The longer Willow sat in the kitchen, the more desperate she became to find out what was happening upstairs. Almost before she realised what she was doing, she was outside Buffy's door, ear pressed against the wood.
Just as embarrassment was starting to win out over curiosity, Willow heard a single cry. It was so achingly desolate she could hardly believe it came from Buffy. A low rumble of words followed it – too quiet for her to make out – and then muffled weeping.
That was when she remembered Buffy's nightmares.
With a guilty start, she jerked away from the door.
Tonight was the second night she'd failed to offer to sit up with Buffy, failed to make her sleepy tea or a ward against bad dreams.
Willow dug her fingers into the still-dark bruises at her shoulder and hip from when she'd been thrown across the room on Friday night.
Twice now she'd failed her best friend and Spike had stepped into the vacuum.
Willow put her ear back against the door. But no matter how hard she strained, their voices were still too quiet for her to make out the words. A resounding "No!" from Buffy suddenly lifted above the unintelligible murmuring; then more back-and-forth that Willow couldn't follow; and finally … Spike laughing?
Frustrated, Willow muttered an incantation and drew her finger in a wide circle on the door. With a shimmer, the area inside the circle became a sort of one-way window, allowing Willow to see and hear, but without revealing her presence.
Buffy was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed, and Spike was lying on his back alongside her, knees drawn up, bare feet firmly planted.
He was making the whole bed shake with his laughter while Buffy stared at him in shocked disbelief.
Willow couldn't believe how normal and comfortable and domestic they looked.
Then Buffy slapped his shoulder. "Quit it!" she whispered fiercely. "I'm being serious!"
Spike barely reacted, so it couldn't have been very hard. But Willow couldn't understand why she hadn't hit him harder – he was laughing at her. How could he do something so cruel?
Spike stopped laughing with visible difficulty, propping himself up on his elbows and bumping one knee lightly against Buffy's shoulder before letting it rest there. "How can someone so smart be so stupid?" he said gently. "Hey?"
Buffy glared at him.
"Everything you do is for love. Everything."
Willow frowned. What on earth can they talking about?
"No it isn't!" Buffy said, high-pitched and indignant.
"You can't connect to Dawn because you're terrified of hurting her again. Unbelievably bloody stupid of you and cutting you both to ribbons – but still done out of love." Spike gave her a gentle shove with his knees, the movement making the mattress dip, pushing them even closer together.
"An' if you didn't love your precious Slayerettes so much, the first thing you'd've done was beat them all to a bloody pulp for what they did to you," Spike's voice went hard and cold.
What we did? What have we ever done to – oh. Right. Coffin.
"It's what's right," Buffy said firmly, shoving his legs away from her. "Nothing to do with love."
"All that morality rot is far too complex for where you're at right now."
"And where is that?"
"Grievin'," he said softly. "Numbing yourself to cope with the loss."
Both Buffy and Willow reeled back as if slapped in an almost perfectly synchronised movement, but for entirely different reasons.
What could Buffy be grieving about?
Willow lost focus on the scene before her, entirely absorbed by the question.
Only Buffy heard Spike say, "I will always love you. Nothin' can change that."
Willow watched him sit up and reach one hand out toward Buffy. "I am yours," he said, cupping her face with his palm, stroking back and forth along her cheekbone with his thumb. "Eyeballs to entrails," he whispered slowly, trailing a line from her cheek, around her jaw, and down her neck to the hollow of her throat, from her breastbone to her belly before letting his hand drop into her lap.
Willow was so busy being revolted by the imagery, she completely missed the way Buffy leaned into his hand, how she shivered at his touch, and the hunger in her eyes as they followed his hand down her body.
Satisfied that what was going on with Buffy and Spike was mostly talking, Willow shut the magical window, and dragged herself back to bed. Tara, asleep and blissfully unaware, curled up against her, limbs and lips drowsily welcoming her back.
But Willow couldn't relax into her touch. Her mind was too loud, thoughts racing too fast.
She gave in to an attack of the guilts for a long time, wallowing in self-pity and self-recriminations.
Maybe Giles was right and I am out of control?
But on the heels of that thought, Willow had a sudden epiphany: it had all started going wrong when her resurrection spell was interrupted.
If only I'd finished it. If only I could just go back to Tuesday night … I'd make everything right again.
The nebulous beginnings of a plan started to form in her mind, but then Dawn's alarm was going off, and Willow realised she'd better try to get at least a couple hours' sleep, or she'd never be able to get through the day.
