"She's back!" yelled Dawn, as her sister walked in the door. "Buffy's here, everyone!"

Xander, Willow, and Anya piled into the living room, and Dawn realized maybe that wasn't the best thing she could've done. Everyone had just been worried about Buffy, and Dawn was used to making announcements whenever possible. The thing was, she looked way tired and the only thing Dawn really wanted to know whether Spike was ok. Anya had definitely filled them in on the rest of the details plenty.

"Uh, can I get you a diet Coke or something?" offered Dawn, trying to make up for her mistake. Buffy shot her a look, and nodded. Dawn went for the kitchen, her mother's voice in her head: it's all about getting from A to B faster, sweetie. It was Mom's way of explaining that the sooner you could figure out the best response to something, the better/easier/whatever it was. Between A and B was just a journey of knee-jerk responses and emotions that usually led to poor decisions. Dawn sighed. Was anyone under the age of like, 60, anywhere near a nice smooth trip to B?

Willow and Anya were talking over each other when Dawn got back into the living room and handed Buffy her soda. Willow was trying to give a second account of her time with Yllaine and figuring out the anchor to Buffy, and Anya was asking about Spike. Dawn was so much more about the Spike questions - but A to B, her brain reminded her.

"Hey guys, don't bombard the Buffster," she said. "Willow, why don't you finish a quick version of your side of things to Buffy? It's super interesting but you're worn out, right big sis?"

"Been a long day," said Buffy with a weak smile.

"What are you doing?" hissed Anya in Dawn's ear as Willow explained that Yllaine had counseled that instead of breaking the ice hands spell, finding the anchor was the first task, since the team would need a focus once inside blah blah blah. "Willow was boring the first time, it doesn't matter if this time is shorter, anyway it won't be. And I know you want to find out about Spike too."

"If we don't let Willow get it all out now, she'll just keep interrupting us and being pissy about Spike," Dawn whispered back. Anya's annoyed look turned to one of consideration, then surprised approval, and she nodded.

"So Yllaine used a sequential object-rendering spell to narrow the anchor down to something in the library, then in the basement, and then I finally realized it had to be a book! That was when I mindspoke Spike," Willow paused to beam at Buffy, so Dawn decided it was ok to jump in.

"Speaking of Spike, what happened to him? Did you only just get back now because you were with him?"

"Yeah," Buffy said. "You saw him, Anya - he was pretty beat up."

"Yes," stated Anya. "It was upsetting. If it weren't for the chip, Spike would have been just fine."

"If it weren't for the chip, Spike would have had a buffet," protested Xander. Dawn saw Anya shoot him an angry look, and cringed inside. She loved Xander a lot, and she was growing to like Anya a lot more than she had initially. But the truth had to be told: she liked them both a lot better separate.

"That's just not fair," Buffy was saying. "I know you guys have issues with Spike, and for good reason. But he went in there to help and to defend the prisoners, and we have to recognize that. Nothing he's done recently has been remotely evil, and honestly he was a total mess today. I carried him back to his crypt - " here Xander let out a snort "- where I had to re-break and set his broken arm, Xander Harris," Buffy finished with ice in her voice.

"So don't you even think of calling Spike a pussy or a wimp or whatever your man insult of the day is," Anya said, unnecessarily (but Dawn thought amusingly) punctuating Buffy's words.

"What is it with chicks and Spike," muttered Xander, quiet enough that Anya and Buffy could choose to ignore him, which they did.

Uncharacteristically, Willow did not jump on the hatred of Spike train, and asked in a tiny voice, "Anya said Tara helped a lot..."

"She was amazing," said Buffy, warmth all over her voice. "And so was Anya." Dawn looked at the ex-demon, who was trying very hard not to look too pleased at the compliment. "Both of them kept clear heads, Tara brought down the barrier and Anya got the book out of the library for her to destroy." Buffy smiled. "I couldn't have done anything without their help."

Dawn wanted to tell Buffy that she'd sent Spike in, but she and Xander had agreed to not mention the whole she snuck out of the house while he watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles instead of keeping an eye on her thing. Buffy would be mad at both of them so why not just avoid it altogether? Plus, Dawn thought sadly, it sounded like Spike had only gotten himself hurt.

"Is Tara ok?" Buffy had turned to Anya. "Was she able to destroy the book without draining herself?"

"She was very tired," said Anya authoritatively. "But I helped her back to her dorm room and brought her the grocery items she requested. Tomato juice, olives and a bagel." Anya wrinkled her nose.

