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to walk on your knees, repenting.

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She sees Dawn’s feet disappear over the edge as she reaches the top of the tower. Her soles flash pale and narrow in the light of the rising sun. 

She hates diving , Buffy thinks inanely. She’d had to be bribed into learning.

She is still thinking about that - the long days at the community centre in LA, goofing off in the deep end with her friends while the swimming coach coaxed Dawn off the diving board with a promise of the really good floaties to play with after - as she grabs the grinning black-eyed demon by the throat. She is thinking of the dryness of the chlorine at the back of her throat, the shrillness of the little kids screaming, as she beats its face into pudding. When she is done, she picks shards of bone out of her hands and sucks absently at her bloody knuckles and thinks, it can’t be Dawn, because Dawn hates diving, and the earth isn’t ending because - and she has to stop there, because something in her chest is starting to boil.

What could have happened is, the portal closed on its own and Dawn climbed down the side when no one was looking, or -

What could have happened is, Dawnie fell off the tower like a big klutz and Willow caught her with magic, or -

What could have happened is, it was never really her up there, just a lookalike, and Glory was keeping her somewhere else until the last moment.

What actually happens is, Buffy walks to the bottom, and Spike is kneeling by a crack in the ground, holding something in his arms. Whatever it is is wrapped up tight in his jacket. All she can tell is that it's tall, and has shiny brown hair, and blood is dripping from the coat to the ground. Something in her breaks neatly, like a rib cage when you step on it just right.

“Don’t look, Slayer,” Spike says. “Sla- Buffy, please, don’t look.” He’s holding Dawn away from her, like he has any right, and she’s gonna kill him just like she killed the demon up on the tower, but he’s trembling and his face is tear streaked and he’s cradling the Dawn-thing in his arms the way Mom did when she was just a baby, and someone behind her says oh no, no please no no no, and the boil in her chest burns so hot that she thinks she will combust like vampires do in the sun, and she wants it, she wants to crumble into nothing and never be here again, but instead it crawls up her throat and she screams and screams and screams.

*

“Buffy.”

She’s warm and soft and sleepy, and she wants to stay that way.

“Buffy, you need to wake up.”

No she does not. An awful knowledge is hovering just outside her sphere of awareness, and it won’t be able to get to her as long as she can slip back into unconsciousness.

“Let her sleep, Rupert.” That voice and the presence attached to it is enough to make her crack her eyes open. She concentrates very hard on Not Thinking, and her mind goes blessedly numb.

Giles is hovering in the doorway, frowning at Spike, just over his shoulder.

“I’d prefer to,” Giles says, testy even as he tries to keep his voice soft. “She needs to wake.”

“She’s awake,” Buffy says, or croaks. Her mouth feels like someone poured sand into it while she was asleep. “What is it?”

“Ah, Buffy,” Giles’ hand twitches up, probably to reach for his glasses. “I’m sorry to wake you.”

She shakes her head and levers herself upwards. Focuses on the small stuff, like the horrible dryness of her mouth, or the pins and needles in her left foot, and how much dust there is on her mother’s dresser, and wow, her mom’s room had the best light in the house. She sits up.

“Stuff to do, I guess.” Still croaky. “I’m up,” she says, and glares at Spike.

“What are you doing here?” His eyes flash. 

“Just here, Slayer.”

“Don’t call me that,” she snaps.

“Alright,” Giles says. “Buffy.” His eyes soften, and she looks down.

“Yeah,” she says. “Just - ” she clears her throat, then again when the apple sized lump doesn’t move. “Gimme a minute.” 

“Of course,” Giles says, and closes the door, and she is alone

(alone, really alone)

Again, in her mother’s bed, tucked under like a sick child, in a house that’s never seemed bigger. 

“Shower first,” she says. “Then real clothes.” And then - the awful thing that she is Not Thinking about comes back, crushes her so that all she wants to do is lay back down. But she doesn’t want Giles to come back and get her like she knows he will, so she pulls the comforter back, shivering even though it’s June, and shuffles into her mother’s bathroom.

*

Giles is waiting in the dining room, papers spread all around. It seems like it’s just the two of them, a rarity in the past week. He’s made her a cup of tea and arranged some cookies on a plate in pretty circles, probably to try to get her to pick one up and eat it. It’s sweet in a way that makes her eyes prickle.

“Are you-” he peers at her face. “Right then. I just picked up the report from the examiner’s office. Dawn’s death was ruled an accident. We’re free to hold a funeral when we’re ready.”

“An accident, huh.” Those white soles, pale in the early light. She had missed her by seconds. 

“Well.” The glasses come off, but he just places them next to the pretty plate of cookies. “A teenage dare.” He glances up at her, as if gauging how much she wants to hear, and she wraps her hands around the still-hot cup of tea and stays still and attentive. Listening Buffy, that’s her. 

“It gave us an explanation for the rope burns,” he says, watching her carefully, “and the cuts on her stomach. And the odd timing. Not a good one, but better than nothing.”

“You gotta love the Sunnydale Police Department,” she says. “What will they want for helping us?”

He understands what she means. “Quentin assures me that the Council’s services will be considered a courtesy.” For services rendered, he doesn’t say, but she can see Quentin saying it in that self-satisfied way of his.

“I guess one Slayer in prison’s enough,” she says, and unpeels her hand from the undrunk cup of tea long enough to pick up a cookie. It’s the fancy vanilla kind, and she examines it for a moment before putting it back down. Don’t need to worry about Dawn grabbing the plate and stuffing them all in her mouth , a voice observes in the back of her head, and her stomach roils, even though she hasn’t eaten in at least a day. 

Giles is shuffling papers, and the one at the top says Shady Hill Funeral Homes. 

“We can do the planning for you,” he says gently. Everything he says is gentle, and she wishes she resented it but she feels like blown glass, thinly spread and hollow and full of something other than herself, and the Not Thinking is hard when she’s downstairs, where everything is so much busier and louder.

“No,” she says. “I’ll do it. I did it for mom. I can’t drop the ball with Dawn.” And because bitter irony is one of the things she is trying desperately to Not Think about, and because he is looking at her with concern that makes her feel smaller and weaker, she says, “and maybe they’ll remember me. Give me a two-for-one deal,” but her voice is croaky as hell and it goes down like a lead balloon, straight to the pit of her stomach and further down, and then she is crying, hard.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright.” His voice is thick. 

