Fic: ‘Turn and Face the Strain’ 4/15 by Quinara [strongish R]

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Turn and Face the Strain
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For some reason I feel like it’s necessary to put a new random comment here for every chapter, so… Welcome to chapter 4! Hope you’re enjoying.

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.]

[Chapter Two: You Learn Fast around Here.]

[Chapter Three: Hello Glass Ceiling.]
Chapter Four: The Day after That (and the Day after That).

“So, are you gonna eat that, or wait until it grows wings and flies right down your oesophagus?”

It was the next morning. Buffy blinked, staring down at the store-brand, no-taste cereal she was apparently scooping out of the bowl and dropping off her spoon. Oh, look, she did it again.

“Ew, Dawn; gross.”

Willow and Dawn were there having breakfast with her. They both got up this time on a Sunday, didn’t they? Too many early mornings meant ten AM was a lie in.

Shift work hadn’t left her with much body clock to speak of, which was probably why she was dressed already. She should have slept longer, but there had been dreams, so she’d been awake, and that had got her up and downstairs, because apparently she’d lost the ability to stare at the ceiling and let it take over her brain until whenever she next needed her faculties. Now, so it turned out, aimless staring made her restless. And if not restless, then bored.

She blamed Spike. He’d been overstimulating.

“What? I’m thinking a wheatie demon would taste better. More protein.”

He’d left her in a position where she couldn’t switch off the world, could only ignore it going on around her as she scooped up white and brownish-grey, poured the excess milk from her spoon, let the sludge drop. And again. Bastard.

“… Did you already put sugar on?”

“Why is Spike such a goddamn idiot?” she asked at last, dropping her spoon with a clatter and glaring up accusingly into the kitchen, just so it was clear the other two were not meant to defend him right now.

Opposite her, Willow was wide-eyed, caught in her headlights and so still that she looked superimposed over the kitchen window’s view of the garden. “Uh…” she began – and Buffy almost immediately found herself irritated by the ‘I told you so’ she knew was coming.

“Shall I field this one?” Dawn interrupted, apparently feeling it. She was perched at Buffy’s side, her PJs and robe making a perfect ensemble of an outfit the way only a fifteen year old who had time to care about that stuff would construct. Her hair was shinier than Buffy’s had been in months, which could only be down to salon-price conditioner, whatever those totally fraudsome commercials said. Where was she getting that sort of hair product? That was what Buffy wanted to know. Either Dawn had gone delinquent or she’d had a helping hand – and Buffy was pretty sure she knew which one was more likely. “What’s Spike done now, Buffy?” she was asking then, like she didn’t already know.

Which was the reason why Buffy snorted. “Where do I even start?” she said, feeling discontent in her own clothes, which were, by the way, terribly put together. It was an inevitability, maybe, of being twenty-one with only one clean shirt and one fully functional arm, but it was irksome. “I tell him not to do something, and he doesn’t do it – but then he goes and does something almost exactly the same, for pretty much the same reasons –and he gets involved in the freaking criminal underworld while he’s at it!”

Willow coughed, failing to swallow on ‘criminal underworld’, but Dawn took it all in, nodding. “Well,” she said, as if she had the answer. “He isSpike. You know?”

Buffy threw up her hands – Ow; shit. Or, more exactly, hand singular. “So what?” she demanded, hating how light the morning was, full of sunshine. “What does that mean? I’m supposed to accept it?”

The response to that was a pointed glare; Buffy threw one back, because she did not accept the implied ‘duh’.

“I think what Dawn’s trying to say,” Willow interrupted carefully, breaking the stalemate. She seemed to regret it the moment Buffy turned back to her, gulping and hesitating, but she continued all the same, “is that, uh, dumb schemes and stuff – they’re part of who Spike is. And if you took them away, then he’d be someone else.” After a silence, she suggested, “Which would be bad?” Although she didn’t sound so sure, as far as Buffy was concerned.

