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

Episode Five: Cementing

by adjrun
You Dropped The Bomb On Me by The Gap Band
(Xander & Faith)
Never Say Never by Romeo Void
Beast of Burden by the Rolling Stones

Shout-outs: I'd like to thank the DL gang as a whole for the betas and encouragement, particularly cousinjean for not kicking my ass from here to Tuscaloosa over how late this is. Thanks to my darling jdog. Thanks to Dee (and sorry I couldn't fit in the Pocket Lawyer). Thanks to AZ for the soccer geekspeak, Abby's sister for the PT headsup, and Ehann for the general medical advice. Any screwups in the technical stuff is all me, baby!

Dawn shifted in her wheelchair, trying to find a position that didn’t feel like someone was clamping a vise onto her spine. A red hot vise. With teeth. They’d poked and prodded and stuck and pulled and twisted and X-rayed and MRI-ed and pretty much every other letter of the alphabet - to the point where Dawn considered checking to see if she glowed in the dark. And now, twenty minutes waiting in this stupid-ass office. When she was tired, and she ached, and she just wanted to cry. To stop hurting.
Besides, it was just going to be more, “Well, we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?” Which was what they said when they didn’t have good news. What they’d said at every other stupid visit. And a kajillion times in the hospital.
Ack. She had to snap out of it. Brave face only - no bitching allowed. In a weird way, it was easier to pretend that she was going to be all right. It wasn’t like they weren’t all terrified. But dwelling on it? She’d moped her head off last week and just made everything miserable - everyone miserable. Now she tried to be cheery, and confident, and as strong as her sister. Sometimes she even forgot it was fake and actually felt brave. Not now. Not when it hurt this bad. But sometimes.
Dawn took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to relax. Her wheelchair was wedged in between the two visitor’s chairs in Doctor Meade’s office. Her right leg stuck out in front of her, wrapped hip to toenails in plaster and propped up by the doohickey on the wheelchair. Her toes almost touched the doctor’s desk. The cast on her left leg ended right under her knee. Both casts were covered in marker: signatures, movie quotes, doodles, designs, and a really funny caricature of Evil Angel, all teeth and forehead and sticking-up hair. She loved it. It reminded her to fight.
Buffy sat in the seat on her left, holding her hand. Clutching it, really.
“Um, Buffy?” Dawn looked down at her mashed fingers and back up at her sister. “Ow.”
“Oh. Oh, crud, I’m sorry.” Buffy loosened her grip but didn’t let go. She smiled at Dawn, a tissue-thin layer of confidence and positive thinking over complete dread.
“’Sokay.” Dawn smiled back, sharing the lie. “Fingers. Who needs ‘em?”
Dad sat on her right, smiling at her and patting her hand whenever she looked at him. He’d insisted on being there. Had to prove he was all Mr. Gung-Ho Dad Guy, now. It kind of made things more awkward. She wasn’t sure if he actually wanted, or needed, to be there, or if he sat there because that’s what doting fathers did and he’d chosen to play the role. Parental guilt, with fewer presents.
Besides, he and Spike still got tense and territorial around each other.
Spike was there too, of course. Right then he leaned against the wall behind Buffy; even if there’d been a chair for him, he sucked at sitting still for these things. Dawn couldn’t see him, but she felt waves of anxiety pouring off him. She twisted slightly in her seat to look at him, trying to stifle her wince at the jolt of white-hot pain that shot up her back. He watched her while tapping out a rhythm against the wall. No clue what the song was - all that stuff he listened to had the same beat anyway.
He was totally jonesing for a cigarette.
She smirked at him. He rolled his eyes and glared back at her.
“Doctor’s taking his time, isn’t he?” Dawn asked. Dang. She shouldn’t have said anything. Her voice sounded kind of… thin, even to herself.
Spike’s eyes narrowed with concern. He seemed to recognize something in her face, and his gaze flicked to the clock. “Buffy. It’s time.”
“Not quite,” Buffy replied. “Every four hours.”
“Look at her.” Spike pushed himself off the wall, circled around Buffy, and perched on the desk in front of Dawn. “You in pain, Bit?”
“A little,” she said. “Yeah.”
Buffy rooted through her purse and pulled out a chewy granola bar. “Here. By the time you get this down, it’ll be twelve. Or close enough.”
Dawn looked at the granola bar with a complete lack of enthusiasm.
“I know.” Buffy made a sympathetic face. “No appetite when you’re hurting. But - ”
“Medicine, empty stomach, icky. I know.” Dawn unwrapped the bar and gamely took a bite. Her mouth full, she continued. “And, hey. Rocky road. My favorite kind.”
They continued the familiar ritual. Food, bottle of water, horse pill of ibuprofen. As she ate, they talked about silly stuff: the romantic comedy that the girls would drag a protesting Spike to that weekend; a run on scrying crystals at the Magic Box; what color Dawn wanted her toenails painted, and whether Buffy or Spike would do the honors. Buffy even noshed on her own granola bar so that Dawn didn’t eat alone. One of the worst things about being an invalid was people hovering while you took medication, turning it into a big production, watching every pill go into your mouth like they didn’t trust you. So Dawn felt grateful for normal conversation, and that Buffy and Spike got it without her even having to ask.
