Bag of Bones by Shadowlass [R]

1. Chapter 1 by Shadowlass

2. Chapter 2 by Shadowlass

3. Chapter 3 by Shadowlass

4. Chapter 4 by Shadowlass

5. Chapter 5 by Shadowlass

6. Chapter 6 by Shadowlass

7. Chapter 7 by Shadowlass

8. Chapter 8 by Shadowlass

9. Chapter 9 by Shadowlass

10. Chapter 10 by Shadowlass

11. Chapter 11 by Shadowlass

12. Chapter 12 by Shadowlass

13. Chapter 13 by Shadowlass

14. Chapter 14 by Shadowlass

15. Chapter 15 by Shadowlass

16. Chapter 16 by Shadowlass

17. Chapter 17 by Shadowlass

18. Chapter 18 by Shadowlass

19. Chapter 19 by Shadowlass

20. Chapter 20 by Shadowlass

21. Chapter 21 by Shadowlass

Chapter 1 by Shadowlass

She knew he was back. The Bit had seen to that. Saw him walking out of the store a couple days before, gave him the most godawful look and then walked off in the other direction. There's no way Dawn didn't tell big sis. She knew.

Hadn't seen her, though. Not that he was looking for her. But he kept his eyes open.

God, how did the kid find out? Was Buffy still there when she got home-in the bathroom? Dawn knew. She wouldn't have looked at him that way unless she knew. Even after last year, with Dru, she'd never looked at him that way.

What did she expect? He was a vampire. They got on, so she expected him to be good? Tame? Heel nicely? And maybe the Slayer would toss him a bone. Maybe he'd be invited to her next birthday party instead of having to work on her friends until they spilled. Although actually being invited to one of those parties was probably more punishment than reward.

He was an outcast again. He should be used to it; it wasn't the first time. The only time he'd belonged was when he was with Dru, and he wasn't interested in a revival, thanks. Didn't want one last year, and it was unthinkable now. Sunnydale-he couldn't say it had been good to him, but he didn't really know where else to go. He was drawn there.

Home sweet home. Christ.

***

When Dawn came back from seeing Spike, she walked past Buffy as if she didn't exist, stomped up the stairs, and slammed her bedroom door so hard their mother's Etruscan chalice rattled on the mantelpiece.

In short, it was just like every other time Dawn entered the house.

But this time, up in her room, Dawn was shaking. She curled up into a lump and sobbed like she hadn't done since Buffy died. It was like she had no tears left. Tara-Tara's death had been horrible. She was the person Dawn had loved best, and she had been splayed out and abandoned on the bedroom floor, bloody and cold, as if she hadn't even mattered. Dawn sat with her all day. It was unspeakable. It was terrible to be there but leaving her alone seemed worse, so she stayed. Mostly she only felt shock. She wondered when she'd wake up, since she was probably asleep. And then-after it seemed like she had been there forever-Buffy and Xander had appeared and whisked her away. Upstairs seemed like a dream. A nightmare. But it didn't end, and Tara never came back. Not like Buffy had.

Spike wasn't supposed to leave. He'd been on the periphery of Dawn's life for almost the entire time they'd lived in Sunnydale. Her mom had said some people were goers and some were stayers, and Spike was obviously a stayer.

Not that she'd actually been in Sunnydale long. But she remembered, even if it wasn't real. She had slipped downstairs the night Buffy told their mother that she was a Slayer-she remembered it. Easing down carefully, knowing that if they saw her she'd be sent up to her room. The police wanted to talk to Buffy. Their mom was at the end of her rope. And she'd peered in and there he was, all silver-white hair and sharp cheekbones and sleek lines, looking around their living room like he'd never seen one before, and then complimenting her mother on the decor. The strangest looking man she'd ever seen, making small talk. If she'd seen him walking towards her on the sidewalk, she'd have crossed the street to avoid him.

But then Buffy had come in and they talked to each other like equals. Not with the queen bee quality Buffy used with her friends-no matter what Buffy told herself, she was about a million times worse than Cordelia. Not with the barely tolerant tone she'd used with their mother. Not with the sappy tone she'd used with Angel when he snuck into her room at night-Dawn had listened whenever she had the chance; her sister had just about used baby talk with him. No, Buffy had spoken to Spike like he was an adult, like he was strong and smart and she needed him.

She didn't speak to anyone else that way, and she never had.

She hadn't spoken to Spike like that since-was it Halloween? He'd helped save Dawn from her first vampire boyfriend. Following in her sister's footsteps already, he'd said on the way home. She'd heard Buffy thank Spike for helping and told him what a good job he'd done. After that it was all curt tones and cutting remarks. They'd played hearts at Buffy's never-ending birthday party, but didn't really say anything, just gave each other looks that made Dawn squirm. It was a good kind of squirm, though. It was better than what was to come.

No matter how Buffy treated him, it hadn't changed how he'd treated Dawn. He'd still come around. They'd played cards and Nintendo, and Spike had cooked for her a few times, with varying success. That had been before Buffy came back, when Dawn didn't have anyone to do those things for her. She still didn't, but she was supposed to. Dawn was fairly sure Buffy didn't want to hear how Spike had taken better care of her than she was.

Then Xander had told her that. It was hateful, it made her sick. And then everything was clear to her. She couldn't believe how stupid she'd been.

And now Spike was back. He'd just waltzed into town like nothing had happened, like they didn't have a right to be angry with him. She didn't even know how long he'd been back. Maybe months. Like he had every right. Like he thought everything was okay.

It wasn't. It hadn't been for a long time. And she was going to make him pay.

***

"What was that?"

Buffy jerked her head around to face Xander. "What?" She'd been staring up the stairs after her incredible disappearing sister, who had gone from complaining about not getting enough attention to avoiding her at every opportunity. The promise of late spring had evaporated, and they were more awkward than ever. Buffy wasn't sure how things had deteriorated so completely, but she couldn't believe how difficult it was to deal with her sister. She was only five years older than Dawn, but it was as if there were generations between them. She had no idea how their mother had managed with her.

"The slam and stomp," Xander explained. "Dawn. Not a word. Didn't even look at us. Everything okay with her?"

Buffy smothered a sigh. Xander wasn't Percepto Man. Dawn had been like that all summer, and Xander was just now noticing? Dawn was even more of a joy than she had been before-

Before Spike left. Why not say it? He was gone. Had been for a long time. You think she'd be used to it-it's what they all did, wasn't it? Shut up, she thought. But why? It wasn't anything but the truth. People left. Especially, they left her.

"Dawn has, uhh-it's been a bad summer," Buffy finally replied. Xander didn't want to know about how much Dawn missed Spike, and Buffy didn't want him to know that Dawn was still angry at Xander for telling her about the attack. Dawn hadn't really trusted him after that, Buffy knew-Xander. He'd destroyed Dawn's childish admiration for Spike, who had been larger than life-a sexy punk in black leather who listened to cool music, snarked with the best of them, and took care of her when the others were too involved in their own lives. Until the moment Xander told her about the incident in the bathroom, Spike had been something special to her, a refuge. Dawn didn't have many of those. No wonder she was angry.

So are you, whispered a voice in Buffy's head. She tried to ignore it as Xander resumed his discourse on the value of latex paints. Finally she stopped trying to listen; she didn't care about the relative merits of flat vs. glossy anyway, and if she'd ever been able to concentrate when she wasn't interested her grades would have been better.

It wasn't right. Xander had had no right to tell Dawn about Spike. That was for her to decide, not Xander or anyone else. And if she didn't want Dawn to know, that was her business. Why did Dawn have to be told? Couldn't she have one thing that wasn't spoiled?

Dawn hadn't mentioned Spike since that day.

"And so my final vote: Satin," concluded Xander.

"What?"

"Uhh...Buff? You were asking my advice on repainting Will-your mom's room," reminded Xander, catching himself. "Satin finish. No question. Non-reflective, but still washable."

"Satin," she repeated weakly. "Yeah."

They looked at each other, then glanced away. How long had they had trouble talking? Before he found out about Spike. Before she jumped off the tower. Before Riley left? She wasn't sure. She never confided in him about their relationship, but she never really had confided in him that way anyway. That was more a Willow kind of thing.

Xander looked at her with his searching dark eyes, and she felt unwelcomed guilt. He was sincere. He always tried. Where had their friendship gone? He still came over, they still talked. They were the only remnants of the Scooby Gang. Had Willow been the center of the group? Because without her Buffy and Xander seemed to have little to say to each other, and it made Buffy ache.

"Are you sure you don't want to go up and see what's bugging her?"

"No, I'll just let her be. We both know what her reaction would be if I went up," she pointed out. She and Xander shared a smile-Dawn's inevitable "Get out, get out, GET OUT!" reply to upstairs queries being legendary among the Scoobies.

After a moment Xander's smile dimmed. "Aren't you going to ask how she is?" he prodded hesitantly.

Buffy looked at him in surprise. "I told you, I-"

"Not Dawn. Willow."

***

The crypt had cleaned up all right. Apparently Clem hadn't just sat around in his underwear, evaluating the relative merits of baked versus fried potato chips. The downstairs was still an ungodly mess, but what did he expect after AK-47's or bazookas or Tommy guns or whatever the hell they were shot out all the supports and splintered every piece of furniture in the place? The first time Clem had seen it he'd said the only way it could have looked worse was if the people from that redecorating show had come by to have a go.

Wasn't any more than he expected from the Slayer, really, not by that point. She'd come into his hands willing enough (don't think about it), dragged off his clothes and taken him without as much as a by-your-leave. Not that he'd minded. It was a good beginning, wasn't it? A nice solid base of trust-who'd she tell about being in heaven, after all?-topped by a lovely glaze of the most luscious sex he could imagine. Like a dream. In the morning she'd been there, flushed and naked, bruised like him from their fighting and their fucking. Both wonderful. But she couldn't even wait for a good morning shag before she attacked him, attacked him because she couldn't attack herself. And so the shape of their relationship was recast, and he kept hoping, but expecting less and less.

When she'd come to him and asked him to tell her that he loved her, he felt a terrible hope. For a moment his heart had forgotten what she'd taught it and he thought, she loves me, she finally realizes it. But an hour later, as they lay together, bodies sheened with sweat from their exertions, he was hugging himself, arms wrapped tightly around his body so that he wouldn't forget himself and touch her and make her leave. And then Captain America burst in, and he saw the reason she wanted his words. Not because she valued them, but because they were balm. And that's what she told him the next day, right? He was a bandage, a crutch, and now she wanted to heal naturally.

"Get out of my head," he muttered resentfully. Hadn't the bint done enough to him already? Christ, he really didn't know why he was back in town. He'd been fooling himself in that cave; if he hadn't been so upset he never would have done it. Now he was all soul-having, like it or not, and he couldn't bring himself to think of her for five minutes at a time without coming off queasy. It had all been a monumental mistake: returning to Sunnydale, going to Africa, falling for the Slayer, getting chipped.

Coming to this stinkhole of a town in the first place.

"So why are you here?" he asked himself conversationally. It wasn't like he had anyone else to talk to. Clem had come by a few times, trying to tempt him with wings and suggestions of poker with the guys, but Spike wasn't feeling sociable. Mostly he just wanted to drink and broo-think-in private.

"Thank god for Jack Daniels. And Weetabix," he added.

Idly, he wondered why the Slayer hadn't been by to see him. It had been three days since the Niblet had seen him, and nothing.

Is that was this is about? Making the first move? he thought. No; since when had he been afraid of anything? Never. Not since he was William, which was a lifetime ago. Several, in fact. And getting the soul hadn't-what the hell was that?

There. In the corner, by the chest. A bright flag of material, startling in the engulfing shadows of the crypt. A scarf, knotted around something. Curiously he worked the knot. Was it a message? Or simply inadvertently left behind by a would-be thief? The bundle rattled as he unwrapped it, carefully pulling the edges apart to reveal short, bleached bones. Human fingers, completely desiccated. It was a message, all right. A "get out of town" message.

Spike whistled. Jesus. Home sweet home indeed.

Chapter 2 by Shadowlass

All things considered, he'd give the tosser an A for effort, C for execution. A bag of dried-up bones-not bad, for some. Dru would have been on the floor, shrieking about curdled cream and the fish that lived on the moon. Personally, he would have been more upset if there'd been a Dave Matthews tape in the package. Some things were too horrible to contemplate.

Wasn't entirely certain what to make of it, though. He'd never paid a lot of attention to Angelus and Darla when they talked about ghastly portents and all that-they'd loved to hear themselves talk, rambling on about the most godawful garbage he'd ever heard ‘til eventually he stopped listening, which had been about five minutes after he dragged himself out of the grave.

So when he saw the bones, instead of knowing just what the damned things meant, he'd had a moment, sharp and unpleasant-he was trying to forget it-when he thought it was obscene. Snapping the thin, brittle bones off a skeleton, disturbing someone who deserved some peace. Stolen from the person they belonged to.

Spike winced at his thoughts. What the hell did he care if someone broke off a few old bones? No use when you're dead. Not like he was dainty or something. When he first moved into the crypt he'd just shoved the remains in the sarcophagus aside and slept next to them. The only reason he'd ever removed them was that they poked him in the side. Damned if he was going to spend all day rearranging himself to avoid the ribs. He'd tossed them behind the crypt and hadn't thought of them since.

But if the sack was meant to warn him, a brick through the window would have done the job just as well.

Hell, when did he get so particular? The bloke was dead. He'd taken plenty off his victims. Usually more of the money-jewelry-hot leather coat-variety than body parts, of course-

Christ! Guess this is it, he thought, doubling over as he was seized by an intense pain in his abdomen. The bundle wasn't a warning at all. Voodoo? Or a less exotic magic? Whatever it was, it wasn't precisely a welcome home gift.

Straightening up despite the pain, Spike moved back to the chest, where he'd placed the sack. Unfolding it, he sifted through the bones, looking for some sign or clue or...something. The bones were coated with a fine, whitish powder he hadn't seen when he looked initially. That had to be something, right? And then he saw them: three long, colorless strands of hair, almost unnoticeable against the bleached bones. Not his hair. Buffy's? He couldn't tell.

"Buffy," he murmured, trying out her name. He hadn't said it in so long it sounded rusty.

Why hadn't she been by? To threaten him or attack him or finally just stake him? Didn't she even care enough to do anything, was she so indifferent to him that she couldn't work up the interest to bother?

He was jittery, waiting for her. Why didn't he just go see her? "Hello, Slayer. Long time, eh? Just dropped by for a cuppa." Stake. "Hello, cutie. I really do think it's about time we discuss our relationship." Stake. Or, of course, "Sorry about the bathroom, ducks, let's have a kiss." He'd be dusty before he finished talking. Maybe he should...phone her? It worked that other time. Better than he could have hoped, really, but it didn't seem the thing to do this time, somehow.

What do you say when you attack the woman you love? He was fairly sure Hallmark did not make a card for the occasion. Even if by some miracle she didn't kill him, there was no way she'd ever view him as anything other than a something to be tolerated. Tolerated until his chip malfunctioned or the world started spinning backwards, and he was suddenly able to bite and maim again.

Ironic, that. He'd made killing Slayers his unlife's calling, but when he found out he could hurt her he wasn't thinking any farther ahead than knocking her on her ass and maybe kissing her senseless. He didn't even think of her blood. Slayer's blood, rich and enervating, there was nothing on earth like it. When she shoved him up against that wall he'd looked at her, skin flushed with exertion and arousal, the blood streaming so near the surface, and instead of biting her all he'd thought of was how it felt to have his tongue in her mouth. And then later, much later, after she told him he was a thing and couldn't love and she didn't want to be with him any more, he went to her to apologize for hurting her with Anya. To tell her again that he loved her, to try to get her to admit she loved him. And when he tried to bring that love to the surface, he hurt her more than he ever had when he was trying to make her his third trophy. Wasn't life funny.

He'd gone all the way across the world and earned a soul for her. Not been cursed by one, but earned it. And now he was afraid to face her. Give her what she deserved? Maybe what she deserved was some peace. Maybe she deserved to be left alone, and not be forced to look at him and remember.

Spike hissed into the chill fall air. The spell was doing its work nicely, and he clenched his muscles against the pain. Whoever cast it wasn't joking around. Tucked away in the corner...probably thought he wouldn't even notice it until it was too late. Until it couldn't be reversed.

Screw that. He wasn't the poof to sit around mooning his damn head off and taking everything that came at him like some dumb animal. Someone wanted to fuck with him? They were welcome to take their best shot. He'd gotten a soul, not lost his balls.

***

A good shopkeeper knew that there was a proper place for everything. Some magic shop proprietors seemed to think the way to run a tight ship was to drape shawls and hang crystals all over the place and then finish it off with some dim lighting, as if that would suggest a deep and mysterious atmosphere. The only thing it suggested to Anya was a lack of confidence in their sale goods and possibly slovenly cleaning habits. Her customers knew that Anya would have exactly what they needed, that she could advise them on the correct usage, and that theme merchandise would be offered at a 75 percent discount the day after holidays. Some things were sacrosanct.

The Magic Box had been rebuilt nicely. Initially the building inspector said the place should be torn down. The fire marshal said it was a hazard. Giles had gingerly broached the possibility of selling the building and leasing one downtown, closer to the city center. But Anya remained firm: Moving would be bad luck. The shop had enjoyed success right from the start at its current location, and, despite its near-destruction, had survived the best an apocalypse-craving superwitch could throw at it. It would be very shortsighted indeed to abandon a building which obviously had an exceptional energy. Of course Giles didn't believe much in such things, but he had been wrong before. For instance, when he left despite the obvious fact that Willow was coming unglued. Anyone could have seen that.

The bell rang at the front of the shop, and Anya perked up. Customers meant the business was doing well, and she was devoting more time than ever to the business. It was nice to have one's efforts rewarded.

"How many I service your magical needs?" Anya asked cheerfully, turning around to face the counter. She loved customers. With their needs that only she could fill and their almost limitless reserves of money, they were like Xander, only they didn't criticize her behavior continually. Or ask that she be the one to wear the boots the next time. "Today we have a special on-" She broke off in surprise. Spike was standing in front of her, looking the same as always, except for some reason he wasn't wearing his duster. Which actually made him look rather vulnerable and naked, but not naked in the way she liked. And his hair-the color was partway grown out, and it was messy, like he'd run out of gel and decided his fingers were a good substitute.

"Hi, love," he said softly, glancing down at the counter. Apparently he was fascinated by Hylian perzant torques, although she couldn't imagine why. Unless, of course, he was planning to give birth soon, since they were used primarily to reduce labor pains.

"Spike, I haven't seen you since we engaged in sexual relations and Xander tried to kill you," she noted in her typically blunt manner. "Where have you been? I was wondering if perhaps Buffy had finally staked you."

Spike flinched. God, a thousand years and you'd think the bird would learn some tact. She must have been raised in a barn, if they had barns then.

Unwillingly he regretted his thoughts about her. She didn't have pretenses like most people. And that was strange to him, because after 120 years as a vampire, he was now more used to people than demons. Anya seemed more foreign to him than Dawn. She hadn't adjusted socially to life with humans as well as he had because she didn't have the advantages his education and upbringing had lent him.

God, listen to him. He was sounding more like William every day. Soon he'd be bothering servants to come up with words nobody ever used, to describe a woman who wouldn't cross the street to spit on him, on the off chance that she realized he was alive.

Kind of a specialty, now that he thought about it.

Enough of that. "I was out of town. Someone's given me a welcome home present, the black magic kind. What can a person do with bones?"

Anya stared at him blankly. Clearly, her look said, he wasn't going to leave it at that.

"Bones and...hair. Long. And powder."

"Powder? Like baking powder? Or more like arsenic powder? Or powdered woodwort? Anything can be powdered, you know," she prompted.

"It was white," Spike offered helpfully.

She looked at him, nonplussed. "Do you know how many kinds of white powder there are? And if someone wanted to disguise what kind of powder they were using, they could have treated the powder with bleach and it would appear white. Fraudulently white."

"Why-"

"Did you bring it with you?"

He hadn't, of course. It was that kind of a night, and he hadn't really been thinking.

He shook his head, and Anya looked at him like he was simpleminded. "Well, what did the note say?"

"Note? There was no note."

"No note? So it was just the bones and hairs?"

"And powder," Spike pointed out. "So how about it?"

"Well, it was a message. A warning,"Anya specified.

"So it was a threat," said Spike, nodding to himself.

"Well, of course it was a threat. Bones are seldom used for friendly messages-unless, of course, the recipient has a previously expressed interest in bones; that would be different."

"So how do I stop it?"

Anya looked surprised by the query. "Well, you ignore it."

"Ignore it? When it feels like there's a knife in my gut I'm supposed to pretend nothing's happening?" Spike scoffed.

"Knife? Gut? What are you talking about?"

Spike felt the beginnings of a headache coming on. He felt for Anya, being left at the altar and unappreciated and all, but Harris did have to put up with a lot from her. She really wasn't the sharpest stick in the shed.

"The spell," he replied patiently-doing his level best not to snap. "The one that makes it feel like I'm dying, only more painful."

She rolled her eyes. Vampires were so simple-they were sexy and all, yes, that was their strong point, but they weren't really a brain trust. Blood and sex and scaring people, that's pretty much what they thought about. And they were good at it, but there really was more to life. Like being a productive member of society and on the waiting list to join the board of directors of the Sunnydale Chamber of Commerce, which would greatly benefit from a thousand years of experience and a good head for numbers.

"The bones were a message-I mean, they can't do anything to you," she pointed out practically.

Spike ground his teeth. This was getting him nowhere. "Then why the pain?"

"The spell, of course-but that's being done elsewhere. You said the hairs were long, right? That couldn't be affecting you. For something like what you're talking about, they have to have something of yours. If it was your hair, then certainly, there'd be a connection. But long hairs? That wasn't part of the spell. That was a personal message."

"Then what am I supposed to do?" he demanded. Christ, wasn't the soul supposed to give him-what? Patience? Then why did he feel like throwing a bloody tantrum? Kicking his heels and screaming like a toddler. Or worse, Darla. The soul was nothing but a pain, upsetting him about bones and making him feel bad for snarling. Within a few weeks he'd be wearing tweed and taking ballroom dance lessons, and then he'd have to kill himself.

"Well, find the person who cast the spell. And then make him break it," said Anya, matter-of-fact.

"And just how am I going to find the bloke?"

"Well, didn't you smell anything?'

Spike was brought up short. He'd been holding the scarf in his hand, there were hairs in it-hairs-and yet he hadn't noticed an odor, at least not enough to identify someone. How long had he been drinking before he noticed his little present?

"I don't remember," he admitted. "I might have been drinking a little."

Anya was impressed. "You drank so much that you lost your sense of smell?"

Hell, Spike thought, the last time I saw you I drank enough to-he suppressed the thought ruthlessly. He'd always enjoyed a good wisecrack, but when had he become such an asshole?

"Something like that. And then-" Spike broke off. What had happened to the place? It looked like a completely different shop. It wasn't just the absence of Scoobies, either; he'd peered in the windows to make sure they weren't there. Even with the soul he was Spike, but he was still feeling his way around. And if the Slayer had told them, he couldn't stop them from dusting him. Hell, Harris had damn near done it because he'd snogged the man's highly dumped former fiancée. "Uhh-something different here?"

"This is the first you've noticed? My, you really must have consumed an unusually excessive amount of alcohol. Possibly a dangerous amount," she theorized. "Yet you still found your way here, like a devoted family pet who was lost miles away but still manages to find his way home."

"Skip the colorful metaphors," he growled. This was getting him nowhere, and he wanted to get back to the crypt. The whole gang might turn up at any moment, and besides, he didn't want to miss any possible deathograms. It was good to know someone cared.

He turned to go, but Anya's voice stopped him.

"I've been very polite about not asking so far, but what is that?"

"What?" he gritted. This damn night was never going to end.

"That...thing. There's something about you. You're different. I mean, besides your hair. Something's affecting your...well, your something. Xander would say there was a disturbance in your force."

She studied him intently, as if she could pinpoint the change if she stared hard enough. She couldn't, he knew. The soul was something nobody could see, maybe never would see. He'd gotten it so that Buffy could trust him, trust him with her heart. Enough that she could tell her friends about them, be who she was instead of the person they wanted her to be. But it didn't come with a handy pin-I got a soul, ask me how!-and he wouldn't believe anything he had to say at this point, so he didn't know why Buffy would. All the way to Africa, the flame-handed gentleman, the hungry little roaches, the two-headed snake woman he'd had to fight with a crucifix, and it was his own little secret.

It was tempting to tell Anya. She, out of all of them, was the most like him. Cut off from her powers, alone in this pissant burg, in love with one of the Scoobies-god, the indignity. Used and abandoned. Yeah, they had a lot in common, although he'd been lying when he said she was the only one of the bunch he wouldn't kill. The birds, he liked them okay. Nothing wrong with them, especially Glinda. The Niblet, of course he'd never hurt her-

He felt sick. Sure, he'd never hurt her, just like he'd never hurt her sister. Saw how well that turned out, right?

"It's nothing," he muttered, turning away from Anya and leaving the shop behind. "Nothing at all."

Chapter 3 by Shadowlass

The best thing about research was the quiet. Quiet was conducive to concentration, yes, but also to contemplation. He never felt so at ease as when he was studying an ancient text. It enabled him to reach a peace seldom offered in the continuous stream of noise that passed for-

"Spike's back."

Giles looked up, pen frozen in hand. He hadn't even heard Anya come in. "What?"

"Spike. He's back. I thought you'd want to know," she said, crossing over to the desk and leaning her hip against it. If she were a little more comfortable, she'd hitch up a little and sit on the edge, but their relationship wasn't quite at that stage yet. That is, Giles wasn't aware they had a relationship, so she didn't yet feel at ease being so casual.

Giles would be surprised if he knew how careful she was being about the two of them-their impending couplehood. He probably thought she was still the same girl who had referred to Olivia as his orgasm friend. She was much different now, although he didn't realize it yet. That was all right, she was planning to bring to his attention soon enough.

"Back," repeated Giles softly. That certainly...changed things, didn't it? Although he wasn't really sure how. But Buffy was sure to be shaken by his return. The vampire had left without a word, Buffy told him, and been gone for months. Another demon had moved into his crypt, and it seemed that Spike was gone for good.

And all things considered, Giles considered that an excellent state of affairs.

Months before, after he had recovered from his injuries-his Willow-related injuries-he had fruitlessly consulted his books about occurrences of illicit relations between Slayers and vampires. It seemed to him that becoming romantically involved with vampires twice in five years was rather excessive. And yet he knew that Buffy did not become involved with men lightly, and so there must have been some substance to their relationship. He just couldn't imagine what it was.

Buffy would only say that she felt alive when she was around him. That it was the only time she felt anything. And although she would not tell him why Spike had left Sunnydale, she had told him that it was between the two of them and she could handle things. Whatever that meant. Giles was too discreet to probe further, although he felt sure it was more complicated than she said.

But he had relinquished his right to push, if ever he had it, when he had decided to leave her so that she would grow up and learn to handle things on her own. She had begun to do so, and he could not complain if the way she ran her life disturbed him.

Even if it worried him.

Even if it made him regret his decision.

"Giles? What are you thinking?"

Anya's voice startled him out of his reverie. He couldn't precisely tell her that he was wondering about what could draw an ordinary-no, not ordinary, extraordinary-girl like his Buffy to an insufferable, smartmouthed prat who thought the best way to impress a girl was to chain her up in his basement and threaten her life. Buffy had been disgusted by him. She barely even felt sorry for him after Glory had nearly tortured him to death, so offended was she by the robot.

Of course, she also thought the robot looked nothing like her. No one was perfect. But she was perfect to him.

"Can I help? Because I'd be happy to. Help, I mean."

Giles forced himself to focus on Anya. She was certainly trying. He knew she wanted him to return to work at the Magic Box again. She seemed lonely there, which was natural, he supposed, considering her breakup with Xander. Curious that no one had telephoned to notify him of the major goings-on around Sunnydale months ago. He had the feeling that there were still things he had not been told.

Anya dropped by frequently and without notice, regaling him with exacting accountings of the shop's records, rather pointless stories about the clientele, and occasional hints about what life had been like with Xander. In the midst of a story about how she came by a reliable source of Chalcedian yak horn, she would suddenly refer to something Xander had done months before. Giles wondered if Xander had any idea how often Anya thought about him.

Admittedly, the thoughts were frequently less than warm.

He really hadn't spoken to Xander since shortly after the aborted end of the world. Xander had his hands full right now, more than full. Giles wasn't sure it would be a gift to tell him that his former fiancée was still thinking of him. Perhaps when things were more settled with all of them. Until then it was surely kinder to let Xander be.

Thoughts of Xander had crossed his mind frequently of late. He'd never really bonded with Xander, somehow. Not like he had with Buffy and Willow and even Dawn. But he remembered Xander helping him rearrange his furniture, unpack his books, restock the library shelves. Things Buffy and Willow had never done, because the time they spent with him was really mostly time they spent with each other. Xander had sought him out, and somehow he hadn't really noticed.

It was something he regretted, now.

For some reason he suddenly recalled years before, back when the children were still in high school, when Xander and Cordelia had just broken up. Xander had been crushed, and afterwards spent much time in the library. The incident had been unfortunate: Cordelia and Oz had walked in on Xander and Willow kissing. Cordelia was furious, naturally. Although in all fairness, there were extenuating circumstances, Xander and Willow having been kidnapped by-

Ah, there was Spike again.

It was impossible still for him to believe that Buffy had actually had a...relationship with Spike. He was tempted to pass his feelings about Spike off as hatred, but in all honesty they were simply not that intense. If Angel, while unsouled, had been a master of destruction, Spike was merely a brat prince. Showy and boastful, and ultimately unsuccessful in his ambitions. Not the sort to arouse much more than serious dislike.

But that was the kind of foolish thinking that led to dismissing Spike's abilities. And although Spike had never bested Buffy, he had destroyed two of her predecessors. Angel, despite his advanced age and the vicious pleasure he took in tormenting others, had never managed one. Even when Buffy was the most vulnerable to him, when her friends were injured and he had allowed himself to be taken and Kendra killed, when Angel had been tormenting Buffy for months, he could not defeat her. And yet, Spike had nearly killed her on more than one occasion.

An eerie chill came over Giles. He had been ignoring the real threat Spike represented because killing a creature who could not harm others seemed unfair, yet that had not stopped him from ending Ben's life. It had been for Buffy's own good, and so he had not hesitated.

Next to him, Anya continued to talk, oblivious to his sober thoughts. As he was oblivious to her vivacious chatter. As always, he gave his focus to the most pressing matter at hand. Spike was back, and Buffy was vulnerable still.

Perhaps his job as Watcher was not finished. Not while Spike remained alive.

***

It was a routine, like anything else done for years. Training. Patrolling. Living. Things not done for pleasure, but because she didn't have a choice.

As Buffy strolled through Pickleweed Park she wondered why she bothered. It was late, and Sunnydale had been fairly quiet for the last few months. She almost couldn't recall the last time there'd nearly been an apocalypse, but then she remembered and got pissed. That would teach her for thinking.

She should go home. It was late, past midnight, and she had to get up for work in just a few hours. Get up, make Dawn breakfast, shower, brush her teeth, and take the bus to work. She'd considered buying a car, but she didn't think she could afford the insurance. And car dealers wanted a down payment. Also monthly payments. And she was quite sure she couldn't afford either. Hence, the bus.

She didn't even notice the park fading away behind her, until she was standing at the entrance to Spike's cemetery. The one she still thought of as Spike's, although really she should just think of it as Larchfield Cemetery, or, more usefully, the Cemetery Between the Really Old One That's Completely Full and Never Has Any Fledglings and the One Closest to the Espresso Pump. She leaned towards practicality rather than precision in such matters.

She'd been by his crypt a few times, but no Spike. She didn't know why she was checking, but things felt incomplete. It was like they'd been having an argument and he left in the middle of it.

Which was a pretty crap-ass way of characterizing what he'd done.

It had been a while before she'd been able to think about it, her mind reflexively skittering away from the ugliness in the bathroom. What had begun as an apology, something rare from him, had quickly deteriorated into what so many of their discussions centered around. You love me, we have a once-in-a-lifetime passion, why do you deny it? He seemed the same as always.

And then suddenly he was grappling with her, pulling her to the floor, her head catching the side of the tub. The incomprehensible sight of him trying to drag open her robe. She thought she was dreaming at first. Unbelievable. He had allowed a god to nearly kill him so she wouldn't lose her sister, but suddenly he couldn't understand how much what he was trying to do would hurt her. She thought she was imagining it, thought for a moment she had gone mad, before she registered the chill of his hand against her skin as he tried to pull open her robe and realized it was really happening. Realized that he was the one who had gone mad.

Realized the man who had held her hands after she returned wasn't in there, and the man looking at her with frantic, desperate eyes wasn't going to stop.

It wasn't hard for her to stop him. Not physically.

She wasn't sure how long they were in there together, afterwards. Both of them crying and not saying a word. Then suddenly he was on his feet, she flinched, and he was past her, gone. God knew how long it was before Xander came crashing in, brandishing Spike's duster like a third-rate detective, ready to tear into her for living her life without his prior approval. For having a lover when his was gone, for it not being him. He didn't even want it to be him anymore, but five years of jealousy was a hard habit to break.

She didn't know why she kept coming to his cemetery, kept checking his crypt. But what he'd tried to do didn't erase what had come before. It didn't change what he'd done for her, for Dawn. And it didn't change how tender he was after she returned, tender until she wouldn't accept it any more and he got her to notice him another way, with his fists. The same way she communicated with him. He still wanted to talk, but she found it easy to shut him up, with her fist or her mouth, or just by leaving.

The bathroom-it was wrong, it was inexcusable. But she did excuse it. For a year he had loved her and helped her and listened to her. She had ignored his love, but knew it was still there. Even unnourished, it provided her with comfort. But somehow that love wasn't enough. It wasn't until after he had snarled at her, during his song, that she'd kissed him. Not until he taunted her about coming back wrong, until he gleefully returned her blows, that she'd reached into his jeans and taken him into her hands and then into herself.

Maybe the bathroom was where they'd been headed all along. But what came before was still there.

It made the bathroom worse, somehow.

Buffy halted her progress through the cemetery. There was no point in checking his crypt. He was gone. It made things easier. It should have made her glad.

She wondered why it didn't.

***

It had been about as useful as anything else in the world that didn't provide a quick buzz, which is to say, not very.

He didn't know why he'd gone to see Anya about the package anyway. If she had any judgement she would never have become involved with Harris in the first place, so what was he thinking looking for her advice?

So the question was, who had it in for old Spike? Perhaps a better question would be, who didn't? The Bit had looked at him fit to kill not even a week ago. Harris had tried to axe him the last time he'd seen him. If Red knew about what happened before he left, she might try some of her mojo on him. So powerful, and she was pretty reckless with the magic.

The Slayer was proof of that.

Would she really tell them? He couldn't see it. She tried to shield them all from ugliness, even if it meant absorbing everything herself. So that they didn't suffer, even while she could barely hold her head up for the pain. She was a hero, that's what made her one, not fighting baddies. Because, despite her ennui, she enjoyed that. It was the only place she could let out those darker emotions, before the two of them became involved. He wondered what would have happened to her, if she weren't a Slayer and didn't have that outlet.

He doubted it was anything good.

He didn't want her to have to be a hero with him. He had tried to absorb the pain when he was around her, and she was happy to lay it on him with her fists, which he could take, and her words, which made him feel like shit. He would have preferred just the fists. That kind of pain didn't faze him, and sometimes it led to better things. Her words never did. Her hand on his cheek...I'm sorry, William.

Maybe it had been a mistake, trying to talk to her. When she had taken him in that abandoned building, maybe he should just have been happy with that. Forgotten trying to talk things through. Hell, it probably would have lasted longer that way. He always put his foot in it with her, always found the exactly wrong thing to say. She'd be surprised if she knew how articulate he was about their relationship when she wasn't around. When he was talking to himself, he never compared fucking her to killing the others.

There was no comparison. He lived for her. He went across the world for her, to get something he'd never wanted. Changed everything in him, so she could look at him without hatred. Just for the chance of that.

Maybe it was her, the bundle. Spike snorted with laughter at the thought; if she wanted him dead, she'd just kick open the door to his crypt and stake him. Probably she'd be wearing skintight pants and a tiny little top. That was the kind of thing she usually wore when she burst in to kill him. And if she wanted to torture him first, she could just let him see her, and know that he couldn't have her. That would be enough. That had been torture enough in the spring, so that he went insane. Just her presence, eating into his unreasonable hopes like acid...he went as mad as Drusilla had ever been.

It was easier not to think of her, but that was pointless. He'd left for her, and returned for her. No use putting off the inevitable. If she didn't want him in Sunnyhell she could just stake him. He wouldn't try to stop her. The soul was a promise, not a shield. Not absolution.

But all things considered, seeing her could wait until he was sober. Because if he could barely keep his frustration in check with demon girl, whom he really didn't give sixpence about, seeing Buffy would be a huge mistake. Damned if he was going to bollocks this up. There was something to be said for sobriety after all.

Like a sense of smell, for one thing. Seeing the Slayer could wait for a couple of days while he took care of his mystery friend. Tomorrow he'd be clean of the liquor and would know whose hairs they were, whose scent was on the handkerchief. He had to get that out of the way, because he had more important things to deal with-well, Buffy and Dawn were actually about it, but he didn't need any distractions.

Yeah, he'd wait ‘til he was sober. And then he'd-

What the fuck was that?

Inside his crypt. A human. He must have been sobering up, because he could smell it, but not clearly enough to identify the git. Leaving him another little present? Probably thought he was safe. The defanged vampire was out to buy his pathetic little bags of blood or lift some smokes, and even if he returned while the bugger was there everything would be fine, because Spike was all neutered and helpless, right? Well, his visitor had another think coming. Nobody messed with him.

What if it was one of them-the Scoobies? He couldn't precisely kill them, even Harris. Even if he didn't have the chip, it wasn't an option. They were her closest friends. But if it wasn't a Scooby-well, what then? Rip them to pieces, courtesy of his chip's non-existent Black Magic Threat Exemption?

Yeah, that sounded good. Too bad he couldn't-

Christ! There it was again, the pain, stabbing into him, unforgiving. One way or another, this was ending. Damned if he'd spend the rest of his unlife never knowing when he was going to double over and wish he was dust.

He mastered the pain and stalked over to the crypt door. But he hesitated. The answer might be horrible. He didn't want to think it was someone he cared about, fought beside. Even if he deserved it. For a moment he wanted to turn around, walk off and clear his head, so that when he came back his crypt would be empty, and he wouldn't have to know.

You're Spike, not William. Act like it, he told himself. Somewhere inside him a voice whispered, you're both.

He ignored it and pushed the door open. For a moment he thought he could hear his heart pounding, until he remembered it had been still for a hundred years.

It wasn't who he expected, any of them. But who else would sit in his crypt with such entitlement? In his favorite chair, like she owned it. Which she did, of course, like she owned everything of his.

"Slayer," he murmured.

Chapter 4 by Shadowlass

He'd never felt so stupid, so inadequate. In life he'd often been reduced to silence by the cruelty of others with more confidence, more money. More friends. A more ready wit, and the desire to expend it. He remembered those days clearly, so long ago, when his strongest wish had been to find words to defend himself, explain his intentions, words that made sense in his mind but failed him when he opened his mouth. And now, facing Buffy, he had the sudden shameful impulse to flee, which he ignored, and to babble about how he loved her, which he also ignored.

So instead, he said nothing.

"You changed your hair," she observed softly. He almost had to strain to catch the words, even with his acute sense of hearing.

"It grew out," he murmured, as softly as she. "It didn't seem to matter."

She studied him in silence. He thought he would go mad. But this was up to her, how it would go. He would follow her lead. It was the least that he owed her.

"You seem different," she said, her voice stronger, more certain.

For a moment his mind stopped working. She knew. Her Slayer sense had asserted itself and she was able to see it, feel it, his soul. Feel it as he did, sharp and icy and forcing itself into every corner of his being, distinct and harrowing. Burning him inside until he felt cleansed where it had touched. Would she understand? Understand what it meant, that he had done this thing for her? That he would go through this willingly, gladly, in order to make himself worthy of her?

"I mean, the hair and the unpolished nails and the-the no coat, you just look different," she added.

Spike's heart sank. She hadn't sensed a thing. He was the same thing to her, the thing that had attacked her. Less than that, even. He'd stopped wearing the black nail polish after he let Glory tear into him like a piñata on Cinco de Mayo and Buffy had come to him and pressed her lips against his. He'd been so bruised, so broken everywhere that he could barely feel the pressure against his mouth, but he had known it was her and not the bot. He couldn't be so injured, so dazed, that he couldn't sense her. It was impossible.

But after she came back they had made love to each other all over town, sweet and soft, hard and violent and making each other hurt and bleed, and she hadn't even noticed that he wasn't wearing the polish. Hadn't looked at him long enough to see the hands that were touching her, even as she cried out from the pleasure they gave her.

It shouldn't hurt so much. God.

"Yeah," he said quietly. "Gave up the polish. I don't know where the coat is. Must be somewhere around here, but I haven't seen it." He could have sworn she flinched when he said that, but he was obviously in a mood to fool himself.

"Did Dawn tell you I was back?" he asked. He felt too formal, somehow, to use one of the nicknames he habitually bestowed. It seemed presumptuous, something he wasn't entitled to. Not right then, not with Buffy.

But he didn't feel like himself when he called Dawn by her name, and he wanted to feel like himself. Wanted to be Spike, wanted to be unchanged except for the little item he went to Africa for. The thing that would make everything okay.

That was the plan, at least.

Buffy continued to gaze at him without responding. Finally his words penetrated and she felt shock ripple across her mind. "What? Are you telling me she already knows?"

He hesitated. Obviously the Bit hadn't told her sister, for whatever reason. Probably mostly that she was a typical adolescent monster. Why didn't they have Slayers for those, he wondered absently.

Anger flashed through her as she waited for him to answer. What the hell was he was doing-covering for Dawn? Or for himself? Xander may have told Dawn the truth, but Dawn had always been willful, refusing to listen to common sense. And she had always adored Spike. Him back-her not saying a word-it was dangerous. Taking Dawn to Spike's crypt after the bathroom was one thing-he wouldn't have hurt her, Buffy knew that, despite what Xander had said. But the thought of Dawn keeping those kind of secrets..."Does she?" she demanded.

