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 largely devoted to our mirror world, as the wedding day approaches! There is still some hot Spuffy action, and several moments spent with our Sunnydale ex-patriots as well.

Dedicated to Omslagspapper, Jewel74, Ginar369, Illusera, Tawny, Trustno1xf, JojoMRP, ladypeyton1, and Goddess of Night Eternal Faith.

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

Part XX

"I mean it! I gotta do this." Spike held out his hand, warning Buffy off. She stepped closer anyway, lacing her fingers with his outstretched ones. They both looked down, as if startled to see the flames.

"I love you." Buffy whispered with tear filled eyes.

"No, you don't. But thanks for saying it." A pause, a slight sway as if the earth is moving under their feet. "Now go!" Buffy reluctantly turned and ran. "I wanna see how this ends." A mixture of awe at the destruction, and brave acceptance of the pain played over his face, ending with a teeth gritting grin and finally a dark, satisfied chuckle. He'd done the right thing, and this was bloody cool to watch.

"Cut! Thanks, Jim, you're good to go!" Jim waved, took a little bow for the wild applause coming from those ringing the set, and set off to stand by the rest of the "lifers", as he had started to call them a few weeks ago. It helped Essie and he distinguish between the dozens of new actors, those on the periphery, and the ones they considered "family".

"Nice." Patrick nodded. Max high-fived him. Essie, Ashley, and Monica were sobbing in a huddle.

"Are you alright?" Jim asked softly, puzzled. "I'm not actually dead, you know. Notice the magnificent green scene and the special effects crew making up my demise?"

"You idiot!" Monica threw herself into his arms. "That was your last scene! It's ending! The family's falling apart."

"Shit." Pat said with a laugh. "As if. You can't tear this lot up. The cast of Star Trek still has weekly appearances together somewhere in the world. It's a good thing we all get on, 'cause we're going to be stuck in sci-fi cult land for-bleedin'-ever."

"Really? Monica sniffled.

"Really." Max rubbed her back. "Now stop using Jim as a snot rag."

"Thanks." Jim shot Max an evil look, before turning his gaze to Monica. "You go ahead and- ooof!" Essie barreled into him. "Sorry, Monica, guess your turn's over. Max's free." Monica winked at him and threw herself, with a fresh batch of tears, onto Max, who groaned and glared at Jim.

"She's a bitch! Stupid, stupid bitch!" Essie sobbed.

"Monica?" Jim asked in disbelief.

"No!" Essie wailed. "Buffy! She let you die! And you! You jerk!" Essie punched him softly in the ribs. "You told her she didn't love you. She does! She really did!"

"Essie, can you stop projecting, please? We have to do the bus scene on location and we might be able to wrap it up tonight, except for post-production, if you can all get your buns on the road." A nearby director encouraged.

"Give us five minutes, mate." Patrick asked, leading Ashley and Monica away from the sobbing bride-to-be.

"I know she did." Jim whispered. "He loves her, too."

"But Spike doesn't believe her! He thinks she said it out of pity, or gratitude, or because he was sacrificing himself."

"No, he tells her that to make her leave. Because he wants her to live. Because he loves her."

"That isn't the-"

"Hey! My character! My analysis. He loved her, and he was trying to be noble. Because that's the man he wanted to be for her. He wanted her to have her shot at normal. I'd have done the same. Someone has to take care of Sul."

This only made Essie's tears increase. By now Ellie was coming over, also tearful, and was soon locked in a crying embrace with Max, who was murmuring into her hair, making her laugh through her sniffles.

"But I'd never leave you. And she did. She's a selfish, selfish bitch!"

"What'd you tell me the other night? He comes back, and someday they'll find each other?"

"Yeah. Yeah, but still-"

"Darling. They're fictional. And we have to finish this. We have to go get plastered at Max's- since he lost the draw for end of season party this year- and then we have a wedding to finish getting ready for. And in a couple days, Sul arrives. Please don't cry."

"I wouldn't leave you." Essie stated firmly, drying her eyes.

"I'll never leave you, either." Jim kissed the top of her brow, wiping charcoal and fake blood he'd picked up from her off his lips as he pulled back. "There. Better?"

"Yeah. Better." Essie beamed up at him.

"This is the last show we're all together!" Ashley suddenly wailed from Monica's arms. Fresh sobs erupted from Essie, Ellie, and even Max and Jim felt their throats tighten.

"The Americans need another five!" Patrick bellowed to the crew.

Finally, everyone made it to the location, basically tear free. Jim and Ellie had no more to do, so they sat on the ground under a tree, sweating in the humid south California heat and not envying their co-stars, particularly Essie. She was doing an impressive amount of running and flying leaps from various erected scaffolds (near to the ground, though on the show they'd appear to be roof height) and finally doing a run onto a moving bus, while held in a wire harness.

"How can you stand watching her do that, now that you're not just co-workers?" Ellie asked.

"It's harder. But I'm so freakin' proud of her, Ellie. Look at her."

"Cut! More height in the last leap!"

"Woohooooo! Essie!" Jim cheered her on. She waved and let them hoist her to the scaffolding again.

"You know if she breaks her legs or something, your honeymoon is going to suck."

"Would you shut up?" Jim smacked her knee.

"No touching! Spike and Anya are not doing any more table polishing." Ellie pushed his shoulder teasingly.

"You know you want some more of this." Jim flirted.

"Hey, I've got a way better ass than Essie's." Ellie flirted back.

"So telling her you said that." Jim laughed deeply, and lifted his arm for Ellie to scoot under. "You have everything ready for the bridal shower at Max's?" He whispered.

"Yeah. Hasn't he been doing great? Complaining about hosting, and muttering about how wasted Patrick's gonna get?" Ellie laughed.

"No snuggling my dead ex-fiancée." Max sat down beside them as Essie's stunt began for the second time. He tugged Ellie over to him and ruffled her hair.

"Well, I can't go snuggle my live, current fiancée." Jim protested. "Thanks for hosting the bridal shower, Max."

"Ashley, Gwenn , and Ellie are hosting! We're just lending you the facilities. You will be there with my getaway car, right?"

"You know it. Although it won't be the Mustang. I'm gonna convince Essie to use the SUV. Presents."

"Oh, they'll probably fit in the Mustang." Ellie assured him. "You guys registered for charitable donations, so there's going to be lots of envelopes. And all of us decided we'd get her something to wear on the honeymoon. Bikinis, nighties, that stuff." Ellie said complacently, examining a strand of her hair for bits of set debris from her final scene.

"Nighties and bikinis?" Max and Jim exchanged a glance. "I should probably stay. Help with the hosting." Max said with sudden conviction.

"Nu-uh." Ellie elbowed him. "Girls only. You'll see the presents later. Well- you will, Jim. You'll just have to hope your wife gets some shopping ideas, Max."

Jim had watched Essie finish her final run, and this time it was good. "That's my girl! That's my girl!" He crowed. "Yeah, Baby!"

