By Sweetprincipale

This is set in my non-canon, but canon-esque series following Uncontrollable and Unmentionable. If you haven't read those first, please do, or this won't read nearly as well or make much sense. Unknown begins a few weeks after the end of Unmentionable, around the beginning of season five.

Author's Note: Sorry for the long delay, but the next posting should come in comparably quick succession. (And this is a long chapter, so you get what you waited for!) Bear with me, and remember I love happy, Spuffy endings.

Dedicated to: CavemenFTW, ginar369, Sirius120, omslagspapper, Illusera, The-Darkness-Befalls, Cailin Rua, Annamonk, Twany, Jewel74, AGriffinWriter, and DidiSummers. I couldn't do this without you.

Direct Quotes are obviously not mine, but belong to the fabulously talented and creative people who wrote them. In this case, some of season five's dialogue will be used.

Disclaimer: Nothing of Buffy belongs to me, except my sincere admiration. However, this story is all mine.


Giles looked at his watch. Continually running out of time. Dash here, dash there, the stress of every man with a busy family, and several jobs- who knew the world was in danger of coming to a swift conclusion. "Do I really need to get a fresh razor if I'm about to meet my maker?" He mumbled, pulling shirts and slacks rapidly out of his wardrobe, scanning his ties. "No... but if I'm prepared to meet any potential art buyers, with Anya looking on..." He sighed and ran back down. This time the light blinking on his phone caught his eye.

"Now what? Which one of them can't survive for the twenty minutes it takes me to get from the store, home, and back?" He muttered long sufferingly and pressed the button.

"Mr. Giles? This is Mr. Wilson. I called earlier. Ah, quite a bit earlier. Actually. Hrm." A well-bred, somewhat reedy voice that crackled in a flustered manner began to leave a message. "One hates to leave such news on a machine, but time is pressing. As you know, Ms. Summers has been without an official Watcher for over a year. She also stopped aligning herself with the Council or its representatives, but she is still the Slayer. Mr. Travers will still need to make sure she's fit to continue with her duties. He'll be arriving in the country in a few days, and he'll perform a few tests. The usual. Speed, skill, agility, sensory, various forms of weapons, basic knowledge of demonology, technique and various fighting styles... Nothing to concern yourself with. Yes. I'll ring off then. Mr. Travers will be seeing you soon."

Giles' stood motionless, heart and mind roaring round inside at a hundred miles per hour. With a single twitch, his finger flexed and pressed the button a second time, heard the message again. "Bloody hell..."

"Robson speaking."

"Did he find out? Did you tell him?" Giles rasped.


"Travers! Did you tell him? About - about our discussion!" Giles cried desperately, heart thumping, vein in his temple pulsing.

"No! Rupert, I- I swear, not a word. You asked for time, and you are with the Slayer. If she says she can handle it, if she's found a way-"

"She hasn't, we haven't, but we- we have leads." Giles sat heavily at his desk, a pile of clothes draped limply over him. "He's coming here."

"He is?"

"Didn't he say?"

"No, he never tells me anything, we're just the underlings, you know that."

"Well, he's coming here and he obviously told at least one of his underlings because someone left a message informing me he'll be here in a few days. If he comes now, he'll- he'll upset things, Robson. It's very, very bloody delicate right here, right now."

"What do you expect me to do, Giles? I can hardly recall him!"

"Oh no, no, I know you can't." Glasses clattered off, tensed, trembling hand dragged at weary eyes.

"What can we do? You have a lead? Is there-"

Giles sat up straight suddenly, clutching at straws, but what a lucky straw this would turn out to be- hopefully. "I need references, anything you can find- to a demon, most likely identifying as female gender, an ancient power, perhaps unable to speak, who communicates in thought control or on the mental plane."

"The Unnamed? I've told you, that's what Travers has access to, it's not in the Index."

"You have no idea what Buffy and her - her team can do. They make miracles." They save this world. Save our lives. Make new ones. "We have a name. 'Glory'."

"What's wrong? You have wrong face. You have 'more wrong than everything that's recently usually wrong' face." Buffy took one look at Giles' as she entered his apartment and had to curb the urge to grab him by the lapels and shake him. "Nothing else can go wrong right now!"

"She didn't mean that, God!" Xander shouted from his place two steps below her.

"Can we have the screamin' and panic inside?" Spike shoved her forward.

"And can we do it fast? Not that the preventing of the end times isn't thrilling, but I've helped with that before. I've never been asked to help pick out decorations and address invitations to an opening night private showing at an art gallery."

"Priorities much?" Willow huffed past the ex-demon, arms full of borrowed books. "Not that Joyce's gallery isn't important!" Guilt instantly overwhelmed her.

"But if we don't prevent this bad thing from happening, we won't have anywhere to have the show." Tara rationalized gently.

"Good point. Yes. Let's research. But I'm out after an hour. I'm helping with the envelopes."

Giles locked the door after his noisy, bickering, snarking brood. "Yes, yes, we- we're here for a reason." Giles stammered out. Buffy sat, not even bothering to take off her coat, simply staring at him expectantly. Spike stood behind her, hands kneading her shoulders. "I've had some rather, uh ... well, I've had some news. It seems that the Council of Watchers has decided to pay us a visit."

"What?" Buffy bolted upright, Spike fell back with a curse as her head glanced his chin. "Why? You said they weren't getting involved! Plan C- Not getting involved!"

"What's going on?" Willow looked confused.

"I asked a trusted friend to help search the Council's resources for information about our little problem. Everything they found out was vague, but pointed to information held by the Head of Council."

"Who is a rat bastard and if he comes here, he'll want to handle things his way." Buffy seethed.

"An' I don't want to be handled by anyone but the Slayer." Spike snarled. "Don't know for certain that they'd connect two an' two, but I don't want to be on the end of something wooden an' pointy if they decide what I've got would be better off outside a vampire and in some mystical holding cell."

"They have information about Glory?" Xander looked at Giles and Buffy. "Saving the world information? We need that!"

"We need a lot of things, it all depends on what we want to pay for them." Giles said tersely. "Everything adds to an equation Xander, and anything you take away..."

Take Spike away and- and it all falls. "Sorry, just reacting."

Spike gave the boy an odd glance. He'd been sure that he'd be the one crying the old "sacrifice the one for the good of the many" bit.

"Well, if they have some information and they're coming here, maybe we can still get it without tipping them off about Spike?" Tara suggested hesitantly. "We could still get the help, but keep him safe?"

Spike made an angry snorting sound. All the references about shielding him and protecting him... Not weak. Not helpless. Not my fault some hell beastie wants to rip me apart as opposed to someone else. They wouldn't have given this to me if I weren't the man for the job. "They're sure not gonna find out from me. Have to stalk around and snarl at them to convince them I'm just as bad as bad can be, nothing special inside, I'll be happy to."

"I'm not saying you would. I'm just saying we would. H-help." Tara's voice quavered slightly. "Y-you guys tried to h-help me when I needed it. It's like a f-family. The good kind."

Spike's bluster was replaced with honest contrition. The redhead's eyes were about to burn him un-alive and her little bird was drawing back into the nest. "You're right." Spike said in a much smoother, softer voice, locking deep blue eyes with a paler shade. "Come to this lot plenty, and you've bounced it back a few times. We've always helped each other out. Well. Most always. Recently."

"Moving as this is- that's not the reason they're coming." Giles finally managed to break through the tidal wave of words that were sweeping over him. "And when I say 'they', I mean Travers himself."

