All About Spike

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Illumination
By Annie Sewell-Jennings

Rating: PG-13
Spoilers: Post-"Showtime"
Archival: Please request permission prior to archival.
Feedback: Would be lovely -- anniesj@comcast.net
Disclaimer: Not mine. Wish they were, but alas, still not mine.
Thank you: To Alanna for providing all of the emotional support that a girl could need, not to mention being a general inspiration, and to HarmonyFB, for being one kick-ass beta and possessing one of the foulest minds this side of the Mississippi.

The alternate title of this is "Spike Kills Babies for Money". The LiveJournal crew knows why. :)

For Alanna.



When he was gone, the little things kept her going. Brush her teeth. Comb her hair. Fix the coffee. Bandage her wounds. She did her makeup and waged her war, and tried to keep going. Keep moving. Because if she sat for a moment, if she rested her tired bones for even an instant, not only might she lose him forever, but she might also have to consider the possibility that he was already lost. So she kept working, if only for one reason.

Bring him home.

Buffy stands at the living room window and stares out into the endless night. All is dark and still around her, the chirping of crickets and the rustling of leaves her only accompaniment. The power is still out from the most recent attack, and there is the faint glow of one slender candle sitting on the coffee table. Everything must be kept dim. Blackout mode. So the enemy can't find them.

So it can't take him away again.

They came back for him this morning, just before dawn, when it was still dark and the moon was still bright. Busted in through the kitchen and tried to ambush them all. There are now dead bodies in the basement that she's going to have to bury, and she wishes that she'd had the opportunity to kill them slower. Make it really hurt. But no regrets, because he's still here.

He's here.

Upstairs, tucked away in the darkness of her bedroom, Spike sleeps deep and quiet. Four days, and he has not stirred. Sometimes, when she sits beside his bed and holds his hand in hers, Buffy can tell that he's having nightmares. It's the tremor in his fingers. The soft, almost inaudible moans stuck in his throat. Little signs, little details. But she knows. She knows that it was bad.

So she stands at the window and keeps watch while Willow sits with him upstairs. The sword is heavy in her hand, and her eyes are tired and nervous. They hurt with every scan across the front lawn for intruders, for the thing that consumes and devours, but Buffy cannot close them. It'll come back for him. Come back for all of them.

And she can't lose him again so soon.

It was impossible to really think about it before now. The reasons, the why. It was just something that Buffy knew instinctually, something that she understood as vital and necessary. Save him. It was as simple as that. But now that it's over, at least for now, she has a moment to reflect. It wasn't just because he had information. Wasn't just because whatever the First wanted with him would undoubtedly lead to nothing good. No, it was something else. Something more than business or duty.

She saved him because she could not bear the thought of him suffering.

A catalog of his injuries is tattooed into her mind, and every time she closes her eyes, she sees another bruise. Another obscure design carved into his pale skin. Another broken bone. So keeping watch is better than sleep. It'll keep her heart from breaking anymore than it already has.

"You need to take care of yourself, too, you know."

Startled, Buffy turns around to see Giles standing in the archway of the kitchen, a cup of tea in one steady hand, familiar glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. A smile tugs at her mouth at the way he leans against the wall, that one leg crossed in classic Giles fashion. It's good to know that some things never change, even though it's also good when some things do.

"I'm all right," she says softly, reciting the lines she knows he expects from her. Ah, just as she thought. Giles cracks a small smile back at her and walks into the living room. Takes a measured sip of his tea and shakes his head at the disaster area that was once her mother's immaculate living room.

"It's certainly made quite a mess of the house," he says, and she shrugs. Returns her gaze to the window. Has to keep watch. Has to make sure they don't come back.

"They're things. They can be fixed."

A brief moment of silence, and then Giles clears his throat. "He seems to be doing better. The worst of his injuries are mending. He'll be back on his feet in no time, I'm certain."

She smiles at that. "Good."

He approaches her, puts his hand on her shoulder. "It meant a lot to you, didn't it," he murmurs, and she almost crumbles. All of the exhaustion, all of the pain of being without him. She suppressed it, put it to the back of her mind. She had to, in order to save him. But now Spike's here, safe and sound, and the weight of what it meant falls heavy on her.

"Yes," she says. "It meant a lot."

Giles nods and gives her a small smile. "Why don't you go sit down for a bit. Get something to eat. I'll stand watch." His fingers wrap around the hand still clinging to the sword, and he gently takes the weapon from her. "Go rest, Buffy. You need that."

