Rated: PG for one bad word. I'm such a rebel.

A/N: While this story does deal with chess, the game is really only there for figurative purposes. I've tried to make it so that a non-chess player can understand what's going on. Don't worry if the lingo sounds strange to you. Just think black pieces verses white pieces, and the rest of the story should fall into place. (And you really should learn how to play chess, you know. Best game in the world. Except for Marsters Mob Jongg, of course.)

Beta read by the lovely desotohia873 and slackerace.

This story is lovingly dedicated to my Live Journal title and subtitle. ;)


She didn't ask if he wanted to play. Truth be told, she didn't care, but he made no protest when she plunked the chessboard onto the coffee table before him and began lining up the ranks. Dawn took white for herself and left Spike staring inquisitively at his own black pieces.

Clearing her throat, she picked up a knight and set it down forcefully before his defenses. Spike's eyes moved silently from the board to the glowering teenager before him.

"You do know how to play, don't you?" asked Dawn.

It was the first thing she'd said to him since his arrival in Rome yesterday. With Buffy out running an errand, he and Dawn were left to themselves for a few hours with strict instructions not to kill or otherwise maim each another. Quickly weighing the facts, Spike had to admit that Dawn's sarcasm was definitely better than angry silence – or setting him on fire while he was asleep. Pressing his lips together resolutely, Spike advanced a pawn one space. "Guess we'll find out."

Dawn's eyes narrowed ever so slightly in response, accepting the challenge. She was so going to kick his ass at chess. Of that, she was certain.

The game progressed in relative silence, the noise of the street life below the only sound. The silence wasn't entirely uncomfortable, Dawn realized. It felt almost like old times – sitting around a game with Spike, not speaking to each other so that certain unmentionable issues could be avoided. Back then it was Rummy and Buffy's death. Now it was chess and Spike's resurrection.

She had "overheard" his version of events when he relayed the tale to Buffy – the amulet, his haunting of Wolfram and Hart, and his subsequent recorporealization(1). Buffy took it all in with surprising calmness, seemingly just thankful to have him back. She only briefly reproached him for not contacting anyone sooner. Buffy might be able to let go, but Dawn was far from satisfied. There was no way Spike was going to get away with what he did unpunished.

After twenty minutes of silent game play, Dawn moved one final chess piece into place, and her trap was complete. "Check(2)," she declared, smirking triumphantly in his direction.

Spike didn't look at her but smiled as he moved a rook into position to protect his king. "Check, yourself."

Dawn's eyes dropped to the board, knitting her brow in confusion. His assault on her defenses had come out of nowhere. While she had been busy going after his king, she had unwittingly left her own king open to attack. Spike's strategy might be impulsive and poorly thought out, but she'd be damned if it didn't work at times. It took her a good five minutes to figure out an escape from his trap, but eventually she managed it. Pulling her hair back behind her ears, she sat up straighter so that she could pay closer attention.

While Spike considered his next move, Dawn found her gaze fixed on his face. It was the first time she had really looked at him since his return – perhaps even the first time since he had returned from Africa. He seemed softer to her eyes somehow. The characteristic sharp line of his brow and cheekbones seemed blended back into the rest of his features. When he touched his black chess pieces, the sleeve of his duster appeared soft gray in comparison. It occurred to her that she had never seen him look so human. He didn't seem like Spike at all. The year he'd spent away from her and Buffy had certainly changed him, and Dawn wasn't convinced yet that it was for the better.

"Your move," he prompted, catching her staring at him when he looked up from the board.

"Huh? Already?" she asked, disoriented. Spike seemed to give little or no thought to each move while she pored over her choices, taking long intervals between moves. She couldn't decide if she was unimpressed or a little intimidated. She reached for a knight, intent on capturing one of his pieces.

"Wouldn't do that if I were you…" he hinted, watching her hand. "But then again, I'm not you, so have at it."

