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Though I Walk Through the Valley... by randi
Chapter 3
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Though I Walk Through the Valley…
Chapter Three

Since they were gearing up for the end of the world – again – normally, Xander would have spent nearly all of his non-working time at Casa Summers.  That’s just the way it was.  Even if he didn’t do a whole lot of the research thing, he was really big on moral support and the provision of necessary food and drink, especially during apocalypse season.
Since Spike dusted, however, and Buffy had slapped him hard enough to make him wonder if he was going to lose some teeth, he hadn’t been quite sure of his welcome.  Dawnie hadn’t been particularly warm, either, and the past few mornings, the ride to school had taken place in a stony silence that made his insides try to shrink away from his outsides.
So that was why he was practicing stealth, sneaking in the kitchen door while the Potentials were outside.  He knew Willow had been expecting to get back a couple nights ago, and he’d been kind of waiting on her to let him know that Buffy wouldn’t cut him down on sight if he showed his face.  But Will hadn’t called.  Hence the risking of life and limb.
And what was going on with Faith – or someone who looked enough like her to make scary memories skitter down his spine – leading the Potentials in their exercises?  Where was Buffy?
He got his answer when he paused in the doorway to the dining room.   His best friends were doing the research thing, surrounded by musty old books that immediately pulled him back in time, back to a thousand similar sessions in the high school library, or at the shop.  Traditional research notepads were filled with words, in both Willow’s neat script and Buffy’s more rounded hand. 
That surprised him as much as anything else – that Buffy was actually actively reading and taking notes, rather than just flipping aimlessly through books and whining that she wanted to kill something.  Okay, so this thing with the First is serious, he thought, sagging against the doorframe a little.  I knew that.  But…wow.  This really brings it all home.
“Hey,” he said in a tone as non-intrusive as he could manage.
They looked up as he spoke, both sets of eyes more than a little bleary.
“Hey, Xan,” Willow said with a weary smile.  “How are you?”
“I’m good,” he replied, but he was looking at Buffy, who had registered his presence and then returned immediately to her book.  “How was LA?”
“Well, you know.  Same as always, except for Angelus running around.  But hey!  Brought back Faith to help.  Another Slayer is always of the good.”
He nodded, because he just didn’t figure it was worth it at this point to say his favorite words.  “I told you so” wasn’t going to go over big with Buffy, no matter which vampire it was applied to.  “Yeah, so I saw.”  He slid into a chair across from Buffy, trying to get her attention again.  “So... whatcha workin’ on?  More stuff on the First?”
He thought it was a safe bet that they were, and he only said it to start the conversation, but unexpectedly, Willow shook her head.  “No, this is...” Then she stopped, eyes going wide, and looked at Buffy as if for guidance.  “Uh...”
He looked between them, one resolutely ignoring him, the other fumbling with an explanation she probably didn’t think she should be giving.  “This is...” he said leadingly, trying to coax some more words.
Willow squirmed.  “Buffy?”  When Buffy glanced up with a frown, she added helplessly, “It’s Xander…
“Fine.” With a sigh, Buffy met finally his gaze.  “I told Giles and now I’m going to tell you,” she said, and oh, man.  That was the look of death in her eyes; he’d seen it a lot the past couple of years.  “If you’re not going to help, you’ll have to leave.”
“Okay, Buff,” Xander agreed, resting both hands on the table.  He was half-expecting her to say that he needed to keep his hands in view at all times for some reason.  “I can be all helpful-guy.  Help doing what?”
“If you go ballistic, I’m going to throw you out to be Faith’s practice dummy,” she warned, and there wasn’t even a hint of humor in her gaze.  “Are we clear?”
He swallowed.  She was really determined about this, whatever it was.  “Uh... yeah.  Clear.”
“Willow and me... we’re trying to bring Spike back.”
Xander blinked.  Then he blinked some more, before cautiously opening his mouth to speak.  “Say again?”
Buffy was still studying him, her expression guarded.  “We’re looking for some way to bring Spike back.”
Slowly, he nodded.  “That’s what I thought you said.”  Tread very carefully, my friend, he told himself.  We are dealing with a Slayer that’s obviously lost her mind somehow.  “Can I ask why?”
She bristled and started to stand up.  “Xander, you are not going to sit there and judge...”
Willow’s gaze darted back and forth between them, and she was chewing her lip.  Her forehead was wrinkled in worry, and Xander knew that expression well; she was waiting for – and totally dreading – the argument she feared was coming.
Xander decided that neither of them needed that, so he quickly held up his hands.  “Whoa, there.  No judging!  No Judge Xander.  I just want to know why, is all.”
