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.

Dedicated to: ginar369, Sirius120, omslagspapper, Illusera, The-Darkness-Befalls, Rachel, AGriffinWriter, and DidiSummers. Thanks for working through the piece with me. You guys rock!

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.


Willow and Tara held hands, whispering, knees together, blonde and red locks shielding faces, making waterfalls to hide scared eyes.

On the other side, Anya stood, voice above a whisper, a confused, urgent, pleading tone, eyes and hands never still, while Xander held onto her hips, swaying with her, his head moving with hers, his voice the lower, muted response, the rests in her panicked song.

In the center, there was a shadowy man, blacks, whites, and grays, white-blonde head bowed over hands cold white hands. No partner to comfort or be comforted by at this hour. The island in their midst, left alone with nothing but his increasingly dark thoughts.

There's gotta be way to solve all the problems. I gotta keep her alive. Gotta keep me alive. Buffy can't live in this much pain, losing either of us, not like this. She's gonna blame herself. Always blames herself. The guilt that comes when you lose your mother, if you second guessed yourself even once- it lasts for centuries, an' I should know. Gotta be a way to fix it...

The head bowed lower, the hands seemed whiter, and the shadows ever deeper.

Eventually, he sensed someone on his left. Then his right. A hand on his knee, delicate, slender. One of the girls. He looked up. "Hey."

"Hi." Tara whispered.

"You okay?" Willow asked.

"Of course he's not!" Anya snapped, leaning across his lap. "None of us are okay."

"At least she's awake now." Xander said in a flat voice.

"When are they gonna come out?" Anya rose from the chair in agitation, only to huff and sink back down, the picture of anxiousness.

"Dunno." Spike answered the ever impatient Anya.

Five pairs of eyes traveled down the hall, towards a room they couldn't see, weren't allowed in. Joyce would be in there, awake but in bed, flanked by Buffy and Giles. Two visitors at a time, and this time, the doctor meant it. He was in there, consulting, explaining- whatever it was.

Another ten minutes, another twenty, and each time the door opened, five figures sat to attention like a line of sitting soldiers.

Finally, Buffy strode out, beelining for Spike, though she found herself engulfed in a ring of arms, his the tightest set.

"What's going on?"

"Her numbers didn't drop this week. The- tumor markers. They aren't responding to this dose anymore." Buffy choked out.

Anya clutched Xander's hand convulsively. "What's -" What does that mean? Is she dying? She can't die. We-we just addressed one hundred envelopes with fancy calligraphy. We picked out recipes for canapés. She can't die. I mean- humans have plans, and they- don't plans mean anything? How can it end all suddenly if you... Like her words, Anya's thoughts now faltered to silence.

"It doesn't mean anything is seriously wrong." Giles joined them, slipping into their midst, and actually enjoying the swarm of bodies that met him. "This is common. Medicines need time to be adjusted. Dosage levels are usually changed several times throughout treatment." He remained doggedly, determinedly positive, if drained and somber.

"It's because on top of that- her immune system is starting to breakdown." Buffy added softly. "She's doing too much and her body can't handle fighting off little diseases and big things like cancer." See? Too much to fight. I knew she couldn't fight this time. My fault. This is my fault...

"She just needs to get the medicine adjusted in relation to her activities, and take some time where she is concentratedly resting. She's got a low grade infection that they haven't pinpointed yet." Giles explained more gently. "They've admitted her to stabilize her medication and try to control the infection. They'll have her in a regular room in an hour or so, and we can come back and visit for a short time tonight."

Nods bobbed up and down in the circle, and expectant faces waited for Buffy to comment, to perk up, break down- show something. She didn't.

"They said she needs time off from work." Buffy added in a dull voice.

"She's hardly been at work."

"Well, that much was too much." Buffy shook her head, now wearing a bitter smile. "But that's Mom. Oblivious to what's happening around her. To her..."

"She's passionate." Anya frowned. "She's hardworking, and end of the year is always crunch time for business owners."

"She's a fighter, Luv, they don't realize how fast they're goin' down." Spike offered, rubbing her back.

"She was happy." Giles was clipped, torn between fatherly compassion or being the boyfriend who didn't like his lover disparaged- even if it was true.

"Great. Now she's in the hospital to be on I.V. antibiotics and rehydration therapy, and have her meds messed with, and God knows what else. We have to go get her some stuff. She's gonna be in here for at least two days." Buffy said in a brittle voice, before she moved from the throng, marching down the hall.

