All About Spike

Sunlight and Shadow
By Kimberly

Disclaimer: These characters don't belong to me. This fic, however, is mine. Please don't take it without my permission.

Chapter One: Seeking the Sun

Buffy was dreaming. It was actually a memory, a day at the beach, the summer before Merrick showed up and her life got turned into a nightmare. The last summer she spent not worrying about vampires.

She was lying on a pale blue towel on the sand at their usual spot at Corona del Mar, and she was wearing her sparkly pink bikini. She knew she was looking good, and she was working on her tan. Hard work, but somebody's gotta do it ...

She was there with some of the other girls from the cheer squad, and some of the guys from the football team. Buffy's eyes were closed behind her sunglasses, but she heard squeals and splashes and laughter in the distance. The sun was warm on her skin, and she smiled contentedly. Beside her, the radio was playing her favorite song from junior high, and she was humming along. My future's so bright, I gotta wear shades ...

Then all of a sudden she realized she wasn't actually at the beach, and she opened her eyes, and she was on the catwalk at the Bronze, and it hadn't been the radio, the band onstage were actually singing that old song from junior high, but she was up on the catwalk, and Spike was with her, and she wasn't wearing her bikini, but what she was wearing wasn't really getting in Spike's way, because he was inside her, pounding hard and smooth and slow inside her, and he was whispering to her, whispering seductive darkness, telling her she belonged in the darkness, pulling her into the darkness with each delicious thrust, and she felt so so so cold. Everything was out of control, and it was dark, and cold, and Where did the sun go?

The next night, just after sunset, Buffy began the slow walk to Spike's crypt. She hadn't felt this calm in ... well, she wasn't sure when she last felt this calm. Guess it's time for the parade and trombones, Spike ... I've finally figured out what I want.

She opened the door to his crypt and stepped into the darkness. No candles lit tonight, but she could feel that Spike was there. She closed the door behind her, quietly. His voice came out of the darkness, "What do you want, Slayer?"

He sounded pissed off, ready for a fight, ready to ward off or simply submit to another of her attacks. He sounded tired. As tired as she felt.

Her voice was almost a whisper, gentle, in the inky black that surrounded them. "Spike, we need to talk."

His laughter was harsh and self-deprecating, "Inn't that usually my line, pet?" She could hear him moving in the darkness now. Ah, lighting a candle, then another. She could dimly see him now, wearing his usual uniform of black jeans and t-shirt, but barefoot. After he'd lit several candles to illuminate the room with golden flickering, he sat in the armchair where he'd presumably been when she entered. Sitting in the dark, not even watching television. Why had he been sitting in the dark?

She shook her head slightly to clear it, remembering why she was here, and then moved across the crypt to sit on the floor near his chair. She leaned back against the tomb behind her, and hugged her knees to her chest, then looked up at Spike's pale face in the candlelight. "I've figured it out," she said quietly. "I've figured it out, Spike, and you're wrong."

She quickly held up a hand when she saw him stiffen and open his mouth to speak, "No, please don't interrupt me, Spike. Please ... just listen until I'm finished. Then ... then, if you want to talk, we can. But for right now, please ... just listen to me."

Chapter Two: The Whole Buffy

The crypt was quiet, so quiet that Buffy could occasionally hear the tiny crackling of one of the candles scattered around them. Spike's eyes were hooded, but he was silent, at her request, waiting for her to speak. In the dim light, she couldn't read his expression.

Clasping her hands around her knees more firmly, she looked down for a moment to gather her thoughts, then nervously cleared her throat and glanced up at him again, sitting so still in his armchair. Just being near him unsettled her. If I could just figure out where to start ...

Taking a deep breath, she just started talking, and as she talked, as she spoke the truths she'd finally come to understand, her calmness grew again.

"When you first fell in love with me" -- no, she wouldn't deny that it was true anymore, she saw the surprise register briefly on his face -- "I was a different girl than I have been since I ... came back. Since we started ... what we've been doing. I was a happier girl once, Spike. I think ... no, I know ... I need to find that happiness again. Because I don't have it now. I don't know where it is. I can barely remember it.

"But I had this dream last night, this dream about before I was the Slayer, before I was the Chosen Anything, and I was just having fun with my friends at the beach, laying in the sun and getting a tan and singing along with the radio.

"And when I woke up, I realized it wasn't becoming the Slayer that changed that ... that changed me. Because I used to be the Slayer and still have fun. I had fun with Willow and Xander, and we laughed together, and I made jokes, and I liked to dance, and I'd tickle Dawn till she screamed, and I was still happy.

"Everything that happened with Angel was so hard ... it ... changed me ... made me sort of ... sadder, but I was still me. And I gradually started having fun again, being happy again, in a different sort of way.

"I guess that's part of what growing up is ..."

Buffy glanced up at Spike's face in the flickering candlelight and could see that he was watching her now, his eyes meeting hers. His seemed to glisten, but that was probably a trick of the light.

Buffy continued, "But, see, even when you first met me, even when you first told me you loved me, I was still that ... other Buffy. That happier Buffy who still lived part of her life in the sun. Sure, I was the Slayer, but I was still me, too.

"And this morning, after I had this dream, I realized that you're wrong, Spike. I don't belong in the shadows. I'm not a creature of the darkness.

"You keep telling me that I belong with you, in the shadows, that I don't belong in the light, with my friends, laughing and having fun ... but, Spike, you're wrong.

"Because the Slayer, that part of me that lives in the night and darkness ... that's only part of me. It's only part of who I am. And there's this whole other part, like this whole other Buffy, who lives in the sun. And I don't know where she is anymore, and I've gotta find her, or else I'm not really me, not the whole Buffy. I'm only Slayer Buffy. And that ... that's killing me, Spike.

"This ... thing ... between us. The things I've been doing to you, the things I've been letting you do to me ... it's killing me. You pull me further and further into the darkness, further and further from that part of me that lives in the sun, and I can't live that way ..."

She was crying now, tears streaming unheeded down her face as she spoke, soaking the collar of her shirt. She looked down at her hands, flickering gold like flames, and finished quietly, "I can't live without the sun, Spike. I can't live my life in the shadows. I'll die there."

The crypt was silent, save for the occasional sputtering of one of the candles. It sounded like a wind had picked up outside, and the candles were now flickering more frantically in the draughty crypt. Even as the tears continued to flow slowly down her cheeks, Buffy felt the calmness settle upon her again. This was right. This was what she needed to do.

Chapter Three: Spike's Response

Spike felt as if he'd been turned to stone. As if he'd become one of the statues in the cemetary, one of the crypt's pillars, part of the cold empty tomb itself, a symbol of death. That's what he was, after all ... not only a symbol of death, but a bringer of death. A bringer of darkness. A creature of hell. And he'd tried to drag her down with him.

Was that all his love amounted to? A desire to drag her down until he wasn't beneath her, until he could prove those hurtful words untrue? Until he could actually degrade her, make her cruel and cold and worse than him? So that he could finally believe that he deserved her?

He felt sick. Honestly nauseated. For the first time, he found himself doubting, really wondering if she'd been right all along, if he was even truly capable of love.

Who's the one who's wrong here, hmm? Wasn't ever her. Never her.

Buffy had been silent now for several minutes. He knew she was waiting for him to argue with her, but he just had no idea what to say. The last thing he'd ever wanted to do was hurt her, but that's all he'd been doing with his so-called "love," hurting her, killing her. God ...

He glanced down at her, sitting there on the floor of his crypt, hugging her knees to her chest. She looked so beautiful, so innocent ... though he knew the truth behind that.

With that thought, he knew what he needed to say to her. He ... he couldn't fix everything he'd done, couldn't right all the wrongs, but he could try to do something, some one small thing ...

"Buffy," his voice came out quieter than he'd intended. He needed to sound strong, not make her feel even worse about herself for hurting him ... as if that had ever stopped her. But still. He said it again, a bit louder, a bit stronger, "Buffy ..."

He rubbed one hand against the back of his neck and then looked at her, locked gazes, and leaned forward slightly, resting his elbows on his black-denimed thighs. "Buffy ... pet ... you need to understand something. The things we did together ... you should never feel ashamed of what turns you on ..."

But she was already shaking her head and interrupting him, "Spike, the things we did were sick ... ugly. That's not me. I don't want to be a cruel person."

Spike smiled gently at her and shook his head, "Sweetheart, what happens in the bedroom between consenting adults doesn't change what sort of person you are. You're the Slayer ... you've had violence forced upon you as your bloody buggered 'birthright' ... there's no harm in finding pleasure in it as well ..."

Again she cut him off, weeping again now, "No, no! It's wrong!"

Spike knelt down on the floor and took Buffy's small hands in his and gazed directly into her eyes, speaking seriously and intensely, "Buffy, sex does not need to be only tenderness and hearts and flowers. That's a child's romantic fantasy. If you confine yourself to that, you'll never really be a mature woman, you'll never really be yourself in bed. Be honest with yourself, admit what you want, and don't ever be ashamed. As long as both people are willing, there's nothing ugly ..."

Buffy was still sniffling, and she pulled her hands out of his to wipe at the tears that glistened on her cheeks in the dim light. The wind was roaring outside, and it sounded as if rain had begun to fall, as well. Some of the candles had guttered out, while others simply flickered wildly, sending tiny shadows racing across the crypt walls and the two people who faced each other.

Taking a deep breath, Spike continued painfully, "What happened between us ... may have been ... wrong ... it may have been ... ugly ..." he paused for a moment to gain control of his voice "but that wasn't because of the actual acts we engaged in. If you'd ... if you'd done those things with someone ... you ... loved ..."

Thank god she wasn't interrupting him. This was like tearing his heart out and ripping it into tiny shreds, but he hoped that in the long run it might help her to get over the shame of what had happened between them. He needed to do this ... for her.

"Making love doesn't come in only one variety, Slayer. If you'd done those things with someone you loved, it wouldn't have been ugly, it wouldn't have been wrong. It would have been making love." He choked it all out as quickly as he could. God. For him, it had been making love, every time, everything they'd done. But he could see now that for her it had only caused a growing self-loathing. God ... I saw it ... but I didn't let it stop me ... I just hoped ...

He couldn't meet her eyes anymore. He'd been so selfish, so blind. He whispered softly, so softly he wasn't even sure if she would hear, "I'm sorry."

Chapter Four: Saying Goodbye

The rain beat down on his head and shoulders, streamed down his face like a constant flow of driving tears. His footsteps in the mud of the cemetary were slow and uncoordinated, as if he'd just been badly beaten. Again.

In a way he had. He'd finally been truly beaten. Been forced to look at himself. One of the benefits of not having a reflection -- not having to look yourself in the face after anything you'd done. But Buffy's words had held up a mirror to him which he had not been able to ignore. He'd seen darkness. Evil. Ugliness. Corruption.

He'd been corrupting her, manipulating her through her desire for him, destroying her self-esteem with carefully chosen words, abusing her far worse than anything she'd done to him in that alley outside the police station. He felt contaminated ... no ... as if he were contamination itself ... as if he were a plague, a pestilence, a scourge ... all of them. All of them rolled up into one and dressed in a black duster disguise.

He hadn't meant to. He'd just wanted to keep her near him until she could return his love. God, he hadn't meant to. He hadn't seen it. These past few months, he'd kept wondering when the next serious nasty was going to show up, tensed in anticipation of fighting off the next big threat Buffy had to face, to make it easier for her.

