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Part two of two

Episode Eleven: Walking Wounded

by adjrun
Somewhere by Tom Waits

Love Is Stronger Than Death by The The

Shoutouts: To cousinjean, fenwic, georgevna, and Aurelio, for service above and beyond the call of duty. You are brilliant, amazing women, and I am truly in your debt. Seriously. If you ever need a kidney, I am so there. To my husband, for his encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. To Pablo Neruda, for one of the most beautiful poems ever. And to all our readers, for caring about the work.

[Webmaster's note: Special props to Aurelio for help with the coding on this one.]


*

Time passed.
Xander got to the point where he could sometimes go five whole minutes where he didn’t think about Anya.
Buffy met with the social worker. Mrs. Bacani. Dawn’s status was still undetermined.
Spike updated the inventory, cataloging the goods damaged or lost in the Master’s attack. When he got bored, he would eat a donut. Or go back and laugh at the group doing tai chi.
Giles instituted a new schedule for patrolling. Groups of three, which must contain one of the Slayers or Spike, a Watcher, and one other. He and Xander practiced the Watcher mental training daily, to guard against vampiric mental powers.
And people were disappearing.
Willow meditated. She began to feel comfortable with defensive magic, with magic rooted in love or the desire to protect. She could again cast shield spells and blessings without feeling that dangerous swell of rage.
Riley catalogued the weapons Xander had stolen. They could be really useful in a big battle, he told Giles.
Buffy applied for two part-time jobs. And didn’t get them. She needed “a more regular schedule.”
Dawn walked by Doug’s house a few times. When it was daylight. The treehouse was still standing.
Xander spent as little time as he could in his apartment. He kept forgetting Anya was dead, and expecting to see her on the couch, or in front of the bathroom mirror. And then he would remember, and lose her all over again.
Faith trained. And patrolled. And trained some more. Next time, she’d be fast enough.
Spike got a notice from his landlord. Anya’s death apparently broke the lease. He would need to be out by the fifteenth.
And people were disappearing.
Dawn brought home a progress report. School was back to being totally easy. All A’s, except for a B in PE. Dawn thought getting a grade for running around was stupid, anyway.
Giles buried himself in research. The Master would try to open the Hellmouth, and there were myriad ways to accomplish said task. They had to be ready for all of them.
Riley checked in with Detective Grant. Officially, the Sunnydale PD knew nothing of any disappearances.
But people kept disappearing.
***
Mrs. Fernandez swore as she walked to her car. Two weeks until Christmas break, and it just kept getting more hectic. Progress reports had just gone out. And after progress reports, parents always wanted to meet with the principal. It wasn’t that Johnny wasn’t studying, you see, and it wasn’t because he was skipping class. No, that teacher had a personal grudge against their son. That’s why he was getting a D.
She shouldn’t have waited when those parents were late. Or let the meeting run so long. She had lived in Sunnydale a long time. Long enough to hate the time right around Christmas, when the days were so short. Here it was, five o’clock, and it might as well be midnight.
Wait a minute. There was someone standing in front of her car. And someone behind her. Their yellow eyes glowed in the dark.
***
Property tax.
This was it. It was official. The straw breaking the camel’s back, the last nail in her coffin, the stupid cliché that meant that she’d lost. There was no money to cover this. Mom’s life insurance was almost gone, and the child support Hank sent for Dawn barely kept them in groceries. She wasn’t sure she could pay the mortgage this month, and now this?
She would have to sell the house. If she could. Most likely, the bank would just foreclose, and they would be out the equity in the house, as well. Great. And then she and Dawn could live in a cardboard box beneath the overpass. Until Social Services hauled Dawn away into foster care. Which meant supervised visits at Casa de Cardboard Box.
Dammit! She didn’t have time for this. She was trying to stop the end of the world here. You’d think averting an apocalypse would be a solid reason for a property tax deferment. After all, if the Hellmouth opened, property values in Sunnydale would plummet. But nope. Not good enough.
Buffy fought back a sob. She wouldn’t cry. She was sick of crying. She wouldn’t - ah, screw it. She would so cry. She was going to sit here at the table, put her head on her arms, and cry.
She was just finishing up - sighing and sniffling, and feeling a little giddy - when she heard the front door close.
“Spike?” Buffy raised her head. He stood in the foyer, hanging his army blanket on a peg by the door. Embarrassed, she scrubbed her sleeve across her face. Great. Her crying made her nose run, and she had just smeared snot all over her cheek. “Weren’t you supposed to help Giles this morning?”
Spike said nothing. He just walked out of the room. A few seconds later, he walked back in and plopped a box of Kleenex down in front of her. She sniffled again.
“Thank you.” Buffy took a wad of Kleenex and blew her nose, hard. She wiped the gunk off her face with another tissue. Spike held out the tiny trashcan from the downstairs bathroom, and she tossed in the fistful of tissues.
