Starting Over

By Sweetprincipale

Post Season 7- Non-canon beginning at the end of the final episode. No comics. Buffy and Spike find themselves trapped in a void between two dimensions, watching their mirror images acting out pieces of their lives in another realm. If both halves can find true love, choose each other, and make some other important choices, Buffy and Spike will have a chance to rejoin their world, and have a chance at starting over from the point where they perished in the Hellmouth.

Author's Note: A chapter split 50-50 between our parallel universes. Also, hot Spuffy/vampiric loving ensues. (As it so often does when I'm writing.)

Dedicated to Ginar369, Omslagspapper, Alexiarrose, Jewel74, and Tawny. Thank you for the continued support!

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

Part XVII

"Monica's on the high school library set. Where's Essie?" Jim pointed the video camera at Ashley and Ellie.

"Is that on?" Ellie asked.

"Not yet. Where's Max?"

"Max's getting the new scripts for the fifth and sixth." Ashley smiled as she sipped her latte. "Are these more Sul movies?"

"Yup. O-kay- look beautiful, ladies."

"Hi Sul!" The two cooed.

"We miss you so much!"

"Did you like the birthday card?" The red head asked.

"He's not actually on the other end of that thing." Ellie pointed out.

"He isn't? Sul? Are you in there?" Jim pointed the camera at his face and peered into the lens.

"Hey! Stop being crazy without me." Max jumped in from behind, scattering large white packets as he did so. "Sulster! Miss you, man."

"Would you guys please be more quiet?" A young actor who played one of the kids at Sunnydale High came over to them. "The director is looking upset, and the sound tech asked me to come tell you that."

"Oh, the directors always looks upset." Max waved it away, but Jim nodded and turned off the small camera.

"So how was the weekend away?" Ellie whispered, picking up the scattered scripts.

"Good. Essie did give him your cards, guys, and he loved them."

"What'd you do in New York?" Max started flipping through his new script.

"We went to Hard Rock Cafe, saw Hairspray- Essie's idea, not mine," He quickly added "and spent way too much time getting asked for autographs."

"Did you get him the new bike?"

"No, we were going to, but then he saw something else he wanted. Brand new black electric guitar- just like his old man's." Jim beamed. It was Monday afternoon. Essie and he had only returned on the red eye late last night, wanting to have as much time with Sul as possible before coming home.

Max handed him his script and he frowned. "Look at this. I'll be in and out in a day." Jim sighed.

"Is that elation or regret?" Max asked.

"Both. I want to put in my hours, Essie's working so hard. I also don't really wanna be the house husband."

"Aww, come on. Gender equality. Besides, did you look at six yet?" Max prodded. Jim switched scripts.

"Oh, shit." He let out a long breath. "This is gonna take all day for at least seven, if not eight."

"And look- lots of Xander and Spike bonding and bashing. We get tons of work together, compadre!"

"Max, no one says 'compadre' anymore." Jim rolled his eyes.

"No one says 'wanker' on this side of the Atlantic, but you do it."

"Only after a lot of exposure to Patrick." Jim admitted.

"If one more extra looks at me like I'm God, can I hit them?" Essie arrived in the huddle, pulling off her heels and collapsing onto Jim's lap as he sat in his canvas director-style chair.

"No. But gimme ten minutes in makeup and I'll bite them for you." Jim smiled, hugging her close, purposefully working his knee between her thighs to her mound, knowing no one else could see what his leg was doing, covered as it was by her long skirt. With all the flying, and the hectic parenting/birthday weekend in New York, they hadn't had much "alone" time in a few days.

"I wanna go home! I wanna go to bed!" She whined, arching herself down slightly as she said "bed".

"Uh-oh." Ashley smiled. "Lust bunnies."

"Bunnies!" Ellie yelped and they all laughed at her startled expression. "Oh my God. I really just did that. I totally just went 'Anya' for a minute."

"Four years of playing one character will do that to you." Essie smiled. "Jim tried to pick up an entire playset by himself."

"Okay, we're definitely having something about 'keep thy husband's secrets' put in the vows." Jim tickled her with a growl on his face, mock biting her neck.

"Did I ever tell you about the day that Essie lost her keys in the parking lot and dumped out her whole purse- and there was a stake inside?" They all began to laugh, as hard as they could without making noise. Essie smacked Ashley on the knee.

"I grabbed the wrong bag! It looked just like my real one, no wonder I couldn't find the keys in it!" She hissed in protest.

"You're up again!" Monica ran over, tagged Essie lightly on the shoulder. Essie groaned and pushed off Jim's lap, kissing him before she trudged back over.

"Heels!" Jim reminded her, tossing her the shoes she'd left behind.

"Look what I have!" Monica rummaged in a designer backpack left by the side of her chair. "Modern Bride, Elegant Bride, Designer Bride and Today's Bride. Who wants what?"

"I'm sorry, I'll pass." Max said with a sickened expression. "Had enough of that last season, not to mention a couple years ago."

"I'm in charge of honeymoon, rings, men's wear, and music." Jim held up his hands and leaned away from the magazines.

"You're leaving Essie with the food, the flowers, the arrangements, the dresses, hair, makeup-" Monica glared at him as she hissed out a list of items all Hollywood weddings seemed to need.

"No! I'm just not doing the dresses. Food and almost all of the rest is a joint effort. Honestly."

"What color did she go with?" Ashley asked as she started leafing through.

"I believe at seven last night it was ocean blue. But on Friday night's flight it was jade green."

"It was pink during lunch on Friday!" Monica protested.

"I think you should focus on style, not color then." Jim shrugged. "I think Essie is still deciding."

"But the date is firm now?" Max demanded. "Because I'm arranging our summer trip to Hawaii around your wedding, dude."

"Yes, it's firm. The Saturday after the last episode wraps up. That should give us enough time to get everyone to stop crying."

"We'll still see each other!" Monica squeaked. "Won't we?"

"Of course!" Ashley reached over and hugged her. "This cast is a family. So there."

"You're in our effing wedding, pipsqueak." Jim gave her a brotherly grin. "You are hereby officially in the family. I now pronounce you Aunt Monica, keeper of the Sul."

"I think I'm gonna cry," said the girl, genuinely moved.

"Monica! Back up here!" cried Essie.

"Save the tears for the scene tomorrow." Max advised. "Saves wear and tear on the tear ducts."

Jim nodded and added "Good point."

The cast of regulars sat off stage, waiting to be cued, reading over the next two episodes' scripts. From time to time someone would tap someone else on the shoulder and go run a scene. Max and Jim practiced a little while, and then Max brought up what he considered a tricky subject. "Did you see that Essie's supposed to 'get friendly' with this student when she's under the love spell?"

"Yeah." Jim replied absently and ran his lines in his head.

"You okay with that?"

"Huh? Oh, am I okay with it? It's just a job. She's not in love with anyone but me. I'm not pulling a Matt."

"Pulling a Matt?" Max leaned in closer. No one had ever really pressed Jim and Essie for an explanation of how they suddenly went from co-stars to lovers in what seemed to be a one week time period. "You know I love Essie, don't you?"

"Yes." Jim replied cautiously.

"We've spent over six years together at this point. And Matt kind of dropped the ball halfway through last year. But I always felt like there was something she wasn't telling us."

"Not my place to say." Jim replied, looking deep into Max's eyes, knowing that there was no desire to hurt Essie in his heart, only to be a better friend.

"Then can you answer me one thing? Please?"

"I can try." Jim wouldn't promise anything.

Max's voice dropped. Almost low enough that Jim had to read his lips, and his eyes burned dangerously. "Did he say- she liked being abused?"

Jim rocked back on his heels. "How?"

"I don't know. I just wondered if he did." Max's voice remained intense.

"Yeah. He did."

"And the- the scene?" Max referred to the one thing that they tried never to speak of.

"Nothing good to say." was Jim's only response.

"Bastard."

"Who? Me or him?" Jim demanded bitterly.

"Him! I'm glad you love her better than he did, Jimmy. She deserves a guy like you. And you deserve a girl like her."

