Title: The Freedom of Choice Part 1/1 Author: Sandy S Email: ssoennin@juno.com Rating: PG-13 Spoilers: Set after season 6 Disclaimer: I own nothing. All belongs to Joss and UPN. Dedication: For Valerie (a.k.a. Brat), who graciously beta-read my first fanfiction and gave me great advice! :o) Summary: My first fanfiction! Answer to a challenge #21 posed by Lyn/Ardra Landru at Buffy and Spike Diaries: Angel discovers what Buffy and Spike have been "up to" in season 6 and comes for a "visit" - S/B romance, of course - "That never happened!" - "Umm...Okay, that did happen." - Angel feeling slightly sorry for Spike - Some sort of confrontation - Dawn being on Spike's side - Anya making a comment on Spike's sexual prowess ;) - A polka number. - Chocolate desserts of some kind. - A wedding dress. - A bird hitting a blackboard. - strawberries - A number 2 pencil - a set of walkie talkies - (if possible) no sex





The Freedom of Choice

"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." -Aldous Huxley

"It does not so much matter what happens. It is what one does when it happens that really counts." -Laura Ingalls Wilder

"If our lives are indeed the sum total of the choices we've made, then we cannot change who we are. However, with every new choice we are given, we can change who we are going to be." -From "The Outer Limits" (1995)

"Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you." -Jean-Paul Sartre

I recognized his scent even before I got close to his dimly lit crypt. It hung in the air like a static-filled sock clings to a sweater. My stride grew longer and my pace more rapid as I approached the heavy door to his home; my anger swelled through the borrowed pig's blood coursing through my veins. I felt the bones in my face shift beneath the flesh covering my skull, my teeth extended and twisted, and my sight grew more keen until I could make out the detailed designs on the crypt, even in the black of night.

I took a deep breath to fuel the growl in my throat as I slammed the wood and metal against the inner wall of the crypt. Glowing candles sprayed warm light against the cool breeze swirling behind me. The radiance briefly stung my eyes, but I could make out a form moving hastily before me.

Immediately, I hesitated. The movements were not familiar, and I stopped short. I was partly proud that I had taken a moment to think before reacting as my demon wanted. Overlaying the one I sought's more pervasive smell was the scent of another, unfamiliar creature. And the movements were less fluid and more clumsy than a vampire's more graceful and flowing motions.

An uncertain, slightly quavering voice met my sharply attuned ears. "A-angel?"

"Who are you?" I demanded, punctuating my cursory statement with a pointed growl.

"A-a f-friend."

I stepped further toward the demon before me whose fear was enhanced by the quivering folds that covered his body. The demon surprised me by not backing away despite my entrance into his personal space. "How do you know who I am?"

"I've heard a-a lot about y-you."

Glaring at him, I ignored his comment. "Where is he?"

"H-he's not h-here, I-I mean, not, not in Sunnydale. I d-don't know where he went. O-or when he'll be b-back."

I flopped in the chair before the television with my legs splayed apart. I no longer met the other demon's gaze. "I'll wait. I need to know the truth from my grandchilde."

Several minutes passed as I watched whatever program the creature had been viewing before my interruption. The stranger in the crypt slowly stopped trembling but never ceased staring at me in fear and awe. He clasped his hands tightly together in front of his torso.

Finally, I sighed. I glanced briefly at him. "So, sit down. I'm not going to bite you. Do you have any blood in that fridge over there? And what did you say your name was? We may as well be friendly because I think I'll be here a while."

The demon calmed visibly at my words and ambled to the refrigerator. He smiled briefly and opened the door, sending cold air across the crypt to brush across my face. "Let's see. We have blood, beer, and..." He trailed off as he rummaged toward the back of the appliance. "Fresh strawberries," he added triumphantly. "And there's a Quantum Leap anniversary special on the tube tonight that I was going to watch." He turned to face me. "And by the way, my name's Clem."

* * *

I chewed on my bottom lip thoughtfully and ran my fingertips slowly across the clothes lined up on the rack before me. Different colors and textures brushed over my skin. Finally, I looked up at the lightbulb shining above before squeezing my eyes shut so that only the familiar smell of flowers filled my nostrils. I hugged an empty cardboard box against my torso.

I sighed and drew a deep breath. "Dawn!"

I was not going to face the most difficult challenge alone. A year and a half after our mother's death, Dawn and I were finally finding the courage and the time to go through our mother's belongings. Somehow, the task seemed much harder than slaying demons.

Several seconds passed, so I called for my sister a second time.

"Coming!" came her distant reply. I knew she had been going through the boxes in the basement, but I really needed her present to go through the objects that our mother most frequently touched and used.

I could hear Dawn's footsteps pounding up the stairs and approaching the upstairs hallway to our mother's bedroom. Opening my eyes as she entered the room, I smiled. She returned the smile, and I reached up to pull a dust bunny from her long dark hair.

"Oops. Did I get dust in my hair again?"

"Yep, you did. What did I tell you about playing in the dirt?"

She grinned at my halfhearted, last ditch attempt to avoid the closet for a final handful of seconds. "So, mom's clothes, huh?"

"The hardest part." I handed her a box that rested on the floor by my feet. My muscles felt tense at the prospect of plunging into the work.

Dawn made a move first. Reaching into the back of the closet for a specific item, Dawn pulled her left hand back triumphantly, clutching a long, elegant ivory-colored dress covered in clear plastic. "Hey, can we keep her wedding dress? It's too beautiful to throw away, and we just can't crumple it up in the keepers box."

I hesitated. The dress reminded me so much of both my parents: the love they shared, the arguments between them, the fights about my late night behavior when I first became the slayer, how I would never get married, how I would never have a normal life, how I would die young, how I had already died. Tears sprang up briefly to blur my vision. Blinking them back before they fell, I collected my thoughts. I should be thankful for what I had that made me unique and special for the people...and creatures in my life. Sweet Dawnie might one day get married and want to wear the dress. The tears quickly dissipated, and I nodded firmly. "Definitely a keeper. You should put it in your closet."

"Cool, thanks." She carefully laid the dress across the bed as we turned to the open chasm of the rest of the closet.

After the fanfare of the wedding dress, we relaxed and settled into an automated process of grabbing, folding, and packing up our mother's clothes and shoes. We chatted amicably while we worked. Working together was so much easier.

"So, did you read the letter from Willow?" Dawn asked as she folded a pink sweater. We were reaching the end of the closet deconstruction.

"Yea. It was good news. She's coming home from England in a few weeks. She said that her treatment is going well and that she's feeling much better. She might move back in with us if you're willing to have her." I leaned forward to pull the last of our mother's stuff from the bottom of the closet. I came away with three large shoe boxes. Most of our mother's shoes had been on the shoe rack hanging in the closet, so she only had a few boxes.

"Oh, yea! That'd be great." We locked eyes and grinned at one another. "I kinda miss having her around. I need to write her a letter myself. Did she say anything else? Do you think she's coping better about the whole magic problem thingy?"

"She said to tell you hello and gave a few details of what England is like and what she's been up to lately, besides magic therapy. She almost sounds like her old self and is really homesick for Sunnydale. Sounds kinda funny, homesick for the hellmouth." I wrinkled my nose, and Dawn laughed. "You can read what she wrote later if you want. The letter's by my bed." I pulled the lid off the top box and dragged out a pair of white dress pumps.

"Sure." Dawn took the shoes I handed her and put them into the empty box behind her. "Can I take those shoe boxes?" She asked staring at the boxes. "I can use them for all sorts of things."

"For storing the stuff you steal?" I teased, referencing her habit of nicking objects from various stores throughout the last year.

My sister's head shot up in mock alarm. She held her nose in the air and tried not to giggle. "I would never do something like that." She paused. "Again."

"Uh, huh." I opened the next box, handing her the shoes and empty box with each hand.

The lid of the last box fell away to reveal a set of recordable video tapes each labeled clearly in our mother's neat hand.

"Mom's Passions tapes!" Dawn exclaimed. "I wondered where she had those hidden away. She taped every episode, remember?"

