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

Episode Eleven: Structural Damage

***

The bathroom and hallway had no windows. So no light meant no light. Not even daylight.

Clutching the useless phone, Dawn shuffled out of the bathroom and tried to grope her way to her father's bedroom. Maybe he had another one in there that wasn't cordless. She tried to ignore the bad feeling that grew in the pit of her stomach, stashing it in the same mental place as the pain in her leg, and forging ahead.



She also tried to tell herself that the breathing she heard was just her imagination. That the rustling was her own clothing.

But when she reached for a doorknob and grabbed an arm instead, she screamed.

A punch to the face shut her up. Dawn flew backwards into a wall and slid to the floor. Stunned, eye throbbing, she wanted to just sit there and cry, but she made herself move. She could hear Buffy coming. Dawn threw the phone at her, then turned over and crawled toward the living room. Enough daylight there that she could see just fine, so she got to her feet and started for the kitchen. Then got yanked backwards by her hair and slammed up against another wall.

Buffy held her there and frowned, studying her. Pressing her face against Dawn's, she inhaled deeply.

"Demon," she said.

"No, I'm not! I'm your sister! Please, Buffy--"

"No! No sister!" Buffy shook her, and banged her into the wall again.

Dawn was sobbing now. Even so, she looked around. She needed a weapon. Something. Anything…

Buffy grabbed fistfuls of Dawn's shirt and threw her. She skidded over the top of the coffee table and crashed into the coat rack by the front door. Dawn looked up, wondering if she could make it outside and if it would even do her any good. She started to pull herself up, and her hand found a curved, wooden handle. Dad's golf umbrella. It would do. Standing up, she slipped it out of the stand, and waited.

When Buffy got close enough, Dawn swung the umbrella up, like Spike had shown her. Buffy grabbed the end of it and yanked, trying to knock Dawn off balance. But Dawn was ready. She went with it, using the momentum to make Buffy stumble. Buffy let go, and Dawn swung the wooden handle, like a baseball bat, at her gut, doubling her over. Dawn swung it down as hard as she could at Buffy's head. Buffy dropped to her knees. Not letting herself think about how badly she might've hurt her, Dawn just opened the front door and ran.

The courtyard was empty, of course. Not that any of her dad's neighbors could help her. She staggered for the gate, then screamed as hands grabbed her from behind and shoved her to the ground. Dawn rolled onto her back just as Buffy straddled her. Pinned her down, raised her fist--

--and blinked at the dart in her chest.

Dawn tilted her head back to see Oz hurrying to reload his gun. With a scream of rage, Buffy leapt at Oz, but a kick to the gut while she was in midair dropped her. Faith stood over her, fists ready. When Buffy moved to get up, Faith spun and brought a boot to her face, knocking her out cold.

***

Funny how they always had a set of shackles handy.

Spike stood watch over Buffy as she slept on the basement floor. He didn't know for how long. Time didn't mean much to him just then. He was vaguely aware of the sunlight waning and gradually disappearing from the windows overhead. Every now and then someone came down and offered to relieve him.

Not Dawn, though. She wouldn't come down to the basement. Spike couldn't blame her. When Faith had come in dragging Buffy, he'd actually felt his heart expand with relief. But then Oz carried a battered Dawn in behind her, and it felt like it had been ripped from his chest.

But Dawn had plenty of others to tend to her. She didn't need him just then. Buffy… he didn't know what she needed. But he wouldn't leave her.

Didn't need to anyway.

He could hear everything going on above him with perfect clarity. Willow getting all trancey, Hank trying to make sense of it all. The Watchers discussing possibilities and contingencies. Everybody offering platitudes and promises to the Nibblet that she'd get her sister back. That it would all be okay.

He even heard the things he wasn't meant to hear. Like Harris telling Giles about Spike's confession. Spike almost felt sorry for the boy. Xander's world was still so cut and dried, even after everything they'd been through together. Spike had already challenged his assumptions once, and he'd come around okay. Eventually. The hard part would be Rupert's assertion that, sometimes, it was their job to make the hard choices. Like who to sacrifice for the greater good. Spike didn't know if Xander could handle that one. Didn't really understand it himself.

Tougher still would be Rupert's asking him not to tell anyone else. Protecting a vampire, especially one who'd proven not to be as non-practicing as they'd thought… that wasn't part of Xander's training, and it sure as hell wasn't part of his world view. In the world according to Harris, even a piece of shit like Ethan Rayne didn't deserve to end up at the bottom of the food chain.

He wouldn't tell, though. Spike felt sure of that. He'd keep it to himself, for Buffy's sake, and Dawn's. For now. But he wouldn't forget, either. Of that, Spike felt equally sure.

For the most part, he tuned the rest of them out and focused on Buffy. On her breathing, the sounds she made. Watching her sleep, he could pretend that she was herself again, so long as he ignored the chains. He wanted so badly to curl up beside her and hold her; but he forced himself to linger just out of reach, where he prayed that, when she woke up, she would be okay.

You'd think by now he'd have learned. Nobody listens to a vampire's prayers.

Or did they?

The chains rattled, and Buffy's breathing changed its rhythm. Spike tensed all over as she sat up. Her hair fell in her face, a wild mass of tangles, but he could see her blinking in confusion behind it.

