[identity profile] eee1313.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] dancing_lessons_archive
Part one of three

Episode One: Foundation

by cousinjean
One Year of Love by Queen
Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns 'N' Roses

Here we go again, one more time. This is the final leg of the Dancing Lessons trilogy. It takes place about 6 months after the end of War!. If you're just joining us, I suggest you go read the Previouslies and then carry on from there. Big love and thanks to all the usual suspects.


*

Something watched her.
She could feel its eyes on her. Staring. Waiting. A high pitched cry escaped its throat as it made its hunger known. Buffy looked up and stared defiantly into its unblinking yellow eyes. She wrested an arm free to feel around for something -- anything -- to use as a weapon. Her hand clutched her prize, and she threw it with more force than necessary. With a hiss, the beast leapt off the night stand, and Mr. Gordo hit the lamp, taking it with him to the floor.
"Stupid cat," Buffy grumped.
As if in response, the arm around her middle tightened. Spike mumbled something unintelligible into her hair. Buffy rolled onto her stomach and turned her head to face him. She liked to watch him sleep.
"So, when Spike's asleep," Dawn had asked her once, "is he, like, a dead body?"
"Ew! No." Then she considered. "Well, technically ..."
"'Cause he sure looks that way whenever he falls asleep on the couch. All unmoving and unbreathing ... it's kinda creepy if you think about it."
"He moves!" Buffy said. "And he breathes, just not regularly. And sometimes he snores, and he talks in his sleep, and this is already way more than you'll ever need to know about sleeping with a vampire, missy."
"Ew, Buffy! I didn't say anything about sleeping with one."
"And it had better stay that way."
"Like I could if I wanted to, anyway, seeing as how Spike's the lone vamp in these parts nowadays."
Buffy chuckled at the memory. Spike mumbled again, and followed up with a snort. Buffy smiled, and reached out to stroke the scar on her lone vamp's eyebrow. He wasn't supposed to scar. Nor was he supposed to breathe. Or eat regular food. Or lead armies against his own kind. And he most definitely wasn't supposed to love her. If there was one thing her lover excelled at, it was doing what he wasn't supposed to.
"Such a rebel," Buffy said.
"And I'll never ever be any good." Spike opened one lazy, blue eye and smiled at her. "Mornin', Love."
"Morning." She leaned in to kiss him, but was brought up short when something pounced on her back. "Ow!"
Spike reached out and snagged the animal by the scruff of the neck, and lifted it in the air. "Listen, you," he said, looking it right in the eye, "interrupt my morning snog again and I'll find myself having freshly squeezed kitten juice with my breakfast." The cat laid its ears back and let out a low growl. Spike responded in kind.
"All right," Buffy said, getting up. "C'mere, Miss Kitty." She took the cat from Spike and unceremoniously dumped her into the hallway, then shut the door securely behind her.
"I hate that little bugger," Spike said.
Buffy looked at him. "The feeling appears to be mutual."
"Yeah, well, it ought to show some respect. It's lucky I don't consider it a snack food."
Buffy crawled back into bed. "Dawn'll be home from Dad's this weekend, then she'll keep up with her again. Besides, Willow will be home in a few weeks. Then Miss Kitty can go home, and you'll never have to remind her again whose fangs are bigger. Now where were we?" She leaned over him.
"Right about here," he said, taking her face in his hands and guiding her mouth to his. As if she needed any help finding it. As if she hadn't memorized every square inch of his body.
"Yummy," she said as she pulled away and started to get up.
"Not yummy enough, apparently," Spike said. "Where d'you think you're going?"
"To get dressed."
"I kiss you like that and you start putting clothes on?" He shook his head. "I really need to work on my technique."
Buffy picked up the lamp and threw Mr. Gordo at Spike. He caught the stuffed pig right before it hit him in the face. "We have stuff to do today," she said. "You promised Faith you'd mind the shop while she takes Giles for his checkup. Lydia needs me to drive her by Xander's, so I'll have to drop you off on the way."
Spike contemplated Mr. Gordo for a moment, then put him back in place among the lacey throw pillows piled in Buffy's corner of the bed. He looked around the room as if struck by a realization, then muttered, "Bloody hell, this is a girly room, innit?"
"What?"
"Nothing." He looked back at Buffy. "I could drive myself if your kid sis didn't hook my fender on a ruddy parking meter."
"I like how she's your precious Little Bit until she messes up your things. Then suddenly she's all mine." Buffy went over to her chest-of-drawers and pulled open her underwear drawer. "Besides, you were the one who offered up your car for driving lessons."
"Yeh, but with me in it. And you bloody well can't parallel park, I don't know what possessed you to try and show her how to do it."
Buffy stuck her tongue out at him.
"Anyway, I still wish you'd brought it home and let me have a look at it. Prob'ly coulda fixed it myself. Been fixing it myself for forty years."
"And it shows." Buffy moved over to the closet and started rummaging.
Spike sighed, and reached for his jeans. "So, why's Lydia so hot to go by her place before the shop?"
"She wants to open up some windows," she said, pulling out a skirt and a top and holding them up for consideration. "Get rid of the bug bomb smell before she goes home tonight."
"Lady Watcher's been here, what, six months now? You'd think she'd've mastered driving on the right by now."
"Maybe when your car's out of the shop she can use it to practice. With you in it, of course." Buffy smirked at Spike, and he smirked back at her. Then she thought of something. "No, wait -- bad idea. She'd probably just fake not being able to pick it up so you'd have to keep giving her lessons." She put the top back and pulled out another.
"Why would she do that?"
"Oh, come on," Buffy said. "It's so obvious she's got a crush on you."
"What?! She does not."
"Oh, Mr. Bloody," Buffy said in a horrid approximation of a British accent, fluttering her eyelashes as she spoke, "perhaps you and I could work together -- preferably at night, over dinner, when that pesky Slayer is out on patrol -- to fill in the blanks in my thesis? For the good of the Council, of course." Spike chucked a pillow at her, and she giggled. "Seriously, she goes all Annie Wilkes whenever you're around, and she's always going on about how you're nothing like her thesis. I'm surprised she hasn't asked you to autograph the thing."
"Um, actually ..."
Buffy rolled her eyes. "If I were a less secure woman, I'd feel threatened. But I'm sure it's a harmless crush. I mean, how stupid do you have to be to try and steal the Slayer's boyfriend?"
