All About Spike - Print Version
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Shadows
By Kimi

Rating: NC 17 by part three
Spoilers: Post-Season 7 Finale.
Summary: It's five years after the events of BtVS Season 7. Uses some actual plot points from the finale and some that are purely my own invention. I'm bad that way. Originally posted April 17, 2003, after reading the script and thinking about it way too much.
Distribution: Ask and ye probably shall receive.
Feedback: You beta, you beta, you bet!
Disclaimers: All Joss, all ME, all the time...
A/N: I found this very disturbing to write. So I thank all of my spoiler whore betas and LJ Friends who were willing to look at this and offer their input, especially Chris, Kelly, Mezz, Chen and Estepheia. And Colleen, I missed having you on this one! But I get the whole spoiler virgin thing. Good on you!

Laura, a personal and special thanks to you for archiving this.



Chapter One: Old Will

She still couldn't figure out why she'd wanted to return so badly. Supposed it might be that college wasn't really going so well. Could have been that last break-up with her boyfriend. But regardless of the reason, she was here now. And giddy with excitement.

'Giddy'. Where had she heard that word before, she thought idly?

She smiled. A Xander word. She might even get to hear it come out of his mouth, live and not memory-ex. Because after five years away, Dawn Summers was back in Sunnydale.

The last apocalypse had cost them, but it had given them something, too. Freedom. The freedom to make a fresh start somewhere - anywhere - else.

Buffy had swallowed her pride and contacted their father.

'No choice', she'd mumbled.

Buffy had never taken any more money from him after the initial stake. And she'd only done that because of Dawn. The former slayer still had her mother's old Cherokee, which was definitely the worse for wear around the edges. She'd gone to the financial aid office at Mesa College and applied for any money that she could qualify for by any stretch of the imagination. She was still Dawn's legal guardian, after all, and had been since their mother had died.

No, Buffy wouldn't take their father's money, but Dawn would. And did. Often.

She didn't feel guilty about it either. Their dad owed them, Buffy most of all, so what Dawn took from him covered some small comforts around their apartment - and one big one. The big one that meant Buffy didn't have to chauffeur her around.

Dawn had a car.

That morning early, she was on the road in the blue metallic VW her father had bought for her eighteenth birthday. Arizona to California had been an easy trip for her, the Bug clipping on down the road smartly to Kitt's house.

Kitt's parents had come back soon after the apocalypse was averted. Others had been slower returning. But an influx of new people, people who hadn't looked too closely at the idea of California real estate at rock-bottom prices, had picked up the slack.

The renewal of downtown was almost complete. Dawn was on foot, walking the business district which now had some small boutiques scattered around. Somehow, the pain that she felt when she thought of Sunnydale was just a dull ache now. Something manageable. Almost bittersweet.

She'd surprise Xander later. He was still here, of course, even if Willow had moved on. Once the town had begun to rebuild, her friend had started taking construction contracts, hiring the labor, instead of *being* hired labor. Xander had been in on the ground floor of the whole renewal movement, sporting his rakish eye patch and hair that was just a little too long for the old school Sunny D business guy type.

Everything he did, everything he tried, worked for him. Dawn had been worried that Anya's death would break him. Instead, it had seemed to make him stronger.

And the eye patch was... well, damn sexy. Of course, she'd never say that out loud. Especially around Buffy.

He was going to be so surprised when she showed up on his doorstep. She'd never even seen his house and he'd been in it more than three years.

He *had* been to Arizona a few times, though. Even if about two years before, his visits had stopped abruptly. He'd pleaded his thriving business as an excuse, but Dawn thought it was probably seeing Buffy the way she was now that kept him away.

These days, Buffy was bronzed by the sun and whipcord thin, all sinews and sharp angles. The last of the baby fat had melted from her face, leaving behind a stern woman who laughed seldom and cried never. She was very, very busy, frenetically filling her time with college. As a teaching assistant, Buffy spent hours on the computer at home, gone only for coursework and the self-defense class she taught on Tuesdays and Thursdays for extra cash.

Dawn didn't mind. Her sister was kinder than she'd ever been. And quieter. The funny little wrinkle she used to get over her left eye when she frowned was a permanent etching now.

Buffy worked out every single day, shaking with exhaustion and frustration by the end. Still, no matter how hard she trained, the old slayer strength and speed couldn't be recaptured. It was gone, along with all the Potentials who had died. With Anya.

With Spike.

Her sister wasn't the slayer anymore. Dawn didn't think there *was* a slayer now. The world didn't need them and therefore they 'weren't'. It had been an unlikely gift for the girl who had just wanted a normal life, Dawn thought. And it had come from the unlikeliest of givers.

The girl stopped walking and gazed at the old Magic Box. It was barely standing, abandoned and lost. No renewal efforts had touched it. It would have broken Anya's heart to see it. It tugged at Dawn's.

She had come a long way from the girl who had stolen from her friends and every retail establishment within walking distance in a passive-aggressive plea for attention.

Needing an emotional lift, she decided to head toward the spot where the Espresso Pump used to be. Or at least somewhere that had milkshakes. Her eyes wandered to the alley behind the Magic Box.

It was unused, littered with refuse. But not completely abandoned.

A homeless man was sitting on a box near the delivery entrance. The slump of his shoulders was familiar somehow.

With a small shiver, Dawn sped up and left the disturbing sight behind.

*

She finished her burger and took a huge pull on her milkshake, working toward a major brain-freeze that would drive the deserted look of the Magic Box out of her mind. A waitress was clearing off the remnants of a meal at the next table.

"Must have been Old Will," the young woman said in response to Dawn's comment about the homeless man. "He ends up everywhere at one time or another," the waitress said knowingly. "Mostly hangs out at the convenience store on Vine, though."

"Old Will? I don't remember him," Dawn said, puzzled. "I used to live here," she explained.

The girl shrugged. "Well, I haven't been here but about a year. But if you're here more than a few days, you'll see him again. Haunts the streets."

Dawn started slightly at the choice of words. "Haunts?"

Laughing, the waitress mopped off the table next to Dawn's. "He's outside rain or shine, summer or winter. About July, his hair is all white at the ends, curly as it is. I don't think he's as old as he looks. Just the mileage, being in the sun all the time, I guess. He doesn't say much, doesn't work either." She grinned. "Unless you could call playing with blocks working."

"Blocks?" Dawn was intrigued

"I can't think of what you call them. Little black blocks... thin. With white dots. Starts with a 'd'..."

"Dominoes?"

Dominoes? Now what made her remember that?

"Right. They say he stays with this guy at night." She rolled her eyes. "Some businessman in town." The girl leaned toward Dawn conspiratorially. "Guy's not married or anything. Think he'd be a little more discreet than just moving him in."

"The man's name is Will?" Something was tugging at Dawn, but she couldn't put her finger on it.

"That's what folks call him. He's got a sweet face, pretty eyes popping out of that tan, but hey, you never know, do you? Guy could be a serial killer for all we know." she said wisely, finishing off the next table. When she looked up again, a ten-dollar bill was on the table, as the front door swung shut.

*

She hurried back the way she'd come, almost running. The Magic Box wasn't far and maybe she was nuts, but...

Dawn tried to mentally reconstruct that night. The night she'd decided she wanted her dead mother back on any terms.

Spike had found her at her mother's grave, securing the dirt she'd need for the spell. Already had the book she'd stolen from the Magic Box. But instead of leaving her to try something equally stupid or marching her straight home to Buffy, he had taken her to visit someone who could help.

