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With a little courage, in time
You might forgive me
With a little loving, in time
You might forgive me

--Dot Allison, Tomorrow Never Comes

Here's the catch about saving the world: If you do it right, no one will notice. No thanks or praise; the world just goes on as it always has, none the wiser for being so close to ending. The people continuing on their daily journeys won't know that walking beside them is the one who intervened to save them from annihilation. They can't thank you, because you gave them a gift they don't know they received.


The tower loomed ceremoniously above the south end of town, dwarfing the warehouses and industrial buildings around where it stood, shining blue and silver in the night. The wind whipped across the platform at the top, leaving it creaking and groaning as if complaining about its poor craftsmanship. Beneath, a small battle raged and the sound carried far above to the platform, mingling with the noise of the whining metal.

Spike stepped lightly up on the top rung, almost bouncing, and saw the Niblet bound back like an animal to slaughter, wearing some kind of strange Renaissance-Faire getup. In front of her, waving a rather large blade, was that creepy little Doc fellow. And he was blabbing at Dawn, just twining on like there wasn't a world-ending crisis going on beneath them. If there was one thing Spike hated, it was a talking killer. "I'm going to kill you, and when I kill you, you'll be dead, and here's how I'm going to kill you, and why, and the reason you never saw it coming," and on and on ad nauseum. Well, all right, he hated many things more than talking killers, but they were right up there on the list -- at least in the top ten. Doc turned when he heard Spike behind him.

"Doesn't a fella stay dead when you kill him?" Spike sneered.

"Look who's talking," Doc answered lightly.

"C'mon, Doc, let's you and me have a go."

"Well... I do have a prior appointment..."

Really, he disliked this bug-eyed little git intensely. The casual wiseguy routine was irritating and boring; not a good combo as far as Spike was concerned. Dawn implored Spike to help her, as if he'd just stopped by for tea and a chat, as if he wasn't aware that the future of the world hinged on this moment. The fellow was still nattering at him but he'd stopped paying attention. Spike moved quickly, grabbing the blade from Doc's hands just as his disgusting frog tongue sprang out. Dodging swiftly to the left, Spike caught the blade on his arm as it ripped through coat, skin, and muscle tissue. He reached out, still strong through the pain, and grabbed the toad in a headlock. Doc twisted his head around and looked with black eyes at him.

"Tell you what. Help me out here, and I'll make sure she knows. You'll be rewarded. You're a smart fellow, what do you say?"

Shrugging, Spike answered, "How 'bout a sucking chest wound instead?"

He spun Doc around, brought the blade up into his chest and hit him with an elbow to the face, sending him flying off the platform. All nice and clean like. Spike looked down for a moment to make sure the body wasn't moving and saw the chaos beneath them, all the little Scoobies running hither and yon, Buffy taking on Glory. He should be down there helping her. But this was where he belonged, since he couldn't hurt the loonies who were acting as Glory's defenders. He turned to Dawn.

She was even more frightened now, eyes huge and breath coming in shallow gulps. Spike untied her, murmuring nonsense syllables to calm her down. It wasn't over yet. There was always the possibility that Buffy was losing her fight down below, so the poor little thing had a right to be scared. As he undid the last rope she threw herself into his arms, nearly knocking him off balance. "Careful!" he barked at her. "You about sent me off the edge and then we'd both be splattered all over the tarmac."

All he got was an armful of Summers and her hair in his mouth and her fingers clutching at him so hard they'd leave bruises. "Spike!" she cried, over and over.

"It's all right, Niblet. It's all right, he's gone." He stroked her hair. Bloody Summers women, he was in love with the lot of them and it pissed him off. It was hard to keep your humans-are-food detachment when just a word or a glance or a kind gesture from one of them reduced you to jelly. Spike picked her up and carried her in his arms. She barely weighed an ounce. He started carefully down the rungs that passed for stairs on this contraption, Dawn's arms fast around his neck.

"I'm sorry I was mean to you before, I'll never turn my back on you again. I'm so sorry, Spike." Dawn had expected Buffy to rescue her, but if she had to pick a pinch-hitter, it would be Spike -- even after everything that had happened. She clung to him, his strength and power the balm she needed, his gruffness the right potion for her terror. Dawn was almost afraid to ask him about her sister; if he was the one rescuing her, then Buffy must be in trouble. Sobbing into his neck, she said "I'm sorry" again, and he made a huffing noise in his throat. "Buffy?" she asked.

"Taking on the big guns. I just happened to be free. She'll be here in no time." He was thudding down the stairs and Dawn bounced in his arms. The smell of his leather coat and cigarette smoke was comforting, which was strange because she didn't like the smell of either very much at all.

"She'll be so grateful. And we treated you so bad." She thought about getting down and walking the rest of the way herself, because he was still in terrible shape from the torture and the burns, cuts, and bruises. All for her. But she couldn't find her legs, could only hold on to Spike as if he was her savior. He hated that kind of sentimental stuff, though.

Dawn sniffled and Spike looked at her face all moist with tears and snot running every which way. It would be disgusting if it wasn't so endearing.

"You can quit banging on about that. It doesn't matter." How long were these bloody stairs, anyway? Christ, why did evil always entail such elaborate schemes? Why couldn't anyone just sit in an armchair and dole out the evil without going to such lengths?

"No, I was mean to you and you saved me, we were all mean to you because of Buffy. But you saved me anyway even though you should hate me."

Snorting derisively, he said, "That'll never happen." He stopped and put her down. "I'm a bit knackered here. Let me catch my breath. So to speak."

She still clung to him like a limpet. All the times he'd fantasized in great detail about something just like this, now here it was, only with the wrong Summers. He picked her up again, arms, chest, and stomach still aching from Glory's brutal torture not so long ago, and continued on, listening to the endless stream of self-recrimination by Dawn that was occasionally punctuated by sniffling.

When they got to the bottom all the fighting had stopped and the minions had scarpered. The entire gang was standing around breathlessly, and Buffy was just starting to ascend the structure. She stopped hard, her mouth open, still in full battle mode -- always tough to stop when you got going, like a runaway train.

Buffy stared up at him holding Dawn, who was looking none the worse for wear, just awfully moist. Dawn clutched him tight. Spike really had saved the day. Buffy hadn't expected it, not really, but here he was with the key, and there Glory lay behind them, undone. No portal to an evil dimension anywhere in sight.

Buffy thought in astonishment, Spike saving the world -- what's wrong with this picture? She reached for Dawn, but Dawn only clutched Spike harder than ever and continued crying. So Buffy did the only thing she could and put her arms around them both, resting her cheek against Dawn's while they both cried. Spike was probably enjoying this way too much and would make a huge deal of it later, but for now she didn't care so much. And anyway, he deserved it.

Behind her, Xander made a little "hrm-hrmmm" sound. She turned her head slightly but didn't respond, then laughed when Spike said, "Do you mind? We're having a moment, here."

Wiping away tears, Buffy smiled as she drew back from them. Finally Dawn let go. Buffy noticed, though, that he still clutched her hand, their fingers entwined. She stared at Spike. Still slightly bruised from the torture, standing there in his long black coat, attached to her sister, having done the job and then some. For a heartbeat in his shining eyes there was some type of connection there, something human in him, and she loved him just a little for being so good.

Then the rest of her friends swarmed around them laughing and crying (mostly Anya, sobbing loudly and insisting they were tears of joy), and Tara was back to normal, and Giles had taken his glasses off and was pinching the bridge of his nose to stop from crying, and that fleeting connection to Spike was gone. When she turned back to him he was walking away, the bright whiteness of his peroxided hair fading last as he receded into the crowd of stunned and confused people. Buffy hesitated, wanting to stop him from melting into the darkness and away from them. She should have let him know he was welcome to stay, but the relief and joy of her friends froze her in place.



"Spike should be here," Dawn said for the one-hundredth time. They were all sitting in Buffy's living room, not so much celebrating as decompressing, trying to take in the idea that it was now over at last. Giles looked pained every time Dawn repeated the phrase. Quiet music played on the stereo while Xander and Anya danced together -- mostly they just shoved their bodies together and shifted from foot to foot -- while on the couch Willow lay with her head on Tara's lap. After all this time taking care of Tara, Willow was finally able to rest. Buffy was so relieved to see them at peace.

"I know, Dawn," Buffy said, "but I think he felt uncomfortable. You don't know how hard it is for everyone to accept him, for him to accept us."

"Yes, I do," Dawn said earnestly. "But they *have* to accept him now."

Buffy shrugged at Giles and nodded her head in the direction of the kitchen. "I'm going to get some more root beer. You want a refill?" Dawn petulantly handed her the glass. Buffy was glad to see that nearly dying and being tormented by Glory/Ben had left such an indelible mark and made her so much more enchanting. It would be nice to be able to recover like that, get over nearly having your life stolen from you and sending the world into a horrifying hell dimension. As if it were nothing more than a trip to the mall.