"No worries, Pet," he said, swinging his legs off the bed and pulling on his jeans. "'Sides, you had to know getting involved with someone this sexy'd bring you some competition now and then." He waggled his eyebrows at her.
"Right," Buffy said, turning back to the closet. "You're an irresistibly sexy bag of sex."
Spike went to stand behind her, and wrapped his arms around her. "You sure seemed to think so last night," he said, nuzzling her ear. "And I'm sure Lydia got the message loud and clear."
Buffy spun around. "Oh, God. You don't think she heard --"
"I think the entire block heard." He shrugged. "Wouldn't be the first time, for either of us."
Buffy felt herself blush. "Now I know why Mrs. Muckelrath starts giggling every time she sees me."
"At least we give 'em all something to talk about," Spike said. He put his hands on her shoulders and slid them slowly down her arms. "Speaking of stuff to do, I've been meaning to ask you what you want to do for our anniversary."
"Our anniversary?"
"Yeh," Spike said, his dark brows drawing together in uncertainty. "In three days? It'll be a year since ..."
Buffy's eyes widened in anticipation as she waited for him to finish the sentence. When he didn't, she filled in the blank. "Since the first time we made sweet, sweet love?"
He rolled the phrase around in his mind a bit. "Well," he said, "I was gonna say 'since we started shagging like rabid weasels,' but if that's what you wanna call it..."
Buffy shoved him away, but he held on to her hand and pulled himself back to her -- a graceful move, almost as if they were dancing. He laughed, honest, joyful and infectious. Buffy's playful pout gave way to a giggle. Spike stopped laughing and just grinned at her, sweet and goofy, exposing his dimples. Buffy thought she might melt through the floor.
"'Course," he said, pulling her against him and wrapping an arm around her waist, leading her into a gentle sway and turning their almost-dance into the real thing, "it was also the first time you told me you love me." His grin dissolved into his serious, adoring face, which itself had considerable melt-inducing properties. "A landmark moment if ever there was one."
"I remember," Buffy said. "I'm just a little surprised that you did. I mean, it's not like we're married, or had a big first date to go by or anything. I thought maybe I was just being a big dumb girl about the whole thing." She leaned her head against his shoulder and heaved a contented sigh. "I should have known that my schmoopy-bear boyfriend would be just as sentimental about that night as I am."
Spike grazed his lips along her cheek, trailing kisses to her ear. "I thought I told you not to call me that," he purred.
Buffy tilted her head back to give him better access to her neck. "What? Boyfriend?"
"You know what," he said.
Buffy grinned, and pushed him off her. "Save something for our anniversary, Schmoopy Bear. We've got work to do today." Before Spike could protest further, she headed out of the room and towards the shower.
***
"It's not that bad," Faith said, holding the alley door open for Giles. "I mean, so what if you can't spar yet? It's not like B and I don't have each other to knock around."
"Yes, thank you, Faith." Giles paused to look around the training room. The late afternoon sun had begun to creep across the far wall. He leaned on his cane as he pondered the dust motes trapped in its beams. Finally, he sighed. "I do realize that particular aspect of my Watcher duties hasn't been required for some time now."
Faith moved past him and into the shop. "So what's the problem?"
"The problem is that they won't let me fight," he said, following behind her.
Spike leaned his elbows on the counter and regarded them both. "Still benched, eh?"
Giles nodded and went to join him behind the counter. "Same diagnosis as always." He propped his cane against a cabinet and pulled out a handkerchief. He went to work cleaning his glasses a bit too vigorously as he spoke. "One more blow to the head could turn me into a bloody turnip, if it doesn't kill me." He held up his glasses and frowned at them before putting them back on.
"But on the bright side," Faith said, "you're almost ready to lose the cane."
Giles cast a contemptuous glance at the wooden stick. "Yes, that is a plus." He looked at Spike, ready to change the subject. "Slow afternoon, I take it?"
"Yeh," Spike said, standing up. "Sold a couple candles, and one o' Will's little Wicca friends came in and bought a spell book. Oh, and Guido dropped off some frou-frou pastry concoction that he and Alan cooked up. Seemed awfully disappointed you weren't here." Spike looked askance at Giles. "Something you want to tell us about, Rupert?"
Giles blushed. Faith grinned. "Hey, Guido's got good taste." She leaned across the counter to tap her fist against his shoulder. "See there, G-man? Maybe you're meant to be a lover, not a fighter."
"Very funny, Faith. And, stop calling me that. Xander will be back soon enough, there's really no need for you to torment me in his absence."
Faith giggled. "Just trying to keep him here in spirit." She looked thoughtful as she hopped up on the counter. "Man, the last six months sure flew by a lot faster than I thought they would. Is it just me, or does it seem like the older you get, the faster time goes?"
"It's not just you," Giles said.
"Weird. What about you, Spike?" Faith asked. "You're like, what, 150? Time must really fly for you."
"Y'know," he said, "I really never used to give much thought to time. I mean, you had sunup, sunset, time for telly and the like. But in a philosophical sense?" He shook his head, then a slight smile tugged at his mouth; but his eyes looked far away, and a little sad. "Funny what hanging 'round you mortals'll do. Lately it's always on my mind. And I agree." He looked at Faith. "It goes too bloody fast."
"I suppose," Giles said quietly, "being made aware of how little of it you or your loved ones have left would certainly contribute to the illusion."
"Yeh, I s'pose so," Spike said, then swallowed. "I, um ..." He pointed over his shoulder towards the training room. "I'll be in the back if you need me."
Faith and Giles watched him slink away. "Good job," Faith muttered. "Why bother slaying vampires when I can just depress the hell out of 'em?"
"I wouldn't worry," Giles said. "With their anniversary coming up, I'm sure he's been giving more thought than usual to the issue of time. It's bound to be a touchy subject."
"Yeah," Faith said, "and I shoulda thought of that before I crammed my foot in my mouth." She looked at Giles, her eyes wide with alarm. "You don't think he's gonna go out back to smoke, do you?"
"No," Giles said, "It's still too early in the day. If he went out there now smoking is the least of what he'd do."
Faith's worry gave way to a grin. "Way to bring the funny, G."
"Yes, well. I do try."
"I should probably go move it though, you think? Just in case?"
Giles nodded. "That might not be a bad idea. Buffy will be terribly disappointed if he sees it before Saturday." He handed her the keys. "Best walk around the shop so you don't arouse his suspicion."
