Chapter 1

Author's Notes:

Small bits of dialogue from canon will be used throughout beginning with"Older and Far Away" (written by Drew Z. Greenberg). I am using a tiny bit of dialogue from that episode in the beginning of the story before it goes a very different direction. Hints of events in episodes through "Normal Again" and then completely AU. Very tiny bit of dialogue from "Hell's Bells" by Rebecca Rand Kirshner and "Normal Again" by Diego Gutierrez appear in this story for episode set-up purposes.

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Chapter 1

'Great! Forget about getting off grounding now. As soon as Buffy finds out I got called to the counselor's office, I'm toast!' Dawn was having such a loud conversation with herself that she had only half attended to the words the guidance counselor was saying. 'Did someone see me and rat me out for my five finger discounts? I swear, God, get me out of this one and I'll never steal another thing again.' She thought about keeping that promise and squirmed. 'Well, only if it's something we really, really, need-you know, like food and stuff.'

"I know it must seem weird talking to a stranger about stuff, but I want you to know that if there is something going on, something up…it's my job, my pleasure to look out for you." The overeager smile on the face of the counselor didn't have the effect of calming Dawn's nerves one bit. She was too fixated on the 'something going on' part of the conversation.

Adults always tried to trick you with kindness. First came the nice words and treacle smiles and next thing you knew you were confessing all your sins! Dawn gave the woman her best wide-eyed innocent look and returned the smile. "No, really, I'm okay. We're okay, except, you know, missing Mom."

"I know there has been such a lot of loss in your life, Dawn. You probably wish you had a very different life," the counselor hinted.

Dawn thought about how things had changed since Joyce had died and then Buffy had died too. She had started to build a makeshift family with Willow and Tara and Spike. Now that Buffy was back, it wasn't all roses and kittens like it was supposed to be. Her made-up family was all in tatters, Buffy was distant and they had nothing but hard times everywhere she looked. "People keep going away and I miss them." She felt a surge of resentment when she thought about how Buffy's return had led to Spike's defection. It wasn't fair that she could only have one of them around, if you could even say Buffy was around at all.

Buffy really pissed her off some times. Sure, it had to be hard being dead then alive and all, but it was more than that. Her whole life-well, okay, her fake memory life-Buffy had always had to be the center of everything! She was the drama queen that the whole world revolved around and it wasn't fair. Dawn had problems too! Like that guy in her fourth period who might have a crush on her, or maybe was just a mean jerk…who could tell? She should be able to talk to her sister or to her friend Spike about it and sort it out before she made an idiot out of herself with the boy.

"I'd bet you wish things were a whole lot different," the counselor tried to nudge Dawn into being verbal again. Clearly the girl was filled with teen angst and nothing was as sure a customer to a vengeance demon as one of those! Some of Halfrek's most creative work had been at the behest of teens during one of their many excursions into their own private world of pain and insecurity. Few humans were as self-absorbed as the average adolescent and this one was a ticking time-bomb.

On the other side of the desk, said bomb was getting more and more incendiary as she contemplated the unfairness of her life. Buffy was older! She was supposed to be in charge but it was like she was just drifting, not caring or thinking about anything. Heck, even Giles had noticed and headed for the hills. Sadly, Dawn had nowhere to go.

"I just wish she'd figure out what she wants and move on from there! She should just get what she says she wants and maybe she'd be happy," Dawn blurted out. Part of her worried that nothing short of being dead again would be what Buffy actually wanted right now and that thought was unthinkable.

"Who, dear?" Halfrek began to get slightly nervous. It had been a gamble approaching the Slayer's little sister this way, but seeing how that self-righteous girl had been treating her friend Anya all these years just stuck in her craw. A little bit of payback was fair, wasn't it? Still, she didn't want to be too extreme in her granting of wishes; they were dealing with the Slayer after all.

"My sister. She's just drifting around day to day and not really living. She's supposed to be taking care of me! She's not even noticing anyone else but herself unless it's Tuesday Crisis Day or something. She starts things then drops them and walks away when she loses interest or when someone else needs something from her and I'm sick of it! I wish she'd just realize what she has and decide what she wants and we'd all be happier in the end." She shivered thinking about how close Buffy had come just the week before to walking out of her life for good. She had even preferred going to prison for something she didn't even do to handling regular life with her little sister.

Halfrek decided to play into her cover story a bit. There was no point in drawing any suspicion in case things didn't go well. "I'm sure it hurts you a lot seeing your sister going through this transition, but you do have to keep in mind the large amount of responsibility she has assumed with your mother gone and your father out of touch."