Buffy settled back into her chair, and overwhelmed didn’t even begin to describe how she looked.  “Because I…” she whispered, then broke off and started again, her voice stronger this time.  “Because... yes, he did a lot of really evil things, but he helped me, and it is so not right that he should have gone out that way, and be in… in Hell, not after he got his soul.”  She swallowed and turned away, fiddling with her pen.  “It’s just not right.”
That’s when the clue hammer hit, long after it probably should have.  Buffy cared about the bleached one.  No, scratch that, he thought, the words turning over slowly in his head.  Buffy really cares about the bleached one.  She cares that he’s dead.  She’s hurtthat he’s dead.
“No, it’s not right,” he said, and his lips quirked a little when Buffy just gaped at him in amazement.  “Yeah, all kinds of weird, isn’t it?” he asked, giving her a lopsided grin.  “Believe me, I was right there where you are.”
“But...” Buffy swallowed.  “You said...”
Xander ducked his head, glancing down at his hands on the table.  “Yeah, I know what I said.   But Buffy... you know how my mouth runs away with me.  I was just... I kinda thought he would never die.” He snuck a peek at her.  “So, like I said, I was where you are, when I realized he was dust.”
Buffy’s lip trembled a little at that.
Seeing it, he hurried on.  “So, of course, something came out that I really should have censored.  I’m sorry.” And those words came out easier than he ever thought they would.
She swallowed, and reached over to grasp his hand.  “I’m sorry, too,” she whispered.  “I was really upset, but I shouldn’t have hit you.”
“Forgiven and forgotten, so hey, let’s move on.”  He smiled warmly, so glad that his friend didn’t seem to hate him that it was easy to forgive her.
“So you’re not wigging out,” Buffy said, and one corner of her mouth twisted up in what she probably meant as a smile.  “I thought there would be wigging out.  Didn’t you, Will?”
Willow leaned forward, her face relaxing into her happiest grin.  “Oh, yeah.  Major wig-fest from the Xan-man.”  She punched him lightly on the arm.  “Go you for confounding our expectations.”
“That’s me, always confounding.”  For the first time since the night Spike had dusted, Xander completely relaxed.  He’d missed this.  “So… you want me to join in on the book-fest?”
They blinked at him in shock.  Willow’s smile faded and Buffy’s mouth fell open, and nope, he hadn’t lost his touch.
“After all,” he continued, as if they weren’t gaping at him, “three sets of eyes are better than two, right?”  He put on his most innocent grin.
“Well, Dawnie helped us last night,” Willow offered, her tone preoccupied.
Finally, Buffy was able to speak.  “Does this mean that you’ll really help?” she asked, and it hurt him to see the way she was trying so very hard to not let there be too much hope in her voice.  “I mean, actually help, not be reading comics behind the book?”
Clearly, it was time to be Serious.  “Buffy... Okay, I’m sure Giles said this, but honestly, I don’t see how it can be possible to bring back a vamp that’s been dusted.”  Her face started to close off, but before she could jump in and say anything, he took a deep breath and plunged on.  “But… all right.  If you think it’s for the best that Captain Peroxide comes back from his dusty end, then yeah.  I’ll help with the research.  As much as I can, anyway,” he qualified.  “Until things really start to hit the fan, I’ve got to make sure I still have a job and everything.”
“Deal,” Buffy replied, and when she smiled, somehow, it wasn’t as bright as he remembered.  And then Xander realized in a rush just how haggard his friend looked.  There were huge circles under her red-rimmed eyes, and lines in her face that he’d never noticed forming.
“So,” he said, trying to pull his attention back from the way that she seemed to have aged so much in the short span of time he’d been waiting for her to cool down.  “What do you want me to look at?”
“Here,” Willow said, passing him a pen and a book.  “We’ve still got lots of books to go through.  Wesley was pretty generous.”
He accepted the book without comment and opened it.  Then he looked up at Willow with eyebrows raised.  “One in English, please.  No habla the Greek.”
Without looking up from her own, she said, “It’s upside down, you goof.”
He paused, then turned the book right side up.  “Oh.  Right.  I knew that.”
Buffy actually almost laughed as she returned to her book.  Xander glanced up, catching Willow’s eye, and they shared a smile.
They’d been at the books all day, except for when she joined Faith on patrol, and now, it was late.  Straightening, Buffy heard her spine pop, and she grimaced before starting to gingerly move her arms and legs.  Every joint seemed to want to crack.  Okay, scratch that, she thought, rotating her stiffened shoulders.  It’s very late.
