Beta: My wonderful, Always_jbj (
Always Wait For You
She sat beside the body of her dead husband - the man who had fathered her children - and tightened her grip on the stake in her right hand. The cold, immobile face and body were at once eerily familiar and completely strange to her. Gone was the blush of health that came with warm blood pumped by a beating heart. Gone, the sun-kissed bronze that touched his perfect cheekbones. The warm, breathing, loving man she had spent the last ten years with was gone; and in his place was a marble-perfect, but dead body. One that was probably going to rise up any minute, its demon slavering for her blood.
In spite of offers to "take care of it for you" from everyone from an aging Giles to a surprisingly sympathetic Faith, she'd refused the help, insisting that it was her responsibility. If anyone doubted her intentions, the broken expression on her face was proof that she knew what had to be done and was ready to do it. However, she stubbornly refused to do it before he awoke.
"He deserves a last fight with a Slayer," was all she said when Willow pointed out that to stake his dead body might be easier than dealing with a reanimated version of Spike. "For both of you," she'd added, when Buffy shook her head in denial.
As she kept her lonely vigil, scenes from the past seventeen years flew through her brain, the mental images bringing alternating tears and laughter.
"That's when I kill you."
"I may be Love's Bitch, but at least I'm man enough to admit it."
"Make me the happiest man in the world."
"Look at that lip. Gonna get it..."
"You know you want to dance, Slayer."
"I'm drowning in you, Summers!"
"You treat me like a man."
"Every night I save you..."
"You always hurt the one you love."
"I'll make you feel it!"
"Why does a man do what he mustn't? For her."
"You're the One, Buffy."
"No you don't, but thanks for saying it."
"Buffy? Not home then. Prob'ly just as well. Jus' wanted to tell you – well, guess you know by now ...but if you don't...I'm with Peaches. Think the big poof might've bit off a mite more than we can chew this time, so I jus' wanted to say...I want to say...Bollocks! Good-bye, Slayer. I love you. You and the Bit. Have a good life, love."
"It's me again. I meant it. I love you and I want you to be happy – but not with the bloody Immortal, dammit!"
"Buffy? Am I dead? Is this heaven? Why are you cryin'? An' why am I...breathing?"
"Me? You're choosin' me over the great brooding git?"
"Say you'll marry me and make me the happiest man in the world."
"She's beautiful, pet. Looks like you."
"What? I am not crying! Jus' got somethin' in my eye."
"No, you don't look like a whale. You look like my beautiful, sexy, very pregnant wife."
"Are you sure you don't want any drugs, love? Not that I don't admire your fortitude, but I think you just broke my hand..."
"I don't love him more than her! All I said was he was a fine, big strong boy baby, and..."
"I love you, Mrs. Pratt."
"Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who fell in love with an ugly beast...No! She didn't slay him, you silly goose. She married him and had two beautiful, disrespectful children who don't know when to go to sleep."
"I thought they'd never go to bed. Here, you hand me the tools and I'll put the bloody thing together..."
"Merry Christmas, love."
"Be right with you, Slayer. Soon's I kiss the niblets good-night and get my stakes."
"Got your back, pet. Be careful. Looks like the nest is bigger than we thought..."
"Get away from my wife! Yeah, that's right, take me on. Come on, then. That's right, chase me you bloody wanker. This way, you ugly bugger. Follow me."
The vampire opened his eyes slowly; the sound of gasping sobs and the scent of tears almost overwhelmed the sound of a human heartbeat and the scent of warm blood. He turned his head to find a woman standing over him, a stake in her upraised arm, her tear-filled eyes staring blindly at his chest. Her hand was shaking, but her grip on the stake was firm as she brought it down in an arc that would have ended in his unbeating heart.
With supernatural speed, he threw himself off the stone slab upon which he'd been lying. The stake sliced through the fabric of his shirt, but missed his flesh as he landed on the dirt floor, confused and snarling. Tears still streaming down her face, Buffy followed him across the sarcophagus, her arm once more ready to plunge the stake into his heart.
With an ease that frightened him, he caught her wrist and stopped the downward motion, pulling her into his chest and wrapping the other arm around her shaking body. As his memories began to surface, he understood where he was and what was fueling his wife's need to kill him... again.
"What's this, then, love? Did you think I wouldn't be me when I rose? Did you think I could forget you? Buffy? Talk to me, Slayer."
"Spike? You... you remember? You're you?"
"You were expectin' Angelus, maybe?" He felt her relax against him and released her wrist so as to put both arms around her. He held her softly sobbing body against him, rubbing her back with long soothing strokes as he murmured into her ear. "How could you think I wouldn't know you? That I wouldn't remember you and the niblets? Don't you know me any better than that, love?"
"But, you...the demon...your soul..."
"Soul's gone, sweetheart. No denying it. But I didn't have it when I fell in love with you, did I? Didn't have it when I spent months mourning for you, or keeping the Niblet safe that whole summer you were gone. I'm still me, Buffy. Man or vampire, I'm still your Spike. Still your husband and the father of your children."
"How can a vampire be a father?"
"Might have to give up coachin' the boy's football team, what with all those sunny fields they play on, but—"
You can't expect me to let you near my children!" She felt him stiffen, his arms dropping to his sides as he stepped away from her.
"Your children? I die, and suddenly they're your children?"
"Spike. You're a demon. A bloodthirsty, soulless demon. Surely you can see why..."
His faced shifted, the demon suddenly more than obvious as he glared at her with amber eyes that managed to telegraph a lethal anger and the deepest pain with the same furious stare. The snarl that emerged from his chest had her tightening her grip on the stake and falling into a fighting stance. He crouched, ready to launch himself at the small human threatening him. Buffy's slayer instincts took over, her tears forgotten as she readied herself for his attack.
For long moments they remained frozen in a timeless tableau - the eternal battle between demon and Slayer. Then Spike's face and posture relaxed, although he maintained his true face.
"So, that's how it's gonna be then, Slayer?" The deeper, more guttural tones of a vampire couldn't hide the pain in his voice. "Jus' like that, you're going to take my family away from me?"
"The vampire that turned you took your family away, Spike. I'm just trying to keep them safe."
The lessons learned after years of listening to Angel and Spike teaching new slayers how dangerous, if stupid, newly risen vampires could be warred with her reluctance to treat the demon in front of her as the bloodthirsty creature she knew him to be.
"You're the ones who told me how out-of-control fledglings are. You and Angel. That's all you talk about – how newly risen vampires can't think about anything except going home and killing their families. You both did it."
He stared at her, not believing that she would throw the mistake he'd made with his own mother at him as justification for cutting him out of her life. Once again, his body tensed, the demon demanding he kill the woman causing him so much pain. Buffy watched anxiously as he visibly fought for control, not relaxing her stance until he slid back into the human face that was so familiar to her.
"What are you going to tell them?" he demanded. "Are you going to tell them that you staked me? That you killed their father?"
Buffy flinched, her need to destroy his demon fading with her adrenaline. "I...I don't want to stake you...if you can promise to...to stay away from..."
"You want me to abandon my family. You want me to leave you and the two other most precious things in my life." His flat voice held no trace of a question, but she responded as though he had asked one. "You might as well stake me, Buffy. Couldn't hurt any less, could it?"
"Are you telling me that you know you can trust your demon? That you could be around those warm little bodies and not want to taste them? Come on, Spike. You're the one who's always said how dangerous fledglings are. That they can't think of anything except blood." She lowered her head, avoiding his once again amber gaze. "You told me that they always come home," she whispered. "You said they always come home."
He shook his head, blinking back tears that he hadn't even known he could shed when his demon was to the fore.
"I'd ask if I really look like a fledgling to you, but it's not worth the effort, is it? You don't trust me. You don't trust me to control my demon around my own children." He whirled on her. "Tell me, Slayer, do you trust me around you? I just had you in my arms. Had your neck right there in front of my hungry demon. Why aren't you dead?"
She stared mutely, her own eyes filling again.
"I...I trust you not to...I trust you around me. I don't want to stake you...or to send you away. I just..."
"You just don't think I have enough self-control to be around anybody else I love." Again, there was palpable pain beneath the cold, uninflected words. "So, what's your plan, Slayer? Make me your dirty little secret again and let the world think you staked your husband after he got turned? Let my children grow up thinkin' they don't have a father?"
Responding to his harsh words, her back straightened. "My plan was to stake the demon that had taken over my husband's body. I didn't expect you to be...so...so you. I thought it would be easy."
He cocked his head and studied her tight face. "Guess that explains the waterworks when I woke up, then," he said with as much sarcasm as he could put into his voice. "Tell me, Slayer, if you were so sure it was going to be easy, why were you so blinded by tears that a mere fledgling could disarm you with one hand?"
"It was your body, dammit! It was the body of the man I loved, and I was going to have to make it dust. Of course I was crying. That doesn't mean I wouldn't have done it."
"Yeah, I think I got that message," he growled, fingering his torn sleeve. "So, now that you know I'm me and not just some strange demon hauntin' my body, what are you gonna do?"
"I don't know." Her shoulders slumped in defeat. "I didn't think past dusting you before you could come home and –"
"Before I could come home – to the house I can't get in without an invite – and destroy everything that matters to me in this world. I can see where there would have been some urgency there. No sense waitin' to see what kind of a vamp rose from my grave, was there? Just dust him and move on."
His sudden attack on the stone wall of the crypt frightened her more than his demon's face. She watched helplessly as he pounded the unforgiving granite until his hands dropped to his sides, blood dripping from ruined knuckles. Buffy cringed at the dead expression in his eyes when he turned back to her, feeling the first flutter of indecision and regret as he spoke quietly.
"Alright, Slayer. Never let it be said that William the Bloody couldn't tell when he wasn't wanted." The irony of his statement would not occur to either one of them until much later. "Jus' let me see the niblets one last time and I'll get out of your life."
When Buffy opened her mouth, a protest already on her lips, he raised a crippled hand. "They don't have to see me. Just bring them out on the deck for a few minutes. You can do that much for me, can't you?"
Her head whirled at the way the events of the past few minutes had spiraled out of her control. She had come to the crypt prepared to destroy the demon inhabiting her husband's body. That the demon would be the same one with whom she had fallen in love so many years ago had not occurred to her. She felt her life twisting into unfamiliar paths as she regained the man she loved and lost him again within a few moments' time.
She remembered how familiar – how right – it had felt when he cradled her sobbing body and soothed her with touches and words that could only have come from the man she married. Suddenly, the idea of being without him, now that she knew he was still Spike, was worse than the grief she'd felt at his death.
"Spike..." she started, not sure what she was going to say, but unwilling to allow him to go completely out of her life. "I...we could...I don't want...I mean, you..."
"If you're tryin' to say what I think you are, Slayer, I don't think it's a very good idea to finish that thought. We're either a family, or we're not."
The look flashing in his amber eyes frightened her more than anything he had ever said or done in all the time she'd known him and she flinched away from the genuine menace she could read there. Shame washed over her even as she bristled in anger, knowing that he had correctly guessed where her thoughts were going. She gave a curt nod of acknowledgement and whispered, "I'm sorry," before turning towards the door. With her back to him, she said "Be outside the house in an hour. I'll bring them out with me for a few minutes."
She just barely heard his "Thank you, love" as she left the tomb, steeling herself for the lies she was going to have to tell her closest friends and family.
Buffy said nothing about what had occurred inside the tomb, allowing her former watcher and her best friend to interpret the frozen expression on her face and her red-rimmed eyes however they would. No one thought it strange when she went immediately upstairs to her children, her thanks for watching them while she was gone mumbled absently as she left Giles and Willow to see themselves out.
She stood in the bedroom doorway, watching the way the nightlight threw shadows across her daughter's face, the defined cheekbones catching the soft light above her shaded cheeks. Her daughter, at age eight, was already a fascinating mix of her father and mother. A poet at heart, with a love of literature and a gift for writing that teachers had assured them was unusual for a child her age, she was also an accomplished gymnast with a strength and flexibility that had Buffy wondering if the girl was a slayer – albeit one with a kind heart and no love of violence.
Unless the object of her ire was her younger brother... At six and a half, Will was a green-eyed, blond, whirling dervish. She smiled down at him, enjoying the way he relaxed so completely when he slept. His agile little body was sprawled across the bed, one leg dangling off the edge, the other bent behind him at an angle that should have been, if not impossible, certainly painful. In spite of being no larger than the average boy his age, he too had a strength and agility that made him sought after by older children wanting his natural athleticism on their side in whatever game was being played. Although he looked more like his mother than he did his father, the irrepressible mischievous streak that colored everything he did made it very clear to whom he belonged.
Buffy doubled over, seized by a physical reaction to the overwhelming sense of how much she loved these children and what she was doing to their father by forbidding him to see them. She had forgotten soulless Spike's ability to love – already evident when she'd first met him as an unrepentant killer of slayers, who was willing to do anything to cure the vampire he'd spent over one hundred years caring for and loving. She tried to shake away the sudden memory of how she had made soulless, unchipped Spike call off a massacre, simply by holding a stake to Drusilla's heart. Or the way he had endured torture and beating at the hands of a hellgod in order to keep Dawn safe and prevent the pain her death would have caused Buffy.
Only her own desperate and consuming love for the two vulnerable beings that she had brought into the world, and her constant fear that the dangerous world in which she lived would take them from her, allowed her to remain firm in her conviction that their own father could no longer be trusted around them. If her memories were beginning to whisper that she was being foolish and causing unnecessary grief to the very people she loved most, she resolutely closed her mind to them. The all-consuming fear of the consequences if she allowed her faith in Spike to overcome her slayer training, kept her resolve firm even as her heart ached for the man she loved.
Years of living with the man that the Powers had allowed the souled vampire to become, and years of remaining close, if not entirely comfortable, friends with the other Shanshued vampire, had pushed memories of what they had been like before to the back of her mind. Uppermost in her thoughts now was the Council line that she drilled into new slayers with every new class at the academy. Reinforced by Spike and Angel, the new slayers were told never to trust a vampire's word, that a newly-turned vampire always came home to kill his or her own family, and that the blood lust was overwhelming until the vampire had enjoyed enough years of unlife to develop some control over its demon.
With so many slayers in the world, the number of vampires that lived long enough to develop that kind of control was steadily dwindling. If any still existed, they had learned how to stay below the radar of the Council of Watchers and the lethal young women in their employ. It had been years since Buffy or any other slayer had faced anything but starving fledglings, mindlessly seeking fresh blood. The idea that a vampire was something with which a slayer could have a conversation, or with which she could make a deal to save the world was completely outside their range of knowledge.
Buffy watched her children sleep until her slayer senses tingled, signaling a vampire's presence. She placed her hand on her daughter's shoulder and shook it gently.
"Joyce," she said quietly. "Joy? Wake up, honey, we need to go downstairs for a while."
Sleepy blue eyes blinked at her until Joyce understood what her mother had said. In spite of the normality of their daily lives, nocturnal visitors and middle of the night trips were not so rare that the children were inclined to argue when asked to wake up. The slender blonde girl slid out of bed and pushed her feet into slippers as she asked, "Do we need to get dressed?"
"No, sweetie. Just put on a robe; it's chilly outside."
As she spoke, Buffy was awakening her other child, sitting him up and wrapping him in a blanket. Preceded by her daughter, Buffy carried the half-awake boy down the stairs and out to the deck. She sat down on the glider, nestling into the corner cushions and spreading the blanket over both children.
"What are we doing?" Joyce looked around curiously, her keen intellect raising questions in spite of the excitement of being up in the middle of the night. Safely cuddled into her mother's side and warm under the blanket, she had no fear of the inky darkness hiding the familiar backyard.
"We're just going to sit here for a bit. That's all. We're going to cuddle together and remember how much your daddy loved us and how much we love- loved him."
At the reminder that her father was gone from them forever, Joyce's eyes filled with tears.
"How could God take our daddy away?" she sniffled. "What will we do without him?"
"Who's going to coach my soccer team?" Will asked plaintively, his own eyes barely open as he curled into his mother's embrace. At six, he didn't quite understand what it meant to be "dead", but he did understand that his daddy hadn't come home two nights ago and that his mommy had done little but cry since then.
"Shhh, Will, honey. I'm sure we'll find another dad to coach your team. Tell you what, guys – before we go inside and go back to bed, why don't we send daddy a message? Let's tell him how much we love him and miss him."
"Is he in Heaven?" Will perked up and peered into the starry sky over their heads.
"I'm sure his soul went to Heaven," Buffy was able to say with just the barest catch in her voice. "I'll bet he can hear you all the way up there if you say it loud enough."
Always the first to show affection, Joyce tilted her head back and sang, "I love you, Daddy! I will miss you." She followed up with a two-handed thrown kiss accompanied by the "mwaaa" sound that her father had taught her. She beamed up at the sky as if waiting for a return kiss.
Not to be outdone, Will struggled out of Buffy's arms and stood at the edge of the deck, shouting at the sky, "I love you, Daddy! I'm going to score lots of goals this Sunday – just for you." He waited impatiently, then walked back to Buffy. Climbing onto her lap, he grumbled, "He didn't answer me."
"I don't think he can do that, sweetheart," Buffy said, torn between tears and laughter. "I don't think it works that way. He can hear us, but we can't hear him."
"Oh." Will burrowed under the blanket again, losing interest in speaking to a father who couldn't answer him. He closed his eyes and quickly dropped back to sleep. Buffy stood up, holding her son and nodding to Joyce.
"Let's go back inside, honey. We all need some sleep."
"Mommy? Aren't you going to say anything to Daddy? Aren't you going to tell him you love him?"
Buffy froze. She knew Spike was somewhere behind the shrubbery at the end of the yard. She could feel him, her memory of how his signature differed from other vampires having rapidly returned as she sat outside with their children. She wasn't sure that she could respond; she felt as though she'd been punched in the gut, and all the wind driven out of her lungs. She stood, Will in her arms and Joyce clinging to her hip, staring out over the yard where Spike had so carefully tended the flower beds he made for her.
"Mommy?" Joy's voice jolted her out of her paralysis. "Aren't you going to tell him? Don't you love Daddy any more, now that he's dead?"
With a muffled sob, Buffy gasped out, "Of course I love him. I will always love your father." She put her head back and addressed the darkness above them. "Do you hear me, Spike? I love you. I will always love you. Always..." she finished in a whisper as she felt his signature begin to fade.
Biting back tears, and fighting the urge to leave the children on the glider while she raced after what was left of the man who'd given them to her, she turned back toward the house. Within a few minutes, the children were back in their beds, and Buffy was standing in her own bedroom staring at the kingsize bed that suddenly seemed much too large and empty.
She stretched her slayer senses to their limits, but there was no trace of a vampire anywhere in the vicinity. Dropping her clothes on the floor and stumbling blindly to the bed that still smelled of their latest love-making, she buried her face in the pillow and prepared to learn to live her life without Spike.
AN: This chapter kind of zips through random events of Buffy's life after Spike's "death". None of them are particularly significant, just little glimpses of life in the Pratt household through the years.
"Buffy? Are you home? Can I come in?" The next-door-neighbor's voice snapped Buffy out of her day dream – one in which she'd look up and Spike, alive and breathing, would be standing in the doorway, the sun casting his shadow onto the kitchen floor. Instead, she saw that her nosy next-door neighbor was poised to enter the room, her hand already on the handle of the screen door.
"I'm sorry, Judy. I must have been daydreaming. Of course, come on in. What can I do for you?"
The slender, dark-haired woman slid onto one of the kitchen stools. "It's more what I can do for you," she said with a pleased smile.
Buffy raised her eyebrows dubiously. Although Judy spent much too much of her time ferreting out information about everyone they knew, she kept most of it to herself and was, at heart, a very kind woman. Her desire to know what was going on in everyone's lives was more out of a need to be of assistance, than it was a desire to spread gossip. In spite of her persistent interest in Buffy's somewhat unusual life and Buffy's equally determined refusal to discuss it, they had managed to become friends.
Her determination to figure out what Buffy did at her "night" job, as well as what had really happened to her dead husband had become an affectionate contest between the two of them. Judy would ask a leading question, Buffy would deflect her by answering something else, and they would continue the verbal duel until one or the other got tired. Her latest attempts to find out what was going on in Buffy's life had to do with the fact that now, a year after Spike's "accidental" death, Buffy was showing no interest in moving on with her life. A course of action that her friend repeatedly pointed out was not a smart one.
"And that is...?"
"My office is having a picnic this weekend. Nothing fancy, very casual cook-out kind of thing and we are allowed to bring guests. I've decided to bring you as my guest!"
Sensing an ulterior motive, Buffy fixed a stern glare on Judy and said, "Okay. And why should I go with you and give up some of my weekend time with my kids?"
"Because Bob hates these things and he offered to keep Joyce and Will all day and take them to their games and then buy them unhealthy fast food and bring them back here to watch cartoons until we get back." She finished, out of breath and smiling hopefully.
"What's the catch?"
"Catch?" Judy batted her large brown eyes innocently.
"There's always a catch. Spill. What is it? Who are you trying to fix me up with?"
Her friend sighed theatrically. "Why do you always suspect me of trying to fix you up? Maybe I just like your company..."
"I suspect you, because you are always trying to fix me up. Even though I've told you a hundred times that I'm still Mrs. Pratt and I'm not interested in becoming anybody else."
"I know that, sweetie. I do. And I'm not suggesting you find some guy and haul him off for hot monkey sex behind the moonbounce; but you're a young woman. And a beautiful one. You know that Spike wouldn't have wanted you to mourn forever. He would have wanted you to move on and be happy."
Buffy gave a laugh that veered perilously close to sounding like a sob. "Oh, you really don't – didn't know him very well, did you?" She gave her friend a sad smile. "And, anyway, I never paid that much attention to what he wanted when he was alive. I don't see any reason to start now."
"I've never seen anyone love a woman the way that man loved you," Judy said softly. "And I can't believe that he wouldn't want you to be happy again."
"What makes you think I'm not happy?" Buffy jumped at the chance to change the subject slightly. "I have my house, my children, my job, good friends...I don't need a man in my life."
"Did it occur to you that your children might need one?" she responded softly. "That they might not want to grow up without a father?"
"They have a father," Buffy said stubbornly. "He just isn't...around."
"All right, sweetie. I'm not going to beat you up over this – I know it's still pretty fresh for you. But even if you aren't looking for another man, it won't hurt you to come to a picnic and drink some beer and have a good time, will it? I swear I don't have anybody lined up for you. I know better than that. It's just that there will be a lot of people there having fun and I think it would be good for you. Please?" she added, as Buffy's indecision became apparent.
"All right. Fine. I'll go. But I refuse to have fun."
"Whatever. Be ready to go by 10:00 a.m. Bye!"
Judy was out the door before Buffy could change her mind. Shaking her head and smiling at her friend's insistence on finding a way to make her happy, Buffy put her dishes in the sink and went upstairs to get dressed and go to work. She gazed at her wedding band, still in plain sight on her finger.
I'm still Mrs. Pratt. I still have a husband. I may have sent him away, but I'm still his. And he's still mine.
"Okay, this is just getting to be ridiculous, Buffy. That was a perfectly nice, attractive man who was trying to pick you up, and you not only blew him off, you must have driven him away, 'cause I don't think he's even in this bar any more."
Buffy's mouth twisted, remembering how she had left the dust of her would-be seducer drifting away into the alley behind the bar.
"I was nice to him," she protested mildly. "I even went outside with him to look at his sports car – I guess he decided I wasn't his type and drove away."
"I swear, sometimes I think you don't really want to meet another man. I suppose you're going to tell me that guy just wasn't your type?"
Buffy flashed back to her first love, and to her last one. "Actually, he kinda was... Too bad for him." She offered no explanation for her strange response, just got her coat and bade her well-meaning friends a 'good-night'.
"Mom?" Joyce was holding an old photo of her father, one that was taken shortly after Buffy had found him and Angel in a run-down hospital in what was left of Los Angeles. He still had his vampire pallor and the bleached hair that had been his trademark for the last thirty years of his life as a vampire. But the picture had been taken in full sun. Buffy's mind wandered back to that day. She'd picked Spike and Angel up from the hospital's rehab wing and, after many promises to be sure that they used a lot of sunblock and took their vitamins with every meal, she had driven off with them for a day at the beach.
The process of slathering the two men – neither of which had been in the sun for longer than they cared to remember – with sunblock was more awkward than she'd expected. While they were both more than capable of doing their faces, arms and legs, and bellies, neither one could reach his own back. Finally, with a sigh, Buffy had grabbed the tube of SPF 60 and ordering them both to turn around, she spread a thick layer of sunblock over each muscular back, taking care not to spend more time on one than the other. When it was time for one of them to return the favor, both men automatically held out their hands for the tube – exchanging glares when Buffy clutched it to her chest, her eyes darting back and forth between the two ex-vampires. With a sound of disgust, Spike dropped his hand and turned away, heading for the ocean and ignoring Buffy's "Spike!".
