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Episode Seven: A Hero's Welcome

by adjrun & fenwic
Heroes by David Bowie
Windmills of Your Mind by Dusty Springfield
Shout outs: To cj and g – Words cannot begin to express…, to the MMConners – especially jenelope, for letting us have our Con-within-a-Con; to the DL Crew and all the regulars – for your inspiration, input and infinite patience; to our families and fleshfriends – who got blown off for our obsession-within-an-obsession; to Aaron Sorkin, George Lucas, and everyone else fenwic ripped off. Without all of the above, there would be none of the below. God, we love you.
Editor's note: It's another two-parter! This one's a bit longer than our average episode. Hopefully this will make it easier on your printers. --cj
Rated R for sexy sex! Don't look, kids!

A customer walking into the Magic Box would find himself alone. Giles was in the back room, Xander and Faith in the training room, and Anya in the alley taking out the trash. Of course, someone could make off with the plastic vampire teeth (which would be half-off tomorrow, owing to it not being Halloween for another 364 days then). But if you took an orb without paying, there’d be boils on your back by sundown. Besides, Anya reasoned that she would only be gone a minute, and that she locked the cash register whenever she stepped out, and that the last thing they needed was another paycheck-sucking employee just to cover such occasions. So, she took out the trash, and upon her return stood just inside the back door, watching her Watcher.
Faith was beating up Xander. But not really, since he was puffy. She was practicing kicking moves too, which is why Xander had mitts on. She seemed especially kick-y this morning. These sessions used to alarm Anya, but they made Xander feel useful, and she realized that she enjoyed watching. That is until Faith landed one hard enough to knock off a mitt. Xander managed to not cry out, but both girls could tell that it stung.
“Xander –“ they both started. Anya went to him, while Faith hung back, pacing the room.
“It’s okay,” he managed between gritted teeth. “I just need a timeout to tape my hands. And pad them, and Novocain them.” Off Faith’s pensive look, he added, “Really, I’m fine. You, on the other had, are all young and restless. What? Lack o’ vamps making you twitchy?”
With Xander’s help, Faith had gotten past apologizing for every punch. But she didn’t like to hurt him. He and Anya had been nice and… she didn’t like to hurt him is all. But she wanted like hell to hurt somebody.
“Why can’t Spike do this part of the training?” Anya asked as she tore off pieces of tape. “That way, your hands wouldn’t be stiff every night and we could save money on this expensive hitting tape.”
“Anya, it’s my job. Besides, Spike’s on the p.m. shift.” She was manipulating his hand so that she could get the tape all the way around.
Faith said nothing, but she got it. That Spike was no dummy. No way would he let his girl worry about the Dark Slayer getting her lips on yet another Buffy Boyfriend.
“Plus,” Xander continued, “He gets Slayer-whipped on a regular basis. `Loik oi ‘aven’t ‘ad me fill of gettin’ me arse kicked boi the Sly-ah oh-vah the lahst foive yee-uhs!’”
“What?” said Anya.
“What?” said Xander.
“What is that? What is that thing you’re doing with your words? I can’t understand you.”
“Huh? I’m… I’m doing Spike’s accent.”
Silence. A good ten seconds of silence. Then this paragon of unconditional love and acceptance; this woman; His Love, His Life… laughed. So did his Slayer. So did he. It was nice to see them laugh. Especially Faith. He’d been trying to get her to laugh for days. He should’ve known to just call on his old high school chum, Abject Humiliation.
“Xander,” Faith said, when her guffaws had lessened to mere giggles. “Look.”
She was pointing at his hands. He looked down to find he was the proud owner of Pillsbury Doughboy hands. He held them up to Anya, who only shrugged. At further prodding by Mitten Boy, she took his hands in hers and began to remove a few layers.
“Look,” said Faith, “I’m on tonight. I’ll beat on some delinquents at the Dairy Queen and that’ll blow off all this steam. Call it a day.”
“Xander, no. I’m too wired to fight right. I don’t… I don’t want you to use up any more tape.”
He relented. “Okay. Hit the showers.”
Xander did so love the Coach Talk. Anya helped him get un-puffy, then went back to work on his hands, which she would be un-taping for the next three days.
That resolved, Faith grabbed a towel, all the while mumbling under her breath, “God, I really wanna hit something. Hard.”
“I’ll take you.”
The girls turned toward the shop door and stared at the newcomer. Xander kept his eyes on his hands, which Anya still had in hers. But he knew the voice.
Taking off his jacket, Riley took long, easy strides into the room. “It’s Faith, isn’t it?” he asked, as he draped the jacket over the back of a chair. Not a hint of irony in his voice. As if he was asking the time. “I’m Riley Finn.”
The ground opened up and swallowed Faith whole. Thank god, she thought, as she tumbled down, down, down. Air rushed past her ears, and she relaxed into the sound of falling. She couldn’t scream, she couldn’t move, but it was okay. Wherever the abyss took her was better than the scene topside. She plummeted for miles, but it felt like flying. Like leaping from an airplane. Below her the whiteness finally cleared and she could see water. Calm, undisturbed. She shifted position and went in feet first, and with very little splash. Her first sensation was that the water was extremely warm, almost hot. She swam straight up and the water by turns grew cold, then hot again. Murky, then clear. Disoriented, and running out of air, she steeled herself and swam, kicked, clawed her way to the surface. She burst through with a lung-expanding gasp and…
Breathed! She took a breath, and then another, and another. But speaking was out of the question, so she merely watched as Riley Finn casually walked a wide circle around her. “So what are we working on today, a little Tae Kwon Do? I think I’ve got some of that.”
And with that he whirled to his right, aiming a roundhouse kick at her head.
“Riley!” Xander shouted.
The spell broke instantly. Faith dropped the towel and blocked the kick. Her fists were up now, but she remained in defense mode. This was a language she could speak. And he was getting right to the point. Finn went back into orbit around her.
