[identity profile] eee1313.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] dancing_lessons_archive
Part one of two

Lesson the Eighth: Impressions

by cousinjean
We Never Change by Coldplay | Lyrics

Shout-outs: To all of the MBTV regulars populating the "Season 5, Redemptionista Style" thread, who've all been very helpful in the beta-reading department; to all of the BAPSters, who inspired some of my favorite moments in this one; and to Peggin, who's speculation inspired the final scene.


*
The big red D glared up at her from the top of the paper, and she self-consciously tried to hide it from her classmates as she squinted at the professor's handwriting underneath. She couldn't make it out very well, but she didn't need to read it to know the gist of what it said. "Creative Writing is down the hall, Miss Summers," he'd said as he handed it back to her.

Buffy sighed wearily as she folded the paper and stuffed it into her text book. "D," she muttered to herself. "Does that stand for 'Dracula's Dumb?' Or maybe just 'Hey, Dumb ass!'" She crammed her book into her backpack and stood up to leave.

"Miss Summers," the professor called, "may I have a word with you?"

"Um," Buffy stalled, thinking up an excuse, "can it wait? I have to go pick my sister up from school."

"It will only take a minute," he replied.

Buffy set her backpack in her chair and approached the podium with trepidation. She didn't like this professor. He reminded her too much of Quentin Travers. She really hated that guy. Of course, she supposed, her professor wouldn't lock her in a house with a psychotic vampire, or threaten to deport Giles. Compared to that, a bawling out over a bad grade should be a cake walk. Her confidence level jumped a couple of notches at that thought, and she perked up. "Whatcha need?"

"You did understand the assignment, Miss Summers?" he asked. To her surprise, there was nothing condescending about his tone. "To compare the historical accounts of Vlad the Impaler to the character described in Bram Stoker's novel?"

"Yeah," Buffy said, again struggling for a good excuse. In her frustration, she'd simply written down the truth about Dracula. The whole truth. "I just, uh, got stuck on what to write, and wrote that instead. I never actually finished the assignment. I thought this would be better than turning in nothing at all."

He seemed to accept this. "You're right about that," he said. "I did give you points for historical accuracy, despite the fantastical elements. And the writing's not bad, either."

"Really?"

The professor smiled. "Perhaps you really should take that creative writing class." He paused, and seemed to consider the best way to continue. "I heard about your mother," he said at last.

Her stomach turned over, and she swallowed. She hated this. Every time she managed to forget to grieve for a few minutes, something always came out of left field to remind her. "Oh," she finally managed.

"I'm very sorry," he said. "I just want you to know that, in light of the circumstances, it's okay to ask for deadline extensions. Getting through a class involving as much reading and writing as does this one is difficult enough without such distractions."

Buffy nodded. "I'll keep that in mind," she said. "Thanks."

She started to turn away, but he continued. "I don't mean to pry, but the university has an excellent counseling program, free of charge to students. If it ever gets to be too much for you, you've a place to turn."

She stared at him, surprised, and suddenly felt bad for comparing him to Travers. "I'm okay, really," she told him, offering a smile as evidence. "But, thanks."

He smiled and nodded. "Good afternoon, Miss Summers." He turned his attention to gathering his notes from the podium.

Well, Buffy thought as she retrieved her bag, that was unexpected. Maybe not all university professors were evil sadists out to get her, after all--Maggie Walsh, of course, being the exception. And her European History professor. Not that he'd ever tried to have her killed; he was just mean.

She glanced at her watch, and muttered a mild curse under her breath as she picked up her pace. She'd told the truth about needing to pick up Dawn soon. Ever since those knights had attempted a grab on her, Buffy hated to let her go anywhere without an escort, even as short a distance as from the junior high to the magic shop. She was going to be late, and even later for a Scooby assembly at the shop. She didn't mind the latter, so much. She still hadn't quite worked out how to tell them of her suspicions about Ben without letting them know about her night out with Spike. If she told them about that, they'd not only lecture her, but also question her, and cause her to question herself, and she didn't think she was prepared to face some of the answers to those questions.

As she exited the building and jogged down the front steps, someone called her name, and she turned to see who. Speak of the devil, she thought. Or whatever he was. He certainly looked innocuous enough. Maybe Spike had been mistaken. For that matter, maybe Spike had been full of it. Even so, that didn't discount Dawn's experience with him.

"Hi," said Ben as he jogged up to her, a little out of breath.

"Um, hi," she replied. "What are you doing here? Aren't student doctors usually through with classrooms by the time they get to be, you know, student doctors?"

"Usually," Ben replied. "I was just, uh, having lunch on campus with a friend."

"Late lunch."

