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?"

 





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