”

Angel glowered. William shoved his hands into his coat pockets. And they walked.

“You’re the one who always spills,” Angel said, on the verge of a chasm of whining. “Don’t you want to spill?”

“Oh, God. Angel?” William said.

“It is killing me,” Angel admitted.

William stopped. “Seriously?” he said. He grinned.

Angel looked abashed. “No,” he said. Then, “Are you with her?”

William walked ahead a few strides. He did like to see Angel crawl. Over his shoulder, he called, “Not at present.”

Angel rushed to catch up to him. “You know what I mean, Spike,” he said.

William stopped. He put his hand on his chest. “Will-EEE-um,” he said. “And it’s cute, you now? You acting the jilted fool. But it’s like your boy said: Now is not the time.”

Angel sighed. Quietly, he said, “You’re right.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re right,” Angel said, louder this time.

Smiling to himself, William started walking again. “I know I am. I just like hearing you say it.”

Connor said, “Guys, let it rest. We’re almost to this church.”

They turned onto Mercer Street and continued in silence. William still felt like something strapped to the underside of someone’s feet, but had to allow that the rain had done a bit to clear his head. Angel had been itching to say something all day. William could sense it. While they pretended to enjoy their Grand Theft Auto session and Lorne’s incessant commentary on how violent video games were destroying the moral fabric of the youth of today, Angel had been biting it all back. Now that they were in the company of dark streets with Connor as backup, Angel could finally have his say.

“Do you honestly think she’ll choose you?” he said.

William gripped Angel’s shoulder, but restrained himself. He sucked his teeth.

“That’s it, at last,” William said. “The burning question that’s been boiling your blood all day? But you just don’t get it, do you? I wouldn’t ask Buffy to choose.”

“That’s real generous of you, Spike, since you haven’t a chance in the world,” Angel said.

William turned Angel roughly by the shoulders to face off with him.

“Hang on just a tic, here. The one skill you’ve proved to her, time and again, is your uncanny knack for leaving.”

“She asked me to leave...” Angel began.

William bowed up to him. “And why is that, I wonder?”

Connor shot William a warning glance. The street here was less crowded, but there were bystanders about. William pushed Angel away and raised his hands.

“Let’s go,” he said, walking ahead.

“You fought with her because you were expendable,” Angel growled.

William ignored him.

Connor took his father’s elbow, but Angel pulled away. He caught up to William.

“You’re not the iconoclast any more,” he said. “I’m sure the appeal’s wearing off...”

That strummed the chord of William’s last nerve. He seized Angel by the throat and shoved him against the brick wall. William could feel the strength behind his fingers like a burning. He could kill Angel, right now. Crush his throat. Tear off his head. It was all within his grasp if he chose...

William laughed his characteristic maniacal laugh, which he hadn’t done since his return. It felt alien, to laugh like that...

“I knew it,” Angel said, panting. “I knew. Just a little push and out comes good old Spike.”

Connor tried to wrest them apart, but Angel raised his hand.

“No. Let’s do this, Spike. We got bad blood all over again,” Angel said.

William stepped back. “It’s what you’ve wanted all day. Isn’t that right? Haven’t got enough rounds in, you wanna fight?”

Angel swiped at William. He blocked easily. Clearly, Angel was not over his injuries.

“Stop this,” Connor said. “Look, the church is right there...”

“I am who I am, Angel. Just as you are...”

“Nothing like me,” Angel said. He hit William in the face. He punched like a non-Slayer type girl, which was not like Angel at all.

William jumped back, almost dancing, his arms outstretched. “That’s the one right thing you’ve said all night.”

Angel swung. Missed. Swung again. William kept out of arm’s way. He dodged, then pushed Angel back, both hands palm-striking to Angel’s chest.

“Something’s not right here, Angel. You’re not right. You know that?” William said.

Angel leaned heavily against the wall. Rain ran down his face, but William saw the waxy of his skin and the labored way he moved. Connor stood shoulder to shoulder with William.

“What did you do to him?” Connor asked.

“No, not me. Willow’s spells aren’t working. That fact falls in the ‘not good’ category, mate,” William said.

“It doesn’t matter much now,” Angel said. “It’s not like you’ll be with us much longer. William.” Angel’s face split in a grotesque smile.

William felt his newly beating heart skip a bit. He did not like it when Angel got this way.

“What do you know, Angel? Why were you looking for Buffy? The night of the earthquake, what were you after?” William said.

Connor and Angel exchanged looks of uncertainty. But Angel returned in seconds to his almost vampiric leer.

William shook the rain from his eyes. “Fine,” he said. “Don’t tell me. But there are larger things than us, Angel. Bigger. More important.”

“More important than love?” Angel said.

“Grand as it is... It will have to wait,” William said. “If I’m the guy telling you this news...” He shook his head again. “Something’s coming for us. Get it? For all of us. Her included. It’s... Angel!”

Three of the Sisters miraged around them. The first kicked Angel back into the wall. Connor leapt in, but they batted him away.

The last stood before William, then bowed.

“N’galeck t’ll nesthul gal aconda” she said.

