The stars were brighter out here, wherever the heck here was. She craned her neck to see them, listening to the crunch of Xander's feet as he caught up with her, then turning her gaze to him.
"Your chariot, milady," he joked, raising his car-keys and pressing the button which unlocked the doors with a mechanical chorus of clicks and beeps.
He swung the keys back into his palm, raising them to dangle from his middle finger. "Cool thing, huh? Kinda takes the romance out of the chivalry, though."
Buffy pasted on a smile. "Hey - thought that counts, right?"
He paused, on the verge of saying something, then shrugged it off. "Yeah, I guess."
She slid into the passenger seat, hands folded, watching the light change on Xander's face... porch to dome to instrument panel, underlighting him in eerie green as he swung his arm over the seat to look through the back window to reverse.
"Y'know, they make mirrors for that," she smiled.
"Force of habit," he said absently. "Besides, Sunnydale, right? Objects in mirror are closer and more there than they appear."
"Since when do you worry about running over Spike?"
"I don't," Xander said too quickly. "I just don't wanna back over him, y'know? It's cowardly. I wanna hit him straight on, back up, then run over him a few more times. The warrior way."
Buffy grinned. "Right."
"Look, Buffy..." Xander ran his thumb over the wheel, biting the inside of his cheek. "She doesn't let me give her money, okay? It's not like..."
"C'mon, Buff, I saw the barely disguised horror at Casa Rosenburg-MacLay. I've tried to give her money a million times, all right?"
"Xander... what is she doing out here? I mean, this place, it's... it's so not Willow."
"No kidding." The set of Xander's jaw indicated a sore point. "It's just... remember when Tara's family came for their little birthday visit, and we didn't like them so much? Well, we totally under-hated."
"What, they wouldn't help?"
"Oh, I wish it were just that, but yeah. God's punishment on the sinful, blah blah blah, which is basically what Willow expected... but she had to try, y'know? No, it was when we started researching what exactly Glory did to Tara, how it works. You ever read Harry Potter?"
"Dawn was really into it. I saw one of the movies with her... the third one, I think?"
"Yeah, okay... that'll work. Remember the Dementors?"
"Um... those are the Lord of the Rings-looking thingies, right?"
"Yeah. Basically, they suck out your happiness, leave you trapped in your worst memories."
"And that's... that's where Tara is? In her worst memories?"
"Yeah. I mean, I thought my Dad was..." Xander's jaw squared. "You don't ever wanna see what we saw."
At Buffy's quizzical look, Xander clarified. "Willow did this spell. Big fat mojo, y'know? You coulda surfed the nosebleeds she had. Anyway, it was a group thing, drawing on all of us. And we all ended up seeing... where Tara was."
"What happened?" Buffy asked quietly.
"Well, not to ruin the big surprise ending, but it didn't work. Plus, turns out, when you link everyone up to go frolic in Tara's worst memories? Really better if you don't include the dead guy who gets bug-zapped when he thinks about killing her dad."
"Wait a minute. You got shocked by the chip?"
"We all did. I think maybe even Tara did. Great big kumbayah sharing circle with 900-volt S'mores. So not fun. Word of friendly advice, Buff... if you're ever thinking 'Oh hey, y'know what might look nice with this outfit? A chip in my head!'? Probably better to go with some kind of, y'know, festive brooch. Think it kinda worked out in the end, though, since we were all in too much pain to drive South and get our homicide on."
Buffy contemplated this. "But that still doesn't explain..."
Xander sighed. "Tara wasn't a student anymore, which means no dorm. Wil tried to get into married housing, but hey, gay now. The Rosenbergs had been all la-la-la-Willow's-having-a-little-lesbia n-phase-we'll-just-ignore-it, y'know? Thought she was insane to take on that kind of responsibility... especially when her grades started doing a mine impression. Sheila gave her an ultimatum, Willow told her where she could put it..."
"You're kidding. She actually...?"
