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

Episode Five: Cementing

by adjrun
***
"You all settled in?" Buffy stood in the doorway of the room that was once her mother's. The Great Welcome Home Party was over - she'd said goodnight to Giles after they'd tidied up the kitchen, and Dad and Lydia had taken off about a half-hour before that. Faith had made an appearance as well, then left to patrol. Buffy looked around the room: Willow's and Xander's luggage was stacked in a haphazard pile in one corner. She supposed Oz's lone duffel was buried in there somewhere, though he'd kept his guitar in the living room. Both she and Willow were jammie-clad and ready for bed. "I brought you some more pillows."

"Thanks." Willow shut her suitcase, hauled it off the bed, and flopped down on top of the comforter. Buffy joined her, sitting cross-legged at Willow's feet.

"Uggh. So full," Willow groaned.

"Yeah. That steak was as big as your head."

"I'm so full you could rub my belly and make a wish."

"Xander sleeping in here? Or downstairs on the hide-a-bed with Oz?" Buffy paused a moment. "Forget I asked that question."

"It'll be just like kindergarten. Only, post-puberty and minus the footie pajamas."

Xander came through the door, his arms full of food: chips, salsa, two Tupperware containers, a bag of M&M's, bottles of soda.

"Hey!" Buffy said. "I thought you were doing the bonding thing with the guys."

"Spike started showing Oz the new motorcycle," he replied. "I understood the words 'Harley' and 'Knucklehead' and '1947.' And then they started talking cylinders and rocker boxes, and I felt like much less of a man and had to leave."

"So you decided to come do the bonding thing with the girls." Willow patted the bed, inviting him to sit. "Yay!"

"Feeling like even less of a man."

"Grr," Buffy said. "My dad reimbursed him for the DeSoto's reincarnation as a tin can, right? The minute we got back home Spike bought a motorcycle. A motorcycle! How stupid is it for a vampire to drive a motorcycle? No sun protection, so he can only use the thing at night. And they're total deathtraps. Get in a wreck, get your leg torn off. Immortal or not, you can't regrow a leg."

"But it's cool?" Xander asked.

"Very cool." Buffy giggled. "I turn into a total girl every time I see him ride it."

"And the Xander man-meter has plummeted to an all-time low." He sat, dumping his kitchen loot in the middle of the bed.

"Hey!" Willow said. "You - you brought food back. To the wimmins. You are a mighty hunter. Very manly."

"Plus, you're in bed with two hot chicks." Buffy reached for the chips.

"On bed. On. Critical distinction." He opened a bottle of soda and took a quick sip. "But thanks for the balm to my ego. And the visual."

"So. Buff." Willow struggled to sit up. "How are you? Really."

Buffy sighed. "There's a question."

"Start with the easy stuff."
"Um. Okay." She grabbed a bottle of root beer, thinking. "The slaying's picked up a bit. Gone from big fat heaping load of nothing to big fat heaping load of almost nothing. I'm behind on my training, from living at the hospital; but another week and I'll be back in shape."

"Insert standard Watcher supportive encouragement here," Xander said.

"Spike and I are good. Really good. Like, knock on wood, Ed McMahon on my doorstep, 'I don't have this kind of luck' good." She looked down at her hands. "He was incredible after the accident. I would've fallen apart a thousand times. Did fall apart. And each time, he just ... helped me put it back together. And he lost it too, sometimes, but only when I was strong enough to hold him up. Like he knew it would make me stronger to help him. Like we both knew."

"I wish I'd been here," Willow said. "The accident? I should've. This close to hopping on a plane."

"I told you not to, Will."

"And are you, in fact, the boss of me?" Willow shook her head. "I should've come."

"Dawn was - I've never been so scared. Not with Glory, not when that kid almost turned her, not when she faced down the Master. Weeks and weeks of not knowing, of dread and hope fighting constant battles in my gut." Buffy shrugged. "And then she got home, and I wanted to kill her myself."

"Not a good invalid?" Xander asked.

"Doubleplusungood," Buffy answered. "It's better now. Like, light-years better. But then Dad moved to Sunnydale. Which is nice, and wonderful, and ..."

"Bizarre."

"Mondo bizarro." Buffy dunked a chip in the salsa. "Did you see him and Giles, glaring at each other over the barbecue?"

"Aww," Xander said. "Buffy has two daddies."

"Heh. And ew." She looked up. "Not in a gay way. In a picturing-my-dad-having-sex way."

"I knew that." Willow grinned. Then her smile faded, though she fought to keep it. "Besides, parents? Not exactly chock-full of the advice, there."

Buffy made her scrunchy sympathy face. "Are you even talking to them?"

"We're talking. Monosyllables. Long pauses. Lots of tasty awkwardness and disappointment."

"They're morons," Buffy said. "You know you can stay as long as you need, right?"

"Or with me," Xander said. "Mi apartment es su apartment. Once I actually have an apartment for su to share."

"I know. Thanks." Willow reached for another soda. "But I'll help out. Or pay rent, or something. I don't want to be all freeloady."

"Well, ain't this a mo for the Wayback Machine." Spike pushed the door open and stuck his head in the room. "Original Scoobies, together again."

"Hey." Buffy waved him over to the bed. "You check on Dawn?"

"Dead to the world." He smiled. "Metaphorically. And Oz found the mountain of bedding on the couch, and thanks you for it."

"Oh, Spike," Xander said. "Watched some soccer over in England. In lieu of there being anything on TV which actually resembles a sport."

"Your point?"

"Pretty cool game, once you start seeing the strategy. The Gunners can play, too."

"You're an Arsenal supporter?" Spike shook his head, disgusted. "Bloody hell. Completely beyond salvation."

"Just because they're kicking Man U's ass."