Breakfast with Dawn was usually the highlight of Spike's day, the time when he felt most connected, least alone. But this morning … her alarm felt jarring instead of welcoming, like the rude interruption to a beautiful dream that it was.
Buffy's scent and warmth and limbs were wrapped around him and suffusing his senses, and all he wanted to do was pull her closer, lose himself in the feel of her skin, her scent, her softness. To bask in her sunshine for as long as she'd let him.
But Dawn came first. Had to. It surprised him that it didn't even feel like a choice – it was just something that was.
So he started disentangling himself from Buffy and the nest of covers they'd built. But oh, god it was hard. Touching her was like an addiction, complete with all the agonies of withdrawal.
"What kinda vamp are you?" Buffy asked muzzily, sleep-heavy arms still draped around him. "S'posed to sleep now."
"Dawn needs to get ready for school, Love," Spike said, reluctantly placing her arms back on the bed.
Buffy curled away from him and mumbled something into the pillow. Her hair spread out behind her head all warm and shining, like golden rays of sunshine.
"You could get up, too," Spike said, kneeling next to her, threading his belt back through his jeans and only just keeping his fingers from threading through her hair. "Have breakfast with us?"
"Don't wanna," Buffy whined, resolutely keeping her eyes shut.
He watched her burrow back under the duvet until only the crown of her head was visible. Only when her breathing had evened out, and she was all the way asleep again, did he allow himself to lightly brush his fingertips through her hair.
He left his socks and boots behind – certain if he stayed long enough to put them on, he'd never be able to drag himself away.
Tara woke first, with Willow's head nestled between her breasts, one hand fisted in her hair, the other clutching at her hip, their legs tangled together.
"Willow, we need to talk," she said softly, stroking her fingers through Willow's hair.
"I know," Willow mumbled sleepily. "But … not yet. Please?"
"What's wrong, Sweetie?" Tara asked. Willow was clinging to her like a child. It wasn't like her.
"I need you, Tara," Willow whispered. "So much."
"I'm not going anywhere," Tara said, bewildered but still smiling.
Willow nuzzled against her, needing to be together for a little bit longer.
When it was like this, she could forget that Tara's continued love and affection had been bought and paid for by a spell.
For a little while, anyway.
Her resolve strengthened. She couldn't go on like this.
"Anya?" Giles called out. "What do you know about protection spells?
He'd been in the Magic Box for hours now. Disappointingly, although he'd found a wealth of protection spells, all the ones with real power behind them seemed either to be geared against physical harm, or else they were far too specific.
At least if the Hordes of Astaroth ever rise again, I know exactly where to go.
And every spell he'd found against more generic magical interference was so weak as to be useless against someone of Willow's powers.
"I know I used to brute force past them a lot," Anya said blandly, leaving the counter to join Giles at the research table.
Giles sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
"It's about Willow, isn't it?" Anaya said. Then she gasped. "Is this to do with how she interpreted 'Vino de Madre'? It was virgins, wasn't it!" Anya looked almost exultant now. "I told Xander she looked guilty."
"She's not that far gone yet!" Giles snapped. He slumped back in his chair. "She called a fawn to her magically," he said quietly, "and then she slit its throat."
"If she's already on that path," Anya said, shrugging "it's a question of when not if."
"Perhaps," Giles said wearily. "I have asked some friends to investigate the possibility of binding her powers for a time."
Anya's eyes opened wide. "She doesn't know that, does she?"
"No, no," Giles said soothingly. "I phoned very late last night. She was fast asleep."
"Good," Anya said, visibly relieved. "When Willow gets angry, she has a tendency to take it out on everyone. And I really don't want to have to pay for your indiscretions."
"Thank you, as ever, for your support, Anya," Giles said.
She smiled brightly. "You're welcome."
Willow was physically present at her morning lectures, but her mind was completely occupied with fleshing out her Plan to Make Things Right.
The first step was supplies.
Willow picked the lunchtime rush to go to the Magic Box. She could hardly tell Anya about her Plan, so she would need to be sneaky.
She knew she couldn't use much magic to hide herself – she'd heard Anya say more than once that she could still sorta smell it – but a blurring spell should be safe enough. Just the barest smidgeon of help to blend into the crowd that little bit better….
Her heart leapt into her throat when she saw Giles through the shop window. But while she was busy panicking, he walked straight past her and into the sandwich shop three doors down.
She couldn't believe her luck.
