Dawn got home from dinner with Spike and Tara to find a meeting of the original Scoobie members winding up. Two bombed out pizza boxes were on the table, and Buffy was looking tired as Xander and Willow got ready to go.

"Hey guys," Dawn said, flopping down into a chair. "What'd I miss?"

"Just a non-update on the Demon Lord," Buffy sighed. "That's all."

Dawn saw Willow's face fall a little, and then Xander put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "It's not your fault, Will."

"No, no, that's not what I meant," Buffy said. "Definitely not Willow's fault! That Lord is just really well hidden, or has great defensive magic, or something."

"I wish we could help more," said Willow, morosely. "We don't even have any idea what his next move will be, and no way to prepare."

"It's ok, Will." Buffy got up and went to her friend. "We'll figure it out. We always have before."

"I know... it just sucks," Willow said. "Maybe tonight Yllaine and I will find something, who knows."

"You totally could!" Dawn piped up, wanting to liven up this snoozefest. "Don't give up - you might figure out where the Demon Lord is hiding AND find out it has a handy dandy DESTROY button on it too."

"Thanks, Dawnie," Willow said. "Oh - uh, how was dinner with Tara?"

"It was great," Dawn said, deciding to leave out that Spike had joined them. "She said to say hi to everyone." Tara hadn't, but Dawn wanted to be kind to Willow, and also to put an end to the conversation. She didn't feel like answering Willow's 20 questions about her ex-girlfriend right now, and wasn't sure she would remember not to mention Spike.

"Speaking of dinner, I'm off to go have second dinner with Anya," Xander said. "Picking her up from the Magic Box, so I better be on time or she'll skin me alive. Will, ride?"

"Awesome, thanks Xander," Willow was clearly thinking of nothing but Tara, but pulled herself together and gave him an overbright smile. "Guess I'll see you guys later tonight!"

As her sister's two best friends clattered out the front door, Buffy sighed and sat back down across the table from Dawn. Dawn looked at her for a moment, and sensibly decided that a facilitator was in order. She got up, went to the freezer, and pulled out a hitherto untouched tub of chocolate fudge marshmallow. Dawn swiped two spoons out of the cutlery drawer and plunked back down into her seat, where she ripped the lid off the ice cream. Then she pushed it and a spoon across the tabletop to Buffy, who automatically began to dig in. Gratified, Dawn sat back and waited.

"Giles called today," Buffy said finally, and pushed the ice cream across the table to Dawn.

"Wait, shouldn't Giles calling be of the good?" asked Dawn, deploying her own spoon.

"Who says it wasn't?" asked Buffy. Dawn gave her what she hoped was a look of utter skepticism.

"Ok, ok, I forgot I'm being interrogated by a master of the art," Buffy laughed a little and threw up her hands. "It should be a good thing, I mean, yeah, I guess it's good to hear from him but..." Now Buffy looked sad. "He didn't seem to care about how I'm doing. No questions about me or my life, only about the Demon Lord and what's being done. You know how he gets. Honestly, the most engaged he got was when I told him that Willow's seemed better about magic creepies now that she has a teacher."

"I mean, he's in London, Buffy." Dawn didn't know what to say. She liked Giles, but their relationship was nowhere near the closeness that Buffy had with him. "He's probably just busy and stressed out by the stupid other Watchers and their... stupidness."

"But he doesn't have to be so cold to me!" Buffy said, almost angrily. "I'm here on the frontlines, does he think I'm not stressed? And he LEFT me here alone, the least he could do is act like he cares whether or not I'm coping emotionally."

"Do you want to tell me about what's stressing you out, other than just the Demon Lord? Is it something else?" Dawn asked cautiously, deciding to ignore Buffy's last sentence. Her sister was coping, but neither she nor Tara was entirely sure of her emotional health level.

"So many something elses." Buffy let her head drop back for a moment. "More and more I'm noticing how Xander talks about Anya like she's already his ball and chain, which is awful, and I don't want to make her feel bad but it's driving me nuts how the slightest hint of criticism sends Willow into a tailspin. And I know, I know, I'm their friend and should be sympathetic and helpful but it's just a lot, on top of this Demon Lord! I mean an enemy I've never seen, know hardly anything about... everything in my life is so hard to get a grasp on right now. I still don't have any idea what Spike's magical protection thing does, or if it even really exists, either."