She stomped, tears and hair in her eyes, angrily brushing them away. She slammed into her shoulder into someone. "Excuse me." She barely looked up, hurrying past.

The brown haired intern in blue scrubs nodded. "It's okay." He said, eyes also faraway and distracted. He barely saw the lone woman marching off alone. He was in a hurry himself. He had to get off his shift in time to do some things as "himself", before the increasingly early sunsets brought Glory to the surface, and time to give the little minions a slip. This summoning was going to take days to work, and he didn't need anyone to know what he had planned.

Two figures, cocooned in their own worries, paid no attention to the other, unaware they had just literally touched the being that they would face in a battle to the death before the year was out.

Buffy found herself in Spike's car by habit, he drove in silence. Because of the blackened windows, she couldn't see the sleek red convertible behind them, nor the battered second hand car carrying Anya, Tara, and Willow, behind that, or the dented and mud caked work truck bringing up the rear.

Buffy wasn't surprised to see them at the house, not really. Like Spike says- I run, they run after. Except Mom. Who can't run. At all.

"Are we all agreed the afternoon is shot to hell?" Spike asked once they were inside.

"I gotta get back before dark to give a lumber quote to the foreman." Xander looked apologetic.

"I feel bad closing the gallery again." Anya twisted her hands. "Not because Joyce isn't more important but- but because she is so important, and she asked me to help. Buffy- do you think I-"

"I have to pack a bag." Buffy answered in a flat voice.

"I'll help you." Giles moved up the stairs behind her.

Once they were gone, the five remaining inhabitants of the living room stared helplessly at each other. "I hate this." Anya spat suddenly. For once no one chastised her for speaking the unfiltered contents of her mind. "Buffy's going insane, isn't she?"

"Wouldn't you be?" Willow snapped.

"I don't like this." Tara whispered and shivered. "It's- too much like a relapse."

"When they rallied a bit, and then..." Spike nodded with the innate empathy, one motherless child to another, though very different types of children.

"But this isn't like that." Xander forced a little hale and hearty into his tones. "Just gotta play around with the numbers, tell Joyce to take it easy, and presto, back to beating this thing."

"If we can beat the other thing first." Willow hated to be pessimistic, but after her first hand account with one of those affected by Glory, after seeing a human driven mad, clawing and flailing to grab Spike- she was more acutely aware of what this demon could do. "Not to mention, we have to deal with that Watcher guy. Keep him away from Spike."

"It doesn't matter." Buffy reappeared at the top of the stairs, a few scarves and a make up bag in her hands, a lost look in her eyes.

"What's that, Slayer?" Spike queried.

Buffy shook her head and descended the steps, one thick footfall at a time, saying nothing. Giles was soon behind her, a half-open duffle bag in his hand, puzzled expression on his face.


"It doesn't matter. To Mom. Right now."

"You must have hope, Buffy. These set backs-" Giles came to lay his hand on her shoulder, and she faced him, a queer blankness in her face.

"I don't think Mom's going to get better. And I don't think it matters. I mean-" she swallowed a sob, "it matters to me! To us. I want it to matter. But I'm going to get her killed. I'm going to be the reason she dies." Her gaze shifted to Spike, a mute appeal in her gaze, to help her understand, to live with the horror afterward.

Buffy heard the chorus of denial and protests, but they rolled off her like walking through fog. "I pushed her away, because being with me might get her hurt. Glory wants the people closest to me. So I pushed her away, I stayed away today. I should have been with her, and I wasn't and now- she wouldn't wake up. I missed my chance, and what if she hadn't woken up? She- just wouldn't wake up, guys." Buffy's brow furrowed. "Isn't death like sleeping for a really long time? Forever."

"Buffy, you're upset and this isn't in anyway related to you not being here today." Giles said firmly.

"Sweetheart, you're feeling guilty, and-" Spike added in a low voice, before she cut him off angrily.

"And I have a good reason. It's what a Slayer feels. Guilt. Slayers with moms have it double. I was stupid. I thought if I just avoided being around her, Glory'd leave her alone, but Glory will still figure it out. I have a mother, and she lives in the same town. Once she figures out who I am, that's an easy target. I have a lover, too. If I protect Mom and try to shift focus to Spike, because he's amazing and strong, and he was chosen to fight Glory, to protect whatever this thing is from her- well, then I'm just telling Glory exactly where to take a shot. And I can't do that, because what Spike has to protect is going to save the world. And what Mom has- might kill her. Then there's me. She's with me. She's going to get killed anyway."