William smiled. “You said that before, luv. But my dance card is full, see...”

She clutched the lapels of his coat, ready to fling him.

“Oh, bugger,” he said.

Chapter 31: Disenchanted, Part Two

Buffy had a way of detaching. It was kind of a thing.

She sat in a circle with her closest friends, holding a rock over her head. Willow, with the chanting in some sibilant language with her hair flying about. Giles, looking like the world might topple at any minute. Xander, trying not to look any way at all. In another context, it could be funny.

But unfunny was the word. Unfunny, and wretched, and miserable. And trying to remain detached.

There seemed to be no way around it. And hey, if he wasn’t a golem thing, no harm done. Spell fizzles, and all is well.

So she knelt, eyes open and without tears, the geode poised to destroy the vessel on Willow’s command. The air in the basement swept around them, building to an almost electric charge that drowned most of Willow’s incantation. As usual, Buffy didn’t need to know the how or what of the spell. Her part was the action. Hammer to anvil. Stake to heart. Rock to vessel. Rock wins.

It made her sick. She stared at the vessel, which burned the soft blue gold of candle’s flame. When she closed her eyes, she saw him in all his various incarnations: spiteful Spike, crazy Spike, soulful Spike. Spike the eminent bad ass of Sunnydale, and Spike, hero of the people.

And now...

Willow’s voice rose above the howl of wind.

“With these gifts I call upon you, unmake this servitor. Restore to earth both blood and bone. Elements return, I call thee! Let what was made now be undone!”

Buffy saw him then. Right then. He was fighting – bleeding – in a high place above the city. Perhaps the spire of a church...

Willow cried out, “Now, Buffy!”

He wasn’t going to win. Buffy hesitated.

“It has to be now, Buffy,” Willow said.

Buffy brought the stone down to smash the vessel...

Angel and Connor fought as far into the church as the altar. The remaining four sisters joined with the merry bashing, and they weren’t even close to tiring.

“They’re stalling us,” Connor called to Angel.

“Yeah, it’s working,” Angel said. His energy was quickly waning, Connor could tell. Angel ducked a kick aimed for his head, then rolled over the dusty paving stones to stand shoulder to shoulder with his son.

“We have to get to him,” Angel said.

The Sisters – six of them now – formed a loose ring around Angel and Connor.

“Three to one odds,” Connor said. “Had worse.”

Angel whispered. “Break past them. Get up those stairs. If they’re hellbent on data collection, survey says the exchange is about to take place.”

The Sisters closed in, cinching up the circle.

“I’m not leaving you to them,” Connor said.

One of the Sisters drew a short, curved dagger from the scabbard at her hip. The others followed her lead, then took another collective step forward.

“Go,” Angel said. “You have to...”

“Forget it. They want to keep us here, not kill us. Once Willow works her spell, we have nothing to worry about,” Connor said.

“Except then they’ll dice us out of spite at that point,” Angel said.

The Sisters halted their advance. They held their circle around Angel and Connor, but at this point all they could do was wait.

William fought. He had one warrior Sister to contend with, and she had teeth. And claws. She’d herded him like sheep. Her first blow sent him sailing into traffic. He had rolled over the hood of the car, cracked the windshield, possibly some ribs, but she was on him again once he was up. Dimly, he saw the others attack Angel and Connor. But this one had his name and number.

She had kicked him onto the curb. He struck back. She caught his fist and tossed him through the boarded and chained front doors.

William felt splinters of wood in his neck. He jumped up. “You bitch,” he spat. “What are you?”

She ran at him. He had planned a swift feint, but she was too damn fast. She shoved him. He stumbled back, reeling, trying to keep his feet. She moved with almost blinding agility. Before he knew it, he was fumbling up rotted black steps in a shaft of stairway. Dust clotted in his lungs. He landed one lucky kick to her gut. That sent her tumbling down a dozen steps. He used that moment to gain the higher ground.

William jumped the gap from belfry to rooftop, then scrambled across the slick tiled roof. He turned and waited.

The Sister emerged, walking with measured steps toward him.

William wiped sweat from his face, then looked at his hand in wonder. It was blood.

He laughed. “Oh, I get it. Hit me hard enough and I do bleed,” he said.

She charged in on him. He was ready this time. He deflected her punch, caught her elbow and locked it back. She followed through, swinging him over her shoulder. He landed with an unpleasant crunch on the peaked roof. It was as though she knew how he fought and predicted...

“Right,” he said. He rolled, sweeping her ankles. She dodged, catlike, then kicked him hard under his ribs. Bright sparks of white showered behind his eyes. For a moment he could neither see nor breathe. He had to get back, get to his feet, get up, or she would have him. His boots found the spine of the roof and he stood again. The lights of the London streets streaked and danced before his eyes.

Then she socked his eye, and then his chin. He stumbled backward, but held on.

“I know...” he said. His breath felt like it was tearing his lungs. “I know why... you want to kill me.”

She faltered.

“You... made me, right? Now you’ve... come to claim what’s in my head,” William said. He took several small steps backward. The church spire was behind him. He held his hand out until he could touch it.

