Okay, let me explain more fully: I wrote 90% of this story a couple of years ago, but stalled on the ending. Since I already had That Good Night sitting online as an unfinished WIP, I refrained from posting any of the new story. But in the past fortnight, after finally tying up my Fragments-verse loose ends (more or less), I got inspired to actually finish this other story. And now it is indeed finished, and ready for posting!
Since it's likely that it will be a good long time before I have another story to post after this one, I decided to spread out my fun a bit, by posting a chapter a week. There are actually six chapters and I'll post them over the next five weeks (the sixth chapter is a short-ish epilogue and I'll post it at the same time as chapter five). I'll be posting on the weekends, always sometime between Friday night and Sunday night in my time zone. If you'd rather wait and read the whole thing in one go, just check back here around April 20th.
Comments on the individual chapters are absolutely welcome! (I may or may not manage to answer them in a timely fashion, depending on life.)
This story is technically Spike/Buffy, but it's not particularly shippy. Mainly the plot is the point.
I'm warning for canon-typical violence and basically no sex. (No sex, you have been warned!) If you look at my post to AO3 there are more detailed tags, including a list of dramatis personae, but I won't list them here in case you'd rather be a bit more surprised.
Many, many thanks to the awesome Yourlibrarian, who not only beta-read this story but also helped me hammer out its plot in the first place.
So ... on with the fic!
Title: Gently Down the Stream
Length: about 25,000 words total; this chapter is about 4000 words.
Cross-posting: Dreamwidth, LiveJournal and AO3; read wherever you're most comfortable.
Here's Buffy's life in a nutshell: dead mom, dead-beat dad, dead end job, dependent sister. She's pulling double shifts at the Double Meat Palace to make ends meet.
And yet, she's actually pretty happy! She's got supportive friends and a sexy English boyfriend. Her life is full of love, and frankly after that accident last year and the coma, she's grateful just to be alive.
But then one of her friends goes missing, and Buffy's peaceful life in Sunnydale begins to unravel in frightening and truly unexpected ways. Soon she will have to question everything she thinks she knows about her friends, her lover, her world ... and herself.
It was Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, early evening. The light was golden and the shadows were long. Revello Drive was so quiet that Buffy, on her way home from work, could hear Spike's guitar halfway down the block. She went around back of the house without going inside.
Spike was on the back porch steps, hunched over his battered acoustic guitar, trying one chord after another in no particular order. The sun was touching just the tips of his freshly-bleached hair, making them glow like fire. Buffy noticed that he was wearing the ring she'd given him a week before, the silver one with the Celtic knots. She smiled and cleared her throat.
Spike looked up, blinked, smiled in return. "How long you been there, love?"
Buffy shrugged. "Thirty seconds. So you're feeling okay now?"
Spike gave a quick nod. "Took some meds, had a nap. I'll be fine for tonight."
Buffy leaned over to give him a peck on the lips—no more than that for now, since there was a guitar between them and also she was covered in Double Meat grease. "You'll rock their world," she said.
Spike snorted. "Yeah, and if I'm really bloody lucky, I'll make enough for a cab ride home."
A shower before dinner was more of a necessity than a frill after a day at the Double Meat Palace. First, though, Buffy had to pass through the kitchen, where Tara and Dawn were cooking up a storm.
"That smells awesome, whatever it is," Buffy said. "So, Dawn! First day at Sunnydale High! Dish?"
Dawn grinned and gave her a garlic-covered thumbs-up. "I didn't get lost even once!"
Tara gave her an affectionate nudge with her elbow. "And?" she prompted.
"And I maybe made a couple of new friends and there's this boy I like and my teachers seem pretty cool and why didn't you tell me that high school would be this great?!"
Buffy grinned at her sister. "Hey, you know I met Willow and Xander on my first day at Sunnydale High." She paused and looked around. "Where is Willow? Wasn't she supposed to be on dinner duty with you?"
Tara palmed a lock of hair out of her eyes, managing to keep her floury fingertips off her face. "She's having a nap. She had trouble sleeping again last night."
"I'll be quiet upstairs," Buffy promised.
Buffy loved Tuesday dinners. It was the day they'd all committed to eating together, gathered around the table like a big, kooky family. Sometimes it was the only time in the week Buffy got to see Xander and Anya, especially if she'd pulled a weekend shift at the Double Meat Palace.
Today when he walked in the door, Xander handed Buffy a bottle of nice-looking red wine and a carton of fancy organic orange juice.
"Swanky," Buffy said appreciatively. "For toasting Dawn's Sunnydale High debut?"