“It’s not.” And then he is holding her, something that has happened maybe twice that she can remember, and she loves him so much it makes her cry harder, and she hates him because he had been so ready to throw Dawn away, but she knows she can say any of the poisonous things she’s been thinking at him over the last week and he’ll just take it. It makes it seem so futile, and she is so tired but so vibrantly alive that it feels almost obscene, her heart pounding hard in her chest and sweat forming at her temples even as her mother and sister lie in quiet death.

“I was always the odd one out,” she murmurs.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing.” She pulls away, takes a sip of her now-cool tea. “Have you called the Funeral Home yet?”

*

Her father doesn’t return any of her calls. The last number she has for him - the one they had tried when mom first got sick and they had just found out about Dawn - goes to a full answering machine. His office won’t even tell her if he’s in the country, and he had been an only child. So the only people from the family who come are from mom’s side. Aunt Arlene comes with her adult son, and a distant cousin who is probably named Kelly. 

They came for mom’s funeral too, and they swing between shooting her looks of pitiable horror and whispering speculation. Yes, she burned down that gym, but Joyce said - yes, expelled, but they took it back - well, with Hank off in Barcelona, who else to-

“Buffy.” Willow’s arm is around her waist, holding her tight as if Buffy may collapse into her, as if Buffy couldn’t lift her one-handed, but the pressure is nice, the familiar warmth of her best friend and the witchy smell that Willow trails everywhere with her these days. She raises a hand to touch Willow’s fingers where they wrap around her stomach when she begins that telltale snuffle that means that she’s gonna do what Xander calls the heart break cry. There’s a cute story attached to that name. Xander had told her once at the Bronze while Willow had danced around with Oz, but she can’t remember a word of it.

Tara’s on her other side, not touching, but there, and Anya is hovering, eyes darting as if trying to recall all the hundreds of human rules that never seem to stick with her, and Xander is at the back with Giles. They’re gonna be pallbearers, but there’s two seats saved for them at the front. 

The last of the guests find a place to sit and the priest steps forward.

“Thank you for coming,” he starts.

Please , she says to the Not Thinking part of her brain, take me away . And it does.

*

Dawn’s headstone is a paler white than her mom’s, and the letters are written cursive style. Dawn would have wrinkled her nose at it, said whatever Buffy, if you wanted to do something actually cool there’s this place in San Diego that turns ashes into precious stones, I’d definitely be something expensive, like a ruby , and Buffy would have snorted and said just for that I’m gonna turn you into asphalt, you little brat, and Dawn would have stuck her tongue out at her, and -

God, it’s over, and it’s like deja vu, with Willow touching her arm and offering to stay, and Buffy shaking her head, and then she is alone.

She sits cross-legged in front of the paler stone, next to the freshly turned earth. They’d kept it simple, just Dawn Marie Summers, June 24th, 1986 - May 15th 2001. Beloved Light. Tara had suggested the epitaph. 

She sits for a while, until the sun begins to dip. Then she stands to leave, and trails her fingers over the cool rock as she goes.

*

She stays away for three days. She doesn’t remember much of what she does for them, but her body is logy and tired when she finally drags herself out of the house. Xander is asleep on the couch downstairs, and she knows that Willow and Tara are asleep in her bed.

Climbing out of mom’s window is harder than hers. It doesn’t have a convenient ledge to balance on, and there’s an annoying strip of stone just below before it gives way to the grass of the backyard, but she just throws her shoes down and shimmies down, Spiderman style.

The grass is cool under her feet, the slowly forming dew pleasant on her soles, and so she leaves her shoes where she had thrown them and walks out onto the street barefoot.

Gross , Dawn says in her head and Oh, Buffy , mom says, but she ignores them both. 

The moon is full tonight, turning the leaves of the tree a pretty silver, and she tilts her head up and tries to remember the constellations. Giles had tried to teach her a few times, on patrol. He had started to point out all these shapes in the sky that she kind of thought he was making up, and his eyes had got all bright and excited. All she remembers now is Orion’s belt and the Dipper, which is like below elementary-level astronomy, but hey, he’d be glad to know that something stuck.

The rough stone of the pavement gives way to the grass of Prior’s Lane Cemetery. She doesn’t usually come here because it has hardly any vampires, and it takes her a little while to orient herself, but she spots the tree with its white flowers quickly enough. She almost turns back when she sees a black shape topped by a bleached head standing by the graves. 

He twitches minutely, so he knows she’s there, but he doesn’t turn until she’s a few feet away. He takes her in in a few moments, and for the first time that night she’s aware of the fact that she is barefoot, dressed in a thin tank top and sleep shorts. But she refuses to be self-conscious around Spike , so she moves past him to stand a little closer. Spike flinches as she passes him, and draws an unneeded breath. The graves are covered with grass now, and she sits cross legged in between them.

“Shall I go?” he’s just out of her eye-line, and he sounds nervous. She shakes her head, and he settles a little way away, still except for his eyes, which keep darting to her. 

There are fresh flowers by each gravestone. She thinks honeysuckle, she remembers slouching around in the garden store while Mom hemmed and hawed over which ones to plant. They smell nice, like fancy perfume, and she closes her eyes.

It’s nice out here. She wonders if it would be weird to nap here and thinks it probably would, so instead she looks up at the stars again. She knows there’s supposed to be a horse one up there somewhere, but she can’t even find the ones she knows anymore. It’s all just an unending stream of light, unknowable and infinitely far away, no matter how close she tries to get. She lays back on the soft grass, and the stars blur.

“I was supposed to go first,” she says, barely moving her lips, but she hears the rustle of leather and she knows he has heard her. The tears wet her temples and her hair and tickle at her ears, and still she looks at the stars, as if they will coalesce into some kind of shining epiphany and tell her why she’s here and why she does it all. And yeah, maybe that’s stupid, but she’d really appreciate it if an angel would come down on a cloud or whatever and tell her what it’s all for. She’d even settle for that Whistler guy.

Her eyes slip closed, but she can still see the stars on the backs of her eyelids. Soon Dawn is there, saying, I bet some grody vampire’s gonna come and bite you while you nap in a cemetery, you weirdo , and Dad is giving her Mr Gordo for the first time, and she’s a cheerleader again, worried that she’s gonna have to get the double back handspring perfect if she really wants a shot at being Captain, and the next time she opens her eyes, sunrise is just about here.

