FIC: A Cup of Kindness (1/1)

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Yay! My posting day is here and I actually finished my story on time! Many, many thanks to my lovely and amazing betas, missmurchison and edenfalling, as well as the kind friends who responded to the poll I posted when I was completely stuck for ideas.

TITLE: A Cup of Kindness
AUTHOR: Willowgreen
SUMMARY: It’s seven months after the events of “Not Fade Away,” and there’s no such thing as a quiet New Year’s Eve for Buffy Summers. When old acquaintance drops by, she has to decide — stay or go?
RATING: PG13, maybe? for a little bad language and an oblique suggestion of sexual arousal
DISCLAIMER: These characters aren’t mine, I’m just playing with them.

It was eight-thirty p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and Buffy was taking down the Christmas tree.

It was a tiny little tree — a bigger one wouldn’t have fit in the apartment. And anyway, despite multiple trips to the dollar store, she and Dawn hadn’t yet acquired enough ornaments for a full-size one. Now it sat on the coffee table next to a brand-new plastic ornament box and a pristine package of tissue paper. The little tree, a plastic garland over the door, and a strand of twinkle lights on the balcony railing were their only decorations. Buffy had emphatically refused to hang any mistletoe. Kissing was the last thing she or Dawn should be thinking about this year.

Dawn was in her room. She said she was studying, but Buffy was pretty sure she was sulking because they hadn’t been invited to any parties. So Buffy was packing up the ornaments by herself, drinking microwaved Trader Joe’s Spiced Cider from a trade show mug and listening to the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. It wasn’t quite as festive as she’d hoped it would be.

But one of her New Year’s resolutions was to stop being so negative. She was going to start keeping a gratitude journal as soon as she found the time, but she could start right now by mentally counting her blessings:

— A job. Okay, it was a boring clerical job for which the prissy Human Resources lady assured her she was barely qualified, in the sterile office of a high-tech firm. But the benefits were good, and the cafeteria was awesome.

— An apartment. Sure, it was a cramped beige box with popcorn ceilings, and their upstairs neighbors’ footsteps echoed overhead like the percussion section in the “1812 Overture.” But it was theirs; she could afford to pay the rent and buy food; she and Dawn each had their own bedroom; and it was in a great school district, so Dawn could finish high school strong and maybe get into a decent college, despite all that trouble in Italy.

— Dawn. Yes, she was still sulky and whiny a lot of the time. But she was bringing home pretty good grades, working on her languages, and most important, not running off with any demon boys. That Buffy knew of.

— Willow, Giles, and Xander. The three most important humans in her life, besides Dawn, and she was on speaking terms with all of them. Although she hadn’t spoken to any of them in several weeks. Months. Actually, not since she and Dawn found this place last August. But it was just because she’d been so busy, with the 8-5 job and keeping an eye on Dawn and all. And despite the overall lack of demonic activity in this Silicon Valley town, she had to spend a couple of hours scanning the Internet every night to keep up with the news. That took up most of her leisure time.

Demonic activity had been surprisingly low all over the western hemisphere since last spring, in fact — ever since Spike and Angel had accidentally-on-purpose destroyed most of Los Angeles. She’d visited them both afterwards in the special wing of Cedars-Sinai Hospital, fortunately located in one of the surviving neighborhoods. She hadn’t known what to say to either of them, and they’d both been in too much pain to care. Even motormouth Spike hadn’t spoken to her, although that probably had something to do with the bandage covering most of his face. Then she’d gone to England, had a screaming fight with Giles and Willow for keeping her out of the loop all year, more or less made up with them, gotten back to Rome just in time to stop Dawn from eloping with some Eurotrash kid with cloven hooves and a tiny tail, packed up their clothes, and moved back to the States. Willow had scored her this job through her online friendship with some guys named Sergei and Larry. It was almost as boring as math class, but it felt normal. And that was something Buffy hadn’t felt in a very long time. She wasn’t sure normal was a state she could maintain long-term, but for now it made a nice change.

As Buffy set a little wooden snowman down in the box, something sharp poked her through a piece of tissue paper. Had they forgotten to hang one of their few decorations? She shook the paper off the loosely wrapped object and gasped. It was Tara’s athame, the obsidian-bladed ceremonial knife she’d inherited from her great-grandmother and kept on her private altar. After Tara’s death, Willow had given it to Buffy for safekeeping. Buffy had no idea how it had gotten in with the Christmas ornaments. Should she call Willow and ask her what to do with it?