The room was stunned, and no one knew what in the world could be said to that. Buffy slumped down on the bottom stair. She had silent tears trailing down her cheeks, and she made no effort to wipe them away.

Spike bent down, looked her in the eyes.

When Willow called the shop a few hours ago, when Anya's fingers tightened on the phone, and her panic-stricken voice demanded "What do you mean- they can't wake Joyce up?", Spike assumed the worst. Humans and their strange little euphemisms for death. The mind unable to cope. She's not gone, she's only sleeping.

Everything came rushing back, the angel face he'd made a demon, the lostness in Buffy's eyes, and the wheels had begun to turn. He felt helpless in whole new ways.

And the resounding shriek of "The store's closed! Spike, get your coat back on, we have to go to the hospital! Joyce is unconscious and she won't wake up! Maybe she's in a coma, maybe-" And the words blotted out, replaced by very loud thoughts.

I would do anything to change this. I can do something to save her. I can do something and maybe it's wrong, and maybe it's evil There's all sorts of bloody maybes here today, and shoulds and shouldn'ts died when I fell in love with the best girl in the world- and she loved me back, all my evil, all my sin, all my heart- and never needed my soul.

The thoughts found form in the waiting room, where he was alone in some strange pre-grieving ritual.

They cemented on the ride home, when his sunshine was some sort of hazy shadow beside him, not the girl he knew.

She can't live like this. An' I can't live like this- with her bein' in so much pain. I've been wrong for love before, and it seemed to out come alright in the end. Buffy's words, "She's going to die anyway." were hopeless, and he knew he had one long shot offer of hope to give.

The kneeling man spoke with a rakish lilt in his tone, quietly brave, o at least pretending to be. "Well, we can't let that happen, Luv. Everything ties down to one little thing- this pesky soul."

"Soul? Did he say soul? " Xander looked quickly to Willow to see if she heard that, and the redhead nodded, wide eyed.

Spike ignored them. "I don't need it. You loved me without it, an' all I really want is for us to stay in love and not lose anyone. And a soul- 'specially one like this, gotta be worth anything I ask, if I ask the right person."

"What are you talking about?" Anya exclaimed.

Buffy looked at him in confusion and asked the same question with her eyes.

"I can get rid of it. I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a demon." He tried to joke with a sad smile, the skin by his eyes crinkling in the way that she loved. "You put all the attention you want on me, get it off of your mum, and anyone else she's after. Let this bitch chase me down. Even if she finds me, even if she gets hold of me- which she won't, 'cause we made promises, Slayer, and none of them are gonna get broken..." Here he paused to wipe her tears, and blink away something shining in his eyes, "But say she did? There's no Key to open the big box of doom. And if I sell my soul, I'll make a good trade. Very good. One soul's as good as another. Joyce keeps hers, traded for mine. She lives. Ironclad shot. I go back to being my lovable soulless self."

Gasps and whispers fluttered around the couple, but it was Xander's voice which seemed to lose the gravity of the moment and go wild, panicky, completely unbalanced.

"But- no, no we do need Spike- like this. I mean, he saves Joyce, but-" But what about everyone else? He's the key, not just Glory's key, but the key for us. Take him away, and all of us die. Maybe not in an apocalypse, but - we die.

He saw the vision fresh in his mind, zeroed in on one part this time. A rocking, sobbing figure, crying Buffy's name, cutting his chest open with the sheer desperation in his hands. Is that what losing his soul does to him? I hate him sometimes. But when a guy is crying for a girl like that, he must really love her. And me- do I live if things change? Maybe Willow doesn't zap me, but that won't matter, because what if Anya doesn't? I'll be the guy in the corner, cutting my own heart out. 'Cause I'm the heart. I might be the heart of the group, but the heart belongs to Anya now. "Spike can't do this. We need him here."

"You'll still have me, idiot boy." He tossed Xander an irritated look, then squeezed Buffy's hands tighter still, almost pleading. "Slayer knows she's got my heart. She doesn't need my soul. Still feel the same about you- with or without it. Still do what I need to do, with or without it."

It was a wonderful offer. A dangerous offer. One she couldn't accept. "But- my other half. We were supposed to be ... soul mates..." She whispered brokenly, so only he could hear, clutching her shirt above her heart.

