"Out of my head, witch," Spike growled. He was walking down the sidestreets of town, striding confidently, a large axe swinging by his side. His chest was bare, but he barely noticed the warm breeze that brushed against his many injuries.
"Tara and I are at the Magic Shop," he heard in his mind. "Can you come here?"
"You got a spell?" Spike said out loud.
"Well...no," came the response. "But you can't do this. There's got to be another way."
Spike muttered the dirtiest phrase he knew.
"I heard that," Willow's tiny voice said inside his thoughts.
"You're friend's not coming back, Red," Spike said flatly. "And you know I mean to do this."
"So then what's the problem?" Spike stopped in his tracks and shouted into the night, looking like a madman, alone on a sidewalk, swinging a weapon and arguing with an aberration. "You worried about me, Red? Big, bad vampire you don't bloody like anyway? Or maybe that's it," he said, becoming more and more incensed. "Maybe you don't want to see me bite it. Maybe you're sitting there right now, all worried that my manly good looks will go to waste, chewing on your pencil and questioning your sexual orientation." He pointed the axe at a nearby tree, as if it was the person he was arguing with. "But if that's not the case, bugger off. This is between me and the Slayer." He spun around and walked faster as he neared his destination.
"The Slayer?" she said, her small voice rising to a fevered pitch. "Is that what you think? Spike, she's *Buffy*. I know you can kill the Slayer, but can you kill *Buffy*?"
Spike stopped in front of the house. It was an ordinary suburban place with a big porch and a heavy wooden door. A "For Sale" sign sat in the neglected lawn, weeds tangled around its base, as if the earth was trying to reclaim the elements taken from it to make the cardboard beacon. Through the windows dim white shapes were visible: furniture covered and abandoned. The darkness around the structure was different than that which surrounded some of the nearby houses; it was absolute and forlorn, a barrenness that only the forgotten can possess. But in a second-floor bedroom there was a flickering so slight that a human eye could not have detected it. Spike's hunch had been right. Buffy had come home.
"I'm about to find out, love," Spike said, and he approached the door.
Dawn looked downward. She had only two options, and neither seemed promising. "Uh...again," she said warily.
Anya placed another card on the bed and squealed when she saw it. "Twenty-three! I win again!"
Dawn scowled as Anya cheerfully gathered the playing cards and began to shuffle them. There was the soft jangling of a key in the lock of the motel room door, and both women instinctively stiffened and looked towards it. Though they tried to pretend otherwise, they both felt like disjointed people, ghosts of their former selves, confined to these anonymous rooms with little knowledge of their future. The excitement and fear provoked by everyday motions, like the opening of a door, brought a strange comfort to the monotony. Dawn remembered a special she had seen on TV about jurors being sequestered, how they had to spend most of their time just sitting around, unsure of when they'd be able to go home to their families. Anya thought of the prisoners she had seen in the Japanese Internment camps during World War II.
She hadn't spent much time in American prior to then, and the few appearances she had made had all been on the East Coast. But then a woman in California had summoned her to curse her philandering husband, a soldier stationed in a nearby desert. Anyaka had found the man working in one of the camps, where these Japanese-Americans, many of whom were born within the country, were held against their will during the war years, charged with no crime other than the ethnic group they dared to be descendant from. The propaganda going into Europe portrayed the United States as the defender of democracy and the world's great protector. But the same government that preached freedom had locked their own citizens in desert shanty-towns. She remembered those prisoners. How they sat in their crowded rooms, cooking the meager food they were given and inventing games to pass the time. Most of them had to share a space no bigger than the motel she now sat in with ten or twenty others. The rations were military food, foreign and inedible to some of the prisoners. The toys the children played with were discarded bits of building materials that littered the makeshift towns. One would expect them all to be driven insane within a week, and if they wouldn't begin revolting or killing each other, at least they would turn their despair inwards: kill themselves intentionally, starve, or just succumb to the diseases that crawled along their bedding beside the spiders. But in actuality, very few did. As Anyaka wandered through the camp, looking for the man who would shortly be vomiting up his own intestines, she marveled at how the people had adapted to the hopelessness they faced. How they cooked, played, sewed, built - anything to forget where they were and to continue being who they used to be. Anyaka had laughed at the foolishness of mortals. They were so impossibly stupid, and so desperate to live.
The door swung open and Giles walked into the room carrying two bags of fast food.
"I think you're cheating," Dawn said.
"Am not!" Anya immediately countered.
Dawn held out her hand. "Then let me deal."
