The Next Step

Willow broke my arm! Well, not technically, but she is why it happened. I'm grateful Buffy and Giles told her she couldn't sleep here tonight, and had to move out. I don't think I could have slept while she was here, just in the other room. At least Giles was able to explain to my sister how dangerous Willow is now. And it makes sense why Spike seemed to observe her a lot over the summer…guess he could sense her slip to the dark side.

There's a note on my pillow when I go up to my room. Now, unless Angel is Angelus again and decided to start leaving me creepy messages instead of Buffy, it's a letter from Spike. Which I instinctively think of as so not of the good. Thankfully, it's my left that's broken, so I can still open the envelope easily enough. I had left the overhead light off when I came in, but I turn on the bedside lamp now to read the letter. I've always thought his writing was so pretty. I doubt anyone's noticed but me, but Spike can write with both hands. I asked him about it once, and he told me a story about how writing left-handed got your handed smacked with a ruler in school because they thought it was evil. They would even tie that hand behind your back until you stopped trying to use it. But, he rarely writes right-handed, now.

I snuggle into my comfy bed in a position that won't hurt my arm, and proceed to read.

Hey, Niblet,

You better be in bed when you read this. Your sister doesn't need to worry about you tonight.

I had to leave town for a bit, hopefully for just a few days. A mate is watching the crypt for me. His name is Clem. He's harmless, so make sure your sister doesn't kill him. Not that she'll go visiting my home any time soon… Anyway, I'll keep in touch with Clem, so if I'll be longer, he'll know.

Bit, your sister isn't doing well, much as she tries to pretend, so go easy on her, yeah? For me? If things work out like I plan, well, things will change.

Be good, quit stealing from Demon Girl – of course, I know – and stop cutting class. That paper you have due better be done by the time I get back.

Make sure your sister eats something.

Yours,

Spike

The nerve of that vampire going through her backpack and reading her assignment book! Like it wasn't bad enough that the school counselor reviewed her progress report every week. But…at least somebody cared what she did.

Spike's never left Sunnydale since I've known him, so it must be important to get him to take off for a while. Well, I'm not telling Buffy unless she asks. She'll just throw a fit that Spike's talking to me – like he didn't take care of me all summer! I swear, my sister makes no sense! My arm is starting to throb, so I'm going to take another pain pill and try to sleep. If I'm lucky, maybe they won't make me go to school tomorrow. I hope he comes back non-dusty, or I'm going to kick his ass.

------------

Days later…

I'm finally in Africa. It's slow travel, only going at night, but at least it's better than by boat. I'd rather not have this trek take weeks. This little village is in the middle of BFE (except I'm not in Egypt), but there's supposed to be a guide here that can point me to the caves inhabited by Mr. Legendary.

An old man approaches me, skin like leather from the desert sun. There's an odd glint to his eye that makes me pause, and I growl a warning.

"You are on a quest," he says. "I can take you to what you seek." He turns and starts walking, expecting me to follow.

"How the bloody hell do you know that?" I ask. Never liked those cryptic gits who know me before I know them.

"You are not from here. It is obvious," he replies, and continues walking into the darkness. Well, there are only so many hours of night, so I follow, keeping my senses attuned to anything odd.

The old man points out a cave opening, where two glowing eyes stand in the darkness. Great, he knows I was coming. The old man disappears in the instant I wasn't looking, and my eyes narrow. The magic in this place is so old, the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. Lurky beckons me inside, so I approach.

"What brings you here, vampire?" The demon has a voice deep enough to rival James Earl Jones. He's a sizeable bloke, and I can feel the power radiating off him through to my bones.

"Heard you grant wishes to those who are worthy."

"If you pass the trials," he booms ominously. Well, I knew there had to be some bloody price.

"Right…so, I pass those, and you'll give me what I want?"

"If you pass."

"Fine. Bring it on, then. I've got me a girl to get back to."

He sends a gladiator after me made of living fire, and I start to wonder what I've gotten myself in to.

-----------

Buffy walked out of her third therapy session with Dr. Thomas. Giles had gone with her for the first meeting, since Buffy was still so wary of anyone that was involved with the Council in any way. She liked Dr. Thomas, though. She was in her late thirties, and projected more of a Tara vibe, then a Watcher one. After listening to the events preceding Buffy's death, and her subsequent resurrection, Dr. Thomas decided to schedule them for three visits a week until Buffy started feeling more secure in her life.

