Chapter 5: Awake

Chapter 5: Awake

††††††††††††††† Spike was waiting behind the Magic Box, pacing up and down the alley, cursing and smoking.†† Xander parked his truck at the alley mouth and he and Oz got out.† The link was like coming into a hive-full of bees or something - swarming, darting thoughts, barely coherent.† Rage and fear uppermost, with the fear tapering once Xander and Oz were physically in sight.††

††††††††††††††† *Did you tell them?*

††††††††††††††† *No, just said you found Willow and we were gonna come get you.† What the fuck could I say?† Spike - what are we gonna do?*

††††††††††††††† *Don't know, love...*

††††††††††††††† *Dawn...* Oz thought, and they all flinched at that - at what this would do to her.

††††††††††††††† "Where's Willow?"† Xander asked, coming up the alley and the demon snarled - was pushed away and then flickered back.† This time Spike let it stay and he jerked his head in the direction of the shop.

††††††††††††††† "She's in there.† Couldn't take any more of her wailin'."†† Xander nodded, but he didn't move towards the shop, and neither did Oz.†

††††††††††††††† "Did you really...is Buffy...?"† Spike sighed, flicking his cigarette away.† He looked tired and angry, and Xander reached out and sank his fingers into the short hair behind Spike's ear - cupped his hand around the back of his neck and pulled him closer for a soft kiss.†† After a moment Spike relaxed, shifting the demon away, and Xander leaned against the shop wall and Spike leaned with him, one arm loosely around his waist.† Oz stood in front of them, arms crossed, watching Spike.

††††††††††††††† "It was her, love.† Christ, it was -"†† Spike sent it through the link again, this time slower, with as much detail as he could.† Xander flinched a little from it - looked over at Oz who looked troubled.† "We need to get Red back to the house.† See what the Watcher has to say.† She might not be - right.† The Bit... she can't know, Xan.† Not if her sis is...wrong.† She can't know."† Xander knew that - felt that urge to protect Dawn *protect pack!*, but...

††††††††††††††† "How can we keep it from her?† I mean - she has a right -"

††††††††††††††† "Sod it all, Xander, we can't!† Don't you see how much it'll hurt her if the Slayer's just...a body?† If her blood and bones came back but not her mind?† That'd be worse then her bein' dead."† Xander heard the pleading in Spike's voice - felt it, felt the truth.

††††††††††††††† "Damnit...I know, it's just -†† It sucks to hide this from her."† Xander let his head rest for a moment on Spike's shoulder - felt the vampire slowly getting out another cigarette.

††††††††††††††† "Better that she doesn't know.† I'll tell her - I'll figure somethin' out, love.† You don't have to lie to her."†† *Anything to keep her safe, anything to keep her happy,* and if that meant lies, then so be it.† Spike didn't care - he could justify any means, if he tried hard enough, and Xander felt a guilty relief at not having to find some story to tell Dawn.

††††††††††††††† "What should we do?† Do we really want to talk about this at home?" Oz asked.

††††††††††††††† "We have to.† Not gonna split everybody up - it's not safe.† And we need to get going, loves, because these Hellions are in a bloody ugly mood and things are only gonna get worse."† Xander glanced over at Oz, who nodded agreement.

††††††††††††††† *I'll get Willow,* and the werewolf walked into the shop, mentally bracing himself.

††††††††††††††† "I can't believe she'd do something like that - behind our backs...† What the fuck was she thinking?"† The anger that Xander had been holding in check for the past half-hour was boiling just below the surface and he knew that if he wasn't careful he would let it go - and probably lose Willow as a friend for life.† But god, he was so angry!

††††††††††††††† "Watcher's gonna make her sorry, pet - you don't have to."† There was a flash of white in the gloom of the alley - a malicious, fang-edged smile - and Xander shivered.† If Giles didn't make Willow sorry, Spike would, and Xander didn't actually want that, no matter how angry he was.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah.† Fuck, I don't want to be around for that."† The door to the shop opened and Oz stepped out - turned and made a gesture and Willow came through the door, hesitant.† She looked at Xander and opened her mouth and Xander held up a hand.

††††††††††††††† "Don't, Willow.†† Let's get back to the house.† I just - can't, right now."

††††††††††††††† "Xan -"

††††††††††††††† "Don't, Willow.† Please?† Can we just...go?"† Xander turned on his heel and walked shakily to his truck, hearing Willow's smothered sobs, hearing Oz murmuring something to her.† Spike stalked beside him and when they got to the truck he swung himself into the back.

††††††††††††††† "I'll just ride back here then, right?† Keep an eye out."†

††††††††††††††† *Yeah.† Thanks, Spike...love you...*

††††††††††††††† *Love you.† You okay, wolf?*

††††††††††††††† *Probably.† Maybe.† I'll - tell you soon.*†† The ride to their house was mostly silent, and Willow didn't try to talk to Xander or Oz.† There were tell-tale signs of the Hellions here and there, gradually tapering off as they neared their own neighborhood.†

††††††††††††††† *Thank god.† Think they'll come out this far?*

††††††††††††††† *Downtown ought to keep 'em busy for a while...we're probably okay unless the 'bot brings 'em here, chasing Red.*

††††††††††††††† *Where IS the 'bot?† You saw them taking it, Spike?*

††††††††††††††† *Yeah, wolf, I did.† I guess - they must still have it.*

††††††††††††††† None of that was comforting and they got silently out of the truck and went inside.† Xander felt the wards - like a prickle of icy claws down his back as they crossed the threshold - and behind him he heard Willow gasp.

