THE BEST OF TIMES

DISCLAIMER: Joss' toys. My playground

RATING: K

SPOILERS: Crush, The Body, Forever


"Come on. Buy one. Last chance. They're selling like pancakes," Anya insisted.

"Hotcakes, sweetie," Xander corrected softly.

"Yes, hotcakes."

"Seriously, Anya, $150 for one night out is too rich for me, especially right now." Buffy answered, again.

"But it's for a good cause. It's for the downtown woman's shelter, for abused women and kids. Being an ex vengeance demon, I feel especially close to them. If you don't give me the money, you'll just spend it on something for yourself and that would be selfish."

Buffy pouted. Even with Giles helping them out, her finances were a mess. "I'd really love to Ahn. I just can't."

"Know what? We'll buy it for you," Xander stepped up.

"No, Xan. It's too much."

"Buff, let us do this for you. You need a night out. Like Anya says, it's for a good cause, and hey, I'm making money now. Let me be deep-pocket man. Okay?"

"But Xander, it's not just the ticket, it's the costume and the baby-sitter for Dawn...and the date for me."

"I've sold a lot of single tickets, Buffy. There will be plenty of eligible men there for you to flirt with."

"That flirty thing wasn't working too well for me lately. Remember? I'm 'being comfortable with Buffy' girl now."

"I remember," Xander replied with a smile, "But Buffy girl needs this. Trust me." He looked at Anya. He knew that she would object to him spending their money, but he also knew that her heart was in the right place and she'd come round. The best he could hope for is that she'd wait to talk to him about it until later. She looked at him intently then cocked her head to one side, nodded and walked away. He loved her more every day.

"See, that settles it. You're coming to the Masquerade Ball, no questions asked."

"Okay. Thank you Xander, and thank Ahn for me too. I promise to have a good time."

"We'll be right there with you. To make sure."

Buffy nodded. Xander was a good friend.

"Buffy?" Willow's voice called to her from behind the counter where she'd been arguing with Anya about prices for her latest acquisitions. "You're coming to the Ball? How wonderful! Tara and I have the perfect costume for you. We were hoping you'd change your mind and come."

"Oh, you're going after all?" Giles lifted his head from the sale he was writing up to see Buffy nod. "I'd be happy to watch Dawn for you."

"There. See? No worries," Xander put his arm around Anya and smiled at his four girls; Anya, Tara, Willow and Buffy. "Great. We're all going to be there. Just like old times."

"Just like," Buffy said with a hopeful smile, but she knew otherwise. Things were way different now. She, Willow and Xander weren't high school students any more. They were getting older by the minute. The Hellmouth was seeing to that. They weren't just friends anymore either, they had each been in love and lost, seen the best and worst of people, not to mention demons and hell-gods. Yep, things were way different.

"Can you?" Willow was asking.

"Sorry, Wil. Can I what?"

"Come over tonight to see your costume? I mean, it's only a week from now and we should see if it needs refitting. Unless, of course, you want to go as a Slayer, in which case, hey, you're set."

"Sure I'll come. What time?

"How 'bout eight-ish? Before you patrol?"

"Okay," Buffy looked at her watch. "Gee, I gotta run to get Dawn at school." She picked up her gym bag and ran towards the door. "See ya tonight," she called as the door closed.

"It's p-perfect for you. You look like a princess in f-fairy tale!" Tara sighed.

Buffy spun around in the light blue ball gown. It was beautiful.

"Yep," Willow nodded, "Except with more bibbidi bobbidi and lots less boo," she added, smiling at Tara, who got the joke and smiled back.

"Are you sure I can use this? It looks expensive."

"It's fine, Buffy. The dress belongs to Cathy down the hall. It's just a bridesmaid's dress that she wore last year, and she wasn't using it. Tara and I just added some sequence on the skirt and the ermine on the sleeves. Now you look just beautiful. It's perfect for you."

"And you need a m-mask. It is a masquerade after all."

"Remember when Dawn was a swan in her ballet recital a few years back? It's white with blue highlights. You know, sequins and feathers? How about that one?"

"Perfect!"

She swung the dress again and it obediently fluttered out around her. "Thanks guys. I feel better already." She hugged them both and looked back in the mirror. Buffy in the mirror had a big grin on her face. She couldn't believe this was really happening. She DID feel like Cinderella.

