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Though I Walk Through the Valley...

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Buffy had been more or less expecting this lecture since the moment she had defied Giles and unchained Spike.

 

But that didn’t mean that she welcomed it at all.

 

Discussions on letting her friends die because it might save the world were never welcome.  She thought he’d gotten that the last time.

 

“And yet… there is Spike.”  Giles’s voice was carefully controlled, and that, as much as anything else – even more than the actual words – set off the warning bells in her head.  Her fight against Richard the newbie vamp was going pretty much on autopilot; most of her attention was focused on what her Watcher was saying.  And not saying.

 

Though she could tell that Giles was in full lecture mode and wasn’t about to listen to her, she knew she had to try.  “It’s different now.  He’s got a soul.”

 

The rest – the confusing jumble of feelings that she’d been resolutely ignoring sorting through for months – she left unsaid.  Because, she thought with just a hint of amusement, landing a particularly sharp blow on Richard, just mentioning that I care about him would really send Giles over the edge into Ripper-ville… It’s like he’s been teetering on the edge since…

 

Then she froze, caught in realization.

 

“And the First is exploiting that to his advantage.”

 

Almost absently, she staked Richard, staring at Giles in shock and disbelief as she did.  “Oh, my God,” she whispered, horrified at the images that had just played out in her mind.  “You’re stalling me!  You’re keeping me away –”

 

And she started to run, barely listening to Giles as he called after her.  “… start being one.  This is how wars are won!”

 

No, Giles, she thought, forcing every ounce of her strength into her legs. This is how you undermine the cause.  This is how you destroy your general… The venom in those words – in her own thoughts – was not a little scary.

 

The sudden understanding that Spike might be in trouble didn’t make the confusion that signified how she felt about him any less. If anything, that confusion was simply shoved aside by fear… and it wasn’t because he was chipped and couldn’t defend himself. It certainly wasn’t for Robin, because Spike was now restrained only by the soul.  It was just… fear.  It filled her until all she could do was run.  It was fear for Spike… that this would be the thing to send him spiraling back into insanity, something that would break his spirit so completely that he could never recover.

 

And I don’t want that, she thought.  Her air grew short, but still she forced herself to run faster.  I’ve wanted a lot from Spike.  I wanted him to go away and leave me alone, wanted him to stop loving me, always wanted him to shut up… I may have wanted him dust for a long time, but I don’t… but I never wanted him broken… not like he was a few months ago.

 

I am scared because of Spike.  Not because of what he might do, but because of what might be done to him.  Because I care about him.  I do.

 

And somehow that thought did not make her falter.  Her stride stayed as quick as ever.  She kept going until it felt like her whole life had been running and fear.

 

All she knew was that she needed him.

 

She needed Spike, desperately needed him to just be there, to have her back as she fought this war.  He’d been the most stability she’d had throughout the badness and post-resurrection depression, and this fight against the big evil wasn’t shaping up to be much better.  Pushing herself as hard as she could, she thought, I just… I can’t do it without him.  I need him…

 

The fear in her left no room for other thought, for sorting out what she felt.  Later, she told herself, as she neared Robin’s house.  I’ll do it… I will.  Just… later.  When he’s safe again.

 

Her heartbeat was so loud in her ears that she never heard it – the sound that she had heard thousands of times when she drove her stake home, that final anguished scream of a vampire as it crumbled to dust.

 

***

Robin stared down at the heap of ashes on the floor, and let his hand, still tightly gripping the makeshift stake, fall to his side.

 

He’d won.  It had been a hard battle, as the blood dripping thickly from his nose and the sharp sting of cuts and forming bruises would attest.  The vampire had gotten in more than a few good blows, and that had fueled his anger.  This creature had killed his mother, had gloried in her death – had stolen from him the only family he’d ever known.  And then to find that he was off-limits because he’d gotten a soul somewhere… It was too much.

 

He’d wanted this for too long to be denied.  Then Giles had told him that the First Evil had implanted a trigger in the vampire, something that would bring out the beast unleashed by the soul.  That was what he wanted… to face that beast, to look into the face of the thing that had killed his mother, face it down, beat it down, have his revenge. 

 

It took some doing, but he’d convinced Giles to go along with his plan, to keep Buffy away while he did what had to be done.

 

It had been the easiest thing in the world to find that triggering song and download it.  And it had all been worth it to see the look on Spike’s face when the song started to play.

 

Then, because it was just a mindless beast, Robin had pummeled it, blows as hard as he could make them, sending it crashing into the cross-covered walls again and again, and feeling a fierce, righteous joy at the way its unholy flesh smoked and charred.  And he kept beating it, long after the song had finished playing, long after the vampire had slid back into its human guise, long after he knew he should have stopped.

 

It seemed to him at first that the creature let him – it just let him pound on it, without much of an attempt to fight back.  Then it started to rally, as if it at last realized that its existence was in danger, and he’d grabbed the nearest piece of wood.  The fact that it was one of the crosses on the wall, one with a sharpened point, just made it all the more effective.  More fitting.

 

He’d won.  He waited, panting heavily and staring down at the pile of dust, but the exaltation and satisfaction wouldn’t come.

 

He wanted them to come.  He’d done what his mother would have wanted, what he’d wanted, what the First Evil in the guise of his mother had goaded him to do.  He’d taken out the thing that had killed her.  But the feelings he was waiting for eluded him.

 

Robin gripped the cross even tighter in his hand, until he could feel the splinters digging into his palm, a familiar stinging pain.  This is still your fault, Spike, he thought, full of resentment.  Still ruining everything, even though you’re dust…

 

Before he could give into the temptation to kick the pile of dust, the garage door burst open, crashing back against the wall, then wobbling back the other way.  Buffy was framed in the doorway, eyes darting around the interior of the garage, and widening as if not quite believing what she saw.

 

“Oh, my God,” she whispered, and stepped carefully over the threshold.  Her eyes continued to rove over the multitude of crosses, her mouth slightly open, and for a moment, Robin almost convinced himself that she was impressed.

 

Then she turned her gaze on him, and he let go that little fantasy immediately.  The disgust and anger in her face were unmistakable.

 

“Where is Spike?” she demanded.  Her tone was icy cold and commanding, and he shivered in spite of himself.  “Tell me right now.

 

The Slayer is supposed to kill vampires, he thought, and from out of nowhere, black humor overwhelmed him.  But this is one Slayer who isn’t going to be happy that this vampire is dead.

 

But he wasn’t going to back down.  He was his Momma’s boy, after all.

 

***

The garage was an abomination, a… a desecration instead of a shrine, and she just couldn’t believe what she was seeing.  Oh, my God, Buffy thought, unable to look at the walls again without shuddering.  If I’d known that it was like this here, I never, ever would have agreed…

 

Robin hadn’t answered her yet.  Her experienced eye took in the wounds he bore, wounds that spoke louder than words of a fight.  None of the wounds were serious at all, even for a non-Slayer; bloody nose, puffy lip, black eye.  But there’s been a fight, she thought, and felt her panic start to swell up inside again.  Robin has been in a fight, and Spike isn’t here, and…oh, please, let it be that he just left.  I can just go find him and we can walk around for a while until the urge to kill Giles passes…

 

She couldn’t look at the walls, and she couldn’t look at Robin, because he clearly didn’t think there was anything wrong with his garage décor.  Searching for a threat, she swept her gaze over the floor.

 

And every part of her froze.

 

“He’s gone, Buffy,” Robin said at last, and was it just her or did his voice not have even a tinge of emotion?  “He’s…”

 

 She closed her eyes, trying to deny what they were telling her, what Robin was saying.  No, oh, no, no, no… “When you say gone,” and her voice was too calm, the words too precise, “you mean that he left, right?” She pinned him with her gaze once more.

 

“No, I don’t.”  The principal lifted his hand, as if to show the sharply pointed cross he held.  “I mean that he’s dust.  As he should have been.” And he pointed directly at the pile of dust that she’d already seen.

 

“What have you done?” she whispered.  Cold licked at her insides and her blood turned to ice in her veins.  “Oh, God, what have you done?”

 

“What you wouldn’t.”

 

Almost before the words were fully out of his mouth, the rage overwhelmed her.  She lashed out, not holding back one ounce of her Slayer strength, and Robin flew backwards into the wall, crosses tumbling and breaking at the impact.  She never even noticed; she just advanced on him as he struggled to find his feet and dealt him a vicious backhand to his jaw.  His eyes rolled back, and he slumped into unconsciousness.

 

She knew she should stop, knew that she shouldn’t have even given him that second blow.  She hit him again and again.

 

When the red haze cleared from her vision, Robin lay in an unmoving heap on the floor, bloodied and battered, eyes swollen closed, nose and ribs broken.

 

She couldn’t care.  Just couldn’t manage the human feeling that should accompany seeing someone so beaten.  Couldn’t even bring herself to make certain he was still alive.

 

He killed Spike.

 

She had been so frozen, so dead inside when she’d beaten Spike so badly in the alley behind the police station, but there had still been some spark of feeling at seeing the bruises bloom on his pale, beautiful face.  Just a hint of regret at beating on him so mercilessly, ruthlessly crushed beneath her own guilt at feeling anything for a soulless thing.

 

For Robin, all she felt was the blazing anger that had consumed her for so much of the previous year, the hurt that had driven her to treat Spike so cruelly, because she simply couldn’t take that kind of pain out on her friends.

 

He killed Spike.

 

Her knuckles were scraped and raw as she clenched her fists, and she was panting, the sound harsh in her ears.  For a second, she focused on Robin, saw his chest move shallowly and knew he was alive.

 

She felt as if she hadn’t landed nearly enough blows to make him pay for what he’d done.  And abruptly, her eyes filled with tears.

 

He killed Spike!

 

Her vision wavering, she turned her back on Robin’s bloodied form and stumbled back toward the heap of ashes.  So small, she thought, stunned, and fell to her knees.  Spike is so much bigger than that… He always seems… She reached out with trembling hands, but couldn’t quite bring herself to touch…

 

Because touching it… would make it real.

 

Quite by accident, one of her fingers brushed the pile.  She had a fleeting impression of touching something soft and almost feathery, then watched the sides of the pile just kind of… crumble, falling in on itself.

 

Like he must have… Oh, God…

 

Tears were rolling down her cheeks, but she didn’t even notice until she saw dark splotches appear in the dust. 

 

“Spike…” Then she choked, and couldn’t say another word, couldn’t even make sense of the thoughts crashing and spinning in her head.  She reached out toward the ashes again, hands hovering just over the pile, imagining that she could feel something from them.  “I’m sorry,” she managed at last, the merest whisper.  “I didn’t want… I mean, I didn’t know… I trusted them.”  Pain filled her voice, turned it rough and pleading all at once.  “I trusted them… and they…  I’m sorry, Spike, so sorry…”

 

For a while, all Buffy was aware of was her own tears, the way the emptiness swallowed her inside, how utterly alone she felt. Over and over, she chanted “I’m sorry,” until the words seemed to lose their meaning.

 

Slowly, the sound of Robin groaning his way back to painful consciousness penetrated her sorrow.  She couldn’t face him – not because of the brutal beating she’d given him, but because she feared she’d want to do it again.  And I can’t leave Spike, she thought, and choked.  I can’t leave him here like that... I just can’t.  “We’ve gotta go, Spike,” she murmured, blotting her face against the sleeve of her jacket. “Gotta find a way to bring you with me…” She scrambled to her feet, trying not to disturb the tiny pile of ashes.  Taking a deep breath, she glanced around the garage, searching for something to hold Spike’s ashes and wincing again as she took in the cross-covered walls.

 

Something black was draped over the desk by the computer, and when she picked it up to look beneath, she discovered that it was Spike’s duster.  She clutched the age-softened leather, her hands trembling a little.  He’d told her that he’d taken it off one of the Slayers he’d killed, a trophy, and the very thought of it had made her ill at the time.  But that Robin had taken it, had wanted it as a trophy… had taken it from Spike before he’d killed him… that sickened her just as much.  With hardly a thought, she slung it around her shoulders and shrugged into it.  It nearly touched the ground, and the sleeves were so long that she felt like she was swimming in it.

 

It smelled like him, like tobacco and leather and Spike, and the scent filled her eyes with tears again.  They fell as she broke the lock of the door into the house, as she rummaged through the cabinets to find something to carry Spike’s dust.  They fell even harder and faster as she knelt back down and carefully scooped the ashes into the Tupperware container. 

 

His ashes were so fine that they just slipped between her fingers.

 

When at last she was sure she’d gotten all of his dust – every time she looked at the container, it didn’t seem that it was full enough, that there should be more of him than just this – she snapped the lid down tight.  Staggering to her feet, clutching the container in her hands, she only became aware that Robin was truly awake behind her when he moaned something that sounded like her name.

 

She didn’t even glance back at him.  “Don’t even worry about firing me,” she gritted out, barely containing her temper.  “I’ll be in tomorrow to clean out my desk.”

 

She did not slam the door behind her, just let it close with a soft click.

 

Wrapped in Spike’s scent, Buffy tried to pretend that the night’s events hadn’t happened, that the vampire was a silent shadow at her side, as he had so often been.  But the box she held wouldn’t let her, reminded her with its very lightness that her rock had been taken from her.

 

You were counting on me, she thought, closing her eyes.  Did you wonder why I let them do that?  Did you wonder why I didn’t come for you?

 

She wandered aimlessly through the cemeteries she knew so well, but there were no demons lurking, no vampires to slay, nothing to distract her from the darkness consuming her.

 

I thought you’d be here forever, she thought, and took a deep breath to stave off the tears.  I mean…even when I told you to go away, you didn’t.  I thought…

 

It took her a long time to convince herself that she really did need to return to the house on Revello Drive.  The girls are depending on me… and Dawn, and Willow and Xander… and that kind of outweighs the fact that Giles…

 

Repeating that there were others depending on her, she somehow forced herself up the porch steps, though it felt like it took all of her remaining strength.  It still took a deep breath and another reminder that she couldn’t kill Giles before she found the courage to open the door.

 

As soon as she made it inside, Dawn was there, scowling, arms crossed and foot tapping.  “Buffy! Where have you been?  Giles has been back for more than an hour!”  Then she caught sight of Buffy’s red and tear-ravaged face, and her tone changed to one of concern.  “What happened?  Are you hurt?”

 

Buffy couldn’t answer.  What was it I told Riley that time? Minimal physical damage…

 

Dawn’s voice had brought others into the foyer – Anya, Willow and Xander, as well as the Potentials.  They all started gabbling at her at once, but she tuned them out, searching for someone in particular.

 

After repeating her demand to know if Buffy was all right, Dawn suddenly gasped.  “Why are you wearing Spike’s coat?”

 

Just then, Buffy saw Giles, hanging back in the dining room and watching her, and she pushed through the people crowded around her.  His face was impassive now, but she’d seen the twitch of disgust cross his features when Dawn had remarked on what she was wearing.

 

And that flicker of expression made her rage burst into flames inside her once more.  She pushed her grief away as far as she could – which wasn’t very far, really – and hardened her features into stone.

 

The others around her were clearly taken aback by the waves of anger rolling off her.  She shrugged away from Dawn’s reaching hand and watched the crowd part before her progress.

 

“Buffy!”

 

Ignoring Dawn and Willow, who had both called her name at once, she stalked over to her Watcher.  “Congratulations,” she said in her iciest voice, and held up the Tupperware container.  “You succeeded.  Are you happy now?”

 

Giles raised a hand to his forehead and sighed.  “Buffy, he was a danger to us all…”

 

“What?” Dawn’s blurted question cut through the babble.

 

“Maybe he was,” Buffy retorted, her words hard, and lowered the container.  “Maybe he would have slaughtered us all in our sleep like you think… or maybe he would have fought back.  Maybe he would have beaten the trigger, and then the First would have had nothing.  But you didn’t give him that chance.”

 

“What are you talking about? Where’s Spike? Buffy, answer me!” Dawn’s voice grew higher and more strident with each question, and she grabbed Buffy’s arm.

 

“He had the chance to deactivate the trigger,” Giles replied calmly.  “He wouldn’t cooperate.  You heard him yourself – he refused to cooperate.  The trigger was still active, and he was still under the First’s control.  I told you this… to be a general, you have to take the difficult decisions…”

 

“You took him away from me!” Buffy shouted, and didn’t care that Giles flinched away.  “He was my… he was the strongest fighter we had, he…” The tears started again, and words she had no idea she was going to say started tumbling from her mouth.  “He tried so hard to save me last year, he was the only one I could talk to, the only one who understood… He was the one I could count on, he was the one who always had my back, even when I treated him like dirt… and you took him away from me!

 

As the others stood stunned in the wake of Buffy’s outburst, Dawn used her grip on her sister’s arm to force her to lift the Tupperware container. Through the plastic, she saw something shifting, something that looked like powder, or…

 

“Ashes,” Dawn whispered in breathless realization.  “He’s… Spike’s…” She choked.

 

There was a beat of silence.

 

“You mean Captain Peroxide finally fits into an ashtray?”

 

Xander got no further, as Buffy spun around, her tear-streaked face incredulous.  A second later, her hand arced out to land with a resounding smack against his cheek, turning his head and leaving a bright red hand print.  When he looked back at her, his brown eyes were wide with shock.

 

“Buffy!” Giles grabbed her shoulder.  “This is not the time for…”

 

Buffy jerked away from his hand.  “Don’t. Touch. Me,” she ordered, her voice quavering.  “Don’t.  Just… just leave me alone.”  Quickly, she pushed past Xander and Willow and dashed up the stairs, the leather duster flapping around her ankles and threatening to trip her up with every step.

 

“She hit me,” Xander finally managed, cradling his cheek.

 

“You kinda deserved it, sweetie,” Willow said quietly.  She was looking toward the stairs, and her eyes were full of compassion.

 

“I did not!”

 

Unable to stand their company any longer, Dawn started to follow her sister, shoving between them.

 

“Dawn!”  Rather than replying to Xander’s exclamation, Willow reached out to take hold of Dawn as she passed her, and missed.  “Dawnie, I don’t think…”

 

“I don’t care,” Dawn replied, her voice thick.  “Right now, I really don’t care what any of you think.” Then she was thudding up the stairs, away from everyone.

 

Once upstairs, she took a deep breath, trying to hold back her tears, and tapped on the door to Mom’s – Buffy’s – room.  A muffled “go away” was her only response.  Undeterred, she tried the door and discovered it unlocked.

 

“Buffy?” Slowly she opened the door.

 

“Go away, Dawn.”  Buffy sat on the floor leaning against the bed, Spike’s coat across her lap.  Her head was bowed, and the hair that had escaped from her braid wisped around her face.  When Dawn looked down at her hands, they were running lightly over the leather, tracing each scar and imperfection it bore.

 

Dawn stepped inside the room and closed the door quietly behind her.  Hearing that, Buffy glanced up, then away again.  “God, don’t you ever listen?” she said, and her tone was harsh.  “I want to be alone.”

 

Dawn flinched but didn’t leave.  Instead, she stepped a bit hesitantly away from the door and took another breath, about to speak.

 

Before she could say a word, though, Buffy lashed out.  “Just go away, Dawn!  Why are you even here?  It’s not like you cared…” Her voice broke and her fingers clenched on the leather briefly before releasing it.  “You hate – hated – him…”

 

Dawn felt her strength give out at Buffy’s words, and she collapsed to the carpet in front of her.  “I didn’t, Buffy,” she said, tears clogging her throat.  “I didn’t hate him…”

 

“You’ve got a really funny way of showing it, then.”

 

“I was angry!” Dawn replied heatedly.  “I was so angry with him… for what he did to you, for leaving like… like that.”  She swiped at her face.  “And I wasn’t ready to… to let go of that.  But that doesn’t mean I didn’t care, Buffy.  He was my friend way before he was yours.”

 

“You threatened to set him on fire!” Buffy’s voice raised another notch.

 

“That was before I…”

 

“Do you have any idea how much that must have hurt him?”

 

“And now I can’t even apologize!” Dawn shouted.  Buffy recoiled at the volume and emotion.  “I can’t apologize to him for that, and do you even know how much that’s tearing me up inside?”  She huddled down into herself, the anger that had let her defy her sister disappearing as swiftly as it had come.  “I just… he hurt me, too, and I couldn’t… and he didn’t seem like Spike and… and…” She broke off in a sob.

 

“Dawn…”

 

“And now I can’t… I can’t…” She tried to take in some air, but it felt like the sobs were pressing all the breath out of her, they were so strong.

 

Then Buffy’s arms were around her, and oh, she was crying too, like she hadn’t cried all last year, like she hadn’t since Mom died.

 

Buffy was crying with her, crying over Spike.  She’d been crying before, too, before she got home… that means she cares, right?  That it’s all right to care about him, even though he… even though he did what he did?

 

It was a while before she couldn’t cry anymore.  Her eyes burned and her head throbbed.  Buffy’s shirt was damp under her cheek, where her tears had made it wet, but she didn’t want to move.  She didn’t have the energy to move.

 

Buffy was stroking her hair, as she always seemed to when either of them was upset, and in spite of herself, Dawn found it soothing.  Her shoulders were almost painfully tense from crying, but slowly she managed to relax.  “My head hurts,” she whispered.

 

“Mine too.”

 

She took a deep breath.  “What happened, Buffy?  How did…” She swallowed, unable to continue.

 

Buffy’s hand stilled in her hair, and for a long while, she said nothing.  As the silence stretched on, Dawn’s heart sank.  She’s not going to tell me.  After all this, she’s still not going to trust me.


She had just summoned the strength to pull away from her sister’s lax embrace when she heard Buffy’s breath hitch a little, felt her tremble beneath her. Astonishment flooded her and all she could think was Oh. Oh, God.  She’s still crying.

 

Suddenly it occurred to Dawn that whatever she felt for Spike, Buffy’s feelings for him ran deeper than anyone had imagined.  She wrapped her arms around Buffy, hoping to provide at least some comfort.

 

“I… I don’t know all of it,” Buffy said, her voice rusty, and Dawn was surprised she had spoken at all.  “It was something that Robin and Giles had planned…”

 

“Giles?” She sat up, staring at Buffy with wide, achy eyes.  “Our Giles?  He… he did this?”

 

Buffy closed her eyes and nodded.  “He was really wigged out when… when Spike wouldn’t talk about whatever it was with his mother.  God… Somehow he convinced us that it would be best if Spike went with Robin… and Robin…”

 

“And Robin killed him,” Dawn whispered.

 

“They fought.”  Buffy went on, almost as if Dawn hadn’t spoken.  “Robin was kinda bruised when I got there, but Spike…” She swallowed, then shook her head.  “I don’t know what happened, I don’t know how Robin could have…”

 

“He cheated,” Dawn said with tearful conviction.  “He had to.  He never could have taken Spike if he didn’t cheat.”

 

“Oh, Dawnie, you should have seen his garage, where he took Spike.”  Buffy shuddered.  “It was all covered with crosses, all over the walls…”

 

“Told you he cheated.”  Dawn hiccupped and embraced her sister again.  After a moment, a horrid thought struck her.  “Do I have to go to school tomorrow?  I’m not sure I could handle seeing him there.”

