Perfect World
Part One: Home Is Where the Hurt Is
by cousinjean

Summary: A slip of the tongue creates a whole new world of problems for Spike. Picks up about 4 months after "Grave."

Spoilers: Everything through S6 is fair game, with a vague awareness of rumors about S7.

Rating: R

Disclaimer: All characters and settings belong to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy Productions. What happens to them is the product of my own fevered and obsessive imagination.

A/N: I know this looks like another one of those "Spike's back from Africa" fics, but it's not. This is one of those big, epic, plotty stories that has been stewing in my brain for much longer than Spike has had a soul. Although the soul added a whole new layer to the idea that made it too interesting to ignore.

If you don't like works in progress, don't read this yet. Though I'm working on this every chance I get, my main writing priorities are currently Dancing Lessons and my novel. So updates will be pretty sporadic.

Thanks to Abby, JRS, fenwic and adjrun for letting me think out loud about this story in various chats. It really helped shape the plot. Thanks to them as well as Aurelio Zen and Fiona for the betas, feedback and insights. I {heart} my beta readers.

*

Darkness cloaked the house. Not a single welcoming light on anywhere -- not even a candle in the window. Girls had gone out without turning on the porch lights again. Dangerous, that. Any number of nasties could be lying in wait for an ambush. This yard offered too damn many places to hide. He should know. He'd taken advantage of them all at one time or another. First to study his enemy, then to keep watch over the object of his affection ... and finally, to share that affection in the only place she would allow it -- in the precious months when she had allowed it -- in the shadows, where the secrets lived. Secrets, and monsters. Like him.

If he'd learned one thing in nearly a century-and-a-half on this planet, it was that the universe loved irony. He was learning to hate it. He could think of at least half a dozen ways in which his situation was utterly ironic. That the soul, which was supposed to make him a man, only made him aware of the true extent of his monstrosity was only one of them. Part of him wondered if she could somehow slay the monster but leave the man intact. That was her job, wasn't it? Maybe, if she took mercy on him, she could slay his demon a little bit at a time, chip it away until all that was left were the parts that she deemed worthy of her love.

Bugger that. If she can't love the whole package, then sod her and her high horse. God knew the whole package loved her.

Then Mr. Sensitive, who fancied himself the more sensible half (which Spike usually thought was a load of horse shit, but at the moment he was forced to agree), reminded him that he didn't have any room to make demands on her. They'd both be lucky if she didn't take the more direct and literal route of staking him on sight, releasing William back to wherever he'd been pulled from and sending Spike into sweet, dusty oblivion. And also? Not why he was here.

With a sigh, Spike dismounted his bike, not quite sure what to do. An all too familiar feeling for him these last few months. Nobody home, that much was obvious. He considered going 'round back and testing out his welcome on the back door, but his conscience said no. Bloody nuisance, that. He didn't think he'd ever get used to it. He started to argue that he wouldn't even have to break in, he could use the key from the false rock behind the trellis, no harm no foul; but he knew that if he found his invitation had been revoked, he'd lose his nerve. Better to wait, then.

A surge of panic hit him. What if they'd moved? What if Buffy'd sold the house? Before he could finish the thought he was on the front porch, peeking in the front door. All he could see were the stairs. He moved over to the living room window and found a crack in the curtains, through which he could see the familiar pattern on the sofa. He bent to peer inside, and if he squinted, he could make out that the picture over the fireplace hadn't changed. He closed his eyes and slumped against the house as relief washed through him. Still, he was assuming quite a lot, wasn't he? What if they'd gone out of town? To visit Giles, perhaps, or to see their dad? Even if they were just out for the night it could be hours before anybody got home. Maybe he should just go back to the crypt. At least he could say he tried.

Spike shook his head and dug out his cigarettes. He lit one as he took up vigil on the front steps. He could wait. After all, all he had was an eternity.

***

Buffy massaged her neck as she walked, trying to work out the kinks. Felt like she'd pulled a muscle. A Donehw demon, 10 feet and four hundred pounds of angry, fur-covered brawn, had blindsided her in the park. While fighting the thing Buffy had been grateful that Dawn had gone out with her friends that evening; but once she'd taken it down she hadn't been too thrilled with having to dispose of the enormous body by herself. And that was when the thought entered her brain for the first time that evening, and for the 463rd time that summer.

She missed him.

Damn.

She didn't want to miss him. She didn't want to think about missing him, or why she missed him. And she really didn't want to remember why she shouldn't miss him.

Too late. Her brain was already going places she wished it wouldn't go, thinking about things like how much harder and colder white bathroom tile felt beneath her than the concrete floor of his crypt. Or the look on his face, the pain and confusion and desperation and determination that mingled in his eyes as he held her down and oh God how she wished he'd vamped out first so she wouldn't have to associate that face with ... that. Or how she could have fought back harder, sooner, kept it from going that far, and she wondered if it was the same mix of shock and disbelief and misplaced trust and hope that had kept him from fighting back that night behind the police station. Buffy hated her brain, because every time she tried to think about their rare moments of tenderness, it kept bringing her back to the violence and brutality that so often defined them. And because it marred the memories of all the times she'd given it to him so freely with that of the one time he'd tried to take it by force.

She couldn't blame him for leaving. She understood why, or at least she could think of plenty of reasons why it had been a good idea. She was even relieved, not only because it kept her from having to face him, but also because Willow probably would've killed him. It was definitely for the best that he'd left. So then why did she find it so hard to forgive him for leaving?

Buffy could almost convince herself that she hated him. That she only missed his usefulness as a slaying partner, his willingness to show up and do the grunt work. She didn't really miss him. But then she would go home and open up the front closet to stash her bag, and would be assaulted by the smell. His smell. Old leather, tobacco, sweat, and motor oil layered over cheap bourbon and blood, with just a trace of his aftershave underneath. She'd put her hand on the well-worn leather to push it out of the way, and remember the smooth feel of his back and shoulders against her palms.

