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All the Graces of the Dawn

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“As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” ~Psalm 103:15-16

 

Spike stood in the corner of the old cemetery, daylight filtering down over him in a shifting pattern of light and shade. This was one of his favorite places to come, where he could think and be alone.

 

The headstones had been worn by time and the elements, the names all but rubbed off, the dates difficult to determine. An old stone bench sat next to his favorite, a simple white marble stone with only the legend “Beloved Mother” remaining. Even if some of the letters had been worn off, it was legible, and what remained of the date suggested that the nameless woman had died sometime around the turn of the century. Days like this, Spike liked to pretend she was his mother, and this was her gravestone. It was one of the reasons he liked being undisturbed, as he didn’t want to appear crazy.

 

The dream he’d had after they’d defeated Adam had settled some questions for him. It had allowed him to figure out who he was—William or Spike. Now he was trying to figure out what he could become.

 

He wished his mother were here, actually—he missed her. William wondered where she was, if, by turning her, he had damned her soul for eternity. He wanted to ask her advice, to find out if she was proud of him—if she could be proud of him after the atrocities he had committed. He wanted a family again, his own family.

 

Spike wanted a purpose. He’d been thinking a lot lately about his dream, about what he might have been if he’d never become a vampire. He would never have made a difference in the world. After all the things he’d done, Spike wanted to do something, something that would counterbalance all that evil. He had the feeling that it wouldn’t involve working in an art gallery or being Buffy’s boyfriend. Both were rewarding in their own way, but it wasn’t enough, and that was becoming more and more clear.

 

“H’lo, mum,” he said quietly. “Wish this was your place. Wish I could be sure you were hearing me. I miss you, you know. Joyce does her best, but it’s not the same.” Spike paused to pull a couple weeds that had sprouted up since his last visit.

 

He rubbed the back of his hand over his cheek, brushing at a fly. “It’s my biggest regret, turning you. Wish I knew where you were now, if you were okay. I have to believe that you are. You were a right good woman, and a good mum. Don’t see why you’d have to suffer because of me.

 

“Wish you could tell me what I’m supposed to be doing with my life, where I’m supposed to be going.” He traced the letters with a finger. “I’ve got this bright, shiny future all stretched out in front of me, and I’m sort of on a time table now. I’d forgotten how to be mortal. Forgot what it meant to run out of time.”

 

He sighed. “I can’t get my hands clean. Every time I think about doing something else, I wonder what the bloody hell I might have to offer—sorry for the language. My hands are still stained, and I don’t think they’ll ever be clean.”

 

Spike laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. Buffy knew nothing about any of this, and he had no plans of telling her. She had enough on her plate as it was, even if it had been a slow summer. And what could he say? How could she possibly understand? “So there you have it. Your darling William is now an aimless bloke without a clue as to his future, who spent over a century as a vampire killing thousands, and I’m on a tight schedule when you start talking about making amends.

 

“Besides, I don’t think it’s even possible.”

 

With that, Spike stood, prepared to go back to the gallery. He was on his lunch break, and if he didn’t hurry back, he would be missed. “There are days when I wish I could go back,” he confessed quietly. “Wish I could turn back time, and never have come to Sunnydale, because even if I did go back to being a vampire now, everything would be different.”

 

He looked down at his hands and remembered how many times they’d been stained with gore. They wouldn’t last another hundred years, not now. “Everything is different.”

 

Taking a deep breath, he went to join the world again.

Chapter Text

“The moon blind-sided the sky again/As we grabbed loose ends of the tide and then/The slippery slide/You know I can’t say when/I ever took a ride that could slap me this silly/ With roiling joy/Lazy as sin/Lyin’ up in heaven with my special friend/And the space he’s in/It can make a girl grin/In the beginning of a lifelong fling…I wrote myself a riddle/I said, What I wouldn’t do/To give something good/To a love like you…” ~Over the Rhine, “Lifelong Fling”

 

The clash of steel on steel could be heard ringing out over the Summers’ backyard for at least two houses down. Joyce had already decided on the story she would tell her neighbors: her friends were practicing for a Renaissance festival. Of course, the occupants of the surrounding homes had long since grown used to odd goings-on at 1630 Revello Drive. Two men sparring with swords in the backyard was hardly something to take much notice of.

 

Both Spike and Giles were dressed only in jeans and shirtsleeves, trusting to skill to keep them both out of harm’s way. As Giles had explained, it was much too hot outside to use pads, since they would both be risking heatstroke.

 

They had been going all out for the last thirty minutes, the first hour having been spent practicing defenses and lunges. Now the swords were a blur of movement, the men’s feet dancing patterns around each other. The backs of their shirts were soaked in sweat, and Joyce could see it running down their faces. Giles wore a look of intense concentration to match Spike’s almost manic grin. It was parry-parry-thrust, and then, the movement too quick for Joyce’s novice eye to catch, Spike executed a maneuver that sent Giles’ sword flying across the yard to land in the grass several feet away.

 

“Do you yield?” Spike asked with a broad grin.

 

Giles gave the sword pointed playfully at his throat a sour look. “Of course I yield, you tosser. We’re not in a duel to the death.”

 

Spike pulled the sword away, his grin unwavering. “You’re getting slow, old man. Should have been able to catch that one.”

 

Giles raised an eyebrow. “My sword being on the lawn has nothing to do with my speed, or lack thereof. You’re getting to be quite the swordsman, William.”

 

Joyce was always amused at Spike’s reaction to a genuine compliment. He usually ducked his head as the tips of his ears turned pink. Shrugging, Spike did exactly that, pulling up his shirt to wipe some of the sweat off his forehead. “Had a good teacher,” he mumbled, heading over to collapse at Joyce’s feet on the back steps.

 

“Thanks, Joyce,” he said as she handed him a glass of iced tea. Giles echoed his thanks a moment later as he joined them.

 

“That was a well-executed move, Spike,” Giles said. “Where did you pick it up? It’s not one I’ve shown you.”

 

Spike shrugged. “Seemed like a good idea at the time,” he explained. “Don’t like to get too caught up in the drills, you know. Can’t surprise your opponent that way.”

 

Giles smiled. “I suppose that might be true. For someone who doesn’t like orthodoxy, you’re remarkably good at it, however.”

 

“Had some practice once upon a time,” was Spike’s only reply. He finished off his glass, standing to give Joyce a peck on the cheek. “Mind if I shower? Buffy’s supposed to be back any minute now.”

 

“Feel free,” Joyce replied with a smile. “Are you two going out tonight?”

 

“Big good-bye thing before I’m out of town for a night,” Spike said with a smile. “She’s none too happy with me leaving.”

 

“It’s only for one night,” Giles said with a frown. “Surely she can live without you for that long.”

 

Spike shrugged. “I think it was because we were supposed to go to the beach, before school starts for her. Had to postpone it for this trip, and you know how much the Slayer loves to wait.”

 

With that, Spike disappeared indoors, and the older couple could hear him whistling his way through the house.

 

“Sometimes he has more energy than two people,” Giles remarked, though without rancor. He’d had real reason to be grateful for Spike’s vigor over the course of the summer. Buffy still hadn’t shown much interest in getting back into training, although he knew Spike had encouraged her in that direction. Spike, on the other hand, had thrown himself into sparring with all the energy he’d harnessed to his advantage as a vampire. Giles had a theory that there was a bigger reason behind it than Spike’s desire to be of use on the Hellmouth. But the other man hadn’t opened up to him, and Giles hadn’t pressed.

 

Giles thought he probably would have been giving serious thought to going back to England at this point if it weren’t for Spike and Joyce. He still felt a measure of responsibility for Spike, and hadn’t yet figured out where that began and ended. Spike’s desire for his company and knowledge helped to keep Giles more content than he otherwise might have been.

 

He and Joyce had found themselves in an amiable relationship. It wasn’t what anyone might call dating, but Giles had found that they had a great deal more in common than he might have ever expected. Not only had his fondness for Joyce grown, but also his respect. If he’d believed his duty as Buffy’s Watcher could be trying, he hated having to think of what Joyce must go through every time danger was around the corner.

 

They’d been out for dinner a few times, had had a number of casual cups of tea, and many more pleasant conversations. If more than that was on the way, Giles didn’t know, even if he was eager to find out.

 

“Have you noticed anything off about Spike recently?” Joyce asked, pulling Giles out of his thoughts.

 

Giles leaned back slightly against the railing to better see her. “Off? I don’t think so. Why?”

 

She shook her head. “I’m not sure, to be honest. He just seems a little more distant. I don’t think it’s anything serious, but I was wondering if he had said anything to you.”

 

“I would think it would be you or Buffy he would talk to first,” Giles pointed out. “Not that Spike doesn’t talk to me, but I know he confides in you.”

 

Joyce nodded slowly. “Perhaps. He might say something to me after a while.” Her pensive mood dissipating, she gave Giles a smile that was nothing short of sexy. “You know, if Spike and Buffy are going to be gone, I think I might want to stay in this evening.”

 

Giles smiled in return. “That sounds perfect.”

 

~~~~~

 

Spike stepped out of the bathroom to find Buffy waiting for him in the hallway. “Mom said you had a nice training session this afternoon.”

 

“Went alright,” he agreed, leaning down to give her a kiss. What had been a casual greeting peck soon changed into a rather heated make-out session, interrupted by Joyce’s voice. “Are you two staying here for dinner?”

 

“No, Mom,” Buffy called down the stairs. “We’re on our way out as soon as I get changed.”

 

“Are you going to be coming back tonight?”

 

Buffy smiled as Spike winced at the question. While her mom operated under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Joyce knew they were sleeping together. And Spike knew that she knew, which made him uncomfortable in moments like this when it became that much more obvious. “Nope,” she replied. “I’m going to see him off in the morning.”

 

Spike leaned in close. “I’m only going to be gone for one night, pet,” he reminded her. “It’s not like you’re never gonna see me again.”

 

Buffy frowned. “Yeah, but one night this time could turn into a whole week if Mom starts wanting you to go on these buying trips a lot. Up till now, she was the one who was doing this kind of thing.”

 

“You know I’ll always come back to you,” Spike replied, slightly confused by Buffy’s words. He thought that they were both independent enough that time apart shouldn’t have caused her worry.

 

Buffy shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about this here,” she said, shooting a meaningful glance down the stairs. “Can we put it on hold?”

 

“Yeah, sure,” he said, trying to sound as though he hadn’t a care in the world. “Why don’t you get dressed and we’ll go get a bite?”

 

~~~~~

 

The summer had been one of nearly complete relaxation for everyone. Adam’s failed plan meant that most of the demons in Sunnydale—the ones to worry about, anyway—had been down in the Initiative at the end. With the demon and vampire populations much depleted, Buffy had a chance to get caught up on her beach-going activities, hang out with her friends, and spend as much time as possible with Spike. Granted, Spike was often busy being responsible-guy with a job and training, but he made time for her.

 

Buffy smiled, thinking of some of those times. What they might have missed out on in quantity, he certainly made up for in quality.

 

The summer hadn’t been completely tame, however. Buffy had begun to feel the pull of something primal, something that had been unleashed when they’d invoked the power of the First Slayer. She knew Spike had noticed, since she’d snuck out to go hunting several times while spending the night at his place, and each time upon her return he’d cracked an eyelid and pulled her close to him again. But he hadn’t said anything about it, which surprised Buffy.

 

She was also a little worried about him. Buffy had surprised him staring off into space a number of times, so deep in thought that he hadn’t even realized she was there. His obvious distraction had gotten worse as the summer went on, and she couldn’t help but wonder if he wasn’t getting tired of living in Sunnydale. Buffy knew that he had traveled the globe for decades, never staying in one place very long. What if he was getting tired of being here? And what if this trip turned into multiple trips, which whetted his appetite for bigger and better things than he could find in Sunnydale? He couldn’t define himself as a vampire out to kill the Slayer any longer. What could she hope to offer him here, other than herself?

 

“Were you not hungry tonight, luv?” Spike asked, as they walked back to his place from the restaurant. “You didn’t eat much. Want to tell me what’s on your mind?”

 

Buffy hesitated. “It’s just—I don’t know.”

 

Worry, mixed with anger, flashed across Spike’s face. “It’s okay, Buffy. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

 

“No, it’s not okay, and I want to tell you,” she replied. Buffy looked down the street, reminding herself to be alert. It might have been a fairly quiet summer, but it didn’t pay to be caught off-guard. “I need to talk to you about why I’ve been sneaking out lately.”

 

Spike braced himself. “Okay.”

 

“I’ve been getting this urge—I don’t know, it’s like this part of me has been awakened, after we did that spell calling on the First Slayer.” Buffy reached over and grabbed one of Spike’s hands. “At night—I’ve been hunting. And it’s strong, Spike. I wasn’t sure what to tell anyone, but I figured you’d understand, if anyone would.”

 

Relief hit him like a freight train. Buffy wasn’t breaking up with him, she was just feeling the pull of her Slayer blood. When he didn’t say anything right away, too relieved to know what to say, Buffy forged ahead. “I don’t know what it says about me, Spike. I don’t know what it means to really be the Slayer. I’ve been trying for so long just to be Buffy, trying to make the Slayer thing a side-gig, but I don’t think it’s an option anymore.”

 

“What do you want to do about it?” Spike asked gently.

 

Buffy shrugged. “I think I’m going to ask Giles to start training me again. I want to learn more about the Slayers that have come before me, what makes us who we are. I just—I wanted you to know. You’ve seemed kind of—I don’t know, distant lately.”

 

Spike sighed, releasing Buffy’s hand to put an arm around her shoulders, pulling her in close. “Dunno, luv. It’s nothing to do with you, really. I’m just thinking about the future, and it’s not real clear.”

 

She frowned. “Not clear? Are you thinking you might want to leave Sunnydale?” she asked, her own fears coloring her tone.

 

“Not unless you’re going with me,” he reassured her quickly. “But Buffy, I’m not sure I want to work in the art gallery for the rest of my life. I like it, like working with your mum, but I’ve just been trying to figure out what it means to be alive again. Now, seems like there’s more to it than that.”

 

“Welcome to my world,” Buffy said dryly. “Everybody keeps asking me what I’m going to major in, but I’m having trouble just figuring out what classes I want to take.”

 

“Thought you’d signed up for those,” Spike replied, pulling out his keys as they approached his apartment.

 

Buffy nodded. “I did. I mean, I’m all signed up, but it’s just general stuff right now. Sooner or later, I’ll start running out of those kinds of classes, and then I’ll have to pick something.” She smiled. “So what do you want to be when you grow up, William?”

 

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Doing something else probably means going back to school, and I’m not sure I want to do that. On the other hand, whatever degree I had is probably obsolete at this point. Don’t have much in the way of skills.” Spike followed her into his living room, running a hand through his hair.

 

“Don’t say that,” Buffy said, reaching for him playfully. “You have lots of—skills.”

 

Spike wasn’t quite ready to play. “You know that’s not what I mean.” He turned away in frustration. Being a vampire had been a lot like being an adolescent. For over a hundred years, he hadn’t needed to have a direction. Adulthood stretched out in front of him now, years of doing something with his life. He was going to age, and he had to think about things like retirement, and how he would take care of a family—if he ever convinced Buffy to marry him.

 

Buffy took a step back, watching Spike thoughtfully. “Spike, this isn’t about me being the Slayer and you not being a vampire anymore, is it?”

 

“No, luv, this is about me being a man,” Spike said sincerely. “Don’t mind if you’re stronger.” He hesitated, not wanting to bring up bad memories for either of them. “Dru was always stronger than me, except for after Prague. I like strength in a woman.”

 

“Then why don’t you give it some time?” she asked, coming closer again. “You haven’t even been human for a year yet. You work hard. Isn’t that enough for now?” Close enough to touch now, Buffy put a hand on his chest. “If you’re worried about it, talk to Giles, see what he has to say. But don’t even think that you’re useless, not when you’ve done so much.”

 

Spike let himself be reassured by her words, and her hands. Bending slightly to kiss her, he pulled her shirt up, running his hands over bare skin. It was all the encouragement Buffy needed to do the same thing. “Need you,” she whispered, when they both finally came up for air. “Stay with me.”

 

“Always,” he replied. “Remember? I love you.”

 

“I thought you might want to leave me,” she said, drawing in a quick breath as he trailed kisses down her neck, nibbling at a particularly tender spot. “You might get bored…”

 

“With you? Never,” Spike replied.

 

His mouth got busy again, and Buffy breathed out, “I love you.”

 

They left a trail of clothing from his living room to the bedroom in their haste, Spike’s clever hands working as quickly as hers to remove all impedimenta. Sex had never been a problem with them. Actually, the physical had never been a problem. Whether it was fighting or making love, they seemed to sense the other’s needs and moods before anything was said.

 

Skin slid across skin and hands tangled in hair and sheets, as they created anew their union. In that moment, Spike felt like a god among men, and he worshipped Buffy with everything he was. Anxiety about the future disappeared, as did the past. There was nothing but the moment, the rhythm and the dance.

 

When it was over, Buffy lay exhausted against Spike’s bare chest. “I really do love you, you know. Just you, as you are.”

 

Spike stroked her hair. “And I love you. Buffy-you, and Slayer-you.”

 

It was all either of them needed.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike’s ride to L.A. was uneventful, as was his meeting with the client. It was late before the deal was completed to both their satisfaction, and Spike gratefully accepted the other man’s invitation to dinner. “It’s been nice working with you, William,” Brad Koerner said. “I like Joyce quite a bit, but you’ve got an eye for this business as well.”

 

Spike glanced off to the side, feeling a little embarrassed by the compliment. “Thanks. Mostly, I just fell into it. Joyce offered me a job when I was a bit hard up, and it worked itself out.”

 

“Well, I’ll call that a bit of luck,” Brad agreed. He leaned back in his chair. “How long have you known Joyce?”

 

Spike shrugged again, taking another bite of the excellent steak that Brad had ordered for the both of them. “Few years now. She’s like family to me.”

 

“Joyce definitely has a presence. She’s a real lady,” Brad said. “You know, if you ever decide you want to change careers, do something a little different, give me a call.” He produced a business card from the breast pocket of his suit. “I could always use a man with your talents, William.”

 

Spike looked bemused. “Not sure what you think those are,” he replied. “But thanks for the offer.”

 

Brad raised an eyebrow. “You’ve got a good head, which is more than I can say for a lot of people out there. In any case, I appreciate all the work you’ve done for me. If you’re in L.A. again, be sure to look me up.”

 

“Sure thing,” Spike replied, pocketing the card. He frowned, struck with an idea. There was someone else he wouldn’t mind looking up while he was in L.A.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy fingered the scarf at her neck and thought of Dracula. Every once in a while, the idea of Spike would intrude, but the thrall had her dismissing her memories like pesky flies. No one had noticed her attempts to hide a bite mark yet.

 

There was some small part of Buffy’s mind that knew that Spike would have noticed. Spike would have seen the scarf and known immediately what it was for.

 

Spike was in L.A., though, and the other part of Buffy was grateful for it.

 

She listened half-heartedly as the rest of the gang discussed how they were going to find Dracula, not even noticing Xander’s peculiar behavior, or the odd way he was speaking about the “Master” vampire. Buffy tuned back in briefly as Giles addressed her specifically. “Buffy?”

 

Thinking about the snatches she’d managed to hear, she nodded. “Oh, yeah. I’ll check the swanky places first.”

 

Giles gave her a concerned look. “Buffy? Are you okay? I know that you were distressed over Spike being gone, but he should be back tonight sometime.”

 

“Spike?” Buffy asked, as though she didn’t even remember the name. “Oh, no, Giles. I know. It’s not a big deal.”

 

“Well, I hope your good-bye orgasms were worth more enthusiasm than that,” Anya said bluntly. “Because that’s the only good thing about saying good-bye.”

 

Anya’s words caused all eyes to turn toward her and then away again as they collectively decided to ignore her. “Well, Dracula isn’t like other vamps,” Willow explained. “He has all these cool powers, like being able to appear in dreams, and changing his shape. More importantly, he wants to feel a connection to his victims, and he has all these mental powers to draw them in.”

 

Buffy frowned, thinking of her dream. Well, probably not a dream, since she had the bite on her neck, but it hadn’t really felt real. Plus, she was still alive. Giles seemed to pick up on her thoughts, at least partially. “In any case, the end result is the same, whatever the differences in styles,” he pointed out. “He turns his victims.”

 

The words didn’t register as strongly with Buffy as they probably should have. Turn her? Would that be so bad? To live forever, to never worry about growing up or growing old… Again, she didn’t quite catch Xander’s odd phrasing about the offer of immortality. He was being all too enthusiastic about the idea of exchanging blood.

 

Tara was watching Buffy from her seat next to Willow. Something felt off about this whole thing. Willow’s enthusiasm over the legendary Dracula could be explained away by her intense curiosity, but both Xander and Buffy were acting oddly. Tara watched as Buffy’s fingers ran over the scarf again, and she noticed that it coincided with Giles’ mention of Dracula’s name.

 

“Buffy?” Tara said, timidly addressing the Slayer. Her voice caught the attention of the others, and silence fell over the room. She blushed and stammered a bit. “Um, is there something wrong? With your neck?”

 

Buffy’s response was a frown, and she quickly rose from the couch. “No. I’m fine. I just felt like wearing a scarf today, that’s all.” The Slayer shrugged her shoulders, as if to cast off Tara’s questions. “I should go start checking out those spots.”

 

Something in Buffy’s tone caught at Giles’ attention as well, and he also stood. “Buffy, why are you wearing a scarf?”

 

“Because it goes with the outfit!” she snapped, sounding more overwrought than the situation would seem to demand. Her fingers were nervous on the bit of cloth, however, and Giles stepped forward, quickly pulling it away.

 

The twin puncture marks were visible immediately, and Giles eyed her sternly. “Why were you trying to hide that, Buffy?”

 

“I don’t know…” As Buffy explained about the voice in her head, she continued to feel the pull. It wasn’t over yet, the voice seemed to whisper. And it could only end one way.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike stood outside the Art Deco style apartment building with some trepidation. He’d called Willow on a whim the previous night, knowing that she kept in closer touch with the L.A. gang than Buffy or any of the others did. Spike had the sense it was Willow’s rather forgiving nature, more than any real sense of friendship, that had led her to stay in touch with Cordelia. He wasn’t certain that Buffy knew that Angel’s office had been destroyed, and that the vampire was making his headquarters Cordelia’s place for the time being.

 

Actually, he hadn’t cared to ask Buffy. Telling his girlfriend that he was going to see her ex to discuss personal issues didn’t seem like the wisest course of action. Not that he thought she would mind him talking to Angel, but still. He didn’t want her to know. This was personal. More personal than he wanted to share with anyone.

 

Which was why he was going to Angel.

 

Spike let out a frustrated sigh, shoving the scribbled address back into his pocket. This was ridiculous. He would go in there, say hello, and then leave. He could even tell them that the rest of the gang sent greetings. It wasn’t so odd that he’d look up old acquaintances while he was in town.

 

Spike knocked on the door, smiling admiringly when Cordelia answered. “Hello, Cordelia.”

 

Her eyes widened. “Spike! I thought you learned your lesson last time you were here.”

 

“I did,” Spike replied with a little grin, realizing that she didn’t know he was human. “You want to invite me in? And you look lovely by the way.”

 

She glared. “Thanks, and hell, no. I’m not inviting a vampire into my house so you can rip my throat out. In fact, when Angel sees you, he’s going to—”

 

“Probably say hello,” Angel rumbled from behind her. “Hey, Spike.”

 

“Angel,” Spike replied casually. With as much finesse as possible, he pushed slightly past Cordelia, demonstrating that he could come across the threshold without an invitation. “May I come in?”

 

She stood aside for him then, raising an eyebrow at his easy entrance and slight tan, then turned her glare on Angel. “You knew Spike was human! You couldn’t have told me?”

 

“Didn’t seem important,” Angel said, knowing he was getting a rise out of her, and enjoying it. “Is everything okay?”

 

Spike nodded, knowing what Angel was really asking. “Buffy’s fine. I was in town, running an errand for Joyce. Thought I’d drop in.”

 

Angel nodded, eyeing him solemnly. “You want to talk?”

“Somewhere private?”

 

Angel looked over at Cordelia, who sighed. “Not a big apartment, Angel. Use my bedroom.”

 

Angel jerked his head at Spike and headed back towards her room, while Spike took a moment to take in the place. It was a lot nicer and definitely roomier than his flat, and he nodded appreciatively. “Nice place you got here, pet.”

 

“Rent control,” she explained briefly. “It has a ghost.”

 

Spike nodded. “Ghosts can be useful.”

 

“His name is Dennis,” she replied, beginning to warm up to this human-Spike. Of course, the vampire-Spike had been the first to notice she’d lost weight. He’d always been observant.

 

“H’lo, Dennis,” Spike said, then went to follow Angel back to the bedroom.

 

Angel stood away from the window, where the light wouldn’t reach him. “You didn’t come see me just because you were in the neighborhood.”

 

“No,” Spike agreed. “I just—” He stopped, unsure of how to put his thoughts into words.

 

“Soul bothering you?”

 

Spike wouldn’t have answered, save for the hint of compassion threading through the words. “Some days.” He wasn’t going to go into how many days the guilt threatened to overwhelm him. It was worst in the mornings, right after he woke up. Once he got himself up and going, and distracted with all the regular challenges of life, he was fine. And if Buffy was there, it made things better. That wasn’t the issue at present, however.

 

“Not about the soul, exactly,” Spike said slowly. “When we saw you this spring, the look on your face told me you knew something about the demon-blood.”

 

Angel watched the other man warily. “I do. I did.”

 

“Personally?”

 

“Something like that.” Angel heaved a sigh. “You won’t tell Buffy?” When Spike nodded, Angel slowly told him what had happened, right down to the rewinding of the day. Angel finished and gave Spike a curious look. “Is that why you’re here today?”

Spike shrugged. “Something like that. I thought you might understand, but I guess you didn’t have much time to give thought to the future. It’s just that I have one now, you know?”

 

Angel did know. It was part of the reason he’d chosen to go back, to ask the Powers to change things. As a human, he couldn’t have the future he wanted, do the things he wanted to do. Angel had thought it was because he couldn’t search for redemption when he was so fragile. In reality, it was because searching for redemption as a human frightened him. He would never say it, but he hadn’t wanted to give up being a vampire, not until he knew he’d earned his humanity as a reward, not as a fluke.

 

“I know.” Angel suddenly put out a hand, squeezing Spike’s shoulder with a firm grip. “You haven’t been alive for that long, Spike. Give it some time.” What he couldn’t say was that Spike was perhaps the braver man.

 

“That’s what Buffy said,” Spike replied with a wry smile.

 

Angel returned the smile. “She’s right sometimes.”

 

“Lot of the time.” Spike turned towards the door. “Speaking of, I should be getting back to Sunnydale. Got to make sure everything’s running smoothly.”

 

“Spike?” He waited until Spike turned to face him again. “If you need something, you know where to find me.”

 

Spike lifted an eyebrow and nodded. “Yeah. Same goes.”

 

Angel walked his old companion to the door and watched him go. “Was that William the Bloody?” Wesley asked from behind him, having caught a brief glimpse.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“And he’s human?” Wesley persisted.

 

“That’s right.”

 

Cordelia spoke up. “And he’s dating Buffy?”

 

“For a while now.”

 

Cordy shook her head in sympathy. “In other words, Spike got everything you ever wanted.”

 

Angel thought for a moment, remembering the lines on the man’s face, the haunted look in his eyes. He thought about what it would mean to be human again, to try and live in the world he’d long left behind. “No, not everything,” he replied, not elaborating. “Not everything.”

Chapter Text

“By night, Love, tie your heart to mine, and the two/together in their sleep will defeat the darkness/like a double drum in the forest, pounding/against the thick wall of wet leaves…tie me to a purer motion,/to the constancy that beats in your chest/with the wings of a swan underwater…” ~Pablo Neruda, “LXXIX”

 

Spike went by the gallery first, only to find the “Closed” sign in the window. He frowned slightly. It was early in the day for Joyce to have closed up. Beginning to feel the first twinges of anxiety, he headed for the house.

 

Willow and Tara were just finishing up the disinvite spell when he arrived, sending his eyebrows straight up into his hairline as Spike recognized the ritual. “What’s going on?” he asked, perhaps more sharply than he intended.

 

“Dracula’s in town!” Willow blurted out. She was still feeling some excitement over meeting the vampire so many legends were based upon.

 

Spike looked around, his eyes narrowing as he took in the situation. “Don’t tell me. Somebody invited him into the house.”

 

“That would be me,” Joyce admitted ruefully, stepping out of the kitchen. “I met him over at the gallery, and then he was just so nice…” She trailed off, sighing. “I don’t normally invite strange men over for coffee.”

 

Spike’s expression softened. “Not your fault, pet. Old Drac’s got a few tricks up his sleeve. If you didn’t want to invite him in, he would have made sure you did.”

 

Tara’s eyes went wide. “Y-you know D-D-Dracula?”

 

“Sure,” Spike said shrugging. “Poncy bugger told the whole world how to kill u—vampires.” He checked to make sure no one heard his slip. It was still hard to remember that he wasn’t a vampire sometimes. “We were rivals once upon a time. The wanker still owes me eleven pounds.”

 

All three women moved just a little closer, sensing a good story. “Why does he owe you money?” Willow asked.

 

“Well, see, I was chatting up this girl,” Spike explained, realizing he was going to have to be careful if he wanted to avoid the gorier parts. “Dru’d gone off, and I was feeling a bit lonely, and I wanted some conversation. Then Drac comes along and steals her right from under my nose.” Spike still remembered the rank arrogance of the famous vampire. “So I returned the favor a few days later. Kept on like that for a while, until there was this one—”

 

Spike stopped there, remembering his audience. He also remembered that he wasn’t supposed to recall those days with quite so much pleasure. “So we had a bet on for who could charm this chit. Eleven pounds, and I won.”

 

Willow frowned. “Why eleven pounds?”

 

“It was all I had in my pocket,” Spike replied easily, his grin illustrating one of the reasons why he’d won. “But the tosser never paid.” Though momentarily distracted by his memories, the small niggling anxiety blossomed. “Where’s Buffy?”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy’s lassitude was bordering on the catatonic at this point. There was still a part of her that knew this strange apathy wasn’t right, but she was helpless in the face of whatever held her in its grasp. Hours had now passed in Xander’s basement apartment, and she’d done little except watch the shadows move across the floor.

 

If she had thought about it—or had been able to think about it—she would have wondered why the Slayer found it so difficult to cast off Dracula’s thrall. Buffy had thought herself immune to such things, though she’d never gotten the chance to experiment. What little she did know about thrall and its effects was limited to her casual perusal of Giles’ books, and one of Spike’s off-handed comments. He’d told her he hadn’t the patience to learn the technique, and had added that he hadn’t seen the need for it either. “Thrall’s a stupid thing when you can accomplish the same things with a bit of charm.”

 

In other words, Spike had never needed anything but a devastating smile, a pair of sharp blue eyes, and that little tongue thing he did. Buffy had believed it. She had experienced the talents of the tongue.

 

Even the memory of Spike’s talents weren’t enough to break her out of the trance, however, and if she had to say why, it might have had something to do with the inevitable showdown she knew was imminent. There was something about the darkness that Dracula represented that drew her in. It was probably related to her recent fascination with hunting.

 

The darkness drew her, and Buffy couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like if the next bite she received from Dracula made her a permanent resident of the night.

 

So, she was ready to go when Xander told her he was supposed to take her to the “Master.”

 

Buffy regained some of her equilibrium on the way to Dracula’s castle. She had even managed to convince herself that the thrall was over, and she was in control of herself again. That is, she managed to believe it until she found herself putting down her stake at his command.

 

“Stay away from me.”

 

Dracula simply smiled. “Are you afraid I will bite you? Slayer, that’s why you came.”

 

“No. Last night? It’s not gonna happen again,” Buffy said, as much to convince herself as to convince the vampire.

 

“Stop me. Stake me,” he invited, getting closer.

 

Buffy glanced longingly towards her stake. “Any minute now.”

 

“Do you know why you cannot resist?” he asked.

 

“Because you’re famous?”

 

“Because you do not want to,” he replied, circling her.

 

Buffy backed off. “My friends—”

 

“Are here. They will not find us. We are alone, always alone,” Dracula replied. “I have so much to show you, so much to teach you, what you are capable of. Your history, your power, what your body is capable of.”

 

Buffy blinked, suddenly recalling the conversation she’d had with Spike. He had understood; Spike had known, and not seen anything to be wary of. “I don’t need you to teach me anything.”

 

Dracula merely raised an eyebrow. “Who better than someone who lives in the darkness to give you your first taste of it?” With a casual gesture, the vampire slid one fingernail along his wrist, raising a thin line of blood.

 

Buffy took a step back. “I won’t—”

 

“Just a taste, Slayer,” he assured her. “I have not taken enough from you yet to change you.”

 

Dracula had been right about one thing; she was drawn to the darkness, to him. There was a part of her that longed for the taste that he offered. She bent, but against her will, and a voice interrupted.

 

“Stealing my girl again, Vlad? Why can’t you ever get your own?”

 

~~~~~

 

Hearing what had happened with Buffy told Spike all he needed to know. Dracula had placed his mark on her neck, and Buffy wouldn’t be able to resist the pull he’d placed on her mind. She shouldn’t have allowed the wanker to bite her in the first place.

 

Spike didn’t want to admit to how much it rankled that old Drac got the chance to sup while he’d never enjoyed the opportunity.

 

After a quick word to the girls, Spike took off for Xander’s place. He knew that if Buffy really wanted to go somewhere, Xander would have no chance of stopping her. When he arrived, however, Harris’ mom told him that he’d just left with “that Buffy girl.” Spike stood on their front lawn, running a hand through his hair. Where the bloody hell was he supposed to go now?

 

He knew Drac favored the more highbrow places, but it would take hours to check all of them out, and Spike didn’t have time for that. He frowned. On a whim, he took out his new cell phone and dialed the shipping place he and Joyce used. It was the only reliable company that operated in Sunnydale.

 

Using his most persuasive tone, Spike convinced the lady who answered the phone to not only inform him that they’d had a delivery just a day or so previous from which two of their men had never returned, but also the address of said delivery.

 

Spike chuckled darkly, sliding behind the wheel of his car again. “Trust Drac to be all traditional. Bloody idiot will never learn to change things up. Always has to be shipped by crate, packed in dirt from the sodding motherland.”

 

It took him only a few minutes to get there, and Spike found himself standing in front of a castle that was right out of a Gothic romance. Muttering curses to himself all the way inside, he made his way through the halls.

 

He didn’t bother looking for Xander or Giles. They would be safe enough while Dracula was focused on the Slayer. Of course, while he wasn’t looking for Xander, that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to find him. The younger man got in his way as Spike headed for the inner sanctum of the castle. “No one hurts the Master.”

 

Spike’s eyebrows went up. “Bloody git always has to have his bug-eaters,” he grumbled.

 

“If you want to get to the Master you have to go through me,” Xander said, ignoring Spike’s commentary.

 

“Yeah, okay,” Spike replied, throwing a mean left hook that took him out with one blow. “Sorry, mate,” he muttered as he stepped over Xander’s still form on his way to find Buffy.

 

Spike didn’t try to analyze the rush of jealousy he felt as he walked into the great room, firelight giving the room that dim, romantic glow that Dracula had always favored. He had never quite understood some of the older vampires’ desire for the olden days, before electricity and such. The lack of open flames could only be a good thing in Spike’s mind, and he’d loved TV.

 

It wasn’t the atmosphere that caused his anger. It was Buffy’s position, leaning over the vampire’s bleeding wrist. Spike knew there was no way Buffy could be turned, not if she was conscious enough to stand on her own. He understood the kind of intimacy that the sharing of blood connoted among vampires, though. If Spike thought that the Slayer was operating under her own power, or that she understood what Dracula was offering, he would have been a lot more than angry.

 

But it was his jealousy that spoke. “Stealing my girl again, Vlad? Why can’t you ever get your own?”

 

Dracula looked over to where he stood in the doorway. “William. I don’t see your name on her.”

 

It was a childish, schoolyard comment, and it put a smirk on Spike’s face. He was no longer an adolescent, playing games winning girls’ hearts. He was a man, and the girl was his. “No? You looked at her hand, mate? She’s got my ring on, doesn’t she?”

 

Dracula blinked, beginning to realize that Spike had made a fundamental change. “You think you can hold her?” he asked incredulously. “You belong to the daylight now, William. You have nothing to offer her.”

 

“Wrong,” Spike replied in a hard tone. “I can offer her everything.” He looked over at Buffy. “Nice to see you, luv.”

 

“Same here,” she managed. “Did Giles call you?”

 

“Walked in on the disinvite spell,” Spike explained. “Thought I might come give you a hand, maybe renew my acquaintance with the poncy bugger standing in front of you.”

 

Buffy smiled and seemed to pull back, taking a step towards Spike. “I don’t think so,” Dracula said, reasserting his will. “Taste, Slayer. You will see that I can offer you more than any mere mortal. I can teach you who you are.”

 

“Slayer’s a creature of the daylight, Drac,” Spike replied. “She doesn’t belong in the dark.”

 

“And yet she seeks it,” Dracula replied with a coy smile. “Have you yet begun to wonder, William? How long can you hope to hold her attention?” He looked back at Buffy. “Taste, and see,” he said, and this time she couldn’t resist.

 

Spike watched as Buffy sucked at his wrist, drawing in a deep breath. The taste might give her clarity. It might, as Dracula said, give her a taste for the dark. And if Buffy decided that was where she wanted to go, Spike knew he wasn’t strong enough to stop her.

 

He watched the emotions play across her face, and he knew exactly when Dracula had lost his hold. Buffy straightened, a cool little smile playing over her lips. “Okay, now that was gross.”

 

Dracula frowned. “You are resisting.”

 

“Looks like.” Buffy looked over at Spike. “Hey, honey. How was your trip?”

 

“Good,” he replied, a grin beginning to light up his features. “You need any help?”

 

“Nope,” Buffy said. “I’m just going to give Dracula here a taste of the Slayer. If you want, you can stay and watch me kick his ass.”

 

“Always a pleasure,” he responded, watching as the vampire went after her with a roar. Spike knew that at least half of Dracula’s fury stemmed from having had an audience to witness his failure with the Slayer. The fight ranged over the entire hall, with Spike standing at the edge, an eager spectator. Even though he loved the fight as much as Buffy did, he got just as much pleasure from watching the Slayer do battle.

 

Had he still been a poet, she would have been an endless source of inspiration.

 

Her last move was a spectacular one, staking Dracula just as he rematerialized on the landing, and Spike realized that she’d been showing off for him. With a broad grin, he came to join her in the middle of the hall. “Hello, luv,” he murmured, kissing her.

 

“Hello, yourself,” she said, returning the embrace with feeling. They were interrupted by Xander’s dramatic entrance.

 

“Where is he?” Xander demanded. “Where’s the creep that turned me into his spider-eating man-bitch?”

 

Spike and Buffy exchanged looks. “Slayer already took care of him, Harris,” Spike said apologetically.

 

“Dammit!” Xander exploded. “I’m sick of this crap. I’m sick of being the guy that eats insects and gets the funny syphilis. As of this moment it’s over. I’m done being everybody’s butt-monkey.”

 

“Right,” Buffy said, trying to keep a straight face. “No more butt-monkey.”

 

Spike nodded, a suspicious twinkle in his eye. “That’s the spirit, mate.”

 

Xander looked from one to the other, trying to decide if he was being made fun of. Buffy looked over at Spike. “You know, you’d probably better look for Giles. Dracula said something about my friends not finding us.”

 

“What are you going to do?” Xander asked.

 

Buffy rolled her eyes. “I’m going to make sure Dracula doesn’t come back.”

 

~~~~~

 

The next day Buffy met Spike at the gallery, with plans for a nice stroll back to her house where her mom was making dinner for the both of them. “So, you ready for the beach tomorrow?” she asked.

 

“Yeah, sure,” Spike replied, sounding distracted.

 

Buffy frowned. “You don’t sound too thrilled.”

 

He seemed to shake his mood off. “Not that, luv. Just a lot on my mind right now, ‘s all.”

 

“You’re not mad about Dracula, are you?” Buffy asked. Spike could read her like a book, but she was beginning to be able to read his moods as well.

 

He looked over at her, surprised and guilty. “No. I mean, I know it wasn’t your fault. I’ve known Dracula for a while now, so it’s not like I don’t know what he’s capable of.”

 

“It’s about him biting me, isn’t it?” she asked, feeling as though she’d gotten pretty close when she saw him trying to hide a wince. “Spike—”

 

“You don’t understand,” he said, cutting her off, a touch of impatience in his voice. “You don’t know what a bite means to a vampire. It’s more than just the blood, especially when the vamp is Dracula and the girl’s the Slayer.”

Buffy gave him an incredulous stare. “You mean it’s about the sex. Spike! I would never—”

 

“Not about you,” he said, almost grimly, and Buffy got a glimmer of understanding.

 

Tentatively, she reached out for his hand. “It’s about you.”

 

“I don’t want to be a vampire, Buffy. Not anymore, not with what I’ve learned about being alive.” Spike sighed. “I wouldn’t go back for all the tea in China, but that doesn’t mean I don’t remember, that I don’t look back and wish…”

 

When Spike trailed off, Buffy leaned in closer. She had been his first, in a lot of ways. She had certainly been the first lover he’d had as a human. Buffy, on the other hand, had had other lovers, human and vampire. She had been bitten three times, and none of those times had been by him.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

 

He shook his head. “Don’t be. It’s just me being silly. I know you love me.”

 

“More than you know,” Buffy replied. “You see me, Spike, and that’s more than I can say for any other guy I’ve ever known.”

 

Spike smiled, and gave her hand a squeeze, bringing it up to his lips for a kiss. “Did you check on Giles today?”

 

She laughed. “Yes, Mr. Subtlety. Not only did I check on him, I also asked him to start training me again. He’s still turning bright red every time I say vampire.”

“And how many times did you try saying it?” Spike asked with a knowing smile.

 

Buffy smirked slightly. “Oh, as many times as I could get away with it.”

 

They entered the front door of her house, still laughing a little in memory of pulling Giles out of what Xander had termed “the chick pit.” Spike thought that Harris was just happy someone other than himself had been thoroughly embarrassed. “Hey, Mom,” Buffy called.

 

“Hi, honey,” Joyce responded. “How does pizza sound tonight?”

 

“Great,” she said, heading up the stairs, Spike on her heels.

 

“H’lo, Joyce,” he greeted her, sticking his head through her bedroom door as Buffy went down the hall towards her own room. “Made a couple sales this afternoon after you left. That lady—the one who’s always wearing purple—came in and finally bought that print.”

 

Joyce sighed in relief. “Thank goodness. I was afraid we were never going to get rid of that thing.”

 

From down the hall, Spike could hear Buffy’s voice. “What are you doing here?”

 

Both he and Joyce looked down the hall, and Joyce seemed to have just remembered something. “Oh, Buffy, I need you to take your sister shopping for school things tomorrow. I have to be at the gallery.”

 

Both Buffy and another girl’s voices rang out down the hallway. “Mom!”

Chapter Text

“Could you let down your hair/and be transparent for a while/just a little while/to see if you’re human after all/Honesty is a hard attribute to find/when we all want to seem like/we got it all figured out…” ~Lifehouse, “Trying”

 

Joyce came out of her bedroom, past Spike, who was getting the same look of bemusement he always did when faced with all three Summers women at the same time. “Buffy, you know I have that show coming up, and Spike has the next couple days off.”

 

“I can still help, luv,” Spike inserted. “I don’t mind; you know that.”

 

Joyce shook her head. “You haven’t had a day off for a while. It’s the principle of the thing. Plus, there’s overtime, which you’re already into with that trip and setting up for the new show. You deserve a weekend.”

 

“Even if it isn’t on the weekend,” he said, smiling.

 

Buffy glared at him. Spike was always making light of her Dawn-duties. It was like he enjoyed being tailed by her little sister. “We’re going to the beach tomorrow. Classes start soon, and Spike’s hardly been able to get away all this last month. You know we’ve planned it!”

 

“And I need your help on this, Buffy.” Joyce sounded implacable. “You can take your sister for school supplies before you go, and then you can take her along with you.”

 

“Mom!” Dawn wasn’t much happier about the situation than her sister. “I thought you were going to take me for school supplies.”

 

“Buffy will take you,” Joyce said. “And then you can go to the beach. I’m sure Dawn would like a trip out there before school starts for her as well.”

 

When it looked as though World War III might break out in the hallway, Spike decided to try for world peace. “I don’t mind taking Dawn day after tomorrow, Joyce,” he said smoothly. “I’ve got that day off, and I know Buffy’s going to be with Rupert, working on her new training schedule. I was going to make a trip to the mall anyway. I’ll just grab Tara to come with me.”

 

The three women blinked. It was a novel solution. “That would be fine, Spike,” Joyce said warmly. “Although, tomorrow—”

 

“Bit can come with us,” he said, winking at Dawn, and giving Buffy a look that said clearly that they could talk about it later. “We won’t be doing much but laying about. She’s welcome to join us.”

 

She nodded. “Thank you, Spike. I really appreciate that.” Joyce gave Spike a kiss on the cheek as she passed him to get the front door. “Pizza’s here. Don’t be too long!”

 

Dawn looked as though she was trying to decide whether or not to be grumpy because she’d just had the next two days planned out for her, or whether to be excited to be spending an entire day with Spike—whom she thought was cool beyond the telling of it. “Thanks, Spike,” she finally said, heading down the stairs, trying not to sound too grudging.

 

“Anytime, Nibblet,” he replied, turning back to Buffy to face her wrath.

 

“Spike!” Buffy hissed. “Does grown-up time mean anything to you?”

 

“Sure it does,” he murmured, moving closer. “Means a lot to me, and I’ll be showing you just how much a little later tonight. But your mum needed a hand, and you know I don’t mind having Dawn around.”

 

Buffy shook her head. “I swear, Spike. Sometimes I think you like my family more than you like me.”

 

Spike gave her an exasperated look. “Buffy, you’ve got a mum and a little sis who love you to bits. I’ve got you, and I’ve got them, and that’s it. You lot are my family.”

 

Buffy looked a bit abashed, though she still wasn’t happy about losing out on quality time with her boyfriend. Granted, the beach thing was a group activity, and the day after she’d planned on spending most of her time with Giles, but she’d still had some hopes. She always forgot how seriously Spike took his role in her life, and in the lives of her sister and mom. In fact, Buffy sometimes thought that he was a better son and brother to them than she was a daughter and sister.

 

It could be just a little bit irritating at times.

 

“Fine,” Buffy finally grumbled. “But you’re going to have to make it up to me, mister.”

 

Spike smiled, and did that little thing with his tongue that drove her crazy—in a good way. “Tonight, I’ll worship your body,” he promised.

 

Buffy could hardly wait.

 

~~~~~

 

Entry from Dawn’s diary:

 

No one knows who I am. Not the real me, anyway. It’s like nobody even cares to find out. No one ever asks me what my opinion is, or what I want on my pizza, or what I want to do with my life. No one understands. No one has an older sister who’s the Slayer.

 

Everybody thinks Buffy’s so great, just because she can do back flips and stuff. Like that’s such a great job skill. It’s always like, “Buffy’s saving the world.” Well, I could so totally save the world if you handed me superpowers.

 

At least Spike’s cool about things. He’s always looking out for me, and he totally treats me like a grown-up. Sometimes I wish he was my brother instead of Buffy being my sister. I’ll bet he’d get me. I guess he and Buffy are practically engaged though, so maybe he will be my brother one of these days.

 

~~~~~

 

“Dawn, hurry up! We were supposed to leave fifteen minutes ago!” Buffy yelled up the stairs, turning to look at Spike, exasperated. “Let me just remind you that bringing her was your idea.”

 

“And who else was going to look after the Bit today?” he asked reasonably. “We’re all going to be at the beach, and your mum has the showing to get ready for.” A look of worry crossed his face. “Speaking of, I hope she doesn’t need me today. I wouldn’t mind—”

 

“You wouldn’t mind bending over backwards for her and Dawn,” Buffy said, raising an eyebrow. “But what about your girlfriend, huh? Do you ever think about me?”

 

He smirked, knowing that she was mostly teasing. “Thought about you last night, didn’t I?” he asked. “Gave you a proper seeing to.”

 

“You did,” Buffy said, moving a little closer. “You know what I’m thinking of right now? I’m thinking of suntan lotion and a certain guy that might get burnt to a crisp.”

 

Spike’s eyes glazed over slightly. “You gonna take care of me then, luv?”

 

“Geez, get a room,” Dawn said, coming down the stairs. “Impressionable kid here.”

 

Spike looked up, raising a scarred eyebrow. “Your fault for leaving us waiting for you so long, Little Bit,” he teased. “If you’d been on time, we’d have been halfway to the beach by now.”

 

Dawn stuck her tongue out at him, and Spike returned the gesture, though he waited until Buffy had turned to get the door. “Let’s go,” the Slayer said impatiently. “I’ve waited too long already.”

 

Dawn trailed behind them as Spike pulled out his cell to call the others and let them know he was coming. Even though a day at the beach beckoned, Dawn wasn’t sure that it was going to be that much fun. Not that she didn’t enjoy spending time with her sister’s friends, it was just that Buffy always treated her like she was some big nuisance. Dawn was convinced that it was her sister who was the bigger pain.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike used to be this big bad vampire, and he tried to kill Buffy a lot. But then he got turned into a human and started helping her. Mom even let him babysit me when she had to go on business trips last year, before he started working for her at the gallery. He would let me stay up and watch TV with him and stuff. For somebody who was supposedly so scary, Spike’s a big pushover.

 

Spike would come over all the time last year, I think because Mom was worried that he wasn’t taking care of himself. He’d help me with my homework and tell us about all the places he’d visited.

 

He never really calls anyone by their real name either. He has these cool nicknames for everybody, except for Mom and Buffy’s Watcher. He calls them by their first names, I think because he really respects them. I asked Spike why he makes up names for people, and he said it was because his names mean something, but I think it’s because his names tell people where they really stand with him.

 

~~~~~

 

“So Dawnie, you all ready to go back to school?” Willow was planning on heading to the Magic Shop with Buffy and Giles while Spike and Tara took Dawn shopping. She gave the younger girl a hug.

 

Dawn shrugged. “I guess. I just mostly need school supplies now. Mom said we could go shopping for clothes when she had a day off.”

 

“We can look for clothes today too, Dawn,” Tara said. “If you wanted to, I mean.”

 

Dawn looked a little uncertain. “I guess that might be okay.”

 

“Well, we’ve got a budget,” Spike said with a grin. “We come in under that, maybe we can get a treat for you, for being such a good sport an’ all.”

 

Buffy rolled her eyes, coming up behind him. They had decided to meet up at the Espresso Pump, though she was certain that most of the reason Giles had agreed to it was because he wanted to show off his new car. “Like she needs a reward for going shopping, Spike.”

 

Spike gave her a look, the kind of look that said, “Be nice to your little sister, Buffy.” Buffy was beginning to get aggravated. Everybody was so lenient with Dawn, and they always expected her to pick up the slack, as if she didn’t have enough to worry about already. It was driving her crazy, especially since Spike’s fondness for Dawn was going to spoil her rotten.

 

“Tara and I have our own lists,” he said quietly. “Dawn will just have to be patient with us while we finish up our shopping. Think you can stand it, Bit?”

 

“I’ll be fine,” Dawn replied, trying to sound as grown up and nonchalant as possible.

 

Giles smiled. “That’s the spirit. You know, Buffy, we really should be going.”

 

“Fine,” Buffy said, giving Spike a kiss. “I’m going to see you later tonight, right?”

 

“Wouldn’t miss it,” he assured her, turning back towards the Desoto. “Speak with you later, Rupert?”

 

“Of course, Spike,” Giles replied. “Give me a ring.”

 

“You’ll be over your midlife crisis by then, I hope,” Spike called back, with a grin. He couldn’t resist giving Giles a hard time about his new car, and he made sure his door was shut before the other man could reply. “All set ladies?” he asked Tara and Dawn, making sure they were buckled in before pulling away from the curb.

 

~~~~~

 

I don’t think Buffy’s Watcher likes me much. He and Spike get along okay, and he’s over with Mom a lot, but I don’t think he knows much about young people these days. I heard him say “newfangled” once, so he’s got to be pretty far gone.

 

Buffy’s friend Willow is the awesomest. She’s the only person I know who likes school as much as me, and her friends are cool too. Like Tara. They’re both witches, which is way cooler than being the Slayer. They do spells and stuff. I told Mom one time that I wished they would teach me some of the stuff they do together, and then she got really quiet and made me go upstairs. I guess her generation’s not cool with witchcraft.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike kept a careful eye on Dawn while she browsed the racks at the clothing store, as he leaned up against the wall next to Tara. “Are you sure you don’t want this one?” she asked, holding out a patterned shirt. “I think it would look great on you.”

 

He raised an eyebrow. “Don’t think I’m up for patterns yet, Glinda. Better stick to solids for me.” Spike looked over towards the littlest Summers, who was holding up a brightly colored skirt with a considering eye. It was too short, but she was going to try to get it by him. Spike smirked. Joyce had given him very specific instructions, and he had no intention of disappointing her. “What about you?”

 

Tara frowned. “This is a guy’s shirt, Spike.”

 

He laughed. “I’m just wondering how you were, is all. Haven’t seen much of you this summer.”

 

“Oh, you know how it is,” she said vaguely. “With you and Buffy together, and me and Willow, we’re all kind of wrapped up in each other. It’s—hard.”

 

Spike eyed her knowingly. “We outsiders have to stick together, luv.”

 

Tara looked startled, and then blushed, looking away. “I don’t—okay, I do, but you—” she stammered, trying to explain, and not succeeding very well.

 

“I don’t quite fit either,” Spike replied, looking past her at Dawn, who had several items over her arm. He watched as the girl grabbed a salesperson and ducked into a fitting room. “I’ve made my own connections to Buffy, and her mom, and such. Rupert, of course, doesn’t count, since he’s my uncle.”

 

Tara giggled a little, knowing what a fiction that was. “Yeah, but you seem to fit so well,” she objected. “You’re just—there, an important part.”

 

“You’re important too,” Spike insisted. “You might not see it yet, but you’re the steady one. The others, they’re still kids yet, barely older than Dawn over there. You’ve got some living behind you.”

 

“So do you,” Tara replied. She met his eyes then, as one old soul to another, and smiled. “It meant a lot, you know. What you said to me—about me being human.”

 

Spike’s eyes lit up. “Glad to have been able to help.” He looked off into the distance. “Sometimes I wonder, you know, what the point is of me being here. Wonder of what possible use I could be to Buffy and the others.”

 

“Well, Dawn adores you,” Tara pointed out. “And so does Mrs. Summers. I think you’ve helped both of them a lot.”

 

“But would it matter if I wasn’t here anymore?” Spike asked in return, almost idly. “What is a man, and what is his life but a vapor, a passing breath?”

 

“Are you feeling your own mortality, Spike?” Tara asked gently.

 

“Among other things,” he agreed. “Mine and others. My life’s as uncertain now as it ever was, I guess. It’s folks like you, and the Nibblet, that make it solid.”

 

As if called, Dawn showed up in front of them. “Okay, I think I’ve found it.”

 

Spike raised an eyebrow. “And if I didn’t see it on, how am I to know that your mum won’t skin me for letting you buy it?” he asked, knowing full well that the outfit was outside the limits set.

 

“Spike!” Dawn whined. “Come on. I’m old enough to wear a short skirt.”

 

“Not that short.” He gave her a wicked grin. “It’s gotta be below the knees, Bit. Mum’s orders.”

 

“Spike!”

 

Tara quickly intervened, shooting Spike a glance that was half amused, half exasperated. “Be nice, Spike. Come on, Dawn. Let’s see what we can do.”

 

Spike watched them go. He had long since accepted his fate as a man permanently entranced by Summers women. He’d fallen in love with Joyce and Dawn long before he was conscious of any attraction to the Slayer.

 

The first time he’d seen Dawn was the night he’d made the truce with the Slayer. She’d been a tiny thing, standing on the stairs, big eyes looking down at him. Then she’d stuck out her tongue and darted away. At the time, Spike had been completely—enchanted. That was truly the only word for it. Just as he’d been enchanted by Joyce when she’d invited him for hot chocolate after Dru dumped him. Both of them had a lot of spunk.

 

Then, becoming human, having no idea what he was going to do with himself or of what use he could possibly be, Joyce had asked him to babysit Dawn. No one else had been available, and Buffy was busy with school. She’d left him with her baby girl and a list of emergency numbers to call.

 

The two of them had stared at one another, and Dawn had said, “I don’t need a babysitter.”

 

“Maybe I need looking after,” he’d replied. At her thoughtful look, Spike had added, “We could look after each other.”

 

Buffy had good reason to accuse him of loving her mom and sister better than her. If Buffy ever dumped him, he’d be crushed. If he lost his family though—if he lost Joyce and Dawn—he had serious doubts as to his ability to survive.

 

“Will this do?” Dawn asked sarcastically, modeling an outfit for him. The skirt was a couple inches longer than the one she’d tried to sneak past him, and the shirt actually covered her abdomen, rather than showing several inches of skin.

 

“You look right nice, Nibblet,” Spike said sincerely. “I’ll be beating the boys off you with a tire iron.”

 

A wide smile broke out over her face. “Thank you, William,” she replied, as dignified as any queen. Spike watched her go back to the dressing rooms, stopping to giggle with Tara. In that instant, he caught a glimpse of the woman she was to become, and he thought she would be breathtaking.

 

~~~~~

 

“One more stop,” Spike said a few hours later. Tara and Dawn were slurping up the last of their ice cream cones, and he was good-naturedly carrying their bags.

 

Dawn looked over at him. “Another one? I thought we got everything on the list Mom gave you.”

 

“We did,” he replied. “We also got everything on Tara’s list. Now we’re finishing up my shopping before we can get out of this bloody mall.”

 

“What do you need to get, Spike?” Tara asked curiously. She knew he’d gotten some new clothes. She’d even managed to talk him into the blue and cream shirt, for which Buffy was sure to thank her.

 

“Electronics store,” he explained briefly, handing them back their bags. The girls trailed him in as he went to speak to one of the men behind the counter. A few minutes later, Spike had a large box tucked under one arm, and he went to take his bags back from Tara.

 

Dawn stared at the box. “Whatcha got?”

 

“Laptop.”

 

“That’s what you and Willow were so deep in conversation about the other day,” Tara said in sudden comprehension. “She was pretty secretive.”

 

“I asked her to be,” Spike replied, looking a little uncomfortable.

 

Dawn frowned. “Why? I don’t think a laptop qualifies as contraband, Spike.”

 

He gave her a disgruntled look. “No, but then everybody and their brother wants to know what I want with a computer. It’s my business.” He spoke as if that settled it, but Dawn and Tara exchanged a glance well known among women—it said that there was no way he was going to get away with keeping such delicious news to himself.

 

“We won’t tell,” Dawn coaxed. “Will we, Tara?”

 

“Of course we won’t tell,” Tara replied. “You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to, Spike,” she said magnanimously.

 

“Bloody hell,” Spike muttered, knowing that he was doomed. “I wanted to try writing again. If you must know.”

 

“Again?” Dawn picked up on the word like a hound dog on a rabbit. “You wrote?”

 

“Once upon a time,” Spike grumbled. He suddenly looked irritated and frustrated and somehow sad. “Look, it was a long time ago. I just wanted something to do that was—”

 

“Yours,” Tara said, in understanding.

 

Spike nodded. “You won’t say anything? Red just knows I want a computer. She thinks I’m finally joining the 21st century.”

 

“Our lips are sealed,” Tara promised.

 

Dawn snorted. “As if I’d tell Buffy. Please.”

 

“Right then,” Spike said, taking a deep breath. He wasn’t even sure why he was trying to write again, though he thought he’d stick to prose, instead of poetry. As Tara had deduced, it was partly to have something of his own. It was also because he wanted to. Even if he never showed it to anyone else, he wanted his life on paper—or on microchip as the case might be.

 

Writing was the last bit of his lost humanity that he hadn’t tried to unearth yet. It was the only piece that felt incomplete, but it was also the most private part of who he had been. He didn’t think he was quite ready for anyone else to know, but he trusted Dawn and Tara.

 

Spike might trust Buffy with his life, but there was still a piece of his heart he was unsure about revealing.

Chapter Text

“A friend loves at all times, and a [sister] is born for adversity.” Proverbs 17:17

 

Spike dropped Tara off at her dorm and then drove Dawn home. “Where are you going to put your computer, Spike? And if you get games, can I play?”

 

“I thought we weren’t going to talk about my computer, Bit,” Spike replied.

 

Dawn huffed. “I said I wasn’t going to tell Buffy what you wanted it for. If you tell her you got it for work and stuff, she’ll get it. Or tell her you got it to play computer games. You’re a guy—she won’t even blink.”

 

Spike frowned, considering the suggestion. “I’d have to buy a game then.”

 

Dawn grinned. “I could give you some suggestions.”

 

He raised an eyebrow. “Uh huh. Out with you, luv.”

 

As Dawn got out of the car, Spike was right behind her, carrying her bags. Joyce came out of the kitchen as they entered the front door. “Oh, you’re back. Did you find everything you needed?”

 

“I found the coolest new clothes,” Dawn gushed. “Tara helped so much. She’s the best at finding the deals.” At the look on her mother’s face, Dawn quickly added, “And we got all my new school supplies too.”

 

“Good,” Joyce said, smiling warmly. “Spike, thank you for taking her. You’ll tell Tara thank you as well?”

 

“Of course,” he replied. He looked up as Buffy came down the stairs. “Hey, luv.”

 

“Hi,” she replied, coming up to kiss him. “You want to patrol with me tonight? There’s a new fang gang in town.”

 

“I need you to watch Dawn tonight. I have the Gurian showing,” Joyce said.

 

Buffy’s eyes widened. “Mom! I have to patrol.”

 

Spike started to speak. “I could—” He shut up quickly when Buffy shot him a look that plainly said he’d better not volunteer for more Dawn-duty.

 

“Someone has to watch Dawn, Buffy.”

 

“I don’t need a babysitter!” Dawn yelled from the kitchen.

 

“Yes, you do!” Both Joyce and Buffy spoke at the same time.

 

“Wait,” Buffy said breathlessly. “That means if I can find an acceptable babysitter—other than Spike—before you leave, we can go patrol?”

 

Joyce gave her a considering look. “Who?”

 

Buffy thought and blurted out the first name that came to mind. “Xander.”

 

“Xander?”

 

Dawn suddenly appeared in the doorway. “Okay.”

 

Spike tried to hide a snort of laughter. Dawn’s crush was obvious. Joyce ignored both his reaction and that of her youngest. “If Xander agrees, you can go,” she said, heading out to the kitchen.

 

“So we going slaying this weekend, luv?” Spike asked.

 

“Yeah,” Buffy said. “I need you to help me look into all the old vampire haunts you know of. When we went to the magic shop today, Mr. Bogarty was dead, and the vampires took a lot of books about the Slayer. Giles thinks they might be gunning for me.”

 

Spike frowned, a new intensity coming into his eyes. “We’ll want to check the cemeteries, and maybe the caves in the north woods then.”

 

“Eat something before you go, Spike,” Joyce called. “I’ve got leftovers in the fridge.”

 

“Thanks, Joyce,” he replied.

 

“I’ve got to call Xander,” Buffy said. She gave him an amused look. “You go eat, Mr. Bottomless Pit.”

 

~~~~~

 

Xander is so much cuter than anyone. And smarter too. He totally skipped college and got a job working construction. Which is just so…deep, you know? He builds things, and he’s brave too. Just last week he went undercover to stop that Dracula guy. Xander treats everybody like an equal. And he doesn’t look down on anybody. Even when he should.

 

He says I’m like a kid sister, but sometimes when he looks at me, I feel like he sees me as I am. As a woman.

 

~~~~~

 

The patrol was rather uneventful, although Buffy was tense enough to set Spike’s nerves jangling. “You alright, luv?” he finally asked when she jumped at a shadow.

 

“I’m fine,” she said, still sounding distracted.

 

Spike raised an eyebrow. “You don’t sound fine. You’re a bit on edge.”

 

“It’s just this new vampire gang in town,” Buffy replied.

 

Spike shook his head. “Not the gang. We can handle a few vamps. I’m talking about at the house. You seem a bit more antsy about Dawn than usual.”

 

“I guess,” Buffy admitted. “It’s just—I know it’s always been this way, Spike. She’s the baby. But lately, it’s just getting to me. I mean, she’s always around. And if she’s not hanging around me, she’s with you.”

 

“Buffy,” Spike began. “I’m sorry if you think I’ve been neglecting you.”

 

“No, it’s not you,” Buffy assured him. “I know you just wanted to help Mom. It’s just—”

 

Spike looked over at her. “You’re the big sis. It’s part of the role. The L’il Bit looks up to you, pretty much wants to be you.”

 

“Which is why she’s always borrowing my clothes and spilling stuff on them,” Buffy muttered.

 

Spike sighed. “You’ve got superpowers, and you get to save the world. She’s just the kid sister. You’re important.”

 

“And I’d give anything to be her!” Buffy protested. “Just to be able to give this job a rest sometimes, or give it away.”

 

Spike put a hand on her shoulder, hoping his contact would reassure her. “Buffy-luv, I know that. Dawn doesn’t. Girl doesn’t understand the pain that goes with being the Slayer, and she shouldn’t, since she’s just a baby. It isn’t fair, but she doesn’t quite get that either.” He smiled. “Little sisters always think that the bigger ones have it better. Bigger ones always think the little ones have it better. It’s just the way of things.”

 

“You sound like you speak from experience,” Buffy said wryly.

 

Spike was quiet for a moment. “Had a sister once,” he said softly. “She died when I was about thirteen.”

 

“Oh,” Buffy said, thinking of how she would feel if something happened to Dawn. “What happened to her?”

 

“Consumption,” he said. “You’d call it tuberculosis today, I suppose. It’s what my mum would have died from, had she lived. I probably would have had it too.”

 

Spike’s words brought home yet again how very alone he was. Buffy had her mom and sister, and even her dad out there somewhere. Giles was her Watcher. Spike had her, and the people he was connected to through her. “You know I love you, right?” she asked impulsively.

 

He gave her a strange look. “Yeah, Buffy. I know.”

 

“No, I mean, I really love you,” she insisted. “Even if someday we didn’t go out anymore, or something like that, I’d still love you. You’d still be family. No matter what.”

 

Spike smiled, and his face seemed to relax. “Yeah, luv. I know. I’ll always love you too.”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy couldn’t quite seem to catch her breath; she was laughing too hard. “Harmony? Harmony has minions?”

 

Next to her, Spike was leaning against the counter, wiping tears from his eyes. “Oh, bloody hell. I’d have given my next paycheck to see that.”

 

“Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction,” Xander agreed, a touch of anxiety in his voice. He couldn’t blame Buffy and Spike for laughing—he’d nearly wet his pants laughing when Harmony showed up with her “minions.” The idea of Harmony running a gang of any sort was enough to send anybody into hysterics. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the whole story, and Xander wasn’t real excited about telling Buffy of Dawn’s inadvertent invitation.

 

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Buffy apologized, trying to get herself under control. “It’s just—Harmony has minions?!” She was off again, and Xander bit back an impatient sigh. Spike seemed to catch onto his serious look, and sobered a bit.

 

Frowning, Spike said, “Harris, you don’t look real happy.”

 

Xander hesitated, and then said, “Well, Harmony came here to kill Buffy—” He was interrupted by renewed laughter from the Slayer. There was also a suspicious twinkle in Spike’s eye, though he was holding it in admirably at the serious look on the other man’s face.

 

“I’m sorry, but it’s hard to take a death threat from Harmony seriously.” Buffy took a deep breath, once again attempting to get herself under control.

 

“Well, that was before she could just walk into your house at any time,” Anya said bluntly from her seat on the counter. Xander was absurdly grateful to his girlfriend for just blurting out the news. He hadn’t been sure how he was going to explain it.

 

Buffy and Spike exchanged concerned glances, the Slayer completely sober now. “Wait, you invited her in? You guys can’t give an invitation. It has to be someone who lives—Dawn!” Buffy’s shout made the other three wince at the volume.

 

She set off for the stairs, but Xander got in front of her. “Look, Buffy, it was an accident. She didn’t mean it.”

 

Buffy pushed him aside. “Well, that just makes it okay, doesn’t it?”

 

Spike and Xander exchanged looks. While no one would mistake them for best friends, there was a kind of solidarity that comes from being two of the only males in a group of women. They also shared a similar relationship to the youngest Summers. “Buffy, why don’t you let me talk to her?” Spike asked, grabbing her arm.

 

Buffy glared at him. “You can’t keep being so easy on her, Spike. She has got to learn the rules.”

 

“Your mum forgets the rules sometimes, luv. She invited Dracula in last week.”

 

Buffy stared at him in consternation, unable to deny his statement, but positive that it was completely different. “That was different. She didn’t know—and it was—I wouldn’t even have Harmony over when she was alive!” She pushed past him and went up the stairs. “And now I have to hunt her down before she tries to come after us, because someone gave her an all-access pass to my house.”

 

Spike looked over at Xander and they both headed up the stairs after the Slayer, hoping to calm her down before she said or did something she’d regret to Dawn. “Buf, I called Willow. She’ll come back and do the spell, and bang, boom, you guys are back in the Fortress of Solitude. All better,” Xander said.

 

“Not all better,” Buffy insisted, beginning to get her weapons together. “Dawn has got to learn. If she keeps making stupid mistakes like that, she’s going to get all of us killed.”

 

“I think you’re overreacting, luv,” Spike said soothingly. “We’ll both go out and hunt Harmony down, dust her gang, and it’ll be fine.”

 

Buffy gave him an icy look. “No, I’m going to hunt Harmony down. You’re going to stay here and make sure she doesn’t come back.”

 

“Buffy, I can take care of Harmony if she comes back!” Xander protested.

 

Spike stared at her, and then a similarly cold expression descended over his own face. “Right. I see how this goes. I’m going to talk to the Bit. Let me know when you get back.” He turned on his heel to leave, angry at Buffy’s obstinacy, and her refusal to listen to reason. Just because he spoke the truth, she was going to shut him out.

 

“Spike!” she called. When he didn’t turn, she went back to stuffing weapons in her back, a set expression on her face. “I don’t know why he has to be that way,” she grumbled.

 

Xander moved closer. He hadn’t been sure how to feel about Spike when she had first started dating him. On the other hand, Buffy had been happier in the last few months than he’d seen her in a long time. It was obvious to the most casual observer that Spike would do just about anything for Buffy, including tell her the truth. Buffy was overreacting, and like always, she didn’t like hearing it.

 

He figured it was his job to say something to her before she really screwed things up. “Buffy, you know Spike’s right. Dawn screwed up, sure, but it’s nothing to get excited about. Harmony’s not that big of a threat.”

 

“I know,” Buffy sighed. “It’s just—I can’t be with Dawn all the time. I can’t always protect her, and she’s got to be able to take care of herself. She can’t afford to forget the rules like that.” She looked off into the distance. “And I know Spike didn’t mean anything, but he’s so close to her. It’s not like—”

 

Xander gave her a look that was filled with compassion. “You mean, he’s not completely obsessed with you like Angel was.”

 

Buffy gave him a wry look. “Something like that. It’s nice that he’s so close to my family, Xan, but sometimes I just want him to myself.”

 

“You can’t expect to be the center of his world, Buf,” Xander reminded her. “It might sound all nice and romantic, but it’s not very healthy. Frankly, I’d be a lot more worried about him if he were completely taken up in you.”

 

Buffy nodded. “Yeah.” She lifted her bag. “I should go.”

 

