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By around four-thirty that afternoon, those of the Scoobies who were involved in Buffy’s plan to trap Xander were gathered at her house, talking in quiet, slightly nervous tones, in various areas of the house. In theory, most of them really had very little reason to be nervous, as they did not really have any major part in the plan, beyond simply witnessing the outcome.
The reality of it was that none of them really *wanted* to have it proven to them, beyond all doubt, that Xander was the guilty party. Each of them would much rather have had the plan absolve him of their suspicions, would rather have been able to accept him again as the friend they had considered him to be for so long.
And although no one said it – Spike knew that was how they felt.
And that knowledge terrified him.
Buffy had called Xander a couple of hours earlier, and invited him over for a “movie night” with the rest of the group. He had agreed to come over right after he got off work, and to bring pizza and snacks with him as well. Buffy had accepted his offer – though she could not imagine that she would actually be hungry.
As they waited for Xander to arrive, Anya and Giles sat suspiciously close together on the sofa, talking in quiet, sober tones. Buffy and Angel walked out of the kitchen, engaged in a conversation that was somehow both subdued and agitated. Sitting in a corner of the living room on the floor with Spike, Dawn could tell without hearing them what they were arguing about.
As for Spike – he could hear every word.
“He’s not ready, Buffy, I’m telling you – this is a very bad idea! It’s not safe!” Angel insisted vehemently.
“Of course it’s safe!” Buffy scoffed at his concern. “We’re in my *house*, Angel! And it’s *Xander*. What’s he gonna do once he’s caught, anyway, that I can’t handle?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Angel shrugged sarcastically. “Shoot you?”
His words momentarily startled her to silence. When she did finally respond, her voice was barely over a whisper. “He wouldn’t…” she began, but she did not sound the least bit certain of what she was saying.
“Yeah, you’ve been saying a lot of that lately,” Angel reminded her, cutting her off impatiently. “But you’ve mostly been wrong, haven’t you? What if he *does* shoot you? What if he shoots *Spike* again? You said he told you that Xander already managed to get a gun in here at least once.”
“I can handle it,” Buffy replied tersely. “Look – this is the only way that Giles and Anya are truly gonna accept this…not to mention Willow…if we try to tell her about this, without absolute proof, she’s gonna totally flip…”
“You know what I think?” Angel interrupted her, a slightly accusing tone to his voice. “I think this is the only way that *you* can really accept this, Buffy! And considering the fact that Spike *told* you what happened – after all he’s been through – I think that’s pretty selfish of you!”
“Yeah, well, so was waiting around in LA for three months while your childe was busy being chained up and tortured.”
The words were out before she could stop them – and she immediately regretted them, even before Angel’s visible flinch.
“I’m sorry,” she spoke up softly, her eyes guiltily averted. “It’s just – we’ve all made mistakes in this Angel, not just me. I’ve made a lot of them even *before* Spike was hurt – a lot of assumptions about him that turned out to be wrong – and I’m still trying to make up for that. He was my friend – more than that, really – but I refused to accept that.”
She was silent for a long moment before suddenly looking up at Angel again, her gaze steady and determined as she finished, “I refuse to do that to a friend again -- *any* friend. I – I have to know beyond all doubt before I can do anything about it.”
Angel was unmoved by her explanation, just glaring at her stonily for a moment, in anger at her stubborn refusal to see the truth, and resentment at her cruelly stinging accusation of moments earlier.
“Fine,” he muttered finally. “Do this your way. But I don’t care what you think about it, Buffy, I have no intention of letting that boy hurt my childe again!”
“Good,” Buffy replied coolly without hesitation. “Neither do I.”
They were both silent again, engaged in a fierce glaring match, before Angel suddenly relented, demanding in a tone of irritation, “Do you have any blood around here? Human would be good for a change – I’m feeling the need to kill something right now!”
“In the fridge,” Buffy snapped back, “It’s human, but sorry, nobody died donating it to the hospital. Sorry to disappoint you.”