††††††††††††††† "What is - who made that?"

††††††††††††††† "Tara and Giles did," Oz said quietly, and Willow looked at him - nodded.

††††††††††††††† "It's - it's strong."† That seemed to upset her somehow, and they walked through to the kitchen.† Dawn was still at the table, eating a last bit of pizza.† Tara was sitting with her, looking tired, and as they came in she got up and went to Willow - pulled her into a hug and just leaned there, her face in Willow's hair.† Willow hugged her back, stroking her hair, whispering something that made Tara shiver in her arms.† Ethan was slumped over in a chair in the corner, looking out of it.† Giles was pacing and when they came in he looked up sharply.

††††††††††††††† "Oz.† You're - you're friend called.† Derio.† He said to tell you he's fine - he's safe - and he'll see you in the morning."† Oz nodded, a small smile crossing his face, and a subtle bit of tension went out of the link.

††††††††††††††† "Hey Dawn, it's getting late - you really need to get to bed," Xander said softly, and Dawn looked at him, fear and anger and disappointment all careening through the link.

††††††††††††††† "I don't think I can sleep, Xander.†† I mean - it's pretty scary out there.† Can I just - can I go watch a movie?† I don't want to be alone upstairs.† Please?"† Xander didn't know what to say, and stood there for a minute, watching Tara pull back from Willow and tug her over to the table, getting her to sit down and scooting her own chair close, Willow's hand locked tight in hers.

††††††††††††††† "Course you can, Bit," Spike said, getting his flask out of his duster pocket and opening it.††† "You go get your nightclothes on and clean your teeth and I'll come watch with you, right?"† Dawn nodded - wiped furiously at her eyes and stood up.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, okay.† Thanks, Spike."

††††††††††††††† "Anything for you, poppet," he said softly, then took a long drink from the flask.†† Dawn gave Tara and Willow a little smile and picked up her plate - took it over to the sink.

††††††††††††††† *Thank god -* Xander thought, but suddenly Ethan stirred, straightening abruptly, his eyes going wide.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, little girl, do you have any idea what you've done?" he rasped, and Giles whipped around, striding over to him.†

††††††††††††††† "Bloody hell, Ethan!†† No one wants to hear your ramblings!"

††††††††††††††† "You'd best hear it, Ripper my dear, you had best listen.† Do you have any idea what she's unpicked, this little tailor?† What seams she's ripped out and done back up again?† Weren't even looking at the pattern, were you, girl?"† Ethan shoved at the hand Giles had on his shoulder - stood up with a grimace and wobbled over to the table - leaned there.† Willow and Tara both recoiled, and Tara looked questioningly at Willow.

††††††††††††††† "Honey - what -?"

††††††††††††††† "Best stop right there, mage," Spike interrupted, his voice cold and level - hateful.†† "You don't have enough magic in you to stop me ripping your heart right out of your chest."†

††††††††††††††† *Not pack not pack* flooding the link from all of them and Xander saw Oz lift his head, his eyes black.† Spike was demon-faced, unmoving but tense in the doorway of the kitchen, and Dawn was cringing against the counter.† Tara kept looking at Willow and Willow met Ethan's eyes squarely, with something fierce and defiant in her gaze.

††††††††††††††† "You shut up.† You've haven't done anything but try to hurt us!† I was doing - I was helping, I was making things right.† Saving her -"

††††††††††††††† "Saving her from what, little seamstress?† From eternity?† From her fate?† You're not the one who chooses, love; you're not the one that gets to decide.† Do you have any idea what bargains you've unraveled?† What ripples you've caused?† They'll come back to you like a fucking tsunami, little witch."† Ethan's gaze - wild and rather glassy - roved over all of them, and he gave a short, barking laugh.†

††††††††††††††† "Ethan -" Giles said, pleading in his tone, and Ethan reached and touched the Watcher's cheek - fleeting touch like a butterfly.†

††††††††††††††† "Don't you know?† The dead aren't meant to come back to us, child, unless they give up something..."† Ethan's eyes flickered to Spike then, and Xander felt the surge of fury from the vampire - felt the coiling of power from Ethan, the hideous sub-sonic whine that was his power.† *Chaos infinite endingbeginning cold cold cold*† †Janus - the balance of all things - was where Ethan drew his magic from, but he was out of balance - too ill to control it - and Tara and Willow both gasped as they felt the flaring of his power - the out-of-control surge that threatened them all.

††††††††††††††† "What is he talking about?† What dead?† Why is - Willow, what's going on?"† Dawn's voice was shrill and cracking and Spike moved in the blink of an eye - had Ethan up against the wall, his hand tight around the skinny throat.

††††††††††††††† "You'll shut up or I'll have your bones for soup, you hear me?† Turn it off, mage - you're like a fucking charnel house and the carrion crows are circling in, you fuck."† Ethan's eyes were wild, but it wasn't with fear.† A rusty, strangled chuckle forced its way out of his throat and Spike snarled.†

††††††††††††††† "Spike!"† Giles grabbed his arm and pulled, but he couldn't budge Spike's arm and the vampire turned his head and growled at the other man, snapping his fangs in the Watcher's face.† Giles glared back, *darkman demonkiller* flaring off him like black fire.

