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

Episode Ten: While You Were Out

by cousinjean, eep & fenwic
A Thousand Miles by Vanessa Carlton
(Brawnie)
Let's Get It On by Jack Black
(Glydia)
Easy Tonight by Five For Fighting
(Spuffy)

Kicking off the final leg. Yay! Thanks to everybody who has stuck with us this far. We're sure you'll enjoy the ride ahead.


*

She watched him flee and the sight gave her pleasure. Her lips parted, baring teeth.

Yes. Please. Run.

Stupid vampires. Either too cocky to bolt or too chicken to cross the road at all. She never got to chase anything anymore. Never got to play. He disappeared into an alley and she felt the engine inside her rev and roar.

Wait.

No. Hunt.

She took off after him.

He was fast. (Head start? Not really called for.) Clever, too. Fooled her once by doubling back, leaving her stumped, unable to follow his signal because his signal floated all around her. Then her head snapped left -- as if she'd been called -- and she followed. Pursuing him to the ends of the earth and back, his uncanny instincts never letting her catch him, and hers never letting him lose her. He was strong. No doubt he could run all night.

Well. So can I.

Then he just stopped, and she, expecting another trick, waited. But as the thing turned to face her, she sensed a spirit breaking. His heart wasn't in it. His teeth weren't in it. He greeted her coming with absolute stillness. The feet stayed put while hers advanced. The hands stayed down as hers came up.

Listen.

No. Kill.

Then the mouth, before it turned to dust, formed the words “I'm sorry” and pale eyes looked into hers and they… they…

Snapped open.

Oh my god... What have I --? Oh GOD!

Buffy stood at her vanity, shaking with panic and grief and breathing heavily from a chase that hadn't actually happened.

What... what --?

But the images had already begun to recede, and with them, the fear. She released her grip on the counter and stared into the mirror, unable to recall what had, just a second ago, seemed so horrible, so irrevocable.

She breathed deep, then idly opened drawers and cabinets, pulling out what she needed to get ready for patrol.

By the time she picked up her brush, nothing remained of her experience but the buzz. The memory -- the thrill, the joy -- of the kill. She smiled as she whipped the bristles through her hair, the pull and tug tingling her scalp, matching the tingle she felt all over.

Which had to mean there was something out there that needed staking, right? Her hand twitched, craving the feel of wood ramming between ribs and ripping into hearts. Not a nightmare at all. A fantasy.

There's a moment, right before they dust, that's... perfect. The skin over the chest so thin and tight that the wood just punctures it. Pop. Squish.

Perfect.

It's not like staking took super-strength. Just adrenaline or something. Willow, Xander, Giles... they’d done it lots, all hopped up on fear and anger. Buffy got the adrenaline rush, too, but it didn't come from being scared and it's not like she needed it to kill.

Killing was natural.

A big spray of dust after, but before -- solid as any human. Solidness she felt when the stake went in. Felt it in her hand, up her arm and shoulder. Just for a second. One really cool second. And no mess after. That was the thing that made it different from killing humans. Well, there were other things, yeah, but humans? Bloody full of blood. Even more than demons. Just... gallons and gallons of blood.

When Faith had staked Finch, it was everywhere. (And of course he was still there. Humans took way longer to turn into dust.) Did it feel the same? Buffy would have to ask her sometime.

Or Spike. I don't think he's ever staked a human -- that would just be backwards and wrong and kinda lame -- but a railroad spike's not all that different. (Then again, neither is that big ugly knife I stuck into Faith.)

Killing Ethan had been messy, that much she knew. Good thing she also knew how to get blood out of leather.

She put down the brush.

Hair done, she picked up the war paint and went to work. Eyes, cheeks… She made her mouth the color of a "Bora Bora Sunrise" then smacked her lips. Face done, she went into the bedroom, hit the armoire, and thumbed through her work clothes: a herd of leather pants in assorted colors. A United Nations of leather pants. She reached for the red, then stopped.

The bad feeling rose up again. A warning. An alarm. Stop. Something's not right. I'm not... This isn't right.

Then everything got muddy and she just wanted to slay already and what could be wrong with that? She shook her head and looked at her outstretched arm, still hovering over the red.

No. White.

They slid on smoothly, animal skin hugging Slayer muscles. Spike would probably say something like, "Not that I mind, Pet, but why dress for dust?" She went cold.

Because I'm the Slayer, that's why.

Her hands twitched again. The Slayer had gone too long without a decent spot of violence and last night's party just made her want more. Nothing wrong with that.

One snug shirt and a pair of ankle boots later, she stood before the full-length mirror. Tugging on leather, fluffing up hair, erasing a stray smear of lipstick with the tip of her pinky. Perfecting the last image the monsters would see before they rode the Slayer Express to hell. Then she stilled and held her own gaze for a second.

Ten seconds. Thirty. A full minute, just to see if she could. A minute wasn't that long, she knew, except that it really was for She Who Hated Waiting. All the skill of the predator and none of the patience. Always with the "Bring 'em on! I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around".

But for now, she held still. Five minutes. Heart rate and breathing down to almost nothing. Squinty eyes with lids at half-mast so she didn't even have to blink. Didn't move, but felt movement all around her. The night bubbled with it -- Dawn clomping around in the next room, that stupid music coming from downstairs, kids playing outside, air, dust and --

Something scraping her Spidey sense. Her eyes slid toward the door and her hand curled around a stake.

