Hero’s Reward 6/12

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Hero's Reward
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A/N: Some dialogue from “Older and Far Away” by Drew Z. Greenberg

~*~
Chapter 6, Older and Coming Closer
~*~

Dawn watched as Willow conjured up yet another birthday cake, the fifth thus far. Each time she decided it had some defect that had to be improved on. “Geez, Willow, Buffy won’t care as long as there’s ice cream to go with it!”
“NO!” Willow exploded in exasperation. “It can be perfect. I can make it perfect. Buffy deserves perfect. This is the first birthday since….” She paused and a fleeting look of guilt crossed her face before it was replaced with determination once more. “Besides, how often do you get to turn twenty-one?”

“Well, if you count my time I don’t remember as a ball of green energy, I might get to twice,” Dawn giggled. “Don’t think I celebrated with booze that first time though…or at all. I mean, what do you get for a key anyway?”

“Maybe a lock?” Tara had just entered the kitchen and joined the conversation with a smile. “I thought you could use a hand getting the party ready for tonight.” She peered at Willow with a hint of her old shyness.

“I could always use your hands,” Willow whispered.

“Okay, kid here and that’s just way TMI for me,” Dawn rolled her eyes. “Why don’t I just go shopping and leave you two at it.” Realizing how that could be taken, she revised, “To the party stuff, I meant, not any other ‘it’.”

“Do you need some money for the gift?” Tara knew things were very tight in the house before she had moved out. She had felt guilty not contributing to the household expenses but had tried to make up for it by playing cook and housekeeper.

“Nope, Spike’s got me covered.” She didn’t notice the grimace the vampire’s name caused on Willow’s face. “He slipped me enough I can get something really nice for a change.”

Willow’s hard look was out of place under the circumstances. “Where’d HE get the money? Stole it from somebody? I’d say killed someone for it, but that chip makes that impossible…now.”

“God, what’s your damage?” Dawn immediately felt defensive for her surrogate brother’s reputation. “Spike’s been good for a long time now, you know that! He doesn’t even steal from the Magic Box anymore.”

“Not since Anya threatened to neuter him for real,” Willow snarked.

“Even before! Really, what’s the reason for the Spike hate?” Dawn hadn’t expected this from Willow. She had never been anti-Spike like Xander or Giles and had appreciated Spike’s help all summer long.

“Not hate, just sick of hearing about Saint Spike,” Willow said in a tone of voice that contradicted the words. “Buffy’s always over at that crypt listening to his poison. Half her problems adjusting are probably his fault. Who knows what he’s been saying to her. When she’s not there, Spike is over here with his head next to Giles checking on things that aren’t his business.”

“Whoa! Sorry I asked,” Dawn said as she backed out of the kitchen. She turned to Tara and snarked, “Someone got up on the wrong side of the caldron this morning.” She glared a threat at Willow. She knew that Willow did NOT want Tara to know the current birthday cake candidate had been thin air only moments before.

Willow met the stare with defiance. “Didn’t you say you were going to go shopping for a birthday gift?”

Dawn raised an eyebrow in a decidedly Spike-like way and retorted, “You finally settle on that cake?”

“Yes. I’m not going to bake another one, that okay with you?”

“Is…everything all right between you two?” Tara had watched the exchange and knew there were undercurrents that she was not picking up on.

“Fine,” They answered together.

“No problem,” added Willow. “Is there, Dawnie?”

“Not with me. Buffy’s even been paying attention to me lately so it’s all good,” she smiled at Tara, her contentment showing through.

“Be careful at the mall,” Tara warned. “No picking up boys!”

“As if!” Dawn snorted out as she left the house.

“So…um …been baking all morning?”

Willow gave a slightly guilty start before lying, “Yup. Dawnie’s irritated that I went through a few boxes of cake mix before it turned out right.”

“Oh, well, that happens. It is a special birthday after all.”

“You betcha,” Willow beamed, “That’s exactly what I said to Dawn. I want it to be perfect.”
“It will be, just because we’re all together. Even Giles is here.” Tara knew how the loss of her Watcher had hit Buffy and how glad she must be that he’d returned.

“Yet another ‘yay Spike’ issue,” Willow muttered bitterly. She wished she had thought to urge Giles to return before the vampire had lured him back.

“Huh?” Tara hadn’t been able to hear the comment but could make out from the tone of voice that Willow was either angry or frustrated.

“Just irritated that I didn’t get pink frosting for the roses, that’s all.” Willow was getting too good at the smooth lies. “Buffy used to wear a lot of pink and I think she’d really like that.”

“I’m sure it will be perfect no matter what color you have.” Tara could feel the pent up emotions in her former lover but wasn’t able to pinpoint what they were exactly. Her aura was all over the place looking more like chaos than anything Tara could put her finger on.

“Think I’ll let this cool longer anyway.” Willow hoped to mojo the finished product after Tara left but was in no hurry for her beloved to leave. She placed the cake in the nearly empty refrigerator and turned a smiling face on Tara. “Want some tea while we figure out how we want to decorate?”

“I got that vibrator for Buffy’s back aches as our gift,” Tara ventured. It had been so long since they had a normal conversation that it felt strained.