The Sister drew her dagger and spun it in her palm.

William cracked his neck. He smiled. “You’ve got me in a footrace, and there’s... no way I can fight you all. But you... you will get nothing from me. Got it?”

Blood trickled down the side of his face. He felt the spire behind him. The way he saw it, his best bet was to jump...

The Sister ran at him again. She moved with such speed, he barely saw her. She swept his legs, then struck his throat with her fist. William reeled. As he fell, she raked the dagger across his chest. Blood spilled down the front of his shredded shirt. He dropped against the spire. He fought to keep his footing. She came toward him, dagger held above his head, poised to strike.

“What are you?” he breathed. The last thing he saw was the dagger arcing down toward his chest.

Buffy brought the stone down in a clean arc. But stopped herself.

“I can’t,” she said. “I can’t do this.”

Xander and Giles, both cringing in expectation of a blinding flash and spell debris, looked up at her in disbelief.

She looked from the geode, to Willow, to Giles and Xander. “I can’t. I’m not...” she said. She flung the stone into the corner, then overturned the vessel, hastily scattering the contents across the altar.

Xander reached for her. Buffy got quickly to her feet and ran for the basement stairs.

“Buffy!” Giles called.

Buffy collided with Dawn and Andrew in the entry hall. Dawn caught her arms and they spun on the hardwood floor.

“Did you?” Dawn panted. “Are we?”

“I couldn’t,” Buffy said. “Dawn, there’s a church.”

“The Temple,” Andrew put in.

“Where...?” Buffy asked.

“Four-Two-Three Mercer,” Dawn told her. She gave her sister a brief embrace. “Go.”

Buffy darted past them into the street.

The dagger’s point met his flesh, but did not break the skin. William looked down, shocked to find that the blood was gradually fading into his skin. Then he noticed the cross that Buffy had given him lying against the tip of the blade. He could feel its weight on his chest.

The warrior woman stared down into his eyes. She held him transfixed with that gaze. Her eyes seemed like deep and ancient wells so calm in spite of the knowledge she no doubt possessed. Her fingertips glowed. The radiance that spread from them looked very much like the light that shone in his aura.

He swallowed hard. “What am I?” he asked.

The Sister dropped to her knee beside him. She placed her hand against his chest, covering the cross with her palm.

“You are worthy,” she said. A faint smile, almost sad, traced her lips. She turned the hilt of the dagger to face him. William closed his hand around it, and the warrior woman vanished.

Downstairs in the church, the remaining Sisters orbed out, leaving Angel and Connor in stunned silence. Angel strained to listen for signs of a return, and then for evidence that Spike was still alive.

“He did it?” Connor asked.

Angel nodded. “Or he’s dead. Either way, we have to find out.”

Connor led the way upstairs. Many of the steps were broken out like rotted teeth. It amazed him that William had not fallen in his hasty ascent to the roof. They cleared the belfry and saw him. Both men figured him for dead.

Angel picked his way over the shattered roof tiles. “Spike?” he said.

William’s eyes sprung open. He looked around, dazed and disoriented.

“You survived?” Angel said.

“I did?” William asked. His eyes drifted closed.

“Spike. Spike!” Angel called. He raised his hand to slap William awake.

But William caught Angel’s hand, and twisted. “Don’t do that,” he said.

Angel jerked away. “What happened, Spike? Did you... learn something?” he asked.

William uttered a gurgling laugh. “I’m the bloody tin man,” he said.

Angel looked back at Connor. He shook his head.

Angel said, “I think they bashed your head in, Spike. You’re even less coherent than usual.”

William was shaking his head. He swung up to his feet. He tottered on the brink of instability, then regained his center of balance. He cocked his head at Angel.

“What are you doing here?” William asked.

Angel’s eye twitched. “What do you mean, Spike? You know what we’re doing here. We came with you...”

“You know,” he said. “I think I did learn something.” He tossed the dagger in his hand, testing its weight. He climbed over the base of the spire and stood at the edge of the roof.

“Wait,” Angel said. “Where are you going?”

“Got things to do,” William said. He held out his hands and dropped from the rooftop to the sidewalk below.

Chapter 32: Falling

Buffy ran through the streets. She only knew Mercer from the occasional patrol. It was a quieter part of town, demonly speaking. She did not remember seeing the church until she came upon it. It was a dark, grubby looking structure, probably shut up for decades. When she came around the front of the humble looking chapel, she saw evidence of the fight. Doors ripped from hinges. Boards torn from doors. An elongated rectangle of sallow light fell across the littered front steps.

She crossed the street. Inside, shattered glass sparkled on the worn paving stones. Two oil lamps shed somber light on the altar. Buffy stepped over the splintered ply board to stand just inside the doorway. She saw the scuffly marks in the dust and knew that some of the Sisters had remained here, while the others took the fight upstairs. That was where she needed to go. To the spire. Where she had seen William.

She struck off across the church. “William?” she said. “Angel? Hello?

