“Stake Holders” webcomic

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Starfarer

A poem I wrote in March 2004.


My console’s silver stellar chart
Projects in holographic green
The distant points of laser-light
That mark the spots I’ve never seen.

A thousand times a thousand and
A thousand more – a thousand still.
A never-ending chain of them
That guides my engine where it will.

I wake to strange and shifting light.
How long before explorers came
Did color fill this ancient place
Without a number or a name?

I leave it far behind, at last;
Like all the wonder that I find,
It takes its place amid the dust
And wordless alcoves of the mind.

And now again the lonely stretch.
The yellow dot that marks my ship
Does not move visibly upon the map
That counts the progress of the trip.

A thousand years ago, the sea
Called out to us in cresting foam
With stars to guide our sailing craft
‘Til other hungers brought us home.

Where are we now? A thousand years
And boundless good, and boundless ill
And deep within the thing remains:
We go in search of dragons still.

Impossible

Impossible is a Buffy fan fic, 10,000 words, written in January 2015.

The story takes place around the middle of BtVS Season 6, after Giles’ departure but before Xander’s wedding and Dark Willow. It imagines that Buffy and Spike’s relationship, rather than spiraling into abuse, has become a bit healthier, and that the Scoobies know about it.


The winter days were getting longer, but not long enough. It was already dark by the time Buffy made her way to the entrance of the Magic Box shop.

The CLOSED sign in the window didn’t apply to her, of course, but she stopped outside the door. Tired eyes shut tight, shifting her weight on aching feet, she breathed in deep. The shower had rid her of fryer grease smell. That was nice. Blue jeans and a tank top felt like heaven after wearing that uniform all day.

Well. Not exactly like heaven.

Okay. Focus. Swallow the empty feeling, switch the brain back on. These are your friends. You care about them. Talk, listen. Remember to smile.

Eyes open. Doorknob turning.

She made her way to the back of the shop, past the familiar shelves full of jagged crystals and sagging candles and leatherbound books, to the round wooden table. A couple lamps staved off the encroaching darkness.

Three of her best friends surrounded the table within the island of light. Another figure stood to her left, watching her from the dark in his leather jacket, but he wasn’t a friend. He was…what, exactly? Boyfriend? Lover?

Well, he was Spike.

Buffy smiled in his direction, and it was only partly fake. He nodded once in return. She sat at the table.

“I don’t understand why you’re fighting this.” Anya stood near Xander, gesturing emphatically. “It’s an ancient human tradition. Like Easter eggs, or circumcision.”

Had Anya gotten her hair cut? Buffy tried to remember how it had looked yesterday, and couldn’t. Lost in the mental fog.

Xander, leaning forward in his chair, didn’t make eye contact. “So it’s like cutting off the tip of my penis. Great sales pitch, An.”

Buffy leaned over to Willow, who was hunched over a heavy book. “Dare I ask…?”

Her friend blinked. “Oh. Hey, Buffy. It’s, uh, wedding stuff. I think.”

Anya explained: “I merely asked Xander to remove a garter from my leg. And he’s opposing me!” She locked eyes on her fiance again. “I know for a fact you don’t object to taking things off my thighs with your teeth.”

Xander shook his head, as if to wipe away that last sentence. “Buff, help me out. It’s undignified, right? What do you think?”

I hate this, Buffy thought. I hate watching you two take the greatest joy of your life and turn it into a battleground. I hate the idea that a love as deep and real as yours can fall apart – because if it does, what chance do I have?

“Staying neutral on this one,” she heard herself say. “I’m the Switzerland of wedding planning. No opinion, just chocolate and cheese.” And she smiled.

“Right,” said Spike. He came to the edge of the light, arms crossed, scowling. At Willow. “Now that’s settled, maybe we can get on with it. Tell her.”

Buffy looked from the witch to the vampire. An icy lump formed in her throat. “Tell me what?”

Willow sighed, and Buffy noticed for the first time how tired she looked. The bright colors she wore couldn’t hide her sagging shoulders or the darkness under her eyes. Signs of her struggle not to use magic, of being apart from Tara.

How long had she been this way? What kind of friend was Buffy, to only be noticing now?

Focus. These are your friends. You care about them. Remember?

“I haven’t done any spells,” Willow was saying, “but I do pick up on certain energies. It just happens, without me doing anything.” She twisted her mouth, as if looking for pardon.

“It’s okay, Will.” Buffy nodded in a way she hoped was reassuring. “Go on.”

“I sensed something powerful, something familiar, but that was all I could get. So I had Xander talk to, um, to Tara, and she did a searching spell. Now, it’s too early to say for sure. These results could be read in a number of different ways. It’s possible that nothing – ”

“Glory’s back,” said Spike, stone-faced.

Buffy should have been scared, surprised, something. But all she felt was a little shift inside herself, like her heart had changed gears.

Willow glared. “No, she’s not. I told you before.”

“Near enough, innit?”

“Glory is dead,” Willow said firmly. She sighed again. “But it is…possible…that another hell-god like her has taken up residence in Sunnydale.”

“Glory or not, doesn’t really matter, does it?” said Xander. “Bulletproof, evil, and epically pissed off. I think ‘hell-god’ is all we really need to know.”

“That’s racist.” They all looked at Anya. “…is what a filthy demon would say. Am I right?”

“What about Dawn?” said Xander. “She’s still the Key, right? Does she need to stay out of this monster’s van, refuse its candy?”

Willow shook her head. “What Glory tried to do, that was the last chance for the ritual. Dawn’s useless now.” She caught Buffy’s eye. “You know. In a good way.”

So her sister was safe. Safe-ish. One less thing to worry about.

“All right,” said Buffy, stretching her fingers over the table. A plan. They needed a plan. “How much do we know?”

“The presence is located at 732 Elm Street,” said Willow. “It’s hiding inside a person, like Glory did with Ben. A human male. That’s all we know for sure.”

Buffy rubbed her eyes. “Okay. Will, go online, figure out who this guy is. Xander, talk to the police, see if they’ve gotten complaints about anything weird there. Nobody go near the house – that’s my job. I’ll do reconnaissance tonight.”

“Like hell,” said Spike. “You can barely sit up straight. You’re exhausted.”

“I’ll be fine,” she snapped.

“Right. And you’ll sleep when, exactly?”

“Hate to say it, Buff, but Captain Leather over here has a point,” said Xander. “He’ll be pulling the graveyard shift anyway, might as well put him to work. If some hell-god goes all Hulk Smash on him, hey, that’s just a bonus.” His grin faded. “And you do look a little beat.”

They were all staring at her now, all worried. God, but she hated that. I’ll be fine. Just leave me alone, I’ll be fine…

Then she yawned, and knew she had lost.

“All right, all right. But just watch, okay? Nothing stabby, slashy, or smashy till we know what’s what.” She stood up, and all the soreness in her legs and feet returned. “I’d better get home.”

Buffy had just stepped outside when Spike grabbed her arm, turned her around. He still had that worried look. She tried to conceal the anger in her voice. “What do you want, Spike?”

Nope. Anger definitely not concealed.

“What do I want?” Head tilted, disbelieving, or maybe just hurt. “A Lamborghini, couple of butlers, maybe a Type O Negative martini. What do you think I want, Buffy?” He set his hands lightly on her waist. “I want to help you. What can I do?”

“I thought you just did it. Swooped in to protect your poor little Slayer.” She hadn’t meant to say it like that – hadn’t meant to be that bitter – but she was tired of pretending to care. Her arms hung limp at her sides.

“Was watchin’ out for you, love. Didn’t expect a medal, but even vampires appreciate a ‘Thank you.'”

“Thank you for what, Spike? Treating me like a child? Undermining my authority in front of everyone? Is that what I’m supposed to be grateful for?”

“Bloody hell,” he muttered. “Shouldn’t have bothered.” Walking away.

Buffy shut her eyes tight, clearing away the fog. How did it always turn into this? Angel, Riley, now Spike – somehow, every time, it slipped into arguments, fights, clashing egos. His fault, her fault. Wasn’t there something better?

She swallowed. “Spike!”

He stopped.

Getting the words out was like lifting a physical weight.

“I’m sorry.”

Spike faced her again.

“Save it for your friends, love. I don’t even have a soul, remember?” He disappeared into the dark.

She swore under her breath and started walking home.

——

Buffy found her sister leaning back on the couch, feet in purple socks resting on the coffee table, holding a nearly empty bowl of popcorn and watching what appeared to be Gone With the Wind.

“Hey, Dawn.”

Dawn glanced up. “You’re home.” Voice flat. “Only seven-thirty. Shouldn’t you be out patrolling? I thought watching me was Willow’s job.”

Buffy’s jaw tightened. She squashed her anger, as well as the first two or three responses that came to mind.

“I have the night off. Thought we could spend a little time together.”

Dawn tossed some popcorn in her mouth. “Lucky me.”

Not trusting herself to answer, Buffy headed to the kitchen.

On the counter by the sink she found a plate covered in bread crumbs, a knife smeared with peanut butter, and a glass with a little chocolate milk. In the trash, an empty pack of bologna. This was the healthy supper Dawn had made for herself.

Buffy sighed, head drooping, and covered her eyes.