"Oh!" Xander said. "Well, sure. Absolutely. But not just that. We've got another toastable topic, too. We'll tell you at dinner." He exchanged a mysteriously smug grin with Anya.
Everyone else was already converging on the dining room table. Buffy took her seat, belly rumbling in anticipation. "The casserole is vegan," Dawn said as they all sat down, "and so's the salad, but the biscuits aren't—" an apologetic glance in Spike's direction, "we had to use butter, we were out of vegetable shortening."
"Who's up for fermented grapey goodness?" Xander asked. Tara and Buffy held out their glasses. So did Willow, who'd come downstairs all of five minutes ago with mussed-up hair and still-puffy eyes. Dawn went for the orange juice instead, of course, and so did Spike, because of the meds—and so did Anya, which Buffy only barely had time to realize might be significant before Anya grabbed Xander's hand, held up her glass, and blurted out "I'm pregnant!"
"Oh my God!" Dawn squealed, clapping her hands. "That's awesome!"
"That's wonderful!" Tara echoed, and Buffy jumped up to give Anya and Xander great big hugs. Willow burst into tears. "Happy tears!" she gasped through the sobs, flapping her hands in front of her face as though trying to dry them even as they spilled over her cheeks. "Happy tears!"
Buffy ate her casserole in a happy glow of vicarious joy, listening to Anya babbling about the sweaters she planned to learn how to knit and Xander describing in detail the cradle he would build. Anya would get six weeks' maternity leave from the bank. They floated the possibility of hiring Tara as a nanny afterwards—she'd be graduating right around then. "And what on earth else will you do with a degree in Women's Studies in Sunnydale?" Anya asked with her usual slightly discomfiting frankness.
Meanwhile, Buffy and Spike sneaked slightly awkward looks at each other across the table. They hadn't talked about babies, not really, not yet, but all of a sudden Anya and Xander were making the previously distant and hypothetical possibility seem a lot more nearby and real.
Of course, Xander and Anya had already been married six months, and Buffy and Spike hadn't really talked about that possibility, either. If they did get married, they'd probably have to elope—they had no money for a proper wedding. And Buffy did kind of dream of a proper wedding.
By the time Dawn brought out the ice cream and potato chips for dessert, they'd all pretty much exhausted the subject of babies. Which Anya admitted in so many words. "Speaking of exhausted," she added, "Willow, you look terrible. Are you still not sleeping? Did you try the lavender tea?"
Willow waved the concern away with her free hand—her other was twined with Tara's. "I'm all right. Just—seasonal allergies keeping me up, that's all."
Tara petted Willow's hair. "Poor thing. You weren't even in bed when I woke up at three in the morning. I was having such a weird nightmare," she added, absently.
"Really?" Anya perked up. "I've been having these crazy vivid nightmares lately. I figured it was because of the pregnancy."
Xander frowned. "You didn't say anything, honey. That's weird, though—'cause, so was I."
Buffy thought back to her own recent, restless sleeps, a disjointed patchwork of panicky, violent images. "Huh," she said. "Me, too."
Spike raised an eyebrow. "You too? Me too."
"Wow," Dawn said. "There must be something in the air. I mean, I thought it was just 'cause I was nervous about starting high school or something, but—jeez, all summer, I've been having these freaky dreams, like everything's all green light and I'm somehow not real, or there's this big thing with a zillion teeth trying to eat me, or—"
"Oh God, me too!" Xander said. "Only with giant praying mantises. Er, manti? And also scary hobbits with leprosy."
"Oh my gosh I had that one too!" Dawn squealed.
Tara looked intrigued. "That sounds a lot like the dreams I've been having, too," she said. "There are always lots of things chasing me, trying to eat me. There's this one awful one I keep having where something eats my mind."
Willow petted Tara's hair, looking worried. "Oh, honey, that sounds awful. But it was only a dream."
"Of course," Tara said. "It does seem a little strange, though, doesn't it? That we're all having them?"
Willow shrugged, still smoothing down Tara's hair. "People have bad dreams. It's a thing. Does anyone want more ice cream?"
"What were yours like, Spike?" Dawn asked. "You said you were having them too."
"Mine—" Spike said, and stopped to clear his throat. He looked uncomfortable. "Mine've been bloody."
"Bloody what?" Dawn prompted.
"No, that was the end of the sentence. There's always blood. Gore." Spike grimaced. "I haven't had a bite of meat since 1991, but when I wake up from these fucking dreams I swear I can taste it raw in my mouth."
"You're dreaming about killing," Anya said.
Spike nodded, and Buffy thought he shuddered a little. But Anya looked relieved. "I thought I was the only one," she said. "In these dreams I'm so angry all the time, and I'm maiming people, mutilating, killing—doing horrible things."
