A/N: This was written as light relief from a longer and more complicated story that won't be ready to post for another couple of weeks. It doesn't have much of a plot, but it turned out rather well so I thought I'd post it. I hope you like it.


Chapter 1

Rage.

It was a constant hot ball constricting her throat, impeding her ability to speak. She was silent these days, not daring to say much in case that rage burst free, burned to a crisp whoever was standing next to her.

There were two ways to go once they had resurrected her, brought her back without her consent, without making any attempt to find out where she actually was. Two ways.

The first way was the one she had been in when she had first crawled out of her grave: apathy, numbness, a desperate need to return to the Heaven from which they had dragged her. She had tried that, but the world they had returned her to was already thrusting in upon her: the fires, the noise, the demons she had had to kill, Dawn.

Dawn. She would have jumped off that tower and returned to where she had been if it hadn't been for Dawn and Dawn's need. The die had been cast when she responded to that, but what else could she have done? She had to save Dawn. After that, she tried to recapture that comforting numbness. But the world was already impinging upon her, seeping in despite all her efforts to keep it out. Dawn helping her to shower off demon-blood and grave-dirt, to dress, talking to her all the time, an unending murmur of sound that she couldn't shut out. The changes in the house. Spike's voice.

Spike.

Dawn had forced her to accept that she had to remain in this world, pick up that burden again, carry the load she had thought she had put down once and for all. Spike gave her back her sense of herself.

It was the way he had looked at her—as if she were a miracle, in awe and wonder and gratitude and disbelief.

Buffy! his eyes had said and her consciousness of self had come back to her under that look, that gaze that was making her go through the slow steps of self-awareness, first as a being, then as a person, and then as a woman. She suddenly became aware that her shirt was still almost open over her thin camisole and began fumblingly to button it up.

"Her hands," he said suddenly, seeing the way they were torn up, and she thrust them behind her back, embarrassed both by their condition and his worry about them, again emotions that she did not want to feel. Dawn said something about not knowing how they got like that. "Clawed her way out of a coffin, that's how. Isn't that right?" he asked her.

She agreed and he said something else, but she wasn't listening. Neither of them were listening to what he was saying. He was gazing at her again, just looking, as if he had forgotten about himself, as if he could have just stood there, staring at her, for a thousand years, just taking in the fact that she existed. Something moved inside her, a little spark of feeling awakening, a tiny seed of light coming to life within the black numbness.

Then he snapped out of it, looked sheepish.

"Um...We'll take care of you." He put out a hand, but hesitated, not touching her as if he felt he did not have the right, as if he were afraid that if he did touch her she would suddenly disappear. He glanced at Dawn. "Get some stuff, uh, mercurochrome, bandages..."

Dawn went. Buffy sat down on the couch and he came to sit on the coffee-table, facing her. He was looking at her hands. His lips tightened faintly and now he took them in his. She felt his cool, strong grip very gentle upon her fingers. She woke a little more. He looked up at her face and their gazes met. His eyes were like his hands, patient, gentle and supportive.

Words came back to her. Curiosity came back. "How long was I gone?"

"Hundred forty-seven days yesterday. Uh...hundred forty-eight today." Back in the deep, blank stillness of her mind now, something made note that he had counted the days. A fact to consider later. He smiled a little. "'Cept today doesn't count, does it?"

It wasn't a question that required an answer, so she couldn't remember how to respond to it. He accepted that, looked at her hands again, then back at her face.

"How long was it for you...where you were?"

"Longer," she said after a pause.

Time hadn't mattered there. Things just were. It could have been minutes, could have been eons. No way to explain. But he nodded and she saw that he understood.

Dawn came back into the room with the first-aid things. And the front door opened and people barged in, all yelling and shouting. The Scoobies.

They had done it. They had brought her back.

Two ways to go. The second one was rage. She pushed it down, wanting to remain passive, wanting to be without emotion, not wanting this world that they had dragged her into to thrust its way upon her any more than it did right now.