She’s surprisingly comfortable, and she sits up to discover that she’s been wrapped in Spike’s duster, tucked in like a little kid. It smells like old leather and cigarette smoke and honeysuckle, and nothing else, and she takes a moment to stare at the sky, starless now, and at the sky, a relentless California blue.

*

She hasn’t come across a Pyleth demon in a while, and she forgot how fast they can move. She leaps back just in time to avoid another swipe from its wrist spines, and the ones behind her do that creepy rattlesnake rattle thing that makes the hair rise at the back of her neck. 

“Nice try,” she says, and something hits her back hard, sending her face first into the granite rock face. 

Ow. They were strong, too. The last time they had been in Sunnydale was when Riley was here, and the commandos had swarmed all over them before she had a chance to do much. Now she wishes she’d paid more attention, because now they’re advancing on her, flanking her so she’ll have to turn her back to one of them if she wants to attack.

She feels behind her, and yes, there’s her emergency stake, and she knows she has a butterfly knife in her boot, but their hide is some kind of tough leather. She’ll have to aim for the eyes, then.

She dips her hand into her boot and flicks her wrist before she can second guess herself, and the knife flies true, right into the eye of the one who slammed her against the rock. Ha. Serves him right.

The second one hesitates long enough for her to pull her stake out and push herself to her feet. Her knee gives a warning wobble, but she ignores it and goes on the offensive, aiming for that spot under the arm where those leathery types usually have a weakness. 

Maybe she’s a hair too slow, or maybe she telegraphed her movements too clearly. Either way, it brings its arm up in a block that jars her arm, and she barely avoids being shredded by one of those nasty spines. She goes for a leg sweep that the thing deftly avoids, and it puts her off balance enough that she can’t move out of the way completely when it slashes at her again. She avoids the spines, but it’s inconveniently strong three-fingered hand wraps around the hand holding her stake and twists, and there is a wet sort of crunch as the stake falls from her now numbed fingers.

She gets it with an elbow strike under the chin, and reaches out and pulls one of the spines off, and ew, it comes off with a strip of skin and the thing roars, and maybe she does too, enraged by the sick heat emanating from her curled and injured fist, and it grabs her by the neck hard, rotting meat breath blowing into her face. 

She is preparing to stab it with her brand-new and very disgusting weapon, when there is a flash of movement behind her and a series of pops, like bubble wrap being crunched. The hand around her neck goes limp, and so does the pressure on her crunched-up fist.

The Pyleth falls away, and Spike steps toward her from behind its body. His face is ridged and twisted in a snarl, and his eyes blaze yellow for only a moment before he turns back to his human face. 

“Thanks,” she says. He opens his mouth and closes it a couple of times.

“It’s fine, Sl-” he peers at her. “You’re bleeding.”

She is, she can smell the rich iron of her own blood; it vaguely sickens her.

“It’s not a big deal,” she says, and smiles, and sways slightly, probably from her injuries. His eyes narrow, and he sniffs.

“Are you drunk?” 

“No.” He snorts, and she scowls, and there is a moment that is quiet and would probably be awkward if she actually was sober. 

She’d found a bottle of sherry hidden behind the baking stuff and the house was so empty. So she’d left. She hadn’t found any vampires, but she found the Pyleths at the corner of Baker’s Wood and followed them, suddenly filled with reckless energy that she realises now was probably the sherry.

“Not very smart,” he says, a look on his face that she doesn’t think she’s seen before.

“I was fine.” He snorts.

“Is that what the kids are calling ‘scraped to bloody hell’ these days? I can never keep up.”

“You are clearly not so much with the modern,” she agrees, but witty banter can only sustain her for so long, and bright spots start to flare in her periphery.

“Hey,” he says, and inches closer, and she giggles. She’d forgotten how good the post-fight adrenaline feels, how clean her mind suddenly is, despite the sherry fuzzing things up at the edges. It makes everything sharper, and her vampire-warning neck tinglies go a little haywire as Spike inches closer, his nose twitching ever so slightly.

“You should get that seen to,” he continues, nodding at her right arm, which is bleeding steadily if not profusely. It’s the same arm that the Pyleth crunched her wrist bones, which is both doubly painful and kind of lucky. It means she has one functioning hand, at least. “Nasties will be able to smell it a mile away.”

“Yeah,” she says. Not the hospital, she wants to avoid that place for as long as she can, but she has a first aid kit at home. She turns in that general direction and winces as her knee wobbles.

Spike appears at her left side, hesitating, before extending an arm. She doesn’t want it, but her body is setting up a chorus of complaints, and she really doesn’t want to fall over and land in the mud where he can see. So she slides her good arm into his, letting him take some of her weight.

She hasn’t been this physically close to a vampire since Angel, and she’d forgotten all the minute ways it’s different. His skin is room temperature and almost soothing against her battle-heated skin, and utterly still. He breathes more than most, but still only about half as much as her. She remembers what she had thought about Angel - that he was animated, rather than alive - and she had felt guilty at the fleeting thought, but now she thinks it again, wonders what the demon keeping him alive thinks of him escorting a heartsick girl through a black forest like it’s noon on a boardwalk.

He keeps his eyes straight ahead, and doesn’t say anything until they get back into town. It’s the longest he’s ever been quiet around her. They turn towards the street that’ll eventually lead onto Revello, and she stiffens, the throb in her knee abruptly worse. He glances at her.

“The Watcher’s, then?” She shakes her head minutely. He hesitates, and it’s so weird, hesitation isn’t really the first thing that comes to mind when she thinks of Spike, and he says, “I’ve got a first aid kit at the crypt.”

She doesn’t want to think of why he would have it, and only inclines herself in the direction of Restfield. He steers them that way, and it isn’t long before she’s sitting in that armchair in front of his TV. He’d lowered her down as gently as he could, but she’d winced anyway, and then he’d disappeared into the hole that led to the underground room that had held that creepy shrine. It all seems so far away now, like it happened to a Buffy from another universe.

He comes back with a large first aid kit and a couple of pillows; she lets him arrange them around her so she can lean back comfortably. He kneels in front of her and reaches a hand out.

“Let me see,” he says, and she puts her broken hand in his, watching as he rotates it gently.

