Chapter 1: Keys
“So you think/You can hold the world up by a string/With all that you have/And I will hold every part of you that I could hold…So you feel anything and everything could be/All that you wanted/Stay with me/I’m in no condition to be/Alone/And I’m on…/And I’m on again /Brace yourself/With all that you have/Enough, I’m in love again/Brace yourself/ Now…On and on/So it’s just your false alarm/Maybe I’ll hold my breath/And you’ll be gone/All that you have, yeah/All that you wanted.” ~Howie Day, “Brace Yourself”
Dawn sat cross-legged, the heavy book opened in her lap. She was reading the spell by flashlight, not wanting to alert anyone to the fact that she was still awake. All the ingredients were laid out next to her; all she had to do was cast it. Preferably without Buffy walking in on her, since that would mean being grounded into the next century.
She wasn’t too worried about someone catching her in the act; Buffy was out on “patrol” with Spike; if her sister even came home before sunrise, Dawn would be shocked.
Although Dawn didn’t know that this was the right spell, it seemed to be her best option at the moment. Maybe it would be better to ask someone like Tara, but she couldn’t take the risk that she’d be forbidden from continuing. Dawn had to know what it meant for her to still be the Key.
She had to.
With a last check over her spell ingredients, Dawn began making the preparations. She lit the pillar candle and sprinkled the magic sand in the bowl, then the herbs, lighting both with the candle. The smoke drifted up, and Dawn breathed deeply, centering herself like the spell said you were supposed to.
If it worked, the magic would give her “true sight,” although she wasn’t sure what that entailed. Mostly, she was just hoping to get some idea of what it meant to still be the Key; Dawn hadn’t thought that there was anything special about her after Glory’s death, but if Rack had been able to use something inside her, then maybe she was the Key.
“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?”
Dawn’s eyes shot open, and she realized that the room was full of smoke. “Oh, crap.”
“Well?” Spike stood in the doorway, glowering. “You tryin’ to set the house on fire?”
“No!” She tried to put out the smoldering ashes in the bowl, but something was wrong with her depth perception, and Dawn couldn’t quite reach it.
“Oh, sod it.” Spike strode through her room and threw the window open. The smoke immediately began to drift out, and he bent to grab the bowl from in front of her. “What is this shit?”
Dawn knew he was really angry, just by the tone of his voice. And the fact that he was swearing a lot. Spike had been trying not to swear so much around her recently; she thought that Buffy might have talked to him about his language. “Sand and herbs,” she replied. “It’s not illegal.”
“I know that,” he snapped. “Doesn’t change the fact that you damn well know better. What were you thinkin’? You—” Spike stopped, reaching down to haul her up by her hands. “Come on. You need to get some fresh air.”
Dawn giggled as he supported her outside. Her feet didn’t feel quite all there, and her head felt floaty; she didn’t think that this was supposed to be part of the spell. Glancing up at him, Dawn was amazed; Spike’s face was half in shadow, half in light, and he was amazing. Brilliant.
She must have spoken out loud, because he snorted. “That’s enough of that. I don’t know what you were tryin’ to do, Bit, but now you’re just bein’ silly.”
“But I can see you!” she protested, stung that he thought her full of nonsense. Dawn knew what she was seeing. Which meant… “I need a mirror.”
“I need a mirror,” she repeated stubbornly, pulling away from him just before they reached the back door. Dawn stumbled towards the hallway, intent on looking herself in the eye. That’s all she needed to do—just find a way to see herself.
Spike was at her side again, guiding her without further questions. Dawn gasped when she realized that he was reflected next to her, although he was hazy. Her own reflection was exactly the same, however; the sole difference was the thin green outline around her form. That told her absolutely nothing other than what she already knew.
“Come on, pet,” Spike said gently, apparently sensing the fact that she was near tears. “Let’s go outside. You just need some fresh air.”
Dawn had been so sure that it would work, especially after she’d seen Spike. “It didn’t work,” she said, sniffling and trying to force the tears back.