Spike was gone. She didn't know when that had happened. She was vaguely sorry. He was the only one who seemed to understand, who didn't push and shove at her as these people were doing. She looked up at them looming over her—too close, too loud, somehow menacing in the way they crowded her, seemed to want something from her. She felt...as if she were back in that coffin again, claustrophobic, panicked.

"Back off," Dawn kept saying, but they wouldn't. Too excited, too hyped with triumph at having brought her back. Xander was saying something about pizza and she couldn't remember what that even was, then realized from what Tara was saying that it was something to eat. She didn't want anything to eat. She just wanted quiet, peace, the silence of the grave.

"I...just wanna go to sleep," she managed to say to them.

They looked taken aback, but nodded.

"But, Buffy...be happy," Willow said and Buffy looked at her numbly, wondering what she was talking about. Willow gave her a wide, expectant smile. "We got you out! We really did it!"

They wanted her to be grateful. She clenched her hands till her ripped and broken nails dug into the already torn flesh of her palms.

"Tired," she said apologetically and made her escape.

She had disappointed them. She didn't care. The anger in her was rising again and it took the last of her energy to force it down. Anger was a feeling. Feeling brought her in contact with this world.

She went slowly up the stairs, hesitated on the landing. They were still talking below. She wished they would all leave. Leave her alone in silence and in peace. Anya and Xander did finally leave, but Willow and Tara stayed. She remembered abruptly what Dawn had said, that they lived here now.

Voices outside, some altercation. Spike's name. She drifted to the window that overlooked the front yard. He had grabbed Xander and now slammed him against the tree. She saw the tiny flinch that told her that his chip had gone off. But he didn't seem to care about the pain.

"You didn't tell me! You brought her back and you didn't tell me!"

She heard the odd, choked sound in his voice. Tears. He had been weeping, but now anger was burning that away.

"Well, now you know," shrugged Xander indifferently.

Spike hadn't known. Like Dawn, he was innocent.

"I worked beside you all summer."

She heard the betrayal in his voice. Poor Spike. They had screwed him over too. He had honestly thought that he was part of the team, but they had used him. He was just a tool to them, a thing. And wasn't that what they'd done to her, bringing her back like this without her consent? They had treated her as if she were only a tool as well.

"Willow knew there was a chance that she'd come back wrong," Spike was saying to Xander. "So wrong that you'd have...that she would have to get rid of what came back."

If she had come back as a zombie; that's what he meant, she realized.

"And I wouldn't let her. If any part of that was Buffy, I wouldn't let her. And that's why she shut me out."

He wouldn't have brought her back, but he would keep her here. She didn't know how she felt about that, whether she should be angry at him too for that.

"Look me in the eyes," Xander was saying, "and tell me when you saw Buffy alive, that wasn't the happiest moment of your entire existence."

She saw the sudden stillness that betrayed that Xander's last shot had struck home. He turned his head a little and the light reflected on the wetness in his eyes. She realized that she was empathizing with him, with both his anger and his tears. She didn't dare think like that, feel like that. She moved hurriedly away from the window, trying to shut out their voices.

They hadn't let her stay dead. She'd made the big gesture, the ultimate gesture. Given up her life. Thrown herself on the proverbial hand grenade. Got Heaven as a reward.

But that wasn't enough for them. Had to rip her out of Heaven. Had to bring her back, make her pick up the pieces, keep on killing, keep on fighting. Forever and ever, amen.

And the worst thing was that they wouldn't have been able to do it unless someone up there hadn't allowed them to do it. Maybe even agreed with them. Some high almighty deciding that it was not her time. Let's have a little more fun with her, right? You'd think that saving the world from five apocalypses would be enough to earn her a rest.

She was getting angry again. Had to stop that. Mustn't feel. They would win if she ended up feeling again, ended up letting the world get to her again.

Block out the anger. Block out the pain. Feel nothing. That was the trick.