Her hand was hesitating over her cell phone when the doorbell rang. Before she could get up from the couch, a Dawn-shaped blur zoomed past her, flung open the door, and threw itself into the waiting arms outside.

“Oh, shit,” Buffy said out loud, and headed for the door, fully prepared to confront an overdressed, pointy-eared Italian youth. But it was Xander, squeezing Dawn tight and looking as happy as Buffy had ever seen him. “Hey, Buf!” he managed to say before Buffy almost knocked both him and Dawn over with her own hug.

* * *

Once they were all settled in the living room with their own mugs of warm cider, the grilling began.

“What happened to not wanting to waste the African summer?” Buffy demanded.

“Oh, that was all bullshit,” Xander answered airily. “Dawn and I wanted to surprise you. There’s nothing much going on there between the solstice and the equinox, anyway.”

“Dawn! You were in on this?”

Dawn smirked. “Yup. I invited him months ago. I turned down two party invitations to be here tonight” — she turned and punched Xander in the shoulder — “so it’s a good thing you showed up when you did! You thought I was in a snit, didn’t you?” she added, turning back to Buffy.

“Yes,” Buffy admitted.

“Ha! I just didn’t want you to see me jumping up and down!” Dawn’s eyes danced as she edged down the couch closer to Xander. Buffy hadn’t seen her this excited in a long time.

Xander glanced into the ornament box. “Hey!” Carefully, he took out the knife. “Wasn’t this Tara’s?”

Dawn pulled Xander’s wrist toward her so she could see the blade. “I remember it from her altar. But I didn’t know we had it.”

“Willow asked me to keep it for her after Tara was killed,” Buffy explained. “I was about to call and ask her what to do with it when you got here, Xander.”

“She’s probably celebrating some kind of Wiccan New Year’s Eve thing tonight,” Dawn said. “Let’s not bug her about something that might make her sad. It can wait till tomorrow.”

“You’re right,” Xander said. “Let’s put this thing away.” As he wrapped a fresh sheet of tissue paper around it, the blade slipped and pricked his right index finger.

Dawn grabbed his hand. “Oh, no, are you okay?

“Uh… maybe?” he squeaked, as a drop of blood welled from the cut. “It doesn’t hurt much, but blood drawn by magical knives that belonged to dead witches… that’s never good.”

Buffy put her hand on his shoulder. “Xander, this was Tara’s knife. If there’s any part of her still tied to it… well, you know she’d never hurt you. Come on, let’s get you a band-aid.”

“I’ll do it!” Dawn pulled Xander off the couch and toward the bathroom. “Here, let me kiss it better.” Over her shoulder, she asked Buffy, “Do we have anything to eat? Xander’s come a long way to be here!”

“If you’d told me he was coming I’d have gone shopping! But I think we have some cheese.” Buffy headed for the tiny kitchen.

“You could bake up some of that frozen cookie dough!” Dawn called from the bathroom.

“What frozen cookie dough? Didn’t I tell you to cut back on the junk food?” Buffy yelled back, but she was smiling. She barely heard as Dawn called back through the closed bathroom door, “It was for some kid’s science camp fundraiser!”

Buffy rifled in the bottom refrigerator drawer for cheese and found some not-too-stale crackers in the cupboard. As she turned back to open the freezer, she saw a shimmery figure in front of the sink.


Okay. That was new.

“Hi?” Buffy tried not to stare, not very successfully. Anya’s hair was blonde and curled in a ’30s style that Buffy had always thought was one of her better looks, and she wore a midnight blue evening gown that would have fit right in at the royal gala scene in The Princess Diaries. She was also slightly translucent.

“Hello, Buffy. Don’t worry, I’m not the First Evil or anything creepy like that. Just a regular, ordinary ghost. Look, I can whoosh my hand right through you.” She demonstrated, making Buffy feel as if her intestines had been left out in a snowstorm while the rest of her sat by a cozy fire.

“That’s a relief. But what are you doing here? I mean, Xander’s blood, the knife, obviously. But why you instead of Tara? Hold on a sec, let me get this cookie dough out.” She found the package and set it on the counter, then turned back to Anya. “Don’t tell me you were Tara’s great-grandmother!”