He nodded approvingly. “Reflexes good. Now let’s see some technique.”
He unleashed a series of perfectly executed jabs, punches, and kicks. Faith blocked one after the other, but didn’t expect the elbow to the face and ended up on her ass.
“Riley.” Xander tried again.
“I’m cool,” Faith said, rubbing her cheek but never taking her eyes off her opponent. She hopped up, assumed fighting stance, and waited, fighting the urge to charge. The blood was flowing again, but she was gonna let him come to her. Be careful what you wish for, she thought. It just might walk in the door.
“I was given to understand that you knew a thing or two about fighting dirty,” Finn said. His hands were down.
“Yeah, well, I heard the opposite about you.”
“Training. I just give good training. I’m not the enemy. But I play him on TV.” He rushed her. Caught napping again, she was down in seconds, tackled by the basketball player with the TV star looks.
“Coulda fooled me,” she said. She couldn’t get up, because he had her by the waist, so she swung wide and slapped him. He let her go and touched his palm to where the mark was already forming. She shot him a look of defiance and asked, “What else do you ‘give good?’”
The look in his eyes surprised her. She wasn’t looking for the love he’d shown that night, not with the face she was currently sporting, but there was no hate either, not toward her anyway. What she saw there she could only describe as swirling, like bathtub water circling the drain. Only you’re this little ant in the pipes and the water is swirling over your head. It didn’t jive with the casual control he used to fight her, so she blew it off as her own headtrip and resolved to get off the damn bus. Now.
Her own eyes were wild, and when Finn finally got to his feet he held out his hand to her as if she were a small animal. Faith had gotten into a crouching position and reached up halfway. Then, with her weight on her other hand, she swung out her legs and tripped him from behind. He fell, rolled and was up again in an instant, smiling. He pulled off his shirt and used it to mop the sweat off his face and chest. Then he tossed it toward the chair and it landed in a heap about a foot short.
“I can bring it, too,” she said, coming at him with fists flying.
“There’s the Slayer,” he said, as if he’d won a scavenger hunt.
“You’re damn right I’m here!” she replied, kicking and swinging. Punch, punch, block, kick, miss and switch positions. Faith’s loud grunting punctuated each hit she landed, spewing air and energy into the room. Both fighters were on the balls of their feet, breathing hard and heavy.
Still in shock over Riley’s sudden reappearance, Xander and Anya watched wordlessly. Xander had seen them both in action before, but not against each other. The level of play had risen. He decided he’d take credit for Faith, but Riley – already Green Beret Guy – musta picked up some jungle moves. Xander noticed that he’d lost weight; you could even see it in his face. And he was fast, deceptively fast.
But Faith had him up against the wall, pummeling him with head and gut shots. Asking him if he liked it. Telling him he should. She hit harder than Buffy. She talked harder than Buffy. Or she just didn’t hold back like Buffy did. Well, neither would he. His hand shot out and caught her wrist, using her momentum to swing her into the wall. He returned to the center of the room and waited for her. “Is that all ya got?”
He wasn’t taunting. It was a question, like he really didn’t know. It infuriated her.
Her hands hit the floor in a roundoff that ended with first her right foot, then left one hitting him square in the chest, knocking him down. He was flat on his back, with one knee raised, about to sit up, but no sooner had her feet hit the floor when the right one took off again and made sure he stayed down. She straddled him, forearm hard against his throat, knees pinning his elbows to his sides. She was grinning down at him now, triumphant. This was her bread and butter. Faith was home.
“Is that all you got? `Cause I was giv-en to un-der-stand that this bronco had a little more buck to him.” She emphasized her words with her storied bump and grind. “What shall I do with you, hmm? Chain you up? Every girl oughtta have a pony.”
Riley had been slowly bringing his right boot up to his hand. He fingered a weapon but changed his mind. Instead he brought both legs up and did a backward somersault in a move that had required special strength training to perfect. It worked. The enemy was on her stomach and Riley was on her back. He fisted a hand in her hair and jerked her head around. Xander started forward, but Anya grabbed his arm.
Faith struggled and cursed, but the battle was just about over. The victor leaned in for one final blow. “My pet pony days are over,” he whispered so only she could hear. “Anyway, it would never be you.”
He stood up then, smiling as he walked off the field and picked up his shirt. He casually approached Xander and Anya, like a wide receiver trotting back to the huddle. But before anyone could address the extraordinary events of the past few minutes, Xander’s focus suddenly shifted past Riley and back toward the shop door.
She was pale. How long had she been standing there? She took three steps into the room. Riley eyed her for a moment, then tossed the shirt over his shoulder and walked over to the chair.
Anya, who finally understood the merits of a smooth exit, slipped past Buffy and into the shop.
"Faith. Out front. Now." Part of Xander was still amazed that he could talk like that. And that people didn't start laughing their asses off when he did it.
Faith pushed herself up off the ground and looked at Xander. Her gaze measured him in a way that was both confrontational and sexual. It brought back memories. And not the shiny happy ones.
Anything he could say would be backing down -- giving her power. He merely held his focus on her, calmly, for a few seconds. Then he turned and walked to the front of the shop as though he was expecting her to follow. *Please, please, let her follow.*
Faith was still rattled by Riley’s last words to her. And losing. She got up and silently collected her gear.
Faith and Buffy passed each other as Faith followed after Xander and Buffy moved to the center of the room. Faith’s getaway was oh, so close to being clean when Buffy’s voice stopped her.
“You… You’re dropping your left shoulder,” she said softly.
Faith turned and stared as Buffy walked back to her.
“Your shoulder. You’re dropping it. I’ve got the same problem. Only on the flipside.”
Mesmerized, Faith merely nodded.
“It’s an easy fix. Just… um… don’t do it.”
“And maybe Riley here can show us that neat flip-y thing. That’s bound to come in handy.” It had been hard to say his name. She hoped it came out without a hitch.
