The door opened to its usual ringing accompaniment.
Giles walked over to greet Riley, Xander following closely on his heels.
He looked past the two men, his eyes roaming expectantly around the room before returning his attention to the watcher, “Where’s Buffy?” She had said she would be here, so why was he not in the least surprised by her absence?
Giles wasn’t really sure what Buffy had told her boyfriend, or for that matter how much she wanted him to know, “Um, she-she left a while ago.”
Riley’s voice raised incredulously, “What?” With a resigned sigh he continued his interrogation of the seemingly unconcerned watcher, “Where?”
“That creepy demon woman’s conjuring some kind of monster,” Xander offered helpfully.
“And you let Buffy go after her? Alone?” For all the time he had now known these people he still could not comprehend how they could be so blasé about the danger that Buffy placed herself in. Why was he the only one who wanted to protect her?
Giles’ brow creased slightly, frowning at the reprimand from the former soldier whose presence he barely found it in him to tolerate at the best of times, what his slayer saw in this young man was beyond him. He attempted to keep the contempt from his voice as he answered tightly, “Uh, ‘let’ isn’t really a factor when she sets her mind to something, you know that.” A customer requiring his services at the register supplied him with all the excuse he needed to break off the conversation before he said something to the irritating boy that he may later regret.
Riley turned to Xander in the hope that the in the boy at least he may find an ally, “She’ll get herself killed. It’s crazy.”
“Yeah. Crazy. Going off alone, half-cocked, instead of waiting for much-needed backup … charging in with a big old hand grenade … oh, wait.”
He belatedly realised that his actions of the previous night had wounded the rather fragile ego of his greatest supporter amongst Buffy’s inner circle, and he winced as he recognised that he would have to put in a little overtime in order to repair the relationship he had worked so hard at cultivating. Right now, however, he did not have time to deal with Xander Harris’ self-worth issues, “This is different.”
Xander couldn’t believe that Riley didn’t understand what was so blatantly obvious to the rest of them, “Yeah, it is. Buffy needs something she can fight, something she can solve. I don’t know what kind of action you’re looking for …” He stared intently at the man who until very recently he had thought could do no wrong. He has worried about him, after all this was his friend, and the closest Buffy had come to a normal, acceptable relationship. He just wanted Riley to understand that he was there; to help, to listen, whatever was needed in order to help sort out whatever issue it was that Riley was dealing with right now, before it could have a detrimental effect on his relationship with Buffy. “Do you?”
Riley coldly returned his stare, not quite believing that Xander was actually calling him on his actions. A heartbeat later he quickly cut his eyes to the side; he really didn’t have time to get into a pissing contest with the boy right now.
“Hey, I’m not trying to get…”
“It’s cool.” Riley assured him, eager to cut this conversation short and be on his way.
“You okay?’ Xander’s concern, if anything, bumped up another notch at Riley’s quick dismissal.
Riley nodded reassuringly, “Just a little crazed,” he answered, hoping that Xander would let it drop so he could get out of there. Taking Xander’s ‘I hear ya.’ as an indication that he was done with his little lecture, he made to leave, turning back at the last moment with a defeated shrug, “If, uh, she needs me…” Not that she EVER needs me, he thought glumly to himself as he left the shop in search of much needed solace.
The insistent ringing broke through the anxious quiet that had marked the shop for the majority of the day. Giles handed the package to the customer offering a tentative smile before turning his attention to the phone, “Magic Box, your one-stop spot to shop for…” His well rehearsed spiel was interrupted by a very tired sounding slayer.
“Giles, it’s me.”
“Buffy! You alright?” His relief at hearing her voice was overshadowed by the concern her obvious weariness evoked.
Buffy snagged an ice-pack from a nearby shelf and allowed his question to wash over her. Was she alright? Her mom was waiting to have lifesaving brain surgery, her sister wasn’t really her sister but some sort of mystical key to god-only-knows-what, the super bitch that she was supposed to be protecting the key from had conjured some uber-ugly snake-monster thingy and released it on the general populace. And to top it all off the same unbelievably trashy ho had just thrown her around, yet again, like she was some sort of rag-doll rather than the Slayer. She hurt from head to toe and all she really wanted was to curl up in her mom’s arms, close her eyes and wish this whole awful nightmare would go away. “No, I’m really not.” She sighed deeply, “I-I couldn’t stop her. I couldn’t even slow her down.”