She wasn’t a perfect caretaker. Not by a long shot. But she was trying – really trying – and part of her was furious at Dawn for not meeting her halfway. Another part felt stomach-wrenchingly guilty that this beautiful fifteen-year-old girl – who had lost her father, her mother, her sister, and her whole identity, with several doses of near-death trauma for good measure – that this girl still lacked the anchor in her life that Buffy was supposed to be. And finally, there was the fear, the constant automatic worry, that formed the backdrop to every other thought.

Anger, guilt, and worry. She loved her sister desperately, but how long had it been since she’d felt anything toward her besides anger, guilt, and worry?

How did this happen? It was the same as with Spike. How could two people who cared about each other descend into something like this?

She took some deep breaths so as not to cry.

Then Buffy glanced at the wall calendar…and got an idea. She took a few moments, composed herself, figured out what she would say.

Okay. Ready. You can do this.

Buffy went back to the living room and sat on the edge of the couch. Not close enough to invade Dawn’s space, but not standing up all formal and stiff. Her sister eyed her warily.

“I was thinking,” Buffy said. “It’ll be your birthday next weekend. The big sixteen. Why don’t we take a trip somewhere, just you and me? You’ve always wanted to check out that big mall up north.  Or if there’s some concert you’d like to go to? My treat. You can even drive, if you pass the test first. Summers and Summers, we’ll take no prisoners.”

Dawn stared at her like she was a late-period Monet.

“Or, all right,” Buffy continued, “maybe you don’t want to hang out with your stuffy old sister. That’s okay too. You want to party with your friends? You can do it here – I’ll be invisible. Like that time with the invisibility ray, only not as evil. Or have it somewhere else, if you want. I’ll buy you something cute to wear.”

Dawn went back to watching TV.

Buffy took a deep breath but couldn’t keep the fury out of her voice anymore. “Dawn, you’re mad that I’m never around. Well, I’m sorry. But I’m around now, aren’t I? I’m trying. This is me – being there – for you.” Now she was yelling. Again. “What do you want from me?”

Dawn got up, walked to the stairs, turned around. “You really are that clueless, aren’t you?”

She went up to her room and slammed the door.

Buffy ripped a pillow in half and buried her face in the cotton.

——

Hours later she was still lying on the couch, staring at the patterns of light the TV made on the darkened ceiling. The door opened. She sat up.

“Spike.” Was he still angry? She couldn’t read him. Never could, really.

His gaze took in the couch, her, the entire room. “Somehow I figured you’d be up.”

“Couldn’t sleep.” That much was true, at least.

“Can hardly blame you. What with that handy gizmo peelin’ potatoes and juicin’ grapefruit an’ all. And dishwasher safe? They’re practically givin’ it away.”

She smiled ruefully at the infomercial, seeing it for the first time. A click of the remote made the room even darker.

“How late is it?” she asked.

“Late enough to be early.”

She winced. Spike sat down beside her, and she found she was glad. “How was Operation Creepy Stalker?”

“Boring,” he sighed, leaning back. “Ordinary husband, happy-looking wife. Baby daughter in a little pink nursery. He got home around nine, late supper, put the girl to bed. Lights out by ten-thirty. I watched for two more hours after that. Nothing. If you listened to a record of paint drying, it’d be more fun than this family.”

“Maybe Willow got it wrong.” She didn’t even try to sound hopeful.

He gave a dismissive snort. “That witch has her problems, but mojo ain’t one of ’em. The hell-god’s hiding in that bloke, just waiting for a chance to cut loose. Has to be.”

He handed her a photo, slightly grainy, of a clean-cut man with curly brown hair. A half-loosened tie hung limp around his neck. “That’s him. Remember that face. You see him, run.”

She studied the picture, wondering what horrors lay in store for this innocent man. “Spike, how did you get this? Do you have a telephoto lens?”

Silence.

“Why do you own a telephoto lens? Bird-watching?”

“Uh, yeah. You caught me.” Hands up. “Big into goldfinches. Can’t get enough of the little wankers.”

“Never mind. I want no more information.” Quietly, she added, “Thanks for doing that.”

He put his arm around her. That was nice. “Buffy, this monster – this thing – we’ve got its number, right? Clean its clock, we will, us and our little Fun Times Gang. Nothing to worry about.”

She took his other hand and held it. “I’m not really afraid of anything anymore. At least, not as far as monsters go.”

“And ‘specially not of that pillow,” he said, leaning over for a better look. “Gettin’ a bit lippy, was it?”

In spite of the painful reminder, Buffy found herself smiling again. “It’s Dawn. She hates me, and I’m not even sure why anymore.”

“Well, with you roughin’ up her favorite pillow and all…”

That got a laugh. And a kiss. It was, she realized, the first really good feeling she’d had in days.

“Now, come on,” Spike was saying. “To bed with you.”

“What if I’m still not tired?” She smiled again, tracing a finger over his denim-covered thigh.

Actually she was exhausted, and not really in the mood. But she knew, once they started, she’d get in the mood soon enough. She didn’t want to give up this tiny ray of happiness. She didn’t want to stop feeling good.

To her surprise, Spike only pursed his lips and looked down.

“Don’t you want me?” she whispered, surprised at how deeply that hurt.

“‘Course I want you,” he scoffed. “Hardly do anything else, but want you. That’s not the point.”

“Then what?”

He pulled her closer, but she stiffened in his embrace. “When you touch me, Buffy, it’s not about desire. It’s about…” He shook his head. “I don’t know. Clearing away the fog. Dulling the pain. Well, I can’t bloody do it anymore. Not like that. I want you to want me.”

“They should write a song,” Buffy said dully.

He stood up. “You go to bed. See you tomorrow, yeah?”

“Spike, please,” she whispered urgently, standing beside him. Her voice sounded desperate even to her own ears, but she didn’t care. “You can’t leave me. Not now, not like this. I need you.”

“Sorry, love, but I told you – ”

She grabbed his hand, put it on her left breast, squeezed hard. It hurt a little, even through the fabric.

“Buffy,” he said warningly. But his eyes were closed, his breathing had gotten rough.

She kissed him, hard, teasing with her tongue and gently biting his lips. Then she took his hand and moved it down, slowly, into her panties, as far as it would go.

When his fingers began to move, sending the first fleeting jolts of pleasure up her spine, she knew she had won. She would get what she needed.

As for the rest…it could wait till tomorrow.

——

The following night, Buffy found herself walking down a row of tombstones, Tara beside her. Both held stakes. A light wind shook the bare branches of the trees.

“This is okay, right?” Tara sounded worried. “I don’t want to be a burden. I mean, you’ve got all your Slayer powers and skills and everything, and I’m just – ”

“A strong witch with a lethal weapon and years of fighting experience?”

Hard to tell in the dark, but Tara actually seemed to be blushing. “Well, when you put it like that…”

Buffy watched as Tara jumped up and balanced on a rotting log.

Her pale sweater and ankle-length skirt couldn’t possibly be called stylish; on Buffy they would’ve looked frumpy, even silly. But somehow, walking in the moonlight, Tara looked like someone out of a fairy tale. Someone beyond trends and fashions. Someone like…well, like a witch. While Buffy, in her lace cardigan and chunky heels, felt positively ordinary.

Of course, there were worse things to be than ordinary.

“I can use the company. Anytime,” Buffy assured her. “Though…I am a little surprised. I kind of got the impression that, walking around cemeteries, not so much your thing?”

Saying this, she realized she had no idea what Tara’s ‘thing’ was anymore – what she did, how she spent her time. They weren’t connected. The rift between her and Willow had affected them all.

“I guess not,” Tara was saying. “Sometimes I just need to get out, you know? If you spend too much time alone with your thoughts…”

“It makes you crazy,” Buffy agreed. Then she realized who she was talking to, what Glory had done to her. “Sorry! I didn’t mean crazy. I meant, uh, restless. Like you need to get out of the house. Which is what you already said.”

Tara laughed, a clear, warm, genuine sound in that decaying place. “Don’t worry. It’s just a word. Besides, you were right there beside me on the front lines.”

“I guess neither of us is signing up for the Glorificus Fan Club.”

“I’ve thought about it,” Tara said. “The free keychain is nice.”

“Speaking of.” Buffy flipped her stake in the air and caught it. “Sorry I missed the meeting, had to work late. Any news on our hell-god wannabe?”

“Xander said there were no complaints to the police, except one from last night, a man in a trenchcoat spying on a house with a telephoto lens. Spike got all grumpy, muttered something really British like ‘bollocks’ or ‘sodding’ whatever.”

Tara was grinning, so Buffy fake-smiled back. But the mention of Spike made her want to hide under a rock. Preferably a nice, big rock with lots of amenities so she could stay there, let’s say, the rest of her natural life.

After what happened last night, he had gotten up and left without a word. She had done her best not to think about it since. That reckoning would come soon enough…

Actually, that was Spike’s crypt now, up ahead on the left.

“Let’s make a right here,” said Buffy, trying to sound casual.

“Sure. Anyway, W-Willow looked up our mystery man. His name is Jim Callahan. No history of weird disappearances or anything like that. He’s totally clean.” Tara played with her sleeve for a moment. “Willow wasn’t at the meeting. Xander told us what she found.”

“Okay.” I’m sorry, Tara. I don’t know what to say.