Xander shrugged. "It was a mess. They cut Wil off, she tried to get welfare for Tara, Social Services wanted Tara committed, and then there was the whole big gay thing again. Wil tried to magic her way out of it, and you can probably guess how well that went..."
Buffy winced, and Xander flashed her a little grin.
"It turned out mostly okay... Gunn had all kinds of handy strings to yank. Wil had to prove stable employment and residence... and in a stunning deja vu, the computer teacher at the new high school turned into a vamp snack, so Wil took over."
"But Xander... she doesn't have any teaching credentials. Um... I mean... does she?"
"The new principal's like, the anti-Snyder. Actually knows what's going on around here. Jumped at the chance to have someone else on staff who knew how to handle a Hellmouth."
"Oh my God. Tell me the new school isn't..."
"Right over the old one." Xander shook his head. "Gotta love Sunnydale."
"But... you're gonna fix Tara, aren't you? Wasn't that what the teeth and the knife and the Toys R' Us were about?"
"We're gonna try. Of course, this makes try number six. If you're ready for some ha-ha-not-so-much funniness, it turns out Wil could have fixed Tara right up if she'd been able to access Glory. But when Glory died..."
Buffy blinked at the sudden weight of guilt. "So if we hadn't gone to France, Tara would be fine now?"
"Or completely dead 'cause Glory squished her along with all the rest of us," Xander soothed. "Don't beat yourself up, Buff. Wesley's been working on it, he thinks this spell's the one."
"Wesley," Buffy muttered dubiously.
"So not the guy you remember."
Buffy's lower lip extended a fraction. "Yeah, I hear that a lot."
Xander raised an eyebrow, but didn't press.
"So... how about you?" Buffy tried. "When did you become all Scooby Captain?"
"Wil has too much going on," Xander said dismissively. "It's not that much different from the construction stuff. Know your crew, have them do what they're good at. The same stuff you do."
"Are you kidding? Xander, I... I never thought to track Magic Box purchases! And having Willow write that database that spits out what spell they're probably gonna do from the stuff they bought?"
"C'mon, Buff, I got the idea from a Playstation game," Xander squirmed.
"Who cares where you got the idea? It's awesome. And cross-referencing the checks and card slips?"
"Hey, that was all Anya."
"Yeah, and since when have I ever bothered to listen to Anya? Can you just take the praise, please?"
He opened his mouth, snapped it shut; it seemed he was listening to some internal voice. Then, he smiled.
"Sure, Buff. Thanks."
They drove on in silence, Buffy's fingers reaching out to play with the door lock; after a glance at her, Xander reached down to turn on the CD player.
The shift of his arm pulled his cuff back, revealing seven fine white scars that disappeared up his wrist and beneath his sleeve.
"Huh?" He followed her eyes, and startled, yanking his hand back to the wheel. "What is it, Buff?"
"How far do those go?"
Xander's eyes narrowed. "What an interestingly phrased question."
"Look, Xander, Spike..."
"Has got a really big mouth!" Xander blurted, then shook his head. "Sorry."
Buffy's next words were drowned out by the music Xander suddenly cranked; she closed her mouth again, resigned.
sighed in happiness as she swallowed the dumpling, grinning across the
booth at Spike. "So have no clue how you found a decent Chinese place
in the Sunnydale area, but major yays on you."
"Aw, come now, Nibblet, I know you're not expressin' a low opinion of the Dragon Garden?" He leaned back against the green vinyl, lighting a cigarette.
"Spike, it gave you food poisoning. That shouldn't even be possible."
He grinned. "Bonus of havin' the Wiccas across the town line, stumbled on this place one night."
"How come you guys meet at Willow and Tara's now?"
"Well, we don't just. It's random; Harris' idea. Were havin' a bit of an issue with all the baddies knowin' exactly where Team White Hat was of an evening. Boy's a good leader, shocked to say, an' he doesn't have Rupert's fear of technology." Spike pulled a Nextel from his duster pocket and wriggled it. "Have to get you one of these."
"Beep-beep," Dawn laughed. "Buffy, I'm kidnapped again."
"Don't tell me Big Sis still hasn't trained you."