“Yeah.” Faith looked at him. He was taking in the whole scene as if he was watching a late night movie. Like he didn’t do what he just did. Or say what he just said. Well, she knew how that was, and didn’t doubt that Xander was about to give her an earful. She went out, leaving Buffy and Riley alone in the last place they’d seen each other.
But for Buffy, it had been last night, in deep water. In a vision that crawled right out of her head and into her training room. Gotta hand it to those Slayer dreams, always on topic. And it had gotten the facial expression just right. Smiling, sad, It was painful to look at him, but she owed him her attention.
Riley had pulled on his shirt and was sitting on the chair. Buffy walked over stood a few feet in front of him. He waited. She waited. He waited better.
“How’s the jungle?”
“The operation?”
“It didn’t have to be like that, you know. We could’ve… I… We could’ve talked about this. Figured it out. It didn’t have to be like that.”
“Have you figured it out?” He looked at her expectantly. Freedom was so close.
“I know that we let each other down. That we wanted to believe...”
“Yeah?” He was hopeful. Please.
“…that everything was okay. We ignored our problems.”
“Yeah.” Riley sighed. He stood up, grabbed his jacket and walked across the room.
“My mom died.”
He turned back to her. “I know. I’m sorry, Buffy.” He meant it. “You know that she was proud of you, right? Not just because you saved the world. She was proud of you.”
“I know. I know that she was disappointed sometimes, but proud other times.”
“How’s Dawn?”
“It’s been hard. After mom. Then Glory. And now there’s this… thing. At the Bronze. Thank god we got her early. Some of the worst dead people I know are back in town.”
Riley nodded, listening as she shared more information. Information that he’d already read in a briefing book on the plane.
“Riley, there are other things… some changes.”
He’d waited nearly a year. He could sit still and wait a few more minutes.
“Faith, obviously, and Xander. But, there’s something else. Something I’ve found.”
He waited.
“Glory… was more than… more than anything we’d ever gone up against. Tara died. But we finally beat her. All of us. We wouldn’t have made it without the whole team. The whole thing kicked our asses. But it made us strong… and close. Spike and I… became close.”
He waited.
“Spike came through. He proved himself over and over. Spike and I… He… We’re together now.”
“Say something.”
“What can I possibly say about that?” What could I possibly say that matters now?
“Why did you come back?”
“To see you.”
“Well, you have. Maybe you should go.”
“No.” His last chance had come and gone. He was calm, now. Determined.
“You’ve got a war coming up—“
“We don’t know that.”
“Yeah ya do. I’m a soldier. I can help.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Since when is it about `have to’? I’m one of the good guys, remember?”
“Ye-eah,” Buffy said slowly. She could still see him, in her mind’s eye, fighting on Faith’s level, and liking it.
“That settles it, then. I’m staying. Except now, I gotta go.” He headed for the back door.
Abrupt much? “Wait,” said Buffy. “Where are you staying? How do we reach you?”
“I’m near,” he called over his shoulder just before the door slammed shut.
You’ve got a war coming up. There were different kinds of battle lines, he knew. In the jungle, he’d been relieved to find that the big red line between good and evil was still in force, running straight and narrow. But there was another one. The tight circle he drew around himself. Anyone who crossed it without an invite did not cross back.
Anya was already behind the counter when Xander came in. "Well, that was particularly unpleasant."
"Wasn't it just?" he replied. "That was not the old Riley. And it was definitely the old Faith."
"I like the new Faith much better," Anya confided. "So I'm going to go get some lunch while you make the new Faith come back."
Xander didn't say anything. He agreed with Anya. What he had seen in the training room was troubling. Frightening. Faith had been working hard, and if she wasn't careful she was going to piss it all away. Xander sank into a chair at the round table and tried to figure out how to fix this.
Faith stood in the doorway now, her arms folded and her hip cocked. She looked defiant, and angry. "You wanted to see me, Watcherkins?"
Okay. Take it slow. Don't rise to the bait. "I was thinking. Giles has been teaching me tai ch'i every morning, as part of my Watcher training."
"So, I'd like you to join us."
"For tai ch'i. Great. Fighting in slo-mo."
"Faith," he began. She stopped him with a gesture.
"No, you're right. That'll be real useful. The next time I face a vampire on smack."
"It's not about fighting. It's about control. Control that you lost when you were in there today."
"Hey. I was in total control. He's the one who lost it." She sneered. "Hair puller."
"Sit down, Faith."
"Ooh, somebody wants to be on top this time." Faith did her patented little shimmy.
Xander lost it. "Dammit, Faith! Sit down, and shut up, and listen!"
She stared at him. Then almost petulantly, she slid into a chair at the table. She slouched low, stretched her legs out in front of her, and rested her head on the back of the chair.
Okay. It was going to get personal. "Faith." Xander stopped and cleared his throat. "I don't know if you even remember having sex with me..."
"I remember." Humor flashed in her eyes. "You never forget your first virgin."
"Yeah. Well. Moving on." Xander could feel himself blushing. "It took me a long time to figure out what you were really doing. But I got it. Eventually."
"What? What was I doing?" God, she looked like a treed animal.
"You were punishing yourself," Xander replied simply. "It wasn't really about sex, ever. I mean, it felt good, so you could lie to yourself that that was why you did it. But it was really just confirming that you were worthless, unlovable. Like a piece of meat or a piece of garbage, to be used and then thrown away."
Xander looked at Faith. The mask had gone down. Good. He was getting somewhere. "But since you've been back, I haven't seen that kind of recklessness. You haven't been cynical, or self-destructive. If anything, you've been kinda cautious. Until today."
"Yeah," Faith whispered.
"To be honest, that fight in there? It scared the pants off of me. Because you turned into the Faith that literally scared the pants off of me." He paused. "And that way lies madness. And really big snakes."
Faith pushed herself upright in her chair. "God, I'm such an idiot."