"No, I don't." Jim sighed, watching Essie from the corner of his eye as she began a fight scene with some guys in long red cloaks. "But the amazing thing is, Max, that she wants me anyway."


"Where do we want this?" Spike and Xander marched through the living room of the Summers' new townhouse with a large cedar chest.

"Is that my new weapons chest!?" Buffy came down the stairs three at a time.

"Yes, and it's heavy." Xander said pointedly.

"Put it behind the sofa. No! Put it in the middle bedroom upstairs! No, put it-"

"I'm puttin' it in the middle bedroom, Luv. That's where we train the most."

"Okay." Buffy nodded at this reasonable suggestion. "Where's Dawn? I thought she went with you to pick up the rest of the furniture?"

"Red stole her to go check out Madam What's 'er Name's Magic Shop." Spike puffed as he shouldered the love seat sized chest up the stairs.

"Wasn't Giles with you?"

"Call from England. Apparently they can't wait until tomorrow to ask him a hundred more questions." Xander panted. "Okay, and lift and turn- oof!" Xander groaned. "Damn! Dammit!"

Without his second eye, sometimes Xander had a hard time judging the distance around corners. A nice scrape appeared along the stairwell. Buffy bit her lip and looked at Spike. Spike, for all his braggadocio about needing nothing but a fridge, bed, telly, and something to warm the blood in, was very proud of their new home. He had a family for the first time in over 120 years and he cherished it, and anything that related to it.

"No worries, mate." Spike shrugged and kept walking backwards up the last stair. "Did you see the vaulting horse yet?"

"Yeah, like the last three times I was over." Xander muttered.

"Maybe you should stop comin' over so much." Spike snarled back, but it was good natured.

"Maybe you should let your wife out more."

"She likes her at home activities."

"Oh, gag." Xander made a retching sound.

"One more word, an' I will."

"Knew you had a kinky side."

"You aren't my type." Spike sneered. There was a thud and the new chest was in place.

Buffy laughed in relief. Although no one could say Spike and Xander were getting along like best friends, or that their teasing was polite, there wasn't any venom behind the words- usually. They had been settling in for a week after getting home from their honeymoon, and life was starting to resume routine activities, with a large side order of normal.

The Summers family delighted in doing everyday things like going grocery shopping, learning to drive the new black Jeep, and learning to cook. Buffy blushed. The cooking hadn't been the greatest success, but Spike would eat pretty much anything with a big, broad smile, and praise her attempts. He was happy, as long as he and his "two girls" were together.

Dawn had bought a cheap bed, dresser, and desk, and a big expensive stereo. Buffy had been about to go into "irresponsible waste of money" lecture mode, and Spike stopped her. He and Dawn shared a knowing smile. Their first night home together, (which hadn't been until a few days ago due to needing some furniture and some complications with getting her money transferred into a joint account) Buffy knew why. As soon as Dawn went to her room, the stereo began to blare.

"Why in the world-" Buffy got up from the dining room table and began to march up the stairs.

"Buffy, Luv." Spike slithered up behind her, cupping her chest as he pulled her to his. "The Niblet and I aren't stupid."

"What are you talking about?"

"You and I make noise, Pet. Loud-" He kissed her neck, "passionate," thrust his hips into her rear, "bloody incredible, shag-me-until-this-bed breaks noises."

"I know. But I was quiet last night, right?"

"You were less loud than usual." He whispered.

"It's embarrassing." She moaned.

"Tell you what, Luv- we can go practice again," he licked her earlobe softly, "and again, and again," each word punctuated with a nibble down to her claim mark, "until we learn to lower the volume."

"That's really why she bought the stereo?"

"Yeah. But don't feel bad about it. She said she's happy we're so happy. She just doesn't want the exact details of how happy. Although she said the roar I make sounded like the tiger she saw at the San Diego Zoo one year and she was impressed."

Willow and Dawn broke Buffy's blushing stroll down memory lane, with their abrupt entrance. "We are so lucky! Willow got all this stuff to do protective spells on the houses for like, a twenty!"

"Xander! I picked up the movie from Blockbuster!" Willow hugged Buffy hello and called up the stairs.

"'Mars Attacks'?" Xander sounded thrilled. Buffy heard Spike's groan.

"Yes! And Spike? I got 'The Holy Grail' for you."

"Red! You're the best!" Spike and Xander pounded down the stairs.

"Yeah, but what do we watch?" Xander demanded, taking the movies from Willow's hands.

"We could arm wrestle for it." Spike suggested with a malicious smile, well aware that vampires would always win over average humans.

"Can you control him or something? You're all 'claimed out', can't you make him heel, or sit, or something?"

Shut up, Xander." Dawn smiled. "We should stay up and watch both. Tomorrow Giles leaves and we start patrolling. We should celebrate our last night of completely normal human stuff."

"Right. I'll go heat up some blood and put some popcorn in. Red, do you have lizard tongues in that bag? Yeah, let me put 'em in the fridge until you go, they work better cold." Spike grabbed a small box from Willow and walked off, leaving the four humans staring at each other.

"He kind of- stomped all over the normal." Dawn pouted. Buffy patted her back gently.

"It's what you get for marrying a vampire." Xander nodded seriously. Buffy withered him with a glance. "Shutting up now."


By coin toss, the Monty Python version of The Holy Grail went first. Buffy looked around contentedly. She was trying to learn to like the British comedy that Spike and Dawn, and even Willow and Xander seemed to enjoy. She thought it was all pretty crazy, but it was okay with her. She was only half watching the movie. She was mainly watching the people she loved. Willow and Xander were on the new dark blue couch with a bowl of popcorn between them, and Dawn was sprawled out over a throw pillow, kicking her feet aimlessly, painting her nails as she watched. She and Spike sat in the thick, cushiony black recliner. It was completely weird, she thought, lifting a wine glass full of blood to pass to her husband, and opening her mouth automatically as he held up a kernel of popcorn to her lips. Sitting here in suburbia, feeding, being fed, and no one screaming at me that it's a vampire. Completely wonderful. Only one thing could-

Spike was pushing her off of him hard, barely avoided spilling the blood, and he yanked the remote off the coffee table, switched off the television.

"Hey!" Willow yelped.

"Spike!" Dawn looked up at him, shaking her wet nails in annoyance.

"'Mars Attacks' anyone?" Spike looked around at them as if he had just behaved completely normally.

"What the hell are you doing?" Buffy demanded.

"Thank you." Xander, his head resting wearily on the back of the couch, gave Spike a grateful smile.

"Wasn't thinkin'." Spike looked uncomfortable.

"Would one of you please tell me-" Buffy watched as Dawn's expression changed and she gave Spike a look of little sister adoration.

"I don't get it." Willow contributed. Buffy pointed to her and nodded.

Xander spoke. "It's supposed to be a big joke. It's the terrible creature they talk about- it's a killer bunny. A soft, fluffy little white rabbit. But it still takes out like ten knights with its 'big, pointy teeth'," Xander concluded in a bad British accent.

"I forgot. That bit. I mean, I knew it was there, I jus' wasn't thinkin' about..." Spike shrugged and bent down in front of the DVD player.

"Hey! We totally need to finish it! We're near the end, plus one of my favorite parts is coming up. Gotta love the bridge keeper." Xander smiled bravely.

"I'll fast forward." Dawn chimed in.

Buffy sat back down, letting Spike move in underneath her when he returned. 'You are a really good friend.' She communicated silently.

'Let's not call me that, yeah, Precious?'

'If you let me call you his friend, I'll reward you...'

'You reward me each night, Luv.' Spike caressed her thigh with the hand between her body and the chair, knowing no one could see him doing it.

'Oh. Yeah.' She giggled aloud and Willow looked over at them.

"They're doing some Jedi mind stuff again, aren't they?" Xander asked in a bored voice, scooping up the last handful of popcorn.

"Are not!" Buffy exclaimed. The rest looked at her with a glance that clearly said "Believe whatever you want, we know." "Or, maybe possibly, we were." She concluded in a tiny voice. Spike's arms pulled her close.

