A/N – 01 July, 2013: At the time when this was originally released, I was again having schedule conflicts with my betas. Anaiya Illyria sent me back a beta draft after I had already published the chapter that was here before and I never got around to republishing the modified chapter. I have now taken her corrections and suggestions and put them where they properly belong; in the chapter below. I've also gone in and made it jive better with the later stories, writing wise. Enjoy!
"Uhhh, give us just a minute. We're having a bad year around here." Xander's comment made Ms. Cartwright raise an eyebrow but she said nothing. Before Xander could close the door again, Buffy called out from the living room.
"It's alright Xander, let her in." Xander nodded his head back towards the living room and fully opened the front door, motioning for Ms. Cartwright to enter. She stepped in and immediately studied the place. Xander was thankful that Willow and Tara lived there so that the house was almost always clean. Ms. Cartwright didn't linger long before making her way to the living room. Her eyes scanned the dark living room and the fallen faces of everyone in attendance. Buffy put on a cheerful face and hoped that it looked genuine.
"Which of you is Dawn and which is Buffy?" Ms. Cartwright asked. To Spike, she seemed a little irritated already, but he couldn't tell if it was due to the poor lighting or the large number of people. Truth told, he thought that it was a likely combination of the two.
"I'm Buffy, and this is my sister, Dawn," Buffy said while pointing to Dawn, who did her best to follow Buffy's lead and put on her happy face.
"And who are the rest of these people?" Ms. Cartwright's voice seemed a tad more piqued than it had been before, and this time Spike wasn't the only one who caught it.
"I'm Xander, professional carpenter and glorified handyman," Xander quipped, hopping to lighten her mood. When Ms. Cartwright frowned even deeper, Xander got more serious. "This is my fiancée, Anya, local business owner and entrepreneur." All the Scoobies eyes shot up at Xander's mention of the word 'fiancée', and Xander mentally berated himself for letting that slip now, of all times. For her part, Anya practically beamed at the announcement, and she even stood up and moved to shake Ms. Cartwright's hand. Xander sent a sheepish look towards the rest of the gang, hoping to convey his best 'I'll explain later' face. After those introductions were in order, Ms. Cartwright looked to Spike and Tara, expectation clearly visible on her features.
"Oh, right. I'm Sp- I'm William." Spike caught himself and gave his human name while letting his upper class accent kick in, thinking that 'Spike' couldn't do much for Dawn's cause. "I am a business man, and I freelance a bit of poetry on the side." This time, everyone turned their wide-eyed gaze to Spike. One revelation after another continued to drop on the surprised Scoobies. Spike walked over and, keeping with his English gentleman training, bowed as he took Ms. Cartwright's hand. Ms. Cartwright flushed a bit, and seemed put off of her game, just as Spike had intended. Before she had completely recovered, Tara had gathered herself enough for an introduction.
"I'm T-Tara. I'm a student at S-Sunnydale University." Even the brief mention of college reminded Tara of Willow and their current situation. If Ms. Cartwright was expecting more out of Tara, she wasn't getting it. Ms. Cartwright seemed to pick up on the general sadness in the atmosphere, and Spike decided to use that to their advantage. Maintaining his air of an English gentleman, Spike took the initiative.
"You must forgive our manner of dress and forlorn demeanors, for we've just discovered one of our friends, Willow Rosenberg, is missing. She has not been seen since late last night, and all of us are sleep deprived from searching for her." Indeed, most of the Scoobies were still in their various sleepwears, with Anya and Spike being the exceptions. Tara's quite sob at the mention of Willow's name further accentuated his point. Ms. Cartwright's attitude immediately shifted from one of arrogance and slight hostility to one of understanding and sympathy. Spike smiled coyly when he was certain that she couldn't see him, allowing himself the satisfaction of a job well done.
"Oh, my word! If you would prefer, Ms. Summers, I can set up another meeting at a later-"
"No!" Ms. Cartwright was cut off by Buffy before she could finish her sentence. "I- I mean, since you're already here, I'd just like to get this over with." Buffy's swift declining of a rescheduling caught everyone off guard, especially Ms. Cartwright.
"As you wish, Ms. Summers. I commend you for your strength in the face of duress." Buffy smiled briefly, knowing that this woman had no idea what actual duress was. Ms. Cartwright pulled out a tablet and a pen from her briefcase. "Firstly, what are the living conditions here? Does everyone assembled live with you?"
"No. Anya and Xander have their own apartment, and Sp- William lives... elsewhere. Tara and Willow live here with me and Dawnie." Ms. Cartwright started writing on her tablet, and resumed questioning when she was done.