He hadn't realized the serious nasty was him. Yep, that's me. The Big Bad. What can I say, baby? I've always been bad ...

He knew he had to leave. He couldn't stay, knowing what he knew now. Knowing that even while he thought he was protecting his two girls, he was the one who was the real danger to them ... bringing darkness into their lives, pulling them toward it, pulling them both away from the sunlight that they deserved.

But he couldn't leave without seeing Dawn. He just wasn't that strong.

Oh, god, diary, Spike is GONE!!! He came and told me and it was so terrible!! He can't leave me Everyone leaves me! Spike was the one I always thought would actually STAY, the one person who really LISTENED to me, ya know?

He wasn't even making any sense, saying he's all evil or something and he's SOOOOO not but he wouldn't listen to me, just kept saying he was corrupting me or something. Yeah, right! Like he even knows HALF of the stuff I do. I'm probably more evil than HIM. I mean, I don't do anything to help other people or anything like he does, nobody needs me at all. But Spike ... we NEED Spike!!! He's the only one who's as strong as Buffy and can really fight the big uglies like Glory. He protects us, keeps us safe. Who'll do that when he's gone? He said that Buffy can keep me safe now, and that he can't cause he doesn't know how. HUH????

But it's more than that, cause Spike's always been there for me, ya know? Especially when Buffy was gone, he was the only one who really understood. And he understands about the whole key thing, too, about not being human and how that feels so weird. I mean, Buffy makes such a big deal about how he doesn't have a soul and how that makes him SOOOO evil, but we never got to ask those monk guys if they gave ME a soul. I'm just a big green glowy thing in a human body -- who knows if a soul came with the deal? I mean, Spike and me, we're kinda the same, ya know? He always made me feel better, like I'm not a freak. I always felt better after I talked to him, even if we didn't talk about anything important. He's just a good listener, even about dumb stuff.

But tonight he was just so weird. He kept saying weird stuff about me needing to live in the sun. HELLO!!!! This is SUNNYDALE!! We've got plenty of sun here! But he said he meant he didn't think I should have to deal with evil stuff, which like I told him is only gonna happen if we move someplace else cause I mean DUH! Sunnydale and evil kinda go together. And Buffy has to stay here because she's the ALL-IMPORTANT SLAYER. Sometimes I wish somebody else would come and be the Slayer, and then Buffy could just be my annoying older sister again, like she was before. Spike got all quiet when I said that, and said he wished that too. He had a weird look on his face, but he wouldn't tell me what he was thinking.

He didn't say anything else about Buffy, but I'm sure this is all HER fault. She's such a BITCH. God I hate her sometimes!! I asked Spike not to go -- for me -- but he left just a minute ago, saying he's sure this is the best thing for me. Everybody ALWAYS thinks they know what's best for me, without even LISTENING!! Like I'm just some sort of dumb kid. I'm not used to Spike treating me like a kid -- I thought he was the only one who understood and really talked to me about stuff.

I don't think he even knows how much I love him. I just can't believe he's gone -- I just keep crying and crying and I don't know if I'll EVER stop. He was my best friend.

Chapter Five: Finding Faith

Getting in hadn't been nearly as difficult as he'd expected. They clearly were more worried about her getting out than they were about anyone else getting in to see her. But really, the security on the ingoing was pathetic, at least from the perspective of a master vampire.

Now, if he'd been hoping to make it back out, he might be a bit more worried, but he was planning this as a one-way trip. That's what he'd told the bloke sitting next to him on the flight, too, and he knew it had sounded like he was going home, what with the accent and all.

Quite the opposite. Leaving everything he loved, everything that felt like home. Looking for a looney bint he'd never met. Probably not going to survive this little adventure. But he felt a certain strange calmness. He knew this was what he needed to do.

And, hell, he'd had a lot of experience with balmy homicidal brunettes, now hadn't he?

The cell itself wasn't quite what he'd expected ... less spartan. Pretty posh, actually ... more of a suite than a cell. He'd expected something like a jail, but they apparently weren't trying to punish this Faith girl, just keep her out of their hair. Just keep her locked up and alive, so Buffy could keep doing her job for her. Just keep her out of trouble.

Well, I'm just the bloke to help with that little problem, now ain't I? All ya had to do was ask nice-like ...

The girl was sleeping when he slipped into the room, but she woke quickly, rolling onto her back and opening her eyes to stare up at him. Those Slayer senses. She still seemed a bit groggy, though, like they had her drugged or something.

Spike stood next to the bed, looking down at her with his Big Bad leer on his face. "Good mornin', luv. Now, don't you just look tasty, all warm and flushed from sleepin'." He let his fangs descend, but otherwise kept his human face. Just wanted to give her a glimpse of the teeth, stroke them a bit with his tongue in anticipation. This was going to be fun. Hopefully they hadn't drugged her too much ... he was looking forward to a fight, even though the chip would give him hell. It would be a sort of warm-up to the grand finale of cerebral fireworks.

"Spike," she spoke in a husky voice. "William the Bloody." There was recognition and a vague hint of resignation in her eyes, though he was buggered if he could remember ever seeing her before.

He quirked an eyebrow, "H've we met, luv?" His eyes roamed her form openly and suggestively. "I'm sure I'd remember."

A little smirk teased her lips and she leaned up on her elbows, her dark hair falling behind her, "Yeah, we've met, Blondie. But I looked a little different then." She smirked again, a bit more openly this time. This time it was her looking his body up and down, "I'll bet I could still make you pop like warm champagne."

Spike frowned. He knew he'd heard that before, but ...

Faith rolled her eyes and explained, "I was in B's body. Had this gizmo that whammied her, switched our bodies. It was wicked cool. Got my freak on with her little tin soldier, too. Wonder how she liked that when she found out."

She was lying back down on the bed again, still with that glazed look in her eyes, even through the smart-ass remarks. Looked like he wasn't going to get that fight he'd been hoping for. They definitely had her on some sort of drugs.

"Well, pet, I'd love to chat about old times and all that, but I think eventually some of these Watcher boys are gonna figure out I'm here and come to give me a right warm welcome, and I've got a bit of work to do before that happens. Mind if we get down to business?" Full vamp face now. She didn't look surprised.

"Yeah, I figured you didn't come all this way just to chat. Don't know why you'd take the chance on coming here, though, even with your kinky obsession with Slayers. D'ya already kill B and you're lookin' to bring on the next tasty morsel? Gotta get me out of the way first. I understand."

Spike growled at the suggestion that he might have killed Buffy, but ground out, "Somethin' like that, pet." But Faith was too quick for him, even under the influence of tranquilizers.

"So you didn't kill B?" She leaned up on her elbows again, looking curious. "Why are you here?"

Damn, his vamp face slid away without his realizing it was happening, and she saw it in his eyes.

"You love her!" She looked hurt for a moment, then shuttered her expression with a disgusted grimace. "Everybody loves Miss Goody-Two-Shoes." It didn't work, though. Spike could read her as easily as she had read him.

He thought he probably would have liked this girl, if they'd gotten to know each other. They seemed to have a lot in common.

"Look, pet, I'm here to kill you, and you know it, and we need to get on with it. Let's not bother with the 'I hate Buffy' games, alright? I played that one long enough, myself, and it got old. Let's just do this." His vamp face was back now, as was the calmness. He'd known this was a one-way trip, and now he was here, at the destination. The boys in tweed would be here soon, and he had a job to do before making their acquaintance. This calmness was like nothing he'd ever felt before. This was what he needed to do.

The dark-haired Slayer closed her eyes and whispered, "I got to be her once, just for a little while. Not just in her body ... I got to be her. Just for a few minutes. I went into this church, and I saved these people, and I felt what it was like to be ... I don't know ... good? right?" A tear leaked out from under one of her closed eyelids. She whispered more quietly, "I wish I could've felt that again. Just once."

Spike reached out to touch the tear that tracked down toward the girl's hair. He said softly, "At least you got to feel it once. You asked me why I'm here, and -- fuck -- may as well do the James Bond thing and tell you my whole evil plan, eh? I'm here because even when I've tried to do good, I just ended up fucking it up. I'm here to do what I do best ... be evil ... kill. And when the new Slayer gets all chosen, then Buffy will get to have a normal life. She'll get to retire, because she's done with the darkness. She needs to live in the sun now. It's somebody else's turn to deal with the baddies that go bump in the night. I'm here 'cause she deserves a better life, and I can do something about givin' it to her."

He paused for a moment, then touched Faith's hand, "That is to say, pet, that we can do somethin' about givin' it to her. Because willing or not, you're helping me out, here. Helpin' me do somethin' good."

Faith shook her head slightly and rolled her eyes, then smirked up at him, "You've got a twisted idea of 'good', Bleachboy. ...

"But ... you know ... B was one of the only real friends I ever had ..."

She looked up at Spike, and her eyes looked a little less glazed, a little more focused, and she whispered, "I kind of loved her, too, I guess. In my own fucked up way. I'll bet she never knew that. I'll bet she'd never believe me if I told her, after all the shit I've pulled."

Spike squeezed her hand softly and said, "Believe me, pet, I know how you feel."

When the Council of Watchers phoned Buffy Summers in Sunnydale, California, they abruptly informed her only that Faith had been killed within their own compound by the infamous vampire variously known as "Spike" and "William the Bloody." With their usual icy politeness, they indicated that they were unwilling to give any further details.

They certainly did not divulge what they did not even know, which was that the Slayer had asked -- as her last request -- that the vampire hold her as he drained her, that she begged him to hold her close in his arms, so that she would not die alone, as she had lived. And that the vampire did as she asked, cradling her tenderly in his arms as he drained her neck, even as the chip in his brain sent excruciating shocks through him, even as his head seemed to be exploding, even as he fought the deadly agony by focusing on the warm Slayer's blood in his mouth and the image in his mind of Buffy, his Buffy, his Slayer, smiling and laughing in the sunshine.

And somewhere, far away, as he held Faith in his arms and killed her so gently, another Slayer was chosen to defend the night from his kind.

Chapter Six: A Day at the Beach

Buffy was lying on her stomach on a pale blue towel on the sand, and she was wearing her sparkly pink bikini. She filled it out quite a bit more than the last time she'd worn it, but she'd been shocked to find that it still basically fit. Still looked pretty good on her, too.

She and Dawn had decided to have a day at the beach, and Willow and Xander had offered to join them. It had turned into a Scooby reunion, of sorts, which was nice ... they rarely all got together like this anymore. Everyone was so busy with their own lives.

Tara was sitting beside Buffy's towel, on a blanket under a big umbrella. She was wearing a long, gauzy, sleeveless dress and lots of sunscreen ... apparently, she burned easily. Willow, on the other hand, was romping around with Xander and Dawn in the water, a big protective splotch of zinc oxide covering her nose.

Buffy's eyes were closed behind her sunglasses, but she heard squeals and splashes and laughter in the distance. The sun was warm on her back, and it felt really good ... relaxing. Between her and Tara, the radio played softly, and Buffy found herself drifting in and out of sleep.

Buffy was dreaming. It was actually a memory, one of the last times they made love before he left. He was holding her in his arms, his muscles rippling under her fingers as he thrust gently and slowly inside of her. His eyes were so blue, so blue she thought she'd never seen anything so blue before, and he had that look on his face, that look that said she was the center of his universe, that she was a miracle, that she was precious, that she was amazing and important and beautiful and cherished and real and alive and loved.