“Where are you?” Giles demanded.
Buffy reached inside her jacket, gingerly placing the procured icepack on her shoulder before answering, “Sunnydale Memorial.”
At her announcement Giles’ ‘watcher’ took a backseat, rapidly replaced by the concerned pseudo-father, “Are you badly hurt? I’ll, I’ll come right over.”
“No. No, I-I just wanted to warn you that that thing she conjured, it’s loose—it’s a big snake thing. Not ‘Mayor big’, but it’s pretty lethal looking.”
Giles calmed slightly as curiosity won out over concern, “Do you know why she raised it?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“I’ll warn the others. We’ll get weapons, we’ll fan out…” the watcher’s planing was quickly interrupted by Buffy’s next enquiry, “Wait. What time is it?” With a quick glance at his watch her answered her, “Half past four, why?”
“School’s out. Dawn’s on her way over to you. Giles…”
Knowing that right now the best thing he could do for his slayer was to protect her sister he quickly reassured her that Dawn would be well cared for, “Understood. We’ll keep her safe here until you arrive.”
“Thanks. And Giles…”
“Dawn’s kind of fragile right now. About Mom; she doesn’t know how bad it is.”
“We’ll not say a word,” he assured her.
With a tired sigh Buffy said her goodbyes, “Well, my Mom’s gonna wake up soon, and I should … be there when the doctors tell her.”
Not knowing what else to say, Giles tried to ease some of the girl’s worries, “She’s in good hands, Buffy. There’s really nothing else you can do.”
“Bye.” He replaced the phone on its cradle, wishing not for the first time that there was some way he could remove some of the burdens that his dear girl must carry each day. He wondered how much more difficult it could be if the child in your heart were truly your own and decided that he could not possibly care more for Buffy even were she his own flesh and blood. He could only pray that Joyce would make a speedy recovery. And that the mystery of the key and the deceptively harmless-looking woman who sought it out would soon be solved.
Buffy made her way to her mother’s room, limping slightly and wincing in pain when she moved too suddenly, jarring her injured shoulder. She paused outside her mother’s room, steeling herself to face the once more the sight of her mom lying there looking so fragile and broken. With a deep calming breath she eased the door open, not wanting to disturb her mom if she was still sleeping. The sight that confronted her stopped her heart for a moment, William the bloody was in her mom’s room while she slept; her first instinct had her reaching for a stake. As her brain caught up with her screaming slayer instincts she realised that Spike wasn’t threatening the sleeping woman in anyway, in fact he was sitting at her side talking quietly to her as he held her hand gently in one of his and stroked it soothingly with the other.
Buffy pushed the door all the way open and watched with some amusement as Spike started, guiltily releasing Joyce’s hand and jumping to his feet.
“Spike, what are you doing here?” She tried to sound pissed off, but the sight of the Big Bad squirming uncomfortably at having been caught out being nice was just too much, and her lips curled slightly upwards.
With his eyes cast self-consciously towards the floor Spike didn’t see the tiny smile that graced the slayer’s lips, hearing only the accusation in her voice, “Wasn’t hurting her if that’s what you’re implying.” He looked up, his predator’s eyes rapidly noting her dishevelled appearance and the stiff way she held herself, the scent of her blood tickled his nostrils and the increase in her heartbeat beyond the normal rhythm that he knew like a well-loved tune; his slayer was injured. He sought her eyes, his head tilting slightly in enquiry, “Some nasty got a piece of you, love?” his tone soft and quiet, some of the worry he felt creeping past his barriers.