Okay, maybe Spike *had* needed the soul, she thought in retrospect.

Spike had taken her to Doc.

And Doc had given them the spell to resurrect her mother.

Doc had also bled her on a platform high above the streets of Sunnydale in an attempt to open a portal to another dimension, but that hadn't been anything personal.

'That guy.' She remembered Doc had asked Spike if he was 'that guy'. The guy that played dominoes on the corner.

Dawn tore into the alley behind the Magic Box at a lope.

She stopped, breathless with disappointment.

Nothing.

It was crazy, she thought, shaking her head. She was crazy. Just as crazy as thoughts of Sunnydale always made her. It was ridiculous that she could even think something like this. That Spike *wasn't* gone. That he *was* here. Because, of course, he wasn't. He *couldn't* be here.

'The convenience store around the corner', she remembered.

She began moving again, jogging toward the more downtown part of downtown, near Sunnyrest Cemetery to the area where Doc's place had been. Toward the convenience store on Vine.

Where the woman had said Will was known to hang out.

Where Spike had been known to nick cigarettes and beer.

Nick. Another word she hadn't thought of in years.

She stopped dead in her tracks. A man sat on a weathered stool to one side of the entrance, two wooden crates stacked on top of each other to make a table. His head was down, concentrating on the small black rectangles in front of him.

The hair was too long, the wrong color, and very, very curly. As his hands rested lightly on the crate, she noticed his skin. It was as weathered as the stool. Her first impression had been wrong. He couldn't be homeless. His hair and clothes were way too clean.

The man swung his feet against the stool softly. She looked around, trying to get her bearings.

There was a single gas pump there that looked as if it got little use. No parking other than the side of the street. The store seemed to have a pedestrian clientele. All downtown business people and locals from this 'other side of the tracks.'

It was obvious that this was a familiar place for him. As customers came and went, they spared him a brief glance. Some actually greeted him with some simple pleasantry.

Dawn realized she was breathing shallowly. Which was silly. There was nothing about this man that even faintly resembled Spike. Nothing.

She shook off the strange feeling of familiarity. Just wishful thinking. The need for some kind of happy ending. One less loss.

Kitt would be wondering where she was, but she couldn't go. Not just yet. The man was fumbling with the dominoes now, trying to match the dots together in some complicated fashion.

Every once and a while, his lips moved. Dawn imagined that it was a muttered expletive. She wished he'd look up so she could see his eyes. After ten fruitless minutes, she eased closer, hoping that the movement would draw his attention.

It didn't.

She turned to leave, more certain than ever that she was insane, but already promising herself that she would look in on the man again tomorrow when a large truck swung over the wrong side of the street and parked, driver's side against the curb.

Dawn noticed the eye patch before she noticed anything else.

The driver jumped from the truck. "Will!" he called out.

Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion for Dawn.

For the first time, the man on the stool looked up.

And for the first time that day, Dawn saw his eyes.

Her own stung with sudden, bitter tears.

Sitting full in the late afternoon sun was William the Bloody.

Old Will.

William.

Spike.



Spike was alive.

*

Xander's smile faded as he recognized the tall girl with the long dark hair. Not the colt anymore. More like a thoroughbred.

Her eyes were wide with shock.

Sweet Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! What was Dawn doing here?

The man changed course and intercepted her. She looked at him with tears of betrayal in her eyes that dug at him in accusation.

"How. Long." Her voice was flat as she bit off the words.

He held onto her shoulders. "Dawn..."

Looking over his shoulder, her eyes found the figure that was now watching them curiously. She lowered her voice. "How. Long."

"It's not..."

"Spike?" Her eyes narrowed. "Bullshit. One look at his eyes and anyone would know." She met Spike's pensive gaze. There was no recognition there. "How long, Xander?"

The jig was up. Xander sighed. "A couple of years now," he confessed. "He doesn't remember anything, though."

The man looked at Spike and smiled reassuringly. "Doesn't say much, either," he continued softly. "Except in his sleep. And that makes *no* sense."

"He's human, isn't he?" Dawn blurted out.

Xander tried to make a joke and pointed up at the sun. "See any dust bunnies?" At Dawn's hard look, he shrugged, embarrassed. "Yeah. Seems to be."

Slowly exhaling, she stared at the man seated on the stool, then glanced at Xander. "Why didn't you...?"

"What?" the man said in annoyance. "*Tell* you? Tell you what? That Spike is alive? Dawn, that's not Spike. Not the Spike you knew. Every now and then, there's a look he gets that's... well, Spike-ish, but it never lasts. And do you know how often that even happens? Maybe once or twice a year."

"But Buffy would want..." she insisted.

Xander cut her off. "Come on, even *I* can admit seeing him like this would break her heart."

Considering his words, she turned back to Spike, who was still gazing at her patiently.

Like a dog, she thought.

"I want to talk to him," she said stubbornly as she started toward Spike.

Xander touched her arm gently, bringing her up short. "No, honey, you don't," he said in a soft voice. "It's... spooky. I'm still not used to it. Still expect him to..."

She pulled her arm from his grasp. "I don't care."

Spike's blue eyes watched her approach. Almost imperceptively, his head tilted to the right in puzzlement.

Xander let out a shaky breath. "Well, that was this year's Spike-ish thing. I was beginning to wonder if there'd be one."

"Hello... Will," Dawn said tentatively. The name sounded and felt... wrong.

His eyes were as open as those of a child. "'Lo," he answered. His voice was hoarse and she thought there might be the faintest trace of an accent, but she wasn't sure.

She looked back at Xander in triumph.

"Do you remember me?" she asked, returning her full attention to Spike.

His eyes didn't change. She deflated.

"I'm..." Her voice trailed off.

Xander shot Dawn a cautioning look.

"A friend," she said slowly.

Spike returned his attention to the dominoes in front of him.

"Come on, Will. It's time to go." Xander slowly reached over and began placing the dominoes into a small cloth bag. "Gettin' late." He turned to the girl. "You're coming with us, right?"

She looked from Xander to Spike and back again. "Wouldn't miss it," she said with a show of spirit.

"Fine." Xander put a hand on the other man's arm. "Will?"

Spike looked up.

"Let's go home."

*

Buffy's stomach growled loudly. Momentarily shifting her attention to the lower right corner of the screen, she noted the time.

She'd worked through lunch, dinner and midnight snack. It was two a.m., what she used to call the 'slaying hour'. It was the Slaying Hour and she, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was sitting at home in front of a computer, exhausted.

Closing the Internet Explorer windows one by one, she bookmarked any she might need later and sat back, letting her eyes rest as the screen blurred.

It was a comforting sight. White light.

Feeling another twinge of something she'd come to think of as homesickness, she thought again about making a trip to the desert that weekend. She needed to connect - connect to what she had been, even if she would never be that person again.

One corner of her mouth turned up in an ironic smile. There wouldn't be any more vision quests, ever. Who would have ever thought she'd miss them?

But knowing that didn't stop her from wanting it. And when the want became too intense, she went to the place where the brightness of the sun made her squint.

Where the subtlest spot of color was vibrant.

Where the nights made her feel clean with cold.

Where her life felt real.

Setting aside her assignment for a class she hated and could easily flunk out of, she dove into her real work. Once, she would have asked Willow to help her design the database she used. But not anymore. As a result, her Buffy-made one was clumsy.