"Sheeya," Dawn huffed. "She took a crappy job that she hates and didn't even bother to really look for one that she'd like better. She didn't think to ask Willow to pay rent even! Spike tried to help and she won't let him. I think she just likes being miserable."

'Ah yes, William.' Halfrek had been very surprised to see the annoying poet of her youth now an ageless vampire and in love with the Slayer no less. 'If I'd had any idea he could clean up so nicely I might have given him at least a little of my time. Oh well, water under the bridge.'

Dawn didn't hear the softly spoken "Done" from the counselor's lips so lost in thought was she.

Buffy swished the fancy sword in the air, testing it for heft and balance. The body of the demon she had just dispatched with it had simply disappeared. "They should all do that, save on hiding the bodies and clean-up."

Spike watched from a small distance. He wasn't sure if he should approach the Slayer given how they had last parted company. She had beaten him to a bloody pulp, put all her self-hate on him and spewed it out in words and fists until he couldn't walk. She had left him there too. That had hurt the most. She hadn't given a backward glance at the carnage she had left in her wake, leaving him to the non-existent mercies of his many demon enemies and the rapidly approaching deadly sun. Nearly a week and his body still bore the marks she had left on it.

"You can come out, Spike. I know you're there. I'm not planning on using this new toy on you." She rolled her eyes at the thought of Spike being shy about approaching her; usually he was like a leech that she couldn't shake off. "Not unless you really ask for it."

Spike stepped into her line of view. "Now that's what I'm worried about. Hard to tell just what you think I'm asking for nowadays."

Buffy shrugged off the twinge of guilt his words inspired. She had enough on her plate without worrying about hurting the supposed feelings of this undead pest. "Come on out of the shadows…and don't give me any crap about me belonging in the dark with you."

Spike edged closer still staying out of the circle of light offered by the lone sodium vapor streetlight. "Just askin' for you to admit we have somethin'. It may not be pretty, but it's real, and you feel it too," he ventured.

"We have nothing, Spike. Nothing but a twisted history of fighting and hatred and disgust. You perv on me and I was finally weak enough, lonely enough, to let you seduce me."

"Ha," he snorted, "you wish!" All this time and Buffy was still waist deep in the Nile. "As I remember it, and I remember ever single wicked, delicious, moment, you were the one with your finger on my zipper. You started this particular dance, Buffy, and before you put the rest that happened on me, remember that you were the one to keep coming back for more. Even invisible you made a path to my door so blazin' that I can't believe your little friends didn't stumble over it, even as blind as that lot can be."

The reminder of her own lack of control, the unspoken desires that started the chain of events that had led to this quagmire only served to panic and anger the Slayer. "You were never anything but a distraction Spike. You can be replaced with a reliable vibrator. Makes less noise." She could see him grow still at her hateful words. "You need to get it in your head that there is no 'us', this crap about us having something is all in your head. YOU have something-insanity! I have my life to figure out. Life, get it, Spike, as in living, something you're not. You aren't even real! You're just a slavering animal, a demon in a people suit that turns to ash when you eventually try my patience too far. You're evil and just the thought of you disgusts me beyond the telling. This thing we've been doing? It causes you to have delusions and me to be full of self-loathing. We have no Hallmark moments, nothing to cherish."

Spike moved into the circle of light and Buffy saw the wreckage of his face and the pain in his eyes, though she tried to ignore both. "What have I ever done to give you the idea that you could ever have a place in my heart, Spike? I don't even let you in my house anymore. Yeah, I made the mistake of kissing you and you were really convenient for cheap sex, but that's all it is. Don't make more of it than that."

"I'm still drownin' in you, Slayer. I'm in a thousand kisses deep. I look at you and go under and, God help me, I don't want rescuin'." Spike drew in a shaky breath. "You're all I've ever wanted. I look at you and you blind me you shine so bright. I know the kind of woman you are, Buffy, all of you. You wouldn't be with me if you didn't have feelings, even if they are buried. It may take a long time for you to recognize them and even longer to admit them, but I'm not going anywhere."

Buffy had no idea how she found herself so close to him since he hadn't moved, but she was in touching distance now and her hand had a mind of its own as it traveled to his swollen cheek. "You're wrong, Spike. All we have is some strange, nasty, physical thing that I'll get out of my system soon and then you won't even be a memory."

"You'll remember," Spike vowed as he pulled her roughly to his body and plundered her mouth. His tongue invaded her mouth passing the unguarded gates of parted, waiting lips. It was always like this with them: denials and ugly words and then the irresistible pull of desire that fused them in passion. He whispered against her soft mouth, "I'll be here to remind you."