The door behind them swung open. Doctor Meade came in, inches-thick medical file in his hands, and worked his way around to sit behind his desk. He was a big man, tall, with thinning blond hair and a reddish face like he played lots of golf and forgot the sunscreen.
“Morning!” He spoke with a cheeriness that Dawn just knew was fake - something he slapped on whether he was sticking a Band-Aid on a skinned knee or telling someone about the tumor the size of a grapefruit in their head.
Dad stood up and shook the doctor’s hand. “So, Doc, what’s the word?”
The doctor opened the file, rifling through pages of paperwork. “Well, I do have some news for you. The big concern has been the damage to the spine, of course, in conjunction with the head injury, so we’ve wanted to monitor that pretty closely...”
He kept talking, using all these jargony words that doctors made up to hide behind, spouting test results and lab reports. Dawn kind of spaced out at it, waiting for the “So! We’ll see you on…” that signaled the end of the speech.
Something caught her attention. She looked up.
“Um…Did…” Dawn started over. “What did you say?”
Doctor Meade smiled at her. “I said, we expect you to make a full recovery.”
She wanted to squeal and jump up and down. Hard to do, sitting, but she gave it her best shot. Oh, Jeez Louise, she was sobbing. Grinning like a loony and sobbing. And then Buffy hugged her, and she was crying too. Dawn latched onto Buffy, weeping and laughing; then her dad was standing over her and she somehow got an arm around his neck to hug him. Spike, too, even if he hated it. Too damn bad. She had to hug Spike that instant without letting Dad or Buffy go - everyone caught in a huge, giddy, massive, crying, monster hug.
“There we go, Bit,” Spike whispered into her hair, his voice breaking in the middle of the phrase. “All better soon.”
On some unspoken signal the hug slowly broke apart. Dad shifted back to his seat. Buffy sniffled, grabbed a pile of Kleenex from the box on the desk, and handed half to her sister. Clutching her wad of tissues, Buffy sobbed again; and Spike, his eyes suspiciously bright, gathered her into his arms, rocking her slightly back and forth and pressing gentle kisses into her hair.
Dad swallowed hard and tried to say something. The words caught in his throat. All he could do was pat Dawn’s hand, over and over. She beamed at him and hiccupped, which made her start giggling again.
“Of course, it’s going to take time,” the doctor warned, “and I’m afraid we’re looking at daily physical therapy, which is going to be hard work. It’ll be a good four to six weeks before you walk again, and it could be months before you get back your full strength and range of motion.”
“But I’m gonna be okay.” She savored the words in her mouth. Not looking on the bright side any more. Certainty. “I’m gonna.”
Spike pulled Buffy’s SUV into the driveway and scowled up through the tinted windshield. Exactly two clouds in the sky. The afternoon sun beat down in all its brilliant, destructive glory, turning the front yard into a shadowless deathtrap.
Dawn carefully rolled down the window to gauge the light, wincing as a shaft of sunlight cut across her lap. “It’s pretty direct, Spike. No clouds. Just grab your blanket, and let’s go.”
“Feh.” Not even a blanket, was it? More a treated piece of canvas - sunproofed ground cover, made to prevent weeds in gardens. About four months ago, Buffy had gotten sick of all their blankets reeking of smoke and riddled with char holes, so she’d bought him a half-dozen of these ground-cover deals. She’d made a crack about how she might not be able to keep him from smoking cigarettes, but she was determined to keep him from literally smoking. Spike had seen her concern behind the joking; even though he kind of liked the danger of the potential flambé on a sunny day, he caved in and used the sodding things.
The problem here wasn’t the cover. It was getting himself and Dawn into the house underneath it, without sending them both sprawling across the front lawn or ricocheting off a porch post. Sprinting through sunlight was the only way in. Grimacing, he pulled the tarp from under the passenger seat behind them and unfolded it as best he could in the close confines of the SUV. He yanked the cloth over his head, inched the car door open and slid a foot to the ground. Then, shifting the stuff a little more forward, he backed out of the door, shut it, and sprinted around the vehicle to the passenger side, where Dawn waited with the car door open.
From under the tent of fabric, he said, “Can I just say again how thrilled I am at the thought of you back on your feet?”
“Yup!” Dawn answered. “Though not if it’s ‘cause you’re sick of hauling me into the house.”
“Just don’t want the canvas slipping. Things might get a tick toasty for you.” Spike pulled the girl into his arms as she held the canvas over their heads - he’d carried her into the house during daylight hours just enough that they knew the mechanics of the process. It was still awkward; Spike fought down visions of Dawn screaming in agony as he burned to ash holding her, and made sure that the arm looped under her knees grabbed a handful of tarp.
Then the near-blind stagger across the lawn and up the porch steps, navigating by what they could see in the two-foot radius around Spike’s boots. Spike felt his way up each step, then across the porch. They made only a soft thud as they smacked into the front door.
“Oof,” Dawn said. “You know, there’s a door there.”
“Just open it, would you?” Spike grumped. “Or we can just stand here channeling our inner Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Dawn snickered and felt for the door handle. The second they entered the house, she pushed the cover off their heads and into a crumple on the foyer floor.
“Buffy!” she yelled. “Buffy, where are you?”