"You're so sweet, Luv." He nibbled her ear. "You lot don't mind, do you? Rather not hear the lovin' little nasties we exchange, in't that right?"

"Yes to the zillionth power." Xander sighed, pulling his sickened expression.

"Can I come in? Someone left the door unlocked. Completely invalidates the protective charms!" Giles made an entrance, shaking his wet raincoat off as he entered the house.

"I seem to recall a certain poncey librarian never rememberin' to lock his flat..." Spike drawled, earning an elbow from Buffy.

"Okay, Dawn and Willow- you were the last ones in. I hereby order you to make more popcorn as penance." Buffy said with a queenly wave. Spike paused the movie, ignoring Xander's groan, and stood up.

"Bloody hell, Rupes, you brought the rain with you." Spike peered out the window. "At least the last of the furniture's in." He smiled at the older (in appearance) man, and popped open a small dark wood cabinet in the corner of the dining room. "Bevy?"

"God, yes." Giles sank into a chair, smiling at Buffy and Xander.

"You want somethin' Cyclops?"

"You got a beer?"

"Not unless you toddle into the kitchen an' get it. Don't keep beer in the liquor cabinet." Spike poured a generous measure of whiskey for himself and Giles.

"I'll bring it to you!" Willow called to Xander.

"Thanks, Will." He replied.

"Oh, is this Monty Python?" Giles took note of what was on the screen.

"Last five minutes, but yeah." Spike answered. "Next up is 'Mars Attacks'."

"Dammit. You should've put that on first, you knew I'd be late." Giles scowled at his peroxided "son-in-law".

"Stop whingin' and drink up." Spike ignored his comment.

The "family" stayed up late into the night, everyone feeling a sense of security, that they were together and hadn't yet been attacked since coming to Pine Ridge. And the added security that they could walk home in relative safety, all of them within five minutes' distance from one another, while still being in the same complex.

Dawn was the first to fall asleep, then Xander. "Come on, wakey wakey." Willow shook his shoulder. "Let's go home and sleep."

"Ahn?" Xander asked in a sorrowful mumble. Everyone in the room blanched, four faces mirroring a stab of pain. Only Dawn, blissfully asleep, remained out of the pained exchange.

"I-it's me, Willow." Willow replied softly, stroking his shoulder gently.

"Huh? Did I miss the bus?" Xander woke up with a start.

"Let's go home. It's late." Willow smiled softly.

"Yeah- wow the movie's over. I must be zonked, man." Xander kissed Buffy on the cheek and waved to Giles and Spike, leaned on Willow and they began their short walk home.

"I'll get the little lady to bed." Spike bent down and scooped up Dawn, letting Buffy help angle her head so it leaned on his shoulder and didn't fall back over his arm.

"Is that necessary? And Dawn used to be such a light sleeper." Giles asked Buffy once Spike was up the stairs.

"She feels safe. We noticed it last week. She started being able to sleep though anything. Including alarm clocks and smoke alarms."

"Smoke alarms?"

"I didn't realize how fast French toast could burn, okay?" Buffy dared him to say anything more, and Giles wisely desisted.

"But surely, he doesn't need to carry her up like a child."

"No. And tomorrow she'll yell at him. But he loves Dawn like a little sister and it's the closest we'll ever get to having kids of our own, so..."

"No. You're right, I quite understand." Giles cleared his throat. "You know, Buffy, I understand that they do some amazing things in reproductive-"

"No." Buffy snipped the word off. "Maybe- maybe someday. But right now, we're in no position to raise a kid. We can barely raise Dawn and she's sixteen! She's housebroken and knows how to tie her shoes, and she still exhausts me. I think it's all the arguing." Buffy rubbed her head with a rueful smile.

"You make an excellent point. Particularly about the arguing. It is a Summers' family trait." Giles laughed and hugged her. "I shall miss you all dreadfully you know? And I'll probably call up each day I'm gone? Just to let Spike insult me and hear you tell me how much I'm missed."

"Sounds like a plan." Buffy smiled up at him. "You swear on the Watcher's sacred lapel pin- or whatever you guys hold sacred- that you'll come home soon?"

"I do. As soon as I can. And you'll check the mail and water the plants?"

"You have plants?"

"Oh. That's right, I haven't any more. Well, collect the mail anyway." Giles cast a nervous look upstairs. "Why is he taking so long?"

"I don't know- hang on." Buffy screwed her eyes shut tight and tried to feel her mate, something she was not yet adept at. She could vaguely feel him, laughing, talking, a feeling of peace. "Dawn woke up. They're talking. I think they're sitting on her bed, or our bed. I can't tell, but he feels happy and peaceful." Buffy smiled, at peace and happy herself.

"Good. I need to speak to you alone." Giles pulled her elbow and led her into the kitchen, speaking in a hushed undertone. "I have a belated wedding gift for you."

"But you already gave us the liquor cabinet and the parallel bars." Buffy smiled up at him, amusement at his choice of wedding gifts evident on her face.

"And the gift card! Let's not forget the gift card. It was the most American thing I've ever done, give a small piece of gaudy plastic as a wedding gift. Well, that and group hugs." They shared a laugh and then Giles reached into the breast pocket of his blazer and pulled out an envelope that bulged strangely in one corner. "This gift isn't from me."

"W-well who is it from then?" Buffy's voice faltered as she looked at his solemn expression.

"Angel. It came yesterday, with all the papers I need to take to London." Giles polished his glasses and turned away. "I haven't opened it, of course, but I imagine it's something you'll like. He's very - thoughtful - when it comes to you, Buffy. He always asks after you, when I speak to him."

"Yeah. You think I'd better open it alone in case Spike gets worked up?"

"Just as a precaution." Giles placated hastily.

"No, I agree. If Drusilla sent us a card, I'd probably- well, it probably wouldn't be a card, it'd probably be the lifeless body of the mailman, but exes are tricky things." Buffy grabbed a knife from the silverware drawer and slowly slit the envelope.

"Shall I give you a moment alone?" Giles offered.

"Huh? No, no." Buffy waved it away, more bravery on her face than she actually felt. She wondered if this tug at her heart would ever go away, heard a sudden squeal from Dawn and a cry of "Not pink, the black nail varnish!" from Spike and laughed. Maybe the tug would always be there, but she had her anchor now.

The card wasn't a card, it was a thick folded piece of white paper, plain on the outside and only a few short lines on the inside. Buffy read them silently, eyes clouding, and then read it aloud.

"Buffy,

Congratulations on your marriage. I know that this is something you want, and will bring you happiness. Forgive me for not attending the ceremony, or making a better effort to get this to you sooner.

I hope this gift increases your joy, but use it sparingly. And never keep it on too long.

All my love,

Angel."

"Well, that was-"

"Nowhere near as broody and emotionally draining as you'd expect?" Buffy looked up, puzzled, lips pushed forward in a tense half smile.

"I imagine it's the best he could do, Buffy." Giles smiled sadly, placing his hand on her arm comfortingly. "I'm sure he could have written you something much more evocative, but I do believe that your happiness is precious to him. And so he tried."

"He did good. I just feel puzzled, which in my world, is so much better than the heart wrenching grief I usually associate with him." She forced herself to sound perky as she shook the envelope out into her palm. "Let's see what he gave me, and why I can't wear it too long or too often." She shook out a small silver pendent on a long chain. A split v-shape with an opalescent stone, three tiny blue specks at the vertex of the v and the stone. "Okay- still got no idea. And it really isn't my style, to tell you the truth."

"I don't recognize it. It isn't any type of good luck or protection symbol that I'm aware of ." Giles turned the charm lightly in his hand. "Blue isn't an especially significant color, can be used be used for both good and evil."

"Evil? You think he might have sent me something evil?"

"No!" Giles shook his head and laughed. Buffy didn't look particularly convinced. "No, honestly, dear. If he'd sent something evil, he'd have told me to give it to Spike." They laughed dryly and Buffy conceded his point. "I don't know what it is, but it isn't terribly significant, or else I'd recognize it."

"Unless it's incredibly rare." Buffy chewed her lip worriedly.