Somewhere a rational part of Buffy’s mind could accept that Spike not being Spike would maybe, possibly, be more of a negative than a positive when you weighed it all up. At the same time… “I don’t think that’s true,” Buffy insisted, giving up on her cereal now and pushing it away from her. “Say there’s all the time Spike’s being Spike, right?” She marked it out on the table, drawing a big circle with her hand. “And there’s all the time he spends listening to his poker buddies and figuring that their money-making schemes are gonna come off this time.” For that she simply splayed her palm flat on the counter, not exactly sure how much time that was, but definitely able to work out that it didn’t include the time he spent with her and the time he spent asleep recovering from his time with her. Maybe it was too self-satisfied to say, and she didn’t think she probably should say it in front of Dawn, but that was a lot of time he didn’t have. “In what way is it too much to ask that he cuts that stuff out?”

“Uh…” Dawn spoke again, still in the same tone. “Because then he’d only be a fraction of a person?” She looked completely unimpressed, which Buffy thought was majorly unfair. “And it doesn’t even work like that anyway. It’s more like this –” She drew a large circle with her forefinger, running through sugar grains and crumbs like Buffy was dusting from her hand. “– is all the time he spends trying to impress you or make you like him or whatever, while this –” A smaller circle marked itself out next to the bigger one, like the back wheel on a penny farthing. “– is the time he gets to be himself, with this –” Finally, she curled a small O inside the smaller circle. “– is when he has some fun with the dumb stuff. Only you care so not much about his life that you don’t even notice.”

Buffy refused to believe Spike spent anything like that amount of time trying to impress her, not least because that amount of time commitment was ridiculous but also because he didn’t do that great a job of it, if he really was trying. Also, she absolutely noticed. “That’s not true,” she said, shaking her head.

But Dawn was watching her face, and apparently didn’t like what she saw. “You know what?” she announced, screwing up her nose like she’d realised something upsetting – before she abruptly reversed her chair. “I’m going to the mall.” With a flick of her hair she was exiting the kitchen, before Buffy could even work out a reply. “I’ll see you when I go.”

Fortunately, even as Buffy watched in silence, hurt creeping through her irritation, Willow remembered to yell, “Hey! You leaving those dishes for the maid?” And thus brought back a grumbling Dawn back in to scrape her glass and bowl from the table and dump them in the sink, wash out the excess sludge.

Unfortunately, this didn’t give Buffy enough time to think of something to say, so she had nothing when Dawn shot her one last glare.

“So, uh…” Willow began once she’d gone. For a moment it sounded as if she was going to try and change the topic of conversation, but a nervous glance at Buffy’s glower apparently persuaded her that that would not be a good idea. “I guess Dawnie identifies with Spike maybe a little, huh?”

“She shouldn’t,” Buffy muttered darkly as she sipped at some of her milk. The cereal had pretty much disintegrated into it now; it didn’t taste good. “She shouldn’t want to be like him.”

“Why not?” came the immediate response. Willow looked generally intrigued, shrugging like this was a problem they were discussing in class, even though she had to know, as Buffy did, that Spike was pretty much the worst role model for Dawn out there. Wasn’t he? “He’s got that whole James Dean-Billy Idol I-don’t-give-a-crap vibe, which probably, you know, maybe seems cool if you’re a teenager who gives a crap about stuff. And hey –” Then Willow raised a hand, throwing the idea out there like she actually wanted Buffy to think. “– you like him, so…”

“Do I?” Buffy asked, really not so sure about the answer. It certainly wasn’t a James Dean thing if she did. Spike was his best when he gave a crap, when he was underneath her and his big blue eyes were awed, terrified – like he was on a knife edge between heaven and damnation, and she had the power to… Not a breakfast topic, Buffy. Also, thinking about the good times hurt. “I guess I do sometimes,” she admitted, even though it felt like a risky confession in present company. A glance at Willow, however, seemed to suggest that had been assumed. “But he’s not…” She floundered. “Well, I mean…” Her milk-sludge had no answers; they would have to come from Willow. “You can supply his bad points.”

