When Tables Turn

by C.Roxane



Summary: What happens after the final episode of BtVS? Is there any way for the romance of Buffy and Spike to continue?
Rating: NC-17
Author Notes: Special thanks to Mezzibelle for the beta!
Story Notes: started 7/03, completed 8/03
Disclaimer: Nothing here is mine.


Prologue - When Tables Turn ...


Buffy stood looking down into the crater -- the hole that had once been Sunnydale -- and she felt free.


The First, while not destroyed had been defeated. Well, maybe not defeated -- but at least foiled. For now. For nearly a year she'd fought it and feared it and let it rule her life. It had forced her into the role of general. The hard-nosed and coldly ruthless leader of a desperate and frightened army -- an army of girls that she'd turned into slayers.

She turned her head slightly to look back at them. The girls -- the other slayers -- were milling around the bus, high-fiving, laughing, and gesturing with excitement. They were all caught up in the victory high -- the adrenaline rush that they'd soon come crave, to hunger for.

Buffy smiled at them.

No longer was she the slayer. Now she was just one of many. No longer did the cosmic battle of good versus evil rest on her strength, her choices, her actions, her shoulders. She was no longer alone. She was no longer responsible for everything and everyone. The chains of her Chosenhood, the chains that had held her so tightly duty bound, began to slip and loosen and give way.

"That sure was a rock'm-sock'm thrill ride." Faith's full lips twisted as she shadow punched the air. "Great party, huh, B?" Faith shrugged her shoulders and rolled her neck, not waiting for an answer. "I'm gonna like playing for the home team -- kickin' Evil's fugly butt."

Buffy smiled as another chain fell free. Faith would stay with them, guide them. It was her turn.

"What do you say we do now, Buff? Ice cream?" Xander asked hopefully.

Buffy felt a link loosen, and another loop of duty slipped to the dry earth. Xander would ground them. It was time he held others back. Time for others to bask in his clinging.

"Mall? Clothes? Whole new wardrobe needed much here," Dawn piped out.

Buffy felt her smile widen, soften, as the tight chain that had been wrapped around her chest snaked and twisted, twirling down her body to lie curled docilely around her boots. Dawn would amuse them, irritate them, aggravate them, keep them on their toes, and remind them what they fought for.

"We'll have to find a place -- a place large enough for the girls. They'll be so many more now," Giles looked off into the distance already forming plans and counting his chicks. Buffy looked on him tenderly as the cuffs that had shackled her wrists clicked open and fell away. Giles would train them, teach them, direct them. Let the new crop take comfort in his morality, look endlessly for his favor, and try to earn his praise.

"Buffy?" Willow asked softly, almost timidly, as if she already knew. "What's next?"

And Buffy turned to her oldest and dearest friend -- and she smiled at her. Willow's answering smile faltered and then faded. Her dark green eyes flickered from happiness, to understanding, to sadness, to acceptance. "Oh." Willow let the word out in a long breath as she looked down. "Of course." With her hair hanging down, blocking her face, the slender red-head moved back toward the bus, wobbling slightly as her heels sunk into the shoulder of the road.

"We'll go to Angel," Buffy said confidently as she crossed her arms over her chest and turned to Giles. "He'll put you up until you find a place for the girls."

"Ooh, Los Angeles. Good shopping there," Dawn said brightly as she grabbed Xander's arm and tugged him toward the bus. "And there's a Dairy Queen right on the way."

"Tutti-Fruity?" he suggested.

"Fireball!" she countered. At his quizzical look explained, "Pink, with little bits of fireballs sprinkled on top?"

"Sounds good."

Giles waited until they were out of earshot before speaking. "Angel's? He certainly has the room, but do think it wise to for us ...?" His voice trailed off, but Buffy knew what he meant. How difficult anything having to do with Angel was for him. Would always be for him.

"You don't have to stay there long. I'm sure you'll figure out a more permanent home, but for a week or so, the Hyperion will be perfect for you and the girls."

"You again?" he questioned. She raised a brow. "You said 'you' again. Not 'we'. Aren't you planning on staying?"

Buffy smiled again. "No, Giles. I won't be staying with you." She looked back into the hole. The ancient mages had been right. She was the last guardian of the Hellmouth.

"I'm free now."

And she was.

The weight of the chains that had held her down for eight long years lifted. Chains that had been placed there against her knowledge, against her will, and against her desires. Chains forged by the Powers who had named her the 'Chosen One'. Chains placed there by her watchers, her friends, and her lovers. Links added on by unknown monks and glowing Keys. Manacles that had locked around her limbs and whose weight had pulled her down from the heavens by her ankles. Pounds of iron that had been added on when the Potentials had started to arrive, when the First had shown up, had nearly made her buckle under the weight. But now that load was finally gone.

Buffy felt as if she was surfacing from the deep, dark end of a pool -- floating upward toward the glimmering, gleaming sunlight. She felt as if she finally was able to breathe after eight years submerged in the depths.

She felt buoyant.



Free of everything -- except the memories.

But she'd think of him later. Not now. Not here.

She looked into the hole one last time and smiled.

He was free now too.




Chapter One -- When Tables Turn ... Confusion Reigns

It was an elder.

She could tell by the pale perfection of its skin, the translucent clarity that seemed to glow from within the deep shadows of the room. Its slender body moved like liquid as it circled her, carefully keeping well away. It was cautious - the elder ones always were. Well not always, she thought with a smile.

It paused.

Then it took a step closer, allowing her to see it more clearly. She shivered as its delicate, porcelain nostrils flared. Its chest expanded as it drew in a breath - inhaling her scent - learning her. Its dark, intelligent eyes flashed and it cocked its head at her curiously. Something lurched deep inside her at the familiar gesture and her smile vanished abruptly.

"Time to dust the floor, Grandpa," she said as she pulled the stake out of her sleeve and shifted her feet into the ready position.

It took a step back and held up a pale, fine-boned hand. "No need to rush, slayer."

She tightened her grip on the stake as the vampire's deep voice seemed to hum through her, making the blood rush madly through her veins. She tossed her head quickly, flipping her hair coquettishly. "You wanna take it slow then?" She grinned. "Get to know each other better?"

He moved. He took two slow, sensuous steps nearer. "I already know everything I need to know about you ... Buffy."

"Oh you do, do ya?" she quipped around the lump forming in her throat.

"The slayer who so thoroughly enjoys her work?" He sneered in his honeyed voice. He slid a long-fingered hand suggestively across his lean belly, playing with the buttons on his vest before sliding his hand down to rest on his narrow hip. "What vampire hasn't heard of you?" His voice seeped into her as he took another step closer. "Hasn't ... dreamt ... of you?" He tilted his fair head forward and peered at her from underneath his brows, his mouth curving seductively. "Hasn't ... desired you?"

Buffy felt her heart banging in her chest as he moved closer still. Too close.

He seemed to loom over her, yet he wasn't very tall -- just a few inches over her own height. He'd been turned long ago, when humans were of smaller stature. He was dressed, as so often the case, in black. Loose trousers and a full shirt covered by an embroidered chest-hugging vest. Glimmering pearl buttons drew her attention from the hollow of his throat to the inverted 'V' just above his groin.

Horrified at where her eyes had come to rest, she jerked her gaze away and upward and made the cardinal mistake of looking him directly in the eyes.




Three days earlier ...

"Okie-dokie, officially bored here."

Silence met her opening words. She could almost picture Giles on the other end. No doubt he was gripping the phone, removing his glasses, closing his eyes, tipping his head back, and pinching the bridge of his nose.

"Your classes?" he questioned softly.

"Crap," she said abruptly. "Crappy classes. Classes of crap."

"I thought things were going well. You seemed to enjoy your studies."

"I did, but now I don't." Even to herself she sounded like a brat.

What had happened to all the maturity, all the peace, she had achieved over the past few years? Years spent wandering the globe on the insurance money she'd received after the National Disaster Relief Organization had finally gotten their heads out of their asses and their paperwork sorted. Uncle Sam had declared that Sunnydale had been swallowed up by an enormous sinkhole -- and had cut a generous check to every homeowner in the ill-fated city. Buffy had split the money with Dawn and had split the country.

Ramming around Europe had occupied her for over a year. She'd seen the sights, shopped in Paris, sunbathed in Nice, dug through the ruins in Egypt, nearly got kidnapped in Turkey -- blondes were still the rage there. She'd even made a pilgrimage to Jolly Ole England to view the burned out shell of the Watchers H.Q.

That sight had made her pause. Made her long for home. So she'd stopped her globetrotting and headed back to the States.

Three days spent with the gang at their new digs had been enough. Long enough to know that she still hadn't been ready to be with them ... or maybe they hadn't been ready for her? Whatever, she'd left them again. This time to rent a small house on the barren coast of Maine -- the West Coast had been out of the question. She'd enrolled in the local community college and got a part time job teaching self-defense at the 'Y'.

She'd lived that completely normal life for another year and a half -- and it was long enough. Something inside told her that she needed to get back into the game. She needed --

"A mission. Send me on an assignment or something." She heard Giles inhale a deep breath. "I need a challenge."