He nodded. "Saw her a couple days ago. She took one look and turned in the other direction. Haven't seen her since."

Buffy absorbed that silently. He couldn't tell what she was thinking. Should he say more?

Gingerly he cleared his throat. "Thought she'd told you. Thought that was why you were here."

She forgot her anger for the moment. What was she supposed to tell him? Well, after you tried to rape me I was pretty upset for an hour or two and then I whipped some bad guy butt and a bunch of stuff happened, mostly bad, and then I brought my kid sister over here for you to babysit and after I found out you had left I just kept checking your graveyard like some kind of...I don't know what, but something? And you were wrong, I don't love you, I couldn't love you, but I forgive you and I need you to forgive me?

"No," she answered instead. "I was just out patrolling, and happened by and, uhh...decided to say hi to Clem." Would he buy that? It didn't really sound believable to her. She'd never been a good liar.

He nodded, to her relief. Apparently he wasn't as perceptive as he thought.

Actually, she'd known he was back as soon as she saw the burba weed on the sarcophagus he used as a table, and the whiskey bottles littering the periphery of the crypt. Clem was more into orange-toned, processed snack foods and fruit punch. Also the entire line of Hostess products. She'd been by often enough to check the crypt to have found out a lot of his favorite things. She'd never seen a kitten, thank god.

But Spike really hadn't changed the crypt much since returning, not even getting things back to how he liked them. He hadn't even taken down the O-Town poster Clem had put up a couple of months after he left. And the bottles strewn around...that wasn't like Spike, she knew. Usually the only time the crypt was a mess was when they'd destroyed it together. While naked.

"So where were you?"

Right, then. He wasn't going to lie to her. Even if it would be easier. "I went to see a bloke I'd heard of. I wanted-wanted-" He broke off. Christ, this was a pisser. Her standing there looking at him, all cool and calm and politely interested. And him all naked in front of her, so to speak, telling her everything there was to know and who's to say she just wouldn't look at him and shrug? A soul? Why'd you get that? Weren't you listening all those times I said I could never love you? A soul doesn't change that.

Why would it? Why would it change anything? She'd met him in an alley where he'd sacrificed a minion in order to size up her fighting skills. He'd applauded and mocked her and done his damnedest to kill her and her little school chums, and that's how she saw him still. The soulless vampire who'd kidnapped her perfect little loverboy and gotten buried under a pipe organ for his troubles, the creature who'd snatched her best friends for a stupid spell, the demon who'd conspired with a Frankenstein monster to see them all dead. The vampire who wasn't dust only because it was unsporting to kill something that couldn't fight back.

That was then, of course. Now he could fight back, at least against her.

But the essential problem...Christ, he'd always led with his heart, not his head. When she'd kicked him off in that bathroom and he'd sat there, crushed by what he'd almost done, all he'd felt was horror. Horror at himself, that he could do such a thing to the woman he loved. Later, in his crypt, all he wanted to do was fix it. Make things right, so that she could trust him. Just rushed in, never even wondered if that was possible.

Because no matter how good he was, no matter how toothless, to her he would always be the same ravening monster who led an army of vampires against a schoolful of parents. No matter what he did, that was who he was to her. Every time they saw each other, he started again from that place. Had he really thought getting a soul would make her see him differently?

And no matter how badly Angel behaved, he was still her blameless, brooding darling. When he did evil, it was his demon. As if they were two different people. As if being souled were his natural state, instead of the result of a curse, a curse that could be broken at any time. But any good Spike did could be attributed to selfishness, somehow.

Dammit, he'd helped save the world more times than the poof ever had, but despite the good he'd done, to her he was still less than the git had been when he was living in alleys, eating rats. Where he'd been content to stay for a hundred years, helping no one. Was the soul that powerful, to make that self-absorbed half-life more worthy than all the times Spike had risked his life?

Like hell. That wasn't the power of the soul, that was the power of a first impression. And his was long past.

"Spike?" Buffy repeated. "Did you hear me? Where did you go?"

He shook his head. He was buggered. He gritted his teeth so he wouldn't shout at her, rail that he gotten a soul for her, for them, and deserved a fresh start. He knew he didn't deserve anything. And damned if he was going to fuck this up with his impatience. It had ruined too many things for him already. "Off. I had to go. I-I couldn't stay after-" He broke off. "After the bathroom," he said finally. Coward. Couldn't say it, could he?

Buffy could almost feel the lid clamp down on her emotions. There were a lot of things she didn't feel like discussing with Spike or anyone else, and the bathroom was up there. Not number one, but up there. "I don't want to discuss the bathroom," she said. He opened his mouth to speak, and she repeated more forcefully, "I don't want to discuss the bathroom." The won't was implied.

Spike nodded mutely. It was typical response from her; she had always loathed talking of anything more meaningful than how to kill the demon du jour and which pair of shoes best showed off her ankles. She shied away from it, emotion. Bury things, don't discuss them.

But it was up to her. It was only proper that she write the script for it.

He couldn't believe she was still there talking to him. He had no idea what to say, but he wasn't going to give up the chance. "How's Dawn? I didn't get to ask her when I saw her. Thought she'd mention it to you." Seemed like a safe enough topic.

Buffy shook her head. "No, Dawn's been quiet all summer. Quiet in a slammy kind of a way," she added, smiling faintly.

He echoed her smile. Dawn could really bring on the pain to those around her, he knew. He let out a small chuckle. "Yeah, last summer she got a bug in her ear about getting her navel pierced. Two weeks of pleading followed by four weeks of slamming, plus all the sullen glares you'd ever want to see," he recalled. "I put my foot down, ‘cause I knew you'd hate it-knew-" He broke off. He'd known she would have hated it, but she'd been in the grave.

She saw his intent in his eyes and shook her head. "Thank you," she said softly. "I know you took good care of her."

"No trouble," he muttered, ducking his head. He didn't like to think of last summer, even with her here next to him, alive and breathing and...alive. He and Snackpack had sat around a lot of nights, staring at walls and trying to come up with conversation that didn't revolve around Buffy; it had been a lot easier between them before she died. Didn't have to avoid any topics then.

But they'd had some fun, too, that summer. One night the two of them escaped the Scoobies and went up into the farmlands outside Sunnydale and made a little crop circle in some yokel's field. It had ended up more misshapen than geometric, and they hurriedly abandoned their makeshift tools in the middle of the ragged formation and ran off smothering their laughter as they heard the farmer in the distance, shouting and swearing about trespassers.

Probably shouldn't tell the Slayer about that one.

"How's the job?" he asked. He kicked himself. What a ridiculous question. She already had enough on her mind without him reminding her about that hellhole. He hated to think of her there, her spirit atrophying for a crap paycheck. Grease on her skin and in her hair. The stench had been absolutely noxious, but he never told her. Never minded, since the smell was accompanied by her.

Buffy found it kind of uncomfortable, talking to him. What was the phrase? An elephant in the room? It was like that. She wished they could just get past it, but she wasn't sure how to do it. But she didn't want it there, and the quickest way to deal with it was just ignore it. She had experience in that kind of thing.

But the job was something she could discuss without worry. One of the few things that had gone well in the last several...years, she supposed. "Actually, it's pretty good," she said, a tone of excitement creeping into her carefully controlled voice.

She saw the surprised look on Spike's face, and understood why. "I'm not at the Doublemeat anymore," she told him. Suddenly, with unaccountable warmth, she recalled him leaning towards her. Urging her to leave the burger place, telling her it would kill her. She'd been unhappy about that, because she needed the job so desperately. And, almost below her perception, she knew she was angry because he was the only one who seemed to give a damn about it. Giles had known she had ongoing money problems, but hadn't given her cash beyond that one-time infusion, despite the fact that he was drawing a paycheck from the Council every damn month. Xander had come in and drooled over the food and took what she gave him free. And Willow had never paid any rent, despite the fact that-

Forget that. Forget about that. Forget about her.

Spike's expectant face drew her mind back to the conversation. "I enrolled in the summer session at UC Sunnydale, and I'm a trainee with the campus police department."

He smiled, looking pleased. "So you finally get paid to patrol."

"About time," she agreed with a faint laugh.

She studied him. He looked...softer, somehow. His face wasn't set in such hard lines. Before, the only thing soft about his face were his lips, but now his eyes slid shyly from hers and he seemed to lack that tough shell he usually displayed. Usually, not always. She'd seen him without it a few times, mostly when she hurt him. Not by beating him, but by not caring enough.

His hair wasn't much longer than usual, but only platinum for the last couple of inches. The rest was golden brown, and looked odd on him. Uncharacteristic. Like Santa Claus with black hair. He'd started changing his hair the year before, alternating between the tousled curls she thought of as his boyfriend hair and the slicked back, Big Bad look. Like he couldn't decide which to be. It was curly now, messier than she'd ever seen it. Like he didn't care, which disturbed her, although it shouldn't.

Well, she wasn't going to beat herself up about her feelings any more. That time was past. If she worried about Spike that was her right. If she wanted to drop by his crypt to see him, that was her right, too.

Abruptly she stood up. "I have to go now," she told him, watching his face fall. He hid the disappointment quickly, though, she had to give him that. He had practice.

He stood back so she could move to the door without coming near him. She didn't seem to notice. At the entrance she swung around to face him, her face diffident.

"Maybe you could patrol with me, some nights," she suggested, her tone not giving anything away.

"Yeah, I'd like that," he agreed, cautiously.

She nodded, and left without another word.

Spike took a deep breath. He'd been dreading it so long, and now it was over. She'd been there, his home, and she looked at him without hatred. Without contempt. Kindly, almost. He should have hated for her to look at him with kindness, but somehow it seemed closer to tenderness than pity.

Maybe he was fooling himself. He did it fairly often. It was comforting. And, of course, ignoring reality made it easier to focus on his goals. When he was in Brazil with Dru, if he'd seen what he would become-chipped, the Slayer's willing slave, a punching bag for Harris-Harris-and, unbelievably, souled-he would have taken a nice morning walk. But all those things had come in small increments, and he had adapted. That's what superpredators did, if they wanted to stay superpredators. Or just stay alive, and partake in the simple but substantial pleasures of spicy Buffalo wings, reasonably good house bands, and the not-inconsiderable joy of laughing his ass off at the gits on Road Rules. Live to drink and dance and fall in love and fuck into sinuous states of languor.

Ah, ignoring reality, one of the keys to living well. Good thing he'd mastered it so long ago.

So he was more than pleased with how this evening had ended. Buffy talking to him like a person, inquiring about him. Not accusing, just asking. Being interested in where he'd been and what he'd done.

Not hating him.

Spike strode around the crypt, the excitement bringing on an excess of energy. He felt like running around and shouting at the top of his voice. He had always had a hyperactive streak, and when he was keyed up he almost didn't know what to do. It had led to many of his more unfortunate actions.

He moved to the refrigerator, hoping a little blood would calm him down. As he reached for the handle he noticed his nails, short and clean and bare. No polish. Her words returned to him, and he felt his heart contract painfully. Didn't hate him, but still hadn't ever really looked at him. When he had been looking at her, absorbing the amazing unbelievable sight of her in his arms, she had only been looking towards oblivion.

What right did he have to complain? She'd noticed now, at least. He'd known what he was doing. Known what she was doing. If it hurt, that's what made it life. He'd told the Slayer that, a year ago. That there was no guarantee of bliss. Life was pain, years of it until a stranger draws you down an alley and takes you from one life to birth you into another. And after that you meet the sunrise or an errant stake and ash over until everything you were was gone. Pain. It was the way of the world.

The world, incidentally, sucked.

Restlessly he paced around the crypt, wishing for...hell, who knew? Something to throw. Something to drink. Something to do, dammit. Fuck! Fuck, yeah! His present. He felt stone cold sober after his talk with the Slayer. His senses were sharp, he could smell a wino taking a piss three blocks over. One whiff of that sack of hair and bones and he'd know the bastard, be on him faster than mold on French cheese.

Well, provided it was a demon.

He stalked over to the chest, and stopped dead. Of course. Of course, of course. He shouldn't have expected any less. It wouldn't have been his unlife any other way. The chest was bare.

The bundle was gone.

Chapter 5 by Shadowlass
Sometimes he felt as if he would break from the strain of it. Like he was bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders-he'd never understood the saying before, but now it made perfect sense. He didn't think he could manage another minute of it, but he went on the same as always. He didn't have a choice.

When he left Anya, he'd felt terrible. Actually, felt wasn't exactly the right word; he was pretty numb at the time. Just certain that what he was doing was the right thing for both of them. The safe thing. The only thing. Which went to show how much he knew.

Pretty much par for the course. He was just surprised that he wasn't back in the basement. It was his natural home, wasn't it? He'd gotten out of it only with Anya's help. He felt that at any moment he might slide right back into it. De-evolution in progress.

It was only with her that he had gotten a steady job, one that didn't involved bartending or delivering pizza. Or worse. The substitute male dancer gig in Oxnard had been worse. Just being in Oxnard made it worse. He'd started going out with Anya, and suddenly he'd found a job. A career. Fine, it wasn't sophisticated; being a construction worker didn't impress anyone. But he had a good job, with responsibility, and was in charge of men with more age and experience. He told them what to do and they did it.

He wondered that it hadn't disappeared along with Anya.

She hadn't disappeared, of course. She was right there at the Magic Box. The whole place had been rebuilt. He'd gotten Giles to suggest that Xander be the one to do the repairs. He would have done it free, but Anya refused. Through Giles, she refused. She said she'd rather get someone who knew how to see a job through to the end.

It was for the best, really. He had enough on his plate, more than enough. Willow was back from that place and staying with him, and it was his job to make her feel better. His most important job, even more than supervising his crew or patching things up with Anya. Besides, patching kind of implied there was something left to stitch together. Anya had made it plain to him that there wasn't. He hadn't even been back to the shop after it was rebuilt. It had been his second home for two years, but now he didn't even know what it looked like inside.

He knew he wasn't wanted there.

But Will did want him with her. She needed him. Tara was gone. Oz was gone. For all intents and purposes, Buffy was gone, at least as far as Willow was concerned. She never asked Xander about Will, never let him mention her name. He'd tried often enough, when Willow was first in that place and desperate to make amends with Buffy. When she'd cried every time Xander visited and she saw Buffy wasn't with him.

Absently Xander grabbed a bottle of dish detergent from the drugstore shelf and dropped it into his shopping cart. He used to eat lunch with the guys at the site, but since Willow had come to live with him he'd taken to running errands at lunchtime. It would have been easier, really, to do it on the way home from work, but she spent enough time alone as it was. He could have taken Willow with him, but he didn't think she was that comfortable around people yet. He understood.

He understood, too, why Buffy was angry. He'd been there, he'd heard what Willow said to Buffy in the Magic Box. In the Magic Box, when she looked at Buffy and decided that she wanted to beat Buffy to death. It still frightened him. Will, his oldest friend. He loved her, she was more necessary to him than water. Than Anya. He had to know she was well. And standing there, her skin drained of color like a corpse-like a vampire-and her hair a dull black, she was nothing like the friend he loved. She looked at everyone she loved and decided to kill them because she was suffering.

And that wasn't Willow. He knew her better than anything in the world. More than Marvel Comics minutiae, more than how to carve a good stake, more than the music of Patsy Cline, which he'd had plenty of opportunity to appreciate over the last few forevers.

So he understood why Buffy was upset with Willow. He was, too. But he forgave. She'd been driven mad, and she'd broken. She was trying to get better now, and Buffy was not helping. Not being a friend.

What did it take with Buffy? Hadn't they forgiven her everything she'd done? All the times they'd nearly died because of her...or her boyfriend? Hey, boyfriends, now. Her and her homicidal honeys.

It had only been a few weeks before Warren shot Buffy and Tara, and everything got so bad, that she'd laid them out in her basement, trussed up like Thanksgiving turkeys, and released a monster against them. Against them, her closest friends. Her own sister.

But he hadn't been there. She hadn't wanted him to die. Sure, they loved her. They made excuses for her attempt to murder them. She was under the influence of a mind-altering chemical. It wasn't her. But she hadn't wanted him to die. She'd been lucid enough for that. Enough to make an exception for him.

Of course, at the time Xander hadn't thought it was an exception. Why the hell would Spike be included? He didn't rate high enough for Buffy to consider him a hindrance to her imaginary life. He was just a pest. An annoyance. Sometimes he was useful muscle.

Xander hadn't realized just how true that was.

It hadn't been a one-time thing, she'd told him later. He wanted an explanation-a justification-but at the same time he didn't want to know any of it. He shouldn't have to hear it. It should never have happened. What had happened to her? She wasn't the same girl any more. The vivacious, quippy girl who'd turned away from the popular crowd to befriend him and Will. He couldn't remember the last time she'd been that girl.

When Willow had insisted they bring Buffy back, she said she knew exactly what to do. That Buffy would be herself. Happy. Happy and alive. But Willow was wrong, it was obvious from the start. Buffy came back all silent, her eyes unfocused and disinterested. And then getting involved with Spike....

That had ended about as well as could be expected, what with Spike being a monster and all. Attacked Buffy in her own house, tried to rape her, and then fled to god knows where. Too cowardly to face up to his actions. And he had mocked Xander for leaving Anya? Well, he'd left Anya for her own good. If Spike ever did anything unselfish the world would start turning backwards.

He didn't have to worry about Spike, though. He was gone. He was smart enough to realize he'd gone too far and that Buffy would stake him if he came back to town. And obviously he wanted to live more than he wanted Buffy. He was a demon. It was the only way he could be. It was impossible to go against nature.

Waiting in the checkout line, Xander glanced at the contents of his cart. It looked like he'd gotten everything they needed, but he'd forgotten to write a list. Maybe he'd ask Willow to write one next time, but she'd probably say she want to go, too. But she didn't, really, she'd just say it to make him feel better. So he wouldn't worry about her as much.

Buffy was back on track now. She had re-enrolled in college and gotten a better job, a job with a future. She was rid of Spike, thank god. She was making the house more her own, re-doing her mom's old room.

Which was necessary, of course. They'd both scrubbed the carpet more than once, but the blood stains wouldn't come out. Tara's blood, seared into the room in which she'd lived for such a short time.

It would be Buffy's room now. New carpet, new paint. She'd sold her mother's old bedroom set and new furniture was going to be delivered. She was moving out of her little girl room. It was a step forward. She was making a claim on adulthood.

But she was making it in the place that Willow should have been. Where she should would have felt comfortable and safe, in the room she had shared with her lover, with her closest friend in the next room and the girl she loved like a little sister down the hall.

That's where Willow should have gone after she left Goldenbrook, not to him. What did he know about taking care of somebody? Buffy had met his parents, she had to realize he didn't know how to do that. It went against everything he'd learned while growing up. He'd learned to destroy, not nurture. Everything he didn't ruin was an accident. He'd driven away the woman he loved, thrown her away. He couldn't heal anybody, even himself. Buffy and Willow had been inseparable for so long, and now Willow was just another taboo subject, like Angel and Riley.

"Buffy roadkill," he muttered. The checkout clerk looked at him curiously. Xander just averted his eyes and thrust some money at him. What could he say?

He hated himself for even thinking such a thing about Buffy. She'd given more than anyone ever would. Ever could. But he wondered again where that light-hearted girl had gone. She'd made everything better, and they all needed that now, more than ever.

***

Willow surveyed the pile of neatly folded towels and socks with satisfaction. She liked doing things like this, they made her feel normal. She wanted to get back to normal.

Willow laid the last folded dish towel on top and began putting things away. She knew where everything was; she'd rearranged most of the kitchen cabinets and all of the drawers since moving in with Xander. She needed something to do, and he seemed to just want her to sit in the couch all day, frozen in the position she'd been in when he left for work. She was ready to do things, all sorts of things. He just didn't realize it yet.

The Watcher's Council, of all things, had taken care of her. Placed a psychiatrist at Goldenbrook to help her. Not because they cared, of course, but because they were worried. A major supernatural threat that even the Slayer was helpless against must be dealt with. Contained. Neutralized.

After months of treatment the doctor was satisfied. She was soothed in mind and body. There was nothing left in her to cause the council concern; the magic had been burned out of her somehow, propelled by the dosing Giles had given her. She was cured.

The sessions with the Council's doctor had been interesting-at least once she had recovered enough to actually realize what was going on. She told him about her life. Her feelings of helplessness as a child and young teen, when her mother was sweet but disinterested and her father merely disinterested. Willow had actually preferred to spend her days at Xander's, which had to be the first sign of incipient insanity. She told the psychiatrist about her early forays into magic, holding nothing back. How the spirit of that gypsy woman had possessed her and she was able to restore Angel's soul.

How she'd never really felt like herself since.

It had been only a few months after that when she started behaving peculiarly. Cheating on her adored boyfriend with an close friend. Spending less time working on the computer and more time on her magic. Experimenting with a coven. She didn't even make valedictorian. And then the sudden attraction to Tara. She felt compelled, barely able to make her own decisions. The intense shot of magic Giles had given her had somehow brought her back to herself, cast out those strange impulses. They weren't bad, necessarily, but they weren't her.

The psychiatrist had been delighted.

Two weeks later, Willow had been released. The doctor flew back to England, planning how best to tell the Council of his great success. They would no doubt be very pleased.

She didn't care if they were pleased. Willow loathed the Council, had ever since Buffy and Joyce were nearly killed during the Cruciamentum, when the Council had weakened Buffy and then set her against a crazed vampire. And when they came back, while Glory was looking for Dawn, they'd made Buffy jump through hoops just to tell her that Glory was a god-she hated them. They were smug. They were useless.

But the really terrifying part was how easy they were to fool.

They thought some dead gypsy made her do things? She made her own decisions. She'd told the doctor what he wanted to hear in order to get out of there. Her heart had been broken, but her mind was intact. She didn't belong there. They couldn't fix anything.

She was the only one who could do that, and she'd already set her plan in motion.

***

She didn't even know why she was friends with Janice. Dawn wasn't especially trying to stay out of mischief, but Janice...sometimes being with her was like sticking your hand in a blender. She had "trouble" tattooed on her forehead.

Actually, she had "trubble" tattooed on her forehead, because she thought it was funny that way. Also, it was on her hip, not her forehead. But the point stood.

For years Dawn had been in the habit of being her friend, and tried reflexively to impress her. Janice wanted to do this? They did it. Dawn usually did it more. Their friendship was more about Janice than it was about Dawn, and it was the only way she was really able to get her part in-the alternative being to simply listen and agree and be the number two in the friendship. More the number two than she was already. She'd been number two all her life, and she didn't want to be it any more than necessary. There really wasn't much to recommend the position.

But this afternoon, they'd met up with the two skankiest guys Dawn had ever seen, and Janice nudged her like that was a good thing. Look, Dawn! Yellow teeth! And holes in their jeans that showed they weren't wearing underwear. Dawn really would have preferred living with the delusion, thank you. And then Dawn thought: hey, Janice is the one who set us up with vampires. And then never even apologized about it. Dawn was supposed to apologize if she opened her mouth while Janice was going on about her new shade of nail polish, but the whole nearly-getting-Dawn-killed thing? Not apology-worthy.

When she thought that, it was suddenly, whoosh! She didn't want to impress Janice anymore. In fact, she didn't even want to speak with Janice again. Her mom was nice, but Janice was a creep. A little second-hand mom time here and there wasn't enough to make hanging around Janice worth it. Although maybe she could call if she felt bad, or something. Just to say hi.

To Janice's mom, that is.

She had to get her mom-ishness where she could. Buffy was all absorbed in...Buffy, and Dawn couldn't even remember the last time someone had kissed her cheek. Which was stupid, because she was too old for that anyway. But sometimes it was nice for someone to kiss you goodnight, to feel your forehead if you had a stuffy nose and hug you extra-hard when you were blue.

Buffy was better at arm-patting.

What had Buffy meant, anyway-"I want to show you the world"? It sounded like some made-for-Lifetime movie, one she wouldn't watch even if her only other choice was homework. Oh course, it didn't mean any more than Buffy's other big-time pronouncements. How many times had Buffy given her that I'm-better-and-everything's-going-to-be-fine-now spiel? Six or seven times, at least. Didn't mean a thing.

Dawn had stopped paying attention after number four.

Still, things were a little better than last year. Buffy had started making dinner regularly, and although she was a pretty bad cook, it was still better than anything Dawn could make, plus the benefit of her not having to make it. Actually, Dawn could tell that Buffy was trying, although she wasn't good at it. Buffy had bought her new school supplies on her way home from work, but that kind of pissed Dawn off, since she would have liked a say in the selection, thanks. Last year Spike had taken her, and let her get whatever she wanted. He'd paid for it, not shoplifted, which surprised her.

Humming, Dawn moved to her bureau and opened the bottom drawer, pushing aside her seldom-used mittens and knitted winter hat. She didn't know why she was even keeping them, they just took up valuable drawer space. She had other stuff she needed to keep tucked out of sight.

Beneath the winter gear, that's what she wanted. She pulled out the folded towel and carried it over to her bed, unfolding it carefully. Didn't want to damage it.

She smiled as she unwrapped the scarf inside to study the jumble of bones. Had Spike even noticed it was gone? Maybe he was drinking too much to see straight-there were bottles everywhere in his crypt. But he couldn't stay drunk forever. He'd sober up some time.

And then when he was sober...that's when he'd start to feel it. It might not bother him too much yet, but it would get worse. Dawn knew exactly how to make him suffer.

The bag of bones? Maybe it would upset him. But he'd realize soon enough that it was only the beginning.

Chapter 6 by Shadowlass
She knew something was wrong the moment she touched the handle of their front door. She'd made it clear to Dawn that the doors were to be kept locked at all times, even when they were home. They used to leave them unlocked, but that was a dangerous habit, and Buffy had put a stop to it.

Laying her book bag on the front step, Buffy eased the door open. Whoever it was must have thought the house would be deserted; Dawn was usually over at Janice's after school, and Buffy had class. No one was supposed to be home.

From the kitchen she could hear voices, muted. One of them pitched higher, and Buffy's heart stilled, and then began to race. It was Dawn, and she was upset. Buffy abandoned stealth for speed, and ran to the kitchen, bursting through the doorway, ready to fight.

Dawn and Giles, sitting together at the kitchen table, looked up at her with surprise evident on their faces. Between them was a plate with a few cookies and a litter of crumbs, and in front of Dawn was the remains of a glass of milk.

Buffy skidded to a halt, as surprised as they were. Giles, after all, had returned to England after he recovered from his injuries. There was really no reason for him to stay in Sunnydale, was there? Nothing to keep him here.

"Giles? What are you doing here?" she asked blankly. But then her brain started to work, and she came to the most obvious conclusion: impending apocalypse. "Is there some Hellmouthy beast about to destroy the world?" she asked cautiously. It had only been a few months since Will-since the last time. Those things usually only happened in spring. It was nice and regular. Like everybody coming back in September from wherever they'd been all summer.

Hey, it had happened again. It was fall, and Giles and Spike had both returned. It was like magic.

Like magic. Abruptly her mood soured. She'd missed what Giles was saying, but shifted her attention to him now.

"-would have notified you immediately of course, so don't worry about that. Really, I just came for a visit. I was concerned."

He was visiting because he was concerned about her? That was bizarre. The first time, he'd left her with a day's notice. Left her with no mother, no father to speak of, a sister to care for. She was just getting used to being alive, and he left her. Because leaving really was the best way to express concern, or at least that's what they all told her before they left. Some variation thereof.

He'd just found out she'd been pulled out of heaven, and he left anyway.

No visit for six months. He came by finally, to save the world. That was big enough for him to visit. Nothing less. So what was he doing here now? The last time he'd left, in June, she'd told him to go, she was fine. But he hadn't listened when she'd asked him to stay, so why did he listen when she told him it was okay to leave? Did what she said suddenly count more?

Stop it, she thought. It doesn't have to be like this. Act like an adult. Be an adult.

Buffy shook her head, dismissing her bitterness. His concern. "Why would you be worried?"

He opened his mouth, but Dawn beat him to the punch. "Spike's back," she announced loftily. She hadn't wanted to tell Buffy before-couldn't stand the thought of it, and besides, Buffy might suspect something-but if Buffy was going to hear about it, Dawn wanted the satisfaction of being the one to tell her.

Buffy shifted her gaze to her sister. "And you're just now telling me?" she inquired with mock surprise. "Because you've known for days."

The smile dropped from Dawn's face, but she quelled her rising panic quickly. Buffy didn't know anything. She couldn't. Not unless she'd been going through Dawn's things-of course, that would be just like her! "How did you find out?" Dawn demanded furiously, jumping to her feet.

"Spike told me. Apparently he didn't want to lie to me," said Buffy, trying but failing to keep the anger out of her voice. It pissed her no end that her own sister had lied to her about it, but a soulless demon had told her the truth.

Oh, who was she kidding? Maybe the soul was overrated anyway. The world had nearly ended a few months ago because a souled witch was angry. And Buffy had spent months before that chasing after three completely souled, completely dangerous assholes, one of whom was the one who had pushed Willow over the edge-

Shut up, she told herself. No one made Willow do anything. She made her own decisions.

And so did Buffy.

"You talked to him?" Dawn gasped. "After what he did-after-"

"Dawn, that's enough," rushed out Buffy, heading Dawn off. She hadn't told Giles about what happened in the bathroom, and she wasn't about to. It wasn't his business. It was between her and Spike. No one else ever should have known.

"But he-"

"Excuse us," Buffy said to Giles, tugging Dawn out of the room. She was being gentle, but not giving her sister a choice.

In the entryway Dawn wore a typically sullen expression, one that surely Buffy had given up by the time she was 16. The only thing Dawn wore more often was Buffy's favorite sweater.

"Did you tell him? About what Spike did?" Buffy asked quietly, trying to keep her patience. She knew she had a tendency to snap at Dawn. It had only worsened after Dawn had become so remote. She had absolutely no idea how to set things right between them, but she had a great handle on making things worse.

Dawn's eyes grew hostile. "I didn't tell him anything," she said coldly.

Even trying to treat Dawn gently she'd been too harsh, Buffy realized. Sometimes it was difficult to remember she was dealing with her younger sister, someone who depended on and looked to her for guidance and affection. Or had.

"Dawnie, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it the way it sounded. I was just so surprised to see him," Buffy said soothingly.

Dawn didn't look convinced, but her expression eased a little.

"Just walking in and finding him in the kitchen with you was a shock," Buffy added.

A chill settled over Dawn's face again. Apparently that hadn't been what she thought Buffy was going to say. Buffy wasn't sure what Dawn wanted. "I mean, I just-"

"It's fine," said Dawn stonily. "I have homework anyway." She disappeared up the stairs, going, going, gone.

It was a view Buffy was very familiar with, but she didn't know how to change it.

***

Judging by the apprehensive look Buffy had given him, it looked like Dawn had nearly blurted out why Buffy and Spike had parted ways.

Buffy didn't even notice him as he watched the sisters from the doorway. Strange, how he and Buffy had known each other so long and so well, yet had grown increasingly estranged. It wasn't the distance, couldn't be. When he'd returned to Sunnydale the previous fall, Buffy had maintained a perfect remoteness from him. From everyone. Everyone except Spike, apparently. Giles had thought that his returning to England would provide the jolt necessary to bring her back to herself, but she'd only sunk in deeper.

He hadn't let her know that he was coming. As much as it shamed him to feel that way, he didn't want her to have a chance to brace herself before he arrived. To prepare a story with which to fob him off. She was dear and brave, but she loved her secrets. That was nothing new. How long had she kept Angel's return from the dead to herself? Despite the danger to herself and others?

He didn't want her to have the opportunity to plan any further deceptions. Or, if it came to that, to warn Spike.

If it came to that.

Dawn had been surprised when he'd shown up on the doorstep, but seemed pleased to see him. They'd been having a perfectly civilized conversation when Buffy had burst in. Dawn had been speaking to him with unusual frankness. She was upset. Upset about Janice. About Buffy.

About Spike.

He'd been surprised she'd even mentioned him; she seldom had since Buffy returned, sensing his dislike for the vampire. He'd only just put up with Spike after Buffy's death, knowing they needed his help with patrolling and looking after Dawn. He was rather good at both.


But Giles had never felt entirely comfortable about Spike's association with Buffy and the others. Even years ago, when Angelus had been so determined to end the world, Giles would have cautioned her against trusting Spike to assist her in defeating Angel.

Of course, he had been in no position to do so. He was busy being tortured, which Spike had been content to allow as he nurtured his own plans.

Later, after the Initiative had succeeded in doing what no Slayer had ever been able to-leash Spike-the vampire had flatly refused Giles' suggestion that he consider the opportunities the chip presented. To forge a new path, to align himself with good, since he was unable to indulge in evil. Spike had made clear he wanted no part of redemption. He would rather enjoy what wickedness came his way, through Adam and Harmony and others, than make any movement towards the light. He wanted no part of protecting humanity.

And he was back. Dawn had seen him. And naturally he had made his presence known to Buffy; he had centered his life around her for the better part of two years. The only things Spike knew how to do were fight and fixate on women. In Buffy he had found the ideal outlet for both his preoccupations-first wanting to kill her, then wanting something else.

Yes, it was good he had returned.

***

"It doesn't disturb you-his return?"

Buffy shook her head and forced a smile. It was uncomfortable, sitting in the living room talking to Giles about Spike. It was wrong, she'd never talked to him about her personal life. She remembered when he'd asked how she'd known that she was responsible for Angel losing his soul, and she felt so miserable and looked at him and he'd known. And she felt like garbage.

It wasn't the kind of thing someone who's like a father to you should hear. And now she was an adult, she was 21, and she still didn't feel comfortable talking about her private life with him. She would have liked to have asked her mother if that was normal, but that wasn't an option. And she wouldn't have felt comfortable asking her mother about such things in the first place.

She relied on her own judgement, and she always had.

"It's his home," Buffy replied simply. "Where else would he go?"

It was his home, she knew, because she was there.

She was being deliberately obtuse, Giles felt sure. "If you're not comfortable with his presence, he can be made to go elsewhere," he pointed out.

Buffy stiffened. "What? Threaten him into leaving?" she asked, her voice tense. She knew Giles was only trying to help, but it was wrong. It seemed like most of the Scooby interaction with Spike had involved coercing him to cooperate under the threat of death. He could assist them in defeating whatever the new big bad was, but he couldn't fight them. Hell, even Dawn could hurt him if she wanted to, and he couldn't do a thing about it.

Suddenly she remembered last spring, patrolling in his graveyard. She'd broken up with him weeks before. He'd left Xander and Anya's wedding before...well, before Xander did. She and Spike had run into each other and started talking, and they were getting along fine. Then Xander and Willow had come in and Xander, feeling angry and guilty about leaving Anya, had torn into Spike. Snarled at him and then knocked him down, like he was the dummy in her training room, just there for someone to abuse.

Inside Buffy winced. And she'd always been number one with the punch.

Giles was still talking, but it didn't matter. It didn't matter what he thought about Spike, or what Xander thought or even Dawn. No one was interfering with him. They'd done enough, all of them.

"He's here and he's not going anywhere," Buffy said flatly. "I'm fine with that. We've talked and things are okay."

Giles considered her statement. Spike might have seemed unthreatening when the two had spoken, but they had no idea how he would react to being around Buffy after she had rejected him; his reaction to Drusilla's rejection had involved kidnapping Willow and Xander to procure a spell to enchant Drusilla, and then ended "happily" with him torturing her.

In short, not something Buffy should have to deal with because of a slip in judgement when she was depressed.

"You may think everything is fine, but you can't-"

The rest of his argument disappeared as Buffy leapt to her feet, staring out the front window. "Jesus, what is she doing here?" Buffy ground out, lunging towards the door and wrenching it open. She stalked across the lawn with jerky strides to the small figure under the tree.

Willow, face tilted to the ground but eyes looking upward, gazed intensely at Buffy. Hungrily, Giles thought. Like she hadn't seen Buffy in months.

Buffy flew to Willow as if to stop her from making any move closer towards the house. Giles didn't know when Willow had appeared; she hadn't been there when he and Buffy had sat down.

"What do you think you're doing here?" Buffy snarled. "I told you to stay away!"

"I-"

"Do you have a death wish? Because if you come here again, I'll forget that Slayers don't hurt humans," Buffy spat out. "Now get out of here! Now! Or do I have to call Xander again?" she demanded, advancing on Willow as if she would grab the girl. Willow backed up hurriedly, casting Giles a frightened glance.

He nodded to her. "Go," he mouthed, and she turned and disappeared into the growing twilight, shoulders slumped. When he turned back to Buffy, she was already in the house, shutting the door behind her, not realizing that he wasn't with her. Or not caring.

He followed her inside, and found her pacing mindlessly in the front room.

"That was rather unusual," he noted neutrally. "May I take it that wasn't the first such scene?"

Buffy cast him a wild-eyed glance. She was completely undone, and clearly in no mood to talk.

"It really doesn't seem realistic to expect that Willow will never come here again, does it?" he prompted gently. "I think it might be better if you dealt with this situation instead of just ignoring it."


"Deal with it?" Buffy scoffed. "Which part it? The part where she tried to kill me? Or the part where she tried to destroy the world?"

"Both parts, I should think," he returned calmly. "Angel tried to do both, and you forgave him."

Buffy froze in her tracks. He knew immediately he'd said the wrong thing. But how could she forgive such a thing for one person she'd loved, and not another? Buffy looked at Willow and saw the murderous witch who'd attempted to end the world. He looked at her and saw the timid child she'd been before Buffy came to Sunnydale-the friendless girl who had to work up her nerve to speak outside of class, who'd shifted her eyes from the gaze of others, lest she see their derision. She was far more innocent of her crimes than Angel. And she depended on Buffy's love and approval far more than he ever had.

Buffy glared frostily at him. He would not be able to reason with her, he knew, not until she calmed down.

"I need to take a walk," she announced coldly, glancing around, looking at everything but him. She stalked over to the corner of the living room, picked up a large shopping bag full of god knows what, and moved past him.

Giles couldn't stop himself. "Are you going to see him?"

"Yes," Buffy replied tonelessly. She didn't even break stride as she left the house, and Giles, behind her.

***

She'd brought him a blanket. Just handed him a big paper bag and let him rummage inside and there it was. She'd never given him anything before.

"It's for me?" Spike asked in surprise. "You bought it?"

"It was around the house. I thought you could use it," she replied, feeling antsy. It was still a little awkward to be around him. Not as much, but a little. She wanted to just rush past this stage and hit the next one, which had to be better. "I noticed your old one was gone."

Noticed on one of her many visits to check the crypt.

"Yeah, I saw that. Clem must have set it on fire, or lost it in a poker game," said Spike softly, still amazed that she'd brought him something-anything-but especially something to keep him safe. His ratty old one had protected him on countless trips to see her, to visit the Magic Box, and to steal her underwear.

It had lain over them when they slept. Tangled under them when they weren't sleeping.

He wished Clem hadn't lost the blanket, but her giving him the new one was...nice. Pale blue, with little stars embroidered on the trim. He recognized it now; he'd seen it on her bed several times. She seldom bothered to make her bed.

Of course, she didn't know he'd been in her room all those times. There was really no reason for her to know.

"You up for patrolling?" she asked briskly.

He nodded. He didn't mind that the moment was broken. He was just glad they'd had it at all.

They walked through the cemetery in silence for a while. Buffy seemed preoccupied, and he didn't want to interfere. Well, that was a bloody lie, he wanted to stick his nose in every inch of her business, but he was going to handle this well, even if it killed him.

"What do you do when you do something stupid, and it comes back to bite you on the ass?" she asked suddenly.

Spike was startled. For a moment he thought she was talking about his soul, but that was ridiculous. She didn't know about it. Couldn't...right?

"What kind of thing?" he asked cautiously. Feeling his way around.

She hesitated, then plunged ahead. "In the spring-right after you left-a bunch of stuff happened." She waved her hand in dismissal as he opened his mouth. She wanted to get this out now, or she'd just shove it to the back of her mind again. "Warren-the guy who built the robot for you-was bugging me all year. He's the one who killed that girl, the one I thought I'd killed. He decided things would be easier with me out of the way, so he shot me."

Spike froze, unable to breathe. Forgetting he didn't need to, but suddenly desperate for air. "You-you-" Suddenly he was tugging at her clothing, searching frantically for the wound, as if it were fresh and he had to staunch the bleeding. Why hadn't he been there? What kind of a bastard was he? He'd left because he was selfish. Wanted her to love him, so he went off to get something to make it possible. Didn't even think about staying and making sure she was safe.

She pushed his hands away. She thought, calmly, that she probably should be having a flashback to the bathroom, but that seemed so far away now. So many things had happened, and it was starting to seem like something that had happened in a movie, not a part of her life.

"I'm fine," she said shortly. "But one of the bullets hit Tara, and killed her."

He pulled his hands back. The Good Witch gone, huh? He felt a little nauseous. She'd been a pretty thing. Sly, too. He liked that in a woman.

And she was good to the Bit, and treated her like a mum would.

"Sorry about that," he murmured sincerely.

Buffy nodded. "Anyway, Willow went berserk and killed Warren and went after his friends. She got a big jolt of magic and tried to kill me-" She continued talking despite his horrified attempts to interrupt-"and then she decided it would be better to simply destroy the entire world. Giles and Xander stopped her. They stopped her. I couldn't do a damn thing."

They were both silent for a moment, absorbing her words. Then, softly, Spike asked, "Is that why you're upset? That you felt it should have been you to stop her?"

Buffy looked at him in surprise. Where had he gotten that? She knew the world didn't revolve around her. "No," she said impatiently. "It was because-because months ago, after she'd broken Dawn's arm-I chose her."

Spike stared at her without comprehension. He could tell what she was saying was very important to her, but he had no idea what she meant.

"I chose her over my sister," Buffy continued bitterly. "I should have thrown her out that night. She'd taken my sister out and then gone and gotten her magic crack and then nearly got Dawn killed. And I let her back in the house. Dawn was there, we'd just brought her back from the hospital, remember? Her arm was in the cast, and Willow was down the hall, in our mother's room. And Willow sat on the bed and shivered and I felt terrible for her and I thought, a friend would help. I have to help. She didn't mean to hurt Dawn. So I let her stay, and I took everything in the house that was magical at all, even the Kokopelli statue, he was our mother's, Dawn loved him," Buffy explained almost incoherently, her voice starting to crack. "I took it all and threw it out. Some of it, Dawn begged me to let her keep. But I said no. That's not what friends do.

