The Best of Friends

 

Chapter One

When Xander’s new admirer called him at his apartment to ask if he needed to “talk” about whatever was keeping him from living in the Summers’ household, he put him off with words about a lease and “combining three households” and other things that carefully avoided any mention of his relationship with Spike. When Mike pressed him about how much of a couple they actually were, he answered with more honesty than he probably should have.

 

“Well, as you know, Spike is… flexible… about his love life.  This is kind of new to him—and to me,” he admitted.  “I’d never thought of myself as… I mean, yeah I remembering noticing years ago when we first met him that Spike was… attractive. I mean, how could you not, right? But I was still trying to convince myself that I wasn’t…” He silently cursed Dawn and the day she turned from a ball of energy into a real girl. A girl who was obviously going to be more than a handful. “Look, I know you mean well, but this is pretty personal stuff, you know?”

 

“Oh, to be sure. I didn’t mean to pry. It’s just that I know what it’s like in that closet, and now that I know how newly out of it you guys are…. I just want to be here for you if you run into problems, that’s all.”

 

“And I—we appreciate it. Really.  I’ve got to run now. Bye!”

 

He threw down the phone and groaned. “Dawn Summers, I will make you pay for this. You aren’t going to be allowed to date until you’re old and wrinkled!”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“What’s got your knickers in a twist?” Spike asked when Xander flinched away from the hand he’d extended to help him up. “Aside from finding out you’re not quite strong enough to wrestle a vampire by yourself?”

 

“I had him,” Xander muttered, standing up without help.  “I was just leading him on until I was ready to stake him.”

 

“Leading him on?  Should I be jealous, pet?”

 

Xander rolled his eyes, then reluctantly grinned back at Spike.  “Well, not of Mr.-pile-of-dust there, but that counselor of Dawn’s…”

 

“Hit on you again, did he?” Spike kept his face and voice neutral as he watched Xander’s reaction.  “Do I need to bite him?”

 

Xander snorted. “He’d probably like it,” he said.  “Weirdo that he is.”

 

“Why is he a ‘weirdo’?  cause he finds you attractive?”

 

“Well… yeah. I mean, I’m not… and he thinks I am, and now he thinks I’m just out of the closet and in need of a… a… I don’t know what. A teacher?”

 

Spike stepped into Xander’s personal space and looked up into his eyes.

 

“You are attractive,” he said. “All manly and strong. And you’ve got pretty eyes and pretty hair…”

 

He grinned when Xander blushed, saying with a slight cough, “I thought you liked blondes?” 

 

“Actually, I don’t. Slayer was a… a special case. I like tall, statuesque brunettes… male or female.” He ran one hand down Xander’s arm, smiling again when Xander shivered, but didn’t move away.  He moved closer until their bodies were almost touching. “And you can tell the horny counselor you’ve already got a teacher. He’s just waitin’ for you to ask.”

 

The arrival of a trio of vampires that had been expecting to find newly risen minions interrupted whatever Xander may have been planning to reply. Instead, he settled with his back against a crypt and watched as Spike toyed with the new arrivals.  Xander kept his crossbow loaded and ready, just in case, but he didn’t need to use it.  When Spike had put all three vamps on the ground, he went around to one at a time, staking them with cold efficiency, before joining Xander near the crypt.

 

“Had my back, did you?” he asked, nodding at the crossbow that Xander was uncocking.

 

“Always.”

 

Spike brushed his hand over Xander’s cheek, then turned toward the gate.  “That was a good night’s work,” he said. “Come on, I’ll see you to your truck.”

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Keenly conscious of how his body reacted every time Spike touched him in any but the most impersonal ways, Xander continued trying very hard to keep some physical distance between them, even as they became more and more dependent upon each other for companionship. He’d made some casual friends with a few of the men he worked with, but his pending living arrangements and nightly patrolling schedule had kept the friendships very casual and limited to a few beers after work.

 

Spike, with nothing to do all day but watch TV and sleep, rarely even made an attempt to cultivate a relationship with any other vampires or demons. Only Clem, and his poker-playing buddies could lure him into an occasional night out without Xander. He was taking his responsibility as the only one strong enough to take Buffy’s place very seriously, and that, plus being seen so often with the bot, had severely limited his ability to socialize with his own kind.

 

If you’d asked either of them who was the most important person in his life – after Dawn – they would have had a hard time answering honestly without admitting something neither one was ready to. Fortunately, no one had asked, so they could continue pretending they were only spending time together as a ruse to keep social services out of Dawn’s life.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

Xander’s eventual move into the Summers’ home was accomplished fairly easily. The lease on his apartment had been due for renewal only a couple of months after the beginning of the school year, so he hadn’t lost any money when he let it go to move in with Dawn and Spike as soon as it expired. He put most of his furniture and the rest of Anya’s things into storage, and moved his bed and other meager belongings into the only empty bedroom.  Which turned out to be more difficult that he’d expected.

 

He stopped in the doorway, Spike standing behind him with a box of clothes and CDs.

 

“I’m not sure I can do this,” Xander said, staring at the almost empty space. “It’s not right.”

 

Spike sighed and switched the box he was holding to rest it on his hip. He put his free hand on Xander’s back and patted it awkwardly.

 

“We’ve done all we can to change it,” he said, then dropped his hand, his attempt to offer reassurance suddenly blindsided by memories of how poorly he’d handled being in that room the previous weekend. He’d been helping Dawn pack up Buffy’s things when she dropped the jewelry box she was carrying and his old skull ring fell out to roll across the floor. He’d had to flee to his basement room and remain there until he could stop the gut-wrenching sobs as he laid into the punching bag.

 

He shook off the memories and nudged Xander into the room.  All the clothes and other personal belongings had been boxed up and taken downstairs. It only remained to help Xander set up the bed and bring in his own personal belongings.  They worked in silence for several minutes before Xander remarked, “So, not doing quite as good as you thought you were, huh?”

 

“Not quite.  You?”

 

“Not quite. But I’m feeling pretty happy that the only reminders I had were some old photos from high school.”

 

“Dawn told you?”

 

“Yeah. She pretty much ratted you out.”

 

Spike sighed.  “Proper pair of wankers, we are.”

 

“Does that word mean what I think it means?”

 

“Yep.”

 

Xander nodded and held out his hand for another piece of the bed.  “Always wondered. Should’ve asked Giles, I guess.”

 

Spike snorted. “If anyone knows the meaning of ‘wanker’ it would be a watcher. ‘specially that one.”

 

They had a moment of silent bonding over the fact that, as they’d suspected, Giles had remained in England and given no indication that he intended to return to the US.  While the Scoobies struggled with their feelings of abandonment, Spike had simply dismissed the behavior as “typical Council of Wankers’ unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions.”

 

He went back outside to begin unloading more boxes from the back of Xander’s truck and carrying them back into the house. Shaking off memories of the previous weekend’s work, Spike added the boxes he was carrying to the ones already there. The room now looked like a generic bedroom – unmade bed, empty dresser and boxes of Xander’s clothes and belongings scattered about on the floor. Spike shuffled his feet.  “Well, that’s all the heavy-lifting,” he said.  ’less you want some help puttin’ stuff away, I think I’ll do a patrol.  Didn’t hit all the graveyards the way I should have last night.”

 

“Are you taking the Bot with you?”

 

Spike exhaled.  “I expect so. Red wants me to try her out and see if she’s worked out the bugs.”

 

“Should be fun.”

 

“Yeah. Really looking forward to it.” Spike’s voice dripped sarcasm and Xander gave him a semi-sympathetic look.

 

“It’s what you get for being such a sleaze and getting a toy like that.”

 

Spike snorted. “Yeah, like you wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to have something like that crawling all over you.”

 

“Ah ha! But I didn’t have one built, did I?  I can admire the awesomeness of owning something like that without admitting that I’d have been low enough to do something that skeevy.  It’s a fine distinction,” he added when Spike just raised an eyebrow at him.

 

“Whatever gets you through the night,” Spike finally said, leaving the room.  “I just hope Willow got all the ‘take me now’ stuff out of it and I can kill things in peaceful silence.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Xander had just finished putting the last of his clothes into drawers and was contemplating whether or not he had enough energy left to put sheets on the bed before falling face down onto the mattress, when Dawn stuck her head in the door.

 

“Hey, Willow wants to see you downstairs,” she said, carefully not looking around the now unfamiliar room.

 

Xander frowned. “She does? Why?”

 

“I dunno. Something she doesn’t want Spike to know about I think, so she wants to talk about it while he’s out.”

 

His frowned deepened.  “Spike’s one of us now,” he said. “Why wouldn’t she—”

 

“Don’t know. Just come on down, OK?”

 

He nodded. “Be there in sec.”  He threw the linens at the bed and followed Dawn down the stairs to the living room.  Willow glanced up and gave him a smile, gesturing for him to sit down.

 

“What’s up, Will?  And why the secrets?”

 

Willow stared at him without answering, finally asking, “You can keep a secret from Spike, can’t you?”

 

“I suppose I can. The question is, why would I? He’s my… my friend.”  Xander continued to stumble over what to call Spike, but Willow just rolled her eyes.

 

“He’s also a vampire, obsessive, soulless, and knows something about magic. There’s no way he could participate in this, and I’m not sure he’d even want to.”

 

“ ‘This’ being…?”

 

Willow took a deep breath. In the time since Giles had been gone, she had blossomed into a very confident and daring magic practitioner, using her skills and ability for many things—some more important than others.  Xander remembered that Spike often grimaced when Willow used magic for something as simple as getting a glass of water, going so far one time as to hand her a copy of Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.  Her less than amused glare had brought only a smirk from the unrepentant vampire.

 

“I think I can bring Buffy back,” she stated flatly, waiting for the accompanying gasps to die down before launching into her explanation. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“And that’s why Spike can’t know about it,” she concluded, while everyone was still absorbing her very detailed explanation of what was needed to do the spell, and why, with Anya being gone, she would need to tap into Dawn’s remaining Key energy.  “At best, he’d want to be there, and his soulless energy could screw up the whole thing.  And at worst, he’ll try to stop me, because he thinks he knows more than I do about magic just ‘cause he’s old and his ex sometimes used it.”

 

“Willow,” Xander hesitated a second, then continued, “Why would we want to bring Buffy back?  I mean,” he hurried on, “I know why we want her back, but why would she want to come? I mean don’t you think she’s in Hea—”

 

“Hell,” Willow said firmly. “She’s in Hell. Her soul got sucked into that portal and she’s stuck there.  We need to get her out.”

 

Xander glance around at the other faces staring at Willow. Tara looked shocked and worried, but he knew she’d do whatever Willow wanted.  Dawn looked so hopeful that it was painful to see.  With a sigh of resignation, he agreed to participate in the spell, and to refrain from letting Spike know what they were doing.  Which proved as difficult as he expected.