"Anya, are you teaching her how to gamble?" Giles asked with a disapproving frown.
"Yes," Anya replied, smiling proudly. "And I'm winning!"
"Cause you're cheating," Dawn muttered, taking the cards from her.
Giles handed one of the bags to Anya. "Dear God, she's just a child," he said softly.
"I am not a child!" Dawn said. She pounded her hand down, pushing the deck of cards into the bedding. "How many times do I have to almost get killed before all of you stop treating me like a baby?"
Giles averted his eyes, visibly embarrassed. "I'm - I'm sorry, Dawn, I didn't mean it like-" He held out the other paper bag.
"I'm not hungry," Dawn said.
"You haven't eaten much today," Giles responded warily. ""Perhaps you could at least...um...try something?"
Dawn swung her legs over the side of the bed and walked over to the dresser. She took out one of the shirts she'd bought at the mall. As she lifted it and shook the wrinkles out, a slight aroma of liquor and cigarette smoke reached her nose. It smelled like him. She went into the bathroom to change.
Giles sat down on the opposite bed and took off his glasses. "Have Willow and Tara called?"
Anya shook her head.
"If they're not making any progress," Giles continued, "we should consider relocating."
"But we have different rooms than last night," Anya said. "Nice, non-broken rooms."
"Still, she may come back to this motel looking for us. If Willow and Tara had another spell ready, that would be an asset; we could be ready for her. But if not..."
Anya looked at the wall, as if she was trying to feel her fiancé through the plywood and plaster. "Xander isn't really well enough to move." She shrugged and gave a dismissive wave of her hand. "I'm sure nothing bad'll happen."
Giles stood abruptly, his eyes wide and his brow damp with sudden sweat. "Anya!"
"What?" She noticed his horrified expression and shivered in fear. "What, Giles? What is it?"
"How could you say that?" he said angrily. "You've been living as a human - and on the Hellmouth - for nearly three years now! Surely you know better!"
"What are you talking about?"
"You said, 'I'm sure nothing bad will happen'." Giles explained, "Now something bad is bound to happen!"
Anya's posture relaxed and she chuckled. "Oh, Giles. Don't be so supersti-"
A scream came from the bathroom.
The front door was open.
Spike remembered the first time he had walked through this door. That had been the beginning of the end of his long love-affair with Drusilla. He had crossed enemy lines, and started a dance with the only person who could kill him, and in more ways than one. Drusilla had branded him as a traitor from that moment forward. He had betrayed her, her first love, and their nature with the simple act of walking through that door. He told her - and told himself - that he did it because he didn't want her to die, which would surely happen if the Slayer won. And if the Slayer lost, both he and Dru would be in a hell-like dimension forever.
But didn't she like it on Earth? he had asked her afterwards. Didn't she like the clothes, and the houses, and the great mobs of people they could walk through and pick off like mortals would step on bugs? Did she really want to trade that all in for an eternity as some demon's lackey?
She had laughed at him. Said she should've known better than to turn him. He was too weak, too human, too attached to the pleasures of the flesh.
In a violent display that Spike was embarrassed about still, years afterwards, he had tried to show her how "weak and human" he was. But what should have made her cry and beg only made her laugh at him more.
"You think this hurts?" she had said, lifting her hand and letting the blood trickle down her arm. "Looking at you hurts. It burns my eyes, inside and out, to know what you really are."
What am I? Spike thought to himself as he walked over the threshold and into the oppressive darkness. He was relieved when the red-headed witch didn't answer his question, glad that something else was occupying her. He'd heard her pop-psychology answer, but it wasn't enough. He was born a man, and lived a short and pointless life, spending much of his time reading and studying other men's thoughts. He was reborn a monster, and for a long time he felt as if it was the ultimate blessing. He was strong, and no longer needed to listen to what others had to say. When he displayed his power, people and demons alike would have to respond to him. He focused all of his energy on making this happen, on seeing himself in the imagined reflection of others' frightened eyes.
He walked up the stairs silently, his bare arm tense and tight, his shoulder and bicep bulging as he clutched his weapon. The light was coming from her bedroom, but as he approached the door he could tell that the room was empty save for the dying light of a candle as it drowned in its own liquid wax.
Her things were strewn over the bed and the floor. He recognized the stuffed pig that seemed to follow her everywhere. He had seen it in her dorm room the night of his failed attack on Willow, and again when he had taken to sneaking in this very room when she wasn't home. He had meant to ask her about it. He wondered if it was a gift from her absent father, and that was why it was so cherished. He had briefly considered offering to have her father killed by some European vampires he had known when he was with Drusilla, who might still consider him a friend. It had occurred to him as a romantic gesture, but then he assessed that she might not see it in that same way.
