He woke up the next morning folded awkwardly onto the couch with an awful kink in his neck – for some reason in his sleep he had cramped himself up at one end instead of staying stretched out, and it took him a painful minute before he was able to stand and get all the snaps and pops out of his spine. He'd never really been much of a sleeper, even when the sun was up, always preferring to fill his hours with books or writing, or scheming things, but lately he'd begun to feel his years, to feel weary. He wanted to sleep for a week, to just… find some warm quiet place and relax.

He huffed to himself, rolled his eyes at his own nonsense, at the flitting idea that maybe when this was over he'd take a bloody vacation, somehow convince the Slayer to go with him and the Bit, some great city like Rome or Seville or Rio, where the nights were full of life and light and color, music and the best things to eat.

Stupid, of course.

The Slayer, the real Slayer, wouldn't be caught dead on a vacation, let alone with the likes of him.

He could hear murmurs coming from the kitchen and so he padded in on socked feet, found Dawn eating a bowl of Fruit Loops across the island from Buffy, who, instead of consuming her cereal, was arranging the brightly colored rounds into twisted shapes and runes on the countertop with a look of intense concentration. Her hair was damp and pulled back messily into a ponytail and she wore fresh clothes, a loose white skirt that hit her at the knee and a green t-shirt with three quarter sleeves, and Spike thanked god that Dawn had managed to get her in and out of the shower because he didn't know how he would have survived that. If pulling a wet, naked Buffy out of a tub didn't kill him, the girl herself would once she had her faculties back.

"She wanted to wake you up," Dawn said around a massive bite, "But you looked pretty zonked, so I managed to distract her."

"Thanks Niblet," Spike murmured, pressing a kiss to the top of the teen's head as he passed behind her, attempting to avoid the small amount of morning sunlight sneaking in through a crack in the blinds. " 'Preciate it."

At the sound of his voice Buffy looked up at him and beamed, making his chest feel tight. He managed to return the smile and apparently did it well enough, because the girl hummed happily and went back to writing with her cereal, content with her task, but he felt like he was dying. His fingers crept down to the lump in his pocket, traced the outline of the ring beneath the denim of his jeans. Frowning to himself, he poked around a bit in the junk drawer to one side of the sink and scrounged up a pen and a scrap of paper. Taking a seat across from both girls, he began to jot down a list of all the things he was afraid he was going to have to do soon, hopeful that seeing it in short strokes of black ink would make him hate things less.

It didn't.

Sighing hard, he scrubbed a hand roughly through his hair, making it stand on end.

"Everything ok?"

He glanced up to find Dawn looking at him with a sort of concerned curiosity and he frowned, tapping his pen against his thigh as he debated what to tell her. He'd come to a few conclusions last night, made some decisions, and while Dawn was probably his best option as far as confidants went he was still nervous, still wary. A glance at the clock told him he didn't have a whole lot of time to debate the thing, so he chose to just bite the bullet and hope for…

He didn't want to hope.

"Just… expecting someone," he said finally. "She's a… demon, bit like Anya. She owes me a favor."

Dawn perked up, her face brightening with the hope he didn't want to impart.

"Is she going to fix Buffy?" the teenager asked hesitantly.

"I'm gonna ask her what she thinks but… I don't want you to get your hopes up Niblet." Spike looked over at Buffy who had started flicking Fruit Loops across the island into the sink and frowned. "Think this might be a little bit out of her league."

"If you don't think she can help Buffy then why…"

Spike swallowed.

"I think… I think she might be able to help me."

"You? Spike what…"

"The chip's not working," he confessed, quickly before he could change his mind. "Cuffed big sis around a bit the other day when she knocked into me. Didn't mean to but the thing didn't…"

"Spike?"

Her voice was gentle, tentative, and it jerked him out of his shocky sort of rambling. He still couldn't believe it, still didn't understand, and it scared him, for more reasons than one, but when he looked up at her he didn't see anything in her face that fed in to that fear, that odd sense of guilt that had plagued him like a shadow since he'd realized what was happening.

"Spike that's a good thing isn't it?"

"I don't know," he whispered, and he was surprised that his voice didn't crack. "If there's something wrong with it… no tellin' when it could kick back in. Don't really want it stuck in my head if it's gonna start malfunctioning. For all I know it'll start shockin' the hell outta me whenever it likes, bloody stupid…"

Dawn smiled a little when he caught himself, stopped the string of curses he was ready to snarl with. "So you're going to get her to take it out?"

"I don't… I'm gonna ask what she thinks," he finished lamely. "It's not so I can…"

"Spike." A small hand with chipped glitter polish came out and touched his forearm. "I know that. I know you. You'd protect us. That's enough. It's always been enough." Standing up, she took her bowl to the sink and started rinsing it out, washing her sister's cereal down the drain. "I just wish the others weren't so…"

"You can't blame them," he said stiffly. "You didn't know me. Before."

"That was before," she replied firmly, looking over her shoulder at her sister. "Things change. When will she be here?"

Spike glanced over at the clock. He'd called the demon the night before, after coming down from Buffy's room with the ring in his pocket, and he was lucky that there were all sorts of beings out there that owed him for all sorts of things.