“What didn’t work, Nibblet?” Spike asked, his voice kind.
Dawn couldn’t handle his kindness; the anger was much easier to face in an odd way. “The spell. I just wanted to know what me being the Key meant, but it didn’t work. I don’t understand, Spike. What did I do wrong?”
“You didn’t do anythin’ wrong,” Spike replied, patting her on the back. He sat her down next to him and put a tentative arm around her shoulders. “You want to tell me what kind of spell you were tryin’ to do in there?”
“It was supposed to be a spell to see,” Dawn explained, the fuzziness beginning to wear off. “You and Buffy weren’t supposed to find out.” She frowned, realizing that she’d yet to face the wrath of the Slayer. “Where is Buffy?”
“Patrolling,” Spike said. “She was worried about you, so she sent me back.”
Dawn knew that couldn’t be right. Spike didn’t just leave Buffy on her own like that, not without a very good reason. She peered at him, the last of the spell-induced fog beginning to wear off. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Dawn pulled back abruptly. “You got hurt, didn’t you?”
“I did not get hurt,” Spike insisted. “Your sis just wanted to be sure that someone was here with you. Think she knew somethin’ was up. You want to tell me what’s been going on?”
“You won’t tell her, will you?” Dawn asked, knowing that if Buffy found out she’d not only be grounded, but forbidden from going anywhere near the Magic Box or attempting more spells. Not that Dawn really wanted to do more magic, but she didn’t know how else to get the answers she needed. “Please don’t tell Buffy, Spike. You can’t. She’ll overreact.”
Spike shook his head, obviously unhappy about being put in the middle. “Don’t think I have a choice, Dawn. Your sister finds out about this, and she finds out I knew, we’ll both be sunk. I promised her I’d do the right thing.” He grimaced. “You tell me what you were doing, and we’ll try to figure out something, though.”
Dawn hesitated, then admitted, “I need to know what being the Key is all about. After what Rack did, I know that there’s something inside of me, and I know it’s important. I have to know what it means.”
Spike sighed deeply. “It might not mean anything at all.”
“You don’t believe that.”
She could see from his expression that he didn’t, that he knew Rack had been onto something. “We can go to Tara or Buffy,” Spike finally said. “Those are your options.”
It wasn’t much of a choice, but it was better than nothing. “Tara,” Dawn said immediately. “She’s a lot less likely to freak out.”
He winced. “Yeah. Let’s hope that your sister doesn’t end up feelin’ like we were hiding something from her.”
Buffy felt bad about two seconds after she sent Spike back to the house. She’d snapped at him for no reason, and he had merely sighed and done as she asked, heading back to check on Dawn. She really wasn’t angry with him, even if that’s how it had sounded.
With a sigh, Buffy acknowledged—if only to herself—that she had been a lot more short-tempered recently. She had been trying not to snap, but before she knew it, the words were out of her mouth, mostly directed at Spike, although Dawn had seemed to spark her ire a fair amount.
As soon as her anger flared, it died down, though, and then Buffy found herself apologizing once again. It was getting a little old.
Life should be good right now. Other than her occasional bad mood—okay, frequent bad moods—she and Spike were doing well. Xander was adjusting to their relationship, and he hardly ever made snide comments these days. Willow appeared to be doing well in England with the coven, although it was hard to tell how much progress she was really making. Giles was positive, though, which was encouraging. Dawn seemed to have fully recovered after that episode with Rack… Everything should have been perfect.
Everything could have been perfect if Buffy could just shake this stupid mood.
She wandered through her third cemetery, and when she didn’t see anything of note, she turned to go back to the house. Buffy knew she needed to apologize to her boyfriend for snapping at him. All he’d said was that he didn’t think Dawn needed looking after, and she had nearly taken his head off, suggesting that it would be his fault if something did happen, and bringing up the thing with Rack a couple of months ago.