Dawn had complained about keeping the coat at first, insisting that they should throw it out, or maybe burn it. But Buffy couldn't. She'd tried once. After everything had settled down, she'd found it in a heap upstairs, and she'd taken it straight out to the garbage. On her way back in she'd noticed that his cigarettes had fallen out of one of the pockets. She'd crouched beside them and picked them up, and turned the pack over in her hand. She'd taken one out and held it up to her nose, and inhaled the sweet tobacco. The need to taste it had overwhelmed her, so she'd put it in her mouth, carefully wrapping her lips around the filter and savoring the taste. And then it had hit her -- what she was doing, and why, and why it was wrong. She'd snatched the cigarette out of her mouth and crammed it back in the pack, then went back out to the garbage can. She wasn't sure how long she'd stood there with the garbage lid in one hand and the pack in the other, poised to throw it out with the coat ... then she'd rescued the duster, returned the cigarettes to their pocket, and hung the coat in the front closet, where it had remained ever since. If anyone asked, she'd tell them it would be rude to get rid of it. Beyond that, she tried not to think about it.

But it wasn't as if that was her only reminder. She'd be at the Bronze, or on patrol, or hell, even grocery shopping, and she'd get a whiff of cigarette smoke, or catch a glimpse of white-blond hair, and her heart would speed up and she'd turn to get a better look. Then she'd have to confront her disappointment when it turned out to be someone else.

It was always someone else. Either that, or a figment conjured up in an unguarded moment of wishful thinking. Which was why tonight she deliberately paid no attention to the motorcycle parked in front of her house. The cigarette butts littering the front walk were a little harder to ignore, as was the faint, familiar tingling of her skin that said, "Vampire!" Up the front steps, she reached into her bag and gripped her stake, because it was probably someone else. If it was him ... he might be someone else.

She turned slowly to regard the figure lounging in the wicker loveseat, one leg stretched across the length of it. Smoke floated up from the glowing tip that dangled from his half-open lips to tickle her nostrils. No figment of her imagination, this. His face was only partially visible in the faint glow of the street light as he stared up at her, but he looked like he thought he saw a vision of his own conjuring. Definitely not the face of someone who'd come back for some nefarious revenge scheme.

Buffy let go of the stake and folded her arms. "Spike."

He blinked, then shook his head a little as he took the cigarette out of his mouth. "Hello, Buffy."

Buffy blinked herself. "That's it? 'Hello Buffy'? No 'Hello cutie' or 'Nice work, love' or anything else guaranteed to leave me gobsmacked?"

He fidgeted, and reached up to scratch the scar on his eyebrow as he spoke. "Kinda figured these days I could do that just by showing up."

Buffy smiled. An honest-to-goodness smile. It surprised her as much as it seemed to shock him. "Well you're right about that."

He studied her for a minute, his head tilted just a bit in that way of his. Then he swung his leg down and faced front, sitting up a little straighter. "When did you start using words like 'gobsmacked'?"

She stared at the space beside him for a moment, but went over to lean against the porch rail instead. She shrugged. "What, you think after five years you haven't rubbed off on me?" She frowned at her choice of words. "Or, you know, something else a little less double entendre-y."

Spike grinned, and his shoulders shook in a silent laugh. Then the humor faded from his face as he leaned forward to prop his elbows on his knees. He looked down at his boots. The boots were the same, Buffy noted. Black jeans, check. He wore one of those button-down shirts he'd taken to wearing this last year, undone at the top and drooping open a little to reveal gleaming white skin and just a hint of the muscle beneath. It was all so very Spike. Something was different, though. He hadn't touched up his roots in a while, but neither had she, so she couldn't criticize. But that wasn't it. There was something else.

"How about, 'I'm sorry Buffy'?" He looked back up at her. "That work for an opening?"

Buffy held his gaze for a good long while, studying him. She knew he meant it, that wasn't the question. She'd known he was sorry before he'd even made it out of her bathroom that night.

"Heard that one before," she said at last. "What about, 'Goodbye Buffy'? I hear it's this thing that people are supposed to say before they disappear out of somebody's life. That could just be a rumor, though. Nobody ever actually says it to me."

Spike sighed, and smoothed his hair back with both hands as he leaned back in his chair. As his short curls sprung back into place she realized what was different. He seemed a bit softer around the edges. Not just his ungelled hair, but everything. Even his accent seemed less harsh, a touch more cultured. Just a touch, though. He still had plenty of edge. She wondered what the hell he'd been up to.

"Didn't feel right to say it," he said. "Knew I was coming back. You knew I'd be back. Didn't you?"

Buffy thought about it. "I guess ... yeah. You ... you're like that cat in that song."

They both smiled a little at that.

"You always do come back," she finished softly.

"Always will, I reckon." He gave her a rueful smile. "Me moth, you flame, insert tired metaphor here. Didn't expect to be gone quite so long this time, though."

"And I'm guessing you were deep in some remote cave out in the middle of nowhere with no access to a telephone or writing implements?"

Both eyebrows shot up. "Well ... yeh. First week or so, at least."

"And after that?"

He seemed to study his hands. "Didn't expect you'd want to hear from me." He met her eyes. "Was I right?"

"Yeah."

He nodded, and looked back at his hands.

"For about the first month," she clarified. "Then I got over it, a little. It ... would've been nice. To know you were okay."

He looked at her again, his expression unreadable. "Can't say that I was." He stood up and took a long, final drag on his cigarette before dropping it and grounding it out with his boot. "I was a world away from you ... but then, that's nothing new." He leaned his elbows against the porch rail, looking out at the street, keeping a respectable distance. "Had nothing but my own thoughts to keep me company. Did a lot of thinking, too. About you, about what I did, how I could make it up to you ... how I'll never ..." He stopped, and swallowed. "Believe me, I wasn't okay."

