|Funny how work at the DoubleMeat Palace could wear her down in ways that slaying never had. Buffy pressed both hands to the small of her back and leaned back into them until she heard vertebrae pop, one after another. Straightening, she surveyed the still graveyard again. Might as well call it a night. For whatever reason, there didn't seem to be any supernatural activity tonight, unless you counted the squirrel-sized demon she had dispatched by kicking it into a gravestone. Hardly her finest moment. You'd think it was Halloween already. Or... maybe they can all smell me coming. Eau de DoubleMeat. She hefted her backpack into a more comfortable position on her shoulder and turned for home.
As a matter of good Slayerly habit she surveyed her surroundings constantly on her journey home, watching for trouble; so naturally she noticed the scrap of paper wedged into her own front door the instant she turned up the walkway. She approached carefully; there was no way for her to distinguish between a local teen's prank and a bit of malicious magic.
She stopped just short of the porch steps and hunkered down, squinting to examine the paper more carefully in the weak light of the bulb beside the door. Buffy was written on the front of it in a careful, rounded, old-fashioned script so unlike her own careless scrawl. I know that handwriting. Sighing, she stepped up to the front door and tugged the paper free, noticing for the first time a small box on the doorsill. Buffy unfolded the note and began reading.
I wanted to give you a gift; I hope you can find it in you to accept it. For what it's worth, I give you my word that it's not stolen, and that it doesn't mean that I'll be hanging about watching you, either. But you know how to find me if you ever need my help.
Buffy turned her attention from the note to the small grey velvet box. On opening it she discovered a delicate pair of earrings with hooks made from gold wire, and small emerald-cut amethysts surrounded by many tiny, clear stones that spit back coloured fire in the light of the streetlamps. They can't be... She returned to the note.
They made me think of you - and I couldn't resist, just this once. I promise I won't do it again.
She let herself in the front door, locking it behind her and extinguishing the porch light. Dropping her backpack by the door and hanging her coat on the peg there, she moved assuredly through the dark house and into the kitchen. Only then did she turn on a light.
To her pleasant surprise, she found that Dawn had actually done a decent job of cleaning up the kitchen this time. She had always found her sister to be more interested in the weird creation aspect of cooking, and much less so in the inevitable clean up required when her creations went awry.
Buffy opened the fridge and found the plastic-wrapped plate that Dawn had left for her. Lifting the edge of the plastic wrap, she took a tentative sniff. There didn't seem to be any ingredients more exotic than curry powder this time, so she set the plate into the microwave to reheat. While she was waiting, she took the day's dishes from the rack beside the sink and replaced them in the cupboards where they belonged. I wonder if we'll ever have enough money to get that dishwasher fixed. When the microwave beeped, she retrieved her plate, poured herself a glass of milk and settled in at the kitchen island.
She walked by herself at night in the high desert of California. The ground still radiated the day's warmth, but the wind was cool and she drew her jacket more closely about her. The stars overhead in their thousands were diamond bright.
The fire blazed high without heat, but Tara still held out her hands before it. "Fire must have seemed like the most powerful magic when it was first discovered, don't you think?" She patted a space beside her where she sat on a stone ledge. "Come sit with me." Bemused, Buffy did as she was directed. She still couldn't feel any warmth from the fire, but Tara seemed to find it comforting.
"Fire pushes back the night," the witch went on. "It reveals things otherwise hidden. It keeps us warm. Bring food near it and it's transformed."
After some minutes of silent contemplation, Tara stood and walked up to the bonfire. Buffy wanted to warn her to stay back, to be careful, but couldn't seem to form the words. Tara circled the fire with graceful steps, as though she were moving to music only she could hear. "But like everything so powerful, fire has its dark side as well. If it's not tended to carefully, it consumes and destroys. Fire burns. The first people probably thought they had loosed a terrible demon into their midst, the first time fire got out of control." She reached into the fire, ignoring Buffy as she leapt to her feet in warning, and curved one hand until a tongue of flame was cupped there, still burning.