"Yeah," he said, and shrugged. "Weird schedule. Anyway, I saw you, and I just wanted to come over and say how sorry I was to hear about your mom."

"Thanks," Buffy said, and wondered how long it would take for this sort of thing to stop.

"I got to know her a little bit while she was staying at the hospital. She seemed like a really nice lady."

Buffy smiled wistfully. "She was. Thanks. Look, it's nice to see you, but I need to--"

"Is something wrong?" he asked, cutting her off.

"No," she said, "I'm just running late."

"Because you seem, I don't know, kind of nervous."

Shit, Buffy thought. He couldn't know she was on to him. She'd never find out anything if she lost the upper hand. "I... it's not you. It's, just, I guess I just have a problem with doctors right now. Trusting them, I mean."

Ben gave her a concerned look, and put a hand on her shoulder. "You know, they did everything they could for her."

She nodded. "Yeah, I know."

He took his hand away and put it in his pocket. "Listen," he said, "if you ever need to talk..."

Buffy couldn't help but laugh. Ben looked confused. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just that, it seems everybody's trying to get me to talk. I even had a professor just now offer to refer me to the counseling department. But I've been talking," she said. "Believe me, I'm all talked out."

He nodded. "Well, how about just a night out, then? You know, fun? When's the last time you did that?"

Buffy thought about it. Several images flashed through her mind--her mom's car, the laundromat, the pier--and all of them contained Spike. She stopped thinking. "Not for a long time," she told him.

"Well, then, how about tonight? I've got a rare night off, and I was planning on hanging out at the Bronze."

Buffy stared up at him, feeling like a deer caught in headlights. She hoped that wasn't how she looked.

"Um," he continued, "maybe you could meet me there? We could hang out, maybe dance a little, and talking is totally optional."

That actually sounded good to Buffy. And it would give her a chance to get the goods on him first hand, thus killing two birds with one stone. A night out, completely free of guilt, because she'd really be working.

"Okay," she said.

Ben smiled. "Cool. Um, how's seven?"

"Seven's good." She returned his smile. "I'll see you then."

He turned to go, giving her a little wave as he went. He was cute, she thought, in a generic, uber-manly sort of way. She wrinkled her brow at that thought. Last time she'd seen him, she'd thought he was just her type. Maybe it was the whole probably-not-human thing causing her to think otherwise. She laughed bitterly. If she'd had a quarter for every non-human guy who'd ever hit on her, well, she'd have a whole dollar by now. Which was more than if she'd had a quarter for every human who'd liked her. Not counting Xander. "And Willow called him a demon magnet," she muttered. "Xander's got nothing on me."

She turned back in the direction she'd been headed before the encounter, but slowed to a stop as she tried to recall her train of thought. Her eyes went wide as she remembered. "Dawn!" No way she could make it in time now. As she broke into a run, she just hoped her sister wouldn't be too cranky about having to wait. That, and that there would be other people waiting with her. That's it, Buffy thought. I'm definitely getting my driver's license.

***

Dawn pushed gingerly on the mausoleum door, trying to make it creak as little as possible so as not to wake the structure's occupant. She almost had it open enough to step inside when something on the other side yanked it out of her grasp and tugged it open wide. She stood gaping inside, startled and confused, trying to see who had opened the door.

"You're lettin' in an uncomfortable lot of sun, Niblet," a voice said from behind the door. "Are you comin' in, or not?"

"Sorry," she called, and entered the crypt.

"You pick up that habit of not knocking from your sister?" Spike asked from behind her as he closed the door.

"I thought you might still be asleep," she explained, turning to face him. "Oh!" She had the sense to bite her tongue then, but her brain finished the thought. Wow. Spike was shirtless. Shirtless Spike. It was even better than she'd thought it would be. Except, she noticed once the shock wore off, he was covered in cuts and bruises, and there was a nasty looking scar in the middle of his chest, too close to his heart for comfort. She'd apparently caught him in the middle of tending his wounds.

"Something you wanted?" Spike asked, snapping her out of her reverie. She realized that she'd been staring, and she blushed. He grinned and shook his head as he went over to retrieve his shirt from atop one of the stone coffins.

"Um, what happened to you?" she asked, feeling more than a little disappointed as he pulled the shirt over his head and covered up his chest and arms; but then she noticed the way the gray cotton clung to his form. Oh, she thought. That shirt.

"I got into a fight," he said, and shrugged. "Nothing I couldn't handle."

Dawn scrutinized the vampire. Besides the shirt, there was something different about him, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it.

"So, why are you here, again?"

"Buffy didn't show up to get me from school," she said.

Spike looked concerned. "You... you don't think something's happened--"

"Oh, no," Dawn said, and shrugged. "I'm sure she's just running late. It's probably nothing. But everybody else left, except for the janitors, and I got scared."