With an apologetic smile at Angel, she handed him the tube and raced towards the water, catching Spike when he was almost waist deep and tackling him into a wave. He came up sputtering and swearing, his furious expression fading as he saw who had knocked him down. He floated beside her, head back as he turned his face to the sun and felt its warmth go all the way through him. When her hand timidly linked with his, he opened one eye and peered at her.
"What's this, then, pet?" he asked softly.
"This is me, trying to remember that you're mortal now and that I can't kick your ass the way I want to for not telling me you were alive last year."
"So, you're going to hold my hand until I apologize?" He grinned and squeezed her fingers.
"I'm going to hold your hand until you stop acting like a jerk and backing off every time Angel does something that you think you should be doing."
"Didn't say I thought I should be doin' it, did I? Jus' forgot for a second that the big git was here and that you might have another choice for somebody to take care of your back."
Buffy floated over until she was stretched out above him, their knees bumping occasionally as their bodies floated only inches apart. She released his hand and slid her arms up around his neck, pulling herself closer as she whispered, "Nobody takes care of my back like you do, Spike. I would never choose anybody else if you were available to do it."
His hands barely grazed her sides as he touched her waist and held her in place. She held his gaze, hers as open and honest as she could make it, willing him to see what she was saying. When he gave a laughing sob and pulled her into a kiss that left them both gasping, she relaxed, knowing that he'd finally decided to believe the words he'd thrown back at her over a year ago.
"Me?" he whispered in her ear. "You're chosing me over the great brooding git?"
"If you'll have me," she whispered back. "If you still love me."
"I will always love you, Slayer. Don't ever doubt it."
"Mom!" Joyce's annoyed shout jolted Buffy out of her memory and she blinked several times before the ocean sounds and the sun faded from her brain.
"I'm sorry, honey. I must have..."
"You must have been thinking about Dad again," Joyce said with a smile that belied her twelve years. "I can always tell when you're remembering him. You get a sappy smile on your face and – poof! – you're gone somewhere else."
"It's that obvious?" Buffy blushed lightly, embarrassed that her children knew her so well that they could tell what she was thinking.
"It is to me," Joyce said softly. "I still miss him too, but I know that you have a lot more years of having him to miss. Anyway," she continued briskly, "I wanted to know why his hair looks so blond in this picture. Was he some kind of a surfer dude or something?"
"Or something." Buffy's laughter was free and relaxed. She realized that she was finally able to think about Spike without feeling more little pieces breaking off her heart. Her years-long efforts to think of him as actually dead and gone, rather than just the gone that she knew was the case, were finally paying off in a comfortable way. "It was a phase he went through for a while. He bleached his hair white and slicked the curls down with gel. It was just growing out when that picture was taken."
"Dad bleached his hair? For how long?"
"Uh..." Suddenly Buffy's good mood evaporated. "For a...a few years. It was like that when I met him, but after a while he let it grow out."
Neither of Spike's children had any idea that their father and their Uncle Angel had ever been the very creatures that their mother was training other girls how to slay. Once again, Buffy shuddered at the fine line that she continued to walk between being sure her children knew what evil things were in the world, and how to defend themselves from them, and telling them no more than they needed to know to remain safe.
They knew that their mother was freakishly strong, that she wasn't aging as rapidly as their friends' mothers, (thank you for the resurrection spell, Willow was Buffy's wry thought) and that she trained other strong girls to fight vampires. They knew that Auntie Willow was a powerful witch and that magic was not something to play with. That "Grandpa Giles" was not their biological grandfather and that the only "real" aunt or uncle they had was their Aunt Dawn.
And all they knew about their father and mother's early years and courtship was that it had taken them a long time to fall in love with each other; but that when they did it was very special and forever. With typical ten-year-old-boy lack of interest, Will shrugged off what his older and more romantic sister insisted was "one of the great love stories of all time" in favor of remembering how his father used to talk about the epic fights he and Buffy had back when they "couldn't stand the bloody sight of each other, and that's the truth!"
"Oh. I wish I'd known him then. I'll bet he was a lot of fun, wasn't he?"
"Sometimes he was," Buffy agreed, smiling as her mind wandered again. "Sometimes he was a lot of fun...and sometimes he was a gigantic pain in the neck!" she finished, taking the picture away from Joyce and carefully smoothing it out before tucking it back in the album. "But I love – loved him."
She came in late one night, escorted by one of her infrequent dates, to find her two children watching television in the living room with an armed and nervous-looking Xander, while Faith stood by the door in a defensive stance. Raising an eyebrow in question, Buffy responded to Faith's imperceptible nod by quickly introducing her date to her friends and then hustling him out the door and into his car without so much as a "call me". She didn't respond to his bewilderment when she refused his insistent request that she allow him to see her safely back inside. She shook her head, checked the backseat of his car and all but shoved him in the door, waiting only until he had closed the door and started the engine before rushing back inside.
"Sorry, B," Faith said with a grin. "You're just never gonna get laid again at this rate, are you?"
"Faith!" Buffy glared and jerked her head at the two youngsters pretending not to be listening to the adults' conversations. "Can't you do anything with her?" she demanded as Xander walked up and gave his girlfriend a quick hug.
"Long since given up," he said cheerfully. "She's stronger than I am, anyway. It's not worth the pain."
Shaking her head at the two of them, she asked in a lower voice, "So, what's up? Why are the kids down here and why is Faith looking like she's on guard?"
"Something set her vamp-dar off, and when it didn't go away like it would have if one just wandered by, she went out to look for it."
Faith shrugged. "There was a vamp on the roof. Near Joyce's room."
"Did you dust him?" Buffy tried to keep the fear from her voice, but the other slayer picked up on it.
Faith shook her head. "He made me before I got up there and he took off. I chased him for a while, but he was faster than me." She looked at Buffy. "I don't think it was a fledge," she said with no trace of her usual snark. "It was a powerful signature and he made a jump from that roof that would have crippled most vamps."
Buffy's eyes flew to her children, now no longer pretending to be watching the television.
"Relax, Mom," Will said with a twelve-year-old boy's casual sense of immortality. "You know nothing can get in here – vamps need an invite, which we're too smart to give 'em – and Aunt Willow's wards keep out everything else."
Saving her lecture for later, Buffy thanked Faith and Xander for coming by to watch her children while she enjoyed one of her rare nights out.
"So, what was wrong with this one?" Faith's teasing question had Xander snorting with laughter.
"Nothing, smartass," Buffy said, glaring at her sister slayer. "But I don't know him very well, and I really didn't feel like trying to explain why Xander was hiding in the living room, while you stood by the door like an underweight bouncer. Or, why the kids, who he thinks are old enough to stay by themselves, were huddled in the living room with Xander."
"Point," Faith agreed, laughing at Xander's indignant "I wasn't hiding! I was...protecting..." "So, are you gonna see him again?"
"Based on the look on his face when I shoved him out the door, I'd have to say 'no'," Buffy responded with a grimace. She actually had enjoyed her date and was seriously considering going out with him again just to see where it went.
The six years since Spike's "death" had gone by in a flurry of PTO meetings, soccer games, gymnastic meets and birthday parties. Her own social life revolved completely around her children's activities, and, although she knew that her non-council friends and acquaintances thought that her life must be very dull, the three or four nights a week that she led a group of slayers-in-training on their first real-world patrol more than made up for any boredom with her daytime activities.
Although she had begun dating occasionally – more for appearances' sake than any desire to meet someone new – the dates never went beyond the dinner and a movie stage. At any suggestion that a man thought their relationship needed to be more physical than the chaste goodnight kisses that she allowed, Buffy was instantly seized by pangs of guilt. Without explaining that she still thought of herself as a married woman, she usually found some reason to end the relationship soon thereafter.
The one time that she had given serious consideration to pursuing a more amorous relationship with a man, she had just allowed herself to melt into his body and enjoy his skillful kisses when her slayer-senses went off, and she gasped as she felt the signature of a powerful vampire nearby. Wrenching herself out of his arms, she pushed him behind her and faced the direction where the tingles were telling her that a vampire was hiding in the shadows.
Although she couldn't have said that she recognized the signature for sure, fear for her boyfriend's life had her insisting on seeing him safely inside his apartment and making him promise her that he would not open the door to anyone unless it was daylight outside. When he demanded an explanation, and tried to coax her to spend the night with him, she had shaken her head sadly.
"I'm sorry, Jeff," she'd said with wistful smile. "I don't think I'm as ready to move on as I thought I was. Just remember what I said – don't open your door to anyone after dark. Please. Not for a while, any way. Just in case..."
"Just in case what, Buffy? What's got you so spooked?"
She hadn't answered his questions, just rose on her toes and kissed him gently.
"Good-bye, Jeff," she'd said with a sigh. "I'm sorry."
Although he never appeared, and Buffy had no real reason to think that the signature had belonged to Spike, she resigned herself to the fact that having a romantic relationship with anyone could mean putting the unsuspecting man in danger. She went back to casual dinner dates that seemed unlikely to escalate into anything more inappropriate for a widow whose husband was not dead in the normal sense of the word.
Buffy brought her attention back to Faith's puzzled face, asking briskly, "Okay, what do we know? Random vamp, but older than usual? Or, one that knows who lives here?"
Faith shook her head. "I told you all I know, B. He – it was a he, I saw that much – was crouched outside Joyce's window. Didn't see what he was doing there. He saw me coming and made that jump from the roof to the back yard and was gone by the time I got across the yard. I tried to track him, but he's fast, whoever he is. Once I couldn't feel him anymore, I figured I'd be more use back here – just in case he doubled back. If you'd gotten home a few minutes earlier, we'd probably have had him. No way he could have gotten away from both of us."
Buffy glanced ruefully at her high heels and tight skirt. "Yeah, maybe."
"You want us to stay?"
Buffy shook her head. "No, thanks, but Will's right. No vampires can get in without an invitation; I don't care how old and strong they are. We'll be fine."
"Okay, then. Let's go, big boy." Faith took Xander's hand and tugged him towards the door. "See you tomorrow – we promised the latest class that we'd take them someplace where they might see a real vamp."
"Maybe we should just bring them here for a sleepover," Buffy said with a smile. "Sure would make it easy if the vamps would come to us, wouldn't it?"
She carefully closed and locked the door behind the couple, then walked into the living room where her children were watching her with eyes that combined confidence with trepidation.
"Was he really watching me?" Joyce asked in a shaky voice. "While I was sleeping? That's kind of creepy."
Buffy remembered waking up in Sunnydale to find Angel sitting by her window and shuddered in sympathy for her daughter. "It is creepy – but, hey, you know – vampire? Kinda the definition of creepy, isn't it?"
"I think it might be kind of cool to be a vamp," Will said, not noticing his mother's horrified gasp. "I mean, if you could be a good vamp. Think about it, Mom, super strong, super fast – just think, if there were good vamps, how cool would they be?"
Buffy's eyes shut tightly while she struggled to control herself.
"They would be very cool, Will," she was finally able to get out. "But I think they are probably very few and far between. If they even exist at all..."
"I heard the slayers talking last week," Joyce said abruptly. "They said there were two evil vampires that turned good. Got souls and everything. Do you think it's true, Mom?"
She watched her mother's face keenly, not willing to mention what else she'd heard until she got some inkling of the truth of the rumor. When Buffy blanched and couldn't smother a small gasp, she nodded to herself. Ignoring Buffy's stammered and rambling non-story, she vowed to get back into the school's database at the first opportunity.
Mastering her shock, Buffy relaxed her clenched fists and suggested that the two children go back to bed and try to salvage something of what was left of the night. She assured them that Faith had undoubtedly frightened the vampire away and that she would remain awake until daylight, just in case he came back for some reason.
With some reluctance, they left the old movie, which they hadn't really been paying attention to anyway, and started up to bed. Buffy's blurted instructions halted them at the foot of the stairs.
"Don't open the windows," she said in a tone that meant she was deadly serious. "And whatever you do, don't go near an open window when it's dark out."
"We know this, Mom," Will said, shrugging his impatience. "Do you think we're stupid?"
"No," she gritted out, "I don't think you're stupid. But I do think you're a little too comfortable about living on a Hellmouth. If you'd been in Sunnydale when I..."
"Yeah, yeah. We've heard it before." Will didn't notice his mother's narrowing eyes. "Sunnydale was a real Hellmouth – not like Cleveland. And you were the only slayer there...yada, yada."
The crack of Buffy's hand against his cheek was louder than it was painful, but it shocked all three of them into stunned silence. Her son put his hand on his cheek, the emotional pain in his eyes so familiar that she felt her own eyes fill. She stretched a shaking hand towards him, biting her lip when he flinched away from the offered comfort.
"I'm... I'm sorry, Will. I'm so sorry... I just... you two are everything to me. You're my world. And I worry... If anything happened to you..." Her eyes glistened, begging them to understand and forgive.
Ever the peacemaker, Joyce touched her brother's arm gently and tugged him up the stairs. "It's okay, Mom. You're scared for us. We get that. Don't we, Will?" She gave his arm a little pinch. He jerked it away from her hand, glaring at his sister as he mumbled, "I get it. It's okay. Guess I should be glad you weren't using slayer-strength, huh?" He tried for a smile, but it didn't reach his reproachful eyes.
Without another word, the two most important beings in her life turned their backs and went up the stairs, leaving Buffy to sink to the floor as soon as they were out of sight. She wrapped her arms around herself, rocking back and forth and saying his name for the first time in years.
"Where are you, Spike?" she whispered. "This is so hard. I don't know how to keep them safe without smothering them. They need their father. I need their father..." As the words left her mouth, she remembered whose fault it was that the father who had loved them as unconditionally as he'd loved her was no longer part of their lives. Giving herself a mental shake, she stood up and wiped her eyes.
Get over yourself, Summers. This is what you wanted. You didn't want him in their lives. Deal with it.
Vowing to have another, calmer conversation with them the following day, she walked around the house, double-checking the locks on the doors and windows and turning off the lights as she made her way back to the stairs. She did the same checking of the upstairs windows, hesitating in front of her son's door before forcing herself to trust him enough not to check up on him. She knocked timidly on Joyce's door, opening it slowly at her daughter's soft "come in".
She glanced at the window, seeing that Joyce had closed the blinds, effectively shutting out the outside world, and then sat down uncertainly on a corner of the bed.
"You know I didn't mean to do that, don't you?" Buffy asked, her hands clenched tightly in her lap.
"I get it, Mom. I do. I understand that your life was different from ours – and scarier. But Will doesn't hang out at the school as much as I do – and he doesn't pay as much attention to what's going on in the classes. He thinks it's just you worrying too much because—" She stopped, her eyes dropping to the blanket.
"Because of your father," Buffy said dully. "He thinks I only worry because I've already lost one person I love."
"Yeah," Joyce nodded, touching her mother's hand with a comforting pat. Showing a wisdom far beyond her years, she added, "He doesn't know how much else you've lost. How many other people you cared about..."
Buffy's eyes flew up to meet Joyce's. "What do you know about it?" she demanded, suddenly intent.
"Not as much as I should, probably." Joyce withdrew her hand and sat up a little straighter. "Just stuff I've picked up here and there from Aunt Willow and Uncle Xander. Nobody talks to me about what it was like when you guys lived in Sunnydale, but they talk between themselves. And sometimes people forget that I'm there."
"Wonderful," Buffy groaned.
"Mom. You know, if you just talked to us about... about everything we don't know, it might be easier for us to understand why you do things." When Buffy didn't reply, she added, "and we might be safer. If we knew."
Shaking her head at being handed advice by her fourteen-year old daughter, Buffy reminded herself that she'd been only a year older than Joyce when she was called. She smiled and hugged her daughter, whispering, "I'll think about it, honey. You might be right. Good-night. I love you."
"I love you, too," Joyce said, hugging her mother back. "Good-night."
The next morning found a subdued Will apologizing to his mother for his "smart mouth", and, after accepting her own repeated apology for her loss of control, a quick, I-know-you're-too-manly-for-this hug sent him off to school with his mother's "I love you" echoing in his ears. When he'd mentioned his smart mouth, Buffy had grinned wryly and responded, "You come by it honestly, honey. Trust me." The indirect reference to his father had Will beaming with pride. Any time he was compared to Spike, even if it was for a negative quality, he seemed to grow a little taller – his father having taken on heroic status in the eyes of his only son.
In spite of his sister's insistence that he paid no attention to what went on at the slayer school, he did listen. Especially when the conversation turned to stories about Sunnydale or his father. With Joyce not being the only one to assume that he wasn't paying attention, he had actually picked up as much information as she had. He just lacked her ability to put things together in a way that would guide him towards even more unknown facts about his parents and their early days as heroes on the Sunnydale Hellmouth.
Buffy was sitting in her tiny office on the third floor of the old, converted elementary school that served as both school, training facility and dormitory for the slayers in training and those staff members who didn't have anywhere else to stay. She was mulling over what Joyce had said the night before, wondering if she had really been right to try to keep the true story of their father from them. It was becoming more and more of a strain – not just on Buffy, but on everyone who interacted with the Pratt children.
Remembering what they did and did not know about Buffy, Spike, Angel and the history of their lives in both Sunnydale and in Los Angeles was becoming more and more difficult for everyone. Buffy had eventually shared with her children that she had burned down the gymnasium of her first high school, regretting it immediately when her son's eyes lit up with excitement. She immediately assured them that it had been an emergency situation with no other alternatives and that they should never, ever, on pain of being grounded forever, even think about doing such a thing themselves.
"If you think you've spotted vampires – in your school or anywhere else – you tell a slayer. You hear me? You tell me, or Faith, or Aunt Willow – call somebody who's qualified to deal with it."
Will's lip had stuck out rebelliously, even as he agreed to turn over any vampire hunting to one of the adults in his life. It was obvious to everyone that Will had inherited much of the impulsiveness that had plagued both his parents and Buffy resolved to watch him more closely. She was just wondering if she should ask Xander to spend more time with him, giving him a role model of a normal male, when Faith strolled in without knocking.
"What's up, B?" she asked, draping herself over a chair. Like Buffy, there was little sign of aging in the brunette's face or body. Only the way they carried themselves, and the fact that everyone knew who they were, gave away the fact that they were the last of the "original" slayers. Living with a man who loved her had mellowed Faith just enough that she and Buffy had become the close friends that had seemed impossible at one time. But she was still her usual authority hating, reckless self.
Buffy sighed and gave a short recap of her behavior the night before. She dropped her head in her hands, mumbling, "Joyce thinks I should trust them enough to tell them everything they don't know."
"Like, for instance, that the vamp outside her window was probably her father?" Faith's voice was deceptively light and smooth, but her tense posture as she waited for Buffy's response made it obvious that she was expecting fireworks.
To Faith's surprise, as well as her own, Buffy just raised her head and met her sister slayer's eyes calmly.
"How did you know?"
"Come on, B, how long have we known each other? You think I can't tell when you're lying?"
"You think it was Spike?" Buffy didn't even try to keep the hope from her voice.
"I felt him," Faith said in an uncharacteristically gentle tone. "It's been a long time, but I know William the Bloody when I feel his signature."
"Why didn't you say something last night?
"Wanted to see how you wanted to play it."
"I don't know," Buffy admitted. "I mean, I thought it might... but he's never been back, and…."
"Why did he leave?" Faith raised her hand quickly, acknowledging Buffy's right not to tell her. "Not my business, I know, but why'd you let him walk?"
Buffy's face crumpled, relief at being able to share the secret she'd been hiding for so long destroying her usual defenses.
"It was him," she whispered. "He was... he was my Spike. Not a strange demon, not a fledgling... he was just Spike. I couldn't do it. Not when he... "
"No soul?" Faith's expression said she had recognized immediately why Buffy hadn't brought her newly-vamped husband home. "Is that why you sent him away?"
Buffy nodded. "It seemed best. I was so afraid..." She raised her eyes. "I was stupid." She dropped her head again, playing with a pencil on her desk. "How long have you known?"
"Almost from the get-go. I can't believe nobody else figured it out yet. Nobody who knows you, anyway."
"Buffy, you live your life like a nun. You haven't let a man touch you since he died, have you? You haven't taken off your ring. And..." She paused, looking guilty. "And I saw him once. Before last night. It was just after he... I was having some trouble with a pack of vamps – the baby slayers froze on me, and I was trying to dust vamps and protect them at the same time. It was gettin' a little hairy and then, suddenly, the vamps started droppin' like flies. Broken necks, most of them, some just out cold. Down long enough for the babies to get their courage back and start doing their job and dusting them.
"When I looked around, I saw him – and then I felt that signature that says 'this is an old, powerful vamp'." She stopped talking and waited for Buffy to look up. "He didn't say anything to me. Just nodded and vanished. Never felt or saw him again until last night. Figured it was a secret best kept to myself."
"You didn't even tell Xander?"
Faith shook her head. "That was hard. Especially when the girls started talking about what happened and how I'd disabled a whole pack of vamps for them all by myself. But..."
"But you didn't trust Xan not to go after him." Buffy's flat tone was the result of the residue left from Xander's actions during their years in Sunnydale. Before Spike became human and was gradually accepted by her best male friend as someone he could like. When he was just a souless demon that Buffy had sullied herself by falling in love with. She nodded her understanding.
"You know, that's one thing I never worried about. How anyone else would see him. I was just terrified for my – our – kids. I never thought—" She looked at Faith with hard eyes. "If not for the kids, I would have brought him right home with me," she said challengingly.
"I know," Faith agreed quietly. "I know you would have."
"But I didn't. And now he's back. I wonder why?"
"You don't think..."
"No! I don't think... I was stupid. He would never hurt them. Soul or no soul, Spike would never hurt the people he loves. I sent him away for nothing. And now he's back."
"Maybe he's just visiting," Faith offered. "Wanted to see how the kids are growing up..."
"Why didn't he tell me? Why didn't he come back, then? I stayed up all night."
With her usual lack of subtlety, Faith responded, "You were on a date. Remember? You had a honey with you – and you brought him into the house."
"He isn't a 'honey'!"
"Spike wouldn't know that, would he? Probably looked to him like he'd be in the way." She grinned at Buffy. "Good thing the guy left fast. Can't see William the Bloody being too gentle with somebody he thought might be banging his wife."
"Not helping, Faith!" Buffy groaned. "How am I going to find him and tell him..."
"Tell him what, B?" Faith's voice carried more of an edge. "For all you know, he saw what he came here for and is gone again."
Faith's supposition turned out to be prophetic. The spying vampire never returned, and after six months or so, Buffy quit waiting for him. She stopped looking up hopefully at every sound after sunset. Stopped waiting, stake in hand, until she was sure that the vampire she was about to slay was just an ordinary demon. Things in the Pratt household had returned to normal when Joyce walked in one afternoon, her blue eyes as stormy as Buffy had ever seen them. She slammed a pile of loose copy paper down in front of her mother and asked coldly, "Would you like to explain this?"
A quick glance showed Buffy that she was looking at pages copied from an old watcher's diary. With a shaking hand, she picked them up and ruffled through them just enough to see that they contained pages of information about Angelus, William the Bloody, and, later pages about Angel, the souled vampire, and, even later pages, copied from Giles' diaries. Buffy didn't need to read them to know that they described Spike's arrival in Sunnydale and his subsequent entry into their lives.
She raised stricken eyes, seeing no trace of its usual soft expression on her daughter's face.
"Why couldn't you tell us? Would it have been so bad? For us to know? We have a right to know..."
"To know that your father was once a ruthless killer? That he and your Uncle Angel – and the two sluts that made them – rampaged through Europe and Asia for over a hundred years? That he killed two slayers before he found me?"
Joyce's gasp told Buffy that the girl really hadn't thought through what it meant to find out that Spike had spent the first 140-plus years of his life as, first a Victorian gentleman, and then as one of the world's most feared vampires. Buffy's face softened and she took Joyce's hand and gently pulled her down to sit beside her on the couch.
"Your father is – was a wonderful, gentle, loving man. What good would it have done to let you know that he was once one of the creatures that I've spent my life slaying? I would never want you to think any less of him – or to be afraid of him. I wanted all your memories to be good ones... not the stuff of nightmares."
Biting her lip, Joy gestured at the papers Buffy had thrown back onto the coffee table.
"But it says he started helping you. That he stopped killing. That he... that he fell in love with you. While he was still a vampire. And that he got a soul. For you. And he saved the world."
"Twice," Buffy said softly, squeezing her daughter's hand. "He saved the world at least twice – and helped me save it a couple of others."
"And you didn't think we should know that?" Her shrill voice carried to the front hall where her brother had just entered the house.
"Should know what?" His eyes darted back and forth between his mother and his sister. The tension between them was so strong he thought he could see the air quivering. When neither one answered him, he repeated, "Who should know what? Mom? Joy?"
The girl held Buffy's gaze, a challenge in her eyes. When Buffy still said nothing, just dropped her head onto her chest and covered her face with her hands, Joy nodded stiffly.
"Fine. I'll tell him then."