"Tara likes salty food after a lot of power expenditure," said Willow, and Dawn could hear a mix of pride and yearning sadness in her voice. She guessed Willow and Tara had always taken care of each other after big spells... which made Dawn think that she should probably be thinking about taking care of a certain vampire. A certain vampire who loved her! Ok, so it had been a traumatic and upsetting day for everyone else, but Dawn was sure nobody else at school had an awesome badass VAMPIRE admit he loved them. Definitely cool points, too bad she had to keep them to herself so no one thought she was crazy.

"Could I visit Spike tomorrow?" asked Dawn. "It's a Saturday and he's my friend. If he's hurt I want to sit with him."

Buffy hesitated, and Dawn was about to start pleading when her sister took a breath and said, "I think that would be nice, Dawnie. I left him a few bags of blood tonight, but you could bring him more tomorrow." Dawn felt herself gaping and closed her mouth with a snap.

"You really think that would be nice?" she asked her sister.

"You really want to let Dawn do that?" asked Xander, at the same time.

"That's what you're worried about? Dawn visiting Spike?" Anya answered for Buffy. "Xander, the Demon Lord's first big move was to send a bunch of innocent young people insane. I think Dawn going to see a friendly wounded vampire in the middle of the day is a much smaller issue." Xander looked like he was about to tell Anya to be quiet again, but Buffy opened her mouth first.

"Insane?" she asked, and Dawn winced. She appreciated Anya helping her out, but she'd been hoping they could keep that piece from Buffy until she'd gotten a night's rest.

"Um." Anya looked reluctant, realizing what she had to tell Buffy. "Well, the students that were spelled to be guards are, uh, not doing so well."

"All of them have been placed under a 24-hour watch." Willow took pity on Anya and jumped in. "They were in shock when the ambulance arrived, and got taken to the hospital. When they got there, they all started crying and raving about what they'd done as guards. They're just very upset and need quiet. Insane is a little much, it's that the psychiatrists don't know quite where their reactions will end up."

Silence filled the living room. Dawn didn't know what to say, and looked worriedly from face to face. Buffy had gone white, but set her Coke down steadily.

"Of course they can't handle what they did," her sister made it a quiet statement. "What would they be if they could?"

Buffy waffled in front of Spike's crypt for a good ten minutes, thinking about going in. Dawn had returned from her visit as Nurse Summers the day before pretty much glowing, and Buffy was a little jealous. She wished that her relationship with Spike was a simple as Dawn's was, especially because right now Buffy just wanted to talk with him. Which she hadn't done since the chip-derived fun, which meant before their recent hot hot sex.

Spike jerked the door open, rendering Buffy's deliberations moot. She tried to look like she had just walked up, but to no avail.

"Hearing you pace out there was driving me batty," he said. "You can come in, as long as you aren't looking for a shag." He leered at her, but with bruises and cuts still shadowing his face it didn't have quite the same effect.

"I'm not," she retorted.

"Good, because -" Spike cut himself off and looked at her closely. "Because I'm not up for a whole lot yet, anyhow."

Sure enough, as the vampire turned around and led Buffy into the crypt, she could see that his arm was bound to his chest in a sling and that he was favoring his left leg. He settled into his armchair, looking grumpy.

"Don't get used to seeing me like this," Spike growled. "Before I came to Sunnyhell I hadn't been laid up in a century. Now it's a regular bloody occurrence, in no small part thanks to my misguided efforts to help you and your moronic friends."

"Testy, aren't you?" Buffy commented.

"How observant you are!" gasped Spike. "Slayer senses really upping their game, eh?"

"Ha, ha." Buffy pointed to the new, though equally shabby armchair across from Spike's. "Where'd that come from?"

"And now she's noticing changes in the environment with lightning speed," said Spike. "Whatever will we demons do?"

Buffy sighed and decided not to respond. She sat down in the armchair, finding it nice and comfy as the original.

"Tara gave it to me. She stopped by yesterday to play Florence Nightingale - just like your sis, what is it with you bints? - " Spike shook his bandaged arm at her - "and brought her own armchair." Spike shrugged. "Said she didn't need it back and I should get used to visitors, in any case. Right bossy Glinda is getting, honestly."

"Well I think it's nice of her," said Buffy. "I didn't realize you guys were friends."

"I don't have friends." Spike emphasized the word. "I have people that tolerate me."

"Not according to Dawn. She thinks you guys are the best of buds."

Buffy was startled by the sweet smile that touched Spike's lips. "Well, ok. I'll be friends with the Niblet, but the rest of you imbeciles, no thank you."