"And what do you do for a source of income, Ms. Summers?"
"Uh, I..." Buffy didn't know how to answer that. 'Living off of mom's insurance' just didn't seem to be the right answer. Before she could debate it any further, Spike spoke up again.
"We all dedicate some form of work or monetary assistance to the Summers family. Mr. Harris takes care of any household problems, while I take care of problems that arise outside of that purview. Our wayward Ms. Rosenberg works tech support and helps pay household expenses. Ms. Mclay works for the future Mrs. Harris at her business, and pays her way as well. Young Dawn is in school and the elder Ms. Summers, well," Spike paused here for a moment, locking his eyes on Buffy's before continuing. "She is the mortar that keeps us all together." Buffy smiled, conveying her thanks to the Vampire.
"Are you two... romantically involved?" Ms. Cartwright directed the question to Spike this time. A wistful and wishful smile briefly played across Spike's lips before he answered.
"No, no. We are merely... business partners." Spike cast another look towards Buffy before moving to sit down, giving Ms. Cartwright the hint to move on. Thankfully, she took it, and began a new line questioning. She turned to Dawn to involve her in the process.
"Dawn, how are you doing in school?"
"Oh, uh, not bad. Good, even. Tara and Willow help me with my homework and Xander makes sure I get to school every day. Not that I have an attendance problem. I haven't missed a single day all year!" Dawn seemed genuinely upbeat, even if she did ramble in general Dawn fashion. Ms. Cartwright nodded her head in agreement.
"Indeed, that's what your records show. Perfect attendance so far, showing vast improvement over last semester in both that area and in the academic arena." Noting the mild rebuke, Buffy spoke up.
"Oh, last semester. We had all kinds of problems. First mom died, and then Tara got really sick, Spike got injured, and then that weird thing with Glory."
"Glory?" Ms. Cartwright was confused by the last name on Buffy's list and if she had picked up on the slayer's use of Spike's name she didn't show it.
"Glory's what we called that strange earthquake that hit right before summer," Xander piped up. Boy, it really was strange."
"And- I didn't miss any class after that motorcycle gang came through town!" Dawn added with pride.
"Right, we've been taking every step to make sure Dawn stays all attendy at school. Not like when I went." The words had left Buffy's mouth before she could stop herself. Her eyes widened when she realized what she had said. "Not that I was a bad kid, there were just circumstances that made me miss class, and I was never good with the study side of things but-"
"Relax, Ms. Summers, there's no need to worry." Ms. Cartwright interrupted. "I've seen enough here, and I must say you are a remarkable young woman. Despite whatever deficiencies you yourself may have, you've surrounded you and your sister with a group of individuals who pick up the slack, as it were. You've got a family anyone could be proud of. I'll put in a word of commendation for you, and I look forward to seeing you all in 6 months for the next checkup."
Buffy breathed a sigh of relief and everyone else smiled. As Ms. Cartwright stood up, Dawn gave her a big hug, and whispered "Thank you" into her ear. When Ms. Cartwright had composed herself, everyone stood up to shake her hand, with Spike taking it in the same manner he had before. He moved to walk her to the door but had to jump back when Xander opened it. Ms. Cartwright shot him a questioning look.
"I have a mild sun allergy, Miss. I try to stay out of it as much as I can without some form of protection from the rays." She smiled at his response, and Dawn giggled. As she walked back to her car, Xander shut the door. As soon as the door was closed, people began talking at once.
"Xander! You're getting married!" Dawn squealed in excitement.
"You write poetry?" Xander directed towards Spike, earning him a "Sod off". However, Buffy shouted over the din to quiet them down.
"HEY! We've got more important issues to deal with." Everyone quickly sombered back up.
"Willow," Tara confirmed, and looked expectantly to Buffy. Buffy caught her eyes and nodded.
"I've got to go back."
"There's got to be another way!" Xander repeated his earlier statement.
"Xander, I'm dead, Willow's not, and this is her body. It's that simple". Buffy's response wasn't good enough for Xander.
"We've brought you back before."
"You brought me back, yeah. But that was different; doctors do that all the time. It was natural. This time, I've been dead for months, and I can remember the other side. My time's up." Buffy looked at every one of the Scoobies in turn. On Xander she read sadness, with Tara it was grim resolve, Dawn looked stricken, and Anya looked like Anya. Spike however, looked determined, a far cry away than he had looked moments earlier. Gone was the sadness and look of being lost, in their place was strength and maturity.