He kept his gaze fixed on the street as he spoke, and Buffy just watched him. Watched the muscle dance along his jaw, signalling his frustration. The way his profile looked in the faint light coming off of the street, the way his hair curled up at the nape of his neck, the strong line of his jaw juxtaposed with his soft mouth and the smooth curve of his neck... God, she'd missed those things. She hadn't even realized it until now. And his hands. They fiddled with each other, seeking something to do. You could see all of his strength in his hands. Large, calloused palms gave way to long, graceful fingers that could be so gentle. She loved his hands.

The same hands that had forced her to the floor and held her down.

Buffy shuddered. Spike seemed to sense her discomfort and drew further away. She glanced up to see him looking at her, pain etched in every line of his face.

"I am so sorry, Buffy. Please believe me."

"I do."

He looked a little surprised, but then he nodded. He straightened up, and took a deep breath. "Um ... I didn't come here to ask your forgiveness."

"Then what --"

He held up a hand. "Please, Love. I practiced this speech at least a hundred times. Let me get it out."

Buffy nodded. As often as he'd been her confessor after she'd come back, she figured she owed it to him to shut up and listen.

"I just ... there're a couple of things I want you to know. One is that I get it. The whole good 'n' evil thing, I mean." He nodded. "I mean, I understand why you can't love me. Why you never --" His voice tightened, and he stopped to clear his throat. Then he laughed a little. "Bloody hell, you'd think by now I could recite this by rote."

Buffy just tried to look sympathetic, and waited while he gathered himself.

"Anyway, I ... I understand it all now. I was a bleeding idiot for ever thinking you'd be happy in the dark, or that you should let yourself love a monster. 'Cause that's what I am. I ... you deserve better than that."

Buffy flashed on all of the insults hurled his way, all of the little tortures she'd inflicted on him ... her fist smashing into his face, again and again. She swallowed. "Do I?"

Spike just stared at her. "Bloody right, you do." He looked back out at the street, that muscle on his jaw flexing again. "You gave it a good try." He turned back to her. "You managed to come down to my level a few times. I don't deny that. But it almost destroyed you. That's not for you. You're better than that, Buffy."

She managed a small smile. "Thanks."

He nodded. "Uh ... the other thing I wanted to tell you is that I'm not going anywhere. I'm back now, and I'm here to stay. If you need me ... if you need help with patrol, or information, or ... I'll be here. I'm not gonna leave again."

Buffy knew he meant it. She didn't know if she should feel comforted or scared. For better or worse, Spike would be there. For her, helping her, fighting her ... loving her. A piece of that song ran through her head. The cat came back, he didn't want to roam ...

"You forgot your coat," she said. It sounded a little silly, as if he'd just popped home for a carton of blood or a pack of cigarettes, instead of disappearing to God knows where for four months. But it was all she could think to say.

"Right," he said. "Funny, didn't really miss it."

"It's in the closet. You ... you want to come in?" A load of tension slid out of her along with the invitation. Maybe they could go inside and do something normal and mundane, something that didn't require either of them to think or talk too much. Out here, all there was to do was think and talk. "I could make some tea."

His face lit up. "Figured I'd worn out my welcome."

"Nope," she said, going to unlock the front door. "It's still good as new." She went inside, and he paused at the threshold, as if not quite believing her, before following her in. She opened the closet to put away her bag, and pulled the coat out. It felt funny, taking it out again, knowing it wouldn't be there the next time she opened the door. "Here you go," she said as she handed it to him.

"Thanks." He draped it over his arm. "I, um ... I heard about Tara."

"Oh. Right."

"Sad to hear it. I liked her. She was ... kind. A lot tougher than she looked, too. Least, on the inside." A dark look passed over his eyes, then he shook it off. "How's Will holding up?"

"She's holding. At least, that's what Giles says when he calls. I haven't actually spoken to her since ..." Her voice trailed off as Spike's expression went from concerned to confused. "Wow, there's a lot to catch you up on." She waved at him to follow her as she started for the kitchen.

"Clem filled me in on some of it," he said, leaning in the doorway. "Willow got a bit out of control?"

"Well, if you can call skinning someone alive, almost killing all of your friends and then trying to destroy the world 'a bit,' then, yeah." She took the kettle over to the sink and filled it.

"Huh. Y'know, I always knew she could make a hell of a big bad." He sounded more sad than appreciative. "I should've been here."

"No." Buffy set the kettle down and turned to face him. "You wouldn't have made a difference. Tara and I got shot in broad daylight --"

Spike's head snapped up. "You got shot?"

Buffy tried to shrug it off. "I lived. Tara didn't. Willow ... she just lost it. Went completely nuts, and she was so powerful ... she would've killed you, Spike. She would've, like, vaporized you with her mind or something." She shuddered. "Anyway, Xander managed to talk her down, and then Giles took her to England for some kind of magical detox. Xander went to visit her this week. He should be back to--"

The back door opened. "Sorry I'm late," Dawn said. Buffy glanced at the clock. Fifteen minutes past her curfew. Buffy hadn't even noticed. "Justin's house is on the other side of the river, and on the way back we had to stop for the drawbridge..." Her eyes landed on Spike.

He grinned, coming all the way into the kitchen and discarding his coat on the counter. "'Lo there, Niblet."

Her eyes went wide and her mouth lit up in a smile. "Spike!" She took a step towards him, then stopped herself as her features hardened into a carefully practiced cold stare. "What are you doing here?"

"He came to talk," Buffy said.

Dawn crossed her arms. "Is that all? Sure you didn't come to finish the job you started last time you were here?"

"Dawn!"

Spike's grin gave way to a look of stunned disbelief. He looked at Buffy.

She sighed. "Xander told her what happened."

"Right," Dawn said. "I had to hear it from Xander. Because Buffy didn't think I needed to know that my big hero was really a rapist."

"Dawn, that's enough."

"Oh, really? Because I don't think it's ever gonna be enough."