Of course she'd run across vampires and demons during her travels, and she'd dispatched them thoroughly, but lately there'd been nothing ... nothing at all. She'd cleaned out the area that she'd settled in and apparently something had put out a 'Slayer in Residence' sign, because there hadn't been any new nasties in a while. The long dry spell was getting to her, setting her teeth on edge and making her itchy to --

"Kill," she said and heard Giles let his breath out in whoosh. "I need to kill something -- and soon." She grimaced and confessed. "My Geometry professor is starting to look awfully tempting. I think he might be a Frelock demon," she said flippantly. "You should see the size of his belly and the amount of homework he expects me to do."

"That bad is it?" She heard the smile in Giles' voice. "Why don't you come home then and we'll talk about it?" Buffy froze. "Xander has nearly completed the renovation of your rooms -- all that's really left is the painting. Come to think of it," Giles said. "You'd have all the action you could ever hope for right here. There's been a major battle brewing for several days now as to the color scheme." Giles paused as if waiting for her reaction and when she remained silent he asked with a worried tone, "Buffy?"

"I'm sorry, Giles," she said sadly. "I told Xander not to do that. I told you guys the very first time I visited there to give those rooms to someone else -- that I wouldn't be needing them."

Buffy closed her eyes and tried to block out the proud look on Xander's face when he'd led her through the old-fashioned suite. He'd looked so hopeful when he'd pointed out where he intended to put the kitchenette, what he envisioned for the bath, and how the new-fangled skylight was going to work.

Willow hadn't been any better. She'd tentatively taken Buffy by the arm and led her through the back entrance and down the twisting staircase to an exit that looked out over the lake. The redhead had smiled as she'd told Buffy how private the top apartment in the massive building would be. "No one watching your comings and goings. No one keeping track of you," she had whispered conspiratorially, remorsefully, placatingly, apologetically. Inside, Buffy had cringed.

She hadn't been able to handle it. She'd learned to handle her own guilt. Theirs was just too much. She'd declined the apartment, watched their faces crumble with disappointment, and then she'd headed out for Maine that very night.

"We couldn't do that," Giles said softly. "The Master Suite is reserved for you." At Buffy's silence he sweetened the pot. "Whenever you choose to return, your rooms will be waiting."

"I ..." Tempted, she was tempted. To return to the bosom of her family. To work with them towards their goal. To go back to -- "I'm still not ready," she said simply.

His soft sigh told her how he felt. "As I said, your home is here, whenever you are ready."

"I ... I know and I love you for it. You know that right? All of you?" she gasped out quickly. "How much I love you? Dawn?"

"Of course, Buffy," he said soothingly. "Everyone understands."

She took a deep breath. "Good. Now about an assignment? There must be some big bad thing that needs exterminating ... somewhere ... else."

"Well ..." he said thoughtfully. "As coincidental as it may seem, we have been trying to put together an away mission."

"Where? What? How dangerous?" she asked eagerly.

"Israel, on the hills above Haifa there is --"

"Haifa is a hill. Nothing there but steep slopes, houses, cats, and ... the scent of jasmine in the air. Don't remember any big bad vibes," she said with a frown as she recalled the tranquility she'd experienced in the hillside city on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Hard to believe anything evil could lurk there.

"Yes, well ... about four miles south there are the ruins of a castle --"

"Dating back to the Crusades?" Buffy guessed brightly. "I remember it." She could picture the rubble of pink granite sitting nestled against the cliffs, high above the shore. "The tour ship didn't stop there though -- they said it was too dangerous ... oh," she said as realization dawned. "Big badness there? How come it didn't set off my 'slayer sense'? Too rusty?" she asked with dismay.

"More like too many wards and cloaking spells," Giles said with gentle amusement. "After the Crusades ended and the castle was abandoned, it was used by the Council to -"

"Heh. Shoulda known," Buffy interrupted darkly. "If there is badness lurking around then the Watchers would be involved in some way."

"Buffy, please. May I finish without further inter--"

"Yeah, yeah. Zipping my lips here."

"Very well. The Council used the castle to store and protect a valuable object." He waited and when she remained silent, continued. "Unfortunately, several years ago when the First murdered so many Watchers, the Castle was taken over by one of its evil minions and the object, a small box, was lost to us."

"What's in the box?" she asked curiously.

"Everything." Longing and desire and reverence were clear in his voice.

"So why haven't you sent someone before now?" she asked.

"We did," was his simple and sad reply.




back to the present

Buffy saw herself reflected in the vampires mesmerizing gaze. Her face was blank, her eyes were wide, and death hovered all around her. In the glimmering mirrors, she watched his hand trace her twin reflection's cheeks and vaguely she felt the cold from the caress of his fingertips. Her mirror images grew larger then unfocused in the dark brown pools of his eyes as his head descended closer --

Dark brown?

As the vamp exploded into dust, its surprised expression blowing away in the breeze, Buffy realized two things.

Spike had been wrong and her friends had been right about him all along.

Vampires did not, make that a definite NOT, get her hot -- no matter what Spike had thought about the subject. She kicked disgustedly at the gray ash coating the floor. Cold-blooded, ruthless, evil, soulless, murderous, voracious things -- that's all these creatures were. They were only good for one thing -- slaying -- and she just happened to be very good at that. She nodded her head decisively, agreeing with herself. Yep, slaying was her thing. It had never upset her and she'd been foolish to think that she could ever leave it behind. It was too much a part of her and it just felt so ... neat.

She took a deep breath, after making sure all the dust had settled, and tried to calm down. Another good thing about taking out the vamp -- it was the closest thing she'd had to an orgasm since Spike had so completely and utterly ruined her.

About that her friends had been right, completely and utterly correct.

They'd warned her of the dangers of sleeping with Spike -- letting him get too close. Had she listened? No, not her. Now nothing, neither the living nor the un-dead, could arouse her interest. They'd thought Spike's danger came from the fact he was a vampire. They'd thought he'd lured in with his preternatural strength, endurance, and his darkness. They probably still thought it was the sex, make that fantastic sex, that had ruined her. They were wrong about that part.

It hadn't been the sex. It had been Spike himself that had spoiled her for all others.

"Stupid, sodding vampire," she muttered as she looked around the barren room.

She quickly ruled the room out as a hiding spot and began to explore the rest of the castle. Giles' stupid, all-important box had to be here somewhere.




Chapter Two -- When Tables Turn ... Things Get Displaced

"How do they always know?" Xander asked, wonder coloring his voice.

Willow cradled her cat in her arms and looked down from where they stood at the railing of the second floor. From their vantage point they had a clear view of the Great Hall and the huge wooden doors that barred the entrance. People were milling about on the marble floor in small groups. They were mostly girls or young women, but several male forms could be spotted in the throng. Their ages ranged from barely in their teens, to some in their mid-twenties, to some with age starting to gray their hair. All were different. They came from around the world, a mixture of cultures, languages and backgrounds. They all shared at least two things in common -- they'd all been touched by the mystical quality of the slayers and they all felt adoration for the one who was expected.

The girls were mostly slayers -- called from the time when she and Buffy had shattered the limitations of the line. A few had participated in that last epic battle in Sunnydale, others had come after. All were here to help and to learn.

The others below were those who planned to be teachers or watchers -- people who'd felt the call and followed a hunch that had led them here -- to this school, or soon to be a school -- hopefully. Willow looked around the Great Hall and smiled, pleased with how far they'd come.

Life P.S., Post Sunnydale, had been chaotic, heartbreaking, exciting, and ultimately rewarding. Buffy had left them almost immediately after a private meeting with Angel, not even spending a single night in his hotel. Willow and Giles had been expecting it, but the others had been shocked and stunned when Buffy had called them together announced her decision to permanently leave.

Xander's big frame had crumpled, tears streaming from his eye, making a single path down his right cheek. He'd looked like an abandoned child as he'd lifted a shaking hand and begged her to stay. Buffy had avoided his grasp, kissed him tenderly on his forehead, and backed away.

Dawn had frozen, her face turning into the coldest porcelain, her expression sullen. She'd stood stiff and silent while Buffy had tried to talk to her. Buffy had hugged Dawn's unbending body. Buffy had repeated over and over her love, but had also gently stressed her need for space. Through it all, Dawn had remained frozen statue. Finally, her despair apparent, Buffy had squared her shoulders and turned away from her unbending sibling.

Faith had scowled at Buffy darkly before easing out from under the wounded form of Robin Wood. She'd gently placed the sleeping man's head on the sofa's cushions, taking great care not to twist his torso. The emergency room that had been their first stop P.S. and the staff there had put over a hundred stitches in Wood's belly. Since he'd stubbornly refused to stay in the hospital, Faith had taken the task upon herself to make sure not a single one of the sutures came loose. Faith had approached Buffy slowly, her dark eyes suspiciously seeking reasons and motives. The two elder slayers had stood face to face for at least a full minute, taking each other's measure, communicating with only their eyes. Then Faith's mouth had lost the sullen, unhappy expression that habitually graced it. The dark slayer had punched Buffy approvingly in the shoulder, nodded her head in understanding, and turned away to head back to her man.