 

“I don’t think he’s actually going to be there.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“’Cause I hit him.”  Buffy didn’t sound embarrassed, or contrite, or anything as she made her confession.  She sounded like she was stating a fact, as if it were one plus one.  All of her emotion had been cried out of her.  “I hit him a lot.”

 

Or maybe, Dawn thought, all of her emotion is just kind of… lost.  Aloud, however, all she said was “Good.”  Then she closed her eyes, trying to think of nothing at all, because she didn’t think she was up to crying again.

 

The next thing she knew was that Buffy was nudging her gently.  “Hey, you’d better go take an aspirin and wash your face,” she said.

 

Dawn sat up, stifling a yawn.  When she caught sight of her sister’s face, even though she knew Buffy had been grieving, she still couldn’t believe it.  Her eyes were red and puffy, and her cheeks were still wet.  But even more than that, she looked… older.  It was as if just this short time that Spike had been dust had aged her years.  “Buffy?” she asked hesitantly.  “Are you…”

 

Buffy didn’t even try to force a smile.  “I’m tired, Dawn.  I’m so tired, and I’m just… I can’t even tell you how I’m feeling right now.”  She sighed and gave Dawn a little push, and Dawn let herself be urged to her feet.  “I just want to sleep,” she went on softly, and for the first time, Dawn noticed she still had Spike’s coat on her lap.  “Just for a little while…”

 

When Buffy put out one hand, Dawn pulled her up.  “Sleep sounds good,” she said, “but aspirin sounds better.” She went into the bathroom and searched through the medicine cabinet for the extra-strength painkiller she knew was there.

 

When she came out again, Buffy had already curled up in on the bed, eyes closed.  She’d kicked off her boots and undone her hair, but hadn’t bothered to get fully undressed.

 

She was still clutching Spike’s duster.

 

She was still trembling as if with silent sobs.

 

Not knowing what to think, just knowing that they both were hurting, Dawn tiptoed to the door and shut off the lights as she left.

 

***

“So, was anyone else totally freaked by the Buffster tonight?” Xander raised his hand and looked expectantly at Willow and Anya, also settled around the dining room table.  “What with the wearing of the leather coat of evilness and the slappage?”

 

Willow sighed in exasperation.  “I told you that you deserved it, Xander,” she replied, trying to keep her voice low, fiddling with her coffee cup.  It had taken a long while before the Potentials had finally settled into sleep, and she didn’t want any of them waking up and stumbling on the Scoobies’ conference.

 

Xander lowered his hand.  “Maybe I did, Will,” he said, and Willow could practically feel her eyes bugging out.  Her hands stilled their nervous movement.

 

Xander’s admitting he might have been wrong? About Spike? We’ve stumbled into a parallel universe. Or maybe the world has already ended.  And… okay, that’s not such a comforting thought as I thought it would be…

 

“But I was just… kinda shocked, y’know?  I mean, Buffy’s fought Spike all those times, and yet somehow he got away un-dusty each time.  This time, normal, ordinary guy Robin stakes him.  Poof – no more Spike.” He shook his head.  “Somehow, it’s just not as satisfying as I thought it would be, knowing he’s dust.”

 

“Xander Harris, that may be the nicest thing I’ve ever heard you say about Spike.” Anya reached over to pat his hand.  “Well, you know, except that time when you said he was compact and well-muscled.”

 

“And thanks, Ahn, for dredging up that little bit of history I’d hoped was long forgotten.”

 

Willow still gaped at him.  She’d been so sure that he’d be doing a happy dance to celebrate Spike’s death.  She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about it herself.

 

Xander caught her look and gave her a deprecating smile.  “I lived with the guy,” he said quietly, and looked down at his hands, curled around his own empty cup.  “I unloaded a lot of words on him, and most of them weren’t of the nice kind.  And he just accepted it all.  Evil vampire, dead thing… the whole nine yards.  He just agreed with me.  Never even tried to defend himself.  Like he didn’t think he could, like there was nothing he could do to… and after a while, even I couldn’t stand it anymore.  I guess I realized that he’d changed.” He shrugged, as if to say no big deal.

 

But it is a big deal, Willow thought.  It’s a really big deal.  “He did a lot of really evil things,” she said slowly.  “But… he did some good things, too.  I think I’m going to miss him… but I think Buffy misses him more.”

 

“Yeah.”  Xander let out his breath explosively.  “And that’s all with the weird, isn’t it? I mean, after last year…” He made a vague gesture with one hand.

 

Willow pursed her lips thoughtfully.  “I don’t know… but have you watched them together this year?  Last year… Spike got his soul to try to make up for what he did last year… and now, I really think Buffy’s trying to…” Then she remembered, and swallowed uneasily.  “… to make up for what she did.  Or, well, you know, she was.  Before.  Before this.”

 

She was babbling, and she knew it.  But she had been about to mention Buffy’s slip of the tongue a few weeks ago, and she couldn’t.  Neither Xander nor Anya needed to know about that, and Giles…

 

Knowing that Giles had had a hand in this, had chosen to help Robin kill Spike, whom Buffy had evidently cared about and wanted to help… it just added a whole other layer of confusion to a situation that was already confusing enough.  And Giles, in the kitchen getting a cup of tea, had absolutely no need to know that Buffy had said that she was in love with Spike, whether it was just an after-effect of the now-ancient Will-Be-Done spell or for real

 

And from what she’d seen of Buffy’s reaction to Spike’s death, she was more inclined than ever to believe that it was real.

 

No matter how much Buffy wants to play Cleopatra.

 

“They trusted each other.”  Anya’s quiet observation drew Willow away from her post-rambling ruminations.  “Couldn’t you guys see it?  It was like the only ones they could trust were each other.  I mean, why do you think Buffy fought so hard to get him back from the First?”

 

“Because while Buffy is very loyal,” Giles said, emerging from the kitchen, tea in hand, “she also has the unfortunate habit of trusting in people who mean her no good.”  He sipped from the mug, as if oblivious to the sudden silence his words had wrought.  If he noticed that none of them were looking at him, he said nothing about that, either.  “And if you’re right, and she did trust Spike after all that he’d done to her, then it’s definitely for the best that he’s no longer around.”  He passed through the dining room, and after a moment, they heard the click of the front door lock, and then his tread up the stairs. 

 

“Giles really should be more careful about saying things like that,” Anya remarked, standing up.  “I didn’t even have to be a justice demon to know how Buffy felt earlier.  She definitely wanted payback.  I hope he doesn’t try to say that to her.  It isn’t going to be pretty if he does.”  With that, she wandered away to find her own sleeping space.

 

“You know, she’s right,” Xander said after a moment.  “You don’t have to be psychic to see that there’s gonna be one hell of a nasty blowup in the near future.  I wish I was going to LA with you, Will, just so I could miss out on that little bit of fun.”

 

“From what Fred said?  You wouldn’t be any happier in LA,” Willow replied, and stood, picking up her cup.  “Did you get the car fixed?”

 

Xander stood as well, grabbing Anya’s coffee cup and his own, and followed her into the kitchen.  “Yeah.  The battery had been drained, just had to replace it.  You’ll be good to go in the morning.”  They piled the dirty mugs in the sink and Xander drew her close in a hug.  “You be careful in LA, okay?  We need you to come back in one piece.”

 

Willow nodded and hugged him tightly in return.  “And I’m counting on you to make sure that things don’t get any worse here, all right?”

 

Xander sighed deeply.  “You don’t want much, do you?” he said, and though the words were intended to be light, they both knew that they were all too serious.

 

***

No matter how exhausted she’d felt, Buffy’s body was well conditioned, and she started to wake up at the same time she usually did.  The first things she noticed were the scent that she associated with Spike and the smooth grain of leather under her cheek.  Mmm, she thought, and snuggled against the leather a little more, I don’t remember Spike wearing his coat to bed… She started to steel herself against the hope and love and disappointment she knew she’d see in his eyes, to tell him again that she couldn’t let herself…

 

When she opened her eyes, strangely enough, he wasn’t there, but his duster was.  Frowning in sleepy confusion, she rolled over to look for him.

 

There was just enough light filtering in through the curtains to illuminate her bedside table.  The digits of her alarm clock glowed dimly red, telling her that it was past time for it to buzz, but she couldn’t recall hearing it go off.  There was something else there, too, something that didn’t seem to belong.

 

But no Spike.

 

She reached out for the thing that didn’t belong, and realized she was still wearing her clothes from last night.  When she touched it, she saw it was a plastic container, half-full of some powdery substance, and all at once, she remembered.

 

Spike was gone.  Dust.  What was in that box was all that was left of him.

 

As it had the night before, the loss flooded her, overwhelming her.  Despite everything she’d said and done trying to convince herself otherwise, she cared about him.  She’d even admitted it before things had gone to hell.  Trust and affection and anger and disgust – at him, at herself, she didn’t really know.  All she knew was that everything had helped tangle up that knot of her feelings for him.

 

But no matter how much sex they’d had last year, it was nothing compared to how intimate they had managed to become this year.  He’d needed her, in a way that was so very similar to how she’d needed him.  An anchor, a lifeline, someone to help him (her) cling to sanity while drowning in guilt (apathy).

 

Somehow, when she hadn’t been looking, Spike had become all that to her again, and as much as he’d needed her, she still needed him.  He was the one who was her best friend.  And losing him – having that support ripped away, leaving her with no one to support in turn – hurt worse than she’d ever imagined it would.

 

That pain in her heart surged up inside her again, and her vision went blurry, and all the things she’d realized in an instant last night came back to haunt her.  I won’t hear him take shots at Xander anymore… or hear him say my name that way that he does, or watch him fight, or touch his hand or… She bit her lip to keep from making a sound, but the tears were beyond her control.

 

Her eyes hurt before she was able to stop, and for a long while she just lay on the bed, staring at the clock as the numbers ticked over.  I need to get up, she told herself over and over, but just couldn’t summon the strength to move.

 

Finally, she managed to drag herself off the bed, mostly by reminding herself that she got up this early to be sure she could have a shower while the water was still hot.  But when she turned around to straighten the bed a little, Spike’s coat still lay there, rumpled, accusing in its emptiness, and her mouth trembled at the sight.  She bent slowly and picked it up.

 

It already smelled a little less like him.

 

Carefully, she hung it up in her closet, not quite daring to leave it out.  The knowledge was there in the back of her mind – there were people who wouldn’t approveNot that I care about their approval, she thought.  I just don’t want them to do anything to his coat…

 

She was mechanically de-tangling her hair when someone tapped at her door.  For a second, she debated ignoring it, not sure she could handle any of her friends with their he was evil, get over it attitudes.  But before she could come to a decision, Willow poked her head in, and gave her a tiny smile.  “Hey, you’re up.”

 

“Yeah.”  She set down her brush and stared down at the bedspread.  The mattress dipped beside her as Willow joined her on the bed.  She heard her friend take a breath to say something, and to head her off, she blurted, “I can’t, Will. Please.”

 

“Can’t what?”

 

Can’t make it, can’t do this, can’t fight this war, she wanted to say, take your pick… “I cried myself to sleep last night, and cried myself awake this morning,” she said, and her voice was thick and raspy in the aftermath of her jag.  “Right now, I just can’t take you guys saying that… that he was evil, and oh, gee, isn’t it great he’s…” She choked on a sob and couldn’t finish.

 

Willow put an arm around her.  “Oh, Buffy, no,” she said, like she was upset that Buffy would think that was why she was there.

 

Like I wouldn’t have reason, Buffy thought bitterly, even as she relaxed into the warmth of Willow’s embrace.

 

“No, sweetie, I just wanted to see how you were doing.”

 

She gave a hollow laugh, and felt Willow flinch against her at the sound.  “Oh, fine with a heaping helping of dandy.”

 

“And to tell you that I’m sorry…” Willow continued doggedly.

 

She snorted.  “You’re sorry that I’m sad,” she stated flatly.  “You’re not sorry that he’s gone.”

 

“… and that I’ll miss him.”

 

Buffy lifted her head from her friend’s shoulder at that.  “You’ll miss him?” she asked, incredulous.

 

Willow had the grace to blush.  “Buffy, in spite of what you think, in spite of the bottle-in-the-face and the attempted biting and… well, okay, I do have a lot of reasons to not like Spike.  But that doesn’t mean that I won’t miss him.  He kind of… grows on you, y’know?”

 

Buffy gave a little breathy huff of laughter and rested her head on Willow’s shoulder.  “Yeah, he does.”

 

“And we sometimes just kind of sat, two recently ex-evil people, trying to deal with what we did.  It’s… kind of comforting, knowing you’re not alone. All right, so it was only just that one time, and there were stinky cigarette fumes, but still.  And… and last year, well, okay, last year wasn’t exactly the best for any of us, but he helped us while you were… uh… gone, and…”

 

“And he tried to help me,” Buffy said, closing her eyes.  “Even though I was… he tried so hard to help me after I… after…”  She trailed off.

 

“He looked after Dawnie, too… protected her until we thought she’d wanna bite his head off, but I don’t think she ever did.  She must have told you that, though.”

 

Buffy said nothing.  Willow’s voice faded to a dull buzz in her ears, and her thoughts whirled so fast through her brain that she couldn’t catch hold of them.  There was an idea, a plan, something just out of reach…

 

Willow continued speaking, as though she wasn’t really expecting an answer.  “… did a lot of good things, even before he got his soul.  I don’t know about the others, not for sure, but I can see why you… why you care about him.  It’s hard to let someone go when they’re such a big part of your life…”

 

In a split second, the plan coalesced in her head, and she was amazed.  “I’m not letting him go,” she said aloud, straightening away from Willow once more.

 

Willow’s brow wrinkled in confusion.  “What are you talking about?  Buffy, he’s gone, and you do have to let him go eventually…”

 

“No, I don’t.”  Slayer-steel infused her tone, and she knew Willow recognized it by the way her eyes widened.  “I don’t have to, and I’m not going to… and you’re going to help me.”

 

“I am?”

 

Buffy grabbed her arms, gripping tighter than she intended, and Willow gasped.  She didn’t release her, though, just gave her a little shake.  “You are.  You have to.  You have to bring him back, Willow.”

 

“Buffy?  What are you talking about?”

 

“Spike,” she replied, and she felt something she had thought she’d lost at the first sight of Spike’s ashes – hope.  “You brought me back … you have to bring him back, too.”

Chapter Text

 

Willow stared at her best friend, simply unable to believe what she’d just heard.  “Buffy… are you out of your mind?”

 

Even as she spoke, she winced at her own words, regretting them almost immediately. Buffy’s face seemed to turn to stone.  “Be very careful, Willow,” she said softly.  “You’re dealing with a Slayer on the edge.”

 

She looked away, hardly able to believe that this hard woman with the lines of sorrow carved into her face was her best friend.  “Buffy, I can’t,” she whispered.  “I mean… I know I haven’t been exactly forgive-worthy in the not-so-distant past, with the attempted world ending and all.  And I want you to forgive me for… for last year… and maybe you think that this… but I can’t.”  She stared down at her hands, twisting together tightly in her lap.  “Bringing you back was really dark magic – like, not so much charcoal as very, very black.  And you know how very mixy me and the dark magic are.  Bringing back a vampire… Buffy, if there’s a color darker than black, that would be it.  And that’s not even taking into consideration that it’s impossible.”

 

“How do you know?” Buffy demanded, aggression pouring from her words.  “How could you know that without even…”

 

Willow looked up, catching and holding Buffy’s gaze, despite what it cost her.  “All those books in the forbidden section? I took out every bit of magic in them, every spell, every word.”  She shivered; the days when she’d been so hurt, so lost and vengeful still pained her, and that pain was composed as much of how she’d felt as what she’d done.  “If there was a spell to bring a vampire back from dust, it would have been there, and I’d know it.”

 

Buffy flinched.  “Even now?”  A hint of doubt started to cloud her eyes.

 

“The knowledge… it doesn’t matter how I got it, or the fact that I’m not using it now.  I still know all that magic.  And sweetie, I’m so sorry, but there’s nothing.  Nothing that gives even a hint of any kind of spell to bring back a vampire.  There’s nothing I can do to bring Spike back.”

 

She watched Buffy turn away and take a deep, shuddering breath, and her heart ached for the pain her friend was going through.  “I’m really sorry, Buffy,” she said softly.

 

“I don’t care.”

 

The sound of Buffy’s voice surprised her; yes, she still sounded all teary and sad… but there was steel in her tone that hadn’t been there before, even when she demanded her help.  It was the sound of sheer willpower, pure Slayer resolve, something she’d heard from Buffy many times before.  She’s determined to bring him back, Willow suddenly understood.  She’s going to try… everything.  Oh, Buffy, that way leads to badness…

 

“I don’t care,” Buffy repeated, more forcefully this time, and Willow realized she must have spoken at least part of her thoughts aloud.  “I’ll do the research myself.  There are lots of books out there, books that Giles didn’t have in the shop – we just have to find them.  Right?”

 

Willow could see the uncertainty in her eyes even as she spoke, however, giving the lie to the bravado of her words.  Bufy had a core of steel, she realized, but it was brittle from being through the fire too many times.

 

“Okay,” she responded, loathing herself just a little for what she was about to say, “yeah, other books… but how are you going to get them?  I mean, the books that Giles didn’t have in the shop or in Bath have to be pretty rare, and it’s not like anyone who has them is just going to give them to you.  How are you going to pay for them? We don’t really have a lot of money.”

 

Willow hadn’t intended it – except she kind of had.  It drove right to the heart of Buffy’s worries the previous year, where there hadn’t always been enough money to cover the bills and food. 

 

Buffy’s eyes widened, and then she blinked rapidly before looking away.  “I’ll find a way, Will,” she murmured, then gave another huff of not-quite laughter.  “I always do, don’t I?”  She stared down at the floor, and Willow could see the fabric of the bedclothes wadded up in her hands.

 

Suddenly, she was aware of guilt weighing heavily on her chest. I’m not really discouraging her from doing this, she recognized in a flash.  It’s like I’m only giving her more problems to work through… “I’m sorry, Buffy,” she said quietly.  “I just thought…” Thought it would be better if you realized it was impossible, then you could… I’ve got to get out of here before I screw up any more. “I really am sorry, sweetie, but I’ve got to go.”

 

“Go?”  Buffy was staring at her now as if she were something strange and foreign.

 

“Yeah… LA, remember?  I told you last night, before…” She tried not to say the words, but it didn’t matter; her friend’s eyes, already red, started swimming with tears.  “But the car wouldn’t start, and Xander had to fix it, and after that it was kind of late, so we just thought I should maybe wait until today…” With an effort, she stemmed the tide of words from her mouth.  “So, yeah.  It’s a long trip to LA.”

 

Buffy didn’t say anything, just looked at her with eyes that were deeply shadowed and seemed to take up all of her face.  Willow hated that look, the one that she’d seen so often without recognizing last year, the one that accused her with its very despair.  “I’m sorry, Buffy,” she murmured.  “I’ve really got to go.  They… Angel’s group… they need me to…” Finally, thinking it’s not doing any good dancing around the words, she took a deep breath and said, “It’s… him.  He’s out.  Angelus.”

 

Buffy just blinked, saying nothing, face still and sorrowing.

 

“And… and you know what that’s like,” she finished lamely, fighting off her amazement at Buffy’s non-reaction.  “They’ve got him caged now… I mean, totally under lock and key.  But I still need to go… need to put the soul back in him again, so that he’s… y’know… Angel again.”

 

Buffy’s expression didn’t change, but she nodded.  “Okay, I understand that.  But…”

 

“And I’ll be back before you know it,” Willow pressed on, trying for a cheerful tone and failing.  “And like I said, maybe with some good news.  Or, hey, maybe even some help.  So…”

 

“When you come back, Will.”  Buffy’s voice was still choked with tears.  “Please… help me.  Please.”

 

Her resolve – never strong when someone was asking her for something – weakened further, and she put her arm around Buffy’s shoulders again.  “Buffy…”

 

Please, Will.”

 

“All right.”  Oh, man, she thought, stunned, I can’t believe I’m actually agreeing to this!  But it was already done, and she couldn’t take it back.  “I’ll help you research,” she amended quickly.  “But I will not do anything dark, Buffy, I mean it.”  The words rang hollow, though, when she saw the hope dawn in Buffy’s face once more.

 

“Thank you.”  Tears were glittering in Buffy’s eyes again, even as she whispered those heartfelt words.

 

Willow tightened her embrace, and let Buffy rest against her shoulder for a moment.  All she could think was that, so suddenly, Buffy had become so… frail, so fragile, and she wondered where all her friend’s strength had gone.

 

***

It was later than it usually was when Buffy took her shower, but the water was still hot, and that was all that mattered.  She stood in the spray for a long time, waiting for the warmth to leech the soreness from muscles that had gone stiff while she slept, waiting for it to warm her inside.

 

It didn’t, but then it occurred to her that maybe it was better this way.  At least I won’t be bursting into tears at any second…

 

Deciding that it would be best to pick up her few personal belongings from her desk at the school before anyone else got there, she got dressed.

 

The aroma of the coffee Willow had surely brewed before she left floated up the stairs, enticing her down.  A quick glance in the living room told her that the girls were still asleep.

 

“What are you doing here?” Dawn’s voice drifted out from the kitchen, arctic cold.  Buffy picked her way around and through the obstacle course of the dining room as quickly as she could.

 

“Dawn…” Giles sighed. 

 

His voice drew her up short, had her clenching and relaxing her fists in indecision.  I so can’t deal with him now, she thought, but Dawn shouldn’t have to deal with him alone, either… She wavered between confrontation and a strategic retreat out the front door.  No way do I need coffee that badly…

 

“You know very well why I’m here.”

 

“I don’t care,” Dawn shot back.  “Get out of this house.”

 

Giles made no reply, and Buffy sidled closer to the kitchen, hovering just beyond the doorway.  The kettle started to whistle as she moved.

 

“Don’t you dare ignore me,” Dawn hissed, and now her voice had that teeth gritted, so-angry-she-was-about-to-cry sound.  “I want you to get out of this house this instant.”

 

The tea kettle sobbed into silence, and Buffy imagined the steam clouding Giles’s glasses as he poured.  “I’m not going to argue with you, Dawn,” he said, and now she could see him through the doorway, standing by the stove, involved with his tea ritual.

 

“Great,” Dawn said, still in that same tone.  She was standing near the stove, arms crossed tightly over her chest.  “No argument here.  Go. Away.”

 

Having let the tea steep to his satisfaction, Giles disposed of the teabag.  “I expect all of this hostility is in regard to Spike,” he said mildly, taking a sip from his cup.

 

“You’ve always hated him –”

 

“And until this very moment, I’d have said you felt the same,” he replied smoothly.  “Your recent interaction – aside from him overturning his cot on top of you – has been practically non-existent.”