But it got the job done.

These days, Buffy didn't rely on anyone but herself. Everyone she'd ever leaned on - even a little - was either dead or no longer a part of her life.

John Donne had said that no man was an island.

Buffy Summers was determined to prove him wrong.

*

Dawn hadn't slept all night. The sun was coming up and her mind wouldn't stop.

She was keeping vampire hours while the man in the other room... wasn't.

The three of them had had dinner in silence, the former vampire managing to eat with no measure of joy in it. Which, Dawn thought in retrospect, was another thing that was *so* not Spike.

Afterwards, he'd gotten up and moved briefly into the bathroom and a little later to a small bedroom down the hall. The door closed softly.

Xander had leaned back in his chair. "See? Not Spike," he said matter-of-factly.

"You take care of him," Dawn stated unnecessarily.

He had looked surprised at her words. "Of course I do. He saved the world, Dawn. What else *can* I do?"

"Oh, come on," she said nastily. "You always hated his guts. And you don't have to do this. You could just put him away somewhere."

Xander's face had gone as red as if he'd been slapped. In a moment, he relaxed. "I thought about it," he admitted. "I really did. But he's no trouble. Well, not so much," he said cryptically as he gazed down the hallway. He grinned brokenly. "Something I never imagined saying in connection with Spike."

She leaned forward, elbows on the table, hands under her chin. "What do you think happened?"

"You want my unlearned opinion?" He was pleased to be asked. "I figure some portal spit him back out after we won. Spit him out but kept the piss and vinegar. The 'Spike' part. That and the vampire thing." He shook his head. "Why human? Damned if I know."

"I bet Willow could figure it out," Dawn had said excitedly. "Go all researchy and..."

Shaking his head, Xander had tried to burst her bubble gently. "No, Dawnie. Willow couldn't." One warm brown eye lost its focus as he invoked his memories. "I'd seen him around for weeks before. Finally, he was in my way one day at the convenience store. It was while I was working on the redo of the old Sunnydale Bank and Trust. You wouldn't believe the kind of damage that place had!

"Anyway, I spoke to him. Just to let him know I was there, thinking he might move out of the way. And he looked up." Xander laughed ruefully. "I almost fainted. He was so thin. Cheekbones like razors. Pretty much unrecognizable with the hair and all. Until you saw his eyes." He looked at her apologetically. "Well, you already got that," he said as an afterthought.

"You called Willow? Willow, but not us?"

Xander had nodded solemnly. "She flew in from Frisco as soon as I called."

"And?" She still couldn't believe he hadn't told them.

He shrugged. "And nothing," he said softly. "Like there's nothing there to read. Besides that was always Tara's thing." He spread his hands in resignation. "He's just Will now. Old Will. An ex-vampire with a hell of a suntan." He chuckled and ran a self-conscious hand through his hair. "Who'd have thunk?"

Dawn had made her decision then. The one that had landed her on the couch at her own insistence. "I'm staying here tonight."

"What good do you think that'll do? Not that you're not welcome. You know you are. Always up for a sleepover from the Dawnster, just like the old days, but..."

"I need to," she had said simply. "Buffy would want me to."

"Buffy can't know, Dawn." He'd leaned forward, eyes dark with worry. "This could ruin her life."

Dawn had thought of her sister then. Of the brutal workouts. Of Buffy's frantic attempts to fill every waking moment of her time with *something*. *Any*thing.

"Xander, her life was ruined the day he disappeared. Just like yours was. Just different reasons is all."

"You can't..."

"I'm not," she'd interrupted then. "I'm not going over to that table and making any phone calls, all right? But I think you should have told us... her... *something*."

The man had gotten up in irritation and embarrassment. "Well, if you think of what that 'something' might be, let me know. I'm out of explanations and I need sleep." He had almost slammed the door to his bedroom.

Thinking back, she was sorry she had upset him. Well, not really, she thought, cause he'd kept this from them for a long time. Would have been forever if she hadn't...

Her thoughts froze as the door to the small bedroom opened. Dawn closed her eyes to mere slits as she watched Spike walk, fully dressed, down the hall to the bathroom.

After a bit, he came out and headed to the kitchen. There was the slightest creak, a click and the soft closing of the door.

Jumping up, she scooted into the kitchen to see if what she had heard what she thought she'd heard.

She had.

'Will', the childlike man wearing Spike's face, had *locked* the door, like he knew someone might come in who didn't belong.

She laid her head against the glass of the door, savoring its coolness.

What was the hell was going on?



Chapter Two: Waiting for Dark

Buffy rolled her head to the side and looked at the bedside clock. The digital letters said 5:00. The dot said A.M.

She got out of bed, stretching carefully as her limbs popped and creaked in protest. Padding into the kitchen, she pulled a box of granola cereal out of the cabinet and poured water over it.

Walking into the living room, she picked up the remote and hit the power switch. In reply, the television winked on, connecting her to the world via CNN.

She sat down with her tasteless breakfast, scanning the blurbs at the bottom of the screen.

Half an hour later, she was satisfied that the entire world's reported ills were either natural in origin or attributable to the stupidity of men. Carrying the bowl into the kitchen, she rinsed it out and returned to the living room, pulling an incline bench away from the wall.

The old weapon's chest had long since given up its original contents. She pulled out two free weights and strapped weights on her hands and ankles. Lying down on the bench, she began her morning warm up, starting with flies and ending with five hundred stomach crunches.

She moved the weight bench back into place. Her side caught a little. Frowning, she went to the bathroom, shook out a couple of Advil and started the shower.

*

Dawn was still awake when Xander shuffled out of his room, wearing sleep pants, a tee shirt and the incongruous eye patch. He looked cute.

"Coffee..." he croaked.

She pointed toward the kitchen in amusement. "Made."

With an 'ahhh' sound, he reached for a mug and poured. No sugar or milk. Just strong, black coffee.

"Thank God," he said, after a large swallow. "Usually in bed by ten," he explained. "I'm up early, early every day." He looked at Dawn accusingly. "Except today. *You * messed up my schedule." He walked into the living room to see the girl sitting brightly on the sofa, legs crossed in Indian fashion. "Tonight is an early night. Count on it."

He'd been right the day before. Dawn didn't look like a colt anymore, with thin, awkward arms and too-long legs. She'd filled in. Still tall, but shaped more like a slightly overweight super model than the clumsy baby sister. "What are you doing up?" he asked, realizing that the room had gone silent during his appraisal.

"Couldn't sleep," she informed him. "I'll crash while you're at work. Pick up my car from Kitt's later."

"You staying here again tonight?" he asked. "If you are, it's fine, but you'll need a key. Not the green and glowy kind," he said wickedly. "Just basic hardware store stuff."

"Does Sp... 'Will' have one?" she blurted out.

Xander looked at her in surprise. "Well, he really doesn't need one. He's gone by the time I leave in the morning and I grab him on the way home, so..."

Dawn nodded excitedly. "I was up when he left!" She jumped off the couch and hurried to the back door. "Look!"

Xander walked over and eyed the door. "What?"

"Well, I didn't lock it. He did!" She turned shining eyes on the man. "He locked the door behind him when he left."

Xander nodded absently as he walked out of the kitchen. "Yeah. He's been known to do that."

"But... why?" Dawn said shrilly as she followed. "Doesn't that mean..."