She was suffocating.

She came up out of sleep, fighting and struggling, gasping for breath, too terrified even to make a sound. Something was wrapped around her, smothering her. She flailed at it.

Her conscious mind said that she was in her own bed, that it was several days later, that she had dealt with that demon hitchhiker that had come back with her, that there was nothing to threaten her. Her unconscious mind refused to believe it.

Then the smothering constraints were gone.

"Come on," said Spike.

He scooped up her struggling form. She didn't know how he got her out of the window and down the tree to the ground. But all of a sudden she was sitting between his legs, lying back against him while he leaned back against the oak, and his hands were under her ribcage, pushing at it lightly.

"Breathe, pet."

He was breathing behind her. He didn't need to breathe, but he was breathing, giving her the pattern, his hands gently lifting her ribcage in time to his breaths. She found herself falling into his rhythm, the constriction easing.

"Oh, God."

"Nothing over you but sky, pet. Nothing around you but space. Breathe."

She did, the cold night air flowing into her lungs. Even better was the sensation of space around her, nothing encumbering or constraining her. His hands were on her upper arms now, just lightly rubbing up and down, a soothing movement.

"I thought I was..."

"Back in the coffin. Yeah. Think you need a nightlight, pet. Just for a couple of weeks. It would show you where you are."

She leaned back against him limply, her head in the curve of his shoulder. "You know. You've been there."

"Yeah, luv. Clawed my way out, just like you. Panic attacks are nothing new. They'll go away. It'll all heal, just like your hands." He lifted one of her hands, where her Slayer healing had already mended the broken nails and torn flesh.

She was breathing easier, the desperate, struggling gasps for air quieting to his steady rhythm.

"Clawed. You? I thought...Didn't Dru have you? Or did your family find you when you died? Coffin, headstone, the whole works?"

He laughed a little, wryly. "Nah. They didn't even know I was dead. You have to understand the way Dru's mind works. No logic. She's a traditionalist. All she needed to do was throw some earth over me. I'd have risen easy. But she went the coffin and grave route. Tradition to have a vamp have to dig himself out. At least she stayed. Most sires don't bother. If you can't claw your way out of a grave all by yourself, you don't deserve to be a vamp. I woke up to dark and horror, just like you. Panic makes you fight your way out. That and the Hunger. At least, she had a victim enthralled and waiting for me topside. Needed the blood."

A transition even more frightening than hers, when she thought about it. Realizing what one was now. One's first act in the new existence being to take a life.

"At least she was there for me. Mad, but not stupid, Dru. Unlike your friends."

"They didn't...mean to."

He said nothing, just stroked her hair. But his silence was an accusation. They had abandoned her, out of ignorance, out of stupidity. Not thinking things through. Even now, not wanting to go the whole way, not wanting to deal with the fact that she might have problems adjusting. Wanting her to be perfectly all right just like that.

When Angel had come back feral, it hadn't fazed her. She had dealt with it, bringing him back to himself gradually, knowing that it took time. Why couldn't they understand that?

Spike did.

"Think you can go back into the house?" he asked. "Must be cold like that."

She realized that all she was wearing was the oversized T-shirt and panties that she had gone to bed in. She flushed.

"Nice legs, pet. But getting kinda goosepimply."

She saw that he wanted her to laugh. She smiled weakly. She wasn't used to this gentle Spike. This must have been the way he was with Dru.

"Wait here," he said and flowed back up the tree with that smooth vampire speed and disappeared into her window.

She put one hand on the trunk of the oak and leaned there, found herself looking down at a little pile of cigarette butts on the other side of the tree. So that was how he knew about her bout of claustrophobia. Stalking her again, just like last year. Except this time, it was watching out for her. She thought about that. Maybe, last year, it had been the same.

The front door opened for her. Once in the house, she couldn't make herself go up the stairs. Back to that bed that only promised nightmares, back to that dark room that was beginning to feel like a tomb.