"Like Spike'd give a damn that I'd be going out the back," Faith said, but headed for the front entrance just the same. The bell over the door jingled before she got there.
"Ah, Faith!" said Lydia as she entered. "Just who I wanted to see. Afternoon, Rupert," she called over to the counter. Giles smiled and nodded politely, then turned and busied himself straightening the shelves.
"Yeah," Faith said. "Can it wait a minute? I just need to --"
"I'm sure whatever it is can wait until you've given me your report," Lydia said.
Buffy came in behind her, shuffling through a handful of mail. "Hey," she said distractedly to the room, then she stopped and looked around. "Where's Spike?"
"He's in back," Faith told her.
Buffy nodded, then stage whispered to Giles, "Did you pick it up?"
"It's in the alley," Giles said. "Faith was just going to move it to someplace he'll be less likely to visit after sundown."
"Yeah," Faith said, "so just let me go do that, and I'll be right back."
"The sun won't be low enough for at least another hour," Lydia said, heading over to the research table. "Your report, please?"
Faith shrugged. "Nothing to report. Slow night. No demon action. Just like the night before that, and the night before that, and --"
"What about vampires?"
Faith sighed. "I keep telling you, there are no vampires, besides Spike. We ran 'em all out of Dodge -- well, no, what we did was totally dust their undead asses. Word's out. Any vamp that comes to this town's got to be either a total bad-ass or a colossal moron."
"And no," Buffy added, "Dracula and Harmony haven't been back to town."
"Hmm." Lydia took off her glasses. "You're quite certain you patrolled thoroughly? You didn't just cut through one cemetery on your way to meet your young man at the Bronze?"
Faith rolled her eyes. "He was gonna patrol with me that night, y'know. We just got a little sidetracked." She shot Buffy a "Help me!" look.
Buffy suppressed a smile as she moved over to the counter. "So, Giles," she said, setting her bag down. "How'd the check up go?"
"It went, uh ..." He glanced at Lydia. "It went."
Buffy frowned. "Not good, huh?"
"No," Giles said. "I mean, no, nothing like that. Just, nothing new."
Lydia popped open her briefcase. "You're still unable to participate in a physical capacity, Rupert?"
"Depends on what precisely you mean by 'physical,'" he muttered.
All heads turned to look at him; except for Buffy, who emitted a tiny, "Ew."
Giles sighed. "Oh, for ... I've been instructed not to fight. But I can damn well do anything else I'm needed for."
"Right," Buffy said, nodding. "Just as long as it all happens below the neck and ..." She paused and replayed her words. "Now I'm grossing myself out."
"Yes, well." Lydia nodded and pulled out her journal, looking only slightly more embarrassed than Giles, who'd busied himself polishing a case of crystals. "Quite." She opened it up, but then paused with pen in mid-air and looked up as the beaded curtain tinkled. Her face lit up with a smile. "William! Hello!"
Spike stopped and returned her smile. "Lydia. You do something new with your hair?"
Her hand flew up to her tight, blonde bun. "Um, no ..."
"Huh. Well, you look ravishing. As always." He winked at her, then continued into the shop.
Lydia's eyes followed him, until they landed on Buffy and her raised eyebrows. With a start, she turned back to her journal. "Faith, could you come here, please?" Faith rolled her eyes, but joined Lydia at the table.
Buffy leaned against the counter, arms crossed, shaking her head as Spike approached. "Flirt," she accused.
"What? I was just being friendly."
"Uh-huh. Bring some of that 'friendly' over here, Mister."
He put his hands on the counter, one on each side of her, and leaned in. "Oh, I've got a lot more'n that for you, baby." Buffy smiled as he planted a soft kiss on her lips. He pulled back and looked at her, then cocked his head to look over her shoulder at the pile of mail. "What's all that?"
"Oh," Buffy said, turning around to gather it up. "I had to go by to pick up a certified letter. I grabbed the mail out of your box while I was there. It looks like mostly junk. Y'know, you've been living at the house for quite a while now, I think it's safe to use that address."
"I do," he said, taking his mail from her. "Just haven't gotten around to cancelling the PO box yet. What's your letter say?"
"I haven't read it yet."
He quirked an eyebrow at her. "So, what's the hold up? Certified letter, might be kind of important."
She nodded. "Kind of afraid to read it." She shrugged. "Probably something to do with mom's estate."
"Want me to read it?"
Buffy sighed. "No. Fine. I'll read it." She picked up her bag and started rifling through it for the letter.
Faith stood up from the research table. "If we're done," she said to Lydia, "I'm gonna go ... take care of that thing now."
"Yes, I suppose we're finished," Lydia said. "Except ..."
"Except what?"
Lydia chewed thoughtfully on the earpiece of her glasses, then put them back on. "I've been wondering if I should suggest a transfer."
The entire room looked at her.
"A transfer for whom?" Giles asked.
"Well ... for Faith. You and Buffy both obviously have lives here --"
"And I don't?" Faith asked.
"Of course not, Faith. I didn't mean ... I just meant, you see, that the level of supernatural activity in Sunnydale hardly warrants the presence of two Slayers."
"And with both Slayers here," Giles said, "we can keep it that way. We are still on the hellmouth, after all."
"I understand that, Rupert. But there are other hot spots in the world that could use the Slayer's assistance."
"Lydia," Giles said, "haven't you ever heard the phrase, 'the calm before the storm'?"
"Of course I have," Lydia said. "But six months of nothing but calm seems to me to signal nothing but more calm."
"Spoken like a rookie," Giles muttered.
Something flashed in Lydia's eyes. "I believe you would be quite surprised, Rupert Giles, to learn the true extent of my experience."
Giles opened his mouth to retort, but something about her posture -- proud, and a little defiant, as though she dared him to say another word -- stopped him. Her demeanor struck him as all too familiar, though he couldn't put his finger on exactly why.
"Whatever," Faith said, breaking the silence. "I'm not going anywhere. And you don't get to make these decisions for me, lady. Substitute Watcher, remember? How's about we wait until my real Watcher gets home from charm school and hear what he has to say about it?"
Lydia tapped her pen on her paper, then laid it down. She managed a small, tight smile. "Yes, of course, Faith. Nothing will be decided without Mr. Harris's input. But I really think --"
"Oh, God."
All eyes turned away from Lydia to look at Buffy, whose expression grew increasingly angry as she read her letter. "This isn't ... he can't ..."