Buffy pulled his head back down and once more gave in to the sweet ecstasy of kisses unlike anyone else had ever given, even in her imagination. The heat they generated burned into her, threatening to melt the ice she had carefully used to encase her fragile heart and terrifying her with the threat of feeling. She moaned partly in despair and partly in surrender as Spike lifted her into his arms and without breaking the spell of the kiss, strode to his crypt.

"I'm telling you what I saw!" Xander was beside himself.

"Yes, Xander, I remember we did this scene already once before. It was the Buffybot then," Willow teased.

"The Bot's a bundle of wires in the basement of the Magic Box; this was Buffy." Xander had finally stopped hyperventilating and his voice now carried the steel of determination. "He's taking advantage of her vulnerability, Will, and we've got to save her."

Tara stopped blowing up balloons for the planned birthday party and tried to cap the emotional volcano of Scooby outrage. "Buffy's a big girl, Xander. Maybe she likes Spike. He's helped out a lot and changed quite a bit. I don't think he'd ever hurt her."

"Aha! The one word that makes what you say impossible: 'Spike'! No way would Buffy ever lower herself to…to…to…to anything with any demon, but especially not that one."

"She did fall for Angel," Willow mused.

"And got burned," Xander reminded her. "No way would Buffy do that to us, to herself, again." He eyed the pile of weapons hungrily. "It has to be a spell or something like that. Lots of weird things have been happening to Buffy since she's been back, remember? 'Flash!Buffy' and 'Repeato-Day Buffy' and 'Invisi-Buffy' to name just three. It has to be a spell and my guess is that Spike's behind it. He's obsessed with her and she's not in a good place emotionally. Easy pickin's."

"There have been lots of things happening to Buffy, that's true. Maybe we should talk to her, check it out and see if she's being manipulated in any way." Willow put on her resolve face. "We'll get to the bottom of it and fix things."

"Willow…," Tara began with a worried look on her face.

"Don't worry, sweetie. No magic, I promise!" Willow was so glad to have another chance with her love that she didn't want to risk the shaky relationship on a crusade unless it proved absolutely necessary. "We'll just check things out, ask questions."

"Don't you think Buffy has a right to make her own choices?" Tara was suddenly glad that Buffy hadn't felt like her approval had been necessary in Willow's love choices. "I understood why we had to step in the last time when it was the robot, but Spike has really proved he's not so evil since then. Maybe Buffy just needs him right now."

"This is Spike, Tara. He doesn't stop being evil. Just ask him!" Xander turned to Willow, ignoring the quiet voice of reason offered by Tara. "I say we march over there and demand some answers."

They hadn't made it to the bed as usual. Hadn't made it past the floor of the crypt, in fact. Buffy and Spike lay on the floor in post-coital exhaustion with just his coat around them to block the chill of the earthen floor. Any moment now and Buffy would give her standard after-sex lecture on how it would never happen again, gather her bits and pieces and stomp off in a huff, leaving Spike colder than his undead state normally did, his heart an aching stone in his breast. The wetness would once more pool in his eyes, liquid weakness unremarked upon and unwanted. He waited for the inevitable shoe to drop and savored the brief seconds when he could pretend that they really were there together.

The door was flung open with enough force to break the plaster on the wall it hit. "See!" Xander, with all the zeal of Torquemada at the height of the Inquisition, pointed an accusing finger at the startled couple.

Buffy was scrambling to cover herself while desperately brainstorming how to explain just why and who she was with to her two shocked and disapproving friends. She didn't even notice when Spike drew his duster around her form, shielding her from exposure.

"Eep!" Willow covered her eyes but wasn't certain if it was to shield them from the flash of Buffy's bare skin or the Full Monty offered by Spike.

Spike, recovering his aplomb, grinned at the irate human and rose gracefully, uncaring about his nudity. "What can I say…girl needs a little monster in her man. Two things you can't offer." He glared challengingly at Xander, knowing full well that a percentage of Xander's problem was the attraction the boy had never fully tamped down even though he'd moved on with Anya.

"You're not a man, Spike, you're a walking corpse. And, ewww, that just makes this even more sickening and wrong," Xander spat.

Buffy had scrambled behind the sarcophagus and dressed quickly. She could feel the ringing in her ears that threatened a quick kiss of the floor and further humiliation.

Willow was looking at the ceiling muttering, "Clothes, please, clothes!" Spike, being more intent on standing his ground, did not heed her pleas.

