Al popped into the decidedly filthy kitchen at the Doublemeat Palace just in time to hear the final words of Buffy's manager.
"You should obviously know better than this! Coming into work barefoot is against more regulations than I can name. The Board of Health would shut us down immediately if they ever saw this!" she yelled in a voice that Al thought was really far too publicly embarrassing for the poor girl.
"Geez, if you're gonna can her, can her in the back office, not in front of everybody! And it really doesn't look like you're all that concerned about cleanliness issues judging by the number of roaches back here that Ziggy's detecting."
"This is your last mistake, Betty. First you cause that ridiculous scene about the burgers being made of people, and then you violate the most basic dress code rule. That's it. You're fired. Clean out your locker and return that uniform, freshly washed, by tomorrow or else," she shouted as she stomped off.
"My name's Buffy," the girl mumbled to the empty air, "not that it really matters."
"Aw, kitten, sure it matters," Al said sympathetically as Buffy slowly walked out the back door and towards home.
"Sam!" Al called loudly as Ziggy brought him back to the Summers house. "Sam, she's on her way home. She got fired, and she doesn't even get to keep the dumb hat!"
"And she gets bitten at 7:00 on the front porch?" Sam asked as he climbed off the couch and started to shuffle towards the door.
"Yeah. Ziggy's tracking Buffy, and it looks like she'll get here in about fifteen minutes," Al said, following Sam to the front door.
"That gives us, what, five minutes or so until the vampire shows up," Sam said, looking at the clock. "Guess I'll just have to go out there and wait for her."
Al and Sam realized it at exactly the same time.
"Uh, Sammy?" Al asked as he stared at the locked door.
"We have a problem," Sam replied wearily. "Why do we always have a problem?"
"You can't reach it, and I'm useless. You're just gonna have to find another way," Al said, sticking his hand through the lock in vain.
"Back door?" Sam suggested, and Al ran to the kitchen.
"No luck!" he yelled back. "It's locked, too."
"Windows?" he asked almost hopelessly.
"No… no… no…" Al said as he hurriedly checked each one in turn. "Wait, I got an idea."
As Al's form levitated through the ceiling, Sam knew almost before the voice floated down the stairs what he would say.
"The only unlocked window in the whole house is up in Buffy's room!"
Of course Spike's little exit would be open. And all he had to do was, at just under one foot tall, climb an entire flight of stairs in less than fifteen minutes. He took one moment to size up the mountain in front of him, then with great determination, he put his hoofs on the first step and hoisted.
Soon, sweat was pouring down Sam's face, and the stairs didn't seem to be getting much shorter. Mr. Gordo's pudgy little body was definitely not made for mountain climbing. As the stuffed pig pulled himself up step after step, his snout and tail wrinkling in exertion, the minutes ticked away.
"You can do it," Al said encouragingly. "Come on, go faster! Buffy's counting on you."
"Shut up!" Sam finally hollered breathlessly. "Go… go see where she's at now!"
"Alright, alright, no need to get testy," Al replied indignantly as he disappeared.
As the pig continued his arduous trek at breakneck speed, if he'd had a neck, Al watched Buffy meandering slowly towards home, her eyes downcast.
"Right, you just take your sweet time there and let Sam get up the steps," Al said. "No need to rush."
Unknown to both of them, a third figure was following at a distance.
When Sam at last reached the top of the stairs after having fallen twice, he was terribly sore, but he scuttled bravely down the long hallway and, barely taking notice of his aching arms and legs, climbed the curtains and sat on the windowsill. With a mighty heave, the lower pane lifted, and the open night air blew in the room.
Peering carefully down, Sam saw that there was a section of roof that sloped outward for a bit, and then the front walk was directly below him. Slowly, he lowered himself onto the precipitous angle of the roofing and delicately made his way down to the gutter.
No sooner had he reached his destination than Al and Buffy came into view. Noting Buffy was looking nowhere but the ground, Sam flailed his front legs wildly, and Al caught sight of him at once. In a moment, the other man was standing beside him on the roof.
"Good job. There hasn't been any trouble yet," Al said as Sam watched Buffy come up the walk and take a seat on the front steps underneath him.
"Wait," the little pig said suddenly. "Who's that?"
"Who's who?" Al asked as he scanned the street.
There, about two houses down across the street, a bush was moving furtively. Sam stared as the bush proceeded to get up and move to the other side of the house's front door.