††††††††††††††† *Oh fuck, DAMNIT - Spike, STOP, let him go, for fuck's sake, this isn't helping!*

††††††††††††††† *Not pack not pack don't hurt him, NOT PACK*†† The wolf was going schizophrenic in it's need to protect Spike and Oz's need to protect Giles and Xander could feel the hyena straining against his control - could feel the soldier as well, ready to take Giles down if he moved against Spike.

††††††††††††††† "Stop it, god damnit - Giles!† Please - Spike, let him go, we have to - calm down -"† Xander was crossing the kitchen as he spoke - was getting between Spike and Giles, was making Spike look at him, making him let go his hold on Ethan's throat.† And then Oz was there too, pulling at Spike, confusing the demon enough that it backed off - let go and let its family calm it - distract it.

††††††††††††††† "Stop it, please!† Just stop!"† Dawn cried, and Spike forced himself to calm down.

††††††††††††††† *Scaring the Bit, damnit, gotta...† Pet, I'm all right, I -*†† "Tell him turn it off, Watcher.† Make him shut it down."† Ethan was sagging down the wall, his ravaged body exhausted, his chest heaving in ragged, wet-sounding breaths.† Giles got a shoulder under his arm - got him up and back to his chair, murmuring to him.† Ethan seemed dazed - seemed a little lost - and he put his hand up to Giles' face again, touching it lightly and looking at the other man with wide, wondering eyes.† And then his own eyes rolled up in his head and he sprawled loosely, unconscious.† Oz moved to Giles' side and helped him lay the man gently on the floor - grabbed Giles' suit jacket off the back of a chair and folded it into a hasty pillow.† Giles took it with murmured thanks and tucked it under Ethan's head - said something else and Oz went away into the living room.† He came back a moment later with a blanket and they tucked it around the still form.†

††††††††††††††† For a moment Giles crouched there, the backs of his fingers on Ethan's cheek, his eyes so very weary.††† Then he stood up slowly, his gaze flickering over Spike and Xander.† Xander tightened his hold around Spike's waist - moved to get between the two.† Then Giles turned deliberately to Willow.†† He crossed the kitchen and leaned down, hands flat on the table.† Willow stared at him, her eyes wide, her mouth set in a hard line.† Her fingers were twined with Tara's, white and shaking, and Tara was looking at Willow with a dawning expression of horror on her face.† Dawn was frozen by the sink still, her hand over her mouth, looking fixedly at Willow as well.† Giles took in a hard breath and then spoke, and they all jumped at the deadly tone of his voice.

††††††††††††††† "Willow.† Tell me - what you've done.† Tell me all of it.† Right now."

 

 

††††††††††††††† †Willow spoke, slowly spelling out her actions and her fears and her justifications.† Spike leaned briefly into Xander, scenting deeply of the warm fragrance that gathered at the juncture of throat and shoulder - that was held by his hair.† Then he moved around the room and wrapped himself around Dawn, holding her close and feeling her heart pound and pound against his chest - feeling the *fear want fear* that was pouring off† her.† She was sobbing quietly and Spike doubted she heard half of what Willow was saying.

††††††††††††††† Willow's voice finally faded away altogether and there was a long, long silence.† Spike looked over at Xander, who was standing shoulder to shoulder with Oz, their hands twined together.† Xander had tears in his eyes and he wiped them away - took a deep breath.† Tara had pulled her hand out of Willow's and was staring at her girlfriend.† The Watcher pushed himself away from the table and turned his back on all of them - went over to Ethan and crouched down.† He stroked the tumbled, dark hair off the man's face - briefly felt his pulse and then snugged the blanket up a little higher around his chest.

††††††††††††††† †"If it isn't her...† If you've brought back something...else, Willow..."† Giles stood up, and when he turned to face the witch again he was Ripper, and they all flinched from that.† "You, and you alone will be the one to send - it - back.† And deal with - whatever is left.† Do I make myself clear?"† Willow seemed to be frozen under his hooded gaze but after a moment she nodded jerkily.†† "Right now...we need to find - it.† Her.† We need to...know..."† Giles stopped talking, and his look was, for one moment, utterly lost.† Then his expression hardened and he cleared his throat.

††††††††††††††† "We need to do a locator spell.† Tara, I'm going to need your help."† Willow stirred at that - looked pleadingly at Tara, who shook her head.

††††††††††††††† "Giles, I can -"

††††††††††††††† "No, Willow, you can not."† He moved away, into the living room and Tara gathered up a backpack from under the table.† She touched Willow's shoulder gently and then followed Giles.

††††††††††††††† "I - I want to understand," Dawn said, her voice high and wavering, and Spike stroked her hair.

††††††††††††††† "What do you want to understand, poppet?" he asked softly, and she took a step back, wiping her eyes.

††††††††††††††† "What did Willow do?† Why is Giles so - angry?†† I don't -"†† She sniffled and reached past Spike for a paper towel - blew her nose and wiped her eyes.

††††††††††††††† "Niblet..."† Spike looked over at Xander and Oz, wishing this didn't have to be said.† Then he took Dawn's shoulder and guided her over to the table - got her to sit down.