“Now.” Spike sat on the table and gave her a gentle smile. “What’s turned my Slayer into the Play-Doh Snot Factory?”
Wordlessly, Buffy held out the property tax bill. Spike took it; his eyes widened when he saw the amount due.
“I don’t have the money, Spike,” she said. “There is no way on God’s green earth I can pay this.”
“Yeh. There is.” He shifted onto one hip and eased his wallet out of his back pocket. Then he pulled a stack of bills from the wallet and put them on the table in front of her.
“No.” She stood up. “I am not taking your money. How are you going to pay your rent?”
“What rent? Anya’s lease is pretty well broken, pet. And the invite clause is busted anyway, so there’s no real benefit to the place.” He grinned. “I was here to grab a box from the basement. Have to be out by Saturday.”
“That makes it worse. You have to get a new apartment. You’ll need a deposit, first and last month’s rent-”
“I can - there’s the - Giles - No, Faith’s there. Well, I-” Spike stopped, ran his hand through his hair. “Doesn’t matter where I stay. You need the money.”
“You need the money,” Buffy countered.
“You are not gonna lose your bloody home!” Spike shouted. “Period! End of discussion!”
Buffy looked at him for a long moment, not saying anything. Measuring him somehow.
He couldn’t take it. “What?”
She looked away from him and sagged back into the chair. “It’s not enough.”
“We’ll make it enough.” He leaned over, running his finger lightly down her arm. “I’ll hit Giles up for a loan. Rob a bank. Sell plasma for a quick tenner.”
She couldn’t help it: she giggled. Then her face sobered. Buffy considered something for a moment, and stood up. Spike still sat on the table. She pushed his knees apart so that she could stand between his legs, resting her hands on his thighs. “Okay. I will take this money. On one condition.”
“Name it.”
She locked eyes with him. “Move in with me.”
“No.” He tried to shift away, but she put her hands on his shoulders. Not forcing him to stay, but asking him to remain still.
He sighed. “We’ve had this discussion before, love. Social Services? Breathing down your neck? Not going to look kindly on a boyfriend shacking up with you.”
“Ah, piffle,” Buffy replied. “You have all those nifty papers from Angel, including the college degree thingy. You have a full-time job and an employer who will vouch for your… your sober and responsible moral character.”
Spike started laughing.
“Well, okay, that’s pushing it. But I’m sure we can get Giles to say something nice.” She rolled her eyes as he kept laughing. “Anyway, I bet you’ll look more parental then a twenty year-old with no income. Come on. I bet Mrs. Bacani will love you.”
“Mrs. Bacani?”
“The social worker. We can show her Dawn’s progress report. Tell her how much you help, blah blah blah. You just show up, wear something a little less…black. With your hair rumpled and those cute little glasses. Do the rueful-yet-impish smile thing.” She waved a hand dismissively. “You’ll charm the pants off her - figuratively, of course - and it won’t be a problem.”
“I think you’re being a wee bit optimistic, sweetness,” Spike said. “But it’s a moot point. I’m not moving in.”
“Why not?”
“I’m not a stray dog.”
“Nope.” She slipped her arms around his neck. “You’re my Schmoopie Bear.”
“Buffy,” he protested. “I am not moving in just because there’s nowhere else for me to go. How pathetic is that?”
Spike looked at her. She could see how desperately he wanted this. And how terrified he was that it wasn’t real. That it wasn’t for the right reasons.
“You can be such an idiot.” Buffy grinned, taking the sting from the words. “I want you to move in because I love you. Dawn loves you. We’re your family, you dope. We’re your home.”
He looked taken aback. A little bemused. Then the joy hit, and he swallowed hard. “All right.”
Buffy melted into him, kissed him. He held her tight in his arms. She was right. This was home.
***
Erlinda Bacani had been a social worker for twenty years now. She was a small woman of Filipino heritage, who cursed herself for her short waist and an inability to be tactful. She let the gray streak in the front of her hair remain undyed; she couldn’t be bothered with it. Maybe it would make her look distinguished. She sighed. As usual, she was buried in paperwork. Damn, these fluorescent lights gave her a headache.
She took the next manila folder from the huge stack in her In basket. Dawn Summers. Case File # 42969. Didn’t ring a bell. She flipped it open. Oh, right, the girl’s mother died, and there was a father in… LA, she thought. But the girl was staying in town with an older sister.
She needed to schedule a home visit, before the end of the year.
“May I have your attention, please?” A small blonde woman stood in the doorway. She ran an appraising glance around the room, taking in the thirty-odd desks and the government employees behind them. “I just love seventies architecture. All that cinder block and artificial lighting.”
She stepped forward. About a dozen men in green army fatigues filed in after her, and took up positions around the room.
