A/N: Thanks to my betas Chris, who saw this through from the beginning, and sunbrae, who leapt in to help when I needed it.
"You know, don't you? Know there was no curse?" Spike asked, so softly his words barely pierced the air.
Without a word Giles pulled the pouch of bones on the table closer to him and unfolded it for the second time that evening. He withdrew one of the bones, holding it up for Spike to see. "I'm pretty sure that someone cursing you wouldn't be so delicate as to obtain the bones from a display skeleton," he noted, turning the bone so that Spike could see the tiny holes that had been drilled at the end.
"This was from a skeleton model," said Giles. "Nicely articulated at one time, I'd guess."
Spike absorbed Giles' news in silence. He'd never gotten around to asking Willow where she'd gotten the bones—he'd been more concerned with finding out why she was doing it. Getting her to stop.
But there was nothing to stop. It had been nothing but a hoax, and he'd fallen for it ass over hat. Even that pathetic cat in his crypt tonight, she'd found it dead on the side of the road and decided to make use of it. Didn't hate him, she said. Wouldn't hurt him.
Well, she'd be over tomorrow to talk things out with Buffy. They had enough to talk about, he figured—'round about everything. He'd leave them alone, but he wouldn't be far. Buffy might need a shoulder to cry on, or maybe someone to stop her from beating Willow to death. He'd be there for either role. There was bound to be some screaming or crying or carrying on; hell if he knew which one.
He didn't think Buffy was going to take it well; it was a wonder he didn't feel more like breaking some heads himself after listening to all Red had to say, but mostly he just felt tired, and wanted to go upstairs and find peace in his love's arms.
"Nicely articulated," echoed Spike finally. "So even that was nothing."
"So it appears."
"Makes me wonder."
"Where those pains came from. They were real, I couldn't imagine something like that."
"I don't think you imagined them, Spike," Giles returned. "They were too specific. I really should have recognized them; I've experienced them myself."
Spike looked at Giles in surprise. "You have?"
"Why, of course. Are you telling me that you never in your life—in your life before you were turned—that you never experienced guilt?"
Spike stared at him. No, no, that wasn't it, that was too simple. He couldn't do anything to repair what he'd done in his century-plus, and there was no way he'd allow himself to wallow in guilt like the Magnificent Poof—this wasn't him, not him at all, he was resilient, he—
"That's impossible," said Spike flatly.
"Why impossible?" Giles asked calmly.
He really hadn't expected the news to sit well with Spike.
"If you're telling me that all that pain, and the—the other stuff, is just because of guilt, you've been drinking more than just tea, mate," Spike shot back.
Giles arched one brow. "Why is it difficult to imagine that the guilt you bear has the power to cause you pain?"
"Guilt's nothing—it's just a feeling—"
"And feelings have never caused you pain?" Giles questioned coolly.
Spike swallowed the words that were forming. No. No, he wasn't like that, not the kind to wallow in pointless grief. There was nothing he could do to bring back the people he'd killed; they were gone, and no amount of photogenic, deeply felt lolling about would bring them back.
For the first time the full implication of having a soul settled upon him, and he suppressed a shudder. To him, the soul had been a safeguard to protect Buffy. An apology for what he'd nearly done. Not this.
"This is not right. Not reasonable. I shouldn't feel guilty," Spike insisted. "I'm different now, aren't I?"
Giles looked at him. "Are you asking me, or telling me?"
Spike met his eyes without answering, and Giles was startled by the vulnerability they held.
"Spike, where did you go after leaving here this evening?" Giles asked. He already knew the answer. Xander had called, shaken, before Buffy and Spike arrived home.
"Got some smokes," Spike muttered.
Giles rolled his eyes. "Yes, besides that."
"Went to talk to Will," Spike admitted reluctantly.
"You knew it was she who'd been tormenting you?"
Spike smirked at Giles' typically dramatic description. "Yeah, I knew."
"Did you kill her? You can hurt people again, I believe," Giles pointed out, also courtesy of Xander.
"No, I didn't kill her," Spike snapped.
"And Xander? You killed him, surely? You two have never gotten on."
Spike gritted his teeth. "No, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man survives to fetch doughnuts another day."
"Then you quite obviously are a different man, Spike, than the one who sold out all of us to Adam. Because if his chip didn't function, he would have killed us in a heartbeat. He didn't even need a reason. But you," Giles pointed out, "were given one, and chose not to. I don't think you have to wonder if you're different, Spike. You have your answer."
Spike absorbed Giles' words in silence.
They remained unmoving, lost in their own thoughts, until Dawn sleepily ambled into the kitchen. The three of them looked at each other, and no one said anything. Finally Dawn mumbled, "I woke up. I want a glass of milk."
