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.

 





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