"What Buffy and I do is none of your business, boy." Spike gave a look that once would have caused deep fear in the human, but that was before the chip had de-fanged him sufficiently. Spike shook his head in annoyance and with a deep sigh and quick glance at the pale-faced witch, pointed out to the still muttering Willow, "My home, no one asked you to barge in here uninvited. Don't blame me if I'm not dressed for company."

Buffy, now fully clothed, had moved closer to her friends and away from Spike. "Come on, guys, let's go. We can talk later, 'k?" She shot a look at Spike that he truly couldn't decipher.

"I think we'll just finish this up here. Whattaya say, Spikey?" Xander advanced on the vampire filled with the courage of knowing he was not likely to be harmed if he did attack. Buffy pulled on his upraised arm and tugged him toward the door and away from Spike.

"Happy to oblige." Spike advanced slightly, clearly not willing to give ground. "Buffy, you don't owe this wanker any explanations. He's not your father or even your brother; he's nothing."

"I'm her friend. That's more than you can claim. My guess is you're the 'nothing' to her," Xander turned to Buffy, demanding her agreement. "Am I right?"

"Less than nothing," Buffy tasted the bile in the back of her throat. She had to get out of there before she booted all over. Maybe she could blame all of it on being sick? Her mind was in a panic trying to think of a way out of the mess created by her dirty secret being exposed this way. "Spike and I were…we were…." There really weren't any words.

"What? Doing a jigsaw puzzle? Knitting cunning sweaters?" Xander's voice was filled with accusation and disgust. With a withering look, he directed his gaze at Buffy, "You let this evil, soulless thing touch you! Everything that went down with Angel wasn't enough for you? How many demons are you planning to screw before we all wind up dead?"

"That's enough, Xander." Willow had finally re-gathered her dignity and stopped his tirade. She turned to Buffy, "I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation for this. There's no need for blame."

"I blame him," Xander spat as he jabbed his finger towards Spike. "Always hanging around sniffing after Buffy, looking for an opening, a way to manipulate her, exploit her when she's depressed."

Buffy seized on that like a lifeline. "I have been depressed and Spike has been there-that's all that happened. It went too far. I felt grateful and a bit vulnerable. It won't happen again." Her voice had an edge of pleading to it.

Spike looked at her incredulously. "Yeah, because it's never happened before," he snarked.

Buffy gave him a look that could have staked him all by itself. "Never before and never again. I'm glad you guys came, even if I am embarrassed. I just want to go home. I feel so dirty." She stared into Spike's eyes the whole time, daring him to dispute her words. "I'd never, NEVER…Spike was convenient, he was just…there."

"That can be fixed," Spike nearly whispered.

"You can't seriously think I'd have anything real with Spike?" Buffy's voice had an edge of desperation to it. "A one-time thing 'cause I was, you know, lonely and depressed. Nothing like a real relationship. I was just feeling low."

"Yeah, feeling low and reaching around in that low you came up with Spike?" Xander snarked and threw a sneer at the vampire in question. "Makes all kinds of sense in the not-at-all kind of way. Can't get lower than him, you've got that right."

Spike looked at Buffy, his heart in his eyes, begging her to say something, anything, to indicate she at least had friendly feelings for him. Damn! He'd stuck around when she was dead for Christ's sake! Took care of the Bit and even kept the doughy wanker now calling him names from becoming demon chow. All Spike could see reflected back was fear-fear and determination. Buffy was never going to admit to caring for him at all. He was not even worthy to be called a friend.

"Come on, Xander, let's get Buffy home." Willow put her arm around a silently weeping Slayer. "I think there's been enough drama for one night."

Xander narrowed his eyes and made a promise to Spike, "Later. I'd think about not going to sleep if I were you."

"Oh, I'm so terrified." Spike rolled his eyes in response. "It'd be worth the headache to put you through the wall, and I will if you come sneaking like a coward to do me in my sleep."

Spike wasn't sure how long he stood staring at the open doorway after they left. Now they knew and now he had lost her for good. 'Not that I ever had her, really.'

With a sense of resignation, Spike squared his shoulders and prepared to evolve once again. To once more be his own man or maybe it was closer to the truth to say that it was time to finally become his own man. He'd pick up the shattered pieces of his heart and find a way to make something of it all. She didn't want to want him? Fine, she could do without him. He'd learn to live without some crazy woman calling all the shots. After a hundred years with first Dru's kind of crazy, then Buffy's, he was finally done with it.