Dawn was pretty sure Buffy wasn't bringing up Spike to talk about the spell he'd brought her. She remembered to pass the ice cream back to her sister, who went at it with a vengeance. Dawn took a moment to think strategically as Buffy hurtled spoonfuls of creamy chocolate into her mouth.

"I saw Spike tonight," Dawn decided to go with simple and factual. "He asked about you."

"Hrrmphf," Buffy said through a mouthful.

"Why haven't you guys been patrolling together and stuff?" Dawn tried to use her nonchalant voice, but got a look from Buffy that suggested it wasn't working too well.

"Dunno," Buffy said.

"Come on, Buffy," Dawn coaxed. "I thought you guys were friends, so why is he sending you money through me and asking me how you are with the most pathetic puppy dog face?"

"Spike with a puppy dog face? Yeah, right."

"Well, okay, it IS Spike, so it's like those giant blue eyes looking at you like a puppy but then his cheekbones are as sharp as like, vampire fangs! and even when he's sad he's all lean and coiled like a tiger, so... you know. Puppy dog face for a sexy vampire pretending he's not a white hat."

Buffy thought about that, her face softening. Then her expression snapped back into grumpy and she pushed Dawn back the now nearly empty ice cream tub. "So why is he staying away?" she asked, sounding petulant. "He's just like Giles, monitoring me from afar."

"Buffy, that's so not fair!" exclaimed Dawn, all thoughts of care and strategy flying out of her head. "Look, I don't know what happened between you guys, he won't tell me and I know better than to try and get it out of YOU, but he misses you. If he's staying away, it's because he thinks you want him to."

"I don't!" Buffy said heatedly. "He told me to stay away from HIM!"

"Spike told you to go away?" Dawn shook her head. "I can't believe that."

"Well... oh god." Buffy put her head in her hands. "That's how it felt, anyway."

"Maybe you should go see him, and clear up what he really meant," Dawn suggested, she felt utterly reasonably. "If he said something while you guys were fighting, he probably didn't mean it. You know how Spike is, sometimes his mouth isn't fully attached to his brain."

Buffy stared at her sister, and then smiled a touch. "That's Spike, all right." She shook her head. "When did you get so smart?"

"DUH! I've always been the genius in the family," Dawn said, and ate the last spoonful of ice cream with a flourish. She shook the empty carton at Buffy. "This was my idea, wasn't it?"

Buffy shook her head and smiled. Dawn got up and threw the spoons in the sink and the tub in the trash.

"There, evidence all gone," she said. Going behind Buffy's chair, Dawn started to gently massage her shoulders. "Look, Buffy, no pressure. At all. Ok? But I think you should go see Spike. He cares about you so much, and I know he's on your side no matter what." Buffy's shoulders were a little tense, but not too bad, so Dawn decided to continue. "Look, you know that ward against nightmares I gave you? Well it wasn't really a gift from me. It was because Spike remembered you were having nightmares and asked Tara to make it. He thought you wouldn't take it if it came from him so he told me to make something up. I'm sorry I lied, but I kind of thought he might be right."

"What?" Buffy twisted in the chair to look at Dawn in the face. "That was Spike's idea?"

"Yup," said Dawn.

Buffy digested that for a moment. Then, "And he thought I wouldn't take it if it was from him?"

"Yup."

"I think as long as it wasn't the day after he told me - uh - after we fought, I would've taken it," said Buffy. Dawn desperately wished she knew what the end to the original sentence Buffy had started was, but this was going so well she didn't want to push it. Buffy continued, "It makes me sad that he thinks I'm that... petty."

"Do you miss him?" Dawn decided it was time to be blunt. She so did not want Buffy to descend into self-pity mode.

Buffy stared off into space for a long time. Dawn returned to her place across the table and waited, and finally Buffy spoke.

"Yeah, I think I do." Buffy shook her head. "But Dawn, you know this. He's in love with me and I can't give him that.

"But you can give him a mutually respectful friendship, right?" asked Dawn. "Remember when Xander was in love with you? You managed to stay friends with him."

"But Spike is so much hotter than Xander," grumbled Buffy.

Dawn stared at her sister, and finally couldn't keep herself from bursting out laughing.

"What?" asked Buffy, annoyed.

"You're - hahahaha - grumpy that Spike is hot - hahahaha!" Dawn was chortling so hard she could barely get words out. "That is the worst reason ever for not being friends with him!" Dawn stopped giggling and put on her Giles voice. "I'm afraid that your high level of physical attractiveness makes it quite impossible for any congenial rapport to exist between us." Dawn dropped the voice. "Hahaha - how many times do you think he's said that? At least once, come on! Haha!"