“So I did some more spell work today. It’s definitely a hell-god, at that house, in a male human host. But since this Jim Callahan isn’t doing anything weird, we figure it’s early stages. The thing isn’t strong enough to manifest yet. We still have some time. No idea how long.”

“Well, let’s not wait around to find out,” said Buffy. “How do we stop it? Please tell me there’s something I can stab.” Inspired by the thought, she scanned the graveyard hopefully. Not a single lousy vamp. So far this patrol was a complete disappointment, stabbing-wise.

Tara tossed up her stake like Buffy had, but fumbled the catch. It clattered off a tombstone and she snatched it out of the grass. “I’m working on an incantation to draw the god from Callahan’s body. Once it’s out of the host, it’ll be cut loose from this dimension, and it should return to wherever it came from.”

“Sounds pretty slick. How long till it’s ready?”

“Maybe a day or two.”

“Tara!” Buffy squeezed her friend’s arm. “You’re Super-Witch! Or, like, Wonder Witch Woman. Do witches have superheroes? Because that’s what you are.”

“Yeah, well.” Tara’s voice sank. “They didn’t think so.”

“What?”

“Spike got, um. Really, r-really mad at me.”

“I’ll kill him.” Buffy’s teeth clenched, she gripped the stake tighter. “What do you want, Tara? Stab his heart? Cut off his head? Strap him to a flagpole and wait for sunrise? You want a quick death, or maybe some torture? Please say torture.”

“I’ll think it over,” said Tara, still quiet.

Moonlight filtered through branches everywhere, haunting the whole wide landscape. “What did he say to you?”

“At first he just said magic isn’t reliable. Could fail, or even backfire, make this thing stronger. He said there’s only one surefire way. Do what Giles did to Ben.”

“Murder Callahan?” Buffy shook her head. “No. He’s innocent. And regardless, we don’t kill humans. Not if there’s another way.”

“That’s what I told him. That’s when he got, uh, irate. He went off on this long rant.” Tara was looking down at the grass. “How you died once, and he wasn’t going to fail you again. How you’ve saved us over and over, and we’re too goody-goody to pay you back. How we didn’t deserve you, none of us, not even him.”

Buffy thought it over. She should’ve seen this coming. Killing a stranger to keep her safe? For Spike, that wouldn’t even be a question.

Part of her was horrified. Another part just wanted to curl up and warm herself by the fire of his love.

Love. Is that what he felt? No, this was something less than genuine love – and something more.

Devotion.

And where did that leave them?

Tara raised her eyes. “Buffy, I’ve never seen him like that. He persuaded Xander and Anya too.”

“But not you.”

“I convinced them not to do anything tonight, at least.” Tara’s voice got firm. “I’m sorry, Buffy. I don’t want you to die. Of course I don’t. But if we start killing people because it’s convenient…then what’s the point of anything? I mean, what are we fighting for?”

“Tara,” said Buffy, “that’s exactly what I would have told them. Exactly. And for you to stand up to all three of them like that – ”

A heavy blow from behind knocked her forward. She fell into a roll, got up, turned to face the vamp.

“Tara, get back,” she shouted, ducking a haymaker from her enemy. Her roundhouse kick connected with the vamp’s head, sending it sprawling.

It was a woman – unusual – with messy black hair and a leather jacket that concealed…could it really be? Yes, it could. Shoulder pads.

“Hey, lady,” said Buffy. “The nineteen-eighties called. They want their outfit back. No, on second thought, they say you can keep it.”

The ‘lady’ growled, even uglier with her vamp face on. “Slayer.”

“Oh, what gave it away? Was it my ad in Gardener’s Weekly? Or is it just because I’m…” She blocked a punch and smashed her elbow into its mouth. “Kicking your ass?”

Suddenly, somehow, it had her by the throat. She sputtered, more in annoyance than fear. How could she have let her guard down? And why couldn’t she seem to pry those fingers..from…her…

“I’m not going to sully my fangs with your pitiful blood,” said the vamp. “But I think your head would look lovely on my mantelpiece. Don’t you agree?”

All at once Buffy fell, gasping, to the ground. The vamp was a cloud of dust. Behind it, wearing an enormous grin, was Tara Maclay.

As Buffy got to her feet, Tara flipped her stake in the air and caught it. She clutched her balled-up hands to her chest with glee. “I did it!” she cried. “I’ve never done it before! I lost my vampire virginity!”

“Congratulations.” Buffy couldn’t help smiling back. Tara was just so…giddy.

“I mean, it’s no big deal to you, you’ve killed hundreds of ’em…”

“Hey! You’re making me sound like a vampire slut.”

“Sorry.” Tara giggled. “I should’ve had a clever line. Like: ‘Hope you enjoy that mantelpiece IN HELL.’ No, that’s stupid. Maybe…” She noticed Buffy staring at her. “What is it?”

All my relationships fall apart, thought Buffy. Dawn hates me, I’m hurting Spike, Willow and Xander and Anya make me worried and sad.

But not Tara. When I’m with Tara, she never makes me feel anything but good.

Buffy stepped forward. “I don’t know why I never told you,” she said. “I’ve told Angel and Giles, Willow, Dawn, even Xander. But not you.”

Tara’s excitement slipped to an anxious frown. “Told me what?”

“I love you, Tara.” She held up a finger. “In a friendly, platonic, strictly heterosexual way. But really. I get so wrapped up in my own issues, I forget what’s important, why we’re doing any of this. I love you.”

Tara’s big smile returned. “Oh. I love you, too, Buffy.” And then she was blushing furiously. “Also in a totally friendly, not-at-all romantic kind of way. Oh! Not that you aren’t attractive – I didn’t mean that. But I also don’t want to imply – ”

Buffy wrapped her in a tight hug. “Think I got it,” she said.

——

Two hours of conversation and three vamps later (all Buffy kills), they were done with patrol and halfway back to Buffy’s house. She leaned close to Tara and hissed, “That was him.”

Tara looked back at the man who’d just walked by. “Him who?”

“Jim Callahan. Spike showed me a picture.”

“Oh!” Tara pointed at a street sign. “Of course. Elm Street. I didn’t even notice. We’re in the 700s, so his house must be around…there somewhere.”

“Ugh. Tara, I am so sorry. I didn’t even think about which route I was taking. Now I’ve put you in danger – ”

“That’s not him.”

“What?” Buffy looked back at the figure of the man, now farther away but still distinct under the street lights. “No, that was Callahan. I’m sure of it.”

“Callahan, maybe, but that wasn’t our guy,” said Tara. “If the presence was inside him, I would’ve felt it. I’m positive.”

“But I don’t understand. If not him, then who…?”

Buffy trailed off, rolled her eyes, turned to a nearby bush. “You can come out now, Spike.”

The bush rustled. Spike emerged, holding a shotgun, looking annoyed but not surprised.

Her feelings toward him were too jumbled to figure out right now, and anyway she was still in a happy place from patrolling. She raised an eyebrow. “Sorry. Did we get in the way of you stalking and murdering that tax-paying, law-abiding husband and father?”

“How’d you know he was there?” said Tara, who seemed to have picked up some confidence from their graveyard adventure.

“Slayer thing,” said Buffy. “Whenever someone’s head has more peroxide than brain cells, I can just feel it somehow.”

“Fabulous,” said Spike. “I take it you’ve joined up with the Hell-God Preservation Society, then? Gave you a bumper sticker, did they?”

“Keychains, mostly,” said Buffy. “Doesn’t matter. Tell him, Tara.”

“It’s not him,” said Tara.

“That’s no excuse for – ” He blinked. “Not him? What do you mean it’s not him?”

“He’s not the host,” said Buffy. “There must be some other man in the house. Callahan’s just a regular guy. Who you were going to murder.”

Spike stabbed a finger in the man’s direction. “If he’s so bloody normal, why is he going for a walk at ten o’clock at night? Mm? His daily constitutional?”

Tara stifled a laugh.

“Okay, one,” said Buffy, “that word kind of has a different meaning now. And two, if he were doing something nefarious and hell-god-y, wouldn’t he have changed into his alter ego first? Like Ben turning into Glory?”

“Well, that’s – !” Spike thought it over. “That’s right sensible. Fine, I won’t kill him.”

“Good,” said Buffy. “Now go back to your bush. We’re headed home.”

Spike cleared his throat. “A word, love?”

“What is it?”

He rolled his eyes. “Alone?”

“Oh.” Buffy looked back at Tara and nodded, almost apologetically. She hated to leave her, but unfortunately, Spike was right. They did need to talk. Tara gave her one last smile and left.

Buffy collected her thoughts. Stay calm. Make this work. “Okay, Spike, listen. About last night…”

“She doesn’t have a birthday.”

Buffy blinked. “Tara?”

“Your sister. She doesn’t have a birthday because she wasn’t born. Ergo, sweet sixteen, bit of a sore spot. That’s why she got all snippy with you. Well, one of the reasons, anyhow.”

“You talked to Dawn?” Buffy demanded. She wasn’t sure why that upset her, but it did.

“Well, was going to bite her neck, but it just seemed more decent.” He started walking, slowly, and she joined him. “I was at the house with Willow, right? Asked if the chip would prevent me fighting a hell-god host. She figured no. Anyway, I’m on my way out when Li’l Bit made a remark that I, in my professional opinion, found rather unkind.”