“And can I just thank the Mayor for all the sewer access in this town? Talk about making the government work for you.”
Her face altered: her eyes turned yellow, and ridges grew on her forehead. Fangs pushed their way out between her lips.
“Get ‘em, boys. Rough ‘em up all you want, but remember, we need them alive.” She thought a second. “Mostly.”
***
Christmas was approaching. And more importantly, winter solstice: one of the busiest times of the year for a magic shop. The last two weeks had been insane for Giles and Spike. Not only did they have to repair the damage to the shop (getting much-needed help from Xander), but they also had to restock. Add that to Giles’s Watcher duties, the training of two Slayers, and a stepped-up patrol schedule, and Giles was exhausted Dawn’s sympathetic offer to help out after school turned out to be a godsend: she could man the register while he and Spike did… everything else.
But Dawn wasn’t due in for a few hours yet. So Giles dealt with customers and checked the contents of a new order against the packing slip. The people in Sunnydale might actually be starting to wise up. He was selling protection spells and vampiric wards like there was no tomorrow. Which might in fact be the case. They fought more vampires in the past two nights than they usually saw in a month. And there were always more disappearances, and always more vampires.
Spike slouched in front of the computer, updating the salable inventory database.
“Does that make any sense to you whatsoever?” Giles asked him. “If you’d rather, I’ll slog my way through it.”
“It’s no problem. Anya set up the accounting software on this puppy. So of course it runs like a dream.” Spike replied, his eyes intent on the screen. “Good, that. At University I avoided maths like the plague.”
Giles shot an incredulous glance at Spike. “You went to university?”
A look of chagrin crossed Spike’s face, but he nodded. “Yeh. Feels like a hundred years ago...”
Giles snorted. “I wonder why.”
Spike turned back to the computer, but he couldn’t focus. He was still kind of thrown from the events of that morning. Right then, Buffy was at Anya’s apartment, boxing up his stuff. So she could take it to her house. Permanently. When he thought about it, he felt like bouncing around the room like a Superball.
Oh. Oh God. Buffy’s house.
“Giles. Need a favor.”
“Yes?” Giles asked.
“I need more money. Raise, longer hours. No matter. Need the cash, is all.”
Giles put down his clipboard. “For what purpose?”
Spike considered. If Giles didn’t know of Buffy’s financial troubles, it wasn’t his place to tell. “Just need it. Please. It’s important.”
Giles was silent for a moment, then sighed. “I can’t give you an answer immediately. Can it wait until tomorrow?”
“That’ll do.” Spike turned back to the computer, but was distracted again. “Oi! Giles?”
“Yes, Spike?” Giles said with that patented long-suffering tone in his voice.
“Can I borrow your wheels then?”
Giles was a little taken aback. “Is there something amiss with the DeSoto?”
“Won’t do, will it?” Spike replied. “Not a convertible.”
“I presume there is some twisted logic there, besides the statement of the blatantly obvious?” Giles asked.
“Yeh.” Mischief glinted in Spike’s eyes.
“And that would be?”
“Not telling.” He grinned.
“I won’t loan you the car if you don’t,” Giles said.
“You won’t loan me the car if I do.” Spike sighed, a big, dramatic, put-upon sigh. “Don’t intend to damage the thing. Tell you what - if I do, you can take it out of my paycheck.”
Giles relented. “Or your hide.”
“Whatever.”
***
Parker walked along a well-lit pathway on the college campus. A slim, pretty redhead walked by his side. For some reason, this last year, he’d had kind of a thing for redheads. He was doing the gentlemanly thing and walking her home.
Sheila. Wait, no, it was Shelley. Anyway, Parker figured it was about time to play the dad card. If he were a betting man, he’d lay odds he’d be moving on the day after tomorrow.
Three men in fatigues walked briskly towards them. They stopped directly in front of the couple, blocking their path. One of the men grinned, showing fangs.
“Um, Parker?” Shelley/Sheila sidled towards him a step. “What’s going on?”
***
Somebody was honking his horn in front of the house. Repeatedly. Who the hell? Buffy started to get mad. Dawn was studying. She didn’t need to be interrupted by some rude moron who was too lazy to get out of his damn car. Buffy threw the front door open, ready to yell.
Giles’s car was in the driveway. Spike was standing on the driver’s seat. As she watched, he leaned over and hit the horn a few more times.
“Get in.” He was grinning like a maniac.
“Why?” Buffy asked.
His eyes flared, and he tilted his head slightly to one side. He just looked at her: the intense gaze that made her forget there was anything else in the world. “Because I want you to.”
Then he yelled, “Oi! Dawn Summers! Put up the books, and get out here. Come on!”
Dawn stood behind Buffy in the doorway. “What is he doing?”
“I don’t know.” Buffy called to him, “What are you doing?”