They don't need to say anything else. She just smiles at him, the man who has given her counsel and support during the most difficult times of her life. They've been through a world of pain together, and she knows that he understands. "I'm glad that you're here," she says softly, and Giles smiles at her.

"So am I."

He left a candle burning on the counter by the teakettle, and it is the only source of light in the otherwise dark room. Broken glass from the shattered windows crunches under her boots as she makes her way across the messy kitchen, but Buffy doesn't worry about that right now. Instead, she just pours herself a cup of tea, grabs the candle, climbs over the rubble, and sinks into a kitchen chair. She closes her eyes, and....

Walking through the cave. The sight of him, chained to the wall. Incoherent, weak and frightened. She wants to run to him. Wants to cut down his bonds and carry him home. But instead, she can only stand there and stare, because oh, she had no inkling of just how bad it would be....

When she sobs, she does it quietly, so that no one else can hear. Because this grief is private, and she wants it all to herself. She slumps forward onto the table and buries her face in her hands as she weeps, and every tear she sheds is for him. For what he went through. Not just now, but before. All of his guilt, all of his self-loathing, all of his madness. Spike in chains. Spike in the cellar. Spike in the school basement. Spike in the church. And God, the things that she did to him to bring him to this....

She just wants him to stop hurting, and she cries because she can't stop it.

"Buffy?"

Surprised, Buffy lifts her head and looks at the doorway, and then sucks in a breath when she sees him. Spike, standing there in a pair of jeans that are too big for his slender waist (so slender, did she ever see how breakable he really is?), swimming in one of Xander's borrowed work shirts. His eyes are dazed, his voice concerned, and the sight of his eyes makes her heart stop beating. "What's wrong? Everything's all right, isn't it?"

He sways on his feet for a moment, hunches over and coughs, and Buffy widens her eyes. She's on her feet in an instant, hurrying across the kitchen to catch him before he falls. "Jesus," she mutters under her breath, and she wraps her arms around his waist, steadies him. "You shouldn't be walking around. You're still weak."

There's pain on his face, and he winces, shakes his head. "Woke up to find the witch passed out in the armchair," he mutters, and she guides him towards the table. Kicks the glass out of his path, painfully aware of his bare feet. It's funny, how vulnerable he looks without his heavy boots. "'Sides, I feel all right. Well-rested. How long was I out?"

Carefully, Buffy lowers him into a kitchen chair, mindful of his wounds. He still flinches, of course, and it kills her to see him like this. This bedraggled. This destroyed. She's seen it too often. "About four days," she says softly. "You've been kind of in and out. Are you hungry? There's some blood in the fridge."

He shakes his head, shifts uncomfortably. His hand is pressed against his side, and she frowns at him. Reaches out to unbutton his shirt. At his alarmed look, she meets his eyes evenly and calmly. "I'm just checking the bandages."

"I'm all right," he insists, but she unbuttons the shirt anyway, and does not comment on the fact that he had it buttoned wrong. "Really. Just some scratches, is all. It'll heal."

But oh, they're not just scratches. They're cuts, deep cuts, carved into his flesh in archaic designs. There on the side is a particularly bad one, still seeping dark blood through the gauze. "Oh, Spike," Buffy murmurs, passing her fingers over it. "What did it do to you?"

He can't answer. Fear and shadows sweep over his face and he turns away, swallows hard.

She sighs, stands up and walks to the cabinet for the first aid kit. "It's good that you're up," she says. "We were kind of starting to wonder when you were finally going to wake up. Xander had a pool going."

"Who won?"

It makes her smile. His sense of humor's still intact, and it gives her a little hope. He'll pull out of this. However diminished and destroyed he might seem, he's still Spike, and he endures. He always, always endures. "You want a cup of tea? Giles made it earlier. Still fresh."

He shakes his head, looks down at his hands. "I'm all right. Just... Didn't want to sleep anymore." Warily, she glances back at him. The tension in his back. The tremor in his hands. She walks to him, crouches down at his side and slides the shirt the rest of the way off of his shoulders.

"Bad dreams?" she asks quietly as she winds the gauze around his wounded abdomen. He doesn't answer, and she places a hand on his forearm. "It's all right. You don't have to talk about it."