“Three broken, I think,” he says, touching a tip of his finger to a knuckle on her index finger, and skimming over the back of her hand and her thumb. “I can’t set them,” he says, and taps the side of his head. 

“I can,” she says. Merrick had taught her, in her first couple of weeks of slaying. Couldn’t go to the hospital when she healed as fast as she did. She braces her arm against the armchair and does it before she can think about it too much and tense her muscles, and almost bites through her lip at the flashes of pain, and afterwards closes her eyes as Spike takes her hand back and wraps it neatly in an Ace bandage. She can feel him lingering, but forgives him, because of the careful way he tucks her hand by her side when he’s done.

“What else?” The lingering buzz of alcohol is well and truly gone now, and she winces as she opens her eyes.

“Um… my ribs are cracked, I think. And I pulled something in my knee. I can probably sleep them off.”

“Just your face, then,” he says, and she frowns. 

“What’s wrong with my…” she reaches up to feel caked-on stickiness, and the tingle of skin scraped away. Must have been that stupid rock face. Crap.

“Not that bad,” he says, and smiles slightly. “You look like a warrior.” She stiffens, but he’s turned away to dig around in that suitcase-sized first aid kit. He comes up with some antiseptic wipes. 

“Can I,” he asks, and she nods yes. 

He is as gentle with her face as he was with her hand, a barely-there touch on her chin that moves her when he needs it, and the sting is barely anything. It doesn’t even really hurt around her eye, which, now that the pain of her hand is lessened, feels like it’s probably turning a few interesting colours. He finishes with a butterfly bandage over her probably-split eyebrow.

“Done,” he says, and she rests back against the pillows, looking at him as he stays where he is, that same weird hesitancy in his eyes. She wants to ignore it, wants to let her body pull her along to maybe the first decent rest she’s gotten in a while, but the mystery tugs at her so she can’t quite rest.

She knows he’s not afraid that she’ll dust him. Apart from those few wild moments at the base of the tower, she hasn’t wanted to kill him in a very long time. And Spike’s not really afraid of physical pain. Even in those early days when they’d kept him tied to a chair, he had hissed and cajoled and looked smug.

He touches her knee, and she looks up and realises that tears are dripping down her face, thick and blinding. He’s a black and white blur like this, that look smoothed out, and she wipes at her eyes to see him almost rocking back on his heels, as if she is shooing him away. And it gets a little clearer.

“Would you leave, if I asked you to?” she asks, and it’s as if she has reached an arm into his chest and cupped his heart, vulnerability and sorrow and a hint of betrayal at being laid bare. 

“Yes,” he says. Almost two years of Spike hanging around, merrily ignoring all their attempts to make him leave, and now all it would take is one word.

“Would serve me right,” he says, prompting.

“No.” His hand is still resting against her knee; she holds it. “It was my responsibility.” She forestalls his protest. “She was my - my blood. My sister. Not anyone else’s.”

“I said I’d protect her, to the end of the world.”

“The end of the world didn’t happen.” Slim white soles. Rope burns on her arms. Giles thought that Dawn had used a rusty nail on the shoddily-made tower to saw through the ropes. She had jumped as soon as Doc had turned to face Buffy. Not even a second of hesitation. She wishes she could be proud, instead of empty.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she says.

“You don’t have to do anything,” he says, and his eyes are so soft, which shouldn’t go with his whole bleach and leather thing but somehow it does. She’s been the recipient of all kinds of sad, soft looks lately, and they’re starting to grate, but Spike’s doesn’t. 

Everyone is devastated but relieved that the world is still here, and Buffy is the only one who understands that she failed. That this was about saving Dawn, not saving the world, but she can’t say that to them, not when Tara’s back to normal and Anya’s injuries have just about healed up.

Back at the Magic Box, when she’d almost gotten into that shouting match with Giles, Spike had been the only one who hadn’t flinched when Buffy said she’d let the world die before Dawn. That’s one of the advantages of not having a conscience, she thinks, being perfectly willing to value a loved one over the fate of the world. 

“It was my fault,” she says. He snaps his head up, and the soft look is gone. He looks feral, vampiric, and she almost shrinks back.

“Say that again,” he says roughly, “and I’ll black your other eye. Sod the chip.” Then, softer, “We went up against a God, and the thing she wanted most in the world.”

There is so much more she wants to say, because he is wrong , and she wants him to know it, but her body has burned through the last of her adrenaline and she’s suddenly cold. 

“I need to go home,” she says, but her feet feel very far away and her mom’s bed even further. She leans back against Spike’s pillow (silk pillowcases, what is he, some kind of playboy Lothario? In another universe she would laugh at him) and closes her eyes.

She doesn’t know how much time passes before she is shaken awake.

“Buffy.” He is standing, almost shuffling his feet. “I have a bed downstairs. I’ll stay up here,” he says quickly, when he sees her shoulders start to rise. “You can rest properly, is all.” She only considers it for a second before nodding. 

He has to help her down the ladder -  her body is going into strike mode and really really isn’t interested in listening to her brain -  and leaves her at the entrance to pull the covers back on a truly enormous bed. Only a couple of candles are lit, so she can’t see much of the room, but she hopes the creepy shrine is gone.

The bed is soft and smells weirdly good. Does Spike use scented washing powder? Does he go to a laundromat? She doesn’t know how she would even start asking this stuff. 

The blankets are soft and warm, too, and hey, he’s taking her boots off. She should probably kick him away, but her eyes are half-closed and her muscles are all relaxed, and she decides she’ll deal with it tomorrow.

When she opens eyes, the candles have burned all the way down. The only light comes from the opened trapdoor. She can tell she’s been asleep for several hours, but she can’t hear or sense Spike anywhere close. She turns her head, and resting on the side table is a bottle of water and a brown Espresso Pump bag. 

*

It happens like this:

Giles says, maybe you should think about enrolling in UC Sunnydale for your next semester, and Willow says, maybe Tara and I should move in for the summer, and Xander says, hey Buff, maybe we should have a movie night, I have this great butter and caramel popcorn recipe that’ll blow your socks off, and something inside her expands until she thinks she will explode.

She finds the duffel bag she’d used the first time, but she does one better than that first time and calls Giles where he’s closing up at the shop.

“Buffy,” he says helplessly, and she shakes her head.