“Great! I was going to ask if you had the chance to pick it up.” Willow thought how well it was going. Before long, Tara would be home where she belonged, as long as she didn’t know that the magic use was still an issue. “Xander and Anya are bringing a blind date for Buffy. Some guy on Xan’s crew. That should perk up our favorite Slayer.”

Tara bit her lip and looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know about that. Seems like it would be a bit awkward to have some stranger for a date on your birthday, especially with all your friends there.”

“Trust me, this is just what Buff needs. A new boyfriend will be just the ticket to stop all those crypt visits. She needs to be back in the land of the living. Hanging around a cemetery, you know, when not patrolling or anything, is not what she needs to feel all alive again.”

“If you say so,” Tara said uncertainly, still thinking it was not a great idea.

~~~

“I’m telling you Richard is perfect for Buffy! He’s a really nice guy, normal in every way. He’s got one of those California pretty boy looks–kinda like Val Kilmer–you girls always seem to find strangely appealing.” Xander hadn’t introduced his co-worker to Anya yet and she wasn’t sure if Xander had a clue about Buffy’s taste in men. “He’s buff too, with all the construction stuff and all.”

“He sounds nice enough, but I still think Buffy has a thing for Spike.” Anya didn’t notice Xander flinch at that thought. “What if she’s invited him to the party. It could get awkward is all I’m saying.”

“Undead, Jr. may be at the party, but there is no way the Buffster is interested in him except as extra muscle now and then.”

“Yes, but just which muscle?” Anya had to get a glass of water to stop Xander’s choking fit at that.

“I’m just saying that you all thought Riley was ‘the one’ for Buffy and she never really sparked with him, except that one time in the frat house and that was ghosts.”

Xander regained his breath at last. “They sparked plenty! If Buffy had just run a little faster, he’d he here sparking right now. Speaking of Ri, I need to e-mail Sergeant Rock and invite him to our wedding.”

“Who is this sergeant, and you do realize that I’ll have to rearrange seating again if you keep adding people,” Anya huffed.

“Sergeant Rock was a comic book…oh, never mind, I meant Riley.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Anya put down the dry erase pen she had grabbed intending to alter the white board schematic of the reception seating. “I have him at the table with Hallie. I thought it would be amusing to have him partnered with a demon. I plan to tell her to keep the human face on to see if he can figure it out.” Anya chuckled at her own private joke.
“About this friend of yours…,” Xander began hesitantly. With all the demons on the guest list and now this one in the bridal party, he was sure the whole day would be a giant fiasco. It was a near guarantee just with his parents in the picture.

“Did someone mention me?” The doe-eyed vengeance demon appeared in a poof, startling Xander into dropping his empty glass.

“Hallie!” Anya threw her arms around her oldest friend in delight. “Actually we were just talking about blind dates. I think I have one for you at my wedding, but you’ll have to act human.”

Halfrek tossed her head imperially and sniffed. “Is he a bigot? Too good for a mere working demon?”

“No, well, he might think he is, if you get down to it. He was with that group that kidnapped and experimented on demons a couple of years ago.” Anya had always held that against the soldier on principle.

“I can bring my own date,” Hallie decided.

“He’s may be an idiot, but he’s a hunk of yummy manhood,” Anya tempted. “Just think of the fun you could have before you let him see your real face?”

“Well…maybe,” replied the suddenly avid-faced demon. “There could be possibilities. It might just educate him to his blindness. I’d be doing a public service to the whole demon community!”

“That’s the spirit,” Anya smiled back.

“So what’s the other blind date?”

“Oh, it’s a guy Xander’s decided to hook up with Buffy at her birthday party tonight. I think we should just put a bow around his neck and make sure she realizes he’s part of her gift.” Anya smirked at her fiancé.

“Hey, the Buffster has been all doom and gloom since her return ticket to planet earth. She deserves some love action,” Xander defended. “She hasn’t had time for any of us because she patrols too much and when she’s not patrolling she’s looking for work. She needs cheering up and some serious down time.”

“So,” Hallie said in a calculated manner, “She’s been neglecting her friends? Her little sister?”

“Not neglecting, just busy. I wish she’d just take some time for nothing but enjoying herself, like at this party,” Xander said.

“Wish granted,” Hallie whispered as she turned her back on the pair.

~~~

Spike was mentally preparing to face the party from hell. ‘Maybe this time Cecily won’t keep us locked up since the Bit isn’t being neglected.’ The last thing he wanted was to be forced to watch that William-like boy Xander had dredged up as Buffy’s date trying to make time with the Slayer. ‘Can’t even corner her for a little tease this time.’ Really, this keeping his hands off was harder than he had thought it would be. For some reason telling Buffy ‘no’ and sticking to it had set something loose in her. Buffy had been using every excuse to touch him, attempting to seduce him more than once since his return to this time and place. He’d need more than Tara’s ice offer to get rid of his ‘cramp’ this go-round if Buffy tried that at the party.