Giles found the look on Spike's face somewhat comical, although he couldn't have said why, precisely. But the vampire was looking at Dawn with intense concentration, like she couldn't just be there for milk, and he could divine her true intentions with a good heavy stare.
Well, his work for the night was done, Giles thought. Tomorrow—today, really—would be draining, and he wanted to get to bed. "I'm turning in," he told the two of them without preamble. "Goodnight."
They blinked at Giles' sudden exit, and then stood looking at each other.
"Sit down," Spike told her. "I'll get your milk."
She sat, and watched him pull out a carton of milk, peer at it, and stick it back in the refrigerator in exchange for another. "I usually drink the other one," she said.
He shook his head. "That one's nonfat; you need that like you need a hole in your head," he said. "You and your sister, we've got to fatten you up. You two don't weigh enough to wrestle a sprite. At least not one of the larger ones."
"Buffy wrestles sprites all the time," Dawn argued. Spike looked at her. "Doesn't she?"
He shrugged. "Still wouldn't hurt to get some meat on her bones."
Dawn looked down at her hands. She didn't want to ask him, but she had to. He knew what she'd done, even if he didn't realize she was bringing back the stuff she'd taken from his place. But how could she explain it? It felt strange even to her. "Are you mad at me?" she asked tentatively.
He looked at her in surprise as he replaced the milk carton back in the fridge. "Mad? Why would I be mad?'
Dawn peeped a look at his face and then hastily looked down again. "I mean about taking your stuff and … mostly just taking your stuff," she admitted.
Spike sighed. "Dawn, I don't give a damn about any of that stuff," he told her bluntly. She looked at him hopefully. "I'm just glad you—" I'm just glad you don't hate me, and weren't trying to kill me— "I'm just glad you're okay."
Dawn flashed him a shy smile, like the one she'd given him when he'd gone up to Buffy's room earlier, searching for weapons. Before he found the duster, before he found the cat. Before a lot of things.
Just a few hours ago, really.
"I don't understand why you'd want bones anyway," Dawn said a little playfully, fiddling with the bag that Giles had left in the center of the table. She'd wondered what he was doing with them—Spike's scary stuff tended to be more along the lines of handcuffs and things she didn't want details about, not bones.
Spike smiled at her. "The bones were a gift, Platelet."
"Pretty weird gift."
Spike was silent for a moment. He wasn't sure where the line was with Buffy—what he was allowed to say, and what remained her purview alone. What his restrictions were, what liberties he was permitted.
But this involved him. It involved Buffy, too—exactly how much, she'd find out for herself tomorrow. But they were a team now. It was a judgment call, right? And she trusted him.
He thought of her trying to tell Dawn about it tomorrow, when she'd be dealing with everything herself. Dealing with her own feelings, dealing with someone she'd loved for years and felt betrayed by, but couldn't stop caring about.
If he couldn't make things easier for her, what good was he? What good were they to each other?
"All right," he said finally. "But I want you to stay calm, no shouting or carrying on. Your sister's up there sleeping, she's got a big day tomorrow."
"Tomorrow Willow's coming over, and she and Buffy are going to talk," Spike told her carefully, waiting for her reaction. He wasn't really sure how Dawn would felt about Willow, seeing as how Willow had been keen on killing her not so long ago.
"Finally!" Dawn exclaimed.
Spike was taken aback. "There something you want to tell me?"
Dawn blushed. "I'm … she … she's tried to come over a bunch of time," she finally said. "Sometimes Buffy chased her off. Sometimes Xander came and got her. But one time Buffy wasn't here, and Xander must not have known she'd left the house. I looked out the window and she was just standing there. It was really gray and muggy out, and finally it started to rain, and she didn't even move. I didn't—I didn't know how I felt about her any more. She tried to kill me, and she tried to kill Buffy," Dawn said, her voice starting to waver.
"Dawn—" began Spike, but Dawn waved her hand and began to speak again.
"But then I thought of all those times she'd braided my hair, helped me with my homework, and made me cookies when I felt bad … and I remembered Tara," Dawn added, beginning to cry. "She loved her. I mean, Willow loved Tara. And Tara loved Willow, too, but I mean … I miss her," she whispered. "She's not coming back. She's gone. I understand how that could make Willow do things." Dawn looked at her hands. "It wasn't her fault. She loves us. She's been punished enough."
"So what happened?" Spike prodded gently.
"I went out and stood next to her, and after a while she just sat down on the wet grass and started to cry."
"You comforted her?" Spike asked, touching her hand.