"And then, after Tara was killed, Dawn tried to help Willow. I took her to your crypt so you could keep her safe, but you weren't there. Why weren't you there?" she asked, beginning to cry. "Clem was there but he couldn't keep her in. And then she met Willow, and Willow tried to-she tried to-" She broke off, crying. He touched her shoulder and she turned into him, burying her face against him as he stroked her back.

"She tried to kill Dawn. She was going to kill her. I'd ignored Dawn's pleas for her, forgave her what she'd done to Dawn, and she was going to kill her."

***

It was later, much later that Buffy returned home, and she didn't see Giles in the shadows of the porch as she slipped up the stairs and into the house. She'd been gone for hours, and he had been left with plenty of time to think. He really didn't like his conclusions.

An ugly incident, and her first impulse was to go to Spike. How long had that been going on? Had she been doing that last fall, before he'd left?

Unbidden, he recalled helping a drunken Buffy up the stairs one night. Abruptly he realized that she hadn't been drinking alone. And she'd never let a word slip. All those night patrolling-had she been alone then? It was good that she'd apparently felt she could confide in someone. But Spike? Nothing healthy could come of it. And considering how everything had worked out for...everybody, he couldn't have been doing much good.

Obviously, nobody had.

When Giles had spoken to Xander, before he'd left for England, the boy had become agitated when Spike's name had been mentioned. That wasn't uncharacteristic, really, considering the nature of Buffy and Spike's involvement. When she had been involved with Angel, even before he lost his soul, Xander had been almost irrational about the vampire. A hatred of demons, maybe, although he seemed to have gotten beyond that in his relationship with Anya. And certainly jealousy had played a part. Perhaps that was all it was this time. Perhaps.

But then again, perhaps it was time he went to visit Spike for himself.

Chapter 7 by Shadowlass
His heart hurt. It was subtle at first, the kind of faint ache that accompanies melancholy. Not the piercing, inescapable pain that comes with the loss of love. Spike was familiar with them both, and had no problem telling the difference.

But when the pain suddenly became sharper, he awoke without a sound or a start and looked up to see Giles, standing over him, pressing the point of a stake against his chest.

"Been awhile, Rupert," Spike breathed-careful not to exhale much. Didn't want to jostle the stake. Hadn't seen him since they were stuck in the magic shop, when they had lost their memories. He and the Watcher had thought they were father and son, and the last thing they'd done was hug. He hoped the Watcher hadn't gotten any ideas, because he wasn't Angelus.

Or, of course, he could've come to stake him for attacking Buffy.

Giles pressed the weapon closer to his heart. Spike could almost feel the muscle giving way beneath the pressure, ready to allow it entry. As if its presence were welcome.

Well, it damned well was not. His heart could keep its buggered opinion to itself. His entire existence had proven nicely that his heart couldn't find its way out of a one-room shack without a sign over the door, so all things considered, it wasn't getting a vote in this case.

"I want to know about you and Buffy," Giles told him coldly, holding the wood steadily against Spike's chest. "What happened between you. Why you left. And what you think you're doing back in town."

Spike shifted a little. Of course, he could hold a position for hours; no circulation to worry about. Came in handy quite a few times. But that didn't mean he liked it, and he normally roamed around like he was on wheels. Of course, he thought sourly, some of the time he actually had been on wheels.

"You don't really need the artillery, mate, what with me being toothless and all," Spike reminded Giles.

Giles glanced towards the door. For the first time, Spike noticed that the Watcher had left it open, bright early morning sunlight streaming into the crypt.

A well-timed visit, one designed to prevent Spike from escaping if the Watcher decided he didn't care for Spike's answers. He could stay with Rupert and his little stake, or take his chances on the sunshine. Which was still in the fatal way for him, soul or no soul.

Of course, he could always haul the blanket with him to give him a fighting chance outside. The blanket Buffy had given him. He liked it on his sarcophagus, where he slept. Where he had slept with her, months before. He liked it there, and he liked her there, and he might as well face it, he couldn't run from her Watcher and still hope for more from her. It wouldn't just happen.

Christ, felt like he was still in school and called before the headmaster. Of course, the headmaster had never actually called William to his rooms, because William had never stepped out of line. But if he had called him, Spike was fairly sure he would not have threatened to drive a stake through his heart. Beat him with a switch, maybe. Stake, no.

Slowly, Giles backed away, keeping the stake at his side. Spike sat up

"What is it you want to know?" he asked warily. It didn't sound like Buffy had told him about the bathroom. Had she told him anything at all about their involvement? Maybe the Bit had told him. Or Anya. Or Harris...yeah, Harris hated him. Only reason he hadn't taken Spike's head off was that Anya stopped him. Guess he owed her one.

Giles surveyed Spike. "I know you told yourself you had feelings for her. I want to know what you think you were doing acting on them."

Spike felt a surge of anger. What the hell was with these people-didn't think he was capable of love? Thought he was too low for that? Or that Buffy was too special to be touched by the likes of him? He'd agree with that one, actually. But the alternative was not touching her, and he didn't care for that option.

And where, he wondered, did Rupert get off imagining that Buffy was some delicate violet who had things done to her? Like she wasn't there right alongside him the whole time. Urging him on. Taking the lead. She was the one to kiss him the first time, and the second. The one to climb on him, not the other way around. To shove him against a wall and-

"Well?"

Spike gathered himself. He wasn't above enjoying a beautiful memory a time or two. Or twenty. "She's an adult, Watcher. She makes up her own mind about these things. I don't remember her ever consulting you in the past."

Giles felt irritation prick at the edges of his composure. Why, he wondered, did Spike always have that effect? "Buffy makes her own choices, yes, but in the past she-"

"In the past, she dated a bunch of worthless gits because she was trying to make the lot of you happy by acting normal," Spike snapped. How dare he try to run her life? Giles had attended one too many Pink Floyd concerts in his youth, obviously, and brain damage was the inevitable result. "I suppose Captain Cardboard was your idea of the perfect boyfriend? Bland and USDA inspected? Readily digestible, no unpleasant aftertaste? At least that's what his little bints said."

The lack of comprehension on Giles' face alerted Spike that he'd said too much. Kind of a common affliction with him, really. "Forget I said that," he added hastily. Giles opened his mouth to inquire, but Spike cut him off. "If Buffy wanted you to know everything, she'd tell you everything."

Giles' mouth tightened. The insufferable delinquent. "You're trying to interfere with the Watcher-Slayer bond-"

"Bond? You mean the one that's so strong you skip back to England a week after she's perfectly happy to burn up rather than keep on living? Or the one where you leave her living with an unstable witch so powerful she can raise the dead, and you don't even check up on them? Or there's always the one where you take your swollen chess-club brain off and leave her to try to figure out every fucking magical bit of mayhem in Sunnyhell by herself, ‘aided' by her useless friends. Christ, their combined brain wattage couldn't power a nightlight. Or maybe the one where-"

"I think you may be forgetting that I'm holding a stake," Giles reminded him mildly.

Spike broke off his litany of Giles' shameful shortcomings. It really was shocking. He'd secretly kind of admired the man before he hied off and left Buffy. Left her to bear the weight of protecting the world without his guidance. Left her with a bunch of self-absorbed children who gave her no help at all, and then came back and thought he could dictate her life. "You were supposed to take care of her," he pointed out. "And you left her, like all the rest of them did."

"As did you," Giles noted, his voice remote.

Spike closed his eyes briefly. Was that how she saw it? How she felt it? "I did it for her own good."

"As did I. One of the reasons I left was so she would make her own decisions," Giles pointed out. "But I want you to think about what you can offer Buffy. You are restrained from killing only by virtue of a chip in your head. It's not something you've chosen, and it's not something you control. What happens if and when the chip fails? You claim you love Buffy, but how will you behave if you cease to love her?"

"Won't happen," returned Spike flatly, meeting the Watcher dead in the eye.

"So you say. But perhaps you should look to the example of your grandsire," Giles advised, ignoring the way Spike bridled at the suggestion. "I won't even mention the unlikelihood of your just happening to fall in love with the woman your grandsire and former rival loved. The psychological implications are immense. I wonder, really, if it even has anything at all to do with her."

"I-"

"But Angel left town so that Buffy could live her life. Live it as a human, not as a consort to a creature who cannot walk in the sun or give her children. And there was less to worry about with Angel. He had a soul, and was guided by more than merely his feelings for her."

I have a soul, thought Spike with bitter resentment. But he said nothing. The Watcher was not going to be his test subject for that little piece of news. Spike somehow doubted that he would be a receptive audience.

"How many people do you suppose you've killed over the years? A thousand? That would be a very modest guess, wouldn't it?" said Giles. He clearly was not looking for a response. "You're what, 200? Even if you only killed a person a week, that's more than 10,000, isn't it? And really," Giles added, shoving his point home, "you didn't just kill to survive, did you? A vampire could survive on a person a week, but a nickname like ‘William the Bloody' isn't earned though moderation...is it?"

Spike didn't reply. He wasn't anywhere near as old as Giles thought, but the estimate of 10,000 victims was still terribly low. Unspeakable low. Unimaginably.

He'd needed to survive, dammit. That's what vampires did, they killed and they ate. What was he supposed to do? Stand on a street corner with a tin cup and a sign? Will growl for blood? He was a vampire. It had delivered him from mediocrity, he'd told Buffy. That was nothing but the truth. As a human he'd been pathetic. A target for bullies, scorned by women, desperately taking refuge in poetry. Drusilla had made him a man in more ways than one. Spike had eclipsed William entirely, and it hadn't just been his demon. It was the man inside him as well, hungry for conquest. Aching to get a little of his own back. Somehow, it had turned into a lot. And he'd loved every bloody minute of it.

What was he supposed to do? Apologize? Hello, demon. It was what came naturally. Had come naturally. Ripping and tearing and running wild. Energy and lust pumping through his veins, alive for the first time. Acceptance. Admiration. Other vampires, humans, looking at him with awe, with fear. Not contempt.

"I-I-" Spike began hopelessly. He would never hurt Buffy. Never hurt her again. Other people-well, who the hell knew? He didn't feel like it at this particular moment, but that was no guarantee. The chip was still humming in his brain, its painful little electrodes muzzling him. Keeping him in check. But it wasn't alone now. Not alone.

"I want you to think about what I've said, Spike," Giles told him, crossing to the crypt door and slipping the stake into his jacket pocket. "Buffy may be content to have you in town. But as you pointed out so eloquently, not so long ago she was also content to dance herself to death. When you were involved before, it was secretly. No one knew. Now, I'm aware of it, and I will be keeping my eye on you. So I strongly suggest you think before you do anything, Spike. Anything at all."

***

The pounding on the door woke Xander out of a sound sleep. It was dreamless, and that made him happy. He hadn't dreamed anything pleasant in a long time, which was sad. Before, no matter how bad his life had gotten, he'd always been able to take refuge in dreams. Now he was happy just to sleep straight through the night.

He dragged himself to the front door without bothering to put on his robe. It was barely seven in the morning; whoever came that early could be terrorized by the site of Xander in his jammies, he was past caring. Maybe they'd take it as a hint not to come so early.

In the past, he might have been worried at being roused that hour. Was it an emergency? Was he needed? He knew that wasn't happening now. The only person who needed him was in his spare room. As for the world possibly ending, would they even be aware of it? They didn't do research any more. Buffy still patrolled. At least he thought so; he hadn't gone with her in...well, since she died. She could-

"Xander? Are you there?" came Giles' voice through the door.

Xander pulled the door open hurriedly. Giles had left Sunnydale as soon as he'd recovered from his injuries, moved back to England and hadn't been heard from since, more or less. He'd called Xander a couple of times. Willow said he called her during the day occasionally, to check on how she was doing. Xander had been relieved to hear that. Giles' apparent disinterest in all of them had hurt him. Made him wonder if Giles had ever really cared about them, other than for the help they might provide Buffy. Made him wonder how he could just turn off his feelings for people he had been around every day for the last five years.

Xander could never do that.

"What is it?" he asked in concern as he stepped back so Giles could enter.

"Did you know? Why didn't you call me?" Giles demanded. He didn't mean to sound so harsh, but talking with Spike had unsettled him. The things Spike had said to him-surely Buffy didn't feel that way. That he'd abandoned her. She knew he had left for her own good. She had agreed with him, told him he was right to do so. She'd gone to the airport with him and kissed him goodbye. She hadn't seemed upset. Certainly she would have said something if she were.

Xander had no idea what Giles was talking about. "Know what?"

"That Spike's returned."

Obviously, Xander hadn't known. For several moments he just stood there in shock, looking like he'd received a blow to the head. Then his expression began to clear and anger filled his face. "Are you telling me that little-"

"Giles?"

The two men turned at the sound of the tentative voice. Willow was there in the hall doorway, wrapped in a chenille robe. The same one she'd used at Buffy's, Giles noted.

"Has something happened?"

"It's nothing, Will," Xander told her. She knew nothing of what Spike had done. Buffy had been adamant that Willow not be told. At first Xander had thought that she hadn't wanted to distress Willow with such upsetting news, but eventually it became clear that Buffy simply wasn't interested in telling Willow, ever. It was this major thing, but it was something Willow would never know because Buffy had cut her out of her life. Willow didn't even get second-hand information about her. Xander hated it, but he didn't want to tell Willow about it either. There wasn't anything they could do about it. Before now.

Now, Spike was back.

"It seems Spike has returned to Sunnydale," explained Giles, relaxing a little. Obviously, the children had known nothing of it. He hated to think of not being told.

"Oh, that," nodded Willow.

Unbidden, Xander felt a curl of apprehension lick along his spine. "What do you mean, ‘oh, that?'" he asked tensely.

"Well, yesterday I went out-just for a walk," Willow added hurriedly, cutting off his protests. Xander was so protective. What did he think she was going to do? Walk into traffic? Or maybe walk into the Magic Box and stock up on ingredients?

Actually, both of those options had their merits.

"So, I went out on a walk and I passed by Buffy's and I-uh-thought maybe I'd say hi, and Giles and Buffy were talking, and I overheard," Willow finished somewhat lamely.

"You know not to go there," Xander exclaimed in agitation-his concern about Spike pushed to the side for the moment. Jesus, the last time Willow had gone over there Buffy had told him that if Willow ever came back, Buffy would...he didn't like to think about it. She'd told him to keep Willow the hell away. Said she could pretend Willow didn't exist if she didn't see her, and that was the best thing for all of them. He'd told Willow, again and again, not to try to see Buffy. He thought he'd gotten through to her.

But she'd gone over again anyway. What could he do? How could he protect her? He didn't want her in an institution again. It hurt his heart to think of her there, trapped, locked up like she was nothing. But god, if she was going around to see Buffy...Buffy was adamant. And he couldn't watch Willow all the time. He had to go to work. And he had to trust her that she was staying away. What was the alternative?

Willow wasn't even looking at him. "What did Buffy say?" she asked wistfully, her eyes on Giles. "Did she mention me?"

Dear god, how could she look at him with such hope? Buffy had screamed at her on the street like some kind of shrike the previous day. She had sounded quite unbalanced, really. He'd actually been afraid Buffy might strike her, yet Willow seemed to have no idea of just how angry Buffy was.

Or, he admitted to himself, she was just too persistent to be discouraged. Willow had always pushed forward through difficult times. It was something he admired about her. He remembered how tenderly she had cared for Tara after Glory had stolen her mind, and winced.

"I'm sorry," he told Willow. "She...she spoke mostly of other things."

"You mean about Spike?" Xander asked. "What did she say about him? Is she going to st-see him? Is she okay? Is she upset? Did she say whether-"

Giles cut off his babbling. "Xander, what are you going on about?" he asked in bemusement. He'd seldom seen Xander so discomposed.

Xander looked around in utter frustration. He was not supposed to talk about it in front of Willow. Or in front of Giles, probably. Buffy hadn't told him that, but they'd had a lot on their minds the last few times he'd been around Giles.

"Yeah," Willow added. "They broke up months ago. Why would Buffy be all upset now?"

"Well, it's-it's only natural," Xander improvised wildly. "Remember when Riley came back? Him and his wife-what was her name? Mary Sue?"

"Sam," Willow corrected. "Buffy wasn't happy, but I think that's mostly because she suddenly had Ms. Perfect shoved in her face. Spike didn't-he didn't come back with a girlfriend, did he? Because that would just upset Buffy. She got the most awful look on her face when she saw-" Willow broke off hastily. She'd been about to say, when she saw Spike with Anya, but Xander didn't need to hear that. But she saw, from the crushed look on his face, that he'd made the connection for himself.

"No, he's alone," sighed Giles. "Apparently you two know even less about it than I do." Which was amazing, him being isolated other side of the planet and all.

"So how did you know?" asked Willow.

He replied without thinking. "Anya told me."

There was a stricken silence in the room. Finally Xander said, "She called you?"

Giles shook his head. "She came to see me, actually. Teleported, or whatever is the acceptable term for vengeance demons."

"She came to see you?" Xander repeated, his voice hushed. "Has she done that before?"

Giles fidgeted. He hadn't really thought about how to address this before coming over. Perhaps he should have. "Once or twice," he admitted.

Xander just nodded dumbly. He'd never mastered the skill of keeping his emotions off his face, or out of his voice. At least he could try not to talk. Maybe he could walk around with a bag over his head. That should take care of it. "I have to get ready for work," he said hollowly, turning to head back to his bedroom, leaving Giles and Willow in the living room.

It was still early. Not yet eight. He was due on the construction site, but there was time left for what he wanted to do. After that little piece of news he wasn't heading straight to work. He had a stop to make first.

***

Why did bottles hold so little? It was one of life's little mysteries. Like hot dogs, or Enrique Iglesias.

Nice little visit he'd had from Ripper. Earned himself his nickname there. Came in, said a few things, made Spike feel like crap. All in all, a good day's work for Watcherboy.

Fuck him. Who did he think he was? Thought he knew everything. Didn't even know how old Spike was-wasn't that enough of a clue that he didn't have a...clue?

Got to lay off the booze, Spike thought vaguely. Wasn't doing him any good at all. Probably killing off his brain cells. Wait, could dead brain cells be killed?

Another of life's mysteries.

So the Watcher thought Spike's love for the Slayer had something to do with the Poof? Ridiculous. If he'd wanted to get back at that big girl's blouse he would have gone after Darla. She was undead again, last he'd heard. And despite what Giles and Buffy and everybody else in Sunnydale thought, she was far more the center of his existence than Buffy had ever been. His whole fucking existence had revolved around Darla. It wasn't just the blood bond between them; he was fascinated with her. He'd been with Darla for more than a century. Even with the soul, he wouldn't leave until she forced him too. He ate the dregs of society and hoped that would be enough to earn him her favor. When it hadn't been, he'd scrabbled around alleys and dank holes and hadn't cared if he lived or died. And as soon as Darla was brought back to life, they were together again, according to Dru.

Meanwhile, the Slayer was up here going about her daily life, trying everything she could to protect her sister. And he was down there with Darla. Didn't even come up to help fight Glory, the self-involved git. Yeah, that's some eternal love for you.

Spike finished the bottle he was working on and started in on another. Dropped the first to the floor as he lolled in his armchair. Hadn't even bothered to turn the television on, which was probably a bad sign.

He thought of his present. His now absent present. He started to giggle stupidly. He really was rather shit-faced at the moment. He'd had a sharp ache in his gut the entire time the Watcher had been there and it had taken a long time and a lot of booze to make it go away. Damned curse.

What was that poem-Kipling, wasn't it? Rag and a bone and a hank of hair? He knew it, but it was a long time ago. That's what he was, right? Nothing but the contents of that package. Except for the powder, he didn't know what that was about. But the rest...that's what he was before the soul, right? Empty, without meaning or emotion or-

Fuck that! Spike straightened up, his head unfogging a bit. He hadn't been empty, he'd loved and thought and felt as deeply as anyone. Shitload more than some. He had never been empty. Life would have been easier if he had. Wouldn't have hurt so much.

He wondered when he'd see the Slayer next. Maybe Buffy could help him with his little present. It was her job, wasn't it?

No, mate, her job is killing your kind to protect her kind. Not protecting demons from scary bones and hair. Shouldn't bother her with it anyway. She had enough on her plate, feeling all guilty about the Bit.

Still, if she was coming around he could straighten up the place a little. Make it more the kind of place she'd want to be, and less of a hole. He stood up to start with the cleaning, but his head started throbbing and he staggered a bit. What was that? Too much booze, or was he starting to sober up? Hadn't been drinking as steadily the last fifteen or twenty minutes. Had let down the pace.

He bent to retrieve the bottle at his feet, and instead knocked it under the chair. Hunkering down, he stuck his hand underneath and rooted around for it. He didn't find it. But he did find something else. A snug little package.

His secret admirer had paid him another visit.

Chapter 8 by Shadowlass
As soon as Buffy opened the door and saw the strained, anxious look on Xander's face she knew why he was there.

"You heard Spike's back," she said calmly, standing back so he could enter. Thank god Dawn had already left for school. She had no idea where Giles was, he'd been gone when she got up.

"How long have you known?" Xander demanded rawly. His voice was so rough it sounded like he was gargling rocks.

"A few days now," she admitted, moving over to sit on the couch.

He followed her, mimicking her movements. She doubted he was aware of what he was doing-he was completely distracted.

"Why haven't you staked him?"

Buffy stared at her hands, clasped together in her lap. Like a little girl in church. "What good would it do?"

"Well, it would rid the earth of one soulless, bloodsucking fiend who, incidentally, tried to rape you not so long ago," he reminded her harshly. How could she just shrug off what Spike had done? To her, to others? Her indifference shocked him. It wasn't her. It wasn't the Buffy he loved.

Buffy hated having this conversation with him. She hated his knowing. His judging. It was what they did, her friends. Decide what standards she should be held to and let her know when she wasn't up to par. "That's between us," she told him.

"Us? Are you telling me there's an us?" he asked in disbelief.

She considered that. "We're friends," she said finally.

He couldn't believe she was acting this way-it was exactly the way she'd been with Angel. Like all of the things they did, all of the evil, didn't matter as much as her having a boyfriend. Like they had a "Get Out of Jail Free" card. "He kills people," he pointed out.

"You've killed people," she reminded him.

Xander stared at her, shocked. "What are you talking about?"

"Remember last year, when you called up that dancing demon who killed all those people? You of all people knew how dangerous demons are, and you summoned him anyway. None of us ever called you on it," she pointed out quietly. "None of us ever said a word."

"I never meant to-"

"I almost died, Xander. Remember?"

He closed his eyes in a hopeless attempt to forget. Of course he remembered. He'd thought he was seeing her die for the third time. He was so frightened, so horrified. He couldn't think, couldn't move. Couldn't help her. It was a nightmare.

"Do you remember who saved me? It wasn't you or any of the others. It was Spike. He grabbed me even though I was smoking and he'd go up too if I burst into flames. He went in where the rest of you wouldn't."

"He's a demon," Xander said desperately.

"So is Anya," Buffy shot back. "I notice you don't seem to mind so much with her."

"She is-was-a former demon," Xander corrected warily. He never liked to think about it. It was easy to push to the back of his mind, because she'd had no powers when they were involved. That made ignoring it easy. So he wouldn't have to wonder how he could love someone who'd done the things she had.

"I like Anya, but I'm not going to give her credit for being forced to become a human," Buffy dismissed. "I remember all those grisly stories she used to tell about her glorious days as Anyanka. She didn't regret the things she did at all. She just regretted not being able to do them any more."

"Like Spike's ever regretted anything," Xander scoffed, hurt.

Buffy was silent for a moment. "He's regretted things," she said quietly.

She had seen it in his eyes.

***

The thing that mattered about presents was the thought behind them. Spike had always kept that in mind during his years with Drusilla, which helped him endure celebrations she marked not with the tender love-gifts he gave to her but with odd things that made sense to her damaged mind: a dead fern, a box of ceramic tiles, a lady's hat. Once, she wrapped up the book he was reading and presented it to him with great flourish. They were lovingly meant, he knew. He was never certain of her exact thoughts, but he felt sure they were warm.

His new present was a little doll. Not like Dru's. This one was twigs wrapped together and bound with twine to form a human figure. The essential thought behind this one was, I've seen "The Blair Witch Project."

So at this point Spike knew the bugger a) hated him, and b) had crap taste in movies.

Kind of a disappointment after the bones, really. All things considered, his anonymous friend was falling off on the job. The lack of effort really kind of hurt. Nobody took pride in their work any more.

He'd been staring at the doll for hours, sitting in his good chair, looking at it balanced on top of his television. For a while he thought it might have hypnotic powers, but then he realized he was still just pissed and snapped out of it. He'd been going at the bottle pretty good after Ripper left, but hadn't had anything for awhile, and was pretty close to sober.

But he still couldn't tag the sender. Tucked in the scarf with the twig figure were fresh herbs and leaves so fragrant he couldn't pick up any trace of human scent beneath them. Eucalyptus leaves and rosemary and some other things he couldn't identify. Plus some shriveled, blackened rose petals that disturbed him more than the rest put together. The rest was just a pile of mulch, as far as he was concerned, but the rancid petals seemed like a warning, or maybe a metaphor: everything withers. Everything has its day, and then dies. And although he'd walked the earth for a century and a half, he was as vulnerable to death as any human. One unlucky break and there'd be less of him than those shriveled petals, just a little dust marking where he'd been.

Of course, the doll had been highly effective at summoning those abdominal pains again. So it wasn't a complete loss, right? At least not for the blighter who wanted to get to him so bad.

For a moment his thoughts turned to Giles. He was a good candidate. Had he come in and dropped it off, then found he couldn't hold his wad and decided he might as well finish it then? God, the man was cold; Spike hadn't seen ice like that since the winter he and Dru spent in Minsk. All righteous, he was, and fierce about protecting his girl, except not enough to stay with her. What the hell kind of love was that? If you love, you stay. That's what a man did. A real man.

Abruptly an image flashed in Spike's mind: Buffy on the ground, her blood pouring out a bullet wound. In the shoulder, maybe? Hurt like hell, but non-fatal. Or the leg-enough to floor her but not enough to leave her with a limp? Where did it happen? Did Warren get to her when she was out patrolling, alone since Spike was gone and the Scoobies were off involved in their own lives? All alone, and every rotten evil thing knew she was out there every night?

Evil thing, he thought with a rise of distaste. He couldn't say she had it wrong. He had been evil. Now, things were different. He was different. Not sure how different, yet. He'd always wanted to help her, make her happy. Not everything in him had been evil.

He'd never been a thing, though. Never just a thing. She'd wanted to put in him a place where he didn't matter, and it was easier that way. Didn't matter how she treated him if he was just a thing. Then he was just an accidental indiscretion, a puddle she slipped in, easy to wipe away.

Warren...Christ, Spike had been there in the basement with the little motherfucker. The same night he and the Slayer were first together, he'd been there with Warren. And all that time, all those things that happened to Buffy, and the whole time it had been Warren and his loser friends. He'd known where they were all along. If she'd just told him about them, about anything other then where she liked his tongue or how hard to hold her down, he could have told her. Told her and saved her being shot, saved Tara from dying and Willow from going crazy and Buffy from hating herself for not protecting Dawn better. Saved them all. God, why couldn't she have told him?

Things had to be different this time. Had to be. They weren't teenagers flirting in class. They brushed against death every day. For so long he'd lived with the idea of immortality that he took-well, not the long view, he was too impatient for that. But it had become easy to assume things would work out for him. He had time on his side.

Buffy, however, died on a semi-regular basis, and eventually it would be permanent. She was nearly 22; her time was marked. He had to grab at any time they had together. It could never been enough, because someday there would be a demon too strong, an ascension she couldn't stop, or just a fledging who caught her when she was tired and had dropped her stake. And then she'd be gone. A few minutes later, he'd be gone too, because there wouldn't be any point in continuing.

Time to be all responsible, he thought, getting up from the chair. He wished he could slide into his duster, but it was gone.

Let's see how things went when they tried them like adults.

***

The first thing Spike heard when he stepped on Buffy's porch was the Bit, screaming at her sister at the top of her lungs. "Stay out of my room, I've told you a thousand times!" she shouted, sounding even more like a possessed banshee than she had before Spike left. Christ, she could give dolphins lessons in the ultrasonic shrieks.

Spike realized he was smiling even as he thought about what an annoying little chit she was. He'd missed her something fierce. She and the Slayer, they were a good package deal. He always felt lucky to be around the two of them.

He withdrew into the shadows of the porch before he was noticed. His hand had been on the doorknob, the habit of someone who wasn't confident of his welcome if he knocked but wanted to enter anyway. It wasn't how he should act, now.

Besides, he might not be able to enter without an invitation. He wasn't sure he wanted to find out if he needed one. It would hurt. It was stupid, it was unreasonable, but it would hurt. He had wide experience in such matters.

From the kitchen the Slayer's voice drifted out, calmer than her sister's. "I was just straightening up. If you kept it neater, I wouldn't-"

"Whether it's neat or not has nothing to do with you! It's my room, I can make the decisions!" Dawn shouted. "Why don't you just concentrate on not flunking out this semester?"

"I could say the same to you," shot back Buffy. From the faint gasp Spike heard Platelet make, she wasn't accustomed to Buffy returning her fire. The sounds of feet stomping, out the kitchen door and up the stairs, were Dawn's final statement on the matter. Followed by the decisive slamming of her bedroom door, of course.

Ah, the slam. Good to know some things haven't changed.

Beat it, mate. She's got enough on her plate right now, Spike thought, turning to head off the porch. Behind him the kitchen door creaked open, and he froze, as guilty as if he'd been caught skulking under her tree again, staring up at her bedroom window.

"Spike? What are you doing?"

"Just, uhh...just thought I'd drop by, see if you wanted to go patrolling," he fabricated. Wasn't going to dump that stupid curse crap on her now, she had more important things going on. He turned to face her and saw the light from the kitchen silhouetting her face, lightening her hair to pale gold as she stood in the doorway.

Buffy sighed. It had been a pretty lousy day. First Xander, and then a geology test she was pretty sure she screwed up, and then an argument with her supervisor, who had half her experience and made twice her pay.

It had been a lousy couple of days, really. She and Giles...she didn't remember things ever being so awkward between them. The only bright spot had been last night with Spike, when she'd said everything she'd been holding in and he didn't tell her the things she thought and felt and did were wrong. Just listened to her and rubbed her back during the worst and made little crooning noises in her ear. Nice noises.

And now she was just plain tired, and couldn't stand the thought of spending the night walking around a deserted cemetery, looking for something to kill.

"Actually, I thought I might take the night off," she told him with a shake of her head.

"Oh-well, I'll just-" Spike began, backing up.

"You want a popsicle?"

"What? A what?" Spike asked in surprise.

"Or a pudding pop?"

He just looked at her in confusion, like she'd spoken a foreign language. She backed away and held open the door. "Come in, Spike."

He moved into the house almost apprehensively. It was the first time she'd welcomed him there since Halloween. He'd been there for her endless birthday party, and at other times, but hadn't been welcome. Even when they touched each other, away from the others, he knew she hadn't really welcomed his presence there. Merely allowed it.

When she asked him in-was that a re-invitation? Or simply a courtesy? Had she put the spell on the house again, to keep him out?

Well, it wasn't for him to know. Wasn't his right to ask, and for that matter-oh, hell. "Did you revoke my invitation?"

Buffy pulled her head out of the freezer compartment and looked at him in surprise. "I-"

"You did, didn't you? I mean, I understand. It was only practical. Really, when-"

"No."

They stood in silence in the kitchen, looking at each other. Waiting for the other to break the silence.

"Why didn't you?" asked Spike softly, with wonder in his voice.

What could she say? She should have done it, really. Of course, she wouldn't have asked Willow, but she could have gone to Anya or Giles. But they would have wanted to know why, and she didn't want to tell them.

She'd seen the look on his face before he rushed out of the bathroom. The look of shock, of hurt. For once not because of something she'd done to him, but something he'd done. She didn't have to worry about him. Not that way, at least. It was unreasonable. It was probably irrational. But it was something she just felt, and she'd always followed her instincts.

"I guess I just never got around to it," she told him quietly, ignoring a twinge of guilt over the facile answer. She had uninvited Angelus as quickly as possible, but had always been reluctant to do that with Spike. After he helped her with Acathla, she should have done it. They weren't friends, only temporary allies. She should have done it when she came home and found him in the kitchen with her mother, taunting Angel as he was held back by the barrier she had chosen not to remove. And then a year later he was back, after the Gem of Amarra, trying everything to kill her, and still she hadn't uninvited him. She didn't have the spell cast until he'd told her how he felt about her. The idea of him thinking about her that way overwhelmed her.

She should have realized then that there was something between them. She couldn't name it, but the signs had been there all along. She had tried to ignore him, but couldn't bring herself to keep him out.

Spike didn't question her easy answer, merely nodding. He knew there was more to it than that, but he was willing to accept what she gave him. He always had been.

He sat down at the kitchen table, taking the time to relish the moment. He hadn't sat there since the previous summer, when she was gone. The kitchen was an intimate place, for family, and now she was welcoming him into it.

He'd had wild dreams when he left for Africa, but she disarmed him completely. The simplicity of sitting with her, in her mother's house, with her baby sister upstairs, was more satisfying than anything he'd known. He'd left to change for her, but somehow she'd changed, too. She wasn't the same girl who protected herself so fiercely. She wasn't pushing him away any more.

"Was it a bad day, love?" he asked gently. She seemed so tired.

"Yeah. A bad week, really," she sighed, sitting across from him and handing him a popsicle.

Did she mean him? Of course she means you, you stupid git. Who else could make her feel so bad-other than the Poof, of course, he'd always been great at that. "I'm sorry, I'll go," he told her, pushing back his chair.

She looked at him in surprise. "No, I don't want you to go. It's nice to finally relax," she said.

A stupid thrill of warmth rushed over him. "Why don't you tell me about it," he suggested cautiously.

"It's just everybody-everybody is being a pain right now," she said, rolling her eyes. "Giles flew in yesterday and started making these fatherly sounds and telling me I'm handling everything wrong. I know he wants to help, but he's pushing too much and kept asking about Will-about Willow, and about you, and-why are you looking like that?"

Spike wiped any trace of expression from his face, but too late.

"What do you know?" she demanded. "Is it something about Giles-has something happened that-"

"Buffy, do you know where I put my-" Giles froze a few steps into the kitchen, transfixed by sight of his Slayer sitting at the kitchen table, calmly eating cheap iced confections with her former mortal enemy.

"Hello, Rupe," said Spike, leaning back and making himself at home. He favored the Watcher with an obnoxious smile and enjoyed the expression of distaste on the man's face. Come into his crypt and threaten his life, would he?

He sneaked a glance to Buffy, who'd drawn her shoulders together tightly before releasing them with an obvious effort. He straightened up a little, regretting his juvenile glee in taunting Giles. Even if he did deserve it, the wanker.

Perhaps he should go. He pushed back his chair. "I think I'll just be going," he told her, rising.

"Sit down, Spike, and have another popsicle," she told him flatly. It wasn't an invitation. He sat.

"Would you like one, Giles?" she asked sweetly. She wasn't trying to be a bitch, but this was a declaration of independence, dammit. She could have who she wanted in her home, when she wanted. As often as she wanted, in any room.

"I think not," he answered, his voice a little remote. Like he was trying not to show her the frosty disapproval she could tell he felt.

A thread of guilt shot through her heart. He loved her. He only wanted things to go well for her. He just didn't realize she was old enough to decide those kind of things for herself. "We have pudding pops...or tea," she added, a little desperately.

"Tea? You didn't tell me you have tea," said Spike plaintively.

She glared at him, and he looked abashed. She looked back up at Giles. "Please?" she asked hopefully.

He wavered. He didn't want to. It was like giving up. Spike was bad for her, he couldn't pretend otherwise. But the hope on her face..."All right," he sighed, moving to the stove to turn on the kettle and remaining beside the counter as the water warmed up. It would take awhile.

He understood completely.

The three of them looked at each other uncomfortably. This is nice, thought Spike. It's sort of like meeting the parents for the first time. Only after you've tried to kill them.

They were still silent when Dawn swept into the room, making a beeline for the refrigerator and ignoring the others like they didn't exist.

Spike stood again, feeling a little ill. He had never asked Buffy if Dawn really knew what happened in the bathroom. Giles didn't know, obviously, or he would have staked Spike straight out that morning. "Hi, Niblet," he said softly.

Dawn swung to face him, hair fanning out behind her. She'd gotten so good at ignoring Buffy and those around her that she hadn't even noticed him.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded, sounding very much like a younger version of her sister.

Spike cast an appealing glance at Buffy, unsure how to handle it.

"I invited him," she told Dawn calmly, moving to stand next to Spike. Protectively, Spike thought, although that was absurd.

"You invited him?" Dawn repeated in disbelief. "What kind of a genius decision was that? I mean, anyone who-"

"That's enough," Buffy said firmly. "We'll talk before you go to bed."

"Don't bother," Dawn sniffed, turning on her heel and leaving the kitchen. Buffy followed her without thinking, the sounds of their argument fading up the stairs.

The sharp keen of the kettle sounded, breaking the bemused silence in the kitchen.

"Welcome home," said Giles acidly. "Tea?"

Chapter 9 by Shadowlass
"Sugar?"

"No, I don't like mine sweet," Spike replied.

"What a surprise," sighed Giles.

Spike looked at him suspiciously as he accepted the cup of tea. If the Watcher'd had the opportunity, he probably would have put poison in it. Not that it would have done any good, but Spike kept his eyes on him anyway. It was good to be prepared. He preferred having only one person at a time after him, anyway.

Though who's to say it wasn't Giles the whole time? He'd had the chance. And in spite of his professorial air, the Watcher was probably one of the most dangerous men Spike had ever encountered. If he didn't want Spike hanging around Buffy, he wouldn't hesitate to remove Spike by any means necessary.

Spike recalled almost two years before, when he had briefly reunited with Drusilla and-Spike had tried to forget about it-chained and threatened Buffy. Love me or else. He had gone to the Magic Box, later, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the Scoobies, and for a moment Ripper had surfaced. The glimpse had chilled Spike-frightened him more than Angelus ever had. More than Adam. Hell, he was scarier than Darla, and that was saying something.

"Looking to kill me, Rupe?" he asked pleasantly. Might as well discuss this like gentlemen and all. Probably went to the same schools, albeit a hundred years apart. Why, he could be my great-great grandson, thought Spike. Except for the dying a virgin part, of course.

Giles smiled at the suggestion. Actually, he'd been considering the many known methods of killing a vampire-stake through the heart, beheading, fire, sunlight, that curious poison with which Faith had infected Angel-and wondering which of them was the most painful. He thought he might like to experiment and find out for himself. Purely for scientific purposes, of course.

"I'm not really sure why you'd think that," he told Spike mildly. "Other than the fact that this morning I requested that you examine your motives before pursuing a relationship with Buffy, and tonight I find you making yourself at home in her kitchen. You seem to have reached your decision rather quickly."

"Our decision. I was invited here," Spike returned, a little pride tingeing his voice. Damned if he had to lurk on the fringes of the Slayer's life any more.

"Spike, the only reason I am accepting your presence here is because Buffy asked me to. She has suffered quite enough disappointment, and I don't want to see her hurt."

"We're together on that one, then," said Spike evenly. "And don't flatter yourself, Rupert...I'm not sitting here making nice with you because of the scintillating conversation either."

"We seem to be clear on that, then. But keep this in mind, William...no matter how civil I may be for Buffy's sake...I have my eye on you."

***

"Dawn, I know this probably seems a little...strange to you?" Buffy suggested. Maybe she shouldn't have voiced it as a question. Did Dawn need things laid out firmly, or brought up gently? Buffy wasn't sure.

"Strange? Strange? How about insane? After what he did, how can you just let him back in? Like everything's fine? Like it was nothing?"

Buffy sat on the bed beside Dawn and touched her back softly. She was surprised Dawn didn't push her away. "It wasn't nothing," she said quietly. "I don't want you to ever think that. And I don't want you to ever let a man treat you like that. But Spike-things were different between us right from the start. It wasn't like any other relationship I've had, and it wasn't very healthy."

"So that's different from your other relationships how?" Dawn said skeptically.

Buffy stared at Dawn. She was trying to have a serious conversation, to let Dawn in, but her sister wasn't making it easy.

She tried again. "Spike was the only one I could talk to after I came back. I relied on him and then it...became more. But I wasn't comfortable with the idea of a relationship with him, and I was afraid of how everyone would react. I handled things badly some of the time. Well, most of the time. I hurt him. We hurt each other. And things happened. He thought the best thing to do was leave. But we've talked, and...we're friends again, and are trying to handle things differently this time."

"Friends?" Dawn repeated. "So now you're friends?"

"Yeah," said Buffy awkwardly. "Friends."

"And you're just going to forget about-"

"I'm moving past it," Buffy corrected. "We're moving past it."

Buffy waited to see if Dawn had any more questions. The cool way Dawn regarded her made Buffy a little uneasy.

"Dawn, I want you to be comfortable with this. Spike's going to be around here. I know you two used to be close, and I don't want to-"

The sound of breaking glass and a harsh shout downstairs cut off Buffy's explanation. Spike! The two girls leapt up, and Buffy raced downstairs with Dawn at her heels. Twice in as many days Buffy skidded to a stop in her kitchen, this time transfixed by the sight of Giles kneeling on the floor, cleaning up the remains of a teacup, while Spike ranted and swore at...Anya? What was she doing there? Buffy hadn't seen her in months.

"Bloody hell, haven't you ever heard of knocking?" Spike demanded. "It's considered the polite thing to do ‘round these parts."

"And you would know that how?" inquired Giles.

"Well, when I drop in to see Giles I usually don't knock-I don't really have to do that these days, after all," said Anya comfortably.

"These days?" repeated Spike. "You mean Fridays?"

"I mean since I regained my demonhood."

Spike looked at her in amazement. "Regained your demonhood? You're a V.D. again?" He couldn't help snickering under his breath. V.D.

"You might remember the preferred term these days is justice demon," reminded Anya.