Her head throbbed.  She loosened her ponytail and ran her fingers through her hair, and wondered if it would be worth it to brew another pot of coffee, or go out and get some fresh air, if there was anything that would make her sluggish brain wake up and start working again.  Her eyes felt scratchy and refused to focus.  When she closed them, words seemed to scroll up the insides of her eyelids.
The book that Dawn had been reading was still at her place at the table, propped open with a pencil, scraps of paper with hastily scribbled notes sticking out of various pages.  But at least she’d managed to get Dawn to go to bed… earlier.  A few hours ago, maybe?  I hope she did her homework… She didn’t want to have to worry about her sister’s grades on top of everything else.
And wouldn’t Giles have a fit if he saw the pencil? Quickly, she pushed that thought away; she didn’t want to think about her Watcher either, or why he wasn’t here.
Xander was slumped over, and had been for nearly an hour now, his head pillowed on the book he’d been studying.  She was gratified to see that there really wasn’t a comic book hidden within the pages.  I guess he really was serious, she thought, and her lips twitched upward.
Willow had decided that it might be for the best if someone checked references and such online, but now she was leaning forward in her chair to the point where her nose was practically touching her laptop.  She looked tired, as tired as Buffy felt.  Her eyes were bloodshot and kept closing slowly, staying closed for longer each time before fluttering back open.
“Willow?” she called softly.  “Are you all right?”
“Huh?” Willow looked up from her computer, blinking, and slowly managed to process what Buffy had said.  “Yeah.  I think.”  She picked up the cup that Xander had put in front of her two hours ago, and grimaced at the cold coffee sludge in the bottom.  “Maybe?”
Buffy turned her attention away from her friend and surveyed the dining room.  Books, open and closed, were piled haphazardly here and there, depending on their useful/potentially useful/not useful at all status.  They hadn’t managed to make as much headway as she had hoped.
Okay, she amended, we haven’t managed to find anything.  Absolutely nothingin the last two days.  Her chest tightened in a way that had become all-too-familiar over the past few days.  She was so tired that she wasn’t sure that she could stop the tears this time.  The knowledge that she loved Spike – wholly and totally loved him – had not made the not having him there any easier.  In fact, it was the not having him there that had finally made her recognize what she felt, and wasn’t that horrible?  That if he hadn’t died, she never would have realized she loved him?
And isn’t that exactly what happened in that other Buffy’s world? she thought, staring at the short stack of books in which they had discovered passages that had not been rendered into English.  If he was still alive…here… wouldn’t I be telling myself that we were just friends?  God, I’m so stupid.  She took a breath, trying not to let it hitch, and let it out slowly.
She’d been so hopeful this afternoon when Xander had offered to help.  For a short while, it had been almost like it used to be, before last year.  But then to find nothing… She hunched over in her chair, head bowed until it nearly touched the table.
“Buffy?  Are you all right?” When Buffy glanced over at Willow, her friend was rubbing her eyes, still holding the coffee cup in her other hand.
“Just stretching my back,” she replied, and flexed her shoulders again for good measure.
“Okay,” Willow said, and Buffy thought that would be the end of it.  But then she continued, “Just ‘cause, y’know, from over here, that looks like a… a position of despair.”
“Position of despair?” Buffy turned her head just enough to look at Willow once more.  “Like, woe is me and all that?”
Willow nodded, looked into her coffee cup again and made the same eeww face she’d made only a few minutes earlier.
That, as much as her own fatigue, made Buffy decide that it was probably a good idea to stop for the night.  She stood, managing not to cause any piles of books to topple.  Willow blinked blearily at her.
“It’s late,” she observed.  “Maybe we should stop for tonight and go to bed.  I mean, there’s no use to keep working if we miss something because we’re so tired.”
“I’m all for that,” Willow said, with exhausted eagerness.  “Yeah, I think I’ve reached caffeine overload, because the last three cups I had don’t seem to have had any effect.”  She closed or saved whatever she was doing on her laptop, then pressed it closed.  “Do you know how many rituals vampires have?”
For a second, Buffy couldn’t decide if that was a rhetorical question or not.  “Uh, no?”
“Lots,” Willow said, standing and stretching in turn.  “Or at least, that’s what I’m finding… but nothing that is very helpful.  The vamps seem to think that bringing another vampire back from dust is impossible, and a lot of vamps have died trying.”