 

~~~~~~~~~

 

“Somethin’ wrong?”

 

“What? No, no. What… no, nothing’s wrong. Why?”

 

“Because you’ve been avoiding me for weeks? Because you jump like a spooked cat if I talk to you? Because you’re so obviously hiding something that a two-year-old could sense it? What’s the matter, has Mike-the-poof been sniffing around you again?” Spike’s expression went from worried to fangy at the thought, then back to worried when Xander’s shoulders slumped.

 

“I told her I wouldn’t be able to do this,” he muttered.

 

“Told who, what?”  Xander flinched when he realized he’d spoken loud enough for Spike’s sharp ears to hear it.

 

“Nothing. Look. I’m sorry, okay? I’ve just had a lot on my mind and….” He glanced into the vampire’s hurt face and without thinking moved close enough to touch Spike’s chest with his fingertips.  “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “This has nothing to do with you..,. or with you and me… it’s just… just something I can’t share right now. Okay?”

 

“Thought we were better friends than that,” Spike said, schooling his face into a smooth mask.

 

“We are friends. Good friends.”  Xander’s hand had moved to Spike’s cheek and he stroked it briefly when he noticed the vampire leaning into the hand.  “Trust me when I tell you that this is going to be a good thing. I… It will make you happy.  I just can’t tell you what it is.”

 

“Bit early for Christmas presents, isn’t it?  Don’t know what else could be so secret that you couldn’t tell me.”

 

“Believe me. If I thought it would be the right thing to do, I’d tell you.” Xander moved closer and rested his forehead against Spike’s. It was the first time since Back to School Night that they’d had more than casual physical contact. Spike had willingly respected Xander’s need for time, and although he continued his verbal innuendoes, he hadn’t tried to touch Xander for weeks. When Xander left his head there, closing his eyes and inhaling the scents that had become so familiar to him.  Spike’s arms came up around his back and pulled them closer together.

 

“You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?” he breathed against Xander’s mouth.

 

Xander shook his head, unable to move away as Spike’s lips came closer and closer to his, brushing across them before Spike abruptly stepped away.

 

“Well, good. Because if I thought you were lying to me about something, I’d be a mite upset.”

 

Xander squeezed his eyes shut and tried to reassure himself that Willow was right and Spike could not know what they were doing until it was done.  More as an attempt to distract Spike than anything else, he followed him across the room to the day bed that Spike used as both a couch and a bed.

 

“It’ll be all right,” Xander said ambiguously as he sat down beside Spike.  “Do you want me to come with you tonight? Where are you patrolling?”

 

“No, he said shortly. “Red thinks she’s fixed the bot so there won’t be any more issues like we had last time… ”

 

His voice trailed off as he remembered his automatic response to the Buffybot’s sad face when he’d ordered her to leave him alone. And what it had led to. The arm he’d instinctively put around her shoulders had been all it took for the Bot to slide her hand into his pants and begin to caress him as he’d taught her to.  By the time he’d come to his senses and realized what she was doing, she’d already had his pants unzipped and was dropping to her knees in front of him.

 

His expression when he’d marched the bot back into the house and shoved her at Willow said all that was necessary about what still needed to be fixed, and Willow had promised he didn’t have to be around the bot again until she’d solved the problem.  Today, she had assured him it was fixed and had requested that he take the bot on patrol with him.

 

“Well, that’s good I guess… “ Xander looked at Spike and asked, “Don’t suppose you want to talk about what she—it—did that set you off?”

 

“Really rather not,” Spike said. “All you need to know is that I forgot for a second that it wasn’t really Buffy. Seems like treatin’ her like Buffy, even for just a second, triggered some latent behaviors the witch thought she’d removed.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Xander whispered. “I’m sorry that you’re still hurting so much, and I’m sorry that we have to use the bot.  Maybe when—” He stopped so quickly that Spike frowned at him.

 

“Maybe when what?”

 

“Nothing. I was just thinking out loud.  Shouldn’t do that I guess.”

 

“Only if you’re thinking things you know I’ll want to hear.” Spike’s grin was a little forced, but Xander was happy to have an excuse to change the subject.

 

“Heh, you wish,” he said, moving away.  He knew if a girl had been giving him the same mixed signals that he’d been sending Spike, he’d have probably called her an ugly name and quit seeing her by now.  But the vampire rarely did anything that couldn’t be interpreted as just trying to rattle his cage, so he tried to tell himself that Spike didn’t really care if he did or didn’t… he was just playing a role.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

A week later, Xander wasn’t so sure, as another conversation led to more close up face time and whispered questions. “Did you say what I think you said?” Spike asked, moving closer to Xander and looking up into his eyes. “Or was I just imaging I heard it?”

 

“I don’t know,” Xander replied, focusing on Spikes lips and remembering the way they’d felt brushing over his. “What did you think I said?”

 

Xander could feel the way his body heat had increased. As, apparently, could Spike, who slid an arm around his neck and pulled him closer. “Oh,” he said, touching his mouth to Xander’s and running his tongue lightly around his lips. “Somethin’ like ‘I think I’m ready’ or words to that effect.”

 

“I think I might be getting pretty close to ready,” Xander admitted, opening his mouth and sending his own tongue out for it’s first taste of another man. 

 

It wasn’t long before they were sliding down on the bed, pressing their bodies together as the kisses advanced to something Xander hadn’t really been expecting.  Only a shout from Dawn upstairs interrupted their dry-humping and urgent groping.  With an effort, Xander pushed himself away and rolled onto the floor.

 

“Forgot,” he gasped. “I’m supposed to take Dawn over to Janice’s to spend the night. Since we’re all going to be out—

 

“We are?” Spike seemed to be having similar issues with breathing, even though they both knew he didn’t need to.  “I know where I’m going, but where are you—?”

 

Xander swallowed hard. “Uh, I think Willow and Tara… and then I… and you…”

 

Spike’s eyes narrowed. “Would this have anything to do with how jumpy you’ve been? Or how willin’ you suddenly are to do something that might distract me?”

 

“What? No! No distracting. I was just… and then you… and we….” He met Spike’s doubtful eyes and bit his lip as he lied.  “Willow’s got something going on and I said I’d drive them there before I take Dawn to Janice’s.  Since you were going to take the bot out for another trial run, didn’t seem like there was any reason to tell you about it. That’s all.”  He willed himself to meet Spike’s eyes without flinching.

 

“Well, why the hell didn’t you just say so?” Spike gave a disgusted snort and adjusted himself as he sat up. “Nothing like making a bloke think something’s going on behind his back…”

 

Xander stood up and looked pointedly at the bulge in Spike’s jeans.  “Nothing’s going on behind your back. Looks like it’s all in front…”

 

“Want to check that out for yourself?” Spike offered, stepping closer to Xander. “Just to give you something to think about while you’re driving the women around town?”

 

“May—maybe when I get back….” Xander stammered, backing up. He jerked his head toward the stairs where Dawn’s voice was still demanding his presence.

 

“Gonna hold you to that, pet,” Spike said, curling his tongue behind his teeth. “I’ll be waiting…”

 

Knowing that if Willow’s spell succeeded, there would be something much more momentous to deal with when they got home, Xander just nodded and went up the stairs, willing his still half-hard cock to relax.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Spike settled back onto the bed, telling himself he had plenty of time to make it to the other side of town to take out the vamp nest Willow had told him needed removal. They’d all become accustomed to her bossy ways, and Spike didn’t usually bother to argue with her unless it was something he felt very strongly about.  Almost without thinking, he unzipped his jeans and wrapped his hand around the proof of how much he wanted Xander to decide he was ready.  While he listened to the others leaving, he began stroking himself; by the time he’d vamped out and come with a muffled grunt, the house over his head was quiet and empty.

 

He waited a little longer before going upstairs and taking the Buffybot from the closet. He stared at it for a long time before forcing himself to push the button that turned it from a very life-like statue into a moving, talking parody of the woman he’d loved.  Grabbing his coat from the back of a chair, he said “Let’s go, Bot,” and went outside just in time to see a gang of motorcycle-riding demons roaring down on Revello Drive.

 

“Spike!” the bot said. “Demons!”

 

“I see them,” he muttered, picking up a rake from side of the house.

 

“I kill demons,” the bot said brightly.

 

“You’ll get your chance. Just wait here a sec…” He left her standing on the sidewalk and walked out into the street.  Minutes and one dead demon later, he pulled up on his new mode of transportation and said, “Get on, pet.”

 

“You called me ‘pet’,” she said as she climbed on behind him. She slid her arms around his waist. “You don’t do that any more.”

 

Spike gritted his teeth and threw the bike into gear.  “Don’t let it go to your head.”

 

“No,” she agreed quietly, with what he refused to identify as a trace of sadness. “I’m not to remind you of the other Buffy. Or to try to act like her.  Unless I’m slaying. Then I can be Buffy.”

 

He grunted his agreement and raced down the street in the direction the gang had gone.  He put all thought of taking out the vamp nest aside, cruising through the streets looking for Xander’s truck and the other humans for which he was responsible.  The sight of Janice’s dark and obviously empty house made him frown and swear that if Dawn had been lying to them about where she was going, he’d ground her for the rest of ninth grade.  He was so busy watching the shadows for signs of stupid teenaged girls that he was caught by surprise when the bot suddenly somersaulted off the back of the bike squealing, “Demons! I see more demons.”

 

Swearing viciously, he swerved the bike around, only to see the demons had thrown a set of chains over the bot and were already dragging her away.  He wavered between following them and trying to save her before she was destroyed or exposed for what she was, and investigating the screams from the nearby cemetery.

 

Opting for saving the real people, he rode in that direction, jumping from the bike as he neared the trees.  Before he’d located the source of the screams, he scented something familiar and found Willow and Tara hiding behind a small dumpster. Willow had blood pouring from her nose and was barely able to stand up.  Tara raised tear-filled eyes to his. “Please, Spike. Help me get her home.”

 

He nodded, draping a semi-conscious Willow across the handlebars and gesturing for Tara to get on behind him.  The roar of the motorcycle made conversation impossible so he waited until he’d deposited them in front of the house before asking, “What the hell is going on? What were you doing out there?”

 

“Hiding,” Tara said, opening the door and dragging Willow in.  “You should see if you can find Dawn and Xander.”

 

Find them?  Where are they?”

 

“I don’t know. When the demons came, we went one way and they went another. You have to find them.”

 

Not bothering to reply or ask why they’d all been in a cemetery, he gunned the engine, throwing clods of dirt and grass all over the sidewalk as he headed back toward the part of town where he could now see fires burning and hear more screams.  On his way, he noticed the pile of metal and plastic that had once been the Buffybot. With a shudder, he kept going, hoping to find Dawn before the demons did.

 

Movement in an alley caught his eye and he skidded to a halt as he spotted Xander and Dawn backed up against a fence and doing their best to fight off several demons, using a broom handle and an axe that Xander had managed to get hold of. Spike dropped the bike on the ground and raced towards them, stumbling momentarily when a dirt-covered woman appeared between them and the demons.  He stared, unable to understand at first what he was seeing. Only when she began to fight off the demons did he fully comprehend who was under the layers of mud and dirt. There was only one girl in the world who could fight like that.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

With Buffy and Spike both in the fight, the demons that hadn’t been killed were soon routed and everyone stopped to catch their breath.  Dawn’s faint, “Buffy?” brought all the attention to the frightened woman in front of them. In spite of the dirt in her hair and on her face, there was no mistaking who it was. Even if she hadn’t been wearing the dress Buffy had been buried in, Spike would have recognized her scent in an instant. She stared uncomprehendingly back and forth between the three of them, then turned and bolted away, with Spike in hot pursuit and Dawn’s tearful pleading coming from behind them.

 

“Buffy! Please, love, wait…” Spike put on a burst of speed that allowed him get in front of her. He held out his hands and tried to stop her, but she backhanded him away and bolted again. Before he could catch up, Dawn’s voice finally seemed to reach Buffy’s ears and she slowed, eventually stopping and turning to stare at Dawn and Xander.  Gasping for air, Xander looked around the debris-strewn area and saw that they were under the tower.  He and Spike watched as Dawn slowly approached Buffy, whose eyes were darting around like a frightened rabbit’s. 

 

“It’s me, Buffy. You remember me, don’t you?  Your sister? I’m Dawn and I’m here to take you home.  You’re safe now. Back with us the real world and out of….” Her voice trailed off as Buffy’s eyes welled up and she shook her head.  “No, it’s okay, Buffy. You’re safe now. We saved you. See? It’s just me,” she continued as Buffy began edging towards the tower. “It’s me and Xander – you remember Xander, don’t you?  He helped save you. And Spike’s here. You know Spike. He doesn’t want to hurt you.  We all lo—“ She broke off as Xander interrupted.

 

“Dawnie,” he said, casting an apprehensive look at the shaky tower and Buffy’s growing curiosity about it, “she’s not afraid of you. You need to get her away from here before she—”

 

Buffy’s gaze traveled up the length of Glory’s tower to the platform on the top. Moving as if in a dream, she began to walk toward the rickety staircase leading up, her eyes never leaving the platform from which she’d jumped so many months ago.  With a moan, Dawn ran to her, grabbing her arm and, with a mixture of crying and babbling, insisted that she go with them.  Buffy reached out to touch Dawn’s tear-stained face with one grimy finger.

 

“Saved me?” she whispered, trailing her hand down Dawn’s cheek and glancing at Xander, who was nodding eagerly. Her eyes flickered to Spike who dropped his eyes and hunched his shoulders, shaking his head in disbelief and denial. Buffy’s gaze went back to her own hand where it still rested on Dawn’s cheek, the dirt mingling with Dawn’s tears to make muddy tracks.

 

Dawn put her hand over Buffy’s and squeezed it, gasping when she noticed the torn, bleeding nails. Her eyes flew to Xander’s. “Her hands…” she said, beginning to shake.  “Look at her hands. We left her in the gra—”

 

“It’ll be all right, Dawnie. We’ll get her home and cleaned up, and—”

 

“This?” Spike’s voice was cold and harsh, the expression on his face more frightening than they’d seen it in years.  This is what you’ve been lying to me about?  You did this… behind my back?”  The anger faded as quickly as it had come, and his eyes filled. “You never even told me you were thinking about it.”  Refusing to look at Xander or Dawn, he took Buffy’s other arm and coaxed, “Come on, love. Let’s get you home.  Clean up those hands, yeah? Messy job it is, digging out of your own grave.”

 

The look Buffy gave him was part bewilderment and part gratitude. She nodded and pulled away from Dawn to let Spike lead her away.  Still walking as if in a dream state, and pausing occasionally to look back at the tower, Buffy followed them past the fallen motorcycle to Xander’s truck.  Spike left Dawn to put Buffy into the cab for the ride home while he lifted the bike into the bed of the truck and climbed in to ride with it.

 

He refused to look at anyone else when they brought Buffy into the house, although he gave a bloodcurdling snarl when Willow ran up to hug her. He walked past the humans fussing over the quiet slayer, and after a curt, “clean up her hands” went directly down to his room, throwing himself on the bed and covering his eyes.  It was hours later when he heard tentative steps on the stairs and smelled Xander.

 

“Don’t.”

“Spike, I—”

 

“Get out. Now.”

 

“I need to expl—”

 

“Don’t want to hear it.” Spike leapt from the bed and was past Xander and up the stairs before the human man could react.  The sound of the back door slamming and motorcycle starting up put an eloquent end to the conversation Xander had been dreading.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

Explaining to Buffy why her bedroom was now his was a conversation that didn’t go quite the way Xander had expected it to. At Dawn’s insistence, Buffy had spent the first several nights with her sister, mostly sleeping or staring into space. She hadn’t actually talked that much with anyone except Dawn, and this was her first attempt at a real conversation about what had gone on while she was away.

 

“So, you and Spike are a gay couple? And he’s my brother? The school bought that?”

 

“It’s Sunnydale,” Xander said with a shrug. “They’ll buy anything if it means they don’t have to know things they don’t want to know.”

 

She nodded. “There’s a lot of that going around,” she said without explanation. “So, where’s my stuff?”

 

“It’s in the basement. Behind Spike’s… Spike’s room.” She gave him a long look.

 

“I haven’t noticed Spike using that room.”

 

“No. I don’t know where he—back at his crypt, I guess. He’s kind of… pissed off at me. At everybody, I guess, but mostly me.”

 

“Oh? Why is that?” Buffy’s face didn’t give away that she’d already learned from a tearful Dawn that Spike had been kept in the dark about Willow’s plan, and that he’d scoffed when anyone suggested Buffy might not have gone directly to Heaven.

 

Xander sighed. “Well, he probably wouldn’t have been… he always insisted you were in Heaven.  Told me it was what was keeping him sane – knowing you were safe and happy.  Anyway, Willow said he wouldn’t have had the right ‘energy’ for the spell, even if he’d been willing to help. So we just didn’t tell him… and I might have… lied a little.  And now he thinks I was just pretending… but I wasn’t! I just didn’t want him to mess up the spell, and now he hates me.”

 

“Can’t blame him,” she said. “Must have been painful to find out your ‘partner’ was keeping that big a secret from you.”

 

“We’re not a real couple!” His vehement reaction quickly ebbed as he sighed and slumped down on the edge of the bed. “But we are... were… really good friends. And maybe….” He straightened up. “But now that you’re back, he’ll go back to obsessing over you anyway, so—”

 

“Spike loves pretty hard,” Buffy said enigmatically. “I learned that about him a long time ago.”  She looked around the unfamiliar-looking room and shook her head.  “My coming back has disrupted a lot of things, hasn’t it?”

 

Xander jumped to his feet. “Oh, no. No, no.  I’ll be out of here in no time. I just need to pack up and get Spike to—or get one of the guys from work to help me with the furniture…”

 

Buffy cocked her head at him. “You do remember how strong I am, don’t you?” She gave a half-smile at his embarrassed expression. “But don’t worry about it. I can move into the bedroom downstairs. At least as long as Spike isn’t using it….”

 

“You don’t think he’s going to come back?” Xander’s dismay was impossible to hide.  “And, no! You’re not going to lurk in the basement while I use your nice sunny bedroom.  I’ll move down there.”

 

Buffy shook her head.  “No, I’ll be fine. Really. The darkness… it’s kind of… peaceful. You know?”

 

“Oh, yeah.” Xander nodded his head vigorously. “I’m sure, after where you’ve been, some peace and quiet would be really nice.  But you can’t live in your own basement. That’s just not right.”

 

“Lots of things aren’t right,” she replied softly.  “We just have to learn to live with them.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

When Buffy confessed where she’d been, Spike clenched his fists and blinked his prickling eyes.  Pretending the sun was blinding him, he rubbed a hand over his face as he snarled, “Told him that’s where you were. I told him!”

 

“I know you did,” she said. “Dawn told me… and so did Xander… but they think you were wrong.”

 

“Bloody idiots,” he muttered. “As if you could have….” He raised his eyes to hers. “How could they—“ He shook his head and fought the urge go into the Magic Box and tear Willow’s throat out.

 

“They can never know,” Buffy said, her even, defeated voice so different from the sassy slayer he knew that he had to look at her again.  “It would kill them.”

 

He leapt to his feet. “They need to know! You can’t carry that burden by yourself. Tryin’ to be happy for them. You think I can’t see it? How hard it is? You need to share it, Buffy.”

 

“I’m sharing it with you,” she said softly.  “Is that okay?”

 

“Of course it is, love.” He touched her cheek lightly.  “If I could take the whole weight of it off you, I would. You know that.  But—”

 

She interrupted to stare into his eyes. “If you’d known – if they’d wanted you in on it – would you have done it?”

 

He froze, as she waited patiently – and wasn’t that a sign right there of how not herself she was? – for his answer. Spike swallowed hard. “I want to tell you I wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “And I think I mean that. Know too much about the consequences of using that kind of heavy magic to take it lightly. Prob’ly why the witch didn’t want to include me – she knew I’d object.”  He raised one hand and touched her face again.  “But, with you standing here in front of me… breathing and alive….” He shook his head. “Don’t ask me to tell you I’m not glad you’re here.  I’d be lyin’ through my teeth.”

 

Buffy nodded and he dropped his hand. They sat side by side just out of the sun for several minutes before she sighed and stood up. He reached toward her as she moved into the sun and away from him.

 

“Buffy – I can’t be sorry you’re back, but if there’s anything I can do to make it easier….”

 

“Just be here, ‘k?  Give me somebody to be with that I don’t have to pretend for. Can you do that?”

 

“Can and will.”

 

She nodded. “Thank you,” she whispered and walked away.  She was out of sight by the time Xander opened the door looking for her.

 

“Buffy? Are you coming—” He stopped when he saw Spike leaning against the wall. “Spike… Where… why haven’t you been home?”

 

“Not my home anymore, is it?” he said, flicking his cigarette away and moving past Xander into the building.  Without another word, he disappeared down the stairs to use the sewers and tunnels to return to his crypt.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

In spite of Xander’s frequent protests, Buffy insisted she was fine with staying in the basement, and nothing he said or did could budge her. However, when she was with Spike, she seemed less sure of herself. As they relaxed in his crypt after one of the sparring sessions Spike had coaxed Buffy into, she pressed the issue.

 

“But it’s a nice room, Spike. I mean, okay, the crypt gives you more space, and I think the downstairs part is… nice, but—”

 

“There’s no reason for me to be living there now, love.  They’ve got you for muscle, Harris for income, and the witches to help Dawn with her homework. I’m not needed anymore.”

 

“Is that the only reason you were there? Because you were needed?” 

 

“Well, yeah. I suppose. I mean Harris and I… we had to make it look good, didn’t we? Not that it was our idea, but your little sis put us in that… relationship, and we had to….”

 

“So, you and Xan aren’t…  not that there’s anything wrong with that,” she hastened to add in an unconscious repetition of Xander’s response to the same question. “It’s just that you… and Xander… and…” Buffy shook her head, her once again blonde hair bouncing.  She gave him a shrug.  “I would never have figured either one of you for… but I guess that’s because I’ve known you both so long.  I guess the school’s got no memories of what a macho pig you are to clue them in.”

 

Spike growled, then cocked his head at her.  “Would you have figured Red to switch sides when wolf-boy left her?”

 

Buffy frowned. “No. It was a surprise… but I adjusted.  We all love Tara.  What are you saying? That you and Xander have switched sides?  Just because Anya left and I… I went away too?”

 

“What I’m saying, love, is that sometimes it’s all about how you feel about a person, not what sex they are.”  When Buffy’s eyes grew wide, he quickly stood up, adding, “But, I’m not sayin’ that Harris and I are—” He regained a little swagger.  “I’m a vampire. Not sure Angelus ever explained to you exactly what that means, but you should know we take what we want when we want it. Not too bothered about whether it’s got a label or not.”

 

“So, you’re saying you could be gay, but Xander isn’t?” 

 

“What? No! Haven’t you been paying atten—“ Her lips were twitching as he grew more agitated in his explanations, until he finally noticed her smirk. “Are you playing me, Slayer?”

 

“A little bit,” she admitted. “Sorry, but watching you trying to be all manly and studly-dudly while you explain how you could want to be with a guy…. It was kinda funny.”

 

“It’s alright, pet. It’s nice to see a smile on your face again—even if it was at my expense.”

 

“It was nice to feel like smiling again… for a few—” she said, her face dropping back to its usual blank expression before she perked up again. “Especially if it’s at your expense.”

 

He shook his head and grabbed his coat. “Let’s go kill things before I get the urge to show you exactly how manly I can be.”

 

“Ooooo, scary! The gay vampire is threatening me.” She giggled and ran out the door with Spike in hot pursuit, muttering about “bleedin’ government chips” and teaching her a lesson. In spite of his growls, he couldn’t keep a small smile from his lips as he ran after the first laughter he’d heard from her since her resurrection.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“I’m telling you, Willow, there’s something wrong.  She almost acts like she’s sorry she’s here. It’s weird.”

 

“Well, of course she’s acting weird.  Hello? Hell dimension? We can’t expect her to bounce back and be all perky Buffy right away.  Give her a few more days… or weeks.  She’ll be fine.  Remember when she told us how weird Angel was when he first came back from Hell?  It was a long time before he got back to normal.”

 

“Which for him was just the same gloomy brooding,” Xander muttered.  “Who could tell the difference?”

 

“The point is,” Willow said, her voice growing tighter, “Buffy’s just overwhelmed by what we did for her.  As soon as the memories of that awful place fade, she’ll be fine. She’ll be our Buffy again.”

 

“Do you ever wonder why she hasn’t thanked us yet?”

 

Willow frowned and shrugged. “She’s always been a little self-centered. It’s rude, but she’ll get around to it.”

 

Xander stared at his best friend as if seeing her for the first time.  “Will, this is Buffy. She isn’t rude. Not to us. And if anybody has a right to be a little self-centered…”

 

“It’s fine, Xander. Stop looking for problems where there aren’t any.”

 

 He sighed and nodded, sitting in a chair and staring into space.  Willow bit her lip, then, in a much softer tone, she asked, “Is Spike still mad at you—us?”

 

“Don’t know,” he admitted. “I haven’t seen him since last week, and he wouldn’t talk to me then.”

 

“You know, if you want him to talk to you, I could just do a little….”

 

“No!  No spells. If he wants to talk to me, he will.”

 

“But—“

 

“No, Willow. He has a right to be pissed off at me… at all of us, but mostly me. I understand it, and I know I deserve it.  I just don’t… don’t like it very much.”

 

“Well, the offer stands. Just seems like a shame, just when you guys were really learning to get along and like each other. I don’t see how a little spell to make you accidentally run into each other somewhere could cause any harm.”

 

Xander gave her a sad grin.  “I’d think somebody who just pulled off a resurrection wouldn’t want to bother with little spells.”

 

“Hey, if I could pull Buffy out of Hell, making Spike show up on the front porch probably wouldn’t even need a spell. I could just… wish him there or something.”

 

“Right. And no.”  He stood up to go take a shower before bed.  “Sorry I’m such a worry wart. I just miss… I miss Buffy, the way she used to be… and I miss Spike.” He gave a shaky laugh and rolled his eyes.  “And who ever thought they’d hear those words from me?”

 


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

 

“Ah, there she is. Must be dark out.”  Spike’s welcoming smile took the implied criticism from his words, although Buffy apologized anyway.

 

“Are you getting tired of baby-sitting me every night?”

 

“No, love. Never. Promised you I’d be here to lean on, didn’t I?”

 

“You did. But between watching me mope and helping me train, it isn’t leaving you much time to have a life.  If you need a night off to yourself—”

 

“Don’t,” he said curtly.  “Got no one else to see.  Maybe the Bit, but she knows her way here.”

 

“I think she’s afraid you’re mad at her.”

 

“I am mad at her. Doesn’t mean I don’t lo—like her anymore.”

 

“Maybe you should drop by some night and tell her that,” Buffy suggested, brushing her hand over the top of a table and drawing stick figures in the dust there.  “I think she’d like to hear it.”

 

“Maybe,” he said. “Some night when… some night when nobody else is home,” he finished.

 

Buffy rolled her eyes.  “Speaking of him…” She ignored Spike’s muttered “Wasn’t speaking of anybody in particular.”  “Dawn brought a note home from school asking for a conference with her ‘brother’.  Something about her schedule, I think.”

 

He nodded. “You go ahead and set something up, Buffy. See if you can get them to make it late in the day so I’ve got half a chance of getting there without blowing away with the rest of the smog.”  He moved toward the door, holding it for her so they could go out to begin patrol.  “Did they want just me? Or….”

 

“They want both of us… and the counselor did mention bringing Xander along. He seemed really interested in including him, actually. Even after he found out I was going to be available more than… well, more than I was when I was dead.” She gave Spike a genuine smile. “Wow. I managed to say that without freaking out. Go me.”

 

“You’re getting’ better, pet. I can see it. A little bit at a time, you’re coming back to us, starting to enjoy being in the world.”

 

“I think ‘enjoy’ might be pushing it,” she muttered, “but, yeah, I guess I’m coping better. You… you’ve been a big help,” she added, resting a hand on his arm briefly. “I know I haven’t… but I do appreciate it. I wish… I don’t know how to thank you.”

 

He raised a ribald eyebrow and leered at her. “You don’t? Are you open to suggestions?”

 

She snorted. “Still a pig, I see. Some things never change.”

 

“Well, yeah. I am evil you know.”

 

“Right. Don’t know how I could have forgotten that.”

 

They exchanged affectionate smirks until Spike’s head snapped up as he heard a funeral procession entering the cemetery and nodded in that direction.

 

“Reckon they could use a little supervision?”

 

“A nighttime funeral? Seriously?  I think it might be a public service to let them get eaten before they can reproduce.”

 

He laughed and began to trot.  “Appreciate the sentiment, pet, but I know you didn’t mean it. We’d best move a little faster.”  Buffy spotted the vampires strolling casually toward the mourners as soon as Spike spoke and she broke into a run.

 

“You take left, I’ll take right.”

 

“Got it.”

 

Working like the deadly team they had so easily become, Buffy and Spike made fairly short work of the small gang of vampires that had shown up to feed off the funeral goers. Slowed only by Buffy’s need to keep an eye on the humans to be sure one didn’t get picked off while she was busy slaying, they worked their way around the grave site, kicking, punching and staking until there was nothing left but dust floating away on the gentle breeze.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

When the vampires had all been dusted, the screams from the startled funeral procession quieted, and the priest scolded for thinking the crucifix he carried was sufficient to protect all the people with him, Buffy and Spike sat on a stone bench to wait until everyone was safely out of Restfield.

 

“So, what’s the what with you and Xander, huh? Still not speaking to him?”

 

“There is no me and Xander,” he said. “Jus’ a game we were playing for the school. Won’t matter now, with you being back, I can just be the older brother and no one needs to know or care who I’m shagging.”

 

“I dunno, her counselor thinks you two are Dawn’s family unit or something. He was pretty hot to have both you and Xander at the meeting.”

 

“The operative word there being ‘hot’,” Spiked snarled. “He’s been after Harris since Back to School night.  Know damn good and well there’s no reason for all those ‘conferences’ about the Bit. Bloody poofter!”

 

Buffy stared at him, beginning to understand that while she was gone, the relationship between Spike and her best male friend really had changed in an unexpected way.  Spike refused to meet her knowing eyes as he pretended to be scenting the air for more vampires.

 

“Why haven’t you talked to him yet?”

 

Spike tried to shrug it off her question, then, when she nudged him, he gave in.

 

“He lied to me, Buffy! Lied to my face, and other… things… that made me think he…. Don’t want to talk to him. I don’t need him, and he doesn’t need me. We’re fine the way we are.”

 

“Okay.”  Buffy stood up to follow the funeral procession out of the gate. “But I think he misses you.”

 

“You do?” Spike stood up too, shrugging and mumbling, “I guess he should come with us. Just in case…”

 

She smiled to herself. “Good night, Spike. I’ll let you know when we have to go to the school.”

 

“Night, Slayer. Good fight tonight.”

 

“It was, wasn’t it? Felt like old times.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Xander glanced up when Buffy walked in the door. 

 

“You’re home early,” he said with a smile. “No bad guys about?”

 

“They all showed up together, and Spike and I got a whole night’s worth of slaying done at one time. Figured I’d come home and get some sleep for a change.  What are you doing still up?”

 

Ignoring her question, Xander said with forced casualness, “You and Spike are spending a lot of time together since… now that you’re back. A person might get the impression you liked him or something. Is he wearing you down?” 

 

He tried to keep any trace of jealousy from his voice, but it seemed that something had betrayed him.  Buffy stared at him, narrowing her eyes at the unspoken disapproval she had obviously detected. Whether he disapproved of her time spent with Spike because he thought she should be spending more time at home with the Scoobies, or because he thought Spike should be spending more time with him, she couldn’t seem to decide.

 

“Spike’s been there for me,” she said finally. “He’s helping me get back in shape, and he’s been a good friend these past few weeks.”

 

“I thought we were your friends.”

 

“You are my friends. But Spike is… I can talk to him, Xan. He’s not…. I can tell him stuff. And I need that right now.”

 

“And you can’t talk to us? Your friends? The people who brought you back? He had nothing to do with it!”  Xander bit his lip, startled not only to have let out what was really bothering him, but that he’d said it so forcefully.

 

I know.” Buffy’s short reply as she pivoted and left the room, kept him frozen to his seat, his mind whirling.

 