"Just because you're a sodding infidel," Spike replied. "Tell you what. We'll watch a match, I'll show you what's what, and you'll be over that pathetic misapprehension in no time flat."

"Dude, you can try."

"Grab a pillow," Buffy said. "Join the big reunion."

Spike stood there, considering. Then, "Nah. I'll leave you to it. Night, all."

"Wait up for me?" Buffy asked.

His eyes got soft look, the one that made her all melty. "Wake me up."

"'Kay." She pulled his head down to kiss him.

Xander shuddered. "Okay, enough with the sex talk."

"Walls are thin, Harris," Spike said. "Get used to selective deafness."

Xander groaned as Spike gave Buffy a last kiss and left, closing the door behind him.

"Sorry," Buffy said, not sorry at all. "Did I mention that we're really good right now? Really good. Really really really good."

"I caught that, yeah." Willow pulled a piece of fruit out of a Tupperware container. "I should point out that you're talking to the King and Queen of Not Gettin' Any."

"And I'm likely to rule my kingdom for many a moon to come." Xander dug into the bag of chips. "Um. Buffy. Did Faith seem a little ... off to you tonight?"

"Well, she's been spending lots of time with Anderson. We haven't seen as much of her." Buffy thought for a moment. "Faith's always - well, she swings between life-of-the-party and fade-in-the-corner."

"She was all corner tonight," Willow pointed out. "I didn't even know when she left."

"Me neither," Buffy said. "I mean, I assume that she left to patrol, but ... I don't remember her saying anything tonight. And she's been really happy lately. Tonight, not so much."

Xander sighed. "I think something's up. Something's wrong."

"Monitor, or intervention?" Buffy asked.

"Monitor, for now. She Bronzing it tomorrow with the gang?"

"You kidding?" Willow said. "Giles. Singing. In public. Who's gonna miss that?"

Buffy took a big handful of M&M's. "So? How was England? Tell all."

"Oh, Buffy, you would've loved it!"

***

Sunnydale looked the same. Not the same as after the battle, when the soggy burnt reek of drowned campfire clung to everything. When mud from the trenches and the battlefield tracked all over town and he could taste ash in the air, feel the grit of it on his skin. When everyone on the streets looked exhausted and shell-shocked, but beneath the blood- and muck-streaked faces was this look. Victory, or joy, or satisfaction, or all three swirled up into, "Thank God we won and it's over."

Nope. Sunnydale looked like it did back when he was a kid, but cleaner. They'd done an amazing job of restoring the town to its previous unremarkability: generic buildings, Everytown storefronts, the occasional stucco building or palm tree to prove it was California. The trees along this stretch of street were new, and they'd done a ton of landscaping. Xander couldn't even see where the great big flaming trench had cut through the football field. Some of the repairwork would've been headache after headache - good that he wasn't managing that site.


Not that the new job couldn't put a throb in the noggin. He'd spent the whole morning at the Magic Box, and would spend the afternoon there as well. First he got a status report from Giles. Then another report from Lydia, only longer, with bigger words and a PowerPoint presentation. Then both Lydia and Giles informed him of Faith's current fitness level, training regimen, psychological workup, the results of her latest physical including bloodwork. Bloodwork. Apparently the knowledge of his Slayer's potassium level was crucial, earthshattering information. After that, Faith gave him the four-one-one - "Not much. Fought Stretch Armstrong. Kicked his ass."

And the thing that drove him nuts, that sent him out of the Magic Box for some half-assed excuse that he'd already forgotten, was that the entire morning's briefing didn't address what he really wanted to know. What was the matter with Faith? Why was that look creeping back into her eyes: the haunted, wounded thing she covered up with "I don't give a rat's ass" and "Five by five?" But all he could see when he looked at her was pain. She ached with it, every moment. How could they not see it? How could they get caught up in a slightly elevated potassium level, and not get that something critical was dying inside her?

Faith.

Damn.

Like flicking on the light switch in a dark room, when you thought nobody was there. And there she is, sitting on the couch. And you're surprised - not because you didn't expect her to be there, but because you did. You knew she was there, with everything that you were, but you hadn't thought about it.

Sometime, in the time away, he had fallen in love.

He couldn't. He'd just have to get over it. Too many reasons why. Too soon. It was the worst possible thing for him, the worst possible thing for her. He was her Watcher. That was that. So suck it up, and get over it.

His feet had taken him to the cemetery - the new one, filled to three-quarters capacity six months ago, when they'd noticed a big drop in business. There she was, just below the fountain, and a little over from the simple plaque reading "In Memoriam: December 24, 2001."

Technically, she hadn't died on the 24th . November 20th, at about 10:30 pm. He didn't know the time exactly. Anyone who could've checked a watch was at that point either fighting for their lives or already knocked out. He wished he knew the exact time, though. It bugged him. She would've appreciated the precision.

They'd put her in this section anyway. A flat stone marker in the sunlight, near the rose bushes, surrounded by other early victims. He ran his fingers over the letters - Anya Christina Emmanuella Jenkins - cut into the marble. Such finality to that. No takebacks. Carved in stone, after all. His fingers rubbed harder and harder over the words. Picturing the letters erased, smoothed out, and the truth of her death gone with her name on the memorial.

"I miss you." Xander whispered it to the stone.

"Well, good." He could hear her, clearer than if she'd really come to stand beside him. In one of those tight, frilly skirts and impossible shoes, with a conservative little sweater set. "I haven't been dead all that long."

"Feels long. And feels like yesterday."

"You're feeling guilty." She scowled at him. "Don't feel guilty, Xander."

"But-"

"Oh! Is it because you love Faith? I'm dead, stupid. I can't give you any more orgasms. Well, I can. But an active imagination and your right hand is no match for an actual partner."