"What?" Buffy yelped. "He's coming? Why Travers himself? Doesn't he have lackey people to come over here and mess things up? And- hey! If he is coming all this way, why are you saying it's not to give us info? He's the only one who's got the information, we're the only ones asking for it- why in the world would he be coming here if he didn't want to give it to us?"

"I'm fairly sure he does have it, and that he knows we need it. I think that's why he's really coming, but- that's not why he says he is coming." This sounded hopelessly muddled.

"I'm very confused." Anya raised her hand. "Also, concerned."

"I'm confused too." Xander frowned. "Don't they have phones in Watcher World?" He put on a truly terribly fake British accent that sent Spike and Giles into a full body cringe, "Allo, Buffy, here's some stuff we know you need to kill the demon rising, pip pip."

"Yeah! Phones. See, I'd like him better on a phone." Buffy tugged Giles' sleeve with helpless eagerness. "I'm comfortable with him on a phone. I can hang up."

Tara frowned. "Well, what's so bad about him coming here? I mean- I know he fired Giles, but still. Isn't he one of the good guys? Sure, he'd have a problem if he knew Spike was the- thing. But we didn't even know, and we see him everyday. It's been months! None of us found out so why would he? He's still a Watcher. That's just like another Giles, right?"

Buffy shook her head. "Normal Watchers, maybe, but this one is all scary and horrible!"

Muddling had turned into full fledged stammering for the overwrought patriarch. "Um, well, I don't claim to have any love lost for Travers. He's hard-nosed, uncompromising. Cold. A bastard. But, ah- essentially, his agenda is the same as ours. Save the world and kill demons."

Anya's hand shot back up. "Back to my concern. Kill the current demons, right? Current demons as opposed to ex ones?"

Buffy ignored her, turning full fledged pleading on her Watcher. "Giles, I don't want him to come here. I don't trust him. Make him not come here."

He sighed. "He's probably already on his way."

Buffy shook her head vehemently. "They put me through that test, and it almost killed me. And then, when I was Faith, they almost killed me again. Honestly, I really can't handle almost being killed right now. I'm already on mega demon's list of 'to be killed', and so is my boyfriend, and so is the whole world! What is he going to do if he's not going to tell us the information?"


"I'll tell you! He's going to snoop around and think we know stuff we don't and get in the way and get us killed!"

"Why the fuck is he comin'? Are the Watchers huntin' this demon bitch too?" Spike took Buffy in his arms to soothe her, but his own anger boiled over.

"Well... According to the message- he says it's time you were tested." The chorus of groans, exclamations, and general hysteria cut him off.

"I can't do that thing where they take my strength again! I need all of it now!"

"Not that kind of test!" Giles thundered, tired of the constant upheaval and interruption. The room fell silent. "I'm fairly certain this is a ruse. Travers himself needn't come to administer a test such as he claims, a test to see how you've progressed in training and tactics since you no longer have an official Watcher. A team of experts in the various arts and disciplines could be sent. But he himself is due to arrive- heaven only knows how soon. A few days, including today, perhaps yesterday. He could arrive tomorrow. I believe he knows we need information. I believe he is going to use this test to determine if he should give it to you."

Xander's voice broke the grim quiet that followed his announcement. "What kind of crazy bastard is he?" He whispered, shaking his head in sickened awe.

Buffy's voice was small and uncertain. "D-does he want me to fail? Or pass? Do I get it if I'm good enough, or is he giving it out as last ditch effort to save the world if he thinks I can't do it myself?"

"Well, that's the part that doesn't really matter, Heart." Spike lifted her chin. "Because you don't need to pass his test, or fail it. You don't need to play his games. We're gonna find out what we need to know, now that we've got a name. We'll keep 'em off my trail, and you hand him stones for earmuffs, Luv. Tell him he can stuff his test into - he can stuff it." Spike curbed his tongue slightly for the sake of staying on track. "If I have to bet the world on you alone, or this ass with his secrets and games- I'd bet on you every time."

"As would I." Giles took her hand.

"Seconded." Willow rose.

"Thirded." Xander chimed. Tara nodded.

"Unanimously carried." Anya banged a book down on the table. "All in favor of beating the scary, non-ex-demon loving man by finding this Glory person first say aye?"


Buffy wiped her eyes. "Don't make me all mushy. We'd better get to work. Anya, get to Mom. Giles and Willow, you head up the research? Spike and I can hit the streets and swing by the bar. Maybe Willy's heard the name mentioned, or something. I mean, you send a giant snake with t-rex arms through the middle of town, someone probably noticed."

"You say you know of the Slayer?" Jinx sighed in relief. "Finally, someone in this town knows something! Tell me about her."

Peaches drained her blend of human and animal blood from one of Willy's pint glasses, an ugly scowl on her face. "I know my sire was going to kill her."

"Your sire sounds like a very brave vampire."

"No. She just had a thing about the Slayer's boyfriend, wanted revenge and stuff."

"The Slayer has a boyfriend?"

"Yep, the sire's big ex. Her 'Blondie Bear', her 'Spikey'."

"Ah, when she was human. Jealousy can linger. Vampiric demons do love those emotions."

Peaches snorted. "Stupid lingers, too. It wasn't even when they were humans, both vamps. It doesn't matter now. I'm glad she's dead."

"The Slayer! Dead?" How fortunate. Too fortunate to be true, dammit. Or if so, who killed the Sobekite Spawn? All the Slayers can't pop up in this town, can they?

Willy tripped over his mop and bucket in his haste to get to the bar. "Hey! Hey, hey, hey, what are we talking about?"

"Not the Slayer. My sire. The Slayer's not dead. She and her vampire boyfriend probably dusted my pack though. I mean, no one knows, but who else would take out four vamps in one night? That's what I mind. I hated my sire, but... Mort and Cyrus were really great guys." Peaches sniffed suddenly. "We were turned the same night. Kind of bonded us."

Willy sent the mop handle careening between his customers. "We don't talk about the Slayer in here. Out of respect for what she done to some of the demon families in this town. You're gonna get barred. And you too, Shorty." He turned to the newcomer. "Who are you? Have I seen you before?"

Jinx huddled deeper in his hooded robe. "No. And you won't. I'm only in town until the New Year. I mean no trouble. Just curious about the Hellmouth and this Slayer. I hear she is not alone, as other Slayers are."

"I guess not, if she had her hooks into my sire's ex." Peaches groused. "If she hadn't made such a huge deal over it, we'd probably still be together. Maiming. Killing. Feeding..."

"I meant women. Are there not- some women- that she has associated with? Powerful allies who help her fight?"

Peaches looked bored and shrugged.

Willy sputtered.

"Merely curious!" Jinx placated.

"That does it!" Willy took the red streaked tankard from the vampire and the plate of pretzels and meal worms from the scabby little newbie. "I said- no slayer talk, curious or not. I got a lot of clients in here who hate her guts, and I'm not too fond of her myself. Bad for business. Both of you, get outta here. A-and if you're smart, you'll keep your mouths shut. Talking about the Slayer is like playing Bloody Mary in the bathroom. You'll end up bringing her down on your heads, smashing up my place."

"She comes here?" Jinx's shimmering black eyes suddenly seemed to glint more eagerly.

"No, and she ain't gonna unless you keep throwing her name around." Willy pointed a pasty arm towards the door. "Out. Don't make me use the mop."

"Perhaps there is another local water spot you fancy?" Jinx addressed the sulking vampire as they were forced from the room.

"College campus is usually good for a kill. Or there's this club."

