Buffy awoke earlier than she had meant to. Unable to fall back asleep despite the lulling warmth of her blankets and softness of her pillow, she got out of bed and showered. She noticed the blood staining the bedlinens, and she stripped them away. She tucked fresh ones on her bed, and fell into a sort of waking dream in which Spike's cool body slid and burned against hers under these crisp sheets. Sternly, she shook herself out of that state. //No. Not until he's had a chance to mourn Drusilla.// She went downstairs to call the hospital and check on her mother's condition. Ten minutes later, she stood outside his bedroom door, but couldn't bring herself to open it or cross that threshold, even if it was only to check on him. //I have to give him space.// She left a note for Dawn on the back of the front door and went to find Giles.
Buffy found her watcher drinking tea and reading the paper in his apartment.
"Buffy?" he asked when she walked into his living room. "What's the matter?"
"I'll give you the good news first," she responded. "We can bring my mom home tomorrow." She stopped, unsure of how to broach the bad news. "Last night, Spike and I went out on patrol. With Angel. He'd found Drusilla and Darla. Spike was trying to keep Dru from attacking Angel, and I fought Darla. And Darla said she wrote the 'two souls' prophecy. Anyway, in the middle of it all, Angel tried to stake Spike, but Dru got him out of the way, and Angel ended up dusting her instead."
"Dear God!" breathed Giles, an unexpected feeling of kinship with Spike stealing over him; Angel had killed his lover as well. "Do you want me to talk to him?" he offered.
"No," Buffy said, surprised. "I just needed to let you know what happened."
"Go back a moment," Giles said; "why did Darla write and plant the false prophecy?"
"Oh - she said she wanted Angelus back, and the only way she could think of was to have him sleep with me again." She frowned, trying to remember the rest. "But Spike said she could do it with the thrall. Like the one Angel used on Drusilla."
Spike felt he was awake, but he couldn't stop the nightmare that was running on an endless loop in his mind. Over and over Drusilla raised clear eyes to meet his, each time exploding in a shower of dust. Everything he'd loved for a hundred years vanished in one grey swirl. She'd just been starting to smile her slow-blooming smile at him when she was killed. He awoke to find himself shaking violently. He remembered that he hadn't showered last night, and so his tossing and turning in the night had ground her dust into his every pore. He shivered at the thought.
Buffy was walking home from Giles's apartment when she heard a honk. It was Wendy's mom, driving Dawn home. She climbed in next to her sister and they walked into the house together. Before Buffy could warn her, Dawn ran up the stairs, shouting "Spike!"
"I'm in my room, Sweet Bit," he replied in a nearly normal voice.
"I'm glad you're back home!" she said.
"Yeah, me too," he said, adding suspiciously, "what exactly do you want, Niblet?" She was looking up at him with hopeful eyes.
"Well, Wendy and I were talking about Halloween costumes, and her mom heard us, and she said that a lot of the parents had decided that because Sunnydale isn't safe - I mean, duh - there shouldn't be any trick-or-treating. Just a big lame party at the school." Sitting on the landing at the top of the stairs Buffy could hear every word. She could imagine Dawn's pleading expression. "Like costume contests - dumb. And bobbing for apples - unsanitary. Wendy's mom said they were thinking of getting extra cops, but the town budget couldn't cover it. And she said that there would have to be volunteer chaperones if we wanted to go trick-or-treating."
"What's the fuss, pet? Halloween, there's no vamp or demon activity."
"I know, but we can't exactly explain that to them. So I was hoping you'd take me and my friends out."
"I wouldn't have to get dressed up, would I?" he asked, a note of alarm creeping into his voice.
"No, you don't have to, but I was hoping you would." She gave him the puppy-dog eyes again, and he smiled exasperatedly, realizing he was incapable of denying her anything. //Especially now. This is what kids do. She needs to be a kid again after the whole scare over her mum.//
Buffy wasn't surprised that Spike gave in - it was clear he doted on Dawn - but she was a little disappointed. She'd allowed herself to imagine some private time for the two of them that night, since for once patrolling was unnecessary. She heard a squeal and an excited clapping of hands. "Okay, we've got just under two weeks to Halloween. Is that enough time for you to grow a beard?"