And part of me should be glad, Buffy thought bitterly, because otherwise I’d be neck-deep in vampires that were dusted and brought back  But right now, I’m thinking that I need a little something to hope for.  She opened her mouth, about to ask her to explain everything she’d found, and sighed instead.  “Go to bed for now, Will,” she said, the weight of her dream from last night almost too heavy to bear.  Maybe it doesn’t matter, she thought, and somehow managed to hold back the tears.  Maybe… maybe it’s just fatethat he…  She cut off that train of thought quickly. “You really look like you could use the sleep.  We’ll… we’ll look some more tomorrow, okay?”
Willow nodded, as if she hadn’t expected anything else.  “Okay.  I’ve kind of forgotten what my bed looks like.  See you tomorrow.”  She turned toward the stairs.
Buffy watched her go.  “Thanks, Will,” she blurted, feeling a sudden urgent need to say it.  “I mean… I know I’ve been all bitchy-Buffy for… well, it seems like forever.  But I’m really glad you’re helping.”
Willow gave her a faint smile in return.  “Say it again when I’m more awake,” she replied, just a hint of teasing in her tone.  “I’ll be able to appreciate it better then.  Good night, Buffy.”  She trudged up the stairs to her room.
Buffy watched Willow go, then glanced at Xander, who hadn’t moved.  The Potentials had taken a toll on the available floor space, but she was able to find an extra blanket to drape over him.
But for some reason, she just couldn’t bring her self to leave the dining room.  The books called to her in a way they never really had before, as if saying we have the answers you want in her ears.  Tired as she was, she still slipped back into her chair and opened her book once more.  Just a few more minutes, she thought, then I’ll go to bed.
Getting Spike back was more important than laying in bed waiting for sleep to come when it wouldn’t.
Giles shuffled his feet outside of Robin Wood’s door.  It’s been several days since he dusted Spike, he thought.  In that time, Principal Wood has not yet gone back to the high school and that’s… not a little worrying.
His nervous little dance outside the principal’s door was in no small part due to his Slayer’s clearly distraught state on returning to the house with Spike’s ashes.  She had been upset enough to have done something… well, quite similar to what Faith had done, he supposed.  Though I rather hope she had more control over herself than Faith had…
Her display of the morning before last had him wondering, though, if that were really the case.
Dreading the possibilities that might be hiding behind the door, he rapped sharply on it.  There was no response.  Then, after waiting long past what would be considered reasonable, he knocked again.  Still nothing.
This does not bode well, Giles thought, his trepidation growing.  The door was locked when he tried it, so he started searching for another way in.
Luckily, the door into the garage was unlocked, so he stepped in, letting it close behind him.  Some late afternoon sun crept in through the cracks in the door, enough to let him pick his way through to the door into the house.  He was nearly there when he realized that the walls had an unusual décor.
“Dear Lord,” he muttered, and couldn’t stop himself from pivoting around.  All of the walls were completely covered with crosses.  This was something he had not expected.  Even taking into account the fact that Spike had killed Nikki Wood and Robin’s own knowledge of the supernatural, having been raised by Crowley, this had more of an air of obsession than protection.
The lock on the door to the house was broken, and a chair was wedged ineffectually underneath the knob.  It made a great shriek of protest when Giles forced it hard, scraping across the linoleum, but it did open enough to let him squeeze inside.  He turned to push it closed again.
“You know, if someone doesn’t open the door, it’s not polite to barge right in anyway.”
The deep voice behind him made Giles jump and spin around again.  The principal was leaning against the frame of the opening from the kitchen into the rest of the house, arms crossed.
He looked rather like he’d been run over by a lorry; the flesh around his eyes was swollen and discolored, skin split over his eyebrow, lips puffy and cracked   Despite his belligerent posture, Giles could see that he carried himself gingerly, as if his ribs had been cracked.  Giles gaped at him.  “Good God, man, what happened to you?”
Robin scowled, then winced when the expression pulled at his various bruises.  “Your Slayer happened,” he replied sharply.
It was on the tip of his tongue to retort that Buffy would do no such thing… but the words died silently when he realized she would.  She’d been capable of this and more last year, from everything that Willow had told him, from what he’d seen himself.
It occurred to him then that this was what he’d come here to discover, on being told that Robin had not been seen at the school in nearly a week.  Relief that she hadn’t crossed that line warred with anger that she had clearly used her full Slayer strength against a human.
The principal was still watching him, dark eyes steady.  “No, she didn’t kill me,” he said, just a hint of dry humor in his tone.  “She could have, though.”  He unfolded himself with some effort and shuffled out of the kitchen to carefully settle onto one of the dining room chairs.  “I suppose I should be grateful that she didn’t break any bones.”