"They say that the pain of being burned is the worst pain anyone can ever experience." She smiled sadly at Buffy through the flames. " 'Once burned, twice shy', isn't that the saying? But if no one had ever risked fire again, we'd never have moved out of the caves."
A sound of rattling bones and Tara was gone, the fire was gone, and the stars overhead were being extinguished in great swaths as though someone were wiping them off the dome of the night sky.
Buffy sat bolt upright in bed, awake, with only hazy memories of her dream. Tara's final words echoed in her mind. "Love... give... forgive. Risk the pain. It is your nature"
She tilted her alarm clock to catch the light from the streetlights outside. Three thirty. Sighing, she collapsed back and tried to settle her mind to sleep again. That's what I get for eating dinner just before going to bed.
The tunnels were utterly black, but predator's sight made the gloom seem no worse than twilight. Some part of him recognized the utter absurdity of the scenario, but he found he had no choice but to play along. Arrogance and self-confidence warred with the fear in his gut. Something was waiting for him. There was something he'd have to face.
It wasn't supposed to be Tara.
"Oi, Glinda. Thought you were supposed to be dead," he said, trying to cover his confusion.
"You were dead for a hundred and twenty years. If it didn't stop you from walking around and talking, why should I let it stop me?" He knew there was a perfectly reasonable answer to that, but couldn't remember what it was.
"This isn't real," he insisted. "I'm asleep and dreaming all of this."
"Why do you doubt your senses?"
"Wait a minute," Spike said. "This is just like Scrooge's problem, isn't it? How did it go? I don't trust my senses... 'because a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!' " He grinned like a schoolboy successfully finishing his piece on speech day.
"You can believe that, if it makes you more comfortable," she said, and his smile vanished. "Why are you here? What are you?"
"I don't know!" he said, agonized. "I thought I'd make myself into someone Buffy might be able to love. I wanted to help her, but I could barely even defend myself today. What good am I to her now?"
"You were weak and afraid," she said, pointing out the embarrassingly obvious.
"That's what I said; a right snivelling wet end." His disgust with his earlier timidity was bottomless.
"You knew you were at risk, but still you stayed."
"I-" Why had he done it? It was dodgy and stupid and... it had seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
"Your answers are there, Spike, you just have to learn to listen."
The gloom was impenetrable to his sight; he might as well have kept his eyes closed. Clem's soft, burbling snores were the only sound Spike could detect in the darkened crypt. Well that was helpful. He turned onto his side and drew the sleeping bag more closely about his shoulders. It's no wonder Dru always sounded mad when she talked about her dreams. He was asleep again in minutes, the dream visions fading from his consciousness.
The demon had a drill mounted at the end of one long arm, and it was burring into her brain...
Her sleep-fogged mind finally identified the irritating sound as the telephone. She snatched up the receiver from the cradle before it could torment her further and mumbled into it. "H'llo?"
"Buffy... Did I wake you?" The voice on the line was warm, cultured - and instantly recognizable.
"No Giles, I'm always up at the mind-numbing hour of--" Buffy looked at the clock "--seven a.m.," she concluded, groggily running one hand over her face. Anything was preferable to more nightmares, even early morning calls from ex-Watchers overseas.
He was instantly apologetic. "Oh. I'm sorry, I thought I had calculated the time difference more carefully than that. Shall I call back later?"
"Never mind," Buffy replied, sitting up and pushing her blankets aside. "I'll have to get Dawn up in half an hour for school anyway. What's up?"
"I wanted to let you know that Willow and I will be returning to Sunnydale a week from this coming Friday."
"Giles, that's great!" She paused. For such good news, he certainly hadn't sounded thrilled. "It is great, isn't it?"
"Yes... yes of course."
Buffy could almost hear him taking off his glasses and looking pained in that uniquely British way. She jumped at the first explanation that came to mind. "Has something bad happened to Willow?"