"No!" Buffy's head flew up, her eyes pleading. "Just... just give me a minute, okay? I have to think about how I want to say this."
She gestured for Will to come into the room and sit in the adjacent chair, then switched places with Joy so as to be facing both of her children.
"What do you remember about your dad?" she began carefully.
"That he was very brave and a good fighter," Will said loyally.
"That he was a good dad and he loved us very much," Joy added with a glare at her brother.
Buffy nodded. "He was all of those things," she said softly. "And he was those things for much longer than you know."
They waited, Joy expectantly, Will with a still-puzzled look on his face. He spotted the paper on the table and went to reach for it, but Buffy, in a rare demonstration of slayer speed, got there first. She put her hand on them firmly, saying, "No, let me tell you the story. Then you can read these, and you'll know what to believe and what not to."
"A long time ago, in London, England sometime in the 1800's there was a shy, gentle man – a poet. He took good care of his sick mother and he tried to be a good man. But one night, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and his life changed forever..."
Twenty minutes later, when Buffy had reached the part where she went to LA after the apocalyptic battle with the senior partners to find that the two vampires that had been a part of her life for so many years were now fully human, neither child had yet to interrupt. With wide eyes and growing wonder, they had listened as Buffy tore apart everything that they'd thought they knew about their father and the "uncle" who was a distant, but important, part of their lives. In place of the half-truths and invented history that they had been told, was the long, sometimes ugly, and ultimately heroic story of the man-turned-vampire-turned-man who had been their father.
"So, when Dad talked about the fights you two used to have..."
"He meant real fights. Real, violent, I'm-trying-to kill-you fights." Buffy's voice held no trace of a tremor as she thought back to the early days of Spike's time in Sunnydale. "We were mortal enemies – a slayer and a vampire who built his reputation on having killed two slayers."
"But you fell in love." Joy's voice was certain, if puzzled.
"We did. It took a long time, and we had a little help from one of your Aunt Willow's wonky spells and the US Army; but, yes, we fell in love. And then your father saved the world and I thought he was gone forever. I mourned and then I moved on – or I tried to. It wasn't working out all that great, and then LA blew up and when I got there with an army of slayers, I found..."
"You found Daddy in the hospital."
"Yes, your father and Uncle Angel. Both of them. Hurt, but alive and breathing. As human as you are."
"As human as you are, too," Will pointed out.
"I'm a slayer, Will. I think the jury might be still out on how human I am." Buffy gave a small smile. "But, yeah. He was human like me, and we got married and we had you and our life was as wonderful as it can be for two people who risk their lives on a fairly regular basis." She paused and took a deep breath.
"The thing was, your father and I both tended to forget sometimes that he was only human. And he was being really stupid when he tried to lead those vamps away from me. It got him killed."
"We know that, Mom," Joy said, the first trace of her usual gentle nature finally showing in her voice and face. "You've never hidden from us how he died."
"Yes, I have." Buffy waited while they digested that simple sentence, then continued. "He did die saving my life. That's all true. But what I never told you is that the vamps didn't just kill him; they turned him."
There was a duet of gasps from her children. She saw Joy's eyes widen as the older child, the one with the quickest mind, began to remember scenes from their past. The tearful "good-byes" shouted into the night sky, and the vampire that had been watching her sleep less than a year ago.
Buffy nodded silently to Joy and then explained to her frowning son, "I waited up all night by his body, ready to stake the demon that I was sure was now inhabiting it. But..."
"But...?" Will was all but exploding; holding himself into the chair by sheer will.
"But the vampire that rose that night was still... well, not your dad. He was a vampire through and through. No soul, no heartbeat. But it was Spike. My Spike. The one I fell in love with so many years ago."
"Did he... did he remember us? Didn't he love us any more? Is that why he didn't come home?"
Buffy took a sobbing breath and clenched her fists tightly before trying to answer.
"No. That's not why he didn't come home. I... I didn't let him come home. I was afraid... afraid for you. I didn't know..." She stopped and met their eyes firmly. "I was very foolish. I should have known better... as long as I've known him... and he's never, ever hurt anyone he loves. Even when he was evil, he always took care of the people he loved. But I forgot all that. All I could remember was listening to Angel lecturing about killing his whole family the night after he rose, and I was afraid. I sent your father away."
Will's eyes lit up with sudden understanding. "The night you took us outside to say 'good-bye!' " he said, dredging up a faded memory from years ago. "We really were saying 'good-bye' to him. He was there!"
Buffy nodded, her face a mask of regret. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I thought I was doing the right thing..." Sudden memories of how often she had listened to Willow or Giles repeat that excuse when something they had done had caused her pain sent a bolt of empathy through her.
I guess I owe the two of them some apologies now.
"Is that why you haven't remarried?" Joyce asked shrewdly. "Because Daddy is still alive?"
"He isn't 'alive', Joyce," her mother said sharply. "Nothing about your father makes him different from any other vampire – except..."
"Except that he still loves us and wouldn't hurt us," Will said firmly.
"Where is he? Have you seen him? Do you talk to him? Can we talk to him?" Suddenly the questions came tumbling out of their mouths, so close together that Buffy could hardly follow them. But she did get the gist of what they were really asking. Holding up her hand for silence, she glared at each of them until they subsided.
"Now listen to me; and listen very hard," she said, her voice sheer slayer. "We do NOT know where your father is or where he's been. We don't even know if he's still ... if he hasn't been dusted somewhere, by some slayer who never bothered to report it because he was just another vamp to her. I need for you both to promise me, right now, that you will not change anything about your behavior around vampires because you're hoping one of them might be your father. No walking around by yourself at night because you think he might be out there. No leaning out the windows and calling for him at night. Promise me. Right now – or you will never leave the house after sunset again."
One look at their mother's face told them she was deadly serious, and they nodded slowly.
"Promise," Buffy ordered.
"We promise, Mom," Joyce spoke for both of them.
She studied their faces, searching for any signs of rebellion or duplicity, before nodding.
"Okay, then. I'm sorry that I didn't tell you about your father sooner. And I don't think I can even begin to tell you how sorry I am that I took him out of your lives; but I did, and now we have to live with it."
"Do you think he'll come back someday?" Joyce's voice trembled with hope.
"I hope so, honey. I really hope so... He always has before," she whispered, almost to herself.
"He's probably really mad at you," Will said, his eyes reflecting the accusation he was afraid to make. "Maybe he won't come back."
"He probably is really mad at me," Buffy admitted, her shoulders slumping as she spoke. "But no matter how mad your dad gets, he always comes back... eventually. And, anyway," she tried to sound more upbeat, "It's me he's mad at, not you two. He knows it wasn't your fault that I made him go away. He won't be mad at you."
"Maybe he's mad at us because if it wasn't for us, you wouldn't have had to send him away."
Her son's quiet observation, so wrong, and yet so typical of a child whose parents were no longer together, brought back memories of Buffy's early teenage years when she tried to understand how her father could be so busy with his life in LA, that he couldn't find the time to come and see her. She was only too familiar with how easy it could be for child to take the blame for a divorce or separation.
She blinked back tears as she brought her fist down on the coffee table, splitting the solid wooden top and causing both children to jump in their seats.
"No! No. Spike— your daddy would never, ever, do that. He isn't mad at you and he doesn't blame you for what I did. Don't ever think that!"
"But," Joy's quiet voice joined her brother's, "you sent him away because of us, right? So it is our fault. If we didn't exist, he could have come home with you and you'd still be happily married." She gazed at her mother calmly, the logic of her comment seeming indisputable to both children.
"Oh, God." Buffy's moan put an end to the conversation. Rather than stay and try to comfort their mother when her head dropped into her hands and her shoulders began to shake, they quietly left the room and went upstairs, by tacit agreement going into Joyce's room and closing the door.
"Maybe I shouldn't have said that." Already the girl's gentle nature was asserting itself and she was regretting her words.
"Maybe not. But it's true, isn't it? She sent him away because she was afraid he'd hurt us. So if she hadn't had to worry about that, he would still be here... just... deader."
They were silent for several minutes, each lost in thought as they tried to absorb all the new information about their family's history. Joyce was torn between sympathy for her mother, who she knew was still crying downstairs, and anger that she'd kept such an important secret from them. Will was trying to decide if he was excited enough about the fact that he still had a father - and that said father was a vampire – to forgive his mother for keeping him away from them for so long. Suddenly, his eyes lit up and he turned to his sister excitedly.
"I know what we should do, Joy! We need to find Dad and get him to make up with Mom! Then we can be a family again."
Hope flared, then died quickly. "How are we going to do that? He isn't around anymore. We don't know where he is or how to find him. And we just promised mom we wouldn't go looking for him at night."
Only momentarily deterred, Will began to jump around the room. "I don't know how – I just know we need to do it. I'll think of something."
"What?" Joy looked up from her homework to find her brother hopping around her room, on and off the bed, and making a general nuisance of himself.
"We'll get somebody to do a locator spell for us. To find Dad." He beamed at his sister, pleased that he'd come up with a solution to their problem.
"You know how Mom feels about magic... and we can't tell Aunt Willow. Mom said that nobody can know about Daddy; that they might try to stake him."
"It doesn't have to be Willow, does it? Locator spells are easy – I'll bet we could even do one ourselves if we had to. Or, we can ask one of the girls at the school. Somebody who's studying to be a witch, not a slayer. We don't have to say who we're trying to find – just ask her to locate him for us."
Will's enthusiasm was contagious, and in spite of herself, Joy became excited.
"Maybe Karin? She's pretty cool and she's always doing stuff she shouldn't be. You know, that dark-haired girl with the big brown eyes and the..." His voice trailed off as he noticed his sister's amused expression and raised eyebrows. "Not that I pay any attention to the girls at the school," he mumbled."
"She's a little older than you are," Joyce said gently. "And very focused on her magic."
"Well, yeah." He forgot his feigned indifference immediately. "If she was one of those stupid, giggly girls I wouldn't be interested in her, would I?"
"Aha! So you admit you're interested in her. You like her!"
"What? No! I didn't say that. Did I say that? I said that, didn't I? Oh shit."
"What? Like you never say that word when Mom isn't listening."
"That's beside the point. I'm older than you are."
"Everybody's older than I am." With an abrupt change of attitude, he sank onto her bed, his lip coming out in a pout. "Even the girl I like."
Smothering another smile, she said, "Ten years from now, it won't matter."
"Ten years from now she won't remember that I exist," he mourned, the sudden resemblance to his father at that age almost uncanny – had they but known it.
"Yes, she will," Joy said confidently. "She's my friend – and we'll still be friends when we're grown up. I'm sure of it."
"Well," he made another mercurial switch, "if she's your friend, then she should be willing to do the spell for us, right?"
"I'll ask her." She cocked her head at her brother, noticing for the first time how his face was losing its youthful prettiness and starting to look more masculine. Except for the color of his eyes, he was coming to resemble their father now, more than he was Buffy. Although she would never tell him so, she was very aware that the younger slayers and witches followed him with their eyes on his rare visits to the school. Shaking her head at what a bad idea it was, she asked, "Do you want me to find out if she likes you?"
"What?! No! Don't do that! Are you crazy? I don't want her to know! Don't say anything! Promise you won't?" His face screwed up in anguished anticipation of being humiliated by his sister and her friend.
"Okay, okay. Relax. I just thought I'd ask. Sheesh!"
Buffy pulled herself together and picked up the papers describing Spike and Angelus. She put them in her desk and then splashed cold water on her face at the kitchen sink. She leaned over it, her head hanging down and water dripping off her nose as she thought about how her relationship with her children had changed forever.
I wonder if they will ever trust me again? Maybe, when they're older, they'll understand how hard it would have been to explain to children that age that their father had become a vampire. And why their mother wouldn't trust him not to hurt them. Maybe... Someday...
She grabbed a near-by towel and dried her face, then began mechanically getting things out in anticipation of making dinner. Joy had a gymnastics class at the slayer school later in the evening, and Will had intended to stay home. However, in light of the day's events, Buffy was too worried about what he might do to leave him by himself. Making a quick decision, she wiped her hands and picked up the phone.
Faith answered on the third ring, her voice breathy and soft. "This better be good, B," was all she said.
"They know." Buffy's tense voice was all it took to take Faith's mind off whatever Xander had been doing to her, and she answered quickly.
"Joy. She must have gotten suspicious somehow. She's been going through old Watcher's Diaries and she found... she found everything. I had to tell her the rest."
"And the junior Mr. Bloody?"
"He was here, too. They're both mad at me for lying to them – not to mention sending their father away."
"What can we do?" Faith's easy inclusion of Xander in the offer to help was a painful reminder that her children were not going to be the only disappointed people in her life.
"I guess, bring Xander up to speed – and... and I need someone to watch Will while I take Joy to class. I made them promise me they wouldn't look for Spike, but I'm not sure I can count on him to keep that promise. He's kinda... willful, and he doesn't always follow my advice."
"Gee," Faith joshed gently. "I can't imagine who he gets that from..."
"Very funny, Faith. Can you guys watch him tonight?"
"Yeah, sure, Buff. No problem. We'll be over in a hour or so."
"Thanks – I appreciate it."
Joy and Will were still upstairs when the two adults that they referred to as "Aunt Faith" and "Uncle Xander" came through the unlocked door. Buffy's eyes flew to Xander's, waiting for the condemnation and anger she was expecting from him. Instead, he laughed quietly as his wife muttered, "He's known all along. Lying sonofabitch never even told me!"
"Oh, you mean, like you told me, you knew?" he snarked back at her.
"You... you knew-know? Why didn't you say anything? All these years..."
"I figured you had your reasons for keeping it from the kids, and the less discussing of it took place, the less likely that someone would overhear something they shouldn't."
"How... how did you... when...?"
"Same way Faith did. I saw him." He shuffled his feet and looked uncomfortable for a minute, remembering that either one of the slender women waiting for more information was capable of killing him with one blow. "I... um... I've actually... I... um... I've seen him more than once." He stopped to allow that to sink in.
When they continued to stare at him, mouths agape, he moved slightly away from them before speaking again. "I... uh... he... we... we've kinda kept in touch," he finished in a rush. "You know, just 'How are the kids? How's Buffy doing?' that kind of stuff."
"You... how could..." Buffy regained her voice and her composure at the same time. "How you could keep something like that from me?"
"From us!" growled Faith, her eyes promising retribution when they got home.
"He was... he's my friend, Buffy. You're my friend, too," he added hastily, "but you have everybody here. Spike's by himself. Except for that visit last year, he stays away, just like you asked him to..." Buffy wasn't sure if she was being paranoid, or if there actually was a trace of accusation in her friend's voice. "I'm his only contact with his family, Buffy. He didn't want me to tell you. I guess he was afraid..."
"He was afraid I'd think he was stalking us," she finished for him, her voice flat and dull.
"Uh, yeah. That." Xander squirmed uncomfortably, remembering his own, long-ago, insistence that Spike's constant watching of the Summers' home was "stalking" rather than guarding.
Buffy sank onto the couch, wringing her hands, then looked up hopefully. "If you talk to him, does that mean that you know where he is?"
"I know how to get hold of him," Xander admitted. "I don't know where he is... exactly... but I can reach him if I need to."
"Do it now!"
All three adults whirled, none of them having noticed the silent arrival of the reasons for their conversation. With shining eyes – one set a piercing blue, the other a stormy hazel – they waited for one of the adults to do as they asked.
"I don't know if..." Buffy's earlier desire to have Spike back in their lives faded with the knowledge that it was suddenly a very real possibility. As much as she knew without question that Spike still loved them, and that he was capable of forgiving those he loved for almost anything, she also understood the pride that had kept him away for so long. And don't forget how pissed off his demon can get she reminded herself. William Pratt might forgive me, but Spike's probably carrying a pretty big grudge...
"What do you mean, you don't know?" Both children spoke at once, disbelief and horror on both faces. Buffy cringed as she watched their eager delight turn into heartbroken fear.
"I just meant... we'll do it. Of course, we'll do it. Maybe... just... not right this minute. I mean, we don't know how far away he is. I'm sure a day or two won't make a big difference... Joy, you have class tonight and a meet coming up this weekend. Will, you have homework. I know you didn't do any this afternoon after... after our talk. It won't hurt anything if we wait a day or so."
"You don't want him to come home. You lied." Will's expression was eerily similar to his mother's 'slayer face' as he stared at her with cold eyes. "Well, we don't need you to do it." He met Joy's eyes and said, "Go to your class. I'll be here when you get back." His meaning was clear and Joy wondered briefly how he expected her to find Karin, tell her what they wanted, and get it started, all while under her mother's watchful eye. Vowing to worry about it later, she nodded and went upstairs to change her clothes.
"Will..." Buffy was speaking to empty space. Her son had followed his sister up the stairs without so much as acknowledging her.
"Way to go, B".
Xander stepped between them. "Let's just all relax, huh? If Buffy's not ready to talk to Spike, then we won't rush her. I'll try to find a way to let him know that the kids know about him and he can decide for himself what he wants to do."
He gave Buffy a hard look. "They are his kids, Buff. If he wants to see them, I think he's got a right to. What happens between you two is not anybody else's business..." He glared at his wife, who blinked innocently. "But the man has a right to be part of his kids' lives if they want him. And it seems to me that they want him," he added, somewhat unnecessarily.
Buffy nodded wearily. "You're right, of course, Xan. I can remember how I blamed my mother for chasing Dad away. Of course, when I was older, I understood that he was cheating on her with his secretary and that she had every right to throw him out. The fact that he didn't come around much to see Dawn and me was because he was a jerk – not because of her. If Spike wants to be part of their lives, he should be. They need to know that he loves them."
Her eyes went to the hallway where Joy was standing in her warm-ups, holding her gym bag. Buffy glanced at her and picked up the keys from her desk.
"I appreciate this, guys. I really do." She looked at Xander pleadingly. "Do you think you can find a subtle way to keep him down here with you? I don't think he'll do anything stupid, but..."
"But he's the offspring of two stupid people, so you never know..." Xander's gentle smile took the sting out of his words and she smiled back, nodding her agreement.
With a final thank you, she waved and followed Joy out to the car.
When they returned several hours later, Joy's gym bag contained, in addition to her workout clothes, the ingredients and directions for a simple locator spell. She hadn't shared with Will that her friendship with Karin had developed in large part because they had discovered that Joy had a fairly strong gift for doing earth magic. Karin assured her that a locator spell was well within Joy's newly-discovered abilities, and she had slipped the necessary materials into her friend's bag while Joy was doing her end of class stretches.
With a polite "good-night" to Faith and Xander, she went up to her room, followed very quickly by her younger brother. Will bade his two sitters a polite "good-night", but refused to speak to his mother as he took the steps three at a time.
Xander gave Buffy a sympathetic hug. "He'll be all right, Buff," he said loyally. "We talked a lot while you were gone. I told him..." He cleared his throat and tried to ignore his girlfriend's snort of amusement. "I told him a lot about Spike before he got the chip. And about Angelus. I told him about Jenny. And how Angelus tortured Giles. And how Spike stuck a broken bottle in Willow's face to make her to a spell to help him get his homicidal maniac of a girlfriend back... I think he has a better idea of why you might have been so afraid for them."
She smiled ruefully. "I take it you left out the part where he put your unconscious body on a bed and didn't really hurt Willow? And that he used to visit my mom and I never knew about it? "
"Yeah, I kinda went heavy on the 'evil, unsouled killer' stuff. Seemed like the thing to do."
Buffy nodded her gratitude. "Thanks for that. I guess I'm going to be doing a lot of fence mending for a while." She sighed. "At least, if you tell Spike they know, I won't have to worry about that. Just see if you can find out when to expect him so I can brace myself for it."
"No problem. I'll just tell him the kids are dying – bad choice of word, I guess – to see him and ask if he's going to be here soon."
"You really don't know where he is?"
Xander shook his head. "He didn't volunteer, and I didn't ask. We mostly talk about the kids... and you. He's too far away to know what's going on with you. I know that. But not so far that he can't get back quickly. He did tell me that. That if we needed him for something – apocalypse, world end-age, that kind of thing – that he could be here within twenty-four hours."
"Well, that's something to—" Buffy's reply was interrupted by the phone's shrill jangle. Spike had refused to go with one of the softer ring tones now available, in spite of Buffy's teasing him about being a hide-bound old man; and she hadn't had the heart to change it after he left. She walked quickly to the desk, her muttered "Who the hell is calling at this hour? This can't be good," ending as she grabbed the receiver.
Faith moved to her side, trying to hear the conversation as she watched the blood drain from her sister slayer's face. Woodenly, Buffy asked questions – "Are you sure? Why didn't anyone tell us? Well, I don't know what we could have done – something! We are slayers, you know. And we know him best... Yes. Yes. I'll tell her. She's right here. Yes. I know he will. Thanks for calling."
She dropped the phone back in its cradle, not even noticing when it missed and bounced out. Faith snatched it before it could hit the ground, placing it carefully back in the dock.
"Was that what it sounded like?" Her face was as pale as Buffy's and her hands were fisted tightly at her sides.
"Buffy? Faith? Something you want to share with the class?" Xander's attempt at humor didn't reach his eyes. The last time he'd seen faces like the ones in front of him was the night Spike was turned. His stomach began to clench as he waited.
Without looking at him, Buffy walked back to the couch and sat down. Her voice came as if from a great distance. "Drusilla showed up in New York. Angel went out to talk with her and..."
"And the loony got to him? What was he thinking?"
"He was thinking that Dru wouldn't hurt her 'daddy'," Buffy said quietly. "And to her way of thinking, she probably didn't."
"So," Xander tried to maintain his calm demeanor in the face of the complete devastation he could read on the women in front of him. "Angel's dead then? I guess we need to call Nina and offer our condo-"
"Nina's dead," Buffy said dully. "Her throat was ripped out last night – in her own home."
Faith's "Fuck, fuck, FUCK!" echoed in the empty-seeming house. Tears she would never admit to ran down her cheeks.
"I take it we're going on the assumption that Angelus is undead and well again?"
"So it seems." Buffy still spoke as though she was sedated. Incapable of even the display of anger and grief that Faith was still indulging in. Her mind shut down, refusing to accept what her ears had heard. That first Spike, and now Angel, had not been permitted to remain human long enough to earn a true, peaceful death from old age seemed like the most unfair of fates. That he had come back as the same vicious killer that he had been before added an additional burden.
Her stupefied response was inspired as much by guilt that she hadn't kept in close touch with Nina after the move to New York City as it was by grief at her death. During their years in Cleveland, she and Buffy had become close and the news that the werewolf was dead at the hands of her husband hit Buffy almost harder than the news of Angel's death. When they'd moved, so that Angel could use his years of experience in Los Angeles to assist the small cadre of slayers in New York City, Nina and Buffy had vowed to email each other every week, a vow that had lapsed gradually over time. Nina had always accompanied Angel on his trips back to guest lecture at the Slayer School, and they often stayed at Buffy's home so that the two women could catch up.
Accepting that neither slayer was in a mental state to be making decisions just then, Xander took it upon himself to go upstairs and knock on first one bedroom door and then the other. When the sleepy, bewildered faces of the closest thing he and Faith had to a niece and nephew opened their doors, he was firm but quick.
"Do not open your windows. Don't invite anyone into the house – most especially a nut job with long black hair. And don't make eye contact with anyone like that." He paused, then took a deep breath. "And whatever you do, if you see Uncle Angel, do NOT go near him. Don't ask him in, and don't talk to him. Just run for your mother or Faith."
The two children stared at him, bewilderment being gradually replaced by understanding.
"Uncle Angel got turned?" Joy breathed softly.
"But, Dad came back just like he used to be," Will said with a frown. "Didn't Uncle Angel?"
"He did," Xander said tightly. "Hence the instructions not to go anywhere near him. The vampire you will see is not your Uncle Angel; he's Angelus. And you two are probably numbers one and two on his list of targets."
"US?" Identical expressions of disbelief and shock told him that Buffy's children were going to have to hear it from their mother before they accepted how much their lives had just changed.
"Come downstairs, kids," he said soberly. "Your mother's got some more stuff to share with you."
He accompanied the still more curious than frightened children down to the living room and nodded to Buffy as she rushed to hug them both.
"I'll be outside," he said, casting an eye at Faith. "I have a phone call to make."
"Tell him to hurry..." Buffy's whispered plea spoke more loudly than anything else she could have done to indicate just how seriously she was taking the news of Angelus' return.
While Xander stepped onto the porch, under the watchful eye of his wife, and pushed the button to dial the number stored in his phone, Buffy pulled her children down onto the couch with her. She looked them each in the eye, making sure that they were paying close attention before she began.
"I'm going to talk to you as if you were both grown-ups," she started. "Joy, you're only a little younger than I was when I was called, and, Will," she turned to look into her son's worried face, "you're plenty old enough to understand the things I'm going to tell you."
They nodded solemnly, struck silent by the obvious intensity of their mother's mood, as well as by her telling them she was going to treat them as adults. Doing their best to appear mature and serious, they waited for her to explain what was going on.