Xander relaxed a little. This was the Faith he could deal with. "You're not. Messed up? Yeah. Stupid? That's my job."
He saw the hint of a smile playing at the corner of her mouth. This was the real smile, though, not the fake one she flashed as a defensive mask.
"So," he prompted her, "want to tell me what was going on?"
"It's..." Faith took a deep breath, and started over. "It's that guy. Soldier boy? Buffy's ex?"
"Riley?" Xander was puzzled. Why would Faith be thrown off-kilter by Riley?
"Yeah, I know his name," Faith snapped. She took a deep breath. Hoped he knew that she was just pissed at herself. "The last time I was here? When I kinda stole Buffy's body?"
"I remember." Xander kept his voice carefully neutral.
"I kinda...went over to his place and took him out for a test drive."
"Ah." So that's why Giles said 'ah' so often. It happened when you were so thrown by what you've just heard that you're not sure you can still speak English. Good to know. Riley slept with Faith. "Ah."
She exhaled, almost a single bitter laugh. "You know me. I don't make love. I screw 'em, and forget 'em. Get my jollies and hit the bricks, pal."
Xander waited. Listened.
Faith paused. "He -- he wouldn't let me do that. He loved me. I mean, not me, obviously, nobody loves me. But he made love to me, in Buffy's body. He held me. Like I was made outta glass or something. And that --" God, she could barely talk past the lump in her throat. "That doesn't happen to me. I mean, it's *never* happened to me. It was too much, y'know?"
She fought back the tears that were welling in her eyes. "And now, the guy who made me feel like that. He's back. And he's gotta hate me for what I did to him. For what I took from him."
Xander finally broke in. "So you figured it was only fair to let him beat the crap out of you?"
She looked up at him. Finally, she let him see the pain in her eyes. "Something like that."
"Well, knock it off." He said the words hard, like a verbal slap.
"There were some other things that did in Buffy and Riley. You were probably a contributing factor -- don't get me wrong. But not the deciding factor." He shrugged. "I can't tell you not to hate yourself, because you've got to get there on your own. And I can't tell you not to feel guilty about the past."
He shifted in his seat, moving a few inches towards her. "So here's what I can tell you. You're doing a good thing here. You're in a situation that is really hard, that most people would run away from, and you're sticking with it. You're fighting the battle."
Xander looked away, quickly. "And I don't know if it matters, but you're earning my respect."
Faith couldn't say anything.
"So just -- keep at it. Don't let this derail you. Okay?" He sighed. "Good. I'm shutting up now."
Faith sat there for a few moments, turning his words over like a pebble in her hand. For once, the silence was comfortable.
She cleared her throat. "So. Tomorrow morning. Tai chi?"
"Fighting in slo-mo," he replied.
"I'll be there."
He grinned. "I know."
"Xander. One more thing," Faith said as he started to stand. "Last night. I think I had a Slayer dream."
Spike paced back and forth across the living room. Buffy was curled up in a corner of the couch with a book on her lap. She made little pretense at reading, though. She was too busy laughing at Spike.
"What time is it?" he growled.
Buffy glanced at her watch. "7:02."
"He's late. He was supposed to be here at seven. That's inconsiderate. Disrespectful of the sweet bit." Spike ran his hands through his hair. "That's it. He gets here, I'm gonna kick his ass. Pound his ass into jello."
"I don't think Dawn would appreciate the gesture, Spike. It's kind of hard to dance with Jell-O." She snickered. "Ass Jell-O."
"Wha? How can you be so ruddy calm about it? A fifteen year-old testosterone rocket is gonna walk through that door any minute. Do you know what he'll be thinkin' about our bit?" He turned back to her. "Pretty close to what I think when I see you!"
"Oh. Yikes."
Spike nodded his head. "I'm thinkin' convent. Lack of Catholicism be damned."
The doorbell rang. Spike leapt for the door.
Buffy stopped him. "Hold it right there, mister."
He turned back, his eyes wild. She continued. "You are going to get yourself under control. You are going to be polite to this boy. Absolutely no threats, on pain of sleeping at your own apartment."
Spike pouted. "What about veiled threats?"
He was going to spontaneously combust if she didn't give him something. "Okay. But only a few."
Spike grinned. He could work with that.
Buffy swung open the door. Doug stood there in a white T-shirt with blue jeans and a leather jacket. His hair was slicked into a pompadour. He might've looked tough if he hadn't been so adorable.
"Come on in," she said, holding the door open. "You look great."
"Thanks," he said, ducking his head like he was embarrassed. "Um, thanks for letting Dawn go with me. It was kinda short notice, and all."
"Not a problem," Buffy said. "Dawn's still upstairs. I'll go check on her."
Spike watched Buffy climb the stairs, and then turned his attention back to Doug.
"Hi. I'm Doug," the boy said. He sounded cheerful and polite. Duplicitous facade. Spike ignored his outstretched hand.
"Dawn's sister's boyfriend. Nice to meet you. Dawn's told me a lot about you." He smiled. Good. He was already nervous.
Remember. Veiled threats only. "Really? Did she tell you I had a violent temper? And that if any boy tried to hurt her, or push her, or endanger her in any way, I'd cut off his dangly bits and shove 'em down his throat?"
"Umm, no." Doug's voice was pitched significantly higher. "She kind of skipped that part."
"Did she mention how I got the name 'Spike'?"
"No..." His voice was even higher.
"Got mad. Ran a railroad spike right through a fella's hand." Spike grinned. "And his other hand. And his ribcage. A couple dozen times."
Doug took a few steps back towards the door.
"Kidding." Spike didn't look like he was kidding. He looked dead serious.
Spike took a step toward Doug, and his gaze intensified. "Dawn's an amazing kid, and very precious to me. You can imagine how insane I would get if something were to happen to her."
"Y-y-yes, sir."
"So you're going to make sure nothing does happen to her. Right, Doug?"
