Some nights Spike would throw caution to the wind and stay up late to rock the bedsprings - and floorboards, and kitchen counters, and sofa, and... - with Buffy, never caring about the fact that he might have to be up early the next morning. The night of toe-curling pleasure made the subsequent sleep deprivation well worth it.

This had not been one of those nights.

With plans to help Dawn move into her new dorm room early tomorrow, Spike had finished up the dishes and gone to bed promptly at midnight alongside his lady.

He was awoken thirty minutes later by the doorbell ringing. Not just once. Whoever was at the door tapped a staccato on the doorbell, causing the ostensibly pleasant chime to loop in a never-ceasing bout of auditory torment. Buffy groaned and pulled a pillow over her head, silently indicating that it was up to him to deal with.

With some grumbling, Spike got out of bed and pulled some pants on. He exited the bedroom and crossed the small apartment to open the door.

"What?" he snapped.

A man wearing a hastily thrown on robe over striped boxers glared at him as if Spike were the one to interrupt his sleep.

"I'm your downstairs neighbor. Something in your place is leaking into mine."

"Oh, balls," Spike said while turning. Sure enough, the small kitchen area had at least one inch of standing water puddling on top of the tile. The dishwasher hummed. "You called maintenance?" Spike turned back to his neighbor.

"They need you to call since it's your apartment that's having the problem."

Spike nodded. This place was a shithole. He'd told Buffy that when they'd moved in, but she'd been insistent on being frugal. So "cramped" became "cozy" and "outdated" became "retro". He supposed "broken dishwasher" became "adventures on the high sea".

In a smooth motion, Spike snatched up the cordless phone and punched the button for the emergency maintenance hot-line. Oh yes, he had that number on speed dial. He turned off the dishwasher to prevent more leaking, and he was dismayed to find the carpeting around the kitchen squelching beneath his bare feet. The flood of water had started to seep into the carpet.

"Spike, what's going on?"

Buffy emerged from the bedroom just as the maintenance man picked up. Spike held a finger up to Buffy.

"Yeah, this is 213. We have a leak from our dishwasher. It's created a tiny ocean in the kitchen, if you get my drift."

The maintenance man grumbled much like Spike had when he'd been woken up. "How much water is it?"

"Well, it's pouring waterfalls into the downstairs neighbor's flat."

"Alright. I'll be right there."

Buffy, quickly putting two and two together, had gathered some towels and was attempting to edge the water away from the carpet. A bit late for that, but Spike understood the instinct. When he looked to the door, his neighbor was gone, presumably heading back to his place to carry out his own version of damage control.

"You ran the dishwasher?" Buffy asked while waiting for a towel to saturate.

"You did ask me to do dishes, love."

She looked up at him. "Remember the presentation I did the other day? With the chart? Running the dishwasher uses far too much power. We'll save a lot on our electric bill if we wash by hand. Spike, you were paying attention, right?"

He hadn't been.

"Do we have more towels?" He asked, trying to change the subject.

It worked, though probably only temporarily. Buffy's frown told him that she was filing his transgression under the 'Talk about later' heading. However, for now she pushed the balled up mass of cloth and soapy water to the side and sighed.

"Remember that beach trip we took with Dawn and Carrie?" she said.

"They kept all our towels," Spike guessed.

"They kept all our towels," Buffy confirmed. "All we have now is what was in the cabinet."

Which, by the looks of it, was four bath towels and a handful of smaller dishtowels. Buffy moaned in frustration as the last towel laid on top of the water with absolutely no effect on stemming the flood.

"Do you think maybe we should get out the sponges?" Buffy asked.

The hours that followed involved more water, a surly maintenance worker, several loads of laundry, and very little sleep. By morning, the leak had been fixed, the flood had been quelled, the water had been mopped, and Buffy and Spike had just enough time for a thirty minute nap before getting back up, showering, and going to Dawn's dorm to help move.

Buffy had long ago learned the fine art of Not Getting Enough Sleep, but she still didn't enjoy it. She was thankful that Dawn had everything packed up in boxes by the time they got there.

"Toni's already moved out," Dawn said with a gesture to the neighboring bed. "I'm so excited! My own place! I can do demon research out in the open without Toni being all, 'Ew. What class is that for?'"

"Bloody criminal that you university students don't study basic demonology," Spike commented. "Missing out on a large chunk of history that way, you know. The Horde's influence on Hitler. Nixon's subsidies for the agricultural demons in Appalachia - that was controversial. Oh, the time a Jiraga demon replaced the Queen. Took a while for everyone to cotton on to that."

"The Queen's a demon?" Dawn paused as she taped up the last box.

"Nah, they got them switched back. But this is the stuff you kids should know about. How you expect to get a complete picture of modern society and culture without knowing about demons is beyond me."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Watch out, Dawn. You got him started. Soon he's gonna start going on about the great under-appreciation of demon-penned literature and poetry."

"Well, it is a travesty," Spike said.

Dawn grinned. "Still feeling the righteous rage of the demon activism, then, Spike? Told you you shouldn't have let him go to that conference," she said to Buffy.

Buffy shrugged and grabbed the heaviest box to take to the car. She had to hold back a quip about Spike never paying attention to her causes. Instead, she took the higher road of silence.

Dawn was, fortunately, on the first floor, so no flights of stairs for this chore. Less fortunately, her new dorm room was on the third floor, so that balanced things out.

Buffy and Spike had taken separate cars. Buffy had a Slayer meet n' greet after this, and Spike was tasked with doing some shopping. Though Buffy hated the waste of gas, necessity dictated the cost in this case.

She'd opened the door to her '01 Pontiac Grand Am and shoved the box onto the far end of the back seat, smushing it up against the opposite door. After shimmying out of the back seat, Buffy went into Slayer defense mode as a small form brushed against her on its way to the top of the recently placed box. Her muscles got the stand down call as she registered that it was a large stray cat that had darted in and was now curled on top of Dawn's clothes, idly licking its front paw.