Nothing. No sign of anyone. Her boots echoed. She stood in the center of the empty room. She peered up into the gloom of the ceiling to find something stirring there, like a galaxy of twinkle lights. With her eyes trained on the lights, she walked to the broken altar.

“Where are you? I know you’re here,” she whispered. “Please, I need answers.”

Buffy bowed her head. She gripped the stone ledge of the altar. Only quiet met her ears.

“Please!” she called out. “I need to know.”

Still, nothing.

Buffy paced back toward the center of the temple. As she did, the glow-worm things drifted around her just as they had in her dream.

“Hello?” she said. “What is with the rappelling caterpillars?”

They fell on her bare skin. She swept them off. They tangled in her hair. She shook her head.

“Come on!” she yelled. “This falls into the column under ‘not helpful.”

The webs wound around her, hemming her in. She fought them, desperately working to untangle herself.

She stared down at her arms, at the sheathes of white silk that grew more dense no matter how she clawed to free herself.

“Freaking now,” she whispered. Her breath hitched in her throat. She raked her nails through her hair, over her face. She ran her hands down her legs. The webs were thicker now. They made wet popping sounds when she ripped through them. The caterpillars fell to the floor in thousands it seemed, wrapping their way up to ankles, to shins, to knees.

“No. Stop this!” she said.

“Buffy?”

She twisted around. Angel watched her from the doorway, a smirk twitched into one corner of his mouth.

“New dance?” he asked.

She scanned the room, dazed. “Angel. No. No dance. Worms. Glowy ones.”

He stepped inside. “No worms, Buffy,” he said. “There’s nothing here.”

“Kinda getting that,” she said. “Look...” she began, but he stopped her.

“Buffy, they got to him. Or she did. Something happened up there. We didn’t see,” he said.

“Didn’t see? What?” Buffy asked.

“If there was an... interface, exchange... kind of thing, it’s done. Finished. We couldn’t stop it,” Angel told her.

He walked to stand before her. She looked up at him.

“It’s not like that,” she said, quietly.

“So the spell didn’t work. He’s not a magical... thing,” Angel said.

“No,” she said. She shrugged. “Maybe. We’re not sure.”

“But the spell? Willow’s disenchant?”

Buffy gave a curt shake of her head. “There were too many unanswered questions, Angel. I couldn’t just de-construct him. Not without knowing more.”

“Knowing what, Buffy?” Angel said. His brow wrinkled. “He said he had things to do when he left here. For all you know that means leading unholy assassins to your humble abode.” “He wouldn’t.”

Angel studied her closely. He said, “Buffy, you’re taking a lot on faith here.”

“I know.”

His shoulders dropped a bit. “Look at you,” he said. “You’re all grown up. You’re ready.”

“Ready for what?” she asked. Buffy stared up at his face, but got nothing more than Angel’s trademark Mask of Impassivity.

Connor came into the doorway. “It’s starting to rain again. We should start back.”

“Yeah, all right,” Angel called over his shoulder. To Buffy he said, “You coming along?”

Buffy ventured a glance into the dusky ceiling, but found nothing but windblown cobwebs and spindrift dust.

“I’ll catch up,” she said.

She looked back to the place where Angel stood. He pulled a vanishing act. Connor waved, then followed his hasty-exit father into the drizzly night.

Buffy’s mind felt tired. It was sending up white flags behind her eyes. She walked over to the stone dais that held the altar and sat. She covered her face with her hands. She massaged her eyes and promised herself a good night’s rest and one of Willow’s lemon-peel facials once all of this had passed.

Buffy heard a far off grumble of thunder. She raised her head to find the whole temple swathed in silk. The worms pulsed intermittently as they wove through the silken barrier.

“Oh. God,” she said. “What is this?”

The webs drew in around her, filling up the air with stifling whiteness. Buffy pushed into it with both hands. The strands felt like sticky elastic, but they perfumed the air with the cloying scent of honeysuckle. Buffy tore a hole in the barrier with her fists.

It refilled in seconds. A curtain of webs draped from behind to ensnare her shoulders. She shuddered. She fought forward through a shining blizzard of webs. She plunged her hands through, pulling herself along. With every step forward, the webs closed in behind. It felt like swimming through marshmallow creme. It thickened, pressing on her lungs until every breath ached in her chest.

She stumbled blindly. It felt a lot like falling. Soon paving stones turned to boggy earth. Wan sunlight slanted through cattails and the webs evaporated like mist.

Buffy sprawled on the bank of the lake. But instead of a park with graveled walking trails, there sat a line of quaint row houses across a rutted lane. In front of the third house, two women dressed in stiff, dark taffeta dresses talked quietly together on the porch. A horse-drawn hearse, terrible in its black contrast beside the houses, waited in the avenue. In the side yard, a small boy chased a wooden ball, kicking it through the damp grass.

Buffy crossed the lane. She heard chimes singing on the wind, and the women talking in whispers. One of them held a handkerchief to her thin, chafed nose. But the boy played on, oblivious.

He kicked the ball and sent it astray. Buffy stopped it with the toe of her shoe. She bent to pick it up. The boy waited for her. She turned the ball in her hand, feeling its painted surface beneath her fingertips. Not a dream, she thought. It feels so real...