Xander laughed, a raw thing that tore out of him.

"You're young." She ticked each point off on her fingers. "You're happier when having regular sexual intercourse, and you're rare, in my experience with young men, in that you prefer to have sex while in a monogamous relationship. Most men are far less discriminating, you know."

"Um ..." he said. "Thanks, Honey."

"Faith may not have my thousand years of experience in pleasuring a lover, but those Slayer abilities should make up for a lot. Strength, flexibility, endurance. Plus, she's got a very nice rack."

"You-wait." He shook his head, trying to clear it. His vision had gotten blurry. "Why are you saying this?"

"Men who are happy in relationships usually find another partner quickly. Within a year or so. Or, they die," Anya said. "I don't want you to die, Xander. Oh. Oh! You don't think I want you to be like that stupid movie, where he dies, and there's Whoopi Goldberg and pottery?"

"No, Honey, I know you hated that film." Great, now he was laughing and crying while talking to Imaginary Anya.

"Exactly," she fumed. "A pro-suicide manifesto masquerading as a chick flick. No. Here's what it comes down to. Do you love me?"

"Yes." Such an easy question. "God, I love you, Anya."

"Do you love me less, now that you love Faith?"

He had to think for a minute. "Different. It's changed a little, but not less."

"Good." She beamed at him. "I love you, Xander. I want you to be happy. And staring at the wall in your apartment moping is not happiness. We clear?"

"Transparent."

"So. It's settled." Anya crossed her arms with satisfaction. "Get out there, and get laid."

Xander spent a few seconds watching her, holding on to that scrap of belief that she was actually there. Then he blinked and she was gone, leaving behind only the letters of her name carved into marble. He kissed his fingers and pressed them to the stone. "Bye, Baby."

***

"That's it, Dawn, just a few more feet." Anna, the Inquisition torturer reincarnated as physical therapist, urged her forward. "You're doing really well, don't slack off now."

Dawn stood clutching the handles of a walker, Spike hovering a few inches behind her, braced to catch her if she keeled over. She inched her left foot forward, arms trembling with the effort of holding up her weight, and dragged her other foot up to meet it.

"Good. Another."

Evil. No other word for it. Dawn struggled a few more inches.

"Another."

Wicked. Malicious. Diabolical. Fiendish. Whadda you know, there were more words. She blew out a panting breath, scooted the walker away, and shuffled towards it a fraction of a centimeter.

"And ..."

Dawn couldn't help shooting a pleading look over her sweaty, stinky, overworked shoulder. Anna took a long moment to consider her patient and relented. "That's good."

"Yeah?" Dawn tried to stop her arms from shaking, to make exhaustion look like nonchalance. "'Cause I can do more. Few more laps around the room. No big."

"Uh-huh. Right." Anna put her hands on her hips. "And the fact that you're about to faceplant in the middle of my nice clean floor?"

Dawn's elbow started to buckle. "Okay, well, there is that."

"Not to mention that you're doing about four times better than expected," Anna added. "So, why don't we call it a day? I'm going to go make some quick modifications to your home regimen - add some fun little exercises into the daily mix - and then I'll be back and we can get you out of here."

"Yay." No way could she make that sound enthusiastic. "Fun. Whoopee."

Anna trotted out of the room, Dawn's file clasped in one arm like she was Julie the Cruise Director. The second she left the room, Dawn started to wilt into the walker; but Spike gathered her up and settled her onto the nearest examining table. She fought off the alluring thought of collapsing flat on her back and not moving for a month or two. Instead she propped herself up to a sitting position with her broken leg stuck out in front of her and the other dangling off the side. Spike hopped up on the next table, facing her.

"Ugh," she moaned. "I feel like an overcooked noodle. I'm all woobley."

"On the bright side, you look like crap on toast."

"Bite me." She scrunched her nose at him.

He grinned. "Look beat, is all. Get you home, shove you in the bath, get some lunch in the belly and a bit of a nap, and you'll be back to being our Pretty Pretty Princess. Sound good?"

"Sounds perfect." Dawn sighed. Little strands of hair stuck to her face. Sometime between the rack and the hot pokers, about half of her ponytail had pulled out and glommed onto her sweaty face and neck. It felt beyond gross - definitely time for repair work. She yanked the rubber band out of her hair and it shot halfway across the room and out the door.

"Mother pusbucket!"

Spike snickered. "Oh, yeh. Points for that one."

"Just go get my hair thingie, willya?"

"Somebody lose this?" A guy said from the doorway, twiddling the rubber band in his fingers. "Dawn?"

She did a little double-take. "Bryce? Hey, what are you doing here?"

"P.T. Same as you, looks like." He took a few limping steps into the room and handed her the rubber band. Then he pointed to the brace on his right knee. "Messed up my ACL in spring league. No big."

"Ow. You going to be okay?" Dawn asked.

"Well, I'll never play the piano again," he said.

"Ah." She joined him in mock seriousness. "A tragic loss to the world of classical music."

"Yeah. My rendition of 'Chopsticks' could reduce strong men to tears." He grinned, breaking the mood. "But the knee'll be fine for this fall. What about you? Last school gossip said, you were spending the summer with your dad in L.A."

She had to keep it light. "Tried to drive a car under a bus. Succeeded."

"Really?" His eyes widened. "Oh - man, you okay? You could've-"

Spike broke in. "Spent two weeks in a coma, broken both her legs, and suffered temporary paralysis?" He had that 'Touch Her And I'll Rip Out Your Intestines Through Your Eyesockets' glare.

Dawn shot back her own glare, warning him to be civil. "Spike, this is Bryce. Bryce, Spike. My sister's - um, guy."

Bryce still looked shocked, but gamely continued the conversation. "I remember. From Christmas Eve." He stuck out his hand. "How do you do, sir?"