"Did Uncle Xander tell you about Angel?"
They nodded in tandem. Buffy turned her gaze to her daughter.
"Did you read everything in those Watcher's Diaries, or just the parts about your dad?"
"Um... I read a lot of it, but I was mainly looking for stuff about Daddy, so I..."
"You didn't read about Angelus?"
"Not much," Joy admitted. "I figured I could read all that later."
Buffy sighed and smiled sadly. "I wish you were going to read about it later. But we don't have time for later, so here goes..."
When Buffy had finished her story of Darla and Angelus, of Drusilla and the way Angelus had carefully driven her insane before he turned her, of how he had lost his soul when she was only seventeen, killed Giles' girlfriend and tried to end the world, their eyes were open so wide she was afraid they would damage them.
"So," Buffy continued, "you understand why I'm so worried? Angelus enjoys torturing his victims before he kills them – physically and mentally. He knows how much you two mean to me... and to Sp-your dad, and he's going to come after you. I don't doubt it for a second. If he's not on his way here right now, it's only because he wants me to have time to get really worried before he shows up. It's only a question of time before he makes his move. And if Dru's with him..." Her voice trailed off as she remembered the insane vampire's predilection for torturing and killing children.
"And, you need to know what Dru looks like. She's criminally insane and she likes children."
"If she likes children, doesn't that mean she wouldn't hurt us?"
"She likes to EAT children," Buffy clarified. "After she tortures them for hours. And god only knows what she would do with you two – knowing who your father is."
"She was Daddy's... sire thingy, wasn't she? The first time he became a vampire, I mean."
"Yes," Buffy said tersely. "They were together for over a hundred years. She broke up with him after they left Sunnydale, because... Well, because she's a slut and she was cheating on him," she finished primly. "But she came back for him once, and I'm sure she'd like nothing better than to get her skanky hands on his children."
"Don't pull any punches, B, tell them how you really feel about her." Faith's amused voice drifted back to them from the doorway where she was scanning the area around the house for any sign of danger. Xander was holding the phone to his ear and nodding, although the frantic man on the other end couldn't see him.
"Yeah. No, I was going to call you anyway to tell you about the kids – they want to see you – but now... Yeah, she's fine with it... she even asked me to tell you to hurry. No, I'm not making that up!" He sighed. "Look, Spike, you and Buffy? That's none of my business. I learned a long time ago not to get between you two when one of you is feeling testy. But these are your kids, and she knows that your whack job of an ex and your even wackier whatever-he-is-now are going to want them. I think..." he hesitated, "I think she'd be happy to have some backup on this one. Yeah, okay, I'll tell them. See you."
He snapped the phone shut and looked up at Faith. "He's on his way."
She nodded and held the door while he went back into the house, never ceasing her scanning of as much of the area around the house as she could see in the dark. Even though there was nothing setting off her slayer radar, she shivered as she closed the door behind her. Logic told her that there was no way for Angel and Dru to have reached Cleveland already, but that did nothing to alleviate her fear.
"So what's the plan?" Xander's quiet question brought her attention back to other people in the room, and she looked at Buffy quickly.
"I think we're probably okay in the daylight. Angelus might try to get around, but Dru hates the sun – she won't go out in it. And Angel-lus doesn't know the sewers or tunnels here, so I doubt he'll try it. Just in case, I'll take the kids to and from school, but I think they'll be safe there."
"We could send one of the younger slayers with them," Faith suggested. "Could say she was a cousin visiting from out of town or something."
Buffy nodded. "That's not a bad idea – I hate to send an inexperienced slayer up against Dru or Angelus, though. Remember what happened to Kendra?"
"Only in that whatever it was, I turned out to be next in line," Faith said wryly. "I take it I have one of them to thank for that?"
Buffy nodded. "Yeah, you can thank Dru for pulling you out of whatever it was you were doing before you got called."
Faith made a face. "Gonna be hard to stay mad at her for that one," she said quietly, remembering her life before her first watcher found her.
"Yeah, well, don't let your gratitude slow down your stake," Xander put in. "You can thank her dust if you feel the need." His smile was affectionate, but it didn't reach his eyes.
"Don't worry. I was just sayin'... Got no plans to give her a pass just because she put me where I am now."
"YOU put you where you are now, Faith," Buffy said firmly. "You made yourself what you are."
Blushing lightly at the unaccustomed praise from the only slayer older than her, Faith nodded her head in thanks. Xander put his arms around her and added his murmured agreement to Buffy's words, causing Faith to briefly close her eyes in happiness. An emotion that still caught her by surprise from time to time.
Will broke the spell, asking pointedly, "Does this mean somebody's going to go with us everywhere we go? Like to my soccer games, and Joy's meets?"
His lip came out in the familiar pout, but before he could complain again, Buffy snapped at him.
"Did you listen to a word I said? Which part of torture, bloodshed and death didn't you hear? You're dammed right you're going to have somebody with you all the time. Every single second, if necessary. If it can't be me or your Aunt Faith, then it'll be some other slayer. Get used to it. Until Angelus and his homicidal maniac of a childe/sire are dust on the wind, you and Joy will have protection everywhere you go. I don't care if it's a soccer field at high noon."
Will's rebelliousness faded somewhat as he saw the matching expressions of fear and determination on the faces of the other two adults in the room. When Joy added her pleading look to the firm glares from the others, he subsided and began to rethink his situation. Even with the young person's confidence in his own immortality – of which he had more than his share – he could feel the first frisson of fear creeping up his spine. The idea that two of the strongest and most dangerous (to demons) adults he knew were clearly frightened for him, was unsettling enough to put a small hole in his sense of his own invulnerability.
Trying to save face, he muttered, "Well, okay. But only if you pick one of the pretty slayers to go to school with us. I've got a reputation to protect, you know."
Joy rolled her eyes while the adults tried to hide their snickers behind stern expressions.
"I'll see what I can do," Buffy managed to say with a straight face. "Now, you guys can go back to bed. Just remember not to go near the windows; in fact, pull the curtains. I don't know if Dru's thrall can work from a distance or through glass, but I'd just as soon not find out the hard way. We'll get some protective amulets from Aunt Willow tomorrow."
She walked her suddenly more precious children to the stairs and hugged them both so tightly that they had to remind her, somewhat breathlessly, that she had super strength.
"Sorry," she mumbled, settling for a kiss on each cheek. "Your father should be here soon," she added. "I'm assuming you won't mind if he goes everywhere with you," she added with a small smile at her son.
"We'll be fine, Mom," Joy whispered, wanting to both comfort her mother and curl up in her strong arms until the danger was gone.
"You will if I have anything to say about it." The sudden appearance of Buffy's slayer persona was enough to send both adolescents scampering to their rooms.
After a quick check with the slayer on night duty at the school, to be sure that they had received the same information that she had, Buffy said 'good-night' to Xander and Faith and watched them drive away. She took a quick circuit of the house, checking all doors and windows, and then made her way upstairs for a few hours of sleep.
Sleep, which didn't come. Her mind was racing; grief for Angel and Nina, anxiety over what seemed to be the inevitable clash with Angelus and Drusilla, and fear-tinged excitement over seeing Spike again, warred for space in her brain and heart. As dawn began to show under the drapes in what she still thought of as "their" bedroom, Buffy gave up on sleep and tottered into the bathroom to throw cold water on her face.
By the time her sleep-deprived children stumbled into the kitchen, she was on her third cup of coffee and had breakfast waiting for them. There was a minimum of discussion, the night's emotions and revelations having exhausted both mother and offspring. Any conversation was limited to practical things – what time they needed to be at school, who Buffy would need to speak to, to arrange for an out-of-town "cousin" to go to classes with one or the other of the Pratt children every day for a while.
Once Buffy had safely deposited Will and Joy at their private school and had made the necessary arrangements for a slayer to keep them company for a week or so, she made her way to the Slayer School for a war council. That there wasn't going to be a war never crossed her mind. She knew that Angelus, in whatever incarnation he had returned, would want to destroy everything that had meant anything to him as a human. Nina's death was more than proof of that. The former vampire had established a home and a life with his occasionally furry girlfriend; a life that didn't include children, but was warm and rewarding all the same.
She walked into the building, greeting the slayers that she recognized by name, but not slowing until she reached the occult wing of the building. She stepped through Willow's open door and was immediately embraced by her oldest friend.
"Oh, Buffy, I heard when I got in this morning. Are you all right? When do you expect him to show up?"
For a brief second, Buffy forgot that Willow wasn't aware of Xander's contact with Spike and she answered without thinking, "He told Xander he was on his way, so we're thinking maybe by tonight or tomorrow. We really don't know where he is..." Her voice trailed off as her brain caught up to her mouth and she took in Willow's puzzled frown.
"Xander? What does Xander have to do with..." Willow studied Buffy's red face, then smiled. "So," she said, wearing her 'aha!' face. "You didn't really stake him, huh? I knew you wouldn't, but everybody said you did, so I—"
"Am I the only person in this city who thinks it was a secret that I didn't slay my children's father?" Buffy interrupted, her exasperation plain.
"No, no," Willow soothed. "I didn't know. I just thought you probably didn't do it. I'm going to have a word with Xander, though," she said, a less happy expression now in place. "Keeping something like that from me." For just a moment, the wise, competent witch turned into an insecure girl. "Why did you tell him and not me?"
"I didn't tell him, I didn't tell anybody. They were friends, Will. You know that. Xander saw him somewhere and they – you know, I don't know? I didn't ask about it. I guess Spike kept in touch with him as a way of checking up on the kids... and me." She shook her head, surprised at her own lack of intuition. "I didn't know either – not until last night."
"Oh." Willow sounded somewhat mollified. "Well, that's okay then. I guess it was a guy thing... So," her tone changed, "what do we do now?"
"The first thing we do is you give me charms or something for the kids that will protect them from Dru's thrall. Just in case. And, I guess you'd better strengthen the wards on this building – with it being a public place..."
"Already done," Willow responded with satisfaction. "As soon as I heard, I put up new wards. And I'll get busy on those charms right away."
"Thanks, Will. I knew I could count on you." The two old friends smiled at each other – soft smiles that held a wealth of shared sadness and the knowledge that they could survive whatever the Powers threw at them.
Buffy interrupted the day's classes to call a meeting of all the slayers currently in residence at the school. She apologized to the disgruntled instructors, saying evenly, "This is more important right now than algebra."
As soon as the large meeting room was full and everyone had quieted, she began without preamble. "Angelus and Drusilla, one half of the Scourge of Europe are currently en route from New York City to Cleveland. I can't tell you when they will get here, or where they will strike, all I can tell you is that they will be coming here. My children will be their targets, in all likelihood, but anyone who gets in their way will be in danger. It's also possible, given his history here as an instructor, that he will target the school and its students."
She waited for the buzz of conversation to die down, then continued, "I have something else to tell you. I'm not proud of this – although not for the reasons you might think – but it was a decision I made several years ago at a time of great emotional stress and I've had to live with it." She took a deep breath and let it out in a loud sigh.
"Most of you know that my husband, William Pratt, was killed in the process of saving me from a vampire attack. What some of you may not know is that those vampires didn't just kill him – they turned him. Turned him back into what he was when I first met him – an unsouled, very powerful vampire. Contrary to what those of you who already knew that have been told, I did not stake him when he rose. He was the same vampire I fell in love with, the one who loved me when he had no soul and when he had the one he earned for me. He was my husband and the father of my children. And I sent him away because I feared for them. It was a stupid thing to do – but that's my problem."
She sent her cold gaze around the room, daring anyone to question her decisions – either the one to allow him to live, or the one that sent him away from his family.
"Now he's coming back. Because now there really is something for my children to fear – and it isn't their father. For those of you unfamiliar with Angleus and Drusilla – please check out the watchers' diaries in the library. I'll just say that Drusilla is insane – driven so by Angelus, who killed her entire family one-by-one before he turned her; and Angleus prides himself on his ability to torture his victims both mentally and physically. These are not your average vampires. And they are not fledglings. They are old and powerful and deadly. Drusilla has already killed one slayer..." She paused as Willow ran up and whispered in her ear. Her already cold expression hardened even further.
"Apparently Angelus can now claim the same thing. They just found Sarah's body. It looks like he went to the slayer house before he went to his own home, and he killed one of the girls living there." She hesitated, then said, "To give you some idea of what we're up against... they found Sara's body naked and staked to a wall in the common room."
There was a collective gasp, then the gradual emergence of a deadly anger was readily visible as each slayer in the room, no matter how young, turned her shock and grief into a determination to be the one to exact revenge on Angelus. Buffy took in the grim faces staring at her and nodded. "Hold on to that anger. You will need it."
She let the girls mutter among themselves for a few minutes; then called for quiet again. "I need a volunteer..." she was just able to get out before hands went into the air. She smiled proudly. "I need a volunteer who either is or can pass for an eighth or ninth-grader. Someone who can accompany Joy and Will around their school – just in case..."
As the older girls put their hands down, Buffy ran her eyes over all the remaining volunteers, pausing when she got to a pretty redhead whom she knew to be one of the better fighters in the current class. Unlike so many of the slayers, who were petite and delicate looking until they moved, Lucy was tall for her age and looked every bit the athlete that she was. Buffy nodded and pointed.
"Lucy? Do you feel like being a cousin of the Pratts' for a while?"
"I'd be honored." Lucy looked at the small woman facing her and asked somewhat timidly, "But, do you think I look like a member of your family?"
"There are a lot of redheads in families with blonds," Willow put in quickly. "And you can just say that your father is much taller than your mother. That happens all the time."
Buffy nodded. "And my mom was several inches taller than me; and so is my sister. Dawn is very tall. It'll be fine."
"Okay, then," Lucy said. "When do I start?"
"How about you collect what you'll need for the next couple of weeks and I'll take you by the school and introduce you. You can start tomorrow morning."
The meeting broke up after reminders to everyone that Drusilla had a very strong thrall and under no circumstances were the new slayers to go anywhere outside the school at night unless there were at least two, and preferably three of them. As they stared to file out of the room, Buffy raised her voice.
"Any of you who have met Angel, or seen pictures of him with us, please remember that you will be meeting Angelus – not Angel. If you get a chance to stake him, don't hesitate."
Willow shot her a startled look. "We're not going to try to re-soul him?"
Buffy shrugged. "If we get a chance, sure, we'll give it a shot. But it's not worth a girl's life. I don't want any hesitation because the girls think we want to save him." She paused and smiled at Willow sadly. "Interesting, isn't it? That the first thing we think of when it's Angelus, is to stuff a soul back into him. But none of us thought of trying to do that for Spike…"
"Don't blame yourself for that, Buffy," Willow said sternly as she watched her friend's face take on another layer of regret. "It should have been the first thing I thought of. But I didn't. No one did – not until it was too late."
"So you did think about it?"
"Eventually. But as far as I knew by that time, he was dust. To have mentioned it to you would have just been rubbing salt in a very raw wound. We were all shocked and grieving – you most of all – and we just didn't have our brains in gear yet."
"Well, let's hope we've got them working overtime now," Buffy said quietly. "I'm afraid we're going to need them."
Lucy settled into the Pratt household quickly, striking up a friendship with Joy and, although she pretended to be appalled, secretly enjoying the admiring looks that Will sent her way when he thought she wasn't looking. Although he pretended to be offended when she accompanied him to his classes, he was basking in the looks the other boys sent their way and he preened accordingly.
By the time the weekend rolled around, with no sign of Angelus or Spike, Buffy was alternating between anxiety and fury.
Where the hell is he? Twenty-four hours my ass! I know what Angelus is doing – trying to throw me off my game by waiting – but what is Spike's problem?
She tried to maintain a calm demeanor as she helped Joy get ready for her gymnastics meet on Saturday night. They had decided to go on with their lives as normally as possible, given that Buffy didn't want to share with their school or anyone else that she was expecting a kidnapping attempt from vampires. Instead of pulling Joy from the meet, a small contingent of slayers was attending – giving Joy, not only her own cheering section, but some very powerful bodyguards.
Buffy watched quietly from the sidelines, only paying attention when it was Joy's turn on an apparatus. When other girls were performing, Buffy's eyes were scanning the crowd, her slayer senses alert for any telltale tingles. She watched with a teacher's interest as one of the young slayers allowed a very pale boy to lead her out of the gym and into a nearby hallway. She smiled when the girl came back alone a few minutes later, dusting her hands theatrically. Buffy caught her eye and gave her a quick thumbs-up, then left her to the congratulations of the other girls.
So, she missed it at first when the entire slayer contingent froze, their faces suddenly intent as they searched for the source of the new vampire tingles. The sudden silence brought Buffy's eyes back to them and she was moving as soon as she realized what had silenced them. As she got closer, the signature of a powerful vampire had her torn between remaining where she could see her daughter and seeking the source of the signature.
The slayers were looking to her for guidance; not sure themselves if they should pursue the vampire or stay with Joy. Buffy quickly used a hand signal to divide them into two groups, signaling one group to follow her as she moved around the gym as inconspicuously as possible, trying to hone in on the location of the vampire. When her senses told her that the vampire in question was above them, she tilted her head back and began to exam the upper rows of seats. She saw nothing there but enthusiastic parents and bored siblings. The other slayers followed her glance and suddenly one pointed.
At the very top of the gymnasium was a row of dirty, barely noticeable windows; and just visible, peering through one of those hard-to-reach windows, was a man's head. Buffy gestured quickly and the slayers dashed to the exits as Buffy ran lightly up the stairs to the very top row. Ignoring the puzzled stares from those around her, she stood on the bleacher seat and went up on her toes until she was face to face with a startled vampire. Using her strength to push the long-unused lever, she opened the window.
"Wouldn't you rather watch from in here?"
He cast an eye from where he was clinging to a ledge to the ground, gesturing at the line of girls standing below him. Signaling him to wait there, Buffy ran back down the bleacher steps and out the nearest exit. When she had joined the slayers now ranged along the wall below the windows, she waved at Spike to come down, warning the girls not to try to stake him. He dropped the last thirty feet, landing lightly in front of Buffy.
Forcing herself to be casual, she turned to the gathered slayers, several of whom were holding stakes, and said clearly, "Girls, this is Will and Joy's father. He's here to help us. Do not stake him. Please," she added, her tone brooking no argument.
The girls who had taken the time to check out the school's library pushed each other in an effort to get close enough to see the only other remaining member of the notorious Scourge of Europe. The only vampire to have killed two slayers and fallen in love with a third. They were mildly disappointed to see only what appeared to be a medium sized man; although, the way he'd descended from his perch on the roof was proof that there was more there than was readily visible at first glance.
"Shouldn't you be inside takin' care of my girl?" he challenged them, sparking a mass shrinking away from him before they remembered that he was not in charge. When Buffy nodded, they moved back into the building, sending lingering glances over their shoulders at the two people now standing rigidly in the light cast by the parking lot flood lights.
Buffy waited until the last of the girls had re-entered the gym before she said, unable to keep the accusatory tone out of her voice, "I thought you were leaving right away."
He stiffened even more, replying tersely, "Did. Got held up."
Conversation apparently exhausted, they turned and began to walk toward the door to the building. Buffy led him away from the chattering slayers, knowing that word of who he was would be passed on before they could get there for introductions. Instead, she walked to the far end of the room and climbed silently to an empty area of the bleachers. He sat down beside her, keeping a careful distance between them and immediately fixed his eyes on the actions on the floor.
He watched in silence as Joy took her turn on the balance beam, smiling along with Buffy when their daughter demonstrated an almost unnatural balance and strength.
"We don't think so. She doesn't have a lot of slayer senses or anything. She's just stronger and better coordinated than most girls her age. Both kids are, actually. They seem normal, just...more..."
He nodded, never taking his eyes off his daughter. In spite of her being a teenager now, he'd had no trouble picking her out from the other adolescent gymnasts, and he stared as though afraid she could vanish from his sight at any second.
"Where's Will?" The abrupt question came when Joy was no longer performing, and he had time to look around at the audience.
"He hates meets. He's with Faith at the slayer school – it's movie night or something like that."
"He's passing up a chance to be surrounded by pretty girls in leotards to watch a movie?"
His tone indicated serious reservations about whose child the boy could be, and Buffy laughed softly.
"I think the specific pretty girl he's interested in wanted to watch a movie tonight," she said dryly.
"Oh, well, that's alright, then," Spike mumbled. "Good to know he's got his priorities straight."
Except for the few seconds when Buffy appeared in the window, they had yet to make eye contact. Spike kept his gaze resolutely focused on Joy; and Buffy, after indulging in a few minutes of staring at his face, had followed his example. To anyone watching they would appear to be two long-married parents who were totally focused on their child's performance. The tension quivering between them would have been unnoticed by anyone not aware that they had not seen each other for close to seven years.
When the meet ended, they waited where they were while the gym emptied out, only descending the bleachers when Joy was surrounded by her traveling bodyguards. They walked up to the group and waited for them to finish congratulating Joy on her second-place finish. As the slayers parted to allow Buffy and Spike to approach, Joy's eyes flew to the man with the same cheekbones that she saw in her mirror every morning.
"Joy, honey, this is—"
"Daddy," she breathed.
"How are you, darlin'," he said, almost shyly. "Besides bein' all grown up and beautiful?"
"Daddy," she repeated, her feet moving her slightly closer. "Daddy!"
With her last, louder, shout, she threw herself at him, confident that he would catch her and reveling in having her father's strong arms around her once again. Spike kept his head buried in her hair in an attempt to hide his tears from the curious girls still gathered around them. Buffy's own eyes prickled uncomfortably as she tried not to be jealous of her daughter's easy assumption that she we would be welcome in her father's arms.
As the clean-up crews began clearing their throats and pointedly working around their area, Buffy finally herded the slayers to the door, trusting that Spike and Joy would follow them. She watched the girls climb into the school vans and waved as they rolled away, leaving just Buffy and Lucy standing beside the SUV hybrid that had replaced their old car.
Joy approached, clinging to her father's right hand; his other hand carried her gym bag.
"We're going by the slayer school aren't we? To get Will?"
"I don't know..." Buffy began. "Faith and Xander said they would bring him home."
"Mom! He's going to want to come home now. Not later! When those girls get back and tell him..."
"Okay, okay. You're right. We'll go get him. Get in everybody."
While Joy and Lucy climbed into the back seat, Buffy and Spike stood awkwardly beside the car. Finally, she held out the keys, asking softly, "Do you want to drive?"
"It's your car, Buffy. I've got my own transportation. I'll just meet you there."
His voice was light and controlled, giving no indication of his feelings, and she didn't know how to react.
Is he still mad at me? Of course he is, you idiot! Why wouldn't he be? It's not like you asked him to come back to you. He's just here to see the kids and protect them from Angelus and Dru. This has nothing to do with becoming a family again. Or with going back to being your husband. Get over yourself.
"Oh." Her voice was small and meek. "Okay. Sure. You know where it is, right?"
"Think I remember," he said gently. "Just go on, Buffy. I'll be right behind you."
They pulled into the parking lot outside the school almost simultaneously, and Buffy realized that he had, in fact, been 'right behind' her. Seemingly unaware of the tension between her parents, Joy grabbed Spike's hand again and began pulling him towards the building. Before they could reach the door, it was shoved open and an assortment of slayers, student witches and watchers flooded out of it. At the head of the group was a smiling Xander, who walked up to Spike and began pummeling him on the back.
"Took your own sweet time, didn't you, fangface?"
Spike took the complaining in stride, exchanging manly blows to the back in lieu of hugging his friend. He then picked up a grinning Faith and spun her around, stage whispering in her ear, "Any time you get tired of this loser, make him tell you where to find me."
"Oh, the Big Bad is back," she purred, smirking at a glaring Buffy. "We'll pop that champagne yet."
Laughing, he put her down in time to take Willow into a warm, if less exuberant, embrace.
"Welcome back, Spike," she whispered. "You've been missed."
He cocked a skeptical eyebrow at her, shaking his head when she said firmly, "It's true." They both avoided looking at Buffy, who was frowning at her inability to hear what they were saying.
The giggling student slayers grew quiet as they all realized that the only person who hadn't run forward to greet Spike was the boy he had come to see. Will remained standing on the top step, doing his best to appear older than his twelve years. With a supreme effort, he coolly said, "Hi, Dad. Long time, no see." He walked carefully down the steps and sauntered towards the waiting man, searching for some sign of the father he could barely remember.
Spike let him set the tone for the reunion, taking the hand that Will extended and shaking it firmly.
"It's good to see you, son. Done some growin' while I was gone, haven't you?"
"Yeah," Will drew himself up to his full five feet. "Mom says she thinks I'm going to be taller than you."
"Is that so?" Spike shot a surprised look at Buffy. Somehow he'd been sure that she would have done her best to keep any mention of him to a bare minimum. To hear that she talked about him with his children began to thaw the ball of ice that was sitting where his heart belonged.