"Yea." I smiled in memory. Our mother loved the supernaturally- based stories cooked up by the soap opera writers of Passions. And Giles...he had said once that Spike had made him watch the show with him. Spike...

"Hey, remember that time that you brought Mom and I to Spike's so he could watch over us and keep us safe? He and Mom watched Passions together." Dawn ran her slender fingers over the tapes resting before my knees. "I'd almost forgotten about that. Hey, I bet he'd enjoy watching these...that is, if he got a VCR."

I frowned and drifted off a little as Dawn spoke. Our last encounter had been filled with so much raw emotion. And then, Spike had left town without a word. Not that I could expect one from him. After all, I had broken things off with him, and he had tried to rape me in the bathroom. I shuddered slightly at the memory. Sometimes I still found it hard to take a shower in that room. Whenever I tried to bathe there, I could only see the hurt and confusion and guilt...(guilt?)...in his eyes after I shoved him off of me. My heart would beat faster, and I would almost feel sorry for him. I had protested our relations so much in the past and had then given into him.he probably thought my protest then was one of those times. I furrowed my brow slightly. But, in the end, he had tried to rape me. I had to remain definitive on that fact. Otherwise... otherwise, I would have to let myself acknowledge my contribution to how our...relationship played out.

"Buffy!" Dawn's voice shook me out of my reverie. "Are you okay?"

"Yea, I just got all drifty for a minute."

"I could tell." She sighed. "I guess it's hard not to get drifty while we're doing this, huh?"

"Wow! Can you believe the whole closet's done?" I suddenly realized that the task I had been dreading for the last few months was finally completed.

"Nope, and I got the whole basement done, too!"

I stood and offered Dawn a hand up. We each hefted boxes. Being stronger, I carried all the boxes but two, which Dawn struggled to balance in her slender arms.

"Let's take the stuff we're giving away to the front porch," I said, walking toward the stairs. "What time did Xander say he was coming to pick all this stuff up?"

Dawn's voice came back muffled behind her box as I descended the stairs. "Umm. I think around seven this evening. Right before it gets dark."

"Oh." Neither of us wore a watch. I shifted the box to my right hip as I opened the front door. The warm, late evening sun splayed a multitude of colors across the blue of the sky. Birds still chirped in the trees. "Must be soon."

Dawn followed me onto the porch, and we set the boxes down amongst the pile of other boxes that we had already accumulated that day. I surveyed the work we had done. Several brown boxes were filled to the brim with our mother's belongings and were stacked haphazardly on top of one another. An old, tattered watercolor of a blackbird flying into a blackboard crowned the top of the pile as if on display in our mother's art gallery. I almost felt guilty giving away our mother's things, but when I pictured the equally large pile of boxes we stored in the basement and the little reminders of our mother that remained around the house, I didn't feel so sorrowful. Plus, someone more needy would probably find enjoyment in the stuff Dawn and I could not use.

Out of nowhere, Dawn asked from behind me, "Buffy? When do you think Spike will get back from wherever he is?"

* * *

Ever since the magic of the demon had torn through my body and had slapped a soul against my demon, the bottomless well of darkness had swallowed me up to the point that I could scarcely move and could not even contemplate standing or opening my eyes. And this thing inside me, this soul, had been what I wanted. From observing what a ponce Angelus became after he was cursed with his soul, I knew gaining a soul would lacerate me emotionally, but I never considered that I would physically ache to the core of my being. I lay like that for what seemed an eternity, with my limbs and torso heavy against the ground below me. Except for the physical torment that throbbed through my muscles, my senses seemed shut off. I could not even smell or hear my surroundings anymore.

I was distinctly aware of my feelings. Over and over for days, the emotions swirled through my head and non-beating heart...fear, anxiety, triumph, love, anger, rage, guilt...guilt was the feeling that resonated most deeply. Guilt was what I had been feeling after the incident. (No, Spike, you can't soften that one.) After I attacked Buffy in her bathroom. No, wait, it's worse than an attack. I tried to have sex with Buffy even when she said no repeatedly and tried to push me away. Guilt is what I felt even when I did not have a soul. Only now, the guilt could not be dismissed like the damned government chip wriggling in my brain tissue because a soul had taken up residence within me.

I felt guilt because I had done something wrong. I had hurt the person most precious to me in the world. The one I swore never to hurt. Oh, god. There was no way to let myself off for that one. I love Buffy, and I almost did something unthinkable to her. In my entire romp around the world as an evil, fun-loving, kickass vampire, I never did hurt someone I cared about...except for Buffy. Yea, I hurt Harmony, but I never loved that airheaded bint. And I know I hurt Dru with the whole threatening to kill her for Buffy bit, but my feelings for Dru were changed by that point. She had hurt and cheated on me one too many times. And I truly loved Buffy when I attacked and tried to force myself upon her. How the hell was I going to rectify that?

If I had anything to stake myself with right now, I would. Even a nicely sharpened, wooden number 2 pencil like the kind my Nibblet, my Dawn carries in her school backpack would do the trick.

After being lost in thoughts and the mire of guilt for days, something finally clicked. Just because I had a soul didn't mean I had to be all broody and whiny about my past misdeeds. I should do what I always did in response to what's happening to me. Take action. Even if I made more mistakes, even if it was the hardest thing in the world for me to do. I felt my muscles spasm slightly as these new thoughts took root in my soul. I knew what I had to do.

* * *

She discovered me. And I've only been here a week.

I was napping (fully clothed because the place is filthy for some reason) in Spike's burned bed in the late afternoon while Clem was in town buying supplies with the money I provided him. Since opening "Angel's Investigations", the one thing I had plenty of now was money. I was tempted to give Buffy some anonymously, but I know she would eventually figure out who sent the cash and return it. Even after all this time, one of us could usually sense the other's lingering presence. If only she wasn't so stubborn. Somehow, I thought that Buffy would have known I was in Sunnydale by now.

However, Buffy was not the one who discovered me.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, even while sleeping, I sensed a presence on the ladder that lowered into Spike's bedroom. I smelled a slight vanilla scent...Buffy's scent. This scent, however, was mingled with and overlaid by a bright, citrus flavor. I had almost placed a name with the smell when she spoke, startling me out of my light slumber.

"Angel! What are you doing here?"

I sat up abruptly. "Dawn!"

"Yea, it's me. I asked you a question. What are you doing here?" A much taller teenage girl than I remembered with flowing chocolate brown hair stood before me. Her hands were planted on her hips, and her eyes flashed in the typical manner of Summers' women. She sounded very irritated with me-never mind that I am a master vampire who could easily overpower and kill her. Of course, I would never harm a hair on Dawn's head.

"I could ask you the same question" was my initial response.

She glared at me.

"I'm here to see Spike," I said, offering an olive branch in attempt to lower her blaze.

"Spike's not here," she said in her rolling-her-eyes tone of voice.

"I know."

"Huh?" She was softening. Her hands relaxed off her hips, but her shoulders remained proudly straight.

"Why are you here? Shouldn't you be home with Buffy? She'll be worried." I tried to play on her need to be a good sister to Buffy.

"I stop by here everyday after work-I work for Anya now at the Magic Box, which is a long story. Anyway, I come to check on Spike's crypt and see if he's back yet. Sometimes I chat with Clem for a few minutes. I guess you must have met Clem, if you're sleeping here. Buffy doesn't know I visit, though. Hey, does Buffy know you're here?"

"Um, no." I stood from my position on the bed, so I could look down on her, and I moved closer to her, lowering my tone and placing my fingertips together in front of me. "And right now, it needs to stay that way."

She gazed up at me defiantly. "You're not intimidating me, Mr. Dark and Tower-y." Her arms crossed across her chest. "Give me one good reason not to tell her that you're here."

"I know about Spike and Buffy." I spoke evenly.

She looked genuinely surprised. "H-how?"

"Let's just say the demon world talks. It's not everyday that a demon's sleeping with a girl who slays his kind."

"Oh."

I took advantage of her amazement to press further with my reasoning. "And let's just say that I need to have a little talk with Spike before he does anything else to hurt Buffy."

"Spike would never hurt Buffy on purpose. He loves her," Dawn protested in defense of her sworn protector.