Willow whispered under her breath as she followed someone through the door and crept round the edges of the shop, keeping at least one person between her and Anya's direct line of sight at all times.
She heaved a sigh of relief as she closed the basement door behind her. It was all going exactly as she'd hoped.
There were two bags of Lethe's bramble in the herb stores: one with just a few ounces left, and one full and unopened. Even though Willow only needed three sprigs – well, maybe four – she put the open bag straight into her backpack. Just in case.
She was two steps away from the front door and freedom when the man next to her sneezed. Before she could stop herself she had stopped her blurring incantation to say, "Bless you!"
Anya's head snapped up at the familiar voice. "Willow!" she called out. "What are you doing here?"
Willow couldn't control the guilty expression on her face.
Anya's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
Willow could feel her knees getting weak as her mouth helplessly opened and shut a few times. What can I say?
Then suddenly police sirens filled the air, and everyone was rushing outside to see what was going on, pulling Willow with them.
According to the hubbub on the street, some guy in a Halloween mask had just robbed a bank.
Willow sent up a short prayer to Goddess on behalf of her fellow thief and went back to campus to meet Tara for lunch.
Buffy came home exhausted, every nerve raw and jangling.
Anya had told her she could safely spend any change from the thousand dollars Spike had given her for a new TV.
Well, actually what she'd said was that Buffy desperately needed new clothes, because she was so thin now she looked like some kind of dwarfish yet weirdly fashion-oblivious professional model. And that she and Dawn probably wouldn't starve to death if none of Spike's TV money got spent on bills.
But the end result was the same.
So a new TV would be arriving sometime tomorrow between two and six, and she had new things to unpack.
If she hadn't known better, Buffy would have thought it felt like a moment of … happiness.
Whatever goodwill there had been at the outset of the search for the Buffy-bot had been well and truly worn out by the end of it.
Buffy's shopping expedition had already depleted her conversational ability, and the near-constant futile battle for her monosyllabic attentions from Dawn, Willow and Xander was nothing but exhausting for everyone.
Meanwhile, Spike and Anya's passive-aggression toward Willow was like accelerant to a flame. Although Giles was relieved they'd managed to hold themselves back from direct confrontation, Anya was watching her so obviously even Xander picked up on it, and Spike's progression from icy silence to cruel civility to bitter sniping was so far from tactful it hurt.
Only Tara seemed to be genuinely trying to keep the peace. But she was powerless against seven such determined combatants.
For while Giles would very much like to say he'd behaved better, he knew he hadn't. Not really.
If they'd found some trace of the bot, it might have eased things somewhat. But they hadn't.
So they all trooped back to Revello Drive in an irritable silence, then organised drinks and chairs and snacks to put off for a few more minutes the discussion that would force them to finally acknowledge there was nothing more they could do: the bot was gone.
As Dawn passed through the hallway to get a glass of juice and Giles was bringing two chairs through from the dining room, the front door knob started twisting and turning.
They both stopped to stare at it.
Confused, Dawn asked, "Are we expecting someone?"
Then the door exploded inwards, shards of wood flying, knocking Dawn backwards and onto the floor.
As a roaring and irate M'Fashnik demon stepped across the threshold, Dawn started screaming.
The M'Fashnik casually backhanded Giles, sending him headfirst into the banister and knocking him out cold. Then, kicking the chairs out of his way, he turned back towards Dawn, still screaming on the floor. "You're not the Slayer," he growled. "But you'll do for a start." He lunged for her, but before he got there, Buffy had grabbed his shirt and yanked him away.
"You're paying for that door, buddy!" Buffy said, throwing him back across the hallway and into the living room. She was grateful there was still no rug or coffee table, because it meant the demon slid straight across the hardwood floor and slammed head-first into the wall.
"Dawn!" Spike shouted. "Your room, NOW! An' bar the door behind you!"
Dawn stopped screaming and scrambled to get upright while Tara, Willow, Xander and Anya ran around the momentarily stunned M'Fashnik and into the hallway.
"I vote Dawn's room!" Xander said. The others nodded. He and Anya took Giles' shoulders and Willow and Tara grabbed his feet, and the six of them got upstairs as quickly as they could.
The demon flipped to his feet, roaring again. "You've cost me, Slayer," he growled, waving his meaty fists in the air, completely oblivious to the damage he was doing to the shelf of knickknacks behind him and Joyce's now-smashed Tiffany lamp.
"I cost you?" Buffy said incredulously. "That was a designer lamp, ya mook!"