"Yeah," Will continued obliviously. "She's always telling me how much I'm like you – usually when I'm doing something she doesn't like."
"Ah, that sounds more like it," Spike muttered, ignoring Buffy's mortified gasp.
Sending Will a look that promised some sort of retribution for his comment, Buffy gestured to the cars and said, "Why don't we go home and continue this reunion there? Do you guys want to come?" She glanced at Xander and Faith, including Willow in her broad invitation, but they all shook their heads.
"Nah, you guys go on and get all the family stuff out of the way. We'll take Willow home and catch up with you tomorrow."
There was another awkward moment when they all reached the two cars, broken when Will looked back and forth between the two adults and said, "I want to ride with Dad."
Buffy nodded, asking Joy, "Do you want to ride with him too?"
Joy watched her mother's tight face and, with an apologetic glance at her father, she responded, "No, that's okay. We'll ride with you, Mom. See you in a few minutes," she added, smiling uncertainly at Spike. "You don't mind, do you, Daddy?"
"Of course not, love. We'll be there before you know it."
When they were all settled in the living room, after another awkward moment when everyone forgot that Spike would need an invitation to come in, Buffy excused herself and went out to the kitchen. For lack of anything better to do, she found herself making hot chocolate and filling a large teapot with the warm, sweet-smelling liquid. She smiled ruefully as she got out the cups.
I'm turning into my mother. Thinking that cocoa will make everything better.
Reminding herself that there were worse things she could turn into than Joyce Summers, she carried a tray full of cups and hot chocolate into the living room, setting it on the coffee table and then retreating to a big chair against the far wall. She watched quietly as the initial awkwardness between Spike and the children he hadn't seen for years gradually gave way to familiarity.
Joy sat next to Spike who kept one arm resting lightly behind her on the back of the couch. As the conversation went around, explaining about Lucy's daytime duties, talking about their school and their activities, he gently stroked Joy's head from time to time. Lucy helped herself to a cup of hot chocolate, and asked innocently, "Is it true that these vampires we're watching for are your family? Are they, like, cousins or something?"
Spike grimaced and briefly tightened his fist on Joy's shoulder. "Something like that. The first time I was a vamp..." He shot Buffy a quick look, suddenly wondering how much she'd told them about their lives before he was human. When she just nodded, he continued, "The first time I was a vampire, they were my family. Drusilla was my sire and Angelus was my grandsire. Along with the whor-, ahem, the vampire that sired Angelus, we were a family for a good twenty years or so. Kinda fell apart after that, and for a long time it was just Dru and me. Till I met your mother," he said, casting a look at Will and carefully avoiding Buffy's eyes.
"And then you fell in love and got married!" Lucy smiled at her own cleverness, not noticing the way both adults winced. "That is sooo romantic!"
"I know!" Joy happily joined her in a teenager's fantasy of how people meet and fell in love, living happily ever after. Their delighted chattering flowed around the other three people in the room. Will made a face at their cooing and sighing, choosing to watch his parents instead. He tensed when he saw his mother's eyes fly to meet Spike's, then relaxed when they both tried to smother smiles and laughter. He watched them carefully, feeling his heart drop when the moment of shared laughter quickly ended and they turned away from each other. Spike's barely suppressed sigh was only audible to Joy.
"Daddy? Isn't that the way it happened?"
"Not quite, princess. Was a bit more to it than that, I'm afraid. Took me a while to fall in love with your mum, and a bit longer for me to admit it to myself."
"But then you guys were in love, right?"
"Took her a bit longer than that," he said shortly, putting an end to the topic in a manner that that wasn't lost on anyone in the room.
There were a few minutes of uncomfortable silence before Buffy forced out, "Why don't you all have some hot chocolate before it gets cold? While you're drinking you can catch your dad up on what you've been doing while he was gone."
Giving her mother a look that was much less kind than was normal for her, Joy said, "You mean after you made him go away?"
Her face tight, and her voice steady, Buffy said, "Yes. All the things that he missed because I made him go away. Why don't you tell him about them?"
She surged to her feet and made it to the kitchen before the tears pricking her eyes could become visible. Deciding that was still too close to the murmurs coming from the living room, she yanked open the kitchen door and went outside to sit on the deck.
The glider in which she had sat with her children the night they said 'good-bye' to their father had long since succumbed to the abuse of belonging to a family with very active children; she sat, instead, on a bare recliner. She enjoyed the feeling of the hard wooden slats against her body – as if being comfortable was something she should not allow herself. Drawing her knees up against her chest and huddling against the chill in the late fall air, she stared blindly into the dark yard.
So intent was she on not crying, that she never heard the kitchen door open, or Spike's booted footsteps on the boards. His voice startled her and she twitched in surprise when it came from behind her. "Do you really think it's a good idea to be out here alone, Slayer?"
She shrugged, recovering her equilibrium. "He isn't going to want me. Not right away. He'll try to take the kids first. Or you..." She glanced up quickly, then away.
"The tosser doesn't want me. He's got no family claim over me this time, and he'll know it. If he even knows I'm not dust." He paused for a moment and Buffy shook her head to indicate that she hadn't told Angel about not staking Spike. "More'n likely, he's gonna go for hurting you whichever way he can."
" I don't suppose there's any chance your crazy ex is going to just drag him off to South America to terrorize the populace down there, is there?" she asked, half-seriously and with the tiniest trace of hope in her voice.
"She might be willing to try, but based on the message he sent by killin' that slayer the way he did..."
"Her 'daddy' is in charge again."
"Probably so. Dru's more of a follower than a leader. She probably wanted him back so she'd have somebody to tell her what to do and when to do it."
"So, how did she manage all those years when you and Angel weren't with her? Why hasn't she been dusted?"
"She's insane, Buffy. Not stupid. And she had some good teachers when she was first turned. As long as Miss Edith is whispering the right advice in her ear, she knows how to keep a low profile when she has to. I expect she did go to South America – or maybe Africa or the Middle East. Someplace with a lot of confusion and bloodshed, where another dead body here or there would hardly be noticed."
"Great," she muttered. "Two crazy, smart vamps stalking us."
The short conversation about the very real dangers they were facing had wiped any trace of Buffy's tears away. She pushed thoughts of wallowing in guilt over having deprived her children of their father's presence to the back of her mind, where it could keep company with her fear that they would never forgive her.
I'll worry about that after I know they're safe physically. I can't afford to let myself be distracted by anything until I know that Angelus and Drusilla are dust.
She took his offered hand and allowed him to pull her to her feet, saying, "I guess I should stop pouting and go back inside, huh?"
"That's why I came out."
He dropped her hand as soon as she was on her feet, but didn't move away. Tipping her chin up, he said, "They're mad at you, Buffy, but they still love their mum. They'll forgive you. Knowin' what the poofter has done now that he's all unsouled again has gone a long way to helpin' them understand what you were so afraid of. They're gonna forgive you."
She could feel tears welling in her eyes again at the reminder of how easily Spike could read her feelings.
"And you?" she whispered. "Are you going to forgive me?"
"I'm not a kid," he said ambiguously, releasing her chin and opening the door. He held it as she walked through, not elaborating on his statement.
Telling herself that trying to salvage a relationship with Spike was something else that could wait until the current danger was over, Buffy forced a smile onto her face and walked back into the living room. She saw Joy's eyes dart back and forth between her and Spike, but missed the disappointment when she went back to her chair and Spike resumed his place on the couch. Will, too, noticed the lack of anything resembling affection between his parents and frowned briefly. He soon went back to telling Spike about his prowess on the soccer field.
He lowered his eyes shyly as he said, "For a long time I told everybody that I was scoring goals for my dadd-dad; that he was watching me from Heaven."
"Don't do that anymore, then?" Spike's face was carefully blank.
"Well... yeah... I mean, no... I mean I'm too old to..." He turned bright red and, carefully avoiding the eyes of the two curious girls, he mumbled, "I never stopped doing it. I just stopped telling everybody about it."
"It's too bad they don't play those games at night," Spike said lightly. "I'd like to see some of those goals for myself."
Will's face lit up. "When I get to high school, we'll play at night under the lights! You can see me then... I mean," he shot a glance at his mother, "if you're still here then; and if you still want to."
"I'll still want to, son," Spike said firmly. He didn't address the issue of whether or not he was still going to be around two years later and no one pursued it.
When all three children began to flag, with Lucy openly snoozing in her chair, Buffy stood up and said softly, "All right, guys. It's almost three AM. I know tomorrow isn't a school day, but you still need to get to bed. You can bring Daddy up to date some more tomorrow, okay?" She waited while they reluctantly stood up.
Lucy's quick "Good-night, Sir", brought a twitch to Spike's lips that he smothered behind his own polite, "Good-night, Lucy. I want to thank you for helping to keep my children safe."
She blushed and mumbled something about it being "my job" before escaping to the guest room. Joy gave Spike a fierce hug, clinging to him until he whispered, "Off to bed with you now, love. I'm not going anywhere."
"Promise?" she asked anxiously. The look on her face reminded him of Dawn at her age – all big eyes and insecurities.
"I promise. I'll see you tomorrow night - as soon as the sun sets."
He dropped a kiss on the top of her head and gave her a little push in the direction of the stairs, before turning his eyes to his son. "Well then, Will," he said with a smile. "Are you too big to give your dad a hug, now that there aren't a gaggle of pretty girls watchin'?"
With a strangled "No!" the boy threw himself into Spike's open arms, blinking back unmanly tears as he allowed himself to feel like a child for the first time in years. Although fully aware that his mother was a very strong woman, the older he'd got, the more he'd felt the responsibility to be the man of the house. With his own human history of losing his father at a young age to draw on for experience, Spike had a pretty good idea why the boy was so glad to have him back, and he responded by holding him tightly until he could feel Will begin to stir.
When Will had stopped sniffling into Spike's shirt and felt that he could raise his head without being embarrassed by tears, he reluctantly pulled away. With a shame-faced smile, he bade his father "Good-night, Dad. See you tomorrow."
"See you tomorrow, Will," Spike agreed easily, giving his shoulders a little squeeze as he let go. Without another word, the boy turned and ran up the stairs, taking them three at a time. Neither child had bothered to say "good-night" to their mother, their normal nighttime rituals of "I love you" and hugs forgotten in the excitement of having their father back. Only Lucy had included Buffy in her good night wave.
Spike watched until Will was out of sight, then turned in time to catch the look of complete devastation on Buffy's face. He frowned, but made no move to go to her.
"What's wrong?" he asked, knowing, even as he said it, why she looked as though she'd been punched in the gut.
"They hate me," she whispered, sinking into her chair. "They're never going to forgive me for this."
"They don't hate you, lo-Buffy," he said gruffly. "Don't be daft. They're brassed off, yeah, but they don't hate you. And forgettin' to tell you 'good-night' was just from the excitement and the late hour. It's got nothing to do with how they feel about you."
"And you would know that, how?" she snapped, immediately regretting her tone when his face shut down. She watched helplessly as he visibly fought for control of his temper.
"Because you're their mother," he said shortly. "And they've had you in their lives for as long as they can remember – taking care of them, watchin' over them, kissing their booboos, telling them you love them, cheering at their soccer games—" He stopped, unable to keep the anger and misery from his voice.
"I'm sorry." Buffy's voice was barely audible.
"So am I, Slayer. So am I."
He pulled on his leather coat, similar to, but not exactly the same as his old duster, and turned towards the door.
"Where are you going?"
"Got a room," he said quietly. "I'll be back as soon as I can tomorrow night."
"Oh." Buffy had no idea what she'd thought was going to happen – her brain had been concentrating on fear for her children and worry over where he was and why it was taking him so long to get there. Any thoughts about where he would be living and sleeping had been barely-realized whispers in the back of her mind. Until he began to walk out the door.
"You could... I mean, not with... cause I know you... but the basement..."
"Got a room, Buffy," he repeated, finally looking back at her. "Think that's best for now, yeah?"
She nodded dumbly, his reluctance to stay in his own house just one more blow to her hopes for the evening. She watched silently as he walked to the door, then, just as his hand was turning the knob, she blurted, "I missed you. Do – did you miss me?"
"Every bloody day," he replied, without turning around. "Good-night, Buffy."
The door closed behind him and she crumpled to the floor, giving way to the tears that she'd fought so hard all night.
Buffy felt like she had just dragged herself to bed when she heard the sound of teenaged giggles coming from her daughter's room. With a groan, she rolled over and put the pillow over her head, determined to squeeze out at least a few more hours of sleep. When she next opened her eyes, it was to the smell of burning toast and a suspicious silence.
She pulled herself out of bed and made her way downstairs, pausing only to make sure that the kitchen wasn't on fire before starting the coffee pot. As she sat at the counter, head in hands, staring at a pile of blackened bread crumbs, she wondered briefly where her children were. Even in broad daylight and with Lucy to accompany them, they knew they weren't to leave the house without checking with her first. As independent as they could be from time to time, and as angry as she knew they probably were at her, she couldn't imagine that they would disobey her on something as important as their survival.
The sounds of thumping and talking coming from the closed door to their playroom in the basement, answered her question and she allowed herself to relax. By the time she had a cup of hot coffee in her hands, and had brushed the burnt toast crumbs into the sink, she heard steps on the basement stairs and she stiffened in anticipation of another cold reception from her children.
When her "good morning" earned her a mumbled "morning" from Will, she chose to view it as a good sign. Shortly after, Joy and Lucy entered the kitchen, carefully closing the basement door behind them and giving Buffy quiet responses to her greeting.
"So," she ventured when they were uncharacteristically silent, "what were you doing downstairs?"
"Just messin' around," Will said casually. "You know, playing video games and stuff."
Still too sleepy to question why the girls would have been interested in his very boy-oriented video games, she nodded.
"Don't you have a game today?" she asked casually, hoping she hadn't slept through it.
"Relax, Mom," he said with a trace of his usual good humor. "It isn't till 3:00 this afternoon. We don't have to leave for another couple of hours."
"I knew that."
His snort and the giggles from the girls were her only reply, but she couldn't even pretend to be miffed. That they were willing to joke and giggle with her went further to raise her spirits than almost anything else they could have done. She sipped her coffee for a minute and then asked, "Would you like me to bring the video camera today? So you can show your dad your game tonight?"
"Yeah, that would be okay," he said, striving to keep the excitement out of his voice. "I mean, you know, just in case he wants to watch it."
"He wants to watch it," Buffy assured him as she got up to go look for the camera. "I know he does."
They were back from the game and eating dinner when Spike appeared outside the dining room door. He hesitated briefly, then opened the sliding door and walked in, casting a wary look at Buffy as he entered the house; but she gave no sign that she didn't think he had a right to come in whenever he wanted to.
He greeted the girls and ruffled Will's hair, asking, "Didn't you tell me you had a game today? How'd it go?"
"Went okay," he replied, leaning back in his chair casually. "Wasn't my best game, but I managed to score a couple of goals..."
"A couple, huh? Well, good on you then. Did the team win?"
Will nodded, then unable to contain himself any longer he blurted, "Mom taped the whole game so that you could watch if you want to."
"IF I want to? Of course I want to. Soon's you finish your veggies, that is," he added, pointing at the plate with the carefully spread out peas. "It's nice to know some things never change," he observed, raising one eyebrow at his blushing son.
While Buffy cleared the dishes, Spike headed for the living room, only to have Joy grab his arm and guide him towards the basement stairs.
"Why don't you watch it down here, Daddy," she said coyly. "It'll be more fun."
Spike glanced at Buffy who shrugged and shook her head.
"Alright then, let's go watch this tape where it will be more fun."
He obediently followed them downstairs. Buffy's curiosity got the best of her, and she stopped to see what was going on. Spike was standing at the bottom of the stairs, frozen in place as Joy and Will caroled together, "Ta da!" Buffy halted just behind him, her brain taking a minute to catch up with her eyes. Then she saw what they had spent the morning doing.
"Video games, huh?" she said dryly, surveying the makeover of her basement.
The day bed that was normally a wide couch for people to sprawl on while watching TV or playing video games was now made up as a real bed, complete with matching sheets and a quilted coverlet. An old card table had been placed in the middle of the floor and covered with a brightly-colored tablecloth. They had dragged out an old bookcase, cleaned it up and filled it with Spike's own books – which had been boxed up for years. An unrolled carpet remnant was now covering the tiled floor and a lamp that Buffy recognized as coming from the guest room was carefully placed on another small table that was beside the bed/couch.
When Spike didn't move to enter the room, Joy asked anxiously, "Do you like it, Daddy? We thought you'd want to stay out of the sun during the day so we fixed you a place to be. There's a TV and everything."
When Spike just stood, speechless, Buffy watched their faces begin to fall and she poked him in the back until he growled at her.
"Say something," she hissed just loud enough for him to hear.
"Don't you like it?" Joy's chin trembled just slightly, doing more to shake him out of his shock than did Buffy's continuous poking. Stepping away from her demanding finger, he shook his head.
"I'm just gobsmacked, is all," he said quickly. "Don't quite know what to say...Did you ask your Mum about this?"
They sent identical guilty looks in their mother's direction, searching for some sign of what she thought about their morning's activities. Her face showed some anxiety, but no trace of anger, and they relaxed and waited for Spike's approval.
"No, she was still asleep," Will explained. "But it's okay. This is our playroom – so if we want to make it a...a vampire lair. Well, that's our business," he finished with a defiant thrust of his chin.
"It is NOT a vampire lair!" Buffy's horrified voice frightened all three youngsters into a guilty cringe. She struggled to control her tone of voice, stepping between a rigid Spike and the stairs he was obviously planning to take on his way out of the house. "I think it's very...nice...that you wanted to give your father someplace to spend the day. But please don't call it a 'lair'. If he wants to use it, it is just...just a..."
She flailed around for a word to use, choking when Spike muttered, "Den? Crypt? Nest?"
"That's not funny!" she whispered.
"If that's what they think it is..."
"They don't know any better," she growled. "I didn't know that they even knew that word."
"Oh for...they're the children of a slayer. They have their own slayer bodyguard. They have slayer friends. How the bloody hell could they not know that word?"
"So," she said, not realizing how her voice was getting louder. "You're okay with having your children thinking you spend your time in a 'lair'?"
"I'm okay with spending my daylight hours in a bloody closet if it means I can be in the same house with my children!" he shouted.
They stood nose to nose, glaring and breathing hard. Buffy was on the bottom step, making her the same height as Spike. The air quivered between them, the only sound being Buffy's angry breathing and Spike's soft growling.
Lucy and Will looked panicked – the slayer started to move closer, not sure what she could do, but worried that there was going to bloodshed between the two adults now exchanging whispered insults and waving their arms around. Suddenly, Joy grabbed her arm.
"No, wait! This seems kinda familiar. Remember, Will? Remember how mad Mom and Dad used to get? They'd get all mad and yell at each other and then they'd... Well, I don't remember what they did then, but it was always all right after."
Will's forehead wrinkled. "Yeah, I guess. It's sort of familiar. But Dad was human then. What if they really start fighting? What if Mom tries to stake him?"
His frightened question halted the burgeoning argument in time for everyone to hear Xander's voice.
"Hey! Are you all down here? Shouldn't it just be the sunlight challenged family member who hides in the cellar?"
He stopped a few steps above Buffy and surveyed the newly decorated room.
"So, the Holiday Inn is going to lose a guest already?"
"We're discussing it," Buffy mumbled, not meeting his eyes.
Xander correctly read the body posture of the two people below him and gestured for the kids to follow him back upstairs.
"Looks like your mom and dad need to have a talk, guys. How about you come upstairs with me and see if we can find something for dessert?"
When they reached the kitchen, Joy and Lucy pulled out a carton of ice cream and fixed bowls for everybody, including Faith, who had just strolled into the room.
From the basement they could hear voices being raised again as Buffy and Spike went back to their "conversation".
"This is a good thing, right?" Joy asked anxiously, her eyes going back and forth between Faith and Xander. "That they're fighting instead of not talking to each other?"
Faith shrugged. "Wouldn't be for most people – but then you poor kids don't have 'most people' for parents, so..." She cocked her head, her keen hearing having picked up the sound of a fist meeting flesh. "Okay, now it's a good thing."
Downstairs, Buffy and Spike were facing each other, neither one untouched by their disagreement over how she wanted her children to see their father, but neither one actually hurt either. Contrary to how such a disagreement might have ended many years ago, they had only exchanged one blow before Buffy dropped her hands in shame, causing Spike to do the same. And this time they did not run together and begin ripping their clothes off as soon as the argument ended. Instead, Spike turned his back, effectively hiding any evidence that he might have been turned on. Buffy retreated to the steps, knowing she wasn't far enough away to hide her scent from him, but still too angry to want him misreading her intentions.
She crossed her legs and wrapped her hands around her knees, allowing her breathing to go back to normal. Spike gave himself time to calm down before turning to look at her.
"So, where does this leave us?" he asked quietly. "Do you want me to pretend that I'm living down here because there's a good video system, rather than because I'll burst into flames if I walk too close to an upstairs window?"
"No," she said, sighing and dropping her head back against the newel post. "I don't want them to forget what you are – but I don't want them thinking that it's a cool thing to be, either. Will was already into thinking that a vampire that was good would be really awesome. I want them to understand exactly how not like the average vampire you are. I don't want them to think that because their father is safe to be around, that some other vamp might be too. "
"Point taken, pet." He cocked his head at her. "Got to admit, the whole 'vampire lair' thing sounds a bit too much like Andrew to make me comfortable, anyway."
"Are we agreed then? You'll tell them that this is not your 'lair' or your 'nest' or any other term they might hear used to refer to places where vampires live?"
He nodded. "Alright. We'll just say it's my room, and let it go at that. Won't seem too strange if you think about it. There aren't any more rooms left upstairs, so it just makes sense to give the visitor his own place, right?" He kept his tone light, showing no trace of how he felt at being a visitor in the house he had helped pay for.
Buffy winced, in spite of the lack of accusation in his voice.
"You're not a visitor," she said, her eyes focused resolutely on the floor. "It's your house, too."
"Well," he responded, his tone still light, "I'm not exactly the loving husband anymore, am I? So, no reason why I shouldn't have a room of my own."
"I guess not." Her shoulders slumped as she stood up and turned around. Her left hand rested on the railing as she started up the stairs and for the first time he noticed the gold band on her hand.
"When did you start wearing that again?" He pointed at her hand, his voice cold. He waited for her to tell him that she thought it would look better if he was going to be living in the house with them.
"I never took if off." Without looking back, she continued up the steps, leaving a bewildered vampire to stare after her.
She entered the kitchen, and, ignoring the curious looks, walked to the refrigerator to take out an ice pack. She hesitated for a second, then pulled out a second one. As Spike entered the room, she walked over and silently handed him one of the ice packs; then she sat on a chair and held her own bag to her jaw.
"Did you hit each other?"
Joy's tremulous voice reminded them that none of the young people in the room had ever seen Buffy and Spike physically fighting. In spite of their memories of hearing them shout at each other when they lived together before he was turned, they had never been given any reason to think that they might hurt each other. Her daughter's voice was suitably appalled and Buffy struggled to come up with something to say that didn't sound like an excuse.
"It's a slayer/vamp thing, love," Spike's voice was a quiet rumble. "Doesn't mean what it would if we were both regular people."
"Which one of you hit first?" Hard blue eyes glittered dangerously as she looked back and forth between her parents. After a painful couple of seconds, Buffy's hand reluctantly waved around, then dropped to her lap. "Mom!"
"He hit me back," Buffy offered lamely.
"After you hit me," Spike pointed out.
"You wanted me to hit you!"
"Oh, said that, did I? Must have slipped my mind in all the excitement." His voice was becoming a louder rumble.
"You know you did! You are such a moron!"
"And you are a first class bitch!"
"Ah!" Xander's voice broke into what looked like an escalating new argument. "'Moron!' 'Bitch!' Reminds me of the old days. Good times...good times..."
Shamefaced, Spike and Buffy looked at each other, small smiles twitching at the corners of their mouths.
"Mom? Daddy?" Joy's trembling voice reminded them that loud, physical fights between their parents were not something the children were used to or expecting.
"We're sorry, honey. We didn't mean to scare you. We won't do it anymore."
When Spike's only response was a scoff, she kicked him under the table. "Will we?"
"No," he said with a sigh. "Your mum's right. I'm sorry – never meant for you to see that side of me. I wouldn't hurt your mum for the world, you know? It was just my demon and hers gettin' reacquainted. Won't happen again. I promise."
Joy continued to glare at them. "Are you going to apologize to each other? Like, right now?"
Buffy bit her lip, fighting back her natural urge to refuse. "I'm sorry, Spike," she said, not looking at him. I guess I'm a little tense because...because..."
"Because neither one of us knows what's going to happen next?" he finished for her. "I'm sorry, too, pet. I'm brassed off about...other things...and I took it out on you and the kids."