Even though Buffy knew that Spike still blamed himself.
She let herself into the house, noting the light in the kitchen. Spike was standing by the sink, drinking out of the mug they’d set aside for him. Although he still had his own apartment, he was only there about half the time; Buffy made a habit of keeping blood in the fridge for him. “Hey.”
“Hey.” He glanced over at her. “You alright?”
“I should probably be asking you that,” Buffy said ruefully. “I think this is where you tell me I was acting like a bitch.”
“You said it,” Spike agreed amiably. He gave her a concerned look. “Buffy, is there something wrong? Something I’ve done?”
“No!” Buffy hastened to assure him. “No, it’s not you, I promise. It’s pretty much all me at this point. I’ve just been moody lately, and I can’t seem to shake it.”
His face softened. “Long as it’s not me.”
“It’s not you,” Buffy repeated, moving to embrace him, relishing the feel of his arms around her. Ever since she’d done that ritual to lift the curse, things between them had been easier, softer. The thought of losing him—or chasing him away, which seemed more likely right now—induced sheer terror. “You’re probably right. I know Dawn doesn’t need to be watched all the time, but I still worry.”
“Yeah, well, you have a right,” Spike replied. “Probably best that she’s not alone until we know for sure that whatever that bastard did isn’t going to have consequences.”
Buffy pulled back abruptly. “Like what?”
“Nothing,” he soothed. “I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.”
“You just said—”
“Meant more from Dawn’s side of things,” Spike said. “I think she might still be feeling a bit insecure.”
Buffy relaxed, knowing that Spike probably had a point. “Okay. If it’s not you or me, then it’s going to be Tara.”
“Or Anya,” Spike suggested. “That girl has a few tricks up her sleeve.”
Buffy shrugged. “Anya would be fine, too. I don’t think that Dawn’s very comfortable around her, though.”
“Anya says what she’s thinkin’,” Spike pointed out. “That’s not real comfortable for anyone.”
She made a noise of assent, leaning her forehead against his shoulder once again. “Have you seen Tara in the last couple of days?”
“She had an exam this week for her class,” Spike explained. “Said she’d be busy until it was over.”
“How is she doing?” Buffy asked, knowing that he was closer to Tara than any of them now. She found it odd, but at the same time was grateful for it. To her, it meant that there was a reason besides her that Spike walked a different path these days. His friendship with Tara, his love for Dawn, were just two more reasons for him to do the right thing.
Whatever that might be.
“She’s alright,” Spike said. “I think she’s over the worst of it now.”
Buffy frowned. “I thought she was doing pretty well before. Was she not—”
“Tara still loved her,” Spike said, his eyes wise. “Seein’ someone you love do what Willow did…” He trailed off. “It’s a shock. You love them, an’ then they start throwin’ curses around like that, nearly getting folks killed. You start wonderin’ how it is you could have loved someone like that, wonder why you still love them.”
Buffy understood that feeling all too well. That was how it had been when Angel had first lost his soul. She had still loved him; even after he killed Jenny Calendar, Buffy had loved Angel. After that, however, it had been easier for her heart to accept that Angel was gone, and that he wasn’t coming back.
But she’d still loved him.
It had taken years to forgive herself for that.
“I get that,” was all she said. “You staying tonight?”
Spike hesitated, then said regretfully, “I’d better not, luv. Told Clem I’d meet up with him tomorrow and give him a hand with a few things. I’ll need ready access to the sewers.”
“Which I don’t have,” Buffy replied with a sigh. “Okay. See you tomorrow?”
“I can promise you that,” Spike replied, giving her a quick kiss. “Love you.”
Buffy still felt a little glow when he said the words, now that she’d allowed herself to accept the reality of his love. “Love you, too.”
Spike grinned at her. “Yeah, I know you do.”
Things really didn’t get much better than that, which was probably why Buffy should have been suspicious.
Giles cleared his throat, looking at Audra in disbelief. “Are you certain?”
