"So you're the skank who's sleeping with my sister's boyfriend."

Dawn had her arms crossed, weight balanced contemptuously on one leg, giving Buffy an insulting once-over that was no less condescending for being transmitted via webcam. Buffy gazed at the image on the TV hooked to the computer and resisted the urge to grin.

"That would be me," Buffy said agreeably, noting that Dawn's eyes widened slightly when Buffy didn't deny the definition of Spike as her boyfriend.

Surreal that, Spike as her boyfriend.

Luckily, it wasn't real.

If it was real, she'd have to cringe every time he opened his mouth. Every time he said something crude or not fit for polite company. Every time people looked at her and judged her, not for the company she was keeping, but for the fact he wasn't good enough for the person the Slayer was supposed to be.

The last time she went against public opinion on that issue, she got kicked out of her life. Her friends. Her family. Her job. Her house. Her life. Because apparently when a monster fought for his soul, to become something better, refusing to kill him somehow meant her judgment was flawed.

Apparently, SHE deserved better.

If it was real, she'd have to justify the time she spent with him. Time spent holding him when the nightmares came. Time the Council would have said was better spent on things better suited to the value of her time. Things better suited to the consequence of the Slayer than one aggravating vampire who refused to be broken.

And if it was real, that first morning would have killed her. When she woke in his arms and her first morning of living with someone wasn't with Angel or Riley or anyone that anyone who was anyone would deem...worthy. It was Spike. Spike who couldn't find the damn remote right where he left it. Spike who went hunting for tampons and she couldn't leave the room because she only had one pair of clean pants. And Spike was who she yelled at when he drank the last of the orange juice and put the empty carton back in the fridge.

And if it was real, she'd have to wonder about tomorrow.

She'd have to decide if she liked him enough to keep him, or if she had simply needed him, once upon a time. She'd have to know, so she didn't hurt him worse than she already had. And she'd have to defend - to herself and others - not just his existence, but her feelings for him. Her trust. Her judgment.

She'd have to ask if he was worth the price.

But it wasn't.

Wasn't real.

And she didn't want it to be.

"She's going to want him back you know, when she gets her head out of her ass."

Buffy frowned slightly. Except for Spike, all of the people most up-to-date on the Buffy quirks and foibles collection had been included when the anti-truth spell had been cast. Presto chango...

... magic by Willow, conversation by Salvador Dali.

Which forced them to get creative about their real meanings. So did this mean that Dawn wanted to know if Buffy planned to keep Spike, or was she warning Buffy that the Council didn't plan to let her?

Buffy nodded carefully. "I'll keep that in mind."

Dawn waited a beat, but there was nothing Dawn could say that she hadn't already said by calling in the first place.

"Is Spike there?" Dawn asked finally.

Spike, newly bleached back to radioactive blond, had been leaning with one hip against the desk and watching the floor. He straightened abruptly when he heard his name, glancing first at Dawn, then Buffy, looking awkward.

"Oh. Right. Sorry about that," he said, his body language a combination of confused and embarrassed. "I'll just give you two birds some privacy then shall I?"

Dawn snorted. "Don't be stupid, Spike. I called to talk to you."

Spike frowned, gaze swinging back and forth between Buffy and the monitor. Buffy gave him a thoughtful look as he settled slowly into the office chair. Then she eased out of the room, leaving Spike alone for the coming lecture.

And to give herself some space to think.

This wasn't the first time over the last three weeks he occasionally acted like he knew who she was. Or thought he knew. And it was confusing the hell out of her, because it wasn't always Spike, and he wasn't just falling back into old habits.

It was the demon.

And they had never really had habits to fall back on.

Unlike Sunnydale where she rarely saw his other face, now she saw it all the time. Curled on the sofa watching a movie together. When he held her at night. Several times a night she would look up and find him watching her. Just...watching. Yellow eyes amused as she yanked the battery from the smoke detector. Again. Or something that looked like smug pleasure as she read a trashy novel on the bed.

Hot with arousal when he caught her around the waist and hauled her to the floor.

And that was beginning to bother her.

Not the sex. Frankly, she was astonished he even wanted to have sex. But she didn't get the feeling he felt he had anything to prove. He simply seemed to enjoy every chance he could get, to get close to her. He'd rub against her when he passed her coming out of the bathroom, or lean against her back, his chin on her shoulder as she cooked. Then he'd curl around her at night as though she planned to run away.

And his eyes were never blue when he did it.

She stared silently at the closed office door and wondered if he had been this schizophrenic back in Sunnydale. Maybe she'd just never noticed. He'd always seemed so...Spike. Who he was, what he was, and who he used to be had never seemed to be in conflict. Even after the soul - for which much confusion was to be expected - he'd never seemed as torn as Angel.

Now she wasn't so sure.

The Clone Queen - Erica, as she was known to the others - looked up from her seat at the front desk to give Buffy a resentful look.

"Big important conversation all done?" she asked sarcastically.

Buffy shrugged, resisting the urge to roll her eyes.

"Does that mean I can have my office back?" Erica demanded.