The boy watched with expectant yet patient eyes. Buffy handed the ball to him.

“Thank you,” he said, bowing. When he smiled, she realized. She knew those eyes. She knew him.

Buffy looked on as the boy returned to his little boy games.

When the woman appeared beside her, it didn’t startle Buffy. It was as though she had been there all along.

The woman said, “This is the heart we gave. A heart which knows no grief. Tomorrow this boy will awaken with the understanding that his father will not come home. He will be a man – a boy no longer.”

The woman on the porch, his mother, called to him. “William. Come inside,” she said. “It’s time.”

He bounded up the steps to settle in beside his mother. He stood only as tall as her waist, and almost disappeared within the folds of her skirts as they entered the house.

Buffy turned to face the woman who spoke. She was one of the Seven. Buffy wasn’t the slightest bit surprised.

“We are the Daughters of the Nephillim,” she said. “Seven Sisters. Protectors of the Circle. I am Ea, the eldest...”

Buffy interrupted. She said, “Yeah, can we skip the lineage recital thing? I get that you’re beings of unsurpassed power, but I’m in a bit of a time crunch.”

Ea, seemingly possessed of infinite patience, said, “You have questions.”

“Really do,” Buffy said.

“Ask them,” Ea said.

Buffy drew a steadying breath. “Why? Why him? Why me? Why now?”

Ea nodded. “You stand at the fulcrum. Those close to you will tip the scales. One way, or the Other. The world will witness Destruction as it has never seen. You will have need of him, of his strength...”

“You think it’s right?” Buffy cut in. “To bring him back this way? To use him as your... tool?”

“You chose the form he would assume. We answered your cry,” Ea said.

Buffy balked. “My cry?”

Ea raised a hand. “If his presence here causes dissonance...”

“No,” Buffy said.

“He has been re-formed,” Ea continued.

“Reformed?” Buffy asked, slightly aghast.

“Remade,” Ea amended. “His soul remains.”

“Is he... human?” Buffy asked.

“He is flesh,” Ea explained. “We are Givers. We shared with him our blood, since he lacked his own. And so he carries our vitality.”

“Lacked his own,” Buffy mused. She had to smile at that.

She took a few steps forward, in the direction of the lake. A chilly current swirled around her. She hugged her arms to her chest. As she did so, the lake scene dissolved. She and Ea stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the repaired altar of the temple on Mercer Street.

Ea pulled back her cowl to reveal her smooth yet timeworn face. Her deep set eyes held a wistful melancholia, like a mother who had just revealed the truth about Santa Claus to her still hopeful child.

“We would not counterfeit the connection you share,” Ea told her.

“Connection,” Buffy repeated. She pressed her eyes tightly closed. “I kinda already knew that.”

Ea dipped her head almost reverently and began a slow fade out.

“Wait,” Buffy said.

Ea re-corporealized.

“Thanks,” Buffy said.

Ea shimmered, and then was gone.

Chapter 33: Hallelujah

Andrew raced down the basement stairs.

“Halt the ritual!” he yelled. He skidded to a halt on the concrete floor.

Willow looked from him, to Xander and Giles. Both could only shrug.

“Already did,” she said.

“The Sisters are good!” he yelled in the same pitch as his previous statement. Dawn, who was on her way down the stairs with her books, got ready to back him up.

“The Sisters?” Willow asked.

“The Ninja Nuns?” Xander said. “I’m missing a link.”

Willow patted his leg.

Dawn tossed the Habbalissa Codex into the circle. Giles leaned in to have a closer look.

“Wanna help us out, Giles?” Dawn asked, all business.

Giles pulled his glasses off. He took the book into his hands, then opened to some of the pages that Dawn had marked with her glaring green highlighter. Giles cringed at seeing all those marks stricken across the weathered pages.

“Where did you get this?” he asked.

“It’s mine. I have books, Giles. The notations in the margins are mine, too,” Dawn said.

“Dawn, what...?” Xander began, but Giles interrupted him.

“This is the, um, Habbalissa Codex. It contains demonology from ancient Greece, including stories about demon clan wars and various demonic lineages. It’s also a kind of rulebook. It lays down guidelines for priests who interacted with ancient demigods,” Giles told them.

“Like the Pleiades,” Dawn said.

“The constellation?” Xander said.

“No,” Willow answered. Her eyes widened. “The Sisters are the Pleiades?”

Andrew came to stand beside Dawn. “The selfsame Sisters who attacked Buffy and Spike,” he said. He cocked his eyebrow in Spockian fashion.

Giles tapped the page. “But if they are who you say they are, why would they attack Spike unless he was an instrument of evil?”

“Because of this,” Andrew said. He tossed his notebook onto the altar in the same way that Dawn had tossed the book. His aim was off, though, and it bounced from the altar and on to Xander’s lap. Giles took it, impatiently, and slipped his glasses back on.

He read Andrew’s phonetic spelling of the words the Sisters had spoken. Then, he translated. “To embrace the light, you must pass the trial,” he said.