"Yes, sir."
"Because if anything -- untoward -- were to happen, I'd be very disappointed in you. And I'm not one for repressing my emotions." He smiled. A cold smile. The smile he liked to think of as his serial-killer smile. "I've been told I have poor impulse control."
The boy was one step away from wettin' himself. There. Job well done. Still, Spike thought, he could glare at the boy until Dawn came downstairs.
Dawn stood at the top of the staircase. She too had dressed as a fifties teen, from the high ponytail of her shiny brown hair to the tips of her brown and white saddle shoes. She wore a powder blue poodle skirt, and a crisp white short-sleeved shirt with a cashmere cardigan.
"Wow. You look great." Doug smiled up at her.
"You too. Very Danny Zuko," she said.
Spike sighed. Dawn was killing him. He should've insisted on the sodding ham costume. Still, he caught her arm as she reached the foot of the stairs. Surprised, she looked up at him. He cleared his throat, and whispered in her ear. A look of surprised delight crossed her face, and she wrapped her arms around his neck for a quick hug. Then she pulled away, and went over to stand shyly by Doug.
Spike sighed. "Okay, kiddies, let's away. Wouldn't want to be late for the old sock hop."
"I don't understand," Anya grumped as she was pulled along by Xander's grip on her hand. "Why do we have to go to your parents' house?"
"There's something I gotta do." He smiled at her. Well, his eyes smiled. His mouth barely turned up at the corners. It was the eyes smiling that was important, anyway. He looked at her, his eyes smiling like that, and she wasn't quite sure how she remained solid. By all rights she should've just melted into a big pile of goo on the floor, like a chocolate bar left in the sun. Still, she wasn't going to tell him that. He already knew he could get her to do pretty much whatever he wanted.
That would *not* include going back to that awful basement. "I'll wait outside. On the lawn."
He turned back to her. "Please, honey? This won't take a minute."
Great. It would include going back into that awful basement. Why couldn't she have normal insides around Xander -- stomach and pancreas and spleen? Nope, she had to turn into the big ball of goo. She walked through the door and the smell hit her. The 'Xander's basement' smell. Cat pee. Laundry detergent. Dust. Mildew. Lingering weird food smell. Blech.
"Um, have a seat. On the couch." Anya glared at him. Then she sat on the edge of the couch and folded her arms, waiting. He owed her for this. Multiple orgasms. And perhaps breakfast in bed. Or a foot massage. She considered. Five more minutes here, and it would take both. Why was Xander pacing?
"Okay." He stopped in front of her, and ran both hands through his hair. He was nervous. Silly. As if there was any reason he should be nervous in front of her.
"Okay," Xander repeated. "I know you're wondering why we came here. I promise, there's a good reason. There's a bunch of them, actually, I just..."
"Xander, I think you should know that you're acting a little strangely right now." She should reassure him somehow. She smiled brightly. "I thought that was my job."
He grinned, and the odd tension was broken. "Yeah." He seemed to be saying more in that single word. Like there were multiple definitions of the word 'yeah', and he meant them all; but she only knew the word as a simple affirmation.
He looked around. "God, I hate this place."
"I know." Well, she did know that. She didn't have a clue why they were here, but she knew *that*.
Xander continued. "There's so much really awful stuff that happened here. So much that made me hate this place and the life I was living."
He paused for a moment. Anya just sat and watched him.
"But this is also the first place I saw you naked."
"Yes." It was official. She had no clue where this was going.
"Which was a very good thing. This is the first place we had sex. And the first place where it stopped being just sex and started being something more. Where it became making love. Here is where you saw me at my worst -- no money, no prospects, no self-confidence, no life-- and where you loved me anyway. Here is where I realized I love you. Where I realized I don't want to live without you. So it just makes sense that here is where I ask you to marry me."
Anya stared at him blankly.
He dropped to one knee in front of her, taking one of her hands, caressing the back of her hand with his thumb. His gaze was intent, but his voice was soft, almost whispering. "Anya. I love you. Will you marry me?"
She was crying. Why was she crying? She was happy. People didn't cry when they were happy. Oh God. Did Xander think she was upset? Angry with him? No. Good. The smile was still in his eyes. The smile that meant he loved her.
He was still holding her hand. His other hand reached out; he ran his fingers along the side of her face, tracing her jaw, then cupping her cheek in his hand.
"Ahn? You haven't said anything." Xander moved a little closer to her. "That isn't like you."
"Yes," she choked out. The dam broke. "Yes. I'll marry you. Yes. Oh, Xander, I love you. Yes --"
And then he was kissing her. He was kissing her and her arms were wrapped around his neck and he was holding her and she could feel the warmth of his body, the specific, unique Xander-warmth that was one of the reasons she loved him. He was kissing her and he loved her and he was going to marry her and they were in the basement and the basement was lovely because he asked her to marry him and the cat smell and the dust smell was romantic and perfect and the world was perfect because she was going to marry Xander and they would grow old together and have children, lots of children, seven or eight unless it hurt too much in which case one or two, and they would have a dog and a backyard and Xander would burn meat outside while she cut up watermelon and made potato salad and later she would tease him about losing his hair and he would lie to her and say she still kept her girlish figure and they would go out dancing even though they could only really shuffle around in a circle and their grandchildren would say they were sappy but secretly they'd think it was cute that Grandma and Grandpa were still so nuts about each other. He was kissing her and he loved her and she was so happy and she loved him and he loved her.
He broke off the kiss, but remained close, his forehead almost touching hers. "Thank you," he whispered. "Thank you for saying yes."
"Well, duh," she said. "Like you had any reason to worry."
"Oh, I was worried. I felt more terror about this than about a couple apocalypses we've faced. I thought I might have to bribe you."
"Bribe me?"
"With this." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small velvet box. Using two hands, he opened the box, holding it up almost timidly.