††††††††††††††† *Fuck, fuck...† Why did that bloody mage have to spout off...*

††††††††††††††† *You want - want me to tell her, love?*

††††††††††††††† *No, I'll do it...*†† Spike smiled faintly at Dawn, and took her hand.† Oz moved slowly over to the chair Tara had vacated and sat down, putting his feet in the seat and his chin on his knees.

††††††††††††††† *Protect pack pack,* faint but constant, and Xander echoed it, as did the demon.

††††††††††††††† "It's like this, then.† Red here thought - that your sis was in Hell.† That when she died it was all - wrong - and she was trapped in some hell dimension."† Dawn's eyes were huge, and she turned to Willow.

††††††††††††††† "Was she?† I mean, how did you know?† Did you do a spell, did you - did you see her there?"† Willow looked at Oz - at Spike - and slowly shook her head.

††††††††††††††† "No, I - I couldn't find a spell that would tell me, Dawnie.† But - but she was!† I mean - she d-died in the portal, and everything was wrong because of - because of the monks messing with everything - I couldn't leave her there!"

††††††††††††††† *Bloody hell.† Absolute fucking rubbish -*†† "Tell the truth, Red, you don't know anything for

sure -"

††††††††††††††† *Spike, please love -*

††††††††††††††† *Yeah, okay, I'll...† Yeah...*†† Spike leaned back in his chair, getting out a cigarette, struggling to control the demon and himself.† Refraining, minute by minute, from reaching across and snapping the witch's neck.†† Xander moved over behind his chair, settling his hands lightly on Spike's shoulders and rubbing his thumbs up and down Spike's neck.† Spike relaxed into the touch, shutting the anger down.

††††††††††††††† "So you found a spell to - to bring her back?† You brought her back from the dead."† Willow nodded and Dawn looked over at Spike.

††††††††††††††† "Where is she then?† Why didn't she - why isn't she here?† Or - is she at home?† I mean, why isn't she trying to find us?"† Willow opened her mouth and Oz put his hand on her arm.† Willow subsided, looking hurt.

††††††††††††††† "She woke up in her grave, Dawn.†† She had to dig her way out and she's...a little lost, we think." Oz's voice was calm but the link flared with pity and anger and Spike heard Xander take a hard breath - felt the tremor go through his hands.

††††††††††††††† "She - out of the ground?† Oh my - god, oh, poor Buffy, oh god."† Dawn shuddered, rubbing her arms, and Spike tried to calm her, thinking rapidly.

††††††††††††††† "It's not so awful, Bit.† Did it once myself, you know."† The memory of it flashed through the link and Xander's hands clamped down hard and, *oh don't, oh Spike, god...*.

††††††††††††††† "You did?"

††††††††††††††† "Well, yeah.† But - I had Dru waitin' for me, didn't I?† I wasn't - all alone with those fu- those demons swoopin' around on their motorbikes.† She's just - confused is all, Niblet - she'll be gettin' her head straight soon."

††††††††††††††† "What did Giles mean?† He said - if she isn't right, if Willow b-brought back something else...† Is it like that time -?"

††††††††††††††† "Just like that, Bit," Spike interrupted, not wanting to bring up Dawn's own foray into resurrection.† *Willow had a hand in that too, didn't she?* Xander thought, and anger rippled through the link - anger and a sense of betrayal.

††††††††††††††† "So - so if we find her and - and she's okay then it'll be - everything will be like it was."† They all exchanged glances and Willow smiled a fragile sort of smile.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, Dawn, everything'll be fine.† We just - we need to find her."

††††††††††††††† "We need something," Giles said, appearing in the doorway and Willow jumped a little.

††††††††††††††† "What do you need, Giles?" Xander asked, and Giles put his hand up to his face, to rub his forehead and then slide his hand back, over his hair to his neck.

††††††††††††††† "We need something of Buffy's.†† I don't suppose -"

††††††††††††††† "Can you use a picture?"† Giles shook his head - sent an apologetic look towards Xander.

††††††††††††††† "No, I'm sorry, it - has to be something more - personal."

††††††††††††††† "There's me," Dawn said, and Spike looked sharply at her.

††††††††††††††† "What do you mean, Bit?"

††††††††††††††† "I mean - Buffy said I was part of her - Summers' blood.† So - could you use my blood?"

††††††††††††††† "Oh Dawnie -" Willow breathed, but Giles was smiling, just a little.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, actually, we could.† We'd just need a drop -" Giles added, as Spike growled low in his chest.

††††††††††††††† "Okay.† I can do that."† Dawn got up, wiping her hand over her face, sniffing once and then pushing her hair back.† Spike reached out and touched her hand.

††††††††††††††† "You don't have to do this, Bit.† We can find her without you cutting yourself."† Dawn smiled at him - shook her head.

††††††††††††††† "This'll be quicker, Spike.† It's okay.† I can do this."† Spike nodded, putting out his cigarette and standing up.† *Bit's getting so grown up,* he thought, and he felt Xander and Oz agree - felt the same tremble of awe and panic that knowledge brought.

††††††††††††††† "Come on, then."† They all went into the living room.† Tara was sitting on the floor, a map of Sunnydale spread out in front of her with candles at the four corners.† She had a small bowl of herbs in her lap and when they filed in she looked up, solemn and calm.