~~~~~

 

Spike walked out the door to find Dawn standing in the hallway. “Not polite to eavesdrop, Bit.”

 

“I don’t care,” Dawn muttered rebelliously. She turned and started to flounce off, but Spike’s hand on her shoulder stopped her. “Like she knows so much.”

 

“Luv, Buffy’s the Slayer, and it’s her job to take care of people.” Spike looked both amused and irritated at the same time. “Doesn’t make her real happy when others make it harder for her to do that.”

 

Dawn stared at him accusingly. “You’re taking her side.”

 

“I’m not taking anybody’s side,” he replied, his tone taking on a harsh note. “But you’re not making it real easy either, Dawn.”

 

“It was an accident!” she protested. “You don’t understand!”

 

“I do,” he replied. “But Nibblet, you’ve got to be more careful. Even a vamp like Harm can be dangerous.”

 

Dawn pulled away from him and rushed down the stairs. She was already feeling wounded and defensive from overhearing Buffy’s remarks, not to mention utterly stupid for inviting Harmony in. She really hadn’t meant to; it was just that the wording of her attempted insult had been bad. Now, her staunchest defender was getting on her case, and it just wasn’t fair.

 

Rushing through the house, she went out the backdoor, just wanting to get some space to mull over the unfairness and kick herself in peace. She passed Anya, who would have gone after her, but Spike pulled her back. “I’ll take care of it. Mostly my fault anyway,” he said ruefully, following Dawn out the back door.

 

Just a little frustrated, Spike went to grab her arm. “Come on, Bit. Let’s finish this inside.”

 

“Leave me alone!” she said angrily, pulling away.

 

Grimly, Spike took a firm hold and began hauling the girl back to the house. He was beginning to agree with Buffy’s assessment that she was a spoiled brat. Girl was not thinking tonight. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “It’s not safe out here.”

 

“Let go of me!” she snapped. And then, when that didn’t work, she complained, “You’re hurting me.”

 

Dawn knew which buttons to push. Spike loosened his grip enough so that Dawn was able to twist free, just before he’d pushed her indoors. “Dawn, get inside and quit being such a brat,” he ordered in his best scary voice.

 

She looked as though she was about to argue when she let out a little shriek. Spike turned just in time to see a large fist descending. And then all he knew was darkness.

 

~~~~~

 

Xander followed Buffy into the kitchen to find Anya dragging an unconscious Spike back into the kitchen. “Spike!” Buffy said, rushing over to him.

 

“Dawn ran out the back door, and Spike tried to stop her,” Anya said succinctly. “A big vampire came out of nowhere, hit Spike, and grabbed Dawn.”

 

“I’m going to kill her,” Buffy said fiercely.

 

Xander, who had enough experience with getting beat up to be something of an expert, said, “I think he should be okay, Buffy. He’s going to have one hell of a shiner though.” He stopped to consider Buffy’s threat. “Wait a sec. You’re going to kill Harmony? Or Dawn?”

 

“Both,” Buffy said, after a moment’s consideration. “You two take care of him.”

 

Buffy was fuming as she left the house. It wasn’t just Dawn getting herself kidnapped or Spike getting hurt. She was irritated with her boyfriend because he seemed to have a better relationship with her family than she did, and she felt guilty for being irritated about it. After all, wasn’t his closeness with her mom and sister something she’d have given her right arm for when she was dating Angel?

 

Of course, she was also angry because he’d been right, and then he got hurt. If she’d been a little more reasonable, Spike wouldn’t have had the chance to talk to Dawn, and maybe he wouldn’t have gotten knocked out.

 

It just wasn’t fair. She wanted him to be wrapped up in her, completely entranced with her, no distractions. Instead, Spike was sweet and devoted and a hard worker who had no qualms about hanging out with her younger sister. He got along with her mom and her Watcher, and her friends thought he was about the best thing that ever happened to her. That should be worth everything.

 

Buffy sighed, wishing she had Spike with her. Or that she’d had a chance to ask him where Harmony typically stayed. She’d just rushed out, without thinking much about where she was going or how she was going to find Dawn.

 

Altering her course, she headed towards Willy’s. When in doubt, ask the professional snitch for information.

 

Numerous threats and one punch later, Buffy had the information she needed. Harmony used to have a lair in a cave. Spike had thought to check out that area, but they hadn’t managed to get there before it was time to get home and relieve Xander.

 

She arrived just in time to hear Dawn threatening someone. The girl’s voice was shaky with fear, and Buffy hurried her steps. She watched as the vampire reached out and touched Dawn with a finger, and he and his cohorts started laughing.

 

Buffy didn’t hesitate. The crossbow bolt went through the heart. “Can’t say she didn’t warn him,” she commented. Looking over at Dawn, and remembering her mom’s injunction not to slay in front of her sister, she ordered, “Close your eyes.”

 

“So, Slayer, we finally meet,” Harmony said, trying to sound scary and in charge, and not quite making it.

 

Buffy stared at her, annoyance and frustration making her tone sharp. “We’ve met, Harmony, you half wit.”

 

“Half wit?” Harmony asked, sounding superior. “I’m the half wit, when you’ve walked into

my—” She stopped, watching as Buffy killed two more of her minions. “Trap.”

 

“Harmony, when you tried to be head cheerleader, you were bad. When you tried to chair the homecoming committee, you were really bad.” Pausing for effect, she added, “But when you try to be bad…you suck.”

 

Dawn had cracked an eyelid during this exchange, just to see where Buffy was on the whole rescuing thing, and watched as Mort came up behind the Slayer. “Buffy, watch out!”

 

Buffy found that while Harmony’s other minions were hardly worth her time, Mort was a different story. He was so big that most of her punches had no impact.

 

The Slayer never thought she’d be grateful for Harmony’s unicorn obsession, but the wooden carousel animal certainly came in handy. It was about the only thing that gave her enough reach so that she could stake the big vampire and not worry about him making a grab for her. After he’d disintegrated, she gave it a look and tossed it aside in disgust, turning towards her sister. Harmony had made good her escape already, but Buffy wasn’t too worried about the vampire. Without her gang, the chance that she could do much damage was pretty much nil.

 

She reached down and snatched up the ax again. “You are in so much trouble,” she told her sister sternly.

 

Dawn frowned. “Well, I’m going to tell mom you slayed in front of me.”

 

“Fine,” Buffy replied. “I’ll just tell her that you invited a vampire into the house, got Spike hurt, ran out after dark, got kidnapped…” As she listed off her sister’s sins, Buffy hacked away at the chains holding her. “I should so kick your butt,” Buffy said, when she’d run out of mistakes Dawn had made that evening. “And if I don’t, Spike definitely should.”

 

“Is he okay?” Dawn asked in a very small voice.

 

Buffy glared at her. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I was too busy trying to rescue you to stay and find out.”

 

“Oh.” Dawn’s lower lip trembled. “Buffy, I didn’t mean to—”

 

“I know,” Buffy replied, her voice tired. She gave Dawn a look, remembering what Spike had said earlier, about losing his sister. “You just have to be more careful, Dawnie. What if I’m not there to protect you? Or what if next time someone else gets hurt really bad? I know you didn’t mean to invite Harmony in, or get kidnapped, but those aren’t the kind of mistakes you can make and just be okay. Not in this town.”

 

Dawn looked away, her expression both torn and sullen. “I’m sorry.”

 

“You can tell Spike that when we get home,” Buffy replied.

 

The walk home was silent, both girls caught up in their own thoughts. They entered through the back door as quietly as possible. A few moments later, they both heard Joyce’s voice from the living room. “Spike! What on earth happened to you?”

 

Buffy and Dawn exchanged a look and hurried toward the living room. “Uh, just met a vamp who didn’t much like me on patrol is all,” Spike said. Buffy came through the living room door, and she saw the relief in his eyes when he saw that she and Dawn were in one piece.

 

Well, relief in one eye anyway. His right eye was pretty much swollen shut.

 

Joyce saw his expression change, and she turned to look at Buffy and Dawn. “Are you guys okay?”

 

“We’re fine,” Buffy said. “We just watched TV and kept Spike company.”

 

Joyce looked from one to the other of them, sensing that something was up, but deciding not to push it. “Well, I know at least one of us is supposed to be in bed.”

 

Dawn nodded and gave her mom a kiss. She paused to give Spike a quick hug too. “Sorry,” she whispered quickly, before dashing upstairs.

 

Spike stood slowly. “Better get home,” he murmured. “I’ve got to open the gallery tomorrow.”

 

“I’ll walk you home,” Buffy said firmly, not willing to brook any arguments.

 

Spike wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Right then. See you tomorrow, Joyce.”

 

“Good night, Spike,” she replied.

 

The two of them walked in silence toward Spike’s apartment. “I’m sorry,” Buffy finally said.

 

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” Spike mumbled.

 

“I got mad at you, and there really wasn’t any reason for it,” she replied.

 

Spike shook his head. “It’s okay.”

 

Buffy reached out and grabbed his arm. “That vampire could have killed you tonight.” He was silent. “Spike—”

 

“Forget it,” he replied, tugging his hand away.

 

“Spike!” Buffy grabbed his arm, turning him to face her. “I’m trying to apologize here.”

 

He was obviously angry. “Why is it such a problem that I like your family, Buffy? That I want to help? Is there some rule against trying to do the right thing with you?”

 

“No, I—”

 

“Then what?” Spike demanded. “Why is it a problem, Buffy? What the bloody hell did I do wrong?”

 

Buffy raised an eyebrow. “Actually, that’s pretty much why someone apologizes, Spike, to say they were wrong and the other person was right.”

 

He stared at her, and then a sheepish grin started to spread over his face. “Oh, yeah.”

 

She reached out and grabbed his hand again, and this time he let her. “It’s just weird. You’re the first guy I’ve gone out with who likes my family as much as I do. In fact, I think you like my family more than I do. I might love my sister, but I don’t always like her.”

 

“So you’re telling me you’re jealous of your kid sister?” he asked.

 

Buffy shook her head. “Not really. More like jealous of you. You get along so well with everybody. And you’ve got your own life.”

 

Spike was beginning to look amused. “You mean, you’re upset because I have a life.”

 

Buffy gave him a dirty look. “No. Well, sort of. It’s complicated.”

 

“Life always is,” Spike replied. He was beginning to see the problem. “You know, just because my life doesn’t revolve around you, doesn’t mean you aren’t about as important as air to me.” When Buffy didn’t say anything in reply, Spike continued. “If something ever happened to you, I’d be lost. The Bit and your mom are important to me, but I love you, Buffy. You should know I don’t do things half-way by now.”

 

Buffy leaned against him. “I know, sweetie. And, really, I’m glad that you get along so well with my family. But sometimes I feel like I’m fighting for your time, and it drives me nuts.”

 

“I might spend time with your nearest and dearest, Slayer, but there’s only one woman who gets me after dark.” Spike’s voice was a husky purr, and Buffy shivered in response.

 

She turned toward him, a coy smile on her lips. “Oh? Too bad you’re too tired to show me what you can do after dark.”

 

Spike grinned. “I’ll never be too tired for you, Buffy.” His kiss was long and heated. “By the way, luv, you did stake that vampire for me?”

 

“With one of Harmony’s unicorns,” Buffy giggled in reply.

 

“Good,” he muttered. “Bugger ruined my pretty face.”

 

“No,” Buffy said. Then, laughingly, she said, “Besides, who ever said it was pretty to begin with?” Her laughter could be heard ringing out as Spike chased her all the way back to his place, where another sort of game was soon begun.

 

~~~~~

 

It was pretty cool of Buffy not to tell Mom. Of course, she probably would have gotten in way more trouble than me anyway. And Spike was really good about everything. He said he’s done a lot of dumb stuff, and it didn’t kill him. So he and Buffy are okay now too.

 

Not that Buffy’s changed. She still thinks I’m little Miss Nobody, just her dumb little sister.

 

Boy, is she in for a surprise.

Chapter Text

“Hope dangles on a string/Like slow-spinning redemption/Winding in and winding out/The shine of it has caught my eye/…And I am captivated/I am vindicated/I am selfish/I am wrong/I am right, I swear I’m right/I swear I knew it all along/And I am flawed/But I am cleaning up so well/And I’m seeing in me now the things you swore you saw yourself…” ~Dashboard Confessional, “Vindicated”

 

Spike wasn’t one to think much about heaven or hell, though he did have his moments. There were occasions when he wondered if a human could truly be held accountable for the actions of the vampire that he had been. He still struggled with nightmares, with guilt, with a deep fear of his own mortality, not least because he had no idea what might happen to him after death. William had been a good man, and Spike liked to think he was a good man presently, but there was at least a hundred years of mayhem and murder separating those two time periods.

 

Whatever his concerns with heaven and hell might be, Spike was certain of purgatory’s existence. He was equally sure that it could be found in Xander Harris’s basement apartment.

 

As bad as it was for Harris, it was terribly uncomfortable for the others—trying to ignore something that was horribly wrong was always difficult. Drunk, argumentative parents, ceiling tile dust floating down, terrible smells—the combination made for a very purgatory-like experience.

 

Buffy was more engrossed in her textbook than in the movie, and Spike couldn’t exactly blame her. Badly dubbed Kung Fu wasn’t the most riveting of material, though he couldn’t help but have some fun silently critiquing the fight scenes.

 

“Hey, Buff, why don’t you give the studying a rest?” Xander asked, looking over at the Slayer. “You’re missing some quality entertainment.”

 

Spike raised an eyebrow when he realized that Buffy hadn’t even heard. “You know, luv,” he said conversationally, “Anya and I have been talking and we’re thinking of having an orgy with the four of us after the film.”

 

That got her attention. “Spike! You were not!”

 

He laughed. “Sorry, Buffy, but we were thinking you’ve been buried in dry and dusty tomes for too long.”

 

Buffy rolled her eyes at him, even as Anya said, “That might be fun, but I don’t like sharing Xander.”

 

“Good thing,” Xander said, giving Spike a dirty look. “You’ll give her bad ideas,” he mouthed, clearly enough for Spike to catch his drift.

 

“Well, I guess I’ve had enough of gore and violence with the Crusades. Oh, fighting,” Buffy said, setting aside the heavy book. There was a moment of quiet as everyone focused on the movie, and then Buffy snorted. “Look, see, that’s all wrong. First you take out the big guy and then you go for the little ones.”

 

Spike grunted his agreement. “Think he should’ve used a flying kick there.”

 

“No kidding!” Buffy exclaimed. “Oh! See, now he does the flying kick.”

 

“After he gets his ass thrown around,” Spike added.

 

Xander gave the both of them dirty looks. “Okay, for those of us not experts in the field of hand to hand combat, can we just watch the show?”

 

“Hey, you would complain if we were watching an army movie and they were saluting all backwards,” Buffy replied, but she settled back down against the couch, squarely between Spike’s knees.

 

Spike couldn’t resist playing with the loose ends of her hair where it came out of her clip, and she sighed in contentment as he began to rub her temples. Out of the corner of his eye, Spike watched as Xander cast a considering look in his direction and then proceeded to try and rub Anya’s temples.

 

“Xander!” Anya protested, moving her head away. “I just did my hair.”

 

Xander pulled his hands back sheepishly, and Spike cleared his throat meaningfully, looking down at Anya’s shoulders. It took the younger man a moment, but he finally got the hint and began to rub Anya’s shoulders. Anya rewarded him with a sigh that was the twin of Buffy’s.

 

It wasn’t long afterwards before the older Harrises got home, their drunken brawling easily heard though the slowly disintegrating ceiling tiles. In situations like these, Spike wondered if it was just the newly human who had trouble responding. Did you ignore it, or offer comfort, or even possibly suggest that it was amazing that Xander had turned out quite as well as he had? Buffy wasn’t saying anything, and Anya was just renewing her sympathetic grip on her boyfriend’s leg, so Spike decided it would be better if he kept his mouth shut too. They all went back to watching the movie, but a pall had been cast over the gathering.

 

Spike couldn’t help but pull Xander aside at the end of the evening as he and Buffy were leaving, however. “You know, Harris,” he began awkwardly.

 

“Just forget it,” Xander said, his eyes holding something close to shame.

 

Spike shook his head. “I was just saying—you ever want to get out of here for an evening, I’ve got a couch you can crash on. Just in case, yeah?”

 

Xander gave him a half-smile. “Thanks, man. I appreciate the thought.”

 

They both knew that it was an empty gesture—Xander wasn’t going to take Spike up on his offer any time in the near (or distant) future. The gesture had been made, however, and the thought behind it was appreciated. It was an acknowledgement of an embarrassing situation without an attempt to shame.

 

“Yeah, well, I’ve been in worse living situations,” Spike said off-handedly. “You need a different one, you know where to find me.”

 

Xander nodded. “Yeah, though I think I’m going to look for my own place. It’s time to get out of here.”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy stopped by to see him during his lunch break at the gallery to let him know how Xander’s apartment search had gone. Spike winced in sympathy as she described Xander’s outfit, the reaction of the agent, and his disagreement with Anya. “Don’t blame either one of them,” Spike said regretfully. “That basement is pretty god-awful.”

 

She’d nodded, her own sympathy clear on her face. “I feel bad, but there really isn’t anything we can do about it.”

 

“No, I reckon Harris’ll have to get it figured out on his own,” Spike agreed. Buffy called a couple hours later to ask him to come by the Magic Box after he was done at the gallery. “Giles was attacked,” she explained. “We’re going to try and hunt the demon down tonight if you’re up for it.”

 

“I’m always up for it, Slayer,” he said, managing to leer with his voice alone.

 

She giggled on the other end, then tried to sound disapproving. “Spike! I really hope my mother isn’t anywhere around.”

 

As Joyce had just appeared in the doorway of the office, Spike thought it was best if he was honest. “She’s just behind me, luv.”

 

“Spike!” Now Buffy did sound completely disapproving. “What time am I going to see you?”

“Around sixish,” he assured her, hanging up the phone.

 

Joyce raised an eyebrow. “Do I even want to know?”

 

“Some demon came after Giles. Buffy just wanted to be sure I was willing to go hunting with her tonight,” Spike said easily.

 

She smiled slightly, deciding to let him off the hook. “Is Rupert okay?”

 

“Think so,” Spike replied. “Buffy didn’t say he’d been hurt, so I imagine he’s fine.” He lifted an eloquent eyebrow. “Why? You want to run over there and check on him?”

 

Joyce drew herself up. “No. I don’t think there’s a need for that. I’m sure Rupert and I will see each other soon enough.” At the mischievous look on Spike’s face, she frowned. “And no comments, William.”

 

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he promised, grinning, though his expression quickly faded to one of concern as Joyce winced. “You alright?”

 

“I’m fine,” she assured him. “It’s just a headache, probably brought on by my squabbling daughters.”

 

Spike stood, taking her by the arms and gently steering her towards his chair. “Joyce, I don’t normally pull rank like this, but I think you should see the doc. I’ve been around a while.”

 

When she looked like she was about to protest, he put up his hand. “For me? Please?”

 

The coaxing expression he wore was irresistible, and Spike knew it. He watched as Joyce crumbled. “I’ll make an appointment to see the doctor.”

 

“Ta,” he said simply. “Now, why don’t you have a nice rest back here and I’ll take care of the front for a while?”

~~~~~

 

“So what are we doing here again?” Spike asked dubiously as they wandered through the junkyard.

 

Xander swung the baseball bat he was carrying at the air. “Giles said that this Toth-guy had a certain olfactory presence.”

 

“Didn’t realize you got that close, Rupert,” Spike commented.

 

“Yes, well, you missed my dramatic reenactment,” was his dry response. “I did manage to chase him off with a statue of a fertility goddess.”

 

Willow smiled. “Yeah, Oofdar has some good heft to her.”

 

“Goddess of childbearing?” Spike mused. “Yeah, nice wide hips.”

 

Buffy smacked him across the chest. “Quit it.”

 

He grinned. “Well, it’s true.”

 

She gave him a mock dirty look. “So where is this Toth, Giles?”

 

“Is he a big guy, skin all hanging off, with glowing teeth?” Spike asked conversationally, looking off into the distance.

 

“Why, yes,” Giles replied.

 

“Then he’s coming this way,” Spike commented.

 

Everyone turned to look. Toth was still about ten yards away, but Buffy wasn’t taking any chances. “Okay, everyone just back up.”

“Slayer!” Toth called, pointing his stick and firing.

 

Everyone scattered as the shot hit a pile of junk, sending shards flying. “Bloody hell!” Spike cursed, as a piece of glass cut his cheek.

 

“Spike? You okay?” Buffy called, glancing over at him worriedly.

 

He wiped away a smear of blood. “I’m fine,” he growled, his eyes widening as he saw Toth readying another blast. “Buffy!”

 

Spike leaped to intercept the bolt of light at the same time as Xander, and it hit them simultaneously, sending both of them sprawling in the garbage. Buffy was at Spike’s side in an instant. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” he muttered, pushing himself off the ground with some effort and brushing himself off. “Looks like Xander got the worst of it.”

 

Giles and Willow were pulling the other man to his feet. “I’m good,” Xander insisted, his voice hitching as he tried to catch his breath. “Just got the wind knocked out of me.”

 

“We’d better get you home,” Giles said. “Buffy, if you want to make sure Spike gets home, I can take care of Xander.”

 

“That would be great, Giles. I’ll see you tomorrow, Will,” Buffy replied, slipping one arm around Spike’s waist. He seemed to be walking fairly well under his own power, but the sight of him flying through the air had scared her. There were still times when she forgot how fragile Spike really was as a human. Sure, he had a heartbeat, but he was still so capable that it shocked her to realize how easily she could lose him.

 

They walked in silence for a while before Buffy spoke. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

 

“I’m fine, luv,” he assured her. “Bit banged up, but not horribly so.”

 

Buffy made a face. “Well, you still have that bruise from that linebacker-vampire, and now you’ve been tossed around a junkyard. You need to be more careful.”

 

“And is that concern I hear?” he teased. “Someone might get the wrong impression that you’re actually in love with me.”

 

“I am, you dork,” she said rolling her eyes. “How many times do you have to hear it?”

 

Spike’s eyes twinkled. “Oh, it’s not that I need to hear it, luv. I want you to show me.”

 

Buffy’s eyes widened. She and Spike had a very healthy sex life. It was good, and at times even amazing, but she couldn’t remember hearing quite this tone in his voice before. He sounded—different. “And just what would I need to do to show you?”

 

Spike’s whispered suggestion was decidedly erotic and more graphic than she’d even thought he knew. Granted, he had been a vampire, but still—It looked like it was going to be an interesting evening.

 

They managed to make it to Spike’s apartment without any indecent exposure, although they might have been arrested for roving hands, if that was a crime. No sooner was she inside, however, than Spike had her up against the wall, plundering her mouth.

 

Buffy had never thought “plundering” was a phrase that you could use outside romance novels, but this was definitely plundering, and his hands were going places that had her very hot and bothered, and he was whispering things that enflamed her further.

 

“Spike—”

 

“I want you.” It was said in almost a growl, and Buffy wanted him too. There was a raw hunger in his eyes that would have been frightening in its intensity except that she felt it too. It was all “want, take, have” and it was okay because he was her boyfriend. She could take this—she could take him, and Buffy knew Spike was feeling the same way.

 

“Want you too,” she replied, already breathing heavily, her hands beginning to fumble at his clothes.

 

They never made it to the bed that night.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike had watched them leave, held captive by his fear and indecision. He could see himself; he could see Xander. But he and Xander were still there amid the garbage, and Buffy should have taken him along. She should have known.

 

Why didn’t she know that he wasn’t with her?

 

It was him, he was sure of it. Sure of it. He was incomplete; he was halved. He was overwhelmed by guilt and fear and—oh, no, please, God, no—he was dying. He was going to die.

 

Xander could die.

 

With that thought, Spike hunched closer to the other man’s still form and settled down to watch over him. He couldn’t do much right, but he could do this. He could watch over Buffy’s friend. That was his job. He could hold himself together for that long.

 

Spike just wasn’t sure that he could hold himself together for much longer than that.

 

~~~~~

 

Xander woke up slowly with a stench in his nostrils. “Anya? Did you try using the hot plate again?”

 

When he didn’t get a response, he blinked, realizing that it was much too bright for his basement apartment. In fact, he wasn’t in his basement, or his bed, but rather was in the junkyard, surrounded by—

 

“He’s awake. Told you he’d wake up. Knew he’d be okay. Protected him.” A whimper. “Blood won’t come off.”

 

Xander knew that voice. He struggled into a sitting position slowly and looked over to find Spike sitting close by, huddled into a ball. “Hey, Spike? What are we still doing in the junkyard?”

 

“They left with us last night.” Spike kept his eyes on his hands, where he was picking at the skin, making it bleed.

 

Xander had no clue what the ex-vampire’s problem was, but he pulled Spike’s hands away, preventing him from doing any more damage to himself. “Spike, stop it. There isn’t any blood.”

 

There wasn’t. As far as Xander could see, Spike was unhurt, at least physically. Obviously, not all was right with him mentally, though. “It’s all over,” the ex-vampire muttered. “Never come out. Never get clean.” He started scrubbing at his hands again, and again Xander stopped him.

 

“Okay, Spike, focus. Last night, what happened?”

 

A little sense seemed to come back into his eyes. “Buffy—an’ the others—they left with us. I stayed because you were hurt.”

 

“What do you mean they left with ‘us’?” Xander asked. “We’re right here.”

 

Spike shook his head. “We left with them.”

 

Xander sighed. He wasn’t going to get anywhere this way. Something traumatic had happened, and Spike wasn’t making any sense at all. “Okay. I guess we need to find Buffy then. She’s definitely going to want to know her boyfriend spent the night in the dump.”

 

Spike shook his head violently. “No! I can’t—can’t see Buffy. N-not like this.”

 

“Spike,” Xander began, then gave up with a sigh. It was apparent that the other man was trying his best to pull himself together because he didn’t want Buffy notified. In some ways, Xander could relate. There were definitely times when he preferred to get himself out of trouble, rather than going to Buffy for help. “Do you have your keys?”

 

Spike patted his pockets then shook his head silently. Xander could tell that he was hanging on for dear life, and if he were honest, he wasn’t doing that much better. It was hard to believe that the gang would go off and leave them in the dump. More confusing was Spike’s insistence that they hadn’t. It just didn’t make any sense.

 

“Look, why don’t we go back to my place? We’ll get cleaned up, I’ll find something for you to wear, and then we can go find Buffy,” Xander suggested. “Maybe you’ll feel better.”

 

Spike nodded, and they set off for Xander’s apartment. Of course, once they got there, Xander could see immediately what Spike had meant about the others leaving “with them.” The worst of it was that his double looked better than he usually did. “Spike? Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

 

Spike obediently peeked through the window. “That’s the one of you they left with last night.”

 

“Yeah, I can see that,” Xander muttered. “But that’s not me. I’m me.” He sat back on his heels. “Okay, we can’t stay here. I’ve got to call Buffy.” He watched as Spike’s expression twisted into one of—fear? “Spike, Buffy’s not going to be mad at us. She’s the Slayer. She’ll fix it.”

 

Spike didn’t look very happy. “She took the other me home.”

 

“Jumping Jehosaphat.” Xander realized Spike was right. Spike’s double probably already had his clutches in the Slayer. In fact, if she saw this Spike, she might hurt him, and Xander was certain that this Spike was not up to taking any punishment right now. “I’ll call Willow.”

 

Spike shook his head. “C-call T-t-tara.”

 

Xander frowned. He didn’t know Willow’s girlfriend well enough to ask her to bail him out of a bind, but Spike did have a point. Tara had been one of the ones to recognize that Buffy and Faith had switched bodies the previous year, and Willow was his oldest friend. If anyone knew which one of him was the real one, she would.

 

That really was his plan—call Willow, have her call Tara, and explain the situation. Then, just as he was making the call, his double walked by, and Xander badly wanted to know what his evil twin had planned. “Hello?”

 

Willow’s voice on the other end of the line had him dithering. To follow, or not to follow? He glanced over at Spike, who was quietly scrubbing at his hands again, muttering about blood. Making a quick decision, Xander spoke into the phone. “Willow, it’s me. I’m outside the Espresso Pump with Spike, and he’s in a bad way. You need to grab Tara and come get him.”

 

“Xander?” Willow sounded confused. “Wait, what are you talking about? Where are you?”

 

“I’ve got to take care of something,” he said vaguely. “But Spike needs you.” He hung up the handset and turned to Spike. “Hey, Spike? Stay here, okay? Willow and Tara are going to come pick you up. I’ve gotta go.”

 

A flare of alarm went up in Spike’s eyes. “W-where?”

 

“I’ve gotta follow him,” Xander said desperately, looking over his shoulder at the rapidly disappearing doppelganger. It looked like he was heading towards the construction site, and Xander just had to know what was going on. “Please just stay here. I’ll catch up with you later!” he called as he jogged off, squelching the feeling of guilt. Willow would take care of this damaged Spike. She and Tara would know what to do much better than he did. He just had to figure out where his double was going.

 

He sighed. Yeah, like that made sense.

Chapter Text

“They say that “time assuages,”—/Time never did assuage;/An actual suffering strengthens,/As sinews do, with age./Time is a test of trouble,/But not a remedy./If such it prove, it prove too/There was no malady.” ~Emily Dickinson

 

Spike was feeling oddly—happy. Not that he was usually depressed, but there was always the underlying sense of guilt, an almost anhedonic sense about the day that cast a pall over everything. It was, in fact, so constant, that its absence cast everything into sharp focus. The feel of Buffy’s body as he woke, the play of light over his skin—he just felt bloody good.

 

More than that, he felt absolutely invincible.

 

There was no fear—no more overwhelming sense of his own mortality. Spike felt young and alive and incredibly happy to be human, more than he’d ever thought possible.

 

He even felt good enough for a quick morning shag with the Slayer, and went off to the gallery whistling. Opening the gallery was almost fun, and he greeted Joyce with a smile and a peck on the cheek when she came in a couple hours later. “Well, you’re in a good mood today.”

 

“I am,” Spike agreed. “I’m feeling downright chipper.”

 

Joyce sighed, returning his smile weakly. “Do you think you have any ‘chipper’ to spare?” she asked.

 

Spike frowned. “You feeling a bit down, luv?”

 

“Just tired,” she said. “I never thought I’d say this, but I’ll be glad when Buffy is back in the dorms.”

 

He gave her a sympathetic look. “Girls a bit testy with each other, are they? Would’ve thought with the send-off I gave her, Buffy would have been on the relaxed side.”

 

Joyce gave him a sharp glance. She didn’t find his innuendo offensive exactly, but it was a bit surprising. Spike was usually a little more reserved when talking about his relationship with Buffy in her presence.

 

Spike saw her look and gave her an impish grin. “Sorry. That was a bit raw.”

 

“It was,” she agreed, but found a smile pull at her lips. It was difficult to stay angry at Spike for long. It was like trying to be mad at Dennis the Menace. “You’re a scamp,” Joyce finally said, shaking her head, and trying not to laugh.

 

“And that’s why you love me,” he insisted. “I’m off to do inventory. Would you mind if I took off a bit early today? Got some errands I need to do.”

 

“No, not at all,” Joyce replied, watching him as he retreated back into the office. There was something different about Spike today, off. It wasn’t bad, it was just—she sighed, rubbing her forehead. She was picking things apart too much. Everyone was allowed to have a good day once in a while.

 

She thought of Giles’ invitation over to his place for dinner later this week and smiled. Even she was allowed to have a good day. She just had to remember to ask Spike or Buffy to look after Dawn.

 

Though, if Spike was still feeling this good, she’d have to warn him to watch his tongue.

 

~~~~~

 

He leaned against the brick wall as though he were the only thing holding it up—as though it were the only thing keeping him together. It hadn’t been this bad before, Spike was sure of it. Even in the Initiative, things hadn’t hurt this much.

 

His heart hurt. His soul hurt. He felt like he was drowning. He wanted Buffy, and he was deathly afraid of her rejection when she saw him like this. He had to be strong for her. That’s what she loved about him. That’s what everyone loved about him. Spike was strong.

 

(But he wasn’t, not really. No one knew how weak he was.)

 

He whimpered, waiting, unable to do anything but follow directions and hope that Tara would arrive soon. She would fix it; she would understand. He didn’t know why, but he was sure of it.

 

She had to fix him before he saw Buffy again, so the Slayer wouldn’t see him like this.

 

~~~~~

 

Willow was seriously puzzled by Xander’s phone call, but she grabbed Tara, and they headed over to the Espresso Pump to locate Spike. Spike was around the side of the building, next to the payphone, hugging himself tightly and looking as though he were about to burst into tears at any moment. The two girls exchanged a look and hurried over to him.

 

“Hey, Spike,” Willow said gently. “You okay?”

 

“’m fine,” he mumbled, inching away slightly.

 

Tara, who had a better grip on how to deal with crazy—or even slightly crazy—people, moved to flank him, though not so noticeably that he’d be scared. “Spike, do you want to tell us what happened? Where’s Xander?”

 

“Left,” he said shortly. “He had to follow himself.”

 

Tara glanced over at Willow, seriously concerned, and then gazed at Spike, her blue-hazel eyes widening. “Willow, he’s hurt really badly.”

 

Willow frowned. She could see scratches on his hands, and some of the skin looked raw, but other than that he seemed fine. He still had the bruise on one cheek from the vampire attack, and the cut on his cheek from the night before, but Willow was pretty sure that wasn’t what Tara was referring to. “What do you see, sweetie?”

 

“Something’s happened,” she said. “His aura is completely disjointed. It’s like he’s not completely there.”

 

Willow’s eyes widened in alarm. “But he was fine last night! Buffy was going to walk him home.”

 

“I think we should call her,” Tara said firmly. “But we need to get Spike back to a safe place right now.”

 

Between the two of them, they managed to get Spike back to Tara’s room. The blonde witch took charge of Spike as Willow called Buffy’s house. As Tara wrapped a blanket around Spike’s shoulders, and fixed him a cup of tea, Willow listened to the phone ring. “Darn,” she muttered. “No one’s picking up.”

 

“Try Giles,” Tara said, an uncharacteristic confidence in her voice. “Maybe he can help.”

 

Willow’s eyes widened. “Or maybe it’s an aftereffect of Spike getting hit by that blast. It doesn’t make any sense, though. Xander sounded fine on the phone, and he got hit too.”

 

Tara turned to Spike, who was taking small, desperate sips of tea, as though he was ready to fall apart any second and the hot liquid was the only thing holding him together. “Spike, can you tell me what happened last night?”

 

He shook his head. “Got hit. Stayed with Xander.” He whimpered. “It’s never been this bad before, Glinda. Not even at the beginning. Thought I was better.”

 

“You are better, sweetie,” she assured him. “We’re going to fix this.” Something he said made her frown. “Willow? Why don’t you call the gallery and let Mrs. Summers know Spike’s not coming in. She’s probably worried.”

 

Willow winced. “Probably. I can’t believe I didn’t think about that.” She called the gallery as Tara watched with knowing eyes. She had a pretty good idea of what had happened, but she didn’t want to say anything until she had proof. “Mrs. Summers? It’s Willow.”

 

There was a pause, and then Willow started to explain that Spike was sick and wouldn’t be in, but she was interrupted about halfway through. “Wait, Spike came in today? Was he okay?...Oh, well, would you mind putting him on the phone?...He left?...Okay, no, it’s probably fine. If you see him, though, I really need to talk to him. I’m at Tara’s. Thanks.”

 

Willow turned to look at her girlfriend. “Mrs. Summers said that Spike came in at his usual time this morning in a really good mood.” They shared a look. “You know,” Willow said slowly, “I really think we need to talk to Giles about this.”

 

They called ahead both to warn Giles that they were coming and to have him start on the research right away. “If Spike was affected, something similar probably happened to Xander too,” Willow commented. “It would make more sense than Xander just leaving Spike on his own.” She glanced over at Spike, who was walking in between them. There was an almost frantic look in his eyes, and both girls knew he was deep inside himself—and it wasn’t pleasant.

 

“Yeah,” Tara said thoughtfully. “Maybe they both got split in two? Spike did say that he stayed with Xander last night.”

 

“Maybe,” Willow replied, smiling a little. “It would definitely be interesting to see how the two Xanders are when one of the Spikes is like this. I wonder what exactly happened?”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy had been in the shower when the phone rang and hadn’t wanted to try picking it up. Her mom had already left for the gallery, and Dawn was spending the day with a friend, so Buffy’s plans involved pretty much doing nothing. She was caught up on her reading and her homework, Toth was nowhere in sight, and she’d had a night with Spike that she wouldn’t soon forget. He was definitely an athlete in bed.

 

Thinking about the previous night had her forgetting all about hearing the phone, so she never even thought to check the message machine. She probably would have seen the blinking red light sooner or later, but the doorbell rang just as she was putting the finishing touches on her hair.

 

The sight of Spike was enough to put a smile on her face. “Hey, luv.”

 

“Aren’t you done at the gallery a little early?” Buffy asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

He smirked. “Decided to play hooky. Your mum can handle things for the rest of the afternoon.”

 

“Is that right? So what are you doing here?” Buffy asked, knowing very well what his goal probably was. The glint in his eyes was clue enough.

 

Spike’s smile grew wider. “Thought we could spend some quality time together,” he replied. “Maybe catch a movie, eat popcorn, neck in the back.”

 

“As long as it includes lots of necking,” Buffy replied, grabbing her purse and heading out the door, with no thought of Toth or of the message on the answering machine.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike could hear their voices, and he knew they were talking about him, knew he should be paying attention so that he could help as much as possible, but it was so hard. All he could see was blood.

 

His mother’s—he had killed his mother.

 

Drusilla had been there. She’d wanted to be there, had encouraged him to cut ties with his humanity once and for all. He had turned her to keep his mother with him; Spike had wanted to be hers forever, and then he killed her.

 

All he could see was his mother’s glowing eyes and the feeling of her dust drifting over him. He’d damned her; he had damned himself.

 

~~~~~

 

“It’s called a ferula gemina,” Giles said, showing them the pertinent page in the book. “As far as I can tell, Toth was planning on using his rod device to split the Slayer into two halves—one with all the characteristics of Buffy Summers, and one with all the characteristics of the Slayer.”

 

“So Spike got split into two people too,” Willow said, glancing over at Spike. “Why is he so—”

 

“Guilty?” Tara asked softly, completing Willow’s thought. “That’s a part of him all the time, but normally the other parts of his personality can control it.”

 

Giles nodded. “What we’ve got is the psychologically weaker half of Spike. The stronger half is the one Buffy walked home last night, and I’d be willing to bet we can say the same thing for Xander if he was also affected, as it seems he was.”

 

“But where is Xander?” Willow asked. “It’s not like him to call up, say ‘Hey, Spike’s in trouble,’ and then just disappear.”

 

Giles frowned, and then went over to sit next to Spike on the couch. When he spoke, his voice was gentle. “William, I know this must be overwhelming right now, but we need your help. Do you know where Xander went?”

 

Spike focused on Giles with difficulty. “He followed himself.”

 

“He got distracted,” the ex-Watcher muttered. “Which would certainly indicate that he is the weaker half. I don’t know where he’d be, however.”

 

“Well, if he followed himself, logically he’d go to work,” Willow said hopefully. “Once he figures out something crazy is going on, he’ll show up, though. I mean, it’s Xander.”

 

Giles pursed his lips. “Yes, but what about Spike?” He cast a doubtful look at the shaken man on his couch. “I hate to say it, but Xander can probably take care of himself—both halves—but I can’t say the same for Spike. And if anything should happen to either of them, they both die.”

 

“The other Spike would be with Buffy,” Tara said. “We should try and find her.”

 

Giles hesitated. “Perhaps, although she was supposed to be coming by in a bit for training. With any luck, she’ll show up before long with Spike in tow.”

 

~~~~~

 

Spike knew he should be doing something to help, something to help himself, but he was buried under the weight of his own guilt. Just breathing was difficult; hanging onto his sanity even worse. For a moment he’d thought he could pull himself out of it as Giles had asked his questions, but it was no good. He was slipping under.

 

Things hadn’t even been this bad his first few days in the Initiative holding cell, when he truly had been mad. He had a bit more practice now, keeping things in check, but it seemed every control, every wall he’d carefully constructed, had disintegrated with a blast from that rod.

 

The temptation to slip out from under the eyes of his watchers was overwhelming—just find a nice cliff and hurl himself down. He wanted—

 

“Spike.” Her voice was insistent, and she wasn’t going to take no for an answer. “Look at me.”

 

He forced himself to meet Glinda’s eyes. Her face was soft with compassion. “It’s going to be fine. Just hang on for a while longer, and then we’ll put you back together again.”

 

Her empathy almost hurt more than anger or disgust would have. “Don’t be kind,” he pleaded softly. “Please, don’t be kind to me. I’m a monster.”

 

“You’re no more a monster than I am, remember?” Tara asked, speaking softly so the others wouldn’t hear her. “You showed me that.” She drew the trembling figure into her arms and held him as he wept, praying silently that Buffy would arrive with the other Spike soon.

 

~~~~~

 

Xander—the scruffy one—was having a bad time of it. Not only was he rapidly discovering that this other, evil Xander was far more capable of living his own life than he was, but he also had a nagging sense of guilt over leaving Spike in the first place. The other man had been in far worse shape than he was.

 

He ducked behind the corner of a building as his double walked into the apartment building he’d been looking at the other day. What on earth was he doing there? Was this double now taking over the apartment he wanted as well?

 

Xander snuck up to the third floor, creeping down the hallway and listening at the door. He couldn’t believe it when the agent called him “Mr. Harris.” He had an even harder time believing it when she hit on him. No one ever hit on him—and no one ever called him “mister.”

 

He had to hide himself around the corner again when the agent came out, and then crept back down the hall, his curiosity getting the better of him. There was a small part of his brain that warned him that he really should find Buffy before his double did. It was the same small voice that triggered his guilt when he thought about leaving Spike alone for Willow to find.

 

Scruffy-Xander was so caught up in his thoughts, he didn’t even hear the door to the apartment opening. It was hard to say which one of them was more surprised to see the other. Even though Scruffy-Xander had been following himself around all day, it was still a bit of a shock to come face to face with—well, himself.

 

Not allowing himself to think about it, Scruffy-Xander launched himself at his better-groomed half. Suave-Xander seemed to have gotten all the reflexes, however, and he threw Scruffy-Xander to the floor, punching him in the nose as soon as he got up again. “You can’t do this to me! I won’t let you get away with this!” Scruffy-Xander called after his doppelganger as he beat a hasty retreat.

 

Scruffy-Xander picked himself off the ground for what was surely the hundredth time that day. “I need Buffy,” he groaned.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy wandered out of the movie theater, hand in hand with Spike. She wasn’t sure if the movie had been any good or not, as she’d spent the bulk of it lip-locked with her boyfriend. “Not that I want the fun to end, but we should head over to Giles’. We were supposed to talk about hunting down Toth.”

 

Spike brought their entwined hands up and kissed the back of hers. “Wish we could have a night off, luv. Maybe we should think about taking a trip, a weekend or something, just the two of us.”

 

Buffy smiled and sighed. “I wish. Knowing my luck, the Hellmouth would blow up right when I started to plan something like that.” Seeing his disappointed expression, she relented slightly. “But it never hurts to plan.”

 

They walked to the Watcher’s apartment, content just with the other’s company. Spike couldn’t remember being this happy. The entire day he’d felt really, really good—so guilt-free, in fact, that he had stopped to check to see if he wasn’t tempted to kill someone. No urges to kill were present, but he honestly couldn’t remember being this happy and being human. It was like a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

 

Buffy was ready just to walk into Giles’ apartment when they arrived, but Spike tugged her back and reached past her to knock on the door with an amused smile. “Got to give the man warning, pet. You never know who he’s going to be entertaining.”

 

Buffy frowned at him. “I really hope you’re not insinuating what I think you’re insinuating. Because the thought of either my mom or Giles having a sex life is nauseating enough. To think of them together is enough to prevent me from sleeping for a week.”

 

Spike might have had a smart-assed remark to make in return, but Giles opened the door, giving both of them relieved looks. “Oh thank heavens,” he said. “I was about to have Willow do a locator spell.”

 

He stepped aside to let them enter as Spike and Buffy both gave him strange looks. “We went out to the movies, Giles,” Buffy said. “It’s not like we were gone…” She trailed off when she saw the figure huddled on the couch next to Tara. “What—”

 

“That’s what was concerning me,” Giles said. “Apparently, the rod that Toth was firing at you was a ferula gemina. It was meant to split you into your Slayer-self and your Buffy-self. When it hit Spike and Xander, we believe it split the two of them.”

 

Spike was watching himself, realizing with a sinking feeling exactly where all that guilt had gone. That was the problem—it wasn’t gone. It was sitting right in front of him. Buffy’s voice pulled him out of his horrified silence. “Then what did it do to Spike and Xander?”

 

“It distilled the separate parts of their personalities into two separate bodies—one made up of strengths, the other of weaknesses. In Spike’s case—”

 

“That’s my guilt, and the fear,” Spike said quietly. “Bloody hell. I thought—I just thought it was a bloody good day. I never—” He looked at Giles. “What happens if we don’t go back together?”

 

“You can’t not return to your conjoined state,” Giles said gently. “Should anything happen to one half, the other half cannot survive.” He watched as Buffy went over to kneel in front of the man on the couch. “Besides,” Giles said in a low voice, “would you leave yourself like that? Would you leave anyone like that?”

 

Spike shook his head, unable to speak past the lump in his throat. The guilt was his to bear, and he needed everything he was to deal with it. He watched as Buffy tried to talk to his other half, and the weak Spike pulled back from her touch, muttering about being unclean.

 

“Do we know where Xander is?” Buffy asked in a flat voice.

 

Giles shook his head. “One of the Xanders was with Spike this morning at the dump. Apparently, he called Willow from a payphone and then had her pick Spike up while he followed himself.” Giles sighed. “You know, life is quite confusing enough without adding in identical twins to the mix. I thought it best if we put Spike back together first and then began looking for Xander.”

 

Buffy nodded. She gave the strong Spike an apologetic look. “I think Giles is right.”

 

He nodded stiffly. “Long as we can get it done quick-like.”

 

Xander came in through the door just then, not bothering to announce his presence. “I’ve got an evil twin.”

 

The others exchanged looks. “He’s not evil,” Willow said. “And he’s you. We’ll explain it on the way to the Magic Box.”

 

Xander frowned. “Wait a sec. I’ve got an evil twin running around, and you’re just going to—” He stopped as he realized he was in the presence of two Spikes. “There are—”

 

“Two Spikes,” Giles finished. “Yes, Xander, just as there are two of you, but it is imperative we put Spike back together as quickly as possible. You’ll just have to wait to get your explanation.” Giles paused. “By the way, what did you do with the other Xander?”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy watched as Tara got Spike settled in one of the chairs at the table in the Magic Box. He wouldn’t let her touch him; he kept insisting that he wasn’t worthy. The other Spike—the one she’d spent both night and day with—had retreated into the back of the store as Giles set up the pentagram. Xander was watching everything from the stairs with an intensity Buffy thought felt odd. It was Xander—and yet it wasn’t, just as Spike was and wasn’t.

 

She headed off to the back of the shop to find one half of her boyfriend, finding him standing with his hands in his pockets. They’d had to stop by his apartment on the way over so he could change back into his clothing of the previous night, and Buffy could see the tension in his shoulders.

 

“Spike?”

 

“I don’t want to go back,” he admitted in a low voice. “I know I have to, but—”

 

She came up next to him, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow. “It’s nice being guilt-free, huh?”

 

He shook his head. “It was more than that, luv. I was guilt-free as a vampire, and it’s a different feeling entirely. It’s almost like I got my innocence back, like I’ve got a sodding clean slate.”

 

Buffy winced at the raw pain in his tone. “Why didn’t you tell me it was that bad, Spike?”

 

“What was there to tell?” he asked. “I could tell you that I’m still miserable half the time and the happy face was a mask, but what good would that do you, or me?”

 

She gave his arm a little shake. “It would let me know what’s going on with you, stupid. Maybe I couldn’t help, but I could just be there. That’s something, isn’t it?”

 

“You’re already there, luv,” Spike replied softly. “You, and Joyce, and Dawn, and the others. If I lost that, I think I’d go crazy. It’s what helps me get by each day. Didn’t think I needed to tell anyone about it on top of everything.”

 

Buffy sighed. “Just promise me you’ll let me know when you’re having a bad day, okay?” she asked. “I want to help. Maybe I can give you a little extra TLC,” she added with a sly smile.

 

“How could I resist an offer like that?” Spike asked. Giles’s voice called from the front, letting them know they were ready.

 

Spike followed Buffy back up to the front reluctantly, allowing Willow to direct him to stand in the pentagram. “Okay, side by side,” she said, as Tara positioned the other Spike, who was nearly catatonic at this point. “Close your eyes.”

 

Both Spikes did as directed. “Let the spell be ended.”

 

Spike knew immediately that Willow’s brief incantation had worked. The wave of relief that he felt was nearly as great as the descending grief and guilt. He staggered slightly under the load of both at once, and Buffy hurried to his side to steady him. “You okay?”

 

“I’m good,” he mumbled, then pulled himself up straight, feeling the mask descend again like an old friend. “Let’s find this other Xander, shall we?”

 

~~~~~

 

Finding the other Xander proved to be easier than they thought. Once Suave-Xander explained that he had meant to meet up with Anya at the new apartment, they all headed over, thinking that Scruffy-Xander might manage to find his way there, especially as that was where the two halves had run into one another in the first place.

 

Explaining to Scruffy-Xander, before he shot his other half, that he did not have an evil twin, nor had Toth taken his shape, was a different story altogether. Spike finally stepped in, tired and irritable and not in the mood for long, drawn-out explanations. “Give me the gun,” he insisted.

 

“But—” Scruffy-Xander protested. “He’s hypnotizing people.”

 

“No, he’s not. I got split too, so I know what I’m talking about,” Spike said shortly. “Gun. Now.”

 

Scruffy-Xander reluctantly handed over the gun just as Toth burst through the door, leveling his ferula gemina at Buffy. “Bugger this,” Spike snarled as Buffy leapt out of the way and Toth put a scorch mark in the carpeting. “Bloody bastard.” He fired two rounds, hitting Toth square in the chest and staggering him. Buffy used the distraction to snap the demon’s neck.

 

The Slayer looked over at Spike with a raised eyebrow. “That’s a really good way to get the cops called.”

 

“I don’t care,” Spike said, his tone surly. “I’m tired of getting messed with.”

 

Buffy sighed. “Okay, Xander-z, Anya, get out of here and head on back to the Magic Box. Spike and I will get rid of the body and meet you back there. Oh, and Xander’s going to have to change back into the clothes he was wearing last night.” She paused, looking from one to the other. “You both are going to have to be wearing the same clothes, I mean.” She sighed. “I’m with Giles. This whole thing is way too confusing.”

 

~~~~~

 

The next day, Spike was quiet and distant with everyone, and Buffy let him be. She thought he might need the time alone. On the other hand, she did want to see Tara, since she seemed to understand Spike’s emotional state better than anyone. They met up on campus at the Grotto, and both sat down with their drinks. “How is he really, Tara?” Buffy asked. “I don’t want you to spill any secrets, but I get the feeling he’s hiding something from me.”

 

Tara looked down into her herbal tea. “He’s not hiding anything, Buffy. It’s more that it’s a struggle he feels he has to go through on his own.”

 

“But—”

 

The other woman anticipated Buffy’s protests. “I don’t know if you could help him. He’s dealing with a lot of guilt right now, and a lot of questions about himself and his future. It’s not unusual for a man his age, but it’s worse for Spike because he has over a hundred years of experience behind him. He looks like a man in his mid-twenties, but he doesn’t feel it, and he’s got the weight of his past to deal with too.”

 

Buffy sighed. “But he’s talking to you about it.” It was a statement, not a question, and for some reason she couldn’t feel jealous of the other woman. Not only was Tara gay, and with Willow, but she had a feeling that Spike would feel more comfortable talking to her about his struggles than anyone else. Buffy wasn’t sure why, but she was suddenly certain that she would feel more comfortable telling Tara her deepest, darkest secrets.

 

Tara shrugged. “Not really. A little, maybe. It’s just that we—we understand each other. I couldn’t even tell you why, but we do.”

 

Buffy sighed, considering her answer. “As long as someone does. Do you—do you think there’s anything I should do?”

 

“Just spend time with him,” Tara advised. “Ask him questions. Now that he knows that you know a little of what he’s kept hidden, maybe it’ll be easier for him to talk. Other than that, I’m not sure there’s anything you can do.”

 

Buffy nodded thoughtfully. She had been caught up in her own training with Giles, and her own struggle with finding out what it meant to be the Slayer, she hadn’t given much thought to Spike’s struggles. Things had seemed okay between the two of them, and she’d let it go at that. Maybe it was time she was more deliberate in her attempts to talk to him, that she spent more time finding out what made him tick. Before the last few days, she would have sworn that she knew Spike like the back of her hand. Now, she wasn’t so sure.

 

She had forgotten that there was so much more to Spike than met the eye. It was time she went looking for deeper waters.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy carefully carried two cups of hot chocolate outside to the back porch. “Hey. Mom stocked up on the little marshmallows for you.”

 

“Ta, luv,” Spike said quietly.

 

Buffy watched him, her sharp gaze hidden by half-closed lids. He’d been subdued since Willow had put his two halves back together, and not even the passage of time had helped. It had been a few days, and he still wasn’t saying much. Even Joyce had commented on his mood with some concern, and Dawn was trying to be extra attentive. “Is being back in one piece that bad?”

 

Spike glanced up at the Slayer, and his face softened slightly. “Yes and no, pet. The guilt is bad, but it had been so long since I’d been human, I almost thought it was just—”

 

“Part of being alive?” she suggested when he faltered.

 

“Something like that,” Spike admitted. “Never realized what it would be like to be human and not have to live with it. And I never realized how far I’d come.”

 

Buffy leaned up against him. “You have definitely come a long way.”

 

The silence stretched on between them for some time. “Buffy?” Spike finally asked. “Did you like me better…”

 

“No,” Buffy replied in response to his unfinished question. “I did like you. It was like being with you in a really good mood, which was nice. But I love all of you, Spike. I love the part of you that’s still swamped with guilt and feels dark, and I love the part of you that’s strong enough to handle it. Seeing that other half—the half of you that’s still catatonic from the pain of being human—makes me realize how strong you really are. It just makes me respect you for getting out of bed every day.”

 

Spike blinked back tears. Buffy’s affirmation was more than he might have hoped for. Even though he needed that part of himself, needed the guilt to remind him, to push him forward, to not allow him to become complacent with this life he’d been given. Spike liked to believe that his intimate association with death helped him to better understand life. He just wasn’t sure that Buffy would understand that.

 

Spike was unprepared for her question. “Do you ever wish you were with Buffy-Buffy?”

 

“No,” he replied softly. “You can’t separate the Slayer from Buffy any more than you can separate Spike from William. We’re the same, you and I. We both know what it’s like having two parts of ourselves that sometimes seem so different, and are really integral to each other. It’s one of the reasons I know you so well. You need being the Slayer as much as I need being Spike. You need being Buffy like I need William. It sets us apart, but maybe it makes us stronger in the end.”

 

“Thank you,” Buffy said quietly.

 

He looked over at her in surprise. “For what?”

 

“For seeing me.”

 

He smiled. “I could say the same thing.”

 

They drank the rest of their hot chocolate in silence, basking in the company of someone who knew them.

Chapter Text

“'Cuz I just wanna be something/I just wanna be someone/Someone who stands out in the crowd/Mother would be proud/Something to someone/These days gettin' shorter by the year/Tickin' like a time bomb loud and clear/Faster and faster the whole situation/Fallin' apart, straight from the heart/Then I sing my song/And I'll prove them wrong…” ~Lit, “Something to Someone”

 

“Don’t get me wrong,” Giles said, watching Spike stock shelves. “I very much appreciate your help, William. But have you taken a break recently?”

 

Spike turned to look at him, blue eyes shadowed. “A break?”

 

Giles sighed. “You’ve been training with me, patrolling with Buffy, helping me get the Magic Box ready, working at the gallery—when have you had time to sleep?”

 

Spike turned back to his stocking, not replying, but the dark circles under his eyes were answer enough for Giles. “Spike—”

 

“I’m fine, Rupert,” Spike said quickly, interrupting the other man. “I understand that you’re concerned, and Buffy’s already talked to me about it. It’s just—getting split in two like that didn’t do a whole lot for my peace of mind.”

 

He nodded, knowing that Spike needed to work it out in his own time and in his own way. As much as Giles might like to wave a magic wand to remove the burden of Spike’s past, he couldn’t. Indeed, even if he could, he wasn’t certain that he would. Spike had managed to reach at least a tentative balance between his persona both old and new. Giles had every reason to believe he would be able to do it once again.

 

Besides, it was sometimes the darkest parts of the soul that gave one necessary strength.

 

“I do understand, Spike,” Giles said, and he really did. “But you do need to take care of yourself.”

 

Spike shrugged. “If I still can’t sleep after a while, I’ll get Tara to mix something up for me. That girl knows what she’s doing.”

 

“Very well.” Giles went back to his inventory list. They worked in silence for a while until Spike spoke up.

 

“I wanted to ask your advice.”

 

“Alright. What on?”

 

Spike hesitated, then came over to lean on the counter next to Giles. “It’s not that I don’t like working with Joyce, but it might be time to start thinking about the future.”

 

Giles nodded slowly. “I see. What brought this on?”

 

“Nothing. Well, nothing important. It’s just, you never know how much time you have. I don’t want to drift anymore.” Spike wasn’t sure his explanation made much sense, but Giles was nodding as though he understood.

 

“I can see how you might feel that way. Do you know what you want?”

 

“What I want is for what I do to mean something, to be important.” Spike sighed. “I don’t want to be a hero, Rupert. The world has the Slayer for that, and Peaches. I’m just a sidekick, but I want a day-job.”

 

Giles regarded him seriously. “You are not ‘just’ anything, Spike. I don’t think you’ve fully realized that yet. What do you enjoy doing?”

 

“I don’t know,” Spike said impatiently. “Anything I knew how to do died with me a long time ago. I’ve got a lot of knowledge, but Buffy has a Watcher, and knowing how to kill a demon doesn’t pay the bills.”

 

“You enjoy being with Dawn,” Giles pointed out. “And I know you’re quite good with tutoring her. Have you thought about teaching?”

 

Spike looked at him incredulously. “Teaching? Don’t you mean herding?”

 

Giles shrugged. “It was just a thought. But that’s where I would start—with what you enjoy doing. Figure that out, and you may stumble across something that suits.” He watched Spike carefully for the rest of the afternoon as they finished putting the training room together. Xander showed up later to help them complete the remaining tasks, and he and Spike joked like the oldest of friends.

 

Even in the midst of the good-natured ribbing, however, the thoughtful look never left Spike’s eyes. Giles recalled a conversation he’d had with Joyce not long before, centering on the other man. She had been saying how good he was with Dawn, how patient he was in helping the younger girl with her homework. He was even making both English Literature and History interesting. While Dawn did enjoy school, she had told Joyce that Spike made everything seem both exciting and exceptionally clear. “I don’t know why our teachers can’t explain things the way Spike does.”

 

In spite of the fact that Spike was asking him for advice, Giles knew that the ex-vampire would have to make the decision on his own, and that planting a seed was really the only thing he could do. Giles didn’t get another chance to talk to him about it, however, as Anya and Tara soon showed up to help with the finishing touches to the training room in back, among other things.

 

A couple hours later, the bell above the door jangled and Willow and Buffy came breezing in. “Hey, Giles. Spike.” Buffy came over to give him a proper greeting, and Spike met her kiss with enthusiasm.

 

“How were classes today, luv?”

 

“Good,” Buffy said. “Willow and I actually had a discussion, like, an academic one.”

 

“Of course you did,” Spike replied easily. “You’re not only tough, you’re also smart as a whip. It’s one of the things I love about you.”

 

“Will all of you excuse me while I gag?” Xander asked, emerging from the back. “Do you two ever give it a rest?”

 

“Do you and the ex-demon ever stop shagging?” Spike asked, his tone almost sweet.

 

Buffy snorted with laughter, and there were suspicious laughing-type noises coming from Giles and Willow too. “Sometimes we refrain from sex,” Anya said quite seriously. “We do other things, like—”

 

Whatever Anya had been about to say was muffled by Xander’s hand. “Let’s just forget about that, shall we?” Whispering loudly, he said, “An, remember what we talked about? The stuff that’s not okay to say in front of my friends?”

 

Willow and Tara sat down at the table, catching up with each other in low voices. Spike tugged on Buffy’s hand. “Come help me in the back?” he suggested. “There’s a couple heavy items we lowly mortals could use your help with.”

 

Buffy laughed. “As if you manly men aren’t completely capable.” She followed anyway, glad that he seemed to be in a good mood. Spike had been so moody lately, so prone to staring off into space and looking glum. Not that she’d ever accuse him of such a thing. The one time she’d suggested he was brooding he’d gotten very affronted and told her never to compare him to Angel again. Buffy hadn’t even realized that she was making the comparison.

 

Spike held open the door for her gallantly, sharing a look with Giles and Xander who were close behind her. “Oh my,” Buffy breathed as she got a good look at the new training room. “This is—incredible! Did you guys do this?”

 

“We all helped,” Xander said, pointing at the dummy. “That, I made.”

 

She stared at Spike, who shrugged. “I might have been involved,” he admitted.

 

“Giles! This is great!” Buffy grinned at him. “It’s wonderful.”

 

“Well, you needed a space to train,” Giles replied. “I’m sure we’ll put it to good use. You and Spike both really.”

 

“We could train together!” Buffy said rather enthusiastically. While she knew she’d have to pull her punches, the idea of working out with a sweaty, shirtless Spike was enough to make her mouth dry and her palms sweaty.

 

Spike looked a bit bashful. “We could. If I’m not too far below your level.”

 

Buffy shook her head. “Are you kidding? You’ve still got the moves, Spike. I’ve seen you working out with Giles a few times. You might not be a vampire anymore, but you could still probably give me a run for my money.”

 

Her compliment had the unexpected bonus of making Spike turn a bright red. “If you like, Slayer.”

 

“Oh, I like,” she replied, the heat in her eyes adding double meaning. “I definitely like.”

 

~~~~~

 

Spike set up his laptop in the office. It was early, too early to be in to work, really, but he hadn’t been able to lie in bed any longer. After their training session and a round of the cemeteries, Buffy had reluctantly gone back to her dorm, explaining that she really did have to get some homework done before she went to bed. His girlfriend couldn’t be with him every night, and being alone in his big bed seemed to make sleep even more elusive.

 

While he knew very well that Buffy would spend every night with him if she knew the truth, he wasn’t about to tell her. He hated to think she thought of him as frail.

 

Opening up the word processor, Spike started typing, just letting the words flow as they would. He couldn’t have predicted how quickly his typing skills would come along in just a few weeks, but he’d found putting words to screen therapeutic. Where he’d once composed reams of poetry, Spike now found himself drawn towards the crafting of a story.

 

He was absorbed in the movement of characters, some of whom bore a passing resemblance to people he’d known in the past. There was truth in the guise of fiction, and Spike lost himself in his own tale.

 

Of course, just as he was finding his rhythm, the cell phone rang. Half-snarling, Spike picked it up, thinking to check the caller id and then let it go. He frowned when he realized the caller was “Joyce” and answered quickly. “Hello?”

 

“Spike?” Dawn’s voice sounded breathless.

 

“Nibblet? What’s up?”

 

There was a sound that was close to a sob, and his chest tightened. “It’s mom. She just—fainted. I didn’t know what to do.” There was a pause. “She’s waking up.”

 

“You both sit tight,” he ordered. “I’ll be there in a mo.” Spike hit the save button and shut the lid to the laptop before grabbing his keys and heading out, locking up behind him. He probably should have put a sign up saying that they weren’t going to be open, but he was in too much of a hurry.

 

By the time he arrived at the Summers’ residence, Joyce was seated on the couch, calmly sipping tea. “I’m fine, Spike,” she said when he asked.

 

He glared at her. “You didn’t go see the doc, did you?”