"I can take it with me to England, let the coven take a look?"

"No. No, it's probably not even mystical, it's probably like a health and prosperity kitschy thing. And it totally doesn't go with my new clothes, so I'll just put it in my jewelry box- when I get one, and one day we'll investigate."

"Buffy!" Dawn's laughing voice echoed down the stairs. "Come up here and get Spike! He's got my new diary hostage!"

"An' I'm gonna start readin' out sections unless you give me the soddin' nail polish remover!"

"Play nice!" Buffy shouted. "And you should both come down here! Giles is leaving and he's taking the noon flight out of here!"

"Willow's driving me to the airport. It's rather late to get to bed, Buffy, so I won't disturb you in the morning." He hugged her tightly and pointed to the necklace. Buffy slid the chain and note into the drawer smoothly, just in time to be confronted by a growling Spike.

"What's wrong?" Buffy left Giles' arms and took Spike in her own.

"Niblet." He held up both hands, showing that eight of ten nails were jet black and two were bright, baby doll pink.

"And whose fault is that?" Dawn flounced down behind him, and clung to Giles. "Who's supposed to be all big and bad with vampire senses?"

"She put on a Billy Idol tune, you know that makes me crazy!"

"Distracted?" Buffy purred. "Don't worry, it comes off."

"She put the nail polish remover under her pillow and sat on it." He glared.

"You know you could have picked me up and moved me." She taunted.

"You scratch!" Spike pointed accusingly.

Giles stifled a laugh by pressing his lips to Dawn's forehead. "Oh, jolly good. I'll start my speech like this tomorrow. The Slayer of Slayers and his wife and sister-in-law sharing a quiet evening."

"Do and you're dead." Buffy and Spike said as one.

"It's so cool when they do that." Dawn whispered. Giles hugged her tightly and hugged Buffy once more.

"Night." Spike said casually.

"Night, Spike." Giles returned. The two men waved. Giles turned at the end of the small patio."You look after them while I'm gone."

"And you come back soon. Oi, could you smuggle us back some English cigs?"

"Thought you were quitting!"

"I get one per patrol, and none in the house. If I'm gonna be savoring them, I might as well get the good stuff, yeah?"

"Bring you back two packs- and that's it."

"You're a prince, Watcher."

"You're an ass, Spike." Giles sighed. They exchanged a grin and Spike shut the door.

Dawn tossed Spike the nail polish remover, kissed both of her "siblings" goodnight and trotted upstairs. Spike sat down on the edge of the kitchen counter and began scrubbing his two colorful nails sadistically. "Stupid little snack pack."

"Want me to give you some more bad news?" Buffy smiled brightly.

"Bad news?" He looked up sharply.

"No, not really. Just news that'll make you snort and prowl and behave like a mad dog."

"You know you love me like that." He teased. She smiled, but didn't engage in his teasing. "You'd best tell me, then." He sighed.

Buffy drew the paper and gift out of the drawer and read it quietly. Spike said nothing, but put his hand out for the necklace. She hesitantly dropped it into his palm, waiting to hear the squish of metal bending or the snap of chain links popping. "No tinglies." Spike handed it back after a moment. "You gonna wear it?"

"No. I was gonna keep it though. Put it in my jewelry box, someday have Giles research it. Do you recognize it?"

"No. Not really. May have seen something like it in one of the shops in Brazil. Very, very religious there. Almost everyone had on a cross. Think it might be something to do with church-types."

"I'm not really a church-y type." Buffy grinned. "You don't mind if I keep it?"

"You're not gonna go cuddle it and snog it, thinkin' of the Poof are you?"

"Extreme no." Buffy laughed. "I would like to go snog and cuddle with you though."

"Made you say snog." Spike laughed, picking her up.

"You didn't make me! It was my own decision." Buffy pouted.

"Ooh, and she pouts. Lemme have that juicy little lip..."

Spike carried her up the stairs and into their room. Dawn's stereo was up loud and Buffy turned on their CD player as well. No one but Spike would hear her noises tonight, she hoped. She slowly undressed, listening to the sound of water running in their en suite bathroom, knowing Spike was brushing his teeth, and feeling oddly comforted by the fact that she had lived through another apocalypse to appreciate the everyday things of life.

She lay back on their bed, naked and ready, already wet. Missed him all day. Too many people in this house, too many things to do to build a new life and a new home, to take some time alone with him. Well, she was taking it now. She smiled up at the wall above their bureau. They had no pictures left, nothing of any size, a few wallet snaps and some crinkled ones hastily shoved in Dawn's bag the last morning before battling the First. So what piece of artwork dominated the bedroom? A framed marriage license. Spike had hung it on the wall the very first day, with tape, and the next day gotten the frame and nailed it in properly. Little things like that made her smile.

"Hello, Pet." His voice was like ebony silk, and it seemed to be magic. It didn't just fill her ears, it filled all her openings until she was sick with wanting him. "Miss me today?"

"Mmmhmm." She turned out the lights and pulled him down beside her. "I'm all wet and I'm all clenchy inside."

"Mm, clenchy is a very, very good thing." Spike purred. "What do you need, Luv, me inside now, or time to play first?"

"Do whatever you want, just make the clenching stop." She begged recklessly.

"Do whatever I want? Aren't you being a naughty girl."

"There is nothing wrong with anything my loving husband I want to do together." She reminded him, and he glowed.

"Love when you say that, Buffy. Love you so much, Pet, and I'm so happy when you trust me, give yourself to me. Oh yes, Luv." He was lost in her kisses, and only escaped her lips to work his way down to other, equally delectable places.

"Ahh, yes." She moaned and arched her body to get more of herself into his mouth.

Spike stiffened, nostrils suddenly twitching. He took an experimental lick of her sweet honey and vamped. Shaking his head hard to reclaim his human features, he looked up at her, face no longer soft, but undeniably, dangerously, hungry. "Luv?"

"What is it, Baby?" She raised her head off the pillow, and his look of wanton passion made her clench hard, almost drip the wetness onto his hand as it stroked her teasingly. "Why the badboy face?"

"Nothing we do is wrong, isn't that right, Luv?" He caressed her with his words, leading her along, waiting for her to agree.

"Nothing at all." She nodded, hips rolling slightly as she waited for more of his loving attention.

"Did y'know you were starting?" His blue eyes burned into hers.

"Starting? Starting what?"

"Shh. Never mind. Let it be a surprise." His tongue took one long slow sweep of her outside folds, and then plunged inside.

She moaned and opened wider, amazed all over again at how passionate he could be, how thorough. Every inch of her received glorious treatment.

Little traces of her hot, sweet blood mixed with her more copious clear nectar. The cocktail of the gods and he'd never had it, only dreamed of it. And she was giving it to him. Not strictly true, that last bit, his priggish inner voice reminded him. She doesn't know what you meant. If she did, she might refuse. And if you take something, knowing she might not consent, what are you doing? He yanked his head up with a gasp and the hungry look was gone, replaced by a fearful, worried expression.

"Honey!" Buffy sat up and reached for him. "Tell me what this is about. Right now? Are you hearing things?"

"No. No, just not makin' the same mistakes again." He shook his head and raked his fingers through his hair. "Buffy- when was your last- time?"

"Before you? Geez, I don't know, that night-"

"No, not your last time before me." He took her hands in his and smiled. "Promise me you won't be angry, Pet?"

"I won't be angry." She gave her vow, although privately promising that she wouldn't kill him if she was. By Spike's amused flicker of a smile, she knew he understood that.

"When was the last time- you had your monthly-" She cut him off, blushing.

"I don't even know. Not since the battle obviously or you'd know that. Oh. Oh! That's what I'm starting. I'm sorry, Baby, no I didn't know, we'll find something else to do." She rubbed his arms apologetically.

"Why? Do we have to?" He pulled her close, and then rolled on her, laying on top of her, pressing his erection firmly against her entrance. She looked shocked.

"Spike! I- can't do that."

"Why? Just tell me, and I won't push." He raised her legs around his waist, rubbing his tip against her nub.