She couldn't breathe. It was huge. At least a carat, and she would know. The diamond was flanked by two smaller diamonds, set into the white gold of the band.
"It's-- it's beautiful." Oh, good. She could breathe. She was talking, and she had to breathe to talk, so she must be breathing. "But it's big. Too big. Xander, it's too expensive. It must've cost --"
"Hello? Can we say 'Watcher's salary'?" He couldn't stop grinning at her. "I wanted you to have it. If it makes you more comfortable, think of it as an investment."
"Well, that's true. Diamonds do tend to steadily appreciate in value." Anya sighed. "Oh, Xander, I think I might explode."
"Well, I'm so happy. There's no possible way I can hold all this happiness inside. It's physically impossible. I can already feel my heart expanding in my chest. It's pushing my lungs and my esophagus out of their usual positions, and they in turn are pressing on my other internal organs. The sensation is strangely painful. And yet, I'm rather enjoying it."
"Yeah. I know just how you feel." Xander replied. "That, and nausea from being here in the damn basement again."
She snuggled into his shoulder. "It wouldn't be so bad if you were here. Actually, that was a lie. It would be bad. But it would be home."
"Home is where you are," she said simply.
He bent over and kissed her again. Long, slow, lingering, sweet. He pulled away slightly and just looked at her. His eyes were smiling again.
"Okay," he finally said. "You ready to blow this dump?"
He stood up, and offered his hand to pull her to her feet. He was moving toward the door when her words stopped him.
"Not yet."
He turned back to her, surprised. Anya's dress fell in a puddle around her ankles.
"There's one more thing we have to do."
“Let’s go outside.”
“Okay,” she said shyly.
And so the girl in the poodle skirt and the boy in the leather jacket ditched the dance and walked to the park. Alone.
“But you were nice, right?”
“It’s a five-minute drive. What could I do in five minutes?”
She waited.
“He’s still alive, ain’t he?”
“I only have your word for that.”
They were yelling. They were yelling because she was in the house looking through catalogs and he was on the porch, smoking up a storm. Killing time until they could retrieve Dawn and Doug.
Spike smashed out his tenth cigarette and stomped into the house. “You don’t seem to get that I know what he's after. Same thing I'm after. Only he's after it from Dawn!”
He grabbed his keys and made for the door.
“Spike!” Buffy grabbed his arm. “It’s not time.”
He looked at her, stricken.
“Okay, Schmoopie Bear. We can go hang out by the punch bowl and watch them `til it’s time to get her home.”
“Now you’re talkin’! And stop calling me that. Only one silly name per family.”
“Let’s swing.”
They each grabbed a swing, backed it up as far as the chains would go, and picked up their feet. They kicked forward and then back, driving the swings higher and higher. It was a cool night, but the work it took to stay aloft kept them warm. The night air exhilarated the girl and she heard herself laughing. She looked over at the boy. He was laughing too! He was looking at her too! This was the first night she ever noticed stuff like how cool the stars were. And how the streetlights made the metal playground stuff all glowy. And how it felt to wish a night would go on forever. Whatever else happened on this stupid Hellmouth, she would always have this night, on these swings, with this boy.
Buffy ran out of the gym and jumped into the DeSoto. Spike had double-parked and left the engine running.
She turned to him, frantic. “They’re gone! They were here… and… then they weren’t. Nobody’s seen them for over an hour!”
Here was real fear. But he had to be the rational one now. “Calm down, Buffy. They probably just wandered off. Dawn’s fond of doing that, y’know. Why don’t we—“
“What if they’ve got her? I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this.” She thought she might vomit. “Oh god, Spike!?! When can I stop doing this?”
He floored it and they headed for the mansion.
They were walking back to the gym now. She was deeply aware of his nearness, and of those moments when their hands accidentally bumped. He talked to her like she was the most interesting person in the world. He wanted to know everything about her. What she liked, what she didn’t like, who her friends were, what her sister was like. Everything that was important. They were in their own world, walking slowly and speaking in low tones. Like two people who shared an important secret. Neither of them noticed the big, black, old car careening around the next corner like a bat out of hell.
“You’re what?!? I’m what?!?”
Dawn sputtered as they burst into the house. Doug had been dropped off in silence, with promise of a Spike visit in his extremely near future.
“You heard me.”
“Grounded? Buffy, I’m not five years old. I can sit on the swings with a boy. We weren’t even doing anything!”
“That’s not the point!“
“He’s a nice guy. Spike’ll tell you.”
“He’s not Angel!”
Spike looked at Buffy. That one had to hurt. But Big Sis stayed the course.
“Dawn,” She was stung all right, but she needed to focus on the now, to make her understand. “I like Doug. Doug’s great! I thought you liked him too. Do you really wanna put him between you and Drusilla?”
“Do you? She has great guys like Doug for breakfast!”
Spike made a noise.
“And she’s not alone this time. She’s third in line behind two other vamps that defy stake-age!”
“But I—“
“No!” Buffy was losing patience and gathering steam. “How many times do you have to get kidnapped before you get it? What if Spike hadn’t been at the mansion? What if Dru comes back for you? Spike’s not on the inside anymore, Dawn. Do you really want him up against them again, with you in their back pocket? It’s like tying our hands and throwing us in a pit with those wackos!”
She was yelling now. Spike touched her shoulder, “Buffy…”
“No, Spike! She needs to understand.” Buffy turned back to Dawn. “You’re out swinging with Doug. They come for you. Who’s gonna stop them from ripping his neck out? They take you. They stash you somewhere where we can’t get to you. And now the game has changed. This town no longer has a Slayer and her Superfriends. No, it’s got a sister and—“ She looked at Spike. “—a family out of their minds with worry. No one’s patrolling `cause we’re looking for you. No one’s figuring out how to stop the war, `cause we’re looking for you. And when we finally do a full-on assault – `cause what else can we do? – and Spike comes running out with you under his arm, whose dead body is he gonna pass on the way? Huh?!? DO YOU GET IT!?!”