Buffy kept silent. Listening. The breeze on her face felt good.

“We got into it,” he continued. “She told me the what and the wherefore of the Ripped-Up Pillow Saga. I gather you two have had some friction the last couple days.”

“If by ‘days,’ you mean ‘months,'” Buffy sighed. “No matter what I say to her, it’s always wrong somehow.”

“Could try what I said. Tell her she’s a right stroppy little madam who doesn’t appreciate her sister workin’ a shite job all day and riskin’ her life every night to protect her. That if she wasn’t happy living with the woman what died on her account, she could ship off and bloody well try her luck in a Bulgarian orphanage.”

Buffy choked out a laugh, more from shock than anything else. “A Bulgarian orphanage?”

“Visited one in 1962. Horribly grim. Children all screamin’ and wailin’ and carryin’ on.” He turned his head. “To be fair, I had just eaten the director.”

“So what did she say?”

“Wanted to know what ‘stroppy’ meant. Inquisitive young woman. I ended up teaching her a number of words that – ” He saw Buffy’s look and cleared his throat. “Upshot being, she might be willing to talk now. If you want.”

Buffy thought over her last encounter with Dawn. “If I had said something like that…”

“It’s different for me, love. I’m not the one makin’ her do homework and remindin’ her to take vitamins. Gives me a tactical advantage.”

Apparently.

“Thanks,” Buffy said.

That was Spike’s gift: he saw past appearances, into the heart of things. He walked where others couldn’t go, said what they couldn’t say.

She knew this about him. Why did it keep surprising her?

“So, by last count, I was going to…” Buffy ticked the items off her fingers. “One, kill you, for yelling at Tara. Two, kick your ass, for trying to murder Mr. Callahan. Three, kiss you, for being kind of sweet, for a vampire. Four, fall on my knees to beg forgiveness for what I did last night. If you have a preference on the order…”

“Go back to the part about getting on your knees?”

She shoved him off the sidewalk. He stumbled back, grinning, but turned serious. “Slayer, you needed something, I had it, you took it. Bein’ a vampire, I know a little somethin’ about how that works. So you don’t kill me, I don’t report you for noise violations, we’ll call it even, yeah?”

Like it was no big deal. But she knew she had hurt him. Had he buried it that deep already? Or had he just felt so much pain in his life that he was used to it by now?

Buffy hooked her elbow around his arm. “Deal. But listen.” Stern now. “No more murders. Not for me, not for anybody. Understand?”

“Fine.”

“I mean it. This is important to me. I have to know you’re serious. Promise me.”

Spike was silent a long while.

“Promise,” he said finally.

He walked her the rest of the way home.

——

It was nearly eleven. Buffy stood in the doorway to Dawn’s room, watching her sleep. A patch of moonlight shone on her face, turning her cheeks pale, gleaming in her long hair. She looked so peaceful like this – as she had often looked before Mom died. Before Glory. Before everything went to hell.

If only they could have a few weeks of peace, maybe they could all get their problems sorted out. A little time between demons and robots and apocalypses to learn how to care for each other properly.

Or maybe it was the opposite. Maybe the constant, shared danger was the only thing holding them together.

Wasn’t that a thought.

A soft touch on her arm. “Hey, Willow,” she whispered.

“Hey. Talk to you for a minute?”

Buffy followed her back, flipped on the light. They both blinked at the sudden glare.

Mom’s old room.

One evening back in high school, as her normal life was crumbling around her, Buffy had crept in here and slept beside her mother all night. Just like she’d done as a little girl, during thunderstorms.

Now Mom was gone, and it belonged to Willow and Tara…minus Tara. Less cluttered now, to be honest. A couple of old math books on the shelf. A laptop where the vase had been. A postcard with a picture of a gnarled oak tree, from Giles.

Everything changed. But the warmth of old love still flickered here, in this room. Burning away the fog.

“You were out a long time,” Willow said. “Any news?” She still looked tired in her face, but she was sitting a little straighter, now.

Heh. Willow getting straighter. Who’d have thought?

“Yeah,” said Buffy, sitting on the bed. “Jim Callahan isn’t our guy.”

“What? How do you know?”

“I ran into him on patrol.”

“And?”

“And…” No way to avoid it. “Tara was with me.”

“Oh.” Willow took it stoically, crossed her arms. “Well, there must be some other man in the house that Spike hasn’t seen. That’s the only explanation. Someone will have to search the place.”

“‘Someone’ being the Slayer.” Buffy tapped her knee, thinking. “I’ll need an excuse to get inside. What can you tell me about the family?”

“Let me bring up some records.”

Willow pulled out the chair and fired up her laptop, fingers clattering over keys.

She transformed, when she was working like this. Eyes searching, mouth set, determined but calm. No longer shy, or awkward, or sad. Doing what she was born to do – like Buffy fighting, or Giles studying.

Or Spike hunting.

“Okay,” said Willow. “Jim Callahan, legally James, works at the Silcorp office here in Sunnydale. Member of the YMCA. Broke his left femur when he was twelve. Wife, Amanda Callahan, registered voter, pretty low credit score. Daughter, eight months old…”

She looked up from the screen, troubled. “Aaron Callahan.”

“Okay. So?”

“Not Erin. Aaron, with an A. It’s a baby boy.”

“What?” Buffy looked over Willow’s shoulder. “Spike said it was a girl.”

“How would Spike know?”

“He said…” She sat back down on the bed as she realized. “A pink nursery. He just assumed pink meant girl. But the parents could’ve…”

“Could’ve been too lazy to re-paint. Or open-minded on gender roles. Or a hundred other things. Point is…” They looked at each other. “Human male. That baby’s our host.”

Suddenly the room began to shake. Some coins and a magazine fell off Willow’s desk. Bits of plaster rained from the ceiling. The door rattled –

And it was over.

“Earthquake,” Willow muttered. “It’s going to happen soon.”

Buffy grabbed her wrist. “What?”

“I just found it in my reading tonight.” She rubbed her eyes. “Hadn’t told anyone yet. The earthquake is a harbinger of the hell-god’s emergence.”

“How much time do we have?”

“I don’t know. Hours. Maybe a day? It’ll be soon. There’ll be a second earthquake right before.”

Buffy nodded, thinking. Other worries melted away as she entered plan-of-attack mode. “Okay. I want you to call Tara. Tell her we need that extraction spell ASAP. We don’t have a couple days anymore. She has to get working tonight. Right now.”

Willow’s eyes widened. “You want…me to call her?”

“Yeah. You need to go over tonight, help her with the spell.” Not ideal, but it couldn’t be helped. She would have to see that.

But Willow was standing up, shaking her head. “Whoa, time out. You know I’m staying away from magic.”

“You don’t have to be Magic Girl. Just be Tara Research Helper Girl.”

“Okay, but.” She gave a worried laugh. “You don’t hire an alcoholic to work in a brewery.”

“You do if it’ll stop a hell-god from clobbering your friends.” Buffy could feel her impatience rising. She patted her friend’s shoulder. “Will, we don’t have time to argue. I need you to do this. Now.”

“But Buffy, we’re not…I mean, you know how things are with me and Tara these days. We haven’t…I mean we’re not…”

Buffy pounded the desk. “Then why don’t you skip the make-out session and get straight to work!”

Willow looked like she’d been slapped.

Buffy buried her face in her hands. Always yelling. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold…

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” Deep breath. “I know this is really hard for you. I know you’re tired. But if we don’t stop this thing in time…”

“No…you’re right,” Willow said quietly. “I get it. No matter what happens, we can’t let Tara get hurt again.”

Buffy took her hand and squeezed it once. “Or Willow.”

Willow squeezed back. “I’ll call.”

“And I’ll call Xander. When you two figure out that spell, it’s showtime, and we all need to be ready.”

“We should meet in the Magic Box,” said Willow. “Best place for casting something like this.”

“Got it.”

Willow reached for the phone, stopped. “What about Spike?”

Good question. She wanted him by her side, telling her not to worry, promising to mash and mangle anything that looked at her wrong. She wanted…

But the world didn’t work like that, did it?

“Nobody tells him what we’re doing,” said Buffy. “It’ll just be simpler that way. And don’t mention the earthquake thing to anyone. If they know it’s coming soon, they might do something stupid.”

“If I’m working with Tara – ”

“Tell her,” said Buffy. “Nobody else.”

Willow nodded, picked up the phone. Buffy left. She heard “Hey, it’s me,” faintly through the door behind her, uncertain but strong.

She stole another glance at Dawn, who had managed to sleep through the earthquake.

What kind of life am I giving you, Dawnie?

Then she crept back through the darkness into her room.

——

The ringing phone startled Buffy awake. Still dark. Her digital clock read 4:57. She hadn’t meant to sleep, but apparently…

“Hello?”

Tara’s voice. “It’s all ready. Head to the Magic Box. Xander and Anya are on their way. Willow and I need to grab a couple things, and then we’ll join you.”

She sounded…angry? No, not exactly. But her voice had a hard edge that Buffy had rarely heard before.

Good. She could use it.

“Roger,” Buffy said. “Great work, Tara.”

“We’ll see.”

Dial tone.

Buffy flipped on the light and glanced down at herself. Still in yesterday’s rumpled clothes. No shower. Probably looked like hell…yep. Thanks, mirror.