"That doesn't stop the Spike I know. And I know everything that happened between him and Buffy."

"How is what happened between my sister and Spike any of your business? Last time I heard, you're the one who left Buffy. Trust me, I remember."

"Spike's not here now, is he?" I felt my demon's impatience begin to flare.

"But Buffy broke up with Spike. He didn't leave her."

"I still would rather speak with Spike before Buffy knows that I'm here." My tone softened. "I don't want to get Buffy all upset about my presence before she needs to be."

"You mean your interference in affairs you have no right to be in the middle of. You don't even know when Spike is coming back...or if he even is coming back." Dawn's eyes filled with tears as she spoke.

I reached a gentle hand out to brush away the tears that spilled onto her cheeks. "You care about him."

"Yea, I love him. He's good to me...like a big brother." She met my dry eyes with her moist ones. "I know that doesn't dismiss what he tried to do to Buffy. But that doesn't mean I stopped loving him."

"Well, he's coming. Cordy had a vision. She said something's different about him." I offered the words in a way that I hoped would be comforting.

"Cordy saw all that?" Dawn only knew Cordelia from the years when her sister and Cordy went to high school together.

"She sees lots of things. And she's part demon now," I informed Dawn. Cordelia, my...I'm not sure what to call her...well, she works for me, er, with me. Anyway, she could see visions of what was to come, and she was able to handle the visions a lot better since becoming part demon.

"Is Spike okay?" she asked worriedly.

"Yea, he's okay...just different. And I need to find out in what way before I feel safe about him being around all of you."

"You feel responsible for him," she stated.

"He's my grandchilde."

She sighed and backed away from me. "Well, I promise not to tell Buffy that you're here on three conditions."

I smiled at her determination. "And they are?"

She tapped each of three fingers with her opposite hand as she listed the conditions. "One, you tell me as soon as Spike gets here. I want to have a word or two with him myself. Two, you don't harm a hair on his head or you'll have me to contend with. And three, promise you won't leave without telling Buffy you've been here."

"I think you have yourself a deal."

"Cool." This time she returned my smile.

Then, she turned on her heel and climbed back up the ladder. I heard the door to the crypt shut softly behind her.

* * *

The sun was setting as I approached the Magic Box. My stomach was full from the dinner Dawn and I had cooked together that evening, and we had walked together to her friend's house after dinner. She planned to spend the night studying with her friend for her first round of exams. All I had left to do before taking a nice bubble bath was patrol. Xander left me a phone message earlier today that he had a stack of newly carved stakes for me at the shop. And stakes are all important to patrolling, especially when they're carved and lacquered to prevent splinters.

The familiar scent of incense and candles met my senses as the bell above the shop door announced my entrance. Anya looked up from behind the cash register to grin at me. Despite becoming a vengeance demon after Xander's untimely departure from the altar at their wedding a few months ago, she had remained dutifully at her post at the Magic Box in Giles's absence. More importantly, after Xander's actions to save Willow and the world from dark magicks, he and Anya had compromised for a tentative alliance. Xander had definitely been finding a way to spend extra time around the shop lately. I had no idea how much they had discussed what happened between them, but they both seemed lighter as if somehow a weight had been lifted off.

I returned Anya's grin. Although Anya and I had a brief falling out after she and Spike slept together, we were slowly trying to rebuild trust in our friendship after she helped us so much with Willow. "Hey, what's up?"

She reached below the cash register and held out a box. "Your stakes. All sculpted to perfection by Xander just today."

Lengthening my stride, I took the open box from her and peered in to find what I expected. "Perfection is an understatement." Xander was quite the carpenter and expert woodworker, and each stake was carefully shaped and polished with grooves on each side. "I love the spots for extra hand grippage!" I cradled one in my right hand before clasping the wood firmly. "Bueno."

"Hey, Buff!" came Xander's voice from the other side of the room as he came up from the shop's storage area. "Just the girl I wanted to see."

Anya raised an eyebrow at him. She was enjoying how she still had a hold on Xander.

"Aside from you, of course, my dear." He nodded to the blonde behind the counter.

"Thanks for the stakes, Xan." I could not take my eyes off them.

"Welcome as always." He paused and ambled up to me. "So, I was thinking of having a party at my place when Willow returns."

"And," Anya inturrupted. "He wants to make it a theme party."

"Oh?" I said with a smile. "What kinda theme party?"

"Oktoberfest!" He grinned. "I thought we could all dress in goofy outfits, drink beer, and eat pretzels."

"Beer, uck," came my response. From past, rather negative experience, I officially disliked alcohol with a passion. "Diet soda for me."

"Okay, diet soda for Buffy."

"Xander needs your opinion on the music." Anya walked across the shop to the table where many a demon research meeting had been held. She pushed play on the stereo's cassette deck. "I like the polka."

Polka music filled the room, and I watched skeptically as Anya grabbed Xander's hand, and they began to dance briefly together. He spun her with his left hand and guided her spiritedly across the floor so that they ended before me.

"So, Buff, what do you think?" Xander asked, slightly out of breath.

"Hmmm. Well, the music's cheerful."

"I like it. And Willow needs something cheery after the whole ordeal," Anya gushed.

I paused. How was I to put an end to this silly but not surprising idea-considering who it was coming from. "Xander, do you happen to remember what happened at the party you guys threw for me after I came back after being gone all summer?" His facial expression was confused. "You know, after I shoved Angel into hell?"

Anya stepped out of Xander's arms and waited for his response. I knew she had not heard this story. He looked thoughtful. "You mean, when man-eating zombies destroyed your house and attacked all the students who were at the party?"

"Yea. When you and the gang were patrolling for me with walkie talkies and special code names."

He groaned. "Don't remind me."

Anya glanced back and forth between them. "Zombies...I don't know this story. And code names, what code names?"

Xander rolled his eyes at her. "Don't ask."

Sticking out her bottom lip, she said, "Okay, don't tell me. I'll just go back to work."

Xander looked stricken at her reaction.

She grinned over her shoulder as she walked away. "I'm just teasing, silly. It's no biggie." She knelt down in front of the shelves behind the counter and began straightening them. Relief washed over Xander's expression.

I turned back to Xander, placing the box of stakes on my hip. "So, maybe we could have a small get together with just us and snack-type foods?"

He smiled. "Yea, I guess Oktoberfest wasn't such a great idea anyway. Even though Willow's a Wicca, urhm ex-Wicca, she used to be Jewish. I don't know how well Oktoberfest would go over with her."

I turned to leave the shop, noticing the darkness through the windows. "So," I said from the door, "there'll be plenty of diet sodas and stuff?"

"Only for you, Buff."

"Gracias, amigo." I saluted him with the stake in my hand as the door

clanged shut behind me. Time to kill some vampires. But where to store all the extra stakes?

* * *

The first time I opened my eyes, I did not fully recognize where I was. I closed my lids as quickly as they had lifted. After an indeterminate amount of time, the nerves in the skin on my chest and fingertips finally came alive. The ground beneath me no longer felt like the softness of dirt mingled with clumps of sweat and blood. In contrast to the cave in Africa, the substance underneath me felt strangely cold and firm, like stone. My arms and legs moved of their own volition as I attempted to change the position of my body.

My head ached and my ears detected a soft moan. Belatedly, I realized the sound was my own. I still didn't recognize my environment. Had someone moved me from the cave? And if so, who? The demon in the cave probably could care less if I laid there forever, so someone else must have removed my body. Straining to think about my few moments of consciousness, I couldn't recall seeing or hearing anyone around me. Surely, I would have remembered someone touching me. Then, I recollected that I had not tried out my sense of smell, yet.

Taking a sharp, unnecessary breath, my mind was flooded with recognition of my surroundings. Dru...I smelled Drusilla...and Angelus. Below their distinctive scents, I caught a faint hint of vanilla...Buffy. Why would they all be in the same place? Confusion washed over me. Wait a bloody minute, the scents were not fresh. Maybe the better question was when had they ever been in the same place?

Inhaling again, I heard the slight gush of a breeze sweeping past before I sensed the coolness on my skin. And I smelled...jasmine! The flowers in Dru's garden still-still?-bloomed. At that moment, my eyelids found no reason to remain shut and were instantly wide. My muscles overcame their cramps, and I flew into a sitting position.