 

“You are not gonna turn this back around on me,” she retorted, and advanced on Giles, one finger raised, pointing accusingly.  “I had my reasons for being angry with him.  I trusted him, and he… But I never forgot that I cared about him.  That’s why it hurt so much.  But I guess you’ve never done anything you’ve regretted.”  She backed off a step, smiling smugly, and crossed her arms again.

 

Admiration for her little sister uncurled in Buffy’s heart, and rather than interrupt, she just continued to watch from the doorway.

 

Giles turned red, his brows lowering.  “You know very well that I – that there is no one in this house who has not done things they later wished they hadn’t.  But I am not going to regret that Spike is no longer a danger to us.”

 

“He is not!” After speaking, Dawn looked stricken.  “He was not…”

 

“Yes, he most certainly was,” Giles said, overriding her feeble protest.  “He was still under the control of the First, and having that… that snake in our bosom was quite likely our greatest weakness.  The First could have activated the trigger at any time and had him kill the Potentials, or Buffy, or any of the rest of us, including you.  Using him as, essentially, a training dummy, while inspired, was at the same time perhaps the most dangerous thing that Buffy could have done, as it started to instill a trust that Spike might have easily taken advantage of.  And even afterwards, he could always beg off, saying that the First had forced him to do it, as It had forced him to kill those other people.”

 

Hearing Giles speak so coolly, so unemotionally about Spike and the evils he might have done threatened to break through the wall of numbness that she’d encouraged to grow after Willow had left.  You are so wrong, Giles, she thought, and opened her mouth.

 

“You never knew him at all.”

 

Slowly, she closed it again, the words she wanted to say now hanging in the air, though she hadn’t spoken.  A distant amazement flooded her.

 

In the gradually strengthening light, she could see Dawn was trembling, and slowly realized her sister was more than upset, more than angry.  She was furious in a way that Buffy had never seen before.

 

Dawn advanced on Giles again, this time not stopping until she was in his personal space.  “You only ever believed what was in the books about Spike.  You saw the bloodthirsty vampire who killed two Slayers.  You were happy when he got chipped – ” Giles looked about to protest, but she just powered on.  “Oh, don’t you even, Giles, I remember it! – because ‘the arrogant creature deserved a comeuppance’!” Her imitation of Giles’s accent made him flinch.  “You laughed at him and threw him out when he told Buffy he loved her.  But then you used him against Glory, you used him all that summer when Buffy was gone, playing on the feelings you said he could never have!

 

“You never knew that he took flowers to her grave every night before meeting with you guys.  You never knew that he helped me cope when Willow and Tara wouldn’t or couldn’t, or that I did my best to help him, because nobody else would.  He hurt Buffy – he never meant to, I know he didn’t – so he got his soul because he thought that was the only way to make amends.  He killed people after that, and he asked Buffy to kill him, because he believed he was a danger to her and to us.  That’s not someone who is evil.”

 

Dawn was crying freely now, as was Buffy, standing in the doorway, hand over her mouth and trying to keep silent.  “If he ever did any of the things you’re so concerned he might have, there’s no way he would beg off – he’d face it head on, just like he did everything else, and he’d pay the price.  I can’t believe you’d think…” Instead of continuing, she kicked him hard in the shin.

 

Giles yelped, jumped, and his tea sloshed over his hand to soak his cuff.  He dropped the cup, and it shattered as it hit the floor in a puddle of tea.

 

“Maybe you would beg off,” Dawn tossed over her shoulder, heading for the back door. Her voice vibrated with anger, with contempt.  “Spike never would.”

 

The door slammed on Giles’s quiet curses and the sound of water running in the sink.

 

As silently and swiftly as she could, Buffy stepped back into the dining room, avoiding the Potentials sleepily crowding into it, and headed for the front door.  A kind of cool satisfaction filled her, and for a moment it almost overshadowed the violence she still felt the need to inflict.

 

In quiet contrast to Dawn’s exit, she let the door click shut behind her, because slamming the door wasn’t nearly the kind of outlet she had to have.

 

***

Giles had been persona non grata in Buffy’s eyes before, but she had always eventually forgiven him, or had at least forgotten about what had made her upset in the first place.

 

This time, he was rather afraid she would do neither.

 

While waiting for his Slayer to appear this morning, he’d tended to his scalded hand, tried to placate a dozen worried Potentials who’d woken at the noise and made another cup of tea after sending them off to training.  It was more than an hour later that one of the girls mentioned that she’d seen Buffy slipping out the front door.

 

The next time he looked in on the training class behind the house, it had been late afternoon.  Buffy had been present then, observing as Kennedy and Molly had led the younger and less experienced girls through a kata.  But he’d no more stepped out into the yard than she’d called for two-on-one battles, where she moved and struck with such unconscious grace that he had to check the sun was still in the sky.

 

He recalled watching Spike fight during that summer where they had all struggled to go on without Buffy.  Watching her with a clinical eye, he noted there were definite similarities between Spike then and Buffy now, then berated himself for thinking it.

 

She avoided him all through supper as well, and when he caught up with her again, she was preparing for patrol.

 

“Not now, Giles,” she said, her tone clipped as she secreted half a dozen stakes on her person.

 

“Yes, now, Buffy,” he replied, using his sternest voice.  “This is something that must be addressed.  This morning, Dawn…”

 

“… read you the riot act and probably left you with one heck of a big bruise on your shin,” she finished, selecting a sword from her weapons cache.

 

He felt his mouth fall open.  “You… saw?”

 

When his Slayer looked at him again, her eyes were cool and hard, emeralds in her pale face.  “Yes, I saw, Giles.  I saw, and heard, and I’m telling you right now, she said all the things I couldn’t.”  Abruptly, she turned away from him and strode toward the door.

 

“Buffy…” Mindful of the eyes of the Potentials on them both, he followed her onto the front porch before trying to catch her arm.  “Buffy, we must discuss this.”

 

She pulled away from him.  “There is nothing to discuss, Giles,” she said, and where he expected heat and anger, there was only chill distance.  “You discussed things enough last night – the plan between you and Robin, your delaying tactics in the graveyard, all that back to basics crap – no, I really don’t think there is anything left to discuss at all.”  She opened the door again and shouted, “First team!  Grab your stakes, it’s time for patrol!”

 

Her voice cracked a little on the final word, and she rubbed her face with her free hand before turning her back on him.

 

Before Giles could marshal any arguments in response, four girls clomped out onto the porch, chattering excitedly among themselves.  They followed Buffy down the walk and out into the night.

 

He was left staring after them, wondering how it had come to this, how, after so long and so many battles, he had lost his Slayer’s trust.

 

***

Patrol.  Or rather, training disguised as patrol.  Either way, it was a few endless hours she spent mostly raking up memories of past patrols with Spike… whether or not she’d wanted him with her.  But then doesn’t matter, Buffy thought, watching the Potentials double team the vamps they’d scared up.  I want him here now.

 

As she had the past few days, she had to work hard to keep from crying.  Her eyes ached and her cheeks were raw, and she was pretty sure she’d forgotten what it felt like to smile.

 

But Will said she’d be back tonight, she thought, attention drifting from the fight.  Probably tonight, anyway.  Maybe she can get more books out of Giles… Quickly she veered away from that thought.  Thinking about Giles tended to tie her up in knots inside, and she’d avoided him pretty successfully for the most part.  She shook her head, trying to clear it. Willow said she’d help, and that’s what matters.

 

“Hey, Buffy? We’re done…”

 

She blinked away from her thoughts and saw that Amanda stood before her.  She, Rona and Vi had dusted one vamp, and even as they fought, Kennedy and Molly were arguing over who got to dust the other one. 

 

Huffing softly, Buffy ended their discussion with an unerring flick of her stake.  “Don’t get overconfident,” she warned them.  “Overconfidence gets you dead.”

 

“Might also get you twenty-five to life if you’re not careful.”

 

At the sound of the familiar voice, Buffy spun around, shocked.  She hadn’t expected to hear it ever again, not after those horrible hours in LA.  Even after everything she’d done, it had still been hard to see her get locked up.  “Faith?”

 

The other Slayer was lounging against a tall headstone, ankles and arms crossed, her casual pose belied by the tension coiled in her muscles.  “Hey, B,” she drawled. “Takin’ the mini-mites out on patrol, huh? Sounds like old times.”

 

Before automatically making the sharp retort that was on the tip of her tongue, Buffy paused.  Faith must be the help that Will said she was going to bring back from LA, she thought. After a moment, relief flooded her.  Faith was a Slayer.  Yeah, she’d spent the last few years in the penitentiary, but she was still a Slayer. Taking a few steps closer, Buffy thought, She’s got the strength, the moves, the attitude…

 

The scent.  Buffy stopped dead as Faith’s scent tickled her nose.  Cigarettes and leather, and oh, no, I am not going to break down here, not in front of them.  She opened her eyes wide to stave off the tears.

 

“Who’s she?” Kennedy demanded.  Buffy was trying so hard to maintain control that she didn’t even notice the snippy tone.

 

Faith pasted on an insulted look.  “B, you didn’t tell the newbies about me? I think I’m hurt.” She laid her hand over her heart.

 

She wasn’t sure how, but Buffy pushed back the grief – which had somehow grown even closer through Faith’s mockery – and managed to speak.  “Wasn’t really expecting to see you,” she replied, her voice rough, and it drew Faith’s gaze to her face.  “Will didn’t let on the kind of help she was bringing back from LA.”  She met the other Slayer’s eyes and saw – not for the first time, if she were honest with herself – defensiveness and pain and a longing to be someone, someone that mattered.  It was everything she’d seen in Spike’s eyes, and told herself she hadn’t. 

 

With an effort she went on, “I’m glad you’re here.  Welcome back.”  She turned slightly to call over her shoulder to the others.  “This is Faith.  She’s…”

 

Before she could finish, she saw Faith’s eyes flare wide, and she was looking past her, toward the other girls.  She hadn’t even started to turn around to see what it was when Faith exploded into motion, snatching the stake from Buffy’s waistband as she passed.  In a second, she was raining blow after blow on the vampire that had crept up behind them unaware.  After the first punch, the vamp slid into her demon face, all ridges and fangs.

 

A few moments later, Faith had reduced the vamp to dust and sauntered back to the group, brushing off her hands as she did.

 

“The Vampire Slayer,” Buffy finished, her tone filled with approval.

 

The Potentials looked back and forth between them – Slayer Light and Slayer Dark – unable to believe what their eyes told them.

 

“She’s going to be taking over your training,” Buffy added.

 

And finally, even through the babble of questions, she remembered what it was like to smile.

 

***

Despite how he longed for his morning tea, Giles had taken over the past few days to staying away from the kitchen until after Dawn had departed for school.  It was quieter, and much more likely to leave him bruise-free.

 

One other thing he’d taken to doing was staying up to make sure Buffy got home safely from patrol.  She had barely spoken to him since that first night after Spike was dusted, and what little she had said was only in regards to the First or, oddly enough, spell books.

 

What on earth could she possibly want with spell books? he asked himself yet again, trying to make his tea and ignore the cacophony of a dozen or so girls fighting to be in the kitchen all at once.

 

Somewhat doubtfully, he had produced a couple of volumes that he’d brought with him from Bath, for which she’d given him short thanks.  He hadn’t seen the books again.

 

Because he’d stayed up in order to satisfy himself of Buffy’s well-being, he knew Willow had returned home late last night.  Nothing, however, had prepared him for the once-familiar sight of dark hair and brassy attitude that breezed through the kitchen.

 

“Hey, G-man, didn’t realize you were stayin’ here at Slayer Central.”

 

Before he could properly engage his brain, his mouth replied automatically.  “Please don’t call me that abominable name…” About to say Xander and suddenly realizing that he was actually speaking to someone else, he looked again. “Faith?”

 

She grinned widely at him.  “Can’t get nothin’ by a Watcher.”

 

He set his tea down in order to take off his glasses.  “What on earth are you doing here?”

 

“Wes busted me out,” she replied, her air distracted.  He had the distinct impression that she was looking past him at something on the counter, and dearly hoped it wasn’t the knife block.  “They needed a Slayer to help out in the City of Angelus.”

 

The unexpected ‘sproing’ from behind him made him jump.  At that moment, Faith struck, lightning-quick.  He was a bit surprised to feel no pain, and when she pulled her hand back, he saw her bouncing a hot toaster pastry from hand to hand.  Shame at his own nervousness made his cheeks heat slightly.

 

“Hey, that’s mine!” a voice cried.

 

“Not any more,” Faith crowed, and took a bite, puffing out her cheeks and blowing as the hot pastry and filling burned her tongue.  “Ya snooze, ya lose.”  She devoured the pastry and licked her fingers.

 

“Wes?  You don’t mean Wesley Wyndam-Pryce?”

 

Something crossed her face, a flicker of emotion there and gone before he could identify it.  “Yeah.  Then Red came up, stuffed the soul back into the Soulless Man and told me that y’all could use another Slayer here in Sunnyhell.  Seemed like a plan to me, and B agreed.”

 

Then she whistled piercingly, and the noise level in the kitchen dropped to blessed silence, as every girl there stared at her. “Listen up, kiddies,” Faith called.  “I’m Faith, and I’m your new dictator.  Strength training on the back lawn in five minutes.  If I have to wait for you, I’ll get bored, and if I get bored, you get extra push-ups.  Read me?”

 

The kitchen cleared with amazing alacrity.

 

When Faith looked at him again, her face was schooled into neutral lines.  “Red told me a lot about what was going on when we were driving from LA, and B filled me in on the rest when I got here.  I know I got no room to judge, but sneaking around behind her back to dust her pet vampire?” She shook her head.  “Trust me on this – you have got some serious kissin’ to do.”  With that, she sauntered out the back door, leaving him staggered by her words.  Within moments, he could hear her outside, barking orders.

 

The anger that seethed quietly just beneath the surface at Buffy’s sudden disdain flared to life.  Disapproval from Faith, of all people! he fumed.  He gulped at his tea, refusing to listen to the niggling doubt that advised him to consider Faith’s words.

 

After a few moments of silence, he heard first one set of footsteps, then a second, coming down from upstairs.

 

“Hey, Will.  Coast is clear?”

 

“Hi, Buffy. Oof.”  There was a deep ‘thud’, as of something heavy landing on the dining room table.

 

“Oh, wow.” Buffy sounded surprised.  “Where’d you get all those books?”

 

The aroma of old leather and parchment wafted gently into the kitchen, and Giles closed his eyes, remembering far more pleasant times in the Magic Box, or even in the school library.

 

“I, uh, I got them from Wes.”

 

“Wes?”

 

“Um, yeah.  After we took care of Angelus and it was safe again, I got a look at his collection, and asked if I could borrow a few.  He was really great about it.  And, oh, Buffy, you’ve got no idea what was hiding under that priggy exterior.  He’s all leather and untucked and… and stubbly… though on second thought, that might be kinda uncomfortable…”

 

In spite of himself, Giles smiled.  The excitement in Willow’s voice had drifted into uncertainty, as it had so often when they were all younger.

 

“Faith said kinda the same thing.  That’s just all kinds of weird.  You sure it was Wes?  I mean, really?”

 

“Well, even if it wasn’t, he sure knew his books.”  The soft crackling and crinkling sounds were well known to him; one of them had opened an ancient tome.  “So, do you know what we’re looking for?”

 

Buffy sighed.  “Anything that could possibly help bring him back, Will,” she replied, so quietly that Giles nearly didn’t hear her.  “Just… anything.”

 

Giles paused, cup halfway to his lip.  Before leaving for Los Angeles, Willow had mentioned that there would be a lot of researching to do when she got back, and he thought he’d heard her mutter something about dust, but he hadn’t put the whole together until this moment.  Bring him back?  She couldn’t possibly think there’s any way to resurrect Spike, could she?

 

“Well, that narrows it down,” Willow replied, her tone sarcastic, but as he emerged into the dining room, Giles saw she was smiling.

 

“Good morning, Buffy, Willow.”

 

The reaction to his presence was immediate; Buffy refused to look at him, staring down at the book in front of her instead.  Willow’s smile disappeared, and she fidgeted uneasily in her chair.  “Oh… er, hi, Giles…”

 

Gesturing with his cup at the books spread over the table, he asked, rather innocently, “What are you working on?”

 

Before Willow could take a breath to launch into her babble, Buffy looked up.  Her eyes were rimmed faintly with red and ringed with dark circles, as if it had been a long while since she’d managed to sleep.  The sight shook him a little.

 

“We are working on a way to bring Spike back,” she informed him, her voice cool and matter-of-fact, as if she hadn’t just suggested something that went against the fundamental rules of the universe as he’d learned them.

 

He stared at her, incredulous, though she had returned her attention to the book in front of her.  She has no idea what she’s suggesting… To bring Spike back?  It’s impossible!

 

It was a moment before he recalled that he’d once used the word miracle in connection with the girl in front of him, and that perhaps what he considered impossible wasn’t quite so far out of reach after all.

 

Shocked as he was by the blatant disregard for the way of the Slayer – bringing a vampire back from dust, indeed! – as well as for the nature of evil, he didn’t quite take in the fact that Buffy was speaking.  He shook his head in order to clear out the startling number of dissonant thoughts.  “I’m sorry, Buffy?”

 

She was looking at him, head tilted slightly to one side in a way that seemed too familiar.  “I said, as long as you’re here, you can help too, Giles.”

 

“No, Buffy,” he replied with what he considered admirable mildness, once he had gained control of his mouth once more.  “I am not.”

 

His Slayer turned her fiercest glare on him.  “Why?”

 

“Because I am not going to assist you in this madness.  A vampire cannot... come back.”  Moreover, he thought, this one should not.

 

“Angel did,” she shot back.

 

“Angel wasn’t dust,” he reminded her.  “By your own report, he was sucked through Acathala, very much whole in body.  You know as well as any of us what happens when a vampire is killed.  It turns to dust.  And once it is dust, it is dust.  It is gone.  Reconstituting that dust back into the vampire it had been is utterly out of the question.  I refuse to waste my time because you want something that is clearly not possible.  Vampires are evil; that is something you know quite well.  Spike was no exception.  I’m sorry you’re upset, of course, but the world is better without him in it.”

 

Tension filled the silence as they stared at each other, neither willing to back down.

 

She swallowed heavily, then lifted her chin.  Her face was as hard as granite, and he saw no hint in her of the trusting girl she used to be.  “Then I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

 

Giles found he couldn’t believe his ears.  “I beg your pardon?”

 

“If you aren’t going to help bring Spike back, you’ll have to leave.”  Her eyes were cold. “Maybe Faith will want your help,” she added, though her tone made it clear she didn’t expect it.  With that, she turned back to the book on the table, effectively dismissing him.

 

He looked at Willow, who had been silent throughout their exchange.  She was biting her lip, darting her gaze first at him, then at Buffy… but she said nothing.

 

Suddenly enraged beyond measure at his Slayer’s stubbornness, her wrong-headedness, the grudge she seemed determined to bear, he bit out, “Very well, then.”  He stormed out the front door, though somehow he resisted the urge to slam it behind him.

 

***

It felt like hope was further away than it had been before, and Buffy forced herself to remember that this was only the first day of research.  Like we ever find anything right away, she thought.  Not to say I wasn’t kind of hoping we would… Pulling off her muddy patrol gear, she sank onto her bed, exhaustion leaving every muscle feeling tight and achy.

 

After she’d spent all day doing research, she and Faith had taken the whole group of Potentials out on patrol.  They had run into double the usual number of vampires and other assorted nasties.

 

Having Faith with her was really a double-edged sword.  On the plus side, it meant she had someone as strong as she was to back her up.  On the minus side, it wasn’t the person she was expecting to have back her up, and the aroma of tobacco floating around her didn’t help.

 

Buffy lay back on the bed, one arm draped over her eyes.  So, just how many times were you expecting to see Spike just melt out of the darkness, all bright hair and red-tipped cigarette and swagger?

 

She bit her lip; she had seen him do just that too many times to count, just because it was the only way she would let him get close to her.  And every time tonight, she’d gotten Wild Girl Faith instead.

 

It made patrol even more difficult than it had been since… Buffy shook her head.  Gotta be strong.  Get a good night’s sleep.  Things will look better in the morning.

 

And if I keep telling myself that, it’ll be true, right?

 

For a short while, however, she lay there, forcing herself to stay awake, avoiding sleep.  The night before, her rest had been invaded by nightmares regarding Spike.  The torture he underwent each time she closed her eyes was vivid, too real to bear.  He had begged for her, for release, for death, until she was afraid to close her eyes.

 

No, I was afraid that it was real, she thought, shuddering.  Can’t deal with that again…

 

However, the next time she blinked, when she opened her eyes, she was in some kind of dark cavern.  To one side it was backlit with red, as if from the dull embers of a hundred dying fires, while on the other it was bright and flickering gold, the kind of light she could only associate with a fresh blaze.  When she turned around, the darkness filled the cavern, deep and endless.

 

Great, she groaned silently.  Symbolism.  So I’ve got two choices here.  Another nightmare – which, fun! Not – or a Slayer dream… which may as well be another nightmare.

 

“Why do you want him back?” a familiar voice asked, and when Buffy spun around to the light again, she saw…

 

Herself.

 

All righty then.  Slayer dream it is.

 

She didn’t think she’d spoken the words aloud, but the other… her just kind of shook her head. “This isn’t a dream,” she said, then grimaced, as if she knew that her words just reinforced the dreamlike atmosphere.  “It’s not,” she went on somewhat weakly, reading Buffy’s skeptical look.

 

“If it’s not a dream, who are you?”  Buffy eyed her double warily.  “Why do you look like me?”  Yes, the other’s face was exactly the same as the one she saw in the mirror every morning… right down to the red eyes and tear tracks, the air of sorrow that never seemed to lift.

 

“Why do you want him back?” the other Buffy asked again, shaking her head.  “Do you want him back because he’s a strong fighter, or because you feel guilty… or because you love him?”

 

“Love him?” Buffy stumbled back a pace, staring at the other her in shock.  “You mean… love… Spike?

 

Mirror-Buffy stared at her, her visage sad and drawn.  “When you went into the portal… did the Shadow Man show you something you didn’t know?”

 

Buffy stiffened, remembering that moment clearly, when the last of the Shadow Men had shown her what lurked beneath the Hellmouth… the thousands of starving Turok Han, ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world.  “Yeah.  He did.  Why?”

 

The other Buffy smiled, a tiny twisting of her lips.  “And you worried about it as much as you did the First, and thought about telling the others, and pushed the Potentials to be better fighters, stronger and faster… hoping that would be enough to save them.”

 

She shouldn’t be so surprised, really, that this thing that looked like her thought like her, too.  “Yeah…”

 

Her smile dropped away.  “So did I.  And we won.”

 

Buffy snorted.  “Yeah, right.  If you won, why aren’t you happy?”

 

“Let me show you how we won,” the other Buffy whispered.  She motioned for Buffy to turn around.