Two of his girls were hurt; he could only hope the third was safe. That’s what they were, ‘his girls’, oh he would never be foolish enough to let the slayer know that was how he thought of her and her family, right quick way to a dusty end that would be. That didn’t change the facts though; Joyce and the Nibblet had, when he stopped and thought about it, been his for some time. Always treated him right! Joyce had never treated him like a monster, or some sort of annoying invalid whose presence was barely tolerated. As for the Platelet, he knew she kinda admired him, and he liked that, it made him feel like something more than the neutered has-been he was, and he genuinely liked her. She brought back faded memories of a long-dead little sister who had meant the world to him once, before the consumption had stolen her away, leaving only himself and his mum in a house all the more lonely for the ghosts that kept them company. His feelings for Buffy were somewhat new, but no less intense. That he would gladly dust for any one of them was not in any doubt.
That he couldn’t sit around his crypt all day knowing Joyce was lyin’ here in hospital was also not in doubt. Having made his way through the tunnels he’d arrived in time to hear the docs give Buffy their verdict, had seen captain-bloody-cardboard head off with his Nibblet in tow and Buffy leave to try and find a way to help her mum. So he’d hung around, snatched a couple of bags of blood while he’d waited, and then when Joyce had been wheeled back to her room he had slipped inside to keep her company and assure himself that she was ok until Buffy got back with Dawn. Only he hadn’t expected Buffy to be back so soon, had thought to be gone before she arrived, or at least out of sight. Now he warred between concern that his slayer had gone and gotten herself all beat up by some big nasty and mortification at having been caught sitting there holdin’ her mum’s hand an talkin’ to her like some bloody Nancy boy.
He narrowed his eyes and quirked an eyebrow, silently reminding her that she had yet to answer him.
“It was… “ Buffy sighed as the day’s events once more sprang to the forefront, “look, it doesn’t matter, Spike. I’m fine. Ok.” She didn’t know why she felt guilty for not explaining things to him, but she just really didn’t have the energy to go into it right now. Remembering the sight that had greeted her when she’d arrived Buffy quickly turned the tables on the vampire, “Was that…. were you watching over my mom?”
Spike’s intent, searching gaze dropped as she once more turned her attention on him, “Just didn’t want her to be alone, ‘s all.” He muttered quietly, his focus fixed on the floor in front of his feet. Buffy moved slowly toward the blonde vampire who of late seemed to alternate between being the bane of her existence, and at times the only one she could turn to, the only one who came close to understanding the slayer side of her nature. She placed a hand gently on his arm, the leather soft and subtle beneath her fingers, waiting to speak until he lifted his eyes once more to hers. Blue eyes shone incredulously as he took in her warm little hand resting on his arm.
“Thank you, Spike. I am glad you were here with her.” Buffy smiled gently at him and watched as embarrassment claimed him once again. He was really quite cute when he was embarrassed; looking like nothing more than an awkward little boy, rather than the vicious, unrepentant murderer she knew him to be. To be fair Spike hadn’t killed anyone for a while now, but then that wasn’t exactly through choice. If it wasn’t for that chip in his head she had no doubt he would be back to the whole killing thing tomorrow. Having said that he hadn’t hurt her mom, or Dawn when he’d had the chance. She still remembered the shock of coming home to find Spike sitting in the kitchen drinking hot chocolate while her mom listened to his troubles, Dawn peeking in from the next room, shamelessly eavesdropping despite having been told to go and play elsewhere as it was an adult conversation. Dawn still hadn’t learned that it was wrong to eavesdrop. Only that hadn’t really happened had it? Dawn wasn’t real. So was anything about that memory real? Or was it all just something the monks had planted in her mind? Buffy smiled to herself when she realised that it really didn’t matter; she just knew that even if none of it were real, under those circumstances Spike wouldn’t have hurt them. He really seemed to like her mom and little sister; it was only her that he had wanted to kill. Somehow, despite the absurdity of it, that thought was rather comforting. At least she knew that if anything ever happened to her there was someone here who not only cared but who was strong enough to take care of her family.
“How is she?” She allowed her hand to drop from his arm as she made her way closer to her mom’s bed.
“She’s doing ok. Tough bird your mum.” He answered, pride ringing clearly in his voice, “Heart beat is good and strong, and her breathing is good. Don’t think she’s too far off wakin’ up.”
Buffy seated herself carefully on the edge of the bed, taking her mom’s hand in her own and stroking it softly in much the same way Spike had been when she’d arrived.