“Dinner!” He held up a white bag. “Burgers. Fries. Onion rings. A nice drive to the beach. It’ll be fun. Fun fun fun! Get in the bloody car!”
Buffy suddenly got what he was trying to do. If he couldn’t fix all her problems, he could help her leave them behind for a night. She grabbed her coat. “I’m coming. Keep your shirt on.”
“Shotgun!” Dawn yelled. She darted past Buffy to jump into the front seat.
Buffy made a face and got in the back.
“One bacon cheeseburger, no onions, for you,” Spike said, handing her the paper-wrapped burger. “One triple burger, extra bloody, for me.”
“Ew,” Dawn said.
Spike handed her a burger. “And one veggie burger with cheese for the delicate little flower, who thinks all the poor diddle cowsies should wiv.”
“Shut up.” Dawn smacked Spike in the arm as he pulled out of the driveway.
“Gross! I can’t believe you eat that!” Spike mocked in a high falsetto. “Eating meat is just so…icky!”
Dawn got a dangerous glint in her eye. She would have to set this up carefully. “Well, you probably can’t even taste the burger, anyway.”
“What? Why wouldn’t I? Got taste buds, don’t I?” He waggled his tongue at her.
“Well, you need saliva to taste things,” she replied. “Why would vampires have working salivary glands?”
“Dunno why. Just do.” Still driving, he took a huge bite of his burger.
“So you have spit?” Dawn asked.
“Yeh.”
“Tears?”
“Yeah.” He shot her a puzzled look.
“Sweat?”
“Yeah.”
“Baby batter?”
Spike nearly drove the car off the road.
Dawn and Buffy collapsed into giggles. Buffy gasped, “Oh, God, Spike, you walked right into that one.”
“Fine.” Spike pouted a little. “I was gonna let snack-size drive a bit, but not if she’s gonna taunt the driver.”
Dawn screamed. “Spike! Oh, please oh please oh please…”
“I don’t know,” Buffy started to carefully unwrap her burger. “She may be in the class, but she doesn’t have her permit yet.”
“Go away, prudent Buffy,” Spike said. “I want to talk to fun Buffy.”
“Yeah,” Dawn agreed. “As a matter of fact, let’s lock prudent Buffy in the trunk.”
“Ha ha. It is to laugh.” Buffy considered. “Okay. But only when we’re all the way out of town. And if there’s no traffic.”
They ate their burgers as Spike drove out of town. Finally, as soon as Spike judged that they would probably meet little traffic, he pulled over. Dawn slid across, and Spike walked around the car. Buffy surreptitiously checked to make sure her seatbelt was secure. Dawn’s eyes widened as she put her hands on the steering wheel.
“I paid attention in class. Why don’t I remember anything?” she whispered. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Course you can. It’s an automatic, they’re totally easy,” Buffy reassured her. “Just turn the key, put it in drive, and press the gas pedal.”
Dawn followed Buffy’s instructions. The car lurched forward. “Ack!”
It jerked to a halt. “Sorry!”
“No big deal. You’re just starting,” Spike said. He released his seatbelt, and reached across Dawn to pull her left foot away from the pedals.
“Right foot only. Don’t tap, press. You speed up smoothly, you brake smoothly.” He stood on the passenger seat, bracing one foot against the dashboard. “The trick is, not to throw me from the moving car.”
“That’s not how you taught me to drive,” Buffy said.
He shot her a glance over his shoulder. “At the time, didn’t think you’d care if you put me through the windshield.”
Spike’s advice seemed to do the trick. Dawn no longer goosed the accelerator, and she didn’t use her left foot for the brake. She drove all the way to the beach. Spike only had to grab the windshield three times.
When they reached Highway 1, Dawn and Spike switched places. Spike turned left, so that Buffy and Dawn could get a clear view of the ocean. The moon hung in the sky like the Cheshire cat’s smile. It cut a shimmering silver path into the ocean, the waves reflecting diamond sparkles. Dawn rested her arms on the car door, staring off at the almost invisible horizon. Buffy gulped deep breaths of salt air. But she looked more at Spike than she did the ocean.
There was a little restaurant on the road that paralleled the beach. One of those family places that served forty-eight different kinds of pie. The Kozy Kitchen. Spike pulled into the parking lot.
“Hmm, I’m feeling like pie. Ladies?”
Buffy hopped out of the back seat. “I could eat pie.”
“Definitely,” Dawn added.
Somehow, it became a race to see who could get to the door of the restaurant first. Spike won, and pushed the door open. Which meant Buffy won the race to the booth. Laughing, she slid around the orange naugahyde semicircle. Spike followed her, and Dawn sat last. There were a few other patrons in the restaurant: a couple sitting at the far end, and a man at the counter.
Dawn didn’t even look at the menu. “Dutch apple pie, a la mode.”