Buffy started to giggle despite herself, and pretty soon they were laughing with manic glee. Dawn knew that the massive amounts of sugar they'd both ingested was a big part of it, but who cared? She and Buffy had just had a grown-up conversation where Buffy accepted Dawn as an equal and didn't talk down to her - and now they were laughing. She was also pretty sure that given a day or so to reflect on everything that had been said tonight, Buffy would give in and go see Spike soon enough. Basically, ice cream plus common sense equalled SUCCESS. Score one for the Dawnster, anybody?

Spike dreamed. He was floating in the lily pond of The Three, gazing up at that cerulean dome. It was peaceful like nothing had been in centuries, and he felt a sense of wellbeing spread through his core. But after a glorious few moments, a niggling worry started to press against his mind. Just of feeling of disquiet, associated with nothing concrete - what was it? What was wrong? Spike couldn't remember. The feeling grew, until he wanted to get out of the pool and go figure it out. But he couldn't move. Why couldn't he move?

Drusilla's face appeared above him. She was leaning over the pool, grinning like the madwoman she'd always been.

"Not quite lost to Mummy yet, are you my blue-eyed William?" Dru laughed delightedly. "Thought you'd never come back, all set to throw your heart into the sun, but sun won't have it, spat it back out and all!" She clapped her hands happily.

"Damn right I won't have him." Buffy's face appeared across from Dru's - Buffy but not his Buffy. This one had shorter hair and cold bitter eyes, like the worry and despair he'd seen after her resurrection had hardened through more pain. "Evil soulless thing, you're just my whipping boy, Spike!" She laughed, nasty and low. "Awww, thought it could be different, didn't you?"

"Just a toy to her, nothing more, isn't that right Miss Edith?" Dru pouted. "Supposed to be my dolly to play with!" The vampire leaned even further in.

"Guess there's only one thing to do about that," said Buffy, and placed her hands on Spike's chest.

Dru's hands joined his Slayer's, and they both began to push. They forced him down into the pool, the water closing over his face. Even though Spike knew he didn't need to breathe, he began to thrash, panicked and suffocating. The women were too strong for him, and soon he was still, drowning and paralyzed, sinking into the dark, dark depths of the water.

He existed in the black nothing, cold and still feeling the weight of the women he'd loved on his heart. The panic slowly faded to dull, grim acceptance. This was it - where he'd always be. Alone in the chill dark.

Then three pillars of light flared all around him, making an illuminated triangle with him at its center.

"You have forgotten," said a voice, emanating from one of the brilliant towers.

"About our advice," said another voice.

"Choose wisely," said the last.

"There is still hope," all three boomed, their voices snapping like lightning.

"To be her consort," said one, soft and seductive.

"But if you fail," said the second, stern and foreboding.

"All the stars will weep despair," said the third, and it was Drusilla's voice then, gleeful and sharp.

All at once the lights disappeared, and Spike had a moment alone in the wasteland of emptiness before he woke up.

All he could think, lying in his bed staring at the ceiling was 'well, that sucked.' Spike much preferred the dreams where Buffy was naked and in his arms, although those brought with them their own pain. This one all full of opaque phrases and hazy intentions was not his normal nighttime fare. More Dru's thing than his, dreams full of portent and doom.

Dru - and Buffy. That brought Spike sitting up and out of bed, remembering the two of them looming over him. Never thought those two would gang up on him. Although, it hadn't quite been the Buffy he knew. So what was that trying to tell him?

Eh. Spike shook himself to dispel a stupid question. Dreams were dreams, only poufters like Peaches would overanalyze them. He had forgotten about The Three, and the dream had served to remind him. Maybe the bit with Dru and Buffy was just to create an adequately weighty prologue, seemed like something The Three would do. And come on, ok he'd forgotten about the consort thing - how, he wasn't sure - but he did know his choices regarding Buffy hadn't been great recently. Thanks for rubbing it in, ladies.

Spike sucked down a bag of blood, annoyed at his own rambling thoughts. He was acting like The Three had sent him the dream, when maybe it was just the product of an overactive lovesick brain. Enough. It was time to go out and do an early sweep of the cemeteries before Buffy got patrolling, and then lurk around as she did in case something big went down. This had been Spike's routine since he saw Tara, and it comforted him to have a purpose. To check in on his girl, whether she wanted him or not. Isn't that what he'd told her? 'You may not want to be around me, but I'll be there. I'll protect you as long as I can.'