"You? You fought in the battle?" Spike asked. The Look went down two notches, to 'Touch Her And I'll Force-feed You a Live Grenade' level, and he actually shook Bryce's hand.

"I ran. I mean - I was a runner. Messages, supplies, first-aid stuff? My parents got put on triage duty, and they wanted me out of the ranks. So, no special missions or anything for me." He put his hands in his pockets, suddenly nervous. "I saw you, though."

"Yeh?"

"Hard to miss. You killed six vampires in about four seconds. With a big old sword. It was ... the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life."

"Good. We're setting off on the right foot then." Down a whole three notches, to 'Touch Her and I'll Put Strychnine in Your Soda.'

"Spike." She tried to inject as much warning into her voice as possible. "We're friends. Bryce doesn't think of me like that."

Bryce lifted an eyebrow. "I don't?"

"You and Shelley?" Dawn said, puzzled. "The dating equivalent of Siamese twins? For the last two years?"

"We had the separation surgery." He shrugged. "She dumped me. College guy."

"Ow." Suddenly Dawn remembered the fact that she looked like lukewarm ass.

"Surprisingly not as painful as I thought it would be. So. You ...you gonna be home tonight?"

"Why?"

Bryce looked down at the toe of his sneaker. "Well, I thought I might ... give you a call. Check on you."

"Oh." A massive happy bubbled up inside her chest. "Oh! Nope. No. I'm sorry. We've got - um, my sister's boss, kinda? He's singing at the Bronze tonight. And we're being all yay and supporty. Plus, he's amazing. You know, for being ancient."

"Well, another night. I'll call you." A thought struck him, and he turned to Spike. "Um, if that's all right with you, sir."

Spike said nothing. The long pause stretched into uncomfortable silence.

"Bryce plays soccer!" Dawn blurted out.

A hint of a smile lurked at the corners of Spike's mouth. "That right?"

"Yes sir. Forward." Bryce looked from Spike back to Dawn, sure that he'd missed something.

"You can call," Dawn said. "It's fine with him. Well, as fine as he gets."

"Then I'll call."

"Yeah. Do that."

"Great!" Bryce backed up a few steps, to head out of the room. Then he stopped and smiled at her. "Dawn. I'm glad you're gonna be all right."

Dawn smiled back. She kept smiling: after Bryce had gone, as Spike drove her home, over a perfect grilled cheese sandwich, through a long soak in the tub. Even falling into the deep sleep of a sorely needed nap, she continued to smile.

***

"Lydia! Lydia!" Willow waved her arm above her head. "Over here!"
Lydia worked her way across the dance floor of a surprisingly full Bronze, shouldering through convulsing masses a decade younger than she. There, near support pillars for the catwalk overhead, they'd pushed together two tall tables with a clear view of the stage and gathered enough stools for a small platoon. Buffy, Spike, Faith, Dawn, Xander, Willow, Oz: the girls all dressed for a night on the town, the boys all... well, pretty much standard, actually. Oz wore a shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Murder Burger. So good, they're to die for!" Lovely. Still, an improvement over last night's Sex Wax shirt.

"Hello, all." She perched herself on a single empty stool. "Quite the posh location."

"We camped out early," Dawn said. "Open mike night is a big deal around here."

Xander leaned in to grab his glass. "Of course, so is All-You-Can-Eat Night at Chester's Chicken Shack."

"Our hometown?" Oz added. "Neither sophisticated, nor cosmopolitan."

"Hey!" Buffy protested. "Nobody throws an apocalypse like good ol' Sunnydale."

Oz nodded. "Always a good evening's entertainment."

Lydia looked over at the counter, still somewhat nonplused. She preferred her bars smaller, dimmer, quieter, smokier. With fewer gyrating prepubescents. "I don't suppose one could procure a decent glass of wine in this place?"

"Wine, yes. Decent? Debatable." Spike slid out of his seat. "Anyone else need a bevvy?"

A chorus of requests answered him. He rolled his eyes and backed up a step. "Fine, fine. But I'll need another Sherpa."

Oz stood. "Call me Tenzing."

Dawn crinkled her nose as they walked off. "Okay, was I supposed to get that?"

Buffy and Faith did matching "you got me" expressions, and Willow giggled into her soda.

Lydia took a moment to scan the room. According to the blackboard out front, live performances started at eight, still a good fifteen minutes off. Rupert headed up the slate, so she'd not be obligated to sit through the entire event. Thank goodness. She could barely tolerate the annoyingly generic techno-pop booming through the sound system, let alone the cavalcade of "local talent" to follow. Rupert came through the door to what she presumed was backstage and moved in their direction, his eyes searching through the crowd until he almost walked right past them.

Faith reached out and snagged him by the sleeve. "Giles. Hey."

He turned. It took a moment for him to focus on them. Then he smiled, suddenly boyish. "Oh. You're here. All of you. Right up front." A nervous laugh. "Where I can see you. Well. Splendid."

"You'll kick ass," Faith said.

"Just do your best," Lydia said. "That's all anyone can wish for."

"Thank you, Lydia, for that ringing endorsement."

"Have you heard Giles sing before?" Willow asked. "He's pretty amazing."

He began to demur, but Lydia couldn't help find herself annoyed. "Of course. Rupert excels at everything. Research, training, public performance, home maintenance, auto repair ..."

Buffy nodded. "He also juliennes fries."

"I - really. It's a hobby. After my most recent ..."

"Braining," Buffy supplied.

"Yes. Precisely." He shot her a mild look of reproof. "It ... behooved me to work on my manual dexterity. And I've always enjoyed singing, when my schedule allowed time for it."

"Seriously," Willow said. "I'll bet you a shiny nickel he knocks you on your hiney."

