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The negotiations had barely begun, and Dawn was already angry. So far, the cybernetic watchers had proven themselves to be every bit as condescending as the old Council, while completely disregarding its saner rules. Dawn left the fact that they were basically robots off her official list of complaints, on the grounds that people without childhoods ought not throw stones, but that was where her generosity ended. She hadn't thought much of anyone could be more infuriating than Quentin Travers, but the cyborg liaison who wore his face was rude, dismissive, and hopelessly ignorant when it came to both slayers and vampires. He didn't seem to realize that neither group was composed of unfeeling machines. Worse, he seemed to believe that Dawn herself was a machine, and that her purpose was to fetch him things and look pretty. It would have been enough to tick off even the most experienced scooby, and Dawn wasn't anywhere near that level of maturity. She'd expected her summer job to make use of her more esoteric skills, but she hadn't realized just how much stupidity she would have to put up with.

Travers had been in Giles's office with him for the past hour, only occasionally speaking loudly enough for her to catch bits and pieces of their conversation through the thin office walls. Dawn's work area was situated right outside Giles's office, where she had her own cluttered desk with a computer that was only four or five years old. She liked having it, but she had a bad habit of stabbing at the keys too hard whenever something made her angry. If the negotiations with the cyborgs lasted longer than a few days, Dawn figured computer wasn't likely to survive long enough to become a true historical artifact. It would be lucky if it made it to next week.

When Dawn heard a knock on the doorframe in the middle of the night, she was just about ready to snap. She quickly replaced her scowl with an overly cheery smile when she saw who it was. "Hey, Andrew. Come on in. Giles is busy right now, but you can hang until he's done if you want."

Andrew looked around the room with mild suspicion. "If I do, will I take 2d6 points of bludgeoning damage?"

"My rage is currently not directed at you." Dawn grabbed her cup of coffee and grimaced as the liquid hit her tongue. She was still experimenting with the ideal sugar-to-cream-to-coffee ratio. She'd started drinking the stuff in an effort to keep up with Giles' completely ridiculous schedule. One week into her job, and she was pretty sure the man never actually slept.

"Ah. In that case, feel free to regale me with tales of your professional life," said Andrew, pulling out his pipe with absolute seriousness. Dawn tried not to snicker as bubbles drifted up. It might look ridiculous, but it was definitely better than watching him choke on the real thing.

"Well, Giles is finally having actual talks with those cyborg people. So far all we know is that they think they're fighting the good fight, and they negotiate like an army of Quentin Travers clones- which, for all I know, is exactly what they are. He's in his office now, probably more angry than I am."

"Oh. Sorry to hear you're not having any fun."

"Woah, woah, I didn't say that," said Dawn, setting her coffee down. "This is probably the coolest summer job ever. Guess who gets to spend her breaks reading through the watcher's diaries and surviving council records? This kid, that's who."

Of all the people she'd told about the perks of her new job, Andrew was the first to respond with the desired level of enthusiasm. "Ooh, so it's like you're getting all the expanded backstory in addition to the regular plot?"

"Pretty much." The phone rang, and Dawn shot Andrew an apologetic glance before picking it up and answering. "Council of Slayers and Watchers, this is Dawn Summers speaking. How may I help you?"

The voice on the phone sounded young, male, and shaken. Dawn didn't recognize it. "Hi, I'm trying to reach Willow Rosenberg?"

"Willow's not here right now. Would you like me to take a message?"

"No, there's no time. Listen, this is gonna sound crazy, but I think the world's about to end unless we do something, like, right now."

It was a testament to the absurdity of Dawn's life that there had never actually been a time when those words would have sounded crazy to her. There had been times when she would have flown into a panic at the sound of them, but she'd done some growing up since then. "Understood. Do you know when the world is supposed to end?"

The guy on the phone sounded like he'd expected more resistance, but he kept talking. "Um, not really sure. Best guess is later today?"

"OK, who is this and where are you?"

On the other side of her desk, Andrew was staring at her with renewed interest. Dawn waved him over and switched to speakerphone, holding her hand up for him to be quiet. The guy on the phone kept talking. "Sorry, my name's Connor Reilly and I'm in Los Angeles. I don't know a lot, but Angel just dropped by earlier this afternoon. Basically, I think he's in deep trouble, and I was wondering if Willow could fly in and do something. I know he trusts her. I know this is weird, I just don't know a lot of other people who, you know, know about stuff like this, and I'm guessing it's something to do with Wolfram & Hart-"

Dawn felt like she and Andrew were locked in their own private bubble of doom. It was so little to go on, but it wouldn't be the first time Angel had tried to deal with apocalyptic-level stuff on his own. She thought of the third-hand account she'd heard of the Jasmine situation, and immediately started cycling through options. Willow was in Brazil, Buffy was on vacation and deliberately unreachable, Xander was probably still in Nigeria-

Get Faith? mouthed Andrew. Dawn nodded, and he pulled out his cell phone.

That was when she remembered that she was in the office of one of the most experienced watchers left alive, and hurried to open Giles's door. Not-Travers cut himself off mid-sentence. Giles glared at her. "Dawn, I'm in a meeting."

"I know. I just thought you'd like to know that we got a tip about the end of the world."

If there were any words that could change Giles's tune faster than that, Dawn had yet to find them. In seconds, Travers was standing awkwardly in the corner while Giles hovered beside Dawn's desk. Giles kept asking questions, and Connor kept explaining about Angel and something called Wolfram & Hart. Dawn was missing too many pieces to follow all of it, but the gist seemed to be that Angel had pissed off something roughly as huge and nasty as the First, and Connor thought it wise to call for backup.

Giles, if anything, looked even more concerned than Connor sounded. He turned back to her, wearing the expression he generally reserved for truly horrifying catastrophes. "Dawn, go home. I hope I'm wrong, but I suspect this truly is an emergency, and I'm afraid it's not the sort you can help with."

"Faith's on her way," announced Andrew. He was already getting twitchy, but he managed to pull Dawn aside for a moment. He glanced at Giles and again at Travers before whispering to her. "OK, I'm not a hundred percent sure how, but I'm going to LA. You coming with me?"

Dawn wasn't entirely sure whether he was serious. Andrew usually was, but that didn't mean he had necessarily thought things through. "Andrew, we have no idea what's really going on here. Other than Angel, we don't even know these people."

The twitchiness was in danger of turning into some kind of weird interpretive dance. "See, OK, we kind of do."

"Andrew, either spit it out or let me wait for the apocalypse in peace!"

"You don't understand," whispered Andrew. "Spike's in LA."

---

Dawn's costume is awesome. She's a vampire, but a cool vampire. In real life, of course, vampires are smelly and ugly and completely lame, not at all like the ones you read about in books, where they have castles and capes and are always young and beautiful. Even Angel's not like that, though you wouldn't know it from how Buffy swoons over him. He's not obviously ugly, and his coat looks kind of like a cape when the wind hits it right, but Dawn happens to know that he lives in an apartment down by the Bronze.

Dawn is exactly like the ones in the books. She looks like Dracula, if Dracula were eleven years old and a girl. Her face is painted as white as the moon, and her nails are covered in glistening red polish. Her old magician's cape billows out behind her with every step she takes. A white button-down shirt and black dress pants form a simple yet sophisticated base- not bad, considering she was just working with whatever she had on hand. The only part she actually bought is the 99¢ pair of plastic fangs from Ethan's. Anyway, being a cool gothic vampire definitely beats re-using last year's bumblebee costume. Buffy's been drafted by her school principal to take a bunch of younger kids around town that night, and Dawn's managed to convince their mother to let her go around with a group a school friends chaperoned by Janice's mom. In other words, she's got a nearly unprecedented level of freedom tonight. The evening promises to be awesome, and Dawn is in high spirits.

When she turns into a vampire for real, her spirits go from high to "this is the greatest thing that's ever happened". Granted, she can't remember anything else, but she's pretty sure this is the greatest she's ever felt in her existence. The power is intoxicating. The evil is like a beautiful void. All her messy, tangled, human cares and concerns are blessedly silenced. She is nothing but her desires and the power to obtain them. She's never felt so completely alive, and she's eager to put her powers to the test.

That's when she sees the other vampire- white-blond hair, long black coat, pale-as-death skin, and golden eyes that glint like coins when the light hits them. She thought she was graceful, but this creature is something else altogether. He rips the head off a passing demon like it's nothing at all. Dawn the monster senses that this is someone with remarkable strength and skill, a being to be feared and admired. Dawn the girl thinks he's beautiful, as magnificent and terrible as the night itself. Every piece of her sees that he's having the time of his life, reveling in the chaos and senseless destruction. It just looks like so much fun, and fun is the only thing that matters right now. It seems like half the children in Sunnydale trail behind him at some point, joining him for a night of exhilarating vandalism and violence in general that culminates in pursuing the slayer.

This is her first memory of him. For these short hours, she knows nothing else- not his age, his history, or his name. It doesn't even occur to her that he has one until Buffy tells her about her encounter with Spike. Dawn keeps her mouth shut about meeting him- in fact, she keeps her mouth shut about transforming in the first place. She doesn't like to worry Buffy any more than necessary, and it doesn't seem all that important.

In the end, the whole thing pretty much blows over- she didn't get the chance to kill anyone, nobody saw her, and there aren't a whole lot of major consequences. Assuming her info is even accurate, which is not something she's ready to assume, she's now aware of how vampires experience the world. Weirdly, demon possession does not appear to be a feature. She doesn't remember being scooped out and replaced. At the time, it just felt like she was finally free to be herself. She doesn't really think about how this contradicts the Watcher's Council records (she's eleven, for crying out loud), but the seed of doubt takes root and waits for more evidence.

In her diary, Dawn files Spike away as a dangerous enemy. In her dreams that night, he's a little boy, another fifth-grader who says "woah" and stares blankly when his plastic fangs fall out.

Spike is a vampire, yeah. But for a while there, so was she.

---

Dawn waited several seconds, but her brain refused to process it. All she could do was repeat the statement out loud. "Spike's in LA?"

Connor's voice piped up again through the phone. "You guys know Spike?"

Giles sounded entirely calm. "We have had dealings with him in the past, yes. The council has know that Spike was extant for some time."

Extant. What a stupid word for- "Spike's alive?"

Connor decided helpful details were in order. "He works with Angel. Vampire, bleach-blond hair, british guy, potty mouth?"

It sunk in then, all at once. Spike wasn't dust. It was impossible, of course, but she'd seen so many impossible things over the course of her short life that the word had nearly lost all meaning. "You saw him recently?"

"About a month ago. He's probably tied up in whatever's about to go down."

Dawn's brain roared to life, making all the necessary connections at once. Disbelief gave way to hurt- did everyone know? Was there some reason she'd been left out? The hurt transformed into anger, looked around wildly for a target, and found Andrew, now hunched over his laptop in the process of looking up flight times. "You knew. You knew he was alive."

"Yeah, kinda." He looked up at her and folded in on himself a bit, as if preparing for a blow.

Dawn was way too mature to hit people these days, but there were times she thought she ought to make exceptions. "How long?"

He looked back at the laptop and started typing again. "I found out in January. He'd already been in LA for months."

"You knew, and you didn't tell me." Dawn wasn't sure whether she wanted to sound angry or hurt at this point, and was even less sure what she was actually feeling. The thought that Spike might be alive left her feeling hopeful and despairing all at once, and left her with a dozen very important questions that probably couldn't be answered by anyone except him.

"He asked me not to tell Buffy. You would have told her." This was said as an indisputable fact. Dawn had to admit that it was pretty likely, but only because Buffy deserved to know, too. Andrew seemed to disagree- despite his obvious nervousness, there was nothing apologetic about his voice or stance. "I told Giles. He said if Spike wanted it to be a secret, then that was Spike's decision." He looked back at the computer and entered in a few more keystrokes. "There's a plane heading out in- uh, less than an hour. We can maybe catch it if we run."

Dawn was still reeling from the first part. He hadn't told her about Spike's resurrection out of loyalty to Spike. Giles had respected Spike's wishes, even after everything (though she wasn't naive enough not to realize that keeping Spike away from Buffy was probably part of his thought process). Dawn was furious with both of them, but at least she could say that their hearts were probably in the right place this time.

Spike's thought process, on the other hand, was probably from a different planet. She couldn't imagine any reasonable explanation for why someone would push the limits of the possible by willingly regaining a soul, only to let a little thing like death stand in their way. Except- crap, now that she'd thought of it, resurrection wasn't a cakewalk, and there was every possibility that there was some serious reason he'd thought contacting Buffy was a terrible idea. She thought through a dozen scenarios in the space of a few seconds. Every single one of them made her heart twist, either for him or for Buffy or for herself.

Andrew was still staring at her, waiting for her decision.

Somewhere out there, in a city that was about to be swarming with demons in the next twenty-four hours, Spike was alive, in all but the technical sense. Probably waiting for the end of the world without her, thinking himself noble and preparing to go out as some kind of obnoxious sacrificial lion. Again.

It made Dawn want to punch his stupid face in.

"I'm going," said Dawn. She was suddenly absolutely certain that Spike was back from the dead, and that meant she had to go to Los Angeles. "Not with whoever else you send. I'm going now. This second. Andrew, run ahead and get the tickets, I'll catch up in a second."

Andrew was already out the door by the time Giles reached for his glasses. He stopped short of taking them off, as though he'd suddenly thought better of it. "From a tactical perspective, I don't recommend that you go. If Angel truly has decided to openly defy the Senior Partners, Los Angeles may well be a war zone by the time you arrive."

"But you can't stop me."

It probably wasn't true. If Giles really wanted to keep her in London, he could always order the slayers to detain her. What she meant was that it would be wrong to stop her. She was an adult, if only for the past few months, and it was her decision to make. Even if it was a bad decision, it wasn't his place to forbid it. Giles understood that. In that moment, seemed to regard her less as a rebellious teenager and more as a warrior hell-bent on returning to her comrade in arms. "I will not stop you, no. You must do whatever you think best."

Dawn hurried to her desk and made a grab for her purse. She had nearly forgotten that Travers was in the room when he spoke up. His tone was all condescension, of the sort that said I know infinitely more than you and have seen this sort of foolishness before. "Miss Summers, think. You have very little information, and all the intelligence you do possess suggests that the vampire you plan to assist is working against this establishment. You would be flying blind into the belly of a vicious beast, a decision which flies in the face of everything that has allowed this organization to survive for millennia. If this situation had cropped up three years ago, you would be going in direct opposition to the council's orders."

Three years ago, Dawn probably would have tossed some semi-harsh language in Travers' general direction, then gone on about how awesome Spike was and how it would take a whole army to stop her from reaching him. Two years ago, there was a good chance she'd have cast the first and loudest vote for 'kill the bastard, preferably slowly'. She didn't even know what she'd felt a year ago. She didn't know what she felt now, only that Spike was alive, and she had to see him. The how and the why weren't things she wanted to think about, but she hesitated with hand on the doorknob anyway.

Travers saw his opening and took it. "You are wise to have second thoughts, Miss Summers. Whatever you remember of him, William the Bloody is no ordinary killer. The words 'rape' and 'murder' scarcely do his crimes justice. If he has chosen not to contact you, there can be no doubt that his reasons are not the ones you hope."

She wanted to defend him. She wanted to throw up at the fact that she even thought about disputing any of that, apart from maybe the last little bit. She wanted to spew something about the soul, even though she was still adamantly against the idea that the loss or gain of one made him a different entity than he was before. She kind of wanted to punch Travers for making her think about this again. She'd done it often enough in the last few months, if only on a hypothetical level, and it never ended well. Instead, she turned to Giles. "He's not necessarily wrong."

"I imagine you would know," said Giles.

And she would. She knew exactly what she was doing here, certainly better than Travers did. She couldn't say with any certainty that going to LA was the right thing to do, but if she didn't go, and something happened- she imagined one more body, this one nothing but dust. One more person lost, this one dead twice on her watch, dead before she even figured out whether it was supposed to matter to her.

She turned the doorknob. "Yeah. But I'm going anyway."

Giles met her gaze, read whatever was written there, and nodded slightly. "Do what you must."

It wasn't even a question. She wrenched the door open and ran.

---

Mom doesn't know what to make of him, sitting in their living room and waiting patiently for Buffy to get off the phone with Xander. She's still trying to process the existence of vampires and the fact that her eldest has a sacred duty to slay them. Dawn, on the other hand, has know about this stuff basically forever (because when you're eleven-almost-twelve, a year and a half might as well be an eternity). She knows enough to understand that the situation is highly weird if they're giving invites to known vampires. Buffy has done some stupid things in the past, but she wouldn't invite a vampire into the house if she thought there were the slightest chance of him hurting either her or their mother, so Dawn bounces over to him and states the obvious. "You're a vampire."

"Yeah," he says, smiling. "An' you're lunch."

She should be frightened. Should be terrified- he could kill her in seconds, without any effort at all, and Buffy wouldn't be able to run in from the next room in time to stop him. Somehow, this doesn't occur to her. "Nuh-uh. You're working with Buffy right now, so you have to behave."

"'Spect so," he says, sounding mildly disappointed. She supposes this is what passes for polite conversation between them. His face is human, and there's no unspoken threat in his posture. His power itself ought to be enough, but it isn't. She's uneasy, but certainly not afraid.

Not of him, anyway.

"You guys are going to fight Angel?"

"'M going to kill him," says Spike, matter-of-factly.

"Good."

She's not sure what reaction he expected, but it wasn't that. His eyebrows shoot up when he realizes that she's entirely serious. Her mother is probably horrified, but Dawn is beyond consulting her moral compass right now. See, Angel is a threat to Sunnydale, he's apparently kidnapped Giles, and now he's trying to destroy the world. But most of all, he hurt her sister, and that is unforgivable.

For a single isolated moment, she and Spike understand each other.

The moment ends when Buffy returns from the kitchen. Dawn backs up to give Buffy space to negotiate with Spike, watching both of them like a hawk (if the wold is going to end tonight, she wants to know why). After he leaves, she drifts out of her mother's line of sight. An argument breaks out, and her mother yells that Buffy shouldn't come home. Buffy goes, mom pours herself another drink, and Dawn hugs herself on the stairs while she waits for it to all be OK again. She's glad her sister has backup, even if it is a vampire.

---

Three hours later, Dawn was on a plane next to Andrew. She had already finished second-guessing and third-guessing her decision to go, and had moved on to facing her destination with a sort of grim determination. Andrew had already given her the highlights of his recent interaction with Spike. Since they'd met exactly twice, the highlights and the complete picture were pretty much the same thing, and the entire story didn't do a lot to make her feel better. Not that she felt bad, exactly, because there were also some pretty good feelings under the "Spike is alive" heading, but she definitely wasn't through being angry. There just wasn't a lot she could do about it under the circumstances, so she settled for angrily staring out the window and indulging the occasional rant. "I still can't believe you didn't tell me. You invited him into my apartment and you didn't even tell me he was alive."

Andrew's response was the same as it had been the last three times, though the fact that he was sitting down interfered with his ability to dance while he spoke. "I know. I just... he made me promise not to."

There was no way for her to reply to that, so Dawn didn't try. She wasn't even certain she wanted to know the specifics, because as long as she didn't she could at least pretend there was some sort of reasonable explanation. She was really pretty sure there wasn't, but hey, benefit of the doubt. Not that Spike really deserved it at this point, but she was going to give it to him anyway, because assuming the worst would be entirely too painful.

Her phone went off for the fifth or sixth time since leaving the office. The ringtone was starting to annoy her, but changing it would have interfered with her angry window-staring. "It's Willow. She's flying in from Rio. She'll probably arrive about the same time as the slayers- an hour after us, max." A good two hundred slayers had been mobilized behind them on faster, council-funded jets, and powerful witches and other allies were flying in from other places. Dawn wasn't sure whether the number of troops made her feel better or worse. Obviously Giles was taking the situation beyond seriously, and that meant there was more than likely very serious danger ahead of them.

"Good," said Andrew, deflating a little. "That's good, right? Buffy still MIA?"

"Apparently. And don't say it like she's in some POW camp or whatever. She's deliberately unreachable because she's on vacation." Dawn privately suspected that the word 'vacation' translated to 'secret long-range vampire-hunting quest', but there was no reason to get into that now. "I'm sure she'll call as soon as she gets home."

"Sorry. Any info on Spike? Or Angel?"

She glanced at the phone again, hoping more information would appear if she re-read the text. "Doesn't say."

Andrew shifted in his seat. "Are you mad at me?"

"Yes." A glance at Andrew's reflection told her that he was closer to utterly crushed than properly chastised, so she elaborated. "I still think you should've told me earlier, but I understand why you didn't, and I'm glad you said something when you did."

"Oh." He paused. "Are you mad at him?"

She was angry, of course. Who the hell did Spike think he was, letting them all think he was dead for a year and change? The trouble was that she wasn't just angry. She was also relieved, elated, nervous, upset, hurt, determined, hopeful, surprised, confused- and as much as she hated to admit it, she was mostly afraid. She felt like that was the wrong response, but she couldn't stop worrying that Spike would get himself killed before they arrived in LA, and the thought sort of made her want to panic. She didn't want to examine her thought process too closely there, but the fear itself was impossible to deny.

"Dawn?"

Dawn glared at him. "Yes, I'm angry, but it doesn't matter. If you got in trouble, I'd help you out no matter how pissed off I was. Same thing with Spike."

Part of her whispered that that didn't make any sense, she had to have reasons for doing these things, but she couldn't have said what they were. Either way, her explanation was enough for Andrew to relax. Even garden-variety Scooby gang solidarity was a force to be reckoned with nine times out of ten, and Andrew was never one to let awkwardness keep him from pretending everything was OK. At the moment, Dawn didn't really mind. Considering how tangled her own emotions were, it was probably good to have someone along who knew exactly what his position was: Spike awesome, Dawn friend, sleep good.

He yawned, and Dawn could see that the last one was the most pressing concern at the moment. "So, I'm really tired, do you mind if I lean on you?"

She shrugged and returned to staring out the window, watching the world below them. "Knock yourself out."

Andrew fell asleep with his head on her shoulder, which Dawn minded a lot less than she expected. A few minutes later, she rested the side of her head against the top of his. It wasn't the comfiest position she'd ever had to sleep in, but it got the job done. As long as she slept, she didn't have to think about Spike. She might have dreamed about him, but by the time the flight ended, she couldn't remember.

---

Dawn knows she should probably be concerned when Spike walks into their kitchen, but she's not in the mood to listen to her instincts. Besides, Buffy would have taken the time to disinvite him if he were a serious threat. Ergo, the alliance they made last spring is probably still in effect. Dawn decides she doesn't have to do much more than keep an eye on him, so she keeps sitting at the kitchen island and doesn't bother getting a cross or a stake. Her mother stares blankly at him for a second, then her face lights up in recognition. "Spike!"

"So you remember me. Nice to know I make an impression," he says, grinning like he wants to eat someone.

Her mother doesn't seem to notice. "It's just that we haven't seen you in months. Would you like some hot chocolate?"

Spike opens his mouth and pauses, like that isn't the question she was supposed to ask and he has no idea how to respond. He doesn't seem offended, just surprised, and Dawn can see his brain shifting gears. Even so, she's surprised when he says yes and sits down at the kitchen island, not making any threatening movements at all. Her mother doesn't seem surprised in the slightest. She just turns her back on him and starts boiling water, like he's a regular person.

Dawn finds herself staring. She never got the chance to look at Spike this closely before. She didn't notice, for instance, that he painted his nails black. The polish is all chipped and uneven- it should have been touched up at least a week ago, probably more. She's about to ask him why he hasn't retouched it when her mother interrupts with what should be a more neutral conversation-starter. "So, Spike, what brings you back to Sunnydale?"