"I've picked up a few things she doesn't know about," Dawn's eyes twinkled with mischief. "But... yeah."
"Bugger that," Spike declared, seizing an egg roll. "You're not gettin' eaten on my watch. Train you myself."
Dawn's face broke into a grin. "Really?"
"Really-really. If you're not too knackered, pet, I'll start tonight."
"I am so not knackered. Could I patrol with you?"
"Feel better if we started off in the trainin' room first. After that, I'll talk to Harris about the schedule." Spike considered. "Or Buffy, I suppose, now she's back."
"I dunno." Dawn twirled her chopsticks through a puddle of soy sauce. "I don't think Buffy's all that filled with joy about being back in charge. I mean, maybe she'll want Xander to keep doing his thing."
Spike shrugged. "Lad's got the knack."
"You really are friends with Xander now, aren't you?" Dawn asked slyly.
"He's less of a git than he used to be," was all Spike would admit.
"Is that why you shoved Buffy at him last night?"
Spike blinked, then glared. "Eavesdroppin's a sin."
"Crypt's not that big, Spike. C'mon. Is that why you shoved Buffy at him?"
"Didn't bloody well shove her anywhere."
"God, you are the worst liar ever. Remind me how you pulled off being evil again?"
Spike avoided her eyes, applying hot mustard to his eggroll with Xanderian precision.
Dawn pulled her Coke towards her. "Don't you think they're too far into the 'Friend Zone'?"
"Bugger the 'Friend Zone'. Remind me sometime to tell you the sort of naughty little hijinks Harris n' Red got up to in the soddin' 'Friend Zone'. Boy's main problem was lack of stones. Doesn't work that way, anyway. All you have to do is look at someone differently one day... everythin' changes."
Dawn tipped her head, smiling gently. "Oh, really?"
"We're talkin' about Harris."
"Okay," Dawn chirped, sipping her soda.
Spike eyed her suspiciously. "That was too easy."
"I'm not gonna chase you, Spike." She flipped her hair back over her shoulder. "Little concept called 'pride'. If you don't want to be with me, well... that's your decision."
"Not quite as cut-n-dried as that..."
"But I told you before," Dawn interrupted. "I'm not waiting around. In fact - I have a date tomorrow night."
The egg roll thudded back onto his plate. "The hell."
"Spike... you just gave me a speech about how you wanted me to date 'normal blokes' and do 'normal things'. Make up your mind already."
He sputtered. "Well you don't have to... there's no bloody reason why you should..."
"What do you want me to do, Spike? Get 'Property of William T. Bloody' tattooed on my forehead on my way to the nunnery?"
"Maybe," Spike pouted.
"Name one non-stupid reason you're being such a dork about this."
Spike mouth opened.
And closed again.
Dawn huffed in exasperation. "Lame. I'm going to the bathroom."
Xander woke with a start, his eyes flying wide as his hand scrabbled for the stake beneath the other pillow, lunging forward...
To swipe the air in front of Buffy, who had just nimbly ducked backwards from his bed, hands raised.
"Hey, hey - I come in peace, okay?" Buffy tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, and Xander forced himself not to examine what the movement did to the hemline of her nightshirt.
"Hellmouth, Buff. Jeez." Xander shoved the stake back under the pillow. "What's going on?"
He rubbed his eyes. "Uh, okay? You make a regular habit of this, with the creepy hovering and the watching me snore?"
"No, I just... I couldn't sleep."
"You, uh... you want some, I dunno, warm milk or something?"
"No, no, I'm good, I... I'll try again, I just, uh. Nightmare," she offered lamely.
"Nightmare... or Slayer Dream? Should we mount up?"
"N-No, that's okay... no mounting," Buffy replied... a second before her cheeks burst into flame. "I mean, no riding. No. No. I m-mean, if there is going, it, um, should not be done. By people. Saddle-free people. People should stay put. Which is not to say that I should stay put, because here is a place that I should not be."
"Buffy, what the hell's going on?" Xander threw back the covers, swinging his legs off the bed.
