Buffy stops at the foot of the stairs, pinches the bridge of her nose, feels the headache build behind her eyes.

Yep... another super-special Buffy birthday. Nice normal blind date terrorized by evil vampire and stabbed by demon? Check. Dawn in yet another Teen Angst moment? Check. Unidentifiable menace? Check.

She can hear Spike and Dawn behind her, co-captains of the Make Buffy Even More Miserable club, getting touchy-feely with the living room wallpaper. Which is just great, because Murphy's Law of Sunnydale specifies that, having dispatched Richard The Red-Shirted Expendable Party Guest, the monster will next jump out and eat Dawn.

"Nibblet..." the low voice from the living room says, "You... you all right? Didn't get a chance to chat, after... after the thing."

She hears Dawn's snort and mentally paints in the crossed-arm hair-toss. "Buffy went upstairs, Spike. You don't have to pretend to care."

Oooooh. Point one, Team Summers!

"Talkin' to you now because big sis is gone. Private, like. C'mon, love... you bloody well know I'm not gonna throw stones."

Buffy's knuckles whiten on the railing.

No, Spike, you don't throw stones... you're perfectly happy to hold a girl's hand and whisper words of encouragement as she slides alllllllll the way down to your level... whaddya gonna do next, tell my baby sister she belongs in the dark, with you?

"Everything's great, Spike," Dawn drawls. "Everything's fabulous. Thanks for asking."

HA. So the great and wonderful William the Bloody, confidante extraordinaire, can't get through to her either. It's not just her.

Spike growls something that's probably "Nibblet" or "Little Bit" or "Bite-Size" or any of the other sick nicknames he has for Dawn that all involve eating her, and Dawn huffs in disgust.

"Whatever, Spike. You're not the only one with secrets."

Buffy's eyes widen, and she frowns as Sophie's voice obliterates Spike's reply; she takes a careful, quiet step back towards the living room door.

"I found you in an alley with your face smashed in!" Dawn shrieks. "And don't even start with the you-got-mugged crap, I am so not that stupid! You would have been dust if I'd been five minutes later!"

And every molecule in Buffy's body freezes.

"Spike," Dawn pleads, the malice fled from her voice as suddenly as it had entered, "I guess maybe you don't know, with the no-reflection thing, but your face? Is so gross. C'mon, Spike, I'm pretty familiar with the demon-damage, okay? Nothing human could have done that to you. I know you hate the Scoobies, but... at least tell me what did this. I'll clue them in and leave you totally out of it, have Buffy put the hurt on whatever it was."

"Can fight my own battles, Nibblet," Spike replies quietly.

"Was it those loan shark guys?" Dawn pauses. "Oh my God, this is so not the time to be macho. I mean, not to offend your manly testicles or anything, but Buffy's way stronger than you, Spike."

A harsh, short burst of laughter. "Actually aware of that, Bit."

"You don't even care if you die, do you?" The mighty mood swing that is Dawn Summers has landed back on 'furious', apparently.

"Already dead."

"Shut up. Shut up! It's not funny, don't you dare, I can't... it's too much, okay? Mom and Buffy and Tara and... the end of the world! You promised, and I..."

Buffy blinks out of her catatonia as the living room door swings suddenly towards her face, leaping out from behind it just in time as it crashes against the wall where she'd been a moment before, Dawn a brunette, hormone-fueled blur pounding past her and up the stairs, sobs violently going silent as her bedroom door slams...

And Spike is right behind, a trail of black and silver that freeze-frames back into Spikeness as he sees her, stepping backwards with none of his usual grace, a guilty, caught look on his face.

"Slayer," he says finally, awkwardly, when he can think of nothing else to say.

"So it was Dawn," Buffy whispers.

"Er... yeah." Spike scratches his eyebrow. "Tryin' to find you, actually; apparently you'd given her a speech prior... I didn't know if you'd..."

Spike studies Buffy's face, and his jaw sets at what he reads there; he laughs again, quick and bitter, shaking his head. "You didn't wonder. Didn't give it a second thought. Didn't go back to check..."

"Spike..." Buffy tries.

He holds up a restraining hand. "Don't. Should have bloody known better anyhow. Think I'll go see if Bite-Size is all right."

"Nothing human could have done that to you," Buffy takes a step towards him. "That's what Dawn said."

"Look, Slayer..." Spike sighs heavily, and he toys with the back of his neck. "You didn't 'come back wrong' or any of that rot. Waited around for you that night for three bleedin' hours, gettin' more bored n' annoyed by the minute, an' I got..."

Buffy's lips twitch. "Grouchy?"

Spike sucks in his cheeks. "Goin' for somethin' a bit more manly, but yeah. Grouchy."

"You made with the ominous threats and punched me in the face... because you were grouchy."

"First punch went to you, Slayer. An' I'm of a mind about a sayin' regardin' pots n' kettles."

Buffy exhales, and her eyes drop to focus on her twisting hands. "I don't suppose you'd buy 'grouchy' for the..." She gestures helplessly towards his bruises, "... thing?"

"Bit above n' beyond," Spike replies carefully.

And Buffy drifts towards the far wall, picking up a tiny sculpture, one of the few of her mother's that survived the Willow Magic Item Purge. She twirls it in her fingers, examines it with far greater interest than it warrants; she wants her back to him for this. She'll never be able to say it if she has to look into those eyes...

"Two years ago," Buffy begins, "I got... bodyswitched."

"Say again?"

"Bodyswitched. Y'know, like 'Freaky Friday'? Only way less with the heartwarming and more with the total suck and also, triple-x rating."

Out of sight, Spike does not say anything, but she imagines she knows the look he's wearing; he's patiently waited for her point on many occasions.

"Anyway, to get back in my body, I had to fight the girl who was the current occupant, right? Which meant that basically, I was fighting my own body and vice versa. Confusing... I guess you get that. Anyway, she's punching me, I'm punching her, quips are being exchanged... and all of a sudden, something changed."

She waits, but Spike remains silent.

"All of a sudden, the stuff she's saying... it's not about me anymore. It's about her. It's about how much she hates herself, and she's not fighting me anymore, she's fighting her own body, she's beating up me because she wants to beat up herself..."

And suddenly, she has to look at him, she has to, has to know if he understood...

She whirls. He's looking at her with the look, the soft one that does twinkley inappropriate things to her stomach, the effect somewhat lessened by him only having one functional eye to do it with.

But she feels herself being sucked in anyway, drawn towards him, her feet moving of their own will and...

And then, Spike laughs.

"Slayer," he chuckles disbelievingly, shaking his head, "Was that an apology?"

Oooh, see... and then she remembers how much she totally hates his guts.

"No," she snaps. Anything to wipe that damned sneer off, the one that makes red rise up behind her eyes and her hands ball into fists... "Pardon me a whole lot for actually trying to have a conversation with you. I'm gonna go check on Dawn."

Seventeen emotions seem to attack Spike at once, but it's his poker face that wins. He reaches into his boot and withdraws a dagger; she catches it easily.

"Just in case," Spike shrugs.

She hefts it in her hand. "But what about you?"

"I'll be all right." The corner of his mouth quirks. "Don't worry, Slayer; I'll protect the bits of me you've got an interest in."

It takes her a moment, but she gets it. "You're a pig, Spike. There are no parts of you that interest me."

"Right." His tongue curls behind his teeth. "Upstairs with you, then."

Dawn's not the only one who can toss her hair and flounce away; she just has a lot more hair to toss, that's all.

"Try not to stick the bloody thing in Clem," Spike sighs to her retreating back, and sags down onto the couch.