Saturday one again found Buffy flopped in a dining chair, shoved back from the table and slouched low, her head tipped over the hard wooden edge of the back rung as she stared at the ceiling. She'd only just come home from Giles' little garden apartment, having tried and failed to initiate a Scooby meeting. She'd felt a need to reconnect with her little group of loved ones, to talk and be together like they hadn't in a while. It felt like years since Giles had let them off to go down to the beach together, months since they'd had a research party…

And they needed to have one.

She'd meant to share everything she knew about the soldiers and the setup beneath the school today, everything Spike had told her so that they could decide what they were going to do about it. True it wasn't a lot of information, but something about the not knowing had the hair on the back of her neck standing up. They were in her territory, doing her job, and something about it didn't feel right. She wanted reassurance, a second and third opinion from trusted friends with experience who went more on intelligence that she could pair with the instinctive feeling in her gut before she made a decision. Unfortunately Willow was still a miserable mess, and her mood had spread between them like the black plague.

And Buffy got that, she did.

Bad break up, boyfriend leaving you for your own good…

It was a familiar song.

And that was part of why the whole situation sucked so much. Buffy got it, knew exactly what she was going through, but Willow didn't seem to want to talk. She didn't want to open up, didn't want to do a weepy movie night with Ben n Jerry's or even just talk for hours on the phone. She felt like she was starting to lose her best friend, and Xander too, though she certainly couldn't blame him for trying to save Willow from her own downward spiral. After the disaster that had been that meeting she was ready to put money on losing Giles too. At least, she would if she didn't pull on her big-girl boots and start putting her stiletto-heeled foot down.

She loved them, all of them, but she needed them too. She couldn't afford to be alone in her world. She needed help. Needed friends.

And heck, if she wasn't careful, pretty soon the only friend she had left would be Spike.

Buffy's eyes went wide as the thought tripped easily through her brain, her whole body going stiff with shock.

Was Spike her friend?

Oh god, Spike was kind of her friend!

It didn't hit her as hard as it probably should of.

She felt disconnected from it, from the fact that a master vampire had kind of become her friend, even though he was still dangerous. She was pretending not to know, not to listen to the little voice in the back of her head that whispered reminders of all the bad things he had done, that he might still be doing…

She pushed it away.

Told herself there was no way he was still…

Groaning hard, she dropped her hands over her eyes and pushed until she saw hot splashes of color.

Spike was kind of her friend.

Lord.

She'd taken him to the mall for heaven's sake, and he'd walked her all the way home, right to the front door, even if it was just to pick up his duster from where he'd left it in her bathroom. She'd thanked him too, admitted that he hadn't been totally horrible. And he hadn't, not really. He'd gone without complaining, had waited mostly patiently – more importantly he had explained Oz in a way that made sense, in a way that made her feel… better. About this decisions, and Willow's reaction, even her own. He'd complimented her and hadn't done anything… suspicious, like shoplift or make a break for the hills, or snack on any of the other shoppers.

On the way home he'd briefed her with everything he knew about the labs under the university, the young men playing soldier with frighteningly real weapons, which admittedly, wasn't that much, but he'd still told her. He hadn't had too, and no, she wasn't hugely concerned beyond the odd little buzz she was getting, but still, he'd been… decent.

Hell, he'd suffered the whole thing with more dignity and grace than Xander ever had, and she knew exactly what she'd been subjecting him to.

And yet maybe the weirdest thing was that she didn't feel like he was changing, didn't feel like she was changing him – or even trying to. It was a mistake she'd made with Angel, hoping he would be something other than what he was naturally, but for some reason she didn't feel that need with Spike. He was still the tough-talking, leather and smokes, bleached jerk he'd always been, just… more.

And maybe that was wrong, and maybe that was the reason she found herself being drawn to him more than she should be, but could anyone really blame her? Was it any wonder that she liked a little bad in her boy when she led the life she did? It was sick and twisted, sure, but dammit, at least a vampire could keep up with her!

Ugh.

Regardless of her internal hangups, she regretted the way she'd attempted to repay him.

The stupid pretzel should have been enough, but nooooo.

She'd had to go and tell him about Shakespeare in the Park.

The fliers had been plastered all over campus for days now, and every time she saw one of the dumb things she thought about him, which was just… distracting. And sure, the play wasn't until a week or so before Christmas, so if she was lucky he would've forgotten all about it by then, but why, God why, had she even told him in the first place?!

Letting her arms flop down to her sides, she stuck her bottom lip out at the ceiling and whimpered.

"What's wrong this time?"

Buffy flicked her eyes to the left, took in the vampire who slouches nonchalantly against the doorjamb, scarred eyebrow arched, but otherwise didn't move.

Of course, that was probably telling in itself. She was so used to Spike showing up unexpectedly in her house that she hadn't even jumped at the sound of his low, smooth voice.

"Same old, same old," she muttered under her breath, trying desperately to stop her cheeks from pinking.

He so didn't need to know that she'd been thinking about him, and definitely not in a good way.


He came to ask if she'd gotten any farther on the initiative front.

At least, that's what he told himself.

All business, yeah? Not here because he cared about how the redheaded Wiccan was doing, not here because he'd gotten used to the sun or… her company.