It wasn't an attractive cat, though Buffy wasn't a fan of any of its species. This one had a brown blotch on its nose that was positioned just right to make it look like its eyes were crooked. The fur at its hind end was matted, and a sheen of black dirt spotted its chin.

"Hey! Cat! Get out of there!" Buffy said.

The cat's response was to stare at her with the confident air of a creature that knew it wasn't going to be moving. Grumbling, Buffy crawled across the back seat again and snatched the beast up. As soon as her hands wrapped around its body, the cat went completely limp and emitted a throaty meow of protest.

"Oh, stop being a drama queen," Buffy said, hauling the fifteen pound creature out of the car. Its fur was gunky and ungroomed. As she was placing it on the concrete, she noticed a certain tell-tale pair of body parts under its, well, tail. "Okay, drama king," she corrected.

Once on the ground, the cat gave up on the limp act. He gave Buffy a disdainful look as she closed the car door. Then he walked up to the curb in front of the car and crouched down as if laying in wait.

Buffy pointed. "I'm gonna be watching you, Mr. Kitty."

Dawn was walking through the lobby with a box balanced in front of her. She smiled at Buffy as they passed each other.

"Which car?" Dawn asked.

"Mine. We'll fill it up first and if we still need more space, we'll start filling Spike's."

Dawn nodded and kept moving, obviously struggling under the weight of the box. Buffy knew that offering to help would make Dawn feel incompetent, so she didn't bother. Too bad the sun had already come up, so Spike was limited in the heavy lifting he could do. As it was, he came out of 113 just after Dawn with two boxes stacked on top of each other.

"I'll just leave these at the front door for you ladies to pack up," he said. "We're working assembly line style."

"Very efficient," Buffy nodded, joining Spike's side on the way back to the door. As they approached the windows of the front dorm entrance, Spike handed off the boxes as if they were a runner's baton and turned to fetch more. Buffy made the trek out to the car, passing Dawn on the way.

She shivered, wishing she'd thought to bring her jacket. The temperature had plummeted abruptly. In the rush of the morning flood, Buffy had forgotten the weather report last night mentioning a cold front moving in. She made a mental note to remind Spike to get firewood while he was shopping. Running the heater was expensive, and they might as well make use of the fireplace in their dingy apartment. Saving money was good.

Buffy paused at the door to the dorm hall as she saw Spike hunched over, rubbing the belly of the stray cat that had nearly hijacked her car.

"We can't keep it," Buffy said while walking over to him.

Spike glanced up at her. "Didn't ask to. Fellow just wanted some attention." At Buffy's approach, the cat righted itself onto its feet and grinned at her. Okay, Buffy wasn't sure if she could say it was actually "grinning". That wasn't very catlike. But it looked like it was very pleased with itself.

Buffy crouched down at Spike's side. She put a hand out to try to pet the cat, but it wandered just out of her reach.

"It's a scrapper isn't it?" Spike asked.

"If by 'scrapper' you mean 'filthy', yeah."

As if it could hear her, the cat sat on its haunches and started licking its paw.

"Thought you liked filthy things."

"Since when?" she asked.

"Well, you do like me, after all."

He grinned as she playfully shoved him, knocking him off balance. He stood, keeping a watch on the cat.

"It's gonna be getting cold. Hope it has a place to go," he said.

Buffy rose. "I'm sure the big tomcat has a few ports it can go to."

Dawn passed by then. "Why is it the one person without superpowers is the one doing the heavy lifting?" she said as she walked by.

Properly chastised, both Buffy and Spike resumed the assembly line. Buffy grabbed the nearest box and went out to the car while Spike headed back to Dawn's dorm room.

Buffy's lack of sleep was just catching up to her as she arrived at the meet n' greet. She stifled a yawn as she entered the large
dining hall.

Willow had felt depressed after breaking up with Kennedy. Her method of coping was to spend a frantic week reorganizing the trainee Slayers according to parameters Buffy still didn't understand (or much care about) after several explanations. But now that Willow's new alphabetical-numerical-horoscopal system was in place, Andrew, the self-appointed 'morale officer' of this location, had decided a mixer was necessary to get everybody acquainted with each other. As the chief Slayer at this location, Buffy was required to attend. Price of fame.

As soon as she walked in the room, Andrew made a beeline for her.

"Buffy!" He threw his arms open in an attempt to hug her. Buffy swiftly sidestepped that and glared. Andrew didn't bat an eye. Instead, he playfully punched her arm. "Okay, I have seating assignments so everybody's with somebody they've never worked with before. The caterers are still setting up, so there's time for you to meet the girls at Table S." He grinned. "For 'Slayer'."

Buffy looked at 'Table S', which had a group of three young girls huddled over it, already chatting. She sighed.

"What type of food are we having?" she asked. She was rarely granted the luxury of a free meal. She'd been looking forward to this.

"Well, I was gonna do barbecue, but a handful of our new recruits are vegetarian. So I found this lovely little Chinese bistro that actually caters, and they - "

"Okay," Buffy cut him off. "I'll head over."

Leaving Andrew, Buffy walked across the room. Behind her, Andrew disappeared to fuss over the caterers.

"Hey," she said as she approached the table. A paper nameplate sat at the empty seat with her name scrawled on it in Andrew's handwriting. "Guess this is my place."

The three girls looked up at her, their conversation quieted.

"So," Buffy said as she sat down. "What are you guys' names?"

"Bushra," the girl across the table said. She was Arabic, with long, thick black hair tied in a high ponytail. Her shirt had an illustration of a kitten curled up on it.