Buffy, in contrast, dithered. “Hmm. Do I want strawberry, or key lime?”
The waitress came over. She couldn’t have been more than twenty, with mouse brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Trapped in sensible shoes, orange polyester and an apron. “What can I get you?”
“Hi. Yes. We will have five pieces of pie. Dutch apple, fresh strawberry, chocolate cream, cherry, and key lime. Ice cream on those that need ‘em.” Spike grinned at the waitress, flirting with her. “And just put ‘em in the middle, ‘cause we’re all eating all of ‘em.”
Buffy thought about protesting. Five pieces? Nope, she reminded herself. Prudent Buffy was locked in the trunk. And besides, it sounded good.
In a few minutes, the waitress was back, loading the table with pie. Buffy barely waited for the plate to hit the table to get a forkful of strawberry. Her next bite was chocolate cream. The three of them ate randomly, sampling pies as it suited them. Occasionally, there were good-natured fork fights, as two people went for the same kind of pie. But mostly they just sat, and ate, and made yummy noises at each other.
“Hey,” Dawn said. “What kind of undead monster needs to eat fruit-filled pastry to survive?”
Buffy and Spike looked at her, bewildered. She giggled. “A vam-PIE-re.”
“Ack.” Buffy groaned dramatically, and started to slide under the table.
Spike rolled his eyes. Then he grabbed a huge bite of cherry pie, letting the syrup trickle out the corners of his mouth. He growled, and let his eyes glint slightly yellow. That was it. Buffy lost it. She started laughing, and couldn’t stop. Dawn joined her a second later, her laughter floating above Buffy’s like a flute over a saxophone. Spike put his head down on the table, and shook silently. The mirth continued in waves, as they finished eating, and paid the bill, and walked to the car. Buffy would get control of herself, and see Dawn giggling, and lose it all over again.
Spike drove home under the Cheshire-cat moon. Dawn lay in the back seat; the hushed susurration of the ocean lulled her to sleep.
Buffy stood in the passenger seat, bracing her hips against the windshield. The cool night wind pushed against her face and neck. She raised her hands above her head, letting her hands dance through the wind, cupping it in her palms and feeling it swirl through her fingers. The stars twinkled down at her, playing a coquettish hide-and-seek through the branches of the oak trees that lined the twisting road. She remembered now why she loved the night. It was beautiful.
***
Jonathan grabbed a stack of videos and headed towards the shelves. Two whole renters and five returns in the last hour. The minute these were reshelved, he was closing early and going home.
He shot a nervous look outside. He told the manager he didn’t like working after dark. And he specifically said he wouldn’t close. But the manager still scheduled him for this late shift. Then, of course, the other person working ‘til midnight didn’t show. Which meant he was here on his own.
He should’ve told his boss to stick it. Or called in sick, or something. He had a bit of a stuffy nose. It wasn’t a total lie. But here he was, standing behind the counter. Anyone could walk in.
Anyone did. Vampires. Two female vampires. Of course, they looked all tough and mean and sexy. He would’ve been nervous around them, except for the fact that they were going to kill him.
“That’s it!” Jonathan said. “I’m done closing!”
***
Faith walked out from the training room, toweling her hair dry. She took a seat at the table and joined the meeting in progress. They had gotten in the habit of holding a combination debriefing/ battle strategy session every day at noon. Faith was just finishing her workout with Xander, and Buffy was heading in to get started. The shop was usually slow enough that Giles could run the meeting entirely; if the rare customer did step in, Spike would help them quietly and send them on their merry way. Willow made it a point to be there, and Riley also attended. He wasn’t there today, Faith noted. He’d check in later, even though he wasn’t scheduled to patrol.
“Faith. Excellent.” Giles made a note in his journal. “According to Xander’s tally, we saw a total of twenty-seven vampires last night, and killed eighteen. Mine was twenty-six and eighteen. Did you keep a headcount?”
Faith took a moment to consider. “He’s right. The lookout guy near the bus depot. You always forget the spotter.”
“Drat. Still, I’ve charted the sightings, and Xander double-checked it. Once you’ve looked it over, we can sign off on it.”
“Gotcha.” Faith slid the piece of paper in front of her.
Giles continued. “Who is patrolling tonight?”
Willow raised her hand. “Xander again, Spike and me. We’re checking the all the vamp hotspots on the east side of town.”
“Don’t push it too hard, and be back by eleven,” Buffy reminded them. “We’ve got a fight with the Master coming. Remember, if we wear ourselves out in the prelims, we won’t have anything left for the finals.”
“Got it. Oh, and I have a fun new surprise planned for patrol,” Xander said. He rubbed his hands together, cackling. “Should make the night…interesting.”
Willow shot a questioning look at Xander, but he refused to say more.