Dawn nodded, brushing her tears away with the sleeve of her pajamas. "I've seen her a couple of times. During the day, when Xander was at work. She needs a friend."
How did she become so mature? Spike marveled. It wasn't like any of them had ever set much of an example for her. "It's good she had you," Spike told her softly.
"What about tomorrow?" asked Dawn worriedly. "Will she have Buffy, too?"
He didn't know what to say. There were no guarantees. Buffy was so volatile, and lashed out when she was hurt or worried. But underneath it all, he knew she loved Willow. It was buried beneath anger and fear, but it was there.
"We'll see," Spike murmured. "We'll see."
"Where were you?" Buffy mumbled as Spike slipped into bed beside her, her sleep disturbed by his absence.
"Downstairs, talking with the Bit," Spike responded, spooning up behind her and hooking his chin over her shoulder.
She rubbed her cheek against his. His cuddly ways were so nice, but she hadn't been ready to accept them before. Now she wasn't going to let them go to waste.
"Talking 'bout what?" Buffy asked, sleep beginning to slur her speech.
Spike hesitated a moment. "About what I told you earlier. About what's going to happen tomorrow."
She froze, her body tense against his. "You told her?"
"Yeah," Spike replied, a little apprehensive.
"You mean I don't have to? I think I love you," Buffy sighed.
Spike released a completely pointless breath he didn't know he'd been holding, and squeezed her tighter. "You already loved me."
"Then I love you extra."
"I think I may hold you to that," he purred in her ear, and she giggled.
He was very glad he'd locked the door behind him.
Xander wanted to be out there in the living room with Willow and Buffy. He should be there, the three of them, it had always been the three of them in it together. Never just two.
But Giles had put his hand on Xander's shoulder and led him to the kitchen, and Xander couldn't find the words to argue with him. Now he sat on the other side of the table, an untouched soda in front of him, because he felt sure he'd throw up if he took a sip.
Giles just sat across from him and drank tea as if it was a perfectly normal day.
Voice drifted out from the front room and Xander automatically began to rise. "Sit, Xander," Giles told him, not moving his gaze from the notes he was taking. He could wait on them, but he too was nervous and work was soothing. If he hadn't had it, he would have gone mad long ago.
"Do you think everything's going okay?" Xander asked nervously.
"I'm sure if not, we'd have heard some screaming or possibly glass breaking," replied Giles calmly.
"Yeah … yeah," muttered Xander. He needed to do something, and felt like talking. Actually, he felt like doing jumping jacks, or possibly lunges, but it didn't seem appropriate. It would be so much nicer if he could go back to hitting Spike when he was upset, but that avenue seemed to be closed to him. "I'm seeing Anya next weekend," he said suddenly.
Giles looked at him with interest.
"I mean, it's not a date or anything, but I called her this morning and offered to put up some window boxes in her apartment, and she said okay. She likes flowers," he said. "I mean, she might have said yes because it was six in the morning and she wasn't really awake and it was the sleep talking, but it was a yes."
Giles gave him a genuine smile. "I'm glad to hear that, Xander."
Abruptly Xander swung around, as if he heard something worrisome coming from the living room. Giles could hear nothing and reached out to touch Xander's hand, soothing him. After a moment Xander relaxed and Giles drew his hand back.
"Why did you call at six in the morning?"
Xander smiled faintly. "I was kind of nervous about today. I thought I was doing pretty good not to call her at four, actually." He turned towards the living room again. "Are you sure we shouldn't go out there?"
"They'll be fine, Xander," Giles said firmly. He had to believe that.
For Buffy, and for all of them.
They sat on the couch, two feet apart. Buffy stared at the wall opposite her; Willow alternated between staring at Buffy's face and keeping her eyes on the floor.
"Why did you do it?" Buffy finally asked. Willow froze, like she hadn't really expected Buffy to say anything. Why else is she here? Buffy thought crankily. "Well? Were you trying to scare him off?"
"Oh Buffy, no—"
"Punish him, for … for … what? I didn't think you hated him."
"I don't, Buffy, I swear I don't!"
"Then why? Was it me? Were you trying to punish me? Because you knew it would hurt me if he was in pain."
Willow's eyes widened guiltily, and Buffy thought, that's it. "So it was me?"
"Not like—not like that—" Willow stuttered.
"Then like what?" Buffy demanded in frustration. Calm down, she reminded herself, calm down; Spike had told her that it wasn't what she thought. He said, it hadn't turned out so bad, had it? He was alive, and they were together.
"I know it doesn't look like it, but I was trying to help," Willow said worriedly.
