Fic: ‘Turn and Face the Strain’ 1/15 by Quinara [strongish R]

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Turn and Face the Strain
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Hi! I have a novel-length fic for seasonal_spuffy this round, which is completed, but which I’m not going to post in its entirety today, because I don’t want to overload the world with ~80,000 words and because I still need to edit bits. Instead I’ve got the first six chapters, ~30,000 words, which I’ll post over the course of the day and then I’ll make sure to have the rest up on the free-for-all day. This will be either on the comm itself (the current plan) or on my journal, which I’ll make sure to link to, so you won’t be left hanging for any more than a week! The rationale behind going with six chapters today rather than a few more, also, is because they do make something of a self-contained arc/story-bit on their own, so what’s up today comes to a certain sort of pause before the nine chapters afterwards respond to it.

Turn and Face the Strain.
[Sequel to The More Things Stay the Same and As Good as a Rest.]

When Buffy thought about falling in love again, she didn’t expect it to be nearly so complicated as it actually turns out to be.
Also, she didn’t expect it to be Spike. (She’s not sure he did either.)

Author: Quinara
Rating: R…? I’m not sure I even know anymore with ratings, but there’s sex in it and people swear lots and (gasp) I think there’s some underage drinking too, which probably needs to be censored. ;)
Length: ~80,000 words in total; ~33,000 words today; chapters are generally between 5000 and 6000 words.
Setting: Late S6, AU As You Were (and so much more! Not least in an AU AtS S3…)
Notes: Many thanks to the fabulous bogwitch for putting up with me and being my beta! This is the final story in a series I’ve written for the previous two rounds of seasonal_spuffy, consisting of The More Things Stay the Same and As Good as a Rest. I think what I’m posting today probably could stand on its own as a S6 AU, but I do follow up some stuff that happens in the previous fics, because it’s a sequel. The main thing is that Dead Things went differently and some stuff happened in LA. Other stuff happened around Buffy’s birthday.
Warnings: I don’t think this would need any of the AO3 listed warnings. I think the genre of this is much more of a drama-going-on-mystery-ish-adventure story, so it’s mostly in line with the show in terms of what it involves.

Chapter One: I’m Not a Political Animal, But.

So, it wasn’t Tuesday anymore.

In fact, three nights had passed since Tuesday night, which made it Saturday, the least threatening day of the week. Buffy was out of the hospital, as of last night, and she was feeling great, walking with her guy-boyfriend-vampire-guy to the Magic Box, where Anya had some money paperwork to go over with her. Then it would be off to work, for her least hated shift of two till eleven.

OK, so they were walking through the sewers, which were smelly – and her left collarbone was still broken where she’d been shot. But that bone wasn’t so vital; she had a brace-thing on to keep it straight while she healed, hidden under her shirt. Everything was great.

“Look, I know you’re the Slayer, yeah?”

Her only problem was Spike.

He was grousing, “But even you need to rest up sometimes.”

Scowling, she turned to glare at him again, seriously irritated by the earnest look of concern on his face. She’d told him she was fine to work about a hundred times already that morning, but it seemed like he still didn’t believe her – if he was even listening at all. In the gloom of the underground he looked almost like a ghost with his pale skin and white hair; for a moment she wished she could bat him away like vapour, or else exorcise him, something like that.

The answer you’re looking for, Buffy, is staking him…

When her brain put it like that, of course, it was obviously not going to happen. Stupid brain.

“Will you at least accept what you’re doing is bloody ridiculous?” He was still talking, fidgeting with frustration, scowling a scowl to match hers. “Know I can’t stop you doing it, but could you at least accept that?”

Their arguing was pretty sophisticated these days. No longer were they able to go at it with even the pretence they were fighting to the death, so somehow along the way they’d ended up with this: point-scoring. Wheedling little suggestions that actually meant she would be yielding ground.

Yeah, like she was ever going to fall for that.

It was possibly true, Buffy accepted, that going back to work less than four days after getting shot in the shoulder was not the best idea she’d ever had. At the same time, she was extremely unclear on what alternative there actually was. This was the point where her argument rested, she supposed, but she’d been trying to convince Spike that she was OK for so many hours now that it felt like giving up to, well, give up on the idea.