"Hey, lemme give you a tip." Willy ran after them, stooping to get as good a look as the short, cowled demon would allow. "Don't listen to her. She hasn't been in town very long. Used to be a bit of an informer myself, and I can tell you- around here you better use reliable sources."

Jinx turned to the girl. "Have you ever seen the Slayer with anyone aside from this male companion. Have you seen her with someone she protects?"

Willy's ears practically danced from his head.

"No. I never actually saw her in person or anything, but-"

"You! Get! Out! Don't waste the man's time." Willy reached into the truly hideous Hawaiian shirt he was wearing and pulled out a tacky gold flake crucifix. Peaches vamped, hissed and stumbled from the bar.

"You seem a very helpful person. And you say you- you've informed before." Jinx turned his attention, and his scarred gray face to Willy.

"Used to. That ain't good for business, either." 'Cause Spike'll burn the place down. With me in it.

"Well, I don't want to upset your patrons." Jinx gave one of his scraping, groveling bows that he had so much practice perfecting. "But I could reward you handsomely if you could tell me who this boyfriend is, or who her allies are. It is wise for a demon to gather intelligence on such a deadly creature as the Slayer."

"Look, she ain't the kinda person I sit with and gab. She's come in a handful of times over the years- not a lot. Usually, she's wiping the bar with my face. Rough customer. I don't know her friends,probably don't got any. I don't know her boyfriend. Think that vamp you talked to wasn't right in the head." Willy tapped his skull. "I don't know much about the Slayer, but I do know she killed her last boyfriend. I kinda got in the middle of things between them one time. Wasn't good. Yeah and she had this hot little black chick with her that time. She's dead now too. People near the Slayer get killed, so- I'd stay clear."

"She killed him?" Jinx was clearly trying to make Peaches' tale mesh with Willy's and having no success.

"Yeah. Sent him to hell. What a way to break up..."Jinx blinked, startled, and Willy continued, "That was a couple years ago. If you want to get your info from a source close to the Slayer, looks like you might have to take a trip downstairs."

We'll bring this whole world "downstairs." Jinx nodded with a grimace, bowing backwards. "Thank you for the information." He left with a heavy sigh. Glory isn't going to like this at all.

Willy poured himself a shot of something amber and explosive, shaking hands sloshing more over the glass than in it. I gotta tell Spike. Or the Slayer. They better thank me. They better not bust up my bar. He better not kill me.

I gotta retire soon. Maybe open up a bar in Miami. Lotta demons in Miami, and all they want to do is workout and drink piña coladas.

"Anyone seen Spike lately?" Willy called, and earned himself a series of curses and epithets in response.

"Maybe we shouldn't be seen together for awhile." Buffy whispered.

He'd been thinking it, too. "That Travers bloke won't bother to ask questions about me if I'm not there. That's true."

They took another few steps in pained silence heads down, twin images of thoughtful soldiers, a foot apart. They weren't holding hands tonight. Both had hands jammed into pockets to prevent it, unconsciously denying themselves the right to touch, subconsciously practicing their "cover".

"I don't like that idea."

"Was your idea." Spike looked sideways at her

"I'm stupid. You used to tell me that all the time, remember?" She gave him a small grin.

"Stupid 'bout a lot of things. Battle plans was never one of 'em."

"I hate this."

"I know. Me, too."

"If we could just find one person who knows her. I- I don't even know how to fight her."

"Maybe you're not s'posed to do it. Maybe I am. You hand me the magic cricket ball and I get transformed into some great warrior?"

"You're already a great warrior." Buffy smiled at him again. "Especially if it's for your girl."

"Rather do it for love. Love, money, or smokes. I'm not keen on the 'mission' bit. Smacks too much of a certain soulful sucker with his priorities out of order."

Buffy chewed the inside of her cheek. "I don't want you apart from me. I mean, that's just what he did. He thought he'd protect me, and it almost killed me instead." They paused, resting as one naturally, under a street light in the slightly chill air. "I never understood why Angel thought I'd live a normal life without him."

"You're not tryin' to push me away for a bit of normalcy-"

"I'm not trying to 'push you away' at all!" Buffy cried in a mix of anger and sorrow.

"No, Sweetheart, I know. I meant, you're tryin' to protect me. But-" Spike reached out and stroked her jaw lightly with one finger, "I'd rather die beside you, than pine away and feel that broken heart again. We said no leaving. I didn't ask to go, and I'm not gonna."

"That's really good. I'm all about option C, though. You not dying- near me or otherwise, and no heartbreak." She stepped closer, her hand joining his, cupping her cheek to his hard palm as the toes of her boots scooted along the edges of his.

"What's that third ticket then, Buffy?" His head lowered, lids lowered, lips came perilously close to hers.

"We live. We love. We kick ass."

"God. My kinda girl." He let out a throaty laugh and their mouths slid together, chests and arms following.

"Thank God you're here!" Willy greeted them both, and practically dragged them into his tiny office, basically a cluttered closet filled knee deep with stacks of invoices.

"That's not something I ever expected to hear you say." Spike looked amused.

"Willy, you need an office manager. I can recommend someone. She's ex-demon, too, so she won't faint around your customers. Or your office. What is that smell?" Buffy wrinkled her nose as she tried not to keep her balance in the knee deep maze of paper.

"I was trying to heat up my tuna melt and I had some receipts under the hot plate." Willy explained. "Look, I got news."

"News? About new people?" Buffy asked.

"New threat?" Spike's voice went into the sinister range.

"Both. Something is looking for information about you, Slayer, and- I swear, hand to God, not me, but some fat fledge was in here running her mouth. She's got some crazy idea about the Slayer dusting her sire and her pack because you," He nodded to Buffy, "were dating the sire's ex." Willy now turned to Spike, "You remember the bunch of new vamps I mentioned? One of them, I think."

"Musta missed one." Spike cracked his knuckles. "Get her later."

"So aside from being crazy," Buffy hopped off the edge of the cluttered desk, where she'd taken a precarious seat, "what did she say?"

"Who'd she say it to?" Spike's words followed on her heels.

"This new guy. Never seen before. Looked like a dead monk."

"What?" Both of them exclaimed, voicing mutual horror.

Buffy asked urgently. "Monk?"

"Dead monk? Human, dead human monk?"

"No I just mean- kinda decaying looking. But a demon. So probably not a monk. Long stringy hair, big brown robe and hood, scarred up fish-belly face. Only more gray than white. Big black eyes. Guh. Gave me the creeps, but he seemed harmless enough. Nice little guy, as demons go. Very polite."

"I'm sure he's just lovely, but what did he want?" Spike prodded, now relieved that Willy hadn't been referencing his monks. He hoped those good men were resting peacefully, not reanimated for some sinister purpose.

"I heard him asking about women the Slayer hangs with, powerful ones, and then he got back onto the topic of you- I mean, a boyfriend." Willy corrected himself hastily. "Told him the vamp was new in town and knew nothing, not to listen to her, and kicked 'em both out of the bar. Told 'em conversations about the slayer upset my regular customers. Which is true." Willy shook his head and sighed wistfully. "You guys ever been to Miami?"

Buffy ignored the sudden switch of subject with a frantic hiss. "Women I hang out with? Powerful women? My boyfriend? What about them?"

"I took care of the boyfriend thing real quick, don't you worry."

Spike's hands twitched, reaching into his coat, fingers inching for a knife. "Did you?"

"Yeah. Told him the Slayer sent her last big love to hell. Angel, right? Shish kabobed, that's what the rumor mill said."

"Angel? Angel was- Angel hasn't been my boyfriend for a long time." Buffy said stiffly, risking a quick glance at Spike.