"What is it, Pet?" Spike asked.
Buffy shook her head, clearly speechless, and held the letter out to him. He took it from her and scanned it, the look on his face going from concerned to pissed off to resolute. He handed the letter to Giles, and put a hand on Buffy's shoulder. "If we leave now, we can be in L.A. by nightfall," he said.
Buffy nodded, though he couldn't really be sure she'd heard him.
"What's wrong?" Faith asked.
"It's her father," Giles said. He handed the letter back to Spike. "He's attempting to get custody of Dawn."
"He can't," Buffy said, her voice hoarse. "He can't just take her. Everything's set. We were in the clear."
Spike wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. "It's all right, Love," he said. "We'll take care of this. You can go talk to him, get it all straightened out tonight. You okay to drive? I don't mind riding all the way in the box for this."
Buffy looked up at him, and his words sunk in. "No," Buffy said. "You can drive."
"But if I drive we can't leave til sundown."
Buffy looked at Giles. "It's in the alley?"
Giles nodded.
"Here," Faith said, pulling the keys out of her pocket. "Guess I don't need to move it now."
Spike looked befuddled as she handed him his keys. He glanced back at Buffy. "What's this, then?"
"Go look in the alley," Buffy said.
He did just that. The others followed him. The sun was low enough to leave the doorway in shadow, so he stepped outside. The DeSoto was parked a few yards away, looking newly minted. The windows looked clean, though he couldn't see in them. "What ...?"
"I had it detailed," Buffy said. "And I had the windows tinted. You can see out, but you can't see in, and it keeps out the UV. It's not exactly legal to put that stuff on the windshield, but I told the guys down at the shop that it was part of your whole secret agent disguise, and they didn't give me any grief about it."
Spike tore his eyes away from the car and looked at her, the corners of his mouth quirking upward. "I take it there was no parking accident?"
Buffy shrugged. "Needed a convincing cover story. You like?"
Spike nodded. "I love."
"Happy anniversary," Buffy said.
Spike slipped his arm around her waist and planted a kiss on her temple. "No worries, Love," he murmured in her ear. "It will be."
***
They'd packed in record time, no easy feat considering they didn't know how long they'd be gone. Faith would stay at the house while they were away, and see to the cat and the mail and keep the place from looking empty. Spike supposed she and Anderson would welcome the privacy.
He sped down the Interstate, fast enough to break the limits but not to draw any undue attention, and took in the scenery. He enjoyed not having to squint to see through cracks in the paint or having to dodge the occasional sunbeam. Buffy'd also had some engine work done -- the car ran like a dream. "Blitzkrieg Bop" ran through his head, and Spike drummed his thumbs to the beat on the steering wheel. He started to hum, but when he glanced over at Buffy and caught the forlorn look on her face, he thought better of it. He could enjoy his present later.
"You're awfully quiet," he said.
Buffy snapped out of her reverie and looked at him like it surprised her that he was there. Then she sighed. "Why is he doing this, Spike?"
"You got me," Spike said. "I don't pretend to understand any man who'd walk out on you."
That got a smile. Spike laid his arm across the back of the seat, and Buffy slid over to nestle against him. He always got a little thrill out of how perfectly their bodies fit together, like the Maker'd had him in mind when he'd designed her. Maybe that was the case; who the hell knew? Spike didn't know if he believed in God or fate or the Powers That Be, but he figured the fact that he was holding her right then was as good an argument as any that there was something out there guiding this stuff. He had no idea why they'd decided to be so kind to a bloodsucking demon, but in his heart of hearts, he was eternally grateful.
"He did walk out on us," Buffy said. "And the last few years he could hardly be bothered to remember that he was our father. Even when mom died, his work came first. I'm amazed he even found time to show up for her funeral." She snorted, and shook her head. "Now he thinks he can be a better parent to Dawn than I can?"
"We don't know what he's thinking," Spike said. He rested his hand on her shoulder, his thumb absently tracing a line back and forth along the smooth skin of her neck. "We'll talk to him and find out. We'll convince him he's wrong. Then we can take the nip home."
"Right," Buffy said. "Because it's always that simple."
"This time it will be. Dawn belongs with us, any ninny can see that. We've got the whole bleeding Sunnydale Department of Social Services to back us up on it."
"That might not matter," Buffy said. "Dad's got really good lawyers."
"So what?" Spike said. "We've got good connections. Better'n his, I'd wager. Plus we've got the added advantage of having actually been around for her since Joyce died. Prat doesn't have a leg to stand on."
"Hey!" Buffy looked at him. "This is my dad we're talking about."
"Doesn't make him any less a prat, Love."
Buffy sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder. "I hope you're right," she said. "About him having a weak case, I mean. Not that he's a prat."
"I am," Spike said, wishing he felt half as confident as he hoped he sounded. "Soon as we find a hotel, we'll go to his flat and clear this up. You'll see."
"Yeah," Buffy said, sounding unconvinced despite his best efforts. "We'll see."
***
Dawn flipped through the latest issue of Smithsonian, marvelling at how her dad's magazine collection managed to be even more boring than Giles's as she waited for Hank to get off the phone and come restart their movie. He'd actually let the machine pick it up this time, but it had turned out to be an Important Phone Call. They were all Important Phone Calls. With a sigh, she closed the magazine and tossed it on the coffee table, then picked up the remote. She switched off the DVD player and started flipping channels. "Friends" was on. That looked promising. For about two seconds, at least, until she realized she'd already seen it twice. And she was sick to death of Ross and Rachel, anyway.
She was about to surf the satellite when the doorbell rang. She froze and waited to see what her dad would do. He'd been insanely overprotective ever since she'd gotten there, and he didn't like her answering the door. She didn't know what he was so afraid of, but whatever it was, she supposed it didn't need an invitation to come inside. Of course, her "I'm almost sixteen, I can watch out for myself" argument would have carried a lot more weight if it could've been followed by, "Why, just last Christmas I faced down the vampire of all vampires and took him out with my freaky mutant Key power, and even if I didn't have a superpower, I live with two superheroes who've taught me a thing or two about self defense, thank you very much."
The doorbell rang again. Dawn counted to ten, and still no Hank action, so she got up to answer it.
"I'll get that, sweetie," Hank called from the kitchen. Dawn made a mental note to search the living room for tiny hidden cameras as she plopped back down on the couch. She could hear her dad trying to get off the phone, and considered answering the door anyway.