"My final stunt as Buffy!" Essie screamed back victoriously. And then burst into tears again. "My last stunt as Buffy!" This time a wail.

"Shit." All three friends under the tree proclaimed and started to struggle to their feet, off for another round of hugs and comforting.

"Please, people, one more bloody scene and we can all go get pissed as newts, courtesy of Max." Patrick's version of comforting left something to be desired. "Here. You're not doing it right, mate." Patrick nudged Jim away from the tearful Essie and took her firmly in his arms. "My lovely Essie. Don't cry, Luv, we'll have lots more time together, you know that. Y'know you're like one of my own girls and we'll all keep coming back together. We'll never lose touch. We're family." Essie's sobs rose and she snuffled miserably all over Patrick's neck.

"You're not doing much better." Jim sighed, hands shoved in his black jeans, leaning back against the yellow school bus that Essie had so recently vaulted onto.

"Right. Big guns. Essie- I've got a bottle of Scotch and I'll share it."

Essie burst into a wet laugh and hugged her pseudo-father figure tightly.

"One-nil." Patrick whispered over Essie's shoulder.

"Smug bastard." Jim muttered.

"You lucky bastard!" Giles, who hadn't been home the Monday after Valentine's Day, now arrived home on the red-eye flight from London. And who was there to pick him up but Spike. "What in the world...?"

"1959 DeSoto Adventurer. 89,000 miles." Spike got out and ran a hand lovingly along the black body, ending on the sharp fins as he opened the boot for Giles' luggage.

"She's a beauty. Almost makes me want to the trade in the Jag." Giles ghosted his fingers over the chrome and then along the cream detailing along the body.

"Nah, you're an exec, I'm just a rebel- old school rebel." He laughed.

"Was this Buffy's Valentine's Day gift for you?"

"It was. An' she said it was a few years worth of birthday presents as well. All I got her was a soddin' bracelet."

"She has good taste in cars." Giles said, swinging into the front seat beside him.

"Oh, don't pretend, Rupes. I know you helped her pick it out. Prolly handled everything for her. So thank you."

Giles began to protest, and Spike quirked his eyebrow at him. "Well, I did rather nudge her along, but she had the idea. She wanted to get you this for Christmas, you know, but she couldn't find one in working order that looked nice as well."

"She runs great, she looks beautiful. A classic." Spike stroked the steering wheel lovingly.

"You aren't going to turn into one of those men who spends all his time puttering about and polishing the car, are you?"

"Did you see my last car?" They laughed as they recalled the battered black De Soto with its blacked out windows and dented fenders from running into the "Welcome to Sunnydale" sign. "I just wanna look after it. Not gonna waste much time on it. Got somethin' far better to concentrate on at home." Spike gave a lustful grin, and headed out on the highway.

"Oh, honestly." Giles sighed and looked disgusted. But both men knew that most of the bickering and general sniping they exchanged was an act, largely done out of habit and for the sake of appearances.

"Oh, yes, Rupes. Very honestly."

"Honestly? Oh, my God! You guys!" Essie, carrying a big bag of chips and two bottles of wine, entered her co-star's home with Jim close on her heels. As soon as she'd gotten inside, she'd noticed that the house was covered in lavender and white. It was when she noticed her mom, Jim's mom, sister and sister-in-law sitting on one of the sofas that it clicked and she screamed.

"Happy Bridal Shower!" The roomful of women cried. Essie burst into tears yet again, and Jim deftly passed the chips and the wine to Max, who looked like his eyes were about to explode from his head.

"You okay?" Jim muttered from the corner of his mouth.

"Sexy things to look at or no, I want to get the heck out of here. The estrogen in here is strong enough to kill a gang of Hell's Angels."

"Let me make a graceful exit and we'll go." Jim said. "Thanks everyone, this looks so great! Hi Mom, Moms." He pluralized the term, greeting both his mother and Essie's. He made a circuit through the guests, hugging the ones he knew, waving to those he thought he should know but couldn't place, and finally ended up with his Essie.

"Did you know about this?" She looked into his eyes and wrapped her arms around his neck.

"Guilty." He kissed her chastely, remembering the mothers were in attendance.

"Thank you. You really are a good actor. I'd never have known..." She kissed him back, not chastely at all, hands tangling in his hair, mouth parting and tongue caressing his. "Don't stay out too late."

"I'll be back in time to pick you up. Few hours?"

"That should be fine. I'll call you when I'm ready."

Max and Jim drove out to a club that Max insisted was amazing and had the best beer-battered chicken and shrimp ever. Jim, in Essie's SUV, followed Max's navigations blindly, in a happy haze. "The show's over. Really over. We did it."

"Yeah. I feel kind of empty." Max admitted. "And it feels weird. I keep thinking, 'I'll see everyone at work on Monday', and then I remember I won't."

"And there wasn't closure. Like there always is at the end of season party."

"Does Essie know it's tomorrow?"

"No, unless she gets that now. I'm so glad she hates watching television, I saw that E! was hyping the red carpet end of year, end of show party at the Four Seasons. It's supposed to be huge."

"Well, if she hadn't been so busy with the wedding, and thinking that every time someone mentioned the party, they were talking about coming over to my house, I don't think we'd have gotten away with it. As if I could ever have the entire cast and crew in our house! We don't have space for that mob. Turn left."

"Here?" Jim hesitated at a corner.

"Yes! And it's the third right after this light." Max rubbed one eye tiredly. "Stupid patch. I'm seriously going to have depth perception issues after so many hours in that thing."

Jim laughed and teased out some of his short platinum hair. "Can't wait to take a summer off from the bleach. Are we supposed to be semi in costume tomorrow night?"

"I heard casual, but red-carpet."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"I don't know. I'm wearing jeans."

"Good. If you are, I am, too."

"That's the place. Butter Wings."

"There's no parking." Jim grumbled and pulled into a spot on the street edge.

"The food's good and the waitresses are hot." Max said by way of explanation. "Stop whining, I promise the food's worth it."

Max was talking his ear off all the way to the door. Jim wondered if he was hyped up off the end of the season, when really, everyone should be exhausted and a little morose. There were days when you just wanted the whole damn project to be done, but the rest of the time you thought about the people you'd worked with every day, gotten so close to and it-

"The man of the hour!" Deafening whoops and cheers, clapping and whistling. Jim was abruptly forced from his reverie about the people he'd miss, startled by a clamor as soon as he entered the door. Only to be confronted by all of said people, and dozens more he knew from the studio.

"What?" Jim turned to give Max a puzzled glare.

"We know how you two are. The only way you wouldn't figure out what we were doing is if we planned both things on the same night." Max explained loudly enough for all to hear, one arm sliding around his friend's shoulders.

Daniel came forward and handed him a Pepsi, adding to the explanation. "So we told Essie about yours, and you about hers, and you both stayed nice and distracted."

"And it was bleedin' hilarious to watch. The whole ruddy cast in on both things, plus the end of year party- and then you two-" Patrick broke off into helpless giggles and leaned back against the bar. "Bloody priceless."

