A/N: Hi! This is my first Spuffy story, so I hope no one is too out of character. It is completed, I'm just posting the chapters every three days or so. There are a total of five chapters, so this story isn't terribly long. I'm also posting the same story at the Spuffy fansite Elysian Fields, so if you see it duplicated there, don't freak, it's still me!

Disclaimer: I don't own anything. Ya reckon?

Part 1: In Which Buffy Falls Ill (And the Scoobies Come Back)

Part 1: In Which Buffy Falls Ill (And the Scoobies Come Back)

"I love you."

"No, you don't. But thanks for saying it. Now go!"

She ran, and that told Spike all he needed to know. Because Buffy? She didn't run from the ones she loved. No matter how they treated her, judged her, tried to end the world, she stayed by them to the very end. They might leave her, but she never left them. And she had left him. He grimaced and pulled it into a wild grin.

"I wanna see how it ends."

It had been a month since Sunnydale, and Buffy was still having the same dream. The dream where she saved him. The dream where he ran out behind her, or she went back after it was done and found him. The dream where the PTB sent him back like they had sent Angel back, or how Willow or some vengeance demon granted her wish and he was back. Maybe he was broken, maybe he was scarred, but she didn't care because she loved him. She loved him and she took care of him, let him have her blood if it was what he needed, let him have all of her. Every night she saved him.

But she hadn't, not really. She woke alone and she cried useless buckets of salt, because he hadn't believed her. She should have stayed, should have made him believe her when she said she loved him. But she didn't. She didn't, and he didn't believe, and now he was gone, and he would never believe, and she would never… love like that again. Why hadn't she gone back for him? Why hadn't she knocked him out and dragged him with her? Because he didn't believe her. If he didn't believe her when he was doing this incredible, selfless thing, saving them all, how could she ever make him believe? She thought, maybe, he would be happier to save them. Happy to believe he was doing something good, because he was. But she was wrong and now he was gone.

The others thought she was just having regular nightmares. They all had those. Life on the Hellmouth wasn't pretty, and they had years of bad memories to haunt them. Xander was also hit pretty hard with the nightmares. She could guess why. Sometimes they shared a look, one of mutual pain and understanding. Maybe he wasn't happy about the reason why they were both grieving, but he knew how it felt to lose someone in the Hellmouth. Willow was sympathetic, but her loss was older, and she had Kennedy now.

They had all lost everything in Hellmouth.

It took Buffy six months to get back to a semblance of a normal life. Or at least as normal as things got for the Slayer. Yes, the Slayer, because even though there were now a couple thousand Slayers world-wide, and a couple hundred stationed at the new Council chambers in Cleveland, she was still the oldest, the first, the best. She tried to pass the mantle on to Faith, but surprisingly Faith didn't want to be the one in charge. She wasn't much for institutions anyway. Now Faith and Robin were off somewhere, rounding up baby Slayers and sending them to Cleveland.

Buffy was the one stuck in Cleveland. At least the new Council chambers weren't set up directly over the Hellmouth there. And frankly compared to the Sunnydale Hellmouth, the Cleveland one was kind of… weak. Not nearly as big, not nearly as strong, didn't attract nearly as much trouble. Barely more than any large city would on its own.

Buffy adamantly refused to patrol anymore. She was done. Slaying had taken everything from her, and all she wanted to do was enjoy what little she had left.

"Can—can we rest now? Buffy… can we rest?"

She never understood those words more than now, the first few months of being here, with the Watchers making demands of her, the new Slayers looking up to her, everyone asking her what was to be done. Giles finally interceded on her behalf. It was just as well, because she had been fairly seriously committing a bit of Watcher-icide at that point. The one retirement for a Slayer was six feet deep in a pinewood box. Oops, sorry, she tried that before. It didn't stick. Twice.

As a compromise, the Council would no longer require her to go patrolling. Not unless she felt like a good "spot o' violence" before bed. However, she lived in the Council chambers, and she trained the new Slayers that came in. She tried not to learn their names, but sometimes they crept in without her permission.

Still, it wasn't a bad life. She had free room and board at the Council chambers, and they even paid her a decent stipend that was a couple bucks above minimum wage, so she wasn't hurting for money for once.

It just seemed so… hollow. She wasn't close to anyone. The other Scoobies drifted off one by one to their own pursuits. Sure, they stopped by on occasion, and they got together for a reunion, but only Dawn and Giles lived on campus. Dawn had her own life too, training as one of the new Watchers. Sometimes Buffy had a sneaking suspicion that Dawn was hoping to replace Giles as her Watcher when he retired. As if. Giles was still technically her Watcher, but he was also head of the Council in Cleveland, and the main liaison between the US chapter of Watchers and the English one. She didn't see him or Dawn more than she had to, and that was actually alright with her.