Spike fidgeted for a minute, not wanting to interrupt, then when it seemed Buffy had forgotten he was there he ventured, “Guess I should be leavin’ you to it then. Tell your mum… well just tell her I hope she’s all better soon.” He turned to leave only to be stopped by the slayer’s quiet words.
“No, Spike. It’s ok. Stay. Mom would want to see you.”
Returning to the seat he had occupied earlier he sat in comfortable silence and watched over his girls.
They walked side by side through the rapidly darkening streets towards the Magic Shop. They needed to fetch the Nibblet back to her mum, the sun had been down for about half an hour and it was turning into a lovely clear starlit night. Joyce had been pleased to see them both when she woke, and their presence had helped her when it came time to deal with the doc’s news, Spike knew that, but it had been hard to see her struggling for a moment to deal with the news. She’d pulled herself together right quick, had to be strong for her daughter. Spikes admiration for her had risen another notch in that moment, when she had faced her own mortality and then put on a brave face for her daughter–her racing heart the only indication of the stress she was under. More than ever she had reminded him of his own mum; being strong, putting on a brave face for him, even while knowing that the foul sickness which had claimed both her husband and her beloved daughter now had her in its evil grip. After assuring them both that she was fine she had asked them to get Dawn for her. She was still sleepy from the anaesthetic and was just dozing off as they had left the hospital.
When they reached the Magic Box Spike opened the door and waited for Buffy to precede him into the shop. Giles stopped in mid-yawn to glare momentarily at him, the watcher snapped his mouth closed on the comment that Spike just knew was dying to come out and was merely withheld in deference to Buffy and Dawn’s current situation.
Dawn moved into her sister’s arms, and then surprised Spike by relinquishing her and embracing him in turn, a quiet sob muffled as she burrowed her face into his chest. He wrapped unsure arms around the distressed teen and kissed the top of her head, murmuring reassuringly, “‘s ok half-pint, your mum’s gonna be ok.” Drawing a deep breath Dawn nodded against his chest, then pulled out of his arms to look at both the vampire and her sister in turn, “Is she awake yet?”
“Buffy reached out to stroke away the hair that had fallen across the younger girl’s face, “Yeah. She’s waiting for us.”
“Can we take her home now?”
Buffy glanced at Spike, drawing strength from his silent support, “We’ll see. Go get your stuff.”
With a quick glance to assure herself that Dawn was out of hearing range Buffy glanced from her watcher to her best friend, “So, any monster reptile sightings?”
Giles looked pointedly at Buffy, flicking his eyes to indicate the vampire standing off to her side. Buffy momentarily placed a hand on Spike’s arm and smiled up at him, “It’s ok Giles, Spike knows. I filled him in on the walk over here. So… giant snakes?” Buffy had found herself confiding in Spike as they’d walked companionably from the hospital, needing to share her concerns and knowing instinctively that the vampire would protect her sister at all costs, regardless of her origins. He had accepted her news, never once questioning that Dawn was indeed human now. She was his Nibblet, that was all he needed to know. How she had come about was immaterial to him. That he would help to keep her safe was beyond question.
“None.” Giles answered, in tight-lipped disapproval.
Willow fidgeted uncomfortably before piping up, “Tara and I did a mini-patrol earlier, but biggie snake was nowhere to be…”
Glass shattered as the creature in question burst through the store’s display window, slithering through the debris to rear to its full height in front of the store’s temporarily stunned occupants. With slow deliberation it slid its gaze over each of them, scenting the air and reaching out around the room with all of its senses; searching for the source of the power it had felt pulsing from within the shop’s confines. In a sudden flurry of movement the creature surged forward catching a display case with one arm, toppling it and knocking the slayer to the ground beneath its weight. It stopped in front of Dawn, tongue flicking, scenting the air and tasting the raw power the young girl exuded, its eyes flashed, blazing red in recognition. Dawn’s terrified screams rent the air as the creature hovered before her, seemingly entranced by the young girl before it. Before it could move closer to the terrified teen a strong arm wrapped around its neck pulling it roughly back, “Get the fuck away from her.” Spike growled as he flung the creature into the counter, merchandise flying. The creature turned and fled the shop, slithering past Buffy as she extricated herself from beneath the toppled remains of the display case.