He saw an old journal lying among the scattered clothes, and he picked it up. It's thick pages were covered in her round and slightly slanted handwriting. He didn't read it; he just looked at the way the words were written: neatly, slowly, as if she'd had all the time in the world to compose and explore her thoughts. He thought of all the time he'd had to kill in the past two years, and how he'd spent it watching television, hunting evil creatures, screwing some nitwit, or just lying in his bed and staring at the ceiling, trying to drive away his thoughts rather than bring them to order. He ran his hand over one of the pages and wondered how someone who lived a life as horrifying, demanding, and lonely as she did had the strength to confront her demons.
He heard a faint click, and then felt a change in the room's air. He dropped to his knees just as an arrow whispered past his ear, and buried itself in the wall beyond him. He stood back up cautiously, holding the axe, ready to swing, as Buffy walked through the bedroom door with a crossbow at her side.
In the dim light of the flickering candle she was beautiful. She wore a knee-length peach and white dress that clung to her body as if it was made for her alone. Her hair hung in soft folds and ripples, catching the meager light and entrapping it in its tresses. Her face seemed to glow with the undeniable color of life.
Buffy looked across her bedroom at Spike, and she smiled. "Hello, cutie."
Giles had brushed past Anya and was at the bathroom door before she even had time to react. He tried the doorknob, but it was locked. He shook it. Dawn's screams were getting louder and more frenzied by the second. The veins on his neck bulged as he grasped the door by its hinges and tore it off.
"Holy shit," Anya muttered.
The small bathroom window was open, and two vampires were attacking Dawn. One held her by the arms while the other wrestled against her flailing body and moved its demonic face towards her neck.
Giles rushed into the room and pulled the vampire from her. He punched it squarely in the face, but it recovered quickly and struck back, sending Giles into the wall with a loud thud.
Dawn, still restrained, pulled forward as hard as she could, extended her leg backwards, and kicked the vampire between the legs.
The creature groaned and released her. Dawn rushed from the bathroom as the vampire who had hit Giles focused his attention on Anya.
Without pausing, Dawn ran out of the motel room. She found a pay phone at the end of the line of rooms, near some soda and snack machines, and she picked it up and dialed 411. Giles and Anya would probably be able to best the two vampires, but if Buffy had sent them, she would be sending more.
"Sunnydale," Dawn said into the phone, her voice shaking. "Willy's bar."
The operator connected her and in a few seconds she heard Willy's voice. "Thanks for calling Willy's Place, the fun family establishment where-"
"Is Spike there?" Dawn blurted out.
"Spike? No, he was here earlier though."
"What?" Dawn asked, panicked. "B-but he said he was going there! It's an emergency, please!"
"Sorry, lady," Willy replied. "He was here this morning asking about a job, or something like that, but I haven't seen him since. Hey - while I have you on the phone, how about a nice take-out order of-"
Dawn slammed the phone down. Spike had said he was going there, but in fact he had finished his business with Willy earlier in the day. Why would he lie to them?
"Oh, no," Dawn said out loud to herself. "Buffy."
"Spirit of the Slayer, hear my prayer," Willow said. Her hand shook as she dropped the sand in the center of the circle that she and Tara formed on the floor of the magic shop. This is it, she thought. Our last hope.
"First of the warriors, we beg you to intervene," Tara said. "Take my form, as you have done before, and lead us to your descendant: she who has strayed from her calling, who needs your guiding hand, your wisdom, your strength, your endless power, your-"
"Tara," Willow said, opening her eyes.
Tara looked up at her girlfriend. "It should have worked by now," she said. "But I haven't felt anything."
Willow shook her head. "It's like she's ignoring us."
"Probably still pissed-off about the first time you summoned her," Tara muttered.
"Hey!" Willow said, standing and brushing the sacred sand off her shoes. "Like your ass-kissing was doing any good."
"Willow!" Tara stood up.
"I'm sorry," Willow said. She took Tara's hand and pulled their bodies close together. "I'm just so worried. I don't know what else we can do."
Tara kissed her lips softly. "It'll be okay. Try Spike again. See what's happening."
They both jumped at the sudden, loud knocking on the Magic Shop door. They rushed to the front of the store and looked out the window.
"It's Dawn," Tara said.
Willow opened the door to see the young girl standing there, her entire body shaking and faint tracks of tears lining her face.
"Dawn, what happened?" Willow said, pulling her into her arms.