††††††††††††††† "Dawn?† Th-thank you.† Can you come over h-here?'

††††††††††††††† "Sure..." Dawn crossed the living room to sit by Tara, *calm calm calm* in the link, as if she were trying to soothe herself.† Spike went and crouched down next to her, putting his hand on her shoulder.

††††††††††††††† "I'm right here, poppet," he said softly, and Dawn nodded distractedly.

††††††††††††††† "I - I need a n-knife," Tara said quietly, and Spike reached into a pocket and found his straight razor.† He held it out to Tara and she reached for it.

††††††††††††††† "This is sharp enough to separate two thoughts, Glinda, so you'd best be careful."† Tara's hand hesitated and then dropped back into her lap.

††††††††††††††† "Maybe you should d-do it, Spike," she said, and Spike nodded.

††††††††††††††† "We ready then?"† Tara glanced up at Giles - nodded - and held the bowl out.† Dawn put her hand out and it was shaking, and Spike enfolded it in his, holding it still.† He smiled at Dawn.

††††††††††††††† "Now then, Bit, count to three -"

††††††††††††††† "One -" Dawn said, and Spike flicked the razor.† Dawn gasped, but Spike didn't let her pull away and a drop of blood trembled on the tip of her finger - fell slowly into the bowl.† Tara picked up a stick of incense and lit it over one of the candles - put the burning stick down into the herbs.† A sudden, rather sulfurous burst of flame leaped up and then died just as quickly, leaving a gritty black ash in the bowl.† Tara shook the bowl once - held it over the map.

††††††††††††††† "Reveal," she said softly, and tipped the ash over the map.† It fell slowly, glittering, and Spike hissed a little, drawing away.† The power from Tara was nothing like Red's or the Watcher's - nothing like the mage's.†† It was warm and soft, but you could feel the old magic of root and vine in it, and there was no doubt whatsoever just how powerful it was.† It was a little like Jack's magic, but the nerve-rasping wrongness that Jack had projected was utterly missing from this.

††††††††††††††† The ash hit the map and rippled outward, fading, and then one spot seemed to form a miniature whirlpool and then a glow, a tiny pinpoint of light.† Spike bent a little closer, studying the map, and he felt Xander coming down on one knee next to him.

††††††††††††††† "You know where she is, love?"† Spike asked, and Xander looked up at him - nodded.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah.† She's - she's at the tower.† Where she died."

 

††††††††††††††† It took a few minutes to realize that everyone wanted to go.† Spike was adamant that they not split up, and he didn't, at that point, trust anyone but his pack to watch over Dawn and Tara.† Giles spent a minute or so over Ethan, gently reviving him, and then they all went outside to the vehicles.† Giles, Ethan, Tara and Willow to Giles' car, the rest to the van.† At the last minute, remembering what Spike had seen, Xander grabbed a pair of Oz's sweats, a long-sleeved t-shirt and some socks.

††††††††††††††† *Good idea, love,* Spike thought, stroking his hair, and Xander reached up and caught his hand - brought it around to his mouth so he could kiss the cool knuckles.

††††††††††††††† *Do you think she'll be okay?† I wish I knew - why she ran from you and Wills...*

††††††††††††††† *Disoriented probably, love.† And terrified.† I'm amazed she got so far.*† The drive there passed in silence, and as they pulled up to the site of the tower Xander felt that same clench of sick fear in his stomach.

††††††††††††††† *Never wanted to come back here.† Fuck, I hate this place.*

††††††††††††††† *Be all right,* softly from Oz, who was looking a little sick himself.† Spike touched Oz's shoulder and moved to open the side door of the van.† Xander climbed out after him and reached for his hand - held it tightly.† He could see Oz doing the same with Dawn and they stood at the foot of the tower staring up.† Giles had left Ethan in the car, and he glanced back once and then twice, making sure of the man.† Willow and Tara stood side by side, and Willow was pale as paper.† The tower creaked ominously, and even to the naked eye they could see it swaying - load-bearing beams beginning to buckle.

††††††††††††††† †"Fuck, that's not - safe at all.† Is she up there, Spike?† Can you see her?"† Xander looked through Spike's eyes - saw what Spike did, which was a pale figure at the end of the tower catwalk.

††††††††††††††† *God, there she is.† What if she jumps?† Jesus -*

††††††††††††††† *Gonna be all right, pet.† I'll go up -*

††††††††††††††† "No, not alone."† Xander frowned over at Spike, who scowled back, opening his mouth to argue.† "If she's really - confused she might attack you, Spike.† I'll go up with you - hopefully she won't attack me."

††††††††††††††† "I should go," Dawn said, staring upwards, and Spike shook his head immediately.

††††††††††††††† "No, Bit, it's much too dangerous -"

††††††††††††††† "Don't tell me no, Spike!† If that's really Buffy - if it's her, and she's back - I want - I want her to see me.† I want her to know she - she saved me, and that I'm okay.†† I have to, and I will."† There were tears in Dawn's eyes but her expression made it clear she wouldn't budge, and Spike swore furiously.

††††††††††††††† "Fine then.† But you stay the hell behind us and you don't move if we say 'stop', you hear me?"

