Tara looked around and sighed. The only remaining trace of Joyce's once carefully curated living room was a single wooden sculpture.
"Ready for the vacuum in here?" Buffy asked.
"Oh, yeah," Tara replied. Buffy's skin was grey, like the dark shadows under her eyes had spread out to cover her entire face. At least, Tara hoped it was that, rather than an actual bruise, which would also be possible.
Buffy turned on the vacuum and started moving it around the room in quick jerks.
As she moved out into the hall, Giles came back into the living room wearing sleepwear courtesy of Xander: an oversized t-shirt and board shorts. That was disconcerting enough – even though Tara'd had a while to get used to it – but he was also now carrying a bundle of bedding with Teddy Bear pictures on them.
Tara figured she must've looked at him funny, because he said, "They're whimsical," in a very no-nonsense sort of voice, before starting to make up the sofa.
Tara wasn't entirely sure whether he was joking.
"How's the head?" she asked once he was finished.
"Better," Giles said weakly, sitting down. "But it wouldn't be a proper homecoming without a little concussion."
Tara ducked her head, smiling.
They heard the vacuum shut off, and Buffy came back into the room.
"Guess that's it, huh?"
The three of them looked around. Now the living room was clean, it looked bare; all the heart and vibrancy had gone out of it.
The only signs of life were Giles' suitcase – in the fireplace to avoid dripping on the wooden floor – and a couple of garbage bags filled with Spike's belongings.
Buffy collapsed on the sofa next to Giles.
The Frankenstein's monster of a front door opened and Willow came back in. "Okay, Xander and Anya have gone, and all the bags are out waiting for trash day." She looked around, body stiffening. "Spike can't still be out on body disposal? He left hours ago."
"I asked him to do some reconnaissance," Giles said.
When did that happen? Willow wondered. She pushed back the suspicion that they might be secretly planning something – Giles hates Spike; they could never do anything together.
"It is notoriously difficult to control a M'Fashnik demon, and it is imperative we find out who or what we're dealing with," Giles continued gravely.
Willow hadn't even thought about that aspect of things. "O-of course. Yeah," she said.
Buffy was staring out into space.
I've trashed this house so many times. How did Mom deal with it all those years?
I can't do this.
"Buffy?" Giles said gently.
Oh! Talking. Pay attention, Buffy.
"I think we should all go to bed," Giles said. "It's been a very long night, and Xander's plumber friend will be here very early."
Tara sat in front of the mirror, brushing her hair, and trying desperately not to feel guilty that she still hadn't spoken to Willow about leaving. She hadn't changed her mind – not exactly – but Willow had seemed better the last couple days. She was being all cuddly and affectionate – almost begging her not to bring it up, as if she knew Tara was gearing up for something she wouldn't like….
Tara remembered Giles asking about what she remembered from Saturday night.
But Willow would never mess with her memory.
Willow sat on the end of the bed, watching Tara. It was usually one of her favourite night-time rituals, but she was too wrapped up in her own thoughts to be paying much attention.
There was just no way she'd be able to get near the fireplace tonight.
It was too late to slip something to Giles to make sure he'd sleep through her activities, and who knew when Spike would get home!
But one more night wasn't so long to wait. Not for this.
Spike was waiting outside Dawn's room a few hours later when her alarm went off.
"C'mon, Platelet!" he called. "Time to get up."
He heard her slap at the alarm, then the rustle of covers before Dawn thumped out of bed with a groan and dragged herself to the door.
She unbarred and opened it. "Your eye's all black," she said blearily.
Spike winced. "How bad?"
"Like I should be calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline."
"Oi!" Spike said, glaring.
Dawn blinked owlishly at him for a few seconds. "Since when d'you own sweatpants?" she asked, finally.
He looked down. Bollocks! "Gonna be late if you don't hurry," Spike said, thankful Dawn was still only barely conscious.
Dawn grunted and shuffled off to the bathroom to gather her products for a shower at school.
"And a big Sunnydale round of applause for Tito the amazing. Plumber extraordinaire," Xander said, making a Vanna-White-esque gesture as Tito came through the basement door.
Buffy, Giles, Spike and Dawn stared at him expectantly.
"Basically, your pipes are shot," Tito said, squirming a little under the pressure of four sets of eyes. "I mean, the whole system's gonna have to be replaced. You need the full copper re-pipe down there."
"Full copper re-pipe?" Dawn said. "That sounds pricey."