Buffy understands that. The fear of falling asleep. When he was gone, she dreamed about him frequently. Fever-pitch horror flicks of Spike being tormented, Spike being killed. The worst part was that it was all at her hands, while she stood there and laid him to waste. When she woke up, she couldn't tell whether or not they were fantasies or just exaggerated memories. The last year....

He hisses and flinches as she wraps up one strange symbol carved into his breast. Buffy furrows her brow, traces the foreign shape of it with her fingertips. "God, what are these?" she murmurs.

"Ritual," Spike replies, his jaw tense. "Don't know what they mean."

"Maybe I should get Giles in here, he might know--"

"No."

It's forceful, his reply, and he shakes his head fervently. "No. Don't want them peering at me like some guinea pig. Had their eyes on me all the time, always looking...." His voice suddenly turns so small, so afraid, and another piece of her heart breaks off and fades away. "It's still too much, is all."

When she reaches out and touches his cheek, she does it automatically. Like comforting him is simply ingrained into her system now, and this is the correct response to his pain. Just the slightest brush of her fingertips down the angle of his cheekbone, and the way that he looks at her in return tells her that she did the right thing. "Don't worry about it. Just rest."

Spike sighs, relaxes a little bit as she wraps the rest of his wounds. He props his head in his hand and closes his eyes, and she steals glances at his face while she tends to him. Tired, so tired. Weary of walking, talking, existing. She knows that expression well. All last year, it was what stared at her from her own mirror. "I know that a lot's happened to you," she says quietly. "And you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. I just want to let you know that...."

Buffy sighs, tapes the last rib up. When she stands up, she lays her palm on the top of his head. It's strange, because she's doing this to comfort him, to help him, and yet... it's helping her too.

"I'm here, Spike."

He says nothing, and she wonders if he's even heard a word she's said. It's like that sometimes with him; she remembers that from just after she found him in the school basement. In and out of reality. Sighing, Buffy sits back down in the chair and takes a sip of her tea, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. His fingers obscure his face, hide his eyes from her, and she thinks that maybe he's falling asleep again.

"They bled me," he mutters then, and she sets the cup down in its saucer. "For a ritual. It's what the symbols mean. They were... raising something. Something bad. And they needed my blood to do it."

The vampire. The one that almost killed her. But she won't tell him that. Won't tell him that she has her own bones that aren't quite mended yet, or that she ran out of cover-up trying to conceal the awful bruises on her face. "It's gone now," Buffy says softly. "Don't worry about it."

"Kept me around to feed it. Cut me up, took my blood. Said I was a failure, a disappointment. Kept changing who it was...."

"It can do that," Buffy says gently. "It shape-shifts. It can only embody the images of the dead, though. That's what Giles says."

"It could look like you."

Her heart stops, and Buffy stares at him with wide eyes. Now his fingers are really shaking, and the fear in his voice casts a coldness all throughout the ravaged kitchen. "Looked like you a lot of the time. Came into my room and told me things. That I was a failure, that I hurt you. That you... you weren't coming to save me, 'cause you knew that I was bad, deep down. That I might as well just face up to it and give up." And his voice lowers, shrinks so much that she can barely recognize it as belonging to Spike. "That's when it carved me up."

It makes sense. A twisted, fucked-up kind of sense. Use her body to torment him, because after all, who else is better at it? She's done terrible things to him with her hands and her words. Made him think so little of himself. She broke him in a lot of ways, and Buffy knows it. Knows it well. So of course the First would use her body. Of course it would take her form.

Because no one else can hurt Spike like she can.

Abruptly, Buffy stands up, just because she can't sit here and listen to all of this. It keeps coming back to haunt her, what she did to him last year, and she wants to scream at the world to stop. Stop telling her what she did wrong, because she knows. She knows. The things that she said, the things that she did.... It haunts her every day. And the worst part of it is that no one will punish her for her sins. Instead, it all falls on his bruised and bloodied shoulders, and she doesn't want that anymore.

She just wants him to stop hurting.

"Ice cream," she says suddenly, and he frowns.

"Beg your pardon?"

"Ice cream," she repeats. "There's ice cream in the freezer. The power's been out for a while, and we won't get the chance to fix it until tomorrow. It'll melt if we don't eat it soon." Gives him a half-smile. "Besides, Mom always used to prescribe that for all of our aches and pains. Ice cream and Advil. It always made me feel better. So, you want some? Double fudge ripple."