Anya laughed. “Not me. There’s a funny story there — well, mostly funny. See, the one big personality flaw in Tara’s female line was that they tended to fall for men who really didn’t like women.”

“Yeah, I got that from meeting her family,” Buffy muttered, checking the package instructions and turning the oven on to preheat.

“So when Janet got sick of her husband using her for sparring practice, I showed up. But she was powerful enough to give him exactly what he deserved herself, with a few suggestions from me.” Buffy considered Anya’s vicious smile and decided against asking for details.

“Anyway, after the job was done, Janet and I got — close.” Could a ghost blush? Anya’s translucent face seemed to have taken on a pinkish hue, which was funny given that Buffy had never seen Anya embarrassed about anything. Maybe there was some vengeance demon taboo against getting involved with clients. “The knife was my parting gift to her. Naturally, it responds to blood . . . and because I was its last non-human owner, it summoned me,” she concluded.

“Makes sense, I guess. But why are you haunting me instead of Xander?” Buffy asked. By now she’d found a cookie sheet and was dropping cookie-dough pucks onto it. She took a bite: chocolate chip. Pretty delicious, even raw.

“Maybe because he’s making out with Dawn in the bathroom? I take it you hadn’t noticed how long they’ve been in there. Even for you, that’s remarkably oblivious.”

Buffy laughed. “No, Anya, even I could tell there was something going on between those two. Although I’d love to know how it started. I thought, you know, because it was Xander’s blood on the blade and he’s your, you know —“

“My ex-sweetie? Oh, you thought I’d be jealous.”

“Something like that,” Buffy admitted.

“Hee!” Ghost-Anya bounced up and down a little when she giggled. “That’s so sweet. No, we were on good terms when I died, so my interest in him now is purely protective. When I saw how well he and Dawn were doing, I was drawn toward the nearest person who needed my sensible, down-to-earth advice. And that was clearly you.”

“Me!” Buffy was indignant. “I’m totally fine! I don’t need any advice.” Especially not from a dead ex-vengeance demon, she added silently.

Anya raised an eyebrow. “Fine compared to what? True, you’re not as much of a mess as when first came back from the grave. But you waste your days in a dead-end job and your nights reading demon blogs. Is that really all you want out of life?”

“Maybe it’s all I want right now. It’s not forever.”

Anya sighed dramatically. “That’s what you tell yourself now. But look around you — ick, I think that’s a cockroach! There’s barely room for the three of us in here. And once the rent on this overpriced dump is paid, you hardly have enough money left for a manicure, much less any status indicators such as jewelry or large, powerful vehicles. Do you have any idea how many people have convinced themselves their lousy situation was ‘not forever’ and then wound up stuck in the same rut for the rest of their lives?”

Buffy put her hands on her hips and stared hard at Anya. “No, I don’t. How many?”

“Well. A lot.” Suddenly Anya looked around her nervously. “Hey, what time is it? Isn’t anyone else here besides Dawn and Xander?”

Buffy advanced toward Anya, who was beginning to shimmer apprehensively. “Enough of this. It’s obvious you didn’t show up here randomly, knife or no knife. Who’s behind all this? The truth, please, because Willow gave me some Ghost-Be-Gone powder, and I’m not afraid to use it.” Of course, that assumed she could find the box — was it still under the sink?

Anya was definitely looking worried now. “It’s funny you should mention Willow, because she did contact me —”

“Willow! But she’s the one who got me this job! That witch never knows when to stop interfering.” Buffy started to pull her cell phone out of her pocket.

“But it wasn’t her idea! It was — it was — I can’t tell you right now. Just go out on the balcony!” Anya faded and disappeared.

That was so typical. You could take the girl out of Sunnydale, but you couldn’t get rid of the wacky Sunnydale acquaintances no matter how hard you tried. Next thing Buffy knew, Clem — or his ghost — would show up at the door. If he had Cheetos or Buffalo wings with him, she’d welcome him in.

She put the cookies in the oven and set the timer: twelve minutes, according to the package. That was enough time to take a look outside. Making sure her stake was securely tucked into her waistband, she crossed the living room and stepped through the sliding glass door onto the slightly creaky balcony.