He was afraid to speak, to call attention to his presence. Afraid that would only set her off again. But through the veil of her hair, he could see unmasked horror dawning on her face. Her mouth twisted in a silent cry as her eyes brimmed with tears. He couldn't let her be. He had to chance it.

"Buffy?"

Her eyes widened at the sound of his voice, and she recoiled against the wall. Spike froze. No movement, no breath-- nothing. Then her eyes met his, and he saw something he feared he'd never see again: recognition.

"Pet?"

She closed her eyes, spilling her tears. Slowly, carefully, Spike crawled across the floor to her. She shook her head as he reached for her, but he understood. It was him she was afraid for, not herself. Gently as he could, he brushed her hair out of her face and smiled. "There you are."

She looked at him, then. Seemed she wanted to speak, but couldn't get the words to come. He dared to cup her cheek in his hand. She pressed into it, her face crumpling.

"Oh, God, Buffy, it's okay." He raised his other hand to smooth her hair. "It's gonna be okay, Sweetness. I swear to you."

Her shoulders shook. No sound came out, but she was sobbing just the same. God, he couldn't take this. "Shh, Baby," he soothed, gathering her to him. "I love you, Buffy. Always. We're gonna get through this. We're gonna fi--"

Halfway across the room, he registered the blow to his chest as he skidded across the floor into the clothes rack. Stunned, he lay there a moment, staring at her as she sprung to her feet and, snarling and spitting like a wild beast, strained against her chains.

The basement door opened. Spike got to his feet, keeping a careful eye on Buffy. Willing his heart not to break. Not yet. Not in front of company.

Willow came down, followed by Giles, Lydia and Hank. "It's time," said Willow.

***

"So, what're you gonna do to her?" asked Spike.

Willow stared at him for a minute, awed by the magic that emanated from him. It shouldn't be surprising. Magical creature, duh. She'd seen the same thing upstairs when she'd opened her eyes and looked at Oz. This was weirder, though. As she looked at him, he kept fading in and out from demon to human. "Okay," she said, "that's kinda creepy."

"Red?" Human and demon both looked irritated and not forthcoming with the patience.

Willow closed her eyes and shook her head. "Sorry. It's… sorry. Um, I don't do anything to her. I just look at her."

"That's it?" A human eyebrow and a brow ridge shot up at the same time. Neat. Willow giggled.

"Uh… is it just me, or is the witch a bit loopy?"

"She's in a trance," explained Giles. "Tirer la Couture."

"Pull the curtain back," Spike translated, then nodded. "Got it."

"Wait a minute." Buffy's dad pushed past Giles. "How is this supposed to help Buffy?" Willow squinted at him. Definitely nothing magical about that guy.

"It will allow her to see if a spell has been cast," said Lydia.

"Right, then." Spike motioned to Buffy. "Get on with it. Have a look-see."

"How do you know it works?" asked Mr. Summers.

Giles sighed. Without looking at the other man he said, "It's how Buffy discovered the truth about Dawn."

Mr. Summers almost flinched at that, then went to lean against the stairs and watch. Willow felt sorry for him.

"Willow." Spike called her attention back. "Please?"

She nodded, and braced herself. She didn't want to look at Buffy. It wasn't so much that she was afraid of what she might see. She was more afraid that she wouldn't see anything. And then she'd have to tell Spike, and Dawn, and Mr. Summers. And she wouldn't have the first clue how to help her best friend. "Okay," she said. "Here goes." She turned to face Buffy, who this entire time had been crouched in silence, watching them all with the fierce attention of a predator. "Oh."

"She's still in there," Spike said behind her.

Willow nodded, even though it hadn't sounded like a question. "Yes." She could see Buffy, sane and sad, locked in chains. Except, not the real chains they'd put her in. These were forged from the blackest magic, and they wrapped around her from head to toe. She struggled to break free, but for every link she managed to sever two more grew in its place. "She's fighting it," Willow reported. "But…"

"But what?"

Another image emerged--another being, superimposed over Buffy. At first they looked like one, but the other grew out of her. It started as raw power and strength, but as it emerged it took shape. A shape Willow recognized. "It's her."

"Who? Talk to me, Red."

"Willow, what do you see?" Giles stood next to them now.

"The First."

"First what?" asked Spike.

"The First Slayer," Giles answered, his voice filled with understanding.

Willow nodded. "It's taking her over."

"Damn," someone cursed softly behind them. Sounded like Lydia.

"Can you see anything else?"

Willow stepped closer. As the image of the First solidified, Willow saw that she was also chained. The same sort of chain binding Buffy ran from a collar around its neck, pulled upward like a leash. Willow couldn't see where it went. She moved closer, peering up at the chain. It lengthened as she went. If she could just see the other end…

A blinding light flashed down the chain and shot out from the Slayer, striking Willow in the eyes. It knocked her backward, but two pairs of arms caught her.

"What happened?" "What do you see?" Spike and Giles both spoke at once.

Willow rubbed her eyes. For a long, scary moment she couldn't see anything at all. Then her vision returned, and Buffy was just Buffy, crazy and wary as she crouched on the floor, watching them. Willow turned to look at Spike. He looked normal, too. Also hopeful, as he raised both his eyebrows.

"Well?"