The new Slayers had more trainers than just Buffy, of course. They had a full complement of tutors for those Slayers still young enough to be in school, as well as trainers in whatever fighting or mystical art a young Slayer could desire. Several had trained as medical professionals at their small, on-campus hospital. These days Slayers were diversifying.

One of the tutors was this guy versed in survival skills, the entire, live-off-the-grid and survive-on-nothing-but-berries-and-rabbits-for-years-at-a-time kind of package. He was a couple years older than Buffy, and cute in a way that reminded her of no one else. Which was good, because the entire reminding thing? Very bad for Slayer frame of mind. And he was interested in Buffy. He was nice enough she supposed, but she wasn't interested in anyone else. She still hurt inside, and she wasn't sure it was ever going to go away. He wasn't pushy, which was also nice.

She sat in a couple of his classes, though she wasn't about to go starting fires with flint and steel when she had Spike's lighter. She could almost think his name now without shattering into a million pieces. Idly she wondered if something was wrong with her, because even Xander was moving on in her grief process, and she… wasn't.

That was what finally convinced her to ask Todd out. She had nervous butterflies in her stomach from the moment she talked to him. She wasn't sure they were the good butterflies either. Dawn found out and was deeply excited for her. Buffy convinced herself that the butterflies were a natural part of getting back on the horse, so to speak.

Todd came and they went out for drinks. It was a fairly neutral activity, one that could be a date and one that could be a drink between co-workers. She was grateful for the non-pressure, because the butterflies had morphed into gymnastic rabbits that were vigorously jouncing her insides. She hoped she wasn't coming down with something.

Unfortunately, the longer they sat and talked, the worse she began to feel. Maybe something at lunch hadn't agreed with her? Todd reached over and brushed her hand, and she swallowed hard as her stomach flipped. Not in a happy way, but in a please-God-don't-let-me-hurl way. He sensed that something was wrong with her, and offered to take her back. She agreed quickly, offering a half-sincere apology for the way things turned out. Mostly she just wanted it to be over.

He drove her back to the Council compound—between all the sleeping quarters, training rooms, and class rooms, it was as big as some college campuses—and walked her to her building. It was nice of him, but she was seriously thinking she was going to be sick, so she really wanted to avoid him.

"Goodnight, Buffy," he said, and took hold of her hand to kiss it.

She tasted bile in the back of her throat, and ran past him into the building. She barely made it to the public toilets in time to vomit everything she ever ate. Thankfully, Todd hadn't followed her. She stayed on her knees, worshiping the porcelain god for a few minutes until her stomach settled. Thankfully, like most cases of relatively mild food poisoning, she felt much better after throwing up, and soon she was able to go back to her room with only a couple mild twinges from her stomach.

She felt guilty that the date with Todd had ended so poorly, and thought about calling him back to apologize, or even ask him out again. The last remaining rabbit in her stomach gave a particularly violent kick at the notion, and she decided it was better to simply lay down and rest for a while. Maybe she wasn't ready to start dating again. In her heart, she was still Spike's girl. With that thought she jumped to her feet in frantic haste.

She pulled out her keepsake drawer, fumbling under the crosses, holy water and stakes until she found what she was looking for. Two objects, one a shiny zippo lighter, the other a battered skull ring. She sat heavily on her bed, holding them. One slipped onto her left ring finger, the other nestled securely in her other palm. She tried to feel his presence, some hint that though he was dead, he wasn't gone.

There was nothing.

Bitter tears fell from her eyes as she curled up on her bed, not for the first time crying over a dead man.

After that day, she began to notice something. The bruises she got while training the Slayers would normally be gone the next morning, but they began to linger. She didn't think too much of it, because by lunch time they had faded. Maybe the young Slayers were hitting harder than usual, that's all. Perhaps that was also why she was feeling stiff in the mornings. She felt a pain in her back that didn't used to be there. Oh well, normal wear and tear, right? It had to catch up to her sometime.

But she was a Slayer, the Slayer, and she didn't get wear and tear. Only now, apparently, she did. While practicing kicks she felt a pain in her knee. It went away after a couple days, but came back when she was walking down the stairs. This time it didn't go away. It was soon joined by pain in her other knee. The morning stiffness in her back spread to her hips as well. Her joints began to ache, especially in the cold. Her hands were particularly sore, and sometimes—rarely—she fumbled when she was reaching for a stake.

