Disclaimer, etc. as on first chapter.
Author's Notes:
More from Katie Melua, and another situating-ish chapter, though hopefully I'll get to something resembling the plot at some point soon. This is just more lengthy moping from everyone, really. Actually, the whole thing's pretty much just everyone moping, at least for a few more chapters. Um. Also, I seem to have developed a tendency of making Dawn start fights with people, but this one is slightly more justified…

This has a very slight reference to my "Chosen" Counterpoint fic, for those that have read it. Those that haven't will just be mildly confused, or probably won't even notice…

Possibly there'll be some hints as to the eventual outcome, if I feel like it. Where we've previously visited mainly Buffy's feelings post-Sunnydale, this'll deal more with Xander and Willow, Buffy/Xander friendshipness, and possibly Spike through Buffy's general state of mind. Don't get too excited. He's not making an appearance 'til at least four chapters or so, and the Spuffy's not for ages yet, so just be patient. All good things come to those who wait, or so Guinness would have you believe. I've finally managed to watch some of Season 5 of Angel, and, while this isn't going to follow the canon exactly (I saw literally about 3 episodes of the previous three seasons…) I'm going to use some of the ideas from it when it gets to that point in the story.

Chapter Three – Learnin' The Blues

She knows this place. It's murky and dark, impossible to see a thing, yet, somehow, she knows it: knows its scent, its atmosphere. The sand-clouds hold echoes of the sounds of battle, the war-cries of the enemy, the screams of the wounded. She presses forward, one step in front of the other, not knowing where she's supposed to end up, if she's supposed to end up anywhere.

The wind picks up, creating a dervish from the white sand and orange dust, whipping her hair into her eyes; she brushes it aside, flips her head, and lowers her eyelids enough to keep the motes from her eyes. Left. Right. She keeps on going.

The screams around her grow louder, the clash of metal on metal. She feels a sudden, sharp twinge, gasping at the unexpected pain, and looks down to see blood seeping through her shirt from a familiar, old wound in her right side. This panics her more than it should, but she can't remember why, if she ever knew to begin with; the reason is elusive and beyond her reach. She presses her left hand over the wound and ignores the pain. She realises now that she must go forward.

Step by step. Echo by echo.

Slowly, her vision clears; she can make out a dark, stormy sky through the dust, She looks down to see the familiar grey of concrete: a road. Her pace slows; whatever she's being drawn to controls her. The unmistakable stench of burning flesh assaults her nostrils; she wrinkles her nose, but knows she must continue, take the final few steps.

The wind starts to die as she approaches the end of her mysterious journey, and the grainy fog grows thinner, finally dropping enough to make her destination visible. Behind her, the road leads straight back the way she came, into the dust cloud. Ahead, the road stretches on only a few metres, ending suddenly with ragged, torn edges, the asphalt clawing into the abyss below.

The crater. Always the crater, the place of nightmares, the very bowels of Hell itself. Last she was here, the bottom wasn't visible for smoke and disturbed dust. It's clear now, and nothing like the pit of fire she'd expected. It's just a hole in the ground, already dotted with struggling grass and weeds around the rim, former foundations and sewers jutting out of the rock's jagged walls. In the bottom lies a pile of buildings, discarded like childrens' toys.

She stares into it, amazed all over again that they made it out. She wonders why there's no fencing, no protection surrounding it, nothing to indicate that anyone even knows it's here; it was recorded as a natural phenomenon, so surely it should be a tourist attraction by now, or filled with teams of scientists. It's just a forgotten blemish, and she feels somehow cheated.

It's only after several seconds that she hears it. At first, she thinks there's someone behind her, and turns to look: the dust is too thick. Then she hears it again, louder this time, and places it – a scraping sound, accompanied by the crackle of falling stones. She crouches, close to the ground, places her free palm to the floor to support herself, and peers carefully over the edge. Her movement dislodges more of the road's surface, sending it tumbling below, but she sees nothing below. She pulls back, and makes to leave.

Her hand is pinned, and she instinctively panics, knowing better than to simply pull away. She takes a calming breath, coughing on the residual dust, and then casts her gaze down once more.

Fingers cling to her wrist, long, with bitten-down nails; the arm to which they belong supports a body, struggling to climb from the pit, but she only sees as far as its elbow. The pain in her side has ebbed; she removes her hand and starts to reach out, stretching her arm as far as she can beyond the edge and waiting for someone to grab on.

Flame-scarred knuckles grasp the crater's edge.

Brrrrring! Brrrrring!

The harsh sound of the new telephone sliced through Buffy's dream, and dragged her unwillingly out of slumber. It had been the third time she'd visited the crater, the third time she'd reached out to help the stranger from its depths, and the third time, infuriatingly, she'd spotted those scarred hands and woken up before she could honestly confirm their owner's identity. She awoke in the mornings with a dull ache in her side, stinging knuckles, and disappointment in her heart. And, this time, a consistent drilling in her brain.


Was it her imagination, or was the damned thing getting louder? She buried her head under a pillow and groaned, willing whoever was calling to try again later, when it wasn't seven in the morning.

"Buffy?" Her sister's voice, muffled, drifted from the other side of the room.

"I'm asleep."