"Vampires," Dawn said, her voice trembling. "They attacked the motel. They might've hurt Giles and Anya. I don't know; I ran. Oh God, I left them, and they could be dead!"
"No, it's okay," Tara said. She rubbed Dawn's arm comfortingly. "You did the right thing. You had to get help."
"I tried to call Spike," Dawn continued, her words muffled as she buried her face in Willow's shoulder. "He said he was going to Willy's but I called and he wasn't there."
Willow and Tara exchanged worried looks.
"And I'm afraid that he-" Dawn suddenly fought back a sob and pulled herself away from Willow. She held the redhead by the shoulders and looked into her eyes with a determined gaze. "You know where he is. Tell me." When Willow cast her eyes down rather then respond, Dawn shook her body by the shoulders. "You can read his mind; tell me where he is!" she shouted.
"Dawn," Willow said, trying to comfort the near-hysterical girl with the even tone of her voice. "You need to sit down for a minute. Okay?"
Buffy leaned casually against the doorframe, obviously unshaken by Spike's threatening posture. "Have you decided to attack me one at a time?" she asked. "That'll really make it easier for me to kill all of you." She smiled. "Awww, Spike; you always were so sweet."
Spike hardened his mouth into a line and flexed the muscles of his chest. "I'll take you out all by myself, little girl."
Buffy's eyes flared with malice. "That's right, you like little girls, dontcha Spike?"
Spike took a step forward. "I'm bloody through talking. Let's end this."
Buffy chuckled. "Ooo, I think I hit a nerve. I always knew you were a pervert, Spike, but this is a new low."
"I'm not touching her," Spike said slowly. "I wouldn't hurt her."
"Right," Buffy said. "You're harmless, aren't you? The big bad falls for a Slayer, and then when he can't get her, he turns into a little kitten, sulking around her friends and having wet dreams about her fourteen year-old sister." Buffy moved forward. She was almost close enough for Spike to touch. "Have you looked at yourself lately, Spike? Don't you see how sad you are? I mean, imagine what Drusilla would say! That is, if she could even get out a word, what with all the laughing..."
"You want to talk exes?" Spike said. "Yours was a lot of fun. After you shagged the soul out of him, at least. You know what he told me once?" Spike stepped closer to her. Now they were both in striking distance of each other. "'To kill this girl,'" Spike said softly, "'You have to love her.'"
Buffy lowered her head, still smiling, and then looked up at Spike sweetly, her eyelashes casting long shadows over her face. "You love me, Spike?" she asked.
Spike breathed in the scent of her: the shampoo and the lotion he had come to cherish, only faintly masking the natural musk that was individually her. "More than you know," he said, and he swung the axe.
Giles brushed the dust off his pants and tried to catch his breath. The two vampires were dead now, but Dawn had managed to get away, and Anya-
"Anya!" he called out. He had lost track of her during the fight, and he had thought she was still in the room, but now she was nowhere to be found. He walked into the bathroom. "Anya!"
He found her right outside the motel room, lying on the ground, her tousled hair covering her face. He fell to his knees beside her and landed in a sticky pool of blood. He pushed her hair back and examined her. She was pale, and cool to the touch, and not breathing.
"Anya!" Giles yelled. He reached to her neck to check for a pulse but quickly withdrew his hand. It was covered in blood. She had been bitten.
"Anya," Giles repeated, but this time he spoke her name softer, no longer trying to rouse her. He cupped her face in his hands and looked down at her. As he fought back tears, he saw her lips part slightly, very slightly, and a tiny breath escape.
"Anya," he said. He grabbed her wrist. A faint pulse. She was alive.
He rushed back into the room and to the phone.
"I'm not sitting down!" Dawn folded her arms across her chest. They had led her to the large table towards the back of the Magic Shop. Tara had sat there, but when Willow pulled out a chair and gestured for Dawn to take it, she'd refused. "Look, just tell me. This is no time to play games, or pretend I can't handle things. I'm in the middle of this, and I'll deal with it. I *have* to deal with it."
The way that Dawn stood there, and the way she spoke, reminded Willow of Buffy. The determination of her posture and her words, only thinly veiling the fear and vulnerability that she felt, but pushing those feelings as deep as she could and summoning every bit of strength possible - it made Willow feel like she had her best friend back.
"He...he went to find Buffy," Willow said.
"He went to kill her," Dawn corrected.
Willow nodded sadly.
Dawn caught a sob in her throat and took a deep breath to will it away. "Where?"
Willow looked away.
"Where!" Dawn shouted, taking a step closer to her.