"Well, he didn't ask which boyfriend. And he didn't ask if you brought him back. So I kinda skipped that part. Told him if he wanted to get the dirt on you from your vampire boyfriend, he'd have to go to the big hot seat downstairs and ask him."

Spike's fingers released from the handle of his switchblade. "You told him to go to hell?"

"Not in so many words, but- yeah." Willy laughed nervously.

"I could kiss you." Buffy let out a breath she'd been holding. Spike coughed pointedly. "But I won't."

"Spike made it pretty damn clear that I should-"

"Harumph!" Spike's cough changed direction.

"Uh- keep you informed. New guy in town. Scabby. Short. Grey-white. Monk habit. Interested in the Slayer, and by the sounds of it, anyone she's close to, protective of. And uh- that's all."

"You did good." Spike nodded to the nervous bartender. "Thanks for the intel, and keepin' a lid on the gossip."

"Anytime. We squared away?"

"For now. Keep your ear to the ground." Spike began herding Buffy to the door.

"Thank you." Buff said sincerely. "Anything else you hear-"

"I'll get in touch. But if you could avoid comin' here-"

"We do our best." Buffy grinned and fell into step with Spike, then stopped and turned as he did.

"One more thing-"

"Now what?" Willy asked with a groan.

"Did that fledge mention any nest or any place where she was headed?"

"Mentioned a club and the campus. Lookin' for a kill."

"Thanks, mate."

"We have to go find that monk thing." Buffy murmured as they kept to the shadows, having a hurried conversation outside Willy's, sure their would be pursuer was gone by now.

"And the fledge. Just like Harm. Running its mouth..." He growled. "Know everything we just said about stickin' together, but if the demon is looking for you-"

" 'Cause it thinks I'm guarding you- or what you have-"

"We can split up. For a little bit, Baby not forever. Few hours, tops."

"Probably better if they don't see me slaying. I mean- I could be just any other girl. Until I start kicking bad guy butt in my cute yet sturdy boots."

Spike nodded. "An' me- killin' a fledge 'cause it's on my turf- takin' my kill, that's easy to overlook, at least from demon perspective. I'll make a good show of it."

"The guys can use every scrap of information we can pull. Maybe Giles' has an index of demons by scabbiness or pastiness." Buffy twisted her hands nervously. "Come home in one piece, okay?"

"As long as you get yourself there in the same condition." He stroked her hair back from her face and leaned in to press his lips to hers-

At the same moment Willy popped his head out. "Oh good. You're still here."

Spike and Buffy pulled apart quickly, trying to look innocent and failing miserably.

Willy tactfully avoided eye contact. "I just remembered something. Thought I oughta mention. Spike, I don't think this guy is the serious threat you told me to look out for. Someone new and dangerous in town?"

"What makes you say that, Will?" Spike said through clenched jaws.

"Well, no offense to you, Slayer, or nothin', but people who come here to set up shop usually plan on taking you out, and then they wanna stay and run the place. You know? The Mayor. Adam. That Master guy. Hrm. Spike." he ran a hand over his greasy black hair and moved on quickly. "This guy said he was only here until New Year's. That's barely two months. Doesn't sound like he was making long term plans."

"Thanks for the info, mate. Better to know than to guess." Spike forced a smirking smile, and tugged Buffy's arm, motioning her to move.

The pair walked away quickly, eyes scanning, senses humming, ever alert.

"No long term plans, huh?"

"Not if you plan to the end the world, I guess."

"And now we have a description, and a time frame." Buffy fixed him with one raised brow. "Willy seems mega cooperative."

"He's a business man. End of the world is bad for the bar trade. Well, 'cept for the last couple hours but only if you know it's comin'." Spike shrugged it off with dark sarcasm.

"Not what I meant." Her stare didn't waver.

He folded with a sigh. "I just happened to explain how very important information is to me right now. That's all." Spike spread his hands innocently. "And mentioned it's important to his business- and his neck- too." He waited for the chastisement, or the grilling.

It didn't come. "If you're gonna look like the big bad, better make it look good, I guess." Buffy squeezed his hand suddenly. "Thank you. For doing what you do. I know you do it for us."

Spike blinked. "That can't be my goody two shoes talking."

"She's busy saving the world right now. She's kind of flexible about how it happens, 'cause hey- world ending, bad. World savage, good. I'm in big picture mode tonight."

"Just when I think I can't love you any more, you throw me a few more reasons."

"Come back and I'll keep giving you more."

There was a soft, lingering kiss, and then they were gone, two fast moving shadows swallowed up in darkness.

"End of the year, end of the world sale. Anya's gonna be in marketing heaven." Xander joked with his often used gallows humor.

"I don't find that funny." Giles muttered, eyes squinted, fingers scanning shelves. "Here, Buffy, Willow." He pulled a red-leather bound volume from the shelf. "This book references many types of apocalyptic demons- those who hope to end the world, their purpose being either to cleanse it of human kind- more of a genocidal or species specific apocalypse, or in extreme cases, like Acathla, take the entire realm and suck it into a hell dimension."

"Those both sound pretty extreme." Tara gulped.

"Does it have descriptions? Would it mention they're in robes, 'cause- well, times change. Maybe they used to run around in animal skins." Willow caught the heavy guide Giles mentioned as he dropped it into her hands.

"Or people skins." Buffy flipped anxiously through the second book as Giles handed it to her. "Are you telling me there are two whole books, just about types of demons who want to end the world?"

"No. Three." He took the third. "I've already gone through these in the past few days, but now that we have a description, and a specific time of year perhaps we can find something. Tara, Xander, how is that astronomical and portent algorithm working?"

"She's lining up dates and years and planets and stuff. I'm just moving my elbows and holding the paper flat." Xander explained.

"Nu-uh! You keep finding the pages for me, too." Tara smiled.

"I need a second set of hands." Xander placed his arm on the corner of one large, crumbly star map, layered over and under other various charts, and some astro-whatsis Giles and Tara knew how to use to make dates, stars, and other junk he didn't understand line up. "Actually, I need about four more sets of hands. Also, question?" He moved around Tara's rulers and charts, quickly setting a paperweight down on another escaping corner, "Are we sure he meant this New Year, as in our human New Year? Didn't you once say something about ancient calendars being different? These guys are in league with Miss So Ancient I Was Around Before Words."

"That's a possibility, but we'll figure out our timeline first. They are in our modern world, after all."

"They don't seem very happy about it." Buffy scanned the pages, trying to focus, but internally spun, eyes glazing on certain parts of the text, re-reading paragraphs repeatedly.

They asked about a boyfriend. They know about the powerful women I'm around. Willow, Tara. They want to know who I'm protecting. Whoever I'm closest too, that would mean- that would mean they're targets. Or bargaining chips. Hand over the Key, and we won't kill your best friends... The Key is one of my best friends, and even more. I couldn't choose.

Bile filled her throat. How is this fair? Is this why Slayers are alone? So you can concentrate on saving the world and the strangers, because when you protect anyone you love, you're really not protecting them at all, just moving them closer to everything evil?

"We'll get through this. It will be fine." Giles laid a comforting hand briefly on her shoulder.

"You have too much faith in little ol' me." Buffy gave him a tiny smile.

"It's a shared opinion, and one well warranted." I see you survive. I don't see what you survive, at least if I have, I haven't realized it yet. I see faces, I see fears, tears, and blood in your beautiful hair, while flames burst around you, but I see you fight your final battle as well. And it isn't coming any time soon...