“Now. To our last bit of business." Giles stood up and crossed over to the cash register. He pulled out two envelopes, handed Buffy one, and Faith the other. Buffy tore hers open.
“Giles. This is a check for eight thousand dollars.”
“No it isn’t,” he replied.
She showed it to him. “Eight, followed by three zeroes. ‘Pay to the order of Buffy Summers.’ That’s a check.”
“No, it isn’t,” he repeated. “It’s a paycheck. From the Watcher’s Council.”
Faith said, "And mine's forty-five hundred dollars."
"Oh, yes." Giles nodded. "Let me explain the disparity."
Buffy stopped him. "Disparity? No no no no. Explain the paycheck."
“When you found out what Xander’s salary was, you asked me a question,” Giles said. He stood, needing to pace. “Something about why Watchers are compensated so handsomely, and Slayers got - what was the word you used? Bupkis? You were right. It was inherently unfair. Based in archaic legal principles which denied women the right to own property, and which were exploited to justify treating the Slayer as the Council's chattel.”
“Giles,” Buffy interrupted. “Explaining? Good. History lesson? Don’t care.”
Faith nodded. “Yeah. Go back to how you got us the fat checks.”
He was a little uncomfortable, nervous; so he retreated into vocabulary. "I explained to the Council that financial difficulties were impeding your abilities to carry out your Slayer duties. That the exigencies of the modern world were causing undue pressure, which a salary would alleviate." He shrugged. "And when that didn't work, I told them I’d publish the Watchers’ diaries to get the money."
“I don’t get it.” Buffy scowled. “Big whoop. Nobody would think they were real.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Xander leaned back in his chair, appreciative of the skillful maneuvering. “They’d be open to the public, where all the baddies could see them. And us Council guys are serious control freaks. How can we take over the world if everyone knows our business?”
“Oh,” Buffy said. “Blackmail. Now I get it.”
Willow added, “Way to go, Giles.”
“So, henceforth, you will both get the Watcher salary commensurate with your experience. Buffy, you have six years’ experience. Faith, I’m afraid the Council considers this to be your first year.”
“No.” Faith was still kind of stunned. She looked up at Giles, and smiled. “This is good. No complaints here.”
“Giles, this is so beyond good. And this is, what? How many months’ salary?" Buffy asked. "How often am I going to get these?"
“Every month,” Giles replied.
“Get. Out.” The Slayers said it in unison.
“It’s a monthly salary,” he protested. “After taxes, of course. Buffy, I took the liberty of giving you two deductions on the forms, so your take-home pay is noticeably higher. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Mind.” On impulse, she kissed him on the cheek. "Giles. Thank you. For fighting for me like this. I can't tell you..." She paused. "You've solved everything. Okay, maybe not that pesky little Master problem, but... I love you."
Giles ducked his head, suddenly bashful. “I’m just sorry it took so long. Should’ve thought of it years ago. Terrible injustice, really.”
“Are you kidding?” Buffy asked. “You just made all my financial worries go poof into nothing, and you think I’m gonna rag you about the timing? All I can do right now is be grateful that you did it.”
“Yeah,” Faith said. “Who’da thunk my fairy godmother would be a forty-something British guy?”
“Now you’re just trying to make me blush.” Giles smiled. The Council had fought tooth and nail against the idea of paying Slayers, and he had waged a secret battle for months. But the relief on Buffy’s face made it all worthwhile. “There is one other issue. The matter of backpay. Buffy, when you got me reinstated with the Council, you made sure my pay was retroactive. It seems only fair that I return the favor."
He pulled another envelope out of the register and handed it to her.
"Okay, this is a typo."
Startled, Giles looked over her shoulder at the check. “No, no. That's the correct sum. It includes your salary for the past five years, plus interest. Also your standard bonuses for apocalypses averted, and master vampires slain.”
"Giles." Buffy's voice quivered with repressed emotion. "This is half a million dollars."
“Once again, that’s the take home.” Giles looked slightly sheepish. “Your government does like to get their fair share.”
Buffy shrieked. She hugged him. She hugged Willow, who was standing next to her. She hugged him again. Shrieked. Ran over to Spike and jumped into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist.
“Spike! Did you see?”
“Yeh, love.” He spun her around a few times, as she laughed. “Hard not to notice a half-million dollars.”
“Do you know what this means?” She ran her hands along his shoulders.
“Clears up that nasty little property tax problem," Spike said. “And the mortgage, and college money. And Dawn’s college.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Buffy rolled her eyes. “Way better than that.”
“Then I’m stumped.”
“It’s two weeks ‘til Christmas. Two weeks. Do you know what I’ve bought? Nothing.” Buffy laughed. “Oh, boy, is that situation about to change.”
“Retail outlets of Sunnydale, beware Hurricane Buffy,” Xander said.
