“Hi guys.” Buffy did her best to pretend they weren’t all glaring at her. “Are we late? I thought we decided on seven o’clock?”
“You decided on seven. The rest of us wanted to have pizza first and make it more like an old fashioned Scooby meeting.” Willow smiled, but Buffy could tell she was feeling a little testy.
“Yeah, you know, before it included bloodsuckers,” Xander said, pointing at Spike who made a rude gesture at him as he walked to the back to talk to Giles. Although there was still distrust and tension, they seemed to be settling back into the mutual-insulting-without-real-rancor that had been their eventual relationship any time Xander wasn’t accusing Spike of evil behavior, and Buffy barely noticed the byplay.
She sat down at the table and began playing with the empty pizza box.
“I’m sorry. My mom asked us to stay for dinner, so we did. I didn’t know you were expecting me–us–to be here for the pizza part.”
“We were expecting you,” Willow said. She glanced back at Spike and sighed. “But it’s okay. We knew Spike was probably going to be here too.”
“It was supposed to be just us,” Xander muttered. “The core Scoobies.”
“Really, Xander?” Buffy’s voice took on a bit of an edge. “Because I’m pretty sure Tara and Anya weren’t part of the Scooby gang back in high school.” She smiled at them in apology. “No offense. I love you both, but—”
“That’s okay, Buffy. Xander’s just in one of his ‘Buffy shouldn’t be living with Spike’ moods. He’ll get over it when we get home and he’s had an orgasm.”
“That always does it for me,” Spike said from the back of the room. Buffy’s glare did nothing to take the grin off his face.
“See?” Anya turned to Xander. “You and Spike have something in common.”
The snickers and laughter didn’t help Xander’s disposition, but he didn’t respond with anything but a groan.
“So, anyway, the need for the meeting is that we’re getting closer to the reason Spike and I were sent back.”
“The hellgod is here?”
“Yep. She’s here and I’ve got the bruises to prove it. So, here’s the sitch—Glory is looking for the Key she needs to get herself back to her own hell dimension in a few months. It was sent to me for safekeeping and she’s going to figure that out pretty soon, one way or another.”
“If she hasn’t already,” Spike muttered. “She’s a nasty bint, but she’s not stupid.”
“She was the reason you died in your own time, right?” Willow said with a frown. “So, how are you going to stop her?”
“Well, I’ve got a couple of things in mind…”
When Buffy had given an abbreviated account of the events leading up to the tower and her need to jump, she stopped to let it all sink in. She thought she’d managed to cover all the highlights without actually telling them that Dawn was the Key.
“So, if Olaf shows up for some reason, before you magic him away to troll world or wherever you sent him in our time, try to make sure the hammer stays here. That way I’ll have it for fighting Glory. Trust me, it helps a lot.”
“And if he doesn’t?” Xander had become interested in spite of himself.
“Well, then we’ve got two powerful magicians, a strong vampire, and me. And we already know she has a human host, and who that host is. So, there are lots of possibilities.”
“One of which is obviously killing her human host. You’ve thought of that, haven’t you, Buffy?” Anya waited for Buffy’s answer.
“Yes. We have thought of that. I’m not sure I can kill an innocent… or maybe not-so-innocent,” she said, remembering how Ben how looked right at her and run away from what Glory had done. It occurred to her that a doctor should have tried to help her or the monk. “Anyway, I don’t know if I’m ready to kill a human, but—”
“But Spike would… if he could….” Willow glanced back to where Spike was sitting. She’d never actually gotten him or Buffy to admit he wasn’t chipped anymore, but she clearly still had her suspicions.
“He would. And, just so you all know…” Buffy raised an eyebrow at Spike, who nodded. “…he could do it. He doesn’t kill or eat people anymore because he has his soul, but he could if he needed to, and we’re—I’m— okay with it if he does.”
Tara looked distressed, although not in a judgmental way, Willow looked smug, Anya just nodded, and Xander was turning an interesting shade of purple.
“Did Winston take his chip out?” Willow asked. “Because I’m sure he could.”
“No, he didn’t do it. It’s been gone for a long time. An Initiative doctor took it out… at my request.”
There was silence as they all absorbed the idea that Spike was free to kill anyone and that Buffy was responsible for it.