Although the implication of her words was very irritating to him, Angel’s tone was one of practiced restraint, as he ground out, “Oh, well – maybe I’ll get the chance to kill something tonight anyway.”
And with those words, he stalked off into the kitchen, leaving a troubled Slayer staring after him in pensive worry.
Dawn was talking with forced cheer, trying to keep his spirits up – had been for the past several minutes, in fact – but Spike had not heard a single word she had spoken.
His attention was focused firmly on the conversation taking place across the room, between his sire, and the Slayer who had come to mean so much to him. He was looking at Dawn, but glancing at them frequently, all the while his ears attuned carefully to catch every word that passed between them.
He had desperately hoped that Angel might be able to convince Buffy to forget about the plan, to just accept what he had told her and go from there – but she had stubbornly insisted on carrying out this plan – the plan that was supposed to take place in less than thirty minutes…
…the plan that had Spike shaking with the terror of once again facing his enemy -- *alone*.
He jumped without meaning to, at the sudden sharp voice of the girl next to him, raised slightly when she suddenly realized that he had not been paying any attention to what she had been saying.
As his wide eyes turned dutifully toward her again, and she noted the panicked expression in them, the trembling that had overtaken his body – her jaw set with stubborn determination that was every bit the match for her sister’s, and she rose to her feet, unexpectedly grasping his hand and pulling him up beside her.
“Come on,” she muttered as she led him toward her sister, who was still standing near the middle of the room, staring toward the kitchen where Angel had disappeared.
Spike realized – too late – what it was that she meant to do, but there was no time to try to avoid Buffy’s gaze, before her troubled eyes had fallen on his trembling, anxious form.
“We can’t do this, Buffy,” Dawn declared firmly.
“We *have* to do this…” The Slayer’s voice was tired from defending her plan so vigorously to Angel.
“Look at him, Buffy. We can’t do this to him!” Dawn insisted, her own voice trembling with angry indignation. “He’s scared out of his mind…we can’t make him go through this…”
Spike ventured a glance up at Buffy for just a moment, hopeful that she might agree – but his heart sank when he saw the look of disappointed dismay in her eyes as she took in his fearful state – and he suddenly felt very ashamed of his own weakness, his lack of trust, which was jeopardizing the plan that was obviously so very important to her.
“No,” he objected in a soft whisper, shaking his head and lowering his gaze in nervous submission. “No, i-it’s all right…I-I’ll do it, Buffy…it’s – it’s okay…”
Dawn raised her eyebrows at his obvious reluctance, meeting her sister’s eyes with a pointed look, as if to say, *See?*
Buffy’s teeth worried at her lower lip, as she moved in slowly closer to Spike, placing her hands soothingly, protectively, on his trembling arms and pulling him in closer to her, her searching gaze drawing his eyes unwillingly up to hers.
“Hey,” she said softly, coaxingly. “It’s okay, Spike – are you – are you too scared? Do you not want to do this?”
Spike hesitated, desperately wanting to tell her that *yes*, he was terrified – and this plan was the last thing he wanted to do. But – he could hear the reluctance in her voice…knew what answer she really wanted from him.
He hesitated just a moment, and could not bring himself to speak, as he shook his head slowly in denial.
“Buffy, he’s so lying!” Dawn burst out in exasperation. “Can’t you see that?”
Her sharply spoken words sent a stab of fear through Spike’s heart, as in his experience, to be accused of lying was something that was usually followed by brutal punishment.
“No,” he whispered almost desperately, shaking his head, his eyes lowered, unable to meet either girl’s gaze. “No, please – I’m not – it’s okay – really, it’s okay, Buffy, please…”
“Shhh,” she whispered, her eyes widening in alarm at his sudden fear, as she ran her hands gently up and down his arms in a soothing gesture. “Hey – it’s okay, Spike…it’s all right…” Buffy paused, frowning thoughtfully for a moment, before she suggested gently, “Let’s talk about this, okay? Let’s go upstairs and talk about this…”
As she spoke, she put a guiding arm around his shoulders and turned them toward the stairs – effectively shutting Dawn out.