“You’d better believe it, buddy,” she replied, and hugged Spike again. “And I’m gonna do some major damage.”
Spike’s voice dropped slightly, as he directed a question only to her. “Buffy, now that you don’t need it? Maybe I should - ”
"Shut up. You're still moving in." She raised her voice. “Hey, guys? Spike’s moving in with me.”
Spike winced, and moved towards the front of the store.
“But, Mrs. Banana.” He couldn’t think of the name. “Bacala, Bacani, Bacardi. The social worker.”
“Ah, Social Services can eat my shorts.” She waved her hand, forestalling his argument. “You’re a good influence on Dawn. And if Mrs. Bacani would return my calls, we can prove it.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Spike.” Buffy put one hand on each side of his face, making him look her in the eyes. Her legs were still locked around his waist, so she was slightly taller than him. She lowered her voice, speaking only to him. “I don’t need your money any more, that’s true. But every other reason for you to move in still holds. I want you to live with me. I want to go to sleep with you every night, and wake up next to you every morning. I want your stuff in the bathroom, and your books on my bookshelves. I love you. You are my family. You are moving in. Got it?”
His arms tightened around her. He wasn’t sure he could speak, so he just nodded his head.
“But you can have your cash back.” She flashed him a cute little smile. “You can buy us all Christmas presents.”
He kissed her nose. "It’s a deal."
She kissed him back. Only her kiss was not on the nose, and took significantly longer. As one, the other people in the room decided to look elsewhere. Faith sat at the table and pulled her paycheck out again. Willow moseyed over to check the price of powdered mugwort versus fresh. Xander plotted out the next week’s patrol schedule. Giles just stood, and thought, and smiled to himself.
Finally, Buffy hopped out of Spike’s arms and looked around the room. “Who’s for the mall?”
“Ooh!” Willow raised her hand. “Me!”
Xander shook his head. Buffy deserved joyful and happy, and he couldn’t quite pull that off yet. “I’m going to pass. I need to get that stuff ready for patrol tonight.”
“Some of us do have to work,” Giles said.
Spike pointed outside. “Sun.”
“Fine.” Buffy raised her chin, pretending to look haughty. “We didn’t want you anyway. This is a girls-only shopping trip.”
“Yeah,” Willow said. “And then we can buy the boys lots of presents.”
“Exactly. Come on - we can pick up Dawn from school, and then?” She took a deep breath, and made an announcement. “We. Are. Going. Shopping.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.” Willow grinned, and made a sloppy salute.
Buffy gave Giles another hug. Hugged Xander. Then she ran out the front door, Willow following two steps behind her. Xander watched them leave, a wistful smile on his face. Then he got up headed towards the back room.
Faith sat at the table, looking at her paycheck. Her first paycheck, ever. “So.”
“Yes?” Giles asked.
“I guess this means -” Faith started again. “I can find my own place, now.”
“Oh. Oh.” Giles looked slightly crestfallen. “Do you really think - is that necessary?”
“I figured you’d want me out of your hair, ASAP,” said Faith, confused.
“Well.” Giles took off his glasses and checked them for smudges. “To tell the truth, I’ve gotten rather used to you in my hair.”
Faith stared at him.
“Besides, it’s your first paycheck. You should spend it on other things - that stereo you wanted. Clothes,” Giles suggested. “Christmas presents.”
She shrugged. There were people she had to buy Christmas presents for. She felt weird. Like, happy. “Yeah. Sounds good. No rush on new digs, then.”
Giles sighed, strangely relieved. “None whatsoever.”
The sound of the bell at the front door drew their attention. Willow ducked her head through the partially opened door and looked at Faith.
“You coming?” she asked.
Faith shook her head. “Buffy…”
“Ah, poop. You heard her. Girls-only shopping trip. You, girl. Coming?”
Faith stood there, frozen, for a split second. Then she smiled - a huge, dazzling, brilliant, grateful smile - and practically flew over to grab her jacket.
Giles watched them go. He smiled for a moment, the look on his face like he was tasting an exquisite piece of chocolate. Finally, he turned to Spike and raised a knowing eyebrow. “I assume you’ll withdraw your request for that raise now?”
“Yeh.” Spike replied, staring intently at the shelves in front of him. “Don’t need it anymore.”
“Good. Because you weren’t getting it.”
The corner of Spike’s mouth quirked. “Not like you’ve the cash to spare, after all.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
Spike turned his head to meet Giles’s questioning gaze. “The salary? Yeah. I can see the remote possibility that you could coerce the Council into that one. But back pay? A half mil of back pay? That lot would rather part with their foreskins than give up that much loot.”
“Of course the Council agreed to the salary. I did have them over a barrel,” Giles pointed out.
“And the back pay?” Spike scoffed. “Please.”