The second session had been about what she'd been doing and feeling since coming back to life. Buffy tearfully admitted all her fears she felt every day – that heaven wouldn't take her back one day, that she'd screw up her sister and get her taken away for good, that she'd lose all her friends if she let them know how she was really feeling, that her friendship, and attraction for, with Spike was sick and wrong and only proved that she had come back damaged.

"Buffy, were your parents judgmental of you as a child?"

"Like how?"

"Were you punished for getting a tiny spot on your dress, or did you have to get all A's? Those kinds of things. Were you allowed to be imperfect?"

"They were great, before the divorce and stuff. Before I became a Slayer, I was just a typical high school girl in L.A. Mom and I went shopping all the time, and Dad did special stuff with me, just the two of us, when he had time from work. I was happy…spoiled, even."

"And after you became the Slayer?"

"I was freaked out, of course. I tried to explain to my parents, after I dusted my first vamp, and they…they put me in a mental hospital when I wouldn't confess that I made it up. I was there for a couple weeks, until I finally said that I didn't believe in vampires and monsters, and they let me go."

"That must have been very traumatic for you. How was life after you were released? I assume you eventually went back to Slaying."

Buffy nodded. "I did. My Watcher wouldn't leave me alone about it, even approaching me at school. I kept it a secret, but slaying got in the way of my life. I was exhausted during the day, had to cut classes to kill demons, and for the grand finale – burn down the gym full of vampires. That got me expelled, of course. As I had trouble at school, my parents started fighting about who was to blame for my behavior. Getting expelled was the final straw, and Dad left…and they divorced. So, you see…we'd been a happy family before my calling got in the way…and it was all my fault."

"Buffy, marriages don't break up because their child is having problems. If we could ask your parents, they'd probably admit that they were both feeling unsatisfied in the marriage long before you were activated. Your problems gave them something to fight about, since they could no longer communicate with each other. For a couple years before that, your parents probably didn't spend much time together, did they?"

"Well, Dad works a lot…has for a long time. His promotion made him have to travel, sometimes for weeks."

"And did they go out on dates or do something special when your father came home…to renew their bond?"

"Not really…Mom left food warmed for him in the oven, and he would come in to eat after work. They did go to a few concerts."

"Where it would be inappropriate to talk. You see where I'm going, Buffy?"

"That they had more issues than just my issues? But…whenever they'd tell me it wasn't about me, it always sounded like it kinda was."

"And that was unfair. Buffy, from what you've told me of your family, it seems to be a common trait to bury your heads in the sand when trouble arises. You want to deny it and pretend everything's fine, but that route is unhealthy, and will only lead you to misery later on when all of that finally breaks through the dam you've been trying to shove it behind. We learn how to cope with life from our parents, Buffy, and yours haven't prepared you very well."

"My mom loved me!"

"I'm not denying that, dear. Of course, she loved you! But, that doesn't mean she held the knowledge to best teach you…and now, you're here to learn. So, what I want you to do between now and our next session is repeat something to yourself."

"Okaaaay…"

"'I am only responsible for my own actions, not the decisions of others.' Try it."

"I am only responsible for my own actions…not the decisions of others," Buffy repeated.

"Good. Again."

It was amazing how that train of thought started to release her from the years of guilt. When looking at how Willow dealt with magic, Buffy said her mantra. When explaining to Dawn that she could only do what she could do, not what Mom did, she said it some more. When Xander looked tense every time Anya went off on more wedding plans, she repeated it inside her head and hoped for the best for them. And when Spike had been gone for over a week, Buffy reminded herself that he had always turned up again before. When he did, she was going to apologize, even if she had to leave him a note.

During the third session, they talked about her fears for relationships. When Buffy blamed herself for Angel losing his soul, Dr. Thomas reminded her of their mantra.

"But, he had his happy moment because I decided to sleep with him!"

"Buffy, Angel is much older than you, and knew about the ramifications of sex, though this one was unusual. It was his responsibility to know about the terms of his curse. His responsibility to be the adult and not get caught up in raging hormones in your relationship. You couldn't have possibly expected what happened that night."

"But I'm the Slayer…we're not supposed to have relationships with vampires. If I'd been with a normal boy, no one would have died."