In the dark kitchen Giles glanced at Buffy while he fussed with cleaning up the mess. He still felt too keyed up -- oh, there was a bad pun, indeed -- by the events tonight and that brought out his fusty side. Pottering was a time-honored English tradition in the aftermath of calamity. He should really go home, he knew, and let the kids be kids, but... there had been such unspeakable things tonight. Being in each other's company would be the only way they could get through it. He watched Buffy as she drummed out the bass line of the song with her fingertips. Giles could never tell her that he'd put the finishing touches on Ben, had killed another human deliberately for her. When she'd gone for Dawn, Buffy had left a non-human and hadn't known about the human form reappearing. If Ben had appeared when she was fighting... well, Buffy wouldn't have been able to end it all.

"So it seems that Spike has saved the day." Giles tried not to let his peevishness show, but it came out nonetheless.

"It would seem so indeed," Buffy mocked him, terribly. After all these years she still couldn't do even a halfway decent English accent.

"After all this time and all we've been through dealing with Glory and enduring his vileness, in the end he rose to the occasion."

"Yup." Buffy looked at him from under her brows. "Makes it hard to hate him and be disgusted with him, doesn't it? Dawn's completely wacked over him, too, even though she denied still having a crush on him." She looked hard at Giles. "And it's not like you slacked on the job today, either, mister. I don't know what I would have done without all of you."

"It's what makes you unique, Buffy," he said, smiling at her with a warm paternal glow. These days he took every chance to give the warm paternal glow. "You've maintained your life, your friends, despite all obstacles, and you've succeeded where possibly no one else could have because of that."

"Aw, go on," she smirked.

"Buffy, you did the unimaginable tonight. In a way we all did, under your direction. You've grown so much as a leader."

"Hoo-ah, Rangers all the way."

Taking his glasses off, Giles chuckled. "You *are* an excellent tactician and leader. And you should take credit for that."

But she was quickly grim again. "I couldn't lose her, Giles. I just couldn't. I can't lose any more people." Maybe that even extended to Spike right now. "I have never been so scared in my life."

"Well, it's a sign of your maturity that you soldiered on and got through it with only one little lapse. I've been thinking, Buffy, for a long time, that you've outgrown my help."

"No! No, I have not. No growing!" She thought suddenly of one of her favorite books when she was young, Higglety Pigglety Pop or There Must Be More to Life. The baby that wouldn't eat, refused to grow, and shouted "No!" all the time. When told by the dog nanny to eat so she could grow and not to shout, the baby had hollered "No eat! No grow! Shout!" It was tempting, but if she yelled anything like that at Giles right now, he'd probably have her committed.

It was obvious where he was going with this. For a long time she'd had the vague feeling he was planning to leave. If they'd played out this whole last big battlefield scene, well, then, what would stop him from going? Only her. *No grow. Shout.*

"This is a party, Giles, to celebrate. Or, well, maybe not a party so much as a how the hell did we do that wake-like gathering. But. Ding dong, the witch is dead, and now we sing and dance." She looked over her shoulder, hoping Willow wasn't around to hear that. "Let's go back in and celebrate."

When they got to the living room Dawn was flinging herself off the couch at Spike, who had just arrived. Buffy hadn't even heard the door open, though the music wasn't loud. Sneaky vampire types. Suddenly Spike was covered in Dawn as she squealed "Spike!" over and over. Time to put the smackdown on her little sister, Buffy thought, though it was hard to begrudge her these feelings. Dawn had every right to look at Spike as her knight in shining armor. So did Buffy, really. But the kid really needed to stop with the full-body contact.

"Hello, Spike, we're glad you're here," Buffy said. There was a forced nod from Giles off to her left. Xander made a strangling noise. "We're *all* glad," she added pointedly.

Spike looked at her through half-closed eyes that glittered with disbelief. He peeled Dawn off and flopped down on the couch, pulling a bottle out of the deep pocket of his coat. "Didn't know if it would be BYOB or not." Dawn cuddled up close to him and he looked at her out of the corner of his eye.

Just a few weeks ago the whole group had shut him out, even the Niblet. Then when they couldn't handle it all it was "if you please, Spike, help us save her, help us save us." It wasn't that he was a reluctant hero. It was simply that he didn't know which way to play the hand that was being dealt him -- Spike realized he had a royal flush, but should he bet his way to the bigger pot and keep the game going as long as possible, or show his hand early? Just how far could he go with it?

Did they even understand what was different? How much had happened? They were grudgingly thanking him and muttering behind their hands, pretending things hadn't changed. Well, sod them all, then. He'd just hang with the Little Bit and bask in the sunshine of her love, wait to see how big the pot got before he took it all.

Buffy brought him a plate of hot wings -- she'd remembered, he thought stupidly and wondered if she'd got them in on the off chance he'd come round the house. Spike caught a little eyebrow furrow from Giles behind her. As if she was doing just what he'd told her not to do. So they'd all been talking about him, Spike realized. Poor babies. Having to figure out a way to cope with the fact that he'd helped them. Just imagine the concern crawling about in the Watcher's brain like a worm, all that anxiety over whether Buffy would take up with him.

They all talked and chattered among themselves, rewinding and replaying the night's events over and over. When they got to the part about Buffy leaving Glory dying on the ground, Spike noticed that Giles twitched a little. That was interesting. When they'd left the scene of the crime, Glory herself had been nowhere to be found, only the body of the all too human Young Dr. Kildare. Someone had killed him, but the slayer would never kill a human.

Spike let them ramble without saying a word himself. This was the first time he'd been in Buffy's company this way, easy and unencumbered. Friends, not enemies. As if she was opening a door not just to her life, but to their lives as comrades in arms.

Dawn tugged his arm around her shoulders, then made a little strangling sound when she saw his arm.

"You're hurt," she said quietly.

Buffy was instantly on her feet, holding his arm out for inspection. "What happened?" The heat of her hand on his skin, the smell of her so near, intoxicated him so that he couldn't answer.

None of them had actually asked him about the goings on up above, and he'd no idea how much Dawn would have spilt before he got there. "Just a souvenir from Doc." Spike looked at Xander. "You remember our friend with the horrorshow tongue? He wasn't quite as dead as we thought. Was all set to do my girl here some mischief. Found him blathering on when I got up there, waving a knife, blah blah kill you blah blah."

Xander shivered slightly. "He could give Gene Simmons oral issues."

"No kidding."

"We should get you a bandage," Dawn said, but Spike just laughed at her. Dawn looked up at Buffy and said, "He was going to make cuts on me. To open the portal. Shallow cuts, he said. But Spike took the knife away, that's when they had a fight before Spike pushed him off the tower."

"Be healed before you know it, kid. But the coat -- bugger slashed my coat." Hours later and he was *still* seething about that.

Tara mumbled a few words from near the vicinity of Willow's hair; Willow then waved her hand. The long rip in the sleeve was transformed. "Good as new." Tara smiled. "Just a little present for saving Dawnie; don't go asking for a new coat or anything."

A bloke could like her. Too bad she played for the home team.

When he looked over at Buffy she was watching him -- no, studying him, really. Only her look wasn't the harsh, scrutinizing glare it usually was. Her face was soft and interested, eyes searching his for something. Maybe looking for a soul, hoping he'd grown one unexpectedly so she could treat him decently, treat him like Angel. Well, too damn bad. No soul today, but she still had to treat him like a hero.

After a while Spike got up and motioned that he was going to have a cigarette out back. Dawn followed him. He sat down on the edge of the step. She did likewise, and they sat quietly for awhile, arms and hips touching, looking up at the sky.

When he blew the smoke out he tried to keep it away from Dawn. Wouldn't do for big sis if he got the bitty one hooked on the evil weed. Hard to believe this quiet sky and average suburban night was the same one the world could have ended on. Dawn didn't say anything, simply sat quietly next to him, gazing at the same sky.

When Buffy came into the kitchen to refill the snack bowls she saw the two of them out on the back porch. Their voices floated inside. She stopped what she was doing, moving into the shadows to watch and listen. They'd been out there for a while. She couldn't imagine what they talked about and why Spike would willingly put up with a teenage girl. But in a weird way, vampires were like teenagers, all id and very little ego or superego to keep them in check. Or at least, that was Tara's theory, and it made sense to Buffy.

"I mean," Dawn said to him, "I don't even know. Does this mean I'm not a key anymore, if I don't unlock anything? And after all these years of not having a sister, now Buffy's stuck with me and she never had any say in the matter. So that's what I mean, I guess... what's my point, you know?"

"Being her little sis, that's your point, you nimrod," Spike said angrily. "Giving her a reason to go on. She was willing to throw us all to the wolves for you, so don't you go thinking that just because you weren't her sister before, that's all water under the bridge." Well, that much hadn't changed, Buffy thought -- he still mixed metaphors.

"I just feel like... like there's no real need for me anymore. She never did need me. And Mom's gone." Dawn curled her arms in front of her chest and leaned forward while Spike patted her shoulder. Just like he did to me when he found out Mom was sick, Buffy remembered with a sharp icy pain. After all this time, she was seeing pieces of a puzzle come together, making a new picture of how much he really did care.

"That's just crap. And I happen to know you're wrong."