"I can't," she said. "I can't."

"Don't have to," he said easily and switched on a lamp in the living room. "Stay down here for a while. Watch a little TV."

"It would wake the house." She didn't want anybody else down here, fussing at her. Spike's presence was undemanding, but the others would worry at her, their eyes reproaching her for not being fine, not being perfect.

"Slayer hearing." He turned the TV to the tiniest whisper. Some old black and white movie was on and the gabble of sound was soothing, just so prosaic and normal. "Just curl up on the couch and relax, pet. And if you fall asleep, that's all to the good. I'll get you a nightlight tomorrow. See if that helps."

"Stay," she said abruptly as he turned towards the door.

He looked at her in surprise, then nodded. "Okay."

She didn't want to be alone with the nightmare still reverberating through her head. His presence beside her on the couch was comforting. They watched TV for a while in silence. She found her eyes closing. Then she roused to find that her shoulder was on his lap and her head in the curve of his arm. Vaguely she realized that the position must be uncomfortable for him and tried to move.

"Sshh," he said. "Go back to sleep, pet."

"You'll be stiff in the morning," she mumbled and heard him laugh softly.

"My usual state around you."

"Pig." But even that was comforting and normal—sexual remarks from Spike. She slid back into sleep.

Spike was happy. This was a gift. Buffy trusting him like this, curled up on the couch, fast asleep across his lap. Had never happened before; would never happen again. He cherished the moment, held the fragile perfection of it delicately in his hands, the way he held her. He knew how to treasure moments, had no intention of asking for more.

He had intended to rouse her at daybreak, get her back up to her room so that no one would know that she had had a crisis during the night. She wouldn't have wanted anyone else to know. But he fell asleep too and the next thing he knew Willow was standing there, glaring at him, and bright daylight was falling through the curtains.

"What are you doing?" Willow snapped.

He flung up a hand to silence her. But he had forgotten to lock the front door last night and now it was opening and Xander was coming in. As his brain staggered out of sleep, Spike remembered that the Scoobies were now making a habit of having breakfast here before Xander drove Dawn to school. Checking up on Buffy, who he knew hated it, wanting quiet not company in the mornings these days.

"What the hell is this?" Xander yelled. "You had to start up your little obsession again now that she's around again, didn't you! Taking advantage of..."

"Shut up!" hissed Spike.

But it was too late. The noise had already woken Buffy. She sat up slowly, rubbing at her eyes.

"Just when she was finally getting some sleep," he groaned. "Go up and catch some more zees, pet. You're short on 'em."

"Yes, I will," she sighed. She blinked at Xander and Willow, at Tara coming down the stairs, her eyes wide in bewilderment. "Is it that late? Sorry, guys. I really do need some more sleep. Had a bad night."

"With him around, yeah!" Xander yelled.

Buffy frowned at him as she got to her feet. "Spike helped. I don't want any of you giving him a hard time about this. He's the only one of you who's been there. He knows."

"Knows what?" snarled Xander. "Knows how to get into your...?"

Then he quailed at the surge of rage that flared in Buffy's eyes. She was shaking with it. All three Scoobies stepped back instinctively.

Then the anger was shoved back. But the force of it remained.

"Leave him alone," Buffy said coldly and went up the stairs to her room, Tara flinching back to allow her to pass.

"Oh, you fools!" said Spike. "You bloody, bloody fools!"

They all stared at him.

"Couldn't do it right, could you? Had to let her wake up in that coffin. What were you thinking of when you did that spell? That she was suddenly going to appear in front of you, poof, just like that?" He looked around at their embarrassed faces. "You did, didn't you? Sodding morons!"

He headed for the foot of the stairs where Dawn, having heard his voice, was sensibly bringing him down a blanket, still in her jammies.

"Didn't have the common sense to dig up her coffin and open it. She had to wake up in it, freaking out. Had to claw her way through solid wood and then six feet of earth. 'Course she's having nightmares! Wakes up every night bloody suffocating."