Neither one chose to elaborate on what those "other things" might be, leaving their audience free to assume they were referring to Angelus and Dru. If they both were aware that it was uncertainty over where they stood with each other rather than just fear for their children, they kept it well hidden – from themselves, as well as from anyone else.
In the silence that followed the apologies, Will looked back and forth between them. "You told me that you and Mom fought all the time when you hated each other. Does this mean that you hate each other now?"
"Of course not!"
"Bloody hell, no!"
They spoke simultaneously, the force of their combined denials enough to dispel the fear on Joy and Will's faces.
"So, do you still love each other?"
Joy's quiet question stopped all conversation in the room as they all waited with bated breath to hear the answer. An answer which never came. Instead, the ringing of the phone allowed Buffy to bolt from the room without a response, leaving Spike staring after her with his own answer more than visible in his eyes.
Buffy's breathy "Hello" was followed by a crashing silence, not unlike the one that had followed news of Angel's turning. In motion too fast for the merely human to follow, Faith and Spike were in the living room. The vampire gestured to Lucy to remain with his children, while Xander blinked at the speed with which Faith could move when she felt the need.
Buffy silently held the phone away from her ear, turning it so that Faith and Spike could hear the voice on the other end.
"Hello, lover," it purred. "Have you missed me? I know you must be anxious to know when you can expect me – but that would spoil the surprise, wouldn't it?"
"If you know what's good for you, you will stay as far away from here as you can get," Buffy said coldly, proud of the way her voice remained steady. "I'm not the sad little girl you faced the last time – I'll send you to hell without even blinking."
Spike felt a snarl building in his chest and almost snapped at Faith when he found her hand over his mouth. She was shaking her head vigorously and putting her other finger to her lips, trying to remind him that Angelus probably didn't know that Spike wasn't dust and wouldn't be expecting to find him. He nodded his understanding, forcing the demon's automatic response to a threat to his family back down.
"Oh come on now, Buff. You wouldn't want me to leave without seeing my favorite 'niece' and 'nephew' one... last time, would you? I've told Dru all about them, and she wants to meet them too."
"Over your dead body...and hers," Buffy ground out.
She slammed the phone down, shattering both the base and the phone itself. They all stared at the pieces for a second before Xander's voice broke the silence.
"Well, I guess that puts an end to those pesky telemarketing vampire calls."
Buffy's eyes went to Spike's – for just a second, they were two terrified parents sharing a moment of despair. Then, the Slayer took over and began snapping out orders.
"Lucy, you don't leave their sides. I don't care if it's high noon on the beach. Understood?" The young slayer nodded, stepping closer to her charges. "I'm going to ask for another slayer so that neither one of them is alone, except in the bathroom." She whirled on her son. "No public bathrooms – do you hear me? I don't care how bad you have to go – you wait until you are at home or someplace else safe."
She looked at Faith. "We're going to need to hand off some of our patrolling and teaching. I'm going to be with my children every night – I don't care if the Hellmouth opens up and demons are swarming the city."
"What do you want me to do, B?"
"You're the only other one who knows what Angelus is like. Maybe you can take a few girls and just comb the city every night. Who knows? You might get lucky and stumble across them."
"And me?" Spike's voice was quiet, but taut with the need to rend and tear something or somebody.
"You know how they think – if you can call what they do thinking. You can help Faith figure out where to look. Maybe think about some places Dru would like to hang out..."
"Be here? With me? Watch my back?"
"These are my children, too, Slayer," he growled. "Not gonna stand by while you and Faith—"
"Faith was right to shush you. Angelus doesn't know that you're alive..."
"So to speak," Xander put in.
"...and the longer we keep it that way, the more we have at least that little surprise on our side."
When Spike's rebellious answer was almost on his lips, Buffy surprised herself and everyone else by stepping toward him and raising a pleading hand to cup his face.
"B's right, Billy-boy. If they don't know you're here, they won't be watching out for you, and if they manage to distract her, they won't be expecting to find a pissed off daddy vampire waiting for them."
"Gotta go with the girls on this one," Xander added, a sympathetic look in his eyes. "It just makes sense. You're like...the secret weapon guy."
"Alright," Spike gave in with little grace, his face still warm from the touch of Buffy's hand. "But if and when my family leaves this house after dark, I'm going along. If they see me, they see me. I'm not hidin' in here while my kids are out where those lunatics can reach them."
They all nodded in agreement. A small sound brought their heads around to find Joy and Will staring at them with round eyes. Behind them, Lucy looked less like a classmate of Joy's and much more like the trained killer that she was. Her posture was relaxed, but ready and her eyes never stopped moving from window to window as though she expected to find Angelus peering in at them.
"Mom? Daddy?" Joy's voice brought their attention back to the focus of Anglelus' threats.
"It's going to be all right," Buffy said automatically. "You just need to be more careful than usual. We're going to be with you all the time. And Aunt Faith is going to be out looking for Angelus and Drusilla. They'll be dust as soon as they set foot in Cleveland."
"Assuming they aren't already here," Spike said so softly that only Buffy and Faith heard him. Their eyes flew to his.
"Something you need to tell us?" Faith demanded.
He shook his head. "No. I'm not sayin' that I can feel them or anything like that. I doubt those family ties survived my being human for ten years and the turnin' by some other vamp. But it would be just like Angelus to be hanging around, watching and figuring out who he wants to take out first."
"So, he could be watching us now?" In spite of herself, Buffy's blood ran a bit cold at the thought of being stalked by Angelus.
Without a word, Lucy began to go around the house, pulling shades down and closing blinds. Wherever there were curtains, she pulled them shut. As soon as he saw what she was doing, Xander ran to help, running upstairs to shut out the darkened sky.
"I guess I'll go shopping tomorrow," Buffy said with a sigh. "We need something for the slider in the dining room, heavier drapes for down here..." She hesitated, making a mental note to add heavy drapes for her bedroom to the list.
Faith snapped her fingers. "I think I'll run by the school and pick up a posse. No harm in letting them know we're out looking for them – if they are here already."
Buffy nodded. "Sounds like a plan. He could have been calling from anywhere."
"He could," Spike agreed. "He might be hundreds of miles away and plannin' to just call here every once in while to keep you stressed – or, he could be living in the next house and watching everything that goes on. Either way, his goal is going to be to rattle your cage as much as he can before he makes his move."
"And that just makes me feel sooo much better!" She glared at Spike, who shrugged.
"It's what he does, pet. You know that. He might also drop out of sight for months and hope you stop worrying about them – but I don't see Angelus having that kind of patience. He likes to be where he can watch his victims squirm. And he likes to keep 'em squirming. If you asked me to bet – I'd say he was somewhere close by."
Spike's words rang true with both slayers and before Faith could say anything, Buffy was asking, "Why don't we take a tour of the neighborhood before you go get reinforcements? While Spike and Lucy are here to guard the house, maybe we can scare up a vamp or two. Find one that knows about some new arrivals?"
She knew it was a thin hope. The downside to having a Hellmouth under a big city was that the sheer size of the population meant that all the demons and vampires there didn't necessarily know each other or even know the latest gossip.
Arming themselves with stakes, holy water and crossbows, the world's two most senior slayers prepared to explore the surrounding area for any trace of the vampires. Spike's face was a study in suppressed fury and impatience, even as he agreed that it would be better that he remain indoors as much as possible.
Faith rose on her toes to give Xander a quick kiss, promising to be back "before you know it". There was an awkward moment as Buffy, after sending Lucy and the children upstairs to do homework, stood in front of Spike, chewing her lip.
He took the decision about what to do out of her hands, putting his own in his pockets and saying gruffly, "Be careful out there, yeah? You're the only mum they've got."
"I will," she replied, not looking him in the eye. "We're just going to make sure that the neighborhood is vamp-free. Present company excepted," she added with a small smile.
With a wave, the two women walked out the door, letting it close behind them with a soft thud. Without speaking, they walked to the sidewalk and paused to allow their senses to get a feel for the night air, then set off at a brisk pace.
"So, what's the what with you two?" Faith asked bluntly before they'd even got past the nearest neighbor's driveway.
"We're worried about our kids," Buffy said shortly. "That's all the 'what' there is right now."
"So, all that rockin' and rollin' downstairs didn't get the juices flowing?" Faith's disbelief was obvious.
"None of your business," Buffy mumbled, trying to ignore Faith's laughter.
Suddenly both slayers froze, turning slowly with their backs to each other as they searched for the source of the hair-raising tingles they could both feel. When a small group of newly-turned vampires surrounded them, they almost sighed in relief.
"Look, B. A bunch of vamps too stupid to know when they're in the Slayer's neighborhood."
"They're not making them any smarter, that's for sure," Buffy agreed cheerfully, pulling a stake from her pocket.
Puzzled frowns, which made the vampire faces look even uglier, creased the already wrinkled brows.
"What's a slayer?" a tall, red-haired vamp asked the disheveled looking one next to him.
"Oh, some kind of bogeyman. I heard somebody talking about them last night, but I wasn't really paying attention. Bunch of little girls with pointed sticks or something."
Faith and Buffy exchanged smirks.
"Check and check!"
"Hey, we must be slayers!"
Without another word they spun into action, staking three of the vampires before the others even realized that the anticipated evening's meal didn't seem to be cooperating. When they were down to one very frightened opponent, Buffy tackled him to the ground and held him while Faith pressed the stake to his chest.
"What can you tell us about the other vamps around here?" Buffy demanded. "Where did you come from? What the hell are you doing walking down my street? Who turned you?"
Blinking in bewilderment, the vampire's eyes went back and forth between the two women who clearly held his life in their extremely lethal hands.
"I don't know anything!" he protested. "Some woman distracted me in a bar a couple of nights ago and when I followed her outside, some big dude did for me. I woke up in an alley and just happened to find these guys. One of them had been told to come to this street for an easy meal."
"The woman who 'distracted' you," Buffy growled. "What did she look like? What did she sound like?"
"Uh...dark hair, kinda scary eyes, but she was hot to trot and I..."
"And he followed his dick right out the door and into Angelus," Faith laughed.
"We don't know that yet." Buffy shook him, accidentally drawing blood from where Faith's stake was still pressed to his chest. "What did she talk like?"
"Like one of those broads on BBC," he grunted. "And ouch!"
"Shut up," Buffy said absently, letting go just before his arms crumbled to dust.
They stood up and dusted themselves off, exchanging similar feral smiles.
"They're here," Buffy said. "Now that we know, all we have to do is find them"
"Yeah. I'm on it." Faith turned to leave for the slayer school and reinforcements.
"Did he say that one of them was sent here? To my street?"
"Yeah. I guess old Angelus was trying to draw you out..."
The same thought having occurred to both slayers, and they bolted down the street as fast as slayer legs could take them. They burst into the house to find Spike in a fury – his desire to hunt down his former sire almost overwhelming his need to remain in the house and protect his children.
"What's going on?"
"Lucy heard somethin' outside Will's window. She went out to see what it was and hasn't come back yet."
Without a word, the two slayers were back outside, carefully extending their senses as they circled the house searching for any sign of the young slayer. When a search of the immediate area beside the house yielded nothing, they widened their search to include the backyard and the backyards of the nearest neighbors.
The closest they came to finding Lucy was a smear of blood on the sidewalk in front of an empty house two doors down the street. There was no sign of where or whom the blood came from. Leaving Faith to continue to scour the area, Buffy ran back to the house to get Spike.
"You need to come with me and tell me if this is Lucy's blood," she gasped, the speed with which she'd been running back and forth taxing even her slayer stamina.
He looked around the living room, where an anxious Joy and Will were standing near Xander, his reluctance to leave evident.
"I'll stay," Buffy urged. "Just look for Faith, she's about half-way down the block."
"Be right back," he said, disappearing so quickly that his children were staring at the empty spot with awe.
"Dad can move that fast?" Will's voice was more amazed than frightened and Buffy cringed at the look on his face.
"Yes," she said tightly. "He can. And so can Angelus and Dru. Please remember that."
Buffy was just beginning to worry when Faith and Spike came back inside. He shook his head. "Was her blood alright; but not enough to cause her any harm. More like somebody wanted to be sure that you knew she was bleeding..."
He nodded reluctantly. "Dru was there. Caught her scent but I couldn't follow it. I'm thinking they were in a car."
"They have Lucy?" Joy's eyes filled as she grasped what had happened to her new friend and protector.
"It looks that way, princess," Spike said, putting his arms around her. "But we're gonna try to get her back – your mum and I."
"We can't leave them here!"
"We can take them to the school. Even Dru isn't daft enough to go into a building full of slayers and witches. They'll be safe there."
Faith's eagerness to get after the vampires was obvious. "Xander can take them – we'll follow and make sure that they get inside safely and then..."
"And then what?" Buffy asked dully. "Spike sniffs his way around the city of Cleveland, looking for three people?"
"I think we should start with this neighborhood," Faith said stubbornly. "They had to be where they could see us go out looking for them. Think, Buffy, where could they hide during the day?"
"It's not like Sunnydale," she grumbled. "With a cemetery on every corner. And Angel – Angelus never stayed in cemeteries anyway, did he, Spike?"
"No, the big poufter likes his comforts – and his master trappings. We need to look for old mansions, uninhabited houses, places like that."
"There aren't a lot of mansions in this neighborhood," Buffy said thoughtfully. "But, there are a few houses on the market. At least one of them isn't being lived in right now."
"Right, then. We start there – soon's we get these two safely tucked away in the middle of a passel of bloodthirsty little girls."
They ended up with Faith and Xander leaving first to warn the staff what was going on, leaving Spike and Buffy to hurry Joy and Will into packing a few things and getting into the car. This time, when she silently handed Spike the keys, he took them, holding the doors until the children and Buffy were inside before sliding into the driver's seat.
"I married a midget," he groused as he slid the seat back until he could fit comfortably into the driver's spot.
She threw him a startled look. It was the first time he had referred to their marriage in front of the children and she waited to see how they would respond. Nervous giggles from the back seat indicated that they, too, had picked up on his casual reference to being her husband.
"You married the only woman who would have you," she teased back, relieved when he grinned through his growl.
"Hah! You wish, Slayer. Could've had my pick..." He broke off at her snort and continued softly, "Married the one I wanted, didn't I?"
Buffy had no reply to that, but settled for sending him a small smile of encouragement as she settled back against the door.
I guess now's not the time for that kind of conversation. But as soon as I turn Angelus and his skanky ex into dust piles...
As though he'd read her mind, he added quietly, "Later, pet."
"Later," she echoed, content for the moment that he was anticipating a later for them.
They arrived at the school in a few minutes, hustling the two targets into the building to be greeted by Willow. She hugged Buffy briefly, then issued instructions to the curious girls gathered around.
"Karin, Joy can stay with you – I want two slayers outside her door at all times." She fixed her surrogate niece with a hard eye. "And no spells, young lady. Understand me?"
"Spells?" Buffy's eyes flew to Joy, who was blushing hard and trying to look innocent at the same time. Her glare promised a long conversation when the current crisis was over, and Joy meekly followed her friend out of the room and away from her mother's wrathful face.
"It's no big, Buffy," Willow said quickly. "The girl's got some talent – I just don't want her experimenting without supervision."
"Joy? My Joyce is a witch?" Spike's incredulous voice was added to Buffy's.
"Not yet, she isn't. But I've been meaning to talk to you," she glanced at Buffy, "about it. I just got sidetracked – what with Spike coming back and Angel being all evil again..."
Will interrupted them to raise his hand. "Am I staying in Karin's room, too?" he inquired hopefully. Spike smothered a laugh at the expression on Buffy's face.
"Don't tell me you're a witch, too?"
"Huh? No! No, that's Joy's thing – not that I know anything about it," he added hastily when Buffy's eyes narrowed. "I was just wondering where I'm going to stay, is all."
Willow rescued him by pointing to one of the younger slayers – a rather plain girl who Willow was pretty sure was going to turn out to be gay.
"You're going to stay in Mary's room. She has two beds and no roommate right now. And, it's right across the hall from Karin's room; so it will be easy to keep you two safe without spreading our slayers too thin."
Deciding that was as close to being where he wanted to be as he was likely to get, Will told his parents to "go kick vampire ass" and ran off after Mary before Buffy could scold him for his language. She glared at Spike, who was still chuckling, then broke into a reluctant grin.
"Like father, like son, I guess."
After a brief conversation with Willow about what Angelus had said, the witch promised to go through Lucy's room at the school and find something to use for a locator spell. She took Spike's cell number and said she would call as soon as she had something. Buffy told her where they were planning to begin their search, then left the building to join Spike and Faith in the parking lot. Xander had elected to remain behind, as much to visit with Willow as to provide what protection he could. He had long since made peace with the fact that, as valuable as his experience and courage could be, in some situations his vulnerability as a human could put Faith in danger; and he was comfortable with his role as adviser and back-up.
The two slayers and the vampire took Faith's car and drove to the residential area in which the Pratt's house was located. They cruised around in the car at first, searching for houses that looked uninhabited or deserted. At each likely candidate, Buffy and Faith left a growling Spike in the car while they took a closer look at the house. Assuring him that they would bring him in at the first sign that they might have found Angelus' hiding place, they peered into windows and tried doors on every house that seemed promising.
When the door upon which Faith had gently pushed, swung open, they looked at each other and then waved at the car. Spike was beside them very quickly, sniffing the air and nodding.
"They've been here, for sure. Don't smell the slayer's blood, but plenty of other. And I can smell Dru and Angelus."
They entered cautiously, using Spike's enhanced vision to navigate until they were confident that there was no one alive or undead in the house. At which time they turned on a few lights, but saw little sign of habitation until they found the stairs to the basement.
"Let me go first," Spike growled, his demon emerging as the scent of blood drifted up to him. The cooler of blood that he had brought with him was still in his hotel room, and his stomach was beginning to rumble.
Spike crept down the stairs, all his senses alert. He was almost to the bottom step and reaching for the barely visible light switch when something about the situation rang a bell. He turned around and threw both women down onto the steps, pressing his body into them just as a crossbow bolt whistled past his head.
"What the fuck!" Faith's outraged screech was not really a question, but more of an expression of her fury at almost being taken in by such a common booby trap.
She sat up, ignoring the still prone vampire who was lying on Buffy, and gazed around as best she could without the benefit of vampire night-vision. She could just make out the crossbow that had been set up on the other side of the room. A careful look around revealed nothing else that seemed dangerous, and she took a chance on the light switch.
They all blinked rapidly in the bright light. Buffy was staring up at Spike, wondering if he was even aware that he was still lying on her. The vampire was swearing at his own stupidity in three languages.
"I know that's the wanker's favorite trick. Can't believe I walked into it."
"It's okay," Buffy soothed. "We're all alright."
"It's not okay," he growled, glaring down at her. "One of you might have been killed."
"Alright, fangface," Faith broke in. "Stop using this as an excuse to rub up against Buffy and get up here. What are we looking at?"
Without comment, he rolled off and sat up to look around. The room was covered in dried blood – too much of it to have come from one person. They all got to their feet and began to explore the room. A cursory search turned up three dead bodies – one of which was a young girl about Joy's age. Buffy gave a very un-slayerlike whimper as she rolled the girl over.
"Oh my god. That's Julie. She's –she was – on Joy's gymnastics team."
Without thinking, Spike put his arms around her, enjoying the way she leaned into the comfort. He could tell the instant her slayer side took over as she stiffened and pulled away, walking around the room and noting without comment the other bodies and the signs of trauma and torture. When they were sure that they hadn't missed any important clues to where the vampires might have gone from there, they walked up the stairs and started out the front door.
What they hadn't noticed on the way in, was a message written in blood – it was stuck to the back of the front door and said simply, "See you, lover."
"Not if I see you first," Buffy muttered, tearing it off the door and ripping it to shreds.
They left the house, closing the door behind them. Buffy didn't envy the real estate agent who would be the one to find the bodies, but she didn't want to get involved in explaining to the police why they had entered the house. She worried briefly about fingerprints, but shrugged it off as something to worry about later. Unlike Sunnydale, the Cleveland police force had a small unit that knew what a Hellmouth was and that they had one. There was a good relationship between that unit and the Slayer School, and Buffy was confident there would be no problems if her fingerprints showed up at what was clearly a vampire crime scene.
With no way to track the missing vampires, and no trace of Lucy's blood in the house, they had to assume it was now a dead end. Willow had yet to call with a location for the missing Slayer, leaving nothing for them to do but return to the slayer school. Faith dropped Spike and Buffy off at their car and went inside to get Xander. She promised to hit the streets first thing in the morning with her hand-picked group of slayers, hoping to find the vampires while they were vulnerable and trapped indoors. None of them mentioned that the chances of finding Lucy alive were fading rapidly.
When Faith had gone inside, leaving Spike and Buffy awkwardly shuffling their feet, they were suddenly aware of the way they were exposed.
"Not that I think they'd be hanging around a building full of slayers this close to dawn, but if they were..."
"I should get inside," he agreed reluctantly.
"We could stay here, I guess," Buffy ventured. "Get a few hours sleep before I take the kids to school..."
"You're going to let them go to school?"
"It'll be daylight – they should be okay, don't you think? They won't have Lucy, but maybe I can find another "cousin" for them. Or, I can just hang out at the school all day. Check out the basement..."
"Don't like it," he said stubbornly. "Basements are good places for vamps – you might remember that..."
"This school isn't located over the Hellmouth," she replied. "And it doesn't have crazy, souled vampires living in the basement."
"Not souled ones I'm worryin' about," he grumbled as he followed her into the building. "It's the crazy soulless ones."
"We can talk about it in the morning," she yawned. "Right now, I'd like to get a couple of hours of sleep."
The building was quiet, all the slayers having returned from patrolling and tucked into their small rooms for some sleep. The girl on duty gave them a wave as they walked past her, providing the unsolicited information that more guards had been added and they would be roaming the building all night, just in case.
Buffy smiled her gratitude and, without looking at Spike, asked if there were any empty rooms for them to use for a few hours. The girl shook her head.
"I don't really know. That's the RA's job and she went back to bed a while ago."
Buffy thanked her and headed for the library, Spike following quietly behind. She pushed the doors open and gestured to the leather sofas that were scattered around the large room.
"I guess we can make do with these for the time being. You should be okay here – the sun doesn't really come in those windows until late afternoon. Maybe when the girls are up and starting their classes, you can find someplace else to get some more sleep..."
"If you're takin' the kids to school, I'm going with you. Two of us can get through that basement a lot faster than you can by yourself."
"Not leaving them to anyone else if there's any way I can be there. You either," he said very softly as he settled onto one of couches.
Too tired to argue, Buffy threw herself down onto the soft leather of the couch across from his. She squirmed around and put her arms around herself, feeling the chill for the first time that night. She had shut her eyes and curled into a ball when she felt something settle gently across her back.
"Thank you," she whispered, without opening her eyes.
"You're welcome, pet. 's not like I really need it."
"You like to be warm," she mumbled, as she drifted off. "I remember it from Sunnydale. You always wanted to have blankets and stuff..."
Spike lay back on his own makeshift bed and watched her as she fell asleep beneath his leather coat.
"I do like warmth," he whispered. "I remember it too." He fell asleep reminiscing about his old crypt and the body that had warmed his bed for those few, intoxicating months.
Buffy unfolded her body from it's curled up position, groaning as she stretched muscles that felt much older than her years. She glanced over to see that Spike was watching her through half-open eyes.
"Mornin', pet." He sat up and stretched, giving her a look at the lean, muscular body that she had missed so much. She blushed when he caught her looking, turning her eyes away quickly. "See something you like?" he teased in a way that gave her a bit of hope for the future.
"You wish," she scoffed, still blushing as she stood up and stretched herself.
"Always have," was his soft response.
Before they could take the conversation any further, the chatter of student slayers sent them walking out of the library to find their children. Locating Joy and Will in the cafeteria, Buffy informed them that they were going to school and should get ready quickly. Both children stared intently at their parents, but there was nothing about their demeanor to give them a clue to where or how they might have spent the night.
Borrowing a blanket from the school, Spike make a dash for the car, jumping into the backseat and sliding to the floor where he huddled under the blanket. He growled when he heard Will and Joy snickering at his position, telling them, "It's not polite to make fun of a man's afflictions, you little gits."
Buffy's tinkling laugh joined theirs and she said, "Don't make fun of your father, kids. He can't help it if he has to hide on floors occasionally. It's goes along with his aversion to roaring fires and pointed woody objects."
The arrival at the private combined middle and high school that the two younger Pratts attended was done as quickly and quietly as possible. While Will and Joy went to their respective locker areas and got ready for their first morning classes, Buffy went to the main office to tell them that she would be hanging around the school quite a bit in the daytime. Without going into details, she told them that she was worried about the safety of her children and planned to keep a close eye on them until the danger was over.
The Pratt children had been students at the school since kindergarten, having first attended the elementary school, which was in a separate building on the other side of the playing fields; and the staff was more than accustomed to seeing Buffy in and out of the school on one errand or another. The principal had been born and raised in Cleveland, and he was not unaware of the unusual nature of his city. In addition, he knew of the other "private school" at which Buffy taught, and a good bit about the nature of the classes there. He gave her a curious look, but just nodded and assured her that she was welcome to stay as long as she wanted to.