"You could give me until the end of the universe and it wouldn't be enough time, Platelet. My body is dead. My hair doesn't grow, my nails don't grow - nothing."
"Is that why you never have roots?" she asked, fascinated.
"Yep. The only way I'll ever get my natural hair color back would be to dye it again. And that's not going to happen, Lollipop."
"Okay, scratch that idea. But I'll come up with something else."
Dawn was writing in her diary when Buffy knocked on Spike's door. "Got a new idea already, Jellybean?" he called out.
"It's not Dawn. It's Buffy."
There was a long silence, and she jumped a little when the door opened suddenly. He filled the doorway. She swallowed at the sight of him. "Thanks for agreeing to take out Dawn," she began.
He shrugged warily and finally looked her full in the face. He stretched out a hand towards her only to let it fall before he touched her. "What?" she asked.
"You've got a bruise on your cheek," he said tightly.
"I've got a lot of bruises," she blurted out.
"This bruise is from me," he said.
"It was an accident," she said dismissively. "Spike - I was hoping we could talk about yesterday . . ."
He backed up a step. "I can't, Slayer. I can't talk about it."
"Okay. I understand. But I'm here when you want to talk." He nodded automatically. "I love you, Spike."
"I know," he said, and shut the door.
Giles jumped about a foot in the air when a familiar voice spoke from the shadows of the training room. "Giles. I need your help." Angel emerged dramatically from the darkness, and winced when the watcher sharply flicked all the switches, flooding the area with light.
"My help? With what - killing Spike?" Giles was giving no quarter.
"Believe me, I'd like to," Angel answered, not picking up on the vibe of Giles's sympathetic alliance with Spike. "But it's not that. It's Darla."
"Ah - the thrall."
Angel nodded, sighing heavily. "You've heard. Well, unless we can figure out how to block it, we're all in danger. Whatever Darla's got in mind - it can't be pretty."
"Murder so seldom is," Giles agreed with steely eyes. He faced Angel dead on. "But then, neither is rape."
Angel's broad face showed only confusion. "Rape? What rape? What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about your own experience with the thrall - as a master. You raped Drusilla."
"Is that what Spike's been telling you?" The vampire chuckled. "And you believed him? Come on, as a Watcher you should know better than to believe a soulless demon."
"Leaving aside the question of my credulity for the moment, why should I help you? The spell blocking the sun has been broken, and you're free to return to Los Angeles."
"You can't afford not to help me. The first thing Darla would have me do is kill Buffy. Who knows, maybe you too. I don't know what her specific methods would be, but I was with her long enough to get the very ugly gist."
"Two research parties in two days? What have I done to deserve this?" Xander moaned, slumping over a large pile of books.
"I know I say this every time, but our lives are on the line, so read!" Willow answered without looking up. They read steadily for some time, finding nothing about how to block the thrall.
"Break?" Xander asked, and Willow nodded. "So Buffy and Spike are really together, huh? All hand-holding and smiley."
Willow beamed. "Yeah, actually I've never seen her that smiley. She was happy, but at the same time relaxed. I think he's good for her." Xander grinned his agreement. "And did you notice that when Spike smiles, his teeth are a little crooked? It's so cute," Willow added.
"I'll take your word for it."
"Giles," Xander said after a few more fruitless hours, "why don't we just do this the easy way?"
"Which would be?"
"Stake Angel - then who cares what kind of mojo Darla's working?"
Giles was too lost in thought to answer. He got up abruptly and picked up the phone to call Spike.
"No, she can't. Not on me," Spike said decisively, dismissively, standing in the shop. "Two reasons. First, I haven't got a straight bloodline - I haven't got a proper sire. Second, she doesn't know how to work it."