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, I hear you," Dawn said, but she smiled at him.†

††††††††††††††† *Careful,* from Oz, and they started up.† They climbed slowly but steadily, Spike in the lead carefully testing hand and footholds, Dawn in the middle.† Xander glanced back once or twice at the receding figures below and then he focused on what was ahead.† As they neared the top they had to clamber up makeshift ladders and once or twice Dawn slipped, once accidentally kicking Xander in the chin.

††††††††††††††† "Ow! Damn -"††† Xander rubbed his jaw and Dawn sent a guilty look over her shoulder, but they were nearly there.†

††††††††††††††† *Wait, Spike - let me get up there, and Dawn, too. Don't - don't scare her.*†† At the back of the catwalk there was room for the three of them and they all stood there for a moment, just staring.†

††††††††††††††† Buffy stood on the very edge, where Dawn had been tied.† A breeze plucked at her hair and the rags of her funeral dress, and she stood with her arms wrapped around her, staring out and down, unmoving.† It seemed as if she hadn't heard them coming up - hadn't noticed them at all, and Spike and Xander exchanged worried glances.

††††††††††††††† "Niblet, you - go ahead.† Take a step or two forward but no more, hear me?† Say something to her."

††††††††††††††† "O-okay," Dawn whispered, and she took two steps out along the catwalk - froze when the whole structure groaned and shivered.

††††††††††††††† *Fuck, this thing is going to collapse - we can't let this take too long!*

††††††††††††††† *Too true, pet.† Hope Dawn can - reach her.*†† Dawn looked back over her shoulder and then cleared her throat.

††††††††††††††† "Buffy?† Hey, Buffy - it's me.† It's Dawn.† Buffy?"†† The motionless figure seemed to flinch, then Buffy turned slowly around, and Dawn gasped.† She was filthy, her hair matted into clumps, and there were streaks down her face that made it obvious she'd been crying.† She had something in her arms, clutched tight, and Xander could see bruises and cuts on her arms and legs.† Her dress was a rag of dirty cloth that barely covered her and her eyes were wide and vacant.

††††††††††††††† "Oh my god - Buffy?† It's me!† It's your sister!† Buffy, please -"†† Dawn took another step and then yelped when the whole tower shimmied, twisting under their feet.† Buffy didn't seem to notice.† Her eyes focused on Dawn and her mouth opened, but it was a moment before any sound came out, and when it did it was a raw, rusty noise from a throat that seemed scarcely to work.

††††††††††††††† "D-dawn."

††††††††††††††† "Yes!† It's Dawn!† Do you - do you remember, Buffy?† I'm your sister.† You saved my life!"† *Joy* in the link, and Xander heard Spike cursing softly beside him.

††††††††††††††† *What, love?*

††††††††††††††† *If it's not her - if she's not right - Dawn's heart is gonna be torn to bits.† And I'm gonna kill Red.*

††††††††††††††† *Spike, please -*

††††††††††††††† *I will, Xan.† I'm sorry.† But I will.*† Spike turned his head to look at Xander, his eyes gleaming gold in the hazy, reflected light of the city and Xander shuddered.

††††††††††††††† *Please, just...just don't lose it, Spike.†† I don't - I don't know what I'd do.† Willow is -*
††††††††††††††† *Is hurting you - hurting Oz and the Bit - hurting my family.† She's selfish, and she's arrogant, and she had no BLOODY right to decide this.*
†† Spike was growling now and Dawn glanced back at him, frowning.

††††††††††††††† "Stop it, Spike!† You'll scare her!† Buffy - please, will you come over here?† This tower isn't - isn't safe.† I mean, crazy people built it and it's not gonna last much longer."† Buffy blinked and looked around her - looked out over the edge, seeming to drift away.† Then she looked back at Dawn.

††††††††††††††† "Dawn.† My sister?† You're...my sister."

††††††††††††††† "Yes!† I am, that's right!† And you saved me, you - you killed Glory and you came up here and you - you told me to live, Buffy and I have but - but now you're back and I need you Buffy!† Please, I need you.† Please come here."† Dawn was crying now but Buffy didn't seem to notice.† She took a step - flinched a little as the tower shook again, girders shrieking.

††††††††††††††† Dawn?† Is - is this hell?" she asked, and her voice was small and bewildered and full of fear - full of pleading.† Dawn gave a coughing sob and stepped forward again, reaching out.

††††††††††††††† "No!† Oh, god - no, Buffy, this is - this is home.† You're home!† Xander - please, tell her - Spike, tell her..."† Dawn gestured at them and Xander took a step towards Buffy as well.

††††††††††††††† "Hey Buffy - remember me?† It's Xander.† This - you're not in hell, Buffy.† You're home.† You really are.† But we - we need you to get down from this tower, Buffy.† It's not safe.† Will you just - come over here to us?† Please?"

††††††††††††††† "C'mon, Slayer," Spike said, and he moved up next to Dawn. †"I've been watching out for the Bit, just like I promised you.† Now you need to come over here and come down with us.† Dawn needs you, Slayer - Buffy.† She needs you."† Buffy stared at them all - looked up and around, and tears welled in her eyes and streaked down her cheeks, unnoticed.