"I'm Gabriela," the Hispanic girl at her right said. She wore a polo shirt and khakis.

"And I'm Paula," the third girl said. She had the faint hint of a Southern accent, and her hair was bleached blonde.

Buffy smiled. She always found herself surprised when meeting the new Slayers. They were so young. At a meet n' greet, she could almost forget that they were being trained to slaughter demons. It might as well be a Girl Scout convention or something. Just without the cookies.

The conversation had come to a screeching halt at her arrival, and Buffy could feel the awkwardness weighing down on her.

"So," she said, trying for an ice-breaker. "Is this buffet style or are they serving us?" She looked around, but she didn't see any buffet table.

"Ms. Summers," Gabriela blurted out. "We have a question."

The other two girls jumped in their seats, and Gabriela jolted as if kicked under the table.

"Uh...well, call me Buffy. And, yeah, anything."

Bushra shook her head, but Gabriela continued. "Is it true that if you have sex once and get pregnant, it'll be a girl, and if you have sex twice and get pregnant, it'll be a boy?"

If Buffy had an "eject" button, she'd be stabbing it repeatedly right about now. Across the table, the three young girls looked at her expectantly.

"Ah..." Buffy said. "What?"

"Well, Paula was telling us about how her sister is pregnant, and - " Gabriela was interrupted by Paula.

"And she says it was the first time she'd had sex. We're trying to figure out whether it's gonna be a boy or girl, and - "

"And I heard that if you have sex once and get pregnant, it's gonna be a girl," Gabriela finished.

"So," Paula took up the conclusion. "You seem to know stuff about that, right?

Buffy met Bushra's eyes across the table, wondering if the third girl was also taking part in this. The girl gave a small shrug as if in apology, but she didn't add to the onslaught of sexual curiosity.

"Okay," Buffy said slowly. "That's not really true. I mean, I've never been pregnant, but that's not how things work."

"What about if the screwing was done standing up?" Gabriela asked. "I heard that can make a difference."

"That's stupid. You can't make love standing up," Paula said.

"Can so! I saw my brother watching some porn on his computer once, and they were standing up."

"Porn is fake."

"Buffy, can you screw standing up?" Gabriela turned back to Buffy.

Food. Why wasn't the food being served yet?

She had a duty to guide these girls, didn't she? And they obviously needed some guidance here. Buffy had to suck it up and get down to it.

"Okay," she said decisively. "I get you girls are curious. That's completely normal. I'll try to answer your questions, okay?"

Both Paula and Gabriela looked satisfied.

Buffy continued. "You can have sex standing up. Though it can be tricky. Oh! But having Slayer strength helps a lot. I mean, okay, usually you lean against something. A table or a wall or a sarcophagus - "

"A what?" Paula's eyes were wide.

She was revealing too much. Pare back, Buffy, she thought to herself. "Never mind. What I'm saying is, yes, standing up sex is possible."

Gabriela looked triumphant.

"Oh, but it doesn't have anything to do with whether the baby's a boy or a girl."

Paula's turn to look triumphant.

Buffy noted with relief that the caterers' had started doling out dishes at the outer tables; she could use that as an excuse to wrap up the conversation. Besides, her stomach was grumbling. "So, if you all ever need any advice or help, you can feel free to come to me..."

Bushra leaned forward then. "Is this your primary job?" she asked. "I mean, how do you take care of bills and stuff while having to do all the Slaying?"

Buffy froze up. Bushra was attempting to rescue her from the impromptu sex ed lesson, Buffy could tell that. However, at the question, Buffy's mind clamped down like a cage, and she found her mouth refusing to move.

"Never mind that." Paula interjected, waving Bushra's question aside. "What taste like?" Paula asked conspiratorially.

Well, so much for bringing the conversation to a close. "What does what taste like?"

"A guy's stuff."


Gabriela interrupted. "I heard it tastes salty."

Paula nodded. "A friend of mine gave a guy a," she mouthed the word 'blowjob', then continued. "She said his stuff was hot and salty. That sounds gross."

Buffy kept reminding herself that she was a teacher to these girls. They had questions that any young teenage girls would have. Nothing was ever gained by hiding information away. Nothing at all.

Well, nothing except her dignity.

The caterers moved slowly, not even close to their table. Why was there no escape hatch here? Could Buffy maybe call Willow and get her to summon a demon or something? That wouldn't be completely wrong, would it? After all, practice!

No, Buffy reminded herself. No, she could do this because she was Buffy and happy to help her fellow Slayers learn about...guys' cum.

"I guess it is salty," Buffy said, trying to be matter-of-fact. Like an encyclopedia with no shame. "And hot. Well, if it's a human."

"What else would it be?" Gabriela asked, echoing the question Paula's wide-eyed face.

Buffy had to stop slipping up there.

"Buffy's dating a vampire," Bushra spoke up. When both Gabriela and Paula turned to look at her, Bushra cast an unsure look at Buffy. "Right?"

Buffy opted to smooth the cheap tablecloth in front of her. "Oh," she said, waving her hand. Discussing her sex-with-vampires life in front of the girls was not high on her list of things to do. "Enough about me! Where are you girls from?"

Dinner had the good sense to interrupt, then, and Buffy was spared from having to fight for that subject change. Instead, plates were passed around. Buffy had forgotten that she'd picked her order in advance.

Though eating became the top priority once the food had been sorted out, Buffy couldn't help but notice that the three girls kept stealing glances at her. She knew they were just waiting for the first opportunity to pounce on the recent revelation.

Finally, not to be contained any longer, Gabriela blurted out, "How did you know that Buffy's hooked up with a vampire?"

Well, at least it was Bushra on the hot seat now, not Buffy.

Bushra pushed her tofu stir-fry around her plate, refusing to make eye contact with Buffy. "There's a mailing list on the web about it."