"No, no," he reassured her. "Physically she's fine. The dark magic has been completely removed from her system. Emotionally... this has been a very trying time for her. Perhaps I was hasty to presuppose that the coven in Devon would be able to help her deal with all of her problems."
She refused to be reassured. "What do you mean?"
"She's finding it difficult to deal with her grief over Tara and her remorse for her actions last spring," he explained. "I believe it would in her best interests now to return to a familiar setting and friends as soon as possible."
"You know you'd both be welcome to stay with us, but we only have the one extra room and that's where..." Just remembering brought tears to her eyes. She'd been fighting for her own life that day until Willow had healed her and so had been spared the sight of Tara's lifeless body lying all day alone in the master bedroom, but Dawn had described everything in such terrible detail she felt as though she had been there.
"A temporary rental on an apartment near to the university campus might be the best solution all around," he said. "I realize that classes have already begun, but she might find some relief in the familiar environment." Giles paused for a moment in thought. "I know that you have a great deal on your plate right now, Buffy, but do you think it would be possible for you to look into something for us?"
"Unless someone's planning an apocalypse they haven't told me about, I should be able to manage," she said, determined to make Willow's return home a cheerful event.
"That brings me to my second reason for calling. Is there something more that's happened there that I should know about?"
Buffy racked her brain. "No, everything's been pretty normal lately - quieter than usual, even. Why?"
"Well, it's just that the Council has informed me that Spike was seen abroad - here in London, actually. I was concerned that something big might be brewing."
She laughed, relieved that she would be able to deal with his concerns for a change. "Giles, you'll really have to get back on the Council's good side - that news must be at least a month old. Spike's back in town."
"Ah. I see." Irritation clearly communicated itself over the intervening miles. "I shall have to have a word or two with them. Has Spike been up to his old tricks, then?"
Let's see: following me around for days on patrol, starting arguments with me, sneaking around to the house leaving unsubtle presents... "Yeah, but nothing really out of the ordinary. Between the working, the slaying and the substitute mom stuff, I'm pretty busy; I haven't seen him that often."
"So you've not... carried on with your relationship?" Giles asked hesitantly.
"No Giles," Buffy sighed. "I have not gone back to sleeping with Spike, thanks for asking." And he never even tried once to convince me to.
"I'm sure that's for the best, then," he said reassuringly. "I had best ring off. See you soon."
"Giles wait," she said, just as he was about to hang up. "Maybe there is something. The last time I did see Spike, he looked... sick, maybe. Is that possible?"
"Sick? In what way? I don't know of any medical condition that could possibly affect a vampire, short of not feeding regularly. Perhaps there's some supernatural affliction..." His voice trailed off as though he were already deeply into some ponderous tome.
"Oh, and he made some cryptic remark, too." She struggled to remember; the words hadn't made sense. "Something about a gay guy with a skin condition?"
"What? Are you sure?"
"Well something like that." Think, think, think! "Scratchy, or... oh wait! It was 'itchy homo'. Ring any bells?"
" 'Itchy homo'," Giles repeated carefully, confused. "Buffy... do you mean ecce homo?"
"Isn't that what I said?" she asked, not hearing any difference in the two phrases.
"Not quite, no. Ecce homo is a Latin phrase that means 'behold the man'. I wonder what he meant by that?"
"Beats me. I was already looking at him when he said it. Maybe he's just switched tactics and is trying to impress me with the size of his brain rather than his..." Buffy felt sure that Giles could see her blush clear down the line. "Back up and forget that last sentence, okay?"
"Already gratefully forgotten," he assured her. "I'll look into the possibility of vampire sicknesses, and let you know what I've found when we arrive."
They made their farewells, finally, and Buffy got ready to meet another day head on.
Buffy was well into her second cup of instant coffee by the time her sister came into the kitchen.
"Did I hear the phone?" Dawn asked sleepily as she reached into the cupboard for a box of cereal.
"Giles," Buffy confirmed. "He and Willow will be coming back next week on Friday."