"What am I going to do with my life?" That was the kind of question that made Buffy ache inside. Her inability to help Dawn know who she was twisted her gut. Yet here Spike was, talking to Dawn in a way that Dawn got and responded to, in a way that Buffy could never hope to reach her.

He turned his head. His white hair was luminescent in the porch light and his skin so pale; even at this distance it looked as if you could see the veins and blood beneath. Then he took off his coat to put it over Dawn's shoulders, like a guy giving a girl his letterman's jacket. He was wearing his requisite black tee, and as his arm passed through the light, the cut on it showed black in the darkness.

"You are gonna grow up and become a complete stunner and break the hearts of all the blokes who fall for you, is what you're gonna do. Be every bit as wonderful as your sister, and you won't live in her shadow because you'll be you. People will love you for you. So shut the bleeding hell up and just get on with it. Christ, I hate whingeing."

Dawn moved towards him for a hug, but instead he reached out and playfully shoved her head back while she flailed her arms at him, making for a big show of emotion. The harder she tried, the more he pushed. Dawn giggled helplessly. Spike was smiling, Buffy realized. Really smiling. Enjoying himself, enjoying Dawn.

Then they got up and came inside, but Buffy wasn't quick enough and they caught her standing there at the window. As Dawn slipped past her with a suspicious and smug look, Spike stood in front of her, his body nearly touching hers. She could smell the tobacco and leather even though Dawn had his coat, the scent of the goop he used to keep his hair plastered down. Buffy touched the back of his hand with her fingertips, his skin cool like granite.

"Thank you. For talking to her that way. I could never..."

"Nothing special. She's a good kid."

He leaned a little closer and for one moment Buffy could almost imagine kissing him. But not quite.

"I've never seen you smile like that. Not a mocking smile, or that predatory grin you used to get when we fought. Or mister triumphant victor when you were kicking my ass. Happy."

Spike turned away, stricken. That she would take note of something like that was almost too much to grasp. As if she thought of him once in a while, noticed things about him. They weren't enough to convince her he was worth her time, though. He snapped himself back to his coolest, most detached manner. "Predatory grin, eh? Mocking smile?" He tried the happy one she liked so much on for size.

"See, that would pretty much be what I meant. You look like a shark when you do that."

"Flattery will get you everywhere you want, luv."

Quickly Buffy moved away from him. He'd scupper his chances by being a wiseass. Daft prick. He could never quite get a handle on how far was too far when teasing her. Oh, who was he kidding? If he didn't get to her now with this extra leverage he'd obtained tonight, he never would.

Spike followed Buffy back into the living room and sat next to her on the sofa, prepared to dig in and bet his way to the whole kitty.



Dawn frowned at Buffy, holding up her Chinese firecracker shirt in one hand and in the other her pink-sparkled baseball jersey with the ironic cat. "Okay, this one or this one?" Buffy just didn't want to get the look she was going for, as if she could just wear *any*thing to hang with Spike. Of course, if Buffy had her way, she wouldn't be hanging with Spike at all, but it's not like she had to come right home after school. There was room now that Glory was gone and things were back to... well, normal wasn't right, obviously, with Mom gone, but something vaguely resembling normal.

Not that she'd ever really understood normal. Even in all the false memories the monks gave her, their lives had never been average. Often times Dawn had longed for a bland, boring life like other kids at school rebelled against, just so she didn't have to hide her understanding of how truly evil the world was. To stop keeping secrets about demons and gods and keys and hell dimensions, secrets that weighed her down till she felt broken. Sometimes she yearned to drag a schoolmate out to a cemetery at night and shadow Buffy on patrol, just so people could see how really important things were. And how important Dawn was. That she wasn't just some kid whose dad had left them and now whose mom had died, as well.

"That one shows too much lower tummy with those jeans. You're still fifteen, and I don't mean Jodie Foster hooker fifteen, either."

"Like you never wore--"

"Dawn! Knock it off. Just wear the pink one, okay? Don't make me be momish, I hate that. We had one mom and I don't want to pretend that I'm her." Both of them stared down at the floor, stricken. Buffy sat on the edge of Dawn's bed, her hands in her lap. This feeling of helplessness was overwhelming at times. She wanted to be good with Dawn, she wanted to be helpful, but everything came out wrong. Even though Dawn was seeing the counselor at school, it wasn't like she could tell him how difficult the circumstances had been since their mother's death. What was she supposed to say? This god who wanted to create a rift in the dimensions and turn earth into a hell for every being on the planet was after me because I was the key to opening the dimensions, and then my sister the vampire slayer had to do battle with her after she kidnapped me to cut me up before I was rescued by a vampire who's in love with that same sister the slayer. Yeah, sure, you betcha.

Instead of flouncing out and giving Buffy the silent treatment, though, Dawn sat on the bed beside Buffy and put her hand over her sister's. "I'll wear the pink one, okay? Besides, I was only going to see Spike. I wasn't going to, you know, walk the streets down by the docks or anything."

"Dawn, you..." Oh, crap, how on earth could she explain this to her now, so she'd get it?

"I know, he's a vampire and you hate him because he's, well, a vampire and you're worried about him being a bad influence since he's... a vampire. I just... Well, I like being around him. He never ever talks to me like I'm a dumb kid--"

"I do not talk to you like you're a dumb kid!"

Dawn furrowed her brow. "--and he always listens to me and he's funny."

Buffy looked at her incredulously.

"No, really! He is. And he saved me, Buffy, and it means a lot to me."

What would Mom have thought? As long as she knew where Dawn was, Buffy could imagine her mother allowing it, within reason, especially after Spike had helped them. Spike cared for Buffy and he couldn't hurt Dawn, so with Glory out of the picture, it shouldn't be dangerous. Maybe she just hadn't wanted Dawn to hang out with him because she was afraid of what it meant now that he'd done the heroic thing. That Spike would work on Dawn until something changed with him and her...

"All right," Buffy said, "obviously you've got the crush monster real bad here. Just be home for dinner."

Throwing her shirt over her head and rapidly pinning her hair back, Dawn yippeed and grabbed her book bag before flying out the door.

It was stupid to worry over her. The biggest threat was gone. Vampires and demons weren't threats, not so much. Now it didn't matter if the days were longer or shorter -- if Dawn was still hanging out there when it was dark, Spike would walk her home. She was okay in the daylight, safe in the dark. There were times Buffy wished she knew what that feeling would be like.

After a few moments of gathering some energy Buffy went off to tackle her day. The house really needed tidying up but she spent the time instead figuring out how to pay the bills -- she'd have to ask Giles about that stipend again from the Watcher's Council. Then she had to go to the U to see about getting into summer quarter after losing more than a month of classes.

Always something she should be doing. Her whole life was ruled by shoulds. As Buffy left the house she thought back to the vision in the desert, that death is your gift schtick. The more she thought about it, the more it seemed like some kind of prophecy. When she'd fought Glory, it had echoed darkly in her mind. Was the death of Glory a gift to the world? Or did it mean something else?

Throughout her day, whenever her attention was left to wander she turned that around in her brain. Spike once told her that you couldn't fuck with a prophecy. They were always purposely vague and if you did something to thwart it, thinking you knew what it meant, the prophecy would turn around and bite you on your ass, becoming something else entirely. Something you weren't prepared for. What if her gift of death (and really, what did that mean? Could someone return the gift if she kept the receipt? Did they have to write her a thank-you note?) wasn't what she thought it was? Once she'd been the subject of a prophecy that both Angel and Giles had told her she couldn't change. No matter how much she'd wanted to change it, she couldn't. Whatever "death is your gift" meant may not really have been what they thought it was.

When dinnertime rolled around Dawn came breezing through the door. They had a quiet supper, the first they'd spent alone together in a very long time, then cleaned up, some new CD Dawn had borrowed from a classmate on the stereo.

While they were doing dishes Buffy asked, "What exactly do you *do* with Spike, anyway? I can't imagine what you could possibly find to do." Was he telling her horrible stories about killing people? Or did they just watch Passions and binge on Twizzlers and Pepsis?

"No, he's interesting. Like, he can help me with history, because he knows about stuff first-hand."

Buffy exhaled loudly. "All I've ever seen him do is drink and watch TV." She could just imagine the "history" Spike would know first-hand.

"Well, yeah, he does that, too. But I mean, he reads a lot. Poetry and old books and stuff."

"Poetry? Oh, you are so kidding me."

Dawn hmphed and did a hip-tilt. After fuming for a couple seconds, she said, "No, he really knows stuff. And I missed almost all of the past month -- when we were reading Shakespeare in class I wasn't there, and he walked me through the things I missed. Everyone thinks he's stupid, but he knows, like, Latin and ancient Greek and that kind of thing." She made her funny little stiff-necked side to side head shake. "And he calls it maths, like there's so much of it you need plurals. It's because of where he went to school. Or when, I mean. Didn't you ever notice the books in his place?"

"I can't say I've ever seen a book at his... crypt." As if somehow that disproved all of Dawn's statements.

"Well, I mean, sometimes he breaks into the library at night. Or bookstores. Okay, I know that's bad! I do. But he said he can read better there when no one's around. I thought he was making it up, but I think he's telling the truth, because he knows about all these books and if he hadn't read them, then how would he know?"