“How could I? That amount of money?” Giles tried to maintain the bluff, but then gave in. “I…didn’t think she would take it from me. And I didn’t want her to feel obligated. She - I think of her as - ”
“Yeah.”
“Don’t tell her?”
“Wasn’t planning on it.” Spike turned a glass jar, facing the label out. Then: “Rupert?”
“Yes, Spike?”
“You are quite possibly the most amazing man on the planet.”
Giles nodded his head. “I keep telling people that, but they just don’t listen.”
***
Darla was pissed off. One of the worst things about stockpiling humans was that you actually had to feed the little worms. She so did not appreciate the irony of vampires feeding humans. But people tasted weird when they were starving, or dehydrated. The blood got all thick.
Five vampires followed her, awaiting instructions. “Fill your carts. Be quick about it.”
A tall vampire raised his hand. He was lovely: all broad shoulders and green eyes. “What should we get?”
“How stupid are you?” she snapped. “You were human all of a week ago. Get what you liked, idiot!”
He thought for a minute. “Ice cream? I liked ice cream.”
Darla winced, and muttered, “I have got to stop turning men just because they’re pretty.”
She led her minions through the aisles, piling nonperishable items that didn’t require cooking into her cart. When all the carts were full, she directed them towards the exit.
“Hey! Hey! You have to pay for that!” The cashier yelled.
“No. I don’t.” Darla punched the checkout girl in the face, and tossed her unconscious body onto the cart. Then she stalked out of the grocery store. Cute-but-Stupid followed, pushing the cart.
***
Xander and Spike flanked Willow as they walked down the deserted street. Willow held a box of red glass Christmas balls. She looked around nervously. “Now, you promise. If anybody sees my dad, you’ll take these?”
Spike laughed. “If we see your dad, we’re gonna hustle his ass indoors.”
“I don’t get it,” Xander said. “He knows you practice Wicca, but he’s got a problem with Christmas?”
“Well, it’s not a question of religion, but tradition,” Willow explained. “In high school, I explained that the Christmas tree was a pagan tradition. It completely predated the spread of Christianity. But did that matter? Nope. The guy wouldn’t let me wear red or green the whole…month of…December…”
In front of them stood Dracula and Drusilla, backed up by two particularly beefy minions.
“Witch. Watcher. Traitor.” Dracula greeted them. “The Master has informed me I may follow a particular course of action. I will require your… participation.”
Drusilla stepped in front of Xander, making a circling gesture with two fingers in front of his face. Her eyes widened, and she swayed slightly. “Look into my eyes. Be in me.”
Xander began to rock from one foot to the other, mirroring Drusilla’s movement. A faint smile began to play along the corners of her mouth. Then Xander stepped back.
“I’ll pass, thanks. Being in you? I could catch something.” Xander nodded to Spike. “No offense, man.”
Spike snickered. “None taken.”
Drusilla, confused, turned to Dracula. “Why didn’t it work?” she whispered.
“Duh. I’m a Watcher now?” Xander said. “And I’ve been doing my little mental pushups. Presto! No more Butt-boy.”
“Pity. It would have been less painful for you if you accepted Drusilla's invitation. The end result will be the same,” Dracula stated. “The Master has need of you, alive - though not necessarily unharmed.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, Master this, asshole.”
Xander grabbed one of the Christmas ornaments and threw it at Dracula. The thin glass ball shattered, spewing a brownish gel all over his face and chest. Spike grabbed two more ornaments, and nailed Drusilla with one. The second ball shattered in the taller minion’s face. Willow pegged the last minion.
Dracula touched the goop on his chest, and then sniffed his fingers. “What is this?”
One of the minions stated, “It smells like gasoline.”
“Close. It’s napalm.” Xander pulled a box of wooden matches out of his jacket pocket. He lit a match.
“Smile, you son of a bitch.”
He tossed the lit match at the minion. The vampire went up like a Roman candle. It exploded into ash mere seconds later.
Xander pulled out another match. “Any more takers?”
Dracula snarled. Drusilla wailed, and stamped her foot. The surviving minion stood there, staring at Xander. Xander lit the match.
As one, they turned and dashed away.
“Oh, now, that’s just cool,” Spike crowed.
“That first match? I was aiming for Dracula,” Xander admitted. He took the box of ornaments from Willow, making sure no napalm had spilled.
“Still, unutterably cool. That’s better than feeding Alka-Seltzer to seagulls.”
“Ew…” Willow wrinkled her nose at Spike. “What are you, twelve?”
“And? I haven’t done that for a while, now.” He laughed, a quick bark of a laugh, and grabbed Willow’s hand. They spun into a silly, clumsy waltz, and Spike began singing loudly. “Vampires roasting on an open fire.”
Willow giggled, and contributed the next line. “Napalm dripping off your nose.”
Xander groaned. “Mel Torme is rolling in his grave…”

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