It would have to do.

She arrived at the magic shop first and found a seat at the back table. A minute later, footsteps. And voices. Very loud voices.

“How are we still having this conversation? Still?” Xander, wearing an outfit that had apparently been picked in the dark.

“Because you won’t give me a straight answer!” That would be Anya, shoes clacking on the wooden floor. “It isn’t about whether we do the garter toss or not. It’s about why you don’t want to. I know the real reason. You don’t think I know, but I do!”

Oh, good. This again. Buffy rubbed her neck, sore from the weird half-sleep she had gotten.

“Please,” Xander sighed. “Enlighten me.”

“It’s because you’re ashamed of me!”

She could actually see Xander doing a mental reboot. “What?”

“I’m not a real bride, am I? I’m just some strange demon girl you picked up. Good enough for keeping around the shop, but touching me? In front of other people? Forget it.”

“If that’s true, then why – ” He finally noticed Buffy, did a double take. Quieter now. “Hey, Buff. Don’t mind us.” She waved at him weakly, but he’d already turned back to Anya. “Possibly we could talk about this later?”

“Later,” said Anya. “That’s what you always say. We’ll talk about everything later.”

“So this is what you want?” Getting loud again. “You want to argue in front of our friends, now?”

“Right, of course. I forgot. You don’t want to do anything with me in front of our friends.”

Buffy picked up a book and pretended to read. They were quickly approaching maximum awkwardness.

“Anya – ”

“Just say it, Xander! Just admit you’re ashamed of me!”

“It’s not you I’m ashamed of!” he bellowed.

In the silence that followed, Buffy turned a page. Don’t mind me. Just reading my book.

“What?” Anya said at last, blessedly quiet.

“I hate my family,” said Xander. “They’re lazy, manipulative, disgusting, pathetic excuses for human beings.” He thought for a second. “Except Dennis. He’s cool. Look, the point is, I’m embarrassed to be related to them. As far as I’m concerned, they aren’t my family. You and the rest of the Scoobies, you’re my family.”

He ground his fist into his palm.

“And the idea – just the thought – of one of those leering, drunken half-wits putting his hands on some girl’s leg – if it were Willow, or Tara, or – or Buffy…” He shook his head. “They’re better than that. We’re better than that. I won’t do it, Anya. I won’t.”

Anya frowned, unfazed by his speech.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “You pull the garter off me. Why would anyone put anything on anyone’s leg?”

Xander blinked.

“That’s the tradition,” he said slowly. “I fling the garter, you toss the bouquet, and the garter-catcher puts it on the flower-catcher.”

“Oh.” She played with her fingers. “Well, that’s disgusting, and possibly sexual assault. I don’t want anything like that at our wedding.”

Another Xander reboot. This one took longer. He made a sort of choking sound that turned into a long, loud laugh.

They sat at the table together, and he took her hand.

“So,” he said to Buffy, “I hear we’re about to stomp a hell-god. Sounds like fun.”

“Tara’s going to expel it from the host and send it back to hell. There will be no stomping.” She pointed at both of them. “I mean it. Nobody’s killing him. We do this thing right, and if anybody goes rogue, I kick their ass.”

“So why are we here?” said Anya. “Not that I didn’t enjoy waking up nocturnally at your request.” She was even worse at fake-smiling than Buffy was.

“You and Xander will help me guard Tara while she does the spell. If anything goes wrong, we might be looking at a mightily pissed-off infernal deity. Oh! Hey Tara!”

Tara set a load of thick books on the table, followed by Willow, who had a cardboard box of supplies. Tara seemed frayed around the edges, but she had her war face on. Willow just looked exhausted.

Buffy pushed away the pangs of guilt. There was time for that later.

“Okay,” said Tara. “This will be complicated, so let’s get started. Willow’s going to make a Gaia Circle out of mistletoe on the table. Xander, grab that top book, you’re on chanting duty. I’ll be channeling the magic. Anya?”

She brightened. “Yes?”

“Don’t touch anything. I’ll get the Moonfire Pendant, which should be…” Tara scanned the desk drawers till she found the one labeled ‘Moonfire’ in Giles’ slender handwriting. “Here.”

Buffy was fighting off a yawn as she heard Tara say, “Oh.”

Tara held up the pendant. Only a few jagged shards of white stone remained in the copper setting.

“Oh,” Buffy agreed. “Um…please tell me it’s supposed to look like that?”

“Who could’ve done this?” Tara frowned. “I mentioned the Moonfire at our meeting last night. I said it would be important for the spell.”

Several pairs of eyes converged on Xander. He raised his hands defensively. “Hey, hey, don’t look at me! Tara and I may have had our differences, but I’m not so big on the sabotage.”

Anya scowled. “Neither of us would even consider damaging valuable shop merchandise. If anything, I would have hidden it, then put it up on eBay…”

Buffy was hardly listening. “Spike,” she said. “I have to go. Now. Tara, do the spell. Find a way.”

“But I can’t,” said Tara. “Not without the pendant. It’s crucial.”

“Find a way!” Buffy repeated, running for the door.

“Buffy, there isn’t any…!”

The door shut behind her, and she sprinted, concrete blurring beneath her feet.

——

Eight blocks later, Buffy reached 732 Elm Street. Slightly winded, lines of pain shooting up her legs, she dashed up the front walk. A black cloak lay on the porch, smelling faintly of smoke. Her heart knocked in her chest. The front door was already open.

Jim and Amanda Callahan lay sprawled on the hardwood floor just inside, in matching blue pajamas, unconscious but breathing. Buffy made a quick tour of the first floor, snapping off a chair leg to use as a stake.

She dashed upstairs. Master bedroom, spare room, guest bath…

Pink nursery.

There, in the crib, lay eight-month-old Aaron Callahan, sleeping soundly in a pastel onesie with a cow’s face on the front. Standing on the far side, looking down, holding a short steel sword, was Spike.

“‘Bout time you showed up,” he said, staring at the baby.

Buffy brandished her chair-leg-stake, still breathing hard. “So you figured it out.”

“You’re not the only one with an ear to the ground, love. When you know as many demons as I do, some are bound to have information.” He patted the blade on his palm. “Just have to know how to talk to ’em.”

He was calm. That scary kind of calm people got right before doing something crazy. Keep him talking.

“These people really invited you in?”

“Amazing how persuasive you can be with one of these.” He fished a police badge from his pocket. “Don’t worry, they’ll live. More than I can say for this little bugger. Kinda cute, though, ain’t he?”

“Spike, you do this, I’ll kill you.” She took a cautious step forward. “I mean it. No matter how we feel about each other, there’s a thin line, and you don’t cross it. If you do, my job description’s pretty clear. I don’t want to stake you, but I will.”

And she would. Something like this, it would be unpardonable. She would do it.

Wouldn’t she?

“And what a bleeding tragedy that would be.” He met her eyes, smiled grimly. “Death of a bloodthirsty serial killer. How will the world get by? Five-minute funeral and a ticker-tape parade. ‘I know you don’t miss him, but at least now he’s in a terrible place.'”

“It isn’t like that.” Another step forward. “I care about you.”

“Can’t bring yourself to say ‘love,’ can you? Not even now.” Spike held the sword up casually, examining the blade. “But there’s no reason you should. I’m a monster. We both know that. Kind of the reason we’re here, innit?”

“You’re not a monster.” Did she really believe that? Had she ever known, really, what he was? “Maybe you were once, but you’re not anymore.”

“Oh no?” He chuckled humorlessly. “You don’t get it, do you, Buffy? You think this is as far as I’d go? That it’s only random strangers I would kill?”

He rested the sword blade lightly on the crib. “Xander. Giles. Tara. Willow. Dawn. Rip their throats out and sleep like a baby, if it meant saving you. No wrong and right. No soul. No conscience. You’re it, Buffy. You’re all I have. I will not – lose you – again.”

Buffy felt the icy lump in her throat once more. She wanted to wrap her arms around him, to stroke his hair, even as her legs tensed up for attack. “Spike…”

“You’ll never love me, and you never should. You’re better than me. We both know that.” The bitterness drained away, and he was only talking now, merely sad. “I mean, let’s be honest. Where did we see this going? Wedding in a church? Filling out adoption papers – name, William the Bloody, occupation, vigilante? Coaching little league, joining the bloody PTA? Sippin’ a latte from a World’s Best Dad mug?”

He pointed the blade at the baby.

“Spike. No.”

“Can’t give you that dream, love. Only one thing I can do. Protect you when nobody else will. Then you dust me, I’m free of the pain, and you’re free to find somebody better. Three birds, one bloody stone.”

Buffy kept trying to put thoughts together, to find the words that would end this, make it all better. She was tired. Tired of arguing, tired of emptiness, tired of hurting people. And so, so tired of the pain.

“Please, Spike. Please, for me. If you love me, please put down the sword…”

The room shook. Earthquake.

For a split second, Spike was distracted. Buffy leaped clean over the crib and tackled him to the ground. The sword flew out of his hand and landed in the corner.

She punched him. He lay still on the floor, watching her with something like curiosity. With a rough wordless scream, she hit him again, and again…

A bright red light shone all around them. She turned and stared at the crib.

“Too late now,” mumbled Spike. “Another Glory. It’s all happening again.”

“No,” whispered Buffy. “Look.”