Thankfully, while they no longer fought fights to the death, there was the other thing they did – and that had been known to move them past many an argument. This time, Buffy hoped, she would at least be able to distract Spike enough that they could get to the Magic Box.

And so, meeting the fire of Spike’s glare with a challenging raise of her eyebrows, she shoved him back against the sewer wall and followed up with the best make out-instigating kiss she had in her repertoire. It was a one-handed shove from her right hand – her left hand, attached to her left arm and her unhealed left shoulder, that was resting in her front pocket – but it had much the same effect as a two-handed push:

Ha! A gasp of surprise, slammed out of him.

Ooh… A hand in her hair, forcing fingers behind her stubby pony tail.

Guh. Another hand on her ass, groping hesitantly before it dragged her closer.

And finally: “You really – know how to romance a bloke, don’t you?” murmured between kisses, half amused and half annoyed.

Yanking on his shirt, she was fine with all of it. “Screw romance,” she told him, and he shrugged, doing so.

Now, it was important to remember that they weren’t like this all the time. Sometimes they were so romantic Buffy thought it shouldn’t be allowed.

Like last night, for instance. She’d come home from the hospital expecting a warm and comfy bed, but otherwise maybe some cold pizza and flat soda. What there had actually been was presents – more presents! – and something like a party again, which had been –

Well, actually, it had been really nice, even if it had been a little weird…

It was weird to be out of her hospital gown, not to mention her bed, but here she was. At home, she was dressed up nice clothes, new clothes even, courtesy of one vampire boyfriend who’d bought her a slinky, shiny black shirt with an easy-access zip up the back, and she was dancing around the living room, outfit completed by the necklace Dawn had got her.

Before the secret fizzy wine had been unveiled – because there was fizzy wine, apparently, which had been kept hidden so as to be opened in celebration after her birthday went by without mishap (ha!) – her dancing had been full of energy, mostly silly grooving with Dawn to guilty pleasure 80s CDs. After a cake break, though, and her decision that one full glass three hours after painkillers wouldn’t kill her, even the bubbles hadn’t been enough to keep her from feeling mellow. Dawn had been bought off with one cranapple mimosa in a moment of irresponsible guardianship; Willow had slumped happily onto the couch the moment the three-CD stereo decided it was time to move on to an angsty woman singer-songwriting through her pain. She, on the other hand, had made Spike dance with her, step her around in slow circles so she could rest her head on his shoulder.

At one point, because it seemed like the thing to do, she ducked up her chin and kissed him, all slow and photogenic like in the movies, not an embarrassing PDA at all. After she’d started, though, there didn’t seem much reason why she couldn’t kiss him again, and then a little bit more. He didn’t seem to mind.

Eyes closed, unfortunately, her train of thought drifted at that moment, and she only remembered where they were when the CD came to the end. The changer didn’t want to go back to the beginning, just like always, and it was buzzing at them instead of co-operating.

Buffy blinked, pulling back slightly to look around. “Oh,” she said, her body full of warmth. “Where did Dawn and Willow go?” All the downstairs was dark, apart from the living room, like the lights had been turned off.

“Think they went to bed, love,” Spike suggested, reluctantly letting her go to turn off the stereo. “Does it matter?”

Oh god, Buffy thought, this was embarrassing. How had she not noticed them leaving? Had they tried to tell her? She thought maybe she remembered Willow’s voice saying something, but it was all a blur of Spike hands and Spike lips and Spike smell and… Could she blame it on the medication?

Her thoughts were interrupted as the Spike parts returned, hands smoothing around her waist and lips nibbling on her ear. She moaned. It really didn’t matter, did it?

“Come on,” he whispered wickedly, sending shivers through her body.

She took his hand when he proffered it, and then he was spiriting her upstairs, leading her with nimble, hurried footsteps into the bathroom. It took a moment for her drug-addled brain to work out why that was where they were going, but then she remembered – Tara’s presents from her actual birthday, they were in the bathroom, waiting to be tried and tested and enjoyed. Aromatherapeutic magicky bath oils, all of which promised to be nice, but one particular sneaky-naughty sexy one that really needed to be tried out right now.