"You so are not. Are you going to answer that?" Buffy ignored her, hoping that would be enough of an answer. Dawn, however, was oblivious, and more annoying than the telephone at that moment in time. "You're closer…"

She threw the pillow from her face, forced her eyes open, and sat up, reaching out for the receiver with one hand and rubbing the dream's residual images from her eyes with the other.

"What? Um, I mean, Summers residence; this is Buffy, and what the Hell time do you call… – Whoa, whoa, calm down. – Uh-huh. – You're where? – Right. So you want directions or…? – Oh. Obviously. Um…" She let out a yawn before continuing. "I'll… I'll send Giles with the... – Huh? Oh, Giles is the principal. You'll like him. – Yup. – Okay. – Just look out for the British guy with the mid-life-crisis-four-wheel-drive. Sorry about the mix-up. – 'Kay. Bye."

She put the receiver down again, then rubbed her eyes a second time. Dawn gave her an expectant expression.


"New Slayer. She's at the bus depot. Apparently, 'the dark-haired girl stuck her on a bus and told her to get off at Cleveland'. Lucky for her we're listed. Gotta love Faith's people skills."

"So, you gonna call Giles?"

Buffy cast her sister a glare; just when had Dawn become so lazy? The sooner they could have separate rooms, the better, in her opinion. "No," she said, "I'm gonna…" She trailed off with a grimace, suddenly wrapping both arms around her stomach. She kicked the covers off the bed and swung her legs to stand. "I'm gonna throw up…"

"Buffy?" Dawn was quick to follow, running after her sister down the landing towards the bathroom. Buffy barely made it to the lavatory, throwing herself to her knees while Dawn swept her hair up out of the way and stroked her back like she remembered their mother doing when they were sick. Buffy's body shuddered and Dawn cringed; this was the first time she'd actually thrown up, despite claiming to be nauseous for the past week or so.

Willow appeared at the bathroom door, having heard the commotion, looking concerned. "Is she okay?"

Dawn nodded. "Yeah, I think so." Then, remembering the phone call that had come in not a minute ago, she said, "Um, we got a call just now. There's a new Slayer at the bus depot and she needs to be picked up; could you call Giles and tell him? But, uh, don't say anything about Buffy, okay?"

"Sure," said Willow, and, casting a final worried glance at Buffy, who was taking heavy breaths to settle her stomach a little, she headed downstairs to make the call. Xander and Andrew both emerged from their room a moment later, as Buffy waved Dawn away from her and sat back. Dawn reached to flush, and filled the sink, but then stood back to give her some air.

Xander, despite his obvious worry, prodded Andrew in the chest and said, "Last time we let you cook, Andy. Seriously."

It raised a smile in Buffy, at least. She stood, shakily, and cleaned up at the sink. As she drained it, she said, "I don't think it was Andrew's fault. None of you are sick, are you?" They all shook their heads. "It's probably a virus. Which means it'll clear up soon. Nothing to worry about."

"As long as you're sure," said Xander.

Buffy smiled reassuringly. "It doesn't feel fatal, if that's what you're worried about. And actually, now I feel pretty good." That being said, she winced, as the ache in her side twinged.


"Nothing. Old wound." The twinge wore off and she muttered to herself, "Should'a healed by now…" She met her friend's gaze again. "Seriously, Xander, stop worrying. I'm okay, really. Now, do I get to use the bathroom in peace, or are you all going to stare at me?"

She ambled down the stairs half an hour later, showered, dressed, and hungry. It was still surprising some mornings to come down and find the lower floor quiet and empty, but, after housing teenage girls for so many months, it was going to take some getting used to. Buffy thought about what to have for breakfast, first heading out to the mail box. She opened it, reaching in for the single item in there, and waved greeting to a nearby neighbour who was mowing his front lawn, before going back indoors.

She took the mail with her into the kitchen, intending to read it while she ate, and pondered the telephone call they'd received earlier. Most of the girls they'd already met had arrived in groups of two to four, but this was the first individual. The Slayers kept on rolling in from all over the country. Two of the dormitories had filled within two weeks, and in the meantime, Giles was continuing to debrief the assembled Watchers. Each of them would be responsible for at least three Slayers to begin with, until more could be found. When Robin returned, it would lighten the load a little, but Giles was starting to contact people back in England, checking his various connections for anyone that might be willing to train with the other new Watchers.

Buffy examined her mail: it was a postcard, depicting the Statue of Liberty, graffiti-ed to look like she was carrying a slightly flame-shaped stake, and a very book-shaped bottle of holy water, with a ridiculously large cross around her neck. The photograph's description had been similarly altered to read "The Slayer of Liberty". Faith was sending these; the living room's mantelpiece was gaining quite a collection of the colourful postcards, sent from each city she and Robin had covered. She'd address them to Buffy specifically, but sent regards to everyone in passing, and kept on promising to call; she never managed it. Despite their differences, Buffy found herself starting to miss the once-rogue Slayer; Faith's letters were optimistic, written like she spoke, yet slightly wistful, wishing her fellow ex-Slayer could see the things she'd seen.

This one was no exception. Buffy suppressed an amused snort at the photograph to start with, and eagerly turned it over to read while she waited for the kettle to finish boiling. Faith's scrawling and untidy handwriting covered seventy-five per cent of the surface, the address squeezed into a corner in Robin's considerably more legible print. Buffy smiled as she read it.

"Yo, B!