"What bee got up your ass?" Buffy was starting to get annoyed. "I came to see how you were healing and talk to you and this is what I get?"

"It's not like you don't take your pissiness out on me!" shouted Spike, and then immediately looked like he'd swallowed a bug.

Buffy wanted to shoot back with nasty, but something inside her held back. "Are you just all embarrassed because I had to carry you home?" She settled for snarky teasing, and was rewarded with a softening of Spike's demeanor.

"Are you kidding? Getting hauled home by the Slayer herself is a mark of pride," he told her. "Must mean she likes me." He waggled his eyebrows.

"Why did you pick a fight with the guards, anyhow?" Buffy changed the subject.

"It wasn't a conscious decision, pet." Spike looked sheepish. "Dunno, just wasn't thinking about the big picture and didn't wanna let anyone else get hurt."

"But you weren't going to be able to keeping help them cause of the chip," pointed out Buffy.

Spike looked exasperated. "Slayer, I've had this damn chip for what, two years out of 12 decades of undead fighting prowess. When I'm in the heat of battle it doesn't occur to me that I have a stinking bit of plastic in my brain! Not used to seeing humans as tough to fight and all."

"Hey, look, don't get upset," Buffy said. "I'm just asking. I get it, chippy chippy bang bang is a pretty new problem for you."

"Unlike you, who've been a pain in my arse since day one," said Spike, and flashed his fangs.

"Likewise," Buffy glared at him because she felt she had to. Then she sighed. "Ok, I didn't mean to bug you. It was just hard, I mean, I don't know if Dawn or Tara told you but a view of the basement was being projected on the front of the building... I didn't like watching you defenseless. It - " Buffy got up and began to pace. She wanted to tell him the truth. "It hurt, to see you like that."

Spike regarded her, eyes suddenly deep with the full weight of a semi-immortal existence. "Thank you for coming to get me, Buffy." His words lived in the world between them for a moment, and Buffy could hear all the things he meant by that one seemingly innocuous phrase. She didn't know when she'd become so attuned to him, but she could hear the love and remembered pain from her death in his voice. At the same time as she wanted to respond with a touch of her hand to his face, or even a quiet kiss of reassurance, she was thinking about all the defenseless people he'd killed over the years - maybe even in front of their loved ones, who knew? And if she could get past that knowledge to feel something deeper for him, what would that mean about her?

"Speaking of people not able to defend themselves," Spike's voice was overly casual as he interrupted a silence that had grown too long, "how about your sister?"

"What about her?"

"Asked her yesterday, and she said you're still thinking about whether or not to teach her how to fight. That's a right fool thing to hold off on, Slayer."

"You're the one that encouraged her in the first place! I don't want my sister thinking she can put herself in danger just because she knows how to throw a few punches."

"Come on! You're smarter than that, kitten. Dawn lives on the hellmouth, with a superhero sister - explain to me how you think she's not already in danger?" Spike waited for a beat while Buffy searched for the words. She wasn't fast enough, so he continued. "Your sister isn't about to go haring off in search of a scuffle. But she might come across one, and you and I aren't always around, eh? So give her the tools to protect herself, what if you'd had to watch her completely defenseless on an oversized telly?"

Buffy imagined Dawn being surrounded, only knowing how to flail at her attackers. She knew Spike had a point, but... "Spike, it's just that - I will never have a normal life, ever. I just. I just wanted Dawn to get to be a typical teenager, no weaponry training at 16 or anything like that."

"Normal life... you've been fed that twaddle all your life, haven't you? What is so bloody great about a normal life? Creative types spend their entire lives writing, painting, making songs about the exceptions. The extraordinary. And you're just about as exceptional and extraordinary as they come now, aren't you? What keeps you from embracing that, love?"

"There are downsides to an extraordinary life!" Buffy knew her voice was high-pitched, but felt powerless to bring it back down. "I've died twice, who else can say that? No to mention that nobody ever sticks around except Xander and Willow, and sometimes I wish they wouldn't!"

Buffy stopped herself, shocked. She'd never said anything like that before about her friends, never even let herself have the full thought that sometimes they were burdensome. But now that it was out... sometimes she did wonder how much easier things would be without Xander's censure and Willow's neediness.

"You think people with a normal life don't feel that way?" Now Spike sounded sympathetic. "You may have died twice, but you've never had to wonder if you might be the most insignificant person on the earth. You've never had to entertain the idea that you have no talent and nothing special about you. And when you're 60, you won't look back and wonder if you wasted your life."