Giles had watched the exchange sadly then looked down to the floor. He'd never lifted his gaze after that, not even when Buffy had given him a quick hug. He'd kept looking at the carpet until Buffy was nearly out the door.

That's when the last remnants of the spoiled child inside Dawn had shattered. "Buffy!" she had cried out. "I'm sorry, Buffy. So sorry!"

The young woman had run to Buffy, her long strides covering the width of the foyer quickly. She'd grabbed her smaller sister in a tight embrace. The two Summers girls had clung to each other, sobbed out their pain, fear, guilt, and remorse. On both sides apologies were given and forgiveness received. Then they'd wiped the tears off each other's faces, promised their love -- and in the end -- Buffy had calmly walked out the door.

Without Buffy's dominating, commanding, protective presence they'd been forced to find their own way. Two months P.S. they'd found the Council's secret financial accounts. Three months P.S., Willow had cracked the final password. Six months P.S., after they'd looked fruitlessly at several possible locations, they'd found their new home.

A carefully crafted locator spell had led them here, to this unlikely spot on the New York shore of Lake Erie. They'd flown, just Giles, Xander, Dawn, and Willow, into Buffalo and headed southward with great skepticism. Somehow, no matter how they'd looked at, logic had told them that this was a ridiculous place for them. There was just nothing here.

Always the map had led them southward, away from the population centers and toward the lake. They'd driven through vineyards and past farms until they'd turned onto Old Lake Shore Drive. A battered 'For Sale' sign had marked the end of a driveway. They'd shared an amused look as Xander had turned the car and headed between the stone gates. The drive had twisted and turned and had been deliberately laid out to conceal the estate until the last possible second. One moment they were driving through a lane lined by Elm trees and the next they were pulling to stop in front of a huge stone mansion.

They'd tumbled out of the rental car and stood looking at the house in awe. Wide slate steps led upward to a pair of massive wooden doors. Above the arch of the entrance was a round window, roughly fifteen feet in diameter and made up of pie shaped panes of milky glass that pointed inward to a circular, stained glass window depicting a yellow sun against a blue background.

On either side of the central section of the mansion, wings jutted outward and angled slightly forward -- like welcoming arms.

Home it had whispered.

Home it had become.

A soft smile curled Willow's lips as she blinked away the past and rubbed J.C.'s silken fur. She looked around her at their home. What they'd made of it. The main building now held the kitchen, an enormous dining room, and a well-equipped lounge in the south wing. The north wing, which had once held the majestic ballroom, had been converted into classrooms and a kick-ass training room. Xander and his crew had cleverly re-done the second and third floors to accommodate the multi-level library and the living quarters of the senior staff, a.k.a. the Scoobies. The fourth floor, the penthouse, was strictly for Buffy's use.

Besides the main building, the estate had consisted of several smaller buildings that were perfect for dorms and more classrooms if they were needed in the future. The grounds were extensive and extended from the road all the way to the cliffs above the shoreline. There was a greenhouse, a boathouse, a tennis court, an overgrown garden, and a -- Willow couldn't help but grin as she thought about it -- brand, spanking new cemetery with old-fashioned iron gates, weathered headstones, and one very special crypt.

"Will?" Xander asked interrupting her thoughts by waving a hand in front of her nose. "You still with us?"

"Huh?" she blinked before she remembered his question about how the students knew about Buffy's visit. Willow's gaze dropped to the small crowd below. Some tried to hide their anticipation -- some didn't bother. They were all waiting for her appearance.

"They're slayers, Xander," Willow said simply, as if that were all the explanation he should need. "Of course they can sense when she's expected."

"Slayer senses?" Xander scoffed. "Or could it be the big ears on the little pitchers?" His wide mouth twisted. "The Dawnster wasn't exactly quiet when she left for the airport. It wouldn't take any special powers for anyone looking at that big goofy grin she'd been sporting to guess that she was on her way to pick the Buffster up."

Willow just smiled at him. "I guess maybe we should be more careful if we want to keep secrets around here. It's just that she visits so rarely; it's hard not to get excited about it."

"Yeah," he said in a rare tone of maturity. "But the more fuss that's kicked up by her visit --"

"-- the shorter it's likely to be," Willow finished his thought for him.

The two friends held each other's gaze until the hush of the people below signaled Buffy's entrance. She stood there in the wide doorway, tanned and stunning. She scanned the crowd, for all the world still like the general she had been. A slight frown marred her face, drawing her golden brows together and Willow wished that they'd taken the time to chase the curious onlookers away.

Then Dawn grabbed Buffy's arm and pulled her happily into the building. The tall brunette leaned down and said something to Buffy while pointing upward. Buffy's head lifted and her eyes followed the path of Dawn's arm -- straight to Willow.

As Buffy's eyes met Willow's, the frown on the blonde's face melted away to be replaced by a wide, happy smile. Buffy and Dawn threaded their way through the crowd and started climbing the wide curving staircase. Willow took a deep breath and eased her grip on the suddenly squirming cat, petting the animal apologetically. Relief flooded through her -- still loved, she thought happily.

It had been like this every time they'd met P.S. Willow always held her breath, tense and unsure of her reception. The fact of what they'd done to Buffy was never very far from Willow's mind.

When Buffy had needed them the most, the only one who had steadfastly backed the Vampire Slayer had been the vampire. The rest of them, instead of guarding Buffy's back, had slipped a knife into it.

"Ooooh," Xander let the sound ooze out of his throat as Buffy and Dawn topped the stairs. The two girls passed through the a band of glimmering late-afternoon sunlight that filtered through the huge round window set high above where Xander and Willow stood. His eyes goggled comically over Buffy's breasts and bare legs. "Tight T and hot pants! Very brave and very Lara Crofty."

"Like?" Buffy asked with a grin as she strode toward her friends -- her hiking boots thumping softly on the floor as she swung the small pack off her back, deliberately stretching the ribbed white cotton even tighter across her chest as she did so.

"Ya ... very much! But it's like ... cold outside." Xander shivered as he deliberately looked out the round window above the main doors, mirror image to the westward facing one behind them -- the only difference was one depicted a sun and the other, a moon. "Mid-October on the shore of Lake Erie? Burr. Not that it's much different in mid-June," Xander noted wryly -- he missed sunny southern California and never tired of pointing out the lousy weather along the lakeshore. "I swear that lake has icebergs floating in it year round." He leered at Buffy again. "Not that you don't look especially fetching when you're ... chilled." His gaze narrowed on the points of her breasts, deliberately seeking a peek of her nipples.

Willow rolled her eyes. He had only gotten worse when he'd finally accepted the fact that Buffy/Xander was never, ever going to happen.

Buffy approached him confidently, closer and closer until their chests nearly touched. She lifted her head, blocking his view of her boobs as she smirked up into his lascivious gaze and teased, "Well, you could warm me up, but whatever would Andrew say if he saw us?" she asked sweetly.

"He'd tell me to grab you like this." Xander reached out and wrapped his big hands around her waist. "And pull you close like this." He tugged her tightly to him. "And kiss you breathless." His mouth swooped down and captured her laughing lips with his own.

She remained giggling in his embrace for a record-breaking ten seconds before pushing him away with mock disgust. "Xander stop. Andrew will --"

"Never know," Xander said smugly. "He's in Cleveland with Faith and Robin. And besides," Xander managed to somehow look embarrassed, guilty, and pleased all at the same time. "It's not like he owns me or anything."

"Yeah right," Buffy snorted and turned her gaze to the woman who had been watching them with an indulgent smile on her face. "Will, tell him to behave."

Willow deliberately raised her brows upward and put a wry expression on her face. "I've been trying to get him to behave since he ate my red Crayon in Mrs. Printup's Kindergarten class -- no luck so far," she leaned close and whispered.

"That was a Crayon?" Xander asked in feigned amazement. "I thought it was a Twizzler." He rolled his dark eyes, the glass one moving in perfect sync with the real one, and slapped a palm against his forehead. "No wonder I can't stand red licorice and am still passing red waxy stool."

"Xander, that was twenty years ago. I think it would have passed through your system by now," Willow said softly, the corners of her mouth twitching upward impishly. "Perhaps you and Andrew should try a different lubri--"

"Can't!" Dawn piped out with a big, wide, falsely innocent smile. When the others turned their faces toward her, she mugged, "Can't ... wait to hear how Buffy got the box out of Israel. Can you?"

Willow forgot her teasing of Xander and turned eagerly to Buffy. Her eyes alight with anticipation as she asked, "Get it?"

"Got it."

"Good," Xander finished with his old, impeccable timing.

They grinned at each other happily. Friends recapturing the magic of their past is if ... as if they still loved and trusted each other. Slowly, starting with Buffy -- the sadness always started with Buffy -- the smiles slipped and dimmed and became uncomfortable.

"Wanna see it?" Buffy asked into the sudden tension. She lifted her backpack.

"Not ... not here," Willow said as she nervously petted J.C. The cat must have sensed her uneasiness. It wriggled free of her arms and jumped to the floor. Regally, waiving its tail, it padded down the hallway, away from its clinging mistress. "In the library." Then her face brightened and a smile curved her lips again. "Now that Xander's finished all the shelves, we can barely coax Giles out of it. He's in there now ... waiting to greet you privately."