"We're in New York! You probably guessed that from the picture, right? Sorry for the graffiti; Robin told me it was immature. Big dork. He says 'hey', by the way. Also something about cheesecake? Beats me, but he said you'd understand and that it reminded him of you, or something. That's all he'd say. Big-ass shrug from me.

"You got a Slayer heading your way; I think I might'a forgotten to tell her some things, but after a while the whole pep-talk thing starts to come out on auto-pilot, y'know? Anyway, this one seems a sweet kid, so tell Giles to go easy on her.

"This place is great! I don't think I've ever seen so many shops in one place. I swear, I'm retiring after this mission's over and spending all of Robin's well-earned Hellmouth-High-School-Principal's cash, yo! If that's crossed out when you get this, he did it.

"Tell all the guys and gals we're doin' okay. I know I keep promising I'll call, but we're never anywhere long enough to find a phone. You owe me gossip, big time. After this we're heading south, I think. The Slayers seem to be thinning out a little. In a couple weeks we'll be in Europe – all those Gileses!

"These damn things are too small. Guess I'd better sign off now. I'll keep persuading this guy to buy a cell.

"See ya soon, B.

"F & R."

Buffy turned the card over again to examine Faith's artwork, grinned half-heartedly, and read it a second time. In a flash, she suddenly understood about the cheesecake, and blushed at the memory of that disastrous first date with Robin, hoping he hadn't told Faith any details. The blush faded almost instantly as she remembered how that date had ended, and the scorched hand from her dream came back to her. She'd stopped lying awake at night, but that only meant she dreamt what she couldn't think. She knew who those knuckles belonged to as well as she knew her own, and, while some part of her was annoyed, every time, when she awoke without finding out, another part of her was relieved beyond measure. She'd been prone to similar dreams before, and this one had all the signs of being prophetic… but if she let herself believe that, it was bound to end in tears. Better to assume it was her brain's way of sorting through its own mess.

She shook her head to clear it, vaguely aware of the kettle clicking off, and went to put the postcard on the mantle with the others. Returning to the kitchen, she made herself some coffee and searched through the cupboards for some cereal. Nothing appealed; she'd lost her appetite entirely, but knew she had to eat something. All they seemed to own was Dawn's ridiculously sugary stuff, and, after emptying her stomach already, Buffy didn't feel like giving it another excuse to complain. She closed the cupboard door and opened the one next to it, hoping to fare better.

Dawn found her, not ten seconds later, still staring into that same cupboard, frozen to the spot. "Buffy? You okay?"

She shook herself out of it, reached into the cupboard, and then shut the door. She thrust the box she'd grabbed at Dawn. "What's this?"

Dawn looked at it. "It's a box of cereal…"

"I can see that, Dawn," she said, impatiently. "What cereal is it?"

The brunette looked at it closer, reading the label. "Oh…" In her hands, she held a box of Wheatabix; Buffy discovering it in the cupboard had been the final straw after her unwilling journey down Memory Lane.

"Oh," mocked Buffy.

"Well, it's not mine!" said her sister, defensively. "I don't even like this stuff!"

"Whoever's it is, get rid of it. I never want to see that stuff in this house again, is that clear?"

"But Buffy-"

"But nothing. Get it out of here." With that, she turned and stormed out of the house. Dawn flinched as the door slammed at the end of the hallway, and dumped the cereal box on the table. She helped herself to Buffy's abandoned coffee, and stared mournfully at the box. In all likelihood, Andrew had bought it on the last shopping trip, or one of the girls before they all left; none of the Scoobies would have risked it, so it had to be someone who didn't know the significance.

The question was answered when Kennedy wandered into the kitchen. "Not that I mind," she said, "but if you wanted some of my cereal, there are better ways to ask."

Dawn snapped out of it. "This is yours?"

"Yeah." Without a word, Dawn nodded to herself with a slight, comprehending roll of her eyes, and promptly dumped the entire box into the trash. "Hey! What do you think you're doing!" Kennedy ran to try and retrieve it, but Dawn blocked her way.

"Sorry, Kennedy," she said, "but Buffy… she doesn't want it in the house."

"Why? It's not gonna poison her."

"That's not the reason. It's just… Spike, he… he used to-"

Kennedy cut her off. "Oh, don't bother. I don't want to know." She went in search of some bread, more noisily than was strictly necessary, shoved it unceremoniously into the toaster, and pushed down the lever. She leaned against the counter, arms folded, and made a show of trying to pretend the other occupant of the room didn't exist.

Dawn, however, had something on her mind other than Kennedy's cereal, and while she hadn't wanted to approach her with the subject, it was infinitely easier than her other option. "You slept in the spare room last night, didn't you?" she asked, knowing she was right, but trying to create an opening in the impending conversation.

The young Slayer met Dawn's gaze. "Yeah. So what?"

"So why?" Kennedy refused to answer, and cast her eyes elsewhere. Dawn kept pushing. "Why, Kennedy? Are you and Willow okay?"

"Do you care?" she challenged, defensively.

"I care about Willow." The reply was blunt; she had no intentions whatsoever to protect Kennedy's feelings, and there was certainly no love lost between the two of them. Dawn's expression didn't falter; she continued to gaze at Kennedy with hard eyes over her coffee mug.

"Are you implying I don't?"

Dawn shrugged. "You're not exactly proving you do. All you two seem to do lately is argue."

