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.

 





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