Willow and Tara exchanged knowing smiles behind her back.

She saw them in the mirror. "What?" Buffy asked.

"Nothing, Buffy, we're just glad you're going. It's going to be a wonderful night."

"You're really going?" Dawn was jealous. The ball had been THE topic of conversation through the school for months. Parents were going, and the kids were on their own for a night. Secret plans were being made by some to use the evening wisely, but truth be told, the kids wanted to go too. The ball was being held at the Remington Inn, with the largest ballroom in the entire county. Not even prom held as much allure as this event in their eyes.

"Yes. I can't believe it either. Giles said he'd stay with you," Dawn rolled her eyes, but understood why Buffy was so protective so she held her tongue, "And Tara and Willow made me this fantastic costume. All I need is your swan mask to finish it off. Can I?"

Dawn was eager to help her big sister. She hadn't smiled as much or been as excited in weeks. "Sure! Can I see the dress?"

Buffy opened up the garment bag that she'd carried home. The skirt of the dress tumbled out. Dawn gasped. "It's beautiful!" She reached out to feel it. "Like a dream." Buffy nodded and the sisters hugged each other. They were sharing a moment, both pleased about Buffy's opportunity to have fun and play dress up.

"Wait! I have something else." Dawn ran upstairs and returned in a minute with the mask and a wide, light blue headband. "What do you think?"

"Dawnie! It's perfect. I'll ask Willow if they have any sequins left over and if we add some to the headband, it'll be just like..."

"Cinderella!" they both laughed, remembering that Dawn had gone thorough a phase when she'd been about five when she watched that movie at least twice a day. Buffy and Dawn could still recite lines of dialogue from the movie without stopping.

"Now, if you just put your hair up like this..." they planned some more.

The day of the Ball came way too soon. At 10:00 Buffy rolled out of bed. She and Dawn had been up late the night before, planning the schedule for today, going over her accessories, dreaming about the night to come. And now, this was it. She opened her closet and checked on the dress again. It hung there like a cloud. Giles was coming over at 6:30 and Xander and Anya were picking her up at 7:00. She grabbed a towel and headed for the bathroom. She showered and got dressed then ran into Dawn in the hall.

"Buffy, don't you have to go? Your appointment is at noon!"

"On my way," she called out over her shoulder, already flying down the stairs.

Dawn had broken open her piggy bank and bought Buffy a salon visit before the party. Facial, manicure, pedicure, hair and makeup. Four luxurious hours later, Buffy could hardly recognize herself in her bedroom mirror.

The doorbell rang. A few minutes later Dawn came running up the stairs, "Buffy! Flowers!" She carried the long thin box in her arms and the long ribbon dangled in her hand. Buffy was a little annoyed that her sister had opened the box, but when she saw two dozen beautiful white roses in the box, she let the privacy issue drop. She filed it away to discuss with her later.

"What? Who?" She wondered.

Dawn held up a piece of paper. "The card says, 'The Best of Times, Sydney Carton'."

"I know that name." Buffy thought. "I know it." She took the card from Dawn and stared at the dot-matrix print on the card as though it would give her answers. At last all she knew that whoever sent it didn't sign it themselves.

"Sure you do. You've read it and I'm reading it in school now."

"Huh?"

"A Tale of Two Cities?" Dawn prompted. "You know."

"Yeah. I remember. But I still don't get who sent the flowers." Buffy felt around in the bottom of the box for any other clue. There was nothing.

An hour later, Giles and Dawn looked up from their Scrabble game as Buffy walked down the stairs in her costume. "Buffy!" Dawn stood up. "You're gorgeous! It's just perfect. You are Cinderella! You're going to be the most beautiful girl at the ball."

Giles also stood up. He looked at his Slayer with pride. "Buffy, you look lovely, indeed. Truly exquisite."

Buffy smiled. She felt special and elegant. Tonight she wasn't the Slayer. Tonight she was going to the royal ball, wearing the dress given to her by two witches.

"Oh, I nearly forgot. I picked up a little something for you. It's in the car. I'll just get it." He pulled his car keys out of his pocket and walked out the front door.

"Here Buffy, wear this." Dawn had taken one of the white roses and made a small corsage. "In case he shows up." Dawn fixed the flower onto Buffy's dress with a pearl headed pin she'd found in their mother's jewelry drawer. "Wake me up when you get home and tell me all about him. Okay?"