Willow gave him a reassuring smile. "The good news, if you can call it that, is that it's not you."

Spike blew out a breath he probably didn't even know he'd been holding.

"What is it, then?" asked Giles.

"Something's doing this to her. Or someone. But I couldn't see who."

"You're certain?"

"Yeah. Something's in control. And Buffy…" Willow's throat tightened. "Oh, God, Giles. I think she knows. Like, she can see what's going on."

Spike nodded. "I got through to her, for a minute. Before you came down."

"And you're just mentioning this?" asked Giles. "What did she say?"

"Nothing. I don't think she could. But she didn't need to speak to tell me that this is killing her."

Willow nodded. "In more ways than one."

If it were possible, Spike turned more pale. "What do you mean?"

"She's being taken over. Like I said, she's fighting, but… she's losing. If we don't find a way to free her, I think we're gonna lose her."

"What do you mean, lose her?" Buffy's dad came over to join them. He pointed at Buffy. "She's right there. I thought you said this spell could fix her!"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Summers, but I only said it would tell us if she's under a spell."

Mr. Summers ran a hand through his hair and turned away from them. Then he turned back. "Okay. So how do we help her? Another spell? An exorcism? What?"

"I'm afraid it's not that simple," Giles said. As he explained the intricacies of magic to Mr. Summers, Spike stole away from the group. He tried to approach Buffy, but she snarled at him and rattled her chains. His shoulders slumped as he backed away. Then, with a glance back at the rest of them, he headed upstairs.

"…just help me understand what the hell is wrong with my daughter!" Mr. Summers's shouting drew Willow's attention back to him.

"An explanation is forthcoming," said Lydia, moving to join them as she snapped her mobile phone shut, "and help is on the way."

"Oh, good!" said Willow, and looked up at Giles. His gaze became iron. "Um, right?"

"Tell me you didn't just call…"

"The Council," said Lydia.

"Oh," said Willow. "Not good."

"They've dealt with this before."

"Lydia," Giles said, his voice tight, "may I see you in the kitchen?" Without waiting for an answer, he walked past her and up the stairs. With an irritated sigh, Lydia followed him.

Mr. Summers just stood there, staring at Buffy. "Maybe she should see a doctor."

"I really don't think that would help," Willow told him.

After a moment, he nodded. "I should go check on Dawn." Then he left, too.

Buffy began to rock back and forth on her heels, making a strange humming sound. Keeping out of her reach, Willow crouched down to eye level. "Keep fighting, Buffy. We're on this. It won't be much longer. But you have to hang in there."

Buffy stopped. She turned to regard Willow with those distrustful eyes. Then, as if her voice hadn't been used in ages, she croaked out, "Friend?"

Willow nodded. "That's right, Buffy. I'm your friend. It's me, Willow."

Buffy frowned. "No. Friends."

Willow frowned right back. "Yes friends." But Buffy went back to her rocking. Willow settled into a comfortable position on the floor. No reason she couldn't sit with Buffy for a while.

***

"I know what you're thinking," said Lydia, closing the basement door behind her.

Rupert rested his palms on the kitchen island. He wouldn't look at her. "Do you?"

"You don't trust the Council."

With a laugh, Rupert straightened up and walked around the counter. "No, I bloody well don't trust the Council. And I would think, after the mess they caused here, that neither should you."

Lydia folded her arms and ventured further into the kitchen. "I don't. But I do trust Magnus. He's who I called, not Mr. Travers. I needed his advice."

He looked at her, then, and his face exhibited more hurt than anger. "Advice you couldn't get from me?"

She sighed. "It's not that I don't trust your judgment--"

"Oh, we're questioning my judgment now?"

"What? No!" Lydia took a deep breath. "If you would stop being petulant for a moment and--"

"Petulant?" Rupert tore off his glasses and stormed over to her. "My Slayer's life is on the line, you're ready to turn her over to the people who for all we know are the cause, and you're going to stand there and accuse me of being petulant?"

Lydia took her own glasses off and held her ground as he stood over her. "Buffy's condition sounded familiar. The research I did this afternoon turned up other instances of Slayers losing their minds. I remembered stories that Magnus used to tell me, and thought he could provide more information."

"And did he?"

"He's looking into it. Putting his own people on it. They won't involve Mr. Travers unless absolutely necessary. Believe me, Rupert, I wouldn't have called if I didn't think we needed them. But without the information the Council can provide, we're completely blind!"

Rupert backed down and replaced his glasses. "Better to feel our way through the dark than to be led by someone who refuses to see. You should have talked to me first, Lydia."

Lydia braced herself. She didn't want to say it, but it needed to be said. "She's not your Slayer anymore, Rupert. She's mine. I'm her Watcher."

"I'm aware of that," he sighed. "Still, I'd have thought, especially after last night--"

"What?" She blinked at him. "Is that what that was? You trying to get in good with me so that I'd share my role with you?"

His head rolled back as he closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I'm not even going to dignify that with a response. You know better."

"Then what the hell has that got to do with--" The basement door opened, and she stopped. Mr. Summers emerged, looking forlorn and bewildered. He cast them a distrustful glance before heading into the living room. Rupert stared after him, looking a little forlorn himself. Lydia understood. "Oh."

