The funny thing about knowing that monsters exist was how irrevocably it shaped the universe. This knowledge couldn’t be unlearned. There was no going back, even if the Slayer was dead.
Or, in this case, undead.
The calendar kept creeping closer to October 31, and Willow found that with each passing day, she became more anxious. She hadn’t felt like this before, after she and Xander had lost Jesse—a guy who had been in their lives much longer, but somehow not nearly as important. Losing Buffy had been a horse of a different color. It hurt more, and the hurt didn’t really go away.
Likely because Willow knew that Buffy was still out there somewhere. Dead to the world but not to her friends—those she’d left behind.
Those who had taken up her mantle for her.
Giles had assured her that this Halloween was likely to follow normal protocol, but the days leading up to it had proven to be a nightmare, as though all the vamps and demons in the area needed to get their pent-up evil out before taking a day off. She and Xander had taken to meeting Angel at various graveyards for evening patrols—something that Angel had only recently stopped protesting. Whether they had proven their usefulness or the vampire had just given up trying to talk them out of it, Willow didn’t know, but the past few days had gone without the customary, “You don’t belong out here,” speech that she was sure she could recite verbatim.
Which was nice. It meant Angel understood that they weren’t going to be dissuaded no matter what he said.
In fact, Angel was waiting for them at the entrance to Restfield that night, his face contorted into the perma-frown Willow had long since gotten used to.
“Stay close,” he said by means of greeting, then turned on his heels and strode into the cemetery.
“I think he’s warming up to us,” Xander said. “Maybe next month, we’ll get an actual hello.”
Willow tried for a smile, but her heart wasn’t in it. Next month was just a few days away, and then it would have been more than a year since she’d last seen her other best friend.
What was Buffy doing now? Was she okay? Was she happy? Did she miss them at all?
“What are we looking for tonight?” she asked Angel, jogging a bit to catch his stride. “Or is it the same old?”
“One of my contacts said something about a family of Fyarl demons,” the vampire replied, “which can’t be good, because, unpleasant as they are, they usually are just the muscle.”
“Anything we should know about them?”
“Yeah. Let me handle it.”
Willow turned to Xander and they rolled their eyes at the same time.
“I heard that,” Angel said without looking at them. “Just trust me on this. They’re dumb, but they’ll snap your necks if you get too close. I—”
He broke off without warning, coming to a sudden halt. Had Willow not been paying attention, she would have crashed into his back.
“Hey!” Xander drew up beside her. “What gives, Walkus Interruptus?”
Angel held up a hand and tilted his head as though straining to hear something.
Then he took off at a sprint.
“We really need to work on his people skills,” Xander muttered.
“Come on!” Willow snapped, and broke off to follow.
Angel was not the easiest guy in the world to tail, particularly when he was in a mood to whip out the vamp abilities. But by the time Willow lost him, the night cut her a break, because she could hear it, too. Unmistakable sounds of a fight, punctuated with hard blows and grunts.
There was something familiar about the cadence. Something that made her heart leap.
No. No, it couldn’t be.
“Will!” Xander yelled from behind her, panting. “What is up with all the running?”
She didn’t stop, though. Her legs pumped and her chest ached, but she knew. She knew.
At last, she rounded a corner in the cemetery, and saw them.
Oh my god.
They were back to back, each staring down one of the ugliest—and largest—demons Willow had ever seen. Like the beast from the Disney movie, if the beast had beenbald and bony and had a problem with mucus. Buffy had something silvery clutched in one fist; Spike was unarmed but also unconcerned. He said something to her over his shoulder, and she broke into a hard laugh before taking a swipe at the demon nearest her.
Willow blinked, then nearly fell over when Xander crashed into her back. She would have hit the ground if Angel hadn’t caught her.
She hadn’t even noticed him standing there.
“God,” Xander breathed. “Is that… It can’t be…”
Buffy planted the silver thing into the nearest demon’s chest, abruptly dropped to the ground, rolled between Spike’s legs, then sprang up in a mad flurry of movement, her fist connecting with the other beastie’s jaw. In the same beat, as though it were rehearsed, Spike whirled around and kicked the end of the silver weapon until it was so thoroughly buried in the demon’s chest that the end was no longer visible. He then ripped it free and tossed it over his shoulder to Buffy, who dispatched the other one in similar fashion.
“Oh my god,” Xander said again.
Yeah. She agreed, but she couldn’t find the words.
They were perfect together.
Panting, Buffy leaned over and jerked the silver instrument free from the dead demon, wrinkled her nose, and handed the weapon to Spike. “I believe this is yours.”
He snorted and rolled his eyes. “Honestly, love, it’s just a little snot.”
“I did my good deed for the night. This is yours.” She leaned over and kissed the scowl off his face, then whispered something that would likely have Willow’s virgin ears burning, judging by the way Spike’s eyes lit up.