"Unless they have demonic shrubs here, I'm betting that's our vampire," Sam said as the bush made a break for it across a driveway and came to a standstill beside a mailbox.
"I'd say that's a good bet," Al said as he stared at the very weird sight of a bush crossing Revello Drive. "Who'd be moronic enough to try that stunt?"
The attacker, though, lost her element of surprise when she sneezed loudly, breaking through Buffy's silent depression.
"The hell?" Buffy said in disbelief.
"Stupid pollen!" came a peevish voice from the depths of the leaves as a figure stood up and threw the bush aside. "I hate stupid hay fever!"
"She's a vampire, right?" Al said to Sam. "She shouldn't even have to breathe! Oh, this girl's a peach… but, whoa, nice bazoombas."
In fact, the new blonde girl looked like she'd be prime Al dating material: curvy, pretty, and none too bright.
"I'm really not in the mood to deal with you tonight, Harmony," Buffy said, the small bit of humor that had crept into the corners of her mouth dying completely. "Just go somewhere else."
"Nu-uh. I'm not going anywhere," she said with a pout. "You stole my boyfriend!"
Buffy didn't reply. She just sighed.
"I am so going to kill you," Harmony threatened, pounding her fist into her hand. "Like, until you're dead and stuff!"
Buffy just sat there, too tired to even move and too drained to care.
"You know what," she said softly. "Just go ahead. Who'd care anyway? I can't raise Dawn right, my friends avoid me, I'm unemployed, my mom's dead, my dad's on permanent vacation, and everyone I care about abandons me. The thrill's gone out of life. There's nothing left that can surprise me anymore."
"Huh," Harmony said. "That's kind of sad and pathetic. But, okay, if you don't mind or anything!"
As Harmony's face vamped, something suddenly hit her on the head. Buffy's eyes goggled nearly out of their sockets while she beheld a most incredible sight.
There, swinging from Harmony's hair, was Mr. Gordo. As he performed a flawless back flip from the girl's head and landed on the lawn in a defensive crouch, the vampire's eyebrows went up in shock.
"You have a stuffed attack pig?" she said, stunned, as Dr. Sam Beckett proceeded to prove that size really didn't matter in the martial arts. What followed was truly an epic battle. As though in slow motion, the little pig executed a series of stunning kicks, though none of them reached higher than the girl's denim-clad kneecaps. Still, that was enough to get her good and angry.
"Ow!" she cried as she fell to the lawn. She grabbed the pig by his flailing hooves and proceeded to give him a good punch to the gut. Sam flew across the front yard from the force of the blow, but ran back at her and landed a roundhouse kick to her shin. As his opponent stood there, hopping up and down, he took advantage of the situation and bit her ankle.
"I always knew you were a freak, Buffy, but this is so beyond too weird!" Harmony yelled as she lay on the ground, trying to pry the pig's felt mouth off her ankle. When she finally succeeded, she threw him to Buffy, who caught him automatically, her jaw still hanging open. "You know, I even thought about siring you since a vampire Slayer vampire could be like, a useful minion or whatever, but no way! I'm going back to L.A. where people are normal!"
With that, she stalked off in a huff across the front lawn, then stopped, turned around, and picked up her earlier camouflage.
"And I'm taking my bush with me!" she added as though this were the ultimate insult before disappearing back into the shadows.
Buffy, meanwhile, was staring at her piggy. She took one finger and poked his tummy experimentally. Sam resisted the urge to say anything. She sat him down on the porch and wiggled his legs in a pantomime of what she'd just witnessed. When Mr. Gordo did not turn into a pint-size Bruce Lee again, she shook her head as though to clear it.
"That's just… no, odd doesn't cover it," she said with a look of real surprise on her face.
"What's odd?" asked a voice that made her, Al, and, had anyone been watching, Sam, jump.
"Spike?" she asked in disbelief.
"Just saw my ex puffing down the street with an armload of foliage, blithering on about Mattel being the tool of the devil. What happened?" he asked, sitting down next to her.
"I'm not really sure," she said truthfully. "But, I thought you left?"
Spike shook his head. "Didn't mean it, pet. Wish I could leave, sometimes, but I can't. You stopped by the crypt this afternoon, didn't you?"
"Yeah, how'd you know?"
He pulled something out of his duster pocket. "Cinderella left her slipper behind. Only ruddy thing in the place, so it was pretty easy to notice. I was robbed."
"Oh," she said. "Well, that explains a lot."