Oh. Wait.

Just Spike coming up the stairs. Then a knock at the front door sent him back down, but the sensation of him lingered.

He's been missing the mess. Missing real blood. I know he liked killing like that again. After all, you can only fight your true nature for so long. It's a waste to feel bad about wanting what you want, or doing what you do, or being who you are.

She went to the dresser and flipped open her jewelry box. Smallish silver hoops, metallic studs for the extra holes in each ear, and the big, silver crucifix. Over the years she'd collected more delicate designs, but tonight…

The clasp stuck a little before snapping shut.

Tucking stakes here and there, she took one last look in the mirror.

Ethan was an evil, dangerous human being, and it's pointless for Spike to feel bad about him. But he really shouldn't have killed him, either.

Nothing she could do about Ethan now.

Except her job.

Stop. Wait. Listen.

No.

He shouldn't have killed him.

It was wrong.

***

"Buffy!"

Dawn waited for the usual "What?" from the master bedroom. Nothing. Try again. Louder.

"Buffy!"

"What?" Buffy's voice rang out down the hall.

"I need you!"

Dawn could practically hear her sister's eyes roll as Buffy clomped towards her room. She appeared in the doorway.

"What's wrong?"

Dawn frowned and gestured at her hair with a brush. "My hair is awful."

"And?"

"Help?"

Buffy sighed and crossed the room to Dawn's bed. She knelt on the mattress and gestured for Dawn to sit in front of her. "Okay, what are you trying to do here?"

"Something that Bryce will like."

"Well, we can rule out shaving your head, then."

Dawn shuffled across the room and sat, balancing her weight slightly towards her left hip. "Buffy, I'm serious. My hair's a mess, and he's already here."

Buffy loosened the French braid from one side of Dawn's hair. "If all else fails, straight is good. It's pretty, yet means business."

"I don't want to mean business. It's a date, not a board meeting. This is supposed to be fun, you know," Dawn grumped, handing Buffy the brush.

"I hope you're not thinking of having too much fun tonight," Buffy said sternly.

Dawn's jaw dropped. "Oh my God, what do you think I am, a slut or something?"

"I didn't say that." Buffy pulled the brush through a knot in Dawn's hair, yanking her sister's head to the side.

Dawn winced. "It's just a date, Buffy. Jeez."

She sighed, then got off the bed and crossed to Dawn's dresser. "I just want you to be careful. I mean, you never know with guys." She plucked two barrettes off the dresser top.

"Well, I know Bryce better than you knew Parker."

Buffy stiffened. "Okay, I'm ignoring that." She stood in front of Dawn and clamped the barrettes on either side, pulling her hair up and away from her temples.

Dawn twisted her hands as an awkward silence grew between them. "Sorry."

Buffy studied her sister with a blank face. "Your hair looks good."

"Thanks."

Buffy turned to leave.

"Buffy?" Dawn could hear the anxiousness in her own voice.

She stopped in the doorway. "What?"

"Uh... What if..."

Buffy raised an eyebrow in wait.

"What do I do if Bryce tries to kiss me?"

Buffy looked at Dawn as if she were some kind of alien from Jupiter. "Kiss him back."

"I know that," Dawn sighed.

"Then what's the problem?"

Dawn stared at Buffy. "I just wanted your advice."

The rising tones of Spike's less-than-cordial voice echoed up the stairwell. Dawn bolted off the bed. "Oh, God, I'm so late."

"Spike's with Bryce."

"I know," Dawn said, grabbing a tube of gloss and running it over her lips. "That's what I'm worried about."

Buffy looked Dawn over. "Is that really what you're going to wear?"

Dawn's eyes grew large as saucers, her eyebrows knitting in panic. "What's wrong with my clothes?" She stared at herself in the mirror.

"No, nothing, sorry," Buffy backpedaled. Her voice softened. "Really, you look fine. Just a little casual. Like, school-casual, not date-casual." Buffy shrugged.

"We're just going to a movie," Dawn whimpered, pulling on the collar of her pastel blue blouse.

"You're fine. You look great, I swear. Now get downstairs before Spike starts grilling Bryce about his driving record and what his SAT scores are."

Dawn gave herself one last look in the mirror before bolting for the hallway.

"Dawn?"

She turned to look at her sister.

"If his hands go below your shoulders, I'll kill him the next time I see him."

Dawn stared at her. Sometimes she just couldn't tell when her sister was joking. She nodded and gave an uneasy smile. "Understood."

Buffy returned hers with a genuine grin and nodded back. "Good. Now go have fun. Just not too much."

Dawn beamed and started down the stairs to begin her date.


***

Lydia slicked a coat of dark red over her lips, then considered her reflection. She pouted prettily, and then sexily, and then just disappointedly. Bloody ridiculous color, really. Fit for those children who went to such great pains to look pale and tragic. Probably had some melodramatic name like "Blood" or "Death." She flipped the tube over and read the label. "Sin." She snickered. Of course. She had borrowed it from Faith, after all.

The lipstick had come part and parcel with the dress. Faith had shown up at Lydia's door brandishing both after Lydia had complained that she had nothing to wear that evening. At Lydia's raised eyebrow, she'd simply rolled her eyes and said, "Trust me!" before pushing her way into the apartment and saying something about how Rupert would "pop his cork" when he saw Lydia in said dress.

