Counting the Days

by Dira Sudis


Count the days, one by one. But how, good lad, since you never see the sun?

 


Spike was spectacularly drunk.

Somewhere beneath the numbness that had overtaken him the first moment he saw Willow, Angel was angry at him, but more than that he was jealous. Spike, at least, had found some escape from this quiet horror.

Only a day before, Angel had been walking in sunlight, surrounded by his friends. Now the sun had been boxed up and buried, and even a vampire had to fear the night to follow. He felt cold, and utterly alone. Cordy and Wes, who had accompanied him to Sunnydale and stood nearby, seemed miles distant. Buffy's friends and her Watcher, standing on the opposite side of the grave, might have been on other planets. Dawn, who stood perfectly still, clutching her arms around her stomach and never raising her eyes from the ground, looked as chilled and distant as the moon, and Spike, staggering in his inebriate restlessness, orbited erratically about them all.

Giles had just finished saying a few halting words--more than any of the rest of them could seem to muster, in the face of this oppressive silence, this impossible loss--when Spike's rambling took on direction and brought him stumbling up to Angel, leading with an accusatory finger, which he jammed against Angel's chest.

"This is your fault, you know." In the total absence of volume control, the slurred assertion rang out, readily audible to everyone.

From a long way off, Angel felt his anger stirring, but he said quietly, "Is it?"

Spike lurched closer, now almost leaning on Angel, blue eyes narrowed as he concentrated on forming the words. "You loved her?" Spike snorted. "I loved her."

Angel pushed Spike back with an open hand. "Yeah, Spike, you did a real good job."

Spike's face settled into a scowl as he reversed his momentum, and his words emerged in a low, venomous hiss. "At least I tried. At least I was here with her when--"

Angel growled, and at almost the same instant, Spike punched him squarely in the nose. Thought fled before the bright pain of it. Angel's eyes locked on Spike's, anchored by the honest belligerence shining up at him, whiskey-bright. Grief and rage and jealousy and history and the last tatters of what had been numbness and distance all rushed together and found outlet in Angel's fist, delivering a punishing blow to Spike's side. Ribs cracked under the impact, and Spike staggered back a step, clutching at Angel's coat hard enough to drag him along. Spike's glare never wavered, and with a wordless snarl, Angel struck him again, in exactly the same spot, hardly noticing that they fell to the ground, Spike's wild and uncoordinated struggles rolling them over as Angel hit him, over and over, in that same sweet spot. The ribs gave way, and Angel's fist sunk into the resulting softness with a sick thud. A fine mist of aspirated blood appeared on Spike's gritted teeth and stained the pale lips drawn back in a mad dog grin. The smell woke something deeper than rage in Angel, and he felt his face beginning to shift just as a dire voice rang out behind him. "Separate!"

Spike's grip on him was broken, and they were thrown apart. Angel closed his eyes as reality rushed back in; when he put down a hand to push himself up, it sank easily into the freshly-turned earth covering Buffy's grave. He looked around cautiously from where Willow's spell had tossed him. She was rubbing tiredly at her face, already turning to her girlfriend for reassurance. Giles' silent weariness was momentarily enlivened by a ferociously controlled displeasure, aimed, Angel thought, mainly at him, while Xander looked ready to start a fight of his own, glowering impartially at him and Spike both. As he pressed a hand to his nose, bloodied by Spike's first punch, Angel wondered whether Xander ever registered unhappiness as something other than anger, or if it was a sort of vampire-specific observer effect. He looked quickly away from the boy to Dawn, who dropped her gaze back to the dirt before he could make eye contact. Wes and Cordy likewise averted their eyes, and Angel gave a mental wince. Way to demonstrate that you can act rationally around your kin, idiot. That left only Spike, and Angel's eyes turned to the smaller vampire reluctantly, a little afraid of what he might see.

Spike was still on the ground, not yet even sitting up as Angel was. His left arm was wrapped around his battered side, and as Angel watched, he slowly pulled himself together and rolled over, turning his back on everyone else. It was only then, pushing himself up and watching Spike, that Angel realized that Spike had never thrown a second punch.

Then Angel was standing, turning to face Giles, who seemed likeliest to say something. He heard, behind him, the small sounds of Spike getting painfully to his feet, though he knew that the others would see only further drunken staggering. He went on holding his nose as Giles berated them both in a weary, disappointed voice, the secret weapon of father figures everywhere; the effect was somewhat wasted on him, focused as he was on Spike's minute movements behind him. He doubted Spike heard a word either. When Giles stopped, Angel said quietly, "I'm sorry. You must know I meant no disrespect to Buffy or any of you."

Spike slurred something unintelligible, even to Angel's practiced ears. Angel turned to look at him, and found him with his gaze fixed on the ground. He looked up only once, in Dawn's direction, but she didn't meet his eyes and Spike turned away, stumbling into the trees.

Angel looked toward Cordy and Wes, but they were headed for Dawn, to offer their condolences and, he thought, their goodbyes. Spike had the right idea about that.

Angel took a moment to discreetly wipe his face and lick his hand clean--waste not, want not, and anyway he didn't have anywhere to wipe it--before cautiously approaching Willow. She looked up as he did so, and he said quietly, "I'm sorry, Willow. For. Everything."

She nodded, eyes filled with tears, and Angel nodded awkwardly back. That seemed likely to be the extent of the conversation, so he turned toward Xander, who was scowling at nothing in particular. "Xander. I'm sorry."

Xander shot him a dark glance, but nodded stiffly. "Aren't we all," he muttered, as Angel turned away, and Angel chose to leave that where it was.

That left Dawn. He watched, hesitating, as Cordelia gave her a hug, and Wes squeezed one tightly bowed shoulder. She nodded, wordlessly, in response to whatever they said, not looking up at either of them. Then they stepped away, headed for the car, and it was Angel's turn and he had no idea what to do. Finally, remembering Buffy and the night of their mother's funeral, he edged closer and put his arms around the small, forlorn figure of the orphaned girl.

To his surprise, Dawn seemed to unfreeze in his hesitant embrace, her arms wrapping quickly around his neck. He let her go after a moment, and felt her hesitation to return the favor, but she went back to hugging herself, and raised her eyes to something like chest-height. "I'm sorry about that, Dawn."

She shrugged, and a watery smile crossed her face, vanishing quickly. "It's okay," she whispered, as though she couldn't break the quiet of the night. "I kinda wish someone would say it was my fault, so I had an excuse to say it isn't." And by so saying, persuade herself, of course. Angel bit back the automatic impulse to tell her so; it wouldn't do any good, and it was hardly his place when he still didn't quite know what had happened. He wished he could say something to comfort her. He wished she would look at him.

Angel set his hands on her shoulders, bending so that his face was on a level with hers, and for a moment she looked back at him. "Dawn, listen. If you need anything, if there's ever anything I can do, I want you to call me. Anytime."

He tightened his grip, as if he could keep her attention by the strength of his hands, glancing uneasily over his shoulder to make sure that none of the humans were turning a disapproving ear. "And if you feel like you have to get out of here, out of your house, out of Sunnydale, call me. You can come to L.A. to visit, anytime you want, just don't go off on your own, all right? Promise me."

Dawn looked up again, meeting his eyes squarely, revealing the tears on her cheeks. She flung herself back against him, and Angel automatically closed his arms around her. "Promise me," he repeated, and Dawn nodded against his shoulder. It would have to be enough.

 


Spike ran all the way from his crypt to the house on Revello Drive, not to escape the sun, which was already down, but to catch the time already lost. He had somehow overslept, of all the stupid human mistakes to make, and today, the seventeenth day, was the first time they'd trusted him to be there waiting for Dawn when she got home at sunset. His lungs pumped needlessly, spurred by his panic, as he tried not to think of the hundred ways his tiny, stupid failure might bring harm to Dawn. He slowed to a walk when he reached the front yard, walked briskly up the stairs to the door as he forced his lungs under control.

He opened the door, and Dawn was just standing in the doorway to the living room, her arms clutched around her stomach. She wasn't crying, and he didn't smell blood or sickness, but something was nonetheless very, very wrong.

"Bit?" He went straight to her, and reached out, his hands hovering a bare inch from her folded arms; she looked as if an uncareful touch would break her. "I'm sorry, pet. Didn't mean for you to be by yourself like that."

She was shaking, and didn't look up at him even when he was right in front of her. "Can we go, Spike?"

Yes, of course, anything you want. "Where?"

"Angel. He said I could go there if I needed to and I have to, Spike, I have to get out of this house, out of Sunnydale. Tomorrow's Saturday, and I don't have anything to do and I can't just stay here, all weekend, in the house, it's not, I can't--"

"Shh," Spike shifted slightly closer, wishing he had some more immediate comfort to give her. "All right, then, all right."

"Because, he said to call and he'd come get me, but I can't wait, I can't, I have to get out of here, now, I can't. And I promised not to just go off by myself."

"That's good." Spike's mind was racing. The bloody DeSoto was down, or they'd already be on their way. He had to get wheels, had to get her out. She had that fey desperate look about her and he didn't really blame her, left alone in this houseful of loss. Bloody hell. "All right, Dawn, we're gonna do this. I'm gonna take care of it, but I have to go get transport. You need to pack a bag, right, just one, nothing huge." He lowered his head, moving so that she had to look him in the eye. "Can you do that, if I leave?"

Her face screwed up, eyes shut tight, but she nodded, and he nodded back in unseen brisk approval. "That's right. You can do it. I want you to pack a bag, write a note for Willow, make sure the rest of the house is locked up, and then wait for me, right inside the front door. All right? I'll be back in ten minutes, no more than that."

Dawn nodded, and he said, "Go, go get packed, then."

She brushed past him, running up the stairs, and he went to the weapons chest and pulled out a pair of gauntlets, stuffing them into the pocket of his duster as he headed out the front door.

 


Dawn's backpack was at her feet, and she was taping the sloppily handwritten note to the bannister where Willow would be sure to see it, when she heard the motorcycle pull up outside. The engine cut off, and an instant later Spike was opening the door, moving to stand at her back. He paused for a moment, reading over her shoulder.

 

Willow–- Sorry to go so suddenly, I needed to get out of the house and Angel said I could visit, so Spike is taking me down to L.A. Love, Dawn.

"Yeah, that'll do. Right." She turned around, and he made no mention of the tears all over her face, so she didn't mention his either. He pulled a pair of leather gloves out of his pocket instead, and handed them to her. They were Buffy's, she could tell though she'd never seen Buffy wear them, and just a little too big. They went halfway to her elbows, with little straps to tighten them. Spike helped her snap them securely in place and then shrugged out of his duster and helped her into it. Dawn didn't even question him, just put her arms through the sleeves and let him button it up, since the gloves would have made her own fingers too clumsy. It was clownishly huge, but the smell-- cigarettes and leather and blood and dust--was comforting, and the weight of it made her feel a little less like she was going to fly to pieces. And, of course, motorcycle. Spike gestured for her to turn around again, and when she had done so he pulled her hair back, braiding it with quick motions, firm but never pulling, and tucking it down the back of her shirt. He picked up her bag and ushered her out the door, locking it behind them, and Dawn finally let out a tiny sigh of relief.

The bike was in the driveway. She'd never seen it before, but then Spike must have just stolen it in the last nine minutes, so that made sense. He strapped her bag down on the back, and then hesitated. "I couldn't get a helmet for you, Niblet. We could--"

"I don't care, Spike. I trust you, let's just go."

His shoulders slumped a little, maybe with relief, maybe feeling a little of her need to leave. Spike climbed on the bike, and helped her up behind him. He tucked the bottom of the duster around her legs, then reached behind him and pressed her head down behind his shoulder, her face to his back, and pulled her hands around his waist. "Don't move, all right? You hold on and you keep your head down."

She nodded, a minute motion against the thin black cotton of his t-shirt, and Spike started the bike, and they were going, going, gone.

 


It was the fastest trip to L.A. he'd ever made, and Spike spent the whole time concentrating on not getting into an accident or pulled over and simultaneously running through exactly how he'd throw his arms back as they both flew off the bike to make sure Dawn was shielded from the impact by his body. Every second, he was waiting for her grip on him to loosen, waiting to catch her, but somehow, for once, nothing went wrong. Under the white roar of road noise and wind, he could feel her heart beating, the pulses in her wrists muffled by the leather, her breath against his back. Alive, alive, alive, safe, with him, not lost, not bleeding, not crying. He was doing this right, for once. Keeping her safe, doing the job. Keeping his promise.

All of which meant that it wasn't til he was parking the bike in front of the Hyperion that he thought about the fact that they'd come all this way so Dawn could have quality time with the bloody poofter.

He helped her off the bike and she just stood for a second, wobbling, and he realized that this was maybe not the best way to have a first motorcycle ride. She looked toward the door, and back toward her bag, and he said softly, "Go on, pet, I'm right behind you."

She nodded and started slowly for the door, and he took a long slow breath and steeled himself for what was to come.

 


Dawn's arms and legs ached from holding on, and she felt like her whole body was still trembling in harmony with the vibration of the bike beneath her. But somehow she managed not to stagger, not to trip over the duster that went right down to her shoes, and made it to and through the front doors of the huge old hotel.

She was in a big lobby area, and there was a desk, with a young woman sitting behind it. Dawn didn't think she'd met her at the funeral. She was sort of staring at Dawn like she wasn't sure whether to run away screaming or not, and Dawn figured that if you hung around with Angel enough, that's the kind of thing you'd never be sure about.

"Hi," Dawn said as she made her way to the bottom of the stairs, aiming for the nearest piece of furniture she could collapse on, "I'm here to see--"

"Dawn!" Angel came tearing out of another room, and he had that uber-parental hug/throttle look on his face. "My God, I told you to call," and he had his hands on her shoulders, squeezing tight, a breath away from shaking her. "How did--" And it was about then that he noticed the soft black leather he was gripping.

Spike was talking as he came in, but got no further than "Niblet, didn't I," when he saw her and Angel standing there. He walked over, his boots making quiet little tapping noises on the marble floor. He didn't say anything when he got to her, either, just ran a hand over her hair, loosening it from its makeshift restraint, and then began unfastening the gloves from her wrists. Angel let go of her shoulders, but didn't move away, so that Dawn was pretty much sandwiched between the two vampires.

Spike tugged the gloves off, tucking each one into the pocket on that side, and then unbuttoned the duster and took hold of the collar so that she could step out of it, holding out her bag for her to take in exchange. He pulled the coat on quickly, as soon as she had it off, and then they were all just standing there.

Dawn was reminded of the first time her dad had come to pick them up for a visit. Long before the divorce was finalized, before all the bitterness had been exhausted by the intricacies of the legal process, her parents had stood there, kind of like this, both looking at the girls instead of each other, the possessiveness thick in the air. Except this time Buffy wasn't here to help, and her parents were both gone, too, and, oh yeah, that had never actually happened to her because she hadn't existed at the time. Dawn forced herself to keep still, staring at the far wall, breathing evenly, because if she puked or started to cry, it would just set them off, screaming at each other over whose fault her unhappiness was, and she really didn't need the screaming. Not while she was standing between them, anyway.

And then Spike stepped back, pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and waved them in explanation. "I'm just going to step outside, Dawn. Back in a sec."

She nodded, finally daring to look at him, and he winked, the way he had sometimes behind Buffy's back, and walked out. Dawn pulled together a wavering smile and looked up at Angel. "I couldn't wait for a ride, so Spike brought me down."

Angel nodded, like the last three minutes of misery hadn't existed, and slipped his arm around her shoulders, turning her around. "Dawn, this is Fred, she works with us. Fred, Dawn."

Fred smiled nervously at her, and Dawn could see that she knew that Dawn was the tragic sister of tragic Buffy, but she didn't say anything about that, just, "Hi there." It was sort of nice.

"Anyway, Dawn, it so happens that this is a hotel, so you have your choice of almost three different habitable rooms to sleep in." Angel started toward the stairs, and Dawn followed. "So, how long were you planning to stay?"

Dawn shrugged. "Well, I've got school on Monday, but..."

 


Spike smoked the world's fastest, most desperately needed cigarette while waiting for Dawn and the nance to clear the lobby. As soon as they were on the stairs, he headed back inside. The mouse-girl, Fred apparently, looked startled, by his quick reappearance or maybe just by the fact that he walked, fast and silent, directly up to the desk. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder, in the direction Angel had gone.

"S'all right, pet," he murmured, hating to smell her fear when there wasn't a bloody thing he could do about it, since, chip or no chip, she belonged to Angel, and there were certain rules of hospitality to be respected. "Just need to use the phone."

She nodded, swallowing hard, and pushed it over to him. He dialed the number quickly, and it picked up on the first ring.

"Willow?"

"Uh, Spike." He'd thrown her by speaking before she did, but at least she didn't sound like she had a pitchfork or a torch in hand. "Where are you? Is Dawn okay?"

"We're at the Hyperion, Angel's helping her pick out a room. She just couldn't stay in the house anymore, and I. Didn't want to make her wait."

Willow seemed to hear what he didn't say. "Oh. Yeah."

"I'll have her call, right? And I'll have her back Sunday night, so she won't miss school."

"Okay, yeah. Good."

Spike had it on the tip of his tongue to tell her to go hug her girlfriend or something, and hung up before that kind of disgusting sentimentality could cross his lips. Pushing the phone back to Fred, he said quietly, "Ta," and settled himself against the desk for a good long lean. Fred scooted away slightly.

He was a bit distracted--trying to hear Dawn's heartbeat, figure out where she was in this monstrous heap of a building when the front doors opened again to admit Cordelia, the junior watcher, and a black guy who Spike was fairly certain he hadn't seen at the funeral. All three of them stopped dead at the sight of him, expressions ranging from rage to curiosity to ignorant amusement. Spike reminded himself that Cordelia had been at the funeral, so the last time she'd seen him he'd only been drunk and brawling with her boss, instead of trying to torture him to death, which he thought might be an important distinction. Then the bitch queen whipped out a stake and started toward him, and he thought it might not.

"Spike? What the hell are you doing here?"

He held up his hands, all placating and harmless. "Don't get your knickers twisted, I'm just driving Miss Dawnie. She's upstairs with your ponce of a boss right now."

Cordelia's gaze went over his shoulder, but whatever she saw there must have backed him up, because she lowered the stake. "Oh," and her face changed, thinking of Dawn, and Buffy. "Well. Isn't this nice, then."

Spike gave her a judiciously civil nod, and resumed leaning, hands in pockets and eyes on the middle distance. Dawn and Angel were on their way back to the lobby, he could hear them approaching from upstairs. He watched in silence as the L. A. version of the Scooby Gang dumped weapons and filled in Fred on their demon-hunting adventures, which had apparently begun hours ago, before sundown, hence leaving the poof behind.

And then Himself and Dawn were walking down the stairs, and Cordelia was hugging Dawn, and Dawn was almost sort of smiling. They introduced the kid to the other guy, Gunn, so apparently he really hadn't been around before. Fred scurried out from behind the desk to join the little party, and Spike noticed, faintly, from a great distance, that Angel didn't really join in either, standing near the stairs, watching the humans, maybe in the same sort of cotton-wool silence that enveloped Spike.