"Dawnie," Tara said from where she sat behind Willow. "We just don't want to see you get hurt."
Dawn turned, walked a few steps away from them, and put her hands to her face. When she turned back she was crying softly.
"Oh, Dawn." Willow took a step towards her and reached out to her.
"Get away from me!" Dawn shouted, causing Willow to retract her arm and stand motionless. "I am so sick of 'You're just a kid' and 'We want to keep you safe'." Dawn put her hand to her throat in an effort to steady herself. "I am *not* safe. I am *never* going to be safe. Do you have any idea what it's like-" She choked on her tears and had to force her breath to come. "I wake up every day, and the first thing I think about is death. How my mother died, how Buffy died...and how much I want to die."
"No..." Willow reached out again, but Dawn took a step backwards.
"It's right there in my head, every moment," she continued. "I can't make it stop. You'd think it would go away when I went to sleep, but then I just have these dreams..." Her voice was drowned out as a fresh round of sobs racked her body. "I dream that I'm lying on the ground, and I can't move at all. And this monster I can't see is cutting me up in tiny pieces, and it takes so long for it to cut me up that I wish I could make it go faster, I wish I could just die." She cried out loud: a painful, anxious wail. "And all I want is one person...one person who'll love me more than anything else, and who'll protect me, and who won't give up until that piece of me that's begging for death is quiet, and I'm not all broken inside."
Dawn put her hands to her temples and moaned, as if trying to push the overwhelming anguish out of her body with the force of her audible exhale. She took a few deep breaths and then straightened her body out, looking at Willow with that familiar and courageous gaze. "I'm not going to stand here and let the two people I love most in the world kill each other."
"They're at her...your old house," Willow said.
Dawn began walking to the door.
Willow hurried to the doorway to catch up with her, with Tara close behind. "We're coming with you."
Buffy easily moved out of the way and the axe whizzed through the empty air. She punched Spike in the chest and then backhanded him across the face. He retaliated, his fist connecting with her chin, and his knee following close behind with a blow to her stomach. She doubled over and he knocked her to the ground.
Spike's face changed to its demonic form, his eyes glowing red and his fangs bared. He leaned over her, poised to bite, but her foot struck his face as she leapt to her feet.
"Like I said," Buffy remarked to Spike's hunched-over body. "Pathetic." She hit him on the head again, this time propelling him into the wall. "You're nothing, Spike. You're not good, and you're not evil. You're never be part of anything."
As he began to raise his head, she sent him to his knees with another blow. "The things people have, you can't have. All the things people do, you'll never be able to do. And your tough-guy act isn't going to last long."
Spike pushed himself to his feet, only to be driven to the ground with a swift kick that knocked his legs out from under him. Buffy stood over him, and looked down with disgust on the blood-covered face that looked back at her. "The things I've fought, they were just the beginning. A new wave of evil is coming; I've seen it. Flood after flood, and who are you to stop it? A worthless vampire who sleeps in tombs, on top of corpses; with the dead with you belong." She reached down the front of her dress and withdrew her knife. "There's no point," she said. "There's no one. You're all alone, Spike."
Spike didn't flinch as Buffy poised the knife over his chest. Then she slowly turned it around, grasping the blade in her hand even as it cut into her, and Spike noticed it. Though the handle of the knife was painted black, it was wooden. She squatted down over him, moving in for the kill.
But Spike grabbed her hand as it descended towards his body and held it steady. "I am not alone," he said.
He bent her arm backwards, and heard the audible crack of a breaking bone. Buffy faltered, but remained standing. Spike beat down on her head with both fists together and she fell onto one knee.
"I walk and talk, just like everyone else." Spike said. Buffy lifted a leg to kick him but he easily blocked it. He chuckled, allowing a trickle of blood to run into his mouth. "Hell, I even shop." He caught the hand that was trying to punch him and held it. He leaned down, his face close to Buffy's. "I'm gonna be a bloody hero when the floods roll in," he said softly. "A lot has changed since you left. And I don't sleep on a bed of bones anymore."
Buffy headbutted him, causing him to stumble backwards. She kicked him in the stomach, but her follow-up punch was blocked and returned to her, hitting her in the mouth.
Spike pressed on vigorously, knowing that she was hurt; one of her arms was broken and its hand was sliced, leaving the entire limb useless, regardless of her Slayer-healing. But then, small waves of dizziness kept passing over him as the wounds on his head continued to hemorrhage. Buffy knew it, and used those moments to her advantage, assaulting Spike powerfully whenever she saw his resolve waiver. They seemed to be evenly matched. Something drastic would have to be done to tip the scales.