 

When she did, she was greeted with a blinding light, so bright that she actually cried out and raised both hands to shield her eyes.  Then the light moved on, and the first thing she could think of was a lighthouse.  Slowly, her vision cleared, flashing spots changing colors and fading to nothing, and she saw the cavern beneath the Hellmouth that the Shadow Men had shown her, saw Turok Han disintegrating all around as that ray of light swept over them…

 

Saw Spike standing in a column of light, unmoving, with the laser beam dusting the ubervamps sprouting somehow from his chest.

 

She had to do a double take.  Wait… Spike?  He’s alive? He’s back! Oh, God, oh, thank you, Will… you brought him back…

 

“Keep watching.”  The other Buffy was still beside her.

 

She pushed her amazement and relief aside and looked again, and the fear chilled her insides as she realized.

 

Oh, my God, he’s standing in sunlight!  He’s going to fry!  Panic rose up, and she started to move, wanting more than anything to race forward and push him out of the sun, to scream at him for being so stupid… Just got you back, you jerk, what are you doing…

 

The other Buffy caught her arm.  “You can’t.  This… it’s not happening now.  This has already happened.  You can’t change it.”  They watched as she – another Buffy – stepped up to Spike, arguing with him.  “I couldn’t change it then, either.  See, Spike – my Spike – had to save himself in Robin’s garage, because I got there too late.  He fought back against the trigger, or Robin stopped to gloat, and he survived.  But then…”  She choked off a tiny sob.

 

When Buffy looked back at the scene, she could see herself – that other Buffy – holding Spike’s hand, even as it burst into flames.  Then the floor started to give way, the earth trembling beneath them, and the Buffy holding Spike’s hand staggered, her hand falling away from his.  Spike’s mouth moved, though she couldn’t hear what he said, and the other Buffy ran, dashing out of the cave falling in all around her.

 

Laughing in the sunlight, Spike crumbled to ashes.

 

And she couldn’t stop it.

 

“No!” All she could do was scream in protest, hoping that someone, something somewhere would listen.  But no one did.

 

This can’t be happening, she thought desperately, her throat aching from the force of her cry.  It can’t be…

 

As he dusted, the light that sprung from his chest flickered and dimmed, fading as his ashes fell, before winking out entirely and leaving her in darkness again.

 

“So.”

 

Hearing her own voice again made Buffy look up, feeling the familiar sting of tears on her salt-raw cheeks as she did, and saw that the other Buffy was weeping as well.  She hadn’t even noticed that she’d fallen to her knees.

 

“Why do you want him back?  If it’s just because he’s a great warrior, or because you feel guilty, or even because you need to know there’s someone out there who loves you unconditionally… you’ll still end up without him.  And even if it is because you love him…” She stopped, and the tears ran down her cheeks like a river.

 

Buffy wiped her eyes and managed a weak glower at the other.  I hate you, she thought dully.  She wished she could summon the strength to beat this look-alike for what she had shown her, but none of her muscles seemed to want to obey.  You have no idea how much I hate you for this. “What then?”

 

“I told him I loved him,” the other Buffy replied, her voice barely audible, staring out into the darkness, where Spike – her Spike – had died.  “Right then, right there, before the earthquake jerked us apart, I told him I loved him… and he didn’t believe me.”

 

Buffy gasped, and oh, God, that was the feeling that the whole world had been pulled out from under her.  He didn’t...  “What?”

 

“Don’t put it off,” the other her said, her voice fierce.  “If you love him, if that’s why you want him back… tell him.  Don’t leave it until later, because you may not get a later…”

 

***

Buffy woke herself up crying and then couldn’t stop.  She wept until her head was pounding and her eyes felt coated with sandpaper, until she couldn’t cry anymore.  It didn’t ease her grief at all, wasn’t cleansing or closing.  It was just utter despair.  She cried because it was the only thing she could do.

 

Even after she stopped, she still shook, trembling with emotional exhaustion and wishing she could move, but it was like there was something broken inside.

 

He didn’t believe her.

 

Once she’d collected enough of herself to think again, she wondered what that other Buffy had done to her Spike that he wouldn’t believe her.  Then, quite suddenly, she realized, She’s me.  Whatever she did to her Spike… I did to mine.  That thought made her wish she could cry some more.  So I guess it doesn’t matter where, or what universe, or… Spike falls in love with me, and I treat him so badly… and he gets a soul, and he dies… It happened there, and it happened here… Does it happen in other universes, too?

 

There were thousands of dimensions out there, thousands of universes… did each one have their own Buffy and Spike?  Did the same things happen in each one, playing out the same hateful script time and again, with no variation that might bring happiness?

 

Did Spike die in each one?

 

And somehow, that hit her the hardest… that the vampire who had fought so long and so hard for her love, for her, would always go to his death, not knowing – or worse, not believing

 

And for the first time, the truth of why she really wanted him back struck her.

 

I do love him.  I can’t live without him anymore.  I love Spike.

 

She started to giggle into her pillow at that, though she didn’t really find it funny at all.  I love him.  And of course, I only discover this after he’s… gone.  How like my life.  She could hear the tinge of hysteria in her laughter, and after only a few moments, it turned back into sobs again.  “I love you, Spike,” she whispered.  “I’m so sorry…”

Chapter Text

*****

Since they were gearing up for the end of the world – again – normally, Xander would have spent nearly all of his non-working time at Casa Summers.  That’s just the way it was.  Even if he didn’t do a whole lot of the research thing, he was really big on moral support and the provision of necessary food and drink, especially during apocalypse season.

 

Since Spike dusted, however, and Buffy had slapped him hard enough to make him wonder if he was going to lose some teeth, he hadn’t been quite sure of his welcome.  Dawnie hadn’t been particularly warm, either, and the past few mornings, the ride to school had taken place in a stony silence that made his insides try to shrink away from his outsides.

 

So that was why he was practicing stealth, sneaking in the kitchen door while the Potentials were outside.  He knew Willow had been expecting to get back a couple nights ago, and he’d been kind of waiting on her to let him know that Buffy wouldn’t cut him down on sight if he showed his face.  But Will hadn’t called.  Hence the risking of life and limb.

 

And what was going on with Faith – or someone who looked enough like her to make scary memories skitter down his spine – leading the Potentials in their exercises?  Where was Buffy?

 

He got his answer when he paused in the doorway to the dining room. His best friends were doing the research thing, surrounded by musty old books that immediately pulled him back in time, back to a thousand similar sessions in the high school library, or at the shop. Traditional research notepads were filled with words, both in Willow's neat script and Buffy's more rounded hand.

That surprised him as much as anything else – that Buffy was actually actively reading and taking notes, rather than just flipping aimlessly through books and whining that she wanted to kill something.  Okay, so this thing with the First is serious, he thought, sagging against the doorframe a little.  I knew that.  But…wow.  This really brings it all home.

 

“Hey,” he said in a tone as non-intrusive as he could manage.

 

They looked up as he spoke, both sets of eyes more than a little bleary.

 

“Hey, Xan,” Willow said with a weary smile.  “How are you?”

 

“I’m good,” he replied, but he was looking at Buffy, who had registered his presence and then returned immediately to her book.  “How was LA?”

 

“Well, you know.  Same as always, except for Angelus running around.  But hey!  Brought back Faith to help.  Another Slayer is always of the good.”

 

He nodded, because he just didn’t figure it was worth it at this point to say his favorite words.  “I told you so” wasn’t going to go over big with Buffy, no matter which vampire it was applied to.  “Yeah, so I saw.”  He slid into a chair across from Buffy, trying to get her attention again.  “So... whatcha workin’ on?  More stuff on the First?”

 

He thought it was a safe bet that they were, and he only said it to start the conversation, but unexpectedly, Willow shook her head.  “No, this is...” Then she stopped, eyes going wide, and looked at Buffy as if for guidance.  “Uh...”

 

He looked between them, one resolutely ignoring him, the other fumbling with an explanation she probably didn’t think she should be giving.  “This is...” he said leadingly, trying to coax some more words.

 

Willow squirmed.  “Buffy?”  When Buffy glanced up with a frown, she added helplessly, “It’s Xander…

 

“Fine.” With a sigh, Buffy met finally his gaze.  “I told Giles and now I’m going to tell you,” she said, and oh, man.  That was the look of death in her eyes; he’d seen it a lot the past couple of years.  “If you’re not going to help, you’ll have to leave.”

 

“Okay, Buff,” Xander agreed, resting both hands on the table.  He was half-expecting her to say that he needed to keep his hands in view at all times for some reason.  “I can be all helpful-guy.  Help doing what?”

 

“If you go ballistic, I’m going to throw you out to be Faith’s practice dummy,” she warned, and there wasn’t even a hint of humor in her gaze.  “Are we clear?”

 

He swallowed.  She was really determined about this, whatever it was.  “Uh... yeah.  Clear.”

 

“Willow and me... we’re trying to bring Spike back.”

 

Xander blinked.  Then he blinked some more, before cautiously opening his mouth to speak.  “Say again?”

 

Buffy was still studying him, her expression guarded.  “We’re looking for some way to bring Spike back.”

 

Slowly, he nodded.  “That’s what I thought you said.”  Tread very carefully, my friend, he told himself.  We are dealing with a Slayer that’s obviously lost her mind somehow.  “Can I ask why?”

 

She bristled and started to stand up.  “Xander, you are not going to sit there and judge...”

 

Willow’s gaze darted back and forth between them, and she was chewing her lip.  Her forehead was wrinkled in worry, and Xander knew that expression well; she was waiting for – and totally dreading – the argument she feared was coming.

 

Xander decided that neither of them needed that, so he quickly held up his hands.  “Whoa, there.  No judging!  No Judge Xander.  I just want to know why, is all.”

 

Buffy settled back into her chair, and overwhelmed didn’t even begin to describe how she looked.  “Because I…” she whispered, then broke off and started again, her voice stronger this time.  “Because... yes, he did a lot of really evil things, but he helped me, and it is so not right that he should have gone out that way, and be in… in Hell, not after he got his soul.”  She swallowed and turned away, fiddling with her pen.  “It’s just not right.”

 

That’s when the clue hammer hit, long after it probably should have.  Buffy cared about the bleached one.  No, scratch that, he thought, the words turning over slowly in his head.  Buffy really cares about the bleached one.  She cares that he’s dead.  She’s hurt that he’s dead.

 

“No, it’s not right,” he said, and his lips quirked a little when Buffy just gaped at him in amazement.  “Yeah, all kinds of weird, isn’t it?” he asked, giving her a lopsided grin.  “Believe me, I was right there where you are.”

 

“But...” Buffy swallowed.  “You said...”

 

Xander ducked his head, glancing down at his hands on the table.  “Yeah, I know what I said.   But Buffy... you know how my mouth runs away with me. I was just... I kinda thought he would never die.” He snuck a peek at her.  “So, like I said, I was where you are, when I realized he was dust.”

 

Buffy’s lip trembled a little at that.

 

Seeing it, he hurried on.  “So, of course, something came out that I really should have censored.  I’m sorry.” And those words came out easier than he ever thought they would.

 

She swallowed, and reached over to grasp his hand.  “I’m sorry, too,” she whispered.  “I was really upset, but I shouldn’t have hit you.”

 

“Forgiven and forgotten, so hey, let’s move on.”  He smiled warmly, so glad that his friend didn’t seem to hate him that it was easy to forgive her.

 

“So you’re not wigging out,” Buffy said, and one corner of her mouth twisted up in what she probably meant as a smile.  “I thought there would be wigging out.  Didn’t you, Will?”

 

Willow leaned forward, her face relaxing into her happiest grin.  “Oh, yeah.  Major wig-fest from the Xan-man.”  She punched him lightly on the arm.  “Go you for confounding our expectations.”

 

“That’s me, always confounding.”  For the first time since the night Spike had dusted, Xander completely relaxed.  He’d missed this.  “So… you want me to join in on the book-fest?”

 

They blinked at him in shock.  Willow’s smile faded and Buffy’s mouth fell open, and nope, he hadn’t lost his touch.

 

“After all,” he continued, as if they weren’t gaping at him, “three sets of eyes are better than two, right?”  He put on his most innocent grin.

 

“Well, Dawnie helped us last night,” Willow offered, her tone preoccupied.

 

Finally, Buffy was able to speak.  “Does this mean that you’ll really help?” she asked, and it hurt him to see the way she was trying so very hard to not let there be too much hope in her voice.  “I mean, actually help, not be reading comics behind the book?”

 

Clearly, it was time to be Serious.  “Buffy... Okay, I’m sure Giles said this, but honestly, I don’t see how it can be possible to bring back a vamp that’s been dusted.”  Her face started to close off, but before she could jump in and say anything, he took a deep breath and plunged on.  “But… all right.  If you think it’s for the best that Captain Peroxide comes back from his dusty end, then yeah.  I’ll help with the research.  As much as I can, anyway,” he qualified.  “Until things really start to hit the fan, I’ve got to make sure I still have a job and everything.”

 

“Deal,” Buffy replied, and when she smiled, somehow, it wasn’t as bright as he remembered.  And then Xander realized in a rush just how haggard his friend looked.  There were huge circles under her red-rimmed eyes, and lines in her face that he’d never noticed forming.

 

“So,” he said, trying to pull his attention back from the way that she seemed to have aged so much in the short span of time he’d been waiting for her to cool down.  “What do you want me to look at?”

 

“Here,” Willow said, passing him a pen and a book.  “We’ve still got lots of books to go through.  Wesley was pretty generous.”

 

He accepted the book without comment and opened it.  Then he looked up at Willow with eyebrows raised.  “One in English, please.  No habla the Greek.”

 

Without looking up from her own, she said, “It’s upside down, you goof.”

 

He paused, then turned the book right side up.  “Oh.  Right.  I knew that.”

 

Buffy actually almost laughed as she returned to her book.  Xander glanced up, catching Willow’s eye, and they shared a smile.

 

***

They’d been at the books all day, except for when she joined Faith on patrol, and now, it was late.  Straightening, Buffy heard her spine pop, and she grimaced before starting to gingerly move her arms and legs.  Every joint seemed to want to crack.  Okay, scratch that, she thought, rotating her stiffened shoulders.  It’s very late.

 

Her head throbbed.  She loosened her ponytail and ran her fingers through her hair, and wondered if it would be worth it to brew another pot of coffee, or go out and get some fresh air, if there was anything that would make her sluggish brain wake up and start working again.  Her eyes felt scratchy and refused to focus.  When she closed them, words seemed to scroll up the insides of her eyelids.

 

The book that Dawn had been reading was still at her place at the table, propped open with a pencil, scraps of paper with hastily scribbled notes sticking out of various pages.  But at least she’d managed to get Dawn to go to bed… earlier.  A few hours ago, maybe?  I hope she did her homework… She didn’t want to have to worry about her sister’s grades on top of everything else.

 

And wouldn’t Giles have a fit if he saw the pencil? Quickly, she pushed that thought away; she didn’t want to think about her Watcher either, or why he wasn’t here.

 

Xander was slumped over, and had been for nearly an hour now, his head pillowed on the book he’d been studying.  She was gratified to see that there really wasn’t a comic book hidden within the pages.  I guess he really was serious, she thought, and her lips twitched upward.

 

Willow had decided that it might be for the best if someone checked references and such online, but now she was leaning forward in her chair to the point where her nose was practically touching her laptop.  She looked tired, as tired as Buffy felt.  Her eyes were bloodshot and kept closing slowly, staying closed for longer each time before fluttering back open.

 

“Willow?” she called softly.  “Are you all right?”

 

“Huh?” Willow looked up from her computer, blinking, and slowly managed to process what Buffy had said.  “Yeah.  I think.”  She picked up the cup that Xander had put in front of her two hours ago, and grimaced at the cold coffee sludge in the bottom.  “Maybe?”

 

Buffy turned her attention away from her friend and surveyed the dining room.  Books, open and closed, were piled haphazardly here and there, depending on their useful/potentially useful/not useful at all status.  They hadn’t managed to make as much headway as she had hoped.

 

Okay, she amended, we haven’t managed to find anything.  Absolutely nothing in the last two days.  Her chest tightened in a way that had become all-too-familiar over the past few days.  She was so tired that she wasn’t sure that she could stop the tears this time.  The knowledge that she loved Spike – wholly and totally loved him – had not made the not having him there any easier.  In fact, it was the not having him there that had finally made her recognize what she felt, and wasn’t that horrible?  That if he hadn’t died, she never would have realized she loved him?

 

And isn’t that exactly what happened in that other Buffy’s world? she thought, staring at the short stack of books in which they had discovered passages that had not been rendered into English.  If he was still alive…here… wouldn’t I be telling myself that we were just friends?  God, I’m so stupid.  She took a breath, trying not to let it hitch, and let it out slowly.

 

She’d been so hopeful this afternoon when Xander had offered to help.  For a short while, it had been almost like it used to be, before last year.  But then to find nothing… She hunched over in her chair, head bowed until it nearly touched the table.

 

“Buffy?  Are you all right?” When Buffy glanced over at Willow, her friend was rubbing her eyes, still holding the coffee cup in her other hand.

 

“Just stretching my back,” she replied, and flexed her shoulders again for good measure.

 

“Okay,” Willow said, and Buffy thought that would be the end of it.  But then she continued, “Just ‘cause, y’know, from over here, that looks like a… a position of despair.”

 

“Position of despair?” Buffy turned her head just enough to look at Willow once more.  “Like, woe is me and all that?”

 

Willow nodded, looked into her coffee cup again and made the same eeww face she’d made only a few minutes earlier.

 

That, as much as her own fatigue, made Buffy decide that it was probably a good idea to stop for the night.  She stood, managing not to cause any piles of books to topple.  Willow blinked blearily at her.

 

“It’s late,” she observed.  “Maybe we should stop for tonight and go to bed.  I mean, there’s no use to keep working if we miss something because we’re so tired.”

 

“I’m all for that,” Willow said, with exhausted eagerness.  “Yeah, I think I’ve reached caffeine overload, because the last three cups I had don’t seem to have had any effect.”  She closed or saved whatever she was doing on her laptop, then pressed it closed.  “Do you know how many rituals vampires have?”

 

For a second, Buffy couldn’t decide if that was a rhetorical question or not.  “Uh, no?”

 

“Lots,” Willow said, standing and stretching in turn.  “Or at least, that’s what I’m finding… but nothing that is very helpful.  The vamps seem to think that bringing another vampire back from dust is impossible, and a lot of vamps have died trying.”

 

And part of me should be glad, Buffy thought bitterly, because otherwise I’d be neck-deep in vampires that were dusted and brought back  But right now, I’m thinking that I need a little something to hope for.  She opened her mouth, about to ask her to explain everything she’d found, and sighed instead.  “Go to bed for now, Will,” she said, the weight of her dream from last night almost too heavy to bear.  Maybe it doesn’t matter, she thought, and somehow managed to hold back the tears.  Maybe… maybe it’s just fate that he…  She cut off that train of thought quickly. “You really look like you could use the sleep.  We’ll… we’ll look some more tomorrow, okay?”

 

Willow nodded, as if she hadn’t expected anything else.  “Okay.  I’ve kind of forgotten what my bed looks like.  See you tomorrow.”  She turned toward the stairs.

 

Buffy watched her go.  “Thanks, Will,” she blurted, feeling a sudden urgent need to say it.  “I mean… I know I’ve been all bitchy-Buffy for… well, it seems like forever.  But I’m really glad you’re helping.”

 

Willow gave her a faint smile in return.  “Say it again when I’m more awake,” she replied, just a hint of teasing in her tone.  “I’ll be able to appreciate it better then.  Good night, Buffy.”  She trudged up the stairs to her room.

 

Buffy watched Willow go, then glanced at Xander, who hadn’t moved.  The Potentials had taken a toll on the available floor space, but she was able to find an extra blanket to drape over him.

 

But for some reason, she just couldn’t bring her self to leave the dining room.  The books called to her in a way they never really had before, as if saying we have the answers you want in her ears.  Tired as she was, she still slipped back into her chair and opened her book once more.  Just a few more minutes, she thought, then I’ll go to bed.

 

Getting Spike back was more important than laying in bed waiting for sleep to come when it wouldn’t.

 

***

Giles shuffled his feet outside of Robin Wood’s door.  It’s been several days since he dusted Spike, he thought.  In that time, Principal Wood has not yet gone back to the high school and that’s… not a little worrying.

 

His nervous little dance outside the principal’s door was in no small part due to his Slayer’s clearly distraught state on returning to the house with Spike’s ashes.  She had been upset enough to have done something… well, quite similar to what Faith had done, he supposed.  Though I rather hope she had more control over herself than Faith had…

 

Her display of the morning before last had him wondering, though, if that were really the case.

 

Dreading the possibilities that might be hiding behind the door, he rapped sharply on it.  There was no response.  Then, after waiting long past what would be considered reasonable, he knocked again.  Still nothing.

 

This does not bode well, Giles thought, his trepidation growing.  The door was locked when he tried it, so he started searching for another way in.

 

Luckily, the door into the garage was unlocked, so he stepped in, letting it close behind him.  Some late afternoon sun crept in through the cracks in the door, enough to let him pick his way through to the door into the house.  He was nearly there when he realized that the walls had an unusual décor.

 

“Dear Lord,” he muttered, and couldn’t stop himself from pivoting around.  All of the walls were completely covered with crosses.  This was something he had not expected.  Even taking into account the fact that Spike had killed Nikki Wood and Robin’s own knowledge of the supernatural, having been raised by Crowley, this had more of an air of obsession than protection.

 

The lock on the door to the house was broken, and a chair was wedged ineffectually underneath the knob.  It made a great shriek of protest when Giles forced it hard, scraping across the linoleum, but it did open enough to let him squeeze inside.  He turned to push it closed again.

 

“You know, if someone doesn’t open the door, it’s not polite to barge right in anyway.”

 

The deep voice behind him made Giles jump and spin around again.  The principal was leaning against the frame of the opening from the kitchen into the rest of the house, arms crossed.

 

He looked rather like he’d been run over by a lorry; the flesh around his eyes was swollen and discolored, skin split over his eyebrow, lips puffy and cracked   Despite his belligerent posture, Giles could see that he carried himself gingerly, as if his ribs had been cracked.  Giles gaped at him.  “Good God, man, what happened to you?”

 

Robin scowled, then winced when the expression pulled at his various bruises.  “Your Slayer happened,” he replied sharply.

 

It was on the tip of his tongue to retort that Buffy would do no such thing… but the words died silently when he realized she would.  She’d been capable of this and more last year, from everything that Willow had told him, from what he’d seen himself.

 

It occurred to him then that this was what he’d come here to discover, on being told that Robin had not been seen at the school in nearly a week.  Relief that she hadn’t crossed that line warred with anger that she had clearly used her full Slayer strength against a human.

 

The principal was still watching him, dark eyes steady.  “No, she didn’t kill me,” he said, just a hint of dry humor in his tone.  “She could have, though.”  He unfolded himself with some effort and shuffled out of the kitchen to carefully settle onto one of the dining room chairs.  “I suppose I should be grateful that she didn’t break any bones.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Giles offered quietly.  “There was no call for this at all…”

 

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” Robin said, shifting a little.  “If anyone does, it’d be her.”