Buffy just shook her head. Intellectual improvement was something she'd never have credited to him. So Spike had Secret Underlying Depths. Or maybe the depths only came out since the chip, because he couldn't do the things he really wanted to. She imagined life would be very boring for him as it stood now. Despite being able to get the violence out of his system fighting demons, there'd be little else to do and he was alone the rest of the time. Angel had been at peace with his solitude, but Spike didn't seem the type to enjoy forced isolation at all -- there was an energy and a fervor in him that wouldn't tolerate being alone too long.

Eventually Buffy forced Dawn upstairs for homework and waited for Xander and Anya to show. Despite Dawn's protests, Buffy was adamant about not leaving her alone at night without someone around. Safety was one thing but keeping Dawn home for classwork was another matter. Fortunately her wonderful friends, people who understood the reality of a slayer's life on the Hellmouth, were there by her side, willing to alternate nights so Buffy could patrol and keep the world safe for teenage girls in pink sparkly cat tops.

After a quick recon around town she meandered to the cemetery, checking around for any fresh graves. Things had been inordinately quiet, and maybe that was a good thing. Battles like she'd had a few days ago weren't really something you just sprang back from. Couldn't land a perfect dismount on the vault and rush off to the balance beam.

Before she knew it she was standing in front Spike's crypt. Buffy knocked lightly and pushed the door open. It was an unwritten rule that no one ever waited for him to answer; it was a crypt, after all, and he wasn't exactly its intended resident. Not a homeowner ensconced in the sanctity of his fully mortgaged dream house.

But he wasn't even there. Inexplicably disappointed, Buffy called down the hole in the ground, waited a few minutes, and decided to leave. It didn't do to poke around in Spike's place; she often found things she didn't want to see. And it was oddly creepy here without him. She pulled the stake from her sleeve and opened the door, only to bump straight into Spike.

"Slayer!" He seemed surprised to see her, a little jumpy and too much emphasis on the S; maybe he was worried she'd caught him in something disreputable. He closed the door behind them and she sat on the marble bench, putting the stake down next to her, watching him take off his coat. "If you're worried about kid sis, I promise I'm keeping the stories strictly G-rated. Not even a Goosebumps-level tale of the darkside from me." He held up three fingers. The idea of him even knowing anything about the Boy Scouts was cosmically sickening. Probably he'd snacked on a few in his time.

"I just... I just wanted to say thank you. I kind of felt like I didn't get to do it properly the other night. You have no idea how grateful I am. We are."

Spike shrugged and started to say something, then abruptly stopped. "Glad I could help."

It was dark in here so she couldn't quite see his face, although Buffy knew he could see hers quite well. As if reading her thoughts, he stood abruptly and flicked open his lighter to start some of the candles. There must be a whole Pottery Barn in here. All stolen, no doubt.

He sat back down, facing her, leaning forward. His face was all angles and lines, Buffy thought. No matter how much she despised him, there was no getting around the fact that he was very handsome. Without the peroxide in his hair he might even be called hot. And of course if he wasn't an evil, soulless, undead killer. How many times had he used his handsomeness to lure a young woman somewhere, then feed off her and kill? Buffy could see him in a dark, smoky bar. Smiling and beguiling, using that low, mysterious voice to lure, and then throwing his victim to Drusilla after he'd had a laugh. The idea of being beholden to him was nauseating.

She thought for a moment about leaving, but he cocked his head to the side, a faint smile on his lips and eyes glittering in the candlelight. She decided to stay. It was so wacked that they could be silent with each other, that there was such a level of comfort now that they could simply sit and be.

"Did you know you were the only vampire I was ever afraid of?" she asked conversationally.

The first response was to laugh. But he knew that was the wrong response and she'd get lathered up with rage, so it was best to go with the second response, whenever it came along.

"Not even the Master really scared me, and he was the one prophesied to kill me, which he did in the end. But you'd killed two slayers, and I didn't get rid of you the first time. You came so close once or twice, and you saw it as such a... a sport."

There were times Spike thought it was a good thing he couldn't breathe. She would make him forget to, or else he'd feel gut-punched and then end up choking for air, which would appear incredibly undignified. How was it she could do this to him, make him feel like he owned an actual heart to rip out?

Her gaze moved slowly up from the floor to his face, sad and regretful. There were years of pain in her eyes, the set of her mouth. Pain worn like a shroud and dark as obsidian. "And now you're saving Dawn and making like the hero. World spinning."

He was so wrapped up in her confession (which she would not have meant as a compliment, but he decided to take it that way) that it took him a moment to put it all together. Suddenly he realized what he'd heard her just say. "Wait -- what? The Master killed you? When?"

"I guess it would have been just before you got here. There was a prophecy that the slayer would die that night in some book Giles was reading. The Tampax something or other. And nothing I did stopped it. He... I drowned, and Xander brought me back."

"That sodding fuck." He'd heard about that geezer from Angel and Darla for years when they traveled around, and was glad he'd never had to meet the arrogant, preening bastard. No possible way could Spike have given that ponce his fealty, and ancient vamps were obsessed with obeisance. His hands twitched, making fists. He hadn't felt such a desire for revenge in decades.

"Don't pretend you wouldn't have wanted that back then. Maybe even now. A little." But there was a question in her eyes, like she was testing him.

"I'd had no idea. He was gone when we got here and... I would die for you now. That's what I went up there to do. Die saving her, saving you."

"Spike, don't." She held her hand up as if in surrender, then stood, possibly to leave.

"Don't what? Remind you how I feel? Remind you just how far I'd go for you?" He stood, coming closer. Heat radiated off her, surrounding his body like a wave, making him dizzy. They were nearly shoulder to opposite shoulder, his head down near hers, all his muscles tensed. Buffy put her hand against his chest lightly as if to ward him off, but she didn't push him back. He stayed there, motionless. Inside her heart beat faster, the rushing of the blood through her veins audible to him, the distinct smell of blood as it heated. Christ, all this time and he could never have believed it, but she did feel something. Hated herself for it, but felt it anyway. Her body couldn't lie, its signals were as clear as traffic lights.

Buffy kept her eyes down on the floor, afraid to look up at him even though she could feel his eyes on her, burning with hostility and adoration and desire. For a moment Buffy felt she was separated from her body looking at this scene, their shoulders nearly touching, her hand on his chest near his beatless heart. Face so near her face, lips so near her own

"Death is your gift," the first slayer's voice said, painted face flashing into view. Buffy gasped and jerked away, shaking her head and blinking to clear the image from her mind.

Grabbing her by the arms, Spike asked in a panicked voice, "What is it?"

She looked up at him, expecting anger and seeing only fear. "I... fallout. From the other night. Just something that's been eating at my mind." His hands were strong, comforting, and she didn't want him to let go but he had to. He *had* to. After sliding out of his grasp she sat down, her heart going a mile a minute and the blood pounding in her head. From Spike's closeness or that glimpse of the slayer, she didn't know.

Standing above her, looking down, he said softly, "Tell me."

"I can't." He'd see it as rejection but she couldn't tell him, not at this moment. It wasn't that she couldn't trust him now, but that she didn't know herself what she thought. "Yet." Was the yet for him, or for her? Whichever, it worked well enough that he didn't act like a spitting cobra, all puffed up and angry the way he usually got when he thought she was rejecting him. Calmly he sat down, elbows on knees, leaning forward to watch her intently. His scrutiny was mesmerizing sometimes. She'd seen vampires do that before, almost hypnotize humans with their gazes -- Drusilla had been especially deadly with it. Were all vampires capable of that, or only those who knew magic and all that gypsy nonsense, as Spike called it? It must be situational, she reasoned, else why hadn't Spike laid some juju on her before or gotten Xander and Giles to treat him better?

Finally she tore her gaze away from him and said, "I actually came by to tell you something else. I'm taking Dawn to San Francisco to visit our dad. That's where he's moved for now and we hadn't spoken with him since mom died, and now that this key business is finished, well."

Spike sat back, taking the news in. His face flickered with different thoughts, eyes closing partway in that removed manner he had. A watching animal, waiting.

"It's just for three weeks. I'm going back to school in summer quarter, and Dawn has to make up all the days she lost in the past few weeks by going to summer school herself. And then when we get back... there are things I haven't done, things I have to do." He'd know she was talking about her mom.

"Ah. You'll be wanting me to hold down the fort," he said dispassionately, "keep the world safe for democracy."

"Oh, maybe a little. But you don't have to do it if you don't want to. Giles and the rest--"

"And leave that lot of fuckwits alone with sharp pointy objects? They'd all be dead in a fortnight from their own stupidity if the vampires and demons didn't kill them first."

She laughed. He liked it when she laughed, it made her seem girlish and cute. Pixie-ish, maybe. Although best not to tell her that, she'd be decidedly unpixie-ish about it and probably beat him senseless.

Of course she had every right to go and the Pigeon would need that sort of thing considering how misplaced she felt now. But it made his gut ache thinking of being without Buffy for longer than a few days. As if he had her in his life right now. "They'll never stand for it though."