"A nickel?" Lydia couldn't hide her amusement. "Yes, that shows faith in his talents."

"Oh." Willow rose to the challenge. "I can do serious stakes. Name your wager."

"If it's less than a hundred, don't waste my time."

Willow blanched and pulled out her wallet. "Um. Yikes. That's wager with a capital whoa, isn't it!"

Faith and Buffy each slapped twenties on the table. Xander tossed two. Dawn, with smug little smirk, unfolded a final twenty.

"A hundred it is!" Willow beamed. She sat up straight and folded all the money together, gloating a little.

"Ganging up on me, are you?" Lydia placed a hundred dollar bill on the table.

"It's a sucker bet," Xander said. "His singing? Could make an incredibly and confidently straight man like pink."

"Who likes pink?" Oz slid drinks across the table.

"Um, men. Who listen to Giles. Singing. It's kind of ... sexy. For some. Heh."

"I'll look forward to that." He sat. "Pink's never been my color."

Rupert looked bemused and not a little flattered by their overabundant praise.

"Lydia's giving away her money, is she?" Spike set down an armful of glasses and a pitcher of beer, and then tossed a bottle of Evian to Rupert. "Sorry I missed that action."

This was getting old. "You're awfully sure of him. Remember, I am the one ascertaining whether I'm - what were the terms again?"

"Knocked on your hiney." Willow took her beer from Spike. "Thanks!"

"Precisely. And I can assure you, if I'm anything short of overwhelmed, you've lost your bet."

"Trust me," Buffy said. "You're going to be so high above whelmed, you're going to need binoculars to even see whelmed."

Lydia rolled her eyes and took a sip of a surprisingly tolerable house red. Spike remained standing as he poured beer, handing glasses to Xander and Oz. As he tried to pour a last one for himself, Buffy took advantage of the height of her stool, pulled him back between her legs and nuzzled at his neck.

Xander snickered. "If you're checking for a pulse, I think you're out of luck there, Buff."

Buffy stuck her tongue out at Xander and then proceeded to stick said tongue down Spike's throat. Spike reciprocated enthusiastically. Really, the two put the 'display' in 'Public Display of Affection,' didn't they? A little stifled noise, like something choked back, caught Lydia's attention. Faith - she watched the couple's affection, and something seemed to go concave inside her, a shell collapsing into the hollow beneath. She pushed herself almost violently to her feet.

"Faith?" Xander took a step after her. She stopped him.

"I'm gonna dance. Be right back."

"Ooh. There's a thought." Buffy watched her go and shot Xander a significant look. Then she lifted her foot above the table, showing it to Spike. "Look, Honey. Boogie shoes."

Spike made a snide comment about "noise" and "talentless" and "bloody pop music", but let himself be dragged out to the dance floor.

Giles's eyes followed the couple; he watched them for a long minute. Then he turned to Xander. "You're keeping an eye on Faith, aren't you?"

"What, not fooled by Buffy's cunning ruse?" Xander asked.

"Subterfuge was never her forte."

"Yep. Our Buffster sucks with the subtle."

"Thank you. Faith - I didn't want to mention it, but she's been a little ..." He sought her out in the crowd. "Distant. Guarded. It's been a relatively recent phenomenon, and I didn't want to alarm you."

"That's cool. My alarms went off all by themselves."

Lydia put down her wine glass. "Bloody ... How did I not notice? I mean, that bit just there. That's the first time she's seemed out of sorts to me."

"It's just been the last few days, Lydia," Rupert said mildly. "And we have been rather busy."

"Right. What with the move, and the transition, and the reports," Xander offered. Then he muttered, "And the potassium levels."

"Xander," Rupert warned. "The important thing is, we've recognized that there's a problem. And, as a group, we can work to identify and correct said problem." He softened. "She's quite unhappy, I think."

"Yeah." Xander took a moment to answer. "I kind of hate it."

"Well, then." His tone promised a continuation of the topic. "I'll be backstage. And I shall see you afterwards."

Rupert's absence left an uncomfortable silence behind him. Xander stared off to the dance floor. He took occasional sips of his beer, but his focus never changed. Lydia promised herself a good bout of self-flagellation and marveled at her capacity for obtuseness. The others caught their perturbation, letting the conversation lull and smiling uncomfortably.

Then a young man with a rather diffident air came up to the table. Dark tousled hair, and jeans that actually fit rather than sagging down somewhere below his knees. The second Dawn saw him, she straightened in her chair. Nervous energy showed itself in the hand tapping against her leg.

"Hey." The boy nodded to the group but addressed himself directly to Dawn.

"Bryce. Hey." Dawn tucked her hair behind one ear, almost pulling off casual flirtation.

"I don't want to bug you, I just ... I know from experience how much physical therapy sucks. And yours has to make mine look like nothing. So I burned you a CD." He pulled a case out of his pocket and handed it to her.

"That's so cool!" She looked up at him, her eyes huge. "Thanks!"

"Wait 'til you hear it." He looked a little embarrassed. "It's all cheesy, go-get-'em, 'We Are The Champions' type stuff. But maybe it'll help you stay motivated. Or laughing hysterically at me. Anything to make it go quicker, right?"

She flipped the disc over in her hand and read through the songlist. "'Eye of the Tiger', from Rocky 3?"

"Hey, I said it was cheesy." He made a grab at the CD, his charming little blush visible even in the dim light.

Dawn pulled the CD under the table. "No, it's nice ... Really. It's thoughtful." She smiled. "I love it. Thank you."

"It's just that ..." He looked away from the table, as though trying to find the right words. "I remember seeing you dance in here. And I want to see it again. Sooner the better."

He began to walk away, and then turned back. "And, with me. Okay, I'm done. Bye."