It was hidden behind her shampoo and shower gel collection on the window sill, but Spike retrieved it unerringly. When they’d made plans in the hospital, sneaky-naughty plans, she’d asked him to hide it out of sight from Dawn (whose toiletry collection was in the other corner) and Willow (who kept hers in her room), but now he was passing it to her, encouraging her to pour some into the bath as he turned on taps and snicked the door closed shut behind them.

Immediately she knew the oil was powerful stuff. The scent bloomed in the running water and the warmth inside her, it responded to it, swelling, crackling with energy. In a moment she had recorked the bottle and turned to kiss Spike again, loving the feel of him as her hand swept everywhere she could reach. He purred as he undressed her, a thick rumble to his moan as he carefully helped her out of all the clothes he’d helped her put on so recently. She did what she could to get him out of his.

Even when the clothes were all gone, however, she wasn’t entirely undressed. “This the new toy, then?” Spike asked in a husky murmur, like he hadn’t already seen her brace that evening. His fingers traced the path of it, figure-of-eight around one shoulder, across her back, around the other, grazing up beside her breast again to make her quiver. The sound of rushing water was like the blood rushing from her head. “Bit flimsy, innit?”

“It keeps the bones in line,” she told him, like he didn’t already know. His fingers felt so good on the stretch-synthetic. “So I can heal.”

“Love what it does for your posture,” he added, possibly ignoring her, definitely feeling her up and dropping kisses to her sternum, around curves. The promise of his very excellent boob-kisses made her tingle with anticipation – but that wasn’t where he headed. Instead he went out along her right collarbone, which was unbroken, but still held poker-straight by her brace. Coming up to nibble her neck for a moment, he whispered, “Love being able to feel your heartbeat,” doing something fun with his right hand.

With a deep groan from somewhere low inside her, she was tilting her head back, eyes hooded and vision flickering between darkness and ceiling. She wasn’t sure what to do but keep her right hand on his hip, but she was willing to go with whatever. As his lips moved around to the other side of her neck, however, her heart definitely quickened – breath came in rasps as his lips moved down her shoulder, closer to the wound.

She knew what he was looking at. On her, skin healed quickest, but it healed in its own way. There was no dressing and three days was enough that her surgery scar was faint, stitches dissolving in overactive enzymes – but the bruises weren’t quite yet dispersed and the bullet wound itself was still puckered and raw.

The whole area was, by definition, sensitive, but now lips were edging close, teasing, pushing, just the right side of pain.

Around her, the bathroom was filling with steam, the scent of rich, golden spices strong and intoxicating. Whatever the magic was, she could feel it, swirling into her skin with the sinuous promise of something really good – with his kissing, with the curling hints of pain as his lips touched deeper bruises, her insides were winding up tighter and tighter, eased and twisted into perfect tension.

Was that…?

She moaned, unable to think as her eyes fell completely shut. Her legs were shaking; he had to hold her up.

For a few more kisses, this was as far as he went, but then, because she was on the edge and apparently he could read her very, very well, Spike went for broke and kissed right where the bullet had pierced skin, shattered through her. It hurt, his lips too rough on raw nerves, enough to make her flinch and jar the knitting bone – but, even as she gasped, every muscle in her fought back against pain, claiming pleasure in one slow shimmy from every tense, coiled nerve.

Spike still had a hand on her heart, she realised afterwards, coming back to the sound of water. That had to have given her away.

Those eyebrows of his were definitely raised. “Did you – ” he began, sounding shocked, with only the first hints of smugness. “Did you really just – ?”

Hit the big O through nothing more than his tonguing of her injury? She had a horrible feeling, which wasn’t actually that horrible, the answer was yes. “And we’re, what, surprised by this?” she asked, trying to deflect through her embarrassment. It had actually only been a little O, really, not anything to write home about – and how different was this from all the post-fighting sex they had anyway? The magic bath oil, that was definitely to blame. She was blaming that.

“Know you can do a bit of…” Spike was saying, looking at her with his big blue eyes. “Never thought you’d trust me enough to get there, is all.”

Stunned, she stared at him for a moment, all defensiveness gone. The thoughts she could feel coming were way too big to deal with right at that moment, so she kissed him instead, right hand to his face. Fuckety fuck, the steam was making his body warm up – “Get in the magic bath, Spike,” she told him. All of a sudden she was certain they had no time to lose. “Now.