Spike dodged an attack and used Buffy's own momentum to drive her face-first into the wall. He knew the impact would only stun her for a moment, so he quickly grabbed her by her arms, squeezing the broken one. A growl came up from the depths of his body as he lifted her off her feet and threw her outside the bedroom door.
She landed at the top of the stairs, hitting her head on the banister. It didn't phase her for long. In an instant she was poised to jump to her feet, but Spike was there. He grabbed her legs as they raised to launch her upwards, and he pushed them backwards, over her head, flipping her and sending her plummeting down the stairs.
Buffy's body landed with a resounding thud, and for a moment she didn't move. Spike hurried back into the bedroom and then out again and down the stairs. Having retrieved the axe, he held it ready to strike. If Buffy was seriously hurt, this was the time to end it.
By the time he got down to the first floor she had pushed herself up onto her elbows. But she was panting, and a bruise was beginning to form on her forehead. She held her stomach with her uninjured arm, as if something there was causing her pain. Spike stood over her, and raised his weapon.
Giles paced back and forth across the hospital waiting room, continuously removing, cleaning, and replacing his glasses, over and over again, until Xander finally rolled his wheelchair in Giles' path and told him to buy contacts.
"I'm sorry," Giles said. "I just...I feel so responsible. I was so intent on killing those vampires...I didn't even notice what happened to her..."
"It's okay," Xander said.
Giles sighed and then winced at the pain in his chest.
"What is it?" Xander asked.
"Nothing," Giles said, rubbing his hand on the affected area of his torso. "A broken rib or two. I'll be fine."
"You should get a doctor," Xander said. "I heard there might be some in this building."
"How can you be so flippant?" Giles snapped.
Xander was unruffled by his outburst. He considered it, smiling to himself. "Weird, isn't it?" he said. "Used to be I was the biggest spaz of them all. But something's changed." He put his hand to his chest. "I feel her. All the time." He smiled at Giles. "I know she's alive."
Dawn walked a few steps ahead of the two witches. The silence between them all was burdensome. She could feel their eyes burning into the back of her neck. After a few blocks she decided she could endure the emotion of conversation more than the implications of the quiet, and she fell into step beside them.
"Can you hear him?" Dawn asked Willow.
"Yes," Willow said. "He's hurt, but so is she."
Dawn tried unsuccessfully to hide the ripple of worry that crossed her face. "Can you tell him we're coming? No, wait. That could distract him. But..." She let the thought - that Spike would kill her sister - go unspoken.
"She's not the same person," Tara said. "I know that doesn't make it easier, but-"
"I know," Dawn interrupted. Her tone left them all silent for a minute.
"Dawn," Willow said, as gently as if Dawn were capable of harming her, "I don't know if...I mean, I don't think it's such a good...." She trailed off, unsure of how to voice her concerns. She cleared her throat and started again. "Do you....do you really love Spike?"
Dawn rolled her eyes. "I'm not some stupid little girl," she said. "I'm almost fifteen - the same age Buffy was when she started slaying vampires and dating boys."
"Spike isn't a boy," Tara said. "He's a vampire. And vampires don't have souls. Even if Spike is different now...well, you can't just *create* a soul."
"Why not?" Dawn said defiantly. "That's what they did to me." She sighed and began to walk faster. "Willow, you see into his head. Can't I trust him?"
"I think you can, I really do," Willow replied. "You just have to realize that...well, actions have consequences, and even if you feel in your heart that you want to do...things, sometimes things aren't the right things to do at certain stages in your life, and...and..."
"And," Tara chimed in. "Sometimes there's like...pressure to do a certain thing. But you don't have to do these things just because other people do these things..."
Dawn stopped abruptly and turned to face the two women, a look of realization spreading over her face. "You're afraid I'm going to have sex with Spike." She furrowed her brow. "*Ew!*"
Willow and Tara shared a look of confusion. "Ew?" Tara asked.
Dawn snickered at their perplexed expressions. "I'm not going to have sex with him. That's just gross."
"But - but I thought..." Willow stammered. "You said you love him."