"And if you'd been with a normal boy, you probably wouldn't have ended up in that dramatic situation which led to sex at 17. Angel was in the wrong for pursuing your relationship – not because he was a vampire, but because you were still very young and naïve. Your maturity levels weren't even close to being compatible, and so it was easy for him to take advantage of you."

"He didn't take advantage-"

"Did he, or did he not, leave town because you two couldn't resume a normal sexual relationship?"

"Well…he wanted me to find someone normal…" she squirmed.

"Buffy, don't shy away from the question. This is an important thing for you to realize. While the circumstances with Angelus were dreadfully unfortunate, you are not solely to blame for what happened. Don't let anyone convince you differently. Now, was sex the primary reason that your relationship could not continue?"

"It…it would have been too much temptation…I was willing to work it out, however we had to, until we found a solution…"

"But he wasn't willing to wait and not have you."

"Yeah…God, I never realized he was so shallow in that way…"

"Let's move on to Parker. That was your rebound guy, yes?"

"Yeah, basically. I thought being with him meant that I was moving on. But he was only interested in sex, and then, only once. He and Angelus both thought I wasn't worth a second try. It was so humiliating, talking to Parker in the quad, and Spike overhearing. He just had to rub it in as we fought…that really hurt…"

"Well, you were already vulnerable. Have you had a fulfilling sexual encounter before, Buffy?"

"Dr. Thomas!"

"Sex is just a part of the whole that makes us up as people, Buffy. And since your female, emotions are inevitably tied to the event. You know the old saying – guys say love to get sex, and women give sex to get love. It's crude and overly simplistic, but there is truth in that. You've been hoping that giving yourself to your boyfriends would make you feel complete…and it can, when both parties are in love and using it as an expression of that love, but sexual intimacy does not replace emotional intimacy. How close did you feel to Riley? You were together a little over a year, yes?"

"Yeah…I don't know. I mean, I felt like I'd shared more of myself than I had before…and then he wouldn't let the vampire things go, and Mom got sick…and he didn't understand that I needed to be strong for the rest of the group and not give in to how helpless I felt-"

"Stop there. You said you needed to be strong for the group? In what way? Why is that?"

"Well, they look to me to fix things, solve problems, save the world…I-I couldn't let them down…couldn't let Dawnie down, when she was looking to me for answers…and I-if I cried, I felt like I would never stop."

"Did you ever take the time to grieve for your mother's illness, and then her death?"

"Well, when she first went to the hospital, I was sitting out on the back porch. I felt so lost, and all I wanted was a moment alone to wrap my brain around her being sick…I had tears, then. Spike came up, and," she laughed. "He had a shotgun and looked really pissed off, and then he looked at…and I didn't care what he did at that moment, you know? But, he just sat down next to me, and patted my shoulder, and was just…quiet. And if you knew Spike, you'd know that he's never quiet. After that, everything just got so insane with Glory and stuff…I don't remember what I did. Some things…they're still a bit fuzzy, after where I was."

"It's never too late to let that pain go, Buffy. Tears eventually stop, even when it doesn't feel like they will, and you'll feel better once they have cleansed you. You've mentioned several moments where you could be more vulnerable around Spike. What kind of quality does he possess that encourages your trust? I want you to think about that question for our next session, okay?" Dr. Thomas set her notes aside and stood to open the office door. "Write it down, if you like. I'm interested in your thought process as you think about it.

"Okay. Thanks, again."

-----------

A battered and bloody Spike dropped to his knees, triumphant over the last trial.

"I've beaten everything you've thrown at me, you miserable sod! Time for you to meet your end of the deal. You'll give me what I want…"

"You have only to think of your heart's desire, vampire. Be sure in what you ask for."

The Slayer owns my heart, so it's an easy request to meet. "I want Buffy's soul restored! She's lived in enough pain."

"Very well. It is done," the demon intoned, and turned to walk away.

"That's it? No theatrics, no fireworks?" Spike gasped. "How do I know it worked?"

"Go home, vampire! Your purpose here is done." Lurky disappeared into the darkness.

------------

Humph! Not even a proper goodbye. Oh, bloody hell, this hurts. My insides feel like they've been turned inside out, and these burns sting like a bitch. My shoes, coat, and shirt are back at the entrance, and it feels like miles to walk there. Outside, the old man greets me again, holding a big bowl of warm blood. I gratefully take it, too tired to care, and discover they've slaughtered some animal for me to provide fresh blood.