~~~~~~~~

 

He was still sitting there, chanting to himself, “No, no. Not possible. Please, God, let that not be—” when Willow and Tara came in.  Willow frowned and interrupted his muttering.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

He raised frightened eyes to hers.  “Remember when I tried to say Buffy was probably in Heaven?”

 

Willow flapped her hand dismissively. “Yes. So what? You were wrong.”

 

“Spike said—” 

 

“Spike. That would be the vampire we haven’t seen much of since Buffy came back. That one?”

 

“Buffy sees him every night,” Xander said.  “She says he’s her friend.”

 

We’re her friends. We’re the ones who brought her back. Has she forgotten that?”

 

“I don’t think so,” he answered softly, finally getting up from his seat. “I don’t think she has.”

 

Willow frowned at him, then shrugged. “Xander, you’re not making any sense.  Why don’t you go to bed and get some sleep?  I could make you a potion to—” Tara’s hand on her arm and Xander’s, “Thanks, but I’m fine,” had her glaring at both of them.  “What?” She rolled her eyes. “You’re both getting as bad as Spike. Criticizing me every time I want to use a little magic to make our lives easier.”

 

“We just don’t want you getting too dependent on it, baby,” Tara said with an apologetic smile. “That spell really took it out of you, remember?”

 

“It did. But now I’m much, much stronger. It’s amazing, really, how strong I feel.”

 

Tara’s smile faded a bit, but she struggled to seem pleased.  Xander just shrugged and turned away.

 

“I think I’m tired enough to sleep without help, magical or other wise. Got a long day coming up tomorrow.”

 

He went up to what he still insisted on referring to as “Buffy’s room”, even though she had steadfastly refused to leave the basement bedroom, gradually moving her things into it as she opened boxes and located what she wanted.  She insisted that the darkness and the quiet down there were very soothing.  He shuddered, forcing away the thoughts her short comment had given rise to.  Sleep, however, was a long time coming as he remembered Spike’s insistence that Buffy’s soul would have gone directly to Heaven.  When he did finally sleep, his dreams were dark and disturbing, populated with visions of Buffy being torn away from bright, winged beings that were trying to hang on to her, and Spike’s face when he’d realized what they’d been hiding from him. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Buffy was able to schedule the meeting with Dawn’s counselor for just at sunset a few days later, pleading the difficulty of all the adults in Dawn’s life getting off work early on the same day.  Spike told her he’d meet them at the school, so Buffy rode with Xander in his truck.  He broke the silence just before they reached the parking lot.

 

“So, you and Spike go out again last night?”

 

Buffy cocked her head at him.  “What if we did?”

 

“Nothing. None of my business. I was just curious.  I mean… it makes sense, if you think about it.  He still thinks he’s in love with you, you seem to like him better than you used to – you know, back when you hated him and said he’d get a date with you over your dead body.”

 

Buffy sighed and shook her head.  “We’re not dating, Xander. He’s just… I’m comfortable around him, okay? We’re… we’re a lot alike in some ways, and we like doing some of the same things.”

 

“Do I even want to know what those things are?” He kept his voice light and a crooked grin on his face as he opened the car door. “Not that it’s any of my business,” he repeated when she sighed heavily, “but—”

 

Buffy stared at him, hands on hips, then gave a “you asked for it” shrug.

“We like to fight; we like to fight each other, so we spar a lot. Turns out Spike’s chip doesn’t fire if he isn’t trying to really hurt me.” Her look hardened as she continued. “We both had to dig our way out of graves… and we like to kill things.” Buffy turned her back and walked away too quickly for him to keep up without running.  “And it isn’t any of your business,” she added as they reached the door.

 

 She waited for him, holding the open door and glancing into his hurt eyes. Her expression softened.  “Are you going to be able to do this?  Pretend you and Spike are still a couple? You haven’t even spoken to each other since I got back.”

 

“He’ll be fine.” Spike’s voice came from inside the building where he was slouched against a wall waiting for them. “He can just tell his not-so-secret admirer that I moved out because we broke up.  That should make old Mike-the-poof happy.”

 

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Well, I’m glad somebody will be happy.  Cause you two are starting to make me look like Little Mary Sunshine.”  She didn’t notice Xander’s flinch at her off-hand admission that she wasn’t happy, but Spike did. He stared at the other man, but Xander kept his eyes turned away from both of them as he led the way to the counselor’s office.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Once introductions had been made and Mike had insisted that he could see the family resemblance between Spike and Buffy, he got down to the reason he’d called them in.

 

“As you probably know, Dawn is a very bright young lady. However, she often has a problem focusing on her studies.  I’m sure it has been difficult for her, losing her mother last year…” He paused to give Buffy and Spike a sympathetic smile. “And for you also. Taking over the household at such a young age.” He looked at Buffy.  “I understand you had to leave college when your mother became ill, and then you were… out of town for a while,” he said. “Have you returned to your studies now?”

 

Buffy shook her head.  “Not yet. I’m probably going to have to get a job. Spi—William can’t provide for all of us.”

 

“Surely he only supports you and Dawn?”  He gave Xander a speculative glance. “I would think the other young adults living in the house would be contributing their own share?”

 

“Everybody helps,” Spike said curtly. “Now, what is it you want to talk to us about?”

 

“We’d like to move Dawn into a couple of our Honors classes,” he shocked them by saying.  “We feel that she’s not reaching her potential where she is, and that boredom may be contributing to some of her… other issues.  Do I have your permission to do that?”

 

“If it gets her away from that Janice bint….” Buffy poked Spike and he subsided, muttering.

 

“It’s fine with me,” Buffy said. “Do I need to sign something?”