There are tears in Spike's eyes. Dawn can see what's coming, but she doesn't believe it's going to happen until it actually does. Suddenly there's a vampire sobbing in her kitchen, and Dawn has no idea what to do about it. It goes on for several minutes, until her mother hands him a mug of hot chocolate. Spike takes a gulp (how can he drink it without waiting for it to cool?) and looks at them both anxiously, like he's expecting to have to rip their throats out after this display.

"Do you want to talk about it?" asks mom.

Spike's barely heard the invitation before he starts telling his story. It's very haphazard, and he obviously cares more about getting all the information out than about organizing it in any logical manner. As far as Dawn can tell, he went to Brazil with Drusilla, but she wasn't happy that he made an alliance with the slayer, so she cheated on him and then they broke up. Then he came back to Sunnydale. She's not really clear on why, because Spike is much more interested in talking about Drusilla and all the ways she hurt him. Dawn's not necessarily sympathetic- this is Drusilla they're talking about- but Spike's upset, and Spike's sort of OK-ish, in the sense that he once helped her sister save the world. She figures she ought to at least listen politely.

Spike has calmed down considerably by the time he gets back to the incident with the chaos demon for the second time. By that point he's already finished his first cup of hot chocolate, and Mom pours him another before basically telling him that he and Drusilla have grown apart, and that he should move on. Spike disagrees, just loudly enough that Dawn feels an inkling of fear.

Then he asks for mini marshmallows.

---

Los Angeles certainly didn't look like a city on the verge of an apocalypse. With the slayers due to arrive in less than twenty minutes, Dawn had to admit that there wasn't the slightest sign of anything unusual. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she was worrying about what they would do if the whole thing turned out to be a hoax of some kind. She could probably just visit Angel anyway and demand that he pay for a hotel room. Even if the apocalypse wasn't happening, she supposed that wouldn't interfere with her plans to yell at Spike. If anything, it would make things simpler.

She poked Andrew in the side to stop him from staring at the sidewalk. "Hey, wouldn't it totally suck if that Connor guy was actually just some prankster who was totally pulling our legs about the end of the world?"

"Well, that would mean the world isn't about to end," said Andrew. That was true, although he obviously didn't buy that for even a second. If Dawn were being honest, neither did she. It was June, and apocalypses always happened in May or June. They were in Los Angeles, which was second only to the hellmouths in its ability to attract doomsday-level threats. Connor had backed up his suspicions with intel on Angel and the AI team, which was completely consistent with the information Giles and Andrew already had. Most damning of all, Giles had already sent two planes full of slayers, and she knew he didn't do that sort of thing lightly. Just because she couldn't see the gathering armies of doom didn't mean they weren't on the way.

"So what's up with that sound, anyway?" asked Andrew, absently. "Reminds me of the orc drums from Two Towers, but people don't generally blast film scores in public, so what gives?"

Dawn had no idea what he was talking about. "What sound?"

"The drum beats. What's up with-"

Dawn froze as she heard it, too. They were slow and heavy, the sort of sound that couldn't possibly mean anything good. Dawn whipped around to see an army of demons- and woah, this was an army- advancing down the street. She normally expected demons to pour out of portals or holes in the ground, but the Senior Partners were an economical brand of evil. They wouldn't buy new when a used army would work just as well. The horde poured over the city like a tidal wave, wrecking anything that got in their way and getting closer every second. Now that she'd seen them, the idea of fighting them was laughable. She might as well have waved her arms at the sea and expected the tides to bend to her will.

One of the demons near the front threw something. It was dark and spun like a boomerang, eventually colliding with the side of a building only a few yards in front of them. Seconds later, several more of the objects followed. Dawn lost track of them as they arced through the pitch-black sky. When she caught sight of one again, she barely had time to tackle Andrew to the ground before it shattered the store window behind them. Andrew squealed, but at least they both had the presence of mind to cover their heads as the glass rained down.

After a moment, Andrew sat up and leaned against the store wall, babbling. "We're doomed. This is the end. We're going to die." She wanted to smack him, or at least tell him he was being ludicrous, but she mostly thought he was right. She couldn't look at that army without knowing it was going to kill her in another two or three minutes, assuming the flying tomahawks of doom didn't hit them first. Why in God's name had she thought coming to LA was good idea?

Oh, right, her enemy turned friend turned something. The man who had tried to rape her sister. The demon who had gone on to win a soul in an attempt to make things right. The babysitter who thought popcorn and chocolate milk constituted a properly balanced meal. The guy who always insisted she would adore Shakespeare's work when she was older, but that Herman Melville would always be as dull as watching paint dry. The dumbass vampire who would doubtless rip through six or seven insurmountable obstacles for her, if she were the one at the center of an apocalypse (or, at the very least, get himself thrown off a tower trying). The idiot otherwise known as Spike.

"We're going to die," Andrew kept saying. "We're really going to die this time."

Dawn decided two things. One, there were too many things she still had to say to Spike for their association to end with some suicidal rescue mission, and damn him, she was not going to die before giving him a piece of her mind. And two, she was Dawn Summers, watcher-in-training and former Key to the Universe. She'd seen apocalypses before this and lived to tell the tale. With any luck, she'd see several more. She'd be damned right along with Spike if she let some half-price thrift store Army of Doom bring her story to a crashing halt.

Dawn stood up and swept a hand through the shattered glass. Her hands bled where the glass cut them, but her fingers closed around the weapon. She walked to the nearest parked car and slammed the demon-tomahawk through the window without giving herself a chance to think about the consequences. As soon as she'd unlocked the car, she turned back to Andrew, who was staring at her like she'd lost her mind. He'd stopped babbling, or maybe she just couldn't hear him over the car alarm.

She spoke like something ancient and terrifying, and for a moment, she felt like something more than a lost little girl in the face of an oncoming army. "Get in. We're leaving."

---

Dawn only goes to Giles's house because she wants to know the specifics of why Buffy's going to LA so soon after Thanksgiving. She knows it's not just to visit their dad, and if she's gonna visit Angel then she really ought to mention it. Dawn's her sister, and she feels that she has a right to this sort of intel.

The problem is apparently much more extensive than she thought, because Dawn had no idea that the scoobies were keeping Spike chained up in Giles's bathtub. She lets out a squeak when she glimpses him through the bathroom doorway. Spike rolls his eyes at her, like he bought a ticket for a genuinely scary movie and finds the experience completely unsatisfactory. "Oh, it's you. Slayer using little girls to watch her captives now?"

Dawn's too surprised to come up with a genuine comeback, and walks into the bathroom to make sure it's really him. "You look pathetic."

"Keep talking like that, Snack Size, and I will bite your bloody hand off," snarls Spike. She's almost impressed by how unimpressive he manages to be. He's gradually gotten less impressive every time she's seen him, but this is just sad.

Dawn leans out of the bathroom. "Giles! You're aware that Spike's in your bathtub, right?"

"He can't harm you," says Giles, cleaning his glasses off. He sounds like he's talking about some flea-bitten dog he's looking after. "Or so he claims, anyway. We obviously don't want to take any chances, but Willow seems quite convinced."

"How long's he been here?"

"Three days, give or take a certain number of hours."

"Uh-huh." She decides that isn't an unacceptable amount of time to hold him without telling her, especially since Buffy isn't living in her house anymore. "How long's Buffy gonna be in LA?"

"I expect she'll be back tomorrow. Is that all you wanted?"

"It was when I got here," says Dawn. "Can I chill?" Giles raises his eyebrows like he doesn't understand, and Dawn sighs. "Stay? Hang out? Do homework?"

"If you like," says Giles, with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. "I'll be in my study if you need anything."

Dawn nods, then returns to the bathroom and takes off her backpack. She stares at her English assignment, then back at Spike, who's eyeing her like she's some kind of meat product. She's not sure whether the fact that he's a vampire makes that more or less creepy than it would be otherwise. On the other hand, he's chained up tightly enough that he can't even lean back and rest his full weight against the wall of the tub, and he looks even more uncomfortable than he's making her. Sympathy and creep-factor do battle inside her skull, and sympathy wins by the narrowest of margins. "You bored?"

"What do you think?" asks Spike. There's venom dripping from every word.

"I think English homework sucks," says Dawn, conversationally.

Spike's jaw does that thing where it clenches and unclenches. "What are you working on?"

"Uh... Hm." She looks at the packet she's supposed to be reading and flips to the title. "Hamlet?"

"Hamlet doesn't suck!"

Yeesh. You'd think she'd just insulted his hair, the way he's reacting. Dawn thinks the hair is cool, actually, but it doesn't give him the appearance of someone who would know anything about Hamlet. "You've read it?"

"Of course I've- everyone's read Hamlet. 'S one of Old Willy's better plays."

Dawn just stares at him for, like, a solid minute. It's never really occurred to her before that vampires read stuff, but she doesn't know why they wouldn't, especially ones who got turned before TV was a thing. There must be lots of regular-people things they do. Oh, or else he read it when he was alive. She brightens a little at the thought. "So, were you and Shakespeare, like, contemporaries or something?"

Spike looks absolutely appalled. "What the hell are they teaching you in that class? Shakespeare's from the late sixteenth century. Elizabethan, not Victorian."

"I knew that," says Dawn, defensively. What she didn't know was Spike's age. She can't picture him growing up in Victorian England, with all the lords and ladies and fancy clothes. Maybe he was poor, but then why does he care so much about Shakespeare? Heck, even if he was an English professor in life (and isn't that an entertaining thought), she's not sure why he would care about it now. Vampires are supposed to be all grr, arg, bloodlust.

Of course, if she really believed that, she wouldn't be bothering to make conversation.

He's not looking at her anymore. Maybe she's offended him by insulting Hamlet? Which would be a really stupid thing for him to get mad about, especially given that he's chained up in a bathtub, and if he's gonna get angry about anything, shouldn't it be that? And why should he be angry about her taste in literature anyway? It's not like he's right. Hamlet is the hardest thing they've had to read all year, and half the time she doesn't know what the characters are saying until she re-reads it a couple of times, and she's at the top of her honors class. If an author is bad at communicating even basic stuff like that, isn't that pretty much the definition of suckitude? So that's what she says. "I don't think Shakespeare was a very good writer."

Spike snorts. "An' I suppose the girly crap you like to read is the height of English literature."

Dawn decides to ignore that particular barb. "A good writer has to be clear about what he means. If half the people in my class can't understand what the characters are saying, then it doesn't matter how flowery or whatever the language is. It's no good."

"For the love of God, d'you think the whole world revolves around you?" For a moment she's indignant, because hello, Spike is a vampire, and is by definition a remarkably self-centered person. Pot, kettle, blackness- "Reason it's hard for you kids to understand is just that it's old. Shakespeare always wrote for the masses, an' that's the kind of language that changes fastest. It was cheap entertainment, an' the reason you read it in school is that it was also bloody brilliant. 'S all themes and symbols and wordplay, in between the sword fights and dick jokes."

Dawn decides she doesn't want to ask about that last part. "Well, it's still dumb to make us read it now. If people can't understand it, that means it's, like, outlived its usefulness or whatever."

"You sound like you think it's the sodding Canterbury tales. Shakespeare's not that hard."

"Is so," Dawn insists. It has to be hard. There has to be a reason she's not getting it.

"Well, maybe for someone as dim as you. Words of more than one syllable, probably feels like torture. Bet you never read anything harder than a fashion magazine on your own."

She has half a mind to throw her textbook at him. The only thing really stopping her is the chains. It's one thing to tie people up, and another thing to hit people, but it's something else entirely to tie people up and then hit them- that's just mean. Instead, she gets off the chair and looms over the bathtub. Spike stares up at her defiantly, like he's some righteous imprisoned hero and not a mass murderer who's been reduced to arguing about Shakespeare with a seventh-grader who doesn't even really like him.

"You're a joke. And not even, like, a good joke. You're one of those jokes that's so obvious that people can't even laugh at it."

He doesn't say anything. She can't tell whether she's hurt him, but she'd be willing to bet it stings. And then, to add insult to- well, another insult, which is added to the injury of being generally harmless and chained up in a bathtub, Dawn grabs her backpack and leaves. She tells herself she's doing the responsible thing. She'll get more work done alone, anyway.

Twenty minutes later, she's standing in the bathroom doorway again. Spike's not looking at her.

"I'm sorry I called you a joke. That was rude."

That earns her a look of surprise. She wonders whether anybody ever apologizes to vampires, other than maybe their minions. She doesn't want to think about it too much. The lines between vampires and humans have always been kind of blurry for her, and she doesn't want the extra confusion that comes from feeling sorry for them.

Dawn shifts her weight nervously. "So, uh, you bored?"

"What do you think?" She's pretty sure there's slightly less venom this time.

She looks at her feet. "Cuz I'm not very good at this, and if you're, like, a team member and stuff now-"

"I am not one of your stupid little-"

"I was wondering if you could read some of it to me? Cuz it's a play, so maybe if I hear it read aloud by someone who knows what they're saying...?"

Spike just stares.

"It, um, it might make more sense. Maybe."

His jaw does that clench-unclench thing again. For a moment he's silent, but then he rolls his eyes and sighs. "Give me the damn play. Anything's better than sitting here all day."

For a second, she forgets to dislike him. "OK. Cool."

---

Dawn was vaguely aware that there was a dragon circling in the sky. She wasn't sure how she knew this, especially since she was in a car and couldn't remember looking up before scrambling inside, but she was sure that the dinosaur sounds above them were coming from a big, nasty, flying, probably fire-breathing dragon. She tried to focus on the wires in her hands and ignore the advancing demons. If they reached the car before she got it started, she and Andrew were probably screwed. Dawn had already decided not to die today, so that wasn't allowed to happen.

Andrew had reverted to full-on panic mode. "We're gonna die. Dawn, I just want you to know, this really wasn't how I expected this to happen, but I'm honored to die with you, because you're one of my best friends, and I know we've been through a lot together-"

The wires slipped through Dawn's bloodied fingers for the third time. "Andrew, if you're going to babble, you could at least call Giles and give him a situation report or- crap!" She blinked back tears and sucked her fingers into her mouth, trying to clean the blood off or help the wounds close. "Maybe he can tell me how the heck this is supposed to work."

"What are you doing?" Andrew's voice was marginally calmer. Dawn counted that as a blessing.

"I'm trying to hot-wire it, which would be a lot easier if I had some light down here."

Andrew pointed his cell phone screen at Dawn's hands. It was, if nothing else, more useful than going on about how they were going to die. "So, uh, where'd you learn how to do that?"

"Spike." Not a lie, although she apparently wasn't a very good student.

The terror momentarily left Andrew's voice. "Spike taught you how to hot-wire cars? Seriously? That is so cool!"

"Not exactly," winced Dawn. She'd only seen him do it once, and she had a feeling it wasn't the sort of knowledge he was trying to pass on to her at the time. It was right after Buffy's resurrection- that was the only way she'd convinced him not to tell Buffy that she was wandering alone after dark. Neither one of them had wanted to bother her, given her post-resurrection condition. Spike had settled for threatening to rip out her spleen the next time she did something amazingly reckless, then driven the car towards the cemetery before leaping out and taking care of the vampires. He'd promised to return the car to the spot where they'd found it. She wondered if he had.

The wire sparked, and Dawn giggled ecstatically as the engine roared to life. "Hang on to something!"

"Hey, do you even know how to drive?" asked Andrew. In answer, Dawn floored the gas pedal and sped towards the Wolfram & Hart building. It started raining on the way, so she had to slow down while she fiddled with the windshield wipers- not too slow, lest the armies of hell descend upon them and do to the car what they were doing to most of the buildings. She saw more than a few bodies on the ground. The civilians hadn't evacuated ahead of time, and this certainly wasn't the comparatively bloodless battle that Sunnydale had been. She really hoped Angel's team had some kind of plan.

She didn't get the chance to ask him. By the time she got there, the Wolfram & Hart building looked more like a pile of rubble than a state-of-the-art skyscraper. Dawn pulled in across the street and let the car stall while Andrew caught his breath. "You really don't know how to drive, do you?"

"I learned from emergency situations," said Dawn. "Now, where are we going?"

"How should I know? I'm more of a fellow hobbit here than Gandalf or Strider or- why are the demons following street signs?"

A horde of demons was running the correct way down a one-way street, not bothering to shield themselves from the rain. "They must be looking for something. A leader, a target-"

"Angel," whispered Andrew. "Angel and Spike!"

High above them, the dragon roared, flying in the same direction. Dawn gunned the engine, and they were off again, following the dragon and hoping their luck would hold out.

---

Dawn's not really surprised when she runs into him at the supermarket. It's actually even less weird than running into a teacher or doctor or something, because those are people that Dawn boxes up as only existing in schools and hospitals. She's old enough to know they have lives outside their jobs, of course, but she's not really used to seeing the visible proof. Monsters are the same way. She knows they exist in all sorts of places, but they generally only bother her in the dark, and not in brightly lit 24-hour grocery stores. Spike, though- somehow, it just figures that Spike goes to grocery stores. It's no weirder than running into Xander or Willow would be, and before she can stop herself, the words "Hi, Spike," tumble out of her mouth.

"'Lo, Bite Size," he grunts, looking up from a selection of wet wipes- because of course Spike needs wet wipes. Most of the items in his cart are perfectly ordinary. Sure, he's got cigarettes, a pack of beer, and a couple bottles of something stronger, but he's also got tissues, bandages, detergent, crackers, tabasco sauce, Weetabix, socks, and a couple plain black t-shirts. He's surprisingly normal when he isn't betraying her sister to cybernetic armies of doom.

"Mom always gets the blue ones," says Dawn, being helpful more out of habit than any desire to be kind. "I guess they're more absorbent or something."

"Yeh?" He pulls a blue-colored pack off the shelf and tosses it into the cart. "Bit late for girls your age to be out and about, innit?"

"I'm here with my mom," shrugs Dawn. "She's around here somewhere. I'm supposed to get something. Toilet paper, that was it."

Spike looks up, and she follows his gaze. The brand she needs is on the very top shelf. If she stands on tiptoe and stretches as far as she possibly can, she can almost, almost reach that high, but almost doesn't cut it.

Well, so what? Spike's got a few inches on her, and it's not like she has a blood feud with him. "Hey, Spike? Could you get that for me?"

"Say pretty please."

"Pretty please," says Dawn, deadpan.

Spike grins. "No."

"Jerk." Her face lights up. "Pretty please with sugar on top?"

"No."

"Pretty, pretty please, with sugar and sprinkles and icing and strawberries and chocolate sauce, and one big red cherry right at the top, and maybe some of those crumbled Oreo cookie bits?"

It's beginning to dawn on Spike what he's unleashed. "No, an' stop askin'!"

"Pretty, pretty, pretty please? Beautiful please? Gorgeous please? Lovely, magnificent, heavenly please?"

She's grinning from ear to ear now, but still managing to keep the plaintive note in her voice. Of course, he could just leave, but she realizes that before he does and grabs his cart to hold it hostage. What's he going to do, fight her over it in the middle of the supermarket?

"Demon, here," he says, exasperated. "Heavenly's not gonna get you anywhere."

"OK then. Hellish, awful, demony please, with blood and Weetabix and tabasco sauce on it, and onions and chili peppers and possibly some vodka-"

"Oh, sod it!"

Spike pulls the pack of toilet paper down and hurls it at her head, so hard that he grunts at the chip's token protest. Dawn reflexively blocks it. The package bounces off her arm, flies up, hits the ceiling with a thump, and falls back down into her waiting arms. It's mostly pure luck that she catches it, but she holds it up triumphantly anyway, flashing him a brilliant smile. "Thanks!"

"You're absolutely not welcome. I ought to rip your liver out, you little urchin, just you wait 'til I get this chip out-"

"Dawn?" They both turn and stare, looking like two kids caught in the middle of a cookie heist. Joyce Summers has her arms crossed in front of her, and she looks genuinely upset. It could have something to do with the loose ceiling tile above them. "What's going on here?"

"Spike was just helping," blurts Dawn, possessed by the sudden need to make their encounter look civil. "Right?"

"Yeh," says Spike, quickly. "She, uh, needed something off the top shelf."

"Oh," says her mother, looking from one to the other. Dawn is better at channeling innocence, but Spike can look pretty innocent when he wants to, for a punk-rocker vampire with a cart full of substances Dawn isn't legally allowed to buy. In the end, her mother sighs and decides not to question their united front. "Well, thank you, Spike."

"It was nothing," says Spike, ducking his head. Dawn's pretty sure that's the Spike equivalent of blushing. "Right, Niblet, best be going now."

"Yeah," says Dawn, nodding. "Uh, thanks again."

She's pretty sure he gets that the thanks is for getting her out of a lecture, and not just for the pack of toilet paper. He shoots her a conspiratorial smirk, and she responds with a small, genuine smile of her own before following her mother around the corner.

---

Dawn screeched to a stop and tumbled out of the vehicle. The dragon roared again, from the top of the hotel next to the alley. As far as Dawn could tell, there was nothing special about this particular alley, but it was obviously the center of the battle. Witches were perched at the tops of buildings, raining fire and lightning down on the incoming armies. There were more slayers on the ground than demons, and they seemed determined to hold their position. Faith was nowhere to be seen, but one of the older girls was barking orders from the top of a pile of demonic bodies. "Hold the line! Izzy, get the civilians to safety, then fall in next to Black team! Move!"

Dawn ran from the car to the dark-colored mess that was smashed up against the bottom of the hotel. It was definitely Spike- she'd know his stupid face anywhere, and no amount of bruising could disguise it from her. The next thing she noticed was that he'd been very nearly ripped in half. His organs and entrails were scattered around him, like something had scooped him out like a serving bowl and then not bothered to eat the stuff. The gash running diagonally across his chest and abdomen would only have needed to be a few inches deeper to have severed the invisible tie between his head and heart. The puddle around him wasn't entirely blood, given the rain, but it was much redder than she would have liked. Dawn crouched down in the middle of it anyway. She swallowed a sob, reminding herself that crying wouldn't do anyone any good. She'd seen Spike injured before, of course, but it had never been this bad.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and glanced up at Andrew. He was looking at Spike in barely-controlled horror. "He's not dust. If he's not dust, he's OK, isn't he?"

Dawn nearly screamed at him. "OK? He's not OK! He's missing his stomach! How's he supposed to eat? I don't even know if he can grow back organs, or if-"

Andrew was clearly on the verge of panic. "I mean, he's not gonna die, right? He'll live?"

He had to live. It'd be too unfair, if Spike came back and died all over again before she knew he was back in the first place. "Yeah. Sure. I'm- we'll fix him."

One of the slayers (Izzy, Dawn remembered, with the part of her brain that wasn't numb) walked over to them and put her hands on her hips. For a girl in the middle of a battlefield, she looked unnervingly like she had just stepped out of a makeup commercial. "You really shouldn't be making contact with dead bodies. It's a great way to spread disease. If you'll just come with me, I can get the two of you to safety."

Dawn stood and looked her in the eye. "We're with the watcher's council. This man isn't dead."

"Oh yeah?" Izzy glanced at the body with obvious skepticism. "He looks pretty dead to me."

"Whatever," said Dawn. "We need to get him out of here before sunrise."

Izzy's eyes went wide. "Is he a vampire? Seriously? Why not just stake him and-"

Dawn barely had time to blink before Andrew stepped between the slayer and Spike's unresponsive body, holding his hands up. "No! No staking! This guy's a hero."

The girl bit her perfectly-painted lower lip. "Is this a sympathizer thing? Because I really don't have time for it right now. See, vampires are bad-"

"This is Spike," said Andrew, as though everyone in the world ought to know his name and everything it stood for. "You might know him as the vampire that closed the hellmouth. He's worked with slayers before? Specifically, the legendary Buffy Summers?"

Izzy looked at them blankly, and Dawn spared a second to think about how completely unfair it was that the slayers still didn't know about stuff like this. Finally, Izzy shrugged. "You guys can handle this, then?"

Dawn almost said yes, but thought better of it. "Could you help us carry him to the car? We need to get him to a hospital or something."