"You think I can protect you? You're wrong, you know." Buffy suddenly shook her head. "The demon guy asked who I was around. He's probably figuring whoever I'm around knows where the Key is. Or maybe has the Key inside them. And that's true. I'm not protecting anybody anymore. I'm just putting you in the way of the big supernatural bullet." Buffy shook her head and swallowed hard.

"Uh, Buff? I think that's been our life since high school." Xander broke the moment of surprised silence following her outburst. "Got news for you. We'd get killed in the apocalypse anyway. I'd rather go out fighting with my friends than watching them get nuked by themselves."

"That's why you're the heart." Willow came over and put a hand on his shoulder. "We already became one big blobby aura and hung out inside you for a couple hours. I'd say we're ready to take the risks. Also, that sounded kind of gross and inappropriate and I'm sorry."

"W-we protect each other." Tara reminded them, clinging to the one thing she so truly loved about her new friends. "You might be the Slayer, but everyone helps."

Buffy loved them, all of them, for standing with her like that. It didn't make the worry go away. It just started splitting it up. "You guys have held your own- you've saved me a bunch of times. I'm - I'm worried about you..." She groped to explain. Fortunately, like Xander acted as the heart of the group, sometimes Willow could act as the mind.

"But you know you don't stand a chance in pushing us away, right?" Willow smiled a muted version of her bright, innocent grin.

"Yeah. I've never been good at that. thanks, guys." Buffy bent her head resolutely over the book, ending the conversation.

She saw nothing but blurred letters. I pushed them away when I got back from LA my first sumer. I ran away from them again the next year. We've had fights, and fall outs, and break ups. They always fight to get me back. Sometimes I fight for it, too. Then we fight side by side. Willow with the magic. Tara, too. Giles- Giles is like a card catalog crossed with James Bond. He's got the magic and the sword fighting and- he's a Watcher. Brainpower to the max.

Xander. I don't know what it is about him. He gets the crap kicked out of him but he bounces back.

He's just brave. He's all heart. He doesn't know how to stop beating- taking them or giving them. The odd little metaphor provoked Buffy to give a tiny, fond laugh, and flip a page.

Giles and Willow exchanged a glance. Then a whisper. "Is she giggling to herself?"

"I really hope not." Xander chimed in as he passed, looking for more paperweights. " 'Cause all we need is a nutso slayer here at the apocalypse prevention center."

Buffy gave no sign of hearing them.

Anya. Anya with the ex-demoness thing- she's smart and kinda ruthless. She's not bad at magic. Not Willow and Tara good, bit good. She's lived for a thousand years, she can make it on her own. She takes care of herself. She'll take care of Xander too. And Mom. They'll all take care of Mom.


Mom's the one who- who I push away. Who got too busy to see it, or too busy and freaked to believe me.

We're better now. She gets it, and I try to be closer, and everyone else helps, making her part of this family. She always should've been, she was the only I had to begin with, the only "real" family.

So why are these guys the ones who literally shared my body and soul, while I left her a post-it about "Just in case I die..."?

Mom's strong. She's a fighter. She saved me from Spike when he was the enemy instead of the the friend.

Only she's too weak fight right now. Her mind is already affected by the cancer and the treatment. What would it be like if someone deliberately started messing with it?

Buffy turned a page, though she hadn't actually read anything yet. She's at the in between place. Between getting better and - not.

The phone jangled on the desk, and Giles rushed to answer it. "Hello? Yes. Oh, yes, I did remember the it was due to arrive today. My, they're rather late. But at least it's here. Yes. Yes, I can. Buffy looks like she could use an hour or two of distraction, let me ask her."

Buffy heard the words like Giles was speaking from far away. He said something twice, the second time frowning, eyebrows drawn together, phone pressed to his chest as he stepped toward her.

"Huh?" Buffy looked up, a vacant expression on her face, finding Giles suddenly peering at her from a few inches away.

"Your mother and Anya have received a shipment at the gallery. They're swamped with all the addressing and the guest list. They could use some extra manpower to get the pieces unloaded and into the inventory. Would you like to go help them? You looked as if you could use a break, and I know you've been looking for opportunities to be with Joyce in the midst of your busy schedule." Giles spelled everything out slowly and loudly, relieved to be making contact this time.

Spend time with Mom. Give this Glory chick a target, someone I'd protect until my last breath, but someone- someone who can't fight back right now. The biggest weakness. I have to protect her, like this. Just for now. Only for right now. Not forever.

I know its wrong.

I'm too scared to care if it's wrong.

"Not tonight, Giles, I really- need to stay on top of this. I am the Slayer. Xander? Can you go? Anya'd be happy to watch you look all studly, doing heavy lifting, and I can handle holding down papers."

"Uh. Yeah. Sure." Xander moved as Buffy slowly drifted from her seat to his side, placing her hands where his had been. "You okay, Buff?"

"Are you worried about Spike?" Tara asked gently.

"I always worry about everyone." Buffy replied in a hollow voice.

"How hard is it to find this girl? She's a little blonde teenager, right? Who can choke something the size of an elephant. Gotta be a talking point."

Jinx shook his head. "I'm sure, in time, but-"

"But I'm not exactly able to wait, am I?" Glory reminded him with a cold smile.

"The Mages are scrying for her, but without a specific article of hers, it is hard to pinpoint her. We can see she is in this town, but- it's a town with a lot of young women. There is a college campus where there are hundreds of females her age, about half of whom are blonde, not to mention the schools and the remainder of the town, and-"

"Ugh! I don't want more excuses, I want information!"

"The demons in this town congregate at a local bar, specifically for their kind, though run by a human. He forbids conversations of the Slayer in his bar. He says it is disrespectful to the patrons- many have lost family at her hands." Jinx said apologetically.

Glory rolled her eyes as she seethed and twisted one curled strand around her finger. "This is sounding too familiar. Annoying. Also, are you telling me you're more afraid of the little human who serves beer to lesser beings- than of the goddess queen of eternal damnation?" Glory asked in sinister tones that let him know there was only one correct answer.

"No. No! Of course not, most Beautiful and Pain-Causing One." Jinx bowed low. "Wh-which is why I did manage to engage a young vampire in conversation. She says there is one who the Slayer is very close to."

"One of those girls? A witch?"

"A boy. Man. Rather, a vampire."

"A vamp? She's close to a lot of vamps, right before she stabs them through the heart."

"This one is her lover. Though- hm. The human bartender says she sent him to hell. Awhile ago."

Glory looked momentarily impressed. "Nothing says lovin' like a little brimstone."

"But that makes no sense. The young vampire says they're together now, the bartender says it was years ago."

"Did you get a name?"

"Eh-hrm. Blondie Bear and Spikey. Aliases one assumes."

"Damn, I hope so." Glory shook her head. "What about the girls?"

"She didn't know of them. Perhaps they were allies only once to defeat the snake-beast?"

"Maybe... Still, if they were altogether, with the mojo ready, that doesn't sound lke they just bumped into each other."

"Perhaps not. Shall we try to find the vampire?"

"Why?" Glory asked impatiently. "Vampires are demons. Even 'good demons' aren't pure. Even the Slayer- she's not pure. I know the stories, the ancient ones, that the humans on this realm probably have forgotten. Her power's clean now, and good, but it isn't pure. The Old Powers are strong, they're dark and they're light, but neither one is good or bad. This has to be ball of sunshine, springtime fresh, snowy white virgin pure. Totally clean. This Key is pure energy, and hidden. Maybe in a soul and vamps don't have them. Can't be hidden as a demon's power- not pure, and if he's a vamp, he's already full."