"I'm not angry in my dreams," Spike said. "I'm—joyful. Bloodthirsty. I love the hunt and the crunch." He looked nauseated. "Makes a body wonder, you know? Where's it all coming from."
Buffy squeezed his hand. "Spike, you're the most nonviolent person I've ever met. You wouldn't let us kill the ants in the kitchen. Don't beat yourself up over a dream."
"You said you were having nightmares too, Buffy," Xander reminded her. "What are yours like?"
Buffy thought for a moment, trying to make sense of the hazy, disconcerting memories that survived each morning's waking. "I think I'm with Anya and Spike," she said. "I've been dreaming about fighting."
"Maybe there's like this night-time alternate universe where we're on opposite teams," Dawn suggested. "And Xander and Tara and I are the good guys and you and Spike and Anya are the bad guys."
Buffy was mildly offended, but Xander spoke up before she could. "I think they're the winning-guys and we're the having-our-asses-kicked guys," he said to Dawn in a fake-conspiratorial whisper.
"It's not funny," Anya protested, but she didn't look overly bothered—not like Spike. "Just you wait Xander, tonight I'm going to dream about turning your intestines into writhing cobras."
Xander laughed, and kissed her cheek. "And I'll dream about cowering behind a really big rock."
"What about you, honey?" Tara asked Willow, who'd been awfully quiet. "Have you been dreaming?"
Willow shook her head. "No," she said, almost sharply. "No dreams. I just can't sleep. Look, seriously, does anybody else want ice cream or should I put it away?"
Later that evening, Buffy sat alone at a table at the Bronze, nursing a beer and watching Spike perform.
Tuesday night wasn't a busy night at the Bronze, and of the people who were there, only a handful were sitting quietly and listening to the music. There was a background hum of conversation, of clinking glasses, of arguments and giggling and scraping chairs. Buffy didn't care, and neither did Spike. He was there for the music, and she was there for him.
He described his music as a little bit country, a little bit rock, a little bit punk. Buffy wasn't sure which of those parts was supposed to include the spoken-word poetry, but she knew she always got a little thrill when he slapped his hand down on the guitar strings and leaned into the mike and launched into it, words tumbling together in a silky growl, "yeah the alleyways are burning and the baby's all alone and you're paralyzed by yearning and it's Baghdad on the phone." Then his grin (just for her), and his fingers moving on the strings again.
He wrote all his own songs. He often mentioned, ruefully, that he'd get more gigs if he did covers. Buffy didn't know much about music, wasn't really a connoisseur, but listening to Spike sing gave her shivers up and down her back. She figured it was only a matter of time before he got discovered and then he'd be a rock star and they'd live in a mansion and eat clotted cream all the time or whatever the heck it was that rock stars were supposed to eat.
She took another sip of beer. He grabbed a drink of water, caught her eye and licked his lips, and launched into another song. God did she ever want to leap up on the stage and have sex with him.
He was still wearing the worn-out old Food Not Bombs shirt. He said it was the right look for his show. But he'd gelled his hair after dinner to make it all spiky, and he'd painted his fingernails black. The stage lights highlighted his cheekbones and the muscles in his arms. Buffy figured if he didn't get discovered for his music, at the very least he'd land some kind of job with his looks. A modeling contract, or maybe a role in one of those TV shows where they just wanted you to look pretty and they didn't care if you could act.
She was joking, of course, inside her head. Nobody got discovered at the Bronze. Anyway, Spike couldn't work full-time as a musician or a model, not with the headaches and everything.
But it's not like she was bothered. They scraped by on what she brought in, that and the bit of rent Willow and Tara paid out of their student loans. The important thing was that they were all together, and they were happy.
Walking home hand-in-hand with Spike at one a.m., Buffy felt happy enough to burst. They giggled and stole kisses and snuck hands under each others' clothes.
"I thought that show went well," Spike said, nuzzling and kissing her temple while she laughed and tried to stop them from tripping over a curb. "Did you see, that one bloke by the staircase even stopped playing Solitaire and just sat back and listened to the whole last set."
"I might have competition soon for my 'number one groupie' spot here," Buffy teased.
"Little spot of competition might spice things up a bit, yeah?" Spike teased right back, and then he pinched her bum. Buffy swatted him playfully with the guitar case, and next thing they were chasing each other down the street, shrieking with laughter. Buffy reached the corner first, turned it, and found herself face-to-face with a startled-looking Willow.
"Um, hi!" Buffy said, pushing her hair back off her face. "Wow, you're out late."