It wasn’t really fair to fantasise while Spike was kissing her. Even if sewer wasn’t very nice to make out in, the wall slimy and sticky behind her head, it was only polite to pay attention. No matter how special the night before had been.

Buffy figured she should probably tell Tara that her recipe was a little over-juiced, anyway, because topping up the water however many times it took to get them from eleven to twenty-past-two in the morning wasn’t her normal bathing behaviour. It was fine for one night, and a lot of fun, but it had been a little house-of-the-never-ending-Riley-time. It had left her pruney. And now she’d never know what it would have been like without the magic, even though she hoped it would have been just as good. The had the reputation, after all, of being able to sexify the hell out of any situation.

Like this trip through the sewers, for example.

Seriously, Buffy thought as she moaned around Spike’s tongue, they were going to be late for seeing the others at the Magic Box if they kept this up. Anya was a pretty strict timekeeper. That wasn’t to say she didn’t want Spike’s mind off of things, but it was probably time to get…

“You know you can’t distract me,” Spike murmured then, cheek sliding against hers a moment before she was going to pull back from the kiss (dammit).

She felt thwarted. “Who says I’m trying?” she attempted to regroup, batting her eyelids just a little.

That made him laugh, but he didn’t fall for it, just hoicked her indelicately up the thigh of his she was straddling. It forced her to grab hold of his shoulder, which was enough of an excuse to kiss him one last time. “Besotted though I am, love,” he told her afterwards, “I can tell when your mind’s on other things.” He looked at her down his nose, accusing like he’d figured out she’d been fantasising. “Not going anywhere if I can’t take you with me.”

No longer in the mood to argue, she sighed, relaxing against him. “You just want me for yourself,” she grumbled grudgingly. The tone was rather undone by her actions, of course, as she hooked her right arm further around him, satisfied her fingers with his hairline. Not that he didn’t start playing the bottom poppers of her DMP uniform shirt. It was kind of a shame that was actually relevant to this particular argument. “You’d be the same if I wanted to get out to the park, arm-schmarm.”

“No,” he began, like he was talking to a small child, before he pulled back to look her in the eye. “If I wanted you to myself, you’d know it. There’d be chains involved. Less of this daft notion called clothing. Maybe a blindfold.”

Was she meant to smack him for that image? He had to be able to feel how much suggestion was really not necessary right now – she could definitely feel him. “OK, fine,” said, avoiding violence for the moment. “So in a perfect world you’d wanna roleplay through the pain of me rejecting you that time, but don’t think I don’t know you’re big –”

“Noticed that, did you?”

“– on the opportunism.” She threatened him with her glare, until he smirked and hoicked her again, letting her measure. Sewer water splashed as he shifted his feet for balance. “Look,” she insisted, refusing to let him distract her, especially since she’d failed on him. It was time to get serious. “I told you – there’s no way I can’t go back to work.” There had been a long time to think about this yesterday when she’d been lying in her hospital bed and she’d worked it all through to exhaustion. “I need the money and they told me on the phone, I don’t get any more days off.” That was what it came down to. “I have to be grateful I’m not on shift for –”

Grateful?” Spike guffawed, still holding her. The gloom of the sewer really did make his face that much whiter, the lines of his features and his incredulity that much sharper. “To the Doubleshit Hellhole? I don’t think so.” She could get lost, watching him feel things. “You’re the one who’s doing them a favour, just by being there.”

Still shaking off distraction, Buffy remembered to listen. “Dammit, Spike –” So, all right, it was sweet and everything, but they were going to work on the idea that her presence or absence was some sort of pricey commodity she traded on a barter exchange. Fine, so she gave him a kiss for the sweetness – made it slow because his presence felt like a gift sometimes too, even though she wasn’t meant to be thinking that right now – but they were going to work on it later. “– it’s not like I wanna be, but they pay my paycheque and I need that paycheque, so they can really do whatever they want. If I want Lorraine to be nice to me I have to be grateful to her.”

Now Buffy expected him to bring up Kate’s job offer again, make more encouraging noises towards the idea of her as a cop. It hadn’t actually completely vanished from her own mind, but she figured copping was a profession that needed both hands functioning even more than fast-food, so it was being ignored for the moment. What Spike in fact said, however, was, “I can get you money.” It came with a resentful little pout.