A hideous red creature – jagged horns and hooked claws and too many legs, but luminous, like a spirit – rose from the baby boy. No, not just rose. It was pulled.

“They did it.”

The creature was lifted up, up, to the ceiling. And then, with a final terrible shriek, it vanished.

The light disappeared. Silence. Only her, Spike, and the child.

Spike got to his feet with difficulty. His lip was bleeding a little. He shot her a sullen look and limped out of the room.

Buffy realized little Aaron Callahan was crying, awakened by the light and the noise. How long had he been crying?

She picked him up and held him against her shoulder. “Shh,” she whispered. “You’re safe now. Nobody’s going to hurt you. Shh, shh, shh…”

——

Buffy found the Magic Box empty but for Anya, who was behind the counter fiddling with the cash register.

“That was exciting,” Anya said brightly. “Did it work? I hope it worked. I don’t want any more armored knights running around Sunnydale willy-nilly, stabbing people and violating local traffic laws.”

“It worked,” said Buffy. “Where is everyone?”

“Well, Xander had to go, so that he could stay gainfully employed. Tara’s probably asleep in her dorm by now. And Willow is, um, there.”

Willow emerged from the bathroom. Her face looked damp, like she’d just washed it, and her eyes were red.

“Will, are you…?”

“I’ll be okay,” she said. Her hands were shaking. She put them in her pockets.

“Technically,” said Anya, “those restrooms are for paying customers only.”

Buffy glared at her. She held up her hands. “But of course I wouldn’t dream of asking my friends to follow the social norms that govern the rest of society.”

Buffy took Willow by the arms. “It worked. You and Tara, you did it. The spell worked.”

“I know.” Her voice quivered.

“How? Without the pendant…”

Willow took her hands out of her pockets again, played with them nervously. “The pendant’s not part of the spell. Not really. It’s just an amplifier. It pumps up a certain type of spiritual energy.”

“I don’t…I don’t understand.” Buffy had never been much good with the magic stuff. “Tara said it was crucial.”

“It is, and it isn’t,” said Willow. “The spell needs a ton of energy to work. So…” Playing with her hair now, trying to get the words out. “So you see, it’s actually pretty simple. You either need an amplifier, or…”

“…or a really powerful witch,” Buffy whispered. She hugged her friend tight. “Will, I am so sorry.” She sighed. “I’m saying that a lot lately.”

Willow shrugged weakly. “Well, I ripped you out of eternal bliss,” she sniffed, “so maybe we’ll call it a draw?”

“Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good.”

She wanted to ask about Tara, how their night had gone, what lay between them now. But not yet. There was time for that later.

“Come on,” said Buffy. “I’ll walk you home. I can stay with you all day. Get you anything you need.”

“Well…” Willow sniffed again. “I do like those mini dessert pizzas. With hot fudge and whipped cream and strawberries on top, like that one time?”

“Do those, uh, reduce the craving for magic?”

“Oh, yeah. They’re crucial. Ask anyone. Specially effective with blueberry sprinkles.”

Buffy smiled. “I never knew.”

——

By the time they got home, Willow seemed positively cheerful. Buffy knew she was still hurting, but it was a welcome change anyway.

“I’ll be upstairs,” said Willow.

“Okay.” Buffy thought of her magic addiction, the cravings she must be feeling. “Want some company?”

“I’ll, uh, just shower alone, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Ah,” Buffy said. “Right.”

She headed for the kitchen, where she found her sister getting a bowl from the cupboard.

“Dawn! Why aren’t you at school?”

Dawn cocked an eyebrow and pointed at the microwave, which read ‘6:04.’

“Oh. Wow. I, um.” Buffy rubbed her face. “Really thought it was later than that.”

Dawn set a carton of milk on the counter. “Isn’t that the same outfit you wore yesterday?”

“New fashion theory I’m testing. Clothes are like meatloaf, better on the second day.” She picked up Dawn’s bowl, now full of Choc-O’s, and dumped them in the trash. “That’s not food, Dawn, it’s flavored cardboard. Only not as healthy. Want me to make you some eggs?”

“I’ll just get some toast,” Dawn muttered.

“And have a banana.” Toast and a banana. That was sort of healthy, right?

Dawn got out a knife and began hunting in the fridge for something. “Still in Mom Mode twenty-four seven, huh?”

Buffy circled around the island to stand beside her sister. She thought of last night, the moonlight in Dawn’s hair, the soft tremors of her eyelids as she dreamed. The love beyond love she felt for this person, this piece of herself.

You will never, never understand, thought Buffy. And that’s okay. You don’t need to.

You’re my girl.

“Listen,” Buffy said gently. “I know you don’t like me right now. I know you don’t want to be friends. That’s all right. That’s your choice. But keeping you healthy, keeping you safe, that’s my job. That happens no matter what. Okay?”

Dawn shut the fridge door and faced her, margarine stick in hand. “Even if it means staying up all night fighting off some monster I’ll probably never hear about?”

“Even then.”

Not wanting to overdo it, Buffy gave her some space, tried to seem casual. Looking at the food, she suddenly realized it had been – how long? – far too long since she washed her hands. She pumped soap from the dispenser at the sink.

“Buffy?”

“Yeah, Dawn.”

“Sorry for being a bitch.”

Buffy gave her a small smile. “Sweetie. You’re not a bitch.” She rinsed her hands. “Maybe a little bitchy sometimes…”

Dawn crossed her arms. “To atone for my sins, I will allow you to take me shopping at Northbridge Mall, and to buy me lots of expensive clothes.”

“Mm. Like the firing squad, but worse.” Buffy peeled the sticker off a yellowish-red apple and bit into it. “I thought you were swearing off birthdays.”

“It doesn’t matter.” She shrugged. “I figure, nothing actually happened on December twenty-fifth, but Christmas is still fun, right?”

“So you would be Christ in this analogy?”

Buffy’s sister slung a backpack over her shoulder and stood up, toast in hand. “Gotta go.”

“Dawn!”

She dashed back into the kitchen. “What? What’s wrong?”

Buffy handed her a banana and kissed her forehead. “Love you.”

Dawn smiled and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah…” She was gone again.

Buffy stood in the empty kitchen all alone. Her feet still ached, her legs were sore, her knuckles hurt. She was dirty, sweaty, and almost too exhausted to move.

And she felt better than she had in weeks.

She bit into her apple and watched the sun rise.

——

That night Buffy slept fourteen hours straight. The following evening she patrolled again. And she was looking for one vampire in particular.

The crypt was darker than usual: only a few candles flickering in the gloom. A solitary figure sat slumped in a heavy upholstered chair. As she approached, she made out the glint of firelight on glass. He was holding a bottle of Jack Daniels, and an empty one lay on the floor.

“How drunk are you?” she said.

“Not bloody drunk enough.” Spike tipped his bottle upside-down to show that it, too, was empty.

She picked her way through the dark, bumping her shin on a dusty end table and narrowly avoiding what was either a metal coat rack or a medieval torture device. “Spike, listen, I…”

“Let me guess.” He leaned forward and set the bottle on the stone floor with a clink, giving her a better look at his drawn, pale face. “It’s not you, it’s me. We’ve been drifting apart for a while. You need some space. You think we should see other people. And you hope we can still be friends, or possibly shag.” He grimaced. “Save you the trouble, love. Did the math already. I can bloody figure it out.”

Dramatic as ever, but he sounded sober enough. She decided to go ahead with it.

“Spike, I got you something.”

“Squirt gun full of holy water?”

“I got you a present.”

He studied her warily. “Pretty weird start to a breakup. At least, judging by how they do it in Passions.”

“It’s not a breakup,” Buffy said softly. She handed him the present: round and flat with a handle on one side, covered in slightly torn wrapping paper. “Here.”

He took it. “It’s shaped like…Buffy, this better not be a bloody mirror.”

“Open it.”

Spike tore off a piece of the wrapping, revealing a bit of reflective glass.

“Oh, for God’s – it’s a bloody mirror. What did I just say?”

“Open. It.”

Muttering a string of half-intelligible curses, he ripped off the rest of the paper, held it up – and stared.

For a long moment he could only look. Finally, eyes still on the mirror, he whispered, “How?”

“I had the idea two days ago.” She pulled up a wooden chair and sat across from him. “I called Tara and she figured out a way. Did the spell myself. Pretty straightforward, actually.” She leaned forward. “Do you like it?”

“Buffy, I’ve never…” He was turning his head, looking at different angles. “Photos, yes, but never like this, in all my years. Not since I was human…thank you.” He squinted and looked closer. “You never told me I had something in my teeth. How’d that get there? I don’t even eat.”

“You’re welcome,” she said quietly.

He set it down on the stone lid of a tomb behind him. “Buffy. Why?”

She studied him: his intelligent blue eyes; his hands, so soft, and so hard; and hidden inside him, a still and silent heart that was hers alone.

“I want you to see what I see, Spike. You’re a good man.”

He snorted. “That right? William the Baby-Killer, Champion of the People?”

“You’re not a baby-killer.” He raised an eyebrow, but she waved him away. “Not in the last week, anyway. You had plenty of time to kill that boy before I arrived. But you didn’t. You waited.”

