Fucking bitch.

You fucking, beautiful bitch.

We both know I'm the only one you were ever meant to dance with. I'm the only one who could ever take you, and you me. Yet here you go, pulling that 'holier-than-thou' bullshit. Can't stand the thought that Spike might just be as good as you, so you go saying things that really ought not to be said.

Spike strode out of the bushes, weathered boots cutting a clear path through the yielding, dew-kissed grass. The Slayer wasn't five yards away from him now, head bowed as she sat alone on the steps of her back porch. At least now he wouldn't have to find a way of convincing her to come outside.

So I'm beneath you, am I? Well in about two seconds, you're gonna be beneath the business end of a double-barrel shotgun. I'd wager that might even the score by a point or two, wouldn't you?

Bitter words oozed through Spike's consciousness, attempting to neutralize the acid burn of the Slayer's earlier comments.

With a sneer, he lifted the weapon in his hands to attention. His thumb worked with determination as he cocked it, hoping the cacophonic sound might instil even a twinge of fear in the female before him as it ricocheted through the night.

When her head lifted to look at him though, she didn't look startled. She didn't look frightened or confused or even angry. She just looked… broken.

Tears were painted in silver lines down the perfect crests of her cheeks. The emerald flecks in her eyes had lost their characteristic glint, a shadow cast over them by clouds of despair and exhaustion. Even her voice no longer possessed its usual level of energy or bite. Instead in hung in the air like a dying leaf, clinging to life but losing the motivation to do so.

"What do you want now?" she asked him, as if the gun in his hands was something as benign as a book. As if it wasn't even there.

He couldn't help the way his heart shrivelled with ache. He couldn't help it when the anger drained from his face, pouring into the soil at his feet and disappearing from his no-longer clenched muscles. As much as he wanted to hold on to his rage, concern for the Slayer proved to be more powerful at taking up residence in his psyche. Having no choice but to admit defeat, his grip on the shotgun loosened, while the rest of him tightened with worry.

"What's wrong?" he heard himself say, jaw clenching as he forced any remaining words of hatred to remain at bay. He swallowed them down, along with the lump of pride that had migrated to the back of his throat.

"I don't wanna talk about it," came her simple reply, eyes already having averted from his gaze. Her arms crossed over each other, attempting to shield the core of her body from autumn's crispy breath.

Spike couldn't believe that the female warrior he'd spent the night trading blows with at The Bronze, and the disintegrating creature before him were even the same person. He didn't know if he'd ever seen her so vulnerable. Even during that whole Angel/Acathala debacle, when her life was being stripped away from her in methodical stages, she'd maintained a solid exterior. Seventeen years old, and she'd possessed the battle-hardened strength of a seasoned soldier.

What had changed? What could have possibly transpired in the past hour or two to cause such a dramatic metamorphosis? Things in Sunnydale had been slow over the past week in terms of demonic activity, so he doubted that anything had happened to one of the Super Friends. He couldn't see her getting this worked up over a fight with the lover-boy, so that possibility was a rather dim possibility, too. So apart from that, what else was there?

The vampire hated to see her like this. To see the fire and determination within her extinguished, and replaced by cold pain. He knew that he hadn't been the cause of her current condition. Their encounter in the back alley had shaken her up, that much had been obvious, but not enough that she would seek refuge outside, alone on her back porch. Didn't make the agony of seeing her like this any easier to bear. And he never was the type to stand by and watch as some inner turmoil tore a person he loved to pieces.

"Is there something I can do?" he asked, the firearm in his hand now forgotten as it hung at his side.

This time she didn't respond. At least not verbally. Instead her eyes just widened, the overwhelmed look in them worsening. A frown flitted over her features, as if she was considering some awful possibility of how he might be able to help. Every muscle in her body shuddered, though the wave of action was barely visible. She looked so weak and so fragile that he was scared to breathe too hard for fear that she might crumble.

Buffy hadn't asked him to help. But she hadn't told him to leave, either. Which was a good thing, because at that moment, Spike didn't think he'd be able to even if she demanded it.

It was then that he noticed the four feet of space to her left. Do it, he told himself, looking from her, to the open seat, and back again. Slayer's in real pain here, mate. You can't just leave her all alone, he continued to reason, as the rest of his body hardened in anticipation of such a move.