He kept gazing directly into her eyes with that look on his face, that look in his blue eyes, and it was too much, too intense, what his eyes were doing to her insides, and so she closed her eyes and focused her senses on his lean body against hers. She moved against him, stroked his smooth back and shoulders and biceps with her hands, and he moaned softly as he lowered his head to press his lips against hers with the lightest of touches.

"I love you," he whispered, his lips hovering almost against hers, so that she felt the movement of the air, felt the words against her sensitized mouth, tender from his kisses.

She opened her eyes and looked directly into his face. "You can't love," she hissed. And then suddenly, he was beneath her, and she was punching that beautiful pale face, those beautiful blue eyes, and he wasn't even fighting her, just letting her do it, just lying beneath her as she panted as she savagely beat him, "You don't have a soul! There is nothing good or clean in you! You are dead inside! You can't feel anything real!"

She stood now, staring down at him as he lay bleeding and broken on the floor, and she spat out, "You're a thing. An evil, disgusting thing." Spike did not even weep, just reached blindly for her in his pain, as she stood impassively above him.

Buffy noticed a darkness growing in one corner of the crypt, creeping toward them like a fog made of infinite black. Spike tried to pull himself to his hands and knees, but collapsed with a groan of pain. "No!" He gasped in a slurred voice as he desperately tried to drag himself away from the encroaching dark. "Buffy, please ..." but the words were almost whispered, and held little hope, almost weren't even directed at her, as if he knew that she wasn't listening to his plea. As if he didn't even dare to hope that she cared enough to listen ... not after what he'd done. Not after what she'd done.

The dark was almost upon him now, and Buffy backed slowly away toward the crypt door, leaving him lying helplessly struggling on the cold stone. His pale hands scrabbled against the floor, sometimes managing to shift his body an inch forward, but the darkness advanced far more quickly than he would ever be able to avoid in this severely injured state.

Buffy stepped toward him slightly, and he tried to look up into her face, though one of his eyes was swollen shut, and the other streamed with blood from a cut above the eyelid.

"I still love you," he whispered almost unintelligibly through swollen, bloodied lips ... and with an uncontrollable surge of rage she kicked him directly into the darkness, and he was gone.

Buffy jolted awake, glancing around confusedly as her sunglasses started to slide off of her face.

In my dream I thought of it as making love ...

Turning over and sitting up, she removed her sunglasses entirely and rubbed her face determinedly. I will not think of Spike. I will not have these dreams anymore. As her hands roamed her face, she was surprised to find that her eyes and cheeks were wet. I was crying while I slept? Not again. No way. Definitely not. Must be the sun. The sun hurting my eyes. That's why I need the sunglasses.

Buffy determinedly placed her sunglasses back upon the bridge of her nose and looked around, a bit more awake now. Xander and Willow were playing frisbee with Dawn near the water's edge. They'd wandered quite a ways away in their game, but on the nearly deserted beach there was little chance of losing sight of them.

"You were dreaming about Spike?" The soft voice jolted her out of her thoughts, and Buffy looked over at Tara with a panicked expression.

"What? No! What makes you ask that?"

Tara smiled gently and replied, "Buffy, you don't have to lie to me, remember? You said his name in your sleep, and you seemed to be having some sort of nightmare."

Buffy sighed and bit her lip, then glanced over at Tara with troubled eyes. "Do you ever wonder what might have happened if we'd actually tried to help Spike change, tried to help him put his evil behind him, instead of always telling him that it was impossible? Instead of shooting him down every chance we got, no matter how hard he tried?"

Tara leaned forward, "Buffy, you can't keep blaming yourself like this. It's been almost a year ... you really need to move on. You really need to forgive yourself."

"But, Tara, what if it's my fault he got the chip out and killed Faith? I'm pretty sure it is. I kept telling him he could never be anything but evil ... I guess he finally believed me." Buffy looked out at the ocean with a bleak expression. His eyes were bluer than that sometimes ... bluer than the ocean, bluer than the sky ... sometimes they were gray, but whenever he told me he loved me, his eyes were always so blue ...

Tara asked gently, "Have you been able to find out anything more about what happened?"

Buffy shook her head slightly, "No. He killed Faith. That's all they'll tell me. Not even whether he's alive or dead, captured or running around looking for another Slayer to go after ..." Buffy trailed off suddenly, then turned to Tara with a horrified look on her face, "Oh, god, Tara, what if he comes after Sachiko?"

"Sachiko can take care of herself. She's the Slayer, remember?"

Buffy nodded, "And he's killed three now." She took a deep breath, rubbing her hands over her face again, rubbing her eyes behind the sunglasses, "But you're right. Sachiko's got things under control. No need for me to be involved anymore at all. But ..."

"Are you worried about her, or worried about Spike?" Tara asked quietly.

Buffy glanced over at her with a sad expression, "I don't know. If Spike has turned evil again, I can't help thinking it's my fault."

"Spike made his own choices, Buffy. You didn't force him to do anything."

Buffy blushed brightly at some rather explicit memories of a few times when Spike had rather seemed to enjoy her forcing him to do things.

Tara coughed, then a slight smile tinged her lips. "You know what I mean."

Buffy's eyes widened at Tara's easy interpretation of her blush ... and apparently easy acceptance of what it probably signified. Maybe one of these days she'd have to ask Tara about the things Spike had said that last night ... if she could ever work up the nerve. I mean, how do you ask somebody their opinions about kinky sex? It's just not an easy conversation to start ...

For a moment, Buffy was lost in thought. Maybe this was the right moment to try to talk to Tara about this ... she always seemed so understanding, so accepting. Buffy didn't think Tara would judge her. But then a new song started on the radio, and Buffy jumped slightly, as if someone had pinched her ... My future's so bright, I gotta wear shades ...

God, this all seemed so familiar. Like she'd been here before. Like a dream ... like being back in junior high when everything had been so simple.

She smiled ruefully at Tara, "For so long, I've been wanting this ... wanting a simple life, with no soul-less demons, no hellgods, no vampire boyfriends ... everything just ... normal again, you know? A normal life. Like before I was the Slayer. It's ... weird ... to get what I've been wanting for so long."

Suddenly Buffy was screeching as drops of cold water sprayed her hot skin, heated from lying in the sun so long. Dawn was standing over her, laughing and shaking her wet hair like a dog. Before Buffy could even react, Dawn had sprinted away again to rejoin the frisbee game.

Buffy ruefully shook her head and admitted, "It's nice to see Dawn having so much fun again. She's had a rough time of it since ... well, since Spike left, I guess. She's been so quiet. She never really talked to me about that. Sometimes it seems like she hardly talks to me at all."

Tara smiled, "Your mom probably said the same thing about you when you were 16."

"You're right. I just miss how close we used to be. I hope that'll come back ... when she gets over this whole adolescence thing," Buffy smiled wryly.

"I'm sure it'll all be fine. And, like you said, she seems to be doing better today. I'm sure everything'll be back to normal soon," Tara watched the three friends running around at the edge of the surf.

Buffy nodded slowly, "Normal. Yeah." She watched her sister and friends romp in the distance, then lay down and gazed sightlessly up at the sky, stared right into the sun until she was seeing spots, even behind the protection of her sunglasses. "You ever get what you think you want, and then find out it isn't quite what you thought it would be?"

Tara was quiet, just listening.

"I mean ... it's great having Sachiko here, now I don't have to worry about averting anymore apocalypses or anything ... but ... sometimes ... I miss it. Sometimes," she seemed ashamed to say it, but somehow finished, "sometimes this all just feels kind of ... boring."

There was a long silence, and Tara began to wonder if Buffy had fallen asleep again. It was hard to tell when she was wearing the dark sunglasses.

In a quiet voice, Buffy ventured haltingly, "Sometimes I feel like this just isn't me anymore ... or it's only part of me. Like I'm trying to go back in time, to someone I used to be, and it just feels ... wrong. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to really feel whole again."

The silence stretched on for several minutes, and Tara realized that Buffy finally had fallen asleep again. Deep in thought, she watched over her friend sleeping restlessly in the sun.

Chapter Seven: Heroes and Villains

A blond girl in her early twenties stood silently in the archway, watching the vampire sleeping restlessly in his dark room lined with human skulls and femurs piled in intricate designs. She kept her flashlight aimed carefully at the floor, so that he would not be blinded when he awoke.

"Monsieur Spike?" she called hesitantly. It was never wise to wake Monsieur Spike too abruptly, as they had all learned rather quickly upon making his acquaintance.

Spike groggily turned toward the female voice in the dark and queried softly, "Buffy?"

"Non, Monsieur Spike. C'est moi. It is me ... Francoise. Remember?"

Spike woke abruptly, rolling to a sitting position and rubbing his hair impatiently. He'd thought the underground catacombs of Paris would be a perfect lair, but he hadn't counted on the recent groups of adventurous human youngsters who'd taken to prowling the abandoned corridors lined with their ancestors' bones. For them, it was a lark, a sort of macabre game. A few of them had been a bit surprised when they happened upon his little home sweet home.

And he hadn't been able to get rid of them since.

Francoise blinked at the amount of naked skin the vampire was displaying, but eyed him appreciatively even as she blushed. She politely turned her back, insisting, "You must dress, Monsieur Spike. Jean-Pierre is to meet us for patrol, oui? And he said he has a message for you from le Monsieur Anglais."

A message from Rupert? Probably just the usual update. Spike grabbed the nearest pair of jeans and t-shirt and threw them on carelessly, then hunted around for his boots. "So, what's the latest, pet? Have Claude and his pals been bad boys again?"

"Oui, while you were dispatching that demon who almost killed Celestine, there were three murders last night in the Quartier Latin. It was in the newspapers this morning, Monsieur Spike. I am sorry."

Spike was shaking his head disgustedly, "I knew I should've taken that bloody Claude down a month ago, but I didn't realize he'd start trying to build a gang. Bloody idiot. Okay, we take him down tonight. When Jean-Pierre arrives with the cell phone, have him ring up Frederic and Etienne. We'll want everyone for this little party. You feel up to a bit of the rough and tumble tonight, too, luv?"

Francoise nodded eagerly, "Oui, Monsieur Spike! I would like to practice the techniques you have taught to me."

Spike stood and donned his duster, nodding determinedly, "Well, you stay behind the lads, pet, since it'll be your first time in a larger battle ... but I've never been one to underestimate a lady." He smirked at her cockily, and Francoise practically melted at his feet.

Jean-Pierre appeared as if out of thin air, stepping out of the darkness with a confidence that bespoke his intimate knowledge of these tunnels. Wrapping an arm around Francoise's slim waist, the dark-haired boy asked, "Is he flirting with you, ma chere?" He eyed Spike with a mock-jealous expression.

Kissing her boyfriend fondly, Francoise replied with a giggle, "Toujours, mon amour, toujours!"

Spike began walking through the complexly intersecting corridors, heading toward the surface. Without comment, the two youngsters followed him. "Heard you've got a message for me, Jeanieboy?" Spike asked with no preamble.

"Oui, Monsieur Spike. Le Monsieur Anglais phoned this morning. He says that ... wait ... merdre! ... let me remember ... the blond madamoiselle is doing well in her work with the fashion designer and may get a promotion ... and ... merdre! The brunette ... eh bien ... oh, yes! The brunette has improved her marks in mathematics and hopes to attend a dance called the 'prom' with someone named Jared. But she has not yet been invited by the young monsieur in question. He said also to tell you that the 'others' are all doing well."