Spike looked desperate for something to do with his hands. Finally, he shoved them in his pockets. "Dawn, I --"

"Don't. Don't even. God, I can't even stand to look at you." She started to leave the kitchen, but stopped. "I've been reading up on how to do the disinvite spell myself. So don't think that just because there aren't any witches around anymore that you can just come and go whenever you feel like it." Dawn stormed out of the kitchen. After a moment, her feet pounded up the stairs.

Spike stood for a long moment, frozen in place, before finally letting out a long sigh.

"I'm sorry," Buffy said. "She just --"

"No, don't," Spike said. "I had it coming."

Buffy offered him a weak smile. "Nobody deserves the wrath of Dawn."

He shook his head. "I'm just grateful that didn't come from you." He reached for his coat. "I'd best be going." His hand hit a vase and knocked it over, spilling acrid water all over the counter. "Shit!" He scrambled to move the mail out of the way.

"It's okay," Buffy said, grabbing a towel. As she mopped up the water, she repeated to herself, "It's okay." She turned around to the sink and wrung out the towel. "Here, just put anything that got wet over --"

She heard the kitchen door open again, just as the tea kettle started to whistle. When she turned around, he was gone.

Buffy took the kettle off the burner, then went over to shut the door. She turned and slumped against it. Her eyes landed on his forgotten coat. With another sigh, she picked it up, shook off the water, and went to hang it back in the closet.

***

Spike hung his head over the wash basin and poured the jug of water over his scalp until the stinging sensation stopped. Satisfied that he'd rinsed enough, he sluiced the excess water out of his hair and reached for a towel. Instinctively, he looked around for a mirror; then he rolled his eyes at himself and smirked. "That's right. Still a vampire. Get used to it already." He squirted some gel into the palm of his hand and ran it through his hair, slicking back his curls until they felt straight. Then he grabbed a black tee-shirt out of the trunk, pulled it on, and smiled. He was beginning to feel like his old self again.

Is that really such a good thing?

Sod off, you. Bleached roots are not the harbinger of all things evil.

Spike groaned and headed over to his refrigerator. He wondered if it would always be like this, his every conscious thought at war with William the Bloody Irritating. He'd invited the git back in, you'd think the least he could do was shut up and give Spike a moment's peace once in a while.

Do you really think you deserve even a moment's peace?

He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, and resisted the urge to smash something. Instead he settled for yanking the refrigerator open with excessive force. After taking a moment to ponder the contents, he decided he felt like chicken. As he reached for the container of blood marked "C" his eyes fell on a bottle of vodka he'd stashed there last spring. He pulled that out too, but he hesitated about topping off his breakfast with a shot. Anywhere else in the world he could get sloshed and enjoy his oblivion in peace. Here in Sunnydale, that never ended well. He sighed and put the bottle back in the fridge.

He still had his head in the fridge when he heard his front door slam open. "Yep, you're definitely home, Spike," he muttered. He stood up and shut the refrigerator. "Evenin', Pet." He smiled and started to turn around. "Didn't expect you to come calling quite so s-- oh." Not Buffy. Dawn. She stood there, hand on hip, exuding attitude and barely-contained fury. Spike felt his heart swell a little at the sight of her. She was cut from Big Sis's cloth, all right. He swallowed. "Little Bit. Something I can do for you?"

"Don't call me that."

He nodded. "Sorry. Dawn." He pointed at his chair. "Have a seat? I was hoping we'd get a chance to talk --"

"I just brought your coat," she said. Spike noticed for the first time the black bundle in her hand.

"Um, thanks. That was right thoughtful." He moved out from behind the tomb.

She took a step back. "I didn't do you any favors. I just didn't want it in my house any more." She threw it on the chair. "And I don't want you using it as an excuse to come back."

Spike hung his head and sighed. "I'm not gonna hurt you, Dawn."

"Too late."

He looked back up at her. Her mask was slipping, revealing the pain he'd caused her.

No, he answered his earlier question, I don't deserve any peace.

"I meant physically, Pet. Still got the chip, couldn't hurt you if I wanted to. And I don't want to."

She scoffed and took a step forward, tossing her hair over her shoulder. "What, you think I'm afraid of you? Buffy's been training me. I know how to handle myself against a vampire."

Spike raised an eyebrow. "That right?" He began to circle her, sizing her up. "Care to show me what you got?"

Her bravado faded a little. "What, you mean fight you?"

Spike came round to stand in front of her and shrugged. "Don't know that it'll be much of a fight, what with me not being able to hit back. Doesn't mean I can't block you, though. Come on, Bit, give it a go. 'Less of course you're all t-- ow! Bloody hell!"

She'd popped him in the nose. Not hard enough to do any real damage, but enough to sting.

"I said don't call me that!" Her face was all screwed up, like she was trying to keep from crying.

Spike stopped rubbing his nose and dropped his hands to his sides. "That the best you can do?"

Dawn hit him again, a body blow this time. He instinctively rolled with it, not that it had enough force to really hurt him.

"Come on, Sweetness, you can do better than that."

"Shut up!" She lit into him, a series of punches and jabs as she screamed at him. "You don't get to call me that! Not after what you did to Buffy! Not after you ran off!" Her punches gave way to pounding on his chest. "You made us care about you! You made us think you cared about us! You said you loved Buffy! You promised her you'd protect me!" Her blows started to lose steam and her shoulders shook with sobs.

Spike put his arms around her and pulled her to him. She struggled for a moment, but then sagged against him. He held her while she cried herself out. When she could speak again, she said, "I thought you loved us."

"I do, Pet. Believe me, I do."

"Then why did you do that?"

"I --" He shut his eyes and groaned in frustration. "I don't have an easy answer." He let go of her and motioned for her to go sit down while he looked around for something she could dry her eyes with, finally settling on paper towels. He tore a couple off of the roll and took them over to her. "I've got about a dozen excuses," he said as he handed them to her. He hopped up on the tomb across from her and waited while she blew her nose. "But it all boils down to me being a demon. The chip doesn't make me a good person, Dawn. Doesn't even make me a person."