"A Slayer mailing list? Why aren't I on that?" Paula protested.

"No," Bushra shook her head. "Not a Slayer mailing list. A...mailing list about Buffy and, um, Spike."

Buffy finally understood. She'd fallen asleep while waiting for dinner and this was all a very bizarre dream. This wasn't really happening.

Gabriela's next question jolted her out of her peaceful conclusion, though.

"Your boyfriend's name is Spike?"

Buffy frowned. Hello, reality.

"Who runs this mailing list?" Buffy asked.

Bushra had shrunk down in her seat, obviously regretting having brought it up. "Um...Andrew Wells?"

Of course.

Buffy had given Spike a list of things to get. Unfortunately, he'd forgotten it in the midst of the flood fiasco. As such, he entered the Walmart with no plan and little clue what he was supposed to be getting.

He paused at the entrance. Walmart, of all bloody places. He'd tried to push for Target, at the least, but Buffy had vetoed it for money reasons. When he'd brought up the exploitation of the demon population in third world countries, Buffy had rolled her eyes and turned on the TV. Not that he was bitter or anything.

Right. Shopping. She'd told him to get firewood, he knew that. Also, they needed Lysol to properly clean the tile. Hadn't she said something about whipped cream, too? Or maybe that was just a dream he had. Didn't matter. Whipped cream was never a bad thing. He'd get that. She'd also wanted noodles and sauce. Oh, and maybe some towels in light of the flood earlier.

With some idea of what he was getting, Spike grabbed a shopping cart and wheeled it in through the double doors. The greeter, a plump older woman with short gray hair, smiled widely at him.

"Getting cold, isn't it?" she asked.

"Hadn't noticed," he commented, the wheels on the cart squeaking as he moved past her.

Because Buffy's Slayer duties took priority over his, Spike had been doing the grocery shopping as of late. True, he usually did it at night when the sun wasn't an issue - though today was becoming overcast, thankfully - but Spike had developed a system to shopping. Start at the right and work the perimeter. Since Buffy was on that bloody cost-saving kick, he always bought the store brand.

What was up with that anyway? When they'd first settled down, Buffy had been voracious with the shopping trips. Shoes and skirts and blouses and a whole host of girly things that Spike couldn't name. Then overnight, she decided to live the life of an ascetic guru on a mountain. New, cheaper, place. Second-hand clothes. Haircuts at SuperCuts. He'd asked about it, but she'd dodged the question.

He liked to think it didn't matter to him. As long as he got blood, he was set for life. However, he didn't like the thought of his Slayer barely scraping by when she didn't have to. He also didn't like having to constantly forgo the luxuries of the age because Buffy wanted to save a buck. Every thing he tried to do seemed to cost too much nowadays. Even presents he bought her were often promptly sent back for a full refund. "They couldn't afford it" was the go-to explanation.

Spike tossed a Duraflame Fire Log in the cart. No store brand for those. Might as well get two, though, since Buffy hoped to go the night without turning the heat on. He couldn't exactly provide body heat to warm her up if she got cold. Maybe she'd complain about the cost, but she wouldn't complain about the warmth.

He was getting to the end of his mental list when he saw a child sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the pasta. Tears had created moist trails down her cheeks, and she moved her head back and forth like a rotating fan.

Why did kids always tug on his heartstrings? Must be the soul. This never would have happened when he was soulless. Or maybe it happened when he'd fallen in love with Buffy. Even now, staring at the girl made him think of what Buffy or Dawn must have been like as children.

Bringing his cart to a stop, Spike knelt beside the little girl.

"Where's your mum, pet?"

The girl's shoulders jumped as she whimpered a sob. "I don't know," she said in a watery voice.

"Not to worry. Mums have a way of making their way back to their young. I'm Spike. What's your name?"

"Lisa," she said. "I'm five. And I'm not s'posed to talk to strangers. Oh!" With that, Lisa clapped her hands over her mouth and stared at him with wide, frightened eyes.

Spike looked around, trying to see if there were any helpful employees in the vicinity. No luck, of course.

"Well, Lisa, you're right, there. Talking to strangers is usually a bad, bad idea. Tell you what: You don't have to talk to me. Just walk with me to a place where your mum can find you, yeah?"

She lowered her hands and considered him for a few brief seconds. Then she placed hands to the tile and pushed herself up to standing.

"Can I feel your coat?" she asked.

So much for the not talking to strangers thing.

Spike walked back to his cart, and Lisa followed right at his heel.

"Sure thing. In fact, hold onto it and follow me, ducks."

Tiny hands snatched at the hem of his duster, gripping it tightly. In the old days, he would have snarled at her not to damage the leather. He'd gone soft, though, and couldn't bear to speak harshly to the tyke. He'd prefer to save the curses for the mother who'd let her run off. Bloody insensitive. Probably got caught up reading the label on the Parkay tub and didn't notice her little darling wandering off.

As they passed by the Housewares aisle, Lisa picked up both ends of his jacket and started marching behind him as if holding the train of a bride's gown. Spike paused and looked over his shoulder at her.

"You my Maid of Honor?" he asked.

Lisa giggled. "It's like you're wearing a dress."

"Yeah. Exactly like a dress." Spike grinned and continued walking up to the Customer Service desk. The woman there was youngish, probably in her twenties. Glittery make-up coated her eyes as if she were decked out for a night club as opposed to a shift at Walmart. She was counting money from the till, bright purple fingernails flashing between blocks of green.

She didn't look up as he approached. Lisa had gone from carrying his jacket like a train to hiding underneath and leaping out at passersby.

Spike cleared his throat, noting the girl's nametag. "Aubrey," he said.

Mascara heavy eyes jumped to him in the most apathetic way possible. "Just a moment, sir."

Lisa tugged at his sleeve. He looked down at her.