Their visitor gave up on the bell and began pounding on the door. "Dad? Dawn? Are you in there?"
At the sound of Buffy's voice, Dawn ran to the door and flung it open. Buffy stood with her fist in mid-air, surprise on her face. Spike hung back in the hallway, hands shoved in his coat pockets, looking all determined and scary. They did not look happy.
"Dawnie," Buffy said, shoving past her into the apartment. "Go get your things. We're taking you home."
Dawn's heart leapt into her throat. "What ... what is it? Did something happen?"
"No, nothing like that. I'll explain on the way."
"But --"
"Hey, sweetheart!" Hank called, finally coming out of the kitchen. He walked toward Buffy, smiling, his arms outstretched. "What are you doing here?"
Buffy deflected his hug and moved out of his reach. "Don't 'sweetheart' me," she said. "I'm here to take Dawn home."
"But I was going to bring her back on Sunday," Hank said.
"Were you really?" Buffy asked, and pulled a piece of paper out of her bag. "Or were you just going to send me another one of these?"
Hank took it from her.
"What is it?" Dawn asked as he read it. "What is going on?"
Hank sighed, and shook his head. "This isn't how it looks."
"It's not?" Buffy asked. "'Cause it looks like you're suing me for custody of Dawn. If that's not what this is, then what the hell is it?"
Dawn stared at her father. "You're what?"
"Oh, nice," Buffy said. "You haven't even talked to her about it."
"I was going to talk to you both on Sunday," Hank said. "I told them not to send this yet."
"Yet?" Buffy asked. "How about 'at all,' Dad?"
"Buffy, calm down. Let's sit down and discuss this like --" He stopped, and seemed to notice for the first time the black-clad figure hovering just outside the threshold, hanging on their every word. "This is Spike, I take it?"
Spike's eyebrows shot up. "Good call, mate. Mind if I come in?"
"Please do," Hank said. "And shut the door behind you. I'd rather the neighbors didn't hear all of this."
"No," Buffy said. "We'd hate for them to hear how loosely you define 'fatherhood.'"
Hank ignored her and extended his hand to Spike. "Hank Summers," he said. "Nice to finally meet you. I've heard a lot about you ... from one of my daughters, at any rate."
"Sorry," Buffy said. "Guess I forgot to mention him in any of the many phone calls you make to check up on us."
Spike looked down at Hank's hand, then looked back up at him, the beginnings of a sneer evident in the curl of his lip. "Heard a lot about you, too. From both your girls."
Hank shoved his hands in the pockets of his Dockers. He turned around to look at Buffy. "Dawn, why don't you show Spike here around the apartment while I talk to your sister?"
"Second thought," Spike said, "I saw an ice cream parlor a couple blocks down. Whyn't we go check it out, Bit?"
"Yeah," Dawn said, "whatever." She followed Spike into the hall.
"We won't be long," Spike told Buffy as he shut the door behind him. Dawn crossed her arms and dragged behind him as they made their way to the elevator. He glanced back at her. "Hey, chin up, Pet. If your worst problem is that people are fighting over you, I'd say you're not doing too badly."
Dawn shrugged. "I guess. But what if the wrong person wins? I don't want to move to L.A., Spike."
He pushed the elevator call button, then reached out to tuck her hair behind her ear. "Believe me, sweet pea. That's the last thing I want."
***
Hank stared at the front door, his expression unreadable. "What a nice young man."
Buffy shrugged. "Mom always liked him." She appreciated Spike for clearing Dawn out of there so she and her dad could have it out in private, but that feeling was giving way to irriation at having lost her backup. Without them there, she was neither the Slayer nor the righteously angry parent. She was just Hank Summers's daughter, pitching a fit while he remained reasonable and patient. He looked at her and raised an eyebrow, all parental-like, and made her feel like she was fifteen and demanding to know why he wouldn't let her go to the homecoming after-party with the seniors, instead of a grown woman wondering why he was tearing her family apart.
"So, what kind of name is Spike?" he asked.
"A nickname," she said. "His real name's William."
"Well, that's a relief, I guess. So," he said, turning off the television and sitting on the couch, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, "how did you meet this William?"
"At the Bronze."
"The Bronze? What is that, some sort of nightclub?"
Buffy nodded. "He asked me to dance. The rest is history."
Hank seemed to consider this, and she hoped he wouldn't ask her to elaborate. If he pressed for details she'd have to think up some convincing lies.
"So, what's he do?" he asked, apparently deciding to go along with her evasiveness for the time being. "Is he over here on a work visa?"
"He works for Giles," she said, crossing her arms in front of her.
"The school librarian?"
"Former librarian and prominent businessman," Buffy corrected. "And I didn't come here to play twenty questions about my boyfriend." That's it, Buff. Take control.
"All right, then," Hank said, "how about twenty questions about the strange guy who's living in your house and helping to raise my youngest?"
"Fine," Buffy said. "You want to know about Spike? Here's all you need to know: he's there for her. Not just for the big important stuff, but for the little, everyday stuff, too. He's there to cheer her up when she's had a bad day, to help her with her homework, to help take care of her when she's sick. He loves her. He would die for her, and he'll do whatever it takes to protect her. And just in case it matters to you, he pretty much feels the same way about me."
Hank sighed. "Buffy ..."
"Dad."
He patted the sofa cushion next to him. "Sit down, sweetheart."
Buffy glared at the spot next to him, then put her hands on her hips and lifted her chin defiantly. "I'm good standing."
"Buffy, please?"
Something in his tone got to her. With a sigh, she set her bag on an easy chair and took a seat at the far end of the couch. "I'm sitting," she said. "What now?"
"Now, I explain. If you'll let me."
Without looking at him, she waved her hand in a magnanimous gesture. "Go right ahead."
Hank fidgeted a bit in his seat, then he got up to pace. "I had this whole speech planned to give you on Sunday. Honey, I swear my lawyers weren't supposed to take any action before then."
Buffy crossed her arms again and settled back into the sofa. She focused on the diamond pattern of the upholstery, still refusing to look at him.
"I want you both to come live with me," he said.
Buffy's eyes flew up to meet his. "What?!"
"There's room," Hank said. "You'd each have your own room. And you could go back to school, finish out at UCLA."