“In here!” Ah. Kitchen. Spike swooped Dawn through the dining room and set her down on a stool at the kitchen island, careful to rest her right leg on another stool. Buffy stood at the other side, poking a spatula into the bowl of a KitchenAid mixer. A huge chocolate cake, naked without the all-important frosting, was laid out on the island; a spattered and sticky cookbook lay open in front of her. Right. The great Willow and Xander Welcome-Home shindig this evening. In all the excitement with Dawn, he’d forgotten.
Buffy’s face and front were dusted with sugar and flour, and smudged with chocolate. His own delectable confection. Standing behind her, he looped an arm around her waist and dropped a kiss on the spot where her neck met her shoulder, languidly enjoying the taste of sweetened Buffy. She reached up a hand to ruffle his hair.
“How’d it go after I left?” she asked. “The PT?”
“Guess what?” Dawn plopped her left leg on the counter and wiggled her toes. “Look, ma! No cast!”
“That’s fantastic! Totally deserves a beater.” Buffy handed it over, loaded thick with frosting. “Pour tu, mon… seestaire.”
“Ma souer.” Dawn took a huge lick of frosting, all the way up the side of the beater. “Looks like somebody forgot all her first-year French.”
Spike perched on the counter, fighting a smirk. “Girl spends two weeks in Paris, and her French actually gets worse.”
“Yeah, but Paris? The main goal was not picking up the language.” She shot Spike a knowing grin. “My tongue had other concerns.”
“Point,” Spike replied, taking a moment to reminisce about the use of her tongue in the City of Lights. Then a thought struck him and his happy daze changed to indignation. “Hey! Don’t I get a beater?”
“Nope.” Buffy shrugged a shoulder. “There’s only one.”
Dawn sucked at the top of the beater, getting smears of chocolate at the corners of her mouth. “And you wouldn’t take a beater from the poor unfortunate cripple girl, wouldja?”
Spike wrinkled his nose. “Not when it’s got your spit all over it.”
“So?” Buffy asked. “How’d this happen, anyway? How did your leg escape its casty bonds?”
“I dunno,” Dawn said, attempting nonchalance. “After you and Dad took off, we went back to the exam room and they pulled out this buzzsaw thing. Something about how it had healed enough, and praising my amazing recuperative powers.”
Spike broke in. “Basically, she heard ‘cast off’, and started bouncing and squeaking again.”
“Okay, pretty much, yeah,” Dawn admitted. “I’m supposed to try to stay off it. Duh. Wheelchair.”
“Wish I’d been there,” Buffy said, biting her lip.
“No, Buff.” Dawn shook her head, still intent on her frosting. “Trust me. You would’ve hated it. Physical therapy really hurt. I bitched and moaned and whined and complained pretty much start to finish.”
Buffy looked even more concerned. She got that worried-but-responsible look around her eyes again, like she had to shoulder the burdens of the world. Like she let Dawn down because she hadn’t been there to be strong for her.
He hated that fucking look.
Spike hopped down off the counter. “The physical therapist? I’ve known some expert torturers in my day, and this woman scores top five, easy. She could teach Dru a few tricks.” He tilted Buffy’s chin up so she met his gaze. “But it has to be done. It’s not an option.”
Dawn looked up, sensing that the conversation had gotten serious. “And you still flinch if I say ‘ow’. Like it’s your fault I hurt, which is so not the case, and makes me feel even more evil for last week’s massive pity party.”
“It’s gonna keep being painful,” Spike continued. “She’s gonna have to suck it up, and do it. But it’s not going to help if you’re there beating yourself up every time. So you don’t get to go.”
“Spike can do the PT thing,” Dawn said. “He’s good at it. He just laughs at me when I swear.”
“Occasionally I give you points for creativity.”
“And then, the moment you decide that it’s too much, you snap.” Dawn snorted. “Turn into Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment.”
Buffy and Dawn both started giggling. In tandem, hands banging on the counter, they yelled, “GIVE MY DAUGHTER THE SHOT!!”
“Hah bloody ha. I’ll have you know, I killed Shirley Maclaine.” He smirked. “In a former life.”
“Ooh.” Dawn put the now-spotless beater down on the counter. “Speaking of pain medication?”
Spike and Buffy snapped into caretaker mode.
Dawn continued. “After the PT, they gave me a Percocet.”
“Ah,” Buffy nodded. “And now, the chemically-induced narcolepsy?”
“Got it in one.” Dawn let out a jawsplitting yawn.
“I’m on it,” Spike said. He gathered up five-and-a-half feet of nearly comatose sixteen year-old, and headed upstairs to her room.
“Once I get walking again?” she mumbled into his shoulder. “It’s all foot-related activities for me. Soccer, kickboxing, running marathons.”
“Clogging, step-dancing,” Spike added, setting her on her bed.
“Hackey sack.”
“Brazilian rules volleyball.” At her quizzical look, he clarified. “You know - we saw that show. They use their feet?”
“Yeah,” Dawn rolled over to hug her pillow. “Exactly.”
While shutting the door, he heard her again. “Spike?”
“Yeh, Sunbeam?”
“Make sure I’m up. Okay?” She let out a huge yawn and her words slowed to a crawl. “So I can go to the airport, for Willow and Xander. I don’t want to miss stuff… slept too much already.”