Tito shrugged. "Whatever we do, it's gonna be cheaper than water damage. You're lucky it was only the basement. You got nice hardwood floors down here; they'd warp a treat if your kitchen pipes blew." He handed Buffy a piece of paper. "I'll be back with my crew in a bit. We'll do all the wet stuff today – turn the mains back on when we leave." He nodded in Xander's direction. "This guy says he'll do your dry-walling tomorrow." Tito smiled. "It won't be as pretty as mine," he slapped Xander's shoulder, "but it'll get the job done." Xander gave him a good-natured shove. "Anyways, I gotta go get a pump and some pipes. But if you got any questions, my number's on the invoice. Someone's gonna be here all day, right?"
"Yeah, man," Xander said, as Spike indicated he'd be in the house all day. "And thanks," Xander said. Tito waved, then left through the boarded-over back door.
Dawn leaned over to look at the invoice. "That's a weird phone number. Wait – is that the bill?"
"Hey now," Xander said. "Tito cut you a great deal. Those are his bargain basement prices. I did good haggling, if I do say so myself."
He looked over at Buffy, expectantly awaiting her praise.
But Buffy was frozen in place, her eyes glued to the invoice.
"Buffy?" Dawn said, waving her hand in front of her eyes.
"Huh?" Buffy finally snapped out of it.
"You okay in there?" Spike asked.
Buffy started laughing.
Giles plucked the invoice out of her rigid fingers. He whistled at the amount.
"How 'bout we just burn the house to the ground and collect the insurance?" Buffy said finally. "Plus, fire? Pretty."
They all stared at her uncomfortably.
"Kidding!" Buffy said, smiling weakly. "I'm kidding." Sorta. Oh god, I can't do this.
Giles and Buffy set out for the Magic Box training room just after Xander left with Dawn for school. For starters, there was a working shower there, but Giles also wanted to put Buffy through her paces.
Spike had spirited away the M'Fashnik's corpse before anyone else could see it – no one knew about Buffy's violent streak when in a fugue state, and he wanted to keep it that way – but he had shared with Giles his surprise that she'd not just cracked but crushed his skull.
So Giles had asked Buffy to do some training exercises. And the more he saw, the more Spike's suspicions were confirmed: she'd come back significantly stronger.
Her reflexes seemed to be quicker and sharper as well.
But it was also obvious her heart wasn't in anything anymore – she was only going through the motions. Before, she would have questioned his motives in testing her – vociferously – whereas now she just quietly acquiesced. There was no argument, no fight in her. It was unsettling.
He didn't understand what was happening to his Slayer, and his sense of helplessness was becoming almost physically painful.
He needed to get back to England to do proper research, consult the Council's library and speak to Council and coven experts. She needed him to get back.
Anya was more than a little surprised to see Tara coming into the Magic Box late that afternoon. She'd never even seen her without Willow before.
She was still more surprised when Tara marched straight to the counter, slapped down a small flowery herb, and asked her what it was.
But when she told Tara it was Lethe's bramble – seventy-five cents a gram – Anya was shocked speechless.
There was a burning, broiling rage inside the girl Anya would never have expected of her. For the first time in months – maybe even years – she could feel the pull of her powers inside her again, like a phantom limb, aching and insistent.
Whatever Willow had done with Lethe's bramble, it had made Tara want vengeance.
Buffy left Giles behind at the Magic Box, muttering about protection spells, to go home and deal with all the detritus in her now dry-ish basement.
She knew most of the boxes were ones her mother had brought from L.A. and never unpacked, so she assumed it would be a relatively easy job for her – and Dawn, once she came home – to give them a quick once-over then throw them out.
She was wrong.
Long after the plumbers had packed up and left, the two of them were still sitting on the cold floor of the basement, surrounded by the stink of wet cardboard and dead demon, slowly going through the boxes Tara and Willow had carefully filled with the contents of Joyce's bedroom.
Choosing which of her belongings were salvageable had been like losing Joyce all over again.
But it was cathartic, too, because each earring and scarf and knickknack prompted a memory to share.
Buffy had been so focussed on defeating Glory and keeping Dawn safe in the immediate aftermath of Joyce's death that they had never talked about her. While Dawn had come to understand, much later, at the time she'd been convinced it was because Buffy didn't care.
It was still difficult for Buffy to participate in conversation, but she let Dawn's stories flow around her while they worked and she was there, present in mind and body, which was all that Dawn really needed from her.
Spike kept his distance throughout, mostly sitting in the kitchen listening to their reminiscences, grateful Buffy was finally allowing herself to unbend a little around Dawn.
When Tara, Willow and the icy silence between them came through the front door, Dawn immediately fled to her room to avoid Willow.
Following the routine he'd had over the summer, Spike took one of Buffy's hands in his and said, "C'mon, sweet. Let's go out and kill something."
