With everyone taking a rest day or two, it was the end of the week before Giles suggested they should have a meeting to discuss where they now stood in terms of possible dangers for the rest of the year.
Max once again offered his meeting room, but assured Buffy that he had no intention of inserting himself in to her life unnecessarily.
“I’ll attend for the recap, and to offer any suggestions I may have, but I believe I’ll just go back to being the landlord, if it’s all the same to you.”
He said it with a smile, but Buffy knew he’d far exceeded his normal interactions with other people to help them out with Glory. “Thank you,” she said with a nod of agreement.
Spike added his own, “More than happy to let you go back to bein’ the man we call when the plumbing doesn’t work.” He gave a small smile of his own. “That mean you’re givin’ up tutoring Glinda?”
Max frowned, then laughed. “Ah yes, The Good Witch,” he said. “That does fit Tara nicely, doesn’t it? And, no. If she’s willing, I’ll be happy to mentor her as she builds her healing skills. Had her mother lived, I’m sure she would be a very skilled and valuable healer by now.”
“Havin’ met her wanker of a father, and cretin of a brother, I’m not as sure of that as you are. The poor woman probably died just to get away from that soddin’ family.”
Buffy rolled her eyes, but added her own explanation. “They were just looking for another slave. Apparently, they’d used her mother’s healing abilities to make them think they were both demons who had to be kept away from other people. When it was time for Tara’s twentieth birthday, they showed up and tried to convince her she had to go home with them so they could ‘protect people’ from her demon nature. It took Spike to show Tara they lied and she wasn’t a demon.”
“I’ll have to ask her about that one day,” Max said. “She hasn’t mentioned any family other than her mother.”
“With good reason,” Spike growled. “I made it bloody clear to that side of her family that Sunnyhell has real demons, and they’d best keep their distance from now on.”
Max laughed softly. “I’m sure you gave a very convincing argument.”
Spike shrugged. “They were cowards and wankers. Didn’t take much.”
The next to arrive were Giles and Winston, who walked in and glanced around the room.
“Are we the first to arrive?”
“Yep. You’re being all British and punctual, as usual.”
“You make that sound like some sort of character flaw,” Giles said stiffly.
Winston smothered a smile as Max and Spike laughed.
“Relax, Watcher. She insults me for my heritage too, more often than not,” Spike said.
Buffy tossed her head. “It’s not like you and Giles don’t mock us all the time. ‘Bloody colonials’—does that ring a bell?”
“Right you are, pet. We’re rude wankers, the lot of us.”
“See, now you’re making fun of me again.” She narrowed her eyes and glared at him.
“Only because you’re so cute when you’re brassed off.” He tapped her on the nose, earning a more serious glare that had him backing up and stepping behind Winston.
“Hey! Don’t try to hide behind the man who didn’t insult her.” Winston’s attempt to appear genuinely frightened didn’t fool anybody, least of all Buffy, who just snorted.
“I already know what you can do to keep Spike safe,” she said. “I wouldn’t bother to try…. and anyway, he has to come home with me. I’ll take care of him there.”
“Lookin’ forward to it, love,” he said with a leer that made everyone react to the implied TMI.
As Willow, Tara, Xander and Anya walked into the room, Giles welcomed them warmly. “Oh, thank God, you’re here,” he said to their obvious surprise.
“Didn’t you expect us to be?” Willow frowned.
“He did. Relax, Wills. He’s just trying to change the subject because Spike was being an ass.” Buffy welcomed them with a smile of her own.
“Spike? An ass. I’m shocked! Shocked, I tell you, shock—”
Spike’s snarl interrupted him, but Xander just grinned unrepentantly.
“Since we are all here, why don’t we begin our….”
Giles raised his eyebrows at Buffy’s use of the military term, but continued.
“For lack of a better word, I suppose that will do. Let’s all have a seat and begin, shall we?”
As soon as they were all settled, he looked at Buffy. “Would you like to go first?”
She nodded. “Well, the first thing I want to do is thank Max for helping us out. I know he doesn’t like to use his magic very often and—”
“You don’t?” Willow looked surprised. “Why not? If I had your power, I’d use it all the time. I’d never lift a finger again.”
There was a brief silence as Max, Winston, Giles, and, surprisingly, Tara all wore the same uncomfortable expressions. Willow glanced around at them.
“One of the first rules of using magic is to use it judiciously,” Max said a more stern tone than any of them were used to hearing from him. “I’m sorry circumstances did not allow you to absorb that important lesson before we had to do such a powerful spell. Perhaps, now that things have calmed down, Winston can resume his mentoring.”
“I don’t think I need any more mentoring,” Willow muttered. “I’m probably just as strong as he is now.”
Another awkward silence followed before Max said, so quietly only those sitting closest to him and Spike could hear, “I suggest you not test that theory.”
Winston looked very uncomfortable as he clearly struggled to respond without angering Willow further. “I think what Max means is we—I— still have much I could share with you. You do have a great deal of power for someone so young; however, there are many ramifications to the excessive use of magic that I haven’t had time to talk about with you yet. Ramifications that both Max and I have had our entire lives to learn—sometimes the hard way. You may want to consider profiting from our experiences rather than having to endure those lessons yourself.”