“You won’t. We won’t let you.” With that, he closed the door.
It wasn’t the easiest of tasks to silently descend a wooden staircase in motorcycle boots, and Dawn slept the sleep of the highly medicated. But Spike still took it lightly down the steps - stalk mode, not clomp mode. In the kitchen, Buffy was busy slopping frosting on the cake. He jumped up to sit on the counter next to her - and, more important, next to the frosting.
“You realize you just got sugar all over the back of your jeans?” Buffy asked.
“I’ll skip the obvious rejoinder about the sweetness of my ass, and ask how goes the party planning.” He had to get her talking so he could sneak a finger into the frosting. Oh dear lord - chocolate buttercream, melting over his tongue like sun and sex, and the warm rush of cocoa flooding his mouth. More…
Buffy, busy fluttering into nervous hostess girl, didn’t notice. She crossed to the fridge to take inventory. “Um, I think we’re good. Mom’s famous potato salad is all made up, that green Jell-O stuff which you will stay out of until Xander’s had some, Lydia’s bringing a fruit salad, Giles is doing baked beans…”
“Very British of him.”
“There’s garden burgers for the non-meat eaters, and then I bought steaks. Unless people want burgers.” She looked at him around the fridge door, a touch panicky. “Do you think they’ll want burgers?”
“They’re just back from England, home of hoof-and-mouth disease. They’ll want steak. Trust me.”
“Cool.” Buffy nodded. “Okay, and then chips and dip and a veggie platter. Soda, juice, water, beer, and Spike, get your fingers out of the frosting.”
Busted. Well, hell. Completely unrepentant, he scooped out another huge dollop and sucked his finger clean.
“Spike, I’m serious.” Buffy grabbed the table knife she was using to frost the cake and pointed it at him. “Stay out of it.”
“And if I don’t?” He raised an eyebrow, daring her as he dug back into the frosting.
She swatted his thigh with the knife.
Play it that way, would she? He leaned in and smeared a dab of frosting on her nose.
“Oh, no. You do not want to go there.” She dug her knife into the frosting and flicked it at him. Chocolate buttercream spattered across his face and the front of his shirt.
The trick now was to up the dare. He reached into the bowl, scooping two generous fingerfuls of frosting, and lobbed it at her. It hit her smack in the chest, across both cleavage and tank top.
She lunged at him and he darted away, sliding off the counter as her fingers caught the neck of his shirt. He struggled to get away, and she fought to hold him. 100% cotton couldn’t withstand that kind of stress - the fabric tore, a huge rip from collar to armpit.
“Bloody - ” Spike looked over his shoulder at the tear, and, aggrieved, pulled the shirt off over his head. “You ripped my shirt! Look!”
“Oh, sorry.” Buffy put her hands on her hips, all feisty challenge. “Now you only have thirty-nine identical black t-shirts. How will you ever go on?”
Spike growled and grabbed an entire handful of frosting, which went right into Buffy’s face. The battle royale began. She smeared frosting in his hair; he dropped some down the back of her shirt. She retaliated with a handful in the waistband of his jeans. Her subsequent escape left streaks of chocolate down the back of her shorts and the length of one bare leg. They threw, flicked, smooshed, spread, shoved gobs of frosting at each other, on each other, giggling and shrieking and howling. Darting in loops around the kitchen, taking turns as pursuer and pursued.
Buffy came at him, her right hand a fistful of frosting, but he locked his left hand around her wrist. She blocked his counterstrike and immobilized his other hand on the counter. He pinned her against the cupboard, hips pressed hard against her to keep her from wriggling away.
“Stalemate.” He grinned down at her. Her eyes narrowed and she pushed at him, getting her shoulder into the shove, knocking Spike back into the island. Somehow each maintained a deathgrip on the other’s wrist. Except that the tables turned: Buffy had him bent backwards over the counter, his toes barely touching the ground, her right hip pushed between his legs to pin him in place.
“Still a tie,” Spike said. “I can’t move. You can’t either.”
He watched her, ready to lunge the instant she shifted her weight. And she knew it. He could see the wheels turning in her head - that devious mind of hers working, concocting some scheme. Whatever her plan, he’d be ready.
She licked his chest. He wasn’t ready.
“Cheating,” he gasped.
“Changing the rules.” She ran her tongue along the bottom of his right pec. Any attempt at rational thought on his part sputtered and died. “Mmm. Yummy.”
“You win.” She could smear frosting on him until doomsday. Win every fight, every argument, every battle, food-related or no. He didn’t really give a rat’s ass as long as she kept touching him. “You - oh, unnnh - you win.”
He had to get his hands on her: one to the small of her back, pulling her closer. The other cupped the back of her head, Spike and Buffy both completely oblivious to the glop of frosting he matted into her hair. She moved back to the center of his chest, lapping her way up towards his collarbone. His knees completely lost their ability to hold him upright. They melted to the floor together.
He kissed her, tasting chocolate and butter and sugar on her lips, her tongue. He kissed the frosting off her nose, along her cheekbone, down to the corner of her jaw and the long muscles of her throat. Evil shirt, keeping him from her skin, from tasting her. Off off off.