"Of course I will," Buffy said, none too sure that there would be anything to tell.

Giles walked back into the house with a shoebox in his hands. "I thought you might need these."

Buffy opened the box. Inside were two, perfectly transparent shoes. "Glass slippers! Giles!" She kicked off her own high heels and stepped into the new ones. "They fit perfectly. Oh, thank you!" She threw her arms around Giles and kissed him. He hugged her back.

"Well Cinderella couldn't very well go to the ball in blue sling backs. Could she?"

"I just know that Xander's going to show up in a pumpkin coach," Buffy giggled. Just then a horn beeped outside. "That's him. Well, Dawnie, be good for Giles. Thank you both for all your help. I don't suppose I'll be late. I have to leave by midnight you know." They all laughed and Giles opened the door.

"Well, it's not a pumpkin...," he started.

Buffy looked beyond him to the street. There sat a handsome black limousine with Xander holding the door open for her. He was dressed to the nines in a slick black tux. "Wow," Buffy breathed, impressed by the limo.

Dawn, standing next to her repeated, "Wow," impressed by Xander. Each of them knew what the other meant and they laughed together again. Buffy hugged her little sister good bye, kissed Giles again and stepped out into the night.

"Buffy, you look...amazing," was all Xander could say as she neared the car.

"And who are you supposed to be? The chauffer?"

"No. I thought I'd do the James Bond thing again. I got a lot of comments on it last time," he looked at Anya and grinned.

Anya was beautiful in a long, low cut, high slitted red sequin gown and long red wig, with the hair swept to the right. Her lips bore bright red lipstick. "Who are you supposed to be?" Buffy asked as she looked into the car.

"Remember our last costume party? I came as a rabbit? I'm that again. Only this time I'm Jessica Rabbit. It was Xander's idea, but we watched the movie again last night and I like her. She's smart and strong. I could be her," she smiled. "Because 'I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way.'."

Buffy laughed and climbed into the car with her friend. Xander followed her, careful not to step on any of the dresses and closed the door. "The Remington," he called smartly to the driver as they pulled away from the curb. Buffy looked back to see Giles and Dawn waving at her from the door.

"Thanks again, you two, for this night. I'm already having a wonderful time. See what Giles gave me?" she picked up her skirt and held out a foot.

"Like in the story," Anya nodded. "He's thoughtful like that."

Buffy and Xander nodded. He was.

"You know, you are much more beautiful than the real Cinderella." The other passengers just stared at her. "Well, she is."

"Well, here's something I never thought I'd ask someone. You knew the real Cinderella?" Xander asked his girlfriend.

"Well, I didn't meet her until much later, when she called on my services as a vengeance demon."

"She what?" Buffy started to ask, "Never mind. I don't think I want to know." She and Xander exchanged glances. Would wonders never cease?

They arrived at the hotel fashionably late, 7:30, in time for music, but too late for the first appetizers. Xander and Anya walked with Buffy toward the ballroom. As they neared the door, Anya held back, allowing Buffy to take the lead by several yards. When Buffy reached the door Anya called to her. "Oops, something in my eye. Xander, help me." It was smooth. Anya had just created an "entrance" for Buffy, who now hesitated on the top landing of the grand staircase leading into the sunken ballroom. She looked down on the crowd, poised between worlds. The Slayer/Hellmouth and the Fairy Tale. Tonight she chose the latter.

Buffy looked across the room. It was filled with surprises. Costumes of every sort; gypsies, soldiers, pirates and flappers, mermaids, secret agents and even someone dressed entirely in lime green. What was that supposed to be? She nearly laughed as she wondered, making her eyes sparkle. She was radiant. Chandeliers glistened above the room as the orchestra swelled to the strains of classical waltzes. It was like a dream.

Anya and Xander caught up with her and followed her as she floated down the stairs. Everyone had seen her enter and all eyes were on Buffy, although she was oblivious to that. Across the room she had seen Willow, it couldn't be anyone other than her. She was wearing a long black dress with a handkerchief hem and long sleeves. She wore a black mask but her short red hair was unmistakable. She was dancing with a man and Buffy watched as Willow laughed.