"This is my bachelor party, then?" Jim looked between Dan and Max, and then around the room. The band in the corner was playing rock covers, four pool tables stood in the middle of the sunken dining area, and there were no other patrons, only his favorite people. "Nice work."

Max and Daniel high-fived and then Max turned to him with a malicious smile. "C'mon. Let's get Mr. Abs to down some liquid calories."

"No, I've got to stay in shape for next year..." Jim sighed and glared at the writers and directors present, as if it was all their fault that alcohol had so many carbs.

"Just enough to get tipsy." Max urged, pulling him into the crowd.

"Why? What are you trying to do, get me drunk and take advantage?" Jim teased.

"No, I just wanna drive the Mustang."

"That does it. Anyone here sees me drinking something alcoholic has my express permission to take it right out of my hand and pour it on Max!"

"I promise!" Patrick raised his mug high, and laughed at Max's protesting expression.

The bridal shower and bachelor party- such as it was, didn't last long into the night, the way you'd expect a Hollywood couple's would. But almost everyone involved in both parties had post-production things to do in the morning, and had just finished a grueling final season, or a grueling season in general.

Patrick left, to pick up his wife and daughters from the airport, then Jim's borther , because he had a long drive that night, and nothing Jim could say would persuade him to spend the night in LA. Finally, only Daniel , Max, and Jim remained.

"You nervous?" Max asked, sinking another ball.

"Nah." Jim smiled contentedly. "I've got the best girl in the world, and she loves me. What's to be nervous about?"

"Think you're making a mistake, settling down while you're still in the shows." Daniel said in a teasing voice, eyeing a waitress appreciatively. "You've got all these women just wanting a little taste of Spike..."

"Yeah, well, only one woman I know wants a taste of Jim." Realizing his innuendo, Jim hurriedly coughed and took his shot. "You know what I mean."

"You mean we'd better get back and see if you can convince Essie to try on some of her honeymoon goodies early." Daniel leered.

"You know, I wish you'd stop that- it's freaking me out." Jim elbowed his once and future co-star out of the way to readjust the angle of his cue. "You keep your hands off Essie, but you can paw Buffy all you want."

"No worries, Buddy. She's all yours. I'm happy for you two." Daniel smiled genuinely. "One more round for the road?"

"Why not?" Jim sighed easily, leaning back against a pillar. "I'm a man who can see the light at the end of the tunnel. One week until Essie's mine, Sul's staying for a year, and I can't wait to see what Gwenn and Patrick are doing for the interlude at the wedding."

"I know, but I'm not telling." Max said, slurring slightly. "Well, I think I know, but they keep arguing about it, so I might not actually know.

"You seriously aren't going to play?" Daniel looked hard at Jim.

"No, I don't want to get all caught up in rehearsing. I'm having enough trouble learning my lines."

"Vows, dude, vows, not lines." Max laughed.

"Right. Vows."

"And what do you mean, 'trouble learning your lines'? You're the second fastest study I know. Outside of Essie."

"But this is me, acting as me. I can do it, but if I screw it up, there's no 'Cut! From the top!' to let me do it better." Jim flubbed his shot with a sudden twitch. "This one counts, boys."

"You're gonna do fine! That's what rehearsals are for!" Daniel smiled, moving in to take his turn. "C'mon. Let's go. You go make whoopee with Essie, practice for the honeymoon. In a couple days the kid arrives. It'll be fine."

Jim walked out of the bar with two of his best friends, on the way to pick up the woman he loved with all his heart. Not the traditional stag night, but it was exactly what he wanted.

"Xan! Are you coming with me to take Dawn to her dress rehearsal?" Willow called up the stairs.

"Why are we on surrogate parent duty? Where's Fangs?" Xander poked his head around the corner, and peered down at her, shirtless and patchless.

"He and Buffy are on a conference call with Faith and Wood." Willow swiveled at the bottom of the stairs, twitching her shoulders, hands tugging at her waist.

"What's wrong?"

"I think I missed a button on my skirt." Willow tried to see her rear, craning her neck.

"Stop! You're not a yoga goddess." Xander sighed and pounded down the stairs.

"Fix me?" Willow hoisted her long turtle neck sweater over her hips and pushed her derriere into his hands.

"You missed three buttons. Or they popped apart. Maybe you're getting a little hippy?"

"Xander!" Willow cried. "I am not! Am I?"

"No, Will. You've got a cute little butt, and now you're not suffering from gap-osis anymore." Xander smiled as he pushed the last button into place on her new suede skirt.

"Come with me. Come on, you know you want to. And maybe- maybe we can stop and get really bad fast food? You know, like the kind not lovingly homemade by one of us at one of our respective homes?"

"Ooh, and donuts?"

"Big jelly-filled ones." Willow wheedled.

"That's what I'm talkin' about!" Xander turned and ran back up the stairs. "Give me minute to get my pirate-y goodness on and find a shirt."

" 'Kay." Willow replied, fishing around in her purse for her car keys.

"I'm here! Are we going? Is Xander coming?" Dawn panted breathlessly as she burst in the front door as if she owned the place. Not that any one would blame her for acting like that, because of the unique way in which the "family" ran itself, with dinners at each others' houses several times a week, and Dawn sleeping over at Giles' or Willow and Xanders' as often as she slept in her own place. It was like having three houses, and belongings from all family members somehow made their way between three living rooms and were left randomly on three kitchen counters. Suffice it to say that Dawn felt like she had three places where she was "home".

"Yes, he is. I bribed him with the idea of food from a greasy drive-thru window and jelly donuts." Willow pushed her red hair up into a ponytail and squinted into the mirror by the front door. "He just needed his patch and a shirt."

Dawn leaned against the door frame, huddling in her winter coat, hating the cold. "You know, he's never let me see him without something over that eye. Or... what's left of it." Dawn murmured.

"I know. But if it makes you feel better, Buffy's never seen it either."

"Only you?"

"And Giles. But that was because they shared the hotel room together one night when we were driving here from LA." Willow would never admit how the sight of the hollow socket made her feel. At first, revulsion, sadness, and anger had dominated her when she'd seen it. The face of her best friend, her high school crush, her sweet, faithful Xander- was deformed. And then she made herself look at his entire face, not one part of it. He was still Xander, and he was learning to live with being maimed, being "broken", but alive. Appearances no longer mattered.

"I wish he'd show me." Dawn whispered. "Does he think I'd get all freaked? I love him, there's no way I'd care about how he looks."

Xander ended the discussion with his sudden descent of the stairs. "Hi, Dawnie! What are we rehearsing again?"

" A Midsummer Night's Dream, and you should totally know that. You helped me put up flyers at the grocery store." Dawn reminded him. "And Willow told me you had to be bribed with fast food and donuts to come with us." Dawn stuck out her tongue, and flounced out the door, Willow giving Xander a guilty look as she followed.

"Will! You ratted me out?" Xander demanded.

"I was making a joke, gee whiz!" Willow beeped her car remote, unlocking the doors of her compact VW.