"J.D. Yeah, that's much better," agreed Spike dryly. "So when did this happen?"

"Oh, it was quite awhile ago. Shortly after my non-wedding. Before we engaged in the emotional comfort of intimate relations," she specified, to the horror of everyone in the room.

Spike glanced at Buffy apprehensively. He knew, from what Snacksize had told him, that she'd been terribly hurt by that. Even if at the time she'd looked at him like she wanted to kill him in the most hideous manner possible.

Buffy didn't look especially happy now, for that matter. Her lovely mouth had thinned into a disapproving line, the way it did when he put his hand up her skirt right after she'd put her clothes back on and turned into a vestal virgin.

The Watcher didn't look all that thrilled, either, though Spike didn't know why he'd care. Probably just his priggishness coming out at the mention of "intimate relations." Been so long since he had any, he was trying to remember what the term meant.

"Nice to relive old times," Spike muttered, wishing everybody but Buffy would fly off and do something else. Fat chance. The Watcher and the newly re-minted Demon Girl were settling in at the table like they planned to stay all night. So much for his nice evening with Buffy.

"Yes, it is a pleasant way to spend time," agreed Anya. "We have so many fine times in common, all sorts of averted apocalypses and that kind of thing. So have you told Buffy about the bag of bones?"

Spike felt rather than saw Buffy swing her attention to him. Thank god he hadn't told Anya about his soul; she had all the discretion of a bowl of rice pudding. He forced himself to laugh nonchalantly. "No worries there," he dismissed. He noticed Dawn slip from the room and regretted that she'd even heard the mention of that evil piece of business.

"Well, it's not nothing; someone's trying to kill you," pointed out Anya. Spike seemed to have gained the human tendency of sweeping inconvenient facts under the rug. She was surprised; he was usually quite blunt. "And apparently they want to scare you good first."

Spike sent Anya a killing glare. Him, scared? Well, justice demons weren't chosen for their astonishing feats of mental ability, were they?

"Kill him how?" said Buffy to Anya sharply.

Anya smiled at her. This was nice, wasn't it, the four of them? Kind of a double date, except for Buffy and Spike not being involved any longer, and Giles not being aware of his and Anya's involvement. "I'm not sure, they didn't leave a note. Probably they didn't want Spike to kill them. Oh, did you smell the bundle?" she added to Spike.

Spike groaned. "Fine, I give up. No, I did not smell the bundle. The bundle is gone. No one can smell it."

"Why would anyone want to smell it?" asked Buffy, wrinkling her nose.

"So Spike could identify the person who left it for him. You know, vampire senses," Anya pointed out, tapping her nose helpfully.

Her voice grates, thought Spike. Had her voice always been so grating?

"I guess that's what your little query earlier was in aid of," Giles said to Spike.

"What? What query? Speak English, Giles," Buffy exclaimed. Turning to Spike she added, "Why didn't you tell me this? Have there been any others?"

A guarded looked crossed Spike's face even as he tried to deny it.

"No, don't bother, I can see there have been. Come on, we're going to your place. I want to check this out," she told him, jerking her head towards the door. "You two stay here and keep an eye on Dawn."

"Fine, fine, I'll tell you everything," Spike said in frustration.

"Damn right you'll tell me everything," Buffy mumbled, disappearing off the porch with him.

"Well, that was a fun time! Wasn't that fun, the four of us together? And we seem to be alone now," Anya pointed out to Giles with a big smile. Was it too big? She dimmed it a little. She was attempting to convey her amenable nature and how much she enjoyed spending time with his friends. Although she'd never really thought of he and Spike as friends. But they'd been here having tea together, so who knew?

Giles turned to her. "Anya, how long have you known about this sack of bones that was given to Spike?"

"Oh, I've known for a long time. Almost as long as he has," she said importantly. Spike had recognized her professional expertise and came to the right place. Even if she hadn't been able to help him. "He came by the Magic Box to ask my advice on what the curse could be."

"Curse? There's a curse involved?"

"Oh, yes. Apparently he's in considerable pain. I think he's expressing it with his hair. Did you notice his hair?"

"Yes, his hair," repeated Giles distractedly. "So he's back, and someone's put a curse on him, and he's dating Buffy. Good god."

"He's dating Buffy? Why didn't he tell me? Nobody tells me anything," Anya complained. Just because she and Xander hadn't gotten married, suddenly nobody came around to chat. It was kind of hurtful. Like they'd never really been friends.

"Tell me about it," sighed Giles. He hesitated for a moment. "Anya...do you understand why I moved back to England last year? I did it to help Buffy...to help all of you. She was just happy to tread water. And she can be so many things, but she would never be any of them with me there. I was supposed to be a rock to keep her stable, but I was more like an anchor, weighing her down."

"I'm sure she knows," said Anya soothingly.

"I don't know...when I talked to her yesterday, she seemed so distant," Giles said with uncharacteristic wistfulness. He couldn't bear to think of Buffy relegating him to that place in her heart with all of the men who had disappointed her. He had only ever wanted the best for her. It had been kinder to allow her to grow, surely, than to stand in her way.

"Anya, when I was here in the spring Buffy told me a little about her life. Things were very much confused at that point, of course-"

"What with Willow trying to destroy the world and everything," put in Anya helpfully.

"Yes, my dear, thank you-she told me some things that had happened and it sounded like a melodrama. Everything in everyone's life spiraling downwards until it hit bottom. Was that an accurate picture?"

"Well, I-I don't know exactly how-" Anya struggled to comfort him. She saw that he needed it, but wasn't sure how to provide it. Lie? Wasn't that was humans traditionally did in situations like this? But how could it help? It would just be false comfort. It wouldn't help, really, because Giles was smart and would see through it. And her honesty would show him that she respected him too much to lie.

"Actually, everyone's life pretty much went to hell," she told him frankly. "Not the good kind of hell either, but the kind with no fresh air, and lots of accordion music."

Ohh. Giles looked so masculine with his mouth hanging open. Most men would look like a trout, or possibly a bluegill, but Giles looked adorable.

"Went to hell?" he repeated faintly.

"Oh, yes. I always wondered why you left again, since things went so badly the first time. But now you're back...and you're going to be staying, right?" she asked hopefully.

"Went to hell, did you say?"

***

Buffy studied the stick figure. "A doll. Are you sure this wasn't Drusilla? Because it kind of sounds like Drusilla."

Spike shook his head. "If Dru wanted to hurt me I'd be in chains by now, with a hot poker halfway up-"

"Okay, okay," said Buffy hastily. "That's enough. No need for a diagram. Show me where you found it."

"Under there," Spike said, pointing to the good chair.

Buffy moved over to the chair and peered underneath, sticking her cute little ass in the air. Spike appreciated the view. Considering that a few days before he'd been waiting for her to come by and kill him, he was thrilled to be in the same room as her.

Of course, he always had been.

"Well, I can't see anything here n-eww! A Twinkies wrapper!" Buffy stood, holding the crumpled plastic in front of her. "Clem's, I presume."

Spike laughed. Really laughed. It was amazing to be with her, relaxed, open, without having to wonder when she'd turn back into Buffy Summers, Supergirl, who hated him and the things they did together and resented the fleeting moments she gave him.

"Yeah, that's more his kind of thing than mine. I guess I should do some more cleaning, get rid of all the junk."

Buffy nodded absently, mind still on the task at hand. "Now, you said the bones are gone?" she asked. "What happened?"

"Well, I went out for...something, and when I came back they were gone."

"Well, how long were you gone?"

Spike considered. He was pretty smashed at the time, didn't really have a great grasp of time. "An hour or so?"

"And what did you do?"

Spike was silent for a moment. A lot had happened to both of them since he'd slept with Anya, but he didn't want Buffy to be reminded of it. Hell, he wasn't eager to remember it himself. Wham, bam, hello guilt trip.

"I went to the magic shop to get a handle on how the curse was going down," he said finally.

Buffy felt a little chilled. A little disconnected. "So you went to Anya for help rather than come to me."

Spike reached out to squeeze her hand. "God, pet, I didn't know how you felt about me. It was-it was nothing. I wasn't thinking. She couldn't help. If she was what I needed, she'd be here with me now, not you."

She turned her hand in his until their palms met. Returned his squeeze. "We're not talking about the curse any more, are we?" she whispered.

He felt his heart flip over. "I guess not."

She gave him a shy smile. "Good."

***

It was late, and for a moment, when he first opened the door, Xander thought he was dreaming. He blinked, thinking he might wake up, or that his eyes would clear and reveal an empty doorway.

But when he focused again Buffy was still standing there, small and alone in the hallway.

"Buff-" he murmured in astonishment. She hadn't been by his place since May. A few days after they'd seen Anya and Spike together. After that everything fell apart so fast, and then the next thing he knew Buffy had put Will's things in boxes and suitcases and put them by her front door and told him to take them. She didn't want them in her house anymore.

He glanced behind him; he wasn't sure why. So she wouldn't see Willow, and go ballistic? So Will wouldn't see Buffy, and start to cry? "Buffy-"

"Is Willow here?" Buffy asked.

Where else would she be? Apocalyptics Anonymous? More likely she'd been back peering in the windows of 1630 Revello Drive. "Umm, yeah. It's kind of late now, and I don't like to leave her, so maybe I could stop by your place tomorrow if you need to talk?" he suggested gingerly.

"Actually, I'm here to see her," Buffy said with a small smile.

It took Xander a moment to absorb what she said. A wild smile streaked across his face as her meaning sunk in. It was the happiest day of his life; he thought his heart might crack open.

"God, god yeah, Buffy, come in," he said eagerly, urging her in. "She's just-she's in the kitchen, we had a midnight snack and she's washing the dishes. Let me get her, I'll go, I'll get her."

Xander rushed out of the room, not noticing and not caring that he was becoming incoherent. A moment later he was back again, holding Willow's hand and tugging her forward like a child, murmuring something Buffy couldn't hear.

Willow stepped closer to Buffy, wonder on her intelligent face. It had been so long since Xander had seen her like that. It was like she was once again the sweet girl he'd always loved.

"Buffy," Willow breathed, moving forward suddenly to fling her arms around Buffy. Buffy drew Willow down to sit beside her on the couch, and Xander moved to join them, but Buffy turned her face up to him.

"Could I have a few minutes alone with Willow?"

He got up immediately. Of course, they would have a lot to discuss. He should have realized it; he was just so excited he wasn't thinking. "Of course. I'll just-just go finish the dishes," he said, heading back into the kitchen. He felt like skipping.

Buffy watched him leave. When she turned back to Willow, she found the redhead's searching eyes hadn't left her face.

She bent closer to Willow. Willow moved closer, too, eager to follow her lead. Buffy was relieved. That made things easier. When she spoke, it was right in Willow's ear, as she tightened her hand over Willow's.

"Just what in the hell do you think you're doing to Spike?"

Chapter 10 by Shadowlass

Buffy must have gripped Willow's hand too hard, because she cried out in pain and Xander rushed in from the other room.

"What is it? What's wrong?" asked Xander worriedly.

Buffy loosened her hold on Willow's hand, but didn't release it. "Nothing," she said reassuringly. "I just forgot my own strength." She forced herself to give a little chuckle. It sounded artificial to her ears, but Xander didn't seem to notice.

Willow hadn't even looked over at him. Her eyes were still on Buffy's face, although the rush of joy had faded from them.

And still, Xander didn't notice. He'd never been a noticer, Buffy thought. He just ricocheted around on his hopes and fears. It made her sad, although she wasn't sure why. She could see how happy he was. How hopeful.

"Do you want to me to go back in the-"

Buffy nodded and smiled, and he returned her nod eagerly. Why would he question her?

Why indeed, thought Buffy with a trace of bitterness. When had she ever done anything not designed to meet with her friends' approval? When she did something she thought they wouldn't like, she hid it. In the dark, where they thought it belonged.

Where she would have thought it belonged, once. The girl she'd been all those years ago-Buffy, their friend, the one who made their lives matter. The only pretty girl who'd give Xander the time of day, the only cool girl who wasn't afraid to be seen with Willow. That's what she would have thought, then-that those were things Faith would have done, but not her.

She wasn't Faith. She never had been. Faith had been wrong about being selfish, about being above the law. But she wasn't wrong about grabbing what she wanted with both hands. About not being ashamed of what she wanted. She hated thinking that Faith had anything to teach her, but she was right about those things. Buffy liked the rush of excitement during a battle. She liked the look of fear on vamps' faces when they realized she was the Slayer. She liked it when Spike pushed her skirt up and bent her over the railing at the Bronze, even if he was pretty much being an asshole at the time. And she liked sitting in the kitchen with him and Giles, with Dawn upstairs doing her homework. She shouldn't have to choose, to be just one. They were both part of her.

Last year they thought she was different, that she had been since Willow scattered herbs and chanted over her grave. They looked at her and wondered why she wasn't the same, and she could see it: Them wishing she was the other Buffy, because she was better than what had returned.

But they were wrong. She'd been wrong, when she thought that. She was still Buffy. She walked the same way, liked the same things. She was the same girl, really. Just a little different. She didn't have the patience to pretend any more. She didn't want to act like she was all sunshine and roses when she wasn't. She liked those things, but she liked other things, too. Some things the others didn't approve of. But they were still things that were natural to her.

Vaguely she was aware of Xander returning to the kitchen. This wouldn't be a problem. She could handle Willow. Even if she wanted to squeeze Willow's hand, still cradled in her own, so hard that every bone broke.

She bent towards Willow again, taking care to keep her voice down. Xander was sure to be listening, eager to borrow any bit of joy he could from the reunion. "I know what you're doing," she told her, deadly serious. "I never believed for a moment that garbage about you being cured. All your magic gone? I know you, you're careful. You always keep something in reserve. You don't need a lot of magic in you to work a few basic spells, do you? A nasty little curse?"

Willow shook her head inarticulately. She looked too stricken to respond.

"So what is it?" Buffy prodded. "Have you got a little stash of herbs around here somewhere? Some sage in the kitchen? Xander wouldn't notice that, would he? So tell me," she said, getting her face right in Willow's, "what exactly are you doing to Spike? Are you trying to kill him? Or just using him for target practice as you work your way back up to the whole global destruction thing?"

"I wouldn't hurt Spike," whispered Willow. So softly, holding to Buffy's unexpressed desire to keep this between them, even as Buffy's eyes smoldered and her hand crushed Willow's relentlessly. Willow couldn't do anything else. She didn't even want to. "I haven't done any magic, I swear."

"Don't lie," hissed Buffy. "He told me everything. And I'm telling you right now, stop hurting him. Do you hear me?"

"I'm not-"

"I said don't lie to me!" Buffy yelled suddenly, patience gone. Goddammit, what had she expected? That Willow would just confess? That would be too easy, wouldn't it? "You stop it, keep your magics away from him," Buffy ordered furiously, seizing Willow by the shoulders. She shook her heedlessly, not even considering her Slayer strength. Noise roared in her ears, and for a few moments she couldn't even see anything.

The next thing Buffy was aware of was Xander shouting and trying to pry her hands from Willow's shoulders. Willow, whose loose hair was now completely wild and whose skin was pasty with fear. Buffy released her and moved away from the couch.

"Jesus, Buffy, what is wrong with you?" exclaimed Xander, hovering over Willow protectively.

Buffy didn't even spare a glance for him as she stared at Willow, her composure regained. "Stay the hell away from Spike," she told Willow coldly, and left the apartment without a backwards glance.

A second after she got into the hall the door banged again. She turned, anticipating Willow, but it was Xander there, eyes blazing.

"Is that who that was about? Spike?"

She stared at him, her eyes opaque. "What did you think it was? Some grand revelation on my part that Willow didn't mean to kill my sister and beat me to death and destroy the world? That when she tried to kill Giles it was just a little mistake, that her saying sorry makes everything all right? Because she's one of us, and so it doesn't matter what she did, we just forgive it? No matter how big it was, and how awful, and how evil?"

"Evil?" said Xander, shaking his head in disbelief. "You're dating Dr. Evil. That's why you attacked Willow, isn't it? Him? He comes back to town, and two minutes later you're over here attacking Willow, when she'd done nothing but try to make things up to you. Oh, and just forgetting what someone's done? You've made an art of it when it comes to some people. But people isn't really the right word, is it? God, it doesn't matter what they do, they get a free pass with you."

"I told you what happened in the bathroom is no one's business but mine," returned Buffy in frustration. God, she wished she'd gotten up and gone to her bedroom after Spike left, or gotten in the shower, or just locked the goddamn door. Xander pretended to be outraged, but he loved knowing about it. Loved having another cudgel to use to beat her back into line.

"What happened in the bathroom, maybe. But all the times he's tried to kill us? We're just supposed to forget about that because he's your boyfriend now and suddenly what he's done doesn't count? What he's done to us, and to a thousand other people?"

Buffy flinched. She didn't like to think about that. "He doesn't do that any more."

Xander gave a bitter laugh. "The only reason he doesn't is because of that chip in his head. If that chip was out, he'd been tearing his way through this town like the demon he is."

"Demons? Do you really want to talk demons?" scoffed Buffy. Damn him, how dare he judge her? The hypocrite! "You've dated every female demon who came to town-bug lady, mummy girl, Anya. Oh yeah, and Cordy-though I don't know if I'd call her a real step up. If she were a demon your record would be perfect."

"I never-"

"Never what? Never had anyone in your face 24/7 about what you're doing and who you're dating, telling you what you're doing wrong and how you're disappointing them and your calling and the world and fluffy kittens and god knows what else? And generally acting like being someone's friend gives you the right to judge everything they do? What kind of friendship is that?"

"I've risked my life for you," Xander shot back furiously. "I have always been your friend."

"But there was always something in it for you, wasn't there?" Buffy demanded. "You weren't helping out of the goodness of your heart. In the beginning you helped because you were trying to get my attention. Thought you'd get in good, I'd notice you and suddenly you'd be my dream guy. Wasn't that more like it?"

Xander felt wounded. They'd been friends for so long, through so much, and she was attacking him? Choosing Spike over her friends? "Well, there wasn't much chance of that, was there? Not with your vampire boyfriend of the moment around."

"I met you before I ever saw Angel, and I still wasn't interested," snapped Buffy. "How long did that go on? Your little competition with Angel? Even after you started dating Cordelia, I could see it. I ignored it because your friendship was important to me. But now I'm kind of wondering why, since it seems to consist of you setting standards for me and letting me know when I'm falling short. How about you just try being a friend, and not the Sunnydale branch of the Watchers' Council?"

"How about you try dating humans?" returned Xander.

Jesus, he hadn't listened to a word she'd said, she realized in disbelief. It just rolled right off him. "How about you try minding your own fucking business?"

A hard look crossed his face. She'd never said such a thing to him before. He'd never even heard her use that word, ever. Welcome back, Spike. "Done," he said frigidly, walking back into the apartment and closing the door behind him.

***

Willow watched Xander pace around the room. He'd come back from the hall so upset he was panting. She'd heard what he and Buffy had said to each other, mostly. It would have been hard to miss, what with the loudness and all. The last time she'd heard them talk to each other that way was years before, after they had found Miss Calendar's disk containing the spell to re-soul Angelus. Xander had been against the ensouling, arguing that Angel didn't deserve it. He'd killed Miss Calendar and Theresa and lots of other people, and he would always be dangerous, even if they restored his soul. He'd accused Buffy of not caring about anything but getting her boyfriend back.

The thing was, he was kind of right. It wasn't just Buffy, it was all of them. It was the way of the world. The heart wants what it wants, that sort of thing. It was the same thing that had allowed Willow to try to kill them all. To create a fireball to kill Jonathan and Andrew, knowing that they were with Xander and that it might kill him. To threaten Dawn, even though she knew Tara had loved Dawn so much-maybe even more than she'd loved Willow. Even though Willow had loved Dawn for years. Because when the heart was in pain, it didn't think of anything except what it needed. The world ceased to matter.

And Xander had forgiven Willow. It was something she could always count on from him: His love. His understanding. Buffy had his love, too, but he didn't understand her at all. He never had. Willow clearly remembered the day they had met Buffy. Cordelia had been cruel to Willow, as usual, this time in front of her new friend. And then Buffy had come up to her at lunch. Sought her out and made it clear she wanted to be her friend. Willow could still feel the puzzlement, the excitement, that Buffy wanted her friendship. The gratitude.

And then Xander had come, and poor Jesse, and they jockeyed around for position, trying to impress Buffy. She had barely looked at them. And as Xander continued, for weeks and months, to attempt to gain Buffy's attention, Willow had gradually lost her apprehension that Buffy and Xander would begin dating. Because she realized that even if Angel wasn't there, it would never be Xander. Not for Buffy. He was a friend, a companion. Not a lover. Buffy had something epic going on. It was really the only way she could have anything. Now she was 21; she'd died twice. Anything she'd have would have to be accelerated. Willow hated to think of it, but Buffy wouldn't be around to enjoy anything taken at a normal human pace, on a normal human scale.

Xander had never really understood that.

Xander had finally realized that a superhero needed a boyfriend with superpowers, or at least a handy chip of some sort. He was thinking more the Riley sort of chip, though. Or maybe he just became sick of waiting-Willow had never been sure. So Xander had resigned himself to a brotherly role, but he thought that came with certain privileges, kind of like a consolation prize. He wasn't the person who'd save the world, usually, and he wasn't her boyfriend. But he could influence her. Persuade her. Shame her. It wasn't deliberate, at least Willow didn't think so. But having pull with Supergirl, the coolest girl in high school, gave him something. Maybe people didn't know Buffy was the Slayer, but Xander did. One in all the world, and she listened to him. Tried to make him happy. And Xander needed that. He needed it to help define himself, because otherwise he was just a laborer with a bad family who'd thrown away his fiancée and was playing nursemaid to his emotionally crippled friend.

Xander was so much more than that. But he never saw it. He never saw what Willow did-the little boy who'd tried to keep his own clothes clean because his mother didn't bother, the kid who'd gotten into fights in grade school because someone had made Willow cry. The teenager who'd looked at the girl he was infatuated with, saw her love for another man shining in her eyes, and risked his life to help her anyway because he would do anything for a friend. He wasn't complex. He was brave and loyal and simple. He took everything like a body blow; he didn't have it in him to shrug anything off. A person had to be elastic to do that, and he wasn't. Everything was personal. Everything mattered.

"I'm going to kill him."

Willow's attention jerked back to Xander. He was standing in the center of the living room, fists clenched. She hadn't even noticed when he'd stopped pacing. "What do you mean?"

"Spike. It's time someone put him out of his misery. Buffy should have done it years ago. He's done everything he could think of to kill us, and we shouldn't just stand around waiting for next time."

"He hasn't tried to kill us for a long time," she pointed out. "Not since Adam-"

"Oh, that's good, he hasn't tried to kill us for two years! Let's throw him a party! We'll have hats and streamers and cake! Jeez, Will, he should have been dusted years ago, chip or no chip. That's all that's standing between us and him, the chip."

"You didn't want to kill him until he slept with Anya," Willow pointed out softly. She hated bringing it up to him. Hated hurting him with it. But he'd become so angry, sometimes it seemed like the only emotion he had left. "You didn't even hate him any more. You two used to play pool at the Bronze, remember? And I remember you laughing together the summer after Buffy died."

Xander felt his throat close up. He hated to think of that. Hated to think of Buffy dead, in the ground. Cold, and gone from them. "We didn't laugh," he muttered.

"Yes, you did. It took a long time for either of you to laugh, but finally you did."

Xander stared at the floor.

"Buffy's the Slayer, not you. If someone's going to be killing vampires, it will be her. It sounds like Buffy and Spike are becoming friendly again. I don't think you should bother them, Xander. It doesn't have anything to do with you."

The hell it doesn't have anything to do with me. It has p-

"Right?" Willow prompted.

Xander sighed in frustration. "But she was in here acting crazy and threatening you," he protested. Willow looked so pale, so drawn. She'd been okay before Buffy stopped by with her fake friendly visit. Better than usual, at least. Xander thought it might be because she'd seen Giles again.

And now she was all worried, her face creased and marked with more pain than a 21-year-old should know. He didn't know how she managed, all alone except for him.

He reached out and gently touched her face. Maybe he should ask a couple of the guys' wives in to talk to her. While he was there, just to make sure everything went all right. He hated her being alone so much, but he wasn't sure she was ready for anything more.

"Fine, fine, you win," he finally agreed. There'd be time for Spike later.

"Thank you," Willow said gratefully. She reached out, wrapped her arms around him. It was nice to get a hug, especially when you were isolated from most of the people you loved. Which pretty much described both of them.

Xander tucked his head over her shoulder and squeezed her with the same open affection a child shows a playmate. Willow hugged him back, enjoying the contact. Xander was so sweet, so uncomplicated. He wouldn't understand what she was doing any more than he understood Buffy. Who also wouldn't understand, not yet. But soon. What she was doing was for the best, Willow knew. Buffy had been right, she was careful.

And things were going exactly as planned.

Chapter 11 by Shadowlass
It was getting worse, that was for damn sure. Of course, it could be difficult to differentiate between one level of searing pain and another, but thanks to the chip and its many degrees of punishment, Spike had no real problem telling the difference. Also, the fact that he'd found it almost impossible to stand upon waking that afternoon was a bit of a giveaway.

So now he was flat on his back on his sarcophagus, unable to concentrate enough to read and unable to watch TV due to the controller being on the other side of the room. He would have liked to go get it, but that would have involved standing. Unfortunately, his attempts to come up with a means of retrieving the controller without actually moving were unsuccessful. So instead he just lay there and thought.

The other night, he and the Slayer had been looking around the crypt, searching for clues, when suddenly things turned all mushy-mushy being a good thing-and they hadn't done a lot of searching after that. Actually, Spike didn't really remember much of what they'd done afterward. Stood there looking into each others' eyes, like idiots in some romance novel, and then went out and...well, they'd taken a walk, but they'd run across some demons, so maybe it was patrolling?

He liked to think of it as a walk, though. The killing was just a lovely cherry on top.

But then she'd returned, an hour or so after she left, moodiness radiating from her like that unspeakable perm she'd gotten her first year in college, and told him to get his things-by which he assumed she meant his blanket-and come with her, he was spending the night at her house.

Which undoubtedly would have excited him had she not then gone on about how Willow was a sneak, and Xander was a caveman and probably planning to come over and kill him in his bed-she'd apparently forgotten he no longer had a bed, but he let it go-and that he wouldn't be safe, so grab his stuff, now, and come with her.

Bugger if his first night in her home was going to be spent downstairs on the couch, hiding out from the Pillsbury Doughboy.

He told her he was fine and settled her down a little. Finally she'd said something about Red being responsible for the mojo, and sidekick number two having it in for him, as if he didn't already know that one. He hadn't been able to get it out of her if they were working together or not. Well, it was nice that some still thought of him as the big bad, right? Felt good. Well really, it felt odd. Actually, he wasn't entirely sure how he felt about it.

At any rate, he'd told her he could take care of himself. When she shot right back with a snotty little "No you can't," he promised he'd keep an ear open and dash through the ruins downstairs into the tunnels if he heard anything. He felt like a pansy even thinking about it. But it was a nice change to see her all het up about making sure he was safe.

Real nice.

Didn't know that she was right about the boy, though. Harris had about as much self-restraint as Drusilla in an orphanage; if the kid knew he was back and felt up for a game of kick-the-Spike, he'd be at the crypt in three seconds flat, with an axe or a mace or just a baseball bat. One good swing for the side of right and justice and all that. Then he'd never have to look at Spike again and think of him with either of the blondes in his life. Well, he'd have to back it up with a stake or a sword, but the kid had come prepared that night at the magic shop.

Spike started a little. For the first time in...ever, he flashed back to when he'd taken them, Willow and Harris. Taken them out of the school in one of his typical drunken schemes to win back Drusilla. Harris had taken one look at him, so much older than he, so much stronger, and fought without hesitation. Fought until Spike knocked him unconscious. Spike wasn't even going to take him, but the boy's persistence irritated him, and so he became a hostage to encourage Red in her witchy efforts. Most people would have frozen. Let the demon make off with the girl, saved their own skins. He could have acquiesced to Spike and called Buffy to find her-she'd known immediately where he'd taken them. She'd always known him, elementally, even before either of them had thought of the other as anything more than an enemy.

Thank god Red had stopped him. There, in the bowels of the warehouse, he had ranted and sworn, cursing Dru, cursing himself for loving her. Then crying because that's what he did when he was upset, cry. Nothing unmanly about it. Shows you've got emotions, don't lurch around like some great side of beef with two expressions and a martyr complex. Spike had never been afraid to show his emotions. The day he stopped feeling, he'd walk out into the sun.

And then, because he was drunk and crying and felt like shit, he put his head on her shoulder and hoped she'd comfort him. He needed comfort, just a little understanding. It was awful to feel so alone. So unloved. But then it had drifted to him-the scent of her blood, flowing just beneath her skin. And he had vamped out and was going to-not kill her. The other. She stopped him. Thank god. Thank god she had. Buffy would never have looked at him otherwise. Never have looked at him, never have cared for him. His unlife wouldn't have been worth living.

How was Willow able to do that-be in the same room as him, afterwards? While she told him what ingredients she needed? And later, when she'd sat at the Thanksgiving table with him. That had been only days after he'd burst into her dorm room and held her down on the bed and tried to kill her. Offered to make her like him. Offered? Threatened. Christ.

How was it she was able to look at him without hatred? He'd never felt it coming from her, and he noticed those kinds of things. Had felt it often enough, right? Felt it as William, felt it as Spike. Never felt it from her.

So why would she do something now? If Buffy was right, of course; she wasn't always. Was it because of what he'd done to Buffy? Sometimes a wrong done to someone you love can hurt more than one done to you. And she loved Buffy, was devoted to her. Buffy's anger at her wouldn't stop that. Like him, she didn't give up love easily.

Could she blame him for Tara's death? He hadn't been there, of course, but he'd known where king geek lived. But Willow didn't know that, surely. None of them did.

The bathroom was enough, though. Didn't need anything else.

He'd see. He had time. This couldn't kill him, right? Just hurt like hell.

***

It was so much easier to think at home, with all the peace and quiet. Which was why Dawn was there, instead of at school like she was supposed to be. Buffy had work and class almost all day, so Dawn didn't have to worry about her. She'd hear if Giles came home, and it would be easy enough to sneak out without him hearing her; he wouldn't notice, he was like a thousand. Or maybe she wouldn't even bother-she could tell him it was a teacher inservice day.

Of course, he'd probably mention it to Buffy, and Buffy now kept a copy of Dawn's school schedule on the refrigerator.

For a moment Dawn felt an unpleasant twinge in the pit of her stomach. She doesn't trust me. She dismissed the thought with a toss of her head. Fine with her, what did she care?

Buffy would say it had nothing to do with trust. Giles would probably say that, too: That she was just taking an interest in Dawn. And honestly, it was better than last year, when Buffy wouldn't have noticed if she lived or died. Or if Social Services had taken her, like they had threatened to last winter. That had been close.

Dawn didn't like to think about it. Even when Buffy had spent all her time staring at walls and doing god knows what-Spike, mostly, from what Dawn gathered-it was still better than what she'd get elsewhere. And it was nice with Giles back, and the three of them sat around the table together. It was almost like having Mom back. It made her feel safe to have Giles around, and Buffy was laughing more and seemed like a real person again. It was like things had been a few years ago, back when things were normal, except for Mom being gone.

Normal. Maybe that wasn't the right word to use, when things were never that way. Maybe it was normal for things to be unsettled, and people to come and go. Maybe she couldn't count on anything.

But Dawn didn't like to think of her life being that way. Sometimes, when she thought of her mom, it was like that was so long ago she couldn't even remember it. Like she was an old woman remembering her childhood. And she was only with Mom for a year. Less than a year. Most of what she knew about her life was what the monks had put in her memory, made-up stuff. But she missed it, and missed her mom, sometimes more than she could stand.

Buffy wasn't anything like Mom, and she wasn't made to be anyone's mother. Not just because she wouldn't live long enough, but because she couldn't love anyone enough. Not anymore. To be a mom you had to love someone more than you loved yourself, and Buffy didn't give that much of herself to anybody. Not since Angel left.

That was hard to remember too, sometimes. What it was like when Buffy was like any other girl. And she was, even when she was slaying, back when she was in high school. He broke her, Dawn thought. He was trying to help her, and instead he broke her. For some reason it was worse when he left than when he'd turned into Angelus. She barely remembered when he'd turned all evil-of course, she hadn't realized at the time what was happening, but she managed to fit together bits and pieces of what people had said, and figured it out. Oh, and she'd asked Spike last year, and he'd told her the whole thing. Thought she was old enough to handle it, and he'd been right.

And now Spike was back and Buffy was doing what with him? Dawn wasn't sure. Buffy had been out with Spike ‘til after two in the morning on Friday night-not that Dawn was spying on her-and she'd mentioned him a few times to Giles since, like it was normal for her to talk about Spike at the breakfast table. She'd never done that before.

Of course, Dawn had also never come into the kitchen and found Spike and Buffy sitting together eating popsicles before. With Giles, yet.

God knew where Giles was. He'd been gone most of the time he'd been back, and it wasn't like he had friends or anything. Maybe he was visiting Willow. Buffy went crazy whenever Willow was mentioned, but that was some strange Buffy thing. Dawn had never been sure how she decided what was acceptable and what wasn't; forgive Angel for trying to end the world, check; forgive Willow for trying to end the world-woah, sorry. Not happening. It was like she chose at random. Buffy said it was because Willow was going to kill Dawn, but that didn't make sense. She would have been killed when Acathla sucked the world into hell, and that didn't stop Buffy from jumping on the forgiveness train.

Spike had come out lucky. Guess Buffy hadn't hit his name with her little "unforgiven" dart, or S-P-I-K-E and W-I-L-L-I-A-M added together meant something good on her numerology chart, or whatever it was she did to decide.

It had been so strange to see him there, downstairs. She hadn't expected it. She really thought the only time she'd see him was skulking around town, trying not to let her catch a glimpse of him. He hadn't come around, because he knew that would be a stupid thing to do, and whatever else he was, he wasn't stupid. He was rotten creep and deserved everything she was doing to him, but he wasn't stupid.

Maybe she should stop.

It didn't seem to matter as much anymore. He was back, and Buffy was okay with it-again with the luck there-and Dawn wasn't sure any longer. She'd missed him, although she bitterly resented the feeling. Maybe it would be better just to forget all about it. She hadn't done all that much anyway-not nearly as much as she'd planned. He'd noticed, she'd heard that much in the kitchen, but she'd really barely started. It was frustrating, though; she'd been so excited while she made the plans and carefully timed her visits to his place, and it gave her a kind of giddy thrill of accomplishment. He'd never suspect her. Not in a million years.

Yeah, maybe she should stop.

Maybe.

***

It hadn't worked the first time, and he had no idea why he was back. As Spike crossed the Magic Box towards Anya, beaming behind the counter like a crazed lighthouse, he accidentally glanced at the large table on one side of the store. It couldn't be the same table they'd polished, could it? Well, strike that first thought. It hadn't worked either of the times he'd come to Anya for help.

Then a knife-like pain sliced into his solar plexus, and he remembered exactly why he was there.

"Good afternoon, Spike," Anya greeted him cheerfully. "Are you here on business or pleasure, perhaps to discuss our mutual friends Giles and Buffy? I know many amusing anecdotes about each of them, some of which you may not have heard."

Spike regarded her skeptically. Since when had she become all sociable with him? The best he could say about her before was that she'd never seemed particularly interested in his death. And then they'd had their unfortunate indiscretion, and that was that. But then she'd been pretty nice when he came in last time, and the other night she'd been quite friendly-although he thought most of it seemed directed at Giles. But that didn't even make sense, since cozying up to him wouldn't score points with the Watcher.

It was always a good idea to get things off on the right foot, wasn't it? thought Anya. And seeing as how it was really time to move her relationship with Giles forward, welcoming his friends was an excellent place to start. Well, a personal observation indicated interest. Such as when Giles showed up at the Magic Box just as Willow was about to turn Buffy into table scraps, and immediately remarked on how different Buffy's hair was. And neglected to mention Anya's.

Really, hair was always a good place to start. "I notice your hair has new and exciting variations in color. I was discussing it with Giles last night, and wondering if perhaps it was an expression of your inner pain."

Spike scowled. Apparently the question wasn't to his liking. Perhaps hair was a sore subject with him?

"Is yours?" he returned.

Anya blinked. "Well, that's different," she said.

"How?"

"Well, it-it just is."

"If you say so," Spike returned politely. He'd been polite several times lately, dammit. Sometimes he didn't hardly feel like himself. "I was wondering about countercurses."

"Countercurses? Didn't you and Buffy figure out who did it?"

Spike glared at her, then felt himself perk up a little as he realized he was giving her a nasty look. Here now, he wasn't hopeless yet, was he? Things were looking up after all. "No, we didn't find anything. Pain's not bad-" which was a lie-"but there's no real reason I shouldn't just get rid of it, is there?"

Anya nodded agreeably. Once again, he'd come to her shop for her professional guidance. And this time she had just the thing. "As a matter of fact," she told him, "I have a wonderful counterspell I used to diffuse Willow's power when she destroyed the Magic Box."

Spike did a double take. That was one he hadn't heard. "This occurred during her attempt to destroy the world, I take it?"

"Yes, that was it," Anya agreed cheerfully. She probably wouldn't have been as chipper if the shop's insurance hadn't paid off so handsomely. But really, with its history of mayhem and disaster, what responsible shopkeeper wouldn't be well-insured? It was simply a matter of good business.

Spike glanced around the completely transformed shop skeptically. All new, totally rebuilt. "So, just how effective was this counterspell?" he asked gingerly.

"Oh! It was highly effective, I assure you. Willow was out of control-first she tried to run over Buffy and Xander and Warren's virginal cohorts with a Mack truck, then she was going to kill them over here. But I started in with the protection spell and Willow couldn't do magic on anyone," she concluded, pleased.

"So, what happened to the-"

"Oh, she couldn't work any magic on anyone else, but she could still spell herself. So she did a magic that made her enormously strong. Like an elephant, or an especially large-"

"Right. Sounds good. What do I need to do for that?"

Anya smiled happily. She didn't think a member of the Scoobies had put so much faith in her advice since Buffy had accepted her suggestion to use the troll hammer against Glory. They did have a tendency to ignore her recommendations, despite the fact that she had more experience than the rest of them combined. She was a thousand years old; she had been to multiple realities.

Of course they had too, but they didn't remember them.

"Just this," she told him, pulling a piece of paper out from a drawer by the cash register and handing it to him.

He looked at the sheet of paper. The words didn't look right, so he squinted. "What the devil is that? It's not Greek...."

"No, it's Babylonian. Just keep repeating that and you should feel much better."

"Keep repeating it? For how long?"

"Well, for as long as you want to counteract the curse."

"What?" Spike exclaimed in disbelief. "You just want me to go around chanting all day?"

"Well, you do want the pain to stop, don't you?" Anya pointed out.

"Yes, but that sounds like another kind of a curse, doesn't it?" asked Spike testily. Dozy bint. Did she really think he would just go around reciting ancient gibberish 24 hours a day? Even Dru gave it a rest sometimes.

"You wanted an effective spell-repellent, and I gave you one," Anya said. "Nobody said these thing were easy. If they were, people would just give their children protection spells at birth and any attempt to magic them would be useless. Not to mention I'd lose 35 to 50 percent of my business."

Spike peered at her with-well, it almost looked like disapproval. "So you do a brisk business in baby curses?"

Anya rolled her eyes. He and Giles both had sexy voices, and they both smelled good, but the resemblance ended there. She wasn't even sure why the two of them were friends. Maybe it was the opposites attract theory? Much like she and Giles, although in a platonic, nonphysical, just-friends who drink tea and discuss...whatever sport was enjoyed in England kind of a way? "No, not babies. But the kind of thing you seem to want would never wear off. And that kind of spell doesn't exist."

"Well, have you got anything at all? A little more short-term?"

"Well...you could try a crystal."

"Crystal?" he repeated. A vampire, carrying around a crystal? God, he'd be a laughingstock.

"Some of my customers swear by them," she assured him.

He wasn't really convinced, but the pain...hell, he'd try anything once. "Do I have to chant?" he inquired. Damned if he was going to spend the rest of his unlife muttering extinct languages until he finally died of boredom.

"No chanting," Anya assured him, holding out a jagged, cloudy blue stone. "As long as it remains opaque it's still effective, but you have to keep it on your person for it to work. Go ahead, it's not going to bite."

"Are you guaranteeing that?"

"Are you paying for that?"

Spike gave her an aggravated look, then drew out his wallet. He hated to pay for things; it went against his philosophy. "How much?" he asked grudgingly.

Anya shook her head. "Don't worry about it,' she told him. He was friends with Giles, and dating Buffy, who was closer to Giles than anyone, and she'd learned a lot about human relationships during her involvement with Xander. Her relationship with Willow, for instance, had never recovered from Anya's early attempts to make Willow pay for the items she took from the shop with no concern for their expense.

Of course, the time at the Bronze that Anya had encouraged a vampire to kill Willow probably hadn't helped their friendship either.

But she'd learned since then. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, Xander had told her several times. Usually while sounding frustrated. It was a saying she'd never really understood, considering that several products were made especially for the extermination of flies, but none, as far as she was aware, for their attraction.

"You sure?"

Anya nodded vigorously. With a big smile. She was going to start things off right this time. Not like last time, with Xander. This time would be better. How could it not be? It was Giles. That was like a built-in assurance of quality. "Tell Giles I said hello," she told him firmly. "And that I'm happy to help."

***

It was a coincidence that the pain in his gut was easing, Spike told himself as he strode through the cemetery, back to...well, probably just watch TV and hope the Slayer showed up. No way a crystal could do squat for him, no matter what Anya said. She was a shopkeeper, they were supposed to move the goods.

But she hadn't even accepted payment. Why would she tell him it was effective if she wasn't even going to make a profit? That didn't even make sense. The curse was plainly starting to affect his mind. Further proof that the crystal didn't work.

He pulled it out of his pocket and studied it. Of course, he couldn't really see it in the dark. Still looked cloudy, so that was good, right?

Maybe he could have a hole drilled through it and wear it like a piece of jewelry. He always did like his stuff, thumb rings and chains and-well, lookit that. Light escaped in a thin line under his crypt door; no waiting tonight. Hello, Slayer.