Dawn nodded mutely. Her eyes welled up.
“What if—“ Buffy caught her breath. She was out of steam now. Her voice had already lost all edge. “What if Spike hadn’t been at the mansion? What if... What if we lost…”
Buffy had been gesturing wildly with her hands. They fell by her sides now and, utterly deflated, she sank into a chair. She looked bewildered, as if she’d been running hard and fast toward some target, only to watch it dissipate on contact. Spike knelt beside her, took her hand, and whispered in her ear. Then he rose and crossed to Dawn.
“It’s just that we were scared, see?” He searched her eyes for some sort of understanding. “We get scared.”
Dawn nodded again. She shivered, hugged her shoulders. “I’m just gonna go upstairs now.”
Spike glanced at Buffy. “Yeh,” he said. “Go on. I’ll be up in a minute.”
Spike watched her go. After a moment, he scooped up his other girl and held her in his arms. She didn’t resist, just draped her arms around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder, eyes closed.
“What if you hadn’t been there?” she asked plaintively.
“You will never, ever have to answer that question.” He carried her upstairs to their bedroom and tucked her in. Then he went to her sister’s room and held her hand silently until she also went to sleep. Even then he couldn’t let go. We were so scared. Thank god you’re home.
Faith’s night to patrol. She was in mausoleumland practicing backflips and backward somersaults. No vamps in sight, and for once she didn’t care. She’d blown off all her steam this afternoon, and then some. Now she was just killin’ time till quittin’ time. She didn’t expect any action tonight. And she for sure didn’t expect to see Willow Rosenberg come staggering into the cemetery.
Huh? Since when did Willow get sloshed? Faith watched her, unsure of what the hell to do. It wasn’t until Willow was almost in her lap that Faith made her presence known.
“What’s up, Riding Hood?”
“I can’t sleep,” Willow mumbled. “I can’t sleep, they won’t shut up. Are they here? Tell them to Shut. Up!”
Whoa. No sleep had come near that face. All whiter shade of pale, except for the red eyes and dark circles. This wasn’t strange brew, this was one whacked-out witch. Great.
“Maybe you should go home.”
Willow screamed at her, “Didn’t just tell you that I can’t sleep! What’s the point of going home?!?”
Good. Just… real good. Never a Buffy around when ya need one. Dollars to donuts she was warm and comfy in her own bed, seeing to somebody else’s needs. Besides, Faith hadn’t been to the house since she got back. She felt like a vamp with no invite. Dammit. And she knew very well she couldn’t take her to Xander’s. Not on this night.
Dammit, dammit.
Faith let out an annoyed sigh. "Come on." She grabbed Willow’s arm and tried to pull her along.
Willow resisted. “I can take care of myself.”
“I can see that.”
“I can take care of me, you, all of us – with a look!”
What the hell is with the Scoobies, she thought. I’m out of it for a little while and everybody gets delusions of grandeur.
Willow turned away, and Faith reached out to grab her. One touch and Willow whirled around, black-eyed, and sent her flying into a mausoleum wall. The Slayer got up slowly, swearing and rubbing her elbow. Godam! Since when can everybody in this town kick my ass? Willow froze, mortified. She stared at Faith for a moment, shaking her head and crying. Then she ran off. Faith went after her, but when she caught up, she just ran along side, careful not to touch her.
“Willow, come on. I know ya got stuff goin’ on, but let’s get inside, okay? It’ll be better if we just get inside.” And let somebody who isn’t me deal with this.
Willow stopped and faced her. “What do you know? What have you ever lost? A sock in the dryer? Car keys? Who have you ever lost?”

“I never had anyone to lose.”
“And whose fault is that? You came here. Buffy was a friend to you. Giles. You were a Slayer! We could’ve been your Scoobies, too! Or gotten you some Scoobies. You could have had all of us!”
Faith blinked.
“Well,” Willow said, “You had Xander… but you could’ve had him in a way that really mattered. I mean… like we all do! Like we all have each other.”
“Yeah,” said Faith. “I know.”
“But you made a choice. You spat on us. None of us mattered so you had nothing to lose. You worked us for kicks. Used us to play out your own childhood traumas.”
Faith looked down at her hands. She knew she had this coming.
Willow was sobbing now. “You used your hate and your pain to warp your power and then you killed them all just to make yourself feel better! You almost killed XANDER!”
Faith’s head jerked up, and she stared at Willow. Willow’s eyes were huge, unfocussed. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh god,” she cried. “You almost killed Xander.” She crumpled then, into a heap of pain and guilt and sorrow.
Faith looked down at her, speechless. Finally, she knelt and said carefully, “But I didn’t kill him, Willow. And I won’t kill him. Or anybody else that you care about.”
Willow looked up, whispered, “What about Amy?”
“I’m sorry about Amy. You need to add that to the list of stuff you’re just gonna hafta live with. The list you pull out and stare at when you think you wanna play in the dark again.”
“It hurts.”
“It burns. It’s supposed to. Like the stove when you were five. So you don’t go there again. So you don’t burn the house down.”
Willow got to her feet. They left the cemetery and walked in silence for a long while.
Then there was something that Faith wanted to know. “Willow.”
“You had the guts to risk loving someone. To risk this. Do you wish you didn’t? Do you wish you didn’t take that risk?”
Faith pressed on, “And if something happened to Buffy, or Giles. Would you wish you didn’t love them? Would you wish they didn’t matter?”
“No. Never.”
“And Xander?”
Finally, Willow stopped, eyed her like a suspicious child. “What’s going to happen to Xander?”
“Nothing!” Faith said quickly. “Well, everything. He knows what he wants now, and he’s gonna lock it down.”
“Yeah,” said Willow with pride. “He’s gonna be a great Watcher.”
“Yeah,” said Faith. And more.