“I’ll call you to let you know I’m okay,” she says, and hangs up the phone.

Spike only blinks when she shoves open the door to his crypt, and tilts his head in that way he has.

“I need you to take me away,” she says, and his mouth gapes uselessly. “Now,” she adds.

“Where?”

“I don’t care.” And because he still isn’t moving, she says, “if you don’t want to take me, I’ll just take a bus.”

That gets him moving fast, and they are in his old-dude car speeding down the highway before the sun has touched the horizon. 

*

She wakes up when the car rocks sharply to the left, the force pressing her against the car door. 

“Sorry, pet,” Spike says, and she cracks her eyes open. The sun is just about starting to rise, and weak rays struggle through the gaps in the black paint splashed across the windscreen. “Cutting it a little close.”

He’s pulled them into the parking lot of a rundown motel, lime green and pink and a sign that she thinks says Greenacres lodging. The sun’s up enough that she has to be the one to go to the front desk and pay for a room. She has a roll of money that she’d withdrawn from her mom’s bank account before she left, and the guy behind the desk doesn’t even ask for ID. 

She gets two rooms near the car and unlocks the door to one of them so that Spike can dash inside, then throws him the key and walks to her own room.

It’s pretty much what she expects, but she’s spent at least eight hours with her bare skin on Spike’s old leather seats, so she figures she can’t be too picky. She crawls under the scratchy sheets and waits for sleep that takes its time coming.

*

It’s all your fault, Angel says. They’re in the Mansion on Crawford Street by the fire, and he’s holding her hands in his. It is, it’s all your fault, it is, it’s - his hands tighten on hers, more and more until the bones begin to creak. It is, it’s- something gives and there’s a snap, and he bangs their fists against the stone floor. His face twists with hate and something in her hand pops, and-

“Open the bloody door!” 

She startles awake in the same position that she had laid down in, and her neck complains loudly when she tries to move.

“I’m up,” she croaks, but Spike is making so much noise that he can’t hear her. The door rattles in its frame.

“SLAYER,” he bellows, and hits the door so hard that it cracks. She jumps up, ignoring her stiffness, and yanks the door open.

“God, what is your damage?” His foot is half raised, and he almost loses his balance putting it down. He seems paler than usual, if that’s possible, and she can see his pupils all the way round.

“You all right?”

“I was, until about thirty seconds ago,” she snaps. She’s starving, and her mouth tastes like shit, and he’s just standing in her doorway like a big lunk.

“You didn’t answer,” he says. 

“Yeah, it’s called sleeping,” she says, but he doesn’t even seem to hear her. He’s scanning her face as though he’s forgotten what it looks like, and his hand bumps up against an invisible barrier. He presses against it, as though he’s forgotten he’s a vampire. 

“You didn’t answer,” he says again, and this close, she can see the moment when something hard snaps into place behind his eyes. “Couldn’t let you doze the night away, could I? Need coffee and you said you have dosh, so let’s go.”

He doesn’t wait for a reply, only sweeps away to go and sit on the hood of the car. She takes a breath, and goes back in to get changed.

*

There’s an okay-looking diner about half a mile from the motel. The waitress gives Spike a double take when she comes to take their order- vampires look creepy as hell under fluorescent lighting- but she comes and goes pretty efficiently. She actually reminds Buffy of herself, that summer after junior year, determined not to notice anything she’s not being paid for, swimming in some small and private grief.

“She won’t bring your food any faster if you glare after her, love,” Spike says. He fiddles with one of the packets of salt.

“Don’t call me that,” she says, but it’s toothless, and he ignores it. 

The place is almost empty, apart from a couple of trucker-looking guys in the back, nursing cups of coffee. They’re far enough away that they won’t have to keep their voices down. They order - Spike gets a plate of wings and she goes for a burger and an extra-large side of onion rings. Now that they’re here, she’s suddenly desperately hungry.

“Where are we?” She asks.

“About an hour north of LA,” he says.

“Oh.” She doesn’t know why she’s disappointed, except she’d kinda been hoping that she would close her eyes and wake up somewhere completely unknown.

“Unless that’s where you want to go,” he says, and curls his lip. “I’m sure His Forehead wouldn’t mind putting you up, if you asked nicely.”

“Spike-”

“Won’t be going in myself, of course. Righteousness gives me hives.” He gives her a nasty smile. “Might have to wait until night to-”

“Shut up, Spike.” All of a sudden, she is unaccountably tired. “I don’t want to go to LA.”

“Ah.” He does as close to sheepish as his face can probably get. “Where do you want to go, then?”

She’s saved by the arrival of the waitress with their cups of coffee, and she takes her time adding enough sugar to make it palatable.

“I don’t know,” she says slowly, after she’s got her first hit of caffeine. “I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

“Twigged that,” he says, smirking. She wishes he would go back to trying to look sheepish. “Any ideas? I’m game for anything. Except Alaska. Don’t ask,” he adds, like she was going to, which she definitely, probably wasn’t.

“I just need-” to get away? To breathe, maybe, to not feel like the world is rushing away from her. “I just need a little time,” she says. A lump rises in her throat, and she fixes her gaze on the cheap formica table. 

How to explain that she feels ossified with grief, some unknown part of her caught in amber? Life is moving on, and she can’t. Every morning they fade just a little more from her, from the world, and she can’t bring herself to build a life that they’re not in. Her eyes fill, and she blinks rapidly to make the tears go away. Glances up at him - if he’s sneery or rude or worst of all, full of pity, she will break the table and then maybe his face, but he just looks thoughtful. It looks weird on him, and she’s glad that the food comes.

It’s pretty decent, full of salt and fat, and she ignores him for a while in favour of stuffing her face. She can’t remember the last time she really ate. She’s been grazing on whatever her friends leave in the fridge, or whatever the  convenience store has nearest the counter. It’s weird to be so aware of her body, to have her hands stuffing her face with fries without her brain’s input, but she decides to just enjoy the rush of dopamine where she can get it.

She looks up to see Spike grinning. “What,” she says, and wipes some sauce off her chin.

“What,” she says.

“Nothing. Just wondering what that poor burger did to you, is all,”

“I’m hungry,” she says, and frowns. She doesn’t have to explain anything to him.

“It’s good to see,” he says. “You haven’t been eating enough.”