"Darla doesn't know how to enact a thrall?" Giles asked in disbelief.
"She never needed it. Vinegar bitch got by for hundreds of years just by being the Master's favorite - everything and everybody she wanted handed to her like John the Baptist's head - on a silver platter."
"Without that kind of power, why would she be the Master's favorite?" Willow asked.
"I've heard she was extremely . . . adept," Spike answered tersely.
When Buffy finally spoke, all eyes were drawn to her. Spike stared greedily, drinking in the very sight of her. Standing there, looking at once formidable and vulnerable, her somber black shirt and grey pants matching the expression of her eyes, she asked, "So should we stop researching? Or do you think she'll figure it out?"
He took his time answering, wanting any excuse to keep looking at her. "I don't think the answers will be in any books known to Watchers. But -" he paused as Xander made a great show of pushing the pile of books as far away from himself as he could "- Darla's got nothing but time. Unless she's dusted, she'll keep looking, and she'll figure it out eventually."
With a sigh Giles signaled the end of the research session. Xander jogged to the counter and flirted with his fianc,e. Willow smiled at Spike. "You want to get that ice cream I promised you forever ago?"
He was on the verge of accepting when Willow turned to include Buffy, who nodded enthusiastically. "Can't, Red, but thanks. Got to see a guy."
"I work from eleven to dawn. No overtime. I get paid in cash each night." His assurance impressed the nightclub owner.
"Some of these are phony. Some are real. Sort them," he said, handing Spike a pack of ID cards. Spike's slim, strong fingers moved like a casino dealer's, and he unerringly divided the cards into two piles. "Impressive. But you don't look big enough."
"Bring in your biggest guy," Spike offered in a bored tone. "I'll have him on the ground in two minutes flat." The owner took him at his word.
Spike's fighting grin was unnerving the no-neck bouncer who had already been hired. Spike was agile, thorough, refusing to engage in a serious attack; had the chip still been in his brain, it wouldn't even have jolted him. Nevertheless, the bigger man was on the ground in thirty seconds, glued there by Spike's right boot lying across his throat.
"You're hired. When can you start?"
"Day after tomorrow," Spike answered; tomorrow night was for Joyce. "And I'm taking Halloween off."
Hands on his hips, Spike supervised imperiously while Dawn turned blue in the face from blowing up so many balloons. "Why can't you do some?" she complained.
"Don't breathe, pet," he said briskly, frowning when he saw how many were left in the bag.
She handed him the one she'd just done, muttering, "Liar." He deftly tied a knot to seal the balloon.
"Not lying. Vampires don't breathe."
"But you do it all the time!"
"Habit. But not necessity."
By the time they were done decorating the den, it was early evening. It was a good thing it was October; the dark fell a little sooner in the fall, and Spike was determined to be the one to bring Joyce home. Buffy and Dawn pressed up against each other in the back seat while Spike drove them to the hospital. They barely had time to thank Dr. Isaacs and the nurses before Spike had Joyce bundled up and ensconced in the passenger seat.
All the lights were on as Spike pulled into the driveway, and there was a round of applause when Joyce walked in the front door. She was about to accept the glass of raspberry punch Giles was holding out towards her when Willow jumped in front of her to hug her. Joyce smiled and stroked the witch's bright hair, releasing her after a moment. She was nearly clotheslined when Xander stepped forward to hug her, unaware that Anya had not released his hand. "You're alive!" Anya exclaimed happily. "And we're engaged!"
"You're what?" exclaimed so many voices that it was hard to keep track.
"Congratulations to you both," Spike's voice filled the pause.
"Yes! That's what I meant! Congratulations!" the voices hastened to add.
A few hours later, the party was still in full swing. Buffy made her way over to Spike. "When did you two become so chummy?" she asked affectionately, the tilt of her chin pointing to Xander, his face dazed with happiness.