Willow looked back and forth between them, then asked bluntly, “How old are you, Max?”
“Very,” was the terse response. “As is Winston, albeit not as close to doddering as I.”
“’Very’ isn’t a very specific answer,” Willow said with a frown. “It’s kinda rude.”
“No, it isn’t specific,” Giles interrupted. “Nor is it rude. Certainly not as rude as your question. The operative information here is that they have, between them, many more years of experience in the realm of magic than either you or I, and it would behoove us to welcome whatever of that hard-won experience they are willing to share with us.” He sighed. “I, for one, intend to take full advantage of having Winston as a magical resource, now that I’ve been made aware that the Council has been trying to keep from me information I should have had.”
He gave Willow a rueful smile. “In all good conscience, it’s difficult to blame them for it, given my reckless and dangerous use of magic when I was young and rebellious. It was, perhaps, in my best interest that I not be aware that I could be capable of anything more than dis-invite or locator spells. Once I joined the Council, my magical training was restricted to learning the ethics and responsibilities of magic use. Something that was drilled into me by the coven during my time with them.”
Willow glanced around the table, seeing nothing but nodding and smiles of agreement from everyone, including Tara. With a sigh and a shrug, she sank back in her chair.
“Okay. Forget I asked. What did you want to say, Buffy?”
Shooting Willow a look that promised conversation later, Buffy continued, “As I was saying, I know Max is a very private person and doesn’t use his magic unless he absolutely has to, so I think we all owe him our thanks for his help in organizing what turned out to be a dangerous but important part of our mission. I’m pretty sure we couldn’t have done that by ourselves. In our time, except for Olaf’s hammer, which we don’t have now, we didn’t have much that Glory couldn’t blow off with a wave of her hand. So, thank you, Max, and I hope we won’t have to bother you again.”
Max nodded his response and gestured for her to continue.
“Okay, the second thing is… Spike is a worry wart... but he’s probably right. We’re not really home free yet. The date for opening the portal is still a couple of months away, and Spike thinks Doc might not be the only demon who thinks it would be a good idea to open it up. So, I still have to worry about keeping Dawn safe until the time passes. Which is gonna be a lot easier to do when I only have to worry about demons instead of a hellgod, but….”
“But any demons interested in opening a portal to a hell dimension are likely to be heavy-hitters,” Spike said. “Old and smart like Doc. We might not even see them comin’.”
“So, the Buffster still has some fighting left to do?”
“Most likely,” Spike growled. “And what she’s going up against isn’t going to be easy. The mission could still go down the tubes if one of them gets lucky.” He went into game face briefly. “Not that I’m not goin’ to be watching out for her and tearing the head off any demon that even looks at her funny, but….”
“But he’s not supervamp and I’m not supergirl, so we’ll be doing our best to see that nothing happens to either one of us, or to Dawn, so the world stays safe.”
“Why don’t you just hide her somewhere?” Anya’s expression said it was the obvious thing to do.
Buffy and Spike exchanged looks, then sighed in unison.
“We tried that idea out on her,” Buffy said. “Mom was okay with it, but Dawn flat-out refuses to miss the last two months of school this year.” She shrugged. “I think it’ll be all right. The wards on the house—” she stopped to smile at Max and Winston— "should keep her safe there, and I’m going to be with her everywhere she goes when she’s not at home.” She grimaced. “I’m pretty sure she’s going to hate both of us by the time school is out, but too bad. She’s got shadows everywhere she goes until we know the danger is over.”
“Then it’s just back to regular old Sunnydale dangers,” Xander said with a grin.
Giles noticed the expression on Spike’s face and said, “Something else you’d like to share?”
Spike shook his head. “Keepin’ the Bit safe means Buffy won’t have to sacrifice herself to close a portal, but doesn’t mean she can’t die some other way, if that’s what’s meant to be.” His face clearly showed how he felt about that. “In our time, I’d made a promise to take care of Dawn, so I stayed and did that and patrolled with you lot so you didn’t all become vampire meals.”
He stared around the table. “Just so we’re clear on this… Back then, I was only a soulless vamp in love with a woman I never expected to have. I grieved, don’t doubt it, but I would have got through it. Can’t say that now. I’ve got two more years of bein’ in her life in our own time, plus another two years with her here as complete partners. And now with the claim….” He exhaled harshly. “Something happens to Buffy, you’re all on your own.”
“You’d leave us to fend for ourselves? While you do what? Go off to eat people somewhere else?” Willow looked indignant.
“I think he means, he wouldn’t survive losing Buffy again,” Tara said softly.
There was silence as Buffy and Spike moved closer together and everyone absorbed what he’d said.
“Okay, then. So bubble-wrap for Buffy and Dawn until summer,” Xander said, his humor not hiding the look of sympathy he sent toward Spike.
“If I thought that would work….” He shrugged. “Slayer’d never stand for it, so I’m just gonna be her shadow while she shadows the Bit.”
Giles broke into the murmurs around the table. “Is that it?”