And so Willow and Tara didn't even have the distraction of other people to soften the tension between them.
It was very late indeed when Buffy and Spike squelched through the back door, covered from head to toe with some sort of virulent green demon gore.
To their surprise, Dawn was sitting at the breakfast bar eating a bowl of cereal. "Ewwwww," she said, wrinkling her nose. "What is that stuff? It's B-movie-esque in its grossness."
"Gorsschikt blood," Spike said, glaring at Buffy. "Someone thought it would be a good idea to cut off its head. You'd think, by now, she'd understand about SODDING ARTERIAL SPRAY!"
"Well SOMEONE ELSE could've warned me Gross-ick demons don't DUST when you kill them!"
Spike rolled his eyes. Buffy made a noise of inarticulate frustration, throwing up her hands and in the process flinging some of the goop at the ceiling.
All three of them watched the clump of green vileness cling for a second, and then fall down onto the breakfast bar with a thick plop.
"That's gonna stai-ain," Dawn said sweetly.
Buffy glowered at her.
Dawn's eyes widened, a surge of hope racing through her. That was … this was almost normal.
She caught Spike watching her and grinned.
"'S late, Niblet. What're you still doin' up?"
Dawn shuffled her feet a bit, then mumbled, "Couldn't sleep 'til I knew you got back okay."
Spike made an exasperated face, but Dawn could tell he was only pretending not to be pleased.
"I'm gonna, um, go shower," Buffy said. She gingerly touched her congealing hair and shuddered. Carefully stepping out of her boots, she started tiptoeing down the hallway, trying to keep her gore-soaked jeans from touching the carpet.
"You want me to grab you some clothes so you don't track goo of doom all over the living room?" Dawn asked.
Spike looked slightly panicky. "Uhhh, ta, pet, but've got some clothes in the … er, bathroom."
Dawn looked at him. Hard. "I didn't see any of your clothes in there five minutes ago."
Spike shrugged. He wasn't meeting her eyes.
"Riiiight," Dawn said, nodding sagely. "You're hiding something."
"God! You're such a child!" Dawn said, giving him a shove. Then she squawked, because her hand came away covered in demon yuck.
Spike laughed, flicking his fingers and shaking himself to lob more fluorescent gore at her.
"Ew! Ew! Ew!" Dawn shrieked.
That stopped him – Dawn's shrieking hurt.
Dawn opted for bed rather than helping him clean up afterwards, as he'd suspected she would.
She didn't realise until after she was under the covers that he'd never explained why he didn't need a change of clothes.
Spike might be a terrible liar, but he had scary powers of distraction when he didn't want to talk about something.
Buffy's hairdryer was going as Spike finally started up the stairs, but it stopped almost as soon as he reached the top. As he passed her room, the door inched open, just wide enough for her to pass him out a pair of black sweatpants.
It was almost dawn by the time Willow felt confident everyone in the house was finally asleep.
She thought the shower would never stop running.
She eased out of bed, and crept downstairs, her bag of Lethe's bramble clutched in her hand.
Giles was snoring away peacefully, albeit not entirely naturally.
Carefully and quietly, Willow moved the fireplace gate out of the way, and knelt at the hearth. She put the bag down, and pulled out four sprigs. Striking a match, she lit them and laid them down.
The smoke smelled truly awful, and it was very thick for such a tiny fire. Willow frowned, worrying suddenly that the smoke or its smell might still be noticeable in the morning.
In for a penny….
She pulled out one more sprig for good measure and tossed it in. Sitting back on her heels, she concentrated on the exact moment she wanted to return to, and began the incantation.
"For my family this I char, let Lethe's Bramble do its chore. Purge their minds of memories grim, all five months' pains from slights and sins."
She pulled a solid white crystal out of the pocket of her robe, and touched it to the burning herbs. It glowed pale grey.
"When the fire goes out. When the crystal turns black. The spell will be cast. Tabula rasa. Tabula rasa. Tabula rasa."
Willow watched the smoke for a while, wanting to make sure it really was going up the chimney, then put the crystal in her robe pocket and dragged the gate back across the fireplace.
She never noticed that she'd knocked the bag of Lethe's Bramble into the hearth with the gate. Before she was even halfway up the stairs, it had caught light and started burning.
Willow got back into bed, heart whole and full, despite the fact that she and Tara had done nothing but fight all day and Tara was now lying rigidly on the far side of the bed. For the first time in weeks, she was confident that everything really would be better in the morning.
An hour later, all the embers had burned out, and Willow's crystal had turned black in her robe pocket.
Eight people fell into deeper, enchanted sleeps.