Absently he let the crystal fall to the ground. Didn't need it with her around, not to mention didn't want to explain about it. He never seemed to feel the pain when she was around anyway. She had too large a presence when she was around him; he couldn't contain both the pain and his love for her. The pain lost in those moments.

He swung open the door and started towards her eagerly. He'd hated being away from her the last few days.

He'd been quiet when he opened the door, and she had her back to him. But he must a made a sound when he saw her, because she swung around, shock on her face. Only it wasn't Buffy.

It was Dawn.

Chapter 12 by Shadowlass
For a moment they stared at each other, both too surprised to move. Dawn's eyes darted around wildly, as if she didn't know what to do or where to look.

Suddenly Spike started towards her. "Niblet-" he exclaimed, reaching his hand out. She flinched and he pulled it back, stopping several feet away from her, aware of an uncomfortable resemblance between this meeting and the one between him and Buffy the week before. He kept his distance; he didn't want to crowd her. She hadn't been overjoyed to see him before, and now she looked all tense, like a half-grown animal that would flee if he moved suddenly. Which, he supposed, was exactly what she was.

"Dawn," he murmured, gesturing widely with his arms. Letting her know that he welcomed her, that his crypt was again open for her girlish confidences and unexpected visits.

She made no move towards him, her forehead puckered with worry. He must have surprised her so much she'd forgotten what she wanted to say. Or maybe he'd walked in as she was rehearsing it, as she was wont to do. Although she usually rushed ahead and forgot her careful phrases. She was impulsive, like him. She was more like him than Buffy, really.

He caught the absurd thought as it flashed through his mind and smiled at Dawn. Sometimes, when his head was elsewhere, he thought of Dawn as if she were his child. His and Buffy's. She didn't look like either of them, but the lost, mulish expression on her face-she was their child, all right. As broken as any they could have raised themselves.

"Does your sister know you're here? You didn't walk here by yourself, did you? In the dark, without a sweater or a stake?"

She shook her head wordlessly. For someone who'd made a pretty good trek to see him, she wasn't very talkative. When he'd smiled she looked like she was going to burst into tears, and he wasn't sure if she was really up to talking. But she wasn't making any move towards the door. Perhaps she wanted him to take the lead. Maybe she was just giving him the opportunity to...explain himself? Tell her that he hadn't meant to attack her sister like an animal and then leave her huddled on the bathroom floor? That he'd never do anything like that again to Buffy-or to Dawn? That it had all been a terrible dream, and she could just go back to her life again without hating him and fearing for her sister?

He wanted to sit down and talk with her, but the ratty chairs seemed too casual for this talk, somehow. He almost went to sit on the sarcophagus on which he slept, but that seemed inappropriate. Obscene. They remained standing.

And silent.

He could only take so much silence, at least around some people. "What...what did your sister tell you?" he asked finally.

She cast a vaguely suspicious glance at him.

"Do you mean the other night-"

Spike shook his head, but didn't answer for a moment. Then another. He didn't want to answer at all. But she was looking at him, waiting for him to continue. "A few months ago. Before I left. I-" he broke off. She was still looking at him steadily, her face...blank? Or indifferent?

He tried again. "I left because-"

"I heard why you left," Dawn interrupted flatly.

Spike swallowed. His mouth felt curiously dry. "So Buffy told you-"

To his surprise, Dawn laughed. "Buffy? It's not the kind of thing she'd talk about, is it? Xander's the one who spread the news."

Harris. He should have expected as much. Must have been eager to tell the Bit-not care how it made her feel, as long as Spike came out covered in shit.

Which he deserved, of course. But Dawn didn't deserve having to know. No way did she deserve that.

He felt a flush of anger at Xander, that his hatred of Spike overwhelmed his affection for the Niblet. Called himself her friend and probably thought he was the brother she'd never had, but he'd hurt her right quick enough, hadn't he? Proof that having a soul wasn't a cure-all for general wankishness, Spike noted humorlessly. Fuck-dumping his bride, judging Buffy, crushing Dawn-what hadn't he done?

Didn't tell her anything but the truth, did he?

Shut up, brain, Spike thought, ruthlessly pushing the thought away. He was not the Magnificent Poof, and not going to mark off the next century in his day planner for concentrated wallowing with time off for the occasional mope.

"Did, um, did your sister talk to you?" he asked carefully. He wanted to handle things exactly right with her. He was haunted by the feeling that he was on a tightrope and the slightest imbalance would ruin everything. Everything would fall apart; Buffy would hate him, the Bit would walk in the other direction when she saw him. And still he would have the soul, pulsating inside him like a living being, making him aware, skin-crawlingly aware, of the uncountable things he'd done wrong over the last 150 years and the few things he'd done right. All he had to do was misstep, unbalance just a little, and it would all be over.

Dawn nodded. Her face was so impassive for a child. It didn't seem right.

"What did she say?" God, what, was he going to offer corrections? No, she said she cared about me, then I grabbed her? Oh, she forgot the part about how I said trust is for old marrieds! Can't leave that out!

"She said you're friends. But that's not what you are, right?"

Friends. Seemed an awfully cold way to describe how he felt about her. "Well-" what could he say? I love your sister more than I can say because I was never more than a crap poet and ordinary words can't describe it? I got a sodding soul shoved into me so she could trust me, and if that isn't love fuck if I know what is?

"You came here to ask me that?" he probed gently. He wasn't going to gainsay Buffy, even if friendship was a piss-poor way to describe their relationship. A memory jolted into place and he saw himself with Buffy and Angel in the magic shop, years before, telling the two of them that they'd never be friends; they would experience the highs and lows together, but nothing as bloodless as friendship. What a dolt he'd been, what a fool; Drusilla had been right all along. He hadn't even seen Angel before him as he'd said it, imagining himself with Buffy instead. As if she and Paingel had ever argued about anything. As if they'd shagged more than that first disastrous time, as if they'd ever had the spleen to hate each other. They didn't have passion and fire between them, they had dreams and silences. They barely knew each other. Angel didn't want to know the Slayer, her depths, her capacity for savagery; he wanted only the pristine maiden warrior-St. Joan in ankle boots. Still indulging in his taste for underage girls, even with his soul, Spike thought with distaste.

But Spike loved all of her. He loved her selflessness, her ferocity, her devotion to those she loved, the way she'd suddenly shove him down and crack his belt to see the red marks it made across his flesh. All of it.

"No, that's not why I came," said Dawn, drawing him back to the moment. Away from Buffy, where his thoughts still lingered. As usual.

He looked at her kindly. "Then why, kitten? Dawn," he corrected himself carefully. She wasn't ready for that. Of course, who's to say she ever would be? It was her sister he attacked, after all. Her only family. The woman he said he loved. Why in the hell would she ever become ready for him to act all brotherly with her again? Why would she even want to be in the same room with him?

"I just came to tell you it's okay. I'm fine with it. We don't have any problems. That's all," she told him, moving past him towards the door. She should have left as soon as he came in. Come up with some b.s. excuse and gotten out of there as soon as she could. But he'd walked in, and started talking to her, and looked so hopeful. Looked at her the way he sometimes looked at Buffy, like he'd do anything to make her happy, he just didn't know what that was. And all of a sudden all she could think about was how much she'd missed him and how angry she was at him. Why had he done it? Didn't he know how wrong it was-how hurtful it would be? How could he do that, to Buffy, to her?

And then she remembered why she was there and realized she had to leave, immediately. So she told him everything was fine, and it would be. Because Spike never questioned her. He trusted her. And that was going to be her golden ticket out of the crypt. She was going to get away scot-free.

She was almost at the door when his hand closed over her elbow.

"You're not walking home alone in the dark," Spike told her. "Come on, I'll go with you."

Dawn smiled at him without effort. When you were that relieved, smiling wasn't a problem.

Besides her, Spike stopped abruptly. "Hold up a minute. Is that bag yours?"

Dawn turned back to face the crypt, her eyes quickly picking up what he was referring to. Her backpack, abandoned near the wall. God, she'd almost forgotten it. She'd only been there a minute or two before he arrived, and didn't have time to do her thing yet. She was very careful about it. You could plan it out as much in advance as you wanted, but there were still things that had to be worked out in person.

It could have been worse. He could have walked in a couple of minutes later, and then she really would have had a hard time explaining herself.

"Yeah, that's mine," she answered quickly, moving past him and grabbing it. Why shouldn't she be casual about it? It was just supposed to be books and stuff, right? She swung it over one shoulder and turned back to him. "Let's go."

***

"And school? Is history still-"

"It's fine," answered Dawn curtly.

Besides her Spike flinched. Her responses had become shorter and shorter as they crossed town. Soon she would be grunting her answers, and after that he expected that she'd just glare if he asked her something.

Yeah, she was fine with him being back all right. What a load.

He knew her. Knew her better than anyone, better than Buffy did. Buffy saw Dawn through the resentful eyes of an older sibling whose role as the pampered baby of the family was supplanted. Who loved her sister enough to die for her, but not always enough to assume responsibility for her care and feeding. She still loved Dawn like a sister, when she had to be her mother. Of course Buffy didn't see her clearly. Of course.

She was punishing him. That much was obvious. He could imagine her coming by to see him, to beard the lion in his den, to show him that she was above any fear or resentment. She didn't want any of that to touch her. She wanted to be too cool for that.

But she wasn't cool, and she never had been. She was temperamental, mercurial, intense. A bit like him, really. Neither of them was able to hide their emotions worth a damn. For a few precious moments her mask had dropped, and she'd looked wistful and vulnerable and like she wanted a hug. And then it slipped back into place before he could do anything, but he'd seen it. He wasn't kidding himself.

But he had no idea how to bring it out again. He had no idea how to make things up to her. Alive 150 fucking years, and he couldn't even figure out how to patch things up with a teenager. Even a former green glowy key whose life he'd tried to protect again and again.

He was useless.

"Well, you know, I can always help with geometry," he told her.

"Hmm," Dawn replied.

Down to the monosyllables now.

Her house loomed up before them. Spike didn't know whether to be relieved or frustrated. They needed to spend a lot more time together, but their conversation seemed to be deteriorating. "I could come in and help you with your homework now," Spike offered.

"I'm fine," Dawn said, her voice remote. "Giles is home, he can take care of it. I don't want to bother you."

"It's no bother," Spike assured her a little anxiously. She'd never been so chilly to him before. It made him feel odd, like there was something wrong with the earth's rotation and his balance was off. Maybe he was coming down with an inner ear infection, although he'd never heard of a vampire getting an infection. He did feel rather dizzy, actually. Lightheaded.

He felt better when he was around Buffy. He hadn't seen her for a few days, and he needed to be around her again. He needed her more than blood. More than...he couldn't even think of anything else that rated. Passions and jalapeno poppers and Guinness made existence pleasant, but they weren't necessary. Blood was necessary to sustain his body, and Buffy was necessary to sustain everything else.

"Is your sister here?" he asked Dawn, leaning a bit on the porch railing.

Dawn barely looked at him. "No, she has a late class tonight. She won't be back for a couple of hours.'

"Oh. Are you sure you don't want me to wait with you, Bit, and I can look over your work-"

"I'm fine," said Dawn, unlocking the door and slipping through without ever opening it enough for him to mistake it for an invitation. "Goodnight."

The closed door made it clear she wasn't interested in his response.

***

He wasn't much for bench sitting, usually, unless he was holding his lady's hand and surveying some lovely scene. Like a serene ocean, or the aftermath of a good night's fight.

But by the time he was halfway to his crypt he'd been doubled over, holding onto trees for support. And when he'd passed by Sycamore Park he decided to take advantage of one of the benches, to avoid the undignified, but at this point highly likely, chance of collapsing on the side of the road.

Before, the pain in his gut had been steady and...not mild, but not like this. And somehow his head was involved this time, and it was hard to balance. And all of it was washing over him in waves, and all he could do was wait for it to stop. Miserable and vulnerable. God, it was like being a human again.

After a while he became aware that the intensity of the pain had diminished, and tentatively straightened up. Still hurt like blazes, but now he felt more like himself, at least. It was okay, he didn't have to move yet. The crypt wasn't going anywhere. He had hours yet before sunrise to make his way back there.

It might take all of them.

He was sitting there, concentrating on not moving, when he became aware of being watched. He moved his head slightly and sighted her, standing on the sidewalk a few yards away, watching him with undisguised interest.

"Come here," he said, wincing slightly as he heard the gravelly tone of his voice.

Willow did as he told her, sitting next to him and watching him with a slightly concerned expression. He did his best to seem like the old Spike, because there was no use in everybody knowing he felt like shit.

"I know what you did," he told her.

A startled expression crossed her face.

"To the man who killed...." he trailed off. She nodded.

"Good for you."

Willow blinked. No one had ever said something like that to her. They were all, that's what laws are for. Those aren't things for you to decide. You can't take the law into your own hands. The wheels of justice, and all that.

She felt so bad. She could never atone enough for what she'd done, what she'd tried to do. For trying to kill Buffy, Giles. Dawn and Xander. The world.

But not Warren. Not for a moment had she regretted what she'd done to him. The only thing she'd do differently with him is make it take longer. Hurt worse. Because she was still hurting, still suffering. It was over way too quick for him. He should have had to suffer like her. Didn't like losing his skin? Poor baby.

The only she regretted about killing him was that she hadn't been discreet. Buffy and Xander and Anya, they'd found out. If she'd done it right they wouldn't have known a thing. But she'd always been a good student.

She learned from her mistakes.

"Are you and Buffy-together, now?" she asked carefully.

He looked surprised by the question. Well, why wouldn't he be? When had she ever shown an interest in his personal life before?

He hesitated. "We're-friends," he said finally, settling on the word Buffy had chosen to describe their relationship.

He still didn't like it.

She continued looking at him, her eyes calm and curious.

Didn't look much like a black magic woman at the moment, Spike thought. Of course, he'd never noticed her looking any different the entire time she'd been plotting to resurrect Buffy, so what did he know?

"Buffy thinks I've put a curse on you," she said tentatively. "Do you believe that?"

He froze. It was as if she'd known what he was thinking. Although, in all honesty, she'd always been perceptive. More so than Buffy. But this was...eerie.

He studied her face and shrugged. Hell, he'd always got on well with Red, even with the weight of his past misdeeds-when he'd kidnapped her and Harris, when he'd put a wedge between them and Buffy, when he'd tried to kill her in the dorm room she shared with Buffy. He thought, absently, that she probably remembered the dorm incident only in terms of herself being too plain to bite. Ridiculous, he'd told her as much, but he didn't think she could hear that enough.

He shrugged. "If you say you didn't, I believe you," he told her honestly. She'd been friendly to him all along, especially the summer after Buffy died. She'd invited him to Buffy's party without a lot of prodding.

And she knew, like him, what it was to have her heart ripped out.

"Good. I wouldn't hurt you," she said.

"I'm sorry about-you know," Spike said softly.

Willow was silent for a moment, absorbing his sympathy. She'd had little enough of it. Tara was dead and Willow felt like she was the only one who mourned her. The others had just forgotten. It was as if she'd been a speed bump in their lives, something to get past on the way to the next exciting beast or lover or job.

It wasn't fair. Tara deserved better. She had been so much more than that. She deserved to have an honored place in their memories, not be a footnote to their college years, like dorm food or a lousy professor.

"Thanks," Willow murmured.

"She was right tasty," said Spike without thinking, then mentally kicked himself.

Willow looked a little startled, but then she laughed. "Yeah, she was," she agreed. She glanced around. She didn't know what to say, but it was nice to talk to someone besides Xander. She loved him, but a little variety was good. "So you've got a soul now?"

Beside her, Spike froze.

"It's okay, I won't tell," she assured him hurriedly. "You haven't told Buffy yet, have you? Because I think she might have told Xander if you had. Well actually, I think she might have screamed it at him."

"How did you know?" Spike asked after a moment. No one had noticed a thing. Not Buffy, his beloved. Her Slayer senses and their intimacy had told her nothing. Not Anya, endowed with the supernatural abilities of a demon. Not Dawn, his former shadow, with her magical origins. "Are you dabbling in magic again? Because you should realize by now that those things are dangerous-"

"No one knows that more than I do," she said quietly. "Tara taught me how to read people's flow; I don't need to do magic to see your soul. You're wearing it the way you used to wear your duster."

She had no idea why he flinched.

"I should get back now," he muttered, getting up from the bench and starting down the block. He didn't look behind him, and he didn't see her stare after him, long after he had disappeared from view.

It took a while for him to reach the crypt, what with all the pausing and gulping in huge lungfuls of air and steadying himself on handy graves. It seemed like he'd been walking for years, and he could barely continue. Fixing his eyes on the door, he forced his feet to move even as he wanted more than anything to lie down and moan and...god knows what. After what seemed like forever, he was close enough to believe he would actually make it. Ten feet, five, almost there....

Then he was inside, on his knees, shuddering, crying, his stomach clenching. And then a wash of red covering the floor in front of him, as his body rejected that which sustained it.

Chapter 13 by Shadowlass
Giles had always had an appreciation for blueberry pancakes. On their own, pancakes were rather boring. Bland and soft, and really too sweet for breakfast, to his mind. But with blueberries, they were something else entirely. A few mornings when he had been over early to speak with Buffy he had enjoyed Joyce's blueberry pancakes, which had a pleasant bite to them. He'd watched her wash fresh blueberries and toss them with sugar before folding them into the pale batter, and the freshness had given the pancakes an appealing crunch.

The pancakes with which Buffy had presented him a few minutes before also crunched, but that was because they hadn't defrosted completely.

He ate them anyway.

Dawn wasn't so tactful. She cut bites from around the edges of her pancake stack, leaving a very conspicuous untouched center.

It was the third time Buffy had served pancakes since he'd arrived, and she hadn't heated them correctly once.

Giles smothered a sigh. She was the dearest girl, and she'd come so far by herself. Back in school, a job that made sense. Doing her own grocery shopping.

Yet there seemed to be a point at which her development stopped. At which she said, I can do this, and no more.

Perhaps, Giles thought suddenly, he should have listened to her the previous fall, when she'd pleaded with him not to go. She said she needed him, but he was so determined to do the right thing by her. And so deluded to think that he knew what that was.

He'd never died. He'd never held his family together while trying to save the world every night. He'd never had to kill someone he loved.

He'd never been left by the person chosen to guide him.

When he and Anya had spoken a few nights earlier, he had been taken aback to realize that instead of Buffy and her friends growing up while he was gone, they had all devolved rather spectacularly. He had no idea how it had happened, but the evidence was before him and he could not refute it.

As he stood up to help clear the table-Dawn having vanished without offering-he studied Buffy. She was certainly more self-possessed than she had been after her return the year before, yet she still seemed unlike herself, to his mind. She was quieter, and less effervescent. She kept things to herself.

Of course, she'd always kept things to herself. But she had usually covered her secretive tendencies up with a bright smile and smart remark, and as a result he somehow never thought of her as keeping secrets. Now, her demeanor suggested, she was her own woman and didn't have to answer to anyone.

So he had no idea how she would react to what he was going to say, and might as well not even try to cipher her out. "Buffy? May I have a word with you?"

Buffy froze in the act of placing the breakfast dishes in the sink to soak. Okay, syrup didn't require much soaking, but she never had time to wash the dishes in the morning anyway. He caught me, she thought, before remembering that she'd done nothing wrong. And that she was an adult. And that people didn't get to call her on things anymore, even if she loved them. Even if they disapproved.

She braced herself anyway.

"Buffy, I'm been watching you since I arrived-"

"You being a Watcher and all," she agreed dryly, covering her trepidation.

"Yes," he said absently, not listening. "And I've been doing quite a bit of thinking. I-perhaps you should sit down."

They both sat again at the kitchen table. "I-I've-" he hesitated. He wasn't sure how she'd react. He wasn't even sure how he felt about it yet himself. "Maybe I should just show you," he said finally.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out an airline ticket.

She couldn't think for a moment, and was startled by the sudden crash of her heart. Almost like the other shoe dropping, she thought remotely. Why would she even be surprised? At least this time he wasn't back long enough for her to begin to depend on him again. Better than last year, at least.

He unfolded the paper and held it out to her, shaking it impatiently when she didn't immediately take it. Finally she focused on it.

"It's not a plane ticket," she blurted out in surprise.

He had no right to be hurt that the first thing she assumed he would do was leave. No right at all.

"It's a purchase agreement," he explained gently. "I've long enjoyed that bookshop down on Hazel Street. When I saw the for-sale sign in the window, it seemed the natural step. I...I missed the shop very much when I was away. I didn't even realize how much until I came back. It's the sort of thing that needs someone to look after it. To care for it, do what they can to make sure nothing bad happens. To-"

"Dust its shelves?" Buffy offered. Was she imagining this? Was he really coming back for good?

"Yes, dusting. We can't forget the dusting," Giles agreed with a small smile.

"Are you going to stay-"

"Yes, Buffy, I am going to stay."

"I meant here. In our house."

Giles felt himself flush a bit, a sensation he hadn't often felt since before his Ripper days. She was certainly accepting his news easily. Not a great deal of reaction, really. He'd thought-hoped-she'd be more excited. "Oh. Well, I thought I might get my own place. Unless you'd prefer I stay here?"

Buffy shook her head. "No, you-you can get your own place. Will you move back into your townhouse?"

"No, I gave up the lease on that when I returned to England last fall. Perhaps someplace a little larger now."

"What about the Magic Box?" Buffy asked quietly. "I mean, you still own it. Why the new shop?"

"You know, I bought the Magic Box because it coincided nicely with our interests and because, honestly, it seemed to do a brisk business. But since you convinced the council to reinstate me, I don't really need the reassurance of a profitable establishment-and I prefer spending my time around books rather than Fjyliac casting stones and pickled gelsen tongue. For one thing, they smell better," he joked mildly. "For that matter, Anya is doing very nicely on her own; I'm going to offer to sell her my share of the shop-she's such an clever investor, she probably has enough to buy me out tucked in her change purse. I'm sure it will be quite a relief for her, not to worry that I'm going to be imposing my unwanted suggestions on her. She really is quite a remarkable businesswoman."

"Why are you staying?" Buffy asked baldly.

Giles hesitated. "Well, as I said, there is a shop I'm rather partial to-"

"Yes, I heard about the shop, and the shop needs someone, and you shouldn't have left the shop, and can we stop talking in metaphors? Why are you staying now when you wouldn't last year, even after I begged you to?"

Well. She still knew how to cut a person deeply; that hadn't changed. "Last year-last year I thought it would be best for you to develop your sense of responsibility," he explained carefully.

"My sense of responsibility?" Buffy repeated in disbelief. "Is that a joke? How many times do I have to save the world before you think I've developed a sense of responsibility?"

"Responsibility was a poor choice of word," Giles amended hastily. "Independence, I think, is more what I was hoping to encourage."

"Encourage from the other side of the world?"

How could he explain his intentions when they had been so misguided? Plead temporary insanity? He'd reached the point where he now barely remembered his reasons for leaving. Well, he remembered them; they just seemed so trifling now-almost like a pretext. "Buffy...you had so much thrust upon you last year...your mother...raising Dawn...readjusting to life. Yet it seemed to me that the longer I stayed, the more dependent you became. You didn't want to be the adult in Dawn's life. You didn't even want to be the adult in your life."

Buffy opened her mouth to interrupt, but Giles held up a hand to preempt her. "I wanted to help you. But although I can train you and conduct research, I have no expertise in the raising of a young woman. I don't know how to help you, but I wanted to, more than anything-you must believe that. You didn't seem to be adjusting as soon as I thought you should. I'm afraid I reverted to a ‘sink or swim' mentality-really quite barbaric. But you must know that I expected you to swim beautifully."

"I guess I'm a slow learner," Buffy replied, hurt.

"No, my dear, I am. I was quite stupid. A person cannot swim when they are already weighted down, and you have more anchors than any one person should have to bear. My role as Watcher is not merely to help you train and record your deeds; it is to make your job easier however I can. And despite the best intentions, I did the opposite. I let you down, Buffy. As a Watcher and as a friend," he said honestly.

Buffy regarded him suspiciously, still not convinced. She'd heard the I'm-leaving-for-your-own-good speech so many times she could recite it in her sleep. She'd never heard it in reverse before. She thought she liked it better that way. "You're not staying because you're worried about Spike, are you? Because I can take care of myself."

"I know you can," he responded with heartbreaking tenderness. "You just shouldn't have to."

Buffy glanced down at the table. It was hard to believe he was really here, saying these things to her. She'd dreamed it so often in the months after he'd left, wanted it so badly. She'd been hurt so deeply when he left. When Riley had left she was wounded and angry, but it was nothing compared to what she felt when Giles-her rock-had listened to her beg him to stay and then packed his bags anyway; it had been as if the world were turning backwards. A reminder that she could trust no one to stand by her, a little refresher course in what her real major was in life.

You can trust Spike, a little voice inside her whispered. She pushed it aside. Yes, he'd always been there for her, but not everything was about him. This was Giles, asking for another chance to care for her. Like Spike had. Like Angel, like Willow.

No, not like Willow. Nothing like her. Giles had-he'd been trying to help her.

And Spike? And Angel? What had they been trying to do?

"Okay," Buffy murmured. Her brain hurt, and she didn't want to think anymore.

"Okay?" repeated Giles.

Buffy jerked back to reality and stood up, walking over to the sink and turning the faucet on hot. Flooding the breakfast dishes, squeezing in detergent. Behind her she could hear Giles rise and move towards the doorway. She turned around suddenly. "So you're really staying? For good?" she asked softly.

He regarded her gravely. He regretted he'd ever given her reason to doubt him. "Yes. For good."

She nodded, and returned her attention to the sink without a word. Giles sighed and left the kitchen. It wasn't the response he'd hoped for. But what could he expect? It appeared she still had a layer of-

He stopped abruptly when a strong, thin pair of arms sneaked around him from behind, squeezing him desperately. "You're really staying?" Buffy whispered again.

He squeezed her hands where they met around his waist. "Yes, I promise," he said softly, and smiled as he felt her rest her head against his back. She didn't seem inclined to let go.

That was just fine with him.

***

There was something lazy about bells over shop doors. The old, burned-down Magic Box had had one, but Anya had always disapproved of it. An attentive shopkeeper didn't need a crutch like that, she knew when customers came in because she was paying attention. So when the store was rebuilt, no bell was put over the door. Giles hadn't been there when the project was reaching completion, but Anya had popped over to see him and let him know what she was doing, in the guise of asking his advice about it. He had agreed with her, because he recognized her expertise in the matter. She enjoyed the faith he had in her abilities. Perhaps, now that he was in town again, he would like to begin spending his days at the shop? Not that she needed the help. But it would be nice for him to have something to do. Something to do around her.

She did spend a lot of her time thinking about Giles. Sometime she was planning their long and happy lives together, but she believed in being practical, so the primary focus of her Giles-related thoughts was on devising a sophisticated approach with him, rather than the lose-the-dress gambit that had worked so well with Xander. He was much older than Xander, and much wiser. Of course, Spike was older than Xander and wiser too, which was actually kind of depressing, and she hadn't even had to shuck her clothes for him to be on her. Ah yes! Alcohol! How could she have forgotten about its many fine, inebriating qualities? Of course, she wanted Giles to be cognizant of their relationship. But sometimes relationships needed a little grease, or at least lube. And they'd had a breakthrough a few nights before, hadn't they, when Giles had asked her about the wisdom of him returning to England last year? It had shown he'd valued her opinion as a woman as well as a shopkeeper. He'd never have told her such intimate things otherwise. He wanted to know what she thought. It was a nice change of pace from...well, everyone.

The thing was, when she thought about Giles, she didn't always notice things. So when Xander walked into the Magic Box, she didn't see him, and she didn't hear him, because of the no-bell door, and she didn't smell him, because why would she?

It was the first time Xander had been to the shop since it was rebuilt. Things looked different now, but they felt different too. Perhaps that was because he was an outsider. It used to be his second home, and now he wasn't welcome there.

But he needed to be there. He needed it so badly. He'd needed to be around Anya for months, but he'd respected her desire that he leave her alone. It hurt his heart to be away from her, but he'd done it because she wanted it and he owed it to her. He couldn't stay away any more. He knew he should, but things were worse and he had no one. He had no one except Willow and his job was to help her, not burden her with his problems.

He shouldn't be doing that to Anya, either, but she'd always known how to take care of herself. Even when she was sad, even when she was angry. She did it better than anyone he knew. She wasn't nurturing. But she was strong.

There weren't any customers in the shop, and Anya stood before a display of dried herb bouquets, staring at them with intense concentration. Herbs didn't need that much attention; she must have been thinking about something important. Something that mattered to her.

Something that undoubtedly wasn't him.

"Ahn?"

Her back stiffened, and then she turned around slowly, her face tense. Well, she hadn't forgotten his voice, at least.

"Xander," she said formally, as if they barely knew each other. "What are you doing at my establishment? Do you wish to purchase one of the large variety of magical goods we carry? This week we have a special on bulk quantities of tagus root."

As she spoke she moved behind the counter, letting him know that she was only interested in talking business with him. But he'd played it her way ever since he'd broken up with her, when he was wearing a stupid rented tux that barely fit and she was achingly beautiful in a dress that made her look like a mermaid. He'd tried so hard to do things her way, because he'd thought it would help. And he'd never been able to make her understand what he feared, what that foul old man had shown him. He knew it was fiction, that it was just some scenario to make him hurt Anya, but she hadn't grown up wincing every time his father opened his mouth. Cringing when he raised his hand. Hiding in his closet so he wouldn't be found. Fantasizing that he wasn't his father, that his mother would swoop him up and take him someplace else, where they could be safe and happy.

And then, as an adult, feeling trapped there. Like it was quicksand, and he couldn't fight his way out. Even after he started working, working at a lot of different things, he'd stayed there, and it made him feel even worse. But somehow the chains holding him there seemed to grow even tighter. If it wasn't for Anya he'd still be there. She was the only thing that had gotten him out. But even with her, he hadn't been sure he was strong enough not to become his father. Because two years of Anya couldn't erase 18 years of him, and he loved her too much to risk it. She could dismiss it as a shadow threat. He lived with it every night. He knew it couldn't just be waved away.

"I was just-just, uh-wondering how you were doing." Anya regarded him steadily, and Xander felt himself begin to wilt under her flinty gaze. He felt as big a loser as he had been in high school. He didn't think he'd ever been this tongue-tied, even with Cordy at her most sarcastic. "Have you seen anyone interesting lately?" he attempted, trying not to sounds jealous, or possessive, or any of the other things he wasn't entitled to feel.

"What?" Anya demanded in disbelief.

"I mean...like Giles, say? Have you seen Giles?"

"No, I haven't seen Giles. Today," she added shortly

"Oh. I was just wondering. Because I heard you saw a lot of him."

"We're business partners. And friends. Friends first, really. He respects my opinion and treats me with respect. Yes, a lot of-respect. It's a nice feeling. It's a new feeling," she added frostily.

Xander stared at the floor. How could he tell her it hurt, to hear she was popping over to the other side of the world to see Giles, and wouldn't even come out from behind the counter to talk to him? He'd tried again and again to tell her how sorry he was. But he wasn't here to apologize; he'd done that enough.

He needed to talk, and he just didn't have anyone else.

"If you want to talk to Giles I suggest you call Buffy," Anya said, drawing him back to the moment.

Xander flinched. "I don't think that's really a good idea. Buffy and I are a little-things aren't good now."

"Ah. Is it about Spike, by any chance?"

"You know about that?" Xander asked in surprise.

"Why yes, of course. We're friends. She and I and Giles and Spike. Why, just last weekend the four of us had a wonderful time together at Buffy's."

Xander ground his teeth to avoid saying anything bad about the everything that he hated about that sentence. "Aren't you at all-concerned about her?" Xander asked.

"Why would I be? She's the Slayer, she knows how to take care of herself better than anyone."

"He's a vampire," Xander said doggedly-the same argument he'd made before, to Buffy, to others, about Spike, about Angel. It all felt so old, and like it had happened so many times. But he felt as if he didn't struggle everyone would go under, and then it would be too late. Too late for all of them. And yet he seemed to be the only one who was worried.

"And she's a vampire slayer. That would seem like a good balance to me. Unconventional, but equal."

"Balance? The balance between vampires and the Slayer is that she kills them. That's where the whole balance thing comes in. It's like she's forgotten what she's supposed to do."

"How could she forget?" Anya scoffed. "She's done it every night for the past seven years."

"But she's different now. She used to be my hero," said Xander quietly. "Now, I don't know."

Anya shook her head in disbelief. That had always been Xander's problem. He had grown up trying to hide from reality, and had taken refuge where he could. Mostly, in fantasy. His view of reality was so colored, so skewed, that when people behaved like...people, he couldn't stand it. It didn't fit his idea of what was normal. What was right. God knows she never had.

"Xander, she does heroic things, but she's a person," pointed out Anya. "Not a comic book hero. Not an action figure. She's a person, and she's allowed to lose her temper and hold grudges and make bad romantic decisions. Or perfectly good ones that you just don't approve of."

"I don't think she's an action figure," protested Xander, wounded. He only wanted Buffy to be Buffy, the girl he'd met and immediately fallen into...uh, admiration for so many years before. Who'd been so brave, and done what was right no matter how hard it was. Who had opened up his world, and Willow's.

"Then why do you get so upset when she breaks out of her little mold?"

"I don't want to force her in a mold, I just want her to be Buffy," he said desperately.

"Well, who else do you think she's being? Just because she's not doing what you want doesn't mean she's not being herself. You want her to be exactly the same as she's always been, but everything in her life has changed, and you can't expect that it-" Anya stopped and drew a breath. "Do you know why Giles left last year, Xander?"

He couldn't answer. He'd never had a clue.

"He left so she would grow up," Anya told him plainly. She didn't like talking with him. She felt like she was talking with a child; she wasn't sure what she'd ever seen in him. She'd pushed aside warm memories of Xander bringing her soup when she was sick, and rubbing her feet when they were cold, pushed them so far away she could barely recall them. She gathered up an armful of stock that hadn't been moving well and turned to head into the back. At the door she turned. "And she has grown up. You have to let her do it her way. You know, Xander, the trouble with putting people on a pedestal is that sometimes they find it hard to keep their balance. And most people prefer the view from the ground, anyway."

She stayed in the storeroom a good five minutes. When she came out, the shop was empty.

***

It wasn't appropriate to skip through a cemetery, was it? Buffy didn't think so. And really, it sounded like something that fruit bat Drusilla would do. But she felt lighter than she had in years. Giles was staying-staying for good, he'd promised. And he'd never promised her anything before, and he was English, and it probably meant more to him because of...some reason she didn't know, and he was staying. And Dawn had been doing her homework like she was supposed to when Buffy got home from class the night before, and she chatted during breakfast, and seemed happier than she usually did. And now Buffy was going to see Spike, and it had been a few days, and she was sick of not seeing him, and was it possible to babble when talking to yourself?

She restrained herself from kicking in Spike's door. It almost felt wrong not to, but that was of the past. Along with hiding their relationship and beating him up when it wasn't for mutual pleasure, or at least training purposes. Or both.

Huh. There was usually noise coming from Spike's crypt. He hardly ever sat still, and would have the television or CD player going, or just be nattering on to himself about Dawn or Tennyson or onion rings. Or talking to an imaginary Buffy, she'd heard him do that enough times. Imaginary Buffy seemed to like to argue.

But tonight the crypt was silent. It was eerie, and perhaps it was the unaccustomed silence that made her freeze with her hand on the door and draw out her stake.

When she quietly pushed the door open she was startled to find...nothing.

No trash decorating the room; no grime on the floor; even the furniture was gone.

Her heart caught in her throat. "Spike," she whispered. Then, more loudly, "Spike!"

"Buffy?"

Buffy swung her attention to the corner of the room, and in the dim she could make out Spike's bright head as he moved towards her from the far end of the crypt. "My god, what's happened here?"

"Just doing a little spring cleaning is all. Clem really did leave the place a bit of a mess."

"You moved all the furniture out?" she asked in disbelief.

"Furniture's right there, Slayer," he pointed out, gesturing to the wall. She followed his hand and her eyes, now adjusting to the lack of light, made out the shapes of his few pieces of furniture, pushed to the periphery of the room. "Had to get it out of the way."

Buffy looked around more carefully, then bent to touch the floor in surprise. "You washed the floor?" she marveled.

Spike stiffened a little. If he'd just washed the one spot he'd been ill it would have looked a little odd, wouldn't it? It was stupid of him not to tell her, really, but it made him feel weak. Vulnerable. And she had more than enough to deal with already without worrying about him. Even if he liked the thought of her worrying about him. Hell, he was only h-well, he had feelings same as anyone, didn't he?

Besides, no need for her to worry. It had just been that one time, and he was fine. Sure, he hadn't eaten since, but that was because he really wasn't hungry. That was all.

He walked over to her and touched her cheek. He loved the way she let him do it, the way she reached up to cover his hand with her own.

"Did Xander visit?" she asked a little nervously. "Or maybe you got another present?"

"No, Slayer," Spike murmured, nuzzling her cheek. "And there aren't going to be any more."

Buffy pulled back in surprise and looked at him. "Why not?" He smiled at her, and she felt a shiver run down her spine.

"Because I did a little thinking, and everything's clear now. And I know exactly where they came from."

Chapter 14 by Shadowlass

Spike gritted his teeth. This was getting them nowhere, it was obvious; the combined force of Spike and Buffy wasn't intimidating him at all. He returned their gaze steadily. And why wouldn't he? He had no idea what they were talking about.

"I still don't get the part about the bag of bones," Clem protested. "Were they chicken bones? I had hot wings a couple of times, but I usually get a whole bucket. Because, you know, it takes a lot of wings to make a meal. They don't have a lot of meat to them. I mean, if they made wings without bones maybe a bag would be enough, but as it is they're mostly bone. And I don't really understand that, because they sell boneless chicken, so why can't they just-"

"Finger bones. They were finger bones," said Spike impatiently.

"Chickens don't-"

"Human fingers."

"My god, that's disgusting! And you think I left that in your crypt?"

Buffy glanced at Spike dubiously. It didn't sound too likely, did it? Clem, with his big droopy face and innocent eyes? Clem, who loved nachos and, um, kittens, and...led her baby sister straight to Rack's, where she was almost killed..."Spill!" Buffy demanded, grabbing his collar and giving him a good shake.

Clem didn't know what to think. Sure, she was the Slayer, and admittedly, he was a demon, but she'd never seemed interested in killing him before, even before they were properly introduced. Maybe this was...a game? A weird role-playing game she and Spike had going. Good vamp, bad Slayer? He didn't think he liked his role in the game. In fact, he was pretty sure he didn't want to play.

"Spike?" he said nervously. "I'm, uh, I'm not really sure what-"

Spike's hand on her wrist stopped Buffy from shaking Clem's head off. He drew her aside with a tug. "What the hell is that about, Slayer?" he muttered.

"I'm trying to get to the bottom of it," she gritted.

"The bottom of what?"

"The bottom of the fingers, and the doll," she said in exasperation.

"He obviously doesn't know anything about them," Spike pointed out. Unfortunately, that had become clear. So much for his brilliant fucking idea.

"He's dangerous!" Buffy hissed.

"Yeah, he might stare sadly at us to death," Spike agreed sardonically.

Buffy glared at him, thoroughly frustrated. "As I recall, you were the one who had the brainstorm that it was Clem."

"Yeah, it was my idea that Clem forgot some of his stuff at my place, not that he's stalking me or some such garbage," Spike returned testily. He would have thought the Slayer was a better judge of character, but hell, she'd dated Clark Kent for about forever before figuring out that Finn's alter ego was less Superman than Jimmy Olsen with a crack habit. Well, she hadn't actually figured it out so much as he'd pointed it out to her. Strictly for her own good of course, although he'd never heard a word of thanks.

And it wasn't like he hadn't saved her a lot of heartbreak in the long run, because there was no way that rotten, two-timing lump of-

"Well, what do you suggest we do?" Buffy challenged, drawing him out of his reverie. He always did enjoy thinking about how much he hated Lt. Lightweight.

He shrugged. "Get a drink?" he suggested. She looked at him skeptically. "Go dancing?" She continued to stare at him. "Go home?" he offered finally.

She rolled her eyes. "Fine," she sighed. Since when had he become all sane and rational? Last year he would have enjoyed helping her knock someone around, poker friendship notwithstanding.

And really, the time for beating Clem up would have been right after the world didn't end. Not now. Now he wouldn't even know what she was beating him for, and what was the point of that?

Clem watched as Spike and the Slayer murmured to each other and exchanged intense looks, then turn towards the door and head out without another word to him. He almost said goodbye, but the Slayer was acting kind of scary and he really didn't want say anything that might make her stay. She was usually calmer than this. Kind of sedate, really. He thought he might like to put some lotion on his neck, which was kind of sore from being shaken. His skin was surprisingly tender. People never seemed to realize that.

He wondered when they'd started dating again.

***

Spike glanced at Buffy, walking silently beside him. He itched to take her hand, but she still seemed a little pissed that he hadn't let her whale on Clem. He'd usually encouraged her to violence in the past; she probably didn't know what the hell had got into him.

He turned his head slightly to hide his smile. Well, there were other ways to burn off frustration. He'd shown her quite a few in the past.

At any rate, it wasn't how he'd envisioned the evening. As he'd lain on the floor of his crypt the night before, he'd wondered if he was dying. It was ridiculous, really; loss of blood couldn't kill him. Just make him weak, emaciated. If someone wanted to torment him, though, he was doing a good job. Hadn't heaved since-well, he'd gone a bit queasy right after he'd gotten his soul back, but that was to be expected, wasn't it? He'd felt sick when he woke up as a vampire, which wasn't surprising, having died and all. Reasonable to expect that death might turn one's stomach.

But lying on the floor, it was worse. He hadn't felt like that in so long. Been so weak, so vulnerable. Not physically, at least. But then, after a time-a long time-he'd realized the pain was gone. He still ached, and it hurt to move, but fierce pain had left him along with the blood. At the time he'd just dragged himself free of the mess and slept. In the afternoon, he'd cleaned the place up, good enough that the Slayer would never know what had happened. No need for her to know. Nothing she could do about it-nothing that needed to be done, now.