Lydia retrieved the dress from the bed and held it up in front of her, unclipping her hair and letting it fall, tousled and sexy, around her face. She tried again, pursing her lips, then smiling, then grimacing and rolling her eyes. She hung the dress back up, grabbed a brush and a barrette, and secured her hair neatly out of her face. She couldn't abide hair in her face, no matter what the occasion. She let it hang long, though, just reaching her shoulders, where it did that flippy thing at the ends that was so popular among the California girls. Then she grabbed a tissue and wiped her lips, and applied a nice muted rose shade instead.

Much better.

Time for the moment of truth. She slipped out of her bathrobe and into the dress. Well, wriggled into the dress. More of a black sausage casing, really. The zipper caught half-way up, and she could swear she felt stitches pop. Damn. Bloody, buggery damn! Okay, deep breath. She reached for her ciggie and took a long, slow drag. Then she blew it out and gave it another go. Success! With a triumphant grin, she slipped on her strappy black pumps and turned to face the mirror.

Oh dear God, she looked like a whore. An expensive, first-rate whore, but a whore nonetheless. With a whimper, she tugged the skirt lower on her thighs, but that caused the neckline to dip even more. Lydia sighed. This wouldn't do at all. Not for a first date. Especially not a first date with Rupert.

She fled the bathroom and headed for her closet, reaching for the dreaded zipper on the way. As she pulled open the door the mantle clock in the living room chimed eight o'clock. Oh, bloody hell, she was late! With a defeated sigh, she pulled a pale pink cashmere cardigan out of the closet and tugged it on over the dress as she hurried to her dresser. Jewelry. She had to have jewelry ... pearls! Whores didn't wear pearls. Did they?

She rummaged until she found her set -- necklace and earrings -- and put them on before going back to hazard one last mirror check. Lovely. Now she looked like a naughty librarian. Well, Rupert had been a librarian, perhaps he'd go for that sort of thing? Oh, bugger it. Too late to change her look now, anyway. Lydia took one last hit off her cigarette, dashed it out, grabbed her handbag, and then she was on her way.

***


Dawn and Bryce sat in the dusky movie theater, both crunching on popcorn instead of talking. The movie had yet to begin, and the screen showed half-lit slides of movie trivia. Dawn rolled her eyes at them. Who didn't know Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes? She went back to watching people file into the theater.

Bryce must have been doing the same thing, because he nudged her arm with his elbow and pointed to a man. "Hey, check out that shirt."

Dawn giggled as she followed Bryce's gaze. The man wore an orange and magenta Hawaiian shirt, complete with sequins. Xander had one just like it.

Bryce reached for another handful of popcorn. "You sure you don't mind seeing this movie?"

She shook her head. "If I did, I would have told you."

"You mean you didn't want to see that new Renee Zellweger movie?"

Dawn stuck out her tongue. "Those are always the same. Girls meet boys, girls act like bitches around boys, girls lose boys, then realize they want them back, then act like idiots for the boys. Eventually it all ends in a big kiss while Sixpence None the Richer blares on the soundtrack. Oh, and there has to be a scene where the girls all get empowered while doing shots and end up dancing around their living rooms in their pajamas."

He laughed. "You've seen a lot of those movies, I guess."

"You live with my sister and her friends long enough, you've seen them all."

"Well, if it makes you feel any better, I think this movie should be free of pajama dancing. It's all Spy vs. Spy tonight."

"Fine by me," Dawn said with a definitive nod of her head.

The lights began to dim and the screen lit up with the giant "Coming Attractions" logo. Dawn turned her head to the screen and swallowed hard. Another five minutes of The Date, off without a hitch.

Only two hundred left.


***

Giles set down the brandy he'd been nursing for the last fifteen minutes and looked again at his watch. He kept fluctuating between irritation and worry, though it was beginning to weigh more heavily on the worry side. He told himself why he shouldn't. Lydia was a more than capable fighter, for one thing, with loads of training and common sense. He really had no more cause to fear for her safety than he did for Buffy's or Faith's. Not that that ever kept him from doing so.

With a sigh, he fished his phone out of his pocket and turned it on. He was just squinting at the screen, trying to recall how to bring up Lydia's mobile phone number, when he heard his name mentioned to the maitre d'. He turned just in time to see her smile at him, and at that moment he lost the ability to speak, or indeed, to move. He could only sit and watch and hope his mouth wasn't hanging open as she made her way over to the bar.

Giles had never given much thought to the question of legs versus breasts, but at that moment he decided he was most definitely a leg man. Hers were exquisite. Long and lean, athletic yet shapely, tanned and perfectly framed between the lacey hem of her skirt and the straps of her shoes. Giles forced his gaze to move higher as she moved closer. Her dress showed off her shape much better than the clothes she usually wore, even with the tasteful sweater she'd worn over it. She looked gorgeous. She looked sexy. She looked --

"Lovely," he whispered. "Ah, that is, you look lovely."

Lydia broke into a grin. "Thank you. I, um, I wasn't entirely sure about the dress."

"The dress is lovely," he assured her. "You wore your hair down."

Her hand flew up and she self-consciously combed her fingers through her hair. "Well, you know. Didn't think it prudent to expose such a temptation on the first date." She finished with a wink and a smile.

Giles ducked his head and grinned. "Yes, well. It's, ah ..."

"Lovely?"

He tilted his head and regarded her. "Quite so, yes."