"Even if he could not be the Key, he may have information?"

"Yeah, but not like I can mind suck a vamp. No living energy, just demonic energy running the old machine." Glory tapped her head with a ruby nail. "I could always tear it out of him- as in his organs. Piece by piece, until he talks."

Jinx rubbed his hands in delight, and the surrounding minions began gleeful cheering and mumbling amongst themselves, overjoyed at the prospect of seeing Her Terribleness in action once more.

"That's only if you can't find me what I want." Glory snapped her fingers, and the room went silent instantly. "I want the girls. One of them make enough power to get the priests and mages all hot and bothered. Something worth looking into. If I'm looking for information, I might as well start with something I can get a meal out of first. Mmmm...Something that powerful- I bet they're delicious." Eyes that had dreamily wandered now turned hard. "Go get me someone to snack on, before brother dearest pops up for the day shift."

"Are you going to spend the night here, or with Mom?" Buffy asked as hours rolled past, and the foursome, now fivesome, as Spike had arrived, packed up their research session.

Giles blushed slightly. "I thought I'd go home. Ah- to your house."

"Home. I get it. I'm going home, too." Buffy smiled.

"Well. Excellent. We'll ride together."

She shook her head, eyes traveling in Spike's direction. "That's not where home is right now. I can walk."

"Oh- you need to - I'm sure you and Spike need to- exchange information, of course. I understand."

"Yeah. Something like that. You've got Mom covered, I can- um..." Buffy swallowed. This wasn't the right thing to say, so of course it wouldn't come out smoothly. "Giles. If Travers is coming, a-and I have so much with school. Plus- the crisis that is our lives, right? I've gotta be working around the clock."

"I know. And with your mother's treatment tomorrow, and someone needing to set up the gallery displays, I-"

"Willow? You think you could get Mom from chemo tomorrow? Spike promised to be art consultant guy in the afternoon. I know you have class in the morning."

"Yeah, no problem."

Spike frowned. "I can run her home, it's not-"

"No. You need to get over there as soon as you can to help Anya and Tara 'cause Mom won't be there."

"Yeah, that's right. Gotta balance those two." Spike nodded to Tara, who shared a smile about their rabid colleague.

"Great. Then Mom's covered. I can work on what I have to do."

Everyone seemed slightly taken aback by Buffy's demeanor, but no one dared to question her in the midst of such a stressful time.

At least, not then.

"What are you doin'?" He waited until they crossed into the uneven, stone studded grounds of the cemetery.

"What am I doing what?"

"You don't miss your turn to take Joyce for treatment. You never -"

"You got that girl vamp, right?"

"Had to track her a little bit, but yeah, I got her. Asked her a few questions about her drinking buddy. That didn't yield much. Hunted around a little bit. No signs of the new neighbors."

"That's good."

"Yeah, I s'pose. From the standpoint of me not gettin' caught. From the standpoint of needin' to find the little rat, not so good. Now," Spike shut the crypt door behind them, "wanna tell me what's running through your head?"

"No. Not really." Buffy leaned wearily against him.

"No use hiding it. Something's off. Soul mates can tell."

Buffy dropped through the stone "doorway" to their rooms below without preamble. "I'm scared. I'm a coward. I only have so much to lose, you know?"

"Lose?" Spike dropped through the trapdoor after her. "You're not gonna lose anyone, Luv. We're fighters, all of us, and all of us together-"

"Never included my mom." Buffy brokenly interrupted him.

"Things have changed." He reached for her shoulder, but she spun to face him, shaking her head.

"Mom has changed, too. Yay, she believes me, yay she doesn't hate your guts at the moment, and big whoo, she has Giles and she's really happy, really accepting of the Slay thing. She's also weaker now. She's sick, she has a brain tumor." Her voice shook. "You always talk about how strong she is, how she was one impressive lady, taking a fire ax to your head when you were threatening me-" she ignored his wince, "but she's not at that point right now. I have to protect her. And I suck at that."

"No... no you don't. Your mum is still here, that's proof that you've always managed to-"

"Push her away. My graduation. I had to get her out of town. With Adam and the Initiative- I lived ten minutes away and came home like- once- in three months. Sineya didn't even bother to go after Mom. Remember me thinking that she had when Mom got sick? But no. Why would she? She only wanted the people closest to me." Buffy shook her head again, more fiercely than ever. Spike came over as she sank onto their rumpled bed, rubbing her shoulders. "Glory wants to see who I'm with. Who I protect. She doesn't get it, whatever she is, that sometimes you have to protect from far away."

Spike moved around in front of her. "Slayer... that's not like you. That's what you hated about Angel. That's what-"

"Spike- you did anything you could think of to protect your mom. Save her. Didn't work out." Buffy said harshly, shrugging away from his touch. "I don't think you get to lecture me on this subject."

Spike's face went from shocked to hurt to angry. "Is that so?"

"She died faster your way, didn't she?"

Spike's fingers curled around her upper arm with surprising speed. "Maybe I held on too tight. Sign of a relentless heart. You don't need to do the opposite and let go completely."

"If it would save her-"

"It would break her heart!"

"It's temporary!"

"It doesn't feel like that when you love someone and want 'em in your life, no matter the cost!"

"This whole life is temporary!" Buffy burst out, rising from the bed, shoving off his hands as they found her again. "It was a dream. A good dream that lasted for half a year. 'The girl can have it all and still Slay, friends, parents, a partner who- who she loves more than anything in the world.' Then, plot twist, wake up, Buffy, we'll start taking them away, one at a time. A brain tumor, a Key, demons who suddenly want to see who I'm hanging out with. There's a price! Protect them by keeping away, being alone, like slayers are supposed to, or risk them all, because I'm selfish."

Spike managed to contain her as she exploded. She seemed to be unraveling, but he knew she wasn't weak, strong as she'd ever been, trying to do the right thing. It was tearing her apart, making her pace, gesticulate wildly, tears of anger and sorrow resting on her lashes until he cocooned his sinewy frame around her and wrapped her up tight.

"Shhhh. Shhhhhh, I've got you. I've got you, Buffy." He comforted as her struggles ceased.

"I don't want to let it all go." Buffy gasped out, on the verge of a sob.

"Then don't."

"I can't sacrifice my-"

"It's not our sacrifice if it's a price we want to pay, a risk we want to take. It's called loving someone." He tilted her chin up. "All these years, I called it selfish." She made a questioning sound as she burrowed her head back into his shoulder. "Even now. I didn't care about what was best for you- I wanted you. I loved you. I knew I'd love you with everything I had, and that- that's the best for you isn't it?" She made a whimper of agreement, one hand working up to bring his forehead to cool her aching head. I think that standing by your side- on the edge of hell, is better than watching you face it alone with a broken heart." He massaged the sides of her face as they made an arc, crown to crown. "Push her away or not- Joyce is standing on the edge with you. All of us are. You can push us away and we'll come runnin' back."

"Then maybe I should run." Buffy whispered. I have before. It never worked.

"Then I'll follow you. Because we made a deal, you an' I. No leaving. You might be scared, you might be 'bout to go bat-shagging crazy, I don't know. I don't care. I know you don't break promises."

"Spike- everything's a mess." Buffy clung a little tighter, fingers lacing behind his nape.

"Leaving us or pushing us apart won't make it better- just spread the shit over a wider area." He cupped her face, held her tight until her eyes seemed to settle and focus, overly bright, wet and emerald. "All of us- Joyce too, would rather have the danger where you are, than the safety where you're not. We can play it cool, I can act the nasty. We don't have to be 'safe'. Baby- no where in this world is ever 'safe'. We just have to be together."

