“I’m assuming that won’t be necessary,” Giles replied smoothly to Willow’s comment about skinning Warren. “Surely you would never do such a terrible thing just because learning the truth caused Tara to leave you? She’s taken herself out of your life because you abused your power and tried to control her, not because she learned you’d been lying to her about your activities.
“That is the true issue, and one for which you must accept responsibility. Mr. Meers may have provided Tara with specific information she needed to have, but she was already uncomfortable with your behavior and already wondering if she should stay with someone so interested in dark magics. All his information did was confirm suspicions she already had. It was your response that pushed her over the edge.”
He looked at Willow with as much sympathy as he could put into his expression, getting nothing in return but another glare, this one just barely tinged with doubt.
“You are a brilliant woman, Willow, and you’ve always had a good heart. I feel sure if you allow yourself to accept that it was your own behavior that caused this rift between you and Tara, and that it was your attempt to control her by magically removing her memories of that rift that was the final straw, you will understand there is only one person to blame here. And it is neither the admittedly reprehensible man we will deal with shortly, nor your good friend, the man who merely freed the woman you claim to love from your inappropriate effort to control her.”
Willow’s angry stare went from Giles to Warren, who was trying to hide behind the much shorter Slayer in front of him, to Buffy, whose face showed nothing by sorrow, to Spike, whose sympathetic expression seemed to momentarily surprise her, to Winston, who gazed back, his affection for her as clear as was his willingness to confine her until he felt she was safe to be around. She remained silent long enough for Winston’s tentative smile to fade and for Giles to step far enough away to be safe from any magical retaliation from either one.
However, by the time she’d finished her survey of all the people waiting for her to respond, Willow’s expression had become more thoughtful than angry. With a sigh, she nodded her head, her face contorting in anguish as tears flowed down her cheeks.
Winston stared thoughtfully at her for a moment, as if assessing the sincerity of her tears, then moved his wrist, causing Willow to stumble at the sudden release. She collapsed onto Giles, who put his arms around her and murmured to her soothingly until she pulled back and wiped a hand across her eyes. She took a deep breath and exhaled with a sigh.
“I’m sorry, guys. I don’t know what got into me.” She looked at Buffy and shook her head. “You tried to tell me. I should have listened to you.” She cast another glance back at Winston. “About everything,” she added, although her glance at him didn’t carry quite the same regret as when she looked at Buffy.
Buffy nodded her understanding, flickering her glance at Winston who smiled briefly. His own relief at not having had to actually harm Willow was clear on his face.
“It’ll be all right, Willow. Why don’t you let Giles take you home, or back to the Magic Box, while the rest of us deal with the wannabe master criminal here?”
Giles and Winston exchanged a quick glance. The silent communication was all it took for Giles to nod and gesture to his car parked several houses down the street.
“That sounds like an excellent idea. Come, Willow, let’s go have a cuppa and leave dealing with this wanker to the more violence-prone people in our group.”
“You said ‘wanker’!” Willow said with a snort as she allowed him to lead her away.
“When the shoe fits….” His voice trailed off as they walked away, leaving Winston, Buffy, and Spike to turn their eyes on a wary Warren Meers.
“There’s no way,” he blustered. “No matter how much those two morons I have to work with might have told you, you can’t know anything about what I’ll be doing from now on. You don’t know the future.”
“Of course not,” Buffy said with a fake smile. “We’re just making guesses here. But why don’t we go inside and talk about how important it is for you to make better choices from here on out?”
She walked into the house and pointed to the living room and its assortment of well-used furniture. Warren started to object, then laughed when Spike found himself on the outside of the invisible barrier. The laugh tapered off to a gulp when Winston strolled in with a soft “Come in, Spike” as he passed the vampire. When Spike grinned and followed him, Warren stared at Winston in dismay.
“You don’t live here! I know my vamp rules. He can’t come in unless I invite him.”
“And yet, here I am,” Spike said, sprawling casually across a lumpy chair.
“How did you do that?” Warren demanded, ignoring Spike to glare at Winston.