“Can I ask why you thought that was anything but a really, really bad idea?” Xander glanced over his shoulder at Spike, who stared back and bared his teeth.
Buffy sighed, then shrugged. “I’d like to think you trusted me enough to know it was a good idea, but just in case…. A – It was breaking down and killing him. Painfully. B – He already had his soul, so he didn’t need a mechanical device to keep him from killing. And C – I needed him. He was the only one I could trust for a while, and the only one strong enough to have a prayer against the Turok-han. My choices were dust him before he died in agony, or have it taken out. I chose to keep him alive and in my life.”
“I cannot imagine I took that decision very well,” Giles said, nearing the table. “I gather from the letter my future self sent back with Winston, it may have caused quite a rift between us.”
“Ya think?” Buffy gave him a wry smile. “But you got over it when he used his soul to help me save the world. It’s all good.” She frowned and glanced at Spike. “Or maybe not? I guess that Giles never had a chance to apologize to Spike….”
Spike smirked at Giles. “Feel free to start begging forgiveness any time now.”
“I wouldn’t hold my breath for that,” Giles muttered quietly, but he sent Spike a smile.
“As fascinating as all this is,” Willow interrupted. “Can we get back to Glory and her human host? Shouldn’t we know who the host is? In case we run into him?”
Buffy nodded. “I guess you should. His name is Ben. He’s a doctor at the hospital. In our time, Mom had a brain tumor, and we all met Ben when she was in the hospital for her tests, and then for the surgery. Since that’s not going to happen this time—”
Willow interrupted. “Darn it! Winston told me I could be there to watch if your mom said he could do it.”
“He told you about it?”
“We were talking about healing and Tara’s earth magic stuff, and he mentioned he was willing to try it if your mom agreed. Sounds like he didn’t wait for me.” Willow was clearly miffed and Buffy tried to think of a way to soothe her feelings.
“It was a real last-minute decision. I had to talk Mom into it, and then when she found out that it wasn’t safe to be at the hospital, she all of a sudden wanted to do it right away, so we did. Maybe Winston tried to get hold of you and just couldn’t find you?”
Willow didn’t look appeased, but changed the subject. “So, this Key Glory is looking for, do you have it somewhere safe?”
“I hope so,” Buffy replied. “I’m not going to tell anybody where it is until I have to—” at the anger she could see on Willow’s face, she added quickly, “—because the fewer people who know, the less likely it is to slip out by accident.”
“Because obviously, we can’t be trusted not to do that,” Willow said snidely.
Although she’d seemed to be much happier once she and Tara were in a relationship, and was quite content to talk magic with Winston as more or less an equal, every now and then her resentment at not being more important in Buffy’s slaying life would flare up. This seemed to be one of those times.
Buffy clenched her teeth and reminded herself that Willow had been a lot of help to her the first time, and deserved an explanation.
“Did I mention about Glory’s brain-sucking?”
“You said she gets her energy from sucking it from…. Oh my god. Is that how she found out where the key was in your time?”
“More or less. Not directly. I mean it’s not like she sucks out information along with all the energy, but it leaves her victims very childlike and not able to understand what they’re doing. Somebody who’d been damaged like that identified the Key in front of Glory, and that was that. She grabbed it and took off.”
Buffy looked at their startled faces. “And that’s what led to me having to jump off that tower. Her minions got the portal open while I was fighting her on the ground and I had to run up there to close it.”
“So, if you don’t want to tell us where it is, does that mean one of us might get brain-sucked?” Willow stared around the table at the suddenly frightened faces. “It’s one of us who told Glory where the key was?”
“It was.” Buffy sighed. “But not told her on purpose or anything, just didn’t know not to after being mind-sucked.” She bit her lip, thinking hard. “If it looks like Glory’s been brain-sucking so many people that one of them might….”
She started over. “For some reason, crazy people or those who’ve been brain-sucked are able to see the Key for what it is. It glows or something. I’m not sure, really, but they know right away. And if they point to it and act all ‘oooh, look!’ in front of Glory, she’ll know in a heartbeat. If I think that’s going to happen, I’ll be sure you all know where the Key is and what it looks like, so you’ll know to steer people like that away from it.”
“And we’re back to why not tell us now?” Xander asked.