"He is?" Buffy too, regained her grin as she turned and hurried down the hall toward the man she still thought of as a father.

"It still breaks my heart," Xander said as he took Willow's and Dawn's elbows and followed slowly behind Buffy.

"Will it ever get better?" Willow asked helplessly.

Xander shook his head, his eyes sad. "I'd give everything if only it would."

Dawn remained silent and thoughtful as they walked the long corridor to the library where they found Buffy just releasing Giles from a huge hug.

"New library, huh?" Buffy asked as she gazed around the large, impressive room.

Willow loved this room nearly as much as Giles did. This was the place they'd spent the most time planning. This was going to be their meeting spot, the place where they gathered -- where they were going to have their Scooby-meetings. The woodwork of lower level fairly glowed with welcome in the soft lighting, while the upper level was theatrically cloaked in shadows. All in all, it was very much like the old library at the original Sunnydale High School except larger and ...

"It's really nice. Good job on the restoration, Xander," Buffy noted with a frown. "But it's ya know ... it's kinda ... empty," she said carefully as she looked around the vacant shelves.

"Yes, so it is ... for now," Giles adjusted his glasses and smiled a bit mysteriously. "Most of the world's books on demonology and witchcraft were lost or deliberately destroyed by the First. This library will be the grandest, most complete in existence -- provided you were successful in acquiring ...?"

"This old thing?" Buffy asked as she scooped a dull gray object about the size and shape of a Kleenex box out of her pack. She held it with casual indifference and a bit of disgust. "The carvings on it are ugly," she said flippantly as she twisted it this way and that, wrinkling her nose at it. "Tried to get it open, but the dumb thing wouldn't budge. But there can't be much in it 'cause it hardly weighs anything." She tossed it in the air and Giles lunged forward and caught it, pulling it to his chest and hugging it protectively. "Why is it so important?" Buffy asked in confusion as her former watcher cuddled the metal box to his breast as if it were a living thing.

"My dear child, inside this box are enough books to fill all these empty shelves."

Buffy looked more than a little skeptical, but with a shrug she said, "Whatever. Some sort of magic mojo, I suppose," and dropped the subject -- apparently books still weren't her thing. "You guys get the kitchen running yet?"




Chapter Three -- When Tables Turn ... Feelings Get Hurt

"Isn't it neat?" Willow asked from where she lay on the same massive bed as Buffy.

"Um ..."

"When Xander first talked -- no, actually he bragged -- about it. I thought, no way. Not possible. No one could really do what he planned, not even Xander, the Power-Tool Guy."

"Oh, ye of little faith," Xander crowed smugly from his position sandwiched between the two young women. He sighed in lazy pleasure and smiled up at the ceiling -- completely satisfied. "I dare you to tell me you're not impressed, Buff-o'-my-heart."

"Oh, I'm impressed," Buffy said quickly, as she slipped an arm over and patted his thigh. "You did good."

"Real good," Willow added as she rolled to her side and gave Xander a kiss on the cheek.

He promptly grabbed her, hauled her up onto his chest and made her scream with glee. J.C. was outraged. He hissed and struck out at Xander's arm, leaving four weeping scratches before bolting off the bed. Xander yelped and took his revenge by sticking stiffened fingers into Willow's ribs. He held her prisoner as she tried to wriggle away from the tickling fingers. The two were so engrossed in there horseplay, that it took a moment for them to notice that Buffy had crawled off the bed and was standing by the westward window, looking pensively out at the lake.

Xander and Willow shared a look before they straightened out their clothing and tried to act like the grown-ups they were.

"Seriously, Buff. You like the skylights?" Xander asked, the need for reassurance clear in his voice.

Buffy turned from the view and nodded. "Of course, Xander." She glanced up and the rows of glass. "Show me again how they work."

Xander took the strange looking remote control off the nightstand and went into full-blown instruction mode. "All you have to do is dial in the time here." He pointed to the dial. "Twist it to the time you want to wake up, say..." He peered at his wristwatch -- 10:58 -- perfect for a demonstration. "Eleven a.m. and the windows will do the rest." He pointed upward where the dark panels were slowly rising toward the peek of the cathedral ceiling, re-setting themselves and dimming the room. "No nasty morning light will enter 'til Buffy is ready to rise and shine." Xander grinned and leered. "Late nocturnal night? Internal clock gone all wacky? No problem. At the desired time, the windows will open and snuggly Buffy will be gently roused from dreamland by the gentle rays of the mid-day sun."

"Amazing," Buffy said, making Xander beam with pride. "You guys have really done amazing things with this old place."

"Yep, sure is amazing what Xander and his crew have done," Willow noted with a crooked smile. She scooped J.C. up off the floor and rubbed her nose into the silky fur. "Course the Council's millions didn't hurt either."

"The pigs," Buffy said with an angry snort. "There I was working my butt off, flipping burgers and saving the world every other day and those --"

With a loud screech and then a resounding crash, the window panels hurtled down their tracks, suddenly flooding the entire room with brilliant light.

Buffy blinked against the glare, her eyes stinging. "How did that go again? Gently roused from dreamland by the gentle rays of --"

"The clutch," Xander said. "It's the clutch. For some reason it always slips when it's set on automatic. I thought I had it fixed." He looked so disappointed that Buffy went up to him and gave him a hug. "I guess I'll have to replace it," he said looking down at her.

"Oh, Xander, don't feel bad. You'll figure it out eventually," Willow said encouragingly. "Just look how long it took you to figure out the reason it never worked out with girls."

Xander gave her a blank look.

"Because you really like guys," Willow suggested as she scratched J.C. under his chin. She caught the gleam in Xander's eyes -- funny how even his glass one could express emotion -- and forestalled him. "Remember, you promised there'd be no more remarks, jokes, or innuendo about my pussy."

"Will, I'm crushed. I had not intention of reminding you that the only pussy you've been getting lately is that mean little fur-ball glaring at me from the safety of your arms."

"J.C. is not mean," Willow said with a hurt look. Xander pointed to the scratches on his lower arm. "And you just broke your promise," Willow noted, ignoring the wounds her pet had inflicted.

"Err ... speaking of ... well ... what did happen between you and Kennedy?" Buffy asked. "Are you guy's like ... over?"

Willow's face twisted. "Not officially ... but unofficially, yeah."

"What happened?"

Willow shrugged and glanced at Xander for help.

"Kennedy just wasn't Tara," he said simply with a sympathetic look on his face.

"Oh. That explains everything," Buffy said dryly. "What about you, Xan-man? Dawn filled me in on you and Andrew, but she didn't know any of the gory details. How did you and Andrew ... you know ... get together?"

It was apparently Willow's turn to answer for the suddenly tongue-tied Xander. "They got smashed one night while watching a Voyager marathon, cried on each others shoulders over Anya -- the world's most nearly perfect woman -- and ended up comforting each other."

"Anya," Buffy practically sneered the name and then looked instantly shamefaced.

Willow was always amazed that Buffy could forgive her friends nearly anything, murder, attempted world destruction, betrayal, over a hundred years of blood sucking mayhem, but had never been able to completely forgive Anya for having sex with Spike. Which was especially revealing, as Buffy'd been able to forgive Faith for sleeping with Riley, and Xander, and maybe Angel, and hadn't Buffy been interested in Robin for a while? Willow suspected that the difference lay in the man. Faith was lucky she'd never put the moves on Spike.

Willow caught Xander's eye and motioned with her head for him to leave. Maybe the time was ripe for the serious talk that she and Buffy needed to have. Too many things had been left unsaid for too long. Buffy seemed in a reflective mood and Dawn was in class at the University of Buffalo. Willow might not get another chance for a one-on-one for who knows how long. Xander took the hint, made an excuse about checking on the crew working on the dormitory bathrooms, and left the two girls alone.

"How long are you planning on staying?" Willow asked, then cringed hoping Buffy wouldn't be offended.

"Just a day or two," Buffy answered somewhat distantly.

"Oh," Willow said with disappointment. "We all hoped for longer."

As always when the subject came up, Buffy started looking wary. Restlessly she began wandering around the rooms, touching this and that, opening the drawers in the dresser that Dawn had picked out, running her fingers over the bed's metal footboard.

"This is some bed," Buffy said softly.

Willow looked at the monstrosity that Xander had insisted on. It was king-sized, steel-framed, and the headboard and footboard were made up of vertical bars of metal. The bed could stand up to anything -- that's what Xander had said when he'd spotted it in one of the local antique shops.

"Xander chose it," Willow explained.

"Aah," Buffy said with understanding as she rounded the room and ended up once again at the window overlooking the lake.

"Buffy is there anything that we can do to make you ... more comfortable here?"

Buffy's face tightened, hiding her inner thoughts. "No."

Willow bit her lip, determined to get Buffy talking. "Remember when we were best friends and could tell each other anything?" Willow asked softly, the wistfulness plain in her voice. "We'd lay on your bed and do our nails and braid Xander's hair? It seems like a lifetime ago."

"It was."