"So sending my boyfriend a bag of bones and a twig doll and a dead cat was supposed to help how?" Buffy demanded, incensed. God, Willow … Willow. She was so far from the girl Buffy had befriended years before it was hard to think of her as the same person. Willow just seemed so different. A completely different person.
"I'm so sorry," Willow said, her eyes welling up. "It wasn't witchcraft, I swear!"
"I know, he told me," Buffy said bitterly. "I guess you don't need to cast spells to hurt people."
Willow flinched. "I never wanted to hurt you," she insisted. "I wanted to make it up to you."
Next to her, Buffy froze. "Make it up to me?" she asked carefully. "You mean, you wanted to make up for trying to kill my sister?"
"And you," Willow added hurriedly.
"And me, by making my boyfriend think someone was cursing him?"
Willow met Buffy's eyes then, and the tears were gone from them. They were as clear as they ever had been when looking through a moldy old text, or searching for back doors into well-protected websites. "He wasn't your boyfriend then."
"You mean when you started stalking him?"
Willow drew a breath, steadying herself against Buffy's anger. "He was back, and he hardly left his crypt, and he never went near you, and you didn't even know he was around."
"Why did you give him the bones?" Buffy asked with deceptive calmness. She didn't even want to know how Willow's mind worked.
"Because you love him," Willow answered simply. Buffy looked at her uncomprehendingly. "I saw the look on your face when we saw him with Anya at the Magic Box last spring—before—" Tara—"and I could see how much it hurt you to see him touch her. And I knew. I didn't say anything because you didn't seem to want to talk about it, but I could see how you felt."
"So you sent him the bones because you knew I loved him?" Buffy asked numbly.
"He wasn't your boyfriend," Willow repeated.
"But you wanted him to be," Willow said. "So I helped."
"Helped," echoed Buffy.
Willow smiled hopefully. "I left the bones for him. I knew he'd go to you with them eventually, and I knew you'd help him when he did. And I was careful. Did you notice how careful I was? I didn't leave anything that could be traced back to me."
God, Buffy thought, she's insane.
"And so, when you were helping him, nature would take its course and … you're together now, right?"
Buffy looked at her warily and nodded.
"Why didn't you quit after the doll? You knew I was helping him then. I thought it was you. You told me it wasn't."
"I wanted to make sure," Willow said with a shy smile.
"And now you're sure?" It wasn't really a question. What did it matter what the answer was?
"I wanted you to be happy," Willow said simply.
So you just moved us around like chess pieces until things were to your liking. "Willow—how could you think that this was all right?" Buffy asked in frustration.
Willow's face fell a little. "There was no magic, I swear—"
"I'm not talking about magic!" Buffy said furiously. "Your problem isn't magic, it's never been magic! You can't stop manipulating people, that's your problem! That's why you couldn't leave magic alone, because it helped make people do what you wanted, and now that you're staying away from magic you're jerking us around in other ways!"
Willow looked shocked. "Buffy, no—I swear, I never meant to—"
"You do it all the time, you always have! You know it! Remember when I first came to town, and you were always encouraging me with Angel?"
"That's because you liked him—I could tell, and you—"
"Yeah, I liked him. And he wasn't Xander, and that was the big thing to you. And how about how you tried to do that de-lusting spell without telling Xander? Or your will-be-done spell? Or messing with my memory, mine and Tara's, because you didn't want me to remember being in heaven?" Buffy demanded, choking back tears.
Beside her, Willow was fighting back tears of her own.
"I just want to make things better," Willow said, her voice becoming ragged. "To fix things. I l-love you, I love you so much, you and Dawnie both. I'd never hurt her, I couldn't love her more. And Tara—Tara—she loved Dawn so much. My god, Tara," Willow broke off, sobbing, desperately covering her face with her hands.
Buffy watched her friend sob helplessly, and against her will she saw the timid teenager she'd first met, so vulnerable, so easily hurt. Who'd first worked magic so Buffy wouldn't have to kill someone she loved, who'd given up the best universities in the world in order to stay with Buffy at a lousy local school. Who'd clutched Buffy's hand at her mother's funeral, and cared for Dawn after her own.
Spike watched from the doorway, forcing himself not to intervene. For the first several minutes of their conversation Buffy had held herself aloof, shoulders rigid, eyes remote.
Now her shoulders began to relax as the anger that had built up in her over the last few months dissipated, and she gradually leaned closer to Willow. Finally she drew the redhead into her arms, crying with her. Remembering Willow's loss. Remembering why they had been friends for so many years.
Spike heard a slight sound next to him and looked down to see the Bit had slipped in beside him, too anxious to wait patiently to hear the outcome. He felt her little hand slip into his and squeeze.
He squeezed back, and held on tight.