So tempting. So true. Yet... "You guys choose to do that. I don't know if my mom would. I mean, yes, protecting me, she would. Watching me fight and joining in, when the other option is to stay safe and far away until it's over? I don't know." She accepts what I do. Who I do it with. But she hates it.

You don't understand a mother until you test her. Spike shook his head. "Then let her choose." He saw her lips part, argument about to begin afresh, and he halted her, "Did you like it when someone left for your own good, made up your mind for you?"

Buffy's mouth closed. Then opened in a single syllable. "No."

"So tell her it's about to get hairy, tell her maybe you should stop comin' around for a bit. Tell her it'd be safer. See what she says."

"I don't think I can just-"

"See what she says. But not tonight. Tonight we've had enough talking..." He moved his hips subtly against hers, let his hand tangle in her hair as her fingers trailed down his spine. "At least for a little while."

Buffy didn't sleep. She was exhausted, somewhat comforted and sated, but unable to turn off the constant stress filled thought loop in her mind.

I'm so screwed. My mom needs me the most right now, and now is when it's most dangerous to hang out with me.

Even if it's only for a few days, even weeks- what if something happens? Brain tumors are weird. They can spread fast. What if I miss the last days of her life?

She stared at blackness but sleep wouldn't come.

"Hey. I figured I'd still better come over. Buffy didn't call me and change plans." Willow greeted Spike in a darker corner of the waiting area. "Is Joyce okay?"

"She fell asleep this time, nice and peaceful. Thought I should wait out here." In case when she woke up I looked like a flaming Catherine wheel and she screamed and raved and yanked out all her tubes. "They'll come get you when she's ready, or she wakes up, whichever comes first.."

"Oh. Okay." Willow sat down next to him, a troubled frown flitting on and off her lips.

"Thought Buffy'd change her mind, did you?" Spike put down the magazine with a careless flick of his wrist.

"Actually- yeah."

"So did I." She'd been gone from their bed and his arms with barely a kiss, while he was still half-asleep, mumbling about a busy day and lots to do.

"I don't know if you realize it, but this is not Buffy behavior. Not this Buffy." Willow informed him.

"I realize it, Red. I know her as well as you- just in different ways." Spike sighed in frustration. "She loves her mum. She's panicked as all hell about her being sick, but she still keeps chugging along on the road to higher education and the greater good. She's let everyone else pitch in, but you an' I know- if she could get away with it, she'd wait on Joyce hand and foot until she was back to her old, healthy, ax-brandishing self."

"Why is she acting like this then?" Willow hissed.

" 'Cause all of us know the deal, this pre-battle choice, run and hide, or stand with her and take a risk."

"Joyce never-" Willow winced. "Things aren't always peachy between them. But I thought they were better now."

"They were. Are. Right up until the moment Slayer figured out being associated with her puts you on a hit list of the biggest big bad- in recent months anyway, and one who's making it her specific business to dig up the dirt on her mates. Joyce isn't in any shape to fight. Even to run. You remember the night of the oversized reptile." Spike sank back in the chair as Willow nodded with a wince. "I told her it didn't matter. Joyce doesn't have to know the full score, just needs to know there's a risk- and maybe Buffy'll be busy for a bit. Not just- push her away." And don't make it a habit. Pushing away. Leaving behind. He swallowed. "Not fair to break someone's heart like that."

Willow blinked. "Wow. That's really- compassionate and considerate of you."

"I have a thing for mums. At least hers and mine."

"Your mom? I never heard you-"

"I'm parched, gonna raid the blood bank." Spike abruptly got up, realizing he'd opened a door he wanted to remain closed.

"Hey! You can't-"

"Rather I raid the pediatric ward?" Spike growled.

Willow balked. "You can't hurt people."

"That's right, and that's okay with me, but I'm still hungry now, so I'm goin'. You gonna trail after me yapping, or go read Cosmo?"

Willow hesitated. "Is there a soda machine someplace?"

"Same floor." Spike grinned.

"Well... I might be waiting for awhile, so... yeah. Okay. I'm coming."

"It's coming! It's coming, the long awaited light! So beautiful!"

Willow looked behind them, to see what the poor woman, obviously disturbed, was reaching for. In turning, she caught of Spike's face suddenly drawn, grim.

"Such a beautiful light, let me touch it. Let me touch it!"

"Ms. Montrose! Ms. Montrose, this isn't the way to your room!" Orderlies were struggling with her.

The struggling turned violent. "I want to touch it!" There was a shrill scream and flailing limbs, and Spike found himself suddenly the target of a paper-gown clad torpedo.

"Ventus aer." Willow muttered from the corner of her mouth, as Spike hastily retreated a couple steps.

The woman was blown off course, as an unexplained rush of air filled the corridor. She went down on her side, still reaching, now whimpering. "But it's so bright..."

"I'm so sorry, Sir, Ma'am, she's not feeling well." A team of nurses and orderlies was attending to her now, and one member apologized.

"Not to worry. Move this way." Spike shrugged off the apology and dragged a staring Willow with him. "Not hungry anymore, let's go."

"What did- can they see-" Wheels turned.


"I just saved you from being hugged to death, so you owe me. Now what was all that?"

"Nutjobs can see past the outer layer. They can see underneath. Somehow." Spike muttered, head bowing close to hers as they quick stepped away. "This demon lady deals in the pre-language, yeah? The thoughts, the minds. Whatever I've got can be seen by people when their minds are headin' off into the blue, I guess." He paused. Licked his lips. "Joyce can see it, too. Sometimes. Only when the meds are heavy and fresh in her system. She doesn't know what it is, and she thinks it's part of the side effects, part and parcel with the talkin' nonsense and hallucinating. Calls it my 'glow'."

Willow stared at him. "So there really is something inside..."

"You thought I made all this up to make my life a bloody misery and drive all of you round the bend?" He grunted. Then smiled. "That'd be pretty damn evil of me. Thanks, Red. And for the other bit just now." He gave her a gruff nod of thanks.

Willow rolled her eyes. " Does Buffy know?"

"Her an' the old man. This is the third time it's happened. That I know of."

"So anyone on any mind-altering medication can-"

"Don't think it's typically medication." Spike said grimly. "For one thing- Joyce says I'm bright and I hurt her eyes. She doesn't rattle on about my lovely little lightbulb. She sure as hell doesn't wanna reach out and touch it. For another reason, the last one I bumped into was just a kid, parents were goin' on about how he'd been healthy and sane the day before." He jerked his head toward the area behind them. "I'm gonna bet Ms. Mont-whatever was the same."

Willow's doe eyes went into the fully terrified Bambi motif. "So this thing isn't just sending out mutant snakes- it's taking people's sanity?"

"Turnin' 'em into raving loonies. And hunting for me and Buffy- that is, if anyone gets tipped off about our so called secret identities of Slayer and the Vamp with a Heart of Gold. Throw in the fact that her scabby imps are also looking for anyone she's close to- for some less than wholesome reason..."

Willow sat down heavily in the chair as they reentered the waiting room. "Man, no wonder Buffy's freaked."

"I know... lot to freak about." Spike joined her and the duo sat in worried silence for a minute before a voice calling across the room broke the quiet.

"Ben! Hey, Ben? They need you in psychiatric. Well, not you, but your muscles. They're hitting capacity down there and some lady is having a full blown episode."

"Okay, Judy, glad to help. Just let me finish up with Mrs. Summers."