She stared into the street in front of her, looking through the darkness with a strange sense of awareness.
"Come in, will you?" she said after a few minutes of silence.
"Ehm, Nibblet home?" he asked, a small bit of hope in his eyes.
"No, but she's going to be. This has gone on long enough. I'm calling a meeting," Buffy said as she tucked Mr. Gordo under her arm and headed for the phone.
Half an hour later, Xander, Willow, Tara, Dawn, Anya, Spike, and Buffy were gathered in the living room. Sam was sitting on the table while Al stood just outside the circle of do-gooders.
"Look, I had kind of an epiphany tonight," Buffy said.
"Really?" Tara asked. "About… what we talked about before?"
"That's part of it, but there's more," Buffy answered.
"Wait," Willow interuppted immediately. "You talked to Tara about a problem, but you didn't say anything to the rest of us?"
"What's up with that, Buff?" Xander said with a note of anger.
Buffy bit her lip, then began. "I lost my job tonight, and that's not the only thing that's going on. I've been having trouble for months now, and I've been keeping secrets, and I hate it, and it got to the point where tonight I realized I hated myself."
"Buffy…" Dawn said, her voice concerned.
"I know you all want everything to be okay again, but you know what? It's not, and you guys pretending that it is doesn't make it any better, so here's the deal. I'm leaving for a while. Giles mentioned once that there's a coven in England that specializes in helping people with supernatural powers get back on track when they go through something rough," she said, then took a deep breath. "And I need help."
"You're going alone?" Dawn asked in a small voice.
"No," Buffy said. "I'd like you to come with me. We don't need more time apart; that much I know."
Dawn smiled a little at that. "Okay."
"There's one more thing I want you to know," she said, swallowing hard. "Spike and I have been… um… seeing each other for the past couple months."
"What? Spike? What?" Xander said, rapidly swinging his head back and forth from Buffy, to the shell-shocked Spike, to Buffy again. "What the hell are you thinking? Have you totally lost your mind? How could you?"
"Oh, shut up, Xander," Anya said in annoyance. "Making her feel bad won't help."
Tara gave Buffy an encouraging smile. She knew how it felt to keep a relationship a secret because of being afraid what other people would think. She also knew how much courage it took to admit it, and she finally felt that things were going to be okay.
"Why?" Spike asked, unable to say anything else.
"I figure if you're good enough for me to… date… you should be good enough for me to admit to… dating… in front of my friends," she said quickly, blushing.
There was a flurry of discussion, some of it angry, some it relieved, but all of it finally honest as Al punched a couple keys on the comlink and grinned.
"Ziggy says Buffy's going to be fine. She does go to England, and they help her out a lot. She comes back to the States during the summer, re-enrolls back at University of Sunnydale, and gets a decent-paying job working as an aerobics instructor at the local gym," Al said with satisfaction.
"And then what?" Sam asked, not bothering to hide his voice in all the activity.
"Eh… huh. Well, Sunnydale gets swallowed by a giant sinkhole, but it looks like everybody makes it out okay, so that's pretty good," Al said with a raised eyebrow.
"And Spike and Buffy?" Sam pressed.
"Well, Sam, it's a little too early to say about them. After all, we're only a couple years from our own time here," Al replied. "But if I had to guess, I'd say those two kids are going to do fine."
As Xander grabbed Mr. Gordo and tossed him in the air in frustration, Dr. Beckett began to glow like the world's brightest Christmas tree as he leapt on to yet another mission. By the time the pig hit the ground, Sam had already found himself lying down on top of a soft, comfortable bed.
Looking down at his legs, he groaned. A dress. He was wearing a dress. He'd gotten stuck as a woman again.
"No, no, no, no, not the stupid nylons and the skirts and the make-up and the… geez, that's a tall ceiling," Sam said as he stared up at the extremely lofty ceiling above him.
"Uh, Sam," said Al's voice cautiously from somewhere above him. "You're not going to believe this, but…"
At that moment, Sam turned his head and screamed as he realized he was looking into the far-too-large face of a very pale woman with black hair and blue eyes.
"What are you doing in Miss Edith's dolly bed?" she cried in confusion. "You're not Miss Edith! And who is that man in the clothes that keep screaming, screaming, screaming in my head?" she added as she looked directly at Al.
Al and Sam stared at one another, and then in tandem they said the only words that could sum up the situation.
*Response to a challenge for a QL/Buffy xover from The Adventures of Mr. Gordo