"The hospital can't fix that." Still, she ran her hand through her hair and walked over to the body. "You're really council people?"

"Yeah. Rupert Giles sent us," said Dawn.

She was relieved to see that that name did ring a bell. Izzy knelt to inspect the damage, apparently taking her task somewhat seriously now. "Anything I need to be careful of?"

"Just keep the wound closed," said Dawn.

"Maybe I should sew it shut," said Izzy. "Is there time before sunrise?"

"I think so." Dawn pulled her phone out of her rain-soaked purse. It was nearly five. If they had time, they didn't have much.

"Give me four, five minutes. If he is a vampire... well, I guess I can't make him any more dead."

Spike didn't stir in the slightest as Izzy stabbed him with her sewing needle. It didn't occur to Dawn to worry about this until the wound was halfway closed. She'd seen Spike hurt, yes, but she couldn't remember him ever really losing consciousness for more than a few minutes. She'd found him passed out from drinking too much once or twice, but introducing a foreign substance to the body was a completely different class of thing than passing out from trauma. Vampires weren't supposed to pass out from shock, certainly not as a result of physical injuries. Maybe it was poison. Or magic. Or, hey, Buffy said his chip was killing him back in Sunnydale, and that worked on a completely scientific basis, so obviously vampires had some kind of functioning nervous system that could presumably be damaged if they got hurt. There were, no doubt, a dozen other possible explanations, but Dawn didn't get the chance to consider them.

"Cease your actions, mortals," said a voice from behind her. "You do not have permission to touch my pet."

---

Dawn is, like, seventy percent sure that Spike is making this stuff up as he goes along. It took him almost ten minutes to pick the lock on the door, and if they were breaking and entering anyplace other than the weirdo magician district in Sunnydale, the cops would have been on them ages ago. He looks so ridiculously proud when he opens it, too, like he really feels the need to prove himself to a fourteen-year-old. He's got to be the dorkiest evil vampire she's ever met. Still, she feels safer with him here, so she doesn't complain too loudly.

"So, what's the caper? Jewels? Ancient artifacts? Or just plain hard cash liberated from the till?"

As if she'd have picked the Magic Box if she wanted cash. She knows better than to steal something so mundane from people she actually cares about. "A book."

He sounds as unimpressed with her as she is with him. "All this for a book?"

Well, yeah. Books are important. Knowledge is important. That's what Buffy and the Council were fighting over earlier. Control the flow of information, and you'll never even have to fight in the first place. Wasn't it that Sun Tzu guy who said battles are won based on knowledge of oneself and one's enemy? Well, she doesn't know her enemy. She doesn't know what her own side is hiding from her. She's not even sure she knows what she is. Yet.

They read by candlelight and snack on Spike's chocolate (did he really think Buffy would go for that?) while they uncover the secrets of the Key. As the pieces come together, Dawn trails off, considering. If she puts the book down now, maybe it won't be true. Maybe she won't be-

Spike plucks the book from her hands. "The monks possess the ability to transform energy- bend reality. Blah, blah, blah. Good lord, Giles writes as dull as he talks, doesn't he." He has to squint to read the words. Does Spike need glasses? Spike totally needs glasses. She can't picture him with glasses. Quick, think about Spike wearing glasses and not about- "They had to be certain the slayer would protect it with her life, so they sent the key to her in human form- in the form of a sister."

The world shifts on its axis. She isn't real. All her memories, all her relationships, all her thoughts and feelings and history- it's all nothing but a magic trick, created by some monks who decided to mess with powers better left alone. Her entire existence is nothing but fancy smoke and mirrors. For about one horrible second, she wonders if she's the sort of creature that her sister is supposed to slay. Then she remembers that wait, no, her sister's been protecting her this whole time, and Dawn totally just turned to her sister's stalker to break into Giles's store.

Well, whatever. It's not like she's a person or anything. Why shouldn't she hang out with nominally-evil vampires and eat their chocolate while she uncovers new reasons to have existential crises? It's not like Buffy is actually her sister. It's not like she's real. It's not like anything really matters in light of what she's just learned. And it has to be true, because Spike is here, getting it, looking like he approves of this mission. Like the whole thing makes sense now. She wishes it didn't.

They put back the candles in silence, removing any evidence that they were here in the first place. The various mirrors in the shop whisper lies. Dawn is an illusion, but it's her face, not Spike's, that leaves a reflection in the glass display cases. The candles Spike carries appear to float of their own power, while she stares at her own reflection and does nothing.

He doesn't go straight to his crypt after locking up the shop again. When she notices he's walking her home, she snaps at him. "You think you're gonna earn points for babysitting Buffy's precious Key? You know she just gets mad at you when you do her job for her, right?"

"I think Buffy would be upset if anything happened to her kid sister," replies Spike. He's being entirely too reasonable, and it only serves to make Dawn angrier.

She swallows the first response that comes to mind- that she isn't anybody's sister, and Spike's an idiot to act like she is- and goes with the second. "Isn't that what you want? Buffy in tears so you can ride to the rescue and play the sensitive hero?"

Spike's eyes widen, and Dawn's not sure if he's surprised that she sees what he's doing, or if he's literally just realized that this is an option. "Dunno what you're talking about."

He's such a hopeless dork. A hopeless dork who's also the second-strongest person she knows. A hopeless dork who is the only person Buffy trusts to protect her not-sister and mother from Glory. A hopeless dork who's pretty much the only person willing to be straight with her. In the space of one night, she's somehow gone from having close to zero respect for Spike to actually being glad to know him. Her sister would never touch anything from Spike, but evidently, Dawn is not her sister. It's an annoying realization, especially because it carries with it the instinct to offer him some basic level of consideration. "You don't have to walk me home, OK?"

He spends a moment- only a moment- visibly considering leaving her. "Nah. It's not like your house is out of my way." Dawn happens to know that's not true, but she doesn't call him on it. Perks of being a blob of energy include not giving a crap. He doesn't say anything else until they reach the house. "Ladies and gentlemen, the Summers residence. Home of the slayer, her lovely mum, and the Key to the Universe."

No. Not her home, and the people inside are not her family. This is just where some monks decided to stick her one day. Instead of saying that, though, she just sort of sighs and looks up at Spike. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it. And Bit-" he starts. Dawn glares at him. Partner in crime or not, Spike is about the last person she wants to receive life advice from. He seems to realize he's hopelessly out of his depth, but he forges ahead anyway. "You have lots of people who care about you, yeh?"

"Yeah," she replies, dully. Her sister would protect her with her life, but only because the Order of Dagon manufactured this bogus sisterly bond between them. All things considered, that doesn't count for much. She supposes she has other friends, too, but they're not really hers- she didn't choose them. They didn't choose her. Her relationships aren't real- they mean nothing.

Spike waves his hand vaguely. "Yeah. And anyway, you're human in every way that counts. Prick us, and do we not bleed, or whatever. 'S nothin' to lose your head about."

She's suddenly not sure whether she has blood running through her veins, but she doesn't say that. Spike waits for her to climb back up to her room. When Dawn turns back to look out her window, she really expects him to have pulled a disappearing act. Instead, he's still looking up at her. He waves goodbye, then walks back the way they came.

---

Dawn twisted to look over her shoulder, and realized immediately that the lady glaring at them was definitely not one of the slayers. For one thing, she was bright blue. For another, she might have looked humanoid, but her manner suggested that she was something very different. Dawn absolutely didn't have time for this, but apparently the universe was more or less indifferent to what she had time for. "Who are you supposed to be?"

"I am Illyria, god-king of the Primordium," she answered, as though everyone across twelve hundred dimensions ought to know this already. "The events of this day have not pleased me. I feel enough grief for Wesley as it is, and I have no wish to see it compounded."

Dawn stood up to face her, clutching her rain-soaked jacket and trying to make sense of what was happening. "I- look, I don't know what you're talking about. We're just here to help Spike."

Illyria's lip curled in disgust. "I have not seen you at the building of the Wolf, Ram, and Hart. Angel is not your leader."

"Well, no, not exactly," admitted Dawn. "But we are here to help him, so-"

Illyria didn't seem to be interested in her explanations. "Angel has few allies, and those he does have refused to aid him. I very much doubt you wish to help my pet."

It was lucky that Dawn got irritated pretty easily, or she might have been more scared of the hellgod in front of her and less worried about the indignity of the word pet. She was aware that it didn't make much sense anyway, given that Spike called everybody and their mother "pet", but Dawn didn't like the way Illyria said it. She marched up to her and scowled. "Don't call him that."

Illyria looked genuinely surprised- at least, as surprised as it was possible to look while attempting to elevate nonchalant sneering to an art form. "What?"

"I said, don't call Spike your pet. He's not a pet. He's a person."

"Do not presume to give me orders, human. I am Illyria, god-king-"

"Like I care!" said Dawn, flinging her arms wide. "What, am I supposed to be scared because you're some ancient hellgod whose name isn't recorded in human books? Get over yourself, Illyria! Spike's a Champion. Everyone else around here is a slayer. I'm the Key. I'm like a kazillion years old, and I almost destroyed the entire multiverse one time, so excuse me if your resume doesn't exactly impress me."

Illyria's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I have had dealings with the Key in the past."

Dawn's stomach lurched. "You have?" Too late, she remembered that there was a reason why she was supposed to keep that kind of stuff secret.

Illyria stalked forward, stopping mere inches from Dawn's face. Obviously, she had no sense of personal space. "It was long ago. You were not as you are now."

Dawn let her arms fall to her sides and balled her hands into fists to stop herself from trembling. "See? You're not the only ancient, powerful thing here."

Illyria scoffed. "Power? You are no more powerful than the boy at your side. I could crush you like an insect if I so desired. Your chaotic essence has been locked in a human vessel, containing no more than an echo of the splendor you once possessed. Human emotions plague you like locusts. You reek of them."

"Well, why do you think I'm here?" screeched Dawn. "Why the hell do you think I'm trying to save him?"

"I neither know nor care."

If she'd been calmer, Dawn might not have been able to put into words why Illyria's reaction bothered her so much. After all, her relationship with Spike was a complicated thing, and not always a positive one. Left to explain it in her own time, she might have second-guessed herself and let her insecurities and ethical doubts water him down to an odd acquaintance. She wouldn't have been able to say why she had flown halfway across the world as soon as she found out that he wasn't dust. Now, in her outrage, Dawn screamed at the ex-god what she wouldn't have dared to claim to anyone else she knew. "It's because of those stupid human emotions! He's my friend, that's why!"

Illyria stilled. "Your friend?"

It sounded like Illyria was asking what a friend was, and Dawn was completely thrown by the question. What was the technical definition of friendship, a platonic relationship between equals? She wasn't even sure that she and Spike were equals. Back when they actually hung out, it was usually either because they were breaking some kind of law, or because Spike was supposed to be babysitting her. In either case, she was supposed to listen to Spike if she wanted to survive the night. And morally, she'd always considered herself the superior being, even after the soul. The thought made her queasy now, but that did nothing to change whatever sort of connection they'd actually had.

In the end, Dawn went with what she knew. "He's important to me."

That, at least, was true, and it seemed to click with Illyria. She tilted her head, catlike. "You would feel grief if you were to lose him?"

"Yeah." Dawn considered herself quite familiar with that particular emotion, and felt sick when she realized she was probably going to get a refresher course in what it felt like really soon. "Yeah, I would. Definitely."

Illyria drew back and looked toward the light that was beginning to appear at one end of the sky- they would have to get Spike out of here soon, or they wouldn't even have a body. "I do not believe I have ever had a friend," said Illyria, choosing her words carefully. "But if I had, I would crush all the armies in the world to keep such a being safe. Anyone who would do less is both a fool and a worm among worms." She paused to glare at Dawn, who found that she largely agreed with the sentiment. "I have decided to entrust my pet to you. Should you prove an unworthy friend, I will remove your entrails and roast them on a fire."

Dawn was more touched than terrified by Illyria's threat. That was probably a sign that she'd spent way too much time around beings that tossed around careless death threats, but at the moment, she didn't much care. At least someone here cared about what happened to Spike. It was kind of a relief, realizing that he hadn't been completely alone. "I'll take care of him."

"See that you do. There is more blood for me to shed before the sun rises." With that, the god-king left.

---

Spike's covered in bruises and cuts, and Dawn knows exactly where he got them. Those are the marks of torture. It's comparatively easy to torture vampires, since you don't have to expend much effort making sure you don't kill them in the process. Glory's torture was definitely cruder than the Angelus variety, but still. Dawn sees those wounds, and she knows Spike went through that for her- really for Buffy, because she's not going to kid herself about where exactly his loyalties lie. He did it because he loves Buffy. Dawn can't even imagine loving someone that much. Can't imagine letting someone rip through her guts because she refuses to betray someone she cares about.

He didn't know anyone was coming for him. It must have been terrifying. He must have known there was a chance he would die, and he chose to face that fate rather than betray her. She'd never do the same for him. Never in a million years. It makes her feel like trash, because Spike is a vampire, and apparently he cares more about other people than she does. She forces herself to look at him, because all of that stuff is her. It's all her fault. Spike's pain, Tara's insanity- all of that is the price of her life, and she won't ever let herself forget that this was the cost. This is how much they all think she's worth. Little, useless, too often bratty, can't-fight-to-save-her-life Dawn. Even with all of that, Spike's still protecting her. Reassuring her, even. Like her presence is a blessing rather than a curse.

"You wanna know what I'm scared of, Spike?" His hand, almost fully extended, pulls back. Whether it's because she doesn't deserve to be comforted or because he shouldn't be the one doing the comforting, she can't say. "Me. Right now, Glory thinks Tara's the key. But I'm the key, Spike. I am. And anything that happens to Tara is 'cause of me. Your bruises, your limp- that's all me, too. I'm like a lightning rod for pain and hurt, and everyone around me suffers and dies. I must be something so horrible, to cause so much pain and evil."

"Rot."

It's not the best counterargument she's ever heard. "What do you know?"

"I'm a vampire. I know something about evil. You're not evil."

Dawn can't decide whether the conviction and gentleness in his voice are actually reassuring, or if he's just confusing the issue more. See, Spike's evil. That's what everyone keeps telling her. Spike's evil, Buffy's good, Glory's evil, Dawn's good. Vampires and demons bad, humans good. Simple, easy, can't get confusing.

Except that Spike (evil) is here protecting Dawn ("it depends on your point of view") from Glory (also evil) because of love (good?), unless it's really obsession (evil?), so that Buffy (good) can regroup and protect her from both Glory (evil) and the Knights of Byzantium (evil?) who are also fighting Glory because they want to save the world (good) by killing Dawn (evil). Or something.

"Maybe I'm not evil," she concedes, more because she's tired of trying to puzzle things out than because she believes it. "But I don't think I can be good."

She expects him to argue. He just sort of shrugs. "Well, I'm not good, and I'm OK."

She has to pause at that. Spike's not good. Dawn's pretty sure about that. But he's helping, right? He's definitely not evil in the same sense that Glory is. He protects the people he cares about. He works with her sister to save the world. He fights right alongside the heroes. If that's the sort of being Dawn is- something that was created for evil, but that can choose her own path, and that can decide to work with the good guys for whatever reasons she chooses- then maybe that's not so bad. Maybe she's not worthless. Maybe she doesn't have to feel like crap just for existing, even if her existence ends up hurting people sometimes.

"Yeah," she says, finally. "You're OK."

---

"Please be OK. You have to be OK. Please be OK."

Dawn couldn't stop patting Spike's shredded coat. It was a pointless gesture, but if she stopped her hands would shake, and she didn't want to remember how terrified she was. Spike's body was stretched across the back seat, and she cradled the remains of his head in her lap. She was positive his skull was shattered. The bleached-blond curls were soaked in rain water and covered in blood, and there was also some kind of clear-ish fluid seeping out of his head and onto her jeans. She had no idea what it was. Maybe it was the fluid his brain was supposed to be suspended in. Maybe his brain would dry out without it. Maybe the jagged bits of broken bone would dig into his cerebral cortex and cut out his memories, or motor functions, or-

"Is he moving yet?" asked Andrew, not for the first time. "This one time I saw a vampire get his guts torn out, but he was still, like, talking and stuff-"

Dawn spent a moment trying to decide whether any of the minor tremors she saw were caused by more than the fact that they were in a moving vehicle. "Nothing. He's not moving at all."

Andrew stopped at a light. There were still a few demons around, but after Dawn's earlier display of recklessness, Andrew seemed determined to obey the traffic laws. The last thing they needed was to get stopped by the police while in a stolen vehicle, though Dawn hoped the city services would have better priorities. He started humming the Indiana Jones theme, then stopped himself. "I saw this movie once where-"

Dawn broke down and sobbed. A few tears trickled down her face and fell on Spike, washing minuscule amounts of blood from his face. She didn't know how to wipe the tears away without smearing blood all over both of them, so she just sat there, trembling in the back seat of a stolen vehicle. "This isn't a movie, Andrew!"

Never mind the fact that she was holding a vampire. Never mind the fact that said vampire had already come back to life once. Movies were sanitized. They were exciting, scary, even gory at times, but they didn't include twenty-minute stretches where the characters helplessly watched as people's brains fell out of their skulls.

Her phone rang. She'd almost forgotten about it, and had to dig it out of her purse. She held it away from her face to keep the blood off it. "Dawn, are you there?"

Bless that voice. "Giles?"

"Oh, thank God," he sighed. "We thought you'd been-"

She suddenly didn't care what Giles thought about her. She wasn't the one in danger. "Spike's hurt really bad." Understatement of the year, but she didn't think she could discuss his specific injuries without sobbing again, and she needed her voice if she was going to tell Giles anything useful. "He's not conscious, not moving, we can't just take him to the hospital, we-"

"Dawn, please calm down," said Giles. "I have never known a vampire to die without losing either the head or the heart, unless fire, sunlight, holy water, or crosses were involved."

Well, yes, but she wasn't just worried about death, was she? Dawn was terrified that Spike would come back to them with intense neurological damage, or some other comprehensive disability. He would hate that, being made helpless again, and the possibility wasn't something they could just shrug off. Or else he would die, would just fall apart into little pieces while she held him. However durable vampires were, they could only be split into so many pieces before it became impossible to put them back together. "But-"

"Were you able to make contact with Angel?"

"Giles, you don't understand!" she cried. "He's hurt. This isn't Glory bad. This is, like, tortured by the Spanish Inquisition bad. He's missing stuff. Organs and bones. Can we please, for one freaking second, talk about that?"

Giles let her take a few shuddering breaths before replying, sounding infinitely calm and far more reasonable than she. "Dawn, I have every intention of helping Spike heal. I am depending on your ability to accurately assess the situation, so please don't think I'm doubting your veracity. At the moment, you are alone with Andrew and an unresponsive body in the middle of a war zone. It would be irresponsible of us to attempt to revive Spike before you were out of immediate danger, especially if his present condition is such that he would be unable to defend you even were he conscious."

"Yeah," said Dawn, realizing that he was right. She squeezed Spike's hand gently, silently telling him to wait a few minutes. "Yeah, OK. What was the question?"

"Were you able to make contact with Angel?"

"N-no. Wolfram & Hart was gone when we got there. I think we ran into one of his people earlier, though. She called herself Illyria?"

If the name meant anything to him, Giles gave no indication of it. "So you don't have anywhere to stay."

"Not yet. Did you reach Buffy? She'll want to know that Spike's-"

"Buffy is still unreachable," said Giles. Dawn had the sudden insight that Giles was probably dealing with about fifty crises at the same time. No wonder he was all about the efficiency right now. "The safest option would be for you to meet up with the slayers at their base."

He gave her an address, and Dawn repeated it mindlessly to Andrew. He turned the car around and sped towards slayer central, complaining about Los Angeles traffic the whole time. She dropped her phone into her purse and went back to awkwardly patting Spike's jacket.

"You're gonna be OK," she whispered, so quietly that she could barely hear herself- but loud enough that Spike could hear, if he were awake. "Please, please, please be OK."

---

When Dawn mentions that she's going to miss celebrating the Fourth of July with her mom and sister, Spike gets quiet. She doesn't think anything of it at the time, but on the day of, he shows up with hotdogs and a huge variety box of fireworks. Apparently he's cleared this with Tara and Willow ahead of time, because they motion him right in and tell him to set the box on the back porch while they wait for Xander and Anya to show up, and for a moment the civility doesn't even feel forced.

Dawn's mostly confused. "But you're a vampire. Don't they, like, not celebrate holidays?"

"Never have been one to play by the rules, Niblet."

"But you're English."

He smirks at her. "Yeh, what of it? Not gonna let a little thing like patriotism keep me from blowing stuff up."

Xander walks in with a portable grill under his arm. Anya follows him with a stack of flag-themed paper plates and disposable plastic cups, smiling brightly at everyone. "Giles sends his regards. He doesn't intend to celebrate with us, but I'm sure he appreciates the genesis of this remarkable capitalist society. I know I do."

Dawn considers protesting more, but there's a strange warm feeling in her heart that almost reminds her of happiness, and it's been so long since she felt it that she really doesn't want to question it. An hour later, she's sure. This is what happiness feels like. Unhealthy food, blue and red explosions in the sky, a sparkler to wave, and Spike at her side, nursing a firecracker-induced burn on his hand. "Dammit, Harris. You're a menace, you know that?"

"I honestly didn't see you," says Xander, fiddling with Spike's lighter. "Maybe if you wore colors other than black every now and then-"

"And look like you? No bloody thank you," says Spike.

The banter's gotten a lot more civil since they made a habit of saving each other's lives on patrol. Ever since- but she's not thinking about that right now. It's OK to be sad, but right now, she wants to be happy. She leans over to inspect Spike's hand. "Does it hurt? We could put some ice on it or something."

Spike grins. "I've been through worse."

"Well, yeah, but still. Is it gonna swell up? I mean, given that swelling is caused by a reaction of the body's immune system, do vampires even-"

"If it makes you feel better, I'll put some ice on it." He says it like he's the one accommodating her, though he's heading into her house to help himself to the contents of her freezer.

She grins at him. It's been too long since her face has flexed that way. "Hey, Spike?"

He stops with his good hand on the door handle. "Yeh, Niblet?"

He's giving her the chance to make new happy memories- ones that really happened, and that don't include any dead people except for him. 'Thank you' seems embarrassingly cheap compared to that, but it's all she has. She stares at her feet. "Thanks. For doing all of this."

When she looks up, he's smiling that sweet, unguarded smile that makes him look like a regular person, not a badass vampire or a corpse that's forgotten how to die. He nods just so, almost a little bow. It reminds her that he was once a Victorian gentleman, before he was a vampire named Spike and before she was a human girl named Dawn. Before either of them knew to miss a slayer named Buffy.

"Any time, Bit," he says. "Any time."

---

"I've got two girls on security detail at the front of the hall. Nobody goes in or out without my say-so. We're hoping he'll heal on his own, but if there's anything else you'd like us to do, just give me a ring, all right?"

Dawn nodded. Andrew had retreated to a hotel to get some rest after their adventure, so she was the only one left to look after Spike. "Thanks. Really, Faith, this is-"

Faith clapped her on the shoulder. "Hey, don't worry about it. I know he's important to Buffy. Angel, too, from the looks of it. You just get him patched up so I can be the bigger person about him punching me in the face last year, OK?"

Dawn tried to return Faith's smile. "OK. I can do that."

"Great. I got demons to kill, so I'll see you later."

Dawn nodded again. Then Faith was gone, and Dawn was left with the technically-lifeless body of her... of Spike. Whatever the hell Spike was to her these days. Her friend, if emotional confrontations with ex-gods were to be believed. He was cleaner now, and there were bandages keeping him from falling apart. His face was unnaturally white (probably from the major blood loss), with awful purple bruises around his eyes. He looked positively wrong in a hospital gown, but since his own clothes had been shredded, there was nothing to be done about it. Dawn's gaze kept wandering between his broken face and her own bloodstained clothing, resting on the ceiling or floor whenever she couldn't look any longer.