"I know. But you need your mum, too. We all need her." Spike looked uncomfortable and muttered. "The lot of you are like flamin' lost boys an' Joyce is the Wendy. Takes care of all of you lot for some reason- not in the 'what potion do I use' or 'which weapon kills what' way. In the mum way. She treats me decent, too. Makes good cocoa. Talks about Passions without sneerin', which is more than you ever did, Pet." He flashed a half grin to Buffy, tossing in a wink. "C'mon now. I'll still be the same amazin' catch I always was. just less full in the middle."

All of them found themselves oddly touched. Buffy was torn.

Giles half-dropped, half-threw down the bag he was carrying with a thud. He paused, removed his glasses, and spoke very clearly. "No."


"I said, no." His voice gathered strength. "For one thing, Spike, those bargains always have unintended consequences. You know a demon who might trade in souls, you'll give yours- for Joyce's, fine. But what if they realize your soul is not merely a soul, but the Key forged into one? What if they then offer it to Glory, for a price you can't top?"

"So the Key is the soul?" Anya frowned.

"How is that possible?" Tara looked mesmerized.

"Ohhh. That explains a lot." Xander mumbled.

"There's no time for a lesson on the origins now. Maybe later. When we've defeated Glory, which we will."

"Giles, how-" Buffy turned, rising from the stairs, and confronted him, desperate and searching for something to make it better, even if she knew it was the wrong thing.

"-do I know?" I'm sorry if this violates the pact, Nan, I'm tired of playing games. I won't tell them everything I know. Just enough. You said I could do that much, and it's bloody well time. "I know in the same way you know things, Buffy. You're not the only one with prophetic dreams. I've told you a little of this before, but I never shared how much, how clearly I do happen to know a few future outcomes. Using chemo and radiation, we prevent Joyce's death. I know that. I know that you beat Glory, and you do it with Spike's help, with all of our help, and unlikely as it sounds- we all live through it. Some of us are changed, but we have no regrets." He ignored the wide eyed stares, Xander's in particular, and plowed on. "You have to trust me. As I have trusted you and your words, your reassurances about difficult subjects." He looked at Spike, who hesitated, then dropped his gaze with a reluctant look back to the woman he would literally sell his soul for. "We are proven right in trusting you. We know that Spike was the right choice for you. We have seen him protect you and love you, with and without a soul. And we have seen that he is someone- who would actually give you his soul- if it would ease your pain. You don't have to trust me." His voice suddenly dropped to a gritty whisper, "Only know if I am wrong- I'll sell my soul, myself, to bring her back. We're not young and we're not star-crossed lovers, but she is all I've ever wanted and I will make the same kind of offer Spike is talking about- if I'm wrong."

"Wow..." Willow and Anya made one of those lovestruck sighs that made Tara and Xander look slightly worried.

"Well." Giles cleared his throat, "She may not be the maternal figure to me- but she is one the precious few friends I have, and the woman I love. Don't think I'd idly make these claims. And- for God's sake- nobody give up and- Spike- don't do anything stupid. I-I've got to go." Giles seized Joyce's bag, and pushed past his young friends. "I'll be back. Now, pull yourselves together- both of you." He stared at Buffy and Spike. "The world is counting on you!" He admonished with a stern scowl. "Even though I know you succeed- I don't know how, so you lot had better figure it out! " He turned away, snatching the items Buffy had brought down and stuffing them into the bag, muttering to himself, "Good Lord, how many times have we saved this bloody city, not to mention the world?... I'll- yes. I'll be back." With a last distracted, semi-frantic look over his shoulder, he was gone with swirl of tweed and a slam of the door.

"Giles! G-Man! Giles, wait!" Xander came tearing down the steps after the former librarian.

Giles relented slightly. "Yes, I know, I behaved like an immature teenager, but look who I hang out with! Dear Lord, I've just used the phrase 'hang out!' Now do you see why I need Joyce?"

"Yeah, I do, and I get it- and- and ouch with the immaturity. We're all maturing, Mr. Midlife Crisis."

There was a glaring match which ended with a tiny sigh and a humorless laugh. "Look, in my dream- I got my own vision. Only not a future finished, more like 'what's behind door a or door b option'. Life with out without Mr. Idol's Stunt Double. And I have to tell you- in the Xander's limited release-without Spike, Joyce dies."

"You've mentioned." Not as bluntly, but it hurt all the more each time.

" Yeah, I did. But you didn't. You didn't tell them."

"It's not my information to tell, and it's not what they need to hear, Xander!" Giles' voice rose slightly.

"Hey, if you say- if you say you know she's going to be okay- that's awesome, I believe you. I trust you." Xander stood down, hands raised in resignation, not wanting to provoke the already overwrought man. "I just don't get it. Why my dream? Were they messing with me? Do we need Spike or not? I mean, aside from Buffster loving him."