"I do," Dawn said. "He's my best friend. And he's the coolest guy ever. But I wouldn't have sex with anyone right now, not even Spike. No one I know in school is having sex, not even Mandy, and she's the biggest slut ever. She's made out with like four guys in our class and everyone says she's skanky. And I saw this movie on TV where this girl had sex with a boy and then he told everyone in school that they had sex and then someone wrote that she was a slut on the boys' bathroom wall and everyone made fun of her. And when I go back to school, people are gonna talk behind my back enough, ya know, with everything that happened, so I don't want them to say I'm skanky on top of everything else. Also, mom once told me that you shouldn't have sex with a guy until he at least buys you an engagement ring. I know, it's real old-fashioned, but I think I should get at least [i]some[/i] expensive present from a guy before I let him do all that gross stuff to me." She leaned closer to Willow and Tara, as if sharing a secret. "I saw a movie about it in gym class. It really is a gross thing to do." She leaned back and shrugged, flipping her hair over her shoulder. "So I'm totally not worried about it." She laughed. "I can't believe you thought that about me."
"It's just...love is a powerful feeling," Willow said. "And girls around your age sometimes feel like having sex will make the other person like them more."
"If you have sex with a boy to make him like you, you're totally dumb." Dawn looked at them both sternly. "I hope you two aren't doing that sort of stuff."
"Um, Dawnie?" Tara said. "We don't have sex with boys...at all."
"Good," Dawn said. "Do like me. Wait till you're older."
Dawn looked to her right, where she could see the roof of her old house in the distance. The weight of the situation crept back into her mind. They had wasted too much time with this silly discussion. She set off walking. They had to hurry.
Buffy looked up at him. Her eyes caught the light reflected from the blade of the axe, and it glittered in the tears that suddenly appeared. He was reminded of a similar time, when he had gone hunting for her with a shotgun, and found her crying over her mother's illness. The sight of her pain made him weak then, but he couldn't afford such tenderness now. Still, he hesitated. He held the axe over her, his arm unwavering, and told himself that he just had to see...because maybe...maybe...
Buffy coughed, and a trickle of blood ran out of the corner of her mouth. She turned her face up again, the blood mixing with the tears, covering her delicate skin with tracks of pain, but not even beginning to diminish her beauty. "Spike," she repeated, and the way her voice formed his name made him shiver.
He still didn't move.
"I'm supposed to be doing something," she said. Her hand shook as she touched the bruise on her head and winced. "I'm not done. There's still miles to go. I have all these things and nowhere to fit it all."
She began sobbing quietly, and Spike fought the urge to drop his weapon, fall into her arms, and cry along with her, there in a heap of unnatural flesh in the foyer of the house. Instead he just watched, a lump of anguish filling his throat, until he was sure that he would never be able to speak again.
Buffy's crying slowed, and she ran her hand over her forehead. "They're never going to fix this, are they?" she said. "All the scar tissue in the world, and I'll always be broken." She locked eyes with Spike. "But you, Spike, you're broken too, aren't you?"
He couldn't speak, couldn't move, couldn't even change the stoic expression on his face. All he could do was nod.
"We're torn," she said. "Stuck. Between life and death. Between good and evil." A small smile fought its way through the drying tears and blood. She reached out with her undamaged hand and wrapped it around his ankle. "Stay with me," she said gently. "We're weak, and confused, but we're strong together."
Spike swallowed hard, but his words still caught in his throat. "We always were, love."
"Then come back to me," she said. "We could do anything. We could kill anything. Everyone. And then, whenever you want to..." She released his leg and used the arm to sweep her hair back, exposing her neck. "We'd be unstoppable."
Something inside Spike broke. His arm - the arm that still held an axe high - began to shake violently, and he started breathing: quick, sharp exhales through his nose. His vision of her blurred, and he blinked back tears.
Before she had been beyond him. Her friends, her sister, her mother, her school, her boyfriend. She had a life; she had love. It surrounded her, and was so close to her that he was forced to pull away from it, like sunlight, brighter than the fire. He existed outside of her love, and all he wanted was to pull himself inside of it, even if - like the fire - it killed him. Even if it destroyed everything he was.
*But what am I?*
The though was too much for him. He dropped the axe, and fell to the floor beside Buffy.
"She's just waking up," the doctor said. "So five minutes, all right?"
Xander nodded, and rolled down the hall and into her room.
The lights were dim. Anya lay half-awake on a pile of pillows. She was pale, and her arms were attached to so many IVs that she looked like an odd plastic spider.
"Xander?" she said weakly.
"Yeah," he said, taking her hand and smiling. "You're gonna be fine."
"Where..." she choked out.
"We're in the hospital," he said. Seeing her breathing, her eyelashes twitching, and her mouth struggling to form words, he couldn't help but smile; he was so relieved. "I think they're gonna start giving us frequent flier miles here."
"You don't have to talk," he told her. "Just rest."