"Bye." Dawn waved at him, unaware of her slightly fatuous expression.

Willow waited until the boy had left, and then spun to Dawn. "Oooh, he's pretty. That's a pretty, pretty boy."

"Yeah!" Dawn crowed. "Not that I'm, like, interested or anything."

Willow scoffed. "No, of course not. What color were his eyes, now? Gray?"

"Blue. But he has this shirt he wears where they almost look green. He's six-two, he's gonna be a senior, he's really smart - in all the college prep courses and stuff, but his favorite is AP History. His parents are doctors: like, his dad's a regular doctor and his mom's an obstetrician, or maybe a gynecologist, I'm not sure. And he's a starting forward on the soccer team and he swims in the winter and, okay, I'm a little obsessed."

"He's a senior?" Willow asked.

"Oh, come on. He's two years older than me. Buffy gets to say nothing."

"Point," Oz said.

"Besides, Spike met him. And he got all the way down to the 'Touch Her and I'll Break Your Kneecaps' Glare."

"Wow. The Glare fell below lethal level?" Willow looked impressed. "That's Nigh Approval."

"I know! But." She put on her wheedle face. "Don't say anything to Buffy yet. I mean, it's so early, and he hasn't called me. I don't want to jinx it. Besides, she'll be all 'Have you seen him in sunlight?' and 'Swimming? He could be a fish boy' and 'Have you checked him for a pulse?' And after the accident she's already in Nutso Overprotecto Mode."

"And she'll tease you mercilessly."

Dawn nodded. "And she'll tease me mercilessly."

"I dunno, Dawnie. I think Buffy should know."

Buffy appeared at the table. "Buffy should know what?"

"That - Dawn - drank the last of the milk. Bad. Bad Dawn."

"Shame on me," Dawn added, stifling a grin.

"Okay, no big, we'll get more." Buffy turned to Xander, all business. "Faith took off."

"That's weird." Dawn pointed to the stage. "Giles hasn't sung yet."

"Yeah, hence my drawing attention to it." She grabbed her jacket.

Xander stood. "I'm on it. It's cool. She doesn't need a whole posse after her."

"But -"

"I'm her Watcher. This is my job."

"As am I," Lydia said. "Perhaps I should -"

"You. Stay. You have a bet to lose."

Spike came to the table. "She's with a guy. Not Anderson. Silver Toyota. She's about halfway climbed his tree, there in the parking lot."

"Okay, thanks."

Xander took off towards the exit. Spike followed, catching his arm. Lydia strained to hear them over the din of the music. "Harris. This looks kind of ... private. Maybe we should just mind our own business?"

"Faith is my business. I'll call if I need you."

The lights had dimmed by the time Spike returned to their table. Buffy shot him a questioning look. He shrugged and pulled her into his arms, pressing a quick kiss to her temple. The crowd hushed, waiting for the first performer.

Rupert stepped into the spotlight alone and perched on the stool in front of a standing mike. He took a moment, settling the guitar on his knee and adjusting the strap on his shoulder, before fingering a few silent chords on the frets. He cleared his throat, once. Then he flashed a quick smile at the audience and broke into the first song.

"I'll never be your beast of burden
My back is broad but it's a hurting
All I want is for you to make love to me ..."

Lydia's bones turned to caramel. The pitch of his voice set up a sympathetic resonance inside her, the singular timbre making her thrum like a tuning fork.

"Ain't I hard enough
Ain't I rough enough
Ain't I rich enough
I'm not too blind to see"
She didn't even like tenors. Squeaky, boy-band, ferrets on helium, the lot of them. But this - this had a sharpness, and a richness, and a power, that was turning her insides into a puddle of warm want. Made her wonder if he'd show this facility, this easy command, in other activities. Naked activities.

For months, blissful ignorance. Now this awareness exploded in her head, so she was bloody well arching for it. Everything about this man was attractive. The strength of his hands, the dexterity of his fingers and the power in his wrists. The breadth of his shoulders. The intensity in his eyes. The way his mouth moved. The way he breathed.

"I don't need no beast of burden
I need no fussin'
I need no nursing
Never, never, never, never, never, never, never be ..."

Willow turned to Lydia. "Well?"

Without a word, without her gaze ever leaving the man onstage, Lydia pushed her money across the table.

***

Mount the guy. Pound him into the lumpy hotel mattress. Fast, hard. Don't worry about him. He'd get there - they always got there. A glimpse of the guy underneath her, working, gasping, straining. Slam the eyes shut. Bedspread crumpled up in clenched fists. Reach for it. Reach ...


"Damn. My God, that was ..." Yeah, he got his. "What was your name again?"

"Shut up."

Faith pushed herself off the bed and went into the bathroom. Shut the door behind her. Peed. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her gaze leapt away from her reflection like ice on a hot skillet.

The guy still lay there, sacked out on the bed. Naked and spent, he looked silly now. Weak. Pathetic.

She had to get out of here.

Where were her clothes? Oh. Jeans, far side of the bed, panties down one leg. Tank top on the floor. Shoes. Sock, sock, sock. Other sock? Under the bed. Just shove the shoes on.

And out the door.

"Hey."

She spun around. Xander. Leaning against the stucco motel wall.

"Having fun?"

***

First there was a flash of "Oh shit - busted" in her eyes. Then defiance, unapologetic, waiting for him to judge her actions. To proclaim her a slut, like in some novel with Puritans and pointy fingers. So she could tear him a new asshole for being a judgmental prick.

Nope. He'd been nailed too many times for judgmental prickdom. Not falling into that trap. Besides, freakily enough, he didn't feel judgey. Or hurt. Wigged at the lack of judgey and hurt, sure. But mostly just worried. So he leaned against the wall and waited.