Interrupting her, Xander sat down on the sofa, pushing the blanket out of the way with one hand as he balanced the coffee cup in the other. "Honey, he dresses himself and pees by himself. Actually showers and washes his hair. Shaves. He does lots of things. And sometimes he locks the door if he leaves before I do."

He held up a hand as Dawn sat down beside him, disappointed. "The following are things he *doesn't* do. Will doesn't cook," he said as he ticked off a finger. "Doesn't open the refrigerator. He *will* turn on the faucet, but he doesn't do dishes. And he doesn't do floors," he said with a quirk of his mouth. "Other than that, he's fairly self-sufficient. And a much better roommate that Sp... than he used to be."

"But how does he know how to do it?" she asked, loathe to let it go.

"I don't know. And I stopped worrying about that a while back. None of it makes much sense, Dawnie, but hell! Him being here at *all* doesn't make sense." Xander got up. "I'm going to get ready for work. When I'm gone you can sack out on my bed if the couch isn't getting it for you. I'll get an extra key made and leave it on the kitchen counter after lunch." He smiled. "Do whatever. Spend time with Kitt. I'll see you tonight."

*

Dawn bought a camera at the mall.

The price was right and it was a Canon. Which was supposed to be good. At least, she thought it had been a good brand once. After watching the sales clerk load it, Dawn had puttered around with it, taking pictures of Kitt in the Food Court. Trying it out.

She even pulled out the small manual and read it, checking to see what each of the buttons across the top were used for.

The flash might be a bad idea, she mused. The time to do this was now. And she could get Kitt to help.

Swearing her friend to secrecy, they left the Mall, heading for downtown Sunnydale in the metallic blue Beetle.

*

Buffy was grading Professor Simmons' papers when the latest survey materials came through.

"I should have the new questionnaire done over the weekend, if you can handle getting these new names in and starting the process next week," Simmons announced.

Buffy nodded. "I can do that."

He started to walk away, but turned back. "If you want to piggy-back some supplemental questions, like last time, be my guest."

She looked down at the papers she'd been working on. Finished. Putting down the pen, she gathered the stack up tidily and pushed the papers into a file folder.

"Those random dream questions of yours are interesting," he prodded. "Ever figure out where you're going with that?"

She shook her head, not bothering to look up. "Not really." Finally, she met his eyes as she handed him the file folder. "All done."

There were circles like bruises under her eyes. "You need a vacation, Miss Summers."

"Planning an overnighter," she informed him. "Starting as of now."

"Good. All work and no play..."

Buffy's mouth twisted in distaste, as if she remembered something she'd rather not.

Confused, Simmons watched as she walked out of the office and into the corridor. He shook his head. She was such a strange young woman.

*

In the strange setting that was the corner store, Dawn began taking pictures. She started from the street and inched forward, even getting pictures of his hands as he held the dominoes. Hoping she wasn't too close, she snapped pictures of his pensive face, suspecting that, more often than not, she was only getting shots of his unruly mop of sun-bleached hair.

Finally, there were pictures *with* him. Dawn and Spike. Kitt was almost certain he looked into the camera for one of them. Almost.

Dawn knew it was stupid and dangerous. But the trim predator with the neat, white hair and the wicked-cool coat was gone. This was no one Buffy had ever seen before.

Spike had been a big part of Dawn's life once, and even though she'd been angry with him in that last year, he *had* done 'the thing', made the sacrifice. Stepped up to the plate. Saved the world.

Somehow made it right.

Praying the final result wouldn't be a complete travesty of what she and Spike had had, Dawn had pulled away from the curb, stifling the urge to wave. Once at Kitt's again, she carefully hid the film in her suitcase until she could return to Tucson.

*

Buffy sat on the serape, waiting patiently for the sun to go down behind the mountains and full dark to ensue.

It had taken three hours to get there. But already the wood was prepared. She used fire to focus, almost like hypnotizing herself. It always left her refreshed afterwards and invigorated. Grounded and balanced. No hokey pokey necessary.

She'd brought peyote buttons once - one of those times when she'd been so desperate. It had been the second year after the apocalypse. She'd seen something during that 'trip', but of course, she couldn't trust what she saw. Hello? Hallucinogens?

She'd thrown up the contents of her stomach and then started on stomach lining, she remembered. Ached for days after and remembered next to nothing about it. Not one of her finest several hours. No more buttons and no more watching 'Altered States'.

In the last five years, she'd been to the desert twelve times, every time alone. Eight of those times, she'd wound up exactly in the same spot, where an impossible overhang that was miles away framed the gnarled tree with its fist-shaped trunk. The fist almost looked like it was holding a large stake.

She thought it was homey.

In her years of visiting this place, she'd learned to wait. Wait for the sun to go down. Wait for the fire to mount. Wait for the cold to settle over her. Wait for the peace. She had finally learned to stop fighting and grasping for half-answers and cryptic messages.

Of course, the visions no longer came to her. The slayer dreams were gone, never to return. Sometimes, she felt empty when she thought of it. Missed them - even missed the horrors they'd often revealed.

Buffy gazed at the wood and waited patiently for the blackest part of the night.

*

Dawn had fallen asleep with the television on. Xander had almost gone to sleep in his turkey sandwich. Will had eaten, gone into the bathroom, and retired to his room.

The girl shook her head. "You might as well not have a roommate."

"Oh, it works for me. Don't think it doesn't," Xander said with a glint of mischief in his eyes. "Once he's in his room, he doesn't come out until he's ready to leave. As roommates go, he's the best."

"Must cramp your style with the women, though," she said saucily.

He leaned back in the chair so that the back rested against the counter, and waved a hand airily. "Relationships are overrated. And if I get too lonely I go talk up some girl at the Bronze. Biggest problem I've got these days is finding the unattached who are over the age of consent, but still have a thing for the romantic, pirate look."

"Consent?" She made her eyes innocent. "What do they have to consent to?"

The feet of the chair slammed as he threw himself forward. "Nothing. Nothing. Except for... intelligent conversation," he said quickly.

She rolled her eyes. "Uh huh."

"You know what?" he remarked quickly. "I'm done." He yawned for extra emphasis. "Why don't you call Kitt? Get out for a while?"

"Well, I would, but I never went back to sleep today."

It was the truth. She'd hit the couch again after Xander left, but she couldn't get her eyes to stay shut. Deciding it was the sofa, she'd padded down the hall to his room, blanket in hand, and piled up on the freshly made bed.

That hadn't worked at all. The smell of Xander's cologne was in the room and it made it seem all 'Xandery.' Which for some reason wasn't very conducive to resting.

So yes, she was tired. Climbing up on the couch, she pulled a blanket over her and fell asleep to the low drone of the television.

*

Buffy used his lighter to make the fire.

It wasn't really his lighter. She wasn't even sure where his old lighter was - whether it had been with him that day or not. But the one she had was the same style. An old Zippo she'd found at a flea market the first time she ever came to the desert.

Her eyes had landed on it, lying on a bed of black fabric, surrounded by an eclectic grouping of turquoise jewelry and heavy metal doodads.

She'd picked it up, turned it over in her hand, hefted it lightly, and flicked it open.

Disappointingly, there was no flame. Needed a flint, the old woman had said. The woman had called her son over and he'd disappeared for a few minutes, appearing with the necessary part to fix it. Had even put lighter fluid in it for her.

Once it was full, it felt right. Smelled right. She'd paid for it and deliberately slid it into her front jeans pocket.