"We're taking my truck, I need to stop and get some wood after we drop off Shirley Temple here."

"We can get it tomorrow." Willow argued.

"You two are just like an old married couple." Dawn laughed suddenly.

The mild bickering died as if someone had yanked the plug on it. "We'll take your car." Xander slid into the passenger seat as he gave Willow a concerned stare.

"Yeah. Okay." Willow bit her lips and got in as well.

"Here, listen. I think I got it, the whole thing, now. 'Four days will quickly speed themselves in night' -"

"Steep, not speed." Willow and Xander corrected automatically. Dawn cursed and pulled her dog eared script from her bag and lapsed into mumbled silence. She remained like that until they arrived at the high school. Xander and Willow accompanied her inside and began, as they had begun to do ever since Dawn became involved with the drama group, to pitch in and get things ready for the play.

"Hi, Mr. Harris." Claire waved. "Hi, Ms. Rosenberg."

"Oh, good, parent volunteers." The harassed director zeroed in on them and gave them each a job to do.

Once the rehearsal was underway, Willow approached Xander. "I hear deep-fried food calling." She hinted. He laughed and they walked out to the car.

"Hey, Will- about what Dawn said. I- sorry I got wigged."

"I wasn't sure if you were. But I was. It just feels like a slap, doesn't it?"

"Exactly!" Xander sighed in relief, grateful she got it. "I know it's something people say, but once you've lost the person you figured you'd be doing the 'old married' routine with, it just isn't funny anymore."

"I know. I don't think she realized it. And I don't want to make her feel bad. She tries so hard to say the right thing, especially to you." Willow put her hand on his arm as they walked across the quiet highway to the eatery often frequented by high school students.

"No problem there. I won't bring it up. I just wanted you to know that I don't think of us like that. I'm comfortable around you because you're my best friend, Will. I'm not taking you for granted, and I'm not treating you-" Willow cut him off.

"You don't have to explain, dummy. I get it." Willow reached up to Xander's neck and pulled out the protective teardrop pendant she had given him, the one that harnessed the power of their friendship and turned it into safety. He always wore it. Even when he slept, she'd seen it poking out from under his collar. "Best friends?" She shook the pendant slightly.

"Best friends." He put his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned her head into his strong chest, sighing in relief.

"Buy me dinner?" She looked up at him with puppy dog eyes.

"All the chicken nuggets you can eat." He smiled and stroked her hair. "You buying me donuts after this?"

"That's what friends are for." She giggled.

"I'd have to say that it was totally friendship until we stopped filming the 6th season together. And then- it all came together." Essie, glowing, wrapped her arm around Jim as they walked up the red carpet in front of the Four Seasons.

"Well, your love story has certainly been an inspiration to many." The toothy reporter interviewing them said. "And your wedding reception is right here, at the Four Seasons, in less than a week?"

"We have friends flying in and staying here." Jim interrupted. The location of their reception was not being given to reporters and he didn't like the smooth tricks that this joker was using. His smile became fixed, and he and Essie answered a few more questions politely but with very little actual information before walking into the hotel lobby.

"Feels like we just did this." Jim, in a blue and black ringer shirt and jeans leaned into his fiancée with a smirk. "Want me to go get us a room, Baby? Relive last year?"

"Mm, tempting. First date recreation. You are a romantic." She purred back, wiggling her hips into his, her tight black sundress doing nothing to conceal her hot, lithe muscles and curves, and giving Jim an issue in his trouser area.

"Can we go get the room now?" He bumped his hips to hers so she could feel the affect she had on him. "Skip the party?"

"Think anyone would miss us?" She giggled, pressing into him with equal force.

"I don't know... the title character and the tragic love interest? Maybe a little." He sighed and calmed himself as best he could. "I suppose there'll be about a hundred pressmen in there?"

"Probably. It was the final season. Oh." Essie's lip began to tremble." Oh, Jim. The final season..."

"There you are!" Ellie and Ashley emerged from the banquet area, champagne in hand and giggling.

"You're the star! You have a bajillion photographers waiting for you in there. And they want you, too, Jim! The groom slash the hot male lead. And they want all of us together." Ellie explained to Jim and Essie.

"I'm going to miss you all so much!" Essie threw herself on her friends, sloshing champagne onto the floor and their expensive shoes. "Crap. Sorry."

"We're not dying! We're not even leaving the country, except for Patrick." Ashley reminded her. Essie began to sniffle.

"Nice going." Ellie muttered to the red head.

"Oops?" Ashley shrugged, and awkwardly patted Essie's back with her free hand.

"C'mon, Baby." Jim pulled her to himself, waving Ellie and Ashley back to the party. "It's a beautiful night, all our friends are here, and Sul arrives tomorrow..." Jim kissed her earlobe gently, whispering. "We'll dance for a little while here, and then we need to go home, do something special with our last night with the house to ourselves."

"What kind of special?" She whispered back.

"Every time I make love with you is special, Essie." He looked into her eyes and kissed her, completely giving in to the sense of abandon that took him. She's mine. She's all mine, and I'm hers.

Essie melted into his arms. Only a few more days until the whole world would have to acknowledge that they were together, right or wrong. "I feel better now." She smiled as they parted. "Let's go make merry and stuff."

The press was floating around the place like a swarm of bees, and the first hour of the party wasn't much fun for anyone. Every actor was grilled about their future career plans, and then about the show- which was the only time Essie saw people relax during the interviews, and lastly, everyone was asked about the upcoming wedding and their part in it. Essie heaved a huge sigh of relief when they announced it was time for cast and crew, including former cast and crew, only.

After some soppy, but heartfelt speeches, came the cutting of the cake, then eating- not with as much gusto as last year, though. All the women were reminding each other that they had to get into bridesmaids' dresses on Saturday.

"We so lucked out." Jim muttered to Max.

"I know. Not even a cummerbund."

"But I still have to watch it. Spike and his stupid liquid diet." Jim stopped eyeing the buffet and stared at Essie, who was dancing with Patrick. "Not to mention the pale factor. A fourth summer of avoiding the beach."

"What are you gonna do in Florida? Aren't you right on the beach?" Max cried. Jim gave him a slowly spreading smile and a careless wink. "Ohhh. Not planning on leaving the hotel room?"

"Not for much." Jim sighed. Both men cast an appreciative eye over the petite blonde. "Can you blame me?"

"No. But I don't envy you, either." Max sighed.

"Take that back!" Jim suddenly shouted, offended.

"Not like that, you idiot! I just meant I don't envy you. There's a lot to do before you get to the fun honeymoon stuff. The rehearsal dinner, and the ceremony, and moving Sul in for the summer..."

"Oh, Anna's not moving until late July, when rehearsals start, she'll be heading to Seattle. Sul's things are all coming via U-Haul once she moves out. So tomorrow is just a simple pick up and we start the final countdown." Jim downed a glass of champagne with a quick gulp. "Ahh." He gave a satisfied smile and wiped his hand across his mouth. "C'mon. Only got a few days until Essie and I are officially off the market."