"Dad --"
He held up placating hands. "You'd only be a couple of hours away from your boyfriend. He could come down on weekends, or you could drive up, see all your friends ..."
"Dad, not gonna happen."
Hank stopped pacing. "Why not?"
"Because I have a life in Sunnydale! Spike and I have a life together. And my friends there aren't just my friends, they're family."
"I had a feeling you'd feel that way," Hank muttered, and Buffy felt her heart sink a little. Easy to extend that kind of invitation when you're sure it'll be refused. For a minute, she'd actually believed he wanted her there. "But at least let Dawn come and live here," he said.
"Dawn has a life in Sunnydale too, Dad."
"She's young, she's just starting her life. And she can do that here. It'll be best for both of you. You won't have to parent her anymore, and you can go back to school."
Buffy shook her head. "I don't want to go back to school," she said. "At least, not now. I already have a career, and I'm making a good living."
He looked skeptical. "Doing what?"
Damn. "Research."
"What kind of research?"
"Um ... historical stuff, mostly. Giles got me hired on at the same organization he works for. It pays really well. The benefits are great. Though they don't really have much of a retirement program."
"Huh."
"See? We're doing all right. All of our bills are getting paid, and then some. I'm taking good care of Dawn."
"I know you are, sweetie. But you shouldn't have to. That's supposed to be my job."
Then you shouldn't've quit. "What brought this on?" Buffy asked. "Why do you want her here all of a sudden?"
"It's not sudden," Hank said. "I've been working on organizing my life and work so that I could do this ever since your mother passed away. But after those riots ..."
"Riots?"
"Yeah," Hank said. "The Christmas Eve riots?"
"Oh. Is that what they call it?"
"There were pictures all over the news of Sunnydale the day after. The place was trashed. I don't feel like it's safe for you there."
"Believe me, Dad," Buffy said, "it's never been safer. Besides, it's not like L.A.'s never had riots."
"Not in this neighborhood," he said.
"Well, if it makes you feel better, the 'riots' didn't reach our neighborhood, either."
"So you and Dawn were nowhere near where it happened?"
We were right at the heart of it, leading the charge. Oh, and by the way, it wasn't a riot. It was a battle to the death against hordes of bloodthirsty vampires. "We were safe," Buffy said. "And that was six months ago. How come you're just now asking about it?"
"I'm not," Hank said. "I was in Spain when it happened, but I tried to call you on Christmas day and I couldn't get through. Then I saw it on the news. I was out of my mind for days before I finally got through. Didn't Dawn tell you I called?"
Buffy fiddled with the dust cover on the arm of the sofa. "She might've mentioned it. I had a lot on my mind at the time."
"Yeah, Dawn said you were at the hospital visiting Mr. Giles when I called. How is he?"
"He's better."
"Good to hear it."
"Dad, does the fact that you were in Spain on Christmas day maybe tell you a little something about your priorities?"
Hank closed his eyes and sighed. "Buffy, I know I haven't been around enough for you girls. And I'm sorry. I'm trying to remedy that now."
"You could always move to Sunnydale."
"Buffy ..."
"What?" She jumped up, moved around the coffee table, and stood facing him. "You expect us to change our lives around at the drop of a hat to accommodate you, but we're not allowed to ask you for the same thing?"
"Buffy, I can't tell you what to do. But Dawn is moving here, and that's final."
"Sorry, Dad, but it's not final. I'm Dawn's legal guardian, and she doesn't move anywhere without my say-so."
"My lawyers said --"
"Screw your lawyers!" Buffy crossed her arms and added, "I'll get my own lawyers."
Hank stared at her in disbelief. "Are you saying you'd rather go to court than let your sister come live with me?"
Buffy sighed. "No, Dad. I'm saying that Dawn needs to stay in Sunnydale, and I'll do what I have to do to keep her there."
Hank shook his head. "You definitely got your mother's stubborn streak," he muttered. "Fine. We'll do this the hard way. At least maybe we can keep it from being drawn out forever. Take tomorrow to find yourself an attorney, and I'll try to get mine to set up a conference for Friday. Maybe we can settle this there without having to go all the way to court."
The front door opened, and Dawn came in, followed by Spike. He looked at Buffy, a question in his eyes. She shook her head. His shoulders slumped, and he glared at Hank.
"You do that, Dad. The sooner this is settled the sooner we can take Dawn home."
"So," Dawn asked, "what's going on?"
"Dad can explain it all to you," Buffy said. "I have to get out of here." She retrieved her bag and slung it over her shoulder, then went over to Dawn. "Be sure and tell him what you want."
"I will."
Buffy hugged her. "Don't worry, Dawnie. We're not going home without you." Buffy kissed her on the cheek, then said, "I'll call you tomorrow. Spike and I are staying at the Hyatt on Sunset if you need us before then."
Dawn nodded. Without sparing another look at her father, Buffy went out the door. Spike followed wordlessly behind her.
***
Buffy kept quiet all the way to the car. Spike tried to leave her be. He rolled down his window and lit a cigarette as they pulled out of the garage. When he'd smoked half of it and she still hadn't said anything, he decided to forge ahead.
"So, how'd your dad take it when you told him about all the Key business?"
Buffy looked at him like he was speaking Czech. Then she said, "Are you kidding? I didn't tell him any of that."
"Why not?"
"Because I want him to leave Dawn alone, not have his raving loony of an eldest carted away and declared unfit for so much as goldfish-sitting."
Spike shook his head. "Think maybe you don't give him enough credit, pet?"
"Doubtful. Remember how well my mom took it when she found out I'm the Slayer? And she was the open-minded parent."
"I thought she took it pretty well, all things considered."
Buffy scoffed. "You didn't stick around for the fun 'kick Buffy out of the house' portion of the evening's entertainment."
"No, but I've heard the story. You know she didn't mean it, she just needed time to let it all sink in. She might not've taken it so hard if you'd just told her, instead of having her find out by seeing us in action. And she was okay enough with it all that she was servin' up cocoa and sympathy to a pathetic, drunken sod of a vampire just a few months later."
Buffy said nothing for a moment, just watched the lights go by outside her window. Then she shook her head. "She was never okay with it. She tried ... she wanted to be, but she never got there. Not really."
Spike sighed, and took a slow, thoughtful pull on his cigarette. He rolled down his window to flick the long column of ash into the night. He rested his elbow on the door and leaned his head against his thumb, cigarette caught between his first two fingers, scratching his forehead with the third. "Your mum was proud of you, Buffy." He looked over at her. "You know that."