The unexpected made her worry, so this wasn’t good. It made her wonder what the hell he’d been doing between visiting hours. “And I’m really, really glad you won’t,” she told him carefully, keeping her eyes on his. Presents were fine, she would accept non-excessive levels of present, but taking his money was in no way ever an acceptable solution to her financial hole, especially when it came from gambling wins and skeevy deals. “OK?”

Spike looked away at that moment, which made her stomach sink, but she wasn’t going to accuse without proof. She wasn’t. It wasn’t worth it. And she was still shoring up energy before she put her achey arm back to work.

“Come on,” Buffy said, regaining her footing and letting him go with one last stroke of his cheek. “The others are gonna start wondering where we are.”

Spike snorted, telling her exactly where the others would imagine them to be: in bed, where, so she bet Spike thought, in a good world they’d still be. All the same, he levered himself back from her and followed as she headed off down the last stretch of tunnel to the Magic Box.

However, outside the basement entrance – the sign of eviller proprietors past? – Spike snagged hold of her right hand, running his thumb across the back of it. Quite voluntarily she turned towards him, surprised, but not particularly.

The look in his eyes spoke volumes. “If we’re already late,” he suggested, slowly, like he’d just solved a puzzle, “they won’t notice another few minutes.”

For a moment she thought about it. Then she conceded that it was a very good point. Also, she’d spent three days in a hospital out of her mind with boredom, so she was due some spontaneity. “Hmm,” she hesitated, looking down between them. Also. “I suppose I could use the endorph–” Suddenly, then, she was squealing as he pounced, caught her underneath her thighs and spun her around in the gentlest wall-slam ever. “Spike!” Her shoulder didn’t even feel it, let alone jar.

This was the problem with her earlier strategy, she realised. While sewers didn’t do much for her on their own, she hadn’t left either of them in much of a state to stop – and they were late, getting later. Even after they’d left the house on time.

Although, with his mouth back on hers, she wasn’t sure she minded.

“Mmm…” She gave in, running her good hand back up the addictive angles of his jaw, wishing she could cover more of him, if only to shut him up.

The bastard was so goddamn mocking. “Endorphins, you said?”

She was getting some right this minute. Not that she was telling him that. “If you can spare the effort.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” he purred, lifting her higher. He met her eyes, almost certainly to check she was there. An easy test to ace these days. “Doctor Spike is in.”

At that, however, Buffy sighed. Some people shouldn’t be allowed to make jokes.

Or at least… Ah, screw it. “Not yet he isn’t.”

When they finally made it into the Magic Box, giggling through the basement and up the stairs, Buffy was more than a little surprised to find the place practically empty. Anya was just finishing with a customer at the cash register and Tara was sat at the table, cup of tea by her side while she studied, but Willow and Xander were nowhere to be seen.

“Hey, guys,” Buffy said, remembering to drop Spike’s hand. He headed off to the restricted section stairs so he could lurk. “Where is everyone?”

“Oh, hey, Buffy!” Tara replied, looking up with a smile. She took a sip of her tea, tilting the cup enough that Buffy could tell it wasn’t freshly made. “We weren’t sure you were gonna make it.”

It had only been… Well, it had been about twenty-five minutes, she guessed – yeah, they were only twenty minutes late, she confirmed by the clock on the wall. There were still forty before she needed to be at the Palace. Was it that bad?

“Xander has a tux fitting,” Anya replied more bluntly once her customer had left, dinging bell in his wake. “Willow had to go to the library.”

“Oh,” was all Buffy could say, feeling like a terrible friend. On the upside, this group did mean that Spike came over to the table and looked ready to lounge on the bench proper, not too far away from Tara. Even if he did make a face like he was offended by the herbal smell Tara’s tea. Buffy rolled her eyes, because he always overreacted to things he disapproved of; it wasn’t like he hadn’t just made it complaint-free through the smelly heartland of the Sunnydale sewers, after all.

At least Tara looked amused. “It’s ginseng, Spike. Hello to you too.”