 

“Yes, you’re quite right.”  Giles sat down opposite.  “I do apologize, nonetheless.  I had hoped that Buffy would be a bit more… duty-bound, perhaps, when it came clear that Spike was still influenced by the trigger.  I told her that he was dangerous, and that he always had been.  She knew as well as you… well, nearly as well… what he had done.  But you had grown up with that knowledge...”

 

“Actually,” Robin interrupted softly, “no, I hadn’t.”

 

He gave the other man a sharp look.  “You hadn’t?”

 

Robin shook his head.  “No. I had seen my mother fighting earlier that night, before she took me to Crowley’s, and I thought I’d recognize the vamp again, but I wasn’t sure that it was Spike who had killed her until she told me.”

 

Giles frowned deeply.  “Buffy told you?” he asked, hoping for some clarification.  “I can’t imagine…”

 

“No, it wasn’t Buffy.”  He scratched lightly at a scab on his knuckle.  “I know it wasn’t my mother, either, but it looked like her.”

 

“Your mother?”  Realization struck instantly, and he looked at Robin, his stomach sinking.  “No.  The First.”

 

Robin nodded.  “The First.  That’s how I found out for sure that Spike had been the one to kill my mother.”

 

Reeling mentally, Giles sank back in his seat, reaching up to take off his glasses and surprised to find he wasn’t wearing them.  “By killing Spike… we were doing what the First wanted.”  He covered his eyes with his hand.  “Good Lord.”

 

Again, the principal nodded.  “That thought occurred to me as well.  I had a lot of time to do some thinking while I had both eyes nearly swollen closed.  You and I did just what it wanted us to do.”  His teeth flashed white in what might have been a grin had it not been so pain-filled.  “So, what do you think?  Was it just trying to sow dissention in the ranks?  Or, do you think that even despite him being a vampire, the First thought Spike could do something to hurt it, or its plans?” 

 

“I have no idea,” Giles replied.  He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.  He could feel a headache coming on.  “Whichever was its real intent, it has at least succeeded in dividing us.  That must be rectified immediately.”  With a decisive nod, he stood and headed for the door by which he had entered.

 

“Giles.”  At the call of his name, he turned to see Robin levering himself up from his seat.  “Where are you going?”

 

“I must see Buffy.”  His mouth quirked in a humorless smile.  “And then, as I have recently been advised, I must do some ‘serious kissin’.”

 

Before Robin could say anything else, Giles let himself out.

 

***

It seemed that someone had been listening to him yesterday, because it really had started to hit the fan.  And that, Xander knew, did not bode well.

 

He had fallen asleep at Buffy’s dining room table, for which he was more than willing to blame the books.  I’m pretty sure Will can back me on that, too, he thought, ‘cause these are the boringest books I’ve ever looked at.

 

Buffy had nudged him awake with just enough time to make a flying trip back to his apartment and shower, but not enough time for more than that… especially since the shower had abruptly gone icy cold in the middle.  The girls staying there had looked equal parts sheepish and amused when he’d glared at them on his way back out the door.

 

Though, he considered, those snickers were probably because of that very unmanly scream…

 

But then came the part where someone was actually listening to Xander Harris, because when he got to work, more than half of his crew didn’t show, and as he was trying to decide what to have them do, the word had come down from on high: go home.

 

Okay, he thought, so it had been the boss on the phone saying there wasn’t any profit in paying half a crew for doing half a day’s work, but still.  Someone somewhere heard me.  And that’s… really pretty scary, now that I think about it…

 

So, there he was, back at the Summers’ house less than three hours after leaving… and stumbling over something that one of the Potentials had left laying in the middle of the floor.  So much for another stealthy entrance, he thought a little ruefully.

 

“Xan!” Willow had her laptop open on the table again, and had twisted around in her chair as if to see what the noise was.  “You’re back… wait.  Why are you back?” Her brow crinkled a little.  “I mean, not that I’m not glad to see you, but…”

 

He shrugged and slipped into the seat he’d used yesterday.  “The boss says we’re closed.  Everybody’s leaving town,” he continued, as Willow’s brow furrowed further.  “You know things are bad when even Sunnydale’s no-see-um-the-demons policy doesn’t quite cover it all up anymore.”  When she smiled at him, he grinned back.  Nope, still haven’t lost my touch.  “So here I am, footloose and fancy-free.”

 

“And ready to tackle the books again?” she asked.  He watched her smile widen, felt his own became fixed and unreal.

 

“Sure thing,” he replied weakly, and picked up the book he’d fallen asleep over.  “You’ll wake me up if I doze off, right?”

 

Willow just laughed and returned to her computer.

 

Surprisingly enough, he was still awake when Buffy joined them a few minutes later.  Her hair was still damp, as if she had just showered, and she still looked as exhausted as she had when she’d woken him up earlier.  Man, he thought, watching her as she settled back in her seat, did she even get any sleep at all?

 

Before he could steel himself into returning to research-mode again, the front door opened to admit Dawn.

 

“Dawn!”  Buffy stood up, already assembling her best big-sister-glower.  “What’s…”

 

“Before you say anything I’m going to regret,” Dawn interrupted, shrugging out from under the strap of her bag, “I just want you to know that school is definitely closed until apocalypse season is over.  Wood hasn’t been there in a week, and most of the teachers have left town.” Just then she spied Xander, trying to hide behind the tome of sleep-inducingness.  “And you – you couldn’t have hung around to give me a ride home?” she demanded.

 

He gave her an embarrassed grin.  “Sorry, Dawnie.  I didn’t know school was closed.”

 

Buffy rolled her eyes.  “The exercise is good for you,” she said, sitting back down.

 

“Schyeah.  Exercise just makes for cranky teenagers.”  Dawn flumped into the chair she’d been using the previous night.  Her book, place still marked by a pencil, cracked ominously as she opened it.  “I’ll bet now you wish you hadn’t made me done my homework last night.  Just think of all the books I could have gotten through…”

 

“Dawn, you were practically out in your chair,” her sister replied.  She was already scanning the pages in front of her, pencil poised over her notepad.

 

“Whatever.”

 

Silence descended on the dining room, broken only by the soft ‘tap tap tap’ of Willow working on her computer, and the occasional scratching of pencils on paper.  Through the kitchen windows, the faint sound of the Potentials training with Faith drifted in.

 

The sudden loud knock on the front door made them all jump.  Heart pounding, Xander muttered, “Talk about engrossed…”

 

“Tell me about it.”  Dawn had a hand pressed to her chest.

 

Frowning, Buffy stood.  “Well, normally the bad guys don’t knock on your door, so we’re probably safe.” She picked up the sword that was leaning against the wall.  “Let me just give ‘em a scare,” she said.

 

The research spell had been broken, and Xander craned his neck to see who was at the door.  And see how they react to Buffy swinging a sword under their nose…

 

Buffy’s back stiffened when she opened the door.  “Giles.”

 

Xander tilted his chair further back.  All he’d been able to get out of Willow was that Giles wouldn’t help them research.  But yes, that was the G-man, standing outside on the porch.

 

“Buffy, I’d like to talk to you,” he heard Giles say.

 

“Fine,” and ouch.  There was definite ice in Buffy’s voice.  “Talk.  When you’re done, you can leave again.”

 

“May I come inside, please?”  Giles seemed distinctly uncomfortable and fidgety, and Xander wondered why.

 

Buffy stood back, holding the door open, but said nothing.

 

Xander breathed a soft sigh of relief when Giles stepped over the threshold without bouncing off.  “Buffy, this is very important…”

 

“So is what we’re doing here, Giles,” Buffy retorted, closing the door.  “You know, that research you wouldn’t help us with to bring Spike back?”

 

“Buffy…” Giles sighed gustily.  “I didn’t come here to argue,” he said in a much quieter tone.  “I came to apologize.”

 

She paused as she was crossing the foyer back into the dining room and stared at him.  “What?”

 

Giles had already taken off his glasses and was cleaning the lenses against with his handkerchief.  “I have just come from Robin Wood’s house…”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Dawn cut in, anger vibrating in her voice.  Xander had never heard her sound that way.  “Traitors flocking together?”

 

“Dawn, please,” Giles said, exasperation coloring his tone now.  “Let me speak.  This is already difficult enough,” he muttered, tucking his handkerchief away.

 

“Would you like a shovel?” she asked, suddenly sugary sweet.

 

“Dawn.” Buffy said her name evenly, and Dawn subsided, a bit sullenly.

 

“I went to see what his condition was,” Giles went on.  “While we were speaking, he told me that he had been visited by the First, in the guise of his mother.  She was the Slayer that Spike killed in New York.”

 

The silence took on that could-hear-a-pin-drop quality that Xander had always hated about some silences.  “Yeah, okay,” he said, “but he already knew that, right?”

 

“No, Xander,” Giles replied, looking at Buffy as he spoke.  “He didn’t.  He says that the First confirmed that Spike was the vampire that killed his mother.”

 

Willow sagged a little.  “So the First was behind this all along.”

 

“Yes,” Giles said, nodding.  “I’m afraid so. It wanted Spike out of the way for some reason, and we helped it achieve that end.  Buffy, I am sorry.”

 

Slowly sinking into her seat, Buffy nodded.  Studying her, Xander noticed that her face seemed even more pinched than it had earlier.  “Willow,” she said, and her voice sounded strained.  “Where are those books that had the untranslated bits?”

 

Dawn and Willow exchanged a glance.  “They’re over there, Buffy,” Willow said, pointing.  “The smallest stack.”

 

“Great.  Giles, you can work on those.”  And she picked up her book again.

 

This time, the glance was a four-way exchange over Buffy’s head.  “Buffy…”

 

“Are you persisting in this?” Giles suddenly demanded.  “Vampires cannot come back!  I told you…”

 

“Giles,” Buffy said without lifting her gaze from her book, “if the First wanted Spike dead, there must be a reason for it.  We don’t know the reason, but if we can get Spike back, maybe we can find out what it is.  Even if we can’t find out the reason, having Spike back will mess up the First’s plans.” Then she met Giles’ eyes, as placid as could be.  “Right?”

 

Xander hadn’t known that Giles could turn so red.  “Quite so,” he managed.  “Excellent thinking, Buffy.”  Then, taking a deep breath, he picked up the first book from the pile Willow had indicated.

 

This? Xander thought, flicking his glance between Slayer and Watcher, is good, but at the same time, it is so not good.

 

The uncomfortable quality to the silence disappeared only gradually, and it wasn’t until the sun was starting to fall westward that Xander thought they were even approaching the easy way the research sessions had always used to feel.  At least I don’t feel like I should be wearing bullet-proof armor anymore, he thought.

 

When Anya appeared with some bags from the grocery store, Dawn slipped away into the kitchen to organize dinner for the Potentials.  Even so, when the girls all trooped in from outside, the noise in the kitchen was overwhelming.  Thankfully, it didn’t last too long.

 

… if the desire or need is strong enough…

 

Xander sat straighter in his chair, frowning, and read the passage over again, because it was more than possible that he’d read it wrong.  No, that’s what it said.  He read the page yet again, and something in it got the wheels to turn.  Think, Xander, he told himself.  Think! 

 

Then, so fast that he felt there should have been a lightbulb over his head, the idea formed.  It might work.  He watched Buffy for a moment, remembering how she had been the night Spike had died.  Yep, I’ve got to show her, he thought.  This might be the only way.  “Buffy,” he called softly.

 

She looked up from her own research material, eyes red and bleary.  “Huh?”

 

“Look at this.”  He handed her his book. 

 

The tone of his voice made her straighten as well, and she took the book from him with a curious glance.  Suddenly, every eye at the table was on them.

 

She read the passage through once, then again, and the lines of sorrow etched into her face seemed to fade, enlivened by excitement.

 

“What is it?” Willow asked.

 

“If the desire or need is strong enough,” Buffy read, “then the supplicant may call upon Certain Powers to grant a boon.  It’s a ritual,” she said, looking up, her eyes full of wonder.  “A ritual to get the attention of these Powers…”

 

“And these Powers will simply grant you a boon?” Giles asked, somewhat skeptically.  “Favors such as this rarely come free, in my experience.”

 

Buffy read further.  “Okay, you’re right.  It also says it requires a willing sacrifice.”

 

“Okay,” Willow said, a little nervously, when Buffy said nothing more.  “That doesn’t sound so good.  Sacrifices are always of the iffy.”  After a moment of fiddling with her pencil – and, Xander thought fondly, wanting to grab the book – she added, “Does it say what the sacrifice has to be, besides willing?”

 

Buffy scanned the passage again.  “Nope, not that I can see.”

 

“It could be anything, then,” Dawn said.  She was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, her hands clenched around a dishtowel.

 

When Buffy looked up and Xander saw the hope and determination in her face, he knew what she was going to say before the words even fell from her lips.  That’s our Buffy, he thought with equal parts sadness and admiration.

 

“I’m willing to do it.”

 

“Absolutely not! I forbid it!”

 

The glare that Buffy gave Giles was absolutely glacial.  “Giles, you can’t really forbid me to do anything.  Will, there’s a list here of stuff for a potion… do we have any of this here and now?”  She passed the book to Willow.

 

With a practiced eye, Willow skimmed the passage.  “Oh, yeah, this stuff is easy to find.  Your mother had irises in her garden, and the rest of them are fairly common herbs… I’ve seen most of them in the kitchen cabinet.”

 

Buffy nodded.  “Then we can do this tonight.  Right?”

 

Willow looked up, eyes wide.  “Well… yeah, I guess… but, Buffy…”

 

“Tonight, Will.”  Her eyes were bright when she turned to Xander.  “Xan,” she said, and it sounded like she was about to cry.  “Thank you.”  She stretched out her hand across the table, and squeezed his hand until he thought she’d break it.  “Just… thank you.”

 

He just smiled, trying not to let her see how afraid he suddenly was, and held on tight.

 

***

“You guys ready?”  Buffy stood in the entry to the living room, Willow’s mortar and pestle in hand, Willow herself right behind her.  Dawn carried the box that held Spike’s ashes.  Just in case, she’d said, and tearfully, Dawn had nodded.

 

Xander and Giles glanced up from the open space they’d created, having moved all the furniture back toward the walls.  “Yeah, Buff,” Xander replied.  “All good to go here.”

 

“Great.  Over there, Dawn, on the coffee table?” She pointed.  The coffee table had been shoved in next to the fireplace.

 

Dawn nodded and crossed to set down the box.

 

“Faith is making sure the Potentials are all occupied,” Giles added.  “Buffy, are you sure…”

 

Returning to stand in the entryway, out of the path of any spells, Dawn rolled her eyes.  “Here we go,” she muttered under her breath.

 

Silently, Buffy agreed with her sister’s assessment, but aloud, she just sighed.  “We’ve been over this, Giles.  I’m sure.  There is no possible way I could be any more sure.”  And that’s not really a lie, she thought, stepping forward to stand in the center of the open space. Because, hey!  It’s not like I’ve never sacrificed myself before for someone I love.

 

Before helping Willow assemble the potion – which in actuality wasn’t so much a potion as a bunch of herbs and flowers all mashed together – she’d gone upstairs to her room to retrieve the box that held Spike’s ashes.  After hesitating for a moment, she pulled his duster out of her closet.  More than a week of hanging in there with all her clothes and girly scented things hadn’t made it smell any more like Spike; in fact, it smelled more like it was her own coat than Spike’s.

 

Not that I think that Spike would have… that he would mind if his coat smelled like me.

 

But even that faint scent of him that still clung to the ancient leather made her remember – how his jaw clenched when she made him angry, the way his eyes would soften when he studied her whenever he thought she wasn’t paying attention, what it felt like to lay beside him…

 

It reminded her of everything she missed, and all the reasons why she was fighting.

 

She hadn’t been in tears when she left her bedroom, but she’d had to wash her face and take a series of deep breaths before heading back downstairs.

 

“… to be absolutely sure,” Giles said as she tuned back in to the world. He gestured with his glasses, an aimless movement that she had seen hundreds of times.  “Buffy, this is… well, it’s unprecedented, that a Slayer would do such a thing for a vampire…”

 

She gave him a hard look, and he trailed off, unable to meet her gaze.  “Giles, the discussion is over.  This is what I am going to do.  Will,” she went on, turning to her friend.  “We’ve got an open space and the herbal thingie.  What’s next?”

 

Willow consulted the book and her page of notes.  “Okay… stand in the center of the space and sprinkle or pour the herbs around you in a circle while saying ‘I humbly request passage to those with the power of fire and water, of earth and sky.  Heed my plea and my willing sacrifice.’” She looked up.  “And…”

 

“And,” Buffy interrupted with the ghost of a smile, “I have to be thinking of… of what I want and what I would give up.”

 

Willow nodded.  Her brow was quirked in worry, but she said nothing further, just stepped back to stand beside Dawn, who was hovering in the entryway.

 

“You guys better stand back, too,” Buffy said to Xander and Giles.  “Just in case… I mean, you don’t want to get sucked through with me, do you?”

 

Xander smiled.  “No way.  I’m gonna need this time to get ready for the next verbal skirmish with the bleached one.” 

 

She almost laughed at that, and from the way Xander relaxed, she knew her expression was lighter than it had been in days.

 

“Yeah, Buffy,” Dawn said from behind her.  When she turned around, her sister was giving Giles her best I told you so glare.  “Go get Spike back.”

 

Her throat closed a little at that.  That’s what I’m planning, Dawnie, she thought, but she just couldn’t force the words out, so she nodded.  Then, with a deep breath, she let herself think about the loss and grief that had filled her when she realized Spike was dust, and how desperately she needed him back.  A handful of crushed herbs trickled out between her fingers.

 

She had barely finished reciting the words when the portal burst into being beside her in the circle.  Tendrils of light coiled and crackled, flickering toward her as if to draw her in.  This is it, she thought, eagerness and dread swirling together in her stomach.  She reached out, not quite sure how this would work, and trying to forget what had happened the last time she’d gone through a dimensional portal.

 

“Be careful, Buffy,” she heard from behind her, though she couldn’t tell who spoke; it was barely audible over the roaring that filled her ears.  But she had no time to acknowledge that she’d heard, because as soon as she touched the surface, she was sucked through.

Chapter Text

*****

Buffy wasn’t sure what she was expecting, but stumbling into a dimly lit grey… space really wasn’t it.  The room… place was empty, except for her, and featureless; it seemed to stretch on forever in any direction.  There was absolutely no indication of where the light was coming from.  “Hello?” she called, taking another, more deliberate step forward.  “Anyone available for the accepting of a sacrifice and the granting of favors?”

 

The pop from behind her sounded very loud, and the sudden and utter silence that followed made her spin around, heart thumping.  She knew she shouldn’t have been surprised to see that the portal she’d fallen out of had disappeared, but she was.  Well, she thought, the only way home now is to get whoever these powers are to send me home.  Hopefully, they’ll send me home with Spike.

 

“Hello?” she shouted again.  “Humble supplicant here!”  As the seconds passed and still there was no response, the hope that had sustained her from the moment Xander had shown her the ritual started to ebb.  I’d give up anything, she thought, staring down at her feet.  My life, my powers… whatever they say.  Isn’t that what the spell said?  Why bring me here if it’s not what they want?

 

She was so lost in her own thoughts that she didn’t notice as the light grew brighter around her.  She certainly wasn’t expecting the softly modulated voice that spoke to her, and jumped at the sound.  “The willingness to sacrifice whatever was necessary was the first trial.”

 

She couldn’t tell if the voice was male or female, nor where it came from.  It seemed to emanate from everywhere at once.  Looking around for some hint of who might be there, she said, “So there’s trials now?”

 

Laughter echoed, and to Buffy, it sounded for an instant like there might be more than one person.  “Of course there are trials,” the voice replied eventually.  “You have to prove you are worthy in order to receive your… favor, as you called it.”

 

About to retort, Buffy paused.  Probably not a good idea to make them angry if you plan on asking them for something, she thought, and tried to put a leash on her usual defiance of authority.  “Okay,” she said aloud.  “So… trials.  Tell me about them… y’know, if you can.”

 

“These are not physical trials, Slayer – oh, yes,” the voice continued when she started, “we are very well aware that you are one of the Chosen.  So a physical test would be meaningless to you, wouldn’t it?  To show that you are deserving of having your request granted – and yes, we know that, too – you must prove to us that you are willing to tell the truth.”

 

She blinked.  Okay, that’s not what I was expecting.  “Huh?”

 

“In the past, Chosen One, you have been… shall we say, less than willing to face the truth, or inclined to turn a blind eye to what your words or actions or beliefs may have cost others.  We want to see how you have grown.”

 

She became aware of a sudden sinking feeling.  I mean, I’ve always been good at denial, but… “Wait… how I have grown? What are you…”

 

“The trials are all based on the truth – complete and unadulterated.  You have only one chance to answer each one. You can take as long as you need to answer, but each answer has to be the truth.  If not…”

 

“If it’s not, you take me up on my sacrificial offer,” Buffy cut in, her tone sarcastic.  So much for not pushing authority…

 

“No,” the voice said, mildly amused.  “You return to the place from which you came.  But no further trials will be entertained for the matter, even if you could persuade your sister or one of your friends to make the sacrifice.  You will have failed, and the vampire will remain dust.”

 

And you’ll have to live with that remained unsaid.

 

Buffy swallowed, suddenly a lot less flip about just what a sacrifice meant.  If I screw this up, there’s no way of getting Spike back.  “Right.  I’ll behave now.”

 

“Good.”  This time, when the lights changed, it was in a flash, twilight to high noon.  “Then we will begin.”

 

“Hey!”  Too late, Buffy raised a hand to shield her eyes, and was left blinking and trying to clear her vision.  “Give a girl some warning, will ya?”

 

“Formally state your request.  If you pass the tests, it will be granted exactly as you ask.” The voice sounded flat again, almost completely devoid of emotion.

 

In spite of the way her heart was screaming at her to get it over with and get him back, she forced herself to pause, trying to think of just how to phrase what she wanted.  “I… I want Spike back… the way he was before Robin killed him.  All soul-having vampire, just… undusty.”

 

“Very well.  Why do you want him back?”

 

“I miss him… I love him.  I need to have him with me.”  If all their questions are like this, she thought, this’ll be a breeze.

 

“And did you tell him this?”

 

Taken aback, she opened her mouth, then closed it again.  The truth, Buffy, remember?  “No.  I didn’t.”  So much for easy…

 

“Why not?”

 

The floor was as blank as the rest of the place, so she studied the toes of her boots instead.  “I didn’t know,” she answered softly.

 

“So you only realized how much you cared after he was… slain.”  The voice sounded both considering and condescending all at once.

 

Gut twisting at what this could possibly mean, she nodded.  “Yes,” she replied thickly.

 

“Why only then?”