"There's blood?" She concluded lamely.

"Vampire. Love blood. Love your blood. And it washes off."

"It's- that's like blood not from a vein." She winced as a graphic explanation walked through her brain, and thankfully walked out again.

"Had blood from your breast, blood from your neck, blood from a cut on your leg, Precious. Don't care where it comes from, long as it's yours." He let his tender expression fade, and the feline smile emerged for a moment. "Blood and arousal is the best thing in the world. And I've only ever tasted yours. That's all I ever want to taste."

"It'll get all over you." She gestured to where his tip threatened to split her open.

"And?"

"I've never done that before." She whispered.

"Neither have I." He stroked her cheek. Her eyes were disbelieving, but he nodded.

"Never?"

"Never ever." He blushed suddenly. "Kinda be like the first time. For both of us."

She wanted to so badly. But good girls don't do that. The other things, yes, but this wasn't okay. "It's wrong." She whispered, eyes and voice cloaked in deep regret.

"I thought nothing we did in our love was wrong. Unless the desire isn't mutual. Tell me it isn't mutual?"

"I can't lie to you." She whispered. "But good girls don't..."

He nodded, accepting at last, and eased her legs back down. He held her hands and smiled down at her, his hips still resting on hers. "Maybe someday you won't feel that I'm bad for you." He kissed her lips gently. "Someday, maybe, I can be all the way good for you." He closed his eyes, a hopeful smile curving on his lips.

He wasn't trying to manipulate, she could tell, but he couldn't have chosen truer words if his aim was to make her reconsider his decision. She moved under him restlessly. "I'll get off."

"No. Stay." She pleaded. "You said you never did?"

"That's right." He said matter of factly.

"Did your demon?"

"No, Pet, no part of me ever shared that with anyone." She suddenly bashed his head down on to hers, lips meeting and foreheads crashing. So startled that he didn't care, didn't feel anything but the brief blinding pain and then his member engulfed in heat a few degrees warmer than normal. "Buffy." He gasped out.

"I want to be the one to give you the first something. I missed all my other chances." She mourned.

"No, no don't think like that, Pet." He soothed. He rocked in and out of her gently, slowly, sharing long, lingering kisses and lots of eye gazing. Until her hands tightened on his shoulders and a little mewl of protest eked from her parted lips. "Luv?"

"Nothing is wrong- but does that mean that nothing can be bad? As in naughty?"

"You know that's not the way we roll, Pet." He suckled her claim suddenly, making her squeeze on him in a dozen little spasms. "Why?"

She looked at him, the good girl melting enough to let him see the firebrand inside, the one who had shagged him into the concrete a lifetime ago. Now they were mixed, loving and living dangerously, all in one beautiful, complete package. "Just wanted to know who was going to lead me on my path to the dark side of the bed?"

"Depends on if you let me have my coveted snack, Honey." He flicked her claim again as he called her "honey", a word that sounded common place on the lips of a hundred housewives and doting husbands. With Spike, "honey" was sex in a word. Everything with Spike was sex in a word, she laughed silently, finding his claim. But honey, he rolled it off his tongue and emphasized the second syllable. And you knew, that when he called you "his honey", he meant you were his drink of choice, and that your sweetest pieces, your hidden treats, belonged to him.

"You can have your snack." She was breathless.

"I can keep him in. I don't need the fangs to get to you tonight, it's all leaking out for me, leaking out a hundred times faster than ever, the way your grippin' my cock, Luv."

"Oh... let him come out and play." She purred. His brows arched and ridged, mouth changed shape slightly. "Oh. There. Hungry, Baby?"

"Bloody starvin'." He smiled, still clearly himself, just slightly less cautious. "I'll be back in a minute..." His head dipped between her thighs.


Dawn grunted angrily. "Stupid newlyweds. They so need another honeymoon."


"We can do two weeks if you want. This is our honeymoon we're talking about." Jim passed Essie her grilled salmon and deftly grabbed the steaming new potatoes out of the pot with his bare fingers.

"But then we lose an extra week with Sul!"

"My mom, brother, and sister are all fighting over who'll keep him the most as it is. If we make it an even two weeks- no, they'll still fight." Jim laughed and sat down next to the sun kissed blonde.

"Am I a bad wife if I say I only want one week of honeymoon so that we can spend more time with Sul? Does that mean I'm going to turn into one of those women who hasn't had sex in ten years but can tell you the exact date of their kids' ballet recitals and soccer games?"

"Dear God. I hope not." Jim looked none too pleased at the prospect.

"I just want us to have as much time as possible. And I do want a long honeymoon. I want everything. Can I have everything?" She looked at Jim with youthful hope in her eyes.

"Yes." He replied seriously. "But not at the same time." He smirked

"Butthead." She muttered.

"Spaz." He countered. "I want more time with him, too." He said after a moment of playful brooding and playing footsie under the table.

"Yay! Oh, he is gonna look soooo cute in his little tux."

"Oh no, Ess, not back to tuxes." Jim sank down in his chair. "I hate tuxes. I do, Baby, I really do."

"What about if you don't have to wear the bow tie?"

"You're getting warmer." He sat back up. "Can I lose the cummerbund?"

"Then you're just in a suit!"

"Which is what I was going for the whole time." He laughed. She glared. He glared back.

"What about a white shirt and one of those black paisley vests?"

"Paisley?"

"The- the kind with the- pattern thing!" She sputtered, gesturing.

"White shirt, fancy vest, and no tie?"

"Yes, a tie."

"Can we revisit the tie?"

"No, the tie is firm." She smiled and he tired to put on his best tough negotiator face, but failed.

"I'm still gonna have bleached hair, Babe."

"I know! I don't mind." She stood up, giving him a view of her cleavage as she bent over to kiss his much abused scalp. "Actually I do mind. I like running my hands through your hair, but I don't want to if it hurts you."

"Oh, it's so worth it, Essie." He grinned, hooking his finger into her bra and drawing her closer.

Dinner remained half eaten on the table, the couple eating it having unceremoniously fallen to the floor and were having half-dressed, hard and fast sexcapades on the linoleum. Mist and Stripes, sensing their owners distraction, quietly climbed onto the table and ate their salmon.

"Wow. Never done it on the kitchen floor before." Essie said, sitting up.

"So over rated, isn't it? The floor, not the sex." Jim grinned a very Spike-like smirk.

"Do I have tile marks on my butt?" Essie craned her neck.

"No, do I have them on my back?" Jim showed off his expanse of rippling skin.

"No rippling! Stop rippling, or I'll want you some more!"

Jim flexed and laughed, laughter turning to a shout of surprise. "The cats!"

"Bad cats!" Essie started to shoo them off, but Jim stopped her. "Shh. Get the camera off the island." Her eyes lit up and she tiptoed over and got it, pulling her skirt back up around her waist as she did so. Jim tugged his pants up and took the camera from her hand.

"You see how bad these cats are without you, Sul?" Jim did a laughing voice over. "Mist! Stripes! Stripey, look up! Wave to the camera." The cats of course, ignored him. "Fine, they aren't cooperating. Let's look at... there she is! Essie! Give Sul some love."

"Hi Little guy! I miss you so much! I can't wait until you're home with us in just one more week! We need to go music shopping. And it's still warm enough here to swim. Love you!"

Essie blew a kiss to the camera, making sure she flashed her ring, and then shooed the cats off the table as Jim laid the camera down. "Let's call him."

"It's after nine there, his bed time is at 8:30. All I need is a pissed off ex." Jim sighed. "We'll get a break on the set tomorrow and call him." He tempted her with a pad and paper that was almost never far from her side these days. "We can plan our one week honeymoon and maybe, finally, you can pick a color for the dresses."

"You care about the dresses now?"

"Yes, actually, I do. Because while you're off being the star of the show, I get left with at least one woman off stage, armed with a wedding magazine and loaded questions, all revolving around the damn dress and the damn color."