How?

How could I be in the mansion on Crawford Street? In Sunnydale, California?

Yet, there I was. In a convoluted way, ending up at the mansion was rather ironic, and I felt my mouth twist into its familiar smirk.

"Of course," I tried to say aloud with extra sarcasm, but the words came out mute and very non-acrimonious. Bloody hell. If that damned demon had the power to restore my soul, why wouldn't he have the power, as well as the gumption, to send me to the mansion of all places? The place where Buffy and I had teamed together to foil Angelus and Drusilla's plan to unleash hell on earth. Did that really happen four years ago now? Fitting. I just hoped I wasn't in some alternate dimension or some twisted shit like that.

With a fresh rush of adrenaline, I stood. Only then did I realize how weak I was...and how thin. Quivering all over, I felt my demon rear its monstrous head and snarl to get food...now. My soul forced the demon down for me so that I could focus my thoughts and coordinate my movements. I careened in a wobbly fashion out of the mansion and toward my crypt where I hoped Clem might have the fridge stocked with fresh pig blood...sod it all, even blood that was several months old would do.

* * *

Mainly because nothing was on the television, Clem and I were playing a round of poker. Being more astute at the game, Clem was winning. Luckily, we were playing for nothing but kicks because I would have either been out several hundred dollars or several kittens (Clem's preferred form of currency).

Clem studied his hand. "Spike's a good man, you know."

"Spike's a vampire," I replied. My eyes never left the cards splayed across my palm, but I raised my eyebrow at the comment anyway.

"He's still good."

"Is this a new bluffing tactic to distract me? Because it won't work."

"Umm, no, not really. But I stand by what I said."

I bent down to take a sip of blood in the mug balancing on my chair's arm. "Okay, I'll bite. How is he a good vampire?"

Clem tossed three cards onto the discard pile. "Two, please." He took the cards I proffered and crunched down on a handful of potato chips. Through his mouthful, he said, "Spike treats those he cares about with respect. And he tries really hard to do right by them. He took care of Dawn all summer after Buffy died, and he patrolled with the rest of the gang."

I discarded two of my cards and grabbed three off the portion of the deck I had not yet dealt. "Spike doesn't have a soul. Anything good he happens to do is out of selfish intent."

Clem took a sip of beer and threw a few poker chips into the pot between us. As I dropped mine alongside his, he said, "Since when does having a soul have anything to do with whether someone is good or not? I consider myself a fairly good demon as demons go, and I don't have a soul. I try to do right by others." He paused, glancing at the ceiling and considering something. "Although I have been known to cheat a little at kitten poker....But everyone does that. It's part of the reason I play. You never know what will happen. Still, I don't deliberately set out to really hurt anyone."

Clem spread out his cards before me, revealing two jacks. "Two of a kind."

I followed his lead and showed my hand. "Two sevens." I began shuffling the cards as Clem happily raked in the chips.

I considered Clem's last words and recalled Whistler's words to me when he introduced me to Buffy for the first time six years ago. He told me then that I had a choice about what to do with my life, er, unlife. He had said something about how not all demons were hell-bent on destroying mankind...and that some demons actually tried to do the right thing. Was it so hard for me to admit that Spike might also have been trying to do what was just? To do so would mean that I had to admit that even without my soul, my demon had a choice to do right or wrong and that I had consistently gone that extra mile to behave in a manner that was extremely immoral when I did not possess a soul. That sort of frightened me.

I handed the shuffled deck to Clem, and he began dealing a fresh hand. "We all have the choice to behave morally or immorally."

Clem popped another clump of chips into his mouth. He washed them down with a swig of beer before replying, "Yea, but part of doing good is realizing that it's an option in the first place. It took Spike a while to realize that. And he made some mistakes."

"I wouldn't qualify attempting to rape Buffy as just any old mistake. He knew what he was doing when he hurt Buffy." Before I knew it, my words were taking on a harsh tone.

Clem seemed only mildly annoyed. "All I know from Spike about that whole situation is that he was very upset. I don't know the whole story, so I can't speculate on what actually happened. And I can't judge his behavior. From what I gather from what Spike says, and trust me, he even defends her on this, she was pretty abusive physically and emotionally throughout their relationship. She was deeply depressed and hurt after being resurrected by her Wicca friend....I think her name was Willow. People do pretty cruel things to others when they aren't happy with themselves and the rest of the world. I can't say more."

I recalled how I felt after being sent back to earth from the hell dimension I had opened as Angelus four years ago. I hadn't exactly been myself and had behaved like an animal. Even months afterwards, I still felt the impact of what I had experienced. Grudgingly, I admitted that I had probably taken out my pain in some ways on Buffy. Spike must have been pretty confused in a relationship with Buffy if she even felt remotely like I had after returning from hell. Somehow, I surprisingly felt slightly sorry for my grandchilde. And after all, good people sometimes do stupid things...myself included.

Deciding not to press Clem further about whether Spike was a good person, I changed the subject as we continued to play cards. No matter what I believed about Spike, Clem had definitely given me food for thought....I would take a long while to process this conversation.

* * *

In the end, I decided to stop by the house to drop off the extra stakes. Walking in the back door, I set the box of stakes on the kitchen island, shoving one stake in my coat pocket and another up my sleeve as I listened to the answering machine message. Mrs. Jenkins, the mother of Dawn's study friend, called to say that Dawn and Sarah were still studying, but she was driving them to the coffee shop to get a mocha or two. Dawn had reluctantly agreed to call if she was going to be anywhere except Sarah's house, and I was pleased to see she had followed through on her word even if she had not called herself. Smiling, I headed out the door for a cemetery of slaying fun.

Humming softly to myself and swinging my arms lightly with my stake in hand, I crossed behind the Koch tomb, swept past the Harper and Stinson family burial plots, and rounded the nearest leaf-laden tree. The path was easy and familiar, and I could have walked it blindfolded,...or so I thought. Tripping over something in my path, I tumbled to the ground fluidly, rising to a crouched position and turning to examine what I had so gracefully discovered.

Vampire, my senses informed me.

Oh, my, g.... My heart skipped a beat, and the wind seemed to have been knocked out of me. I reached a tentative hand forward to touch the creature's chest. Spike...

He was so thin that I could count the ribs streamlining his rib cage, and his pants hung loosely about his waist. He appeared unconscious...and literally starved. Without thinking coherent thoughts, I threw aside the stake I bore and hefted the lean form. He was so light that I thought he might be a child. Because I was so close to home, I ran to my house first, clumsily opened the front door, and hurried into the living room, laying my burden on the very couch that my mother had died upon.

I flicked on all the lamps in the room to get a closer look at him. Gazing at his altered form, I vaguely remembered that he had once described what a vampire looked like after not eating for weeks. I needed no further description because his appearance was the consummate example of....

He stirred.

He was alive! Well, sort of.

I rushed to the kitchen, opening the cabinet for a coffee mug and a straw, and squeezed some extra blood that was in the refrigerator out of the package. Not bothering to heat the fluid, I hastened back to his side.

His eyes were opened, and their incredible deep indigo reflected all the emotions I had come to expect and reluctantly accept from him.

His lips parted slightly, and he tried to say something but no sound came out. He reminded me of a kitten trying to learn how to meow but not having the vocal chords for sound yet. I sat beside him on the couch and touched his face in a move uncharacteristic of the way I had treated him previously. Holding the mug before him, I helped him drink the blood through the straw. He held my gaze while he drank as he had done once before in the past, but this time gratefulness and exhaustion, not contempt, radiated from his eyes.

He drank half the contents of the mug and sighed back onto the cushions. "Buffy." His voice was hoarse.

"Yea?" I tried to give him one of my tender expressions despite all that had passed between us before he left town.

"Thank you." He closed his eyes, but I could tell he was still awake.

"Rest now. When you feel better, we need to talk." I didn't tell him, but I had been terrified when he looked like death warmed over.

I sat by him through the night while he slept. I simply watched him. Giles would be proud; I didn't let the deadly vampire out of my sight. Behind the placid expression I wore, I experienced a melting pot of thoughts and feelings...things that ached to be shared and clarified. Months had passed, but I could be patient a little longer.