He'd never been out for more than a day before. She was certain he was going to wake up any minute, and she wanted to be there when he did. For a while she simply sat in a folding chair by the bed. When that got boring, she stood up and began pacing the room, working off nervous energy. Eventually, she started talking.

"How long are you gonna sleep?"

No answer. Not even a breath. There were half a dozen tubes stuck in him, some of which made faint drip-drip-drip noises. Apart from that, the only sounds in the room were Dawn's own breathing and the squeaks from her rain-soaked shoes whenever she shifted position.

"Don't you wanna see me?"

He didn't answer. Dawn stopped expecting him to.

"You're a dummy, you know that? I mean that affectionately. Mostly. But you're really dumb if you think we wouldn't have wanted to see you after you came back. And by 'we' I mean all of us, not just Buffy and me and- well, I guess Andrew already knew, and you know how he feels about you. But Willow and Xander and people, it's not like they hated you." She waved her hands, attempting to illustrate this point even though Spike obviously couldn't see.

He wasn't even breathing. Of course he wasn't breathing. Vampire, after all. It was just disconcerting, how very much he looked like a dead body. (Like her mother had. Like Buffy had. Like Tara had.) Dawn kept having to remind herself that he wasn't really a corpse- that if he were really completely dead, he wouldn't have left a body at all, just a pile of dust.

"I don't hate you, for the record. Not that I was kidding about the lighting you on fire, but that doesn't mean I hate you. Anyway, if I had any reason to think that you were being all creepy-stalker-guy- or if I thought you were gonna, y'know, assault her again- I'd have done it. I would have killed you if I thought it was necessary. Even with a soul, which kind of scares me, because what does that say about me? But I guess you get that, too, because it was Buffy. And however much I care about you, it always has to come in second place to that."

He wasn't getting any better. She'd found him almost three hours ago, and his cuts and bruises hadn't even started to fade. It was possible that intravenous feeding just didn't have any affect on vampires. After all, the whole blood thing was mystical anyway. It wasn't like they actually broke blood down for essential nutrients. Maybe it had to enter through his mouth, or it didn't count for anything. But even accounting for that, he shouldn't have needed blood to start the healing process.

"I do care, though. I mean, duh, or I wouldn't have flown halfway across the world at the drop of a hat. I like to think you'd have done the same for me. Maybe not. It doesn't matter, because that's not why I did it. You get that, right? This isn't about debt or anything."

Maybe he wasn't even a vampire anymore. That was a horrifying and completely impossible thought, so of course she latched onto it immediately. What if he'd somehow become human in that alley before dying without his organs and blood? What if he really was just a corpse now, one that would slowly decay until nobody could deny what was happening?

"I wasn't lying to Illyria, OK? I'm here because you're my friend, like Xander and Willow are Buffy's friends. Even if they're crappy friends sometimes, she'd still move mountains to help them. I haven't forgotten what you did, and maybe I haven't even forgiven you, and maybe I still think you're kind of a jerk and you'll never actually be good enough for my sister, but you're also my friend. So you're not allowed to die in some godforsaken alley without even telling anybody, OK?"

Dawn paused to run her fingers through her hair. It was greasy and gross, and smelled of blood and ash. She needed a shower and a change of clothes as soon as possible. Also a nap. And food. Possibly the chance to pee. But doing any of that right now would mean leaving Spike, and she wasn't prepared to do that. She'd just have to be patient.

"Remember that summer, when you used to babysit me? And we'd play cards, or watch movies, or you'd tell stories, and we'd stay up late and live off of ice cream and popcorn and cookies, and sometimes you'd call them biscuits and tell me it counted as healthy as long as I had milk with them? And I'd think you must be bored, because hello, super cool vampire, but you always insisted you weren't, even though I think you must have been, at least some of the time. And you remember that last night, right before Buffy came back, and I said you didn't have to hang if you didn't want to, but you were like 'I'm not leaving you to get hurt'?"

Spike gave no indication that he remembered.

"Well, now you're the one that's hurt. And it's not my fault, just like it wasn't really your fault Doc got to me, but it happened, and I'm not going to leave until you're OK again. I promise."

Spike gave no indication that he cared.

"Please wake up."

He didn't even twitch. Dawn walked over to the bed and kicked at one of the legs, but not hard enough to jostle the mattress or the unresponsive body on it.

"I miss you. I flew across the ocean to see you. I didn't even pack a change of clothes. Teenage girl here, and I flew here with nothing but my purse and the clothes on my back. Do you know how much that says about you?"

Spike remained silent.

"I can tell you about Buffy. You want to hear about Buffy, don't you? Or Italy, or London, or the weird stuff I've seen, or the new watcher's council. We can talk about crappy punk rock musicians if you want. Or sonnets, or dog racing, or terrible soap operas, or cars, or how we could make a vampire cookbook full of nasty things to combine with blood. You can give me a list of reasons I'm the world's crappiest sister. Anything. Just please wake up."

But he didn't.

---

Spike is a creature of contradictions. The only music he'll listen to is crappy punk rock, but he can go on and on about the merits of Shakespeare and the other old dudes whose poems fill her English textbook. He agrees with her that school is generally a waste of time, but he's damn near fluent in three or four second languages. When he threatens her with death it makes her feel safer, like she can count on him to notice when she does something stupid or dangerous. When he says anything along the lines of "thank God", it makes her squirm, like the situation is so bad that even a century-old vampire is reduced to pleading with the almighty on her behalf. He can rip the head off a fledgling vampire, but is helpless against Miss Kitty Fantastico. Once, each new discovery diminished Spike in Dawn's eyes, as though needing glasses and knowing the plot of Hamlet cancelled out the whole Scourge of Europe thing. Now, she realizes that these disparate pieces are what define the whole. Without them, he wouldn't be Spike.

She's not sure whether the really remarkable thing is that she trusts him with her life, or that she genuinely enjoys his company. The first goes against every law of nature, but she honestly doesn't care. As far as she's concerned, Spike's earned that trust three or four times over. She isn't even the only one who thinks so, or else why are the scoobies completely fine with him babysitting her every week? But while the others know an asset when they see one, and they've definitely been nicer since Spike took to patrolling with them, they don't necessarily like him. They'd never refer to him as their friend. Dawn wouldn't say he's her best friend, because that's a very specific role in the social hierarchy of teenage girls, one that ideally involves painting each other's nails, watching dumb movies, and sharing cookie dough ice cream. Except that, technically, she does all of that with Spike. Huh.

Whatever. Ultra-dangerous, mega-old beings created for evil purposes who mostly fight on the side of good these days, at least when they aren't watching crappy TV, have to stick together. When she thinks of it like that, she feels a little less like she's keeping her vampire buddy from the perpetual party that is, most likely, what his life resembles when he isn't laughing at scary movies or asking her whether adding an orange to a bag of popcorn produces a balanced meal. Or maybe he just chills at his crypt like a pariah. Either way, she's always a little skeptical when he claims that hanging with her isn't boring. And either way, he never takes her up on the offer when she tells him he can totally leave if he wants to, really, it's totally fine and won't reinforce her abandonment issues at all, honest. Sometimes he gets really serious and reminds her that he made a promise. He sounds like a knight referencing a sacred oath, and she knows that there's nothing she can say to ease the pain (regret? grief? guilt?) he feels. She doesn't try.

When the hellions appear, Spike is instantly all business. It's not that the dude who burns pizza and debates the merits of Shakespeare's works is gone, it's just that that person is also a guy who knows what to do in a crisis. It's times like this that she's most grateful that Spike is one of her closest friends. There are lots of people around who she could theoretically watch dumb movies with, but there aren't as many who could protect her from a gang of angry road pirates.

When he promises he won't let anything happen to her, it's not like she stops being scared. She's terrified. But Spike is strong, and he's promised to protect her, and she's never known Spike to break his promises. He's lived a hundred and fifty-ish years in this world, and she's technically lived only one, so he's probably the authority on how to stay alive.

Besides, she trusts him. He's earned it.

When Spike tears the demon off the bike, she can't help feeling a little shocked. There's a burst of admiration, and a moment when she wishes she could do stuff like that. Shock, however, is definitely the predominant feeling. Even in business mode, it's so easy to forget exactly who (what?) her friend is, especially given that she hasn't watched him fight since they were trapped by the Knights of Byzantium. With humans, his moves are necessarily pragmatic and defensive. When he fights demons, his attitude is all confidence, and his moves are... she's not sure savage is the right word, but it's the one that comes to mind. There's a brutal grace to the way he fights, and it seems to come as naturally to him as breathing comes to her. This is who the watchers spoke of when they wrote of the terrifying William the Bloody, Slayer of Slayers. By some accident of fate, this warrior of darkness is on her side, and she will never stop being grateful for it. He is her guardian demon, because her angel has already died.

"Let's fly, pigeon!" And they're gone, zooming through the streets as the town burns around them. She wonders where the scoobies are, but doesn't have to wonder long about the bot. They find it, wrecked and useless on the ground, and Dawn wonders if she's the only one having flashbacks to the time it was Buffy lying like that, though at least Buffy had her arms and stuff. Spike wanders off to find the bot's legs- because they need it, don't they? How is she going to keep from being carted off to live with her dad (or worse, become a ward of the state) if the world is allowed to realize that Buffy Summers is no more?

For a moment, she listens to its ramblings. Other Buffy. There was another Buffy here, and she ran. The conclusion Dawn leaps to is impossible, completely impossible, but on the other hand her best friend is a walking corpse, and if there's even a chance-

She hears Spike call her name. Hears the panic in his voice. Her stomach does a confused somersault at the thought that he's actually scared of losing her, but mostly she's focused on Buffy. If she were thinking at all rationally, she'd go back and tell Spike what the bot said, and maybe they could investigate together, but it's BuffyBuffyBuffy and she has to know right now-

The minutes (hours?) after she's proven right all run together, alternately blurry and unnaturally clear. Buffy. The tower. She's going to jump, and then she isn't. Walking her back in awkward silence. Showing her around the house, like a relative who's been in a foreign country for the last several months. Worry. Sickness in her gut, even as she tries to stay calm. But it's Buffy, it has to be, though she doesn't understand it and can't, for the life of her, come up with any explanation to make sense of this. A knock on the door. Spike.

"Thank God," he says- and somehow she thinks that's funny, because there has to be divine intervention mixed in here somewhere. He threatens her with grisly death, which is good, because it means that Spike is really here, and this isn't all some insane dream she's having. She wonders if he can hear the way her heart is fluttering, or otherwise tell that she's balanced on a knife-edge between unease and incredible relief.

But all she says is, "Spike. Look."

"Yeh? 'Ve seen the bloody bot before. Didn't think she'd patch up so-"

She can see the exact moment that Spike realizes what's happened. For a moment his face betrays nothing but uncomprehending disbelief, but then the skepticism cracks, and he wears an expression that she can only describe as awe. It's the sort of expression a man might wear upon glimpsing heaven, and she's never seen anything like it on the face of a vampire. It's times like this that she almost can't believe he doesn't have a soul- or, if Spike doesn't, that souls have anything to do with a person's capacity for tenderness or love. He looks like he thinks he's walked into a dream. Dawn feels like she's just woken up from one. Now that Spike's here, it really hits her- this is happening. This is real.

Even so, she tries to keep talking, to tether the three of them to this reality. None of them are really supposed to be here- an imported demon in a human corpse, a mystical key-thing, and now Buffy, who's returned from... somewhere. Dawn feels like reality might slip through their collective grasp if she doesn't take a moment to focus. "She's been through a lot, with the death. But I think she's OK." It sounds dumb, so she's kinda glad that Spike doesn't seem to be hearing a word. "Spike? Are you OK?"

He's not looking at her. She suspects he's barely aware that there's a world outside of Buffy. "I'm... What did you do?"

That's a fair question, after their last resurrection-related misadventure, but she honestly can't think of anything she could have done. Not even an accidental wish. "Me? Nothing."

"Her hands." She's glad to hear the concern in his voice. He seems a lot more grounded now than he did a second ago.

"Um, I was gonna fix 'em. I don't know how they got like that."

"I do. Crawled her way out of a coffin, that's how. Isn't that right?"

He says the words carefully, like he knows Buffy can only take human interaction in small doses right now. Judging from the fact that Buffy doesn't look at either of them as she forces the words out, Dawn figures he's probably right. "Yeah. That's what I had to do."

"'Ve done it myself." He pauses one more moment, basking in her presence. Then he shakes himself out of it, and he's back to something like business mode, though it's a gentler version Dawn's never really seen before. "We'll take care of you."

Buffy looks anything but certain, but she doesn't protest when Spike guides her away from the staircase and into the living room. He touches her just enough to encourage her to come forward, then lets his hand drop. Six months ago he would have been taking full advantage of the situation, but now it seems that his only concern is taking care of Buffy, and telling Dawn how to do the same. "Get some stuff. Mercurochrome, bandages."

"'Kay." She's glad to be following orders, especially Spike's. Spike knows what he's doing, his goals seem to be the same as hers, and he's treating her sister exactly as Dawn would want him to. They speak in hushed tones that Dawn can't hear from the next room over, but there are definitely two voices whispering together. For the second time tonight, Dawn realizes that she trusts Spike. Completely, in fact. He was the only person Buffy trusted to take care of her when Glory was a threat, and now Dawn has no reservations at all about trusting him with Buffy. She's certain he won't let her down.

---

Dawn was taking picture batch #27 when Xander walked in. She was so engrossed in her task that she didn't even notice until he spoke. "You know, if the photo shoot with the pulseless wonder is for blackmail material, I recommend drawing on his face with magic markers first." Dawn looked up at him blearily, not even processing the comment. She wasn't sure how she looked, but she definitely felt like there were little weights on her eyelids. Xander's smile faltered, and he looked back to Spike. "Not my best joke, I admit."

"I'm probably not a great audience," said Dawn, turning her attention back to the camera and cycling through the pictures. "How goes the war?"

"About like you'd expect. We've lost some people, but I think we're pretty clearly winning." He paused, probably deciding whether to continue. "How's Spike?"

"Not so good," said Dawn, shoving the camera towards him. "I don't think he's decaying, but it's only been-"

"Decaying?" asked Xander. His one eye flew to Spike, then back to the pictures. "He's not- we are still thinking vampire, right? Undead?"

"Probably," shrugged Dawn. She got less and less sure every time she thought about it. "Look, the point is, I don't think he's dead-dead, but the magic stuff that keeps him undead's not working, either. Even without blood, there should be fading bruises, mending cuts, something. But they're not just not healing, they're getting worse. He's falling apart."

"Well, that's concerning. Assuming you care about-" began Xander, but he cut himself off when he looked back at Spike. That was the thing about souls, she supposed- they could make you feel sympathy for people even if you didn't particularly like them, especially if they were in as bad of shape as Spike was now. When Xander spoke again, he sounded slightly choked- not like he was about to cry, or anything, but definitely like there was some kind of emotional toll involved. "How sure are you that there's something wrong? I mean, you're not exactly an expert on vampire medicine."

Dawn opened her mouth to retort that she knew a heck of a lot more about it than he did, but at the last second her eyes narrowed. She moved to snatch the camera back. "That's it."

"What's what?"

"Vampire medicine." She stood up and started packing her possessions into her purse, weariness forgotten in pursuit of her newest idea. "I mean, it has to be a thing, right? Watchers have been making observations about vampiric abilities and ailments since before the scientific revolution. There has to be information about this sort of thing somewhere." She whipped back around to Xander. "I should call Andrew. Listen, if you're not super busy, could you watch Spike until Andrew gets here?"

She expected him to protest, but Xander just shrugged and forced a grin. "Yeah, why not." He turned to Spike. "You hear that, Spike? It'll be just like old times."

"Thanks," said Dawn, not sure what else to say.

Xander smiled at her. "Get some rest, OK? And maybe eat something. I hear it's hard to solve the mysteries of the universe on an empty stomach."

"Yeah," said Dawn. "Um, I'll see you."

She did call Andrew, but she didn't head over to the hotel. Instead, Dawn grabbed a cup of coffee and headed for the base's makeshift library. It wasn't as complete a collection as the old Sunnydale Library or the Magic Box, but Dawn hoped it would be enough. She pulled a bunch of books from the shelves, grabbed her laptop, and started cross-checking for any available information on vampiric sicknesses and mystical cures. She was still exhausted, but the caffeine helped a little. She was poring over tomes about recorded vampire illnesses when she became aware that there was someone reading over her shoulder.

"You have something to say?" asked Dawn.

"I thought I'd remind you that sleep is rather essential to human physiology," said Giles. Like he was one to talk. Dawn grunted in acknowledgment, but didn't look up from her book. "Xander tells me you've been documenting Spike's condition every hour for more than a day."

"Yeah. It's in there." She motioned vaguely in the direction of her camera, still trying to focus on the text in front of her.

Giles moved to pick the camera up. He was silent for a few seconds, presumably looking through her pictures. "How certain are you that his condition is worsening?"

"Pretty darn," snapped Dawn.

"He is a vampire."

"I know that!" exploded Dawn, with far more force than intended. Giles raised an eyebrow, and Dawn spent a moment replaying the conversation. She felt like kicking herself. "Sorry. Um, yeah. You're right, he's probably not gonna die from whatever happened to him. Because he's a vampire. I thought you meant- I'm tired."

"Obviously," said Giles. Dawn winced. She caught a look from him that might have been either pity or disappointment before she looked down again. "Dawn, I meant what I said about resting. I understand that this is important to you, and I can't fault you for that, but it's essential that you take care of yourself first. Spike is not your responsibility."

"I know that," said Dawn. "But I don't want to watch anyone else die."

Giles was silent for what seemed like a long time. When he did move, he sat down across from her and began rifling through the volumes she had already checked through. "You don't have the Ivanov Compendium on Vampiric Physiology here. Have you already looked through it?"

"It's in Russian," said Dawn, carefully. "I don't know Russian, so..."

"Perhaps I can be of assistance, then," said Giles. "In any case, research should be a welcome change of pace from directing slayers." He didn't smile at her when he returned with the book, but he didn't look resentful or upset, either. Dawn couldn't have said why exactly he was helping, but she decided not to question it.

They worked together in silence, occasionally passing books or assisting each other with translation work. Most of the resources said the same thing- vampires were undead, and attempting any sort of conventional healing spell would either have no effect or only harm them further. The effect was so drastic that there were several books on weaponized healing spells. Actually healing vampires seemed to be grouped with necromancy more often than not, and there were precious few words about it compared to the volumes and volumes about how to most effectively kill them. Josephus du Lac was mentioned more than once as an infamous expert on the subject. The name didn't ring a bell, but eventually it became clear that his writings were most likely the only way forward. Dawn wandered towards the back of the library in search of anything about him.

She found what she was looking for in a book so old that it was falling apart at the seams. Du Lac was the Catholic monk who had been buried in Sunnydale with his golden decoder cross, and the ritual he had devised was the very one that Spike had once used to heal Drusilla, way back when he'd first come to Sunnydale. It was described as a dangerous and terrible ritual that depended on invoking a powerful demon. Even if Dawn had wanted to cast the spell, the specific instructions and the Du Lac cross itself were buried at the bottom of the Sunnydale crater, assuming they still existed at all. They might easily have been destroyed, either by the collapse of the town or by something else, years ago.

Hopeless, then.

Dawn sank to the floor and rested her head on the bookcase. She felt incredibly tired all of a sudden. It seemed that all her work has gotten her nowhere, and that any further work would likewise be fruitless. There was also the fact that she'd barely slept in days. She didn't even feel capable of walking back to the table, so she closed her eyes and let herself drift to sleep, still clutching the faded old book to her chest.

Her dreams were nightmares, featuring all sorts of different deaths mixed together- Buffy's, Tara's, her Mother's, and half a dozen other people she hadn't known half so well. She watched them bleed out and waited for them to stop moving, but nothing ever touched her. She was invincible, immortal- or, more likely, immaterial, incapable of death because she wasn't alive in the first place. When Spike died, his flesh melted from his bones and turned to water instead of ash. It slipped through her fingers and boiled away before it hit the ground, and when she cried, the tears boiled, too. The last thing she heard was Giles's voice in her head, calling him a monster, only for some reason Dawn thought he might be talking to her, too, because what kind of person cries for a monster when it dies?

---

Dawn is surprised that Spike's idea of taking care of her involves taking her to the hospital. It's absolutely the right thing to do under the circumstances, but she can't shake the feeling that it's weird for them to be seen in public together, especially in a place where problems are solved by science and medicine, rather than magic and generous helpings of violence. Mostly, she's worried about her arm. Specifically, the splitting pain in it.

She checks back into the conversation around her when she hears her name. "Dawn. Dawn Summers. Her sister's her legal guardian. She knows about the break, but she couldn't be here right now. Here, if you've got a pen-"

Spike has all of Buffy's contact information meticulously memorized, as she supposes any self-respecting stalker would. Not that he's her stalker anymore. He's a friend. A friend that they can trust, even when always-reliable Willow has utterly failed them. He must be a friend, or Buffy wouldn't have entrusted Dawn to him yet again.

The nurse eyes him skeptically. "And you're Buffy's...?"

"Friend," says Spike, after a moment's hesitation. A moment where he might have said something else, though Dawn can't imagine what it could have been. "Just a friend."

It can't be a lie. She doesn't know why he says it like one.

"Right," says the nurse. "If you could just sit over there and fill out the rest of these forms, the doctors will be with you shortly. Her condition isn't critical, so you can expect help in five to ten minutes."

He leads her over to a chair, and Dawn cradles her arm while Spike tries to make sense of the papers he's been given. He writes in a delicate, old-timey script that's completely at odds with his punk-rocker aesthetic. He squints at the small text size, unable to see it perfectly despite the ample light. He probably doesn't need light. He is a vampire, after all. Maybe the standard pack of vampire superpowers comes with night vision, but doesn't replace reading glasses. Dawn tries to follow that thought somewhere else, but the only thing she really feels capable of right now is crying like a baby.

"It's broken."

It's not a question, but Spike's pen stops gliding over the paper anyway. "Yeh, Bit. It is."

"But it's going to heal, right? I mean, not fast like it does for you and Buffy, but it'll be fine eventually, right? In a few weeks?" She hates the way her voice shakes, but there's nothing she can do. She's so tired, and everything hurts, and she doesn't have the energy to summon a brave front on top of everything else.

Luckily, Spike doesn't seem particularly interested in judging her. "Few weeks sounds about right. You'll go in, they'll get you in a cast, arm'll heal, and then everything'll be fine."

Unexpectedly, she starts sobbing again, because everything's not fine. Everything's so horrible that she doesn't know whether anything will ever be fine again. It's like everything that makes her life livable is broken or breaking. She's doing her best. She's trying not to burden Buffy or Willow. She's trying to take care of herself and stay out of trouble. She did everything she could to fight off the demon Willow summoned. And at the end of all of that, after doing her absolute best, she's sitting in an ER waiting room inconveniencing Spike. She knows she shouldn't cry from the pain, but it hurts so much, and she doesn't know how to stop the tears.

Spike drops his pen to pat her on the shoulder. "S'all right. Let it out, Bit."

"Where's Buffy?" She hates how small and young she sounds. Hates the weakness that seems to be an inherent part of her. Hates that Spike is here and her sister is not, and hates herself for hating it when they're both just doing their best to be helpful. "She didn't come home the other night. She promised she'd come home. I mean, there was a monster or something, but she didn't call, and Willow didn't come home either. If Tara hadn't stayed- what if something had attacked the house again, like that demon guy from the bank?"

If Spike freezes for half a moment in the middle of stroking her hair, it can only be because he's uncomfortable with her outburst, despite having witnessed so many before. Or it might be pity, or sympathy, because whatever Spike says he totally does feel sympathy, at least once or twice in a blue moon. It might be nervousness, if Buffy's told him something and Dawn's struck too close to the mark- maybe there's a horrible new demon in town. It'd have to be horrible, if it took Buffy all night to fight it, right?

