Fear and denial had been playing tug-of-war in Jack Kowalski's head since the night something black and scaly had shown up in his guestroom trying to kill Tara. Now denial was being pulled through the mud and getting rope burns. That was all right with him; as a psychologist he could work with fear. Denial, on the other hand, only caused trouble, and he was sure what had happened had been real.
Jack was also fairly sure somebody was watching him, somebody or something hungry. He halted in front of April Fool's, trying to see whoever it was in the dress shop window.
"Jack, what's wrong?" Ian asked. "That's the third time you've stopped to look in a shop window; you never window shop."
"I think somebody's following us."
"There are people on the street tonight and everything's well lit," Ian reassured him.
Jack nodded but he really didn't any feel better. "Maybe I am being slightly paranoid. It looks like that place Tara's friends used to run has reopened. Let's go in there."
Bells jingled when they entered the Magic Box and Jack heard the sound of crying from somewhere in the back. The shop itself appeared to be empty. His dad didn't talk a lot about work, but cops' kids picked stuff up, so Jack's already fearful mind put two and two together and came up with something scary. He backed out of the shop and pulled Ian with him. Once on the sidewalk again, they heard a loud roar that sounded like a grief stricken animal,
Ian pulled his cell phone out to dial 911. "Damn, I forgot to charge it!"
"Stay here," Jack said, "or better yet, go to the coffee shop. I'll be right there."
"Wait, you're not going back in there?"
"Take a look around, Ian. There's a cop right across the street. He didn't even look up at that noise, nobody did."
Ian asked, "What is this? You help to kill one giant gecko and you're suddenly Batman?"
"Whoever's in there needs help."
"You win, Jack, but if you're playing Batman, I'm Robin. You're not going in alone." He grinned. "Just so you know, I'm not wearing tights, though; those things are evil!"
Jack did his best to creep quietly in the door with Ian behind him. It made him startle when the bells on the door rang out cheerfully once more. He looked behind the counter for a panic button or something to use as a weapon. He found a mace of all freaking things, but decided against picking it up. The whole place was filled with stuff that would inspire Stephen King, but Jack wasn't here to browse.
The back room wasn't for storage, but was set up as some kind of dojo. In the middle of the room, a man with bleached hair was weeping and clinging to an unresponsive blonde girl. Tara and a teenage girl were busy trying to comfort them, and didn't notice him or Ian. The teen tried to get the girl to respond to her and the man roared like a wounded beast.
A man around Jack's own age, who was holding a crying little boy noticed Jack and Ian. "I'm sorry, we're not open for business just yet," he said, as if he were relieved that at least he knew what to say to them. The kid had a healing bruise on his head and was saying, 'want spike, spike, want spike!' over and over and the man had to speak loudly. "Hush, Stephen. Spike is busy taking care of Buffy." The kid gave the older guy a narrow-eyed look, but he did quiet down.
In an embarrassed rush, Ian said, "You must be Mr. Giles, Tara said you were British. I'm Ian and this is Jack. We were passing by and thought we heard some trouble. Has that man hurt the girl?"
The brown haired woman beside Giles spoke up. "No, it's not that. Spike hasn't hurt Buffy. She's just had a shock or something. It's really just a small family crisis; don't worry about a thing. Please stop back in a few days when you've forgotten your awkward questions."
Jack blinked. "Maybe I can help after all; helping families in crisis is my job."
She said, "That's odd, I thought Xander called you the landscape guys?"
Ian explained, "I'm a part owner of Sunnydale Landscape Designs."
Mr. Giles stood closer to the woman and placed himself very deliberately between the weeping couple and Jack. "I don't think now is a good time for a chat."
"We should just go, Jack," Ian murmured.
The teenaged girl turned toward Giles and reported, "Buffy's not talking and Spike's falling apart."
"It will be all right, Dawn," Giles said.
Dawn didn't seem to be any more convinced than Jack was by this but she let herself be petted and comforted by Tara and the woman who thought he was a landscape designer. Jack didn't understand why Tara didn't just speak up and tell Giles he was qualified to help. He said, "Look, I don't know what's happened here but I'm —"
"You're leaving," Mr. Giles said. "This is a private matter."
Jack didn't know if this guy was trying to protect his friends or he had his own reasons to keep things in the family. Either way, it was beginning to annoy him. While Mr. Giles was busy playing Papa Bear everyone's attention had been diverted to the argument. Jack noticed that the bleached blond had moved into the far corner with the girl and was now rocking back and forth.
Tara said, "Jack's a psychologist; maybe we should let him try to help."
Jack slipped into the gap in the human wall that Tara had left open and spoke without looking back. "While you're busy trying to keep things private, those two are in pain and retreating from the people who want to help them. I can't tell without getting a better look, but the girl might be catatonic."
"Let him try, honey," Anya said. "We don't have Willow to go in after her this time."