Taking tentative steps, watching her during the entire journey for any signs that his decision hadn't been a particularly good one, he lowered down onto the wooden plank. He then took a moment to compose himself, adjusting to the lack of distance between them. Calming the nerves that were now buzzing with the knowledge that her flesh was only inches away from his. Trying to breathe and not notice the way her beautiful aroma was now swimming around his head.

Easy, Spike. The girl's in pain… she's obviously not looking for anything like that.

He studied her in silence, trying to decide what his next course of action should be. It had been so long since he'd had to comfort anyone in a way that didn't involve violence or sex, as it often did where Dru had been concerned.

Think, you ninny. All you want to do is be there for her… show her she's got an ear to talk to, or a shoulder to cry on if she needs it. Probably a good idea not to say anything just yet though… that mouth's gotten you in enough trouble tonight.

Moving out of instinct, calling on his long-dead human self for advice, Spike lifted his hand and laid it gently on her back. He savoured the gentility, knowing it might be one of the few times he might ever get to touch her in a way that wasn't meant to harm her or defend himself.

Well, she hasn't hit you yet, so that's a good sign, he thought as he patted her back, fingertips planting ghostly kisses against the ends of her golden hair.

After a few beats, he removed the appendage from its duty, setting it down against the bony surface of his knee

Now what? He wondered. What was the next appropriate step to take? Hug her? Kiss her? Ask what's wrong?

Just sit still. You're here, and that's what matters. Let her make the next decision. Slayer's not someone you can force your good intentions on… she doesn't work that way. You've established that you're here, that you're willing to help if she needs it, so relax. She'll let you know if she needs anything else.

Folding his hands in front of him, Spike coaxed his gaze away from her, knowing that she wouldn't enjoy having him stare at her much longer. Looking up to the yawning night sky, he took a deep breath, noticing that the Slayer matched his action, her lungs expanding and contracting in perfect tune with his own.

A smile tickled the corners of his lips at such a quirky, random event, but he kept it hidden. Instead he just stored the episode in the back of his mind, knowing it would be one of those little things he'd pull out and mull over later on when he was no longer able to enjoy her presence.

Silence continued its visit between them, settling down as an acceptable guest. Neither of the two blondes felt perturbed by the lack of conversation. Buffy knew that if she really wanted to confide in him, Spike would be willing to listen for some unknown reason, one that she would also leave un-pondered. And Spike knew that if the Slayer felt talkative, she would start up; until then, he would just provide support in the sense of just being there.

Time trickled past them, its exact length going unmeasured. They didn't know if they had spent minutes or hours together. Being lost in thought meant that moments could pass either with the speed of a snail, or a bullet. The only thing that they did know was that it didn't last forever.

"Buffy, honey, I'm leaving for the- oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know you had company," Joyce's voice swept out from the back door, the rectangular object swinging open in a lazy motion behind her as she regarded the pair.

Turning in unison, both of them met the warm-hearted woman with a smile. In the same instant, Buffy realised that her eyes and cheeks were still stained from the tears that had continued to leak from her soul, and she ducked back around to wipe them away.

Realising what she was doing, Spike jumped into action, doing what he could to distract the older woman. Looked like those were tears she didn't quite fancy having her mother see. "Hello there, Mrs. Summers," he said with sincere politeness. "Weren't making too much noise, were we?" he asked with a little grin, wondering if she realised that they hadn't even been speaking.

"Of course not… um…" she paused, regarding him with a one-eyed squint. "Spike, is it?" she ventured, smiling when he gave her an affirmative nod. "Oh, good. I feel terrible for not knowing," she said, rolling her eyes at her own forgetfulness. "So what on earth are you two doing out here in the cold? You do know about this wonderful modern invention called central heating that's sweeping the nation, don't you?"

"Buffy tried to tell me the same thing," Spike responded, keeping the conversation going to give the Slayer enough time to compose herself. "Was hankerin' for a breath of fresh air though. Clear the lungs. Plus I didn't fancy getting an earful if we happened to wake the little one up," he chuckled.

"Oh, don't worry about that. Once Dawn's asleep she usually stays that way. It's just a matter of actually getting her there…"

Spike laughed, stealing a glance at his comrade for some signs that she was ready to face her mother.