"It means..." Buffy started, then winced as a particularly shrill note pierced the air. "It means be grateful we don't have vamp hearing," she mumbled.

Erica grimaced.

Buffy eyed the top of the other slayer's head, debating with herself for a moment, then dropped into one of the chair-stools someone had placed in front of the desk. Bringing herself down to the other woman's level, so to speak.

"I got an email from Colonel Demson this morning," Buffy said casually. "He's bringing a couple teams to train at the local base next week. Some weapons, some hand-to-hand. Mostly demon hunting, urban environment."

Erica tensed. "So I guess that means you're still off the roster, huh?"

Buffy refused to feel guilty.

It wasn't her fault Giles wouldn't let Erica put her on active patrol.

Nor was it her fault that the better part of three hundred slayers were stuck in L.A. babysitting the patrons stuffed a dozen to a room on the upper floor. In truth, the slayers were doing a lot of good while they were stuck here. The demon problem created by Angel's assault on Wolfram and Hart to name but one. But the Council was dragging its ass on how they wanted to handle the Pit Fighter situation.

The identities of the patrons had shocked a few people.

Not that Buffy thought that should make a difference. She remained in favor of dropping them head-first into a demon dimension. Which, come to think of it, might be why the Council was still hemming the haw. Half the patrons were captains of industry. People were going to notice if the ship of state sprang a few leaks.

"Demson wants to know if you want to send in a team of slayers to train with them."

Erica's head shot up. "Me?" she asked, surprised.

"Mmmm..." Buffy hummed in agreement.

Interest lit Erica's eyes.

"You should go," Buffy said.

Erica's smile vanished.

"It'll be a good bonding opportunity for you and your squad leaders," Buffy continued, as if she hadn't seen the other's response. "Let you get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses in the field."

"And what?" Erica demanded sarcastically, "Leave you here in charge?"

Buffy forced herself to shrug casually. "Nah...Demson wants to see what a vampire can really do. Spike and I volunteered."

And that had been a loud and interesting conversation.

Especially when she told him she didn't want him to go.

Erica's eyes flicked toward the closed office door, then back. Her mouth opened as if she were about to ask something, then she sighed and closed it again. She stared down at her half-completed roster, looking disturbed. Before Buffy could pry further, the office door opened and Spike stalked out, looking pleased.

"Niblet's right put out I didn't tell her I was alive," he informed her happily.

"Miss Summers can get a bit shrill," Buffy agreed.

Spike winced and massaged his ears. "No joke there, pet." Then he glanced at Erica, leaning forward slightly to peer at the roster.

"You pencil us in, luv?" he asked hopefully. "Because you know, sex with me hasn't exactly traumatized a slayer yet."

Buffy groaned.

No...no it hadn't.

It was the conversation afterwards.

She whacked him on the arm. "Weren't Victorians supposed to be all repressed and stuff?"

"Only if you had pockets to let," Spike said absently, still trying to peer at the roster. "The rest died of syphilis."

Buffy crossed her arms. "And I suppose you know this how?"

Spike smirked at her. "Ate enough of them, didn't I"

Buffy raised an eyebrow and Spike sauntered away from the desk and threw himself onto one of the sofa chairs. He sprawled out in black-clad decadence. Like a big cat.

" 'Sides," he said, "how would I know any different? As Head Watcher would have it, I was raised in a hell and hawked ha'penny whores for a living."

"Yes, well," Buffy said acidly, "I don't know where he'd have got that impression."

Spike mimed being staked in the heart. All the while his eyes danced with amusement.

"You were obscenely rich, weren't you?" Buffy grumbled.

Spike held out a hand, palm down and turned it side to side.

She wasn't going to ask. She wasn't going to ask. She wasn't.... "Brothels?" she demanded.

"Which do you mean, pet? Did I own them...?" Spike asked breezily. "Or did I frequent them?"

Buffy's eyes narrowed.

Spike smiled. "William was a poncy git," was all he said.

"That's not an answer," Buffy told him aggrieved. She looked at Erica. "Tell him that's not an answer."

Erica just gave both of them a disgusted look and shook her head.

"Come on, pet," Spike said, climbing to his feet. "Let's go kill things. Work on any residual trauma."

She turned to follow him as he headed for the door. "The only thing traumatizing me is my acute humiliation and the fact you keep leaving your towels on the bathroom floor. There's a laundry basket for a reason, Spike."

"Nag, nag. What is it with you slayers? Don't joke about eating people, Spike. Don't talk about sex, Spike. We don't have servants, Spike. What's next? You'll tie a bib around my neck and warn me not to dribble?"

"Ohh yes! Let's talk about killing people in front of fifty slayers who dust your kind for doing just that. Brilliant plan, Spike. And the sex thing? You ever want to have sex with me again, you will not discuss it in front of people."

"I don't see the bleeding problem. Walls are bloody thin around here, pet."

"What? Ewww...Spike, I did not need that visual. Wait...are you listening to the others when they...?"

"When they what, pet?"

Buffy glared as he smiled innocently, and shoved him outside.

"Let's go kill things," she muttered.