"I'm being pushed out," he said. "For six years I've been not just her Watcher. I've been… I've been…"

"Her dad."

Rupert closed his eyes, and nodded. "When Hank Summers started taking a more active role in her life, at least I still had the excuse of being her teacher. Now I haven't even got that." He stared at the basement door for a long while, then turned his gaze on Lydia. "After all that we shared last night, I'd have thought you understood."

"I do. I'm just a little slow on the uptake." She crossed over to him and, tentatively, reached for him. When he didn't pull away, she wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her head on his shoulder. "Please don't hate me."

He chuckled. "My darling, I'm afraid that isn't an option." She raised her head to smile at him, but when she did he caught her in a kiss. His hand caressed her face. She reached up and held it.

"I promise, from now on I'll follow your lead."

"That's not necessary. I do trust your judgment."

"No, you don't, and yes, it is. But only until she's well again. Then you'll bloody well get out of my way and let me do my job." She kissed him again before he could argue.

***

Brilliant. His whole universe collapsing, and he had to listen to the Watchers making out in the kitchen. Some other time, he'd be congratulating Rupert; but today he wanted them to take their snogging and their furtive happiness and get the hell out of his house until they could at least make a show of being miserable.

Buffy needed them, though. Hell, he needed them. Spike didn't trust the Council anymore than Rupert did, but if they had anything that could help her, he'd gladly take it.

He heard the lovebirds hastily break apart and start sputtering excuses. Dawn assured them that she'd already blocked the scene from her memory. For the first time that day, Spike grinned.

A moment later, the back door opened. "Spike?"

"Bit," he greeted, craning his neck from where he leaned against the railing. "How's the leg?"

"Fine." She limped over to him.

He grabbed her chin and tilted her face to see it better under the porch light. "Didn't notice the shiner before. She do that, too?"

Dawn shrugged. "What happened downstairs?"

Straight to it, then. "It, uh… it's a spell. Or a possession, or something. Not really sure."

"But it's fixable."

"God, I hope so, Nibblet."

She chewed on that for a moment. He watched her trying to process it, add that information to everything that she'd gone through that day. It struck him just how much she'd grown up since that night she'd made him her accomplice for a little B&E at the Magic Box. How much more stoic she could be in the face of her world crumbling down around her.

"Spike, I'm sorry."

His brow wrinkled in confusion. "What for?"

"For not coming home earlier. You needed me, and I shoulda been here."

With a sigh, Spike straightened up and turned to face her. "Yeh, you should have been here. But only because then you'd've been safe. Not for my sake."

"But--"

"Dawn. It's not your job to take care of me."

"But Buffy can't. If I don't, who else is going to?"

His face softened. He pulled her into a hug and kissed her on the temple. "We'll take care of each other, yeh?"

Sniffling against his shoulder, she nodded. The door opened again, and Oz stuck his head out. "Guys, sorry, but…" He pointed inside. "Meeting."

Spike let go of Dawn and followed her inside. Oz clapped him on the shoulder as Spike walked past him into the house. "Living room."

"Right."

The whole gang was assembled, though they were hardly whole without Buffy there. Dawn made a beeline for her dad on the sofa, then patted the cushion next to her and looked expectantly at Spike. Resigned, he joined her, avoiding any eye contact with Hank. Oz took a seat with Willow and Faith on the fireplace. The Watchers all stood around, though Harris didn't seem quite as clued in as the other two. He also avoided Spike's eyes.

"Guess this Scooby meeting's now in session," said Willow.

"Scooby?" Hank asked.

Dawn patted his hand. "I'll explain later."

"So, what's the sitch?" asked Xander.

Lydia looked at Giles, who made an "after you" gesture. She took off her glasses and let them dangle from her clasped hands as she began. "As you all know by now, Buffy appears to have been the victim of some rather malevolent magic. You should also know that this isn't the first time such a thing has happened to a Slayer. I've contacted Magnus Bellingham for more information. He should have some answers for us by morning."

Faith's hand shot up. "Wait a minute, happened before?"

"On more than one occasion, it seems."

"Great. So, what're the odds it'll happen again?"

"The last similar instance happened nearly a century ago. I'm afraid I don't know the details."

"Yeah, but they didn't have two Slayers back then. Man, I thought this was a Buffy thing, but if it's a Slayer thing--"

"We'll handle it," Xander said. "We're handling Buffy -- helping her, and if it happens… we'll handle it."

Faith nodded; but as she crossed her arms, she didn't look any less wigged.

"The question we need to focus on now," said Giles, "is what to do with her until we know more about what is happening."

"She should be under guard," said Spike. "I'll take first watch."

"Actually, we were thinking of moving her."

Spike shot to his feet. "Like hell!"

"Spike, I know you want to be near her, but--"

"But nothing! She knows, Rupert!" He pointed a finger toward the basement. "She'll know if I'm there with her."

"And she'll know that you shouldn't be," said Lydia. Spike looked at her and opened his mouth to argue, but she held up her hands. "Think, William. She's a danger to both you and Dawn. Your presence only agitates her condition. You won't be doing her any favors by staying with her."

Spike looked around. He needed to hit something. Kill something. A-ha, a vase! That looked breakable. But before he could reach for it, a hand grabbed hold of his. He looked down to see Dawn gazing up at him, stoic as ever. "She's right."