They rolled over each other, in constant motion, lips locked to skin. No taking turns here, no question of one making love to the other. Just mouths and hands and a lover’s body writhing underneath him, on top, in the cradle of his arms.
He trailed wet kisses along her shoulder blade. Could do no more than moan against her back as she caught his hand, licking across the palm, kissing the heel of his hand and the soft inside of his wrist. She nibbled the pad of his thumb, then sucked the thumb into her mouth. He whimpered against the nape of her neck. Shuddering, trying to kiss her, nuzzle her ear, but lost in the sensation of each successive finger being meticulously cleaned.
He pulled her shorts off her legs; she helped with that shimmy of her hips that was - he swore to God and all his self-righteous little seraphim - one of his top-ten favorite things on the planet. Right up there with the mewing noises she made as he licked frosting off the inside of her knee and up her thigh. And the feel of her hands on his stomach as she unzipped his jeans.
She chuckled. “How did you get frosting here, Spike?”
“Because, Love, I’m a fortunate man.” He gasped, a quick inhalation of breath. “Very fortunate.”
Another flip, another turn, skin that he had a moral imperative to kiss and caress. Her mouth. Her beautiful, sweet, gorgeous, succulent, wicked mouth.
And oh, the sensation of her thighs cradling his hips, one foot rubbing up and down the back of his leg. Her hands clutched against his back and released in rhythm with his thrusts. He watched her as he moved against her. Close. Close enough to feel the warm puff of her breath. To see her gaze unfocus, fall inwards to that tight spiral building in her belly. Little muscles tensed around her eyes, a bit of a wrinkle creased between her eyebrows. Her head rocked back, her chin pushed up, and her jaw worked in little voiceless pants and sobs.
Then her face opened. She shattered beneath him, around him, pulling him with her over the precipice.
When again capable of conscious thought, Spike found himself, forehead against the floor, chin tucked into her shoulder, dead weight blanketing her body from shoulder to hip. Dazed, he pushed himself up to his elbows. His skin clung to hers, like they’d almost melted together. Wouldn’t surprise him.
She smiled the loving smile, the one reserved just for him, the one that made his toes curl - when he could actually feel his toes - and tried to push back a piece of hair now glued to his forehead. “We’re all sticky.”
He should have a response to this. “Yeh.”
“Need to clean up.”
“Yeh. Important. Cleanliness … good.” Bloody erudite, that was. Must try harder. Start with getting the legs to move. Good.
Buffy sat up, propping herself on her hands. “Oh, God, the kitchen is a disaster.”
“On it. You go shower. I’ll clean.” He looked around himself on the floor. “Find m’pants, and clean.”
Buffy stood up, gathering her clothes in her arms. She hooked a finger through the beltloop on his jeans, and held them out to him. Then she snickered. The jeans slowly spun on the pivot of her finger. Spike fell back against a cabinet, speechless with laughter. There, on the butt of his jeans, was a perfect brown handprint.
“Toss them in the washer when you’re done. We only have…” She looked at the clock. “Yeesh. A little over two hours ‘til we have to head out.”
She ducked down to the basement with her mucky clothes and returned a few seconds later, still marvelously naked. In that time, Spike had managed to stand and get his pants on. Zipped and buttoned, even. Buffy padded over to him and wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Hop to it, mister. Lots to do.” She gave him a quick kiss. “You’re coming, right?”
Now. Now, he knew what to say. “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thine eyes. And what’s more, I will go with you to the airport.” ***
The plane circled down over Sunnydale in its approach, cutting narrowing spirals in the golden sunlight unique to California afternoons. Below them lay sharp hills, spring green bleaching to straw yellow, oaks and eucalyptus and palm trees dotting their slopes. Red clay roofs and stucco of Spanish architecture. The sea tossed glints and sparkles off its green-gray undulations.
At least, that’s what Willow said. She had spent waaaaay too much time in art museums the past six months.
Willow had the window seat. Thank God. If he didn’t look outside, he could pretend they weren’t defying the laws of gravity and physics. Wait. Was gravity one of the laws of physics? Whatever. He was flying. Flying was bad. All Harrises knew this to be true.
So Willow looked out the window, scanning for landmarks of home and cooing over scenery. He could concentrate on not-the-window, and the important business of breaking the armrests with the strength of his grip. Plus mentally holding the plane up. Oh. And not thinking about food at all. At. All.
“How ya doing?” Willow asked. “You look all pensive. Oh! You need another airsick bag?”
He shook his head. No more yacking. Nothing to yack. He’d yacked twice over the Atlantic Ocean, once over Pittsburgh, and pretty continuously during some turbulence over Denver. Besides, this wasn’t the sickening tummy flip that heralded tossed airplane food. This was just… butterflies.
He tried to put it in words. “Coming back. It feels weird.”
“Good weird, bad weird, or ‘it’s the end of the world as we know it’ weird?”
“Just weird weird, I think. It’s all so different.” He smiled, rueful. “I’m not quite sure that I’m me, you know?”
Willow shifted in her seat to face towards him a little, that Xander-you-big-silly look on her face. “You still hate trig with a fiery passion?”
“Still dance like a demented pogo stick?”
“Dress like colorblind howler monkeys on psychedelic drugs picked out your clothes?”