She blushed a little, but eyed him up and down. "You're looking quite a bit of all right yourself."

Again, Giles grinned. He adjusted his glasses as he searched for something to say. Lord, this was awkward. He hadn't done this sort of thing since Jenny. Olivia had been a much more casual affair, and she'd never been one for small talk. That had been much easier, in retrospect.

"Is that for me?" Lydia broke the silence, pointing to a snifter of brandy sitting beside the one he'd emptied.

"Yes. I took the liberty, I hope you don't mind."

"Oh no, in fact I'm grateful." She took a long drink, then set it back down. She glanced at him shyly as she dabbed at the corner of her mouth with her ring finger. "I needed that. Sorry I'm late, by the way. I had a dreadful time of it getting ready."

"Sorry to hear that. Our table's not ready yet, so really, it's no problem."

"Still, I am sorry." She took another sip of her brandy. "I've gotten better about it in recent years, but I used to drive Magnus batty with my chronic lateness."

"Really? I'd never have guessed. Though I suppose Buffy's conditioned me to be much less rigid with my schedule. Punctuality has never been her strong suit, either."

"So I've noticed."

Oh, bloody hell. Not even five minutes into their date and they were already talking shop.

"But we didn't come here to talk about Buffy," Lydia continued, as though she'd read his mind.

"No. No, we didn't, did we?" Giles waved the bartender over and ordered a refill as she settled on the stool next to him. "What would you like to talk about, then?"

Lydia traced a finger around the rim of her glass as she considered. "Tell me ..." Her face lit up and she looked at him. "Tell me about that record collection that Spike and Oz are always going on about."

Giles smiled and sipped his drink. Perhaps this wouldn't be so difficult after all.

***

The shop had been closed for over an hour. Buffy shifted from foot to foot as Spike unlocked the door, shooting straight through to the back soon as he had it open. He took his time following, first locking the door, then shedding the button-down he wore over his tee-shirt. He hung it on the doorknob when he reached the back. She was already at it, punishing the bag for the lack of anything more substantial to beat up on their patrol.

"Easy, Sweetness. The big, bad bag never hurt anybody."

She only hit harder, and threw in a couple of kicks for good measure.

Spike went to hold it for her. "You'll tear it out of the ceiling if you're not careful."

"What do you care? You don't have to re-hang it."

"No, but I have to listen to Xander bitch and moan while he does."

She threw one more punch, knocking him back a foot and sending flakes of plaster raining down from around the bolt in the ceiling. She stood back, flexed her neck, and stretched her arms. Bouncing on the balls of her feet, she looked around for something else to hit.

Spike stepped around the bag and slid up behind her, traced a finger down her arm. "If you want to spend some energy, Love ..."

She shrugged away from him. "Not now, Spike."

He rolled his eyes. "I wasn't talking about that. I meant, why not have a go at me?"

She turned to face him, her face incredulous. "And I'm supposed to think you're not talking about sex?"

"Fighting. With me? Been a long time."

"No it hasn't. We spar all the time."

"We train. But when's the last time you let loose, huh? You never spar with Faith, you always hold back with me for some reason --"

"Because we're not about that anymore."

"-- and you haven't had a good slay in ages. 'Less you count yesterday, but those vamps were barely enough to whet your appetite. I know you need more. And I hate to break it to you, Pet, but on some level we'll always be about that. We both have violence in us. 'S part of what makes us so perfect for each other."

Buffy looked stricken. "You really believe that?"

Spike sighed. "I'm just saying ... You Slayer, me vampire. Who happens to love you beyond all reason, but who also happens to enjoy the occasional knock-down, drag-out with someone who can give me a run for my money. And you do, too. You know it. Right now you're practically jonesing for it."

She looked him up and down, clearly tempted. Then, "No."

"Why not?"

"I just.… No! Not tonight."

He stood there a moment, studying her. He shouldn't push her. He knew she hated that. But she needed this -- they both did. She'd been tense like this ever since... ever since Ethan. She wouldn't admit it was about that, though. So let her bloody take it out on him already and get it out of the way. Besides that, she'd been a little off these last few days. He had to know, had to see for himself, that she still had the fight in her.

He stepped up to her, all cock and swagger, just like back in the old days. "What's the matter, Slayer? Scared?"

She didn't move, didn't look at him. When she spoke, her voice sounded small. "Yes."

That knocked the proverbial wind right out of him. "Buffy, you ... you know I'd never ..."

"Not of you."

"Then what?"

She looked up at him then, and her eyes looked so lost. "Me."

Spike stared at her a moment, completely confounded. He gathered her to him and realized she was trembling. "Shh, Buffy. You're not ... you know I trust you."

She buried her face in the hollow of his neck. "I don't."

"Fine, then. You know I can take you."

He felt her stiffen, ever so slightly. She looked up at him. "No you can't."

"Can so." He brushed her hair back from her face. "So how 'bout it, Goldilocks? What say you and me have a good, old-fashioned throw down?"

She shoved him away, almost making him trip. "I said no!"

He recovered, stepped forward, and shoved her back. "And I said yes!"

"Spike ..."

With his best evil laugh, the one he knew she hated, he went to the weapons rack and grabbed a couple of quarter staffs. He threw one at her.

She caught it effortlessly. "Stop it."