Spike closed his eyes and willed himself to calm down. He squeezed Dawn's hand. "Yeh." He turned back to Lydia. "Well? Where d'you plan on taking her?"

"That's the question."

"Here's another question," said Hank. "Do you think it's safe to move her? I mean, those chains in the basement are pretty heavy-duty. I don't really think she'll be going anywhere."

"And that's the sort of thinking that gets people killed around here," said Giles.

"I don't think moving her'll be a problem," said Xander. "Faith and I can come along to provide muscle." When everyone looked at him, he amended, "Faith's muscle." He snapped his fingers and popped his fist. "Suddenly I feel the urge to do more carpentry."

"We'll take both tranq guns," said Lydia. "And we should probably sedate her before we leave."

"I've got some painkillers left over that'll take care of that." Xander nodded. Then, "Unfortunately they're in my bathroom at home, so that's not much help."

"I've got some," said Dawn.

"Good." Giles paced the room a little, rubbing the side of his nose as he went. "That settles how, but there's still the question of where. We need someplace secure, preferably far enough away from here that there will be time to warn you both should she escape."

"What about my place?"

Spike looked at Oz, a little startled to hear him speak. The boy had that effect sometimes. "Your place?"

"Yeah. I installed a cage. There's a bed… it's comfy."

"What the…" muttered Hank, but Dawn shushed him.

Willow frowned. "I thought you were past the whole needing to lock yourself up at a full moon stage."

He shrugged. "I don't like to take chances."

"Sounds perfect," said Giles.

Dawn let go of Spike's hand and gave Hank's knee a pat. "I'll go get the Percocet."

"I'll load the tranqs," said Xander.

While everybody split up to make the preparations, Spike slipped back down into the basement. Buffy sat huddled on the floor. Her head snapped up as he reached the bottom of the stairs. He didn't go any further. "They tell me I'm only making it worse for you."

She growled at him. He swallowed hard, nodded, and turned to go back upstairs. Then he stopped to consider her for a moment. Sod it, he couldn't just walk away. He went back down and crossed over to her, squatting just out of her reach as he tried to look into her eyes. "I know you can hear me, Love."

Her lip curled up in a snarl. "Demon."

Spike looked down at his clasped hands. "Not talking to you. I'm talking to Buffy." He met her eyes again. He didn't know what he hoped to see, but the vacancy there made his throat constrict. He coughed to clear it. "They're moving you. Gonna take you to Oz's, put you in his c--" His voice broke. He swallowed. "He's got a cage. You should be more comfortable there. They say… they say I'm not doing you any favors. That you wouldn't want me here, because of the danger. Buffy, if any of that's not true… if you don't want them to move you, please, Baby, give me some kind of sign. Something…" He waited. Nothing but more rocking and growling. He nodded. "All right. But I want you to know that I'll be here. Waiting. And the minute you need me, I'll be there, Love. I swear it."

Several sets of footsteps came down the stairs. Spike stood up as the Watchers came down, followed by Faith and Oz.

Lydia smiled at him apologetically. "It would probably be best if…"

"Yeh." He looked at Buffy one last time -- no, he amended. Not the last. She glared up at him. Reminding himself again that it wasn't really her, he started for the stairs.

"Hey." Oz stopped him. "Will you be okay?"

Spike shook his head, then waved him off. "Just take care of her."

"I will, man. We all will."

***

They all fit in Hank Summers's SUV. Giles drove, and Lydia rode shotgun. Funny, seeing as how the guns were in the back with Xander and Oz. Faith sat behind Lydia, next to Buffy, not taking her eyes off her for a second. She sure hoped teaching Buffy how to escape from a moving vehicle wouldn't come back to bite her in the ass.

Not that Buffy looked bent on escaping. Even Faith could tell that whatever was left of Buffy's mind only ran on one track. She reminded Faith of some kinda jungle cat the way she perched in her seat, ready to spring any second. Ready to hunt. Slay. Not any of them, though. She had her hands and face pressed up against the window, sniffing the air and growling low in the back of her throat. Fucking growling! Like she could sense everything hiding out there in the shadows and was jonesing to rip 'em all open with her bare hands. But Faith couldn't sense anything. She figured that for a good thing.

"Man, please tell me I'm not gonna end up like this."

"You're not," said Xander.

"Yeah? How do you know?"

He gave her that look, like he had no clue but wanted to say something quippy to distract her, but knew she'd bite his head off if he did.

"Yeah. Thought so."

"We don't know," Giles said, his voice all soft. "But we'll find out, Faith. And if there's a way to prevent it, we will. I promise you."

"If you say so, G."

Still sniffing, Buffy turned and stared at Oz. She cocked her head and squinted, like she didn't know what to make of him. His eyes narrowed a little in response. "Hey."

He nodded at her, gripping his gun tighter.

Buffy lunged at him. Her hands still bound with shackles, she leaned her face against Oz and sniffed his hair.

"Hey!" Faith and Xander both grabbed her and wrestled her back into her seat. "Stay down!" Faith told her. "Jesus, can't we get a shorter leash on this girl?"

"Okay, that was…" Oz gripped Faith's headrest so hard his knuckles turned white. "Don't let her do that."

"We're almost there," said Giles.