“I’m sorry,” Giles offered quietly.  “There was no call for this at all…”
“You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” Robin said, shifting a little.  “If anyone does, it’d be her.”
“Yes, you’re quite right.”  Giles sat down opposite.  “I do apologize, nonetheless.  I had hoped that Buffy would be a bit more… duty-bound, perhaps, when it came clear that Spike was still influenced by the trigger.  I told her that he was dangerous, and that he always had been.  She knew as well as you… well, nearly as well… what he had done.  But you had grown up with that knowledge...”
“Actually,” Robin interrupted softly, “no, I hadn’t.”
He gave the other man a sharp look.  “You hadn’t?”
Robin shook his head.  “No. I had seen my mother fighting earlier that night, before she took me to Crowley’s, and I thought I’d recognize the vamp again, but I wasn’t sure that it was Spike who had killed her until she told me.”
Giles frowned deeply.  “Buffy told you?” he asked, hoping for some clarification.  “I can’t imagine…”
“No, it wasn’t Buffy.”  He scratched lightly at a scab on his knuckle.  “I know it wasn’t my mother, either, but it looked like her.”
“Your mother?”  Realization struck instantly, and he looked at Robin, his stomach sinking.  “No.  The First.”
Robin nodded.  “The First.  That’s how I found out for sure that Spike had been the one to kill my mother.”
Reeling mentally, Giles sank back in his seat, reaching up to take off his glasses and surprised to find he wasn’t wearing them.  “By killing Spike… we were doing what the First wanted.”  He covered his eyes with his hand.  “Good Lord.”
Again, the principal nodded.  “That thought occurred to me as well.  I had a lot of time to do some thinking while I had both eyes nearly swollen closed.  You and I did just what it wanted us to do.”  His teeth flashed white in what might have been a grin had it not been so pain-filled.  “So, what do you think?  Was it just trying to sow dissention in the ranks?  Or, do you think that even despite him being a vampire, the First thought Spike could do something to hurt it, or its plans?” 
“I have no idea,” Giles replied.  He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.  He could feel a headache coming on.  “Whichever was its real intent, it has at least succeeded in dividing us.  That must be rectified immediately.”  With a decisive nod, he stood and headed for the door by which he had entered.
“Giles.”  At the call of his name, he turned to see Robin levering himself up from his seat.  “Where are you going?”
“I must see Buffy.”  His mouth quirked in a humorless smile.  “And then, as I have recently been advised, I must do some ‘serious kissin’.”
Before Robin could say anything else, Giles let himself out.
It seemed that someone had been listening to him yesterday, because it really had started to hit the fan.  And that, Xander knew, did not bode well.
He had fallen asleep at Buffy’s dining room table, for which he was more than willing to blame the books.  I’m pretty sure Will can back me on that, too, he thought, ‘cause these are the boringestbooks I’ve ever looked at.
Buffy had nudged him awake with just enough time to make a flying trip back to his apartment and shower, but not enough time for more than that… especially since the shower had abruptly gone icy cold in the middle.  The girls staying there had looked equal parts sheepish and amused when he’d glared at them on his way back out the door.
Though, he considered, those snickers were probably because of that very unmanly scream…
But then came the part where someone was actually listening to Xander Harris, because when he got to work, more than half of his crew didn’t show, and as he was trying to decide what to have them do, the word had come down from on high: go home.
Okay, he thought, so it had been the boss on the phone saying there wasn’t any profit in paying half a crew for doing half a day’s work, but still.  Someone somewhere heard me.  And that’s… really pretty scary, now that I think about it…
So, there he was, back at the Summers’ house less than three hours after leaving… and stumbling over something that one of the Potentials had left laying in the middle of the floor.  So much for another stealthy entrance, he thought a little ruefully.
“Xan!” Willow had her laptop open on the table again, and had twisted around in her chair as if to see what the noise was.  “You’re back… wait.  Why are you back?” Her brow crinkled a little.  “I mean, not that I’m not glad to see you, but…”
He shrugged and slipped into the seat he’d used yesterday.  “The boss says we’re closed.  Everybody’s leaving town,” he continued, as Willow’s brow furrowed further.  “You know things are bad when even Sunnydale’s no-see-um-the-demons policy doesn’t quite cover it all up anymore.”  When she smiled at him, he grinned back.  Nope, still haven’t lost my touch.  “So here I am, footloose and fancy-free.”
“And ready to tackle the books again?” she asked.  He watched her smile widen, felt his own became fixed and unreal.
“Sure thing,” he replied weakly, and picked up the book he’d fallen asleep over.  “You’ll wake me up if I doze off, right?”