“And we’re back to it was one of you in my time,” Buffy snapped. “I hope that isn’t going to happen. That we can stop Glory long before we get to that point, but just in case….”
Giles interrupted the testy conversation.
“We already know that Glory’s human host is a young doctor from the hospital. Once we have a description of him, and of Glory in her other form….”
Buffy said, “Ben is a nice–looking man, young-ish, fairly tall, pleasant to talk to. You’d never guess that he can turn into a skanky blonde hellgod in a too tight red dress.”
“Does Glory always wear a red dress? Because that doesn’t sound very god-like. You’d think she would have lots of clothes.” Anya looked genuinely puzzled. “I certainly would if I was a god.”
Buffy frowned and turned to look at Spike. “She did always have the same dress on, didn’t she?”
“Dunno. I don’t think so. But most of the time, anyway. It’s not like I noticed her wardrobe. Maybe she had a bloody closetful of them, or maybe it’s just part of her look and she likes red.”
Giles nodded. “It’s entirely possible that her normal form in her own dimension isn’t a human one and she just chose this form, including the clothing, for when she isn’t hiding in her human host.”
“Point is,” Spike said, “if you run into anybody who fits either of those descriptions, walk the other way. It isn’t going to take her very long to figure out the Slayer has her Key, so the less she sees of the rest of you, especially with us, the less likely she is to decide to snatch somebody as a hostage or a torture victim.”
“Us, but not you? What’s the matter, Spike, don’t you think you’d make a good hostage to be tortured?” Xander snickered, but nobody else did.
Spike stared at him coldly, but didn’t reply, leaving it to Buffy to snap, “She already has. He doesn’t need to repeat it this time around.”
To everyone’s surprise, including, it seemed, his own, Xander flushed and muttered, “Sorry. I didn’t know.”
“No, you didn’t know. And I’m hoping you won’t ever have to see what she did to him. But, just so you know, in our time it was so bad, you felt sorry him. You were the one who helped Giles get him back to his crypt and told me how badly hurt he was.”
“Huh,” was Xander’s articulate reply. He peered at Spike and frowned. “Don’t tell me in our time the bloodsucker and I are friends?”
Spike snorted as Buffy shook her head.
“I think ‘friends’ would be a little strong, but you did spend a lot of time when I was… gone… fighting vamps together and taking care of Dawn. He saved your life… all your lives… many times, beginning about now in our time. You can’t spend that many years fighting together and not develop—”
“If you say ‘feelings’ I’m going to lose my pizza.” Xander looked green at the very thought.
“If she says ‘feelings’, I’m going to bite her!”
Spike’s expression mirrored Xander’s, and all the girls and Giles laughed at them, sparking a moment of solidarity as Spike and Xander glared at Buffy simultaneously.
“I was going to say ‘mutual respect’ but now I’m not sure….”
The brief laughter had lightened the mood and when the conversation renewed things were much improved.
“So, what else, besides avoiding attractive hellgod-hiding doctors and trashy women in red dresses do we need to know?
“Well, I guess Tara’s birthday might be something to be ready for.”
Tara’s face went pale. “Oh goddess, that’s right. You know.”
“Know? Know what?” Willow looked back and forth between Buffy and Tara.
Spike spoke up quickly. “Nothing. There’s nothingto know. Glinda’s family had her convinced she was part demon and that it would manifest when she turned twenty. Around time for her birthday, they showed up here at the shop expectin’ to take her back with them.”
He snorted. “Brilliant way to keep their women down home and takin’ care of the lazy sods when you think about it. Make them think they aren’t safe to be around, so they won’t make friends or have anywhere else to go. Back then, when I was still tryin’ to be evil, I thought it was right clever of her old man.” He growled. “Still didn’t let her go with him, though.”
Tara frowned. “How did you—”
“Buffy and the rest of the Scoobies had already told him he had to go through them to take you away, but you—she—you were all confused and thinking you needed to go with them to keep Willow safe.”
“I… I’m not a demon?” Tara blinked at him.
“No, of course not. It’s a lie your family used to keep your mom from leaving that abusive jerk, and they were going to use it to bring you back to wait on them hand and foot.” Buffy exhaled sharply. “I really should have punched him while I had the chance.”