"Won't make it to 60," mumbled Buffy.

"You will if I have anything to say about it," Spike said, firm and clear.

"Please," scoffed Buffy. "you aren't going to be around for the next 38 years."

"Yes, I will." Spike was steady, in voice and his regard of her. "You may not want to be around me, but I'll be there. I'll protect you as long as I can."

Buffy could make no flippant or needling response to that. Spike was dead serious, and had all the skills and the years to back up what he'd said. If he'd loved and cared for an insane vampire like Drusilla for well over a century, the rest of her paltry human lifespan was well within his concept of the future. Even Giles had said it: Spike wasn't going to leave anytime soon. Buffy turned to Spike, wanting to get closer to him, taking refuge in his words.

"We do have to get one thing straight though, pet," Spike said and threw up his hands as Buffy neared him. She stopped, taken aback. "No more sex."

"Was I not good?" Buffy blurted, and clapped a hand over her mouth. How had that gotten out? What she should've said was 'Not planning on it' or 'No problem' or something equally flippant but - hadn't Spike wanted to have sex? He had so much more experience than her, that was the only thing she could think of to make him... reject her.

"No no no, pet," he was waving his hands as if to dispel her words like a cloud of gnats. "You were. Well, you were fantastic, don't be daft. You've got enough passion to make me feel like me heart's beatin', that how great you were."

"Then... I mean... it's not a big deal to me but... why not?"

Spike sighed. "Because I love you. And you don't love me. I'm just a bit of meat to you, you made that right clear the second time round with the instant scarper. And while I'd follow you to the ends of the earth and back, while I'd rather be pulled apart with hot pincers forever than see anything happen to you, I can't just do whatever you want when it comes to things between us."

"What do you mean?" whispered Buffy, confused and feeling a discordant hum begin inside her. Whatever Spike was saying, something felt all wrong.

"I have self-respect, Slayer," Spike said. "And mind you, I don't mean in some sort of repressed knees locked way. Having crazy passionate sex with someone just for fun is a great idea, not wrong or immoral at all, ok? I hate all that bollocks about sex being the same as love, that if you want a good time it means you've got 'issues.' Urgh! Some things about America I'll take but that bloody Puritan undercurrent belongs as far up the soddin' ass of history as possible." Spike paused, and Buffy felt like under other circumstances Spike getting sidetracked like that would've made her laugh. Not this time.

"Anyway," Spike continued, "what I mean is that I can't be your sex toy. Not with me in love and you in lust - it'll wear both of us down. To be in love you have to love yourself first, and I wouldn't even like myself too well if I just kept along shagging you, making myself believe it meant something when obviously it doesn't. Couldn't ever be what you need if I was the sort of man who let himself be used."

The jangling feeling in her bones was was so strong Buffy could barely breathe, hardly think. She didn't know - did it mean nothing? She wasn't in love with Spike, that was for sure, but nothing? The memory of him falling asleep in her lap rose to her mind. That meant something to her, it did. And she had liked flirting, trading kisses back and forth. That meant... affection between them. But the sex, he was right. It was just a distraction. She'd been using him, and she'd known it from the start. But for some reason, all the compunctions she'd usually have had were just... gone. All the buzzing in her chest stopped with a snap, and Buffy felt nauseous.

"I understand, Spike," she said, straightening as far as she could and nodding with a curt acceptance. "I'll stay away from you from now on."

"That's not what I asked for," Spike said, but Buffy was leaving. The beginning of tears were giving her eyes pins and needles, like they were a limb that hadn't been used in too long. She couldn't let him see her cry, not after that.

"Why do you have to be so right all the time?" Buffy choked out, at the door but unable to leave quite yet. "Right about me, Dawn, everything."

"What do you mean, right about you?" Spike didn't sound confused - he sounded like he was looking for something from her.

The tears went away as Buffy bristled at the idea that he wanted her to repeat that she was on his level now: soulless and wrong because yes he was right, she was using him. Was that the point of this whole self-respect schtick, to get her to admit that she was no better than he was? Was he just manipulating her?

"You know," Buffy said, finding her voice. A need to be cruel had swelled in her, brushing aside the voice of reason and her hurt. "Right that I'm probably going to join you in hell."

Buffy didn't wait for Spike's response. She saw confusion and pain cross his face for a moment before she went out into the chilly night, and took a grim pleasure in it. He could make all the noble speeches he wanted, but if she could never forget that being soulless doomed her to eternal torment, then neither should he.