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."

 





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