When he was cleaning the place, something had become clear to him. Dalton, that bookworm, had said he thought best when he washed floors. Said it was a Zen thing. Should have realized Big Blue would pick him to burn up; what kind of vampire went around talking that sort of rubbish? Spike had always assumed Dalton was full of shit-it was a safe bet, after all-but while carefully washing away the evidence of his weakness from the granite, he'd suddenly realized that the bones, the doll-neither of them had been meant for him. They hadn't been left out for him to find; they'd been discarded-forgotten. Shoved absently in a corner or under a chair, and his imagination-made so vivid with the addition of his soul-had conjured some bogeyman to haunt him.

Of course, Clem's blank, watery eyes-it was his allergy season, he told them, sniffling a little-had made it plain that they didn't belong to him. Admittedly, he wasn't really the type to haul around a bag of bones. But a doll? Yeah, Spike could see that.

So now he was back at square one. If Clem hadn't forgotten them at his place, then somebody had put them there deliberately; the gifts had been left for him, left by someone good at covering his tracks. Who could come and go from a vampire's lair-Spike did like the term lair-with impunity. Without fear. And who-

Hey. Buffy was holding his hand. When did that happen? He squeezed her hand a little, and she squeezed back. She looked calmer now, he was pleased to see.

He drew her closer and nuzzled the side of her neck. Oh, she enjoyed that, he could tell. He hummed a little against her soft flesh and felt her vibrate in response.

Unfortunately, they were almost in front of her house. He cursed silently and drew to a halt at the walkway to her porch. "Well, I guess this is goodnight," he said softly.

She looked at him steadily. He seemed different than he had last year, less impulsive. Well, a little, anyway. He'd never be Mr. Rational.

But he'd always be hers. And that was how she wanted it.

She reached up and cupped his face between her hands, drawing him down for a feather-light kiss. "Goodnight," she murmured.

His hands covered hers and held them to him. She never touched him like this before, gently. With care. As if he were special to her. "Buffy," he whispered. She pressed her cheek against his, and he shivered. He'd never be used to the sensation of her touching him with tenderness.

He pressed one kiss, two, against her cheek and drew back, seeing the porch light frame her, make her incandescent. "Goodnight, love," he whispered.

***

All Xander wanted was a beer, and to forget for ten goddamn minutes. Forget the hurt on Anya's face when he told her he couldn't marry her. Forget the anger when he suggested they start dating again. Forget the indifference tonight, when he'd been near her, closer to her than he had been in months, and it didn't mean a thing to her.

He wouldn't go to the Bronze. The Bronze was for having fun, or at least being sociable, and he didn't want to pretend like he wanted to talk or smile or was interested in what anyone had to say. He had to do that all day, all the time, and he just needed a few minutes where he didn't have to pretend, to keep from going insane. So he was driving to One-Eyed Jack's, the skankiest bar he knew, where even his crew wouldn't go, and he could sit and pretend he wasn't living the life he was.

But then, driving down the darkened road, he saw them walking along the sidewalk. He didn't know why he noticed them, but she was glowing like she hadn't in years, and Xander forgot his despair, his frustration, and was glad, ferociously glad, to see her as she used to be-the vibrant girl who had created a center in his life, without even meaning to.

And then he had followed her outstretched arm down to where her hand clasped Spike's, and he stopped being glad.

He forgot all about his grand plans for drinking and drove off as fast as his truck could go.

They never saw him.

Now, heading up the stairs to his apartment, he assembled his features in an acceptable approximation of the placid mask he'd taken to wearing around Willow. But Willow wasn't there when he came in, waiting on the couch with a sweet and frighteningly blank smile as she usually was, and the apartment was dim.

She never left the apartment by herself. Not unless she really wanted something, and there was only one thing she really wanted.

She's out. She's out and she'll try to talk to Buffy, and this time Buffy will kill her, Xander thought. His head felt so fogged up that the panic he would normally feel seemed distant, like he was watching somebody else get bad news. Didn't even get a goddamn drink, but he felt as insulated as if he'd gotten nicely toasted.

When he thought about it that way, he could kind of see where his dad was coming from.

And god, he hated thinking that even for a second.

"I was wondering when you'd return."

Xander started at the sound and turned to the dark corner to squint at the speaker. Although that didn't really make sense, he admitted, because it wasn't like he could confuse Giles' voice with...well, anybody.

"What's with the darkness? Going for a new-a new-" God, it was hard to make a joke when you didn't care if the other person laughed, or even if you did. In fact, he couldn't think of anything he cared enough about to say right then.

Oh. Except-"Where's Willow? Is she all right?" he asked, reproaching himself for not asking immediately.

Giles dismissed Xander's concern with a wave of his hand. "She's fine, she was just feeling a little tired and went to bed early."

"Tired? Why was she tired?"

"Well, I came over for a talk this afternoon and we had a brisk walk and stopped for a bite to eat. She wore out rather easily, I'm afraid. I don't think the lack of stimulation she's had lately has been good for her."

Xander felt a pang of unwelcome guilt, followed by an equally unwelcome jolt of jealousy. You're living with Buffy and Dawn and my fiancée's all over you and now you're taking over my best friend. Hey, why don't you start dating my mom on the side?

And then, again with the self-reproval. He was could always count on that, at least.

"I've been waiting for a while. Willow indicated that you usually get home by six," Giles prodded.

"I thought I'd go for a beer."

"That must have been quite an impressive brew," Giles observed dryly.

Xander ignored the implied question. He'd be damned if he'd give an accounting of how Anya had stared through him, and talked about Giles, and told Xander that he wasn't worth jack as a friend. He'd wanted to get in his car and drive until he no longer remembered he'd come from, but that wasn't the kind of thing he did. No matter what Anya thought, he wasn't the kind of guy who'd turn his back on his friends. So he was here, because Willow needed him, and because Buffy needed him too, even if she didn't think so. They all needed each other. They were what made each other strong, not Buffy's Slayerness or Willow's magic. It was their friendship, and he'd be damned if he'd leave that behind.

"Xander? Are you sure you're all right?" Giles asked, keeping his voice gentler than it usually was when he addressed the boy. Man, really. It wasn't fair to withhold that word from Xander; he'd earned it. Now he looked more tired than Giles had ever seen him-indescribably exhausted, far older than his 21 years. He seemed weighed down with concern, quite unlike the exuberant youth he'd been only a few years before. Always piping up with some inane observance or inappropriate joke, some of which were rather funny. Even if Giles did rarely admit it.

Xander brushed off his concern. He had never sought the sympathy of the others, even when he felt like crap. When people looked at you with pity, it just made you feel worse. And he didn't want anyone feeling sorry for him, anyway.

He had that position all sewn up. That's why god made Patsy Cline albums.

"I'm fine," he dismissed.

Giles gave him a probing glance. "Are you sure?"

There was hardly any bitterness in the ironic smile Xander managed as he said, "What's could be wrong? A great day hauling lumber and slamming nails, followed by the always-wonderful chat with ex-fiancée. I hope you appreciate how much Anya thinks of you," he added, fighting to keep his voice steady.

"Anya? Yes, of course. She's a fine-a fine girl, really. I've haven't told her yet-I'm not sure what she'll say. It's the best thing, though, and I'm sure in the end that everyone-"

"Tell her? Tell her what?" Xander interrupted. Yet another topic which he was the last to know, apparently. Well, not the last this time. Not the exact last, at least.

Giles realized he had gotten ahead of himself and smiled apologetically. "I see I'm getting ahead of myself," he chuckled. "I guess the only people who have been told are Buffy and Dawn, and now Willow. You see, I've decided to stay in Sunnydale."

That was the point at which Xander stopped listening.

He'd heard the phrase "out of body experience" his entire life-after all, he did live in California-but he'd never had what he'd describe as one before. And he was probably still actually in his body, but for some reason he felt like he was standing on the other side of the room, watching an exchange that had nothing to do with him. Certainly nothing that he cared about. Two strangers, talking about the weather or the stock market or dog racing-did they still do that? You'd think animal activists would have put a stop to that by now in favor of, well, something else-midget racing? Washed-up child star hot oil wrestling? He didn't know.

"-and I've let you all down so terribly."

Giles' soft phrase penetrated Xander's mind, forced inside by shock when Giles briefly touched his shoulder, a gesture so unexpected that Xander jumped back as if burned.

Giles shrugged apologetically. He would think that he was losing his touch, but he'd never had one to begin with. He'd failed all of them, even those who whose care he was not charged with. He'd read the situation-read them-horribly wrong. He wondered how many things would have turned out differently if he's stayed.

"You're staying," Xander muttered, mostly to himself. Giles looked at him curiously. "You don't have to worry about Anya. She'll be delighted," he assured Giles with a grimace.

"Well, I'm hoping so. She'll still have the Magic Box to herself-I've purchased that old bookshop on Hazel Street, you know the one, the Shoehorn? By the comic book store?" Giles prodded when Xander continued to look at him blankly.

"Oh, yeah, the bookshop," Xander repeated. Giles wouldn't be on the other side of the world any more; Anya wouldn't have to poof off to visit him, she could just walk a couple of blocks. Or sprint. And Giles could drop in on her. And they could go on lots of double dates with Buffy and Spike, and even Willow wouldn't need him anymore.

"While Willow and I were out walking today we glanced at a few houses for sale-the prices certainly are agreeable. Which isn't surprising, really. When Olivia comes out I want to have the place completely ready for her, not all sixes and sevens-"

"Olivia? What? You two are still seeing each other?" Xander blurted.

Giles looked down with uncustomary shyness. "As it happens, we'd been discussing moving in together. When I realized I had to stay here, I asked if she would join me. She agreed."

Xander stared at him, and stared some more. Finally he sat on the couch without a word.

He felt the couch readjust, and knew that Giles must have sat down next to him. Anya, he thought with a pang. God, this will hurt her.

"Have you mentioned her to Anya?"

"Mentioned her? Well, they met some years ago-at the same time you met her."

"Recently. Have you mentioned her to Anya recently?"

"No, I don't believe I have," Giles said after a moment. "Anya and I really only discuss business on her visits."

"Business," Xander echoed. Anya had been misleading him. Misleading herself. "Jesus."

Giles regarded him with frustration. He could see that Xander was taking the news badly, but he wasn't sure why. They had always gotten along reasonably well. If Xander needed a word said to him, Giles said it. Xander listened to him. Learned from him, Giles liked to think.

My god, you sound exactly like your father, thought Giles in surprise. He'd never thought that about himself before, happily. His father was a pillar of...well everything, really. Rather unbending. Giles wasn't like that. Not like him, surely.

"Xander," he urged, touching the young man's shoulder. "Tell me what's wrong, please. We've known each other for years and I like to think we're friends. You and-Buffy and Willow and Dawn-the four of you, all of you, I feel about you almost as if you were my children. And to see you in this state-you can't imagine how it makes me feel."

"You? You?" blurted out Xander. Giles couldn't have surprised him more if he'd announced he sniffed glue. "Do you know where I was tonight?"

Giles shook his head wordlessly.

"Well, tonight I had a great talk with Anya, in which she informed me I'm the mental equivalent of Reggie Van Dyke, who, for the comic book-deprived among us, is Richie Rich's rotten little cousin. Then I went to get a beer, but instead had the not-so-fun fun of seeing Buffy with Spike, and she was holding onto him like they were sealed together with industrial-grade epoxy. And then I come here, and you tell me-after ignoring my existence for a year-you tell me that you feel like you're my father? Well, let me tell you something-all you need is a glass of scotch, and you'd be his long-lost twin," Xander snarled, jumping up and pacing around the living room.

Giles stood and watched him. He'd never seen Xander so discomfited. "Xander, I'm sure Anya doesn't think that. It's just-it's just uncomfortable for her to be around you-"

"Uncomfortable? I know it's uncomfortable! It's uncomfortable for me to be around her, too! And around Buffy and you and even Willow! Jesus, what's with you people? If something's uncomfortable, you stop doing it?"

Giles stared at him questioningly.

"Some things are important," said Xander in frustration. "So you keep doing them, even if they hurt. Because it's the right thing to do. I love Willow, and I love Buffy, and I love Anya, even if she hates me. Even if she doesn't want to see me. What the hell good is it to love somebody and just pretend they don't exist? What good is that, to anybody?" To Giles' astonishment, the boy began to cry.

Xander sat heavily on the couch, overcome by hopelessness. Sometimes he felt like he was the only one of them who tried. He didn't know why he bothered, but he couldn't stop. He knew he'd lose something precious, something irreplaceable, if he did.

A hand came down on his shoulder and Xander looked up to see Giles sitting next to him, a heartbreaking look of tenderness on his face. It was a look Xander had never seen on Giles' face when he looked at him, and he felt his heart crack in gratitude.

Giles drew Xander close and wrapped his arms around the boy the way he hadn't, years before, when Xander had instinctively sought comfort with him after his terrible breakup with Cordelia, and felt guilt wash over him. He hadn't just failed Buffy and the others when he'd left the year before.

He'd been failing them for years.

***

The Summers house was dark when Giles approached it. Even the porch light had been turned out, and he had to squint and feel around the lock before sliding the key home.

He'd never thought before about the burdens Xander felt responsible for. Willow, yes, the boy's-man's affection for her was as clear as ever. Yet he also felt acutely responsible for Buffy as well. And Buffy, despite her recalcitrance in broaching the subject, obviously missed her friends.

A memory of Buffy flying at Willow, lurking beneath the tree, came to him, and he amended his thought. Well, she missed them when she wasn't trying to kill them. Admittedly, she refused to discuss it, but it wouldn't be such a sore point with her if it wasn't desperately important. That was her way.

And he was here now, and going to stay, and he was damned if he was going to let her just ignore it. Yes, she'd been through a lot; they all had, more than any of them should. Buffy wasn't the only one to suffer in the last year. She had to understand that part of growing up was accepting that other people will make mistakes, and that they deserve forgiveness. That it was necessary for herself as well as others. That otherwise anger would consume her.

He should wait for morning to talk to her, really, but he knew he could not sleep with it on his mind. He climbed the stairs quietly and knocked on Buffy's bedroom door, trying not to be too loud. There was no reason to wake Dawn. And it would only take a few minutes, and then-

"Giles?" Buffy murmured in surprise, sticking her head out from behind her door. "Is something wrong?"

Giles shook his head apologetically. "There's no emergency," he assured her. "But I've been thinking, and I feel that it's incumbent upon you to-"

"What is it?" a sleepy voice asked from inside Buffy's room. Giles blinked in surprise.

"Nothing important, sweetie," Buffy said over her shoulder. "This can wait, right?" she said to Giles.

"I imagine," he said faintly.

"Then come back to bed, love," murmured Spike, and Buffy shut the door without a backward glance.

Chapter 15 by Shadowlass
It was a very long night. Giles knew that because he was awake for nearly all of it, his ears, despite the plugs he had pushed into them, traitorously straining to catch sounds from Buffy's bedroom-much in the way that he couldn't resist pressing his tongue against a sore tooth.

The good thing, or perhaps the bad thing, was that he couldn't hear a sound.

Now, sitting across from him at the breakfast table, Spike was fully dressed. He hadn't come down with his shirt off, or the top button of his jeans undone, rather to Giles' surprise. Other than that, everything about Spike screamed "We went at it all night like crazed mink"-or at least how it seemed to Giles, as he spread a slice of toast with orange-peach marmalade and surveyed the demon sitting across from him, his hand resting on Buffy's, stroking it as he looked at her and laughed and appeared more carefree than any creature of the night had the right to. There was nothing in the world that could concern him, it seemed. No matter what the wrongs he'd committed, he was welcome back in the Summers' house, as if a long-lost loved one had returned home.

Perhaps he had.

Beside Spike, Dawn stabbed her fork into her plate and sliced her ham to pieces with mathematical precision. Each draw of the knife scraped against the plate with a disturbing screech, a fact of which Giles felt sure Dawn was aware. Still, she ignored him as completely as she ignored the others. Her breakfast was all that was important to her, apparently. Her breakfast and whatever damage she could inflict on their eardrums.

Buffy cared about Spike, and apparently this sort of thing was going to be occurring with some regularity.

Suddenly, moving out seemed like a particularly good idea.

Buffy smiled up at Spike. It was going well, wasn't it? Dawn had jumped and yelped a little when Spike came into the kitchen, but other than that seemed fine. Giles had just continued cooking and asked if scrambled was fine with everyone.

It was good, wasn't it? This was her world now. Everyone she loved was in this kitchen, eating together happily. Well, she and Spike weren't really eating, mostly giggling, but it was nice. And Giles wasn't eating much, he just had a piece of toast on his plate. But Dawn was eating great, better than she had in months. In fact, she was shoveling it in like a farmhand.

Of course, she wasn't talking much. Neither was Giles. Or, of course, her and Spike. But what was there to talk about? Things were great. The night had been...so tender. And also? Wicked hot. Their relationship was different than it had been last year. Last year even the front yard seemed too close to home; now, it seemed right for Spike to be in the house with her, in her room, the place she was herself. The place she didn't have to pretend. She'd dreamed about him being there, the year before. In the bed with her. comforting her, protecting her. But she couldn't have let him in yet. He'd wanted to protect her, to comfort her, but he didn't know how. He was the man who, after their first night together, compared making love to her with killing her predecessors.

And she was the woman who'd left him crumpled on the ground when he tried to stop her from throwing herself away. They were different now, they were both different. If they weren't, they had no business being together.

Screeeeeeech!

Spike repressed a shudder at the high-pitched noises Niblet was making with her cutlery. If he wasn't mistaken, the screeches had a slightly higher pitch than the shrieks she made when upset. Of course, she wasn't using any equipment then, so she was handicapped, so to speak.

The Watcher was glowering at him as if he'd just caught Spike with his hand in the cookie jar-which he had, Spike supposed. Probably should have been more discreet the night before, but he'd been mostly asleep and hadn't really been thinking. It was so fucking unbelievable-the two of them, together, in her bed, in her mother's house, in the home she shared with her baby sister-that he'd had the insistent feeling that the whole thing was just a dream. The most glorious dream of his life, and he'd be miserable when he woke up and realized it wasn't real.

But he was here, with the mug of blood Buffy had warmed for him. He didn't know when she'd stocked up on blood; she'd never kept it last year. If he wanted a drink at her place, he could have Diet Coke, Mountain Dew-god, that should be illegal-or see if she was in the mood to let him talk her out of a sip.

Which he'd never tried to do, because he knew a great way to turn off the Buffy spigot when he heard one. Said that, he would have been uninvited again and left to stare at her bedroom window. Bad enough he'd said that thing about Slayers their first morning together-that had been stupendously stupid. And it was hard to explain that she'd dazzled him so much that he'd obviously come his brains out and didn't have any to spare, so show a bloke a little compassion, all right? What he'd been trying to say was, she's taken what he thought was the best thing he'd ever experienced and made it look like nothing compared to her. The glory he'd sought, the dangerous rep-they were nothing next to her.

But that was long past. This was their real first morning together. The other one didn't exist.

Of course, the other one didn't have the Watcher looking at him as if he expected Spike to nick the silverware, or Snackpack staring at her plate as if she thought it would reveal how to meet the boy band member of her dreams in ten days or less. If she still listened to those sad excuses for singers. Did she? He had no idea. He wagered Buffy didn't, either. Guess he'd have to ask her himself. Assuming she could hear him over her silverware assault.

Why was he looking at her? He wasn't going to say something to her, was he? Dawn hastily pushed herself from the table. "MayIbeexcused?" she mumbled, then ran out of the kitchen before anyone could reply. God, he'd been going to say something to her, and she didn't want to hear it. What could he possibly say? "Did our rambunctious sexifying wake you up last night, Bit? You don't mind if we snog right here on the table, do you?"

As it happened, she hadn't heard anything the night before, but she'd taken a Tylenol PM and left her radio on, because she'd been having a hard time falling asleep the last couple of weeks. Normally she could hear everything. Probably. It wasn't like he'd ever spent the night before. Was sex...loud? Dawn had no idea. She didn't remember Riley ever spending the night. No man had ever spent the night there before last night, except for Giles, and Giles didn't count. He was too old for sex, anyway.

Dawn hastened into her room and shut the door. She paced around, tripping over a stuffed animal here and a notebook there, barely able to control herself. She felt like running, like screaming, like jumping up and down.

The stuff-just look at the stuff-Dawn dropped to the floor and rummaged through her dresser drawer, drawing out the evidence of her crypt visits and spreading it across the bed. Slowly she felt her heart slow down and her breathing return to normal. When she looked at it, she regained a sense of control. She wasn't just someone things happened to; she wasn't rocked by others, they were rocked by her, even if they didn't realize it was her. Even if they just thought she was Dawn, Buffy's younger sister and formerly important Key.

It was gross to think of it-Spike being in the house all night, with Buffy. Touching her, the way that vampire had touched Dawn on Halloween, except more. All over, with no clothes and no stopping.

Dawn remembered how chilly the boy's-the vampire's-hands had been on her, as he'd stroked his finger across her cheek, his other hand disappearing up her shirt. Buffy knew what that felt like. More vampires had touched her than human men.

Something they had in common. Maybe that's just the way it was on the Hellmouth. After all, if you refuse to date the evil undead, you're reducing the dating pool considerably.

Her mother had been cold, when Dawn touched her at the hospital. Her body. Not like ice, but...not warm, like a person. Dawn had touched her cheek carefully, not sure what would happen. Almost thinking her mom would move, open her eyes. Look straight at Dawn, and ask what they were doing there. But her skin was cool, like marble, and felt heavy, somehow. Like a statue, and not like her mom.

That's when Dawn realized Buffy was right, that their mom wasn't there.

Dawn wrapped up her little treasury and tucked it away again, safe in her drawer. She wasn't upset any more. The pieces had worked their magic and soothed her.

But even calm, she didn't want to stay there in the house while Buffy and Spike billed and cooed, and she probably sat on his lap and acted as cutesy as she had with Riley. It was enough to make Dawn wish she were blind, or at least still an indifferent energy blob. The hell if she'd stay around there; she'd head over to...not Janice's, no, she was through with her, but...but....

God, she needed some more friends.

Fine, she'd go to the mall. There were always kids there, and besides, it was there, not here. That was the best part about there.

They probably wouldn't even notice she was gone.

She slipped down the stairs silently. No need to let anyone know that she was going out. They were still in the kitchen; she could hear Spike saying, "Then be happy shoes don't button anymore, because-"

"Dawn? Where are you going?"

Dawn swung around, suppressing a gasp. Almost made it. God, Buffy could be as silent as Spike. Boy, it would be wonderful living with two beings who could move around on little cat feet and hear what you whispered two rooms away. One of them a reformed neglectful older sister, the other a smothering older brother type who thought she needed babysitting even when she was 15, and had talked Buffy out of letting Dawn go on an overnight field trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium the year before. You're going to let her out there with ghoulies and boys and pervert teachers? What, are you off your nut?

"Dawn?"

Dawn turned her attention back to her sister. "Just thought I'd go to Janice's," she lied smoothly. Of course, she had plenty of practice. It sometimes seemed like people would rather be lied to than hear the truth-Well, I can't stand the thought of watching you and Spike swallow each other's tongues all day, so I thought I'd wander around aimlessly and maybe hit strangers up for spare change. If she'd given Buffy a choice, Buffy probably would have said, "Lie, please."

Buffy nodded, and Dawn started to turn back to the door. "But I thought maybe we could talk a little first?"

With a sinking feeling, Dawn headed into the living room. Behind her, she heard Buffy take a deep breath. Oh, god. That was never a good sign.

***

Well, they hadn't been there in...days, Spike thought, offering Rupert a bland smile. He was trying to be good and not bait the Watcher, and it really wasn't that difficult. After all, a night of luscious shagging followed by breakfast at his lady's table, with her hand on his atop the table and her leg rubbing against his under it, was surprisingly effective at making him as blissful and content as an overfed cat. Hardly felt the urge to snark at Giles at all.

Buffy had disappeared a couple of minutes before, and Spike hadn't gone after her. Didn't want Rupert to think he had nothing on his mind except getting laid, and that wasn't a lie. It was in the top five...okay, the top two, but the whole night and morning was a fucking fantasy come true. Him and her, together all night. Waking up in each others' arms, and her looking right at him, not away because she was ashamed or looking for her clothes, to hide her traitorous body from his eyes.

"Have you made any plans?" Giles asked Spike with notable politeness. He didn't want his antipathy towards Spike to affect his relationship with Buffy, and he'd seen quite clearly the path their relationship was on even before Buffy had opened her door the night before.

Although that didn't prevent him from requiring a rather large Scotch after the discovery.

"Are you asking me my intentions?" Spike asked with amusement.

Giles rolled his eyes. Trust Spike to reduce any concern to its least plausible element. "Not in the strictest sense, no," he answered. It wasn't like they could marry or experience any kind of a future-after all, he was a vampire and Buffy a Slayer, and therefore-Christ. "Yes, I believe that would be a reasonable way to put it, now that you mention it. What are you going to do?"

The corner of Spike's mouth canted upward, and Giles hastily cut him off. "And please spare me any attempts at cleverness, I haven't had enough tea to make that tolerable. I strongly suspect there isn't enough tea. I want to know what your plans are with Buffy. Where are you going to live? What have you got to offer her?"

The protective papa speech would have made Spike smile, except he had the suspicion that it wasn't the first time Giles had used it. "Dusting off one of your old Angel speeches, Rupert?" he asked cordially. Not that he felt cordial. But he was a shitload better for Buffy than that pansy had ever been. Angel may have been all soul-having when they met, but it was a curse. Not something he'd wanted and fought to earn. It was something he'd been given as punishment-like being forced to write sentences on a blackboard for the next 3,271 years.

And if Spike's soul was ever pried from his body, he knew he would continue to love her. Because his soul didn't lead to his love-his love led to his soul. His love wasn't cheap; it didn't depend on some curse to survive. It survived because that was what he did, love.

"Spike-"

Spike cut him off. "Whatever she wants is good enough for me, mate." Giles opened his mouth, but Spike continued. "Whatever she wants is good enough for anybody, I'd guess. I think she's had enough of making due, don't you?"

Giles looked singularly unamused. But how could he argue? He agreed with the vampire.

"Be nice to see her happy for once," Spike continued blandly.

"Will you be moving in?" asked Giles. Spike shrugged. Oh, fine. Giles gave up; Buffy wanted Spike around, she'd made that much clear. It was useless to struggle against the tide, and he was giving in. She didn't always know what was best, but she had the stubborn certainty of a mule. She would be involved with Spike until she didn't wish to be involved with him any longer. Her relationship with him last year, and with Angel before him, showed that she would do what she wanted anyway; if people disapproved, she'd just conceal her actions.

And despite his disappointment over her choice of paramours, he didn't want her to hide. She'd earned the right, long ago, to do as she wished. She'd paid for the right with her blood, her life. She needn't skulk around in dark corners to avoid to his bad opinion, because she could never have that.

"I'll be leaving soon," Giles told Spike somberly.

Spike looked at him in surprise. "Buffy told me you were staying?"

"I'm staying in Sunnydale, yes. But I'll be moving out."

"Because of-" Spike hesitated. A dart of guilt struck him. Because of him?

"Well, Olivia will be coming out to join me and I really think it would be best if we had our own place," Giles said.

"Olivia?" Spike repeated in surprise.

"Yes, Olivia. I believe you met her-she was in town when the Gentlemen-"

"Yeah, I remember. But I thought you and Anya-" Spike broke off.

Giles looked at him in puzzlement. "Anya and I what?"

"Does Anya know about Olivia?"

"Well, of course she does. She met her when you did. As I recall, she described our relationship quite memorably," Giles noted with a shudder.

"Oh yeah, she called her your-"

"I remember, thank you."

If Anya and Giles really weren't together, it wasn't his business, so he should just keep his hole shut, Spike knew.

But he'd never been good at doing what he was supposed to, and Anya-well, he wasn't especially partial to her, but they'd comforted each other when they were low. "Anya's a different girl than she used to be," Spike said quietly. Giles looked at him quizzically. "She's grown up."

Giles frowned at him slightly; clearly he had no idea what Spike was going on about. Spike sighed. Fuck, he wasn't sure either. "Look, just break it to her gently, okay?"

Giles forced himself not to roll his eyes. Yes, it was definitely time to move out.

***

Dawn stared at Buffy, sitting next to her on the couch and smiling with such blank hopefulness that Dawn suddenly thought of the ‘Bot, packed away in pieces down in the basement. Willow had said she was too valuable to discard, even after those demon bikers had reduced her to parts.

Dawn waited, but Buffy looked at her expectantly.

"Do you...uh, have any questions?" asked Buffy finally. She thought Dawn would want to talk about it; she'd been a babbling tower of Spike for so long. And now that their relationship had moved past the sex-in-dark-alleys phase, it seemed like a good time to discuss it.

Of course, she'd never really had a talk like this with Dawn before. It was kind of like when their mother had told Buffy about...ugh, Ted. Her least favorite robot.

"I guess you're not just friends anymore," Dawn quietly-reminding Buffy of what she'd told Dawn so recently. It was amazing how quickly things changed.

"No, we're lov-we're-we're serious now," Buffy told her, groping for words.

"More serious than you were last year?"

God, yes.

But how do you tell your baby sister, Last year I wanted to die, except when I was with him, and I hated myself for needing him, and he hated me for hating him? And we hurt each other, and made each other cry, and I don't want to die anymore, but I still want to be with him? And I don't hate myself for it anymore?

"Last year-" Buffy began hesitantly. "Last year Spike helped me as much as he could, after I came back. And I fell in love with him, but I was still uncomfortable with...everything. I mean, with coming back, and adjusting to everything. And I really wasn't ready for anything more. But now I'm, you know, me again, and...what I mean is, yeah, it's more serious now."

Dawn studied Buffy's face quietly for a moment. "So you're just going to forget about everything?"

Buffy flinched at the question. God, they'd talked about it before; wouldn't it just go away, someday, and become something people never asked about? Thank god Giles had never been told about the bathroom; she didn't want to think about what he'd be saying now.

"It's between Spike and me, and we've dealt with it," said Buffy carefully. "And now we're together. And we both love you, and want you to be happy."

She wanted to believe her. Buffy could tell. Dawn was leaning forward, looking unbearably hopeful, the way she used to years ago when their dad called; these days, she ran out of the house when he called, because she didn't want to talk to him. Buffy touched Dawn's face gently, cradling it the way their mother used to. She'd touch them and everything would be all right, if only for a moment.

She'd never be there again. That was Buffy's job now, more important than her work at school, more important than saving the world.

She'd always been the most important thing in Buffy's world, even if she never realized it.

***

It left her unsettled, like a bad dream. Blocks from home, Dawn sank down on a patch of grass at the edge of the playing field at Holloway Elementary and gulped in air, calming herself. She'd felt hard and calm before she and Buffy talked, but now she was almost panicked again. Things were like she'd hoped they would be last year; Buffy relaxed, without that thousand-yard stare, and laughing again, and Spike there, and Giles not going anywhere. And she'd looked up and seen Spike peering in at her and Buffy in the living room, shamelessly spying on them, and thought, God, he knows.

It was ridiculous; he couldn't know anything. To him, she was still "Little Bit"; she could see it in his eyes. See his eyes softening as he looked at her. Like her mother's had. More than Buffy's ever had, despite all the things Buffy had said.

Now that's not exactly true, is it? asked a voice in her head. Spike's voice.

"Shut up," she muttered. But the voice persisted. Jumped off a tower for you...died because she loved you so much...put a sword through Angel, but she would have let the world go to hell rather than see you gone....

And what have you done? she thought savagely. You didn't die for me. Weren't there for me when Tara died and Willow went crazy and almost killed me and Buffy and everyone and Mom was gone and Xander told me you-you-

How could he do that, and then come back like it hadn't mattered? Didn't he know that she needed him?

But it had been so nice, when he walked her home from his crypt, and she forgot about what he'd done, and things were like they used to be. Him asking about her schoolwork and her friends, that nice feeling of somebody liking her. Not because she was Buffy's sister, but because she was Dawn.

She was so absorbed in thought she didn't notice when the shadow fell across her face. The sound of her voice, sudden and familiar, made Dawn jump a little in remembered fear, despite the fact that they'd both come a long way since the darkness of spring.

"Hiya, Dawnie."

Chapter 16 by Shadowlass
Business lunches, in Anya's estimation, properly referred to sitting behind the counter, eating a nice healthy salad or perhaps a convenient and highly portable sandwich, watching the flow of customers into the Magic Box, and being prepared to stop eating at any time in order to provide information, answer the phone and hopefully ring up many sales. Hence, she never brought food for lunch that required heating, since that would involve both leaving the front of the shop in order to heat it, and being disturbed by its inevitable cooling as she attended to those searching for exactly the right form of magical intervention.

The only exception she made was for the monthly Women in Business luncheon given by the Sunnydale Chamber of Commerce, of which Anya was a member. She attended the luncheons faithfully, because the only thing more important than quality goods offered by a knowledgeable shopkeeper was a good network of business contacts to fall back on.

Not that Anya needed anything to fall back on, of course. Under her guidance, the magic shop was falling further forward every day.

So she was seated behind the counter eating an economical yet nutritious sandwich when Giles walked in, rather than out at some overpriced restaurant letting business slip away as she ate her head off like a possessed mule fitted with a bottomless feedbag. And although he was walking with his arms relaxed, beside his body, she immediately saw the bouquet of flowers in his hand, and caught her breath.

It was their first bouquet.

"Is that...for me?" Anya asked carefully. It was best not to get ahead of herself.

"Who else, my dear?" replied Giles with a smile, moving towards her.

This was it! Their relationship was zooming forward, and she'd hardly had to give it a nudge. She wouldn't even have to use a charm, or her five-step plan.

Undoubtedly, this first bouquet would lead to many others and ultimately culminate in the most important bouquet, the wedding bouquet, which unlike her aborted wedding to Xander would be made up of something sophisticated, like calla lilies, because a man of Giles' maturity would appreciate their elegance. As opposed to Xander, who said things about flowers like smells pretty.

"Am I interrupting your lunch?"

"What? Lunch? Oh, no, I was finished!" Wait, what if he'd come to take her out to lunch? She thought she could make an exception to her lunch rule for Giles. "I mean, I was finished with this, because I realized I don't like cheese sandwiches. So no more for me! No sir, no more."

Actually, after their lunch, she really should take pictures of the bouquet, from several angles. It would be romantic if their wedding bouquet replicated this one, the first he ever gave her. Yes, that was better than calla lilies. Giles would no doubt be pleased by her observance of sentimental gestures; Xander had continually complained that she lacked the proper human value system. Which was ridiculous, because how he could accuse her of lacking in sentimental values when he was the one who had who walked out on their most sentimental occasion, their wedding. As opposed to when they played "The Barmaid and the Knockwurst," which he never walked out on.

Giles smiled at Anya as he made his way towards her. Although he certainly didn't plan to mention it to the vampire, he thought Spike might have been on to something when he suggested that Giles approach Anya cautiously about opening a shop in Sunnydale. The book store wouldn't be competing with the Magic Box-he wasn't intending to offer newts' eyes or amethyst crystals, of course, merely Chaucer and Keats and Dickinson. Actually, he'd heard rumors about Dickinson, but Ethan had said that about practically everyone.

And, he thought somewhat guiltily, the former owner of the shop had told him that a surprisingly good return was made on those bilious yellow condensed books students surreptitiously used, when they felt their time was better spent inhaling the contents of a pub rather than reading the classics.

So Anya had nothing to be concerned about. He would be nearby for consultation as the need arose, and if she or the other children needed advice, he was there for them.

Although his influence was limited. He could have done nothing to stop Xander from leaving Anya at the altar the year before; what could he have said? Get a hold of yourself; you're twenty-one, it's time you settled down? They were too young to be so seriously involved, and Xander, despite the responsibilities he had assumed, had seen nothing of the world. He knew fighting demons with his friends, and fighting in his family, and nothing more. And Anya, despite her years, or perhaps because of them, was self-absorbed and largely indifferent to others; the very fact that she had accepted D'Hoffryn's offer to return to demon status chilled Giles to his very marrow.

She had told him that D'Hoffryn was being patient, and she wasn't doing much by the way of vengeance. He didn't ask for specifics. He hoped his pronounced lack of interest would act as discouragement, but she still continued to vaporize out of nowhere when she wanted to see him, and had given no sign that she was inclined to change. It disappointed him no end-when she had assisted in the battle against Willow (the battle against Willow!-it still sounded absurd to him), it had seemed to him that she had done more, willingly, than she ever had before. Shown more courage, not because she was trying to help her boyfriend, as it always had been in the past, but because it was the right thing to do. He had thought, as he recovered from his injuries at Buffy's, that she had discovered something about herself-that it wasn't enough merely to be an adjunct to a man, that she could be a force for good in her own right. Have her own friends, make up her own mind about what was the right thing to do. She hadn't yet attached herself to another man, but she didn't seem to be moving forward, either; it was disappointing to him. But he knew Anya less than the others, and it wasn't his place to reproach her. His connection to the others had been deepened by time and intimacy, but ultimately Anya was still the girlfriend-ex-girlfriend, rather-of Xander, and Giles' helper around the shop.

But he didn't wish to upset her, so when they reached each other-Anya being good enough to rush out from behind the counter at his approach-he presented her with the sunny mixed bouquet and a smile, and announced that he had good news.

Framing a discussion was always important, he knew.

"You've never given me flowers before," Anya blurted out.

Giles blinked. "Yes, I suppose that's true," he agreed. He didn't recall Anya ever being particularly partial to flowers, but he couldn't think of another way to grease the wheel that morning. "You do like flowers, don't you?" he asked a little worriedly.

He was worried! No other man had ever been so considerate of her feelings. As if she could ever not love something he did. He could present her with a sack of lungwort and she'd be thrilled. And not merely for the resale value.

"I love flowers-especially these flowers," Anya assured him.

"Autumnal?"

"Yellow."

"Oh. Yes. Well-shall we sit down?"

"Sit down? This sounds serious," Anya said, trying to repress her excitement, and sat down at the chair Giles pulled out for her like the perfect gentleman he was. The likelihood of serious actually equating to a proposal of marriage was probably not great, owing to their not having officially begun dating yet, so that pretty much meant he was asking her out on their first date. Their first real date.

"I wasn't really sure how to broach this topic with you, Anya, but I don't see any reason why this shouldn't work out very nicely for both of us. You see, I first began-"

What should she wear? Maybe she should get something new. She wouldn't want to hex the relationship by wearing something she'd worn when she went out with Xander; that would be very unfortunate. Of course, if she got something new every time they went out, she'd run through her savings fairly quickly, and she didn't want to have to liquidate any of her stock portfolio in order to facilitate her dating life, even her dating life with Giles. Maybe Buffy would let her borrow some of her clothes. Or would that be wrong-wearing his surrogate daughter's clothes on a date? Yes, she thought he might find that distasteful. She could only imagine what Xander would have said.

"...so I really think it's a good thing for all involved, don't you?"

"I'd be thrilled," Anya said firmly. She had never believed in playing hard-to-get; it was a losing strategy, as far as she was concerned. How could a man reasonably be expected to guess what a woman was really thinking if she didn't tell him as quickly and forthrightly as possible?

"Would you like to see it then?"

"What? Now?" Anya blurted in surprise. "Leave the shop?"

"Yes-the bookstore's just a couple of blocks away. If you ever have any questions, you can pop over easily enough-although I'm sure there will be no need; you run the Magic Box like you were born to it."

"The bookstore," Anya echoed.

"Yes. By the way, have you heard anything about the development over in Alto Heights? It looks to be rather nice, to my way of thinking. Just the right size, and nicely landscaped. The kind of place a woman would enjoy living."

"Oh-yes, Alto Heights! I know Alto Heights! Any woman would love to live there," Anya assured him giddily. Giles was even more eager to commence their relationship than she was! If she had only approached him about it during the summer, they most likely would have already-

"That's a relief," admitted Giles. "Olivia says she trusts my judgment, but I don't want her to take one look at it and hie herself back to England."

"O-Olivia," repeated Anya. Olivia was that old girlfriend of Giles'. She couldn't have meant that much to him, surely. He would have mentioned her more often if she did.

"Yes. I do want to have the household up and running by the time she arrives. You know, Buffy's quite busy, between school and work and Sp-her home life. Do you think you could possibly lend a woman's touch? Just for the basics, of course; no matter what she says I can't believe Olivia won't want to redecorate once she arrives."

Once she arrives.

"That's-I'm-I'm very busy," Anya choked out after a minute. "There's been a lot happening lately. I wanted to tell you, but I haven't had time. And I-I have to go check the stock," she finished, hurrying into the back and closing the door behind her.

Giles stared after her, puzzled. Odd girl.

That was the last time he listened to Spike. He didn't think the flowers had helped one bit.

***

Everything was fine. Everything was fine. If he thought that long enough, he might start to believe it. His gut was cramping, but wasn't any silly curse, it was because he'd had some blood at Buffy's, the first time he'd eaten since he lost it in his crypt. Naturally his system was a little delicate after that. Stupid stomach wasn't the thing that was bothering him, anyway.

Somewhere between playing footsie under the table with Buffy, blissed out like Harris at a Star Trek convention, and walking back to his crypt, he'd become less content and more...anxious. And sustained anxiety was not a part of Spike's nature. Usually when he was anxious, he'd just kill something. Relieved the tension and got him a spot of exercise, too. Or, last year, he and Buffy would go at it like the wild things they were. That they both were, despite her belief to the contrary.

And that's how she still thought of him, right? Maybe not evil anymore, but wild? And why shouldn't she? He hadn't told her about his soul, about what he'd done for her.

And now, after they'd held each other all night and she'd welcomed him into her family the next morning, he was glad, desperately glad, that he hadn't. Because he would have wondered ‘til the end of his existence if she really cared for him, or just the shiny patina of his soul. If she'd had any feelings in her heart for him at all, without the soul to make it all acceptable.

Ah, still a selfish bugger, wasn't he? Just had to find out she felt something for old Spike, and wasn't just reviving her old love affair with The Vampire with a Soul.

It was shameful of him to be so selfish. Weren't souls supposed to do something about that? Make him all good and mournful, and possibly inspire him to launch an outreach program?