* * *

Buffy must have found me in the cemetery. I don't even remember collapsing, but the next thing I knew was that I was in her house. She fed me blood on the couch in her living room. The liquid was cold and probably long past any expiration date, but it tasted like manna from heaven. My demon was sated. That's all I remember before I fell asleep again. I had so much to tell her, but I couldn't speak, and I couldn't keep my eyes open. She encouraged me to rest, so I let myself fall into a boneless sleep.

* * *

Two hours after I had gone to sleep in Spike's chair, Dawn appeared before me.

"Wake up!" She practically shouted at me.

"I'm awake. I was awake when you opened the door." I blinked up at her, feeling a bit rumpled, mentally and physically after a long night of poker. "Could you keep it down a little? Clem's sleeping downstairs."

She ignored me. "Spike's back."

That tidbit startled my brain wide awake. "What? Where is he?"

"At home...with Buffy." Dawn looked freshly scrubbed and bright- eyed. Her backpack was slung over her left shoulder, and she clutched a textbook, spiral, and number two pencil in her right arm.

"When?"

"He was there when I got home to get my books for school this morning. I spent the night at a friend's, so we could study." She paused. "Spike was sleeping on the couch, and," she hesitated. "Buffy was taking care of him."

I ran a hand through my hair. "What do you mean?"

She sighed impatiently. "He was a skeleton. Wherever he's been, he hasn't been eating. Buffy said she found him in the cemetery on patrol. He was unconscious. Look, I have to go to school. I have two big exams today, but I thought I'd come by and tell you."

"I appreciate it." I stood, smoothing my clothes.

"Just don't do anything until I find out what's going on."

"I'm here to talk to Spike," I reminded her.

"I know. You'll get to, but I want to make sure he's okay before any of us ream him for everything he did before he left."

"Right," I nodded in agreement. I wanted to make sure the message I had for him was not obscured by his physical state.

Dawn headed out, seemingly satisfied that she had done her job. I heard her mumble, "I swear, I don't know how I get myself in the middle all the time. Sometimes I think I'm more of a grownup than any of them."

Her muttered words made me smile, and I settled back into the chair to get some sleep.

* * * Spike slept the whole day. I made sure that the blinds and curtains covering the windows in the living room were firmly closed. At noon, I woke him up to feed him some more blood. He drank the fluid half-dazedly. While he slept, I took the time to pay some bills and clean the house. I had errands to run around town, but they could wait until after work tomorrow. Luckily, I had the day off.

At four o'clock, Dawn called from the Magic Box to say that she had arrived at work and would be staying later than normal because they had to conduct inventory after the shop closed. She added that Anya was letting her do her homework during store hours for today. I warned her not to tell Xander or Anya about Spike's return for now. She agreed and asked after him. I told her that he had been sleeping, but seemed to look a little better.

Placing the phone in the cradle, I returned to the living room to glance at Spike. He was sitting shakily up as I came toward him, and he looked at me carefully. His eyes were clearer than they had been.

"Buffy." He reached for me. His voice was stronger, too.

I didn't hesitate and sat down next to him. "Hey, sleepyhead." I placed my arm around his waist, and he leaned into me appreciatively. "Phew, you stink. Do you feel up to a bath?"

He did not meet my gaze but nodded. "Can we talk?"

Surprised by his eagerness to talk with me, I was suddenly overwhelmed, so I avoided his suggestion. "Not until you bathe."

"Okay."

He attempted to stand before I was ready, so we stumbled a bit before balance was achieved. We climbed to the top of the stairs more quickly than I expected and entered the bathroom awkwardly. Spike settled himself atop the toilet lid with his hands on his knees as I turned from him and started the water running for a warm bath with vanilla scented bath oil.

"Smells like you," he commented in a low tone. Silence followed. "Buffy, I...I'm sorry."

Distinctly aware that we were at the scene of our last encounter, I finally faced him fully. My fingers brushed softly over his bare collar bone in reassurance. We were both vulnerable. "We can talk about this later."

Disappointment painted itself across his face, and he slumped back against the back of the toilet. Guilt shot through my abdomen. "Hey." I moved my face so that he was forced to look up at me. "I'm not the winner of the Miss Avoid Everything and Blame Everyone Else pageant anymore. We're going to face this and deal with it. I'm just glad you're here to do it with me. We'll both feel better after we talk about everything, I think. And I promise to actually listen for once. But, first, you need to get a bit more strength back. Okay?"

His relief was visible. "All right."

We waited for the water to fill the bathtub in more comfortable silence. I kept my hand on his shoulder blade, running smooth circles over his cool skin with my fingertips. After a few minutes, he reached up to bring my hand around his shoulder and lace his fingers lightly with mine. I allowed this simple friendly touch and squeezed his hand gently. We needed each other to get through the discussion to come.

As Spike immersed himself in the warm water, I cleaned his pants in the washer and dryer. I grabbed a large T-shirt that I had received in an on-campus blood drive my freshman year of college. Placing the clothes on the sink counter without peering into the bathroom, I heard him moaning in contentment as he splashed and washed the dirt away.

"Let me know when you're ready to go back downstairs," I called.

"Oh, okay," he replied. I heard water splashing more loudly as he most likely stood and got out of the bathtub. "I'm almost done."

I decided to wait outside the door in case he fell. A few minutes later, he opened the door slowly and switched off the bathroom light. He clung to the doorframe and took the arm I accorded immediately. His skin was warm from the bath water.

"Thanks for the clothes."

"You're welcome. And gosh, you've really improved the odor level around here with that bath," I teased.

"Ha, bloody, ha. You just think so because I smell like you."

"Wow, I never realized I smelled so good."

We clumped back down the stairs more slowly this time because Spike was getting tired. In the kitchen, I seated him on a bar stool around the kitchen island and proceeded to heat him some blood.

As the microwave hummed, he asked, "So, how is everyone? How's Dawn?"

"Dawn's doing well. She's not skipping school anymore, and she's got a job at the Magic Box on weekdays. Tonight she's got to do inventory with Anya and Xander after the shop closes."

"Poor Dawn!" Spike laughed softly. I wasn't surprised that he refrained from specifically asking about Anya and Xander specifically. That topic was reserved for later.

"Our relationship is going better, too. I think after everything that happened, we sort of got some bonding time. I think she's turning into a really strong woman. I only saw it after I really listened to her though...after we talked." The microwave beeped, and I retrieved the mug, stirring the blood with the straw. "Oh, and we finally went through all Mom's things."

"That must have been difficult for you and Nibblet."

I plunked down the mug in front of him, and he lifted it slowly to take a sip. I slipped onto the stool across from him and propped my chin on my palms. "Yea, it kinda was, but it wasn't nearly as bad as doing it alone would have been. We got rid of so much stuff, and we did a little reminiscing. It took us a couple of weekends to finish. Xander took all the boxes of stuff we didn't want to Goodwill."

"The house doesn't look Joyce free though."

"Nope. We kept a lot, too. There's a bunch of boxes in the basement."

"And some all over the house." He slurped the last of the blood from the bottom of the mug. The straw made gurgling noises at the same time as his stomach rumbled loudly, and he handed me the cup. "More, please."

I laughed and went to the refrigerator. "Hungry, huh? What have you been eating lately? I've never seen you so thin."

"A whole lotta nothing." He paused. "So what all happened while I was gone? You said something like after everything that happened..."

"Oh," I hesitated briefly and busied myself fixing his meal. "Yea. Well, Warren and the others..."

I told Spike the whole story of how the human being known as Warren had tried to kill me with a gun in broad daylight after his two cohorts had gotten arrested. Talking about what happened to Tara was particularly hard for me, but Spike touched my arm gently when the tears fell, so I gained strength to continue. Spike was not shocked in the least by Willow losing control with the desire for magical power to destroy those who had been involved in Tara's death or about Giles returning briefly to overload Willow with the essence of magic. When I told him about how Xander had saved the world, he was slightly taken aback, but he took the news in stride.