With sad eyes, Willow smiled – it looked like she already had a list of fifty in her head. Nonetheless, what she said was, “Don’t worry. I am so through commenting on other people’s choices.” And then she ducked her gaze downwards. “That way lies badness.”

“Oh,” Buffy replied, feeling a frown tighten above her eyes as she tried to work out what the other woman meant. “OK.” It took a moment, but eventually it came to her. “Oh right,” she continued, trying for sympathetic. “I heard about what happened at the Magic Box. I’m sure Anya didn’t mean…”

Willow shrugged, before she took a slurp of her (almost) orange juice. “It’s OK,” she said. It didn’t actually look like it was, given her I’m-extra-chirpy expression, but Buffy wasn’t going to call her a liar. “She was right. I mean…” A little crinkle crossed her nose. “Kinda.” Then she took a deep breath and accepted, “I’m not gonna get Tara back by not trusting her. I have to give her time and let her think what she thinks. And hope that she thinks I’m, you know, still datable.”

“Oh, you’re seriously datable,” Buffy cut in, hearing her cue. Of course, she was fairly out of practice at this stuff, so it didn’t quite come out right. Willow gave her an odd look. “Not that I would date you,” she explained, which then seemed kind of insulting, so she appended, “But if I were Tara – or, or not me, in the sense that I was, uh…”

“Thanks,” Willow accepted, still not looking quite convinced. “And you too, you know,” she offered, a jokey smile slowly growing on her face. “if I were a Billy Idol man-vampire I’d totally be knocking on your door for some smoochies.”

The idea made Buffy laugh for a moment, because, hey, it was nice to hear it – but then her mind wandered the inevitable path back to the reasons behind the current lack of man-vampires at her door. “Ohh…” she groaned, dropping her spoon in her bowl so she could drop her head into her hand. “Why is this all so hard?” She didn’t care what Dawn said. It wasn’t fair that Spike was who he was, when he could so easily be ninety-nine per cent the same and yet not that one per cent that made him the most infuriating, impossible, not-datable evil guy he was. It didn’t make her a bad person to want that, did it?

She’d closed her eyes, but when she opened them again Willow was biting her lip, like she didn’t really want to say what she was thinking. All the same, Buffy waited, willing to take anything.

Eventually, Willow slumped, glancing away. “I don’t know if this even works with your situation…” She sighed, and then seemed to decide to go with it. “When I first,” she began, then changed tack, frustrated frown on her face. “When Tara and I started hanging out and I didn’t even know if she was… I used to imagine, you know, what it would be like, how we could end up, maybe, if she were, like – a guy.” A flash of fear crossed her face then, as if Buffy were about to revoke her rights to gayhood or something. Of course, Buffy herself had no intention of doing that at all, or really any idea how to react, so she kept listening instead – a little wide-eyed, possibly. “A tall, blond, gentle New Age Viking-type guy,” Willow assured, quickly, “who was basically Tara-like in every way, and had her voice and her nose and pretty much all her woman parts when I used to, uh –”

Coughing, Willow abruptly cut herself off, blushing bright red as she reached for her glass.

“– think about her?” she then tried, before taking a gulp of juice, which only made Buffy realise what she actually meant.

Blushing herself, Buffy reflexively started checking her shoulder brace, checking it wasn’t twisted by her neck, just so she had something to do.

Thankfully, a couple of seconds were enough that they could move on from the awkwardness and Willow continued, “But, I mean, obviously I was fooling myself.” If not by much, Buffy guessed. “I think with hormones and stuff,” Willow explained, like she was getting to her point now, “I think our bodies or our hearts or whatever, they’re kind of take-it-or-leave-it about people, and you can either go with that or not. I’m not sure you could change one aspect of someone and, you know, expect them to make you feel the same way.”

“Oh,” Buffy realised, now that Willow was finishing with a sympathetic smile. Well, she thought, maybe that made sense. It was certainly true that when she – thought about Spike he was pretty much the same as in real life, complete with the teasing and the pouting when he didn’t get his way.