Two days later, she and the rescued lighter had been parked on a blanket just like the one she had wrapped around her shoulders now. The lighter had made every trip since. The blankets were subject to change without notice.

Picking up a piece of scrub, she flipped open the Zippo with a practiced motion and set the twigs on fire. As the mess of sticks burned, crackling loudly in the silence, they released a pleasantly green odor. Buffy nestled it into the pile of wood and watched the tiny flame set the larger pieces of kindling alight.

She concentrated on the growing flame. The lighter stayed in her hand, her fingers gripping it tightly as she allowed herself, in this silent place, to think of him.

He hadn't believed her at the end. She had told Spike she loved him and he didn't believe her.

She'd never lied to him about how she felt. Never said she loved him when she didn't. Why would he think she'd start then, when it was so important? When she'd known that he wasn't going to make it that time. That it was *his* turn.

The fire began to burn in earnest, smoke rising as hungry flames licked at the dry, light-weight wood. Squaring her shoulders, she surrendered herself to whatever memories came to her, letting them play across her mind as she sank further and further into herself, guided only by the glow at the heart of the fire.

*

Dawn's head came off the pillow as the sharp cry punctured her troubled dreams. Disoriented, she sat up, floundering for a moment as she realized she was on a sofa and not on her bed. She almost fell.

When the next sound came, she jumped up and leapt down the hall, almost flattening Xander in the process. She burst into Will's room.

He was curled in a ball on the bed, tears wet on his face as he shuddered. "Burns..." he whispered softly.

As she stepped toward him, Xander caught her and pulled her close. "It's just a dream," he said softly. "Don't."

The girl looked up at her friend wildly. "But it hurts him," she breathed. "Make it stop."

Xander sighed. "Waking him up..." He shook his head. "Not of the good. Takes two days for him to get right if you do."

Dawn was staring in horror at the pitiful sight on the bed. He was mewling softly, twisting in the sheets. She burrowed up against Xander for comfort.

"It plays itself out," he said softly. "Really." She looked up and saw that he was watching Will closely, eyes narrowed. "Come on now."

She dragged her feet, returning her eyes to the man on the bed. "How do you stand it?"

"It doesn't happen often. Couple of times a year at most." He sounded nervous.

Digging her heels in, she stared at Will as a slow smile began to play around his mouth. It looked so much like Spike that she caught her breath in wonder.

"See?" Xander said as he pulled her toward the door. "Better already. He's fine."

"But..." Dawn was confused. Xander seemed determined to get her out of there.

"Come on," he said harshly. At her puzzled look, he let out a frustrated breath and pulled her out, closing the door. "The dream... changes," he said cryptically. "This part's nothing we need to be around for."

At the warning note in his voice, Dawn let him ease her back toward the living room and into the small kitchen. Xander was almost jovial when he spoke again. "You want something to drink?" he asked. His voice was very loud after the hushed tones of the bedroom.

He loudly clattered around in the cabinet, bringing out drinking glasses and plates. "Sandwich?" he continued, not waiting for an answer. He began manically digging in the refrigerator for cold cuts and condiments, making more noise than he needed to.

"Sandwich and a movie," he said quickly. "Action flick, maybe. Cause house, not apartment, so we can really let 'er loose..."

She wanted to ask him if he'd gone insane, but she didn't get the chance. There was a howl from the back of the house, like something long trapped had been released. Dawn's mouth fell open.

Her eyes flew to Xander. He was frozen in the act of leaning into the refrigerator for more.

He slowly straightened and turned, eyes down. Her cheeks flushed as she realized he was bright red. Tentatively, he glanced up, trying to gauge her reaction to the sound she'd just heard.

"Did he just..." She couldn't say anymore. Her voice was shaking in shock and surprise. Her chin set, silently demanding confirmation.

He let out a ragged breath. The man looked at the floor, the cabinet, and the jar of mayonnaise - anywhere but at Buffy's sister.

"Cause it sounded like he..." She still couldn't finish.

"Yeah." Not trusting his voice, Xander spoke more loudly than he needed to. He dropped back a peg. "Yeah, he did."

She stared, willing him to spell it out. "I mean..."

"I know what you mean. And yes. He got a happy. A big one." Xander's voice was sarcastic in his chagrin, face becoming so red, it was moving into the purple range. "And don't worry. It's over, okay?" He ran a quivering hand through his hair. "For another year, if I'm lucky."

Dawn opened her lips to speak, reconsidered, and closed her mouth with a snap.

He glanced up at the wall and kept his eyes there as his color subsided to pink. "Look, I guess you staying here wasn't such a great idea."

Her temper flared. "I'm not a baby," she said resentfully. "And I've had sex."

Xander's eyes flew to her face. It was true, of course. There was a young woman standing in front of him, fire in her eyes, not a sixteen-year-old kid.

"Sorry," he mumbled.

She blew out a frustrated breath. "No, *I'm* sorry," she said sarcastically. "Somehow I managed to grow up. Guess I forgot to send out the memo!"

He tried to relax, but waves of tension were ricocheting around the room. "Again with the sorry," he said carefully. "But still..."

"And now you're pissing me off," Dawn said curtly.

"Well, excuse me, *Miss* Summers," he began hotly, "but a man you and I both used to know, and who used to sleep with your sister, the same sister who also happens to be my best friend, just shot his load in a very big, very loud way," he said nastily. "In his pants. In his sleep, no less! I find it sad, pathetic, and more than a little creepy. And I'd feel that way even if you *weren't* said best friend's baby sister!"

He began sweeping the perishables off the table and back into the refrigerator. Breathing heavily, he slammed both hands on the counter and pushed off, stalking past Dawn and down the hall without a backward look. His bedroom door closed with a slam.

Dawn stared after him. Flipping off the kitchen light, and him with a second gesture, she stomped to the sofa.

Well, she thought as she folded her arms angrily. Maybe Spike wasn't the only one with pent-up urges.

*

Sometime during the cool night, Buffy had ended up under the blanket she'd worn around her shoulders. She stretched languidly as the first rays of sunlight played against her eyelids.

She opened her eyes slowly. As usual, she couldn't recapture the night, but the result was the same as always. There was a deep feeling of peace and relaxation that permeated her body and mind. Like her balance had been restored.

Achy from sleeping on the ground, of course, she thought with a smile, but she always was. Smiling, she stood and shook out the serape. The lighter fell to the sand softly, loose hinge clinking.

She folded the serape, then the blanket. Finally, bending down to retrieve the lighter, she felt the muscles in her abdomen and legs protest.

Must be really out of shape, she thought, amused.

Humming softly under her breath, she went to load the Cherokee.



Chapter Three: Autonomic Responses

Buffy closed the data base program and clicked on the web icon. Opening online banking, she checked her balance. Her lips curved slightly. Not great, she thought, but not bad for the beginning of the summer semester. They wouldn't starve.

Opening another window, she accessed the bookmark for the telephone bill and got ready to pay it. After a moment, her eyes widened. Something was wrong. Really, really wrong.

She clicked on 'details' and watched as a list of long distance phone calls appeared on the screen. Jaw slack in horror, she scrolled down.

And down.

And down.

There was a month's worth calls to two numbers in Sunnydale, California. Not ten minute calls either. They were hours long and had been placed at all times of the day and night.

Four hundred twenty-two dollars worth of long distance out of state calls. She was sure she'd never set up a call plan to cover this.