They stayed up until way too late, but neither of them cared. They got a lot of decisions made. Besides, they were both supposed to look exhausted this season, and Jim could totally go with the feeling. It was hard to play the man driven insane by his own soul- if only for the reason that Spike had sought his soul in the first place. Every episode reminded him of what a bad man he had played, and every time he looked up-there was the face of the woman he had acted it out with.


"The color is lavender." Jim announced dramatically to Ashley, Monica and Max as he and Essie arrived in the lobby. "That's all I know, the rest you can pump out of Essie."

"Does that include me?" Max smiled saucily at Essie, who shoved him and glared.

"Not unless you want to be demoted from groomsman to usher." She threatened.

"I said nothing." Max replied quickly. He turned to Jim. "Are you filming today or just being supportive?"

"Nope, filming." Jim grinned and started mussing his hair. "Gotta love not having to gel."

"See, if you had been the best friend, instead of the villain slash love interest, you wouldn't have had to do the whole gel thing." Max reminded him as they left the group of girls and headed to makeup to begin the day.

"Yeah, but then you'd be the villain, and frankly Max, you just don't have the cheekbones, dude. I'm sorry, man, what can I say."

"That cuts, Jim, it cuts deep." Max laughed and shook out his soft brown hair. "But I totally couldn't go around looking like a bleached boy-band member."

"That's it! You're on the usher list now!"


Jim, who didn't have a large scene in the fifth episode, although it was crucial, prepared to act it out and prepared for it to take at least an hour. They would probably never be satisfied with how he acted it. How would he ever have begun to ask Essie for help, or not even ask, simply to tell her the problems he was having, if he had actually attempted to hurt her like Spike had done? He wouldn't have. He hoped. It wouldn't be fair to burden someone you'd hurt with any of your own problems.

"Ready, Jim? Ess, is that the 'First as Buffy' shirt or the 'Buffy' shirt? It's the Buffy shirt, someone bring her the other one!"

Jim tucked himself into his curled up ball, and mouthed his lines, working in his stage directions. "You ready for this?" Essie hissed to him.

"I'm good."

"You're not gonna laugh if I cry?"

"No. You gonna laugh at me?"

"Have I ever?"

"Actually- yeah."

"Yeah, but that's because drunken, lovesick Spike is hilarious. Soulful, tortured Spike is not funny."

"I'm sor-"

"Don't." Essie mussed his curls some more. "I already know." A gofer raced to the stage handed her shirt, and Jim watched as she easily switched, a quick tug and change of her shirt, and a quick tug and change of her face. "Ready."

"Ready" Jim echoed.

"Action!

Jim looked down at his knees. Let the words out, feel him, feel his hurt, his confusion. A soul was supposed to make him heal from the pain of his sins- and it only made them flood back a million times more.

"I don't trust what I see anymore. I don't know how to explain it, exactly. It's like I've been seeing things. Dru used to see things, you know? She'd always be staring up at the sky watching cherubs burn or the heaven bleed or some nonsense. I used to stare at her and think she'd gone completely sack of hammers. But she'd see the sky when we were inside and it'd make her so happy. She'd see showers. She'd see stars. Now I see her."

Essie's voice was soft and compassionate. "Spike." She's talking to me, too, Jim realized.

"I'm in trouble, Buffy." I still haven't healed, and neither have you. Not all the way. And it's been a long time now. Am I ever gonna heal? Are you?

"I can help you." I'll always help you. You helped me. Don't you dare forget you helped me. A spark of fire in her eyes reminded him that Essie had a lot of Buffy in her, at least in terms of being determined to help those she loved.

"I could never ask. Not after..." It ends there, and that's good because I can't say what I did. Not again. But I will. I will say it for the rest of the season and maybe for the rest of my life.

"It's different. You're different." You are not him. I am not her. We are real.

"I could never ask." Did you ask me? Wasn't it you comforting me that night, that whole time, this whole year? And I gave it back. No one ever had to ask. Neither of us ever had to ask, we just give.

"Spike, it's me. It's you, and it's me, and we'll get through this." She moved closer to him, it wasn't in the directions, but she couldn't help it. Jim' face shone with angst, and how could she not go to him, knowing the words he said out loud mirrored something he carried in his heart?

"Never..." He whispered. No, Spike whispered it. Jim looked up at her for a moment, and made his eyes say "Always." He ran his hand through his hair, soothing the torment inside. Essie brushed his hand. Just lightly, because the First wasn't supposed to be able to touch. He looked up surprised. She was risking getting the whole thing reshot by touching him. Her lips trembled, just slightly.

"We'll get through this." She comforted. Just before she dropped to her knees completely.

"Cut! It's good! Edit out the knee drop! You need a minute?" Neither of them spoke. The scene continued after that, with the real Buffy entering, so Essie would change her shirt in a second and be off again. But for a moment she stayed with him, huddled.

"Can you read me? When I'm not talking? 'Cause sometimes, I feel, lately, like I get pieces of your thoughts, and I'm sure they're real." Essie asked. Jim touched her cheek gently.

"I can. And you?"

"Can hear you like you're talking inside my heart." She whispered. She kissed him, leaving him in his crouch, getting up to change. Life on stage began again.

Soon Jim left, after a quick consultation with Joss, and picking up the filming schedule and locations for the week. And he stopped. His feet headed, of their own volition, to the corner where the dressing room hallway and sets met. Essie was still acting of course, and he watched her. He waited, until she looked up on her way from one area to another. He leaned back and waited. "I'm still making sure you get out of this okay, Baby."

She waved and blew him a kiss. "I know."


"Awwww." Dawn followed Buffy through the house, whining ferociously.

"No!" Buffy slammed down the bottle of laundry detergent and faced her sister.

"But I'm 16! You went patrolling alone when you were 16! When can I patrol?"

"When you're never!" Buffy traded the bottle for three plates. "Go put these on the table. And then as soon as we're done dinner, we'll walk up to Will and Xander's and you stay with Willow and research! She's going to try to hack into the coroner's website and then the hospital's and get an idea of mysterious deaths and injuries, see if there's a hotspot for activity around here."

"But I don't wanna research, I wanna come with you and Spike!"

"Niblet!" Spike shouted from the training room. "Are you making your sis crazy?"

"No!" Dawn replied as Buffy cried "Yes!"

"Well, don't! I'm waitin' to train with you, Luv."

"Can I go to Willow's now then?" Dawn asked Buffy.

"But what about dinner? The spaghetti's almost done, and even I can't ruin that."

"Are you eating or training first?"

"Eating."

"Okay, well as soon as you start training can I go?"

"Sure, but-"

"Training. You and Spike shouldn't train together with someone else in the house." Dawn smiled knowingly. Her sister's mouth opened and closed quickly as she blushed.

"Call when you get there." Buffy said.

"Call when I get there? They live-" Buffy glared. "I'll call." Dawn hurriedly began setting the table.

After a hasty dinner, Dawn took her book bag and headed out. In about three minutes she called from Will and Xander's, relieving her surrogate parents' worry. Spike and Buffy trained, sparring until Spike was pinned twice and Buffy once, their "three pinnings" rule to keep training from going on all day or night.

"I could dance with you all day, Luv." Spike whispered, pushing her wrists over her head.

"I know. So much more fun with your chip out. I love it." She purred.

"Do you?" He cocked an eyebrow. He'd been able to land a blow on her before, chipped or not.

"I used to worry that someday it would suddenly start working with me again."

"When in God's name did you ever worry that?" Spike demanded.

"When we started trying to train the mini-slayers." She looked up at him. "You're kinda beautiful when you fight, Spike." She blushed.

"Not half as gorgeous as you, Luv." He smiled. He pushed her wrists more firmly to the mat and rocked his hips into hers. "Shall we try another dance?"

"As soon as we're done tonight, and back home. I'm too worked up about patrolling."

"Let's get to it then." Spike stretched on her again, pressing his hardness to her swollen sex once more. She moaned and let him pull her up.

"What should we take?" She asked, already pulling things out of her weapons chest.

"Stakes, cross bows, you can have a cross and holy water, I'd better not." Spike stood behind her, laughing inside himself. Buffy was only asking to be polite, obviously, as she was already kitting herself up faster than he could speak. "Bring something for the One Eyed Wonder."

