There was a small part of Buffy's mind that found itself shocked, astonished, at everything that had just come out of her mouth. These were her friends, her family; how could she treat them so badly after all they had gone through together? And yet, she couldn't help the surge of – of triumph, maybe? Of vindication? Whatever you wanted to call it, it felt good to get all this stuff off her chest, resentments she hadn't even realized she still carried.

Better than good. It felt tremendous.

If this was what they meant by helping, then Buffy could stand to take a little more of it, please.

Giles was sliding forward in his seat, drawing himself up for lecture mode. Buffy found herself sizing him up the way she would an opponent; and again, there was that rush of shock, a tiny bit of shame, coupled with this tremendous sense of freedom.

There was nothing that said she had to take him at face value anymore, if in fact there ever had been – no rule that said she had to accept what he had to say without questioning or even rejecting it completely, if she chose to.

Even so, he looked sincere – a bit pleased that she was willing to hear him out, but without any hint of smugness in his expression, lines of worry and care marking his eyes and forehead. His shoulders were taking on a relieved slant, and it surprised Buffy to realize that she had paid enough attention over the years to be able to tell when Giles was lying; again that tiny twinge of shame that she'd even think to check or want to, but to be fair to herself, it really hadn't ever occurred to her before now to look.

"If I may, Buffy," he was saying, "this was exactly the sort of reaction I was hoping to see. Well, admittedly I suppose I might have preferred something a bit less angered, but that's rather beside the point, I think. The point is that you, er, seem to have more energy compared to what you were feeling before… if I may, what were you feeling, before you touched the Scythe?"

Buffy closed her eyes and turned her face away for a long moment, unsure exactly how much of herself she wanted to permit him to see. Still. They said they were here to help, and so far…

"Nothing," she finally said, gritting her teeth. "And I don't mean, 'I don't want to talk about it' nothing. I mean… broken, empty. There was nothing in me to feel with. I had to work to care enough to be able to feel anything."

"I suspect that if you were to place the Scythe on the table, and take your hands off it, that sensation might return," he mused.

"And wouldn't that be a cute experiment," Buffy growled. Not gonna happen, either. She flexed her fingers around the haft of the weapon.

"Yes, quite," said Giles. "But I think we needn't try that unless you choose to. At any rate, now it appears that you are drawing on the power of the Scythe to bolster your own strength, and it is allowing you to, to express, to feel something. And of course, the Scythe itself is a Slayer weapon, so one can hardly expect you to take it up and find yourself suddenly filled with the, uh, 'milk of human kindness', I suppose."

"Peace on earth, goodwill toward men?" Buffy's mouth quirked up at one corner.

"Something like that, yes," he said. "Regardless, that connection, that borrowed strength, is something that I believe you need very much right now, given our information so far. You see, Willow may have phrased it badly earlier, but –"

"But you do think there's something wrong with me." It wasn't a question.

"I think you've been injured, Buffy," said Giles gently. It was something else she hadn't realized – the fact that she'd missed that tone of voice over the past few years. "I think that whatever happened to you was not simply an emotional event, but a mystical one as well."

It would be just like them to pass off what Buffy was going through as the result of some spell, or thrall, or whatever; but Giles still didn't seem to be broadcasting any hint of "you're not allowed to feel this way", and Willow was keeping her mouth shut and, when Buffy glanced over at her, looking surprisingly free of either guilt or defensiveness. Dawn, for her part, was chewing her lip with worry and hanging on their every word.

Fine, then.

"I'm listening," said Buffy.

Giles let out a breath and his shoulders dropped a little further. "Given everything you've endured," he said, "these past several years and particularly these past few weeks, it would make perfect sense that you might, er, have s-something of a breakdown, if you will, or some sort of cathartic event, where you might finally permit yourself to, to grieve, to mourn your losses, once you were no longer under such intense pressure to behave as the Slayer. Once no one was looking up to you, placing their demands upon your time and energy, burdening you with their expectations, I suppose an incident of this sort might even be inevitable. It would make sense for you to feel, er, sadness… loss… and you've every right to feel that way, naturally."

"Nice to have your permission," she couldn't resist muttering.