Buffy pushed her chair away from the computer desk in disbelief. She should have never gone 'paperless' on her bill. She'd have known about this a week ago.

The former slayer jumped out of the chair and charged down the short hallway to stand in front of her sister's room, hand up to knock. Inside, she heard Dawn's muffled voice in conversation. Buffy didn't need slayer hearing to know that she was talking to someone. And she was pretty sure it was long distance.

Twisting the doorknob as she knocked, she caught her younger sister trying to do three things at once.

One was to hang up the phone. The first was being hampered by the second and third, which seemed to consist of shoving a pile of photographs in an envelope while trying to open the drawer to her bedside table.

Dawn's face had the same look as that of a deer in headlights. Frozen panic. She cleared her throat, straightening nonchalantly as she leaned, hands empty, against the partially closed drawer. "Hey. You knock and you wait," she complained mildly.

"Was that long distance?" Buffy asked coldly.

The girl straightened and then went for bravado. She raised her chin. "Maybe..." she answered. "So?"

It was exactly the wrong tack to take with Buffy. "So? How about four hundred dollars worth of 'so'?"

"Huh?"

"As in four hundred dollars in long distance calls. And that's only the ones that have shown up on the bill. Which was dated ten days ago!"

Dawn's mouth fell open.

"When did you buy a camera?" Buffy was all on the offensive now and determined to keep her sister off balance.

"Umm..." Dawn unconsciously pushed herself against the bedside table, catching her hand in the drawer by accident. She tried to look nonchalant. "When I was... home?"

"Uh huh," Buffy said derisively.

"I did too buy it," Dawn said defensively, instantly regressing to fifteen years old again. "You can ask Kitt!"

That brought Buffy up short. "I didn't mean..." She took a breath, calming herself. "I didn't think you stole it," she said firmly. "Dawnie, what's going on?"

"Going on?" In spite of herself, Dawn choked a little on the words.

"You met a boy, didn't you?" Buffy nodded her head, encouraging her sister to share with her.

Dawn considered it. God, she hated to out and out lie, but... She thought of Will.

"Well," Buffy said firmly, "it's going to have to stop. He can call you if he's that interested. And you have to get the money for the phone bill from Dad - or get a job. I can't afford to pay this right now, if ever."

Dawn nodded gratefully, relieved that she'd dodged the bullet. She'd call Dad and guilt him for the money. She could do that.

"The long distance thing really doesn't work well," Buffy said uncomfortably.

Dawn nodded some more. "I'll... be prepared. For that," she stammered. "The 'not worky' thing." Were they going to have an older-younger sister talk? Because Buffy was continuing to stand there, staring at her expectantly.

She put out her hand and waggled her fingers. Dawn felt like she was almost forcing herself to be interested. "Well? Let's see him. You got pictures, right?"

"Uh, no," Dawn said, fumbling for an explanation. "I wanted... But you know, too embarrassed to ask, so..."

Disappointed, Buffy's hand dropped to her side. "Oh. Well, I get that." She turned away.

Sighing audibly, Dawn sagged against the bedside table, jerking her hand out of the drawer. The sharp movement caught the envelope of pictures, which immediately slid onto floor, scattering the photos in an area covering about three feet.

Dawn dropped to her knees, scooping the snapshots together with both hands. There was a second bunch of them that had fallen to her left...

The next thing she knew, they were lying in Buffy's hands, as she quickly flipped through them, straightening them as she went. Dawn held her breath. She'd go right by it. If it even *was* in that pile.

Dawn grew very still as Buffy squinted at one of the shots. Luckily, that picture had turned out badly. Mostly Spike's head of too-long, curly hair and the shadow of a chin. No problem.

But Buffy's hand had slowed. She carefully went to the next one.

Finally, she was looking at the picture of Dawn and Spike. Dawn drew in a breath. There was nothing *but* recognition in her sister's eyes.

Dawn fluttered, trying to take the photograph and by doing so undo what had happened.

The former slayer put a hand out to forestall Dawn, while continuing to stare at the picture. "What is this?" she said slowly. "Some kind of..." She took the other photos from Dawn's nerveless fingers. But she continued to go back and look at the one that was the most damning.

"It's not what you..."

Buffy sat down heavily on Dawn's bed. "Think?"

The girl felt miserable. She should have told her. Or at least, should have never taken the pictures, she thought guiltily. Or hidden them better.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"We didn't..."

Buffy looked up, eyes flashing. "'We'?"

"I didn't know before I went home."

The look of betrayal on her older sister's face bit deep. She looked down at her feet.

Buffy got up and walked to the door. "Get packed," she said quietly.

*

Buffy softly closed the door to the small bedroom and walked down the hall, forehead knit in thought. Nervously, Dawn waited for her in the living room.

"He isn't in there," her sister said to no one in particular. Dawn thought she might be assuring herself of it more than Dawn. "Whoever it is," Buffy continued, "it isn't Spike anymore."

The trip to Sunnydale had been characterized by silence and a pained tightness in Buffy's expression that Dawn hadn't seen in years. Though relieved that she was no longer keeping Spike's reappearance from her sister, she hadn't known what to say.

So Dawn had said very little.

She watched her sister walk into the galley-type kitchen and heard the refrigerator door open.

Buffy returned to the living room, twisting the top off a bottled water. Xander bustled out of his bedroom. He looked at both Summers women in concern, gaze moving from one to the other.

"Ready to go?" he asked them both. "I'm buying. Dinner at Mario's." He rubbed his flat stomach. "I feel like a binge. Italian and red wine."

"You two go on," Buffy answered. "I'll have a sandwich later if I get hungry. Which is about all you can cook in a kitchen that size."

Xander sighed. "I was gonna take you to the new Bronze after." At Dawn's acid stare, he stammered, "Both of you."

"Have fun, then," Buffy said with a ghost of a smile. "It'll be great."

"He's been known to stay alone," Xander said stubbornly.

She shrugged. "Well, not tonight."

Dawn put her arms around her sister's neck as Xander got his coat. "I'm sorry I brought you here," she whispered apologetically.

"You didn't bring me," Buffy said softly into her hair. "I came. You gave me the information, I made the decision."

The man walked out the front door, leaving it open for Dawn to follow.

"Did he... say anything?" the girl asked.

Her older sister shook her head.

Dawn gave her another little hug. Not something she did much of anymore, but desperate times... desperate measures, she thought ruefully. "Call me on the cell if you need us."

"I will," Buffy said absently. Her thoughts were already somewhere else.

*

She knocked softly and waited. Buffy had never knocked on his door in her life, and wasn't sure what constituted a 'polite period of time'. Finally, she pushed it open.

Will was lying down, head against the headboard, still wearing his tee shirt and pants. He'd taken off his button-up shirt, belt and boots, but was still wearing his socks.

So strange not to see a welcoming look in those blue eyes. Instead, what she saw was the unruly top of his head. Poor Dawn. She hadn't seen Spike when he was freshly installed in the basement at the high school. A hundred years from now, even as briefly as he'd had it, Buffy would still recognize that hair.

"Will?"

He raised his eyes, chin still on his chest. Like a little boy. Buffy almost sighed aloud. The same response as earlier; she would speak, his eyes would find her, sharpen briefly, and go flat.

His eyes fell back to his hands.

She tried something new. "William?"

It somehow seemed deliberate that his eyes stayed down as he ignored her.

"Spike?"

The third time was the charm. He frowned slightly and his lips thinned.