Willow just laughed and returned to her computer.
Surprisingly enough, he was still awake when Buffy joined them a few minutes later.  Her hair was still damp, as if she had just showered, and she still looked as exhausted as she had when she’d woken him up earlier.  Man, he thought, watching her as she settled back in her seat, did she even get any sleep at all?
Before he could steel himself into returning to research-mode again, the front door opened to admit Dawn.
“Dawn!”  Buffy stood up, already assembling her best big-sister-glower.  “What’s…”
“Before you say anything I’m going to regret,” Dawn interrupted, shrugging out from under the strap of her bag, “I just want you to know that school is definitely closed until apocalypse season is over.  Wood hasn’t been there in a week, and most of the teachers have left town.” Just then she spied Xander, trying to hide behind the tome of sleep-inducingness.  “And you – you couldn’t have hung around to give me a ride home?” she demanded.
He gave her an embarrassed grin.  “Sorry, Dawnie.  I didn’t know school was closed.”
Buffy rolled her eyes.  “The exercise is good for you,” she said, sitting back down.
“Schyeah.  Exercise just makes for cranky teenagers.”  Dawn flumped into the chair she’d been using the previous night.  Her book, place still marked by a pencil, cracked ominously as she opened it.  “I’ll bet now you wish you hadn’t made me done my homework last night.  Just think of all the books I could have gotten through…”
“Dawn, you were practically out in your chair,” her sister replied.  She was already scanning the pages in front of her, pencil poised over her notepad.
Silence descended on the dining room, broken only by the soft ‘tap tap tap’ of Willow working on her computer, and the occasional scratching of pencils on paper.  Through the kitchen windows, the faint sound of the Potentials training with Faith drifted in.
The sudden loud knock on the front door made them all jump.  Heart pounding, Xander muttered, “Talk about engrossed…”
“Tell me about it.”  Dawn had a hand pressed to her chest.
Frowning, Buffy stood.  “Well, normally the bad guys don’t knock on your door, so we’re probably safe.” She picked up the sword that was leaning against the wall.  “Let me just give ‘em a scare,” she said.
The research spell had been broken, and Xander craned his neck to see who was at the door.  And see how they react to Buffy swinging a sword under their nose…
Buffy’s back stiffened when she opened the door.  “Giles.”
Xander tilted his chair further back.  All he’d been able to get out of Willow was that Giles wouldn’t help them research.  But yes, that was the G-man, standing outside on the porch.
“Buffy, I’d like to talk to you,” he heard Giles say.
“Fine,” and ouch.  There was definite ice in Buffy’s voice.  “Talk.  When you’re done, you can leave again.”
“May I come inside, please?”  Giles seemed distinctly uncomfortable and fidgety, and Xander wondered why.
Buffy stood back, holding the door open, but said nothing.
Xander breathed a soft sigh of relief when Giles stepped over the threshold without bouncing off.  “Buffy, this is very important…”
“So is what we’re doing here, Giles,” Buffy retorted, closing the door.  “You know, that research you wouldn’t help us with to bring Spike back?”
“Buffy…” Giles sighed gustily.  “I didn’t come here to argue,” he said in a much quieter tone.  “I came to apologize.”
She paused as she was crossing the foyer back into the dining room and stared at him.  “What?”
Giles had already taken off his glasses and was cleaning the lenses against with his handkerchief.  “I have just come from Robin Wood’s house…”
“Oh, yeah?” Dawn cut in, anger vibrating in her voice.  Xander had never heard her sound that way.  “Traitors flocking together?”
“Dawn, please,” Giles said, exasperation coloring his tone now.  “Let me speak.  This is already difficult enough,” he muttered, tucking his handkerchief away.
“Would you like a shovel?” she asked, suddenly sugary sweet.
“Dawn.” Buffy said her name evenly, and Dawn subsided, a bit sullenly.
“I went to see what his condition was,” Giles went on.  “While we were speaking, he told me that he had been visited by the First, in the guise of his mother.  She was the Slayer that Spike killed in New York.”
The silence took on that could-hear-a-pin-drop quality that Xander had always hated about some silences.  “Yeah, okay,” he said, “but he already knew that, right?”
“No, Xander,” Giles replied, looking at Buffy as he spoke.  “He didn’t.  He says that the First confirmed that Spike was the vampire that killed his mother.”
Willow sagged a little.  “So the First was behind this all along.”
“Yes,” Giles said, nodding.  “I’m afraid so. It wanted Spike out of the way for some reason, and we helped it achieve that end.  Buffy, I am sorry.”