Then he launched himself at Buffy with a flying tackle, crash landing them both on the dining room chairs in the hallway. The chairs buckled under their combined weight, and since Buffy was on the bottom, she bore the brunt of the sharp edges and splintered shards of wood.
It wasn't debilitating or anything, but … ow!
Then Spike jerked the M'Fashnik up and off her, and threw him through the doorway to the kitchen, head-first through the window of the back door.
The M'Fashnik started snarling and roaring as he struggled to get his head clear of the broken glass without slitting his own throat.
Buffy got to her feet and ran after him, calling out, "Spike! Basement door!"
Spike opened the door to the basement, rolling his eyes as Buffy growled, "I'm taking him down." She grabbed the M'Fashnik – who had finally escaped the window – and bum-rushed him through the door and down the steps in a sickening series of bumps, thumps and crunches that made Spike cringe.
He watched them land heavily on the cement floor, still locked in combat.
"Need a hand, Love?" Spike called down.
Buffy had the M'Fashnik on the defensive, punching him repeatedly in the face while he staggered backwards. "Will you," punch, "PLEASE," punch, "stop trying to steal my kills!"
The M'Fashnik head-butted her, shoving her a good few feet backwards with the force of it. But her grunt and near-seamless follow-up kick convinced Spike she was fine.
"I'll just check your Watcher's not dead, then, shall I?" he shouted, leaving her to it.
The M'Fashnik was now incoherent with rage at how this tiny, hornless, weapon-less woman was faring against him. Waving his hands in the air as he roared out his frustration, he brushed against one of the heavy steel pipes lining the ceiling.
Buffy managed to keep him from ripping out the pipe directly, but he still did something, and suddenly it was like multiple fire hydrants exploding out of every wall in the basement, plus the ceiling.
The roar of the water was nearly deafening, and while Buffy was imitating a drowned rat and thoroughly distracted, the demon came up behind her and grabbed her arms, wrenching them up to restrain her. Then he frog-marched her towards one of the streaming jets of water and shoved her face far enough into the spray she couldn't turn away from it.
She was drowning.
She could feel her body starting to relax, let go, in preparation for death.
The Slayer took over.
By the time Spike came back down, the M'Fashnik was lying on the floor, the still-rising water around him nearly black with blood, and Buffy was pounding at him with a section of pipe broken off from the wall.
"Whoa!" he yelled. "What the bloody hell happened down here?" By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs he, too, was completely drenched, but it was what he saw that made his blood run cold.
Spike had always thought it impossible to crack a M'Fashnik skull, but this … there was a skin-bag of pulverised mush where his head used to be. It looked like a plastic doll left melting in the sun and each dull whack of Buffy's pipe was making everything jiggle like jello.
"Buffy!" Spike shouted, grabbing her wrist to stop the rhythmic pounding. "You can stop! Think he's dead now!"
Buffy looked up at him with flat, dead eyes.
Spike just had time to think, Bollocks, not again,before the pipe connected with his face and everything went black.
Dawn was coming down the stairs as Buffy's blow sent Spike falling into the water. She saw the M'Fashnik's no-longer-a-head and Buffy's arm pulling back, ready for another swing at Spike.
"Stop it!" she screamed. Not dust, not dust, not dust!
Buffy looked up at the sound, quickly dismissing Dawn as a threat before turning back to killing the vampire.
Dawn saw only blankness where Buffy used to be. She's really gonna kill him.
Dawn nearly flew the rest of the way down the stairs. She shut her eyes against the water, putting everything she had into tackling Buffy away from Spike. She could feel the strength of Buffy's body beneath hers as they fell, the pain of Buffy's fingers digging into her as they struggled for the pipe, and then Dawn's teeth were rattling and every bone was aching from the impact of landing completely the wrong way on the concrete floor.
Dawn tried to push through the shock, to tense up ready for whatever blank-Buffy was going to do to her, but then she thought she heard a hoarse "Dawnie?" over the roar of the water.
Terrified, Dawn opened her eyes, and saw Buffy, eyes wide and alert, looking even more terrified than Dawn felt.
"Are you hurt?" Buffy yelled.
Dawn shook her head.
And then Buffy was pulling her into a fierce hug. She thought Buffy might also have said, "I'm sorry," but the water was still roaring in her ears and she couldn't be sure.
Dawn hugged her back as tightly as she could. She was still scared and wet and cold and hurting, but she'd saved Spike, and with a sudden flash of insight, she thought maybe she'd saved Buffy too.