Willow and Spike rose. A handsome young man exited through the doors from the treatment area into the waiting room. "We're with Mrs. Summers." Willow said, rising quickly.

"Oh good. Yeah, she's up and she's asking for her daughter to come sit with her. But both of you can go."

"I'm not-"

"Ben! They're going to lockdown that ward, you have two minutes to get down there!"

"Sorry guys, gotta run." Ben jogged off with a wave, pointing through the double doors. "Third room on the right. She's groggy but she's fine!"

"I don't know what's happening. This is the tenth one. We can't keep up with this many and still have room for the usual number of patients." The nurse loaded the syringe, and looked over the squirming woman at the two male nurses who'd been drafted from other floors to help contain this patient.

Ben nodded as he held Ms. Montrose on a gurney as the other nurse encircled her wrists with padded restraints.

"The light... I need to find it! She wants to find it, I want to find it..." Ms. Montrose was whimpering fitfully.

"All of them. About this light. There's some pattern but we can't find it. We're sending them home to their families but they're not reporting any improvement."

"There's more than these ten?" Ben demanded.

"Been released."

"Into the town?"

"Well, wherever their families are, most of them are in the area I guess. Why?"

Ben smiled uneasily. "I just- I'm new in town. Kinda makes me nervous about drinking the water."

"Water's been tested. It's clean. But who knows what's causing this? We sure don't. I'm personally praying it doesn't spread."

"Me, too." Ben straightened up as the injection began to relax the patient.

"You traveled a lot, right? You ever seen anything like this?"

Too many times... "I've seen all kinds of things you wouldn't believe."

"Well, if you can think of anything we're overlooking, let us know. We're a pretty small, run of the mill hospital."

You're just blind. Or you don't want to see. "Yeah... Yeah, I'll put a call into some of my old colleagues. From out of town." Ben thought of a dimension, far away, demonic in nature. A place he'd sought help from before, always to clean up one of his sister's messes. "I'll see if the know anything that might help."

Quellers have always helped. There's no way to heal them. Might as well- end it. Merciful. The only way they'd ever get better is if she died, and - she can't die.

Her death meant his death. Ben also was good at turning a blind eye, ignoring a cure that was in his own hands.

"Thanks, Ben. You were a total godsend today. I'd better let you get back upstairs to your patients."

"Honey?" Joyce's eyes were closed and pained looking.

"Hi Joyce."

"Hello, Luv. Are you alright?"

"Where- where's Buffy? I asked for my daughter. My daughter's here today."

"She had to get ready for a big test." Willow half-truthed. "B-but Spike and I are here."

"Just handin' off the torch. Gonna go sell somethin' expensive, hey Joyce?"

Joyce opened her eyes. The vampire. Glowing. And Willow. Nice girl, Willow. But not Buffy. "I'm confused again, aren't I?"

Her two guests shared a helpless look. "Maybe just a bit tired." Spike patted her hand. "Buffy'll be 'round soon. I promise." And I keep the promises I make to my ladies. I'll get her back on the rails. Do whatever I have to.

Joyce's stare turned from unfocused to faintly accusatory. "Is she busy?"

"There's a lot going on. But you don't have to worry, Buffy's handling it." Willow soothed. Joyce didn't look at her. She kept her eyes riveted to Spike.

"Gotta dash, ladies. Anya's right demonic when she feels we're not turning the most profit we can inhumanely make." The snarking smile and the charm fell flat. "I'll tell Buffy you asked for her."

"You'll see her." It wasn't a question. It was a declaration, certain.

"I'll tell her to come round or call the second I do." Spike ignored the stoney eyes and bent his head, gently pressing a kiss to the scarf across the lily brow. "Take care, Joyce.

"You too." She grudgingly sighed a farewell.

"Is something wrong?" Willow asked once they were alone, despite being able to tell something surely was.

"Something's always wrong. But I don't hate him right now." Joyce's eyes fluttered and she patted Willow's hand, still the maternal comforter. "Do you know why he glows?" She whispered conspiratorially.

Willow's creamy skin went linen white. "Well... um. Glows?" She verified nervously.

"Because of Buffy. He loves her. She glows. He glows."

Willow let out a tense breath. "Oh. Okay. That's good, right?"

"Mm. It is." Joyce confessed, eyes fluttering again, this time saying shut. She gave a sudden girlish giggle. "Giles and I- glow now." Willow giggled in turn.

"I bet. I'm so happy for you." Willow squeezed her hand.

"But he can't have all her light..."


"Spike. Buffy."

"Ohh. Don't worry. He's not as bad as he looks. I think he'll share." Willow smiled.

Joyce didn't answer. She'd fallen asleep again.

Willow scooted her chair back gently- and backed into the small wheeled table. As it crashed over, she winced and leapt up, apologizing. "Sorry! Clumsy me! Not with the stealth or the sneaky. Quiet, yeah, as in 'oh, she's a studious girl, quiet and hardworking', but not so much with the moving gracefully." Willow set the table and chair back up and picked up ice cubes that had escaped from the styrofoam and plastic pitcher she'd spilled in the process. "I- didn't mean to- wake you... Joyce? Joyce?"

Willow looked frantically at the monitors. No change. No drop in pulse drop or heart rate drop. No scary flat line or scary beeeeep like in movies... "Joyce!"

"Is something wrong?" A nurse heard Willow's voice rising.

"My friend was talking and she was awake, and I thought she went back to asleep and then I knocked everything over and I was so loud- I'm sorry if I disturbed anyone- and she didn't wake up and now she won't wake up!"

"Let me see." The nurse moved past the rambling girl, ran a practiced eye over the patient and the monitors. "Does she have low blood pressure?"

"I- I don't know. I'm not her daughter." I don't know if Buffy knows. Giles might know. "Is she going to be okay?"

"Had she been doing something strenuous, something requiring physical exertion prior to her appointment?"

"Um- yeah! Yesterday she was at her gallery until after midnight, doing stuff for an exhibit. But I don't know if it was too physical."

"It doesn't matter. When you're on chemo, even being awake for several hours can be strenuous. Working a long shift might have pushed her body past what she can take combined with this dose of medication."

"What- what do we do?" Willow watched the nurse scribbling, checking numbers on screens and pushing buttons, elevating Joyce's legs.

"We get some blood and we get her awake. When she was talking to you before she went to sleep, was she making sense? Did she seem lightheaded or confused?"

"Well... kinda made sense, and kinda didn't. She seemed confused at first, and then- just not really awake."

"Mhm. I'm paging the doctor. Maybe you should go call your friend's daughter, or her husband."

"She's not- yeah. I'll go call them. Is she going to be okay?"

"I'm sure she'll be fine. But they'd probably like to know, and they should come down here. Just in case the doctor needs information."

"They would like to know. Yes. They would." Willow babbled, nodded, and bolted from the room. With trembling hands she fed quarters from her denim purse into the first pay phone she saw. "Hi. Giles? Do you know where Buffy is? Uh-huh. Um." Willow swallowed and tried to sound calm. "Can you find her? I'm at the hospital... No, I'm fine. But..."

Giles didn't remember this part, not in his dreams or visions. He was in a fog even now, in the present.

Everything going cold inside you. Mouth forming words your don't hear, fingers pressing buttons you can't feel, finding car keys for a vehicle you don't remember getting into and are only dimly aware of parking at the tall, square building.

Aware of nothing you did, nothing you said. All of you hollow. Reassurances meaning nothing, everything meaning nothing after hearing those four heartrending words.

Joyce won't wake up.

To be continued...