The only problem was the other thing Buffy could see on Willow’s face, however, and what made her ask, glumly, “But you think I should leave it, don’t you?”

“That’s not for me to decide,” Willow replied, holding up her hands. Which plainly said, yes. “But, I mean,” she continued nonetheless, “what I’m saying is… You’re probably right about Dawnie,” she concluded, finding the words, “but she probably can’t choose about wanting him for a friend any more than you can choose about wanting to date him, or doing whatever you guys do.” ‘Filthy bondage sex’ was what she what she was implying, of course, but Buffy’s mind immediately supplied ‘cosy afterglow snuggles’, because it was a cruel, cruel beast that wanted to threaten her with the idea she’d never feel that warm and content again.

Buffy refused to accept that. Even if it meant flying in the face of everything resembling logic. She was a supernatural magic woman-creature; it was her prerogative. “I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head like that would dissuade Willow from her conviction. “I still figure that if he had a soul or was human or whatever, things would be better.” And I wouldn’t have slept alone last night.

Apparently realising that she wasn’t going to get any further, and unwilling to try, Willow rose from her stool with a shrug. “Well, if you wanna think that, then OK.” She took Buffy’s breakfast things with her own and turned away to the sink, turning on the tap with a glance over her shoulder. “Although,” she said, smirking, “now, I don’t wanna call limited data points a pattern or anything, but I’m not sure you’ve got a lot of evidence to back that up.”

“Hey!” Buffy said, even though she had a feeling she’d lost this argument and it was over. “I have way amount of evidence.”

“I guess,” Willow conceded, adding soap to the water. “The difference was pretty noticeable with Angel…”

Now, why did that sound like a joke? Buffy thought. It wasn’t meant to sound like a joke, even if things had been simpler then. Hellish, sure, but simple. She wasn’t meant to be smiling.

“Did you call him, by the way?” Willow free-associated, looking over her shoulder again. “Weren’t you gonna call him about LA?”

And then Buffy groaned, because she had meant to, hadn’t she? Who even knew what was happening in LA right now, after everything? She couldn’t not call ahead, even if she had spent the previous night stewing in her own chocolated misery rather than sorting her life out. Even if this meant talking to Angel on the phone, which had a habit of being nothing more than awkward.

Goddamn Willow and her organised self. “I’d best go do that, huh?” Buffy asked, hoping for the negative.

She didn’t get it, just gleeful bowl-sloshing. “Yuh-huh.”

There wasn’t any answer at the Hyperion, which was easily an indication that something was wrong, but Buffy chose to ignore it for the moment, attributing it instead to the first piece of luck she’d had in twenty-four hours. She’d tried to call; there was no one there. That meant that if she called tonight or tomorrow morning or even not at all, well, that was understandable. It was a hotel, anyway, what legitimate problem could there be with her asking for a room to stay in if she ended up staying late in town? Besides, it wasn’t like Angel wanted to talk to her about beds and sleeping over any more than she wanted to skirt near flirting dialogue with him. So that was fine.

The problem was, that didn’t leave her with much else to do, so she’d decided to head into the police station with a sullen Dawn on her way to the mall. Because Dawn’s mood hadn’t quite swung back the way Buffy had hoped, that meant a very silent, lonely walk, which in turn made Buffy feel lonely, naturally.

She’d never really got the idea of people staying together ‘for the kids’, but if this was how it could be, then she could almost begin to see the point. By the time their dad had left, Buffy had heard enough arguments, snippets of accusations and general defensiveness that without really thinking about it her loyalties had fallen down on her Mom’s side, and then, even with the Hellmouth, home had been a better place in Sunnydale with their dad-free house. Yet, at the same time, here she was as Dawn’s guardian, and she was getting the silent treatment for badmouthing her sister’s wannabe-maybe-actually-other guardian and depriving her of no more than one morning’s scandalous, cheeky glimpse of him at the breakfast table.

In no way ever could Buffy allow herself to accept Spike into her life – or get back with him if they’d actually split up, which she didn’t think they had done – just to make Dawn happy. All the same, it exhausted her to think how long Dawn could keep this up. As the bad and lazy and horny part of her brain kept reminding her, it probably wouldn’t be so bad, in the end. It would be easier than this.