“Easily,” was the terse reply. “Now why don’t you sit down?”
Warren gazed around the room at the three people staring back at him, then walked to a tall stool and perched on it, enabling him look down on those seated. He stared back and forth between Spike and Buffy, then his gaze went back to Winston, who seemed like such a perfectly normal human man, but clearly wasn’t.
Putting on a smarmy, just-between-us smile, he addressed Winston.
“So, you’re the magic muscle now in this little band of Slayer sidekicks?” he said. “I don’t know what she’s paying you, but I can do better. Between your magic and my skills, we could have this town at our feet in no time.”
Instead of responding to Warren, Winston raised an eyebrow at Spike. “You’re on,” he said.
Be careful. I think he’s already suspicious of what we know.
Got it, love. No talking about things we shouldn’t know yet.
Spike walked up to Warren and looked him in the eye, allowing his demon to emerge slowly. When Warren had flinched away from him, he went back to his human visage.
“Just wanted to remind you what I really am,” he said softly. “And that Willow isn’t the only one who can think of creative and painful ways for you to die.”
Avoiding what Spike was suggesting, Warren responded with, “How did you even get here? It’s ten o’clock in the morning and the sun is shining.”
“All you need to know is that I can. You aren’t safe in the daylight, and now, thanks to Winston here, I have an invite to your house. All you need to know is that the Slayer can and will kick your arse if she has to. And I can tear your throat out if it seems like a good idea…. or if I’m feeling peckish….” His eyes lingered on the pulse pounding in Warren’s neck and they took on an amber tinge as his attention wandered. Warren flinched away from him again, his expression fearful but still seeming defiant.
“Bugger! Sorry, love. Where was I? Oh, right, I was explaining to the genius here why he wants to listen to us when we tell him he needs to change his ways.” He held up a hand and ticked off on his fingers. “The Slayer can kick your arse, I can make you wish you’d never been born, and Winston here, if you’ve been paying any attention at all, you can see is the real deal when it comes to magic, unlike those two losers you keep asking to raise demons for you.” He gave a fangy smile. “You prob’ly don’t want to know what he could do to you.” He dropped his game face and turned away. “And none of us is planning to let you become some master criminal here or anywhere else.”
“It’s a free country,” was Warren’s somewhat feeble reply.
“It is indeed,” Winston said, standing up and gesturing to Buffy and Spike. “We are simply here to point out that actions have consequences, and your actions, if we don’t like them, could have very unpleasant consequences. How you deal with that information is entirely up to you.”
Without another word, all three left the small building and began walking toward Spike’s parked car.
“What do you think?” Buffy asked, looking between the two of them.
“You two are more familiar with him than I am,” Winston said. “Does it seem to you that he will be reasonable?”
“You’d be the expert here, pet. I never had much to do with him after… after last year. And wasn’t in a position to help you if I’d known I needed to. As grateful as I am that the chip gave us a chance to know each other better, I’m not sorry I don’t have it anymore and can back you up against human evil.”
Buffy sighed. “Okay, well, in our time, he started out with small stuff, like making time go wonky—” She stopped and smiled at Spike who was growling. “No, before that time. It was annoying but not—not like what happened then.” She touched his face. “I should have listened to you.”
He smiled softly and leaned into her hand, then began to smirk. “Could you repeat that please? For the record? You heard her, didn’t you, Winnie?”
“Very funny,” she said, pushing him off the sidewalk. Turning back to Winston, she continued to run through the things Warren and his minions had done, ending with the attempted armored car robbery and Warren’s jet-pack-powered escape.
“So, Jonathan and Andrew went to jail, and Warren disappeared until he came back with a gun and shot me and Tara. Of course, this time, I’ve already taken his magic balls away, so he’s not going to be able to beat me up.” She frowned. “Which, now that I think about it, kinda makes a gun his next choice…I didn’t think about that. We haven’t left him very many ways to stop us from interfering now….”