Slowly sinking into her seat, Buffy nodded.  Studying her, Xander noticed that her face seemed even more pinched than it had earlier.  “Willow,” she said, and her voice sounded strained.  “Where are those books that had the untranslated bits?”
Dawn and Willow exchanged a glance.  “They’re over there, Buffy,” Willow said, pointing.  “The smallest stack.”
“Great.  Giles, you can work on those.”  And she picked up her book again.
This time, the glance was a four-way exchange over Buffy’s head.  “Buffy…”
“Are you persisting in this?” Giles suddenly demanded.  “Vampires cannot come back!  I told you…”
“Giles,” Buffy said without lifting her gaze from her book, “if the First wanted Spike dead, there must be a reason for it.  We don’t know the reason, but if we can get Spike back, maybe we can find out what it is.  Even if we can’t find out the reason, having Spike back will mess up the First’s plans.” Then she met Giles’ eyes, as placid as could be.  “Right?”
Xander hadn’t known that Giles could turn so red.  “Quite so,” he managed.  “Excellent thinking, Buffy.”  Then, taking a deep breath, he picked up the first book from the pile Willow had indicated.
This? Xander thought, flicking his glance between Slayer and Watcher, is good, but at the same time, it is sonot good.
The uncomfortable quality to the silence disappeared only gradually, and it wasn’t until the sun was starting to fall westward that Xander thought they were even approaching the easy way the research sessions had always used to feel.  At least I don’t feel like I should be wearing bullet-proof armor anymore, he thought.
When Anya appeared with some bags from the grocery store, Dawn slipped away into the kitchen to organize dinner for the Potentials.  Even so, when the girls all trooped in from outside, the noise in the kitchen was overwhelming.  Thankfully, it didn’t last too long.
… if the desire or need is strong enough…
Xander sat straighter in his chair, frowning, and read the passage over again, because it was more than possible that he’d read it wrong.  No, that’s what it said.  He read the page yet again, and something in it got the wheels to turn.  Think, Xander, he told himself.  Think! 
Then, so fast that he felt there should have been a lightbulb over his head, the idea formed.  It might work.  He watched Buffy for a moment, remembering how she had been the night Spike had died.  Yep, I’ve got to show her, he thought.  This might be the only way.  “Buffy,” he called softly.
She looked up from her own research material, eyes red and bleary.  “Huh?”
“Look at this.”  He handed her his book. 
The tone of his voice made her straighten as well, and she took the book from him with a curious glance.  Suddenly, every eye at the table was on them.
She read the passage through once, then again, and the lines of sorrow etched into her face seemed to fade, enlivened by excitement.
“What is it?” Willow asked.
“If the desire or need is strong enough,” Buffy read, “then the supplicant may call upon Certain Powers to grant a boon.  It’s a ritual,” she said, looking up, her eyes full of wonder.  “A ritual to get the attention of these Powers…”
“And these Powers will simply grant you a boon?” Giles asked, somewhat skeptically.  “Favors such as this rarely come free, in my experience.”
Buffy read further.  “Okay, you’re right.  It also says it requires a willing sacrifice.”
“Okay,” Willow said, a little nervously, when Buffy said nothing more.  “That doesn’t sound so good.  Sacrifices are always of the iffy.”  After a moment of fiddling with her pencil – and, Xander thought fondly, wanting to grab the book – she added, “Does it say what the sacrifice has to be, besides willing?”
Buffy scanned the passage again.  “Nope, not that I can see.”
“It could be anything, then,” Dawn said.  She was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, her hands clenched around a dishtowel.
When Buffy looked up and Xander saw the hope and determination in her face, he knew what she was going to say before the words even fell from her lips.  That’s our Buffy, he thought with equal parts sadness and admiration.
“I’m willing to do it.”
“Absolutely not! I forbid it!”
The glare that Buffy gave Giles was absolutely glacial.  “Giles, you can’t really forbid me to do anything.  Will, there’s a list here of stuff for a potion… do we have any of this here and now?”  She passed the book to Willow.
With a practiced eye, Willow skimmed the passage.  “Oh, yeah, this stuff is easy to find.  Your mother had irises in her garden, and the rest of them are fairly common herbs… I’ve seen most of them in the kitchen cabinet.”
Buffy nodded.  “Then we can do this tonight.  Right?”
Willow looked up, eyes wide.  “Well… yeah, I guess… but, Buffy…”
“Tonight, Will.”  Her eyes were bright when she turned to Xander.  “Xan,” she said, and it sounded like she was about to cry.  “Thank you.”  She stretched out her hand across the table, and squeezed his hand until he thought she’d break it.  “Just… thank you.”