She kept staring at him. The attitude melted away though she fought to hold onto it. He saw her try to shove a mask of indifference in its place, to hide behind the safety of pretending not to give a rat's ass. But he could see the hurt in her eyes - the ache beyond hollow. It drew him in, like a gravity well pulling him onto his toes, overbalancing him, so he'd have to take a step towards her or fall flat on his face. And she knew he recognized her vulnerability, more uncomfortable for her than tromping around naked. So she walked off, fast as she could, pride the only thing keeping her from sprinting off into the night.

Xander pushed off of the wall to follow her.

"The job description is Watcher," she said. "Not Stalker."

"What are you doing, Faith?" He kept tailing after her.

"Don't you mean, who am I doing? That go in the reports?" She laughed. "So, what. Now you're keeping track of who I fuck?"

"Are you?"

She whirled to face him. "Wait. I get it. You think that because you've had my ass once you've got some kind of claim on it?" She ran her hand down her flank, then let it linger at her hip. "Is this just about you wanting another taste, another ride? Thinking you could give it a better go this time?"

He couldn't think about that. "No, Faith. Strangely, I've grown past the any-sex-is-good-sex phase."

She winced. "Then stay the hell out of it."

"This isn't about who you sleep with. 'Cause I don't care. I don't care if you line up every guy in the Bronze and take them, one right after the other. If that makes you happy, fine. Did that make you happy?"

"Screw you, Harris!" Faith took a step backwards, bouncing on her toes like a yippy dog on a leash.

He kept pushing. "Tell me! Are you happy?"

"Dammit!"

"Are you?" he yelled.

She grabbed his shirtfront with one hand and cocked a fist. He flinched back.

"Oh." Realization flashed across her face. And horror. "Oh, Xander, no, no, I'm sorry, oh shit, oh, I'm sorry, I didn't..."

She'd let go of his shirt. Now it was as though she had to ward off a blow, as if her arms were the last thing that could protect her. But the thing she fought against was her own need to cry. And she was losing. "... I'm sorry, I didn't think, I didn't mean ..."

She sobbed.

"Shh, it's okay, it's okay, come here." He pulled her into a hug. Her elbows stayed tucked against her body, her hands pushing a little against his chest even as she clutched to his shirtfront. She was rigid in his arms; he ran his hand up and down her back. To reassure, to soothe. He felt more sobs shudder and wrench their way free.

He held her while she cried, feeling tension drain out of her with each tear until she sagged into him. Finally, she snuffled, wiped her nose with the back of her hand, and looked up at him. "Oh, god, I'm such a screwup."

"Well, then, you're in good company."

"You're scared of me. You're still scared of me," she said. "You should be. I almost popped you."

"I'm not scared of you. Just scared of getting hit." Xander kept his voice light. "I flinch when Willow threatens me, and she hits like a marshmallow."

He led her over to the bus stop bench and sat her down. She'd already gotten a big patch on the front of his shirt damp. So he took his shirttail and carefully wiped her eyes. Amazing how she didn't get blotchy. Nope. Cried her guts out, and still looked gorgeous. Fragile, so pale she was see-through, but gorgeous. And she managed half a smile when he had finished.

"So," he said, "what's wrong?"

She picked at a loose thread on the front of her pants, not looking at him. "Anderson and me. We ... we hit an iceberg."

"I kinda figured that one. Why? I mean, I thought it was going good."

"Yeah. Too good." A bitter laugh. "He thought I was Buffy."

"What?" Xander couldn't hide his puzzlement. "I'm ... I'm riding the short bus here. He thought you were Buffy, how?"

"He thinks I'm like her. A good guy. Always, through and through. He thought some monster put me in a coma. He didn't know it was me, that I'm the monster. That I had to be stopped."

"Oh." He tried to find something reassuring to say. Succeeded in making a couple of fish faces.

She kept talking. "And I tried to tell him. He was falling for that chick. Not me - just the Buffy that looked like me. He asked me ..."

"Yeah?"

"He wanted me to move in with him." Faith shifted forward, resting her elbows on her knees. "So what should I say? Yeah, baby. I'll move in. By the way, for a while there? I was a ruthless killer. And there was this deal with an apocalypse? But that's okay, see. 'Cause my mommy didn't love me."

She looked over at him. "What kind of bullshit excuse is that, anyway? Your folks were utter crap in the parent department, and you turned out all good and stuff."

"Yeah, but I always ate my Wheaties."

She didn't hear him. "I couldn't tell him. I couldn't see that look in his eyes, and then see it turn. He'd be disgusted with me. Horrified."

"You couldn't give him a chance?"

"No." She shook her head. "I really couldn't. He's the kind of guy, he believes in honor and goodness and ideals and stuff. That was ... it was one of the things that I liked about him."

"Oh."

"And sometimes I could pretend. That I've always been goody-goody, that I deserved a guy nice and kind and caring and shit." She pulled her feet up on the bench, hugging her shins. "I mean, Jesus, Xander, you know what I am. What I've done. Who the hell could love that? Love someone who gutted an old guy like a tuna."

Oh, the irony. "I'm sorry, Faith. I'm sorry it's so hard."

"I'm doing the right thing." She wiped a tear away, angrily. "Penance, or whatever. I'm earning it back, right? So why doesn't it feel better? Why's it gotta be so hollow inside?"

He wished he could fix it. Make it all better. All he could do was put an arm around her shoulders and sit with her in the darkness.

***

He walked back to Buffy's, and she came along. It wasn't really a decision. Just, "Come on, let's go" and companionable quiet and an unwillingness to break that post-emotional-hurricane comfort lull. He had to think that she was protecting him, too - so worried about almost hurting him that she'd determined to let nothing else even try. But it was good. It felt so good to be easy with her again.