"And the cousin?" he inquired shrewdly.
"She won't be here today," Buffy said shortly.
"Ah, I see. Well, I hope she'll come back to see us again soon."
"So do I," Buffy replied, giving him a tense smile.
She trusted Spike to get himself into the building in some fashion and, when she'd finished chatting with the office staff, she headed for the nearest stairs to the basement. Opening the door, she slipped into the poorly lit stairwell and started down.
The basement looked no different than would the below-ground level of any large building – closed doors marked "Danger, no unauthorized personnel" behind which could be heard machinery of one sort or another, storage areas with floor to ceiling shelves of old books and boxes that appeared to have been there a long time, and long hallways connecting the various parts of the building.
She prowled around, looking for any sign that vampires may have been there, or that they could get into the basement in some fashion. When she saw the heavy grates over the ventilation system's outlets and the heavy iron door leading to the sewer lines, she smiled at the precautions and made a mental note to congratulate the principal on his forethought.
A tingle on the back of her neck brought her around, stake raised, only find Spike grinning at her from atop a pile of crates.
"Very funny," she grumbled. "I might have staked you, sneaking up on me like that."
He dropped lightly to the ground and walked up to her, gently pushing the stake aside.
"Knew you couldn't get me up there," he smirked. "Jus' checking to see if I've still got it."
"You don't know if you've still got 'it'?" she frowned. "What have you been doing all this time?"
"Not stalking slayers," he said, looking her in the eye. "Or any other kind of humans, for that matter. Unless they needed a little taste of their own medicine."
"You haven't been hunting?" She couldn't keep the happiness from her voice, cringing when she saw the disappointment on his face.
"Did you think I was? All this time, you thought I was killing?"
"I didn't know, did I?" she protested. "It's not like it was me that you kept in touch with all that time! I didn't know where you were or what you were doing."
She couldn't keep the accusatory tone from her voice and his mouth drew into a tight line as he answered.
"You didn't want to know, as I recall. You wanted me out of your life – yours and the niblets'. I gave you what you wanted."
"You might have waited around to see if I really wanted it," she blurted, cursing herself for being unreasonable even as the words left her mouth.
"Think we should leave this conversation for some other time, Slayer. When we don't have anything else to worry about." His face wore the same closed expression it had when he first arrived.
"I'm sorry." Her whispered apology was so soft she wasn't sure that he'd heard her, but she couldn't bring herself to speak again, and he gave no indication whether he'd heard or not.
Without speaking again they prowled through the basement, operating with the teamwork that they had spent so many years perfecting. Spike stopped by a heavy door, frowning and holding up his hand to unnecessarily silence her. He shifted into game face and sniffed the air, cocking his head to listen at the same time. He ran his hands over the door, noting the heavy lock that secured it.
Unable to contain herself any longer, Buffy hissed, "What?"
He shook his head. "I dunno. Could swear I smelled Lucy for a minute, but it's faint and no trace of blood..."
"She probably came down here to check things out a couple of days ago," Buffy guessed. "Maybe that's why it's so faint?"
"Maybe..." He still had a sense of unease, but couldn't find anything concrete to be worried about. The door was secure, they'd found no sign of Angelus or Drusilla, and they had no reason to think Lucy was alive. After another quick turn through the entire basement, he agreed to follow Buffy upstairs to meet the school's principal.
Carefully dodging the shafts of sunlight that filtered into the hallways, Spike followed Buffy to the main office where the principal greeted her pleasantly while looking him up and down with unabashed curiosity.
"Mr. Barnes, this is my husb- this is Joy and Will's father, William Pratt. Sp-William, this is James Barnes. He's the principal here. You two probably met at parents' night back when Joy was in kindergarten or first grade..."
"Yes, of course," the man said smoothly. "I remember meeting you. It's been a long time since we've had the pleasure of your company at one of our functions. Buffy - Mrs Pratt – is one of our most active parents. But, then, you probably already know that." He beamed at them.
"You'd be surprised what I don't know," Spike muttered, shaking the man's hand firmly and forcing a smile. He could see the suspicion in Barnes' eyes as he compared the hard-edged, leather-clad man in front of him with the glasses wearing, fit, but bookish, one he remembered meeting before. Spike tried for a friendlier and more genuine smile as he said apologetically, "I'm afraid I've been away for several years. I'm a bit out of touch with Buffy's activities."
"Ah," Barnes replied in a "none of my business" tone of voice. "Well, we're delighted that you've paid us a visit then. I hope you enjoy your time here in our school. Will you be staying all day?" he asked with a glance at Buffy.
"We'll be stayin' as long as it takes," Spike answered shortly.
He felt Buffy elbow him in the side as she explained, "We'll probably be in and out of the building – if that's all right with you," she added hastily. "And I'll be driving the kids to and from school for a while."
"That's quite all right," he assured them. "Everyone here knows you, Mrs. Pratt, and I will be sure that they know that the children's father is also in the building. I sincerely hope that you will locate and... eliminate... the danger as soon as possible. We're quite fond of Joy and Will here and would hate to see anything untoward happen to them."
He wanted desperately to ask if the danger to their children was from human beings, or something more sinister, but neither of the two tense people in front of him seemed inclined to explain further, and he didn't ask. There was something about Mr Pratt that gave him the idea that the much smaller man was not someone he wanted to anger. And he already knew more than most of the staff about Buffy's nocturnal activities. Instead of asking, he just smiled and assured them that the school and all its employees were at their service; then he excused himself and went into his office.
A phone call from one of the school custodians had him sighing with annoyance as he fished a large ring of keys from the desk drawer and left the office again. "I'll be downstairs," he called to his secretary. "George says there's something going on with one of the air-conditioners."
While he made his way to the school's basement, Buffy and Spike were walking around the building, checking closets, stairwells, and empty classrooms for any sign of danger. Spike waited impatiently while Buffy explored the roof, peering into open ducts and yanking open the doors to the equipment rooms.
"I told you, you wouldn't find anything out there in the bloody sunshine," he grumbled when she finally assured herself that there were no vampires lurking in the formerly locked roof sheds.
"I wasn't looking in the sunshiny places," she huffed as she brushed past him.
"Buffy..." His hand on her arm stopped her and she turned to meet his eyes. "If you're that worried, why didn't we just keep them at the Slayer School? Why risk this?"
"I... I don't know. I just don't want him to be able to... I hate hiding from him!" she blurted. "I hate that he can make us so afraid, and I hate that my kids have to be afraid; I just wanted to keep their lives as normal as possible." She wrinkled her forehead and bit her lip. "Do you think we're doing the wrong thing? Should I have kept them where they were safe?"
He shook his head. "No, love, I think you're doing the right thing. I just... I don't like seeing you so wrought up over it. I'm just saying that if it's going to make you worry even more, then you're playing into his hands and it might be better to have left them where we don't have so much to worry about."
She wondered if he had intentionally called her "love" for the first time since his return; or if it had just slipped out automatically as he spoke.
Either way, it's got to be a good sign, right?
She rested her head lightly against his chest for a second - not long enough create an awkward situation if he didn't respond, but long enough to take some strength from his presence. When she pulled back and turned to go down the stairs, he brushed his hand over her arm.
"We're going to find them, Slayer," he said, stroking her arm lightly. "It's going to be alright."
"Of course it is," she said, as cheerfully as she could. "Look what happened to them the last time the two of us ganged up on them."
"There you go," he agreed. "They're as good as dust."
In the basement, Barnes was trying to calm a very rattled custodian as the man insisted that he'd heard animals in the large vent from the roof-top air-conditioning units.
"It happens," his boss soothed him. "Although, with the grates we've got on here, I doubt anything very large could get out into the building. Put a few rat traps around, just in case, and let me know if you hear anything again."
"Didn't sound like no freakin' rats," the man grumbled. He'd grown up in a tenement, and was well aware of what rats in a vent sounded like.
"Well, if something bigger fell into a pipe, we'll know eventually. Whatever it is will starve to death – or die of thirst – and we'll be able to smell it. When that happens, you can go in and get it and throw it in the incinerator."
He clapped the man on the shoulder and turned back to go to his office, ignoring the muttered curses and whispers about not being paid enough to have to scrape up smelly, dead things. He toyed briefly with the idea of telling the Pratts about the noises, but decided that his theory about their origin was the correct one and it wasn't necessary to alarm them.
Buffy and Spike passed the rest of the day trying to follow their children around without appearing to be doing so. When Joy had finally stopped with her hands on her hips and glared at Spike in a way that reminded him of her mother when a beating was imminent, he gave up and settled himself in the library to spend the rest of the day familiarizing himself with what constituted young adult literature in this day and time.
When Buffy found him there, deeply engrossed in a Harry Potter book, she smiled and watched from the doorway for several minutes. Finally he growled over his shoulder, "Can tell you're there, Slayer. Are you plannin' to come in or just ogle me from the doorway?"
"I thought I'd ogle for a while," she said lightly as she joined him at the table. "Do you mind?"
"Never," he said softly, raising his eyes to hers.
"Well, there you go then. It makes us both happy." Her words were light and flirtatious, but the way she met his gaze was anything but lighthearted. The moment was interrupted by the arrival of a class of chattering sixth graders containing a highly embarrassed blond boy who tried very hard to pretend that he couldn't see the two adults sitting at the table and staring at each other hungrily.
Will's hissed, "Mom! You promised!" as he walked past them, startled her out of the blue eyes in which she'd become temporarily lost. She sat up straighter and said apologetically, "I'm sorry, honey. I didn't know you were on your way here. Tell you what – your dad and I will leave for a while, okay? We'll be back to pick you up, so don't leave the building or go anywhere other than your classes or the office. Okay?"
Taking Spike's hand, she pulled him to his feet and tugged him towards the door to the hall. "Come on. This is a parent-free zone."
When they got to the hallway, she continued to hold on, only realizing that she hadn't let go when he looked pointedly at their joined hands. Buffy blushed and quickly dropped his hand, saying, "Sorry. I just sort of forgot to let go. I know you don't..."
"You know nothing about what I 'don't...' Buffy," he growled, linking their fingers again. "I just wanted to be sure that you knew what you were doin' is all."
"I was holding hands with my husband," she said, lifting her chin and looking him in the eye. "That's all I was doing."
"Well, that's alright then, isn't it?" he said, giving her hand a light squeeze.
"I think it could be," he responded softly. "I'm beginning to think it could be."
She broke into a smile that would have surprised her children. The kind of smile that she had rarely bestowed on anyone since their father's death. Spike felt his heart thaw more than it had already at this proof of her genuine happiness that he was back.
As they walked down the hall, swinging hands like a couple of teenagers, he caught a whiff of blood from the nurse's office where she was staunching a bloody nose for one of the students. The sharp reminder that he hadn't eaten since before Angelus' call had him dropping her hand and turning away before she could see the amber flashes in his eyes.
"Spike?" He turned back quickly at the tremulous note in her voice and tried to reassure her.
" 's alright, love. I just was reminded that I haven't eaten for a while."
"Oh! Do we need to go get some blood?"
"Got some," he said, "but it's back at the hotel – which I guess I ought to check out of one of these days..."
"Why don't we go do that now? While the kids are safely in class and the sun is up?"
"If you don't mind drivin' me over there. Don't really feature myself taking a walk in this weather."
"In this weather? It's a beautiful day! It's warm, the sun is shin— Oh."
"Yeah, big 'Oh'." He smirked at her obvious annoyance with herself for having forgotten that he couldn't go outside.
"You do remember that pesky sunlight allergy I've got, don't you, Buffy?"
"I remember," she said quietly.
While Spike headed for the lower-level outside door that he'd used to sneak into the school from the parking lot, Buffy told the main office staff that they were going out for a while and would be back to pick up their children before the end of the school day. A quick call to Willow brought the unwelcome news that Angelus – or, more likely, Dru – was using magic to scramble their location.
"It's not like I can't break through it," Willow hastened to add. "But it's a pretty decent cloaking spell, so it's going to take me a little while. I think they might be moving around a lot, too," she added. "What little I could get seemed to be moving all over this part of the city."
"This part of the city?" Buffy's voice was sharp.
"Yes. There's no sign that they've been anywhere but our southeast corner of the city. I suspect they have a van or something that they can park when they need to stay out of the sun. I'm sorry, Buffy," her voice dropped. "I wish I had something better for you. I'll call as soon as I do."
"It's okay, Will," Buffy sighed in response. "You'll have something by tonight, I'm sure. The kids are fine for right now."
She hung up with a quick 'thank you' to the office staff, and ran to the car, driving it right up to the door Spike had told her about and waiting for it to burst open to let the smoldering vampire duck inside. He huddled under his blanket, muttering about the 'bloody sun" and the inferior materials in his blanket that allowed it let through the deadly rays.
"Maybe we can find you a blanket made of asbestos or something," Buffy mused as she maneuvered the car through traffic to the hotel he'd given her.
"Maybe we can start usin' my car to get around," he growled back.
"Got it special-made," he said proudly. "It's got the same window glass as they used to have in everything at Wolfram and Hart. I can go anywhere in it – as long as I stay inside and away from the open doors."
"You could come to Will's games then," she said excitedly. "You could just stay in the car and watch from there."
"I suppose I could, at that," he agreed, pointing to the covered entrance of the hotel. While Buffy waited, he hopped out and ran inside, taking only a short time to clear out his room and pay his bill before rejoining her. He had a suitcase in one hand and a cooler under the other arm as he waited for her to lean across and open a door for him. Instead, Buffy jumped out and ran around to open the trunk and help him put his burdens in there. Before she could slam it closed, he grabbed an ordinary-looking water bottle out of the cooler and put it in his pocket.
As soon as he was safely installed underneath his sun protection again, he pulled the drink container out of his pocket and began to suck vigorously on the plastic straw. Buffy tried not to notice his brow wrinkle and his eye change as he swallowed the blood to the accompaniment of low growls. As soon as it was completely empty, as attested to by the slurping sounds he was making, he put it back in his pocket and sighed loudly.
"I'm sorry, pet," he murmured, catching a glimpse of her tight face. "I was really hungry and my demon got the better of me for a few seconds."
"It's okay," she responded quietly. "I just have to get used to it again, I guess. It's just that it's been a long time since I watched you..."
"Seventeen years," he agreed flatly. "Can see where you'd not want to watch me—"
"I didn't say that," she answered, her lips pulled into a tight line. "I said I have to get used to it again."
"Is that what you want to do?"
"Is what, what I want to do?" She pulled into the school's parking lot and stopped the car so that she could look at him.
"Do you want to have to get used to it again?" he asked, holding her gaze and refusing to let her look away. "Tell me, Buffy. Am I just visiting back-up or your husband?"
"What do you want to be?" she countered. "Can you forgive me? Have you forgiven me?"
"If I hadn't done it before, seein' what's happened since the poof got turned would do the trick. I understand, now, why you were afraid, love. I don't like it – and I think you could have given me a chance to prove myself – but I understand it."
"You don't hate me?" Her eyes filled with rapidly blinked away tears as she watched his face soften.
"Could never hate you, Buffy. Don't think I have that in me. Was mad at you for a long time. I can't deny it. But if I stopped lovin' you every time I got mad at you..."
"We'd have killed each other a long time ago," she finished for him with a small smile.
"We would. Gave it a good go once or twice anyway, didn't we?" He smiled back at her, remembering the times their foreplay had consisted of pummeling each other into exhaustion.
"We did," she agreed softly. "I'm glad neither one of us ever succeeded."
"So 'm I, love. So am I."
She leaned towards him, feeling the blanket envelop her as he extended it to cover her head as well as his own. Their lips met to the accompaniment of matching sighs, and for long moments the world, Angelus and the danger threatening their children faded away.
When Buffy finally broke away from the bone-melting kiss, she rested her forehead against his and breathed heavily. His arms still holding the blanket around her head and shoulders, Spike whispered, "I love you, Mrs. Pratt."
"I love you, too, Mr. Pratt," she responded promptly. They remained together under the blanket, nuzzling each other and reacquainting themselves with the scents and tastes they had been missing, until they were interrupted by the sound of the school bell. They broke apart with a laugh and Buffy put the car back in drive and drove up to the door from which Spike had emerged.
"See you inside," he said, brushing his lips across hers.
"See you", she echoed, watching fearfully until she had seen him open the door and get safely inside the building. She then parked the car and ran quickly into the building herself. To be met by a very flustered main office staff.
"What's wrong?" Buffy's tense question was echoed by Spike as he appeared behind her, trailing his blanket. His vampire senses had picked up the accelerated heartbeats coming from the office, and the stench of fear that was so strong there.
"Where are my children?"
The principal's secretary was wringing her hands.
"We're... we're not sure," she ventured, cringing at the expressions on the faces of the missing children's parents. She continued quickly. "Mr. Barnes got a phone call and..." She launched into an abbreviated version of what had occurred while Spike and Buffy were gone.
Barnes had just settled back into his daily routine, working his way through the stack of papers on his desk, when his phone rang again. This time, it was not the custodian, but his head maintenance man on the other end.
"I think you'd better see this," the man said gruffly, his voice rough and ragged sounding.
"Can't you tell me about it?" he responded, his irritation plain. "I'm way behind here already today."
"Just get down here – and bring your keys." The phone call ended abruptly and Barnes allowed himself a few seconds of swearing and promising retribution for the disrespect before heaving a sigh and leaving his office again. The heavy ring of keys was still dangling from his belt as he paused to say to his secretary, "Something's going on downstairs. I'll be back in a few minutes." He paused on his way out and turned back to her. "If the Pratts come back, you might tell them where I've gone..."
He walked out, leaving a puzzled woman behind. She walked to the doorway and watched as he walked down the hall, letting himself into the stairway and closing the door behind him. Shaking her head at having the primary administrator having to make so many trips to the maintenance area, she went back to her desk and her phones.
In the basement, Barnes was staring at the drained body of his chief maintenance man in disbelief and dismay. Before he could reach for the emergency phone hanging on the wall, a woman slipped out from behind some boxes, caught his eyes and murmured, "Look into my eyes…Be in me..."
Her eyes held him, even as somewhere in the back of his mind a voice was screaming at him to run as fast and as far as he could. He nodded numbly and felt himself falling into her, forgetting everything except the instructions that she was whispering in his ear. He felt himself nodding again as he reached for the phone and waited for his secretary's voice.
"Donna? It's me. Would you please send the Pratt children to me? Yes, I am still in the basement. Yes, right now. Just do as you're told!"
"That was very nice. What a good boy..." Dru's voice continued to purr in his ear as she drew him closer. "I wonder... if I eat you, will it make me smarter?"
Joy and Will stared at each other and then at Donna, their confusion plain on their faces.
"We're supposed to go downstairs? To the basement? Did Mr. Barnes say why?"
Donna shook her head. "No, he didn't, but he was quite emphatic that you come right away. He said to tell your parents where he was when they got back, so maybe they..."
Joy relaxed. "Oh, well, if Mom and Dad are there with him, then there must be a good reason. If he calls back, tell him we're on our way."
They immediately headed for the closest stairwell, wondering aloud about what could be so important in the school basement that they needed to see it. It wasn't until they got down there and stared around in confusion that they realized how extensive that floor of the building was.
"Mr. Barnes? It's Joy Pratt. Where are you?"
"Over here, kids." The voice came from around the corner and down a long hallway. "Just follow the signs to the ventilation units."
They obediently followed the directions, following the small signs that indicated which machinery was located in what parts of the large complex. Rounding the final corner, they came to a halt, staring in confused horror at the sight of the principal's pale body and bloody throat which was lying below a large metal grate that had been torn from its hinges.
They were turning to flee when a familiar voice stopped them.
"Joy! Will!" The voice cried desperately. "This way! Come with me."
"Lucy!" Without thought, Joy ran towards her bodyguard, crying with relief. "We've been so worried. Are you all right? What happened?"
"I'm fine," Lucy said with a small smile as she accepted Joy's hug. "Never been better..." As she spoke, she clutched Joy to her body and applied pressure on her carotid artery until the unsuspecting girl lost consciousness. While Will stared in terror-stricken surprise, she effortlessly lifted Joy's inert body over her head and stuffed it into the open ventilation shaft. He watched his sister disappear, as though sucked up by a giant vacuum and cried out for her, even as his instincts were screaming at him to leave the area immediately.
When he saw Lucy stalking towards him, her eyes now an unfamiliar amber and her smile much toothier than before, he picked up a nearby broom and faced her with quivering determination.
"Bring my sister back," he said in his best imitation of Buffy's slayer voice. "And do it now, you... you bitch!"
Lucy laughed and kept walking towards him. "Come on, Will. You know what I can do. Do you really want me to do this the hard way?" As she approached, one hand reaching for the broom handle and one drawn back to punch him unconscious, he suddenly shoved the handle of the broom into her stomach, hitting, more by accident than design, her diaphragm. Much as a human would have, she doubled over, the air she had been taking in to speak forced out and the large muscle cramping from the force of the blow.
With a last, anguished look at the dark hole into which his sister had disappeared, he surrendered to the growing fear for his life. While Lucy snarled and struggled to her feet, he swung the broom like a baseball bat, hitting her in the head; he then kicked her as hard as he could, connecting with her chin and watching in satisfaction as she fell backward, temporarily unconscious.
"Goal!" he whispered, dropping the broom and taking to his heels. He had no idea where he was in the maze of hallways and machinery, knowing only that the speed for which he was famous was the only thing standing between him and whatever fate had befallen his sister. He ran and ran, twisting and turning, searching frantically for an outside door or a stairway to the upper floors. His lungs were burning and his legs were beginning to feel weaker as he rounded a corner and ran head on into a woman he'd never seen before.
"Pretty, pretty boy," she cooed. "Whatever could have sent such a pretty boy fleeing for his life?"
Spike and Buffy were already opening the stairwell door before the secretary had finished speaking, identical expressions of rage and fear on their faces. As soon as the door was behind him, Spike shifted into his demon face and sped past Buffy, dropping down the stairs in one leap. His nose and ears told him they needed to split up and he gestured down the hall.
"The ventilation duct," he growled. "I'll get Will."
Buffy followed the barely remembered path to the area where Spike had thought he smelled Lucy earlier in the day; fear for her children turning her blood to ice. She skidded around the corner and found herself facing every slayer's nightmare – a sister slayer now turned into something to be slain.
She searched Lucy's amber eyes, looking for some sign that the girl she'd known for such a short time was still there; but all she saw was a tall and confident vampire, albeit one with a growing bruise on her face.
"Where are my kids?" Buffy demanded, pulling a stake from her waistband. She followed Lucy's unconscious glance at the open duct and moved towards it, temporarily forgetting about the vampire in her way. The kick to her side that knocked the stake out of her hand was an unpleasant reminder that she couldn't go looking for her children until she had taken care of their former bodyguard.
Lucy faced Buffy with surprising confidence, considering that she had just been overpowered by a twelve-year-old boy. While everyone at the school knew that Buffy was the oldest living slayer, and that she had defeated master vampires, demons, gods and the First Evil, they rarely got to see her fight outside of the sparring that took place during training. And Lucy had never seen Buffy when she was battling a threat to her family.
Filled with hubris over her new-found speed and her superior size, she was totally unprepared for the whirlwind unleashed upon her. Without pausing between blows to indulge in her usual quips, Buffy quickly reduced the new vampire to a semi-conscious body on the floor. As she picked up her stake and bent over, she watched Lucy's face fade back to that of a frightened girl.
"I'm sorry," Buffy whispered. "I know it wasn't your fault."
She plunged the stake home. Before the dust had even settled on the floor, Buffy was leaping up to catch the edge of the large duct, straining her eyes to see in the darkness. Stretching every slayer sense she had, she began moving slowly forward, searching for any sign which of the many branching ducts might be the one to take.
Will froze in front of the smiling, swaying woman.
"You are just as pretty as my sweet William," she sang, holding one arm in a grip that told him this was not an ordinary woman. Chills went through his body as he listened to her babbling and began to realize who she was. "Are you going to take my sweet William's place?" she asked plaintively. "He left me, my Spike did. Left for that nasty slayer and her sunshine. And now he's all gone. Come to a bad end." She brightened, pulling him closer. "But you can take his place! We will be a family again." She looked at him intently. "Daddy will like you – pretty thing that you are. He won't mind if I-"
She stopped her sing-song babbling, her head flying up and her eyes staring intently into the shadows behind a large stack of crates.
"Let him go, Dru."
Will had never been so glad to hear his father's voice.
"Oh my," the vampire still clutching him gasped. "Won't this be a surprise for Angelus?"
Spike stepped out of the shadow of the crates behind which he had stopped when he heard Dru's voice, his eyes running quickly over his son to check for damage.
"Let him go, Dru," he repeated, easing closer. He was well aware that she could slit Will's throat before he could stop her; his only chance was to distract her long enough to pull the boy to safety.