Dawn would have none of it.
“Oh, I *so* don’t think so!” she snapped, moving swiftly to block their path up the stairs. “You are so not going to take him up there and do your best to talk him into it! If he doesn’t want to do this, then you can’t make him!”
Buffy’s eyes widened in angry indignation, as she gasped with offended surprise, “I’m not going to do any such thing! I just want to talk to Spike -- *alone* -- and see if I can get him calmed down enough to tell me how he really feels about this! *You’re* certainly not helping, all you’re doing is making him more nervous! So just back off – before I *back* you off.”
Dawn’s eyes widened at the subtle half-threat in her sister’s voice, and her eyes narrowed in challenge. “Oh, I’d *love* to see you…”
Without waiting for her to finish, Buffy released Spike long enough to firmly grasp her sister’s arms and use her supernaturally greater strength to physically move her out of the way.
She had not hurt her in the least – but she had made her point.
Frustrated, Dawn glared at Buffy’s retreating back, as the Slayer guided a shaken Spike up the stairs to her room.
“Fine! Just push me around! Just push *everybody* around until they do exactly what you want them to, Buffy! It’s what you’re best at, isn’t it?” Dawn practically yelled up the stairs after her – though Buffy ignored her completely.
Fuming, Dawn spun around – to see that the attention of Anya, Giles, and Angel – who had just returned to the living room with a mug of blood – was all focused on her in surprise.
“Can’t any of you people just mind your own bloody business for a change?” she muttered petulantly, as she stalked off into the kitchen, slamming her way down into the basement…
…and although it was out of the range of the humans in the room, Angel was pretty sure that he heard her muttering as she went about her “selfish, super-hero, super-powered, super-*bitch* older sister”.
“You’re sure? You’re really sure, Spike, because we can call this off if you want to…?”
The continued hope in her voice kept Spike from accepting her half-hearted offer, and he just shook his head weakly. “No,” he whispered. “No, it’s okay – I can do it…I just – Buffy…” He hesitated, before asking her in a desperate, pleading whisper, “…what if he…what if you can’t get here in time? What if he…”
“He’s not going to hurt you, Spike,” Buffy promised him softly. “I’m faster than he is, stronger than he is – I can get into this room before he can lay a hand on you, I promise. It’ll just take a few seconds to get all the evidence we need, and then it will be over, I promise. And he’ll never, *ever* touch you again – okay?”
“Okay,” Spike whispered automatically, swallowing back a sob of dreadful resignation – which Buffy somehow missed, in her eagerness to have everything fall into perfect place, as she had planned.
“Okay,” she echoed with obvious relief. “It’s gonna be okay. I promise, Spike. Everything is going to be fine.”
As she spoke, Buffy pulled him closer to her, until his head was resting on her shoulder, and she placed an affectionate kiss on his temple, as she put her arms around him and held him close to her for a few blissfully reassuring moments.
In her arms, held close in her protective embrace, Spike could believe that no one could ever hurt him – that she would keep her promise to protect him. He could almost succeed in completely driving out the painful memories of his time in helpless captivity – and the painful memories of the time – that had come *before*.
*She’s not the same…she loves you…she wouldn’t hurt you now,* he told himself with a desperate fervency.
*Please,* the other voice, the one that sounded frighteningly like Xander’s scoffed at the first voice. *She doesn’t love you – you don’t deserve it…she’s gonna take the first chance she gets to choose him over you…and he’s gonna *kill* you – just like he always said he would…*
*No – no, he can’t…she wouldn’t…*
The intense mental struggle, the warring voices in Spike’s head, suddenly fell silent, drowned out by a single, simple sound.
The ringing of a doorbell.
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