There were tears in Willow's eyes. "We didn't..."

"You didn't think, yeah! Stop pushing her, all of you. Give her..." He flung up his arms in exasperation. "Just give her some space, can't you?"

He grabbed the blanket from Dawn, flung it around him and stormed out of the house.

To tell the truth, Buffy having to dig her way out wasn't really what was bothering him, just as it wasn't really what was bothering Buffy. It was the other thing. The terrible thing.

She had been in Heaven!

Even days after hearing that, the shock of it hadn't worn off for Spike. Not that she had been in Heaven. She was the Slayer. She had saved the world how many times? Of course that was where she would go when she died. He'd known that, which was why he had accepted her death, however agonizing it was for him. He could have brought her back if he wanted: he was a demon, he had contacts, he could have found someone to do that for him. But he had known that it was wrong, not what she would have wanted. She would never have forgiven him for it.

But then Willow had done it! Buffy had been in Heaven and Willow had pulled her out of it! Willow with her bloody arrogance about her powers, that had been growing more and more presumptuous and despotic all through the summer, to the point where she was even challenging Giles about it now. Thought she knew it all. Thought she was queen bee.

Hadn't even thought to check where Buffy actually was. Would have taken such a small expenditure of power to do that compared to the massive amount required for a resurrection. Hell dimension? Why the fuck had they thought she would be there? Because of Angel? But Angel had deserved it.

And now Buffy might have to pay the price for it. There was always a price for magics and the greater the magic, the greater the price. Willow thought she had managed to cheat, that she had fixed it so that they wouldn't have to pay a price. He had managed to find out how she had set up that spell. A fawn? A fawn's death didn't pay for that spell. And, worse, she had killed a creature that had come to her call, trusting her. The repercussions of that in wizardry were horrendous, the bad karma immeasurable. The psychic who had read that for him had been horrified.

A death was owed. The balance of things required it. He could feel payback coming in his very bones, like standing on railroad tracks and feeling the reverberations of an approaching train. He just had to make sure that he deflected it away from Buffy. When it came, let it strike Willow, whose debt it really was. He only hoped that the fallout would not affect some innocent around her.

He liked Willow; he truly did, when she was Willow and not SuperWitch. And Buffy being alive was a good thing. However she felt about it, as far as he was concerned, it was a good thing. But there was no way of escaping the fact that something was owed.

Buffy was already paying a price. Wanting to get back to Heaven, wanting to be back where she had been safe and loved and finished. She had her walls up and he knew how strong those walls could be, had them raised against him the whole time he had known her. But this time it was against all the world. And that was not healthy. Dawn had kept her from committing suicide that first night and that attempt would not happen again. Buffy had accepted the fact that she had to stay in the world. But shutting out all the world's affects on her was a kind of death in itself.

He decided to take Dawn into his confidence. Dawn could help and the two of them had become close over the summer when he had taken care of her, had become co-conspirators against the Scoobies and their demands.

"Gotta keep them off her, Bit," he said. "Gotta run interference."

Dawn nodded. "They keep pushing her."

"She's not ready to be pushed. Too much coming at her right now. They keep doing that, she'll just close off even more."

"Even with me." The tears in Dawn's eyes told him how much that hurt her, how she felt that Buffy didn't love her anymore.

"She loves you, Niblet," he said. "She wouldn't even be here if it wasn't that she cared about you. She'd have jumped that very first night."

There was a pause while Dawn thought about that. Then she smiled faintly. He stroked her smooth hair.

"Every sensation's too strong for her right now. Too loud, too noisy, too bright. We've got to keep things calm around her for a while, until she's strong enough to bear it."

"But wouldn't a hell dimension be loud and noisy and full of fire and..." Dawn's eyes widened suddenly and she stopped short. "You don't mean...you don't mean..."