 

“Spike—”

 

“No,” Spike interrupted. “This isn’t something to just brush off. I’m taking you to the hospital.” He turned to face Dawn, who was looking relieved that someone else was taking charge. “Nibblet, call your sister. If she’s not in her dorm room, leave a message an’ tell her to meet us at the hospital.”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy came rushing into the hospital emergency room, immediately seeing Spike sitting next to Dawn, talking to a young man in scrubs. “Spike!”

 

He looked up, smiling in reassurance. “We’re fine, Buffy. I was just talking to Ben here, trying to figure out what’s up.”

 

“What is up?” Buffy asked quickly. “Is Mom—”

 

“She’s fine,” the man Spike had referred to as Ben said. “They’re just running some tests on her right now. As I’ve been explaining to your fiancé, there’s no indication of what caused her collapse. It could be anything from a dizzy spell to a virus to low blood sugar.”

 

Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy watched as Spike snagged a restless Dawn around the waist, pulling her close in to his chest and eliciting a giggle. With a small smile, Buffy watched as her little sister snuggled up to him like a cat, and Spike rested his chin against the top of her head. She caught Spike’s eye and mouthed, “Fiancé?” but he just shrugged in response.

 

“Do you know when they’ll be done? Will mom be able to come home afterwards?” Buffy asked quickly.

 

Ben smiled reassuringly. “I don’t know when they’ll be done for sure. I can go check for you, though. I’m sure the doctors will let her go as soon as they’re done.”

 

When the intern went off to get the necessary information, Buffy turned to look at Spike with a raised eyebrow, which he met with one of his own. “Was the only way they’d treat me like a member of the family,” he explained nonchalantly. “Now that you’re here, you can correct that idea if you like.”

 

“Who said I wanted to correct that idea?” Buffy asked. She held up her left hand and wriggled the appropriate finger. “I’m wearing your ring, aren’t I?”

 

Spike smiled, and Buffy could see him relaxing imperceptibly. “Well, long as you’re okay with it, pet.”

 

“Totally okay.” She smiled at him. “Besides, you really are a member of the family, with or without the ring.”

 

~~~~~

 

Spike handed Joyce a cup of tea. “And that’s a proper cuppa. None of that nasty bagged stuff you Americans seem to favor.”

 

She smiled at him, long used to the tirades against American-made tea from both him and Giles. “Thank you, William.”

 

“Not a problem,” he assured her. “You know I’ll look after the gallery for as long as you need, yeah? You do as little or as much as you want.”

 

Joyce patted his hand. “There’s really no need to worry, Spike. I’ll be fine, I’m sure.”

 

He shook his head. “Maybe so, but if you’re feeling poorly, it’s my job to look after you. It’s like a sacred duty.”

 

“You do too much,” Joyce said quietly, noting the dark circles under his eyes. “You shouldn’t take so much on.”

 

Spike shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s not too much if it’s on a voluntary basis. And someone has to look after the gallery if you’re not feeling well.”

 

“Just like someone has to help Rupert out with the Magic Box and someone has to help Buffy patrol and help Dawn with her homework?” Joyce patted his cheek fondly. “I worry about you.”

 

“It’s mutual,” he replied, taking her hand in his and giving it a squeeze.

 

Buffy, Willow, and Dawn came into the room a few minutes later. “Okay, Mom,” Buffy said. “You need to rest. Spike and I have to patrol, but I called Giles, and he said he was coming over to check on you and keep you company in a little while. And Willow will be around until he gets here.”

 

“I don’t need a babysitter,” Joyce protested.

 

Willow looked alarmed. “I’m not a babysitter! I’m here to help Dawnie with her math homework. I promised, since Spike already went over the history and English.”

 

Joyce looked skeptical, but she decided to take their explanations at face value. Besides, she hadn’t missed the look of relief on her youngest daughter’s face when Willow said she was going to be staying. Her collapse earlier had scared the girl quite a bit.

 

“Well then,” Joyce replied. “You two be careful.”

 

~~~~~

 

“She’ll be fine, luv,” Spike said, both for his own benefit as well as the Slayer’s.

 

“Will she?” Buffy replied quietly. “I don’t know, Spike. It’s so weird to see her sick like this. I mean, Mom’s always the one that takes care of us when we’re sick. I don’t remember her even having a cold in forever.”

 

Spike wrapped an arm around her shoulders. The evening had been quiet for the most part, and while they were both keeping an eye out for danger, they were also simply enjoying each other’s company and the balmy night air. “It might take some time, but the docs’ll figure out what’s going on, and then they’ll fix it.”

 

“I wish they could fix you,” she murmured, then felt him stiffen. His arm fell away from her shoulders, and Buffy bit back a sigh. “And that’s not how I meant it, and you know it, Spike. You haven’t been sleeping. You’re hardly even standing still for two minutes at a time these days.”

 

“I was born with too much energy,” he replied. “I’m fine.”

 

“What can I do to help?”

 

“Nothing.” Spike frowned. “Actually, you can help me stake those losers over there.”

 

Buffy was startled by how quickly Spike took off, tearing across the graveyard towards three vampires who had their backs to her. She shook her head, sighing again. Really, she did love Spike, but he could be just as stubborn as she was at times.

 

Of course, that was one of the reasons she loved him so much.

 

Buffy watched Spike take one of the vampires down with a flying kick to the back, landing on the fallen body and putting a stake through its back. He whirled, gracefully, putting the stake through the heart of the vampire coming up behind him.

 

There was only one more left, and Buffy sent her own stake flying with a flick of her wrist, sending the wood right through the heart while the vampire was still a couple of feet away from her boyfriend. “I wondered when you were going to get off your Slayer-arse and help me fulfill your sacred duty,” he said with a smirk.

 

Buffy glared at him, a twinkle of mischief in her eyes. “Tell you what, Big Bad. I promise that I will make sure you go to bed so tired tonight that you sleep like the dead.”

 

“Sounds like a plan.” The look in his eyes was grateful, and Buffy stepped closer to pull his head down for a kiss. So many nights she found his beauty startling.

 

Buffy found herself wanting to take care of this man, and she knew that part of her desire came from the fact that she knew he would care for her in turn.

 

It was a perfect match.

 

~~~~~

 

“You know, if I drink any more tea I will most likely float away,” Joyce said with a smile, watching as Giles paused in the act of handing her another cup.

 

He paused. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t even—”

 

“It’s fine, Rupert,” she assured him. “I know by now that British men say they love you with tea.”

 

He chuckled. “I suppose that’s true.” Both of them froze at the implications of that statement. “You know—”

 

“I know. It’s mutual.”

 

He reached out and grabbed her hand, giving it a squeeze. “I must confess that I have been most unlucky in love.”

 

“So have I,” Joyce replied softly.

 

Giles settled in next to her on the couch, drawing her over so that her head rested on his shoulder. With gentle fingers, he began to massage her temples. “And, of course, this is terribly bad timing on my part, as you are feeling under the weather.”

 

“It’s probably better to take it slow anyway,” Joyce said, a nostalgic smile tilting up the corners of her lips. “We definitely rushed into things the last time.”

 

“True.”

 

“Of course, now I know what exactly I have to look forward to.” Joyce gave him a purely feminine smile. “And I am very much looking forward to it.”

 

Giles bit back a groan, thinking that it was going to be a rather long wait. He sighed. “Your grand opening is tomorrow, isn’t it? I’m sorry I’m going to miss it.”

 

“Oh, it probably won’t be that exciting,” Giles replied dismissively. “With any luck, it will simply include quite a lot of people going in and out and buying things. Hardly anything to worry about missing.”

 

Joyce’s fingers were making rather dangerous patterns on his leg. “I still thought I might make it over my lunch break. Wouldn’t it be fun to christen the supply closet with—what does Spike call it?—a good snog?”

 

Giles laughed. “A welcome image, my dear, but I’m afraid Xander and Anya have already managed it.” There was a moment of silence. “I’ve meant to tell you that I spoke with Spike the other day about career opportunities. I don’t know if you knew—”

 

“A mother always knows,” she said enigmatically. “What is he thinking of doing?”

 

“I encouraged him to think about teaching,” Giles replied.

 

Her brow furrowed thoughtfully. “I hadn’t actually thought about that, but it’s not a bad idea. He’d make a wonderful teacher. He’s really good with Dawn. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise, but…”

 

“Well, he did take care of Drusilla for over a century,” Giles pointed out pragmatically. “For that alone I’d have to say that Spike has the patience of a saint.”

 

~~~~~

 

Dawn wished her sister would hurry up and get home, mostly because she was hoping that Buffy would have Spike in tow. He’d half-promised to come back to say goodnight to her.

 

Thinking about Spike, Dawn was confused about how she felt about him. He was so cool—everything about him just screamed coolness. Plus, the way he always looked after her, like he enjoyed spending time with her. He’d even said he liked hanging out with her; Dawn had heard him tell Buffy that one day when her sister had complained about Dawn being around so much.

 

She’d wanted to burst in on them and say, “Take that!” Since it was eavesdropping, she kept her mouth shut.

 

It was like he was her older brother, but even better, since he didn’t treat her like a pest the way Buffy always did. Maybe Spike was cooler because they weren’t actually related.

 

And he was way smarter than Buffy. He’d totally known what the symbolism in The Great Gatsby was all about. No one else even had a clue.

 

Dawn frowned, and began to write:

 

Buffy better figure out how important I am. I know Spike gets it. He was so great today at the hospital. I felt totally safe with him, like he’d make everything okay. Plus, he said he’d take care of Mom, and I believe him.

 

I love him, but I don’t think I’m in love with him. I mean, he’s practically my brother. But I still love him, and I feel good when he’s around, like everything is going to be okay. No one else makes me feel like that, not even Buffy. Like today, with Mom passing out and everything, what she said right before, “Who are you?” It was so freaky, and then Spike was just there. He made me feel okay again.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy ran her fingers through Spike’s hair. The roots were showing again, and he’d let it get longer. She had the feeling that he didn’t quite know what to do with it. “Your hair’s getting long again.”

 

“I know,” he replied, voice muffled by her shoulder. “Bleaching it all the time hurts like the devil.”

 

“You could grow it out,” she suggested thoughtfully. “It would look good.”

 

“Maybe.”

 

Buffy knew he was nearly asleep, and she glanced over at the clock. It was late. Or early, depending on how you looked at it. Buffy knew she needed to get going. They both had busy days coming up, and she needed to get back to her mom’s so she could help out in the morning. Spike had promised to stick around too, but he had to be at the gallery all day, especially since it was unlikely Joyce would be up to it.

 

It seemed that she had kept her promise though. After another couple hours of patrol, and then a nice—very nice—period of lovemaking, Spike was perfectly relaxed and almost asleep.

 

Buffy edged her way out from under him. “Leaving?” he mumbled, his tone verging on a whine.

 

“I have to get back,” she whispered. “Think you’ll sleep?”

 

“Like the dead.” He roused himself enough to give her a satisfactory goodbye kiss. “See you tomorrow?”

 

“I’ll be at Giles’ opening. If you can get away—”

 

“I’ll see you at lunch-time then,” he replied, smiling sleepily. “And I’ll cook tomorrow night. I’ve been practicing.”

 

Buffy laughed. “Good thing one of us has. I still burn water.” She touched his cheek in a tender gesture. “Good night, Spike.”

 

She watched his eyes close and stayed until she could hear the steady rhythm of his breathing.

Chapter Text

“…Everywhere the water’s getting rough/Your best intentions may not be enough/I wonder if we’re ever gonna get home tonight/If you break down/I’ll drive out and find you/ If you forget my love/I’ll try and remind you/And stay by you when it don’t come easy/ When it don’t come easy/I don’t know nothin’ except change will come/Year after year what we do is undone/Time keeps moving from a crawl to a run…” ~Patti Griffin, “When It Don’t Come Easy”

 

Over the past months, Spike and Joyce formed a well-organized team in dealing with the day-to-day affairs of the gallery. Not having the older woman there was like missing a limb. What made it worse was that the doctors seemed to have no clue what all their tests were telling them. He’d called earlier to see if she had any requests for him, and Joyce had both said that no one was sure what was going on and that Buffy was going a little crazy as a result.

 

Well, Spike was going a little crazy as well. He just had other things to occupy him.

 

Having Joyce ill was bringing back memories of his mother’s condition, however. There wasn’t any indication that it was as serious as all that, and medicine had advanced quite a bit, but there were still bad memories. There was also the knowledge that not only would he be the one taking care of the gallery, but also probably watching out for Dawn. Buffy was capable, of course, but hardly willing, and she was in the dorms. If Joyce’s condition didn’t clear up fairly quickly, they’d have to start talking about things like watching Dawn after school and driving her in the morning.

 

And, of course, there was also the issue of Buffy not being able to cook to save her life, which meant he would be feeding a lot more people than he was used to. Someone had to make sure the Summers ladies ate well, after all.

 

Spike frowned at the books. The numbers weren’t adding up right, and it looked as though he was going to be spending a lot more time on this than he’d planned. Normally, Joyce was on the ball, but he supposed that the headaches she’d been getting had prevented a lot of stuff from getting done.

 

He sighed and started going over the books again. Spike had a feeling that this was going to be the beginning of a very bad week.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy was not a happy camper. She had put Spike safely to bed and had been on her way home when she’d had to chase down a very large biker-vamp. That meant that this morning she was left with a strange orb—and those never boded well—and an annoying little sister to corral.

 

In some ways, the Slayer could understand Spike’s attachment to her mom and Dawn. It was actually kind of nice to know that someone else had their well-being in mind. Spike never did anything halfway, so it made sense that he would be completely devoted to them.

 

But Joyce just seemed too intent on Dawn. Buffy wanted a cute nickname. She wanted to do a book club with her mom and sit on her lap and be babied. Most of the time she felt as though she could barely remember being a kid, let alone what it was like to let mom do all the worrying.

 

Buffy tried to take some of the burden of worrying and she got reprimanded for it. Life just sucked sometimes.

 

The only person in the world who made her feel like a girl was Spike. And not in a bad way. Actually, Spike didn’t make her feel like a girl—he made her feel like a woman.

 

Buffy sighed. She was tired, she wanted to be able to leave Dawn somewhere out of the way for a very long while, and she wanted to be able to snatch her boyfriend up and go off and do something naughty for the afternoon. Instead, she had Dawn-duty and Spike was stuck at the gallery.

 

Yet another reason she hated her mom being sick. It left her without a boyfriend as well.

 

Feeling slightly guilty for her feelings of resentment, Buffy gave Dawn a little push when she entered the shop. “Be careful,” she warned her.

 

“Geez, Buffy, it’s not like I’m two,” Dawn complained. “I’m not going to break anything.”

 

“Fine, make sure you don’t.” Buffy looked around, her eyes coming to rest on Giles, dressed in a purple robe and pointed hat. He smiled at her, and she raised an eyebrow in reply. “Are you open?”

 

“I have been since nine this morning,” he replied, running a hand over his hair. “So far, you’re the only ones to come.”

 

Dawn was staring around the shop with wide eyes. “Wow. Check out all the magic junk.”

 

“Our new slogan,” Giles murmured. Really, he found the younger Summers girl more bewildering than Buffy at her—well, Buffy-est. At least Buffy had been the Slayer, and could be relied upon to be serious at times; Dawn was another matter altogether. “How was your mother this morning?”

 

Buffy shrugged. “Not great. Spike’s taking over the gallery for the time being until she’s feeling better.”

 

“Have the doctors called with any results yet?”

 

Buffy shook her head. “No. They just gave her some pills and said to take some whenever the headaches got bad.”

 

Giles put a comforting hand on her arm. “I’m sure she’ll be fine, Buffy.”

 

“I know,” she replied, glancing back over at Dawn, who was poking at something on a shelf. “It’s just—”

 

“She’s your mother,” Giles supplied.

 

“Yeah.” Buffy smiled ruefully. “And sometimes it sucks being the grown-up.”

 

“You aren’t the only grown-up in this, Buffy,” Giles assured her. “Both Spike and I are happy to help with things until Joyce is feeling better.”

 

“Help me or help mom?” Buffy asked with a lifted eyebrow. Giles gave her a look for the underlying snideness and Buffy shook her head. “Don’t mind me, Giles. I’m just tired. Plus, I was out on patrol last night and came up with this.”

 

Buffy was digging the object out of her bag when the bell jingled again and Willow and Tara strolled in, followed closely by Xander and Anya. “Hey, Willow!” Dawn called out cheerfully. “You should see all the talisman—mans—guys. I—”

 

“I’ve got Scooby business first,” Buffy said, shooting her sister a glance and holding up the orb. She was just hoping that they could get through this, keep Dawn occupied, and hang out until Spike could make it over on his lunch break.

 

The discussion, such as it was, didn’t get far. Giles thought it was supernatural because it was so shiny, but no one else seemed to have an opinion. Books were pulled out and research was attempted while more and more customers filtered into the store. By lunchtime, the shop was full, and Buffy called Spike at the gallery to find out if he wanted to meet somewhere else for lunch.

 

“Sorry, luv,” he replied apologetically. “The books were a complete and utter mess. Don’t know what happened exactly, but I lost the entire morning going over invoices and all.”

 

Buffy wanted to whine. She felt dangerously close to whining. On the other hand, she kept reminding herself that Spike was doing this for her mother, just like she had made breakfast for her mother.

 

Even if he got credit for it and she didn’t.

 

“That’s fine,” she finally replied, trying to sound gracious. “I think I’ll just take Dawn back home and check up on Mom then. I know she wasn’t feeling very good this morning.”

 

“Sure thing, Buffy,” he replied. “I’ll see you later tonight, yeah? Tell your mom not to worry about feeding the Bit.”

 

She hung up the phone, feeling cheated. This is what she got for dating a guy who had a heartbeat and a sense of responsibility, not to mention a real job. Buffy started out the door, calling to Dawn. She would just have to keep herself occupied.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike felt guilty. It wasn’t as though he’d lied, precisely. He had spent the morning trying to get the books straight, and he was behind on his work. On the other hand, Spike knew quite well that he could have made time for lunch with Buffy.

 

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see Buffy, but with Joyce out of commission for who knew how long, Spike felt he needed to catch some time anywhere he could. Which was why he was spending the lunch hour working on his laptop rather than spending time with his girlfriend.

 

He had over a hundred pages so far, and Spike knew he felt the rhythm of prose much more accurately than he’d ever felt the rhyme of poetry. They said write what you know; well, Spike wrote about being Love’s Bitch. It was remarkably easy.

 

There was a small, uncomfortable sense that he hadn’t let Buffy in on his extracurricular activities, but he wasn’t sure that it was any of her business. It wasn’t like he was cheating on her; it was just writing.

 

After an hour—an hour that passed too quickly—Spike shut the laptop down and flipped the sign again. The gallery was quiet for the next few hours, allowing him to finish getting caught up on paperwork and processing orders. When the bell above the door did ring, Tara was the one to walk through. “Hey, Glinda,” Spike said. “What brings you by?”

 

“Not much,” Tara replied. “I just wanted to check up on you.”

 

Spike raised an eyebrow. “I’m not the one who’s sick, but thanks for caring.”

 

Tara gave him a pointed look. “Spike—”

 

“I’m fine, ducks.”

 

Tara rolled her eyes. “Don’t give me that, Spike. I know you haven’t been sleeping, and you’ve been pushing yourself too hard.”

 

“That’s my decision to make,” Spike said, a little heat in his tone. “I’m handling it.”

 

“Don’t be macho,” she replied. “It’s not attractive.”

 

Spike glared at her, and then his shoulders slumped. “Tara, there isn’t much of a choice. What I did—”

 

“It wasn’t you!” Tara protested. “It was—”

 

“Spike?” he inquired with a cock of his eyebrow. “Maybe I’m not the demon anymore, but the demon’s still in me. It’s not something you can just get rid of. Difference between you and me is that you just thought you were a demon. I really was.”

 

“You remember being the demon,” Tara corrected him. “Everyone has darkness in them, Spike. Even me.” At his look, she gave him another look. “Don’t even question my ability to kick your ass.”

 

Spike laughed. Not just a little chuckle, either, but a full-out belly laugh. Tara, far from being insulted, simply smiled back. “Needed a laugh, Glinda,” he admitted.

 

“I could still kick your ass,” Tara replied.

 

“I have no doubt of it,” Spike assured her. “Not in the least.”

 

“So have you written anything yet?” Tara knew when it was time to change the subject. There were things she could do for him, of course, to help him sleep, ease his mind. Spike had to be the one to ask for help, though. Otherwise it wouldn’t mean as much. She just wanted to be sure he knew that he could ask.

 

He shrugged in reply, his cheeks flushing a little. “A bit.” Spike hesitated. He trusted Tara, he really did, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted anyone to read what he’d written yet. It would be like opening himself up in the worst possible way.

 

The last time anyone had read his material, he’d wound up brutally rejected and had then gotten himself turned. It had left a bad taste in his mouth. “You know,” Tara began. “If you want me to take a look at it, I’d be honored. I wouldn’t say anything to anybody.”

 

Spike hesitated again, and then the bell rang, announcing the arrival of a customer. Impulsively, he called out, “I’ll be right with you.” Grabbing Tara by the elbow, he steered her into the back office and pointed at the laptop. “It’s all there. Just—”

 

“I’ll be gentle,” she promised.

 

Spike gave a sharp nod and went out to help the customer. It was probably a good thing for his peace of mind that the gallery became so busy after that; he had no time to think about Tara’s possible reactions to his work. When the time finally came to close up, Spike flipped the sign and the lock with a sigh of relief.

 

Walking back to the office slowly, he stared at the woman until she finally looked up at him. “Well?”

 

“It’s good,” she said simply.

 

Spike’s eyes narrowed. “You aren’t just saying that, are you? I mean—”

 

“It’s really good, Spike.” Tara looked at him earnestly. “You really do have a gift.”

 

“Bloody hell,” he muttered, grabbing the other chair and taking a seat. “Who’d’ve known? William the Bloody Awful Poet can write prose.”

 

“Is that what they called you?” she asked gently.

 

Spike looked away. “It was a long time ago. Doesn’t matter anymore.”

 

“Doesn’t it?” she replied cryptically. “Honestly, though, this is good stuff, Spike. I just got sucked right in. You even had me tearing up in a couple of places.”

 

Spike ducked his head, a shy grin spreading across his features. “Ta, luv. That’s—it’s nice to hear.”

 

“Well, I might be a little biased, but I’ve taken enough English courses to know good storytelling when I read it. You really ought to think about doing this for a living.” Tara smiled. “Or maybe you could teach. You’ve helped Dawn with her papers enough that I know you’d be good at it.”

 

Spike stared at her. “Rupert said the same thing to me the other day, suggested I think about teaching. Dunno, really. I did a bit of tutoring at University, to supplement my funds, but that’s a bit different.”

 

Tara smiled at him. “I think you could manage it. And I definitely want to know what happens next. If you want, I can edit it for you. Sometimes it’s hard to catch your own mistakes.”

 

“I’d appreciate it,” he replied, glancing at the clock. “I’d better be going though. Promised Joyce I’d turn up after I closed the gallery. She’s still feeling bad, so I thought I’d make dinner.”

 

“I’m sure she’ll appreciate it,” Tara replied. “I’d better go too. The dorms won’t be open for dinner too much longer.”

 

Spike reached out tentatively to pat her on the shoulder. “Thanks, Tara.”

 

Somehow, Tara knew it was for more than just not ripping his story to shreds. “You’re welcome, William.”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy desperately wanted the spell to work. It seemed too far-fetched to be a coincidence that the crazy watchman would have known that her mother was ill. And besides, she’d seen him the previous night, and he’d been perfectly normal. Nice, even. No, something had happened, and that something was also attacking her mother and making her sick. All she had to do was find the culprit and kill it.

 

Deep inside, however, Buffy knew it wasn’t that easy.

 

She knew it wasn’t the orb, since it hadn’t made her or any of the others crazy, and no one else had seemed to suspect Joyce’s illness was anything other than normal human frailty.

 

Buffy didn’t deal with human frailty, though. She dealt with monsters and magic and things that went bump in the night. There wasn’t anything she wasn’t prepared to face—she’d let her boots do the stompin’ and her fists do the talkin’. It was just that simple.

 

There was a part of her that understood that it was quite likely that her mom had simply gotten sick. That the doctors weren’t evil, but simply limited by their own finite knowledge. That even moms got sick sometimes, and no one could do anything about it.

 

The Slayer in her refused to accept it, however, and so she seized upon the watchman’s words like a drowning man grabs hold of a life preserver. She would go into a trance, she would do the spell (because the Slayer did not accept limitations), and she would end it.

 

Buffy would be the hero, and her mom would finally understand what it meant for her to be the Slayer.

 

It was, then, something of a shock to the system for her to walk downstairs and find that nothing was wrong with her mom. The family pictures looked odd, with Dawn flickering in and out, but she was still trying to find some reason for her mother’s illness, some curse or hex or something.

 

Anything to explain why her mom was sick.

 

She hardly registered that Joyce was going out; instead, she wandered back upstairs, watching as the images in the pictures flickered in and out. She saw Dawn’s room—now a girl’s bedroom, now a spare room used for storage. She saw her sister.

 

Her sister wasn’t real. “You’re not my sister.”

 

Buffy hadn’t even realized that she’d spoken out loud until Dawn replied, hurt. “Yeah, like I want to be related to your nasty self.”

 

Grabbing whatever-it-was by the arms, Buffy did what she did best. She threatened, all her fear and anger coming to rest on the shoulders of a girl who wasn’t even real.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike entered the Summers’ home by the front door with the key Joyce had given him. He had all kinds of keys now, which seemed strange to a man who had been a vampire for over a century. Even so, he appreciated the level of trust they represented. Joyce had given him keys to the house, as well as the gallery. He still had his key to Giles’ apartment, and he also had a key to the Magic Box, since he’d been told he was welcome to use the training room anytime he liked.

 

Dumping the bag of groceries on the kitchen island, Spike ambled into the living room, looking for the residents. “Joyce? You here?”

 

The sound of a scuffle startled him, and Spike took the stairs two at a time in the direction of the sound. The last thing he expected to see was Buffy attacking Dawn. “Buffy!”

 

Ignoring him, Buffy gave her sister another shake. “You stay away from my mother!” She shoved Dawn away, causing her to hit the closet door.

 

“Slayer!” Spike grabbed Buffy’s arm, pulling her away. “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing? This is your sister!”

 

“She’s not my sister,” Buffy replied, her tone strangely flat.

 

Spike stared at her. “Slayer? Buffy? What are you on?” He moved to put himself in between her and Dawn carefully, not wanting to alarm her.

 

She was spared from having to answer by the ringing of the phone. Spike watched as she picked up the handset, and then he quickly went over to check on Dawn. “Bit, you okay?”

 

The girl nodded, obviously confused and on the verge of tears. From Buffy’s end of the conversation, Spike made out that she was talking to Giles and that she’d been attempting some spell that hadn’t worked. When she hung up, he turned to face her, putting Dawn squarely behind him. “Buffy, I don’t know what the bleeding hell it is you think you’re doing, but—”

 

“I have to go out,” she said, interrupting him. “Watch her.”

 

“Your mum—”

 

“I’ll be back before she is,” Buffy replied, staring at him. Spike seemed normal, except for the shadow that lay across his face—a shadow that wasn’t caused by the lighting. After a few seconds, Spike heard the slam of the front door.

 

“Dawn, luv, you okay?” He tipped her head to the side to make sure she hadn’t been bruised too badly, and Dawn shook her head miserably.

 

“She hurt my arms.”

 

Spike pulled her to him in a rough hug, sending a worried glance towards the direction Buffy had gone. “What say we make some dinner, huh? I’ve got a new recipe I thought I might try out on you lot. We’ll put something aside for your mum and sis if they don’t make it back in time to eat.”

 

Dawn nodded, sniffling. “Spike, I don’t know what happened.”

 

“I know, Sweet Bit,” he murmured, just as clueless. “I know. We’ll get it sorted, don’t you worry.” His grip tightened just a bit. “You don’t have to worry about a thing.”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy felt a building sense of panic as she headed to the warehouse where she’d encountered the security guard for the first time, where she’d found the orb. She had no idea what she expected to find, but she wanted answers.

 

She really wanted answers.

 

Shoving the memory of Spike’s face out of her mind, the way he’d looked at her when she’d tossed Dawn into the closet, Buffy set out with renewed purpose. Once she figured out what that thing’s purpose was, she could show everyone. Spike would understand once he knew the truth.

 

The guy in the brown robe who was tied to a chair was something of a surprise. Buffy hurried over to release him. “You’re the one who planted the Dagon Sphere, right? Don’t worry, I got it, and I’m stronger than I look. Besides,” she whirled, grabbing the woman sneaking up on her by the throat. “I’m not stupid.”

 

She wasn’t expecting to get thrown across the room.

 

~~~~~

 

“This is really good,” Dawn said, digging into the stir-fry and rice that Spike had whipped up. He was digging into his own plate-full with equal relish, having surprised himself at his own success.

 

“Cooking’s not too hard if you can follow directions,” he replied. “At least, I don’t think it is.”

 

They both heard the sound of the front door opening, and moments later both Giles and Joyce joined them in the kitchen. “You alright, Joyce?” Spike asked, quickly rising to pull a chair out for her.

 

“I’m fine,” she insisted. “Well, maybe not fine, but I’ll survive.” She gave Giles a grateful look. “Thanks for seeing me home, Rupert.”

 

“Well, I was hoping to get fed,” he admitted, looking at the food with undisguised longing. “I’m a bit hungry.”

 

“Sit down, both of you,” Spike replied. “I’ll get it.”

 

“Why don’t I give you a hand?” Giles asked, following him into the kitchen. “Do you know where Buffy is?”

 

Spike shook his head. “Thought she’d be with you, seeing how you were the last one to talk to her.” Casting a cautious glance towards the dining room, he asked in a low voice, “What was she up to tonight? When I got here, I found her throwing Dawn around like she was a rag doll. Kept saying something like Dawn wasn’t her sister.”

 

Giles frowned. “She was doing a spell, tirer la couture. Apparently while she was at the hospital getting Joyce’s medicine today, a security guard told her that ‘they would come at her through her family.’ Buffy said he was perfectly sane when she ran into him last night.”

 

Spike frowned. “She was with me last night, and—”

 

Giles shook his head. “After she left your apartment, actually. She ran into a large vampire, chased him down, and was stopped by a night watchman who found an orb and thought it was hers. We discovered that it was called the Dagon Sphere and was meant to ward off great evil.”

 

“What? She thought Dawn was the great evil?” Spike snorted. “Bit annoying some days maybe, but hardly evil.”

 

Giles sighed. “I have no idea, Spike. It doesn’t make much sense to me. Quite frankly, I think it has something to do with the fact that Buffy is having difficulty accepting Joyce’s illness. She thought it might be a spell or a curse of some kind.”

 

“Slayer’s got plenty of enemies,” Spike acknowledged. “Most demons won’t go through the family. No fun that way. They’ll go right for the Slayer’s throat. Unless you’re Angelus, of course, and he’s just a bloody great wanker.”

 

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Giles murmured fervently. “No, I think you’re right, but Buffy will have to come to her own conclusions about that.”

 

Spike sighed, handing Giles a full plate. “Well, nothing we can do about it now. Hopefully, Buffy’ll get back soon and she can enlighten us as to what the hell she was thinking, attacking Dawn.”

 

“Indeed,” Giles replied. “I just hope she didn’t go off and do something rash. The presence of such a powerful talisman as the Dagon Sphere suggests that we may have a serious problem on our hands.”

 

Spike looked out into the dining room at Dawn and Joyce who were talking quietly. “As if we didn’t already have a serious problem on our hands.”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy wasn’t used to getting her ass kicked by a girl. Not that she was sexist or anything, but serious challenges in the past had come from big ugly guys or giant snakes or an ugly demonic cyborg. Challenges, as a rule, didn’t come from snotty bitches in ‘ho’s clothing.

 

For once, Buffy was grateful for a villain’s tossing her across the room as she landed next to the monk. She hurried to get the injured man up and out of the warehouse, focused on getting to safety and not on defeating the bad guy.

 

Judging by how roundly she’d gotten trounced, beating up the bad girl—in this case—was going to be something of a problem.

 

She hurried the monk along, noting the sound of breaking concrete behind her, but not stopping to discover what had caused it, or if it meant their safety. They collapsed near a chain-link fence, and Buffy somehow knew that the monk would not rise again, even though she hated to admit defeat.

 

“We have to get going!” she urged him.

 

He shook his head weakly. “You have to protect the Key.”

 

Buffy frowned. “The Dagon Sphere—”

 

“No, not that. For centuries it had no form at all. Then, my brethren and I—its only keepers. The Abomination found us. We had to hide it, give it form, molded its flesh…sent it to you.”

 

Buffy was quick on the uptake. She immediately knew that the monk was talking about Dawn. Her stomach churned. Despite her earlier anger, the thought that Dawn really wasn’t her sister made her want to cry. She remembered—

 

“My memories,” she finally objected when the monk confirmed her suspicions.

 

“We built them,” he admitted.

 

“Then unbuild them!” Buffy cried. It was too much. The burden of her mother’s illness, and added to that the burden of her sister’s secret identity. She had never asked for this. “This is my life!”

 

“You cannot abandon.”

 

Buffy wanted to reply, “No shit, Sherlock.” She had never been derelict in her duty. Oh, she’d wanted to with the prophecy surrounded her death at the hands of the Master, but she’d gone into the lion’s den and came out kicking. If Dawn was really human—“What is she?”

 

“Human, now human,” he said, seemingly reading the thoughts behind the question. “And innocent. She needs you.”

 

Buffy wanted to scream. Everyone needed her—needed her to save the world, to make it a better place, to do her duty. When wasn’t she needed? “She’s not my sister…”

 

“She doesn’t know that.” And the man breathed his last.

 

Buffy had some time to think as she walked home. She didn’t bother calling the police to explain what had happened. They would employ the standard reasoning anyway, so it wasn’t as though it would do any good. Who would she tell? Who could she tell?

 

The monk had wanted to hide the Key, which meant that Dawn’s safety rested on as few people as possible knowing the truth. Giles was a must, of course, but Spike was a big question mark. Should she tell her boyfriend, knowing that it might put him in more danger than he could handle?

 

On the other hand, could she hope to hide it from him, given what he’d seen her do earlier?

 

Spike would know something was up, just because he knew her so well. What Buffy needed to figure out was if she could really add to his burden by letting him know the truth about Dawn. A girl he loved like his own sister.

 

She had no answer, even as she approached her front door. No answers at all, to any of it, except that she loved Dawn and would protect her with her life if necessary.

 

It was what the Slayer did, after all.

Chapter Text

“If I can stop one heart from breaking,/I shall not live in vain;/If I can ease one life the aching,/Or cool one pain,/Or help one fainting robin/Unto his nest again,/I shall not live in vain.” ~Emily Dickinson

 

Buffy knew she didn’t have a choice about telling Spike the truth when she saw his face. He and Giles were sitting with Dawn and Joyce, chatting pleasantly. The way he was looking at her—as though he were terribly disappointed in her—Buffy hadn’t thought that anyone but Giles could look at her like that.

 

“Buffy,” Joyce said, smiling. “How was patrol?”

 

“Good,” Buffy replied, glancing at Dawn. The girl rose quickly, slipping past Buffy to head upstairs, without a word to anyone. Spike and Giles exchanged knowing looks, but Joyce appeared bewildered.

 

“What was that?”

 

Buffy sighed. “Just sister stuff.” She gave both Giles and Spike a pleading look. “I’ll be right back down.”

 

Joyce noted the look of concern in Spike’s eyes as he watched Buffy head up the stairs. Torn, Spike considered following, but Giles’ gentle hand stopped him. With a quick shake of the head, Giles held him in place.

 

Buffy stood in the doorway of her—no, not her sister’s—Dawn’s room, feeling awkward. She knew she owed Dawn an apology, but it wasn’t easy for her to give those out, especially to annoying little sisters.

 

Speaking of annoying little sisters, if the monks were going to make Dawn up, make up all her memories, why couldn’t they make her a little less annoying? A little less bratty? Why did Dawn get special relationships with everyone, including her boyfriend?

 

Oh, that’s right. Because everybody was supposed to want to protect her.

 

Buffy stifled her resentment and attempted the apology. “I’m sorry.”

 

“You hurt my arm.”

 

“I’m really sorry.” Buffy took a few steps into the room when she realized that Dawn wasn’t going to start immediately screaming at her to get out. Faced with the girl, Buffy remembered—everything. She had no idea when the real memories started, though she figured that Dawn had shown up in bodily form only recently.

 

The memories, even fake ones, were accompanied by feelings though, and Buffy realized what a good job those monks had done. This was about more than duty; it was about love.

 

Blood didn’t have anything to do with it at this point.

 

Dawn gave her a dirty look. “You acted like a jerk. Even Spike thought so.”

 

“I know.” Buffy sat down on the bed next to the other girl.

 

Dawn rolled her eyes. “Did I ever tell you that I have this theory? It’s where Mom adopted you from a shoebox full of howler monkeys, only she never told you because of your delicate baby feelings.”

 

“You really can’t take an apology, can you?” Buffy suppressed her own eye-roll. “You never could. Ever since—” she broke off as she realized the wrongness of that statement. “I just had a really bad day.”

 

“Join the club,” Dawn replied.

 

“Can I be president?”

 

“I’m president.” Dawn bent. Slightly. “You can be janitor.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Buffy’s hand moved of its own accord to stroke Dawn’s hair. “Buffy?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“What’s wrong with Mom?”

 

“I don’t know.” Buffy put her arm around Dawn’s shoulders as the younger girl leaned against her. “I don’t know.”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy passed her mom on the stairs on her way down, and she paused to wish her a good night. “Love you.”

 

“I love you too, sweetie,” Joyce replied. “Oh, and Spike and Giles are still downstairs. They said they wanted to talk to you.”

 

Buffy nodded. “Yeah, I figured. I’ll let them out.”

 

She found both men drinking tea in the dining room when she got there, speaking in a low voice, their conversation intense. Two pairs of eyes found hers as she sat down next to Spike. “Buffy?”

 

“I’m sorry about earlier,” she said softly. “I’ve already apologized to Dawn.”

 

“That’s good,” he said, his face still not losing its grimness. “I’m still waiting to hear what that was all about.”

 

“Did it have something to do with the spell?” Giles asked. “You said it didn’t work.”

 

Buffy hesitated, then nodded. “I couldn’t see what was wrong with Mom, but I could see what was up with Dawn. Her picture was flickering in and out, her room wasn’t really there—it was a storage room. And then, when I saw Dawn, it was like she wasn’t real.”

 

“Not real?” Giles said. “What do you mean?”

 

Briefly, Buffy described her encounter with the monk and the woman, telling them what he had said about Dawn. Spike was shaking his head before she was done. “No. I can’t—I remember, Buffy! I—”

 

“I remember when Mom and Dad got divorced, Dawn cried for like a week.” Buffy met his eyes. “You’re not the only one who’s finding this hard to swallow.”

 

Giles pulled off his glasses, rubbing his eyes. “Dawn doesn’t know?”

 

“She thinks she’s my kid sister,” Buffy replied. “We have to keep her safe.”

 

“That goes without saying,” Spike rumbled. “We gonna tell her?”

 

Buffy shook her head. “How can we? She’d freak, and that’s the last thing anybody needs.”

 

Giles frowned. “This—woman. She knows you now. Should we be thinking about sending Dawn away?”

 

“Where?” Buffy asked.

 

“Your father’s?” Giles suggested. Buffy and Spike let out twin snorts.

 

“I wouldn’t send that wanker a puppy,” Spike muttered.

 

Buffy gave her boyfriend a half-hearted smile. “What Spike means to say is that my father is in Spain with his secretary, living the dream. I called to let him know Mom was sick, and he didn’t even—”

 

When she faltered, Giles grimaced. “Of course. I’m sorry, Buffy. What will we tell the others?”

 

“Nothing,” Buffy quickly replied. “They’d act weird around her. The fewer people who know about this, the better.”

 

Spike nodded his agreement. “Gotta go with the Slayer on this one. Between the three of us we should be able to keep Dawn safe and the others in the dark. At least for the time being.”

 

“I think that’s wise,” Giles agreed. “We should also make every attempt to discover who this woman is, and what she might want Dawn for. If she comes after you…”

 

“She’ll come,” Buffy said quietly, knowingly. She looked towards the stairs where Dawn lay sleeping by now, and felt Spike’s strong hand close over hers on the table. “It’s just a matter of time, but she’ll come.”

 

~~~~~

 

Tara looked down at the spell book, thinking about the ramifications of the binding spell—what she’d need, how she’d do it, what kind of power it would take. In some ways, she’d taken a page out of Spike’s book. He had come to terms with his place in the group, largely by forming connections that were unique to himself. He had made himself indispensable, although the witch wasn’t sure Spike had figured that out yet.

 

He had just wanted to be useful; well, so did she.

 

“You coming to bed?” Willow called. She was already under the covers, waiting for the other girl.

 

Tara looked over her shoulder at her. “I think I’m going to read for a while longer. I just want to get this figured out.”

 

Willow made a face. “You’ve been spell-gal lately.”

 

“I want to keep up with you,” Tara explained. “And I want to be useful. You know, I just want…” She trailed off.

 

Willow gave her a sympathetic look. “You’re not useful. You’re essential.”

 

Tara smiled shyly, and ducked her head, remembering what Spike had said to her. “Yeah.”

 

“Are you ready to have a happy birthday?” Willow asked.

 

A shadow fell across Tara’s face as she remembered what turning twenty was supposed to mean, and the fact that she hadn’t shared her secret with Willow yet. “I guess.” Taking a deep breath, she turned to face her lover. “Can I—I need to tell you something.”

 

“Okay,” Willow said, pushing herself up into a more upright position on the bed. “As long as it isn’t about you breaking up with me, I can handle anything.”

 

Tara gave a little shake of her head. “No, it’s not that. It’s about—” She had no idea how to start. How did you tell your girlfriend that you’d thought you were a demon until an ex-vampire had convinced you otherwise? “Do you remember when Spike was really sick last spring, and you guys went and fixed up his apartment while I sat with him?”

 

Willow nodded, remembering. She also remembered that Tara’d had a different light in her eyes over the subsequent days. She’d looked happier or something, and Willow had wondered why Spike would have been the cause. “Yeah. Spike didn’t—I mean, he wouldn’t—”

 

“No, he was…” She sighed. Slowly, she repeated their conversation verbatim. “Up until then I always thought there was something wrong with me,” she explained. “I mean, I knew it would come out eventually, and it’s supposed to come out on your twentieth birthday.”

 

“Oh.” Willow blinked. Her scientist’s mind was trying to come up with an explanation, working out all the possibilities. “Well, I mean there are some genes that are carried by males but only expressed in females. Or vice versa. I guess it would be—” She stopped, seeing the look on Tara’s face. “Oh! But I don’t mean that with you, sweetie! It’s not like you’re a demon or anything.”

 

Tara gave her a pained smile, her carefully constructed reasoning as to why she couldn’t be a demon suddenly very shaky. “But I could be.”

 

“So what if you are?” Willow asked fiercely. “It doesn’t matter. I mean, Spike was a vampire, and Anya was a vengeance demon. Nobody cares about that. It’s about what you do.”

 

Tara wasn’t so sure. And even if it was true, what did she do, anyway? What could she hope to contribute to the others?

 

Willow, sensing her girlfriend’s turmoil, grabbed her hand and tugged her to the bed. “Tara, sweetie, I love you. You know that.”

 

“I know,” Tara replied.

 

The redhead hesitated. “You’ve never really said much about your family. Was it—was it bad?”

 

“Not so bad,” she replied. “No worse than anybody else’s house, I guess.”

 

It wasn’t precisely true. Tara hadn’t actually known how bad it was until she got to college. Although she might have a tendency to fade into the woodwork, the people had treated her differently, Willow and her friends most differently of all.

 

Including Spike. Spike was actually the first guy she wasn’t afraid of. The day she and Willow took him shopping, his eyes had been so wounded, all she’d wanted to do was to protect him. He’d always been so gentle with her, Tara didn’t think she could be afraid, but that hadn’t always been the case.

 

Tara wanted to belong somewhere, to belong to someone. She just wanted a family.

 

~~~~~

 

“What are you going to do now?” Spike asked.

 

Buffy had insisted on walking him back to his apartment. Despite the lateness of the hour, she needed to be with him, needed reassurance that he was on her side, and more than willing to brave hell itself for her.

 

She was suddenly grateful that he’d been there at the end of the spell, that she’d been forced to tell him the truth about Dawn. Otherwise, it would have been far too easy to convince herself of how much better it would be not to tell him.

 

The burden of keeping it from him would have weighed heavy on her shoulders.

 

“I’m going to move back home,” she said after a moment’s silence. “Me being in the dorms just isn’t safe for Dawn. Plus, with Mom not feeling well right now, it gives me a good excuse.”

 

Spike nodded. “Probably not a bad idea. And Dawn?”

 

“I’m not going to let her out of my sight?” Buffy said, a questioning note in her voice. At Spike’s raised eyebrow, she sighed. “I don’t know, Spike. That’s pretty much the best I can come up with right now.”

 

“Why not let me take on part of that too?” he asked. “Tell her to come to the gallery after she’s done with school, or I can take a bit of a break and pick her up.”

 

Buffy winced. “I don’t know. I mean, it’s great that you want to help, but—” She stopped, and she could hear him sigh next to her.

 

“You can say it, Buffy-luv. I’m not strong enough.”

 

Hearing the resignation in his tone, Buffy squeezed his hand. “I wasn’t strong enough,” she reminded him. “She was giving me a very thorough ass-kicking. I don’t even want to know what she could do to you. You didn’t see the monk.”

 

“No, I didn’t,” Spike agreed. “But I don’t need to. Look, pet, you know that if you start keeping strict tabs on the Bit, it’ll look out of place. She’ll figure something is up, and so will everybody else. Then you’ll have to answer their questions. Better if you let Giles and me split duties. If you’re not going to send her away, you can’t single her out.”

 

Buffy knew he was right. There was elegant logic to his argument, and she reluctantly agreed. “So, you and Giles help with Dawn-duty.” She let out a bitter little laugh. “Why am I suddenly afraid that I’m never going to get to see you?”

 

“It’ll pass, luv,” he replied quietly. “Give it a bit of time, and it’ll pass. We’ll figure out this new big bad, and see that the Nibblet is safe. Won’t take any time at all, you’ll see.”

 

Buffy wanted to believe him. She really did. Duty had come crashing down on her shoulders, however, and it was heavier than she ever remembered it being before. She had a bad feeling about this one, as though she sensed it was going to get ugly before it even started.

 

“Right,” she finally replied, taking a deep breath, somehow knowing that Spike understood how she was feeling. “Business as usual on the Hellmouth.”

 

~~~~~

 

“Okay, I think that’s most of it,” Buffy said, leaning back into Spike’s chest as his arms came around her waist. “Remind me to thank mom for feeling well enough to give you the day off.”

 

“No need,” he replied. “Already done.” Spike could feel the tension in her. She was still wound tight over this whole Glory mess, and he couldn’t blame her. He was a bit on edge himself. The worst of it was knowing that he’d be of little use if it came down to a fight. He could carry his own weight, but he was a human, with human limitations.

 

They had managed to get everything out of Buffy’s dorm and back into her room, however, and he’d helped with that. At least he could still move stuff. “Where to now?” he asked.

 

“Magic Box.” Buffy pulled away slightly, giving him a smile. “There’s research to be done, and Giles to check up on. You don’t have to come, you know. If you just want a break—”

 

“Not come?” Spike asked, giving a mock-gasp of pain. “Slayer, you wound me! As if I would have anything better to do with my time than be with you.”

 

Buffy stared at him, then a large grin broke out over her face. “You know, you are really good with the sweet talk. Keep that up and I may just have to do something about it.”

 

“That a threat?”

 

“A promise,” she assured him, still grinning.

 

They drove over to the Magic Box in the Desoto, Spike doing his best to make her laugh. He would do everything in his power to lighten her load, and he loved to hear her happy. She grew a little more serious as he parked, however. “Spike?”

 

“Yeah, luv?”

 

“Have you gotten anything for Tara’s birthday yet?”

 

Spike looked over at her, scarred eyebrow cocked. “Sure. Went shopping about a week ago. Why?”

 

“I have no idea what to get her,” Buffy confessed. “I mean, she’s really nice, and I like her. I just don’t get her sometimes.”

 

Spike frowned. “Don’t get her?”

 

“Like today, with the comment about the ‘insect reflection.’ I just—”

 

Spike made a face. “She has a rare brand of humor, Buffy, but the comment was funny if you understand the context.”

 

“I know!” Buffy replied. “You laughed. You got it. It’s just—I don’t. All I really know about her is that she likes Willow and she’s into the Wicca thing.”

 

He sighed. “If Tara were getting you a present, what would you want from her?”

 

“Huh?”

 

Spike looked at her patiently. “Somebody who didn’t know you well needed to get you a gift, what would you want?”

 

Buffy gave that a moment’s consideration. “I don’t know. Something everybody likes, I guess. Bath stuff, or candles, or maybe a gift certificate.”

 

“She might like one of those,” Spike acknowledged. “Tara doesn’t have a lot of spare cash. She might appreciate the chance to treat herself to something nice.”

 

“That just seems so—impersonal.”

 

Spike rolled his eyes. “You can’t have it both ways, Slayer. You don’t know someone well, chances are your gift’s going to be a bit impersonal or totally off the mark.”

 

Buffy got out of the car, looking at him over the hood. “Okay, so what did you get her?”

 

He shrugged. “Got her a book of magical recipes and remedies. She likes that sort of thing, and it’s going to be handy if she keeps hanging around us. We’ll need her skills at some point.”

 

Buffy made a face. “You know, I’m not sure what it says when your boyfriend is more sensitive than you are.”

 

“I am not sensitive,” he replied hotly. “I’m very manly.”

 

She grinned, glad to have riled him a bit. “One hundred percent, sweetie.”

 

“And don’t you forget it,” Spike said, following her into the store. Xander was soon moaning about not knowing what to get Tara too, and Spike gently steered him in the same direction he had the Slayer. He’d seen Tara’s longing looks and regretful glances when he went shopping with her and Dawn. She didn’t have a lot of money, but she was as generous with her time and her abilities as anyone he’d ever met. If anyone deserved a bit of a shopping spree it was her.

 

Honestly, Spike didn’t understand why the rest of the Scoobies had such a difficult time understanding Tara. Unless, of course, it was because they couldn’t see much outside the confines of their little group. Not that he disliked any of them, really, but they were an insular lot to be sure. He thought it only right that the outsiders looked after each other.

 

Speaking of outsiders—Spike looked over at the young man browsing the shelves. There was something a little off about him. If he’d still been a vampire, Spike would have snapped his neck without bothering to drink.

 

Without giving the appearance of staring, Spike kept one eye on his book and one eye on the young wanker. His unease was confirmed just a few moments later. “These all magic books?”

 

Giles looked up at the potential customer, used by now to impertinent (and stupid) questions. Quite a few visitors to the store didn’t take its inventory seriously. “These are part of our private collection. The ones for sale are on the shelves over there.”

 

Giles caught a glimpse of the look on Spike’s face, and was taken aback. He had a feeling that Spike would be growling if he could have managed it with the same effect as in the past. The stranger looked at the books on the table with barely concealed disdain. “So you can do spells with these books? Turn me into a frog?”

 

“Yeah, that’s what we do,” Xander replied dryly. “We’re making a whole army of frogs in our spare time.”

 

“Might be an improvement,” Spike said quietly, in such a low voice that only Buffy caught it. She gave him an alarmed look, and then glanced back at the man. It was unusual for him to be so hostile to a stranger. Spike worked in her mom’s art gallery with weird customers all day and managed to be invariably polite.

 

Buffy watched as Spike smiled politely at the man, his hostility thinly disguised, and the stranger seemed to deflate slightly. Whatever else might have been said was interrupted by the bell over the door, and Willow and Tara walked in laughing and talking.

 

Spike’s sharp eyes didn’t miss the way Tara seemed to sink into herself as soon as she caught sight of the strange man, nor the almost unholy light in the man’s eyes. “Well, hey, Tara!” he said, sounding jovial. “You got a hug for your big brother?”

 

“H-h-hey, D-Donny,” Tara said, giving him an awkward hug. “H-how did you find—what brings you here?”

 

Donny grinned, and Spike could see the power behind the expression. It was the smile of someone who was confident of his place and was accustomed to putting other people in theirs. “Well, duh, birthday girl. We came in the camper. We been all over campus lookin’ for you.” He looked around at the others. “You know these folks?”

 

“Uh, y-yeah.” Tara glanced over at her girlfriend. “Willow, this is m-my b-brother, D-Donny. And these are my friends.”

 

“This is more people than you went to high school with,” he replied, laughing. Willow and Spike’s eyes met. Now that they both had some inkling that Tara’s home life hadn’t been all roses and no thorns, they knew there was more to this than older brother greeting younger sister. Neither had missed Tara’s aborted question of how they had found her.

 

“It’s nice to meet you,” Willow said, though her smile was slightly strained.

 

The bell over the door rang again, and a middle-aged man in a starched white shirt entered. Spike thought he looked as though he had something rammed up his ass. “Hey, lookit what I found!” Donny called.

 

“Uh, Dad, hi.”

 

“Hello, Tara.” He stepped aside to reveal a young woman about his daughter’s age.

 

“Cousin Beth,” Tara’s voice was still quavering, and Spike edged a little closer to her, ready to intercede if things got weird. Not that they weren’t weird already.

 

“Hey.” The girl didn’t appear any more pleased to see Tara than she was to see her family.

 

Mr. Maclay looked at his daughter. “We went by your room. Some of your dorm mates thought we might find you here.”

 

“Oh, yeah, uh, this is Mr. Giles, and these-these are m-my friends,” she explained. By this point, everyone in the shop had caught on to the weird vibes, and there were a few very subdued hellos given.

 

Mr. Maclay sized them all up in moments, and didn’t appear too impressed with what he was seeing. “Well, I don’t want to disrupt your plans, but I thought we might have dinner tonight.”

 

It wasn’t actually a request, and Tara nodded quickly. “Sure.”

 

“I’ll pick you up around six then,” he stated. “You’ll forgive me for running off, but I’m double parked.”

 

All three trooped out, and Willow came to put an arm around her girlfriend. “You don’t have to go with them tonight if you don’t want to, sweetie. Or I could go with you if—”

 

Tara shook her head. “N-no, I-I’ll be fine. It-it’s okay.”

 

Spike came to stand next to her. “Listen to me, luv. Family isn’t about the blood, yeah? Whatever they been telling you all these years, it’s a bunch of lies.”

 

“Lies?” Buffy asked. “What—”

 

Tara shook her head. “I-I should go.” She gave Spike a grateful look. “I know.”

 

“Just so you remember,” he warned her, and then watched as she left with Willow.

 

“Uh, what was that all about?” Buffy asked.

 

Spike hesitated. He didn’t want to spill Tara’s secret, but at the same time she might end up needing the support of the whole group. While the Scoobies were insular, they were also very attuned to doing the right thing for the underdog. They would do the right thing now. “Glinda grew up thinking she was some sort of demon.”

 

“What?” This came from Buffy, Xander, and Giles.

 

“What kind of demon?” Anya asked interestedly. “Because I’ve known some very nice half-breeds. I’ve known fewer nice humans, actually.”

 

Spike gave her a humorless smile. “Well, they had her convinced she was evil, or some such rot. Thought I’d disabused her of that notion last spring when she told me, but…” He trailed off. “Least evil girl I’ve ever met,” he grumbled.

 

“I would certainly agree,” Giles said. “She said it was just her? But her brother—”

 

“That’s what I said,” Spike interrupted. “Unless she wasn’t her father’s daughter, it’s impossible. It was some rot story. You saw her brother.”

 

Xander frowned, unwanted memories in his eyes. “He kind of reminded me of someone I don’t like.” He looked around at the others. “So what are we going to do?”

 

Buffy raised her eyebrows. “What we always do. We protect our own, and Tara’s one of us now.”

 

~~~~~

 

Tara kept her arms wrapped tightly around herself as she headed towards the Magic Box. After her conversation with her father, she wasn’t feeling very good. Her dad seemed so sure—about her, about her mother. She couldn’t believe that all magic was evil, not when she’d seen Willow and her friends use it to help people.

 

Not when she’d used it to help people.

 

Plus, Spike liked her, and he had known before Willow even. He seemed to think it was all a lie. Even if Willow thought it was possible she was part demon, she hadn’t seemed turned off by the idea. Her girlfriend had been just as affectionate with her today as any other day.

 

Still, the spell had been tempting. If she could just hide it for a little while, until her family was gone and the danger was past—but it wouldn’t be right. Besides, if Spike and Willow knew, the others probably did as well now.

 

That knowledge gave her the strength to tell Beth she wasn’t going home, and was why she was now hurrying to the Magic Box. She needed her friends around her when she stood up to her father. She wanted witnesses.

 

The store was in chaos when she arrived though. Lei-ach demons seemed to be overrunning the place, and Buffy and Spike had their hands full holding them off. “Tara!” Willow called when she spotted the other witch. “Hurry!”

 

Tara raced over to her, joining their hands, focusing on one of the remaining demons attacking Spike. They had been practicing over the last few months, and the spell worked better than it had in the past, the demon freezing in mid-swing. Spike used the respite to slice through its middle with his ax, calling a brief thanks over his shoulder before going over to help Buffy.

 

The last demon had managed to evade Buffy, heading for Mr. Maclay as he came through the door. “What—”

 

His surprised cry was ignored by the others as Buffy tripped the demon and stepped on its neck, the sharp crack sounding through the suddenly quiet shop. “What is this?” Tara’s father demanded.

 

“Demons,” Spike replied laconically, giving Donny and Beth amused looks as they stared at the carnage in horror. “Real ones.”

 

Mr. Maclay stared at him and then looked over at Tara. “You will be coming home with us, young lady. We know what you are. We can deal with it. Staying here, you’ll just put your friends in more danger, and—”

 

“We’re already in danger on a regular basis,” Buffy interrupted. “Tara being here or not wouldn’t change that, but she could be a big help.”

 

“Besides,” Dawn said, piping up from behind the store counter where she’d been hiding. “Tara belongs here. We want her.”

 

Beside Tara, Willow gave her hand a squeeze. “I don’t want you to go. No one does.”

 

“We’re your family!” Mr. Maclay protested. “Your blood kin! You people have no right to interfere in Tara’s affairs.”

 

“Sometimes blood isn’t everything,” Spike said.

 

Tara met Willow’s eyes and then looked over at Spike. Seeing the support there, she nodded. “I’m sorry, Dad, but I’m not leaving. This is my home now.”

 

“You’re not gonna let her get away with that, are you?” Donny demanded. “Tara, I swear if you don’t get yourself in that car right now, I will beat you down!”

 

Spike had never claimed to be the kind of guy that thinks everything through. He was often led by passion, and this time passion led him to throw a mean left hook. Donny never saw it coming. “You want to try threatening anybody again?” he invited softly. He stared into Mr. Maclay’s eyes. “You’re not welcome here.”

 

“Tara, you’re not going to let them do this, are you? For eighteen years, we supported you and took care of you, and now—”

 

“Dad, just go.” She didn’t say it without a sense of sadness. You didn’t say goodbye to the family of your birth without a longing for what had never been. To break ties also meant to accept what would never be.

 

But there was a freedom in accepting what was.

 

She watched her family leave, and then turned and gave Willow a kiss, too happy to say anything at all. Behind her, Giles was talking to Spike. “You know, normally I would tell you that violence doesn’t solve anything, but I rather wanted to plant a fist in that wanker’s face myself.” Then, recalling who was present, he said, “Forgive me, Tara.”

 

“No, it’s okay. He is a wanker.” She looked over at Spike and smiled. “Thank you.”

 

Spike smiled and shrugged. “What else is family for?”

 

Tara gave him a knowing look. It seemed she’d at last found a place to belong.

Chapter Text

“…Just as a pure line describes the dove’s curve,/as the fire honors and nourishes peace,/so you and I made this heavenly outcome./The mind and love live naked in this house./Furious dreams, rivers of bitter certainty,/decisions harder than the dreams of a hammer/flowed into the lovers’ double cup,/until those twins were lifted into balance/on the scale: the mind and love, like two wings./—So this transparency was built.” ~Pablo Neruda, “Sonnet LIV”

 

“Buffy, were you planning on doing anything for Spike’s birthday?”

 

The Slayer looked over at her mother, surprised. “Huh?”

 

“Spike’s birthday,” Joyce said patiently. She was relaxing with a cup of tea, enjoying the domesticity of watching her oldest clean up the kitchen while Dawn worked on homework upstairs. She had been feeling better on and off recently. Sometimes she had no trouble working a full day at the gallery. Other times, Spike ran her off the premises as soon as she arrived. “At least, the birth date that he gave me on his employment records. It’s coming up this week. I had Spike bring some files over so I could work from home even when I wasn’t feeling up to going in to the gallery.”

 

Buffy blinked, feeling like she’d just been hit over the head with a two-by-four. She was a bad girlfriend. She had no idea when her boyfriend’s birthday was. She hadn’t even bothered to find out. Feeling a flush of shame rise in her face, she gave her mom a panicked look. “Please tell me I didn’t completely miss it.”

 

Joyce shook her head. “No, we still have a few days. I just wasn’t sure if it was his real birthday or if it had something to do with the date he, you know, became human again. I think it’s been about a year.”

 

It had been a year, Buffy realized, startled. This time last year she’d been busy with the Initiative, dating Riley, and being a bitch to a newly-human Spike. Of course, Spike hadn’t actually shown up at Giles’ apartment until after the holidays, but he’d spent weeks in the Initiative labs.

 

This would be his first birthday in a long time, and Buffy had almost missed it, too caught up in her own life to even think about it.

 

She was indeed a very bad girlfriend. “I’m glad you remembered, Mom,” Buffy admitted. “It completely slipped my mind.”

 

Joyce shrugged. “Well, Tara had her birthday last week, and it just reminded me that I should probably check and see what the official date was. I’d planned on doing something for the unofficial date, but it looks like they’re pretty closely connected.” She gave her daughter a warm smile. “Don’t worry about it, sweetie. I know you’ve been busy recently, trying to get settled back in and with your Slayer obligations. I’m sure I can talk to Giles and we can all figure something out together.”

 

Buffy nodded, already trying to come up with a plan. What did you get a guy when he turned one hundred and something?

 

~~~~~

 

Spike peered out the office door when the bell rang to see who had entered. He smiled at Dawn in greeting. “What brings you by, Nibblet? School done for the day?”

 

“Yes,” she replied sullenly. “It’s so not fair.”

 

He cocked an eyebrow, turning away from his computer screen. “What’s not fair, pet?”

 

“Buffy!” Dawn exploded. “She’s all over my case now that she’s at home. She wouldn’t even let me go over to Melissa’s house for dinner! And she lives across the street! It’s not fair!”

 

Spike could see the exclamation points flying out of her mouth, and he bit back a sigh. It most certainly wasn’t fair, but fairness wasn’t Buffy’s concern at this point. Keeping her sister safe was. “Bit, you know with this new big bad in town your sister wants to be careful. Your safety is important.”

 

“Yeah, well what about my social life?” Dawn demanded. “She was always complaining about her lack in that area. You’d think she’d be happy I at least have friends.”

 

Spike gave her a rueful look. “Buffy’s happy. She just wants to protect you.”

 

“It sucks to be the sister of the Slayer,” was Dawn’s considered opinion. “I never get to do anything. If Buffy wasn’t my sister, it wouldn’t matter.”

 

Spike nearly winced. If Buffy wasn’t Dawn’s sister, Dawn wouldn’t exist, but he couldn’t very well tell the girl that. He understood Buffy’s policy on not telling Dawn about her true identity. It would be a lot for the girl to take in, but at the same time, it would help her understand the gravity of the situation. And she needed to understand. Not knowing, Dawn could end up getting herself into some very nasty trouble without even trying.

 

Besides, when she did find out—and Spike had no doubt that Dawn would—she would probably freak a lot more than if she’d been told under controlled circumstances.

 

It wasn’t his call to make, though.

 

“If your sister wasn’t the Slayer, you probably wouldn’t have met me, Nibblet,” Spike pointed out, hoping to get a smile. “And how sad a life would that have been?”

 

Dawn rolled her eyes, an unwilling smile playing around the edges of her mouth. “I guess.”

 

“You want to tell me what you’re doing here then?”

 

She shrugged. “Buffy said I could go straight to the Magic Box to do homework or here, because Mom wasn’t feeling good again this morning. Buffy said I wasn’t supposed to bother her.”

 

Spike was sure that was true. He also knew that Buffy wanted someone keeping tabs on Dawn at all times so she didn’t have the chance to run off and get herself into trouble. He’d offered to help with that just the day before. “Be happy to have you here, Nibblet. It’s been slow today. You work on your homework, and then maybe later I’ll have you help out with some of the stuff in the back. How’s that?”

 

Dawn brightened. “Will you help me with my Wordsworth paper? I so totally don’t get what the heck he’s talking about.”

 

“Of course, luv.” Spike watched the girl for a moment as she unpacked her bag. There were times when she reminded him so much of his sister that he could almost see the image superimposed; the face of the girl who had died so long ago over the one who had been created so recently.

 

It really didn’t matter to Spike that she wasn’t truly Buffy’s sister. He had accepted his love for Dawn a long time ago, knowing he had no blood tie. That she was an innocent pawn in all of this simply intensified his desire to protect her. To save her.

 

As he had not been able to save his sister, or his mother, or even himself.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike knew what day it was, of course, although he wasn’t sure anyone else understood its significance. He wasn’t altogether sure if Giles’ dating of his identification papers had anything to do with when he was turned human again or if the similarity was by chance alone. It was hard to attribute it to chance when there was only a two-day difference.

 

He hadn’t said anything about it, not even to Buffy. He wasn’t certain that Buffy remembered when he had shown up at Giles’ door, and he’d been in the Initiative labs for weeks by that time, so it had been later when he’d turned up. Spike didn’t expect her to remember the exact date of his being alive all over again.

 

Since there really didn’t seem to be any plans in the works to celebrate either his birthday-on-paper or his return-to-life, he was trying hard not to care.

 

It wasn’t working.

 

His early morning run took him by the grave this time, and he slowed and stopped to pay his respects. It seemed only right. “H’lo, mum,” he murmured. “Guess you could say it’s my birthday today. It’s strange, but I don’t even know how old I am. Am I twenty-five or twenty-six? Or maybe I’m a hundred and forty-six. Don’t suppose it really matters.”

 

He removed some of the dead leaves from the grave. “You remember how you used to celebrate my birthday? You always made sure there was a gift and I got my favorite foods. It wasn’t much, not like the Scoobies do it now, but it was always good.

 

“I miss you,” he confessed. “Wish you could tell me that you’re okay. Wish you could tell me that I’m doing okay after a year of being human. Some days, it doesn’t seem worth it, and then I feel guilty for not being more grateful for the second chance.”

 

He shivered in the cool air. Even in California, the land of eternal sun, the temperatures started to cool in November. While shorts and a t-shirt were fine for a run, the slight breeze reminded him that he needed to keep moving.

 

Slowly, Spike stood, remembering briefly stopping here after another run, his mad escape. Things were better now. He had a place.

 

He just had to keep telling himself that.