Spike smiled briefly, but chose not to show any more reaction than that before these two. "Merci, Jean-Pierre. It is, as always, very kind of you to take messages for me."

The dark-haired boy gestured toward the cell phone at his hip and shrugged negligently, "It is no trouble, Monsieur Spike. The phone is there already. And you know that I am always glad to help you."

"Well, now I need you to get on that phone and tell Frederic and Etienne to meet us in front of Notre Dame right quick. We've got an appointment with a group of lads in the Latin Quarter tonight. A sort of ... surprise party, you might say."

Jean-Pierre was already dialing by the time Spike had finished speaking. "Etienne? Oui, c'est moi. Monsieur Spike a besoin d'aide ce soir dans le Quartier Latin. Oui. Devant la Dame, comme toujours. A bientot."

After Claude and his boys had all been dealt with, the small group retired to Jean-Pierre's apartment, where the youngsters devoured Indian take-away, and Spike partook of the blood he kept stashed in Jean-Pierre's fridge. That was the only real problem with living underground in the catacombs ... no electricity. That meant no fridge and no telly. Until he'd met these kids, his life in Paris had been pretty dull. Not that he'd ever admit that.

These kids ... they treated him in a way he'd never experienced before. The only thing remotely close had been fledgelings ... but this was so different. He didn't think anyone would believe it if he told the story about how they'd all come to know each other, but here they were, sitting around Jean-Pierre's flat, telling battle stories and patching up each other's wounds over dinner. And anytime Spike spoke, they all stopped their chattering and listened as if he were some sort of prophet.

He'd tried to make them see reason, but they persisted in seeing him as some sort of mysterious dark hero: the vampire who lived alone in their beloved catacombs, coming above-ground only in the night, to fight demons who threatened the human population, saving innocent lives. He knew they speculated about his past, but the only things he'd told them were the older stories, about the good old days when he was the Big Bad. He knew they speculated about what happened in between ... what led from there to here ... but he never spoke about the more recent past.

They'd learned not to question too closely. He didn't take it well.

But, despite it all, he'd almost come to think of the bunch of them as friends. He'd never really had friends before. When he was human, he'd been almost a complete outcast. Darla and Angelus and Dru had never really been friends to him ... more companions in terror. Even in his love for Dru, she'd never been a friend ... he thought of friendship as something more than what she'd ever given back to him, despite all his love for her.

Jean-Pierre kept blood for him in his fridge, and Spike even had a key to his apartment. What sort of idiot human trusts a vampire with a key to his apartment?

Spike leaned back in the armchair where he was sprawled, his legs spread before him in post-fight contentment, and contemplated the young Frenchpeople around him. Some of them were college students, some had jobs. Kids, but on the edge of growing up, in that early-twenties range that held so much potential for change and growth.

It was strange, but they'd come to be almost like his own Scoobies. Who'd have ever predicted? Evil Undead Spike with his own bloody Scooby Gang! He'd seen Etienne tonight, when it looked like two of those vamps were getting the best of Spike ... the boy had come flying into the fray to save him. To save him. Spike.

Friendship. Trust. Respect. Admiration. It was a unique experience. The only thing that had ever truly compared was his relationship with Dawn ... and when he allowed himself to think about her, he knew that what they'd had together surpassed any friendship he'd ever have with these French kids.

He didn't allow himself to think of her often. It hurt too much. And led to thoughts of Buffy, which hurt even more. It was best to just stay focused on the present ... nasties in the Quartier Latin and whatnot. Celebrating a good kill. Maybe not the same methods of celebration as back in the olden days, but a familiar ritual nonetheless.

He liked these kids. And -- hard as he found it to understand or accept -- they seemed to like him, too.

Spike shook his head in bemusement, then found himself wondering what else they could do to celebrate tonight. They hadn't gone clubbing in a while, and he felt like dancing. It wouldn't be the same without the lively Celestine, but she was still in the hospital after a run-in with that ugly bugger Spike had killed last night. Still, the dancing would do them all good, especially him. Just as he was about to open his mouth to make the suggestion, Jean-Philippe's phone started buzzing.

"It is for you, Monsieur Spike. C'est le Monsieur Anglais." Jean-Philippe was clearly curious. It was unlike the Englishman to phone at such a late hour, or twice in one day. Very unusual.

Spike took the phone and held it to his ear. This couldn't be good news. "Rupert?"

"Spike," the clipped British accent sounded as stiff as always ... perhaps even a bit stiffer than Spike remembered it. "Spike ... something's happened to Dawn."

Chapter Eight: Wanting "Normal"

Dawn lay in bed the night after the Scoobies' trip to the beach, words still echoing in her head. She'd come running up from the frisbee game to ask for a soda out of the cooler, but overheard Buffy talking with Tara.

For so long, I've been wanting this ... wanting a simple life, with no soul-less demons, no hellgods, no vampire boyfriends ... everything just ... normal again, you know? A normal life. Like before I was the Slayer ...

"Normal," Dawn said out loud, staring at the ceiling of her bedroom. Where do I fit in if she wants a normal life? I'll never be normal ... even if she just closes her eyes and pretends that I am. Nobody seems to care anymore that I'm some sort of stupid Key. Just because Glory's gone and nobody seems to want to use me to open any more portals, they just forget that I'm not a normal person. Not a person at all. Just a blob of energy, stuck in a human body, with everybody else's memories rigged up to make them think I'm real.

She knew she wasn't going to be able to sleep tonight ... she just couldn't seem to stop thinking about all this. It had been bothering her more and more since Spike left, since she felt like she didn't really have anyone to talk to about it. Everyone had pretty much stopped researching the Key once Glory was gone, but Dawn still had so many questions. Like whether or not she had a soul. Buffy said Spike's love wasn't real because he didn't have a soul. What about my love? Is that real? If I don't have a soul, and Buffy finds out, will she stop loving me, too?

The next day after school, Dawn went by the Magic Box and found Anya putting price tags on some new merchandise which Dawn tried not to look at too closely. What she saw out of the corner of her eye was gross enough.

"We missed you at the beach yesterday. It was way fun," Dawn said as she dropped her backpack on the research table and sat down in one of the chairs.

Anya smiled and said, "Yes, well, Sundays are busy days for us ... I guess our clientele don't tend to be church-goers. And if I just closed down the shop, then where would all the money come from?"

"How's Little Xander?"

Anya patted her swollen belly happily and chirped, "Oh, he's just fine today. Not that I know yet ... whether it's a 'he', I mean. Xander wants it to be a surprise, so we won't know for 3 more months."

"Uh huh," Dawn responded. Anya had complained about this disagreement with Xander frequently, and she wanted to head her off before she got started. "Can I ask you something, Anya?"

"Sure." Plink. Plink. Plink. The sound of the price tag machine was sort of soothing, actually.

"You were a vengeance demon for like 1200 years or something, right?"

"Yup. And those were some days, lemme tell you!" She smiled fondly at the memories.

Dawn cut in quickly again, "So, when you were a vengeance demon, did you have a soul?"

Anya laughed lightly, "Of course not. What would a vengeance demon do with a soul?" She continued to chuckle quietly over her price-tagging.

"Well, when you would go into human form for a job, like when you were trying to get Cordelia to make a wish, would you get a soul temporarily?"

This time Anya laughed even louder, "Hoo, that's a good one! A temporary soul! Why in the world would I get a temporary soul while I was on the job? Really, I don't know where you come up with this stuff, Dawn!"

"So, when D'Hoffram ... or whatever his name was ... when your boss punished you by making you stay in your human form ... did he give you a soul?"

Anya stopped her price-tagging and looked over at Dawn, who looked a bit anxious, now that she stopped to notice.

"Of course not,"Anya answered, walking over to the table and sitting across from Dawn. "Now, what's all this about? Dawn, I don't mind telling you, you're behaving very strangely."

Dawn shook her head in confusion, "So if you don't have a soul, how can you love Xander?"

Anya rolled her eyes, "You don't need a soul to love someone. Duh! Now what's this all about?"

Dawn insisted, "But Buffy says you can't love without a soul."

Anya laughed again at that one, "Well, Buffy doesn't know everything, even if she has been to heaven. I mean, who're you going to trust on this? Someone who's been around for more than a thousand years, or Buffy?" Anya smiled smugly, as if the conclusion was obvious.

"But ... I don't understand."

"Yeah, well, that's probably because Buffy and the Council of Watchers -- and a lot of humans in this dimension, now that I think about it -- are far too worried about creating words and categories for their little card catalogs."

Card catalogs? Dawn wondered. Buffy has a card catalog?

"Heart, and soul, and body, and conscience, and personality, and emotions, and thoughts, and that stupid Freud with his id, ego, superego nonsense ... you know I got called in to perform a vengeance spell on him once ... did you know he was sleeping with his patients? So, anyway, I gave him this terrible case of ..."

Seeing the "Eww" expression on Dawn's face, Anya continued, "Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that these stupid people are trying to put everything into categories, divide it all up so they can make sense out of it, and they're just messing up the whole job." Anya shrugged, "Some things just can't be explained so easily ...

"You know, when I was a vengeance demon, I visited hundreds of different dimensions, and spirituality and form worked sort of different everywhere I went. I mean, in one dimension -- where there are only shrimp -- things were completely different than here ... they all shared one 'spirit' or whatever you want to call it ..."

Shrimp spirits? Dawn thought she might be getting lost again.

But Anya hadn't stopped talking. "But spirit, essence, whatever you want to call it -- however Buffy and her friends want to try to divide it up into arbitrary different concepts in order to say that some are better than others -- it's bigger than all that. They just can't even see it. They can't see how big it is, so they try to make it small. Try to say the important thing is this one little random chunk they've decided to call a soul." Anya rolled her eyes. "Whatever."

She seemed to have ended her rant against humans and Freud and language and this whole dimension and ... and ... shrimp ... so Dawn cautiously ventured, "The reason I'm asking is 'cause ... well ... I've been thinking about this whole thing about me being the Key. I know Glory isn't after me anymore, but ... I still want to know more about what I am ... the whole glowy green energy thing. I mean, it's kind of freaky, don't you think? I still have lots of questions."

Anya suddenly tapped her temple and then shook her head annoyedly, "I can't believe I didn't think of this before! I know a guy ... well, a demon ... who lived in Czechoslovakia for a while, and I remember him mentioning the monks and the Key and all that ... it was part of some dumb joke, never mind, you wouldn't think it was funny ... but I'll bet he might know something. You want me to give him a shout?"

Dawn nodded excitedly, only to hear footsteps from the back door of the shop. "Only if I'm there, too." Anya and Dawn both turned to see Buffy with her arms crossed in front of her chest.

Dawn stammered, "Um, Buffy! Hi! Um ... how long have you been there?"

"Long enough. You want to know more about being the Key, cool, we'll find out what we can. We'll talk to this demon guy. But I'm gonna be there, too. You aren't going into this alone." And with those words, Buffy walked to the table and took Dawn's hand in hers, then smiled. "Sisters, remember?"

Anya's friend, G'Vohrnke, looked a bit like somebody's grandpa, except for the thick, curling ram's horns extending from either side of his head. He seemed more than happy to reminisce about his years in Czechoslovakia -- and even tried more than once to start telling a joke involving the monks -- but Buffy and Dawn managed to keep him mostly on track. Once the introductions had been made, Anya had disappeared into the basement to find wares to restock the store's shelves.