“I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear that,” she says. “I don’t wanna deal with your stalker-y ookiness right now.”

He looks like he’s going to say something else, but pulls it back at the last moment. She waves at the waitress and orders more fries and another coffee. Maybe they should just stay here. She can have all the grease and caffeine that she wants and he can hide under the table when the sun comes up.

“What’re you smiling at?” he says.

“Nothing.” Then, because she doesn’t want him to start his dog-with-a-bone routine, she says, “I’m righteous too.”

“What?”

“You said Angel was righteous. Me and him, kind of fighting the same fight.”

“So?”

“So, why does it annoy you when it’s him?”

He takes his time answering, white teeth stripping the skin off the bone with precision, and she busies herself with her rings.

“You’re not righteous,” he says after a little while. “You’re good.”

“Not really seeing the difference.” He rolls his eyes. 

“He was righteous when he was evil. That didn’t change. He was always a bleeding hypocrite. Rake me over the coals for- well, anyway, good’s different. That’s what you are.” His eyes are soft, and she abruptly hates him. What does good mean to a killer like him?

“And you think you know what good is.” 

“No,” he mutters, suddenly embarrassed, as if they are discussing some embarrassing body function. “I know what honesty is, that’s all. You’re genuine, all the way through.”

He’s not looking at her, and the hate burns transmutes itself into bone-deep weariness. She doesn’t want to be here, doesn’t want his half-formed love words, doesn’t want the cool of the cheap tabletop under her arms or the buzz of the cheap coffee. 

She stands up quick enough that the chairs make a horrible screech. The waitress whips her head round. She drops a few bills on the table. 

“I’m gonna go get a map,” she says. “Figure out a plan.”

*

“Plan” is putting it strongly. What she has is a town name that she’d picked because it had sounded like the name of her second grade teacher. She doesn’t tell Spike this, of course, just tells him the name and reads him directions from the map she’d gotten at the gas station.

It takes them almost two days to get there. Spike can only drive half the day and Buffy doesn’t trust herself to handle this car that’s probably older than Giles is. They don’t talk except when they have to, the silence part of an unspoken, shifting peace that she’s not sure how to manage.

Spike hogs the radio, and she looks at the map and traces the route and does not think about how long it would take to get back to Sunnydale. 

At one point, he shakes her awake. She hadn’t even realised she was sleeping.

“We’re here.”

“Here” is a battered sign proclaiming that they have just entered the town of Reeve’s Point, pop. 3492. There isn’t much for a while after they have passed the sign, just scrubby bush with thick forest in the distance, the occasional old-looking house set far back from the road. They pass a couple more cars, all old trucks, and Spike’s sticks out like a sore thumb.

“Not gonna start a farm with you, Slayer,” he says, when another beat-up truck rolls by, a man in actual overalls peering curiously through their scratched-up windows. “If that was your plan.”

A giggle bubbles up at the thought of Spike in the middle of a field, wearing a straw hat and holding a rake. She shakes her head when he glances at her.

“Gonna have to tell me what makes you so giggly sooner or later,” he drawls. “It’s hell on a man’s ego.”

The sun is sinking low by the time they get to a cluster of buildings, and she guesses that they’re getting close to the centre of town, or as centre as a town can get when it barely has three thousand people in it.

“Pull over here,” she says, when they get close to a gas station with a general store attached. 

“Why?”

“Just do it,” she says, and he rolls his eyes before pulling in.

“Grab me a pack of smokes,” he says as she swings her legs out of the car. “And some jerky. The pepper kind.”

The store is kind of dim but clean-smelling, products arranged so precisely on the shelves it looks like something Giles and Anya would have done, and for a moment a wave of longing and sadness washes over her so hard that she physically recoils.

“Are you alright, girlie?” The voice behind her is rough and low, and she whirls around to see an older woman in faded denim only a couple of feet away.

“No - sorry, I’m fine,” she says, and grabs stuff off the shelf at random. “Just a little hungry.” She looks around. The store’s not very big, and has mostly junk food, but she’s hungry enough that she just loads up on that. 

The lady steps behind the till when she goes to pay, and punches everything in with the ease of long practice, barely looking at the till to inspect Buffy instead. So Buffy does it back, taking in her long, silvery blond hair in a neat braid, the weathered, tanned skin of someone who spends a lot of time in the sun, blue eyes sharp as a jaybird’s. 

“Here you go, honey,” she says, and hands her a paper bag. 

“Thanks. Um, my - friend - and I, we’re looking for somewhere to stay. A motel, maybe? We couldn’t see one on the map.” She nods.

“We only have the one motel. I wouldn’t stay if you don’t have to. People here come for the cabins, not to stay in town.”

“Cabins sound okay,” she says. 

“Well, how long are you in town for?” she asks, and sees something in Buffy’s face that makes her raise her eyebrows. “Don’t worry about it. Most all places will be full up, now. Hmm. Look, you said you have a map? Follow Main Street until you get to the antique store, then take a left at an intersection. Keep going until you see the sign for Blue Mountain Cabins. They might have something free.”

“Thank you,” Buffy says, suddenly wanting to cry, and god that’s embarrassing, but this older woman helping her is making her throat close up. She nods her head and runs for the car.

*

They find the cabin rental place okay, and she leaves him in the car again.

“You look like the opposite of a responsible tenant,” she says, and he preens. 

The office is messy, paper everywhere, and the only person inside is a greasy-looking guy that kind of reminds her of Whistler.

“Yeah? What do you need?” he doesn’t look up from the paper he’s scribbling on.

“I want to rent a cabin.” He flicks his eyes up at her, an appraising look that makes her want to bank out of the dank office. 

“Don’t have too much inventory left. We’re always full come summer. Should have planned ahead, sweetheart.” She grits her teeth.

“What do you have?” she says. He shrugs, and digs out a piece of paper from one of the mountains on his desk.

“We got three free. All around three thousand a month.” She blanches. She has money, but not enough to drop that much on a cabin.

“I can’t afford that,” she says, which might be a mistake, considering how he cocks his head at her. But she’s tired and sweaty and Spike’s music sucks, and the idea of getting back in the car until they get to the next town makes her want to run off into the woods.

“Well, what can you afford, honey?” She ignores that last part and runs some quick calculations. 

“Um, seven fifty?” He snorts, and shakes his head. 