He just smiled, trying not to let her see how afraid he suddenly was, and held on tight.
“You guys ready?”  Buffy stood in the entry to the living room, Willow’s mortar and pestle in hand, Willow herself right behind her.  Dawn carried the box that held Spike’s ashes.  Just in case, she’d said, and tearfully, Dawn had nodded.
Xander and Giles glanced up from the open space they’d created, having moved all the furniture back toward the walls.  “Yeah, Buff,” Xander replied.  “All good to go here.”
“Great.  Over there, Dawn, on the coffee table?” She pointed.  The coffee table had been shoved in next to the fireplace.
Dawn nodded and crossed to set down the box.
“Faith is making sure the Potentials are all occupied,” Giles added.  “Buffy, are you sure…”
Returning to stand in the entryway, out of the path of any spells, Dawn rolled her eyes.  “Here we go,” she muttered under her breath.
Silently, Buffy agreed with her sister’s assessment, but aloud, she just sighed.  “We’ve been over this, Giles.  I’m sure.  There is no possible way I could be any more sure.”  And that’s not really a lie, she thought, stepping forward to stand in the center of the open space. Because, hey!  It’s not like I’ve never sacrificed myself before for someone I love.
Before helping Willow assemble the potion – which in actuality wasn’t so much a potion as a bunch of herbs and flowers all mashed together – she’d gone upstairs to her room to retrieve the box that held Spike’s ashes.  After hesitating for a moment, she pulled his duster out of her closet.  More than a week of hanging in there with all her clothes and girly scented things hadn’t made it smell any more like Spike; in fact, it smelled more like it was her own coat than Spike’s.
Not that I think that Spike would have… that he would mind if his coat smelled like me.
But even that faint scent of him that still clung to the ancient leather made her remember – how his jaw clenched when she made him angry, the way his eyes would soften when he studied her whenever he thought she wasn’t paying attention, what it felt like to lay beside him…
It reminded her of everything she missed, and all the reasons why she was fighting.
She hadn’t been in tears when she left her bedroom, but she’d had to wash her face and take a series of deep breaths before heading back downstairs.
“… to be absolutely sure,” Giles said as she tuned back in to the world. He gestured with his glasses, an aimless movement that she had seen hundreds of times.  “Buffy, this is… well, it’s unprecedented, that a Slayer would do such a thing for a vampire…”
She gave him a hard look, and he trailed off, unable to meet her gaze.  “Giles, the discussion is over.  This is what I am going to do.  Will,” she went on, turning to her friend.  “We’ve got an open space and the herbal thingie.  What’s next?”
Willow consulted the book and her page of notes.  “Okay… stand in the center of the space and sprinkle or pour the herbs around you in a circle while saying ‘I humbly request passage to those with the power of fire and water, of earth and sky.  Heed my plea and my willing sacrifice.’” She looked up.  “And…”
“And,” Buffy interrupted with the ghost of a smile, “I have to be thinking of… of what I want and what I would give up.”
Willow nodded.  Her brow was quirked in worry, but she said nothing further, just stepped back to stand beside Dawn, who was hovering in the entryway.
“You guys better stand back, too,” Buffy said to Xander and Giles.  “Just in case… I mean, you don’t want to get sucked through with me, do you?”
Xander smiled.  “No way.  I’m gonna need this time to get ready for the next verbal skirmish with the bleached one.” 
She almost laughed at that, and from the way Xander relaxed, she knew her expression was lighter than it had been in days.
“Yeah, Buffy,” Dawn said from behind her.  When she turned around, her sister was giving Giles her best I told you so glare.  “Go get Spike back.”
Her throat closed a little at that.  That’s what I’m planning, Dawnie, she thought, but she just couldn’t force the words out, so she nodded.  Then, with a deep breath, she let herself think about the loss and grief that had filled her when she realized Spike was dust, and how desperately she needed him back.  A handful of crushed herbs trickled out between her fingers.
She had barely finished reciting the words when the portal burst into being beside her in the circle.  Tendrils of light coiled and crackled, flickering toward her as if to draw her in.  This is it, she thought, eagerness and dread swirling together in her stomach.  She reached out, not quite sure how this would work, and trying to forget what had happened the last time she’d gone through a dimensional portal.
“Be careful, Buffy,” she heard from behind her, though she couldn’t tell who spoke; it was barely audible over the roaring that filled her ears.  But she had no time to acknowledge that she’d heard, because as soon as she touched the surface, she was sucked through.
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