"So ... so you're saying that I don't have a soul?" Dawn asked tremulously, casting an anxious glance at Buffy, who squeezed her hand reassuringly. They'd been talking for quite some time now, and the demon had been very patient with Dawn's questions.

G'Vohrnke laughed kindly and shook his head, "No, no, of course not! Why would you need a soul, dear? You ... the Key ... the Key is composed of the greater energy from which these things you call 'souls' are also made. It is a tremendously powerful force." He smiled benignly.

"What sort of force?" Dawn asked, almost in tears now. "A good force, or an evil force?"

The demon leaned across the table to pat her hand gently, "Oh, dear, the Key is a force which has the power to build bridges. Not only a bridge between dimensions, but a bridge between dark and light, between love and hate, and -- yes -- between good and evil. When these monks gave you human form, they named you 'Dawn,' yes? That was quite clever of them, don't you think? Dawn is the meeting place, the bridge between sunlight and shadow. Very appropriate."

Tears trailed silently down Dawn's face. "I just don't understand. Who am I? What am I?"

G'Vohrnke smiled understandingly. "Dear, only you can decide that. You are not good or evil simply by your existence. It is what you choose to do with that existence which will decide your fate." He patted her hand again, then stood slowly and bowed. "I think that I have answered as many of your questions as I am able, my dear."

Dawn and Buffy both stood as well, both offering dazed thanks for his time. It was quite late now, and they'd both heard a lot of things that needed thinking about.

G'Vohrnke turned gallantly to Dawn. "It has been a pleasure to see you again, dear, though I realize you do not remember our last meeting in the old country. May I kiss your hand in farewell?"

Dawn blushed and extended her hand, but at the touch of the demon's lips, she collapsed to the floor without a murmur, as if she'd fallen suddenly asleep.

Buffy's first thought upon regaining consciousness herself -- lying against one of the bookcases, her body nearly covered in ancient tomes -- was that old grandpa was a lot stronger than he looked.

Giles arrived two days later, bleary-eyed from researching during the entire 12-hour flight from London. He hadn't found anything useful in his books. Not yet, anyway. He didn't plan to stop looking until he did find something.

Dawn was still unconscious.

Willow and Tara were taking turns with Buffy, sitting by Dawn's bedside. From Buffy's description of what had happened, their best guess was that the demon had somehow tapped the energy of the Key ... as if Dawn were a cup filled with power, and he had taken a sip when he kissed her hand. He'd certainly been exceptionally strong when Buffy attacked him. And no one knew where he was now.

The house was eerily quiet, as if everyone was afraid to speak, as if there was nothing that could be said.

After talking with everyone, after sitting beside Dawn for a time and reassuring himself that she was otherwise healthy -- aside from her coma-like stillness -- Giles stepped onto the back porch and closed the kitchen door behind him.

Buffy saw him go, saw the grief in the set of his shoulders, and assumed that he needed a moment alone after the long flight and the sight of Dawn so helpless. After several minutes had passed, though, she became concerned, and opened the door to hear Giles saying softly, "The main hope now is that the energy of the Key self-regenerates with time ..."

And then she saw the person Giles was talking to.

No, not person. Vampire.


Chapter Nine: Time Heals All Wounds

"What are you doing here, Spike?" Buffy's voice was cold and hard, but Spike still closed his eyes for just a moment to hide its effect on him ... the sound of her voice after so long. It hurt him in so many places he couldn't even begin to explain, and yet it was so beautiful.

She took several steps forward toward where he and Giles stood in the shadows under the trees, and he heard Jean-Philippe and Etienne begin to come closer, tensing at the sight of the stake in her hand. He gestured subtly to the Frenchmen, signaling them to relax and keep their distance while keeping his eyes on Buffy.

Jesus, what to call her now? Slayer ... that would just be wrong, after what'd happened with Faith. He hoped nobody called her that anymore. Buffy ... too intimate now ... that one would get him staked for sure, and it just felt wrong ... presumptuous. All the other old nicknames, too flirtatious or insulting ... which had been the bloody point, once upon a time ...

Before Spike had a chance to say anything at all, Giles had stepped toward her, into the moonlit backyard. Buffy still stood on the bottom step leading down from the back porch. Her face was tight, her eyes unreadable, her mouth a thin line.

Giles spoke soothingly, "Buffy, Spike was only here to check on Dawn ..."

"Oh yeah? Taking a break from the little post-chip killing spree to stop by and say hello? Well, he's not welcome here." Her words were flat, almost emotionless, but anger throbbed beneath. He could hear it. Her right hand clutched the stake so hard that her knuckles shone white.

Spike stepped out of the shadows so that she could see him more clearly, and saw how her jaw clenched at his forward movement. Her every muscle was tensed in anticipation of attack.

Inclining his head slightly in deference, Spike replied quietly, "Didn't mean to disturb you. I know things are hard enough right now as it is. Hadn't meant you to even know I was here, an' I'm sorry you had to find out. You won't see me again, and I won't be causin' any trouble."

With that, Spike stepped back into the shadows and was gone, followed by subtle movements in the trees as Jean-Philippe and Etienne followed him in less stealthy style.

Buffy just watched Giles for a moment after Spike vanished, then said in a tight voice, "I need to go sit with Dawn. If you want to come up with me and explain why you were just standing in my backyard talking to the blood-sucking asshole who killed Faith, feel free." She turned around and walked back into the house without looking back.

Giles removed his glasses and polished them on his handkerchief for a bit longer than necessary before following her into the house.

Dawn still hadn't moved or shown any sign of consciousness. She just lay there, as if sleeping peacefully. They'd tried to wake her, but nothing had worked. Now they just waited and hoped.

When Giles entered the room, Buffy was sitting alone in the darkened room, holding her sister's limp hand and watching Dawn's face with pain-filled eyes. Giles took a seat in the room's other chair, at some slight remove from Buffy, and watched her for a moment before saying quietly, "He isn't what you think, Buffy."

Buffy shot a disbelieving glance at him. "Oh, so he didn't leave us here and head off to England just to murder Faith and bag his third Slayer? Geeze, I guess the Council is lying to me even more than usual."

Giles closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, striving for patience in the face of her sarcasm. He didn't know why he felt the need to speak softly, as if attempting to avoid waking Dawn, but the feeling was overwhelming. "I know very little about what happened with Faith ... he has never been willing to tell me anything about that. But I do know some things you don't. If you're willing to listen, I'll tell you what I do know."

Biting back the bitter rejection that immediately sprang to her lips, Buffy sighed with effort and replied, "All right. I'll listen."

Giles smiled quietly. She really had matured in this past year if she could do this. He knew just listening, just admitting that she was willing to listen, was difficult ... and he was proud of her.

"Well, about nine months ago, I began hearing strange reports about changes in the demon activity in Paris. I paid little attention at first, as the stories sounded like nothing more than urban legend. But as more and more tales continued to appear, and from some very reliable sources ... well ... I started investigating the situation as best I could remotely."

"Tales about what?" Buffy asked softly.

"Tales about a vampire who was fighting his own kind, dusting other vampires and killing demons who caused serious trouble. The first time I heard this Paris 'demon-hunter' described, I knew immediately to whom they were referring, though I could hardly believe it. But what other British vampire with pale blond hair did I know who had any history of killing other demons, let alone other vampires?"

Buffy was silent, listening with a confused wrinkle on her forehead as Giles continued.

"So, as I said, I began to investigate. Eventually, I discovered that a group of five young humans were informally working with Spike in Paris, patrolling much as he did with you here in Sunnydale. After a time, I was able to contact one of the young men. You may have seen him outside, further back in the trees. His name is Jean-Philippe."

Buffy nodded slightly, "There were two."

Giles nodded, "Yes, apparently one of the other members of the group also insisted upon accompanying Spike on this trip. They are concerned for him, apparently, and felt that he might need help here. It would appear that they know very little of his life in Sunnydale. From what Jean-Philippe says, he refuses to speak of it, except to include it as one of the places where he did the most evil. Unlike his other evil deeds, however, he apparently shows no willingness to expand in vivid and gory detail ... which only leaves his friends more curious, of course. No wonder two of them could not resist the urge to accompany him here, despite his refusals."

Friends, Buffy thought. Spike has friends?

"I've been in contact with Spike for some six months now, through telephone calls to Jean-Philippe," Giles admitted carefully. "We sometimes share information about demon activity, as London and Paris are so near to each other, and I have upon occasion aided him with research when such was needed."

Buffy stared at Giles, her lips slightly parted in astonished betrayal. "You ... you've been phone-buddies with Spike for six months and you never said anything, any of the times we talked to you?"

Giles explained gently, "Spike insisted. He said that he had made some very large mistakes before leaving Sunnydale, and had hurt you very much, and he did not want to cause you further distress. He insisted that I keep all knowledge of his whereabouts and actions completely secret, or he would cut off contact with me immediately. I felt that it was important to maintain contact with him, and so I complied." After a moment, Giles added quietly, "It would have been difficult if you had ever asked about him, Buffy, but you never did."

"Buffy?" A weak voice interrupted them from the bed. "Buffy?" Dawn's eyes blinked sleepily as Buffy burst into tears and grabbed her into a desperate hug, forgetting all about everything else.

Dawn had regained consciousness, but she remained extremely weak, barely able to open her eyes or speak.

It wasn't until she'd been conscious an entire day that she had regained enough strength to request to see Spike. She seemed almost desperate, her hands trembling, tears filling her eyes. "I need to see Spike. Please, Buffy?"

Willow and Tara were initially puzzled by the request, but Buffy simply asked Giles, "Can you get him here?" and Giles nodded.

Willow, Tara, and Giles entertained two unfamiliar Frenchmen in the livingroom of Buffy's house. It had been difficult to convince them that Spike would be safe upstairs, until finally Buffy had promised, "I won't stake him without yelling for you first, okay?" At Spike's insistence, this odd promise had seemed to be enough for them, and they had been willing to allow Spike to ascend the stairs alone with this blond woman they did not trust.

Buffy insisted on standing right outside the open door, stake in hand, but she did allow Spike alone in the bedroom with Dawn.

Spike's voice was husky with emotion as he sat down on the chair near the bed. "Hey, there, Nibblet."

Dawn weakly patted the coverlet, mutely asking him to come sit nearer to her. He sat on the edge of the bed and reached for one of her thin hands, holding it gently in both of his. "Heard you were askin' for me."

"Spike," she whispered. Talking was still difficult for her and tired her quickly, but she'd made it clear that this was important to her. "I don't have a soul."

Spike swallowed convulsively, not sure how to respond.

Dawn whispered again, "I'm not real. My love isn't real. I'm just like you. Please don't leave me again." He couldn't speak through his tears, but before he had even had a chance to clear his throat, Dawn closed her eyes as she said despondently, "Buffy won't love me without a soul."

Spike's vampire hearing picked up the gasp from outside the door, but he was having a hard enough time dealing with his own emotional reactions.

He leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on Dawn's forehead, "Nibblet, your sister loves you more than anything else on this planet, more than anything else in this universe, more than anything else that could ever exist. Don't you ever doubt that she loves you. Or that I love you, either ...

"Do you really think my love isn't real, Nibblet? If you think my love isn't real, then why did you call for me?"

Dawn shook her head slightly and gazed up at him trustingly, "No, I know you love me, no matter what. I believe that."

Spike nodded firmly, "Thas'right! 'Til the end of the world! And if my love is real, then so is yours! Don't you ever doubt that you're real, or that your love is real. You are the realest thing in my whole bleedin' world, Nibblet. You're the first real friend I ever had ... hell, maybe the only real friend I've ever had. I love you more than I love this black duster, and you know that's saying something!"