She got weirdly winded when she was training with the Slayers. Her punches didn't hit as hard. She tried to deny it as long as possible. She tried to tell herself it was nothing. Nothing was wrong, she wasn't slowing down, no way. If she was, well, it was only natural, considering she was the oldest Slayer. Of course, she never expected she would live long enough to worry about signs of aging. Even with Slayers all over the world, she hadn't thought about it. She also hadn't thought she'd be showing age at the ripe old age of 23 either.

She freaked out when her hair started turning white. It wasn't like an old horror movie, where the hair literally changed color overnight. No, this was more like her natural blond color was a dye job that had grown out. Her roots were growing in white. In a panic, she bought a bottle of hair dye and spent all morning coloring her hair with the noxious chemicals. The dye she got didn't match her original color exactly, and there was a faint difference between where her hair was blond and where it was white before the dye job. It stood out like a neon sign to her, but no one else commented on it.

She wondered if her Slayer-ness was diluted because there were so many Slayers now, but none of the other baby Slayers seemed to be prematurely aging. She phoned Faith to see if the other original Slayer was feeling the same thing, but Faith was her usual brand of flippant insouciance.

So that left Buffy, feeling like she aged another year every day, desperately trying to hide the signs that something was wrong. Maybe Slayers did have an expiration date after all. Only, it wasn't an expiration by death, it was because they… simply stopped being Slayers. But it didn't feel like that to Buffy. It wasn't like on her 18th birthday when the Council tried to kill her. She was still a Slayer. She was still stronger than a grown man, if not quite vampire-strong anymore. She still felt the tinglies on the back of her neck when a vampire passed by. It just felt… lackluster.

She was actively avoiding Dawn and Giles now. Something was wrong with her, but she didn't want to go to them. This felt like a Buffy-crisis, not an Apocalypse-crisis. She'd almost weep for the chance to have one of those again. But Buffy was getting worse, not better. She stopped sparring with the girls and instead took on a more supervisory role, pitting them against each other. She took to running patrols secretly, just to prove that she still could. That went to the Hellmouth in a handbasket one night when a vampire almost caught her. If not for the two Slayers passing by, she would have died. She barely got away with pretending it was a training exercise for the girls.

She wondered if this was Spike's death wish catching up to her finally. As much as she wanted to vehemently deny it… she couldn't. Maybe she did have a little bit of one. She was so tired, and Spike was gone, and everyone still needed her for everything, and she didn't know what was happening, and… It was hard to pull herself back from a full hysterical fit. She took deep, calming breaths, trying to push away the claustrophobic feeling in her chest.

Speaking of which, her heart and lungs were going out like the rest of her. She had a tight feeling in her chest when she ran more than a block, and she developed a hacking cough if she didn't slow down. Her heart began pounding wildly when she went up a flight of stairs, and she had to rest for twenty minutes before it went back to normal.

Todd tried to ask her out again, but she felt a surge of nausea at the request. She turned him down hastily and fled the scene. Thankfully she didn't actually get sick again, and a few deep breaths later, she was feeling better. It was probably residual association, she decided. She had been sick that one time when she went out with him, and now he always reminded her of being ill. Never mind that the thought of dating in general also made her want to hurl.

She might have continued to hide her symptoms for another few weeks, except for a pesky virus that was going around the campus. It was nothing worse than a head cold, but it took out a quarter of the compound within the first week. One class after another was full of sniffling Slayers, with the predictable results that soon everyone had been exposed to the cold. Watchers, Slayers, teachers and support staff alike filled the waste baskets with crumbled tissues and used tea bags.

When Buffy started sneezing, she felt the usual annoyance that just because she was a Slayer, she wasn't immune to the effects of illness. However, with her weakened system, her head cold quickly got far worse than it should have. It started with her sinuses and rapidly migrated to her chest. It felt like someone was sitting on her ribs. Every breath was an effort. Air crackled wetly in her lungs, and she was constantly coughing up plugs of yellow mucus. She made every effort to get out of bed and keep going, but the illness kicked her butt as easily as Glory had. That cheered her for a moment, because she had beaten Glory in the end. Sort of. Okay, it had led to the swan dive to Heaven, which then led to the hell of the next year of her life. Yeah, maybe not a good comparison after all.