"Any time now," he answered. "She'll be come and gone before Tara gets back."

"She wouldn't mind," Dawn murmured. "Me. Tara. We won't mind."

"Doesn't matter," he shrugged, his voice gruff. "Got a thick skin, little Bit. Your sister's the only one can stake through it. Still. Keep this between you and me yeah?"

"Of course," Dawn replied. "As long as you want. But…"

"But…" he prompted.

"I think it would be ok," she said finally. "If you told them. I don't think Giles would… do anything. And Anya wouldn't care."

"Xander would."

"Maybe."

Spike chuffed a cynical sort of laugh. "Whatever you say lil Bit. Still, don't really fancy havin' to watch my back around him too with everything else so…"

The doorbell cut him off and all three of them looked out at the living room, the hallway from which the sound had come. Dawn raised her eyebrows and Spike sighed, scrubbing his palms against his thighs before climbing to his feet.

"Could you watch her?" he asked, angling his head towards Buffy, who was watching the door with narrowed eyes, a frown on her face. "Not sure how she'll… take to another demon."

"She was all right with Jhexel."

Spike's mouth got grim.

"Jhexel's harmless," he intoned.

And then he turned on his heel and walked out, left them sitting there alone, one contemplating his words, the other the scent in the air.

She looked just like he remembered her; thirty-seven years not even close to touching the exotic beauty of her caramel-colored skin, the rich luster of her ebony curls. Her body was still lithe and curvy with youth, youth no doubt unfairly earned, because she appeared to him as a female no older than twenty until you met her gaze. Her almond-shaped eyes were as golden as his could be, and deep enough to drown in if you looked too long, but he knew better. It rankled to drop his eyes, but he'd rather the show of submission than the hypnosis that could follow. Holding out both his hands, he waited until she'd placed her own on his spread palms and pulled her lightly through the doorway.

"Lucretia," he murmured, leaning down to press kisses to her cheeks.

She leaned in to his touch, squeezed his fingers before letting go to take a step back, slipping on a pair of large, square sunglasses that had been resting on the top of her head.

"Spike," she smiled wickedly, and he could hear youth in her voice as well, oily and cold like wet leather. "It's good to see you again."

"And you as well," he answered politely, falling into old patterns of speech that he hadn't used in a long time. "Lovely as always. Staying in LA now?"

Lucretia hummed, strolled around the living room a bit as she looked about. "I've got a place there," she said idly, "But you know how I hate to tie myself down."

He didn't answer, only moved warily to seat himself on the edge of the wooden rocking chair in the corner, forcing her to move to the other side of the room where she lighted on the couch with a dramatic flutter, beaming at him wolfishly from behind her shades.

"It seems like you've gotten past that yourself," she said teasingly. "Never thought you to be the type for picket fences."

Spike frowned, considered. "Not my place," he said, deciding on a limited truth. "Just holing up with a… friend for a few days."

"Never thought you the type for friends either," she sniped back with a grin. "But you called for a reason so let's get down to it. I assume it's urgent since you had me out here so fast."

"Yeah. Need some justice done," he said, easy and confidant now though he didn't quite feel it.

"Vengeance, gorgeous, please!" she scolded. "Silly to wrap up reality in pretty paper, just to make others feel better."

"Vengeance then."

"Who's the target?"

"Me."

Lucretia's face went cold and blank, and for a moment she just stared. Spike thanked god she was agreeable enough to keep the sunglasses on because he didn't want to meet the gaze that came with that look.

"I'm afraid you're going to have to run that by me again gorgeous," she purred sweetly, and he flinched at the nickname she'd given him so many years ago, the one that had never bothered him before today. "Not sure you're grasping the concept of vengeance here."

"Call it whatever you want," he growled, ice tripping down his spine. "I just need a wish done. You owe me that, vengeance or not."

"True," she said calmly, gesturing for him to come sit on the coffee table in front of her. He came slowly, cautiously, but let her take his hands in her own, run her thumbs over his knuckles, which had only just healed. "What are we talking here?" she asked.

Spike's eyes flashed and he shifted anxiously. "Got into some trouble a few years back," he began.

"No. You?"

He spared her a glare before he continued.

"Got a piece of hardware shoved into my skull. Need it gone."

Lucretia lifted one smooth, arched brow and her lips quirked. "Hardware? What kind of hardware?"

"Bit o' military metal, a chip. Don't know much else."

"What does it do?"

Spike lifted his lip, showed some fang. "Nothing, now," he snarled by way of answer, and he wasn't immune to the flash of heat the rippled down the demon's fingers. "It's gone dead on me and I want it out. Don't wanna get myself fried because it's gone all cross-shaped on me."

She watched him speculatively for a moment before she replied. "Fair enough," she said finally. "Shouldn't be a problem. Wish away gorgeous."

He waited until she'd shrugged the tension from her shoulders, sat up a little straighter before he said the words, the ones he thought a thousand times but had never voiced out loud.

"I wish the chip was out!"

Lucretia's grin was sharp and white and feral as she snarled her response.

"Wish granted!"