Dawn chuckled weakly. Spike smiled, "See ... thought I could get a grin with that one."

Spike watched her lying so quietly on the bed for a few minutes. It seemed that she'd said everything that was most pressing on her mind. Spike glanced around the room and smirked slightly. Turning to Dawn, he remarked, "So I hear they told your school you've got mono."

Dawn blushed, bringing some slight color to her pale cheeks, and whispered, "So embarrassing. The kissing disease. No one will want to talk to me when I go back."

Spike glanced innocently over toward the dresser and said casually, "Oh ... I don't know 'bout that. I saw a big thing o' pink flowers over there on the dresser with a card from some whelp named 'Jared' ... want me to read you the card?"

Dawn's eyes got big, and -- with an embarrassed giggle -- she nodded eagerly.

As Spike came out of the room, Buffy gestured to indicate that she wanted him to wait while she stepped in to talk to Dawn for a moment. He walked far enough from the doorway that he would not be able to overhear, and waited nervously. He really did not want to face Buffy, and had hoped that she would allow him to simply leave after talking with the Nibblet, so he could go back to watching discreetly from outside the house.

No such luck ...

She emerged from the room a few moments later, wiping tears from her eyes, then walked toward her bedroom, apparently expecting him to follow. She sat on the floor and leaned against the bed, but Spike hovered uncertainly in the doorway. "Come in," she said flatly. "It's private in here, and I've got some questions I'd like answered."

Oh fuck. Here we go. I wonder how many stakes there are in this room. Well, she did promise to call Jean-Philippe and Etienne first. Wonder how long it'll take them to run up here and see me turn to dust?

But externally, Spike calmly nodded and entered the room, closing the door when Buffy asked him to. He too sat on the floor, leaning against the wall, facing his old love.

"I want you to tell me about Faith," she said, her chin tilted at a stubborn angle.

Wonder how much I can lie without her noticing ...

"And I want the truth, Spike. This isn't a bedtime story for the kiddies. I want to know what really happened, and why."

Well, fuck. Knows me too well, she does. Aw, bloody hell. The truth, she says ...

Spike was silent so long that he could feel the tension from Buffy begin to build. He needed to speak soon, but ... he just wasn't sure how to explain so that she would understand.

Who'm I kidding. She isn't gonna understand no matter how I tell it, so may as well just get this over with ...

A defensive note in his voice, Spike began, "Figured you'd had enough of battlin' the beasties. Enough of the nightlife, if you know what I mean. Figured after a couple a deaths and resurrections you deserved a bit of an early retirement. But this whole sacred duty thing, it was standin' in your way.

"Weren't even fair, either, what with the other Slayer already bein' called and all. But those Council wankers were just gonna keep her locked up forever, until maybe you got killed for permanent, then maybe they'd kill her themselves in order to get themselves another Chosen Chippie. But for now, they were happy to let you just keep doin' her job forever, as long as folk could keep nabbin' you outta your grave every time your bleedin' 'duty' got you killed.

"So, I went and looked up this Faith bird. We had us a long talk, we did, and she weren't so bad. Think we might a gotten along real well, if we'd a gotten the chance. But ... me ... I weren't there to make friends, ya know. I was there to do th'only thing I'm good at, killing. I figured if I weren't gonna be good for anything more'n that, at least I could try to do some good with it ... try to help you somehow, even if you'd hate me for it.

"So ... yeah, I killed her ... but she let me ... she was willing, 'cause I told her about the early retirement deal. She told me to tell you, if I got outta there, she told me to tell you, 'It's five by five,' whatever the fuck that means. But I'll tell you another thing she said which she didn't tell me to pass along. She said that you were her friend, and that she loved you, even though she didn't think you'd believe her if she told you so, since she'd pulled so much bad shit. She meant it, too. This Faith girl, she really loved you, no matter what sorta mistakes she mighta made. Maybe someday you'll be able to forgive her. I think, wherever she is, that'd probably mean a lot to her."

Buffy was silent for a long time, but Spike couldn't bring himself to look at her. He knew what he would see ... the disgust, the hatred, the blame. He'd killed her friend. His reasons didn't matter. He was a killer ... he was evil ... he was the very darkness from which he'd attempted to save her.

He just wanted to go back to Paris. His friends there -- yeah, he'd started thinking of them as 'friends' -- saw something else in him, something good. And he'd started believing in it. But here it just seemed impossible, just as Buffy had always told him it was.

Eventually, Buffy asked in a husky voice, "What about the chip? How'd you get it out?"


She shook her head in confusion, "But ... then how did you kill Faith?"

"Hurt worse than anything else I've ever felt, or ever want to feel again. Like my bleedin' head was filled with knives and they were all twistin' at once while firecrackers were goin' off at the same time. Hurt worse than dyin'. But I just kept thinking of you, laughin' in the sun, and I took it as well as I could. Was unconscious for a while after ... don't know how long. If those bloody wankers hadn't relied on drugs instead of any sort of security system, I never would've made it outta that place. I'd left a trail a mile wide.

"On the way out, I took Faith with me, layed her out on the grass under the stars. Thought she'd like that better than stayin' locked up in that room. I hated to leave her alone there -- she didn't wanna be alone, ya know -- but I had to go. Figured if I'd had the luck to get outta there, then it was fate and I'd better get movin'. So I did."

Buffy asked quietly, "What did you do after that?"

He shrugged negligently, "Went to Paris ... always liked it there ... real pretty at night, ya know? Stirred up some trouble, had some good times."

He glanced over at her nervously, only to find her staring at him with wide, confused eyes. Why was she looking at him like that? Her lips were soft now, parted slightly, and she looked almost like ...

No. Not possible. And I'm not settin' myself up for that again. I've got a good deal goin' in Paris. I'll be heading back soon's the Nibblet's on her feet.

All the same, he found himself trapped by her gaze, unable to look away. They sat there in silence for a long time, just looking into each other's eyes.

Then, so slowly -- Is it my imagination?Oh my god! -- ever so slowly, Buffy was leaning forward, her eyes still on his, her lips still slightly parted, leaning toward him, leaning closer ... her scent overcame him and he closed his eyes ... she was so close he could almost feel her heart beating like she was going to panic any moment ... but she wasn't the only one ...

No! Not again!

He was on his feet and out the door and down the stairs before he could let himself even reconsider, let himself even register the disappointed surprise in those green eyes he'd been dreaming about for a year.

He didn't know if she would've really done it. She'd looked about ready to bolt, herself. But he knew he couldn't go back to the way she'd made him feel. He'd found a place -- for the first time in his life -- where people didn't treat him like that, where people treated him like he was worth something ... and he could never go back.

Chapter Ten: Dreams and Opportunities

Buffy was dreaming. It felt like a memory, a memory of making love with Spike here in her own bed, in her own home. He was holding her in his arms, his muscles rippling under her fingers as he thrust gently and slowly inside of her. His eyes were blue, so blue she thought she'd never seen anything so blue before, and he had that look on his face, that look that said she was the center of his universe, that she was a miracle, that she was precious, that she was amazing and important and beautiful and cherished and real and alive and loved.

He kept gazing directly into her eyes with that look on his face, that look in his blue eyes, and then she could see by his expression that it was too much, too painful, what her own eyes were saying in response, and he closed his eyes and turned his head slightly away, trying to forget her blank face looking back at him. She moved her body against him, stroked his smooth skin with her hands, and moaned softly as she raised her head to press her lips against his with the lightest of touches.

"I love you," she whispered, her lips hovering almost against his, so that he could feel the movement of her breath, feel the reality of her words against his mouth.

He opened his eyes and looked directly into her face. "You can't love," he hissed. And then suddenly, they were no longer in the bed. They were standing in the moonlit backyard, and Giles was there, looking disappointedly into Buffy's face and telling her, "It is you who has no soul, Buffy. There is nothing good or clean in you. You are dead inside. You can't feel anything real."

Spike stood, bathed in moonlight, so beautiful she wanted to cry, wanted to take him in her arms and tell him it wasn't true ... that she did love him, that her love was real. But then he spoke, so quietly -- so sadly -- the words barely disturbed the night, "You made me a thing, Buffy. An evil, disgusting thing. It is all you will ever let me be." Tears slowly trailed down his cheeks, glistening silver in the moonlight. Dawn stood by his side, strong and tall and holding his hand, and she reached up to touch his tears gently and gazed quietly into those blue, blue eyes.

And then she turned to look at Buffy, and her eyes looked just like Spike's eyes, so loving and sad, so blue and clear and beautiful in the moonlight, and she just watched Buffy expectantly, watched her for so long it almost hurt, watched her with those clear beautiful blue, blue eyes ... and then ... after what seemed like an eternity, Dawn spoke, and her voice filled the clearing as if with sweet music, and she said, "Love. Give. Forgive."

And then, holding Buffy's eyes with her own, gazing at her with those amazing blue eyes, Dawn smiled.

Spike sat on the backsteps of the Summers residence, just watching the stars and getting lost in his thoughts. Sometimes he snuck over here in the night, because it helped to be closer to Dawn, helped him to think straighter, feel calmer. He'd been sitting there for about an hour -- thinking about Dawn and the demon who'd done this to her and what he could do about it -- when he heard quiet footsteps behind him. Damn! He'd done an excellent job of avoiding Buffy for the past few days -- only running into her when other people were around -- but now he was caught. He stood and turned, not meeting her eyes.

"Spike," her voice was hesitant, but she didn't seem surprised or upset to see him. "Please ... don't leave. I ... please just ... listen to what I have to say?" A quick glance at her eyes showed them pleading with him.

He was weak. He silently sat back down, looking out at the moonlit backyard lined by shadowy trees. Buffy padded to his side, wearing a pair of ridiculous pyjamas and fuzzy pink slippers, and sat down only inches away from his hip. Spike could feel every muscle in his body react to her nearness ... he could smell her shampoo and her toothpaste and the warm scent of her skin after sleep and the memories were tearing him apart. He clenched his jaw and stared unseeingly out into the night. Waiting for her to speak.

Buffy looked down at her toes and said quietly, "I've been having these dreams, pretty much since you left ... dreams about you ... well ... nightmares, mostly ..."

He turned his head away. Nightmares about me. Great. Let's chat about them, shall we? Christ, why is she doing this to me? She had turned to look at him ... he could feel her gaze but refused to return it. There was some strange tension in her which he couldn't identify. Well at least she isn't holding a stake this time.

"Spike," she continued quietly, not wanting to wake anyone inside, "Spike, they were nightmares because there was this monster in them ... this horrible monster ... but it wasn't you ... it was me ..."

What the bloody hell is she talking about?

"God ... I don't know how to explain this. That ... that last night, when I came to talk to you in your crypt ... I've thought about that night so many times ... every night, when I wake up from these dreams ... I lie there, and I think about the things I've done ...

"Spike, that night ... I told you that you were wrong ... but the fact is that ... that ... Spike, I was wrong first. The only reason you ever had to try to pull me into the shadows was because I kept telling you that you belonged there. I -- well, all of us, really, but this is my damned apology -- I ignored or mocked every single good thing you ever did, and harped on your every mistake, kept throwing the past in your face ..."