"They will now. They have to. I don't care what their issues are anymore, I just need to know that people will take care of each other and no one will do anything foolish and that everyone's safe. The game has changed. They can learn to get along with you -- we have to stand together."

Her vehement insistence was shocking to him. Spike would never understand Buffy if he lived a thousand years. She was so inside herself, kept so much back. A mystery to everyone, even old Rupert himself. Now she was acting his supporter just because of one little action? Talk about world spinning.

"Right, then," he said briskly, nodding. "Count on me."

"I do."

If she'd thrown herself at him passionately she could not have surprised him more or made him feel such overpowering love for her. Something burned behind his eyes. As he watched her leave, he dully realized it was tears. Something he hadn't felt in so long he didn't even think this body was capable of them.



Willow and Tara were both gazing at her over the rims of their enormous coffee cups, pretending to pay attention when Buffy knew they were rubbing knees under the table. Buffy noticed that Willow had dried whipped cream on the end of her nose and was surprised that Tara hadn't tried to remove it in some vaguely adorable but nauseating way that involved lips and tongues. They were usually pretty good about not doing the public displays of affection to a sickening degree, although they sure had their moments. Buffy envied them. To be so in love, to know someone would go to the lengths Will had gone for Tara when Glory had hurt her... Buffy felt more lonely than she ever had in her life, lonelier even than when she'd left town after killing Angel. Would she ever have love like that again? Was she even capable of it?

She was closed off to so much by necessity and kept things to herself, which most men didn't take very well. When she thought she'd given her all to Riley it still wasn't enough; men wanted it their way or not at all. With this kind of life there was probably no way to have any relationship with someone normal. The thought of her future was so bleak it choked her.

"I think it's great that your dad's finally settling down enough to have a visit. He's been gone too long from your life," Willow said.

"Yeah, well, we'll see how that goes. There's a lot of baggage, big giant warehouse aisles full of it. Baggage 'r Us." Not to mention her mother's death and his absence afterward, but that was something she didn't want to get into. "But anyways. That's not why I asked you to meet me. I wanted to ask you guys something."

Tara nodded, her head down, all eager smiles and encouragement.

"I talked to Giles the other day and he's arranged for the Watcher's Council to give me some kind of stipend for just being around. It's not much, in fact, it's hardly anything at all, but it helps. And Dawn and I both plan to take some kind of part-time jobs in order to keep the house and pay for school. But it's going to be hard, even if Dad helps once I talk to him. It would help a lot if we had what Giles kept calling a lodger. And I think that could be you guys. What would you say to moving in, since you're nearly living there already?"

The two of them looked at each other, startled. In Buffy's eyes there was a kind of desperation Willow had never seen. She wanted to believe it was the friendship that made Buffy ask and not the desperation. In the past few days Buffy had seemed so out of sorts, but she wouldn't say why. Clearly she wasn't sleeping, and Willow had talked about it with Tara, concerned that getting rid of Glory had now let all the horrors of day-to-day life move back into first place. That might be worse than any Hell god or demon Buffy could face.

"Oh!" was all Willow could manage to squeak out. Buffy's face crumpled at her lack of enthusiasm. Immediately Willow felt horrible. She whacked herself on the forehead. "Lameness, thy name is Willow. I'm sorry, Buffy, I didn't mean to act all rainy on your paradey. I was just surprised. We were surprised." She looked at Tara for confirmation, and Tara nodded.

"I know. And you don't have to say anything right now. I understand." But Buffy looked so kicked-puppy that it was painful. Under the table she felt Tara's hand close around hers and knew what Tara was telling her to do.

"I think it would be a great idea. We could, like, complain to you when the water heater breaks, and mutter under our breaths about the slumlord conditions," Willow said brightly.

Tara grinned. "And just think! Built-in babysitters for Dawn. Not that, you know, Dawn's a baby or in need of sitting, but... you know... you can't tell when something is going to come up on the Hellmouth, right? We want to be there for you, Buffy."

Buffy wanted to cry, to jump across the table and hug her friends. There were so many times she felt undeserving of the people she loved. She started to sniffle. "You guys. I love you guys."

"Which... where..." Willow started to ask, but then stopped, eyes the size of her coffee cup.

"Oh, you'd get mom's room, of course."

"Oh, Buffy, I don't know if that's necessary." Willow's voice was worried but tender.

"It's okay, Will," Buffy said, reaching out a hand and patting her arm. "It's what I planned. I don't want to move in there, and it's the best room for two. You don't have to do this right away. When I get back, I was going to finally clean out... stuff. Mom's stuff. I tried to once before only Dawn got serious wiggins over it. But it's time. She has to start classes right after we get back, and I'll do it when she's out of the house."

"W-we could... d-do that if you want. While you're... away," Tara said. She only stammered when she was upset or nervous. She tried not to be, but she'd done nothing to help Buffy recently during their nightmare with Glory, only been helped by Buffy. Tara was concerned this was too little, too late.

Buffy's aura was so dark now she seemed cloaked in a night of her own. Troubled by nightmares, Tara could tell, and now this, finally making a break with her childhood, with her mother. And there was something else about Buffy, something she couldn't tell Willow, but that maybe she should talk to Buffy about later when they could be alone. Something about cheating death. It was faint, like a radio signal from far away, but distinct. As if Buffy believed she wasn't supposed to be here, or worse, didn't deserve to be.

"No, no," Buffy answered. "It's okay. I think I need to do it, if you know what I mean."

"Okay," Tara said quietly, ducking her head. "I know what you mean." When she looked up, Buffy's eyes were glassy with tears. "But we'll be here for you. Backup. Everyone n-needs backup." Buffy grinned at her, which seemed to dissipate some of the darkness of her aura, scattering it like dandelion seeds in wind. Not a lot, but enough to make Tara feel relieved.

"So we're all settled, then, right? We're roomies again!"

Willow reached across the table and held her hand out flat. Buffy did the same, and Tara followed suit. "All for one! One for all! Or wait, maybe that's backwards. Does it matter?"



"Oooohhhh gaaawwd!" Spike bellowed as Anya drove the stake into his left shoulder blade. "Screaming rat FUCK!" He twisted down and away, but the stake stayed in him like a meat thermometer because the dozey bitch had panicked and let go of it. The vampire underneath him let out an "oof!" as Spike fell on top of him, and then he shoved Spike off with his legs. Stumbling backwards, Spike screamed at Anya to pull the stake out, but she continued to flutter around. Finally Xander stepped in and yanked on it just as the vampire they'd been fighting knocked Xander backwards, sans stake. Spike twisted his body to try to reach it, but he couldn't get a grip on it and the pain was near to knocking him out. Finally Xander scrambled sideways and yanked it out. Berk. Spike bellowed again, inarticulate animal sounds that made the whole bastarding lot of them jump backwards in fear. Even in his haze of rage and pain he enjoyed that. It had been a long time since any of them acted scared of him. Served them bloody right, it did.

He ripped the stake out of Harris's hand and pivoted, driving it right into the center of the vamp's chest as he leapt towards them. Anya continued fluttering around like a moth with a missing wing. One would think that after all this time the stupid twat would have got this routine down, but she still acted all Perils of Pauline every fucking time they patrolled.

Dropping to one knee Spike clutched at his arm, trying to control his anger. Suddenly he heard Willow inside his head, yelling at him that the other two vamps were getting away and Giles had been knocked down. He staggered up and shouted, "Get out of my fucking head! Isn't it enough that this stupid. Fucking. Cow! just drove a stake into me? What the HELL do you people want from me!" They all stepped back another few feet. That felt good.

But it didn't deter the witch-bitch. She firmly said again, right inside his skull, "They're getting away." He took a deep breath and ran towards them, regretting once again his own stupid greed and all the things that had led him back to Sunnydale and this life of hell. He could hear the rest of them scurrying behind him like rats. The two vamps ahead of them abruptly branched out in different directions of the park. Spike pointed the other way and somehow Xander and Anya, usually far too stupid for directional gestures, understood him. Tara stayed on running behind Spike. He was starting to take rather a shine to that girl.

His shoulder was killing him. Being brassed off was actually energizing, though, and he caught up to the vampire, springboarded off a bench to land feet first on him, and then plunged the stake into the heart. Poof, and he was shrouded in dust. Tara stood over him, panting. "Should we... pant... go help... pant pant... the others?"

"Hell no." He clutched his shoulder, bent over from the pain. "I dunno about you, but I can barely stand, let alone catch up to them."

When Tara leaned over to catch her breath Spike was momentarily distracted from his pain. The deep V of her sweater fell forward and exposed so much of her pillowy breasts that he could just see the rosy edges of the areolas. Tart. Coupled with the low, low cut of her jeans exposing her belly nearly to the pubic bone, he was feeling more alert with lust than crippled with pain. In his time this was the ideal figure for a woman, soft and round but not plump; womanly with possibilities. It amused him no end that for the second time now he'd fallen for a scrawny girl without such a ripe, gorgeous figure, but oh well. Cupid, the little cunt, didn't give a toss where he shot his arrows and for whom. Spike could happily see himself fucking the lush and luscious witch from behind (well, if he hadn't loved Buffy already, that is), his hands engulfing her ample tits, his knob sliding in between the soft, round curves of -- oh, bugger, she was talking at him.