"So you came here?" Spike asked, and shook his head. "I should be appalled by that. Especially since I don't have the chip anymore for an excuse not to eat you." He sighed. "But I s'pose it's not like you can ruin my reputation any more than it already has been. Wait a minute," he said, eyeing her suspiciously, "isn't your school a lot closer to the magic shop than it is to here?"

"I don't know," Dawn said. "Maybe, a little. I guess I just kind of wanted to see you. I haven't seen you for weeks. I missed you."

As Spike looked at her, something seemed to flicker in his eyes, and a slight smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "Well, it's nice that somebody did," he said.

Suddenly Dawn realized what bugged her about him. "You're wearing glasses!"

Spike looked like she'd just told him his hair was on fire. His hands flew to the thin wire frames, as if to confirm that they were there. "Uh, yeah," he said, struggling to regain his composure, "so? Lots of people wear glasses. There's nothing wrong with it."

"Yeah, but you're a vampire. Vampires aren't supposed to need glasses."

"They do if they did before," he told her. "Becoming a vampire doesn't fix the things that were already wrong with you when you were human. It just keeps them from getting any worse. Anyway," he added, taking them off and going to put them back in their case, "I only need them for reading."

"Well, I like them," she said. "They make you look smarter." She looked around, but didn't see any books lying open. "But it didn't look like you were reading when I came in."

"Ah, no. I was inspecting my stitches." He grinned wickedly as he pulled up his sleeve, revealing a large gash on the inside of his arm that he'd obviously sewn up himself. "See?"

"Ew," Dawn said, leaning in for a closer look. "Gross. But, you need stitches? I thought vampires just, you know, healed right up."

"We heal faster than humans," he said, "but not instantly. Just like your sis."

Dawn nodded. "Did it hurt?"

"Like a bitch," he said, and winked at her. "But only for a minute. Listen, little bit, as much as I always enjoy these little interrogation sessions of yours..."

"Please, Spike, can't I hang out here? Until Buffy comes to get me? I promise I'll stop asking questions."

"Absolutely not," he said, retrieving his coat from the chair and shrugging it on. "The last thing I need is for big sis to catch you hiding out here a third time. I've already met the business end of her stake, and I'm really not in the mood to be yelled at. Come on," he waved her over as he kicked back a throw rug and slid back the stone slab that was hidden underneath it, "in you go."

Dawn went to the opening and peeked in. "What, you gonna make me hide in there till she leaves?"

"No," Spike said, a hint of impatience in his voice, "I'm going to take you to the shop."

She looked up at him, doubtful. "Through there?"

"It leads to tunnels."

"Cool. So, that's how you get around during the day?"

"Sometimes," he told her. "Er, look, Buffy doesn't know how well I can get around down there, and I'd prefer she didn't find out."

Dawn shrugged. "She won't find out from me."

"So, it's our little secret, then?"

"Sure. What's one more?" Dawn smiled up at the vampire. "I won't tell her about the glasses, either."

***

Buffy flew into the shop. "Dawn!" she called. Looking around, she saw Giles and the gang, and a few customers, but no sign of her sister. She looked over at her friends, assembled around the research table. "Is she here?"

"I thought she was coming with you," Giles replied.

Buffy shook her head. "She was supposed to, but I got hung up. She wasn't at the school when I got there."

Xander stood up from the table. "You want us to go look for her?"

Before Buffy could answer, Giles spoke up. "Let's not start panicking just yet," he said, going over to the counter. "Perhaps she went home. Why don't you call and see?" He picked up the phone and brandished it at her.

Buffy crossed the room and took the phone from him, saying a silent prayer of thanks for her Watcher's presence. She didn't know what she'd do without him. She dialed her home, but after several rings the machine picked up. She winced, startled at the sound of her mother's voice. She hadn't had the heart yet to change the recording. Hanging up the phone, she shook her head. "She's not there." Worry threatened to overwhelm her. "Giles, what if--?"

"Let's not assume the worst," he said gently. "Might she have gone home with a friend?"

Buffy calmed slightly. "Maybe. I'll have to go home to get the numbers. But, maybe we should assume the worst. What if Glory got ahold of her, or those knights, and I'm wasting time sitting at home calling her friends?"

"Perhaps," Giles said, "but it's also just as likely that you're getting yourself worked up over nothing."

"Oh, this is not nothing," Buffy said. "If she is okay, I'm going to kill her."

"Tell you what," Xander offered, "why don't you go on home and call around to her friends, and we'll all split up and look for her. Anya can stay here in case she shows up. Does that sound like a plan?" The other Scoobies nodded in agreement, and so, finally, did Buffy. "Great," he said. "Anybody finds anything that looks like trouble, we'll call you at home."