"What did you have in mind?" Max laughed as Jim's grin turned feral.

"I'm dancing my way through the bridesmaids and wives. I see a pretty brunette I'd like to get my hands on..." Jim pointed to Max's wife.

"Oh, you're on, Clorox." Max laughed and made straight for Essie.

The party went on until nearly dawn. When the sun fully came up, it found ten people crashed on two king beds and one couch in a suite that Essie and Ashley each paid half for.

"Buggering fuck, my head." Patrick was the first to make his presence known.

"Shut up." Max whispered. His wife shoved his shoulder softly and pressed her fingers to his lips.

"Where is she?" Patrick ignored Max and struggled to sit up, moving Ellie off his chest.

"I'm here." Essie moaned. "I don't want to be, but I'm here." She clutched her head and Jim drew her back down to his chest and massaged her scalp.

"Not you, my wife." Patrick elaborated.

"She left." Monica mumbled from her spot under Gwenn's arm.

"She left?"

"She didn't want to leave your daughters at your apartment alone." Monica pushed Gwenn's arm off her, and she immediately rolled over and snuggled up with Ashley.

Ashley's boyfriend, who also an actor, associated with their shows, sat up and looked down at his lover and her former "partner" curled up. "I'm having that dream again." He looked around. "No, I can't be. The rest of you aren't in it."

"Can we get room service?" Jim, who always went light on the alcohol, if he ever consumed any, was feeling peckish.

"Wanker." Patrick glared at him blearily.

"I was thinking bacon. Extra fat." Jim smiled evilly, watching his Brit mentor suddenly turn a bilious shade of green.

"Baby, stop." Essie pleaded.

"We need to go." Ashley's lover roused her and helped her sit up. "They need Daniel and I at noon for the wrap up."

"Sul's flight gets in at 2:00" Jim pulled Essie into a sitting up position beside him on the couch. "What time was checkout?" He asked Ashley, who was struggling to her feet.

"Where are we?" Ashley asked with a hiccup, leaning on her boyfriend.

"Guess she's not the one to ask." Monica giggled and Jim pressed his lips to Essie's forehead.

"When was checkout, Honey?"

"Noon." Essie sighed, and then winced as a rush of oxygen smacked her delicate brain tissue. "Did we have one of those wild Hollywood parties?"

"It wasn't that wild. Ellie's knickers aren't in my pocket." Patrick looked down on the sleeping girl beside him.

"I always thought it would be cool to have one of the parties that ends up in a hotel room. Like a rock band. We didn't drive a car into the lobby or skinny dip in the pool, did we?" Monica grinned, coming over to the couch and plopping down beside Jim.

"You are way too cheerful and loud, Monica. Jim. Bite her." Max commanded.

"I second that." Gwenn groaned.

"Just because Jim and I don't drink champagne like it's water is no reason to get mad." Monica reminded them sweetly.

"Everyone shut up." Ellie finally stirred.

"We shou-should all go home." Essie abruptly staggered to her feet, and then fell clumsily across Jim and Monica's laps. "Aww. This is so nice. My boyfriend and my baby sister. And my crazy British dad-guy. And all my friends. We should get drunk more often."

"Okay, that's enough. I'm taking you home and putting you to bed. You need more than five hours' sleep apparently." Jim scooped up his future bride. "Unless you want Sul to see what you look like tipsy."

That sobered her up immediately. "I gotta go pee." She squeaked, and darted to the bathroom.

"We're leaving! See you Friday night for the rehearsal?" Ashley managed to say. Alexis asked the room in general.

"You got it." Jim replied. Ashley gave a wobbly smile and thumbs up, before she toppled out the door.

Mentioning the rehearsal gave Jim a sneaky idea. He crept over to Gwenn, who, like Patrick, he had acted with outside of Buffy, and leaned close to her.


"Mmm?" She mumbled, eyes closed.

"What song are you and Patrick singing?"

"T-t-t-touch me, creature of the night." Gwenn sang softly, automatically, apparently thinking she and Patrick were back in theirstage performance days.

Jim rolled his eyes. "Not what song did you used to sing. What are you singing at the wedding?"

"Leather and lace." She mumbled, rolled over and shoved her head under a pillow.

"That was a waste of time." Jim shrugged. She must be stuck in her cult classic mode. He patted her head and let her sleep some more. He waited for Essie, kissed Monica goodbye, thumped Patrick on the back, then they left.

"We never got to make love. With the house to ourselves." Essie whined as they got in the elevator.

"We still have the house to ourselves for a few more hours." Jim said in a silky voice. "Besides, it was too much to fun to leave these guys. It's the closure for the show. We get to make love for years, but we'll only have one end of show party." Jim hugged Essie bravely, fighting down the mix of emotions in his throat, feeling her do the same.

"Well, we'll go make love now, since we didn't last night. At least- I hope we didn't. Although we were on the couch all by ourselves..." She blushed suddenly.

"No, all of us came back completely crashed and some of us completely wasted, and we slept." Jim reassured. "Although if the papers hear about it, I'm sure we all dropped acid and had an orgy."

"You can't have an orgy with your family members." Essie scoffed.

"I know. But you wouldn't believe how stupid people are about the definition of family."

The rest of the time until Friday night went by in a blur. Florists and caterers called and asked and answered questions. Flights came in and relatives arrived. Essie and Jim felt like they might as well just ask everyone to move in, as often as their "family" members seemed to be there.

Sul was the main priority to Jim and Essie, even more so than having the "perfect" wedding. "It won't be perfect. Something always goes wrong." Essie smiled philosophically as she explained her stressed-but-happy attitude to her bridesmaids.

"No, it won't!" Monica squeezed Essie's hand reassuringly.

"It doesn't matter. As long as Jimmy and I walk out married, and Sul's okay with it. Sul's gonna be my step-son, guys. That's for life." Essie all the sudden paled and her breathing sped up. "That's a huge responsibility. That's for life, for another 11 years anyway. Oh, God. I can't screw that up. I can't screw that up."

The bridesmaids exchanged glances. This was getting to be a daily occurrence. Ellie sighed and pushed Essie's head between her knees. "Breathe. So you don't pass out. Again."

"Y'know, Sully seems totally happy and pretty at ease with everything." Ashley, as maid of honor, was often given the role of "voice of reason".

"That's probably because he's with Jim every waking hour, and his surrogate family treats him like he was made of platinum." Gwenn giggled. Everyone else joined in the laughter, even Essie, bent double as she was.

Jim watched as Patrick and his two teen daughters listened to Sul play on his black electric. The boy was getting good, and Patrick was there to offer him help.

Jim sighed contentedly. His son wasn't being spoiled with material things, no one had brought him presents or candy, but everyone made time for him. Spoiled with love. Thank God. Because Jim was sure that it was a major factor to Sul's zen-like acceptance of the " My dad's getting married and I'm getting a step-mom" and " My mom's pursuing a new career and I'm moving" debacles. "Whatever works." Jim smiled to himself and went off to find Essie.