“OK, so,” Buffy tried as they came up to the police station, “I’ll see you tonight?”

At least Dawn stopped, Buffy thought. She didn’t look up and had crossed her arms, but she’d stopped to say goodbye, if only with, “Sure.”

“Great,” Buffy confirmed, a little too enthusiastically. Of course silence hung after that.

Just as she was turning to go up the step, however, Dawn threw one last question her way. “Do you miss him?” she demanded.

Buffy turned around, moving out of the way of someone else trying to get inside the building. “Dawn…” she began, not even sure how to answer. “It hasn’t even been a day – and we haven’t even… We didn’t…” Maybe she should have worked out better for herself whether they’d broken up or not. God, what the hell was Spike probably thinking? Drama queens weren’t meant to be left alone…

“So what?” Obviously, Dawn was looking up now, staring her down. “Do you care what he’s thinking?” she hissed, about two seconds too slow. “What he’s feeling? If you said any of that stuff to his face… You have no idea how much he’ll be hurting right now.” At her lack of immediate response, and pretty unfairly, Buffy thought, Dawn was throwing up her hands and walking away. “Whatever,” she muttered, disappearing herself into the throng of shoppers.

Watching her go, Buffy’s chest ached. Not just because of the bullet wound, but because she realised then Dawn thought she felt nothing. Absolutely zero. It was…

Willow hadn’t asked either, had she? Whether she was hurt or even what had happened. Last night she’d come home and pretty much let them infer what they liked from her bad mood. Never mind that all she’d shown them was anger.

It was meant to be obvious, wasn’t it, when a person felt the dull empty lack of someone else? The hunger for them? There seemed to reason to say it out loud, Buffy thought, because this was her own fault, and it wasn’t important compared to the reasons why she’d severed their immediate connection in the first place. She didn’t really want to think about it, not really, because that would leave her where she’d been last night, hollow and directionless and full of dreams. But it hurt. Not knowing if he’d be around… Of course she missed him.

Not that that mattered; she had her life to get on with. She couldn’t think about it. Dawn and Willow would have to imagine what they liked.

Straightening her jacket, then, Buffy turned, took a deep breath, and went into work.

One step at a time.

Of course, the moment she reached the desk, walked past the sketchy characters in gungy clothes, couples looking shellshocked, her mind went completely blank. What was she supposed to say? Would Kate even have mentioned she was coming? It was still a little early.

Potential opening lines ran through her mind:

Hello. Could I please be put through to Detective…?

Hi! Kate’s expecting…

Hey; I think I work here…?


In the end she went with what she had. “Hi!” she said, trying to sound employable. “Um, my name’s Buffy Summers…?”

Immediately the desk officer smiled, like he’d been chosen for his people skills. “Oh, Kate’s new recruit!” he said, because he apparently had never worked on a case where they’d wanted her for arrest. “Welcome to SDPD; I’ll show you through.”

Huh. And so it turned out that getting into the back corridors of the Sunnydale police station was a lot easier than Buffy had anticipated. She supposed it probably had something to do with being a quite an easy-going town as far as human crime was concerned – which it was, really. If you looked the right species and came in from sunlight, you were probably OK as far as the cops were concerned.

Not for the first time, Buffy wondered how in the know they actually all were about the demon world. Maybe it was a little more than chance that had made them find Kate.

The woman herself was in her office, which had big windows partially obscured by Venetian blinds and a wooden door with a pane of frosted glass. It was kind of PI-like and very retro – but then that was how they did things in Sunny-D, she supposed. Letting the desk officer go with a grateful smile, Buffy knocked, then only had to wait a second to be told, “It’s open!” by one authoritative cop-voice.

