“Giles!”

The Watcher stood from his seat to greet his Slayer. Her face was red and he could detect a trace of sweat on her brow. She was out of breath – why had she been running? His brow furrowed as he recognized the object she had draped over her arm.

“Where did you go?” he asked, his gaze unmoving from the black leather duster.

Buffy shook her head and in an unconscious movement of her arm shifted the duster closer to her. “I went back to the tower,” she replied with a wave of her free hand. “But that’s not important. I figured it out, Giles. About Spike.”

Giles needlessly adjusted the position of his glasses and looked up at his slayer. “And?”

“I don’t know how, or even when, but Spike figured out that Dawn’s blood wasn’t the only blood that could close the portal.”

The Watcher tilted his head in understanding. “Yours would as well.”

Buffy nodded in confirmation. “I told him myself. The monks made Dawn from me. We share the same blood. Maybe my blood wouldn’t have opened the portal – I think that’s some sort of Dawn-only mojo – but my blood could close it. That’s why he…” drank from me “…did what he did.”

Giles swiped a hand across the back of his neck. “That’s purely speculation, Buffy. Even if what you’re saying is true, we had no concrete evidence that it would work. As much as it pains me to suggest it, why wouldn’t Spike take Dawn’s blood instead to ensure that the portal would be closed?”

“Probably because I was already wounded and bleeding,” she replied simply. “Spike’s chip. It wouldn’t let him bite Dawn.”

“He wouldn’t have to have bitten me,” a bitter voice sounded from the stairwell.

Buffy and Giles turned to see Dawn perched at the bottom of the stairs, the look on her face indicating that she had heard the entire conversation – and apparently still had not changed her opinion of Spike. Buffy shifted unconsciously, draping the duster over the arm of the couch and concealing it behind her back.

“He didn’t need to bite me,” Dawn continued. “I was already bleeding, remember? That demon guy cut me with his knife to open the portal. He could have taken blood from either of us, and he chose to take blood from you.”

“Dawnie, Spike would never hurt you--”

The teenager scoffed. “Yeah. Right.”

Buffy felt her fingers move behind her, grasping for the leather, for some sort of grounding contact. “No,” she replied, and there was a force in her voice that hadn’t been there since she’d woken up in the hospital. “Don’t say that, Dawn. Spike adored you. You know he did.”

“He was just being nice to me to get close to you.”

Outraged, Buffy took a few steps towards her sister, standing in the threshold between the living room and the entryway. “You know that’s not true,” she insisted, before pausing and shaking her head. “Maybe it was a little true. But what happened, Dawn? Have you forgotten what he was like with you this past year? Remember when he helped you sneak into the Magic Box? You think that would have made me happy? He did it for you, Dawn. Spike has always protected you. He wasn’t about to hurt you to close the portal. Not when there was another way to do it.”

Something had managed to get through, because both Buffy and Giles could see the minute slump in the teenager’s shoulders – she hadn’t abandoned her anger at the vampire, but she seemed to be willing to try. “I was bleeding, too,” she reiterated. “He didn’t have to bite either of us. So why did he choose you?”

Buffy bit her lip as she contemplated her sister’s question. It was true. Spike had gambled on the assumption that her blood would close the portal, ignoring the fact that to drink from Dawn was guaranteed to achieve the task.

“My wound was deeper than yours,” she replied slowly. It wasn’t the best explanation, but it was the only one she had. “And I was unconscious. Dawnie, vampire bites…they hurt. And maybe it would have hurt, even though he didn’t bite us. But he didn’t hurt me; I didn’t feel anything.” She closed the distance between herself and the teenager and placed a gentle hand on her arm. “Don’t you see, Dawn? Spike wouldn’t hurt you. He wouldn’t hurt either of us.”

Buffy drew back when Dawn shot to her feet and ran up the stairs and into her room, slamming the door behind her. Calling after her sister, she was stopped by Giles’ firm hand on her arm.

“Let her be,” he said calmly. “She needs to be alone for a while.”

Buffy sighed, but relented to her Watcher’s advice. Without thinking, she muttered, “I don’t know how to do this. Mom would know what to do.”

Giles flinched. “Yes, well,” he stammered, and cleared his throat, crossing to the couch. “Am I correct in my assumption that this is in fact Spike’s?”

Buffy raised her head at the mention of the vampire’s name, and nodded. “I found it in the rubble at the tower.”

“Why on earth did you go back there?”

Buffy shook her head. “I needed to work some stuff out. I…when I left, I realized that Spike knew what he was going to do before he even went into battle.” She lifted her hand to rest on the duster, absentmindedly stroking it softly. The movement did not go unnoticed by her Watcher.

Adjusting his glasses, Giles opened his mouth to reprimand her, to tell her to let go of the jacket, that Spike was just another vampire to add to her ever-growing list of those she’d helped remove from the world. Instead, what emerged from his lips was, “Why would Spike do such a thing?”

Buffy’s fingers halted their motion on the leather, as though she was suddenly aware of what she was doing, and was ashamed for it. She was pensive for a moment before offering, “Because I think he knew I would have jumped.”