“As certain as I can be,” she responded. “You told me about the ritual that your Slayer did; I told you that there might be unexpected consequences.”
“This is a bit more than unexpected,” he protested. “This is down-right unheard of.”
Audra shrugged. “There is nothing new under the sun, or so they say. I very much doubt that this is the very first time that something like this has happened. You know very well that such an event will make the Slayer a target, even more of one than she is already.”
Giles shook his head. “I don’t—”
“The Key?” Audra gave him a sharp look. “Do you think that man will be the only one to recognize that there is power there?”
He sighed, hating to admit that she was right, if only because he didn’t like the idea of Buffy having yet another burden. “What are you suggesting? I’m quite sure that Buffy doesn’t even realize it yet; she would have said something during our last conversation otherwise.”
Audra shook her head. “No, it happens that way sometimes. She wouldn’t be expecting it.”
“No,” Giles agreed, looking off into the distance. “I’m assuming that you have a remedy in mind, or you wouldn’t have come to me.”
Audra smiled. “I think it might be time for Willow to go home.”
Giles frowned. “Is she truly ready? Unless I can give Buffy and the others some kind of guarantee…”
“There are no guarantees in this life, Rupert,” Audra replied. “I think you know that.”
He sighed. “I do, but it doesn’t change the fact that Buffy will hardly be willing to welcome Willow home with open arms if I can’t guarantee she won’t go after Spike again.”
“I think that much you can guarantee.” Audra gave him a sharp look. “Willow will always be tempted to take control, and she will always have to fight that temptation. Here, it’s easy, and while I believe she has made great strides, we will not know how much she’s truly changed until she faces that part of herself head-on.”
“When were you thinking about sending her back?” Giles asked, hoping that Audra would give him a little time at least to broach the subject with his Slayer.
“I think we can afford to wait until the Slayer understands why she might need Willow with her. Telling her before she knows herself would be a bad idea.”
Giles smirked. “And no one wants to break the news to her.”
“There is that,” Audra admitted.
Xander hefted his toolkit and walked into the Magic Box; he’d been surprised that Anya had called him, to say the least. “An? You here?”
“I’m in back,” she called. “I’ll be right there. Flip the sign over, okay?”
Xander flipped the sign from “Open” to “Closed” and locked the door. “Everything okay?” he asked, as she came back up front.
“It’s fine,” Anya replied. “But I noticed that one of the bookshelves has a crack in it. I think it happened when the Grok got in here last week.”
He frowned. “I thought I’d managed to repair all the damage.”
“There was a lot of damage,” Anya pointed out, sounding almost kind. “You must have missed a spot.”
“Show me,” Xander said with a sigh. He followed Anya over to one of the bookcases, where he immediately saw the problem. The molding was cracked and splitting; it was cosmetic damage only, but he knew how much pride Anya took in appearances. “I’ll have to take the molding off and put a new piece up,” he said.
“How long will it take?” she asked.
“I can probably get it done tomorrow.” Xander ran a callused thumb along the imperfection. “I can measure it tonight, and bring the new piece in tomorrow.”
Anya sighed. “I’ll ask Tara to meet you here, then. I’m not going to be here.”
Xander got a sinking feeling in his stomach. “You got a hot date?” he joked.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Anya said.
He swallowed hard. “That’s great.” Xander wondered if he sounded sincere; he hoped so, since he didn’t want Anya to know how much it hurt to hear her say that.
“You know what they say,” Anya said. “About getting back on the horse.”
He nodded mutely, turning back to his work. Xander understood wood the way he didn’t understand women. “Maybe you should think about getting back on the horse, too,” Anya said, seemingly oblivious to his pain. “You should date.”
“Yeah, I should,” Xander said, not bothering to point out that no one seemed to be interested. He didn’t think Anya would be real sympathetic.
The truth was that he’d ruined every relationship he’d ever had. Xander wondered when he was going to stop screwing up his own life every time he turned around.