"We're running low on stakes." Buffy said with a trace of nerves.

"I'll whittle some tomorrow."

"Thanks." Buffy stuffed her bag until it was bulging.

"Luv? You're gonna slow yourself down with that lot on you."

"I just want to be prepared. First patrol. Don't know what to expect." She didn't look at him, just kept rearranging her gear, kneeling in front of her chest, not nearly as full as it has been before their last battle.

He slowly got to his knees beside her. "No one's gonna snuff it tonight, Luv. Nor any other night, for a long, long time. Least of all you or me."

"I know!" She protested far too quickly.

"But if something did happen- remember my promise to you? I'd be with you by daylight, Luv." He kissed her gently.

She threw her arms around him, and held him in a death grip. He felt his ribs crackle and she winced as she felt his pain. Buffy immediately loosened her hold before one snapped, and looked up at him with swimming eyes. "Please, please be careful, Spike. I don't want to leave Dawn again, but I will. I will, if I have to find you."

"No one in this family goes anywhere." He pledged with ferocity so strong he vamped for a moment. "You're my wife, my mate. Anyone touches you, and they die."

"I want you before we leave." She said suddenly. He flashed back to his human face and looked at her. "I know I just said we didn't have time- but I want you in me. One more time. In case."

"Of course. Of course, Luv. But don't think of it as one more time. Think of it as 'one for luck.' She acquiesced and shimmied her black stretch pants to her ankles.

"But we have to be quick." She pulled her hair up in a high pony tail, which Spike thought made her look so adorable, and he couldn't believe something so sweet and innocent had given her heart to him. And was such a deliciously naughty little treat under that sweet facade. He knew it wasn't just for the sake of patrolling that she did that with her hair. It was to bare her neck to him.

"Mm, I've got it, Pet." He unbuckled his belt and lifted her straight from her pants and onto his hardness. "You want all of me in you, don't you? Fangs an' all?"

"Yeah..." She blushed, and wrapped her legs more tightly around him. "I want this claim thingy to be super-strong tonight."

"We'll have to practice, Luv, it isn't like a magic trick."


"Why do we have to use the laptops? Couldn't we just find the hotspots with some quick little spell?" Dawn asked Willow with big pleading eyes.

"We could- but only if it's an emergency or we can't hack into the coroner's website." Willow put a bowl of grapes on the table. "When I'm rested up, Dawnie, I'll start training you, okay?"

"Really? For real?" Dawn squealed and hugged Willow, sending the bowl of grapes skittering halfway across the table as she leapt from her chair.

"I notice I didn't receive the squealing hug treatment when I offered to show you how to caulk the tub." Xander emerged from the kitchen in his short brown jacket, pockets bulging.

"Oh! Wait! Don't go, let me put this on you." Willow scrambled out of Dawn's arms and began digging through a brown paper bag.

"No! No more magic balms, Will, I think the lizard tongue thing gave me a rash." Xander backed up, giving Dawn a one armed hug as he tried to slide out the door.

"It's an amulet." Willow ignored her best friend's protests and slipped a small white tear drop crystal over his head. "I bought it at Madge's today, and enchanted it. It harnesses the strength of the friendship of the caster and the wearer."

"This thing is running on Xander and Willow friendliness? Damn, Dawnie, check out the man in the tank-proof necklace!" He twirled impressively. "Thanks, Will." He kissed her cheek as she looked up at him worriedly.

"B-but, you still have to be careful, okay? No charging big demons without backup?"

"I promise." Xander soothed. "I'm gonna walk over and get the blondies."

"I would wait another ten." Dawn smiled wickedly. "They were training before I left." Xander clutched his amulet and sat down at the table with his two female companions.

"Will? Can't this thing do something for nausea?"


"Stop fussin', you look fine." Spike reassured his bride. "And are you sure you don't want that ring off?"

Buffy readjusted her clothing as they quick stepped to Willow and Xander's place. "This ring does NOT leave my finger, fang-boy."

"You get it lodged in some demon's throat, an' I'm not waiting for him to pass it." Spike remarked warningly.

"So, so gross." Buffy shook her head and gave him an annoyed sidelong glance. Then she tucked her arm through his and they picked up Xander. He joined them on their long walk to the park, sweeping cemeteries and abandoned lots as they went.


"To your right, Luv!" Spike's voice shouted a warning. Buffy flashed a glance to her right and ducked as a vamp aimed a kick at her head.

"There's another one!" Xander ducked behind a mausoleum to reload his crossbow.

"I've got it!" Spike, duster flying, jumped over a broken grave marker and knocked a large vampire to the ground. 'Hold him!' Buffy's voice shouted in his head as well as split the air, and she rolled over to him, staked the vamp and rolled back. The last vampire standing (aside from Spike, of course) tore off pell mell down the hill.

"This one's mine." Xander waved his hand triumphantly before firing the cross bow's slender wooden stake into the vampire's back. He turned to a shower of fine dust and Xander cheered.

"That was good." Buffy looked around, panting slightly. Her husband nodded and Xander grinned. "Okay- next park."

"Is it just me, or are these guys kind of-unprepared?" Xander asked as they walked along.

"It doesn't matter, they travel in packs." Buffy sighed. They had already found five vampires on one patrol. "Giles said this place wasn't Hellmouth-y." She pouted.

Spike snorted, putting his arm around her, and not really caring that the boy was linking his elbow with hers. Maybe it was the claim that made him see she was almost always thinking of her husband and their future. "This place? Please, Luv, that lot wouldn't have made it one night in Sunnyhell. These vamps are clearly clumsy and sloppy, not great planners."

"And you were a great planner?" Buffy mocked.

"I bagged my third Slayer, didn't I?" He asked cheekily. "Bagged her damn good."

"Stop! No sexual innuendo in front of the best friend, please." Xander protested. "As this is now my job, I will report it as sexual harassment in the workplace and sue you for mental anguish."

"Pipe down, I'm talkin' to my wife." Spike smacked his arm, and tensed, waiting for the shock that didn't come. Stupid army wankers and their behavior mod software, he thought. Xander apparently also missed the sight of him clutching his head, giving a deep, regretful sigh.

"I don't care that they're so easy to kill, why are there so many of them?" Buffy demanded, ignoring the looks that two of the three men in her life were giving one another.

"No one to kill 'em, Luv." Spike smiled. "And from the population we've seen in one night, I'm guessin' fledges turn more fledges until we've got quite an undead crowd." Buffy moaned and rested her head on Xander's shoulder.

"But they're dropping like flies, Buffster." Xander cheered her.

"Nowhere near the vamp count of Sunnydale, I'm sure." Spike soothed, rubbing her back as they made their way along. "You're like pest control. You come in, you do a few days of hard slayin' and they're all gone. Then we can worry about the other little bits and bobs of evil."


Dawn and Willow were highlighting the map they had bought the first day they visited Pine Ridge. "Do you think we should have put it in code?" Dawn stood back and admired the map. "Evil Hotspots" was written in bright blue highlighter on the top. A small box was drawn next to it, showing purple stood for "mysterious deaths", blue stood for places where "unusual crimes" had been committed, and yellow showed pathways were "unusual activities" had been reported by either people working with the police or admitted to the hospital.

"Dawnie, please. Just labeling a map makes me feel like Andrew, putting it in code would just send me to the great Star Wars convention in the sky." Willow muttered, looking at her laptop and then back to her highlighting.

"Good point. Not like anyone but the six of us will ever see it anyway. I don't think I can ever have friends over to the house. With Spike there." Dawn suddenly sounded very down.

"You can!" Willow encouraged. "I'm gonna do that 'gray film' spell on the windows tomorrow, and then he can walk around normally. You guys can open the curtains and blinds again. He's smart enough not to walk in front of the door when you let your friends in, and he won't drink blood, or vamp in front of people. He loves you to pieces. He wants you to have a normal life as possible." Willow took Dawn's hands and then hugged her.

"I know he does. And I have all of you. But- what if one day you're all like 'Dawn's just a kid', like you used to? And we don't hang out anymore?"