"Make me." He swung his staff, bringing it down at her head. She blocked it and kicked him in the chest, sending him reeling. Then she swept her staff down and knocked his feet out from under him. He landed flat on his back, one end of her staff pointed at his throat. "Heart's a bit lower, Pet."

She tossed her hair over her shoulder. "Thought you said you could take me."

Oh yeh, she was enjoying this. That lost look had completely disappeared. She was in her element now. "Yeh, well." He locked his feet around her ankles and tripped her. He jumped to his feet. "I'm not done yet."

She rolled, a backwards somersault, and landed back on her feet. They circled each other, each waiting for the other to make a move. God, he'd forgotten how glorious it could be, fighting her. Sure, they really did spar all the time, but that was play, wrapped up the guise of work. Practice only, focused on perfecting moves and strengthening their weaknesses. But this time his Slayer meant business.

He tossed his staff away, and she did same. Do we really need weapons for this? She threw a punch. He ducked it, throwing an uppercut at her jaw. She blocked, spun, and aimed a boot at his head. He caught her leg at the ankle and shoved it up, but instead of falling she did a back flip, and they were right back where they started.

They were so perfectly matched, him and his Slayer. She was a little bit stronger, he had to admit; but he was a little bit faster, so it balanced out. He also had experience on his side, as well as knowledge of all her weak spots.

He opened himself up for a right hook. She dropped her shoulder, telegraphing the move. Sidestepping it, he grabbed hold of her arm and swung her around, sending her sprawling and sliding across the floor. "Best not get cocky, Slayer," he said, stalking towards her.

Buffy grabbed one of the staffs and again swept his feet out from under him. "I'm the one who's cocky?" She aimed the staff at his head. He grabbed the other one and blocked the blow. As the staffs connected, hers splintered and cracked in two. She threw half of it away and twirled the other like a baton. Spike stood up and thrust, but she parried and got in a blow to his chin. He used the momentum to swing around and kick her. She stumbled, but quickly recovered. She was totally into the fight now. She rammed him with her shoulder, knocking him backwards into the punching bag. Then she was on him. He braced himself for a blow to the face, but just like that, she stopped.

The look on her face tipped him off that something was wrong before he even registered what had happened. He followed her horrified gaze to her hand, still clutching the piece of wood protruding from his chest. Then he felt an explosion of pain -- blinding, incapacitating, like that ruddy chip had been re-implanted in his chest. He welcomed this pain, though. Meant he was alive. Not dust. A second burst shot through him, and Buffy's scream echoed his own, both ending at the sound of the broken staff clattering on the ground between them.

"Bloody hell," he gasped, soon as he could form words.

Buffy's hand flew to her mouth. She looked at the offending piece of wood, then kicked it away. It skittered across the floor and under the sofa. She stared after it, panting, her face a mask of shock. "I... I almost..."

"You didn't." Spike forced himself to straighten up, clutching the wound in his chest. He reached out for her. "You missed, Buffy."

She flinched when he touched her, and jerked away. "Don't!"

"Buffy--"

"No!" She backed away, her eyes, wide and wild, fixed on the blood seeping through his fingers. "Just... stay away from me." She turned and fled into the shop.

And he thought the stake had hurt. He tried to remember the last time she'd said that to him. When Dru had shown up? That... no. She couldn't have meant it like that. A dripping sound caught his attention and he looked down to see his own blood pooling on the floor. He peeled off his tee-shirt, wadded it up, and pressed it to his chest. The wound was right over his heart. She'd stopped short, just before the stake penetrated. Not like last time, when she'd landed it a good inch to the right. "I never miss," she'd told him then. How right she was.

A muffled sob summoned him into the shop. She sat on a bench, her back to the table and her face buried in her hands. Any irritation he felt at having almost been dusted melted away at the sight of her tears. Wiping his hand on his jeans, he went over to her. "Shh, Love," he said, reaching out to stroke her hair. "It's all right. Was an accident, is all."

"I said I didn't want to fight you!" Her shoulders shook even harder.

"I know, I shouldn't have pushed. Buffy, it's okay. Please don't--" But she pushed his hand away and got up.

"I told you not to come near me." Her voice was steel. She turned away and started towards the front of the shop.

Spike followed. "Buffy, wait." She stopped, but didn't turn around. He tried to take a deep breath, but that only made his chest hurt worse and resulted in a coughing fit so bad he had to lean against the counter for support. Her back still to him, Buffy hugged herself and waited. When he could speak again, he swallowed and braced himself for the answer to the question he didn't want to ask.

"Tell me the truth. Does this... Is all this about Ethan?"

She spun to face him, her face a mix of shock and sorrow. She shook her head.

He closed his eyes and sighed. Opening them again, he risked a step forward. "Then why --"

"Why? Spike, I almost killed you just now."

"But you didn't." He pulled his shirt away to expose the wound. "This will heal, Pet. No harm done." Another step.

She stared at his chest, renewed horror forming on her face. "You call that no harm?"

"Told you, it'll heal." Step. Almost there ...

"And next time?"

He shook his head. "We both got carried away. Won't be a next time."

He closed the gap between them. She raised her hand and touched her fingers to his chest. "You don't know that."

"Yes, I do." He brushed her hair back from her face, cupped her chin and tilted her face until her eyes met his. "It. Was. An. Accident."

She held his gaze for a moment, then her eyes drifted away and she shook her head. "No. I'm…" She swallowed. "Something's happening." She looked up at him again, her lip trembling, her eyebrows scrunched together. "I don't know what's happening to me, Spike."