"There are things, Xander, that I won't tell you, that I don't understand, things I was shown but have no context for. If your dream was the same, I- well, that's terrifying to realize that there is an alternative future, and it hinges on one person. But in a way, I expect we would have seen vastly different lives no matter which one of us we removed from the scenario. We are all connected."

"I get that, but then why is Spike so-"

"Xander, imagine it like this. Without Spike, we could not have harnessed Buffy's powers, we could not have completed in the enjoining spell, could not have called forth things which let us into our dreamscapes, which gave Spike his gift, which explained to Tara what she was. Without that, I would never have known to get Joyce to the hospital immediately, at the first sign of her headaches, instead of waiting and trying stronger painkiller after painkiller until surgery was needed, or until it became inoperable. Maybe there are changes in realities but there are some things I think will always remain the same."

Xander gave a grave nod. "I saw Spike. In my dream. Everyone dead or dying, but him. He was- he was tearing open his chest, Giles, with his bare hands, crying like he'd lost everything. Saying her name..."

Giles could well imagine that. "You saw Spike at the end of your dream, and I did throughout mine. Things may be very different, but one thing that remains the same is that Spike loves her- and in any reality, best or worst, she is his everything, and he'll always be willing to give anything inside himself for her."

"That's gross in the wrong context- but also pretty good on the boyfriend resumé." Xander tried to lighten the atmosphere, but Giles wasn't ready yet.

"There's so much, so many things, small details, even big events that we don't know about or that we don't know how they're connected. All I can be sure of is- we must all try to use what we do know. We know Buffy needs us, we need her, and Spike- oddly enough, in either reality is meant to be with her. We have to work together. We have to trust each other, and use whatever gifts we've been given, dreams, souls, visions. We are going to win. If we don't stop fighting."

A pause. Careworn eyes met fresher ones.

"You'd have been a great coach, Giles." Xander smiled.

"And you are one of the members of the team I can't do without."

"Manly mushiness. I'm not good at that."

"Nor am I."

"Does Spike have to know I trust him?"

Giles gave a single sharp laugh. "He can probably tell you do to a certain extent, but don't tell him. Heaven forbid, you'd make him miserable."

"Are they yelling?" Anya asked nervously.


"Hugging and crying?"

"Nope." Willow put the curtain down, done spying on the men in the front lawn. "I think they're okay. Um. Buffy? A-are you okay?"

"I'm terrified." She managed a smile.

"But you look better. Less like a robot." Tara shyly praised.

"I was kinda robotic. Auto pilot, fear settings." Buffy slid her arms around Spike, who was leaning against the wall, pseudo smoking on an unlit cigarette, which he quickly tossed aside. "What you said..."

"Still stands, if ever you need it. Anything of mine- is yours."

"And everything of mine is yours." Buffy kissed him lightly. "Let's try it his way. He's the man with the plan. Sort of."

He nodded, blew out nonexistent smoke and reached for his keys."C'mon, then. Your mum-"

"Can have a little Giles time first. I'm not being avoidance Buffy, I'm just trying to let them have some private time before we mob them. You guys are gonna come too, right?" She turned to Anya, Willow and Tara.

"We'd love to."

"And after that- we're patrolling. Spike and I. You guys work the books?" The witches nodded.

"What do I do?" Anya asked.

"I can't think of anyone Mom would rather have setting up the gallery for her. She really- ooof!" Buffy found herself tackled back to the stairs.

"Hey! The only one allowed to knock her flat on her back is me- and preferably on something soft." Spike eased the women upright as Anya gave Buffy an enthusiastic hug.

"I don't know what happened." Anya pulled back, brushing herself off.

What you said made me so happy. My arms spontaneously reacted."

"Pity the blokes that buy the big ticket items. Don't break any customers." Spike teased lightly.

Everyone managed a little laugh, a little smile, and then the serious faces returned.

"It can't be all better. Just like that. Just because Giles says it will be." Willow took Buffy's hand.

"I know. And it isn't. But he's right. Freaking out, making dangerous deals, or isolating ourselves- that's not the way to win. I guess you figured it out- I'm not really fearless leader girl."

"Guess you figured it out- we really don't want that. We just want Buffy." Xander reentered the room. "So... anyone need a ride?"

A pearl gray standard limousine swung to meet him, and a liveried chauffeur stepped out. "Mr. Travers?"


"Are you staying in the city tonight, Sir?"