"Stop looking at me like I'm dinner." Her face was stern but her voice teasing in melody.

He rubbed his throbbing shoulder. "Sorry, pet. It's distracting. You're like a juicy, ripe pear. All curvy and--" He made squeezing motions with his hands. Tara stomped her foot and glared at him, but the tug at the corners of her mouth showed she was more game than she let on. Crikey, he liked her; more's the pity.

From his left he saw Giles stumbling towards them, rubbing his head and clutching a crossbow. "Oh, *now* he wakes up, how convenient." Spike glowered at Giles, who looked questioningly at Tara.

"Anya accidentally staked him," Tara explained.

Giles opened his mouth, ready, no doubt, with some cheeky remark about wishing it could have been a few centimeters right, but then stopped himself. So Buffy had given them all a little pep talk, Spike thought. Made sure they'd toe the line with old Spike, keep their antagonism in check while she wasn't around to baby-sit them. He laughed to himself. It didn't matter, he hated the lot of them as much as they hated him. Every time he thought of Giles shoving that blanket at him, pushing him out the door while they all stared angrily at him -- even the Tadpole -- it made him feel like vamping out, testing the chip and just... having a go. Christ, he missed the violence. The sheen of fear on people when he came near. The headache would be worth scaring them good. Punishing them.

Xander and Anya stumbled up to join them, although Tara and Giles couldn't see them coming. Spike laughed as both Giles and Tara jumped and gave little girly yelps when Xander said something to let them know he was there.

"We got him!" Anya exclaimed. "But he was a girl fighter and pulled Xander's hair." She rubbed his head and cooed at him. All of them turned away in disgust.

Then Willow came jogging up to finish the meeting of the Justice League. Spike glared at her as she gave him a "what?" look and spread her hands wide. "It was the quickest way!" Out of the lot of them, the witches were trying hardest to be friendly to him, but he really hated having her jump around in his head like that.

"Next time, knock. It doesn't do to go rummaging around in people's private bits without their permission."

"Oh, like you ever worried about things like that," Willow said tartly.

Spike glared harder.

Mumbling vague apologies to Spike, Anya moved towards him. Spike growled, tiger-like, jumping backwards. "I wasn't trying to hurt you!" she cried. "But you were all zig-zaggy and that enormous vampire was kicking your slighter-in-stature butt. I wasn't born to be a slayer, you know. No one told me when I became human that I was supposed to learn fighting and staking for substitute slaying."

They all began walking back towards... well, where were they going, anyway? Usually people went to the Summers house afterwards, but that would be empty a few more days yet. He fell in behind with Giles, even though he wasn't sure where they were walking.

"So, tell me," Spike said to Giles, "who put the finishing touches on Gentle Ben?"

Squinting, Giles asked, "What?" with all the innocence of a mafia hit man. Spike had to grudgingly admit a certain admiration for the geezer, the way he'd stood up to Angel's torture with sang-froid. But that whole thing at the Magic Box after the Dru fiasco... it burned much hotter inside him.

"Oh, dash it all, Jeeves, let's not dissemble, eh?" Spike said smoothly. "When last I looked, it wasn't Glory lyin' there dead, but her alter ego the dream doc. Someone put the finishing touches on him. And the slayer doesn't kill humans, so my money's on you."

Giles stared fixedly at him for a moment, his stride slowing almost to a stop. Spike paced him, watching carefully. It hadn't occurred to him that Spike would be clever enough to figure that out. How much would he tell Buffy -- or would he just use the threat of telling her in order to get what he wanted? Was there anything Spike truly wanted, though, besides Buffy?

"I can't imagine what you mean," Giles finally said as evenly as he could. There were times he wished they had the nerve to stake Spike once and for all. If he could kill Ben, why not Spike? What was it that drove this pity and forced them to keep putting up with him? And now Buffy making it worse with her firm instructions about letting Spike in and being decent to him. It really was too much. The gloating and plotting Spike must be doing made Giles livid with resentment.

Laughing evilly, Spike said, "Now, now, Rupert. We're all working for the same superhero gang here."

"Stop playing games. If you think you can threaten or cajole your way to Buffy, you're quite mistaken about your information, I assure you."

Spike grinned maliciously. "Don't have to do any of that. I'm already there."

There was the ugly, undeniable truth that infuriated Giles. His job had been to watch over Buffy, to guide and teach, yet the one thing he couldn't drill into her was to stay the bloody hell away from vampires with a romantic interest in her. There was a sick, twisted level to Spike's infatuation with Buffy that trumped even Angel's interest, some strange dance about power and death that neither of them seemed in the least aware of. It frightened Giles to think that Spike's new hero status with both Dawn and Buffy would force a relationship, a doomed one. He'd known for some time that his post here was redundant; now, perhaps, it was even more important to move on and let Buffy live her life, to stay out of it, precisely because he wouldn't be able to tolerate Spike's continued presence in their lives.

Giles gazed blankly at Spike for a moment, then strode away to the head of the group. At the edge of the park Willow and Tara turned to look at him. "We were going to the Bronze to hang out, decompose... um! decompress a little." Willow didn't exactly ask him to come, but she was trying to let him know he was welcome if he wanted to join them.

She watched as he sized her up, trying on different responses, knowing that even with the past weeks of patrolling and working together he was still the feared and loathed outsider. They always treated him that way, as much as they tried not to. Still clutching his shoulder, he looked down at the ground and for a moment Willow thought she could see genuine hurt there, the kind of hurt only a human would feel. As if something human had fluttered birdlike through his mind for one instant before vanishing into the darkness of the demon. He cocked his head to the side, dropping his gaze to each one of them in turn. "Hard to say no to an evening with the Powerpuff Girls and Professor Utonium, but I think I'll stay in tonight. Catch up on my rest now I've had a stake through my shoulder. Thanks for the almost-invite, though."

He turned quickly on his heel and Willow watched him go before she looked helplessly at Tara. "I don't know what to do," she said quietly. Tara put a hand on her arm sympathetically; no one had any answers for her, only understanding glances.

He could hear their gaggling voices behind him as he walked away to the cemetery, then lost them in the sound of passing cars. Pausing to light a cigarette -- which ripped pain through his entire upper left half -- he turned to watch them go. The cute little Scooby gang. The worst part of all this was knowing that if Buffy ever did let him in, this was his future -- supercilious half-wits, rude witches, barmy ex-demons, and enough issues to go around for a Christmas dinner with the whole family. They were all barking lunatics and he was maddest of them all for falling in love with someone he shouldn't. He slammed the door of the crypt behind him and threw off his coat, then went downstairs to the bed, grabbing the last bottle of Jack Daniel's on the way. After some time he took off his T-shirt to inspect the tear. Well, yet another one down. Have to go out and pinch some new ones. Good thing he wasn't wearing one of his silk shirts on top of it.

Patrolling with Buffy would be one of those special things to look forward to when she got home. On the rare occasions he got to go with her he'd enjoyed working out that energy, watching her balletic motion as she danced with death. Knowing that if he couldn't have her there was still a legitimate reason to be near her when she was at her most beautiful. Of course it was insanity for a vampire to love a slayer. But that was a large part of why he loved her. There was more to it, of course, but it was the deadly art of a slayer he'd first been so drawn to, the way insects would hurl themselves at the very light that would kill them.

At night he'd dream about fighting her. Dreams where fighting blurred into sex and he could touch her any way he wanted to. Spike grew aroused just thinking of it, undoing his belt and fly, slipping his hand inside his jeans. The smell of her lingered inside him after all this time, the essence of her heat and blood making him hard, aching for it. He stroked himself up and down, imagining the feel of her own strong, warm hand on his cock instead. "Buffy," he whispered to the empty walls, sliding his left hand down despite the pain in his shoulder to cup and stroke his balls, pulling hard repeatedly on his cock with his right. The silk of hair cascading around her shoulders, the creamy skin of her breasts filled his mind's eye he stroked himself until he came hard, muscles clenching and hips jerking up, imagining it was her he was inside of. Spike lay inert, his hand moving in slow circles over his lower belly as he rode that wave on the way down from climax, wondering if he'd ever really know that feeling with her.

Something was different, that much was true. But Spike was not good anymore with understanding exactly how to make it all work -- pushing too hard one way drove her off, but if he was passive he might miss his opportunity completely. It was such a hard line to walk. If he wanted to stop this fantasizing, to make her his, he had to walk it precisely.



Buffy was gathering up cleaning supplies when Spike came flying through the back door, smoking, and hurled his blanket across the kitchen. She jumped backwards, startled, not having expected company today -- let alone Spike in the daylight.

"Don't you think there are better times to come visiting?" she asked, hands on hips.

"Hello to you, too." He took the overheated coat off, throwing it on a chair. He felt unpleasantly warm. "Welcome back," he added, raising his eyebrows. There was a faint pink-sugar dusting of sun across the porcelain skin of her cheeks and nose, making her eyes glitter with that fresh-faced California sun goddess quality of fashion magazines and TV shows.