The display of affection seemed to knock Angel out of his stupor. He cleared his throat, and the lovers turned in a way that made Willow realize they’d known they had an audience.
Of course they’d known. They were vampires.
“’Ello, Angel!” Spike said brightly, throwing his arm around Buffy and starting toward them. “Wondered if you were gonna just bloody stand there or join in the fun.”
“You looked like you had it covered,” Angel replied. “And what are you doing here?”
“Gee. Hello to you too.” Buffy shook her head, then shifted her gaze to Willow. The smile on her face dimmed a bit, which would have hurt Willow’s feelings had she not seen the uncertainty in her friend’s eyes.
Buffy never had been good at masking her emotions.
“Hey guys,” she said, her voice a pitch higher than usual. “Long time.”
Words stuck in Willow’s throat with no viable exit strategy.
Xander had no such trouble.
“Buff…” He all but stumbled in his haste to get to her, and had her wrapped in a bear hug that would have crushed a normal girl the next moment.
Buffy’s feet left the ground and her eyes went wide.
Willow had forgotten how short she was.
“Xan, I love you, but unhand me before I show you how strong I am now.”
“Oh, right.” He set her back down, grinning sheepishly. “I…ahh…forgot.” He tossed Spike a somewhat apprehensive look. “Umm, Angel told us about the…whatever thing. You’re not gonna rip my throat out for hugging her, are you?”
Spike arched an eyebrow.
Xander took a step back.
Buffy rolled her eyes. “No, he’s not. He knew before we came here that I might be liberal with the giving of hugs.”
“Why are you here?” Angel demanded. “Buffy, do you have any idea what kind of—”
“Yes. Of course I do. This isn’t a decision we made lightly.”
“If the Council—”
“The Council, last I checked, thinks I’m dust. Anyone here gonna blab?”
Willow shook her head, her voice still trapped stubbornly in her throat.
“Been meanin’ to ask you, mate,” Spike said, his eyes still on Angel. “How the bloody hell did you manage to convince a slayer and her watcher that a heap of sawdust was yours truly? I never thought that would stick.”
“Well, it won’t if they get wind you’re here.”
“That’s what you did?” Xander looked awed. “Good thinking, man.”
Angel shot him a narrowed look. “We didn’t have a lot of time to plan and we didn’t know if it’d work. Faith got to us well before the tracer in the blood should have expired, so it was a long shot.”
“A long shot that worked. Guess you can be a convincin’ actor when you want, eh, Peaches?”
Angel stiffened—the way he did when he was annoyed—but continued as though Spike hadn’t spoken. “If we’d had more time, we could’ve come up with a better plan, but we worked with what we had. I think Giles sold it—he was…ah, in a state after you left, which we think convinced Faith you were dust. It convinced her watcher did, at least, and that was that.”
“Faith?” Buffy asked. “Oh, the new slayer.”
“Not so new anymore,” Angel said.
“She snuff it?” Spike asked, his eyes lighting up. “Crash into the wrong bloke’s apartment? Been tryin’ not to ask—gotta low profile to keep and all—but—”
“No, she didn’t snuff it.” Angel wrinkled his nose in clear distaste. “I meant that she’s been at this for half a year, so she’s not exactly new anymore.” He paused. “And we don’t want to attract her attention to Sunnydale. Giles is still on probation and he had to fight to stay here. There were hearings and everything, and the only reason he’s not back in England is that this hellmouth is still active, but the Council would just love a reason to fire him completely. So I ask again, what the hell do you think you’re doing here?”
Buffy looked somewhat stricken. “I…I didn’t know any of that.”
“Why would you?” Angel replied. “You haven’t exactly picked up a phone.”
“Giles yelled at me when I called!”
“He was being evaluated at the time. What did you expect?”
“Again, I didn’t know—”
A low growl tickled the air. “We fixed it up already,” Spike all but snarled, drawing Buffy closer to him. “So lay off. The lady missed her friends and her mum. What’s life without a little risk?”
“Sensible,” Angel replied.
“So you’re gonna whine about the Slayer not ringing you on the regular but lecture us about showing up at the same time. We cleared it with the old man, so you can bloody stuff it.”
“You did?” Willow asked, her voice hoarse. “Giles knew you were coming?”
Buffy had the decency to look sheepish, though still had yet to meet Willow’s eyes, gazing instead at the ground. “I called Mom last week. I had to. I just…I couldn’t take it anymore. And he was there.” She frowned as though realizing something. “For some reason. He never told me. But we set it up then.”
“A-and he didn’t tell us?” The past few months, Willow had come to rely on Giles more than she did her own family. That he could keep something so big from her…well, it hurt.