Anya tried to shake her head, by all she could manage was a weak twitch.
Xander leaned forward, concerned. "What is it?"
Anya squeezed his hand with what little strength she could muster. "Xander," she said. "Will you marry me?"
"Of course." Xander buried his face in her blankets to blot out the tears that were fast falling from his eyes. "Of course."
Willow stopped in her tracks. They were only a few yards away from the house. Her face paled and her eyes turned glassy.
"What?" Dawn said, afraid of the answer but desperate to know. When Willow didn't respond immediately she rushed up to her and grabbed her arms roughly. "What? What? *What?*"
"Something..." Willow said. "Something's happening. We can't go in. We can't."
"I have to," Dawn said. "Just tell me. Is..." Tears sprung to her eyes. "Is he dead?"
Willow shook her head. "Worse."
Buffy put her hand to Spike's bruised and bloody chest. "I know how it feels."
Spike closed his eyes and drew in air. The pain was worse than the Initiative chip, worse than when the church collapsed on him, worse than when he woke up to find his hand on fire. It was all over him: in his head, in his eyes, in his body. "Everything inside me..." he groaned.
"Destroyed," Buffy said. She ran her hand up his body and to his face. "I know."
He exhaled a long, ragged breath. He searched for a thought that would quell his suffering, an image of something - anything - that could bring him to what he was, that would lead him out of the miserable, hopeless, vast emptiness that felt like it was eating away at him from the inside. "I can't stand it," he said.
He felt Buffy's warm breath on his face and opened his eyes to see her face inches away from his. "It hurts. But we can fight through it. We can live, and we can kill. We can go out into that world and tear apart everything that crosses our path. And we'll be together. Always."
She kissed him. It was full of all the passion he'd always known she was capable of. He tasted her blood on her lips, and the saltiness of her tears, as she kissed him again and again, each time more deeply and with more energy.
It was the second kiss he had received from her in only a few months. Neither were what he had wanted. The first was filled with pity, a kiss meant only to thank him, and possibly meant to discourage him from seeking further contact. This one was more emotional: an excited kiss, meant to bring them closer together in their suffering, and to pull him into her. But she was not the fire he remembered; not the human spirit that burned with love; not the hero that he had honestly - beyond all logic, and in defiance of his nature - respected. That fire had been irreversibly extinguished.
Buffy caressed Spike's face and pulled him closer, pressing their bodies together. "We'll start with my friends," she said, her lips brushing his as she spoke, her hand stroking him, moving downward, over his chest, rubbing the tight muscles of his abdomen, and resting finally in his lap. "And my sister. Then Angel. Then Drusilla. Until everyone who ever hurt us is dead. And then this pain will stop. We won't have to suffer anymore."
Buffy kissed Spike again. Then suddenly she gasped and pulled backwards. She gagged, then put her head down and spit out blood. It landed on top of a black wooden cylinder.
Her knife was embedded deep in her stomach.
Buffy looked up at Spike, her eyes hard and cold. "She'll never love you," she said. "You'll always be a demon."
"I know she won't," Spike said. "And I know what I am."
Spike reached behind him, pulled the axe forward, and swung it hard. Buffy's head landed on the ground behind her.
He wanted to stay there on the floor, in this dark and abandoned house where no one would find him for days, where he could bury his face in the bloody remains of the woman he loved and will himself to die. For a moment he considered this seriously. Then he heard a faint thump behind him.
Dawn had fallen to her knees just inside the doorway. Her face was blank, her eyes - those huge, bright, innocent, ancient eyes - unblinking, and every molecule in her body seemed to be shaking. Willow and Tara stood on the front porch, frozen with shock. But Dawn was suffering the worst shock Spike had ever seen, worse than what had happened to Buffy when Glory kidnapped Dawn. Dawn's face slowly turned white, and then blue. She wasn't breathing.
Spike pulled himself over to kneel in front of her. He stared into her face as if the entire world - the house, the town, the Hellmouth, and the corpse of their beloved - ceased to exist. This was the image that had pulled him from the depths of his misery, that had showed him what he was.
He kissed her. So softly that he wasn't sure if he had touched her lips, until he felt a gentle burst of air against his face. She was breathing. Her big eyes blinked, and silent tears poured out of them like rain.
"Spike..." he heard. It was Willow's voice, a warning in my mind.
I don't mean to do anything bad, he thought. I'll love her, and I'll protect her, and I'll heal her broken soul if it takes a lifetime. He brushed Dawn's hair back from her face. I have plenty of time.
Spike kissed Dawn again.