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.

 





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