Especially when she just couldn't seem to get over this cold. Some part of her knew this was more than a cold. It was more than bronchitis or pneumonia or whatever. It was one more symptom of her mysterious aging. But she was stubborn. She was stubborn, and she could kick this cold like she always did in the past. Sure, she had to take a few days off of teaching to get better, but practically everyone was taking time off right now. Stupid cold. And perhaps, a couple days didn't normally turn into a couple weeks, but sometimes these things happened. She wasn't eating because she didn't have the energy to go down to the cafeteria, and refused to call for help. She would beat this! She would…

It was Dawn who found her. Buffy woke to an insistent pounding on her door. "Go away!" she tried to croak, but found even that much exhausted her.

"Buffy, if you don't open this door right now, I'm going to get one of the Slayers to knock it down!" Dawn shouted.

Buffy snorted. And I'll stake the first person through that door, she thought spitefully. Dawn continued to bang on her door for a few minutes, but eventually she fell silent.

Good, Buffy thought tiredly. Maybe now I can get some rest… It was hard to sleep these days when breathing was difficult. She closed her eyes, for a minute or an hour, she didn't know. She woke again to the sound of jangling keys. Instead of getting a Slayer, Dawn must have convinced someone to open the locks for her.

No, Buffy panicked. They can't see me like this! She tried to hide, but really, she wasn't even getting out of bed these days.

The door swung open and Dawn pushed herself inside. Her sister froze, staring at Buffy in horror. Buffy couldn't begin to imagine what she looked like.

"Buffy!" Dawn cried.

"Good Lord!" revealed Giles as the one behind the keys.

Buffy tried to smile. She was sure it looked ghastly. "No reason to worry, guys, it's just a cold. I'll be right in a couple of days," she said breezily. At least, that was what she meant to say. She opened her mouth, took a wheezing breath, and instead what came out was, "I need help."

They rushed her to the on campus hospital. Giles carried her part of the way until they ran into a Slayer to carry her. It was undignified to be carried by one of the students she taught, but her protests were unheeded. At the hospital they got her cleaned up and stuffed into a fresh bed. That part felt nice. She hadn't had the energy to shower for a couple weeks, and eww, it was getting bad in Buffyland. They hooked her up to IVs and heart monitors, and a blood pressure cuffed that was like getting her arm squeezed by a Fyarl demon every fifteen minutes. They prescribed her a hefty round of antibiotics, and she had to breathe in this mist that was supposed to stop her from coughing—or maybe make her cough the junk out, she wasn't sure which. They put a sticky sensor around her finger with yet another wire that led to the monitor. It had a red light at the end that kept her up at night and gave her the urge to say "ET, phone home," every time she saw it. They put a tube in her nose for oxygen, and scolded her when she took it out, even though it made her nose feel dry.

She snarled and snapped during every step of the way… but secretly she felt a lot better as her lungs cleared and she could breathe again. As the pneumonia cleared away, she was left with the effects of aging. For the first time, Dawn and Giles could see what was happening to her, and it wasn't pretty. Her roots had grown out again, and there was a half-inch of white hair showing. She had lost weight, not in a good, you-look-fit way, but in an anorexia-is-not-fun way. Her skin was sagging and wrinkled, and somehow thinner than before. The joints on her hands and feet were slightly swollen, though she could still use them like normal. Well, her new normal, anyway. She looked more like a woman of fifty than a girl of twenty-three.

It hurt that her sister and Watcher saw her like this. She smiled wanly and tried to act nonchalant. Dawn and Giles sat by her bedside, stunned by her appearance. The silence grew deafening, and Buffy had to break it.

"I think, uh, something is happening to me," she admitted in a quiet tone. It was so hard to ask for help, even now.

"You think, Buffy?" Dawn asked incredulously.

Buffy flinched.

"Dawn," Giles admonished gently. "We should try to help Buffy. Do you mind if I ask some questions?"

Buffy shifted restlessly on her hospital bed, but nodded. Giles retrieved a pad of paper, and began asking and jotting down her answers. It wasn't pleasant, detailing her declining health.

After a couple hours of questioning, Dawn finally ventured fearfully. "Buffy, what do you think is happening?"

"I think…" Buffy swallowed thickly and forced herself to voice her worst fear. "I think I'm no longer the Slayer." It was strange, once she would have relished that prospect, especially with so many other Slayers around to perform the sacred duty. Now that it was happening… it was just frightening.

Both Dawn and Giles protested sharply. Buffy pretended to believe their arguments, but the doubt was still in her mind. Giles left to research. Dawn lay on Buffy's bed. They talked about inconsequential things for a while, and then Buffy napped.