 

She closed her eyes.  The night that Robin had killed Spike had been one of the most painful she’d ever had, and yet she hadn’t even known why, hadn’t figured it out until days later that she loved him.  “Because I’m stupid,” she blurted, then, horrified that they would think that was her whole answer, she hurried on.  “Because I was so used to telling myself that I couldn’t love him because he was a vampire, because…” With a short huff of self-deprecating laughter, she finished, “Because sometimes, those people who make clichés are right, and you really don’t know what a good thing you have until it’s gone.  When I knew that he… that he was gone, I just felt empty, like I had turned all to dust inside, too.”

 

“Very poetic,” the voice said, and Buffy wondered if it was being just a bit snippy.  “You loved another vampire with a soul, did you not?”

 

Wary at the sudden shift, and wondering what Angel could possibly have to do with this, Buffy nodded.  “Yes.”

 

“He was also slain, and by your own hand, no less.  Yet you did not make an attempt to retrieve him from Hell, did you?”

 

“No,” she answered shortly.  No, this wasn’t going to go anywhere she wanted to go.

 

“What makes one souled vampire so different from the other, Slayer?  Why is one worth the effort and the other not?”  The words came out on a curious note.

 

Deep inside, Buffy knew that she could give lots of different answers to this, and that each one would have at its heart at least a kernel of truth.  Everything from I didn’t know to I was too hurt ran through her head.  “I died,” she said finally.  “I died a couple of times, actually.  The first time, Angel was ready to let the prophecy take its course, because he thought prophecies couldn’t be gotten around.  The second time, there wasn’t a prophecy, but Spike still fought for me, doing everything he could to save me, even though it wasn’t enough.  Then I got brought back from being dead… and I realized that it was possible.  So… I guess my answer is that if I had known, I might have tried to bring Angel back… but I didn’t know.  And…” She took a deep breath.  This was hard.  In her head, Angel had been on a pedestal, a paragon of her perfect, forever love, and it was hard to consciously push him off that pedestal, even if she’d already done it without really realizing it.  “And deep down,” she finished quietly, “I think I really believed that Angel deserved it, for all the things he did to hurt me when he didn’t have his soul.”

 

“And the other vampire?  Did he do nothing to hurt you?”

 

She snorted.  “Of course he did.  Spike tried to kill me lots of times, and somehow he always seemed to find something to say that really stung.  But a lot of the things he said that he really meant to hurt me with, he said after I’d already said or done something to hurt him.  You know, lashing back.  Mostly, he tried to help.  Granted, he didn’t do a great job of it all the time, but he tried.  He’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but I’m not either.”

 

When she was done, there was only silence.  It lasted long enough for her to begin to fidget, shifting from foot to foot.  She really wanted to pace, wanted some action.  I wish these were physical trials, she thought, more than a little wistfully.  Why couldn’t it just be “Go kill this monster, please?”  I’m good at that.

 

When the minutes still dragged on, she started to wonder if they’d decided to leave her in limbo.  “Hey, you still there?” she called.  Then an idea struck, and she added, “But don’t mind me if you’re busy bringing Spike back.  Spike being undusty is much more important.”

 

“We can retrieve your vampire from Hell, Chosen One…”

 

Even though she thought she’d steeled herself for that possibility, knowing that Spike really was in Hell was nearly too much, and she had to stifle the sob that snuck up on her.  Angel had been all crazy-vampire when he’d come back from Hell… but he’d still recognized her in some way, had sought her out and tried to protect her.  Spike… as much as Spike cared about her, he’d recognize her immediately, wouldn’t he?  I hope…

 

“… but he may not love you anymore.”

 

The words made her reel. And the hits just keep on coming… “What?” she managed, her voice a whisper.

 

“After spending so long in Hell, under such torment… well.  It would kill anyone’s ability to love, especially a vampire’s.  Knowing that, do you still want him back?”

 

“Yes,” she replied, as soon as the question had registered.  “Yes, I do.”

 

“Even though he will not love you?” the voice persisted.

 

“Yes.  When you love someone, you just love them, anyway you can.  Doesn’t really matter how they feel about you.  You just do.  Living proof right here.” She gave a humorless laugh and swiped at her cheeks.  “Not that I believe you.”

 

“And why is that, Slayer?”

 

“Because Spike doesn’t give up,” she replied fiercely, and clenched her fists, though there was nothing for her to hit.  “He never gave up hoping that I’d love him, even when I made it oh, so painfully clear that I wouldn’t.  And he was right.  I’m not going to pretend that I think I’m some great prize, not after everything I’ve done.  But he still loves me, no matter how badly I’ve acted.  So, no… I don’t think that any amount of time in Hell would kill his love for me.  I don’t believe you.  I won’t believe it until he tells me to my face he doesn’t love me anymore.”

 

“And when he does?”

 

“He won’t,” she gritted out.

 

“Slayer,” and the voice had chilled considerably.  “We ask that you acknowledge that we know more about what goes on in Hell than you do, and that you entertain the possibility that when we say that the vampire will not love you, we are telling the truth.  Now.  What would you do?”

 

The tears that never seemed to be far from her eyes anymore gave at least part of her answer away.  “I’m only saying this because I’m entertaining the possibility that you’re not a bunch of… that you’re not trying to trick me.  If… if Spike said he didn’t love me anymore,” and she had to stop, to swallow down the sobs that tried to escape.  “I… I’d tell him I love him anyway, because that’s the truth, and he deserves to know.  And no matter how much it hurt, I’d try to be his friend, if he still wanted that.  And I would cry.” She lifted her chin, deliberately ignoring the tears rolling freely down her cheeks.  “I would cry every day because I wasted the chances I had, because I couldn’t say… because I couldn’t let myself even admit how much I cared about him until it was too late.”  She laughed, the sound of it slightly hysterical, and wrapped her arms around herself, hugging her shoulders and trying to keep from falling apart.  “I’d hope that one day, he’d love me again.  And the irony?  Believe me, I know it’s there.  After everything I’ve done, I deserve all that, and maybe more.

 

“But even though I’m so much less than what Spike deserves… he still loves me.  After everything he’s gone through, he deserves my faith.  And if he didn’t stop loving me after I put him through every kind of hell… he’s not going to stop now.  Not even after the literal Hell.”

 

Again the voice said nothing.  Sniffling, Buffy wiped her face with one hand, thankful that, for once, she hadn’t put on a lot of makeup, because waterproof mascara wasn’t.  This time, as the silence dragged on, instead of bringing attention back to her, she was silent, too.  Spike loves me, she told herself over and over.  Hell isn’t going to make him stop.

 

After only a few moments, she started pacing, arms crossed over her stomach now instead of clutching her shoulders.  Tension coiled tighter and tighter inside her with every passing minute she waited.  More than once, she stopped, and drew breath to demand an answer, before reminding herself that it probably wasn’t a good idea to make the guys with all the power mad and resuming her rapid pace.

 

Suddenly, it occurred to her that the longer the voice took before speaking to her again, the more likely it was that they weren’t going to give Spike back.  They’re just looking for a loophole, she thought, coming to a halt.  I told them what they wanted to know!  Everything I said was true!  Just like that, everything she felt transmuted into anger.  If they don’t give Spike back, I’ll…

 

“Enough.  We will grant your request.”

 

Surprised, as much at the voice’s sudden return as at the response, Buffy swallowed, but the hope rose up again to choke her.  “You… you will?”

 

“Yes,” the voice replied, as dispassionately as it had questioned her.  “We will return your vampire.  Go back to where you came from.  We will send him to you directly after you arrive.”

 

A portal whirled into life beside her, the same wash of swirling colors that had appeared in her living room what felt like forever ago.  The crackling strings of light reached out to her again, and there was a strange pressure against her back, pushing her toward it.

 

“Thank you,” she got out, forcing the words past the lump that filled her throat.  “I…” Without warning, she thought of something that she really should have thought of earlier, and that fear that she’d missed something came back.  “What… what kind of… payment…” Because… what if the payment is the sacrifice?

 

“There is no payment.  You have passed the trials.  The matter is closed.  You will not come here again.”

 

Relief made her limbs weak, and she didn’t resist the not-so-gentle push toward the portal any longer.  “Thank you,” she said again, and stepped through.

 

***

This time, on exiting the portal, Buffy didn’t just stagger; she lost her balance and fell to her hands and knees with a heavy ‘thump.’  “Ow.”

 

“Buffy!”  Dawn was inside the circle in an instant, kneeling beside her and hugging her with all her strength.  “Are you all right?”

 

“I’m okay, really,” she replied, and then it hit her.  I did it! she thought, and squeezed her sister so tightly she squeaked.  “He’s coming back, Dawn!” she whispered, and let herself feel just a little bit of triumph at accomplishing what she had, just for a second.  “They’re giving him back!”

 

“I knew you’d do it,” Dawn said fervently.  “I knew it!”

 

Leaning on each other, they climbed to their feet.  Buffy saw her other friends were still present, standing outside the circle of crushed herbs.  Willow’s brow had that look like it had just smoothed out, and both she and Xander were smiling.  Giles was behind them, and his expression was one she was used to seeing – one of affection and perhaps slight disapproval.

 

“Way to go, Buffster!”

 

“Yeah, Buffy, that’s really great!”

 

“Where is Spike now, Buffy?” Giles asked, as the portal disappeared behind her with a sharp report.  “Was he not coming back with you?”

 

“They said they would send him back after I got here,” she replied.  “We just gotta give them a minute…”

 

Stepping around Xander, Giles took off his glasses.  “Will he still be controlled by the trigger?” he asked, turning the glasses over in his hands and using a tone of reason that got her back up.  “Will he be an asset or a liability?”

 

Accomplishment couldn’t stand in the face of anger.  Buffy clenched her fists and took a step toward him.  “Giles!”

 

“Will he even be sane, Buffy?  Will he be the Spike you’re hoping for?”

 

She flinched as the words struck home.  Will he be the Spike you love?  Will he still love you?

 

Before she could give in to her urge to hit him, however, a breeze lifted the ends of her hair.  Turning a little, she could see Dawn’s fluttering as well.  “Outside the circle, Dawn,” she ordered in a low voice.  “Just in case Giles is as right as he always thinks he is,” she added, glaring at her Watcher.

 

Gulping, Dawn did as she was told, though she stood next to Willow, as far away from Giles as she could get.

 

As soon as she had stepped across the herbs, the wind picked up, catching her hair up and tangling it unmercifully.  Within seconds, it had strengthened and formed a funnel, a miniature tornado dancing across the living room carpet, up to the edges of the circle and back again.

 

“It’s like it’s looking for something,” Willow cried above the sound of the wind. 

 

“Yeah, but what?” Xander replied.

 

Spike’s dust! Buffy thought wildly.  That must be what it’s looking for!  She dove toward the coffee table, just at the edge of the circle, and grabbed the box that still held Spike’s ashes.  The funnel followed her, dogging her heels.  When she tore the container open, it spun faster, and the wind flung Spike’s dust into the air, where it could be drawn into the vortex.

 

Slowly, Buffy backed away, hand pressed to her mouth, eyes wide.  She was holding herself together by sheer strength of will, teetering on the edge of falling apart every second.

 

Because… what if she was wrong?

 

Despite everything she’d said, all the truth and belief she’d spoken to get Spike back, now that they’d agreed… what if they were right after all?  What if Spike didn’t love her anymore?

 

I’m not sure I could take it, she thought, tears burning her eyes.  It was true, Spike, all of it was true… but now…

 

Then the whirlwind stopped, the last of the dust and wind swirling away to nothing, and oh, God, he was back, lying on the floor in fetal tuck, naked and panting and shivering.  His back, arms and legs were covered with welts and bruises old and new, livid against his pale skin, evidence of the physical torture he’d gone through.

 

At the sight, Willow eeped and covered Dawn’s eyes with her hands.  Xander and Giles averted their eyes.

 

Buffy stepped forward, moving quickly, rashly, as if she didn’t have a potentially feral vampire within arms’ reach. 

 

“Buffy!” Giles’s bark of protest caused her to glare at him over her shoulder.

 

“Be quiet, Giles,” she ordered, her tone knife-sharp, and returned all of her attention to her vampire.  “Spike?” she called softly, kneeling beside him.  “Spike?” She brought one hand to his face, just to touch him, just to make sure he was really there.

 

He was, and she sucked in a quick breath.

 

He wasn’t wearing his bumpies and fangs, as she had half-expected he would, but even if he had, she wouldn’t have cared.  His flesh was cool and familiar beneath her hand, and the tears overflowed at last.  Oh, God, she thought, and her chest was so tight she felt she could burst from joy.  Oh, Spike, you’re here, you’re back…

 

He stilled under her gentle touch, every muscle in his body going taut at once; he even stopped breathing.  He didn’t open his eyes, though, and it was clear from his demeanor that he was expecting some kind of punishment.  Her heart wrenched at the sight.  “Come on, Spike,” she whispered, trying to force a smile, knowing it would come through in her voice. Her thumb drifted lightly over his cheek.  “Open those pretty blue eyes for me, let me know you’re still in there…”

 

His brows drew together in a frown as the pain he was obviously waiting for didn’t come, as her soft words reached his ears.  She continued to stroke his face, murmuring his name and words meant to comfort, letting the tears flow down her cheeks unheeded.  They splashed against his skin, and his frown intensified.  He inhaled deeply and suddenly his eyes flew open.  He stared up at her in shock, lips parted.

 

“There you are.”  This time, her smile was real, despite her tears.  “It’s about time.  I was wondering if you were going to fake it all day. Dawn,” she said, raising her voice a little so it would carry, though she didn’t turn away from him, “could you get a blanket or something, please?”

 

“S-sure,” Dawn replied, and without looking, Buffy knew her sister was crying, too.

 

“B-Buffy?” Her name came out as a hoarse whisper; it was nothing like his usual deep voice, but at least he could speak.

 

He knows me, Buffy thought, her hand never ceasing its movement over his cheek.  He’s not as bad as Angel was when he came back from Hell.  And I am so not thinking about what he must have gone through to make him sound like that…  “Right here,” she answered quietly.

 

Just then, Dawn thrust the blanket she’d requested at her.  “Thanks, Dawnie.”  She unfolded it and draped part of it over Spike’s nudity.  “Can you sit up?”

 

He nodded, and started to struggle upright.  She had to help him, but it was difficult to find an uninjured spot to put her hands; it seemed that, no matter where she touched him, it made him flinch or hiss in pain.  Sitting up, he sagged heavily against her, panting harshly again and clutching at his side.

 

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, knowing that every movement cost him.  “Let me help you upstairs, then you can rest, all right?”

 

He swallowed and nodded again, closing his eyes.  Not wanting to think about what she was doing, how she was hurting him, Buffy stood and pulled him to his feet by main force.

 

He cried out, and she could practically hear the way his bones grated against each other inside him.  He hunched over, as if to contain the agony, and nearly fell again; she barely caught him in time.

 

“I’m sorry, Spike,” she said once more, arms around him to keep him steady.  Somehow, she’d managed to keep hold of the blanket, and snugged it more closely around him.  “Just up the stairs, I promise.”

 

“Yeah,” he gasped, leaning on her shoulder.

 

Taking that as agreement, she said, “Okay, let’s go, left first…”

 

It was more of a controlled fall than his usual graceful stride, and getting up the stairs was more painful than she could have imagined, even though Xander helped as much as he could, bracing Spike’s other side.

 

“Okay, you’ve got broken ribs,” Buffy said, as she and Xander lowered Spike to the bed.  “What else?”

 

Spike shook his head.  “Dunno,” he replied, teeth gritted.  “Hurts everywhere.  Leg, maybe?”

 

“All right, I’ll take a look.”  She turned to Xander.  “Could you see if Will can find something for the pain?”

 

He nodded, still wincing in sympathy.  “Sure, no trouble.”

 

But Willow was already at the door, holding some blood and the strongest painkillers in the house.  “Already got it covered.  Sorry that it’s not stronger, Spike,” she added.

 

“’S fine.” He chased a handful of pills down with the blood, and carefully lay back on the pillows.

 

After they’d taped his ribs and put a crude splint around his ankle, Spike fell asleep, worn out from the pain and lulled by the painkillers.  With Willow’s help, Buffy hurriedly bandaged up the worst of his other wounds.

 

For a second, they just stared at their handiwork.  He looks more like a mummy than a vampire, Buffy thought, and had to cover her mouth to contain a tiny hysterical giggle. 

 

Catching her movement, Willow patted Buffy’s shoulder. “He’ll be fine, sweetie,” she said in a hushed tone.

 

She pulled herself together at that.  “Yeah, I know.”  She smiled at her friend – her first one in what felt like forever. “Thanks, Will,” she offered, squeezing Willow’s hand where it still rested on her shoulder.  “For everything you did… thank you.”

 

Willow smiled back, then gave in and hugged her.  “Of course, Buffy.  What are friends for?”

 

Whatever she would have said in reply was lost in the depths of her yawn, and she blushed.  “Sorry…”

 

“Why don’t you just take it easy for a little while?” Willow offered.  “Dawnie and Xander and I can run interference and make sure you’re not bothered.”  She grinned.  “And when Spike’s feeling better, maybe I can get back at you for the tea thing…”

 

“Will!”

 

But Willow had already slipped out the door.  Quickly, before she could feel guilty about locking out the Potentials who had been sleeping on her floor, she shut and locked the bathroom door as well.

 

As soon as there was nothing left to do – no more books, no more ritual, no more making sure Spike would recover – the exhaustion overwhelmed her, and she sank down onto the bed.  It didn’t matter that it wasn’t late; she was totally wiped out.

 

Carefully, she swung her legs up onto the bed, trying to jostle him as little as possible, and lay down, watching him just for a moment. Spike was there, in her bed.  Spike was there with her, no longer dust, no longer a memory.  For the first time in weeks, she felt like she would be able to sleep, and closed her eyes.

 

***

As soon as she stepped out of the bedroom in the morning, Dawn was there, waiting to pounce. She grabbed her arm, and was able to use her surprise to drag her across the hall and into her room.

 

“Dawn, what are you doing?” she demanded, stumbling over a pillow that one of the Potentials had used but not picked up.

 

“Did you tell him?” Dawn countered, eagerness in every line of her face.

 

Buffy stared at her sister in confusion.  “Tell him what?”

 

Dawn rolled her eyes and closed the door.  “Duh, that you love him.”

 

Her eyes widened, and she could actually feel the blood drain from her face.  “What?” Then, quickly, and more loudly, she added, “No!”

 

Unsurprisingly, Dawn’s expression turned mulish.  “Why not?” Then she blinked, as if an unpleasant thought struck her, and she glowered.  “You’re not going to, are you?  Why do I even bother?” she muttered, and folded her arms tightly across her chest. “Fine, Cleopatra.  Go on back into denial, but if you hurt him again…”

 

Even now – even though Spike was tucked safely away in her bedroom – the tears were never far away.  She’d been without him for too long for it to be easy to forget.  Her lip quivered for a moment before she regained control.  “No!  I’m… I don’t… I don’t want to hurt him anymore,” she finished in a whisper.

 

Her sister’s glare softened only fractionally.  “Then why didn’t you tell him?”

 

First Willow, now Dawn.  And just how did I miss this? Buffy wondered.  When did Dawn become an advocate for Spike-n-Buffy-4-ever?  I mean, not that I’m against it, but still… talk about walking into Weirdville. “God, Dawn, he only just got back from Hell!  Don’t you think he needs a little time to… to recover from that?”

 

For a second, Dawn just gaped at her vehemence, then, blushing, she relaxed her stance, arms falling to her sides.  “I didn’t think about that,” she admitted.  “Yeah, I guess you’re right.  But…”

 

Habit took over then, and Buffy went on the offensive, just like in any other argument they’d ever had.  “And just why do you think that I’m in love with Spike?”

 

Again, Dawn expressed her exasperation by rolling her eyes.  “Buffy, the only one who doesn’t know that you’re in love with Spike is Spike… and apparently you.  But the way you’ve been acting… you totally are.  Absolutely, completely, head over heels in love with Spike.”

 

Buffy stared down at her boots, studying them.  Then she glanced up and gave Dawn a tiny grin.  “Guess I didn’t do such a good job of hiding it, did I?”

 

“That’d be a big no.  Goofball.”  But Dawn was grinning back at her as she said it.

 

“Love you, too.”

 

“So, when?”

 

“You know,” Buffy said thoughtfully, “I think I’d forgotten how much like a dog with a bone you are.  And don’t think I couldn’t end this by physical violence, either.”

 

Dawn scoffed.  “You don’t scare me.  When?”

 

What her sister was asking wasn’t anything that she didn’t want to do, really.  She relented.  “When he’s feeling better.  I swear it,” she added off Dawn’s skeptical look, and held up her hand, pinkie extended.

 

Immediately, Dawn twined her own pinkie around Buffy’s.  “Okay.”  Then, before she knew it, Buffy found herself wrapped in Dawn’s arms instead.  “I’m so glad you got him back, Buffy,” she whispered.

 

“Yeah,” she replied in the same tone. “Me, too.”

 

***

Giles tried to corner her after her third trip upstairs to check on Spike.  “Buffy, I’d like to talk to you.”

 

She pushed past him and continued into the kitchen.  “Not now, Giles,” she replied coolly.  “Busy washing up.”

 

“What an incredible sense of déjà vu this brings,” he muttered, following her.  “I just wanted to ask you… how is Spike?”

 

In the midst of rinsing out the mug in which she’d taken up another feeding of blood, Buffy twisted to stare at him over her shoulder.  “After what you said yesterday…”

 

Quickly, Giles took off his glasses and fidgeted with them.  “What I said yesterday is nothing that you should not have already considered,” he said, sounding aggravated.  “However, that is neither here nor there.  I’m quite interested in what effects, if any, coming back from being dust has had on him.”

 

“Gee, Giles, it’s nice to know that you actually care about what he went through in Hell,” Buffy shot back, turning off the water with more force than strictly necessary and turning to lean against the counter.

 

“I am simply interested in what it is like for a vampire to be reconstituted from dust,” he said stiffly.  “As I believe I said when you embarked on this course, it is unprecedented…”

 

“No,” she retorted, arms crossed, “I believe you said it was impossible, actually.”

 

It was hard to stifle her grin as his face flushed, but then she reminded herself of all his doubt and refusal to help, and that put a definite stop to any amusement.

 

“Yes, well… clearly it wasn’t.”  He returned his glasses to their proper position.  “Since he’s been back, what has his personality been?  Have you noticed any changes?”

 

“You mean compared to before or after the soul?”  She sighed.  “Giles, he’s only been back for about 12 hours, and most of that he’s been sleeping.  Most of that, I’ve been asleep, too, so there really hasn’t been a lot of time for comparison.”

 

“Sleeping… has he had any nightmares?”

 

She frowned.  “No.  I don’t think so.”

 

“Are his injuries consistent with his torture at Glory’s hands?  Or at those of the First?”