“Not from around here, are you?” 

“Fine,” she says, furious suddenly, as if she’s stubbed her toe. “We’ll just leave then.” She turns to leave.

“Hey now.” The appraising look is back, and she really hates it. “I might have something. Gotta be cash, though.”

“What is it?”

“An older place. A little off the beaten track, but livable. You want it?”

“Yes,” she says immediately. 

*

She pays him in cash, and he sells her a map to the cabin for an extra four dollars. Definitely like Whistler, she decides, and determinedly doesn’t turn around even though she knows that he’s watching her leave.

The map is one of those cartoon-y ones that are more for a souvenir than actual directions, but she does her best, and soon they have left the sparse buildings of the town for a narrow road that winds its way through thick trees on either side.

The road takes them down in a gently circular path, as if they are slowly descending into a whirlpool, and she is starting to feel just faintly dizzy when the trees suddenly fall away to reveal a small, sparkling lake and a run-down looking cabin just a little way away. There aren’t any other buildings in sight, and no people either, and she feels much further than just half an hour out of town. They both get out of the car.

“Quiet,” Spike says. He’s standing in the shade of one of the few trees that are growing near the cabin, wincing whenever the leaves shift and let a little light through. 

“Yeah,” she says, distracted. She toes her sandals off and steps forward so she can dip her feet in the lake. The water is deliciously cool, a welcome distraction from the heat and stress of the day. She closes her eyes.

“Those our digs, then? Gonna have a look.” He clomps off toward the cabin and starts to wrench at the door. It’s a move designed to annoy her, and it works, and she scowls as she pushes past him. 

“Break it and I don’t get my security deposit back.” She fishes out the old key that the guy at the office gave her and gets the door to open, after some persuasion. 

The cabin is dimly lit, and she sneezes immediately at the cloud of dust that rises as soon as she feels around for the light switch. 

“Er, Slayer.” Spike is still standing outside, his face an interesting mix of pissed-off and embarrassed. “Need you to invite me in,” he says, churlish.

“That’s how it works? But I only just stepped in.”

“You have the keys, don’t you? Signed a contract? Hurry up, before I roast.”

The sun is changing angle, slightly, and it would be incredibly stupid if this is how he dies, after everything.

“Come in,” she says, and he steps in, eyes soft the same way they were when she let him back into Revello.

“Thanks,” he says, and they both turn to get a good look at the cabin.

*

“Well. It’s - ”

“Shut up.”

“Can see why you got it for cheap.”

“Shut up .”

“Not to worry, I spent four days in a burnt out opium den that was- hey now, put that stake away.”

*

So, fine, it’s not good. Or okay, or even habitable, really. It’ll be fine. They’ll just go back into town and get cleaning supplies, and maybe a power washer. And Spike’s old-timey, he’s probably gonna know how to put furniture back together. At least there’s water and electricity.

*

It takes a few days to get the cabin to a place where swirls of dust don’t rise up when she moves a piece of furniture, and a little longer before she stops sleeping in the car instead of the mouldy beds. 

Spike’s not handy at all, and they wind up with a pile of unsalvageable furniture that they just pile at the back. Luckily the beds and one couch are okay, and the camping store in town sells sort-of furniture.

Spike is a horrible complainer but a pretty good cleaner, all told, and he lights up when he finds boxes of books hidden in the pantry. 

She falls into bed exhausted every night, too tired to dream.

*

One day, Spike takes off sometime in the afternoon. He says he’s going to go find them food -  she’s been living off the junk food from the gas station, and she knows that he’s running low on blood. He snarls when she says she’ll come with him. He probably just wants to escape for a little while. Vampires aren’t really made for scouring kitchen sinks. She decides she wants the afternoon off too. The limescale in the bathtub will just have to wait another day.

She walks to the edge of that beautiful lake, savouring the still and quiet. She looks around, but there isn’t a person to be seen, just like all the days they’ve been there. She glances around one more time to make sure she’s alone, peels her shorts and tshirt off, and wades into the lake.

The water is as cold as she remembers, especially with the sun hidden behind the trees on the far side, and she swims hard to warm up. She hasn’t really spent that much time in the water. Wesley had made both her and Faith do some kind of training in the high school pool before he’d given up on being her Watcher, and she spent some time at the beach last summer, but she can’t remember the last time she swam like this.

She’s definitely going to have to find a bathing suit next time they go into town. 

It’s clear enough that she can see several feet in front of her when she ducks underwater, even when she dives down a little. It’s pretty shallow, maybe twenty feet down, and she can see the bottom.

It doesn’t really look like it’s underwater at all, with underwater grass swaying gently in the current, and sand swirling and eddying in spirals when she swims closer. It’s nice, to only have the rush of water in her ears, and the distant glint of the sun filtering through the water, turning everything into eerie shades of blue and green that remind her of stained glass, and the water holding her up so she doesn’t have to worry about supporting herself.

She swims up and dives back down for air a few more times - Slayers can’t breathe underwater or anything but they can hold their breath for longer than a human. Wesley had handed her a kettlebell to keep her from floating up and nudged her into the pool and she’d done it, emerging with her chest burning to have him say, “two minutes and forty seven seconds. Well within the expected parameters, Miss Summers.”

Up, and down again, and it’s getting cold now. The sky is turning a dusky orange, and the chill is starting to seep into her bones, but she’s not ready to leave. So, back down, and this time she flips over so she can see the sheen of the water right at the top. It looks like liquid silver, and she braces her feet at the bottom so she can push her way back to the top, but her foot slips against the sand and scrubby grass and right into a fault line in the lakebed.

She yelps at the pain and watches as half her oxygen floats away from her in silvery bubbles.

Shit , she thinks, and pulls her foot up, but it’s slipped into the crevice at her ankle and she’s stuck.

Top ten dumbest Slayer deaths ever , a voice that sounds kind of like Faith says in her head. It would be beyond pathetic, she thinks, after everything. Her lungs start to burn, and panic begins to buzz in her muscles.

She reaches down and tugs at her foot, ignoring the sharp pain in her heel, but it doesn’t budge. The buzz is building up into a primal roar; she wants to flail and scream out the last of her air. She pushes one more time, hard, and something gives in her ankle but she’s out, she’s free, and her lungs are going to explode.