It can't possibly be guilt that makes him freeze. It can't be guilt's second cousin, or anything remotely in the ballpark of guilt. In the first place, she has no idea what Spike would have to feel guilty about, since he's the only person who hasn't let her down yet in this mess. And in the second place, even if there were something, Spike doesn't have a soul, and the definitive difference between souled and unsouled beings is that unsouled beings do not feel guilt, not ever, end of discussion. So guilt doesn't even occur to her, not this time. She just figures it's one of those weird moments of empathy that Spike has every now and then, and it only encourages her to spill more of her worries. Because, at the end of the day, she trusts Spike more than she trusts- well, maybe anyone. Maybe even more than Buffy these days, though not by much.

"What if there's stuff- what if there's something horrible going on, like Glory, or even worse than Glory, but I don't even know what it is because Buffy's trying to protect me from it? And she c-can't even be here when I'm hurt and stuff, s-so what if-"

"Dawn. Niblet, look at me." She does, though the change in position makes the pain in her arm flare up again. It's worth it, to see how earnest he looks right now. "Buffy's probably tearing Red a new one as we speak, making sure this doesn't happen again. Your sis loves you. More than anything, more than anyone, she cares about you, alright? Buffy'll fix this. She always does."

Not always. One time she died. Maybe she never really came back. Maybe that's just a lie they tell themselves, like the one about Buffy being in hell.

"Yeah."

He smiles awkwardly at her, but it doesn't reach his eyes. For a guy who plays demon poker on a weekly basis, Spike has a terrible poker face. He can't tell a decent lie to save his unlife. As true as the first part of his speech was, the part about Buffy fixing things was a lie, and it shows. All things being equal, Spike would probably bet money that Buffy has no idea how to make things right. Part of her labels Spike's smile itself a wordless lie. He's trying to tell her that it'll all be OK, when he knows full well that everything is awful and nothing will ever be OK ever again.

Another part of her concedes that yes, it's a lie, of course it's a lie, but so is Spike himself. As awful as he is at telling lies, he's gotten to be an expert at living them. However gentle and earnest his smile is, it will always be hiding fangs. He is dust animated by a demon, and the man he pretends to be is someone who never existed, a bastardization of a long-dead poet's identity. But then, Dawn's life is a lie, too. Perhaps everyone's lives are nothing but a series of lies wrapped around one another. Perhaps all beings are composed of layers upon layers of falsehoods that can be peeled back at the cost of tears and heartache, like when Sweet forced people to sing, and when you get to the center there's nothing, nothing at all that you can label the true person beneath, because Willow is a shell fueled by nothing but magic and pain and desperation, and Buffy died last May, and Spike died a hundred years ago, and Dawn never existed at all. Her memories are nothing more than carefully constructed lies that everyone around her has decided to pretend are true. Her life depends on lies, even more surely than Spike's and Buffy's and Willow's lives do. The terrifying thing is that it might all be necessary. Perhaps in the end there is no truth, only a horrifying void that people fill with falsehoods to keep from going mad in the absence of any objective reality.

Yet another part of her thinks that she's just being pointlessly cynical. Maybe Spike isn't lying, and everything really will be OK even if it's kind of crappy now, and she is a girl named Dawn sitting next to her friend- who yes, OK, is a formerly evil vampire, but sometimes life is wacky like that. Maybe she's seeing monsters where none exist. Maybe she'll wake up tomorrow and things will be better than they are today, and they'll be even better the day after that, and Willow and Tara will get back together, and Xander and Anya will live happily ever after, and Buffy and Spike will keep working together and stop hating each other and maybe maybe maybe become some kind of actual, functioning, loving family to replace the one that's been taken from her.

She can probably get herself to believe all of that, if she doesn't look at Spike's smile and remember that he's hiding fangs. But he is, and even if things are miraculously OK someday, it's never going to be in the way that she hopes.

Right now, Dawn doesn't care. She leans over so that she can sob into Spike's chest. He holds her while she cries, and for a few seconds, it's almost like he's something other than her sister's weirdo former-stalker soulless-vampire not-boyfriend. Something like... a brother, maybe, if that isn't too ridiculous a thought. If she had a brother, she'd want him to be someone like Spike.

"Tell me it's going to be OK."

He hesitates a moment. Then he goes back to stroking her hair, just as gently as before. "It'll be just fine, Niblet. Everything'll work out in the end."

She can hear the lie in his voice, but she can't see his face while she's hugging him, so she tells herself that she's mistaken.

---

Dawn didn't wake up all at once. She wasn't exactly comfortable, though she seemed to have slid so that she was curled up on the library floor, but she did feel pretty thoroughly tied to sleep. She probably would have rested on the floor much longer if she hadn't been distracted by the voice that was floating up from the floor. It sounded suspiciously like Andrew. It took Dawn several seconds to figure out that he was in the middle of some sort of speech, and several more to figure out what, precisely, the speech was about.

"It's like, you're a murderer. And you've done all kinds of other terrible things, and you've got to live with that. People think I don't get that, but I do. And no offense, but I know it was worse than anything I ever did. That's why Giles was so scared of you, and he was just annoyed at me. And I've done really, really horrible things. So whatever you've done, I know we're talking, like, Frieza-level evil, here. You get what I'm saying? I mean, you would, if you were awake. Of course, if you were awake, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation, but-"

Eventually, she figured out where Andrew's voice was coming from. This section of the library was situated directly above Spike's room, and his voice was carrying through a nearby air vent. She didn't even stop to think about it before crawling over to the air vent and leaning against the nearby wall. She could see the table from there, and while the books were still piled up, Giles was gone. She wondered how many hours had passed since she fell asleep- probably a lot, considering how rested she felt.

"But anyway, the thing is, you're a good guy now. You're like Piccolo, maybe, if Dawn is Gohan, and we forget about the fact that Piccolo doesn't have a love interest. Because Piccolo was all, 'ugh, the saiyans aren't allowed to destroy the world! If they destroy the world, I won't be able to take over the world!' So he makes a semi-alliance truce-type-thing with the Z fighters, and- anyway, it's not important. But he becomes, like, this father-figure to Gohan, and it's sort of a tough-love thing at times, but you know he really does care, and he gives his life to protect him at one point. It happens almost without you knowing it, but at some point you realize that Piccolo's not a bad guy working with the good guys, he's just a good guy, even though he's done bad stuff in the past. He's just a hero, or an antihero, or- but you get what I'm saying, right? Maybe?"

Dawn had the vague sense that this was a private confession that she really ought not be listening to, much like the things she'd said in Spike's presence when he was first brought in. It wasn't right for her to eavesdrop on something like this. She took the time to remind herself of all the reasons that eavesdropping was very, very wrong. She should definitely get up and stop trying to puzzle through all the references to get at what Andrew was saying.

Definitely.

"And I guess I was sort of hoping that would happen to me. That if I just hung out with the heroes and helped out, the heroism would sort of rub off, you know?"

But Spike isn't a hero,thought Dawn. The loudest voice in her head seemed to be the one that was responsible and wary and full of carefully cultivated righteous indignation. It was more alert than it had been, thanks to her dream. Spike was- maybe not evil these days, exactly or precisely, but he'd hurt people Dawn cared about, and he'd done even worse things to thousands of people she had never met. She had the horrible sense that she'd forgotten these things in her quest to help him over the past few days, and for a moment, it made her feel sick. He's untrustworthy and gross and bad and he hurt Buffy a ton, and nobody should ever want to be anything like him.

Andrew unknowingly spoke out against her. "But Piccolo's just a character. You, man- you're real. And you've really done horrible things, and you really earned your chance to be a hero. Maybe most people don't believe that. Maybe you don't even believe that. But you're my hero, all right? Because you do the right thing even when you don't think it's gonna get you the happy ending you want, and you look out for the people you care about even when they're not sure they care about you, and you know you've done horrible things and you still try to do better, and... and it makes me feel like I can do better, too."

It was several seconds before Dawn realized she was crying, and that she was making enough noise that Andrew had paused below her. "Um. Hello?"

"He was my hero, too," said Dawn. "One of them, anyway. Sorry. Air vent. Caught the speech. No big." She tried to be quiet again, fighting back tears and wiping her eyes on her sleeves. She was so busy berating herself for crying that she was startled when Andrew answered.

"He's not anymore, though?"

Dawn laughed. It was a bitter, awful sound. "I don't know anymore." She looked at the ceiling and gave up trying to stop her tears. No matter what she did, they kept flowing, and she was suddenly grateful that Andrew couldn't see her. "Back when Buffy- when she died. After mom died, I guess, and up until Warren killed Tara. I thought he was a hero. He was always helping out and saving me, and I thought he would look after Buffy. And when I found out he- and I was so mad at myself, because I knew he was bad. I mean, he was never bad to me, so I didn't want to believe it, but I knew he was stalking Buffy all year. I knew about the robot. I should have figured he was no good, but I honestly thought- it's stupid in hindsight, but yeah, I thought he was a hero. Or at least one of the good guys, you know? But then he did something bad- really bad, the kind of thing you can't just shrug off- and I realized he was always that sort of person. Even when I thought he was doing good things, he was-" abusing Buffy, mugging people, being an accessory to murder on at least one occasion, and let's not even think about what he did right before he came over and cried into his hot chocolate- "doing bad things at the same time." Except not always. Not during That Summer. Such complexities were more than she could stand to admit back then. "And I figured out that maybe he wasn't so heroic after all."

Andrew was silent for several seconds. It was long enough for Dawn to regret her honesty, like she'd spilled out too much and made him uncomfortable, even though Andrew overshared plenty and never seemed to realize that there was anything wrong with it. She sucked in a breath to apologize, but Andrew spoke before she could. "So... you thought he was a hero before he had a soul, but after he came back with one, you thought he was evil?"

"Yeah," said Dawn. Because it was true, wasn't it? Didn't make any sense, but there it was- he'd tried to rape Buffy, and somehow that was the deciding factor. Never mind the fact that he was already a mass murderer and a serial rapist the first time he'd lifted Monty Python movies from the old Blockbuster and given her the chance to giggle when she hadn't laughed in weeks. Murder thousands of strangers, and that was just fine, she'd play rummy and smile at him like he wasn't the devil, but hurt her sister and suddenly he was slime. She probably would've hung out with Hitler and only disliked him for being a self-righteous jerk about his vegetarianism. Did she care nothing about the crowds of people they'd massacred, each one of them as complete and precious a being as Mom or Anya or Tara or Buffy? What kind of monster was she?

Even as she thought it, she knew the answer. She was a child back then. In her innocence, she'd been unable to imagine the depth of Spike's sin until he'd betrayed the person she loved most.

"Hey," said Andrew, because she was crying again. "Hey, he did bad things. I'm sure he was a bad person- you know, before-"

"Was he?" demanded Dawn. Only of course he was. He'd been the definition of a bad person. He'd been soulless. Unrepentantly evil. Incapable of feeling remorse for raping and murdering and torturing people with railroad spikes. And she'd thought him a hero. "Is there even such a thing? I mean, how do you tell a good person from a bad one? Is Willow a bad person for doing what she did, to Tara and Warren and the whole world? Is Faith a bad person for killing people? Is Giles? Is Angel? Are you?"

Andrew made some sort of confused noise. She felt really sorry for him, because it wasn't a fair question at all, and it certainly wasn't one she expected him or anyone else to answer. That was the point, probably, but Andrew didn't seem to get that. "I don't- I mean-"

The words, too long contained, spilled out without her having to think about it. She had the sense that she'd been holding this rant in for years. "I mean, hell, Warren! I hate him! I'll probably never stop hating him! But he was a person, right? You know he was. He never came close to Spike's level of carnage. He killed, like, two people, and at least one of them was a wonderful person and I loved her and she's gone and it's not fair, and I still have to think Willow was wrong to kill him, because I have to believe people can change even if most of them choose not to, otherwise what the hell am I doing here? And S-spike was evil and I trusted him, and when he finally tried to be good I thought he was dirt, and I'm s-such an idiot-"

Dawn sobbed into her sleeve, trying to keep the sound from coming to the attention of anyone else. She hated herself for forgiving Spike, even as she hated herself for not forgiving him sooner. She wanted him back, as much as she'd ever wanted anything- as much as she'd ever wanted Buffy and Joyce and Tara back, even knowing what he was. If that made her a terrible person, then she was terrible, and she was finally too tired to deny it. She let herself fall over sideways with the intention of curling up on the floor again, but her head hit the book she'd been reading earlier, the one with the passage about the vampire restoration ritual.

It hit her that unlike some of those other people, Spike wasn't dead. Not really. Not yet.

"Dawn? Are you OK?"

"I'm fine," she mumbled, tossing the book aside and skimming her notes. Sire's blood, ambient energy from a hellmouth, proper incantations, incense, night of the new moon- all of that was possible. Ill advised, yes, unlikely, yes, but possible, and if she really wanted Spike back, if she really cared, then surely she couldn't justify doing anything less than everything she knew how to do. Yes, it was dangerous, and Giles would probably be furious, but if she dared to call herself his friend, then surely-

"Dawn?"

"Andrew," she answered. Her voice might have wavered, but her resolve didn't. "If there were a way to help Spike, even if it was dangerous-"

"You figured out how to help Spike?"

The last of her hesitancy vanished. "Yeah. I did."

---

Dawn's taking a stroll through Restfield cemetery on a June afternoon when it occurs to her that she could totally kill him.

She could stake him. (Too quick, almost a mercy- he deserves worse.) She could chain him up while he slept and gouge his eyes out with a fork, then leave him to be eaten by wild animals. (She wouldn't do that, even to him- her stomach turns over at the thought.) She could drown him in holy water. (Impractical- the logistics of obtaining and transporting a giant vat of the stuff give her a headache.) She could behead him. (Either too quick or too cruel- she has very little confidence in her ability to cut through his neck with a single stroke.) She could chain him up where the sun will turn him to ash, and listen to him plead for mercy as the sunbeams get closer and closer. (Not a bad idea, but it breaks down in the execution- she doesn't think he'd sleep where sunlight would fall, and she's not sure how else to incapacitate him, even with the chip in his head.) She could light him on fire. (Dramatic. Economical. Effective. Promising.)

She imagines watching him turn to ash, but it's not as satisfying as it probably should be. It'd be like putting down a dog that bit someone. She could do it if she had to, if he couldn't be trusted not to do the same thing again (and he can't be, she knows he can't be), but it wouldn't exactly be fun. Maybe garden-variety staking isn't such a bad plan after all.

She passes by his old crypt, and on impulse, she pushes the door open. It looks about how she remembers. Some of the furniture's broken, and the TV's coated in dust, but it probably still works. Nothing's nested, apart from a mangy gray cat. It growls at her, then scampers deeper into the crypt when she growls back.

The downstairs is in worse shape, courtesy of Riley's grenades. She remembers it used to be pretty nice, last summer. Spike fixed it up in an effort to combat his own sense of uselessness. Otherwise, he was back to counting days and calculating hours-minutes-seconds. Hard to believe that was only a year ago. Hard to believe he's the same guy she's now plotting possible executions for. If what he felt that summer wasn't guilt, she's not certain she's ever felt it herself. If it wasn't a sign that he cared, she doesn't think she knows the meaning of the word.

"But that makes it worse!" she insists, daring the empty room to contradict her. "If you hurt someone you don't care about, that's evil. But if you hurt someone you do care about- someone you love, someone you'd die for, and you betray them like that, that's- that's-"

Incomprehensible, that's what that is. And everyone does it all the damn time. She kicks an already-broken table and hears a loud crack.

The longer she thinks about it, the less surprised she is by the rape part. She has no illusions that Spike is fundamentally against rape, or that it's a depth he would never sink to. He may have told her only the heavily edited version of his past, but it was occasionally all too clear what he felt the need to edit out. She's never really thought about it before now, just like she doesn't often think about the fact that he's an unrepentant serial killer, but on some level she's known for years that Spike is a rapist. That in itself is no longer the issue. The issue is that Spike has rules he abides by, and rule number one is that he loves with everything he has. His love for Drusilla kept them together for a hundred years. His love for Buffy was what brought him so close to actual goodness, because he was so insistent on protecting all that Buffy loved. It's practically a law of the universe. He'd rather die than betray someone he loves.

Except, y'know, he did.

It must have happened, what, the day after she marched over to his crypt and asked whether he actually loved Buffy? Did she somehow lead him to-? No. No, she can't go blaming herself for this, especially when she has no idea how Spike could possibly have gotten from 'Do you love her?' to 'Ah, yes, raping Buffy sounds like a marvelous way to spend an evening.' It just doesn't make sense. Dawn would have bet anything that Spike just wanted to make things right. She knows him, damn it, or thought she did. Spike's always had stupid ideas about how to get Buffy to like him, but he's never-

Except he has, hasn't he? Chaining Buffy up and sicking his ex on her- as warning signs go, that's a pretty blatant one. Stealing her stuff- unwashed clothes, mostly, and for the first time Dawn realizes that beyond being weird and gross and pathetic, it's downright creepy that Spike's idea of love included secretly taking any of her sister's stuff, let alone her clothing. He stalked Buffy for months. He was so intent on having her that his reaction to 'move the hell on' was to threaten Warren into making a substitute that wasn't interested in saying no. Forcing himself on Buffy is completely consistent with his pattern so far. Heck, it's completely consistent with how he acted before Buffy- how many times did he try to take away Drusilla's choices? Knock her out and kidnap her, threaten Willow into casting a spell, chain her up, build a robot, try to rape her- what the hell did she expect? He's never taken no for an answer, and he's always responded to rejection by trying to force the issue.

She kind of wants to beat him up with a lead pipe. She kind of wants to find herself six months ago and slap herself for trusting him. She kind of wants to punch the stone wall of the crypt, but there's a non-negligible chance that that last one will end with her breaking her fingers. Still, destruction of some sort would be good. She can't stomach the thought of torturing Spike to death, but she has a lot fewer qualms about wrecking his already-wrecked stuff.

She goes to one of the surviving bookshelves and starts throwing the contents across the room. Milton. Vergil. Shakespeare. Box of old CD's that shatter as they hit the far wall. Dumb horror novel, dumb horror novel, poetry anthology, History of the England, Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe- damn, she remembers him loaning her that one. Remembers staying up late and reading it under the covers with a flashlight, to maximize the spookiness. Remembers the delighted smile on his face when she returned it and said she liked The Tell-Tale Heart.

Things were so much less confusing when the monsters didn't read Poe, or compliment her weird new cooking experiments, or say things like 'I made a promise to a lady'. When they didn't say, over and over, that they loved her sister. When they didn't provide so much evidence of it that she's more apt to doubt the value of love than the truth of that statement.

She thinks of Xander loving Anya and leaving her at the altar. She thinks of Willow loving Tara and erasing her memories. She thinks of Spike loving Buffy and trying to rape her. In hindsight, she thinks she should have seen all of this from a mile away, but part of her still can't understand how any of it makes sense. It would be so much easier if she could just hate them- really hate them, like she hated Angelus, but for some reason she can't.

She rests her head against the bookcase and cries- not for Buffy, not for Tara, not for Anya, but for herself and her own poor judgement. They're utterly selfish tears, but that's OK down here. It's not like Poe's in any position to judge her.

---

The Hyperion Hotel felt like a cross between a romantic old movie set and a B-movie Horror set. It was softly lit and decorated according to fifties sensibilities, like a deathtrap waiting to lure in its unsuspecting victims. Dawn had never actually visited it before. In all honesty, she didn't think she'd said more than six words to Angel in the past five years- which, come to think of it, meant that they had never actually had a full-fledged conversation. She hoped she wasn't morally obligated to point that out before she asked him to risk his life for her.

Andrew looked around the lobby and frowned, daring the furniture to make a move. When he was satisfied that all the chairs and couches were properly intimidated, he turned back to her. "Giles is going to be mad, you know."

Dawn glared at him. She knew only too well- best-case scenario, she was thinking he fired her. Worst-case, of course, he was right to worry, and there wouldn't be anything left of her to fire in the first place. But if they didn't, there was guaranteed to be nothing left of Spike in a few days, and that just wasn't acceptable. "If you want to chicken out now-"

"I'm not saying that!" said Andrew. "I just mean, if it's dangerous and stuff, then maybe we should have an actual magician with us? Like, one who isn't a total amateur? It's not like I know about anything besides demon summoning, and-"

"I've done necromancy before," said Dawn, trying to sound like someone whose first and only related experience hadn't ended with the immediate destruction of her own creation. "And anyway, that's why we can't tell Giles. If he knew we were going to try anything even tangentially related to raising the dead- it'd be bad, OK, so we're not gonna tell him. If it's really that awful then Angel will tell us, and we can't do the ritual without his help anyway."

This wasn't strictly true. Drusilla was also an option, and if Angel absolutely refused to help, then Dawn was already halfway done composing a backup plan where they tracked her down and took her blood by force. She just didn't think Andrew needed to know about all that, especially given that he still wasn't convinced it was a good idea to go to Angel. "OK, yeah, but hasn't he been CEO of evil incorporated for, like, a whole year? Possible skewed moral compass?"

"I'm thinking you missed the part where he's our only reasonable option!" hissed Dawn.

"Are the two of you planning on consulting me at any point in this conversation?"

Two heads snapped up, both of them looking guilty. Angel was staring at them from behind the counter. Dawn could've sworn he wasn't there a second ago, but she vaguely remembered Angel as a master of mysteriously appearing out of thin air (and vanishing just as quickly). His hair wasn't gelled, and his clothes were wrinkled and obviously unwashed. He looked more tired than any immortal being had a right to look. Life as the CEO of Evil Incorporated had apparently not been kind to him.

Dawn skipped the pleasantries. "We need to ask a favor."

"Hello to you, too," said Angel, frowning at her. It was a much deeper frown than she thought was warranted by a failure to say hello. "You know, the last time I called Giles asking for help, he hung up on me. He's got some nerve asking for help after that. You'd think he would at least have the decency to come down himself, wouldn't you?"

Dawn shrugged helplessly. She vaguely remembered Giles saying something about a previous call from Wolfram & Hart offices, but she couldn't have said what it was about. "I'm sorry about that, but Giles didn't send us. He doesn't even know we're here."

Angel still looked skeptical. "So you're here because of Buffy?"

"We're here because of Spike," said Andrew.

The expression that crossed Angel's face was more multi-faceted than anything Dawn could remember seeing from him in- well, probably ever. "Spike's alive, then?"

"For the moment," said Dawn. "He was injured. Badly," she added, when Angel looked unimpressed. Andrew started digging through her purse for her notebook. "We're not sure exactly what's wrong, but he's getting worse instead of better. If nothing changes, the effects will eventually become irreversible, even if he doesn't dust." Not a pretty mental image, that.

"But you have a plan?" asked Angel.

"Of sorts." Andrew handed her the notes, and she passed them across the counter. "We already know that the vampire restoration ritual is a viable method of restoring a vampire to health. We also know that killing the sire isn't actually necessary, and that an aborted ritual will work just as well as a completed one. Which isn't to say that the ritual isn't without risk- namely, the possibility of your death- but I don't see that we have a lot of other options."

He looked up, and she could see the exact moment her words penetrated. "That's your plan A?" demanded Angel. "Aborted human sacrifice?"

Well, when he said it like that it sounded terrible, but what choice did she have? "If there were another way, I'd've tried it by now. Slayer blood has healing properties, but Spike can't exactly swallow right now. This ritual is all we have."

Angel smiled and shook his head. The anger was gone, replaced with a sort of tolerant impatience, like he realized he couldn't expect her to be reasonable. "You have no idea what you're playing with."

"I'm not playing," snapped Dawn. "This is literally life and death. It's as far from playing as anything could ever possibly get."