It was cool and damp outside. If she craned her neck out over the balcony railing, she could make out a star or two through the fog and the glare of the streetlights. The freeway traffic sounded almost like the ocean. In the big oak across the street, she suddenly spotted a pair of glowing orange eyes. Buffy stiffened and grabbed her stake — then realized they belonged to a raccoon. She settled down into the rickety papasan chair they kept outside. Might as well enjoy a quiet moment before all hell inevitably broke loose again.

Then she heard something that wasn’t traffic or the wind in the trees. It sounded like guitar chords. And someone was singing along.

“Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble,
If I stay it will be double.
So you’ve got to let me know,
Should I cool it or should I blow?”

She would know that voice in her sleep.

She looked down into the street. A black-coated figure stood, guitar resting on raised knee. Bleached blond hair shone in the streetlight. Another pair of eyes, this time icy blue, looked up at her. “Hope you like the Clash, Slayer.”

“Spike. I never knew you played guitar.”

“Long as I’ve been around, I could hardly avoid picking it up, could I? Needed something to do on all those long, boring, stoned days in the sixties and seventies.”

Good old Spike. The one vampire in all the world most likely to interrupt any given moment of peace in Buffy’s life. That couldn’t possibly be a flicker of excitement she felt. Surely intense irritation could create an equally fizzy sensation in the stomach. “As long as you’re here, I suppose you’d better come up.”

“Thought you’d never ask, Slayer.”

With a sigh, Buffy heaved herself out of the comfy chair. “Hold on, I’ll buzz you in.” But before she could get to the door, Spike swung over the balcony railing, acoustic guitar in hand.

“No need. ‘S an easy climb.”

“I know. Someone stole Dawn’s bike off this balcony last week. It’s not a great neighborhood.”

Spike helped himself to the chair. “So, no yelling? Now that I’m all recovered from destroying Los Angeles, you’re not going to shred me up and down for my ill-considered heroics and general idiocy?”

“What’s the point? I’ve finally learned that if you can’t change people, you really, really can’t change vampires. You’ll always be an idiot, Spike. I’ve accepted that.”

“That’s disturbin’. I was quite lookin’ forward to a classic Slayer reaming-out.” He raised his eyebrows and gave her the tiniest suggestion of a leer.

Unbelievable. No one could be quite as exasperating as Spike. She blew a big, wet raspberry at him. “Come on, Spike. After everything that’s happened, you didn’t think you could soften me up with your ghostly ambassadress and then have us start over again as if everything were the same as before, did you?”

“Maybe. Maybe I was hoping we could start over again as if everything were different.” He reached toward her hand, then started. “Wait — ghostly ambassadress?”

The timer beeped. “My cookies!” Buffy fled inside.

Spike followed her into the living room and nearly collided with Xander. Both men stopped short. “Harris.”

“Spike.” They looked each other up and own. Then both grinned maniacally and fell into a full bear hug, complete with back-pounding. Buffy blinked. Weren’t they supposed to hate each other?

“Ahem,” Xander coughed, pulling back. “Still don’t trust you, of course,”

“Ditto here, Harris,” Spike answered, still grinning.

Dawn came into the room still brushing her hair. “Spike!” she shrieked, and launched herself into his arms.

Spike brushed a mouthful of hair away from his face. “So I’m forgiven for dyin’ on you, Bit?” he asked.

“For dying to save the world, yes. For not calling us when you came back, no.” She swatted him with the hairbrush. “But I’ll scold you for that later. Right now I’m just happy to see you. Plus, I’m still mad at Buffy for not letting me come when she visited you guys in the hospital.”

Buffy returned with a plateful of cookies. “So that’s what the Euro-demon-spawn thing was — your revenge for me not letting you come along to find out whether all of southern California had been devastated, or only the demon-infested parts.”

Dawn grabbed a cookie. “That was part of it. Also, I was bored silly. That international school was way too easy.” She took three more cookies, handed one to Xander, and pulled him down on the couch next to her.

Spike sidled over to Buffy and took a bite out of a cookie. “Mmm. Just right,” he said with a smirk. Dropping his voice, he whispered in her ear, “There’s something going on between those two. I caught their scent on each other.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “I figured that out an hour ago. You don’t need vampire smellivision to see what’s right in front of your nose. Jeez, all you supernatural types seem to think I’m blind. And don’t think I’m not getting your disgusting cookie innuendo, either.” She took Spike’s shoulders and turned him toward the kitchen. “If you want to be helpful, go get the cheese tray,” she said in a louder voice. “And then you can tell me exactly why you sent Anya’s ghost here.”