 

“Again, Giles, I haven’t had a lot of time for cataloguing and comparing.” She swallowed; thinking about the days that Spike had been the First Evil’s prisoner made her think about the days he was gone.  “I… yes,” she said quietly. “They’re worse than with either of them, but…”

 

Giles looked thoughtful.  “Then perhaps I was wrong after all,” he murmured.

 

“Wrong about what?” she demanded, straightening away from the counter.

 

He cleared his throat.  “Buffy…” he began, in a tone that she’d heard many times, usually right before he told her something that she needed to know, but definitely didn’t want to hear.

 

“Tell me, Giles,” she ordered, her frown deepening.

 

“I was simply thinking that it might have been worth it to have done a little more research into the matter…  After all, Spike is unique in several important respects…”

 

When Giles trailed off, she intensified her glare until he squirmed.  “Spit it out, Giles!”

 

It was her Watcher’s turn to sigh.  “It occurred to me late last night,” he said.  “Spike fought for his soul to be returned to him, the only vampire we know of to have done so, and I wondered how that weighed against his other… less moral acts.”

 

Her patience was stretched so thin it was nearly non-existent.  “Meaning?”

 

“Perhaps… perhaps Spike wasn’t in Hell at all.”

 

Buffy froze at Giles’s softly spoken words, hoping, hoping, hoping that she had heard him wrong.  “What are you saying?”

 

“Willow thought she was rescuing you from Hell as well, but as it turned out, that’s certainly not where you were.”

 

Her stomach roiled, and she covered her mouth with one hand, willing herself not to be sick right there.  What her Watcher was implying was too horrible to even contemplate. If the beings she had entreated to bring Spike back had lied

 

If he hadn’t been in Hell…

 

She pushed past Giles and dashed up the stairs, flinging open the bathroom door so hard that it bounced off the wall, and tiny pieces of tile shattered to the floor where the doorknob struck.  She didn’t care; she was too busy throwing up every bit of food she’d ever eaten.  Even when her stomach was empty, dry heaves wracked her.

 

If what Giles thought was true… she was responsible for tearing Spike from Heaven.

 

***

It was some while before Buffy became aware of the hand holding her hair, while another gently rubbed her back.  When she managed to focus her gaze on the person beside her, she saw it was Willow, wearing her most concerned face. 

 

“Buffy?  What’s wrong?”

 

Swallowing with some difficulty, Buffy asked, “Is this… is this how you felt, Will?”

 

Willow’s hand stopped moving.  “What do you mean?”

 

Whispering, she replied, “When I said I was in Heaven.  When you realized…” Bile coated her mouth, and she leaned over the toilet bowl again.  Nothing came up.

 

When the heaves stopped this time, she just wanted to curl up and die.  She just knelt there, her forehead resting against the cool porcelain of the bowl, taking shallow, shuddering breaths.  Gradually, though, she became aware that Willow was still there.  It was a great effort, but she managed to turn her head to look at her friend out of the corner of one eye.

 

Willow took a deep breath and let it out before she said anything.  She spoke slowly, as if testing each word before letting it go.  “I… when you said… No.  No, Buffy.  I mean… yes, I was all torn up inside and with the massive guilt, but… I didn’t know what it was like, either.”

 

Buffy stared up at her, eyes wide.

 

“I didn’t know what Heaven was like,” Willow went on, staring down at her hands.  “I didn’t know anything about what I’d taken from you.”  Then she looked up, eyes swimming with tears.  “You do.  You know.”

 

“Oh, God.” This was something so wrong that she couldn’t even cry, as much as she wanted to.  “Oh, God.  I did.  I took him out of Heaven…”

 

Reaching out, Willow shook her gently.  “Buffy… no.  Wherever he was, I don’t think it was Heaven.  No,” she continued quickly when Buffy opened her mouth.  “I’m not sure, and I’m not going to get into a philosophical… theological… debate with you.  But when we did the spell to bring you back, all the bruises and injuries you had, you got after.  Except… except for the ones inside.”  She swallowed.  “Spike was all kinds of hurt already when he showed up, and it was all on the outside.  Well, mostly, I guess.  You know what I mean.  Very different, don’t you think?”

 

She wanted to believe, but all of her experiences screamed at her that the easiest way wasn’t really the easiest way.  “I… I guess.”

 

Willow met her eyes then, her expression firm.  “But… Buffy, if you want to know for sure, you’re going to have to ask him.  Right now, the only one who knows where Spike was… is Spike.”

 

“I can’t, Will.”  She shook her head, biting her lip.  “How can I possibly ask him that?”

 

“Buffy, it’s the only way.”

 

She sighed.  As much as she wished otherwise, Willow was right.

 

Chapter Text

*****

For the rest of the day, Buffy avoided Spike, instead immersing herself in anything else she could find to do.  Not that it was that hard to avoid him; he was confined to the bed, and still sleeping the last time she could bring herself to check on him. 

 

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot that she could do other than help train the Potentials.  And considering my state of mind, she thought, I’d probably end up pounding one of them into the dirt.  Literally.

 

Wherever she went inside the house, she could feel Willow’s eyes on her, full of sadness and sympathy, and of course, that made her even jumpier.  She had no idea where Giles had gotten to after his attempt to apologize, and that was probably a good thing.  I can’t believe he said that ran through her mind, along with visions of Spike in what she remembered of Heaven.  They made her gut clench in painful reaction.

 

Finally, just to get away from Willow’s gaze, she headed down to the cellar.  She’d been more or less avoiding it since… that night.  And how screwed up am I, she thought, flipping on the light, that I still can’t think about what happened?  Spike is back, all undead…

 

And I might have just pulled him out of eternal peace.  Her legs went weak at the thought, and she sank onto the cot.  Someone had been down and righted it – probably Willow or Dawn – since Spike had thrown it that night under the influence of the Prokaryote Stone.  It was made up with clean sheets; when she rested her head on the pillow, there was only the faintest scent of Spike lingering.

 

For a long while, she simply lay there, staring out at the concrete walls, forcing herself to remember all the things they’d stored down here and had to get rid of after the flood, all of the things that had moved from Los Angeles with her and her mother.  It worked, sort of: thoughts of what she might have done only crowded in every other minute instead of each one.

 

There was no outside light in the basement; she and Spike had covered the windows months ago so he wouldn’t fry as he slept, so she had no idea what time it was.  Soon enough, though, the clomping of many feet echoed down, telling her that the Potentials’ practice was over for the day, and that it was time to eat some supper and prepare for patrol.

 

Patrol means things to kill, Buffy thought, but even that couldn’t make her feel any better.  Truth and consequences before killing, I guess.

 

She sat up, her muscles a little stiff from lying still for so long, and wondered almost automatically if there was any dinner left over.  Her stomach kind of curdled at the very thought of food.  Yeah, she thought, probably not the best idea to eat right now. She laughed, a dark little sound that barely carried in the dank, still air.  I may never eat again.

 

Slowly, the noise from the kitchen died away, telling her it was safe to prepare another cup of blood without dealing with wrinkled-up noses and disgusted expressions.

 

When she got upstairs, though, she found Dawn pulling a mug out of the microwave already, and Willow hovering in the doorway to the dining room.  At the creak of the cellar door closing, her sister looked up and smiled.  “Feeling better?” she asked.  “Willow said you were taking a nap.  You still look kinda tired, though,” she added, brows drawing close in a frown.  “Are you all right?”

 

She forced a smile and gave Willow a grateful look.  “Yeah, Dawnie, I’m fine,” she replied.  “Just didn’t get as much sleep as I needed, I guess.  Thanks for heating up the blood for me.”  She took the mug from Dawn. As Willow stepped aside to let her pass, she raised her eyebrows in silent, desperate question.

 

Forehead crinkled in worry, Willow shook her head slightly.  I didn’t tell her about that, Willow’s voice whispered directly into her mind, followed by a heartfelt Good luck.

 

Thanks, Will, she thought back.  Aloud, she said, “Tell Faith I’ll catch up with her later.”  Then, mentally squaring her shoulders, she went to face her fate.

 

Gotta be strong, no matter what, she told herself firmly.  No running away from this.

 

Light from the hallway arrowed into the bedroom as she opened the door, and just that small change made Spike stir.  She saw the shadow of his head turn a little.  “Buffy?” he called, and it seemed to her that his voice, though rough from sleep, didn’t sound quite as rusty as it had the night before.  “That you?”

 

“Yeah,” she replied softly.  Act normal, Buffy.  “Turning on the lights now,” she warned, before flicking on the switch.

 

When the lamp flared to life, he winced and lifted a hand to shield his eyes briefly. “That bloody well hurts,” he muttered, blinking rapidly.

 

“Sorry,” she offered, her tone as contrite as she could make it.  He started to hitch himself upright against the pillows, still stacked from the last time she’d brought up blood, and she set the blood down on the nightstand to help him, only to realize that he didn’t need any help.  “You’re already doing lots better,” she said, smiling down at him.  “That’s great.”

 

“Oh, yeah,” he said tightly.  “Feelin’ lots better.  Ribs are just painful, rather than agonizing.”

 

“Still, any improvement is of the good, right?”  She sat down on the edge of the bed, trying not to jostle him, and even with all the fears whirling around her head, she couldn’t help but smile when he stretched out an arm to pick up the blood himself.

 

“Guess so,” he said, and took a long draught of the blood.

 

For a long while, there was only silence, punctuated by Spike sipping at his mug.  He looked past Buffy’s shoulder, as if staring into the empty mirror on the vanity opposite the bed.  Every second grated on Buffy’s nerves, the weight of the question she didn’t want to ask resting more heavily on her each moment that passed. 

 

Just do it, Buffy! she ordered herself.  Just ask! Knowing can’t be any worse than this. She took a breath.  “Spike… I have to ask you something, and it’s probably going to sound like I’m all wacko, but I’m not, I swear.”  She stopped, a little surprised at how quickly she’d descended into babble-speak, and stared down at the comforter.

 

“Spit it out, love,” Spike said softly, setting the empty mug back on the nightstand.  “Not a mind-reader, y’know.”

 

Nodding, she tried to find the words she needed, and forced herself to meet his curious gaze.  “I know you probably don’t want to talk about it, but… what was it like, where you were?”  Internally, she winced.  Couldn’t you find a better way to ask it than that? she demanded of herself.

 

He focused on her sharply, studying her in that way he had that she’d always kind of hated and envied at the same time, where it felt he was looking right through every layer of her to see into her secret self.  She resisted the urge to squirm.

 

Then his eyes narrowed, and she remembered that for all his impulsiveness and pretending, Spike was by no means dumb.  Suddenly, fear blossomed in her chest.  Oh, no, she thought, staring at him and trying to control her breathing, what if he figures out what I’m really asking?

 

“Want to compare an’ contrast between me an’ Angel again?” he asked, his tone as harsh as she’d ever heard it.

 

Buffy recoiled, not having expected such an attack.  “No,” she blurted, and felt her face heat at how defensive she sounded to her own ears.  “No,” she repeated in a quieter tone. “Angel… didn’t want to talk about it.  So I stopped asking.”


Spike’s face appeared kind of pinched for a second, as if his soul was jabbing him for his bitter words.   He looked away, off into the far corner of the room.  If he had realized she was asking if he’d been in Heaven, he gave no sign.  “Red,” he said at last.  “Fire everywhere that seemed to burn on nothin’… until you realized it was burnin’ on souls.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “It left you wonderin’ if your soul was next.  An’ sometimes it was.”

 

Hell.  He really was in Hell.  Her heart suddenly twisted, knowing that whatever she had imagined, the reality could only have been worse.  “Spike…”

 

“There were lots of demons there willin’ to do all kinds of physical torture,” he went on, his voice distant.  “But that was only a warm up for… for the other kind.” He swallowed, and his hand clenched in the sheet.  “The kind that liked to play back all the evil things… all the people…”

 

Buffy grabbed his hand and held it tightly.  Of course, Spike would see the physical torture as nothing compared to the emotional; hadn’t he already proven that when Glory had taken him?  “I’m sorry, Spike,” she said, and tried to show in her voice how much she meant it – not just for making him relive it for her own selfish curiosity, but that he’d had to go through it at all.  “I’m sorry.  You don’t have to say any more if you don’t want to.”

 

Immediately he clamped his jaws shut, eyes still closed, and she knew he was experiencing all of Hell’s torment again.  But his hand turned in her grip, and he clutched her hand with enough strength to hurt.

 

That he was drawing strength from her – and that she wanted him to – made her feel warm and tingly, and chased away some of her lingering guilt.

 

She took a moment to study him.  He still seemed paler than she remembered, his skin holding only slightly more color than the bandages and tape she’d wound around his chest.  But the wounds that had oozed blood just the night before had closed, though they were still an ugly red.  The shallower cuts were now little more than scratches, and the bruises had already started to fade, so he really was on the mend.  At least physically, she amended.

 

For the rest of it… well, all I can do is be here for him, the way he tried to be for me.

 

Slowly, she became aware that Spike’s hold on her hand had slackened, and she blinked herself back to the present.  He took a breath as deep as his damaged ribs would let him and straightened, releasing her hand as he did.  “Came over all queer there for a moment,” he said, and he sounded… embarrassed.  He still hadn’t glanced in her direction.  He cleared his throat, but didn’t say anything more.

 

Smiling, she brushed her fingers over his hand where it lay on the comforter, not far from her own.  “Maybe you needed to,” she said, and oh boy, that made him look at her in a hurry.  “And it’s all right if you did.  Really,” she said, off his skeptical look.

 

“Won’t happen again,” he responded firmly.

 

“It’s okay if it does, you know.”

 

“It won’t.” And he spoke as if that was the absolute final word on the matter.

 

She just nodded.  “Okay.”  She stared down at her hand on his, felt the cool skin warm from her touch.  This – her fingers brushing his, barely touching – was so much more than she’d had just a couple days ago that she could barely believe it.  She took a breath and it shuddered a little in her throat.

 

“You all right, love?” His voice rumbled low as he spoke, and a shiver shot down her spine at the sound.

 

“I missed you,” she heard herself say, and wondered a little where the words were coming from.  “While you were… I missed you.  It was... it was hard without you here, because I depend on you so much, and I was so alone, and…” And this is it, she realized suddenly.  I can tell him now.

 

Buffy looked up from their hands and saw the confused expression he wore, his brows drawn close together again.  Now.  “I love you, Spike.”

 

And then, she saw his face… transform.  Awe, love and a terrible, incandescent hope all crossed his features.  His mouth opened slightly in something like astonishment.

 

Her heart started beating faster as what that look might mean hit her.  He does still love me! she thought, amazed in her own turn.  They were wrong… he does…

 

But it was only for a moment, then he regained control of himself, his expression just… closing down in a way that made her chest ache.  “No, you don’t,” he replied quietly, and Buffy asked herself how much it cost him to keep his tone so even and non-accusatory.

 

She’d known to expect this – the other Buffy in the not-a-dream had told her straight out that her Spike didn’t believe her – but it still hurt.  She’d hoped that hers would.

 

But why would he? she thought, dim though it was through the pain of his disbelief.  There’s nothing that she didn’t do to her Spike that I haven’t done to mine… and the only thing I’ve done for mine, she couldn’t have done. 

 

She wondered why she wasn’t already screaming in denial.  Maybe ‘cause it hurts too much was her only answer. 

 

Her eyes were still dry when she let them slide away from his face, but only because of her own indomitable will. What am I gonna do now? she asked herself.  I’ve gotta prove it to him… but how?  I don’t think I can… not right now. 

 

Instead of any one of the dozens of things she wanted to do, she just nodded, accepting his rejection but not agreeing with him.  “I do,” she said very softly, “but I’m not going to argue with you right now.  Frankly,” and she glanced up again, giving him the ghost of a grin, “I don’t think either of us is up to it.”

 

The way he looked at her, his face nearly expressionless, made her heart clench with its very familiarity.  She’d seen it too often last year to not recognize it now.  Why are you lying to me? it seemed to ask.  Why are you hurting me?

 

It was more than she could handle, especially when what she said was the truth this time.

 

I need to get out of here.

 

Feeling old, older than her years, older than Spike’s years, she stood.  “Go back to sleep, Spike,” she said, and before she knew what was happening, her fingers had brushed across the sharp edge of his cheekbone once more.  “You’ll feel better soon.”  I hope, she added in her own head.  “We can fight about it then, if you still don’t think I do.”

 

It took every bit of self-discipline she had to not run to the door, because at that moment, all she wanted was to get away.  But she didn’t, and when she turned to flick the lights off, she saw that Spike had already lain back down, and his eyes were drifting closed.  No matter how his denial of her feelings made her heart ache, seeing him there in her bed still brought a tiny smile to her lips.  He was back, he was here… even if he wasn’t really hers.

 

Mindful of the sharp vampire ears behind her bedroom door, she resisted the urge to slump back against it and give in to the pain.  Instead, she forced herself to keep walking through the mostly empty house, thankful that Faith had taken the Potentials out on patrol, and into the kitchen.  Moving deliberately – concentrating on every action to keep control – she washed out the bloody mug.  She drew it out as long as she could, but it was finished too soon, and she found herself gripping the edge of the counter, holding each breath for a count of four before releasing it.

 

“Buff?”  The soft call reached her ear only a moment before the hand, warm and familiar, descended upon her shoulder.

 

“I’m stupid,” she choked, her throat threatening to close up.

 

“Say it ain’t so,” Xander replied with a mock gasp, and somehow, she managed something that almost sounded like a laugh.

 

“Oh, it’s so, Xan.”  She turned around to meet his concerned gaze.  “I just… do things.  I barge in, I fight, I Slay.  I don’t think, I just do.  I never think about consequences.”

 

Now Xander was holding her gently, engulfing her shoulders with his hands.  “What consequences?” he asked, and she could see curiosity and worry vying in his steady brown eyes.  “What are you… wait.  Is this about bringing Spike back?”

 

She dropped her head and stared at his chest.  “Kinda.  I just went ahead and did it.  Just like… like you guys did to me.”

 

He shook his head, realization dawning.  “Hold on, here… are you saying that Bleach Boy…”

 

“No.  No, he… he said he was in Hell.  But there’s that million and one chance he might have been… there.  And see… that’s what I mean.  I just went right ahead and did it, thinking only about me, what I wanted, how lonely I was.  And I just assumed that would be what he wanted, too.  God, no wonder he didn’t believe me when I…  I’ve been so selfish…”

 

“Buff.”  His quiet tone drew her eyes upward again, and she was surprised to see him smiling at her.  “I hate to break this to you, but… you’re human.”  He let go of her to hold up one hand when she opened her mouth to protest.  “You’re human, and no matter how much we wish otherwise, humans aren’t perfect.  Hell, we ain’t even close.  So, yeah, maybe bringing Spike back from the dead – er, deader than usual – was selfish.  You also risked everything to bring him back from Hell.  You had to be incredibly unselfish to do that, and incredibly strong.  Not here,” and he squeezed her upper arm, before tapping her chest, right over her heart.  “But here… You’ve got a heart so big that there are times I’m just amazed it fits inside your body.  So, I’m thinkin’ it’s okay to be selfish every once in a while.”  He cracked a lopsided grin.  “Welcome to the human club.  Small joys, insecurities and feet of clay issued at the door.”

 

Buffy laughed, a watery little giggle.  “I’m a card-carrying member from way back.”

 

“Good!  Good to know I’m not the only one.”  He hugged her, his smile wide and Xander-like again.  Then, still holding her, he said slowly, “You know… about Spike…”

 

She tensed.  Nothing good had ever come of a sentence starting with those words.

 

Before she could open her mouth, however, he said, “The guy just got back from Hell.  He might need a few more days to get his bearings and realize just how he got back.”

 

Slowly, she pulled away a little and stared up at him.  “Okay, you are clearly a pod person,” she stated, but couldn’t contain her smile at Xander’s wide grin.  “You’ve given yourself away, evil fiend!  Xander wouldn’t say that about Spike.”

 

Xander’s grin faded but didn’t quite disappear.  “Believe me, Buff – I’m on the verge of freaking out.  But you know something?  People can change.”

 

Thoughtfully, she nodded.  “Yeah.  Yeah, they can.”  I just hope Spike hasn’t, she thought.  She closed her eyes and rested her head on his chest again, wanting to know that someone cared about her for a little while, before the war and the world crashed down on her again.

 

***

Even in a group as inobservant – or maybe just as willfully blind, she thought – as the Scoobies, Dawn knew she wouldn’t win any prizes for noticing when things were off.  But this time, it really didn’t take a genius to add up the clues. 

 

She’d only been listening… well, okay, straining her ears… to know what was going on in Buffy’s room so she could know if she would need to cover her head with a pillow to block out the noises of groiny-ness.  And if she’d had her ear pressed to the wall that Xander had repaired, that was her own business, and at least none of the Potentials were there to see.

 

But there hadn’t been anything like that; all she had heard was the sound of Buffy’s voice and Spike’s deeper one, as if they were just talking.  Then Buffy’s door had opened and closed, and she could hear her sister going down the stairs, leaving Spike alone.  For a few seconds, she had debated going into the other room, just to have a few minutes with Spike herself, and maybe apologize for the way she’d acted. 

 

In the end, however, she’d decided that the Wrath of Buffy for disturbing Spike wasn’t worth the short time she’d probably have.  And besides, she had thought, climbing back to her feet, I know my sister.  Now that Spike is back, there’s no way she’s going to be willing to hit the books anymore to research the First or über-vamps or even that preacher guy.  She’ll be back in charge of training the Potentials. I’ll get a chance while Buffy’s outside tomorrow.

 

She lay in bed a long time, half-listening for Buffy to come back upstairs so she’d know when to cover her ears, but eventually she’d fallen asleep.  Waking up in the morning, she’d been glad she had somehow managed to sleep through the (probably) obnoxiously loud sexathon.

 

Seeing Buffy emerge from the cellar, sleep-rumpled and bleary-eyed, changed everything.  Dawn was the only one to notice, turning around to grab the cereal after wresting the last clean bowl away from Molly.  But before she could do more than blink and wonder why her sister was wearing the same clothes she’d worn yesterday, Buffy turned away and hurried into the other room.

 

That told Dawn all she needed to know, and her fingers clenched on the bowl, just as Molly was about to snatch it back.  The feel of the bowl slipping from her grasp pulled her back into the real world, leaving her no time to think about what she’d just witnessed.

 

Only when she was sitting at the dining room table with her cereal, carefully away from any of the old books, did she have a chance to work it through.  Buffy slept in the basement last night, Dawn thought, staring down at the bright colors bleeding off the sugary rings and swirling through the milk, not with Spike.  Even after her nap or whatever yesterday.  That means she’s trying to avoid him as much as possible.  She just moved Heaven and Earth to get him back, risked her own life, and now she’s staying away from him.  Why would she do that?  She stirred the milk, mushing the cereal together into a soggy mess.  They had a conversation last night, not sex, which… totally the opposite of what I expected.  So whatever happened, it was part of that conversation.  So either Spike told her he didn’t love her anymore… She snorted softly, clinking her spoon against the edge of the bowl.  Yeah, right!  Or Buffy decided she doesn’t really love him and isn’t going to tell him like she said she would.  And knowing my sister’s capacity for denial…

 

Buffy hurried back through the dining room just as Dawn was slurping the last of the sugary milk from her bowl. Dawn gave her sister the best narrow-eyed glare she had in her repertoire, and felt a bit of evil satisfaction when Buffy flinched and wouldn’t meet her gaze.  Serves you right, she thought darkly. 