"She's right." Spike held up his hands to quiet any dissent, which looked likely from both Xander and Dawn. "Buffy's lived a good life, and gods know we've all missed her, and we'll miss her still. But she's died and moved on, and her being here is only the result of magic." Spike looked pointedly at Xander, who did his best to look innocent. "She's earned her reward, and she deserves to be sent back to it. Not to mention, it's kind of unfair to Willow to kick 'er out of her own body and replace her with Buffy." Spike's use of Willow's name was strategic, and it seemed to have the desired effect on Xander. As much as he cared for Buffy, Willow had been his best friend for his entire life. Xander finally seemed to accept that there really was no other way. He looked around the room, studied everyone carefully, before he stood up and walked over to Buffy. He hugged her tightly and let out a loud sob.
"We- we love you Buffy, and we'll miss you." Despite the gravity of the situation, Buffy smiled. Her friend had really grown up a lot, and it made her happy to see how strong he could be.
"You're strong Xander," Buffy said low enough where only he could hear her. "And you've got to keep being strong. They'll need you, now more than ever." Xander nodded, tears running down his face, and moved away so that the others could follow his example. Tara walked over next and hugged Buffy.
"I wish it didn't have to be this wa-way".
"I know. It's not your fault. Get the spell ready, it's almost time." Buffy said encouragingly. Tara walked over to the table to get the proper texts and tools she would need. Anya walked over to Buffy next and wrapped her up tight, uprising most of the Scoobies.
"I used to travel the higher planes, back when I delivered Vengeance. I know you'll be happy." Buffy was a little shocked by Anya's uncharacteristic display of emotion, but did her best not to show it.
"Xander deserves a good woman. You take care of him," Buffy stated before realising that she should add something more Anya-like to her statement. "And make him lots of money." Anya's eyes lit up and she smiled wide. Buffy waited for her next hug to come, but she realised that Dawn wasn't going to get up and Spike was staring off into space. She walked over to Dawn, who was quietly crying. As Buffy walked closer, the crying got louder. As Buffy embraced her sister, Dawn began to wail.
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no-"
"Shhhh. It's okay Dawnie. Shhhhhh. I've got to go. Mom is waiting for me, and you know how impatient she can get." Buffy's attempt at levity worked, as Dawn managed to hiccup out a laugh.
"Y-yeah, she never did like to be kept w-waiting" Dawn stuttered out. She managed to flash Buffy a smile.
"I love you Dawnie." Buffy stood and looked towards her final well-wisher. "Spike, I-"
"The best of us are dead and gone; the rest are left to soldier on." Spike's brief poetic line said everything he needed to. He stared deep into Buffy's eyes before he continued. "I remember my promise, to keep her safe. I know I failed you then, but I swear to you, it will not happen again. Not while I'm still..." Spike paused, searching for the right word to replace 'alive', and settled on, "here". Buffy had no immediate words, so she chose instead to kiss Spike. There was little passion, but Spike knew from prior experience that it was full of gratitude. It didn't last long, but it lasted long enough to convey its meaning. Buffy stared at Spike to make sure he got it, and he nodded his understanding.
"Thank you, William." She said softly, before turning to the group en masse. "You've all got to be strong. You've protected this town from all sorts of beasties without me, and you've got to keep doing it. The people here counted on me, even if they didn't know it, and now they're counting on you. I love you all, more than you know. Make me proud, I'll be watching." Buffy looked to Tara and nodded. Tara had prepared everything while Buffy was finishing her goodbyes, and only had to say the power words to complete the spell. Tara spoke in Latin, whose meaning was lost on everyone else but Anya, and when she was done a bright glow emanated from Buffy. Buffy started to feel herself disconnecting from Willow's body, and knew immediately that she had one more thing to say.
"Tell Willow that I love her!" Buffy shouted, before she was completely gone. As soon as she finished her sentence, the glow dimmed down into a ball that floated out of Willow and hovered there briefly. After the glow left Willow, the red haired woman started to fall, but Tara was ready for it, and held her tight. The glow moved to hover in front of everyone assembled briefly before it circled the room three times and shot harmlessly through the roof, out into the sunlit sky.
The Scoobies stood silent, stunned, before a loud sobbing broke into everyone's thoughts. Everyone looked toward the cause of the noise and realised that it was Willow. Tara sat her down on the couch and held her tight as she cried the tears that no one else had left. Xander soon moved over to sit next to her, and joined Tara in holding her tight, whispering soothing words into her ear. Dawn followed suit, and even Anya moved to lend her support to the stricken red head. After Spike moved over and put his hand on Willow's shoulder, Xander had an epiphany. Everything was going to be all right.
~To Be Continued in Redemption: Family~