Buffy actually sat her ass in her chair like a person. She leaned forward and got a good whiff of Giles.

"Here, stop that!"

With a little whine, she slumped back in her seat. Wasn't too crazy to pout, at least. She drew her knees up and fiddled with her chains. Then she stopped and looked at Faith. Just stared at her, for no particular reason Faith could figure. Faith tensed up, waiting for her to do something. But Buffy's gaze just got more intense, like maybe she recognized her. Remembering what Spike said, about Buffy knowing what was going on (and that was the thing that gave her the biggest wig of all), Faith softened a little. "B? That you?"

Buffy leaned toward her a little. Faith flinched, but held her ground.

"You… are… me."

Faith snorted. "Fuck that."

"I think she can sense that you're a Slayer," Lydia supplied.

"Right." Faith managed a weak grin. "Hey, B, check it. I'm the sane Slayer." She imagined that somewhere deep down, Buffy laughed.

"One… chosen."

Okay, maybe not so much with the laughing. "Sorry, sister. Maybe in your day, but not anymore. Hey, are we there yet?"

"Another block," said Oz.

"Good," said Xander. "Love ya, Buff, but you're getting some serious creep on."

Buffy turned toward the window and curled up in a ball.

"Aw, man." Xander leaned over the seat and put a hand on her shoulder. "I didn't mean that. I know you can't help--"

"Hey!"

Xander and Faith looked at Oz.

"I think I smell blood."

A hand shot out at Faith. Something metal struck her just under her eye, hard. Another hand, bloody and unshackled, grabbed Xander by the hair and pulled him over the seat.

"What's happening!"

"Oh, dear Lord!"

"Hold her, I can't get a shot!"

Giles, Lydia and Oz all hollered at once. Xander couldn't holler anything -- Buffy had him in a chokehold.

"Get the hell offa my Watcher!" Faith screamed. She punched Buffy in the face, snapping her head back. Buffy shoved Xander at Faith, then grabbed Giles. He hollered as the SUV swerved all over the road. Then everything turned topsy-turvy, then set right, then flipped again, and Faith got bounced around like a SuperBall. When it stopped, she lay on top of the passenger-side door, and Xander lay on top of her; the window above them, smashed.

"Oh God," cried Lydia. "Rupert!"

Groaning, Xander got up to his knees. Faith sat up and looked at the driver's seat, where Giles hung suspended from his seatbelt. Unconscious. "His head…." But Lydia was already checking him over.

Faith heard more groaning behind her, but she couldn't move. Couldn't take her eyes off Giles. "Please," she said. "Please don’t let this be the one."

"Buffy…" Xander spoke. "It's okay. Just calm--"

The window above them shattered, raining glass down on them.

"Buffy, no!"

Faith looked up to see Xander grab hold of Buffy, who was trying to climb through the window. She tried to shake him off. Then she wrapped her chain around his neck and pulled him through it with her.

"No!" Faith grabbed his leg and tried to hold on, but all the blood rushed to her head and she lost her balance and fell on her ass. "Damn it!" She forced herself up and through the window. Hit the street running. Xander's extra weight slowed Buffy down, so she was only a few yards ahead. "Buffy, stop!"

Buffy spun to face Faith. Xander clawed at the chain at his throat. The choking sounds he made shocked Faith's system like a nightmare upon waking. Just like a thousand times before in her dreams. She ignored it. "Let him go."

"No." Buffy rattled her chains. "Slay!"

God, her voice didn't even sound human. Right, not Buffy. Super Slayer bitch was the one to talk to. "Look, you want to go scrounge Sunnydale for leftover demon trash and lay waste to 'em? Fine! I don't really give a rat's ass. Just give me back my Watcher!"

Faith stepped forward. Buffy moved back. "You slay demons," Faith said. Xander started to pass out. Shit. "Does he look like a demon to you? You're killing him!"

Buffy looked at Xander and seemed to consider that. She loosened the chain. Not enough to let him go, but enough to let him breathe. He coughed so hard Faith thought he might lose a lung.

"Let him go."

Buffy watched him cough, and loosened the chain a little more.

"Right," said Faith. "Cool. You don't want to hurt any humans. I get that." She took a deep breath. "Xander's human as it gets. You don't want to hurt him." He raised his head and locked eyes with her. He smiled a little to let her know he was basically okay. And Faith knew right then that if she fucked this up, that'd be the last time she'd ever see that smile again. "Please don't hurt him."

A rifle clicked beside her. Oz aimed the tranq. Buffy looked at him, eyes narrowed.

"Not human," she growled.

"Makes me a good shot," he said, and fired.

But not good enough. Buffy blocked the dart with Xander's shoulder. Then she looked back at Faith and shoved him at her. As Faith caught him, Buffy took off into the woods behind Oz's place. Oz started to chase her. "Forget it!" Faith called. "Help Lydia. Giles probably needs an ambulance. Xander too."

Faith lowered Xander to the ground. Then she sat beside him, drew up her knees, and dropped her head in her hands.

"Shit."

***

Spike knew from the hitch in Willow's voice that the news was bad. When he stood near enough, he could hear for himself as Oz explained what had happened. He was already going for his coat when Willow hung up.

"Get Dawn and her dad, take 'em to your place. Or a motel or something. Do one of those protection spells when you get there."