Giles ducked his head for a second. "And of course," he went on, "as you said yourself, we've not always been, er, as supportive of you, as we could have been, in retrospect. We haven't always… encouraged you, backed your decisions…"

"That's one way of putting it," said Buffy.

"We know, Buffy," Willow put in. "We haven't been the kind of friends you really deserved, and part of the reason we came is because we want to change that."

And there was that wave again – that sense of shock at her audacity, that she should speak to her Watcher like this, that sense of "how dare you" mixed all through with an overwhelming sense of "woo-hoo!" And oddly, it felt familiar, too – hadn't she used to talk back to Giles all the time? Hadn't she stood up for herself and disagreed with her friends, back in the dim distant past before everything fell apart between them?

And if this was the result, why the heck had she ever stopped?

Were Giles and Willow actually saying they wanted to fix their dynamic and go back to the way things used to be, back when they were a family?

"Yes, exactly," said Giles, and Buffy had to pause for a second to realize he was agreeing with Willow. "So, again, it would make perfect sense that you would experience some anger, resentment, and again, your feelings are perfectly justified, and I for one have no intention of trying to convince you to, to 'buck up' or to force you to pretend to be happy when you are not."

Buffy took a couple deep breaths, and finally leaned back into the couch cushions, pulling the Scythe with her. Leave it to the Slayer to want to cuddle with a deadly weapon.

"None of that sounds like mystical injury or whatever you were calling it," she said.

"No," said Giles, "but your reaction – the nature of it, how suddenly you, er, collapsed – along with some of the things Dawn tells me you said, led me to believe that there was more going on here than simply a reaction to the trauma you've had to endure. And as it turns out, Willow agrees and has some further evidence to support our theory." He took off his glasses and glanced at her cautiously. "I would, of course, prefer to have a more detailed account, directly from you, of your experience, if you would be willing to describe it."

She narrowed her eyes; no, she decided. There was a limit, just at the moment, to how much she was willing to share with them, and, for better or worse, she felt the need to test this new-leaf support and respect thing they claimed to have going on. If they badgered her, well, she'd have her answer as to how far she could really trust them.

"I'm not," was all she said.

Giles cleared his throat. "Yes, er, perfectly understandable," he replied. "As I said, I've no intention of pressuring you to give us anything beyond what you are comfortable with; later, perhaps, if you feel it might be helpful for us to have that information, you might change your mind."

Well. That was refreshing.

"Now, as to that evidence I mentioned," he went on, "really it was Willow who discovered the most critical clue…" Giles gestured toward her and sat back, apparently finished for the time being.

Willow opened her mouth, but Buffy held up a hand before she could say anything.

"Dawn," she said quietly. "Would you mind making a pot of coffee or something, please? Maybe dig out some snacks?"

Her sister blinked in surprise. "Uh – sure!"

You know what, fine, Buffy thought. If her friends were actually here to offer help – real help – then she and Dawn should probably at least try to make them feel welcome. Plus, Dawn had been pushing her to eat something for the past couple of days and with the Scythe in her hands, Buffy thought she might actually feel hungry enough to manage more than a couple of bites.

She didn't miss the relieved smile that Dawn broke into, as she hopped up and dashed into the kitchen.

There was a Man, and he was in a Place, empty and… bollocks.

There was Spike, and he was Somewhere all right, and it might be dark but it wasn't exactly empty, being as he was there and so was Somebody Else. Felt like a dream, that sense you get where you know everything is real, and at the exact same time you also know that everything isn't? It was like that. Place was dark, but that might only have been because he wasn't looking at it the right way… or because nothing really existed here apart from him and the Somebody Else. Dreams usually had something else in the background, didn't they?

Made no sense.

And the Somebody Else who was here made no sense either, being as Spike had never seen her before and even if he had recognized the face he was pretty damn sure he wouldn't have invented this kind of dream-costume for her to be standing about in. Naked, sure; he'd had plenty of those dreams, every bloke did. But only naked from the waist up, and coated in mud? Bint looked like something out of National Geographic.