"Whatcha doing?"

"Here," Spike said. He bent down and picked her up to place her on the edge of the Customer Service desk. She happily began swinging her legs and looking around from her new, higher, vantage point.

"Are you a grandpa?" she asked.

Spike tilted his head. "Not that I know of. Why you asking, pet?"

"Cause your hair's white like my grandpa's."

"I doubt your gramps would approve of my hair."

With a satisfying ring, Aubrey closed the cash register and finally looked up at him.

"Can I help you, sir?"

"Yeah, Aubrey. This little girl seems to have gotten separated from her mum."

Lisa turned slightly to look at Aubrey. "That's Spike," she said while pointing at Spike.

Aubrey didn't even act interested. "What's your name?" she asked Lisa.

Lisa looked to Spike and answered at his nod. "Lisa."

"And your last name?" Aubrey already had a form out and was writing down notes.


"She's five," Spike jumped in, trying to move things along.

Aubrey put her pen down and moved to a microphone sticking out from the desk. "Attention shoppers, we have a five-year-old girl named Lisa at the Customer Service desk who's gotten separated from her mother. If you are the mother of Lisa, please come to the Customer Service desk. Thank you."

Lisa looked up with interest as Aubrey's monotonous voice sounded over the loudspeaker.

"Thanks for bringing her up. If you want to continue your shopping, I'll handle the rest," Aubrey said to Spike.

Lisa threw her arms around Spike with a shriek. "No! Spike has to stay!"

He really shouldn't. He and Buffy had planned a cozy night in, and he didn't want to stand her up. Plus, no use staying in Walmart any longer than he had to. He'd done his good service for the day, hadn't he?

Spike could have sworn that he was resolved in this, but he had to admit to himself that he didn't try very hard to disentangle Lisa's arms from him. At the slightest touch, she gripped him tighter and rubbed her wet, snotty face in his t-shirt.

Aubrey looked at him with disinterest, obviously not at all compelled to try to help.

He sighed. "Suppose I could wait for her mother to come get her," he said.

Aubrey shrugged before fetching her cellphone from her pocket and poking at it.

Lisa released him enough to peer up at his face.

"You're staying?" she asked.

"Looks like." Spike considered the cart full of groceries. He spoke to Aubrey, "It a problem if I take her with me to check these out? If her mum comes, just point her at us."

Aubrey didn't looked up from her phone's screen. "Sure."

Spike put Lisa back on the floor. "Wanna help me buy groceries, bit?"

"Can I get candy?" She bounced on her heels.

"Guess you've earned it with the day you've had, haven't you?"

Spike backtracked from the Customer Service desk to one of the checkout lines. Even though it was longer than the others, he kept to one close to the front desk, just in case the missing mum reappeared. He settled behind the cart of a young couple filled with pet supplies. Lisa amused herself by tracing the square holes in the shopping cart and giggling at sod knows what.

His phone vibrated in his pocket. Spike retrieved it and pushed the talk button.

"Yeah, Buffy?" He was slightly afraid she was calling to do a price check on his shopping expedition.

"Spike! Ah, how are you?"

"Good. Shopping. Something wrong?"

There was a pause and Spike could picture Buffy biting her lip. "Have you ever heard of Andrew's mailing list?"

"What mailing list?" Well, at least it wasn't about money.

He could hear Buffy exhale a huff of air. "I knew it." Her voice got distant as if she'd pulled the phone away from her mouth. "Andrew, you cretin, he doesn't know anything about it. Now put down the chair and we'll discuss this."

The line disconnected.

With a shrug, Spike put the phone back. Buffy was sure to fill him in once they got home.

"Who was that?" Lisa asked.

Wasn't that the million dollar question? "Girlfriend" seemed so juvenile and noncommittal. "Mate"? Only weird retro vampires like Dracula would use that. "Lover" was romance novel nonsense.

He settled on telling Lisa that Buffy was his partner. She scrunched her face.

"Your wife?" she asked.

"Something like that, yeah." Not like Spike could explain that 'wife' was a step too far with him and Buffy.

"Is she pretty?"

"Gorgeous," he replied. "Almost as gorgeous as you, pet."

Lisa giggled and squeaked.

Behind them, an older man got in line carrying a basket full of essentials. He grabbed a magazine off the rack and started paging through it.

"Hey!" Lisa said to the man. "That's my Spike!" She pointed at the vampire.

The man didn't even smile. He glanced up and then went back to the magazine, trying hard not to appear like he even noticed her. Spike grabbed Lisa by the hand and brought her around to the front.

"Why not leave him to his magazine, alright?"

Lisa blew a raspberry.

The young couple in front of them had finished paying. As they hauled their bags off, Spike began placing his items on the belt. The steady beeping of the clerk's scanner commenced.

"Grab some candy then stay by me," he said to Lisa absently. The girl pondered the candy station long and hard before deciding on a plain Hershey's bar.

The cashier was a young kid, probably in high school. Thick glasses, unmanageable hair, unfortunate acne. Spike remembered the stage well, despite it having been over a century ago.

Spike finished paying before loading the bags back into his cart to be wheeled out to his car.

First, though, he had to stop at the Customer Service desk. No matter how much she fretted, it was time for Lisa and him to part ways. For her part, Lisa was eagerly unwrapping the chocolate bar and had bitten a huge chunk out of it.

When he arrived at the service desk, a police officer was waiting. She walked up to Spike.

"This the little girl missing her mom?" The officer asked, nodding at Lisa.

Spike nodded. "Aubrey said it was alright for her to go through the check out with me," he said.

"Not a problem, sir. I'm gonna handle things from here."

Spike frowned. "What's wrong?"

Lisa had been distracted by her intense devouring of the chocolate bar. When she heard the officer's voice, though, she looked up.