Buffy's two little words slammed into Willow and found their way unerringly to her core. She closed her eyes as the words thumped against one of the scars on her soul and laid the old wound open again. She'd thought that she'd learned to control the pain, the guilt, the suffering that her dragging Buffy back from Heaven had caused. So many things could be traced back to that fateful spell. So much pain could be laid at Willow's feet. She gripped J.C. tightly and swayed for a moment.

"Ready to see the rest of the house?" Willow asked when the lump in her throat had finally receded.

Buffy shrugged and Willow took that as a yes. They spent the rest of the day walking through the mansion and the outer buildings. At first Buffy was uncomfortable with the amount of attention her presence drew, but after a while she seemed to get better with it. Willow even caught Buffy smiling back at a few of the younger girls. As they walked, Willow pointed out the improvements they'd made to the buildings and told Buffy what they planned for the future. She answered Buffy's questions eagerly, hoping something would spark the other woman's curiosity enough to hang around and help out.

The estate had been built in the late eighteen hundreds by the Bethlehem family. Abraham and Alma Bethlehem had been the owners of Bethlehem Steel. The mansion had been their summer home and at one time had been the grandest in the region. Alma had apparently been some sort of spiritualist and had also founded the small nearby community of Lilly Dale, which still was the home of Spiritualists, fortune-tellers, wiccas, and Tarot card readers.

"When we bought the place we had no idea what a spiritual part of the country this was," Willow explained excitedly. "Did you know that several religions were started within a fifty miles of this spot? It was called 'The Burned Over District' because so many revivals started here. Joseph Smith found the Book of Mormon in Palmyra. This is where the three Fox sisters gained fame by not only claiming to be able to communicate with the dead, but also by giving astonishingly accurate public exhibitions of their ability. Jemima Wilkins woke from a coma and claimed to be possessed by a powerful spirit. The list goes on and on," Willow said brightly. "Not only that, but this was the birth place of modern women's rights. Did you know that Susan B. Anthony was born not far from here? And the first suffragette's meetings were held just up the road?" Willow grinned happily as they paused by the second floor railing, the same spot she and Xander had waited for Buffy day the before. "No wonder my locator spell led us here. What better place for a school for slayers?"

"With all this spiritual energy around, are there any big bads knocking on the doors?" Buffy asked as she looked down at the Great Hall.

"Not really, but we have so many wards and protection spells on the buildings that I doubt much could get through." Willow paused and felt a chill on the back of her neck. "When we first moved in there was nothing, no negative vibes at all. Giles said that was good. That we needed a place away from the action -- a safe place to re-group and train. But lately ..." Willow paused for a moment and looked out the window above the main doors at the darkening sky. "Lately, I've felt something touching the wards, probing them. It's as if something were looking for weak spots -- trying to find a way in."

"You two finish the tour yet?" Xander asked from behind them, making them jump and breaking the spell that Willow's words had put on them.

"All but the ... thing outside. Dawn wanted to be here for that." Willow grabbed Xander's wrist and studied his watch. "It's only six-thirty?" she asked as she looked out the westward window at the sun sinking into the lake. "I always forget how early dusk comes this time of year."

Xander snorted. "If it's not dusk, its fog and if it's not fog, it's rain. And if it isn't rain, it's --"

"Snow!" Willow finished for him. She loved Xander's whining, it was just so ... comfortable. And since they'd moved to the snow belt, well, he'd had a lot to whine about.

"Will!" Xander said with a shocked gasp as he waggled a finger at her nose. "Now what have I told you about that four letter word?"

"Umm," she tried to look thoughtful. "Not to say it?" she asked.

"That's right," he said as he nodded his head vigorously. "Never say that word." He turned to Buffy. "Last winter that-white-stuff-that-shall-not-be-named came on Halloween and never left us until ... well ... actually I think there's still a few drifts out by the garden wall."

Buffy arched her brows. "And you want me to move to this lake front Siberia?"

Willow punched Xander in the arm and gave him 'the look'.

"Ooow," he cried out and grimaced. "But there are compensations for the climate. Come into the library and I'll introduce you to the local pizza and real Buffalo wings - hot enough to melt through the deepest snow."




It was a pleasantly intimate group in the library. Just Giles, Rona, and one young slayer that Buffy didn't recognize were waiting for them. After a full afternoon of feeling as if she were on display and avoiding the curious eyes of students and staff, Buffy welcomed the semi-solitude.

"Hi, Buffy. I don't expect you'll remember me," said the young woman as she rose gracefully to her feet and offered her hand. "Amy Zawatski, we met briefly the last time you were here?" The chestnut-haired girl asked when Buffy took her hand and shook her head slightly. "Oh, that's okay. I'm sure you have too much on your mind to remember everyone. It's just such an honor to meet you again," the girl gushed.

Buffy pulled her hand away; obviously uncomfortable under the girl's worshipping regard.

"Amy, would you mind leaving us? There's a few things I'd like to speak to Buffy about."

Amy's big brown eyes blinked in disappointment, but the girl said a gracious good-bye and left the room with happy smile.

"She's been with us for over a year now," Giles said as the door closed behind Amy's back. "A good girl and shows great potential -- you'd like her if you got to know her."

Buffy sighed as she dropped wearily down into a chair. She rolled her eyes at Giles and leaned across the table for a slice of pizza. "I'm sure she's a darling, but as I don't plan on hanging around long enough to get to know her, what's the point?" Buffy asked as she popped the slice into her mouth and began to chew.

"The point is, these girls need you," Rona said.

Willow cringed. Leave it to Rona to be so blunt.

Buffy gagged and had to work hard to get a stubborn wad of cheese down her throat. "What could they possibly need me for?" Buffy gasped out.

"Training?" Rona suggested, her dark eyes flashing.

"They have you guys, all this." Buffy waved her hand vaguely indicating the estate. "It's a lot more than I had."

"Do you care that many of these girls have never even seen a vampire?" Rona's head was held at an aggressive angle, her chin thrust forward.

"And that's my problem, how?"

"'Cuz you've got the experience, the street smarts to find them. They're pretty scarce around here, ya' know, but I'm sure you could sniff them out," Rona said harshly. "That's what you've always been best at. Attracting vampires."

"Rona!" Willow gasped.

Buffy froze, her face going blank and unreadable.

"That's quite enough, Rona," Giles said as he rose to his feet and towered over the black girl. "Buffy doesn't deserve that. She is --"

"Needed here and you guys are too afraid of her, too busy dancing around on eggshells to tell her to stop fuckin' off on her self-awareness trip and get her ass back home where she belongs, doing what she was meant to do -- leading us."

Silence filled the room as the Scoobies waited for Buffy's reaction. She sat quietly, her great eyes fixed on Rona for a long time before she spoke.

"What do you want me to do, Rona?" Buffy asked quietly. "Go out a catch a couple vamps, bring them home and tame them so the girls can use them in war games?"

Rona took a deep breath and suddenly looked uncertain under Buffy's intense regard.

"Funny," Buffy noted with a dangerous edge to her voice. "Weren't you the one who got so sick of Spike hanging around?"

"Yeah," Rona said with an apologetic look on her face. "That was me, but since then I've grown up, learned a lot. I didn't appreciate how lucky we were to be able to train with a real vampire. At the time I was just too scared to ... " her voice trailed off.

"Yes, indeed," Giles' voice broke in. "Spike was most convenient to --"

The shriek of the chair legs as Buffy jumped upright drowned out whatever else Giles was about to say.

"Convenient?" Buffy snarled, her eyes coming back to life and her fists clenching. Her eyes welled with tears and her mouth tightened with pain. Her lips twitched, as if she were about to say more and then, abruptly, she was gone. Running away from the table and throwing open the library doors.

"I'm so sorry," Rona whispered in horror as they all watched Buffy disappear. "I don't know why I did that. I should have known that any mention of Spike would make her unhappy."

"It was never Spike that made Buffy unhappy," Willow said as she rose to follow her friend. "It was us."




Chapter Four -- When Tables Turn ... Tears Get Spilled

Buffy ran from the mansion, out into the darkness. She turned northward, away from the buildings, toward the old garden. Her headlong rush ended when she slammed awkwardly into a tombstone. Gasping and spinning around, she found herself in a graveyard. One that hadn't been there on her last visit and one that looked eerily like Restfield back in Sunnydale.

Buffy roamed the rows of stone. Recognizing some and goggling at them.

How was this possible?

Some sort of fold in time and matter? Or had Willow conjured up some sort of crossover with the Twilight Zone? Buffy wandered further amongst the stones only to nearly fall down when she spotted the familiar crypt.

Spike! her mind screamed in terrified, instinctive longing.

Without even thinking, she ran toward the familiar white marble. She tore the chain and lock off the door and flung the heavy portal open. The resounding bang it made, echoed through her brain. With wide eyes she scanned the shadowed interior, taking in the unlit candles in the windows recesses, a ratty chair facing a portable TV, and ... the large stone sarcophagus.

Even blanketed by her shadow, she knew it was empty. Nothing inside. Nothing napping on the lid.