"Honestly though, it's chilly out here. Why don't you guys come inside? I'm not paying for the previously mentioned furnace so that my daughter and her friends can sit outside in the cold".

The blondes looked at each other, trying to decide how to take the suggestion. Buffy didn't know how to react to having her mother refer to him as her 'friend'. Spike wasn't sure if the Slayer really wanted him in her house.

Deciding that it was easier than verbalising some sort of decision, the Slayer stood up and headed for the back door, not even looking behind her to see if he would follow.

Again, she had given him neither encouragement nor opposition, so the part of him that was hopelessly in love opted to follow her lead. He slid the gun out and stashed it under the bush beside him, knowing that his invite would quickly be revoked by the elder Summers should she happen to see it.

Closing the door behind him as he entered, he followed the Summers women through to the front of the house.

"Are you leaving now?" the Slayer asked in a small voice as they came to rest at the front door.

Leaning against the edge of the wall beside the stairs, he noticed the woman's-style suitcase waiting by the door, his curiosity stimulated. He could also see that Buffy looked rather agitated, as if she'd rather be anywhere else at this moment.

"Yeah," Joyce said, shoulders falling as if the word had been a heavy one. "I just wanted to make sure that there was nothing else you needed".

"We'll be fine, Mom," Buffy responded, though there was a quiver in her voice that Spike was sure her mother couldn't detect. Probably hidden behind one of those confident, shiny smiles she often faced the world with.

"And so will I," the older woman said, now staring intently into her daughter's eyes.

"I know," said the Slayer, her head dropping down for a split second, though it lifted back up just as quickly. "Me and Dawn will see you first thing in the morning".

"Oh, and here I'd really been looking forward to sleeping in," Joyce said with a smile, mocking disappointment tinting her voice.

A moment passed between them, and Buffy stepped in to hug her mother. "I love you" he heard both women whisper, their arms wrapped tightly around each other.

Stepping back, Joyce then looked over at him, her face telling him that she wasn't the least bit embarrassed at having given such a display of affection before a relative stranger. "Good night, Spike. It was nice to see you again."

"Night, Mrs. Summers," he responded, giving her a half-wave.

Looking back to her daughter, she lifted a hand to cup the young woman's cheek. "Good night, sweetheart," she said with another warm smile. Joyce then turned, hoisted the bag off the ground, and stepped outside. Buffy walked with her to the edge of the door, standing there long enough that Spike knew she'd watched her mother get into her jeep and drive away. What he wanted to know though, was where she'd gone.

When Buffy stepped back to let the door swing shut before her, closing with a soft click, he straightened himself up. Fighting past the nervous lump in his throat, he decided to give his conversation skills a second chance. "I'm guessing that your mum wasn't headed for a relaxing weekend getaway at some remote lodge in the woods," he ventured, the realisation that her earlier distress might have been over her mother making him pray that he wasn't about to cross any sort of boundaries.

"She's spending the night at the hospital," the Slayer responded in a low, flat voice. Her back was to him, her head bowed, every muscle in her body still.

Spike frowned, somewhat startled by the revelation. Though he'd known it was a possibility, judging from both of the Summers' demeanour, he hadn't quite expected it. Joyce seemed like the type of woman who took care of herself; ate right, slept enough, got two or three days of exercise into a given week. Why in Hell would she need to spend a night at the hospital?

Buffy walked away before he could ask the question. Heading into the living room, she lowered herself into the folds of the couch, landing on it with all the force of a feather. Of course, he had no choice but to follow. His hesitation wasn't nearly as strong as it had been earlier in the evening, and the vampire sat down beside her, though he set his weight down in a tentative manner.

Just as they'd been doing on the back porch, both vampire and Slayer sat in silence. One foot apart, elbows on their knees, hands clasped together, staring straight ahead. Every now and then, Spike would steal a sideways glance in her direction, trying to gauge what kind of mood she was in. Was she still being haunted from that sadness he'd seen earlier? Or was she in more of a contemplative state right now? Knowing her it was probably a mixture of both.

"You came here to kill me, didn't you?" came her voice, the question being asked before she even decided to let it out.