"Officer Sanchez!" She grinned and ran forward to hug the officer's legs, the remnants of her Hershey's bar still clutched in one hand.

"Youngest criminal I ever met," Spike commented wryly.

Officer Sanchez had snatched up Lisa's chocolate-less hand. "Lisa's mother ditched her in the toy section and left. Not the first time she's done this."

"Left? Left the store?"

"Cheap form of daycare," Sanchez explained. "Also illegal. CPS has already been notified. Thank you for your help, sir."

Spike looked down at Lisa, suddenly reluctant to leave. He was used to being able to resolve problems with punches and such. He didn't fancy leaving this little girl in such a state, though he knew he was powerless to really help her.

If only he could get some time with the mother who'd left her. Not right to leave one's child on their own, no matter how much daycare cost. He wanted Buffy here so he could say, "See? See what this scrimping and saving leads to?" You forget the important stuff. Spike felt an urge to punch something.

"Spike's leaving?" Lisa looked up at Sanchez.

Spike spoke up for himself. "Yep. Got the Missus waiting on me, pet." He crouched down. "You be good for Officer Sanchez, yeah?"

Lisa nodded. "Our dog's name is Spike."

"Better be a pit bull or something fierce."

"She's a fluffy pomberan," Lisa mangled the word 'Pomeranian'.

Spike grimaced but patted her on the head. "Let's keep that between us, alright? Take care, pet."

Lisa waved. "Bye, Spike."

Without a last look, Spike exited the store.

The sun had already set by the time Spike was finally ready to drive home. He was glad the days were getting shorter - fewer awkward blanket-covered sprints to the safety of shade.

Spike grimaced when the radio came on. Buffy had reprogrammed his radio stations last time she had used his car, when her own car had been in the shop. Now, instead of his classic rock and alternative music, he was treated to bouncy top 40 dance music. As he entered the highway, Spike began to reprogram his stations. Guitar riffs covered up the Autotune wailing.

He hated when she did that. Most of what they owned, they owned. Together. The car, though, had been his own baby. He was allowed to splurge on it at his leisure without receiving the wrath of Buffy the Scrooge. He was prickly about her messing with it. She knew he hated it, but she did it anyway.

Spike turned up the volume as Guns n' Roses began to play. He rolled the windows down, careless of the freezing weather. Benefits of being a vampire. He had begun to bob his head to the beat when a loud popping noise exploded beneath the car. The tires swerved sharply, and Spike had to grip the wheel tight to avoid careening out of control.

After some skillful driving, Spike managed to pull the car onto the shoulder of the highway. What he saw when he got out of the car was no surprise: blow out, front right tire. He sighed. Today seemed to be one of those days.

It was too late to get the tire replaced tonight. He would just put a donut on it and take care of it tomorrow. Spike popped the trunk and lifted the cover to fetch the spare.

Only it wasn't there.

With a groan, Spike remembered that Andrew had coopted the spare for some creative Slayer training technique he had engineered, with profuse promises that it would be returned. Obviously, it hadn't.

Spike slammed the top of the trunk and let out some comfortable expletives. He reached for his phone and called Buffy up for a pick-up. She was about a half an hour away, so he had some time to kill as cars whizzed past him on the freeway.

Each passing car shoveled gusts of winds against him, blowing Spike's coat back in a dramatic fashion. Spike wished, not for the first time, that he hadn't quit smoking. A cigarette would be perfect.

The headlight of a passing car directed Spike's attention to a glint of something shiny on the ground in front of his front tire. Spike bent down to inspect it.

It was a ring, half buried under the loose gravel. Spike scooped it up. It was battered and scuffed, but the clear gem kept its brilliance. Spike hadn't lived for over a century without being able to recognize a diamond staring him in the face. Only question was how it came to inhabit the dusty shoulder off this area of the interstate.

Spike conjured up a tale of would-be marriage and sordid love affairs, culminating in the bride-to-be throwing the engagement ring from the car window while driving into the sunset for her new life. The hapless dolt of a failed groom desperately tried to get the ring back from her but she lied and said she'd sold it. If he knew that Spike had his vampiric fingers all over his fortune, he'd turn pale and shit himself.

Thoughts of a storybook marriage gone wrong turned to thoughts of his own relationship. Very far away from marriage by his assessment. Not due to a lack of love. Never that. But things had been growing steadily rockier between them of late. Little everyday troubles were adding up, and Buffy's money neurosis was beginning to feel constraining. He wanted to rail against it, but at the same time he knew doing so would result in a lecture. Possibly with graphs.

Where was the balance between being an equal partner and being pussy-whipped? Spike had no idea. He had the feeling he'd played more of the latter than the former in his hundred plus years of relationship experience. He hadn't minded then. Getting his soul had changed some things, though. Gave him some self-respect, for one. No longer content to let his partner call all the shots.

Except he had been with the money, and he was beginning to tire of it.

With a sigh, Spike secured the ring in his coat pocket and leaned back against the door. Today wasn't giving him much of a silver lining so far.

Headlights shining at him alerted him to Buffy's arrival. She pulled up behind his car, heavy on the breaks, and got out.

"You will not believe what I've been doing," she announced as she walked around to her trunk. Spike joined her.

"Babysitting abandoned children in a grocery store?"

Buffy paused, scrunching her brow at him. "No," she said. "Did you know that Andrew has a...a...well, I guess it's a fan club to us or something."

"Do tell."

As Buffy popped the trunk, Spike pushed the training materials to the side to expose the donut at the bottom.

"Well, one of the new girls knew all about us. Like, all about us. Apparently, Andrew set up some Yahoo mailing list that has pictures and gossip and fake stories about us." She paused. "Some of them were very inappropriate for new Slayers."

Spike straightened. "Andrew did what?"