He didn't answer, didn't even look at her in case his eyes gave away Buffy's secret. Dawn was smart. No one could say different. She picked up on even the tiniest clues.

"Just mean that we've got to make things pleasant for her for a while."

"How could they...how could...?"

"Dawn. Don't guess. Don't make assumptions. Let's just work with what we know right now and what we know is that she's got to be coaxed back into the world."

Dawn drew a deep breath. "Okay."

"Gotta be the Big Sis now, yeah? Just for a while."

"You'll help."

"Yeah."

Had to change his dynamic with Buffy. He was used to treating her as his long-time sparring partner, always capable of taking care of herself. He had liked that she could match him blow for blow, admired her for being better than him in battle. There were very few that were better than him. What he had hoped for when he had fallen in love with her was for them to meet as equals, have a relationship that was open and honest and meaningful. That hope was gone now. He had relinquished it when she had found out how he felt about her and locked him out of her house.

All he wanted to do now was help. And now he could. Right now, Buffy needed someone to take care of her. He had known exactly how to take care of Dru. He had learned how to deal with that mess in Dru's head, and he knew how to coax and comfort her and be there for her when she was lost or overwhelmed by it.

Now Buffy was lost in her own head. Had to coax her out. She needed stimulus, but the right kind of stimulus. Not the stress and the problems the Scoobies kept throwing at her.

He could feel the rage in her, the rage she was repressing so fiercely. It pleased him. That rage would work in his favor. She wasn't completely numbed then, not while that rage worked in her like yeast. Whenever it broke out, even in the least little bit, the world came in. Encourage her to hit out at things. Let her hit out at him. He could take it.

"Hold out your hands."

Buffy looked up at him in surprise from where she was sitting on the back steps. "Now what?"

He came lightly up the steps and dropped something into her hands, then sat down beside her.

"A waterlily? Where did you get that?"

"Place north of town has a pond full of them."

"You stole it."

He grinned. "They won't miss one. Look at it."

"Pretty."

"No. Really look at it, pet."

Surprised, she did. And suddenly saw what he meant—the crisp, precise shape of the petals, the sweet scent of it, the delicacy of the shading from hints of pink at the tips to glowing white and then to the golden heart.

"It's lovely."

"Yeah."

"I know what you're trying to do, Spike."

It had been a campaign over the last couple of weeks. Bringing things that would engage her senses—a pair of mother-of-pearl earrings, a half bottle of sweet Hungarian dessert wine, an Abyssinian kitten that he had won at poker and which was now wreaking havoc throughout the house. He'd even got Dawn doing it, insisting on making her take fragrant bubble baths, insisting on being shown how to cook. The two of them, forcing sensory experiences on her. A couple of nights ago, Spike had brought her a box of Teuscher's champagne truffles that must have cost him nearly a hundred dollars, but had been deliciously decadent on the tongue.

"So does knowing make that lily harsh and ugly?" He was laughing at her. "Know it's not Heaven, but it's not such a bad old world, is it?"

"Spike..."

"So everything's hard and bright and violent," said Spike quietly. "Does that mean you have to be hard and cold and violent?"

She flushed. He kept turning up on her patrols, helping her take out vamps and demons. She at once resented and was glad of his presence. She wanted to be alone and yet she was glad of his undemanding company, of his laughter and jokes that she couldn't respond to, yet which somehow eased the tight bonds around her heart. She should have known that he would see the cold rage with which she dispatched demons these days. Spike always saw what you didn't want him to see. She resented those demons, hated them. They were the reason she had been brought back, to kill them, and she hated them for existing. She should have hated him too, for being a demon. But even she knew that was unjust and couldn't bring herself to do it.

It was a couple of weeks now since they had made their confessions to each other. She could still hear Spike's low voice saying painfully, "Every night I save you." He was the only one she could have told about having been in Heaven. With anyone else, the rage would have broken out. But Spike and Dawn were innocent of complicity in her resurrection.