“’lo,” he replied, absently. Buffy gave up and sat down with Anya, just as Spike started heading to the back room. “Watcher leave any scotch behind, d’you know?”

“It’s one-thirty in the afternoon!” Buffy shouted after him, hoping to at least maintain the pretence that she encouraged good habits.

The reply he shouted back was as she might have expected. “I know! Need to start catching up!”

“Look, can we get moving here, please!” Anya interrupted, officiously shuffling some papers Buffy had thought were more of Tara’s notes. “I’m under a lot of stress; I’m getting married in a couple weeks and have been compulsively eating fried food – we don’t have time for arguments about alcohol that Giles was never gonna…” Spike came out of the back room then, tossing a minibar bottle of Glen-probably-something triumphantly in his hand before the sound made Anya turn around. And glare at him.

“Christ, it’s a laugh a minute with you lot, innit?” Spike grumped. Buffy tried not to be amused. As luck would have it, he provided a convenient distraction as he sauntered back to the table, shaking his head as he and his criminally tight jeans bent physics to bring him to sitting by her side.

Anya, however, continued to glower. “Buffy,” she bit out, “you have lichen in your hair,”

Compulsively, Buffy raised her hand, feeling the twinge in her left shoulder where the reflex had moved some muscles. That boded well, didn’t it? “Oh… Crap,” she said, blushing, trying to feel where the lichen was. Her fingers ran into Spike’s as he rooted it out for her, but that only made her blush more. “The sewers,” she tried to excuse herself, batting Spike’s hand away. “Um, we were in the sewers and I must’ve… Can lichen, uh, fall off stuff?”

Abruptly, Anya harrumphed, turning over her papers again, which made Buffy feel really bad.

“It’s OK,” Tara soothed nonetheless, even as Spike tossed the lichen away and started unscrewing his mini bottle. “There was some – stress before you came.” After another sip of her tea, apparently taken reflexively, she continued, “And you’re still healing up; you deserve time – to, um…” Her eyes ducked away for a moment, but Buffy wasn’t entirely fooled – she could see the humour in the other woman’s smile. Oh yes, she was onto her, the crafty sex-witch woman. “Don’t worry about it.”

Unfortunately, Spike was too, and he took his cue to run one wicked hand up her thigh until it jumped. Buffy blushed harder, hoping no one had noticed.

“What was the stress?” she blustered on, hoping to change the subject. Not sure that she actually would. “It wasn’t…?” Things in the hospital had been pretty hazy, but she thought she remembered everyone being fine with her and Spike. That couldn’t have been it, could it?

Tara shook her head, but that could have meant anything, so Buffy turned to Anya, who sighed – almost an apology, Buffy decided. “Willow thinks Tara’s screwing Kate,” Anya explained then, leaning on her elbows to play with her engagement ring.

At Buffy’s side and quicker on the uptake than her, Spike snorted. He turned it into a cough when Buffy kicked him, but it was enough to make Tara blush defensively. “She doesn’t think that really.” Buffy wasn’t sure what that meant; was it anything to worry about? Was that why Willow wasn’t here? Waving a hand, Tara seemed to dismiss the topic, but she was still talking, like she’d been thinking, “I mentioned that we met up last night… I think Willow was hoping I’d make it clear we weren’t dating, but I didn’t want to get into – that sort of game, you know, so I didn’t. And then Anya –”

“All I said,” Anya repeated, clearly still annoyed about it, but apparently now willing to take Buffy into her confidence, rather than just project irritation, “was that her social possessiveness was a character fault that she should work on.” Buffy winced; it made Anya bristle again. “What? It’s not like she doesn’t comment on what I do all the goddamn…”

Anyway.” Tara clawed the conversation back to her. “None of that’s really important, and the main thing is that Kate said she could take you down to LA Monday,” she finished with a smile.

“Oh,” Buffy replied, taking it in. And then realised what Tara was saying. “Oh, that’s great!” She hadn’t really come up with a plan for Monday, so was glad to have that sorted at least. Brian, he of owning her mom’s gallery, had returned one of Anya’s phone calls – so Buffy had been informed in hospital – and had fixed an appointment at his lawyers’ offices, which was in LA. It was short notice, but, the way Buffy saw it, the sooner the better. “I said I’d call Angel with the details, maybe tonight.”