"I've been playing chess for years, Spike. Don't tell me what I should and shouldn't do," she snapped, executing the intended move so forcefully that the coffee table rattled.

He shrugged indifferently. Three seconds later, he attacked and confiscated one of the key pieces protecting Dawn's king. When she gasped, watching her defenses unravel, Spike had the decency to look troubled. "Oh, sorry," he said, not sounding sorry at all. "Did I catch you off guard there? I figured that you, having played this game for years, would have seen that coming. Silly me."

"Shut up, Spike."

He did, eyes sparkling at her fondly as he watched her scramble to protect her king.

Dawn blew a long strand of hair out of her eyes as she stared at the board. If she wasn't careful, she was going to find herself trapped again. Possibly beaten. Spike's black pieces were slowly trickling onto her side of the board. Determined not to be defeated, she decided it was time for a little distraction.

"Cigarette?" she asked in an indifferent tone.

Spike blinked once – very slowly. "Come again?"

"Cigarette?" she repeated derisively. "You've heard of them before, I'm sure. So do you want one?" Her steady hand held out a half-empty pack. It was an Italian off-brand. Unfiltered. Possibly illegal in the States. All in all, Spike had to admit he was impressed. Alarmed, but impressed.

He couldn't decide if it was an offer of friendship, a challenge, or both. He hadn't touched a cigarette since the day he'd channeled UV Rays in the Hellmouth, but he accepted Dawn's offer regardless. The cigarette tasted like ash between his lips, but he lit it anyway. Under Dawn's glaring scrutiny, he took a long, deep drag – and promptly had to stifle a string of coughs.

"It's that damn L.A. smog, you know," he wheezed, eyes filling with tears.

"Uh-huh." She made a big show of striking a match and slowly bringing it to the cigarette between her lips, as if it was the most satisfying thing she'd done all day. She felt a small moment of triumph when his eyebrows lifted in disbelief. Distraction accomplished, she thought smugly.

"Your move," she said, gesturing casually at the chessboard.

He didn't seem to hear her. "Mind if I ask when you started smoking?"

"Yeah, actually I do," she replied with a little more steam than she'd intended. It angered her that Spike was taking notice of something she did after so many months (years, even) of ignoring her.

"Does Buffy know?" he pressed.

"Why do you care?"

"Don't care that you're smoking," he clarified. "Do what you want. But I might care if big sis waltzes in here and sees you with that, thinking I gave it to you. I've become a little partial to my existence over the last year."

"Like Buffy would ever think you'd do that," Dawn retorted, blowing a puff of smoke in his direction. "Haven't you heard? You have a soul now. You can do no wrong."

Spike's eyes narrowed. "Got something you wanna say, Bit?" he asked evenly.

"Yeah: don't call me that," she snapped, pointing at the chessboard. "Your move."

Biting the tip of his tongue, he reached for one of his chess pieces and moved it at random.

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Dawn scoffed. "What, are you just forgoing strategy now?"

"What can I say?" he replied, sitting back with a tight smile. "I like living on the wild side."

"Wow, I Love the 80s much? You know, Spike, you have the worst technique I've ever seen. The only reason I can't seem to corner you is because your moves are so unpredictable."

"Whatever works, I always say. Still, it sounds to me like you're just making excuses."

Dawn shook her head in disbelief. "You know what your real problem is?"

"Do tell."

"You never think things through. You don't consider the consequences of your actions."

The corners of Spike's mouth pulled upwards in amusement. "Why do I get the feeling we're not talking about chess?"

"You know exactly what I'm talking about," she shot back, "and I'm not joking, so you can quit smirking. You know, I used to blame your disregard for consequences and hurting people on the whole not-having-a-soul thing. But that doesn't excuse all you've done after you got it back."

His smile slowly began to fade. "Everyone makes mistakes."

"Yeah, but everyone else generally feels sorry about what they've done wrong. You either don't care, can't own up to your mistakes, or you have the lamest soul on the planet. Possibly all of the above."