"There's so much anger in me," she whispered. "It's scary. Don't dare let it out on anything else. Don't dare let it be anything but cold and controlled."

"Why not?" he asked, with a sideways glance that said he thought she should.

"They don't deserve it."

He knew who she was talking about. She saw a diagonal muscle in his cheek jump as his jaw clenched. He was gritting his teeth to keep from saying what he really wanted to say, that he thought the Scoobies did deserve it.

"They don't, Spike. They were just trying to help."

"Went about it bloody stupidly, didn't they? You know what they say about good intentions."

"Know what drives me crazy?" she muttered. "They all want me to just pull myself together. Like it's so easy. Act grateful, get over it, be happy."

"Sods."

"You know what they really want? The Bot. The sunny one who lives to please. All happy and perky, never stops smiling. Take her out of the closet when she's needed, shove her back in when she becomes inconvenient. Ironic really that she was the one to get ripped apart."

"Good riddance," he muttered.

"Your toy, wasn't she?" she mocked. "Robogirls are easy."

She saw the flash of intense pain that went across his face. She caught her breath. She hadn't meant to hurt him. The jibe had just come out.

"Yeah, well," he said vaguely and got to his feet. "Better get going."

"Spike, I..."

"See you later, pet, yeah?" He smiled stiffly at her and went, black leather fading into the darkness of the night in an instant.

Why did she keep doing that? Hitting out at him. He was innocent, just as Dawn was innocent. Trouble was that he was there. He offered himself to be hit. Because he knew she needed to hit something, needed an outlet for that rage. Sometimes she felt as if she were going to implode just from the tightness with which she was holding back the rage, lest it explode and take half the town with it. Most times, Spike managed to turn her anger onto a handy demonic target, or deflect it with a joke or a laugh or a mocking comment. But sometimes it just came out without warning, as it had tonight, and he was always the one to get burned. It was not fair. She kept sparing the ones who deserved to get hurt and hurting the one who didn't. She was ashamed of herself.

Dawn was building a sandwich in the kitchen when Buffy let herself back in.

"Want a bite?" she asked.

"Uh, no, thanks," said Buffy. The one bite she had once had of one of Dawn's weird concoctions had been quite enough.

"Pretty," said Dawn, seeing the waterlily. "Did Spike bring you that?"

"Yeah." She found a container to hold it. "Spike's awfully sensitive about that Bot, isn't he?"

Dawn shot her an astute look. She knew that oblique comment meant that Buffy wanted to discuss it. Willow and Tara were out somewhere, so the sisters could relax and talk. Being around Tara was fine, because Tara never demanded anything of anyone. But Willow was starting to grate a little on both their nerves.

"He's sensitive about it, yeah," she said. "We had to use it to be able to fool people that you were still around. But it kept saying things...Well, you know its original programming."

Buffy flushed. "Yes."

"It kept saying things to Spike. About how hot he was and stuff. And he couldn't stand that. Being reminded, y'know. Willow tried to reprogram it to stop acting like that, but nothing she did worked." Dawn shook her head ruefully. "Even if she had managed to fix it, it wouldn't have helped. Just looking at the Bot...hurt him."

"What happened this summer?" She hadn't asked anyone that so far. Had ducked it. Didn't want to know.

Dawn sighed. "Nothing. A lot."

What Buffy couldn't understand was why Spike was still here. There had been nothing to hold him in Sunnydale. She had been dead. There was nothing in it for him. He should have left, could have gone anywhere in the world, could have gone back to Dru. Dru would have got him kills, got him the human blood which, as a vampire, he would always crave, but which the chip stopped him from getting for himself. Instead, he had stayed, fought beside the Scoobies, taken care of Dawn. It didn't make sense.

"Why did he stay?" she muttered almost to herself and Dawn gave her an exasperated look.

"Well, duh. He loves you. You know that."

"But I was dead and he didn't know that Willow would resurrect me."