He hesitates, gives her a wary look. Like they're not supposed to do this, sit around amidst piles of rubble and broken glass eating ice cream together, and she supposes that they're not. They're supposed to beat the shit out of each other and make each other cry, but she's tired of that. Tired of those violent, hateful games. She just wants to sit here in the kitchen for a moment of reprieve and split a carton of chocolate ice cream with Spike.

Slowly, almost shyly, Spike lowers his eyes and smiles. "Sounds lovely."

So she brings over the carton of ice cream and opens it up, hands him a spoon and starts digging in. It's not all the way melted yet, just that pleasant, drippy state, and the chocolate sings on her tongue. She hums low in her throat at the first taste of it, and Spike chuckles.

"Knew you were a bit of a chocolate addict," he says, and she arches her eyebrow.

"Is that right?"

A sloe-eyed, conspiratorial look. "One thing I've learned in a hundred and twenty years is that every girl's secretly a chocolate junkie."

Buffy shakes her head and points her spoon at him. "Ah, but you're wrong on that one. Anya. She hates chocolate. Prefers strawberry."

"Further proof that she's an absolute loon."

They share a smile for a moment, and Buffy has this strange pang in her chest. She wishes that things could always be this easy, just splitting ice cream and smiles. But she knows that this is just a snapshot of simplicity, a moment stolen out of awful time, and the chaos and calamity of their life and war will come back.

But for a moment, she's going to hold onto whatever this is between them, because she has this notion that it might just keep her alive.

"So, what happened in here?" he asks then, nodding at the piles of rubble and the shattered glass scattered over the kitchen floor.

"Harbingers," she explains. "Servants of the First. Giles says that it can't attack on its own, so it has these guys do its dirty work for it. They tried to come back for you this morning."

Spike winces, passes his hand over his face. "Not going to stop," he mutters, and he arches an eyebrow at her. The scarred one, the one that shows that there are some wounds that even vampires can't heal from. "Know it, don't you. It won't stop 'til it's got what it wants."

"I know. Giles is on watch right now, and we're all taking turns. Nobody's going to take you back."

When he looks at her, she can't see the blue in his eyes. Only darkness. Only black. "It might be better if they did, love."

Her heart goes as cold as the ice cream in her belly. "Don't say that."

But his eyes are dark and sad, horribly serious, and the bruise on his cheek stands out dark and terrible. "It won't stop coming, pet. And I don't remember everything that happened while I was there. It could've... could've done something to me. Like what it did before." He shakes his head, puts a hand in his hair and winces. "Couldn't stand that. Doing those things again, not remembering...."

"I won't let that happen," she says firmly. "You're staying right here, Spike. You're not going anywhere. Now eat your ice cream and shut up."

He slowly picks up his spoon and returns to the sloppy carton of double fudge ripple, but it's not the same. She longs to have that moment back, the moment where they were smiling and easy, eating ice cream and somewhat happy. But she knew that it was fleeting, that this is the real normalcy of her life. Hard decisions, terrible pain, piles of debris. The Buffy Summers reality, where everything hurts and bleeds. She's so tired of it that she wants to scream.

"Why did you come?"

Buffy blinks at him, startled. "What?"

But he's not looking at her. Keeping his eyes on the table, away from her face. "For me. Don't understand it ... why did you come?"

She could give him reasons. Because it was the right thing to do. Because he has information that they don't have. Because the First undoubtedly was using him for some sort of nefarious purpose that had to be stopped. But the truth is that she doesn't know why it was so terribly important to her that Spike be all right.

But when she looks at him, at the hopelessness in his eyes, she knows that he doesn't understand it, either. Thinks that she should've just left him there in the dirt, left him there to bleed, and that hurts more than anything. That's all that he thinks of her. That's what he thinks she is ... someone who would do such a thing.

"Is that what you expect from me?" she asks then, and he lowers his eyes. That's all the answer that she needs, and Buffy winces, pinches the bridge of her nose with her fingers. "God, Spike."

"Did it before."

Passed out in the alleyway, and she straddles him, slams her fist over and over into his face. Screams horrible things at him, at herself, at everything that this mess is. Empty, soulless. Evil. Wrong. And then when she sees his face somewhere in the blinding rage, all of the bruises and the battle, she feels horrified, disgusted. Mortified at what she's done.

But she still can't be bothered to help him.

"I'm sorry."