Xander and Dawn broke eye contact. “Anya’s ghost?” Xander demanded. “What in the seven sweet realms of sensual pleasure are you talking about?” A moment later his brain caught up with his mouth, and he blushed fiery red.

Dawn patted his shoulder. “It’s okay, Xander. I know you and Anya did things together that you’d be embarrassed to even think about with me in the room. We can discuss that in private later.” She grinned so impishly that Buffy didn’t know whether to take her seriously or not. For now, Buffy just glared at her, but a Talk was definitely on the agenda.

Buffy sat down in the room’s only armchair — Spike could make do with a folding chair. Returning from the kitchen, Spike took the small Christmas tree off the coffee table, set the cheese tray in its place, turned a folding chair around, and straddled it in a classic “Aren’t-I-Manly” pose. Then he ruined the effect by resting his chin on the back and making puppy eyes at Buffy.

Buffy fought to keep from laughing. “Come on, Spike,” she said with all the severity she could muster. “Clue us in.”

Spike straightened. “No matter what you think, Slayer, it wasn’t my idea. Anya wasn’t even supposed to be here yet. Red set the whole thing up—“

“Please. I know Willow handled the magic, but this has your sneaky fingerprints all over it.”

“Yeh, I was in on it too. But it was the Watcher who put her up to it.”

“Giles?” Buffy almost stood up, but remembered in time that if she did, Spike would surely steal her chair. “I can’t wait to hear this.”

As if on cue, the doorbell rang, and Dawn darted over to open the door. “Giles! What a coincidence — we were just talking about you.”

“Dawn. Lovely to see you.” Giles looked around the room and smiled. “I see we’re almost all here. May I sit down?”

Wordlessly, Buffy gestured toward the second folding chair.

Giles folded his coat over the back of the chair and sat. “Dawn said you were speaking of me?” Buffy glared at him. He sighed. “I take it Spike hasn’t managed to explain yet.”

“Ah, you know I’d just bollock it up, Watcher,” Spike said. “Best you do it.”

“Thank you so much, Spike. Let’s wait a moment and see who else turns up, shall we? May I have some of that cheese?” As Giles reached toward the coffee table, a sparkly blur appeared at the far end of the room and resolved into Willow.

“Will! You’ve been practicing the transporter beam effect!” Xander looked almost as thrilled as he’d been when he first saw Dawn.

Buffy looked slowly around the room. “So, the gang’s all here. What is this, some kind of post-apocalyptic reunion?” Suddenly she shuddered. A gathering of this group could only mean one thing, and it wasn’t good. She should have guessed sooner. “Great. The world’s about to end again, right? I knew this was too good to last.” To her horror, she began to cry.

Her friends surrounded her. Willow grasped her hand, Giles patted her shoulder, and Spike stood quietly behind her. “No, Buffy, honey,” Willow said, “it’s the first thing. The post-apocalyptic reunion. Giles and I felt bad about how we left things with you last spring, and we didn’t want to let the new year start without trying to make them right.”

“We didn’t feel it was fair to Xander to get him involved in the magical end, but it was important that he attend. So we asked Dawn to invite him here for a surprise New Year’s party,” Giles added.

“We got pretty friendly on e-mail over the past few months,” Dawn put in.

“So I noticed,” Buffy said, choking back a last hiccupy sob. “But what was Anya doing here?”

“She already came?” Willow asked, sounding annoyed.

Spike nodded. “Apparently I just missed her.”

Willow shook her head. “What time did she get here?”

“About nine,” Buffy said.

“She must have accidentally come in on east coast time. She was supposed to be here at midnight. Maybe she’ll be able to come back.”

“So it was just — just a visit? Auld lang syne and all that?” Buffy couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

“Not only that.” Giles said. “There is a ritual — for letting go of the past and moving on. We needed the group of people with the deepest emotional ties who were present at the closing of the Hellmouth.”

“So, Kennedy’s coming too, then?” Dawn asked with faux innocence.

Willow leveled a flat gaze at her. “Kennedy who?”

