Chapter 6: In the Dark Room

"Come in, whoever!" Spike bellowed.

An ordinary street map of Sunnydale was spread out on the floor. Off-road pathways had been carefully added to it using various colored markers, and he was now generating a key on the side of the sheet, color-coding underground waterways, natural caves and tunnels, sewer and electrical lines, Initiative constructed passages, and routes local demons had dug out themselves through the years. Clem leaned over his shoulder, adding his own bits of data. Handpicked members of the demon community would be arriving soon for a strategy meeting, so Spike expected the rap at his crypt door. But it wasn't a demon.

"Hi, Clem!" Dawn said brightly, descending the steps. "Hey, Spike! What are you guys doing?"

Spike rose, surprised and a little wary. "Hello, Little Bit. Your sis know you're here?"

"I didn't exactly tell her," she said with practiced nonchalance, "but she couldn't wait for me to get out of the house anyway, in case Xander wakes up."

"Uh-huh." Spike's eyes narrowed slightly. Sometimes he thought he owed his strong sense of self-preservation entirely to being brought up with sisters, all those years ago. "And you scampered over here why?"

"I sort of wanted to talk to you alone. What's that?" she said, eyeing the map. She was fiddling with her backpack straps; he hoped Buffy hadn't specifically told her NOT to come over.

He took her arm and led her toward the kitchen area as Clem self-effacingly moved away. "It's a map. Now, what's up, Dawn? You know you shouldn't come here without Slayer's permission. You need me for something?"

"It's just that -" she hesitated for a moment. Then she said in a rush, her eyes big with apprehension, "Spike -- are you okay? You don't have some kind of vamp disease, do you?"

Now, there was a melodramatic idea; how had she come up with that one? "Whatever gave you an idea like that, Niblet? No, I'm strong as a horse; stronger, as a matter of fact."

"But you're acting all weird. You helped XANDER. When Buffy told me that -- I thought -- I thought you must be dying or something!"

Her concern caught him unawares. He wondered why emotion always gave him a strange feeling in his chest lately; it wasn't as though his shiny new soul made his heart beat, after all. Anyway, she did have a point.

"I'll admit me helping Monkey Boy may be a sign of the apocalypse," he said, with a laugh, "but apart from that there's nothing wrong, sweetness. No final acts of redemption for this vamp, yeah? Nice of you to care, though. So... she told you?"

"Well, yeah, 'cause he's like snoring in mom's bedroom. It's gross," she said with elaborate disdain, pressing her lips into a thin line just like her sister.

"Don't be too hard on him, pet." Spike hated hearing that bitter tone in her voice. "He'll be punishing himself quite enough, don't you worry."

Buffy rinsed out another dish and placed it carefully in the drying rack; she'd already broken two saucers waiting for Xander to appear. Half-a-dozen times she'd been tempted to just go to the grocery store or something and hope he'd be gone when she got back. But that was cowardly. Xander was her friend; it was her decision to bring him home in that condition, and it was her responsibility to talk to him about it.

She poured fresh coffee and sat down at the counter, willing herself to relax. It was pleasant in the kitchen; sunlight streamed in through the windows and since she'd spent the morning cleaning to relieve tension, everything looked neat and tidy for a change. She breathed in the bitter, invigorating aroma of the coffee, appreciating the warmth and weight of the mug in her hands. Sometimes it was good to just be aware of where you were right at that moment. Especially if it kept you from thinking about other things.

Then the footsteps she'd been dreading sounded on the stairs, and Xander stood in the doorway. His clothes were disarrayed, his hair standing in clumps, his face puffy and unshaven. Worst of all was the expression in his eyes -- simple shame. It was an expression she'd gotten to know rather well in the last year. Buffy knew her own face was reproachful, and forced herself to look away.

"Coffee?" she said.

He sat down with caution, wincing and leaning on the counter. "That would be a miracle," he said hoarsely.

She poured some and put it in front of him.

"Thanks," he said, inhaling gratefully. Then he looked up at her, his dark eyes somber.

"Buff -- I sorta, well, blacked out about last night; I don't have any idea what I did, or where. When did I -- how long have I -- "

She picked up her mug, just to have something to do with her hands, which were trembling. Best just let him have it.