Still, she moved aside, out of the moonlight, wanting to see it more clearly. Her shadow moved, just as it should, but the light never increased. Heart hammering in her chest, it took a moment for Buffy's senses to register the fact that someone was standing behind her, in the open doorway, in the moonlight -- blocking the light.

Buffy turned slowly.




"At first we only meant to make a little graveyard -- just a few headstones -- for training -- for atmosphere, you know," Willow said softly as she stepped inside the tomb. "The local monument-makers love us. They think we're nuts, but they love us. We're like a godsend to them. After all, who else would buy up their typos? You'd be amazed at how many times a stone is completely carved before an error is found," she paused and smiled wryly. "For some reason, grieving families don't like it when their loved-one's names are misspelled."

"You made a fake cemetery. To train in. I get that," Buffy said, her short choppy sentences bursting out in gusts of breath. "I get it," she repeated. Then she closed her eyes. "But why ... this?" she asked as she motioned around the tomb.

Willow swallowed.

"Well ... we started putting the tombstones up and without even realizing it, we made it like Restfield. We had a good laugh when we realized what we were doing. Then we ... just kept going; deliberately commissioning some of the stones and the statues to be like the ones we remembered. It almost became a game. Like trying to save a small part of Sunnydale. Sick sorta fun, you know?" she asked desperately.

When Buffy remained silent Willow dropped her eyes to the toes of her shoes and took a deep breath before continuing. "The cemetery started getting larger and more elaborate. When we got this far, we found -- "

"Tell me why you made a mockup of Spike's crypt," Buffy hissed fiercely.

Willow lifted her head and the look on the blonde's face made Willow take a cautious step back. Fear filling her, throat tightening up; all Willow could think to do was move aside and stop blocking the moonlight. She lifted a trembling hand and pointed toward the stone sarcophagus that had often served as Spike's bed. The silvery light illuminated the side of the rough granite, making the inscription easy to read.

         1880 - 2003
       Beloved Vampire
He helped save the world a lot.

Buffy gasped and her whole manner changed. The squared shoulders slumped. The anger faded. The danger passed.

"It was Dawn's idea," Willow said carefully, trying to gauge Buffy's feelings, trying to soothe her friend. She wanted to finally draw Buffy out and get her talk about Spike, about the past, about Sunnydale's last days. "Xander carved the letters himself. He said it was because the stone-cutters would think we were crazy, but that was just an excuse -- they already know we're nuts." Willow waited to see if Buffy would respond before continuing. "Truthfully, I think Xander needed to do it with his own hands."

Willow could see the tears as they welled within Buffy's eyes. Other than that, Buffy gave no sign of what was going through her mind. The blonde's lovely face was expressionless, pale and lifeless within the tomb.

"When we got to this point we found -- actually Dawn fell in it -- a hole. It turned out to be the entrance to a system of caverns that go off in several directions to points unknown. We think it might be part of the old Under Ground Railroad, running from the house to the lake. Before the Bethlehems built the mansion there was an older house here. We think it belonged to an abolitionist. Anyway," Willow gathered herself to stop her rambling. "We needed a secure cover of some sort -- didn't want to lose any students. That's when we started discussing putting a crypt of some sort over the entrance. It just seemed sort of ... fitting ... to make it Spike's."

Buffy briefly glanced over the stone slabs that made up the floor before she moved closer to the stone coffin. Gracefully, she sank down to her knees and sat with one shoulder pressed to the smooth, cold granite. Tentatively, she reached out and touched the carved letters. Willow was a silent witness as Buffy's finger traced 'Beloved Vampire' over and over again.

"We all miss him," Willow whispered.

"No you don't."

Buffy's fingers moved down to the next line and touched every letter.

"He helped save the world a lot," Buffy read in a voice that was hollow and distant and strange. "He was just a good guy to have around in an apocalypse," she said firmly, coldly. Then Buffy drew in a deep breath and Willow saw her shoulders shake. "He was convenient," Buffy said, her voice breaking on the last word. "And he knew it, too. He knew it..." Buffy sobbed and pressed her wet cheek against the stone, pressed her palm to letters spelling out his name. "He knew it because I told him so ... every chance I got."

Willow was both relieved and horrified. Relieved that Buffy finally trusted her enough to open up about her feelings for Spike and horrified at the amount of unresolved pain that Buffy was still dealing with. Willow ached for her friend. She wished she could do something to ease the anguish. She owed Buffy so much; she'd made so many mistakes. If only there was something she could do to make up for it all.

A thought.

It had been lurking around the corner of her mind for nearly three years -- she'd steadfastly ignored it -- until now. A thought so dark and scary and completely taboo that, even now, she dared not examine it too closely. She bit her lip, uncertain if it were even possible. Not that she'd ever do it, but maybe if she knew it was impossible it would leave her alone and stop stalking the dark corners of her mind.

"Buffy, how did Spike die?"

Buffy's head reared up. Her eyes locked on Willow's. The Slayer leapt to her feet and shifted them to the ready, the twin lights of danger and death glittering in her eyes.

"Don't even think about it, Willow."

"I didn't. I wouldn't," Willow lied as she shook her head tightly. "And if he died by natural means, I couldn't," she confessed.

"Make sure you don't," Buffy warned. Then something inside Buffy, drawn out by stress of the day, the unexpected appearance of the crypt, the closeness of Spike himself, seemed to escape. Buffy began to speak for the first time about what had happened in the Hellmouth.

"There was nothing mystical about Spike's death," Buffy said sadly. "After Sunnydale was gone, just before I left the Hyperion, I asked Angel about the amulet. I guess I'd hoped that maybe it ... but he said, no. So you can't bring him back, Will," Buffy said softly. "And you shouldn't even try. Wherever vampires go when they turn to dust, it has to be better than what he had in Sunnydale ... what he had with me."

"He loved you," Willow said with certainty, there was no use denying it any longer.

"Yes, he did," Buffy agreed. "And I made him suffer for it. Every time he said it, every time he showed it -- I hurt him." Buffy spun in a circle studying the crypt. "Even during those very last moments, after I knew he was about to give his life for me, for the world, I managed to get in one last blow."

All the emotion, all the pain the Buffy usually hid was showing plainly on her face. Her lips twitched in some grisly parody of a smile as she turned to Willow and asked, "You know how I did it? Cleverly. I waited until he was caught in the sunlight that he was channeling. Then, quite pathetically I told him to move, to go, to save himself -- knowing all the while that even if he would have left the job unfinished -- it was too late. He refused, of course. So I took his hand ... and at my touch, he started to burn. That's when I managed to say the words that he'd begged to hear for three years. I told him that I loved him." Buffy barked out an ugly laugh, full of self-loathing. "And he didn't believe me."

She started pacing around and Willow knew that Buffy was no longer in the phony crypt on the shore of Lake Erie. She was back in the Hellmouth. She was with Spike.

"'No you don't.' He said to me. To me!" Buffy's voice rose like a scream as she pounded her chest. "I finally find the courage to tell him how I feel ... felt. How I felt for ... for years and he doesn't believe me. 'No you don't, but thanks for saying it,' he says so calmly, so confidently, so damned politely." Buffy swiped wildly at her eyes, smearing the tears. "So what did I do? Great heroine, world-savior, slayer? I pulled my hand away and I left him. I left him to burn. I ran. I saved myself and he burned, down there, in the Hellmouth ... alone and convinced that he was unloved."

Buffy stopped by the chair, put one hand on it, and turned to Willow expectantly.

"If he was in the sunlight," Willow reasoned thoughtfully as she remembered how the floor had burst open at her feet and the column of light had formed, connecting the sun to the netherworld through the opened seal of Danthazar. "Then there is nothing you could have done." She took hold of Buffy's arm and squeezed it enough to assure her friend would pay attention to her words. "You couldn't have saved him from burning."

"Can you be sure?" Buffy asked sharply. "He once did it for me."

Willow's hand released its grip in order to cover her mouth. Her mind flashed back in time and she remembered Buffy's wild, spinning, demon-induced dance that would have ended in flames -- if Spike hadn't stopped it.

"The fact is, Will, I didn't even try. When he rejected me, I left him. And when I looked into the hole -- when I knew for certain that he was gone -- I felt relief. I was free of the burden of his love and he was finally free of me." Buffy fell to the stone floor and drew her knees up to her chest. She wrapped her arms around them as she sobbed. "He was free and I couldn't hurt him anymore."

Willow flung herself down next to Buffy, cradling her, rocking her, and crying with her.





Chapter Five -- When Tables Turn ... Unexpected Things Happen

Buffy backed out of her driveway and onto the lightly traveled coastal road. As she shifted from reverse into drive, she took one last look at the small Maine house that had been her home for over a year. Then, with a crooked smile and a light heart, she pressed down on the gas pedal and started on her journey home.

As she turned onto the Interstate, she began to sing along with the radio, bouncing a bit in driver's seat and slapping her hands against the steering wheel happily as her old Jeep began to eat up the miles. She just hoped it was up to the trip. She peered in the rearview mirror at the boxes and bags of clothing that were crammed into the back -- all her worldly possessions.

Wouldn't the gang be surprised when she pulled in and began unpacking?