You'd think in a dream that the people in it would be doing something, but the bird just stood there gawking at him out of her ghoul's mask of black and white clay, dreadlocked hair sticking out every which way. She had a pendant of some kind round her neck on a leather thong, and a skirt that might have been made from skin or strips of rotted cloth. No obvious weapons, and no straw hut behind her or a bonfire or whatall; she wasn't waving a spear in his face or doing some kind of witch doctor dance, or any of the things you'd expect from someone looking like she did. She just stood there, staring at him, and he should have thought her ridiculous or half-witted but instead she nearly gave him the shivers.

He stared back at her as long as he could, noted the definition of hard muscle hiding under the mud, caught something of dignity – pride, maybe; strength, something – in her posture. Something predatory in her absolute patience, but her eyes didn't give away whether he was meant to be prey or what.

For himself, Spike wasn't in an especially predatory mood, so her patience beat his.

"So who are you supposed to be, then?" he asked her. "Bloody Ghost of Christmas Past?"

From absolute stillness to deadly motion in the blink of an eye, she launched herself at him, one hand crooked into a claw and aiming for his eyes. He barely managed to duck in time, and used her own momentum to fling her past him and into the dark. She came to her feet and whirled, stance low and on guard, but didn't attack.

"A ghost," she said. Her voice was a rich alto, and echoed strangely. "And alive. Dead, but I live on."

What the bleeding hell was this, Spike thought.

"Think I know a little about that," he said cautiously. "The part about bein' dead and still kickin', at least."

She shuffled her feet across dirt that hadn't been there a second ago, sun-baked mud, cracked and dusty. The girl, whatever she was, blurred toward him before spinning, ducking low to knock him off his feet while aiming a high kick to the side of his head. Spike let himself fall, blocking her kick and turning it into an ankle grab as he rocked backward and pulled. The girl grunted as her palms slapped the earth, then reversed her spin, trying to twist free. Again, Spike used her own momentum, and threw her off him sideways, adding in a quick palm strike to one of her knees as she went. Probably didn't do much but it couldn't hurt.

Spike kipped to his feet and rose smoothly; the girl was already up, but just like before, she paused.

"We are nothing alike," she said. "And identical."

"You realize that doesn't make a bloody bit of sense," he griped at her. Bloody hell, if this was his dream, why couldn't he for once get a bird who wasn't bleeding insane, violently disliked him, or both?

Again the girl flung herself at him; Christ, she was fast, and he was hard pressed to keep up against the flurry of punches and kicks she aimed at him. Bits of dried mud flaked off her body and got in his eyes at one point, and she landed a right hook that nearly spun him off his feet. He countered with a knee to her ribs and an elbow into her breastbone that sent her tumbling.

Again, she came to her feet, her stance defensive, and again she held her attack. Made no sense.

"Riddles are all I can offer," she said. "You must earn clarity."

Earn… an idea sparked in his head, and Spike held his tongue; froze his stance and waited to see what would happen.

The girl remained still.

Spike waited.

The girl did nothing.

Spike narrowed his eyes at her. "You're going to come at me every time I say something, aren't you?" he challenged.

He could have sworn he saw amusement under the paint on her face, just before she sent a single side kick toward his stomach that he blocked easily. She dodged quickly out of range again, and stopped.

Well, well, well.

"Okay, so you're saying my soul is damaged somehow. Mangled, or whatever. What – are you saying something attacked it?" Buffy had curled up in her corner of the couch, the Scythe still on her lap, only now she gripped it tightly with one hand while trying to balance a plate of cheese and crackers with the other.

"We're not completely sure," said Willow. "I mean, that was the first thing I thought, for sure, because it just looks so – messed up. But I talked to the coven, and…" She frowned worriedly, shook her head. "They gave me some suggestions, but a lot of them don't quite make sense. Like, they almost do, they maybe could, but then…" She trailed off with a helpless shrug.

"I'm sorry to say my own research turned up very little, and I suspect that it is of very little value at all," said Giles. "Of course, I thought to narrow my search by looking up anything related to the First Evil, to, er, apocalyptic battles, and to the more obscure bits of prophecy related to the Slayer, so perhaps it's unsurprising that I wasn't more successful."

"Doesn't matter," said Dawn into the silence, and they all looked up to see her standing in the kitchen doorway, struggling not to drop the three drinks she was trying to carry all at once. "Scooby stuff always started off like this. Bits and pieces of information that maybe didn't make sense at first, but we laid it all out there no matter how weird and we figured stuff out."