By the time I recounted the aftermath of what happened with Willow going to England for therapy and Xander and Anya's tentative truce, Spike had finished his second mug of blood, and he eyelids were drooping closed every few minutes.

"Want to go lay down again?" I asked, prying the mug from his hand with care.

"I'm sorry," he replied drowsily. "I just need to lay down for a minute."

* * *

Buffy helped me to the sofa again, and I lay back for a minute, regarding her through my slitted eyelids. She walked away, and my lids shut heavily. When she returned, I was balancing precariously on the edge of the half-dreams I often had before falling fully asleep.

When she spoke, I moved into a sitting position and saw that she had a box in her hands. "Dawn wanted you to have these." She placed the box in my lap. "Oh." I removed the lid of the shoe box. "Tapes of Passions?"

"Yea." She shifted her feet as if slightly embarrassed. "Our mom taped most of the episodes once she got addicted, and since we knew you were addicted, too...."

"That's nice, pet, but I don't have anything to play them with. I don't even know if I still have a crypt."

I saw her stiffen slightly my casual use of my usual nickname for the women I cared about. "Well, you see..." She walked away again, returning with a large rectangular video cassette player. "Dawn and I got a DVD player...from Giles, and we had an extra VCR, so Dawn thought you should have it instead of us giving it to Goodwill. And you do still have a crypt. Clem's still taking care of it like you asked him to last time I checked."

She checked on my crypt?

"Thanks." I didn't know what to say. I was wary. Why was she being so kind to me? As the most direct witness of her hot and cold way of treating me, I started mentally preparing myself for that large, negative brick to fall. Would she hit me with her fist or her words first?

She must have read my face because she said, "Don't worry, I'm not going to change personalities on you...at least in the next minute or two."

Recapping the box of tapes with the lid, I set them on the floor next to the couch and half-laid back down with my feet on the floor. Buffy made a similar move with the video player and sat on the floor in front of me so that the only way we couldn't see each other was if one of us closed our eyes.

"Do you feel like talking now?" she asked.

My heart leaped. Was this really happening after all these months? And Buffy did not even know about the whole soul thing. I momentarily contemplated telling her about my acquisition of a soul first but decided that I was curious to hear what she had to say before I said anything. "Sure."

She frowned after a heartbeat or two. "I'm not sure where to start."

"Just do your best. That's all either of us can do."

"I've been doing a lot of thinking since you left about..." She played with the ends of her hair with one hand and bit her lip. "...what happened between us..."

"Excellent start, pet," I interrupted.

She punched me lightly on the arm and made a fake mad face. "Hold up; let me finish. You'll get your turn."

I tried to look appropriately repentant and mollified.

"Well, after being furious with you for trying to...you know...with me in the bathroom and for not being in your crypt when I needed you to protect Dawn from Willow's search for power to fuel her magic..."

"Even after I did what I did, you still trusted me to take care of Dawn?" I asked incredulously.

She smiled ruefully. "Well, yea, I guess I did trust you with Dawn. You never let me down when it came to protecting her...even if you think you did in the past. In my book, you never have."

"Oh." After the craziness of our misguided, destructive romance, I had forgotten how she trusted me with Dawn. "You just didn't trust me with your heart."

"Hold up. I'm not there, yet," she said, holding up her hand to me as a signal to slow down. Even so, I was amazed that she didn't deny my statement. She frowned with a thoughtful expression as if she was trying to figure out where she had left off. "Anyway, where was I?...Oh, yea. After being furious with you for the reasons I just described, I sort of started to miss you, especially after all the stuff with Willow went down."

"Y-you missed me? Why?"

"Because I missed how I could always talk to you...about anything, and you would listen and always make me feel better. You always knew the right things to say, and you never minced words with me, especially before we started...I needed that, someone to be honest with me..." She trailed off as she fumbled for the right words to explain what she was thinking.

I sighed. I knew what she meant. "You mean, we were able to talk to each other before the shagging started."

"I guess so. It seems like that the more we got into...having sex, the less we talked."

"Yea, I agree, love."

"I was all confused and hurt and angry about Willow and crew...my friends...pulling me out of heaven without even investigating the details first. Giles left. Willow got addicted to the power magick gave her. Xander left Anya at the altar. Dawn was stealing and not talking to me. Dawn and I had no money, and social services was breathing down my neck. Everything hurt...mentally, physically, emotionally. I wasn't exactly in the best position to start...much less, be in a relationship with someone. I should have known better."

I reached for one of her hands which she had been twisting together until her fingers were bright red. She grasped my hand in return and let it go again, not looking at me.

"You know, I pretty much knew what I was getting into when I decided to start with you, pet. And, you really did the best you could considering the circumstances. You gave me what you had to give."

"Yea, but I let it get so bad." She glanced momentarily into my eyes. "I hurt you...I used you, literally...as my punching bag...emotionally and physically. I-I beat you within an inch of your unlife. I called you horrible names when you were just trying to help me." Tears filled her wide green eyes.

I wanted to take her in my arms and hold her tightly while she spoke but knew that would not be helpful...to either of us. Talk was necessary first, and I did not know how our discussion would end. "And I let you. I loved you so much that I didn't care how I had you. And I wasn't exactly a prince in the relationship. Need I remind you about the demon eggs Farm Boy caught me with?"

Buffy laughed at my question. I had tried to sell demon eggs on the black market, and her ex-boyfriend, Riley, had caught me with them. "I thought about that, too. And I decided that you were just doing what we all expected you to do."

"I'm not following how that gets me off the hook, love."

"Well, everyone in our little circle always kept you as an outsider even though you helped us so much. Xander and I especially were always ready with the evil, soulless one comments. Even though you had shown us repeatedly that you were trying to do the right thing, we constantly hammered it in that you weren't good enough to be treated with respect. We sort of created you a self-fulfilling prophecy and put you in a learned helplessness bind....No matter what you did, it wasn't ever good enough for any sort of positive feedback."

She took a breath, and her somber visage brightened into a slight smile as she looked at me. "Remember," she quipped, "I took introductory psych in my freshman year of college."

"Uh, huh. I still had a choice about whether or not to give in to your barbs."

"The comments still hurt you, though."

"Since when did you all even consider that I might actually have feelings?"

"Since...now." She licked her lips. "At least, I do. How can I possibly deny that you have them when you wear them in your eyes like billboards for all to see?"

"I'm that obvious?"

"Well, um, yea. And believe me, it would have made it easier for me to live with what I did to you if you didn't have feelings. That's why I denied it for so long." She reached over and touched my chest with her whole hand. "You do have a heart in there even if it is all unbeat-y."

I covered her hand with my own and removed her touch from my chest. I had to stay focused on her words, and her touch wasn't helping my ability to concentrate. "I wanted so much to make everything better for you. I just didn't know what to do."

"How could you when I didn't even know what I needed myself? I went back and forth with you...one minute I was smothering you in affection, and the next I was beating you down. All I know is that I just wanted to feel different. And I thought sexual feelings were the answer, but those just covered up the pain. And when the sex didn't work, I blamed you. I blamed it on you being a vampire and evil and mainly because you didn't have a soul. But you know what? People with souls do worse things sometimes than people without them. Look at Warren and his pals. Look what they did to Tara....And look how Willow tortured and killed Warren. They all have souls."

I said nothing and just listened. I had opened my big mouth one too many times in the past and had not paid attention to the messages I was receiving. Buffy really had been thinking about us.

She inhaled and then sighed deeply. "I didn't like who I was when I was with you. It's like I knew something was wrong with us, but I didn't know how to stop hurting you. Took me a long time to realize that things were wrong because there was something wrong with me."

I broke in, "Nothing's wrong with you, love."

Her eyes glittered, and her tone became insistent. "Yes, yes there was something wrong...maybe not with me, in particular, but with the way I was treating you...and myself. My behavior wasn't healthy for anyone, including my sister and my friends." She paused, and her voice got quiet. "I talked to Tara after I hurt you so badly in the alley by the police station."

My eyes widened. "You talked with Tara? About us?"

"Yea. She was so supportive and even told me that you really loved me and that you had done good with Dawn and the others."

"Always knew I liked that one."