 

He slid the papers across and watched as she wrote her name and passed them silently to Spike who also scribbled his name on them.

 

Mike smiled and thanked them, folding the papers and settling back in his chair. “I’m curious about something,” he said. “If you don’t mind…?” When no one objected, he asked Spike, “Why do you have a British accent when Buffy and Dawn do not?”

 

Xander spoke up for the first time. “His mother is British, Joyce was his step-mother. He grew up in England.”

 

Mike beamed at Xander. “Well, that certainly explains it then. Thank you, Xander. I’d been hoping you’d visit our school again. How have you been?”

 

“Peachy with a side of keen,” Xander said, standing up. “Are we done here?”

 

“Xan!” Buffy glared at him.

 

“I’ve got stuff to do back at the house,” he said. “And I’m sure Spike wants to get back to his… place.”

 

“Oh,” Mike said, raising his eyebrows at Spike. “Are you not living together anymore?”

 

Glaring at Xander, Buffy said,  “We’re having a sort of… period of readjustment. Now that I’m living at home again, Spike has gone back to his… apartment… for a while. He’s still around and involved in Dawn’s life, just not exactly living with us right now.”

 

“I see…” Mike stared at Xander speculatively. “But you’re still living there?”

 

Xander nodded and tried to be casual. “Yeah. I gave up my apartment when I—we moved into the house, so I’m still there. I’ve known Dawn since she was in elementary school, and Buffy and I have been friends for a long time, so it’s not as weird as it seems.”

 

“Oh, I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. Trust me. I totally understand how flexible the definition of family can be.” He glanced at Spike. “So, then, you’re the one no longer living in the house.”

 

“For now,” Spike said, glaring at the man and his obvious eagerness to know more about what was going on between him and Xander. “If you don’t need me anymore…”

 

Buffy stood up. “I’ll walk out with you, Spike.”

 

They left a sputtering Xander trying to edge his way past Mike, who was insisting he stay a while and “talk it out”.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

By the time Xander escaped from Mike’s clutches, which he did only by agreeing to meet him for drinks at a local bar the following night, Buffy and Spike had gone off to patrol, leaving a note under the windshield wiper of the truck.  With a muffled curse, Xander wadded up the note and threw it in bed as he yanked open the door.  He got in and sat there for a while, his head against the back of the seat and his eyes shut.

 

Maybe I should let Mike take me around to a gay bar and see what happens.  If it’s not just Spike, who obviously doesn’t need me anymore now that he’s got Buffy to hang out with – if I really am gay… or bi, I might as well figure it out now. If I was really a good friend, I’d just be happy they’re happy and I’d stop being jealous of how much time my two friends are spending together.

 

Heaving a sigh, he started the engine, not even realizing that he was heading for Restfield Cemetery until the truck was entering the gates.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 “Well, that went well.” Spike snorted smoke out his nose as he tucked the lighter back into his pocket.

 

“It could have been worse. He could have been more curious about where I’ve been since last May.  I’m just as glad he was more interested in figuring out if you guys are still a couple.”

 

“Which we obviously are not.”

 

Buffy gave him a sideways glance.  “You know,” she said trying to sound more casual than she felt, “if you’re not happy about that, maybe you should do something about it.”

 

“Like what?” He snorted again.  “And have you gone daft?  The woman I love is back from the dead, she’s spending a lot of time with me, and you think I should go chasing off after some bloke who doesn’t even want me?” He waved his hands in the air.  “You’re barmier than Dru if you think I’d give up one night of this to spend my time with Mr. ‘Could be I will, but prob’ly not today’.”

 

“Spike…” Buffy sighed and stopped him, resting one hand on his cheek. “I really, really like you… most of the time.” She couldn’t resist a grin when he growled, even as he leaned into her hand. “And I… “ She stopped smiling and frowned.  “Sometimes I think I could…” She shook herself. “But that wouldn’t be fair to you, and it’s probably not something I should even—”

 

Spike grabbed her hand, pressing it to his cheek. “Buffy, they’re only crumbs. I know that. Know you’re only here because I don’t stomp around expecting you to be grateful for something you never wanted.” He dropped her hand and shook his head. “But all I ever asked from you was a crumb. Would have given you whatever you wanted or needed, but this…” He made a vague gesture meant to encompass the time they’d been spending together. “This is more than I ever hoped for.”

 

She nodded. “Yeah, it’s more than I could have imagined a year ago, that’s for sure.” She smiled up at him. “Did you know Xander thinks we’re dating… or… something?”

 

“He does?” Spike’s eyes grew wide. “Where’d he get that idea?”

 

“Because we’re together so much at night – and yeah, you’re a vampire, and I hunt them, so night’s pretty much a given – but…” She shrugged. “And I guess because he knows that you…” She paused, looking down at her suddenly very interesting shoes.

 

“He knows I still love you,” Spike finished for her. “You can say the words, pet. Not sayin’ it isn’t going to keep it from being true.”

 

Buffy continued looking down and nodded her reluctant agreement. “But he doesn’t know about… Heaven… or why I’m not all happy-Buffy all the time. So he thinks if I’m spending all this time with you, we must be… you know….”

 

He snorted again. “Pretty sure I’d have noticed that little change in my life.”

 

Buffy gave a muffled giggle, then sobered and backed away, not meeting his eyes. “Here’s the thing.  You… you really do make me feel not so… awful. When we spar… and even when you just… And I... it helps, you know? And I keep thinking, if you can make me feel more alive just by fighting and talking… what if we—”

 

“Don’t, he said, reaching to lay a finger across her lips.  “Don’t go teasing me with ‘maybe I do, maybe I don’t’. Had enough of that in my life lately.” He moved closer and put his arms around her in a loose embrace.  “You know how much I want you, what I’d do to have you feel half of what I feel for you.  And I’m more than chuffed that being with me is helping you deal.”  He dropped his arms and shook his head, but remained standing right in front of her. “But you don’t owe me anything. As much as certain body parts are telling me to shut the bloody hell up and kiss you, I want to be very clear that I don’t need any misguided gratitude for something I’d do willingly for the rest of my unlife.”

 

“Not gratitude,” she whispered, rising on her toes to put her mouth closer to his. “Not love, but not gratitude….”

 

With a groan, he gave up and fastened his mouth on hers for the first time since her quick thank you kiss last year.  Unlike the chaste, quick peck she’d given him then, or the loud, smacking kisses they’d shared while bespelled, this kiss was soft and gentle and tentative, with steadily building tension as they each waited for the other to deepen it.

 

The mutual exploration might have gone on much longer had Spike’s keen hearing not picked up a strangled gasp. He brought his head up in time to hear the door slam on Xander’s truck and to watch it peel out of the cemetery.  He gave a groan and buried his head in Buffy’s hair, muttering, “shit, shit, shit.”

 

“What?” She pulled away from him, searching for the source of the noise.  “What was that?”

 

“That was Xander catching us kissin’. That’s what that was.”

 

“Oh. Damn! And after I just told him… Dammit!” She stamped her foot. “Now he’ll never believe we aren’t….”

 

Spike cocked his head at her and stepped back. “Believe we aren’t what?”

 

She caught the wary look in his eyes and sighed. “What we were doing, I guess.  But… I didn’t—don’t want to hurt anybody. I just wanted to….” She took a deep breath.  “You make me feel things, Spike.  When I’m around you, I feel more… just more.  Like I’m not just going through the motions, you know?  I guess I thought, if you can make me feel that alive just by… maybe if we….”

 

“Shagged like bunnies?” His expression didn’t reveal anything, but he wasn’t wearing the leer that would have normally accompanied such words.  “What did you think that might do, Slayer?”

 

Buffy winced at his use of her title – something he rarely did anymore unless he was mad at her.  Embarrassment turned to anger.  “I don’t know what I was thinking, okay?  I just thought we might… you know what? Forget it. Just forget the whole thing.” She whirled to leave, only to find Spike already standing in front of her.  “Damn vampire speed,” she muttered.

 

“I thought we were friends,” he said.

 

“We are friends. What’s that got to do with anything?”

 

“Friends don’t shag other friends that they know are in love with them. Tends not to end well.”

 

Buffy raised her fist but stopped herself. They’d talked too much about the events before her resurrection for her to pretend she didn’t know how Xander’s actions had given Spike reason to think Xander both cared for and was strongly attracted to him.  Now, Spike refused to believe those actions had been anything but a ruse.  He’d given her no specifics, but it was clear that something had happened between them to cause Spike to believe Xander had feelings for him. Feelings that he’d obviously reciprocated.

 

Buffy groaned and wrapped her arms around herself. One of their friends had taken advantage of Spike’s trust and affection to betray him, and now here she was, suggesting that he let her take advantage of his inability to say no to her. Her shoulders sagged and she shuddered as Spike put his arms around her.

 

“I’m sorry, love. Didn’t mean for that to sound so harsh. You know I—”

 

Buffy leaned into his chest, shaking her head. She allowed him to hold her until she mastered her emotions, then leaned back and looked up at him.

 

“No,” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. It would be….” She stared at his face. “I’d just be using you. Taking advantage of your feelings to help myself forget for a while.”

 

“And that would be fine with me, pet. Really wouldn’t be complainin’.” When she gave him a dubious look, he forced a grin. “Remember who you’re talking to, love. If the girl of my dreams wants to use my tight little body to help her forget about her life for a bit, I’m gonna do my best to see she has trouble remembering her bloody name.” His grin faded. “I know you don’t love me. Don’t expect…. But I need to know you wouldn’t treat it lightly. I can promise I won’t ask you to pretend it means more to you than it does, but I won’t pretend it doesn’t mean anything to me. I can’t.”

 

Buffy gave a silent laugh. “You know what’s funny? I almost wish I did love you.”  She stroked his cheek with a gentle finger. “I wish I could.” She dropped her hand. “But I don’t think I can love anybody right now. I’m just too… empty.”

 

“Maybe I can love enough for the both of us,” he whispered, pulling her close again. 

 

Buffy smiled and pushed herself away—gently, but firmly. “I bet you can,” she said with a sigh. “But what about Xander?”

 

He released her, his arms dropping to his sides in defeat.

 

“I don’t know,” he answered, squeezing his eyes shut and shaking his head. “Don’t know what any of us were—or are—now. Don’t know if Harris and I were just friends pretending to be more, or if we are—were—more and just pretending to be friends. Don’t even know what you and I are now.” He gave her a glance from under his eyelashes; she gave an uncomfortable shrug, but didn’t answer his unspoken question. “An’ I thought the Bit was…” He shook his head again. “They lied to me. All of them. Can’t say I’m surprised by the witch, but Dawn and Xander…” He paused to get a grip on his voice before continuing, “They lied to me; never told me about something they knew would….”

 

“They lied, knowing it would hurt you when you found out,” Buffy said with more sympathy than he’d ever seen or expected from her. “You trusted them.”

 

He hunched his shoulders, looking at the ground and turning away in embarrassment. “’s not like I had a right to expect… not one of them, am I? Just the muscle in cellar. Now that I’m not needed…”

 

“Spike,” Buffy grabbed his chin and turned his face toward her. “I know for a fact that Dawn feels terrible about hurting you. And she’s terrified that you’re never going to forgive her – that you hate her now.” She stopped his protest with a finger on his lips. “And I think we just had pretty good proof that Xander cares. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have left like that.”

 

“Jus’ didn’t want to see you kissing the undead, most likely,” he muttered, refusing to be mollified. “Soilin’ your Chosen self with—”

 

“The only soil on me is the stuff I had to shower off when they left me to dig myself out of my own grave,” she said, dropping her hand and clenching her fists. “What I choose to do with the body they shoved me back into is nobody’s business but mine.”

 

Without discussing it, they began to walk.  Spike nodded his agreement, but had to bring up his usual protest. “You know, if you would just tell them what they did—where they yanked you from—they might be a bit more understanding about why you aren’t throwing them a party for it. And why you choose to spend so much time with the only one who didn’t participate.”

 

In an abrupt change of subject, Buffy said, “Did I tell you Giles is coming back?”

 

Chapter Six

 

After a night of little sleep, trying to decide what bothered him the most—that Buffy had lied about what she and Spike were doing, or that Spike had so easily forgotten about him the minute Buffy was back, Xander dragged himself out of bed and to work. He did his best to stay so busy all day that he could block from his mind the sight of Buffy and Spike wrapped up in each other to the point that they never noticed him.

 

He came home, showered, dressed and left again without speaking more than a few words to anyone.  By prior agreement, he was driving himself to meet Mike at a club Xander’d never even heard of, in spite of having been born and raised in Sunnydale.  It wasn’t until he was inside and Mike was heading his way with a big smile on his face that he noticed the almost entirely male population.  The only women in the place were sitting in a small group at a corner table and paid no more attention to the men in the bar than the men were paying to them.

 

“Is this a gay bar?” he hissed into Mike’s ear as the other man greeted him with a less-than-welcome hug.

 

“Well, yeah. Where did you think we were going?  If you’re going to be part of the scene, you’ll need to know where the scene is, won’t you?”  Mike seemed genuinely bewildered at Xander’s look of panic.  “What’s wrong?”

 

“There will be no parting of the scene here. I just said I’d meet you for a couple of beers so we could talk. That’s all. I’m not a part of all… this.” He waved his hand around to encompass the room full of men talking, laughing and generally enjoying themselves.  Across the room a man who looked vaguely familiar smiled and raised his glass in Xander’s direction.

 

“Oh my God! I know that guy!  He works on my site.  He’s not gay. He’s a construction worker!”

 

Mike visibly bit back what he wanted to say, instead, just guiding Xander to a nearby table and signaling the waiter for beer.  He pulled a chair out, pushed Xander into it, and sat down himself.

 

“You’re a construction worker,” he pointed out.

 

“But I’m not gay! I’m just…” Xanders voice trailed off.  “Am I gay? I had a girlfriend. I’ve had lots of… okay two… girlfriends… and a few demons, but….”

 

“You’re in love with a man,” Mike said calmly. “That might not make you gay, but you sure as hell aren’t perfectly straight.”

 

“Me? In lo—oh, you mean Spike.”

 

“Is there another man you’re in love with?”

 

“I’m not— Why do you think I’m in love with him?”

 

“Because I watched you watching him in my office.  You’ve got it bad.  It’s why I suggested meeting for beer instead of just asking you out on a date. I don’t need my heart trampled on just now.  Not,” he hastened to add, as Xander relaxed a little, “that I wouldn’t love to date you. If you and Spike really have split up.  But it looked to me like it was more of a lover’s spat than a real breakup. Neither one of you looked very happy.”

 

Xander just groaned and chugged down half his beer.  He set the glass down and wiped his upper lip with the back of his hand.

 

“Do you want to talk about it? What happened?”

 

Several beers later, Xander was shocked to find himself trying to explain what had happened without actually saying that Buffy had been brought back from the dead.

“I… I kept a secret from him. A really big secret that I knew he would…. And then it happened—the secret—and he was… really, really pissed off.”

 

“And hurt?”

 

Xander sighed. “And that.”  He glanced up at Mike. “And he has every right to be. We never should have—” He swallowed hard. “The worst part is, we didn’t tell him because we knew he’d object… and now I’m not sure that he wouldn’t have been right on the money….”

 

“We? Meaning you and Buffy?”

 

“Uh, no. Not Buffy. She wasn’t exactly around for the… No. Not Buffy. He’s not mad at Buffy. It wasn’t her fault.  She’s the only one he isn’t mad at. And right now, he’s the only one she wants to be around.”

 

“So, she’s angry about it too?”

 

Mike waited, signaling for another round, but Xander didn’t answer, just shuddered, raised his new glass, and drank deeply.

 

“Have you apologized?” Mike finally asked.

 

“Tried. He wouldn’t talk to me right after it happened. And most nights he’s… He spends his time with somebody else.”

 

“He’s seeing another man? Already?” Mike seemed prepared to be righteously indignant on Xander’s behalf.

 

“No… not exactly another man… And she said they weren’t… but then I saw them kissing last night….” Xander stopped talking and finished his drink. “I think I should go now.”

 

“He’s gone back to his girlfriend? He’s seeing a woman?” Mike seemed shocked.

 

“Apparently.  Look, this has been… kinda nice, actually. But I don’t belong here, and I’m definitely not on the market just yet, so….” Xander stood up and put some money on the table.