The words pass over them like some kind of white flag, a sign of surrender. A plea for peace. Her hand reaches out and touches his, small gold fingers over his large white hand. Always liked his hands. So big, so long. Lovely and fine, but she never told him these things because she was supposed to hate him. Supposed to beat and kick him, cut him down, and now she has to clean up the mess that she's made of him.

Buffy licks her lips and ducks her head. "I know that it's kind of inadequate," she admits. "The whole sorry thing. Because I know how bad it hurt you, and I know how bad it screwed you up. Sorry won't change anything. But I feel like I owe it to you to tell you that I am. Sorry."

When he touches her, it's tentative. Uncertain. Just the barest brush of his fingertips against her temple, and she knows why it has to be fragile like that. Because his touch still sends electric sparks flying throughout her system, and every pore jumps and sings for more. The connection remains, even after all of these months without each other, even after the hell they put each other through. He can still touch her, as changed and saddened as he is, and make a forest fire explode beneath her skin.

"It's all right, luv," he says softly, his voice so smooth and rich that it sounds like chocolate. Like double-fudge ripple, sweet and decadent. "It's all right."

She opens her eyes and looks at him, skin so gold and bruised in the dim of the room. There's the softest expression on his face, and she's suddenly captivated by him. By the change in him. And the more she looks at him, the more she realizes that it's a change in herself, too. Because he could sometimes look like this. When she let him have a moment, when she gave him a smile instead of a sneer.

And then he pulls away, so sudden, as if he's been burned. Shakes himself visibly, and Buffy stares at him, startled. He's never been shy about touching her before, never been inhibited. He used to prowl across her body with his fingertips, with his tongue. Used to slip his hands between her thighs during meetings at the Magic Box, right under the table.

"Everything changes," Buffy murmurs softly to herself, and Spike sighs, pushes her spoon back to her.

"Ice cream."

And so they sit there for a moment, spooning out ice cream mechanically, avoiding the other's eyes. There's just the silence of the room, the tinkling of the wind through the broken glass, the sound of silverware, the burn of the candle.

Buffy slams down her spoon on the table. "This is stupid," she says flatly. "I hate this. The whole awkward silence thing."

Startled, Spike blinks at her, spoon abandoned in the carton. "What do you mean, pet?"

Frustrated, she stands up, crosses her arms over her chest and starts to pace the room. "I mean, this whole thing that we've got now," she says, gesturing at him with one irritated hand. "We can't even have a conversation without tripping over some ugly piece of history. And I know that everything changes, that everything has to change, and I'm glad that some things have, it's just...."

"When did we ever talk before?"

Buffy blinks at him and stops in her tracks. The look on his face is absolutely calm, like he has insight into something that she doesn't. And she realizes that he does -- because last year, he loved her, and she hated him. He sees their entire disastrous relationship as something else entirely, and for the first time, she wants to know what it looked like through his besotted eyes.

Spike swallows, winces a bit as he shifts in the chair. "Never, that's when. Didn't make that call, pet, but I understand it. You didn't want to hear what I had to say, because that might make it something personal."

Buffy winces, wilts underneath the weight of his words. The truth weighs a thousand pounds, and she thinks that it might break her back one day. "Spike, I know. I know. But that's what I'm talking about, we always--"

"We didn't talk last year," he says evenly, and then he meets her eyes with us. "Lot happened then. Lot of bad. So we'll suss it out now, have our say, and it'll be done. Airing things out, that's all we're doing." He gives her a strangled laugh. "Believe me, pet, it's not fun for me, either."

Her chest tightens at the look on his face. "Oh, Spike, I know it isn't...."

But he still lowers his head, turns away. His eyelashes fall softly over his eyes, and she's struck by how long they are. How pretty his eyes are. She remembers one afternoon, when she went by to see him and ended up counting his eyelashes while he slept beside her. Those same eyes that he now hides from her.

How cruel love can be.

Slowly, Buffy sits back down in her chair, folds her hands in her lap and stares down at her fingers. "You're right," she says softly. "Last year was a lot of bad. I did some things that I'm not proud of...." She doesn't even have to look at him to feel the hurt that radiates off of him, and she flinches briefly, regains composure. "It was hard, you know. Coming back. After where I'd been, what I'd experienced. And knowing what I knew about this world...."

He snorts. "Understand you on that, pet," he mutters. "World can be a cold, nasty bitch, can't it now?"