 

Distracted as she was by her sister’s backpedaling – and I thought she was serious this time! she thought disparagingly.  Silly me! – it was hard to concentrate on the books.  She stared out the dining room window, absently tapping her pencil against her notepad, until Willow’s throat-clearing and pointed look sent her blushing back to her research.

 

It was some time later, when all was quiet in the house again and the only sounds were the crinkling of pages turning and Buffy and Faith’s shouted commands drifting faintly in through the windows, that it finally occurred to Dawn that this was the chance she’d been waiting for.  She’d been oh so right about Buffy not being able to sit still for research now that Spike was un-dusty once more. Training the Potentials is gonna occupy all her attention, at least for a while, she thought, absently tapping her pencil’s eraser against her paper once more.  That means I can at least go up and talk to him, since she was all “let him sleep” yesterday. Decision made, she stood.

 

“Could you get me some coffee, please, Dawnie?” Willow asked without looking up from her computer screen.  “I need a booster.”

 

“Me, too?” Xander added, waving his empty cup.

 

“Sure,” she sighed.  Then the idea struck, and she grinned as she hurried to the kitchen.

 

Moving quickly, she poured a packet of blood into a coffee cup and set it to heat in the microwave.  Of course, the coffeepot was nearly empty.  With another sigh, she set it up to brew the second – or maybe third – pot of the morning.  Why is it that I’m the one who always has to do this? she asked herself.  Doesn’t anyone else know how to use this stupid thing?

 

But by then, Spike’s blood was heated.  Carefully – shouldn’t have filled it so full! – she pulled it out of the microwave.  “Coffee’s brewing,” she caroled, breezing back through the dining room and up the stairs.  Easy, she thought, and managed to stumble halfway up the stairs, nearly spilling the blood all over herself.  That would have been eeww!

 

Unaccountably, though, her stomach felt full of butterflies, and that made her pause outside Buffy’s bedroom door.  C’mon, Dawn, you can do this, she told herself firmly.  I mean, what’s the threat of a fiery death between friends?

 

Taking a deep breath, she tapped on the door, then opened it without waiting for him to acknowledge.  “Spike?” she called softly, stepping in.  “Are you awake?”

 

He already looked about a hundred times better than he had just the other night.  The bruises had mostly faded and turned that ugly yellowish color that meant they were healing.  He still wore bandages over the worst of his wounds, but they were clean, without bloodspots.  Relief washed over her.  He’s going to be okay.

 

He flinched at the sound of her voice, clearly having been lost in thought, then she thought she saw him start to smile.  “Nib –” Then memory caught up with him, and that little half-smile faded away.  “Dawn,” he said instead, his tone flat, and she knew why he didn’t call her by a nickname anymore, and that just made everything hurt even worse in the region of her heart.  He hitched himself up higher against the pillows, hissing as he did.  “What brings you here?”

 

Dawn swallowed.  Giles had been right, that morning after Spike had… She and Spike hadn’t had a lot of interaction since the first night he’d shown up at the house.  Even though he’d been all Crazy-Spike that night, he hadn’t forgotten what she’d said, and it was all there between them.  Now, despite wanting the chance to talk to him, she had no idea where to begin.

 

So she started with the practical.  “Here,” she said, offering him the mug.  “I thought you might be hungry.”

 

Slowly, he took it, his eyes intent on her face, and she suddenly felt like she was being tested, as if he didn’t feel that he could trust her.  “Thanks,” he said at last and took a sip.  “The sooner I heal, the sooner I can get out of big sis’s bed and back down to the basement where I belong, right?”

 

It took her a moment to process his words.  “No!” she protested.  “That’s not…” She trailed off as he just watched her over the rim of the cup, one eyebrow arched.  “It’s not,” she repeated, feeling lame. 

 

“What other reason could the girl who told me she’d set me on fire when I was sleeping have for bringing me blood?”

 

Her mouth opened but no words came, so she closed it and sank down onto the edge of the bed.  “It could be the opening to an apology,” she finally replied, her tone hushed.

 

He tilted the mug back and forth, staring into the blood.  “It could be,” he allowed.  “So when I was dusted, you felt bad about what you said and this is your way of making amends.”  He shook his head and handed the cup back to her.  “You don’t need to, pet.  Best if you just forget it.”

 

Rejection was not a scenario she had anticipated.  Numbly, she accepted the cup and let her hands fall to her lap.  “Why?” she whispered.

 

“Nothin’ to forgive,” he replied, and she got the sense that he was trying to wish her gone.  “You were just doin’ what you thought you had to, tryin’ to protect your sister.”

 

She dropped her gaze to the mug, staring into the blood.  She didn’t have a reflection.  “Buffy doesn’t need me to protect her,” she muttered, and twitched her hands so that the blood rippled. It still didn’t give her any answers.

 

“Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t try, an’ that’s all you did.  Nothin’ to apologize for.”  He paused.  “An’ no need to hang around the invalid vamp. Go on back downstairs, Dawn.”

 

For some reason, that dismissal, mild though his tone was, made her feel even more guilty.  How can you apologize to someone who doesn’t even want to hear it?  For a moment, she was ready to leave, to go into her own room and just hide for a while.

 

As she stood up, however, that guilt transmuted into anger, and she tightened her grip on the cup.  “I missed you, you jerk!” she said fiercely, and managed to resist the urge to throw the mug at him, mainly by reminding herself that Buffy really and truly would have a cow if there was blood splashed all over the wall.  “Yeah, I was really angry with you, but that didn’t mean I didn’t care!  So I was doing a little grudge-holding, which totally backfired, by the way, because then you were…” She swallowed, then forced herself to go on.  “You were gone.  Dust.  And I hadn’t told you that I was sorry, or that I forgave you, or… anything.  So, yeah, you’re right, I did feel bad you were gone, but that’s not what this is about.  This is about me caring for you even though you abandoned me.”  She shot him a glare.  “Don’t think I wasn’t confused about that, either.”

 

Spike’s mouth hung open slightly, and he stared at her with something akin to shock in his eyes.  “Dawn…”

 

“And in case you haven’t noticed,” she overrode him hotly, “the major role model in my life?  Isn’t exactly the best guide I could have for dealing with negative emotions in a healthy way.  In fact, she’s more like the poster child for sublimating hurt and anger into violence.  Which is probably why I said… what I said.” 

 

Anger spent, she sagged a little, but kept her eyes locked on his.  “I’m sorry I said I’d light you on fire while you were sleeping,” she added in a quieter tone.  “I was sorry I said it almost right after I did, but I still wanted to be angry with you for… for everything.  It took me a while, but eventually I understood why you left like you did.  It still hurt that you’d just leave me like that, but I could see why.  I’m also sorry for being clueless and wanting to be mad at you.  You don’t have to forgive me,” she finished, “but I needed to say it.”

 

“Seems to be a lot of that goin’ ‘round,” he muttered, glowering down at the pattern of the comforter as if it was offensive.  Pink and flowery, it probably was.

 

Dawn frowned.  Once again, this wasn’t quite what she expected.  “What do you mean?”

 

Spike huffed out a breath.  “I mean you… you an’ the Slayer, sayin’ things you don’t need to say, or that you don’t mean.”  He clenched his fists in the covers.

 

“But I…” Then she blinked.  This isn’t about me, she thought slowly, observing him as he kept his face turned away, unwilling to meet her gaze.  This is about Buffy, because when isn’t it with Spike? So what did she say that he doesn’t think…

 

Then it hit her.  Of course!  “Did she tell you?” she asked, not quite able to contain the eagerness in her voice.

 

“Tell me what?”  Oh, yes, he was definitely being avoid-y.

 

She sat down again, a little doubtful of her own conclusion already, knowing her sister as she did.  “She was supposed to tell you!  She promised she would…”

 

A terrible look came over his face, one composed of hurt and anger and a kind of hopelessness that pained her to see.  “Dawn,” he said very calmly, pinning her in place with his eyes.  “Did you tell Buffy to say she loved me?”

 

Confused, Dawn nodded.  “Of course I did,” she answered.  “But only because…”

 

“Well, she did,” he interrupted, then looked away again.  “Just like you told her to.”

 

Well, that was unexpected.  “She did? She did!  That’s great!”  She bounced once on the edge of the bed, quickly remembered why Spike was stuck up here, and forced herself to stop.  About to apologize for jostling him, she opened her mouth… then closed it again.  Something wasn’t right here; Spike still wore that expression of misery, like her confirmation was the very last thing he wanted to hear in the world, and her own elation died away.  “It is great, right?  Spike, why aren’t you all kinds of ecstatic?”

 

“Because he doesn’t believe her.”

 

She jumped a little at the sound of Xander’s voice floating in from the doorway.  “Xander! What are you doing here?”

 

“Just making sure everything’s all right up here.  You were gone for a long time, you know, and the house isn’t really sound-proofed.”  Xander studied Spike, who was studiously ignoring him.  “I’m right, right?  You don’t believe her.”

 

The muscles in Spike’s cheek jumped as he clenched his jaw and released it.

 

“But why?” Dawn demanded.  This made absolutely no sense, not in the slightest.  This was Spike.  Spike loved Buffy.  But the way he was acting made her believe that Xander was totally right, which in itself was one of the most confusing things she’d ever experienced.  “Spike, that’s what you’ve wanted for, like, ever…”

 

“Dawnie, why don’t you go on downstairs and give Will a hand?” Xander said, jumping in before Spike could speak, and laid his hand on her shoulder.  “You’re a lot bigger help at the whole research thing than me,” he continued over her protests, “and I think Spike and I need to have a little chat, mano a mano.”

 

Dawn’s face settled into its most mulish glare and she planted herself even more firmly on the edge of the bed.

 

Xander sighed.  “Really, Dawn.  Just talking.  Besides, Buffy would kill me if I dust the Soul Man now and you know it.”  He gave her a deprecating smile.

 

“Why don’t you both leave?” Spike sniped.  “Gotta be more interestin’ things goin’ on.”

 

“Are you kidding?” Xander asked in mock astonishment.  “All the cool things are happening here!”

 

Spike just rolled his eyes.


Frowning, Dawn glanced between them, at Spike’s seeming disinterest and Xander’s earnest smile.  Reluctance in every line of her body, she stood, setting the mug she still held on the bedside table.  “All right,” she said, more than a hint of warning in her tone, “but only because I know Spike’s not chipped anymore.  And if you even try, I will never, ever forgive you.”

 

Then, before Xander could blink, she dived at Spike, wrapping her arms around him as best she could where he lay propped on the pillows.  “I’m sorry, Spike,” she whispered.  “Even if you don’t believe me, I’m sorry.”

 

Belatedly – and probably in some kind of shock to boot, Xander thought, amused – Spike lifted an arm to embrace Dawn in return.  “Told you, it’s all right, pet,” he said a little weakly, giving her an awkward pat on the back.

 

Xander saw her lip trembling as she hurried out the door.  He shut it behind her with a soft ‘click’, then leaned against it, staring at the vampire on the bed.  “So, did they suck out your brain to put your soul back in, or did Hell just fry whatever was left?”

 

He had the pleasure of watching Spike’s mouth fall open.  “You sent the Nibblet away just so you could insult me?” he asked in disbelief. 

 

“No, I didn’t.  That was actually a legitimate question.” Xander straightened away from the door.  “See, before, you were all percepto-vamp, pouncing on the least little thing as a sign that Buffy loved you.  But now… she more or less threw herself at you in her own Buffy-way, and I’m thinking that if you weren’t still on the mend from Hell, it’s away you’d be a-running.  Between then and now is a soul and a big whack of your very own afterlife.  Gotta be one or the other.”

 

Spike snorted and looked away. “Don’t worry yourself about it, Harris,” he said bitterly.  “I know the Slayer didn’t mean it when she said… that.  She only said it because she missed me.  Maybe she thought it was what I needed to hear.  I dunno why she said it.  I just know it wasn’t real.”

 

“You really are an idiot,” Xander said, shaking his head in wonder.  “Wow, who knew?”

 

This time, when Spike looked at him, for just a second, he thought he was going to vamp out; brows lowered, eyes glowing in high emotion, mouth contorted in a snarl.  “My leg might be broken,” he growled, “but I can still kick your arse out of here, Doughnut Boy.”

 

Xander just shrugged.  “Yeah, you probably could, and that would be the reason I’m staying over here, ‘cause at least I’ll have a head start.  Getting back to the question at hand, though, personally I think it’s gotta be Hell.” He feigned thoughtfulness.  “Is it even possible to torture someone’s brains out? Because it sure seems like that’s the case here.”

 

Vamp baiting, he decided, could just become one of his favorite pastimes.  Dangerous, he thought, watching Spike glower, but oh, so satisfying.  “Or maybe it’s just that you want to be back there.  What, didn’t you get enough torture to make up for everything you did?”

 

Spike flinched at his words, so small a movement that if he hadn’t been watching him closely, he wouldn’t have seen.  Hell, Xander thought, I didn’t even like saying them.  But maybe they gotta be said.

 

“None of your bloody damn business,” Spike spat, and oh, yeah, hitting close to the bone there.

 

“But now you’re back among the… well, the un-dusty, anyway,” he went on, as if Spike hadn’t spoken at all.  “Why do you think that is?”

 

“Apparently, I’m back because even Hell doesn’t have torture to compare to this,” the vampire snarled.

 

Smiling a little in spite of himself, Xander raised a hand.  “Okay, then how do you think you got back?”

 

“Got mojoed back.  Doesn’t matter…” Then the import of Xander’s words broke over him, and he simply stared, mouth open slightly.

 

“I told Buffy that you needed some time to get used to being back,” Xander said, his tone soft.  “But just now, you really needed to have the clue hammer applied.”  He turned to leave.  “You can thank me later.”

 

“Why are you tellin’ me this, Harris?” Spike’s voice reflected his confusion.

 

Hand on the doorknob, he paused, glanced over his shoulder.  “’Cause you need to know, Bleach Boy, and…”

 

“No, I mean why are you tellin’ me?”

 

Again, he shrugged.  “You didn’t believe Buffy,” he replied.  “You didn’t believe Dawn.  Maybe you won’t believe me, either.  But you and I both know I’ve got no reason to lie about this.” 

 

Spike opened his mouth as if to retort, but Xander chose that moment to escape.  It’s not that often I get one up on Captain Peroxide, he thought, grinning as he closed the door behind himself.  I’m going to enjoy this one for a long time.  He started whistling on his way back downstairs.

 

***

As soon as Buffy walked into the kitchen, sweaty from practicing with the Potentials, her sister cannoned into her, and only her quick grip on the door frame kept her from falling over.  “Dawn?” she asked anxiously, even as she embraced her sister in return.  “What’s wrong?”

 

“I’m sorry, Buffy,” Dawn said into her neck.  “I thought you hadn’t told him, I didn’t know he was being all weird…”

 

Spike.  Her heart lurched, but she still managed to whisper, “It’s all right.”  After a few more moments, she pulled away a little. “So how’s he doing now?”

 

Dawn took a deep breath, as if she needed to settle herself.  “I don’t know.  He was all weird with me, like Crazy-Spike squared, then Xander said he wanted to talk to him…”

 

Buffy blinked.  “Xander?”  Even given their conversation the night before, it was still… shocking.  Kind of like realizing the world is turning opposite from what you were always told.

 

“You rang?” Xander entered the kitchen from the dining room, and rinsed out his coffee cup.  When he glanced up again, he saw Buffy staring at him.  “What?”

 

“You… wanted to talk to Spike?”

 

“Well, yeah.”  He grinned.  “Why should I be the only one who didn’t?  Don’t worry, he’s still alive.  Or… y’know, undead.”

 

“Good,” she replied, a little dazed.

 

“Go on upstairs,” Xander said gently, prodding her toward the dining room.  “Giles and Andrew have gone to check out a lead on that preacher man.  I’m currently taking bets on whether Giles will leave him there.”

 

As she passed through into the dining room, Buffy heard Dawn snicker.  “You’re not going to get any takers on that… of course Giles will try to leave him there.”

 

Going up the stairs, she became aware of something like dread pooling in her stomach.  Come on, Buffy, she told herself.  You’re the Slayer, you can do this.  It’s only the vampire you love and who doesn’t believe you… Okay, maybe not the best pep talk ever.

 

Her bedroom door was open slightly, and light shone dimly through the crack.  “Spike?” she called softly, pushing the door open wider.  “All right if I come in?”

 

“It’s your room, Slayer,” Spike answered.  There was a note of emotion she couldn’t quite identify in his voice.  He sat on the edge of the bed, dressed, or nearly so.  Somehow he’d managed to get on his jeans, and was in the midst of pulling on his tee shirt.

 

“Hey, look at you, all with the clothing,” she said, surprised and pleased all at once.  She stepped in and closed the door.

 

“Oh, yeah,” he said, his tone dry.  “Real imposin’ figure of a vampire in my bare feet.”

 

“Still,” she grinned, “this is real progress.  Who brought up the clothes?”

 

“Red did, a little while ago.”  With a grunt, he pulled the shirt over his head, then grimaced and pressed his hand against the side of his chest.

 

She wanted to touch, to feel for herself how his ribs were healing, but after last night, she didn’t quite dare, and kept her hands behind her back.  “Still tender?”

 

He nodded.  “Yeah,” he said tightly, pain evident.  “Not as bad as yesterday.  It was a bitch getting the pants over the split, though.”

 

“I’ll bet.  Let me take a look.”  She didn’t like the tension between them, tension she knew came from what they’d each said the night before.  We can snark, we can fight, we can have sex… why can’t we just have a conversation? she asked herself as she knelt to take a look at his ankle.

 

She had barely started to examine it when he spoke again, his tone subdued.  “Got a question for you, Slayer.”

 

“What?” she responded, distracted.  Was the split tight enough?

 

“How’d I get out of Hell?”

 

She froze, just for a second, then glanced up.  He stared at her, his expression curiously solemn in the light of the single lamp.  “You… we got you out,” she said at last, and quickly bent to take care of the splint once more.

 

“How, Buffy?” he asked again, quietly insistent.

 

She let go of his foot and dropped her hands to her knees, where they clenched into fists.  “I wanted you back,” she told her hands softly, then took a deep breath and faced him.  “I… I needed you back.  I never realized how much a part of my life you were until you were gone, because you were always here.  Not having you here hurt so much…” She stopped, hearing her voice break a little.  After a moment, she continued, “So I made Willow help me research a way to bring you back.  Xander and Dawn helped, too, and we found this ritual with a sacrifice and trials, and if you passed, these powers would grant your strongest desire.”

 

“Your strongest desire?” he repeated, staring down at her, and that look of awe was in his eyes again.  Her heart thudded hopefully against her ribs at the sight.

 

“Yeah,” she said with a nod, smiling up at him.  “So I did, and they did.”

 

“Couldn’t have been that easy, love,” he said, voice little more than a whisper.  His fingers brushed her face, and she could feel how they trembled against her cheek.

 

She leaned into his touch, eyes closed.  “In a way, it kind of was.”  The rest – the despair of knowing he was dust, that he was being tormented in Hell – she couldn’t quite bear to talk about right now, not when it felt like he believed.

 

At that, she opened her eyes.  “So, if I tell you I love you, will you believe it this time?” She held her breath, knowing it was a little childish to do so, but not quite able to stop herself.

 

In return, she received a smile – not his habitual smirk, but a real smile.  “Yeah, love, I believe you.”

 

“Good,” she said, and her own smile was wide and bright and real.  She stood, careful not to jar his leg, then bent to kiss him, one hand cupping his cheek, the other twined in the hair at the nape of his neck.

 

His cool fingers curled around her hand as they broke the kiss, and she just rested her forehead against his in a way that felt more intimate than any sex they’d ever had.

 

This, she knew without a doubt, was what she was fighting for, and for a little while, the world and the war didn’t matter at all.

 

<b>Epilogue</b>

The feeling was much too familiar.  She knew this numbness, and she knew the pain that followed.

 

Buffy was glad of that numbness.  Maybe they’d won the day and beaten back the ultimate evil, but it certainly didn’t feel like a check in the Win column, and there was no urge to do a victory dance.

 

Because Spike was gone, burned up in the Hellmouth, just like that other-Buffy had shown her.  She hadn’t recognized the amulet Angel had given her, hadn’t remembered the not-a-dream until it was way too late to save him.  He had to go and be all noble…

 

The walls of the hotel room blurred.  No, don’t think about it, she cautioned herself.  Think about what you would sacrifice…

 

“I humbly request passage…”

 

The numbness had let her continue to function, but it had still taken until they’d stopped for the night for her to remember the book.  As soon as she had, she’d gone in search of it.  As opposed as Giles had been to the ritual before, Buffy knew he would be no help this time.  So she waited until she could talk to Willow.

 

“Will?” she asked, trying to control the hope rising inside. Surely Willow would still have the ritual.  “Do you still have Wesley’s book?  The one…”

 

Willow shook her head, and Buffy felt her stomach plummet.  If there was no book, there was no way to get Spike back this time…

 

But Willow smiled as she reached into the bag at her feet.  “No,” she said, and pulled out a piece of notepaper.  “But I’ve got the list of ingredients here.”

 

She knew her eyes were bright as she took the paper from her friend’s hand, because everything wavered in her vision.  “Thanks, Will,” she whispered.

 

Willow gathered her into a quick hug.  “No thanks necessary,” she replied.  “Just go get him back.”

 

Quietly reciting the words just as she had in Sunnydale, Buffy scattered the crushed herbs in a circle around her.  I’d give up anything to get Spike back again, she thought, letting the prepared mixture flow through her fingers.  My Slayer powers, even my life, if you want it.  Anything.  Just… anything.

 

The circle closed.

 

Nothing happened.

 

Standing inside the circle she’d made on the hotel carpet, Buffy waited, fidgeting.  “Any second now,” she murmured.  “C’mon, portal…” Why isn’t anything happening?  She double-checked the bowl of the mortar, but she’d used all the herbs.

 

Desperation and anger surged up inside her.  “Hey, your humble supplicant is waiting!” she called, face tipped up to the ceiling.  “Open the door!”

 

The matter is closed.  You will not come here again.

 

The words echoed in her head, and she stilled.  Was it a one time only deal? she asked herself, and heartbreak settled over her like a blanket.  I can’t get Spike back this way again?

 

Her legs refused to support her any longer and she slumped down onto her knees, still inside the circle.  “But this was the only way we found,” she whispered, stricken.  “How can I get him back?”

 

The answer to that was obvious.

 

The numbness was gone, and Buffy gave in to her grief, body shaking with the force of her sobs.

 

***

May 21, 2010