No.

Coming on her sprawled out in the dining room - pouting, grumbling, all petulant annoyance – it put him in the mood for a little mischief, a little needling, and he felt his teeth sharpening in his mouth as he smirked.

Sauntering closer he circled her carefully, edging nearer and nearer until he could slip the toe of his boot under her ankle and give it a little kick. Her foot jumped, then dropped bonelessly back to the floor with a thud.

"Somebody cut your strings Slayer?" he asked curiously, his gaze drawn to her chest as she heaved a heavy sigh.

"Everything sucks," she grumbled, her mouth twisting into a frown.

Her head was thrown backward over the rungs of the chair she was slouched in, her neck stretched out temptingly, and Spike licked his lips, his mouth suddenly watering hard. He didn't think she knew what a picture she'd presented to him, not with her casual slump, but there was a lot of smooth, tanned skin on display and he had to fight the urge to step in close to her side, to place his palm lightly over her throat and feel her swallow under his fingers, feel her pulse beat a strong tattoo against them.

"Could always be worse," he murmured silkily, his gaze tracing the curves of her clavicle. He only just managed to drag his eyes back into his head before she snapped upright, alert and wary.

"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked, a hard, careful interest in her voice.

Shit.

His brain came back online just in time to wonder how he was going to salvage this one. She'd kill him straight out is she knew what he was really thinking.

"Come on Slayer," he scoffed, angling for a little time as he rubbed at the back of his neck, looking away toward the kitchen. "Everybody's heard that one out of dear old granddad. Rule of pain – if you slam your hand in a door, you stop worryin' about the toe you broke kickin' the table leg."

"Are you trying to tell me that if I go out and get my ass kicked I'll feel better?" she asked in a disbelieving tone.

Spike spun on his heel, facing her with a hard, wicked smile. "Wasn't on my mind, but I like the way you think Slayer," he purred. "Little late notice, but if you're looking for some rough n tumble, be happy to pencil you in."

Buffy's eyes went wide and color flooded her face. "Rough and what?" she yelped, jumping to her feet and taking two steps back.

Spike's brow furrowed in confusion but before he could question or clarify she shook her head and waved him off.

"Gross, never mind!" she snapped. "Not interested! This day's already sucked enough. What do you want anyway?"

Spike frowned, following along behind her as she danced and darted about restlessly, heading into the kitchen and getting herself a glass of water. She was a scattered mess, distracted and jumpy with tension, and it was setting his own damned teeth on edge.

"What's wrong with you?" he asked, a bit more sharply than he'd meant to. "You got some sort of beastie on your tail?"

The girl frowned and Spike caught a whiff of something like melancholy coming off of her, lemon and vanilla. Cocking her hip against the counter, she wrapped one arm around her middle and held her glass beneath her chin with her other hand, curling it close to her heart as she collapsed in on herself in a way that made him want to hug her, draw her in to his chest where where she would be safe and…

Spike kicked himself, fisting his hands in the pockets of his duster until his fingernails bit into his palms.

'Got no business thinking like that mate!' he barked at himself. 'Get a soddin' grip!'

"Am I a bad person for wanting the drama to be over?" she mumbled suddenly, looking steadily down at the floor as though she couldn't bring herself to meet his eyes. "I mean, I know how much it sucks. You know how much it sucks, everybody knows how much it sucks!"

"We're talking about the witch now yeah?" he asked, sliding onto a bar stool at the island. "Willow? She's not takin' Dingo the Dogboy's ditchin' her too well then?"

Buffy sighed, frowned. "I get that she's upset, I do. But she's letting it break her, tear her apart."

Spike cocked an eyebrow, took her measure as she stood at the sink, worrying her lip in clear distress.

"Seem to recall you fallin' apart some yourself when the poofter left," he ventured, and the flare of heated anger in her eyes as they leapt up to meet his put a smirk on his face. "An' she's lost a lot better man than you did."

"Pot an' frickin' kettle Spike!" she snapped. "I seem to recall you stumbling around in a pathetic drunken mess when you got dumped, crying for a spell to fix it!"

"Guess she's not handlin' it so bad then," he replied flatly, his point made even though it had still thrown a few barbs back his way.

Buffy opened her mouth to fire back but her words seemed to get stuck in her throat. Snapping her mouth closed again, she stared at him with the strangest look on her face, one he couldn't even start to decipher. She seemed to be thinking on it a bit, unsure, but she finally gave him a half-hearted nod and turned away to rinse her glass in the sink.

"I guess you're right," she mumbled, her shoulders slumping. "Which just makes me a worse person than I started out being." Turning back to face him again, she sent him a half-smirk and tried for a joking tone. "Thanks for that Spike."

Sighing hard, he dragged his hand through his hair, felt it go to the back of his neck one more time in the familiar move that had almost become self-soothing for him.

"Come on, let's just…" Growling, he tried to summon up his irritation, tried to feel it more than he felt concern… "Look, if I cheer you up a bit, you feel more like talking?"

Buffy froze, eyed him nervously.

"What did you have in mind?" she asked, her tone heavy with caution.

"Rule of pain, Slayer. We do what you hate, even more than this."