“Not so much.” Xander shot her a look of mild reproach. His style of dress since joining the Watchers was staid, staid, staid; currently he wore khaki slacks, a light blue cotton sweater, and Oxfords. She couldn’t see his Space Ghost boxers, so those didn’t count.
“Okay, bad example. And I should talk.” True. She wore a jacket made from the British flag, trimmed with bright blue fur. She squeezed his hand in its mandatory armrest deathgrip. “Still my best friend on the planet, ever?”
“So, yeah.” She shrugged. “Things are different. They’ll take some adjusting. But not the important stuff. And not the people.”
She was right. Willow was - well, not always right, but he wouldn’t ever bet on her wrongness. These nerves were just excitement: eagerness to see the merry band of misfits. Five minutes, a round of hugs, a manly-yet-affectionate pat on the back from Giles, and all would be back to normal.
“Better?” Willow asked.
“Yeah.” Wait a minute. “No. Landing.”
“Oh.” She was cackling again. Heartless wench. “Wuss.”
The plane coasted to the gate and came to a stop with a filling-rattling shriek. Xander let go of the armrests and worked to straighten his fingers, which had gotten stuck in permanent claw mode.
Oz woke up. “We there?”
“Yeah.” Bastard slept the whole way.
They shuffled off the plane and into the terminal. They’d been subjected to customs in Los Angeles, which had sucked at the time (big fat hairy sweaty guy pawing through Xander’s unmentionables - shudder) but now meant an easy saunter to the baggage claim, and home. Well, Buffy’s. For some reason the Council had ordered Lydia to stay in Sunnydale; Xander, still full-on dreading the thought of living in his apartment alone, had told her to keep it. He’d find something else. Which meant that while he apartment-hunted he was dependant upon the kindness of Summers. Willow was in the same boat - staying with Buffy until fall term started. And Oz? He didn’t actually know where Oz was staying. Maybe the van?
Did Oz still have the van?
Every other thought left his head as they turned a corner and reached the baggage carousel. The whole gang was there, in a wonderful and familiar clump.
“Buffy!” Willow whooped and took off running.
“Willow!” Buffy sprinted towards them.
“Buffy!” Willow and Buffy grabbed each other, laughing and hopping in little circles.
“Auntie Em!” Xander called, snickering at his friends, the Mexican jumping beans.
“Xander!” Buffy yelled.
“Buffy!” Yay! Buffy hugs for Xander! Guh - make that ‘yay’ and ‘oooow.’ He swung her around in a big circle. Buffy squealed and giggled, so he did it again.
“Giles!” Willow leaped towards her next victim.
“Oh.” Giles hugged Willow back. “Hello.”
She scowled and gave him a light punch on the shoulder. “That wasn’t very enthusiastic.”
“I’m screaming and bouncing like a teenage girl at an *NSync concert.” The corners of his mouth turned up. “ Just… on the inside.”
“I missed you too.” She squeezed him around the ribcage again. “Ya big lug.”
As Willow hugged Giles he tried to cover how touched he was with more-comfortable bemusement. Xander spotted his next target.
“Spike, you sexy beast, you.”
“Xander. You’re looking…” Spike let his gaze slide up and down Xander’s body, lingering about halfway through the journey. “Well.”
"So what was his name, Spike?” Xander asked. “Bubba? Butch? Big Mike?"
Spike raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
“The guy who made you his prison bitch. Well, we can always check the tattoo on your ass.” He sauntered a few steps closer to Spike, who didn’t move an inch. “Did you pick up any new tricks? What’s the going rate these days? One pack of smokes? Two?”
Spike beckoned Xander closer with a finger. Closer. And whispered one word.
Xander burst into laughter, howling so hard he worried about falling over.
“Give us a kiss.” Spike held his arms out wide, grinning like a loon. Xander took a step forward and Spike dipped him. Dipped him!
“No tongue.” Xander clutched the lapels of Spike’s duster. “Not until you buy me dinner.”
“They’re gonna be incorrigible, aren’t they?” Willow shot a knowing look at Buffy.
“Gonna be?” Buffy folded her arms across her chest.
Spike put his free hand across Xander’s mouth and passionately kissed the back of his own hand. Then he dropped Xander on his ass. Xander lay on his back, shaking helplessly with laughter, as Spike turned to face the other new arrival.
“Willow.” He gave her a sharp nod. “How was Hogwarts?”
“Wingardium leviosa!” Spike flinched. “Kidding. London was bloody brilliant. Now, come on. You just gave Xander a tonsil massage. The least I can get is a hug.”
Spike rolled his eyes, smirked, and submitted to Willow’s giddy affection.
“Ooh! Me next! Me next!” Dawn pushed her chair forwards. “Don’t make me run you over.”
“Dawntastica!” Xander leapt to his feet and pulled her almost completely out of her chair into a hug. “How you doing?”
“Good!” she replied. “Better, if you brought me something.”
“Of course.” Xander pretended shock that she could even ask such a thing.
“Dawn! Muffin!” Willow kissed her on the cheek and knelt down beside her. “How long are you wheelchair-bound?”
“At least two more weeks.”
Xander and Willow looked at each other. In unison, they nodded. “Disneyland.”