"Thanks, mate." I hand the bowl back and belch, feeling full for the first time in a week. He smiles at me, most of his teeth gone.

"You found what you sought? It is good. Rest here. We take you back tomorrow."

He leads me to a hut with a pallet of blankets. It ain't the Ritz, but it'll do. I can already feel the blood healing my wounds, thank the unholy. I strip down to my jeans again and drop off as soon as my head hits the pillow.

-----------

A week later, and I'm home. Clem greets me with beer and hot wings, but all I want is a shower. He understands, and leaves me with an invitation to the next poker game. I can smell that Niblet's been here. Slayer's at least stepped in the door, too. Interesting. Well, I'm in desperate need of some kip, so it'll have to wait until tomorrow evening. Sunrise is in an hour, and my body is already half asleep.

Spike could see them moving about through the front windows. It was five days to Christmas, and lights had been strung around the house, a tree sat decorated in the living room, and he could hear Dawn singing along to holiday music. The Watcher was still here, too, which surprised him, and yet, not. The old git wouldn't take off again so close to Christmas if he'd already been held here this long. Spike snubbed out his cigarette on the sidewalk. Perhaps it wasn't the best time…he should come back later, when it didn't look like a family portrait in there.

He must have stayed long enough for Buffy to sense him, for she opened the front door and stepped out on the porch.

"Spike?"

Caught now, mate. "Slayer," he greeted, coming up the walk. Three weeks had done her some good, as her hair was in loose curls and she wore a pretty sweater and matching long skirt. An effort to be festive.

"We were just sitting down for dinner. Would you like to join us?" she asked softly.

Flabbergasted, Spike could only nod and follow her inside. Dawn squealed upon sight and rushed to hug him. He was unused to her being so affectionate around others, and would have blushed if he were capable. Giles rose from the table and shook his hand, then resumed his seat. Touched, Spike swallowed nervously and sat where Buffy indicated.

"We're having tamales. I hope you don't mind," she said.

"They're a Christmas tradition for Hispanic families," Dawn added. "Mrs. Rosales from two doors down made too much for her family, and brought a dish over."

"Wasn't she the one who dropped off that casserole a year ago?" Giles asked. It had been around the time of Joyce's funeral.

"Yeah," Buffy confirmed. "She and Mom used to exchange gardening tips. Nice lady. I rescued her dog two years ago." The blonde handed Spike a plate with two tamales on it, and a mug of blood. Dumbfounded, the vampire still hadn't found his tongue to speak.

"Ah, yes. The demon with a penchant for Chihuahuas. How was your trip, Spike?" Giles asked.

"Pardon? Oh, uh, it was fine, mostly…tiring." The vampire dropped his head again and poured hot sauce over his dinner.

"We kicked Willow out," Dawn stated bluntly.

"Dawn…" Buffy sighed. "She means that we politely but firmly asked her to leave after Dawn's arm was broken."

Spike looked up, alarmed. "Niblet?" She waved her cast left arm, now free of the sling.

"It's fine, just itches. Willow was supposed to take me to the movies, but we went to her magic dealer, instead, she got high, and a demon attacked us as a side effect. Oh, and Willow crashed a car because she was driving it with magic. The night really sucked." She dug into her rice and beans again, unaffected.

"Anyway, Giles has convinced her to go to a coven he knows after Hanukah, so hopefully, I won't end up having to slay my best friend," Buffy added. "Ummm, I found a job at the mall for the season. It's temporary, but if they like me, they might keep me on after Christmas is over. Giles is here, obviously, and…I've been seeing a therapist."

"Really," Spike said in surprise. "How's that going, pet?"

"Really good. It's only been a few weeks, but I kinda feel like everything isn't so overwhelming anymore. And I've learned stuff, too. I figure I'll keep going at least until my birthday…and she doesn't mind me calling if I think of something…" she replied, blushing. "Like when I woke up a week ago from a nice dream feeling…warm."

"Beware of those fuzzy feelings, Slayer," Spike teased. Buffy stuck her tongue out at him.

"Shut up…it meant something at the time," she pouted. Dawn rolled her eyes.

"I'm sure it did, Buffy," Giles said. "So, where did you go, Spike? Some kind of tour, or a place more specific?" he asked casually, but when Spike looked up to meet the Watcher's gaze, there was a hint of knowledge in those grey depths.