Buffy shook her head. “I hope so. I mean, since Mom never had that surgery, and we know to keep an eye on her, I’m not expecting her to die.” She gave Winston a grateful smile. “But, we don’t know if that was meant to be or not. I guess she could get hit by a bus or something, but….”
“But if that happens, Buffy won’t have to handle it on her own. I’ll be here to help her through it.”
“You didn’t help her in your time?” Xander looked like he was rethinking his new found sympathy for Spike. He flinched when Spike snarled at him.
“Wasn’t welcome in the house, was I? Distinctly remember bein’ told I had no right to even bring flowers, in spite of Joyce having always been so nice to me. Some people thought I was using her mum’s death as an excuse to get closer to Buffy.” The accompanying look made it very clear who “some people” were, and Xander shrank away from the lethal glare.
“That wasn’t me,” he protested. “I mean, I guess it was me, but not this me. I’m all about the Spike and Buffy, sitting in a tree….”
Buffy put a hand on Spike’s arm and gave a gentle squeeze until he stopped glaring. “It’s okay, Xan. We know it wasn’t you… but sometimes we have to work sort of hard to remind ourselves that we can’t be mad at you for things you haven’t done and probably won’t. Any of you,” she added, staring around the table and ending with Giles, who coughed before he spoke.
“Yes, well, I’m sure we’re all grateful for that bit of forbearance on your part. Now then, would anyone else like to contribute?”
Max cleared his throat and smiled at Tara. “I would be honored if Tara would continue to visit me from time to time so we can continue to work on her healing skills.”
Tara blushed, but smiled back at him without her usual embarrassed attempts to hide behind her hair. “I’d… I’d really like that,” she said.
“Well, that’s settled then.” Max stood and beamed at the people around the table. “I’ll just take myself off to my office. It’s been a pleasure meeting and working with you all. I’m confident Sunnydale is in the best of hands and the future is going to be much brighter than it could be. Good night, all.” With that, he walked out and disappeared down the hall.
“Why does he want to help Tara instead of me?” Willow asked, looking at Winston. “Shouldn’t he be teaching me healing and stuff?”
“Max is a practitioner of earth magic himself,” Winston said. “He enjoys helping others with similar talents.”
Willow frowned. “If he practices earth magic, why was he in charge of putting the spell together? Why wasn’t it you? Or me or Giles? If it’s not his thing, how could he do it?”
Buffy wasn’t sure Winston hadn’t started to roll his eyes, realizing she was right when she felt Spike give a soft chuckle.
Holding Willow’s suspicious gaze Winston responded, “Because he is probably the most powerful and knowledgeable magic practitioner you will ever meet. He prefers to work with healers now because he is a kind and gentle man who spent more of his early years trying to teach arrogant and potentially violent youngsters how to contain and control their own power than he should have. He has earned the right to a quiet retirement where he can pick and choose those he is willing to mentor.” Unspoken but understood by everyone in the room was “and you are not one of them.”
Buffy held her breath, waiting for the explosion, but Willow blinked her surprise then nodded and relaxed, seeming to feel suitably chastised.
Giles cleared his throat and said, “If you don’t feel it would be intruding too much into Max’s privacy, what is he—sorcerer, shaman, warlock, mage, magician, witch….?”
There was a pause before they all realized that was the complete answer. Giles gave an audible gasp, as did Willow. A soft “wow” from Anya summed up the feeling in the room.
“You’ll have to explain some of those to me later,” Buffy whispered to Spike, who nodded.
“Well, then, if we’re all clear that we cannot completely relax until the anticipated date for opening the portal has passed, although Buffy and Spike will be doing most of the work of keeping Dawn safe, then I believe we can go back to our normal activities.”
They all pushed back their chairs and stood up. As Xander and Anya walked toward the door, he pointed his finger at Buffy, saying, “Bubble wrap. Look into it.”
“How about Spike wrap?” Spike said as he put his arms around her from behind. She looked over her shoulder at him.
“Sounds like a plan I could work with.”
Their kiss was interrupted by Willow and Tara. Willow beamed at Tara, saying, “Tara had a good idea. We can make amulets for Dawn and you guys that will flare up if there’s danger nearby any of you.”
“That sounds great,” Buffy said, pinching Spike’s arm before he could say something snarky. Smiling, Willow and Tara walked out, talked animatedly about what herbs they would need and where to find just the right spells.
“Well done,” Winston said as he and Giles smiled their approval of Buffy’s handling.
“Yes. Rather than antagonize Willow by pointing out that you can already sense most dangers, you’ve given her a way to feel useful.”
Buffy nodded. “I’m learning to be less… confrontational… as I get older.”
“Catch more flies with honey,” Spike said, nodding his agreement.
“Says the man who always wants to hit first and apologize later.” Buffy laughed along with Giles and Winston as Spike tried to look offended, something he seemed to find difficult to do with his arms still around Buffy.
Saying their good-nights to Giles and Winston, Spike and Buffy left to do another patrol before heading home. Spike looked somewhat wistful as he heard the two men discussing where they were going to go to get a drink, but he dutifully followed Buffy into the night.
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