The next day began a round of testing, both mundane and magical. She had blood drawn, physical exams, her aura scanned, and her mental status evaluated. The results came back in a few days, and only increased her frustration. There was apparently nothing wrong with her. Other than the fact that her body was about thirty years older than it should have been. Nor was the aging process slowing down at all. Every day she got older, weaker, slower, and no one could tell her why.

Buffy hated being in the hospital, and bullied her way back into her room. Her body might be failing, but her mental status was as sharp as ever. However, less than two weeks later, she was forced to move to a ground floor apartment when she could no longer climb the stairs. She refused to give up her old rooms, and insisted this was only temporary. When she had a hard time walking across campus, Dawn and Giles forced her back into the hospital. There were still more tests to do. Buffy was beginning to feel like a lab rat with everything they forced her to do.

The human doctors prescribed her various medicines, which Dawn dutifully saw that she took. The healers gave her various potions to drink, which Giles all but forced down her throat. Nothing helped. Witches were called in, but they were at a loss to explain the sudden drain on her body.

The only good thing they learned was that Buffy was still definitely the Slayer. The thing which made her a Slayer still existed inside her, but for some unknown reason, it appeared to have gone dormant. Once they discovered that, many of Buffy's other symptoms began to make sense. Without Slayer healing, her body was basically reverting to pure human. She had sustained a lot of damage in her time, more than professional athletes and race car drivers. All those old injuries were catching up to her as her body failed to recuperate like it used to.

Willow was called, and Xander, Faith and Robin. They all came for her. Faith especially seemed wigged to see Buffy laid up to helplessly. She and Robin didn't stay long, but they promised to look for a cure when they left. Willow and Xander stayed. It was nice to have a girl's night with Willow and Dawn. They ate ice cream and commiserated with Willow on her breakup with Kennedy. For the first time in a long while, Buffy felt almost normal again. Willow joined the witches in searching for a way to wake Buffy's Slayer side again. Xander took on the role of comic relief and general go-getter.

It would have been nice to have the gang back together again, if it had been for any reason but for this. They searched the Watcher's journals, but there was no record of this happening to a Slayer before. Even the Cruciamentum on her birthday had not been as bad as this.

One by one, they began to exhaust their options. The human doctors threw their hands up first. The healers were next. The witches began to trickle off bit by bit, though Willow remained desperately focused. The group began to consult outside sources, oracles and others, without any sign of hope. Demons were brought in to examine Buffy. It was hard to tell who was jumpier: Buffy for being poked and prodded, the demons for being inside the Council chambers, or the two hundred-odd Slayers who were forced to let the demons come and go unharmed.

Buffy still griped about everything, but there was much less fire in her tone than before. She was acting the part, but it was simply a cover to hide the panic setting it. The gang took it in turns to boost her moral, but it was a losing battle. She had aged another ten years in that short time, and it didn't look like anything could slow it down. She was going to die of old age before she reached twenty-four, she thought hysterically.

Between the years of Slaying catching up to her, the regimen of pills and magics they had her on, and the constant tests and questions, she was exhausted all the time. Her joints were badly enflamed, making it difficult to grasp small objects like spoons and forks. Dawn helped her eat, but she felt ashamed for being so helpless. She joked that so long as she could still hold a stake she didn't care about anything else, but in private she despaired about losing that as well.

She had no privacy. She couldn't always control her bodily functions, and nurses were brought in to help clean her. Buffy flatly refused to let Dawn or the others help her in that matter. Dawn protested violently, until Giles explained that it wasn't about her not able to help. It was about Buffy trying to keep what dignity she had left. It was easier to let strangers wipe her butt than her little sister and best friends.

Buffy began to spend more time asleep than awake. The pain of her body had become unbearable to her when she was awake. The powerful medicines prescribed to her barely blunted the pain. They were so worried about her rapid decline that they put her in a magically induced coma in an effort to slow things down. It worked, but it couldn't halt the ravages to her body.

In the end, it was a kindly bracken demon healer that put them on the right path to helping Buffy. The old demon was gentle and matronly despite her fierce appearance. She peered at the unconscious Buffy, and held one of her hands—twisted beyond use by arthritis—for several long minutes before sighing and placing it down gently. The group was so used to disappointment at this time that no one bothered to look up when the bracken turned to them.

"I think I might have an idea of what is wrong with her," she said softly. It took nearly thirty seconds before Willow, Xander and Giles looked up. Dawn was watching Buffy, and never took her eyes from her sister.