But once Spike stepped out the door of his crypt, he realized it was a lot later than usual. Mostly he was up at dusk, or a little before, but the dream must have trapped him in sleep. It was 10 or 11, at least, and Buffy was probably patrolling at this very moment.

Spike knew the best thing would be to do a loop of the cemetery halfway in from the perimeter. That would be the most efficient way to make sure he sensed Buffy and was there for back-up. But maybe because he was still hopped on dream mojo, something brought him towards the eastern center. Spike wasn't sure why, but it seemed like the right direction, and he might as well give it a try. If it was just him being nutty, it wasn't that much time lost. And Buffy could take care of herself, most of the time.

No sooner did he think that, than he saw her blonde hair moving several tombstones away. The brilliance of her glinted erratically, and he realized she must be fighting something. Spike snuck closer, wanting to watch his beautiful Slayer in motion. Something more skilled than a fledge, from the far looks of it. But he couldn't see what...

Until he rounded another burial marker and had to stifle a gasp. Buffy was dancing the ballet of battle with an Akumu demon. No wonder he hadn't been able to discern it from a ways off. Akumu were beautiful creatures of darkness, and this one was no exception. Humanoid in shape, but a hairless deep matte black that seemed to suck in the light. They all had different golden markings, at least that he'd seen. This one had three delicate circles of gilt around its right bicep, the outline of golden veins on its forearm, and darting triangles down the sides of both its legs. It was striking, made all the more so by cat's eyes glowing yellow in its face, and the sharp ridges of its planed bony cheekbones on. The Akumu's gold lips were open, panting slightly, and Spike felt a surge of pride in Buffy's prowess. These demons were fluid and intuitive fighters - one had given him a run for his money that time in Hokkaido.

Wait - so what was an Akumu doing here, fighting his girl? He'd never known them to leave Japan. They were native demons to that archipelago, with a name meaning simply "nightmare." They were peaceful until they were enraged by an injustice, or wronged by an individual, when they immediately became dangerous. Spike had no idea what Buffy could've done to attract one's ire - but that confusion lasted only seconds. Of course. This was the Demon Lord's work, sending an Akumu after Buffy. And quite honestly, that was terrifying. Akumu were strong among demon races, and to be able to control one must mean quite a bit of power. Older Demon Lord, then.

Spike continued watching the dance - there was no other word for it really, so graceful were both the participants. He wasn't sure if he should jump in or not. While he was worried for Buffy, at the moment she seemed to be holding her own, and he could just be a distraction, considering her frustration towards him. Spike twitched towards the fighters, hesitating, wanting to go forward but pulling himself back.

Then suddenly, it didn't matter anymore. The Akumu broke the pattern and let Buffy land a solid kick. It barely flinched, somehow, and instead grasped Buffy's forearm as she came down. Spike lurched forward, but the Akumu and Buffy were staring into each other's eyes. He saw a glint between their two wrists, and realized the Akumu was using its spur to inject Buffy.

"Bloody hell!" he yelled, and jumped on the Akumu while it was distracted. He tore it off of Buffy and hurtled it into the night with a howl. Spike watched it long enough to see that it was running into the darkness. Then he flung himself down to Buffy, taking her hand and looking into her eyes. Had the nightmare serum gotten to her?

It had. Her eyes were rolling up into her head, and she began shaking uncontrollably. Spike cursed more, loudly. This was not going to be pleasant - Dru had angered one of the Akumu and gone through this, so Spike knew the effects intimately: Buffy would experience her worst nightmares, over and over again, for the next 10-15 hours.

At least he was here, to protect her and get her through it. Dru had moments of lucidity (well, lucid for Dru) as she weathered the effects. It had helped for him to talk to her, so maybe he could do the same for Buffy.

"Here for you, pet," he crooned. "Know it's bad up there, in your head, but you're safe out here. Safe with me, love."

Buffy moaned, and began clawing at the air. As she started to gasp for breath, Spike realized he knew this one. She was stuck in her coffin in the ground, fighting to get out; probably magnified worse, beyond any time she'd had this dream before.

Time to get out of the open. Spike picked Buffy up, holding her as she'd held him on their way back from the library. She relaxed a tiny bit in his arms, which was a good sign. He cradled her closer, murmuring nonsense in a gentle, loving voice. Buffy kept clawing and sucking in shallow big breaths, so Spike tried to breathe deeply and emphatically. If she was aware of him at all, maybe it would help.