"Buffy, what do you think real love is? His kind of love is unconditional. A conditional kind of love would have taken off once there was nothing in it for him. But Spike? He gave you his word that he'd take care of me. 'Till the end of the world.' And he kept his promise."

"He told you about that."

"Yeah. I asked. Good thing you made him promise," Dawn muttered. "There was a time in the beginning there, I thought he'd go and dust himself."

Buffy stared at her.

"Yeah, maybe I had better tell you about this summer," Dawn said.

She went and got a carton of triple chocolate fudge ice cream out of the fridge and took it over to the kitchen table. She lifted her brows at Buffy. Buffy shrugged, then sat down opposite her and accepted the spoon Dawn held out. They both dug in.

"You jumped. That closed the portal. And then...and then your body was lying there on the ground. We all...we couldn't move. Anya was hurt and Xander was carrying her. Giles was just standing there. I don't think he believed it was happening. Willow and Tara and me, we were all crying. Spike cried. Didn't care who was looking. Went straight down to the ground and cried."

She looked down, then drew a deep, shuddering breath.

"I couldn't have made it through the funeral without him. He was there for me. We kind of...leaned on each other. After the funeral, he went and got wasted, of course."

"Of course," said Buffy in wry amusement.

"Stayed drunk for a week. I had to go to his crypt a couple of times and force him to drink blood. He was so out of it, y'know, he'd forget to eat. But then he remembered his promise and got himself together. Think that promise gave him something to hold on to. Kept on getting drunk every now and then the rest of the summer, but not like that first week. Always came back the next day."

"The two of you seem to have gotten pretty close."

"If it wasn't for him..." Dawn shook her head. "Willow and Tara had moved in to take care of me by that time. But you know how it is. They've got things to do. Can't be looking after me twenty-four hours a day. Spike? He was always there. Like a big brother. Babysitting me, helping me with my homework, helping me through..."

She looked at Buffy gravely.

"It was different for us than for the others, you see. They didn't have the guilt we had."

"Dawn..."

"I should have been the one to jump, Buffy."

"Dawn, no!"

"That's the way I felt. And Spike? He kept saying that if he had been faster, more clever, more anything, you wouldn't have had to jump. Dreamed about it every night."

Every night I save you.

"Both of us, we were really down lots of times. I mean, really. Luckily, it never happened at the same time. We'd pull each other out of it." Dawn swallowed an extra-big spoonful of ice cream to ease the lump in her throat. "Yeah, we got pretty close."

"I've seen him with you," Buffy said gently. "He really cares for you."

"He cared for Mom too. Something special, Spike is." She gave Buffy a straight look. "He loves you."

There was a long silence.

"Vamps can't..."

"If you say that, Buffy, I'll hit you! Maybe Angel can't love without a soul, but Spike can! He loved Dru for a hundred and twenty years, didn't he?"

There was another long silence. They both spooned up ice cream, avoiding each other's eyes.

"What about Angel?" Buffy said suddenly. "Did he help with the Hellmouth?"

"No way! He came for the funeral. Spent it mostly glaring at Spike. Couldn't understand why he was there, I suppose. Kind of zone Spike was in, he never noticed. Then I heard Angel had gone into a monastery for a while. To get over the trauma of your death." Dawn's voice dripped scorn. "We could have used his help. Just us and no Slayer. Having the Bot made a diff, but still, we were pretty desperate."

Buffy digested this.

"If it hadn't been for Spike..." Dawn shook her head. "We needed his strength and his speed and his knowledge of demons then. Don't need him now that you're back and, y'know? The others? All the time you were gone, they relied on him for so many things. With me, with patrolling, even with research. But now you're back and they're already starting to forget how much of a help he was. I wonder if they ever admitted it to themselves. They think of him just as extra muscle. And he was so much more than that. But now he's back to being just a thing to them again."

She glared at Buffy.

"Don't you do that, Buffy!"

"I don't think either of you will let me," Buffy muttered.

TBC