"That's how I felt last year," she says softly, trying to catch his eyes, "and it almost killed me. I hated every breath, every beat of my heart. It was...." A shudder that she can't suppress. "There aren't words. But I had nothing. Nothing to trust. Nothing to hope for. Nothing to look forward to except the day that I'd die."

But then she reaches out, touches his hand. "You're the first person I've put my faith in since I came back to life."

It stuns him, blows him away, and she's glad. Because that's how it felt when she realized it. Obliterated, torn apart. Defenses shattered and left abandoned, but when the pieces came back together again, she was whole. Complete. His lips slowly part, eyes like lakes, and when he starts to smile....

"I came back for you because I couldn't let you go," she says honestly, openly. "Not when I need you the way that I do. I know that what you're going through is hard...." She barks out a laugh. "Well, harder than hard. Impossible's probably pretty close. But it's not impossible, Spike. The things that you've done, the way that you've changed." She leans in a little, lets some glitter dust over the smile she gives him. "You're going to be someone incredible."

And he is. She can see it, just beneath the surface of bruised skin and bewildered eyes. The glow of the spark that he sacrificed everything for, bright and pure. It lights up the room in a radiant breed of electricity, warming her skin with the potential he possesses. There's a man in there, and she thinks that she might have known its ghost all of these years, but now he's surfacing and she wants to be there when he breaks free.

She thinks that he might save her in the end.

Cautiously, his fingers wrap around hers, just for a brief squeeze, and then he's back to shoveling ice cream in his mouth and smiling at her like she just proposed marriage. "You know, this is really good ice cream," he admits, and she cracks a full-on grin at that.

"Chocolate junkie."

Spike gives her a leer, and it's so like the old him that her heart flutters and her belly twists. It's that mischievous, devilish attitude that she didn't even know she missed. Her own personal Pan, tempting her with wicked ideas and a mouth that could steal a girl's virginity with just a smirk. "Addicted, I am," he says. "Can't help it. Heady stuff, chocolate is. Used to break into Godiva shops and rip off truffles for...."

His voice trails off, pain entering his gaze, and Buffy quickly stops the start of a bad memory. Doesn't want to ruin the moment by bringing up the past again. She's tired of that. This is nice. Chocolate and teasing. Simple, easy. It makes her feel rejuvenated, less tired.

"I always thought it was weird that you liked human food," she blurts, and Spike arches his eyebrow, amused.

"What, cause of Angel and his strictly-blood diet?" He waves a hand, shakes his head. "Never understood that. World's got all sorts of great dishes. Granted, it's harder to taste the blander stuff, but that's what spices are for, right?"

"You know, when that whole... thing started up last year, I tried to keep you out," she confesses, but it's teasing. Easy. "I hung garlic up all over my room, and then remembered that you actually liked garlic, so I had to take it all down. The house smelled like a pizza for days."

His laugh is rich and warm, and she's so startled by how gorgeous he is when he smiles. Never noticed that before, the way that he smiles. A duck of his head, bright white teeth, eyes that disappear in crinkles so that only the blue sparkles. There's this strange compulsion inside of her to make him laugh for the rest of her life, just so that she can hear that caramel sound and bask in the radiance of his grin.

"Didn't work, did it," he says then, and she shakes her head, bites down a grin.

"No, it didn't."

She can never quite keep him out.

Another moment, another shared smile. Another quirk that they both possess, in spite of their myriad differences. But it's funny, how those differences have narrowed down to simple biology recently. "You're a very unusual vampire," she says then, and there's that smile again. The good one. The one that makes her insides curl up and sigh.

"That I am, luv."

She shakes her head at that, spoons out another bite of ice cream. "You and your words," she sighs. "How do you do that? You always have all of these little pet names. Pet, luv, ducks...."

Spike blinks at her, all wide eyes. "Didn't mean to offend you, p--Buffy," he quickly amends, and she sighs. Looks down, feeling a little blush dance across her cheeks.

"I didn't say I minded."

Slowly, cautiously, Buffy looks up to see Spike staring at her with eyes like blue molasses, so sweet and slow that she wants to kiss him like caramel and make him melt in her mouth. Everything's all warm and decadent down here in the candlelit kitchen, even surrounded by broken glass and invisible enemies. And she knows that it will all come crashing down in the morning like it always does, but for now....

For now, impossible things seem oddly tangible.