Thinking back to that endless party, Spike remembered the uninvited demon and determined to drop by early to remove the sword from Buffy’s house so that part of the nightmare wouldn’t repeat. “I might not mind the pretty boy meeting the sharp end of a sword, but Buffy wouldn’t like it much.”

He and Giles had all the official paperwork done to gift Buffy with the end of her financial woes. Of course Spike wouldn’t be mentioned as a benefactor, so he did battle with the tape dispenser as he wrapped his official gift for the love of his life.

He had selected one of the pieces of jewelry from the cave that didn’t have any magical attachments and was not as gaudy as some of the big items. It was a delicate gold chain with a small but perfect emerald pendant. It brought to mind the shade of Buffy’s eyes when he looked at it. Those orbs were changeable but the green moments had an emerald quality to them. The pendant would look lovely against her skin.

He planned to lie and say it had been in his family so Buffy wouldn’t reject the gift out of hand. Make it seem a trifle. Sadly, the humans seemed to think him incapable of being sentimental and it should be an easy sell.

It was wearying to have to explain every single thing he did, or had, to people, but the assumption that everything in his possession had to be ill-gotten still prevailed. This time around wasn’t any easier than the first in getting the group to see him as anything other than just another evil demon. ‘Forgot to add the soulless part. Always callin’ me everything I’m not anymore.’ Strangely, ever since he had resisted Buffy’s advances she had kept from name-calling.

~~~

Buffy prepared to go be the star of the hour with a bit more care than of late. ‘Really, I’ve let myself go. I haven’t been this unfashionable since those horrible overalls back in High School!’

She ran her fingers over the soft fabrics of her more carefree life when her mother had still been there and the future was full of possibilities. The clothes were a couple of years out of date, but most didn’t show it. She selected a lacy black off-the-shoulder top that clung to her curves beautifully and paired it with tight black leather trousers and boots. She gave her reflection a critical go over and decided she might still turn a head or two yet! She felt her eye drift to a long strip of red leather and artfully tied it around her neck in a makeshift necklace before applying more make-up than she’d worn since her return from heaven.
A full hour after she had gone into her room, Buffy was satisfied with the final product. The red of her lips and necklace were the only real color and it was striking. ‘Spike colors,’ she thought to herself and rolled her eyes at her own subconscious choice. ‘Like he’d notice. Not anymore.’

She had been thinking a lot about the vampire lately. It seemed a bit strange that in all the years she had known Spike she had spent more time trying NOT to think about him in some way. She had always directed her thoughts toward him being irritating or evil or some other unpleasant description. It was safer that way. The truth, she had to finally confess, if only to herself, was that Spike had barreled into her life and fixed himself in her thoughts in one way or another. On the most basic level, she knew that he had fired her up from the beginning. Dusting him had seemed like destroying a lovely piece of art and she had done all in her power to avoid doing it. He was funny too, quick witted with a delicious side of snark. As for his fighting form…. She drew in a sigh and realized that he could hypnotize her if she let him. Ever since Willow’s spell two years before, she had become even more conscious of his lips and hands as her body demanded she remember the feel of them on a regular basis.

All of that she might have admitted to herself even before, but since her resurrection there was more to her attraction than those superficial things. He was loyal and strangely honorable. From the time Glory had tortured him mercilessly, she had realized he could be trusted with her very life and the lives of those she held dear. He had been willing to die for Dawnie. It had been the easiest choice she had ever made when she entrusted her little sister to his protection that night before she died. He had not disappointed her either, having stayed to care for Dawn and even watch out for her friends and do her duties with slayage. Since she had been back, he had been gentle and concerned with her best interests, even passing on her many offers of sex because he thought it wasn’t something that would be good for her! He had said he loved her and his actions had proven it over and over.
Spike was one of the only men in her life not to leave. Looking at his long affair with Dru, he wasn’t likely to leave in the near future either.

She had to really try hard to find a reason not to let herself fall in love with him. She had told herself that he was evil, a mass murderer on a leash, soulless. She had tried to picture the carnage she had read of in his past and seen in vampires every day and had no trouble developing a sense of disgust. Then she’d see his so expressive face as he watched her come down those stairs the night she returned, or his battered countenance after Glory had him, or the awkward but sincere caring the night she found out her mom was ill and she couldn’t stay disgusted. Truthfully, she had to work at it to bar him from her heart. Then, when she finally gave in to the physical desire and he took the high road, she had to look at what she really was feeling beyond lust and was startled to find he had already found a place in her heart while she wasn’t noticing. ‘Not sure when that happened, but I think it was that day in his crypt when I was pretending to be the Bot. It sorta grew on its own after that.’

Each step he had taken toward the light had served to shine that light on parts of his basic character all the blood of his past couldn’t cover. There was good in him that had never died and Buffy knew that there would be more if he were given encouragement. She wanted to be part of that process.

She looked at her face in the mirror and smiled weakly, “Now that I want him, he may not want me back. Way to go, Buffy!”

That was the thing she had finally admitted to just that day: she wanted him…not just in her bed and life, but in her heart. She knew her friends would throw a fit and as for Giles… well, that was a storm waiting to break, and possibly break her or Spike for that matter.
“I’m twenty-one today, all legal and adult. I’ve got the responsibilities of an old person, even if I’m not likely to ever live to be one. Time I start acting like it, suck it up and make my decisions based on me, not my friends or Watcher. I’m the one that has to live my life, not them. Xander never asked me if it was okay to marry ex-demon Anya and Willow never came to me to find out if it was okay with me if she switched teams for Tara. Why should they have veto power on who I love?”

Somehow, during the party, she hoped to find out if Spike might still have a strong enough interest in her to give it a try. With that resolve, she straightened her shoulders and headed downstairs to party central.

“Free, legal and twenty-one…here I come!”