Dawn shrank into the couch and, conveniently, Xander. “Pretend I didn’t say anything. No, wait — if Anya wasn’t supposed to be here before, was Xander not supposed to prick himself with Tara’s knife?”

Willow looked serious. “Xander cut himself with Tara’s athame? Uh-oh!” Xander turned pale. “Ha! Gotcha. No, it wasn’t part of our plan, but it’s possible Anya gave the knife a nudge. Anyway, no big deal. She didn’t seem mad, did she?”

“Not at all,” Buffy told her. Xander sighed with relief. “But what’s the deal with this ritual?”

“Pretty straightforward,” Willow said. She snapped her fingers and a carpet bag appeared on the floor. “Candles, herbs, some incantations. Your basic cleansing.”

Buffy shook her head. She loved her friends, but when would they understand that she was managing fine on her own? “I don’t think so, you guys. I mean, I appreciate all the trouble you went to to get everyone here. But I don’t feel like I need cleansing.”

“Me neither!” Xander put in. “I shower every morning! When I’m in the States, anyway.”

“Seriously,” Buffy said. “I know you’re all worried about me, with the nothing job and the blechy apartment and the me not calling you for months. Anya already gave me the speech. But I feel good. I feel like this is where I need to be right now. Also, no offense, Willow, but some of your ‘cleansing’ spells in the past didn’t turn out so well.”

Willow hung her head. “I know, Buffy, and I’m sorry. But this would be different. I think Anya may have misunderstood our purpose here.”

“I hope so,” Buffy said. “Her main goal seemed to be getting me all panicky about the size of my kitchen and my salary.”

“That would be so Anya,” Xander sighed, a touch wistfully. Dawn gave him a mean squint but let the comment pass.

“And so not the point,” Willow said. “This is just to clear out the old magical energy that’s hanging onto us from the Hellmouth. It only takes a few minutes, and I promise there’s no memory loss involved. It’ll be good for all of us.”

Buffy looked at her friends’ faces. Was it possible this was actually a good idea? “What do the rest of you think? Giles, why is this so important to you?”

Giles was silent for a moment, and Buffy had a sudden memory of how he’d looked when she’d first met him. She’d always thought he was old, but now he was — older. He knelt on the floor beside her chair and looked up at her.

“Buffy, when people go through the things we’ve all been through, it leaves — marks. Not just on our hearts and our memories, but also on our spirits. Dark energy signatures, to use a term that Xander would understand, that cling to us long after the supernatural danger is past. They can draw additional negative energy toward us, and they can negatively affect our judgment. We all know how suddenly time can run out. I don’t want any of us to waste whatever time we have left fighting old battles. I want a fresh start. For myself, and for all of you.”

Spike touched her arm gently. “It’s not to make you get a better job or a new apartment, or start patrolling again. None of that, I promise you. It’s just to free us all to take the next step, whatever that may be.”

Buffy looked up into his eyes. “And you think I haven’t taken the next step yet?”

He shook his head. “You have, maybe more than the rest of us. But I can’t help wondering how much faster you’ll be able move forward if we do this. And we lot can’t do it without you.”

Was she crazy, or was Spike talking sense? “Xander? Dawn?” she asked. “Do you want to do this?”

Dawn and Xander looked at each other and shrugged. “Sure, why not?” Xander said. “It’s not like there’s ever been a problem with any of Willow’s spells.” Dawn giggled. Xander joined her. They collapsed together in a giggle fit that lasted a full minute. Buffy and the others sighed and waited for them to ride it out.

“No, really,” Xander continued when he could talk again, “Will’s been working with the coven to control her magic for a couple of years now, and if you recall, that last big spell she cast worked out pretty well for the world. If she says it’ll help us, I trust her.”

“What he said,” Dawn added. “I don’t like the idea of dark energy sticking to me. It sounds gross.”

“I understand why you might not trust my judgment,” Willow said. “But do you think Giles and Spike would go along with it if there were any risk at all?”

“You know I wouldn’t,” Spike said in a low growl.

Buffy looked around the room. No matter how much they might annoy her, these people were all the family she had left. And if there were really some way to lessen the effects of all the hells they’d been through together, she wasn’t going to be the one to stop it from happening.

“Okay,” Buffy said. “I’ll do it. How long will it take you to set up?”

“About half an hour,” Willow said.