"Weird, isn't it," he remarks, and Buffy cocks her head, frowns. He gestures at her with one flippant hand. "This whole conversation bit. Us, sitting here with ice cream, chatting it up."

She shrugs. "I suppose," she says, and then her frown tugs into an almost-smile. "But it doesn't feel so weird. Feels kind of... good, actually. Us. Talking. Not hitting each other."

"And my nose thanks you."

Her eyes travel down to his scarred and torn body, at the intricate incisions on his chest, the strange symbol in his abdomen. Mentally, she replaces every injury that the First inflicted upon him with bruises shaped in the delicate star of her own palm. Scratches down his chest. Bites on his nipples. Places where she'd marked and marred and mauled him in the past. And when all is said and done, she can't tell who hurt him worse.

Who's the real evil here, Buff?

"Why did you come back?" she asks softly, and Spike flinches. She gestures with one hand. "God, Spike, I don't mean it like that. I just mean... after everything that we did to each other. Why didn't you... you know... stay gone?"

Stay gone like the others had. Like Angel and Riley. Leave her in the dust and smoke, with the ashes of her heart falling through her fingers. But not Spike. Not even after everything she'd done to him, and not after everything he'd done to her. He came back.

A blink of dark eyelashes, another familiar tilt of his head. "You think I'd leave you so easy?"

The heat of his gaze burns too hot, and she looks down at her hands instead. "We were no good for each other."

"I was no good for you."

Buffy flinches. "Spike...."

"No, it's true," he says. "It's all right, luv. I know. Was a right bastard, when I.... Didn't deserve you. Not the way I was. Messed with your mind, dragged you down, and it wasn't what you needed. Not at all."

A shiver passes through her. "So you got your soul," she murmurs, and frowns. "But if you thought that... why did you...."

Spike gives her an almost helpless shrug, a soft smile touching his mouth. "Can't leave you," he says simply, and finally lifts his eyes to meet her gaze. "Lived without you once. Didn't fancy it."

She can tell. He's not like her other lovers, who were so stoic and closed about their emotions. Spike screams his feelings, howls his love at the moon and slams his rage into walls. His face is an open book, his feelings written in the tremor of his chin and the brilliance of his eyes. When she reads his eyes, she can see sonnets and starlight, and the profundity of his love for her breaks her heart.

"Why do you still love me?"

The question falls from her lips before she can stop it, and then the words are out there on the table, waiting for an answer. For a moment, Buffy isn't sure that she really wants to know. Does he love her because she punishes him, and he thinks he deserves that? She wants to snatch her words out of the air and swallow them, keep them deep inside where they can't escape again.

He just stares at her, all big blue eyes and lovely, moist mouth. It trips her up. "I just mean... after everything that I did to you," she stammers, all hot-cheeked and flustered. "And I did some really bad things, I mean, you don't even know, and you just keep...."

Spike furrows his brow, and looks almost amazed. "You really don't know, do you? How incredible you are."

Buffy ducks her head, and in an instant, his fingers are wrapped around her chin, holding her gaze steady with his. "Never got to tell you before," he says, and though his demeanor his calm and his touch is gentle, his voice is rough like static. "You didn't want to hear that. Understand that, I do. Didn't want to be loved. Didn't stop me from loving you, though."

He lowers his voice, strokes her jaw with his thumb. Something inside of her melts a little, and her eyelashes fall shut. "Never be able to stop loving you."

She's sliding away again, falling into him, into the words that he can weave and the force with which he can move her. "Love your smiles, your frowns. The taste of your mouth. The shape of your knee. You're cuter than hell when you're brassed off, and you tear me apart when you cry. Even when you butcher the English language...."

She rolls her eyes then, but there's a smile curving her mouth. "Oh, like you're one to talk--"

"I love your words," he says, and she's back under his spell. "Love your fists and nails. You're what makes life worth living. You want to know why I love you? Why I came back?" He smiles then, eyes brighter than the candle throwing copper all across the room. "'Cause you're Buffy, and that's reason enough."

When it happens, it catches her off guard and throws her into space. Tosses her into the heavens and hangs her with the stars, until she feels like a constellation, built completely of points of light. Everything suddenly shimmers inside of her, ripples and tugs, and for the first time in her life, she doesn't resist it. Instead, she holds on with both hands and just lets go of everything else.

Buffy falls in love.