 

“All right. I’ll walk you out. Time to call it a night, anyway.”

 

Mike threw down some bills and followed Xander to the door, smiling his thanks when Xander held it for him.  Neither of them noticed the vampire at the entrance of the alley across the street. Not until he stepped out onto the sidewalk and stared at them, his face an open book.

 

~~~~~~~~~

Spike’s first glimpse of Xander holding the door for the school counselor had sent him into game face. The snarl in the back of his throat was almost silent as he watched the two men leaving the bar together. Schooling his face back into its human mien, he stepped into the glow of the streetlamp and waited for Xander to look up.  Making no attempt to hide his disgust and pain, he stood there until he was sure they’d both seen him, then faded back into the darkness of the alley. Once he was out of sight, he hurdled the fence at the end of the alley and began to run, not stopping until he was safely away from the human part of Sunnydale.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Xander stood, frozen in place as he stared at the empty sidewalk.

 

“Wasn’t that…?”

 

“Yes,” Xander said through tight lips. “Yes, it was.”

 

“He looked kind of unhappy… and scary,” Mike ventured. “Should I be watching my back?”

 

Xander blinked and finally looked at his companion. “No,” he said. “He can’t hurt you. You’ll be fine.”

 

“You seem pretty sure that he won’t be doing the jealous lover thing…” Mike looked suitably frightened, even though all he’d seen on Spike’s face was human pain.

 

“I said he can’t,” Xander repeated without explanation. “But I’ll see you home. Just in case.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Buffy found Spike completely by accident as she was walking home from a solitary night of slaying.  He was slumped against the gatepost of Restfield, almost-empty bottle in one hand and unlit cigarette in the other.

 

“Spike? What are you doing?”

 

“Hey there, Schlayer. Jush taking a little rest.  Got to go hide in my crypt, you know. “s where we belong, us creatures of the night.  Don’t belong where humans go.” He peered up at her. “Did you know if you go where humans go, you could shee things you don’t want to see? Did you know that?”

 

“You’re drunk!”

 

“Prize for the little lady! I’m drunk. But it’s okay. Nobody gets hurt. I’ll jus’ finish my friend Jack here and be on my way back to my lair, like a good little vampire.”

 

Buffy rolled her eyes and reached down to take the bottle away. “I think your friend Jack has done enough for one night.  Come on, get up. Let’s get you back to your crypt before you pass out here and turn into Spike flambé.”  She pulled him to his feet and held on to his hand as she tugged him toward his crypt. He stumbled after her, mumbling about “poofters” and “wankers” and drinking from someone’s brainstem.  She got him in the door of his crypt, closed it behind her, and watched as he stumbled to the couch and collapsed.

 

She waited for him to move, but when he started to snore she gave up and, with a sigh, she began to take off his boots and coat.  She spread the coat over his immobile body and brushed her hand over his forehead, then let herself out the doors, closing them both tightly behind her.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“This is it. This is where I live.” Mike spoke rapidly, as if suddenly nervous about being brought home by someone he’d admitted wanting to date.

 

“Okay,” Xander said. He got out of the truck and waited for Mike to open his door. When the other man was standing on the sidewalk in front of his townhouse, Xander gestured to the empty yard and front stoop.  “See? No Spike. Just keep your door closed and don’t let him in if he asks. But he won’t. He’ll be busy with—he’ll be too busy to worry about you.”

 

Mike put his hand on Xander’s arm, his gentle touch more welcome than Xander would have expected.  He squeezed lightly, then let go and moved towards his door.

 

“If you’d like to do this again sometime, I’d be happy to. We could go to the Bronze or someplace like that where you’d be more comfortable.  No pressure,” he said, holding up his hands, “but you look like you could use a little time to relax and process things.”

 

Xander shrugged. “I… I think I might like that,” he said, surprising himself as much as Mike.  “I could use a… a friend… right now.” He thought about Buffy and her unwillingness to hang out with anyone but Dawn and Spike, about Willow and her growing insistence on telling everyone what to do and wanting to fix everything with spells, and about the vampire he’d gone from hating to being a reluctant ally to…. whatever they’d been before Xander blew it by lying to him. “I’d like that,” he said more firmly. “Let’s plan on it.”

 

“Great! I’ll call you tomorrow.”  Mike waved and entered his house, leaving Xander standing beside his truck and wondering if he’d just agreed to go out on a date with another man.

 

~~~~~~~~

 

Buffy was back in front of Spike’s crypt early the next afternoon, reassured when she saw that both doors were still closed. She let herself in and glanced around the vacant room for Spike.  The sound of water splashing alerted her to where he was, and she made her way to the ladder, waiting for the sound to cease. She gave him some time to get out of the shower, then yelled into the opening,

 

“Spike? Are you decent?”

 

“I’m a bloody vampire! Of course I’m not decent. What’s wrong with you, Slayer?”

 

“That better be the hangover talking,” she warned as she started down the ladder, “ cause I’m not in the mood for…. Oh my God, you’re naked!” She hit the floor at the bottom of the ladder and quickly averted her eyes.

 

“That’s my usual way to take showers,” he said, holding a small towel in front of his crotch. “What do you wear?”

 

“I thought you’d be dressed by now – I’m sorry,” she said, sliding her eyes to the side and watching the drops of water roll down his chest.

 

“You’re not sorry. You’re ogling me.”

 

“I so am not!”

 

“Are too.  It’s alright, though. Could use the ego-boost right now.”

 

“Your ego never needs boosting,” she said with a small smile. “So, what’s going on?”

 

He fell backwards on the bed, managing to keep the towel strategically placed over his groin even as he milked the scene. With one arm across his eyes, he said, “Saw Harris last night. He was out on a date with Mike-the-poof.”

 

“Oh.” Buffy rolled her eyes at his dramatics, but moved to the side of the bed and sat down on the edge. She was careful not to look at the naked body beside her as she patted his hand. “Just because they were out together doesn’t mean it was a date. Maybe they just happened to be in the same place at the same time.”

 

He lifted his arm to glare at her from one eye. “They were coming out of a gay bar, all chummy-like.” He dropped his arm again. “Guess he decided he was ready… just not for me….”

 

“I’m sorry, Spike,” she said, moving her hand to his shoulder. “If my coming back has caused you two to—”

 

He covered her hand with his, pulled it to his lips for a kiss on her knuckles, and growled. “Don’t you dare apologize for being here. This has nothing to do with you being back. Just means he never really….” He shook his head hard, almost dislodging the towel, which Buffy grabbed and returned to its precarious position. As she did, her hand brushed against the skin on his stomach and they both gasped. They remained frozen for several seconds, one of Buffy’s hands just over Spike’s mid-section, the other still held in his. He finally released her hand and slid his up her bare arm.

 

“This might be a good time to rethink your position on using me, pet,” he said, his voice growing hoarse. “Don’t think hurtin’ Harris’s feeling is really going to be an issue now.”

 

“No,” she whispered, leaning toward the mouth he was raising to hers. “It doesn’t sound like it….”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Xander returned from the job site to an empty house and a note from Willow saying that no one would be home until late. Dawn was with Janice, she and Tara were working late, and Buffy had been gone all day, but she didn’t know where.

 

“Let me guess,” he muttered, throwing the note down. “Some place cool and dark, and with a big bed and a Big Bad.”

 

He ran upstairs, showered and changed, still muttering and still not sure which of them he was angrier at. Spike, who had clearly forgotten all about him as soon as Buffy appeared, or Buffy, who, instead of being happy to be back with her friends and family, seemed to prefer the company of a vampire.

 

He slumped against the wall of what he still thought of as “Buffy’s room” and accepted the reality of his situation. Either one of them had more than enough reason to prefer the other’s company to his. Even if his growing suspicion was wrong – Please, God. Let me be wrong – and Buffy had not been in Heaven, she clearly wasn’t happy about being back in this world. And as one of those responsible for her being here, he had no right to expect her to care about his feelings.

 

And, as if keeping such a huge secret from Spike and lying to his face hadn’t been quite enough, now the vampire had seen Xander leaving a gay bar with a man they both knew wanted him. Yep, not much reason there for him to be worrying about my feelings, is there?  Face it, Harris. You’ve screwed up. If your best friends think the only people they can trust are each other, you’ve got no one to blame for it but yourself.

 

Shaking his head at the situation he’d created, Xander left the house and headed for the Bronze with every intention of drinking the sight of Spike and Buffy kissing out of his brain.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

“Wow.”

 

“I’ll see your ‘wow’ and raise you a ‘bloody hell’.”  Spike turned his head and met the eyes of the girl lying beside him.  “Who knew that —“ He snapped his lips shut.

 

“Who knew that what?” Buffy’s eyes narrowed as Spike’s expression changed to one of panic.

 

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing, love.”

 

“Liar.”

 

He pulled her closer and dropped a kiss on one bare shoulder. “Almost spoiled the moment by opening my mouth before my brain was engaged.” He nuzzled her neck and whispered, “I don’t want to do that. Don’t want to spoil this.”

 

Buffy sighed against his chest, her warm breath making his nipple stand up. “You were about to say something piggy, weren’t you?  I know that look.”

 

“Oink, oink, pet.” He smiled down at her. “Didn’t say it, though, did I?”

 

“Probably just as well—whatever ‘it’ was. I’m almost too tired to hit you for it.”

 

“Almost?” He sat up, bristling with indignation.“Almost too tired?”

 

“Hey, Slayer, here. Stamina’s our thing.”  She giggled again at his outrage, then reached out and touched his arm.  “It was good, Spike. You know it was.”

 

Mollified, he slid back down beside her and stroked her hair. “ Of course, it was! Promised you, didn’t I?”  He let his hand slide around to cup her face, forcing her to meet his soft gaze. “If I thought for one minute an old vamp like me could make it to Heaven, I’d be sure that’s where I was now.  Could dust happy.”

 

“If you dusted, we couldn’t do it again.” Buffy tried to lighten his suddenly serious mood. When his eyes shut and he dropped his hand from her face, she bit her lip, remembering his words about ‘taking it lightly’.  “Spike,” she said, her voice uncertain, “I… I don’t know what to say to you. I know it probably meant… and I wish I could tell you… but I can’t. I don’t—”

 

“Don’t. Say. It.”

 

She sighed and sat up, looking around for her clothes.   She was putting on her bra when she felt cool fingers push hers away as Spike skillfully fastened it for her.

 

 “So, that’s it then? Wham, bam, thank you, vampire?”

 

“What do you want from me?” she snapped, turning around to glare at him.  At the devastation on his face she sighed and stopped tugging on her blouse.  “I’m sorry.” Her hands dropped into her lap. “You were right. This isn’t going to end well, is it? We’re… we’re not here for the same thing.”   She looked up at him, swallowing hard. “I’m just hurting you more, and—”

 

“No!” He pulled her back against his chest and buried his face in her hair. “’s my fault. I promised you I wouldn’t expect… that I’d try to keep my feelings to myself, and there I was spouting about Heaven to somebody who knows what that really means.”

 

“And I promised you I wouldn’t take those feelings lightly and I was making jokes.” She leaned back against him and nudged the side of his face with her nose.  “Do overs?”

 

“Gonna have to give me a few, love. Even vamps have their limits.” He wriggled his eyebrows at her and waited anxiously for her answering smile.

 

Buffy laughed softly and continued to dress.  “I didn’t mean right this minute,” she said. “It’s got to be after dark now. I need to patrol… and maybe head for the Bronze to get something to eat.”  She stood up and straightened her skirt. “I didn’t come here planning to stay all afternoon, I was just on my way home from an interview and thought I’d see how you were doing after that rather epic drunk.”

 

Spike flowed to his feet, preening when she ran her eyes over his body. “If you think that was epic, it’s a good thing you weren’t around when you were….” He frowned and shook his head. “Alright, that’s not going to make any bloody sense. I meant—”

 

“I know what you meant,” she said with a fond smile. “I’m just glad you didn’t pass out anywhere sunny while I was… away.”

 

“Nah,” he said, pulling on his jeans and rummaging for a clean shirt.  “I mostly just hid where nobody would bother me, or interfere with my wallowing. Except the Bit,” he added as he sat down to pull on his boots. “She needed me. Had to pull myself together for her and limit my drinking myself into oblivion for while she was at school.”

 

“She was… she is… lucky to have you.  And Xander.”

 

Spike gave a non-committal grunt and gestured towards the ladder. “After you, love.”

 

They left the crypt, walking side by side, shoulders brushing occasionally. Spike wanted badly to take her hand, but his common sense asserted itself before he made that kind of public statement about the change in their relationship. Not that he was sure there had really been that much change….

 

 