He hazarded a glance at her now, uncertain whether this was really happening or he was just imagining the whole thing. These were the last words he would ever have expected to hear coming out of Buffy's mouth. She wasn't looking at him now. She was staring down at the toes of her slippers, her hands clutched together around her knees, her shoulders hunched in misery, tears glistening silver on her face and dripping down like rain from her cheeks to her flannel-clad thighs.

God, she's still so beautiful ... after all this time, it still feels the same ...

She bit her lip, then continued. Spike was frozen with disbelief and confusion, staring at her as if she were an apparition. Another of his dreams.

"Spike ... it was ... it was so wrong of me to use you the way I did, before. And ... I was using you. Lying to myself, and pretending that your feelings didn't matter ... that you couldn't really love, or hurt, or feel anything, and therefore what I was doing was okay."

She turned to look at him now, her eyes wide and bright with tears. "It wasn't okay. It wasn't even a little bit okay, Spike."

She looked down at the ground again, saying softly, "I knew that you loved me, and I just used you, and I told you that you were nothing but evil, that you belonged in the dark, that there was nothing good in you, that you couldn't even feel anything real, that you would never belong with us, that ..."

Buffy was sobbing now, her face in her hands. Spike couldn't seem to do anything but sit there and watch her. The world seemed to have turned upside-down in a few minutes' time and he had no idea what to do about it.

Bringing herself back under control, Buffy wiped her cheeks and eyes on the sleeve of her pyjama top, sniffling with embarrassment. "Um ... I need to go blow my nose. It's really pretty desperate." He could tell she was blushing and facing away from him. "Promise you'll still be here when I get back?"

Spike nodded dazedly, and she must have seen it out of the corner of her eye, because she ducked into the house behind him. He just sat staring at the backyard, the grass silver-green and sparkling under the half-full moon.

Is this the same yard I was looking at half an hour ago? Where the bloody hell am I? Because this isn't the world I'm familiar with ...

And then she was back, sitting beside him again, seeming a bit more composed. He glanced at her and saw that her face was blotchy, her eyes puffy and red, but God she still looks so beautiful to me ... why couldn't she have turned ugly or something? Is that too much to ask?

"Spike," she began calmly, her voice under better control now, "I treated you horribly before. I denied everything in you that was good and true and real and beautiful ... and I told you that you were evil and dark and ugly, that you could never be anything else. You tried to be helpful, tried to prove that you could do good, that you could control the impulses from your demon and use your strength to help us, that you could be one of the 'good guys' ... but you never had a chance in hell, Spike ... no pun intended ...

"You never had a chance because I wouldn't give it to you. Instead of trying to help you fight to be good, instead of helping to pull you further into the light ... I pushed you down, punched you down, kicked you down, pushed you further into the shadows, further into the darkness with every chance I got. Because I was afraid of you, afraid of what you made me feel, afraid of how believing in you would complicate my world ...

"Spike, I know that you ... you've found a place where ... where people believe in you ... people stronger than I was ... but I just wanted you to know that ... that I do see the good in you, Spike. I do. I know it's a little late ... but ... I just thought ... I just wanted you to know that. And ... that I'm sorry. With my whole heart, I'm sorry, Spike, for what I did to you ...

"And ... I ... I know I don't deserve it ... I don't know if it's even possible after everything I've done ... but I hope that someday you can find some way to forgive me."

She stood up and walked to the back door, then glanced back at Spike, still sitting on the steps. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive myself."

And then she was gone, back into the house, leaving Spike sitting on the back steps with his head in his hands, feeling as if his entire world had suddenly tilted on its axis, as if everything he'd ever known to be absolutely true was suddenly in question.

He felt the tears on his face before he'd even realized he was crying, and he just sat there, fingers clutched in his hair, head lowered almost between his knees.

What the fuck am I supposed to do now?

Chapter Eleven: All That's Best of Dark and Bright

When Dawn had been conscious -- though sleeping frequently -- for a full week, she insisted that she felt strong enough for them all to hold a Scooby meeting in her room. She was still extremely weak and recovering slowly, but she didn't want to feel left out, and everyone was feeling the need to confer.

From her position in the bed, propped up on some pillows, Dawn could see it was a rather motley crew that gathered to sit in the tiny room crowded with chairs from all over the house. Spike sat beside her, on the edge of the bed, with the two quiet French guys standing nearby, like they were afraid someone was going to attack Spike any second.

Xander and Anya sat on the opposite side of the room. Anya's clearly visible pregnancy and frequent outbursts about the fact that G'Vohrnke had never done anything like this ever before added a rather surreal touch to the proceedings, while the seething animosity in Xander's every glance toward Spike made everything just that much more nerve-wracking.

Tara and Willow seemed by far the calmest people in the room, sitting very close together in two chairs to the left of Dawn's bed and holding hands, while Giles -- beside them -- seemed deep in thought to the extent almost of catatonia.

Buffy, on the other hand, could not seem to hold still, prowling the room like a nervous cat, weaving in and out between the chairs ... sometimes going out the door and coming back in, for no apparent reason. When she finally noticed that everyone was present, she stopped pacing to stand near the window and look around the room for a moment. Her eyes rested on Spike only for the briefest of moments, but Dawn wondered what was going on there. Spike's eyes stayed on Dawn, her hand in his.

"Okay," Buffy began with a deep breath. "Okay, we're all here. The way I see it, we've got two immediate issues: learning more about the Key's energy, and kicking G'Vohrnke's ass. Seems best to divide into task teams ..."

Buffy glanced at Giles hesitantly, as if asking if he preferred to take over leadership of the meeting, but he simply bowed his head to indicate she should continue.

"So, the obvious people for Key research are Giles, Willow, and Tara. I know you guys have already been working on this, and I guess we just need to keep looking to see if we can find anything about the Key's energy being tapped before ... or how it regenerates ... or how we can help it regenerate faster ... or something," she finished helplessly, glancing at Dawn. "In the meantime, my boss has given me family leave, so I can be here with Dawn as much as possible. She's gaining strength, but it's slow. Do you want to add anything, Dawnie?"

Dawn shook her head, smiling silently. Spike squeezed her hand gently.

Buffy nodded and continued, "So, the second issue is the demon that did this to her. The way I see it, Anya knows the most about this guy, so she and Xander should be our information source. While the others are researching Key stuff, you guys research this demon and tell us everything you can ... we never know what might help us." Xander and Anya both nodded, Anya looking exceedingly guilty and eager to please.

"I know Spike, Jean-Pierre, and Etienne have already been doing some patrolling, some asking around ... I think it's time to go to the demon bars, ask if anybody's seen this guy ..."

Spike interrupted quietly without looking at Buffy, "V'already started doin' that, but we'll keep up with it and tell you what we hear."

Buffy nodded awkwardly before continuing, "I want to stay with Dawn as much as possible, of course, but I also want to be involved in the kicking of this horny grandpa's wrinkled butt. Spike, you can't go out very easily during the day, so perhaps you could stay with Dawn during daylight, and I can work with Jean-Pierre and Etienne until sunset? We could probably get more done that way."

She glanced uncertainly at the two Frenchmen, then at Spike. Spike nodded silently. The two dark-haired strangers seemed uncomfortable, but nodded.

Buffy shifted from one foot to the other, pushing a piece of hair behind her ear. "I've got one other issue to raise, actually. On a sort of different topic. I've got a favor to ask of Giles."

Giles looked up suddenly, confused. "Of course, Buffy. What is it?"

"Once Dawn is better ... could you talk to the Council for me? I think ... I think Sunnydale doesn't need its own resident Slayer anymore. I can't imagine Slayers usually just hang around in one place ... I figure they usually wander around to where the bad stuff's happening ... sort of like on 'Kung Fu' and 'Murder She Wrote'. And, well, the hellmouth has been pretty quiet these past couple years, so there's probably worse places where she's needed."

Universally confused faces greeted this short speech.

Buffy sighed. "Look ... I've tried doing the 'normal girl' thing. It's just not me. Not all of me, anyway. It's not enough. I'm happy to call Sachiko in for the really big nasties and hellgods and prophecies and apocalypses and all that ... but ... for just day-to-day vamps and stuff ... I think the local Neighborhood Watch -- also known as yours truly -- can handle it."

They still looked a little blank. "Okay, okay ... this normal life thing is BORING, alright? Apparently, part of getting chosen is developing this ... urge to fight. I like to fight. I need to fight. And unless you want me to start pounding on you guys, I think it's time for me to start doing some patrolling again."

Dawn asked hesitantly, "You'll keep your regular job, though, right? No more burger smell? No more Depresso-Buffy?"

Buffy nodded firmly, "Regular job. Really cool regular job, in fact. It'll be just like when I was in high school ... regular girl by day, kick-ass demon killer by night. Though I think my boss will be way more understanding than Principal Snyder ever was. And like I said, we call in the Slayer for the heavy stuff ... not my responsibility anymore."

She glanced subtly at Spike, but he showed no reaction to anything she was saying.

"And I'm not asking any of you to sign up to help again. I know you've all got your own things going on now, and I don't want to get in the way of that. But ... I need this. It's just part of who I am, and I can't just make it go away by pretending that I'm normal."

Dawn smiled weakly, "I guess we're not a very normal family."

Buffy smiled back at her sister and walked to the side of the bed not occupied by Spike to give her a hug. "To heck with normal," Buffy averred. "Let's go with honest, instead, okay?" Dawn nodded gladly.

Chuckling, Buffy pointed out, "I've got a father figure who's a former Slayer-Watcher and former bad-boy occultist Ripper ... a best friend who's still struggling with addiction to black magic, very successfully, I might add ... another close friend who's a powerful white-magic witch ... another best friend who's married to an ex-demon who's expecting their first child ... and ..." she glanced wordlessly at Spike.

Xander took this opportunity to pipe up, "Now we get to my question. What's Evil Undead doing here, with his little French minions? I mean, no offense, Buffy, but have you completely forgotten that he killed Faith? Have you forgotten that he tried to kill you, and us, repeatedly?"

Dawn had felt Spike tense slightly as soon as Xander had begun to speak, but he seemed amazingly calm. Not like the old Spike at all. Jean-Pierre and Etienne, however, looked ready to strangle Xander if given permission to do so.

In her focus on Spike and his friends, Dawn had not noticed the change in Buffy at Xander's words. But now she saw her sister stride across the room to stand immediately in front of her friend and stare directly into his eyes, both fists clenched.

Buffy spoke very quietly and intently. "What happened between Spike and Faith is none of your business, Xander. You have no idea what you're talking about. If you ever bring it up again, you're no longer my friend ... and I mean that. It's a closed topic. And when's the last time Spike tried to kill you, or me, or any of us? And how many times has he saved or helped all of us since then?"

Xander's eyes were wide with shock. But Buffy wasn't done. "Spike is here because he loves Dawn and wants to help her. Even though he knew that we wouldn't welcome him ... knew we might even kill him ... he came for her, risking his own life, because someone he loved needed him. If you can't respect that, Xander, then I don't know what sort of person you are, but it's less than I thought you were."

With that, Buffy turned and stormed out of the room, leaving a stunned silence in her wake.

Buffy had closed herself in her bedroom after stomping out of the Scooby meeting, but she'd calmed down considerably by the time she heard a soft knock at her door.

"Buffy? It's me ... Willow," came the hesitant call from the other side of the door.

"Come on in, Will," Buffy called. Willow entered the room to find her friend sitting forlornly on the bed, hugging Mr. Gordo to her chest.