“Hello? Wheelchair. Straight to the front of the lines, VIP service.” Xander ruffled her hair. “Plus you’re so damn cute that we’re sure to score tons of perks.”
“Ooh,” Willow said. “Maybe we’ll get into that secret club near the Blue Bayou.”
“You’re on,” Dawn said. “But I get all the frozen lemonade I want, plus Minnie Mouse ears.”
Xander faked a scowl. “Fine. Deal.”
“Oz?” Buffy yelped, as she recognized the third newcomer. He hadn’t said anything - just stood at the edge of the group, a hint of amusement on his face. “Oz! Hey, look, guys, it’s Oz! Hi Oz.”
“Did I not tell you he was coming?” Willow looked like she was ten, and her mom caught her with sugared soda.
“I’m guessing not,” Oz said. He gave a little half-wave to the group.
“Oh.” Willow tried to smile. “Hey, Buffy! Guess what?”
“Oz is staying on our couch?”
“Um, yeah. He’s staying on your couch.” Willow said. “Unless that’s not cool with you, and we need to make other arrangements, I’m sure we can make other arrangements, we don’t want to put you out, I mean, more than we’re already -”
“Will! It’s cool.” Buffy grinned. “Good to see you, Oz.”
“Hi,” Dawn rolled up to him. “We haven’t met. Not really.”
He nodded once. “Yeah. Heard that.”
“Dawn. Brand-new Buffy sister made from big apocalyptic green energy ball.” She held out her hand and he shook it.
“Oz. Werewolf. Lead guitar.”
“My old boyfriend, pre-gender-preference switch,” Willow explained.
Xander chimed in. “Also, not big on the chatty.”
“Duh. I remember,” Dawn said. “It’s just, I wasn’t really here then. It’s our first real meeting. So it’s polite.”
"Zombies?" Oz asked.
"Oh, yeah. You saved me when African death mask zombies attacked the house. If you try to figure otherwise your brain will melt."
Oz nodded, and looked around the group. “Spike.”
“Oz.” Spike got a little tense. Wary. Steeling himself for another “one false step” speech. Xander could tell.
“So. You’ve succumbed to the Dark Side?”
The corner of Spike’s mouth quirked. “In a manner of speaking.”
The baggage carousel clicked into gear. The gang shifted over to get the luggage, Willow playing spotter while Spike and Buffy did the grunt work. But something was off. Missing. No. Someone.
“Where’s Faith?” Xander asked.
“Here.” She stood back, away from the group, hands buried in her pockets.
The world did a Sam Raimi quick push to extreme close-up of her face, one of those shots where the rest of the picture went bam! out of focus and got shoved completely out of the frame. Then everything dropped into slo-mo as she smiled, just this little curl at the corners of her mouth - it would’ve looked shy from any other girl on the planet, but on her it just seemed knowing. Like she was about to share a secret with him. She walked up to him, her hair bouncing a little around her shoulders, eyes huge and dark.
Oh holy God.
“Hey.” Good. He hadn’t been stunned speechless. Or swallowed his tongue.
“Hey.” She gave him a hint of a smile. “How’s my own personal Watcher?”
“Good. Good. Really good.” No blithering idiot, please. Going for complete absence of blithering idiot. “You?”
“Same old, same old.” She shrugged. “They get you nice and stuffed-shirty over there in Jolly Olde Whereever?”
“Heh. They tried. You… you look great.” She looked crappy. Like she hadn’t been sleeping well. Her skin was pale and dull and she had dark circles under her eyes. She’d been biting her nails, and he could see raw, worried spots around the cuticles of her thumbs. It didn’t matter. She was still gorgeous. “I missed you.”
“Yeah.” Her voice got tight. “Yeah.”
He pulled her into his arms. She tucked herself under his chin and rocked a little, side to side, holding onto him.
Willow was wrong. Something important - fundamental - was different. Which meant nothing would be the same.
The group moved through sterile corridors: white walls, cement floors, metal doors painted an industrial grey-blue. Down flights of stairs into an identical hallway. If he hadn’t known better he’d have assumed that the buzzing in the air was due to the fluorescent lights overhead.
It wasn’t.
Quentin Travers stopped in front of an anonymous steel door, the guard trailing a half-step. Behind him fanned out a half-dozen of his subordinates: McCullough, responsible for the magical artifact; Hardcastle with the paperwork; Simms to observe; Jhabwala, Griffiths, and Payden for the actual handling.
The guard paused before unlocking the door. “There are special precautions for this prisoner, sir. All visitors must be informed of and must adhere to these precautions at all times.”
“Go ahead.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” The guard’s voice took on the rote cadence of a memorized speech as the group proceeded down yet another corridor. “The prisoner is to have no writing implements of any kind: pencils, pens, crayon, chalk. No paint, ink, stain, or dye of any kind. No paper or tearable cloth. No access to flame of any kind. No candles. No extra salt or spices for his food. No tea. No coffee. No gum, mints, candy, extraneous food of any kind. No tobacco. No glass. No metal. Any potential contraband must be confiscated immediately.
“The prisoner is to have the most limited contact possible with his own bodily fluids, particularly blood, phlegm, semen. Hairbrushing and grooming must be strictly monitored; the prisoner must return all brushes and articles of grooming immediately after use. These implements must be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized after every contact with the prisoner.