Tentatively, Buffy let herself in, making sure Kate had seen her before she made her way across the threshold. “Hey, Kate,” she began. “Sorry I’m early…”

“Oh, Buffy!” Kate greeted. Looking pleased to see her, she added quickly, “No – no problem.” Then she stood up, a little awkwardly, but gesturing nonetheless to the end of her long desk, where a foot and a half of space was noticeably cleared of papers and in-trays and computer and coffee cup and the picture of some old guy and, a little oddly, a big pink crystal. “I cleared you a space,” she said, unnecessarily. “Take a seat.”

There at the end of the desk, aimed towards the empty space, was indeed a ratty-looking office chair, upholstered in dishwater-brown to go with the grey-beige theme of the room. After the Doublemeat, Buffy found it almost calming. “Thanks,” she said.

“It was only so you missed the morning rush,” Kate explained, sitting back down herself and rolling up her sweater sleeves. She had an expression like she didn’t quite know what to do now that Buffy was here. “Asking you in at lunchtime, I mean.” The computer monitor next to her had fish swimming around black as a screensaver. “There’s always a lot of calls in the morning.”

That sounded – that sounded almost as if Kate wanted to give her full day hours. “No problem,” Buffy said, smiling as she rested her arm on her own little desk space. She should really broach the question of hours at some point, shouldn’t she?

“And we should be able to get you your own desk,” Kate continued, waving now towards the mostly empty half of the room. “If you wanna stick around.”

“Sure,” Buffy replied agreeably, a little surprised. Her own desk?

Kate was still breathing the exaggerated breaths of someone not sure what they were saying. “Um, and we should sign you on with payroll. You’re under my budget, but there’s a system where the money goes through, for taxes and everything.

There was no way Buffy was going to remember all this if they kept going. “Right,” she said nonetheless.

Kate seemed to realise then that she was covering far too many bases at once. Slumping into her chair, she reached for her coffee cup. “Anyway, how are you?” she asked more seriously, rubbing the corner of one eye with a finger tip. “After everything yesterday – are you all right?”

The woman didn’t sound overwhelmingly sympathetic, which was probably to do with Spike being a vampire, but she did at least sound interested. It made Buffy warm to her. “I think so,” she said, though it wasn’t the truth. “We had…” Her eyes darted to the taupe carpet, remembering again. Maybe there was an actual reason why she didn’t want people asking if she was all right. “There was a big argument,” Buffy finished, taking a breath, “but I’m taking some space, so.”

“OK,” Kate accepted, sipping coffee. She was probably more than able to figure out or detect or whatever that Buffy wasn’t telling the truth. Bully for her. “Well, I asked around,” she added, like she was trying to say something supportive. “Spike’s story seems to hold up. No one’s seen that Tork guy in days, of course; he probably hightailed it to LA the moment the eggs were out of his hands.”

“Oh,” Buffy replied, not really remembering that part of the events. It didn’t really change anything as far as she was concerned. Even if it possibly mattered here. “What does that mean for us?”

“Well,” Kate said, turning to the foremost papers on her desk. In profile, with her jaunty blonde ponytail, it looked like she was back in her comfort zone. It was nice someone could be. “It mostly depends on if LA takes it. He’s out of our jurisdiction and it’s kinda hard to tell if he came out of LA to do the trade or if things have been in Sunnydale this whole time.” One glance to check Buffy was following; she was, just about. “They aren’t gonna want to take it, because then they’ll have to talk in doublespeak around their own investigation – but they’re far better equipped to deal with it than us.”

“Didn’t you say something, though, yesterday?” Buffy suggested, encouraged when Kate looked inquisitively her way. “About the FBI, or something? That they might help out?”

“If they’ve been put on it,” Kate agreed, nodding over her cup lid. It made Buffy feel like she should have a coffee of her own. “You never know until they come knocking at your door – if they even tell you.” Then she shrugged. “It might not even be them; could be some other unit.”

“Mmm,” Buffy agreed, thinking about the Initiative. But they didn’t exist anymore. Did they?

“Anyway,” Kate dismissed, throwing what now seemed to be an empty coffee cup in the trash can by her filing cabinets, before she picked up a hefty pile of manila folders that was sitting by her chair. “Oof…” It found a place among everything else on the on the faux-walnut desk. “We’ve got the boring stuff to do today.”