"What is it?" Dawn asked in a dull voice.

"I've never heard of it happening to a human before," the bracken began apologetically, "but she has all the symptoms of pining."

"Pining?" Giles asked, hoping for anything he could look up in his books.

"It's something that happens to demons," she explained. "When demons love each other and claim one another as mates, it forms a bond of love between them. If something happens to one of them, or they are separated for a long period of time, they start to pine for each other. They—lose strength, don't heal as quick. Their powers are depressed. In essence, they are grieving for their missing mate."

A thick silence fell in the room. The air practically quivered with everything that went unsaid as everyone carefully didn't look at anyone else.

"I'm going to look this up in my books," Giles said, and abruptly departed.

The bracken looked uncertainly after him, and offered an apologetic, "I'm sorry," to the rest of the group.

"Buffy's not a demon," Xander said at last. "If this is a demon-y thing, how come it's affecting her?"

"My guess," the bracken said slowly, "Is that even though she is human, the part that makes her a Slayer is closely related enough to a demon for it to take place."

"Giles said it last year," Dawn muttered sullenly, "how the Slayer's power comes from demon essence."

"A-and after I… When she c-came back," Willow said nervously, "Spike's chip didn't recognize her anymore. Th-that must have been enough to let it happen."

There was a collective flinch from the group as she said the forbidden name.

"Wait a minute," Xander said almost angrily. "You said there has to be a claim? There was no claiming. Buffy never claimed anyone."

Dawn jumped and glared at him.

"Xander…" Willow cautioned.

"Actually, it doesn't have to be a formal claim," the bracken interjected softly. "It can be as simple as a declaration of love. All that really matters is that both demons fully love and accept each other as mates. In this case, her Slayer side must have chosen a demon, and he in turn loves her as well."

More silence. Willow shifted from foot to foot. Xander fidgeted in place. Dawn absently smoothed back Buffy's hair.

"What about a vampire?" Dawn asked the question no one else was willing to speak. "Can it be a vampire?"

"Yes, of course," the bracken said in surprise. "They have demons inside them, they are perfectly capable to forming that bond if they find a worthy mate."

"Well, h-how do we get her better?" Willow asked, trying to steer around the uncomfortable elephant in the room.

"It is simple. Reunite her with her mate. He will be pining for her as well; it is a mutual thing. It is a bond of love, not one meant to cause harm to each other."

"What if he's dead?" Dawn asked grimly.

"Oh. Oh, I'm sorry. There isn't anything—I'm sorry." She looked around helplessly, then shifted for the door. "I think I should go now." No one stopped her from leaving.

Xander and Willow exchanged nervous glances. Dawn continued to watch Buffy.

"So this it, then," Dawn whispered bitterly.

"We don't know that!" Willow said quickly.

"You heard what she said!" Dawn snarled. "There's nothing for it! If we can't bring her mate back, she's going to die! So unless you're big with making a vampire undusty, this is it for her!"

Xander suddenly kicked a cheap plastic hospital chair in frustration, interrupting the argument. Both girls looked at him, but he was staring at the wall.

"Angel," he huffed, clenching his fists in anger.

"Angel?" Willow prompted when it didn't look like he was going to speak.

He rounded on the room, his single eye blazing. "Look, we know Buffy was never cozy with any demons, so it can't be them. But she was… involved with two vampires. Spike and Angel. You know I never liked either one of them, but we got to save her. Spike is gone, so that means it's Angel. It's got to be. He was her great love match, right? So get him over here to save her!"

Dawn and Willow gave him startled looks, but there was really no other option. Either Angel was able to cure Buffy's pining, or…

"Who's going to call him?" Dawn asked.

Xander immediately put his finger on his nose. Dawn followed a heartbeat later. They looked expectantly at Willow. She blinked, then suddenly understood. She rolled her eyes.

"Oh, real mature, guys," she muttered, but a hint of a smile hovered on her lips for a second. "Okay, fine! I guess I'll be… making a phone call." She wandered out of the room.

Dawn scowled at Xander. "You know it's not going to work," she accused. "If anyone, her real mate is—"

"I don't know that, and neither do you!" he retorted defensively. He sighed suddenly, his shoulders slumping. "Dawnie… I know it's only a chance, and the chances are… not good. But it's all we have, don't you see that?"

Her face crumpled abruptly. "Oh God, Xander, what are we going to do?"

He stumbled forward and hugged her tightly. "I don't know, Dawnie. I don't know."