"She told me it was okay for me to love you, too. She even said it was okay if I was using you because I had been through so much."

Thrown by Tara's reported admission that Buffy loving me was okay, I was too shocked to speak.

"And I did use you. I pushed you to do what you did with Anya."

"No, no, you didn't." I shook my head. "You told me to get over us and move on, and I could have sought comfort with anyone."

"It hurt more than you can know that you chose my friend for comfort." Tears coursed down her cheeks.

"Yea, I know."

She put her head in her hands and sobbed. Shaking, she let me encircle her shoulder with my arm, and I pulled her onto the couch beside me, hugging her warm body close. "I'm so sorry, Buffy." She responded to my movements and hearing her given name on my lips by burying her head in my chest and crying harder. I held her until she was merely sniffling against me.

"Buf-...pet, I need to talk to you about the other thing...the thing that happened in the bathroom upstairs before I left town." I pushed her away slightly. She peered into my face with tear-clouded eyes.

"O-okay." She straightened, leaning against my stomach with her head cradled between her knees. At that moment, the phone sent its shrill call through the house. Buffy broke away from our nearness, wiping her eyes with her fingertips and sniffing. "Gotta get that. Might be Dawn."

As she stood, I realized how exhausted I was from the bath and the emotional discussion that had just taken place. Before my mind could form any more conscious thoughts, I fell asleep.

* * *

I heard heavy breathing and someone running toward the crypt. Clem had gone out with some friends and left me to watch the place, so I threw open the door, thinking he might have run into some trouble. Dawn skidded to a stop and blinked puppy dog eyes at me.

"How did you know I was coming?"

I tapped my head with my first two fingers. "Telepathy."

She smirked in a way that reminded me oddly of Spike. "C'mon, really. How? No, wait, let me guess. Vamps have extra special hearing."

"Yea," I admitted. "So, what's going on? Why are you running here...in the cemetary...in the middle of the night?"

"Well, I called Buffy before I left the shop after inventory with Anya and Xander to check on Spike. Appears he's awake and doing okay. At least, he's gonna live. He and Buffy have been talking."

"What? What about?"

She continued as if I had not inserted my comment, "I ran here after Xander dropped me off at Buffy's. And no, I didn't ask what they were talking about. He was sleeping when I called."

"So, does Buffy know you're here?"

"Nope. Xander just dropped me off, and I lit out to see you. I'm kinda tired of being in the middle, and the longer I keep your being here a secret, the more trouble I'm gonna be in if anyone finds out. So, I was hoping you'd reveal that you're here and take the time to say what you needed to say to Spike." The "and then leave" hung in the air without her saying the words aloud. She pivoted and started walking toward her and Buffy's house. "Let's go."

For a moment, I did not move. Then, I caught up to Dawn at a light jog. We walked in silence until we got to the front lawn of our destination.

"All right, here's the plan. I'll go in and say hello and start chatting with Buffy and Spike. You can come in after we've all gotten comfortable and say your piece. I'm sure you can make it look like you've just arrived. You've had enough experience at pretending. Clear?"

Again, I marveled at a teenage girl telling a two hundred year old vampire "the plan." Still, she was a Summers woman. "Sure."

With that, Dawn flung her hair back, hitched her backpack over her shoulder, and entered her house. I crept to the living room window to watch the scene unfold. Once Dawn was settled in with Buffy and Spike, who were sitting on the couch a little too closely for my taste, I strode to the front door and pushed the doorbell with flourish.

Buffy's voice trailed behind her as she came to the door, and shock registered on her face, her beautiful face when she opened the door and saw me. She formed no words, but she flew into my arms, and I held her close, inhaling the essence that is uniquely Buffy.

* * *

I was locked in Angel's familiar embrace when I heard Spike's voice close by.

"Angel." Spike's tone was flat. "What are you doing here?"

I broke away from my ex-lover's arms and turned, fully viewing the deepest hurt I had ever seen on Spike's face as he stood in the doorway to the living room, leaning against the wall. The feelings in his eyes were more than billboards; they were neon signs. My body cried out to touch him, but I found that my limbs had been drained of energy.

Growling sharply, Angel pushed past me with his vampire visage fully visible and launched himself at Spike. Spike barely had a chance to put his hands up before Angel shoved him roughly against the wall. Dawn stood in the living room beyond with a shocked expression that likely mirrored my own.

"You. You tried to rape Buffy. And for that, my dear grandchilde, you will die." He halted suddenly, staring into Spike's eyes. Angel's grip on Spike slackened a bit, and his vamp face melted away. Spike pushed at him feebly to no avail in his weakened state. "You...you have a soul."

Angel's words seemed to sink in slowly as if my brain was immersed in formaldehyde.

Dawn was the first to speak, "W-what?"

Angel shook him. "Say something, bleach boy."

Spike looked frozen in place, so I spoke for him. "Angel, put Spike down. He's too weak to be treated that way. Just give him a second. And there will be no killing of any kind."

"Yea," Dawn echoed.

Angel snarled reluctantly, and picking Spike up, he shoved him onto the couch. "So, rest up, and talk."

Spike pulled at his shirt, looking ruffled. When he spoke, his voice was even and clear. "Yea, you bloody idiot. I got a soul now...like you but without the damned happiness clause."

Angel regarded him from across the room as Dawn and I moved forward. Sinking to a kneeling position in front of him, I asked, "How?"

He softened as he held my gaze with his eyes. "I wanted to tell you earlier, but we didn't have enough time, and I kept falling asleep."

"Get on with it, Spike," Angel demanded.

Annoyance flashed across Spike's features. "After what happened with Buffy, I left town....Everything was so screwed up. I blamed the stupid chip for my feelings, but I think what I was feeling was guilt. I originally went to Buffy to..."

"Continue what we had been doing for the last several months," I supplied.

"Yea, I really wanted to help her...you, and nothing I did seemed to be working. She was never happy. I tried to talk with her, I tried letting her get her aggressions out on me, I tried letting her have her way with me sexually. Nothing seemed to satisfy her for long. The sex seemed to work the best."

"And, I kept telling him that I didn't want him and then turning to him when I felt overwhelmed and wanted to escape my life," I added. Spike glanced at me gratefully.

Ignoring my comments, Angel snorted. "What'd you do to her, Spike? How'd you get her to do it? You took advantage of her weakened state...to meet your own selfish desires."

"That never happened!" I protested. "I had a choice in it, too. Spike did not have control over my behavior!"

"Uh, huh." Angel glared at Spike. "And what did he say to you?" Mocking Spike's accent, he drawled, "Join me in the darkness. You belong in the darkness. You and I both have a darkness within."

I bit my lip. "Umm...Okay, that did happen."

Spike's temper flared. "I was still trying to figure everything out between us and figure out what she needed!"

"Buffy didn't need anymore darkness, Spike," Dawn said softly. "She was trying to find the light again, and you wouldn't let her."

Spike lowered his head. "I know. I was just trying to understand what was going on with her," he repeated, but with less certainty.

Raising my hand, I piped up, "Um, still in the room here. Spike and I already talked about this. I didn't know what was going on with me, really. I just knew I felt all wrong inside, and I was doing things that didn't feel like me. I was casting around trying to figure out what was the cause of my thoughts and feelings and actions. It took me a long time to figure it out, and I'm still figuring, you know."

"Still haven't explained the whole soul thing, Spike." Angel shifted gears.

Spike was quiet a minute. "When I tried to talk with her about what happened between Anya and me, she wouldn't listen."

Dawn spoke, "It was too soon after it happened. Both your emotions were all touchy and raw."

Spike nodded. "And, I fell back on what I knew worked in the past when I achieved a connection with Buffy."

"You tried to have sex with her," Angel stated.

"Even when she said no," continued Dawn. She sounded betrayed and disappointed in Spike. "You tried to hurt Buffy even though you loved her."

"But, I encouraged it with my past behavior. Spike just didn't know that I meant no that time."

Spike added, "Still doesn't excuse what I did, pet. I felt horrible...still do, but I didn't really understand the feeling. It seemed like I wasn't human enough for all of you, and I was no longer a monster. I was in limbo....So, I set out to get a soul...for myself mainly to help me do good, but also for you, Buffy...you and your friends. I wanted to be good enough, and if I couldn't be good enough simply because I didn't have a soul, I wanted to get one."