She looked back at him and managed a small smile. "Yeah. I know. But it still scared her. She would've given anything for me to be a regular girl." She shook her head. "Dad thinks that's what we are, and he still can't handle us."
"He'll learn to. He needs to know why she's better off with us. If he knows about the things she can do, the help she needs controlling it --"
"She's better off with us even without her powers," Buffy said. "He doesn't know how to be a father. He hasn't been a father since he and mom divorced. You said it yourself, he doesn't stand a chance against us. Tomorrow we'll find a lawyer. Then we'll meet with Dad and his lawyers on Friday. It'll all be over soon." She picked at her nail polish, waiting for Spike to argue. Instead he just took another drag. "Anyway," she added, "it's not my secret to tell. You're not just talking about telling him I'm the Slayer, and that the world is full of vampires and other big, bad, scary things -- and that I'm in love with one of them." She glanced over at Spike in time to see the corner of his mouth twitch as he fought off a smile, then continued. "You're talking about telling him that his youngest daughter isn't really his, that she hasn't even always been human. I can't tell him that. That's Dawn's decision."
Spike tossed his butt out the window and nodded. "Yeh, I guess," he said as he pulled off the freeway. "But don't be so dead set against the idea. It might have to be our last resort."
"Sure," Buffy said. "We'll file it under Plan Z."
Spike pointed the car towards a Circle K. "I'm out of smokes," he said. "You need anything?"
Buffy shrugged. "A diet Sprite might be nice."
"Diet Sprite it is." He pulled into the lot and parked in front of the door. "Huh. Looks like you're not the only one who's thirsty." Spike pointed at the counter, where the clerk was being drained by a couple of female vampires. A big, burly male stood at the register, emptying it into a bag. Several more made their way up and down the aisles, no doubt stuffing their pockets as they went.
"Strange things are afoot at the Circle K," Buffy muttered. "How many?"
Spike scanned the store. "I count eight. No, wait ... those two look scared shitless. Probably human. Six then, with hostages."
"Is it wrong that this development is cheering me up?" Buffy asked as she rummaged through her bag for a stake. "'Cause I'm really in the mood to hit things."
"Hell hath no fury like a righteously pissed Slayer," Spike said. "Right, then." He reached under the seat and pulled out a baseball bat, sharpened at the tip -- a gift from Detective Grant. Spike had yet to try it out in a real fight, but it looked like a fun toy. "Ready when you are, Love."
Buffy opened her door and got out, careful to keep her stake hidden. Spike followed her lead, concealing the bat inside his coat as he got out of the car. He shook his head as he surveyed the setup. Nobody was on door duty. Buffy grabbed the handle and pulled it open. They hadn't even bothered to lock it. The door sounded an electronic chime, and the girls behind the counter -- Twins. How 'bout that? -- dropped the clerk and hid as the big one morphed into human face and slammed the register shut. Not one of the vamps had sensed them coming. Christ, but these children were stupid.
"Evenin', folks," the big vamp greeted them as they sauntered up to the counter. "What can I get for you?"
Spike pointed at the cigarette case behind him. "Two packs of Camels." That was what he'd come there for, after all.
The vamp pulled out a couple of packs and set them on the counter, then smiled. "Anything else?"
"Say," Buffy said as Spike pocketed the cigarettes, "do you have any maps of the stars' homes?"
Spike smothered a grin. He loved it when she toyed with her prey.
The others closed in, blocking the exit. The two human girls huddled and whimpered in a corner by the soda fountain. The big one leaned over the counter and leered at Buffy. "Tell you what, sweetheart," he said, morphing into game face, "if you're good maybe we'll give you a personal tour before we kill you."
"Oh, did you hear that, honey?" Buffy smiled sweetly at big 'n' burly. "I've heard that most of those maps are scams, anyway. A personal tour would be super neat!"
The twins rose from behind the counter and made their way out into the store, on either side of Buffy and Spike. Along with the other three, the vamps began to seriously invade their personal space. Buffy backed up against Spike. "Hey, what's going on?"
One of the twins pressed up against Spike and licked him on the cheek. "Oi!" he said. "Back off, honey. I'm spoken for."
The girl drew back in surprise. "He's a vampire, Pete!"
Buffy audibly gasped. "Oh, sweetie, say it ain't so!"
"Well, let's see," Spike said, looking himself over. "June in L.A. ... leather coat ... me not breaking a sweat." He looked at Pete and shrugged. "The phrase 'duh' springs to mind."
"Hey, man," Pete said, "you're on our turf. You're gonna have to share."
A slow smile spread across Spike's face. "I think my lady might have something to say about that."
"And it goes something like, 'Ew,'" Buffy agreed.
"Don't tell me you're a vamp too," the other twin said. She reached out to touch Buffy, but before she could, Buffy brought her stake out of hiding and drove it home.
"No touching," Buffy said as the girl crumbled to dust.
Her sister shrieked and lunged at Buffy. Spike pulled the baseball bat out of his coat and thrust it upward, dusting her in mid-air.
"Aw, fuck," Pete said, "it's Angel! Run!"
The other males fled the store, but before Pete could get out from behind the counter, Spike jumped over it and pinned him against the register with the bat. "What did you call me?"
"Ang -- Angel! Angelus, whatever! The vampire with a soul, who kills his own kind!"
"I guess his reputation precedes us," Buffy said as she came behind the counter to check on the clerk. He was still alive -- barely. She found a phone and called 911.
"Angel," Spike said, pressing the bat into Pete's throat and crushing his windpipe, "is a bleeding heart nance who likes to play Slayer so he'll feel better about all the folks he tortured and killed back in his Big Bad days. My name is Spike, and do you know why I do it?"
Pete shook his head.
"Because I can," Spike said. Then he grinned. "Because it's fun. And because it's people like ..." he glanced down to read the nametag on the victim, "Carlos here what makes the world go 'round. They keep it interesting. I like 'em, and I hate to see good people go to waste, especially to feed a sodding useless excuse of a whelp like yourself."
"Spike," Pete croaked. "I've hearda you. That means she's ..."
"That's right," Spike said. "She's the Slayer, and I'm William the Bloody Sidekick." He shrugged. "S'all right. I don't mind. What the job lacks in prestige it more than makes up for in benefits."