Xander moved quickly to the traumatised girl, “Dawn, you okay?” his eyes quickly checking her over for injuries.
“Why was the big snake afraid of Dawn?” Willow mused.
Buffy turned and without so much as a backward glance flew out of the shop on the creatures trail, Spike less than a heartbeat behind her as he snatched the watcher’s keys from the counter.
“Be right with you, pet. Just don’t lose the damned thing.” Spike raced off towards Giles’ shiny new car while Buffy followed the overgrown snake in an attempt to stop it returning to its mistress. The chaos and wreckage in its wake providing and easy trail to follow as she turned on a burst of speed she had never known she was capable of, powered by the driving need to protect her sister at all costs. The screaming of tyres sounded from behind her and the deep roaring of a cruelly abused engine. Spike slowed the car as he pulled alongside the slayer, “Get in, love,” he yelled, gunning the car once more before the slayer had even finished landing in the passenger’s seat beside him. “Hold on, pet,” he advised, throwing the car sideways around the next corner, narrowly avoiding a dumpster as the creature swiped it with its tail, hurling the object into their path in an attempt to slow them down.
“Hurry, Spike. We’ve gotta stop this monster before it gets back to Glory.”
“Glory? That the bint’s name?”
“That’s what he called her.” She glanced at Spike as he once more manoeuvred the car around flying objects that the desperate creature flung into their path, “She’s gonna know Dawn’s the key if we don’t…”
“We’ll stop it, pet. Don’t wo… Fuck! Hang on!” Spike growled, swinging the car sideways once more, bumping hard up the gutter and over a newly fallen section of chain-link fencing and onto the grassy expanse of the moonlit park. The tyres digging deeply into the soft grass sent the car fishtailing after the snake, rapidly gaining ground. The desperate creature tried once more to lose them by turning onto a narrow bike path. Spike followed, driving over the remnants of a sign as he gunned the engine once more and slammed into the creature from behind. The vehicle sent the snake-creature flying into a nearby rock and without cutting the engine both Spike and Buffy launched themselves from the vehicle and were on it before it could fully recover from the impact.
Buffy pulled Spike’s head into her lap, gently stroking the curls that had freed themselves during the battle. She raised her hand and quickly dashed away the tear that had escaped at the sight of deep-red pool spreading rapidly across the grass from his prone body. “Spike. Spike, wake up. Please.” Cradling his head gently she stroked the sharp plane of his cheek, pleading softly, “Don’t leave me Spike. I need you. I can’t fight this alone.” As the words left her mouth she didn’t know if she meant Glory, the ongoing exhaustion of being the slayer, or her mom’s illness, maybe she meant all of it. All she knew was that she had come to depend on the vampire always being there when she needed him. No, more than that, she had come to want him there. His presence was a comforting source of strength that she drew on regularly, most times without even realising it. She knew that more even than her friends or her watcher she could depend on Spike to be there, without question or judgment. He was just there.
She watched the blood seep ever outwards, the deep punctures in his abdomen failing to close, and knew that he didn’t have enough blood left in him for his vampire healing to kick in. She didn’t know for sure what happened to a vampire once every drop of blood was drained from its body, but she had a fairly good idea that it would involve a rather substantial amount of dust.
The fight had been going well; they’d had the creature pinned down against a huge boulder with no means of escape. Fighting in perfect synchronisation they had rained blows upon it, each one weakening the monster until in a last ditched effort it had swung its head rapidly, taking Spike by surprise it had caught him in its massive jaws. Huge fangs punctured deeply through the vampire’s stomach as the creature shook its head fiercely, thrashing from side to side while Spike growled and roared in pain and fury. Finally it had flung him through the air to land in a broken heap on the grass, where he lay unmoving until Buffy had finally managed to dispatch the creature. She had made her way to him as quickly as possible, and had frozen in horror at the sight of the normally vividly-animated vampire laying so still as his borrowed blood oozed across the grass, each passing moment sapping more and more of his strength and ‘life’ away from him.