They were telling Dawn about the little detective outfit they ran here, and also asking her what she'd like to do in L. A. while she stayed, Cordelia recalling that the kid had lived here the first ten years of her life. None of them apologizing, no one crying, and Spike knew this was the right thing, getting her out of Sunnydale, away from the others. Everyone there loved her, sure, but they were every one of them completely in pieces after losing Buffy. Well, maybe Tara and Anya would be all right, but they had their respective hands full with Willow and Xander, which left just him and Giles besides to look after Dawn, and all of them were equally destroyed right now. Everyone was walking wounded, blind leading the bloody blind, up there, but looking around Spike thought that he and Dawn had not, at least, ended in a ditch. It would be good for her to be near people not as broken as she was, at least for a little space. It had made her the center of attention, and there had to be something good in that. There, she'd smiled. Spike smiled faintly in echo, pleasantly aware of having not fucked up too much tonight.

The phone rang just then, practically under his hand, and Angel lunged over and answered it. The little party fell silent while Angel took information, but Spike didn't really pay any attention--busy watching Dawn be not-exactly-scared by the familiar atmosphere of minor crisis--til Angel came around the desk and grabbed him by the arm, saying, "No, no, it's nothing, we'll handle it."

Spike considered arguing for all of half a second before sending a wink in Dawn's direction and following the great poof out. They were going hunting. Angel towed him all the way across the lobby, out of the hotel and over to a car, shoving him none too gently in the direction of the passenger door and climbing in the other side himself.

Spike slumped comfortably in his seat and didn't bother asking where they were going or what was up. Pretty soon, he'd be pointed in the direction of some bloody thing he could attack, and attack it he would. That was his job, and whether he was patrolling with the Scoobies in Sunnyhell or being bossed by the big fluffy puppy here in L.A., he'd do it. Hell, it might even be fun.

The car was awfully silent, no radio and definitely no small talk, but Spike kept his fingers still, let the tunes that rolled around his mind stay put inside. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, and his window went down with a faint mechanical whine. He snorted, but obediently tapped ash outside of the car.

One leisurely smoke later, Angel rolled his own window down as well, and two turnings after that, Spike caught the smell of their prey on the breeze, faintly heard it. Sharp smell, something snaky, and big. Not menacing anyone at the moment, but it wouldn't wait long. Then they were stopping at the mouth of an alley, and Spike could hear it clearly, inside one of the abandoned buildings. They both got out of the car, Spike just standing by his door, listening, while Angel went around to the trunk. The trunk slammed, and then Angel was standing before him, holding a single wicked-looking axe. "Here, you'll need this."

Spike gave him the eyebrow.

"What, you don't think you can handle him on your own?" Stupid-haired smirk. "I'll hold your hand if you want."

"All I need you to hold, Peaches, is my coat." He shrugged out of the duster--no sense getting it dirty--and tossed it toward him, plucking the axe from his grasp at the same time.

He headed toward the most promising entrance, but before he'd gotten there the demon burst out into the alley. The bastard was big, a good nine or ten feet tall, all tentacles and teeth. Spike felt the ghost of a madman's smile cross his face, raised the axe, and charged, screaming.

The bugger was fast, too, forcing Spike to jump back, dodging as he slashed at it, missing the first cut and, all right, the second as well, but the third swing whacked off a good yard of tentacle. The demon was really pissing mad after that, making a gurgly sort of roaring sound, but Spike screamed louder, dodging and then darting in to smash away with the axe. It was a good weapon with some heft to it, nice sharp blade, shearing away another tentacle. The thought occurred to him, as the demon's teeth snapped an inch from his belly and he twisted and kicked and slashed, that this thing could probably kill him if he fucked up, and no Slayer would bounce in at the last second to save his worthless hide--hell, Angel would probably give the bastard a round of applause--and it was all his fault and he was crying, tears running so thick he could barely see when the vibration of the axe in his hands told him he'd landed a good solid body-blow on the thing. He just kept on screaming, sobbing, thrashing and hacking at the demon, even after it stopped fighting back, even after some last bastion of numbness and rationality told him he was only making a mess and a fool of himself, spattering himself with demon blood as he hacked it into tiny pieces. Not even the prospect of the poof's mocking laughter could make him stop, not now he'd got going. Nothing was going to make him stop.

Except, wrong again, because he hadn't even heard him move, but suddenly Angel was right behind him, grabbing the axe out of his hands and throwing it away. Before he'd quite registered that, there were arms around him, pinning his arms at his sides, crushing him back against a body bigger than his own, immobilizing him. He couldn't stop the convulsive sobs, the shudders running through him, but he didn't struggle. He remembered this, remembered his sire forcing him under control the only way he could sometimes, by being bigger and stronger and more patient than Spike ever would. His head dropped, leaving his neck exposed, from the low collar of his shirt up to the hairline. Exhaustion or submission, it was all the same in the end.

He felt Angel's game face come out, and his sobs stuttered to a stop as his body, with the instincts of prey undiluted by a century as a predator, tried to go completely still, completely silent, tried to escape the notice of the demon at his back. Far too late for that. Angel's lips brushed over his skin, and his hair stood on end for the instant before he felt the fangs sink in, uppers and lowers bracketing his spine. The pain flashed like lightning from the punctures on his neck through his arms and legs. Spike remembered the time Angelus had snapped his neck from this position with a leonine toss of his head, severing his spinal cord and leaving him paralyzed for days before he'd relented and let him feed enough to recover. It had stopped his eternal fidgeting. But Spike wasn't the only one under control here, and it was his good Angel at his back, drawing only a mouthful of blood and then pulling back. Still the fangs lingered, only to make the quick delicate motions that lacerated an A in between the teeth marks, and when he recognized the shape of the pain, something locked tight somewhere inside Spike suddenly eased. The cuts wouldn't scar, would in fact vanish within a day or so, but for now he knew that his sire cared, enough to still him, enough to mark him. 37,455 days, and he could finally stop counting.

 


Angel had gotten out of the habit of tasting the blood he consumed; not much to savor in a pint of pig. And there were a lot of things he'd forgotten in a century, but the taste of Spike's blood was not among them.

He stole a sideways glance at the blond. Spike sat huddled into himself, looking naked as he always did without his duster, his head still bowed. His clothes and bare arms were covered with patches of purple-black demon blood, and the drying tear- tracks left streaks down his face. The bites had mostly clotted, but there were dried rivulets of blood all down Spike's neck and back, and one fang-puncture was still seeping. The smell would have been making Angel crazy, except that he was still rolling a mouthful of that same blood over his tongue, like a wine connoisseur sampling a fine vintage.

Contrary to all expectation, this particular bottle was swill. Angel had had better blood from a three-days corpse. He had tasted Spike in a thousand humors, rage and fear and hunger and sorrow and lust and pain, any or all of them singing in his blood, but he'd never tasted anything like this. He'd never tasted Spike and gotten a mouthful of ashes, like he was already dust and just hadn't fallen apart yet.

But sweet or bitter, running wild or frozen still, Spike was blood of Angel's blood, and clearly, now was not the time to shirk that uncomfortable responsibility.

He pulled up near a side entrance to the Hyperion, and got out of the car, reaching into the backseat to pull out Spike's duster. Spike followed suit, and was standing beside the car when Angel straightened up. The blond still didn't raise his head, and Angel was made uncomfortably aware of how small he was, in the absence of his usual ten feet of attitude. God, I broke him.

Angel circled around the car, and laid his hand lightly on a clean spot on Spike's shoulder, turning him toward the door. "Why don't you go in here, spare everybody thinking you're hurt when they see you. My rooms are on the second floor. Go in there and take a shower, and I'll tell everyone we're back."

Spike looked up at him without actually raising his head, a familiar cautious flick of the eyes that made him want to scream that it wasn't like that anymore, except that there were the bites and a half-pint of Spike's blood outside his body to say otherwise. "Don't let Dawn worry about me, right?"

Angel nodded, and Spike took his duster in hand and headed inside. Angel checked that he had his company face on, licked his teeth again, and turned toward the lobby entrance.

Cordelia, Wesley, Fred and Gunn were sitting on the couches, trying not to be obviously waiting for him to get back; Dawn was nowhere to be seen. As he crossed the room, his "Where--?" collided with Cordelia's. He nodded, and she went first.

"Dawn's upstairs, getting ready for bed, nothing wrong except..." She winced a little at her choice of words. "She was just tired." Angel nodded, and Cordelia waited for a moment, then said, "Angel? What's the deal with Spike? Where is he?"

Angel swept a glance over the others, but they were all watching him with the same polite expression of uncertainty, and, he suspected, concealed weapons. Just in case. "Spike's upstairs, getting cleaned up. Messy kill." Angel paused again, but continued without prompting this time. "I don't know whether it's clear to all of you from talking to Dawn, but she and Spike seem to be a package deal. He'll stay as long as she does, probably whenever she does, and any time you're unkind to Spike, you're unkind to Dawn, so keep that in mind."

Fred, Gunn, and Wesley were taking that with various degrees of aplomb, but Cordelia looked a little horrified. Angel sighed. "I can't tell you not to hate him, if that's how you feel, but don't hate him for my sake. I'm not the wronged innocent here. And I don't hate him."

"Fine," Cordelia said softly, "great. You don't hate him. You didn't hate Darla, either, to start with."

Yeah, he'd had that one coming. He sucked in a breath, and thought about the way Spike looked at Dawn, and went out on a limb. "He wants to change. It's not just the chip, he's out there fighting the good fight, without a soul, without the Powers telling him to, because he wants to. He's helping Dawn because he wants to. And if he wants to change, I can't be the one who turns him away."

And they were nodding, even Cordelia, like they bought it. He wondered what Spike would say, and whether he'd dare to say anything at all.

 


Spike took his boots off in the hallway, then cautiously opened the door to his sire's rooms. The smell of the space engulfed him as he stepped inside, and he let himself feel a little pleasure at being in a place where everything belonged to Angel. Including, apparently, himself. A moment's internal debate over the merits of tidiness versus the sin of presumption had him hanging his duster on an empty hook by the door. Tidiness would probably carry more weight, and Angel had handed him the coat and sent him here, so hanging it up would probably be acceptable.

After a brief glance around to familiarize himself, he headed directly to the bathroom; Angel hadn't sent him up to admire the decor. He turned on the shower and held his boots under the spray while he waited for it to warm up, rinsing them clean of demon blood. When they were as clean as they were going to get, he set them on the corner of the bath mat where no one would trip over them and they wouldn't make a puddle on the tile.

The water was nice and hot, just the way he liked it, and Spike wondered, not for the first time, whether his hot showers would seem lukewarm to a human, or unbearably hot, whether his sense of temperature had become completely unreliable in the past hundred twenty years. It was like wondering what he looked like, and what his voice really sounded like outside his head. After a moment he realized he was just standing there with one hand in the shower, shook his head and stepped in.

He stood facing the spigot, working quickly to scrub the demon blood off his skin, as he wasn't sure how it might react to water, and didn't want to find out. With his arms mostly clean, he looked down at his bespattered, and now warmly damp and blood- smelling, clothes. He frowned, noticing a small hole in the sleeve of his t-shirt that he'd never seen before. When he touched it, it widened, and at the same moment a half-dozen other holes appeared on his shirt, and more on his jeans. Spike bit back a pointless stream of obscenities and pulled the shirt off over his head, and held it directly under the water as he tried to see what was happening, but the greater wetness sped up whatever the demon blood was doing, and the shirt was shortly just a handful of cotton scraps. While he was distracted, his jeans had undergone a similar process; the cloth was so weakened that it pulled off in his hands, one leg sliding down, detached, to puddle around his foot. Spike tossed the lot into the far end of the tub, mustering up only enough energy to mutter, "Bloody stupid sodding demon," before stepping fully under the water, finally naked.

The wounds on the back of his neck burned as the spray pounded directly onto the broken skin. The water, sliding down his back to swirl around his feet and into the drain, ran an impressively bright red at first. When there was only the faintest thread of blood in the water and the sting of the spray had faded into a sort of tingling numbness, Spike reached back and scrubbed his fingers over the bites, until the blood ran bright again. But the red just ran down the drain, and didn't tell him any more this time than it had done before, and it was mostly gone again in a couple of minutes.

Time to wash, like he'd been told, and Spike stared stupidly at the assortment of bath products. He tried to remember the last time he'd taken a proper shower like this, with all the fixings, though his body seemed more curious about the last time he'd had a good day's sleep. Not that he didn't know the answer to that question: seventeen broken and dream-filled days, plus the long blur of fear and fighting before that, before the end of the world came and went and left him behind with his promises.

Spike reached out and took the shampoo, turned it around to read the instructions. Very important to follow instructions. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. He poured shampoo into his hand, flipped the cap back on, and started lathering. He didn't wonder about why it should be necessary to repeat, if the stuff was doing its job, just like he didn't wonder about other things. Like the bite he couldn't see on the back of his neck, and what it meant. Like the fact that his sire, all soft-voiced, had sent him up here to shower, knowing he'd know which room without being told. Like the way he'd driven back, Spike's blood in his mouth and making a full and complete stop at every sign, faces slipping back and forth under the streetlights. It was Angel the soul-boy who had claimed him, that much was clear, but what it meant was anyone's guess.

So Spike didn't think about it, just lathered his hair, thoroughly, and stared at the tile. He ducked his head under the water, to rinse, and his head shot up almost instantly. "Bloody motherfucking c–-aagh." Shampoo suds, rinsing over broken flesh, burned like undiluted holiness. When he tossed his head back, a dollop of lather landed on one eye, and as he tried to bat it away, he rubbed it in. That stung nearly as badly, and Spike bit off further curses; unproductive, and Angel might hear, and he didn't think about why, but he thought that would be bad. He forced himself to be quiet and still, cracking his eye open to let the clean water run over it, and maneuvering around to finish rinsing the shampoo from his hair. When that was done, he elected to skip the ‘repeat' part, and after a moment's wary consideration, decided not to condition for best results, either.

Instead he reached out for the bar of soap, but as he set his fingers on it, his body reminded him that he'd skipped a step. Spike stared down balefully at his dick, and he didn't have to wonder how many days it had been. Not bloody likely, he thought, tired and tired, but of course his body had other ideas.

 


Dawn wasn't exactly sure of it, but she thought that her room in the hotel counted as a public space, no invitation required for a vamp to enter. Still, when somebody knocked on her door after she'd crawled into bed, she got up and went to see who it was before telling them to come in.

Angel stood in the hallway, looking tired. Dawn tried not to be obvious about looking, but Spike wasn't anywhere around. She opened the door the rest of the way, and stepped back. "Come on in."

She went and got back into bed–-her feet were cold–-and Angel followed, sitting down by her feet. "Spike's fine," he said, when they were both settled, and she couldn't help smiling in relief. "He killed the demon, but he was all covered in its blood and needed to clean up."

"Oh. That's good."

Angel smiled for just a second, like it was too much work to hold the expression, and settled his hand on her blanket-covered foot. "It's okay, Dawn. You don't have to pretend that you don't care if Spike lives or dies."

Dawn looked down, shifting awkwardly. "I wasn't..."

"I know," he said softly. "I'm sorry about that, in the lobby. I just wasn't expecting to see him again. I know you and Spike are close, and I'm not going to spend the weekend being a jerk about it. It's okay."

Dawn looked up at him carefully, but he seemed sincere. "So, you're sure you can be around each other and not fight? Did you make up over demon-slaying?"

"Uh," Angel looked suddenly faintly nervous, and his mouth moved oddly, like he was licking the inside of his lips. "We didn't really talk, but I think we understand each other. No more fighting, I promise."

"Oh." Oh. Ohmigod. She tried not to stare at Angel's mouth, looking back down at her hands on the bedspread. Angel? And Spike? And not really talking? Ohhh. "That's cool. I'm glad that you. Um. Understand each other."

When she risked another look, Angel was almost smiling. Not like Buffy used to smile when she was talking about him, or thinking about him, or doodling his name in her notebooks, but something like it, faraway and confused but a little bit happy. "Me too," he said finally, while Dawn looked down at her hands again, because Buffy was never going to smile like that again, and she didn't want Angel to see the tears, because she was glad, that he and Spike were not-really-talking, and she didn't want him to be sitting here trying to comfort her when he could be going and finding Spike and making up some more. She was tired of crying in front of everyone, tired of being out of control like this.

He sensed it, though, of course. Vampire, he must have been able to smell the tears or hear the change in her breathing. He hugged her without saying a word, and tucked her in, brushing his thumb across her cheek where the tears hadn't spilled yet.

He switched off the light, and hesitated in the doorway. "I'm just around the corner, if you need anything. Just call, I'll hear you."

She nodded, because she knew he would see, even in the dark, and when he closed the door behind him she turned her face into her pillow and sobbed.

 


Angel closed the door behind him, trading the muffled sound of Dawn's grief for the sound of Spike in the shower; he made out a few curses, abruptly bitten off. Unbidden, a small smile worked its way onto his face.

He went on listening as he took off his shoes and socks, unbuttoned his shirt, and wandered around the room, vaguely bathroom-ward. He needed to brush his teeth. Spike was quiet now, and Angel listened to the sound of water falling in the intermittent way that meant someone was moving around under the spray. He had his hand on the door when he heard it, barely detectable under the sound of water. Spike was breathing.

It wasn't an enormously unusual occurrence; Spike, like Angel himself, tended to breathe under stress. Angel was a little startled by how badly he wanted to burst through the door and fix whatever it was that was upsetting Spike, soothe his pain or comfort his fear.

Or stand very still and consider that Spike breathed during sex, too, and maybe Angel should just give him a few more minutes of privacy before wandering in there. But nothing could make him stop listening to his boy's breathing; Angel found himself on edge with the long-neglected drive to protect his own, and the soft sound was all wrong. So steady, so even and controlled, with none of the excited raggedness of sex or the hint of an animal whine, inaudible to human ears, that would signal pain or fear. He was just breathing, in and out and in and out, with no end in sight, as if he needed the air as a human would, as if he couldn't go on without it. Finally Angel couldn't bear it anymore and eased the door silently open, slipping inside and closing it again behind him.

Spike, never a master of such niceties, had neglected to pull the shower curtain shut, and Angel found himself catching an unnecessary breath as well. Spike stood with his back to Angel, pressed into the far corner of the shower, the water falling mostly on his back. His skin and hair were pale and shining, bright only in contrast to the whiteness of the tiles, and the red parentheses of his bite, bracketing the crudely carved A, stood out starkly on his otherwise perfect flesh. Spike's right arm was braced up against the wall, his head leaning on it, and he breathed evenly, the motion readily visible in the long tense lines of his back. His left hand was in front of him, down near his hip, but motionless.

Angel inhaled through his nose, studying Spike with every sense, and what he smelled, mostly, was his own shampoo. Despite the circumstances, something warm unfurled in his stomach, at the thought that Spike smelled like him right now. Then, blood, of course. Arousal was almost entirely lacking, and if there were tears they were lost in the stronger smells.

It was the shoulders that told the tale, finally, made Angel see the shameful futility of trying to get your rocks off when the object of your fantasies is lying dead and rotting in a hidden grave. The sense of betrayal when you realize that your body doesn't belong to you anymore, that some little blonde girl owns your dick even though she's never seen the damned thing, and now she's gone and there's just nothing to be done.

It wasn't a tale entirely unfamiliar to Angel, and the need to fix this, to help Spike, nearly choked him in its intensity. He considered, for half a second, getting undressed the rest of the way, but he couldn't stand there and look at Spike's shoulders shaking in slow motion for the amount of time it would take.

He crossed the space in one stride, stepped into the shower with the next. Spike startled when he registered Angel's presence, would have fallen, but Angel was right behind him. He locked his left arm around Spike's stomach, holding him close and still. Shower-wet, Spike felt warm as life in Angel's arms. Spike's breathing was all ragged now, mostly with fear and uncertainty. "Shh. Let me."

Spike's left hand returned, hesitantly, to rest over Angel's, and his right hand went back to the wall. Angel nodded, his forehead sliding against Spike's wet hair, where he would feel it, to let him know that was right, as he set his right hand on Spike's cock. A little shudder went through Spike at the contact, and Angel tightened the hand on his belly in response, pausing just a breath before beginning to stroke.

It was nothing fancy, one-handed, but what Spike liked hadn't changed, and he was rock hard and on the edge, had only just needed a little help. His breathing quickened, and Angel noticed that Spike's eyes were closed, and he wondered briefly what he was thinking about. Another pull, and Spike gasped, and his hips rocked helplessly, though he'd been holding himself still in Angel's grip. Angel lowered his head, and in time to his next stroke, flattened his tongue across the nape of Spike's neck, and licked straight up, across his mark, right up to the hairline. Spike arched back against him and stopped breathing altogether as he came, shuddering.

When he was still, and more or less steady on his feet, Angel said softly, in his ear, "Finish washing up, now," and stepped out of the shower. He glanced back, from the doorway, and Spike was leaning bonelessly against the wall, his whole body sagging against the tiles. As if he felt Angel's gaze, Spike straightened up and reached for the soap, and Angel stepped out and closed the door, heading for his dresser to change out of his wet clothes.

 


Spike stood on the bath mat, mostly dry and with a towel tucked around his hips. He had managed to use the towel he was currently wearing to mop up the worst of the puddles on the bathroom floor. His damp boots were safely out of the way, and he'd decided to refrain from agonizing about whether to leave them there--tidiness versus presumption, again, with the added conflict of whether Angel would rather have the bathroom's impervious floor cluttered, or water dripping on the carpet of the larger room--in favor of staring at what remained of his clothes. The t-shirt had vanished entirely, and of his jeans there remained a few threads and a handful of hardware: rivets, button, zipper, and the key to the motorcycle. Spike hadn't packed anything for this impromptu road trip, which meant he now had nothing to wear but his duster. He was entirely at Angel's mercy, and the skin on his back crawled at the thought of the last time he'd had to go to his sire and explain how he'd ruined his clothes.

And all of this agony just saved him from thinking about what had happened in the shower, and what the hell that was supposed to mean. That helping hand wasn't Angelus' style, but then if he'd considered it at all before this, he would have expected the soulboy to steer clear of sex entirely.

Spike ran one hand through his hair, scowling at his own idiocy. He was thinking again, and that was where he was going wrong. He wasn't supposed to think, he was supposed to follow instructions. Angel had told him to take a shower; a few minutes ago, before leaving the bathroom, Angel had told him to finish washing up. He had done those things. All else was not his business. It wouldn't keep his sire from doing exactly as he pleased with Spike, but that was the point. Nothing would.

Closing his hand around his pitiful handful of copper and steel, Spike opened the door and walked out of the bathroom.

Angel was sitting on the bed, wearing dark blue pajamas of some silky material. He had a big, leather-bound book in his lap, and Spike just had time to see him frowning intently at it before Angel looked up at him. After a moment of being stared at, keeping his gaze carefully cast so that he wasn't looking away but wasn't meeting his gaze directly, Spike stepped hesitantly forward, opening his hand again. "My clothes disintegrated. Water and that thing's blood don't mix, apparently."

Angel looked startled, but that didn't keep Spike from flashing on the possibility that he'd set this up, told him to attack that demon, told him to take a shower, for the amusement of this moment. The thought went away quickly, and meanwhile Angel was nodding. "I didn't think of that. Were they your lucky pants?"

Spike blinked, and debated trying to explain that none of his pants seemed particularly lucky, this year, but he said only, "No, nothing special."

Angel nodded again. "We'll see about getting you something else in the morning, then. In the meantime, there's a pair of pants on the dresser there."

Spike looked, and sure enough there was a pair of pajama bottoms, similar to the ones Angel was wearing but a deep blood red, folded on top of the dresser. He walked over and picked them up, shaking them out, buying himself a moment in which he didn't think about how he had to think about not thinking about this. His head was starting to hurt.

He turned away a little from Angel as he dropped his towel and stepped into the trousers. Time was he'd been a prodigy in the calculus of their bodies, when he could effortlessly figure from the tilt of his sire's brows how many degrees he ought to turn while changing in his presence, how much to shake his ass, what sort of sly remark would be most welcome. Now, he had no idea, and it was like being an idiot fledgling again, except that this time he knew exactly how much he didn't know.

The pants had a drawstring at the waist, and Spike hauled it in and tied it so that they wouldn't actually fall off his hips when he walked, just dangle enticingly. The hems puddled on the floor around his bare feet, nearly tripping him as he returned to the bathroom to hang up his towel, but he quickly mastered the ankle-flick required to keep them clear of his feet. When he was again standing by the dresser, hands at his sides, Angel was back to looking at the book, but this time it was the brooding frown rather than the trying-to-remember-what-the-squiggly-lines-mean frown. Spike cleared his throat. "I was just going to, uh, is Dawn...?"

Angel looked up sharply, but didn't appear to be actually displeased. "She just went to bed, but I doubt she's asleep yet. Her room's just around the corner."

Spike nodded, and when Angel returned his stare to his book he headed out of the room, listening for the sound of Dawn's heart beating somewhere nearby. He found it promptly, and then he could hear her breathing, too, and he felt a cold rush of panic when he realized she'd been crying, and was only just tailing off. He'd do anything for Dawn, but he dreaded the day when she needed to cry on his shoulder. So far, they'd simply ignored each other's crying jags, maintaining some semblance of dignity and the illusion of stiff upper lips all round. He suspected that this wouldn't always be the case, but even as he stood there, she was winding down; tonight was probably not the night. Spike shook himself into motion, walked up to her door and knocked softly. "Bite-size? It's me."

Rustle of covers as she wiped her face, sat up. "Come on in, Spike." He smiled a little, at the eternal thrill of being invited, and opened the door.

She was sitting up in bed, had turned on the bedside lamp just as he opened the door. Her hair was already a little tumbled, her eyes red but dry. Her pajama top said ‘Princess' on it. She startled a little at the sight of him, and Spike glanced down at himself and realized that sufficiently dressed for Angel's company was not the same as sufficiently dressed for Dawn's. He felt suddenly awkward and stupid, and half-covered himself. "Spike," she said, her voice dry and a little amused, and that brought him abruptly back to reality. "It's cool."

He raised his head and smiled, suddenly sure again. He wasn't anybody's second in this room. Spike sat down facing her on the bed, and Dawn sat up a little more, leaning comfortably against her pillows. "I'm glad you're okay," she said, a little slowly. "I'm glad you're here." She didn't say I feel safe with you, but they both heard it anyway.

Spike gave her a medium-evil look. "I'm a bad, wicked man, Little Bit. I've done all kinds of horrible things to little girls like you."

That earned him a smile and both eyebrows. "Yeah? Wanna tell me about it?"

He rolled his eyes.

"Oh, come on, Spike. Angel's way too broody to tell stories, and I won't be able to sleep without one." She pouted, and that was all put-on, just trying to work him, but there was something in her eyes that wasn't. She needed him, needed to pretend that things were okay. Spike took a breath. She needed him, and he'd made a promise, and he'd do whatever Dawn needed.

Within reason. He couldn't be responsible for giving his girl nightmares, after all. "All right, then, you'll have your story. Lie down, now, get comfy."

She grinned triumphantly as she snuggled down into her pillows, and they shifted around so she could stretch her legs out. Spike made sure to stay facing her, feeling no desire to try to explain, or lie about, the marks on the back of his neck. He turned off the light, and sat in the dimness, tapping an absent counterpoint to her pulse on the night stand as he cast about for a suitable beginning.

"Southampton," he said softly, just when Dawn was about to goad him to get on with it. "1887. Me and Dru and Angelus and Darla were leaving for America. It was my first trip. Dru had been before, but most of her stories about places she'd been were about the stars and the fairies and that. We had to keep inside for the first part of the trip, because it was daytime, but night fell just as we were reaching Land's End. That's where England runs out, and the Channel turns into open sea. It was an amazing thing, to watch the land disappear and look around and see only darkness, water all around, and the stars."

He kept his voice low and steady, rocking ever so slightly so she'd feel the rhythm, and while he was still setting the scene, going on and on ad infinitum about wind and waves and stars and sky, Dawn's breathing evened out, and she was asleep.

 


Angel looked up when Spike came back into the room. He'd been gone just long enough for Angel to give up on worrying things over and go back to brushing up on K'rathi poetics.

Spike closed the door behind him and then just stood there, head slightly bowed, eyes in Angel's direction but not raised enough to be construed as a challenge. He looked small, in Angel's clothes, and thin, and tired, and Angel knew Spike had no more idea what they were doing here than he did, but he knew too that Spike needed him, needed this, desperately. Nothing else would have driven him to lower his head, to expose the nape and submit, and Angel couldn't let him down, couldn't ask for a timeout to negotiate the rules.

Still, he could refrain from letting him stand in the door like that. He pushed back the covers and patted the sheet beside him, and Spike moved, graceful and quick but somehow not hurrying, to the bed. He crawled across, to the spot Angel had indicated, and with a quick confirming glance, curled up beside him. Angel was leaning against the pillow, so it wasn't really in a position for Spike to lay his head on it. He was flat on the mattress in the fetal position, drawn into an impossibly small curve, facing toward Angel. Angel shifted a little, so that the top of Spike's head was against his hip, and laid one hand on the damp silkiness of his hair. He ruffled it absently, and the familiar smell of his shampoo drifted up to him. Spike closed his eyes when Angel touched him, and a moment later he was asleep.

Angel went on reading, turning pages awkwardly with his free left hand, playing idly with Spike's hair whenever he seemed restless. It was getting on toward sunrise, and the words were starting to blur in Angel's inhumanly perfect vision, when Spike suddenly pulled away, sitting bolt upright, one open hand reaching out toward nothing. His chest was heaving, his eyes wide and staring. Angel didn't know what he was seeing, but he had a pretty good idea. He set his hand on Spike's back, ran it up and down his spine until his frantic breathing slowed and his eyes slipped shut. "I didn't save her," he whispered raggedly, shoulders slumping with fresh defeat.

Angel couldn't say a word to that. He turned out the light, set his book aside, and used both hands to tug Spike down to lie on the bed. Spike automatically curled up again, and Angel wrapped himself around the smaller body, absorbing Spike's silent shuddering into his own stillness. "Sleep," he murmured into Spike's hair, putting a hint of command into his voice. Spike obeyed, like he knew he would, leaving Angel to hold him close and stare into the dark, watching the girl he didn't save.

 


He woke the instant Dawn set foot out of her room, tore himself from the comfort of his sire's embrace and the wide soft bed and was out in the hall before he'd quite registered what he was doing. Dawn blinked sleepily at him, standing with her bag dangling from her hand, her hair everywhere, still in her pajamas. "Spike?"

"D'you need anything, pet?"

She shrugged and rubbed her eyes. "Just a bathroom with a towel in it."

Spike ran a hand through his hair. "Right, I'll get you one, shall I?"

"Okay." She turned and went back to her room, and Spike slipped back into Angel's. Angel was still asleep, his hand outstretched over the spot where Spike had been lying a moment before. Spike went quickly to the bathroom and fetched a clean towel.

Dawn was sitting on her bed, pulling what she needed from her bag with the sort of concentration that suggested she wasn't yet firing on all cylinders. Spike handed her the towel. "Big plans for the day?"

She yawned. "Cordelia's taking me and Fred shopping. I guess Fred's sorta their project-person. She was in a demon dimension for five years."

Spike blinked. "Oh. D'you need money?"

Dawn shook her head. "Cordelia's got a card of Angel's, she said he couldn't object if she was buying things for me with it."

Spike nodded. "Good. Good."

Dawn smiled. "Spike. It's daytime. You should be sleeping. Go back to sleep."

Spike rubbed the back of his neck--mostly healed, he noticed--and nodded vaguely.

She pointed to the door. "That way. Sleep. I'll be fine, I won't buy anything crazy."

"Get a helmet, okay? A good one."

Dawn rolled her eyes and stood. "I will. Just go on, don't worry."

Spike nodded and turned and headed back out.

Angel was awake when he got back, lying there watching the door. Spike hesitated at the edge of the bed, and Angel said softly, "Thought I told you to sleep."

"She needed me," he replied sturdily, which was stretching things a bit, but not more than he could get away with. He crawled across the bed, and found himself tucked firmly against his sire's body.

"I mean it this time," Angel muttered into his hair, but Spike didn't need any prompting.

 


Angel woke up in the afternoon, with Spike still asleep in his arms. It was a pleasant contrast from the startlingly bereft feeling of waking up alone a few hours before, and Angel pressed his face into the soft shock of bleached hair and enjoyed the momentary contentment.

Soon enough, reality intruded; a stray glance around the room lighted on the forlorn bits of metal on the dresser, and Angel recalled that Spike needed clothes. Loosening his grip on Spike, Angel rolled onto his back and reached for the phone at the bedside, punching in Cordelia's cell phone number.

Three rings, and then it picked up. "Hello?"

Dawn's voice, and Angel felt an immediate pang of guilt; he'd promised to be here for her, and yet here he was snuggled up to Spike, while Cordelia entertained Dawn. On the other hand, he was almost certainly financing their shopping trip. "Dawn. Isn't this Cordy's phone?"

"Yeah, but as soon as it rang, she said she had a premonition that it was you, calling to check up on me."

Pang. "Are you having fun, then?"

Dawn giggled. "We're shopping, Angel. Dumb question."

Angel felt a little relieved. As long as Dawn was happy. "I was wondering if you ladies could do me a favor. Well, for Spike, really."

"Sure. What's he need?"

Well, now there was a question. Angel forced himself to stick to the simple answer. "Clothes. His got wrecked by that demon's blood. Pair of jeans, t-shirt, you know the stuff he likes."

"Yeah, no problem. Don't worry, I won't let Cordelia buy anything pink."

Angel blinked, as much silenced by the thought of Spike in pink as by his immediate certainty that Cordelia would never try it because it wouldn't flatter his skin tone. "Would she?"

"She tried. We were getting helmets, and she seemed to think Spike's should be pink."

"Oh. That's. A joke."

"Good. I got him a black one. There's no point buying him one if he won't wear it."

"Yeah." Angel frowned. They'd gotten to the part of the phone conversation where he normally hung up, but this was Dawn, and he suspected different standards of phone etiquette applied.

"Gotta go, Angel, we're at the shoe store. Hey, what sizes? For Spike?"

Angel rattled them off and listened, nodding pointlessly, as Dawn repeated them back, then said goodbye. Mission accomplished, he hung up the phone and rolled back over to enjoy a few more minutes of peace before Spike woke up.

 


On the way into the shoe store, Dawn was busy relaying Angel's request to Cordelia, listening to her monologue debate over which thrift stores were most likely to be able to furnish an appropriate punk wardrobe for Spike. That segued immediately into Cordelia exclaiming wildly over a pair of sandals that were obviously perfect for Fred. Fred took the shoes gingerly in her hands, and stared down at them with the same dubious expression she'd turned on all of Cordelia's selections so far. Dawn sank down onto one of the benches and settled in to watch the show.

"At least try them on," Cordelia coaxed. "They're really comfortable, practical--"

"--and versatile, Buffy, you'll love them."

Dawn leaned against her father's side, and they exchanged identical rolls of their blue eyes. This was shoe store number three in the great end-of-summer shopping expedition before Buffy's first year of high school. Dawn had already gotten two pairs of shoes, in the very first store they visited, but of course Buffy had to try on every pair of sandals in Los Angeles, possibly every pair in Southern California, before she could choose one. Or three, probably. Dawn smiled as her dad slipped his arm around her in a loose hug, and wiggled her toes in her new sneakers. Buffy was refusing to even look at the sandals her mom suggested, though Dawn knew she totally would have tried them on if she'd seen them first. Teenagers were so lame. Dawn hoped there wasn't some magical change that came over you when you turned fourteen, that made you stupid and forced you to stop listening to your parents. She'd chosen the shoes she was wearing because Daddy had said they were the prettiest, and she never wanted to have to hate something when Daddy liked it. Dawn looked up at him again and smiled, because he wasn't watching Buffy; he was watching her.

"Whaddya say, sweetie," he whispered, "could we go and get ice cream and come back before they even noticed?"

Dawn grinned and nodded, but just then, Buffy whirled around. "Did you say ice cream?" she asked, and she didn't look lame and stupid anymore, just sort of tired and excited at the same time. "I could totally do ice cream." Buffy looked at Mom, who just shook her head, smiling, and set down the sandals.

"I think we could all stand a break. Ice cream it is."

Dawn jumped to her feet and was running, running, straight past Cordy and Fred, who stared at her, maybe even called her name, out of that store and out of the memory and away into the blinding sunlight. She ran until the tears overtook her, and then she stumbled to sit on a bench, shaking and crying so hard her throat burned, her chest ached, her face tingled. The whole world was constricted down to her sobs, and when she finally had a second to wonder what she was crying for, her dead sister or her dead mom or her deadbeat dad or the fact that none of that had ever happened, Dawn thought that maybe she was just crying because somewhere along the way she'd lost the blue sneakers with the butterflies on the sides.

By the time the headache had kicked in and she'd run out of tears and her breathing settled back to something resembling normal, Cordelia was sitting beside her on the bench. Fred stood a little way off, watching nervously. Dawn wiped futilely at her face. "Sorry," she whispered, and even that much came out broken, and she had to work to get her breathing under control again.

Cordelia just smiled sadly, and stroked her hair. "It's okay, Dawn. Why don't we just," and for a horrible instant Dawn thought she was going to suggest ice cream, and she knew that even though she didn't think she had the energy to go on breathing, she'd be up again and running if Cordy said it, "go back to the hotel and show Angel our loot."

Dawn rubbed at her eyes, and wished for Kleenex. "We've gotta get stuff for Spike. Unless you want him wandering around naked for the rest of the weekend."

"He can borrow some stuff from Angel. Dawn, we don't have to go now."

"No." Dawn heard it, strangely distinct, in her own voice: the patent Summers stubbornness. "I told Angel we'd take care of it. We'll just go get some stuff for Spike, and then we'll go back. Please, Cordy."

Cordelia sighed. "All right, all right. Twist my arm, we'll keep shopping. Come on, the car's back this way."

 


Angel was petting him. One hand ran lingeringly up and down Spike's bare side, from hip to armpit and back, over and over. When Angel began to speak, it was in the offhanded tone that suggested he might just as well be addressing the bedside lamp as Spike; it meant Spike had tacit permission to go on pretending to be asleep for the foreseeable future.

"I think I'm going to get up and take a shower in a second. It's after three now, and even if Cordelia and Dawn want to shop all day, they'll have to have mercy on Fred and come back pretty soon."

The hand on his side stilled, prodded gently at his ribs, an assessing touch rather than a caress. "You haven't been feeding well, have you? I know you must hate butcher's blood at least as much as I do, but you shouldn't starve yourself." Angel's voice stayed in the same tone that assured him the question was rhetorical, but the little nuzzle in his hair let Spike know that he was meant to pay attention all the same. "You ought to eat something. Dawn and Cordy are going to get you some clothes, so you'll be all set once they get back."