"I was just..."
And Buffy's sentence died, her eyes widening... even as Xander's narrowed.
"You came for the show," he spat.
"Xander, I..." Buffy's hand stretched out towards him.
"Hey, if you wanted to see it, Buff." Xander stood, doing a slow, sarcastic show twirl; the network of scars that criss-crossed his torso gleamed silver in the moonlight. "That'll be five bucks."
Buffy bit her lip. "Would you still be all bad mood-y if I told you it looked kinda badass?"
Xander chuckled in spite of himself. "Maybe if I believed you."
Buffy stepped towards him, reaching out to trail her fingers down a long, jagged scar at his side; Xander hissed at the contact.
"Does it hurt?"
"Nah," Xander shrugged. It almost covered his shiver.
"I meant when I touched it."
Xander's voice was tight, strained. "Doesn't hurt."
"Xander... what happened to you?" Buffy continued to trace the lines slowly, lost in thought.
He caught her hand, pulled it away from him. "Buffy? What are you doing?"
She looked up into his eyes... so soft, uncertain, disbelieving. "Is it okay if I don't know?"
"Um, hello?" Dawn looked up from washing her hands, pointing at Spike with one sudsy finger. "The little lady in the dress on the sign means you pee next door."
He shut the bathroom door behind him... and turned the lock, the muscle in his jaw pulsing with fury.
"Oh, we're having a discussion now?" Dawn turned her face from him, continued rinsing. "Mmm, way to pick the ambiance."
"I thought of a non-stupid reason," Spike growled.
"And it couldn't wait until I got out of the bathroom?"
He glared. Dawn sighed, turning towards him with her hands on her hips.
"Fine. Let's hear it. What's your urgently non-stupid reason?"
"You should be afraid of me," Spike replied, low and deadly.
"Uh-huh. And why is that?"
"You're human. Buffy, Dru, Harm? Slayer. Vampires. They could handle it."
Dawn rolled her eyes. "Sorry, Spike. Never been scared of you. Try ag-"
She had time to register one thing - Spike's hand sliding behind her head, cupping it protectively... before her vision turned white from the force with which she'd been slammed into the wall behind her, ricocheting helplessly for a frozen flash until the weight of Spike's body pinned her firmly to the tile, his thigh sliding roughly, insistently between hers. His lips descended, raw and bruising, and Dawn felt something red and brutal and hungry surging up within her, filling her, like magma rising from beneath. Sensation, emotion, rose to eclipse conscious thought, wrath and lust and gluttony and greed fusing into one raging, violent, ravenous need, her fingers clawing into Spike's hair as she ground herself against him, raw power pulsing with her heartbeat as he let out a ragged growl against her lips.
Somewhere beyond her own moans, Spike's ragged breath, and the pounding of her blood on her ears... there was a voice; not hers, not Spike's, and therefore unimportant...
"Bloody hell," Spike gasped, pulling away from her and calling over his shoulder in - Chinese?
She shook her head, and now she could hear it; the pounding at the door, the insistent, angry foreign shouts.
"Y-you speak C-Chinese?" she stammered.
"Made a point of learnin' it." Spike replied darkly, grabbing her hand. "We need to go."
She let him pull her out of the bathroom, past the outraged face of the owner and a waitress struggling not to laugh, nearly crashing into him on unsteady legs when he stopped suddenly in front of their booth to grab his duster and throw a bill down on the table.
Out in the night air, Spike released her... lighting a cigarette and leaning against the wall with a groan.
She took a tentative step towards him. "Spike?"
"Best you..." Spike shook his head in frustration, holding up a restraining hand. "Just... stay back for a bit, all right?"
"Was that... was that what you meant to do? When you came in?"
"Yes," Spike whispered miserably, then shook his head. "No. I don't - bit confused over here, all right?"
He shot her an irritated glance. "Yeah?"
"How's your head?"
"My head? You're the one got..."
Dawn shook her head, caught his eye. "Spike... how's your chip?"
He stared at her, eyes widening in realization.