Buffy didn't say anything, just looked at him. It was surprisingly good to see him and she was momentarily nonplussed to realize she'd actually missed him. "What are you doing here now?" she snapped, pushing back the desire to hug him.

"Heard you were back. Thought I'd come by and see how you were."

"You couldn't wait for a less combustible time, like, say, tonight?"

He moved closer, eyes ranging along her like a glutton looks at the pastry counter. "You look tired, Slayer. A bit ragged around the edges. Thought this trip was supposed to help you, give you back some of your zippyness." He did a little shift with his jaw that made his comment seem lewd, something she'd seen a dozen times before in less friendly circumstances.

Her brain zoomed back and forth between possibilities. It could be that he was insulting her. But he looked concerned despite the facial gesture, eyebrows wrinkled and eyes filled with the soft, sad look Buffy had seen in quiet, private times.

"I didn't get a lot of sleep, really. And Dad... things are always kind of up and down with Dad." Why was she telling him this?

"Won't you tell me what's bothering you? Maybe I could help." He jumped up on the counter to sit, wearing the inviting expression she'd seen before as well. The night she'd found out about the CT scan. It was a look she was seeing more and more from him all the time.

"It's nothing. I'll get over it. A lot's happened the past few months, that's all." She didn't know how to explain the nightmares, anyway. Visions of the night they'd faced Glory, only different enough to scare her. Darker events, grimmer endings. Deep inside a voice told her it wasn't over, that something terrible was yet to come. But Spike would no doubt laugh at her, leaving her feeling small and foolish.

Spike looked around him at the stuff on the counter. "All right then. What you doin'?"

"I promised myself that when I got back and Dawn was going to classes, I would clean up the house top to bottom, and fix the things that needed fixing, and... Spike, I asked Willow and Tara to move in. They're here all the time anyhow, and this way I have help with the rent and with Dawn so I can do the slaying, and they're going to move into Mom's room. So I have to finally clean that out." She waited for him to make a remark about the hormone level in the house or all of them ending up on the rag together eventually, but he just nodded when she was finished.

"Look, I'm stuck here for a while. How about I help you? With everything, I mean." He grabbed a rag and a bottle of orange-colored something, jumping off the counter. "Mr. Clean, I am."

"You live in a crypt and a hole underneath that. In the ground. With dirt." Against her better judgment, Buffy smiled at him and nodded. "Okay. You're on. I don't trust you as far as I can throw you and I'll be checking the silver and crystal before you go, so don't even try it." He was so close to her right now that her skin itched. She remembered a few weeks ago, the sensation of his mouth so near hers, how his body had felt so solid and strong under her hand.

"Slayer?" he asked. She shook her head, then ran up the stairs to get away from him.

After finishing with her and Dawn's rooms and the living room, Buffy went looking for him, but Spike was nowhere to be seen. When she called, though, he answered with a muffled voice from the direction of the kitchen. His hips and legs stuck out from under the sink. She peered under the counter to see him lying there, an unlit cigarette in his mouth, pounding on pipes.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Hand me that... uh, screwdriver, will you?" he said, his hand jutting out.

"Please tell me you're not fixing something." She slapped the screwdriver into his hand.

"Didn't you want that leak in your disposal fixed? I could just put it back the way it was. Already fixed the drippy tap, so it's too late for recriminations." He couldn't see her face but could hear the frown in her voice. "Ah, listen, don't get your knickers in a twist. I know what I'm doing."

She knelt down and peered in at him. It looked like he did know what he was doing, but it all seemed so incongruous. Again with the confounding.

"Anything else kaput round here?" he asked.

"I don't think so." She looked around. "Wow. You did a really good job on the kitchen. And the dining room. It's..."

"Spick and span?"

"That wasn't what I was going to say, but okay. It's like having a peroxide blond Hazel or something. If Hazel was a guy, I mean. And a vampire. Anyway. I was going to stop for lunch. I don't... um..."

"Don't you worry 'bout me. Drank up before I left home today. Although I wouldn't mind a beer if you've one in the fridge."

"You mean that beer I'd have bought with my fake I.D.?"

"Oh, right. Forgot about that. Hm." He tightened the screw, then crawled up to test out the disposal. "Dry as a bone." Spike opened the fridge door and pulled out a beer. "See? When I cleaned out the cupboard, I saw a few left over in there. Must have been a secret stash of Giles's. Always thought he was a tippler." He opened it and drank, while Buffy watched the way his throat moved, wondering if that was how it looked when he drank from a human. His Adam's apple rising and falling, the muscles moving back and forth, telling the tale of his brutality. "Total bitch piss, but at least it's something."

She turned away while he finished his beer, ignoring him as she made a thin little sandwich of peanut butter and jelly. Spike suddenly felt so sorry for her he thought he might choke. This beautiful, deadly slayer, this finely tuned machine, reduced to such a mundane existence. Making measly little peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for herself and cleaning a house she was never meant to be in control of. His throat ached.

She'd saved the world how many times, and this was her reward? Buffy should be lying on a bed of silk and cashmere commanding her minions to peel her a grape while servants waited on her hand and foot. She ought to patrol with teams of helpers and never have to so much as break a nail in the fight. Potential lovers should line up at the door for the privilege of being her slave. Instead she was freighted with a house but no parents to pay for it, a teenager to take care of when she was barely out of her teens herself, days of emptiness and nights of fear, a true love who'd left her, and the obsessed adoration of an evil creature she despised.

Spike stared at her, knife in her hand, spreading peanut butter on white bread. Chewing his lower lip, trying to stop himself from raging at the horrible stupid agony of it all. Buffy was the greatest treasure in the world but she'd been ground into the dirt. Beaten into failure.

"Buffy," he whispered, taking the knife. She didn't look up. He was probably scaring her. Every time he was gentle to her a tincture of fear clouded her eyes. Spike finished making Buffy's sandwich, then pushed her into a chair and set the plate down. As she stared at the table he got a soda from the refrigerator.

When he sat down across from her, Spike put his hand over hers and said softly, "You shouldn't be stuck with this rubbish. Why don't you go shopping or some girly fun thing, and let me take care of it?"

Buffy looked up at him, her eyes so huge and round and yes, scared. He was sure the sound of his ghostly heart breaking could be heard all through the neighborhood.

"I'm okay." What else could she say? All of this was so strange, the Spike-as-normal-guy routine and being alone, just the two of them, doing... things. Regular things. Household things. Why did he have to be so nice? It would be easier if he'd just kept being a pig.

Staring silently at his forearms -- damn, he had nice forearms, especially for someone so thin -- Buffy finally looked at his eyes. "Spike, don't." Don't keep making me like you, because my world can't handle it. It's broken enough.

Finally she took a bite of her sandwich. Didn't speak again until she finished. "I have to do mom's room now," was all she said and went upstairs. As she neared the top of the landing, though, she heard Spike behind her. He came into the room as silently as a spirit.

Spike took his cue from Buffy, taking clothes and putting them into bags for the charity, throwing other things out in the trash. She was nearly completely shut down, rarely stopping to look at something or take a moment to reminisce when an item sparked a memory. He'd cared for Joyce, so Spike found himself looking at things, trying to remember her. To keep a bit of her inside himself; if for no other reason than for Buffy.

Spike sat on the floor in front of the dresser and pulled out the last drawer of things. Buffy sat down on the edge of the bed, tired and worn down. There was a slight sheen of sweat on her forehead and along the hairline. Her cropped sweat bottoms allowed her bare ankles to flirt with him as he sat next to her taking things out of the drawer. Her toenails were varnished a kind of opalescent pink, and he couldn't stop staring at them. He'd never seen her bare feet; wondered if she'd ever had the pleasure of having her toes sucked. Nah, probably not, since the idiot males she'd dated would never have lowered themselves to showing her that sort of delectation. Lots of things he could show her if she ever gave him the chance.

There was a jewelry box hidden under the odds and ends in the drawer, items Joyce had probably stashed away because she never wore them anymore, long forgotten or out of fashion. He opened it and held out a necklace.

"You'll want to keep this stuff. Even if it's out of style and you think you'd never want it, you'll have memories. It's the little things like this you need to keep."

The corners of her mouth tugged down, all the memories of her mother's death and everything that had happened since shoving hard into her chest. Like getting hit by the heavy bag on the swingback. It was always the little things that did it. Maybe that's why Spike was telling her to keep them. She willed herself to pull together. If Spike saw how vulnerable she felt, the softness inside her, he'd take advantage of it.

"Spike. Can I ask you something?" Buffy's voice was tiny and far away.

He looked up at her. "Course."

"You once said that a person can't cheat a prophecy. That if you do, it changes the prophecy. That the prophecy somehow... that it comes back at you in a different form. Would you know it if it came back?"

"Dunno. Could be wrong. Really don't know much about that beyond the basics, or at least, what goes into making them the way they are. Why?"

"No reason. I was just wondering. You know, about all the stuff that happened with Dawn." Something in his eyes spoke of doubt, though. "Spike, thank you for today. I... again, you keep coming through in the pinch."