Spike crushed the end of his cigarette and tossed the hardly touched butt onto the table. "Know what your problem is, Nibblet?"

"Don't call me that."

"You think too much. Too deeply. Things are always black or white with you," he said, gesturing at the chessboard. "You miss things changing and taking shape all around you because you get so caught up in the details – in pointing out past mistakes. Might do you some good to get your nose out of high altitude and take a step backwards. Get some perspective."

"I have plenty of perspective," she retorted, "and there's nothing wrong with seeing things as black or white. At least I can say I know the difference between right and wrong."

"You can't always judge things that way – right and wrong aren't always so estranged from each other. Try seeing the shades of grey in the world once in a while."

"There's another word for that, Spike. Ambiguity. Not exactly something to work towards."

"You know, I rather like ambiguity. Particularly in regards to my morals."

Dawn shook her head incredulously. "There's also a word for that. It's called being immoral. Better yet – evil."

"That what you think I am?" he asked calmly.

"I don't know you anymore," she replied, crossing her arms over her chest. "What am I supposed to think?"

Eyes drifting shut, Spike let a frustrated sigh ease out of his chest. "Look, Dawn, it's getting late. Maybe we should just call it a night."

"No way! We're finishing this game."

"Why bother? Already got me sussed out, it seems. Don't see the point of continuing." He chuckled dryly. "Is beating me that important to you? To put me in my place and all?"

"Shut up and play," she snapped, sliding a bishop across the board. "Your move."

Again silence flooded the apartment, only this time it was more than a little uncomfortable. Dawn stared at Spike while he considered his next move. He looked sad and troubled, making her feel guilty for giving him such a hard time. Now that she'd had a moment or two to calm down after venting some of the deep-seated resentment she held towards him, Dawn felt slightly less angry. She still didn't understand Spike at all, but he did appear to be making an effort to reconcile with her. There was more she wanted to say to him – other hurts that needed addressing – but at least now she was satisfied enough to give him another chance.

"Look, I'm sorry for yelling at you," she said before she could talk herself out of it, "but I don't get you at all. I don't understand why you do the things you do, knowing how much they could hurt someone else. How could you not tell Buffy and me that you were alive?"

"It was complicated, Bit," he replied after a moment of thought. "I had a million things telling me to stay away from you both – but I suppose in the end, it just comes down to the fact that I screwed up. And for what it's worth, I'm sorry. I'm here now, aren't I? Doesn't that count for something?"

"I guess," she reluctantly admitted. "I'm still mad at you, though. For more than just not calling us."

"Then talk to me about it."

Rubbing her forehead wearily, Dawn said, "You tried to tell me, Spike. In the beginning, when we first started talking, you told me not to trust you. That you were evil, and I should have nothing to do with you. Maybe I should have just listened."

"Glad you didn't."

"Are you sure about that? Because you haven't had anything to do with me ever since that summer when Buffy came back to us. Back when we were friends, I knew you loved her, but I used to think that maybe you loved me a little bit, too. Not romantically or anything. Just because you cared about me and wanted to keep me safe. You know, as a friend. Or was I just stupid, and the only reason you paid me any mind was because of Buffy?"

"Don't be daft," Spike interjected, staring at her so intently that she couldn't help but look away. "If that were true, I would have treated all Buffy's friends a hell of a lot better than I did, don't you think? Buffy had nothing to do with our friendship, Dawn. I've never really thought about it much, truth be told – I've never had many friends – but yeah, I guess I do love you."

She smiled – just a small one – but almost immediately the air between them became slightly less frigid. "Really?"

He nodded, looking distinctly uncomfortable. "But like you said," he added quickly, "not romantically because that would just be … weird."

"I love you, too," she replied. "You used to be my best friend, Spike. But you're just … not you anymore. I don't know how to explain it. I think I liked you better when you were soulless and evil."