A little over halfway back to his crypt, Buffy came out of the serum's miasma a little bit. Trembling in his arms, she squinted up at him, breathing deep but getting the oxygen she needed.

"Spike?" she asked, a tremulous note to her voice he'd never heard before.

"Yes, pet, I'm here, you're safe with me. We'll ride this through, don't you worry," he said, hoping she wouldn't try to jerk away from him. He couldn't leave her in this state, and if she was still angry at him, that would be a lot harder.

"Don't... what's happening, remember coming to see you... talk, Dawn said to just say so... missed you," Buffy gabbled, and Spike could feel his heart swell. "Then fighting... different kind of demon, so hard to see... what... where am I!?" The last question was shouted, and she was under again.

Spike cursed himself for not talking to her while she was above the waves of her nightmare. He'd been too caught up in hearing those amazing words: "missed you." Had she really? He'd missed her like a limb, like a piece of himself, and even if it was just a smidgen of how he'd felt, it was enough.

"Stop it, vampire," he muttered to himself. "Think of Buffy first, not gratifying yourself. Next time you tell her what's happening as fast as you can, make it easier for her to fight it."

Spike kicked open the door of his crypt, then kicked it shut behind him. Buffy was weeping in his arms now, no more clawing, and shaking her head helplessly. Her grief was hard for him to hear without wanting to cry himself - could she be thinking of Joyce?

"No, no, no," he heard her say. "...not like that... couldn't hurt them... no!"

Spike wished desperately he knew what was going on in her head, if only so that he could talk her through it better. They got down to the lower level, and Spike laid Buffy on the bed. He hovered, wanting to hold her, but unsure if she would want that. He settled for sitting next to her and holding one of her trembling hands. Casting about for something to say, Spike went for what words sprang to his mind first.

"No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss'd
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine."

Spike settled into the recitation. He'd done Keats for Dru many times - she liked the dreamy language, Keats's romanticism and his darkness always existing side by side.

"Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul."

On the word soul, Buffy's eyes fluttered open and locked onto Spike's. She clung to his hand with both of hers, hard enough that it hurt.

"Buffy," he said urgently. "You're under the effects of a nightmare serum. You're having your worst nightmares over and over, understand love? But I'm here, we're in my crypt, safe. I'm by your side, get you through this."

"Spike," she said. "Spike. I'm killing them - Dawnie, Willow, Giles - I'm a monster."

"No, Buffy, no." Spike felt like he'd been punched in the gut. This was his fault, that nightmare was his fault for telling her she came back wrong.

"Will you... not trying to take advantage," Buffy was trying to get more words out and Spike leaned into her. Focus on her needs, not your own responses, he reminded himself.

"What, pet, what?"

"Hold me... anchors me, solid, remind me there's a here... keep talking - oh can't - talk - breathe." And with a gasp, Buffy was under again, starting from the beginning, trapped by six feet of dirt.

Spike felt the guilt pouring over him. He'd messed everything up. None of his choices had been right, no wonder The Three had sent him his own nightmare! First he'd been the sole instrument of shaking Buffy's faith in her own inherent goodness when she most needed reassurance. Then what she'd said about taking advantage, seemed like she was raking herself over the coals for the way he'd told her they couldn't have sex anymore. How could he have been so stupid?

But, his inner voice reminded him, wallowing in his mistakes wasn't what Buffy needed right now. Spike lay down on the bed next to his Slayer, pulling her into his arms. She curled into him unconsciously, and as that first time, he took her hands, smoothing the tension from her desperate fingers. He breathed in the scent of her hair, felt her human warmth against him, and although he knew it was sick, that he didn't deserve to, Spike let himself enjoy how good it felt to hold her. He'd missed her so much, questioned his decision to break off their physical relationship over and over and over in the solitude of his crypt. Most of the time he came down on the side that it was the right thing, but once in a while he despaired of ever seeing her again and wished he'd let well enough alone.

"But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,"

Spike returned to his recitation, pushing those thoughts aside for now. Buffy was here, not angry at him anymore, and when she pulled out of this the last thing she'd want would be a vampire desperate to express his repentance. She'd be exhausted, he'd get her home somehow, and they'd talk again. She missed him - there was hope yet.

As Buffy moved into the weeping and the horrified screams stage once more, Spike held her as tight as he could. He whispered poetry into her ear, and stroked her hair, and prepared himself for a long night.

"Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung."