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Though I Walk Through the Valley... by randi
Chapter 1
Disclaimer: Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy own it all, but they said I could play.  Not mine, no money, etc.
Notes: Some dialogue taken from Lies My Parents Told Me, but it quickly veers off canon.

Though I Walk Through the Valley…
Chapter One

Buffy had been more or less expecting this lecture since the moment she had defied Giles and unchained Spike.
But that didn’t mean that she welcomed it at all.
Discussions on letting her friends die because it might save the world were never welcome.  She thought he’d gotten that the last time.
“And yet… there is Spike.”  Giles’s voice was carefully controlled, and that, as much as anything else – even more than the actual words – set off the warning bells in her head.  Her fight against Richard the newbie vamp was going pretty much on autopilot; most of her attention was focused on what her Watcher was saying.  And not saying.
Though she could tell that Giles was in full lecture mode and wasn’t about to listen to her, she knew she had to try.  “It’s different now.  He’s got a soul.”
The rest – the confusing jumble of feelings that she’d been resolutely ignoring sorting through for months – she left unsaid.  Because, she thought with just a hint of amusement, landing a particularly sharp blow on Richard, just mentioning that I care about him would reallysend Giles over the edge into Ripper-ville… It’s like he’s been teetering on the edge since…
Then she froze, caught in realization.
“And the First is exploiting that to his advantage.”
Almost absently, she staked Richard, staring at Giles in shock and disbelief as she did.  “Oh, my God,” she whispered, horrified at the images that had just played out in her mind.  “You’re stalling me!  You’re keeping me away –”
And she started to run, barely listening to Giles as he called after her.  “… start being one.  This is how wars are won!”
No, Giles, she thought, forcing every ounce of her strength into her legs. This is how you undermine the cause.  This is how you destroy your general… The venom in those words – in her own thoughts – was not a little scary.
The sudden understanding that Spike might be in trouble didn’t make the confusion that signified how she felt about him any less. If anything, that confusion was simply shoved aside by fear… and it wasn’t because he was chipped and couldn’t defend himself. It certainly wasn’t for Robin, because Spike was now restrained only by the soul.  It was just… fear.  It filled her until all she could do was run.  It was fear for Spike… that this would be the thing to send him spiraling back into insanity, something that would break his spirit so completely that he could never recover.
And I don’t want that, she thought.  Her air grew short, but still she forced herself to run faster.  I’ve wanted a lot from Spike.  I wanted him to go away and leave me alone, wanted him to stop loving me, always wanted him to shut up… I may have wanted him dust for a long time, but I don’t… but I never wanted him broken… not like he was a few months ago.
I am scared because of Spike.  Not because of what he might do, but because of what might be done to him.  Because I care about him.  I do.
And somehow that thought did not make her falter.  Her stride stayed as quick as ever.  She kept going until it felt like her whole life had been running and fear.
All she knew was that she needed him.
She needed Spike, desperately needed him to just be there, to have her back as she fought this war.  He’d been the most stability she’d had throughout the badness and post-resurrection depression, and this fight against the big evil wasn’t shaping up to be much better.  Pushing herself as hard as she could, she thought, I just… I can’t do it without him.  I need him…
The fear in her left no room for other thought, for sorting out what she felt.  Later, she told herself, as she neared Robin’s house.  I’ll do it… I will.  Just… later.  When he’s safe again.
Her heartbeat was so loud in her ears that she never heard it – the sound that she had heard thousands of times when she drove her stake home, that final anguished scream of a vampire as it crumbled to dust.
Robin stared down at the heap of ashes on the floor, and let his hand, still tightly gripping the makeshift stake, fall to his side.
He’d won.  It had been a hard battle, as the blood dripping thickly from his nose and the sharp sting of cuts and forming bruises would attest.  The vampire had gotten in more than a few good blows, and that had fueled his anger.  This creature had killed his mother, had gloried in her death – had stolen from him the only family he’d ever known.  And then to find that he was off-limits because he’d gotten a soul somewhere… It was too much.
He’d wanted this for too long to be denied.  Then Giles had told him that the First Evil had implanted a trigger in the vampire, something that would bring out the beast unleashed by the soul.  That was what he wanted… to face that beast, to look into the face of the thing that had killed his mother, face it down, beat it down, have his revenge. 
It took some doing, but he’d convinced Giles to go along with his plan, to keep Buffy away while he did what had to be done.
It had been the easiest thing in the world to find that triggering song and download it.  And it had all been worth it to see the look on Spike’s face when the song started to play.
Then, because it was just a mindless beast, Robin had pummeled it, blows as hard as he could make them, sending it crashing into the cross-covered walls again and again, and feeling a fierce, righteous joy at the way its unholy flesh smoked and charred.  And he kept beating it, long after the song had finished playing, long after the vampire had slid back into its human guise, long after he knew he should have stopped.
It seemed to him at first that the creature let him – it just let him pound on it, without much of an attempt to fight back.  Then it started to rally, as if it at last realized that its existence was in danger, and he’d grabbed the nearest piece of wood.  The fact that it was one of the crosses on the wall, one with a sharpened point, just made it all the more effective.  More fitting.
He’d won.  He waited, panting heavily and staring down at the pile of dust, but the exaltation and satisfaction wouldn’t come.
He wanted them to come.  He’d done what his mother would have wanted, what he’d wanted, what the First Evil in the guise of his mother had goaded him to do.  He’d taken out the thing that had killed her.  But the feelings he was waiting for eluded him.
Robin gripped the cross even tighter in his hand, until he could feel the splinters digging into his palm, a familiar stinging pain.  This is still your fault, Spike, he thought, full of resentment.  Still ruining everything, even though you’re dust…
Before he could give into the temptation to kick the pile of dust, the garage door burst open, crashing back against the wall, then wobbling back the other way.  Buffy was framed in the doorway, eyes darting around the interior of the garage, and widening as if not quite believing what she saw.
“Oh, my God,” she whispered, and stepped carefully over the threshold.  Her eyes continued to rove over the multitude of crosses, her mouth slightly open, and for a moment, Robin almost convinced himself that she was impressed.
Then she turned her gaze on him, and he let go that little fantasy immediately.  The disgust and anger in her face were unmistakable.
“Where is Spike?” she demanded.  Her tone was icy cold and commanding, and he shivered in spite of himself.  “Tell me right now.
The Slayer is supposed to kill vampires, he thought, and from out of nowhere, black humor overwhelmed him.  But this is one Slayer who isn’t going to be happy that this vampire is dead.
But he wasn’t going to back down.  He was his Momma’s boy, after all.
The garage was an abomination, a… a desecration instead of a shrine, and she just couldn’t believe what she was seeing.  Oh, my God, Buffy thought, unable to look at the walls again without shuddering.  If I’d known that it was like this here, I never, everwould have agreed…
Robin hadn’t answered her yet.  Her experienced eye took in the wounds he bore, wounds that spoke louder than words of a fight.  None of the wounds were serious at all, even for a non-Slayer; bloody nose, puffy lip, black eye.  But there’s been a fight, she thought, and felt her panic start to swell up inside again.  Robin has been in a fight, and Spike isn’t here, and…oh, please,let it be that he just left.  I can just go find him and we can walk around for a while until the urge to kill Giles passes…
She couldn’t look at the walls, and she couldn’t look at Robin, because he clearly didn’t think there was anything wrong with his garage décor.  Searching for a threat, she swept her gaze over the floor.
And every part of her froze.
“He’s gone, Buffy,” Robin said at last, and was it just her or did his voice not have even a tinge of emotion?  “He’s…”
 She closed her eyes, trying to deny what they were telling her, what Robin was saying.  No, oh, no, no, no… “When you say gone,” and her voice was too calm, the words too precise, “you mean that he left, right?” She pinned him with her gaze once more.
“No, I don’t.”  The principal lifted his hand, as if to show the sharply pointed cross he held.  “I mean that he’s dust.  As he should have been.” And he pointed directly at the pile of dust that she’d already seen.
“What have you done?” she whispered.  Cold licked at her insides and her blood turned to ice in her veins.  “Oh, God, what have you done?”
“What you wouldn’t.”
Almost before the words were fully out of his mouth, the rage overwhelmed her.  She lashed out, not holding back one ounce of her Slayer strength, and Robin flew backwards into the wall, crosses tumbling and breaking at the impact.  She never even noticed; she just advanced on him as he struggled to find his feet and dealt him a vicious backhand to his jaw.  His eyes rolled back, and he slumped into unconsciousness.
She knew she should stop, knew that she shouldn’t have even given him that second blow.  She hit him again and again.
When the red haze cleared from her vision, Robin lay in an unmoving heap on the floor, bloodied and battered, eyes swollen closed, nose and ribs broken.
She couldn’t care.  Just couldn’t manage the human feeling that should accompany seeing someone so beaten.  Couldn’t even bring herself to make certain he was still alive.
He killed Spike.
She had been so frozen, so dead inside when she’d beaten Spike so badly in the alley behind the police station, but there had still been some spark of feeling at seeing the bruises bloom on his pale, beautiful face.  Just a hint of regret at beating on him so mercilessly, ruthlessly crushed beneath her own guilt at feeling anything for a soulless thing.
For Robin, all she felt was the blazing anger that had consumed her for so much of the previous year, the hurt that had driven her to treat Spike so cruelly, because she simply couldn’t take that kind of pain out on her friends.
He killedSpike.
Her knuckles were scraped and raw as she clenched her fists, and she was panting, the sound harsh in her ears.  For a second, she focused on Robin, saw his chest move shallowly and knew he was alive.
She felt as if she hadn’t landed nearly enough blows to make him pay for what he’d done.  And abruptly, her eyes filled with tears.
He killed Spike!
Her vision wavering, she turned her back on Robin’s bloodied form and stumbled back toward the heap of ashes.  So small, she thought, stunned, and fell to her knees.  Spike is so much bigger than that… He always seems… She reached out with trembling hands, but couldn’t quite bring herself to touch…
Because touching it… would make it real.
Quite by accident, one of her fingers brushed the pile.  She had a fleeting impression of touching something soft and almost feathery, then watched the sides of the pile just kind of… crumble, falling in on itself.
Like hemust have… Oh, God…
Tears were rolling down her cheeks, but she didn’t even notice until she saw dark splotches appear in the dust. 
“Spike…” Then she choked, and couldn’t say another word, couldn’t even make sense of the thoughts crashing and spinning in her head.  She reached out toward the ashes again, hands hovering just over the pile, imagining that she could feel something from them.  “I’m sorry,” she managed at last, the merest whisper.  “I didn’t want… I mean, I didn’t know… I trusted them.”  Pain filled her voice, turned it rough and pleading all at once.  “I trusted them… and they…  I’m sorry, Spike, so sorry…”
For a while, all Buffy was aware of was her own tears, the way the emptiness swallowed her inside, how utterly alone she felt. Over and over, she chanted “I’m sorry,” until the words seemed to lose their meaning.
Slowly, the sound of Robin groaning his way back to painful consciousness penetrated her sorrow.  She couldn’t face him – not because of the brutal beating she’d given him, but because she feared she’d want to do it again.  And I can’t leave Spike, she thought, and choked.  I can’t leave him here like that... I just can’t.  “We’ve gotta go, Spike,” she murmured, blotting her face against the sleeve of her jacket. “Gotta find a way to bring you with me…” She scrambled to her feet, trying not to disturb the tiny pile of ashes.  Taking a deep breath, she glanced around the garage, searching for something to hold Spike’s ashes and wincing again as she took in the cross-covered walls.
Something black was draped over the desk by the computer, and when she picked it up to look beneath, she discovered that it was Spike’s duster.  She clutched the age-softened leather, her hands trembling a little.  He’d told her that he’d taken it off one of the Slayers he’d killed, a trophy, and the very thought of it had made her ill at the time.  But that Robin had taken it, had wanted it as a trophy… had taken it from Spike before he’d killed him… that sickened her just as much.  With hardly a thought, she slung it around her shoulders and shrugged into it.  It nearly touched the ground, and the sleeves were so long that she felt like she was swimming in it.
It smelled like him, like tobacco and leather and Spike, and the scent filled her eyes with tears again.  They fell as she broke the lock of the door into the house, as she rummaged through the cabinets to find something to carry Spike’s dust.  They fell even harder and faster as she knelt back down and carefully scooped the ashes into the Tupperware container. 
His ashes were so fine that they just slipped between her fingers.
When at last she was sure she’d gotten all of his dust – every time she looked at the container, it didn’t seem that it was full enough, that there should be more of him than just this – she snapped the lid down tight.  Staggering to her feet, clutching the container in her hands, she only became aware that Robin was truly awake behind her when he moaned something that sounded like her name.
She didn’t even glance back at him.  “Don’t even worry about firing me,” she gritted out, barely containing her temper.  “I’ll be in tomorrow to clean out my desk.”
She did not slam the door behind her, just let it close with a soft click.
Wrapped in Spike’s scent, Buffy tried to pretend that the night’s events hadn’t happened, that the vampire was a silent shadow at her side, as he had so often been.  But the box she held wouldn’t let her, reminded her with its very lightness that her rock had been taken from her.
You were counting on me, she thought, closing her eyes.  Did you wonder why I let them do that?  Did you wonder why I didn’t come for you?
She wandered aimlessly through the cemeteries she knew so well, but there were no demons lurking, no vampires to slay, nothing to distract her from the darkness consuming her.
I thought you’d be here forever, she thought, and took a deep breath to stave off the tears.  I mean…even when I told you to go away, you didn’t.  I thought…
It took her a long time to convince herself that she really did need to return to the house on Revello Drive.  The girls are depending on me… and Dawn, and Willow and Xander… and that kind of outweighs the fact that Giles…
Repeating that there were others depending on her, she somehow forced herself up the porch steps, though it felt like it took all of her remaining strength.  It still took a deep breath and another reminder that she couldn’t kill Giles before she found the courage to open the door.
As soon as she made it inside, Dawn was there, scowling, arms crossed and foot tapping.  “Buffy! Where have you been?  Giles has been back for more than an hour!”  Then she caught sight of Buffy’s red and tear-ravaged face, and her tone changed to one of concern.  “What happened?  Are you hurt?”
Buffy couldn’t answer.  What was it I told Riley that time? Minimal physical damage…
Dawn’s voice had brought others into the foyer – Anya, Willow and Xander, as well as the Potentials.  They all started gabbling at her at once, but she tuned them out, searching for someone in particular.
After repeating her demand to know if Buffy was all right, Dawn suddenly gasped.  “Why are you wearing Spike’s coat?”
Just then, Buffy saw Giles, hanging back in the dining room and watching her, and she pushed through the people crowded around her.  His face was impassive now, but she’d seen the twitch of disgust cross his features when Dawn had remarked on what she was wearing.
And that flicker of expression made her rage burst into flames inside her once more.  She pushed her grief away as far as she could – which wasn’t very far, really – and hardened her features into stone.
The others around her were clearly taken aback by the waves of anger rolling off her.  She shrugged away from Dawn’s reaching hand and watched the crowd part before her progress.
Ignoring Dawn and Willow, who had both called her name at once, she stalked over to her Watcher.  “Congratulations,” she said in her iciest voice, and held up the Tupperware container.  “You succeeded.  Are you happy now?”
Giles raised a hand to his forehead and sighed.  “Buffy, he was a danger to us all…”
“What?” Dawn’s blurted question cut through the babble.
“Maybe he was,” Buffy retorted, her words hard, and lowered the container.  “Maybe he would have slaughtered us all in our sleep like you think… or maybe he would have fought back.  Maybe he would have beaten the trigger, and then the First would have had nothing.  But you didn’t give him that chance.”
“What are you talking about? Where’s Spike? Buffy, answer me!” Dawn’s voice grew higher and more strident with each question, and she grabbed Buffy’s arm.
“He had the chance to deactivate the trigger,” Giles replied calmly.  “He wouldn’t cooperate.  You heard him yourself – he refused to cooperate.  The trigger was still active, and he was still under the First’s control.  I told you this… to be a general, you have to take the difficult decisions…”
“You took him away from me!” Buffy shouted, and didn’t care that Giles flinched away.  “He was my… he was the strongest fighter we had, he…” The tears started again, and words she had no idea she was going to say started tumbling from her mouth.  “He tried so hard to save me last year, he was the only one I could talk to, the only one who understood… He was the one I could count on, he was the one who always had my back, even when I treated him like dirt… and you took him away from me!
As the others stood stunned in the wake of Buffy’s outburst, Dawn used her grip on her sister’s arm to force her to lift the Tupperware container. Through the plastic, she saw something shifting, something that looked like powder, or…
“Ashes,” Dawn whispered in breathless realization.  “He’s… Spike’s…” She choked.
There was a beat of silence.
“You mean Captain Peroxide finally fits into an ashtray?”
Xander got no further, as Buffy spun around, her tear-streaked face incredulous.  A second later, her hand arced out to land with a resounding smack against his cheek, turning his head and leaving a bright red hand print.  When he looked back at her, his brown eyes were wide with shock.
“Buffy!” Giles grabbed her shoulder.  “This is not the time for…”
Buffy jerked away from his hand.  “Don’t. Touch. Me,” she ordered, her voice quavering.  “Don’t.  Just… just leave me alone.”  Quickly, she pushed past Xander and Willow and dashed up the stairs, the leather duster flapping around her ankles and threatening to trip her up with every step.
“She hit me,” Xander finally managed, cradling his cheek.
“You kinda deserved it, sweetie,” Willow said quietly.  She was looking toward the stairs, and her eyes were full of compassion.
“I did not!”
Unable to stand their company any longer, Dawn started to follow her sister, shoving between them.
“Dawn!”  Rather than replying to Xander’s exclamation, Willow reached out to take hold of Dawn as she passed her, and missed.  “Dawnie, I don’t think…”
“I don’t care,” Dawn replied, her voice thick.  “Right now, I really don’t care what any of you think.” Then she was thudding up the stairs, away from everyone.
Once upstairs, she took a deep breath, trying to hold back her tears, and tapped on the door to Mom’s – Buffy’s – room.  A muffled “go away” was her only response.  Undeterred, she tried the door and discovered it unlocked.
“Buffy?” Slowly she opened the door.
“Go away, Dawn.”  Buffy sat on the floor leaning against the bed, Spike’s coat across her lap.  Her head was bowed, and the hair that had escaped from her braid wisped around her face.  When Dawn looked down at her hands, they were running lightly over the leather, tracing each scar and imperfection it bore.
Dawn stepped inside the room and closed the door quietly behind her.  Hearing that, Buffy glanced up, then away again.  “God, don’t you ever listen?” she said, and her tone was harsh.  “I want to be alone.”
Dawn flinched but didn’t leave.  Instead, she stepped a bit hesitantly away from the door and took another breath, about to speak.
Before she could say a word, though, Buffy lashed out.  “Just go away, Dawn!  Why are you even here?  It’s not like you cared…” Her voice broke and her fingers clenched on the leather briefly before releasing it.  “You hate – hated – him…”
Dawn felt her strength give out at Buffy’s words, and she collapsed to the carpet in front of her.  “I didn’t, Buffy,” she said, tears clogging her throat.  “I didn’t hate him…”
“You’ve got a really funny way of showing it, then.”
“I was angry!” Dawn replied heatedly.  “I was so angry with him… for what he did to you, for leaving like… like that.”  She swiped at her face.  “And I wasn’t ready to… to let go of that.  But that doesn’t mean I didn’t care, Buffy.  He was my friend way before he was yours.”
“You threatened to set him on fire!” Buffy’s voice raised another notch.
“That was before I…”
“Do you have any idea how much that must have hurt him?”
“And now I can’t even apologize!” Dawn shouted.  Buffy recoiled at the volume and emotion.  “I can’t apologize to him for that, and do you even know how much that’s tearing me up inside?”  She huddled down into herself, the anger that had let her defy her sister disappearing as swiftly as it had come.  “I just… he hurt me, too, and I couldn’t… and he didn’t seem like Spike and… and…” She broke off in a sob.
“And now I can’t… I can’t…” She tried to take in some air, but it felt like the sobs were pressing all the breath out of her, they were so strong.
Then Buffy’s arms were around her, and oh, she was crying too, like she hadn’t cried all last year, like she hadn’t since Mom died.
Buffy was crying with her, crying over Spike.  She’d been crying before, too, before she got home… that means she cares, right?  That it’s all right to care about him, even though he… even though he did what he did?
It was a while before she couldn’t cry anymore.  Her eyes burned and her head throbbed.  Buffy’s shirt was damp under her cheek, where her tears had made it wet, but she didn’t want to move.  She didn’t have the energy to move.
Buffy was stroking her hair, as she always seemed to when either of them was upset, and in spite of herself, Dawn found it soothing.  Her shoulders were almost painfully tense from crying, but slowly she managed to relax.  “My head hurts,” she whispered.
“Mine too.”
She took a deep breath.  “What happened, Buffy?  How did…” She swallowed, unable to continue.
Buffy’s hand stilled in her hair, and for a long while, she said nothing.  As the silence stretched on, Dawn’s heart sank.  She’s not going to tell me.  After all this, she’s still not going to trust me.
She had just summoned the strength to pull away from her sister’s lax embrace when she heard Buffy’s breath hitch a little, felt her tremble beneath her.   Astonishment flooded her and all she could think was Oh.Oh, God.  She’s still crying.
Suddenly it occurred to Dawn that whatever she felt for Spike, Buffy’s feelings for him ran deeper than anyone had imagined.  She wrapped her arms around Buffy, hoping to provide at least some comfort.
“I… I don’t know all of it,” Buffy said, her voice rusty, and Dawn was surprised she had spoken at all.  “It was something that Robin and Giles had planned…”
“Giles?” She sat up, staring at Buffy with wide, achy eyes.  “Our Giles?  He… he did this?”
Buffy closed her eyes and nodded.  “He was really wigged out when… when Spike wouldn’t talk about whatever it was with his mother.  God… Somehow he convinced us that it would be best if Spike went with Robin… and Robin…”
“And Robin killed him,” Dawn whispered.
“They fought.”  Buffy went on, almost as if Dawn hadn’t spoken.  “Robin was kinda bruised when I got there, but Spike…” She swallowed, then shook her head.  “I don’t know what happened, I don’t know how Robin could have…”
“He cheated,” Dawn said with tearful conviction.  “He had to.  He never could have taken Spike if he didn’t cheat.”
“Oh, Dawnie, you should have seen his garage, where he took Spike.”  Buffy shuddered.  “It was all covered with crosses, all over the walls…”
“Told you he cheated.”  Dawn hiccupped and embraced her sister again.  After a moment, a horrid thought struck her.  “Do I have to go to school tomorrow?  I’m not sure I could handle seeing him there.”
“I don’t think he’s actually going to be there.”
“Why not?”
“’Cause I hit him.”  Buffy didn’t sound embarrassed, or contrite, or anything as she made her confession.  She sounded like she was stating a fact, as if it were one plus one.  All of her emotion had been cried out of her.  “I hit him a lot.”
Or maybe, Dawn thought, all of her emotion is just kind of… lost.  Aloud, however, all she said was “Good.”  Then she closed her eyes, trying to think of nothing at all, because she didn’t think she was up to crying again.
The next thing she knew was that Buffy was nudging her gently.  “Hey, you’d better go take an aspirin and wash your face,” she said.
Dawn sat up, stifling a yawn.  When she caught sight of her sister’s face, even though she knew Buffy had been grieving, she still couldn’t believe it.  Her eyes were red and puffy, and her cheeks were still wet.  But even more than that, she looked…older.  It was as if just this short time that Spike had been dust had aged her years.  “Buffy?” she asked hesitantly.  “Are you…”
Buffy didn’t even try to force a smile.  “I’m tired, Dawn.  I’m so tired, and I’m just… I can’t even tell you how I’m feeling right now.”  She sighed and gave Dawn a little push, and Dawn let herself be urged to her feet.  “I just want to sleep,” she went on softly, and for the first time, Dawn noticed she still had Spike’s coat on her lap.  “Just for a little while…”
When Buffy put out one hand, Dawn pulled her up.  “Sleep sounds good,” she said, “but aspirin sounds better.” She went into the bathroom and searched through the medicine cabinet for the extra-strength painkiller she knew was there.
When she came out again, Buffy had already curled up in on the bed, eyes closed.  She’d kicked off her boots and undone her hair, but hadn’t bothered to get fully undressed.
She was still clutching Spike’s duster.
She was still trembling as if with silent sobs.
Not knowing what to think, just knowing that they both were hurting, Dawn tiptoed to the door and shut off the lights as she left.
“So, was anyone else totally freaked by the Buffster tonight?” Xander raised his hand and looked expectantly at Willow and Anya, also settled around the dining room table.  “What with the wearing of the leather coat of evilness and the slappage?”
Willow sighed in exasperation.  “I told you that you deserved it, Xander,” she replied, trying to keep her voice low, fiddling with her coffee cup.  It had taken a long while before the Potentials had finally settled into sleep, and she didn’t want any of them waking up and stumbling on the Scoobies’ conference.
Xander lowered his hand.  “Maybe I did, Will,” he said, and Willow could practically feel her eyes bugging out.  Her hands stilled their nervous movement.
Xander’s admittinghe might have been wrong? About Spike? We’ve stumbled into a parallel universe. Or maybe the world has already ended.  And… okay, that’s not such a comforting thought as I thought it would be…
“But I was just… kinda shocked, y’know?  I mean, Buffy’s fought Spike all those times, and yet somehow he got away un-dusty each time.  This time, normal, ordinary guy Robin stakes him.  Poof – no more Spike.” He shook his head.  “Somehow, it’s just not as satisfying as I thought it would be, knowing he’s dust.”
“Xander Harris, that may be the nicest thing I’ve ever heard you say about Spike.” Anya reached over to pat his hand.  “Well, you know, except that time when you said he was compact and well-muscled.”
“And thanks, Ahn, for dredging up that little bit of history I’d hoped was long forgotten.”
Willow still gaped at him.  She’d been so sure that he’d be doing a happy dance to celebrate Spike’s death.  She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about it herself.
Xander caught her look and gave her a deprecating smile.  “I lived with the guy,” he said quietly, and looked down at his hands, curled around his own empty cup.  “I unloaded a lot of words on him, and most of them weren’t of the nice kind.  And he just accepted it all.  Evil vampire, dead thing… the whole nine yards.  He just agreed with me.  Never even tried to defend himself.  Like he didn’t think he could, like there was nothing he could do to… and after a while, even I couldn’t stand it anymore.  I guess I realized that he’d changed.” He shrugged, as if to say no big deal.
But it isa big deal, Willow thought.  It’s a really big deal.  “He did a lot of really evil things,” she said slowly.  “But… he did some good things, too.  I think I’m going to miss him… but I think Buffy misses him more.”
“Yeah.”  Xander let out his breath explosively.  “And that’s all with the weird, isn’t it? I mean, after last year…” He made a vague gesture with one hand.
Willow pursed her lips thoughtfully.  “I don’t know… but have you watched them together this year?  Last year… Spike got his soul to try to make up for what he did last year… and now, I really think Buffy’s trying to…” Then she remembered, and swallowed uneasily.  “… to make up for what she did.  Or, well, you know, she was.  Before.  Before this.”
She was babbling, and she knew it.  But she had been about to mention Buffy’s slip of the tongue a few weeks ago, and she couldn’t.  Neither Xander nor Anya needed to know about that, and Giles…
Knowing that Giles had had a hand in this, had chosen to help Robin kill Spike, whom Buffy had evidently cared about and wanted to help… it just added a whole other layer of confusion to a situation that was already confusing enough.  And Giles, in the kitchen getting a cup of tea, had absolutely no need to know that Buffy had said that she was in love with Spike, whether it was just an after-effect of the now-ancient Will-Be-Done spell or for real
And from what she’d seen of Buffy’s reaction to Spike’s death, she was more inclined than ever to believe that it was real.
No matter how much Buffy wants to play Cleopatra.
“They trusted each other.”  Anya’s quiet observation drew Willow away from her post-rambling ruminations.  “Couldn’t you guys see it?  It was like the only ones they could trust were each other.  I mean, why do you think Buffy fought so hard to get him back from the First?”
“Because while Buffy is very loyal,” Giles said, emerging from the kitchen, tea in hand, “she also has the unfortunate habit of trusting in people who mean her no good.”  He sipped from the mug, as if oblivious to the sudden silence his words had wrought.  If he noticed that none of them were looking at him, he said nothing about that, either.  “And if you’re right, and she did trust Spike after all that he’d done to her, then it’s definitely for the best that he’s no longer around.”  He passed through the dining room, and after a moment, they heard the click of the front door lock, and then his tread up the stairs. 
“Giles really should be more careful about saying things like that,” Anya remarked, standing up.  “I didn’t even have to be a justice demon to know how Buffy felt earlier.  She definitely wanted payback.  I hope he doesn’t try to say that to her.  It isn’t going to be pretty if he does.”  With that, she wandered away to find her own sleeping space.
“You know, she’s right,” Xander said after a moment.  “You don’t have to be psychic to see that there’s gonna be one hell of a nasty blowup in the near future.  I wish I was going to LA with you, Will, just so I could miss out on that little bit of fun.”
“From what Fred said?  You wouldn’t be any happier in LA,” Willow replied, and stood, picking up her cup.  “Did you get the car fixed?”
Xander stood as well, grabbing Anya’s coffee cup and his own, and followed her into the kitchen.  “Yeah.  The battery had been drained, just had to replace it.  You’ll be good to go in the morning.”  They piled the dirty mugs in the sink and Xander drew her close in a hug.  “You be careful in LA, okay?  We need you to come back in one piece.”
Willow nodded and hugged him tightly in return.  “And I’m counting on you to make sure that things don’t get any worse here, all right?”
Xander sighed deeply.  “You don’t want much, do you?” he said, and though the words were intended to be light, they both knew that they were all too serious.
No matter how exhausted she’d felt, Buffy’s body was well conditioned, and she started to wake up at the same time she usually did.  The first things she noticed were the scent that she associated with Spike and the smooth grain of leather under her cheek.  Mmm, she thought, and snuggled against the leather a little more,I don’t remember Spike wearing his coat to bed… She started to steel herself against the hope and love and disappointment she knew she’d see in his eyes, to tell him again that she couldn’t let herself…
When she opened her eyes, strangely enough, he wasn’t there, but his duster was.  Frowning in sleepy confusion, she rolled over to look for him.
There was just enough light filtering in through the curtains to illuminate her bedside table.  The digits of her alarm clock glowed dimly red, telling her that it was past time for it to buzz, but she couldn’t recall hearing it go off.  There was something else there, too, something that didn’t seem to belong.
But no Spike.
She reached out for the thing that didn’t belong, and realized she was still wearing her clothes from last night.  When she touched it, she saw it was a plastic container, half-full of some powdery substance, and all at once, she remembered.
Spike was gone.  Dust.  What was in that box was all that was left of him.
As it had the night before, the loss flooded her, overwhelming her.  Despite everything she’d said and done trying to convince herself otherwise, she cared about him.  She’d even admitted it before things had gone to hell.  Trust and affection and anger and disgust – at him, at herself, she didn’t really know.  All she knew was that everything had helped tangle up that knot of her feelings for him.
But no matter how much sex they’d had last year, it was nothing compared to how intimate they had managed to become this year.  He’d needed her, in a way that was so very similar to how she’d needed him.  An anchor, a lifeline, someone to help him (her) cling to sanity while drowning in guilt (apathy).
Somehow, when she hadn’t been looking, Spike had become all that to her again, and as much as he’d needed her, she still needed him.  He was the one who was her best friend.  And losing him – having that support ripped away, leaving her with no one to support in turn – hurt worse than she’d ever imagined it would.
That pain in her heart surged up inside her again, and her vision went blurry, and all the things she’d realized in an instant last night came back to haunt her.  I won’t hear him take shots at Xander anymore… or hear him say my name that way that he does, or watch him fight, or touch his hand or… She bit her lip to keep from making a sound, but the tears were beyond her control.
Her eyes hurt before she was able to stop, and for a long while she just lay on the bed, staring at the clock as the numbers ticked over.  I need to get up, she told herself over and over, but just couldn’t summon the strength to move.
Finally, she managed to drag herself off the bed, mostly by reminding herself that she got up this early to be sure she could have a shower while the water was still hot.  But when she turned around to straighten the bed a little, Spike’s coat still lay there, rumpled, accusing in its emptiness, and her mouth trembled at the sight.  She bent slowly and picked it up.
It already smelled a little less like him.
Carefully, she hung it up in her closet, not quite daring to leave it out.  The knowledge was there in the back of her mind – there were people who wouldn’t approveNot that I care about their approval, she thought.  I just don’t want them to do anything to his coat…
She was mechanically de-tangling her hair when someone tapped at her door.  For a second, she debated ignoring it, not sure she could handle any of her friends with their he was evil, get over it attitudes.  But before she could come to a decision, Willow poked her head in, and gave her a tiny smile.  “Hey, you’re up.”
“Yeah.”  She set down her brush and stared down at the bedspread.  The mattress dipped beside her as Willow joined her on the bed.  She heard her friend take a breath to say something, and to head her off, she blurted, “I can’t, Will. Please.”
“Can’t what?”
Can’t make it, can’t do this, can’t fight this war, she wanted to say, take your pick… “I cried myself to sleep last night, and cried myself awake this morning,” she said, and her voice was thick and raspy in the aftermath of her jag.  “Right now, I just can’t take you guys saying that… that he was evil, and oh, gee, isn’t it great he’s…” She choked on a sob and couldn’t finish.
Willow put an arm around her.  “Oh, Buffy, no,” she said, like she was upset that Buffy would think that was why she was there.
Like I wouldn’t have reason, Buffy thought bitterly, even as she relaxed into the warmth of Willow’s embrace.
“No, sweetie, I just wanted to see how you were doing.”
She gave a hollow laugh, and felt Willow flinch against her at the sound.  “Oh, fine with a heaping helping of dandy.”
“And to tell you that I’m sorry…” Willow continued doggedly.
She snorted.  “You’re sorry that I’m sad,” she stated flatly.  “You’re not sorry that he’s gone.”
“… and that I’ll miss him.”
Buffy lifted her head from her friend’s shoulder at that.  “You’ll miss him?” she asked, incredulous.
Willow had the grace to blush.  “Buffy, in spite of what you think, in spite of the bottle-in-the-face and the attempted biting and… well, okay, I do have a lot of reasons to not like Spike.  But that doesn’t mean that I won’t miss him.  He kind of… grows on you, y’know?”
Buffy gave a little breathy huff of laughter and rested her head on Willow’s shoulder.  “Yeah, he does.”
“And we sometimes just kind of sat, two recently ex-evil people, trying to deal with what we did.  It’s… kind of comforting, knowing you’re not alone. All right, so it was only just that one time, and there were stinky cigarette fumes, but still.  And… and last year, well, okay, last year wasn’t exactly the best for any of us, but he helped us while you were… uh… gone, and…”
“And he tried to help me,” Buffy said, closing her eyes.  “Even though I was… he tried so hard to help me after I… after…”  She trailed off.
“He looked after Dawnie, too… protected her until we thought she’d wanna bite his head off, but I don’t think she ever did.  She must have told you that, though.”
Buffy said nothing.  Willow’s voice faded to a dull buzz in her ears, and her thoughts whirled so fast through her brain that she couldn’t catch hold of them.  There was an idea, a plan, something just out of reach…
Willow continued speaking, as though she wasn’t really expecting an answer.  “… did a lot of good things, even before he got his soul.  I don’t know about the others, not for sure, but I can see why you… why you care about him.  It’s hard to let someone go when they’re such a big part of your life…”
In a split second, the plan coalesced in her head, and she was amazed.  “I’m not letting him go,” she said aloud, straightening away from Willow once more.
Willow’s brow wrinkled in confusion.  “What are you talking about?  Buffy, he’s gone, and you do have to let him go eventually…”
“No, I don’t.”  Slayer-steel infused her tone, and she knew Willow recognized it by the way her eyes widened.  “I don’t have to, and I’m not going to… and you’re going to help me.”
“I am?”
Buffy grabbed her arms, gripping tighter than she intended, and Willow gasped.  She didn’t release her, though, just gave her a little shake.  “You are.  You have to.  You have to bring him back, Willow.”
“Buffy?  What are you talking about?”
“Spike,” she replied, and she felt something she had thought she’d lost at the first sight of Spike’s ashes – hope.  “You brought me back … you have to bring him back, too.”