All too soon they were on Revello drive, turning at the walkway to Buffy's house. On their way up the steps, the door opened. Buffy stood in the doorway, gazing at them.

"Hey," Faith said.

"Hey." Buffy just wrapped her arms around Faith's shoulders and hugged her. Then she pulled back, took Faith by the arms and gave her a little scoldy shake. "Why didn't you tell us?"

"Um?" Faith looked from Buffy to Xander. "How did you ...?"

"I put in a call. Before our talk." He shrugged. "It looked like a breakup thing. She wanted to rally the troops."

"Anderson's a dummyhead." Willow came from the kitchen, a huge tub of popcorn in her arms.

"No, no," Faith said. "He's a good guy. It was me."

"Hello?" Buffy put a hand on her hip, all Teeny Little Boss Lady. "Whose friend are we?"

"Mine." Her voice still had a bit of question in it.

"Darn tootin'." Willow nodded. "Therefore he's a massive dorkwad, and he doesn't deserve the fabulousness that is you."

"Hence, girls' night," Buffy said.

"We rented your favorites," Dawn yelled from the couch. "Evil Dead 2. Dead Alive. And Flash Gordon."

"Flash! I love you! But we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!" Willow grinned, and shoved a fistful of popcorn in her mouth.

"Plus, about ten pints of Ben and Jerry's, gallons of soda, and more candy than they stock at the All-Nite Stop 'N' Shop." Buffy giggled. "We are headed for an all-time sugar high."

Faith swallowed, and blinked hard a couple of times. "You guys ... you rock."

"Yeah. We really do."

"You bet your sweet bippy we do," Willow said.

Spike came in from the kitchen, paper bag under his arm and videotape in hand. "Right then, lads, let's away."

"Should we ..." Xander asked, unsure about leaving Faith.

"Go." Buffy shoved him out the door. "Pretty much, we'll be harshing on everything with a penis."
"Ah."

"And I've been told you've got one of those."

"Rather attached to it, actually."

"So, out."

"If you need anything -"

"We won't. Out!" she said, stamping her foot a little.

Xander gave in and headed down the steps. "Bye, all. Bye, Faith."

She didn't say anything. Just smiled at him, and for the first time that night he could see hints of happiness in her eyes.

Spike followed, but on the way out the door he stopped. Xander could just hear him talking to Faith, his voice soft and oddly reassuring. "Buck up, Buttercup. It's not always about what you deserve."

"Yeah?"

"Yeh." The corner of his mouth curled up. "Case in point, right?"

"Yeah." The smile widened, just a fraction more.

Spike leapt off the porch and landed on the lawn next to Xander. "Come on. While they do their girly bonding montage, and dance around a table in their jammies?" He waggled the tape at Xander. "World Cup! England v. Argentina, mate! Hot off the telly!"

"Oooh." Xander made a grab for the tape.

"Come on, Cubby!" Spike yelled. "Tell the girls au revoir, we're heading out!"

"Cubby?" Xander asked. "Oz?"

"Yeh. He hates it. Gets all growly."

Oz came out the door, still putting on his jacket. "Ladies."

"Oz," they chorused. The second he crossed the threshold, the door slammed behind him.

"Well." He looked mildly amused. "I feel welcome."

They walked a few blocks towards Giles's, putting the massive girlfest far out of earshot. Then Spike broke the silence. "Faith."

"She'll be okay," Xander said. "Eventually. I think."

"Yeh. Not that. The way you look at her, since you got back? You're a bit gone on her."

"I ..." Xander started over. "No. I'm her Watcher."

"That's not how Giles looks at Buffy," Oz said.

Spike snorted. "And he did, I'd feed him his teeth."

Xander looked for another way out. "It's a different thing, with Faith. She's got issues."

"She's got a complete set of National Geographic," Oz said. "So?"

"He's gone on her." Spike nodded.

"Totally."

Oh, God, Xander was completely gone on her. But it couldn't happen. Faith needed him. As a friend who loved her. As someone she could trust, depend on. And he had to be that for her. Not just another guy aiming to get into her pants.

"We're friends," he said. "That's all."

"Okay." Spike raised an eyebrow. "For how long?"

Xander said nothing.

For as long as she needed.

***

The room was typical Council, dignified and expensive. He took a slow look around: the massive half-tester bed with a mattress sure to sag in the middle; built-in bookshelves stretching from wainscoting to ceiling, filled with books completely devoid of magical content; lovely leather wingback chairs framing a fireplace big enough to roast Quentin Travers, that fat pillock; plush Persian carpets, perfect for getting rugburn on knees or bum.

"Your name. It's pronounced 'Nee-ev' but spelled like 'Nee-amh', correct?"

"Correct," replied the woman standing in the doorway behind him.

"Both, interestingly enough, the sort of thing I say when my cock is in someone's mouth." He turned to face her. "Would you like a demonstration?"

No reaction. Perhaps, if he searched, slightly amused. "I hope you like your room?"

"It's very nice. Much better than the old cell."

"A cage is a cage is a cage?" Niamh smiled. "But is it a cage if the door isn't locked?"

"Excuse me?"

She grabbed his wrist. Murmured something as she ran her finger along the bracelet. A trail of fluorescent green glowed in the wake of her fingernail, and a shiver of pleasure ghosted up his spine.

"Oh. Oh." He knew what she'd done. "Well, this is a bit of a twist, isn't it?"

"Ultimately, the situation is the same. You follow my orders. I just thought you'd prefer a little play in the leash."

"Who are you?" He jerked his wrist away, suspicious. "Who are you working for?"

"The Council. Same as you. But I also serve another master."

His eyes widened with recognition and then giddy anticipation. "Well. It'll be a pleasure serving ... under you."

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