“Oh?” Buffy asked, mostly thinking that whatever that pile of stuff was, it was remarkably dissimilar from a Doublemeat Medley. Also, she was still sitting down. Surely that was the opposite of boring?

“Unsolved cases,” Kate explained, barely suppressing a groan. “I’ve been through the archives for everything in the last year. The common denominator seems to be slime.”

Buffy eyed the paperwork. It looked like a lot of reading, but maybe not quite so much as one of Giles’ old research parties. “You want me to look for anything demonic?” she asked.

At that, Kate raised her eyebrow. Of course – it was all gonna be demonic. “We need to figure out if it’s connected. But if you want to solve anything else along the way, go ahead.” She passed over the first few inches of the foot-high stack.

With no small amount of apprehension, Buffy took the paper in her hands.

Making her way through the files was more difficult than Buffy might have anticipated. The ‘unsolved’ descriptor really meant unsolved, with most of the police reportage completely clueless. Factual reports and photographs accompanied interview notes, but it was clear with some stuff that the investigation couldn’t tell whether it was connected or not. In a few cases, it seemed like evidence from several incidents had been thrown together just so it could be stored in one file instead of three.

In complete contrast to the labelled buttons of the DMP, Buffy felt like she was looking at words and could actually feel her brain moving, the cogs turning around. She wasn’t overly sure she liked the sensation, but it was almost like being back in college – only with a subject she actually knew about.

“What d’you think of this one?” Kate asked her absently, holding a file over the desk. They’d been working for a couple of hours now, mostly in comfortable silence once they’d got started. It turned out that neither of them were big talkers, or else that they didn’t have much to say, but Buffy hoped that would be a good thing to have in colleagues. They didn’t need to be major, major friends, did they?

Perusing the file, Buffy certainly felt business-like. “A raid on a pet store?”

“To feed the thing that laid those eggs,” Kate suggested, not even bringing up Spike a little bit. That was nice of her. “Smash and grab in the middle of the night; no alarm system – yet they only took the kittens. Could be a selective diet.”

The problem with not talking, however, was that Buffy’s mind wandered. A lot. More than enough to mean she had plenty of thoughts about kittens and poker and one vampire who played it, recently thought and just waiting for this impetus to hurl themselves towards the front of her mind, make her heart hurt again. “Could be,” she forced herself to say anyway, looking down but not quite able to focus on the text. “Or it could be gambling debts.”

“Gambling debts?” Kate asked with a laugh, looking up.

Buffy met her glance morosely. “I’m not making it up.” Why couldn’t you have pulled a stupid scheme like this one? OK; she was getting nostalgic for Sharkey and George the loan shark. It was really time to get over herself. “It’s kitten poker,” she explained to Kate with a sigh, banishing her thoughts. “Drives people to desperation.”

She probably wouldn’t have been able to forgive Spike for stealing kittens either, would she? It wasn’t what Buffy was supposed to be thinking, but the thought popped into her head all the same. Was kitten theft better or worse than harbouring demon eggs for black market demon guys? And – ugh, the crime wasn’t even what she was mad at him about, but it made it so difficult to think through what she actually thought. She wasn’tsupposed to trust him when he harboured demon eggs, was she? That was a deal-breaker right there, no matter what he thought about her ability to trust him generally.

Just then as she was thinking this, however, because apparently things weren’t bad enough, there was a knock at the door. Kate cursorily called, “Come in!” and Buffy’s heart took a completely embarrassing leap when she saw it was a figure dressed in black.

It sank again when she heard the first, wholesome word: “Hi!”

The guy was wearing black, but it was body armour, not leather – and above all else he was tall. Way too tall. And he had a long, ragged scar down the side of his face. How was she meant to have expected this, again?

“My name’s…” the man continued –

– before Buffy cut him off, unable to believe her eyes. “Riley?

[Chapter Five: How Do You Get to Say I’m the One Who’s Stinky?]

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