"I made him take it down," Buffy said quickly. "And then I scolded him. Harshly." She crossed her arms in a pout. "Can I beat him up?"

"Fine by me." Spike shook his head.

"And let me tell you about the talk I had with the new girls before that all came out," Buffy began. She followed Spike as he went around the car to the blown tire. "Let's just say, I should be paid for doling out some sex education."

Spike blinked. "You had sex with the new girls?"

Buffy punched his arm. "No, dummy. I...well, I answered their questions. You know, those types of questions."

Spike smirked. "Would've loved to have seen that."

"Not as sexy as you might think."

"I can think pretty sexy."

Buffy sighed and rubbed her hands together. She bounced on her feet to keep her blood flowing as she watched Spike put the donut on. In Buffy's presence, Spike allowed his concerns to fall to the backburner. As usual.

Buffy swiped away the plastic bags, grabbing at each one in search of the elusive item. After her cursory inspection left her empty-handed, she frowned. "Spike?" she called. "Didn't you get the chicken?"

Spike was in the process of spraying down the tile floor of the kitchen. He didn't look up, but he paused in his cleaning. "Chicken?"


He grimaced. "Thought I forgot something."

"Well, I didn't feel like cooking anyway. I say we order pizza." Buffy shoved the bags to the side and headed to the fridge to see what magnet deals they had.

She slid a little on a wet spot. "Need an orange cone."

Spike had finished the mopping and wandered off by the time Buffy had figured out her pizza order. If she planned it right, she could make the leftovers stretch out for the next three days. That wasn't a bad price for that much food. Not high on the nutrition front, perhaps, but eating healthy was expensive. On the phone, she made her order and redeemed her coupon. As she hung up, she turned to watch Spike as he hunkered down in front of the fireplace.

"What's that?" she eyed the Duraflame package he had at his side.


"It's a Duraflame log."


"I wanted you to get real firewood. You know, like from trees."

Spike set the log down. "Were you wanting me to dress up in a lumberjack outfit while doing this?"

Buffy huffed. "Spike, I just thought it would be nice and traditional. You know, cozy fire and all. A Duraflame log? That's just...weird. Plus, more expensive."

Spike threw down the matches and stood. "What's your goat about money lately, Slayer? You do know we get paid a decent wage now, right?"

Buffy deflected. "I'm just trying to be frugal."

"You're trying to drive me up the wall is what you're doing. Where was your frugality back when you were buying up shoes by the dozen? Why the sudden change?"

She so didn't want to discuss this. She knew Spike grumbled about the money stuff from time to time, but he'd never openly questioned her about it.

She crossed her arms. "Since when is saving money a bad thing? Besides, it's easy to not worry about money when you're all vampire-like and can get by on blood and darkness!"

"Not about me," Spike growled. "It's about you and your near obsession with saving money! Now, I don't mind if you want to do some coupon-cutting to save a dollar here and there. No skin off my nose. But when everything I bloody do gets the disapproving look from you because, oh, I spent too much on bloody firewood, I think I'm damned well entitled to know why I'm having to jump on the uptight brigade."

Buffy fought down her panic as best she could. She shook her head. "I'm not discussing this." She turned to make a beeline for the front door so she could escape him and his anger.

Spike grabbed her elbow. "Oh no," he said. "You don't get to pull a runaway just when I'm getting close to something, pet." She glared stakes at him. "I'm sure it's something pretty big that's got your pride all worked up in defense. Thought we trusted each other a bit more than that, though. So tell me: Why the penny-counting? What is so big that you're afraid of telling me?"

"I fucked up!" Buffy snapped. Her retreat attempt hadn't worked, and her frustrated bubbled over. "I, I spent too much. Too much money I didn't have. And now I'm trying to pay off all this debt to avoid going bankrupt because that's not the most attractive option. But paying off debt means not building up any new debt, so I've been cutting expenses as much as I can, but what I owe is like a mountain and I have a tiny, tiny spoon that I'm just scooping away at it with."

The angry look in Spike's eyes died, to be replaced with tempered exasperation and concern. She liked that look better, even if she was blushing red in embarrassment over admitting the extent of her financial trouble. She turned away in an attempt to hide her breakdown of composure.

"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked.

She shrugged. "I mean, we'd just started dating when I realized how bad things had gotten. Not exactly the best point in a relationship to bring it up. And I just...wanted to handle it by myself. Like a grown-up, you know?" She hugged herself as she turned back to him. "Plus, I was kinda afraid you'd make some huge deal about how I'd shopped myself into debt. Actually, I'm still kinda afraid you'll do that."

Spike pulled her into his arms. "Don't think I need to tell you that. Sounds like you got the message already."

She sniffed into his shoulder. "I did a spreadsheet on the computer that tells me I'll be debt-free in fifteen months if I just keep doing what I'm doing now."

He stroked circles around her back. "I can help."

She drew away to cast a suspicious eye at him. "How? Is there some secret vampire gold or something?"

"No, I just mean, I can be here for you. You don't have to do it alone."

She nodded, though her face was tight with emotion. She released a sob in conjunction with a laugh. "Sorry, stupid thing to cry over, right?" She wiped her eyes. "Look what you did," she admonished.

"So sorry," he said. He leaned down and kissed her. She squeezed his arms tight with Slayer strength, reveling in the comforting embrace and sniffing into the crook of his neck.

When she had composed herself a few moments later, she broke away. Without looking at him she snatched up the remote and started flipping through channels. The message was clear: they were moving on now. He leaned down and finished making the fire.

"So, tell me more about this sex ed you taught today," he said as he moved to the kitchen to microwave his blood. The fire's flames grew higher and higher as the Duraflame log consumed itself.

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Do I have to? I think I'm repressing."

Spike sat beside her with his mug and stroked her knee. "Just hoping you'll give me a lesson."