She wondered briefly who it was that Willow was holding on to. He was dressed in a costume from the 1700's, an embroidered cutaway coat, high collar, hip-length waistcoat, short breeches and long stockings. His long hair was brown and held tightly at the nape of his neck with a ribbon. The buckles on his shoes glinted under the lights. Buffy admired his movements which were stately, confident and disciplined. They were talking until the dance ended and they separated. He bowed to Willow who graciously nodded to him. She smiled as she took the raised hand he offered and they walked off the dance floor toward Tara.

When the music stopped, Buffy was suddenly besieged by admirers wanting her hand for the next dance. "My dance, miss." "No, mine." "Back off, I saw her first." It took Buffy, who had never been in the middle before, a minute to realize that this wasn't good and she began to make excuses when a clear, voice rang out, "Boys, where are your manners? You have to ask the lady. Miss Summers, may I please have this dance?"

The man that Willow had been dancing with stepped through the ring that had formed around her and bowed. She made a low curtsy. The man fell in along side her and held out a raised hand, waiting to lead her to the dance. Without a word she took it and walked beside him to the middle of the floor. All eyes were on them and time seemed to stop as they looked at each other. Buffy wasn't fooled for one minute. Despite the costume, the black half mask he wore and the fake American accent he'd used, she knew who her dancing partner was. She knew from that different "spidery" feeling she always got around him, his cold hand, his height, his sculptured jaw, and his deep, hypnotic eyes.

"Miss Summers." The voice sounded again as he bowed to her to begin their waltz.

She curtsied again, a long slow motion that seemed to take forever. "Spike," she acknowledged.

They booth stood up. They looked at each other for a long moment and reached an understanding without words. She was here. She was dancing. She knew with who and that was okay. Spike took a deep, unneeded breath and held out his left hand for her. His right hand went to her waist and they stepped off. Spike led her across the dance floor with such refinement that Buffy was swept away. He moved to the music as though he'd been born to it and he took her with him. She stopped thinking and felt the music flow through her, moving her, moving them. Her heart began to echo the three-quarter time.

They circled the dance floor looking only at each other until the music stopped. When it did, he slowly released her and bowed again. "Thank you, Buffy, for the dance."

Buffy curtsied again. "Only one waltz Spike? Leaving me already?" She stood again and looked at him. He searched her eyes. There was a softness there he didn't recognize. "I thought you said you'd never do that." She held out her arms ready to dance and returned his gaze evenly.

He stared at her. "Never, Buffy. I'll never leave you." Spike replied with all the sincerity he could muster. He stepped back into position with her as the orchestra struck up another piece.

As they danced, Spike asked her, "Why, Buffy? Why tonight?"

"I don't know, Spike. There's something different about you. Willow was having fun dancing with you and you're not so aggravating tonight. In fact, you've been a perfect gentleman. And, heck, if I can be Cinderella for tonight, then I guess that...well...then you can be Prince Charming."

"Buffy." A huge smile slowly spread across his face and he held her closer as the music ran through them again.

They danced for a while, and as they did, Buffy realized that here, in Spike's arms she was having the best time she'd had in a long time. She leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "I have warn you Spike. I turn back into bitchy Buffy again at midnight."

He looked at her with wonder. Then he grinned again. "I wouldn't miss it for the world," he laughed and he twirled her joyously across the floor.

Later that evening, Buffy ran into Willow, actually she went looking for her and pulled her best friend out onto a terrace to talk. "Wil, what's up with you and Spike? I thought you couldn't stand each other."

"I could say the same thing Buffy. But look at you tonight," she grinned a silly, self-satisfied grin. "You've been dancing with him all night."

"Okay, but we're not talking about me here, I asked about you. You were dancing with him when I came in. What's up?"

"I just...well...you know how I've always been about strays and puppies and lost kittens? I think it kinda started like that. You know, help poor little Spike. Especially after Joyce...well, he was so lonely. Did you know that he stopped by to bring flowers? The night before the funeral Xander and I found him outside the house. He was bringing flowers for Joyce. Not looking for anything in return. Didn't even have a card on them. He was just doing his best to say how much he was going to miss her. It nearly broke my heart to see him that way." Willow looked at her friend with a wonder that Buffy knew she reserved for only the most amazing things.

