Dawn shifted from foot to foot outside the crypt door. She'd skipped her last class of the day, and run almost all the way to Restfield. But now she'd arrived, she was unsure. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears as she struggled to even out her breathing.
She hadn't seen him since the tower. Whenever she mentioned him, somebody cut her off and changed the subject. Eventually, she'd realised that if she ever wanted to see him again she'd have to do it on her own.
Should she just go in? She could almost hear Joyce's voice telling her to knock first. But if he was asleep downstairs, he might not hear it. Except ... vampire hearing. Dawn raised her hand, then stopped, her stomach clenching in sudden panic.
What if he didn't want to see her? It was her fault, after all. What if he hated her so much he couldn't even stand the sight of her? Maybe he'd left Sunnydale. After all, why would he stay? It was Buffy he loved, not her.
None of the Scoobies knew what to say to her. They'd included her in The Talk - when they'd decided to hide Buffy's death to keep Dawn safe from foster care or, worse, Hank. But after that, they just kept asking her if she needed anything and then looked relieved whenever she left the room. No one really talked to her. Or listened.
Why had she been so sure Spike would be different? It had seemed so obvious to her this morning that he would be better than the others. Dawn's stomach clenched tighter, and she could feel her lungs seizing up as the first fat tear started running down her cheek.
"Bit? You gonna come in?"
His voice was muffled by the closed door, so Dawn didn't register that it had no strength in it. All she could think was that he was there and awake and he couldn't hate her if he was calling her Bit. She shoved the door open, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the dark of the crypt. She made a noise, somewhere between a gasp and a whimper, and she ran across the room and threw herself into his opening arms.
"'S'okay. I've got you," he whispered, his arms holding her tight, one hand cupping the back of her head while she pressed her face into his shoulder, the other making small circles on her back. Dawn just let go, the tears exploded out of her body in great racking sobs, lungs heaving, limbs shaking, eyes and nose streaming. Spike just kept making soothing noises, not really saying anything, until Dawn had cried herself into a hiccoughing silence. After a while of sitting in silence, Dawn shifted and Spike loosened his hold so that her swollen eyes were level with his. For the first time since she'd arrived, she really looked at him. She sucked in a breath.
"What happened to you?"
One eye was swollen shut and his uncovered arms and neck were dotted with ugly black bruises. Dried ... something ... was flaking off his skin, and some of the damp bits on his clothes definitely weren't her tears. Dawn hoped it was mud, because it was on her now, too. Where he wasn't bruised, his skin was grey and almost hanging off his bones. He had always been thin, but now he looked like he'd lost half of himself. A ghost of a smile wavered over his lips.
"Nothin' you need to worry about, Platelet. 'M not dust, and they all look much worse'n me."
"When's the last time you ate?"
"Don't 'member." He closed his good eye, and let his head fall back against the chair.
Dawn glared at him, then levered herself out of the chair and walked over to the fridge.
"Ewwww. Everything in here is mouldy. I'm gonna go get you some blood. You need to eat."
Eyes still closed, Spike's lips twitched into an almost-smile.
"There's some cash in my left duster pocket."
Dawn found the duster on the floor by the chair. It was tacky with ... mud, she told herself; definitely mud ... and it had tears in it from a claw or a knife.
"Don't move 'til I get back." Dawn glared again.
"Not sure I could if I wanted to, pet." He coughed then, a wet, I-have-internal-injuries cough.
Clutching the money she'd found, Dawn edged toward the door, eyes still locked with Spike's. "I'll be back soon."
He raised a hand, then let it drop again. "I'll be waitin'."
When Dawn returned with as much blood as she could carry, Spike was still slouched in his chair, eyes closed. Mimicking something she'd seen Buffy do, she opened a bag and poured blood into a (fairly) clean mug and put it into the microwave. When it pinged, Spike's head jerked up. Dawn brought the mug over to him.
Spike took the mug and held it. He'd lied. He knew exactly how long it had been since he'd eaten. It had been before the tower. Before Buffy jumped. He knew he shouldn't have been the one who survived. Didn't deserve it. Every time he even smelled blood, it was Dawn's blood on top of that tower again, and he remembered how he'd broken his promise to keep her safe. His failure nauseated him. He shut his good eye again.
" 'M sorry, pet. I should've fought harder."
"What?" Dawn's eyes widened.
"It's my fault your sis... All my fault. Was supposed to keep you safe. Promised her I'd keep you safe. And now here you are, takin' care of me." A sort of half-laugh, half-sob spilled out of him. His eyes were clenched shut, every muscle in his face taut. His knuckles were white where they held the mug in a death grip.
Now Dawn's lips twitched towards a smile. She knew she'd been right to come to Spike. He knew. They were the same. Their grief held that same flavour of sour, gut-wrenching guilt, and the soul-deep regret that they were alive and Buffy was dead.