††††††††††††††† "This is home.† Home?†† I remember...everything...so clearly but then it was - dark, and...† It hurt."† Buffy held one hand out and they all flinched a little from it; from the scrapes and cuts across her knuckles and the torn, broken fingernails.† Buffy folded her arm back around her ribs and Xander finally saw what she was holding and he had to clench his fists tight, digging his fingernails into his palms to stop himself from crying - from falling to his knees and just sobbing.

††††††††††††††† *Love, what -*

††††††††††††††† *Mr. Gordo.† She's - holding Mr. Gordo.† God, oh FUCK, Spike, we've got to get her down, now!*

††††††††††††††† "Buffy, I know that - that you're confused right now but - please, you have to trust me!† You're home, and we - we just want to get down from here, okay?† Tara and Oz and - and Giles and Willow are all waiting for you, down on the ground.† We all missed you so much, Buffy.† Please..."† The tower shifted again and Dawn stumbled forward - fell to one knee.† Buffy watched her fall and something crossed her face, some emotion, and she took one and then another step forward.

††††††††††††††† "You - Dawn?† You're Dawn, I remember...† My sister...Dawn!† Dawn -"†† Buffy staggered forward and dropped down beside Dawn - reached out towards Dawn's face but didn't quite touch.

††††††††††††††† "Dawn, oh - I remember, I - oh god -"†† Buffy blinked at the tears that continued to well from her eyes - looked up at Xander and then Spike.

††††††††††††††† "You're here - you're...† Xander?† Xander - help me, please - h-help me."† Buffy stretcher her hand out to Xander and he hurried forward to take it - to lift her to her feet.† Dawn was on her other side, holding Buffy's arm, crying hard, now but smiling as well.† They got her up and started towards the ladder and Buffy stopped short, staring up at Spike.

††††††††††††††† "You kept your promise.† Spike - you kept it."

††††††††††††††† "Always do, Slayer.† I'm an honorable man."† The ghost of a smile touched Buffy's mouth.

††††††††††††††† "Honorable vampire.† Th-thank you."†

††††††††††††††† "My pleasure, Slayer."† The tower structure groaned loudly and jolted sideways and they all flailed for balance.† "Now it's time to go, Slayer, before this whole bloody thing come down around our ears."†

††††††††††††††† The trip down was terrifying, with bits of the tower falling off as they climbed, the upper portion swaying and bending, raining debris on the ground.† Xander could see that the others had retreated to safety closer to the vehicles and were watching anxiously.† As they got to the ground Spike took one look up and behind them and snatched Dawn off her feet.

††††††††††††††† *Run, pet!† Grab her and run!*†† Xander didn't hesitate - he grabbed Buffy in an awkward hold and they ran, eyes fixed on Oz and Tara and the others.† Behind them the tower screamed as girders twisted and over-stressed boards and beams gave way.† The tower collapsed in a great cloud of dust and it was blind luck that made it fall east instead of west and miss them completely.

††††††††††††††† *Jesus, that was too close!*

††††††††††††††† *You all right?† Is Buffy -*

††††††††††††††† *We're good, wolf.† Slayer is...† Slayer may be okay.*† They slowed to a walk and Xander let Buffy regain her feet, breathing through his mouth in an effort to avoid the smell of rot that permeated her hair and skin - that flowed off the rag of the dress.† Spike swung Dawn down and she scurried over to Buffy's side, reaching but not quite touching.

††††††††††††††† "Buffy?† Are you - okay?† I mean - does anything hurt?"† Buffy looked at her and blinked - looked down.

††††††††††††††† "My hands and my - my feet hurt.† My throat -"†† She coughed - blinked again.† Then she stopped walking and stared, and Xander looked up.

††††††††††††††† "Oh my - god.† Buffy?"† Giles took a step towards her and then stopped, and Buffy's mouth twitched in something like a smile.

††††††††††††††† "It's - it's me, Giles.† I - I'm not sure...what happened.† Can you tell me what happened?"

††††††††††††††† "Oh of - of course, Buffy, I - of course I can but first, why don't we go home, all right?† Take you home so you can - get clean and change into something - else."† Buffy looked down at herself and nodded slowly.

††††††††††††††† "Wait!† I - here, Buff."† Xander trotted over to the van and pulled out the bundle of clothes - took them back to Buffy.† "Here.† Why don't you just climb in the van and -"†† Buffy shivered and took a step back, then stopped herself.

††††††††††††††† "No.† I mean...† No, I - I'll just step - around here, around the s-side.† I don't - I don't need to get inside there."† Xander stared at her for a moment and *coffin* in the link, flicker of stifling airlessness and utter blackness and he swallowed hard.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, okay, that's - here, Dawn, why don't you help her and we'll all stay here, okay?"† Xander handed the clothes to Dawn who smiled at Buffy, and they both walked around the side of the van, out of sight.† Xander closed his eyes for a long moment - sighed in relief as Spike's arms came around him, and then Oz's, a moment's blissful immersion in *pack family love* before they all broke away.

††††††††††††††† "Is she - how did she - "†† Giles was polishing his glasses and Tara was smiling tremulously.† Willow looked shocked, still - wide eyed, and Ethan hadn't stirred from his slumped position in the† car.