"Xander chased him off in that charming way he's got. But I went looking for Spike the next day myself and we had a nice long talk. All about life and death and stuff. About how he tried to bite me and...well...other things he's done. Buffy, I really think...I just realized that he just doesn't know how to be human anymore. That's why he does the things he does, and makes us all crazy. It's like Anya asking all her questions about mortality and life and sex and stuff. She gets on your nerves, but she just doesn't know. You know? Except that he's been all vampy instead of vengeance demony, and hasn't been turned human or anything.

"So I talked it over with Tara and Spike's been our special project for the last few weeks. We've been holding a class in Being Human 101. What do you think?"

Buffy was shocked. "Wil, you're amazing. How can you think that a few lessons would make Spike into a human?"

"I didn't say that, exactly. We're not making him human, just so he knows how to act like one. Like when he chained you up. We talked a long time about that. Buffy. He just wasn't thinking. Well, he was thinking like a vampire, not a human. Chains to a vampire are different than to you and me. They're restraints, but not deadly. When I explained that a quiet walk with you through the park might have been more effective, he was...surprised. Really. And the whole thing about helping Dawn break into the Magic Shop? Well, he just wanted to keep her safe and get her what she wanted. He thought that giving her what she wanted would make her like him. And make you like him too. But I explained that it probably wasn't going to work that way, and that giving people what they want is not always what they need, he was really sorry again. It's been hard for him to remember how to feel human. But...then again...he's been out of practice for 120 years."

Buffy couldn't think of anything to say. Was it possible? Spike the reluctant vampire had simply forgotten how to act human? That all the mistakes he'd been making in trying to win her had been just that? Mistakes? But that the feeling behind them was sincere?

Could it be that her denial and the bitter words she used to push him away were just as misguided? She thought about all the times they'd fought, when he'd been at her side helping her without even 'a crumb'; and suddenly it was Buffy that felt really sorry. "Maybe I should sign up for that class next quarter," she suggested sadly.

Willow hugged her best friend, "Buffy, you've had a hard time the last couple of years, but you're not so out of practice as he is. I'm sure if you pull a couple of all-nighters, you can ace the final and graduate with Spike." The two girls hugged each other as Buffy thought about all of Spike's irritating efforts to win her affection. Irritating, but, she thought, based in...love?

When Buffy returned to the party, Spike was leaning on a wall, waiting for her. She stopped about 20 feet away from him, her thoughts about him still jumbled and more confused than ever. This gentleman, this gentle man with whom she'd just spent the last, best four hours, was William the Bloody. Spike who tortured people with railroad spikes just a few short decades ago. How could it be that he had loving feelings toward her? But look at him. His feelings couldn't be more obvious now that she saw him through different eyes.

"What?" he asked, straightening. She remained silent as he walked toward her. What was she doing? How could this possibly turn out good? "Buffy?" he asked quietly, with concern creeping into his voice. "It's about that time, you know. For the other Buffy to appear."

"What? Oh, yeah," she smiled. "I should be going home. Giles had put up with Dawn long enough."

"I'm sure he's fine. Nibblet's no problem." Then he thought about the times he'd found her out alone at night. "Right then, I'll take you." Spike offered.

"Let me just tell Xander and Anya that they've got the limo to themselves on the way home."

As they pulled to a stop at 1630 Revello Drive, Buffy stared at the folded hands in her lap and said, "Thanks for the ride. I really had a nice time tonight. Who knew that you were such a wonderful dancer." She was doing her best to get the human thing right.

"Thanks," Spike responded politely.

The niceties being over, they sat in silence for a minute while Spike built his courage to say something. He stared out the windshield as he said, "Buffy, tonight meant a lot to me."

"Me too," she admitted. "Spike, I kind of cornered Willow and made her tell me about your talks with her and Tara. She thinks I could use some of their help too." Silence. "I think she might be right." Silence. "My personal communication skills are...let's say below average. For instance, I just don't know what to say to someone who this afternoon I thought I hated, but who, tonight, I think I'm starting to...to care about."

Spike blinked, afraid to look at her and break the spell. "You are?"

Buffy turned to him. She looked at his profile and thought about what he really meant to her for the first time. She thought about how much fun it was to exchange insults with him. That fighting him was always exhilarating. That his loyalty and dedication to her was flattering and humbling. Then she leaned across the front seat and kissed Spike softly on the cheek.