"Bit of both, actually," Spike replied. "Saw an old friend, and some wilderness. Met an appointment, and came home."

"Well, you'll have to tell me some time if you saw any interesting species," the Watcher added.

Old sod still has contacts in interesting places. "I'll try to remember, Rupert. I just got in last night."

After dinner, Dawn pulled Giles into the living room to play chess so Buffy and Spike would be left to wash the dishes.

Buffy passed him a plate to dry. "I wanted to apologize…"

"For what, luv?"

"What I tried to get you to do. It was wrong and unfair, and you were right…if I was going to do that, I should have done it myself. I cried in front of that old house until there were no more tears left. I didn't think if I started there would ever be an end, but you do dry out. The, Giles showed up, and got me to talk…and we rescued Dawn, I asked Willow to leave, and saw Dr. Thomas the next day. Three days a week, and the hour always seems to go by really fast, you know? I guess that means I'm getting somewhere. You know what she got me to do?"

"Haven't a clue, pet."

"She gave me a mantra to repeat in my head, or out loud, if I need it. It's actually worked. If you repeat something enough times, you really do start to believe it. Know what else?" She was enjoying this.

"Enlighten me," he grinned.

"Angel is a selfish jerk when it comes to relationships."

She said it so plainly, that Spike couldn't help his jaw dropping to the floor. "Angel? As in your 'one true love, souled, brooding, and tortured' Angel?!"

Buffy giggled. "Is there another vampire in the world named Angel?"

"God, I hope not," Spike muttered. "Never heard you say a less than stellar word about him before, Slayer."

"Yeah…that was because what we had was on a pedestal, but Dr. Thomas made me realize that what we'd shared wasn't true love in the forever way, and never would be. I guess I was hanging on to that because I thought there was no hope of anything else that would be better…but that was really dumb. I saw him briefly, after I came back…and we don't even really know each other anymore. It was time to realize those memories belong with a 16-year-old girl."

"Wow…so, what's next?"

"In therapy, I work on accepting who I am. All that I am. Giles actually sat down with me this time and explained all the household stuff. I'm giving work my honest effort and not flaking because I'm bored. And Dawn and I talk about the serious stuff now. Dr. Thomas explained to me that she would be less likely to act out for attention if I included her on what's going on with the finances, and me…and so far, it's working. I thought I couldn't do anything right if it wasn't just like Mom…but Dawn didn't even think that. I think I'll ask Tara to move back in, too. This house is a bit too much for me to keep without a renter, and it wasn't really fair that she had to leave when Willow screwed up. I feel really bad for not sticking up for her."

"I'm sure she didn't expect you to, luv. You and Red have been best mates for years."

"Yeah, but Tara's been around for two, and I don't even know her that well. She's been 'Willow's girlfriend', and we shouldn't have stuck her with that. You know, Anya's pretty cool if you can look past the sexual talk, too…she gave me some advice for dealing with the bank while we had lunch. It was pretty enlightening. Anyway, I've been babbling on and on, and you haven't had a single second to tell me about your trip," she added. Buffy looked at him curiously, like she was genuinely interested.

"Well, I stopped in L.A. to see an old friend, for, um, some advice…and then, uh, I had a few plane rides to take…and ended up in Africa. Saw a bloke about a thing, and now I'm back. Not much to tell." Spike cursed inwardly, knowing he was trying too hard to seem nonchalant.

"Seems like there's more of a story to it than that," she stated, hazel eyes twinkling.

"Look, that night wasn't any easier on me, Buffy. I've already seen you lying dead on the ground once, and it still haunts me. The last thing I'd want is to see it again, especially by my own fangs. I needed some distance, some advice, and…"

"And what?" she prodded.

"To make it right. But you're obviously on the mend, so there's not as much reason to worry anymore, is there. I got you girls some souvenirs…I'll bring them over from the crypt some time soon. I'll, uh, take patrol tonight. You should stay in your pretty frock," he replied.

She nodded. After all, there was no reason he should confide in her, based on their history. Buffy followed him to the door, but stopped him as he opened it.

"Spike…"

"Hmm?" he asked expectantly.

Buffy rose up on her toes and kissed him. "Merry Christmas." She pointed above his head, to where Dawn had hung mistletoe. He grinned.

"Happy Christmas, luv."

The End.