Head snapping in her direction, the vampire straightened up, all of a sudden finding the air around him quite thick. The tone in her voice caught him most off-guard though. It wasn't angry or accusatory. It barely sounded like she was asking at all. "Well, I…" he fumbled for the words, not wanting to admit it in light of the fact that she already seemed to have enough on her plate.

"It's okay, Spike. I did kind of figure it out what with the shotgun and all," she said matter-of-factly, giving him a tight-lipped smile that indicated a slight level of amusement.

"Yeah, about that," he said, hand coming up to rub at the back of his neck. Part of him was surprised that she wasn't more furious, but then again, it was all just another day at the office as far as she was concerned. He'd been professing his fierce intention to kill her for how long now? "Guess it wouldn't make much sense to say that it was 'nothing personal', but then that wouldn't be too-"

"So why didn't you?" she interrupted him. And this time, she was looking right at him, the hazel-tinted emerald jewels that were her eyes bearing into him.

Because the sight of you crying turned my knees to jelly.

Because when I saw your tears, I had to restrain myself from wrapping you in my arms.

Because I love you too damn much.

All of the answers that jumped to his head were valid in their own right, but for some reason he just didn't think they'd work out. So, he was forced to come up with something else on the fly. "Besides the fact that the pain itself might have put me in a coma, thus stripping me of any opportunity to enjoy my accomplishment?" he said, realising that he'd worded his response just so that he didn't actually have to articulate the words 'killing you'. Even he wouldn't believe them anymore.

"Decided it just wouldn't be right though," he shrugged. "We've known each other how long now? If I take you down, it'd have to be in a fair fight- when I haven't got this buggery chip in my head, and you don't have a crater in your stomach. We owe each other that much, I figure".

"Oh… Well, as foreign as your logic is to me," she said, the barest hint of a smile playing with one corner of her mouth. "Thanks".

"Don't mention it," he said, waving a hand in the air as he fell back into the couch. "Besides, I'm starting to think that maybe I should've gone through with it. Harmony'll be up all night saying 'I told you so' and hypothesising about how my cranium probably would've exploded anyway," he muttered, rolling his eyes.

"Harmony? You guys are back together now?"

Spike's eye twitched in a one-eyed, curious glance. Was that jealousy he'd heard in her voice? Even just a little bit?

Probably not. Still, best to steer clear of confirming a relationship with the other blonde vampire- just in case. "Well, it's more like she's seeking refuge in my humble abode."

"Refuge?"

"Yeah," he chuckled. "Stormed into my crypt one night, all panicked and breathless. Said she needed protection on account of the fact that you were looking to give her the dust treatment. I believe the exact words she used to describe you were 'arch-nemesis'."

"What?" Buffy blurted out, laughing at the same time. "Me? Looking for Harmony? I'm pretty sure that I haven't even thought of her since the night she made her brilliant attempt at killing me."

"That may be, but she's convinced you're out to destroy her. Won't let anything stand in your way, either."

"Oh, Harmony," she said, a hint of nostalgia in her voice as she cast her eyes toward the ceiling. Following the vampire, she too leaned into the back of the couch.

"Whoever decided to give her the gift of eternal life obviously didn't spend any time getting to know her," Spike commented with another little chuckle.

"No kidding. You're just lucky you didn't go to high school with her," she responded. "Although I think she might still be stuck there," she said with a little, somewhat disturbed frown.

"Can't really comment on that. But one thing I do know: if you're ever looking for a cheap source of amusement, feel free to come storming into the crypt one night brandishing a pointy weapon of some sort. I guarantee you a good show," the bleached blonde vampire suggested with a quirked smile.

"Thanks, I'll keep that in mind," Buffy responded, somewhat amused. At that point she let out a long sigh, a thin layer of glaze pouring over her eyes as she once again fixed her gaze on some distant object.

Everything in the vampire's body was buzzing. He kept taking deep breaths in through his nose, savouring the strange yet comforting aromas so unique to a home. The fibres of the couch beneath him, the earth-textured smell of wooden furniture, and fruity blossoms of air freshener danced in his nostrils. He could taste the few molecules of food still lingering in the air from whatever had been cooked for dinner that night.

They were all such mundane, regular things that a human wouldn't bother to notice. To Spike though, their domestic nature made them extraordinary. They allowed him to feel like a part of a world he rarely even glimpsed. For a moment, he wasn't a vampire who slept on a cold slab of stone every night, drinking blood out of mugs he stole from the local convenience stores. He was someone's brother, someone's cousin, or someone's friend. Buffy's friend.