~~~

Willow looked fairly smug. She had managed to get everything just so even with Tara nearby. It had been so simple to ask her lover to pick up a few last minute items while she used a spell to decorate that final cake and get the house decorated. By the time Tara had returned with the extra sodas and dip everything was just as it should be. ‘What’s wrong with using magic to make sure everything is perfect? I have power; I should use it! No wrongs there. They’re just jealous of my power, that’s all.’ Her eyes flashed black as thoughts of her power filled her.

“You did such a nice job, sweetie.” Tara smiled at her. “Everything looks so pretty. I know Buffy is going to be really touched.”

Giles entered the room and Willow felt a surge of annoyance. ‘I hope he isn’t planning on another round of Salem Witch Trials, Sunnydale Division. That was already old when he called me an arrogant amateur.’ She pasted on her widest grin and turned to face the man she had once so admired. “Hello, Giles. Glad you’re here for this birthday.”

“As am I. I really shouldn’t have left in retrospect,” Giles had taken Spike’s words to heart about the trouble he had left in his wake.

“Well, I’m always willing to forgive mistakes, and so is Buffy,” Willow made no attempt to hide the double meaning. Giles understood her point even if he saw her misuse of magic as far more than a simple error in judgement.

“Yes, well, mistakes often have consequences, some not easily remedied.”

“And sometimes things work out for the best,” Willow answered quickly, her eyes narrowing in silent warning.

Any further snarking was put to an end by the appearance of the birthday girl. Buffy had a glow about her that had been missing for a long time, even before her death.

“Buffy, dear, you look lovely. Very grown up.” Giles smiled fondly on his charge.

“Thanks, Giles. That’s me: Buffy Summers, all growed up and womanly,” She ended that on a slight giggle.

Xander and his small entourage hustled through the door, chattering like mad squirrels. His arms were laden with bags of snack foods. Besides his ever present fiancé, there was a strange woman and young man, both looking a bit uncertain of their welcome.

“Guys,” Xander did the introductions while putting his bounty on the already filled table, “This is Richard–he works with me. A real craftsman and a gentleman.” He looked pointedly at Buffy, trying to convey Richard’s suitability to his old friend. With a slight fading of his smile, he pointed to Hallie next. “And this is one of Anya’s old pal’s, Halfrek.”

“Hallie is my oldest friend in the entire world. She’s going to be in the wedding party and I thought you should all get to know each other before the big day,” Anya’s delight was fairly beaming at the thought of the upcoming wedding.

“The more, the merrier,” Buffy said, patently ignoring the obviousness of Xander’s matchmaking attempt. “I don’t mind another couple at the party.”

Xander’s face fell slightly at Buffy’s assumption that Richard was Hallie’s date. “Well…um…Richard and Hallie aren’t a couple, except in the ‘there are two of them’ sense. I kinda thought you and Richard might like, you know, meeting each other?”

The man in question looked like he wanted the floor to swallow him whole.

Buffy was bemused and it showed. “Oh, if he’s a friend of yours, I’m sure he can become a friend of mine too.” She put out her hand in welcome, “Nice to meet you, Richard. Goodies are on the table, help yourself.”

Before Xander could make his meaning embarrassingly clear to everyone, he was saved by the bell, or rather the entrance of Spike and an odd-looking demon. “Hope you don’t mind, but I brought Clem along for the ceremonial first legal drink of liquor. Since the first time he met you was the night you were illegally sloshed.” He grinned at the memory of a charmingly drunk Buffy.

“I remember you! Kitten poker. You were the one that said my skin was too tight,” Buffy smiled at the affable demon.

“Kitten poker?” Richard was looking at the floppy eared, loose-skinned man with the red tinted eyes in complete confusion.

“Skin condition. Doesn’t like to talk about it,” Buffy whispered to him before saying in a normal tone, “Kittens, chips, pretzels…poker works with about anything, right, Clem?”

Clem nodded, his ears flapping with the movement. “Hope you still like the little grey ones ‘cause that’s what I brought for your gift.” Dawn squealed and grabbed the grey bundle of fur before Buffy could even get a look at it.

“Oh, Buffy, she’s precious!!! Can she sleep in my room? I know it’s your kitty, but just for tonight?” Dawn hadn’t looked so excited since she had been nine.

“Okay,” Buffy was really thinking about how she was going to add cat food and kitty litter to her already impossible list of things to buy when Clem dragged in a cat bed that had a bag of each in it.

Tara whispered to Dawn, “Be sure all the crossbows are put up. I’d hate for another innocent to meet with an accident.” She had always regretted letting Miss Kitty Fantastico spend that tragic last night in Dawn’s room.