 

~~~~~~~

 

When Buffy felt she’d dusted enough fledglings for one night, and Spike had worked off some excess energy holding off the older vampire that had been waiting for his newly minted minions, they began walking towards the Bronze. As they approached the open door, Spike slowed his steps.

 

 

“So,” he began, trying to keep his voice casual. “How are we playing this? Do you want to go in by yourself and the annoying vampire stalker will just show up later?”

 

“Don’t be stupid,” she said, tugging him in behind her. “Everybody knows how much time we spend together. And all the demons and vamps in Sunnydale know what we do with that time—” She broke off when Spike made a choking noise.  “Not that! I mean that we patrol together and you help me slay.... Whatever. Anyway, we’ve been at the Bronze together before. Nobody’s going to think it’s weird.”

 

“Nobody but the poofter counselor,” Spike said quietly, gesturing at a table back along the wall where Xander and Mike were staring at them with equal parts curiosity and hostility.

 

“Crap,” Buffy whispered. “What are they doing here?”  She dropped Spike’s hand and pointed to the bar. “Let’s sit up there. Maybe we can pretend we didn’t see them, and—”

 

“Too late, pet.”  Spike held Xander’s gaze for a few tense seconds, then shifted his eyes to Mike.  The counselor was looking back and forth between Spike and Buffy, a small frown creasing his brow. “If you can think of way to make us look more like siblings, now might be a good time for it. I think Xander’s date is getting a clue.”

 

“You think they’re on a date?”

 

“Were last night,” Spike said, clenching his jaw. “Now, here they are in our territory. Seems to me like somebody’s making a statement.” He nudged Buffy toward the bar. “Not really the issue just now. The question is, is he going to buy that a girl who looks like you has nothin’ better to do on a Friday night than hang out with her brother?”

 

Buffy blew out an exasperated breath. “I hate all this lying and pretending. I’m going to kill Dawn for thinking up this whole charade.  We’re all going to get caught lying, and then Social Services will step in and—”

 

“Chill, Slayer.  Try to look sisterly, here he comes.”

 

With a nervous nod at Spike, Mike stepped up to the bar and ordered two more beers for himself and Xander.  He smiled at Buffy, but his eyes were narrowed as he looked back and forth between her and Spike.

 

“I don’t suppose either one of you would like to let me in on what’s really going on here?” he said, keeping his voice low enough not to be heard by the other patrons on either side of them.

 

While Buffy flushed and stammered, Spike gave a low growl and said, “Could ask you the same thing, couldn’t I?”

 

Mike blinked and flinched back, causing Buffy to elbow Spike in the ribs. “What have I told you about making those animal noises?” she said through gritted teeth. She tried her best cheerleader smile on Mike.  “He’s done that since he was a kid. Making those stupid growly noises. You’d think he would have outgrown it by now.”

 

“Miss Summers…” Mike began, then shook his head. “Buffy, I’m really not as stupid as you all seem to think I am. I’m pretty sure you have no idea what Spike was like as a child, nor does he know anything about your childhood.  What I don’t understand, is why you felt you had to perpetrate this charade.”

 

He looked up at Spike, who was struggling to stay out of game face as Buffy’s own expression became more panicked, then back at Buffy. “I’m more than happy that Dawn’s older sister has come back into her life after going… wherever it was that you felt you had to go, leaving your sister in the care of a group of young people who are not related to her.  However, the fact that you left her in the first place is more than disturbing….”

 

Buffy stepped in front of Spike, who was clearly about to risk brain damage by throttling Mike before he could say another word.  Before she could come up with an explanation that didn’t involve dying, Spike had squeezed her arm in silent warning and jerked his head at the three young patrons now heading away from the bar. The drunken man, with his arms around what he thought were two eager teenager girls, was allowing them to steer him toward the alley exit. Spike exchanged glances with Buffy, saying quietly, “I’ve got it, luv. You stay here.” He slipped past her, ignoring Mike completely, and followed the trio out to the alley.

 

Mike blinked again, wondering what had just taken place in what seemed a mostly silent communication between Spike and Buffy.  He picked up his beers and said, “Would you like to join us at the table? This may not be the time or place for this conversation, but I really feel I’m entitled to an explanation.”

 

Despite muttering, “I really feel you should mind your own business,” Buffy reluctantly followed him to the table and sat down across from Xander.

 

“Fancy meeting you here,” he greeted her, accepting his beer from Mike with a small smile of thanks. He quickly picked up on the tension between them, asking, “Do we have a problem?”  At Buffy’s nod, he sighed and slumped back in his chair.

 

“If by problem, you mean I no longer accept your story that Spike is Buffy and Dawn’s older brother, then yes. You have a problem.” Mile’s eyes were troubled. “Why have you been lying to me, Xander? What ‘s going on?”

 

Ignoring Mike for a minute, Xander met Buffy’s worried eyes. “Where’d the bleached wonder go?”

 

Buffy shrugged and jerked her head towards the back door. “He thought he saw some friends and went out to have a few words with them.”

 

“Ah. Okay. So, he’ll be back, then?”

 

Buffy nodded. “Yeah. Here he comes now.” Spike hesitated at the end of the bar searching for Buffy, then saw her waving at him. Swallowing another growl, he made his way through the tables and, yanking the remaining chair around so he could straddle it, sat down between Buffy and Xander, facing Mike. Buffy glanced at him, a question in her eyes and when he gave her a short nod, she smiled and relaxed.  Until she caught Mike’s expression and realized he’d seen the communication.

 

“You people don’t talk much, do you?” he said, watching their faces.

 

“We talk all the time,” Buffy said… “Well, Spike talks, ‘cause he’s all talky-guy. I’m not so good at it. Xander talks, though.”

 

“I meant,” Mike said, looking from one to the other, “that something obviously just happened here. Something that you can’t talk about in front of me, but all three of you understand completely.”

 

“Don’t see the problem,” Spike muttered, barely smothering another growl when Buffy kicked him under the table.

 

“The problem, Spike, as I was just sharing with Xander and Buffy, is that it’s becoming very obvious that you and Buffy are not related—in fact, I’m willing to bet that she’s the girlfriend you had before you and Xander…. And now, now that she’s come back from wherever she ran off to, leaving her sister in the care of her friends, she’s back in the picture and you’ve just dumped the man who—owww!”  It was Mike’s turn to be kicked, and he glared at Xander. “Are you ashamed of it?”

 

Spike frowned, glancing at Xander briefly, then back down at the table.  There was silence as none of them could think of a response.  Mike finally sighed.

“Okay, here’s what I think I know. Can you at least tell me if I’m on the right track?” He didn’t wait for replies, just continued. “Buffy is the girl Spike was… involved with… last year. She, for some reason, went away for several months—”

 

“Girl had no bloody choice about it, you git,” Spike didn’t try to hide the growl this time, and he gave a humorless grin at Mike’s flinch. “Don’t go putting anything about this on her!”

 

 Mike glance at Xander for support, only to find him nodding his head in agreement. “He’s right, Mike.  Buffy had no choice. There was nothing she could do about leaving, and no way she could get back until… Until recently.”

 

“Were you in jail?” Mike asked bluntly. Buffy and Xander were just in time to grab Spike as he started across the table. With one of them on each arm, he gave up his attempt to silence Mike and fell back onto his chair, continuing to glare at the man now cowering away.  Mike watched with wary interest as both Buffy and Xander kept light contact with Spike until they were sure he was going to stay put. He looked at Xander reproachfully. “I thought you told me he wouldn’t hurt me?”

 

 “I said he can’t hurt you. Not without—not very easily, anyway.”

 

“Is that true?” Mike cocked his head at Spike.  “You can’t hurt me?”

 

“Depends on how badly I want to,” he muttered, shaking off the hands resting on his arms. “I’m alright,” he said looking from Buffy to Xander and rubbing his forehead. “The leash is working.”

 

Mike frowned, but decided to forgo that line of questioning for the time being. It was obvious that whether or not Spike was capable of hurting him, neither Buffy nor Xander were going to permit it, so he chose to believe they were in control and he was in no danger.  He turned his attention back to Buffy.

 

“All right,” he said, “so you were unavoidably detained… away for quite a while. And while you were gone, Xander and Spike became Dawn’s caretakers. Is that correct?”

 

“That’s right,” Buffy said stiffly. “Spike was helping me prot—take care of Dawn most of last year. She already thought of him as a big brother. And the same for Xander. He’s been part of my life since she was little.  And Willow. And Tara.  They are the only family she knows. They were our family after Mom died and Dad decided he’d be happier in Spain with his secretary.  I knew she’d be okay with them.  And Giles was—” Buffy stopped, suddenly remembering that Mike would have never heard of Giles.

 

“Giles?”

 

 “My—”

 

“Her—”

 

“Buffy’s—”

 

“As entertaining as it might be to hear all three answers,” Mike said with a wry twist of his mouth. “I’ll settle for one answer—from Buffy.  Who or what is a ‘Giles’?”

 

“He’s been my sort of… “ She stopped and looked at Spike. “What’s the word I want, Oxford guy?”

 

“Surrogate, pet.”

 

“….surrogate father. For a long time.  It’s not like I was leaving her with a family of kids just out of their teens. Giles was here all summer.”  She glanced at Spike with a small smirk. “And Spike’s older than you might think,” she added, without elaboration.

 

 Xander’s coughed, “than dirt”, didn’t go unnoticed by anyone. Mike frowned, Buffy glared, and Spike just smiled, meeting Xander’s eyes for the first time since he’d sat down.

 

There was an uncomfortable silence, then Mike shook his head and raised his hands in defeat.

 

“Look, guys. I’m not trying to ruin anybody’s life here.  But it’s my job to be sure that Dawn is being well-cared for and protected—” He paused while all three snorted with laughter. “Do I want to know why that’s funny?” he asked stiffly.

 

 

 

Taking pity on him, Xander leaned forward and rested a hand on his arm.  “No, you really don’t,” he said kindly.  “All you really need to know is that all of us…” he waved his arm around the table, “care about Dawn and love her. We only want what’s best for her.  And as far as ‘protecting her’ goes…” He gestured at Spike and Buffy. “That’s their… specialty. Trust me when I tell you that no foster home could keep her any safer than they can.”

 

“Why do I have the feeling I’m still missing a great deal here?”

 

Spike smirked, but kept his mouth shut when Buffy gave him a glare. Xander tried to fill in the silence with a joke about ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you.” A joke which fell flat.  Mike sighed and continued.

 

“Okay, so let’s assume that Child Protective Services isn’t going to come after me for not telling them what I know about Dawn’s rather… unique household; exactly what is going on in that household now?” He looked at Spike. “Are you really no longer living there?”

 

“I’m not,” he said tersely. “Buffy’s got my room.”

 

“And you don’t share it with her?”

 

 “No. And you’re getting way into ‘none of your business’ territory,” Spike growled.

 

“I’m just trying to sort out the… relationships.  You and Xander were together; now it seems you are not. And yet, you and Buffy—”

 

“You asking this as Dawn’s counselor, or as the poof that has the hots for Harris?”

Spike’s eyes were challenging, flickers of yellow coming and going, causing Buffy to lay a warning hand on his arm.

 

“Mike,” she said, in her most reasonable Slayer voice, “I don’t think our sleeping arrangements… or any other kind of arrangements… have anything to do with Dawn’s schoolwork or safety.  Whatever our… personal… problems may be, we are all there for Dawn, if and when she needs us.”

 

She stood up. “Let’s go, Spike. This was a bad idea.”  She glanced at Xander, her expression unreadable. “We’ll leave you guys to your... whatever you were doing when we came in.  Sorry we interrupted it.”

 

When Spike seemed inclined to protest, she yanked him up by his collar and, smiling sweetly, said, “Say goodnight, Spike.”

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

 

There was silence at the table for several minutes after Buffy dragged Spike out of the Bronze. Silence broken only when Xander slammed his empty glass down on the table.

 

“God damn him….”

 

“Still think there’s nothing there between you?” Mike asked quietly.  “And can I just say that I’m very glad to know that he ‘can’t’ hurt me, as opposed to ‘doesn’t want to hurt me’.”

 

Xander sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything, obviously.” He peered at Mike. “It’s really, really hard to talk about this stuff with somebody who….” He shrugged.

 

“Somebody who, what? Doesn’t understand how a small woman who probably doesn’t weigh 100 pounds soaking wet, and an admittedly scary, but barely average-sized man are the people you think would be better at keeping Dawn safe than… oh, I don’t know, the police, for instance?”  He sighed. “And then there’s the whole ‘keeping Dawn safe’ discussion. Safe from who or what? And why was Spike doing it when Buffy was gone?”

 

“See, these are the things that… if I tried to explain, the hole would just keep getting deeper and deeper.”

 

“Okay, fine. Let’s drop all the silent communication, ‘protect Dawn’, can’t hurt me stuff for awhile and just talk about the relationships.  Can you tell me the truth there?” Mike held up his hands in the universal signal for peace. “Not because I want to be nosy, or think Dawn needs to be rescued from a den of iniquity; but because I like you and you’re hurting.”

 

“I’m not one of your high school kids,” Xander said, but he smiled his gratitude as he said it.

 

“I’m not on duty as a high school counselor now. I’m on friend duty—or, if you’d prefer, think of me as a free-lance psychologist. One who charges by the beer, rather than the hour.

 

Xander laughed and grabbed the empty glasses.  “I’ll be right back.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Buffy marched along, her mood apparent from the way she was putting her feet down.  She was muttering to herself, and even Spike’s ears could only catch the occasional threat to tie Dawn up and leave her in her room until she was twenty-one.  Eventually, she slowed down and threw herself onto a nearby bench, glaring at the traffic going by. Spike sat down on the other end of the bench, a safe distance away, in case she was feeling lethal.

 

“Could have been worse, pet,” he ventured, having kept silent as long as was possible for him.

 

 Really? Worse than he thinks I was probably in jail, and that you are just some random boyfriend I turned my sister over to?  He knows—”

 

“Random boyfriend?” Spike managed to sound offended and happy at the same time.

 

“Well, obviously he thinks that’s what we were before I died.  Do you really want to explain to him about chaining me up and offering to feed me to Drusilla? Or offering to kill her for me?  And then we’d get into the whole Glory thing, and—”

 

“Point taken, love. Unless we tell him everything… bring him into the fold so-to-speak… we’re—”

 

“I don’t want him in the fold, Spike!  We barely know this guy. And, yeah, he seems nice, in a nosy kind of way, but—”

 

“Wasn’t really suggesting that, Buffy,” he said with a growl. “The less time any of us have to spend around him, the better, as far as I’m concerned. But let’s face it, pet. We’re both lousy liars. You know we’re going to bollix it up eventually.”

 

She sighed. “Well, if Xander can keep him confused until Giles gets here, maybe he can help us out.”  She raised an eyebrow at Spike’s surprised expression. “He can lie really good when he has to.”

 

“Don’t doubt that,” he snorted. “Bein’ from the Council of Wankers an’ all.”  He hunched his shoulders as he was reminded of the weeks before her resurrection. “It’s not like Harris and the rest of them are amateurs, is it? Guess it’s just us that might have a problem.”

 

“You lie all the time, Spike,” she pointed out.

 

“Well… yeah. Evil, remember?”  He peered at her sideways. “You always catch me out though. Sooner or later.”

 

“Maybe the counselor won’t be as hard to fool as I am. I’m sure you lie to other people… or demons… all the time.”

 

They sat in silence for a few more minutes, then Buffy stirred.  “I guess I should get home,” she said.  “I’ve been gone all day and it’s getting late. Giles is getting in tomorrow morning, so I have to get up early.”

 

Spike stood up. “Alright, love. Come on, I’ll walk you home.  I’m not quite ready to call it a night yet.”

 

“You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Like go back to the Bronze, or like following Xander and Mike when they leave there?”

 

He scoffed. “What would I want to do that for? Just be setting myself up for… Not that much of a masochist.”

 

Buffy gave a disbelieving snort. “Spike, you used to stand outside my house when Riley and I were….” She sighed and rubbed his arm.  “Just don’t do that to yourself, ‘kay?”

 

He risked putting his arm around her and pulling her against his side. “Got one hell of an alternative option now, don’t I?  Can’t feature me following anybody just to catch something I don’t want to see.”

 

Buffy slipped her arm around his waist and hugged him briefly, then moved away. “Okay. I’ve said my piece.  You’re a big boy.”  As they reached her front porch she stopped and turned to him.  “I’m gonna bring Giles by tomorrow afternoon, okay?”

 

He shrugged. “Sure, love. But why? The wanker’s got no great love for me… and he’s definitely on my ‘I’d bite him if I could’ list.”

 

“He… I think he respects you.  I’ve talked to him on the phone a couple of times and he….” She glanced up. “I want to tell him… where I was, I mean.  And about what’s going on with Dawn and her counselor.” She reached a finger up to smooth out the frown on his face.  “And I want you there when I tell him.”

 

“Moral support from the morally corrupt?”

 

“I want to be sure he knows… knows that you’re my friend.  That you’ve been here for me.  And….”

 

“You tell him where I’ve been, he’s going to stake me, love. You know that.”

 

“Well, I wasn’t planning to tell him exactly how friendly we’ve been,” she said with a glare.  “I’m looking for Spike acceptance, not Spike stake-age. I just want somebody else on our side.”

 

“It’s fine, Buffy. I’ll try to be awake, but if I’m not, just come down and roust me.”

 

“If you went home right now, you could get plenty of sleep,” she said.  “Hint, hint.”

 

“Creature of the night, Slayer.  I’ll be there when you need me. That’s all you need to know.”

 

Giving up any more attempts to keep Spike from doing anything that was just going to make him unhappy, she went up on her toes and brushed her lips over his.

 

“Good night, Spike. Be careful.”

 