"Right about the time the oversized idiot started whisking you away for private patrols," he answered, his voice as suddenly taut as his body.
She moved so she was standing directly in front of him, so that he couldn't avoid her eyes. "I wish he hadn't." His face stayed tight and immobile, so she tried again. "I -"
"Spike?" He turned to face Joyce with a fond promptness. "Could you get my red sweater from my closet?"
Angel watched from the front lawn. He saw merriment, and was tempted to go in and have some fun. But then he saw Spike inside, and he started in surprise. //Didn't waste any time getting your foot back in the door, did you, Spikey?// He paced a little in frustration, and when he looked back up, he saw Buffy talking to his step-childe. All Angel could see was her back and Spike's tense face as he looked down at her. Something inside him relaxed. //He wouldn't look so pissed if he had any kind of a chance with her.// He smiled. Buffy was still his, and it didn't seem like that could ever change.
Angel left Sunnydale to track down some volumes of vampire lore that could help him elude Darla's thrall. Willow and Tara brought a kitten home from the animal shelter. Anya read bridal magazines out loud to Xander and Giles. Dawn flirted with Kevin every day during third period. Joyce recuperated. Spike kept Vanitas free of underage kids and nasty drunks. And Buffy found herself with plenty to think about.
"Niblet?" There was a knock at her door. "People are starting to pile into the den. Are you ready?"
"Come in, and tell me what you think."
Spike entered her purple bedroom and saw Dawn in a green tunic, skirt, and opaque tights. Her toy bow and arrow, glued together so that she'd have a free hand for snatching Halloween candy, lay on the dresser. "You look just like Robin Hood. At least the Disney version, if they'd had a pretty girl instead of a fox."
She was twisting her long hair into a bun on the top of her head so that her little green triangular cap could cover it. She turned to face him as she reached for the feathered cap. "Did you say pretty?"
"Splendid, I meant to say," he said almost sadly. She looked so much like Stella the night she'd first been permitted to wear her hair up, the night of her first formal ball; the excitement in the wide blue eyes was just the same. //God, I miss her.//
Dawn brightened at his words and a mischievous smile danced across her lips. "Are you ready for your costume?" She ran to her closet and pulled out a faded pair of blue jeans and a ripped navy blue t-shirt.
"I'm a charity case?"
"No! You're a roofer," she said, digging around for the tool belt Xander had lent her. "You can change in your room, but come back for the final touch."
He was back so quickly that she only had one of her brown ankle boots on. She limped over to her dresser and pulled a red bandanna out of her top drawer. She folded it deftly and tied it on his head as she'd seen construction workers do to keep dust out of their hair. "I thought the hardhat would be a bit too much. Don't you think?"
"Just as long as you're happy, Sweet Bit."
//Damn but it's good to be chip-free// Spike thought as he swung the boy into a brick wall. He wasn't being very rough, considering the provocation, but he was firm enough that Mark would remember this for a long time to come.
Spike had been a little dismayed by the size of the group he was expected to protect. //Looks like I'm the only poor bugger who volunteered.// And he'd known immediately to expect trouble from the tight knot of sixteen-year-old boys, protesting loudly that they were old enough to be escorting groups of their own. But their parents had prevailed, and there was a curfew in effect for anyone under eighteen not accompanied by an adult. So they swaggered along, always at the back of the pack, trying to dissociate themselves from the rest. With his vamp hearing, Spike could make out their whispers, mostly dealing with the availability of the girls in the group. Mark made the mistake of not only singling out Dawn but actually trying to detain her physically and get her into a shadowed alleyway.
Spike found them there in the dark, Mark's arm preventing Dawn from leaving. Spike pulled a few bills from his jeans pocket and handed them to her. "Take all your mates to that shop across the way for some hot chocolate, pet. My treat." She smiled in relief and scampered off. Spike turned his cold eyes on the boy, and within moments Mark was ready to take a vow of celibacy then and there.
Continue: Part 12/15