Angel snorted. "This ritual was created by evil people, do you get that? If you try to bring Spike back with this, odds are he comes back as the monster he was, not the champion he is now. I'm not going to let you do that to him. To anyone. Do you have any idea-"

"I know what he did," said Dawn.

Angel spoke over her. "Do you have any idea what he was? Any idea the sort of creature a vampire is? What he would have done to you in a second if he hadn't had some twisted obsession with Buffy? How can you even think about-"

"I know!" yelled Dawn. She slammed her hands down on the desk to silence any reply before Angel could give voice to it. "As hard as this may be for you to believe, I'm not actually twelve anymore. I know perfectly well how this ritual works, and it doesn't end with anybody losing their soul. I also know that if you say no, the only possible option is to freeze the body and hope against hope that it slows the disintegration process- which is really unlikely, given that the process is mystical in nature. Then, of course, we'll have exactly one month until the next new moon to somehow track down Drusilla, capture her, and use her to complete the same ritual. The odds of that plan working are infinitesimally small, but if you think for one microsecond that I'm not willing to go that far, then you really have no idea who you're dealing with. I don't know if you even care, but-"

"Why do you?" asked Angel. When Dawn didn't answer, Angel looked at her like she really was twelve. "Have you asked yourself that? Why you care so much?"

"Many times," ground out Dawn.

"And?"

She really didn't want to explain it. It was one thing to spill her guts to Andrew, or to Giles, or even to strange blue people she might have known in another lifetime, but Angel? Did she really have to justify her feelings to Angel?

Apparently so. "He's my friend. That should be reason enough."

"Is it?"

No. Not really, no, there had to be more to it, and she still didn't know what the rest of it was. On the other hand, she didn't have time to sit around philosophizing when Spike might be dying. "Do you know what it's like to have a friend, Angel?"

Angel's expression turned unreadable. "Yes. I do."

It hit her that most of Angel's friends were probably dead now. Some of them had probably died in the past few days, fighting the Senior Partners. His mental state was probably about the same as hers had been after Glory, or at least after the Battle of the Hellmouth. All that it-should-have-been-me survivor guilt was probably at the forefront of his mind, especially if anyone he knew had died as a result of his own choices. Dawn was offering him what had to look like a way to reverse some of those consequences. She couldn't actually bring anyone back, of course- the rules about resurrection existed for a reason, and defying them could only lead to badness. But Spike wasn't dead, and regardless of how Angel usually felt about him, he was one of the few people Angel had left.

She could get him to say yes, even if it went against his better judgement. It would be a jerk move, to convince someone when they were in that state, but she could do it. And if she did, and if the ritual worked, then Spike would live.

If it didn't, of course, Angel's death would be on her head. She wasn't entirely sure she could live with that. But the alternative was not trying at all, and if Spike died because she let concern for Angel keep her from trying something that might very well work, then-

"Angel, look, I have no right to ask this of you, but Spike's going to die if you don't help us."

"I'll help," said Angel, decisively. "But you do realize the new moon is tonight, right?"

"Yeah," said Dawn. "And the shape he's in, we can't afford to wait another month. It has to be tonight."

---

Spike is back. He's also insane, and he's living in the school basement. Because you know, if Dawn had all of Sunnydale, or all of the whole freaking world to choose from, she would definitely choose to live in the basement of the local haunted high school. Not.

Granted, that might be part of the whole "insane" thing.

It's not that Dawn's forgiven him. She's still perfectly willing to light him on fire if he so much as exists near Buffy without Buffy's OK. It's just that she wants to understand. If Buffy's right, he's got a soul now, and while that's not nearly enough to make Dawn like him or trust him again, it's enough to cause a familiar burst of respect. And maybe that's worth almost as much, in the end, since it was respect that prompted her to warn him about where they stood in the first place.

She doesn't feel guilty about coming to see him without telling the others. Firstly, he's sort of living under her school, so what exactly do they expect? And secondly, Buffy totally let him help track Anya's demon-worm-thingy, so it's not like Spike and the gang aren't on speaking terms right now. He's a resource or something- an ally, though not a friend. And if Buffy's made the decision not to stake him, then that means she doesn't want him dead, right?

The thing is, he probably hasn't been feeding properly, and hungry-insane-Spike is probably not the best combination ever. Technically, bringing blood to the insane vampire in the school basement is probably the sort of thing that falls under risk prevention rather than actual friendship, even with the chip.

The chip. Right. He couldn't hurt her even if he wanted to, because he's still got the chip in his head. So there's no reason to be scared, even if he did almost rape Buffy before. Somehow. Because he's not gonna do that, or anything even remotely like that, because A, soul. And B, chip. And C, Spike wouldn't do that to her.

Probably.

She tries not to dwell on that thought.

He's crouched in the corner, hugging himself and mumbling quietly. Dawn's sure he must smell her, but he doesn't acknowledge it. He certainly looks insane, though it occurs to her that he might just have gotten better at faking. When the stink of human urine hits her, she decides the insanity thing is probably legit. Crap, maybe she should've brought a change of clothes or something. She couldn't have know he was in this bad of shape, and she's not sure how exactly she could've gotten men's clothing without stealing it, but it's not exactly comfortable, seeing him like this. Good or evil, creatures like Spike shouldn't be reduced to sitting in their own piss. Maybe she could double-check to see if there's anything left at the crypt...?

She shakes her head to clear it. She's not here to be nice to him. She's here to make sure this whole ridiculous situation doesn't lead to anything catastrophic. "Spike. Hey."

"Princess come to slay the goblin," he says, still not looking at her. "Don't doubt she could. Leave a terrible mess. Done that already, though, so it's no loss, no loss."

"I brought you blood," says Dawn, holding up the thermos and letting the contents slosh a little. "Nice, nutritious pig's blood. It's all cold, sorry about that. I thought about sneaking into the teacher's lounge to use the microwave, but I'm trying to put the whole juvenile delinquent phase behind me." Too nice, too nice, but she can't think of anything mean to say that doesn't sound like something she'd say to a stray dog or a small child, and to treat him like less than a man would be to absolve him of his past actions. A dog can't be called evil if it doesn't know better than to bite. Spike knew better, and she's sure as hell not giving him any ammunition to say he didn't, so basic human decency it is. "You want me to leave it on the file cabinet, or...?"

"Can't do that!" he cries. It's not that loud, but he looks at her, and she's so jumpy that she almost drops the thermos. There's nothing but fear and sorrow in his eyes, no recognition or concern. It makes her skin crawl. "Never hurt her, not that one, can't use her against me, please no, god no, please, let me keep that-"

"Spike!" She practically yells his name, and both of them are shocked into silence for a few seconds. She hopes that nobody upstairs heard. "Spike, it's me. Dawn. Remember me?" She can't say that they're friends, because that would be betraying Buffy or something, but she is Dawn, and he ought to remember her. She sticks with those bare truths and tries not to attach any feelings to them. "I brought you blood. You have to drink it, OK?"

He shakes his head and goes back to hugging himself. "You're not real, you're not dead. I can't figure it. Too many voices."

Dawn frowns at him. "Spike, I'm the only person here."

He doesn't respond to that. Dawn sets the thermos down and glances at her phone. Fifteen minutes left of lunch. The basement's like some kind of maze, so she has to allot at least five minutes to getting back to the first floor before passing period. Ten minutes should be plenty of time. She hoists herself up to sit on the file cabinet and pulls out a granola bar- she probably should've packed a whole lunch today, but she didn't want Buffy to be suspicious, and smuggling blood is hard enough.

"I've been thinking," she says. Spike closes his eyes. "Willow's coming back next week, and honestly, I don't know if I trust her, either. I mean, granted, Willow's not on the list of people who've tried to rape my sister-" Spike chokes back a sob, and Dawn pointedly ignores it. "But you're not on the list of people who've tried to destroy the world in the last six months, so there's that. Anyway, Buffy said Willow's a friend, and she's sorry now, so apparently we're welcoming her right back into our home." She doesn't try to keep the bitterness out of her voice. "For the record? I don't give a crap about sorry. I mean, I want Willow to be OK as much as the next person, but I'm not gonna pretend she didn't go all homicidal maniac."

Spike looks up at her, obviously confused, and she snaps her fingers. "I forgot, you missed that part. OK, lemme finish this thought, and I'll give you the short version." She takes another bite of her granola bar and waves her hand. "Anyways, I thought about it, and even if I don't trust her and don't really think she should be let off the hook, Willow's still a really strong witch. She's an asset, you know? And I guess if she really is sorry, then she'll do everything she can to help us. And the same goes for you. If you're really sorry about what you did, then you won't cause any more problems for Buffy, and you'll help out however you can. You could be really helpful, you know. I mean, not if you're starving and crazy and stuff, but in general, yeah. Which brings us back to the needing to eat thing."

She tosses the thermos in his general direction. It hits the ground and rolls towards him a ways, and ends up nudging his foot, just barely. The moment it does, his head snaps up like he's just realized something horrible. There are tears in his eyes. "Oh. Oh god, Bit-"

"Shut up and eat," she commands.

He miserably unscrews the top of the thermos and takes a sip. His face screws up, but after a moment he seems to realize that it's all he's going to get, and he forces himself to gulp it down.

"Good," nods Dawn. "Now, you wanted to know what happened." Spike nods warily, because he's got no right to ask for anything at all. "Tara's dead." Spike turns to rest his head against the wall, face screwed up to avoid sobbing, and Dawn feels a pang of loss all over again. "Warren shot her. He was aiming for Buffy, and something happened- he hit both of them, actually. Buffy almost died." She pauses a second, to let that bit sink in. It's hard to tell, given that he's already whimpering like each detail causes him physical pain, but she thinks he understood. "Anyways, Willow went all crush-kill-destroy on us. Tortured him to death by removing all his skin, tried to kill some other people, very nearly destroyed the entire world, then got spirited away to England for a delightful retreat where she rides ponies and gets therapy." She eats the last of her lunch and stuffs the wrapper in her pocket. "In other words, it was a hugely sucky experience all around, and you made it worse. If you'd been here, I think maybe Tara wouldn't have died."

It's complete and utter bullshit, of course, because Tara's death was a freak accident in the middle of the day, and absolutely nobody apart from Warren could've kept it from happening. Spike collapses into sobs all over again, though, and Dawn knows that he believes her. Tara wouldn't want her death used like that, as a weapon to make someone suffer. Dawn's a terrible person, probably, to do that to both of them.

She jumps down from the file cabinet and goes to pick up the thermos. It's not even half-drained. She sighs and crouches down beside him, ignoring the stench. "Spike, you have to listen to this part. Stay towards the back of the basement, because kids come down here to smoke sometimes, and you don't want them to find you. There's a shower and stuff in the boy's locker room, so if you need to get cleaned up, that's the place to go. Just don't get caught, OK? Don't even go upstairs before about midnight. Can you remember all that?" He nods. She stands, looking down at him like he's- well, like he's a guy on the floor. He seems unlikely to be anywhere else in the near future. "I'll be back for the thermos tomorrow. It'd better be empty."

She heads for the stairs, but she can't just leave things like that. She has to clarify where they stand, so half a minute later, she circles back around. He already looks kind of like he belongs there, which is worrying and reassuring at the same time. She spares a moment to wonder how exactly it is that the vampire in the basement is somehow less worrying than any other random homeless person would be.

"Buffy says you have a soul."

He looks up at her and nods, carefully.

"It doesn't change anything. If you touch my sister, I'll kill you."

He nods at her, all serious and Victorian. She nods back, and something unclenches in her heart. Her trust in him is gone. She thinks their friendship might be, too. Some of the respect that defined that friendship is still there, though, and somehow that isn't a terrible thought.

She makes a mental note to check the crypt for old clothes.

---

Smuggling Spike out of home base turned out to be the easy part. The slayers on duty already knew that Dawn had direct contact with Giles, and nobody stopped to question whether she might be doing something without his approval. All she had to do was make something up about an order to transfer Spike to another facility, and every door in the building opened for her.

Reaching the bottom of the Sunnydale crater in time to cast the spell required a little more ingenuity. Apparently, the dragon they'd seen earlier had somehow become good friends with Angel in the last few days, and he was more than willing to fly the four of them down and drop them off in the general vicinity of the old factory.

Recovering Dalton's notes on the spell took more effort. The books were buried, though thankfully not burnt, and it took them several hours to gather all the necessary pieces. Andrew found the Du Lac Cross and laid it down with the rest of the materials. When they had them all, Dawn spread them out on the floor of the factory and examined them for anything that would definitively make the ritual a terrible idea. Dalton's notes were well-organized and easy to understand (Dawn was almost sorry he was dead- he seemed pretty smart), and eventually she was satisfied that casting the spell was an acceptable risk. There was, of course, the small detail that the spell was clearly meant to restore unrepentantly evil creatures, but nothing said it couldn't restore a souled vampire, so she left it.

Actually casting the spell? That was easy, at least until the demon showed up.

The vampires lay next to each other on the giant stone altar at the front of the church. It was actually more like the hollowed-out remains of a church, in that there was no roof and most of the walls were destroyed, but Dawn hoped that the spell would work anyway. Before she could change her mind, she nodded to Andrew to begin with the incense.

"Eligor, I name thee. Bringer of war, poisoners, pariahs, grand obscenity. Elixir, wretched master of decay, bring your black medicine. Come restore your most impious, murderous child. From the blood of the sire, he is risen. From the blood of the sire, shall he rise again."

She looked at Angel one last time. When he nodded, she drove the knife through his hand and into Spike's. The wound lit up instantly, pulling life force from Angel and into Spike. It looked like it hurt kind of a lot on Angel's end, but he didn't call for them to stop.

Dawn waited two minutes of the recommended five. That was the deal- two minutes before the knife came out, to minimize the danger to Angel. As soon as her stopwatch beeped, she grabbed the knife to pull it out.

That was approximately when everything went to hell.

If forced to describe what happened, Dawn would have said she felt excruciating pain the moment she touched the knife. On the other hand, it was completely unlike any pain she had ever experienced. She felt like her spirit was being ripped from her body. Her vision didn't cloud, but it wasn't clear, either. She was momentarily gifted with sight beyond sight, and immediately realized what was wrong with Spike. The tie that ran between his head and heart glowed bright white, and it was easy to see that it became as thin as a single strand of hair where he'd been injured. It looked like it might snap at any moment, leaving him dust.

As soon as she processed that much, she realized that there was a demon perched on the ledge of the stained glass window. It was the ugliest thing Dawn had ever seen, covered in horns and black slime. It was curled in on itself like a frightened child. Its eyes were red and unreadable, but she could tell that it wasn't happy. Its voice alternated between deep and falsetto, seemingly at random. "You dare ask my aid without a sacrifice, human? I should kill you for your arrogance."

"I had no choice," whispered Dawn. "I had to try."

Eligor screeched in laughter. "Try and fail!" The demon leapt down from its perch and leaned over the altar across from her, dripping black slime all over Angel. He didn't react at all. "You have memories of being a vampire. Fabricated memories of a spell lasting an hour at most, but perhaps that taint is enough." The demon smiled, revealing rows upon rows of rotten yellow teeth. "What do you say, human? Shall I take you for a sacrifice instead?"

Two and a half minutes. They were running out of time, and she had nothing resembling a plan. Couldn't let the thing kill Angel, couldn't let it kill her, couldn't let it refuse to help Spike- but it had to have something in exchange for that service, didn't it? Crap. What would Buffy do? Probably punch the thing, which wasn't likely to work particularly well if Dawn tried it. Spike would do the same thing. Willow would threaten it with magic, Giles and Tara never would've cast the spell in the first place, Xander would probably just try to think of something witty to say in the face of his oncoming demise, Anya would-

Anya would haggle.

"The way I figure it, you should be happy to help us with or without a sacrifice," said Dawn, bracing herself against the altar to keep from falling. "One more evil creature in the world means a lot more violence and destruction, right?"

"He was truly wicked once," acknowledged Eligor. "Once, but no longer. You believe there is good in him, or you would not risk your existence for his. I have no use for those who would be heroes, whether they fail or succeed. What reason have I to answer your request?"

"You did it once!" argued Dawn. "Nobody died when Drusilla was restored, but you healed her anyway!"

"Drusilla was mad and evil both. I had good reason to restore her, but this vampire is nothing to me," declared Eligor. "You are less than nothing. You reek of life and love, the both of you. What use have I for that?" The demon ran one clawed finger down her arm, still smiling. "Blood, that I have use for. Give me yours, hm?"

Normally, of course, Dawn would have taken that as a death threat and kicked the demon in the face. Unfortunately, she was barely vertical at the moment. A glance at Andrew revealed that he was as out of it as Angel was. He wasn't even looking at Eligor, so it wasn't out of the question that he might have been paralyzed or frozen in time. The demon cut the back of her hand with one claw, and Dawn couldn't think of anything to do besides wince.

The demon's yellow smile grew even wider as her blood welled up. "Keyblood, keyblood," it whispered. "Chaos and the Child of Chaos, all mine, all mine."

The words knocked something loose in Dawn's memory. She knew, of course, that most memories were stored in brains, the sort that vampires kept from before they were turned. Some memories were stored in souls- memories of heaven and hell, and the bone-deep need for concepts of right and wrong. What she hadn't realized was that some memories were so essential that they were stored in the fabric of time itself, impossible to ever fully erase. The nature of the Key was one of these things. When Eligor spoke, Dawn remembered.

The surge of determination she felt was little more than an echo of her former power, as Illyria had observed, but an echo was enough. Dawn used every atom of her willpower to shoot her other hand out and grab one of the demon's horns. She dragged its head down to look her in the eye. It was easier than she would've thought, in that it wasn't impossible. Scrawny thing probably spent too much time appearing for people's rituals to worry about hitting the gym. "Yeah, that's nice, but I should warn you. The last person who tried to take my blood was a hellgod. She's dead now."

The demon giggled nervously. "Ah-ah-ah, kill me and I can't restore your friend now, can I? I was wrong before, you have something of value to me after all. I offer you a trade. Ten drops of your blood for the continued existence of both vampires. Is this a fair price, human?"

Dawn wasn't stupid. She knew the demon couldn't want her blood for anything good. On the other hand, it seemed like the best offer she was likely to get. "I accept your terms."

"Excellent." The demon produced a stone bowl and a knife from behind its back, and handed both of them to her. "Ten drops. Don't be stingy, now."

Dawn tried not to think about where the knife might have been before. Ten drops wasn't a lot of blood, and it wasn't like she'd never cut herself before. Granted, the last time hadn't turned out very well, but that was different. She'd cut her arm. This time, she stabbed the knife into the pad of her thumb as cleanly as she could. The blood dripped into the bowl- one, two, five, ten drops- and Dawn handed both items back. "Now heal him."

"As you command," said the demon, placing one clawed hand on the knife. "In consideration of services rendered, let William the Bloody be restored."

The demon tore the knife out, then immediately disappeared. Dawn gasped as the pain and her altered vision abruptly ended. Andrew was rested a hand on her shoulder. "Dawn? Are you OK? You just moved all of a sudden- why are you bleeding?"

"I'm fine," said Dawn. "This is gonna work."

"I'm afraid it won't," said a voice from behind her. Dawn looked over her shoulder, and was greeted by the sight of Quentin Travers aiming a crossbow at her. "Step away from the vampires, Miss Summers."

---

"Are you sure you have to patrol tonight?" whines Dawn, trying to sound both pathetic and grown-up at the same time. That is, most likely, why the appeal doesn't work at all.

"Dawn, you know I have to. Ubervamp's been out there for two weeks, which has no doubt given run of the mill evil free reign in my town. Believe me, I would love nothing more than to stay in and spend the night making sure Spike is healing properly, but I have a job to do, and I know you can take care of him."

"What if I don't want to take care of him?"

Buffy whips around, an incredulous look on her face. "Are you serious? Did you not just hear the big 'this is war' speech? Honestly, Dawn, I know you'd rather watch TV or something, but-"

"You think this is about me being lazy?" hisses Dawn. She has to hiss, not yell, because the potentials are in the next room and she so doesn't want to hear their opinions on keeping a vampire in the house. "I want to help, I really do, but it's Spike and I just..."

She's not really sure how that sentence is supposed to end, but luckily Buffy chooses that moment to do the talking thing. "OK. You want to talk about this? We'll talk."

"Oh," says Dawn, because Buffy hasn't talked about stuff in, like, ever.

"Are you scared of him? Because, Dawnie, I won't tell you he's not dangerous, especially with the trigger, but there are about five different reasons why he won't hurt you. And even if he tried to, he's chained up right now, so-"

"No, I know that. Even if it did activate tonight, he can barely stand."

"Then wh- oh. Is this about the..." She breaks off, like she can't even say the word. "Is this still about the assault?"

Almost exclusively. "Um, maybe. Sort of."

"That's not your concern."

Frustration and confusion spill out before she can contain them. "But it happened, didn't it? How can you-"

"Dawn. I'm only going to say this once. What Spike tried to do was... beyond wrong, but the person who did that isn't here anymore. He has a soul, and he didn't then. I don't know what that means in terms of guilt or responsibility, but it changes things. Lots of things. Remember when Angel lost his soul? Or when Vampire Willow came from the parallel universe and tried to kill all of us? Just because they'd do that without a soul doesn't mean they're bad people with one."

Dawn has half a mind to point out that Willow did try to kill all of them last year, soul intact. She's certain that soulful Angel would kill under the right circumstances, too. She thinks better of pressing either of these points, though, and not just because they would hurt Buffy. It's because if she has to hate Willow and hate Angel and hate Spike, then she might as well hate everyone she knows, and where does that leave her? "So, what, we treat him like Angel now?"

Buffy frowns. "In the sense that he's a vampire with a soul, a valuable ally, my ex and therefore all kinds of awkward, and can apparently go homicidal again at a moment's notice? Yeah. Spike would kill certain people for suggesting it, but there are parallels."

Dawn does her best to look absolutely unimpressed, as though jokes about Spike killing people don't remind her that he's done just that, and recently, even if it wasn't his fault. "You're aware that I don't really like Angel, right?"

Buffy makes this weird little half-smile that somehow manages to look really forced. "I am not asking you to like Spike. All I'm asking is that you help me make sure everyone on this team is ready to fight as much evil as possible, and helping Spike heal is a part of that. Can you do that, or should I ask Willow to take care of him?"

Dawn doesn't have to think about it for long. "I can do it. But Buffy?"

"Yes?"

"Does this mean you're not mad at him anymore?"

She doesn't ask because she wants to pressure Buffy. Really. She's just not sure how she's expected to feel about Spike right now, and it would be a lot easier to decide whether to shun him or offer him support if she knew what Buffy's feelings on the matter were. She could go either way on Spike, and she wants to go the way that will be most helpful to Buffy.

Buffy doesn't exactly sigh. It's more like she's very visibly stopping herself from sighing, like this question is the most exhausting thing in the world, and she isn't allowed to admit that. "I told you before, Dawn, I don't know what I feel about Spike. I think sometimes what we feel is less important than what we choose to do about it." Dawn opens her mouth to reply, because that's an important point, something they need to talk about, but Buffy holds up a hand to stop her. "Just make sure he gets blood and whatever else he needs to heal. And don't let anyone into the room who doesn't already, you know, have some idea what's going on. And if the trigger activates, you get Willow and Giles, even if he can barely walk right now. And don't let anything else kidnap him."

Dawn does her best to look mature and responsible. "I get it, Buffy. Go patrol."

Buffy looks like she's about to add something else, but in the end she decides against it and heads out the door. "Love you. See you in a few hours."

"Love you, too," replies Dawn. She only waits a moment before starting her mission. She heats up a mug of blood in the microwave (fifty-nine seconds, because that's what Spike always punched in while he was staying with her during That Summer, though she's not sure why he didn't just punch the one-minute mark), and grabs a tablespoon and a straw while she waits for the timer to beep. The potentials eye her curiously as she closes the door to the basement behind her, but none of them say anything. That's good. They don't understand the complexities of what's going on, and if she has to explain, it'll be too easy to simplify things in either direction. Things will become simpler in time, but not until Buffy decides what her new relationship with Spike is going to be. And for that to happen, he probably has to be conscious.