“The prisoner is to be in restraints at any time a guard is present in his cell. Guards are to have no skin-to-skin contact with the prisoner, and must wear gloves at all times in his presence. Guards must refrain from eye contact with the prisoner at all times.”
They stopped before another door, this time a faded maroon. Travers flicked a glance to McCullough, who quickly scanned the door and then gave him a sharp nod. Excellent. All wards and spells were in place, as required.
“Do you understand these precautions as I have described them to you?” the guard asked, keys in hand.
“Yes, yes.” Travers waved an impatient hand at the guard. “We’re taking him.”
“Excuse me?”
“Hardcastle,” he ordered.
John Hardcastle stepped forward with a thick sheaf of legal documents. “You are hereby ordered to release prisoner #052270, Ethan Rayne, into the custody of the Council of Watchers. He is to be immediately transferred into our custody. In addition, you, and all other employees of this facility having contact with prisoner #052270, are herewith bound by strict confidentiality to abjure discussion of the status or whereabouts of said individual, on pain of immediate termination and criminal prosecution. Sign here, please.”
The guard stood there, mouth gaping. Travers cleared his throat, and the man fumbled for the pen and scrawled a shaky signature at Hardcastle’s direction.
McCullough mumbled a word or two, and the door swung open. Travers pushed through, noting with approval the guard in the cage on the far side. Continuing down the corridor past bare cell after bare cell, Travers at last reached the end.
Ethan Rayne lounged on his cot in a ten-by-ten cell, on the other side of six inches of Plexiglas. At the noise of the party’s approach, he lifted his head; then recognition hit, and he dropped it back into his pillow.
“Ethan.” No response. Travers raised his voice slightly. “Ethan? Mr. Rayne?”
The prisoner continued to sulk.
“Niamh?” Travers asked. “Get him up.”
McCullough whispered a few words. Rayne jerked to his feet, to a toy soldier-like stiffness. He stood in the middle of the cell, wearing bright orange scrubs and barefoot. Excellent. Shoes would’ve held much potential for mischief.
“Quentin!” he beamed. “It’s been too long! You haven’t aged well. Getting a bit… jowly.”
“Hmm. We have a proposition for you.”
“Does it involve you buggering off?”
“Let me make this perfectly clear, Mr. Rayne,” Travers said. “Should I choose to leave, you will stay in this cell. There is no question of this: no second chance, no better offer. Just these walls. This cell. Until the day you die.”
Rayne swallowed, as though he’d tasted something bitter. “Continue.”
“We have a use for you.” Travers smiled. “A very specific, carefully-monitored use. Wherein you will use your magical expertise to our directed ends.”
McCullough stepped forward with a rune-covered bracelet. “Do you know what this is, Mr. Rayne?”
“Silver. Bother.” Rayne grimaced. “White gold goes so much better with my skin tone.”
“Do you?”
He nodded.
“Insert your right wrist through the hole in the glass, please.”
Rayne waited a fraction of a second, but complied. McCullough snapped the bracelet around his wrist. The moment it latched the metal glowed and shifted. Ethan pulled his hand back and sucked in air through his teeth, nostrils flaring.
“Does it hurt?” Travers asked. Not concerned; merely curious.
“It’s a good pain,” Rayne sneered.
When the bracelet stopped shining, it had completely fused with his wrist. No longer a removable ornament, it looked more like an iridescent tattoo, as though the skin itself had been transformed into shimmering metal. Ethan watched the metal ripple and twist as he rotated his hand.
“Now,” Travers said. “You are, of course, aware that this is a monitor bracelet.”
Again, Niamh stepped forward. She held out a small translucent sphere. “This is a simple device, little more than a flashlight. Take it, please.”
Rayne took it, making sure to run a caress across her hand. She appeared not to notice. “Please press the button on the device.”
He looked down and made a face. “Can we take the lesson as given?”
“I think not,” Travers said. “The button, please.”
Rayne thumbed the button. And collapsed to the floor in a boneless pile, his head cracking against the cement.
Each member of the team bared their left wrist, to expose standard metal bands flashing white light.
“Excellent.” Travers adjusted his cuff. “If, at any time, you use unauthorized magic, the bracelet will activate. At which time all control over your skeletal and voluntary muscles will cease. You will be unable to move -- will, in fact, be reduced to your current state - until the warning is physically deactivated by one of the Watchers standing here. Is that perfectly clear?”
Travers waited for a response. Ethan continued to lay puddled on the floor. “Oh. Of course.” Travers gestured to the guard. “Open this, please.”
The door swung open and McCullough stepped into the cell.
“I should warn you that this will be painful.” She knelt a few feet from Rayne, pulled his wrist from his side, and pressed a few key spots on the band. He spasmed, his entire body shaking and jerking, and then snatched his wrist out of her grasp. He sat on the floor, holding himself up with one hand, his breath ragged and panicked.
“Now,” Travers asked. “Are we clear?”
Rayne looked up at him, glaring murder.
“Ethan?” Travers prodded.
“How high?”
“Excuse me?”
“You want me to jump, correct?” Rayne’s lips curled in a bitter smile. “How. High?”


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