Taking her face in both hands, he brushed his thumb across her lip to still it. "Then let's go home and figure it out."

"No!" She tore his hands away and stumbled up the steps. "You can't be near me right now, don't you get that?"

Anger welled up, and he leapt up the steps and grabbed her by the shoulders. "Don't do that!" It was all he could do not to shake her. "Don't shut me out. Not now. Talk to me, Buffy!"

"I can't!" She wrenched out of his grip and ran to the door. Pulling it open, she paused and looked back at him. "I'm sorry," she whimpered; then she was gone.

For a long moment, Spike couldn't move. Couldn't think. Could only stand there, staring at the door. A fresh pain in his hand brought him to his senses. He looked down to see more blood welling up in half-moon shapes on his palm. Still more was oozing anew out of the hole in his chest. Something wet covered his face, too. Spike wiped at it with the back of his hand. Oh, relief. Tears, not blood. "Brilliant," he muttered, then went to clean himself up.

***
Xander slammed the book shut and rubbed his temples. The motion twinged his back, but he refused to let his face do the grimace thing and congratulated himself on achieving "steely glare" instead. Then he shoved the thousand-pound tome across the table with both hands.
Ow. This time his face won, and grimace he did as he pushed back his chair and got up.
No sling since... an hour ago. But still no training. Or book-slamming.
No research without migraines. No anything without a sharp pain, or a dull ache, or the sudden desire to pass out. No sleep without nightmares. No crisis without getting shot. No getting shot without getting his Slayer shot at. Pissing her off. Letting her down.
Speaking of dull aches…
He went to the kitchen for milk or something (no water just yet, thanks anyway), then fished the little brown bottle out of his pocket and fumbled with the cap.
Codeine-laced Tylenol had seen him through two broken hands (well, the same hand broken twice) and a load of other breaks and pains. But a bullet wound called for something serious: Vicodin, Ladies and Gentlemen. The painkiller of champions. If only this champion could get past the childproof seal.
A ruckus at the door. Back already. He gripped the bottle, pushed down on the cap, and twisted hard to the left. Nothing.
The ruckus became knocking. “Xander?" Willow. "I forgot my keys.”
“In a minute.”
And now banging. “Hey!" That would be Faith. "Some of us gotta pee!”
Pushed down on the cap, twisted hard to the right. More nothing. He threw the bottle into a drawer and went to the door. “I’m coming!” he grumped as he flung it open.
“Already?” Faith winked as she hustled past him. “‘Cause I’m not even breathin’ hard.” Then she swished on down the hall.
He stared after her.
Speaking of dull aches…
“-- and then Steel Magnolias and then Beaches and then Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood!”
What? Who?
“No!” He turned to Willow, who had unpacked a bag of tortilla chips and left Oz to do the rest.
She smiled. The evil smile of “I can read you like Tarot. Like really easy Tarot”. Then she leaned forward and whispered, "Or we could watch the 'art films' you keep in your bedroom.”
Xander felt the blood leave his face and he glanced toward the hall.
Willow giggled. “Relax, Xander. Here. Have a chip.”
He made to speak, but Willow popped the chip into his mouth. It was then that he took in the haul and saw not beer, but Triple Sec. Cuervo. Limes. He watched Oz dump bean dip into a bowl, salsa into another, then struggle with a jar of jalapenos.
“Wha --?”
“Faith’s idea,” Willow announced, all light and bright. “Margarita Movie Madness.”
Xander groaned and rubbed his eyes. “We don’t do Margaritas.”
“We do tonight,” said Faith as she sauntered into the kitchen. "Where's your blender?"
“Faith..." He really was too tired for this. "There are certain Scooby traditions that we uphold. The most important being PopcornPizzaBeer Movie Night." He paused -- "Popcorn. Pizza. Beer." -- then gestured at the MexFest to indicate the absence of same.
“Yeah? Well, time for a new tradition.”
She sounded sassy, but something else -- something defensive -- crept into her voice. Most days he’d back down, but dammit -- no popcorn?
“See, the whole thing about ‘tradition' is that it's traditional. Okay, we added beer a couple years ago, but we voted on that. Ever since high school --"
"Xander," she muttered. "I swear to God…”
“Careful." He couldn't stop himself. "Remember what happened last time we had a fight.”
She looked at him like he’d hit her.
“Oh god… Faith… I'm an idiot." He shook his head. "I don't know what the hell --"
"Forget it." She was trying for casual, but her eyes wouldn't stay on him for more than a second. "I mean, look at you, you’re still --“
“Helpless?”
“Wounded. You’re still wounded. And all you wanted was popcorn. Cinco de Mayo coulda waited. I just thought --”
“A new tradition.” He looked around. "For a new place. It was a nice idea."
She shrugged. Then went to the couch and shuffled through the DVDs on the coffee table.
“Okay..." said Willow. "Now that the awkward portion of the evening is over, can we Margarita already?"
Xander was still watching Faith when he asked, "What, you got a date?”
“As a matter of fact…” That was Oz.
Xander looked at Willow and Willow looked at the floor. “Long story.”
“Julia asked me to set them up.”
“Apparently not that --“
“Starbucks?”
Oz nodded.
“Dude…”
“Thanks, man.”