It was all Spike could do to keep from growling at the vapid youth standing at Buffy’s side. The boy did not improve on second viewing. ‘Wish she’d see that another couple of words for normal are ‘ordinary’ and ‘common.’ Silly chit deserves better than that.’

Buffy was delighted to notice the stiff posture in the vampire as he looked at Richard. Maybe it wasn’t too late after all, maybe he was still interested. “Glad you could make it, Spike, and yes, Clem’s always welcome too.” She smiled her most engaging smile and was rewarded with a look of awe from her vamp in shining leather.

“Looks like everybody’s here. Let the party begin!” Willow gestured to the decorated living room with its pile of presents. “Dawn picked out some games and I’ve got the CD player all queued up with the tunes. Everybody already knows where the food is, and the drinks and ice are in the kitchen.”

Spike raised his eyebrow sardonically at Willow’s acting as woman of the house. ‘Made herself right at home, hasn’t she. Sleepin’ in the master bedroom and takin’ charge. Rent-free too.’
“Yes,” Buffy urged, “Everybody make yourself at home. Very casual around here.”

Hallie had already zeroed in on Clem in a moment of demon solidarity and led him to the snacks. “So how long have you known William?”

Spike heard his name mentioned but realizing the vengeance demon was present didn’t distract him from heading straight to Buffy’s side in the living room. “Well, pet, how’s it feel to be all adult-like?”

Buffy laughed in genuine pleasure. It was amazing how freeing it was to stop fighting her feelings. “Feels the same and completely different at the same time. It’s nice that I can make my own choices now,” she hinted.

Spike grinned at her happy mood. He’d been right to hold her at arm’s length if it had this result. She looked at peace, the dark cloud that had accompanied her since her mother had died wasn’t around, at least not at the moment. “That so? What are some of these choices that have your pretty eyes dancing?”