A hand shot out to grab her shoulder. “Buffy--”

She shook her head, forcing the words to catch in the Watcher’s throat. “I don’t want to hear it, Giles,” she said tiredly. “I don’t need a lecture. I would have jumped, if it came down to that. You know it. Spike knew it, too.” She scrubbed a hand over her eyes and forced herself to continue, her still-disjointed theories connecting in her head mere milliseconds before leaving her lips. “I told him…before we went to fight Glory, I told Spike that I was counting on him to protect Dawn. I think he’d already figured out about the blood thing by then. And I think he knew, or thought, that the best way to protect Dawn was to have me around.” Her fingernails dug into the hard leather of the duster draped over the arm of the couch. “So he took me and Dawnie out of the equation, taking enough of my blood to close the portal.”

Gazing at his slayer in silence, Giles took in Buffy’s paling features, the tautness in her hunched shoulders, and – most alarmingly – the sadness and – guilt? – that flashed across her eyes as her discourse reached its end. Releasing her arm, he paused before saying, “Buffy, you’ve…just been released from the hospital, and all of this is more than you should have to deal with. You look exhausted – go upstairs and get some rest.” He was almost loathe to bring up the next, but trudged ahead. “You shouldn’t patrol alone tonight. I’ll go with you. We’ll…we’ll all meet at the Magic Box right before sundown.”

Buffy nodded absentmindedly, her body autonomous as she walked her Watcher to the door and locked it behind him. Walking towards the stairs, she jerked to a halt as a flash of black caught the corner of her eye. Spike’s duster, abandoned and weeping from its perch on her couch. Snatching it up, she brought it with her as she walked up the stairs and into her room.

------------------

The reaction of the others after hearing of Spike’s jump hadn’t been exactly as Buffy had suspected, but she was surprised by none of them.

Tara had been silent and pensive, her expressive eyes declaring that she was mourning the vampire. Willow had attempted the same, and accomplished it to a lesser extent. Anya, in her own sensitive way, had uttered something about it being a waste of a well-sculpted body.

But Xander. She should have known his words were coming, given his attitude towards the vampire, but knowing didn’t stop the words from stinging any less.

“Good,” he’d said. “About time he did something useful.”

Seething silently, Buffy stalked into the training room, grabbing a crossbow and a few stakes from the wall before crossing back into the foyer, heading for the entrance of the magic shop, calling over her shoulder that she was going patrolling and she did not want company. Pausing as her fingers touched the door handle, she breathed deeply, turned around and, calmly, asked the two witches to keep an eye on Dawn. She left before anyone could raise an objection to her sudden actions.

But she had to get away. She just couldn’t understand how no one else could see that Spike had changed. After all, she herself had been the least reluctant to acknowledge it, maybe second only to Xander; if she could admit that the vampire had changed his ways for the better, why couldn’t everyone else?

And what hurt, perhaps more than Xander’s words in the Magic Box, was how Dawn was acting. She hadn’t left her room since their conversation earlier in the day, and had seemed willing to accept that Spike’s actions really were for the greater good. But how could she turn so against him so suddenly; how could she be so quick to assume that Spike would simply revert back to his evil ways once given even a semblance of a chance?

Buffy would admit it to no one, but she had started to develop a trust – albeit a begrudging one – for the vampire earlier than she had ever admitted. The Adam saga had been a fiasco, certainly made worse by Spike’s role as willing turncoat, but his slow-to-emerge true nature had come through in the thick of it when he’d protected the rest of them as the group had performed their ritual. It had been then, after the heat of battle, when everything had settled down and Sunnydale had gone back to its relatively normal state, that she had begun to trust the vampire. That knowledge, which had scared her for so long, had somehow become comforting in the past few months. It had driven her to take her mother and sister to his crypt during her pursuit of Glory, and had still been very much present – though oddly overlooked – when Spike had fallen captive to the hellgod.

She had almost forgotten that the demon population of Sunnydale tended to lay low after every thwarted apocalypse. And she normally reveled in the downtime; it gave her a chance to be just Buffy, something which had become more and more rare with each passing year. But tonight…tonight she had been hoping to at least take down a fledgling or two.

Sighing, Buffy let the crossbow drop heavily to her side, knocking against her thigh as she trudged home.

------------------

Dawn was still in her room when she returned home, only acknowledging Buffy’s tentative knock with a “Leave me alone.” Willow and Tara had left almost immediately after she’d walked through the door, with a promise to meet for coffee within the next few days.

Placing the crossbow and stakes on her desk chair – she’d have to return them to the training room the next day – Buffy changed into a pair of pajamas and crossed into her bathroom, brushing her hair and teeth, readying herself for bed. It was still early, but both her body and mind were exhausted from the respective tolls taken on them the past few days.

It wasn’t until she moved to turn down the covers that she noticed that Spike’s duster was still on the foot of her bed, unmoved from where she’d placed it earlier that day. She did not notice the slight trembling of her hands as she picked it up, lightly running her thumbs over the lapels.

In a moment she would later blame on fatigue, she lifted the duster to her nose and breathed in tentatively. Leather. And smoke. And Spike. She felt a relief she could not describe, and feared to understand, that he hadn’t been lost to her completely. If she had nothing else, she still had this.

She didn’t know how long she had been standing in her room, clad in her sushi pajamas, holding Spike’s duster close to her. Her body suddenly jerked, pulled back to reality, and, ashamed, she walked quickly to her closet, draping the duster over a hanger and placing it in the back of her closet.

Buffy switched off the lights and climbed into bed, hoping she would fall asleep quickly. She didn’t want to think about what she’d just done. In fact, she didn’t want to think at all.



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A/N: Thank you to everyone who has been reading this fic; I'm glad you all are enjoying it! I'm certainly having fun writing it, so it's a win-win all around. :)

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