"You too," Willow said, quickly and unsubtly hiding what looked like a short pointy stick behind her back.
"Spike's gig just ended," Buffy explained. Spike caught up to her just then, and leaned against her from behind with his arms flung over her shoulders, breathing hard.
"Bloody hell you're fast, woman," he said. "Hi, Red. When did you join Insomniac Jews for Jesus?"
Willow started guiltily and clutched at the large cross pendant she was wearing. "It's not a cross, it's a plus sign," she said. "A joke. For my physics class. I'm very positively charged! Hahahaha.... Well, I've gotta go. I mean, I'm out for a brisk walk. To help me sleep."
"Do you want us to come with you?" Spike asked. "It's late to be out on your own."
"No, I'm fine." Her eyes widened. "But you two should go straight home! Don't go down any dark alleys! Shoo!" She backed a few steps away from them, and then turned and ran.
"That was weird," Spike said.
"Um, yeah." Buffy hesitated. "Do you think we should follow her?"
"She didn't want us to."
"That was obvious." Buffy shrugged and started towards home again. "You don't think she's having an affair, do you?"
Spike gave an incredulous sort of snort. "Willow? You see her with Tara, she's all over her like jam on bread."
"They are pretty lovey-dovey," Buffy conceded. "Okay, I was kidding about the affair. But Willow's insomnia is getting kind of extreme."
It was just a few more minutes' walk back to Revello Drive. As they came within sight of home, Buffy was startled to see someone waiting at the front door: a tall, slender woman with a long skirt and dark curly hair—oh God.
"Spike," Buffy said, stopping cold, "why is your psycho ex-girlfriend standing on my porch at one in the morning?"
"Dru?" Spike blinked, disconcerted, then broke into a jog. Buffy followed, lugging the guitar case.
Drusilla's dress was dark purple and covered with lace. She had one wing of a moth pinched between her thumb and forefinger so that she could hold the thing up to the porch light and watch its frantic battering. She looked just as pale and pretty and batshit crazy as Buffy remembered.
"Dru, love?" Spike said. His voice was gentle and worried in a way that Buffy found ever so slightly annoying. "What the bloody hell are you doing here?"
"I have a message," Drusilla said, her eyes still on the moth. "For the red-haired witch."
"You mean Willow?" Buffy frowned. "Actually her Wiccan phase pretty much ended halfway through sophomore year."
Drusilla turned her disconcertingly large eyes on Spike. "My poor Spikey," she said, reaching out with her moth-free hand to brush Spike's cheek. "What has she done to you?"
"Dru," Spike said, reaching up to catch her hand. "You shouldn't be here."
"Do you want to come inside?" Buffy offered reluctantly. It was the middle of the night, after all. Drusilla lived in L.A. and didn't even have a car, as far as Buffy knew—she must have walked here from the bus station. In that stupid dress.
"Not tonight, but it's very sweet of you to invite me," Drusilla said, letting her wavery gaze slide quickly over Buffy before settling back on Spike. "Tell Mistress Rosenberg, if you please, that Osiris is rather annoyed and would like a word with her." She nodded curtly to them both, popped the moth into her mouth, and walked away down the steps, chewing noisily.
"Dru?" Spike said, looking like he was about to follow her.
Buffy put a hand on his arm. "Oh my God," she said under her breath. "I think she's actually gotten crazier. Do you think she was high?"
"She ate a moth." Spike's eyes were wide. "We can't just leave her wandering around alone in the middle of the night."
"Sure we can. We left Willow. And Dru is so not your problem anymore." Spike still looked worried, so Buffy added, "What could happen to her anyway? It's just Sunnydale."
For the umpteenth night in a row, Buffy dreamed of violence.
She was chasing a shadowy figure through a foggy graveyard. She leapt over tombstones and ducked around corners, heart racing, wooden stake clutched in her hand. The figure tripped and she was on top of it—an old lady in a dirty blue burial dress, an old lady with the face of a demon, and with a yelp of triumph Buffy plunged the stake into the old lady's chest.
"Gah," Buffy said, sitting up in bed. Her negligee was sticking to her back with sweat. Her heart was pounding for real. Beside her, Spike stirred, blinked up at her.
"You all right, love?" he asked sleepily.
"I just dreamed that I killed an old lady," Buffy said.
"Me too," he murmured, and rolled over.
"Well, I think mine was a vampire," Buffy said.
Buffy was in the kitchen packing her lunch for work when Willow came in the kitchen door. It was 6:30 in the morning.
"Um," said Buffy. "Tell me you weren't out all night."