"Hey, Sweetheart." Jim leaned over his sleeping fiancée, realizing it would be the last day he could call her that. "Wake up, Baby."

"Huh?" Essie gave a cat-like stretch, and then smiled. The most pristine blue eyes in the world, framed by a face so sharp and sexy that it made her instantly wet whenever she was in kissing range, was staring down at her. "Hi, Lover."

"It's Friday morning. Early Friday morning." He slowly pulled her soft, firm torso under his, rolling on top of her, feeling her legs part automatically.

"Hmm. Time to play?" She laughed softly.

"This is the last day I can make love to you as my fiancée." He smirked roguishly. "Thought you might like to have one more wild ride before we settle into the boring married sex routine." He was only teasing. They had already taken solemn oaths not to let things go stale, and to make time alone a priority.

"I don't know," She dragged out the words. "Maybe you'll want it more if you have to wait until tomorrow night to get it."

"Just see if you like it." He dipped his hips and slid solidly into her soft, slightly moist tunnel. She writhed under him once and he pulled out. "I can wait if you want. You know there's no pressure from me." He reminded her, hands cupping the face he loved so well.

"I don't want to wait. I just like to give you a hard time." She slid one of her hands down his chest, nails slightly scraping each ridge of muscle, making his back arch in pleasure. Her hand ended at his shaft, wrapping her delicate fingers around it and pumping it twice. "And I see I succeeded."

"Always ready for you." He whispered and plunged into her with two fingers, mouth moving in lazily circles on her throat, her breasts and shoulders.

"I love you Jim. I love you and Sul more than anything in the whole world." She whispered, before she guided him into herself.

He echoed her words, and set about showing her.

"Luv?" Spike woke up and instantly vamped. His wife, his partner, his other half, his Slayer, his everything, was lying asleep beside him. The mid-day sun, cloudy against the gray film of Willow's spell, made her glorious flesh tones and pink highlights seem soft and muted. Almost like a dreamscape, like their void. But they were in their own bed, in their own house, the framed marriage license dominating the center wall, and new photos of their "family" dotting the sides. "Buffy, Pet, wake up." He shook his features back to human, not wanting to alarm her, make her think they needed to gear up for battle.

"Oh, Spike. I don't want to train right now. I have owchie muscles from that water demon thingy." Buffy rolled to look at her husband. "You look awfully awake. Didn't we just go to bed a little before sunrise?"

"We did, Pet. Reckon we've only been out a few hours." He licked his lips and moved closer to her, hovering over her.

"What's going on?" She giggled sleepily.

"Don't know. Something." He gave a puzzled frown. " 'S like a cravin'." He uncoiled his torso, prowling without moving anything but his arms and chest. "Need you, right now."

"Oh. Well, that's worth waking up for." Buffy became more awake and realized that she also felt a peculiar sense of urgency. "Do you feel kind of like you're- I don't know, hyped up for this?"

"I've gotta have your blood in my mouth an' your hot little puss on my cock, now." Spike vamped suddenly.

Buffy laughed and yanked him fully on top of her. "I want it just as much. I love when you claim me."

"I love you." He sighed and sank into her, pelvis contracting with the sudden change in temperature as his member went from its usual room temperature to the heat of her hot wet flesh. He rutted in her instantly, no preamble, no slow adjustment. His hands gripped and dragged her into whatever position he needed her to be in, to be as full of him as possible.

She didn't mind, how could she, when he had proven his love a million times over? Not to mention the fact that his hard and fast maneuvers were making her breathless and rocketing her towards a limb-spasming orgasm. "Spike, do it." She begged, fingers reaching up and raking his claim, making him shout hoarsely.

He lunged and his teeth tore open her own scars with frightening intensity. "You're mine."

"I'm yours." She whimpered, losing herself in pleasure. Her hazy mind prompted her that there was one more step and she dragged her neck from his mouth, finding his scars with her blunt teeth and crushing them open with a whisper of "You're mine."

"Bloody right, I'm yours." He moaned, and exploded inside her.

Buffy lay back and looked up at her Adonis lovingly. And with growing surprise. His manhood hadn't softened, not even slightly. "There's more?"

"Hands an' knees, Luv." He whispered, human feature dominant again, and gently helped her roll to her front. He rested his chest on her back, lips on the delectably soft nape of her neck. "Is this alright?"

"My Tiger." She purred, feeling him re-enter her.

"My mate, yes, Luv?"

"Of course, Baby." She reassured. He'd never called her that aloud, although she'd heard him think it many times. "Demon's mate?"

"Both. Just need- need you mated with me. Like this. Primal. Yeah, Pet?" She felt him shift, no longer felt his weight on her back, instead felt his hands sliding up to her shoulders, one hand going around her throat.

She moaned softly as she leaned back with his pulling hand. He smiled in relief. Thank God. She trusted him. She truly did, otherwise he'd never be at her back, his hand at her throat. "Relax." He encouraged, and slipped all the way into her with his cock, at the same time he bit the relaxed contour of her bare neck, somewhere between shoulder and throat.

Buffy gasped as he latched on. This wasn't claiming. It wasn't bad, though. It was erotic, dark, sensual. It wasn't like he was feeding, but it wasn't like he wanted her to mirror his motions, like in their claiming. It was ownership. Belonging to. He was taking her hard from behind, new angles causing new orgasmic fireworks in her loins, and the soft rhythmic pulse of his suckling fangs on the back of her neck sent her screaming over the edge. She collapsed and he tumbled beside her, rigid organ spraying deep inside her once more.

"Why?" She asked, breathlessly, but not accusingly.

"Needed you to belong to me today. More than ever."

"Is that how vamps do that? Express ownership?"

"I've never heard anyone say. Jus' felt right." His tongue sealed her wounds, although with their combined, claimed slayer/vampire strength, they were already almost healed. Spike peered down at her, brows knitting in concern."Was that wrong? I didn't mean to-"

"Oh no. Not wrong at all." Buffy blushed. "I like belonging to you." She took his hand, his left, and raised it to her lips, kissing the knuckle just above his wedding band. "You belong to me, too."

"Why in the world did you choose this place?" Sammy, their short, reddish-brown haired former co-star stepped out of his rented car, the last in a long line of caravanning attendants queuing up in the parking lot of the Santa Monica House of All Worship. It was on a beautiful, quiet street at the far edge of the city, almost to the Palisades, that rose to a sloping peak, and hinted at an oceanic view without actually having one.

"Two reasons." Jim said, standing arm in arm with Essie, Sul having rushed ahead to check out the place with his three cousins and Patrick's daughters.

"We needed a non-denominational minister." Essie supplemented. "And this has a very special meaning for us." Her voice became grave, and she sought her mother's eyes, as she squeezed Jim's hand tighter.