She stood in the doorway, just watching, as he slowly relaxed again.

Despite what she'd said to Dawn, there'd been too many clues. The problem was that she had to get Xander and her sister out of there without making them suspicious.

Buffy couldn't reach his mind. She was sure of it. If she stood toe to toe with him, screaming in his face, she wouldn't get any response at all. But she thought there might be another way that would get her inside. A side door.

She thought about it carefully.

An autonomic response on a basic level.

How badly did she want him back?

She walked over to the bed and sat down beside him, her eyes finding his hands as interesting as he did.

They looked the same, same fingers and palms, but so different with the deep shade of brown they'd turned. She almost smiled as she thought about the day Spike had uncovered the Gem of Amara. Instead of taking advantage of the first sun he'd been able to enjoy in over one hundred years, he'd headed straight for Buffy, intent on kicking her ass into next week. And ran for the sewers, smoking, when she wrested it off his hands.

It looked as if something deep inside him had sought to remedy that. She hoped.

Buffy stood up and walked to the door. With a decisive nod, she put her finger on the small button in the middle of the knob and twisted until it locked.

*

Dawn smiled gratefully at Xander. "This is so nice. And hey, feeling very grown up here."

The man grinned recklessly. "You are grown up. I admitted that after you left. And nothing's too good for my best girl. The fact that I was ready for a carb fest had nothing to do with it."

Giggling, she gave him a mock-appraising look. "Non-fat Xander."

"Like the hot chocolate I consume," he nodded in satisfaction.

A strange look flitted across the girl's face. "Have you tried that?"

"What? Non-fat cocoa? Sure. I..." He stopped as her meaning dawned on him. "For... Spike? Yeah. Yeah, I did. He likes it, but there was no moment of grand disclosure for him. Same with the Buffalo wings. Even drove across the county line for one of those onion things before the Bronze reopened. Those things don't travel well, by the way. Drew the line at cigarettes, though."

Dawn was disappointed.

"You know, I haven't thought of him as 'Spike' in over two years. Just Will. And now, since you've been back, I have to be careful not to call him that to his face."

"Why?"

Xander shrugged. "Doesn't seem right. When I first found him, I didn't call him anything after the initial 'oh, Spike, you're home' thing. He didn't react to it and it almost seemed like I was... hell, I don't know... mocking him. Who he was. Well, who he *had* been, I guess. William was too... I don't know... not right either. 'Will' fit.

"For a while, he was just on the street. He seemed to be eating and I really didn't get too close, but I'd keep my eye out for him." Xander smirked. "Eye. Singular. Get it?"

Dawn groaned.

"I use that one a lot," he confessed. "It's good for business. Can end a contract negotiation in the blink of an..."

"Don't you dare!" she hissed.

Xander laughed loudly. He pointed at Dawn's reddening face. "Got you again. And then, there's always..."

She looked around the restaurant as she leaned toward him threateningly. "I'll gouge out your other eye if you don't stop it!" she said quietly.

That sent the man into fresh gales of laughter. He gasped and grabbed the napkin. "See? I'm laughing so hard, I have to wipe the tears out of my...." At her angry look, he subsided. "I love you, Dawnie. And I missed you and your sister like crazy. If only for times like these," he chuckled as he waved a hand. "I'm catching the waiter's 'eye' now," he explained. "Oh, wait. Make that one plural."

Dawn let out a long-suffering breath.

He turned his attention back to his story. "Anyway, I'd keep an eye out, like I said. Then, one day, I didn't see him. Anywhere. As much as I didn't want to, I got worried." He shrugged self-deprecatingly. "So idiot that I am, I went looking for him."

Xander had a look on his face that bothered Dawn. "Something was wrong?"

"Yeah. Some punks got to him. Beat the living hell out of him. Broke a couple of ribs. Some internal bleeding. Found him behind the Magic Box." Xander thought back. "I don't even know why I looked there. I pretty much avoided even driving by back then."

At Dawn's troubled expression, he continued. "I got him to a hospital and they patched him up. No vampire healing anymore. Heartbeat, so it was safe to take him. I paid the bill and took him home with me. Just until he got better, of course." He shrugged. "Yeah, right. I know. Anyway, I got him settled, knocked him out on pain meds, and went hunting. Just me and Anya's favorite baseball bat."

Dawn's eyes narrowed.

"And no, they're not in some shallow grave somewhere, all right?" He sighed in disgust.

"Well, with the eye and all, I thought you might have buried them in a box somewhere. Like the treasure-to-be-announced later?" Dawn said archly.

"You're good," the man said appreciatively.

Dawn leaned forward, giving in to the urge she'd had all night.

"Just now figuring that out?"

*

Buffy stared at the doorknob. The path she was contemplating was wrong.

She didn't care.

It was the hard decisions, the distasteful ones, that made a general, Giles had said. She'd proved it time and again. Swallowing once, she set her chin and turned back to face Spike. Spike, because she had to believe he was in there somewhere, that she was doing this for his own good.

He gazed at her calmly, no curiosity in his expression. No trust, but no distrust either. He was just living in the moment. She moved before her knees buckled and returned to the side of the bed, sinking down beside him. Slowly, placed a hand over his heart and drew in a shuddering breath.

The unfamiliar warmth of his body permeated the tee shirt. What was even more wrong was the steady, powerful beat of his heart. Buffy winced. Everything was wrong, incontrovertibly changed.

Trying not to frighten him, she shook her head lightly to clear it and pushed her palm against his chest, adjusting to his heat and the rhythm that pounded under her hand.

He continued to gaze up at her - Spike's eyes without the tenant.

She could do this, she thought dispassionately.

Wonderingly, he looked at her hand as his own slowly crept atop hers with a light touch, and then tightened.

His hands were dry and tanned to roughness, tiny hairs on the backs bleached white by the sun.

Her eyes closed. Maybe she couldn't do this.

Inwardly she steeled herself for what would come next, as she bent down and touched his lips with her own. The shape was the same, but they were dry and hot. She felt him jerk slightly and pulled back. Eyes narrowed, she scrutinized his face for some kind of response.

Nothing but the reflection of a child's surprise. No smile, but no fear either. She bent her head and kissed him again, deliberately moving her hand from his chest to the crotch of his soft loose khakis.

He gasped in her mouth, body stiffening in fear. She continued to kiss him, trying to pretend that she was kissing someone else - the one who knew her better than anyone. As his lips continued to lie slack under hers, too unschooled to be responsive, she gave up the fantasy and just got on with it.

Buffy noticed that his pants were tightening, which was the upside of the soft loose fabric. Of course, the pressure of the old tight denims would have helped her with this. Callously, she wondered if he would fully harden. The thought that this might not go at all spurred her on. She pushed her tongue past his lips and into his mouth, curling her hand around his length lightly through his pants.

Another catch in his throat and his breath hissed out. She made a shushing sound, moving her mouth away from his. His eyes were wide and very, very blue as he gulped at the air. Shock, but no knowledge behind it. So different from that first time they'd done this.

She exiled the images from her mind. Fantasies weren't going to help here. She had to rely on the clinical.

Stimulation. Response.

Connection.

Well, she'd used his body before, Buffy thought coldly, and for less reason than this. She could do it again. Had to.

She slid her hand off his crotch and under his shirt, fingers skating over too-prominent ribs, absorbing and discarding the unimportant fact that his skin was hot to the touch.