Willow squeaked. “I told him I wouldn't go, but he said I should go! I didn't do anything! I can’t help it if --“
"It's okay, Will." Oz smiled and rubbed her neck. “I know you can’t.”
Xander picked up the stubborn jalapenos and tried his hand. Then he turned his back to hide both his failure and the attendant grimace. He bent a butter knife trying to pry off the lid. He whacked it on the counter. And again. All pretense at dignity lost, he finally turned to the couch. "Faith?"
"Which one?" she asked, frowning at the cases. “Blackhawk Down… Big Red One… oooh, Dr. Strangelove. Like the sound of that.”
"I could use a Slayer here."
"Bang it on the thing," she said, popping a disc into the player.
"I banged it on the thing."
“You held it like this?” She held up an imaginary jar, then cocked her wrist to demonstrate the magic jar-opening angle.
“I held it like that.”
“And banged it on the thing.”
“Repeatedly." He sighed. "In many different positions. Did you not hear the banging? If I could just get some --“
“Aperire.” Willow brushed past him with a wave of her hand and the lid lurched left a quarter-turn.
Xander scowled at her back as she went to join Faith. He knew from the glint in Faith's eye and the sass in Will’s shay that she was smirking the smirk of the Wicca feminista.
Women. He looked down at the jar. Then back at his Slayer and his best friend...
And then at the door.
Oz moved first. "I'll get it."
***
"It isn't me it isn't me it isn't me it isn't --"
Is this about Ethan?
"Oh God. What did I do?"
She knocked again, harder this time. Her friends. She just needed --
Buffy froze, senses kicked into high alert. She turned, eyes roaming up and down Xander's street, probing the shadows, seeking out movement. Then her instincts led her back to the door and she stared at it, confused, until it opened.
"Buffy."
Fight. Kill. Wrong.
What? No. "It's Oz."
Raised eyebrow. "It is. I am."
He stayed silent while she rode out the whispering in her head. Then she heard Xander's voice.
"Buff! I thought you guys passed on Movie Night for a little Slay 'n' Play. Dust 'n' Lust. Patrol 'n'..." He called to the couch. "Hey! What rhymes with patrol?"
"Casserole!"
He waved them off. "Anyway, you should know that we have no popcorn, but I -- Whoa. Trouble in Slayer City?"
He'd reached the door and now both guys stood staring at her and she saw Willow coming up behind them.
"Buffy... what... come... sit... tell... Buffy... Buffy... Buffy..."
It all ran together as she wandered in and sat on the coffee table -- Xander across from her and Willow by her side. She felt a presence behind her, too, and then her attention landed on Oz. Lingering next to Xander. Watching her. She returned his interest, and tried to remember why she'd come...
The she sucked in a breath and clutched at Xander. "Spike!"
Xander winced and looked down her hands. Saw the blood. "What? Where is he? What happened to Spike?"
"It..." You missed, Buffy. "It was an accident." Wrong. "I staked him."
"You what?!"
Willow held her breath. "Is he --?"
"At the Magic Box…” Her voice droned on and her gaze drifted as she played Witness for the Prosecution. “I just left him there. I don't even know if he's okay. You have to help him. You have to help me." She looked up then. "Xander? Something's really wrong."
He looked over her shoulder and she sensed movement behind her.
"On it," a voice said.
"No. I'll go." Oz grabbed his jacket and keys.
"Call in.”
Oz nodded and, after one last look at Buffy, he left.
"-- wrong with you?"
"What?" She'd been staring at the door. Now she looked at Xander, his shirt still bunched in her fists.
"What happened?"
"I don't know. We were just sparring and it got out of control. I got out of control." She started to stand. "I should go back." Gentle pressure on her arm. Gentle pressure on her shoulder. She looked at them. "You guys --"
"Oz'll find him," said Willow. "He'll be all right."
"But --"
"He'll be all right." Xander coaxed her into sitting back down. "You said something's wrong with you. What did you mean by that?"
What did she mean? She had no idea. "I've been having these feelings... about Spike. Lately. Like... everything he does just rattles my cage."
Xander smiled a little. "Well, he is the most annoying vampire ever made. And considering the competition..."
Buffy snapped. "You think I staked him because he annoys me? Because he leaves the seat up? Because he gets Weetabix all over the floor, and blood all over everything? Is that what you think?"
"No." Xander said slowly. "I don't. Do you?"
She deflated. "I don't know."
"Buffy..." Willow peered into her face. "Did Spike... Did he do something?"
Yes.
"No! What are you --" She eyed them warily. Did they --? Of course not. Giles would never tell. "No. Spike didn't do anything."
"He's still a vampire," said Xander.
"Like I don’t know that? What do you --"
"And you're a Slayer. Maybe your subconscious --"
"No. Didn't I just say --"
"What I mean is, maybe your Slaydar's reading Spike as 'enemy fighter'. But for some reason it's not seeing the good guy inside the cockpit."
"What," said Willow. "Like faulty wiring?"
"It doesn't make sense. Why would it do that? Why would it do that now?"
"I don't know." Xander frowned. "You're sure nothing's happened?"
"He didn't do anything!"
"Okay, okay. Look, we should call Giles. After all, your Watcher's the expert now on flipping out and going after his family."
"Fine. When he's behaving and playing quietly with his books, he's your dad. But when he's maiming and killing, he's my Watcher. Yes. Please. Let's ask Giles what to do about me and Spike."