"It's not your fault." Dawn touched Spike's face. She could feel the words resonating in her bones as she said them. She hoped that one day they'd both be able to believe them. "Now drink! Stupid vampire."
Spike made a stuttering noise that was almost a laugh, put the mug to his lips, and forced himself to drink. The second the blood passed his lips, he could feel the hunger come rushing back. His eye flashed yellow and then he vamped out completely. Dawn took a small step back.
"Don' worry, luv. Jus' been a while since I've had a proper feed. Demon's hungry." Spike forced his face back to human, but his open eye remained yellow.
Dawn nodded, eyes still a bit wide, and turned to put the already-open bag into the microwave. When it pinged, she handed it to Spike and he drained it. The swelling around his eye was going down visibly, revealing a sliver of colour, and his bruises started looking older, more yellow.
After draining two more bags, Spike looked almost healthy. Both eyes were fully open, and his skin seemed to fit better over his bones, although he was still too thin.
"Ummm, Spike? I think you're leaking." Dawn pointed to a rapidly spreading damp patch along his right side.
Spike looked down. "Bloody hell." He sighed. "There's a first aid box under the sink." As Dawn passed him the kit, he pulled off his shirt, wincing. He was actually leaking from a few places, but the gash running from under his right armpit across to his belly was the worst. As Spike patched himself up, Dawn watched his body knitting itself together. It was weird, like every time she looked away something was a bit more healed, but she never quite saw it happening.
Spike stood up, stronger but still wavering a bit. Turning, he asked, "How's m'back? Any more bleeding?"
"Nothing I can see. But you should probably shower. You're kinda sticky all over. Also, kinda smelly. Sorry." Dawn ducked her head at the last, embarrassed. Spike laughed, and it almost reached his eyes.
"Right. I'll go downstairs and clean m'self off." He looked at her. "Must be about time for you to eat. There's a number for pizza on the fridge. Whatever you want, and some wings for me. Phone's in the duster."
"Okay. Um, thanks?"
"You're my Niblet. Do anything for you." Spike kept full eye contact with her, letting her see the truth of his words. Then he dropped down the hatch into the downstairs, and she could hear him starting the shower.
Dawn felt her cheeks stretch into the first real smile she could remember since her mother died. Even without Joyce or Buffy, she still sorta had family.
As she started looking around the crypt, the smile dropped off her face. Empty whiskey bottles littered the floor. There were multiple trails of ... just yuck ... between the door and Spike's chair. An assortment of filthy weapons and even filthier clothes had been dropped haphazardly around the room. Buffy used to complain that Spike was like an old woman when it came to keeping his weapons clean and sharp. It felt wrong even seeing them like this.
He'd let his precious duster get sliced up and dirty. And then he'd just left it on the floor.
Dawn sank into Spike's chair, suddenly overwhelmed with fear.
When he re-emerged from the lower level, clean, Dawn flung herself at him again.
"What's all this, then?"
Dawn buried her face in Spike's chest, her grip making his ribs ache. "Don't die on me," she whispered. "You can't leave me too."
Spike suddenly felt ashamed. He'd stopped himself from walking into the sunrise, but... Not eating, not healing, fighting every night and then drinking himself into unconsciousness. It was just a slower way to kill himself. He couldn't have fought off a fledge, the state he was in before Dawn came. And he knew he still would've gone out. Not good. He had to start taking care of himself. Dawn might not survive losing someone else, even if it was only him. He couldn't keep her safe if he was dust.
"Not gonna die on you, Dawn. You have my promise. An' you know I always keep m'promises."
She nodded into his chest, tightening her grip.
"C'mon. Let's get some food into you, Pigeon. You ring the pizza place while I was downstairs?"
Dawn mumbled no, still clutching at Spike.
"Let's go out, then." He looked around. "Bit more hygienic, yeah?"
Dawn lifted her head.
"M'kay," she said softly.
"'S still light out. Gonna need to go through the sewers. Think you can handle it?"
Dawn nodded into his chest again.
"Pro'ly oughtta loosen that grip if we're gonna walk."
She shifted around so that she was pressed against his left side. Spike let out a thankful breath she hadn't gone to the right, and draped his arm across her shoulders.
The sewers were a welcome distraction. With the smell, the squelching underfoot, and Dawn's total inability to see, they moved into an easy, light conversation that took them all the way to Sunnydale Mall.
"Food Court alright? Anywhere else is a bit difficult for me to get to in daylight."
Spike prodded her into eating more than she'd thought she could. And now, being in a public place where naked emotion was easier to suppress, Dawn started talking about what had been happening while Spike had been locked into his routine of fighting all night, then drinking enough to be able to pass the day in unconsciousness.
Dawn told him about The Talk, and how Willow was trying to fix the Buffy-bot to make the lie more convincing. That Willow and Tara were now living at Revello Drive, how Xander drove her to school every morning, and how Giles was talking about moving back to England.
Breaking off suddenly, Dawn asked "Why weren't you at the funeral?"
Spike's jaw dropped.