"Not gonna happen." Will shook her head firmly. "We know you're an adult- almost. And you know why we're all a little overprotective of you, right?"

"Does it have anything to do with me being kidnapped and almost killed by a hell-goddess a couple years ago?" Dawn laughed ruefully, and Willow joined her.

"Yeah, that was part of it. But we know you're not that kid anymore. You did battle alongside us more times than we could count. And Spike- he wants to keep you safe, but he started training with you, didn't he?"

"Yeah, he did." Dawn smiled proudly. "And boy, did Buffy give him a hard time about it. I hate it when they yell- but I wouldn't even call it fighting after some of the things they used to do."

"Right. They're just-" Willow groped for a word.

"Explosive?"

"I was gonna go with passionate, but explosive works, too." Willow double checked the map, passed it to Dawn to triple check, and began closing down her computer. "The point I was getting at is that you're pretty much all grown up now, but we'll probably keep a sharp eye out around you- 'cause we love our Dawnie. But if we still treat you like a kid once you're 18, you can pull the whole 'I'm a legal adult now, treat me like your equal' thing. But I'll warn you- if you do that, you end up having to get a job and pay part of the rent."

"That'll be my back up plan then." Dawn laughed. "Map looked good to me. Are we 'off duty' or are there spells and potions and other witchy or research-y things to do?"

"You can help me fold laundry." Willow smiled, and Dawn groaned, but followed her upstairs.

Willow and Xander were best friends for a reason, Dawn thought as she passed through the living room. They both seemed completely at ease with letting their decorating styles clash- and the overall effect- not hideous. Bright red arm chairs and deep brown couch, hand loomed rug thrown over the neutral carpet, and crystals and paintings of various flowy female forms were side by side with cult classic movie posters and lava lamps. Dawn felt safe there, comforted by the mix of goofy, geeky, not exactly coordinated objects that spoke of two people's personalities.

Upstairs, Willow's room (where they folded the laundry) was soft and pastel, had few knickknacks, and tons of bookshelves, mostly unfilled at this point. There was a much creased photo of Tara and Willow in a frame by the bed. Scatter cushions and two stuffed animals adorned the headboard.

"These are cute." Dawn picked up the gray and black stuffed cats. "When did you get these?"

"Oh- uh, a couple days ago." Willow quickly took them away and put them gently back on the bed.

"I'm sorry." Dawn said softly, feeling bad and having no idea what she'd done.

"It's silly." Willow gave a sad smile and then looked back down at the toys. "The gray one is Tara. The black one is me."

"That's not silly! That's beautiful." Dawn felt her eyes moisten as she remembered one of the sweetest and gentlest people she had ever known. "I think that if I had been lucky enough to have Tara- you know, like a partner? I'd have gotten the kitties, too. To remind me. That she's always with me, inside."

"You're a smart kid, Dawnie." Willow gave her the same sad smile, only it trembled. "I bet everyone thinks I'm stupid, missing Tara like this again? After I had Kennedy."

"No one ever thinks you're stupid. Sometimes Xander- but not you." The girls chuckled. "Kennedy was like Riley." Dawn said after a moment.

"Say what? Kennedy was butch but no-"

"Not like that!" Dawn smacked her forehead. "Kennedy was like Riley, in a way. You know how Buffy had Angel, then Riley, then Spike? Riley was the good guy in the middle, the nice, steady guy in between the two great loves of her life, her first love, and her last love. And Kennedy- well maybe not in the same order, cause you loved Oz, and then Tara, but- she was the nice steady girl in the middle of your love life. She held you up when you needed her, too, but she didn't like the whole deal you came with- so now you're waiting for the next great love your life to come along." Dawn looked at Willow's mildly upset expression and bit her lip. "Or that could just be my theory. I'm gonna go hang up all these shirts of Xander's!"

"It's a good theory, Dawn." Willow said gently. "I just think that I'm done with loves of my life."

Dawn watched the emerald eyes linger on the worn picture. "Oh. That's okay, too." She whispered softly, and left Willow sitting on the edge of the bed, admiring the lost loved one's photo.

Dawn hadn't been into Xander's room before, and she almost felt like she should knock. What if there were guy underwear laying around? But she pushed in, thinking that if she wanted to be treated as a mature adult, she would have to act like one.

Xander's room was bare compared to Willow's. Two posters, a bed with one white pillow and a black bedspread, a black reading lamp on a night stand, and a picture of Anya. One that Willow must have had, it had the same creases in it. Maybe Willow had folded up pictures hastily that last morning and shoved them in her pocket. Or maybe Xander had just had the same idea, wanted to carry the picture of someone he loved into what he thought would be his last battle.

Dawn hung up the shirts and noticed a few other scattered pictures on the floor of the bedroom by the closet. One of her and Buffy. One of Buffy, Willow and Xander. And one of him and Willow. The photos were the only scraps of life she felt in that room.

"Willow? Is Xander okay?" Dawn asked. Willow looked up from the laundry and shrugged as Dawn stepped back inside her room.

"He acts okay when someone else is around. But then again, so do I. Here- not so much. He spends a lot of time in his room."

"But there's nothing in that room!" Dawn pointed out.

"I know. I think that's the point."


"Call it a night?" Xander panted.

"What? It won't be light for hours!" Spike crowed, patting dust off his hands.

"These guys are too easy." Buffy smiled broadly, and then whispered, "No. No, forces of evil, I didn't say that. Please don't doom me to ill-chosen-words related stuff."

"I know they're easy, but I'm beat. Haven't done any serious fighting in two weeks. I'm all soft and marshmallowy."

"You always were." Spike ragged. "But this is jus' the thing for you, mate!" Spike eased off after he felt Buffy's silent twinge of annoyance through their bond. "Straight up, easy kills, no major danger in sight. All we're doin' is thinnin' the herd."

"I think the herd is probably thin enough for one night." Buffy flopped back in the grass. Spike let out a playful growl and immediately joined her, temporarily forgetting that they weren't alone. "Spike!" She giggled.

"I'm gonna walk home- try not to get arrested for indecent exposure." Xander muttered. But Buffy was beside him in a flash, Spike trailing a few steps behind, having his nightly cigarette.

"Xander! Xander, I'm sorry! That was totally not cool and insensitive, okay?"

"No, Buff, don't make a big deal." Xander looked up to the stars. "I never could watch you get cozy with anyone, not even Riley, much as I liked his humanness. Go back and have a roll in the grass. If I had a second chance..." He sighed deeply. "Well, actually I do have my second chance. Got my best friends back alive. I'm gonna go challenge Willow to a nacho eating contest and call it a night."

"Sounds good." Buffy rubbed his shoulder supportively. "And don't forget- Buffys like nachos, too."

"You can come next week." Xander smiled. "I think you'd better go home with short, blonde and pasty tonight. He looks like he has a lot of energy to burn."

"I'm not as worried about him- not in the same way- as I'm worried about you." Buffy insisted.

"When Giles comes back, and we have the memorial service- I'll feel better. Okay?"

"Okay." Buffy took his attempt to gloss over his pain in the same way she would have wanted to be treated when she had grieved. The way Spike had taught her to help. "I'm here for you. And I'm not going away, either. And I need you. But if you don't want to patrol yet-"

"What? Miss kicking the asses of the evil? No way." He gave her a wide, genuine smile.

"I love you, Xan." Buffy wrapped her arms around him.

"I love you, too." He hugged her tightly.

"Oh, now really..." Spike, leaning against a tree along the park's bike path looked put out. He had one hand tucked in his belt as he slouched back, letting smoke waft around his head, the picture of a disgruntled vampire in love. "Giles may have sold out, but I don't do group hugs."

"School bus." Xander said under a loud, fake cough.

"Shut up, Jolly Roger." Spike flicked his glowing cigarette end away.

"Make me, Lily White."

A wave of contentment crashed over Buffy, making her suddenly feel her heart would burst if she felt anymore happiness. "So good to be home." She smiled, stepped between her lover and her best friend, and walked blissfully into the night.


To be continued...