"Buffy, what're you --"
"Can't call him anyway," said Willow. "Big date, remember? You're the only Watcher on duty tonight, Xander."
"I'm sorry." Buffy bent forward, head in her hands. "I don't understand any of this. Please, can I just have some --"
"Tequila?"
Buffy sat up. Faith stood before her holding out a glass.
"I -- Thank you."
"Sure." Faith handed it to her and stepped back.
Buffy downed it in one swallow, willing the liquid to burn the bad thoughts right out of her brain. The warmth hit her bloodstream and she welcomed the comfort.
Xander looked at Willow. "Hey, speaking of big dates..."
"Oh! I better call."
"You should go," said Buffy.
"What? No. Buffy, this is more important."
"I'm okay. I'm not the one who got staked, am I? You, Dawn, Giles... You all deserve a night out."
"But --"
"I want you to."
Willow hesitated, then slowly got her things and headed for the door. "You know..." She turned back. "I’m not exactly in date mode right now anyway, I should just --"
"Go. Willow, this isn't an apocalypse. It's..." Buffy shook her head, pained. "It's an episode of COPS."
Willow got worried-face. "Okay... But call if you need me."
No sooner had the door clicked shut when Xander's phone rang.
He got up. "I'll take that in the bedroom."
The Slayers watched him go. Then Faith gestured toward Buffy's empty glass. "Refill?"
Buffy nodded.
Faith went to the kitchen and returned with the bottle and a glass for herself. She took Xander's spot opposite Buffy and loaded them up.
Buffy raised her glass. "To Slayers."
Faith tilted her head, amused. "To Slayers."
They clinked their glasses, then emptied them.
Buffy stared at Faith. "Slayers," she repeated, lowering her arm.
***
Faith waited, but Buffy looked like she was waiting too, so Faith leaned in a little. "Ye-eah?"
"You know. You understand.” Buffy let her glass roll to the floor as she reached out and gripped Faith's hand.
Faith looked down at their fingers. Interlocked. Held tight. “B…”
“We are alone."
Buffy's eyes stared into hers. Looking for something to take, or give, or both. And somehow Faith knew exactly how Buffy felt. But she shook her head anyway and nodded toward the hall. "No. Xander's just --"
Buffy squeezed harder. "Ow." A year ago -- hell, yesterday -- Faith woulda jerked her hand back but Buffy looked freaked. And sad.
"We are alone."
And now she was freaking Faith out. "No..." She peeled off Buffy's hand -- "No." -- and got up slowly, their eyes still locked. "Xander? Xander!"
Buffy slumped a little and her gaze just fell.
Xander finally appeared. "That was Oz. Spike's fine. Well, not fine, but he's --"
"I have to go home now." Buffy looked up at them, and Faith wondered at this latest shift.
"Sure, Buff. Just give me a minute and we'll take you."
"No." She stood up. "I'm fine. Really." But her voice sounded whacked and sorta desperate. "I have to go home to Spike. We have to figure this out."
"You sure you don't want us to come with?" Xander took a step toward her. "Buffy, what if --"
"I wouldn't hurt him!"
She blinked, like she was surprised by the yelling -- and ashamed of the lie.
"Again," she whispered. "I won't hurt him again. I love him, remember?" Blotchy red eyes looked at Xander, almost begging him to believe her. "We'll talk, and it'll be horrible and hard, but when we're done, we'll know what to do. We'll be okay. We will."
"I know,” he said softly. “You'll call us, right? If you --"
"Yeah. Thanks."
And just like that, she left.
Xander closed the door behind her. Then he blew out a breath and went to the couch, falling into it with a groan.
Faith followed him.
"She gonna be okay?"
"Yeah."
"Are they?"
"Yeah."
"Are you?"
He ignored that one, but adjusted his position to relieve the pressure on his shoulder. "Hey, weren't we watching Full Metal Jacket?"
"Dr. Strangelove.” She picked up the case. "It's not what I thought it would be about."
He smiled. "Sorry to disappoint you."
"I don't get it, Xander. I thought they were the golden couple. But if she still can't deal, even after everything..."
"She can. Spike is... They can deal…"
"He'll always be a vamp."
"More than deal. He loves her, right? He made himself over for her. And it's not easy. A Slayer... You have to back her in battle. Stay a step ahead of her enemies. Tell her the truth when she doesn't want to hear it."
He stared straight ahead, his eyes so clear and focused on something she couldn't quite see.
"He's strong when she isn't, believes in her even when she doesn't. He loves her with all that he's got, when he knows that nothing he does or is will ever be enough." Xander glanced at Faith. "Spike... he loves her like that. Buffy loves him like that. And everything else is... everything else."
Faith just nodded. The room felt heavy and she leaned back into the couch. "I'm -- I didn't mean to fuck up tradition."
He relaxed then, and smiled at her. "You didn't. You started a new one."
She relaxed, too. Closed her eyes. "Us yelling? Kinda hate it."
"Then I'll be sure to pick our next fight in a library."
"Xander."
"Faith. We're still just starting out. But I think we're good. Look, not to compare us to Buffy and Spike -“
“Huh?”
He coughed. “-- Buffy and Giles, but they don't always get along either."
“Nice. So this is what I have to look forward to? More of… this?”
“Stop worrying. Love the bomb.”
She opened her eyes and grinned. "Okay. Start the movie."

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