My mouth dropped open in shock. "You deliberately set out to get a soul?"

"Yea, I went all the way to bloody Africa. Did battle in the trials set forth so that I might be granted a soul by some sodding demon who about killed me. I asked to be given what you deserved, Buffy. And I was given a soul. Apparently, after he granted me a soul, he also sent me back to Sunnydale...to the mansion on Crawford."

Dawn and I said nothing. Angel charged, "Another of your manipulations that I won't stand for, Spike. Do you expect me to believe that load of horse shit?"

This time my temper rose. I spun to face Angel with my hands on my hips. "And just what are you doing here, Angel? How did you even know about Spike and me? And since when is it any of your business?"

"Hey, that's what I said, too," Dawn spoke up.

Angel was back in human face, but his anger was not lost. "Since when wasn't what you do my business? We've never had secrets. When we met last fall, I told you everything that was happening with me, and you told me about your resurrection, but you didn't say one word about you and Spike going at it. And don't forget that the demon world talks. That's how I found out that the slayer was sleeping with William the Bloody, my own grandchilde."

"Hey, mister. Maybe I was trying to move on with my life since you left me and said we could never be together. How many years did you want me to mourn for us? Didn't you want me to have a life...a romantic life?" My voice was getting louder.

"Preferably with a human being. And not my own family."

"Well, you lost all right to tell me who to be with and who to have feelings for when you walked away from me. And it's not like you and Spike are the best of friends. You don't even speak to each other on a regular basis. In fact, from what I know and what you've demonstrated tonight, you don't like each other very much. And, you have no idea how much he's been there for me through everything while you were off in some other dimension or L.A. or whatever...," I flung my arms wide to emphasize my point, "...when I really could have used your help fighting for the world."

Silence filled the room. "Angel, I'll always love you, but I don't need you anymore, not in that way. What's between Spike and me is between us...and maybe the rest of the gang here who has been affected by our behavior, but it doesn't involve you." Now Angel looked hurt. Was I destined to hurt everyone tonight? I touched his arm gently. "We'll talk soon about everything else that's going on in our lives, okay? People in L.A. need you and care about you. Go home."

Angel smiled slightly at me, noticeably calmer. In his eyes, I saw that he knew the truth of what I was saying. He cupped my chin tenderly and held my gaze with his deep brown eyes that used to entrance me. "Take care." He turned to Spike. "Don't hurt her again. Or, it will be the death of you." His tone partially relented. "I've heard you've been doing good from several people now. Make sure you're doing it for the right reasons."

Spike nodded. "Yea, mate."

As I was closing the door behind Angel, I turned to Dawn, realizing something, "So, did you know Angel was in town before he came tonight?"

Dawn's face transformed. "Uh oh."

* * *

After Dawn was fast asleep, and the lights had long been turned out, Buffy came down the stairs in the dark, waking me with her quiet rustles.

"Spike?"

"I'm awake." I lay back with my hands behind my head. "Need something, pet?"

"Talk." As she approached wearing her nightgown, she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. She was radiant and graceful even in the darkness.

"'Bout what?"

"Willow's coming back in a few weeks...to Sunnydale. Xander wants to throw her a little, not too elaborate, welcome home party. Want to come?"

"I'd love to be there to see the new, improved Red...as long as there's no pointy party hats involved...or weird party themes."

She laughed. "Willow will be impressed with all of us, too, I think. And Giles feels the same way about party hats." She paused. "At least I nixed Xander's original party idea."

"And that was?"

"Oktoberfest-complete with German costumes, beer, pretzels, and polkas."

"The beer part sounds good."

"Ugh. No beer. Diet soda."

"Will there be refreshments at the newly revised shindig?"

"Yea, some kind of chocolate dessert, I hope. Chocolate is a must. Maybe chocolate sauce and strawberries."

"Hot chocolate to drink?" I asked eagerly.

"If you want."

She advanced carefully in the shadows and lowered herself slowly onto the couch, deliberately making contact with the side of my hip. Her touch warmed my soul. "What are we going to do next?"

"Again, 'bout what?"

"Us."

I decided to take a leap. "Do you honestly think we'd work, love? After all we've done to each other?"

"Well, there's a chance we could fall back into the same patterns. But, since we're aware of them...and since I'm finally feeling more like myself...and you've made changes..."

I pulled away from her slightly. "You want to be with me now because I have a soul? Wasn't good enough for you without one, but now I might be?"

"Please, don't pull away, Spike."

"How can I not? What if you decide tomorrow that a soul isn't the thing that does it for you? What if you want me to be something else I'm not?" I could not keep the pain and bitterness out of my voice.

"No." Hot tears flooded her cheeks. I stubbornly refused to give into the tears. "I wasn't suggesting this because you went out and got a soul, Spike. It's nice that you did, and I think it will really help you." She was silent for a heartbeat or two. "Didn't you hear me when I said that now I know that people with souls sometimes do worse than those without? And you've done a lot of good like Tara said. And I believe you can do even more good in the future with a soul, if you choose to. And I believe that you will. I believe in you. I started believing in you before I knew about your soul."

"What are you saying?" I was still resistant to touching her.

I sensed the apprehension in her next words. "It's h-hard."

"What's hard?" I could not help myself. Touching her was vital, so I pulled her against my torso for the second time that day.

"I don't know."

"Yes, you do, love. It's okay. I'm here."

"It's hard admitting that I-I love you especially after all I've done to you. I loved you before you came back. I love you because you were there for me even when I was unlovable."

I was silent, stroking the small of her back. Her face was so close to mine. Neither of us moved.

Finally, she whispered, "Do you not love me anymore? I mean, I understand if you don't."

Compassion swept over me. "Buffy, I never stopped, love."

She wept openly, and my tears matched hers. Her silly college blood drive shirt was soon soaked.

"Will you make sure we always talk to each other? I-I think I need that."

"I'm always here to talk," I reassured her.

"And to shag when we're not talking?"

"One step at a time, pet. Don't want to fall quickly back into old patterns. I'm hoping it will be different this time."

"You mean cause we love each other?"

I touched the tip of her nose with my own. "Yea."

"Anya will ask me what's taking us so long. She might even be a little jealous once she knows we're back together."

"Why's that, love?"

"Because she and Xander haven't completely made up, yet. And, she confessed that you're 'awfully generous in the sack in more ways than one.'"

I laughed. "She said that? To you?"

"I told you that I've been cleaning up my life. Anya and I had a good talk about our friendship, and we're back on fairly even ground. We're still trying to develop trust back between us. She's been through a lot, too."

"I'm impressed." And I was. Buffy was making some bold steps. I probably could benefit from following her lead and talking with Xander and Anya myself.

"We'll take some time, too, to build trust, I mean. Are you willing to take the time and expend the energy?"

"That depends, can you forgive me?" I wondered aloud.

"Can you forgive me?"

"I already did, love."

"Good, cause I did you, too. No more hiding...from each other and from everyone else."

"Really, from everyone else?" I felt insecure.

"Really."

With that, she crossed the remaining space between us. Our lips met with a tenderness that had never previously existed between us. The kiss was brief and chaste, promising an intensity to be explored at a later time, and was the sweetest I had experienced in a long time. She then turned and snuggled against me in spoon fashion.

"I love you, Spike. Good night."

"I love you, too, Buffy."

Her breathing became deeper and more even, and she relaxed further against me as she fell asleep. I was astounded that the warm creature in my arms had gone to such trouble to change and to make our relationship better for me and for herself. No one had ever done that for me. Then again, I had never changed this much for anyone else, much less for myself.

Moaning softly, she stirred in her sleep as I murmured, "Cor, pet, thank you for realizing you had the freedom to make the choices that you did. And for helping me see that I had the freedom of choice, too." I let myself acknowledge that we still had choices to make with each other and also with Dawn and the others, but I had faith that we would make the right ones. This precious girl...this amazing woman had given me a wonderful gift...the gift of facing the truth and dealing with incredible obstacles...and surviving.

The End.