“Whmm,” Spike cut in, obviously paying enough attention to hear Angel’s name, the jealous idiot. He finished off the whiskey, completely and totally one hundred per cent unattractive as he tipped his head back and swallowed, before he asked, “What’s all this about anyway?” Yeah, he still didn’t believe her, did he? “Slayer mentioned some of it, but she was a bit blonde on the details.”

She kicked him again – only to realise from the smirk on his face and the squeeze on her leg that (a) he was enjoying the attention and (b) she was totally being played. Dumbass. All the same, she explained, scathing as she blushed, “My mom invested in the gallery when we moved here; she was selling her share back to Brian when she died.” Mom was in a good place now, that was what she had to remember; she’d been there and it was good. She could talk about it if she remembered that. “The paperwork went hinky, but I’m gonna try sort it out.” There. Clear and simple. “That blonde enough for you, Miss Clairol?”

Her glare was met with a wink, which made her roll her eyes and turn back to Anya – who was watching them both in a way that looked like she was either misting up or about to yell at them again. Maybe she shouldn’t have let her hand settle over his on her leg. “Well, it’s all here,” Anya said, a little sniffly, bunching her papers straight and tucking them into a blue translucent wallet. “This is everything Dawn and I could find in terms of contracts, payment records, bank statements –” Then she sniffed, interrupting herself. “– it all shows that your mom didn’t receive any money… Some of it got slightly flood-damaged, but…” She sniffed again, definitely misty now. “Oh –” She passed the dossier Buffy’s way with one forceful turn of her hand, but then she broke down completely, bawling into her hands. “Oh – I just want Xander and me to be happy – why is it so hard? He doesn’t want D’Hoffryn at our table and my perfect day’s all gonna be – it’s all going to – fall apart…”

For a moment, Buffy froze, staring at the other woman. Whatever she’d been expecting from today’s Scooby meeting, this wasn’t it.

Tara, on the other hand, cooed immediately, rushing around the table to pull Anya into a hug. After a second more, Buffy shoved the papers in front of Spike and followed suit, scooting along the bench. She tried to recall the right shushing words, patting Anya’s hand and rubbing her back. Part of her, though, was distracted, because it felt so weird to be the comforter in this situation and she couldn’t work out why.

Anya kept crying and it was strange, because when had that happened? She didn’t have to worry about Xander, did she? He was solid – theywere solid, had been since Freshman year. Why would Anya worry?

Still, Buffy could sympathise, and she did, because she knew exactly what it was like to cry from panic and fear and…

It was then, however, that she realised, with a start, she hadn’t actually had one of those jags in a couple of weeks. That was why this felt so weird: it was getting unfamiliar.

She looked at Spike. (He looked terrified of the crying.)

When the hell did that happen?

“It’s OK, Anya,” she said, turning back to the crying woman, feeling mystified. “It’ll all be OK,” she repeated. Because it would be, wouldn’t it?

A little while later, Buffy was staring into chip fat, jarring pains screaming up and down her left arm, left shoulder burning like she might have jarred something loose. Would everything be OK? Yeah, she was getting a lot less sure.

Anya had only just about regained equilibrium before Buffy had had to leave the Magic Box, break out into the sunshine and tread the short route to the Doublemeat Palace. Though Spike had taken her hand before she’d left, he’d neither tried to stop her or make her commit to any extra PDA, just begged her to take care of herself. She’d been a little shaken up from Anya’s – Anya’s! – meltdown, but it had seemed like an easy promise to make, so she’d squeezed his hand and told him that she would. And then she’d dropped a kiss on his cheek while the others weren’t looking, before she left him behind.

It wasn’t as if being a DMP drone was a particularly skilled or intensive job, after all, and her boss wasn’t a monster. When she’d clocked in, five minutes before shift, the first thing Buffy had seen was the rota, where Lorraine had put her on the counter to start with, not for one hour, but for two: light work on everything but her feet. The Doublemeat version of a rest.