“Maybe later I’ll tell you a few, when it’s less crowded,” Buffy said, playing the coquette. If Spike hadn’t already given her his heart and soul, he would have been completely smitten by this version of the girl he had known for years. She was flirting! With him!

~~~

“Ooh, prezzies!” Buffy’s eyes gleamed as she looked at the booty just waiting to be unwrapped.

“Mine first,” Dawn insisted. She lay the gaily wrapped present on Buffy’s lap and bit her lip in anxious excitement. The money Spike had given her had allowed her to buy what she really wanted and now she was going to see if Buffy would love it as much as Dawn hoped she would.
The paper flew and box was wrenched open with the sound of popping tape. “Dawn! God, this is beautiful! Do I want to know where you got the money for this?” Buffy looked slyly at her Watcher in question. To her surprise, Giles seemed as clueless as she was. She rubbed the buttery soft leather of the black coat in delight. She hadn’t had a new coat in ages and this was far too good for a cool night’s patrol. “Thank you. This is for my ‘not going out to slice and dice’ moments; it’s too pretty to risk ruining it.”

Dawn was thrilled that she had nailed her sister’s taste so well and handed Buffy a second package. “You might want these to go with it then.”

The boots were of matching leather and the heel made them impractical for patrolling. The box showed them to be from a discount shoe store but the quality looked excellent. “You’re spoiling me! New boots to go with the coat. I’ll be stylish Buffy again before you know it!” She threw her arms around her little sister and thanked her again. Leave it to Dawn to realize that the best way to cheer this girl up was a new pair of shoes.

Tara shyly handed Buffy their gift as Willow hovered at her side. They had talked a lot while getting the party ready and Willow had high hopes that her girl was close to coming home! The joy nearly counterbalanced the undercurrent of anger she felt each time she looked at either Giles or Spike.

Buffy looked at the gift in a bit of confusion. It looked like the head of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, in a way, with the two large protruding balls that could be mistaken for red eyes in the grey alien-like mounting. “It’s a vibrator,” Tara explained. “It does deep massage. You know, for your back when you’ve been fighting demons and it’s too sore for you to rest well.”

Spike hid a smirk as Buffy blushed. Clearly the word vibrator caused his Slayer to go someplace where bad backs didn’t exist or at least didn’t matter.

“That’s really thoughtful, thank you.” Buffy wondered how she was supposed to contort herself to use it on her back and then had an image of long talented fingers attached to a yummy vampire doing the job for her and valued the gift even more.

Xander and Anya hauled in a large and welcome weapons chest that he had lovingly made and carved with clever designs. It had been hand polished to a high gleam and lined with soft material. “This is beautiful guys and means even more because you made it for me yourself. Thank you.”

It was turning out to be a lovely birthday after all.

Giles cleared his throat and pulled out an attaché case.

“Um, Giles I don’t think I’ll be getting any job that needs a briefcase,” Buffy teased.

“Indeed,” he began unable to stifle his wide grin. “I believe what this contains may well make any job hunting unnecessary… well unless you have a strong desire for a career, of course.”

“You got the council to pay me!!!!” Buffy fairly shot off the couch in excitement.

“Not exactly. Those prats don’t part with a farthing without getting a pound out of it somehow,” Giles said in disgust. “No, this is yours by right. In our grief and desperation to cover up your… passing…we neglected to remember your mother’s Gallery. I took it upon myself to have an appraiser come and look over her inventory after I checked her records and determined she had ownership of it all and was not holding anything on consignment. What I have here is an offer from a rather prestigious auction house to handle the sale of all the items. They were very impressed with your mother’s good taste and wise investments. Some of the pieces have nearly quadrupled in value since you mother purchased them. This is their estimate of the base amount you will likely receive from auction. The final figure may well be more. If you agree to allow them handle it the money could be in your hands within a month.” He handed her the proposal and sat next to the shocked girl. “All you need to do is sign this agreement. The percentage they will take as a fee is minimal and they have an impeccable reputation for both honesty and success.”

“God, Giles, did you see that figure? I can pay off the house, not just play catch up on the mortgage. I can go back to college. DAWN can go to college without a student loan! This is….” She began to cry, suddenly feeling the weight of the non-supernatural part of her world lift from her shoulders.

Thanks to Spike’s bequest, Giles was able to give her some immediate relief from her financial woes. “There is also a good-will check enclosed to tide you over until the final sale,” Giles handed her a check that would get everything caught up until the larger amount was in her possession.

Buffy took the check and thought of the groceries she could buy after all the urgent bills were paid. There would even be enough left to get a few new items to wear with her new coat and boots, some things for Dawn as well. It was a generous enough check to let her at least entertain the idea of finding a counselor like Spike had suggested too. Maybe dealing with losing her mom and all the baggage left behind by Angel would make this new life one to enjoy instead of merely trudge through. Spike had a point that not all her troubles began with her resurrection.

“If you will trust me to act on your behalf, I can make the final arrangements for you when I travel to London after the wedding. I have a bit of business with a shaman there that requires my personal appearance,” He hastened to reassure Buffy that he was not deserting her once again. “I shan’t be gone longer than a couple of weeks and then I can look into some property to settle in here properly.”

“You’re staying?” Her small voice betrayed just how much she wanted him to stay in her life and nearby. Having Giles there was just the security she needed to start to feel like she might just make it after all.

“As long as you need me or want me…yes.”

Buffy flung her arms around Giles and nearly knocked him from the couch. “Yes, well,” he responded in embarrassment. He looked toward Spike in desperation. “Um, Spike deserves some of your thanks. He’s the one who reminded me of the Gallery and set this all in motion.” Giles was so relieved to have Buffy turn her gratitude toward the vampire, allowing him to return to some sense of decorum, that he didn’t mind in the least sharing the glory.

Buffy launched herself into the surprised vampire’s arms with a muttered “Thank you so much”.
Spike wasn’t sure quite how to react to a grateful Buffy. This was a new beast entirely, so he merely replied with a whispered, “Didn’t do much. Just ran my mouth is all.”

Finally, the sight of Buffy in Spike’s arms managed to make Giles more interested in parting them than in preserving his own dignity, and he reached for his own birthday gift. “I did actually bring a gift, however.”

Buffy reluctantly released Spike and turned back to her Watcher. She radiated joy as she took the proffered package. Tonight was turning into a dream come true with Giles staying, her financial woes at an end and Spike returning her embrace. The gift was a small, delicate-looking dagger with a jeweled hilt. “I thought this might be easily hidden if you need a backup weapon.”

“It’s beautiful,” Buffy ran an appreciative finger over the blade. “I don’t think I want to have to bloody it up, but it really is lovely.”

“I had it enchanted as well. It can never be used against you.”

“That is always of the good,” Buffy grinned.

“Guess that leaves me,” Spike reached in his inner pocket for the gift he had rewrapped ten times until he had been satisfied with the look. “’S not much, an old piece from my human days,” he offered the lie he decided had the best chance for winning acceptance.

Buffy looked at the lovely if small emerald and gasped. “Oh, Spike, are you sure you want ME to have something from your family?”

“No other, love. You’ll do it justice.”

She lifted her hair and tore off the leather strip at her throat as she spun her back toward Spike and asked, “Please, I’d like to wear it.”

He fumbled a bit with the clasp but finally secured the necklace his fingers lightly grazing her skin as he worked the catch. Something about this girl could turn him back into a nervous youth in the space of a breath. As she turned back to face him, he congratulated himself on having chosen wisely. The piece looked like it had been made to flatter her. “Gorgeous,” he rasped softly, clearly not only meaning the jewelry.

Buffy blushed, pleased at both the compliment and the present. “Thank you again. Part of me wants to say this is too much, but I like it, and am going to let myself be selfish Buffy and keep it. Thank you for everything.” She was thinking of his every kind and thoughtful act since her return as she said the words.

The room was filled with awkward silence as each of her friends tried to process the subtle undertones of the exchange. Xander finally cracked a joke that neither Buffy nor Spike heard but it served to break the tension.

“Time for cake!” Willow headed to the kitchen with Tara in tow to light the candles and bring in the dessert.

“I already have all I could wish for right here,” Buffy looked pointedly at Spike as she said it causing his dead heart to leap in his chest at the possibilities.