"What? Where are you going?"

He shrugged on his coat. "To find her."

"Spike, no."

He ignored her and reached for the door.

"Claudere!"

The door wouldn't budge. Spike gritted his teeth. "Open it."

"No!"

He spun around and stormed up to her. "Do it, Witch!"

She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. "Or what?"

Spike shook with rage, fists clenched, fangs itching. "Willow…"

"Spike, I know you want to know that she's safe. But she's not the one in danger right now."

"I can handle her!"

Willow wouldn't back down. "Okay, maybe. But what if you can't? What if she hurts you? Kills you? Then she has to live with that. Don't you think that maybe she wants to know you're safe?"

"Know who's safe?" Dawn came in from the kitchen, followed by Hank. Looking from Willow to Spike, her eyes narrowed. "What's going on?"

Spike turned away and stalked into the dining room, raking his fingers through his hair.

Willow sighed. "There was an accident."

"What?" asked Dawn.

"What kind of accident?" asked Hank. "Is Buffy…"

"She got away," Willow said.

Spike looked over his shoulder at Dawn as she took this in. Fear flickered across her face, but she quickly masked it with resolve. "She's okay? Y'know, crazy, but otherwise…"

"She was fine, as far as Oz could tell. She… the car's wrecked," Willow's gaze flicked apologetically to Hank. "Giles hit his head, and Buffy roughed Xander up pretty bad before she ran away. They're all at the hospital."

Dawn went back to scared. "Giles?"

Willow smiled. "He's conscious. They're gonna run tests, but it looks like he got lucky."

Dawn closed her eyes and sighed.

Hank looked back and forth from Willow to Spike. "Okay, so… what happens now?"

"Somebody has to find Buffy," Spike told him, examining the black plastic covering the window. "And I'm the only one who stands a chance against her. Unless Red here wants to take a shot." He reached up to tear off the tarp.

"Spike, no!" Not Willow, that time. Dawn. The panic in her voice froze him in place. She ran over and grabbed hold of his arm. "Please? Don't leave me."

He put a hand over hers. "Sweet Bit, I have to--"

"No!" He could see her trying to be brave, even as she looked up at him with those big, blue eyes and the trembling pout that always broke him. "Please, Spike! I can't lose you, too."

Hank quietly watched them both. Then he went to Dawn, brushed her hair back from her shoulders, and kissed the top of her head. "Spike, can I talk to you?" He headed for the kitchen.

Spike stared after him. He didn't trust this new development. But he pulled Dawn's hand off his arm, gave it a squeeze, and followed her dad.

"What is it, Summers? Time's a-wasting."

Hank took a deep breath. He looked like he was trying to pass a stone as he said, "Dawn's right. She needs you more than Buffy does right now."

Spike blinked. Sure as hell didn't expect that. Even so, it only pissed him off. "I don't think you have the first clue what Buffy needs."

Hank laughed, a frustrated little sound that reminded Spike uncannily of Buffy. "No, I don't. And neither do you. Neither does anybody else." He chewed on his lip a moment, then pulled something out of his pocket. A key. He slid it across the counter to Spike. "I still have my apartment in L.A."

Spike stared at the key. "Yeh. And?"

"I think you should take Dawn and stay there until this blows over."

Spike looked up at Hank. "I'm not leaving Buffy."

"And that's admirable," Hank said. "I'm not asking you to."

"What d'you call this?"

"Look, I know you love my girls. I don't want to believe it sometimes, but I know. I also know you think maybe you love them more than I do. But that's not true. And I'm trying to do what's best for them now. Both of them."

"I can't leave Buffy."

"You have to!" Hank shouted.

Nonplussed, Spike pulled himself up to full height, then held still, curious to hear him out. Hank fiddled with the napkin holder as he tried to calm down. Spike figured he was counting to ten.

Hank sighed. "One of my babies is sick, and I don't know how to help her. And neither do you. I know you want to, but you can't, any more than I can."

Spike shoved his hands in his pockets and waited.

"My other baby is in danger," Hank continued. "I don't know how to protect her. But you do. I think maybe… probably… you're the only one who can keep her safe. It'll be safer for you both if you just get out of town."

Spike shook his head. "You don't understand. Buffy and I are a team. One of us is in trouble, the other doesn't just take off!"

"I understand a hell of a lot more than you give me credit for, son."

Spike almost had to laugh at the title.

"I understand how hurt Buffy's gonna be if she does anything permanent to you or her Dawn. And since you two seem to be who she's gunning for right now, I understand that you should make sure she doesn't get that chance."

Sod it to hell, he was right. They all were. Spike knew it. He hated it, but he knew it. He picked up the key and held it in his hand, squeezed until it cut into his palm.

"Spike?" Dawn's voice came from the entryway behind him.

He didn't move. "Go pack a bag, Nibblet."

***

Dawn laid her head against the Jeep window and watched as it all rolled away. Her house, her neighborhood. The Magic Box. The Sun Cinema. The Bronze.

Cemeteries. Block after block of cemeteries, dark and creepy and chockfull of real live scary things. Tonight, her sister was one of the scary things, lurking out there in the dark.

Sometimes, Dawn hated Sunnydale.

Still, saying goodbye had been weird, even if it was only for a little while. A few days, everybody promised. A week, tops.