“He wanted to make sure I could see Mom,” Buffy said quickly. “Before…before anyone else saw us and possibly let slip to the Council that we were here.”
“We wouldn’t do that!”
Angel had nothing to add but a scowl. Evidently, he hadn’t been in the know, either, which made Willow feel marginally better. Marginally.
She was so going to have words with Giles.
“You’ve already been to see Joyce?” Xander asked. “Oh man. Don’t tell me—”
“That was our first stop,” Buffy said, a soft smile on her face. “It was…there were tears. And some screaming. And she threatened to pull an axe on Spike. Again.”
“My kind of lady,” Angel muttered.
“But we’re… I think we’re good. I needed to see her. And you guys.” At last, Buffy turned to look at Willow directly, a world of uncertainty in her eyes. “I know…this is… I know it has to be weird. Seeing…well, us. But is it too late to say I’m sorry?”
Willow wouldn’t have thought it would have been simple—not after the past year—but that question was all it took. At once, twelve months of anger and worry blossomed into something stronger—cementing into the knowledge that didn’t want to be mad at her friend anymore. She just wanted to be happy that Buffy was back.
Before her mind could catch up, Willow had her friend in her arms, her eyes stinging. “Welcome home.”
Whatever tension Buffy had been holding onto seemed to dissolve, and then Willow found herself crushed against a very emotional vampire.
“If the lot of you don’t mind,” Spike said loudly, “we think we might stay here a bit. Provided you can keep your mouths shut, of course. Turns out there’s better hunting on a hellmouth and killing things is a hobby of ours.”
Buffy stifled a laugh and hugged Willow tighter, but didn’t say anything.
Spike met Willow’s gaze. It was a strange experience, seeing a guy she’d only before associated with attempted murder look at her—or rather, Buffy—with such love. The part of Willow that had hated him, and hated him still, dulled, but only just. This was still the guy who had taken her friend away. No amount of time, especially six months, would make that okay.
But she saw how much he loved Buffy and that made her heart soften just a teeny bit.
“And the Slayer seems partial to the likes of you,” he said, smiling softly. “Couldn’t bloody shut up on the drive over.”
Buffy laughed. “Like you minded.”
Still holding Willow’s gaze, Spike nodded vigorously and mouthed, “I minded.”
Okay, maybe more than a teeny bit.
After what seemed like forever, Buffy loosened her grip and stepped back, her eyes, so familiar, shining with tears. “You’re okay with this, right?” she asked, then looked to Xander. “Both of you?”
“Of course!” Xander said brightly. “Place hasn’t been the same without the Buffster. I’m all about getting back to regularly scheduled slayage. Plus, something tells me he’s”—he pointed at Spike—“gonna be more entertaining than Dead Boy.”
“Got that right,” Spike muttered.
Angel sighed. “I’m standing right here.”
Buffy looked confused. “Wow, Xan. I expected the first hour with you to be full lecture.”
Xander shrugged. “Six months ago? Yeah, totally. But that was then and I’ve had time to adjust.”
Buffy arched a skeptical eyebrow.
“And what good would arguing do, I ask?” Xander added. “Really?”
“I’m just glad to see you here. However long you can stay.”
Buffy studied him a moment later, offering a watery smile. “I hope it’s a long time.”
“Yeah,” Spike said, coming up behind her and wrapping an arm around her waist. “But loath as I am to admit it, grandpap made a good point.”
Angel sighed and tipped his head to the sky. “I think I liked it better when you hated me.”
“I do. I’m just hating you a different way now.” Spike grinned, brushed a kiss to Buffy’s temple, then continued, “The Council comes calling and we’re outta here in a blink. No matter what Buffy says. I’ll tie her up if I have to.” He paused, brightened. “Might do that anyway, come to—”
“Then we’ll just have to keep it quiet,” Xander agreed loudly, his cheeks turning red. “We can do that.” He paused, then turned to Willow. “We can do that, right?”
She nodded, her heart skipping a beat—which was an odd thing to be aware of in the presence of three vampires. “I might know a spell,” she said. “Some kind of…disguise spell. It’s a little advanced, but with Ms. Calendar’s help—”
“Wait. Back up. A spell?” Buffy’s eyes widened. “Like…a witchy spell?”
Willow grinned, her cheeks burning hotter. “Yeah.”
“That you know.”
“It’s a hobby.”
“A hobby that’s made you Willow the Witch?” Buffy looked somewhat awed. “Wicked.”
“Not wicked,” Xander said quickly. “We have a strict no-wicked rule in place. Willow is not allowed to go evil.”
“Yeah,” Buffy replied. “That’s totally my thing, anyway.”
Willow grinned wider, feeling completely at peace for the first time in a long time.
There was so much to share. So much catching up to do.
She couldn’t wait to get started.
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