No, that couldn't be right. If souls did that, Willow would never have tried to destroy the world. Angel wouldn't have pursued a young girl. Buffy wouldn't have left him battered and weak on the floor of an alley.

Eh. That had nothing to do with her soul, now did it? More with his lack of one. She'd never done such a thing to good old Sgt. Potato Head, even when he was a little less-or a little more-human than most. She didn't do anything to that heavy-browed boy who tricked her into giving it up in college, and except for the little matter of sending him to hell to save the world, he'd wager she never treated Angelus half as bad as she did Spike-Spike, when they were sleeping together! When he was trying to keep her from throwing her life away over an accident! No more than her friends would have done, or the Watcher. She was consumed by guilt and couldn't think straight, so she took it all out on him.

The thing was, he didn't mind that she'd spent her frustrations and anger out on him. He could take it. But then walking right past him-leaving him there on the cement, unable to move, never said a word to him afterward or even asked how his injuries were, even when she stood right in front of him a week later and saw he still looked like shit-that was too much. She apologized for living to the others; to Spike she didn't apologize for half-killing him.

"Are you all right, Spike?"

Spike swung his head around to look at Buffy. He'd completely forgotten she was there. That had sure never happened before.

She cocked a brow at him questioningly.

"You were kind of squeezing my hand there," she pointed out.

He pulled his hand away hastily. "Sorry," he muttered. No need to think of that again, mate. No need.

"Did Dawn seem kind of, uh, upset to you? Unhappy?" Spike asked.

Buffy laughed. "Unhappy? I don't think so. Upset, maybe. I think she was a little upset when I told her I love you, but that's just because she was startled."

"Yeah, but all during breakfast she seemed like she-what did you say?"

Buffy could feel a blush crawl across her face. Hadn't he heard her? She'd caught him peering around the corner at them. Apparently he was never going to completely outgrow his little skulking habit. Or else he was just teasing her, trying to make her say it again, to his face this time. "That I love you?" she repeated softly, her eyes setting every minute change in his expression down into her memory: Shock, disbelief, amazement, joy. In the end, joy.

He touched her face wonderingly. "I never thought you'd say that. I thought that was something I'd only hear in my dreams," he whispered. She smiled up at him tenderly. "So you told her that we love each other?"

A human might not have seen it. It crossed her face and was gone immediately, but he saw it, and heard the sudden increase in her heartbeat, and realized that there was no we involved.

She might love him, but he was still a thing, and incapable of love.

"Jesus," he breathed. "You still-after last year, and the year before that, and Glory cutting me up, and Doc knocking me off the tower, and me doing anything for you even when it made me feel like shit-all that, and you still don't think it's love, do you? Still don't think I can feel it?"

She couldn't stand the accusation in his eyes, and lowered her gaze for a moment. She couldn't even think of what to say when he was so upset. That day after Riley left with his new wife, when she broke up with him, she tried not to let him speak. She didn't want him to, because he was so emotional she didn't think she could tell him what she needed to if he interrupted. As it was, the look on his face had almost broken her heart. He felt, she knew he did, felt deeply. But it wasn't love. She'd seen it for herself, that demons couldn't love. No one knew that better than she did.

"No one has ever cared about me more than you have," she said carefully. He was so sensitive about the accusation that he couldn't love-one she had shoved at him again and again, like it was a crime. But it was something he couldn't control. It was something that was taken from him, not something he threw away.

"Caring? That's still all it is to you? I ‘care' for you, like people ‘care' about starving orphans or those big-eyed baby seals? Not the way a man loves a woman?" he demanded in disbelief. "Does that make it easier for you?"

God, she didn't know how to answer him. Nothing about them was easy in any way. "I don't know what you mean-"

"I mean, is it easier for you to think of the way you treated me last year-doesn't matter how I treat him, he's just a thing, can't love?"

"You're not a thing," she protested. "I know that, I don't know why I said it."

"You said it because you were punishing me," Spike accused furiously. She'd told him she loved him; it should be the most ecstatic moment of his existence. Instead, it had come with a holy water chaser. She opened her mouth to assert her innocence, but he cut her off. "You punished me because I loved you, and you couldn't stand that."

"That's ridiculous," she retorted, her voice gaining strength. "Everybody wants to be loved."

"By the right person, eh? And I wasn't him. You punished me for loving you when Angelus didn't!"

The air left Buffy's lungs in a whoosh, and for a moment she couldn't see anything. "You're-he couldn't. He couldn't love me because he didn't have a soul."

"That's what you tell yourself? Bullshit. Not couldn't. Didn't. The difference between him and me is that he knew you inside and out, knew what you thought, and what you felt, and how you tasted, and decided he'd prefer to live without you. That time with you two at the school? With those ghosts? When he got back to the house he scrubbed his skin ‘til it bled. He couldn't stand your touch on his skin," he spat cruelly. God damn her, he was sick of living in Angel's shadow. He was sick of pretending there was a difference between Angel and Angelus, besides a u and a fucking s. Angel only loved when his real nature was shackled. What the hell kind of love was that? Even with his soul, he left her. Left her to skulk around L.A. and frighten tourists with his hair.

Tears glittered in Buffy's eyes, but she didn't try to stop him. Why should she? he thought bitterly. Turnaround's fair play. He'd been quiet and taken it when she tore out his heart that day in the crypt, and now it was her turn to take it as he destroyed what was probably the last happy memory she had left.

All of a sudden the anger left his body and he deflated, hating himself. Same kind of thing that bastard Angelus would have said, Spike thought. The kind of thing the wanker got off on, crushing young girls' hearts.

‘Course, Angelus hadn't claimed to be in love with any of them at the time. Maybe even without a soul he was the better man.

He opened his mouth to apologize and shut it abruptly. That was his pattern, wasn't it? Attack her, abuse her, apologize as if words meant anything after he'd done something like that? Lose control, attack the woman he lived for, then mumble some words and think it would be all better?

It was all he could do.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, barely audible. He raised his voice, louder, ‘til he almost sounded normal. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."

"Don't apologize if you don't mean it," Buffy said, her voice strained. "You can say what you think. But you're wrong."

Should he leave her with it? The lie? It was comforting. She needed comfort. He wanted her to have it, even if he wasn't the one who gave it to her.

She'd never held anything against anyone, ever. Not Giles, for drugging her and nearly getting her and Joyce killed. Not Harris, for summoning Sweet from whatever circle of hell tap dancers inhabit. Not Willow, for bringing her back-no, it had taken her nearly killing Dawn to do that.

And no, not Spike, although he'd earned her enmity in a hundred ways, intimate and remote.

"Angel-he loved you. But he left," he told her carefully. "And Captain Cardboard left, too. And your father-" Spike grabbed Buffy's arm when she would have turned away. "And they're the biggest bunch of losers I ever saw in my life. They loved you, sure. I believe it. But they didn't love you enough, or they would have stayed. What did you think? That you drove them away? Threatened their precious little masculinity, didn't cry on their shoulders enough? So they tucked their tails between their legs and ran for the hills?" A muffled choking sound escaped Buffy, and Spike shook her.

"Well, bugger them! They're a bunch of idiots, couldn't find their way out of a one-room shack if there wasn't a sign over the door! Do you know why I left, Buffy? In the spring, after I-after I-" Spike broke off.

Buffy shook her head wordlessly.

"I left because you deserve better than me. And I didn't leave it at that, I wanted to become better, for you. To become what you deserved. And I had to go to the other side of the goddamn planet, and do insane things I would never have imagined I'd do. And by the end I thought I was going to die, but I wouldn't stop, because if I didn't I wouldn't be able to have you. And that was enough to make me go on. Just the thought of you.

"If those buggers didn't want you enough to stay around, the only thing that means is they weren't good enough for you to wipe your shoes on. Because someone who really loves you will do whatever it takes to be with you. If not, it's a pretty piss-poor excuse for love."

He didn't know if she heard him, she was crying so hard. Her face was against his chest, and her strong little arms were wrapped around his waist. Squeezing him to her.

Not pushing him away.

Chapter 17 by Shadowlass
Dawn kept peering at him. The whole time Buffy was telling her and the Watcher about his soul, she kept darting glances over at Spike, as if she expected him to look put on a sweater and turn into Mister Rogers or something.

He knew it was a surprise, but it wasn't like he was the only vampire she knew with a soul-just the only one who wasn't going anywhere. Wanker. Maybe Angel should spend a little less time at Hal's Big and Tall Shop and a little more time trying to-oh, bugger, pay attention, you nob. The Watcher was looking at him like he had a second head growing off his shoulder, and Buffy was beginning to chop her hand through the air emphatically, like decisive hand gestures were the key to convincing Giles.

Spike was fairly sure they weren't, but he admired her resolve.

Giles squinted at Buffy. Could she really believe that? That falderal about Spike having a soul? She was so desperate to convince herself that Spike was worth loving that he had miraculously procured one from god knows where-the local convenience store, perhaps? Or down at the Sunnydale Mall, at Souls ‘R' Us?

Giles affixed Spike with a skeptical gaze and Spike squirmed a little under its weight. "A soul?" he repeated. "How very unusual."

"Not for Sunnydale," piped up Dawn. "Here, it's been there, done that."

Buffy narrowed her eyes at her sister, who studiously ignored her.

"It is an interesting coincidence," agreed Giles. He returned his gaze to Spike. "Yet another thing you and Angel have in common."

Spike felt his polite expression curdle at the mention of his grand-sire. "Not that much," he denied politely, and it was true. They loved the same woman, but they were opposites, as vampires and as men. Spike had seen it long ago, when Dru was still puzzling over whether to call him Jolly Will or Lucien, Prince of Liars, before he'd taken it out of her hands and suggested William the Bloody. ‘Bout time that nickname worked in his favor, and if it kept him from being known as Lucien, all the better. Upperclassman at Maryleby name of Lucien had tried to bugger him most of his second year, and he hadn't much wanted to hear that name every day for the rest of his unlife.

"Would you care to tell me how you acquired your...soul?" Giles asked. He thought he was doing rather well at keeping the disbelief out of his voice. Spike having a soul-a soul? Giles had been far more predisposed to accept Spike's presence in Buffy's life before his sudden claim to having a soul. He was a vampire, yes-and it really should agitate Giles more that his Slayer was involved with a vampire, but he had known Buffy too long to think he could dissuade her when she had her mind made up. She was convinced she knew what was best for her.

Sometimes, he thought she was right.

And Spike-obnoxious delinquent that he was-had demonstrated enough times how strong his feelings for Buffy were. Giles had been there when Spike was taken from Glory's home. He'd been bloodied and torn and insensible, yet still had not given Glory what she'd wanted. And Giles had been there when Spike had attempted to stop Doc from bleeding Dawn, and been stabbed and thrown from the tower for his trouble. His had not been the only body to fall from the tower that night, and it had been days later that Giles realized what Spike had done. And he'd been there when Spike patrolled night after night, like a mad thing, after Buffy was gone. He spoke to no one except Dawn for weeks. He had followed her every move, as if he could suddenly leap between her and danger, the way he hadn't on the tower, with Doc.

And so Giles accepted, reluctantly, that Spike cared for Buffy, and for Dawn, as much as it was possible for a demon to care. But this-this absurd "revelation"-was clearly made to play on Buffy's lingering feelings for Angel. Spike wanted her to love him and to believe that he himself was capable of love, and so he assigned himself this device that could make both of those possible. The desperation contained within the lie was breathtaking.

"This is fascinating," Giles murmured. Buffy nodded eagerly. She misinterpreted his words, and it was probably for the better.

"We'll just go, uh...go," said Buffy, grabbing Dawn's hand and pulling the protesting teenager from the room. Success! No doubt Giles wanted to go over everything with a fine-toothed comb until any sane person was ready to pull their hair out, so Spike could handle that one himself. Besides, she wasn't sure that she wanted Dawn to hear all the gruesome details, even if she loved that sort of thing.

The men followed the girls out of the room with their eyes before returning their attention, not very happily, to one another. "Perhaps you could tell me a little about how you came to this unusual circumstance," Giles said to Spike.

The coolness of the Watcher's tone didn't escape Spike. Little did, really. Except for the odd thing here and there, like blokes slipping into his crypt and leaving him little surprise packages.

"Saw a gentleman in Africa," Spike said baldly. Maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea if he told the Watcher just how bad the pains had gotten. He could keep a secret, right? All kinds of secrets. All kinds of things he'd never told Buffy, and-

Oh, who was he kidding? He had to tell Buffy himself, because they were acting all adult and nauseating now, and she'd take exception to him heaving all over the place and not telling her about it. Women.

"What would motivate you to seek a soul?"

Spike's eyes grew thoughtful. He wasn't sure if the Slayer had told Rupert about what he'd done-tried to do-but he wasn't taking a chance. Giles' interest in his soul was fine, but Spike had no sudden inclination to explain just how much of a monster he'd had in him.

Still had in him, but easier to control, now. "Have a hard time understanding why I'd give up the good life of indifference for all the fun of guilt and responsibility?" Spike asked glibly, glancing away.

"Actually, Spike, I don't believe any demon would deliberately get a soul."

Spike snapped his gaze back to Giles. Ah, that's what this little line of questioning was in aid of. Giles didn't care about his reasons, because he didn't think there were reasons. "So you think it's just a lie, eh?"

"I wouldn't have put it so bluntly, but yes, I am less than convinced you have gotten a soul. The likelihood of your loving the same woman as your grandsire, and receiving a soul, like your grandsire, being coincidental seem highly doubtful."

"I didn't receive a soul anything like he did," Spike gritted out. "He was cursed. I went to the other end of the earth to get mine, and just about died fighting for it."

"Fighting how?"

"Trials, to prove I wanted it enough."

"And what if you didn't?"

Spike blinked at Giles. Even when those mangy beetles were rummaging about in his brain, he'd never thought about failing. Hell, he was good at it, wasn't he? Good at fighting, even that plonker with the tail and the glowing eyes said so. Used the past tense, which showed he'd had beetles running around his brains a few times himself.

The Watcher was probably right-there were few enough demons who'd want to saddle themselves with a soul, but he'd never been your typical demon. Thank god.

"If I didn't, I died," Spike said simply.

"Died how?"

Spike smiled tolerantly. "Well, there were several ways-depended on who I was fighting at the moment. Whole thing lasted a few days. I wasn't much with the consciousness when he finally gave me my soul. Caught fire once or twice, had some nasty green venom spat in my eyes. Felt like something that had been in a cow's colon and then went someplace really unpleasant. Bunch of things, none of them nice."

"And then you were given your soul?"

"Yeah."

"How'd it feel? Did it feel?"

Spike eyed Giles. He thought the man was becoming interested despite himself, that scholarly nature rising to the fore. The scholar in Spike might have found it intriguing himself, but he'd buried that side of himself so deeply, so long ago, that bits of it rose to the surface only occasionally. He had William's soul again, but he'd been Spike for more than a century. Spike was who he was, who he'd always been. The demon just let him out.

"All the other things? The fights, and the torture?" Giles nodded. "Made me feel all nostalgic for them."

Giles couldn't stand it any more. "Where is that notebook?" he muttered, patting his pockets. He fished out a little memo pad and began scribbling. "These are just preliminary notes, you understand," he told Spike earnestly. "I'll need a more complete account for my journal."

Spike could hear a snicker from the next room. Oh, she'd get hers, he promised himself.

***

Score one for Summers, thought Buffy in triumph, leaning back in a kitchen chair, eating a tiny chocolate chip cookie from the Grandma's Cookies Cookie Parade assortment. The cookie parade was the most important cookie breakthrough since packaged soft-baked cookies, since they allowed you to eat three times as many cookies for the same calories. Or at least that's what she and Willow had always told each other.

Willow.

The cookie abruptly turned chalky and tasteless in her mouth, and Buffy swallowed it without pleasure before hastily downing half a glass of water. She shoved the bag of cookies into the cabinet without bothering to affix the little clamp that kept the cookies nice and fresh, and was happy to be distracted by the ring of the telephone.

"Hello?"

"Buffy?"

"Yes," Buffy replied. The voice was familiar, but she hadn't heard it too often lately...ah, Anya.

"Anya? Is something wrong?"

"No," Anya said after a moment. "Look, I just wanted to mention that I heard a tip that a Nosredna-Laup is in town. It's a winged demon that eats...well, anything it wants, including babies and small-boned dogs, and once sets up a nest it tends to attract others, so you might want to kill it before...oh, you know what to do."

"Ugh! Do you want to talk to Giles about it?"

There was a long pause. Finally the dial tone gave Buffy her answer.

***

"No, I did not remember any pre-natal memories after receiving the soul," Spike said as he entered the kitchen, Giles hot on his heels. Spike looked distinctly harassed..

"Well, would you say that-"

"Honey," Buffy interjected sweetly, "would you go get some weapons? Anya called to say that there's a nasty new demon in town. A Nosretina-Lauper, or something?"

Spike looked pathetically grateful, and left the kitchen without a word.

"A Nosredna-Laup? Good heavens, that is an unpleasant specimen," exclaimed Giles. "And Anya encountered one?"

"No, she just heard about it."

"Hmm...I do wonder that she telephoned, she usually just pops over in that extraordinary way she has. I must say, I'm a little relieved that she chose a normal method of communication. I've been wondering how long she'd continue to serve as a vengeance demon."

"Giles?"

"Yes, my dear?"

"How do you kill a Nosberger-Lapper?"

"You damage its wings, then decapitate it," Giles replied absently, not looking up from the notes he was scribbling.

Buffy nodded. "Better get the crossbow," she murmured, and headed out the kitchen after Spike.

***

It was sacramental. Being here, in her room. Wanted, allowed, welcomed. The girly frills of adolescence still hung on the walls, and under them was the stern duty of her weapons chest, the contrasting aspects that made her Buffy. He loved them both. She needed them both to be her, and so he needed them too.

He smiled to himself as he knelt before the chest. The Bit had looked out at him as he came down the hall, peering around the mostly closed door to her room, and a sweet, hopeful smile lighting her face. She hadn't looked at him like that in forever, and he'd wanted to hug her and tell her that he loved her, loved Buffy, and would always protect them. But then she'd shut the door, her little peek over, and he'd gone on to Buffy's room, preposterously, unreasonably happy.

What should he get? Swords, they were always good. Nothing that couldn't be killed with a sword, more or less. ‘Course, Buffy had always favored stakes, so he should get a couple of those as well. And he'd see if anything else appealed, he thought, unlatching the lid and lifting it open.

And then he stopped moving, and stopped thinking, for a moment. Inside the chest was his old trophy, the duster, folded among the stakes and crosses and jars of holy water. Intermingled with them. It was sick. It was sacrilegious. For a moment nausea overcame him, and he thought he might pass out, or do something equally gittish.

He sat there and breathed, inhaled, exhaled, unnecessary but comforting, and finally opened his eyes. He saw the chest in front of him, and to the side, in the doorway, he saw Buffy, her face startled. A little pale.

"I-went to tell you to be sure to get a crossbow, but then I realized you weren't at my usual weapons chest, so you had to be up here." He looked at her blankly. "I use the one downstairs now. The one Xander made for me."

"Ah," he murmured. His mouth felt dry. "You...kept it."

Buffy was silent for a moment. "I was going to throw it away," she said finally. "I threw it to the back of my closet. I was going to throw it in the garbage. I was going to, but I didn't want to see it and didn't want to touch it, so I didn't, and then after a while I forgot about it. And when I found it again, I'd already forgiven you. And I thought about the way we'd treated each other, and it seemed wrong to just get rid of it."

She knelt beside him and covered his hand with hers, nudging her forehead against his. "It's a part of you," she whispered. "It's a part that hurts. It's a part I don't like to remember. But it's a part of you, and I couldn't get rid of it."

He fingered the soft, worn leather with his free hand. "Do you know where I got this?" She shook her head wordlessly. "I took it off my second Slayer. The one I killed in New York."

Her hand, still stroking his, stilled for a moment, then resumed its calming pattern. "That's not who you are," she said softly.

"Yes, it is," he told her, his voice steady.

"It's not all you are. It never was."

After a moment he shut the chest carefully, and they left the room weaponless. The duster rested still surrounded by the tools of the Slayer's art, in the little-girl room he loved. Maybe he'd come back for it later.

Maybe he wouldn't.

***

"Is that was you wanted?" Anya asked, hanging up the phone.

"That's fine," Willow said with a small smile.

"Then you should feel good about accomplishing what you set out to do, and celebrate by leaving my shop," Anya suggested. She had a strict policy against asking customers to leave her shop, but most Magic Box customers hadn't tried to kill her. And Willow had never been a paying customer anyway.

Willow smothered a laugh as she turned towards the door. Everything was for a reason-everything-but Anya didn't seem to realize that. Which amused Willow, really, since Anya was the oldest one of all of them. Older than Giles; older than Spike. Although almost everyone seemed older than Spike, because he wore his years so lightly.

But he'd seemed older, more somber, when they'd talked in the park. Like something was weighing on him. Preoccupying his mind. Eating away at him.

Good.

Chapter 18 by Shadowlass
Anya shuddered as the door settled shut after Willow. She'd almost shrieked in a most undignified way when she'd looked up to see the redhead walking towards her purposefully. Not that dignity mattered at the moment, since her heart was still all sore from Giles stomping on it in that dim, polite English way he had of not noticing because he was too busy cleaning his glasses to see what was right in front of him, even when it was making him fistfuls of money and he was bringing it flowers like he really cared about it in ways other than as free labor to help him prepare his new house for his real girlfriend, who was not Anya.

Willow didn't look very good. It was the first time Anya'd seen her since that day at the Magic Box. The old Magic Box, of course-the ruined one the current shop rested upon. Willow had used Anya to free her from the energy cage Giles had placed her in, and then she had completed the very important work of destroying the shop and almost killing Giles. Anya knew why Willow hadn't concentrated more of her effort on Anya-she just wasn't important enough. Once she was unconscious, she didn't much matter. The others Willow was angry at; Anya was just a gnat, beneath her notice.

God, she was sick of being a gnat.

She was nothing to Willow. Nothing to Xander, in the end. Nothing to Giles, ever, no matter what she'd thought. She didn't care what they thought of her, any of them. Not really. It just hurt that it was so little. Not because she'd been their friend, and helped them again and again, and hadn't screamed like a madwoman when they told the 23,984 stories of their high school adventures, over and over and over again in a way designed to make anyone who was not them go insane. And it didn't bother her that Xander was supposed to love her and left her instead, and that Giles was more interesting in procuring a steady supply of Bovril than looking at what was right in front of him in stylish '40s-inspired work fashions and Golden Apricot hair with Sunny Blonde highlights.

What hurt was that she'd fallen for it, all of it, and she felt like a fool. She thought they meant it when they'd told her nice things, which wasn't often enough, and...and...she couldn't think of any other reason, but she had them. They just were not yet making themselves apparent.

God, who was she kidding? She'd been closer to Xander and the rest of them than she had been with anyone since she was first mortal a millennium before. They'd known her for years, seen her every day, lived with her. And at the end of the day they hadn't really cared about her at all. What did that say? Not about them. About her. They'd known her that well, and they didn't love her. They didn't even like her.

She wasn't someone people loved.

Furtively Anya wiped away a tear. She didn't know why she was being furtive; there were no customers in the shop, and she felt like she couldn't summon up a profit-increasing professional smile to save her soul. She didn't believe in closing the shop during regular business hours, but maybe it was time to admit defeat, go home, and examine her stock portfolio.

The thought of her portfolio didn't do anything for her at the moment, though, and that just made her feel worse.

God, was this really all there was to being human? Loving and getting hurt and feeling like garbage and then dying? "Being human is stupid," Anya muttered, wiping both cheeks with the heels of her hands.

Xander felt his heart contract. She'd forgotten she wasn't human. That was his girl.

"Anya," Xander said softly, laying his hand on her shoulder.

Anya jumped and shrieked. "My god, what are you trying to do? Scare me to death?" she exclaimed, using the movement to disguise the hasty blinking she was doing. Blinking because she had allergies, that was all. She'd told Xander often enough, he had to know.

"An-"

"What are you doing here, anyway?" she demanded.

"I wanted to see if you were-to see how you were," he answered. What could he say? That he knew that Giles wasn't interested in her, so he came to help pick up the pieces? Because even if she didn't want him, he didn't want her to sit there feeling like crap about herself? Because he wanted to make her feel better, even if it made him feel worse?

They were all true, even if he couldn't bring himself to say them.

He remembered a couple of years ago, the spell the four of them had cast to defeat Adam. Him and Willow and Buffy and Giles. They had come together and Buffy was the hand, the physical power. Giles was the mind, Willow was the spirit, and Xander was the heart. Together they were a whole; they made each other complete. They were fragmented now, and he didn't even have the courage to follow his own strength.

A moment, months before, seared its way to the front of his mind. Anya, standing in her wedding dress, in the doorway of the clubhouse, as he strode away in the rain. No umbrella, no raincoat. They didn't matter; he couldn't feel anything anyhow. He'd ruined his life, and ruined hers, because he didn't have the courage to stand up to his fears. That was the beginning, wasn't it? Everything had fallen apart after that. He'd become afraid and stepped back, and his life with Anya had fallen apart, and then everything around them fell like dominoes.

"It's my fault," he whispered.

Anya looked at him in puzzlement. "What? What's your fault?"

"All of it. Everything," he muttered, his eyes darting around blindly. It was insane, them being without each other. All of them. It wasn't right. It couldn't be supported. He couldn't let it go on.

"You deserve so much more," Xander suddenly said, looking right at her.

Anya looked at him warily. "I probably agree with you," she said gingerly. "But I'm still not sure what you're talking about."

"We need each other. You and I. You deserve to be treasured. And Buffy, and Dawn and Giles. And Willow. God, Willow."

"She's fine," said Anya crankily. "They're all fine. Giles is one step away from marriage and Buffy is all happy with Spike, and Willow seemed just fine to me, and except for the someone trying to kill Spike thing, everyone's fine except me. And possibly Dawn, I don't know about her. She's not stealing from here anymore, which is progress."

"What?"

"She's not taking Magic Shop merchandise without payment, which is a definite good thing. I don't think people give me a lot of credit, because-"

"What do you mean about Willow? When did you see her?"

Anya shook her head briefly, startled by the abrupt and inexplicable change of subject. "Earlier tonight-an hour or two ago," she said finally, glancing at the clock.

"What was she doing? She didn't try to buy any magic supplies, did she?" Xander asked, worry gathering on his face.

"No, she just wanted me to make a phone call for her. She said she couldn't do it herself."

It was irrational. There was no reason for him to start breathing faster. Stop it. Nothing's wrong. "Call who?" he asked carefully, trying to keep himself calm.

"Buffy. She said there was a Nosredna Laup demon in town, and that Buffy should be notified. And since they're really quite huge, unpleasant creatures, I had to agree."

"Why didn't she call herself?"

"She said it would be better if Buffy didn't know anything about her being the one to find out about it. I didn't see what difference it would make, but having her around my elixirs and herbs and amulets made me uneasy, so I agree in order to facilitate her departure."

Xander shook his head. "She's not supposed to be out and around," he muttered, mostly to himself.

"Why not?"

He blinked at Anya. "She's not ready to do more."

"How do you know?"

"She's tried. It usually ends with Buffy threatening to kill her, so staying in seems of the good."

"Why does Buffy threaten her?"

Xander looked at Anya, his eyes exhausted. He didn't want to discuss it any more. He couldn't stand to think of it. "You know why," he said tiredly.

"Just the trying to end the world thing? You and Gi-you still talk to her."

"Apparently I don't demand ridiculous standards from my friends."

Anya made a disapproving click with her tongue. "Most people would not consider refraining from global annihilation a ridiculous standard. Have you ever thought that you hang around with the wrong people?"

Xander shook his head. The conversation was rapidly getting out of hand. "Friends don't turn their backs on each other," he insisted. Anya just looked at him steadily, and he began to chafe under her examination. "What?" he said finally.

"I can't understand why you're so forgiving about one friend's reasonably good attempt to end the world and so inflexible on the matter of another friend's choice of boyfriend."

"That's different," he muttered.

"Well yes, of course it's different. In one scenario the world would have ceased to exist and in the other you'd be eating popcorn with someone you don't like on movie night. I don't think there's anyone who'd argue that those situations are similar in the least, at least not someone who hasn't consumed large quantities of one of the lesser intoxicants-possibly wood-grain alcohol."

Xander opened his mouth to argue, but closed it again. He was so tired of fighting with everyone. He just wanted his world, his friends back. He had his pride, and his standards, but they felt so cold after the warmth of the friendship between all of them. He'd learned from his parents to keep people at a distance once they'd hurt you, but the only thing that happened was that he was turning out just like them.

That was the thing he'd never wanted.

"Maybe you're right," he said softly.

He turned to leave, then turned back. "Are you sure you're all right?"

Anya nodded. She'd be fine. Xander, at least, was seeing the wisdom of her words. It felt good.

It was about time.

***

"You wouldn't believe what he the things he was asking," Spike ranted. "He wanted to know crap I didn't pay attention to even when it was happening, and then recount it in perfect detail."

Buffy rubbed his arm soothingly. "There, there," she crooned. "That's all over, and you won't have to do that again." He quieted down. "Until tomorrow."

"Oh, Christ," muttered Spike. "He seems to think that if he can't come up with a steady stream of the most absurd questions ever asked he's a failure as a Watcher. And then half the time he gives me a funny look, like he thinks I'm yanking his chain."

"Aren't you?" challenged Buffy.

"What?" Spike protested.

"I heard some of those questions, and I heard you tell him the demon who returned your soul was named Lou," Buffy pointed out dryly.

"It was Lloyd," Spike insisted. Buffy looked at him skeptically. "Well, I thought I heard someone call him Lloyd, but I was pretty out of it. I also thought I saw my old classics master serving tea and biscuits to a walrus, though, so I could be wrong."

"You think?" asked Buffy dryly.

"Okay, I didn't tell him about-" Ah, damn mouth!

"About?"

"About...." Come on, out with it, mate. "About the pain getting worse."

"Worse? When did they start getting worse?"

Spike attempted to shrug it off. "'While ago," he admitted.

"Why didn't you tell me?" she demanded.

Spike ground his teeth. There was no answer that wouldn't get him in trouble, he knew. She'd had enough of her boyfriends pretending to be heroic manly men, and wouldn't want to hear him babble about not wanting to admit how poor he was feeling. And she sure wouldn't want him to tell her that he hadn't wanted to worry her. Actually, he was pretty sure he was screwed no matter what he said. Not in a good way, either.

"I...forgot?" he offered. She put her hands on her hips and glared at him. "I-didn't-want-to-upset-you-and-I-felt-bad-and-hoped-I-was-just-imagining-it," he mumbled in a rush, feeling the same way he had when his mum caught him in the corner of the pantry, shoveling jam into his mouth. Yeah, right nauseous then, too. "I'm telling you now," he pointed out hastily.

"Score one for finally coming clean," Buffy grumbled. "How much pain? Do you feel it right now?"

Spike shrugged. "Some."

"Some what?" Buffy said impatiently.

"Some pain, and I feel it most of the time. Not as much when I'm around you," he added, smiling at her ingratiatingly.

Ha! Thought he could flatter her a little and she'd be led off-track? He still had a lot to learn about her. "How bad's it gotten?"

Spike squirmed a little. "Pretty bad," he admitted. "One night I wasn't sure I was going to be able to make it home. Thought maybe I'd ask Giles about it, see if he knew anything about what might cause it."

"That bad?" Buffy asked worriedly, touching his face. He turned his face into her palm, nuzzling it. She could feel him smile into it.

A year before, she would have jerked her hand away from the tender gesture. Now she wanted to fuss at him, make him go to bed-her bed-and stay there until she'd found what was hurting him and killed it.

A memory niggled at her, and she suddenly saw herself, painfully young, fighting Faith, desperate to heal Angel. What it is with people trying to kill my boyfriends? And who'd want to hurt Spike, anyway? He was a sociable guy, he had a lot of...well, not friends, really. More like poker buddies. Buddies might have been pushing it. Skeevy backroom acquaintances?

Yeah, he had plenty of those.

"So when was the last time you were in pain?" she asked.

"That would be...pretty much now," he admitted after a moment's reluctance. Pushy bint, she'd know if he lied.

"Now? I thought you said you didn't get them when you were around me?"

"Not usually," he muttered. Damned can of worms. "Guess tonight's a special occasion."

"Well, I'd like to know what you think you're-are you listening to me?" Buffy demanded, waving a hand in front of his face impatiently.

Spike was staring past her. "Jesus," he breathed. "Buffy, look out!"

***

Xander peered into the darkness at the edge of Sycamore Park and wished he'd thought to bring a flashlight. He'd parked his truck, because trying to find Buffy while driving would be useless, but without the headlights he could barely see a thing. And now he was becoming tense, for no reason. It was ridiculous. Willow had heard something bad was in town, and she'd made sure Buffy found out about it. It didn't mean a thing.

And it didn't mean a thing that she hadn't called him to handle it. It couldn't. But for some reason, the thought of Willow anonymously alerting Buffy disturbed him. Well, maybe disturbed was too intense a word.

No, it really wasn't.

Willow was calm now. Stable. She was the one who talked him out of dusting Spike. She soothed him about Buffy. There was no reason to think she'd do anything-anything more than slip away alone without letting him know, trying to catch a glimpse of Buffy, and apparently keeping an ear to the ground with god knows what supernatural sources to let her know scary monsters were in town.

Of course, she wasn't supposed to have supernatural sources anymore.

Jesus, where was she? Where-"Buffy!" Xander half-shouted, hastening towards her. Her clothes were torn, her face expressionless. Not like Buffy.

No, like Buffy, but the Buffy she'd been after she came back. Not the real Buffy.

She glanced up at his shout. "Is everything okay? Is it Dawn?" she asked, starting to tense.

"She's fine," Xander said automatically. He hadn't seen Dawn in weeks, he had no idea how she was. "You're-are you all right?"

"What? Yeah, I'm fine," Buffy replied, puzzled. "Why wouldn't I be?"

Xander flushed. What could he say? Hey, I know we're not talking and everything, but Anya happened to mention that Willow had her send you looking for some big monster, and I thought we could talk and then I had this sudden irrational fear?

"Anya told me that..." He paused for a moment. Finally he said, "That you were after some big monster, and I just wanted to make sure you're okay. That's all."

Buffy studied him. Xander had always been a good friend-except for the whole can't-keep-his-nose-out-of-her-love-life-but he hadn't really gone patrolling with her in a long time. Why would he? She could handle the big beasties on her own. And they all had their own lives to lead, right? They didn't have to babysit her, or help her, or check up on her, or do anything. She was the chosen one, not them. They didn't have that responsibility.

"What?"

"What?" Buffy repeated blankly.

"What responsibility?"

Buffy flushed. "I didn't mean to say that," she muttered. "You have your own life. That's how it's supposed to be."

He stared at her. "What if I don't want my own life?" he asked after a moment.

"What?"

"Buffy, it's been my life, too. For years now, it's been my life. And Giles', and Willow's. Not just yours."

Buffy looked at Xander cautiously. "You don't have to-"

"I want to. I know you were called, but the rest of us volunteered," Xander noted with a trace of his customary humor. "But before we wanted to help you fight, we wanted to be your friend."

The sudden hope in her eyes made him bitterly hate the way they constantly communicated around and over each other, but had so seldom connected in the last few years. He remembered the last time that had happened, in her garden, right before that maniac had shot her and Tara. The time before that...he struggled to think for a moment. Back after Riley had left? When he'd told her that Riley was the long haul guy for her, and she wasn't treating him right?

Dammit.

She would have weathered it. She always did. But he'd seen Riley as like him, somehow, a normal guy in a Buffy-verse of vampires and demons and superheroes, and empathized more with him than with his own friend. He was wrong. Riley wasn't his stand-in, and Buffy couldn't live her life to go along with whatever freaky standard he'd learned from his parents. He had to trust her. He had to because he loved her, and he'd rather have her here, with a man...pire he loathed, rather than where she'd been before he and Anya and Willow and Tara had performed their spell on the edge of town. He trusted her already. He trusted her with his life.

It was time he trusted her with her with her heart.

"Can I walk with you?" he asked her quietly. She studied him for a moment, then nodded.

They walked towards Revello slowly. They were heading home.

And that's how it felt.

***

He hurt like a son of a bitch. Wasn't that stupid demon-he'd been a weak sister; talk about your false advertising-it was the damn pain in his gut, all steady now that he was away from the Slayer and whatever magical hoodoo she had that kept him feeling good. Well, better.

Spike slowed as he reached his crypt. He'd thought a couple of times about the crystal he'd gotten from Anya. She'd said it would help, and he'd tossed it away, not wanting the Slayer to see him look vulnerable.

Which was stupid, since she'd seen him cry a bunch of times. If he wasn't hell on wheels in bed she might have gotten the wrong idea about him, thought he was some kind of nancyboy. But they'd been finding their footing, and he hadn't wanted to look bad, or like he was trying to gain her sympathy.

It wasn't really fair, was it? He hadn't even given the crystal a chance. Nothing wrong with giving it a good try. He owed it to Anya, really. She hadn't even charged him.

Anya's crystal had to be around her somewhere, right? He'd dropped it right about...here, Spike thought, shoving the dead leaves aside and finding exactly nothing. Which he'd normally think was just his luck, but since he was going home to his goddess afterward, his luck seemed to have changed. Except for an anonymous asshole trying to painfully kill him, of course. That was his old luck down to a tee.

Didn't matter about the crystal, really. He'd never believe that a bit of colored glass could keep a person well; that was the sort of rot Drusilla always held with, and what did it get her? Whatever she wants, mate, when she finds herself a sap willing to string the world up when she twitches her hand.

Well, that wasn't him now. Thank god. He gave the leaves a last, desultory kick and opened the door to his crypt. The crystal may not have been able to help, but it wouldn't have hurt. Right? And it wasn't like-

Fuck.

Someone had been there, in the crypt. And they'd left a package that couldn't be mistaken for something forgotten in a corner or under a chair. Instead, it was thrown negligently atop the bier on which he slept, taunting him.

He approached it warily. A burlap sack, faintly damp, as if it had been dragged in the night-dewed grass. He didn't like the feeling he was getting from it, but that was a little ephemeral, even for someone who'd lived with Drusilla. He didn't like the smell-that was concrete enough for anyone, wasn't it?

He pulled open the neck of the bag and jerked back in disgust. It was a cat, or what had once been a cat, when it had been in one piece. And he didn't have to sniff the soiled burlap to tell who'd left it. Her scent was all over the crypt.

Dawn.

Chapter 19 by Shadowlass
God, she must hate him. For her to do something like that to an animal, she must hate him with every bit of her. Dawn loved animals; she'd talked the year before how she wanted to volunteer at the local animal shelter. After all, plenty of pets ended up there after their owners turned up dead from inexplicable neck trauma.

Did she just walk up to the cat and bash its brains out? Or maybe lure it into a trap with a little tuna?

Or maybe she just answered an ad-"Free to good home."

God.

For a moment he thought of the cat that used to live in the house-still did, maybe, hard to see cats if they didn't want to be noticed-Miss Something? Kitty? The Fabulous Miss Kitty? Something like that. It had been Tara's cat, although maybe Dawn named it. That name seemed too earthbound for Glinda's tastes.

Spike went back to the sack and peered into it. No, Tara's pet was black; this cat had been marmalade, once.

It was ridiculous to be so relieved.

Christ, he didn't want to tell Buffy.

***

"He has a soul? That's...great," Xander forced himself to say. The words felt like sawdust in his mouth, dry and flavorless and insincere.

No, not insincere. Not completely. They were words he had to say to be close to Buffy again. Nothing was perfect, even with the people you loved most. You had to grit your teeth to keep from making a remark, or a whole stream of them, but in the long run it would be worth it. If he didn't believe that, he wouldn't be here with her now.

And she'd have to do the exact same thing. Because this couldn't be halfway, it couldn't be just him accepting her; she had some accepting to do, too. Things couldn't go on the way they had been.

He'd been able to get along with Spike sometimes, hadn't he? Playing pool, poker? Shot the bull a few times, commiserated about women being insane and completely unreasonable? That's all they had to do now. Not be best friends. Just be polite. Civil.

Of course, it was a lot more difficult being civil to someone who'd slept with your fiancée and tried to-tried to-

Stop it. Stop it now. It's not my call, it's hers.

There was an upside, right? There had to be. Spike was better than Angel, he supposed. At least he wasn't as creepy.

Naw, he was really more on the thuggish side.

Upside, upside. Well, at least Xander wouldn't be the only guy at their video nights, since Giles usually came up with a convenient excuse to miss them. And, uh...maybe the girls would be less inclined to discuss the merits of various brands of depilatories with another guy there. Sometimes Xander wondered if they forgot he was a guy, what with so many girls around. Another guy to beef up the Y chromosome factor couldn't hurt.

And Buffy. The real upside was Buffy.

"Souls are good," said Xander carefully.

Buffy nodded. "Definitely of the good," she agreed.

"Willow has a soul," he added.

Buffy flinched. Predictably. "Souls aren't a magic cure-all."

"Would you let Spike back into your life if he didn't have a soul?" Xander asked steadily.

"I did," she said softly. "When Spike came back, I didn't know he had one."

"So you just forgave him?"

Buffy nodded.

"Then why can't you forgive Willow?"

Buffy hesitated. How could she explain? It seemed so clear in her mind, but when she tried to explain her words failed her. "It-what she did-it was personal."

"And what Spike did wasn't personal?" Xander exclaimed before he thought.

Her eyes, meeting his, were stormy, and he reminded himself that that wasn't a topic for discussion.

"Fine. Angel. When Angel tried to end the world, you forgave him."

"That wasn't Angel," Buffy returned automatically.

"Then who was it? Mr. Bean?"

"That's not-Angel was different. He was Angelus. He was a different person."

"Just like Willow was a different person."

"She was Willow," insisted Buffy, getting up and moving around the living room in agitation.

"She was nuts-it had broken her mind. What, do you think they put people in Goldenbrook because they're extra-sane?"

"She knew exactly what she was doing," Buffy flashed, swinging around to face him. "She wasn't out of her mind. She knew who she was, she knew who I was. And she knew who my sister was when she threatened to reduce her to green key-ness. She just didn't care."