Willow gave her a wan smile. "I wasn't out all night." She had a dirt smudge on her cheek, and twigs stuck in her hair.
"Oh my God Willow, did you fall asleep in a park?"
Willow gave a sheepish shrug.
Buffy put the sandwich down and went around the kitchen island so that she could pluck the debris out of Willow's hair. "That's so not safe. I mean, I know it's just Sunnydale, not, like, Compton, but still, Willow—" Out of words, Buffy gave Willow a hug. "You need help. See a doctor. There must be pills you can take or something..."
"I'll be okay," Willow said. "Really. There's just a lot on my mind, with school starting and everything."
"Right." Buffy sighed. She'd talk to Tara; maybe Tara would have better luck getting through to Willow. "Hey, you'll never guess who was looking for you here last night."
Willow looked appropriately guess-less. "Oprah Winfrey?" she hazarded.
"Sadly, no. Actually it was Drusilla."
"Drusilla?" Willow yelped. She looked way more freaked than Buffy had expected. "Oh my God Buffy, are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Buffy gave Willow a funny look. "No serious running-into-the-ex trauma. It was weird, though. She said she was looking for you."
"Me?" Willow said, a bit faintly. "Did she say why?"
"Well yeah, and as per typical Drusilla, it made no sense. She said Osiris wanted to talk to you. Um, Egyptian god of the Dead, right?" Buffy made the crazy-person twirly index finger sign. "And then she ate a moth and she left."
Willow looked even more pale, and did not smile. "Buffy ... this is important. Did you invite her in?"
"Well yeah," Buffy said. "It was the middle of the night. I didn't want to be a jerk. She didn't take me up on it, though. She must have been staying with someone else in town."
"Oh God," Willow said. "Okay. Okay. I can fix it. Buffy, if you see Drusilla again, do not invite her in. She's ... she's off her meds. Angel called and told me yesterday. I forgot to tell you."
Buffy declined to point out that currently, Willow was acting only slightly less crazy than Drusilla. "Okay, no argument here," she said. "You should tell Spike, though. He might feel like he needs to help her or something."
"I'll talk to him when he gets up," Willow said. "Okay, well, have a good day at work!"
About the best thing that could be said about Buffy's job at the Double Meat Palace was that it was a job and she didn't totally hate it, and the not-hating stemmed largely from the paycheck-appreciating anyway—not that the paycheck itself was anything to write home about, but at least it covered the groceries.
Today Buffy was training a new guy, Percy. He got flustered on his first try at the cash, but he was good at talking to the customers and she had no complaints about his burger-flipping technique.
Mid-afternoon, she came back from re-stocking the salad bar and noticed Percy struggling with a box of patties in the freezer. "Here, let me," she said. She gave the cardboard box a sharp jerk to detach it from the one underneath it and handed it to Percy.
He looked mildly affronted. "I could've got that," he said.
Buffy grinned. "Don't worry—you work here a few months and you'll be as strong as me." She struck a faux beefcake pose, letting him get a good view of her admittedly tiny biceps. She had to laugh at the look on his face. "The boxes freeze together when there's condensation. They come apart if you give'em a quick twist. Don't worry, you'll pick up all these tricks soon enough."
"I don't want to be working here that long," he said. "Um, no offense."
Buffy shrugged. "None taken. Not like Assistant Manager at the Double Meat Palace is my dream job or anything. But it pays the bills while my kid sister's in school."
Percy nodded, managing to look reasonably knowing and sympathetic. Buffy had given him the 30-second Buffy's Life Rundown at the start of the day, when he'd recognized her from Sunnydale High and asked her what she'd been up to for the past three years. Dead mom, deadbeat dad, dependent sister, three months last year spent in a coma after being hit by a minivan.
"Seriously, I don't think I could do what you do," Percy said now. "I mean, here I am, majorly bummed 'cause I got bounced back to Sunnydale after I blew my knee out. But my dad's already promised me a job at his company as soon as I finish up my business degree. I'm taking the last course by correspondence and I should be done by January. I'll be making real money, and you'll still be here making fifteen cents an hour above minimum wage and playing mom to your teenaged sister. And yet look at you! You come to work with a smile on your face! It's incredible!"
"It's amazing what nearly dying will do for your appreciation of life," Buffy acknowledged. "That, and a really hot English boyfriend. Now, how 'bout I show you where the mop is and you go clean the floor."
He wasn't wrong, though. It was a bit weird how happy she was even though her life, as seen by an outside observer, totally sucked.
It's just that the money problems and the dead-end job didn't tell the whole story. She was lucky to be alive, and unlike most people she knew it.
And her life was filled with love.
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