She realised in that moment that she could NOT lose him.
Before she could question her decision Buffy gently lay Spike’s head on the grass and made her way to his foot extracting the knife that she knew he carried in his boot. She made her way back to his head, once more lifting it to rest safely in her lap. She closed her eyes for a moment, gathering the courage required to carry out the task she had set herself. Her eyes opened and she took in once more Spike’s face, gentle in repose, boyish and sweet and she wondered momentarily if this is how he had appeared as a human. With a deep sigh she drew the little knife across her wrist then placed the wound against his mouth, stroking his hair tenderly with the other hand as she murmured soft words of encouragement to him. Nothing happened at first and Buffy was worried that she had left it too late, that he was too far gone to return to her and her eyes swam with a fresh wave of tears that brimmed before being dashed angrily away.
“Come on Spike, you don’t get to give up on me. You just don’t.” Her voice dropped to a whisper, her lip trembled as she breathed, “Not you. You’re the one who never gives up.”
With her free hand she stroked his face gently, marvelling at the beauty she had only recently allowed herself to see, a beauty which went so much deeper than his exquisite face.
He had changed so much, but then he had always been different to other vampires, different even to Angel. Certainly he was very different to Angelus. Why was it that this vampire, soul notwithstanding was able to do the things he did, to love—and there was no doubt in her mind that Spike was capable of very deep and very real love, she had seen it when he had looked at Drusilla—to keep his word, to help her save the world, to come to her for help after the Initiative had put that chip in his head even though he could just as easily have made minions do his hunting for him, he was after all a Master Vampire of the Aurelius line. Spike had even taken it upon himself to look out for her little sister, and knowing what he now did about Dawn’s origins he had still put his life on the line helping her to protect that self-same sister.
A gentle pulling on her wrist broke her from her reverie; he was feeding, slowly and gently—but feeding none the less. Tears of relief tracked down her cheek as she continued to stroke his face and hair, whispering soft words of encouragement to the feeding vampire. After a seemingly too-short time she felt his tongue lap tenderly at the wound, gently healing it.
Consciousness returned slowly, awareness of his surroundings came in stages, the gentle soothing hand stroking his brow, the scent of her tears, the warmth of her lap as his head rested comfortably in it and the taste of her rich, potent blood in his mouth as new strength coursed through his body. His heart filled anew with a deep abiding love for his beautiful strong slayer. That she would share such a gift with him made his heart sing and his throat clog with emotion. The words he knew he must never say to her fought to free themselves as his eyelids fluttered open and he stared up into worried green eyes.
The words that fell from her tongue astounded him, and he could swear he felt his heart racing in his chest. “Oh, god, Spike. I thought I had lost you. Don’t ever leave me. Please. Promise me, you’ll never leave me. I couldn’t take it if I lost you too.” With a barely stifled sob she leant down and brushed soft kisses against his temple, his hair and eventually his lips.
Buffy stood at her mom’s bedside, “You want me to stay?” she asked, not completely sure which response she was hoping for.
“No, I’m fine. I… I think I should … talk to Dawn alone.
“Ok,” Buffy nodded, a small part of her relieved that she didn’t need to be there when her mom broke the news to Dawn.
“Oh. Do I have bad hair? I don’t look like scary Mom, do I?” Joyce patted at her hair worriedly.
“No. You look beautiful.” Buffy smiled lovingly at her mom and brushed an errant strand away from her forehead.
“Okay. Let’s do this.” Joyce reached out, placing a hand on her daughter’s arm, “Stay close.”
“We will.” Buffy assured her before leaving the room to send her sister in, leaving the door slightly ajar in case either of them needed her. Strong arms wrapped around her and she turned, burrowing into the safety of his chest.
“’s alright, kitten. Your mum’ll pull through this.” He raised her chin until she was looking him in the eye, “you have to believe that, love.”
“I… I know, I’m just so scared.” Nuzzling back into the comfort of his embrace she whispered against his chest, “you’ll stay with me? Tonight I mean.”
“Always, love. Till the end of the world.”