"The what now?"
No one had told him about the funeral. Oh God. Dawn's eyes filled with tears.
Spike couldn't believe what he was hearing. He'd thought things had changed, after he took Glory's beating, after he fought alongside them. He thought those last weeks had meant something to them. Apparently not.
Something on his face must have worried Dawn, because she was holding his hands, and whispering that she was sorry.
"Who was there?"
Dawn gave Spike an arch look. "You mean, was Angel there?" Spike ducked his head, embarrassed he'd been so transparent, and ashamed for needing to know. "No, he wasn't. Not that I saw, anyway. Just Willow and Tara and Xander and Anya and Giles and me."
There was a long pause, while Spike tried to mentally talk himself out of his hurt at the Scoobies shutting him out. Again.
"I don't really remember it," Dawn continued.
Spike looked up, "Why not?"
"Um. I couldn't stop crying, after. There were pills."
"They drugged you?!"
"Hey! There was a doctor and stuff. No one knew what else to do. I guess they helped."
Spike hooked her chair with his foot, pulling her close enough for him to wrap an arm around her shoulders.
"Why didn' you come to me?"
"This is the first time I've had the chance. It's like they're afraid I'll disappear if they ever leave me alone."
"God, Bit. Dawn. I'm sorry. I should've been there."
"You should've." Dawn glared, then softened. "But I understand why you weren't. You're here now." Her voice wavered. "Right?"
"Not goin' anywhere. Promise. Dust before I leave you again." He paused. "Are you still…?"
"No more pills. The doctor talked about starting therapy, but…. No human doctor could ever…" Dawn trailed off, gesturing at Spike and herself.
"Glinda might know someone. You should ask her."
Bloody buggerin' hell. Did I just try to talk someoneintotherapy?
Dawn stared at him, open-mouthed.
"Did you just tell me to get therapy? What weird alternative universe have I walked into?"
Spike shifted uncomfortably, unable to meet Dawn's incredulous stare. "Jus' makin' sure you're not doin' somethin' coz you think you can't," he mumbled. Meeting her eyes, he added "an' I reckon it might be a good idea havin' someone to talk to who isn't grievin'."
"I'll think about it."
Spike and Dawn stared down at their feet, neither sure how to continue.
"Some Big Bad you are," Dawn chuffed. "All supportive and caring."
"What can I say, Bit? You bring out the worst in me."
They grinned at each other, all awkwardness suddenly gone. Spike's smile slipped off his face.
"Best start making your way home, pet. Be dark soon. Don' want to worry anyone by being out alone."
Dawn didn't really want to leave, but Spike was right. If Willow or Tara got back first, they would freak if she wasn't there. She reluctantly started pulling together her things.
"Can I come back tomorrow?" Dawn tried to sound nonchalant, but she wasn't yet completely sure of herself around this Spike, the one who held her and made her feel less broken. Spike, who was being weirdly responsible.
"Course, Platelet. Welcome anytime." Spike paused. "Might wanna try finishin' the school day next time, though, yeah?"
He wasn't entirely sure now was the right time to talk about this, but he knew he couldn't set himself up as an escape from the rest of her life. It might help for now, but it wouldn't do her any good long term.
Dawn was shocked he'd even noticed. He'd barely been conscious when she'd arrived. "Why do you care? I thought you'd be all 'skipping is cool'?"
"If you really need a break, yeah. I know there'll be bad days." Spike reached out to stroke Dawn's hair. "But you can't jus' give up on it. Education's important. You're important. Need to keep feeding that brain of yours, like your belly." Spike pulled her into a hug, resting his chin on her head.
"An' if you're not ready to do it for yourself, there are practical reasons. If you lot are serious about hiding what happened, y'can't draw too much attention to yourself. Miss too many classes? They'll wanna talk to someone, yeah? Who're they gonna talk to?"
Dawn's stomach dropped. She hadn't thought about what would happen if they called Buffy in for a meeting. She could feel the tears starting again.
"Hey now, 's alright. Nothin' gone wrong yet. Still safe. 'S gonna be fine, luv. I've got you."
"Why are you being so responsible all of a sudden? This isn't another body swap or something, is it?"
Spike took in a deep breath. Why am I being so responsible? Not like me…. Except it was, when it came to taking care of the people he loved. He'd never taken chances with Dru's safety. This was just a different kind of caring than he was used to. Not so much with the hunting and fighting, and more of the … parenting?
Bloody hell. Parenting?!
"No body swaps. Jus' feels like it's the right thing to do. What you need." Spike kissed the top of her head. "Weird, innit?"
Dawn laughed. "Very. But… good-weird, you know?"
"I know." He stood, holding out his hand. "C'mon, Pidge. Home-time."
Spike pulled Dawn to her feet, put his arm around her shoulders, and they walked comfortably through the mall back towards the tunnels.
Neither noticed the man who had followed them up from the tunnels to the Food Court, and who was following them still.