"Okay," Buffy said. "And, try to check in once in a while, so you'll know if she's turned up."

"Come," Giles said, taking his keys from behind the counter, "I'll drive you home."

At that moment, the door flew open, and in ran a flaming blanket, followed by Dawn. Relief washed over Buffy at the sight of her sister, but then was promptly replaced by anger. "I should have known," she snarled.

"I guess the emergency's over," Willow said.

"Yeah, for us," Xander remarked, "but I'd say it's just beginning for those two."

"I brought her right over," the vampire said, once he finished stomping out his blanket. "I figured you'd be fretting over her."

Buffy simply glared at the duo. "In the back," she said, pointing. "Both of you. Now."

Dawn stepped in front of Spike. "Buffy, I--"

"I said now!"

The teen rolled her eyes and stomped off towards the training room, much more dramatically than was necessary. Buffy started to follow, then stopped and turned to look at Spike. "Are you coming?" she asked, though she managed to make it sound more like an order.

Spike regarded her for a moment, then looked around at the rest of the group, all of whom looked less than pleased to see him. Except for Tara, whom Buffy figured was still too new to the group to know any better. She stood waiting, watching him expectantly. Finally, he sighed. "Yeah, all right," he said, and followed her into the back.

***

As they walked through the door, the girl stood facing them, her arms crossed defiantly in front of her chest. "You were late," she accused.

Buffy sighed. "I know," she said. "I'm sorry. But you should have waited for me. Do you have any idea how scared I was that something might have happened to you?"

"Nothing would happen if you were on time," Dawn said. "I was there by myself. I got scared, so I left."

"And went to Spike's?"

He didn't much care for the way she said that last bit. It's not like there weren't worse places the girl could have run off to. He opened his mouth to say so, but then decided to bite his tongue.

"You should have come here, Dawn."

"I feel safer with Spike," Dawn said. "He's the one who's done the best job of protecting me so far."

"And who's going to protect you from him?" Buffy asked. "Vampires are not safe, Dawn. They are not protectors. Chip or no chip."

Spike rolled his eyes, but still held his tongue, not wanting to side against Buffy. This was between the two sisters. And it's not like Buffy didn't have a point. The little girl had taken it too much for granted that he wouldn't hurt her. Not that he would hurt her. Not for the world.

Dawn shook her head disbelievingly. "That is such a load of crap, Buffy."

Buffy and Spike both looked at her, shocked.

"What?" Buffy asked.

"If you really believe that Spike is such a horrible monster, they why did you leave Mom and me with him that one time?"

"Uh," Buffy faltered.

"You know, Pint-size has a good point."

"Shut up, Spike," Buffy barked, regaining her momentum and turning back to Dawn. "I left you with him because I was desperate."

"You left us there because you knew he'd take care of us," Dawn said. "You know he's different now, and it's more than just the stupid chip. You just don't want to admit it because you can't ever admit when you're wrong."

"That is SO not the point of this discussion," Buffy told her. "It wouldn't matter if you ran to Xander's, you'd still be in trouble. We were about to assemble a search party when you came in. You should have let somebody know, Dawn."

"I did," she said. "I called home and left a message. Didn't you check the machine?"

Buffy closed her eyes, and sighed. "No, I didn't."

"See?" she said. "Mom would have at least known to check the machine before calling out the cavalry. At least she gave me credit for not being stupid."

Buffy winced at the remark. "That doesn't excuse it, Dawn. You should have waited, or you should have come here to wait with Giles."

She turned her glare on Spike. Ah, bugger, he thought. Here it comes.

"Going to Spike's was not an option," she added, and turned back to her sister. "Do you have homework?"

"A little."

"Then go do it," she said, "and tell the others I'll be out there in a few minutes."

The teen rolled her eyes and stalked past her sister towards the store.

"Dawn," Buffy said, causing her to turn back around, "we'll finish this later."

"Fine," the girl muttered, and left the two of them alone.

Buffy turned back towards Spike.

"Now, before you go yelling," he said, heading her off at the pass, "I'll have you know that I'm an innocent bystander in all this."

"Spike, nothing about you is innocent."

He smirked at her. "Maybe not," he said, "but even so, I was just minding my own business when I caught her trying to sneak into my crypt. I brought her right over," he said, then added, "I figured that was the right thing to do."

"The right thing would be for you to stop making my little sister believe that she can trust you."

"She can trust me," he said, "and so can you. Like the girl said, you'd never have asked me to look after them in the first place if you didn't really think so."

Buffy crossed her arms. "That was before I knew you had an ulterior motive. Stop using my sister to get to me."

Spike sighed. He was through trying to convince her. "Look, think what you want about me and you, but don't discount how I feel about Dawn."