As her hand reached his chest, he shivered. Slamming his hand over the tee shirt, he clamped his fingers around hers, stopping her progress as he panted shallowly. She allowed him that much, letting him adjust to the sensations that were assailing his body.

Feelings he didn't have the capability to understand, she reminded herself.

After a long minute, after his breathing returned to normal and the grip of his hand relaxed, hers began to move down again.

As her fingers slid over his belt line and approached his crotch, she held her breath. His hips surged up slightly, responding, and he pushed himself up to meet her hand. She cupped her fingers around him and squeezed.

His eyes flashed and she felt a surge of triumph, followed by the thought that any animal would do as much. He pushed against her again. And again. Beginning a slow, tentative rhythm.

She realized her throat was dry and that somehow her panties were damp. Unexpected, but it would make things a little easier, she guessed.

Lying down on the bed beside him, she put her hand on his chest as she pulled her leg over him, resting the side of her knee against his crotch. She tried to prepare herself for the warmth of his lips as she plunged back to his mouth. He pushed against her knee.

One minute she was kissing him and the next his tongue was in her mouth clumsily, probing and exploring.

She realized that his hand was on the small of her back and he was pulling her atop him, pinning her tightly against him as his hips lightly rose and fell. He strained against her once, hard.

Using the palm she rested on his chest, she pushed herself up to look at his face.

His lips were red, cheeks flushed, eyes almost glazed with the primitive sensations he'd surrendered to.

Nothing of Spike in there at all. She'd allowed herself to be fooled by the strength of his hand on her back and pulled back to find... nothing. No knowing look, no smirk, no adoration.

This was wrong, wrong, wrong. And she was determined to finish it. Skin to skin. All or nothing.

Almost roughly, she sat up and jerked her top over her head. Naked from the waist up, she grabbed at his shirt and he moved to allow her to pull it up, finally finishing the job himself. Angry, she reached for the waistband of her skirt, knowing that she needed to take the lead so that she wouldn't frighten him any more than she already had. If she did, there might never be an opportunity again.

Concentrating on the buttons, she almost jumped when a brown hand crept up her ribs and over her breast. Her eyes found his face and saw the childlike curiosity in them as his blunt fingers closed around her nipple.

She closed her eye and let out a slow ragged breath.

Buffy knew she should let him adjust to her, but she was losing her nerve quickly. Horrible, sick words that started with letters like 'm' and 'r' were bouncing around on the edges of her thoughts. Refusing to think about them, she slithered out of the skirt and turned to his pants, agilely unfastening them as quickly as she could.

Just get it over with, some part of her said calmly.

His limbs were pale where they'd been untouched by the sun. But not pale enough. Not him, not him, not him. Her mind furiously chanted the mantra as she straddled him and guided him inside.

This was far worse than anything he'd ever done to her.

His gasp was ragged as she sank down. She continued sinking, belly to belly, chest to chest, bonelessly lying against him as he twitched inside her. There was nothing left in her to go on with this. Numb. She was numb.

He began moving sporadically. Realizing that his arm had crept across her shoulders, she pushed herself down against him, wishing she could just dissolve like one of those demons they used to kill together. Melt away into non-sentience.

His other hand had returned to the place where her hips and back met, pulling her against him in a parody of the way it used to be.

There was no art in it, only his need to move in and out, to scratch an itch, no rhyme or rhythm to it. His muscles quivered with effort, as his body grew hotter and hotter. He felt as strong as he ever had, but paradoxically, she was weaker than she'd ever been. Stronger than most women, faster, but still no slayer.

She bit back something that felt like a sob. That *she* had come to this. That *he* had come to this. They'd been warriors. Now they were just shadows, both of them. Strangers wearing faces that used to house someone else.

She didn't even know who she was anymore.

Along with her tattered pride, she felt hot tears leak from away into the hollows of the place where his neck met his shoulders. The tears itched. He itched - his skin hot and sticky, not cool and slick like she remembered. She wanted to get up, wanted to run away and never come back, do *anything* except give in to the wracking sobs.

And he was still, she realized. She knew that she should do something, begin moving, stop crying, but she couldn't. He'd probably lapsed back into that state he was in before she'd started this.

She'd screwed it up.

His hand slid from her shoulders as she was rolled to one side. Buffy felt the bed give beside her as he raised himself on his hand. Opening her eyes, she waited to see the damage she'd done.

Instead, she was met with anguish.

"Buffy..." he breathed out, looking at her swollen eyes and moving down her chest to the place where they were still tenuously connected. He looked shocked. Confused.

But he was back. Soft tremors jerked her body as the tears began to flow again.

"Christ," he muttered and gently slipped from her, rolling onto his back as he gathered her up against him. His heart thudded against her ear as her still-flowing tears mingled with the hair on his chest. That itched, too.

All of the tension went out of his body as he expelled a shaky breath. "Buffy, I..."

"You didn't believe me," she whispered. "I told you and you didn't..."

His breath caught on the intake. The silence stretched between them.

"I do now."

*

Companionably, Dawn and Xander stood outside his house, gazing at it with wistful smiles.

"It's in the Craftsman style," he explained. "I thought about mission, but this just seemed right."

Dawn smiled sadly. "You say that a lot. The whole 'right' thing. Did you know that?"

"Certainty - about anything - not so easy for me. It's better now," he said honestly. "One day I decided to start trusting my feelings." As he said the words, he blanched. "It was obviously a Luke Skywalker-type moment for me," he grinned face red with embarrassment.

Dawn looked at him wickedly. "What? You had to lose an eye to figure that out?" she grumbled.

His answering smile lit his whole face. "I was never a quick learner. Quick wit, but not so quick on the rest. Once it registers, though, it's imprinted for the duration."

The girl pulled her eyes from his and back to the house. "A family could be happy here."

"This 'family'," Xander said softly, pointing to his chest, "already is. But it's looking for adoptees. Or other kinds of recruits."

Dawn started up the steps and stood by the door. "Recruits?"

Grinning, Xander pulled the key out of his pocket and unlocked the door.

*

"Where were you?" Buffy asked.

"Deep." The word rolled out, mysterious and haunting. He cleared his throat. "Somewhere deep, pressed down."

She moved her hand under her cheek to keep the hair on his chest from tickling her nose. "You're not going back, are you? Inside, I mean."

His chest stopped in the midst of a breath.

"You're still going to be here when I wake up, right?" she prodded when he didn't answer.

The rise and fall of his chest began again. She thought she might be able to get used to it. Over time.

"Dunno," he answered candidly. "No plans to go, though. Like it better out here."

"I'm in college in Arizona. It's nice there," she told him. "Majoring in psychology. Doing case studies on dreams." She paused expectantly, but he didn't say anything. "Had any?"

"One or two," he responded carefully. He didn't elaborate.

"Cause I could take you with me," she said quickly. "Make you my primary study." To Buffy, the words sounded strained. Like a joke falling flat.

She realized he had been holding his breath. This would really take some getting used to, she thought. When he spoke again, there was an admiring tone to his voice. "You've been busy."

She nodded. The hair scraped her cheek. "Very. I've elevated the concept of 'busy' to a fine art. They'll be offering degrees in it soon. And I know lots of new big words. I can even use them in conversations without embarrassing myself."

His answering chuckle was appreciative and completely familiar. Her eyes stung again.

"So," he said finally. "What do we do now?"

"I don't know," she said slowly. "Live?"

Somehow that seemed right.