 

~~~~~

 

“I really appreciate you helping with this, Rupert,” Joyce said. “I don’t think I’m quite up to planning a party on my own.”

 

Giles looked over at Joyce with concern. “And the doctors still don’t know anything?”

 

“They’re talking about more tests right now,” she confessed, “but no one seems to be talking. I still wanted to be able to do something for William, though. You don’t mind picking up the cake?”

 

“Of course not,” Giles replied, putting the bag of party supplies down on the counter. If the truth were to be told, the significance of the date had completely slipped his mind until Joyce reminded him. What with the new menace, discovering Dawn’s real identity, plus the running of the Magic Box—well, Giles would have probably forgotten his own head most days if it wasn’t attached.

 

Really, it was no excuse. He would have felt simply horrible had Spike’s birthday gone by unnoticed. “I have to admit I hadn’t given it much thought.” Giles gave her a fond kiss. “What would we do without you?”

 

“Fall apart, probably,” Joyce said lightly, and both of them did their best to ignore the shadow that fell briefly over them. The possibility that they would have to do without her no longer seemed so unlikely.

 

Quickly changing the subject, Giles asked, “And where is Spike? I would have thought he’d be here.”

 

Joyce frowned slightly. “I’m not sure. I know he was at the gallery earlier this evening, since he called to ask a question, but Buffy said she hadn’t seen him since she went by to pick up Dawn. I’m not sure if he was planning on coming by tonight or not.”

 

“And Buffy’s out on patrol,” Giles stated, concerned. With this new Glory problem, he hated having Buffy patrolling by herself. Even though there would be little Spike could do with mere his human strength against such a formidable foe, his presence might be all that was needed. Giles sighed. “Well, perhaps I’ll ring Spike a little later and make certain he’s alright. He’s seemed a bit withdrawn lately.”

 

Joyce nodded, concern shading her eyes. “I hope he’s not doing too much. I wouldn’t be able to keep the gallery open without him, but…” She trailed off. “I’m sure I worry too much.”

 

“I believe that’s what mothers do,” Giles said lightly. He could see Joyce’s point, but Spike had seemed much more cheerful since the run-in with Tara’s family. Spike was busy, but so were they all.

 

~~~~~

 

It had been a strange day, Spike thought as he twirled his stake. Not that anything completely out of the ordinary had happened, except maybe for that short stop in the church on his way home. But it had been a normal day, really.

 

The feeling of the day had been different, however. Like it wasn’t quite all real; it had almost a dream-like quality. Maybe it was just the strange realization that he had spent the last year as a human, when it both felt like forever and no time at all.

 

There were days he wished he was still cutting a swathe of destruction across the continent of his choice and days that the idea made him nauseous.

 

Maybe it was that feeling which had prompted him to stop inside the church on his way back to his apartment. He’d planned on changing his clothes and then finding Buffy on patrol, but the lights inside the building had drawn him.

 

Or maybe it was ancient habit, left over from his human days when his mother had been ill. Perhaps his prayers had done nothing, but there was a saying about finding God in a foxhole he’d heard. You had a tendency to pray in a crisis, and Joyce could use something, even if he had doubts about its efficacy.

 

The sanctuary was empty when he entered, and Spike walked up the aisle toward the altar hesitantly. The last church he’d been in had been the one he’d used to cure Drusilla, and that ritual had been unholy indeed. Even now that the crosses and holy water held no danger for him, Spike still didn’t feel as though he belonged. As though it wasn’t right for him to be present.

 

Besides, what could a man such as he say to God? Sorry?

 

“Can I help you?”

 

Spike whirled to face an older man in a clerical collar. The minister was probably close to sixty, and his faded blue eyes were open and warm. “No, don’t think so.” He hesitated, then shook his head more firmly. “I should go, I don’t—”

 

The minister stepped aside as Spike hurried towards the door. “Are you sure I can’t help you?” he called out. “It’s what I’m here for.”

 

Spike paused in his flight. Perhaps prayers didn’t do any good at all, but he supposed they didn’t do any harm. “I—” He turned to face the man. “I have a friend who’s sick. It’s—maybe you could pray for her? She’s—she’s been like my own mum, and…”

 

“You know, just because I wear a clerical collar doesn’t make my prayers more potent,” the minister said gently. “Perhaps you would feel better if you prayed.”

 

Spike shook his head. “Don’t know whether I believe in God anymore. And even if I did, ‘m not sure he’d listen to me, not after the things I’ve done.”

 

“Would you like to talk about it?” When he saw Spike hesitate and inch towards the door again, he offered, “It would be between the two of us. My name is Michael.”

 

Spike had no intention of telling this man anything at all. Yet, he had questions. He’d seen so much, done so much, been drenched in so much blood, that he had difficulty holding onto his childhood belief in a good God. Surely a good God would not have allowed a creature such as himself to exist, let alone wreak havoc.

 

His mother had believed, however, and he had turned her. He rather wanted an expert opinion on whether or not he’d damned her for eternity. “D’you believe in evil?”

 

Michael watched him for a moment, and then said quietly, “I assume you’re talking about vampires, in which case, I think this calls for a drink.”

 

He’d known about vampires and demons. Michael had even aided a few exorcisms in his day. As he explained, “Once you’ve presided over the burial of a young man who returns to visit a few days later with the face of a demon—well, it’s difficult not to believe. I typically try and convince people to cremate their loved ones these days.”

 

He’d been fascinated by Spike’s story of returning to humanity, and had been sympathetic to his struggles with guilt. When Spike had finally gotten up the nerve to ask about the destination of a vampire’s soul, the minister had been forthright. “Honestly, I don’t know, William.” Like Joyce, he’d preferred to use Spike’s human name. “Not many people who know about the existence of vampires can agree on the eternal destination of the soul. You seem to have regained your soul with your humanity, so apparently it can be recalled, but we know little more than that for certain.”

 

Michael frowned, shaking his head. “If you want a concrete answer, I can’t give you one. What I do believe is that neither you nor your mother is responsible for the demon’s actions or your own turning. From what you’ve said, you didn’t have much of a choice, nor did you give her one. A pious, God-fearing woman like your mother will not likely spend an eternity in torment.”

 

Spike searched the other man’s face to gauge his sincerity. “Really?”

“Really,” Michael replied. “As for yourself, I understand why you might feel guilt and remorse, William, but you are not the demon.”

 

Spike shook his head. “You don’t understand. I’m still—it’s still there. I could—”

 

“You could,” Michael agreed. “Perhaps more than when you were human the first time, but that is true of anyone. Instead, you are doing your best by your friends and family. And I cannot say that of every man.”

 

Spike nodded shakily, then stood, looking at his watch. “I should be going. My girl will be wondering where I’m at.”

 

Michael stood as well, offering his hand. “Come by and we’ll chat again. Whatever your beliefs might be now, if I can be of any help at all, it would be my pleasure.” He smiled slightly. “You know, you are every minister’s dream: a man snatched from darkness who desires to do good. It is rare and wonderful indeed.”

 

With those words echoing in his ears, Spike had left to find his Slayer. Oddly enough, he did feel better. Michael had reminded him of the old minister in charge of his parish some hundred-odd years before. That man had greeted him every Sunday that he’d gone to church, assuring the young William that he would be praying for his mother. At the time, it had been a comfort.

 

Hearing those same words now brought a similar comfort, almost in spite of himself.

 

Spike sighed, looking around. He’d been to the typical haunts and hadn’t seen Buffy. It was late, and he had another early day at the gallery. Since Dawn was spending the bulk of her afternoons with him, he hadn’t nearly as much time to do paperwork other than in the hours before he opened. He should just go back to his apartment and—

 

A sharp cry broke his train of thought, and Spike started running towards the sound. He didn’t have a clue how it had happened, but seeing Buffy impaled by her own stake galvanized him to action. Reacting on instinct, Spike plunged his own weapon into the vampire’s back, sending its dust floating over the stunned Slayer.

 

“We need to get you to a hospital,” Spike murmured, assessing the wound.

 

Buffy shook her head. “No hospitals.” At Spike’s look of protest, she set her jaw. “I’ll be fine. Besides, I don’t want to worry Mom right now.”

 

It was a winning argument, and Spike nodded tightly, wrapping an arm around her waist. “Can you make it back to my place?”

 

“I’m the Slayer,” Buffy said, struggling for levity. “Of course I can make it.”

 

They walked back to Spike’s place in grim silence, both understanding how close of a call she’d just had. “I’m sorry I didn’t meet you sooner,” Spike murmured as they reached his door.

 

“Don’t you dare blame yourself for this,” Buffy snapped. “It was not your fault. He was—” She broke off. He was just a random vampire, like a thousand others she’d staked with no problem. The last time she’d come this close to death was when she’d lost her Slayer-powers. Not even Sunday had posed such a challenge. This particular vampire should have been as easily defeated.

 

Spike unlocked the door and supported her inside, too caught up in his own self-recriminations to pay attention to Buffy’s incomplete thought. “We’ll get you cleaned up, and then I’ll give Joyce a call.”

 

Buffy looked at him, alarmed. “Spike, the whole reason I didn’t go to the hospital was because I didn’t want to worry my mom.”

 

“You’re not going back home tonight,” Spike said firmly. “It’s late, and you’re tired. I’ll just tell her you got a bit banged up on patrol and that I’m looking after you.” He sat her down on his couch. “You want to worry her by not coming home and not calling?”

 

She rolled her eyes at his high-handedness. “No. Fine.” In silence, Buffy watched as Spike expertly bandaged the wound with gentle hands. Despite the pain, the feel of skin on skin sent shivers through her body.

 

A bolt of heat went through her when Spike gave her a knowing look. “You’ll need to avoid strenuous activity for the next few days, luv. It’ll take some time even for Slayer-healing to work on this.”

 

“Too bad,” she murmured. “I guess you’ll have to wait for your birthday present then.” At his surprised look, Buffy smiled, mentally thanking her mom. “What? Did you think I’d forgotten?”

 

He shrugged, obviously uncomfortable. “No. Well, maybe, but it doesn’t matter.”

 

It was a lie, and Buffy knew it. Her guy was so transparent sometimes, and no one liked to have their birthday forgotten. “We’re celebrating on the day. It was supposed to be a surprise, but I didn’t want you to think we’d just forgotten.”

 

Spike smiled slightly, looking away. “Today’s the anniversary of—”

 

“I know.” She reached out and grabbed his hand, giving it a squeeze. “I love you.”

 

“Love you too,” Spike replied.

 

He got her settled into his bed, relishing the opportunity to take care of her, and still feeling guilty that he hadn’t been there to prevent her injury in the first place. Moreover, it gave him pleasure, and a sense of satisfaction, to be the one she was relying upon. A pleasure to be her strength when he sometimes felt so superfluous.

 

Dialing the familiar number, Spike was somehow not surprised when Giles answered. “It’s Spike. Just wanted to let you know I ran into Buffy on patrol, and she got a bit banged up. I’m keeping her here tonight.”

 

Giles voice was concerned. “Is she alright?”

 

“She will be,” Spike replied evasively. “You’ll tell Joyce?”

 

Giles sighed, knowing he wasn’t going to get anything more out of Spike. “Yes, of course. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

 

“Yeah, I’ll stop by the shop,” Spike replied. “Joyce said something about closing early tomorrow.” They said their goodbyes, and then Spike hung up the phone, looking towards his room where Buffy laid waiting.

 

He felt a stab of fear as he realized that he might be mortal, but Buffy was the Slayer, and Slayer life expectancies were relatively short. He’d almost lost her tonight. It was too close.

 

~~~~~

 

“I just don’t get it, Giles.” Buffy and her Watcher were going through the Watchers’ diaries, trying to find something about the previous Slayers’ last battles. “I’m in the best shape of my life, I don’t think I could train harder if I wanted to, and that vamp almost had me last night. If Spike hadn’t been there…”

 

Giles cleared his throat. “Well, we can be grateful that Spike found you in time, then.”

 

Buffy tossed down another book, sending a puff of dust up. It had been a quiet morning in the shop. Spike had dropped her off on his way to the gallery, assuring her that he would meet her there later. “None of these have anything about the Slayer’s last battle, Giles. There’s nothing in here that can help me.”

 

“Yes, well, since no one was left to talk about the last battles, it’s no wonder there isn’t any information,” he replied, his tone slightly sharp.

 

Buffy gave him a dirty look. “Well, what about the Watchers? If you guys weren’t so—I don’t know, maybe we’d have more information.”

 

“I imagine they felt it too painful to talk about,” Giles said. He met his Slayer’s eyes in a moment of solidarity and understanding. A thought struck him. “Buffy, there is someone who has been with two Slayers at their ends.”

 

Buffy frowned, and then her eyes widened. “Spike. But Giles…” she trailed off, knowing that asking Spike to recount the battles risked re-opening fresh wounds. Buffy didn’t much like asking her ex-vampire boyfriend for details about his past. It seemed like rubbing salt into the wound. “I guess I’ll talk to him tonight.”

 

~~~~~

 

She bided her time, waiting until Spike had finished going over Dawn’s English paper to approach him. He was spending most of his evenings at the Summers’ residence now, helping with homework, making dinner, and just generally making himself indispensable. There were times that Buffy looked at him and wondered when she could do without him.

 

She watched as Spike finished proofreading Dawn’s paper, giving the girl a fond smile as he returned it to her. “It’s good, Bit. There were just a couple places where you could improve it. You’re developing into quite the writer.”

 

“Thanks, Spike,” Dawn said, beaming, and giving him a quick hug before heading upstairs. As she passed Buffy, they exchanged a knowing look. Buffy had enlisted Dawn in the cover-up of her wound, and the girl had seemed excited to be in on the Slayer-action, as she put it. Actually, Buffy had a feeling that her sister just enjoyed being included even peripherally, and she made herself a mental note to try that tactic more often. She liked it when Dawn was actually cooperative.

 

“How you feeling, luv?” Spike asked quietly, his strong hands starting to knead her shoulders.

 

She sighed in contentment. “A lot better, especially with you doing the magic fingers routine.”

 

“Anything for my girl.” They stood in silence for a while, Buffy just basking in the sensation of Spike’s hands on her, before she decided it was time to bite the bullet.

 

“I need a favor.”

 

“Anything, Buffy.” His tone was fervent, and she knew he meant it. He really would do anything for her, and sometimes that fact was frightening.

 

She sighed, turning to face him. “I need you to tell me how you killed those Slayers.”

 

The effect on him was immediate; Spike’s face closed down, and he retreated behind a stiff mask. “Buffy—”

 

“I need to know,” Buffy insisted. “I promise, I’m not trying to hurt you, but that vampire almost got me last night. I should have been able to dust him, no problem, and he beat me. If you hadn’t come by—”

 

“I should’ve been there sooner,” Spike said harshly. “I should’ve—”

 

“I’m the Slayer, Spike,” she reminded him. “This is my job. I need to know why I couldn’t do it last night. The Watchers’ diaries don’t say anything about the Slayers’ final battles. You’re the only one who can give me that kind of information.”

 

That fact didn’t make him feel any better. “Alright,” he acquiesced. “Where do you want to do this?”

 

“Does it matter?” Buffy countered, knowing he was uncomfortable, but not knowing how to comfort him. She wasn’t happy with the subject matter herself.

 

“Here, then.” Spike sat back down at the dining room table where he’d been sitting earlier. “First Slayer I killed was in China, during the Boxer Rebellion. We fought with swords, and she was good.” He touched his scarred eyebrow. “That’s where I got this. She cut me, and I killed her.”

 

It wasn’t enough. The dry account left everything to be desired, and Buffy shook her head impatiently. “I need it all, Spike. A full account. Don’t try and spare my feelings.”

 

Spike wanted to yell at her, to reply that it wasn’t her feelings he was trying to spare, but instead he complied. He described the fight in all its gory details, warming to the tale as he remembered what that battle had been like. That had been one of the best nights of his existence, and it still was. The exhilaration, the beauty of the Chinese Slayer’s movements, the victory as sweet as her blood—he remembered it vividly and with less remorse than was proper.

 

He did leave out the bit about he and Dru getting it on right next to the dead body, however. Spike knew without being told that it wasn’t something his present girlfriend needed to know.

 

Buffy sensed something in the tale, however. She knew that he had enjoyed it; the emotion was still readable in his eyes. “And the other one?”

 

Spike ignored the touch of ice in her tone, incapable of looking her in the eye. He had changed, had come so far to be thrust back into the mind of his vampire-self. What hurt the most was how easy it was to go back, to recall the exact emotions, the movements, the power. “Was 1977,” he said slowly. “She was—she was a lot like you. The Chinese girl, she was precise, technically perfect, but there wasn’t any fire in her eyes. The New York Slayer, though, now she was bloody incredible. You remind me of her,” he said, looking at her suddenly, the past reflected in his eyes.

 

His tone almost reverent, Spike told of the battle on the subway, told of snapping her neck and taking her coat. It was, perhaps, his tone that gave him away. “You got off on it.”

 

The accusation in her tone made him angry. “You asked, Buffy,” he replied. “And yeah, I did. I was a vampire. What did you expect?” At the look on her face, his breath huffed out in disgust. “Look, Slayer, you’re asking the wrong question. You’re asking why they died. Right question is what makes you different. I said it the first time I fought you, when your mum hit me over the head with an ax. Slayers don’t have friends and family, but you do. You got people that tie you to the world—your friends, your mum, your Watcher, your sister.”

 

He stood, impatience written in every line of his stance. “Every Slayer is a little bit in love with death, every Slayer gets to a point where they want it. That’s when someone—or something—like me steps in and gives it to them.”

 

“You’re proud of it,” Buffy murmured, recognizing the vampire she’d known in the man in front of her. She had thought she knew him, and now all that knowledge was called into question. “You’re still proud of it.”

 

Spike smiled. “I cared, Slayer. I had a bit of a death wish myself; they just wanted it more than me. Of all the kills I made, and there were many, those Slayers were the fairest. We fought as equals, and they had just as much chance to win as I did. So yeah, I still am a bit proud of it. I still remember how it felt. I felt better at those moments than I ever had. Probably than I ever will.”

 

Buffy shook her head. “You’re still not telling me—”

 

“You’re worried about your mum,” Spike said, cutting her off. “You’re worried, and your mind’s not completely focused on your work. But Joyce’ll get better, and you’ll be fine. You haven’t found your death wish yet, luv. Maybe you never will. You got enough people holding you here.”

 

Buffy swallowed. “You didn’t include yourself in the list.”

 

Spike gave her a hard look, seeing the distaste still strong in her expression. “You including me? Best get used to what I was, what I still am. I’m not a saint, and I never will be. Got too much blood on my hands, I remember too much. Maybe I got a second chance, but you’ve got to be able to deal with it. Let me know, pet. I’ll be around.”

 

Buffy watched him walk away, and she didn’t know if she wanted to call him back.

Chapter Text

“in time of daffodils(who know/the goal of living is to grow)/forgetting why,remember how/ in time of lilacs who proclaim/the aim of waking is to dream,/remember so(forgetting seem)/in time of roses(who amaze/our now and here with paradise)/forgetting if,remember yes/in time of all sweet things beyond/whatever mind may comprehend,/remember seek(forgetting find)/and in a mystery to be/(when time from time shall set us free)/ forgetting me,remember me” ~e.e. cummings

 

Spike didn’t get very far. He had just reached the front door when he heard Joyce calling to him. “William? Are you leaving?”

 

“Uh, was just heading out,” he replied, turning to face her. “Is there something you needed?”

 

Joyce had an uncertain look in her eyes that Spike had never seen before. “I just wanted to let you know that the doctors want me to go to the hospital for more tests. I’m going to stay the night tomorrow. I was wondering if you would be willing to help Buffy with Dawn.” She looked over at Buffy, who had come to stand in the doorway of the kitchen. “I know you’re both busy, but…”

 

“You don’t have to ask,” he assured her. “I don’t mind a bit, luv.”

 

Joyce gave him a fond smile. “I know. Thanks, William.”

 

He shrugged. “It’s not a big deal. Maybe I’ll close early tomorrow and keep Dawn company.”

 

“I’m sure she’d appreciate that,” she replied, then sighed. “I think we’ll probably have to postpone your birthday celebration though. This is when the doctors could fit me in, so I didn’t really have a choice.”

 

He shrugged, uncomfortable. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll still get older.”

 

“And that’s worth celebrating,” she assured him. Joyce gave him a kiss on the cheek, looking over at her daughter. “Don’t stay up too late tonight.”

 

Buffy hadn’t known that her mom was going into the hospital for tests overnight. Up till this point, she could imagine that it was going to blow over; she could believe that her mom’s illness was an aberration. The sense of having that illusion ripped from her produced an almost-physical sense of pain.

 

When Spike turned to leave again, Buffy called him back to her. “Spike…”

 

He paused before turning, having no desire to stay, to feel her retreat from him again. He was tired, too tired to hash this out tonight. What he really wanted to do was to go home and down a couple of drinks to dull the pain. “What?”

 

“Please.”

 

Spike had never been able to resist a woman’s tears, even as a vampire. Well, he hadn’t been able to resist the tears of the woman he loved anyway. Dru had bent him to her whim with a whimper and a pleading look, and he found himself in much the same position with Buffy now. “Bloody hell,” he muttered, pulling her roughly into his arms.

 

Her body stiffened and then relaxed, and Spike wondered at his ability to be strong for her. Not that he didn’t appreciate the opportunity, but the Slayer’s willingness to lean on him was still surprising. “It’s going to be okay.”

 

“You don’t know that,” she replied, pulling back, a touch of anger in her tone. His words sounded too much like a promise when the future seemed terribly uncertain.

 

He gave her a small smile. “’Course I do. It’ll be okay because you’re strong, and you can handle anything anybody throws at you.”

 

Buffy shook her head. “Spike—”

 

“And I’ll be right here, luv,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

 

“I’m sorry,” she said suddenly. “About earlier. It’s just—”

 

Spike shook his head. “It’s fine, Buffy. I know it’s hard for you, me having been a vampire. It’s pretty much opposite everything you are, so I can understand you being upset.”

 

“No, it’s—I just didn’t expect…”

 

Spike released her as she trailed off, turning away. “Buffy, it’s not that I’m proud of it really. It’s more a matter of remembering the moment. It was—” He broke off. There was no way the Slayer could understand that kind of darkness, no matter where her power might come from. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

 

But it did matter, Spike was sure of it. It mattered because he’d been happier at those moments than he’d ever been before, than he might ever be again. The moment of victory had been so sweet, he wasn’t sure anything could ever compare.

 

“I love you,” Buffy said, a little desperately, needing to be reassured that this didn’t change anything, that it would all be okay.

 

Spike looked over at her, a little surprised. “I love you too, pet.” He sighed. “I should go. You want me to meet you at the hospital tomorrow? And if you want, I can stay tomorrow night, take Dawn to school in the morning.”

 

“That would be helpful.” They shared a brief goodnight kiss, and Buffy could feel the distance that had sprung up between them in the space of a few minutes. It felt like the Grand Canyon.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike should probably have headed home after that, but he knew if he did he’d end up drinking alone. There were times he hated the responsibility that sat on his shoulders. Someone had to open the gallery, make sure Dawn was eating something nutritious when Joyce wasn’t up to cooking, go over inventory—the list could go on. It wasn’t really anybody’s fault but his own; he’d taken it all on willingly, and most days it felt good to know he was needed, wanted. Other days he wanted to blow it off, to go back to the days when life was a series of moments strung together on an endless string. Each day the same, each day a little different.

 

Those were the days when he had looked upon humans with amused condescension and an endless hunger. He missed that sometimes.

 

He needed to hear that he wasn’t crazy, though. That there wasn’t still a part of him twisted with evil. The way Buffy had looked at him had done away with all her reassurances of acceptance in one fell swoop. So, he went to the only person who might understand.

 

Giles greeted him at the door, tie loosened, sleeves rolled up. He looked as though he might have already started on a bottle himself. “Spike. Is something wrong?”

 

He hesitated. “Not really. Can I come in?”

 

“Of course.” The other man stepped aside to allow him entrance, and Spike could see the remains of a glass of brandy on the desk. “Would you like a drink?”

 

“Yeah, if it’s not too much trouble. I hate to drink alone.” Spike took the offered glass with a murmured thanks and then savored the first taste. He didn’t drink as much as he used to; it was a luxury he could hardly afford, and so he lingered over the flavor.

 

Giles gave him a knowing look as he settled himself on the couch. “Did Buffy ask you about your history with the Slayers tonight?”

 

“Yeah.” Spike looked rueful. “Didn’t go quite as well as she’d hoped, I think.” At the other man’s expression, he shrugged. “Don’t think she wanted to hear what I had to say, and she didn’t much like the way I said it.”

 

“What did you say?”

 

“She doesn’t have a death-wish yet. That’s the short version.”  Spike was quiet for a while. “Is it wrong to remember things we’ve done that we shouldn’t and think about how good they were?”

 

Giles considered the question, recalling the conversation he’d had with Buffy when Eyghon had been hunting him. He didn’t recall his misspent youth with pleasure, but he could remember the way being possessed had felt. He’d told his Slayer that it was “an extraordinary high.”

 

“I don’t believe so,” he finally answered. “In some ways it’s an acknowledgement of how far we’ve come to remember how good it was and yet not pursue those activities any longer.” Giles gave Spike a long look. “Your remembering frightened her, I suppose.”

 

“Don’t know if ‘frightened’ is the word I’d use,” Spike replied. “Think disgusted might better fit the bill. I was all set to leave after that when Joyce stopped me.” Concerned for the other man’s feelings, he asked, “Did you know—”

 

Giles raised his glass in explanation. “She told me earlier tonight. I have to be at the store for a while at least tomorrow, but I’m planning on going over later. And Buffy? How is she taking it?”

 

“About as well as might be expected,” Spike replied. “She’s worried, of course, but that’s her. Anybody would be.”

 

Giles sighed and knocked back his glass. “I’m afraid it won’t be much of a birthday for you, Spike. I am sorry about that. Normally, it’s Buffy’s birthdays that are miserable.”

 

Spike shrugged, dismissing Giles’ concerns much as he had Joyce’s earlier. “It’s better than last year,” he pointed out philosophically. “And it could always get worse.”

 

“I suppose so,” Giles agreed. He sighed a little in contentment. Things had been so busy lately that he hadn’t had the time he had last year for their friendship. Not that he was neglecting any of his duties, but things were different now, with Spike having his own place and the Magic Box becoming the central meeting location for the Scoobies. The times were rare when they could sit together and have a drink.

 

“You know,” Giles began, entering into Watcher-mode without even thinking about it. “It would be good to hear the accounts of the Slayers you killed. That’s information that the Watcher’s Council would dearly like to have. It’s not something that comes easily.”

 

Spike sighed, resigned to sifting through his past as though on an archaeological dig. Old bones was all it was, things that held little meaning now except for tired old historians. So much of his life seemed to have very little real meaning. Killing the Slayers meant something, on the other hand. “Long as I don’t end up some lab rat in an experiment.”

 

“Off the record then, for now,” Giles promised. “From the beginning.”

 

Spike looked over at him dubiously. “There’s a little more to it than the battle,” he warned. “It’s about motivations and love too.”

 

“The beginning,” Giles insisted. “I want to hear the whole thing.”

 

Spike couldn’t help but remember that Buffy hadn’t even asked for the whole story. Giles knew that context was everything, however. “Right. Well, you have to know what Angelus and me were together. It’s a bit complicated, but it helps to know.”

 

Giles nodded, leaning back into the couch cushions, ready for the story, ready to get lost in the past. It had always been a reliable escape, and now, when worry pressed down hard, he could use a few moments respite.

 

~~~~~

 

Dawn, oddly enough, was wishing she’d gone to school. Joyce had given in almost immediately when her youngest daughter had pleaded for the day off, unable to refuse her anything. In some ways, Joyce felt guilty for being sick. She knew it placed a lot of pressure on both her girls, as well as Spike, and she had a well-honed maternal instinct. She hated having them worry about her.

 

Joyce was the one who should have been doing the worrying, rather than being worried over.

 

So Dawn had gotten her wish to stay at the hospital with Buffy, but now she was finding herself bored and unhappy. At school, at least, she would have had other things to think about. All she had to distract her were the dubious qualities of daytime programming and her sister’s glum expression. Not that Dawn was feeling all that chipper, but still, you’d think Buffy would make the effort.

 

“Here.” Buffy handed her a soda. “You doing okay?”

 

She shrugged. “I guess. Is mom going to be alright?”

 

“I hope so,” Buffy said, not wanting to lie or to make promises she couldn’t hope to keep. “You sure you want to wait? You could probably go to the Magic Box or hang at the gallery with Spike.”

 

Dawn shook her head stubbornly, in spite of the fact that she’d just been wishing she were elsewhere. “I’ll wait until Spike gets here. Maybe then.” Frowning, she looked over at her sister. “What’s a CAT scan exactly?”

 

“I don’t know,” Buffy replied, wishing she better understood what was going on herself. “It’s some kind of x-ray I think.”

 

Dawn lifted her eyebrows. “Well, where do they get the CAT from? Did they test it on cats or something?”

 

“Dawn—” Buffy paused before beginning her lecture, realizing that her sister was probably as worried as she was. She put an arm around the younger girl’s shoulders and pulled her close.

 

There were several more hours of waiting, watching the people pass them, wandering to the lounge to watch ridiculous programming. When Spike finally came in, Dawn gave him a relieved smile and a hard hug.

 

Spike put his arms around the girl, pressing his lips to the top of her head. “How you doing, Sweet Bit?”

 

“Okay.” Dawn gave him a hesitant smile. “I’m glad you’re here.”

 

“I am too,” Buffy said quietly.

 

Spike met her eyes and a little more tension flowed out of him. “Wouldn’t be anywhere else.” They embraced, Spike’s face buried in her hair. “How’s she doing?”

 

“I don’t know. She just came out from the CAT scan. Would you mind staying with Dawn while I go see her?”

 

“Yeah, sure,” Spike replied. He watched her heading off and sat down next to the girl.

 

Dawn laid her head on Spike’s shoulder. “Spike?”

 

“Yeah, luv?”

 

“Is mom going to be okay?”

 

Spike sighed, not wanting to lie to her but wanting to offer comfort all the same. “I hope so, Dawn, but I don’t know. We never know about these things.”

 

“What about your mom?” Dawn asked. “What happened to her?”

 

“She was sick,” Spike confessed softly. “And she wasn’t gonna get better.”

 

“Oh.” Dawn thought about that for a minute. She wasn’t stupid. She’d heard a few stories about Angelus and what he’d done to his family when no one thought she was listening. It wasn’t hard to imagine what Spike might have done. “Do you ever wish—” Breaking off, Dawn remembered that Spike was a lot older than he looked and that his mom would have long been dead, no matter what he’d done.

 

“All the time, Bit,” Spike sighed. “You can be as old as dirt, but it doesn’t mean you don’t love your mum.” He glanced up as Buffy came out.

 

She gave him a wavering smile and pulled him off to one side, speaking quietly. “The doctors said they found some kind of shadow. They’re going to do a biopsy, like now. Mom said she wanted to see you beforehand.”

 

Spike nodded, standing. “Right then. Be right back.” He wandered into the room where Joyce was waiting in a hospital gown. “Hey, Joyce.”

 

“William.” She relished the feel of his strong arms around her in much the same way she’d appreciated her daughter’s embrace. In the last year Joyce had come to love Spike like a son. She was consistently impressed by his courage and his heart. Knowing that he would be with both her girls gave her the peace of mind she needed. “I just wanted to wish you happy birthday.”

 

He gave a little laugh. “All I want is for you to be healthy, luv. I’m easy to please.”

 

Joyce smiled at him. “I know I don’t have to ask, but you’ll look after Dawn, won’t you? Buffy needs you too, but Dawn…”

 

“You know I’ll look after both of them,” Spike replied. “You’re all my girls.”

 

“I’m hardly a girl,” Joyce protested.

 

Spike gave her a look. “Don’t forget I was born about a hundred years before you, Joyce.” He gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “I’ll see you after.”

 

There was more waiting to be done. Neither Buffy nor Dawn was willing to leave the hospital before the results of the biopsy came back, and Spike wouldn’t leave them. He wanted to be there too.

 

Medical technology still amazed him. Sure he’d seen ER and all that. He’d even watched a few of the older medical dramas back when, but having never needed medical services himself, Spike hadn’t thought too deeply about what they could accomplish. It hurt to think that his mum would have been easily cured in this day and age. It hurt to think that he was here and she wasn’t.

 

So he amused Dawn by making comments about the people on Jerry Springer and keeping an anxious eye on Buffy. There still seemed to be a bit of distance there, and Spike wondered if it was a gap that could ever be bridged. Could Buffy ever accept what he had been?

 

Dawn fell asleep after a while, the adolescent need for sleep overwhelming her defenses. Spike looked over at his Slayer and offered her his hand across the girl’s still form. He didn’t try to tell her it was going to be okay; he knew by now that she didn’t want his reassurances and could barely bring herself to rely on his strength.

 

It was a fragile strength at best, Spike supposed, when compared to the Slayer’s.

 

“Miss Summers?”

 

The doctor’s appearance had Buffy pulling her hand from Spike’s rather abruptly as she stood. “Yes? Is—”

 

“Your mom is fine,” he assured her, moving away from Dawn’s sleeping form. Spike, after a moment of hesitation, rose to follow. “They’re moving her into recovery now.”

 

“Do we have the results yet?” Buffy asked quickly.

 

Dr. Isaacs hesitated. “I—why don’t we go over here and sit?”

 

“No!” Buffy’s voice was louder than she intended, and she felt Spike’s hand on her shoulder, a steadying presence. Without thinking, she leaned back into him. “It’s just that I’ve been sitting all day. I don’t really want to sit anymore. Can you—just tell me?”

 

The doctor looked at the young couple. He hated giving out news like this. “Your mother has a low grade glioma. It’s a brain tumor, and it’s on the left hemisphere of the cerebrum. In your mother’s case, it looks like that’s where it started, which means it hasn’t spread.”

 

Spike could feel Buffy tremble against him—one tremor before she held herself rigid again. He half-wondered if the strength she was gaining from her intensive training wasn’t making her more rigid and thus weaker. She was so sure of her own might she couldn’t understand the strength that came from accepting others’ help.

 

“Is there anything we can do?” Spike asked quietly.

 

Dr. Isaacs shook his head. “Not until we know whether the tumor is operable. I’m afraid that, due to the nature of Joyce’s illness, her symptoms may progress rather rapidly.”

 

“Symptoms?” Buffy asked, a touch of alarm in her voice.

 

“A number of things might present: loss of vision or appetite, loss of muscle control, mood swings, and so forth. Even if we aren’t able to go in surgically, your mom still has a real chance, much better than even ten years ago.” There was something in the doctor’s words that caught both their attention.

 

“A chance?” Buffy asked, feeling Spike’s hands tighten on her shoulders. “What’s a chance?”

“Nearly one out of three patients recovers from this condition just fine,” Dr. Isaacs assured her confidently. “Now, I have a few questions for you…”

 

Buffy zoned out, extremely grateful for Spike’s competent presence. She could hear him answering all the doctor’s questions with ease and knew she didn’t have the answers the doctor needed. After a while, Dr. Isaacs disappeared, and the Slayer pulled herself out of her thoughts with new determination.

 

She wasn’t capable of just sitting around and waiting for the doctors to figure out if they could operate on her mom. There had to be another way. She dealt with magic every day, didn’t she? Surely there was something she could do—some spell she could use. Anything other than doing nothing.

 

“We should get Dawn out of here for a bit,” Spike said. “The doc seemed to think your mum wouldn’t be up for a while now. Might be good to get out of this sodding place for a few hours.”

 

Buffy nodded. “You go, and take Dawn with you. I don’t know—keep her busy.”

 

Spike frowned, giving her a concerned look. “Where are you going?”

 

“I’m going to do something. There has to be a healing spell or something I can use to help Mom.” Buffy pulled away from him, looking around for her jacket.

 

“Buffy, people get sick. I don’t think a healing spell is going to help,” Spike replied.

 

She turned to glare at him. “That kind of attitude isn’t helping.”

 

“It’s not a bloody attitude!” His voice, though low, held the impression of shouting. “I’ve been where you are now, luv, an’ sometimes there’s nothing you can do but wait. It’s the way life is.”

 

“Not my life, Spike,” Buffy replied. “Or are you forgetting which one of us is alive through magic?”

 

“Never,” he said, anger coloring his tone. “But, Slayer, I’ve watched people get sick. It’s part of being human. Like it or not, there’s a real world that you’re a part of, and things like getting sick are natural consequences of life.”

 

Buffy jerked her arm from his grip. “Just take care of Dawn.” Her tone made clear that it was all she thought him good for, and Spike pulled back as though he’d been slapped.

 

Spike watched her go, his jaw tight with anger. Shaking it off, he went to rouse Dawn, a gentle hand brushing back the hair from her face. “Come on, Bit,” he said. “What do you say we get out of this place for a while?”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy felt bad about their argument moments after she’d left the hospital, but she was holding onto her anger with both hands. She needed to be angry right now, even if that little voice in the back of her head kept insisting that Spike didn’t deserve it. Anger felt better than the fear that was threatening, and so she was going to be mad.

 

Of course, that meant she was angry and guilty.

 

It helped that when she arrived at the Magic Box she found something else to distract her. “Wait. How did she manage to get the stuff she needed for a really nasty spell?” Buffy looked around for damage, expecting to see that at least one broken crystal ball.

 

“Giles sold it to her,” Anya finally said after they had all tried to dance around the issue.

 

Buffy pushed aside her disappointment over the gang’s earlier unanimous discouragement of the healing spell and concentrated on the matter at hand. “Fine. I guess the question now is what is she going to do and how are we going to stop her?”

 

“We’ve managed to decipher the symbols on the bloodstone, and it looks as though it will be a cobra.” Giles pulled off his glasses and cleaned them on his handkerchief. “We’re still working on the rest of it.”

 

Buffy sighed. “Fine. I’ll go see what I can do about stopping demon-lady. Spike’s got Dawn, so he should be able to keep her out of trouble.”

 

“Buffy, the last time you went up against the demon-chick, you got pretty well beat,” Willow pointed out.

 

The Slayer shrugged. “Last time I wasn’t prepared.”

 

“And this time?” Xander asked, giving her a doubtful look.

 

“This time I will be.”

 

Buffy turned to leave and was stopped by Giles’ voice. “Buffy, Joyce—” He stopped, uncertain. While his Slayer was aware that he and Joyce had been seeing one another, Giles wasn’t certain that she knew of the depth of their feelings.

 

“She should be awake later tonight if you want to see her,” Buffy said quietly. “I know she’d probably appreciate that.”

 

Giles watched her go and then frowned. “Oh, bloody hell.”

 

“What?” Xander asked as the others watched him in concern.

 

Giles sighed. “Today’s Spike’s birthday. It keeps slipping my mind.”

 

Tara and Willow winced in unison. “Looks like Buffy’s passed her birthday curse on to him,” Willow observed. Tara just looked thoughtful, and made a mental note to visit him later.

 

~~~~~

 

“You hungry, Bit?” Spike asked, leading the way into his apartment.

 

Dawn shook her head. “Not really. Well, maybe a little.”

 

“I’ll make us some sandwiches then.” He busied himself in the kitchen, trying not to think of his altercation with Buffy. Spike tried to rationalize it, knowing how upset she was about Joyce’s illness, how worried she was about Glory and Dawn’s safety. It wasn’t working.

 

Spike honestly didn’t mind putting up with Buffy’s occasional selfishness, or her propensity for leaving him out of things unless she needed him specifically. In all actuality, Spike found most of her quirks—and bad habits—cute. He had, after all, spent over a century with an insane vampire who demanded he cater to her every whim. It was second nature at this point.

 

But for her to even suggest that he would sit back and let Joyce suffer if there were another way, that was just too much. That she would dismiss him out of hand… Well, Dawn and Joyce were his family, no matter what else might happen.

 

“Are you and Buffy fighting?” Dawn asked from his couch, where she had spread herself out.

 

Spike put the finished sandwiches on a couple of plates and handed one to the girl. “Why, pet?”

 

She shrugged. “It just makes my stomach feel all funny when you guys fight. I mean, you’re so good together. It’s like—” Dawn broke off, afraid to say it. Spike filled some indefinable function in her life: part older brother, part uncle. He completed her family, at least in her mind. “It’s just that it would really suck if something happened.”

 

“Nothing’s going to happen,” he assured her with a smile. “I loved you before I ever loved your sis, yeah?”

 

“Really?” Dawn stared at him with big eyes. “Spike, what’s wrong with mom?”

 

Buffy hadn’t told him not to say anything, so Spike decided to use his best judgment. “Your mum’s sick,” he said finally. “And the docs are going to do everything in their power to make her better.”

 

“What if they can’t?”

 

Spike didn’t bother trying to tell her not to think about things like that. Tell a girl like Dawn not to worry her pretty little head about it, and that’s just what she would do, thinking things were much worse than they actually were. “You want the truth, Bit?”

 

Dawn hesitated, realizing that Spike was asking if she wanted to be protected. He was asking her if she wanted to be treated like an adult. Dawn wasn’t sure she did, even though she was always protesting that she wasn’t a child. “Yeah.”

 

Spike watched as her chin came up bravely. She looked so much like her sister in that moment it made his heart ache. “She’s got a brain tumor. The doctors don’t know yet if it’s operable or not, but if it isn’t they can treat it other ways. Got some information on that before we left today.”

 

“And if they can’t treat it?” Dawn asked. She wanted him to be able to tell her that she would be taken care of, that he wasn’t going anywhere.

 

Spike didn’t want to think about it. He’d already killed his own mother; he had no desire to watch his surrogate mum die. Guilt threatened to swamp him again, but he pushed it back. He had other duties to attend to. Other hearts to try and mend. “I don’t know, Sweet Bit, but I’ll tell you this much. I’ll be dust before I let anything happen to you. I’m not going anywhere.”

 

Dawn looked at him, as though gauging his sincerity, and then gave him a smile heart stopping in its sweetness. “I love you, Spike.”

 

“Love you too.” He watched as she suddenly rose, heading over to her pack.

 

“I just remembered I brought your present,” Dawn said, glancing back at him over her shoulder as she rummaged around. “Mom has a cake too. I think Giles was supposed to pick it up. Maybe we can still have some later if they let Mom come home tonight.”

 

Spike smiled bemusedly, knowing that Dawn was probably spilling all the secrets behind the surprise party, but it didn’t really matter. He’d already spent his birthday in his own way, talking to a priest and confessing to his girlfriend that he still relished some of the memories of being a vampire. Even so, he took the small package with its slightly off-center wrapping showing every ounce of appreciation he felt.

 

Really, his and Dawn’s relationship was refreshingly uncomplicated.

 

“So you can write,” she explained when he’d pulled off the paper and sat staring at his gift. “It’s just—I like to journal, you know, and you said you liked to write, so I just thought…” Dawn trailed off, uncertain of his reaction. He looked like he was going to cry.

 

Spike ran fingers across the soft leather cover of the journal. “Mom gave me the money from doing chores and stuff,” Dawn said quietly. “So I paid for it myself.”

 

He raised his head, his eyes meeting hers. “Thanks, luv. It’s—it’s perfect.”

 

“Really?” Dawn asked, unsure. She wanted to point out that he looked like he was going to cry, but figured that probably wouldn’t be the best move.

 

“Really,” Spike said. “Had a journal a bit like this when I was your age, and older. I always had something to write on with me.”

 

Dawn leaned forward, showing more interest than she had all day. “What were you like when you were my age, Spike?”

 

He made a face. “I was an utter ponce, pet. You don’t want to know.”

 

She thought about some of her interactions with the kids at school and wanted to know more. “But you’re cool!”

 

“There’s a hundred years between now and then, luv.” Spike sighed at her eager expression. He knew he wasn’t going to get out of this. Besides, maybe he could lose himself for a while in the better memories of his past. “What do you want to know?”

 

Dawn gave it some serious consideration. Spike was giving her carte blanche with his past, and she wanted to know something good in case she didn’t get to ask another question like this. “Tell me about what you were like when you were my age.”

 

Spike sighed. At least he wasn’t quite as big of a ponce then as he had been later. He’d yet to make a fool of himself over a woman, anyway. “Right then,” he said. He started earlier than Dawn’s age, not wanting to remember to the dark time after his sister’s death. His thirteenth birthday had been the happiest time he could remember, before his sister’s death, his mother’s illness, and so he painted a picture of a golden day in his history. One perfect moment that would remain forever unsullied, whatever might have come later.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy had managed to find Glory at the only place in Sunnydale where she was guaranteed to find a cobra: the zoo. Unfortunately, she’d gotten her ass kicked again and the snake demon still managed to rise. Buffy was fairly certain that wasn’t a good thing.

 

She decided to head back to the hospital to check on her mom (and score some free medical supplies).  Buffy wanted to be with her mom when the doctors gave her the news, but she needed to let Giles know that the giant snake was loose. “Giles, it’s me,” she said, cutting off his standard greeting.”

 

“Buffy? Are you alright?”

 

“No, I’m really not,” she replied, sighing, putting the ice pack on her arm.

 

“Where are you?”

 

The concern in his voice came through the line clearly. “I’m at Sunnydale Memorial.”

 

“Are you badly hurt?” Giles demanded. “Do you want me to come?”

 

“No, I’ll be fine,” Buffy replied. “It’s just—I wanted to let you know that the snake demon is loose. I should really be here when the doctors give mom the news. Have you seen Spike or Dawn?”

 

“As far as I know they’re still out, probably at his apartment,” Giles replied. “Do you want me to call him?”

 

Buffy hesitated. “Yeah, you’d better warn him. Maybe he and Dawn should join you just in case.”

 

“I’ll call.” Giles listened to the click on the other end of the line and wondered why Buffy wasn’t calling Spike herself.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike was teaching Dawn the intricacies of Texas Hold ‘Em when his cell rang. “Yeah?”

 

“Spike, Buffy called. Glory’s managed to conjure a snake-demon that could be heading your way.”

 

Somehow that news didn’t surprise Spike at all. It only made sense that a gigantic demon would be on the loose and after Dawn. It was just par for the course. “Safety in numbers?”

 

“That’s what Buffy and I were thinking,” Giles replied. “Do you think you can get Dawn over here?”

 

“Not a problem, Rupert,” he replied. “We’ll be right over.” Spike hung up the phone and looked over at Dawn. “Get your stuff, Bit. We’ve got a situation on our hands.”

 

Dawn started shoving her books back in her pack. “Are you going to have to kill something?” she called after Spike. He was rummaging around in his bedroom, and emerged after a few seconds in a worn leather jacket with a big sword in hand.

 

“If I’m lucky,” he replied, a manic gleam in his eyes. “That would make this a good birthday.”

 

Spike didn’t actually want to run into a giant snake demon, not when he had Dawn with him. Of course, just because he didn’t want to run into a demon, didn’t mean it wasn’t going to happen. They were still about fifty feet away from the Desoto when he spotted it coming towards them. “Oh, bloody hell.”

 

Dawn saw the demon, and her eyes widened. Spike watched as the monster flicked its tongue out a few times and seemed to be staring right at Dawn. When it turned around and started heading the other way, Spike knew it was bad news. “Sodding buggering—” He cut off his curses to toss his cell phone and keys at Dawn. “Call Giles! Tell him exactly what’s happening and let him know I’m taking care of it.”

 

“What are you going to do?” Dawn yelled after him.

 

“Going to kill a great bloody snake!”

 

The running and training he did on a regular basis paid off that night. He lost himself in the movement, the feeling of feet pounding on pavement. When he lost the trail at one point, he stopped, waiting for some sort of direction. If he concentrated, Spike could just catch the musky odor that he’d smelled earlier. After a moment’s hesitation, he started chasing the scent.

 

In spite of the demon’s head start, Spike was gaining on it, and he put on another burst of speed. He swung the sword with a battle cry, and the metal bit deeply into scales and flesh.

 

Not deeply enough, however, because the snake turned on him with a hiss. Spike saw the fangs and started to think he was in over his head.

 

“Honey, you know you aren’t supposed to get started without me.”

 

Spike turned to see Buffy, who was set on facing the snake with nothing but her bare hands. “Didn’t think you’d show, Slayer.”

 

“And miss the chance to kill a great big snake? Are you kidding?” Buffy glanced over at her boyfriend. “Low?”

 

“If you’ll go high, luv.”

 

With twin cries, they attacked, Spike’s sword slicing deeply into the belly of the snake. Buffy used the distraction to start punching, and it wasn’t long before it stopped moving. Buffy was still punching, and Spike moved to pull her off after a few minutes. “Hey. That’s enough.”

 

She didn’t respond right away and Spike tugged a little harder, suddenly very tired. “Come on, Buffy-luv. It’s dead. We should go see about Dawn.”

 

Buffy finally got off the snake, gasping a little. “Why did you leave her?”

 

“Because the giant snake knew what she was, that’s why,” Spike snapped. “Kind of gave it away when the bloody thing took one look at the Bit and turned tail. Figure it was some sort of bloodhound for mystical Keys.”

 

Buffy sighed, wiping a sleeve over her forehead. “Right. I’m sorry, Spike. I just—”

 

“How’d you know where I was?” he asked, his tone sober.

 

She shrugged. “I caught a glimpse of you running when I was headed back towards the Magic Box. I was going to stay until Mom woke up, but I got to thinking and…” Buffy rubbed at her forehead. “I’m really sorry about earlier. You were right, about the spell, it’s just—”

 

“You didn’t want to believe it,” Spike muttered. “I know. I wouldn’t want to believe it either, were I you. I love your mum, and you know I’d do anything to help.”

 

The tension relieved, she went and put her arms around him. “You do already. You’ve been making dinner and helping at the gallery and watching Dawn. I honestly don’t know what I would do without you. And I know I’ve been a little bit of a bitch lately—”

 

“A little bit?” Spike interrupted with a raised eyebrow.

 

She rolled her eyes. “Okay, I’ve been exceptionally bitchy. I’ve just been—”

 

“Worried,” he finished for her. Spike kissed her forehead. “You’re not the only one who’s worried about Joyce. Giles and I are concerned too, and not just for your sake. You forget that you’re not the only one in this, Buffy.”

 

“I know,” Buffy said quietly, thinking of the other person that was in this as well. “I need to get Dawn and head back to the hospital. Mom will be awake by now, and—”

 

Spike nodded. “I’ll drive you both over, and wait for you.”

 

“You have an early day tomorrow,” Buffy objected. “And you’ve had a long day today. Giles said he wanted to come over.”

 

Hurt flashed through Spike’s eyes. “You’re right. I’ll drive you over and you can get a ride home with Rupert then.”

 

Too late Buffy remembered that he was supposed to spend the night. “Spike, I forgot. I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

 

He shrugged. “It’s nothing, pet. You’re a bit sore anyway. Probably better we don’t share a bed. Neither of us get much sleep when that happens.”

 

“Spike—”

 

“We should go.” His tone told Buffy that the discussion was over. She’d managed to hurt him again without meaning to, and she couldn’t help but wonder if it was a particular talent of hers or if Spike was simply easily bruised.

 

Buffy somehow thought the blame could be laid at her door. 

Chapter Text

“If you want my heart/You have to promise not to tear it apart/’Cause my heart/Has been hurt a lot/And it always seems/Love is not sweet, like in dreams/Something falls through/ But I don’t want that to happen to me and you…” Jewel, “Fragile Heart”

 

Spike pulled in a deep breath and fought the cough that came. He shook his head ruefully when the spasm passed. Just what he needed—a cold. Spike bent his head over the invoices that needed processing and heard the bell ring out front.

 

With an annoyed grunt, he called out, “Just a minute.”

 

“It’s just me.” Tara stood in the doorway of the office, staring at him in concern. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” Spike replied, not even bothering to hide his irritability.

 

Tara gave him a doubtful look. “You’re tired. And you don’t look like you’re feeling very good.”

 

“I said I’m fine,” Spike replied. He wasn’t fine, though. He was tired and he wasn’t feeling good; he wanted to go back to the way things were that summer when Joyce was healthy and he and Buffy were seeing eye to eye.

 

The blonde witch got a determined look in her eye seldom seen by anyone. “You’re going to take a nap.”

 

“What?” Spike stared at her. “I can’t! The gallery—”

 

“Will survive without you,” Tara cut him off. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you really will get sick.” When he still hesitated, she modulated her tone. “Are you sleeping at all, Spike?”

 

He shrugged. “In fits and starts. It’s better when—” Spike broke off. It was better when Buffy was with him, but they hadn’t actually slept together for a while now.

 

She nodded. “Okay, I’m going to get something for that. I’ll come back and take care of the gallery for the rest of the afternoon so you can be well rested for the party tonight.” At the expression on his face, she added, “You don’t want to have to explain to everyone that you’re not feeling well, right?”

 

Hardly. The last thing Spike wanted was for anyone to fuss over him. “Do I have a choice?”

 

“Nope,” Tara replied cheerfully. Then, with a gentle touch to his cheek, she murmured, “You took care of me, Spike. Let me take care of you. We’re family now.”

 

Spike shut his eyes, relishing the gentle touch, letting himself draw in strength. “As you wish, Glinda.”

 

It felt good not to be the strong one for once.

 

~~~~~

 

The tea that Tara gave him was so strong that she would only allow him enough for one cup. “It came from that book you gave me for my birthday,” she’d explained. “And I don’t want you to get hooked on it.”

 

Spike understood what she meant when the next thing he knew, Tara was shaking him awake around six. She’d told him she would come by and wake him before the party. “Hey,” she said gently. “Time to wake up.”

 

With bleary eyes, Spike looked over at the clock, and Tara gave him an apologetic smile. “I thought you might want to get cleaned up before we had to leave.”

 

“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea,” he muttered, trying to shake the fuzz out of his head. Other than the slightly drugged feeling, he did at least felt better rested. “Give me a minute.”

 

Tara gave him a pleading look. “Have you written any more?”

For a moment Spike looked surprised, then gratified that she seemed anxious to read the next installment. “Yeah, luv. I’ll pull it up for you.”

 

Tara read, keeping an ear out for Spike. She was more than a little concerned at this point, but there didn’t seem to be anything she could do for him. Certainly, there was little he would allow her to do.

 

After a while, Spike emerged from the bathroom, dressed in blue jeans and the blue and cream shirt Tara had convinced him to buy so long before. While Tara was definitely attracted to women, only a blind woman could fail to notice Spike’s physical beauty.

 

It wasn’t Spike’s physical attributes that had drawn her to him, however.

 

“You look good,” she said sincerely.

 

He smiled, his expression almost shy. “Thanks, Glinda.” Spike ran a hand through his two-toned hair. “We’d better get going. Did you—”

 

“It’s still good, Spike,” she said. “In fact, it’s just getting better. I’m amazed you’ve been able to write as much as you have with everything that’s been going on.”

 

Spike shrugged uncomfortably. “Insomnia’s good for something, yeah?”

 

They arrived at the Summers’ residence together, and Tara immediately went off to find Willow. It wasn’t really a party as such, since it was only the Scoobies, Giles, Joyce and Dawn, but Spike was satisfied with the turnout.

 

The only thing Spike might have wished for was the same easy camaraderie that he and the Slayer had had at the end of the summer. He could tell that Buffy was slightly distant, though he wasn’t sure of the reason behind it. Life seemed terribly hard-edged these days, and Spike could only assume that it was normal for stress to elbow out the softer things.

 

It really was the best birthday that he could remember having though. Even when he had been human for the first time, there had rarely been as large a gathering of friends as with the Scoobies. And, as surrogate parents went, Joyce and Giles filled the bill quite nicely.

 

There was cake and ice cream and then presents. From Giles, he got the best of the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones, a collection of CDs that promised many happy hours ahead. Xander had built bookshelves for his apartment, and they showed some truly quality craftsmanship. Anya gave him money, probably because that was what she would have wanted for herself, and Willow and Tara had gone in together and gotten him some new clothes. Dawn announced—rather loudly—that she’d given Spike his present on his birthday, and then there was only one package from Joyce left.

 

When he opened the box, he found two nicely framed photos. One showed all three Summers women, laughing at something, though he wasn’t sure at what. It was just your typical family portrait, but Spike didn’t have any pictures of anybody. “Thanks, luv.”

 

“There’s one more,” Joyce replied gently.

 

Spike pulled back the tissue paper and stared at what lay beneath. He remembered Joyce taking this one. It had been soon after they’d defeated Adam, and Buffy had been teasing him about going to the beach and getting burnt. Joyce had insisted on snapping a picture, and they’d complied with some good-natured complaining.

 

Spike could see the way he had his arms around Buffy, the way she was leaning against his chest, smiling for the camera, and he was looking down at her with an expression of adoration on his face. Had things really changed so much?

 

“This is really great,” Spike finally said when he’d found his voice again. “Thanks. Just—thank you. It’s perfect.”

 

There were no more packages, and Spike was very careful not to look at Buffy. He assumed that the others thought that Buffy had already given him her present, much as Dawn had done. If he didn’t look at her, Spike wouldn’t have to wonder if her omission had been deliberate or accidental; either way, it hurt.

 

The others caught Joyce’s yawns around nine and started drifting out. By ten, Joyce had sent Dawn to bed, and Spike was getting ready to leave. “I’ll walk you home,” Buffy said.

 

“You don’t have to,” Spike replied. He loved her, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to be around her right then.

 

She fixed him with a stern look. “It’s not about ‘have to,’ it’s about want to. Giles already said he’d stay with Mom and Dawn.”

 

Spike looked past her into the living room where Giles was sitting next to Joyce on the couch. He had a feeling that part of Giles’ reasoning for staying was selfish, desiring to be near Joyce for as long as possible. Mortality seemed very present just now.

 

“Right then. We’d better get going.”

 

They said their goodnights and then left, mostly walking in silence, exchanging only the odd phrase. Spike thought it ironic that things had been easier between them when they had been enemies. At least he’d known where he stood.

 

“I did get you a present,” Buffy suddenly blurted out. “I don’t want you to think I’d forgotten or anything. I just wanted to wait until we were alone.”

 

Spike wondered if her present included sex, which he wasn’t sure he was in the mood for. Well, actually, he was always in the mood. Spike wasn’t sure that he wanted the physical in lieu of the emotional and the verbal.

 

“And it’s not just sex,” Buffy said, reading his mind and the light in his eyes. “There’s more to it than that, though I was thinking that could be in the plan.”

 

“It’s fine, Buffy,” Spike said, a touch of impatience in his tone. He was exhausted, tired of not being able to find his balance with her anymore.

 

She glared at him. “It’s not fine. I could see you thinking that I hadn’t gotten you anything.”

 

“I didn’t—”

 

“Yes, you did.”

 

Spike sighed. “Okay, yeah, I did.”

 

“Shame on you.”

 

“I suck.”

 

“Not anymore you don’t.”

 

That got a laugh out of him. “Right, then. I promise I will never doubt you again, my love.”

 

“Better not,” Buffy replied tartly. She tucked her hand into his arm. “It’ll get better, Spike.”

 

“I know,” he said quietly. “It has to.”

 

When they got to his apartment, Buffy followed him inside, pulling a small box out of her pocket as she did so. Sitting down on the couch, Buffy waited for him to sit next to her. Spike took the box from her hand, and slowly pulled off the ribbon.

 

Inside the box was a silver cross, hanging on a silver chain. Spike picked it up, letting the cross hang so that he could see a silver disc hanging next to it. He turned it so that he could clearly see the engraving. It said Forever and underneath it read, SS 8:6-7.

 

Spike frowned slightly, pulling up the memory from his distant past. “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.”

 

“Mom was the one who suggested the verses. I asked her what she thought, and that’s what she came up with.” Buffy paused. “It’s also how I feel. Spike, I’m not good at this. I’m not very good at letting people know how I feel. And with the stuff with Mom and then with Glory on top of it—”

 

Spike put gentle fingers over her lips. “I know, Buffy.” He smiled at her. “That’s part of loving you, knowing what you’re all about. I love you. Nothing will change that, not even death.”

 

‘Whose death?’ she wanted to ask, but couldn’t. Mortality seemed all too real these days, and Buffy was beginning to wonder what it was about being a Slayer that made it so appealing. She took the chain from his hand and fastened it around his neck, giving it a final pat. “It looks good on you.”

 

“Sometimes it’s hard to believe I can wear one of these again,” he murmured. Their eyes met, and they came together in equal measures of passion and desperation, each of them wanting to assure the other by their presence, that they were real.

 

Each wanted to reassure themselves that they really were loved, were known.

 

With hands and mouths and tongues, Buffy and Spike both said what was impossible to put into words. As the desperation dimmed, Buffy began speaking, murmuring words of praise and comfort. “You’re so strong. I love you. I need you with me. Please don’t give up. You’re so beautiful.”

 

“I’m not so strong, pet,” Spike replied. “You are—”

 

“Weak, compared to you,” Buffy insisted. “What you do for me—”

 

“Is no more than you do for me.”

 

In joining, they completed the other.

 

~~~~~

 

“Do you want me to stay tonight?” Giles asked softly. Dawn was already in bed, as the silent house attested, and he had his doubts as to whether or not Buffy would return. Not only was it Spike’s birthday, but there seemed to be some hurt between the two of them that needed to be addressed.

 

Joyce smiled ruefully. “I don’t think I would be very good company tonight, Rupert. I wish I wasn’t so tired, but—”

 

“I wasn’t planning on tiring you,” he said softly. “But if you should want me just to stay, I could sleep on the couch.”

 

She shook her head. “I don’t think that will be necessary.” Then, seeing the disappointed expression on his face, she added, “But you could stay with me if you wanted.”

 

Giles kissed her gently. “I can’t think of a time I wouldn’t want to be with you.”

 

A light flush lit Joyce’s cheeks. “Oh. You’ll spoil me if you keep saying things like that.”

 

“That would be impossible,” he replied, kissing her again.

 

Joyce discovered she wasn’t nearly as tired as she’d thought.

 

~~~~~

 

“Came as soon as I could,” Spike said, slipping into the hospital room. “I’ll be off as soon as I can too.”

 

Buffy, who had gone to meet him at the door, leaving Dawn sitting on the side of her mom’s bed, wrapped her arms around his waist. “Thanks. Really, for patrolling, and—”

 

He returned her embrace. “They decide on a time yet?”

 

“Day after tomorrow,” she whispered. “Mom’s being great about it, but—”

 

“Shh,” he murmured. “They’re good doctors.”

 

Buffy appreciated Spike not telling her that everything was going to be fine, and he was right. Joyce did have good doctors. There was every possibility that her mom would pull through this just fine. It didn’t mean the Slayer wasn’t scared to death. Much of her worry stemmed from knowing that there was nothing she could do about it; there was nothing for her to fight. Buffy could wait, and take care of her sister, and keep her mother company, but that was about it.

 

“I know,” she finally said. “You’ll look after the gang tonight?”

 

“Of course. Told Giles he should head on over here once he closes up the shop.” There was a grave humor in Spike’s eyes. “Don’t think he feels like he can do enough, or be with your mum enough.”

 

“I understand the feeling,” Buffy confessed. “I wish there was more I could do.” She laid her head against his chest. “I’m way behind in school too. Willow brought some stuff by, but it feels like I’m running in place.”

 

Spike kissed her forehead. “You’ll be fine, luv. Both you and Dawn can work on it tomorrow, and you know I’ll help. Once the surgery is over, you can talk to your professors and let them know what’s going on, and then you’ll take a few days and make it up.”

 

“But Glory—”

 

“Will wait, somehow,” Spike replied. “You’re more than just the Slayer, luv. More than just a daughter. It’s a matter of finding a way to balance it all out. You need help juggling all those balls, just ask.”

 

She gave a little groan. “You’re so good to me. You make me feel guilty.”

 

“No need for that, Buffy,” he replied. “You know I’d do anything for you.”

 

She knew. God help her, but she knew. Spike’s devotion was almost scary at times, since it made her feel as though she wasn’t doing enough, even though Buffy knew he didn’t look at it that way. The sense of relief and gratitude heavily outweighed the guilt, however, and she was glad he was there.

 

Spike was so solid, though she thought he hardly knew it.

 

“Spike?” Buffy let go reluctantly, watching as he greeted her mom and sister, pulling both of them into a quick hug. He fit, she realized, not for the first time. It was like Spike filled the space that no one had realized was empty until he showed up. People said you didn’t know what you were missing until it was gone. Buffy wondered if it wasn’t equally true that you didn’t know what was gone until you had it.

 

“I’ll pick you two up after patrol, okay?” Spike asked. “You need me before then, give me a call on the mobile.”

 

“Will do,” Buffy replied, grabbing a quick hug before he left. “Be careful.”

 

“Always.”

 

Buffy wasn’t the only one who needed to work on homework, and so both she and Dawn sat down to try and do some of it. She supposed that it shouldn’t have surprised her that Joyce got agitated after a short while. Her mom had gotten disoriented that afternoon while Willow had been there, and it was only natural that it would happen again.

 

Buffy wasn’t certain that it was such a good idea to take Joyce home, although she could certainly understand why Joyce might want to go. It wasn’t like she was a big fan of hospitals herself. On the other hand, if Joyce needed a lot of looking after, Buffy was apprehensive about her ability to really pull it off.

 

Dr. Kriegel didn’t seem fond of the idea either, but Joyce was insistent, and Buffy would do just about anything to make her happy and comfortable. So, she did the only thing she could think of doing: she called Spike.

 

“You sure that’s a good idea, luv?” he asked. “If something happens…”

 

“I know,” Buffy said quickly, “but Mom really wants to go home. I just wanted to know if you’d stay. I’d feel better if—”

 

“I’ll be there soon as I can, Buffy, and I’ll stay as long as you need me,” Spike assured her. “It’s not like I don’t have some experience with this kind of thing.”

 

Buffy breathed a sigh of relief. “How’s patrol going?”

 

“We got a few vamps, nothing real exciting,” Spike said, sounding almost disappointed. “They didn’t even put up much of a fight.”

 

In spite of the circumstances, Buffy couldn’t help but chuckle. Spike did like a good fight, especially when there was some tension to work off. “Well, I’m sorry you didn’t get the action you needed.”

 

“Another night maybe,” he said, and from the tone of his voice, Buffy knew exactly what kind of action he was talking about. It had nothing to do with demons.

 

She sighed. “It’ll have to be,” Buffy replied regretfully. “I wish—”

 

“After,” he said. “After we get your mum taken care of.”

 

Buffy sighed again. It would have to be after a lot of things—after her mom’s surgery, after Glory, after she caught up with her studies. “Sure. So, you’re coming?”

 

“On my way, luv.”

 

Spike hung up the cell phone and looked over at the gang. “Gotta go. Buffy said Joyce wants to go home.”

 

Giles frowned. “Are you certain that’s wise?”

 

“No,” Spike said frankly. “But Joyce wants to go home, so that’s where we’re going. I’ll stay with Buffy tonight to help out, but over the next couple of days…”

 

Willow was the first to speak up. “You’ve got it, Spike. We’ll all take shifts.”

 

“Sure,” Xander said. “No big deal. You can count on us.”

 

“Anya can watch the Magic Box tomorrow, and I’ll stay with Joyce,” Giles promised.

 

Tara gave him a smile and a nod, and Anya looked overjoyed to have the shop to herself. “I can watch the Magic Box,” she agreed. “I can contribute too.”

 

“That would be great,” Spike smiled at the ex-demon, knowing that she really did want to help and didn’t quite know what else she could do. “I’m off. I’ll see you lot later.”

 

He took off at a jog back towards his apartment where he’d left the Desoto. Spike needed to get some clean clothes for the next day. If Giles was going to stay with Buffy and Joyce, he could go into the gallery. It seemed important that he keep things as normal as possible, and it was up to him to keep the place open while Joyce was sick.

 

Grabbing what he needed on hangers from the closet, and throwing a few things into an overnight bag, Spike hurried out to his car. He threw everything into the trunk, feeling an inexplicable need to hurry. Buffy had sounded slightly desperate on the phone and she’d said she needed him.

 

Yeah. She needed him. Even with circumstances as they were, it felt good to have her call on him.

 

By the time he arrived at the hospital, Dr. Kriegel was finishing up his instructions. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked again. “It’s going to mean some work for you.”

 

“She’s got help,” Spike said, from behind her, causing Buffy to turn and give him a grateful smile. “I’m sure she’ll fill me in.”

 

The relief on the doctor’s face was obvious as he realized that Buffy wouldn’t be doing this by herself. “Good. There’s every possibility that Joyce’s dementia could get worse over the next couple days. You’ll need to watch her fairly closely.”

 

“Right,” Spike agreed, turning to the Slayer. “You ready?”

 

She nodded. “Let’s get Mom and get out of here.”

 

Spike thought he heard something as he was leaving the hospital, catching a glimpse of a scuttling, gray object. But when he turned his head, there was nothing.

 