"Oh, I don't think so," she murmured, suddenly sounding very sane. "Angelus is going to want this one – especially when he finds out that the Slayer lied to him about his daddy."
"He can't have him," Spike said firmly. "I can't let that happen, princess. Why not let him go to his mother and you and I can have a nice talk about old times?"
"Would there be tea and cakes?"
"There could be," he soothed. "Just let the boy go and I'm all yours."
She cocked her head and gave him a sad smile.
"You aren't my sweet William any more, are you? You're lying to your princess just to save the little boy. But I want him," she said, her voice suddenly hard as she shifted into her vampire face. "He will be my new toy and he will learn to love his mummy."
Will was understanding very little of the conversation between his father and the crazy vampire holding onto his arm. He could feel blood trickling down to his wrist from the holes left by her nails. Her shift into her true face brought an involuntary whimper from his throat and he pulled as far away from her deadly grip as he could.
"Easy, lad," Spike's voice soothed, "we're going to get you out of this."
"He... they... Joy... somebody took Joy," Will managed to blurt out. "Lucy was..."
"They turned her. Don't doubt it. But I suspect your mum has long since taken care of that problem. We just need to get back to her and find your sister and Angelus."
Dru snarled, frightening Will even more as she bared her teeth.
"If the nasty slayer takes my Angelus away again, I will make both her children my toys. I will slash and tear until they bleed and beg me to let them die."
"They're my children, too," Spike said with a calmness that he didn't feel. "Would you do that to me, love? Take my children?"
As he was speaking, he had been moving closer to her in small imperceptible steps. His eyes met his son's frightened stare and he smiled encouragingly.
"Got to get my boy home," he said casually. "He has a game tomorrow and we need to work on his volleys." He readied himself as he saw understanding dawning on Will's face. When the boy brought his foot around in a powerful swing, connecting with Dru's knee, she screamed and collapsed to the floor, pulling Will down with her. Before she could get her teeth or claws into him, Spike had wrenched her arm out of its socket and pushed the now-free boy away from the snarling vampire.
Will watched with wide eyes as his father backhanded Drusilla into the wall, then punched her until she stopped moving. He grabbed her head, whispered a "sorry, princess" and twisted until her head popped off and turned to dust along with the rest of her body.
Without waiting to mourn her dust, he grabbed Will's hand and began to pull him back the way he'd come.
"Let's go, son. Time to send Angelus to hell for the last time."
When Will's shorter and much more exhausted legs began to slow them down, Spike didn't even break stride as he swung the boy over his shoulder and continued running. They burst into the bloody space where Will had last seen his sister and skidded to a halt. Spike's keen eye noticed the dust on the floor, as well as the principal's dead body. He sniffed twice and growled, staring into the space where Buffy's scent disappeared.
Will watched curiously as his father's familiar face twisted itself into something much different and more frightening. His demon to the fore, Spike turned to his son.
"I need for you to find the nearest stairs and run straight up them to the sunlight. Then you need to call the slayer school and get Aunt Faith over here – tell her to bring friends. Can you do that for me?"
Will nodded dumbly, too entranced by the fangs around which his father was speaking to say anything.
"Good boy," Spike growled. "I love you. Now, go!" With a quick hug, he shoved Will in the direction of the main hallway. He waited long enough to hear a stairwell door close behind the boy and his rapid footsteps as he took the stairs three at a time. As soon as he was sure Will was safe, he turned around and leaped gracefully into the open duct.
Buffy had crept through the darkened duct work, grateful for the occasional vent that let in a small amount of light here and there. When she was between vents, and the darkness was black and heavy with menace, she moved slowly, stretching her vampire-sensing skills to their limit and listening for any trace of a sound.
In the faint light provided by a small vent high above her head, she saw what appeared to be spots of fresh blood, touching one with her hand and wincing at the familiar slippery feel. Moving faster, she concentrated on following the drops, using her fingers to feel for small damp spots when it was too dark for her to see. She was concentrating so hard on finding the drops that she almost didn't notice the way vampire tingles were making the hairs on the back of her neck stand up straight.
As soon as she realized what she was sensing, she froze and raised her head, looking around cautiously. Hearing no sounds to guide her when she reached a place where the large duct intersected another one, she allowed the tingles to tell her which way to go. She followed her instincts, noting when the light permitted that the blood drops were going in the same direction.
Confident that she was on the right track, she increased her speed, moving faster and faster as the signature became stronger. When she reached the end of the duct, she almost fell out as it ended several feet above the floor of a large room full of humming machinery. She peered into the darkness, flinching back when the sudden flare of a match hit her dilated eyes.
She blinked hard, struggling to see the form behind the match. A deep, familiar chuckle told her who was now lighting the candle in front of him.
"There is a light switch in here," Angelus said conversationally, "but I think this is much more romantic, don't you, Buffy?"
"Where is my daughter?"
"You mean this pretty little thing?" He held up a barely conscious Joy, laughing at Buffy's expression when she noticed the bloody bite on Joy's neck. "Oh, yes. I had a little taste. Just couldn't help myself – she tastes so much like you. But don't worry. I didn't take too much. Want her alive until Dru and I are ready to—" He broke off with a howl of rage, flinging Joy away from him and into one of the machines.
"What have you done?" he screamed. His link with his former childe, now his sire, had suddenly disappeared. "You – you're here. How did you…."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Has someone gone missing?" She landed lightly on the floor, falling into a fighting stance, her stake in her hand. "Gee, I wonder how that happened? Maybe I'm not the only unhappy parent in the building?"
"Nice try," he sneered. "I know you, Buffy. You staked that pain in my ass the minute he opened his yellow eyes. Don't try to pretend you didn't. You wouldn't let a demon walk, even if it was wearing Spike's face."
"You've never known me very well, Angleus," she replied. "You thought I wouldn't do it when I had to, and now you think I did it when there was no reason."
"You're bluffing." There was just the slightest trace of fear in his deep voice. He had known Spike too well, and for too many years – as man and vampire – not to have an understanding of what it would be like to face him when his family had been harmed.
"You wish, Peaches."
Without glancing back, Buffy stepped to the side to allow Spike to drop to the floor beside her. With another snarl, Angelus grabbed Joy's foot and yanked the crying girl to him. He wrapped one meaty hand around her neck and sneered at the two frustrated people glaring at him.
"You'll be wanting to step out of my way, now," he growled. "Unless you want to watch her neck snap. I definitely planned to enjoy her for a bit longer before I killed her, but I'm flexible on that."
He motioned for Spike and Buffy to get out of his way, as he began walking towards the vent, still clutching Joy by her neck. It was obvious to both parents that he was squeezing off her oxygen and could easily snap her neck before either of them would reach him.
"Where do you think you're gonna go with her, arsehole?" Spike snarled.
"Last time I looked outside, the sun was still up, and there's an army of slayers on the way here to surround the building."
"They'll have the same problem you do, won't they?" Angelus seemed unperturbed by the news. "They can't touch me without losing Joy, here." He gave them a toothy grin. "Not sayin' I won't be taking her with me when I leave, but at least she'll be alive. It's your choice, Buffy." He ignored Spike in favor of appealing to the motherly instincts in the Slayer. "We'll just be leavin' now. By the time I work my way back out of here, it will be dark enough to leave the way I came."
"Which was...?" Buffy blinked in surprise when he actually answered her.
"Those big ventilation outlets on the roof? Turns out they have ladders inside. It was easy to slip in there at night and find this nice, comfy place to rest. Would have been easier getting in and out if Dru had enough sense to get the keys off somebody while she had a chance." He gestured at the locked door of the room. "But, like I said, I'm flexible." He smiled again and jumped easily into the open shaft, ignoring the moan from his captive when her leg banged against the side of the opening. "Hush, girl. We need to move now."
"No!" Joy's choked refusal was proof that he had released her throat, and Buffy and Spike sprang.
They reached the opening just in time to see Angelus push Joy ahead of him with snarled instructions to get her ass moving. Instead, the girl fell forward onto her hands and propelled herself into a tucked handspring that landed her out of the vampire's reach.
Spike was upon him before he had time to realize that he'd lost his hostage. Joy shrank against the wall, quivering in fear as something she couldn't recognize as her father rolled around on the floor of the duct in a snarling, snapping, swearing tangle with Angelus. Buffy ran past the two vampires, her first instinct being to check her child for serious injury.
"That was wonderful, honey," she murmured, pulling the sobbing girl into a tight hug. "I'm so proud of you."
Joy clung to her mother, gasping sobs tearing her sore throat. Her eyes were wide and focused on the still-struggling vampires outlined against the flickering light from the room behind them. When Buffy had assured herself that Joy was going to be all right, she gently sat her back down some distance away and ordered her to wait there.
She walked towards the fighting vampires, her stake held lightly in her hand. Angelus' fears of having to face a vengeful Spike were more than justified, and Buffy watched calmly as her husband systematically administered as much pain as was possible in the short amount of time he'd had. When it became obvious that the fight was over and that Spike was just concentrating on inflicting pain, while keeping Angelus conscious enough to feel it, Buffy stepped closer, saying quietly, "Joy is watching."
"Yeah," Angelus managed to get out past his swollen lips and missing teeth. "Wouldn't want your little girl to see what you really are, would you, William the Bloody?"
Spike froze, then, without responding, he reached behind him for the stake.
"No, Spike. Let me."
She stepped forward and met Angelus' eyes. Immediately, he faded into his human face, but Buffy just shook her head at him.
"Not his time," she said clearly as she drove the stake through his chest and into his heart. "Not this time."
Spike shook off his demon, but remained crouched at her feet, his head down as he stared at the floor. Buffy rested her hand on his head, running her fingers through his hair gently.
"It's okay," she whispered. "Just go to her."
He rose to his feet slowly, pausing for a supportive hug, before walking tentatively towards his daughter. He knelt down beside the wide-eyed girl, saying softly, "Joy? Princess?"
"D...daddy?" Her eyes searched the now familiar blue ones looking at her so anxiously, then ran over his ripped clothing and the bloody wounds on his hands and face. "Are you okay?"
With a laughing sob, he pulled her into an embrace, murmuring, "Am I okay? How could I not be with such a brave, wonderful girl? How could I not?"
"Can we go home now, then?" Her voice trembled and he immediately stood up, lifting her in his arms as he did.
"We sure can, sweetheart. We'll just go collect your brother and be on our way."
As the little family made its way through the dark tunnels, hampered by Spike's reluctance to go into game face while he held Joy, they could see the glow of flashlights ahead of them.
"Hey! Did you leave any for us?" Faith's cheerful voice preceded her down the duct.
"Left you some dust," Spike responded as they neared her and the four slayers she'd brought along.
"You're no fun," she grumbled, giving Joy a quick thumbs-up when she saw the girl's tentative smile.
"You won't know that till you've tried it, pet," he leered at her, laughing and ducking his head when Joy gasped, "Dad!" "Sorry, love, forgot for a minute what a sheltered little flower you are," he teased.
'I'm almost fifteen," she said with as much dignity as she could muster while being carried around like she was a baby. "I know... stuff!"
While Buffy smothered a laugh, Spike did his best not to frighten his daughter by letting her see the amber flashes in his eyes. He couldn't suppress the low growl as he said, "What stuff?"
Buffy let out the laugh she'd been holding in, saying quickly, "Joy, you're going to need to talk to your Aunt Dawn about what you can and can say around your father, now that you're growing up. Unless you want him scaring away all your dates."
"Dates? There are dates?" He unconsciously tightened his grip on her until Joy squeaked. "Sorry, love," he apologized quickly. "Your mother's just trying to get me going, isn't she?"
"It's just so easy," Buffy smirked. "You are so predictable."
Joy stared back and forth between her parents, wondering what had happened to change the two tense, edgy people they'd been since her father's return, into the laughing, bantering couple they were now. She suspected there was more to it than that they no longer had to worry about their children being kidnapped by monsters. At that thought, she suddenly realized that she had no idea what had happened to Will after she fell unconscious and she looked around anxiously.
"Where's Will? Is he—"
"He's fine," Spike soothed. "He's waiting for us upstairs." He cocked a questioning eyebrow at Faith and she nodded as she swung down from the duct onto the concrete floor of the basement.
"Sure is. He's busy impressing all the girls with his story of how he kicked Lucy's ass and then single-handedly dusted Drusilla." She reached up to take Joy from Spike and winked at him. "Regular chip off the old block, isn't he?"
"That's my boy," he agreed proudly, raising his hand to help Buffy jump down beside him.
"Oh, he's your boy, all right," she agreed. "Bragging and making it up as he goes along."
"Actually, he's not all that far off the mark," Spike said, with a sharp glance at both slayers. "I think the boy's gonna need a little training before he bites off more than he can chew one night, but he did alright for himself."
A glance at the floor showed still unmopped bloodstains, but no sign of the bodies that had greeted Joy and Will when they first entered the area. Joy breathed a sigh of relief and asked Faith to let her stand by herself. Limping just slightly on her injured leg, she walked between her parents to the stairwell and stubbornly insisted on walking up on her own.
The small group, relieved parents, limping teenager, and five disappointed slayers, stepped out into an anxious crowd of administrators and slayers. Will ran up to his sister – forgetting that he was being watched by a half-dozen teenaged girls – and hugging her tightly. There was a sudden silence as Spike and Buffy wrapped their arms around their children and the little family indulged in some much-needed physical comfort.
Faith herded the slayers away, saying, "Okay, ladies. It's almost dark. Lets go find ourselves some real vampires." She waved at Buffy and left the building, already dialing her phone to let Xander know that Joy had been rescued and that Angelus and Drusilla were gone.
After listening to heartfelt apologies from the school staff for having put the two Pratt children at risk, and apologizing in turn for allowing their outside dangers to cause the loss of school employees, Buffy and Spike walked to the car with their very tired children.
Joy insisted that she did not want to go to the emergency room to have her neck cleaned and bandaged, so her parents gave in and went to the Slayer School for a quick first aid stop. Word had already arrived about both the kidnappings and the rescue, and the Pratt family was greeted with applause and cheers. Karin ran up to Joy, hugging her tightly even as she whispered that she was going to teach Joy how to make fire come out of her fingers "just in case."
Willow's throat clearing "ahem!" brought a guilty start from both girls, but they relaxed when they saw the twinkle in her eye.
"Karin's right," she whispered to Joy. "As soon as we talk your mother and father into it, we'll get you started on some tools you can use to protect yourself from vampires."
Karin's attention, meanwhile, had shifted to Will who was basking in the attention of the younger slayers when the pretty, young witch walked up to him.
"Did you really dust Lucy?" she asked, wide-eyed and awestruck. "And the crazy vampire, too?"
He struggled with his natural inclination to preen in front of her, but one look from his sister had him dropping his head and shuffling his feet.
"Nah," he admitted. "Not exactly. I did hit Lucy with a broom and kick her hard enough to get away – but I think Mom dusted her. And Dad dusted the crazy lady. I just kicked her in the knee."
"Still," she said admiringly, "You were very brave." She smiled down at him from her three-inch height advantage and wondered how long it would be before he was tall enough to look her in the eye.
He blushed and stammered, saved only by Joy's insistence that Karin go with her to the first aid station. He watched as his sister and the girl he was sure was going to be the love of his life, walked slowly out of the room; unaware of the hidden smiles on the faces of all the adults who had viewed the little scene.
"Just like his father," Xander's voice broke the silence that followed the girls' departure. "Mooning over something he'll never have."
"She could do worse than to have someone just like his father fall in love with her," Buffy surprised everyone by glaring fiercely at him.
The change in their relationship was suddenly more than obvious as Spike wrapped an arm around Buffy and said, "You tell him, pet."
Xander and Willow looked back and forth between the two, noticing for the first time their relaxed postures and linked hands.
"So, does this mean I'm getting my pool-shooting buddy back?" As usual, Xander blurted out what they both wanted to know. Unseen by his parents, Will had frozen in place, forgetting all about the admiring slayers as he waited breathlessly to hear the answer.
There was no answer for a very long minute – during which Xander began to wish he'd not asked the question, and Will's face began to fall – then Spike looked at Buffy and nodded.
"We've got some work to do," he said quietly, pulling her into an embrace, "but that's the plan."
Gazing up at his warm expression, Buffy nodded mutely, then rose on her toes to kiss him lightly. "That's the plan," she echoed.
Will smothered a happy whoop and ran out of the room to tell his sister that their parents were getting back together, while Buffy and Spike accepted congratulations and good wishes from the adults in the room.
As soon as Joy and Will came back, happy grins across both their faces, they led them out of the building and to the car. Spike automatically slid into the driver's seat and, as soon as everyone was seated and buckled, he pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the house.
While Joy and Will compared notes about their adventures, Buffy went to the kitchen to make some hot chocolate. While she was getting the cups out, she felt a familiar tingle on her neck, followed immediately by cool lips that dipped under her hair to nibble on the soft skin above her collar.
"Mmmmm," she murmured, leaning back into his waiting arms. "I'd forgotten how good that feels."
"Oh? What else might you have forgotten, Slayer?" He pulled her against his body and continued to run his lips up and down her throat. She could feel his growing desire pressing into her back and she turned around to smile up at him.
"Very little" she said, licking her lips. "Trust me. But the kids are a little older than you remember," she added, reluctantly pulling back so that they weren't touching. "You can't go around like that anymore – they'll know."
"Don't care," he growled. "It's been almost seven years, and I'm probably gonna be walking around like this for the next six months."
Buffy giggled and cast a sly eye up at him. "You don't think I've gotten old and ugly?"
"Don't go fishin' for compliments, Slayer," he scolded. "You know you're not old – probably got somethin' to do with that Slayer healin' or being all resurrected or something. And," he said, tipping her chin up so that he could stare into her eyes, "you will never, ever be ugly to me. Couldn't be, if you tried."
"I don't think I deserve you," she whispered, suddenly serious.
"Don't be daft," he said, unable to hide his pleased smile. "I don't deserve you. Never did – much as I used to think so."
"I guess we can fight about it later..."
"No fightin'. Not tonight," he growled, pulling her in for a knee-weakening kiss; a kiss that was interrupted by their children coming into the kitchen to find out what was taking them so long. When they saw their parents wrapped up in a kiss that Joy deemed very inappropriate for them to be watching, she grabbed Will's arm and yanked him out of the room with a loud "shush". Their giggles echoed back to their parents as the two happy children retreated to the living room.
Buffy and Spike ignored them for a few more seconds, then reluctantly broke apart and laughed.
"I'd forgotten what a pain having children in the house can be," he rumbled in her ear, trying to pull her back against his body.
"They can," she agreed. "But they can also be sent to their rooms..."
"Right, then. Hot chocolate and off to bed with them – here we go."
He grabbed the tray and carried it into the living room where Joy and Will were pretending to be engrossed in a television program about a vampire private eye.
"Here," he said gruffly. "Drink up and then go to bed. Your mother and I..."
Will held up a quick hand. "We do NOT need to know what you and mom..."
"Cheeky little blighter," Spike grumbled, trying to hide a grin. "When you're older, you'll appreciate what we—ow!" He stopped talking when Buffy poked him in the back with the blunt end of a stake.
"What your father means," she said, giving him a glare, "is that we have lots of stuff to talk about."
"What kind of stuff?" Joy and Will exchanged smirks.
"Grown-up stuff," Buffy responded quickly. "You know, where your dad's been, what he wants to do now, what rooms need new curtains, where he's going to sleep..."
"Ah." Joy nodded wisely. "Stuff."
"Exactly." Buffy nodded, ignoring the snickers from her children. "Just grown-up, boring... stuff."
"Right." Will drained his cup of cocoa and put it back on the tray. He raised his arms and stretched elaborately. "Well, I know I'm tired. I guess I'll just go to bed now. Upstairs. In my room. With the door shut..."
Spikes rumbling growl gave the boy his first sense of how different things could be when your father was a vampire. Blanching, he quickly stopped talking and headed for the stairs with Joy right behind him.
"Good-night, Mom," she threw over her shoulder. "Good-night, Daddy. We love you." She was pushing her brother ahead of her when Buffy's voice came from the living room.
"We love you, too. Both of you. Very much."
"We know." She smiled back at them and then continued pushing her protesting brother up the stairs.
Buffy and Spike stood in the middle of the floor, the hunger plain on both their faces.
"Basement?" Spike asked.
"Basement," she agreed firmly.
As one, they whirled and sped through the kitchen and down the stairs to the room the children had set up for Spike. Buffy paused only long enough to lock the door, before jumping down the steps and into his waiting arms. He whirled her around, her giggles mingling with his rumbling growls until his knees hit the edge of the bed and he fell onto it, still clinging to her.
Laughter stilled as their eyes met in mutual happiness that was tinged with regret.
"I love you, Mrs. Pratt," he whispered. "Never stopped. Not for one second. I'm glad you waited for me."
"I love you, Mr. Pratt. I never stopped waiting...and wanting."
"I'm here, now."
"You are," she agreed, reaching for his eager mouth. "It's time to show me how much you missed me. Are you ready for that?"
"I'm pretty sure you can tell how ready I am, Slayer. Are you sure you're ready for me?"
"Bring it on, vampire."
Buffy opened her eyes slowly, curious as to why it was so dark, then remembering that she had fallen asleep in the basement. She blinked and wondered how she'd ended up on the floor - rolling over to nibble on Spike's bare chest as she asked him.
"I think we broke the bed," she murmured, her tongue snaking out to lick the smooth skin there.
"Had to happen eventually," he said, a lazy smile on his face. "Did we break anything else?"
"I'm afraid to look," she confessed. "Explaining the bed is going to be hard enough..."
"I'm thinkin' there will be no explaining the bed. The more you try to explain, the worse it's going to get. A couple of smart cookies, our kids are."
"They are." She sighed. "How long will it be before they go off to college?"
"Not soon enough. I think we might have to arrange some all night patrols for ourselves every now and then, yeah?"
"Sounds like a plan," she agreed, sitting up and searching for her clothes. "I hope you didn't rip my clothes..."
"I'll buy you new ones."
"I wasn't so much worried about replacing them, as I was walking past Will and Joy wearing nothing but your shirt!"
"Shirt's ripped," he laughed. "You'll just have to go naked and hope they aren't up yet."
"Very funny." Her expression indicated exactly how not funny she found that idea. Her clothes turned out to be in better shape than she'd expected, and she quickly pulled them on – throwing her torn panties at his head before heading up to the kitchen. "Come upstairs when you're decent. I think they're already awake."
"They are," he agreed, his own ears having heard one of them try the door before going off giggling. "I'll be right up."
Buffy emerged from the stairway to find Will and Joy doing their best to pretend they were unaware of what she and Spike had been doing in the basement. With eyes firmly fixed on the kitchen counter, Joy was getting out the ingredients for pancakes while Will filled the coffee maker and turned it on.
"Good morning," Buffy said cheerfully, knowing she was blushing like a new bride, but unable to contain her happiness.
"Good morning," they caroled in unison as Spike emerged, shirtless and rumpled.
"Vampire here," he grumbled. "It's the middle of the bloody night for me."
"It's 10:30," Will pointed out.
"10:30! You're late for school..."
"Relax, Mom. We called and they said we didn't have to come in today. They said we should rest up and recover from our 'ordeal'."
"Oh. Well, that was nice of them..."
She trailed off as Spike came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her, smiling over her shoulder at his children. Joy cocked her head in a familiar way and asked, "Does this mean that we're a family again? Is Daddy going to stay?"
Buffy tipped her head back and looked up into her husband's face. He nodded, dropping a kiss on her forehead.
"That's what it means, love. I'm home to stay. I'm sorry I stayed away so long – I should have…."
"Mom sent you away." There was just a trace of accusation in Will's tone and Spike reacted immediately.
"She did. But she had every reason to be worried. You two, of all people, should understand that now. She only did it to keep you safe. I forgave her for it the minute I heard Angelus' voice... and you should too." He glared at them until they dropped their eyes and nodded.
"I'm sorry we got so mad at you, Mom," Joy said softly. "I get it, now. Uncle Angel was… pretty scary. And so was Daddy when he was fighting him." She cast an apologetic glance at Spike, who shrugged uncomfortably.
"Dad was awesome!" Will protested. "All fangs and 'grrrrr'... what?" he asked, noticing the looks his parents were giving him. "He was," he repeated stubbornly. "I wasn't afraid of him."
"Neither one of you will ever have a reason to be afraid of your father," Buffy said firmly, "but that doesn't mean you should take vampires casually. Or that you don't have to mind him," she added.
"So, the Pratt family is back together." Joy beamed at her parents who were still standing close together and smiling.
"It is," Spike agreed. "Now where are those pancakes I heard about?"
"Vampires eat pancakes?" Will frowned in confusion. "Don't you drink blood?"
Buffy and Spike laughed and sat down at the counter. "Your dad isn't your average vampire," Buffy said, smiling at their son. "He never was, and he never will be."