††††††††††††††† "Seems a bit dazed," Spike said, glancing at Xander.† "Seems - she didn't recognize us at first, but then - she got it.† She might be all right."† Giles let out a harsh, sobbing breath and pressed his handkerchief hard to his mouth - turned away from them, struggling to gather his composure.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, thank god," he whispered, and Willow finally seemed to relax just a little.† She hugged Tara, who was smiling harder now, laughing even.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, she's back and she's - she's fine, it's gonna be fine!"† Willow sang, and Spike pulled out a cigarette and lit it - blew the smoke towards the witch.

††††††††††††††† "Don't get too happy, witch.† She's not gonna be the same person.† Not tonight, not tomorrow.† Don't expect that she'll just - snap right back."

††††††††††††††† "Stop being so negative, Spike!† She's normal!† She is," Willow insisted, looking around at them.† "She just needs to get cleaned up and - and have something to eat - sleep for a night and - and she'll be just fine!"

††††††††††††††† "She's been dead, Willow, and who knows where.† A meal and a night's sleep won't...fix it."† Oz's voice was quiet but Willow flinched as if he'd shouted.

††††††††††††††† "Oz!† Why are you - she's fine, I'm sure she is!"† Oz started to reply but Giles turned around just then, his 'Watcher' face back on, and cleared his throat.

††††††††††††††† "I'll thank you not to have an argument right now.† The Hellions are still in Sunnydale, and we need to get Buffy home - or back to - to your house, Xander - safely.† We all need to pay attention and not - not bicker about this until we've dealt with the problem at hand."

††††††††††††††† "Watcher's right," Spike said, and inhaled the last half-inch of his smoke - flicked the butt away.† "Let's get going before the Hellions notice us.† We've got to figure out how to get them out of Sunnydale."

††††††††††††††† "Is there - is there a problem?"† Buffy and Dawn stepped back around the van, and they all turned to look at her.

††††††††††††††† "Nothing to worry about, Slayer.† Let's get you and the Bit home, eh?"† Buffy looked over at Spike and frowned a little, but then she nodded and moved towards the vehicles.† Willow stepped in front of her - held her hand out.

††††††††††††††† "Buffy?† Are you - okay?† Do you - do you remember anything?"† Buffy looked at her for a long moment.

††††††††††††††† "Willow.† How did - who brought me - back?"† Willow's face broke into a huge smile, and she did a tiny bounce.

††††††††††††††† "I did, Buffy!† I couldn't leave you there, in hell, I just - couldn't bear it!† I - I found the spell and - here you are!"† Buffy just stared at her and Willow licked her lips nervously - saw Mr. Gordo.† "Oh!† Mr. Gordo!† He's all - Buffy, will you let me - I can fix him up if you'll let me.† Please?"

††††††††††††††† "Witch, enough magic -" Spike growled, and Giles looked pained.

††††††††††††††† "Perhaps, Willow, you should -"

††††††††††††††† "Guys!† I can do this, it's really simple.† Buffy, here -"†† Willow held out her hands and Buffy hesitated for a long moment, then gently turned Mr. Gordo over to Willow.

††††††††††††††† "Okay - first he needs to be cleaned up...Corruptio Expungere," Willow murmured, and the dirt and smears of rotting fluid vanished.† Mr. Gordo was pink and fluffy again, although sadly torn.† "And now, a quick fix on his seams...Suere."† The split seams mended themselves, and Willow smiled triumphantly, handing Mr. Gordo back.† Buffy took him gingerly, looking him over, than hugged him close.

††††††††††††††† "Okay - I...really want to go...† Giles, can I - can you put the - the top down?† I don't think - I don't want to be...closed in."†

††††††††††††††† "Of course, Buffy," Giles said, and went hastily around his car and slid in - started it and pushed the button to fold the top away.†† Buffy watched it, seeming to lose herself in the low hum and slow, mechanical movement, and she started a little when Tara touched her arm.

††††††††††††††† "I'm glad you're back, Buffy," Tara said, and Buffy looked at her and nodded.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah.† Tara.† It's - good to see you."† The top folded away, and Buffy and Dawn climbed into the back of Giles' car.† Buffy gave the sleeping Ethan a puzzled glance and then settled into the seat, looking up at the stars.

††††††††††††††† "Have to go to our house first, Buffy.† There's - something we need to take care of, okay?"† Xander leaned on the side of the car, and Buffy's gaze slowly tracked to him.

††††††††††††††† †"Sure, Xander, that's fine."† Xander nodded and stepped away, and Giles began to drive slowly off the site.† The rest of them climbed into the van and Oz followed the Watcher.† Xander tugged Spike up close to him, wrapping him in his arms and putting his face down into Spike's neck, closing his eyes.

††††††††††††††† *Love, what is it?† Xan, love -*

††††††††††††††† *Please don't - please leave Willow alone, okay Spike?† Buffy's okay, and Willow's - she'll understand, okay?† We'll - talk about it and she'll understand.† Please donít -*† Spike's arms hugged him back, crushingly tight, and Xander felt Spike's mouth on his neck - on his cheek and hair.

††††††††††††††† *I won't, love, I won't.† Promise.† I'm gonna be mad at her for a while, love.† But I won't - touch her.† Promise.† Love you.*

††††††††††††††† *Love you too, Spike.† Always.*

††††††††††††††† *Always, love.*† †There was satisfaction in the link from Oz - gratitude and love, and they drove through Sunnydale in silence, wondering what lay ahead.

 

†††††††††††††††