"No. I have reservations in a little town called Sunnydale, about an hour south. Taking me there directly shouldn't be a problem." It was not a question, it was a decree.

"Not at all, Sir." Two cases were put in the trunk, and Travers retained a small black leather attache with a golden intertwined Q and T subtly placed at the clasp. "Are you in town for business or pleasure?"

"Business. But, once I make my deal, I shall find that pleasurable."

"Ah, Darling. You gave me such a scare today." Giles murmured against her head, lying on his side- barely- hanging onto the edge of the hospital bed.

"I didn't mean to." Joyce gave him a sweet, tired smile. "Where's Buffy?"

"She'll be here shortly." Or I'll throw something with more than a thousand pages at her.

"Is she with Spike?"

"And the others."

Joyce looked uncomfortable. "Is she upset?"

"You're just very loved. Everyone's upset when you're not well."

Minutes turned to an hour, and no sign of Buffy. Willow, Tara, and Anya arrived. "Xander had to go back to work." Anya apologized.

"I understand. All of you didn't have to come, but I'm glad you did..." Joyce's eyes searched past them.

Willow explained. "Oh. Since you're in a regular private room- they said four visitors was okay for now."

"That's good." But one of them should be my daughter.

"Buffy wanted to make sure we got in." Tara added softly.

"She's always thinking of her friends." Joyce smiled wanly. I wonder what's so important that she can't come see me tonight. Something big and evil? That vampire? Feelings of resentment fluttered.

"You'd better go open the window." Anya reminded Willow, putting a bouquet in Joyce's arms.

"Oh, right." Willow hurried over. "Glad you have a window. I hope it's big enough."

"Big enough?" Joyce sat up with Giles' help.

"What took you so long?" an abrasive voice asked. "Bloody narrow ledge. In you get, Slayer."

"I'm never doing that again. Not without sneakers." Buffy half-fell through the window.

"Buffy!" Joyce cried, now fully alert.

"Hi, Mom." Buffy shut the window as Spike dropped in, more gracefully, with a whoosh of flapping coat, landing silently. "Keep it down, okay? If the nurse comes to check, two of us have to hide in the bathroom."

"Some stupid bitch at the desk said only three more could get in." Spike looked murderous.

"They didn't know vampires are good at getting in illegally." Buffy joined Joyce and Giles on the bed, sitting at the edge by her mom's feet.

"Slayer would have done that anyway." Spike grinned.

"How in the world-"

"Climbed out the window in the stairwell, onto the ledge and walked around." Spike grinned.

"We counted wrong. We almost interrupted your neighbor's sponge bath. That was almost as scary as thinking I was about to fall to my death- or at least my broken leg-ness."

"Sweetie, that was too dangerous! I'm sure your friends would have waited to come visit tomorrow." Why would Spike let her do that? Although- I'm glad he could get her in.

"But it's hard to wait to see your best friend." Anya defended their actions.

"Or the love of your life." Giles smiled fondly.

"Or the closest thing you have to a mom." Tara whispered.

"It was worth it. The danger is worth it- if we're together." Buffy smiled and swallowed. "Mom- just so you know, though- there's something bad going on in town. If- if I'm not around as much, it's only 'cause I have to fight it. N ot 'cause I'm not crazy about you. Also- there's college. I should probably try to go there a couple times a week." Her friends laughed, Giles and Spike beamed, and Joyce looked concerned.

"Is this that thing that slimed you the other night?"

"It's part of it."

"There are more of them?" Joyce asked in alarm.

"I sure hope not..." Buffy muttered.

"It's the annual big bad, just arriving in the fall. Makes sense. Darker nights, longer time to get your evil on." Willow nodded.

"The closing of a year, the winter solstice... often a time for the association of magical and dark forces." Giles mused.

Tara made a little gasp, as if something had just clicked.

"Are you okay, Sweetie?"

"Oh, yes. I just remembered something I left at Giles'. A - timeline. For a project."

Buffy and the other Scoobies exchanged a significant look, which reminded Buffy to get back on topic. "Mom? I'll be around as much as I can, okay? That just might not be a lot." This time her eyes wandered to Spike, who gave her an encouraging wink. Joyce saw it, and in her weary state, didn't fully understand. She sighed. "Do what you need to do. Be careful."

"We will be. Don't worry."

Joyce laughed. "I'm a mother. That's impossible. I'm also worried about when I can get out of here. That doctor says two days to stabilize..."

"Only having to be admitted for a few days here and there is excellent for someone undergoing cancer treatments." Giles pointed out.