Buffy's friend. Sitting on the couch with her in the warm comfort of her home. Only, something was missing from making this picture complete. Being at home, he remembered, was supposed to include the presence- the unconditional love –of one's family. And right now, one of the most important people in this household was missing. Stuck in a hospital of all places.

That thought brought the frown back to his face, forehead crinkling like an old newspaper. He stole a glance at her again, mouth falling open with the intent of inquiring about her mother's recent departure, and then snapping shut. Could he ask her? Should he ask her? He didn't want to risk having his often-uncontrollable mouth scare her off. Even though they were just sitting silently together, he was enjoying this far too much to ruin it with a verbal mishap.

So, he decided that it was best to hold back. Not to mention the fact that the Slayer was gonna get enough questions thrown at her when the Scooby gang found out. No need to start her off earlier than necessary.

Another string of time passed by them in comfortable silence. Once again, Buffy was the one to cut it. Just as Spike had been about to stand up, thinking his purpose for the evening had been filled, she spoke.

"Spike, do you… know very much about… head-type stuff?" she asked in a broken-up sentence, stealing one or two quick glances in his direction.

Head tilting to the side, he offered her a curious frown. "Dunno love. Depends on what sort of head-stuff you're referring to."

"Oh, well I don't mean, like, psychological. At least I don't think that's what it is. I'm talking about medical problems- you know, physical stuff," she explained.

When she looked at him this time, Spike could see that her eyes had acquired a glassy appearance, almost swollen like those of a fear-stricken child. The way they got when she was talking about something she was less than comfortable with. "Not sure I can help there, pet. Unless you're asking about government chips, I'm afraid I don't know much that'd be helpful."

"Oh," Buffy said, having favoured him with a ghost of a smile at his small joke.

As much as he didn't want to pry, her questions were starting to make him concerned. Joyce, in his opinion, was a gem of a lady. The idea that she might be suffering from something of the medical variety was unsettling to say the least. He couldn't help but ask a question or two at this point. Besides, Buffy had started them in on this latest topic, so it wasn't as if he was intentionally invading on her personal matters.

"Gotta say love, as far as Slayer questions go, that's not of the usual variety," he commented, voice soft, eyes caressing her diminished form. "This have something to do with your Mum's overnight trip to see the good doctor?"

Staring at her hands, fingers playing with each other in distraught bundles, she nodded in response. "Yeah," she whispered a few seconds later, a deep sigh rumbling through her. "She's been…" she started, only to pause mid-sentence as she reached up to wipe at her eyes.

The sight of her brushing away more tears made Spike's heart clench in sorrow. He had to physically restrain himself from sweeping her into his arms at that point, choosing instead to turn his body so that he could face her more directly.

Looking up at his movement, seeing that for some reason, he truly was concerned, Buffy gathered the strength to continue. "She's been having headaches for a while now. Doctor-prescribed-pain-medication headaches. And sometimes she'll say things…" she trailed off, knowing that Spike- who'd spent most of his unlife up until now with a raving lunatic –could probably fill in the gap. "She went to see a doctor a little while ago, but they said it was nothing," she said with a little bit of bitterness, the emotion visible when she looked up to meet his eyes for a second. "But now she's gone in for observation, and a- a CAT scan."

Spike had never really bothered to learn about the wonders of modern medicine, due to a stunning lack of need for any such knowledge. But he was familiar with some of the more popular procedures, a CAT scan being one of them. So he knew that, like an X-Ray, it simply meant that the doctors were looking for something, which meant that they could very well find nothing. "Do they think it's serious?"

"I don't… I mean, they don't know yet," she sighed again. "I guess that means it could be anything."

"Which means it might be something they can fix, right?" Spike asked, partly because he wanted to comfort her worries, and party because he needed to soothe his own.

"I guess so," she said, glancing up to meet his steady gaze again. "But then… that means it could be something they can't…" she stopped herself there, swallowing the rest of the idea in a cold lump, unable to admit out loud the possibility that this was a problem that medical expertise couldn't make go away.