Dawn turns the light on and surveys the wounded vampire. He's still asleep, but his wounds have faded a since last night. Giles tried to send her away while they got ready to set his ribs, but Dawn had protested that she knew more about Spike-injuries than any of them, and she wanted to see him as much as any of the others did. And maybe neither of those things are actually technically true- Giles knows way more human first aid than she does, and it's not all that different for vampires, and Buffy could barely sleep knowing that Spike was away being tortured somewhere- but they ended up letting her stay anyway. Now it's just a matter of giving him blood until his body knits itself back together.

She cradles the mug of blood in her lap and dips the spoon in, taking out less than half a tablespoon so that she doesn't spill blood all over both of them. She holds it over his mouth for a moment, hoping for a response. When there's nothing, she opens his mouth with her hand and carefully pours the blood down his throat. He doesn't wake up, but he swallows the blood without any additional help. It's sorta creepy, but she takes it as a good sign.

Tablespoon by tablespoon, she pours the whole cup down his throat. It takes forever, but she doesn't mind. He's going to need a lot more blood to finish healing, but for now, she decides to just let him rest. She goes through one of the piles of junk in the basement, and grabs a random book to pass the time. She reads, only three or four paragraphs at a time, then glances up to see if he's awake. Sometimes she stops reading and starts planning what she's going to say to him when he wakes up. After half an hour, she glances up and realizes that he's staring at her.

She shuts the book and launches into her briefing. "Hey. You've been out for approximately twelve hours. You're in our basement, if you couldn't tell. You're obviously injured, but you're already starting to heal. One of your shoulders was dislocated when we got you back, so we had to pop that back into place, and now it's OK, though it's probably still sore. The bruising's still visible and you look like crap, but that'll go away in a few days. You've got a lot of torn muscles and half a dozen broken ribs, but it's all healing more or less the way we'd expect it to. The only exceptions are the ceremonial cuts on your chest. We're not totally sure what's up with those, but it probably has to do with magic, so we had Willow mix up some special salve for them. You can apply it yourself now that you're conscious. They're not serious, but there's a chance they'll leave scars. Other than that, we're pretty sure you'll be back to normal in a week or so." The 'we' in those sentences is Dawn, and only Dawn, but it's better this way. Distant, businesslike. Speaking in plural lets her pretend she's actually a doctor, working with a hospital and a set of very strict guidelines she's supposed to follow to make sure she doesn't get inappropriately attached to her patients.

He tries to speak, but it's mostly an unintelligible rasp. Dawn gathers up the empty mug and spoon. He watches her carefully, as though he doesn't entirely trust her. She doesn't really blame him. She's not sure what she can do for him on that front, so she decides to just focus on helping him heal. He's going to need more blood, and with that thought in mind, she heads for the stairs.

"Leaving, then?"

She spins around. The question itself is too quiet to judge tone, but his expression is plain. He wants her to stay, but he won't judge her in the least if she leaves. The part of her that wants to be cruel to him withers at the sight, and she decides that he's already suffered enough these past few weeks. She didn't even know she still wanted to punish him until she really, really didn't. She has a job to do. For Buffy- but also for Spike, and maybe even a little bit for herself. "Just to get more blood. You want anything in it? Weetabix, maybe?"

His expression melts into one of relief despite the pain, as though she can't hate him too much if she's offering him Weetabix in his blood. "Better stick to basics just this once."

"Alright. It's no trouble, though, if you change your mind." And then- because it took her approximately six seconds to chuck 'businesslike' out the window, or because he's had a terrible time of it for the last two weeks, or maybe because she really does care about him- she decides to add something that might make him feel a little bit better. "Buffy was worried about you. When you were gone. She kept saying we had to get you back, and we couldn't stop looking until we did."

He looks at her with that expression of quiet awe that comes over him every now and then. It's a good look on him, even with the bruises. Much better than the I-am-a-miserable-sinner-and-deserve-to-be-spat-on look, which has been his default expression roughly since they found out he was eating people again.

She tries to head up the stairs for the second time, but something stops her. There's one more thing she needs him to know, before she takes her eyes off him. "Hey, Spike?"

He raises an eyebrow at her, a question without words.

"For the record, I was worried, too."

It's not 'I forgive you.' But it's honest, and for the moment, it'll do.

---

"No, see, this is exactly what I don't need right now," said Dawn. Crap, she knew there was a reason she hadn't trusted the cyborgs, apart from their excessive englishness and the whole technically-not-alive thing. Apparently, they were also totally down with murder.

"I'm going to ask you to cooperate. I'd rather not kill anyone," said Travers. "I had hoped you would come to your senses on your own, but I see that it was a fool's hope. It's become quite clear to me that you have lost sight of the council's mission entirely, and I would rather not take any chances."

"Dawn?" whispered Angel. He sounded totally wiped, not exactly in top fighting form. Quite possibly not in standing form.

"Little busy here," she whispered back, without turning to face him. Hooray for superhearing. "You might want to not move. Like, at all."

Travers didn't seem to notice the exchange. "If I must kill you to keep you from restoring a dangerous vampire, then so be it. If I fire this weapon now, the bolt will most likely pass through your abdomen and continue into the vampire behind you. Whether it hits the heart is anyone's guess, but the second shot almost certainly will. I should warn you that abdominal wounds are fatal in the vast majority of cases." He paused, waiting for her to move. She didn't. "As I said, there's no need for bloodshed here, child. No one has to die."

Dawn planted her feet. "Nobody but Spike and Angel, you mean."

Travers frowned. "I suppose I do. But seeing as they're already dead, I should think that to be of little consequence."

Dawn eyed the crossbow. All he had to do was pull the trigger, and he would quite possibly kill her- or Spike, if she stepped out of the way. Her whole life, as much as eighty years left unlived, all brought to a close by a few bits of metal and wood. For all she was ancient and ageless, she was also eighteen years old. She didn't want to die. She didn't want Spike to die, either. That was the whole point of the drops of blood trade, right? Figuring out how not to die? It had to be the second-most immature thought possible, but part of her was screaming that this wasn't fair.

"Do we have a plan?" asked Angel.

Andrew was to her right, nearly hyperventilating. She hadn't heard Spike move at all yet. Her own mind was still pretty much stuck between processing the unfairness of it all and imagining what it must feel like to get shot with an arrow. "Currently? Keep him occupied until you're ready to leap across the room and be heroic."

"Bad plan," said Angel.

"Listen, Mr. Robo-Watcher," said Andrew, in a tone that didn't begin to approach calm. "What you're talking about is murder. That would make you the bad guy."

"I think we're all quite old enough to know that the world is rarely as simple as all that, Mr. Wells." Which was a weird line coming from a guy who wanted to eradicate all vampires regardless of soul status, but Dawn didn't feel like thinking about stuff like that at the moment. Travers looked from Andrew back to her. "Are you prepared to see reason, Miss Summers?"

Dawn bit her lip. "You can't reload the crossbow before one of us gets to you, so I tend to think there would be a lot of consequences. Say, you not leaving this crater alive."

"But I'm not alive," said Travers, still perfectly calm. He might actually have sounded reasonable, if not for the words themselves and the crossbow he was still aiming at her. "I think we're both perfectly aware that I have no more claim to humanity than the creatures behind you. I suppose that's something the four of us have in common."

"Pretty sure I'm alive," said Dawn. "For the moment, anyway."

Travers scoffed. "You think I don't know what you are, girl? You may find that I know a great many things. It's quite clear from our records that you're a changeling of some sort. You're certainly not a bona fide human being. Fabricated experiences. An existence predicated on magic and memory manipulation. Your life, such as it is, is little more than smoke and mirrors. One might easily argue that ending it would be of no more consequence than swatting a fly."

"You're wrong," said Dawn, voice cracking. And for all she'd said these same things to herself a hundred times before, she really believed he was. Of course there would be consequences. Hadn't Spike's absence had consequences? Weren't there people that he was connected to? Buffy, Giles, Illyria, Xander, Andrew, Angel- how could anyone see those connections and think they meant absolutely nothing? That Spike wasn't a part of this world, as surely as anyone else? And if Spike had a place in this world, then surely she did, too. Maybe she hadn't, once, but that time had ended, and it got further away with every new connection she made. She spent a moment thinking how terrible it would be to lose all that.

She didn't step out of the way.

"There would be consequences," said Dawn, more clearly. "Lots of consequences. There are people who care about me, and there are people who care about them. I care about them, and that's- that's important. It doesn't mean they're good, or safe, or heroic, or anything else, but it's not nothing." She thought she might have figured most of it out, right there. Maybe the caring didn't need a justification. Maybe it was a point in and of itself.

Travers was silent for several seconds. When he did speak, he sounded like someone trying to reason with a madwoman. "You really believe that this creature- this thing, which you readily admit is a rapist and murderer- is worth protecting? You think that caring about something is sufficient reason to protect it, regardless of objective reality?"

"I guess I do," said Dawn.

"I see," said Travers.

And everything happened at once.

Dawn felt like she'd been punched in the gut. Andrew screamed, a sound that communicated so much pure terror that Dawn couldn't fault him for it. Angel let loose a combination war cry and yell of pain, then ran forward impossibly fast and decked Travers. Spike vaulted over the altar in the same direction, and Dawn had just enough time to register that he was undusty and conscious before he stopped in his tracks and turned towards her. His expression was one of absolute horror. It reminded her of how he'd looked on the tower, years ago, at the exact moment he'd realized that he wouldn't be able to save her. It occurred to her that the pain in her stomach wasn't improving, so she looked down to see what had happened.

There was a splash of red on her shirt, coming from a hole in her abdomen that was steadily losing blood. She stared dumbly for a second, finally realizing that Travers had fired his crossbow. The bolt had gone right through her, but lost enough momentum that it hadn't been able to reach Spike's heart, and had lodged in his arm instead. Meaning that he was alive. Also meaning that very soon, she wouldn't be.

The thought somehow struck her as funny. There was nothing mystical or powerful about the way the blood (red blood, not green, of course it wasn't green) seeped into her shirt. Here she was, Key to the Universe, ancient and ageless and terrifying, and she was going to die, not from a hole in the sky or in the fabric of spacetime, but in her stomach.

"Well, crap," whispered Dawn.

She had just enough time to think that those were terrible last words before she collapsed.

---

This isn't the first time she's had veins with blood running through them. Obviously not, or there wouldn't be ancient rituals discussing how to bleed her and cut the power out of whatever form she's taken. She has died so many times. She thinks it should not sting after so many deaths, but it does, always. To die is to cease to live, for her as surely as for anyone else. She does not want to die. She does not want to leave. She does not want to say goodbye.

---

Someone was screaming. It might have been her. Cold hands cradled her head. "Don't you die on me, Niblet. Not now, dammit, eyes open-" She tried to listen, but the world was melting. She wanted to go to sleep.

---

The gods cut her with needles and knives. These are memories better forgotten, but they cannot be erased. The past is hardly written in stone, but some things cannot be honestly altered. She knows this, as surely as she knows that she exists. Her truth is not objective, but subjective truth is truth nonetheless, and likely the nearest thing she has to fact. She writes her memories on the walls of her cell until she can see them even when she closes her eyes.

---

There was blood on the ground. There was blood on her hand. There were hands on her gut, covered in blood. Someone else was speaking. "Keep applying pressure. We have to stop the bleeding, or- someone get the dragon!"

---

She surveys wastelands that stretch as far as the eye can see. This is her handiwork, whole worlds destroyed by armies summoned from nothingness. She stands at the top of cities nearly as large as the continents they occupy, so vast that one could spend ten lifetimes exploring them and still find more to see. These, too, are her doing, supported by supply lines from a thousand dimensions, through a thousand gates she opens by letting her blood touch the earth.

---

The sky spread overhead. The world fell away below her. There were stars in all directions. She couldn't remember if she was alive, but she stared at the sky because she remembered that she was supposed to keep her eyes open.

---

A thousand lifetimes pass like summer afternoons. She remembers faces. Man, woman, demon, human, old, young, friend, foe. She forgets the specific entities, but remembers that they existed, and feels the loss of them like the loss of one of her own limbs. She screams into the void when they abandon her. She never stops reaching for them.

---

Long words were tossed around. She missed most of them, and hoped they weren't important. Men and women in blue pricked her with needles. She tried to keep her eyes open, tried not to die, but the world dissolved anyway.

---

She is time. She is space. She is light. She is a gate to anywhere and anywhen. She is fury and fire and unstoppable force. She is chaos made flesh. She is so very, very real, even when she leaves no shadow and cannot remember her own name.

For a moment, an eyeblink, she is a child, a being that laughs too loudly, cries too often, trusts too quickly, and loves too easily. She is courage and defiance and the potential for greatness. She is called sister. Daughter. Student. Girl. Key. Human. Friend.

She calls herself Dawn, and it is not a lie.

---

The ceiling was off-white. The color made her feel sick. There was someone at her bedside, holding her hand so that she couldn't float away. So she knew, even as she fell asleep again with tears in her eyes, that today was not the day she would die.

---

She can't close her eyes without seeing it. The crater. The city collapsing inward. She remembers the list of names that rattled around in her skull- Amanda, Anya, Spike, Buffy, Amanda, Anya, Spike, Buffy, Amanda, Buffy, Anya, Buffy, Spike, Buffy, Buffy, Buffy. It was almost a prayer- not a prayer to God, but to the powers, maybe. To balance or chaos or justice or mercy or whatever will make them not be dead. She can't say whether those prayers were answered, given that Buffy survived and the others didn't. She's inclined to say that the powers ignored her, and that Buffy is just that hard to kill.

She's probably the only one who saw it. She's certainly the only one who looked back at the light and the destruction and thought of Glory's portal, but the connection won't leave her. Buffy died to save the world, and to save her in particular. Now Spike's died to save them all, too, but Dawn's pretty sure the reason he did it has more to do with Buffy than with anyone else. So it makes sense, in Dawn's mind, that Buffy's the one who retreats to their shared hotel room the next day and sobs herself to sleep. She's pretty sure Buffy loved him, in one sense or another, and somehow this isn't surprising at all.

Dawn's eyes are dry, and the pain in her gut feels more like a persistent stomachache than like she's lost her guts entirely. That's how she remembers Buffy's death, like all her insides were gone. When Tara died, it was like all the air had gone out of the room. When her mother died, it was like the world was ending. This just hurts. She doesn't want to crowd Buffy, who's feeling the loss so much more acutely, so eventually she grabs her purse and heads downstairs to see how everyone else is coping.

She finds most of them in the hotel lobby. Xander stares numbly at the wall while Willow holds his hand and whispers to him. Giles sits nearby reading a book, putting up with Andrew while he hovers a few feet away. Faith and Wood are sitting apart from the others, not really jubilant, but also not ready to burst into tears.

The slayers, for the most part, are laughing. This makes sense, she supposes. They survived. She really can't begrudge them their relief, but now that the loss has finally hit her, it's not something she's prepared to take part in. Kennedy is sitting by herself. She looks sort of mildly upset, which isn't a particularly unusual look for her. Dawn doesn't stop to think about why she might be upset, she just slides into the chair next to her with the intention of commiserating.

"The slayers seem pretty happy," says Dawn.

"Yeah, I guess," sighs Kennedy. "It's not like this isn't awesome, I just wish we could get down to business, you know? Get organized. Everyone here just wants to sit around twiddling their thumbs. I haven't seen our fearless leader all day."

"Well, yeah," shrugs Dawn. "I mean, she's sort of grieving right now."

"That's what I'm talking about," explains Kennedy. "I'm down for the victory lap, but could we maybe hold off on the memorial until things are less up in the air?"

"She just needs some time to mourn. It's not easy, you know? Losing people."

"Seems kind of late to mourn." At Dawn's look, Kennedy shrugs. "I mean, she's upset about Spike, right? He was dead long before today."

For a few seconds, Dawn is positive she's misheard. It's not possible, after everything he's done, that this is how Spike is remembered. Not with anger, not with hatred, not with love or regret or respect or loathing, but with absolute indifference. She can't think of a crueler ending for him than Kennedy's total dismissal.

"Don't say that," says Dawn. "Don't even joke about that."

"I'm not joking," says Kennedy, obviously puzzled. "Is that some controversial statement? Vampire equals dead? Look, I'm glad Spike went out the way he did, but at the end of the day he's just-"

Dawn stands up without thinking about it, and a few of the slayers glance at her. "Don't finish that sentence."

"Or what?" asks Kennedy.

There is a not-insignificant part of Dawn that would really like to hit Kennedy at this point. Of course, even apart from the fact that hitting people is wrong, it would probably lead to Kennedy hitting back, and Dawn would most likely end up with a broken face. Or dead, if Kennedy doesn't know her own strength- and of course she doesn't, given that she's had no more than a day to get used to it. Hitting Kennedy is a terrible idea on pretty much every level. But fists are only one way to make a point- as Spike demonstrated when he lost the ability to hit back, when he divided his enemies with his words. When he dragged himself into the light by virtue of the words he never said to Glory, and again when he offered her sister his promise.

Dawn hopes words are worth something, anyway. They're all she has to give.

"Do you have any idea how many people Spike killed?" she asks. Her voice is so steady that it might have been carved from stone. "I did the math once. A hundred and twenty years, a murder every couple days or so? That's something like twenty thousand people, minimum, and I knew Spike. He didn't have to be hungry to kill people."

Kennedy frowns at her, obviously not sure where this is going. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. Do you know how many times Spike helped Buffy save the world? Three times. Three times, he fought by her side while she kept all of us from falling into hell on earth. Two of those instances were while he was soulless. One of them was before he was chipped."

"Interesting," says Kennedy, in the tone that means she thinks it's anything but.

"Isn't it," answers Dawn. "Did you know he fought for his soul, withstood torture to get it back? Did you know he guarded the hellmouth for five months, asking nothing in return, while Buffy was dead? Have you heard that he faced a hellgod and refused to betray the people he cared about? Do you realize he killed two slayers before he met Buffy? Do you know what he did to her? Have you heard about his crimes? Do you have any idea what depths he sunk to? Have you heard how he clawed his way back, to stand with the slayer as a champion? I'm going to take a guess and say you have no idea who he was, and that's just sad."

"Is there a point in here somewhere?" asks Kennedy.

"The point is, you want to hate Spike? I don't give a damn. I'll be the first to say he probably deserves it, but don't you dare pretend he didn't matter."

She's shaking with rage at the unfairness of it all. Kennedy's looking up at her like she's lost her mind. The other slayers have gone silent, like they don't understand where this is coming from. Robin Wood is studiously avoiding looking at her, while Faith has a deep, thoughtful frown on her face. Willow looks surprised. Xander still looks numb. Andrew is hanging on every word, like she's weaving some magnificent story for his entertainment. Giles meets her gaze, but Dawn can't read his expression at all, and it hits her that nobody in the room remembers Spike.

They remember parts of him, sure. Scary vampire serial killer. Constant pest who was always hanging around where he wasn't wanted. Fountain of sarcasm and rude commentary. But they didn't know him. They didn't know his favorite poets or ice cream flavors or the story about the stray cat he tried to adopt when he was six. They didn't know any of the small, inconsequential details that made him a person, and somehow that's even more horrible than them being wrong about whether he was good or evil.

They're not mourning Spike because they're not even aware that anything of substance has been lost.

"I'm going back to bed," says Dawn. Her footsteps on the tile floor are too loud for the silence. She stalks out of the room as fast as she can, thinking she just might throw up if she spends one more second around these people.

She doesn't go back to bed, of course. She grabs a notebook and a pen and takes the little flashlight off Buffy's keychain, goes outside into the darkness, faces the Sunnydale crater, and kneels. She lays her notebook in the dirt, turns the little flashlight on, and holds it in her mouth, so that one hand can steady her paper while the other one writes. She has this poetic idea that she'll write until her fingers bleed, only Dawn's life isn't generally that dramatic, even when she's just seen the ground open up and swallow a thousand vampires that she hated and one that she's decided she probably didn't hate at all anymore, so her hand just cramps up after half a dozen pages. She's still waiting for it to recover when Andrew walks up behind her.

""Wah u you wan?", asks Dawn, before remembering to spit out the flashlight. "Shouldn't you be asleep?"

"I couldn't," says Andrew, quietly. "I mean, I tried. But I keep seeing Anya, and, uh, it's not going so well." He looks down at her notebook. "So, what are you doing out here?"

"Writing," says Dawn. She picks up the notebook and holds it towards him, then holds out the flashlight, too. "Read this."

His eyes are red from crying, but he just sits down in the dirt next to her and starts reading, like he's too tired to question it. They sit like that for a while, however long it takes Andrew to read six and a half pages of notes about Spike, and then he looks up. "OK. Why'd I read that?"

"Cuz I told you to."

"Why'd you tell me to?"

"So somebody else would remember." She pokes his forehead, lightly. "Now I'm not the only one who knows. It's important that you remember, because something might happen to me, and if I'm the only one when that happens, it'll be like this stuff never happened at all, you know?" She pokes his forehead again. "So you have to remember it, OK?"

"I'll remember," says Andrew, sounding like he's planning to take this new duty extremely seriously. He bats her hand away from his face. "You don't have to worry about that."

"Good," whispers Dawn, lying down in the dirt. It still hurts kind of a lot, knowing she won't ever joke or talk or smile with him ever again, but she doesn't feel like she's going to throw up anymore. She turns toward the crater and thinks about the fact that nobody will bury him- but then, he was already buried once, and he's sort of buried at the bottom of the crater anyway, so maybe that's OK. "Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." There. That's probably the closest thing he's gonna get to a funeral rite the second time around.

It's several minutes before Andrew asks her what the quote is from. She calls him an uncultured swine, then tells him the story of Hamlet and talks about all of Spike's weird opinions on it, which are totally different than what she learned in school, but also kind of cool. When she's finished, she tests her hand, picks up the flashlight and her pen, and writes about that, too.

---

The second time Dawn woke up, Andrew was the one sitting beside her. His eyes were red and puffy, and he looked like he might burst into tears again at a moment's notice. He was holding a bag of trail mix, one hand clenched around it so tightly that Dawn was pretty sure the peanuts were being turned into paste. He was focused on the book in his lap. Dawn recognized it immediately. "Any good?"

Andrew looked up and snapped the book shut, then placed it and the trail mix on the tray by her bed. He seemed to be holding his breath. Dawn was pretty sure he had some kind of epic internal battle going on between about five different possible emotional meltdowns, but outwardly he looked pretty calm. "How do you feel?"

Dawn took a breath. It hurt. "Kinda like I was hit by a truck and thrown in a trash can."

Andrew winced. "Sounds about right."

She was pretty sure recovery was not going to be particularly fun. On the other hand, the fact that she was lying in a hospital bed and not an early grave was of the good, so maybe she shouldn't complain. "I don't remember what happened. I remember getting shot, and then- is Spike OK?"

"Oh, yeah. Spike's 100% physically fine." Dawn raised an eyebrow, and Andrew looked down. "I mean, he was really upset that you were hurt, and he yelled at Angel and me and Giles and the doctors a lot, and I think I learned about ten new bad words last night, but physically he's fine. Apart from the bolt that got stuck in his arm, but I'm pretty sure he just tore it out. It probably doesn't even hurt anymore." He hurried on before Dawn could ask about anything else. "You've, uh, sorta been out for a while. We tried contacting Buffy, but Giles thinks she's using some kind of wards or something so long-range locator spells don't work very well. We've narrowed it down to France, but beyond that, your guess is as good as mine."

"Why didn't we think of that?" asked Dawn. "Anti-tracking wards. Travers never would've found us then."

"Actually, I think Travers was just following the giant dragon in the sky," said Andrew. "In hindsight, that was kind of conspicuous."