“Always, love.” He nuzzled the side of her face for a second, then stood, hands at his sides until she was safely in the house and the door had been shut behind her. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“So, you want to know about the relationships in our house?”

 

Mike nodded. “I do. As I told you before, I’m well aware of how flexible the idea of ‘family’ can be. But I’m really having a hard time figuring out this one. Especially now.”

 

Xander shook his head. “I’m not sure I can do this without… it’s going to be hard to explain without…” He stopped and looked up at Mike. “How long have you lived in Sunnydale?”

 

Mike blinked in surprise.  “What has that got to do with anything?”

 

“Humor me.”

 

“Well, just a… since July. There was an opening for a counselor and I was looking to get out of a bad relationship, so…”

 

Xander gave a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Why was there an opening? Do you know?”

 

“I… I think something happened to the woman who had the job before me. She went insane or something like that.”

 

Glory brain-suck Xander nodded. “Okay, that’s actually not what I was expecting, but it’s very likely given….  So, you really haven’t been here long enough to notice stuff.”

 

“What were you expecting? What stuff?”

 

 “Honest answer? I was expecting you to say that she’d disappeared or died.”

 

“Does that happen a lot here?” Mike laughed, then realized that Xander wasn’t laughing with him. “Oh my God. Does it happen a lot?”

 

“Well, not as much now that—but, yeah, it does. Probably more often than in other places this size.”

 

Mike frowned. “Okay, you’re going to have to explain that to me later; but what does it have to do with the relationships in your house?”

 

“Well, Willow – you know who Willow is, right?”

 

 Mike nodded. “Buffy’s friend who lives there with her roommate.”

 

“Yeah. Well, anyway, Willow and me, we’re Sunnydale born and bred. Lived here our whole lives, so we… kinda knew stuff. I mean, not like the stuff we know now, but we aren’t stupid and neither are our parents, so…  Anyway, Buffy moved here our sophomore year in high school and we just…” Xander laughed and shook his head. “I had the biggest crush on her for the longest time. She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen and she was willing to be friends with me! It was awesome.”

 

“So she wasn’t part of the cool crowd?”

 

“Well, that’s the thing. She could have been. She was in her old high school, but here… there was stuff that got in the way, and she was so busy with… and then she started seeing a… an older guy who didn’t go to school…” He stopped and shook his head again. “Anyway, she ended up being friends with us and we… we kinda helped her a lot.” He laughed. “We called ourselves ‘the Scoobies’.”

 

“Scoobies?”

 

“Yeah, you know, Scooby-doo, the cartoon dog?”

 

Mike nodded. “Because…?”

 

“Well, you know, ditsy blonde – not that Buffy’s ditsy, but she used to be more—never mind. Ditsy blonde, geeky tall guy with dark hair, and brilliant redhead. I dunno, it just seemed to fit.”

 

“So, what was it exactly that you helped her do? And this ‘surrogate father’, where does he fit in?”

 

Xander took a big swallow of his drink. “I think you’d better let Buffy explain that. Or maybe him. He’s coming back tomorrow.”

 

“Back?”

 

“Yeah, he went back to England after Buffy—yeah, he’s going be here tomorrow.”

 

“All right. So, you and Willow, friends for a long time, right? And then Buffy came and she became your friend. Where do Spike and this Giles guy fit in?”

 

“Giles was already here. He was the school librarian, but really he was there to—crap, there’s more…  Xander finished his beer and leaned back in his chair. “You know, there’s just no way to do this without talking about things that aren’t mine to talk about.  Here’s the bottom line — we’ve been through a lot of stuff together. A lot of stuff.  We’ve… bonded. Even Spike. Buffy just does that. She pulls people together around her, even… even people you wouldn’t think would ever….”

 

“So, she pulled you all together, and then she went away?” Mike’s disapproval was palpable.

 

Xander looked like he was going give a credible imitation of Spike’s growl as he slammed his hand down on the table.  “Okay, I’m only going to say this once more. Buffy was not in jail, not drunk or drugged out of her mind, or any other scuzzy reason you can think of for her leaving her little sister behind; and she had absolutely no choice about going… where she went. None. Nada. Zero. It was her or Dawn, and with Buffy that meant there was no decision to make. She did what she had to do and she left Dawn with the people she knew would take care of her.” He stared into Mike’s startled eyes. “And trust me when I tell you she had absolutely no idea she was ever going to come back from there.” He dropped his eyes and his shoulders slumped. “And if Spike’s right, she probably wishes she never had,” he whispered, before shaking his head and looking back up.

 

“Anyway, the point is, you need to forget about blaming Buffy for any of this. She did what she had to do and she left Dawn with the people who loved her.  She made Spike promise to protect Dawn, and the rest of us… well, she didn’t even need to ask.”

 

“There’s that word again… protect. And she chose a guy who looks and acts like a thug to do it? Was she really dating him? He just doesn’t seem the type for a cheerleader to—“

 

Xander barked out a laugh. “Yeah, I would have thought so too, but when I look back, I’ve got to admit he pretty much is her type. Not in the way you mean, but…  Xander sighed. “Although, I don’t think they were… She wasn’t ‘dating’ him last year. He was in love with her, for sure. But she… it wasn’t until…” Xander stopped again. “She started to trust him, and she needed his help, so they… I dunno. Became friends, I guess.”

 

“Friends who kiss?”

 

“Yeah, well, that caught me by surprise. I mean, not that I really blame Spike. If Buffy… yeah. It’s complicated.” He stopped and finished off the beer in his glass, glaring at the empty space as if it had offended him.  He shook his head again, changing the subject slightly.

 

“The family thing is… Willow and Tara, they’re the brains and the housekeeping part of the family. Spike’s the muscle, and sometimes Dawn’s homework go to guy... and who would have ever thought—“ He shrugged. “ I’m the guy with the truck and the full time job. It was working. It was working out all right, I think…”

 

“And now that Buffy’s back?”

 

“Well… I don’t know. Like I told you the other night, she doesn’t seem to want to spend time with anybody but Spike – and Dawn, but even there…” He raised his eyes to Mike’s.  “We may have done a very bad thing—bringing Buffy back to Sunnydale. I don’t think she’s happy about it and that’s making her spend more time with Spike.”

 

“I don’t follow”

 

“He didn’t have anything to do with it – bringing her back. We didn’t even tell him we were going to do it.”  Xander twirled his empty glass around on the table. “That’s what I lied to him about. I told him nothing was going on behind his back, and then Buffy was there, and he…. Yeah. He’s got good reason to be pissed off.”

 

“That was the big secret? That you – the Scoobies – were bringing Buffy home? I don’t understand why you didn’t tell him about it. Wouldn’t he have been happy?” Mike’s eyes widened. “Did you not tell him because you thought he’d break up with you if he knew she was coming back?”

 

“What? No! No, I never even thought— No. It was just… Willow said he couldn’t participate, and she thought he might try to stop us, and… Shit. This is impossible.”

 

“No, it’s okay. Don’t tell me anything you don’t think I should know. I think I’m getting the picture.  You and Spike thought Buffy was gone for good…” He paused as if hoping Xander might fill in where Buffy had been, then went on. “So you bonded over caring for Dawn and moved into her house. Is that right?”

 

Xander nodded, staring mutely at his empty glass.

 

“And you told the school Spike was Dawn’s brother so that the school wouldn’t tell Social Services she was living with two unrelated men in their twenties.”

 

Xander coughed at the description of Spike’s age, but nodded.  “Actually, I think Dawn did that all by herself. Spike was already living in the basement, so she just needed to make Social Services okay with that. Telling them he and I were a… a couple, was just insurance, I guess.  Nothing to worry about with a gay couple and two other girls living in the house.”

 

Mike nodded, but looked even more confused.  “I’m still a little thrown by the whole “muscle” thing about Spike… and if his muscle was needed before, why isn’t it now that Buffy’s back?”

 

Xander stood up. “Because Buffy can kick his ass and the horse he rode in on, any day of the week.  And, no, I’m not going to explain that.”

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

Mike and Xander walked slowly toward the parking lot, the silence surprisingly companionable considering the evening’s conversations. Xander idly noticed that the lights had been knocked out again and made a mental note to let Buffy know that she probably ought to hit the Bronze parking lot in the evenings for a while.

 

“You know,” Mike said, stopping under the only remain light and resting a hand on Xander’s arm. “I meant what I said about not wanting to ruin anyone’s life. But all this talk about ‘protecting’ Dawn, and Spike being ‘the muscle’… You’ve got to admit it’s kind of weird.”

 

“Look, I know it seems strange… and it is. Stranger than you know. But…” Xander covered Mike’s hand with his own and stared into his eyes, seeing nothing there but genuine warmth and concern.  “But I don’t want you involved in it. All you need to know is that Sunnydale isn’t quite as safe as it might seem on the surface, in the daylight. And Buffy… and Spike… they… they have a lot to do with keeping it safe. Safer than it would be if they weren’t around.  When Buffy was gone, it was all on Spike. And us, but mostly Spike.” Releasing Mike’s hand, he started walking again, with Mike hustling along beside him.

 

“I just don’t see what could possibly be so dangerous in a small town like this. Are there gangs? I’ve had some experience with gangs and I—”

 

They had just reached Xander’s truck, conveniently parked next to Mike’s car, when a whisper of sound brought Xander’s head around, his hand already reaching for a non-existent weapon.

 

“Oh, shit!”

 

“What? You mean that guy?” Mike peered through the gloom as a scruffy-looking man approached them.  “Come on. There’s only one of him and two of us. He’s not going to bother—” Mike’s scoffing words were cut off as the vampire emerging from the shadows was joined by two more. All three were grinning and in game face, although their distorted features weren’t clearly visible to Mike’s eyes.  He squinted through the darkness, moving closer to Xander. “Okay, so there are three of them. I’ve met potential gay-bashers before. We can—”

 

With a snarl, the first vamp jumped Xander, surprised when he was met with human, but experienced resistance. “What the fuck—?” he growled when Xander pushed him away and snatched a shovel from the bed of his truck. Swinging the shovel with purpose, he was able to keep the three vamps at bay while yelling at Mike to “Get back inside. Now!”

 

Ignoring his instructions, Mike looked into the bed of the truck and came up with a tamping iron. He pulled the heavy metal pole out awkwardly, reminded of one of the many reasons he didn’t do construction work.  He proceeded to swing it around with enthusiasm, if not the strength required to wield it effectively. The heavy metal objects were working to keep the vamps at a safe distance, although the humans using them were tiring rapidly. The stalemate might not have lasted much longer, had Spike not chosen that moment to stroll up.

 

“Havin’ fun, boys?” he inquired, putting a cigarette in his mouth and flicking his lighter. It wasn’t clear whom he was speaking to, although Xander gave him a glare and grunted, “Little help?” as he hit a distracted vamp on the head with his shovel. The vampire went down, temporarily unconscious. While Mike gasped at the face revealed in the flickering light, Spike leaned down and casually set fire to the vamp’s shirt, jumping back as it and its owner went up in flames.

 

“Oh my God. He… Oh my God….” The heavy iron fell from Mike’s hands as he stared in horror at the ashes that were all that was left of their attacker.

 

“Get lost, Spike,” snarled one of the remaining vamps.  “We don’t need any interference from the Slayer’s lapdog.”

 

“What do you think, Harris? Would a little interference from the Slayer’s puppy be a good idea?”

 

Gasping for air, Xander allowed his tired arms to fall to his sides, although he didn’t release the shovel. “Yeah, I wouldn’t be upset if you wanted to gnaw on their ankles a little,” he managed to get out before collapsing against the truck.

 

Mike was still muttering, “My God, my God, my God…” as Spike pocketed his lighter, flicked the cigarette away and stepped between the two humans and the snarling vampires.  Retaining his human features, Spike began to pummel the two outmatched fledglings, clearly enjoying having an excuse to vent his feelings in an acceptable fashion.  With motions so fast they were hard to follow, he punched and kicked until he was bored. When he had both of them on the ground and moaning, he held out his hand, snorting in disgust when Xander said, “I don’t have one with me.”

 

Spike sent him a scathing look, snarling, “What have I bloody told you time after time?”  Without waiting for a response, he took hold of the larger vamp’s head and twisted until it popped off and exploded into dust with the rest of the body. He snatched the shovel from Xander and used the edge of the blade to hack off the remaining vampire’s head, smiling in satisfaction when it too became more dust on the asphalt.

 

He silently handed the shovel back to Xander and stood, hands in pockets.

 

“Lights are out,” he said finally.  “Guess I’d best hang out here for a bit.”

 

“Where… where’s Buffy?” 

 

“Took her home,” he said, shooting a glance at Mike who was looking as if he might be sick any minute.  “Looks like you’d better get your boy home before he dirties up the car lot even more.”

 

“He’s not—“ Xander blew out an exasperated breath and shook his head.  He bent down to pick up the digging iron Mike had dropped, but Spike picked it up first and began twirling it like a cane, careful to stay far enough away that he wouldn’t accidentally clock one of the humans with it. 

 

Mike finally stopped hyperventilating and said in small voice, “Did you say Buffy can kick his butt?”  He couldn’t take his eyes off Spike who whirled his new toy through his fingers and preened at the obvious fear and respect on Mike’s face.

 

Answering for Xander, Spike said, “Every day, in every way. Might want to remember that next time you think about brassing her off…” Suddenly remembering why he was there, and what the other two men had been doing when they were jumped, his voice grew rougher.  “Go on, get in your car and go home. Try to forget what you just saw.”  With one hand, he tossed the tamper into the bed of the truck and stepped away.

 

“I don’t think I can do that,” Mike said, his voice still shaking. “Those men… they just… and you….” He stopped and took a deep breath. “You killed them.  But where did they go? Why aren’t there bodies?”

 

Xander opened the door to the truck and the light spilled out onto the asphalt. Spike scuffed his boot along the ground and kicked up a small amount of dust. “This is all that’s left,” he said. “Dust to dust, and all that.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“Yeah, well, welcome to Sunnydale, where you can only hope you’re being jumped by poof-haters,” Spike said as he turned away.  “Go home.” He walked away, refusing to look back at the eyes he could feel boring into his back.  Xander watched until he had vanished into the shadows, then got into his truck.

 

“Let’s go, Mike,” he said wearily. “I’ll follow you home.”

 

Mike stood outside the door of the truck, seemingly torn between running home and hiding under the bed and having the evening’s events explained. Finally he said, “Is that the man you said couldn’t hurt me? The one who just killed three people without breaking a sweat?”

 

“They weren’t people, Mike. Just go home.  I’ll explain everything tomorrow… or the next day.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Spike? Are you awake?”

 

“I am now,” came the voice from downstairs.  “Is the Watcher with you, Slayer?”

 

Blushing as Giles gave her a questioning look, Buffy answered quickly, “Yes, Giles is here. Come on up.”

 

In a few minutes Spike’s tousled head appeared at the top of the ladder and his jeans and tee-shirt clad body followed.  He nodded to Giles, his eyes showing no sign of welcome until he turned to Buffy, when he broke into a smile.

 

“Afternoon, pet,” he said in the soft voice she was sure no one but herself or Dawn ever heard.  “Sleep well last night?”

 

Buffy nodded, blushing again as she remembered why she’d been so relaxed. “Yes, but I hear you didn’t follow my advice.”

 

“Ah, you’ve talked to Harris then?  Good thing for him… them… I didn’t.  Or did he leave that part of it out?”

 

“No, he told me how you saved them… and scared the hell out of Mike at the same time.” She also stepped closer, ignoring Giles’ sudden intake of breath when she touched Spike on the arm. “He also told me you stayed around to keep the parking lot safe.”

 

Spike looked embarrassed. “Yeah, well. Lights were out and you were all tucked in bed, so I just… Didn’t take long. It was almost closing time anyway.”

 

“Well, thanks, anyway. I’m sure Xander was glad to see you.”

 

Their eyes met briefly in silent communication before Spike shrugged and turned away.

 

Giles cleared his throat.  “As entertaining as this is, what was it that you wanted me to know that you wanted Spike present for?”

 

“Oh!” Buffy began to pace around the room.  “Well, here’s the thing… I… Willow and… “  She looked at Spike for help.

 

“You want me to tell him?”

 

“Well, if you can do it without….” Buffy sighed. “No, I’ll tell him.  Sit down, Giles.”

 

Making a moue of distaste, Giles settled himself on the dirty couch and waited.

 

“Okay, here’s the thing… You know it was Willow that brought me back, right?” At Spike’s snarl and Giles’ frown she hastened on. “And she meant well. She really did. She thought I was in Hell and—”

 

“Were you?” Giles’ voice was tense and quiet. His eyes met Spike’s in a brief moment of understanding and his frown deepened.  “Where were you, Buffy?”

 

She hesitated, then at Spike’s encouraging, “Tell him, love,” she said, “I… I think I was in Heaven.” Her eyes filled. “I was warm, and peaceful, and loved, and… finished. I was finished, Giles. Done. And it was… it was nice.”  She swiped at her eyes, not noticing Giles’ glare when Spike put his arms around her and whispered in her ear.  She nodded and pushed him away – too gently, in her Watcher’s opinion – then drew a deep breath.  “And then, all of a sudden I was someplace dark and I couldn’t breathe, and I had to breathe, and when I finally got out, I was back… here.”

 

There was a crashing silence, broken only by the sound of Spike’s lighter as he lit a cigarette and pulled the smoke deep into his lungs.  Suddenly, Giles was on his feet, slamming Spike up against the wall.  “You have to know better than that!” he roared. “Why would you allow it? Why? Are you that depraved that you would take a chance like—

 