"Bull."

Spike blinked at her. "Pardon?"

"If that was about you being a demon you would've just tried to bite her or something."

He considered this. "Maybe. But part of being a demon means having a lot of rage, and there was nothing in me to keep it in check. And I thought ..." He closed his eyes and shook his head. "I don't know what I was thinking. I screwed up. And I'm sorry. Buffy knows I'm sorry. I know that doesn't fix anything, or change what I did, but I am. And I'm sorry for taking off like that, without saying goodbye. I never ... I didn't mean to hurt you. I just ... I had to make sure that it would never happen again. And it won't. I promise you that."

"How can you be so sure?" Dawn twisted the paper towel up, keeping her eyes on it instead of Spike. "I mean, if the chip doesn't work on Buffy, how do you know you won't hurt her again if she makes you mad?"

"I just know. Okay?"

Now she looked at him. "No. Not okay. How are we supposed to trust you if you keep all these secrets? You haven't even said where you went."

"I went to Africa. That's no secret."

"Africa? What the hell did you do there?"

"Long story." He gave her a small, ironic smile. "Guess you could say I did a bit of soul searching."

Dawn let out a short laugh. "So, did you find it?"

"Um. Well, yeh."

She looked stunned. "You mean you ... really?"

Spike nodded, and hopped off the sarcophagus. "Yup. Old Billy Boy has moved back into his old digs." He went to retrieve his breakfast from atop the fridge. "We make quite the odd couple."

"Whoa," Dawn said. She stared at him like he'd sprouted a third eyeball. "How come you're not all broody and depressing like Angel?"

Spike thought about this as he sipped his blood. "Don't know," he said at last. "I expected I would be." He shrugged. "Maybe it's 'cause I've got too much common sense. No use in sitting around and beating myself up. 'Specially not when I've got you to do it for me." He winked at her. She gave him a sheepish little smile and looked back down at the paper towel her hands were busy mutilating. "Or maybe," he continued, "it's 'cause I'm not all cursed. I won my soul, fair and square. Which means I get to keep it."

Dawn looked back up at him. "Really?"

He nodded. "No danger of me losing it and turning on you. Not that I would if I did. Loved you before the soul, didn't I? Nothing's changed in that respect."

She smiled a little, but then turned all business-like. "How did you win it?"

"Passed a test."

"What kind of test? I mean, I take it it wasn't a written?"

Spike shrugged. "Just your standard mortal combat scenario, with a bit of endurance on top. Nothing I couldn't handle."

"Wow."

"Yeah. Um ... listen, Dawn. That part, about me being all soul-having, that is a secret, all right? Between you and me."

Dawn wrinkled her brow. "Why? I mean, Buffy has this whole big thing about you not having a soul. Don't you want her to know?"

He nodded. "Eventually. When the time's right. If I told her now, I don't expect she'd believe me."

She cocked her head to the side and regarded him, the attitude sliding back into place. "Why should I believe you?"

"No reason you should, I s'pose. Not like it's something I can prove, is it?" He set his glass down and met her gaze, and held it, waiting.

"I believe you," she said at last.

He nodded. "Thanks, Bit."

Dawn stood up and went over to hug him. He still wasn't used to this sort of thing, and tried not to feel awkward as he squeezed her back.

"I'm so glad you're home," she said, and let him go. "Buffy is too, I think. I mean, I probably shouldn't tell you this. But ... she missed you. She didn't really talk about it, but I could tell."

Spike smiled. That was more than he'd dared hope for.

"I should go," she said. "It's my night to cook dinner while Buffy patrols."

"Right, then. Off you go." She started for the door, but he called after her, "So, if I come back to your house, am I gonna need a fresh invite?"

Dawn looked back at him and rolled her eyes. "No. I forgot all about the disinvite spell until I saw you last night. I don't have a clue how to do it."

Spike laughed, but then he gave her a stern look. "Well, that doesn't mean you shouldn't learn. Just so long as your mojo stops there."

Dawn smiled. "See you, Spike."

"See you," he replied as she walked out the door.

Well. That had gone better than expected. He gulped down the rest of his breakfast, then retrieved his coat from the chair, held it up and shook it out. "Hello, old friend. Long time no see." After considering it a moment, he pulled it on. He'd expected it to feel comforting, like slipping into your own bed after a long absence from home, but it felt heavy. Just wasn't used to it after so many months without it, he reckoned; but it was more than that. He could see that last Slayer's face, plain as day, as he choked the life out of her.

Spike sighed, and started to take the coat off, but then stopped. He needed the pockets to stash weapons, and even if his Big Bad image was becoming ever more a false one, no sense in telling his enemies that. And maybe by wearing her coat to fight the good fight, he could make it up to her somehow.

He settled it back on his shoulders, then went over to his weapons chest and loaded up before heading out into the night. Just because Buffy didn't ask him to patrol with her was no reason she should face the monsters alone.

***

Lights were on in the Magic Box, even though the sign on the door said, "Closed for renovations. Come back on Labor Day for our Grand Reopening!" Spike tried the door anyway, but it was bolted. So he knocked. After a moment the door opened, and Anya peeked out at him. "Oh. It's you."

Spike nodded cordially, if a bit stiffly, trying to ignore the sudden awkwardness he felt. "Pet. Can I come in?"

She opened the door a little wider, but stood in his way. "Why are you here? I'm not having sex with you again."

His mouth twitched in the beginnings of a smile. "Yeh, I get that a lot. But, not why I'm here."

Anya seemed to deliberate a moment before finally moving out of his way and letting him inside. "It's not that it wasn't pleasurable," she said as he entered. "I mean, if circumstances were different, I wouldn't mind having you for an orgasm friend. But people would get hurt, and angry, even if they don't actually have a right to get angry, and it would just be more trouble than it's worth, and you should have told me it was Buffy!"