~~~

Richard had grown bored before the cake had even arrived. Clearly any thought that Xander’s friend might be a good hook-up faded the moment the too pale punk arrived with the freak show guy with long ears. Buffy Summers was constantly shooting looks in the Brit’s direction when she thought no one was looking. There was more subtext between them than in an indie film. He yawned and checked his watch before announcing, “Well, it was nice meeting all of you, but I have an early day on the site tomorrow.”

Halfrek had been huddled in a corner with Anya discussing the upcoming wedding, but she turned when the young man headed for the door. This was the first person to try to leave the party and now was the moment of truth for the revelers.

The door opened but Richard found himself unable to move forward through the opening. ‘Come on. Don’t need to hang around like a fifth wheel. Scoot!’ Still his body refused to respond to the orders his mind was shouting to it.

“Hey,” called a giggling Dawn, “Just ‘cause big sis is soon gonna be rich doesn’t mean we can afford to heat the outdoors.”

“Dawn!” Buffy felt bad for having virtually ignored the young man all evening. He was probably very nice…in a rice pudding way. “Thank you for coming, Raymond. Sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk a little.”

“It’s Richard,” hissed Xander.

“Of course I meant Richard!” Buffy was mortified at her mistake. First she ignored him then didn’t even remember his name. “It’s been a long night for all of us, I guess.”

“Yes, I should be going as well,” Giles agreed. “I just can’t see myself sitting on the floor being trounced by Anya at Monopoly when I could be comfortably sipping a nice single malt and reading a bit of Proust.”

“Yeah, I’d rush home to that,” Spike chuckled.

“Once upon a time,” muttered Hallie.

Now both Giles and Richard were standing at the open doorway, unable to cross the threshold for unknown reasons. “Well, this is simply…unexpected,” Giles declared as he tried to get his feet to respond yet again. “I don’t seem to be able to actually leave for some reason.”

“Yeah, me either,” Richard said with a spooked look. “Is this some kind of trick maybe? A hidden camera?”

“Magic, possibly,” Xander glanced at his oldest friend who had claimed to have sworn off the spells. “If anyone actually did that kind of thing, that is.”

“Not me!” Willow hastened to reassure Tara with a squeeze of her hand. “No cameras either.”
Soon everyone had attempted to exit the Summers home with no success and puzzled looks were exchanged among the partygoers.

Spike looked at Halfrek knowingly, having already figured out that someone had to have made a fateful wish just as before. He doubted it was Dawn, however, as the teen had been quite happy tonight. “Somebody here make any wishes lately…other than Buffy’s when she blew out the candles?”

Hallie was pretty certain she didn’t want her demon nature exposed this way and immediately sought to deflect the conversation. “Well, William, maybe Buffy wished for her good time to keep going?”

“William?” Xander jumped on the name. “You’ve met Spikey before?”

“You could say he and I go way back,” Hallie hinted.

Spike narrowed his eyes and did his best to look threatening.

“Hey, how nice to meet old friends in Sunnydale, of all places,” Clem stepped in and tried to maneuver Halfrek back to the snack table.

“What was that all about?” Buffy knew there was more to the story than just a chance encounter with an old friend. She could see from Spike’s face that the word friend didn’t even enter into it; he was fuming. “Never mind, I probably don’t want to know. But I DO want to know why you think Anya’s friend might know why no one can leave my party.”

“Bint’s a vengeance demon. Seems like a good bet she’s up to her oversized ears in this little problem.” He glared at the back of Hallie’s head. ‘Can’t believe I ever thought her the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen!’

“Oh, all right! Yes, I’m a JUSTICE demon.” Halfrek blurted out, much to the confusion of Richard. “I thought you said Buffy needed some down time with her friends. I was only trying to give her a nice evening that lasted longer than just a quick cake and presents sort of thing.” With that, she transformed and ended the magic.

“You can leave now if you want to abandon the birthday girl,” Halfrek said sarcastically.

“What is a justice demon?” Richard looked from one face to another searching for some sign of sanity. “Magic…demons….” Then he looked pointedly at Clem and added, “and I’m not buying that bit about a skin condition either.”