“In that case, I’m ordering pizza, ’cause we don’t have enough cheese to go around.”

* * *

The ritual was as simple as Willow had promised it would be. A sacred circle was marked on the rental carpet, in a grayish powder that Willow promised would come right up with a little vacuuming. There were multicolored candles, strange-smelling herbs, weird-sounding incantations. There was hand-holding and eye-closing and tasting of unidentified liquids. Buffy was pretty sure she saw Anya shimmer in again for a moment. At the end they put the “Charlie Brown” music back on and all did the Snoopy dance together — even Giles. Then they finished the pizza and shared the last of the spiced cider.

Dawn raised her mug in a toast. “We’ll drink a cup o’ kindness yet!” she quoted.

Giles smiled. “Yes, and not just for Auld Lang Syne. If the ritual’s done its job, for new acquaintance as well.”

Buffy felt completely unchanged.

The others were all very tired, though. Dawn and Xander sneaked into Dawn’s room when they thought no one was looking. Buffy peeked in a few minutes later and saw them both sound asleep on the bed, fully clothed. She and Dawn had better have that Talk ASAP, she thought as she closed the door. Giles was sacked out on the couch, and Willow had pulled a sleeping bag and pillow out of her carpet bag and stretched out on the floor by the half-dismantled Christmas tree.

Spike was on the balcony dozing in the papasan chair. She went out and shook him, hard.

“Get up, sleepyhead! You can’t stay out here all night unless you want to wake up dust.” He murmured and stirred in the chair, but his eyes stayed closed. “Spike. There are nice thick curtains in my room. You can sleep here tonight and stay in tomorrow till it’s dark enough for you to leave.”

Suddenly a steely hand circled her wrist and pulled, and she found herself in Spike’s lap. “Mmm. Did I hear you say something about your bedroom?” Spike’s eyes opened lazily, and yes, that was a definite leer on his face. Buffy waited for the urge to jump out of Spike’s lap and say something mean and cutting.

It didn’t come.

Instead, she wriggled a little in his lap, enjoying the response she felt beneath her, and leaned her head back against his shoulder. This felt good. Not creepy-good. Not you’ll-be-so-sorry-in-the-morning good. It felt just plain good. Which was weird.

No matter. She wasn’t going to blow it this time. At least, not yet.

There was no need to make this too easy on him, though. “I said you could sleep here tonight. I don’t recall making any other offers.”

Spike snugged his arm around her. “Last time I had you in my lap like this was after another of the little witch’s spells.”

“Oh, that.” Buffy laughed ruefully, remembering their brief engagement. “You don’t suppose this is another magical screw-up, do you? Maybe we’re really still mortal enemies.”

“Hmm. Better check.” He turned to face her and, very gently, kissed her. His cool lips against hers felt familiar and yet, somehow, new. “That doesn’t feel like any mortal enemy I’ve met before.”

She looked at his beautiful face. There was so much they needed to talk about, so many things they had to get clear. But right here, right now, she was just happy to be with him. Maybe the magic had worked after all.

She jumped out of the chair. “Hey, what time is it?”

Spike looked at his watch. “It’s gone one o’clock.”

“The new year’s here, then. Maybe it’s time for a project restart.”

“A which what?”

“A project restart. That’s techie talk for when your initial approach to a project is a total failure and you have to go back to the beginning and start all over again.”

“And since when do you talk like a techie?” A small smile played over Spike’s lips. Was he laughing at her — or could he possibly be a little impressed? Calm flooded through her. She wasn’t wasting her time here. She was learning — about work, about life, about the world beyond Sunnydale. Sometimes she even noticed it happening. Maybe Spike would notice too.

“Since a tech firm gave me a regular job that pays real money.” She yanked at his arm. “Come on, Spike. Come sleep in my room with me. That’s something we’ve never done before — spend the whole night together in my normal bed, where I sleep on normal nights.”

Spike jumped up. “No need to invite me twice! Lead the way, lady.”

Once in her room, she was overtaken by exhaustion. She kicked off her shoes, Spike pulled off his coat and boots, and they fell down next to each other, still dressed. As they settled down together on her lumpy futon, Buffy could have sworn she heard faint guitar chords. “Should I stay or should I go, now?” echoed somewhere — she couldn’t tell if it was inside her mind or outside.

“You should stay,” she murmured, and fell asleep.


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