"But then I might miss the pizza guy!" Buffy flipped to the movie channel. Finding Nemo was just starting. She lowered the remote.

"We're watching the fish movie?"

"It's nice. There's no vampires."

"Says you. I swear I spotted a fish with some fangs."

She nudged him. "I like getting away from business sometimes."

"Yeah, but getting away into the ocean?"

Buffy shrugged. "It's cute."

"S'pose so."

A comfortable silence fell over the two as Spike gulped down his warm blood. Buffy held a cushion on her lap as she watched Nemo swimming through the water to his father's dismay.

"You think we should start incorporating underwater training for the girls?" she asked abruptly.

"Doing a good job getting away from work," he commented.

"Oh. You're right."

Without warning the front door opened, making both Buffy and Spike's heads snap round. Buffy was about to yell at the pizza guy that he was supposed to knock when Dawn appeared, carrying a bulging backpack strapped on her shoulder and wrestling to get a cat carrier through the door.

Buffy stood. "Dawn?"

Random Dawn appearances weren't an uncommon occurrence. Buffy and Spike had gotten used to Dawn escaping her terrible, horrible, no good, very bad roommate at their apartment last year. Buffy had thought that such visits would decrease in frequency now that Dawn had a new place without any roomies. Apparently, no such luck.

"The heat at my new dorms is out. So annoying!" Dawn plunked the cat carrier down on the floor and straightened. "It's way too cold so I'm staying the night here."

"You are?" Spike asked, resting his head against his hand. His eyes latched onto the cat carrier with a raised eyebrow.

"Yep. Have you guys eaten yet?" She slung her backpack down and leaned down to unlatch the carrier. "Oh, I went back and grabbed that adorable kitty from my old dorms. The guys across the hall always called him Mr. Moochie, but I don't like that. I'm calling him Able cause he looks all hardy."

The large, filthy cat emerged from the depths of the cat carrier. It gave Buffy a quixotic smile. Buffy frowned in return. Why did Dawn have to take in every animal she came across? Last time Dawn had graced a stray cat with shelter, the college had swiftly caught her out and forced her to give it up. Willow had gotten a new house partner instead.

"I didn't think to bring a litter box, but I don't think he's house-trained anyway. But it's okay. I brought some Febreze."

As Dawn continued to arrange her stuff in their apartment, the doorbell rang to signal the pizza's arrival. Spike handled the pizza guy while Buffy helped Dawn set her stuff up. After everything was taken care of, they all settled down on the sofa to watch the movie, which had continued to play in the background.

Dawn frowned with the pizza slice halfway to her mouth. "Hey, is your heat off? It's kinda chilly."

Buffy fidgeted in her seat. She didn't want to explain her frugality to Dawn. Spike picked up the ball, though. "Got a cozy fire going. No need for the heat."

She relaxed. There appeared to be some benefits to telling Spike the whole truth about her financial mess.

"Says you," Dawn pouted and tugged the sleeves of her sweater over her hands.

Buffy became distracted as Able jumped on her lap and tried to take a bite out of the pizza she was currently eating. As Buffy held the pizza away, Able became more insistent that he should get a taste of it. Every attempt to shove him away was met with indifference and a renewed approach.

"You gotta respect a man that determined, Slayer." Spike grinned.

"No," Buffy said, raising the pizza high above her head. "Pretty sure it's just annoying."

"Not the least bit endearing?"

Able pawed at her arm and touched its nose with hers. He released a throaty meow and looked up at the pizza slice that Buffy was keeping from him.

"I think you need to stop identifying with cats, Spike," Buffy said.

"Whoa! What's this?" At Dawn's raised voice, Able jumped off Buffy's lap and trotted to hunker down under the table in the corner.

Dawn had helped herself to Spike's jacket to stave off the chill. In doing so, the engagement ring had fallen out of its pocket. She held the glittering ring in front of her, eyes wide.

They only got wider and her mouth got comically round. "Oh! Did I ruin a surprise? Crap!" She waved her arms. "Forget this happened! It didn't! Uh..."

"Relax, Niblet," Spike interjected. "No ruined surprises. I found that on the highway. Forgot about it, I suppose."

Buffy took the ring from Dawn and inspected it under the light. "It's real?"

"Yeah," Spike said. "Someone's out there kicking themselves."

When Buffy looked up, she caught his gaze. A ring like this would be worth a lot of money. They both knew it.

"Able!" Dawn cried. "No! No peeing on the carpet!"

Buffy pocketed the ring as the moment was broken.

Hours later found Dawn fast asleep in the armchair, Spike's jacket wrapped around her like a blanket. Able had climbed on top of her - almost as if she were a mountain - and stretched out along the curve of her body. His whiskers twitched.

Buffy traced the scars along Spike's hands. Her back rested against his chest. They slumped together on the sofa while watching the credits roll for the horrendous B movie they'd watched after Finding Nemo. Behind them, the fire began to die, leaving a chill over the room.

Buffy shifted slightly and produced the ring from her pocket. She held it up so they could both look at it.

"So," Spike said.

"We really should turn it in," Buffy said. "If somebody's looking for it..."

"That's a big 'if'," Spike replied. "Most likely, someone threw it out a car window."

"Yeah." She sighed.

"How much of the debt you think it'd knock out?" Spike asked.

Buffy shrugged. "I'm not sure how much it's worth. It would help, though, that's for sure."

Spike covered her hand with his, lowering the ring. Buffy let her head fall back against his shoulder.

"Why don't we sleep on it, pet?" Spike said.

"I don't know. That doesn't seem like a very good use of a ring," Buffy joked. Spike poked her in the ribs. She laughed. "Yeah, we'll sleep on it. Figure things out tomorrow."

Spike smoothed her hair down and kissed the top of her head. "Tomorrow, then."