“What light?” Xander said. “Starlight? I am adrift in a sea of dead languages.”

Giles turned the pages of the notebook back to its cover. “This is Willow’s...” he said.

“Hey...” Willow said. “That has my spell notes in it.”

Giles settled back on his heels. “Where did you get this?”

Andrew lowered his eyes. He tugged on the hem of his shirt.

But Dawn said, “I took it. I found it in your satchel, the other day when you brought in the scrolls from...” she leveled her eyes on his... “From wherever you got them.”

Giles understood then that Andrew and Dawn knew a little more than they were sharing with the group. They would have questions, and, luckily, he had some answers. He pursed his lips.

“Well done,” he said. “Both of you. This...” he gestured to the notebook and the Codex... “It may prove helpful.”

“Meantime,” Willow said, getting to her feet. “We should get this place cleaned up. And I’ll be taking my notebook, thank you very much.”

Xander scrubbed his brow then adjusted his eye patch. He picked up the vessel, sniffed it, and sneered.

“So Spike isn’t a thing of evil?” Xander said.

“We still can’t be sure,” Giles said. “We have no clue as to why he is here, or what the Sisters want. If they are the ones who made him.”

“And so we may still have an ‘in’?” Xander asked. “’Cause I just hate having an ‘in.’”

“Helloooo, merry campers,” Lorne called down from the basement door. “Are the spellifications over? Is it safe to descend?”

“Come on down, Big Green,” Xander said. “Join us in the Pit of Despair.”

“Hey, I have an idea,” Willow said. Her eyes glittered. “Maybe we should have him sing.”

Xander brought his hands together. “Great. A demon karaoke party is just the thing to round out my night.”

“No, not Lorne,” Dawn said.

Lorne left the staircase and joined them. “No, not Lorne what?” he said, smiling solicitously.

“Dethwok demons are empaths,” Andrew explained. “You know, like Deanna Troi?”

Xander nodded. “And?”

“Lorne can tell people’s destinies when they sing for him,” Willow said.

Lorne held out his hands. “Except I’m out of that gig, guinea pig. Madame Esmerelda’s packed up her crystal ball and set sail for less depressing vistas, if you catch me.”

Giles took the vessel from Xander. He said, “It would help us if we knew his intentions weren’t self-serving.”

Lorne steepled his fingers. “I take it Buffster didn’t go in for the spell?”

“Yeah, about that,” Xander said. “Did we not make it plain that if Spike was Spike, the spell would have no effect?”

Willow moved to a utility cupboard beneath the stairs. She took out a broom and dustpan. Over her shoulder, she said, “But Xander, if it wasn’t, she would be destroying all here was left of him.”

Xander looked for help from the others, but got none. Andrew went to the utility closet to help Willow. Giles replaced the vessel on the altar. Dawn folded her long arms, but avoided looking back at him.

So Xander stood up. “So I’m the only one not convinced?”

“No, not the only...” Giles said.

Lorne picked up the vessel for himself. He turned it over in his hands, looking for an inscription or name brand on its base. He said, “You’re concerned about Buffy’s judgement. You think she’s behaving irrationally because she hasn’t examined her feelings and you’re afraid she might not be seeing something that will put all you cats in the big D kind of danger.”

“She’s never seen things clearly when it comes to Spike,” Xander said. “And he’s bad for her in ways we all know about. Yet she keeps letting him in.”

Andrew, who was helping Willow with sweep detail, dropped his dustpan. “You loved Anya,” he said.

“You leave her out of this,” Xander snapped.

Dawn said, “You did love her, Xander. And she was once evil. And when Buffy almost had to...”

Xander threw his hands up. “I give up. And maybe we should all drop this before I put this candle into my own eye socket.”

Willow took the candle from Xander. “It’ll be okay, sweetie. Really,” she said.

Lorne smoothed the lapels of his peacock blue blazer. “Hey, Cats. I have this bang-up plan for putting things back into OK-Land.”

“Shoot,” Xander said.

“Let’s all go to the pub and get a round in English-style,” Lorne said. “And you all can table the construct conversation until another time.”

“I’m down with that,” Andrew said. He wiped his hands on his jeans.

“I hear the man,” Xander said. “I’m for minding a few p’s and q’s.”

Dawn glanced and Giles. “Great,” she said. “A plan that can’t include me. Guess I’ll just stay here and listen to Giles recite the entire Watcher’s Codex from memory.”

Willow looped her arm around Xander’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Dawnie. It’s never as fun as we say it is. Oh! I’ll be designated driver. I can’t hold my liquor and Lorne’s glamour spell at the same time.”

She and Xander made their way toward the stairs. Andrew fell in a pace behind them.

Andrew said, “Shepherd’s is around the block. No car required.”

“Silly me, with my inefficient American notion of driving everywhere,” Willow said. “Guess then I’ll be the designated walker.”

Lorne got in line behind them.

As they all went upstairs, chatting in fashion much less tense, Dawn turned her eyes to the Watcher. Giles stood up, stretching the stiffness from his legs.