~~~~~

 

“Shouldn’t we call Buffy?” Xander was not happy to not have anyone with super-strength or specialized fighting skills. “Or Spike?”

 

“We can’t call Buffy,” Willow said.

 

Giles nodded, staring at the meteorite that had cracked open, leaving a hollow center. “Spike’s helping Buffy with Joyce tonight. I don’t think we should bother either of them.”

 

“They need to be with Mrs. Summers right now,” Tara said firmly, surprising the group with her atypical forthrightness. “Both of them.”

 

Xander looked chagrined. “Right. Absolutely.”

 

There was a small pause and then Willow said in a little voice, “I really wish we could call Buffy.”

 

“Well, we can’t,” Giles said. “So we’d better just figure out what crawled out.”

 

“And slithered away,” Xander muttered, not looking thrilled with the idea.

 

Giles made a face. “In all fairness, we don’t know that it slithered.”

 

“Oh, yes, I’m sure it frisked about like a fluffy lamb,” Anya said, a definite note of sarcasm in her voice.

 

Giles gave her a dirty look. Tara lifted an eyebrow. “Maybe we should look around and try to figure out where it went.”

 

It didn’t take them long before Willow stumbled over the body of the security guard she and Buffy had seen at the hospital earlier that day—the same one who had reacted so strangely to Dawn. “I think it went here.”

 

They gathered around, staring at the dead body, Giles having checked for the pulse. “Perhaps we should search the woods,” he suggested doubtfully.

 

All eyes went back to the woods, which were looking very uninviting. “I vote research,” Xander commented.

 

“I like research,” Anya said hopefully.

 

“Research is good,” Willow said, as they all started leaving. Then, in a low voice, she said to Giles, “I really don’t want to be the one finding bodies anymore.”

 

No one noticed the dark figure separating itself from the shadows.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy had never been so grateful for Spike’s presence. As they were leaving, Joyce looked over at her, nearly snarling, “You look just like your father when you cry.”

 

Spike could immediately see the effect on Buffy, and he quickly came over to Joyce, putting an arm around her shoulders. “Why don’t we get out of here, Joyce? About time we blew this joint.”

 

“Can I have a cigarette?” she asked as Spike led her out the door, throwing a wink towards Buffy as he did so.

 

He looked regretful. “Sorry, don’t smoke anymore.”

 

Buffy took the medications from the doctor with a pained smile. “Thank you. She’s been—but, you know, Spike is so good…with people. I should—”

 

“I’ll see you in a couple days,” Dr. Kriegel said with a kind smile.

 

They made the trip home with no trouble. Joyce seemed a little off, but she wasn’t as noticeably out of it as she had been earlier. The lights inside the house, when they’d been turned on, set her off again though. “Why don’t we go upstairs, Mom?” Buffy suggested gently. “We’ll make sure all the lights are off.”

 

When she’d gotten Joyce settled, she came back down to find Dawn and Spike watching TV, her sister curled up next to him. Buffy plopped down on his other side and breathed a sigh of relief when he put an arm around her. They watched TV in blissful silence, enjoying the respite offered.

 

A commotion from the kitchen alerted them to trouble, and all three of them stood to investigate the noise. Buffy and Spike both rushed into action when they saw what was going on: Buffy quickly turning off the stove and Spike grabbing the smoking pan.

 

“Mom, what are you doing?” Buffy asked.

 

“I’m cooking breakfast,” Joyce snapped. “And you shouldn’t eat any more. You’re disgustingly fat.” She glanced over at Spike. “And what are you doing here, you monster?”

 

Buffy took a step backward, knowing her mother didn’t mean what she had said, yet still feeling as though she’d been slapped, knowing that Spike probably had the same expression on his face as she did. “Oh, I’m sorry, guys,” Joyce said immediately. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

 

“It’s all right, luv,” Spike said, having put the pan in the sink, and giving her a gentle push towards the door. “Why don’t you go upstairs? You can get settled in, maybe get some rest. You’re just tired.”

 

It was more than being tired, and they all knew it, but it was a convenient fiction. Buffy shot him a grateful smile as she and Dawn started herding Joyce up the stairs. Spike began to clean up the kitchen, thinking that it was unlikely the girls had eaten, and hearing his own stomach growling. With a frown, he started rummaging around in the fridge, looking for something quick to make.

 

The house was fairly quiet, except for the muted sounds of the television from the living room and soft noises from upstairs. Spike had just finished pulling out the necessary ingredients for omelets when he heard raised voices and then footsteps thundering down the stairs.

 

Spike put the eggs down on the countertop and went to see what was wrong, just in time to run into Dawn. “Nibblet? What’s the matter?”

 

The girl said nothing, burying her face in Spike’s chest and holding on for dear life. “Bit?”

 

Buffy came down the stairs, the look on her face one of distress. “Mom—said some things.”

 

“She called me a thing,” Dawn muttered, her voice muffled by Spike’s shirt. “She hates me.”

 

“Shh,” Spike soothed. “Joyce doesn’t hate you, Dawn. She’s just not herself right now.”

 

“No, it’s not just Mom,” Dawn insisted. “It’s other people too. They keep saying weird things to me. What’s wrong with me?”

 

Spike and Buffy exchanged a look over Dawn’s head, worried. “Nothing’s wrong with you,” Buffy assured her sister, running a soothing hand over her hair. “It’s just—”

 

“People’s brains sometimes are a bit wrong, luv, and then they see things that aren’t real.” Or that are real, Spike thought. They needed to make certain they kept Dawn away from crazy people, from people like Drusilla who saw things that others were blind to. “Besides, it doesn’t matter. Buffy and I love you. And your mum loves you too. She’s just sick right now.”

 

“I hate this,” Dawn said rebelliously. “I mean, I really, really hate this.”

 

“So do I, Little Bit,” he replied. “So do I.”

 

Dawn hadn’t wanted to be tucked in since she was very small, but now she wanted Spike to sit with her for a while that night. Buffy watched them climb the stairs, then went back into the kitchen, noting the ingredients that Spike had left on the counter. With a small sigh, she started putting them back into the fridge.

 

She turned the water on at the sink, and then turned on the radio for good measure, pressing a wet hand to her mouth as she finally let the tears fall. Buffy didn’t even hear the sound of footsteps behind her. “Buffy?”

 

Buffy wiped hastily at wet cheeks with a soapy hand, trying not to be too obvious about it. “Is Dawn okay?”

 

“I think she will be,” Spike replied quietly. “Right now, it’s you I’m worried about.”

 

Forcing a smile, she turned to face him. “I’m fine.”

 

“Buffy—” At the gentle, chiding tone, she shook her head.

 

“I can’t, Spike. I can’t—”

 

And then he was there, with his arms around her, whispering promises into her ear, promises that it was going to be okay, that they would make it through this, that he wasn’t going anywhere.

 

They were promises that were beyond his ability to fulfill, and yet she loved him for it. Under his tender onslaught, she couldn’t fight the tears that had seemed to threaten all day anymore, and she finally broke down.

 

By the time she’d finally gotten herself under control, the front of his shirt was soaked. When she looked up, Buffy could see that his own cheeks were wet with tears, and she suddenly didn’t feel so bad. Spike was right; they were in this together. It was better than having to face this alone.

 

“I was going to make us something to eat,” he said softly, not wanting to address either of their tears.

 

She shrugged in reply. “I’m really not that hungry.”

 

“You’re too thin,” Spike murmured. “You should eat more.”

 

“So should you,” Buffy replied with a smile. “Like any of us have been getting regular meals lately.”

 

“It’s hard,” he agreed. Then he smiled. It was only a small twist of the lips, but it made him look boyish and young and so startlingly beautiful. “You want to make out?”

 

“Make out?” Buffy asked, hardly able to believe her ears.

 

Spike leaned in close, so he could murmur in her ear. “Want to be close to you, to touch you. And it’ll take our minds off things.”

Buffy was well aware that she shouldn’t even be thinking about this, but— “Mom…”

 

“Just making out, promise,” he said. “All clothes will remain on, in case of emergency.”

 

Suddenly, Buffy thought that it sounded like the best idea she’d heard in weeks. “Okay.”

 

As it had always seemed to do, the world faded as they touched, reminding one another of their love through tangibles. In fact, they were just getting really into it when a shriek came from upstairs. “Buffy!”

 

They broke apart, each attuned to the sounds of disaster. “Bloody hell,” Spike muttered, as he followed Buffy up the stairs. “We were having a sodding moment.”

 

“Later, sweetie,” Buffy said over her shoulder, having every intention of making good on that promise.

 

The second floor was chaos as Dawn tried to explain what had happened. She was trying to wipe slime off Joyce’s face at the same time, so her explanation wasn’t the clearest. “It was some gray demon-thing, and it tried to get Mom.”

 

Buffy and Spike exchanged a look, somehow not surprised at this new development. Why would anything in their lives even remotely resemble normalcy? “Stay in this room,” Buffy ordered them. “Both of you.”

 

She ducked out, closely followed by Spike, and let out a surprised squeak when something dropped on her back. Spike gave a roar that was worthy of the master vampire he’d been before ripping it off of her. Buffy whirled, looking around for it, but the demon seemed to have disappeared in the dim house.

 

“Where did it go?” she demanded.

 

“Scuttled down the sodding stairs,” Spike replied, looking rather freaked out. Buffy was feeling a little chilled herself; the small glimpse she’d gotten of it suggested that it resembled nothing so much as a very big bug.

 

Buffy didn’t like bugs, as a general rule.

 

Shaking off the heebie-jeebies, she ran down the stairs, Spike on her heels. It was way too quiet. Buffy looked around, desperate for any indication of where it might be. “Are you sure it’s down here?”

 

“Think so,” Spike said doubtfully. “Blasted thing blends right in.” There was a slight noise that sent both their heads up as one. “Kitchen?”

 

“Maybe.”

 

It turned out to be an accurate guess. The cockroach-demon dropped down on Spike this time, startling a yell out of him. Buffy rushed to grab a kitchen knife, and there was a brief, confused struggle as he tried to shake it off, and Buffy tried to stab the demon without hurting Spike.

 

When it finally lay on the floor, dead, they looked up, relieved. Just as Riley burst into the kitchen through the backdoor. “Buffy, the demon—” He stopped. “Is dead.”

 

Buffy looked up, and in her exhaustion, couldn’t find the strength to be surprised. “Riley. How nice to see you again.” She glanced past him at the four other men in black combat gear. “And you brought friends.”

Chapter Text

“Before I loved you, Love, nothing was my own:/I wavered through the streets, among objects:/nothing mattered or had a name:/the world was made of air, which waited…it all/ belonged to someone else—to no one:/till your beauty and your poverty/filled the autumn plentiful with gifts.” Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XXV

 

“So, not to sound rude or anything, Riley, but what are you doing here?” Buffy asked. Spike had excused himself to head upstairs and check on Dawn and Joyce, leaving her with her ex. Not that she blamed Spike exactly, since she was well aware of how uncomfortable he was around Army personnel of any ilk, but she still felt a slight resentment towards him for deserting her like that.

 

Riley shrugged. He’d sent his men ahead, telling them that he would catch up later, wanting to make certain that Buffy was well. They might not be together anymore, but he still cared. “The meteorite that landed earlier registered as incoming on our radar about 36 hours ago. When the brass figured out that the trajectory would carry it here, I got selected for the mission since I know the area.”

 

Buffy sighed. “Makes sense. So the big bug was not from around here, huh?”

 

“Not hardly,” he agreed. “Mostly it preys on the mentally disturbed. We tracked it to the hospital, where it killed five people, and then to your house. I was hoping we would arrive before it got a chance to attack.”

 

“It’s not that big a deal,” she insisted. “Compared to some of the other stuff that’s been going on here lately, it was hardly anything to worry about.”

 

Riley frowned. “So you’re not doing that great?”

 

“That would be one way to put it,” Buffy admitted, not really wanting to spill her guts to the guy she used to date, and feeling a weird need to do so anyway.

 

Riley frowned. “And Spike? Is he okay?”

 

“Spike’s fine,” Buffy said quickly. “Spike’s the one thing that makes sense right now.”

 

“Well, thanks for that, luv,” the man in question said, coming back into the room.

 

She smiled at her boyfriend. “It’s the truth. How are Mom and Dawn?”

 

“Good,” Spike replied, leaning next to her on the kitchen island. “Your mum seems fairly lucid right now, and the Bit’s shaken up, but she’ll be fine.” He looked over at Riley. “Your timing could have been better.”

 

“Sorry about that,” Riley replied, not sounding particularly apologetic. “Looks like you two had it under control though.”

 

“We’ve got everything under control,” Spike said, a clear challenge in his tone.

 

Riley nodded, understanding the challenge for what it was, and not wanting to make a big deal over it. He had long since recovered from the heartbreak of losing the Slayer, and had accepted that he wasn’t the right man for her. Riley Finn was a rather practical guy: if it ended, you moved on. He had. “I can see that. Buffy was just telling me that things are kind of crazy around here right now.”

 

“Mom’s sick,” Buffy said softly. “Brain tumor. She’s having surgery day after tomorrow.” Almost as an afterthought, she added, “And there’s this really nasty chick out to kill me and get her Key back, possibly so she can take over the world. Pretty much business as usual.”

 

Riley gave a half laugh and shook his head. “That’s Sunnydale.” Then, more seriously, he said, “I’m sorry about your mom, Buffy. That’s rough.”

 

“It is,” she acknowledged.

 

Riley frowned as a thought hit him. “How’s Dawn doing with this? Your younger sister, right?”

 

“Yeah,” Buffy said slowly, sending a meaningful look at Spike, who had been quiet through this exchange. They had speculated on how far away the false-memories had been implanted. Did it affect only those who were around her at the time of Dawn’s arrival, or was it was connected to all the people she’d known? It seemed more likely to be the latter at this point, which answered the question of whether or not people like Angel would know who Dawn was. “She’s dealing. Spike’s really good with her.”

 

“She’s a good kid,” Spike commented. “You sticking around for a while, Finn?”

 

It was a friendly question, actually, as Spike realized that Riley wasn’t there to try and take over his girl or anything else. Spike was generally pretty nice when he wasn’t feeling threatened.

 

Riley shook his head. “Probably not. There’s always a fire or two to be put out, and we’re a mobile unit. We don’t stay anywhere for very long.”

 

“It’s not the Initiative,” Buffy said quietly, concerned.

 

“No, it’s not.” Riley sighed. “We mostly do what the Slayer does, only with more men and a lot bigger weapons. Try and kill things that would try and kill us. That’s pretty much it.”

 

Spike nodded. “That’s not a bad mission.”

 

Riley suddenly smiled at him. “We’re better than what we were.” He hesitated slightly. “I really should go.”

 

“I’ll walk you out,” Spike offered.

 

Buffy took the hint. “I’ll just go check on Mom, let her know things are good.”

 

Spike led Riley to the front door this time, and they shared a brief, hard handshake. “I’m sorry for what happened,” Riley said quietly. “I’ve thought about it a lot, and it wasn’t good.”

 

Spike nodded, appreciating the sentiment. “If it makes you feel any better, I’m not. Wouldn’t trade what ‘ve got now for anything.”

 

“I’m glad,” Riley replied. “Take care of her?”

 

“I always do.”

 

~~~~~

 

Somehow it didn’t matter that the risk involved in the surgery was small. It seemed huge to both Buffy and Spike. Joyce had sent Dawn out of the room to go get a soda, and she was watching the two of them with cautious eyes. “I needed to talk to you both about something.”

 

Buffy was already perched by her bedside, but Spike came over from his post in the doorway to stand next to his girlfriend. “What’s that, Mom?”

 

“I—I don’t know what it was, or how, but when I was—this knowledge just came to me.” Joyce looked from one to the other, certain that what Buffy knew, Spike would be aware of as well. “I realized that, that Dawn isn’t really mine, is she?”

 

Buffy looked up at Spike, watching as a sad smile played over his lips. “No, Joyce, she’s not,” he said gently.

 

“But she is mine,” Joyce insisted. “She’s mine in every way that matters, because she feels like my daughter.”

 

“Yeah, she is,” Buffy agreed quietly.

 

Joyce nodded. “Then whatever happens, if I don’t come out of this, you have to promise me you’ll take care of her. You have to promise—”

 

“It’s done,” Spike said firmly. “She’s mine too, Joyce.”

 

“I promise,” Buffy echoed. “We’ll both take care of her.” She wanted to argue with her mother, to protest that nothing would happen, that she would be fine. Buffy couldn’t find the words, and it was only Spike’s hand on her shoulder that made her feel anchored, that caused her to feel real in a world that hurt too badly to breathe.

 

Joyce managed a smile. “I know you will.” They shared a brief, desperate hug, and then it was Spike’s turn.

 

“You’ll come out of this just fine,” he whispered. “You’re a fighter.” Spike straightened, and then glanced over his shoulder to see Giles standing in the doorway. “Buffy—”

 

Giles waited until they were alone before coming over to her bedside. “When—”

 

“A few minutes,” she said, reading the numbers on the clock. “Not long.”

 

“Not long enough,” he agreed. “I’ve been arguing with myself for the last two days, trying to decide if I should tell you this before or wait until after. I thought if I sprung this on you now it would feel too much like a goodbye, as if we weren’t going to see one another again. And yet, if I don’t say it—”

 

“We don’t have that much time to waste.”

 

“No, I don’t suppose we do. We’re not so young anymore.” Giles reached out and touched her cheek with a gentle hand. “I do love you, you know.”

 

Joyce smiled. “I know. I love you.” There was a pause, and then they both let out a slightly nervous chuckle. “That wasn’t so hard.”

 

“No,” Giles agreed.

 

She smiled. “And we’re not that old, either. At least, I’m not on my deathbed.”

 

The fire in her eyes was so reminiscent of the light he’d seen in his Slayer’s that Giles realized that much of what made Buffy so successful could be seen in the woman in front of him. He had seen Buffy overcome seemingly unbeatable odds—the Master and the prophecy that the Slayer would be killed came to mind—that it was now obvious to him that Joyce would survive, that she would pull through. “No,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief he didn’t try to explain. “Summers women are tough.”

 

“Don’t you forget it.” They shared a gentle kiss, and then they broke reluctantly when one of the doctors cleared his throat behind them. “I’ll see you later, Rupert.”

 

“Yes, of course,” Giles replied, smoothing down the front of his shirt in a flustered gesture. He felt like a boy who’d been caught stealing a kiss, which was silly. “I will see you soon, my love.”

 

With Giles’ term of endearment ringing in her ears, Joyce went to face her fate with a peaceful heart.

 

~~~~~

 

The waiting seemed interminable—but then that was the nature of hospital lounges. You waited with friends and loved ones, if you were lucky, and you watched the door for signs of the doctor. You played cards, if anyone remembered to bring a pack, drank coffee that could be compared unfavorably to sludge, and ate candy bars from the vending machine. If you were really lucky, you managed an hour or two of sleep in uncomfortable chairs that left you with a knot in your neck and some time where you weren’t constantly thinking of all the things that could go wrong.

 

Spike had been here before. Oh, it wasn’t exactly the same, of course, but when his sister had been ill so long ago, there had been the waiting. Waiting for her to live, waiting for her to die—just waiting to know one way or the other. In those days, you waited at home, but the feelings were the same, the worried expressions were nearly identical.

 

It had been said that there was nothing new under the sun. Spike was beginning to believe it.

 

He watched in silence as the others shifted positions, moved around, tried to talk about different things to take their minds off what was going on not fifty yards away. “It’s taking forever,” Dawn said quietly, and he could hear the fear in her voice.

 

“I know,” Buffy replied. The two of them were separated by Dawn’s body. The girl rested her head on Spike’s shoulder while Buffy held her sister’s hand. The Slayer would have preferred sitting on Spike’s other side, gaining comfort from his physical proximity, but Dawn needed both of them. The younger girl needed the maximum amount of emotional and physical support.

 

Spike gave Dawn’s shoulders a little squeeze. “The docs are probably just making sure they got every bit of it. That takes time.”

 

It took hours, apparently, as Tara and Willow talked softly and Giles stared off into space, a faraway look in his eyes. Spike couldn’t imagine how he might feel if it were Buffy back there, being operated on. More than anyone else in the gang, he’d watched their relationship grow over the past six months or so. If the worst were to happen, and they lost Joyce, Giles would be devastated.

 

So would he, for that matter. So would all of them. Joyce was beloved by many.

 

When the surgeon finally came out, a collective stillness seized the group. Spike couldn’t read the expression on Dr. Kriegel’s face well enough to know what the verdict was. As was appropriate, it was Buffy who asked. “How did it go?”

 

Dr. Kriegel finally cracked a small smile. “We were able to see all the tumor, which means we were able to get all of it. Barring complications in recovery, I think your mother will be alright.”

 

“So she’s going to be okay? Completely?” Buffy asked, needing more assurances.

 

The doctor nodded. “Again, barring any complications. We’ll need to watch her carefully, of course, and there’s always the possibility that the tumor could return, but—”

 

The rest of his words were lost amid the general sighs of relief. Tomorrow could take care of itself. Today, Joyce would be fine. That was all that mattered.

 

Buffy turned and gave Spike a tight hug, before doing the same for Dawn and Giles. Everyone was hugging, touching, shaking hands. The burden of worry was much lighter than it had been before.

 

Dr. Kriegel narrowly missed having his ribs cracked by Buffy when she hugged him in gratitude. He assured them that it would be quite some time before Joyce came out of the anesthetic, and encouraged them all to go home and get some rest.

 

“Maybe you and Anya could take Dawn?” Buffy asked Xander hopefully, pulling him to the side and looking over at her boyfriend. “It would be much appreciated.”

 

Xander smiled. “Yeah, you guys both need some downtime. We’ll plan on seeing you tomorrow.”

 

As Buffy filled Dawn in on who she’d be staying with, Spike wandered over to Giles. “Alright there, Rupert?”

 

“Yes, quite,” Giles replied with a shaky smile. “It’s good news.” He paused. “I think I’m going to stay here though.”

 

Spike frowned, concerned. “Are you sure?”

 

“Yes, of course.” Giles pulled off his glasses and started to polish the lenses. “I just don’t think that Joyce should wake up alone.”

 

Spike nodded, not bothering to refute the statement. Personally, he thought it might have more to do with Giles wanting to reassure himself that Joyce was fine. That she would be fine. If it had been Buffy, Spike would have wanted to stay just to watch her sleep.

 

“I’ll see you later then, mate,” Spike said.

 

~~~~~

 

“So what do you want to do tonight, Dawnster?” Xander asked. “We could go to the movies. Or, there’s always ice cream.”

 

Dawn shrugged, a bit put out at having to stay at Xander and Anya’s when what she’d really wanted was to hang out with Spike and Buffy. She’d hoped they would celebrate as a family, not go off and leave her to be babysat. It was yet another example of how unfair her life truly was.

 

“I don’t care,” Dawn finally said when she realized Xander was waiting for an answer. “I mean, Buffy made me stay with you guys just so she and Spike could shag.”

 

Xander’s eyes widened, and he suddenly wondered if Dawn hadn’t been spending a little too much time with Spike. “I’m sure they just needed some time to—talk.” He winced, knowing how lame that sounded.

 

Dawn’s highly skeptical expression told him she thought it was lame too. “Yeah, right, Xander.” She shrugged. “It’s not like I wouldn’t want to boink Spike if he was my boyfriend, though.”

 

This was too much information for Xander, who proceeded to choke on the soda he’d been drinking. Anya, on the other hand, gave Dawn an appraising look. “Yes, Spike is quite appealing, isn’t he?” she commented. “I’m sure he gives Buffy many pleasant orgasms.”

 

“Okay,” Xander announced quickly, pulling out the paper with the movie titles and showings. “Let’s go to a movie.”

 

Dawn might have been squicked by Anya’s comments if she hadn’t been so amused by Xander’s bright red face. Grinning wickedly, she thought of half a dozen other ways to freak Xander out, and then realized that she was still supposed to be traumatized.

 

Traumatized people always got to pick the movie.

 

She gave Xander her best doe-eyed stare, the one that always worked on Spike. “Could I pick the movie?” Dawn asked, making sure to sound as pathetic as possible without giving the game away.

 

“Of course, Dawn,” Xander said. “You decide.”

 

Dawn looked over the movie offerings and wondered what else her puppy-dog-eyes would get her, and how long she could make it last.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike and Buffy were not shagging. Not that it wasn’t high on their list of priorities, but Spike had announced his strong desire to go out. “Don’t care where,” he said. “We could go patrol, but I need—”

 

“To move,” Buffy finished for him. She’d rather hoped that moving consisted of getting horizontal—or vertical, she didn’t much care—with her boyfriend, but she supposed it didn’t matter. In fact, it might be better to go out and hone their appetites, so to speak. “We could go to the Bronze,” she suggested. “Dance, check the place for members of the undead.”

 

“Make out in dark corners,” Spike added with a smirk.

 

“That might be nice,” Buffy said blandly. She wrapped her arms around him, laying her head on his chest. “I don’t know how I would have gotten through this without you.”

 

“You’d have been fine.”

 

“I don’t think so,” Buffy said. “Spike—”

 

“I’m not that special, luv,” Spike insisted. “You would have—”

 

“Probably gone insane.” Buffy cut him off. “You’ve put up with me being bitchy for the last couple weeks, and ignoring you…”

 

“We’ve both been busy,” Spike replied. “You had your mum, and Glory, and I had the gallery to look after. It’s part of being alive, luv, taking care of that sort of thing.”

 

“Maybe so,” Buffy acknowledged. “But tonight I’m all yours.”

 

~~~~~

 

Giles had made a brief trip back to his apartment to shower and change, as well as grabbing a few tomes he thought might be helpful in the search for information about Glory. Joyce had already been moved to a semi private room, as she didn’t need to be in the ICU. There was another bed in the room, but it was empty, and the room was silent except for the rustle of pages and the scratching of his pen on paper.

 

It would have been just as easy to read at his apartment, he knew, but Giles had wanted to reassure himself of Joyce’s well being. Every couple pages or so he would look up, watching as her chest rose and fell.

 

Giles was amazed that he had a chance with this woman, the chance he’d lost with Jenny. He was more amazed that he’d managed to fall in love again, after all his bad luck.

 

Unable to resist, Giles reached out and folded her hand in his. He’d never been a religious man, nor one who believed in prayer, but he wished now that he was. He wished there was something or someone he could make a deal with to keep this woman safe.

 

Giles would give his very soul to see her safe.

 

~~~~~

 

It was early when Buffy woke, carefully extricating herself from Spike’s arms to use the bathroom. The night before had been great, reminding her of all the things they had let go by the wayside when her mom had gotten sick. They had gone to the Bronze and danced, stopping briefly to kill a couple vampires they’d spotted.

 

Then they had come back to his place and made love, which had been an intense experience. The desire had been growing between them all evening, between the dancing and the fighting, and coming together again had been like fireworks on the Fourth of July. It was desire and relief and joy all at once; every time Buffy thought the sex couldn’t get better, another night would come along like the last one and prove her wrong.

 

Well, not better, but different. With Spike, it was always different, new—beautiful.

 

She was about to head back into the bedroom when something on the small table caught her eye. It was one of those solid wooden jobs that looked as though it would last the next hundred years, something that Spike had picked up at a garage sale and her mom had helped him to refinish. The memory of watching a shirtless Spike sand down the table while laughing with her mom had her smiling reflectively.

 

Spike’s laptop was sitting with the top closed next to a stack of paper. Curious, Buffy glanced at the top page, which looked like a title page of a book. The title read Drowning in Love, and the author’s name was William Giles.

 

Buffy frowned. Spike hadn’t mentioned that he was writing anything, let alone writing a book, and the stack of paper was definitely thick enough to be a book. Feeling slightly guilty for prying, and not a little disturbed that Spike hadn’t told her about his project, Buffy set the title page aside and began to read.

 

She’d gotten about three pages in when Spike’s voice interrupted her. “What are you doing?”

 

“I’m reading,” Buffy replied, turning to look at him. The expression on his face was a mixture of anger, fear and guilt.

 

“That was private,” he said quietly, but fiercely.

 

Buffy stood. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I wasn’t allowed to read what you wrote. Of course, I wouldn’t know that since I didn’t know you were writing to begin with.”

 

He looked away from her, torn. Spike wasn’t actually all that angry at her; it was more fear that Buffy would think it stupid, or horrible. It didn’t matter that Tara thought it a decent story; he was more vulnerable to Buffy’s opinion than anyone’s. Spike had shared a great deal about his past with the Slayer, but there were still some things of which she was unaware.

 

Mostly, she had no idea about how big of a wanker he had actually been.

 

“You were still reading it without my permission, Buffy. That was mine.”

 

“Anything else you’ve kept secret?” Buffy asked, a touch of sarcasm in her tone.

 

Spike’s face flushed with anger. “I haven’t kept anything from you, Slayer. My whole life is yours, but that was something that was mine alone.”

 

Buffy stared at him. “What’s the big deal? It’s not like you don’t know everything there is to know about me.”

 

He turned away from her slightly, his fists clenching convulsively. The big deal was that Buffy could very easily crush him without even knowing she was doing it. One hint that she thought it not worth his time, one indication that she thought it sucked, and he would be more deeply wounded than he had been the night he’d been turned. Not that Spike hadn’t said things to regret, but this was different. “Forget it, pet. It’s nothing.”

 

“It’s not nothing,” Buffy contradicted. “If it was nothing, you wouldn’t be so upset right now.”

 

Spike turned to go back into the bedroom, his back straight and stiff, but she caught his arm. “Spike, don’t walk away from me.”

 

“Just forget it!”

 

“Why?” she demanded. “Why should I forget it?” The world that seemed so safe just moments before was now tilting. “Spike, talk to me.”

 

He shrugged out from under her hand, and Buffy couldn’t help but feel that he was slipping away. She had no idea why. “It’s just—” Spike started and stopped. “I didn’t know what you’d think of it. Maybe you would think it was—bad.”

 

Gently, Buffy turned him to face her. “Spike, I didn’t think what I read was bad. What little I did get to read.”

 

He still wasn’t looking her in the eyes. “Thanks.”

 

Buffy had to admit she could be pretty obtuse at times. There had been plenty of occasions in the past where she had completely missed all the signals Spike had sent her. She’d misread the emotion in those blue eyes of his and had said something stupid as a result.

 

Of course, sometimes she could be fairly astute. “You were worried that I was going to hate it, right?” Buffy asked quietly. “And it’s really important to you that I like it.”

 

“I’m probably just being a git, luv. Doesn’t matter.”

 

“It matters.” Buffy took his face between her hands and forced him to look her in the eye. “I’m sorry I got into it without your permission. Would you let me read it?”

 

When he still hesitated, Buffy sighed. “Look, if I promise to be very gentle and honest, will you let me read it?”

 

“Yeah, sure, if you want,” Spike replied, going for nonchalant and failing miserably. “It’s just—haven’t had the best of luck with my writing before.”

 

Buffy smiled gently. “You’ve been a lot of places since then, sweetheart. You’ve lived a long time. It would make sense that you just got better.”

 

He finally nodded. “I’m just gonna shower, then. It’s not quite finished. Told Glinda I’d print a copy for her to edit while I finish it up.”

 

Buffy was somehow not surprised that Tara knew about his writing. It stung a little that he hadn’t trusted her enough to tell her, but it didn’t surprise her. Her Spike was as vulnerable as she was in some areas. “You go do that.”

 

Spike couldn’t just sit while Buffy read. He showered, and then stripped the sheets off the bed to do some laundry. He called Xander and asked if they would keep Dawn until lunchtime when they would pick her up to go to the hospital. He fixed a little something for them both to eat for breakfast.

 

“We should go,” he said, interrupting after a while. It was past time for them to leave, and Buffy was only halfway through. “Buffy?”

 

“Just a sec,” she murmured absently. “I’m almost done with this chapter.” Another few minutes went by, and Buffy looked up. “Spike, this is really good work.” At the look on his face, she insisted, “No, it really is. I don’t know anything about publishing, but I love it.”

 

A pleased flush spread across his face. “Thank you, pet.”

 

“This is about us, isn’t it?” Buffy asked, having recognized some of the players in his story. “I mean, this is about you and—”

 

“Loving you,” he finished quietly. “Yeah. They say write what you know, and that’s what I know.”

 

It was about more than that; it was about a man who loved so well he lost himself. Buffy recognized Spike in every word, and she wondered if his writing didn’t give her some glimpse into his heart, knowing the emotions behind his story. He hadn’t given her everything, and Buffy was beginning to see why. They both held back small pieces of themselves, just in case. They had both had their hearts smashed to pieces way too many times.

 

Buffy was still absurdly disappointed, though. She’d thought she knew everything about this man. “Spike, even if it sucked—which it doesn’t—I’d still love it, because you wrote it. And I love you.”

 

The tips of his ears turned pink. “I know, Buffy. It’s just—you know the night Dru turned me, someone read my—stuff out loud at a party, in front of the girl I loved. It wasn’t pleasant.”

 

“That’s because she wasn’t the Slayer,” Buffy said with a smile. “Anybody tells you this isn’t good, have them see me, because I will kick their asses.”

 

He laughed and then grinned at her. “Might take you up on that.”

 

“I expect you to,” she said. “Come on, we’d better get out of here. Dawn’s probably going crazy with the waiting, and we need to see Mom.”

 

~~~~~

 

After Joyce returned from the hospital, things were somehow easier. Joyce was healing and doing quite well. Both Dawn and Buffy tried to finish out the semester without failing anything, and with Spike’s help they both managed. It was hectic and crazy, but it was good too.

 

Glory was still somewhere in the background, of course, waiting. No one tried to delude themselves that the threat was gone, but the Christmas tree went up without a fuss, and everyone helped to cook Christmas dinner. Giles and Spike spent Christmas Eve and Day at the Summers’ residence, and it felt right. Tara, Willow, Anya and Xander came over during the day, and laughter flowed constantly.

 

They had been granted a reprieve for a time. It was a new day, a new year, and it was good.

 

Of course, no one had reckoned on trolls, Watcher invasions, or crazy vampires…

Chapter Text

“Say over again, and yet once over again,/That thou dost love me…Who can fear/Too many stars, though each in heaven shall roll,/Too many flowers, though each shall crown the year?/Say thou dost love me, love me, love me—toll/The silver iterance!—only minding, Dear,/To love me also in silence with thy soul.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 21

 

“Are you sure you have to go?” Joyce asked. She was just starting to feel like her old self again and had been hoping she and Giles might act on her returning health.

 

Giles looked regretful, but certain. “I’m afraid I do. The Council may have information that I don’t have access to. At least it’s only three days.”

 

She smiled. “Well, I imagine that once you get back I should be feeling really good.”

 

Giles felt his blood heat at the promise in her voice. “Then you must let me know, and I will clear a day on my calendar for you.”

 

“You two need a room?” Spike asked, entering the Summers’ living room. He’d been helping Dawn with her homework in the kitchen while working on the books for the gallery. “Because there’s one upstairs.”

 

“We do not need a room,” Giles replied stiffly. “I have been meaning to ask if you wouldn’t mind keeping an eye out while I’m away, William. While I am certain that Anya and Willow are more than capable of taking care of the store—”

 

“They might end up killing each other over it,” Spike said with a grimace. “Those two ‘ve been getting on my last nerve lately.”

 

Giles made a similar face. “Yes, well, I noticed that myself. If you weren’t so busy at the gallery, I probably would have asked you to help Anya, quite frankly.”

 

Spike smiled, shaking his head. “Those two probably just need to have it out, get it out of their systems. Lock ‘em in a room for a few hours and see who’s the victor.”

 

Joyce frowned. “Surely it’s not that bad.”

 

“It’s that bad,” Giles asserted.

 

Spike rolled his eyes expressively. “And they keep trying to drag poor Harris into the mess. I’ve been at the Bronze twice the last week listening to the lad bemoan the state of things.”

 

Joyce nodded sympathetically. “It’s horrible to be caught in between two people you care about.”

 

“Hey,” Buffy said, entering. “Giles, when are you leaving?”

 

“Early tomorrow,” he replied. “Spike has been kind enough to offer me a ride to the airport.”

 

“I have not!” Spike protested. At Giles’ look, he sighed. “But I will, if you promise to bring back something decent.”

 

“Whatever Customs will allow me to get away with,” Giles assured him. “I should be going.”

 

“I’ll see you early tomorrow,” Spike called after him as Joyce walked the other man to the door.

 

He closed his eyes briefly as Buffy pressed a kiss to his lips. “Missed you.”

 

“You saw me at lunch, luv,” Spike reminded her with a smile. “And at dinner.”

 

“Yeah, but there were other people involved,” she said with a pout. “I was thinking maybe we could go out, patrol, without anyone else…”

 

Spike knew he needed to be up early the next morning to see Giles to the airport and take care of matters at the gallery. And yet, the idea of wandering the cemeteries with Buffy, stealing kisses, was very appealing. “Think that might be alright, luv.”

 

~~~~~

 

Spike would most likely have never run into Olaf the Troll if Xander hadn’t stormed into the gallery that afternoon with a desperate expression on his face. “Spike, I need you,” he announced without preamble.

 

Spike looked up from where he was arranging the display, cocking an eyebrow. “Okay,” he said slowly. “Want to tell me what for?”

 

“Women,” was all Xander could say for a minute. “Willow and Anya. They keep fighting, and then they put me in the middle. I need—”

 

“To not be surrounded by them,” Spike finished. “Right. Give me another couple hours and we can go out, get a drink or something.” When Xander merely shifted his feet and gave him a pleading look, Spike sighed. “Right then. You can wait in the back office, if you like.”

 

Spike finished setting the stock, listening to Xander play the game he’d installed for Dawn on the laptop. He probably should have waited to rearrange the pieces until after closing, but it had been a slow day, and he didn’t much feel like hanging around the gallery late again. Xander’s need for some male companionship provided a good excuse to leave on time.

 

As soon as the clock struck six, Spike flipped the sign over to “Closed” and gave Buffy a call. Joyce thought his cell phone was such a good idea that she’d gotten the Slayer one for Christmas. “Hey, Spike. What’s up?”

 

“Gonna go out with Harris tonight, pet,” Spike quickly explained. “Seems he needs some guy time.”

 

He heard a scuffling sound. “That’s good. Have either of you seen Anya or Willow?”

 

Spike knew that tone of voice. It wasn’t good. “No. Why?”

 

“No reason,” Buffy said vaguely. “Look, you two should go out and enjoy yourselves. Maybe Tara and I will catch up with you there later.”

 

“Buffy-luv? What aren’t you telling me?”

 

“Well, I think there was a fight at the Magic Box, but we’re handling it.” Buffy sounded decidedly rushed at this point.

 

Spike frowned, and pulling the phone away from his mouth, called out, “Harris? Were Red an’ your girl up to the blood-shed part of the arguing?”

 

“No, just the ‘put Xander in the doghouse’ part,” the young man said rather cheerfully. Two hours of Doom had put his day into better perspective.

 

“There any blood, pet?” Spike asked Buffy.

 

“No, no blood,” she said distractedly. “You guys really should go enjoy. If I need you, I’ll call.”

 

Spike was about to say something else, but Buffy cut him off. “Really gotta go. Love you!” He pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at it.

 

“Is everything okay?” Xander asked.

 

Spike shook his head bemusedly and flipped the phone closed. “Guess so. Slayer said to go have a good time, so let’s go.”

 

~~~~~

 

Xander would have called any night away from the women a good time at that point. Willow and Anya and their little games were driving him crazy, and he viewed Spike as his only escape. And not just because Spike was of age and would buy him beer, either.

 

“It’s just that they keep putting me in the middle,” Xander explained, idly munching on a blooming onion petal. Since Spike had purchased the drinks, it was only fair that he get the food, and he liked blooming onions as much as Spike did. “No matter what I say, it’s wrong. I’m taking a side. I don’t want to take a side!”

 

Spike raised an eyebrow. “You told them that?”

 

“Yes,” the other man replied glumly. “And they said they weren’t putting me in the middle, they just wanted my opinion.”

 

“Flattery never got anybody anywhere,” Spike said wisely. “My advice? Every time they try something like that, leave. They’ll get a clue after a while.”

 

Xander snorted. “I wish it was that easy. Whose side am I supposed to take? Willow’s my best friend, and Anya’s—”

 

“The love of your life, and the one you’re sharing a bed with,” Spike interrupted. “Which means, if you ask me, you take her side if you don’t want to be sleeping on the couch.”

 

It was advice that actually made sense, but Xander still wasn’t convinced. As much as he loved Anya, he’d known Willow since they were in kindergarten. Siding against his best friend, even for his girlfriend, just went against the grain. He watched as Spike snatched the last bit of fried onion, and jerked his head towards a pool table. “Come on, mate. What you need is a game.”

 

Xander winced, remembering the last time he’d played pool with Spike. “I’m not putting any money on this one, Spike.”

 

“Ponce.”

 

“Shut up.”

 

Three games later, Xander had managed to win one, but only because Spike had finally taken pity on him and missed a couple shots to give him the chance. They had reluctantly passed over their cues to the next group waiting in line for a table, and had headed back over towards the bar.

 

“So, you think you could buy me another beer?” Xander asked hopefully.

 

Spike shot him a sour look. “You do realize you’re asking me to contribute to the delinquency of a minor, don’t you?”

 

“Hey, I’m a working man,” Xander protested, somewhat heatedly. “I should be able to enjoy a working man’s beverage.”

 

“Yeah, you keep telling yourself that,” Spike mock-sneered, enjoying baiting the other man. It was a relief to be away from all those women for once. After they had both gotten split in half by Toth, a subtle change had occurred in their relationship; instead of being mere acquaintances, connected by circumstance, they were actually friends. They hadn’t hated one another for a long time now, but they seemed to have clicked at a level that only men experienced. For all their love of the women in their lives, they had each needed a friend of the male persuasion.

 

After all, who but another guy understood that an evening out could include nothing but fried food, pool, and commentary on anatomy—and be a great evening?

 

It might have continued to be a great evening, complete with snarky commentary, but for the fact that Spike nearly found himself run over by a hulking figure. “’scuse me,” he grumbled, tired of people running into him. Just because he was on the average side of tall—

 

Glancing up, Spike felt the blood drain from his face. “Oh, boy.”

 

“You can say that again,” Xander muttered next to him.

 

And the troll boomed, “I want ale! And babies!”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy and Tara had gotten done with their first classes of the semester and headed straight over to the Magic Box. Tara’s description of Anya and Willow’s behavior had Buffy thinking that mediation might be in order. (Though, to be fair, she was a bit biased. Willow was her friend. Anya was, well, Anya.)

 

Upon arriving, it seemed their worst fears had been realized, since the Magic Box was in shambles and neither Willow nor Anya were anywhere in sight. So it was with understandable consternation that Buffy answered Spike’s call, trying to talk to him while searching for clues as to what had happened.

 

Buffy was actually rather glad to hear that Spike and Xander were going to be spending the evening together, probably at the Bronze. It meant that she had to worry about the whereabouts of two less people, while she and Tara followed the trail of destruction.

 

It was a rather obvious trail.

 

~~~~~

 

“Yeah, babies,” Spike said, frantically trying to think of a way to distract the great hulking troll in front of him. “You know, the problem is that we just had another bloke in town—looked a lot like you, in fact—and he cleaned us out of babies.”

 

The troll frowned. “You have no more babies? Are you certain?”

 

Xander, who sometimes caught on quickly, nodded. “Yep. We’re fresh out. But we could probably get the ale. They have whole kegs behind the bar.”

 

At this, the troll perked up considerably. “Good, but I will need something to eat. Pork, perhaps.”

 

“You know, pig we got,” Spike said, grabbing Xander’s arm and beginning to back up slowly. “We’ll just see about getting you a nice, big roasted pig. How’s that?”

 

The troll seemed intent upon the ale at that point, and willing to take Spike’s assurances of pork at face value. “We need the Slayer,” Xander said.

 

“No kidding,” Spike muttered in reply. “Look, I’ll call Buffy, you go pull the fire alarm.”

 

“Fire alarm?”

 

Spike shook his head. “You see people running for the door? Only way to get them out of here is to do something drastic.” Xander moved off through the crowded club while Spike speed-dialed Buffy’s number. “Luv? We’ve got a problem at the Bronze.”

 

Buffy was decidedly short. “Can’t you handle it, Spike? Tara and I are trying to track whatever it was that came after Anya and Willow.”

 

“Well, see, I think we might have whatever it was in the Bronze,” Spike said, laughing a little. Only in Sunnydale. “It’s a troll. He’s about 7 feet tall, big, and he’s carrying a hammer. I wouldn’t’ve tried to take him when I was a vampire.”

 

“Oh crap,” Buffy replied. “Okay, look—” There was a moment of silence, and then she swore, using words Spike rarely heard out of her mouth. “I think the path of destruction is going back towards the Bronze anyway. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

 

Spike hung up just as the fire alarm started going off. Sure enough, the people started streaming towards the door, cutting a wide path around the troll, who had managed to find his way to the kegs. He was holding one barrel upside down and letting the beer literally pour down his throat, and Spike spared a moment to watch admiringly.

 

“Spike!” Willow and Anya pulled up next to him, followed closely by Xander. “Oh, boy,” Willow said.

 

“You two ladies know anything about this?” Spike asked, having his suspicions.

 

“What?” Willow asked, sounding affronted that he would even think such a thing.

 

Anya gave her a dirty look. “Willow was trying to do a spell, and she released Olaf in the Magic Box. He destroyed a lot of valuable property.”

 

“Anya distracted me,” Willow protested, unwilling to take all the blame. “During a crucial part of the spell, might I add?”

 

“I wouldn’t have had to distract her if she hadn’t been stealing!”

 

“I wasn’t stealing! I was borrowing! For Buffy!”

 

“I wish Buffy was here right now,” Xander mumbled, fervently hoping he didn’t get pulled into their argument again.

 

Buffy and Tara skidded to a stop inside. “Whoa. Big troll.” Buffy blinked. Spike hadn’t been kidding. Not that she was scared, exactly, but even the Slayer hesitated in the face of such a formidable (and rather hulking) opponent.

 

Besides, she was really tired of getting beaten up.

 

Xander was a little surprised at the promptness with which his wish had been granted. “Buffy.”

 

“Yeah, I’m here,” Buffy said, looking around. “Can anybody tell me who’s responsible for this?”

 

“She is!” Both Willow and Anya spoke at the same time, pointing at each other.

 

Buffy’s glare went straight to the witch. “Willow?”

 

“It wasn’t my fault!” Willow protested vehemently. “There was a spell, and—and she interrupted.”

 

“Anyanka!” All heads turned to look at Olaf.

 

Anya looked over at Willow. “I think you should do the spell to get rid of him now.”

 

Willow started to frantically read the spell from the book she was carrying. “Stop!” Olaf shouted. “Anyanka! You told the witch to do that to me! You’re always determined to ruin all my fun. Just like when we were dating.”

 

There was a moment of stunned silence. “You dated him?”

 

“You dated a troll?”

 

The questions came from all sides, even as Spike stifled a surprised snicker. “He wasn’t a troll when I dated him,” Anya said uncomfortably. “He was just a big, dumb guy, and he cheated on me. So, I made him into a troll, which, by the way, is how I, uh, got a job as a vengeance demon.”

 

“I didn’t cheat on you!” Olaf protested vociferously. “Not in my heart! It was only one wench, and there was much mead involved. Then I wake up as a troll! You did this, Anyanka, and you will die.”

 

“And yet being a troll seems like a good thing,” Spike commented cheerfully.

 

Olaf gave his observation due consideration. “I adjusted. And then what happened?” The anger was back as quickly as it had dissipated, and the troll glared at Willow. “Witches! Filthy, disgusting, dirty witches trapped me in that crystal for centuries. A curse on all witches! All must die!”

 

Things got pretty confusing after that. Willow tried to do the spell as Buffy attempted to stop Olaf from doing any lasting damage to people or property. Anya, Tara, and Xander pulled back, trying not to get trampled, while Spike eyed the action, waiting to get involved.

 

They might have been able to stop Olaf right there, but the troll started swinging his hammer around with abandon, creating some major structural damage. The hammer struck one of the columns supporting the upper level, and sent it crashing down.

 

One of the beams pinned Buffy. Another piece of falling debris struck Spike in the back, pushing him to the floor. In the interlude, Olaf escaped.

 

Well, “escaped” was probably putting too positive a spin on matters, since they hardly had him trapped to begin with.

 

Tara helped Buffy move the beam, and Buffy hurried over to help Spike up. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” he grunted, sounding very put-out. Spike stifled a cough, and muttered, “Dust.”

 

Buffy gave him a worried look and then turned towards Willow and Anya. “You guys go see what you can do about finding a spell that will put the troll back where he belongs. I’ll see if I can track him down.”

 

As the girls left, Buffy turned back towards the ex-vampire. Tara looked torn between following her girlfriend and staying to help Spike and the Slayer. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Buffy asked urgently.

 

“A bit bruised, but I’ll be alright,” he assured her. “You want me along for the ride?”

 

Buffy did, but the way Spike was standing suggested that the hurt was a little more serious than “a bit bruised.” She shook her head regretfully. “I don’t think so, Spike.” Buffy frowned again as he started coughing, feeling as though she was missing something, and not having the time to get to the bottom of it. “Make sure Tara gets back home safely?” she asked, and then gave him a quick peck on the lips. “I’ll stop by later.”

 

Spike watched her go, and then faced Tara’s serious eyes. “You’re sick.”

 

“I’m not sick!” he protested. “It’s just dust.”

 

“It’s not just dust, Spike.” Tara fixed him with a glare. “How long have you had that cough?”

 

Spike sighed, and then started coughing again. He’d been handling it, but the evening’s exertion had irritated the cold he thought was under control. It had been a few weeks, but he’d been too busy to think about it much, and it seemed to come and go. Plus, he’d been too busy to do any kind of training, which meant he wasn’t exerting himself all that often. “Few weeks on and off,” he finally admitted reluctantly. “It’s been getting better.”

 

“No, it hasn’t. If it was getting better, you shouldn’t still have it.” She took his arm, getting ready to walk out of the demolished, but thankfully empty, club. “You’re going to see the doctor tomorrow.”

 

“Now, Tara—”

 

“Don’t ‘now Tara’ me,” she said firmly. “You’re really good at taking care of everybody else, but you suck at looking after yourself, Spike.”

 

Her blunt words had him looking at her in surprise. “What happened to the shy girl I met a year ago?”

 

Tara’s return smile was sweet. “She made some friends. It makes a world of difference.”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy let herself into Spike’s apartment as quietly as possible, not wanting to disturb him should he already be asleep. “Hey, luv.”

 

Not asleep, then. Spike was sitting on the couch, legs splayed out in front of him, chest bare. He looked positively delicious. “Hey, yourself. You okay?”

 

“Never better,” he managed, though Buffy didn’t believe him. “You get Olaf all taken care of?”

 

Buffy smiled cheerfully. “Yep. I even got a nifty new hammer to play with. Willow magicked the hammer right out of his hand, I grabbed it and knocked him out, and then we sent him to the land of the trolls.” She winced reflectively. “Not before Xander got his arm broken, however.”

 

“Harris was hurt?” Spike sat up straighter. “If I’d come—”

 

“Before I got there,” Buffy assured him. “And Xander’s okay, and at some point Willow and Anya made peace. I’m not sure how that happened, and I don’t think I want to know.”

 

“Good,” Spike said, settling back down on the couch.

 

Buffy made a turning motion with her hand. “Let’s see that bruise, mister.”

 

Spike sighed and moved so that she could see the large bruise already beginning to form on his side, and Buffy ran a gentle hand over it. “Oh, Spike.”

 

“I’m fine, luv,” he assured her.

 

“Maybe, but you’ve got to be more careful,” she admonished. “What would I do without you?”

 

He frowned. “I’m fully capable of taking care of myself.”

 

“And you’re also breakable,” she replied heatedly.

 

“We’re all breakable.”

 

With tender hands on bare skin, Buffy leaned down to place a kiss on the purple area. “Then I’ll kiss it and make it better. How’s that?”

 

“Much better.” They kissed, and Buffy felt a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature of the room, suddenly afraid.

 

Call it a Slayer’s instinct. It made her grip him that much tighter.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike took a deep breath. “And again.” The next breath had him coughing again. It seemed once he started, it was impossible to stop. It frightened him, in a way. He remembered his mother’s deep, hacking cough and wondered if this wasn’t the same thing.

 

“Well, it sounds like you’ve got yourself a nice case of bronchitis,” the doctor said. He hung his stethoscope around his neck. “I’ll get you a prescription for some antibiotics, and you should be feeling better in no time.”

 

“Bronchitis?” Spike asked, pulling his t-shirt over his head.

 

The doctor nodded. “Well, it’s that time of year. Have you ever had it before?”

 

“Uh, on occasion,” Spike hedged, not knowing if he had, but figuring it was close enough to the truth.

 

“And have you been under a lot of stress lately?” The doctor was a younger man, probably not that much older than Spike (as he appeared, anyway). He’d given his first name as Brad and had generally seemed rather laid back.

 

Spike smiled ruefully. “You could say that.”

 

Brad nodded. “That makes sense then. Stress will tend to attack you where your body is weakest. I wouldn’t be surprised if you wound up with the same thing the next time you’re under a lot of strain. My advice? Next time you’re not feeling well, come in a little sooner.”

 

Spike chuckled sheepishly. “Yeah, I’ll do that. Thanks, mate.”

 

“No problem.”

 

Spike took the prescription and met Tara outside the office. She raised an eyebrow in question. “I’m fine,” he said, trying to sound annoyed. “Got to get the pills and then we can head back over to the shop.”

 

Tara looked quite pleased with herself. “So I was right.”

 

“You were right, I was bloody wrong, and I will listen to you at all times in the future,” Spike said. The light in his eyes told Tara that he was teasing. Spike only listened when he wanted to.

 

She thwapped him on the chest. “Oh, hush. Next time, don’t wait so long before asking for help,” Tara admonished.

 

“Don’t have to ask for help while I’ve got you looking out for me,” Spike teased.

 

“Well, it’s a thankless job, but someone has to do it,” Tara replied, unperturbed.

 

Spike smiled. “We take care of each other, yeah?”

 

“Yeah,” Tara replied, thinking that she’d gotten a really good deal when she’d exchanged her brother by blood for Spike.

 

~~~~~

 

Giles took the cup of tea Joyce was offering. “Well, I’m grateful you were able to do some clean up anyway,” he said wryly. “Though I shudder to think how much damage might have been done had I been gone any longer.”

 

“We might have had time to get it back to normal,” Buffy pointed out, taking a sip of her hot chocolate.

 

Joyce sat down with her own cup. “I don’t understand why the Council would make you go all the way to England when they couldn’t tell you anything.”

 

“Yes, well, information on Glory is probably in places that will take them a while to access,” Giles prevaricated. “I’m sure they’ll have something for us shortly.”

 

“You didn’t say anything about Dawn, did you?” Spike asked. “Or me?”

 

Giles sipped. “Yes, well, I had to tell them about the Key, but no. I did not tell them that it was Dawn.” He glanced over at Joyce. “You know about this?”

 

She nodded. “I figured out some of it for myself. Buffy and Spike filled me in on the rest.”

 

“And did you tell them anything about me?” Spike persisted. “Bastards aren’t going to show up at my door, are they?”

 

Giles sighed. “I doubt they’ll show up at your door anytime soon, but I did tell them about you. They were quite fascinated with the effects of the Mohra blood. Apparently, it has never been used in quite that fashion before.”

 

“Wouldn’t suggest it be used in quite that fashion again,” Spike replied sharply. “Bloody pain in the arse it was.”

 

“Yes, well, I don’t think you have to worry about the Council taking any more than a cursory interest in you, Spike,” Giles assured him. “Quite frankly, now that you are an ordinary human, there’s not much you can do for them.”

 

“But Dawn is safe, right?” Buffy asked. “I mean, the Council doesn’t know?”

 

“No, and you’re right. I think it’s best that they don’t.” Giles sighed. “The Council would likely not understand.”

 

Dawn, listening on the stairs, didn’t understand either. Nearly everyone she loved was talking about her like there was something wrong, or off as Spike would say. She’d asked Spike and her sister about that not too long ago, when her mom was experiencing the dementia from the tumor, and said all those awful things. They had promised her that everything was okay.

 

They had promised, and now Dawn was pretty sure they had been lying. It felt like a betrayal of the worst kind.

 

~~~~~

 

“It’s good to have you back, Joyce, even if it is half-time,” Spike said warmly. “Place feels wrong without you here.”

 

She smiled at him warmly. “You’re sweet, Spike, but you’ve really done a wonderful job. I couldn’t have asked for the gallery to be in better hands.”

 

The flush of pleasure that crept into his cheeks made her smile widen. It was always nice to compliment Spike, simply because you knew how much he appreciated the praise. “Did what I could.”

 

“You’ve kept things going,” she replied. “And now, have you thought about what you might like to do, other than working here?” At Spike’s surprised expression, she hastened on. “Not that I want to lose you, but I’m not so foolish as to think I can keep you indefinitely.”

 

Spike smiled, and then admitted quietly, “Sent off a manuscript to a few editors, actually. Giles knew one of them from his days at university.”

 

Joyce had to say that she was pleasantly surprised. “William! I didn’t realize you were writing!”

 

He shrugged, looking embarrassed. “Didn’t want to say anything until I knew it was going to work out. Still don’t know if anybody’s going to want it, but at least I’ve given it a shot, yeah?”

 

“Well, I’m sure you’ll do wonderfully at whatever you put your hand to,” she assured him.

 

Spike got a little smile. “Also thinking about teaching maybe. Give me summers off to write.”

 

Joyce’s bright smile was all the reward Spike would ever need. “I’m so very proud of you, William. You’ve really done so much.”

 

“Couldn’t have done anything without you and Rupert,” Spike replied. He glanced up at the clock. “You sure you can handle it for the rest of the afternoon? I can stay.”

“No, you go get Dawn,” Joyce insisted. “You deserve some time away from here.”

 

“Right then,” Spike agreed. “I’ll see you later, right?”

 

She smiled. “I think it’s going to be a pizza night, quite frankly.”

 

“Sounds perfect.” Spike got into the Desoto and plugged in one of the Clash CDs Giles had given him for his birthday, singing along until he pulled up outside of the school. He didn’t have to wait long before Dawn slid into the passenger side.

 

Spike gave the girl a concerned look when she didn’t do more than give him a mumbled hello. “Nibblet? You alright?”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

Spike frowned. “Nibblet—”

 

“I’m fine.” This time her tone was even sharper, and Spike matched it.

 

“You know, pet, if you need you talk, you know I’m here.”

 

“No, you’re not,” Dawn replied angrily. “You’ve been lying to me, all of you.”

 

“Dawn—”

 

She turned to stare at him. “I want the truth, Spike. What am I?”

Chapter Text

“The thought of you and me and me and you/it’s clear, it’s blurry/your head, my mind, your mind, my head, as one/it’s real, the foolish worry/I feel you and you feel me as I feel you/it’s good, it’s scary/the speed, the heat, it’s deep, and steep/it’s light but hard to carry/ listen when I’m silent there’s a/SOUND that only you can hear…” ~K’s Choice, “A Sound That Only You Can Hear”

 

Spike was not a good liar. Oh, he could bluff his way through a game of poker with the best of them. He could lie without compunction to people he cared nothing about. Ask him to lie to someone he loved, however, and it was a completely different story.

 

Which was why the first words out of his mouth were, “Bloody hell. What do you know?”

 

“I heard you guys talking last night,” she replied. “You were talking about Glory and me and the Council.”

 

Spike ran through a number of phrases in his head, but none of them were things he should be saying out loud in front of a child. “Didn’t your mum ever tell you that it’s not good manners to eavesdrop?”

 

Dawn fixed him with a glare, not willing to be sidetracked. “How else am I ever going to find anything out?” she demanded.

 

Spike sighed. He’d known this day was coming. Dawn was too sharp to not notice that something was up. Her questions a few weeks ago about the crazy guy’s reaction to her in the hospital, and then what Joyce had said to her during her dementia, had been warning enough. It was really only a matter of time before the truth came out.

 

“I can’t, luv,” he finally said, pulling away from the curb in front of the school.

 

Dawn glared at him. “You mean you won’t.”

“No, I mean I can’t,” Spike replied. “Not without talking to your mum and Buffy first. Love you, Dawn, but I’m not in charge here.”

 

Dawn sat back in her seat sullenly. “Buffy never wants me to know anything.”

 

“Your sis wants to make sure you’re protected,” Spike corrected. “That’s important to her, because you’re important. Might not be fair, but that’s the way it is.”

 

“So you’re not going to tell me anything.”

 

“I’m going to talk to Joyce first,” Spike said. Dawn was looking at him with those huge blue eyes of hers, but he refused to be moved. He was in enough trouble as it was; Buffy would be furious that he hadn’t lied.

 

She would be furious that Dawn was even aware that there was something to know.

 

“Fine,” Dawn grumbled, not at all appeased. “It’s so not fair, though.”

 

“Yeah, well, join the club,” Spike replied, not looking forward to the coming discussion.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike made certain that Dawn was in the kitchen, doing her homework before calling Joyce at the art gallery. “Is everything okay?” Joyce asked upon hearing his voice.

 

“That’s a matter for debate,” he hedged, and then quickly described his conversation with Dawn.

 

“Does Buffy know?” Joyce asked, sounding immediately in control and in charge. Spike was happy to follow her lead on this one. Dawn was, after all, her daughter. He didn’t want the responsibility of explaining that she wasn’t actually real.

 

“Not yet.”

 

“Good,” Joyce commented. “What do you think, William?”

 

Although Spike was a little surprised to be asked his opinion on things, he had no problem giving it. “Tell her the truth. She’ll just nose around till she figures it out for herself anyway, and that won’t be pleasant. At least this way you can control what she’s hearing.”

 

“That’s what I was thinking also,” she agreed. “Will you tell Dawn that I’ll talk with her tonight? And don’t worry about calling Buffy. It might be better if I do that.”

 

Spike breathed a sigh of relief, glad he didn’t have to be the one to tell Buffy that the news had been broken, albeit inadvertently. “Right. I’ll see you when you get home then.”

 

He hung up the phone and turned to see Dawn watching him. “Thought you were supposed to be doing your homework, luv.”

 

“Did you talk to Mom?”

 

He nodded shortly. “Yeah, Bit. Joyce’ll talk with you when she gets home from the gallery.” He moved to go past her, a little put out by her anger with him. After all, it wasn’t as though Spike had done anything wrong.

 

Dawn’s hand on his arm stopped him. “Spike? Is it bad?”

 

Spike paused and drew in a deep breath. “No. I don’t think it’s bad.” He put a friendly arm over her shoulders. “Your mum will tell you all about it when she gets home, but no matter what, I’m here for you, yeah?”

 

“Yeah,” the girl replied, knowing that she could trust him in that area at least. Spike had never let her down before.

 

~~~~~

 

Joyce made the decision to tell Dawn herself, with just the two of them. Right after she got home, she took her youngest daughter upstairs to her room. Spike stayed downstairs, waiting for Giles and Buffy, who were supposed to be arriving shortly.

 

Giles showed up first, and he frowned when he didn’t see either Joyce or Dawn. “How are things going?”

 

Spike shrugged. “Hard to say. Haven’t heard any ungodly shrieking or anything like that, and I’ll take that as a good sign.”

 

“Indeed.” There was a moment’s pause, and then Giles gave Spike a sharp look. “You couldn’t have lied to her?”

 

“I’m not a good liar,” Spike protested. “And that’s supposed to be a good thing, I thought.”

 

Giles had to admit that Spike had a point. He certainly hadn’t expected Dawn to ferret the truth out for herself. “I must admit that I didn’t think the truth would come out like this. We’ll have to tell the others soon, too.”

 

Spike gave him a disbelieving look. “You didn’t think Dawn would know something was up?” He snorted. “You lot don’t give that girl enough credit. She’s a sharp one.”

 

“Obviously,” Giles said dryly. “We’ll have to be more careful from now on, certainly.”

 

Spike might have replied, but Buffy came rushing into the house. “Where’s Mom?” she demanded. “She left me a message saying that she was going to tell Dawn about her being the Key.”

 

“She’s upstairs,” Spike said, grabbing her arm when she tried to hurry past. “Buffy, I don’t think now’s a good time. You should let your mum tell Dawn her own way.”

 

Buffy glared at him. “She wasn’t supposed to tell Dawn at all. Dawn wasn’t supposed to find out.”

 

“Well, she did,” Spike snapped. “Dawn was eavesdropping the other night when we were talking it over, and then she ambushed me with questions when I picked her up from school. Joyce didn’t have much of a choice.”

 

Spike was sorry he’d said anything, because Buffy’s anger refocused on him. “And you couldn’t lie to her?”

“I suck at lying,” Spike exclaimed. “Bloody hell! You lot should remember that’s a good thing.”

 

“And now Dawn knows and she’s going to freak,” Buffy hissed. “Didn’t you think about that before you spilled the beans?”

 

Giles laid a calming hand on her arm. “Buffy, you know Spike didn’t tell Dawn anything. He simply didn’t deny her questions, and maybe that’s for the best. If she were to stumble across the truth herself, it could be quite traumatic.”

 

Buffy was not pacified. “I don’t see how you could tell her without asking me first. I’m the Slayer. I’m the one that’s supposed to be protecting her!”

 

“And I’m her mother,” Joyce said quietly as she came down the stairs. “It was my decision to make. Spike made a good point. At least this way I could tell her the truth and reassure her at the same time.”

 

Buffy looked from one to the other, anger and betrayal on her face. “Fine. I’m going to go patrol.”

 

She pointedly did not invite Spike.

 

Spike watched her go. He’d anticipated her being upset, but hadn’t expected her to be quite that mad. “Spike?” He turned to face Joyce. “Dawn needs you.”

 

“Right. I’ll just go see her then.” Spike took the stairs two at a time and knocked on the youngest Summers’ door. “Nibblet?” When he got no response, he slipped inside, shutting the door gently behind him. “You okay?”

 

“I guess.” The girl had the remains of tears on her face, and her voice was shaky enough that Spike knew she wasn’t as okay as she wanted him to think. “It’s just weird.”

 

“Yeah, it is a bit,” Spike acknowledged, sitting on the bed next to her. “Couldn’t believe it myself when your sister first told me. Have all these memories of you, from way back. Didn’t seem right.”

 

Dawn looked over at him. “So do you love me because the monks made you? Is that the only reason Mom loves me? And Buffy—”

 

“Shh,” he said, as she started to sound a little hysterical. “No, it’s not why I love you. I still loved you after Buffy told me about you being the Key. Have you noticed any difference in how I treat you? Huh?”

 

Dawn shook her head. “No, but…I’m not real, Spike. I mean, I shouldn’t even exist!”

 

“And I should?” Dawn met Spike’s eyes for the first time, sensing the pain in his voice. “I was a vampire, luv, and pretty much as nasty as you could get. And then I was human again. Most people would tell you I shouldn’t be real, or I should’ve been dead a hundred and twenty years ago.”

 

She opened her mouth to argue, to complain that it wasn’t the same, but then shut it again. It wasn’t the same, but yet it was. They were both creatures of chance, of someone else’s whim. Spike existed because of Drusilla and the Initiative. Dawn existed because of some weird monks.

 

That was just Sunnydale.

 

“I don’t have any family,” Dawn said quietly. “I mean, not really. Mom, and Buffy—”

 

“You’re mine,” Spike said in a low, fierce voice. “Don’t care what your mum or your sister decide, though I know they’ve already made their choice. But you’re mine, because without you, and Buffy, and your mum, I don’t have any family either. And without us, Tara’s alone. It’s not just you, Dawn.”