Kennedy was trying not to rise to the bait, but she was dealing with the Slayer's sister, and if Dawn was even half as stubborn as Buffy, it would prove to be an interesting argument. "That's between us."

"Not when you're living here, it's not. It's bad enough Andrew and Xander bickering all the time, but they're not… y'know." She shook her head at herself; she was trying to make a point, not a joke, and besides which, Andrew wasn't her favourite person at that moment in time. "Anyway, my point is, it's not good for Buffy. She has enough to deal with without there being 'atmosphere'" – here, she quoted with her fingers – "between you and Willow, and besides which, Willow needs everyone's support right now if she's going to take Giles up on his teaching offer."

"What makes you think it's just me?"

She shrugged again. "A hunch." The toaster popped, and Kennedy used the welcome distraction as a cue to end the conversation. Dawn, however, wasn't finished, and as the other girl concentrated on buttering her toast, she continued, "I know from your perspective me and Willow aren't even that close, but she's my sister's best friend, and I've known her just as long as Buffy has. She's done some crazy stuff; we all have. And what she had with Tara… nothing will ever compare to that. She's not going to just forget her, Kennedy."

"I'm not expecting her to, Dawn," she said, mocking her condescending and faux-sympathetic tone of voice, and following it by taking a loud, crunching bite out of her toast.

"Good. But if this isn't working out between you? You have to tell her. I'm not going to stand by and let Willow get hurt."

Kennedy swallowed her toast, and straightened up, moving automatically into a defensive stance. She wasn't about to let Dawn forget the fact that she was a Slayer. "Are you threatening me? Have you forgotten who you're talking to? I could kick your ass from here to-"

"Oh, please," snorted Dawn. "I threatened a quarter of the Scourge of Europe, once. You don't scare me."

"Really…" Kennedy relaxed her stance a little. "Looks like I'm going to have to prove you wrong. On both counts. As for Willow and me, we're fine, thank you for asking, and once everything's settled down, nothing's going to come between us. So you'd better get used to it."

Dawn disposed of the rest of the coffee down the sink, and said, "If you say so," then brushed past the young Slayer on her way out of the kitchen. The matter was very effectively closed at that moment as Willow and Andrew entered the room and filled it with the usual banter. Kennedy stared disbelievingly down the hallway after Dawn, watching as she left the house, and let the conversation wash over her like waves.

Buffy had spent the day alone with her thoughts and the city of Cleveland; she'd jumped onto a bus and gone to explore. Giles' initial scouting missions had only taken in the less salubrious areas of the city, but, apart from finding the restaurant that night, nobody had been able to find the time to really look around. She had no idea where to buy coffee, clothes, or even look for work, if such an opportunity ever arose, and she certainly didn't know where the nearest cinema was. From the back, most places started to look the same. So, now that things were slowing down and the Slayers were becoming less frequent in their arrival, they finally had some time to themselves, and she'd spent the day wandering aimlessly, thinking things over. It was during her travels that she'd spotted the nightclub.

It was called The Lilac Tree, and was one of several in the area. The name had immediately struck her as being very strange for a club, and the frontage seemed more approachable than some of the others. Its sign boasted a speciality cocktail known simply as 'Lilac Wine', and it was that, along with the tasteful décor of the café that the club turned into during afternoon hours, which attracted Buffy to investigate further. It was open from eight o'clock in the morning until three the following morning, functioning as a café/bar until ten in the evening and a club for the rest of the night. It also transpired that the management had decreed an under-eighteens night that very day. Figuring that they all deserved a night out and the girls would want to see the town as well – assuming Giles ever actually gave them time off, of course – Buffy had immediately gone home again to inform the household, her troubles momentarily forgotten.

Giles had agreed to let the new Slayers out. He'd even come along for the fun, and so had Ms. Travers and some of the other Watchers, though most of them left after an hour. Giles had considered it 'educational' that they participate in the culture of their potential charges. They'd arrived at nine to relax in the ambience of the café, and barely even noticed as it transformed into a club by means of subtle lighting changes and increasingly more up-tempo music, so much so that by eleven, the night was in full swing, and Giles hadn't complained once. Of course, he was refusing to dance. By midnight, Willow had fed him just enough spritzers that he was slurring a little and being more relaxed than anyone had seen him for a long time.

The night went on and most of the younger girls opted to go home; Ms. Travers – the designated driver – and Giles took them back to the dorms. Only Vi and Molly stayed behind; the former was sitting in a corner muttering about the fact that she'd only got soda, and the latter was dancing up a storm in the middle of the floor. By two o'clock, most of the other patrons had also gone, since it was a weeknight, leaving the club to the Scoobies.

Molly finished burning off her excess energy, finally, and came to sit back down again. "Thanks for findin' this place, Buffy," she said. "It's great!"

"No problem," she muttered, and sipped her drink. Molly eyed it, suddenly thirsty. "Am I guessing you want a drink?"

"Yeah. But they refused to serve me earlier because it's after midnight. Vi and me shouldn't even be 'ere. Nor should she," she said, indicating Kennedy, who ignored her. Andrew got up.

"I'll go, if you want," he said, rooting through his pockets for some money. "Anyone else want another one?"

Everyone indicated that they were fine, and he nodded and set off towards the bar. Xander's head bopped unconsciously to the beat of the music, tiredness and tipsiness starting to take their toll, and then he suddenly looked up. "This music's too cheerful," he said. "Who's up for a change?"