"I know. But the show- I know you're helping so much Anya, Rupert- everyone. But there are some things I have to do myself."

"Oh! I know. The immune system is what protects you from germs, all the people with colds and coughs and things? What if you came in after the gallery closed, with just a couple of us? And not for so long, a couple hours a night, tops? Only when you have to."

"It's better than nothing." Willow said with a hesitant smile.

"You need to rest." Giles frowned.

"I need not to go crazy lying on the couch watching mindless daytime television." Joyce read the concern on his face, in his eyes. "I have to keep going, Rupert. Cancer's not going to beat me."

Giles nodded jerkily. "No. That's right. It will not." He blinked hastily. "I'm sure Anya won't let you overdo it. Will you?"

"Mortal's honor."

"That's oddly not comforting."

"Not a lot to report, Most Understanding One." Jinx bowed.

"Where are my possible witches?"

"Well..." He cleared his throat. "There are only a couple of covens in the city, mainly demon-witches. They haven't got any information on someone pure and powerful. The human magic shop is closed and boarded up, so there were no patrons to observe going in or out. The owner is dead, so there was no one to question. There is a warlock downtown-"

"This had better be going somewhere."

"Yes, Your Perfectness. The warlock claims to know all the powerful witches in the area- at least the ones that can create surges like we saw. He enhances their abilities to then siphon their aural energies in exchange. It's addictive for both parties, so I understand."

"Power like a Key stuck in a human body-that's gotta be."

"That's just it. He hasn't tasted anything so pure or ancient. Around here it's dark and quick, not deep. If there is someone here, it must be something new, something he hasn't come across yet."

"That tracks. My Key is new to this realm after all." Glory sighed. "Anyway. Enough bad news. How is my tower to that big beautiful Door coming?"

"Hrm. The problem is, Most Eager and Ruthless Glorificus, that humans here get admitted to the hospital."

"So? They let them out, don't they?"

"Eventually. Though then the family members seem to keep a watchful eye on them. But in the meantime- your brother-"

"Oh shit. He's at the hospital during the day, isn't he?"

"He is. I'm afraid soon he'll call upon the Queller, as he's done before. You'll lose all your servants before the tower is built if he does that. And as you know- we can't restrain him or injure him without injuring your vessel. The wall between you is separating already. Soon you'll feel his pain, even in your sleep."

Glory sighed heavily. "What's a goddess to do? I like my pain- giving it, not taking it. I'm very generous with my pain, aren't I, Jinxy?" She ran a barbed nail over his scalp.

"Of course." He practically purred

"Have you been watching him?" Suddenly cold, and suddenly the nail gouged into him.

"As closely as we can." He gasped.

"Make it closer. Get what's his name- overeager Mage boy. Have him start trailing Ben. He can magic himself into something unnoticeable, can't he? I want someone in every room, every place. I want to know exactly what my darling little parasite hears, sees, and does."

"Do you feel ready to be victorious?" Spike asked as they walked through the hospital parking lot. Planning to head straight on patrol, they'd ridden over with the girls, and now traveled on foot.

"Not yet." Buffy shook her head. "But he doesn't lie to me, so..."

"You ever think about what else he might've seen?"

"You mean, 'future' stuff?"

"Wonder what else he's holding onto."

"I don't think I want to know. I just want to know that we end up together, and everyone's okay. The other stuff doesn't matter too much."

"True enough. Right then. Patrol plans?"

"Code for demon monk hunting."

"Sounds like our kind of fun."

"Remember not to kill all of them when we find them. If we find them. We need at least one to spill his guts- and no, I don't mean literally."

"Unless that's the only way to make him talk."

"I'll let you do that." Buffy shuddered.

"Think we should split up?"

"Not yet. Maybe fan out in the same area."

"Right then. You got something aside from stakes?"


"Demons don't dust, and that's the primary objective tonight, right? Find some shorty scabby whatsits and deplete the ranks?"

"If you poke most things through the throat, they'll die. At least hybrid-human-y things. All except vamps."

"Just gotta be different." He smirked and lit up. "Not to come off as mother hen-"

"Can't picture that."

"Shut up." He pinched her rear. "Feel better if you had something of the sharp and silvery on you."

"We can swing by the house. There's blood in the fridge, too, if you're hungry."

"That'd probably be good. Never did get to raid the blood bank today. Too many people in there who see through the devilishly handsome exterior."