He watched the terror rumple her features, eyes taking on that tear-flooded shine yet again. Before he could stop it, a hand came up to caress her shoulder, rubbing from its corner to the back of her neck and back again in a repetitive cycle. She continued to fight with her emotions, seeming to be unaware of his physical contact with her. "You want to know what I think, love?"

She looked at him, her eyes saying that if what he had to say wasn't optimistic, she didn't want to hear it. He just smiled, giving her shoulder a little squeeze when he passed over it this time. "All this worrying isn't worth a penny, because your Mum's gonna be just fine. I'll admit there's a lot of stuff I still don't know after being alive for this long, especially when it comes to doctors and their ability to fix things. But one thing I do know is, you Summers women are tough," he said with a wry grin, both of them knowing that he'd gained that knowledge the hard way. "I mean, yeah, a lot of your Slayer strength has to do with mystical forces and what all, but there's no question that some of that came from your dear mother".

"You really think that?" she asked, regarding him with a sceptic gaze.

"I know it," he nodded. "I mean, the woman was responsible for raising you and the little one, wasn't she?" he asked with raised eyebrows, as if that was all she'd need as proof of her mother's resilience in the face of difficult situations. Though he didn't know whether she believed him or not, that comment did tease a small laugh out of her.

"Point taken," she commented, finding it amazing that she was even able to smile given her current state of emotional distress.

Buffy had returned to staring at her hands, which he noticed were no longer grappling nervously with each other. "Tell you what," he prompted, standing up and offering her his hand. After a tentative pause, she took it, and he pulled her up so that they were facing each other, separated by less than a foot of space. "Why don't you head on up to bed? The sooner you do, the sooner morning'll come. When it does, your Mum'll be waiting for you at the hospital with nothing but smiles and good news."

It was at that point, when he was standing over her with nothing but concern and kindness shining in the blue oceans of his eyes, that Buffy realised just how strange he was acting. Asking her what was wrong, offering her both physical and verbal comfort, giving her advice for the sake of her own well-being… she couldn't quite figure out what it all meant. He had to be up to something, didn't he? Why would Spike give a shit about her or her mother? Why would he go out of his way to be so nice, unless he was going to get something out of it?

As important as the answers to those questions were, the Slayer found that she just didn't have the energy to try deducing them. After all, he hadn't exactly been subtle with his latest bout of deviant behaviour, so at least now she knew to watch out for some further scheming on his part.

His advice did have its appeal though. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had such an exhausting day. From struggling with her abdominal injury, to her two different encounters with Spike, and then the one with her mother, she was starting to see why bears thought that hibernation was such a great idea.

Turning around, she headed for the stairs, able to hear his footfalls as he followed behind her. When they reached the front door, she pivoted to look at him again, beginning to wonder if the look of concern in his eyes was as manufactured as she knew it had to be. Again she came back to the question of why Spike had bothered offering her an attentive ear, or his kind words. What could he possibly have to gain from that? There wasn't much he could do with any of what they'd talked about as far as hurting her went.

It was a vicious cycle of thought. Knowing there was no way he was being sincere, but wondering what else he could be planning if that wasn't the case.

Either way, there was no denying that he'd been there for her tonight. He hadn't mocked her, or asked her questions that she hadn't been willing to answer. He'd been nothing but kind, polite, and comforting. If anything, Spike had helped to make her feel better about this whole situation. Vampire or not, that had to be worth something.

So, when he nodded a silent good-bye to her and reached for the doorknob, she had to speak one last time before letting him go. "Spike," she said, her voice loud in the otherwise dormant house.

He paused, turning to look back at her with a blank expression- though Buffy was sure that he was wearing a thin veil of hopefulness. "Thank you," she said, and left it at that, knowing any additional words would only spoil the effect of the first two.

Invisible wires tugged the corners of his lips into a petite smile, matching the gleam in his eyes. "Anytime," he said with a single nod. "Tell your Mum that I said to get well".

"I will". And she would, too.

Pulling the front door open, Spike threw one last glance over his shoulder. "Night Slayer."

"Goodnight, Spike".

Stepping out onto the Summers' front porch, he pulled the door shut and smiled to himself as he looked up at the clear, starry sky.

Yeah. It was a damn good night.

(Reviews are welcome and greatly appreciated. I promise to send you two gold stars ;)... many thanks)