After her meltdown in the crypt, she'd taken off, not even waiting around for Dawn. She'd needed time alone, to sort out what had happened, so she'd shaken Willow off with a promise to lie down for a while. Once in her penthouse apartment she'd penned a quick note and had snuck out the back way -- that private staircase was pretty nice. She'd walked a mile to the main road where she'd hitched a ride into the city. Buffalo only offered two flights a day to Maine; she'd been lucky enough to catch the later one.

Even before the plane had landed in Bangor, she'd known what she needed to do. Still, it had taken her nearly two weeks to quit school, say good-bye to the handful of friends she'd made, sort through her stuff and pack what she hadn't tossed out, get rid of her furniture, shut off the utilities, and close up the house. Now, here she was headed home, and completely certain that the time was right.

So many things had happened during her last visit, the great gab-fest she'd had with Dawn, the close camaraderie she'd felt with Willow and Xander, the love and respect she'd felt from Giles, the crypt.

Buffy stopped singing; a look of sadness creeping over her face as she thought of the empty mausoleum her friends had built.

"I did love you," she whispered. "You stupid, stubborn, sodding vampire." She swiped the single tear off her cheek. "I just wish I could ... and if wishes were horses we'd all be ..." Her brow wrinkled as she tried to remember the rest of the old saying. "If wishes were horses, we'd all be ... covered in horse poop?" She giggled at herself and took a firmer grip on the steering wheel.

It had been such a relief to tell Willow about Spike and somehow the conversation with Willow, made Buffy feel cleansed. She'd made peace with her feelings for Spike long ago, but not her failures regarding him.

For years, Buffy had been so tightly bound by the chains of responsibilities that had gone along with being 'The Chosen One' that she'd lost sight of her own humanity. And it had taken the final death of a lovesick vampire for her to find it again. She'd pushed her own needs down so far, that she'd become blind to the emotional needs of others. Oh, she'd succeeded as a slayer; there was no doubt of that. But as a friend? As a sister? As a lover? As a woman?

You're one hell of a woman, Spike had once told her.

Buffy shook her head sadly.

"No, Spike. You were just one hell of a man."

Buffy tightened her chin in determination as she looked out over the steering wheel. There was nothing she could do for Spike now. He was gone. All she could do was revere his memory and live out her life the way he'd have wanted her to.

So she was headed home, to her sister and her friends.

She was going back not as a leader, sitting alone and isolated on a blood stained pedestal, but as a sort of ... senior advisor. The gang had more than proven that they could stand on their own. What they'd accomplished these last couple years both awed and astounded her. She knew she wouldn't have to carry them any longer, or try to live up to their ideals. That's why they'd built the crypt, to show her that they'd learned to accept her and stop judging her.

Dawn, the Scoobies, the crypt -- they'd all helped her reach this decision to return, but oddly enough it had been Rona who'd really made the difference.

Buffy had been chosen when she'd been just fifteen years old. She'd been a child and had been forced to face a world of evil all alone -- except for a Watcher who'd held his distance and his secrets. That first Watcher hadn't lasted too long and then Buffy had been blessed with Giles, who'd been better -- but who had been shackled and restrained by the traditions of the Watcher's Council. The one time he had dared to defy them, the pigs had fired him.

Rona's caustic words had reminded Buffy of the many failings of the Council. Instead of supporting her, they'd let Buffy flounder nearly alone and often ignorant of important details. In many ways Buffy felt as if she'd had to fight the Council as well as the demons. In short, she blamed the Council for the way she'd turned out -- how hard she'd become.

Buffy grinned and turned up the radio. She was ready to help Giles and the gang re-vamp (heh!) the Watcher's Council. They'd re-make it from the ground up and do it right this time.

And she was going to be there to make sure.




Willow nibbled on her pencil and then realized what she was doing and why. She took it out of her mouth and laid it in the palm of her hand. She closed her eyes and willed herself to calm down. When she opened them again the pencil was floating perfectly still in the air above her hand. Willow let her hand drop to the desk beside her notebook and the pencil began to spin in carefully controlled circles. This was one of the first spells she'd ever mastered and whenever things got to be too much, whenever she felt her control slipping and the magic taking over, Willow always went back to this simple practice in control.

As the pencil spun in the air, she looked down at her notes and then over to the box that had resisted their every effort to open it. After nearly two weeks of study, she and Giles were pretty certain that they knew what was required to pop the lid.

It was the figure depicted on the cover.

Barely discernable, scratched into the metal of the lid, was a man-like figure with wings on his back and a crown on his head. From his eyes shot out zig-zags that they took to be fire. In his hand were more lightening bolts, a sword, perhaps? They'd determined that the winged man was the representation of an angel -- a demon of light -- and that only such as he could open the mystical box.

It seemed that the box had been around since the Middle Ages, perhaps even older than that. It might even have been created by the legendary Merlin during the time of King Arthur. Whoever had actually created it had long since been lost to time. All that was known was that any book ever written about sorcery, vampires, demons, etc. was automatically copied and stored inside. One thing was certain, the box had been sealed by an angel and could only be opened by another.

The trick was how to go about finding an angel and getting him to open it?

Thus Willow had been working on a spell to locate and then open a portal between a heavenly realm and their own. And that's what was upsetting her -- the closeness the spell bore to a resurrection spell. If she'd have used this spell to bring Buffy back, letting her come through in her heavenly form, instead of forcing her back into her decayed and then re-animated body, might things have worked out differently?

She'd caused Buffy so much pain, so needlessly. Willow shook her head. She couldn't undo the past, but maybe she could make Buffy happy in the present? If she could find the right dimension, she just might be able to use this spell to bring back ...

Vampires weren't of the natural order; how they met their ultimate death probably wouldn't even matter. Besides, did the demon inside the human corpse even die when the physical body dusted? And if Spike's demon went back to whatever dimension it came from -- and no one had ever been able to figure that out -- then it might be possible to ... and what about his soul? How would that play into the equation? Maybe ...

The sound of the pencil clattering against the window made Willow blink. Her head was pounding and she rubbed her temples, seeking relief from the pain.

"Help me out here, J.C." she said to the cat as she petted his dark fur. He merely purred in reply.

She looked at the box for help instead. She forced herself to think of it, of the books it contained, and of the empty library shelves that it could fill. She would use the box itself as a guide to the correct angelic dimension, since it was still magically sealed; it should be able to direct her -- if she could keep her concentration. Once she'd followed the magic to its source, then she would open a portal and invite one of the angels to come through.

She looked down at the part of the spell she'd been working on.

We beseech thee
Oh glorious
Angel of Light

Willow frowned at the last line she'd written. Why did those words give her the heebie-jeebies? She wracked her brain, but couldn't come up with an association and wrote another line.

Come forth and
know our hearts

Buffy had questioned Angel about the medallion, some distant part of her mind whispered. Didn't that mean that she'd held out a hope that Spike might be somewhere within reach? Willow grimaced and clamped down on her wayward thoughts.

"Know our desires," she wrote.

Xander had picked out that huge bed. Why? Who had he thought might someday share it with Buffy?

"We seek only good," she scratched onto the paper.

Dawn had come right out and asked her to bring Spike back. Rona had admitted to missing the vampire. Even Giles had --

With an oath, Willow pushed her notebook away. She trembled with strain and uncertainty. She tried to float another pencil but it flew across the room and embedded itself in the center of one of her paintings.

"Oh, J.C.," she whispered as she scooped the cat up. "What am I going to do? Giles wants to try the spell tonight and I'm not ready. I'm not nearly ready."




Buffy felt the tingle of danger. Even as she calmly finished gassing up the Jeep she reached out with her senses seeking the cause. As she hung the nozzle on the pump she noticed a shadow within the shadow cast by the gas station.


With a spring in her step, Buffy walked across the pavement, paid the attendant, and circled the small building. She wanted to sneak up on the vampire from behind.

She had hoped to sneak up on it and capture it alive -- wouldn't the gang be thrilled if Buffy showed up with a vamp tied to the luggage rack? The look on Rona's face alone would have been worth the bother of traveling with one of the daylight challenged. Unfortunately, the darn thing met her halfway and Buffy was forced to kill it.

"Crap," Buffy muttered as she watched the female vampire turn to dust. "You would have liked the lake and there's a certain big-mouthed, braided-haired, pain in the butt slayer who I'm sure would have taken good care of you."

Buffy dusted off her stake and walked back to the Jeep. As she pulled out of the gas station she spotted a motel and on a whim, pulled in and registered for the night. She might as well take her time driving home. After all, she might yet find another present lurking in the shadows to take back to the gang.




"Of course you're ready," Kennedy said. "You're the most powerful Wicca that ever walked the earth."

Willow shifted the magical box in her hands and looked at Giles for help.

"If you need more time," he said, the disappointment clear in his voice. "Then by all means, take more time."

"I have complete faith in you," Kennedy said, as she pressed closer. "You are the one, Willow. You have control. And," Kennedy took hold of Willow's upper arm, "you have me. Remember? I promised to always be there for you, to ground you." Willow looked into Kennedy's passionate eyes and her doubts began to fade away. She felt strength and self-confidence blooming in her breast. "You can do this, Willow. I know you can."