Buffy narrowed her eyes at him. "How you feel about Dawn?"

"She and your mum are--" he closed his eyes and corrected himself, "were the closest things I've had to friends since I came back to this bleeding town. They were the only humans I wouldn't eat on principle. Even before the chip."

Buffy simply blinked at him, so he continued. "I like your sis. I like her company, and I'm not going to let anything happen to her. And I'm sure as hell not going to do anything to hurt her. Besides," he added, tired of having this be about him, "you could stand to not be so bloody overprotective with her." As soon as he said it, he knew it was the wrong thing to say.

Buffy scoffed. "Overprotective? Excuse me, Spike," she said through gritted teeth, "but what the hell do you know about suddenly being completely responsible for a teenager--who, by the by, is being hunted by an order of knights who want to destroy her, and a hell god who wants her for God only knows what? And you think I'm being overprotective?"

"A little, yeah," he said. "She's almost the same age you were when you were chosen, you know. And you had a lot more after you than this Glory bint and those Monty Python rejects."

"But I had superpowers," Buffy said. "Dawn doesn't. The way I see it, I can never do enough to protect her!" She took a deep breath, and looked away from him. "Even if she hates me for it," she sighed.

Spike watched her fight back frustrated tears, and felt bad for being the cause of them. He gave her time to compose herself before saying, "She doesn't hate you."

"Yeah, well, that's sure not the vibe I've been getting lately. So," she said, lightening her tone, "I take it Angel didn't kill you."

Way to change the subject, he thought. "No," he said brightly, following her cue. "Kicked my ass pretty good, though."

"Good," she said, then wrinkled her nose. "You didn't kill him, did you?"

"Well, yeah," Spike said, straight faced, and shrugged. "Didn't think you'd mind, what with the two of you bein' through and all."

Buffy simply stared at him.

"No, I didn't kill the ponce. Got a few good licks in, though, then he got back in his little poofter-mobile and drove away. What, you mean he didn't say goodbye?"

"No," she said quietly. "He tends not to."

Spike nodded. "Yeah, I've noticed that about him. At any rate, we came to an understanding."

"Which is?"

"Pretty standard agreement. I hurt you, and he kills me."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Typical," she muttered.

Spike smirked, pleased as punch to see her irritation directed at Angel for once, but then grew serious. "And vice versa," he added.

She met his eyes, her expression full of doubt. But which did she doubt? His sincerity, or the lack thereof? Is the glass half full, or half empty? Didn't really matter, he supposed; either way, you only got half a glass.

"You should go," she said, and turned back towards the shop.

"I don't bloody think so," Spike said. She turned back to look at him, but before she could speak he explained. "The sun's still up. I don't really fancy giving my blanket another workout. Figured I'd stick around here until nightfall."

"That's really not a good idea," Buffy told him.

"Why not?"

"The gang's here, we're going to have a meeting."

Spike cocked his scarred eyebrow at her. "So?"

"We're going to research Ben. We really don't need any distractions."

"I won't distract," Spike said. "I'll be nice and quiet like. And maybe I can toss in my two cents, me being the one to figure out he's not human and all."

"That's really not necessary," Buffy said.

Spike studied her. Why was she so desperate to get rid of him? "Oh, I get it," he said. "You haven't told them about us going out the other night."

"We did not go out, Spike. I went out. You were just there. It was no big deal."

"Right. So if it's no big deal, then why keep it from them?"

"I don't know if you've noticed, but you tend to make them uncomfortable."

"Of course I noticed," he smirked. "I work very hard at it. Annoying them's the only real fun I get to have these days."

"Go home, Spike."

"Look," he said, "if you're so hot to keep our illicit time together folding your knickers a secret, then they won't hear about it from me."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Fine," she said. "Do whatever you want."

She turned and headed out into the shop. Grinning, Spike followed her.

***

Buffy passed through the beaded curtain and took her place with her friends at the research table. The vampire took a perch on top of the counter nearby.

Xander raised his hand. "Um, what is he still doing here?"

"Waiting for the sun to go down," Buffy explained.

"Not there, you're not," Giles said, shooing him off of the counter. "You'll frighten the customers."

"Fine," Spike said. "I'll just have myself a look about."

"That's not a good idea either," Anya said, joining the group at the table. "He steals."

"Bully for demon solidarity," Spike muttered.

"Ex-demon," Xander said. "As in, not any more. Let's get that straight."

"You do steal," Anya told Spike. "So please stay away from the money. And the merchandise."

Spike rolled his eyes. "What do you want me to do, then? Stand about in the corner with my hands in my pockets?"

"How about you leave?" Xander asked.

"Spike," Buffy said, pushing out a chair between her and Dawn, "sit. And be quiet."