Spike didn't move. Buffy had kissed him. He wanted nothing more than for this moment to last forever, except maybe to kiss her back. "Thank you, Buffy." was all he could say. He knew he was pushing his luck already. It was time to say good night. He got out of the car and walked around to open her door. Buffy slid out of the passenger seat, holding her glass slippers in her hand. She took his hand and walked barefoot across the damp grass with Spike to her front door. As they walked up the steps, Giles opened the door. "Spike?" then, "Buffy, are you all right?"

Buffy looked at Spike and squeezed his hand softly before letting go. "We're gonna be," she answered. Then she slipped past her Watcher and into the house.

Spike watched her go inside then threw Giles his brightest smile before turning and leaving without a word.

"Buffy!" Giles called loudly as he closed the door, but she was already halfway up the stairs.

"All right, all right, I'm coming," Willow called out sleepily to the incessant knocking on her door. She grabbed a robe and checked through the peephole.

"Who is it? Tara called from bed.

"It's Spike!" Willow answered as she flung open the door to the grinning vampire. Suddenly she and Tara weren't sleepy anymore. "So? What happened? It was good. Wasn't it? Tara, look at him, it was good."

He looked at the anxious witches. He suddenly decided to draw this out as long as possible. "Well, we drove to her place."

"Yes?"

"And she said I was a good dancer."

"And?"

"And that she had a good time."

"Spike!"

"Then she said she cared about me and kissed me on the cheek."

Willow and Tara both jumped up and hugged him. All three of them were grinning like idiots and Willow even did a little of Xander's Snoopy dance in celebration. Of all the things to stay with her.

"I feel just like Henry Higgins," Willow cheered.

While the girls chattered, Spike kicked back on the bed and slipped his hands behind his head. He smiled at the ceiling. "You know, Red, I was wrong. It wasn't just one good day, it was a good night I needed. And, thanks to the lot of you, I've had it. I could die happy tomorrow, if I weren't dead already, that is."

"Well, good mor...afternoon, Sleepyhead." Dawn greeted Buffy as she came into the kitchen. "Why didn't you wake me when you came in? Nevermind, I don't care. I've been up for hours. Where's my news flash? Was he there? C'mon. I let you sleep in, now fess up."

"He? Oh, the flower guy? No he wasn't there. That's why I didn't wake you. No news," Buffy replied. She'd forgotten about the flowers in dreaming about the events of the night before.

"So why is there a silly grin plastered on your face?"

"Because it was awesome, Dawnie!" Buffy began to hum the Blue Danube Waltz and to spin her sister around the kitchen. "Simply wonderful!"

"Tell me!" she shouted.

And Buffy did. She related the whole night to her in every detail.

"So Spike is our friend again?"

"Well...yeah, I guess you could say that...for now."

"Yea! I like him. Can I be the one that re-invites him back in?"

"I hadn't thought about that. Sure, of course you can. We'll make a party out of it. How about tonight?"

Dawn hugged her big sister. Things were going to be good.

As they hugged, Dawn noticed a piece of paper hanging on the refrigerator. "Oops."

"Oops what? Dawn?"

"I forgot to give you a message. She let go of Buffy and crossed to the fridge for the note. Angel called on Wednesday."

"Angel?"

"Yep. He was really chatty, well, for him anyway. We talked a long time about the dance and your dress and everything. I told him about how Spike's been liking you and being all nice and stuff. Funny, he said he'd known that. Do you suppose Spike told him? Anyway Hey, Buffy, where are you going?"

She followed Buffy out to the hallway where a vase holding twenty-three perfect white roses now stood. Buffy picked up the card that had come with them off the table and read it again; "The Best of Times. Sydney Carton".

"Buffy?" Dawn questioned as she caught up with her.

She reached up and touched one of the petals. Her voice was soft. "They're from Angel."

"Sydney Carton is Angel?"

"Uh huh."

"I don't get it."

"He's saying goodbye and giving us his blessing."

"You and me?"

"No, me and Spike." Dawn folded her arms and looked confused. "In the book Sydney Carton steps out of the picture so the two people he cared most about in the world could live...happily ever after."

"Just like Cinderella and Prince Charming?"

"Yea, Dawnie." Buffy hugged her sister. "Just like."

FIN