“So… I don’t—didn’t go back with them?”
“Nope. Spike punched you in the nose, gave himself a headache, and showed you that you were all human. Problem solved.” Buffy beamed at Tara and then at Spike.
“Th… thank you?” Tara said slowly. “So, I’m really not a demon?”
“Not by a long shot,” Spike said, “but the Lei-Ach demons Glory sent to kill the Slayer were real, so no spells to make demons invisible to her this time, alright?” Spike shook his finger at her, smiling to show Tara he wasn’t really angry, but she blushed and apologized anyway.
Buffy rolled her eyes. “I’d almost forgotten about them. When’s your birthday, Tara?”
“Not for a couple of weeks.”
“Okay, then we’ll know when they show up here that Glory has figured out that I’m protecting the Key. And that your family is around. But we’ll be able to see the demons this time, and we’ll be ready for them. We’ll hide some weapons in the main part of the shop when it gets closer to Tara’s birthday so everybody will be able to defend themselves.”
“They were only after you, love,” Spike reminded her.
“And they’re going to get me,” Buffy said grimly, then smiled. “So, who’s planning Tara’s party?”
Tara’s birthday came and went with much less drama this time. She stood up to her father and brother and told them she knew they were lying about her being a demon and that she was happy where she was.
When her brother tried to grab her, threatening to beat her into the ground, he found her standing firmly. Spike’s eyes were sparkling with the urge to do battle, while Xander stepped up beside her and quietly suggested that trying to hurt Tara might result in her brother breaking something. The implication was clear, and Donnie swore in frustration. He couldn’t have reached Tara anyway, as Buffy, who he’d already seen break a Lei-Ach demon’s neck, was standing between him and Tara, saying if he wanted to follow through on his threat, he would have to go through her.
Willow, Dawn, Anya, and Giles were backing her up, insisting that they were now Tara’s family.
Muttering about witches and evil and demons, her family slowly moved toward the door, her father insisting he knew a demon when he saw one. Moving too quickly for them to see how he got there, Spike was between Tara’s family and the exit.
“You think you know a demon when you see one?” he growled, going into game face. “Take a good look. This is what you’ll meet if you try to come back here.”
He stood there just long enough to make sure they all understood him, then stepped aside to watch as they tried to get out the door at the same time.
“Well, that was fun.”
“More fun than punching me in the nose in front of them?” Tara asked with a twinkle in her eye.
“Oh much,” he replied, fading back into his human features. “I don’t like bullies.”
While Glory seemed to be keeping a low profile after the complete failure of her attempt on Buffy’s life, Buffy and Spike went back to regular slaying activities. They were walking through a quiet graveyard when Buffy frowned and began to stare around.
“What’s up, love?”
“This looks familiar. Like maybe it’s where I ran into that vamp that stabbed me with my own stake.”
“Don’t suppose there’s any important reason he has to live?” Spike growled the question as he began sniffing the air.
“I doubt it. I think Riley took out the whole nest the next day, so it’s not like he spent a lot of time celebrating. Why?”
“Because I think I heard something behind that mausoleum over there….” Spike said as he stalked toward it, his intentions clear.
“If it’s him, he’s mine!” Buffy said, grabbing his coat and pulling him back.
“You don’t need to be getting yourself stabbed again,” Spike said. “Just because Winnie’s all recovered doesn’t mean he wants to be exerting himself like that a second time.”
“I don’t have any intention of letting that happen,” Buffy said. “This is payback, not a rerun. You stay here,” she added. “If he stabs me, he’s all yours.”
Spike grumbled, but faded into the shadow of a tree as Buffy walked toward the place she thought she’d be attacked. To her surprise, nothing happened. No vamp was waiting for her to banter and fight with.
“Well, that was a letdown,” she muttered, gesturing for Spike to approach. “I wonder where he is?”
Spike shrugged. “Thought I heard him, pet, but he must’ve scarpered off. Maybe he knew I was here.”
“Or, maybe it wasn’t the same one. I guess there are lots of vamps we might have staked since last year that would have meant he never got turned.”
“Huh. Well that sucks. Staking him was one of the things from this year I was really looking forward to.”
“Let’s finish up this patrol and go home. I’ll give you a little sample of what kind of things I was looking forward to.”
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