"Cool. Wonder if he'll be bringing me anything?" Before Buffy could get herself worked up over the utter inappropriateness of this question, Dawn relented. "Relax, Buff - I'm only joking. Still, I wouldn't say no to some postcards." She loaded a bowl with sugar-frosted chocolate goodness and added just enough milk to float the cereal precariously near the lip of the bowl as she picked it up and headed for the living room. Grabbing the remote, she settled with her feet under her at one corner of the couch and began power-surfing the channels.
After a moment's delay, Buffy headed after her. "Hey! What did I say about eating in the living room? You think I have nothing better to do than vacuum cereal crumbs out of the couch?" she said in her best imitation of an overworked parental-authority-substitute voice.
Clearly she had some work to do on her impression; Dawn ignored her in favour of studying the strobing light coming from the TV screen. If there's ever a job that involves making decisions on the basis of subliminal images and three-second sound bites, Dawn's a shoo-in.
"... so you started having threesomes with these neighbours..."
"... Lucy! You got some 'splainin..."
"...robbery of the blood bank at Sunnydale Memorial..."
"...medical/dental receptionist, computer repair, teacher assistant...
"Wait! Turn back to that last channel!" Buffy protested.
Dawn rolled her eyes and complied, setting down the remote in favour of her spoon.
"...severe shortage of blood. Police believe the theft may be gang related..."
"Yeah. Gangs with fangs," mocked Dawn. "I can't believe anyone could be so clueless."
"Shh!" Buffy scolded, listening intently as the 'Good Morning Sunnydale' news anchor continued.
"Sunnydale residents seventeen and older and in good health are being asked to donate blood to help ease the current crisis. It is estimated that local hospitals now have less than a two-day supply of blood and blood products. All but emergency surgeries have been cancelled, and, where possible, patients are being sent home. In related news, an artificial blood substitute, long thought to be the subject of science fiction, may finally..."
"Okay, you can turn it off now," Buffy said, lost in thought.
"It's not exactly apocalypse number seven come calling, is it?" Dawn observed, resuming her endless survey of channels - though now mercifully muted.
"Nooo... Still, it's probably something we should look into," her sister replied. "I wish Willow were back already; she'd have pulled up all the records of similar incidents across the state and have a theory ready to go in about five minutes."
"I can use the computers at school--" Dawn offered, before Buffy cut her off.
"No! I mean... I don't want you doing anything Slayer-related at school; we don't need to see round two of that trouble." She weighed the pros and cons of getting Dawn involved carefully; her sister had responded well to new responsibilities over the summer, but she didn't want her getting mixed up into more than she could handle. But without Willow, and with Xander currently obsessing over Anya and Spike... "But if you were to stop at the public library, say, on your way home..."
"You bet. Instant anonymous computer research. Leave it to me." She dropped her spoon with a clatter into her empty bowl and stood. "Do we go donate blood?"
"Hmm? No... probably not a good idea. I don't think there's anything that medical tests would pick up, but you and I aren't exactly of the ordinary, you know." Thinking of the special properties associated with Slayer blood perhaps inevitably brought her thoughts around to a certain vampire who had always extolled certain of its virtues. Not that I ever let him test those theories on me. "I should probably go and grill Spike about the theft, too."
Dawn frowned. "I don't think that Spike had anything to do with it."
"Name me another vampire who has to have pre-bagged blood, and maybe I'll believe it."
"Angel," the younger girl retorted immediately.
Buffy sighed. "Dawn, I know that you consider Spike to be your friend, and I know he's done a lot for us, but he can't just change what he is. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't follow up on this."
"But he-" already has changed, and I promised him I wouldn't tell you. Damn. Oh well. You'll find out soon enough. I just wish I could get to see your face when you do. "Guess so," she admitted.
"Thanks for the overwhelming support," Buffy teased gently. "Shouldn't you be getting dressed about now?"
Vampires, blood thefts and the prospect of being chief Scooby researcher vanished under the much more compelling issues of the latest in school fashion. "Hey, did you wash my blue skirt yet?"
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