Xander stared at her for a moment, silent as realization dawned. "That's it," he murmured in surprise. "That's it, isn't it? I thought she didn't rate on your get-out-of-jail free card because only your boyfriends get that one, but it's Dawn, isn't it? It's because she went after Dawn."

Buffy met his eyes silently, hers glittering with tears.

"God, Buffy, if you knew-if you knew how many nights I have to get up and go into Willow's room to wake her up from bad dreams. They're all bad, all of her dreams are bad. She'll be crying and begging you to forgive her, you and Dawn. Dawn's like-Dawn's the sister she never had, the little sister, just like you're the, the other sister she never had," Xander finished lamely. "She can't stand what she tried to do to you two."

Buffy wanted to shoot back that it didn't matter, Willow had to live with it, they all had to, but she couldn't. The words stuck in her throat. She hated Willow, and blamed her bitterly, and missed her so much she could barely stand it. Thoughts of Willow entered her mind at random times, and she shied away from them, couldn't look at them, and then they returned to her when she thought she'd put Willow far from her mind. From her heart.

But as bitter as she was with Willow, Buffy missed her, sharply. Willow had been her touchstone ever since she moved to Sunnydale; she turned her back on Cordy and the social acceptance that would have come with her-the social status Buffy was used to-because she'd looked at the timid, awkward girl Willow had been and wanted to help her, to make her laugh.

God, Xander wanted it so much. She could see it in his eyes, desperate and hopeful. She couldn't keep Willow away forever; she'd had a hard enough time for the past months. Eventually she'd get there, slip in past Buffy and one day Buffy would just walk in the house and Willow would be there, talking with Dawn, in Buffy's own kitchen. Or she'd go over to see Giles and there Willow would be, rooting through his bookshelves. She hadn't been to Xander's for months because she was avoiding Willow. How long could she fight?

She wasn't the only one who cared about Willow.

"Maybe," Buffy mumbled finally. Xander bent swiftly to catch the soft word. "Maybe."

***

It took him a while to get going. First, he had to bury the cat behind the crypt, then he still had to gather his stuff up to take over to Buffy's. He was moving slowly, because he felt worse than ever. It couldn't be magic. Dawn didn't know magic. Couldn't do magic.

Of course, she damn near brought her mother back.

Fuck.

Spike didn't hurry as he walked across town. There was no reason to. He had all night to accuse Buffy's sister, a girl he'd loved for years, of trying to kill him. No reason to rush to it. Maybe he could put it off a while, pretend he didn't know. While she did god knows what next. Maybe a dog.

Maybe a baby.

Yeah, putting it off was a great plan.

***

Giles stayed out of the living room. He'd been in the kitchen, drinking a barely adequate pot of what Americans laughably called tea, when he'd heard them come in-Buffy and Spike, he'd thought.

But it was Xander with Buffy, and they'd been talking steadily the whole time. He didn't want to disturb them; he thought it was better for them to reconcile, but he was wondering just how long he could stay away from the living room. His notebook was there-he'd been engrossed in recording his observations about Spike, and he really wanted to get back to it. But Buffy and Xander were still talking, and-ah! The kitchen tablet! About time it was used for something other grocery lists of Lean Cuisine and absurdly expensive bottled water. As if water from Fiji was inherently superior to that from the Sunnydale Water Treatment Plant. Absurd.

The difference between the unsouled, demonic Spike and his souled counterpart is not as dramatic as it was with Angel and his soulless persona, Angelus. Of course, for the past three years Spike has been restrained by the chip and unable to inflict the kind of devastation Angelus reveled in, but at the same time Spike, even with a soul, does not appear as weighed down by his crimes as Angel did. Until he revealed his soul, I was unable to discern a difference between his behavior now and when I left Sunnydale last fall; now he is a little quieter and more thoughtful, perhaps, yet still retains his essential-

"Where's Dawn?"

Giles jumped; he hadn't heard Spike come in the back door. "I believe she's up in her room, studying," he said, settling back. "How was the Nosredna Laup?"

"Big and ugly and not that tough," Spike muttered, his gaze drifting up to the ceiling as if he could see through it to the girl upstairs.

"Ahh-I was wondering, since you didn't accompany Buffy home."

"Getting my stuff," Spike mumbled, moving towards the door. "Told her I'd meet her here. Give her a chance to get cleaned up."

"Well, Buffy's, uh, busy at the moment, so this might be a good time for us to talk further," Giles said hopefully-the last of it to Spike's back as he disappeared through the kitchen door into the house.

Spike was vaguely aware of Buffy greeting him as he passed the living room on his way upstairs, a paper bag with his stuff carelessly shoved in it dangling from one hand. He dropped it outside Buffy's bedroom without pausing before stopping in front of her sister's door. He hesitated before knocking; what could he say? "Dawnie, I understand that you're unhappy with me, but I'd appreciate if you stopped cursing me. Also, don't kill cats. It's not nice, and they're worth good money to the right demons"?

Tentatively Spike rapped on the door. "Come in," Dawn called. "Especially if you've got chocolate."

Spike opened the door and slipped inside. "Hey, Bit," he said softly. "Can we talk a minute?"

"Sure," Dawn agreed. "Anything going on?" she asked gingerly. She looked at him, and it was not at all as she had earlier, when she smiled at him and he thought everything was going to be okay between them. Now her look was wary.

She knew he knew. She knew.

"Why?" he asked without preamble. She looked at him blankly.

"It's no good for everyone. No good for you," he told her carefully.

No response.

He tried again. "I don't blame you," he told her. "Just stop. I'm not angry, but you can't do it any more. It doesn't make anything better, don't you see that?"

"I-I don't know what you're talking about, Spike," she said.

"Buffy's going to have to be told," he said to Dawn. "I can't keep secrets from her. You stop, we'll tell her together, and things will be right as rain. Well okay, first she'll blow her stack, but then she'll calm down, and everything will be fine."

Her sudden intake of breath would have been confirmation for him, if he'd needed it. "You can't tell Buffy," she gasped. "Don't tell her!"

"I have to, Niblet," he said gently.

"If you tell her she'll never trust me again," Dawn exclaimed in dismay.

"She'll understand," Spike insisted. "Just stop, and everything will be fine."

Dawn shook her head desperately. "I stopped already," she blurted out. "So you don't have to tell her now!"

"And what about tonight?" Spike scoffed, crossing over to her. How could she lie to him like that? He knew already, why didn't she just make things easy on both of them and admit it?

"Tonight was...I was just trying to make things better," Dawn said pleadingly. "I stopped already, days ago!"

"How could what you did tonight possibly make anything better?" Spike demanded in shock. "You have to stop, now," he insisted, grabbing her arms and shaking her, trying desperately to get through to her. She had to understand, the way she was going never ended well, for anyone.

"I have, I swear," Dawn quavered, beginning to cry.

"Then we'll deal with it, and it will be over," Spike repeated, unaware of sounds behind him as Buffy appeared in the doorway.

"Here!" Dawn wailed, pulling away from Spike, tears streaking down her face. "You can have it, you can have it all!" She stumbled to her dresser and jerked out one of the drawers, shoving clothes aside and pulling out a folded towel. She threw it across the room towards him, and the treasures hidden inside it fell to the ground. "There! That's all of it! I don't want it any more! I was giving it back, I swear I was giving it back!"

Wordlessly Spike bent to inspect the discarded objects. The bag that held the bones was there, and pack of his fags, along with a few of his favorite rings and his paperback of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; a switchblade with a broken blade-he never could bear to discard weapons, even useless ones; a mostly-new tube of hair gel that had to be left over from spring; and other assorted worthless crap. Other than the bones, nothing very threatening.

Exactly the sort of thing a light-fingered sixteen-year-old would favor.

"Jesus," he muttered, his mind reeling. Wasn't her. Wasn't her at all.

"You left," Dawn blurted accusingly, crumpling on her bed in tears. "Why did you leave? How could you? Xander was saying things about you, I know they weren't true! Why didn't you stay? I could have helped," she sobbed. Spike looked at her in horror, and backed away from the bed.

Buffy crossed to her and sank down on the bed beside her, wrapping Dawn in her arms. "It's okay, it's okay," she whispered, ignoring the whatever the hell she'd burst in on for the moment. A flash of movement caught her eye and she looked up to see Spike slip from the room.

***

Buffy pushed the hair back from Dawn's face. She didn't realize until after she'd done it that it was one of their mother's affectionate gestures. She was so used to it that she'd seldom even noticed her mother doing it until she was gone, and no one did it to her any more.

I've taught you all I can about being a slayer, and your mother taught you what you needed to know about life. He'd been right, hadn't he?

But just because she knew what she needed didn't mean she had all she needed. Buffy needed Giles. She needed her mother, too, but she couldn't have her. Dawn couldn't have her. She was gone, and she'd never return, not like Buffy. Somewhere deep inside, Buffy was glad. She knew that her mother was warm and safe and happy. Buffy had been in that place once, and she'd be there again. Someday.

But for now she had to be there for Dawn, because their mother couldn't be.

"What was that about?" Buffy asked gently.

"He knows what I did," Dawn mumbled.

"Knows about what?"

Dawn was silent for a moment. "Knows that...I was doing stuff to him," she said finally.

"What kind of stuff were you doing?" Buffy asked carefully.

"Itooksomeofhisstuff," Dawn mumbled. Buffy looked at her in surprise. "I was giving it back!"

"I thought you stopped doing that," Buffy pointed out. Dawn bowed her head, and Buffy nudged her.

"I was upset," Dawn admitted. Buffy looked at her. "He left. He shouldn't have left," she mumbled, tearing up a little again. Buffy rubbed her back and Dawn moved closer to her, finally putting her head on Buffy's shoulder and crying without reservation.

"I know, sweetie," whispered Buffy into Dawn's hair. "I know."

***

It wasn't Bit. Wasn't her. No, she was just pulling her cute adolescent crap, gacking his stuff and imagining she was putting the big hurt on him. Why? Not ‘cause he'd tried to violate her sister, no, she was too loyal to believe that, but because he'd left, and she'd been left too many times.

Goddamn Harris. Goddamn him to hell for telling Dawn about what he'd tried to do about Buffy. Like it was any of his fucking business. No, he'd just been delighted to tell a child what Spike tried to do to her sister. Probably would have shown her pictures if he could, didn't care who got hurt as long as he could say something bad about Spike.

Yeah, it was true. He'd never lie about it, never try to get away from it. But it wasn't Harris' place to tell. Not his right to crush a little girl to make himself feel better.

They were insane. All of them, even Spike, this town made people insane. The evanescence from the Hellmouth, it curled its tendrils around people and snaked through them and they didn't even notice. That crazy-ass mayor Buffy'd told him about, and that Slayer who went off her nut. Buffy, beating the shit out of him in a back alley, and him, forcing her to the floor of her bathroom and trying to pull her robe off. The Wiccan trying to end the world because it was a more dramatic statement than turning the mirrors to face the walls, and that dumbass Watcher leaving Buffy to fend for herself when she had no one to guide her. And them, the whole lot of them, stupid enough to try to bring Buffy back, chanting and spilling fawn's blood....

Fawn's blood.

Person had to be awful cold to kill a fawn. William'd never done it, of course; he'd fainted away like a girl on the one hunting trip his father had taken him on and refused to go again. Still didn't care much for hurting animals. Not a lot of sport when people have automatic rifles with motion detectors and their prey had brains the size of one of your smaller legumes.

Spike had never been interested in the easy battles.

But he knew someone who'd done it when it would get her what she wanted. She'd told him one night at the Bronze, when he'd gone in hoping to see Buffy and instead merely found Willow alone at the bar, drowning her sorrows in the rare non-magical way. She'd been depressed. She told him magic had ruined her relationship with Tara, that she never should have touched it, but she couldn't regret bringing Buffy back, no matter what it took to get her. And then she'd told him. Luring the fawn out. Cutting it. Letting its life drip out over her hands.

Spike knew for himself that the first kill was the hardest. They all got easier after that.

She'd told him she wasn't the one doing it to him.

She'd lied.

Spike changed directions at the next intersection. Getting plastered could wait; it was time he and Red had another talk.

As he walked, Dawn's tear-stained face rose in Spike's mind. She was so hurt, so upset. And he'd been such a git, treating her like that when she needed some understanding. And instead he'd shouted. Frightened her little girl feelings, broke her when she was already so broken it was a wonder she hadn't sprung a leak.

Spike froze. That wasn't right, was it? He hadn't just shouted. He'd shaken her. Shaken her all up.

Hadn't hurt a bit

Chapter 20 by Shadowlass
Fucking demon monkey-pawed him. He'd done his damned trials, and they were some of the stupidest things he'd ever done, even if they hurt like a motherfucker, and then that poncy rock-headed git with his Day-Glo eyes slapped a hand down on his chest and gave it to him all right. Gave him the soul he wanted, the soul he'd earned, but at the same time he'd slipped him Pandora's box. Unchipped him, something he'd wanted for years, ever since they shoved that bit of tin in his head and stopped him from being the vampire he was made to be. Gave him what he wanted now, and at the same time gave him what he'd wanted for so long it had been all he thought about sometimes.

But not anymore. Not for a long time. Since before he'd gotten the soul, before Buffy even came back.

Trying to prove he'd always be evil, right? Bastard.

And somewhere inside, he wanted it. Beyond his soul, beyond his reason, it was hardwired into him. The very thought of sinking his teeth into someone's throat made his mouth water in the most humiliating way, like he was Pavlov's dog. He bet the slimy tosser was laughing his bony ass off about him right now back in his cave on the savannah-Yeah, fooled another one! The only thing dumber than a vampire is another vampire! God, Spike would like to take that rancid little demon's neck and twist until his brains spurted out his ears, and then he'd pull out those disgusting little eyes and-

Eh. Much more with the eyes, and he'd start to sound like Dru.

It was done, and he wasn't going back to Africa, even for some wonderful mayhem. He was in Sunnydale, and he wasn't going anywhere. Needed to settle himself down, though. Nice spot of violence sounded good, didn't it? Always hit the spot. Couldn't indulge in it as much the last few years, of course.

But now, thanks to his green-eyed friend, the restrictions were gone.

***

Buffy's head throbbed as she closed the door behind her, shutting Dawn in her room. Dawn was exhausted, and she'd changed into her pj's, crawled into bed, and was asleep before Buffy even had the light out. The whole story had come tumbling out-Dawn, upset by Spike's leaving and upset again by his return. Determined to punish him. How would she punish him? How could she? The same way she'd punished them all last year, of course. She had no other way. Breaking his heart, that was for Buffy. Trying to break him physically was for whoever was sick enough to send him ... this, Buffy thought, shifting the bag of bones in her hands. It was the first she'd seen it. It seemed so simple, and so disturbed.

It seemed exactly like witchcraft.

"Buffy?"

Buffy turned as Giles addressed her. He pointed to the bag in her hand. "Is that it? The item that caused all this concern?"

Wordlessly she held it out to him. He took it, weighed it between his fingers, finally opened the sack and peered inside. "That is ... interesting, isn't it?" he murmured, pushing the contents around with one finger.

"Yeah. That's what I usually say when people curse my boyfriends. That it's interesting," Buffy returned bitingly.

Giles winced a little, but he wasn't really bothered. She'd always reacted poorly to people threatening her loved ones. Understandable, really.

He bent forward to get a closer look at the mangy collection of bones. There was something odd about them ... something....

"Buffy, can you get me a magnifying glass?" Giles requested. After waiting a few moments he looked up expectantly and found he was alone in the living room. The front door stood open.

Buffy was gone.

***

"What do you mean, gone?" Xander asked, wishing he had a better cell phone. This one always seemed to cut out at the worst times.

"I mean she was here, and now she's not," Giles returned testily. "It's one of the more common definitions of gone, I'd say."

"Do you want me to look for her?" Xander asked. Giles wasn't surprised-Xander had always been the first to offer help, for anything.

"I don't think that's necessary; she's more than able to take care of herself. I want you to go to Willow, and stay with her."

"Why?" asked Xander, puzzled.

"Because one of them will show up there-or both."

"Who? I mean, why? No, who?"

"Buffy and Spike. Because eventually they'll come to the same conclusion I have, and look for her.

"And Xander? Hurry."

***

He was hurrying, but being careful. Blowing it wouldn't help Willow at all. As Xander parked in front of his apartment his eyes searched the lot, looking for anyone who didn't belong there.

And then Xander saw it, moving toward the stairs-the flash of mostly-dark blond hair with startling platinum at the ends. He saw himself, even, as he moved to block Spike from reaching the staircase, to put himself between Spike and Willow. It was such a strange sensation, to see himself move.

And then Spike lunged at him so quickly he saw nothing at all.

***

Willow surveyed the books she'd laid out before her. Xander was late-it wasn't like him-and she had to keep herself occupied, so she was rearranging his bookshelves. "On the Road," highly abused-possibly out of resentment, she thought, from Xander's abortive summer on the open road; "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?"; "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"-the spine wasn't even wrinkled on that one. About a thousand comic books (graphic novels, Willow reminded herself), some "Star Trek" novels, and, inexplicably, Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Willow had no idea where that one was from.

Maybe she'd get Xander some more books, good ones, for his birthday. Yeah, that was a good idea.

A repetitious sound filtered to the front of Willow's mind and she registered that someone was knocking on the door. "Come in," she called absently, her mind on the books she'd piled on the coffee table in front of her. She didn't bother to look behind her as she heard the door open. Probably Giles, wanting to see-

"I would think that after living in Sunnydale for so many years you'd realize that inviting people in without seeing who's there is rather a bad practice," Spike said coolly, shutting the door behind him. "But some people never do learn from their mistakes."

***

She'd searched half the city before she found him-at least that's what it had felt like. And when she found him, Spike was just walking down the street, a grocery bag dangling from one hand. Looking as normal as can be, just an ordinary guy. In his case, an ordinary guy who drank blood and stayed out of the sun.

In his case, a guy who could now shake her sister until he left red marks on her arms.

He noticed her approach and smiled wolfishly. "Hello, beautiful," he murmured, reaching out his free arm for a purely gratuitous squeeze. He seemed to want physical contact constantly. He had his hands over her all the time they were together, holding her hand, rubbing her back, stroking her hair. Twining their fingers together until she stopped thinking and could only look at their tangled hands like an idiot.

She was pretty sure she could live with it.

Not so much with some other things.

"You can hurt people now," she observed neutrally.

"I noticed," he agreed dryly.

"So you're not going to go all ... fangy, are you?"

"Do I look fangy to you?" he asked tolerantly.

She studied him for a moment, then shrugged. "Guess not," she sighed, turning back to home, tugging him with her. She wanted to ask more, but she was exhausted, and the question hadn't been necessary, really.

She knew she could trust him.

"Like I'd give up you just to bite people," he scoffed, and she glanced up into his eyes.

"What if you didn't have me?"

His gait began to slow, then resumed unabated. "Never happen, pet."

"For argument's sake."

"Even if I didn't have you, I've got the soul, and that's a nasty little stopper." He halted and pulled her close, tucking her head under his and rubbing his face against her hair, relishing her scent, her proximity. "When I fight for something, I keep it," he murmured.

Against him, she smiled.

Finally she'd found herself a keeper.

***

The door to his apartment wasn't standing open, and that was, Xander thought, probably a good thing.

He touched the swollen spot under his eye gingerly. Buffy had told him back in May that Spike's chip still worked, that he could only hurt her. Looks like there'd been a new development since then.

Xander tried the door-locked-and then dug out his keys and tried again. "Willow?" he called, stepping into the apartment. He tensed slightly, worried about what he'd find. And there she was, curled up in an armchair ... perfectly healthy ... reading Legion of Superheroes? "Will? Are you okay?" he asked in surprise.

She looked up and nodded, blushing a little. The comic was more engrossing than she expected. "Better than you, I guess," she said, pointing at his blue-shaded cheek.

"I'm okay," he told her. "Spike was here?" Willow nodded. "Did he do anything to you? Hit you, bite you, any ... kind of thing?"

Willow shook her head. She seemed unusually calm for someone who'd just had an encounter with an obviously unchipped vampire, he thought. "We talked for a while, then he left. Was he the one who...?" she gestured towards his face. Actually, she gestured towards her face, but he knew what she meant.

"Yeah."

"Wow. I'm pretty impressed you're all calm, then," she noted. "Usually you're kind of, uh, unhinged when it comes to Spike."

"Well, considering that half an hour ago I thought he was going to kill me and then kill you, yeah, I feel pretty calm. I'm pretty sure it's because massive amounts of endorphins are pumping through my bloodstream, making me unnaturally calm."

"Actually, endorphins-"

Xander, out of long experience, headed off her spiel. "Yeah, I'm sure they're fascinating. But more to the point, Spike? What the hell?"

Willow winced. She didn't want to discuss it, but she didn't have a choice. Xander was going to find out-they all were-and it was only right that she be the one to tell him.

After all he'd done for her, she owed him that. She owed him much more, she knew. "First you tell me what happened out there," she sighed.

"I saw him outside-Giles had told me to come here and watch out for you. He came at me so fast I thought for sure I was dead. I thought I was ground chuck. Or ground Xander," he amended with a shadow of a smile.

"So he hit you?"

Xander nodded, unconsciously rubbing his cheek again. If Spike could hit him, he could bite him, and if he could bite him ... Xander didn't see any way that could end with him not being dead. Yet here he was, mostly fine. And across from him, Willow was holding a comic and seemed to be reading it, so apparently it was miracles all around that night.

"Yeah, he hit me. And when he came at me I thought I was dead, and that you were dead, and when I woke up I realized I wasn't dead, and found this on my chest, and was thinking that you probably weren't dead either," he concluded, holding up a slip of paper. Willow took it from him and looked at it.

"It's a receipt from the Liquor Barn over on Van Ness," she pointed out in surprise. Not really a guarantee of safety, to her mind. Although it was a guarantee of low prices, at least according to the receipt.

"Turn it over."

Willow did, and read in a peculiarly formal handwriting across the back, "Sorry about all the times I tried to kill you."

She started to laugh. He looked at her for a moment, then started to glare. A little. "You know, it's not really funny," he said dryly.

After a moment her laughter faded. Yes, it was funny, all of it, just not in an ... okay, funny way. "He said that to me, too," she said, face becoming somber. "I mean, different words, but the same basic meaning."

"Why was he here, Willow? ‘Cause from what Giles said, I'm thinking it was more than just the Joy of Hitting Xander. Although that's usually been good enough for people in the past."

"Yeah. Yeah, he had a reason."

He looked at her expectantly. Innocently. Willow felt her heart contract.

"You might want to sit down," she whispered.

***

Buffy turned over restlessly in bed, disturbing the covers and making it impossible for Spike to either get to sleep or cuddle her.

She really didn't take surprises well.

"She tried to kill you," Buffy muttered. Spike wasn't sure if she was talking to herself or to him.

"Nothing's getting settled tonight," Spike reminded her quietly. "Get to sleep, it'll be morning before you know it."

"How can I sleep?" Buffy demanded. "I try to settle down, and then I think of it, and think of her, and then I just get this ball in my stomach."

Obligingly Spike moved his hand to her tummy and rubbed soothingly. "You can sleep," he sighed, his voice lingering in the air. Hypnotic bastard, she thought, trying to charm her into falling asleep.

"Are you going to leave your hair like that forever?" Buffy asked crankily, raking her fingers through his overgrown curls.

Spike shrugged. "I don't much care about it," he said honestly. "What do you want me to do?"

"We'll cut it and bleach it tomorrow," she said. "After."

Spike turned against her and nuzzled her cheek. "We'll trade," he whispered. "You bleach mine, I bleach yours...."

"I'm a natural blonde!" exclaimed Buffy.

Spike snorted against her and she wiggled in righteous but tiring indignation, and finally felt the tension begin to leave her limbs. His hands skated down her sides and she didn't think anymore.

As she melted against him, boneless, he inhaled her scent and marveled at the difference just a few months could make. And to think she'd loved him-she told him, and he believed her-before she ever knew about the soul. It was where he'd wanted to be for so long. That demon-that stupid pillock back in Africa-he was the idiot if he thought Spike would give this up for anything.

Spike tightened his hold on Buffy, knowing it wouldn't hurt her. If he could he'd disappear inside her skin. As it was, he was in heaven.

It was good to be home.

***

Buffy was still in the bed beside him, lost in sleep, when Spike rose. He slid out of the bed so gently the mattress barely moved, and she didn't stir as he pulled on his clothes and made his way down the stairs.

In the kitchen he found Giles sitting down, chin resting on his steepled hands, staring at the bag of bones laying in the center of the table.

He was waiting.

Chapter 21 by Shadowlass
"You know, don't you? Know there was no curse?" Spike asked, so softly his words barely pierced the air.

Giles nodded.

"How?"

Without a word Giles pulled the pouch of bones on the table closer to him and unfolded it for the second time that evening. He withdrew one of the bones, holding it up for Spike to see. "I'm pretty sure that someone cursing you wouldn't be so delicate as to obtain the bones from a display skeleton," he noted, turning the bone so that Spike could see the tiny holes that had been drilled at the end.

"What-"

"This was from a skeleton model," said Giles. "Nicely articulated at one time, I'd guess."

Spike absorbed Giles' news in silence. He'd never gotten around to asking Willow where she'd gotten the bones-he'd been more concerned with finding out why she was doing it. Getting her to stop.

But there was nothing to stop. It had been nothing but a hoax, and he'd fallen for it ass over hat. Even that pathetic cat in his crypt tonight, she'd found it dead on the side of the road and decided to make use of it. Didn't hate him, she said. Wouldn't hurt him.

Well, she'd be over tomorrow to talk things out with Buffy. They had enough to talk about, he figured-‘round about everything. He'd leave them alone, but he wouldn't be far. Buffy might need a shoulder to cry on, or maybe someone to stop her from beating Willow to death. He'd be there for either role. There was bound to be some screaming or crying or carrying on; hell if he knew which one.

He didn't think Buffy was going to take it well; it was a wonder he didn't feel more like breaking some heads himself after listening to all Red had to say, but mostly he just felt tired, and wanted to go upstairs and find peace in his love's arms.

"Nicely articulated," echoed Spike finally. "So even that was nothing."

"So it appears."

"Makes me wonder."

"Wonder what?"

"Where those pains came from. They were real, I couldn't imagine something like that."

"I don't think you imagined them, Spike," Giles returned. "They were too specific. I really should have recognized them; I've experienced them myself."

Spike looked at Giles in surprise. "You have?"

"Why, of course. Are you telling me that you never in your life-in your life before you were turned-that you never experienced guilt?"

Spike stared at him. No, no, that wasn't it, that was too simple. He couldn't do anything to repair what he'd done in his century-plus, and there was no way he'd allow himself to wallow in guilt like the Magnificent Poof-this wasn't him, not him at all, he was resilient, he-

"Spike?"

"That's impossible," said Spike flatly.

"Why impossible?" Giles asked calmly.

He really hadn't expected the news to sit well with Spike.

"If you're telling me that all that pain, and the-the other stuff, is just because of guilt, you've been drinking more than just tea, mate," Spike shot back.

Giles arched one brow. "Why is it difficult to imagine that the guilt you bear has the power to cause you pain?"

"Guilt's nothing-it's just a feeling-"

"And feelings have never caused you pain?" Giles questioned coolly.

Spike swallowed the words that were forming. No. No, he wasn't like that, not the kind to wallow in pointless grief. There was nothing he could do to bring back the people he'd killed; they were gone, and no amount of photogenic, deeply felt lolling about would bring them back.

For the first time the full implication of having a soul settled upon him, and he suppressed a shudder. To him, the soul had been a safeguard to protect Buffy. An apology for what he'd nearly done. Not this.

"This is not right. Not reasonable. I shouldn't feel guilty," Spike insisted. "I'm different now, aren't I?"

Giles looked at him. "Are you asking me, or telling me?"

Spike met his eyes without answering, and Giles was startled by the vulnerability they held.

"Spike, where did you go after leaving here this evening?" Giles asked. He already knew the answer. Xander had called, shaken, before Buffy and Spike arrived home.

"Got some smokes," Spike muttered.

Giles rolled his eyes. "Yes, besides that."

"Went to talk to Will," Spike admitted reluctantly.

"You knew it was she who'd been tormenting you?"

Spike smirked at Giles' typically dramatic description. "Yeah, I knew."

"Did you kill her? You can hurt people again, I believe," Giles pointed out, also courtesy of Xander.

"No, I didn't kill her," Spike snapped.

"And Xander? You killed him, surely? You two have never gotten on."

Spike gritted his teeth. "No, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man survives to fetch doughnuts another day."

"Then you quite obviously are a different man, Spike, than the one who sold out all of us to Adam. Because if his chip didn't function, he would have killed us in a heartbeat. He didn't even need a reason. But you," Giles pointed out, "were given one, and chose not to. I don't think you have to wonder if you're different, Spike. You have your answer."

Spike absorbed Giles' words in silence.

They remained unmoving, lost in their own thoughts, until Dawn sleepily ambled into the kitchen. The three of them looked at each other, and no one said anything. Finally Dawn mumbled, "I woke up. I want a glass of milk."

Giles found the look on Spike's face somewhat comical, although he couldn't have said why, precisely. But the vampire was looking at Dawn with intense concentration, like she couldn't just be there for milk, and he could divine her true intentions with a good heavy stare.

Well, his work for the night was done, Giles thought. Tomorrow-today, really-would be draining, and he wanted to get to bed. "I'm turning in," he told the two of them without preamble. "Goodnight."

They blinked at Giles' sudden exit, and then stood looking at each other.

"Sit down," Spike told her. "I'll get your milk."

She sat, and watched him pull out a carton of milk, peer at it, and stick it back in the refrigerator in exchange for another. "I usually drink the other one," she said.

He shook his head. "That one's nonfat; you need that like you need a hole in your head," he said. "You and your sister, we've got to fatten you up. You two don't weigh enough to wrestle a sprite. At least not one of the larger ones."

"Buffy wrestles sprites all the time," Dawn argued. Spike looked at her. "Doesn't she?"

He shrugged. "Still wouldn't hurt to get some meat on her bones."

Dawn looked down at her hands. She didn't want to ask him, but she had to. He knew what she'd done, even if he didn't realize she was bringing back the stuff she'd taken from his place. But how could she explain it? It felt strange even to her. "Are you mad at me?" she asked tentatively.

He looked at her in surprise as he replaced the milk carton back in the fridge. "Mad? Why would I be mad?'

Dawn peeped a look at his face and then hastily looked down again. "I mean about taking your stuff and ... mostly just taking your stuff," she admitted.

Spike sighed. "Dawn, I don't give a damn about any of that stuff," he told her bluntly. She looked at him hopefully. "I'm just glad you-" I'm just glad you don't hate me, and weren't trying to kill me- "I'm just glad you're okay."

Dawn flashed him a shy smile, like the one she'd given him when he'd gone up to Buffy's room earlier, searching for weapons. Before he found the duster, before he found the cat. Before a lot of things.

Just a few hours ago, really.

"I don't understand why you'd want bones anyway," Dawn said a little playfully, fiddling with the bag that Giles had left in the center of the table. She'd wondered what he was doing with them-Spike's scary stuff tended to be more along the lines of handcuffs and things she didn't want details about, not bones.

Spike smiled at her. "The bones were a gift, Platelet."

"Pretty weird gift."

Spike was silent for a moment. He wasn't sure where the line was with Buffy-what he was allowed to say, and what remained her purview alone. What his restrictions were, what liberties he was permitted.

But this involved him. It involved Buffy, too-exactly how much, she'd find out for herself tomorrow. But they were a team now. It was a judgment call, right? And she trusted him.

He thought of her trying to tell Dawn about it tomorrow, when she'd be dealing with everything herself. Dealing with her own feelings, dealing with someone she'd loved for years and felt betrayed by, but couldn't stop caring about.

If he couldn't make things easier for her, what good was he? What good were they to each other?

"All right," he said finally. "But I want you to stay calm, no shouting or carrying on. Your sister's up there sleeping, she's got a big day tomorrow."

"What's tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow Willow's coming over, and she and Buffy are going to talk," Spike told her carefully, waiting for her reaction. He wasn't really sure how Dawn would felt about Willow, seeing as how Willow had been keen on killing her not so long ago.

"Finally!" Dawn exclaimed.

Spike was taken aback. "There something you want to tell me?"

Dawn blushed. "I'm ... she ... she's tried to come over a bunch of time," she finally said. "Sometimes Buffy chased her off. Sometimes Xander came and got her. But one time Buffy wasn't here, and Xander must not have known she'd left the house. I looked out the window and she was just standing there. It was really gray and muggy out, and finally it started to rain, and she didn't even move. I didn't-I didn't know how I felt about her any more. She tried to kill me, and she tried to kill Buffy," Dawn said, her voice starting to waver.

"Dawn-" began Spike, but Dawn waved her hand and began to speak again.

"But then I thought of all those times she'd braided my hair, helped me with my homework, and made me cookies when I felt bad ... and I remembered Tara," Dawn added, beginning to cry. "She loved her. I mean, Willow loved Tara. And Tara loved Willow, too, but I mean ... I miss her," she whispered. "She's not coming back. She's gone. I understand how that could make Willow do things." Dawn looked at her hands. "It wasn't her fault. She loves us. She's been punished enough."

"So what happened?" Spike prodded gently.

"I went out and stood next to her, and after a while she just sat down on the wet grass and started to cry."

"You comforted her?" Spike asked, touching her hand.

Dawn nodded, brushing her tears away with the sleeve of her pajamas. "I've seen her a couple of times. During the day, when Xander was at work. She needs a friend."

How did she become so mature? Spike marveled. It wasn't like any of them had ever set much of an example for her. "It's good she had you," Spike told her softly.

"What about tomorrow?" asked Dawn worriedly. "Will she have Buffy, too?"

He didn't know what to say. There were no guarantees. Buffy was so volatile, and lashed out when she was hurt or worried. But underneath it all, he knew she loved Willow. It was buried beneath anger and fear, but it was there.

"We'll see," Spike murmured. "We'll see."

***

"Where were you?" Buffy mumbled as Spike slipped into bed beside her, her sleep disturbed by his absence.

"Downstairs, talking with the Bit," Spike responded, spooning up behind her and hooking his chin over her shoulder.

She rubbed her cheek against his. His cuddly ways were so nice, but she hadn't been ready to accept them before. Now she wasn't going to let them go to waste.

"Talking 'bout what?" Buffy asked, sleep beginning to slur her speech.

Spike hesitated a moment. "About what I told you earlier. About what's going to happen tomorrow."

She froze, her body tense against his. "You told her?"

"Yeah," Spike replied, a little apprehensive.

"You mean I don't have to? I think I love you," Buffy sighed.

Spike released a completely pointless breath he didn't know he'd been holding, and squeezed her tighter. "You already loved me."

"Then I love you extra."

"I think I may hold you to that," he purred in her ear, and she giggled.

He was very glad he'd locked the door behind him.

***

Xander wanted to be out there in the living room with Willow and Buffy. He should be there, the three of them, it had always been the three of them in it together. Never just two.

But Giles had put his hand on Xander's shoulder and led him to the kitchen, and Xander couldn't find the words to argue with him. Now he sat on the other side of the table, an untouched soda in front of him, because he felt sure he'd throw up if he took a sip.

Giles just sat across from him and drank tea as if it was a perfectly normal day.

Voice drifted out from the front room and Xander automatically began to rise. "Sit, Xander," Giles told him, not moving his gaze from the notes he was taking. He could wait on them, but he too was nervous and work was soothing. If he hadn't had it, he would have gone mad long ago.

"Do you think everything's going okay?" Xander asked nervously.

"I'm sure if not, we'd have heard some screaming or possibly glass breaking," replied Giles calmly.

"Yeah ... yeah," muttered Xander. He needed to do something, and felt like talking. Actually, he felt like doing jumping jacks, or possibly lunges, but it didn't seem appropriate. It would be so much nicer if he could go back to hitting Spike when he was upset, but that avenue seemed to be closed to him. "I'm seeing Anya next weekend," he said suddenly.

Giles looked at him with interest.

"I mean, it's not a date or anything, but I called her this morning and offered to put up some window boxes in her apartment, and she said okay. She likes flowers," he said. "I mean, she might have said yes because it was six in the morning and she wasn't really awake and it was the sleep talking, but it was a yes."

Giles gave him a genuine smile. "I'm glad to hear that, Xander."

Abruptly Xander swung around, as if he heard something worrisome coming from the living room. Giles could hear nothing and reached out to touch Xander's hand, soothing him. After a moment Xander relaxed and Giles drew his hand back.

"Why did you call at six in the morning?"

Xander smiled faintly. "I was kind of nervous about today. I thought I was doing pretty good not to call her at four, actually." He turned towards the living room again. "Are you sure we shouldn't go out there?"

"They'll be fine, Xander," Giles said firmly. He had to believe that.

For Buffy, and for all of them.

***

They sat on the couch, two feet apart. Buffy stared at the wall opposite her; Willow alternated between staring at Buffy's face and keeping her eyes on the floor.

"Why did you do it?" Buffy finally asked. Willow froze, like she hadn't really expected Buffy to say anything. Why else is she here? Buffy thought crankily. "Well? Were you trying to scare him off?"

"Oh Buffy, no-"

"Punish him, for ... for ... what? I didn't think you hated him."

"I don't, Buffy, I swear I don't!"

"Then why? Was it me? Were you trying to punish me? Because you knew it would hurt me if he was in pain."

Willow's eyes widened guiltily, and Buffy thought, that's it. "So it was me?"

"Not like-not like that-" Willow stuttered.

"Then like what?" Buffy demanded in frustration. Calm down, she reminded herself, calm down; Spike had told her that it wasn't what she thought. He said, it hadn't turned out so bad, had it? He was alive, and they were together.

"I know it doesn't look like it, but I was trying to help," Willow said worriedly.

"So sending my boyfriend a bag of bones and a twig doll and a dead cat was supposed to help how?" Buffy demanded, incensed. God, Willow ... Willow. She was so far from the girl Buffy had befriended years before it was hard to think of her as the same person. Willow just seemed so different. A completely different person.

"I'm so sorry," Willow said, her eyes welling up. "It wasn't witchcraft, I swear!"

"I know, he told me," Buffy said bitterly. "I guess you don't need to cast spells to hurt people."

Willow flinched. "I never wanted to hurt you," she insisted. "I wanted to make it up to you."

Next to her, Buffy froze. "Make it up to me?" she asked carefully. "You mean, you wanted to make up for trying to kill my sister?"

"And you," Willow added hurriedly.

"And me, by making my boyfriend think someone was cursing him?"

Willow met Buffy's eyes then, and the tears were gone from them. They were as clear as they ever had been when looking through a moldy old text, or searching for back doors into well-protected websites. "He wasn't your boyfriend then."

"You mean when you started stalking him?"

Willow drew a breath, steadying herself against Buffy's anger. "He was back, and he hardly left his crypt, and he never went near you, and you didn't even know he was around."

"Why did you give him the bones?" Buffy asked with deceptive calmness. She didn't even want to know how Willow's mind worked.

"Because you love him," Willow answered simply. Buffy looked at her uncomprehendingly. "I saw the look on your face when we saw him with Anya at the Magic Box last spring-before-" Tara-"and I could see how much it hurt you to see him touch her. And I knew. I didn't say anything because you didn't seem to want to talk about it, but I could see how you felt."

"So you sent him the bones because you knew I loved him?" Buffy asked numbly.

"He wasn't your boyfriend," Willow repeated.

"Then what-"

"But you wanted him to be," Willow said. "So I helped."

"Helped," echoed Buffy.

Willow smiled hopefully. "I left the bones for him. I knew he'd go to you with them eventually, and I knew you'd help him when he did. And I was careful. Did you notice how careful I was? I didn't leave anything that could be traced back to me."

God, Buffy thought, she's insane.

"And so, when you were helping him, nature would take its course and ... you're together now, right?"

Buffy looked at her warily and nodded.

"Why didn't you quit after the doll? You knew I was helping him then. I thought it was you. You told me it wasn't."

"I wanted to make sure," Willow said with a shy smile.

"And now you're sure?" It wasn't really a question. What did it matter what the answer was?

"I wanted you to be happy," Willow said simply.

So you just moved us around like chess pieces until things were to your liking. "Willow-how could you think that this was all right?" Buffy asked in frustration.

Willow's face fell a little. "There was no magic, I swear-"

"I'm not talking about magic!" Buffy said furiously. "Your problem isn't magic, it's never been magic! You can't stop manipulating people, that's your problem! That's why you couldn't leave magic alone, because it helped make people do what you wanted, and now that you're staying away from magic you're jerking us around in other ways!"

Willow looked shocked. "Buffy, no-I swear, I never meant to-"

"You do it all the time, you always have! You know it! Remember when I first came to town, and you were always encouraging me with Angel?"

"That's because you liked him-I could tell, and you-"

"Yeah, I liked him. And he wasn't Xander, and that was the big thing to you. And how about how you tried to do that de-lusting spell without telling Xander? Or your will-be-done spell? Or messing with my memory, mine and Tara's, because you didn't want me to remember being in heaven?" Buffy demanded, choking back tears.

Beside her, Willow was fighting back tears of her own.

"I just want to make things better," Willow said, her voice becoming ragged. "To fix things. I l-love you, I love you so much, you and Dawnie both. I'd never hurt her, I couldn't love her more. And Tara-Tara-she loved Dawn so much. My god, Tara," Willow broke off, sobbing, desperately covering her face with her hands.

Buffy watched her friend sob helplessly, and against her will she saw the timid teenager she'd first met, so vulnerable, so easily hurt. Who'd first worked magic so Buffy wouldn't have to kill someone she loved, who'd given up the best universities in the world in order to stay with Buffy at a lousy local school. Who'd clutched Buffy's hand at her mother's funeral, and cared for Dawn after her own.

Spike watched from the doorway, forcing himself not to intervene. For the first several minutes of their conversation Buffy had held herself aloof, shoulders rigid, eyes remote.

Now her shoulders began to relax as the anger that had built up in her over the last few months dissipated, and she gradually leaned closer to Willow. Finally she drew the redhead into her arms, crying with her. Remembering Willow's loss. Remembering why they had been friends for so many years.

Spike heard a slight sound next to him and looked down to see the Bit had slipped in beside him, too anxious to wait patiently to hear the outcome. He felt her little hand slip into his and squeeze.

He squeezed back, and held on tight.

The End

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