Spike’s eyes fell. “Wasn’t compassion, love. Not for the child, anyhow. I just…knew what it would do to you, havin’ your life at that price.” He looked up. “But I still woulda done it, so don’t be puttin’ me up for the Nobel soddin’ Peace Prize.”

“Spike…” Tell him. Tell him. Tired of darkness, tired of fog. “After you left, I picked him up. Cradled him in my arms. Looked down at that beautiful baby boy. And you know what I thought?” She gave him a sad smile. “If it came down to him or Dawn, I’d pick up the sword and do it myself.”

“Buffy…”

“And his parents? Do you think there’s anything in this world they wouldn’t do to keep that boy safe? We all love somebody, Spike. Round and round it goes.”

“Not the same,” he muttered. “Not the same and you know it.”

“We are what we are,” said Buffy. She was starting to sound like Giles. Or maybe Popeye. “I still want you, Spike.”

He jumped to his feet, backed away. “You sayin’ those things, gettin’ my hopes up…No. It ain’t right. You’ll never love me, ’cause I don’t have a soul. This thing we’re doing, it’s impossible.”

“Yeah. Impossible.” She bowed her head thoughtfully. “I’ve been thinking a lot about that, these past couple days. About impossible.”

He was standing outside the circle of light, now. But her eyes must have adjusted to the dark, because she could see him just fine. The fear on his face, like a prisoner awaiting a sentence.

“Here’s what I think,” said Buffy. “I think you’re a Victorian-age vampire who’s had sex with a robot. I think I’m a superhero who’s been resurrected twice. My one-year-old sister is about to get her driver’s license. My best friend is a lesbian witch who’s slept with a male werewolf. The closest man I have to a father has killed a god with his bare hands. And I have personally watched the mayor of my city turn into a hundred-foot-tall snake.”

She got up and walked to him, took his hands. “So by this point,” she said, “I think impossible is sort of relative. Don’t you?”

He didn’t answer. Candlelight flickered in his eyes.

She kissed him.

“Pah!” She spat. “You smell like booze.”

“Probably because I’ve been drinking booze.” He cradled the nape of her neck, his hand cool against her skin. Her lips parted. “You sure about this, love?”

“No,” she whispered. “Is that okay?”

He caressed her cheek, closed his eyes, and kissed her.

That, she decided, was a good enough answer for now.

Why Didn’t You Tell Me?

Why Didn’t You Tell Me is a short Buffy fan fic, 2,500 words, written in January 2015.

The story is set during Season 5 of Angel. Spike is corporeal and living in an apartment in L.A. He’s teamed up with Lindsey, who is now calling himself Doyle.


Knock, knock, knock.

Early evening. Spike ignored the noise. Probably Doyle stopping by with another of his bloody homework assignments. Not that Spike minded saving people – it was even sort of nice in a sappy, human kind of way – but he didn’t care to leap up like a lapdog every time he was summoned. Didn’t want to give the smug prick the satisfaction.

Besides, he had more urgent matters.

The purple dragon on the screen was called Spyro – like Agnew, only better-looking and spelled differently. He leaned forward on the couch, squinting, clutching the plastic controller. You tapped the jump button twice to glide, and he could make it to the first platform, but the second was blocked by that bloody –

KNOCK. KNOCK.

He sat up straight. That had rattled the door on its hinges. Another knock like that, and he’d no longer have a door.

That wasn’t Doyle.

Spike got up, stepped over the mostly-empty pizza box on the floor, and made his way to the source of the noise. “All right,” he shouted. “Whatever demon, vampire, demigod, android, or upstart pipsqueak Slayer wants a piece of William the Bloody, they’d better make it quick, ’cause I’m almost to the next level and I haven’t got time for – ”

He opened the door. Words died.

It was her.

Serious green eyes under dark lashes, blond hair drawn back behind her. Frowning. Arms crossed.

“Buffy.”

Quietly: “Hey, Spike.”

The silence stretched between them as they stared, disbelieving, taking each other in. Come on, Spike. Conversation. Banter. Say something.

She beat him to it. “Upstart pipsqueak Slayer?”

“Was talkin’ about those Potential girls. Didn’t mean you, love.” The last word tumbled out unbidden, natural as air. But if she noticed, she didn’t react.

“Can I come in?”

As she walked by, the scent of her crested him like a wave. Vampire senses.

First was the blood – always, always the blood, pumping hot beneath her skin, pounding under her ribs, begging him even now for a taste of her throat.

Then, the smell of salt. Sweaty palms? Was she nervous? Hell, was he?

A tangle of other things: coconut shampoo, some kind of conditioner, clean feminine deodorant. No perfume, but a faint whiff of mint toothpaste, and the half-fresh, half-noxious aroma of fabric softener. Human smells. Girl smells. The kind of things you miss when you spend your nights traipsing through sewers, hacking off demon parts.

And last of all, subtle but unmistakable, a nameless scent, a smell that was not blood or sweat or anything extra but only her, nothing but Buffy, perfect and whole.

You will never know, he thought, what you do to me. Denim jacket and jeans, that innocent white sweater, strands of hair nestled on your neck. You think you’re just a person, just a Slayer. You’ll never understand – not even if I told you.

She was looking at him now, fingers resting lightly on his couch. Waiting. She’s said something – waiting for an answer. Snap out of it, Spike.

“Come again?”

“The apartment. I said it’s an upgrade from the crypt.”

“Well. That’s how they advertised it in the paper. ‘Better than a cold stone room for rotting corpses.’ Couldn’t say no.” He smirked. She didn’t smile – not even a little. “Wonder what ever happened to the old place. If some little ponce with fangs is kickin’ back in my…”

Buffy was looking at her shoes.

“Oh. Right,” he said. “Old habits, I s’pose.” The crypt was gone, of course. Sunnydale was a crater. They had done it together.

Soft video game music still poured cheerfully from the TV. He picked up the remote and tapped it off. The silence grew heavier.

“Get you anything? I have…” He stopped. “Don’t suppose you’d fancy a pint of pig’s blood, extra plasma. Tap water, then? Nice and cold. I have a glass in the kitchen. I think.”

She smiled, short and fake. That’d be a no, then.

“Right,” he said.

They stood on opposite sides of the big red couch. Dim light of a single bulb. He stuck his hands in the pockets of his black leather jacket – a Slayer’s jacket. Old and familiar. Good to remind himself he had it, at a time like this.

He didn’t know what to say, what to think. Couldn’t think. Just needed to keep hearing her voice. “So you’re in Europe these days? Madrid, last I heard.”

“It’s Lisbon now.”

“Lisbon?” He started walking slowly around the couch, toward her. He hardly knew what he was saying. Just had to get closer. “Hell of a town, if you hit the right places. There’s a pub in Alfada that does buy-twenty-shots, get-one-shot-free. But only if you speak Portuguese, the bastards.”

Closer. Had to smell her again. See the little reflections in her green eyes. Hear her breathing. Smell, see, hear. Touch, taste…only a few feet away now. “‘Course, that was back when the airplane was still the pipe dream of some sodding colonial. These days it’s probably all – ”

“Why didn’t you tell me.” Not a question. A command.

He stopped. Any closer and she’d start backing away, and he couldn’t bear that.

“Was gettin’ around to it.” Casual. He didn’t like getting orders. Not even from her.

Her arms crossed again, her jaw shifted. “You’ve been back, what? A month? Six weeks? Didn’t have time to pick up a telephone?” She raised an arm at the TV. “I can see how busy you’ve been.”

He’d missed even this: the arguments, the emotion, anything that peeled back the barriers and got him closer to the real Buffy. He heard his own voice get louder. “For your information, I haven’t exactly had an easy go of it. Didn’t even have a bleeding body at first, nearly got pulled into hell, and then apparently I’m part of some prophecy that says I’ll be pushing up the daisies, or possibly not, who knows? And oh, hey, bit of a side job fighting evil every night!”

“Oh, wow. My mistake.” Hands on her hips. “Resurrection’s a bitch, huh? If only I had some idea what you were going through.”

“Hey, when you got ripped out of heaven, you weren’t exactly in the mood to – ”

“But I did!” She stabbed a finger against her chest. “I helped Willow. I took care of Dawn. I was there for the people I loved because that’s what we do!”

He turned, walked away a few steps, turned back. The tightness in his throat was anger. That heavy feeling in his stomach, that was probably his conscience. His soul had been nothing but trouble since he got it.

He took a deep breath. Tried to calm down.

“I didn’t mean it to be like this.”

“Didn’t mean it,” she said. Eyes wide, jaw clenched, the kind of look that made a bloke wonder if his insurance policies were up to date.

“Do you know how I had to find out, Spike?” A short, disbelieving laugh. “I’m beating information from a greasy little two-bit Ka’lach demon in a back alley in Spain. He says something about a vampire with a soul – the blond one with the black trenchcoat. Spike’s dead, I told him. No, he says, the vampire’s back. Living in L.A. Has been for a while.”

He pressed a palm to his forehead. “Buffy…”

“That’s impossible, I thought. Can’t be.” She was almost screaming at him now. “He would tell me. He cares about me. He wouldn’t let me curl up in the dark, night after night, feeling like somebody ripped half my chest out, if he were still alive somewhere, sitting on a sofa and eating Cheetos!” Now her head was tilted, her eyes shining, and a voice that tried hard to be furious was cracking with agony. “Why didn’t you tell me, Spike?”