Angel fell silent, and lay still at Spike's back for a moment, then got up and went to the bathroom. Spike didn't move, didn't even open his eyes, until he heard the shower turn on, and the sound of his sire's tuneless humming heralded the beginning of a hygiene-and-song-fest. He rolled onto his back then, stared up at the ceiling until Angel started to form words. When he recognized Manilow as the artist to be mangled, Spike rolled quickly off the bed and headed for the hallway. Best to follow instructions; he was supposed to go and eat.

He located the fridge stocked with blood packs, and quickly divined which shelf held the blood mugs, and which were kept for human use. He took one already visibly red-stained inside; mustn't upset Angel's pet humans by wrecking a beloved coffee cup. He put the full mug into the microwave and stood licking absently at the empty packet, listening to the hum of the microwave, trying to keep his preternatural senses from creeping back to the sound of his sire's tone-deaf maundering. By the time his meal was warmed to his satisfaction, Spike had begun tapping out a beat on the counter, muttering more than humming along with it.

When the microwave chirped, he plugged his nose before opening the door, sparing the bubbling contents only a quick wary glance before knocking it back in one continuous gulp, like a child taking some noxious tonic. He rinsed the mug quickly, before the dregs had time to get all clotted on the porcelain-- he'd spent forty-three straight nights at the Watcher's flat, and at least half of them had featured sustained bitching about the washing up. If her ladyship Cordelia had to do as much, she might break a nail, and Angel would surely hear about it. For years.

When the water was turned off and the mug was in the sink, Spike stood staring at the counter, tapping one bare foot on the floor, half-consciously muttering punk beats as antidote to Angel's almost-audible warbling. It was otherwise very quiet in the hotel, just the faint creaks of a building getting on in its years, settling down. Spike had never been good with quiet, and never good at keeping still. He was also never good at being alone, and yet here he was, his sire sure to be sequestered with his primping and singing for the better part of the next hour, and Dawn, his charge, off enjoying the eminently human and female pursuit of shopping, learning at the feet of a master, no doubt. Just as she must have been learning from Buffy, up to three weeks ago, and Spike choked that thought back with a will. He was good at not thinking about things; it had kept him not-dead for quite some time now. He could manage the not-thinking, as long as he could have motion, and sound. He started singing to himself, screamy and a little off-key, just the way it was meant to be, though he kept it improperly quiet. Just loud enough to keep his own ears occupied, as he set off for a good wander round the hotel.

He chose the stairs furthest from the occupied rooms, and went up to the third floor before he ventured out of the stairwell. He didn't know what he'd been expecting, exactly, but it was just an old, quiet, dusty, creaky hotel. Some of the doors along the corridor stood open, and those that were closed weren't locked. Spike wandered among them, making his way up to the fourth floor and then the fifth, letting his a capella punk medley grow louder as he became confident that Angel couldn't hear him. Peering into the ninth room on the fifth floor, he broke off in mid-shout and smiled. The room was filled with cast-off furniture from at least three decades, including an end table covered with a scattering of knickknacks. One was an elephant, carved of ivory, with gilt tips on its tusks. Spike picked it up, hefting it gently in one hand. "It's so very queer, cousin Colin," he murmured. He closed his hand around the little curio, and it wasn't until his knuckles brushed the silky material of his borrowed pajama bottoms that Spike remembered he didn't have a pocket to tuck it into, nor anyone to give the pilfered gift to who'd understand. He was pretty certain Dawn hadn't read the book, or even seen the movie. He touched the cold ivory to his lips, and replaced it among the others. Back out in the corridor, he was looking around for something else to explore, when he heard light, quick steps in the stairwell.

He went onto the landing and peered down. "Dawn?"

She looked up at him from two floors below and raised a paper bag. "I come bearing gifts." She almost managed the smile, and Spike hid his cringe as he hurried down to meet her. If the mere thought of her going shopping had reminded him of Buffy, he couldn't imagine that the reality had gone easier for Dawn. When they met on the fourth floor landing, he hesitated, standing at arm's length, trying not to stare at her reddened eyes. "Buy lots of pretty things, then?"

She shrugged, looking down at the bag in her hands. "Got a helmet for each of us, and some decals for mine. Sparkles and stuff."

Spike nodded. "Fred do all right?"

The expression could only be called a grimace, and he hated to see it on Dawn's face. "Better than I did, by the time we were done."

"Well. Looks like you got back in one piece, anyway."

Dawn mustered up a half-convincing smile for him, finally raising her eyes. "Yeah, I guess I did." She held out the bag. "Anyway, I hope this stuff is okay. Cordelia thinks you should try wearing blue. She says it'll bring out your eyes."

"Well, ta for the fashion advice." Spike glanced around, and Dawn rolled her eyes and headed for the hall door. As soon as it had closed behind her, Spike shucked off the overlarge poncy pajama trousers and pulled a pair of black jeans out of the bag and quickly on. They were fresh-laundered by the smell, soft with age and exactly the right size, thank all gods. There was a t-shirt folded beneath, black, faded slightly lighter than the jeans, thin but with some wear left. He doubted Dawn had the sort of thrift-store acuity this haul suggested, and made a mental note to find a suitably backhanded way to compliment Cordelia on her selections.

He folded the discarded trousers neatly, and dropped them into the paper bag on top of the extra t-shirt, which was gray. Then, with only a very small sigh of trepidation, he headed after Dawn.

 


Dawn hurried down the hallway. Spike would follow her as soon as he was dressed, and she didn't want to cry in front of him. She came to the place where, two floors below, the hallway formed a T, leading off to her room on the right and Angel's up ahead. Here, the space widened into an odd little lounge, filled with sheeted furniture, looking like the ghosts of a living room set.

The nearest piece was a love seat. Dawn peeled back the dust cover to reveal faded green velvet upholstery, and dropped the cloth in an untidy heap before curling up on the far side from the stairwell, facing away from the direction Spike would come. She laid her head against the low back of the sofa, rubbing her cheek lightly over the worn luxury of the velvet as she stared at the wall before her, trying to get herself under control. Spike was going to think she was totally pathetic.

He'd be about right, too.

Dawn didn't hear a sound, just felt the shift of the cushion beneath her as a weight settled behind her, on the other side of the seat. She closed her eyes, flushing hot as tears leaked onto the softness beneath her cheek, trying to breathe evenly despite the weight that seemed to press in on her sternum.

Finally, Spike said, "Should I go away, then, Droplet?"

Dawn couldn't stifle a smile at that, despite everything. She shook her head, not trusting her voice, and felt the movement of the couch cushions as Spike shifted closer to her. A brief stillness, and then she felt what might have been his fingers, ghosting along her hair, not quite touching.

"D'you want to go back home?" he offered after another few minutes. "Maybe Willow . . ." would know what to do with a perpetually hysterical teenage girl, Dawn filled in silently. She shrugged, and Spike snorted, though it sounded more amused than impatient. "Yes or no, ducks. Home?"

Dawn tried to actually think about what she wanted, then, but all she could think of was the dead dark silence she'd walked into last night, and then she really did feel like she couldn't breathe. Even before she could shake her head, Spike's hand was on her shoulder. "Easy, easy. I'll take that as a no."

Dawn took a couple of breaths, and practiced shaping the words before she actually spoke them. "What if I can't?"

Spike let go of her shoulder and touched her hair again, lightly, almost like he was petting her. "Can't face going home, you mean?"

Dawn nodded, and Spike said, "Well, you will go back to Sunnydale tomorrow, because I don't break promises to witches as powerful as your new housemates, and I said you wouldn't miss school. But if the house is too difficult, we can crash at Rupert's flat. I can vouch for his sofa, it's fine for sleeping."

At the word we, some of the tightness seizing her lungs eased, and Dawn found she could draw a breath. "You won't . . ." God, stupid crushing little girl, she couldn't believe she was about to say this, but she had to know. "You won't leave me? Because I think, if you were there. I could."

Spike made a throat-clearing noise that Dawn thought might just mean embarrassment, or something else mortal and beneath his dignity, and it was probably a good thing they couldn't see each others' faces. "I won't leave you, Dawn. I know I've let you down, but I'll do this. I won't leave you alone when you need me."

His hand tightened on her shoulder, and Dawn reached back to touch her fingers to his. "It's scary," she whispered. "It's my house, but it's like it's not home without Mom and Buffy, it's just this empty place where they used to be, and I can't think of anything except they're not there." Quite an accomplishment; her voice had only cracked about three times.

Spike scooted closer again; if he had body heat she would have felt it against her back, and as it was he was practically spooning her. "Dawn, I know it's hard, and there's a lot of memories in that house, but it's still your home. You've got to hold on to that. I know you don't want to remember the past at all right now, but all the good things belong in that house. All the happiness is there. You belong there, do you understand?"

Dawn could only shrug, and hold on to his hand. Spike maybe sort of sighed, vampire-quiet, and snaked his other arm around her waist, pulling her back against him. "We'll manage it, Dawn. You'll see."

 


Angel sensed them as soon as he stepped out of the stairwell, and froze. He'd meant to find both Spike and Dawn, but if they'd found each other so quickly, it probably wasn't because Dawn couldn't wait to tell him about the shoes she'd bought. He knew, from the first step he took toward the sound of one heartbeat and two low voices, that he was intruding. But still, it was Spike, and Dawn, and he had to see. Angel made his way carefully down the hall, employing every ounce of vampiric stealth he'd ever possessed, since he had to keep hidden not only from Dawn, but from Spike. It took a little careful maneuvering to find a decent vantage point, crouching in the partially-open door of an empty room, but finally he was able to watch them. They were sitting sideways on an old green love seat, the only uncovered piece of furniture in the lounge. Both of them were facing his direction, but Spike was intent on Dawn, and Dawn seemed intent on not crying.

Angel tried not to hear the words they murmured between them; it felt like less of an invasion if he was only watching. He imagined sketching this scene, the diffuse light of late afternoon filtering in from windows at the ends of the branching corridors, the sharp angles of the sofa giving way to the echoed curves of two sets of hunched shoulders. Two tilted heads, mirroring each other. Dawn's head canted left, leaning against the cushions, while Spike's leaned right, giving him a more informative angle of view on the back of her head. Two crumpled faces, sharing the same grief, the same frustrated loneliness in different guises. Both hurting, but separated by the invisible divide down the middle of the seat.

He observed with something bigger and warmer than approval the arm that spanned the abyss, and then obliterated it. When he saw the way that touch eased them both, Angel wanted to cheer. At the burial, two weeks past, Dawn and Spike had seemed like strangers, for all the comfort they could offer one another, but now...

Spike's words, muttered against Dawn's shoulder, suddenly cut through. "Is it helping any, pet? Being here?"

Angel felt himself grow still, inside and out, as Dawn's silence stretched, her grip on Spike tightening. "I think," she said finally, pausing for a fortifying breath, "I think Angel pretty much saved my life."

When he saw Spike's nod, more than acknowledgment, commiseration, Angel closed his eyes and slipped away, leaving his own to each other.

 


Spike kept his eyes on his toes, concentrating on working them underneath the bottom laces of Dawn's pristinely white sneakers. She wriggled her feet under his, and he glanced up and returned her tentative, tired smile. He wasn't sure how long they'd been sitting here together, alternating conversation and comfortable silence, but Dawn was starting to have the look of a tot up past her bedtime, and Spike knew the sun wasn't even down yet.

"Spike?"

He arched an eyebrow; that careful smile had turned to a suppressed giggle, and her eyes had taken on a mischievous glitter.

"What's going on with you and Angel?"

Spike did several things at once, covering the nervesick twist of his guts with a smirk as he reached out his senses for the first time in hours, trying to locate his sire. He was downstairs, allowing Cordelia to present Fred's new wardrobe, all his attention taken up in making ‘ooh' noises at the appropriate intervals, and Spike felt only slightly better; at least he wouldn't know *immediately* if his child said the wrong thing here.

I'm not the one who's supposed to think about it, he most certainly couldn't say. He's in charge and I just follow instructions, while it was true as far as it went, would only confuse Dawn, and what if Angel didn't want him saying anything? Dawn was Buffy's baby sister, and Buffy had been something huge to Angel, and Spike had no right to interfere there.

His palms were damp; he knew his heart wasn't racing, but still his chest felt constricted, his head light. And all the time he was just smiling coolly at Dawn. She shoved lightly at his knee. "Oh, come on, Spike. You're not Riley, you can't pull that ‘not at liberty to say' routine on me."

Hand job also probably wasn't the right answer. "Just trying to figure what I can say to an innocent little girl like yourself."

Eye roll; he was on the right track. "Oh, please, Spike. They taught us about anal sex in fifth grade sex ed."

Spike frowned, sidetracked. "Fifth... what grade are you in now?"

"Ninth."

He realized that, as an evil being, he should be delighted, but Spike found himself as horrified as any soul-carrying Victorian. "They teach little ten-year-old girls about that?"

Dawn shrugged, seeming suddenly older than he'd thought she was. "They try to get to us before we're actually tempted to try it. But that doesn't answer my question, Spike. You and Angel, are you..." The amusement had faded; she was serious now, truly curious instead of just teasing, which was ever so much more dangerous. Spike's hands clenched into fists, out of sight against the cushions, and his mind raced. He'd never had to answer questions before, especially not from a little mortal girl who really, no matter what she'd been taught in school, shouldn't know about these things, didn't know nearly as much about them as she likely thought she did.

"It's complicated," he hedged, and that earned him a little one-eyebrow arch that gave him the strangest sensation of being able to see his own reflection. He sighed, choosing words carefully. There were things that were true no matter what, that had to be safe to say. "He's my sire, Dawn. Him and Dru, they made me who and what I am, and we were family, and still are and always will be." He'd lost her, by the blank intentness of her gaze, but he thought maybe he was finding something, too. He kept talking, feeling his way. "The thing about being immortal is... we accumulate years, but we don't actually grow, or change. And that means, other things don't change either. Angel will always be my sire, my family, no matter about the soul, or the chip, or destiny, or any of it. That's immortal, and it doesn't change. But what it means is complicated." Spike stopped, frustrated; the words were so inadequate, so opaque and small. The things that could be expressed in words, he didn't dare say, and the things he was certain of, he couldn't find words for, except stupid ones like ‘complicated'.

"It's the blood," he said after a moment, trying not to feel Dawn's steady and inhumanly patient gaze. "When you're turned, all your mortal blood is drained, and you take in a vampire's blood. Your sire's. And it's always in you, after that, it's part of your new immortal body, making you what you are. So as much as I'm a vampire, I belong to Dru and through her to Angel.

"The thing is, blood has tastes in it, it's not all the same. Every person has their own flavor, and it changes every moment. In the blood, you can taste their fear, their pain, you can taste happiness and anger and lust and life and death and everything. And the thing is, it's all there together when you drink it in. Complicated." He looked, but Dawn had the same expression she usually wore during a particularly gripping story; she was hanging on every word, but she had no idea what he was talking about.

He took a breath and tried again, wondering briefly why he was so determined to explain it to her. She probably didn't actually want to know anything other than Do you like him? and Have you kissed? But then, he couldn't answer those questions.

"It's different for humans," he said quietly, and that did catch Dawn's attention for real. "You don't have the blood, not the same way, not the knowing of it. You can only know each other with words, and words can't be complicated, not really. You have to say just one word at a time, and it can only be one thing at a time, and that's how you learn to think about everything. You're alive, or you're dead. You like a person, or you don't. You love, or hate, or don't care. You're angry or afraid or sad or happy. Other people are family or friends or lovers or teachers or mortal enemies or strangers. For you, things are simple. You give a thing a name, a word, and that's what it is. For us, there's just the blood, and the blood all runs together, and it's." He frowned fiercely at his knees, as one of Dawn's small warm hands crept over his. She squeezed gently, but he couldn't meet her eyes. "Complicated."

 


Dawn walked slowly down the stairs into the lobby, looking for signs of human life. She'd sat on the couch with Spike in silence until he suddenly jumped up, announcing that he could hear her stomach rumbling. He'd ordered her to go find some dinner and call home, then bolted for the stairs, running his hands through his already-deranged hair and muttering something about not enough fags in this whole city...

There were times when Dawn was suddenly reminded that she was the sanest person within shouting distance. It was sort of disturbing.

The lobby was empty, but the door to Angel's office was slightly opened, so Dawn walked over and peeked in. Angel was sitting at the desk, staring fixedly at its blank surface. Dawn didn't move or make a sound, but he startled suddenly and looked up at her. "Dawn. Cordelia went out to get Chinese. She said she didn't need to ask you what you wanted, but you could call her..."

"No, it's fine. We were talking earlier about how you can't get decent take-out in Sunnydale." Angel blinked, and nodded, and Dawn frowned. "I guess that's not a problem for vamps, is it? People taste pretty much the same everywhere?"

Angel shook his head, though Dawn had expected him to just look horrified and refuse to talk about it. "There's actually a lot of individual variation in blood--poor people, people who've been working hard, sick people, they don't taste as good."

"Oh." And then Angel seemed to realize what he'd said, and who to, and he did look sort of horrified. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times, but Dawn just said, "Remind me to, like, have a cold all the time or something." She gave him a smile, and he managed a smile back.

"Did you, um, need anything else?"

Dawn shrugged. "Spike told me to call home, let Willow know I'm not dead in a ditch or anything."

"Of course. You can call from here. I should probably go, um, see how Spike is..."

Dawn didn't mean to say anything, but he froze in the act of standing up, so her face must have given something away.

He looked all shy all of a sudden, nervous again. "Did Spike... say something to you? About..." About me? Weirder and weirder, and yet, it was like Spike had said, complicated, but here was Angel worrying about him, after all the shit they'd done to each other.

"I think he was going to have a cigarette. Or, like, several. He might, um, want a few minutes."

Angel's face went sort of blank, but he just nodded. "Thanks."

Dawn went over to the desk and stared at the phone, pretending that she wasn't watching Angel stand there like he was afraid to leave the office in case he was invading Spike's space.

"He said..." Dawn bit her lip, but Angel was staring at her now, she couldn't not say it. "He said that you and him are family, and that that doesn't change, no matter what."

The slightest tense movement, maybe a nod.

"I just thought..." Dawn felt the smile come out all wobbly. "I could see wanting some family that doesn't change, that's all." Family that didn't walk off, or die, didn't leave you behind all alone. Dawn knew how much a person could want that.

She wasn't looking, but she thought Angel touched her hair; she turned her head, and the office door was closing behind him.

Dawn sighed. Time to call home like a good little girl. She dialed slowly, Spike's words still running through her mind. You don't have the blood, not the same way, not the knowing of it. She and Buffy had shared blood, though, even more than normal sisters. She wondered if it was sort of the same, if having been made from Buffy, her blood ran in Dawn like Angel's in Spike. She wondered what it would have been like to be able to know that without being told, not just to belong to someone but to be able to taste the belonging, hold it in your mouth like chocolate.

"--Hello? Hello? Dawn, is that you? Is something wrong?"

"Willow." Dawn shook her head, trying to rid it of the mental images. "It's me. I'm fine. Just distracted." Just a total spaz, basically, and, okay, she understood that Buffy was gone, that she was all alone now. "I though I should, um, call and check in. Were you worried about me?"

"Um, a little, yeah." Willow sounded hurt and sarcastic at the same time; Dawn settled herself on the edge of the desk and hunched over, elbows on knees. Even if Willow didn't actually end up yelling at her, Dawn could feel the disapproval, wanted to hide from it, even if she couldn't bring herself to hang up. "Dawnie, you shouldn't have just taken off like that. You should have said something, if you didn't want to go home, Tara and I didn't have to go to that meeting, or you could have gone to Xander's."

Dawn held back the laugh that threatened, knowing it would come out sounding all harsh and wrong. Yeah, she could have gone to Xander's, and played board games with him and Anya and slept on the couch while they had sex as quietly as they could manage in the bedroom, which wasn't actually all that quiet. Could have sat around with them, keeping them from making each other feel better, and they could have all been miserable together while Anya kicked everyone's asses at Life or Monopoly or Scrabble or Chutes and Ladders or something. Or, if she didn't want to do that, she could have gotten whiny and clingy for the millionth time in two weeks and totally prevented Willow and Tara from trying to get on with their lives, just because she didn't have a life of her own to get on with. Yeah, that would have been really, really cool. Why hadn't she thought of that?

"I didn't know til I got there," she said quietly. "I thought I was okay and then I got there and–-" Don't say Spike wasn't there, they'll crucify him, "and it was just so weird and Spike asked what he could do and I just had to leave, so we left."

"Dawn, I just. I just don't think running away is going to help. I mean, it doesn't solve anything. Buffy--"

"I didn't run away, Willow! I didn't just disappear, okay? Angel told me I could visit and I know I didn't, like, get you to sign my permission slip or whatever I'm supposed to do, but I left you a note and I didn't ditch my babysitter or anything. I'm just visiting Angel and Cordelia. I was invited."

Big huge guilt-inducing sigh, but Dawn thought it was an unspeakably low blow to try to throw that Buffy-ran-away thing in her face, and she was not going to cry, she wasn't, she wouldn't. "I just wish you'd said something. We've all been worried about you."

"Yeah, well, who was I supposed to ask, exactly? You? Tara? The bot?" She should've, actually, should've gone down to the table in the basement where the half-repaired bot resided and switched it on and asked its permission; it would've wanted to come along, of course, since Spike was involved, but then she could have said she had Buffy's permission. In a sense.

Except that she couldn't even bring herself to open the basement door, these days, so... maybe not.

"Look, Dawnie, I don't want to fight. It's okay. We just want to know you're okay."

Dawn wrapped one arm tight around her stomach. "Yeah, well. I'm fine. I went shopping today, with Cordelia. We had a good time." I bought a motorcycle helmet, had a nervous breakdown, and shoplifted two bottles of black nail polish. "I've got my own room here, and Angel says I can use it anytime I want to visit."

"That's... that's nice, Dawnie."

"Yeah. Anyway, I think Cordelia just got back with dinner. I better go."

"Okay. You're coming home tomorrow?"

"Yeah," Dawn forced some fake cheer into her voice to cover the churning of her stomach, the sob she could feel tightening her lungs. "Wouldn't want to miss school."

"We'll see you then."

"Yeah." Dawn hung up the phone and slipped down off the desk. She went around and crawled into the soft leather desk chair, burrowing her face against it. It didn't smell quite like Spike's coat, but it was close enough. She hugged her knees, and tried to stop shaking.

 


Spike crouched in the shadow of the courtyard's western wall, knees to chest as he sucked down his fifth cigarette, the lower half of the duster puddling on the ground around him. With hands that were only now beginning to stop shaking, he reached out and neatened the four butts on the ground before him into a little row, like empty shot glasses on the bar. Another two or three, and he might be ready to go inside, face Angel or Dawn, though, he devoutly hoped, not both of them at the same time. Made his head hurt just thinking of it.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out the only slightly crushed pack of smokes, tapping out a sixth and lighting it from the end of the fifth, which he then stubbed out and laid beside the others. With the fresh fag firmly in place, he chanced a peek up at the dimming sky, blowing smoke toward the deeper blue of the east.

Smokes were good. Smokes would keep him from biting the inside of his lip til the blood ran, and the taste of tobacco and tar or whatever the hell was in these things, formaldehyde and rat poison, would keep him from trying to remember what his sire's blood tasted like, trying to taste it in the split of his own lip. Too damned much thinking, masquerading as talking, and at this rate he'd never get through this holiday unscathed. Spike started a seventh cigarette, squinting at the eastern sky. Was that a star? A planet? A cell-phone satellite? Best not to go making wishes on things that might turn out to be airplanes instead of stars. Best not to go making wishes anyway.

He stubbed out the last cigarette half smoked, and brushed the lot into the landscaping as he stood. Time to face up, act like a man--you treat me like a man--and just get it over with. Spike scrubbed a hand over his face, and pulled out one last fag, just to kill the taste of that particular memory. He savored that cigarette, watched the smoke float up and away, like incense offered to God, like all those nights spent watching her window. His apparently irrepressible poet's brain spun a few soppy lines about the smoke rising to heaven, to remind her that he was still down here keeping his promise, and then Spike tossed down that cigarette as well, and headed inside. No more thinking, he just had to do, or he'd run mad.

Angel was in the lobby when he slipped back inside, staring fixedly into the weapons chest. Spike checked for Dawn, heard her in the office, talking on the phone, and quickly returned his full attention to his sire. Girl clearly needed a moment alone. Angel closed the door on the assortment of shiny sharp and pointy things, and went and flung himself down on a couch. He glanced up at Spike and patted the seat beside him, and Spike, like a good boy, crossed the space and sat down. He automatically drew himself up small, knees to chest, head ducked below the level of Angel's even though they sat side-by-side by his direction. Angel's hand, just as automatically, settled in Spike's hair, dextrous fingers trying to tame the hopelessly disarranged whorls.

After a couple of minutes, Spike was utterly relaxed and convinced that not-thinking was the way to go, and Angel murmured, "Did you and Dawn have a nice talk?"

Spike tried not to actually tense, but went guiltily still all the same, drawing an almost subliminal shh from Angel, and more petting. "Yeah."

"That's good," Angel said quietly. "She'll probably be a good influence on you; it seems like Buffy was. And I'm sure you'll take good care of her."

Spike tried, with limited success, to bury his face in his knees. "Course."

And that was apparently that; Angel went on petting him, and slowly, slowly, Spike relaxed, so that the front doors slamming open and a few humans staggering in seemed like the coming of Judgement to his comfort-drowned senses.

It was Wesley and Gunn, supporting Cordelia between them. She had her head resting on Wesley's shoulder. "We found her outside," he said, as they lowered Cordelia, who seemed unharmed though he hardly needed a vampire's senses to hear the rushing of her blood, to the spot on the couch that Angel had vacated as they came in. Spike, belatedly, got to his feet, stalking quickly away from the humans. Another quick check; Dawn was still, well... Still best left to herself.

Angel was crouching in front of Cordelia, looking intent but not frantic, so apparently this sort of thing happened from time to time. "Did you have a vision?"

Cordelia muttered something unladylike, and nodded like her head was about to come off. Spike inched closer. So Cordelia had the Sight, did she? Seemed to manage better with it than Dru had done. Quieter, at least.

"I saw..." One finely manicured hand sketched a vague shape in the air. "This demon. It was huge. There was so much blood, people screaming... It had four arms, and big long claws... I think it was near here. Oh God, Angel, I think it was coming here." Her eyes flashed open, and just like his princess she was scared of what she'd seen and looking to Daddy for comfort.

Four arms, and coming this way... Spike glanced at Angel, but there was no sign of recognition. Had the soul messed with his memory? Spike went and knelt down beside Cordelia, putting on his gentlest voice. "Did you see its head, ducks?"

Her eyes screwed shut again, face twisted in fear or pain or both, but she nodded. "Did it have a sort of crest, running across its head, ear to ear? Red?" Eyes open again, looking stunned and maybe harboring a glimmer of... admiration? Probably just hysteria. "And the claws on its hands, they were long and sharp on three hands, but short on the fourth?" Another nod, and Spike jumped to his feet. Action at last. Serious demon- bashing, just the thing.

"It's gotta be Pesrioth, Ang, or his twin brother out for revenge. That mojo you did on him the last time should've put him out of the way for good. You'll have to fix up a new version of the spell. The humans can help you with that, and I'll go track him down, try to keep him from doing too much damage. You can find us when you've got the stuff together and turn him to stone or whatever it was."

Spike was at the weapons chest, reaching for a sword, when Angel's voice stopped him cold. "Spike."

And with that single syllable, spoken just so, realization rushed in. He'd just paraded his sire's forgetfulness before his subalterns, and presumed to issue orders for dealing with the present crisis, and his skin crawled coldly. Spike knew with a deathly certainty that not a millimeter of Angel's claim remained carved into his skin. He'd just buggered everything, acting as though belonging to Angel was no more than a game, to be cast off in moments of urgency.

Without noticeable pause, Angel said quietly, "I don't want you facing this thing alone. If Gunn and Wes go with you, you can all keep it distracted, and I can call Wesley and give him the incantation over the phone, which will save tracking you down." There were sounds of assent from the humans, and Spike grabbed a weapon--something shiny, he wasn't really paying attention--and turned to follow them, keeping his eyes to the ground. As much as everything in him longed to look to his sire for some kind of reassurance, Spike knew he didn't want to see whatever was in Angel's face right now.

A hard hand caught his arm as he went by, and Angel whispered, too low for the humans to catch, "You have to come back, you know. Dawn is still here." And with that his sire released him, and Spike hurried on, toward the certainty of a good fight.

 


Angel got Cordelia settled with a glass of water and a couple of tablets of painkillers, and then headed to his office to get the books he would need to set up the spell. Dawn jumped a little when he opened the door, looking up at him wide-eyed from his desk chair. "Dinner?" she asked after a pause, blinking quickly.

"Oh." Had Cordelia even made it to the restaurant? "Dinner is delayed. We have a demon to fight. We'll call for delivery."

Dawn nodded, visibly pulling herself together. She stood up as he went to the bookshelves and began pulling out volumes, trying to remember everything he could about the last time they'd run into this thing, over a hundred years ago, two souls and a stint in hell since.

"So, is there anything I can do?" Angel looked over, five books cradled in one arm and another in his hand. Dawn had her hands jammed into her pockets, looking certain that he'd send her off to amuse herself while the grown-ups took care of everything.

"Actually, yeah." He fought down a half-dozen memories of Buffy, complaining about having to keep Dawn at the library after school, and how hard, and yet vitally necessary, it was to keep her out of Giles' books, but that had been when she was a little kid, eleven or twelve years old. Obviously it was different now, and anyway she was the only person left to help him who wasn't suffering from post-traumatic shopping or mystical hangover. Angel grabbed the Ghirellis Codex from the top shelf and held it out for Dawn to take.

She followed him back out to the lobby, and took a seat on the couch opposite Cordelia while Angel went to dump his share of the books on the desk. "Angel?" she called. "I can't read this."

"Trust me," he replied, coming back with a scrap of paper in hand, "you don't want to." He scribbled down the sequence of three glyphs that the Codex's alphabet used to signify Pesrioth, and handed the paper to Dawn. "Just look for that pattern. It might be in there more than once, but the stuff we need will have that in it."

Dawn nodded, and with a determined air, opened the volume to the first page and started searching. Cordelia stood up, a little shaky, and Angel said, right on cue, "I think we can manage this, Cordy. You've already done your part. Why don't you go lie down?" She shot him a grateful look, and headed for the office, closing the door delicately behind her.

That left him alone with the stack of tomes he'd selected, and the sound of Dawn's finger skimming faithfully across every line of the only book that had ever given Angelus nightmares. He opened a book, flipping through, searching for some clue about the incantation he needed to adapt. He tried to remember the last time, but he was reasonably certain that he and Darla had terrorized a couple of human scholars into doing the difficult bits. All he really remembered was spending three weeks being furious with Spike, since according to some suitably self-serving contortion of logic it was all his fault, and wasn't that a concentration-destroying suite of mental images. Bound wrists, pale, reddened, tantalizingly close to bleeding. The way his head snapped when he was thrown to the floor, honey-colored curls tumbling. The way leather tore like paper under his hands when he'd been too impatient to unfasten Spike's boots. The way his ribs stood out after he'd been starved for two weeks. The sound...

Angel scrubbed at his eyes with one hand, and focused on the books, but now he was remembering how it had been, after, when he'd finally succeeded in teaching Spike whatever lesson that had been, the ten straight days of silent cringing. The mad impulse to order Spike to smirk and tease and argue.

Angelus had never known what to do with him either.

And now... he stared at the doors, unseeing, Spike in his mind's eye marching out all over again, holding a broadsword cack-handed and with his head down, contrite and horrified, but with that despairing stubbornness that meant he knew he couldn't be forgiven and wasn't going to embarrass himself trying.

It was such a stupid thing, and he was an idiot to have let it happen. Angelus certainly wouldn't have, and Spike had been trusting him to actually act like his sire for a few minutes, to keep him in line. Especially so soon, and knowing Spike as he did, he should have been ready for a little misstep, should have kept him on a short leash, should have put him on notice to mind himself the first instant he started questioning Cordelia. But no, he'd been to busy worrying over her, too afraid to make some gesture that would set Wes and Gunn to wondering about him, and he'd just let Spike take all the rope he needed to hang himself. Hang them both.

Angel sighed, flipping through the next few pages before shutting the book before him and pulling out the next from the stack. He stole another quick glance up and froze; a slender, small girl, sitting on his couch, one leg tucked under her and the other splayed out in a posture he knew as well as his own, dark blonde hair shielding her face from his gaze. He pressed one hand hard to the desk, steadying himself, and forced himself to see. It was Dawn sitting there, not some shade of Buffy.

No matter what the memories, he was glad of Dawn's presence; it meant Spike had to come back, and that meant that no matter how little use Spike had for him now, at least they would have a chance to talk things out.

 


Dawn picked up the scrap of paper and slid it across the page, squinting at the symbols just above her finger. After giving one false alarm--Angel had looked nauseated as he told her that, no, that definitely wasn't it--she was determined not to say anything unless she was sure she had something that was at least potentially what they were looking for. Still, it looked like a match. Dawn rubbed the back of her neck and stretched her legs a little as she stood. Angel had gone into his office a couple of times while she was searching, once just to check on Cordelia and once coming back with some candles and parchment and a little box. He was now hunched over the desk, working intently. Dawn, holding the book open and keeping her finger planted on the spot, slipped quietly across the lobby to stand by the desk.

She didn't say anything, waiting at his side until he sat up slightly, raising the old-fashioned pen from the page. "Got something?"

Dawn ducked her head, still embarrassed about the last time. "I think so. I mean, it might not be the right part, but that's definitely the pattern you gave me, and I think it's repeated later on the page, so that seemed to make it more likely..." Angel took the book from her hands, smiling slightly at her Xander-like babble, and Dawn let the words trail off, bouncing a little on her heels as she waited for his verdict.

His smile turned to a grin. "You got it, Dawn. Perfect." She couldn't help grinning back.

Angel looked down at the parchment before him. He'd decorated each of the corners with complicated swirls and symbols like the ones in the book, and now he switched to a piece of scrap paper, glancing back and forth between Dawn's book and another to compose a couple of lines of glyphs. Dawn watched, fascinated. She remembered Buffy making some comment once about Angel being quite the artist, but she'd never been willing to explain it to Dawn, and that was about the time she got really, really good at keeping her diary hidden. Still, Dawn could see what Buffy had been talking about; Angel's hands were incredibly steady, and even the quickly-written lines looked gorgeous.

Angel closed the books, slamming shut the covers of the Codex with especial vehemence, and set them aside. "Dawn? I need your help here," he said.

Dawn stared at him in confusion. "This..." Horrible thought, but she had to ask, "you don't, like, need my blood for this, do you?"

Angel shook his head. "Nothing like that. But the spell requires two hands, writing the words, and two voices, speaking the incantation. Wesley will be the other voice, but I need you to do the writing." He set a piece of parchment before her. "Just copy what's on my sheet. It doesn't have to be identical, just do the best you can."

Dawn stared, even as Angel pressed a wood-handled pen into her hand and she tried to get her fingers adjusted to it. "All those letters..."

"Don't think of it as writing. It's just drawing, just different designs. You can do this. Don't worry."

"But... Spike's out there, and Wes and Gunn. If I do this wrong--"

"Then we'll just try it again." Angel's hand closed around hers, steadying her grip on the pen, guiding her to dip it in the ink. "The first time this happened, Darla and I did the ink, and Spike and Dru held the candles. Drusilla was so fascinated by the flame she set her eyelashes on fire, and it took us hours to get everything set up again, but we still got it done in the end."

Dawn blinked, rubbing at one eye with her free hand. "I'll, um. Try not to set my eyelashes on fire."

Angel nodded sternly. "See that you don't. I'm sure you wouldn't heal as quickly as she did." He gestured encouragingly toward her blank page, and Dawn, staring at the upper left corner of his sheet, began plotting the first line. Angel, resuming his own work, placed his arm so that Dawn's view was unblocked, and soon she was lost in the precise work, dark swoops and dots and curls, the angles and inflections of the individual characters. She blew on the damp ink, dipping her pen over and over, noticing only distantly the ache in her shoulders and the sweat that beaded along her spine.

When she reached the lower right corner of the page, Dawn was surprised to realize she was finished; she'd copied the entire spell. It was Angel who stood quietly at her side, now, watching attentively. "You have a good hand, Dawn." She flushed with pleasure, even as her comparing eye caught the innumerable flaws in her own copy. "Are you sure it's good enough to work?"

Angel nodded. "If they were exactly the same, it would be as if a single hand had made them, and that's not what we want." He reached out and dialed Wesley's number from the desk phone, hitting the button to switch it to speaker mode.

It rang four times before Wesley picked up. Breathlessly, he said, "Angel... If you're not calling to say the incantation is ready... You're fired."

Angel frowned. "It's ready. Are you all right?"

"So far. You might have mentioned that this thing had a personal grudge against Spike."

The frown on his face deepened, and Dawn wondered if it covered the same nervous twist that seized her own stomach.

"He's not hurt?"

"Oh, no. I believe he gives new meaning to the phrase ‘unholy joy'." Faintly, in the background, Dawn heard Spike shout Now! and Wesley said, "Oh, that'll slow him up a bit. Angel, the incantation?"

Angel read off the strange syllables, Wesley carefully repeating them back. "Okay, Wes, on my mark, we'll both recite it." As he spoke, Angel lit the two candles he'd brought out, handing one to Dawn and holding the other himself. He rolled his sheet into a tube, gesturing for Dawn to do the same, then began to chant. Wesley could be heard matching every word, and Dawn noticed how it was easy to differentiate their separate voices, just like her and Angel's versions of the drawing. About halfway through, Angel nodded to Dawn, and they both held the parchment into the flame. She copied his way of moving it slowly forward, so that the whole thing burned, even as she tried to keep her face out of the plume of gray smoke that poured through the unburned end. Her fingers were nearly in the flame when the incantation ended, and the candles suddenly went out, leaving a pinch of charred paper in her hand.

There was a silence on the other end of the phone, and then Wesley said, "Oh, my. That was certainly... effective."

 


Spike kept silent during the walk back to the car, listening with thin amusement to the humans' bickering. He knew that all three of them were waiting to see whether Wesley would actually come over all kindergartenish and refuse to sit next to Spike on the way home as he had on the way out. Spike could see he was desperate not to say it in so many words, and he finally ended up driving, "Because I'm the boss." Gunn grumbled, but promptly acquiesced, and took his middle seat with the air of one who knew fairness demanded the sacrifice.

