Fred was good. The shadow of a smile had ghosted over Buffy's lips when the pretty young Texan had slipped smoothly out of the room, mentioning that she had to be off for a quick check up on a girl who'd been sick that morning. The slim brunette with the remnants of a southern drawl still clinging to her vowels had stayed for about twenty minutes, mostly puttering around and chattering cheerfully as Buffy unloaded clothes from her suitcase, but seemed to know just when her companionship had run its course. Now Buffy was finally alone, and she was thankful for it.

Kicking her suitcase closed, she moved to the bed and dropped onto the soft blue quilt that covered it, her fingers tracing the unfamiliar patterns. Sunlight trickled in through the window, between the pretty, checked curtains, throwing a warm splash over her back and the side of her face. She sighed. She was really here. The dull, painful ache in her arm, in her throat, was a constant reminder. This is real. You let this happen. Why, why did you let this happen?

Buffy felt her lungs tighten and roughly knuckled her eyes with her one good hand. Crying didn't solve anything. It wouldn't make her feel better. No. Healing would make her feel better. Getting this horrible, itchy cast off, and being able to look in the mirror and see her face all the same color, that would make her feel better. To not get dizzy when she stood up too fast and to not take so many pills…

Buffy sighed, flopping onto her back and squinting, wiggling to the side so that the ray of sun was no longer slashing over her face. Grabbing Mr. Gordo from the pillow, she held him over her head and looked intently into his little piggy button-eyes, hoping for more than simple, cuddly-stuffed comfort, but the portly pink porker held his tongue.

"Stubborn," Buffy chastised.

Hugging the pig tightly with her good arm, she huffed in frustration. What was she doing here? It felt like prison. She'd walked into it of her own free will, and she was pretty sure she could walk out of it the same way, but she still felt trapped. The room was too small, the walls too white, closing in on her like jaws. The people here… she wasn't like the people here, wasn't… was she?

Buffy recognized the symptoms of a panic attack coming on; she'd had one or two in the past. Her heart was beating hard and fast, and she was breathing heavily, the taste of metal thick in the back of her throat, the need to run overwhelming. Clenching her fists as heard as she could, she focused on her happy place, her Zen, calling to mind the image she always thought of when she started to freak, when she needed to be calm and to think clearly.

A few minutes later, she was gently puffing out slow, easy breaths as she slowly relaxed into the mattress.

"What's happened to me?" she whispered, a single tear rolling down her cheek.

God, the way they all looked at her. The way her mother and her friends looked at her. With pity, with horror, with something that she sometimes thought might be disgust. It turned her stomach. And she wasn't sure these people were any better. Wesley, Fred, Will…

"They like you better!" she said to Mr. Gordo in an accusatory tone. "Well… maybe not Fred. She seems nice, doesn't she?"

Buffy rolled onto her good side and stared hard at her stuffed animal, frowning. But Will? Will she wasn't so sure of. He was testing her. She knew that. When he made her pass by him, when he stood in the doorway to her room. He didn't fill it up the way… someone else might; he was smaller, leaner, not nearly as threatening. But he watched her, and it made her feel…

She didn't know what it made her feel. There was something more to him, she could sense it, and it made her nervous. She planned on getting through this program. Maybe even doing some of it for real. But she wasn't so sure she was going to be making friends. Wasn't so sure she was going to be… connecting with the people here. But she was sure of one thing. She was going to stay away from Will Pratt.

She'd figure out where to go from there.


As soon as Spike was through his apartment door, he shed Will as thoroughly as he shed his flak jacket, stripping off his soft green Henley and scrubbing his hands harshly through his hair as he made his way to his bedroom. Jerking open a dresser drawer filled entirely with black t-shirts, he pulled one down over his head and moved back out into the living room. His leather duster was right where he'd left it, thrown sloppily over the back of the couch. Digging into a side pocket, his hand closed on gold.

Snagging his keys, he headed back down to the underground carport, lighting up before he was even out of the stairwell. Spike loved his smokes, but he hated the way the smell clung to his furniture, hovered in the air. It reminded him of a bar, and that reminded him of drinking and that... well, that he didn't need any help remembering.

Stepping up to the back of a rusty blue pickup, he lowered the tailgate and took a seat, reaching back behind him and grabbing the old Ball jar that had rolled towards him. Uncapping the jar, he crushed his butt out on the lid and dropped it into the already half-full jar. For the next twenty minutes he puffed happily away, chain smoking through two-thirds of his pack until he heard the door to the garage closed behind him.

"What did I tell you about smoking in my truck?"

Spike smirked and stubbed out his last butt, capping up his jar and pushing it back into the bed of the pickup. "Not in your truck luv," he said.

"On it then."

The tailgate dipped beneath him as an elderly lady with curly white hair and wire-framed glasses hoisted herself up beside him. Holding out her hand, she waited patiently until Spike tapped out one last cigarette and handed it over, cupping his hand around the end as he lit it for her.

"You know those things will kill you pet."

The woman chuckled. "Everything will kill you these days," she replied. "Smoking. Drinking. Microwaves and cellphones and little tiny cells that nobody can see."

"Come on now ducks," Spike murmured, his spirits taking a hard hit. "Don't think like that."

"Oh, don't fuss William."

"Maggie…"

His neighbor threw him a warning glare, one he recognized well. He'd seen it many times over the last two years, and it shut him up like a clam. Margaret Irene Timms was not a woman to cross. For the next few moments they sat in companionable silence while she finished her smoke, Spike watching his boots swing back and forth underneath them until she crushed out the cherry and gestured for him to get down.

"I've got to run to the market sweet William," she said, taking his hand as he helped her to the ground.

Spike nodded and lifted the tailgate for her, closing it securely. "You call me when you get back, you hear? Don't be carrying those bags up yourself."

She fussed over him a bit, brushing at his t-shirt and pursing her lips. "I'll call up. And I'll make you a nice, hot meal and until then, you'll go upstairs and get some sleep. You're too thin, sweet, and you need sleep."

"Now who's fussing pet?" Spike asked fondly. There were very few people in this world he had connection with, but somehow he had found that with this tottering little old lady who was dying before her time. He supposed that she reminded him of his mum, and he supposed that Maggie knew that. Handing her up into the cab of her truck, he bade her to be careful driving and watched until she was safely out of the garage before heading back upstairs.

Throwing his deadbolt, Spike slumped back against his front door with a heavy sigh. He cared for Maggie, he did, but facing her illness… it was hard. She would talk to him sometimes, laugh sweetly and tell him that her dying was harder on him than it was on her. And maybe it was. His mother, and then… her. It was hard. And he felt it.

The throb in the back of his head that had abated with the flood of nicotine was back, and there was a weariness in his muscles to match. If he hadn't just promised to carry up Maggie's groceries, he would've popped a couple of the sleeping pills Jenny had written for him, the ones he hadn't taken like he should've, but had saved, for those nights when he just couldn't stand them anymore. Now he just…

Wandering over to his couch, he fell backwards onto the cushions and passed out, his boots dangling over the arm.