"We came here on September 11th." Jim whispered. "Essie, and her mom, and I. We were the only New Yorkers on the set, and we had to get away. Find some place to pray. We came here. In your old car, remember, Sweetheart?" Jim pulled her closer to him, his heart aching, even though he was not a native of the state, the city had been his home for a big chunk of his life. Sul and Anna had just moved there. Liz lived there. He was terrified. No phone service had been able to penetrate the disaster areas and he- he couldn't think of anything he could do besides pray.

"Yeah. Mom met us at the studio as soon as they called for the filming to stop, and we knew we had to get out of the city. Mom knew about this place, and we came."

"The darkest days and the lightest days." Jim kissed her head and they walked in together.

"I spend them all with you." Essie smiled up at him, and they went into yet another rehearsal, hand in hand.

The church was decorated perfectly already, everything except the flowers. Essie smiled and sighed in relief, shaking the minister's hand profusely, thanking him for his help in making sure everyone could get in to decorate and set up. The ceremony was going to be small, and the reception even smaller. About fifty people total, less at the reception. This would not be turning into a media frenzy, as so much of the last seven years had.

They were allowing one press photographer to attend the ceremony and reception. He could stay for an hour, any more, and he would be escorted from the site. The studio publicists had also arranged, as Jim had demanded, a clause which stated that if no photos of the children could be published, or there would be exorbitant penalties. That was the only way they would let anyone not from the immediate friends or family inside their special day.

Essie turned and looked at those assembled. "Do you guys realize that there's going to be like no one actually in the congregation? You're all up here!"

"I believe I pointed that out three months ago." Daniel raised a hand to be recognized.

"Shut up, gel boy." Jim cuffed the back of his head. But he did see the truth in the statement as the attendants paired up to walk in together, Sul with his black satin pillow with the prop rings tied on it, and then his niece, with her white basket of white and lavender rose petals concluding the line. Patrick was sitting in the back, waiting to do his "father-of-the-bride" bit. Jim's two nephews, a few years older than Sul, were standing at the back, waiting to be ushers.

So that left Essie's two great aunts and uncles who flew in from NYC, Jim's college roommate, both of their mothers, a few assorted relatives and spouses as guests. Oh- and almost thirty people from work. The people who watched it begin, should watch the happy culmination. "Don't worry. Tomorrow half of the studio will be sitting in the pews." Jim smiled. "Patrick- once you've handed Essie over, I'm counting on you to keep an eye on all the production and direction staff. If anyone even thinks of yelling 'cut'-"

"I'll give 'em a Glasgow kiss that'll knock 'em out until it's all over, mate." Patrick laughed. "And if anyone from the stunt department moves in to take your place at the kiss-"

"I'll knock 'em out." Essie laughed, and the tension melted away. "Are you guys ready?" She called to the piano and string quartet. They nodded, and waved their sheet music.

"And you have two mikes set up for Patrick and I?" Gwenn asked.

"Everything is ready." The pianist reassured.

"Are we all assembled, in place?" The minister smiled and stepped behind the lectern. Jim and Essie nodded tensely, wide smiles on their faces. "Everyone walking in from the back, please go outside in the entryway, groom and attendants, you'll be entering from the left side." People scurried into place

The quartet began to play a soft Bach piece and the ushers sat the mothers in their respective front pews.

Jim stood tensed on the other side of the left archway, his brother bracing him, and muttering completely unhelpful brotherly comments such as, "Did you forget what piece you're walking out to? You weren't this nervous when you got married the first time! You're going to look like an idiot in that tie tomorrow, you know that, right?"

"Shut up!" Jim finally hissed, and clopped his brother on the ear. "I walk out to Sunshine of Your Love by Cream, the rest of you follow me out after thirty seconds and it sounds really cool with a string quartet, so shut up before I get Mom in here!"

"Ease up, dude." Max suggested.

"Gentlemen? That was your song, Jim."

"God dammit!" Jim cried through gritted teeth, and his brother subsided completely, apologetically backing away.

"That was the best man's fault! Please try again." Jim sighed. This time the groom and attendants flowed out smoothly without any issues, and then waited anxiously for the music to shift back to a classical vein. A medley of Vivaldi's cheerful allegro movements from the Four Seasons began, and the bridesmaids slowly processed out, ending with Sul and the flower girl walking out side by side. Jim bit back proud fatherly tears as he watched his son walking up, smiling ear to ear, and held out his hand once they'd reached the front. Sul slid into place beside him, sandwiching between his uncle and father.

"So far, so good." Jim murmured. Monica, standing across from him at this point, gave him a tearful smile and nodded encouragingly.

"Big bro." She whispered hoarsely.

"Little sis." He blew her a quick kiss, and she had to resort to dabbing her eyes.

The music ended majestically as Ashley, maid of honor, slipped in front of the leggy girl. "Guests stand. All of you face the back, looking to the bride, please." The minister intoned, and everyone turned. Jim knew he wouldn't see anything he hadn't seen before. Essie wasn't in her gown, she was in a pretty lavender sheath dress with the pearl necklace and earring set he'd given her for Christmas. But when the first strains of Lohengrin hit the air, he fully expected to see her in her white gown and her veil- if she had a veil. He expected to see his bride in all her glory. And even though she wasn't dressed for the part, he wasn't disappointed. She was the most beautiful girl in the world to him.

Essie wanted everything to be traditional for her walk down the aisle. This would be the only one. Ever. So she wanted the traditional music, the left, together, right, together walk, and the handsome father figure on her arm. "Patrick, I can't move." Oh. And the jitters. She guessed that was traditional, as well.

"You jolly well can. This is a walkthrough, Essie, and you don't miss your cues." Patrick muscled her into her walk, and hissed, "Smile. Don't show the whites of your eyes. You look like you've just been given the heimlich maneuver."

Essie composed her face and tried to focus her eyes on Jim. He looked tense, and she was painfully reminded of the face he often wore before their 'sex scenes'. Uncomfortable, but trying hard to comfort her, joke around, it was all going to be over soon. "Smile, Jimmy! It's only one day!" It was her job to make him relax, as he had so often done for her.

"But it's a really long day!" He called back, laughing. That was his Ess. No wonder he loved her. The minister didn't share their opinion though, and stopped, made them walk in again. This time, Jim and Essie grinned mischievously the whole way, but met at the altar in the proper fashion. Patrick handed her over with his little speech, a highly colorful version which the minister made him do again more seriously, and then Jim took both of her hands firmly, facing her.

They had opted for the short version of the service, and in no time found themselves running through the vows, both of them tearing up, putting the imaginary rings on and ending with a real kiss. They skipped Gwenn and Patrick's duet in full, because they were still insisting it was a surprise, they just practiced pausing where they needed to, and processed out to All You Need is Love.

"We need to run through it one more time." The minister calmed the cheering, hugging people standing about in the back of the church. "Jim? Jim?"

"Daddy! Stop kissing Essie, the nice man is speaking to you." Sul tugged Jim's shirt impatiently. He gave the grown ups a look that clearly said "Please forgive my dad. He's kinda nuts right now." Everyone only laughed again, and Max squeezed Sul's shoulders affectionately.