Anya decided that her little group should call it an early night before Hallie dug a deeper hole for herself. “I mean it, Xander, I won’t have my maid of honor killing off my bridesmaids. We need to just wish Buffy a good night and leave before she tries out some of those weapons she put in your nice chest.”

~~~

The tension seemed to leave the room with the exit of Xander, Anya, Richard and Halfrek. Clem and Dawn began a game of Hearts with Tara and Willow while Buffy settled on the couch between Giles and Spike. “So you’re going to London right after the wedding. Isn’t it usually the bridal pair that go someplace cool?” Buffy teased.

“I believe Anya is holding out for a Honeymoon lodge at Niagara Falls, one of those with heart shaped beds and fake champagne glasses for a bathtub. She showed me a picture in a magazine. I think the red walls are way too much.”

Buffy looked at her little sister in horror,“PLEASE tell me she didn’t go into details about all her honeymoon plans with you!”

“As if!” Dawn laughed. “I plugged my ears and sang all the ‘N Sync songs I could remember. That usually works to shut her up.”

“I loved ‘Gone’ by them! They’re really good singers and they dance well too,” Clem nodded enthusiastically.

“Nice guy, but I can’t seem to teach culture and taste to the bloke,” Spike shook his head in despair as Giles snorted in derision.

“So what’s with this shaman visiting?” Buffy had a feeling it had something to do with her. Most of Giles’ actions seemed to be about her lately.

The mood turned somber.

“As you know, I returned because Spike called to let me know there was something amiss beyond mere depression with you. I’ve researched the ritual used to return you to us and am fairly certain that between the poor choice of words in the ritual itself and the interruption that took place during its performance may have caused a flux that is the root of your difficulty in readjusting to life.” He gave a stern look at Willow, noting the way that girl’s eyes narrowed in anger at the very suggestion that she had erred in any way. “If I am correct, there may need to be mystical intervention to set you to rights.”

“I came back wrong,” Buffy slumped in her seat, looking defeated all over again.

“No, love, not wrong, just not completely right,” Spike tried to clarify. “May not sound like it, but there is a difference.”

“What was it that we did wrong?” Tara was shocked to realize that the interruption of the ritual hadn’t even registered with her until now. She had trusted Willow implicitly at that time.

“Willow chose to call back the ‘warrior of the people’ as opposed to Buffy Summers,” Giles explained.

“SO!” Willow sounded indignant. “Buffy is the Slayer, and that’s the warrior of the people. It’s semantics.”

“Actually, Buffy is far more than merely the Slayer, Willow, and you know that well. It is clear to me that you didn’t think it through fully.” Giles reminded her.

“I checked and double checked everything. All the details were exactly the way the books said they had to be to bring her back to us and here she is,” Willow stubbornly insisted.

“And she’s been bloody miserable ever since, not even able to know what she’s feelin’ and mostly not feelin’ a thing!” Spike had risen and faced the witch full on. The animosity was palpable.

“She’d be fine if you’d just butt out! Every time she starts to get back to normal, there you are making her question everything–herself, me, her friends,” Willow accused. “You’re the one luring her to a crypt all the time. Don’t think I haven’t noticed how much time she’s been spending there not patrolling. How’s that healthy?”

“Least I don’t ask anything of her or add to her load. Let her be and feel whatever she wants and don’t make her pretend to be happy when she’s not.” He was full steam now and in the old days would have gone for her throat by now. “Don’t eat her food and use her electricity and water without giving her any help either. You lot handed her that stack of unpaid bills and skipped off to your own interests, not me. Notice you only buy groceries you like for yourself too with nothing for Buffy or the Bit.”

“Oh, so you’re saying I’m using Buffy, is that it?”

“Your words, witch. Got yourself a nice setup here too. Living in the master bedroom like the woman of the house, go to your classes and out to the Bronze and wherever else you’ve been gettin’ to with that ex-rat friend of yours while Buffy’s worryin’ and patrollin’ and feelin’ numb.”

Spike saw the eyes go black as his words hit Willow. The energy fairly crackled between them. “I think you have too many opinions for a dead man.”

“That’s right! You don’t like to hear anyone else’s opinions, do you? Think you know best for all. All last summer you were the one givin’ the orders and expectin’ even Rupes here to follow ‘em.”

“Hey, guys, can we not do this?” Buffy looked desperately between her oldest female friend and the vampire she wanted to have at her side. It was going to be one of her regular birthdays after all at this rate. “Please.” That last word was a near whisper, but it got through to Spike nonetheless. How could he deny her anything?

“This isn’t finished. You’d best hope whatever the Watcher finds out helps fix your mess,” Spike threatened and headed to the door.

“Or what? Last I heard you were toothless or is the part about it only being Buffy you can bite a big lie. Hate to have to see you dusted–oh, wait, maybe not,” Willow seethed.

“Just watch yourself,” Spike countered then turned to Buffy with, “Sorry ‘bout this last bit, pet. Hope you had a good birthday,” and left.

“I think I’d better get going too,” Tara bit her lip and looked at her love with worry. She had never known Willow to be as harsh as she had been lately. All that anger was toxic and Tara just couldn’t deal with watching her Willow so filled with it.

With Tara going without so much as a hug, Willow felt the last straw had been laid upon the camel’s back. “I’m going to bed. Happy birthday, Buffy,” and headed upstairs.

Clem looked around nervously and realized the party was well and truly over. “I’ll just be going then too, Slayer. Thanks for having me.”

Dawn saw Giles out while Buffy picked up the grey kitten and rubbed her tear streaked face against its soft fur. “Spike left before I could even tell him.” She knew there should be more than that bothering her but somehow all those decisions she had made before the party had started had made her feel so connected with the world again that not being able to clue the vampire in to her feelings just made everything else less important. After all, Giles would figure it out and fix whatever needed fixing and Willow would just have to deal. “I guess I’ll just have to go by in the morning and talk to him, hey, kitty? You need a name and I’m thinking one word will work for both of us. How about I call you Hope?”
All things considered it hadn’t been a bad birthday at all.

 

Originally posted at http://seasonal-spuffy.livejournal.com/261886.html

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