Spike spun around to face her. "What?"

"The girl who broke your heart. I ... I thought it was that skeevy girl everybody said you brought to the wedding. If I'd known it was Buffy ..."

He sighed. "Yeh. I know."

Anya frowned, and went back behind the counter. "She was my maid of honor," she said as she began unpacking artifacts from a box. "I didn't want to hurt her. And besides, now that I'm a vengeance demon again I really don't need the Slayer to have a reason to hate me."

"Does she? Hate you, I mean."

Anya shrugged. "She doesn't say she does. The one time we talked about it she said she didn't blame me. But I haven't really seen her that much."

"Oh, she hasn't been coming 'round to train?"

"Willow destroyed the training room. Buffy hasn't been by to tell me if she wants to have it restored. She was starting to be my friend, you know. My friend, not just Xander's."

Spike shoved his hands in his pockets and hung his head. "I'm sorry, Anya."

She nodded, but then rolled her eyes and sighed. "It's not your fault. I'm the one who got you drunk. Besides, what's done is done. We can't -- hey! You really are sorry, aren't you?" She stared at him, and looked him up and down. "How did you get a soul?"

***

Xander parked across the street from the Box, and took a deep breath before getting out of the car. It had been a rough week. England had been cool, what little he'd seen of it. Willow hadn't felt like going out much. Mostly they'd hung out at Giles's, watching the BBC and drinking Guinness and, on occasion, talking. She was beginning to act like her old self again. Her old, pre-magic self. Make that her old self, sans perk. She was still so broken, though. Losing Tara like that ... Xander didn't think she'd ever get over it. Even if she somehow found a way to forgive herself for what had come after, that was a hurt that would last a lifetime.

On the plane back, he'd made a decision: he wouldn't lose Anya, vengeancey demon powers be damned. She meant too much for him to let pride stand in the way of getting her back. He'd do whatever it took.

He reached the shop door and raised his hand to knock, but then dropped it. He wasn't sure what he could say that he hadn't already said to her. But he had to try. He moved over to the window, hoping that the sight of her would fortify his nerves. There she was, the demon that could make him feel like a worthwhile human being. She was so beautiful, the way her face lit up as she talked animatedly to ...

To a lying, thieving, murdering rapist. Well, hey. On the up side, at least they weren't having sex. Yet.

His mission forgotten, Xander turned around and went back to his car.

***

"Long story," Spike said.

"Are you cursed? Did you go eat a gypsy?"

"No."

"Good," Anya said. "Because that would've been stupid." She smiled appreciatively. "Those gypsies could teach me a thing or two about vengeance, let me tell you."

"Yeh," Spike said. "So anyway --"

"Anyanka, what should I do with this case of cyclops eyes?" Halfrek came in from the back. She stopped short when she saw Spike. "Oh, hello!"

"Just put them on the table," Anya said. "I'll have to clear a space for them. Hallie, you remember Spike."

Halfrek smiled. "Of course I do. So, didja come back so you and Anyanka could wreak some more horizontal 'vengeance'?" She winked at him.

"Not funny, Hallie."

"Oh, relax," she said as she set her crate down. "I'm just funnin' ya."

"Actually," Spike said, "I just came by to get the lowdown on any big evil that might be lurking about. Figured this was still Scooby Central. But since it's not, I'll be going. I'll, uh, let myself out the back. Ladies." He nodded at them both and headed for the back exit.

"Lovely to see you again," Halfrek called.

Anya followed him as far as the door to the back room. "Do you ... do you want me to tell Buffy? About your soul?"

Spike stopped at the exit, his hand on the doorknob. Yes. We could do that. We could go right now, find her on patrol, or maybe go to her house ... Right. Brilliant plan, Spike. Take the demon you cheated with to try and help you win back the girl you love. That's sure to go over splendidly.

Not that he'd cheated, really. You had to be in a relationship before you could cheat. Didn't you?

Spike turned to Anya. "Thanks, Pet, but I think it should come from me." Anya nodded, and went back into the shop. Spike went out the door.

The first blow hit him in the gut. He doubled over, clutching his stomach. The second caught him in the back of the head. Spike dropped to his knees. He was ready for the third. He heard the whistle as whatever he was being bludgeoned with sliced through the air. He reached up and blocked it with his right hand, punching with his left. As he connected with his attacker's ribs, white-hot pain ripped through his skull, making him scream as he collapsed to the ground.

"Well, at least we know you didn't take off to get dechipped."

Spike rolled onto his back and squinted through his hazy vision. Xander stood over him, weilding a tire iron. At least it wasn't a stake. "Harris --"

"Shut up!" Xander kicked him in his side. Spike tried to roll with it, and got to his knees. The iron hit him between the shoulder blades and knocked him back to the ground. "Stay down!"

"I don't want to fight you, Harris," Spike said through gritted teeth.

"Oh, that's rich. Like we both don't know you'd kill me if you didn't have that chip."

"I wouldn't -- aah!" Xander pounded on him again. He raised the iron for another blow, but Spike caught it on its way down and tore it out of Xander's grip. He flung it down the alley, where it clattered and then skidded along the pavement until it hit the Dumpster.

That didn't stop Xander. He grabbed Spike by the collar and hauled him up. "You shouldn't have come back here, Spike." He slammed him into the wall of the shop. "You think I'm gonna let you do that again?" He punched him, hard. A couple of years of construction work had put some serious muscle on the boy. "You think I'm gonna let you do to her what you did to Buffy?!" He hit him again, kept hitting, blind rage taking over as he pummelled Spike.

The shop door opened. "Oh my God! Xander, stop!" Anya grabbed his arm and tried to pull him off of Spike. Halfrek came out behind her and helped to restrain him.

Xander shook them both off and stood back, glaring at Anya. "You're protecting him?"