"What, sorry? What was that?" Jim asked. Essie blushed, wiping her lipstick smeared mouth off with the heel of her hand.

"We need to run through it one more time." The minister said gently.

"One more time!" Spike clapped loudly and whistled through his teeth, waving his program.

"Oh, my God." Buffy cowered in her seat and just wished the auditorium would kindly open up and swallow her. "Spike! Sit down! No one goes all mosh pit at a high school Shakespeare play!"

"I soddin' do! Daaaaawwnnn!" He roared.

"We're not with them." Xander laughed nervously to the parents surrounding them, giving them curious looks.

"He looks like he's into death metal- but he's a huge theater fan." Willow giggled nervously to the people behind them. Giles pinched the bridge of his nose and pulled off his glasses. He stowed them in his pocket, and when his hand reemerged, it was holding his silver flask. "Giles! You can't drink! We're on school property." Willow hissed, aghast.

"Watch me." Giles tipped his head back and then reached across Xander and Willow to smack Buffy's arm. "Get Spike."

"Spike!" She tugged her husband's elbow forcefully.

"I'm supportin' the girl! You lot just don't appreciate good literature."

"Shut up and drink this, William." Giles said with finality, emphasis on Spike's given name.


"Jack." Giles said, ignoring the surprised looks. "I knew I was going to be wasting part of it on you." He explained. Spike shrugged and downed some.

Backstage, Dawn put her head in her hands, but smiled through her fingers. That's the noise her father should be making. But he wasn't here. Spike got that. He was making up for all the people that weren't in her life anymore, her own personal cheering section in one majorly scary big brother.

"Your step-brother is so hot." moaned Jenna.

"Brother-in-law." Dawn corrected automatically. "You don't think he's kind of over the top?"

"Totally. But in a nice way." Jenna passed Dawn a towel. "Come on. Let's get dressed. My dad is gonna take us all to Frosty's."

"I can't. My- my family is out there." Dawn shrugged regretfully.

"So? Are they lactose intolerant? They can come. I mean, wow, Dawn. Your 'rents are so much cooler than mine."

"Probably 'cause they aren't 'rents. They're sibs." Dawn smiled glumly.

"There's our girl!" Xander poked his head in the through the curtains. "Mr. P. asked me to help with the set tear down. But I wanted to give you these first." Xander handed her a single yellow rose. "From Will and me."

"Thanks, Xander!" Dawn hugged him, apologizing for her sweaty, makeup streaked face.

"Please! I've seen you covered in all kinds of slime and gore and-" Xander realized Dawn looked horrified and that two or three of her friends had stopped dead to listen. "You and your crazy art projects. Hah, kids, right?" He paused, hands shoving deep into his pockets. "I'm gonna go."

"Yes. Go. Now." Dawn said with an edge in her voice.

"Your family is so weird." Matt, who had played Oberon, said to her.

"So?" Dawn said cooly, twirling her long stemmed rose in her fingers.

"Just saying. Weird." Matt waved a casual hand over his remark.

"Weird family or not, they're what I have. So watch it." Dawn walked away, leaving the boy staring after her. Half in costume and half in street clothes- her long white gown on over jeans and brown leather boots- she ran out to find her family.

"I heard you yelling for me!" She hugged Spike hard. "Did you like it?" She asked the rest. They all nodded, and Buffy looked guilty. "You fell asleep for part of it, didn't you?" Dawn accused her sister.

"Not while you were on, I promise!" Buffy said earnestly, mentally adding "Spike wore me out.", which earned her a dark chuckle from her spouse, who of course, could read her thoughts as plainly as if she were explaining them aloud.

"Jenna's dad is going to take everyone to Frosty's." Dawn looked hopefully at Spike and Buffy.

"Okay. Be home in an hour though, okay?" Buffy agreed.

"Do you guys wanna come, too?" Dawn smiled encouragingly, nodding her head slightly.

"What, us?" Giles laughed.

"You're the only family I've got." Dawn reminded them pointedly.

"Do they have mocha flavor?" Willow asked.

"Oooh, mocha!" The three girls cried, and Spike put an arm across Dawn's shoulders.

"Of course we'll all go. Get your bridal robes off, then. An if that Theseus git is around, tell him to shove off. No kissin' off stage."

"Dad? Why do they say 'you may kiss the bride' at the wedding? Wouldn't you have kissed her before? Why do you need permission from a man in church, doesn't the girl have to tell you whether or not she wants kisses?"

"You really, really don't want to go to sleep, do you?" Jim laughed and rocked Sul's head against his chest as they lie sprawled on his bed. Sul shook his head forcefully, yawning at the same time. "You asked me as many hard to answer questions as possible in the last twenty minutes. Is there one you really want me to talk about?" And please, please don't let it be about where babies come from. I can't handle that tonight. It's after eleven! All of us need sleep, now.

"What happens when you have a stepmom?"

"The same things that happen whenever you're with Essie." Jim turned Sul around to face him, sitting him astride his legs, stroking his longish sandy brown locks back across his forehead.

"Do I have to listen to her? Can she take away my video games if I don't? Do I have to get her cards that say "mom" on them at Christmas? Does she come to parent day at my school? Dad, where is my new school?"

"Whoa, Sul, listen to me." Jim soothed. "Essie's just Essie. She isn't your mom and she doesn't want you to pretend she is. You do have to listen to her, but in the same way you have to listen to any one of your relatives, same way you listen to me, or Nana, or your aunts and uncles." Jim shook his head. Trust his boy to pull a pop quiz eighteen hours from the graduation. "And yeah, she could tell you no video games. But only if you did something that caused you to get the privilege removed. She wouldn't do it to be mean."

"I know that! Essie is the second most nicest lady in the world!" Sul said hotly.

"Then that isn't a problem. About the cards- you can get her whatever kind of card you want. Essie won't care if it doesn't say mom, and she'll be thrilled if it does. And I'm pretty sure we can find cards that say 'To stepmom' on them."

"What about my school?"

"We're going to look at a couple more when we get back from our honeymoon, and you'll get to help pick where you go. I have the last word, but I'll listen to what you have to say." He paused gravely. "About Essie coming to your school. That's up to you two. I think she'd like to. But I think she'd understand if you said no."

"I wouldn't tell her no. That'd hurt her feelings. I meant can she come? Because it doesn't say 'parents and stepparents day', just parents. At least at my old school." Sul said stoutly.

"I see." Jim did. "Don't worry about the stepmom stuff. Essie and I don't know what we're doing either." He kissed his son good night and tucked him in. "But everything works out okay, if you love each other. And we love you."

"I love you and Essie, too." Sul whispered sleepily. "Tell Essie I told her I love her and have a good night. And not to worry about anything. We'll help her."

"You are the best kid in the world. I love you, Little Man."

"I love you. G' night."

"Night. Don't worry about a thing."

"You either." Sul warned, already half-asleep.

"I'll try." Jim said softly, taking one more moment to admire his sleeping child, and then left silently, swiftly heading to his own room. He had a beautiful angel to admire tonight as well.

To be continued...