Willow took a deep breath, nodded, and looked around the main room of the library. Because of the danger -- who knew what an angel would think of a bunch mere humans -- they'd decided it would be best to keep the people present to a minimum. Still the room looked crowded.

Giles was standing next to the conference table. He was shifting his weight back and forth as he polished his glasses to an impressive sheen -- excitement fairly radiating off him now that Willow had agreed to try.

Dawn stood next to Giles. She'd insisted on being present. Stating that as the former Key, her presence was required at any dimensional portal opening. And, well, it was still easier to give in to Dawn than put up with her sulks when she didn't get her way.

Besides Kennedy, there were two other slayers present in case anything should get out of hand. Faith was in the corner quietly talking with Robin. Rona was sitting casually on the edge of the table, directing a look of disapproval Kennedy's way -- the two were always at odds. Rona must have felt Willow's gaze because the black girl slid off the table and approached.

"If you have doubts," Rona said. "Then maybe you should wait and try this some other time."

Kennedy glared at Rona and Willow quickly stepped between them. "No, Rona," Willow said, trying to hide both her uneasiness and her crossed fingers. "I'm sure it'll be fine."

Rona gave her one last searching look before turning and slouching her way back to the table. Her over long jeans making swishing sounds against the floor as she walked away.

The last two people in the room were Xander and Andrew. For the life of her, Willow couldn't think what excuse they'd used to gain entrance to the library. But they sure did look cute together, Willow thought with a smile. Andrew was fussily shaking the rain off the new coat he'd given Xander shortly after the Cleveland contingent had arrived.

"It's a raincoat," she heard Xander say.

"Yes, but you didn't have to get it wet," Andrew replied. "And just look at your hair," he clucked as he smoothed Xander's dark waves gently back into place. "It's all mussed up. The angel will take one look at you and turn right around and --"

"Ready, baby?" Kennedy asked, gently bringing Willow back to the task at hand. When Willow nodded, Kennedy raised her voice and practically yelled. "Hey, everybody! Let's have some quiet here. Willow's ready and needs you guys to shut up."

Willow gulped and looked down in embarrassment. With her head still down she walked over to the symbol she'd painted on the wooden planks of the floor and sat in the center of it. Everything was prepared. The first thing, and the trickiest, that she had to do was follow the magic from the box back to its source. There were thousands of dimensions out there and she needed to find just the right one.

Willow laid a hand on the metal lid and willed herself to feel the magic.

She chanted the words of a locator spell, concentrating on the box and the power sealing it. She waited, but she felt nothing. Panic hit her. She could do this, she knew she could. It was really no different than the way Spike had always known just where to find Buffy. If he couldn't catch her scent in the air, he'd tune into her aura and follow where it led.

Desperately, Willow continued chanting. She glanced back at her friends and wished that Buffy were here instead of Faith. Willow felt more secure casting spells with Buffy at her back -- the same way Buffy always fought better with Spike backing her.

Willow shook her head and forced herself to relax. A picture of Spike, his eyes closed in concentration flashed through her mind.

Then in a rush, Willow felt her body and spirit separating. She felt herself being directed, like the needle on a compass, spinning round and round. Suddenly Willow knew the location of the heavenly realm she sought.

Willow was elated and she changed her chant. She was about to open a portal.

The air seemed to shiver and glimmer, as waves began to appear and reality shifted. Brilliant light emerged -- blinding light that made tears stream down Willow's cheeks. A rush of wind filled the room, swirling madly through the library and howling along the empty shelves. Willow issued her carefully worded invitation into the void, shouting to be heard over the shrieking wind.

"We beseech thee,
Oh glorious
Angel of Light
Come forth and
know our hearts.
Know our desires.
We seek only good.
We seek only knowledge."

Instantly, two brilliant red lights appeared in the vortex. A man-like shape began to form around them. The figure solidified rapidly and the blazing eyes dimmed as it stepped out of the portal and into their dimension.

White light backlit the body, shadowing the figure's front, concealing details within the brilliance and forming a shimmering halo around its entire body. The figure moved a step closer to Willow, a step away from the light. A crown of white blazed atop its head and Willow squinted, looking for its wings. Then it leaned down and spoke.

"'Lo, Red."

Willow felt her mouth drop open at the familiar voice.

"'You're sure a sight for sore eyes," Spike said as he looked down at her. "But best shut you're gob and shut down that portal." Spike turned back and looked into the vortex. "Trust me, you don't want what's in there gettin' in here." Even as he spoke, Willow saw two more pair of red lights. Two more creatures were beginning to take shape.

With a wave of her hand and word of command the doorway between the dimensions slammed shut. The creatures were locked out and Spike was locked in the now painfully silent library.

Spike stood -- as only Spike could -- the center of attention, nearly naked, and completely at ease with the situation. Not that he had anything to be embarrassed about, Willow thought as she felt her cheeks heating up at the sight of him. He was clad only in a tiny piece of gray cloth knotted around his hips like Polynesian men wore, only much, much shorter.

Lean, hard, pale, long, glorious, graceful, sculpted, were just some of the adjectives that popped into her mind as she peeped at his body.

Milky skin stretched tightly over a perfectly designed frame of bone, sinew, and rounded muscles. She let her eyes skim briefly over the width of his shoulders, the well-muscled arms, and the flat stomach -- she'd seen him shirtless before. Her eyes lingered on the small of his back, the dimples above the smooth curves of his buttocks where they were revealed above the low-slung cloth. One of his powerful, lightly furred thighs was bared completely to her view. She'd expected his legs to be thinner, but he had nicely curved calves and even his feet were perfect.

Spike was beautiful and he knew it.

"Well, I guess now we all know what B. saw in you," Faith said as she approached the nearly naked vampire and began to circle him like the sexual predator she was. "You're ... put together ... nicely," she said when she stopped in front of him. Her eyes traveled up and then down, from his throat, to his shoulders, to his chest, to his abs, to his --

"I think we've seen more than enough," Robin said as he grabbed the raincoat out of Andrew's hands and tossed it to Spike. "Cover up."

Spike had remained still under Faith's inspection, only his eyes following her. He caught the coat and smirked at Faith as he shrugged into it.

"So ... missed my sparkling self, did ya?" Spike asked, puffing his chest out as he looked around.

"Not exactly," Robin answered for all of them.

"Called me back from great beyond, didn't ya?" Spike's dark, somewhat bushy brows drew together over his beak of a nose.

"We were hoping for someone else," Giles said as he sank down into a chair and began to rub his temples.

"That right?" Spike asked, sounding vaguely affronted.

"An angel," Dawn offered as she took a step forward.

"Angel? Don't tell me the great poof caught a stake in his great manly, meaty chest. He --"

"Not Angel, an angel."

"Angel? As in wings, halos, an what not?" Dawn nodded and Spike let out a shout of laughter. "No wonder you lot look like some bloke whizzed in your Wheaties. You expected the archangel Michael and you got me instead? Serves ya bloody right, I say."

Then Spike stopped talking and gave Dawn a good look over, as if he'd really just noticed the changes in her. He looked her up and down, inspecting her in a curious, yet completely platonic manner. He smiled at her from under his brows. "Oi, Bit," he said with amazement in his voice. "You've grown into a long, tall, lovely drink o' water."

Dawn started blinking rapidly. She made a move toward Spike, as if to touch him, but Giles voice stopped her.

"What went wrong, Willow?" the watcher asked. "How did we end up with Spike?"

Willow was still sitting on the floor. At Giles' words, she flinched. "I'm not sure. I tried to think only about the box and the books it holds -- to follow the magic back to the correct dimension. I was so certain that I had the right one." She frowned in puzzlement, trying to remember her exact thoughts.

And then she knew what had gone wrong.

"I ... I screwed it up," Willow admitted. She took a deep breath and went on, "I tried to tell you earlier that I was having a hard time keeping my concentration. During the casting and even before that, when I was writing the spell out, my mind kept drifting. I should have been concentrating on the angel on the box and instead," she looked up at Spike. "Instead, I kept thinking about you."

Spike tilted his head at her. "Went all sixes and sevens on ya' did it then, Red?" he asked sympathetically.

She nodded. "I guess instead of opening up a heavenly portal, I opened up ... wherever you were."

Once again all heads turned toward Spike. "It was hell," he said softly with a shudder too real to be anything other than the truth. "Pure, bloody, never-ending hell. Where else would you expect someone like me to be sent?" he asked.

"That's so unfair," Willow said with a frown. Spike extended a hand in invitation. Willow took hold of his cold flesh and, as he pulled her to her feet, her sense of outrage flared. "You gave your life ... err ... un-life for to save the world. You should have gone somewhere much nicer."

"Thanks, luv," Spike said sincerely. "For the sympathy and for buggering up your spell by thinking of me."

Willow looked up into his shining blue eyes and felt good, really good. She'd messed things up, certainly, but maybe it had been meant to be. Maybe it went a little way toward making up for some of the things she'd done in the past.

"Welcome back, Spike," Willow said as she hugged him tightly. "We've all missed you."