Buffy hung up the phone and came over to stand beside him. She looked at Pete, then back at Spike. "Are you planning to slay him?"
"I'm gettin' around to it."
"Some time today would be nice, mon Ange."
Spike glared at her. "You think you're funny, but you're not."
"Ginny, don't go out there!"
Buffy stopped snickering at Spike and swung her head towards the soda fountain, where one of the girls was staring at the exit, horrified. The other girl was pushing the door open to look outside. Before Buffy could tell her to come back in, one of Pete's accomplices snatched her by the arm and took off with her. The abductee's screams were drowned out by those of her friend.
Buffy bolted over the counter. "Stay here," she shouted to the other girl. "An ambulance is coming for the clerk," Buffy said. "Lock the door behind us, and stay with him until it gets here, okay?"
The girl nodded, and Buffy took off after the vamp.
Pete took advantage of the distraction and grabbed a six-pack that had been left on the counter. He slammed it into Spike's head, spraying beer all over both of them. Spike staggered back just enough to allow Pete to get his hands up and shove Spike into the cigarette case. Spike wiped the beer out of his eyes. When he could see again, Pete was around the counter and bolting for the exit. Spike vaulted over the countertop, landing a couple of feet behind Pete. He swung the bat, connecting with Pete's head and knocking it clean off.
"Home run," Spike said as Pete's remains crumbled and scattered in the currents from the air conditioning vent. He'd been right. The bat was a fun toy. He looked back at the girl. "Do what she said," he told her. "Lock up behind me."
Without waiting for a response, he ran outside. He saw Buffy down the street about a block, hot on the heels of the vamp and the girl. He jumped in his car and sped after her. As he pulled up beside her, he slowed enough for her to jump in, then gunned it. The vampire spared a glance back at them, and let go of the girl, who ran screaming down the street. The vamp turned off the street and cut across a manicured lawn. Spike pulled the car over and stopped; he and Buffy continued the chase on foot. They were gaining on the vamp when he scaled a wall. Buffy was right behind him, jumping up effortlessly to grab the top of the wall and pull herself over. Spike followed suit.
They found themselves in someone's pool garden. The vampire looked to see if they were still behind him, which slowed him down just enough for Buffy to tackle him. When she had him pinned, she looked at Spike. He tossed her his baseball bat. She plucked it out of the air and rammed the pointy end into the vamp's heart. Then she just sat on her knees, panting, trying to catch her breath.
Spike strolled over and offered her a hand. She took it, and let him pull her to her feet. "Feel better, Love?"
"A little," she said, dusting herself off. "Though there wasn't as much hitting as I'd anticipated."
"Well, if you still need to exert some physical aggression, I can think of some more pleasant ways to get it out of your system." He leaned down and kissed her on the neck.
"Mmmm," Buffy said. "Angel."
Spike jerked back and glared down at her. "You are one step away, little girl."
Buffy made a pouty-face. "Aww, poor baby. Though, you can't blame Pete for the confusion. It's an easy enough mistake."
"I'm warning you, Pet."
"Especially here in his town," Buffy continued, unrelenting. "I mean, he's made a name for himself, obviously. And you show up here, acting all redeemed and hero-like, there's bound to be confusion."
Spike advanced on her. "He's not the only one who's made a name for himself, Dear Heart."
Buffy backed up, but then stopped, enjoying the way he stalked toward her, all menace and feral grace.
"Oh, yeah?" she said with a toss of her hair, challenge in her voice as he came up to her. He leaned in, and she leaned back, keeping her mouth just out of reach. "What," she asked, batting her eyelashes innocently, "you mean the Slayer's sidekick?"
Spike just smiled. Then he brought his hands up and gave her a little shove, and sent her careening backwards into the pool.
"I'm William the Bloody, baby," he called when she came sputtering to the surface, "and don't you forget it!" Buffy splashed water at him. "Oi!" he cried, jumping back from the edge. "Mind the leather!"
"Oh, so sorry, William the Bloody Well Not Getting Any Tonight."
He tilted his head and regarded her for a moment, chewing thoughtfully on his bottom lip. Then he raised an eyebrow. "Izzat right?"
"Count on it," she pouted.
Spike nodded, then shrugged off his coat. "It's not like I didn't warn you," he said as he walked over to lay it on a deck chair. He sat down and pulled off his boots.
"What are you doing?" Buffy asked.
Spike pulled off his shirt, then winked at her as he stood and undid his belt buckle. "Testing your resolve."
"Don't bother," she said. "I mean it ..."
He stripped off his pants, then did a cannonball into the pool. Buffy squealed and swam for the ladder, but as her hand closed around it, his hand closed around her ankle. She failed to stifle her laughter as she tried to kick him off. The next thing she knew he had her pinned against the ladder. He turned her to face him. Then his mouth overtook hers, his body claimed her space as its own. His hands slid her blouse up and caressed her skin, working to remove the only barrier between them. She felt her resolve melting under the heat of the fire he lit in her; it burned low in her belly, spreading slowly from her center. A magma trail of desire, leaving her flushed, almost feverish, despite the cool water that enveloped her.
She gave in, letting go of the ladder in favor of running her hands over his skin. She tangled her fingers in his hair and returned his kiss with the same ferocity. He broke it off and started sucking on the tender spot just beneath her ear. "Spike!" she gasped.
He pulled back, grinning triumphantly. "That's my name."
Buffy felt her resolve solidify. Smug bastard. She put a hand on top of his head and plunged him under the water.
She grabbed hold of the ladder, intent on climbing out of the pool and tossing all of his clothes in after him. No fair that he got to keep his dry. But then an arm snaked around her waist, and a hand pushed her blouse up higher, then her bra, and a pair of lips met her breast, followed by a tongue, and Buffy sagged against the ladder. No fair. No fair, no fair, no ... oooh.
She whimpered in protest as his mouth left her breast, but then his hands were on her hips. She looked down, but her skirt floated out around her and blocked her view. Fingers laced inside her panties and slid them down to her knees. His head came up between her thighs, and Buffy decided then and there that any unfairness was more than made up for by the advantages of having a lover who didn't need oxygen.
"Oh, God," she moaned, leaning her head back to rest on the top rung of the ladder. "Oh, God!" she cried, gripping the sides so hard she half-expected the metal to crumple in her grasp. She opened her eyes to look at the stars as she climaxed, but her view was obscured by the police officer who was looking down at them in disapproval.
"Oh, God."

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