Spike pressed himself to the door, staring out the window, trying to ignore two pounding heartbeats and the smell of adrenaline and post-battle giddiness in the enclosed space. He toyed with the idea of jumping from the truck, but Angel was right, he couldn't take off. He couldn't leave Dawn, even if he had bollocksed everything beyond repair. Worse, and his blood ran colder at the thought, Angel was going to think that they could paper this over by *talking*, and Spike wanted nothing to do with that. He'd talked enough today to last at least a decade, and if he had to go sleep in some dismal basement closet tonight to avoid more, well, better herbs in solitude than the fatted calf with his disappointed ex-sire.

Gunn's jostling suddenly took on purpose, an elbow expertly slamming into Spike's ribs. "So," he said, "Okay. Explain to me again why, even though you haven't got a curse or a soul or anything, you still don't bite people?"

Spike stared out the window as if the secrets of the universe were printed in the gutter. He heard the chuckle that Wesley choked back, and clung grimly to the tattered shreds of his dignity.

"'Cause, I mean, you just don't hear about a lot of vampires, y'know, getting on the wagon. Is there, like, a Bloodsuckers Anonymous group that you go to? Do you have pamphlets to hand out to other vampires?"

Spike gritted his teeth. "Soldier boys planted a chip in my brain."

"Oh that's right. There's a chip. And it gives you headaches when you hurt humans. Man." Elbow. "That's rough. Losing your livelihood that way. So, you couldn't even, like, hit me? It wouldn't let you?"

Spike kept quiet.

"I bet you could. I bet you're just scared. Scared of a little microchip headache. Come on, I wanna see this. Hit me, just try it."

Spike rolled his eyes, but the effect was lost on the window.

Elbow, elbow, elbow. "Come on, man. Try it. Hit me."

It was getting to the point of being worth the pain, but, no matter what they kept implying about the managerial structure of Angel Investigations, Gunn still belonged to Angel, and Spike knew better than to even try to harm a hair on his head. Angel would be...

Furious.

Angel would punish him.

Angel wouldn't waste time on talking if Spike had--

Quickly, to get it in ahead of the chip before he even finished the dangerous thought, Spike threw a right-handed punch squarely into Gunn's near temple. He was caught completely off- guard, and screamed nearly as loudly as Spike did, clutching at the chip-retaliation ground zero above his left eye. The doubled yell resounded almost unbearably in the small space, which was probably why Wesley drove nearly off the road.

Spike didn't lower his hand the rest of the drive, which he spent huddled against the door, staring out the window and shivering.

 


Dawn looked exhausted, and Angel was about to suggest that she should go up to bed when Wes and Gunn came in. Wesley was holding his glasses in his left hand, massaging the bridge of his nose with his right, while Gunn had a hand pressed gingerly to his right temple. Both zeroed in on the bottle of painkillers left out from Cordelia's use of them, and Wesley snatched them up first.

"Oh," Gunn said, "I suppose you get them first because you're the boss?"

"No," Wesley replied, tossing two tablets into his mouth and swallowing them dry before passing the bottle to Gunn. "I get them first because I hold the moral high ground. Your headache is all your own fault."

Angel looked back and forth between the pair. Spike, he could dimly sense, was outside in the courtyard; probably having a smoke after having to share his fun with a pair of humans. Or avoiding Angel. "I thought you weren't harmed."

Wesley snorted. "Oh, the demon never laid a claw on us. Spike, on the other hand..."

Angel was not entirely aware of leaping to his feet; he was caught up in an almost painfully complete sense of comprehension. Whatever showed on his face, though, it seemed to make Wes nervous. "Angel...?"

Angel held himself still. Spike was pacing. Spike wasn't avoiding him, Spike was awaiting him. As a good boy ought when he's done wrong. "Gunn. He hit you?"

Gunn lowered the hand, looking worried. "Yeah, but. It was no big thing, man. And that chip worked like a charm. His head probably hurts worse than mine right now."

"The chip," Angel said, heading for the doors, "is the least of his worries."

Wesley caught him up just before the doors, stepping in front of him. "Angel, strange as I feel saying this... You shouldn't blame Spike. Gunn was asking for it, literally. I was about to hit him."

Angel flicked a glance at Wes, then returned his attention to Spike, who stood in the far corner of the garden, staring at the wall. Angel could hear him breathing. "What Spike did had nothing to do with Gunn. He wanted to make me angry. And he succeeded."

He met Wes's eye for just a moment, and Wes backed away. Angel stepped out into the night, shutting the doors behind him with a quiet click. Spike immediately turned to face him, melting into an insolent slouch, mouth flat but eyes anticipating what was to come with a dark sparkle. Angel felt the scowl form readily on his face as he crossed the distance between them; slipping into the old role was so easy when there was a taste of real anger behind it. He curled his fingers into Spike's shirt and coat, getting a solid handful to shake him by, and drew him up close. "You know better than to touch what's mine."

Spike raised his chin a fraction, not defiant posturing but a baring of his throat. "M'not really sorry," he remarked, almost conversationally, and Angel jerked him up off his feet. He'd never been sorry. That was the way the thing played out, every time. But Angel had it in mind to make Spike, for once, take this thing seriously. Spike was going to be sorry when Angel was done with him, because Spike wanted Angel to make him so. Angel got it now.

He shook him a little, and drew him roughly against his own body, and even as he glared down into blue eyes staring up, even as he shaped the words he would speak in his mind, he thought about how different this was.

He could feel, tingling in his hands, and see, dancing before his mind's eye, exactly how Angelus would have handled such astonishing insubordination on Spike's part. He could have managed the thing, too. The hotel could easily yield up a paring knife, a length of rope, a vial of holy water, and a couple of stakes, in the time it would take Spike to go up to Angel's room and take his clothes off.

But Angelus hadn't known how to manage Spike, and Angel had a sneaking suspicion that the new improved version of himself had a trick or two Spike wouldn't be expecting. So he pressed his cheek along Spike's, and whispered the words into his ear. "You know, don't you, I could never make you behave when you didn't want to." Spike, as he'd expected, went perfectly still against him, not daring to pull away or even balance himself, just hanging from Angel's grip. Oh, yes. Spike remembered how they had both learned that lesson. "But if you want this, you're going to have to behave, Spike. You're going to have to be good." He drew back to gauge the effect this was having on Spike; he was staring up at Angel with an expression of horrified disbelief. Message received.

And then, just for the barest instant, Spike's attention wavered. Hard to say what it was that told Angel so–-his eyes stayed locked on Angel's, he didn't twitch a muscle--but it did, and Angel cast about for what had, at this most inopportune of moments, caught his child's attention.

Dawn. Now that he cared to think of her, he could hear her pounding pulse, smell her fear, ten yards away on the other side of the french doors. Angel came back to himself in a sick rush. Christ, what would she, what would they all, be thinking?

But he showed no uncertainty to Spike, awaiting his pleasure, at his mercy. "I want you to go inside, by another door," he growled. "I want you to find a corner to stand in, and I want you to wait me there, and think about how much you want to make things right."

Spike gave the barest wide-eyed nod, and Angel released him; he stumbled backward, and gave a little scrambling half-bow as he hurried away to do as he'd been told. Angel, alone in the courtyard, buried his face in his hands for a moment, before feeling along his forehead to make sure he was fit for human company. With a fortifying breath, he opened the doors and stepped back inside. Dawn was standing there, looking poised to run, arms folded tight. She stared at Angel with wide blue eyes full of fear and betrayal, and even as he opened his mouth to offer some facile reassurance, she turned and fled.

 


Spike chose his spot quickly. Far enough from the lobby and the inhabited rooms that no distressing sounds should reach human ears, but not so far off or carefully chosen that he would seem to be hiding. Hiding would make it worse.

Spike pressed his fingertips against the walls that adjoined his corner, leaning his head against the plaster and trying to catch his breath. How had he forgotten that this was Angelus he was dealing with? Soul-leashed, maybe, but still and all the same demon, and wasn't that the point of the exercise? So easy for him, it only took a word or two to reduce Spike to this, huddling in the dark and trembling for him. But then he'd never dreamed that Angel, after all this time, would bring that up again, would ask him to do the one thing Angelus had never been able to demand of him.

He still remembered every torment he had endured, and later, when Angelus got cannier, every torment Dru had endured, for his defiance. But he had never dreamed of giving in, til now.

Dawn slammed through the door from the stairwell, her footsteps pounding down the hallway, loud in the silence. He could smell her fear; it was for him, and not unjustified, which made him feel a little sick. He couldn't decide whether he wanted her to find him or not, but waiting in a corner was an implicitly silent activity, so Spike kept still and left the thing to fortune.

She was at his side within a couple of minutes, and he turned his head to look at her face, the confused fear in her eyes. It had been a long time since he trusted anyone enough to be that shaken when they turned scary on him, but Spike remembered the feeling. "It's all right, Dawn."

"Is it?" The tears were close to the surface, in her voice, high and loud and rough. "Then why are you whispering?"

Shushing her would probably be counterproductive, no matter how his instincts screamed that she must be quiet, that they must both be quiet, and he had to think of something to say and he must not let her see him thinking of Tonio's left ring finger tapping the beats for that entire hellish night, even when Angelus had reduced the pinky beside it to a shapeless lump of mangled flesh.

Spike struggled to pull himself together, but he couldn't focus, on Dawn standing before him or on Angel, who must surely be coming for him soon. The door to this room stood open, so he would not burst through it with a great crash like he had that night long ago, startling Spike to silence, draining the color from Tonio's round cheeks. "Dawn, it's... He's just angry. It's nothing."

"Nothing? He... Spike, he'll hurt you, I saw his face and he's crazy."

"We're all crazy, Dawn. Demons are like that. But he's still got his soul, and that means you can trust him. If I thought Angelus were anywhere about, trust me, I'd be throwing you over my shoulder and heading for the hills. But it's all right. You're safe." He'd thought Tonio was safe, because Angelus had given him to Spike for a toy, and it was beneath his sire's dignity to pay attention to what Spike did with the human after that. All the hours that Tonio was dying, Spike thought about the fact that he could have made it quick and easy and painless, if only he'd had a proper fear of his sire, for the human's sake.

"Are you? Safe?"

Spike took a breath, trying to work out how to answer that question; No, but that's all right probably wouldn't reassure her much. "More than I used to be," he said, and, all right, that didn't work either, but he couldn't help it, Angelus was in his head, in a warm room, dim just like this, so that a human could only see enough to be more frightened, so that a vampire wouldn't be overly distracted by visual aesthetics when his medium was broken flesh, and sound.

And suddenly he was aware of Angel, not two rooms away. He went even more still, and said helplessly, "Dawn..."

"Reassure her, Spike," Angel said, his voice easily reaching the vampire's ears. "I don't want her to be more frightened than she has to be. Your punishment will wait til she's gone."

Spike took a steadying breath and squinted, focusing on the white-faced girl. "Dawn, have you ever seen my other face?"

She shook her head, looking baffled.

"But you know it's there, right? Bumpy fangy demon face. It's what being a vampire really is."

She nodded.

"It's like that, Dawn. What you're seeing between Angel and me, it's our demon face. We don't usually wear it in front of you, because it's scary and ugly, but it's there, it's always there. As long as you've known me and Angel, we've had demon faces underneath our human ones. Angel's not a different person than you thought, Dawn. He's still good, a champion like your sister. But when he has to deal with me, there's this other face he wears. That's all."

Dawn didn't look like she believed that for a second, and Spike supposed it was less than reassuring to have that face suddenly visible when it had for so long been politely hidden.

"The point is, Dawn, I'll be all right. Angel's no cream puff, but he's not Glory, either, and I did well enough there." But that wasn't helping either. Dawn smelled even more scared, probably remembering now what Spike had looked like after Glory got done with him. He could smell her sweat, and suddenly he remembered the smell of that room, Tonio's blood running rich with fear and pain, sweat and piss and worse, wet leather and spilt wine, and the smells would have choked him if so much did not depend on the perfection of every breath, but Spike coughed now, in memory.

When the spasm passed, Dawn was still standing there, staring at him, and she reached out, sliding a hand under the collar of his duster, curling her fingers over his shoulder. "I'm scared, Spike. Please. I'm scared."

He didn't want to say it, but he'd tried everything else. If he said it, then it would be out there, it would be true, and then there would be no going back and no refusing, but Dawn was so scared and he had to say something. Had to reassure her, like he'd been told. He shrugged out of the duster, wrapping it around her as best he could, since she wouldn't let go of him. He pressed his forehead to hers, and whispered. "Listen to me, Dawn. He's not going to do anything I don't want him to. I know that. All of this, it's all what I want. I know it's weird, but. I need him. I need this." Need somebody to keep me in line, need somebody to make me what your sister might've wanted me to be. Somebody to keep me from becoming the thing that sat in the dark at my side, killing Tonio.

Dawn looked... still horrified, actually, but she was starting to get it. Her fingers relaxed a little from their death grip on his shoulder.

"I'll scream," he added, for good measure. "If it's too much I'll scream, and you can grab the boy detectives and come running, all right?" He pulled her hand from his shoulder, squeezing it gently before he let go. Dawn dropped her gaze all at once, chin to chest, and clutched the coat around her.

"Promise?"

"Promise."

She nodded quickly, stole one more wide-eyed glance at him, and then walked out, breaking into a run when she reached the hallway.

Spike rubbed his bared arms, knowing perfectly well that the chill he felt had nothing to do with relinquishing his coat. He turned to face the corner again, no leaning this time, chin up, eyes straight ahead, hands at his sides. When he could no longer detect Dawn's heartbeat, he heard the door close behind him with a quiet click.

The waiting was over.

Angel's steps crossing the room were easily audible in the silence, so Spike knew the exact moment when Angel came to stand directly behind him. Angel turned him to face straight-on to a wall, and then said quietly, "Hands up, flat on the wall, head- height."

Spike obeyed.

"Which hand was it that offended me?"

Spike hung his head, not eager to see what came next. "The right," he said, quiet but clear, so that he would not be made to repeat himself.

Angel's left hand settled over the nape of Spike's neck a bare instant before he threw the punch. His fist was so perfectly on target that Spike barely felt the actual impact against the base of his hand; that sensation was almost entirely overwhelmed by the explosion of white fire engulfing his arm from his fingertips to his shoulder. He made no attempt to stifle the sob that broke from his throat, and leaned hard against his still-braced left hand. Angel stayed still a moment, close behind him but not quite touching, and then his left hand slid down from Spike's neck and around him, drawing Spike back against his body. His right hand slid down Spike's right arm, drawn up in wracking pain. His hand closed over Spike's wrist, and his strong, nimble fingers began pressing, here and there against bone and nerve, and Spike went limp against him, biting his lip to hold back any sound as Angel's ministrations alternated ease of the crippling pain and its sudden and complete return.

Angel's face pressed against his hair, and his lips brushed Spike's ear as he whispered. "You struck a human under my protection, and for that you have been punished. But you also forgot your place before me, defied the proper order, and for that I shall not punish you. For that you must atone."

Spike shuddered. He had thought that Angelus would force him to kill Tonio, that night, but he was crueler than that. If he had ordered Spike to do it, he would have obeyed to the letter, and snapped the human's neck before he even knew he was in danger. Instead, Angelus had killed Tonio himself, and Spike's punishment had been to watch, to stay by Tonio's side.

"There's a bar, called Caritas. I'll take you there. It's a haven for demons, no violence of any kind permitted. The host can read the futures of those who sing for him. You will choose a song, Spike, and you will sing for me."

Give him one last lesson then, singer. The only words Angelus spoke that night, but Tonio and Spike had done as they were bidden, Tonio tapping out the beat and coaching Spike through his scales, and then drawing him on through every bar of music he'd been taught, even after Angelus had deprived him of his voice. More than eight hours, and Spike had sung without pause for his singing-master, and Tonio had kept him steady on til the last beat of his heart.

And after that, no matter what he did, his sire could never compel Spike to sing in his presence.

But this was not Angelus at his back. Tonio's suffering was long since over, and more than anything, Spike needed to belong in these arms. Another long breath, and Angel's touch was now slowly, slowly, easing the pain radiating from his wrist, so that the tortured muscles of his arm loosened. He steadied his legs, and lifted his head.

"As you will, then. Sire."

 


Dawn slowed to a walk as she approached the stairs down to the lobby. She jammed her hands into the coat's pockets and wiped her eyes, trying to find a sane expression to plaster onto her face. She could hear Cordy's voice, then Gunn answering. His voice, too low for her to make out the words, cut off as she came into sight of them. Gunn just stared up at her, and Cordy and Wes turned to watch as well. Dawn fixed her eyes on her feet, pulling out one hand to hold on to the railing and bunching the other around a handful of lining and leather. Nobody made a sound as Dawn walked to the bottom of the stairs and crossed to the couches to take the place where she'd been sitting before Wes and Gunn came in, before Angel jumped up and everything went crazy.

She risked another look up and they were all staring at her. As she pulled the coat tighter around her, she realized how strange it had to look to them, her coming back in Spike's coat. "Spike said not to worry," she volunteered, if only to stop them all looking like they expected her to burst into hysterics, or drop dead, at any second. "Unless we hear him screaming."

They all looked about as reassured as she felt, which was strangely comforting. Cordelia moved to sit right next to Dawn, but didn't try to hug her or anything, which was good. Dawn still wasn't sure about not bursting into tears in the next few minutes. When Spike said complicated... she hadn't imagined this. She hadn't imagined anything, really. She'd thought it was cute. She felt stupid and small and helpless now, knowing.

She looked over at Cordelia, who was staring at her hands, folded in her lap. "Do you remember the first time you talked to me?"

Cordelia looked up with a little smile. "Hiding in a broom closet for three hours while Spike tried to kill Buffy? Yeah, it sticks with me."

Dawn nodded. "You didn't try to tell me everything would be okay, then, either." That bumpy-faced guy is trying to kill your sister, and if he finds us, he'll kill us, too. So be quiet. But Cordelia had placed herself between Dawn and the door, as automatically as Willow, and sat calmly, just like this, like they taught you about waiting out vampiric crises in charm school. It was reassuring in a way that words couldn't be.

Dawn was glad for the continuing silence, tense though it was. She couldn't help listening for the sound of Spike screaming, or any sound, really, to tell her what was going on. She tried not to imagine what Angel might do to Spike, but she couldn't block out the whispers she'd overheard, years ago, about Angelus.

And then she glanced up and there they were, coming down the stairs. Angel had his coat on, and Spike was following him, one step behind. He had his arms folded. His left hand was rubbing at his arm like he was cold, but his right hand stayed still. No blood though, no bruises, no limp. He looked... okay. Like he'd been yelled at, and kind of nervous, but okay.

Everybody watched them walk down the stairs, just like they'd all watched Dawn. Spike stopped at the bottom, but Angel kept walking, coming toward them. He had one of those inscrutable Angel expressions, but the way his eyes flickered over all of them as he came closer made Dawn think he was sort of nervous. To her surprise, he didn't say anything to his friends, didn't even really look at them, but came and crouched right in front of her. "Dawn," he said quietly, looking down and then back up. "I'm sorry I scared you like that. I told you I wasn't going to put you in an awkward position with me and Spike again, I told you we wouldn't fight, and I screwed up. I didn't think how you would feel about this. I'm sorry."

Dawn could feel that her mouth was open, and closed it, just nodded a little. Over Angel's shoulder, it looked like Wes and Gunn were wondering what alternate universe they'd just fallen into, so at least she wasn't the only one.