The vampire puckered his lips and blew a kiss at Xander as he took a seat at the table. Xander picked up a pencil and brandished it at him like a stake.

Buffy ignored the exchange. "Now, can we get started?"

"By all means," said her Watcher, who opted to stay standing in case he needed to go help a customer. "You said you have some news about that young man from the hospital?"

"Right, Ben," Buffy said. "Something's up with him. I don't think he's human."

"What makes you say that?" Dawn asked. "Ben helped me. Why would he help me if he's evil?"

"I didn't say I think he's evil," Buffy pointed out, "just probably not human. But if he's not, and he's going around pretending he is, he's probably up to something."

"What brought about this suspicion?" Giles asked.

"Dawn," Buffy asked, "what do you remember about him helping you?"

Dawn thought about it. "Not much," she said. "Just that he bought me some hot chocolate, and we talked, and then he told me to run, and then Glory was there." She shook her head. "It's all kind of fuzzy."

"But, Buffy," Willow said, "that was over a month ago. Why is it just now coming up?"

Damn, thought Buffy. She'd hoped they'd just take her word on it. She really didn't want to bring Spike into this. They needed to have more to go on, though. She sighed. "Spike?"

He didn't appear to be paying attention, instead squinting at Dawn's textbook lying open on the table.

"Spike!"

"What?" He looked up from the book. "Oh. Uh, I hit him."

"And it didn't hurt," Buffy added.

Xander scooted back from the table and eyed Spike warily. "How do we know that's not just 'cause his chip's defective?"

"Could be," Spike said. "Hey, how 'bout I test it out on you?"

"Hey, how 'bout let's not?" Xander replied.

"Guys?" Buffy cut in. "Can we stick to the subject?"

"Right," Spike said. "So, I hit the bugger, and it didn't set off the chip, and then he started to fight me. The bloke was strong, and fast. I'm tellin' you, he's not human."

"Spike told me he couldn't remember how he got away from Ben," Buffy said.

Giles leaned in and rested his palms on the table. "It does sound like he has the ability to alter memories," he said.

"Like the monks who made Dawn," Tara said. "Do you think he might be one of them?"

"I don't know," Buffy said. "But we need to find out."

"Buffy," Dawn said, "I just remembered something. When I was with Ben, I might've, kind of, let it slip that I'm the Key."

Buffy's eyes flew open as she looked at her sister. "You didn't."

"Well, I was upset, and I didn't think he'd know what I was talking about, but the thing is, I think he did."

"Dawn, why didn't you tell me this before?"

"I didn't remember before."

"Well, then," Giles interceded before Buffy had a chance to explode, "it would seem that gathering information on the young intern is imperative."

"Oh, goody," Xander said, "just what I was hoping for. A rousing night in the company of musty old books."

"Actually," Buffy said, "I was kind of hoping you and Anya could go with me to the Bronze."

"Hey!" Willow said. "If finding out about this Ben guy's so important, how come you guys get to go to the Bronze?"

"Reconnaissance," Buffy said. "I have a date with the suspect."

"You what?"

Shit, Buffy thought. She'd forgotten for a moment that Spike was sitting there. She turned to face him, and he was staring back at her, appalled.

"You're not seriously going out with that plonker?" he asked.

"Not that it's any of your business whatsoever, but yes. But only to get information."

"Buffy, the bloke's not human. He knows Dawn's the Key, and who knows what this wanker's intentions are?"

"Hey, Mr. Pot," said Xander, "thank you for pointing out the kettle."

"Oh, sod off," Spike told him. "And while you're at it, go get a haircut. My God, boy, you look like a bloody Shih Tzu curled up on your head and died."

"Oh, yeah? Well, at least I don't look like a reject from Sid & Nancy."

Giles cleared his throat. "As much as I hate to agree with Spike -- er, not about the hair," he said to Xander, "although, since he brought it up, it could use a bit of a trim."

Anya nodded. Xander raised a self-conscious hand to his hair.

"But, Buffy," Giles continued, "I'm not certain it's such a good idea for you to go out with this Ben fellow."

"See?" Spike said. "A Slayer should always listen to her Watcher."

Buffy ignored Spike. "I'm not either," she said. "That's why I'm taking backup. Don't worry. He doesn't know I'm on to him, he thinks it's just a date. It's just too good an opportunity to pass up, Giles."

"I suppose you're right," he said. "Just, do be careful."

"What?" Spike said. "No! She's not right. Giles, tell her."

"I'm afraid it's her call," Giles said.

Buffy nodded, and turned to Willow. "Can you guys watch Dawn tonight?"

"Sure," Willow said.

"And we'll research spells," Tara added. "Maybe we can find an unmasking spell that will tell us what Ben really is?"