“So,” Dawn said. “You want to explain the pick ax and the hidden something you found in Amesbury?”

Giles stammered. He said, “How on earth...?”

“That’s what we were thinking,” Dawn said. “We found the crate of books.”

“You broke into my office?”

Dawn looked up at him. Her large blue eyes held a kind of sternness in them that must be the trademark of all Summers women.

But before Giles could say anything, Willow came to the basement doorway.

“He’s home,” she called down. “Spike came home.”

“Oh, this can’t be good,” William said when he stepped over the threshold to find Xander, Willow, Lorne and Andrew standing there, as if they awaited his appearance. Rupert and Dawn came into the hall from the basement. With the exception of Lorne, who always looked super stellar, they looked worn with concern and terribly bedraggled. Not that William looked any better, with his shirt sliced to ribbons and muddy patches that marred his clothes.

They formed a loose circle, the six of them, as if they intended to bar his entry. He looked at each one carefully, then decided it best to just play along.

William closed the door behind him “What’s with the welcoming committee? Where’s Buffy?”

“She went out to find you,” Dawn said.

“Fine then,” William said. He turned to leave again.

“Wait!” Willow said.

William turned. He crossed his arms.

“We were hoping you could do us this tiniest little favor,” she said.

Lorne sighed dramatically. He shot a teeth-grinding grimace at Willow.

“You want me to sing.” William chuckled. He shook his head slowly.

“Just a bar,” Lorne said. “A note or two for those who love you?”

“Love may be too strong a word for what I feel,” Xander muttered.

Willow said, “Xander, it’s pretty plain how you...”

“Guys,” Dawn said.

“All we’re saying is give the man a chance,” Andrew said.

And then William started to sing. Everyone fell quiet.

He sang:

“I heard there was a secret chord,
Which David played and it pleased the Lord,
But you never cared for music, do you?
Well, it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor chord and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah...”

It can be said that it takes a great deal to stun the Scooby gang into downright silence. This was one thing that did the trick. Xander’s mouth dropped open like a freshly caught trout. Willow wore the same expression she made when watching the last scenes of 'Gone With The Wind'.

And for a moment, Lorne was utterly devastated. He felt as though he had just glanced at the last page of a horror novel. He wished, as he often did, that Spike’s song had remained unsung.

William stood there, shoulders slightly slack, like a man who is about to be judged.

Finally, Lorne managed words. “I figured you for a Ramones man,” he said, breathlessly.

“Hmn. Jeff Buckley,” Dawn said.

“I was gonna say Rufus,” Andrew said.

“Oh bloody hell,” William said. “It’s Leonard Cohen, you nit.”

Xander gave a gurgle of bitter laughter. “The softer side of Spike,” he said.

“Right, Harris. Salt. Wound. Rub it in,” William said. “I sang your tune. Are we done?”

Lorne swallowed. He turned to Giles. “You’ve got no cause for concern with this one,” he said. “Therein beats the heart of a true poet.”

“Good,” Giles said. “That’s, er, good. Thank you.”

An uneasy silence ensued. After which, Xander said, “Hey, we started something with Shepherd’s and I for one think we should finish it.”

Without waiting for input from the others, Xander plunged past William to the door and out to street level. Willow went after him. She squeezed William’s arm as she went by. Andrew fidgeted and shuffled before deciding to join them. Dawn and Giles went quietly into the dining area, leaving Lorne and William alone in the entry hall.

Lorne made a sour face. “Geh. They’re all so...”

“Human,” William said.

“I was going for clueless,” Lorne said. He looked down at William, who looked just about worn thin to transparent for all he had been through in one night. And Lorne knew that it would be a long funky trip before the fat lady gave her final note.

“So,” William said.

“Big storms on the horizon,” Lorne told him.

“Yeah,” he said. “They’ll weather. They always do.”

Lorne shrugged. “I think I’m due for scotch with rocks,” he said. “You in?”

William shook his head. “No. Go on. Enjoy drinks with the Scoobies. I’ll be in the garden.”

Chapter 34: Here’s where the story ends

It’s that little souvenir of a colourful year
Which makes me smile inside
So I cynically, cynically say, the world is that way
Surprise, surprise, surprise, surprise, surprise
Here’s where the story ends
Ooh here’s where the story ends

Here’s Where the Story Ends, the Sundays

“Hey, Bonehead,” Buffy said. She found William alone in the garden when she returned from her vision quest with Ea.

“Hey,” he said, feigning offense. He lacked the energy to supply any real venom to the response.

“Did you find your special purpose?” she asked.

“Part of it, yeah,” he said. He held up an odd triangular dagger that rested in the palm of his left hand. The shape of it reminded her of a thorn on a rosebush. Its double-edged blade gleamed as he turned it.

“Shiny weapons usually indicate bigger fights a-coming,” she said.

William looked away from her. The pallid moonlight washed him with blue-white luminescence that made him seem like an apparition in the darkened courtyard. The slashes in his shirt and deep hollows beneath his eyes only heightened the ghostly-ness. But something else that troubled her, something in the way he struggled that set off flashing red lights of concern.