"He hasn't done anything, Xander!"

"No? What about trying to rape my best friend? That doesn't count as something? And let's not forget about the century of murder and mayhem. But then," he motioned back and forth between them, "I guess you demons gotta stick together."

Anya's look was pure fury. "Go. Away."

Regret flashed across Xander's face. "An--"

"GO!"

He let out a frustrated sigh, then looked back at Spike. He pointed at him. "Your days are numbered this time, Pal." He turned and stalked out of the alley.

Spike closed his eyes and slumped against the wall. Two sets of hands wrapped around his arms to support him. "Let's get him back inside," Anya said.

"He'll need some blood," Halfrek said. "He should go home."

Anya sighed. "You're right. Let me go get the lights and secure everything, then we can take him."

"No, no, I'll take him. You go take care of your little shop. William and I will be just fine."

"You're sure? You know the way to his crypt?"

"Mm hm. I'll get him there, safe and sound. No worries!" She wrapped Spike's arm around her shoulders and started dragging him down the alley. "Come on, William. Don't tell me a mere human hurt you that badly. Move your feet." Spike willed his legs to move. Eventually, they cooperated. "There you go. Halfrek's gonna take good care of you. Then we'll see if we can't take care of that insensitive lug that Anyanka's got such an inexplicable soft spot for."

***

Buffy had her hand on the front door when she heard a car screech to a halt in front of her house. She turned to see Xander getting out, and smiled. "Hey!" She bounced down the steps and ran to meet him halfway on the front walk. "How was your trip?"

"The trip was fine," he said. "Willow's about as well as you'd expect." He grunted as Buffy wrapped her arms around his middle and squeezed. "Watch it, Buff. The ribs are a little tender."

She pulled back to look at him. "What's wrong? Willow didn't --"

"No! Nothing like that."

She nodded and started to turn around, but saw his hand. A couple of his knuckles had split and were bleeding. "Were you fighting? Did something attack you?"

"Not exactly."

"Come on. Let's go take care of that." She started for the house.

On the porch, Xander hung back. "Buffy, there's something you need to ..." He took a deep breath, then spat out, "Spike's back."

Buffy just looked at him. "Uh huh."

Xander stared at her, obviously not satisfied with her reaction. "What, you mean you knew? Were you planning on telling me?"

"Uh huh."

"When?"

She kept staring at him. "Um, when I saw you again, after you got back from England. Which would be right now."

He closed his eyes and nodded. "Right. Sorry. I'm just ... still a little thrown by it."

Buffy gave him a sympathetic smile. "That's understandable. Come on." She opened the door and went inside. "Go wash your hand in the kitchen. I'd offer to feed you, but it's Dawn's night to cook."

Xander smiled. "Thanks for sparing me." He started toward the kitchen, but stopped and turned back to Buffy. He looked serious again. "When did he get back?"

She shrugged. "I dunno. A couple of nights ago? Yesterday? I didn't ask."

"Right. Because you were too busy kicking his ass to the end of your property and beyond."

She frowned. "Not exactly." She looked at his hand again, and put two and two together. "Were you fighting Spike?"

"Okay, why does your tone of voice sound like you think that's a bad thing?"

"Is he ... the chip ..."

"Oh, it's still firing on all cylinders," Xander said.

Relieved, Buffy sighed.

"He got in a lucky punch," he continued. "Except, I don't know that he'd consider the crippling migraine that followed all that lucky. That's where the bruised ribs came from."

"And the hand?"

"He kinda ran into it with his face. A lot."

Buffy crossed her arms and glared up at him. "Would that be before or after you saw that he can't hit back?"

Xander gaped at her. "What is with you women defending that cold blooded son of a bitch? And when I say cold blooded? That's literal, remember?"

"So, what?" she asked. "You saw him, and you decided to liven up the party by punching the Spike?"

"I saw him talking to Anya."

She softened a little, and leaned against the stair rail. No wonder he was so wigged. "They're allowed to talk to each other, Xander."

"Oh yeah? And if Spike decides he wants seconds, and she says no, and he decides to take it anyway? Is that allowed too?"

Buffy's fists clenched involuntarily. She was so tired of him bringing that up. How was she supposed to move on if he kept throwing it in her face? "That was ... it wasn't that simple, Xander. He wouldn't do that to her."

"No? Just like you were so sure he wouldn't do anything to hurt you? Anya's a demon, Buffy. The chip doesn't work on her. If he tries to ... What's to stop him?"

Buffy folded her arms. "What do you want from me, Xander?"

"I want you to do your job!"

"You want me to go slay Anyanka?"

"What? No!"

"I see." She stood up and paced into the living room. "So her I'm supposed to make an exception for." She turned back to face Xander. "But I'm supposed to somehow forget about all of the times that Spike fought alongside us and saved our lives, about the way he protected my sister ... I'm supposed to forget that I had an affair with him and go take him out because you're afraid he might hurt the demon you love?"

Xander opened his mouth to say something, but then just hung his head. "No." He sighed, and raised his head again. "I don't expect that from you."

"Good," Buffy said, "because I can't do that." She shook her head as she leaned against the back of a chair and put her hand on her hip. "Spike screwed up. But he's sorry."

Xander laughed. "He's sorry? He actually said that?"

Buffy nodded.

"And you believed him?"

"Yes."

Xander laughed some more, and shook his head. "So that makes it all okay. A century spent in slaughter? 'Sorry, my bad.'"

Buffy couldn't help but roll her eyes at the hypocrisy. She folded her arms and shrugged. "It was good enough for Willow."

Xander stopped laughing. "Willow has a soul."

A soul. Of course. And as Willow and Warren both proved last spring, that makes all the difference. Buffy pursed her lips and focused on a spot on the wall, but she said nothing.