Winston frowned. “So heis capable of premeditated murder, not just as a side effect of something else or accidentally.” He looked thoughtful. “That may put a different slant on how we need to deal with him.”
Buffy chewed her lip. “I guess it does, now that I think about it. I mean that stupid freeze-ray gun killed the museum guard. And when they turned me invisible, they were going to let me dissolve into a puddle of goo, and then with Trina…. killing her might have been an accident, but drugging her and keeping her prisoner wasn’t.”
She looked from Winston to Spike. Both men were wearing identical expressions as they waited for her to acknowledge the damage she knew Warren to be capable of.
“Okay, fine,” she sighed. “He’s evil. And he’ll probably hurt or kill somebody if we can’t stop him.” She looked at Spike hopefully. “Maybe you scared him straight?”
He snorted. “Right. He swore off evilness immediately.” As they reached the car, he put his arm around her. “I’m sorry, love. But you know all I did was give him something to think about. Could tell he was frightened, but I’ll wager he was counting on you to step in if I actually bit him. He wasn’t nearly as terrified as he should have been.”
“Maybe he’s just a good actor,” she said with a stubborn pout. “You don’t know.”
“I do know, Buffy. I’m a predator. And one with years of experience enjoyin’ the way my prey is feeling. Could hear his heartbeat, smell his sweat, hear if there was a hitch in his voice…. I rattled his cage, but he never felt in fear of his life. Now, how much of it was because you were there, and how much of it was just stupidity on his part, I can’t tell you that. For all we know he had to change his trousers when he had time to think about how close he may have come to dying. But I’m not countin’ on it.”
As Winston got into the back seat where Spike had tossed the confiscated gun, Buffy opened her door while Spike went around and got into the driver’s seat.
“So, back to the Magic Box to see how Rupert and Red are doing?”
Willow and Giles were enjoying cups of tea and some store-bought cookies when the others arrived. He got up immediately to get another cup for Winston who smiled his gratitude while Buffy and Spike shook their heads.
“None for us, thanks. We’re not staying long. Spike wants to get his car back into its hiding place before some demon recognizes it and wonders how it got here in the middle of the day.”
“Are you still determined to maintain the fiction that you are an ordinary vampire?” Giles asked innocently.
“Oy! There’s nothing ordinary about me!” Spike said with a growl.
Buffy giggled at his indignant expression and Winston didn’t try to hide his amused snort.
“Well I’m not,” Spike grumbled, looking only slightly embarrassed at himself.
“We all know that, honey,” Buffy said soothingly. “I’m sure that’s not what Giles meant.”
Smothering his own smirk, Giles nodded. “Quite so. I simply meant that you were not advertising exactly how not ordinary you are in many ways.”
“Decided you were right about the big poof,” Spike said, looking slightly mollified. “The less he knows about what I can and can’t do, the less nosy he’ll be about what’s goin’ on here.”
Winston glanced at Buffy. “Did you have any interactions with him in your time this year?”
“Just the one time we met at a diner half-way between here and LA so he could see for himself that I was all alive and… alive.” She glanced at Spike and Willow before saying, “It didn’t go well. He couldn’t even tell how miserable I was, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the vampire who understood me.”
“And there’s no reason for that meeting now, given that you haven’t died and been resurrected.”
“Exactly. No meeting this time. Not to mention, I’m still pissed off at him for that whole claim thing. If he’s smart, he’ll stay away from me for… I dunno, a couple of decades?”
Everybody chuckled in agreement. Buffy put the gun on the table in front of Willow.
“Here, I brought you a new toy. I’m guessing this is the freeze ray gun, because there’s no reason for him to want to make us invisible but I’m not sure. You can play with it. Maybe it will be useful.”
Willow began to turn the gun over in her hands, looking at it with great interest. She smiled up at Buffy.
“Thanks. By the way, before you go, how long did you say Tara and I were broken up in your time? Give or take,” she added when Buffy looked uncertain.
“I really don’t remember.” Buffy glanced at Spike. “But it was a few months, at least. Right?”