Part of him wanted to hold her, apologize, make everything better – but somehow that only made him angrier. What did he owe her? After all he’d done? And now she walked into his place, twisted his heart like a wet rag, and had the gall to start telling him off?

A hard edge entered his voice.

“Was gettin’ around to it.”

The room whirled. Colored galaxies rushed across his vision. Her fist felt like a brick where it hit his jaw. He’d forgotten how bloody fast she was.

Now that’s more like it, he thought. This, he understood. Caress of adrenaline pulling him into the dance. How many women on earth could do that to him? She was strong – but no, it was more than that. She was a killer, a predator, like him – but a girl, too. Heavy breath, blood screaming, soft pink lips and an arm like a freight train.

He wanted her. Even more than usual.

Spike feinted left, roundhouse right. Her cheek stung his knuckles. She reeled, stumbled back, righted herself. Back into fighting stance. They sized each other up. Another round? Come on, love. Show me what you’ve got.

Abruptly, she laughed. Somewhere between a that-joke-is-funny laugh and a just-got-a-flat-tire-in-Death-Valley laugh. She dropped her hands. He did the same, and couldn’t help chuckling in return.

“Just like old times, eh, Slayer?”

She circled to the front of the couch and sat down, hands pressed between denim-clad knees. He joined her. Felt better after their little fight. She deserves an answer, he thought. She deserves that much, at least.

He stared at the blank TV.

“The first time I lost you,” he began, then stopped, swallowing. Voice quiet and tight. “They put you in the ground. And I learned that I had never felt pain before.” He shook his head. “Not really. Not like that.”

Eyes straight forward, not trusting himself to look at her yet.

“But I got on with it. The empty place inside you, it screams and it claws, but it doesn’t kill. I did the patrols, watched over Dawn. She was all I had left of you. I got on with my life. Guess you know a little somethin’ about that.”

He rubbed his fingers together absently. “Five months of that, Buffy. Five months before you came back, and I learned that I had never felt joy before. Not really. Not like that.”

Spike hazarded a glance in her direction, but she was looking down, face unreadable.

“Then I lost you again. My own fault, naturally. Could never have you without a soul. It tore me apart. Made me do the craziest thing I’ve ever done. Then I found my way back into your arms, and you made me whole again.”

He picked up a stainless steel bottle opener, played with it mindlessly. Voice still soft. He’d never finish otherwise.

“When I put on the amulet, I lost you a third time. And I remember thinking: at least it’s over now. At least I’ll be dead, and there’ll be no more pain for me.” His mouth twisted into a sad smile. “But here we are.”

He set the bottle opener back down.

“I wanted to tell you, Buffy. I did. But this game we’re playing, on and off, on and off…” Despite his best efforts, the words were getting shaky now. “It’s not like flipping a light switch, you know?”

“Yeah. I get that,” she said quietly, meeting his eyes. “Kind of the whole reason for the shouting and the punching before.”

God, but she was beautiful.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” said Spike, grimacing at how domesticated he sounded, but still meaning every word. “I truly am.”

Buffy’s hands moved nervously over her thighs, and she gave him a small, half-embarrassed smile. Her first genuine warmth all night. “I’m sorry I hit you in the face.”

“Oh, that.” He smiled back. “If I don’t get clocked upside the head at least once, well, pretty boring evening, innit?”

And then slowly, as if approaching a wild animal, he reached out to her.

Astounding. They’d done things to each other’s bodies that would make a sailor blush, but this simple act still made him feel like a junior on Prom Night.

He cupped her cheek in his palm. Felt her warm skin, strands of her hair. She was so soft. Sometimes, she could be hard as cold iron, but at times like this…

She closed her eyes, drew a ragged breath, and ever so gently nuzzled his hand. His blood rushed to all sorts of places.

Then she took his fingers, pulled them back down, and held them.

“Spike, what I said down in the Hellmouth, right before…right before the end.” She took a deep breath. “It was true. You said you didn’t believe me, but it was true.”

The smoothness of her hands. The gentle flicker of her eyelashes. His voice was barely above a whisper. “I know.”

“Well, the normal response in polite circles is ‘I love you, too.’ Not that spare-her-feelings crap you pulled.” Forceful, but she didn’t look angry.

“I love you, too.” He stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. “I never stopped loving you. Since I first understood the meaning of the word, it’s always been you.” Spike met her eyes again. “That’s the easy part, you know. Out of this whole tangled mess of us, that’s the one piece I never had to wonder about. Rain is wet; a compass points north; and I love Buffy Summers.”

A slow smile crept across her face. She reached up and ran three fingers through his hair. Her touch sent a tiny chill into his scalp. “How many times have you practiced that little speech?”

“Can’t exactly go out for a pint when you’re a ghost, can you? Bloke’s gotta do something to pass the time.”

“It worked,” she whispered.

He began to lean forward, and slowly, with exquisite care, she did the same. Her hand fell to his shoulder. He reached inside her jacket, felt the fuzzy wool of the sweater on her slim waist. Her smile had gone, and now there were only her lips, parted, waiting.

He kissed her. Slowly at first, and then more urgently. Eyes shut, nothing but the taste of her mouth, the scent of her desire. His fingers slipped under wool and found the heat of bare skin. Senses melted together, he felt himself disappear, and there was only her, only Buffy, perfect and whole.

Finally she finished and pulled back a little, eyes searching. “What are you doing tonight?”

“Well…” He gave the matter some deliberation. “Don’t know if you’ve ever tried your hand at Playstation before…”

She shoved him nearly off the couch, then pulled him back for another kiss. A distant part of his brain wondered about the structural integrity of the couch – and, for that matter, the entire building.

Then the question drifted away, and he was finished with conscious thoughts for a while.

Two Yellow Dogs

A poem I wrote in August 2006.


When sitting at your desk, exhausted, mad
Already wishing that your work was done
And thinking of the awful day you’ve had
And hearing, “If you know your name, press one,”
Remember that two dogs at home await –
Two tails that droop, but soon will come alive –
Two noses sniffing just above the gate
The moment you first pull into the drive.

There’s Misty – she’s the one who looks depressed
Our martyr dog, perpetually abused
Who gives each midnight bark her very best
And aerates briefly when she gets confused.
She grunts and groans for manatee effect
And droops her tail to mourn her doggy plight –
And though no one has called her circumspect,
She saves us from the boogers every night.

There’s Brandy, in her finest regal pose –
She sometimes barks (but only when it’s real)
She follows Dad no matter where he goes
And helps her sister finish every meal.
Arlene says Brandy’s beautiful – it’s true,
She likes to let her pretty hairs roam free
And when she whines, she’s only asking you
To let her O – U – T – S – I – D – E.

Two yellow dogs, each morning when you rise
Two yellow dogs, each evening still awake
And certainly two pairs of hopeful eyes
To watch each bite of supper that you take.
So go to meetings, get your daily fill
Of those reports you’d really rather burn
But as you do, remember, there are still
Two yellow dogs awaiting your return.

Excerpt from Pandora’s Gift

Pandora’s Gift is an absurd novella, 18,000 words long, written in 2006.


A short, stocky man with a curly goatee sat behind the desk, scribbling away furiously. When they arrived, he looked up, and the pen stopped abruptly.

“Ah,” he said.

He wrote a few more lines over a yellowing scrap of parchment, set it aside, and looked up again.

“Welcome,” he said.

“Hi,” said Pablo. “Who are you?”

“My name is Lucifer,” said the man.

“You mean Satan?” said Ryan.

“Did I say Satan? Did I look at you and say, Hi, my name is Satan? No? Well.”

“But like, are you the Lucifer?” pressed Pablo. “Angel, fell from grace, took over Hell, signed a book deal with John Milton, sued Dante for libel? The Devil?”

“Damn straight,” said Lucifer. “Look, that’s not really what I’m here to talk about. We need to be moving on. Now, you see that gate in front of you – ”

“Is this Hell?” asked Ryan.

“Do you see Oprah Winfrey here?” snapped Lucifer.

“No…”

“Then it’s not Hell, is it?”

“What’ve you got against Oprah?” said Pablo.

“Listen,” said Lucifer, leaning forward in his chair (and making it squeak), “there are three things I hate: Jews, Asian-Americans, and black women.” He leaned back again and sneered. “How do you like them apples?”

Ryan thought about it.

“You don’t seem that evil.”

“I’m the one who caused the Black Death.”

“Not impressed.”

“I’m the one who wrote the script for Batman and Robin.”

“Nope.”

“I’m the one who canceled Earthbound 64.”

Ryan’s eyes narrowed. “You bastard.”

“Like I was saying,” continued Lucifer, “there’s this gate in front of you. The gate leads to the first of two challenges that you must pass before you can gain entrance to the Inner Sanctuary, where you will find Pandora’s Gift. Both challenges are most difficult! None have yet succeeded!”

“Two challenges,” said Pablo. “I bet they just happen to correspond to some particular talent that each of us has, so that we get through them by harnessing our strengths, and we all learn a lesson about friendship.”

“Stfu,” said Lucifer. “Go through the stupid gate.”

“Hey Lucifer,” said Ryan, “how come you’re not in Hell?”

“Are you serious?” he answered, returning to his paperwork. “Hell sucks.”

They went through the stupid gate.