“Giles!” Buffy’s shriek had as much affect on Giles as her hands pulling him from Spike.  She pushed Giles away.  He didn’t do it!  He’s the only one that didn’t do it! Willow wouldn’t let anybody tell him about it because she was afraid he’d try to stop her.”

 

She stood between the two, clearly protecting the vampire who was rubbing the back of his head with one hand while he picked up the cigarette he’d dropped with the other.

 

“He didn’t do it,” she said again, softer this time.  “He’s the only one who didn’t help, who didn’t know….”

 

Giles looked back and forth between them, then nodded. “That’s why you told me you were spending time with him. He’s the only one you trust now.”

 

“He’s the only one who isn’t expecting me to be deliriously happy and grateful for what they did.  I can….” She looked over at Spike who was now leaning against a sarcophagus. “Spike lets me… let’s me be me, Giles.  He’s… he’s been a good friend to me.”

 

“And his obsession with… with….” They both glared at him until he dropped his eyes.  Buffy stared and Spike almost bit through his cigarette when Giles sighed and said quietly, “My apologies, Spike. You’ve proven yourself over and over, before Buffy… died, while she was gone, and, it seems, now that she is back and unhappy about it. Whatever it is that you feel for her is not an obsession and I was wrong to call it such.”

 

“Whoa!” Buffy stared at Giles as if he’d grown two heads.  “Look at you with the being polite to Spike!”

 

“Watcher and I got on alright while you gone, pet. Got no problem with him thinkin’ I’m not good enough for you.  My beef with him is that he scampered off back to jolly old when the Scoobs were still struggling.” He stared back at Giles, waiting for a response.

 

Giles sighed again, nodding. “It was not my finest hour,” he admitted. “I did have to go back to file a final report on Buffy’s… death, but staying there was….” He stood up and met Spike’s eyes firmly. “It was irresponsible of me. I agree. But I had been led to understand that you and Xander were doing an excellent job of providing some adult stability in the household. That, coupled with Tara’s common sense…” He looked back and forth between the two of them. “I just didn’t feel my presence was needed. I never imagined….”

 

“Never imagined the witch would dip into the dark magicks?” Spike raised his eyebrows in disbelief.

 

“I thought Tara’s influence would help her remain—” He shook his head. “Obviously she needed more supervision than I had anticipated.”  Giles brushed a hand against Buffy’s cheek.  “If I’d had any idea she would attempt something like this…. I am so sorry, Buffy.  I’m not sorry you’re here. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think it was a wonderful miracle, but I would have never….”

 

Buffy shrugged and looked away, refusing to meet his eyes.  “Yeah, well, here I am. It’s not like I can go back…” She looked wistful for a moment and both men reached for her simultaneously, shrinking back when she shook off their hands. “Relax, I’m over that part of it.”  She smiled at Spike, then turned to Giles and pointed at the vampire. “You’ve got no idea how much just having somebody who knew about it, somebody I could bitch to when it all got to be too much… somebody who watched my back until he was sure I wasn’t going to try to go back by way of some random vamp’s lucky day.”  She glared at Giles as if expecting an argument. “Spike has been my best friend and my support system. I couldn’t have done it without him.”

 

“Sounding a bit too past tense there to suit me, Slayer,” Spike said, the fear in his voice palpable.  “Gonna kick me to the curb now that the Watcher’s back?”

 

“Oh! Oh no! No, I didn’t mean that at all.” She looked back and forth between them, her eyes wide. “Is that what it sounded like? That I was saying I didn’t need him—you anymore?”

 

While Giles stared in disbelief, Buffy went up on her toes and whispered into Spike’s ear, caused him to break into a reluctant grin. “Well, there is that, pet,” he agreed. “Some things the old man just can’t do, yeah?” 

 

Giles frowned. “I’m fairly certain I do not care to know what that was about…” Then, showing that he had a pretty good idea what it was about, he said to Spike, “I understood you and Xander had come to some sort of arrangement… That you were….” He looked at Buffy and shook his head. “Obviously there was some misunderstanding.”

 

Spike stared into his eyes.  “I thought we were,” he said shortly. “Seems I was wrong.”

 

While Giles stared, Buffy whirled on Spike. “For Pete’s sake, Spike. Are you blind? All Xander does when Mike is around is stare at you. If you’d both stop being so stubborn….”

 

“Mike?” 

 

Buffy began walking towards the door. “Come on, Giles, I’ve got more stuff to tell you so you can be all strategy guy and tell me how we’re going to keep Social Services off our backs.”  She looked back over her shoulder. “Get some more sleep, Spike. I… we’ll see you tonight, ‘k?”

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

 

Xander leaned against the counter in the kitchen, his hair still wet from the shower.

 

“So we’re having a ‘welcome home now that Buffy’s back’ party for Giles?” His face twisted in mild disgust.  “Not that I’m not glad the G-man’s gonna be around, but we all know he wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t—”

 

“And we all know Buffy wouldn’t be here if he’d stayed,” Willow said tartly. “It would have been a lot harder to hide that from Giles than it was Spike.”

 

“Than what was Spike?” Buffy’s voice preceded her into the kitchen.

 

“No… nothing. We were just saying….”

 

“Willow was just saying she didn’t think Giles would have let her go through with the rescue. If he’d been here.”

 

“Rescue?” Buffy’s moment of genuine confusion sent a barb through Xander’s heart.

 

“Rescue. You. Hell. You remember. That rescue you still haven’t thanked me—us for.”   Willow’s haughty sniff reminded Buffy of why she wanted everyone present that evening.

 

“Ah, yes. That rescue. The one Spike wasn’t invited to participate in.  Why was that, Willow?”

 

“I didn’t want him there… and that’s all you need to know.”

 

Willow flounced out of the kitchen and up to her room, injured feelings trailing behind her.  There was silence for a few minutes, then Xander ventured, “So, what did you and Giles do today?”

 

“We went to see Spike. They… there were things they needed to discuss before tonight.”

 

“Is Spike coming here?” Xander tried to keep his face smooth as he felt his heart rate speed up.  “I mean, not that he can’t… you can invite… and with you and him….”

 

“With me and him what?”

 

Xander remembered that he hadn’t told Buffy he’d see them kissing and started to stammer something, then saw the guilty look on her face. “With you and him being a little closer ‘friends’ than what you told me the other night. You said you weren’t dating, and there you were, an hour later, playing tonsil hockey.  I saw you.”  He wasn’t able to keep the bitterness from his voice.

 

With relief, Buffy realized that Xander didn’t know that she and Spike had taken their experimental kiss to a whole new level. “We weren’t playing any kind of hockey,” she said quietly. “It was just a… an attempt to see what might be there. One kiss. And we stopped as soon as Spike heard your truck, but it was too late, you were already burning rubber out the gate.” She met his eyes and said, “Neither one of us wants to hurt you… especially Spike.  But when he saw you out with Mike….”

 

“I wasn’t ‘out with’ Mike! He just offered me somebody to talk to about… about stuff.”

 

“Kinda like Spike’s been my ‘someone to talk to’?”

 

“Touché  Xander looked down at his calloused hands. “But we really are only talking… you two—”

 

He waited for Buffy’s denial, but she just said, “Spike still loves me, Xan.  I know you know that. But I don’t love him, and he knows that.” She bit her lip and wondered how much she was getting into something she had no business getting into. “I’m not going to be able to make him happy, no matter what he thinks now. Spike needs to be loved, and I can’t do that.  But I’m too needy right now to stay away from him as long as he’s willing to help me forget—” She stopped herself abruptly.  “You know what? If you want him, you need to let him know. ‘Cause he thinks you don’t; and unless I know he’s got somebody else in his life, I’m going to keep using him to make mine more bearable.  And sooner or later it’s going to hurt him – badly. You think about that.”

 

She turned and walked out of the kitchen leaving Xander trying to fill in the blanks in the conversation. but when he saw you out with Mike… But? But what? What did he do after he saw us that night? And… she’s going to keep using him? What the hell does that mean? Using him as what? For what? And why? What does Buffy need him to help her forget? What does she mean ‘make her life more bearable?’

 

With a groan, he put his head down on the counter, once again remembering how Spike had been so sure Buffy’s soul wouldn’t have gone anywhere but Heaven. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The ‘welcome back’ party wasn’t going well. Spike spent his time out on the back porch, smoking and staring into the yard. Giles was incapable of being in the same room with Willow without wanting to shake her; an emotion that he wasn’t hiding as well as he thought he was.  For her part, Willow spent her time wavering between being hurt and unhappy that she wasn’t being congratulated on her accomplishment, and being angry that Giles couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize her growing abilities, that had, in her opinion, exceeding his own minor magical gifts years ago.

 

Xander sat with Dawn – the only one who didn’t seem to be harboring some sort of deep-seated grudge against somebody   and Tara, who was supporting Willow although her brow was more creased than it used to be before Willow had brought Buffy back, and who looked like she’d rather be anywhere else.

 

The titular hostess of the party was flitting around the room, offering snacks and nervous conversation as she tried to get everyone to relax.  When it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen, she sighed and plopped down beside Giles.

 

“Not much of a party, huh?” she muttered. “I don’t know what’s wrong with everybody.”

 

“Yes, you do, Buffy. Secrets fester, and this group has been harboring more than their share lately.  I think it’s time to clear the air, don’t you?”

 

Buffy sighed and shook her head. “Giles, when I tell them what they did, they’re going to freak.”

 

“And this is preferable?” Giles nodded his head at the small group of tense people.  “Willow is growing more arrogant by the moment, so sure of herself that she disdains my advice to get more training—”

 

“Spike and Tara tried to get her to back off the magic a long time ago.  She told them to mind their own business.”  When Giles raised an eyebrow, she added, “At least that’s what Spike told me.  It’s not like I was here to see it.”

 

“Well, loath as I am to say it, Spike was probably the most qualified to give magical advice in my absence. He may not like its use, but he has many decades of experience to draw upon, and an understanding of the consequences.”

 

Buffy snorted. “Well, apparently Willow told him to get off her back or she’d turn him into a toad.  He thought she was joking, but now….” She looked up at Giles. “You think I should tell her I wouldn’t like him all covered in warts?”

 

“I don’t think that’s information that needs to be shared with anyone in the room – most especially myself,” he said, shutting his eyes briefly.

 

Buffy shrugged. “You’re probably right. I know Xander doesn’t want to hear it.”

 

He nodded in agreement. Buffy had filled him in on what she knew of the relationship Spike and Xander had developed in her absence, and the ongoing fallout from the events since then.  After an initial period of surprise (less surprise than Buffy would have expected, now that she thought about it), he had nodded and said he could certainly understand that happening. “Two wounded hearts seeking solace in shared grief,” he’d called it.  “Weird is what I call it,” Buffy had replied. “But Spike says sometimes it’s all about who it is, not what sex they are.”  Giles had nodded and made a face. “I cannot believe I am saying this, but sometimes Spike can be very wise.”

 

Buffy was snapped out her memories of earlier in the day by Spike’s appearance in the doorway. His eyes searched the room, lingering briefly on Xander and Dawn and then seeking out Buffy.  He moved toward them and stood behind Buffy’s chair.

 

“Is it ‘Show and Tell’ time yet?”

 

Buffy shuddered, and then stood up.  “I guess it might as well be. It’s not like I’m going to be spoiling a good party….”

 

Giles stood up with her and put a hand on her shoulder.  “If you’d like, I will start the conversation off.”

 

Buffy smiled her gratitude and sat down again. Spike rested a supportive hand on her shoulder briefly, removing it when he saw a shadow pass across Xander’s eyes.  Buffy patted the seat Giles had left, but Spike shook his head and took a position against the wall behind her.

 

Giles cleared his throat and the few quiet conversations that had been going on came to an immediate halt.  He lifted his glass to the room and said, “I am very grateful for this warm welcome, and want to offer my apologies for having stayed away so long. In the interest of beginning what may be an emotional and somewhat… difficult… round of revelations, I will admit up front that I was running away from some… memories and experiences I was finding too painful. It was cowardly of me. I ran and left all of you behind to deal with those same painful memories, as well as the ongoing difficulties of life on a Hellmouth.”

 

He tipped his glass at Spike, Xander, and lastly, Willow. “You have my utmost admiration for the way you all stepped up and accepted your burdens while suffering from the same grief and regrets.”  He turned to Buffy and pulled her to her feet to stand beside him.  “I believe Buffy has something she would like to share with all of you – not in the interest of making anyone feel uncomfortable for what was, undoubtedly, an act of love, but so that she no longer has to live a lie that is wearing her down.”

 

Spike’s growl, and her tear-filled eyes gave such strong indications of what Buffy was about to say, that Xander’s face was already crumpling before she had even opened her mouth.

 

“Guys… Willow…” She decided to be specific. “I know you did what you did out of love. Because you thought I was… well, I guess you thought I was in Hell.” She frowned. “I’m not really sure why, though. You buried my body, so you knew where it was, and my soul….” She stopped, wiping her eyes and trying to get her breathing under control.  Spike stepped up behind her and glared over her head.

 

“Her soul went exactly where anyone with half a brain would know that Heaven’s Chosen One would go if and when she died in the act of saving the world.”

 

There were gasps, and all eyes focused on Buffy’s face. Giving Spike an elbow in his ribs, she muttered, “Way to be gentle about it, Spike.”  Keeping her eyes on Dawn’s, she said, “I know you did it out of love. That you thought you were rescuing me from somewhere… bad. But the truth is… I think I was in Heaven. You pulled me out of Heaven, and back to….” She waved her hand around to encompass the world that she had been called upon to save so many times. “…back to the life of a slayer, which is, trust me, nobody’s idea of Heaven. Even when the world isn’t ending.

 

“So,” her voice trembled. “That’s why I’m not all happy, perky Buffy. And why I spend so much time with Spike.  It’s not just that he didn’t have any part in it, or that he would have known better, it’s that he lets me be… whatever I need to be. Grouchy, sad, mean, spaced-out… I can relax around him. I don’t have to pretend that I’m happy, or grateful, or any of those things you all want me to be.  I’m sorry. I love all of you, I do. But I it’s going to take a long time before I feel comfortable back in this world, and probably even longer before I’m happy about it.”

 

Without stopping to look at any of the shocked and tearful faces staring at her, she turned and walked into the kitchen and out the back door, Spike right behind her.  When she stopped in the middle of the yard and began to shake, Spike put his arms around her, holding her tightly while she sobbed out the emotions she’d been holding in check so tightly for so long. 

 

Giles peered out the window at them, then set his face into stern lines and returned to the living room.  He stared around at the stricken expressions and said, “Let’s have a conversation about hubris, shall we?”

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Willow had tears flowing down her cheeks as gulping sobs escaped her body.  The sobs tapered off when she realized she was not being comforted – by Tara or anyone else. Instead, Tara was rocking Dawn and crying softly, her “I should have known, I should have known” barely audible.  Xander had collapsed against the back of the couch, his head back and eyes shut. Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes at having his worst fears confirmed. Knowing he probably could have prevented the whole thing just by telling Spike the truth was driving the pain and guilt deeper by the second.

 

Giles watched them grimly for several minutes, then said.  “That’s enough. You can wallow in your regret later—”

 

Willow interrupted him with a snarled, “Regret for what? She’s alive, isn’t she? We have her back. She’ll be okay. It’s Buffy. The Slayer. She can handle this. If we just get her away from Spike… he’s… he’s poisoning her mind against us!”

 

Every set of eyes in the room stared at the still-crying witch, their disbelief and shock clearly visible.  Xander finally blew out the breath he’d been holding to say, “Will, don’t do this. The only thing Spike is doing is giving Buffy the support she needs while she learns to deal.  He tried to tell me that Buffy was in Heaven. He knew it. The only one of us without a soul knew exactly where hers was.” He took a deep breath. “That’s why you didn’t want me to tell him, isn’t it? You knew he’d try to stop you.”  Xander shook his head and looked away from his oldest friend.  “He was right. I should have listened to him.”

 

“An interesting perspective,” Giles said. He turned to Willow.  “Is that why you chose to do this on your own without even consulting the only one with the experience and knowledge to advise you?  Other than myself, of course. Whom you also didn’t consult.”

 

“You couldn’t have done it,” Willow snarled. “You don’t have the power.”

 

“What I have, Willow, are hard-learned lessons from my own youthful experiences with pride, arrogance and having more confidence than knowledge when it comes to using dark magicks. I could have told you, as could Spike, that all magic comes with consequences. And dark magic has dark consequences. It remains to be seen what those will be, but rest assured they exist and will make themselves known. If they haven’t already,” he added in a softer voice.”

 

Willow stared around the room at the accusing eyes looking back at her. Only Xander dropped his gaze and looked away when she gave a silent appeal for support, the others, including Tara, just stared at her, their own culpability seeming the only thing preventing them from joining Giles in his condemnation. She stood, drawing herself up to her full height, “Fine. Blame it all on me.  You’ll change your tune when the next apocalypse comes along and Buffy stops it. The Buffy who wouldn’t be here if not for me.”  She walked out of the room with great dignity, hesitated slightly at the foot of the stairs, then turned right and went out the front door, letting it slam behind her.