Buffy cut across the yard to stand with him. “Hey,” she said. “Look at me.”

He did. He stared down at her face, not at her eyes but near enough. She reached for him, but he recoiled.

“You should rally the troops,” he said. “Get Rupert on the horn to his Watcher wannabes. The world will witness...”

Buffy was nodding. “I know. I saw her too. Ea of the Old Women, or whatever. You were right.”

“I am right,” he said. He nodded, firmly. “And I will be in this fight with you. All the way. To the end, as ever. Even if I don’t stay here.”

He lingered for half a heartbeat, watching her eyes, before striding past her toward the house.

Buffy reeled. A pulse of adrenaline surged through her. It was the first time that had happened since they came to London. Blood rushed in her ears and boiled behind her eyes. She whirled around.

“You can’t go,” she said, much louder than she intended.

William halted on the step, but did not look back. He said, “Why not?”

Buffy faltered. “Where would you go?” she asked in a small voice.

Now William did turn. “I walked this earth one hundred and thirty years before I met you, I don’t think finding my way’s an issue, luv.” The muscles in his jaw clamped down in an expression of scorn and pain.

“But,” Buffy sputtered. Her breath caught in her throat. “You... can’t go,” she said.

William closed his eyes. “But I can, Buffy. Don’t you see?”

He was moving again, bound for the door. He was leaving, and all the words she knew she had known had fled the country, possibly for Spain. She had nothing. Nada. And he was leaving.

“You came back,” she said, overloud again and nearly fumbling the words.

He turned again. “And?”

“So you have to stay back,” Buffy said. She blinked. Her brow crimped like the edges of a piecrust. “Wait. I mean, don’t stay back. But do...” Buffy pressed her fingers to her temples. She drew a trembling breath. “Don’t go,” she said.

William walked a few steps in Buffy’s direction. He looked non-amused.

“If you’re hanging on to me out of some twisted sense of obligation, don’t bother,” he growled. “I’ll walk right out that door.”

“It’s not that,” she protested. She set her chin, but could not continue.

The lines in William’s face softened. He said, “Why can’t you say it?”

“I did say it.”

“Yeah. Once. When I was dying,” he said.

Buffy huffed. She folded her arms. William looked skyward, at the quarter moon that skated under layers of buttermilk clouds. Part of his head encouraged his legs to keep up with the forward momentum of moving out. The rest of him remained focused on the faint creases around her eyes...

Buffy lifted her eyes as though she sensed him watching her.

“You don’t get it yet, do you?” she said, quietly.

“We have always been honest, pet. Blood-to-bone honest with each other, if not with ourselves. I know you don’t love me,” he said.

“You’re wrong.”

He ignored her. “I know that given the chance, you’d have wished for Angel. And he’d be standing here, instead of me.”

“No,” Buffy said firmly. “You died, William. Get it?”

“Get what?” he asked, his voice rising.

Buffy crossed the distance between them. “In your last big fiery showdown, you and Angel versus untold legions, you died. You were killed halfway around the world, and I felt it. Part of me... felt it.”

William kissed her then - a rough, unexpected kiss on the mouth. Unexpected for him as well, when he had intended to kiss her temple and walk away.

In that moment, William felt the tumblers of all the locks roll back. The pieces they had fought so hard to understand finally fit into place...

He parted their kiss and found her eyes.

“See?” she said. She shoved his shoulder in an I-told-you-so kind of way.

“It didn’t make sense, of course,” he said.

“No. Couldn’t...”

“Not until I got my soul back,” William mused. “Which means...”

“We’re idiots...?”

“Complete,” he said. He laughed, lightly.

“So,” Buffy said. “Stay.”

Without hesitation, William folded her into his arms. He rested his chin on top of her head.

Buffy felt almost wild with exhaustion and exhilaration. They survived another day. All of them. And that was the overall goal, was it not? Short checklist, all things considered. Save the world. Don’t get killed. Gold stars all around. At least for tonight.

So what if bigger bads were London-bound? They had seen worse and made it through. What couldn’t they face, the lot of them, if they were together?

Buffy and William sat side by side on the flagstone step, watching the wind ruffle the grass and trace distorted shapes in the ashen clouds. Buffy found William’s hand. She laced her fingers with his. She felt the pulse thrumming beneath his skin, and it thrilled her.

She whispered, “Whatever happens. Whatever is coming. We survive. We make it through, okay? We get to see the end.”

William squeezed her hand, then lay his head against hers.

“All right,” he said. “To the end.”

They should have known, but they did not. They should have guessed. But new lovers see so little of the world beyond their bright circle.

They did not see the shadowed figure looking down at them from the hall window. They could not known that Angel watched, expressionless, motionless, and in stunned disbelief. Outside, looking in.

Something inside him twisted and writhed. The mark on his chest, the symbol of the Black Thorn Circle, blistered like a brand. Angel bit back the urge to scream. He could not stay here. He could not stand by and watch... them.

And so by morning, Angel had gone.

The End

Read Part Two of this story...Regrets.

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