"Great," Buffy said. "You guys do your spelly stuff, Giles can do his reading stuff, and Xander and Anya are with me. I'm supposed to meet Ben at seven."

"What can I do?" Dawn asked.

"Your homework." Off of the girl's disappointed look, she added, "Maybe when you're done with that you can help out Willow and Tara."

"All right, fine," Spike said, standing up. "You want backup? I'll be your backup."

"What?" Buffy stood up. "No you will not."

"Look, Slayer, I told you, this fellow's strong. Stronger than you." Spike pointed at Xander and Anya. "What good are frick and frack here going to do you if you get into a fight?"

"I don't plan on getting into a fight, Spike," she said, "I plan on going on a date. I know for you the two concepts are kind of muddled together, but for most people an evening out doesn't come to blows."

"You're not most people," Spike said. "And neither is this... whatever the hell he is. You need me."

"No, I don't. Not for this. Besides, he knows you know about him. If he sees you there it might blow my cover." She sighed, and looked out the front window. "It's getting dark," she said, turning back to the vampire. "Time for you to go."

Spike looked like he wanted to keep arguing, but to his credit, he simply nodded. "Fine," he said, and looked into her eyes. "Just be careful."

"I will."

"There's something I'm not clear on," Xander said. "Why, exactly, did you hit this guy?"

Spike looked pointedly at Xander. "I didn't like his hair." He turned and started towards the front door, his duster billowing out behind him as he went. "Catch you later, Niblet," he called.

"Bye, Spike," Dawn called after him.

"So," Buffy said, turning to the rest of the group, "we have a plan, yes?"

"Yes," Willow said. "Hey, Dawnie, you want to come on home with me and Tara? It's chicken pot pie night in the campus cafeteria."

"Sure," Dawn said. "Sounds better than another night of Buffy's chicken."

"Great!" Buffy said, ignoring the barb. "I'm going home to get ready." She looked at Xander. "See you guys there."

***

This wasn't one of the Bronze's busier nights. There was no band playing, but the dee jay had managed to coax a few people onto the brightly lit dance floor, even though the dinner hour wasn't really over yet.

"You know, I think I liked this place better before your buddy Olaf decided to redecorate," Xander told Anya as he led her to the bar. "Before it was, I don't know, homey. Or something. But now it's just so... bright."

"I like it," Anya said. "I think it's cheerful."

"I don't know," Xander said, "I think I preferred the dim light to dance by." He looked around before taking his seat. "Any sign of Buffy?"

Anya looked thoughtful as she scanned the room, then she brightened. "There she is!" she announced victoriously as she pointed to a grouping of sofas in the back, where the back of Buffy's head could be seen sitting across from the intern.

"All right," Xander told her, "let's go over and say hi, let her know we're here. But play it cool. Don't let that Ben guy know that Buffy was expecting us. Let him think we're here by coincidence."

Anya nodded, and the couple made their way across the dance floor to the lounge area.

"Hey, Buff," Xander called casually as they approached. "Fancy seeing you here."

"Yes," Anya said emphatically, "we didn't expect to see you here at all tonight. It's an amazing coincidence."

"Yeah," Buffy said, "amazing. I guess great minds think alike."

"Especially considering how there are so many other places one could choose to hang out in the vastness that is Sunnydale," Xander quipped.

"So," Buffy began, which Xander recognized as his cue to shut up, "have you guys met Ben?"

"Yeah." Xander turned to Ben. "Sort of. I remember seeing you at the hospital. I'm Xander, and this is Anya."

"Hi," Ben said. "Nice to meet you under better circumstances." There was a moment of awkward silence as they all remembered why they'd been at the hospital in the first place. "Uh," Ben pointed to the empty spaces next to Buffy on the sofa, "you guys want to have a seat?"

Xander looked at Buffy, whose expression plainly said, "Get lost."

"Uh, that'd be great," he said, "but it's been a while since An and I've had a night out alone. I think we're gonna go dance and get some grub."

"Good to see you guys here," Buffy told him. Code for, "Don't go too far," Xander interpreted.

"It was nice to meet you, Ben," Anya said, grinning pleasantly at the intern, "and not at all expected."

"Come on, honey," Xander said, leading her away, "I see a table opening up."

***

"Uh, don't mind her," Buffy said. "She's, um," she wrinkled her brow, trying to think of a way to explain Anya. "Foreign."

"Really?" Ben asked. "Where's she from?"

"I'm not really sure," Buffy said. "Sweden, maybe? Somewhere in that part of Europe."

"You sure can't tell it by her accent."

"Yeah, she had a hell of a diction coach." Buffy sipped nervously at her cola. "So, what about you? Are you from around here?"