 

His tone was gentle, but the words had the effect of a slap to the face of someone who had gone into hysterics. Dawn was quickly reminded that things could be worse, that a fake mom and fake sister who wanted her (or at least a fake mom who wanted her) was better than no one wanting her at all.

 

“Your mum asked me if I thought we should tell you the truth,” Spike said quietly. “And I said I thought we should, because I knew you could handle it. You’re a strong girl, Dawn Summers. One of these days you’ll be an exceptional woman.”

 

If Spike’s previous admonition had been a slap, these words were a balm. Dawn found herself throwing her arms around his neck and sobbing into his shoulder. And, as her previous tears in her mother’s presence had soothed, so did the arms of Spike.

 

~~~~~

 

“Do you think we should check on them?” Giles asked. He had an arm around Joyce, trying to comfort her. Revealing the truth to Dawn had apparently been as traumatic for her as hearing it had been for the girl.

 

Joyce sighed, wiping a stray tear with one hand. “No, I don’t think so. Spike—” She hesitated. “Spike is so good with her. I have a feeling he’ll know just what to say to make things right.” Then she added, “I just hope Buffy comes around.”

 

Giles pulled her close, pressing a gentle kiss to her lips. “I’m sure Buffy will come around in time. It really was inevitable that Dawn find out.”

 

What more either of them might have said was lost as they gave into the sensation of lips on lips and hands on skin.

 

~~~~~

 

There was at least a small part of Buffy that knew she was overreacting, at least to Spike’s part in the whole mess. It wasn’t like it was his fault that her nosy little sister had chosen to eavesdrop on the conversation. Nor did he have any control over whom Dawn hit up for information.

 

On the other hand, Buffy was furious, and she needed to be mad at someone. Spike seemed like a good pick. Never mind logic for the moment.

 

It mostly had to do with the fact that Dawn finding out she was the Key illustrated how much Buffy wasn’t in control of the situation. If her sister could find out so easily, what was stopping Glory from making the same discovery? She was the Slayer; she was supposed to be in charge.

 

Buffy hated not being in charge.

 

Of course, Dawn knowing about the Key meant that she would have to tell her friends as well. Telling them meant she would also have to explain keeping the secret for as long as she had, which would not be fun. At least this time she would have Giles and Spike on her side, rather than standing alone on the side of keeping silent.

 

She’d also have to apologize to Spike at some point, which sucked. Buffy hated apologies.

 

First stop, however, was to call a Scooby meeting. Tomorrow would be soon enough. Tonight, Buffy wanted to kill something. Possibly lots of somethings.

 

~~~~~

 

They gathered in the Summers’ home, sitting on the couch, perching on chairs, lounging on the floor. For the first time, Joyce was present. Dawn had begged to be able to stay up, but the vote had been a unanimous “no.” Mostly, no one wanted the girl present since they were going to be discussing her.

 

Of course, both Spike and Joyce were well aware that Dawn would be listening on the stairs. They just decided not to say anything about it.

 

“So Dawn is the Key that Glory’s looking for?” Willow asked. “That’s just—”

 

“Weird,” Xander muttered. He was feeling highly uncomfortable with the fact that his memories had been played with to such an extent.

 

Anya was probably taking it with the most aplomb. “It’s really not that weird,” she said. “Giving the Key to the Slayer was a stroke of genius, actually.”

 

“Right,” Buffy said. “Genius. It’s really important that this doesn’t get out, guys. I didn’t want to tell you because it could put you in danger.”

 

“But you told Spike,” Xander accused. “And like we’re not in danger all the time.”

 

“Buffy didn’t have a choice about telling me,” Spike said from his position leaning against the wall. “Walked in on her when she found out.”

 

Although Buffy had yet to apologize, or even really speak to him, she appreciated his support. It was yet another reminder of his devotion, and it just brought on the guilt again.

 

The others were mollified by Spike’s explanation for his own knowledge. “There’s more,” Giles said, giving Buffy an apologetic look.

 

“More?” Buffy asked.

 

Giles sighed. “The Council has information on Glory. They’re, uh, on their way, actually. It seems they feel the information is best delivered in person.”

 

“They’re coming here?” Buffy demanded, a definite note of hysteria in her voice. “Giles, make them not come here. I don’t trust them.”

 

“More Watchers?” Tara asked. “Isn’t that okay? Like more Gileses, right?”

 

“Not quite,” Spike said dryly. “Some of those blokes are right bastards.”

 

Buffy let out a quick breath. “What he said. They almost killed me when they took away my Slayer powers with that test. And then they almost killed me again when I was in Faith’s body. I probably would be dead if Spike and Tara hadn’t figured out the switch.”

 

“You had things under control, luv,” Spike said. “But I think I have to agree with the Slayer. This is a volatile situation to be introducing new players into.”

 

“What about Dawn?” Joyce asked. “Do they know she’s the Key? Do they need to know?”

 

“They aren’t going to know,” Buffy stated firmly. “It isn’t any of their business.”

 

“I have to agree with that, Rupert,” Spike agreed. “Best if it’s kept quiet.”

 

The others were nodding. “They’re okay with former demons, right?” Anya asked. “I mean, they just get cranky about current demons. Right?”

 

Xander patted her knee with the hand not in a cast. “If they want you, they’ll have to come through me, An.”

 

Anya didn’t look too reassured, and Spike intervened before Anya could say anything to irreparably damage Xander’s manhood. “They’d have to take exception to me too, luv.”

 

“That’s not going to happen,” Buffy said. “It’s fine. It’s going to be fine. They’ll come, they’ll give us the information, and then they will go home. Even if I have to kick their asses all the way back to England.”

 

~~~~~

 

Spike slipped out of the Summers’ home that night before Buffy could stop him. He was tired of the drama, tired of always defending himself and his actions, past and present. What he really wanted was a good night’s sleep and the opportunity to go and bury himself in work for the next couple days. With the Council in town, Buffy’s fuse was certain to be shorter than Spike had any desire to deal with.

 

Sleep, however, was elusive, and Spike found himself wondering what the bloody hell he was doing in a relationship with the Slayer. It wasn’t just that he had been a vampire, but also that he was now human. Dracula’s words from the end of the summer were coming back to haunt him. He wondered if he really was dark enough, strong enough, for Buffy to really love. Or, perhaps he was too dark, had been too dark. Maybe he had too much blood on his hands to expect her to trust him.

 

Because she really didn’t—trust him. If Buffy had any faith at all in him, she wouldn’t have gotten so upset with him just because he didn’t come up with a quick lie to placate Dawn.

 

After only a few hours of highly unsatisfactory tossing and turning, Spike rose to go into the gallery. At least running the gallery was something he did well. Joyce trusted him implicitly, and that was a balm to his wounded spirit at this point.

 

Spike had immersed himself in work when two men and a woman dressed in business attire entered. “Be right with you!” he called, biting back a sigh. Joyce had decided not to come in, since Dawn needed the reassurance of her mother’s presence at the moment. 

 

He filed the invoice away and went out to meet his customers. “May I help you?”

 

“Are you William the Bloody?” the woman asked.

 

Spike frowned. “Who—” He stopped, realizing from the accent and dress that he was hosting members of the Watchers’ Council. “Watchers. Yeah, that would be me. I go by William Giles now, though.”

 

“Yes, so we’ve heard,” one of the men said, contempt dripping from his tone. Apparently the Council had as much respect for ex-vampires as current ones. “I understand that you are aiding the Slayer.”

 

Spike’s eyebrows went up. “I patrol with her on occasion. Kept all my fighting skills, even if I don’t have the same strength.” He allowed just a touch of bloodthirstiness to come into his eyes. “Could still snap your neck without giving it much thought.”

 

There was a certain amount of satisfaction to be gained from watching them back off a couple steps. “What do you want?” he asked shortly. “I’ve got a gallery to run here.”

 

“What exactly is your role where it concerns the Slayer?” the woman asked.

 

Spike raised an eyebrow. “I think we already went over this. Told you, I help the Slayer. I also have a job, and I watch out for Dawn on occasion. Oh, yeah, and we’re sleeping together, not that it’s any of your business.” He took a step forward, invading her space. “What’s this about then? What does it matter what I do?”

 

“We are conducting a review of the Slayer and her methods,” the woman said primly. Underneath the bloodless exterior, Spike could detect some heat. No, not heat. Attraction.

 

He cocked an eyebrow. “Is that right? And you want to know—from an ex-vampire who was instrumental in killing two Slayers—how Buffy’s doing?”

 

“Well, yes, actually,” the woman replied. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”

 

“No trouble at all,” Spike decided, flipping the “Open” sign over. “I can take a bit of a lunch break.” He gave her a look. “Seems a bit unfair that you know my name when I don’t know yours, pet.”

 

“I, uh, I’m Lydia Chalmers.” Spike took the hand she held out with smooth charm. “I actually did my thesis on you. Or, well, on William the Bloody.”

 

“Isn’t that neat,” Spike murmured. “Well, then you know I’m something of an expert on Slayers myself. And I’ll tell you this much—Buffy’s the best Slayer I’ve ever seen, and I saw more than the two I killed.”

Lydia blinked at the sudden change in tone, from smooth to sharp in no time flat. “Well, she seems a bit unorthodox.”

 

“Why do you think I never killed her?” Spike asked. “Had her on my fangs, so to speak, and never quite managed to do the deed. Girl’s the best there is, maybe the best there ever will be. Take it from an expert.” He smiled, suddenly warm. “Why don’t you tell me all about yourself, luv?”

 

His sudden change in tone had her flustered again. “I—well, there really isn’t anything very interesting to tell, you know. Not like you.” One of his comments suddenly registered. “You’ve seen more Slayers than just the two?”

 

“Certainly,” Spike replied. “Total of five. Was a bit busy when I ran into the other two, however. A bit—preoccupied, shall we say? If you wrote your thesis on William the Bloody, I would think you had some questions you were dying to ask, and now’s your chance.” He was nearly purring at this point, really laying it on thick for the bint. Spike figured he’d make certain that at least one member of the Watcher’s Council would be putty in the Slayer’s very capable hands.

 

As Lydia blushed even more deeply, Spike smiled; he had her just where he wanted her.

 

Oh, yeah. The Big Bad hadn’t lost it.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy put a shaky hand to her face. She hated the fact that the Council could put her under their thumb so easily. She hated that she hadn’t gotten a chance to call Spike and warn him that Watchers were on their way. Most of all, she hated that she had to play the Council’s silly little games while Glory was on the loose, after her sister, and in her house.

 

She had to figure out some place to stash her mom and sister while she went through with the freaking Watcher tests, and there was only one person she could think of.

 

And he wasn’t even talking to her right now.

 

“Mom, get some stuff together,” Buffy said. “You guys can’t stay here right now.”

 

There was one good thing about Dawn knowing her true identity; Glory showing up at the house, demanding her Key had put the fear of God into her. Buffy was actually pretty proud of her sister. In spite of seriousness of the situation, Dawn had been smart and sassy, which meant that Glory hadn’t a clue who Dawn really was at this point.

 

The ride over to the gallery was silent, no one knowing quite what to say. Buffy walked inside, Joyce and Dawn close on her heels. She watched as Spike looked up at the ringing of the bell. “Buffy? What’s wrong?”

 

“I need you to take mom and Dawn for a while, somewhere safe,” she said quickly. The Slayer grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into the back office. “Your apartment, or somewhere, I don’t know.”

 

“What happened?” he asked, seeing the near panic in her eyes.

 

Buffy looked away. “Glory was in my house, and I have to go do the Council’s tests. Someone has to look out for them.”

 

“Was anybody—No, of course they weren’t. You lot wouldn’t be here if somebody got hurt.” Spike let out his breath in a rush and ran a hand through his hair. “Bloody, buggering hell,” he muttered. “Right then. Safe. My apartment or the old mansion, I suppose. Those are the only two places I can think of.”

 

Buffy frowned, trying to think. “What’s the safest?”

 

“Mansion,” Spike said immediately. “Even if she found us, there’s lots of hiding places and more than one exit. Glory finds us in my place somehow, there’s just one way out.”

 

She nodded. “Mansion then. I’ll come get you guys when it’s safe.” Buffy hesitated. “Did the Watchers come?”

 

Spike grinned broadly. “Yeah, and I gave them an earful. Told them you were the best Slayer that’s ever lived.”

 

“Oh, Spike.” Buffy suddenly grabbed him in a desperate hug. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I know you didn’t mean to tell Dawn, and I know you’re doing your best. I’m just—”

 

“Going a bit crazy?” he suggested, his arms coming around to hold her. “Buffy-luv, these Watchers think they’ve got power over you, but you just remember—you’re the Slayer. Without the Slayer, Council’s redundant, nothing. In the end, you’re the one with the power.”

 

They kissed, saying through their actions what they couldn’t put into words. “Knock them dead, Summers.”

 

~~~~~

 

By the time Buffy got done dropping off Joyce and Dawn with Spike, she was already running a bit late for her appointment with Quentin Travers. (And just the thought of his name made Buffy wish horrible things on him.) It didn’t help that she was stopped on her way back to the Magic Box by rejects from the Renaissance fair.

 

The last thing she needed was more people out to kill her. Glory wanted to kill her to get to the Key. Vampires and demons wanted to kill her because she was the Slayer. And now these freaks wanted her dead because she was protecting the Key.

 

She just couldn’t win.

 

Except that she could. She was, after all, the Slayer, as Spike had so kindly reminded her. Buffy could keep Dawn safe, defeat the bad guys, and send the Council packing. Because she was the Slayer.

 

Buffy was finally beginning to understand just what that meant.

 

It was with that understanding that she walked into the Magic Box full of confidence as to how the next few minutes were going to go. “You’re late,” Travers commented as she entered.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Are you okay?” Giles asked, standing from his position on the stairs, seeing the sword in her hand. “Was there an attack?”

 

“Yeah,” Buffy replied.

 

Travers didn’t even seem to register that information. “Well, we can begin the review. We’ll skip the more obvious questions, and—”

 

“There’s not going to be a review,” Buffy said evenly.

 

“I beg your pardon?”

 

“There’s not going to be a review,” Buffy repeated. “See, I’ve had all these people telling me how unimportant I am the last few days. Glory came to my house today—”

 

“Buffy!” Giles interrupted. “Are you—”

 

“I’m fine,” she said, waving off his concern. “She told me I was a flea, a bug, that she was going to squash me, but she didn’t. We had what in her world probably passes for a conversation, and that was it. You know why? Because I have something she wants.”

 

Buffy’s eyes glittered. “I have what you want,” she told Travers. “You didn’t come here to figure out if I was good enough to be let back in. You wanted me to let you in. You might have the information, but as someone reminded me today, I’m the Slayer. I have the power. Without me, you can’t do jack.”

 

“This is beyond insolence—” one of the Watchers sputtered.

 

The sword quivering in the wall just inches from his nose shut him up pretty quickly. “Deal with it,” Buffy said. “So this is how it’s going to work. You’re going to give Giles his job back with pay—”

 

Giles’ cough didn’t quite hide the word “retroactively.”

 

“—retroactive to the month he was fired,” Buffy continued smoothly. “You’re going to give me all the information you have on Glory, and then you’ll contact me if you find anything else. And then me and my friends are going to go back to what we do best.”

 

It didn’t really come as a surprise to anyone that Buffy got exactly what she wanted.

 

~~~~~

 

Entry from Dawn’s diary:

 

Buffy got so freaked out when Glory appeared at our house today. I thought her head was going to explode or something. I knew she wanted me to leave, and then Glory saw me. And she was all like, “Your big sis has my Key.” And then I was all like, “My sister could kick your ass with one leg tied behind her.”

 

That probably doesn’t make a lot of sense out loud, but it sounded really cool in my head.

 

So now we’re in the really creepy mansion that Angel had, because Spike is supposed to be looking after Mom and me. It’s cool, though, since Spike’s here. I don’t think he could really do anything against Glory. I mean, if Buffy’s scared of her, then she’s pretty tough, even though she doesn’t look like it.

 

I think they’ve pretty much made up now. I know Buffy was really upset with him for not lying to me about being the Key, but maybe it’ll be okay now. I hate it when they fight. It’s like when Mom and Dad fought, only worse, because now I know what it’ll feel like if Spike ever leaves.

 

~~~~~

 

They were downstairs on Buffy’s couch, with Joyce and Dawn safely asleep upstairs. “Thank you for keeping them safe today, Spike.”

 

“My pleasure, luv,” he replied. Spike was relishing the feel of her head on his shoulder, wondering how he could have even contemplated giving this up. There was nothing in the world that could make him leave. “Don’t know that I did all that much, though.”

 

“You were there,” she said. “Plus, that whole pep talk about the Council, telling me I had the power? You were right.”

 

Spike smiled. “I love it when you say that.”

 

“What? That you were right?” Buffy pulled back and looked him in the eye. “You were right about Dawn too, you know. It was better to tell her this way, especially if she was getting suspicious. And it definitely isn’t your fault she’s nosy. I’m blaming the monks.”

 

Spike cocked an eyebrow. “And you weren’t nosy at fifteen, luv?”

 

“Maybe a little,” Buffy admitted. “But that was with good cause.” She thought about it, and then added, “Which Dawn had too. I just hate that I can’t protect her from all of this. From being the Key, from Glory, everything. Glory’s a god, Spike. What am I supposed to do against a god?”

 

“I dunno,” he admitted. “But I imagine you’ll figure it out, Buffy. You’re the Slayer. It’s what you do.”

 

“Are we good?” Buffy asked softly, a plaintive note in her voice. “I mean, you’d have every right to still be mad, but—”

 

“We’re good,” he said, giving her a kiss. “Love you, Buffy, even when you’re being a bit shirty.”

 

She winced. “Yeah, I deserved that. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

 

“For certain.”

 

Spike didn’t go home after that. Instead, he went straight to Giles’ flat.

 

A very sleepy Giles answered the door. The newly reinstated Watcher was exhausted from the emotional roller coaster of the last couple days. “Spike? Is everything okay?”

 

“Right now? Yeah,” Spike replied. “But I think we need to talk about Dawn. Might be wise to think about getting out of Dodge.”

 

“Buffy would never—”

 

“Not Buffy,” Spike replied. “Dawn. I think we need to come up with a plan B.”

Chapter Text

“When you are old and grey and full of sleep,/And nodding by the fire, take down this book,/And slowly read, and dream of the soft look/Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;/How many loved your moments of glad grace,/And loved your beauty with love false or true,/But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,/And loved the sorrows in your changing face;/And bending down beside the glowing bars,/Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled/And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.” ~William Butler Yeats, “When You Are Old”

 

“You certainly seem to be doing better these days, William,” Michael commented. They were each nursing a glass of very good scotch in the rectory. The minister did not drink much, as a rule, but the liquor he did have on hand was of the highest quality. Good scotch, he had confessed, was one of the small vices he allowed himself, as was good coffee. “As Abraham Lincoln once said, people who have no vices have very few virtues.”

 

Spike, to be quite honest, had seen worse vices, and had met few men who were more virtuous than Father Michael. “I am,” he replied. “Seems I’ve turned a corner.”

 

“We do that on occasion in our lives,” Michael said. “Ups and downs are common, no matter how well adjusted you might seem to be.”

 

Spike shrugged. “Joyce is better, which is a load off my mind. Dawn’s doing good. Buffy—” he sighed. “Buffy and me are okay right now. Her birthday’s day after tomorrow though.”

 

“Have you already gotten a gift?” Michael asked, taking another sip of his drink.

 

Spike pulled a small black box out of his pocket, passing it over to the minister without a word. They had been meeting a couple times every month, just to talk. Although Spike still wasn’t certain that he could rekindle his childhood belief in God, it had somehow become important for him to know that that was at least a possibility. With all the evil in the world, it helped to think that there might also be a great force for good, other than one girl, her friends and the efforts of some men.

 

Michael let out a low whistle when he saw the ring. “I cannot see any woman being displeased with this kind of gift, William. You don’t seem nearly as excited about it, however.”

 

“Buffy’s just turning twenty,” Spike explained. “I want to ask her to marry me, and maybe not right away, but I don’t want to tie her down either. Girl hasn’t hardly experienced life. Seems a bit unfair to demand she spend it with the likes of me.”

 

The older man lifted an eyebrow. “That’s the beauty of a proposal, William. The woman generally has the right of refusal.”

 

“I just wonder sometimes,” Spike admitted. “Not that I want to leave her, or that I’d want her to leave me. I think it would just about destroy me. But, I wonder if she wants forever, not when she’s barely out of the school room.”

 

“I think that’s a decision you’d best leave to her, lad,” Michael said gently. “If you’re willing to wait for her, there’s nothing wrong with asking now.” Changing the subject, he asked, “Have you heard back about your manuscript yet?”

 

Spike shook his head. “Bracing myself for a rejection letter right now, but that’s alright. Didn’t let that stop me when I was writing poetry, so I’m hardly gonna let it stop me now I’m writing prose.”

 

“Well, if you’re thinking about a different career choice, the principal at the high school is one of my parishioners,” Michael said. “She’s looking for a new English teacher, and I would be happy to pass along your name.”

 

Spike snorted in disbelief. “Don’t have the references, mate.”

 

“I’ve heard they aren’t that picky at Sunnydale High,” Michael said wryly. “The death rate seems to discourage that.”

 

He thought about it, then shrugged. “You want to pass along my name, that would be fine,” Spike finally said. “Doubt she’ll want me, but it doesn’t hurt to give it a shot.”

 

“No, it doesn’t.” Michael stood as Spike did. “So, if you aren’t going to propose to your girl, did you get her something else?”

Spike grinned. “Sure I did. Sharp and pointy, just like she likes.”

 

Michael raised an eyebrow, and then asked slyly, “I assume you’re talking about a weapon.”

 

Spike looked shocked for a moment that the minister’s mind would even go there, but then he chuckled in appreciation. “Yeah, it’s a new sword. She’ll love it.”

 

“I’m sure she will,” Michael replied, walking him to the door. A sudden sense of apprehension caught him, and he laid a warning hand on Spike’s shoulder. “Be careful out there, William. The world would be a poor place without you in it.”

 

“Likewise, Father,” Spike said, looking a bit confused. “Likewise.”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy rose with a sense of unease. The day just felt wrong for some reason. She went downstairs slowly, seeing her mom in the kitchen. “Have you seen William?” Joyce asked. “You don’t want to lose track of him, you know. He’s so good for you.”

 

“Yeah,” Buffy agreed. “Do you know where he is?”

 

“Don’t lose him, Buffy,” Joyce warned. “Life is so fragile.”

 

Buffy blinked and found herself at the Bronze with her friends. Spike was nowhere to be seen, and she was beginning to grow concerned. “Have you guys seen Spike?”

 

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Tara asked in reply. “You really should keep better track of your boyfriends, Buffy. Love slips away so easily, just like our minds. It’s so easy to lose.”

 

Willow was holding a sword; she was dressed like a warrior. “Remember, Buffy, you have to be careful. You fight for those you love and avenge the hurt.”

 

“I love Spike.” Buffy knew that for a fact, and yet it felt hazy, unformed, like it didn’t make nearly as much sense as it was supposed to. Did she love Spike? What part of Spike did she love?

 

As though her silent question had summoned him, Buffy saw him emerge from the crowd. “Do you love me, Buffy?” he asked. His hair was shorter than it had been in a while, and bleached. “Do you love all of me?” he asked as his face changed to that of the demon’s. “Do you love even this version of me, Slayer?”

 

They were suddenly standing in an older corner of a cemetery, one of the areas Buffy rarely visited. The Slayer was not needed among the oldest tombstones usually, as their occupants rested peacefully. “Because I love all of you.”

 

Then the sun rose, and Spike turned to ash.

 

And Buffy woke.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike was a little startled to find Buffy at his door at six in the morning. Granted, he was already awake and ready to go for his morning run, but the Slayer had never even expressed an interest in joining him. Yet there she was, dressed in yoga pants and a jacket, and looking way too good to be going anywhere at all.

 

In fact, skipping the run for exercise of another sort seemed like the better option.

 

“Not that I’m not happy to see you,” Spike said, stepping back from the door to let her pass, “but what are you doing here?”

 

“Can’t a girl just want to see her guy?”

 

It was a nice thought, but it was also six in the morning, and Buffy was anything but a morning person. Spike wasn’t much of a morning person, either, but the world of work put demands on a guy’s schedule. “It’s early, luv, and you’ve never said anything about coming with me before.”

 

She sighed. “I had this dream last night, and you were in it—and not in a good way, I might add. So I thought I’d check on you.”

 

“Check on me, huh?” Spike asked, leaning down and kissing her thoroughly, something he hadn’t quite gotten around to yet. “So how am I doing?”

 

“In the kissing department, I’d give you a ten out of ten,” she said, but the smile she gave him didn’t quite reach her eyes.

 

Spike pulled her over to the sofa and sat her down. “What was this dream about, Buffy? Because you seem pretty shaken up.”

 

“I kept looking for you,” she said, not meeting his eyes. “But I couldn’t find you. And then, when I did find you, you were a vampire.”

 

He blinked, and then pulled her into a hug. “Was it a Slayer dream?”

 

“I don’t know,” she said in a soft voice. “Maybe it’s just the pre-birthday jitters, because my birthdays all suck.”

 

There was nothing Spike knew so well as the girl in his arms, and so he could hear the “but” at the end of her sentence, even if it was left unspoken. “But—”

 

“It’s just that I had this dream before—before Angelus, and I had the same feeling then.” She pulled away to look up at him. “Spike, just promise me that you’ll be extra careful for the next few days.”

 

“Buffy—”

 

“Just promise me.”

 

“I promise,” he said. “You know I don’t want anything to ruin your birthday.”

 

“So can I go running with you?” Buffy asked.

 

Spike smiled. “Yeah, if you like. Didn’t know you enjoyed running.”

 

“I don’t, but you do,” Buffy replied. “You do lots of things that I like to do, so I thought I’d return the favor.”

 

Spike had a feeling that she was really trying to make up for the last fight they’d had. Then again, making up almost made the fight worth it. “Where do you want to go?”

 

“Wherever you usually go, I guess,” she said, shrugging.

 

Where he usually went often included a quick detour by the grave he called his mother’s, but Spike wasn’t sure that was something he wanted Buffy to know about. Yet she’d made the effort to drag herself out of bed this morning, just so she could make sure he was okay, so she could do something with him that he liked to do.

 

Maybe it was time.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy didn’t like to run much, as a rule. After all, she got so much exercise between training and chasing after monsters that jogging seemed redundant. Running with one’s boyfriend was a completely different story, however, especially when that boyfriend was Spike.

 

Talk about being able to enjoy the scenery.

 

More than that, there was her need to be with him, to make certain that he was okay. The dream had given her a scare, if only because the feeling she had after she woke up was the exact same premonition she’d had right before the Judge had shown up. Before Angel had transformed into Angelus.

 

Granted, Spike couldn’t lose his soul, but a nasty could very easily get to him, and Buffy was determined not to let that happen. Hence, the running.

 

Buffy was paying more attention to Spike than to her surroundings, which was why when she did look around she pulled to a sudden stop. “Spike? Hold up a second.”

 

He slowed and stopped as well, turning to look at her. “You okay, luv?”

 

“I’m fine. It’s just—” Buffy knew this place, even though she was certain she’d never been here before. “Do you come here often?”

 

They were in a cemetery, one of the few she rarely visited. It was mostly full of older graves, their occupants long since turned to dust in the usual fashion. Some of the markers were so old that the lettering had been decimated by the elements, and it was impossible to tell who had been laid to rest, only that someone had.

 

“Uh, sometimes,” Spike said, following Buffy cautiously. She had an odd expression on her face that he couldn’t quite fathom. She was also heading straight towards his own private spot.

 

Buffy knew where she’d seen this place before, knew that it had been in her dream. She recognized the clearing, the trees, everything. “How often?” she demanded, looking back at him over her shoulder.

 

Spike looked embarrassed. “Swear you won’t laugh?”

 

He had that look on his face—the vulnerable one. It was the look that always signaled the revelation of some deep truth, her opportunity to either heal or hurt. “I swear.”

 

Pointing to one of the markers, Buffy could just make out the words, “Beloved Mother.” “Come here sometimes because my mum didn’t have a grave, you know? I just—I talk to her.”

 

“Why would I laugh, Spike?” Buffy asked, honestly bewildered. Sure, it was a little odd, but her own mother’s recent brush with death made her a little more tolerant of that sort of thing.

 

He shrugged. “Thought you might think it was stupid or something.”

 

“It’s not stupid,” Buffy replied, coming closer to lay a hand on his arm. She was positive that it was the same place he’d dusted in her dream, and the sense of déjà vu was sending chills up and down her spine. “This—I recognize this place from my dream.”

 

Spike let out a little breath. “Well, isn’t that just neat?”

 

“We’ll just have to be careful,” Buffy said slowly. “I mean, it was probably just me worrying about this year’s birthday disaster. I mean, I doubt it would be a Slayer dream. Normally I’d get some idea of the trouble to come, not just what would happen.”

 

“Right. We’ll all keep a sharp eye out, and disaster will be averted. Or, at least we’ll manage it, yeah?”

 

“Yeah,” Buffy replied, but the sense of foreboding she’d woken up with was back full force.

 

~~~~~

 

The party was a subdued affair, much like Spike’s celebration had been. Buffy had voiced the opinion that the more people who were present, the more going on, the more things that could go wrong.

 

Dawn was excited to be included this year. While she knew the memories were fake, she didn’t think her older sister had let her in on the partying since Buffy was in grade school. This year, however, Spike roped her into helping him get the cake, and Joyce had asked her to decorate, and Willow and Tara had actually let her watch them do the protection spell. Of course, Dawn was well aware that it was all just because they wanted her to feel like she belonged and all that, but she’d take it. There was definitely something to be said for everybody worrying about hurting your feelings.

 

She had pretty much dealt with the fact that she was some thousand-year-old Key. That’s not to say it wasn’t freaky, especially thinking about a Hellgod coming after her, but Spike’s words had given her a lot to think about, and she’d decided that he was right. Life was really strange sometimes, and it didn’t make a lot of sense, and her life was definitely not normal. But the reality was that if she wasn’t the Key, she wouldn’t be alive. And if her sister wasn’t the Slayer, Dawn would never known Spike, or Willow, or Xander, or Tara, or any of the others.

 

Fake memories or not, it was right now that counted.

 

Dawn let out a shriek as Spike came up behind her and tickled her sides as they were all settling down to watch Buffy open her presents. “Spike!”

 

“You were looking all too serious there for a minute, Bit,” he replied, grinning.

 

Smoothing down her ruffled dignity, Dawn gave him the superior look that all teenage girls had perfected. “I was thinking.”

 

“Pardon me for interrupting,” he replied, not at all fazed. Spike sat down next to Buffy, watching as the others perched in different places around the room. He let out a sigh of contentment as she leaned into his side.

 

“Here, open ours,” Willow said, handing her a good-sized box.

 

Buffy pulled out a new dress. “Ooh, this is beautiful. Thanks, you guys.”

 

Tara smiled. “We figured you’d probably be getting a lot of crossbows and other—you know, killy stuff.”

 

“So we thought less killy, more frilly,” Willow added.

 

Seeing Buffy’s reaction to the dress, and hearing Willow and Tara’s explanation, caused Spike to tense. He probably should have thought of that—should have gotten her something romantic instead of a sword. Of course, he still had the ring in his pocket, but he wanted to wait for a more private moment to actually pop the question.

 

Dawn insisted on Buffy opening her present next—a picture of the two of them taken on the beach, just before school had started. The sisters shared a hug, and Buffy whispered something in Dawn’s ear that made her smile and look a little uncomfortable.

 

Spike watched as the other presents were opened, until he was the only one left. “Uh, well, hope you don’t mind that I went for the sharp end of the spectrum, luv,” he said, handing her the long box from where he’d hidden it in the coat closet.

 

Buffy pulled off the ribbon and opened it, her eyes widening when she saw the weapon. “Spike—this is incredible.”

 

The Slayer pulled the sword and scabbard out of the box, and moved so that she could better maneuver. Of all those present, only Giles recognized exactly what the weapon was. “Spike, that’s—that’s a K’tok ceremonial blade. How on earth did you come by it?”

 

“Man’s got to have some secrets,” Spike replied, with something of a smug grin.

 

“A what?” Xander asked.

 

“It’s a K’tok ceremonial blade,” Anya repeated matter-of-factly. “Only female K’toks carry weapons. In fact, all the women are really scary warriors. The only way that Spike would have a sword like that is if he killed one or did somebody a really big favor.”

 

Spike shrugged, his lips still sealed. “It was a favor, but I was sworn to secrecy. It’s a woman’s sword, though. Seemed appropriate for the Slayer to have it.”

 

Buffy was still engrossed in her examination of the weapon. It was slightly curved, light, and was perfectly balanced. She could easily imagine jumping into battle with something like this. “Thanks, Spike. It’s perfect.”

 

Again, he shrugged, although the others could detect the flush on his cheeks. “You missed what’s in the bottom of the box, luv.”

 

Buffy raised an eyebrow and put the sword back into its scabbard, moving the paper in the box to discover a sheaf of papers. At her puzzled expression, Spike hastened to explain. “I’ve sent it in, but I don’t know if anybody wants it yet. Thought you might want your own copy though. And—well, look at the dedication page.”

 

With a wondering expression, she did so, murmuring, “Oh, Spike.” The dedication read, To Buffy, who made me glad to be alive.

 

Buffy moved to kiss him, and when they showed no sign of ending the embrace, Dawn cleared her throat loudly. “Uh, emotional scarring going on here. Can we maybe have cake now?”

 

They broke apart, but Spike’s eyes promised more to come.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy set her new sword in a corner of her room. It was definitely going to get hung on the wall; she just had to figure out how she wanted to do it. Spike was lounging on her bed, watching her with serious eyes. “So you really like it?”

 

“I love it.” Buffy smiled. “I’m a big fan of both the frilly and the killy, and I got both satisfied.” She plopped down on the bed and gave him a lingering kiss. “Plus, the dedication? Major bonus points there, mister.”

 

Spike’s mouth twisted up into a half-smile. “That right?” He hesitated, and then said, “I’ve actually got one more thing for you, luv.”

 

“More presents?” Buffy asked slyly. “I hope it has something to do with you spending the night.”

 

“Is that allowed?” His look was humorous, but Spike was quite serious. There was no way he wanted to offend Joyce.

 

She raised an eyebrow. “You could sneak out in the morning, before anyone else is up,” Buffy suggested. “Could be fun.”

 

“Could be.” Spike was still procrastinating. He wanted to ask, and yet he feared rejection. If she didn’t want to accept his proposal, would it change their relationship for good?

 

“Okay…” Buffy gave him a look and then bounced on the bed a little. “You said you had another present, and right now I’m going to make a wild guess and say it isn’t you.”

 

“Not exactly,” Spike hedged. “In a way, I suppose the gift is me.” Sighing, he pulled the box out of his pocket. “Thing is, I know you might not want this now, Buffy. You’re still young, and you might want to wait. You might not want to be tied down, or maybe you’re not certain about me.”

 

He took a deep breath. “Thing is, I’m dead sure you’re the one I want to spend the rest of my life with, and I’ll be here till you tell me otherwise. I already gave you a ring as a promise. This one’s a question.” Spike opened the box so Buffy could see the ring, a large diamond in a simple setting. “Doesn’t have to be now, or even soon. We don’t have to set a date, even. Don’t want you to feel any pressure—”

 

“Spike?” Buffy interrupted, continuing when he finally looked her in the eye. “Are you ever going to let me answer?” He stared at her, not saying anything, having finally run out of words. He hadn’t even really asked the question. “The answer, by the way, is yes.” And, to seal the deal, Buffy held out her hand.

 

Spike couldn’t conceal the slight shaking of his own hand as he put the ring on her finger. “I—” He stopped to clear his throat. “I was thinking maybe after you get done with school.”

 

“Or sooner,” Buffy said. “But that probably isn’t a bad idea either. Tell me. How nervous were you on a scale from one to ten?”

 

“About an eleven,” Spike said with a sheepish grin. “It’s just—I’m a good bit older than you, luv, and I don’t mean just because I was a vampire for so long. I don’t want you to feel like you’re trapped, or that you don’t have any options.”

 

“I’ve realized that life is not a multiple choice test, Spike,” Buffy said quietly. “If you keep looking for better options, there’s a really good chance that you’ll miss out on what was in front of your face the entire time. I’ve dated other guys, so it’s not like you’re the only one I’ve ever had feelings for.” At the look on his face, Buffy hastened to reassure him. “But you’re the only one I’ve felt this way about. You’re the man I love. The more I discover about you, the more I find myself wanting to know.”

 

Spike stared at her, the expression on his face nothing short of worshipful. “I love you.”

 

Buffy didn’t try to reply with words, although she thought she might have finally gotten it right. Spike was the word-guy in the relationship—he was the writer, for Pete’s sake. She was action-girl.

 

Their loving was languorous, a journey of rediscovery and of promise. In some ways, it was like the first time all over again, as Buffy tried to show with her hands and mouth the depth of her feelings. She felt as though she was drowning, drowning in him, and it was okay because Buffy knew that he wouldn’t let her go.

 

Spike, for his part, knew that this was just a beginning. He could look forward into the future and see—something. There were no details. Details were overrated, anyway. What was clear was that they were together; she loved him in spite of his faults, in spite of his past. Loved him enough to say yes to everything he was offering.

 

Loved him enough to say yes to everything he was.

 

If Spike had died in that moment, he would have died a happy man.

 

~~~~~

 

The story in the paper the next morning sent off all kinds of warning bells in Buffy’s brain. Large massacres on trains heading into Sunnydale usually meant a little more than just your random killings. The whole thing just screamed “vampire,” and Buffy felt the chill of fear renew itself.

 

“You don’t think it’s something serious, do you?” Spike asked quietly. He and Buffy were cleaning up the dinner dishes while Joyce and Giles talked in the living room. Dawn was upstairs playing a CD from one of those boy-bands she liked so much. He made a face. “Strike that question. That many dead bodies is always serious.”

 

Buffy handed a dish over to him to dry and shook her head. “I don’t know. At this point, I’m just grateful it’s something simple, like vampires. The last thing we need right now is another attempt from Glory to get her Key.”

 

“How could she know the Key is Dawn?” Spike asked reasonably. “No one knows but us, and we’re not telling. Unless Glory manages to find out from one of those crazy people she’s so good at making.”

 

Buffy shook her head. “I don’t know, Spike, but it’s still possible. What if she cooks up another locator spell, or something? It could lead her right to Dawn.”

 

“Don’t know, luv. We just have to protect her, best we can. What did you find on the train today?” he asked.

 

“A big fat nothing,” Buffy complained. “The police in Sunnydale aren’t good for much, but they’re really good at finding all the clues that I might have been able to use.”

 

Spike shook his head. “Wish I’d been able to go with you. Maybe I could have—”

 

“I doubt it. There really wasn’t much to see. Plus, you had Dawn with you. That’s just as important.” Buffy watched the water drain down the sink. “I really wish we could take some time,” she said wistfully. “You know, to celebrate?”

 

Buffy was talking about her new ring, which she’d been showing off every time she got the chance. The whole gang had gone to the Bronze the previous night, leaving Dawn with Joyce and Giles, as a sort of impromptu party. Tonight’s dinner had been a quiet celebration with just the immediate family.

 

It had been nice. Except for the after-dinner conversation that centered around Hellgods and vampires, they might have been any other couple celebrating a recent engagement.

 

Buffy wanted a little more than that, however. She wanted Spike all to herself for a few days on end, free of responsibility. She wanted to not worry about school, with the test in literature that was coming up, or about monsters and demons. Buffy wanted normalcy like she’d never wanted it before.

 

If only for just a few nights.

 

“Soon as this is all over,” Spike promised. “We’ll get rid of Glory and maybe go off to L.A. for a few days. Stay in a nice hotel, whatever you want.”

 

“You,” Buffy replied. “I just want you all to myself.”

 

Their kiss was long and hard, with an edge of desperation to it. They were all feeling the strain these days. It was like living in the middle of a war zone, and no one had a real chance to relax and let their guard down. “Wish you could come over tonight, pet.”

 

“Me too, but—”

 

“Not safe,” Spike agreed. “I should go.”

 

“Be careful,” Buffy said. “With whatever it is on the loose…”

 

“I’ll be fine, and I’ll see you tomorrow. Want to pick me up at seven for patrol?”

 

Buffy nodded. “Sounds like a plan.” As she headed upstairs to study, she studiously avoided looking in on Joyce and Giles on the couch. They might be sitting a couple of inches apart now, but their disheveled clothing suggested something a little different than mere conversation.

 

She rolled her eyes and called out a goodnight. Having her mom and her Watcher together was definitely a little strange, but it was a normal strange. It was the kind of weirdness that might strike any young adult whose mother was beginning to date after a divorce. So it was a normal weird.

 

And that was strangely comforting.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike flipped through the mail absently. It was all bills for the most part, but then he reached an envelope that was obviously from one of the publishers he’d sent his manuscript off to. He put the rest of the mail aside and then sat down heavily. There was a small part of him that wanted to wait until Buffy arrived so that she could open it for him. That way, he wouldn’t actually have to read the words of rejection, would instead be able to see it on her face.

 

Glancing at the clock, he realized he still had about fifteen minutes until Buffy was supposed to arrive. He wasn’t sure he could wait that long. Besides, if he opened it now, Spike could tell her the news, one way or the other, when she got there. Maybe that would be better.

 

Spike was just going into the kitchen for a knife to slit the envelope when the knock on the door came. Thinking that Buffy was early, he called out, “Come on in, pet. Door’s open.” Still bent on opening the letter, he was fumbling the paper out when something made him turn.

 

“Buffy? What—” It wasn’t Buffy. Drusilla stood there, looking as dark and dangerous and beautiful as ever.

 

“Hello, Spike.”

 

“Drusilla.” Her appearance wasn’t the surprise that it should have been, perhaps because Spike knew his dark princess. She might have sent him off, but his humanity would be an offense to her artistry. Dru had, after all, spent over a century making him into her vision of a medieval knight. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Come to see what they have made of you, dearest,” she replied. “You’re all warm—and weak.”

Spike smiled ruefully, well knowing that he was hardly a match for her. “I’m happy. Don’t suppose you’d let me be.”

 

She shook her head. “How can you be happy when they can’t see your vision? Your strength?”

 

They were very similar to the words Drusilla had spoken to him on the night of his turning, of his rebirth. At the time, Spike supposed, they had been true, but things had changed. “It’s a different kind of vision, Dru,” he replied gently. “Think you could leave? Get out of town? The Slayer will kill you if she finds you.”

 

Spike didn’t want her dead. Even though he felt the danger, he was fairly certain that he couldn’t kill her. She was too strong for him, and he didn’t have a weapon ready to hand. More than that, there was a small piece of him that still loved her, just as there was a small piece of him that remembered the hunt with fondness.

 

It wasn’t in him to kill a woman he had once loved, even if a lifetime had passed.

 

“Can’t leave you stranded, Spike. My William. You’ve been blinded. I can make you strong again. Make you see the truth.” Drusilla glided closer. “You belong in the dark.”

 

“Not anymore,” Spike replied, knowing even as he said it that it was futile. Her eyes were hypnotic, as was her voice. He’d always been impressed by Dru’s ability to take over someone’s mind, but he’d never expected to have it used on himself. Attempting to tear his eyes away from hers was like trying to swim against a current, and though he gave it his best, the fight was over before it had begun.

 

The last thing he head was Drusilla’s whispered promise. “We’ll be together again soon, just like before. The Slayer will never love my Spike.”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy took the stairs to Spike’s apartment at a jog. She was running a little late—as usual—and didn’t want Spike to have to wait for too long. When she reached his door, Buffy realized that it was open just a crack, and the small nagging fear she’d had all day blossomed into full-out panic.

 

“Spike!” She catapulted through the door and stood, frozen, at what she saw. Drusilla stood there, Spike’s limp body in her arms. There was a bleeding cut on her breast, but the Slayer couldn’t see if there was any blood on Spike’s lips or not.

 

It was a good thing she’d been training so strenuously. Instinct took over, and Buffy’s stake pierced the vampire’s heart before either woman really knew what was going on or how to react. In the next moment, Spike was in her arms. “God, no,” she pleaded softly as she searched for a pulse. “Please, God, no. I need him. I need him…”

Chapter Text

“My love, if I die and you don’t—,/My love, if you die and I don’t—,/let’s not give grief an even greater field./No expanse is greater than where we live./Dust in the wheat, sand in the deserts,/time, wandering water, the vague wind/swept us on like sailing seeds./We might not have found one another in time./This meadow where we find ourselves,/O little infinity! we give it back./But Love, this love has not ended:/just as it never had a birth, it has/no death: it is like a long river,/only changing lands, and changing lips.” ~Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XCII

 

Spike knew as soon as he woke up. As the rush of blood and guilt and the sound of his own heartbeat had let him know he was human, now the absence of all three indicated another fundamental change. It was a rush, as it had been the first time he’d been turned, a feeling of power, of invincibility.

 

There was nothing and no one that could touch him now. Weakness was a thing of the past. Strength sang in his bones. He nearly laughed with the drunken feel of it.

 

And then he felt the weight of the manacles around his wrists, and he remembered. Spike suddenly remembered that this time he’d had more to lose than to gain from becoming a vampire again, and oddly enough, he still cared.

 

A hunger in his belly reminded him of another need, and Spike jerked on the chains with a growl. He was starving. The idea of blood, straight from the jugular, had him salivating in anticipation, even though he knew Buffy would never allow it.

 

Even though there was no way he could kill and hope to remain in her good graces.

 

Spike tugged on the chains again, wondering if he was going to be left to himself for much longer. From his surroundings and the smells he judged himself to be in the Slayer’s basement. “Oi there! Slayer! You gonna let me starve to death?”

 

Spike knew she was somewhere in the house. He could feel her.

 

He heard her footsteps on the stairs moments later, and Buffy came into view, carrying a cooler. “Spike.”

 

Her voice was cold, colder than it had been since—since they had come to an understanding. Possibly since he’d been a vampire the first time. Even though Spike wasn’t precisely surprised at her reaction to his return to vampirism, hearing Buffy speak in that tone drove home how much had changed in such a short time.

 

“Going to stake me now, Slayer?” he challenged.

 

Buffy gave him a tight little smile, and in that expression Spike could see the ravages of grief. “No. Willow and Tara are working on a spell to return your soul. Should be ready in no time.”

 

She was lying. Spike could smell it on her, sense it in the slight increase of her heartbeat. “Haven’t quite figured out how to bypass the loophole, huh?” He leaned back against the wall, waiting to see if she would relax around him.

 

“Not yet,” she replied, and he could sense the uncoiling of tension. Spike wasn’t sure what Buffy had expected of him, but apparently he wasn’t acting quite like she thought he might. “It’s just a matter of time, though.”

 

“And if they can’t?” he asked. “Will you stake me then?”

 

Buffy’s face was stoic, but her eyes told a different story. “If I have to.”

 

“I still love you, you know,” Spike said, almost conversationally. “Told you nothing was gonna change that, luv.”

 

“You’re not the man I loved,” the Slayer spat back. “You’re—you’re—”

 

“A vampire?” Spike asked with a sardonic smile. “And you think he wasn’t? Deep down inside? He still had darkness, pet. So do you.” With inhuman grace, Spike surged to his feet. “I could make it so good for you. Take you on a ride like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like yin and yang now. The man you loved is still here, just stronger, faster—”

 

“More evil,” Buffy replied. Her foot slid the cooler towards him so she didn’t have to get too close. “There’s blood in there if you’re hungry.”

 

“Cold pig’s blood isn’t gonna satisfy forever,” Spike nearly snarled. “That stuff is disgusting.”

 

“It’s all you’re going to get,” Buffy replied. “Deal with it.”

 

As she turned, Spike could see his cross dangling from her neck, and he realized he wouldn’t be wearing it again. “You promised me forever, Buffy!” he accused. She didn’t turn. “Bloody hell! I love you! I won’t hurt you!”

 

~~~~~

 

“Are you alright?” Giles asked as Buffy emerged from the basement.

 

“Yeah.” She managed a weak smile. “It wasn’t too bad. He was in full vamp-mode, though. I don’t think he even noticed.”

 

Giles pulled her into his arms for a hug. “Technically, Spike would be a fledgling, Buffy. It takes time to learn control, from what I understand.”

 

“Can we save him?” Buffy asked. “Am I just being stubborn and stupid?”

 

“Stubborn?” Giles asked. “Always. But stupid? No, I don’t believe so. If there’s even a chance—” He broke off, and Buffy knew her Watcher was grieving in his own way. They had all loved Spike—human-Spike, that is.

 

It was worse than when Angel had become Angelus. That had been bad, but it was nothing compared to watching Drusilla draining Spike, searching frantically for a pulse that couldn’t be found, calling Giles to tell him that Spike was dead.

 

There had been a heated discussion over whether or not to simply make certain that Spike didn’t rise, or to wait and see and then make a decision. No one had argued very hard for giving up. Tara had been the only one to point out—quietly—that Spike might not want to be a vampire.

 

At the time, Buffy hadn’t really cared what Spike would want. He had somehow let Drusilla into his apartment, had gotten himself turned again. She was royally pissed off at him. Spike was the man who wasn’t supposed to leave, and now he had gone, leaving behind a demon who wore his face.

 

So, if Buffy could find a way to keep him with her, she would.

 

Dawn had been nearly hysterical when they told her, of course, although Joyce had been more accepting than Buffy would ever have believed. When Buffy had commented on it, her mom had replied that she had liked Spike before he became human, so she didn’t see how it could be too bad.

 

Buffy had replied that having a demon hijack your fiancé’s body was about the worst thing ever.

 

So now Spike-the-Vampire was awake and insisting that he still loved her when everyone knew that vampires couldn’t love. And even if they could, he had let Drusilla into his apartment. Surely that meant something. Did he want to leave her so badly?

 

“Is everyone else here?” Buffy asked, finally pulling away. “We really should figure out what we’re going to do with him, and quick. If I know Spike, he’s probably working on his great escape as we speak.”

 

Giles nodded, pulling off his glasses and polishing the lenses briskly. “Yes, everyone’s here. I’m certain we’ll come up with a solution if we put our heads together.”

 

Thirty minutes later, Buffy wasn’t so certain. She stood by the fireplace, her arms crossed, in full Slayer-general mode. Joyce and Giles were seated on the couch, their hands surreptitiously entwined. Willow was in the armchair, with Tara at her feet, with Xander and Anya occupying a similar position on the other end of the couch. Dawn had been told to stay in her room, much to her dismay.

 

Of course, that just meant she was sitting on the stairs where no one could see her.

 

“Are you sure?” Buffy asked, for the third time. “You’re sure you can’t change the spell?”

 

Willow shook her head. “Maybe if I had more time, Buffy, but the spell—it’s all about the dark magicks, and because it’s a curse… Maybe if there was another way to give a vampire back his soul, but you’re doing something against its nature, and against its wishes. That takes a lot of power.”

 

“You have power,” Buffy replied. “You—”

 

“We both have power,” Tara said gently. “But we don’t have the kind of skill it takes to take someone’s soul and put it back in, not without that particular spell.” She hesitated. “Besides, it’s not a good spell, Buffy. I think maybe you should talk to Spike. If he was willing, we could maybe work something out.”

 

“He’s not going to be willing,” Buffy said definitively. “Vampires don’t volunteer to get their souls back.”

 

Willow gave her a reassuring smile. “We can still do the spell, Buffy. We just can’t get rid of the loophole.”

 

“Do we have everything we need for it?” Giles asked.

 

“We don’t have an Orb of Thessula,” Anya said matter-of-factly. “And those puppies are hard to find right now.”

 

Giles frowned. “I didn’t think they were that scarce an item.”

 

“Yeah, well, word got out that they could be used for re-ensoulment, and every vampire who thought someone might have a grudge started buying up all the ones they could find.” Anya shrugged. “They always have one or two on e-Bay. I’ll see what I can do.”

 

“How long?” Buffy asked.

 

Anya shook her head. “A few days maybe. It’ll probably take that long to find one, and then you have to wait for the bidding to be over. After that, we can get it over-nighted if you’re willing to pay for it.”

 

“We’re willing to pay,” the Slayer said grimly. “I want Spike back.”

 

“What if we can’t get him back, Buffy?”

 

The quiet question came from Xander, who was looking very uncomfortable with all eyes on him. “What are you talking about?” Buffy asked.

 

“What if Anya can’t get the Orb?” he said. “Or what if the spell doesn’t work on him? Or what if he gets loose before then and starts munching his way through Sunnydale? I’m not—I’m not suggesting that we stake him now, but…”

 

“But you think we might need to.” Buffy’s tone was flat.

 

Xander sighed. “I’m saying we might have to. Have you thought about what he knows, Buf? Spike knows about Dawn. If he gets loose, or if the spell doesn’t work, he could go to Glory.”

 

There was a long silence. Joyce was the one who broke it. “Spike wouldn’t do that.”

 

“Spike’s an evil vampire,” Xander objected. “Sorry, Joyce, but I don’t think there’s much he wouldn’t do at this point.”

 

Joyce shook her head. “Spike might be a vampire, but he wouldn’t hurt Dawn or me. He didn’t when he was in town that last time, when Drusilla left him.”

 

There was a strained silence as they all looked around uncomfortably at the vampire’s name. “That wasn’t the last time he was in town, Mom,” Buffy corrected her. “He was here right before he got captured by the Initiative, and he was pretty intent on killing me. There’s no way I could trust him.”

 

“I think Xander might have a point, though, Buffy,” Giles said gently. “If we are unable to return Spike’s soul to him, it might be wise to have a back-up plan.”

 

“Couldn’t we just make a deal with him?” Willow asked wistfully. “I mean, he did help you stop Angelus. Maybe you could just ask him to leave town.”

 

Buffy hesitated and then shook her head regretfully. “I can’t, Will. If Glory wasn’t an issue, then it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but Xander’s right about that much at least. I can’t take the risk that he would tell her about Dawn.”

 

“He wouldn’t,” Tara said. “I still think we should talk to him, Buffy. Maybe you could get his cooperation. Spike’s talked about his mom. After he—”

 

“Spike turned his mom because he loved her.” Buffy’s voice was flat. “I’m not going to risk that happening with any of us.”

 

“I want to see him.” Dawn’s voice cut across the room. She stood in the doorway, her pose unconsciously mirroring the Slayer’s—arms crossed on her chest, glaring.

 

Buffy walked over to her sister and took her by the arm. “You’re supposed to be in bed, Dawn.”

 

“I don’t want to go to bed,” Dawn replied sharply. “I want to see Spike. You can’t keep me from seeing him, Buffy.”

 

“Yes, I can,” was Buffy’s response. “Upstairs, now.”

 

“No! I want—”

 

“Go, Dawn.” Joyce had come over to join them, and she ran a loving hand down her youngest daughter’s hair. “I’m sorry, sweetie, but it’s better if you don’t see him right now, not until we get things settled.”

 

Dawn’s lip trembled. “Please, Buffy. Please. I have to! You don’t understand! I—”

 

“Come on, Dawnie.” Tara was there, putting an arm around the younger girls’ shoulders. “I’ll take her upstairs,” she said to Joyce and Buffy. “I don’t think I can be of much help down here anyway.”

 

Tara led the girl up to her room and then sat with her on the bed. “Why can’t I see him?” Dawn asked rebelliously.

 

“Buffy doesn’t think it’s a good idea,” Tara said carefully. Personally, she thought that Dawn should probably be allowed to see Spike, if only to get a little more closure, but it wasn’t her decision to make. None of these decisions were hers.

 

Dawn’s chin set stubbornly. “Buffy doesn’t understand.”

 

“No, she probably doesn’t,” Tara agreed. “It’s hard for her too, though.”

 

The anger drained out of her, and Dawn tried to stifle the resultant sob. “Why, Tara? Why’d Spike have to get hurt like that? It’s not fair. I hate this.”

 

“I know, sweetie,” Tara murmured in reply, pulling Dawn’s head down on her shoulder. Her own tears ran unchecked down her cheeks. She had somehow forgotten how bad new grief felt. “I hate this too.”

 

Oh, how she hated it.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike could hear the murmured voices above him, and he managed to catch snatches of conversation as he drained the bags of blood Buffy had left. Pigs’ blood was sodding awful, and it didn’t satisfy, but it was something anyway.

 

It was just until he could get his hands on something better.

 

He nipped that thought in the bud, wondering what had changed between now and being a vampire for the first time. It was a relief to be free of the guilt, of course. He couldn’t be disappointed to lose that load.

 

The loss of his guilt was the only positive thing to have come out of getting turned again, as far as Spike could tell. The first time he’d been thrilled at the power, the strength. Spike had adored Dru, and he couldn’t wait to show his mother. The idea of being able to offer her what was essentially eternal life had been a major bonus.

 

But turning his mother had backfired, and Spike knew now that if he were to turn Buffy or Dawn or Joyce or any of the others, they would cease to be the people that he loved. So that was out of the question.

 

Spike had some doubt as to his ability to control himself. Even if Buffy decided to take a chance on him—which seemed highly unlikely—what was to say he wouldn’t eventually get tired of a diet of pigs’ blood?

 

While he might have a number of sterling qualities, Spike couldn’t kid himself that self-control was one of them.

 

If the Slayer did take a chance on him, who was to say he wouldn’t let her down, make her stake him one of these days?

 

No, the first time he’d died, Spike hadn’t had much to lose. If he were honest, anything would have been an improvement, especially when compared to the pathetic git William had been. This time, however…

 

Spike sucked on another blood bag thoughtfully as he listened to them debate giving him his soul. Seemed like they couldn’t remove the happiness clause.

 

Snorting, Spike tossed the now-empty bag to one side. He wasn’t Angelus. Spike knew himself well enough to understand that it wouldn’t take a quick roll in the hay with Buffy to make him lose his soul. There had been moments with Joyce, with Dawn, even with Tara where Spike would have described himself as being perfectly happy.

 

Even so, with that little curse in place, Buffy would distance herself from him, and they certainly wouldn’t be shagging anytime soon. Spike knew he would most likely lose the others’ acceptance as well, with the possible exception of Tara.

 

He caught a bit of Dawn’s interruption, knew she wanted to see him. They wouldn’t let her come down, of course. Couldn’t risk it. Like he’d hurt one hair on his Nibblet’s head. Spike had loved her long before he’d become human.

 

It was different now, though. Everything was different. And it hadn’t changed for the better.

 

Spike listened as the voices upstairs faded, the number of heartbeats he could sense decreasing. They were all going home, going to research ways to leash the demon. He barked his laughter. It was ridiculous. Hadn’t they learned anything at all from Angel? Demons couldn’t be leashed. They could only be harnessed.

 

All the sounds in the house quieted. If he weren’t a vampire, Spike wouldn’t have been able to hear the heartbeats. Two were slow.

 

One was speeding up as the footsteps approached the basement stairs.

 

For a half second, Spike thought it might be Buffy, come to visit. Perhaps she wanted to get a feel for the vampire that had replaced her human boyfriend. The scent that reached his nose as the visitor descended wasn’t the Slayer’s however.

 

Spike smiled. He should have known.

 

Dawn came into sight, staring at him. “Spike?”

 

“Still me, L’il Bit.”

 

“Your face…”

 

Belatedly, Spike realized his face was still the demon’s. It took a moment to remember how to change back, but his features smoothed out, the ridges and fangs disappearing. “Better?”

 

Dawn was still staring at him. “I—I didn’t really—”

 

“It really happened, luv.” His tone was gentle, soft as a summer’s breeze, much like the one he’d used on Drusilla when she took a fit. “I’m sorry.”

 

Dawn took a step closer. “Buffy’s really pissed off at you.”

 

Spike laughed, though there was little humor in the sound. “What else is new? Your sis’s always pissed off at me for something or other. What about you?”

 

“Did you really let that vampire turn you?” Dawn asked, betrayal coloring her voice. “Did you want—”

 

Spike shook his head. “Never wanted this. Not sure I exactly want it now. She—Thought she was your sister when I invited her in, and then…” He trailed off, remembering. “Couldn’t stop her.”

 

The girl took another couple steps forward, and now she was almost within reach. The demon inside was desperate for firm ripe flesh only inches away, for sweet blood that ran hot. Spike could see the pulse throbbing in her throat, and he scented both her fear and her fascination.

 

He wanted to drain her dry, and the desire frightened him as nothing else did. As nothing else could.

 

“Better not come any closer, Bit,” Spike said regretfully. “Don’t want to hurt you.”

 

“You wouldn’t hurt me,” Dawn declared boldly, but she stopped just out of arms’ reach.

 

Spike smiled at her brass. He’d always loved that about her. “No, but I haven’t had a real meal yet, and I don’t want to risk it.”

 

She sat down on the floor cross-legged in front of him. “So, do you feel all evil now?”

 

Spike considered the question. “A bit. The hunger’s there.” That was an understatement. “You know what Buffy decided to do?”

 

“They’re going to do the soul-restoration spell as soon as Anya can get all the ingredients,” Dawn said.

 

“And the loophole?”

 

She shrugged. “They’re still going to do it, even if Tara and Willow can’t figure it out before then. Buffy said she can’t afford to wait.”

 

Spike didn’t like that idea much, mostly because of the curse. He would be on the outside but good then, able to look but not to touch. It was the worst form of torture he could imagine. “What if I agreed to leave town?” he suggested, trying to think of another solution. Spike had heard of places a bloke could go to get wishes fulfilled. Maybe there would be another way, either to get the soul back or get himself back to the way things were. Possibly even go back in time, fix things so he never let Drusilla in.

 

Surely there was a better solution, other than the gypsy-spell.

 

Dawn shook her head. “Buffy said maybe, if it wasn’t for Glory. Everybody’s scared that you’re going to give us away.”

 

“I’d never!” Spike said indignantly. “If I wanted to kill Buffy that badly, I’d come after her myself.”

 

There was a long silence. “It’s not going to get better, is it?” Dawn asked. “I mean, nothing we do is going to make this okay.”

 

Spike could think of a couple things. If he could escape and then lie low for a while, work his way back into the Slayer’s good graces, convince her that she could trust him. Either that, or he could leave town, find another way to get his soul.

 

The latter choice had one major flaw: he’d be leaving both Dawn and Buffy unprotected against Glory. As a vampire, he was in an even better position to protect the Slayer and the Key, but he wouldn’t be allowed.

 

Solution number one also had a major—and probably insurmountable—flaw: Angelus. There was no way that Buffy would ever believe that an unsouled vampire could be good, could help her—could love her. Not after the Great Poof had done such a magnificent job convincing her otherwise.

 

Instead, there Spike would be, souled or not, just another burden. He would be one more thing that the Slayer had to worry about. In the end, there would be tears and drama and hurt on both sides, and it would end with Buffy asking him to leave.

 

Or staking him. While Spike was still absolutely certain of his love for her, he was uncertain of his self-control. He couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t snap the neck of the first wanker who pissed him off. That he wouldn’t get so hungry he didn’t catch a quick snack on the way home.

 

And there was one thing that Spike would not do in any incarnation—he didn’t hurt the girl.

 

“Dawn-luv?”

 

“Yeah?” Dawn had watched him think, and she wondered what kind of decision he’d come to, but he looked peaceful, if determined.

 

“You think you could get the keys to these things?” Spike asked, rattling the manacles.

 

Dawn gave him a doubtful look. “Buffy’s going to kill me.”

 

Spike smiled, and it was the saddest expression Dawn had ever seen on his face. “She won’t know. She’ll think I escaped. It’s why she wanted to do the soul-spell so quick, yeah?”

Dawn still hesitated. “I’m not going to hurt anyone,” he promised fervently. “But this is something I ought to do myself, Bit. The curse is no good. I’ll just end up losing the bloody soul the first time I have a good moment. Your sister’ll probably end up asking me to leave. It’s my right to do this my way.”

It was, of that Dawn was certain. Spike had a right to determine his own future, to a certain extent. Of course, if he started munching on people, she would never forgive herself for unlocking him. “You swear?”

 

“Promise,” Spike said. “And I always keep my promises.”

 

Dawn believed him, oddly enough. She thought there was an excellent chance that Spike would do exactly that. He would take care of things. Dawn decided that she didn’t want to ask how he’d manage it. “Be right back.”

 

Dawn had seen where Buffy had stashed the keys, unbeknownst to her sister. They were actually in a kitchen drawer, rather than underneath her pillow, which is where she would have kept them.

 

The littler Summers guessed that Buffy didn’t think anyone would try and let him go, and if Spike made it to the kitchen, it was pretty much all over anyway.

 

She returned to the basement, keys in hand. “Okay. I got them.”

 

“Do me a favor, Bit,” Spike instructed. “When you go back upstairs, leave a bit of paper and pen for me, yeah? Want to let your sis know what’s going on. Then scamper on back to bed and stay there. I want you safely tucked away.”

 

Dawn stared at him wide-eyed, realizing that Spike was asking her to take those precautions for his sake, as well as her own. “Spike—”

 

“Ask me no questions an’ I’ll tell you no lies, Dawn,” he said softly. “Just know it’s better this way. Better that the Slayer can focus on taking care of you and Joyce and the others. I’m not worth worrying over.”

 

Dawn blinked back sudden tears, somehow knowing that this would be the last time she’d see him. Biting back a sob, she hurled herself into Spike’s arms, wrapping her arms around his neck in a death-grip. Spike awkwardly returned her embrace, breathing her scent in deeply, already feeling the ache of missing her. “I love you,” she whispered fiercely, letting go and dashing upstairs.

 

Spike looked down to the floor next to him, where she’d dropped the keys. He waited until he could hear the faint echo of footsteps heading up the second flight of stairs before unlocking himself.

 

On the kitchen counter, he found the paper and pen he’d asked Dawn to leave out for him, and Spike began to compose a love letter.

 

He wanted to make it good. It would be the last one he’d ever write.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy found sleep to be elusive. There was a vampire in her basement who wore the face of her lover, and all she could hear were his words, “You promised me forever, Buffy…I love you.”

 

What she hadn’t told anyone was that a piece of her believed him. Buffy had seen Spike’s eyes years ago when she’d threatened Drusilla’s life—he’d been terrified to lose her. Buffy couldn’t quite buy that Spike didn’t love, even as a vampire.

 

The question had become whether love was enough.

 

She was still attracted to him; Buffy still wanted him, even as a vampire. In fact, the danger made her tingle in a new way that was absolutely delicious. In the darkest recesses of her mind, Buffy could admit that the thought of going downstairs and having her way with him, while Spike was still chained up, was tantalizing.

 

Spike-the-vampire had promised her a ride like no other—and that she could believe.

 

If it wasn’t for Glory, Buffy might have taken the chance. She might have told him to leave town and then have been surprised when he didn’t. They could have fought and made love and in time he would either have convinced her that he could change—or she would have to stake him.

 

With Dawn as the Key, and Spike privy to the knowledge, the risk was an impossible one. Besides, there was her mother and Giles and the others to think about. Knowing that Spike had turned his mother didn’t make her feel any better. Who was to say that he’d learned his lesson?

 

Buffy sighed and tossed the blankets off of her. Her hand brushed the cross she’d placed around her own neck, and she made a fist around it briefly. She had promised him forever, and now it seemed as though their time was up. It wasn’t fair.

 

Padding downstairs, Buffy went to the fridge to find something to eat, only to have a folded piece of paper on the counter catch her eye. With a sense of foreboding, Buffy recognized the elegant handwriting inscribing her name. She opened the paper and read:

 

Buffy,

 

Whatever you might think, I never wanted this. I wanted to be with you, with your mom and sister, to get married. The first time I was turned, I had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Now, I’ve lost everything. I think Dru thought she was helping, but in reality she killed me as surely as if she’d just drained me dry.

 

It’s not fair for you to have to make this decision, love. And it’s not your right, it’s mine. I’ve had my choices stolen enough for now. This time, I’m going to make the decision as to my future. If you gave me my soul back, the outcome would be the same, sooner or later. You’d have to stake me, or you’d end up telling me to leave, and that would surely dust me. Better to end this now.