She'd packed for two. Just in case.

Dad had carried her bags out to the car while Willow hugged her and promised they'd do everything they could to help Buffy. "And we'll call. Every hour." Then Dad had come back inside and hugged her, and kissed her, and told her he loved her.

"Love you too, Daddy." And she did. She really did. Even though she knew she'd only really first met him a few months ago.

Finally, Spike had come down, his left hand clutching a small black duffle. Could've been he'd just grabbed a few things, but even after all this time living with humans, he still didn’t own that many clothes. Dawn wondered how long he'd packed for.

She remembered the way his right hand had come to rest on Buffy's quilt, still hanging over the banister. The way he'd just stared at it, sorta petting it. Then he'd plucked it up, tucked it under his arm as he joined them at the bottom of the stairs, and looked at her, with absolutely no expression on his face. "Ready?"

She'd wanted to tell him that she wasn't ready for any of this; but before she could, Willow blindsided Spike with a hug. He never saw it coming, and he'd looked pretty uncomfortable, but still touched as he patted her with his free hand. Then he'd moved her back and just looked at her, and Dawn had seen some kind of understanding pass between them. Like, whatever history they had, right then they were just two people who loved Buffy and would do anything for her.

"You'll do everything in your power?"

Willow had smiled. "Even if I have to borrow some."

Oz had appeared in the doorway as they started to leave. "Hey." His eyes had narrowed a little as he looked at all their faces, then at Spike's bag. "What's up?"

"Spike's taking Dawn to L.A. So we can worry about Buffy without also having to worry about them."

"Good idea."

"Yeh," said Spike, "everyone else seems to think so."

"Yeah."

Dawn had never seen Oz have as much trouble formulating words as he'd seemed to be having right then.

"Spike. We tried, man. We all did. I… she…"

"Not your fault, Mate."

"No. Maybe."

Another look around at everybody, at the house, and Spike had headed out the door, nodding to Oz on the way out. After exchanging a little wave with them all, Dawn had followed.

Since they'd left, Spike hadn't said a word. He just drove, keeping his eyes fixed on the road. No radio. No singing, not even humming. No tapping out a rhythm on the steering wheel that only he could hear.

Now they were driving past the Hellmouth. Dawn wouldn’t miss that. Her old school next. Some churches. More cemeteries. The highway, and then the interstate, where the "Now Leaving Sunnydale, Come Back Soon!" sign glinted at them in the headlights.

Spike pulled over.

He didn't say anything. Just sat there, gripping the steering wheel and staring at a spot on the dash. Dawn didn't say anything either, afraid one wrong word might break him. Finally, his grip loosened and his hands slid to his lap. He turned to her without looking at her. "Sit tight, Little Bit." He got out of the car, pulling something out from under the seat as he went.

Dawn tried to watch him in the mirror, then took a second to feel like a moron before turning around. Spike walked back down the shoulder toward the sign. She watched him stare up at it for a minute. Dawn considered asking what the hell he was doing. She reached for the door handle, then jumped as Spike let out a scream. The sound he made whenever he threw himself at a really big demon. His battle cry.

She looked back and saw him raise a crowbar high in the air. Then he clobbered the sign, over and over, bashing and bending. Totally whaling on it. Dawn watched, fascinated and a little scared, as Spike tossed aside the crowbar and started kicking the sign post. He hammered it with one boot, then the other, switching back and forth until it gave and toppled. Then he stood over his handiwork and dug out his cigarettes.

Dawn swallowed and got out of the car. She went to him, arms folded as she examined the broken sign. "What did it ever do to you?"

"Always found property destruction therapeutic." Lighting his cigarette, he glanced at her a little sheepishly. "Probably shouldn't tell you stuff like that." He shrugged. "Not like there was anything around to kill."

"Did it help?"

"Not this time."

He smoked while they stood looking out over the lights of Sunnydale. His eyes scanned the darkness, taking everything in. Dawn didn't know whether he hoped he'd sense her, or dreaded it. Probably a little of both.

"I swore I'd never leave her," he said at last, quietly. His voice held the faintest tremble.

"You're not. She knows that. Or, she will."

He tossed his cigarette on the sign, then shoved his hands in his pockets. "I told her…" His voice broke that time, and he stopped. Made a little choked laugh as he looked away. When he turned back, the moonlight caught tear tracks on his cheeks. "Promised her that I'd be there. Waiting for her to get well again. To come home."

He spoke slowly, deliberately, trying to keep control. But his voice kept getting higher and shakier, and he was crying now, really crying. It was awful to watch. Dawn had never seen him look so vulnerable. So scared. She tried to be strong for him, she did. But she couldn't see him like that and not cry. So instead she put her arms around him, needing to be held as much as he did. She wanted to say something comforting, but everything she could think of sounded like a lie. It wasn't okay. Buffy was insane or possessed and maybe dying, and they might not get her back, and they couldn't be with her and it sucked. Dawn buried her face against Spike's shoulder and gave up on trying to be strong.

"Dawnie," he said, his voice raspy and barely above a whisper, "I can't…" He was shaking.

"What?"

He took a deep breath and said, "I don't know how to be human without her."

Dawn closed her eyes and squeezed him tighter. "Yes, you do."

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