"Anya, what if he insists that Buffy…"
"Then we'll deal with it when it happens," Anya told Mr. Giles.
Jack ignored them and folded himself up as small as his height of six foot six would allow in front of the two people in the corner.. He was relieved to see the girl turn her face a little more into the man's leather coat. She wasn't catatonic, just withdrawn. He figured he was still more likely to be able to engage the man.
"Um, hi?" Way to prove you've earned that PhD, Jack, he thought. "Your name is Spike, right?" Spike looked him in the eyes then and Jack couldn't help noticing the guy was beautiful even as a complete wreck.
"It's what they call me." He seemed to be trying to pull together the toughness that would match better than vulnerability with his hair and clothes. It was telling that he wouldn't take his arms from around the girl to wipe the tears from his face.
"Do you think you could tell me what's happened here?"
"What the hell for? You're not going to understand a word of it anyway."
"But telling me could help you understand it," Jack said. He could hear the others leaving them alone but he didn't look to make sure.
"What're you; some poofy shrink?" Spike sniffed. "Never mind, I'll spill. You just nod now and then, yeah?" Jack nodded obediently and Spike continued.
"Had to dust Angelus, the one who helped to make me who I am. I didn't have a choice; he would've killed Buffy. She dropped her stake. Even if she hadn't, I would've tried to get there first so I could be the one to do it. She loves -- loved -- him and she'd had to do too many hard and terrible things— So I'm not sorry. It's not because I hated him. Though for the record, I did hate him. Lousy sod was never there for those that needed him!"
Jack said, "I see," breaking a promise to himself that he'd never say that unless it were100 percent true. Spike laughed bitterly and Jack wondered if he could read minds.
"Well, I bloody don't! I expected to lose Angel, it even makes sense that I couldn't really save Buffy. When have I ever done anything right? But where'd Dru go? She should be in the world somewhere and she's not. I did something wrong and now I'm cut off. Buffy's here, but when she's herself again she'll hate me for what I've done."
Jack looked at Buffy's fist. The knuckles were stark white against the black leather. It didn't look like hate to him. It looked like she was holding on for dear life. "What do you think you did that would make her hate you?"
"Dusted Angel, for one thing. Then kept Buffy from going back to her heavenly reward. Lots of stuff before that; just take your pick. I should spare her the trouble and spend the day at the beach tomorrow."
Jack didn't understand a word of this, but it looked like Buffy did because she chose then to rejoin the world with a mumbled 'no' that was repeated more loudly. "No!"
Spike asked, "No, what?"
Buffy pulled away from Spike and turned to face him. "No, everything. No, it wasn't your fault. I froze, Spike. I was 18 again and this time I didn't have it in me to slay him. Whatever 'it' was, though, I'm going to get it back. "
Buffy stiffened and spoke to Jack for the first time. "When I say 'slay' it doesn't mean what it sounds like."
"Hey, I don't see a body. I'm not making any assumptions. You can explain all this to me some other time if you want."
"Maybe not, I might be tired of explaining after tonight. It's usually Giles' job."
"I don't know why I fumbled the stake, Spike, but it wasn't because I wanted to die." Buffy turned back to Spike and she didn't see it, but Jack was beginning to smile. Buffy spoke like an oncoming freight train; every sentence was stronger and more certain. "So no, I don't hate you for saving me. And the biggest 'no' is no day at the beach. You aren't getting the easy way out. Nobody is."
"Why not?" Spike asked, sounding hopeful.
"Because I don't want to lose y… anyone else, and you're wrong; the family on the other side of that door belongs to you, too."
Spike said, "Good enough. I suppose we'd better get back to them. I can hear Stephen asking for us both." They helped each other to stand, moving like a stiff old couple. Jack could tell they were usually more graceful than that.
When they opened the door into the shop, the boy practically flew to Buffy and Spike, then Dawn anxiously hugged them both. The others took turns greeting them a little more sedately, but with real affection and concern. Jack was pleased with all the obvious support they had. Tara said a quiet thank you to Jack before taking a turn to hug a startled looking Spike.
Ian was sitting on a stair. Jack went over to him ."You okay?" Ian asked.
Jack said, "I still feel like I've been dumped into a season of the X-Files. You know, the one that didn't make sense even if you saw all the other episodes."
"Me too. How're they doing?" Ian asked, looking toward the group.
"Better than I thought they'd be. I was pretty sure at first that Buffy would need a hospital stay. If it weren't for the X-Files element I'd say she still does."
"Good thing you butted in then," Ian said.
"I don't know if I did anything Mr. Giles there wouldn't have thought of. All I did was listen. I didn't wave a magic wand and make all their problems go away; whatever's hurting them still hurts."
"Tara and the girls told me some stuff while you were in there. I don't think even magic works like magic, Jack."