Dawn started giggling, but even the weakest laugh made her stomach hurt. "Ack. OK. You're not allowed to say anything funny anymore." Andrew looked a little bit horrified, like he didn't think he could stop being funny long enough to ensure that Dawn wouldn't hurt herself laughing. "Say something sobering."

"Uh, OK. Giles says he's gonna lecture you on everything you did wrong in the last seventy-two hours as soon as you can stand, then dock your pay until it covers the medical expenses."

Dawn was pretty sure her eyes were suddenly taking up half of her face. "He can't do that, can he? That has to be, like, tens of thousands of dollars! I don't even know if I have health insurance! I'm gonna be Giles's slave till I'm fifty!" She would have gone on longer about the unfairness of it all, but yelling seemed to be roughly as bad an idea as laughing, and Andrew was waving his arms for her to stop.

"Angel's medical expenses," he clarified. "Travers broke his arm. For a former CEO, he's sort of destitute. Couldn't even pay for his own cast. Anyway, Giles was very clear about the fact that he was paying for your stuff. He was all, 'Her decision to perform the ritual was a terrible one, and she will deal with any and all consequences herself. Her decision to take an arrow to the stomach was foolhardy, reckless, and speaks of poor priorities. I will not, however, call it wrong, and I am not in the habit of punishing people for doing things that are not wrong.'"

"Your Giles voice is terrible."

Andrew shrugged. "OK, so that was a bit more fourth doctor, but he totally said all that."

Dawn sighed with relief. 'Not wrong' was certainly faint praise, but nobody was deader than usual and Giles hadn't declared her public enemy number one, so all in all things hadn't turned out too badly, had they?

"So," said Andrew, when Dawn didn't say anything else. "Are you really tired? Because, uh, Spike's kind of been hanging out in Angel's room. For six hours."

"Oh." She wouldn't have thought that was the sort of thing that could cause her to panic, but even after all of this, she still had no idea what she was supposed to say to him. "That's, uh... does he even want to see me?"

Andrew gave her an enthusiastic nod. "I would bet money on it. No, wait, I would bet limited-edition Superman comics on it." He hesitated. "But, uh, I guess if you're still mad at him-"

"I feel like I should be!" exploded Dawn, ignoring the pain that caused. "He died, and he never ever called to let us know he was alive, and even before he died we weren't exactly peas in a pod for about seventeen different reasons, OK? So I'm pretty sure this is the part where I'm supposed to yell at him, and I really don't want to."

Andrew shot her a look that clearly said, for a person who can read more languages than me, you're really dumb sometimes. "OK, so, have you considered maybe not doing that?"

It shouldn't be that easy, Dawn thought. There should be threats and righteous indignation and people slowly changing and re-earning trust until everything was OK again. People should be justly punished for their trespasses, and she didn't understand why they weren't. Or rather, she did, but she didn't like the answer she'd come up with.

"I don't think I get people," she said, turning back to Andrew. "They're always doing crappy things to each other and then holding grudges, except when they don't, and they try to justify it by talking about how people have changed or haven't changed or how they're really good, deep down, and it's all total bullshit."

"You think so?" Andrew looked really uncomfortable right then, and Dawn remembered the conversation they'd had through the air vent. "You don't think people change?"

"No, they do. They change all the time, whether they want to or not. But that isn't why we forgive them," said Dawn. "It's nothing smart or responsible like that. It's just that we care. We like them, or love them, and it gets us almost torn in half, or shot in the stomach, or maybe even killed, but we do it anyway. At the end of the day it's probably pretty stupid of us, and I feel like I'm supposed to say that we should all stop caring before it gets us killed, but I can't. Because if we stopped caring, we wouldn't be- I think maybe the caring part is what makes everything else matter in the first place."

It didn't feel like an epiphany. It felt like something she'd known all along, something that had been one of her guiding principles long before she'd gotten the call from Connor. Whether it was a quality of the Key, a side-effect of being made out of Buffy, something the monks had decided on, or something fundamentally human that came from her soul, the caring thing was absolute. She couldn't have stopped if she'd wanted to, and now that she'd cornered the thought, she really didn't want to. She cared about people, even people who maybe didn't deserve it, and that was OK. Essential, even. Maybe it was stupid, but it wasn't wrong. She decided she could live with stupid.

"So," said Andrew, in the tone he used for dispensing infinite wisdom probably gleaned from re-watching Star Trek too many times, "you could always just tell Spike that you care."

That much ought to be obvious, what with the whole risking her life thing, but she smiled at Andrew anyway. "Yeah. I mean, I guess I could."

---

Christmas of 2003 is the first Christmas they've bothered to celebrate since before mom died- last year there was the First and the potentials, and the year before that, Buffy was miserable and the entire household was broke. This year, they gather for two weeks in London. It's nice. It's hard to really be happy when so many important people are dead or missing, but it's nice. They watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Xander does the Snoopy dance. Dawn's also excited to go to London because it contains the remains of the Council Library. Whoever blew up the council managed to kill off the people, but the books are still there, and that, at least, is a comfort. It's also really, really useful, because she needs them for her current personal project.

When Giles shows up, Dawn has an entire library table covered with notebooks, journals, and reference materials. Since it's pretty much impossible to hide what she's doing, she settles for snapping her freshman year diary shut.

He looks at her in that mildly disapproving, sort of paternal way that he's aiming more and more often at the new slayers, now that the scoobies are old enough to be treated as near-equals. "I was wondering who it was that checked out every source that even tangentially concerned a certain William the Bloody. I might have known it was you."

Dawn looks up with an expression that she hopes looks defiant, but in a grown-up, 'I can research whatever I want' way, not a teenage, 'I'm just doing this to be a pain' way. "Do you have a problem with that?"

"Not with the subject matter," says Giles, picking up one of the texts. "On the contrary, it's good to see you taking such an interest in, well, knowledge."

"Oh. Well, good."

"But Buffy hasn't seen you in three days. She was beginning to wonder if you weren't avoiding her for some reason."

"Oh! No, nonono, I was just- I wanted to finish this part before we had to go back to Italy. I mean, I'm almost done researching the pre-Sunnydale stuff, which means I'll be done with the sources left over from the old Council, and I didn't want to tie them up any longer than- is she really worried?"

Luckily, Giles is smiling. "I think she realizes you're becoming somewhat more independent. Besides, I doubt she expects you to get into too much trouble as long as Andrew is around."

Dawn raises an eyebrow at that. If anything, she figures she's more likely to get into trouble with Andrew in the vicinity, and she's not sure why anyone would think differently. Aside from the whole used-to-be-a-supervillain thing, her friendship with Andrew isn't exactly what one would call stable. If they're not having vicious arguments about history or obscure TV shows, they're driving the older watchers crazy by pursuing weird projects with single-minded focus for weeks at a time. Or, in the case of this project, months. It might be years before they actually finish it. She hopes Andrew will see it through to the end, but if he doesn't, she's perfectly willing to complete it on her own.

"I understand you wanted to see my watcher diary. I'm afraid I can't make the entire journal public at this time, but if there is a certain fact you need, I can see what I can do," says Giles.

"I, uh, I kind of wanted the parts about Spike. Since you knew him, and you kept records and stuff. I wanted a diverse range of sources and viewpoints for- well, you know. I want the methodology to be as unbiased as possible," she says, staring at the table. She suddenly feels like a kid again. Technically, of course, she's still a minor for another two months, but right now she feels like a four-year-old in water wings trying to jump off the big diving board at the local pool- hopelessly, utterly out of her depth, but insisting on swimming anyway.

"I see," says Giles. "If you don't mind my asking, Dawn, what precisely are you planning on doing with this information?"

It hasn't even occurred to her that he might not already know, and she isn't at all prepared to explain herself. The words tumble out before she can edit them. "It's for his biography. Spike's, I mean. Because, uh, there's actually a lot written about him, but it's all-" she wrinkles her nose and stands to grab the watcher's thesis from behind her laptop- "like this. You know, 'Spike ate babies', or 'Spike tortured his victims with railroad spikes', or 'Spike was probably Jack the Ripper', or 'Spike stayed with Drusilla for over a hundred years, but everyone knows vampires can't love, so probably the sex was just really-'" she cuts herself off when she sees that Giles is wiping his glasses off. "Sorry. I'm just saying, it all talks about him being really evil. And then on the other side of things, you've got Andrew, who just wants to sing his praises all the time, and talk about his glorious One True Love Buffy Summers, and how he gave his life to close the hellmouth. And if you ask him about what happened before that, he gives some vague explanation about Spike being a killer and pretends that it was nothing worse than what he- what Andrew- did, which is also wrong, it's clean and fluffy and wrong, and it's not fair to him that his story's getting all messed up. He deserves better than that, and if nobody else is gonna fix it, then I guess I probably should. Not just because of Glory, or because he closed the hellmouth, but because, like, he was there when nobody else was. I can't really carry on the fight in his memory, because I'm not a fighter, and I'm not a witch, and I'm not even a watcher yet, but I can at least do this. Tell the story. The good parts, and the bad parts, and the ways he was like a monster, and the ways he was like a man, and it doesn't fix anything, but I've got to at least do this much for him, you know?"

"I see," says Giles again, like he's trying to process all of this. "I don't know that it's the most academically valuable endeavor, but it is a noble thought."

Dawn tentatively relaxes. "So you'll help?"

"I'll do what I can. I suppose we all owe him some measure of consideration. And if you don't mind my saying so, I think Spike would have been touched that this is so important to you."

She can't help but smile at that. It doesn't stop the pain, but it hurts a little less, knowing that something of him will remain.

---

Spike knocked on the doorframe before entering. He was wearing his coat again, only this time Dawn was certain it was a different coat than the last one, because it wasn't damaged at all. It made him look a lot more like she remembered, which Dawn figured was probably a good thing, because the expression on his face made him look like a totally different person. He looked like a man preparing to go to his execution. It occurred to her that he'd been gone a year, and that people- even vampires- changed over that much time. It also occurred to her that her memories might not be accurate, even the ones that were supposed to be real. That maybe she'd only imagined that they were friends. How certain was she that he'd ever cared about her? She remembered him laughing with her and listening to her school-related stories with a smile on his face, but she suddenly wasn't sure how much of that was genuine.

Are we friends? Dawn wanted to ask, but she was afraid of the answer she might hear. There were other questions, too. Why didn't you call us? Did Angel take care of you? How did you come back to life? Was it terrible, like it was for Buffy? Do you remember that? Do you remember me?

"Are you OK?"

Definitely not the question he was expecting. Spike looked at her like she was crazy- or maybe not, since Spike had spent a lot of time looking at crazy people, and he wasn't all that phased by them. He looked like she had just said something totally unexpected. She wondered how long it had been since anyone had asked him that. "I mean, you look pretty good for a guy who had all his guts ripped out a couple days ago, but I thought I'd ask."

"I'm in one piece," he said. "How about you? You look pretty good for someone who just got run through with an arrow."

"Well, as long as I'm glamorously wounded," said Dawn. She had no idea where to go from there, but hey, two whole sentences had to be some kind of accomplishment, right?

The silence stretched on a good twenty seconds before Spike broke it. "You shouldn't have done that ritual." Dawn really didn't want to have this conversation- not first thing, anyway- but Spike kept talking. "You could've been killed, even without Robo-Watcher's help."

Dawn glared at him. "If you're waiting for me to apologize for saving your life, Mr. Died-Closing-the-Hellmouth, it's not gonna happen."

"That was completely different!" Spike sounded more like the comparison offended him than like he was trying to be the responsible adult in the conversation, and Dawn classified that as a definite Good Thing. "I was doing what had to be done to save the world. You went off on some fool's errand and intentionally risked your life!"

"So what if I did?" demanded Dawn. "It was worth it. It would've been worth it even if Travers had killed me."

"You listen to me," said Spike in the tone that meant he was beyond dead serious. "My life isn't worth shit weighed against yours." She didn't believe that, not for a second, and it only made Spike more frustrated. "I'm supposed to keep you from dying, Bit, not cause it."

"Right, because you're doing such a great job protecting me from the other end of the world." Spike flinched, and Dawn felt like kicking herself. It wasn't a fair point anyway, given that she didn't want to be protected all that much these days, and it certainly wasn't the one she was trying to make. Why was this going all wrong? "Look, that was stupid, and I'm sorry I said it. I'm not mad about you not coming home- I mean, back to Buffy and everyone. I get that you must've had reasons for wanting to stay in LA. Maybe even good ones. I'm mad because you let us think you were dead. You of all people should know that isn't OK."

She thought of That Summer, with Spike obsessively counting days and having tower-related nightmares whenever he dozed off. She remembered how they'd both felt betrayed when they found out the scoobies hadn't let them in on their resurrection plans. Spike, out of all the people she knew, should have known how unacceptable it was to make someone grieve without cause.

"I didn't think-" started Spike, then broke off. He laughed a little bit, and it was the saddest sound Dawn had heard all week. "It wouldn't've been right. Go out in a blaze of glory, it's not really fair to say 'oh, hey, I seem to have survived, anyone willing to put me up for the night?'"

That had to be the most nonsensical argument she'd ever heard. "We took you in when you were killing people!" cried Dawn. "After you- you know exactly what you did, and we let you live in our basement for months. In what possible universe could you think we'd turn you away?"

"You wouldn't've!" And there had to be some kind of disconnect somewhere, because he said that like being offered a place to stay was some kind of cruel and unusual punishment. "Buffy would've taken me in as long as I asked her to, no questions asked, and I didn't want-"

"What, to be treated like a person?"

"I didn't want her to feel obligated!"

Oh.

Well, crap, that actually made sense. It was still really, ridiculously awful of him, but Dawn understood it.

He was still trying to explain himself- weird that he thought he owed her an explanation, when he spent so much time acting like he didn't owe anyone anything. "The whole situation was complicated, alright, and I didn't want her to feel like she had to. She would have helped anyway, no matter how much harder it made things for her, and the absolute last thing I want is to make anything harder for Buffy." He scowled, which was reassuring in a weird sort of way. She was used to that expression. "Recent events have led me to believe that you would've had exactly the same attitude. Which brings us back to the subject of risking life and limb for people who you owe less than nothing to."

"You're, like, impressively stupid," said Dawn. "You seriously think I summoned an ancient demon because I felt obligated to? What, I took an arrow to the stomach out of pity?"

Spike hesitated, which Dawn took to mean that he was trying to come up with a way to say yes that wouldn't make her even more upset. She was pretty sure there wasn't a way, given that he was completely wrong. She hadn't thought about whether she had a moral imperative to save him even remotely as much as she'd thought about her hypothetical moral imperative to hate him. She certainly hadn't let Travers shoot her out of some misguided sense of duty.

More importantly, that line of thought suggested that he didn't matter to her- that even letting Travers shoot her wasn't a sign that she cared. She'd spent way too much time coming to terms with her stupidly huge amounts of caring to tolerate him dismissing his own importance like that.

"I missed you," said Dawn, quietly.

Spike's expression softened, but not enough to indicate that he'd given up the point. "Yeah, for a bit, I'm sure you did. And then you got over it, like people do."

Dawn grabbed the book off the nightstand and tossed it at him. He let it bounce off his chest without even trying to block it, like it was a rock she was stoning him with and he wanted to make the execution as easy as possible for her. It hit the ground with a thud.

"You were supposed to catch that," Dawn informed him.

"Oh." He bent down and picked it up. "What's this, then?"

"Read it," she said, staring at the calendar on the wall instead of at him. "It's relevant to the discussion at hand."

Dawn tried not to watch him, but that turned out to be pretty much impossible. Spike couldn't have gotten past the first page before his expression turned confused and serious. He flipped to the middle, then the end, then to a random point perhaps two thirds through, then back to what she supposed was the table of contents. "You wrote this?" He said it like he couldn't believe what he was holding in his hands, like she'd handed him some marvelous lost treasure. "You really...?"

"Andrew helped," said Dawn. "And it's not like it's finished yet. It's not even really edited."

The total disbelief on his face kind of stung. Yeah, OK, maybe a biography was a little overboard, but his reaction drove home that he honestly hadn't thought he would be missed at all, and certainly not by her. "Why did you- why?"

Dawn looked at the ceiling for what was probably the tenth time since he'd come in- still that horrible shade of off-white. "You're right, OK? You died, and I got over it, and the getting over it part pissed me off, and so, so- don't tell me I didn't miss you."

"Well, you've certainly gotten more articulate in your anger," said Spike. The disbelieving note hadn't left his voice, and she was pretty sure he was babbling to cover it up. "Gone from screaming to calm and collected threats of fire to- to whatever this is. Give it another year and you'll be writing plays on par with Shakespeare whenever big sis takes the last cookie."

"It wasn't just because I missed you," said Dawn, suddenly. This was important, she thought- he had to understand this much. "You get that, right? I mean, I did miss you. With the tears, and the compulsive checking for butcher shops wherever we went just in case, but the book was about more than that."

"Council project?" guessed Spike. "Giles asked, and you said, hey, might as well?"

"No, it wasn't for Giles, it was for me." He looked even more confused then, and Dawn frowned. "It's- ugh. Don't laugh, OK? I've technically only been human for four years, right? And I popped into existence shortly after the day I remember having my fourteenth birthday. At that point, I was already friends with Janice, and a bunch of other people you don't know, and Xander and Willow and Tara and people. I wasn't friends with you. I knew you, a little, but that's not the same thing. You know?"

Spike nodded, completely focused. "With you so far."

"Yeah. So anyways, we didn't become friends until sometime after we broke into the Magic Box to steal that book. And that really happened. You were the first new friend I'd made since my fourteenth birthday, meaning you were also the first friend I made ever. The first one I didn't, like, inherit. That's important. It's nice to be friends with Xander and Willow and people, but I'm friends with them because the monks thought things'd go smoother if the slayer's friends liked me. I'm friends with you because I wanted to be. I chose to hang with you, so our friendship's real, and it's... it's part of how I know I'm real, OK? And if the spell stopped working and I winked out of existence right now, I think maybe everyone would forget the parts that never really happened, but I think most of the stuff we did would still be there, you know?"

Dawn could have said more, but she bit her lip and decided not to. For one thing, Spike was listening really intently. For a guy who was known for being impossible to shut up, he was also weirdly good at listening. He heard more than what people actually said- not always the right things, but right more often than not. She sort of hoped he was doing that now, even though she wasn't sure what exactly she wasn't saying.

"So you wrote a book," said Spike, still trying to make the connection.

"You dusted," said Dawn, as though that explained everything. And then, because she knew it didn't, she continued. "You were just gone. No body, no stuff. People remembered you, but they didn't remember you right, and if they forgot altogether I thought it'd be like you'd never existed at all. Which is kind of stupid, I know, given that you've been doing stuff for like a hundred years, but I thought people would forget the version of you that I knew, and then it'd be like that version wasn't real, and you were, so... I don't know, OK, but it made sense in my head. I had to make sure there was evidence. Ergo, book."

For a long moment, Spike's face didn't show anything, and Dawn panicked a little. "And now you have to stay and tell me whether it's crap or not, because the doctors said I'm not allowed to leave for a couple days. And since we both know you're farsighted and can't read books with little print, you're just gonna have to be quiet and listen for once. So sit."

As soon as the wonder cleared from his eyes, Spike made a show of sighing as he sat down in the chair beside her and handed the book back. Dawn opened the book to page one, then paused. "So, the writing is probably terrible. Which you're probably a terrible judge of anyway, but it's kind of- it's not an entirely fun book? I wanted to make sure it was accurate, so-"

"It's fine, Dawn," said Spike, chuckling. So unfair that he could laugh right now, but this time it sounded almost happy. She hoped she would get to hear that particular sound again, preferably soon and often. "You wrote it, least I can do is listen, yeh? Probably best I remember anyway. Long as you didn't write about before I was turned."

Dawn bit her lip. "Well..."

Spike's eyes widened. "You didn't," he whispered, like recording the origin of the name William the Bloody was ten times as horrifying as telling people where the name Spike came from. "Bloody hell, Bit, you- how many people've seen this book of yours?"

"Just me and Andrew! Well, and Giles read a lot of it, but not the beginning! I guess Willow and Xander might have read a couple excerpts, but-" Spike didn't look particularly reassured. Dawn couldn't really blame him, but- wait a second, yes she could. "And hey, it's not like I knew you were alive! Let this be a lesson to you- if you let your friends think you're dead for a year and change, they'll put all your dumb childhood secrets in your official biography. Apparently. It's not like I was trying to."

"Yeah, but-" Spike stilled. "We are friends, then?"

Dawn found herself picking at a loose thread in her blanket, letting Spike's question hang in the air. When she did speak, it was quiet again. "I didn't actually get you back for free."

"No?" asked Spike, in the exact tone of perfect calm that meant he was preparing for a crushing blow. "What'd the demon want?"

"He said I could have you back for ten drops of my blood. And don't say it, OK, because I know that was stupid, and I know there are gonna be consequences, and I really can't care, because it did get you back. I mean, unless the world ends thanks to portal-related mojo in the near future, in which case I'm sorry. But that's not the important part. The important part is- can you keep a secret?"

Spike's eyes widened. "'S it something that's gonna get you or other people hurt?"

Somehow, it was a relief that he'd even asked that question. New and improved responsible Spike- once, she might have thought the change would make him boring, but she decided she could really get used to a Spike who actually cared about doing the right thing. "I don't think so. More like a 'this is none of your business' secret."

"Then yeah."

"The important part is that when the demon cut me- or maybe when Travers shot me, I don't remember, it's all sort of a blur- I, like, remembered stuff. From before I was human. Just, like, images or impressions or something. And there was terrible stuff there, stuff I don't even really want to think about, but I can't stop thinking about it, too. And I keep thinking, I really have no idea who or what I was before. If I was even me. If I was anything remotely approaching good."

It was sort of a terrifying thought, now that it was out there like that. She might be responsible for all sorts of evil and not even know it. But even if she was something evil, somehow it didn't really seem like that would ruin what she'd already built, these last few years. A moment compared to all eternity, but definitely not nothing. Besides, if Spike could create something meaningful in his time on earth, then probably anyone could.

"I really would like to know who I was, I think," continued Dawn. "But if I never figure it out, at least I know who I am now." Someone who grew. Someone who loved. Someone who wasn't too scared to help the people she cared about, whatever that meant. "I want to be the sort of person who doesn't leave my friends to die when I can save them."

Spike smiled at her. It was an absolutely perfect smile that warmed up the whole room. She'd forgotten that he had facial expressions like that, and she really hoped she wouldn't have the chance to forget again. "Take it that's a yes on the friends question, then?"

She smiled back at him. "It's a yes."

Spike swiped at his eyes. Sap. He seemed to realize that he was hovering dangerously close to the point where Dawn would be obliged to make fun of him, and decided a change of subject was in order. "So, ah- why did you include the life and times of William in the book? Not exactly relevant to discussing your memories, is it?"

"It's important for understanding who you are," explained Dawn. "Which, in case you missed it, was sort of the point. I mean, I get it, the past isn't always super fun to think about, whether it's because you did awful stuff, or just because your dork level was even higher back then. And it's true, you know, the past shouldn't define us, and the future is full of boundless possibilities and all that." She paused to gather her thoughts, remembering why exactly she'd decided memories, real or fabricated, were so important in the first place. "But I don't want to forget what happened, because that's what got us here. I figure that's something, you know?"

"Guess so," said Spike, leaning thoughtfully back in his chair. "All things considered, I suppose here isn't such a bad place to be."

All things considered. LA was pretty much wrecked, she'd nearly been killed on two separate occasions in just the last day, a demon had taken ten drops of her blood for who-knew-what nefarious purpose, and Buffy was going to freak when she found out that her younger sister had nearly been turned into shish kebab. Oh yeah, and Spike was alive. It was fairly amazing what passed for a good day in the life of Dawn Summers.

She opened the book to the first page and shot Spike a grin. "You know what? It's really not."