They walked, silent again. All the way to Giles’ house, where Faith began the Ritual of Waking Rupert.
Spike heard a knock at the door. He padded barefoot through his apartment, toweling his hair dry. He was a little surprised: he got a visit here from the occasional Scooby, but spent most of his time here alone. And he wasn't expecting visitors. Spike considered not answering the door, but then he changed his mind. It was Girl Scout cookie season, and he was a sucker for those damn Samoas.
Well. *Not* a Girl Scout. Close. But no cookies.
"Knocking. I think that's a first for you." Spike walked back into his apartment, not caring if Riley followed. Knowing he would. He grabbed the pack of cigarettes off the coffee table and shook one out. "Buffy said you'd come back."
"We need to talk."
"You stalking me? Gotta tell you, you're not my type." He lit the cigarette, and slipped his lighter back in the pocket of his jeans. "Plus, I'm sort of *with* someone, you know how it is."
In an instant, Riley had Spike pinned against a wall, his forearm pressed against Spike's throat.
Spike just looked at him, amused. "You know where I live. You also know I got the chip out?"
"I was aware of that," Riley replied. He braced more of his weight against his forearm.
"Fair warning," Spike said. He put his cigarette in his mouth and took a deep drag as he held it between his teeth. Then he brought his fists up and slammed them against the sides of Riley's skull, boxing his ears.
Riley dropped to his knees as the blinding pain shot through his head. When he could see again, he pushed himself back to his feet and into combat stance.
Spike was sitting in an easy chair. "None a that, now. I know, you came here for the Battle Royal. And I've gotta admit, the thought does have its appeal."
"So? You want a fight. I want a fight. Why not fight?"
"Because the lady in question will hand me my ass. And more painfully, she will withhold hers." He took a drag off his cigarette. "Pummeling you runs a poor second here."
"Hurt her. Please. Break her heart." Riley stood there, willing himself motionless. "Give me an excuse."
"You know it doesn't work like that." Spike shook his head in disbelief. "It's a relationship. It's not some idyllic bloody fairytale romance. I'm gonna hurt her. Hell, I have. Repeatedly. And she's ripped my heart out and danced the tarantella on it. That's not the point, boyo."
"What is?" Riley spat out.
"I love her with all that I am," Spike said. "And I know she loves me. I *know* it. I can't believe it, sometimes. Makes as much sense as the moon bein' made of vanilla pudding. But there it is."
"She loves you." Riley's voice went monotone. "She said it."
Oh. Crap. Buffy had tried to go easy on the bloke. And now Spike had just sucker-punched him in the family jewels. He watched as Riley sagged a little, deflated. Defeated.
He tried to rally. "You will never deserve her."
Spike rolled his eyes. "Another fact of which I am -- gasp!-- already aware." Screw it, he could only be so nice.
Riley walked to the door. He stopped. Held the doorframe in his hands. Clutched it hard in his fingers. "I'm staying in town. To help. And to watch you. You only have to mess up once..."
Spike laughed. "God, I *should* beat you to a bloody pulp."
Riley turned to face him. "I'd like to see you try."
Spike looked at him, trying to keep the pity out of his eyes. He'd already won, after all. "What would be the point?"
Giles set them down next to her plate before taking the chair across from her.
“What’s this?” Faith shoved a forkful of meatloaf into her mouth.
He winced. Her table manners were in dire need of attention. Since such things were not an official part of a Watcher’s duties, there was no reason that he couldn’t step in and handle it as a… concerned citizen. Besides, he’d seen Xander eat. “They’re keys, Faith.”
“I can see that.” Gulp of soda with the left hand while the right re-loaded the fork.
“The shiny one unlocks the bolt, the older one is for the handle.” Napkin neatly on lap. Tie carefully smoothed down.
Faith stopped her assault on the evening meal and glanced absently at the front door. She put down her glass and fork and picked up the keys, turning them over a couple times in her hand. Then she held them up, so that the not-key, not-chain part of the key chain dangled. It was an oval medal-type thing. One side was covered with blue enamel, and in ugly white letters were the words: KISS THE LIBRARIAN. She looked over at Giles and waited.
Giles sliced himself some bread and said defensively, “It’s part of a set that Xander gave me for Christmas some years ago.”
“That’s m’watcher!”
And he thought Buffy’s smirk was irritating. “Faith.”
“I get keys?”
“You come home from patrol extremely late.” He buttered his bread. “I have to be at the shop extremely early.” Smooth, controlled strokes. “You don’t really believe that I enjoy waking up at all hours just to turn a bolt, do you?” Bite. Then another.
“So I get keys,” she said, as if there was some mistake. She examined them again. First set she ever had that wasn’t attached to a cheap plastic tag with a room number melted onto it. She had the ridiculous urge to get right up and try them out.
“Yes,” Giles sighed. Did the girl hit her head? He rose to get the salt shaker he kept in the kitchen to prevent himself from adding it to meals. “See that you come in quietly.”
“Yeah,” she said, still staring at the keys. KISS THE LIBRARIAN. A gift from Xander. She thought of the procession of rooms she’d known. Or not known. Beds. Chairs. Tables. The clerks who took your money. The maids who cleaned your mess. A room number on a list, with a checkout date scrawled next to it.
“And if you would please clean up your room a bit?” He returned with the salt, also the corn which he offered her first. She shook her head. “Really, Faith, that dresser is empty. There’s no earthly reason for your… clothing to be piled on top.”
“Yeah,” she whispered. She’d gotten in the habit of keeping everything out where she could see it. Ever since she’d forgotten a pair of shoes tossed in the closet of one of those rooms.
Giles glanced at her. He decided to add incentive to instruction. “We’ve got extra beef, so I thought we’d have hamburgers tomorrow.”
Giles said `hamburgers’ like other people say `broccoli.’ “You like hamburgers, right?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I like hamburgers. Tomorrow? I… I’ll be home early.”


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