"Not really," he said. "I couldn't really tell you where I'm from. My sister and I have been moving from place to place practically our whole lives."

"Military brats?" Buffy asked.

Ben shrugged. "Something like that."

"So, you have a sister?" Buffy asked. She hadn't expected that. Was she going around pretending to be human, too? "Any chance I've met her?"

"You've probably seen her around," Ben said. "I don't know. We're not exactly what you'd call close." He took a swig of his beer and then set the bottle down. "I kind of like this song," he said. "You want to go watch my sad white boy attempts at moving in time to the rhythm? And maybe while we're at it you could actually dance."

Buffy grinned, and for a moment began to doubt her suspicions about him. "Sure," she said, standing up. "Let's go." She followed him out onto the floor.

***

The vampire moved from his secluded spot behind the pool tables and circled the dance floor, trying to get a better view of the couple, careful to stick to the shadows where he wouldn't be easily seen. It reminded him of the first time he'd seen her, dancing with the Harris boy. As he noticed Xander dancing with his girlfriend on the other side of the floor, he noted with satisfaction that the poofter from the hospital was no better a dancer than he was. Then, the first time, as he'd circled and watched, much like he was doing now, it had been about the hunt. He'd been a predator, and she his prey. It had all been about sizing her up, getting a measure of his enemy before preparing his attack. Now the enemy was the bloke who flailed about beside her, and he himself was just a pathetic, jealous, Buffy-whipped sod, and all he wanted was to make sure he was available in case she needed him, in case things went badly. She may not want him there, she may believe she didn't need him, but he wasn't about to leave her to her own devices against someone so powerful.

As the music changed to a slow song, Spike stopped in his tracks. If he had breath, he would have held it. To his relief, the pair opted not to keep dancing, returning to their seats instead. He let out a long sigh. He could handle her being out with the ponce. It was only to gather information, after all; but seeing her slow dance with him? That would have taken this thing to a whole other level.

Spike shook his head. Who was he trying to kid? This wasn't about protecting her. He was jealous, pure and simple. He knew he had no right to be, but then again, he did. This wasn't just some White Bread Mark II trying to work his way into her knickers. This was something unknown, something inhuman--inhuman like him--and there she was, being all flirtatious and feminine, treating him like a person, like an equal. Listening to him, smiling at him... treating him in a way she'd never treated Spike.

He needed a drink. Making sure Buffy's back was turned to him, he crossed the dance floor towards the bar, keeping his head down so as not to be recognized.

"Hey, watch it!" someone complained as he bumped into them. He looked up to see Xander, who in his haste he'd completely forgotten was there.

Spike sighed. "Sorry, mate." He wasn't in the mood for a fight. Not even with Harris.

"Spike!" Anya said. "How surprising to see you here."

The corners of his mouth quirked up in sincere amusement. "I do believe you're beginning to get the hang of this sarcasm thing, love."

Anya smiled brightly. "I've been practicing."

"It shows."

"You know," the boy said, "if Buffy catches you here, she is SO gonna kick your ass."

"Right," Spike said. "So let's not draw attention to my presence, then."

"Oh, I don't know. Watching Buffy kick your ass would put a pretty good capper on this whole night."

Spike refused to rise to the bait. "Like the Slayer said, if that Ben wanker she's with sees me and recognizes me, her cover's blown. So tattling on me's not a good idea. Anyway, aren't you two supposed to be keeping an eye on her, acting as backup? What are you doing dancing? You can't even see Buffy from here. Bloody reliable help you two turned out to be."

"Hey, bleach boy," Xander said, "We have a system. She knows I've got her back. Buffy and I have been doing this sort of thing for years. I've done nothing but help her since the first time we met. Which is more than I can say for you, Mr. 'I'm gonna use your friends' bones to bash your head in.'" He poked a finger at Spike's chest. "So we've got it covered. We don't need your help, and neither does Buffy."

Spike frowned at the boy. "You Scoobies have redefined the art of holding a grudge," he said. "If you don't want my help, fine. I didn't offer it to you, anyway. I offered it to Buffy."

"She said she didn't want you here."

"Yeah, well, guess what, Junior. It's a public place, and contrary to popular belief, Buffy's not the boss of me. 'Sides," he shrugged, "this is the only place I can get a pint and a decent plate of food, since I got banned from Willy's. So until the Lover Wiccans can figure out a way to de-invite me from public places, you'll just have to deal with me bein' here."

"We were just about to go eat," Anya said. "Since you're here, and we can't get rid of you, you can come sit with us if you want."

Xander's eyes went wide. "Uh, Anya, sweetie, that's not--"

Spike cut him off. "Why, that's right thoughtful of you," he said, following it up with his most charming grin. "Don't mind if I do."

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