"I feel like the worst slayer ever." Buffy sighed as they turned in the direction of her home. "Apparently people are getting snatched and mojo'd and I'm not even aware of it. I suck."

"Mm, you do, and I love it. But I have a feeling that's not what you meant." He gently nudged her. "You're a darn good Slayer, but even you aren't omniscient. You can't know everything about everyone in this bloody little hellhole at once. This isn't making headline news. No one is bringing bloodied and beaten bodies, nor corpses. You wouldn't find a few cases of sudden onset starkers in the papers."

"No..." Buffy looked thoughtful. "Giles usually does keep an eye out on the obits and the headlines. Willow used to hack the coroners office and police scanners and stuff."

"Like I said- not gonna be police reports. Most people probably think stroke or screws loose before demon attack. Though why, in this town... Never mind. Don't blame yourself, Baby. You can't see what they don't show."

"Or if you keep looking in the wrong places. Spike- we have to have Willow hack the hospital's patient database. Or whatever they call it. The people they admit, or discharge."

"The list of people recently put into the psychiatric unit." He nodded.

"They'll have addresses and maybe - like case notes or something. If they all come in from the same area, or if they were all found in the same area- we might not only know a name but a place to start searching!" Buffy sounded excited. Not panicked, but ready, eager to get on this and start taking the battle to the bitch, not hiding from her.

Spike reached out and caressed the back of her neck, sliding his hand down her arm until it twined with her fingers. "See? My brilliant girl. Resourceful. Impressive. Knew that even when I hated you."

"Your sweet talk is kinda snarky-"

"But on me it works?" He rolled his tongue behind his teeth in that sly smirk that made her eyes twinkle in response. Figures met in the moonlight, kissing and parting, spirits slightly uplifted as they made their detour for food and weaponry.

"You know, if we can get this apocalypse wrapped up before the end of the year, it'll make a much happier Christmas."

"Oh my gosh! Christmas! I haven't shopped! And Thanksgiving-"

"I've had one of your Thanksgivings. I wasn't thrilled." He said drily.

"This year I'll make a turkey instead of a bear, does that sound better?"

"No shooting me full of arrows." His hands wandered as they strolled. "Although, you can try tying me to the chair again..." His voice was silkily suggestive.

"What is it with you and being tied up?" Buffy giggled, stomach fluttering with uncertain heat. "I don't tie up people for fun, only for the safety of innocent bystanders."

"Well it's safe and fun if you do it right." Spike winked. "Maybe for Christmas. I can wrap you up in a red silk bow and nibble on you instead of the cookies and candy canes."

"Now that I might try." More giggling, more wandering hands. More happy. This is what I wanted. He does it so effortlessly. Only Spike can do it, too. That blend of "let's kill demons and talk about holidays and making love all at once as we go patrolling after a quick stop at my Mom's house. So perfect. Makes me smile and wipes away my tears. They were right. Protect him. He'll protect me.

"I'm sorry I went all straitjacket girl tonight and - lately." Buffy whispered.

"Think we both have. Lately. Don't worry. It's what couples do, get through things together."

"I can't get over the 'couple' part sometimes."

"Ah, well, you'd better get used to it. I think they say if you survive a second apocalypse together it's the uh- what's that then- the jewelry anniversary." He snapped his fingers in mock recall.

"Oooh, and he buys me jewelry. No wonder I love this guy." Buffy paused and faced him as they turned onto Revello. "After this is done, I'm moving in. What's that occasion get?"

"I think for crypt-warming parties you usually get plants." His smiled faded slightly. "That'll probably mean explaining about the downstairs. If we want to stay there. I don't care."

"Nope, doesn't matter where. Long as it's us, I don't care either. And as long as we get through what's coming."

A few more steps, this time in silence. "I think as long as everyone's working together, we'll make it." Buffy said, more to herself than to him.

"Yes, but it's not the 'team effort' the Slayer must rely on, but rather herself." A relaxed, almost arrogant voice spoke from the darkness.

Buffy gasped, Spike whirled.

"She is Chosen. She alone. To be given great power means she must be able to use it. Not squander it. Not involve unprepared teenagers and overemotional Watchers." Quentin Travers stepped from the dark porch to the pavement, confronting the girl with a cold smile. "The Slayer is the one that must prove she has the skills needed to defeat great evil."

Buffy blinked and took a step back. Spike also retreated, keeping himself in the shadows, face half hidden by his coat.

"Good evening, Ms. Summers." Travers nodded once. "I called on your former Watcher first, but he wasn't at home. I've come to arrange your test."

To be continued...