"You passed out in the street near the Fish Tank," she said. "Two vamps were about to snack on you when Spike happened by, got rid of them, and called me. We brought you here."

"SPIKE? Spike did?" Xander scrubbed his hair with both hands. She should have known he'd fixate on that. But she had to tell him. "I didn't even know he was back. And may I digress to say he can't leave again soon enough for me."

"You'd be dead if it wasn't for him." She couldn't help letting some of her anger show.

"Why didn't he just let them have me?"

"I don't know," she said baldly. "Is that what you wanted? To die?"

His eyes sought the darkness of his coffee. He didn't answer for a moment. Then he said, without looking up, "You seem to get along pretty well with dead people."

"That's none of your business; you're not my father. You may be turning into yours, but you're not mine."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Look at yourself, Xander! Look at us, right here, right now. Haven't you seen this exact scene a hundred times?"

"I don't -- I don't know what you're talking about." He didn't meet her eyes, but she could see a muscle jumping in his jaw.

"Do you want to get killed? Is this a way to get back at Anya? So she'll be sorry -- we'll all be sorry when you're gone? News flash. Dying won't make it better, for anyone. I should know."

"Buffy -- what we did to you..." Guilt still stung him when nothing else could, it seemed.

"You know what?" So she wasn't being very sympathetic; she was weary of sparing people's feelings. "This isn't about me, Xander; it's about you. It's not my problem. It's your problem. And if you don't face that, it will kill you. And I'm asking you -- is that what you want?"

"Okay. Here's the truth. I don't know. It's just getting hard to care anymore."

"Xander --" She spoke more gently now. "I tried giving up, too; I tried running away, like you're doing. I tried numbing the pain. But let me tell you, that doesn't work, either. You just end up hurting people -- people who don't deserve it. Because whatever you tell yourself, you're not alone. There are people who care about you. And when you hurt yourself, you hurt them."

"Maybe they shouldn't. Maybe they'd be better off if they didn't care."

"Maybe so," Buffy said, sudden tears hot behind her eyelids. "But that won't stop someone who really loves you."

"So what are you guys doing?" Dawn asked.

"Making a map of the real Sunnydale," Clem said happily.

"What for?"

"Some of our friends have had a spot of bother."

"There's this Napoleon of Crime preying on the citizenry, and Spike's gonna stop her," Clem said with relish. Spike sighed in exasperation; obviously, he was the only adult in the room. Now Dawn began to catch Clem's enthusiasm, and bent to peer at the map.

"It can hardly be a 'Napoleon' if it's a she," Spike pointed out deflatingly.

"A Josephine of Crime?" Clem said, his ears cocked at a hopeful angle.

Dawn's face fell. "That doesn't sound very scary."

"Oh, she's scary, all right," Spike said. He heard the grit in his own voice. "And dead clever; I owe her one myself. And she's most definitely going down for that, this Doctor bird." Then he shook himself, remembering Dawn's illicit presence. "And you're going home, Niblet."

"I thought we could hang out for a while." She pouted just like her sister, too, but he wasn't falling for it this time.

"Sorry -- I'm expecting some mates any time. Off you go, now, and don't be too rough on the Bricklayer, all right?" He steered her to the door. "He already feels worse than you can possibly imagine -- at least I bloody well hope so."

"Oh, all right," she grumbled, allowing herself to be escorted out. "But this still doesn't explain why you were all nice to Angel," she said over her shoulder.

Spike cursed mildly to himself. Obviously, she wasn't going to let it go; well, he'd just have to think of some rationale. He saw his friend looking at him with round crimson eyes.

"What?" he said.

"Don't they know?" Clem asked.

"GIVE me hunger,
O you gods that sit and give
The world its orders.
Give me hunger, pain and want,
Shut me out with shame and failure
From your doors of gold and fame,
Give me your shabbiest, weariest hunger!

But leave me a little love,
A voice to speak to me in the day end,
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness.
In the dusk of day-shapes
Blurring the sunset,
One little wandering, western star
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.
Let me go to the window,
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know the coming
Of a little love."

Carl Sandburg

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