 

Hope I’ll see you on the other side, love. Maybe God will look favorably on a poor monster.

 

Forever yours,

 

Spike

 

Buffy dropped the note on the counter, putting a hand to her mouth. Thinking furiously, she tried to figure out where Spike would go.

 

In the end, there was really only one place.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy came to a skidding halt just inside the clearing. The sun was only just beginning to lighten the sky, but it was enough to see him. Spike was standing by the gravesite he’d pointed out to her, hands in his pockets and facing east.

 

“H’lo, Buffy.”

 

Of course he’d known she was there. “Spike—”

 

“Have you come to stop me?”

 

He still hadn’t turned to face her, and Buffy moved closer. “Can I?”

 

“No.”

 

“Spike, please, look at me.”

 

He finally turned, his face grave in the gray light. “It’s no good, luv. Could you ever love me as I am now?”

 

Buffy opened her mouth to reply, and then shut it again as quickly. She could not bear to do without him, and she couldn’t take the risk of trusting him. It was a no win scenario to which she could see no solution. “It’s better this way,” he said gently.

 

“We can do the soul spell, Spike,” Buffy pleaded. “We’ll figure out a way to anchor it. It’ll just take some time.”

 

“And if you can’t?” The vampire shook his head. “I’m tired of this, Buffy. Tired of other people running my life for me, making my decisions. I want to be my own man again. I don’t want to lose you, not by inches. Can’t bear to watch you slipping away from me.”

 

“We can try,” Buffy said desperately. “We can try, and I’ll help. Even if you never have a soul, or if you lose it. You can promise to leave before you hurt me, and—”

 

“And my being undead isn’t hurt enough?” Spike asked incredulously. “We’ll kill each other slowly, instead of quick-like. I’d rather have a down and dirty fight with you right now, Slayer, except I don’t much want to win. I’ve finally found my death-wish, Buffy. This way, you can grieve me and move on.”

 

Buffy stared at him. “What if I don’t want to move on, Spike?” she demanded. “What if you’re the only man I’ll ever love?”

 

“That’s not the way life works, Slayer,” he replied. “You’ll fall in love again eventually. Maybe this way, since I’m trying to take a demon out of the world, I could wait for you.” Spike smiled, and the first rays of the morning sun lit him up from behind, forming a halo effect. “If I have my way, luv, I’ll wait for you forever.”

 

This time there was no miracle, no last minute save from the Powers That Be. This time the sun rose right on time, warming the chill morning air.

 

Spike burst into flames, immolated in moments.

 

~~~~~

 

And Buffy woke with a gasp.

Chapter Text

“I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,/or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off./I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,/in secret, between the shadow and the soul…I love you without knowing how, or when or from where./I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;/so I love you because I know no other way/than this: where I does not exist, nor you,/so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,/so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.” ~Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XVII

 

That was not the first time Buffy had had that particular dream. She had found that in 48 hours it was possible to dream and to imagine a myriad of possibilities, both good and bad. The Slayer couldn’t help but wonder if the dream wasn’t more a glimpse at a possible future than her own fears, particularly because the doctors kept murmuring words like “miracle” and “impossible.” The first they had used to her face, the second had been in muttered whispers when they thought she wasn’t listening.

 

There had been those first few seconds in Spike’s apartment when she had scrambled to find a pulse, and for one brief, impossible moment thought there was none. And there, under her fingers, was a thready beat that frightened her even more for its weakness.

 

It seemed entirely possible that Spike would die in her arms in the long wait for the ambulance.

 

The paramedics had arrived and stabilized him, however, and that was when they started exchanging glances they didn’t think Buffy caught. She understood all too well, though. Spike should have been dead or turned, and he wasn’t.

 

Of course, the why-question came to mind, but Buffy didn’t care to explore it in depth. Gift horse, mouth much?

 

The thought of having to live without him ran through her mind like a constant mantra. That, and all the things she’d done to Spike, said to him, over the course of their relationship. Regrets that she would carry to her dying day.

 

There was the objective part of Buffy that knew she could live without Spike. Not well, perhaps, and it wouldn’t be fun, but it was doable. The other part of her heart, the part that remembered so well what it had been like to lose Angel, and recognized this love as the deeper, more mature one, knew that losing Spike could kill her.

 

Or make her more careless with her own life. Which, as the Slayer, was about the same thing.

 

Buffy remembered asking Spike how he had killed those two Slayers, and his take on what made her different. He had not included himself on the list of people who tied her to life, and yet he was her anchor. Losing him would set her adrift.

 

It was, in short, a reminder. A reminder that Spike was right, that life was short, that people are lost all too easily, and you can’t squander what time you do have.

 

It was also a reminder that she loved him as much as life.

 

Buffy hitched her chair just a little closer to Spike’s bed and took his hand, trying to rub some warmth back into it. The doctors had been whispering “miracle,” but Buffy had seen the looks on their faces as more time passed and he didn’t wake.

 

“Come on, Spike,” she whispered. “You’ve got to wake up for me. You really think I can do this without you? You got this far—”

 

She might have gone on talking to him until she fell back asleep or he woke up, but a cautious knock on the door interrupted her. “Come in,” she called, her hand automatically reaching for the stake she had at her back.

 

An older man, older than Giles, poked his head in, and then entered. Buffy was a little surprised to see him wearing a clerical collar, and she suddenly wondered if he knew something she didn’t know. Did random clergy come to give last rites to just anyone?

 

“You must be Buffy,” the man said, smiling warmly. “I’m Father Michael. I don’t know if William told you about me or not.”

 

He was wearing a cross, so he was obviously not a vampire. Buffy shook the hand he offered her. “I don’t think so. Did—I mean, do you—”

 

“I heard about the attack, and I wanted to come see your fiancé,” Michael explained, glancing at the ring on her left hand. “I promise, I don’t know any more than you do, and probably less.”

 

“Oh, okay,” Buffy said, moving slightly away from the bed so that the minister could approach. The man laid a hand on Spike’s forehead, as though checking for a temperature.

 

Conversationally, he said, “You know, I’ve grown quite fond of William over the past couple months. He has a good heart and a sharp mind.” Michael smiled. “But I’m sure you know that by now.”

 

“I’m finding more out every day,” Buffy replied. “How—how did you meet?”

 

“William came into my church and asked me to pray for your mother, I believe it was. We began talking, and have continued our discussions. I find myself fascinated by him, and by his past.”

 

“You know?”

 

Michael smiled at her startled tone. “It came out. I heard he’d been injured, and I was honestly thankful to hear he was in the hospital, rather than having him come to my door in the middle of the night.”

 

“Yeah,” Buffy said softly. “That would be bad.”

 

“Do you mind if I pray for him?” he asked.

 

She hesitated. “I—if you want. I mean, I don’t know that I believe—”

 

“That’s the beauty of praying for someone else,” Michael replied, giving her a calm smile. “It does not rely upon the other person’s participation.”

 

Buffy finally nodded. “Sure. I mean, it can’t hurt, right?” She paused at the door, having no idea what one did while another prayed, and finding it easier to be out of the room. “The doctors keep saying that it’s even a miracle he’s alive.”

 

Michael smiled. “Then I will choose to believe that William will make a full recovery, as I have never seen half a miracle.”

 

Buffy nodded, and then ducked outside, leaning heavily against the wall. The clock indicated that her mom and Giles would be there in just a few hours to relieve her. She hadn’t left since they’d brought Spike in, and while Joyce had urged her to go home and rest for a while, Buffy hadn’t wanted to leave him. She had, however, promised that she would allow them to relieve her later in the day.

 

Father Michael emerged from the room in less time than she’d thought it would take. “I’ll be keeping William in my prayers, Buffy.”

 

The only possible reply to that was “Thank you,” although she had no idea of its efficacy. Then, she went back in to wait.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike woke slowly, becoming aware of a voice speaking to him. For a moment he considered retreating back into darkness, but something in her words caught at him. “Spike? You gonna wake up for me?”

 

When he finally managed to open his eyes, Buffy’s face was hovering at his side, a bit fuzzy. “Hey there. How are you feeling?”

 

Spike had the sense that it was a loaded question. “Bit thirsty,” he managed.

 

“Oh, right,” Buffy’s face disappeared and then reappeared in moments, holding a glass with a straw to his mouth. Spike sucked greedily. “Easy,” she warned him after he’d consumed half the glass, pulling it away. “Do you remember what happened?”

 

Spike frowned. He was obviously in the hospital. They had been there enough in the past months with Joyce for him to recognize the décor (or lack thereof) right off. Had he been ill? Perhaps, but he’d taken all his medicine as per the doctor’s instructions. No, that didn’t feel right. The last thing he remembered was coming back to his apartment. He and Buffy were supposed to go out on patrol together. There had been a knock on the door—

 

“Dru,” he said, finally remembering. “What happened?”

 

Buffy gave him a serious look. “That’s what I was going to ask you,” she replied. “I got there, Drusilla was draining you, and I staked her. I was hoping you could fill in the back story.”

 

Spike hesitated, trying to recall. It was all a bit hazy, really. “Uh, was waiting for you for patrol. Somebody knocked on the door—” Now it was coming back to him, and Spike found himself flushing at his own stupidity. “And I told them to come in. Thought it was you.”

 

Buffy frowned at him. “That was stupid. You nearly got yourself killed.”

 

Spike winced. “I’m sorry, pet. I didn’t think—”

 

“No, you didn’t,” Buffy replied sharply. “You’re just lucky I got there when I did. From what the doctors said, I should be calling you Miracle-Boy.”

 

“Buffy, I’m sorry.” Spike could see the ravages of worry on her face, and he felt a pang of guilt. The SlayBuffyer had enough to worry about without him doing something stupid, like accidentally allowing Drusilla into his apartment. He watched as anger warred with relief in her eyes, and she finally allowed relief to win.

 

“If you ever do something that stupid again, I will kill you myself,” Buffy warned him. “I almost lost you.”

 

“I’m sorry, luv,” Spike repeated helplessly. He felt like a stupid git. How many times had they warned Dawn about inviting people in without knowing who was at the door? It was an elementary mistake, one he should not have made.

 

“Oh, God, Spike, I almost lost you,” Buffy said, laying her head on his chest.

 

Spike brought his arm around to embrace her as best he could with the IV line in the back of his hand. “Buffy, luv, it’s okay. Made it, didn’t I?”

 

She sat up, wiping her wet cheeks with the back of her hand. “Yeah. You did. I love you,” Buffy said fiercely. “Have I told you enough?”

 

“Don’t mind hearing it again,” Spike replied softly. “I love you, too.”

 

They clung to each other until the nurse came in and medical personnel began to swarm around the now-conscious patient.

 

Buffy couldn’t take her eyes off him.

 

~~~~~

 

“Hey, Mom?” Dawn called. “Can I get a soda?”

 

“Sure, sweetie,” Joyce replied. She began digging in her purse for her change wallet, but Giles beat her to the punch, pulling a few quarters out of his pocket.

 

Dawn gave him a bright smile in thanks and went to the soda machine that had proven so distracting. “Come right to Spike’s room, Dawn,” Giles warned. “You remember which number?”

 

The girl rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Yeah, I remember. And I’ll be careful,” she called, knowing that would be the next command. Seriously. It was like everybody thought she was two.

 

It was a relief, though—knowing that Spike would be okay. When Buffy had called from the hospital to tell them he was awake, she had thought that her mom was going to start crying from sheer joy. Giles had broken out in relieved laughter, and Dawn had finally felt like she could smile.

 

For a while there, Dawn had wondered if she would ever want to smile again.

 

Spike was going to be okay, though, and the entire world seemed like a better place suddenly. Like it was somewhere Dawn actually cared to live.

 

Dawn fumbled one of the quarters, and she bent to pick it up from where she’d dropped it. As she stood up again, she found herself face to face with a tall, thin man in a hospital gown. He was jabbering at her, repeating “I’ve found it. Thank you. Thank you. I found it. I found it.”

 

She found herself backed right up against the soda machine, the crazy guy continuing to advance on her. “Okay, it’s time to go back.” Dawn recognized the intern who came to her rescue immediately as Ben, the guy that had been around when her mom had been sick. He gave her a look of surprised recognition. “Dawn, right? What are you doing here?”

 

Dawn watched as he pulled the patient back, staring in fascination at the tattoo on his forehead. “Uh, Spike got hurt. I was just getting a soda before I went to see him.”

 

“That’s your sister’s fiancé, right?” Ben asked. “Is he okay?”

 

Dawn nodded quickly, scooting out from under the watchful eyes of the crazy, hoping that he didn’t start screaming about the Key in the middle of the hallway. Soda seemed like a very bad idea all of a sudden. “Yeah, he’s okay now.”

 

Ben frowned, the repetition finally catching his attention. “I found it. Thank you. I found it.” Dawn backed away from the recognition she saw in the intern’s eyes.

 

“I gotta go.”

 

Ben nodded. “Yeah. Look, stick close to your sister, okay?” he called.

 

“Sure.”

 

Dawn took to her heels, walking quickly down the hall, finding herself really wigged. She nearly ran into Giles and Buffy where they were standing in the hallway, talking. Buffy looked happy. Really happy. Which faded as soon as she caught sight of her little sister.

 

“Dawn? Are you okay?”

 

Dawn figured she probably looked as freaked out as she felt. “I’m fine. I just ran into this crazy guy, and—” She stopped, seeing the look on Buffy’s face, and feeling like a jerk for ruining Buffy’s happy moment.

 

Buffy could see Dawn deflate, and she quickly reached out to give her sister a hug. “It’s not your fault, Dawnie. Was anyone else there?”

 

“Ben, the intern,” Dawn said. “I think it’s okay. I mean, I don’t think anybody knows. The crazy guy just kept saying, ‘I found it’ over and over.”

 

Buffy didn’t feel reassured. “Did you notice anything else, Dawn?” Giles asked. “Did anything stand out to you?” The Watcher was thinking of possible responses they might make, clues they might get to Glory.

 

“He had a tattoo on his forehead,” Dawn said helpfully.

 

The information was helpful, but not comforting. “He has to be one of those knight-guys, Giles,” Buffy said. “What if they find out?”

 

“If he’s here in the hospital, he can hardly pass along that information to anyone,” Giles replied. “Still, I think it best we get Dawn home.”

 

Dawn looked from one to the other. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing.” Buffy took one look at her sister’s face and knew that explanation would never work. “Fine, the guy that saw you belongs to some organization that isn’t real happy about the Key. It doesn’t matter because he’s crazy, and no one is going to find out what he knows.” She sighed. “Still, I think it’s a good idea if we get you home. There’s no sense in you hanging around here where someone else might recognize how special you are.”

 

The last comment was said with a patented big-sister smile that indicated “special” was not something you should aspire to. And yet, Dawn couldn’t take offense, since Buffy was hugging her in the next minute. “I needed to get some sleep anyway.”

 

“Can I still see him?” Dawn asked.

 

“Sure.” Buffy glanced over at Giles. “Do you mind giving us a ride home?”

 

Giles shook his head. “Not at all. I’m sure Joyce doesn’t mind staying with Spike.”

 

Dawn took that as her cue to go in to see Spike. He was sleeping, but there weren’t a lot of machines attached. Besides being in a hospital bed—and looking a lot paler than normal—he looked like his usual self. She heard Buffy call her mom from the doorway, and Dawn sidled closer to the bed, wondering if she could touch him.

 

She found that she needed Spike’s reassurance—both that he was okay, and that he would take care of her.

 

As she took his hand, Spike’s eyes fluttered open, and he smiled at her. “Hey, Bit. What are you doing here?”

 

“I came to see you,” she replied. Now Buffy was calling her from the doorway. “Just a minute,” Dawn called over her shoulder, turning back to Spike. “Are you really going to be okay?”

 

“Right as rain in no time, luv,” Spike promised her, sensing that Dawn was scared, and not for him. “What’s up?”

 

“Nothing,” Dawn replied. Buffy was calling her more insistently now, and she bent to give him a peck on the cheek. “I gotta go.”

 

Spike watched her dash out of the room, and he rummaged for the controls to the bed. The doctor had been pleased at his progress, but they still wanted to keep him overnight for more observation. The worry in Dawn’s voice told him that he didn’t want to spend any more time here than absolutely necessary, and leaving suddenly seemed a necessity.

 

“What do you think you’re doing?” Joyce asked as she came back into the room.

 

Spike raised an eyebrow. “I’m leaving. Something’s up.”

 

“Something that you really won’t be able to anything about,” Joyce replied, settling in next to his bedside. “Buffy told me the doctors wanted to keep you another night.” Spike regarded the IV in his hand, thinking about pulling it out. “Don’t even think about it,” Joyce warned him.

 

“I’m not staying here,” Spike said adamantly. With his tousled hair and pale skin, he didn’t look very imposing, but there was a glint in his eyes that told Joyce it was fruitless to argue.

 

Joyce sighed. “We’ll talk to the doctor. If he agrees, we’ll get Rupert to come back and pick us up.”

 

Somehow it didn’t surprise her when Spike was released, although he ended up going home with her. His pleased expression seemed to indicate that’s what he’d been after all along.

 

~~~~~

 

Amid the doctor’s parting instructions had been a firm injunction against strenuous activity and the order to drink plenty of fluids. Even if the doctors weren’t entirely happy to see him go, Spike was feeling pretty good. A little light-headed maybe, and his neck stung if he moved too quickly, but he felt good.

 

In fact, Spike had the feeling that the doctors didn’t want to see him go just because they didn’t like their little miracle walking away. They wanted to know what had kept him alive, what made him different.

 

Spike didn’t particularly care; he was just happy to be breathing.

 

Joyce sent him upstairs as soon as they got back to the Summers’ residence, and Spike curled up next to Buffy on her bed. She squirmed once, moaning a little in her sleep, but she soon stilled and lay quiet next to him.

 

Though he hadn’t thought himself tired, not after sleeping for two days, Spike quickly drifted off.

 

When he woke again, they had shifted positions so that Buffy’s head was on his shoulder, her arm thrown across his waist. “Hey.”

 

“Hey there,” he greeted her, letting out a contented sigh as she cuddled up next to him. “Missed you.”

 

“Missed you more,” Buffy replied. “I kept having this dream while I waited for you to wake up, you know.” Spike was quiet, waiting for her to continue. “It was like the Slayer-dream I had before Drusilla showed up. You had gotten turned, and then you dusted yourself because you thought I didn’t love you anymore.”

 

Spike’s arms tightened around her. “I’m so sorry, luv,” he murmured. “I never wanted to worry you like that. You’ve got enough on your plate—”

 

“That’s not the scary part of the dream, actually,” Buffy said, as though he hadn’t said anything. “The scary thing was that you loved me even as a vampire, and I didn’t believe it until it was too late.”

 

Spike let out a breath. “Wouldn’t have blamed you, Buffy. Not with Peaches, and all. But you’re right. I would love you even if I were dead.”

 

“I get that now.”

 

They lay silently for a while, until Spike said tentatively, “You killed Dru?”

 

“Yeah. I’m sorry.”

 

He swallowed. From Buffy’s tone, Spike sensed that she really was. That in spite of everything she had some understanding of what it meant to him that Drusilla was dead. The crazy vampire had, after all, been his dark princess for over a hundred years. “It’s okay. Last tie, I suppose.”

 

“What about Angel?”

 

“Angel doesn’t count,” Spike replied, though there was humor in his tone.

 

Buffy smacked him gently on the chest. “Be nice.” She sat up suddenly. “Oh! I have something for you. I almost forgot.” She sprung up from the bed, and Spike missed her presence immediately. “Here you go.”

 

He recognized the sheet of paper immediately, even though he’d forgotten its existence in the midst of the trauma. “Did you read it?”

 

“Yeah,” Buffy said. “I’m really sorry, Spike. I found it while the paramedics were loading you up, and I just grabbed it without even thinking. And then, later, I glanced at it.”

 

Spike pushed himself into a sitting position, taking the paper from her with a shaky hand. “Then you know what it says.”

 

“And I just want you to know that no matter what, I love you, and I think it’s beautiful.”

 

Spike thought he’d prepared himself for disappointment, but he had to choke back the lump in his throat. It was fine—it didn’t matter if he’d gotten a rejection notice. After all, he’d just nearly been turned, and he was alive, Buffy had agreed to marry him—it really didn’t matter.

 

He unfolded the sheet and read silently, casting a betrayed look at Buffy once he’d gotten past the first sentence. “You made me think—”

 

Buffy was grinning at him. “Fooled you. You should have seen your face, Spike.”

 

“You—” Spike was staring at the words, hardly able to believe what he was seeing. There, in plain English, was the notice that his manuscript had been accepted for publication, and wouldn’t he please have his agent call to set up a meeting?

 

“I’m sorry, Spike,” Buffy said, realizing how freaked he’d become. “I just—you really should have seen your face.”

 

“They’re taking it,” he whispered.

 

“Well, they should,” Buffy said with a wide smile. “It’s good.”

 

“They’re going to pay me for it.”

 

“And again with the duh.”

 

“Buffy, I—”

 

She wasn’t certain that it was the best technique for getting Spike’s brain jump-started, but she met his lips with hers anyway. Spike getting published seemed like something worthy of being celebrated with a kiss. When Buffy finally pulled back, they were both breathless, and Spike suddenly let out a whoop of joy.

 

They both discovered that Spike was perfectly capable of strenuous exercise, never mind the doctor’s orders.

 

~~~~~

 

Joyce heard the commotion upstairs, although she was unperturbed. They sounded happy enough, and after the stress of the past few days, she wasn’t going to complain about a little noise—even if she had a very good idea about what was causing it.

 

Dawn dashed into the kitchen moments later, frowning. “Mom! Buffy and Spike—”

 

“Why don’t you try this sauce, sweetie?” Joyce asked complacently, holding out a spoon.

 

Dawn looked outraged. “They’re going to scar me for life!”

 

“I doubt it,” Joyce replied. “Besides, if I know Spike, he’ll be down in about fifteen minutes once he smells dinner. Works like a charm every time.”

 

“Less than that,” Spike said from the doorway. “Sorry if we disturbed you, Bit.”

 

Buffy bit her tongue, wanting to point out that it was Dawn who had disturbed them, by banging on the door. “Spike has news.”

 

“So I gathered,” Joyce said, watching in amusement as Spike blushed slightly. She took the letter he held out and broke into a bright smile. “William! This is wonderful! This definitely calls for celebration.”

 

It was a bit of luck that Joyce had decided to do spaghetti, which was easily altered in order to feed a crowd. Buffy called the rest of the gang, letting them know that her mom was making dinner and that Spike was feeling up to visitors after all. When Giles arrived with the champagne Joyce had sent him off for, the party was complete.

 

The sense of relief was nearly tangible.

 

~~~~~

 

“I knew you’d get an offer,” Tara said later, resting her hand on Spike’s arm. Willow and Buffy were talking animatedly, and Anya was obviously trying to convince Xander that it was past time for her nightly orgasm. Dawn sat next to Spike on the couch, her head resting on his shoulder. The girl could hardly be persuaded to leave his side.

 

 “It’s nice to know you have faith in me, ducks, but I wasn’t nearly so sure.” Spike chuckled, the grin he’d been sporting all evening not dimming one whit. “A bit unbelievable, innit? Me, a published author.”

 

“You gonna autograph a copy for me, Spike?” Dawn asked, looking up at him. “It would be really cool to show everybody at school.”

 

Spike gave her shoulders a squeeze. “For you? Anything. Still not going to quit my day job, though. One book does not an author make.”

 

“I thought you said they wanted to negotiate for another manuscript,” Tara replied, smiling at his blush and stammer. “And that you’d already started one.”

 

Spike had, but that wasn’t something he’d shared with anyone, even Tara. “How—”

 

“Woman’s intuition,” Tara replied mysteriously. “I know how much you love writing, Spike. It only makes sense that you’d have started something else right away.”

 

Dawn tugged on his arm. “Can I read your book, Spike? You let Tara and Buffy read it.”

 

Spike frowned, trying to remember if there was anything in there unsuitable for young readers. “Uh…”

 

“I’m sure Dawn’s mature enough,” Tara said.

 

“Of course I am!” Dawn insisted. “I’m mature.”

 

“Which is why you ruined my favorite shirt by spilling ketchup on it,” Buffy said, drifting over close enough to hear their conversation.

 

Dawn’s eyes widened. “I so did not.”

 

“The lavender one I haven’t worn for two weeks?”

 

Dawn hid her face in Spike’s shoulder. “Protect me?”

 

“You can’t hide behind Spike forever,” Buffy warned her. “And you have to sleep some time.”

 

Spike pushed Dawn toward her sister, saying, “Better to face up to your misdeeds, Bit.” Buffy immediately went on the offensive, tickling Dawn unmercifully. Spike and Tara watched with big grins on their faces, and Spike caught sight of Giles and Joyce standing in the doorway.

 

Spike’s smile turned speculative, watching Giles place a gentle kiss on Joyce’s neck while no one was looking—or so they thought. Wouldn’t be long now before the two of them started sneaking around like a couple of teenagers. Which would be quite entertaining.

 

The grin that graced Spike’s face then could only be described as evil.

 

~~~~~

 

When the next big excitement hit, Buffy and Spike weren’t around to see it. Spike had made the sly suggestion that Giles take Joyce out for a night on the town, since she was back to her old self. He’d also deliberately mentioned that they needn’t return that night.

 

Spike’s teasing had been rewarded by pained looks from both of them, but neither had tried to chastise him for it. After all, it hadn’t been so long ago that they’d thought they might lose him, and Spike was taking full advantage of their indulgence.

 

Of course, with Joyce and Giles out, that left he and Buffy to stay with Dawn while the others went to the Spring Break party at the college. Both girls had schoolwork to catch up on, however, and Spike alternated between answering Dawn’s questions and writing. It was a cozy, normal evening. Just what the doctor had ordered.

 

Once Dawn had gone up to bed, Spike and Buffy moved the party out to the living room couch, where they began another kind of normal activity. Things were rapidly getting more heated—buttons had been lost—when someone knocked on the front door.

 

“Ignore them and they’ll go away,” Buffy muttered between kisses. She could tell that Spike was finally back to full form and had no desire for the smoochies to end.

 

“What if it’s an emergency?” Spike asked, gasping as one of Buffy’s hands moved below the belt.

 

“Don’t care,” was her rebellious reply. “As long as the world’s not ending, I have the night off.”

 

“Buffy!” Xander’s voice came through the door. “Buffy! There’s something really weird going on.”

 

Buffy and Spike tried to get up and untangle themselves at the same time, landing them both on the floor in an ungainly heap. “Bugger,” Spike hissed. “Just a minute!

 

“You okay?” Buffy asked, extricating herself from the tangle of limbs and reaching down to give him a hand up.

 

Spike huffed. “Fine. Bloody hell.”

 

Given the fact that this was the first time they’d been able to have a chance at intimacy since before Drusilla’s arrival in town, both the Slayer and her fiancé could be forgiven for being irritated at the interruption. “What?” Buffy demanded, seeing Xander, Anya, Tara and Willow lined up on her front porch.

 

The four of them took in Buffy and Spike’s disheveled states and had the grace to blush. “Sorry, Buffy,” Xander said sheepishly. “For, uh, you know—”

 

“We’re sorry we interrupted your orgasms, but we have a problem,” Anya said bluntly. “A robot problem.”

 

Spike’s eyebrows went straight up. “A robot?”

 

“Like the one sophomore year of high school?” Buffy asked.

 

Willow flushed. “No, a little different, actually. It—she was female. She kept saying she was looking for Warren, her boyfriend.”

 

Buffy sighed. “Okay, as far as threats go, I’m not seeing this one as serious. Certainly not serious enough to—interrupt.”

 

“Well, she did toss a guy through a window,” Tara said apologetically.

 

“Even if she said she was sorry,” Xander added.

 

Spike gave an exasperated little laugh. “Well, it’s a sight better than rampaging vampires, I suppose.”

 

Buffy leaned back against him. “Tons better,” she agreed. “I don’t think there’s really anything we can do tonight.”

 

“I can start looking into Warrens tomorrow,” Willow volunteered.

 

“That would be great,” Buffy replied, obviously waiting for the others to leave. “So we’ll see you in the morning.”

 

Anya tugged on Xander’s arm. “We should let them get back to having sex. We haven’t had any tonight.”

 

“Thanks for sharing, An,” Xander said with a pained smile, giving Buffy and Spike a little wave. “We’ll get out of your hair.”

 

“Much appreciated,” Spike said wryly.

 

When they had all trooped out, Buffy hid her face in Spike’s shoulder. “Now what?”

 

“We go right back to what we were doing.”

 

“Mom’s going to be home any minute!” Buffy objected.

 

Spike’s face said it all. “Wouldn’t expect Joyce till morning, luv. Chances are she’ll try to sneak in early and pretend she got home late.”

 

“Then we’ve got plenty of time.”

 

There wasn’t much talking after that.

 

~~~~~

 

“I still think you should be resting today,” Joyce said, glancing over at Spike as she unlocked the gallery. “If you’re not feeling—”

 

“I’m feeling fine,” Spike insisted. “And if I stay at home for one more day, I’m going to go stir-crazy.”

 

Joyce laughed. “Fine. By the way, thanks for watching Dawn last night.”

 

“Did you and Rupert have fun, luv?” Spike asked with a sly grin.

 

Joyce returned his look with a coy one of his own. “I could ask you the same thing.”

 

Spike laughed. “You could, but a gentleman doesn’t kiss an’ tell.”

 

“Neither does a lady,” Joyce replied. “And besides, it’s not nearly as fun to tease you since you don’t seem to be disturbed.”

 

“What’s disturbing?” Spike asked with a charming smile. “I just like to see the two of you happy.”

 

Joyce’s smile turned thoughtful. “I am, Spike. I don’t think I’ve been this happy since—well, since long before the divorce. It’s new.”

 

“Sometimes new is good,” he acknowledged.

 

They worked together in contented silence for the next few hours, Joyce working on the displays up front and Spike taking care of the books in the back. “I wonder if Buffy got that robot taken care of,” she commented after a while.

 

“Dunno,” Spike replied. “Figure she’ll call and let me know when she figures it all out.”

 

“Didn’t you contact an agent the other day?” Joyce asked.

 

Spike came out of the office to lean against the doorframe casually. “Yeah, and he says he wants to meet soon, in L.A. Told him it would be a couple weeks before I could get free. Did say if the book does well, I’ll need to think about publicity and such.”

 

“And what do you think about publicity?”

 

“Not much,” Spike said. “Don’t like anything that takes me away from Buffy.”

 

“I think you would probably survive,” Joyce replied, and then put a hand to her forehead.

 

Spike stepped forward, concerned. “You alright, luv?”

 

“I’m fine—it’s just—”

 

Spike caught her as she tripped. “I’m taking you to the hospital.”

 

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” she protested.

 

Spike smiled grimly. “I think I’ll let the doctor tell me that. You’ll recall what happened last time you didn’t listen to me about going in?”

 

Joyce sighed, sick to death of hospitals. “If you insist.”

 

“I think this time I have to.”

 

It’s the little decisions that can save someone’s life—and the little moments in which lives are lost.

Chapter Text

“somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond/any experience, your eyes have their silence:/in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,/or which i cannot touch because they are too near/your slightest look will easily unclose me/though i have closed myself as fingers,/you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens/(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose/or if your wish be to close me,i and/my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,/as when the heart of this flower imagines/the snow carefully everywhere descending…” ~e.e. cummings, “somewhere i have never travelled”

 

Buffy felt as though she was always rushing into hospitals these days. As the Slayer, it was to be expected in some ways, but that didn’t mean she had to like it. Spike caught her as she came through the doors, and the sense of free falling she’d had since the call stopped.

 

Despite his vulnerability, Spike was the one who made her feel safe.

 

“Mom—”

 

“Docs think she’s going to be okay,” Spike reassured her. “Just got done talking to one of the surgeons. It was an aneurysm, possible side effect of the surgery, he said. We caught it early enough so that there wasn’t much damage done, maybe not any.”

 

Buffy drew in a deep breath, the first in what seemed like forever. “You mean you caught it in time. God, Spike, if you hadn’t gone in today—”

 

“Got lucky, I suppose,” Spike said soothingly.

 

“How long is our luck going to hold out?” Buffy asked softly. “First you, and now Mom—”

 

“We’re both fine.” Spike’s tone was fierce. “And we’re going to continue to be fine. It’s all gonna work out, luv.”

 

Buffy wasn’t so sure, but she didn’t want to argue, not about this, not when Spike seemed to be right. He was okay, her Mom would be fine, things would somehow work out with Glory and Dawn. Speaking of Dawn—“Someone’s going to have to pick Dawn up from school.”

 

“I’ll go,” Spike said quietly. “Rupert should be here any minute now.”

 

As though his words had summoned the Watcher, Giles came through the doors. “How is she?”

 

“Doctors caught it in time,” Spike said briefly, watching as the other man’s shoulders slumped in relief. Continuing, he added, “They’re still in there, but it shouldn’t be too much longer.”

 

Spike gave Buffy one more quick kiss, and then pulled away. “Better get Dawn now. You want me to bring her back here?”

 

Buffy shook her head. “No, I don’t think it’s safe. If you could—I don’t know.”

 

“We’ll go back to the house,” Spike said. “Give us a call when you know something more, yeah?”

 

After he’d left, Buffy turned to give Giles a hug. They said nothing for a long time, and then Buffy whispered, “If anything had happened to Spike—”

 

“We must be thankful that nothing did happen,” Giles said, cutting her off, knowing what she was going to say. “You are right. If something had happened—well, it doesn’t do us any good to talk about what-ifs.”

 

“No,” Buffy agreed, thinking about ripple effects. How many more lives would Spike end up saving, just because he hadn’t been killed himself?

 

~~~~~

 

Spike sat in the school parking lot. He still had a few minutes before Dawn would be done with classes, time enough to compose himself. It had been too close. He’d assured Buffy that everything was all right, but his roiling stomach said otherwise.

 

The doctor had been quite frank with him, perhaps because he’d thought Spike was objective enough to handle the information. If Spike had done anything other than drive her straight to the hospital, she wouldn’t have survived. Given the aneurysm’s location, if it had burst, Joyce would have died instantly.

 

Gripping the steering wheel tightly, Spike willed his hands to stop shaking. He supposed it was better to lose it now, after the emergency was over and before he had to see Dawn. It was better than freezing when decisions had to be made, as he might have done once upon a time.

 

Spike took several deep breaths, reminding himself that he needed to be strong for Dawn. It wouldn’t do for the girl to see him all shaky.

 

By the time he got through the doors of the building, he was back to looking like his old in-control self. “Can I help you?”

 

Spike paused in front of the two ladies standing outside the school office, chatting. Both were wearing smart business suits, and both were looking him over appreciatively. “I’m looking for Dawn Summers.” At their expressions, Spike hastened to clarify. “I’m William Giles, her sister’s fiancé. Something’s come up with her mum.”

 

“I see.” The first lady smiled. She had dark skin and a pleasant smile. “I’m Alicia Stevens. This is Rhoda Andrews, the vice principal of the high school.”

 

“Pleasure to meet both of you,” Spike replied shaking hands.

 

Ms. Stevens leaned in a little closer. “Is Dawn’s mother alright? If we need to pull her out of class—”

 

Spike shook his head. “It’s a bit of an emergency, but it looks as though it’ll turn out. It’s been a tough year, though.”

 

“Yes, I can see that,” Ms. Stevens replied. “Quite frankly, I’m amazed Dawn’s doing as well as she is. Many times when our students have difficulty at home, it shows up in their work. From what I understand, she has you to thank for that.”

 

Spike’s eyes went wide. “Me?”

 

Both women smiled, and Ms. Andrews nodded. “Principal Drake, at the high school, and I have both talked to Father Michael at St. Anthony’s. He’s recommended you quite highly for the position as English teacher.”

 

Ms. Stevens smiled. “We’ve had to talk to Dawn about her frequent absences, and she’s spoken to the school counselor as well. There was a misunderstanding about one of her English papers earlier this year. It was so well done, you see, we thought she might have cheated. Your name came up. Your talent for drawing out Dawn’s natural ability is really quite remarkable.”

 

Spike was a bright red at this point. “Yeah, well, hope Dawn didn’t get in too much trouble. Never meant—”

 

“Oh, no!” Ms. Stevens hastened to assure him. “Dawn explained, and her quality of work, especially in her writing, has gone up quite a bit this year. It wasn’t just the one essay, that much has been apparent.”

 

“In short,” Ms. Andrews added, “we would like you to consider the job as the high school English teacher. We often have difficulty attracting good teachers to Sunnydale, and so to have someone capable already in residence would be ideal.”

 

The upshot of the conversation was that Spike ended up giving the vice principal of the high school his cell phone number so they could arrange an interview. Ms. Stevens also managed to rope him into at least thinking about giving after school help to the junior high students on their writing assignments. While he wasn’t quite sure how it had happened, Spike found himself flattered by the women’s obvious respect. Apparently, he was better known than he had imagined.

 

“Spike?” Dawn saw him as she came down the hallway. “What are you doing here? Mom was going to—Is she—”

 

“She’s fine, Bit,” Spike quickly assured her. “Had to go in to hospital for a quick repair job, but she’ll be right as rain in no time.” He nodded to the two women, and then pulled Dawn away with him, keeping one arm around her shoulders. “Didn’t want to make a fuss, luv, but I wanted someone to be here when you got out of class.”

 

Dawn wasn’t quite ready to believe him; there had been too many close calls lately. “Spike, if it’s bad, I want to know.”

 

“When we get out to the car,” he said quietly. “Joyce is going to be fine, but it’ll be more private in the car.”

 

The girl would have trusted Spike with her life. She trusted that he was telling her the truth now. When they had reached the old Desoto, and the heavy doors had been shut behind them, Spike turned to face her. “Your mum started feeling bad at the gallery today, and I took her to the hospital. Soon’s we got there, they rushed her in for scans, and then they rushed her in for surgery. Doc was telling me before I left that she’d most likely be fine.”

 

“‘Most likely?’” Dawn repeated.

 

“There might be some side effects, just like there would be if your mum had a stroke, but they were thinking they caught it before damage was done.”

 

Spike watched as Dawn tried to assimilate the information. It was a lot, he knew. Not that long ago, they’d been worried for Joyce, then he’d almost bought it. Close. Too close.

 

As the reality of it all began to sink in, tears started running down Dawn’s cheeks. She couldn’t have said whether it was in relief or fear or at the unfairness of it all. Spike’s strong arms came around her, and she buried her face in his shoulder.

 

They stayed like that for a very long time.

 

~~~~~

 

“Spike? Are you alright?” Tara came into the back office of the gallery. It was nearly closing time, but she’d had the feeling she would find him here still. Joyce might be on the mend, and faster than the doctors had expected, but it would be at least another couple of weeks before she would be ready to return to work.

 

Until then, Spike was the one taking care of the gallery again, looking after the Summers ladies, and appearing exhausted again. “I’m fine, luv,” he assured her, turning to meet Tara’s eyes. “Really.”

 

“I don’t need to send you home again, do I?” she asked, referring to the night before his birthday party.

 

Spike shook his head, leaning back in his chair. “No, and it’s about time to close up anyway. Should head back to the house and get dinner started. Nibblet’ll be starving.”

 

“Giles is taking care of it,” she said gently. “I’m not sure what he’s making, but he’s staying with Dawn and Joyce tonight. He also told Buffy she has the night off. You’re both worn out.”

 

Spike started to shake his head and then gave a funny little laugh. “One thing after another, yeah? Least this one turned out for the best, and Joyce’ll be fine, but I wonder just how long our luck’s gonna run for. With Glory—”

 

“We’ll take care of Glory,” Tara replied. “You guys took care of Adam, didn’t you?”

 

Spike sighed. “We did, ducks, but he was a jumped-up monster. Not much different than your average demon in the end.”

 

“But you had to find his weakness,” Tara argued persuasively. “And you did. You’ll do the same with Glory, and Joyce will be fine.”

 

Spike gave her a measuring look. “You’re good for a bloke, you know that, Glinda? Always looking at the positive.”

 

“I wouldn’t have been able to do that without you,” she said.

 

Spike watched her, thinking that he would have liked to have known this girl while he was still human the first time. He had the feeling that she would have seen William for all his worth. “Wish I’d known you once upon a time, luv,” Spike thought out loud. “I think I’d have been a happier man.”

 

Tara flushed slightly. “Well, I’m glad I know you now. And the others are waiting for us. I told them I would get you and we would all go to the Bronze.” Her flush deepened, but she gave him a sly smile. “And then you can take Buffy back to your place.”

 

“Girl after my own heart,” Spike said with an answering smirk. He stood, offering his arm. “Shall we?”

 

“Of course.”

 

~~~~~

 

The gathering at the Bronze was more subdued than was typical. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the club itself was rather empty for a Tuesday evening. More than likely, however, it had to do with Joyce’s recent near miss, and the ever-present threat of Glory.

 

“Whatever happened to that robot, pet?” Spike asked. They were all seated, letting the tension of the past weeks slide away under the influence of alcoholic beverages and the company of friends.

 

“Robot?” Buffy asked blankly, and then recognition hit. “Oh, you mean April.”

 

“It had a name?” Spike asked.

 

Xander broke in. “Oh, it was definitely a girl-robot.” At Anya’s glare, he flushed. “Well, it was.”

 

Spike smirked, amused, and then turned to look at the Slayer. “You were going after her the day—” he stopped, and Buffy reached over to grasp his hand.

 

“Yeah, her batteries ran down,” Buffy said. Spike raised an eyebrow, and she elaborated. “She just wanted to find her boyfriend, Warren, and eventually her batteries ran down. It was kind of sad, actually.”

 

“What, Warren?” Willow asked, having thought the whole thing was rather creepy herself.

 

Buffy shook her head. “No, Warren was pathetic. I mean, what kind of guy would want a robot for a girlfriend?” Spike and Xander exchanged looks but wisely kept silent as Buffy continued. “No, I mean the robot, April. She was just doing what she was created to do. It wasn’t her fault that Warren didn’t want her anymore. All she wanted was to make him happy.”

 

Spike watched as Buffy fiddled with her engagement ring, and wondered what she was thinking about. He waited until the others had gotten up to dance to ask, though. “What are you thinking about, pet?”

 

“You,” Buffy replied quietly. “It’s just—Are you happy with me, Spike?”

 

Spike wasn’t quite sure how he was supposed to answer that question. He felt as though it was out of his depth. “Yeah, luv. Wouldn’t have asked you to marry me otherwise.”

 

“But what about all of this?” Buffy asked, waving her hand. “I mean, here you are: smart, gorgeous, about to have a book published, and you could have anyone at all. You wouldn’t have to stay here in Sunnydale, worrying about whether you were going to be next week’s snack. You could—”

 

“Have a normal life?” he finished for her. Spike watched her from beneath half-closed lids, not quite certain where she was going with this. He felt as though they were both on thin ice, as though anything could happen. “Do you not want me here, Buffy?”

 

“I love you,” she replied softly. “But I want you to be happy more than anything else.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t want you to stay with me out of some sense of obligation, or because you’ve made a promise and you’re going to stick by it. I want you to stay because this is what you want.”

 

Spike opened his mouth, ready to swear his love and his eternal devotion, but Buffy stilled him with one finger laid across his lips. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” she said softly. “And there’s a really good chance that I won’t make it out of this fight with Glory alive. It’s going to take a lot to beat her—maybe everything I have.”

 

He understood then. The line between life and death was always tenuous at best; for the Slayer, it was more obvious than for most people. Buffy went through her days with her head high, completely focused on her own little world, because it was too painful to admit that life was short. His recent brush with death and Joyce’s illness had stripped away that illusion, however. Buffy was facing her mortality—and his—head-on, and she was willing to let him go so he might live. It was a noble sacrifice.

 

It was also one Spike wasn’t about to allow her to make.

 

“Then we’ll just have to make sure you have some reserves, luv,” Spike replied. She looked away, obviously disappointed that he wasn’t going to be serious. “Look, Buffy, I know you’re the Slayer. I know what that means. Doesn’t mean you won’t live forever, though. Just means it’s a little less likely than it is for the next person. I won’t leave you, though. Can’t, luv, it’s just not in me.”

 

Buffy closed her eyes, and then opened them again, her gaze weighted with a heavy kind of knowledge. “What if I asked you to? To keep you safe?”

 

“Then you’d have to send everyone else away as well,” Spike growled. “Have to be for a sodding good reason. I’m not like those other guys, Buffy. I don’t leave. I don’t run when the going gets rough.”

 

“No,” she agreed. “No running. But, Spike, I just want you to be happy.”

 

He stared at her in bewilderment. “And what the bloody hell gave you the idea that I’d be happy without you, you daft bint?”

 

It was a most uncomplimentary way to put things, but Buffy was not insulted. Quite the opposite, in fact. Spike’s vehemence was enough to convince her that he was serious. And, while Buffy had been quite ready to play the martyr’s role and let him go, she was relieved that she didn’t have to go through with it.

 

As tears started to well up in her eyes, Spike’s face softened. “Buffy, luv, I’m sorry. It’s just that I’d rather take my chances with you than be anywhere else. Won’t tell you I’m not scared, but I’ve never let that stop me before.”

 

She didn’t reply. Buffy pretty much sucked with words; she could admit it. What she did do was to kiss him—long, slow, deep, so that the entire world faded away. In that one kiss were all the promises of forever that they could make, all the reassurances she couldn’t bring herself to say.

 

When they finally broke off the embrace, it was Spike who was the breathless one for once. “I love you so much,” Buffy murmured. “More than I ever thought possible. And I trust you with my life.”

 

~~~~~

 

“Can I get you anything?” Giles asked. “Another cup of tea, perhaps? Or something to eat?”

 

“You could sit down and tell me what’s eating at you,” Joyce suggested calmly.

 

Giles stilled. He had been in constant motion all evening, fiddling with his glasses, moving around abruptly, cooking dinner. While Joyce most certainly appreciated all his efforts, and the way Dawn had seemed to perk up under his gentle attention, she knew that all was not right. “Joyce—”

 

“Is it really so bad?” she asked, suddenly self-conscious. “Do I look—bad?”

 

Giles stared at her. “No! Of course not! I—” He passed one hand over his face, refusing to look at the woman he’d come to love. It seemed that he always fell in love with women who were taken from him one way or another. Although Giles wasn’t anxious to admit to it, he’d been on the edge of a breakdown the last few days.

 

It was the relief, you see. He held up perfectly well under pressure.

 

“No,” Giles repeated, more calmly. “You’re as beautiful as ever.” He put a tender hand to the left side of Joyce’s face, the side that drooped a bit now. There was some weakness in her left hand and leg as well, but nothing terribly noticeable, nothing that wouldn’t improve with time. To a man who had memorized his beloved’s face, however, the change was a startling reminder. “It’s just—”

 

When he paused, Joyce took his hand in her own, pulling him to sit beside her on the bed. “Rupert, you’ve been jumpy for the last few days. What’s wrong?”

 

“Do you remember Miss Calendar?” Giles asked, trying to disguise the tremor in his voice. “She was one of Buffy’s teachers.”

 

“She was killed,” Joyce replied, remembering that terrible year. Understanding dawned. “You and she—”

 

“Were in love,” Giles said quietly. “The night she was killed—well, I found her. We never—that is, I’m not sure she ever knew how I felt. Getting Spike’s call that there was an emergency—I remembered, and I didn’t know if you knew—”

 

Joyce interrupted. “I think I got the message that night we went out. It really was a perfect evening.” Giles shook his head, and Joyce knew. He had been scared to death of losing her. “Do you—not want to be with me? If this has made you rethink—”

 

He shook his head emphatically. “No.” Giles couldn’t say anything else. The words seemed to have become stuck in his throat, forming a lump that choked him. He couldn’t bear to lose her; he couldn’t stand to leave her.

 

Joyce stood. The house was silent; Dawn was asleep, and Buffy would not be back, of that she was certain. It was safe—and she loved this man. Life was too short not to take a few risks.

 

Limping slightly, she crossed to the door and gently closed it, then turned back to face Rupert. He was still refusing to look at her, his glasses in one hand, rubbing his eyes with impatient fingers. She knew that the Watcher would find tears a weakness, but even the strongest need to cry sometimes.

 

She made her slow, faltering way back to him. Joyce couldn’t manage anything but the shortest distances without assistance, but she could manage this. She could give him comfort. It was one of her greatest talents.

 

Feathering his face with kisses, both light and lingering, Joyce demonstrated her love. After only a few moments, he began to respond—desperate, hungry, but careful of her infirmity.

 

There is a certain kind of passion that comes from age, tempered by wisdom, though no less fierce in its fires. They had known young passion one night years ago, unrestrained, oblivious to the possible consequences. Tonight they made love, and both shed silent tears of joy, of sadness, knowing that time was short and precious. Thankful that they both had a second chance.

                                                                                                                                   

And when Joyce fell asleep that night, her head on Giles’ chest, she was thinking that he was still a stevedore in bed.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike was whistling as he entered the gallery the next morning. An uninterrupted night with Buffy, with plenty of good sex and lots of cuddling, made him one happy camper. His good mood held all that day, even in the midst of cranky customers and short-tempered vendors.

 

The phone rang just before he closed up, and he answered with a well-hidden sigh. Spike had plans for that evening that did not include work. “William speaking. May I help you?”

 

“Probably,” Buffy’s voice said through the line. “It’s a special request, though.”

 

“I specialize in that area,” Spike purred. “What’s up, pet?”

 

He could hear the smile in her voice. Buffy had had just as good a time as her fiancé. “Just thought I’d stop by the gallery before you left and then I could walk you home.”

 

“I’ve got the car with me, luv. Thought we were going to meet at your house.”

 

“We were,” Buffy replied, a note of defensiveness in her tone. She knew Spike hated to be coddled or thought weak, but she didn’t really want to take any chances with his safety either. “I can’t wait until then.”

 

Spike knew she was lying, but he thought he would let her get away with it this time. “Fine, luv. I’m just closing up now if you want to meet me here.”

 

“I’m at the Magic Box,” Buffy replied. “I’ll be there in five.”

 

Five minutes later it was Tara, not Buffy, that walked through the front door. “Mr. Giles found a text he thought would be helpful,” she explained. “Buffy thought we could meet back there instead.”

 

Spike shrugged. “Sure. Won’t take but a mo in the car.”

 

They walked out of the gallery together, chatting idly about small matters, and Spike turned to lock up. Beside him, he heard a gasp, and he turned to see what had upset Tara.

 

Glory grinned at him. “Well, well, well. If it isn’t the Slayer’s boyfriend. I wonder what kind of information you’ve got in that pretty head of yours. Let’s find out, shall we?”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy glanced up at the clock in the Magic Box. “When did Tara leave?”

 

Willow’s eyes followed her friend’s gaze and she frowned. “About ten minutes ago. Why?”

 

“They should have been back by now,” the Slayer said. “Spike said he was driving today.”

 

Willow shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. “I’m sure they’re probably just talking or something.”

 

Buffy wasn’t so sure, but she went back to her reading. Giles had been right in the middle of an explanation about Glory’s possible aims when it had been time for her to leave. Tara had volunteered to go meet him instead. There were times when Buffy wondered if she shouldn’t be jealous of Tara, never mind that she was definitely gay and that her relationship with Spike was much like his with Dawn. They just seemed to connect on a level she couldn’t quite reach, which she found odd.

 

Five minutes later, Buffy was looking at the clock again. She stood abruptly. “I’m going to go down to the gallery,” she announced.

 

Willow frowned and then put her book down as well. “I’ll go with you. I could probably use the chance to stretch my legs anyway.”

 

“You want us to go too, Buf?” Xander asked.

 

Buffy shook her head. “No, that’s okay, Xan. You stay here. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

 

Willow linked her arm through Buffy’s as they exited the Magic Box. “We could stop by the Espresso Pump on the way back,” she suggested. “With a night of research ahead of us, mochas might be a good thing.”

 

“Good idea, Will,” Buffy said. “And that’s exactly what I’m going to tell Spike when he asks. He hates it when he thinks I’m being protective.”

 

Willow shrugged. “It’s not like there isn’t anything that goes bump in the night,” she pointed out. “And besides, Spike knows you get protective because you love him. It’s not like he can really argue with that.”

 

~~~~~

 

Tara wasn’t sure what she should do. Willow was the one with the power; her strengths were less showy. There was no way she could take Glory on, and Spike had put himself in front of her anyway.

 

If he hadn’t already locked the door of the gallery, Tara would have dashed inside and tried to call Buffy. As it was, they weren’t expecting them back at the shop for another few minutes, and the Hellgod could do a lot of damage in a very short period of time.

 

Glory was speaking now, and Tara listened to her threats. “You’re going to tell me where to find my Key. The Slayer has what’s mine, and I want it back.”

 

“Way I understand it, wasn’t yours to begin with,” Spike said, his tone so cocky Tara could hardly believe it. It was like he had no fear. In the next second, she understood why.

 

“Don’t mess with me,” Glory warned him, grabbing the front of his shirt and slamming him up against the building so hard Tara winced at the sound. “You won’t live to regret it.”

 

All of Glory’s attention was focused on Spike now, and there seemed to be nothing standing between Tara and freedom. If only she could find Buffy or Willow. The Magic Box was close, if she could just slip away—

 

“Where do you think you’re going?” Glory demanded, grabbing the witch by the arm and tossing her back against the building next to Spike. “You know, that’s what’s wrong with people today. They’re so rude! Running away before I’m done! Don’t you know how rude that is?”

 

Since a reply seemed to be called for, Tara stammered out, “S-s-sorry.”

 

“You should be!” Glory replied angrily. “Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. My Key. See, I think at least one of you knows where it is, and I think it might be you.” Her eyes fixed on Spike. “You and Slutty the Vampire Slayer seem so very close.”

 

“Sorry, ducks,” Spike replied smoothly, hoping to draw Glory’s attention back onto himself. “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell a sorry looking bint like yourself.”

 

“I’m not sorry looking!” Glory protested. “I’m beautiful.”

 

Spike’s eyes raked her up and down in a heated glance even a Hellgod was no match for. After a long, drawn-out pause, he shook his head, almost apologetically. “Your arse is lopsided,” he observed. “And one of your tits is bigger than the other. Plus, your hair is frizzy, and you don’t have the fashion sense God gave a goose.”

 

After that litany of insults, Glory gave an outraged shriek and descended on Spike, fists flying. Tara wasted no time. While she hated to leave Spike, she also understood exactly what he was doing, and that it would be a useless sacrifice if she didn’t take advantage of Glory’s distraction.

 

Again, however, Tara just wasn’t quite quick enough. Spike’s form went flying past her, deeper into the alley that ran between the gallery and the shop next door, and Glory was in front of her, blocking her escape. “Hey, lover-boy!” Glory called, her tone gleeful. “See what you get when you don’t cooperate?”

 

Tara didn’t even have time to scream before the Hellgod’s hands plunged into her head. It didn’t occur to her that the scream she heard wasn’t her own.

 

~~~~~

 

Willow stiffened in shock when she heard the cry. “Buffy, that’s—”

 

“Oh, God,” Buffy muttered, taking off at a run and offering up a brief to prayer to any Power that might take pity. It had seemed to work for Spike recently.

 

The flying kick at least took Glory by surprise and got her away from Tara. Willow took it from there; one moment the Hellgod was standing there, and the next she wasn’t.

 

Distracted for a moment, Buffy asked, “Willow, what did you just do?”

 

“Teleported her,” Willow said, focusing on Tara and swaying slightly. “Probably not very far, but hopefully far enough.”

 

Buffy nodded, staring at Tara, who was gibbering about spiders. “Willow—”

 

“We have to get her to the hospital.” When the red-headed witch looked up she had her resolve face on, but there was a silent plea in her eyes for Buffy not to break down.

 

Buffy nodded. “I’ll get Spike.”

 

Spike was barely conscious. He’d been aware of flying through the air, of coming to sudden halt courtesy of a brick wall, and of Glory screaming something at him, but that was about it. He was dimly aware of Buffy saying something to him, urging him to rise, and he struggled to comply. “Tara—”

 

“Willow’s got her,” Buffy assured him, keeping her tone low and even. “We need to get both of you to the hospital.”

 

Spike wasn’t so groggy that the meaning of those words didn’t penetrate. “Tara—where is she? Is she—”

 

“We need to get to the hospital, Spike,” Buffy interrupted. “Do you have your keys?”

 

“By the door, I think,” Spike muttered. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to move. His face felt like it was on fire, and he was thinking that dying looked like a tempting alternative at this point.

 

“Right,” Buffy said. “Keys, car, hospital. And then I think we need to talk about getting out of town.”

Chapter Text

“How like a winter hath my absence been/From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!/ What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!/What old December’s bareness everywhere!...For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,/And, thou away, the very birds are mute;/Or, if they sing, ‘tis with so dull a cheer/That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.” ~William Shakespeare, Sonnet 97

 

Spike was released after only a few hours, time enough for x-rays to ensure there was no internal bleeding and to prescribe pain meds for the broken ribs. What it boiled down to, once again, was that he’d been very lucky. Any one of the four ribs Glory had broken could have easily pierced a lung. Instead, he was bruised, limping, and an eye was swollen shut, but he was alive and mobile.

 

Tara was in worse shape.

 

The doctors were willing to discharge her almost immediately as well, once Willow assured them she would be cared for. There was no more room in the psych ward, and they were sending as many patients home with family as they could. The doctors weren’t even trying to explain the rash of insanity anymore. They simply handed out sedatives and anti-psychotics like candy, hoping that the right medications would do what they couldn’t.

 

Willow had held it together admirably, mostly by focusing completely on Tara’s well being. There was a part of Buffy that wondered when the explosion would come, when Willow would start screaming for blood vengeance, but the Slayer was concentrating on Spike.

 

Spike—who was staring at Tara in utter dismay. “Oh, Glinda.”

 

Tara seemed caught by his voice as she hadn’t been by anyone else’s. “Blood doesn’t matter,” she announced.

 

In spite of his injuries, Spike was across the room in moments. “That’s right, luv. Blood doesn’t matter.” His hand on her cheek seemed to calm her for a few moments, but then Tara was chattering on about being lost again, amidst spiders and darkness.

 

Buffy could see his jaw tense, and she knew he felt guilty about it. Heck, she felt guilty about it. She was the Slayer, and the job description entailed preventing just such events as this.

 

“Are we all ready?” Buffy asked, trying for cheerfulness, and almost managing it.

 

Willow, equally determined to keep a positive outlook, nodded. “Yeah. Why don’t we get out of here?”

 

“Spike?” Buffy called when he didn’t move.

 

He glanced up, startled out of his thoughts. “What—oh. Yeah, whenever…we’re ready.”

 

Buffy could see the raw pain in his eyes and felt renewed guilt. Spike had enough guilt to deal with as it was; he didn’t need any more added on. It simply renewed her determination. Buffy knew something had to change. Glory had come after Spike; there was no indication that she wouldn’t try it again.

 

And next time, Buffy was certain that Spike wouldn’t be so lucky.

 

~~~~~

 

The gathering at Revello Drive was a grim one. Willow sat next to Tara on the couch, hanging onto her girlfriend’s hand. Tara was sleepy and sedated by the medications the doctor had given her, and her head kept drooping.

 

Spike was seated on the other end of the couch, pain in every line of his body. He’d refused anything stronger than aspirin, and he was watching Giles pace in front of the fireplace. Buffy was perched next to him, and Joyce, Anya and Xander were scattered around the room. It was a council of war, and Buffy had moved into general-mode.

 

Normally, Spike would have been very turned on. Under the circumstances, he was just trying to focus on what the Slayer was saying. “You can’t stay in town.”

 

“I bloody well can,” Spike retorted. “I’m not leaving you.”

 

Buffy shook her head. “It’s not safe. Now that Glory’s started coming after my friends and family, we can’t stay here. If we all left—”

 

“We can’t!” Willow protested immediately. “Buffy, I’m not sure if I can fix Tara, but I know that if we leave she doesn’t have a chance. At least if we stay, I might be able to reverse it, maybe even hurt Glory.”

 

It was this last that was Willow’s main goal, Spike knew. Willow wanted vengeance, and he didn’t blame her. He wanted revenge too, but Willow was no match for the Hellgod, not in a long, drawn-out battle. Spike wasn’t sure that any of them were.

 

“Okay,” Buffy said, sighing. She’d actually been wondering if there was a chance that Willow could help Tara, and if they should stick around to chance it. “Fine, but Spike still needs to get out of town.” Turning to her fiancé, she added, “Glory’s targeted you now, Spike. If she comes after you again, you won’t even be able to run away.”

 

“Wasn’t able to run away this time,” he grumbled, refusing to look at either Buffy or Tara. “And I’m not leaving you to face her alone.”

 

“She won’t be alone, Spike,” Giles broke in. “And I believe Buffy’s right. If Glory has focused on you as having the location to her Key, she will most likely come after you again. You might not be able to avoid telling her its location next time.”

 

All eyes drifted to the stairs. Dawn was supposed to be sleeping, but Spike wondered, knowing that the girl had a nasty habit of listening at doors. “I don’t know what you think the rest of us can do,” Anya said. “You saw what Glory did to Tara.”

 

“We’ll just have to be more careful,” Buffy said. “Besides, Spike’s the one I’ve been spending the most time with. It makes sense that Glory would think he would know about the Key.”

 

Xander nodded bravely. “Sure, Buf. You know we’re behind you on this one.”

 

Buffy turned to look at Spike. “I couldn’t stand it if something happened to you,” she said in a low voice. “It would destroy me, and then how would I deal with Glory? I need to know you’re safe.” When he opened his mouth to argue again, the Slayer shook her head. “You’re not in any shape to help with anything, and it’s going to take weeks for you to heal. Please don’t argue with me.”

 

Spike sighed. “Fine. But if I’m going, I’m still going to help.” He looked past Buffy at Giles. “Think it’s time we go to plan B, mate.”

 

At Giles’ nod, Buffy frowned. “There’s a plan B? I didn’t think we even had a plan A,” she objected.

 

Giles appeared uncomfortable. “Yes, well, Spike came to me soon after the hospital patient recognized Dawn. At that point we both realized that extreme measures might have to be taken in order to ensure her safety.”

 

“Extreme measures?” Buffy demanded. “You were talking about extreme measures without me?”

 

“They didn’t have anything to do with you, luv,” Spike said gently. “It was—just in case.”

 

A silence fell around the room as they all realized what “just in case” meant—in event of the Slayer’s death. “Okay.” Buffy took a deep breath. “What was the plan?”

 

“I take Dawn and get out of town, just the two of us,” Spike explained slowly. “The idea was for Red and—and Glinda to do a glamour, make it seem like the Bit never left. Figured it would be easiest to explain me going.”

 

“And you agreed?” Buffy asked Giles.

 

Giles nodded. “I wasn’t sure it would come to that, but now I think it might have. Willow is right, we cannot leave, not with any hope of restoring Tara. But it isn’t safe for either Spike or Dawn to stay here.”

 

Buffy’s eyes grew wide. “And how is Spike supposed to protect Dawn when he’s hurt? Or ever? I’m the Slayer. It’s my job!”

 

“Yeah, Buffy, but if Dawn’s not here for Glory to get her hands on, maybe that’ll be enough to stop her from ending the world or whatever,” Xander said. “If she doesn’t know Dawn’s the Key, then Dawn’s absence won’t matter.”

 

Buffy shook her head. “We don’t know how long they would have to be gone,” she objected. “It could be—”

 

“A long time,” Joyce said, speaking for the first time. “Buffy, Rupert and William have already spoken to me about this. As they said, it was supposed to be a last resort, but I believe it’s the best protection Dawn might have.”

 

Quietly, Giles added, “Glory would not expect you to let the Key out of your sight, Buffy. Not being here with you might be Dawn’s best chance for survival.”

 

“How long?” Buffy asked. “Do you even know?”

 

“Seems Glory’s getting pretty impatient,” Spike said. “Don’t think it’ll be terribly long, luv.” And then, in a whisper, he added, “Don’t you trust me, Buffy?”

 

She did; Buffy trusted him with her life, but she was the Slayer. It was her job to take care of Dawn, to make sure Glory didn’t get her hands on the girl. She was unused to delegating responsibility as there had never been anyone she could truly give that responsibility to.

 

And yet, in her gut Buffy knew Spike was correct. Away from the Slayer, Dawn would be safer. Glory would never suspect that she might send the Key away.

 

“I could do an illusion,” Willow said. “That kind of thing doesn’t take a lot of power, as long as it’s simple.”

 

“We were thinking of telling everyone that Dawn was sick with mono,” Giles said. “It would be plausible, and then she would be sleeping most of the time, for a potentially long period of time.”

 

“I believe this is the right thing to do, Buffy,” Joyce added. “And Dawn is my daughter. I know you’re the Slayer, but it’s my decision to make.”

 

Buffy took a deep breath and looked around the room. She could see fear in all their faces, but there was determination as well. They would stand by her until Glory was taken care of.

 

Spike’s bruised countenance carried a mixture of resignation, determination and sadness. He didn’t think she would let him do this, Buffy realized, and it was important to him. It was important that he be allowed to help, rather than just slinking away, and he thought it was the best way to keep Dawn safe.

 

He also knew—she could tell—that it might be a long time before it was safe enough for him to return.

 

“Where are you going to go?” she asked, hearing the sighs around the room after her decision was made. Dawn would go with Spike; he would keep her safe.

 

“L.A.,” he replied. “To Angel. For a while, at least. If we have to, we’ll move on from there.”

 

Buffy nodded. “When?”

 

“Tomorrow night,” Giles said, looking at Willow in question. “If Willow can have the illusion ready?”

“I can get it done.”

 

Xander tried to lighten the moment. “Great! Spike gets a vacation and the rest of us are stuck in good, old Sunnydale.”

 

His joke fell flat, and Buffy refused to look away from Spike, knowing he felt the same way she did. There was no such thing as a vacation if they were so far from one another.

 

On the stairs, Dawn hugged herself tightly, half frightened, half excited. It terrified her to think that Glory could be coming for her, that the Hellgod had hurt Tara so badly, and yet it was thrilling to think of leaving with Spike. It would be an adventure of sorts.

 

At least, that’s what she was going to keep telling herself until she believed it.

 

~~~~~

 

“Let me get that for you,” Buffy said softly as Spike started to unbutton his shirt. He was grateful he hadn’t worn something that had to be pulled over his head, because he would never have gotten it back on, injured as he was.

 

His hands fell away, and she slowly undid his shirt, her fingers gently brushing his skin. “I hate this,” she confessed. “I hate that you’re leaving.”

 

“You’re the one who wanted me to go,” Spike reminded her, and Buffy could hear the slightly sour note in his voice.

 

Buffy stopped unbuttoning abruptly. “I didn’t want you to go,” she corrected him. “I just don’t want to have to go through this again.”

 

“Go through what?”

 

“Thinking I’m going to lose you.”

 

There was a long silence, and then Spike let out a sigh. “You’re right, luv, I’m sorry. I know you’re just trying to protect me, but—”

 

“You can take care of yourself,” she finished. “And if Glory wasn’t a god, I wouldn’t argue with that, but I’ve taken a beating from her before. I’m amazed you’re still standing.”

 

“I’m not, actually,” Spike replied with a bit of a smile, as he was seated on the bed. She chuckled a little as he meant for her to do. “I’ll take care of her, luv. Till the end of the world.”

 

Buffy leaned her forehead against his. “I know you will. Dawn couldn’t be in better hands.” When he opened his mouth, she stilled his words with her fingers. “Even my hands, Spike. You were right, Dawn’s safest if we send her away. Maybe we should have done that at the very beginning.”

 

“Might have been too obvious then,” he reassured her. “This way, Glory won’t ever have expected it.”

 

“I wish I knew how long…” Buffy ran a gentle hand through his hair.

 

“Me too.”

 

It was impossible to make love that night, even though it would be their last opportunity for a while. Spike’s broken ribs were too sore to do much but cuddle, and even that was a bit painful as Buffy kept bumping him in her sleep.

 

Spike really didn’t want to leave; he wanted the chance to stay by his Slayer’s side and face the danger with her, as he had done with Adam. He’d proven then that he was perfectly capable of stopping an apocalypse, even with only his human strength.

 

At the same time, however, Buffy had given him an incredible gift by deciding to send Dawn with him. Spike had never thought to see the day when she trusted him enough to put someone else’s life in his hands, when she trusted that he could really help her in an integral fashion. It would be up to him to protect the Key now.

 

For however long it took—till the end of the world.

 

Spike finally drifted off to sleep around dawn, waking when Buffy shook him in the late afternoon. “What time is it?”

 

“It’s around 3,” she replied. “I thought you might want to get cleaned up and packed before you went rushing out of here.”

 

“It’s probably a good idea,” he agreed, sleep slurring his words.

 

Buffy stroked his sleep-mussed hair. “I called Angel, but there wasn’t any answer. I left a message, though. Hopefully he’ll get it before you arrive.”

 

“Doesn’t matter,” Spike said, grunting in pain as he pushed himself up. “If Peaches isn’t there, we’ll hole up at his place. No one’ll expect us to stay there.”

 

“Sounds like a plan,” Buffy agreed, running a lingering hand down his face. She couldn’t seem to stop touching him. “I’ll get something for you to eat while you get cleaned up. The clothes you left here last time are in the bathroom.”

 

Spike caught her hand in his. “We’ll sort this out, luv.”

 

She smiled, unable to reply, unable to quite believe him.

 