"You mean when I was the type of person who would try to rape your sister?" he asked quietly.

Dawn shook her head. "That wasn't the Spike I knew. He would never have done that to Buffy. He got lost somehow, and I miss him. I don't know who you are anymore."

"Then I suppose we should get to know one another again – because I can't go back to being that Spike. I won't," he insisted. "I don't know you anymore either, Bit. You're all grown up now – taller than Buffy and me both. Smoking, even. Have to admit I didn't expect that."

"Oh, I don't really smoke that much," she replied somewhat guiltily. "I was just trying to distract you so you'd lose the game."

"Somehow I don't think I'm the one who got distracted." He gestured to her cigarette, which had a good inch of ash collected at the end.

She blinked at the cigarette in surprise, and reached over to the coffee table to stub the end out. Pressing a fist into her mouth, she stared blankly at the chessboard. When she started the game, she had no intentions of opening up to Spike – she only wanted to rub his nose in the dirt and thereby win a little made-up contest in her head. How had things gotten so turned around? "This game didn't turn out the way I thought it would," she whispered.

"Judging from the way it started, that's probably a good thing."

"There's just one other thing I want to know, Spike," she said softly. "Why did you come to Rome?"

"Maybe I like the company," he replied, tilting his head to one side as he peered at her. "It wasn't just for Buffy, Nibblet. You're both my girls."

Dawn didn't return the glance – didn't want to see his eyes – because then they'd both know how much she'd missed him. "Don't leave us again."

"Not if I can help it."

"And don't make a promise you don't intend to keep," she added as she crossed her arms over her chest.

"Never have. Well … except for that one time when I told Buffy I'd never come back to Sunnydale." Spike smirked. "I don't think she minded in the end, though."

"I'm serious, Spike. Don't think I'm not gonna hold you to this. You're stuck with us now, like it or not."

"I can think of worse things," he replied, his eyes shining affectionately at her. "So are we friends again or what?"

"Maybe." She made the mistake of looking at him, and when she saw the way he was looking at her, tears began to form. "All right, a definite maybe." Shaking the sudden rush of emotion away, she asked, "So I guess we should finish our game, huh?"

"Yeah, it is starting looking a little lonely and rejected there."

"Any idea whose turn it is?"

He shrugged. "Not a sodding clue. Why don't you go?"

"Maybe we could just start over," she suggested. When he looked at her questioningly, she added, "Symbolic new beginning and all that."

"Very poetic of you, Bit," Spike said with a chuckle. "You sure you're just not trying to avoid defeat?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. We both know I was about to pull out the big guns and blow your king off of the board." She smiled at him hopefully. "New game?"

Spike nodded his approval and laughed when he heard her whisper, "Thank God…" under her breath.

"So … do you think maybe this time you could teach me some of those reckless maneuvers of yours?" Dawn asked shyly as she started relining the ranks. "Might give me some perspective I've been lacking – or so I've been told."

"My pleasure," he replied, "but only if you meet me in the middle and show me a little bit of strategy. Because really? I have no fucking clue how to play this game."

The end

Feedback makes LW happy. :)

A/N: How was Spike faking it so well if he didn't know how to play? Just assume he had some rudimentary knowledge of the game, like most non-chess players. How the pieces move, basic rules, etc.

I have been working on this story for a while now, but for some reason, I couldn't get the end right. This story originally had Andrew and Buffy in it. After cutting out around 2,000 words and focusing just on Spike and Dawn's reconciliation, it finally worked. Seemed like a waste though. :( But I'm proud of myself – because I write so slowly, it isn't easy for me to purposely cut down on a word count. ::pats self on back:: Perhaps I can recycle some of the cut-out banter for my WIP.

(1)recorporealization – Yeah. That's not really a word. But it sounds convincing, doesn't it?

(2)check – when someone says "check" in chess, it means their opponent's king is in danger. Don't confuse this with "checkmate", which signifies the end of the game.