"You got my vote," said Willow. "I kinda wanna dance, but… not to this."

Buffy nodded. "Same here. Could do with mellowing a little."

"Your wish is my command," said Xander. "Any requests?"

"Nah, you choose," Willow told him. Xander gave a nod and sought out the DJ in the far corner. Buffy watched him conversing for a moment, going through the DJ's collection and dismissing various songs, before dragging her attention back to her drink. The music started up again, as Xander selected the first song and worked on picking another, just as Andrew returned with drinks for himself and Molly.

"Andrew, what's in that?" she asked, when he handed the girl something suspiciously alcoholic-looking.

He blanched. "Nothing…" Molly took a sip and promptly started coughing, her eyes bugging out. "Maybe a shot of vodka or two…"

"Good stuff," Molly gasped out, and was about to take another drink when Buffy snatched it from under her nose.

"No," she said, firmly. "I'm not being held responsible if Giles finds out you got drunk." The London girl pouted, but conceded defeat. "Andrew, what were you thinking?"

"I… I wasn't. I'm sorry. I just ordered," he stammered, looking chastised. "I'll take it back and get it changed." He made to get up again, but Buffy stopped him.

"It doesn't matter, Andrew. She can have mine." Buffy had ordered a coke, not wanting to aggravate her stomach, but she handed over what was left to the teenager and took the vodka-concoction for herself. She sniffed it experimentally, winced, and tried it. The vodka warmed her throat pleasantly just before the bitter aftertaste hit, and she stuck out her tongue with a rather unflattering noise that was far too familiar. Slamming the memory behind mental bars, she took another drink and forced herself not to gag.

Xander had finished selecting songs. He ambled back over looking vaguely pleased with himself and stood at their table with an expectant expression. "How's this?" he asked. "Any better?"

"Much," said Buffy. "Thanks."

"So, either of you want to dance?"

Buffy passed with a wave of her hand, but Willow nodded. "Sure." She took Xander's politely proffered hand and got to her feet.

"Hey, wait a minute," said Kennedy. "I've been trying to get you to dance all night. What gives?"

"Sorry, sweetie… I just wasn't in the mood for getting' my groove on, y'know? You can come with, if you want."

She shook her head. "I can't dance to this; I need to burn energy…"

Willow shrugged. "Okay. I'll be back in a while." So saying, she followed Xander out to the deserted dance floor. They started to slow dance, falling over each other for a few moments until they managed to coordinate to each other's movement, and their giggling dwindled into pensiveness as each became lost to their personal thoughts. Kennedy watched them, thinking back to her conversation with Dawn that morning, and began to wonder if maybe Buffy's sister knew something she didn't. Her relationship with Willow was strained, but she knew it was just a glitch because they were all stressed and tired. They'd get over it… wouldn't they? Watching her dance with Xander, Kennedy wasn't sure any more. She wasn't worried about Xander; she knew he and Willow went way back. She was just worried that maybe Willow was losing interest.

The Lilac Tree became their regular nightspot after that. A few times, the whole gang would meet up, and other times, they'd use it as a place to escape to. During the week, it was quiet; at weekends, it was hectic and crowded, both extremes suiting to someone's mood.

This particular Tuesday night, Xander had come out by himself to get out of the house. Kennedy and Willow were arguing – again – and Buffy wanted to be left alone, while Dawn was trying too hard to cheer everybody up and Andrew was getting on his final nerve by just being Andrew. He sat in a corner of the room with a drink he'd been staring into for the past hour, and lost himself to his thoughts. One song ended, and another started; he'd been there so long that things were being repeated, and if he hadn't been moping before it started, the opening strains alone were enough to set him off.

He took a swig of his drink and winced. None of them had been brave enough to try the infamous 'Lilac Wine' yet, so he was drinking a foreign beer that was slightly below par. The day had been rather horrendous. Buffy was ill again, though not as badly as before, and as a result had refused to eat the breakfast that Andrew had slaved over, in turn leading him to sulk for the rest of the day because he was 'underappreciated'. Dawn, still not on the best of terms with him, had somehow decided that it was Xander's job to cheer him up, which Xander had attempted to do. Andrew was having none of it, however, preferring to play the martyr (even though everybody knew he'd be back to his usual annoying self come the next day.) So, here Xander was, drowning his and everybody else's sorrows in bad beer and depressing music.

Depressing or not, though, the song was starting to worm its way into his brain, and he knew he'd have to buy it at some point. It reminded him of Anya, somehow; lots of things did. The 'ka-ching!' of an old-fashioned till, fluffy bunny rabbits in pet shops, comfort ice cream, Dungeons and Dragons… She was everywhere he looked, and there was no escape. He still didn't know what had happened to her, and Andrew was still completely unwilling to tell him. Sometimes, it seemed like he might open up, but then he'd be struck by some residual, nightmarish image, and recoil into himself again, locking the knowledge up.

Xander was starting to hate him for it, and starting to hate himself for wanting so desperately to find out, which would only make everything worse. It was easier not to know, easier to be ignorant of her doubtless violent demise… but it was impossible to move on without knowing something. He believed Andrew's conviction that Anya had saved his life, but there had to be more to it, and Andrew seemed to be keeping something back. Whatever it was, it was eating him alive, and Xander could tell. None of them really paid that much attention to him, except for Buffy, who was only trying to make him feel more at ease… but sometimes, Xander heard him crying in the bunk over his. He never asked why.

He finished off the last of his drink with a wince and snapped himself out of the reverie. His train of thought was one stop from Mopeville, Ohio, and he probably ought to get back. Getting to his feet, he stretched his legs and arms and searched the room for the exit. Then, something – or rather, someone – at the bar caught his attention.

She stubbed the cigarette out into the ashtray on the bartop, adding another butt to the sizeable pile already there, then reached into the box in front of her for another. The decidedly under-worked bartender instinctively reached for a lighter and held it out to her.

"You actually gonna smoke that one?" he asked. "Because if not, I'd say it's an expensive habit…"

She shrugged, and resumed her initial position, hand poised over the ashtray, the cigarette never reaching her lips. The glass in front of her remained undrunk, save for a tiny sip that she decreed was too bitter by far. She felt the presence behind her, but didn't register who it was until the familiar voice sounded out, with a hint of concern:

"Buffy? When did you start smoking? And is that whiskey?"

"Xander…" She propped the cigarette over the ashtray and turned to face him. His expression was questioning and worried. Buffy indicated the abundance of ash in the tray. "Don't really think you can call it smoking…"

He positioned himself on a stool beside hers. "Huh. I guess not. So, what-?"

"It doesn't matter," she said, quickly, and slid from the barstool, not meeting his gaze. Before she could escape, Xander grasped her arm, gently, but firmly.


She sighed, defeated, hiding behind the curtain of her hair. "I just… The smell. Smoke and whiskey." She looked up; if she couldn't tell this to one of her best friends, then who could she tell? "It just reminded me. I thought… God, I don't know what I thought. There's nothing else, Xander. Nothing." She couldn't find the words to explain; it had been an action based on emotion. Frustrated, she reached for the whiskey and took another sip, resisting the urge to gag. Her next words were harsh from the roughness of the liquor, and too long fighting tears. "This doesn't even come close," she said, "but it's all I've got."

She reached for the whiskey again, but Xander stopped her, his hand gripping hers over the glass. "I know," he said. "I get it. I do. But… it's not going to help, Buffy. It won't help you forget him any easier."

Using subdued Slayer-strength, she prised his hand from hers, releasing the glass, and gave him a glare. "I don't want to forget, Xander. I'll never forget." That phrase sounded eerily familiar, but she couldn't place why, the memory just beyond her conscious grasp. "This isn't about forgetting. It's about comfort…"

"What, getting drunk and clogging your arteries with second-hand smoke? Nice comfort…"

"Are you honestly standing there and telling me that you haven't tried to do the same? That you haven't tried to mix perfume and shampoo just to get her back? That you haven't gone to the places she would have wanted you to go, seen the movies she would've liked?" He was silent. "I didn't think so…"

"That's different…" he muttered.

"No, it's not. And if you ever suggest that what I felt for him is different to how you felt for Anya, I'll-"

"'Snot what I meant," he said, quietly, interrupting her. "You saw him. You saw how he… You were there, when it mattered; you were the last thing he saw, the last thing he heard… But I… I don't even know what happened, Buff. I wasn't there; she didn't even know how much I…" He shook his head. "So, yeah, it's different."

She stared at him. Wiping irritably at tears – Not now, not here – she placed her other hand on his shoulder. "Oh, Xander… I'm sorry. I didn't mean to lash out, it's just…" She trailed off helplessly.

He placed a hand over hers where it rested on his shoulder, and smiled. "Seems like we could both look for better ways to find comfort, huh? Like our friends." When she didn't answer, he said, "You don't need to keep this up around us, Buffy. We can all see how much you're hurting. I know Giles is busy, but me, Willow and Dawn are still here for you if you need to make a crash landing. I'm not so good with the comfort, but I can stand by with Kleenex and manly hugs…"

She offered a weak smile. "I know. I just…" She sighed. "I'm afraid that if I start… I don't think I'll be able to stop."

He understood. It was all he could do to keep his own emotions bottled up, knowing the little he already did; Buffy had seen so much more, been through so much, lost so many people over the years, that keeping her emotions in check had become somewhat second nature. He admired her for it, and pitied the fact that it was necessary. Maybe the chance for her to be a normal girl had come too late for it to matter any more.

Another week passed, and Giles had finally brought together some kind of lesson plan for the girls. His topmost priority was to hone their fighting skills and strength instead of letting it go to waste. The Potentials that Buffy had already trained in preparation for the battle had been enlisted in the same class as the new girls, despite their protests. It turned out, however, that they were in need of re-training themselves, and they seemed to be enjoying the programme Giles had constructed, as well as the use of a proper training room. The group was taught altogether, and then segregated into smaller groups for training, which meant Buffy – as their living example – had a fairly full schedule.

On this particular day, however, she was stuck in one of Giles' seminars about momentum and body weight and using the surroundings to one's advantage, all of which she already knew. She had seated herself at the back, near the window, letting Giles' voice drone over her head (as most of the other girls seemed to be doing) as her mind wandered.

Sitting in on the seminars – and helping to train the girls – had seemed a fairly decent way to keep herself occupied, but it had turned out to be just as easy to mope at the Training Centre than it was at the house. But then, her concentration span had been ridiculous at university, too. It was only slightly ironic that her mind was wandering for more or less the same reason…

She remembered her own training tactics: speed, agility, learning-by-doing, kill before you get killed. She was all about the hands-on approach. Giles preferred to get the theory out of the way first. Of course, there was a lot to be said for that: less embarrassing moments with one's sparring partner, for a start, and even now, she could remember the way his ribs had cracked…

She shook herself physically back to the present, just in time to catch Giles' eye as he said, "…and now, for the purposes of demonstration, I'll let Buffy show you how it's done."

She gave a nod, and made her way to the front of the room, incredibly aware of the various pairs of eyes watching her every move. Standing before them all, she tried to think of something to say.

"Well. Hi. Some of you don't know me, some of you have probably had more than enough of me, so I'll make this brief. My name's Buffy. I'm the Slayer; or I was. Now I'm just a Slayer, just like you, and other than beating Giles up on a semi-regular occasion, I'm retiring." Laughter rippled through the room, and she relaxed a little. "This all sounds really boring at the moment, right? Trust me, it's more fun than it sounds. It'll take a while, but most of you'll find it comes second nature. Right. Giles?"


"Let's get this show on the road…"

It began. Giles gave verbal instructions and punches for her to block, and Buffy demonstrated to the assembled young Slayers, losing herself in the movements and the fake sparring. The connection between her brain and her body was just enough for her to concentrate, but aside from that, her mind soon drifted elsewhere.

Somewhere along the way, auto-pilot kicked in, her body falling into familiar patterns without really paying attention to what Giles was doing or telling her to perform, and then, suddenly, she was on the floor from a misplaced fist in her stomach that she'd completely failed to block. A gasp resounded around the room at seeing her go down, some of the girls rising out of their seats to get a better view, but none of them approaching. Giles shook off his initial shock at flooring her and went to her side.

"My God, are you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm okay. I must've just forgotten myself for a moment…" He offered her a hand up, which she took, and she smiled to reassure him. "This is one for the books, Giles," she said. "You should be pleased with yourself…"

"Yes, well…"

Just as she was about to say something, she paled and pressed a hand over her mouth, making a bolt for the kitchen. A couple of the girls from the front row, Vi included, followed her, and found her in the process of throwing up. She soon recovered, however, more embarrassed at being witnessed than anything else.

"Are you okay?" asked Vi.

"I wasn't feeling too good this morning. I guess Giles' fist just finished the job…"

The younger girl with Vi put her hand up, and from Buffy's questioning expression, she asked, "Is this… a Slayer thing? Like, are we gonna throw up whenever some bad guy hits us?"

"No." That was Giles in the doorway, several more curious Slayers behind him. "Buffy's just under a lot of stress at the moment…" It was as good an excuse as any, and they seemed to accept it. He directed his next comment to everyone. "Now, I hope all of you were paying attention. I want you to pair up and go out to the back garden to practice some of those moves you just saw."

"Now?" asked another Slayer.

"No time like the present," he said. "Go on." He shooed them all out of the back doors. Buffy watched with some amusement as they all wandered out. Giles turned to her. "Are you sure you're-"

"I'm fine. It must be a bug or something." The sound of giggling and falling over resounded from outside and she peered at the girls as they attempted to spar (noting with an eye-roll that Kennedy had assumed a leading role once more), before giving Giles an impressed smirk. "You're really in your element, aren't you?"

"Well, you might say that…"

"Just think, all these eager young Slayers, willing to learn… must be a dream come true."

"Actually," he said, though he appreciated her jesting tone, "the thought's rather daunting. The sooner the other Watchers can help, the better." Buffy nodded. Her stomach made an ominous rumbling noise and Giles looked concerned.

"Don't worry," she said, "I'm just hungry…"

He smiled, relieved. "Oh. Well, you can go and get some lunch, if you want. I think I can handle them from here. Or, at the very least, I'll leave them in Kennedy's capable hands." From without, the accused was heard to shout, 'You! Maggot! Down and gimme twenty!'. "Or then again…"

Buffy made her way to the door. "Good luck…"

The first day of training had been exhausting for all concerned. Giles had apparently zonked out on the sofa in the common room just before ten, leaving the girls with the joyful task of trying to wake him up again, and Kennedy had returned at about six, complaining about public transport. Now, just before midnight, everyone was either asleep or trying to be.

For Buffy, sleepless nights were becoming an expected part of her routine. She'd learnt to accept it, so much so that she'd often find her cheeks or pillow soaked with tears without even realising she'd been crying at all. Her conversation with Xander at The Lilac Tree kept ringing through her head, and what he'd mentioned about her being there when it mattered. He was right, to some degree, given what she'd divulged to them all afterwards. Nobody else knew about her confession at the Hellmouth, nor what was said to her afterwards. They'd only have tried to justify it, explain her feelings and his reaction away because of the situation they'd been in. She couldn't be dealing with that, not on top of everything else.