~~~~~

 

Dawn fiddled with her glass as she listened to Joyce explain how she was going away with Spike for a while. To keep her safe, she said. Dawn didn’t have the heart to tell her mother that she’d already heard the whole thing, not least because she wasn’t supposed to be eavesdropping anyway. The last time she’d done it, there had been a long lecture coupled with Joyce’s disappointed-face; not something Dawn wanted to face again right now.

 

“How long?” Dawn finally asked quietly.

 

Joyce sighed. It was the best decision, of that she was certain, but that didn’t mean she was comfortable sending her baby away. Like Buffy, Joyce tended to believe in her own ability to keep her girls safe, never mind that it just wasn’t possible in this case.

 

She felt like she was a bad mother, not keeping Dawn with her.

 

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “If it looks like it’s going to be for too long, we’ll work something out.” Joyce reached across the kitchen island and took her daughter’s hand. “You know I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have to, right?”

 

Dawn looked up at her mother, her blue eyes serious, showing a maturity no one would have guessed she possessed. “It’s okay, Mom, really. I mean, Spike’ll take good care of me, and this way Buffy can concentrate on getting Tara better.”

 

Joyce squeezed her hand. “You’re growing up so quickly.”

 

“Kinda have to,” Dawn said, smiling bravely. “Besides, I get out of school, so that’s cool.”

 

The older woman came around to give Dawn a hug, holding her tightly. It was the not-knowing that was the hardest; if Joyce could be certain that Dawn would be back in a week or even two, it would be more like sending the girl off to summer camp. As things stood, however, she didn’t know if it would be a week, or two, or even a month.

 

Or longer. It could be for longer.

 

Joyce reminded herself that she should be grateful that she could trust Dawn to Spike’s capable hands.

 

It should be enough to keep Dawn safe. It had to be.

 

~~~~~

 

“You got what you need, Bit?” Spike asked that night as they got ready to leave. “Not coming back for anything.”

 

She shook her head. “I’m all packed.”

 

“That’s good.” He touched her hair with a wistful smile. “Just you an’ me, luv. Should be fun.”

 

Fun wasn’t the word for it, but Dawn wasn’t going to argue. “Yep. Road trip time.”

 

Willow had come by earlier in the day to set up the glamour and say her goodbyes. Tara had been with her, of course, and she’d made comments about “pretty green swirls” that had Spike and Buffy exchanging glances. It definitely wasn’t safe for Dawn to stick around while one of their own could identify her as the Key, not even knowing what she was doing.

 

Xander had shaken Spike’s hand before he left the previous night, not saying a word, and Anya had cheerfully told them, “Good luck. I hope you don’t get killed.” Coming from Anya, Spike found that touching.

 

Buffy’s touch was gentle as she wrapped her arms around him. “I miss you already.”

 

“Same here.” Spike held her, his chin resting on the top of her head. Next to them, Joyce was giving Dawn a hug and telling her to listen to Spike and stay out of trouble while Giles looked on.

 

“I know you’ll take care of her,” Buffy said, pulling back so that she could see his face. One side was swollen and purple, the eye almost shut. “But take care of yourself too, okay?”

 

“Why wouldn’t I when I’ve got you to come back to?” he asked, rhetorically. Then they were kissing, gently because of Spike’s bruised face, desperate because it was goodbye and there was a Hellgod on the loose.

 

Their kiss might have gone on forever if both of them hadn’t needed to breathe. When they finally came up for air, Spike’s hand was fisted in the Slayer’s hair, and she had a fistful of his shirt. Neither wanted to let go.

 

Spike rested his forehead against Buffy’s for a moment before kissing her again. “Soon.”

 

Buffy wanted to ask him to define “soon,” wanted to scream at him for making promises. She wanted to grab him and Dawn and just make a run for it. Not since the prophecy about her death at the hands of the Master did she want to run so badly.

 

“Absolutely,” was her only reply.

 

The moment was gone. Everything had seemed to be moving in slow motion up to that point, and suddenly it was on fast forward. Spike hugged Joyce and shook Giles hand. Giles hugged Dawn, much to his own surprise, as well as everyone else’s. Buffy hugged Dawn.

 

And then everybody had been hugged, or had their hands shaken, and there was no more reason to stall. Spike was taking Joyce’s car because it was in better condition than the Desoto, as well as not being quite so noticeable. The bags were loaded. Everything was all set.

 

There was one last flurry of goodbyes and hugs and handshakes, and then Spike and Dawn climbed in and were gone.

 

Buffy felt as though she was watching her whole life drive away.

 

~~~~~

 

The drive was made mostly in silence. Spike was in quite a bit of pain, as he hadn’t taken any of the pills the doctor had prescribed for his broken ribs. Not a good idea to be driving while under the influence of narcotics.

 

So he was keeping his teeth clenched and his eyes on the road, concentrating on staying in the lines rather than on the worry he felt.

 

It was Dawn who finally broke the silence. “Am I bad?”

 

“What?” His tone was sharp, and Spike glanced over to look at the girl incredulously.

 

“Am I bad?” Dawn asked again. “I mean, you and—and Tara, you guys were hurt because of me. And we have to leave Sunnydale because of me. If I’m not evil—”

 

“You can be a brat sometimes, Dawn, but you’re not evil,” Spike said in as even a tone as he could manage. Damn those monks for doing this to a child. “I’ve seen evil, and you’re not it.”

 

“But, Glory keeps doing these things,” she protested. Dawn didn’t understand how so much pain could come about because of a person, and yet that person not have something fundamentally wrong with them.

 

Spike sighed. “Is a knife evil, Bit? Or one of those axes your sis uses sometimes?”

 

Dawn frowned. “No. I mean, Buffy uses that sort of stuff to help people.”

 

“But somebody could use her knife to hurt someone, right?”

 

“Yeah, I guess.”

 

“Does that make the knife or the ax good or bad?”

 

Dawn thought she was beginning to see where this was going. “No. It’s just a weapon or a tool.”

 

“That’s right, luv,” Spike said gently. “It’s just a tool that can be used for good or ill. What matters is the hand of the person holding it. Way I understand it, you were energy, and that’s not good or bad. It just is. And now you’re a special person, and that’s definitely a good thing in my book.”

 

Dawn blinked back tears. “But you and Tara were hurt because of me.”

 

“No, we were hurt because Glory is an evil bitch,” Spike replied easily. “And there are always going to be those out in the world.”

 

Dawn thought about that for a minute. She wasn’t sure she completely agreed with Spike, since it didn’t seem to quite fit the feeling in her gut. “Is Buffy going to be okay?”

 

“Of course. She’s the Slayer.”

 

Dawn stared at Spike. “Don’t lie to me.”

 

“Then I don’t know,” he replied, his tone heavy. “Buffy’s job is to help Willow put Tara back together, and to throw Glory off our tail, make sure she doesn’t come after us. We run, she fights, and fighting is always dangerous.”

 

Dawn thought maybe she didn’t want the truth after all.

 

~~~~~

 

Giles wasn’t quite sure what to do. Like Spike, he believed that sending Dawn away was the best option of a bad lot. There was a part of him that whispered it should have been done from the beginning. At the same time, as he watched Joyce in the kitchen, obviously struggling with a maelstrom of emotion, Giles wished something else could have been done.

 

Times like this, he felt that there were two competing personalities: the man and the Watcher.

 

Tonight, at least, the man was in charge.

 

“Are you alright?”

 

Joyce looked at him over her shoulder from where she was putting together a couple sandwiches, more because she wanted something to do than because anyone was hungry. “I’m fine.” She paused. “You know, I remember when Dawn was nine, we sent her off to a summer camp. Both her and Buffy, actually. Hank and I had been fighting non-stop, and we both thought a little time to ourselves might help the marriage. She made it two days before we got a frantic phone call saying that she wanted to come home.”

 

Managing a weak smile, Joyce put a sandwich in front of Giles. “We argued about whether to get her, of course. Hank thought it would be good for her to stay, but I wasn’t about to let my baby suffer. So I went to get her.”

 

“She’s fifteen now, Joyce,” Giles reminded her gently. “I imagine she’ll be able to handle a few nights away from home at this point. Who knows? She might even enjoy it, and Spike will be with her, so she’s not alone.”

 

“I know that,” Joyce replied. “If anyone will take care of Dawn, it’s William. I trust him completely. But she’s my baby, and we don’t know when this is going to be finished.”

 

Giles didn’t try to give her false comfort. Everything she’d said was the truth. So, he did the only thing he could think to do under the circumstances. He held her while she clung to him. And then he kissed her, tasting the bittersweetness of worry mixed with love.

 

Buffy watched the little tableau from the doorway of the kitchen, finally turning to head back upstairs. She had to admit that she was jealous of her mom. Jealous that she had someone to glean strength from. Buffy wanted Spike. Wanted him with an intensity only felt by those whose loved ones were far from them.

 

When this was all over, Buffy promised herself, she was going to take some time for just the two of them. She would make sure that Spike knew how much she needed him, how much she relied upon him.

 

That it would be impossible to do this without him.

 

~~~~~

 

The hotel was dark when they arrived. Willow and Cordelia had kept in touch, at least enough to know that Angel had gotten a new base of operations not long after Spike had dropped in.

 

Somehow, the Hyperion didn’t much surprise Spike, who had always known Angel had a bit of the dramatic in him. The faded décor seemed to be the perfect counterpoint to the Great Brooder’s persona.

 

“No one’s home,” Dawn said, her voice echoing through the empty lobby.

 

Spike shrugged. “Then we’ll wait till they get back. No one’ll be looking for us here, anyway.”

 

Dawn wasn’t quite sure what to think about that plan. “It seems kind of spooky.”

 

“Bet it was a bit different when it was an actual hotel,” Spike replied. “Probably full of people. Would have been an interesting place.”

 

That got the girl thinking along different lines, looking around, imagining what it would have been like blazing with lights and activity. “I guess it would have been cool.”

 

“Why don’t we go see what the room accommodations look like,” Spike suggested. “We can catch some sleep and then go exploring some other time.”

 

There was electricity and running water, at least, which told Spike that Angel hadn’t been gone so long that he hadn’t paid the bills or that he’d had utilities turned off. With some searching, they found two rooms next to each other that were clean enough for use. One of the rooms they’d opened was Angel’s, and Spike briefly thought about sleeping there, just to piss him off.

 

After making sure Dawn was settled in, Spike went back downstairs, however. Even though it was unlikely anyone knew where they were, he didn’t want to sleep upstairs, where he couldn’t hear someone come in. It seemed too much like tempting fate.

 

Spike began to methodically search the office area, looking for clues as to where Angel and his gang might have gone. The papers and case files didn’t give him many clues, though, and while he recognized his grandsire’s handwriting on a few things, there were many more notes in an unfamiliar scribble.

 

Finally, Spike checked the message machine. One of the messages was Buffy’s, letting Angel know that he and Dawn were on their way and that they would explain once they got to L.A. The other message was Angel’s own.

 

Spike frowned as he listened. “So, as soon as Wes solves our scattering problem, we’ll be leaving. Don’t know if we’re coming back. It’s 11:16. Cordy’s been gone for almost 24 hours now. I think I covered everything. Oh, the mortgage for the hotel is under the company name. The lease is up in six months, or that’s what they tell me, so…I guess that’s it. Take care of yourself.”

 

“Well, isn’t that a kicker,” Spike murmured. Angel was gone, and didn’t know if he or anyone else would return. Or when. Which meant that he and Dawn were alone in the hotel for the duration. Without any backup, Spike was seriously reconsidering the defensive capabilities of the hotel.

 

If they stayed, he would have to see about rigging some booby traps, looking for escape routes, setting up a plan for Dawn if they were overrun. If something happened to him, she would need a place to go.

 

Spike replayed the message, grabbing a pen and pad of paper, starting to make notes. He had plans to make, things to do, traps to set.

 

If it wasn’t such a serious situation, he’d have been as excited as a kid on Christmas.

Chapter Text

“…Everything I know, and anywhere I go/It gets hard but it won’t take away my love/And when the last one falls, when it’s all said and done/It gets hard but it won’t take away my love/I’m here without you baby/But you’re still on my lonely mind/I think about you baby and I dream about you all the time…And tonight, girl, there’s only you and me.” ~3 Doors Down, “Here Without You”

 

“I miss you.”

 

“It’s only been a few hours, luv,” Spike said, adding quickly, “and I miss you too.”

 

Buffy lay back on her bed, hanging onto the cell phone as tightly as she wished she could hang onto him. “So you don’t know when Angel’s going to come back?”

 

“Dunno, luv. Don’t even really know where he went, except that it’s not here. Some other dimension seems to have swallowed up Cordelia,” Spike sighed. “Right now it’s just about getting ready for whatever comes. Think we’ll stay at the hotel for a while. Angel doesn’t come back in a few days, we’ll reconsider.”

 

“So where are you now?” Buffy asked.

 

“Now?” There was some surprise in Spike’s voice. “I’m in Angel’s office.”

 

“And what are you wearing?”

 

Spike was beginning to catch on. “What you saw me leave in. What about you?”

 

“Well, since you weren’t here, I decided on the flannel pj’s tonight,” Buffy replied. “But that could be changed.”

 

“Mmmm…” Spike purred, leaning back in the chair. “How quickly?”

 

~~~~~

 

Dawn shoved her hair behind her ear as she munched another slice of pizza. “Okay, so we’re going to booby-trap down here first.”

 

They had spent the day exploring the hotel, gathering the necessary supplies, and exploring their options for defense. Even though it seemed that they had a workable plan, both Spike and Dawn were on edge. “No, first we’re going to work out an escape plan,” Spike replied. “In case something happens to me, you—”

 

“I’m not going anywhere without you,” Dawn stated bluntly. “I don’t care what you say.”

 

“Dawn—”

 

“No.” Dawn glared at him. “Besides, you’re still hurt. What the hell do you think you could do?”

 

“Language, Dawn,” he warned her. “And you’ll do what I say.”

 

“You’re not the boss of me.”

 

“You wanna bet?”

 

The battle was averted when the door swung open, causing both of them to startle. “I want to say it,” Angel’s voice broke in. “There’s no place like…home,” he finished uncertainly when he spotted his unexpected guests. “Spike? Are you okay? What—Is Buffy—”

 

Angel—as well as his entire gang—looked hard-used, with the possible exception of Cordelia, who was wearing some sort of strange get-up that left nothing to the imagination.

 

“She’s fine,” Spike assured him. “At least, she was last night when I talked to her. It’s just—we have a bit of a problem. I was hoping you’d be able to help.”

 

“Yeah, sure,” Angel replied quickly. “Whatever you need.” The tall, thin man behind Angel cleared his throat. “Uh, if that’s okay with Wes.”

 

Spike recognized the name, but not the face. “Thought you were the boss here,” he said cautiously.

 

“Yeah,” Angel replied, looking a little sheepish. “That changed. It’s sort of a long story.”

 

Spike and Dawn exchanged doubtful looks. The rules were changing so rapidly, Spike wasn’t quite sure what to think. If Angel wasn’t in charge, and he didn’t know any of the others, should they stay?

 

“Oh, don’t be stupid, Angel,” Wesley said irritably. “It’s not like I would refuse aid to the Slayer or her friends and family.” Wesley looked over at Spike. “But do you mind terribly if we get cleaned up before hearing your story?” He eyed the pizza. “And maybe a bite to eat.”

 

Dawn shrugged when Spike looked over at her. “I could eat more pizza.”

 

“Or tacos?” Suggested a timid little voice. “I’ve been craving tacos something fierce.”

 

Cordelia rolled her eyes with barely restrained annoyance. “I’m not sure we can find a taco place that will deliver, Fred.”

 

Spike, ignoring Cordelia, gave that request careful consideration. “Your kitchen work, Peaches?”

 

The tall, black man snickered. “Peaches?”

 

Angel gave Spike a dirty look, not caring for his using that particular nickname in front of the others. “Yeah, why?”

 

“Because if someone’ll go to the store, I can whip up some tacos.”

 

Angel’s eyebrows looked as though they were going to be permanently attached to his hairline. “You can cook?”

 

“I have to eat,” Spike replied reasonably. “And out of all of you lot, I’m freshest.”

 

The vampire gave him a look. “You don’t look very fresh,” he observed. “In fact, you look like you got run over by a truck. Are you sure you shouldn’t be lying down?”

 

Ignoring that inane comment, Spike looked over those assembled. “Anybody want to go to the store?”

 

“I’ll go,” Wesley volunteered. “I was planning on going back to my place for some clean clothing anyway. It won’t take me long.”

 

“I can help cook,” the dark-haired girl behind Cordelia offered. “At least, I think I can. If I remember how. It’s been a while.”

 

“We’ll ease you back in,” Spike promised. “And your name would be…?”

 

She giggled. “Fred.”

 

“Well, Fred, we’ll leave the rest of this lot to get cleaned up and see what awaits us in back.” With the kind of studied gallantry that had won Tara over, Spike held out his arm, causing Fred to giggle like mad. But she clutched his arm, and Dawn strolled on her other side, and for some reason the young woman was relaxing rapidly in their company.

 

Angel watched Spike take over with an airy manner he found irritating. Spike had always been able to do that—walk into a room, look over the occupants, and have everyone eating out of his hand in moments. It just wasn’t fair. What had happened to the eager young vampire who had been willing to sit at the feet of the master?

 

Angel sighed, rubbing his eyes. That’s right. He’d only been willing until Angelus had tried to break him, and Spike would not be broken. It was the kind of vampire he had been, the kind of man he was now. Cordy’s hand touched his arm, breaking him out of his thoughts.

 

“I’m just going to go get some clothes for me and Fred, okay? You mind if I borrow your car?”

 

“Why not?” Angel asked. “I guess I’ll just—clean up,” he finished, looking around. It seemed he’d been deserted after the warm camaraderie over the last few days.

 

Cordelia rolled her eyes at him, catching his glum look. “Give me a break, Angel. All of us need a chance to catch our breath before heading into the next emergency. Don’t be such a dope.”

 

Angel paused, watching her leave, then hearing the mad giggles from the kitchen. Whatever Spike was doing back there, Fred sounded happy. He had to give the man credit for that. He grunted. It seemed he had to give the man credit for a lot of things these days.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike had picked up a few things earlier when he and Dawn went to get the pizza. They’d needed a few supplies for the traps he was planning to set, and he’d wanted something other than leftover pizza to eat the next few days.

 

There weren’t enough ingredients for tacos, though, and Fred was waxing poetic about what she wanted in hers. “My mom used to make ‘em really spicy, with lots of cheese, and lettuce, and maybe tomatoes. I don’t remember.” She frowned, as though remembering hurt.

 

“I don’t much remember what my mom cooked,” Spike said gently. “We all forget bits and pieces like that.”

 

The woman thought about that. “Maybe, but I was gone such a long time.” For a moment, she looked as though she would bolt, and Dawn slid an arm around her.

 

“All my memories are fake,” she said helpfully.

 

That statement sufficiently distracted Fred. “Fake memories?” she asked, perking right up. “How does that work? I mean, laws of physics, and all—”

 

She was soon babbling in what seemed to be another language, but Spike caught enough of it to realize that Fred was a science nerd of the first water. He needed to remember to introduce the girl to Willow. They’d probably get along just swimmingly.

 

Angel came strolling into the kitchen a few moments later, raising an eyebrow at Spike. “Did you pick up anything to drink?”

 

“Can you eat pizza and not have beer?” Spike returned, tossing him a bottle from the counter.

 

“It’s warm,” Angel complained.

 

Spike stared at him as though he’d grown a second head. “Are you daft? Have you completely forgotten your roots? Beer is supposed to be warm. Bloody Yanks messing it up,” he grumbled.

 

“I would second that,” Wesley commented, entering the kitchen, wearing fresh clothing and carrying a bag of groceries, closely followed by Gunn, who had his own bag. “I wasn’t quite sure what you’d need—”

 

Spike peeked in both the bags and gave a satisfied grunt. “It’s fine. Brilliant. Now we can get started, and you lot can tell me what Angel did to get himself demoted.”

 

Angel scowled. “I did not get demoted.”

 

“No, he just fired all of us, and then asked us to rehire him because he couldn’t get a job anywhere else,” Gunn joked, accepting one of the beers, but grimacing at its temperature.

 

“That right?” Spike asked, interested. “And why on earth would you fire such fine folks as these?”

 

Seeing the grins that both Wesley and Gunn wore, Angel’s scowl deepened. He was beginning to remember exactly why he’d found Spike so irritating in the first place. “I was—going through a rough period.”

 

“If that’s code for midlife crisis, you should have passed that a long time ago,” Cordy said acerbically as she walked into the kitchen. “Hey, Fred, do you want to get into some decent clothing?”

 

When the young woman hesitated, Dawn stood. “Come on. If Cordelia’s stuff doesn’t fit, maybe I have something that will.” She shot Spike a look. “We’ll be down in a few minutes. Do not start eating without us.”

 

“So? You’re not in charge because…?” Spike asked the vampire, starting to prep the food.

 

Wesley smiled. “Yes, Angel. You should be the one to explain. After all, we weren’t really privy to what was going through your head at the time.” That little comment was in part payback for Angel embarrassing him by buying Cordy all those clothes.

 

Angel sighed, resigned to telling his sordid tale. Dawn, Cordelia, and Fred all came at about the time Angel was explaining about setting Drusilla and Darla on fire. When Dawn caught that part of the conversation, she asked, “You could have dusted Drusilla and you didn’t?”

 

The entire group looked surprised at her sharp tone, and Spike shot her a look. “Dawn—”

 

“I want to know,” she said stubbornly. “Spike—”

 

“It’s fine.”

 

“Did you have trouble with Drusilla in Sunnydale?” Wesley asked.

 

Dawn glared at Angel. “You could say that. She almost managed to turn Spike. It’s a miracle he’s not a vampire right now.”

 

There was a long silence in which all eyes were on Angel. “Spike, I’m sorry. I didn’t—”

 

“It’s done,” Spike said. “Drusilla’s the least of our concerns at the moment.” He started setting the food out on the industrial counter. “You lot dish up, and I’ll fill you in.”

 

It was around about the time Fred consumed her fifth taco that Angel started to feel really sulky. Not only did he feel left out because he was the only one not eating, but because everyone was listening to Spike talk about Glory.

 

And he was good at it.

 

Even though there was serious danger from a Hellgod, and Dawn was some mystical Key, and Buffy could very shortly be fighting for her life, Spike told the story in such a way as to make it sound almost funny. All of them—except for Angel—were laughing at points, especially when he described Olaf the Troll. Angel had had the people of Pylea eating out of his hand too, but he had to admit that Spike was the better storyteller.

 

Spike was also the better cook, he was getting a book published, and he and Buffy were engaged. (Angel could tell the first for himself, but the second two pieces of information came from a helpful Dawn. He wasn’t sure why the girl didn’t like him, but Angel was definitely beginning to get that vibe.)

 

“You’ll help?” Spike asked. “Don’t expect anyone to come chasing us down here, but you never know.”

 

“Of course we’ll help,” Wesley assured him. “It’s our pleasure.”

 

~~~~~

 

Things were a little more hectic in Sunnydale. There was barely twenty-four hours in between Spike and Dawn’s departure and Glory showing up at the Magic Box, hell-bent on getting her Key.

 

Willow was intent on trying to find a cure for Tara, and had been up all night looking through books and taking care of her girlfriend. There was a pile of tomes at her elbow, and she was busily looking through another, searching for any clue at all as to how to help Tara and hurt Glory at the same time.

 

“How’s it coming?” Buffy asked, sitting down next to her friend.

 

Willow gave the Slayer a weak grin. “It’s coming. I mean, I think I’ve got some ideas, but nothing’s for sure. I don’t think anyone’s ever tried this before.”

 

“That’s Willow—going where no man has ever gone before,” Xander said, smiling. Then, at the looks from the girls, he quickly added, “Or woman, you know, because I’m all about being gender inclusive.” His eyes strayed to Tara, who was sitting on a chair, huddled in her pajamas, and muttering about the dark. As much as he wanted to help, Xander was pretty much at a loss. He had no clue how to deal with crazy people, or how to help Willow find the right spell, or how to help Buffy defeat Glory.

 

At least Spike got to play an important role by getting Dawn away. Xander had no idea what he was going to contribute.

 

Buffy shook her head and sighed. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she admitted. “I mean, Dawn’s safe enough for right now. I doubt there’s any way Glory could get her hands on the Key at this point, but that just means we have to find some way to defeat her. How the hell am I supposed to kill a god?”

 

Giles came out of the back room, rubbing his eyes. “I’m not sure you have to kill her, Buffy.”

 

“Say again?” the Slayer asked. “Because I don’t know of any other way to stop her from destroying the world.”

 

“I was just on the phone with Wesley,” Giles said. “Apparently, I need to revise my opinion of him.”

 

Buffy’s eyebrows went straight up. “Really?”

 

“He has access to texts that I don’t,” Giles said. “He’s managed to build up quite a collection in L.A., and has a rather good memory for locating information, amazingly enough. What he’s been able to discover is that the Key is only efficacious for a very small window of time. Given the opportunity, Glory would need to shed Dawn’s blood at a specific place and time to open the portal back to her own world.”

 

“So what you’re saying is that Glory just wants to go home,” Xander commented. “That’s not so bad.”

 

Giles shook his head. “It would also break down all the barriers between other dimensions and ours, causing chaos. And the only way to close the portal would be to stop the blood flow—to kill Dawn.”

 

“Not going to happen,” Buffy said coldly. “Even if she did get her hands on Dawn.”

 

Giles sighed, more thankful than ever that Dawn was safe in L.A. with Spike. Convincing Buffy that the best way to save the world was to kill her little sister was one thing. Convincing Joyce, or even broaching the subject was another matter altogether. “Well, I doubt Glory will manage to locate her in time. And, once that window of opportunity has passed, Dawn continues on as human, and Glory is permanently tied to her human host. She essentially becomes mortal.”

 

Willow looked excited. “So we just have to keep her occupied until the window passes.”

 

“Essentially,” Giles agreed. “Of course, we don’t really know when that point is.” He was interrupted when the door to the shop crashed open.

 

“I’m tired of playing games,” Glory announced. “I want my Key, and I want it now. And if you don’t give it to me, I’m going to rip your guts out one by one.” At the long pause that followed that announcement, she said impatiently, “Come on, people. I’m on a schedule here, and it’s not nice to keep a god waiting.”

 

Buffy grabbed the first weapon that came to hand: Olaf’s hammer, which lay on a shelf. “You guys get out of here,” she ordered. “I’ll keep the bitch busy.”

 

“Bitch?” Glory demanded. “Oh, you’re going to pay for that!” Before she could say anything more, Buffy cut her off with a swing of the troll-hammer, sending her flying through the door.

 

Willow scooped up a couple of books she thought might be helpful, and tried to soothe a whimpering Tara. Anya emerged from the basement of the shop. “What’s going on?”

 

“Glory,” Giles explained shortly. “We need to get out of here.”

 

Anya viewed the damage to the front door with dismay and then held up the dimly glowing sphere. “Dagon Sphere,” she said. “If it was created to repel Hellgods, it might be helpful.”

 

“Brilliant,” Giles commended her. “But not now.”

 

Xander grabbed her arm and started to hustle her out the back. “Yeah. It’s definitely time to go, An.”

 

Outside, in front of the shop, Buffy was doing battle with Glory and wasn’t doing too badly. The Hellgod, on the other hand, was royally pissed off. Time was running out for her to get her Key, and she made a decision. “You know,” she said, in between blows from the hammer, and getting in her own shots, “I’m really getting tired of this. I think it might be time for me to kill you. Then, I can just torture your little friends until one of them gives me the information I want.”

 

“You can try,” Buffy retorted. “But it doesn’t look like you’re doing so hot right now.”

 

Glory gave her an uppercut that sent the Slayer flying. “Oh yeah? How’s that, bitch?”

 

“That tickled,” Buffy replied, a fire in her eyes as she fought her way to a standing position. “Of course, if you want to kill me, you’re going to have to catch me first.” With that, the Slayer took off at a run, not bothering to look over her shoulder to see if Glory was following. She knew the Hellgod wouldn’t be able to resist the chase.

 

Buffy just had to hope she could last long enough for the others to get somewhere safe. And that Giles made certain that her mom did the same.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike and Wesley were both bent over a book, though not the same one. After Spike’s tale, Wesley had immediately gone into research-mode, muttering about seeing something about Glory and the Knights of Byzantium in one of his texts. When he’d started pulling volumes down off the shelves, Spike had volunteered to help.

 

Dawn was off somewhere in the hotel, entertaining Fred, Cordelia was on the computer, looking up information on the ‘net, and Angel and Gunn were preparing the defenses—just in case.

 

Spike wished he could have been putting his plans for booby traps to good use, but his broken ribs made that a difficult task at best. He would have managed had Angel and the gang not returned, but as Angel had pointed out, Spike needed to be as fresh as possible.

 

Which had him on book-duty.

 

“Here’s something,” Wesley said. “It seems that Glory needs to use this Key at a particular time and place, otherwise it won’t be of any use to her.” The other man’s eyes were alive with hope behind his glasses. “Judging from your report of the agitation Glory was showing, I doubt that she has much time left.”

 

“Which just makes it that much more dangerous for Buffy as she gets frustrated,” Spike muttered, pulling off his glasses and pinching his nose. “Bloody hell. Well, might as well call Rupert and let him know. It’s something anyway.”

 

Wesley gave him a sympathetic look. “It’s difficult being here, knowing Buffy could be in danger.”

 

“‘Difficult’ is one word for it,” Spike replied with a pained smile. “Torture would probably be more accurate.”

 

“I’ll call Rupert, unless you want to,” Wesley offered.

 

“You go ahead,” Spike replied. “You found the information. You should get the credit.”

 

They kept researching, taking only a quick break for lunch, which Cordelia and Gunn had gone out to get. Fred was actually relaxed enough to eat with the rest of them, possibly because Dawn was animatedly explaining the latest Tom Cruise movie.

 

Spike threw himself back into research, trying to distract himself from thoughts of Buffy facing Glory on her own.

 

Between he and Wesley, they’d managed to discover that the Knights were a fanatical religious sect, the complete opposite of the monks who had created Dawn in the first place. Though both orders were pledged to keep the Key from Glory, the Knights were a militant order, while the monks were dedicated to peace.

 

That was it, though. There wasn’t any information on how to kill Glory, or if it was even possible. Spike shut his book with a bang. “Bloody hell, there’s nothing in here that’s helpful.”

 

Wesley leaned back in his own chair. “Perhaps you’re right. We could go see how Angel and Gunn are coming with the defenses.”

 

“Done,” Gunn announced as he came through the door. “Anything shows up, they’ll get a nice big surprise.” As if to underscore his words, there was a howl of pain from outside. “What the hell—”

 

“Spike!” Dawn’s voice was coming from upstairs, and Spike moved as quickly as he could through the lobby to see what was going on. “There are a bunch of guys in armor outside! I think they have the same tattoos on their heads as that guy in the hospital.”

 

Spike didn’t have to ask her what she was talking about, knowing immediately which “guy in the hospital” she was referring to. It meant the Knights knew that Dawn was the Key. Angel came pounding up from the basement, sword in hand just a few moments later. “Looks like they’ve got the hotel surrounded,” he announced without preamble.

 

“Can we get out through the sewers?” Spike asked.

 

“Maybe,” Angel said. “Probably. But they’ll just find you again. For right now, we’re safer making a stand here at the hotel where we can watch each other’s backs.”

 

“Angel’s right,” Wesley stated. “If we can manage to hold them off for a few hours until it gets dark, that would be best. After that, we can reconsider.”

 

Spike looked up. Dawn was standing on the stairs only a few feet away from him. She was his responsibility, his to care for. Joyce had entrusted her youngest into his hands—and now he was going to place his own life and hers into the hands of virtual strangers. “Right then. Let’s just hope that we in no way resemble Custer.”

 

Gunn raised an eyebrow. “Don’t know about you, but I ain’t got the right color skin for that. I think we’re playing the role of the natives in this one.”

 

Spike frowned, and then a gradual smile broke over his face. “Right. Natives. I think we can sew this up right quick.”

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy made it back to the house on Revello Drive in one piece, more or less. She was out of breath, and she’d gotten a few nasty bruises, but that was about it. The damage could have been a lot worse. “Where’s Glory?” Giles asked, getting to his feet as Buffy came through the front door.

 

“I don’t know,” Buffy confessed. “I led her on a wild goose chase, and then she got hit by a bus. I don’t think she got up, at least not soon enough to catch me.”

 

Giles shook his head. “We cannot keep this up indefinitely, Buffy.”

 

“We don’t need to keep it up indefinitely,” Buffy replied. “Just long enough to keep Glory busy. Long enough to make sure Dawn is safe.”

 

Giles took his glasses off and started polishing the lenses. “Then what do you think we ought to do now?”

 

Buffy sighed. “I think we should hide for a while. I don’t know where, but—”

 

“What about that old mansion Spike took us to a few weeks ago?” Joyce suggested, coming in from the kitchen. She was still using a cane to walk, but her mobility was much improved.

 

Giles looked vaguely hopeful. “That’s not a bad idea. It’s out of the way, and there’s little chance Glory will know to look there if we can make our way over without being spotted. Plus, there’s the fact that it’s rather far removed from innocents. Should we need to make a stand, that’s as good a place as any.”

 

Xander appeared behind Joyce. “Why can’t we plan for maximum distraction?” he suggested. “Angel won’t care if we blow up the mansion, right?”

 

Buffy hesitated and then grinned broadly. “I doubt it. It’s not like he ever uses the place. Okay, Xander, you get together what you’re going to need. Major explosives aren’t going stop Glory, but it will definitely be a distraction. And if we can lure her somewhere else, that’s even better. We just need to build a better mouse trap.” Buffy hefted the troll hammer she’d stopped to pick up on her way back home. “Maybe we’ll manage to hit a home run this time.”

Chapter Text

“As we close this nocturnal door, my love,/come with me, through the shadowy places./ Close your dreams, Love, enter my eyes with your skies,/spread out through my blood like a wide river…Into this ship, or water, or death, or new life,/we are united again, asleep, resurrected:/we are the night’s marriage in the blood./I don’t know who it is who lives or dies, who rests or wakes,/but it is your heart that distributes/all the graces of the daybreak in my breast.” ~Pablo Neruda, Sonnet LXXXII

 

“Buggers are all medieval,” Spike was explaining. “Back then, standard for warfare was to stand and fight, bash at each other with everything you’ve got. Won’t know what to do with guerilla warfare, yeah?” Their first step had been to barricade the entrances, making sure no one could get in without their knowing about it. Gunn had set the triggers on the traps around the doors as well. There seemed to be little chance that they would be surprised.

 

Spike noticed that Wesley’s skin had gone slightly pale at the mention of “guerilla warfare,” but he nodded. “It might work. There are quite a few of them, however. I’m not certain we’ll be able to pick off enough of them to make any difference, not when we’re so outnumbered.”

 

“We won’t have to,” Angel said. “If we take care of the leaders, it might cause enough confusion that we’ll be able to retreat, sit tight somewhere for a while.”

 

The conversation was taking place while they sifted through the weapons in the cabinet. There was another howl from outside, and Gunn smirked. “Yeah, that would be me.”

 

“Spike?” He looked over into Dawn’s huge eyes.

 

“It’s gonna be just fine, Nibblet,” he assured her. Spike looked over at Angel. “Maybe Cordelia should take the Bit and Fred through the sewers.”

 

“I don’t know my way around,” Cordelia immediately protested. “Besides, I’m not leaving you guys.” Then, looking over at Dawn, she quickly added, “Unless I absolutely have to, of course.”

 

“Of course,” Spike agreed, giving Dawn a little smile. “Nibblet? If I give you a knife, think you could avoid cutting yourself with it?”

 

She rolled her eyes, holding out her hand impatiently. To everyone’s surprise, Fred picked up an ax. “Don’t know that I’ll be any use, but I want to help.”

 

“You’re a big help, Fred,” Angel assured her.

 

Fred frowned. “You know, we could use the laws of physics in our favor.”

 

Spike could see her brain start to work overtime. “Dawn, I want you to listen to Fred. She gets a plan, you help her out with what you can, yeah?”

 

“Okay,” Dawn agreed.

 

“Angel’s pretty much stuck inside until nightfall,” Cordelia observed, hefting a crossbow. “So what are we gonna do?”

 

All of them exchanged glances. “Kill or capture the officers,” Wesley said quietly. “If we could capture one of them, we might manage to talk sense into them.”

 

Another howl of pain from outside where yet another one of them tried to cross the courtyard and triggered one of Gunn’s booby traps seemed to suggest that logic was not one of their strong points. Spike shrugged. “We can try.”

 

~~~~~

 

The mansion had been a good choice for a place to hide out—too good, as far as Buffy was concerned. Glory hadn’t managed to find them, and so about the only thing she’d had to do was help Willow look after Tara.

 

“We’re going to have to look for Glory at some point,” Willow whispered quietly. Tara was sleeping now, helped along by the pills the doctor had given her. “I think I can help her, but I’m actually going to have to be in physical contact.”

 

Buffy sighed. “I know. Hopefully, we’ll have some sort of sign that lets us know the end is nigh or something. I wonder if Spike is okay.”

 

“Call him,” Willow urged. “It’s been really quiet. I think you could take a few minutes.”

 

Buffy looked around. Giles and her mom were cuddled up to one another, obviously enjoying a private moment. Xander and Anya were nowhere to be seen, and Buffy had a feeling that she didn’t want to know what was going on. Not that Anya wouldn’t say something about it later.

 

She found a quiet corner, away from everyone else, and hit speed dial. “Hey.”

 

“Buffy.” He sounded distracted. “This might not be the best time, luv.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Got a bit of a problem here. Nothing we can’t handle.”

 

That wasn’t what Buffy wanted to hear. “What kind of problem?” she demanded.

 

“Remember those knights you chased off a while back?”

 

Buffy swore a blue streak, calling up words and phrases that Spike had no idea she knew. “How bad is it, Spike?”

 

“I’ve got backup,” he replied. “You probably know by now Angel and company are back in town. We’ll get it taken care of.”

 

She sighed. “If you can hang on for a while, I’ll get up there as soon as I can.”

 

“Not much you can do,” Spike replied. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of things.”

 

“I think Glory’s getting antsy,” Buffy said. “It shouldn’t take long.”

 

“Gotta go, pet. I love you.”

 

“Love you too,” Buffy said, and then she heard the chime that told her he’d hung up.

 

Nothing was ever simple.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike hadn’t known what to think when Angel and his gang had shown up. Not that he wasn’t grateful for the help, but the only ones he’d had any kind of feel for were Angel and Cordelia. Both Gunn and Wesley were unknown elements, although the fact that Wesley was now in charge, and that Angel and the others trusted him, were points in his favor.

 

What clinched his respect for both men, however, was watching them go out into the horde of Knights and come back with a thickset man, his tattoo more elaborate than any others Spike had seen so far. “I think we may have managed to locate the general,” Wesley commented.

 

“Yeah,” Gunn said, his face showing his derision. “Idiot had a big flag right above him. Was like saying, ‘Hey, come and get me.’”

 

“Good work,” Angel said, watching in surprise as Spike pulled a knife out of nowhere. A really big knife.

 

Spike’s eyes glittered. “Why don’t we secure our friend so we can have a nice chat, yeah?” His face still hurt, it was painful to breathe, and yet it all faded away. Spike had a mission—save the girl. Nothing—not even his own human weakness—was going to get in the way of that.

 

Gunn and Wesley tied him up and Spike drifted closer. “So, want to tell me why you’re here, and why you’re bothering me and my friends?”

 

“You have the Key,” the general replied. There was madness in his eyes.

 

Spike shrugged. “And what gave you that idea?”

 

“One of my men identified her as the Slayer’s sister. It is our duty to prevent the Beast from finding the Key.”

 

Spike rolled his eyes. “I was doing just fine without your help. Besides, Glory’s in Sunnydale, and she doesn’t know where her Key is at, unless your lot was followed.”

 

There was a flicker of something in the man’s eyes—it might have been intelligent thought—but it was soon gone. “The Key is the Link, the Link must be severed. Such is the will of God.”

 

“She’s innocent in all this,” Spike growled.

 

“The Link must be severed.”

 

“Why don’t you all go sever Glory?” Spike demanded.

 

“Or we could sever him,” Angel suggested from his position on the sidelines. “That could be fun.”

 

There was a small spark of fear in the general’s eyes—very small. If Spike hadn’t been looking for it, he wouldn’t have seen it. A cruel smile graced his face. “You see,” he murmured. “I was a very bad man, once upon a time. Committed atrocities you can’t even imagine. And I’ll commit them all again on you and your men for the sake of that girl.”

 

“You can do whatever you like with me,” the general replied, tilting his chin up. “We have our duty.”

 

“And I’ll slit their throats from behind in the dark,” Spike said, his eyes just a little wild. “I’ll stick your head on a pike outside this very hotel. You don’t want to know what I’m capable of.”

 

They engaged in a staring contest, and the general was the first to look away. Angel and the others watched with a sense of trepidation. Of all of them, only Angel had seen Spike this way, long ago. Angel had to admit to feeling a tinge of fear when Spike got crazy—he’d been known to do some damage in his time.

 

The railroad spikes had been a mark of genius, as he remembered.

 

That was the thing about Spike. He was into the kill, but it was more about the blood and the violence, the fight and the thrill of the moment. Unlike Angelus, who liked to take his time with things, Spike didn’t have the patience. Impulsive, thy name is Spike.

 

But Angel remembered after he’d been turned, after he’d learned what he was capable of, he’d gone after those who had wounded him one by one. He’d gone after them and had made them pay dearly.

 

He had reinvented himself.

 

Now, with the threat against Dawn’s life, Angel knew better than to underestimate Spike’s willingness to wreak havoc. He wasn’t kidding—Spike would slit every one of their throats and bathe in their blood, and he would enjoy every moment of it.

 

As much as he hated to admit it, Angel was feeling a little nostalgic.

 

Spike smiled, and there was no mercy in the expression. “So. You gonna wait for the Slayer to kill Glory, or are we gonna have to do this the hard way?”

 

For a moment it looked as though the general might actually see reason, but the moment passed. His jaw set, the man repeated, “The Key is the Link. The Link must be severed. Such is the will of God.”

 

Spike nodded once, as though he’d suspected as much. “Cordelia, be a luv and take Dawn upstairs.”

 

The woman looked at Angel, who nodded once, his face set. “Go on, Cordy. Take Fred with you.”

 

Spike waited until he was sure that Dawn was gone, and then slit the general’s bonds with one swift motion. The man looked shocked, but not for long. Spike soon had him in a chokehold, his forearm nearly strangling him.

 

Ignoring his protesting ribs, Spike hauled the general to the front doors of the hotel, expertly avoiding the tripwires on the booby traps. The Knights were crammed into the courtyard, obviously at a loss now that their general had been taken. It was as Spike had suspected: strike the head from the snake, and it’s all over.

 

It was what he planned on doing now.

 

“See your general!” he cried out in a loud voice. “I tried to reason with him. I told him that the Slayer would defeat the Beast and bring proof that she’s dead. Instead, he said he was going to kill the Key, a girl I have been sworn to protect. This is what happens to those who threaten the Key.”

 

The knife flashed brightly, briefly, and then was stained red with the general’s blood. Spike hadn’t cut his throat; he had, instead, sliced him across the belly. It was a mortal wound, but it promised a hard, lingering death, not a swift one.

 

He let the general fall, gasping like a fish out of water, and stood like a sentinel in the doorway. “I will kill every man here,” he said, and it was not a threat. “I will not stop until every one of you is dead if you even threaten that girl again.”

 

“The Beast must be stopped!” cried one of the Knights from the midst of the crowd.

 

“The Slayer will stop her. It is none of your affair any longer.” Spike spared a glance for the man lying at his feet, blood spreading in a pool around him, his innards visible through his fingers. “Next time,” he promised, “I won’t be quite so charitable.”

 

It wasn’t until he’d gotten inside the hotel that Spike began to shake. He sat down on the stairs hard, allowing Wesley to rescue the knife from his nerveless fingers. Wesley cleaned the blade expertly, though silently, and then handed it back.

 

“I’d do it,” Spike said. “Meant what I said. I’d kill every man out there before they harmed one hair on Dawn’s head.”

 

Gunn was silent, staring. Though he was no stranger to difficult decisions, he didn’t think he’d ever seen someone do something like that. Angel was quiet, coming over to stand close, almost hovering. He’d seen Spike like that before, when anyone had threatened Drusilla. “You did what had to be done.”

 

Spike wasn’t so sure. Oh, there was a part of him that knew there was no other way to get the Knights’ attention, to prevent them from attacking the hotel, but still—

 

The problem was that he had it in him—he could have killed every man out there and done it with a smile on his face and a song in his heart.

 

After all, no one threatened his girls.

 

“Perhaps you should get cleaned up,” Wesley suggested softly. “You might feel better.”

 

Spike nodded and levered himself off the ground, realizing belatedly that Angel had held out a hand to help him. “Ta,” he murmured. “I’ll just be—”

 

“Take your time, man,” Gunn said quietly.

 

Spike nodded, and then stopped when he heard Angel’s voice. “Spike—this doesn’t change who you are.”

 

He looked back at the vampire in surprise, as that idea hadn’t even crossed his mind. “I know that, Peaches. Violence is always there, no matter how much we like to pretend otherwise. It’s just—I’d almost forgotten it’s a part of me.”

 

 

~~~~~

 

They had spent the last day and a half making preparations, Buffy keeping an anxious ear out for her cell phone. She kept waiting for Spike to call her and tell her that he’d taken care of things and all was well.

 

She didn’t like to think about any of the other reasons someone might call.

 

Xander, much to everyone’s surprise, including his own, had managed to “bake a cake.” Buffy didn’t get the reference, but the carpenter got such a smug look when he said it, she had to grin herself. Luckily for all of them, it was a moveable bomb with a timer.

 

And Tara was quite obviously getting restless.

 

Buffy could feel the tension herself. It always felt this way right before a big battle—like everything was going in slow motion and fast-forward at the same time. It was getting difficult to restrain the blonde witch, and the general consensus was that they’d end up following her to wherever she led them, hoping it would be right to Glory’s doorstep.

 

Once they got there, Buffy would have the Dagon Sphere and troll-hammer. Xander would have his “cake.” And Willow would hopefully do her mojo to help Tara.

 

“Buffy!” Willow’s tone was urgent. “I think it’s time.”

 

They were ready—Buffy could see it in her friends’ faces as she looked over them as a general surveys her troops. “Be careful, honey,” her mom said.

 

“I always am,” Buffy said, thankful that Dawn was with Spike and the gang in L.A., that her mom would be safe enough here for the time being.

 

It would be enough. It had to be.

 

~~~~~

 

Spike couldn’t sleep, although it had nothing to do with killing a man and everything to do with his ribs hurting. The afternoon’s activities had renewed pain that had subsided. He slipped out of his room only to find Dawn waiting for him in the hallway.

 

“Nibblet? What are you doing up?”

 

She stared at him with wide eyes. “Did you kill him?”

 

“Kill who?”

 

“The general.” There was a long moment of silence as Spike debated telling her the truth. “Because if you did, I’m glad,” Dawn said fiercely.

 

Spike swallowed. “Dawn, luv—”

 

“I’m glad,” she repeated, but there were tears in her eyes. It was a hard thing to be fifteen and have people dying only because you existed.

 

Spike nodded, because he couldn’t think of anything to say in response. He ran a gentle hand down her hair, down her cheek, reminding himself that this girl was worth a million Knights of Byzantium, if only because he loved her. “Go back to bed now, Dawn,” he said gently, and watched as she left.

 

He wandered downstairs to find a light on in Angel’s office and Wesley seated behind the desk. “Spike,” the other man greeted him. “Is everything alright?”

 

“Couldn’t sleep,” was the short explanation. “And you?”

 

“I volunteered for the first watch,” Wesley replied. “I had some doubts as to my own ability to sleep tonight.”

 

Neither man said anything else for a while, and silence descended on the hotel. It felt thick, heavy. “Do you think they will attack?”

 

Spike glanced over at the ex-Watcher. “No,” he said softly. “I think I made an impression.”

 

“I would imagine,” Wesley said, some irony in his tone. “Are you—quite alright?”

 

Spike paused, giving the question its due weight. Tonight he was alright because there was a girl upstairs whose life depended upon him. In a week, or two, however, Spike was aware that he would most likely wake from nightmares, remembering how it felt to draw the blade across flesh, to watch the blood flow. He would ask himself if it hadn’t been better to make it a clean kill, quick and easy, not long and lingering.

 

Those questions were for later, though. “Tonight, I am.”

 

Wesley nodded as though he had some understanding. “You would have killed them all to protect Dawn.”

 

“She’s what’s important,” Spike said. “You want to talk about it?”

 

The other man stared at him. “Talk about what?”

 

“Whatever’s bothering you, mate,” Spike replied.

 

Wesley fiddled with the dagger lying on the desk. “I’m fine.”

 

“Right.”

 

There was another long pause. “Spike?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“If you had to make a hard decision, could you?”

 

Spike regarded Wesley with a steady gaze. “You talking about Dawn? About letting something happen to her if I had to?”

 

“Yes. Something like that.” Wesley wouldn’t look at him.

 

Spike looked away. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “It would kill me, though.”

 

“I had to make some difficult decisions in Pylea—where we were,” Wesley said quietly. “Men died because of decisions that I made.”

 

Spike sighed. “People die, sometimes for a good reason. Sometimes not. Sometimes by our own hands. It’s the way of things. Did you have another choice?”

 

“No, I don’t believe I did,” Wesley replied. “Not if we were to win.”

“Battle field decisions aren’t easy,” Spike said quietly. “And you can’t second-guess yourself later for it. It’s not worth it.”

 

“No, I don’t suppose it is.”

 

There was a companionable silence, and then Spike said, “You know, after all this is over, you ever need help—”

 

“I’ll let you know.”

 

“I’ll owe you.”

 

They waited and watched.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy watched Glory and Willow fly apart, watched as Tara seemed to shake herself, come back to herself. They’d followed Tara to the tower the Hellgod had built, obviously in hope that she would find her Key in time.

 

No such luck.

 

The Slayer waited for the coast to be clear, casting a glance over at Giles and Xander, who were setting up the bomb at the base of the tower. As it was being built in a demolition site anyway, it shouldn’t matter if they took it down the hard way. Or, actually, the easy way. It was not only an eyesore, but a public menace, and needed to be gotten rid of.

 

The plan, if you could call it that, was for Willow to do her mojo, and then for Buffy to get a workout with the Dagon Sphere and troll hammer. Once she’d softened the Hellgod up, they’d get the hell out of there and blow the tower, hopefully removing all the crazy people while they were at it.

 

Hopefully. At the moment, Buffy was more worried about keeping Glory busy until the window of opportunity for her to use the Key had passed. Sometimes you had to make the hard decisions.

 

“What the frickin’ hell did that bitch do to me?” Glory demanded. “She—she made a hole. Ugh. I need a brain.” The Hellgod staggered a bit, catching sight of Buffy. “Yours will do.”

 

“Come and get it,” Buffy invited. Glory stared at her, obviously thrown for a loop. “You know, you don’t look so hot.”

 

“That little witch-bitch gave me a little headache, but if you think this is going to take more than eight seconds,” Glory said, stripping off her outer robe.

 

Buffy raised an eyebrow. “You know, I’m hearing a lot of words, but I’m not seeing a lot of action.”

 

Glory sprang, but Buffy cracked her across the face, sending her flying. The Hellgod came after her again, and again Buffy beat her back. “You’re not blurry with the speed.”

 

“That witch—”

 

“Not the witch,” Buffy replied, smiling. “But maybe this?” she suggested, holding up the Dagon Sphere.

 

“You—”

 

“Me,” Buffy replied cheerfully. “Catch.”

 

Glory caught the orb out of sheer instinct, and its inner light flared. Buffy could see the Hellgod stumble yet again and clutch her side, and the Slayer took the opportunity to pick up the troll hammer. By the time she’d turned back around, Glory had crushed the sphere in her hand, and looked ready to do the same thing to Buffy.

 

“Nice try, but don’t think that’s going to stop me from killing you,” the Hellgod stated.

 

Buffy smiled. “Maybe not. But this might.” With a mighty swing, she hit Glory right in the middle, sending her soaring through the air, past a number of minions, and into one of the supports for the tower. The shaky structure shuddered. “Xander!”

 

“It’s ready,” he called back, his voice magically enhanced by Willow. The others were well away, and during the distraction had managed to herd a number of the crazy people away from danger. As for the rest, well, Buffy was trying not to think too hard about them.

 

It couldn’t be helped.

 

Buffy took off running, hearing Glory’s howl of frustration behind her, followed closely by a loud explosion. The concussion from the blast caused her to stumble, but Xander had done a pretty good job with his bomb. It took out one of the legs, but didn’t cause much damage otherwise.

 

Except, of course, for the fact that the tower couldn’t remain standing without one of its supports. And Glory was buried under the rubble.

 

~~~~~

 

Though Glory had missed her opportunity to return home, and in so doing remove all the barriers between the worlds, Giles wasn’t going to take any chances. Buffy had immediately headed for L.A., but he had gone back to the site of the battle, looking for one person in particular.

 

It actually didn’t take him very long to find her.

 

No, to find him. Giles might not have recognized Ben as Glory’s mortal host except that he was in the same place the Hellgod had disappeared, and he was wearing the same clothing that Glory had. Giles somehow found it less surprising than he might have.

 

Ben was gasping with pain, but Giles thought perhaps the man might survive if someone got him to the hospital quickly enough. He even said as much to the young man. “Then you’ll help me,” Ben gasped.

 

“No, you see, the Slayer couldn’t do this,” Giles said gently. Almost kindly, really. “She’s different than you or me. Buffy is a true hero. But I think I would rather you not have the chance to bother her again.”

 

It only took a minute to smother him, Giles’ hand over Ben’s mouth and nose. The injured man didn’t struggle much, and it was over quickly—a gentle death, in a way.

 

~~~~~

 

It had been a day and a half since he’d killed their general, and Spike could tell that the Knights were beginning to get restless. Truth be told, he didn’t quite expect them to restrain themselves, but Spike had expected them to recover a bit sooner.

 

If the Knights attacked, the plan was to spirit Dawn out through the sewers. Spike would take Fred with him, leaving Angel, Gunn, Wes and Cordy to fight, providing a distraction. No one commented on the futility of such a rear-guard action. Nor did anyone point out what would happen if Spike, Dawn and Fred were caught after they’d left.

 

Spike figured they were all hoping that the Slayer would take Glory out and then mop up the Knights of Byzantium as well.

 

For once, however, Fate (or luck, or God, or the Powers That Be) was with them. Early afternoon had Buffy striding through the door, one of the army’s officers on her heels like a well-trained dog. The Slayer was pretty much ignoring him in favor of making sure her fiancé was all right.

 

“Spike.” That one word carried a world of worry and relief. They found one another’s arms in moments, hanging onto each other.

 

The Knight’s voice echoed across the lobby. “The Beast—”

 

“Is dead,” Buffy said flatly. “As is the human whose body she shared. It’s done.”

 

For just a moment, the man looked as though he wanted to protest, as though he wanted to ask for some kind of proof, but the momentary madness soon passed. (He was remembering the look in Spike’s eyes, and had no desire to be gutted like a pig.) Instead, the Knight gave a short nod and then walked out of the lobby.

 

Buffy turned back to Spike. “It’s done,” she repeated.

 

Dawn was there a moment later, and Buffy gave her sister a hug before Spike asked urgently, “And Tara? She’s—”

 

“Fine,” Buffy said with a smile. “She’s fine. Willow’s spell worked like a—well, a charm. They’re making with the cuddles right now. Everybody’s okay. The most damage anybody got was a few bumps and bruises.”

 

Spike rested his forehead on hers. “Thank God,” he murmured reverently, surprised to find his eyes misting over with tears. And then his lips were on hers, and their kiss might have gotten way out of hand except that several of the onlookers cleared their throats.

 

They broke off reluctantly, and Spike gave Angel a sheepish grin. “Sorry, mate.”

 

“No, you’re not,” Angel corrected him, but his grin wasn’t completely sour. He’d begun to let Buffy go a while back, and seeing her with Spike, as happy as she was—well, it put the cap on things.

 

It wasn’t nearly as painful as he’d imagined it would be.

 

“Don’t think you’ve met everyone, luv,” Spike said, quickly introducing her to Gunn and Fred and re-introducing her to Wesley.

 

As the hotel began to buzz with a sense of completion and accomplishment, the vague sounds of the Knights of Byzantium leaving filtered in from outside.

 

It was finally done.

 

~~~~~

 

Giles had gone back to Revello Drive with Joyce, and she’d offered him tea and the use of her shower. Both were much appreciated.

 

He still felt half-sick with what he’d done, although Giles didn’t regret his actions. He couldn’t regret it, not when Glory was finished, never to bother them again. Not when the Knights had been stopped and Dawn was safe.

 

They were all safe.

 

The reunion was everything it should have been, although Giles thought he recognized the same look in Spike’s eyes that might have been in his own. One never could reach into the darkness within oneself without consequences.

 

Buffy soon left with Spike, and Giles would be surprised if he saw her in the next couple days. Joyce insisted on making Dawn something to eat, and then the girl went upstairs, saying that she wanted to actually listen to some decent music for a change.

 

The quiet that fell was heavy. “Rupert, is everything okay?”

 

Giles hesitated. The act of murder wasn’t something to be shared with your girlfriend. And yet, he thought Joyce might understand. “Glory’s host wasn’t dead when I found him.”

 

Joyce did understand. She was a woman who could read between the lines easily enough. “You did what you needed to do to protect my daughter,” she said softly. “And that’s one of the reasons that I love you.”

 

Giles looked over at her, surprised, and then he smiled, the tension draining out of him. “Thank you.”

 

Joyce shook her head in response. “No, Rupert. Thank you for keeping her alive.”

 

~~~~~

 

Entry from Dawn’s diary:

 

It feels weird to be back home. It’s like it’s been months since we were here. I had to check my room right away and make sure everything was where it was supposed to be. It just felt like a really long time, though, because everything and everyone is the same.

 

Except me.

 

It’s too bad we made it back to Sunnydale before school was out for the summer. We were only gone a few days, but I probably wouldn’t have had to take finals if Glory hadn’t come after Buffy so quick. But then those weird guys in armor would have attacked, and it could have gotten really scary, so this is better.

 

I heard Giles tell Mom that he’d killed the guy Glory lived in. I know I’m not supposed to listen in like that, but if I’d tried to leave they would have seen me, and that wouldn’t have been any better. I guess the tower crashing down on Glory really hurt her, and then Giles just finished it up. I’m glad. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about her anymore.

 

Tara’s okay again, and we’re back home. Sometimes I wonder if I’m not still just a little bit of a Key, but no one seems to know, or they’re not telling me. I guess it doesn’t really matter, though. Spike said what you do is more important than what you are, and he’s right. Even if I am still the Key, I’m other things too. I’m a sister and a daughter and a friend. That’s enough to keep anybody busy for a whole lifetime.

 

I guess Mom would say figuring that out means I’m growing up. I’ll bet I’m way more mature than Buffy by now.

 

~~~~~

 

Buffy watched Spike unpack from the doorway of his bedroom. “Are you really okay?”

 

“I’m fine, luv,” he replied, not turning to look at her. He’d assured himself of Tara’s well being as soon as possible, heading over to her and Willow’s place once they’d left the Summers’ residence.

 

Buffy hadn’t heard any part of their conversation, but it had been low and intense, with Tara doing much of the comforting. Assuaging Spike’s guilt, Buffy was certain.

 

He had a larger load to carry now.

 

Angel had pulled her aside before they’d left, explaining what had happened, that Spike had killed a human in cold blood. “He didn’t have a choice, Buffy,” Angel had assured her. “If Spike hadn’t done what he did, there’s no way we would have been able to prevent them from attacking us.” Angel didn’t add that they wouldn’t have been able to beat the Knights back; he didn’t need to.

 

Buffy was a little surprised that she didn’t care more, but Spike had more or less killed the general in self-defense. Or, at least in Dawn’s defense. The Knights had superior numbers, more weapons, and no problem with killing every single one of them.

 

“Angel told me what happened.”

 

“You have a problem with it?”

 

Buffy came closer. “Spike, you saved my little sister’s life and single handedly defeated an army of Renaissance Fair rejects. Where would my problem be?”

 

“I killed a man, Buffy.” Spike turned to face her, his eyes serious. “In cold blood, and I made sure it was gonna be a painful death. It’s just—I wasn’t sure I had it in me anymore. I’m not sorry,” he added.

 

“I wouldn’t have asked you to be,” Buffy responded.

 

Spike shook his head. “You don’t understand, luv. I watched a man die by my own hand, and I didn’t feel a thing. I have this life, where I’m in love with a girl, and planning on getting married. I have a job, and it’s all nice and tidy. It’s just a bit of a surprise to find I can spill a man’s guts without blinking an eye. Makes me wonder how much has really changed.”

 

Buffy frowned. “Everything has changed, Spike, and nothing. So you’ve got some darkness in you. So do I. We’ve both got a split life, one we live in the daylight and one we live after dark. If you didn’t have it in you, how could I be with you? How could I know that you could take care of Dawn? I told you before that I love every part of you. I meant it. Now more than ever.”

 

She was right, of course, Spike realized. They were the same—living two lives at once, knowing every moment was precious because their lives were so short. As Buffy’s job was to protect the world, Spike’s job—his real job—was to protect the ones he loved. It was a calling worthy of a hero.

 

Spike never believed he would wear that mantle. He rather thought his mother might be proud of him.

 

“I love you, Buffy,” he murmured, and the gravity of his tone spoke volumes. Spike felt a great weight lift off him, knowing that this moment, in some sense, was all that mattered.

 

They were alive. They were in love. And they had grace enough for today.

Chapter Text

When Buffy announced her intention, several weeks later, to take a vacation, no one raised an objection. She had, after all, finished up her second year of college without failing a class, while at the same time defeating a god and taking care of her mother.

 

That wasn’t something very many people could boast of.

 

Spike had managed to get signed on for the next academic year as the senior-year English and creative writing instructor at Sunnydale High. The fact that his first novel was about to be published had made for a rather good offer. (Not to forget the fact that he was a warm body already living in Sunnydale and used to its quirks. Teachers were difficult to find, never mind published ones.)

 

As Joyce was back at the gallery full-time, and everything else was back to normal, it was not a hardship for everyone to wave bon voyage. Especially as Buffy had commented that she deserved a break, no one had dared to disagree.

 

And so it was that the Slayer and her ex-vampire found themselves ensconced on a little beach in Cancun, soaking up the sun.

 

A warm climate was absolutely imperative, as Buffy had every intention of keeping Spike as unclothed as possible, and slapping the sunscreen on his still fair skin often. Like, a lot.

 

Spike, for his part, had looked forward to time spent in the sun, forgetting as much as possible the darkness that was still inside him. Sunny days like this on the beach with his girl caused the horrors to seem rather far away.

 

“Do we have to go back?” Buffy asked on the fourth day. It was only the second day they’d been to the beach, since the first two days had been spent in their hotel room getting reacquainted in as many ways as possible.

 

Spike groaned. “Don’t wanna talk about it. We’ve still got a few days, pet.”

 

“Yeah, but it’s not enough,” she replied. “I mean, it’ll be back to the real world, and slaying demons and vampires…”

 

As Buffy trailed off, Spike raised his head just enough to give her a lascivious grin. “Slaying’s not so bad. Gets the blood going.”

 

“You don’t need any help to get the blood going,” Buffy teased. Then, serious again, she said, “You know what I’m saying.”

 

“I know what you’re saying,” Spike replied, rolling over to get a better look at her. “And I wouldn’t mind staying here forever myself, but you’d miss your mum and friends.”

 

That was true enough, and Buffy knew that Spike would miss them too. “What if I moved in with you?” she suggested.

 

“Moved in?” Spike asked, raising an eyebrow. “Sure you want to share that apartment of mine?”

 

“We could look for one together,” Buffy coaxed. Although her suggestion had been spur-of-the-moment, the idea had appeal. No longer would they need to catch stolen moments in the midst of busy schedules. They would actually be living together.

 

The thought of waking up next to Spike every morning definitely had appeal.

 

“What if you got tired of me?” he asked.

 

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Not going to happen. Besides, don’t you remember what it felt like when you spent a few days in L.A.? I want you around as much as possible.”

 

Spike remembered. He also remembered the lovemaking that followed their separation. Let’s just say that if he didn’t find being away from Buffy so painful, Spike would plan on taking regular over-night trips. Turned out that “coming-home-sex” was better than “making-up-after-a-fight sex.”

 

“Besides,” Buffy added. “I know Mom wants to keep Giles around as much as possible, and if we’re there, it doesn’t make it much fun for them.”

 

Spike considered the idea. He was getting used to waking up with her head on the pillow next to his. The thought was tempting.

 

“When we get back home, we should look for apartments then,” Spike said finally. “Or houses.”

 

“Houses?” Buffy squeaked, thinking of the kind of commitment that took. Not that she was afraid to make it, but still. A house. Who would have thought she might be buying a house with an ex-vampire?”

 

“Well, not for right away,” he acknowledged. “But in a year or two. Should have enough money for a down payment then. We could get married and then buy a house.”

 

Spike had pondered this a lot, had thought about what it might be like to set up housekeeping with Buffy. He’d thought more about what it meant for him to have a job, to have a book accepted for publishing, to be with the woman he loved. Spike was aware, down deep, that by protecting Dawn he had helped to save the world again.

 

While the guilt over his past crimes was still difficult to bear, there had been entire days recently that he’d not given it a second thought.

 

Spike had decided that he liked being normal—or as normal as a person like him could ever get.

 

Buffy looked over at him, realizing that he was waiting for an opinion or an answer, or perhaps both. Suddenly, it didn’t seem so strange that they might be talking about buying a house, or getting married. A year or two ago, Buffy would have said she had only a few years to live. She would have hesitated to make such long-term plan.

 

As Spike had said, however, just because she was the Slayer, didn’t automatically mean she couldn’t grow old and have kids. It just made it a little more unlikely.

 

Life might be short and hard and brutal, but with Spike, it would be a good life.

 

“We should set a date when we get back home,” Buffy suggested. “For the wedding, I mean.”

 

Spike smiled. “Whatever you want, luv.”

 

And on a Mexican beach, two people found themselves to be perfectly happy.