"I was made for the pinch."

"I guess." Buffy took the jewelry box and smiled sadly at him. "You keep with the confounding. It's throwing off my equilibrium."

"I'll try to be more of a pig if it makes you happier."

Silence danced between them like the dust motes in the air as Spike put the last of the things in a bag. Then he turned to Buffy, still sitting on the edge of the bed. Spike reached over and touched that adorable ankle lightly with his fingertips, just grazing her skin. She didn't kick his teeth in, so he moved his fingers down along her instep, over her toes. Slid his whole hand up along the inside of her ankle, stopping just under the hem of her sweats. He waited to see how she'd react. She was staring at the top of his head, not really looking at him but not moving away, either.

"You're so amazing, Buffy," he said softly. "You don't even know. You think somehow you deserve all this suffering, but you don't. It's the world doesn't deserve you." There was a slight hitch in her breathing when he said that, so he grew daring enough to take her foot in his hands, caressing towards the sole in slow, gentle circles. Christ, she even had lovely feet, smooth and tiny and delicate. As he stroked and rubbed, he was lost in the sensation of her skin until he heard her make a sound in her throat. Was it pleasure or fear? Didn't matter, he went ahead anyhow, leaning down to kiss the top of her foot, trailing his lips softly up the curve of the instep to the inside of her ankle. He did the same to her other foot, and identical sounds came from her throat. Sounds that made the blood in his veins pound, heat fan out through his groin.

Men were such gits. Most of them had no idea of the power of small gestures on a woman, how the tiniest of graces could gain you entry to her heart and body. Too brainless to know the beauty of being allowed inside a woman's soul and how simple it was to get there. Nuance escaped them. They skipped past the wonder for the simple act of sex as if that was all a woman had to give.

When Spike looked up he saw that she was lying on the bed as if to offer herself, in the pose of one surrendered. He dropped her foot gently, sliding his hand up the curve of her leg, over her thigh, until it rested on her hip. He sat alongside her on the bed.

She was letting him touch her.

Her head was turned away from him towards the door, eyes locked on a corner of the ceiling, hands at her sides. Leaning above her on an elbow, Spike moved his hand gently along her side until he touched her collarbone, tracing its sharp edge over and over. Her heart was pounding.

There was no strength left in him to control the shaking in his hands, let alone control his mind and tongue. The poetic, adoring words he longed to say remained frozen inside his mouth. So he just ran his trembling hand along her face, barely touching her skin. The first time he'd seen her so many years ago she still had the soft roundness of youth, her mouth a bow-like pout and her power hidden under pillowy voluptuousness. Now she'd strengthened into adulthood with leaner lines and a firm mouth, the sharp planes of her body a history of her maturing beauty.

And she was still letting him touch her. But she did not touch him back.

Spike leaned closer, absorbing the scent of her skin. Her lips were parted and he pressed his hand to her cheek. She turned her head ever so slightly towards him. He came closer to kiss her cheek softly, keeping his lips there for a long time. Buffy's fingertips skated along his jawline.

Spike pressed his lips softly to hers. She was water to his parched soul -- resurrecting it from its dessicated, forgotten state, making it pulse to life again.

Buffy's body yearned towards him as she turned sideways and placed her hands on his waist, holding onto him for dear life and feeling the hard muscle underneath her fingers. I can't, I can't, she told herself. I can't possibly be doing this. But he felt so real to her, so strong and sensual and *right*, and it was wonderful to kiss someone. Soft, warm summer rain that brought a spark to her hollow body. Sweet fire grew in her belly, tingling with life spreading out through her limbs. He trailed his lips across hers, teasing her mouth with his tongue. Then kissed along Buffy's neck, her chin, to her forehead, brushing loose, damp hair away from her face.

His mouth came back to hers, hungrier this time but still so soft and slow, his tongue parting her teeth and slipping inside, a teasing invader. Against Buffy's hip the urgency of Spike's hard penis, but he didn't push at her roughly or do anything that would take him beyond this single crossed boundary. Instead he let lips, tongue, and fingertips work in concert to make her ache with long-forgotten pleasure.

Downstairs the door opened and Dawn called up to her, "Buffy, I'm back!" Buffy pushed Spike away quickly and sat up, smoothing her hair, trying not to pant as if she'd been running laps -- or making out with someone. She glanced quickly at Spike, who looked dazed and a little wounded, his mouth shiny and full.

"Spike, I -- I'm sorry, I shouldn't have... we shouldn't have. I'm sorry." Turning towards the door, she shouted, "We're up here."

She stood away from him and nervously ran her hands over her clothes. He got up and went towards the window, probably trying to get his body under some control. It was a lot harder for guys to hide a macking session than for girls, she thought, sighing unhappily. What a moron to have let this go so far.

Dawn burst into the room swinging her pack. "Whatcha... oh." She looked at the bags, then at Buffy, and then over to Spike.

"Spike's been helping me clean things up for Willow and Tara. I was hoping you wouldn't have to see this, I..."

"No, it's okay." Dawn was using her best soldier-on voice, but she looked scared. Buffy wished Spike would comfort Dawn in the way only he seemed able to do. But his back was still turned, and he waved a hand weakly in Dawn's direction, then went into the bathroom and shut the door.

"Are you guys fighting?" Dawn whispered to Buffy.

Shaking her head, Buffy answered, "He was more emotionally attached to Mom than we realized." Tonight's winner on Way to Lie, Buffy! receives a fantastic trip for two to Guilt Island, not to mention these special parting gifts of shame and self-loathing!

"How were classes? Think it's going to work out okay?" Buffy changed the subject.

"Oh, yeah. I mean, it's a drag to be in school for the summer, but... I keep thinking about the way things could have been, if last month had gone different, so. Lesser of two evils and all."

Buffy flinched at the reminder. "Look at mature girl -- who are you, and will I be seeing my sister again any time soon?"

Dawn gave her a scalding look and flounced over to the bathroom door in a mock huff. Buffy idly wondered how long the good times between them would last. At least for now it was all right. But Dawn was a teenager, and Buffy well knew how easily her moods could change.

"Hey, Spike," Dawn said to the door. "I have this teacher in one of the classes? And she's from someplace down south, you know? And were talking about writing and European history, and she kept saying about how Charles Main did this, and Charles Main did that. And then I figured out she was talking about Charlemagne."

The door opened with a snap and Spike's head appeared. "You're taking the piss!"

"Am not," Dawn said, crossing her heart. "Hope to die and all."

"Stupid tw--iiit." Buffy scowled at him and he saw her just in time. "What's the bleedin' point of you going back to makeup classes if you're going to be taught by halfwits?"

"I don't know, but I'm going to have to try really hard not to laugh at her. I thought you might enjoy that," she said, her voice lowering along with her eyes, all coy and girlish. She smiled at him and turned to go.

God, this was weird, Buffy thought. Not only does Spike know how to talk to Dawn when she needs it, but she's totally clued in to his emotions and knows what to do to bring him around. The freakshow of her life just kept getting bigger and bigger.

As Dawn left, Spike slunk out of the bathroom with his head down. "Guess I should go," he said, his voice so quiet Buffy could barely hear him.

"You don't have to. Besides, it's still light out. Stay and talk to Dawn, watch TV, whatever. Or fix things." She tried to smile, but it didn't have any effect on him that she could see.

"Are we going to talk about it?" Buffy always avoided talking about anything, but he had to ask. The worst thing would be if she tried to pretend it hadn't happened. For one brief moment he'd had the heaven he could only dream of right in his hands. If she ignored it, that would be like robbing him of it.

"Spike, don't. It was a mistake, we both know that. You're... you know how sad and lonely I am lately, and you know how grateful I am that you saved Dawn... that you saved me. All of us. But you can't use the situation to get me to be what you want."

For weeks he'd considered as many ways as possible to use their changed relationship to his advantage. Yet when the time came to be with her, such selfishness was the furthest thing from his mind. Pleasing her, loving her the way she deserved... his intentions for once were totally honorable, yet still suspect.

"Use the situation?" he snapped. "Is that what you think I'm doing -- that it's just about what I want?"

"No. I... no, I don't mean it that way. I mean that you want something and you're very good at getting what you want."

"If I was good at getting what I wanted then I'd have killed you years ago."

Ice frosted her face, eyes, voice. "This wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been feeling how I feel lately. We should just forget it and move on. I felt bad that I couldn't give you what you want, and you seemed so sad..."

"Oh, brilliant. Pity fuck. That's what you think of me?" Spike shook his head.

She looked at him with such distrust that he couldn't believe it was the same girl who a moment ago had sighed with pleasure against his lips. So that's it. His impulse to strike her with more vicious words was strong, but he wouldn't yield to that and give her ammunition against him. Spike knew who she was now. No matter how much Buffy tried to convince herself she felt nothing, he knew the truth.

Through time he'd learned to overcome the rejection and loathing, to move past each blow to his affections. But this wasn't the ordinary rebuff. Now Buffy was pushing because she had to or else give in to something that repulsed her.

Flashing his most wicked smile, he walked past her out of the room. "We'll see who moves on," he whispered as he passed.