All she can do is think, don’t breathe in , and her limbs aren’t coordinating enough to let her swim as fast as she needs to. The twenty feet to the surface seems to be two hundred, and she flails desperately for the air. The silver light of the surface has faded to a dull grey, or maybe she’s fading, and fuck, she can’t help it, her legs aren’t really responding anymore and her chest is killing her, and she breathes in, and it hurts more than anything she’d ever felt, but she can’t stop herself from sucking it in, and the grey fades to black.

*

There’s an iron band against her chest, holding hard enough that it should hurt. Then she’s cold, suddenly, and there’s a sharp impact on her back, between her shoulder blades. It happens again, harder, and the band around her squeezes even tighter.

The muscles in her chest spasm and she coughs up what feels like half the water in the lake. It burns coming up, like too-hot coffee, and she whimpers as she coughs up more. Something hits her back again, hard, and she sucks in a raspy, painful breath.

She tries to speak but her body doesn’t want to do that yet. Her eyes barely want to crack open, but when she forces them she sees the endless dark of the lake in front of them, a white arm wrapped tight against her torso, and her own feet dangling a few inches off the ground. Spike shakes her, hard, and her head snaps back against his collarbone.

“What the fuck were you doing?” He roars loud enough that the creatures in the underbrush fall silent for a couple of moments. 

“Let me go,” she rasps, and shoves at his arm when he doesn’t. He lowers her enough that she can get her feet under her, and she winces when her injured ankle twinges. 

She turns away from the lake - she doesn’t want to look at it anymore, not when she can still taste lakewater in the back of her throat - and faces Spike. He’s soaking wet, hair freed from the gel by the water and sticking up in white tufts. He hasn’t moved, and stares at her with an expression of faint horror. He’s afraid of her, she realises, with a sick swoop in her gut

He’s panting like he actually needs the oxygen, eyes wide and little-boyish. She presses her fist against her mouth to hold in a sob. 

“It was an accident,” she says, when she can, and something shutters closed behind his eyes. 

“Fall to the bottom of the lake, did you,” he says, and his tone is biting. She looks away. The sun is almost gone now, the last rays hitting the tops of the trees behind their cabin, and she’s cold. It occurs to her that she’s still only in her bra and underwear, which have probably gone translucent, and she shuffles backward to where her clothes are laying on the beach.

Spike doesn’t move his eyes from her face though, only stares at her as if she’s some unknown entity, and she turns away to slip her top back on. It’s vaguely humiliating to have to wiggle back into her shorts, but she does it.

“Thanks. Thank you,” she tacks on, but he doesn’t say anything. His eyes are flitting between her and the water, running unseen calculations. She gestures at the path.

“I’m gonna-” she says, and when he doesn’t say anything, makes her way into the dark cabin.

*

He stays out there until the moon has risen. Buffy makes a tuna salad sandwich for dinner, treats herself to one of the chocolate bars, rifles through the first fifty pages of a John Grisham that she found in one of the boxes, and changes the sheets on her bed. 

Spike doesn’t come in. She can’t see him outside, and the lack of vamp tingles tells her he’s not anywhere close. She feels it when he does come back, a cold brush at the back of her neck. The door doesn’t open, though, and she can’t hear anything, so she stays inside.

She’s not tired at all. If anything, she’s buzzed. If she’d been in Sunnydale she would be halfway through patrol now, taking advantage of the moonlight to poke around in the small copses of woods that bounded the cemeteries in the North side of town. She doesn’t want to stay inside. She wants to carve a stake for herself and go hunting.

She steps outside, barefoot, hands empty. It takes a few moments for her eyes to adjust, after the warm light of the cabin. She finally sees him, leaning against the hood of the DeSoto, a cigarette between his lips. He’s not looking at her, just at the lake, and he doesn’t look at her as she approaches.

“You don’t have to lurk when it’s actually your house,” she tries, and he laughs unpleasantly.

“Why did you bring me here?” he asks, and turns to look at her.  His eyes are hard as flint, unforgiving.

“What do you mean,” she says, and he scoffs. 

“You had a whole passel of do-gooders at your door. The Watcher, the Witches, the boy. But here I am. Why?”

She wishes she had put shoes on. Actually, she wishes she had never left the cabin at all.

“Owe me that much, Slayer,” he says. “Makin’ me play little house on the prairie with you, dredge you up from the bottom of a lake.”

She does and she doesn’t; she doesn’t owe him anything she doesn’t want to give, but she can’t speak. Can’t turn back to the cabin either, as if he’s got her in non-existent thrall.

“Been thinkin’ about it,” he says, and draws on his cigarette. It glows red, like a one-eyed monster. “Was thinkin’ maybe you needed someone to get your body back to your friends.”

Shock drops her mouth open, fuels her feet to finally storm over to where he’s watching her lowly, eyes half-lidded and lips curled, as if he’s watching something distasteful. 

“Don’t you dare,” she spits, and he laughs.

“Of course I dare. I’m a demon. Not a man. Why not me?” His eyes are black in the dark, lip still curled, but he’s half-hunched against some expected pain, the ground around them littered with cigarette butts. She turns away, fixes her eyes on the trunk of a tree several feet away.

“How did you know I was in the water?” she asks.

“I saw your clothes by the side,” he says. “And the ripples of water. Call it a flash of intuition, if you like.” The sharpest edge of his anger is gone, she sees, leaving something small in its place, and she perches on the hood of the car.

“That’s not what I want,” she says. She glances at him sidelong; he determinedly ignores her. “I…” words have never been her strong suit, and they fail her now; with Dawn gone, she has been dislocated from normal life. She can’t bring her friends - beloved, brave, selfless but ultimately human friends - out of their world.

“Because I knew you would,” she says eventually, “for as long as I wanted you to.” She looks at him. He’s not angry, or hurt; a strange light illuminates his features from within, as if he’s swallowed a candle. The galling selfishness of her confession seems to have skipped him by, which is probably par for the course for a demon.

“You were right about that, love,” he says, gently now - he’s so mercurial, ripping through emotion like he’s flipping through a catalogue - and smiles. There’s something bruised about it, but it’s real. His approval brings on a wash of shame, but she swallows it down.

“I’m gonna go to bed,” she says eventually, when the hood of the car is too cold to stand anymore. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She says it half like a question, although she doesn’t mean to. He nods at her.

“I’ll be here,” he says.