"And by the way," Xander said, "how dare you compare Willow to that --"

"That what?" She snapped her eyes up to meet his. "That vampire? How dare I compare the woman with a soul who backed my little sister into a corner and threatened to restore her keyness with the soulless vampire who withstood hours of torture to protect her?"

He just stared at her for a moment, then sighed. "That rapist." He shook his head, and turned to the door, but stopped. "You know, there was a time I could have given him the benefit of the doubt. But after that?" He pointed up the stairs. "I got nothing left but doubt. The fact that he's a vampire is just icing on the evil cake. And if you can't see that something needs to be done about it ..."

Buffy sighed. "Like what?"

Xander's shoulders slumped, defeated. "You know what? Just forget it." He opened the door and left without closing it behind him.

Buffy went to shut it. Then she opened it again and stepped out onto the porch, just in time to see Xander drive away. She hung her head, and smiled in spite of herself at the cigarette butts that littered the porch. She went over to the wicker chair and sank down, without even thinking about it, in the same spot where Spike had sat the night before. She couldn't be mad at Xander. How could she expect him to understand what she couldn't figure out for herself?

She closed her eyes and laid her head on the back of the chair, and wished that things could be simpler.

***

Spike sipped his blood 'n' Vodka cocktail and watched Halfrek putter around his crypt, cleaning up the First Aid supplies. She prattled on about what a useless waste of skin Xander Harris was, and as Spike shifted in his chair, trying to find a spot to put all of his weight on that didn't hurt like hell, he felt inclined to agree. "Oi, Pet! Be a love and bring that bottle when you come back."

"I mean," she said, retrieving the rest of the Vodka from the fridge, "don't you just wish he'd, I don't know ... that that thick head of his would just explode?" She handed him the bottle and looked at him expectantly.

Spike regarded her for a moment, then set his glass down. "Do you know what I wish, Pet?"

"Yes?" She looked eager.

"I wish I knew why the hell you're helping me." He uncorked the bottle and took a long swig.

Halfrek rolled her eyes and sighed. "Honestly, William. Don't you recognize me?"

"Yeh, that's why I'm surprised." He sneered at her. "What with me being so far beneath you." Funny, he'd thought he was long over that. It surprised him how freshly stung he felt by her rejection, even as he tried to figure out what the hell he'd ever seen in her. Maybe it was because the memory of Buffy uttering those words still cut him like a knife, and the truth behind them cut deeper still. Or maybe it was just because for William, it hadn't been that long.

Halfrek put her hands on her hips and looked down at him like he'd just spilled his milk or colored outside the lines or something. "You were a human. Of course you were beneath me." She sighed. "And as flattering as your little crush was, I couldn't have you constantly underfoot, getting in my way. I had a job to do. It was nothing personal."

Spike sat up a little straighter in his chair, wincing as his bruises protested the movement. "What, you mean you were already a demon?"

"Of course. Cecily Addams was only a disguise so I could get close to ... oh, what was her name? Some widow with a little girl that her new husband paid the wrong kind of attention to. Or maybe it was her neice ..." She screwed up her face in concentration, then gave up and waved a dismissive hand. "Eh, that's not important. But I've been a justice demon for centuries. Though not as long as Anyanka ..."

Spike just blinked at her. "So, you're telling me that I ran out and got myself killed over an uppity bint who never even existed?"

"Yeah, about that ... I admit that I could've let you down more gently."

"You think?"

"I'm trying to make amends here, William. The least you could do is listen."

"Yeh? The least you can do is bite me. Oh, wait -- Dru beat you to it." He took another impressive pull from the bottle.

Cecily -- Halfrek -- whoever the bitch was ignored him. Imagine that. "The point is, I've always felt bad about that poor, sweet, deluded young man's death. He deserves some justice. And so do you. Normally I wouldn't do this for a vampire, but what with your new soul I'm sure I can find some kind of loophole. So I'm granting you a wish."

"Swell."

She crouched next to his chair. "Oh, come on. Wouldn't you just love to see Xander get what's coming to him?"

Spike looked away from her. "Wouldn't I." He polished off the rest of the Vodka.

"How about the aforementioned exploding head? Or it doesn't even have to be physical torture. I'm sure if you put that creative brain of yours to use you can come up with a more long-lasting torture."

"Yeh. Buffy'd love that."

"The Slayer doesn't have to know --"

"Forget it!" He slammed the bottle down and stood up, ignoring the pain and the slight wobbliness. "I'm not gonna help you get back at Harris for jilting Anya, so thanks for the blood 'n' sympathy, but you can sod off now." He went over to the TV set and turned it on. Letterman was coming on. He dug his smokes out of his coat pocket and put one in his mouth, then began fishing for his lighter.

Halfrek stood up. "You really don't want to hurt him? Not even a little? It's not like making a wish would set off your chip."

Spike sighed. "What I want is to give that self-righteous prat a very personal and hands-on kicking of his uptight, hypocritical, Buffy-influencing ass!" His voice rose with every word until he was into full-on rant mode. He flinched as his yelling brought back the headache, but he didn't let that stop him. "Thinks he's so much better than me. The wanker summoned a demon that incinerated dozens of people and almost killed Buffy, and does anybody hold it against him?" He shook his head. "Always shoving me around, acting all high and mighty and brave, and we all know he wouldn't dare touch me if I didn't have this chip in my head." He pointed at his temple. "But they act like he's some kind of hero for picking on a cripple. 'Cause that's what I am, y'know? Now more than ever ... and it's not like I even need the chip anymore, is it? Now I've got a soul ..." He laughed. "You know what I wish, is that I never got the bleeding chip in the first place. Then I could show that git what --"

David Letterman fell silent, and so did Spike as Halfrek's last words echoed in his head: "Wish granted." As he looked around the crypt, his jaw went slack until the cigarette fell out of his mouth. All of his stuff was gone. Cobwebs and dust coated every surface. It looked like it had the day he'd discovered it.

Spike closed his eyes and hung his head. "Bugger."

***

End, Part One