Angel went on. "I'm going to take Spike out to a place called Caritas, now." He glanced toward Cordy. "They can tell you, it's a safe place. No trouble of any kind. But I want to know that you're okay with it. You can come along, if you want, if that will make you feel better, or just say the word and we won't go at all."

Dawn blinked. She'd never quite understood before about Angel being two different people, but, God. He was looking up at her, totally sorry, and she turned and looked back at Spike, who gave her a sort of semi-encouraging smile. He still looked kind of nervous, and cold, but he didn't seem to need rescuing.

"No," she said finally. "It's okay. I just..." She got up, and Angel moved back to give her room as she brushed past him and went to Spike. When she was standing in front of him, she took off the coat and handed it back to him. "You look like you need this more than I do."

He gave her a genuine smile as he put it on, and ran a self- conscious hand over his hair. "Ta."

When Dawn turned around again, Angel was standing near, watching them. Dawn raised an admonishing finger. "Have him home by his bedtime, now."

Angel smiled. "Yes, ma'am."

 


Angel was relieved to find Caritas nearly empty. Spike had been silent on the ride over, but seemed to be relaxing in the face of the inevitable. Angel had thought, for a moment there, that he would refuse, that he had pushed too hard, asked too much, but so far, Spike seemed willing enough. He supposed his child's choice of song would be... instructive.

He kept his hand on the small of Spike's back as they walked in, and steered him to a table near the freshly-repaired stage. There was tinned music playing, a few demons at the bar and a few others at tables. Lorne was working what crowd there was, but spotted Angel and Spike within a couple of minutes and walked over as they were still standing by the table. "Angel, sweetcheeks, good to see you! And who's your friend?"

Angel gave Lorne a smile. "Lorne, this is Spike. Spike, Lorne. Spike's going to sing for you tonight, if that's all right."

Angel felt some small, and entirely evil, amusement at the slightly too-enthusiastic smile on Lorne's face. "Hey, great!"

"Spike? Remember what I told you about Lorne?"

Spike was watching the host with obvious wariness. "Yeah. Look, whatever you see, you just tell him, right? I don't have secrets."

Well, that was interesting. He'd been going to ask for Spike to say exactly that, but he hadn't expected him to come out with it on his own. "The list of songs that are available is over there," Angel said, nodding off to one side of the stage. "Why don't you go choose something."

"Just let the bartender know when you're ready," Lorne added, "He'll get you set up."

Spike nodded, gave Angel an extra little look to make sure that he was dismissed, and headed off.

Angel sighed, turning to Lorne and meeting his curious look. "It's... a long story."

Lorne glanced around. "Well, I'm not exactly being dragged in six directions at once, big guy. Why don't you tell me about him? It'll make the read easier. He's a vampire, I picked up that much."

Angel sank into a seat, and Lorne followed suit. Angel rubbed at his face, feeling suddenly weary, the last few hours catching up with him all at once. "He's... mine. I'm his sire. He tried to kill me a couple of years ago."

Lorne glanced over at where Spike's back was visible as he hunched over the catalogue. "But now..."

"Now." Angel stared at the tabletop. "He fell in love with Buffy," Angel said. "And... Buffy died." He glanced up, and Lorne gave him a sympathetic look. Angel felt almost dizzy again with the sense of free fall that came with knowing Buffy was gone. He looked quickly to Spike, steadying himself by the sight of that familiar form. "Spike had been helping her, especially right before. What they were up against... no human had a chance, they needed him, mainly to protect Dawn, Buffy's sister. Spike..." Angel had never gotten a complete story from anyone in Sunnydale while he was there; bare outlines from Willow the night she'd come to tell him, and a stray comment here or there, but they didn't want to talk, and he didn't dare press. "I don't know what happened, exactly, but obviously something went wrong."

He watched Spike flip pages for a moment, trying to sort out the threads of this very long story, and started again. "After I got my soul, I was... lost... for a long time. Finally, this guide came to me. He told me I had a purpose, and Buffy was it. Helping her. Even after I had to leave her, after I came here, I always felt like she was my purpose, my guiding star. I could never touch her, but I could look toward her and find my way. When Willow told me she was dead, I didn't know what I was going to do. With everything that's happened... I felt like I was cut off from everything, like I'd lost everything, not just her. I wanted to run, just get away from everything I knew. But I had to go up for the burial. Spike was there." Angel felt a wry smile cross his face. "Drunk out of his mind. But I could see, he felt as lost as I did. Buffy had been his star too. We ended up fighting, but, God, it was just like old times.

"Dawn wasn't doing too well either; Buffy's the only family she had. Even with everybody else there for her... I told her if she needed me I'd be around. And that's the only reason I didn't take off, in case she needed me. Then she turned up yesterday, with Spike, and... I think they need me, Lorne. And I think I need them."

Angel looked up uncertainly, to see what the demon was making of all this. He looked fascinated. "So, you and Spike, you're... what, exactly?"

Angel sighed. "That's the question of the hour." Just then, Spike moved away from the catalogue, toward the bartender, who scribbled something on a scrap of paper and waved him toward the stage. Angel suddenly wished desperately for a drink, or one of Spike's cigarettes. Something to do with his hands, at least.

Lorne scooted his chair around slightly, the better to face the stage, and Angel did likewise. He couldn't take his eyes off Spike, who leapt up to the stage in a flare of leather. The music from the speakers cut off, and a voice encouraged the crowd, such as it was, to turn its attention to Spike. Angel forced himself to keep still as Spike, every inch of attitude firmly in place, slunk up to the microphone stand and wrapped his hands around it, sinking into a posture Angel remembered well. It looked like every joint in his body was bending, made him shorter, entirely composed of sultry impossible curves. He kept his head down until the music started, a single chord and then Spike's eyes were pinning him in place and that voice he hadn't heard in so very, very long was washing over him, sounding like darkness and sweetness and reawakening that sense of awful joy that he had tried to forget. "I know I've got a bad reputation, and it isn't just talk, talk, talk. If I could only give you everything..."

Angel had never heard the song before, but it seemed made for Spike's voice, made for this moment. Spike's eyes were dark with some emotion Angel didn't want to recognize, and his... oh, God. His hands were wrapped around the microphone, but one finger, the left ring finger, rose and fell in perfect time, keeping the beat. All at once Angel felt truly sick at what he was making Spike do, because however horrified he was at what Angelus had done to that opera singer who'd taken up too much of his child's attention, Spike had to be remembering it with perfect clarity now, and without even the thin comfort of ‘that wasn't really me.' It had been Spike, this same Spike who stood before him now, who suffered through that night. Angel would have called the whole thing off at that instant, if he could only have moved.

"...years disappear below my feet, been breaking down, do you want me now? Do you want me now?" And on that line, Spike rocked forward a little, intent gaze turning pleading to match that entreating stance, and Angel raised a clenched fist to his mouth. Message received, loud and clear.

Angel was faintly conscious of Lorne, at his side, looking absolutely transfixed. He wondered if that meant Spike's future was really engrossing, or just that Lorne couldn't believe that anyone who had anything to do with Angel could actually carry a tune.

There was a break in the lyrics, and Spike dropped his gaze, swaying with the music, pure seduction, pure submission. Angel tried to catch his breath, and then those eyes were back. "Don't try to be an inspiration, just wasting your time, time, time. You know about the best I'll ever be, see it in your eyes."

Angel wanted to shake his head, deny that, but Spike might take it for disapproval, so he only pressed his hand harder to his mouth, and drank it in, trying to impress every image, every note, every syllable on his memory, because he was never, ever, going to ask Spike to do this again.

"Do you want me now? Do you want me now? Don't you think I've heard the talk?" Pulling the mike smoothly from the stand, Spike sank to his knees, his eyes never wavering from Angel's. "Nobody's going to tell me who to love, been breaking down, do you want me now? Do you want me now?"

Angel couldn't bear it anymore, the pleading, the hopeless helplessness thinly veiled in stage presence and black leather. He lowered his hand and nodded, a response and a release. Spike dropped the mike and jumped down from the stage, making for the bar as the background music played on.

Angel turned his face away and scrubbed at his eyes a moment before looking to Lorne. Lorne was still staring at the empty stage, but after a few seconds he turned to Angel. "Are you sure he's yours?"

Angel rolled his eyes, smiling as some of the tightness in his chest slowly eased. It was over. He'd asked more of Spike than he had any right to, but it had worked, and now it was over. "He had lessons."

Lorne blinked. "Angel, darling, he re-keyed the entire song to suit his voice. Probably off the cuff. That's amazing. I've gotta ask him if he'll come in again sometime."

Angel shuddered. "As long as I don't have to be here." Lorne looked a little weirded by that, but Angel waved it away. "What did you see?"

Lorne vented a sigh. "I saw a lot. You... wanted to know about you and him, about what's going to happen with you two?"

Angel nodded slowly. "Just tell me what you think I should know."

"You two are going to be okay. It's not... It's going to be rough, Angel, there's going to be a lot of... stuff. I think you know. You're not going to ride off into the sunset together. But you won't desert each other, either."

Angel turned that one over, looked at it from a couple of different angles. "So Spike... he's going to be okay? He's going to be happy?"

Lorne grimaced. "Yeah, your boy'll do all right."

Angel looked over toward the bar, where Spike was hunched on a barstool. Angel could see him shaking. "Could you... go tell him that?"

Lorne followed the direction of Angel's gaze, and turned a merciful smile on him. "Sure thing, sugar."

 


Spike slumped onto a barstool. The bartender headed for him, and before he could make the almost inevitable offer of nice fresh human blood, Spike growled, "Whiskey. Neat." The barkeep was a good one; just nodded and went to fetch a glass. Spike stared at the bar, pressing his hands, flat and above all still, on its surface. He could feel the sweat beginning to dry all over his body, and felt glad for the duster, which let him look like something other than an utter sopping coward. The bartender returned with a glass, and, with a measuring glance, set down the bottle within reach and moved away.

Spike downed the first, so quickly it might have been weed killer for all he tasted of it, and poured a second. He wrapped his hands around this one and rolled it back and forth, watching the liquid slosh and remembering that little nod. He'd felt like his heart was going to burst. Angel said yes. Angel said yes. Spike raised the glass to his lips, using both hands to steady it, and swallowed it down, only marginally slower than the first.

As he reached for the bottle to refill his glass, Lorne appeared at his side. "I think you're doing it backward," he remarked. "You're supposed to have stage fright beforehand."

Spike allowed himself a smile at that, and Lorne smiled easily back and sat down on the next stool. "So," Spike said. "You see the future whenever somebody sings for you, that how it works?"

Lorne nodded.

Spike thought of Dru, and Cordelia. "That ever make you happy?"

Lorne seemed startled by the question, and paused before answering. "I'm able to help people by it, sometimes," he said finally. "But, no, it's not always a cakewalk."

Spike looked back to his drink, and nodded. "I don't want to know," he said quietly. "Whatever you saw... I don't want to hear it." His glass was still empty. Ought to do something about that. He raised the bottle, tilting it and gauging its contents, wondering how much he'd have to drink to just pass out. That would be nice.

"I won't say anything, then," Lorne said, getting to his feet, "but... put your trust in Angel. He won't let you down."

Spike looked up at him. "One thing."

Lorne nodded.

"What you see... can it change? Or is it always the same as it starts?"

Lorne smiled, a little sadly. "Everything can change, Spike."

Spike nodded, and refilled his glass. After a minute, Lorne left him to himself.

 


Angel calculated that he'd caught Spike about two drinks short of completely losing consciousness. The blond leaned heavily against him as they made their way through the night- quiet hotel, arms looped loosely around Angel's waist, his stumbling feet somehow never quite tripping them up. Angel was making for his room, and bed, when Spike suddenly stopped short in the middle of the hallway.

"What is it, Spike?"

He rubbed his head against Angel's shoulder for a moment, before lifting his face to speak. "Gotta check on my girl, see she went to bed."

Angel considered pointing out that it was obvious all the humans had turned in for the night, or that Dawn had clearly been headed for bed since well before they left, or that they could both hear her, sleeping serenely in her room, from where they stood. But Spike was in no position to be swayed by logic. Swayed by gravity, yes, but not logic. Angel shifted his grip on Spike and aimed them toward Dawn's room.

"We'll have to be quiet," he murmured, "I'm sure she's sleeping."

Spike nodded, head once again nestled against Angel's shoulder. "Just gotta see."

Dawn's doorway was the first they'd managed to pass through without anyone kicking anything since Angel dragged Spike off his barstool. Angel guided Spike to the side of her bed, and stared down at the sleeping girl. The sight was strangely familiar, and it took him a moment to remember, creeping into Buffy's house, tickling at Dawn's nose til she shifted in her sleep to just this perfect pose of innocent slumber before he took out his sketch pad and drew her portrait, considering with every pencil line how Buffy would know he'd been right here...

Dawn, now as then, slept on undisturbed by the monsters beside her bed. Angel turned his gaze to Spike. "Come on," he whispered, "we should get to sleep." But Spike, perfectly balanced between Angel's shoulder and the lullaby of Dawn's heart, was already there.

 


Dawn tried to catch Buffy's sleeve, but the fine material slipped through her fingers like water, and Buffy turned away. Dawn stood frozen as Buffy ran away from her, disappearing from view, receding into a blinding light. Alone on top of the tower, Dawn shivered. She was so tired, and so cold and scared, and her feet hurt, and her chest where the old man had cut her. She had to get down, she knew that, but she wanted to follow Buffy. She thought Buffy's way had to be much quicker than all those stairs, which tended to shift insidiously underfoot as the whole tower swayed in the wind.

She took half a step in the direction Buffy had gone. She thought there was some reason why she shouldn't go the same way Buffy had, something that compelled her to go the long way down the stairs, but she didn't remember what it was; everyone else was down there, with Buffy. She ought to follow Buffy. Another step out, toward that light.

When they were kids, she'd always tried to follow Buffy everywhere. Buffy had always ditched her as soon as she could, because that's how big sisters are. But Dawn was pretty sure she could catch up with Buffy this time; she'd seen the way she went. If she took the stairs, she'd never catch up.

Another slow step, and Dawn saw the spot where Spike had stood, and suddenly she remembered. Spike would be waiting for her, at the bottom. So she'd have to take the stairs. Bracing herself for the long walk, Dawn turned back and laid a hand on the railing, and began to creep down. It took a long time. She was so tired, and she wished she could have followed Buffy, but Spike was waiting. Maybe he could help her find Buffy, once she met up with him. He was always following Buffy, too. They could find her together, even if she tried to ditch them both. That would be all right.

When Dawn reached the bottom, she was scared to let go of the railing. She might fall. She could see Buffy, dimly, in the distance. She'd gone so far she could never come back, and even though she looked like she was holding still, she kept moving away from Dawn, toward the rising sun, leaving Dawn in darkness. The others were all standing together, watching Buffy, except for Spike, who was still lying on the ground where he'd fallen. He was very still. There was blood on his face. Dawn wanted to call out, to Buffy, to her friends, to Spike, but she felt her own fingers pressing against her lips, and remembered the desperate necessity of silence. Steadying herself as best she could, she started forward, toward Buffy, toward the others, who were watching her go, just standing still.

When she had nearly reached them, Giles stepped forward, and without looking back at Dawn or any of the others, started following Buffy. Dawn felt tears begin to fall from her eyes, but still she kept silent. Mustn't make a sound, even if Giles was walking away and away, too far for Dawn to follow when she was so tired. Dawn looked around at the ones who still stood near, but they were all watching Buffy as she faded away. Willow and Tara clasped their hands, bent their heads together, and then vanished in a puff of glittering smoke. They'd witched themselves away to somewhere better, Dawn knew, and it was no use wishing she could call them back. They'd never hear, and anyway she had to keep quiet. But there was still Xander, and Anya, and poor Spike, lying on the ground. He was waiting for her, Dawn knew. She should go to him, but she couldn't take her eyes away from Buffy, and the only humans who still remained. Then Xander looked back and Dawn smiled through her tears, behind the fingers that held in her screams and sobs, because Xander would see how tired and hurt she was, he would come back for her. But Xander just gave her an apologetic smile and lifted Anya into his arms. Anya leaned her head wearily against his shoulder, and then Xander started after Giles, following Buffy away.

Scared to be alone, when Glory might be anywhere, Dawn found the strength to hurry to Spike's side. There was blood on his face, but he was still all in one piece, so he had to be all right. She lowered one hand from her mouth, and reached out to touch him, but before her fingers could make contact, he opened his eyes and sat up. Their eyes met, for just a moment, like they had at the top of the tower, filled with a shared panic, and then Spike stood, and started toward Buffy, toward the sunrise, even though he had to know he could never reach her before he turned to dust. Dawn was so scared, and so alone, and so cold, and he would never catch Buffy, and she would never catch him.

She dropped her hands. "Spike," she whispered, trying to summon a scream to bring him back to her, "Spike!" And then, louder, much better, though he still walked away, "Spike!"

It seemed like she'd been screaming his name and watching him walk away forever, when suddenly he'd returned and was standing right in front of her. Dawn grabbed his arms and held on tight. If she let go he would fall again, like he'd fallen before, but this time, like Buffy, he would fall too far, and just keep going. She couldn't let him go, even though he kept moving his arms as if he wanted her to, even though something slick made it hard to keep her fingers to his skin. She had to hold on, or he would fall. He was saying something, she could see his lips moving, but she couldn't hear his words in the wind at the top of the tower. She was so cold, and her throat hurt, and her vision was blurred with tears, but she had to hold on to Spike. She couldn't let him fall again. Spike kept looking over his shoulder, and when he looked at her he looked scared. Glory must be coming again, and Dawn didn't know what they'd do without Buffy and the others to help.

Then there was an arm around her back, and another around Spike; it was Angel, she realized, holding onto them both. His body shielded them from the wind, so that she could hear Angel telling her it was okay, she could let go now, and Spike's voice cut through as well. "It's all right, Dawn. Glory's gone. It's over. Everybody's all right. It's over. Shh, Little Bit."

Trusting Angel to keep them safe, she slowly, slowly, uncurled her aching fingers from Spike's arms. His hands came up and held hers, their coolness comforting against the dull burn of the seizing muscles, and then she was pulled tight to his chest, and wrapped in two sets of arms, holding her still and safe. Spike went on whispering into her hair, and Angel steadied them both.

After a while, Dawn caught her breath, and her weariness overwhelmed her. Bed was surely a long way away, but Spike and Angel could help her get there. Just then, Angel started to move away, and Dawn wrested a hand free from Spike's grip to grab onto his shirt. It slid under her hand, like Buffy's had, and for a horrible moment she thought he wouldn't stop, but he said, softly, near her ear, "What is it, Dawn?"

"Don't." Her throat burned. She could barely make the words, couldn't even hold up her hand to his chest. "Don't leave."

Angel's arms tightened again, a hug that squished her closer to Spike. "I won't."

He didn't, either, though he shepherded her and Spike a little way to where a bed was miraculously awaiting them, close by. They helped her into it, tucked her in and then laid down, one on either side. Spike stretched his arm over her, his hand resting on Angel's chest, and Angel did the same, resting his hand on Spike's side, so that she was completely safe and surrounded. Still, Dawn struggled to stay awake, in case anything should come, but a voice near her ear said softly, "You can close your eyes, now. Everybody's here." She did, and the darkness swallowed them all together.