Naturally, it was a trade-off, because going on counter meant smiling and speaking, keeping alert enough to count change and make eye contact when she told the customers to have a nice day. There were times when she hated it, about five-six-seven hours in, and when she could barely form the words, but today it had definitely been the better alternative. By the time her painkillers had worn off, about an hour in and two hours before she could take some more, she’d started to wonder what she was going to do when she had to put her aching shoulder to work. It had seemed so easy in the hypothetical, back at home, dosed up on codeine and however the FDA classified Spike-sex, but without either it was pretty clear that she shouldn’t be moving her left arm right now, let alone using it.

This had become exceptionally clear in the third hour of her shift, when she’d moved onto fries and let someone else have a break. Smiling and taking orders, packing burgers and fries and sodas into bags: she could do all that one-handed, even without slayer strength, but there really wasn’t a way to do fries quick enough with only her right hand. One basket needed to be in the fryer while the last was salted and shaken, funnel scoop fitted onto boxes so they could be filled in quick succession – fill, replace; fill, replace; fill, replace – to get all the portions done and down the chute before the next batch was finished.

So far she’d done one batch. One batch. And the timer was ticking down the last ten seconds on the next.

God, she was in so much pain. She could think around it rationally, because she’d experienced enough pain in life to do that, but this was a lot. Enough that in the old days she would have gone home from patrol and rescheduled her next day. The evening rush was going to start up soon, but she could feel her body trying to hunch over her braced shoulder, reflexes working against her brain when she told her chest to straighten out. Panicked thoughts started flooding into the back of her mind, not because of the pain, but because she couldn’t do this. She really couldn’t. Not without injuring herself some more – and the doctors had said that would mean surgery, which she couldn’t afford, which would cost way more than she would earn by working through this.

When the timer went off, she flinched.

Behind her, David grunted as he passed by, late onto his shift and over to the patty hotplate. “Think they’re done,” he said.

Embarrassed by her slacking, Buffy automatically reached out with her right hand and pulled the basket from the oil to the drainer. Only a little bit too brown.

“You OK?” David was still talking. She wasn’t sure he’d ever said a word to her before, but here he was, asking about her welfare. Maybe it was true what they said about the Doublemeat family. “Heard you got shot.”

Or maybe she was the latest morbid piece of gossip.

Whatever; she was desperate. “Can we swap?” she asked, turning around. The next batch of fries weren’t even in; the ones behind her would be going cold. Patties only involved flipping, so they’d be easier. She’d be slow at putting them on the hotplate, but not so completely incapable. “I can’t…”

David shrugged, moved into position even as Sophie came over to complain that they were out of fries up front, and with his usual expressionless, dinosaur-like motions got on with frying and salting.

Sighing with relief that felt nothing like it, Buffy made her way down the line to the grill. This would be OK, she tried to tell herself. Things were getting a little bit behind, but it needn’t be so bad necessarily.

When she arrived at the station, however, Buffy realised that, as usual, Gina had left it with the patty plate empty. This was actually what the training video said they were meant to do, for hygiene reasons or in case the restaurant was closing after your shift and the meat would otherwise be left there overnight. How exactly you wouldn’t know that, Buffy wasn’t sure, but apparently the company thought it better to try getting everyone to do it than expect employees to realise they were clocking out at midnight. The thing was, most employees did know that, and it was easier not to go back and forth to the cold room, so no one except Gina followed the policy. Sure, that meant the meat got left out a little sometimes, especially on the back-up hotplate that only got used in the rushes, but, hey, it wasn’t even meat really, so…

Anyway, what this meant, more importantly, was that Buffy reflexively headed out back to the cold room, to do the task she had entirely forgotten was routine: pulling the unwieldy, multi-pound, tube-like sack of meat from the shelf about a foot above her head. It was possible to do with one hand, because the weight really didn’t bother her, but it was awkward. As she pulled it off the shelf it very quickly reached tipping point, pushing her backwards and making her swear, “Shit!” as she tried to raise her left arm for balance and really didn’t manage it, gasped as the pain struck again.

The meat came down. The far end hit the dust on the floor – but that was why it had its plastic wrapping, wasn’t it? Unfortunately the noise it made had brought a figure into the doorway, watching her fail to do her job, clearing her throat delicately.

It was Lorraine. “Buffy,” she said, soft voice firm. “Can I talk to you in my office, please?”

Double shit.
[Chapter Two: You Learn Fast around Here.]

Originally posted at

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