"Pretty much everybody's gone,"Willow explained. "Dawn's sleeping soundly, and Giles is sitting with her while he researches. Tara and I thought ... well ... after the Scooby meeting ... what with all the angst and the tension and all ... we thought maybe it would be good to let off some steam, just us girls. You know, head over to the Bronze, sort of for old time's sake ... shake our booties and forget our troubles?" She smiled tentatively.

"Forgetting troubles ..." Buffy mused quietly. "That sounds nice."

Willow wiggled her eyebrows suggestively, "Well, then, adorn yourself in Bronze-wear, Buff, and you'll have every guy in the place begging you to let them help you forget your troubles!"

"Willow!" Buffy exclaimed, scandalized, then laughed. It was nice to laugh again. This was a great idea.

This was a terrible idea.

She'd had no idea that he was going to be here, but there he was with Jean-Philippe and Etienne, dancing in the crowd and surrounded by a swarm of writhing women.

God, he's a good dancer.

Buffy couldn't take her eyes off him as he swayed seductively to the music, his muscles moving visibly beneath his snug t-shirt, his hips gyrating slowly, the way they did when he was thrusting into her ...

No! Not going to think about that!

But apparently it was too late, because he'd caught her heated eyes perusing him, and he was walking toward her.

I haven't even had time to have a drink first! Can't I just get drunk first? Just a little bit?

"Care to dance, pet?" He held out a hand to her, the first time he'd willingly offered to touch her since she'd seen him again for the first time a week ago. The hand shook slightly, as if he were nervous, and that was what decided her. She placed her hand in his and followed him to the dance floor. She didn't even notice Tara and Willow's exchange of slightly-less-than-surprised glances behind her as she left.

The music was slow, with a throbbing baseline like a heartbeat, and Spike pulled her close to him, her head against his shoulder, and they were moving together as easily as ever they had, their bodies instinctively seeking each other's swells and hollows. Their hips moved together in a rolling rhythm as ancient as the ocean ... they rocked together as if they were one creature dancing a complex dance of intertwined limbs and bodies.

God ... it's been so long ... but it feels just the same ...

His fingers spread wide on both her shoulder blades, pressing her closer to him, and she saw his eyes close, those dark eyelashes against the paleness of his skin, that forgotten intimacy of seeing him from so near, seeing pleasure expressed so openly on his face. She wanted to kiss those eyelashes, couldn't resist, couldn't stop to think, leaned closer to him, on tiptoe, and brushed her lips softly against one of his eyes. He jerked away from her in response and she bit her lip in embarrassment. It had all felt so right a moment ago, and now it was ... suddenly awkward again. Suddenly wrong.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I just ..."

Spike smiled with obvious effort and reassured her, "S'okay, pet. I just ... wasn't expectin' it. Caught me off guard. Wasn't expectin' to see you here at all, in point of fact. The lads an' I come here most every night for a bit ... habit we picked up in Paris together. Often went clubbing after patrol." He was rambling. Did that mean he was nervous? That and the trembling hand earlier seemed to indicate she wasn't the only one being affected by this whole exchange.

The thought was almost comforting, but not quite. Maybe alarming, in fact. Or ... exciting?

They were still in the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by other couples moving to the music. Buffy looked up into Spike's eyes.

God, those blue eyes. Those blue, blue eyes ...

She couldn't look away. He seemed to be having the same problem. And then ... slowly ... his head lowered ... his lips parted ... Buffy's heart was racing so fast she thought she might die from it ... his eyes closed, those blue blue eyes she loved so much ... and then her own eyes closed as if of their own volition, and then she felt his lips on hers and it was like she was losing her mind.

Nothing mattered but his lips, his lips moving hungrily on hers, his tongue exploring the interior of her mouth, the little sounds he made in the back of his throat ... or was that her making those sounds? or was it both of them? God, she didn't want this to ever end. It was the most amazing thing she'd ever felt. Instinctively, her body pressed closer to his, her arms clutching him closer to her, fingers threading through his hair, and she felt his arousal press against her stomach and she wanted only to get closer, moved her hips against his and heard him groan.

Buffy opened her eyes with effort and pulled away only slightly, just enough so that she could look up into his face, to see his eyes flutter open as well, dark blue with desire. Buffy just watched his eyes for a long moment, then took a breath and said softly, "I ... I know you have ... a new life in Paris ... and you seem ... happy ... there ... but ... Spike ... I have to tell you ... Spike ..." She took another breath nervously and said very quietly, "Spike, I love you."

He pulled further away at her words, his hands leaving her back. She closed her eyes painfully at his rejection, knowing that it was far too late, but she'd owed him this much ... owed him this honesty. She whispered, "I ... I just thought you should know. I do love you. And if I loved you less ... if I didn't care so much ... about knowing that you'll be happy ... if I didn't love you so much, Spike, I'd beg you to stay."

And with that, she could not control the tears anymore, and she began to turn to go, but Spike's hands on her arms held her still. "You love me?" he demanded, disbelievingly. She could only nod blindly, and then he was releasing her, and she ran to Tara and Willow and asked to leave. Seeing the tears on her face, they immediately agreed, shooting confused glances in Spike's direction.

Spike had been lying flat on his back in the Summers' moonlit backyard for about an hour -- just staring up at the stars and trying not to think about that kiss with Buffy at the Bronze, trying not to think about her words afterward, trying not to think about her, trying to think about anything but her, and being rather spectacularly unsuccessful -- when he heard footsteps approaching on the grass.

"Bonsoir, Monsieur Spike," said Jean-Philippe, seating himself cross-legged on the ground beside his prone mentor and hero.

Spike nodded in greeting, but kept his hands linked behind his head, his body flat on the ground. He didn't say anything. Jean-Philippe eyed him for several moments.

"So," Jean-Philippe offered. "Etienne and I must return to Paris soon."

Spike nodded slightly, "I know."

"I assume you will not be accompanying us, Monsieur Spike?"

Spike sighed, "Well, if Dawn is still ill ... if we haven't found that bloody demon ... I don't know, Jean-Philippe. I feel like I need to finish what I came here to do."

Jean-Philippe smiled slightly, "Ah, yes, with that I agree. In that case, I assume that you will be staying ... permanently?"

Spike glanced at Jean-Philippe, who was still smiling, but with a sad expression in his dark eyes. Spike shook his head, "Of course not. I'm back in Paris as soon as business is done here."

"But the blond madamoiselle ... how can you leave her when you love her so much?"

Spike growled, "Never said I soddin' love her."

"You did not need to, Monsieur Spike. I saw the sadness in you in Paris, as if a piece was missing, a piece of your heart. And here ... I see that piece restored ... your heart is whole. How can you leave that?"

Spike shook his head slightly against the grass, "She doesn't really love me, Jean-Philippe. She just thinks she does. Some bloody fantasy with me as the hero ... she can't deal with the reality of who and what I am."

Jean-Philippe frowned in confusion, "Who are you to decide whether her love is real or not? Excuse me for speaking so plainly, Monsieur Spike, but if the madamoiselle has told you that she loves you, is it not disrespectful to doubt her word?"

Spike blinked, taken aback for a moment, then insisted, "I'm needed in Paris. You lot'll get yourselves killed within a week without me there."

Smiling slightly, Jean-Philippe assured his mentor, "You taught us better than that, Monsieur Spike. I do not think we would enter a situation we could not handle. Do not forget that we have had several months of excellent training. And also the continued guidance of le Monsieur Anglais."

After a moment, Jean-Philippe added, "You must know that you would be welcome in my home at any time, for any reason. No need even to phone. Keep the key to my apartment, and I will always be happy to find you there. Perhaps you will bring the madamoiselle for a visit ... I think she would like Paris. And Francoise would love to show her where to buy the most stylish fashions."

Spike growled, "Planning my whole future for me, Jeanieboy?"

"Someone must do so." Jean-Philippe smiled and stood up slowly. "I shall see you tomorrow, Monsieur Spike. Please, do not fall asleep on the grass. I would hate for you to greet the morning thus."

Spike rolled his eyes, "I have got some bloody sense."

He wasn't certain, but he thought he might have heard the words "That remains to be seen" murmured as Jean-Philippe walked away into the shadows of the trees.

Of course, Spike did fall asleep on the grass, so when he heard footsteps again, he grumbled sleepily, "Alright, alright, you bloody French wanker, I'll come home to bed t'avoid mussin' up the lady's nice lawn with my dusty remains."

"Why, thank you, Spike, for thinking of our gardening needs. And if you wanted to come home to bed, you only needed to ask ... though I must admit that 'bloody French wanker' is not the most persuasive endearment I've ever heard you use."

Spike shot up into a sitting position to see Buffy standing beside him in the moonlight. She smiled awkwardly, "Don't worry, Spike. I'm not here to threaten your virtue ... I was just teasing. I just got a bit worried when I saw you sleeping out here ... wanted to make sure you didn't greet the sun in the morning." She was putting a good face on it, but he could see she was uncomfortable, embarrassed, and insecure.

God, it's irresistible ...

He couldn't control himself. Before he knew what had happened, he'd pulled her down onto the grass with him and he was lying on top of her. She was panting lightly and her eyes were wide. She nervously licked her lips, and Spike groaned, leaning in to kiss her until they were both breathless.

"Do you really love me?" He asked.

She looked directly into his eyes and said quietly, "I really love you, Spike."

"I'm not all good an' heroic, you know ... no matter what that Watcher of yours might have said."

Buffy smiled slightly, with hints of apology still in her eyes, "Neither am I."

"There's still plenty o' darkness lurkin' around ..." He looked uncertain.

Buffy placed a hand on either side of Spike's face and told him clearly, "Spike, there's dark and light inside of both of us ... and I know I need it that way. I can't live only in shadow, but I can't live only in the sun, either ... I need both ... they balance each other ... we balance each other.

"Spike, I love all of you, because I love the way you want to be strong and do what's right, even when it's difficult. I love that attitude you put on, that cocky smirk, that swagger, that devilish look in your eye. I love fighting with you, and making love with you, and just holding your hand. I love you, Spike."

"Y'didn't mention my fantastic skill in the sack, luv ..."

Buffy laughed and poked him, but he pulled her down into a long kiss before pulling away slightly to comment, "You said 'making love' ... not 'having sex'."

Buffy nodded, then added unsurely, "If you still love me ... then ... that's what it would be ... right?"

Spike groaned and clutched her to him tightly, so tightly that if she'd been a normal human he would surely have broken several of her bones. He murmured urgently against her hair, "God, Buffy, I've never stopped loving you ... not for a single second." And then they were kissing again, hard and fast, then softer and slower until Buffy pulled away slightly again.

"Spike, do you think it's kinky to have sex outside?"

Raising his eyebrows, Spike answered, "I s'ppose many might think so, luv. Why do you ask?"

"Well, I was thinking I might be interested in testing out that theory you had about ... doing things ... you know, different things ... with someone you love ..."

"We're gonna have to work on your dirty talk, luv ... but I'm more than willin' to help." And then he shut her up in the best possible way, leaving the lessons for another time.

This time, he only needed to hear her say "I love you" -- words he'd never thought he'd hear from her lips -- over and over again as they christened the backyard lawn.

The gray horizon heralding impending sunrise saw two lovers scrambling -- dew-dampened and grass-stained, giggling and kissing -- to gather their clothes and make their way into the house before the sun's rays actually touched them.

And in the peaceful quiet after the lovers' departure, sunlight and shadow kissed gently to form the misted beauty of the new morning. And a new day was born.

- Fin -

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