"What's this 'we', kemosabe?" asked Buffy drily.

Dawn scowled at her. "It would have been we if you'd stopped treating me like a ten-year-old just a little sooner," she said. She made her way carefully back over to them, her tongue sticking out slightly. "So, whatever. Just start with what the coven told Willow and go from there."

"Right," said Willow, taking a deep breath. "Well, this probably isn't much, but… the closest thing they could come up with to match what happened with you? Was something like giving birth."

Buffy raised an eyebrow and said nothing.

"You're, er, the coven, suggested birth because of the, the sense of separation that Buffy described?" said Giles, gamely taking the bait.

"Kinda, yeah," said Willow. "They said it actually fits pretty well except for there being, you know, no baby or anything."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "All right, fine," she said, "I'll bite. What makes it such a great fit."

"Well," said Willow, "there's a whole lot of speculation about when babies get their souls, and a whole lot of debate that I'm not going to go into, you know, 'does life begin at conception' and all that stuff. But it turns out that whenever it does happen, the soul itself is fragile, kinda like the baby is, and the mother protects it on a mystical level the same way that she's carrying the baby physically. I mean, she doesn't grow the soul or anything, but somehow she protects it until the baby is born, and even for a little bit afterward. About half of the coven ladies think it's partly to give the soul time to get used to being on this plane, and partly to give the baby and the soul time to merge together and become a living being, without any outside distractions. But I guess that's neither here nor there."

"Okay…" said Buffy.

"Okay, so, look at childbirth for a second. When a baby is born, there's this whole, living person, that's been completely a part of the mother's body for nine months, plus an entire internal organ, the placenta, just as big and complicated as a person's liver, that was built from scratch and now it just gets, um, shed I guess you'd call it. And it's all natural and supposed to happen, but when you think about it that's a pretty huge separation. And of course the mom's body takes quite a while to go back to the way it was pre-baby." She took a drink, squinting at the ceiling as she tried to come up with an easy description. "Even though it's natural and the mother's body is built to handle the whole thing, it's still a big deal, and kinda traumatic."

"And you're suggesting that something similar happens between the souls of both infant and mother," prompted Giles.

"Something like that," nodded Willow. "Just like the baby was, in a very real way, an extension of the mom's body for all that time, the baby's soul kinda belongs to both the mom and the baby, for a little while. Supposedly the baby's soul can even influence the mother to some extent. But then when the baby is born, that soul leaves the mother behind, and it's another one of those separations that is both totally natural and still pretty traumatic, all at the same time. Just as the mom – um, sorry Giles, girl stuff – just as she bleeds for awhile after the baby comes out, on a soul level she's, technically, kind of wounded. Her soul needs time to recover."

"But if that's what was happening," said Dawn, "then there's two questions you gotta answer. The obvious one is where the heck the baby is, or whatever it was that Buffy was carrying around with her, and the other one is why did it hurt Buffy so badly if this is supposed to be a normal thing."

Buffy's breath hitched in realization. "Spike," she whispered. "I was carrying Spike. His soul." She gasped again, a tear slipping down one cheek. "Somehow. I think… that's what it was."

Oh, god. To know that it wasn't her imagination; that the presence she had felt was real, was really him… She blinked back tears, fighting for control. Felt Dawn's hand on her shoulder, and after a moment, another tentative touch on her knee. She glanced up to see Willow beside her; her eyes held only compassion, and Buffy couldn't even remember the last time they'd shared anything this painful, this… intimate.

The Scythe might not be giving her the kind of energy that was suited for this kind of thing, but still. Buffy hadn't realized just how much she'd missed her friend. How much she'd needed her.

For the first time in years, she dropped her guard and simply let the tears fall.

I was excited enough about this chapter that it hasn't gone through my usual careful editing process. If I find anything later that really sticks out, I'll tweak it, but for the most part I'm really happy with these ideas and how I got them to sound. Um... don't expect another update this fast (consider it a holiday gift from me to you), but now that I'm beginning to move away from all the internal angst I suspect the story will be much easier to write. Yay!