 


Angel, comb in his hand, felt carefully over the surface of his hair. Maybe he should get it cut. He'd been trying to forget what it had looked like in Pylea, in between missing being able to see his reflection, but maybe he should do something about it.

He set the comb down and sighed. He couldn't lie to himself. He was primping, desperately delaying the moment that had been inevitable ever since he woke up, alone, in Dawn's bed.

It had come as no particular surprise, how much he'd liked being able to hang onto Spike and Dawn both at the same time. When he'd come into her room, called by Dawn's continued screaming and the smell of Spike's blood, they'd both needed him, even when they had each other; even when Dawn calmed down, even when she still had Spike, she wouldn't let him go. Angel had felt dangerously contented, lying there watching them sleep.

Awakening to find they'd both crept off without him was exactly the reverse. And now, dressed and--he ran his hands sloppily through his hair, because he couldn't make it worse, and there was no point looking like he'd tried to make it look like that--finished primping, there was nothing to keep him from following the sound of morning cartoons and the smell of nail polish to where they were holed up together. He would go, of course; they were his, and he had to see that they were all right. He'd just peek, he decided, and if, like yesterday, they were having a private moment, he'd slip off again and leave them to it. He had reading to catch up on.

He could hear their voices, but mingled as they were with the bright background music of the television, he couldn't make out more than a sense of good-natured argument. Angel hesitated in the open doorway of the--den, Angel, and if you call it a lair again we will put a sign on the door--room that Wes and Gunn had fixed up to be ‘really fit for human habitation,' with a couch and a television. The couch had to be the single most disreputable piece of furniture in the hotel, and not for lack of competition. It was plaid, and it sagged alarmingly, but the guys insisted that it was ‘comfy'. Spike and Dawn sat on it, heads together, right in the middle of its three-cushion expanse. The television babbled on to itself, apparently ignored. Angel was just about to back away when Dawn suddenly looked up, right at him, as though she'd known he was there.

"Angel! Tell Spike he has to hold still while the nail polish dries."

Spike rolled his eyes at them both. "Honestly, Dawn, I've been varnishing my nails since before you were born. I know how not to smudge ‘em."

Dawn merely raised her eyebrows, clearly awaiting Angel's verdict.

Angel smiled and stepped inside. "Do as she says, Spike."

Spike looked mutinous, and Dawn scarily triumphant. "Hey, does that mean--"

"In this instance, Spike."

Spike smiled up at Angel, who stood now just behind the couch. "Ta for that, anyway." But as directed, he kept his hands still and flat on his knees. Dawn tucked her hair behind her ears and bent her head again to blow on Spike's nails, flawlessly painted a shiny black. Dawn's nails, he noticed, had not been painted, but had a certain extremely-well-scrubbed look, and Spike's had a line of four brightly colored bandages on the back of each arm, just above the elbow.

Both of them were dressed for the day, and Dawn's hair was brushed out, but not quite dry. Angel made a mental note. While Pylea had conveniently lowered Fred's standards for comfortable living, two days without a blow dryer probably still counted as roughing it for Dawn. He'd have to talk to Cordelia about getting one for her room.

Feeling brave, Angel stepped around the couch and sank down on the end cushion next to Spike. The couch did not collapse beneath him, and Spike immediately leaned back to rest against Angel's side, perforce dragging his hands--scrupulously flat and otherwise still--back along his thighs. It was probably an infraction, but Dawn didn't object, so Angel didn't either. Instead he raised his arm so that Spike could slip beneath it, and settled it again across Spike's chest, curling his fingers absently in the folds of the grey t-shirt over Spike's belly.

Dawn was grinning at them, and Spike, with a sigh of contentment, unfolded his legs and stretched them out to either side of Dawn, wriggling his bare feet. "So," he said, smirking lazily, "you do toes, pet?"

 


Dawn glared at Spike, who smiled wickedly. "Angel?" he said sweetly, "Would you tell Dawn she has to have a top coat on her nails if she has glitter polish?"

She knew she shouldn't have played the calling-on-Angel's- authority card earlier. Angel, who was slumped against Spike's bent back at a forty-five degree angle and had apparently become convinced that if he kept cycling through the five over-the-air stations that came in on the TV, he'd find something other than cartoons and a public broadcast telethon, met Dawn's eyes over Spike's shoulder and then peered down at her hands. "Sorry, Dawn," he said, but he looked pretty amused himself, "Just this once: do as Spike says."

Spike looked insanely pleased with himself and grabbed the clear polish to paint over the coat of black-with-sparkles that he'd already applied to her nails. Dawn stuck her tongue out at him, but he ignored her and set to work on her right hand.

Dawn sighed loudly enough to be heard over the Road Runner cartoon which had momentarily captured Angel's attention, and reached her free hand down to her mug, sitting on the floor by the couch, and tried to rescue a few more still-edible Fruity Pebbles from the congealed red goo at the bottom. Angel happened to look over as she was popping them into her mouth and frowned. "Dawn...?"

Dawn smiled, stealing a glance at Spike, who grinned encouragingly, out of Angel's line of sight. "Oh, yeah. Breakfast experiment gone horribly awry. Remind me not to listen to Spike anymore about how to eat my cereal." She picked up the mug and passed it to Angel, who stared at its contents for a moment and then, looking perplexed, took a sip.

He actually didn't drop the mug, as Dawn had half-expected, but spat into it. His whole face was screwed up, as if it had been lemon juice on her cereal instead of Strawberry Quik. "My god, Dawn, what... is that some kind of industrial solvent? It's all... chemicals, and sugar, and..." He looked seconds away from taking steel wool to his tongue, and Dawn bit her lip, feeling genuinely sorry at his distress. She hadn't thought he'd actually think it was blood long enough to drink it.

She looked to Spike, who also seemed contrite. He met her eyes, his gaze serious, warning her, and then capped the nail polish and lifted his right hand to his mouth, vamping out and cutting open his thumb with one fang before offering the bleeding digit to Angel. Angel looked uneasily at Dawn, but she sat still, and concentrated on looking sorry and not-freaked.

Spike had been all hesitant about having breakfast with her, in the first place, but as it turned out, it was hard to be scared of someone, even someone with yellow eyes and fangs and a bumpy face, when they were crunching down Fruity Pebbles and insisting that, no, really, Strawberry Quik makes everything taste better. Plus, now she didn't have to be all scared that she would freak out when she finally did see Spike's other face. Angel seemed to get that she was okay, and vamped out as well, cradling Spike's hand between his own so that she didn't really see the actual blood-drinking.

Their faces slipped back to human at the same time, and Angel squeezed Spike's hand lightly before he let it go. "That's better." He switched off the tv, and turned to face Dawn, gracefully rearranging his legs and scooting up so Spike could lounge comfortably against his chest, and took the nail polish bottle from Spike's other hand. "Okay, Dawn," he muttered, with what she hoped was an exaggerated look of concentration, "just hold very still."

 


Spike stood in the lobby, watching the stairs and waiting. Dawn was getting packed up, by herself. She'd looked offended by his offer of help, which Spike suspected meant that she intended to spend thirty seconds jamming all of her stuff into her bag, and half an hour locked in her bathroom having a cry because she didn't want the weekend to be over. Spike understood the feeling, and left her to it. He sighed, and started pacing again. Angel, sitting on a sofa with Fred, who had finally emerged from her room, watched him. Spike knew he ought to go and sit down, but he couldn't keep still.

Only fifteen minutes had gone by when Spike caught the sound of Dawn's reluctant footsteps, heading for the lobby. He reined in the pacing and went over to the couch, staring sightlessly down at the two helmets, and his coat. His own packing job had consisted of retrieving the motorcycle's key from the top of Angel's dresser, and stowing the nail polish in an inner pocket of his coat at Dawn's request. He waited til she was crossing the lobby floor behind him to look up, smiling encouragingly. She'd cut the crying short, obviously, and washed her face. When she reached Spike, he picked up his duster from the couch, and held it up for her to put on. Even as she stuck her arms through the sleeves, Dawn said, "Are you sure we can't wait? I wanted to say goodbye to Cordy and Wes and Gunn."

Angel, shot Spike a sympathetic look, since Dawn was staring at the floor, and said, "I'll tell them, Dawn. They'll understand."

Dawn looked up at Spike as he handed her the gauntlets to put on, nervousness dimming the sparkle of her eyes. It wasn't just that she didn't want this little holiday to be over; she was still uneasy about going back home. Spike smiled as best he could, patting her prettily braided hair gingerly; Angel had turned out to be a fine lady's maid. "It'll be all right, pet. You'll see."

Dawn's return smile was a bit wobbly.

Angel stood up abruptly. "Spike, could I see you in my office for a second?" He turned on his heel and walked to the other room, leaving the door open.

Spike looked to Dawn and then Fred for possible explanations for this behavior; Dawn shrugged, and Fred just smiled shyly and ducked her head.

He followed Angel into the office, closing the door behind him. As soon as he did, Angel turned on him, pressing him bodily up against the door, and just as Spike opened his mouth to say something amusing, kissed him.

The breath he'd drawn for words slipped from Spike's mouth, and it was only because of the way their lips were arranged that it sounded like a moan. Very strange, being kissed by Angel, hands hard on his shoulders but lips gentle, more enticing than demanding. It had never been quite like this before, Angel's tongue slipping over his, entering his mouth like an invited guest instead of a conquering master. When Angel lifted his head, Spike remembered to shut his mouth, mostly, and stood there, neatly pinned between the door at his back and his sire's body, staring up into dark, watchful eyes.

"Now," Angel said softly, raising one hand from Spike's shoulder to touch his cheek, "Three things. First," and he pressed one finger against Spike's lips, "Take care of Dawn. Second," another finger, "take care of yourself." Spike nodded obediently, and Angel tilted his forehead down to Spike's, pressing him just a little harder against the door, body to body, dragging his fingers slowly away from Spike's mouth, like they didn't want to go. "Third," and his lips were brushing against Spike's, "be back here Friday by ten. I'll be waiting for you."

Spike nodded again, and Angel rewarded him with the lightest possible brush of lips, definitely a tease, before stepping back and reaching around him to pull the door open. Spike stumbled back out into the lobby in his wake, trying to wrap his brain around kiss, Dawn, me, Friday, kiss.

Angel, meanwhile, picked up his coat from the back of the couch where he'd been sitting, and handed it to Spike. Spike stared stupidly at it for a moment, until Angel, with a snicker that was strangely not unkind, took it back and held it up just as he'd held his own coat for Dawn. Oh. Spike shrugged into the coat, and rolled his eyes at Dawn as she laughed silently back at him while Angel buttoned it up. "There. I mean, what would people say if I let you leave like that, with no coat?"

"Awful things, I'm sure, Gran'da."

Angel cuffed Spike lightly, and Spike dodged behind Dawn, who laughed out loud this time. "Okay, guys. Save it for next time." She hesitated. "There is a next time, right?"

Over Dawn's shoulder, Spike nodded, more for the benefit of the little eyebrow Angel was giving him than Dawn's reassurance. He squeezed her shoulders, instead. "Friday, pet. We'll leave as soon as it's dark. I promised, and we can't go breaking promises."

"Good." Dawn took a breath, and turned to look at Spike. "So I guess, if we want to come back, we have to leave first, huh?"

Caught by the fragile resolve in her eyes, Spike nodded, and the moment hung balanced between them until Fred suddenly said, "Mickey!"

Everyone spun to look at her, and she shrank before the massed attention, huddling into the couch. Angel, nearest and dearest, went and sat down beside her. "Sorry, Fred, we didn't catch that."

"I... I was trying to remember. I thought Dawn looked like something, but it's been a long time and I couldn't, couldn't place. But she looks like Mickey, in the cartoon with all the brooms and the water and the," and her hands made a vague maestro's gesture, conducting some orchestra only she could see. Spike was still lost, as was Angel by the look of him, but Dawn grinned.

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice." She looked down at the coat, and up at Spike, and said, "Except I'm more like the Big Bad's Apprentice, I guess."

Spike smirked. "That's you, pet. Little Bad." She was still smiling, so he figured this was as good a time as any. "Right. Let's go then."

He picked up her bag, and Dawn picked up her helmet and put it on. The little design of stars had been applied after great deliberation, and amounted to an artistic collaboration between her and Angel. Spike had been responsible for the bit that said D A W N across the back. The A was crooked, but that was entirely Angel's fault for jogging his elbow.

They trooped out to the bike, and Spike secured Dawn's bag on the back and put on his own helmet, unrelieved black despite all threats to decorate it. Angel helped Dawn up behind him, and Dawn slid her arms around his waist, already holding on tight. Angel leaned his head down to theirs, sliding his arms around them both. "Friday, right? I'll be waiting."

Spike grinned, and Dawn gave a muffled you bet, and then Angel let them go.

 


Dawn grabbed at Spike's arm as her legs started to give out. He frowned as he steadied her, and Dawn smiled ruefully. "Guess that wasn't really any better the second time."

He smiled tightly back, grabbing her bag and helmet from the bike as he started to steer her toward the house. "Tell you what, Pet, we'll practice. Take you out for short rides all week, help you get used to it."

Dawn waited til he was totally focused on helping her up the porch steps, and then said, "Teach me to drive it?"

She gave him her best wide-eyed smile as he spluttered; she was leaning against the front door by the time he managed to form words. "No, Dawn, are you out of your mind? I'm lucky I don't catch hell for letting you ride it!"

He unzipped the side pocket on her bag, pulling out her keys to let them in. "Well, what if Angel says I can?"

Spike rolled his eyes as he unlocked the door, dropping her keys back in her bag before offering her his arm and pushing it open. Dawn took a deep breath, and stepped across the threshold, Spike close at her side.

He dropped her things with a thud, and pulled the door shut behind them, leaving them in the dimness of the foyer. There was a single lamp lit in the living room, like there always was, but the house was perfectly silent. There was a piece of notepaper taped to the bannister, right where it couldn't be missed, and this was exactly like the moment they'd left, except for Spike's arm under her hand. He stepped closer, drawing her into a hug, and they stood for a while just inside the door while Dawn shook, the silence of the empty house bearing down on her. On them both, maybe, to judge from the tightness of Spike's grip, a little too fierce to be intended for her comfort alone.

Finally Dawn lifted her head from its place against Spike's shoulder, against Angel's coat, and said, "I can do this."

"‘Course you can, pet."

She stepped carefully forward from Spike's embrace, and he let her go, mostly, catching her hand at the last moment. She led the way into the living room, trying all the while to be comfortable, to be at home, to remember that this was the place she'd lived the last five years, all my life that's been real, that this was home and not just the place her mother had died, the place Buffy had never come back to. She went to the couch and sank into its softness, and Spike flopped down beside her, their clasped hands resting on the cushion between them.

"Sure, you'll have bad moments," Spike said softly, as if he'd been talking to her the whole time, which Dawn hoped wasn't actually the case, because that meant she was much more out of it than she thought. "But it's your home, pet. You'll be all right. It's just hard at first."

Dawn nodded, staring across the room, trying to get her head around the thought of looking at that door to the hallway and never for the rest of her life seeing her mom or her sister walk through it. Imagined rattling around in this house, alone, for the rest of her life.

No. Not alone. This house might be the place her mom and Buffy weren't, but for now it was also the place where Spike was. And that was definitely something. Enough for right now, maybe.

Dawn looked over at Spike and smiled, and Spike smiled readily back. "Now," he said, "you have cable." Dawn grinned, and dropped his hand to grab the remote, and that was when the front door banged open and Xander strode in, Anya and Willow and Tara and Giles trailing behind him.

Dawn bounced to her feet, happy to see them all for the half second before she registered the look on Xander's face.

"What the hell were you thinking, Dawn?"

She opened her mouth to tell him, but he kept right on.

"You think it's okay to just take off for the weekend, scare Willow out of her mind, not even check in for more than a day? And you go off and spend time with vampires? Dawn, for God's sake, you know better than that!"

Part of her thought, finally, somebody to scream back at, but most of her just stood there stupidly. This was Xander, and he had never, ever yelled at her before, even when she did stupid things, even when he had every right to be mad at her. She could feel herself changing, from the gonna-be-okay chick she'd been all weekend, riding a motorcycle and helping magically dismember a demon, into Tragic Dawn, broken and helpless and just a little girl who had to be looked after very, very carefully.

"Xander," Willow said anxiously, trying to calm him. Look, Dawnie, I don't want to fight. Have to protect little Dawn. Can't even yell at her. Dawn looked around for Giles, wondering why he wasn't stepping in, but he'd made it no further into the house than the stairs, where he sat looking tired and old and like he wished they would all be quiet. Tara had vanished, but the kitchen light was on, now, so she was probably making tea.

"No," Xander said, quieter now but still as determined to say his piece, "she was thoughtless, and she ought to know better. Dawn, come on. You know you're not supposed to be going off with Spike. I mean, you can't just skip down to L. A. for the weekend without telling anyone. And you--Dawn, are you wearing Spike's coat?"

Spike, still sitting on the couch, flinched almost invisibly at that, and stood. "Dawn," he said quietly, to her alone, "I was leaving anyway. You're not alone now, you'll be all right." He didn't ask for the coat back. His head was bent, his shoulders slumped, and Dawn could see he was letting Xander win, just like he'd let Angel win when they first got to L.A.

"No!" Dawn met his eyes, and Spike blinked first. She straightened her spine, determined to stare Xander down even if she was sort of crying. "I mean, yes, I am, actually, but no, Xander! I don't know better and there's no reason I should. Why shouldn't I just go off with Spike? I didn't notice you begging to spend time with me--"

"Dawn," Spike said, just a hint of Angel-like authority in his voice, but Dawn shook her head. She was in the right here, and she wasn't going to back down, even if Spike didn't want her making a scene.

"Dawn, you shouldn't be hanging around with serial murderers, even if they were human. Do you know the things they've done? They're demons, Dawn, and you're just a little girl, and you'll get hurt. You know Buffy didn't like you spending time with Spike, and I doubt she would have wanted you anywhere near Angel either."

She stared at Xander in disbelief. "So, what, Spike's good enough to be made to babysit me, but if I spend two days with him, then I'm going to be corrupted? If you're going to be irrational, Xander, at least be consistent."

He opened his mouth to respond to that, but Dawn kept going.

"You don't get to tell me what to do. Everyone who ever did is dead now." Xander's mouth worked, and he looked as shocked at Dawn's outburst as Dawn felt, somewhere inside. "And don't you ever dare tell me what Buffy would want. Buffy is dead. She doesn't get a vote anymore."

"Dawn," his voice had turned placating, now, "listen to me."

"Get out of my house, Xander."

He looked for a second like he was going to laugh, and Dawn wanted, suddenly and with all her soul, to hit him. "What?"

"Get out." Dawn could feel a serious throat-tearing scream rising, and choked it back, taking a breath to steady herself. "You're disinvited from this house, til you apologize. To me, and to Spike. He's my friend, and he helped save me and the rest of the world from Glory, and you can't just bad mouth him whenever you're pissed off."

He looked back and forth from Dawn to Spike, face turning hard as he realized she meant what she said, and then he turned on his heel and walked out, Anya silently following. Dawn wanted to scream as she watched him walk away, but just like the last time, she kept silent. This time, Xander didn't look back.

Dawn slipped her hand into Spike's, and he squeezed lightly. She could do this. Only five days til Friday.

 



This story was intended to be the first in a long series, but the rest of the arc fell victim to my short attention span. I eventually posted what I wrote of the sequel as a WIP amnesty: Slightly Imperfect.