“Somethin’ like that,” he said quietly. “If I didn’t know how poncy I’d sound, I could probably give you exact dates.”
“Months?” Willow’s face fell. “It already feels like forever, and it’s only been a day! Why did it take so long?”
“You had to earn back her trust,” Buffy said softly. “And she had to see that you really were cutting back on using magic for everyday things, not just pretending to be doing less.” She gave Willow a smile and touched her hand. “It’s going to take a while, Will. But it’ll be worth it. She… she missed you too. But she knew she had to be strong for both of you.”
“And you’re going to make sure Warren can’t shoot anybody this time, right?”
Although she was only looking at Buffy and Spike, Winston and Spike responded simultaneously:
“You got it, Red.”
“I think months seems kind of excessive….” Willow muttered, smiling brightly when she saw the worried looks on their faces. “But it’s fair. Totally fair. I mean, Tara broke up with me, so I have to win her back. I get that.” She waved at Buffy and Spike. “You guys have a good day.”
Trying not to seem as dubious as she was, Buffy waved her own goodbye and followed Spike out the door.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“If it’s that Willow never even acknowledged Winston’s presence, then yes. If it’s that she seemed to be thinkin’ about shortening the time she’s without Tara… then I think she doesn’t know her as well as she thinks she does. Under that softness is a lot of steel.”
“You think she fooled us all today?”
He sighed. “Not so much fooled anybody, as hasn’t really changed as much as we’d like. She’s sorry, yeah, but still lookin’ for the easy answer.”
“Not to mention, she’s kinda pissed off at Winston.”
“That too,” he said quietly. “There are some fences to be mended there.”
When Spike had put his car away in its normal place, he put an arm around Buffy and gestured toward his crypt.
“What say we visit our vacation home for a while before we go to your mum’s for dinner?”
“Ummmm,” she murmured as he nibbled on her neck. “That sounds like one of your better plans.”
“I thought so,” he agreed, pulling her in to a long kiss that left her breathing heavily and leaning on him for support.
They walked to the crypt hand-in-hand, until Spike stopped and growled.
“What?” Buffy went on alert immediately, sending her own senses out.
“Can smell the two idiot wankers. Not fresh, but recent enough. Let me go first, yeah?”
“So I can watch you dust if they’ve rigged a trap?” Buffy snorted. “I don’t think so.”
“Fine, let’s go in the back door,” he growled, pulling her toward the nearest manhole.
It was only a matter of minutes before they were working their way toward the lower entrance to the crypt. Spike stopped to sniff frequently, but shook his head when she asked if he smelled them.
“Not down here, I don’t,” he said. “And it looks like our back gate hasn’t been tampered with.” He examined the heavy metal barrier he’d installed against any surprises coming from the tunnels. The key he’d hidden in a small niche in the wall was still there, and he unlocked the gate and relocked it after they were through.
A quick look and sniff around his bedroom indicated it had not been visited, so he went silently up the ladder. Lifting the plywood cover just enough to peer around, it took him only a little time to locate a small camera not quite hidden next to one of the larger candles. He pointed and made shushing motions to Buffy as he let the plywood slip back into place.
“What do you think?” she whispered when they were sitting on the bed.
“No idea, pet. We’ll have to disable them before we leave, but I don’t want them to see us come up from down here, so we’ll have to go out and around. I didn’t see any traps, just a camera. We’ll take a good hard look before we leave.”
“When do you think they did it?”
He shrugged. “I’ll be able to tell more when I’ve got it in my hand,” he said. “I’d say they probably did it before we had our little chat with them and we just didn’t notice because we came and went through the tunnels the other night and never went upstairs. Who knows? They could really be stupid enough to have done it this morning. Either way, I’m going to make it clear this home is off limits just as much as the apartment.”
“Guess we should have had Winston or Max do the wards right away instead of waiting,” Buffy sighed. “These guys are really getting on my nerves….”
“Mine too,” he admitted as he fell back and pulled her on top of him. “Must be something we can do to relax those nerves, don’t you think?”
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