Maybe Xander's situation had been different… but the more she thought about it, the more she began to wish she hadn't been there. She'd promised him, that night, that she'd wait until it was all over… and God, she wished she'd kept that promise…

Willow couldn't sleep, so she had resorted to pacing. If not for the fact that Kennedy had taken up the entire bed – and not for the first time, she hated to acknowledge – but for the fact that she was unable to make her thoughts stop running around her brain. Giles' teaching offer was still playing on her mind. The prospect was incredibly daunting, but exciting. She wasn't sure if she could do it; it was true she'd taken over Miss Callendar's computer classes all those years ago, but that was different. Giles wanted her to teach magic, and she'd only just managed to grasp control of it herself. If she took up the offer, there were lesson plans to create, teaching methods to figure out…

She needed help, no doubt about it, but there was nobody qualified that they could trust. If Kennedy would just show an interest… if she was more like-

Don't go there, she told herself. She'll never be… She's not.

She risked a glance at the clock – 2.39 – and stifled a groan. It was a warm night, and the open window did nothing to dispel the wall of heat that seemed to surround her. Making her way to the window, she stared out over the yet-to-be tended backyard, and waited for the sun to rise.

The tell-tale pale stripe on the horizon only served to make her even more irritable as she stared out of the front window; morning was only a few hours away. Letting out a large yawn, she wandered back to bed, hoping tiredness would take over.

After a few minutes of shuffling and rolling around, and forcing herself not to think about anything, she eventually drifted off to sleep…

She's back here again, walking through the endless dust. She's crouching again, to peer into the crater. Once more, as she pulls away to leave, her hand is pinned to the ground, shocking her. She calms herself with a breath and examines the hand, closer now than the last time, and reaches into the crater below.

Those same flame-scarred knuckles grasp the crater's edge. She grabs onto an elbow, and hauls with all her might. The grip on her other hand loosens and she grasps its wrist, pulling up as she scrabbles to her feet. A body follows her, clambering from the abyss and sprawling at her feet, exhausted from the climb.

She knows. She's always known. She takes a step back, afraid.

He musters energy from somewhere, and struggles to his feet. They stand, an eternity apart, and she doesn't know what to say.

"Are you real?" The obvious is all she can manage.

"Not exactly…" he says, cryptically.

"What's all this supposed to mean?" she asks, terrified to approach lest he vanish into the permeating dust.

He smiles, but it makes her nervous for a reason she can't quite fathom. It's a smile that tells he knows more than she does. "I can't tell you that. Meant to be all with the cryptic. Bloody waste of time, if you ask me."

Confused, she waves a hand to get him to slow down a little, her brow furrowing. "Stop. Just… tell me what's happening here."

"Can't. Just came to give a message, is all. Then…" He looks behind him to the crater.

"No." She shakes her head, taking a step closer. "No, you're not leaving me again. You can't just turn up in my dream and then disappear. That's… that's messing with the rules."

"Neither of us make the rules, pet."

Tears sting her eyes; she'd normally blame the dust, but there's no point. There's nobody to convince. "It's not fair. Is this all I get? A fleeting visit before you disappear?" She yearns to be held, comforted, kissed better, but she knows somehow that it won't happen. She knows it's not allowed. "My subconscious is my territory; I thought I was done with the stupid Slayer dreams now… This is the only place I can… If I can't have this… what else do I have?" She reaches out, not touching, because she's scared her hand will pass right through him. "How… how am I supposed to carry on like this?"

His hand touches hers, asserting, at least, some form of realness, and their fingers link like that fateful night, only this time they burn with cold, not fire. Her eyes close to stem the barrage of emotions, and she forces herself to focus on his voice, not her own inner ramblings.

"You can," he tells her. "You can, and you will."

"Why?" It's barely above a whisper.

He uses their joined hands to pull her closer, a little uncertainly. This wasn't part of the plan, it seems, but it's torment to watch her torture herself. The message comes as he reaches up to stroke her cheek. "Live for what's inside you."

Before she can question him, he captures her lips in a kiss. Pulling away just as suddenly, her only reaction is a shocked expression, and the next thing she knows, he's turned and jumped back into the crater. Snapping out of it instantly, she runs to the edge.

There's nobody to be seen.


The alarm clock bleeped aggressively, and Buffy's eyes shot open. She panicked for a second before realising where she was, as Dawn grunted from the other bed, and the sound of birdsong drifted through the window.

The message bounced around her brain, trying to make sense of itself and failing, before finally filing itself in her memory for later recall… but the sense of impending doom that followed her prophetic dreams remained, along with the lingering sensation of that final dream-kiss. She felt her heart snap in two.

To be continued…

A/N: There. Spuffy. Don't say I'm never good to you. Though in honesty, I didn't intend the dream to end up as Spuffy as it did, but seriously, I'm going insane, here… You think you've got it bad having to wait another 14 chapters for the Spuffy? I'm the one who knows what's going to happen and isn't allowed to write it yet!

Anyway. Lyrics follow. Review, if you would be so kind. =)

Learnin' The Blues
(Katie Melua)
The tables are empty
The dance floor's deserted
You play the same love song,
It's the tenth time you've heard it.
That's the beginning, just one of the clues
You've had your first lesson
In learnin' the blues.

The cigarettes you light
On after the other,
Won't help you forget him
When you're losing your lover.
You're only burning a torch you can't lose
But you're on the right track
For learnin' the blues.

When you're out in a crowd
The blues will taunt you constantly
When you're out in a crowd
The blues will haunt your memory.

The nights when you don't sleep
The whole night you're crying
But you can't forget him
Soon you even stop trying.
You walk the floor
And wear out your shoes
When you feel your heart break
You're learnin' the blues…

(From Call Off The Search; lyrics by Delores J Silver.)