Can't move. Can't think. All she can do is remember. Snippets of time roll through her mind like a film strip. A hand on her shoulder, maybe a tremble in the fingers, consoling her on her back steps. That shy smile that he shows her when he's vulnerable. Little locks of hair just at the nape of his neck that curl around her finger so soft. Ice at the back of her neck. Hands combing the knots out of her hair. On his knees and full of song. Bruised and bedraggled. One rare smile.

Her breath hitches in her chest, her eyes are wide, she's unable to think clearly. Unable to hear the words that keep spilling out of his mouth. Her mind keeps catching on little things, on things she should've noticed, on details that she sees only now.

Oh God, the things he says, the taste of his neck, oh, the way he's smiling now, I loved him two years ago when I first kissed him in the crypt, I think I loved him then, I miss the way he kissed me, I should've seen this before, I should run away, I should stay, I should....

"Buffy?"

His hand on hers. Dazedly, Buffy drags her eyes away from his face and down to the cool skin covering her too-hot hand. The finery of his fingers. The slender span of his wrist. Big hands, hands that used to draw stars on her skin. Used to give her astronomy, painted the night sky across the canvas of her back, named imaginary constellations with his kisses....

"Buffy." He's alarmed now, and she shakes herself, tries to focus. But he's here, and suddenly his presence makes the rest of the world melt away. "You all right, Slayer? Look a little... off."

She doesn't know what to do. How to react. Her heart wants a thousand different things. Wants to grab him by the hand and run out into the night, kiss him underneath the silver of the moon. She wants to run a thousand miles in the opposite direction because his presence overwhelms her. Wants to make love to him for years. Wants to run away and hide.

Instead, she pulls together a faint, weak smile. "I'm fine," she says. She sounds hoarse to her own ears, and the funny look on his face says that he probably hears it, too. "Really. Fine. Just... tired. Right. Tired." And then she has to stop. Words that were forged in her heart climb up into her throat.

You have the most amazing eyes. I want to taste your soul. Never stop touching me.

Quickly, Buffy picks up her spoon and shovels another bite of ice cream in her mouth. Anything to keep her from blurting out something that she can't take back. Her stomach's all fluttery and her heart is pounding in her chest. She looks down at the table, tries to steady herself. Tries to slow the rush of thoughts still screaming through her mind.

And then his thumb brushes against the corner of her mouth, and she melts. Eyes wide, frozen in the headlights of his soft smile. "Got a little ice cream on your mouth, pet," he murmurs, and she swallows hard. Oh, God. It's barely a touch. Barely contact. But it's enough to liquefy her.

If he touches me in other places, I'll burst. I'll be in ecstasy. I'll be in heaven, and it'll be a thousand times better than death because he'll be here.

She drops her spoon.

The clatter of the silver on the table startles her out of her reverie, and Buffy stands up sharply. She thinks that she babbles some line about oh gosh, how late it is, and the ice cream's all melty and doesn't he need his rest? She has no idea what she just said.

Her hands shake and her body trembles as she gathers up the spoons and the near-empty container of ice cream, and she cleans up her mess in a daze. Avoids looking at the candlelit vampire still sitting at the table. She's grateful to the darkness of the kitchen, because she can feel how hot her cheeks are, and if he sees her blushing like this....

"Buffy?"

Giles stands in the doorway, one hand still wrapped dutifully around the hilt of the broadsword. Thank God. She's so relieved to see him; she can't deal with the message that her heart's just delivered. "Giles," she sighs, but he is not looking at her. No, all of his attention is on Spike.

She remembers when she told him about the soul. About what he'd done. The reasons why. It had shocked him. The little intake of breath, the way his fingers shook a bit when he'd cleaned his glasses. It's the first time Giles has seen him alert and awake, and Buffy stands back in the shadows as her Watcher slowly approaches Spike.

"You're up," Giles says quietly, and Spike averts his eyes. Tries to shrug back into his shirt so that he can't see the wounds. Doesn't want anyone looking at him. But Giles is smart. Gentle. Doesn't ask. "How are you feeling?"

"All right," Spike mutters, and she gets this strange, protective urge that rises up inside of her chest. Wants to run to him, make a wall out of her body. Keep everyone from causing him pain. If she could just cover him up with her skin, she could keep him from breaking, and she has to clutch the countertop to keep herself from going to him.

But it's all right. Giles isn't going to hurt him. Instead, the Watcher bends down and frowns a bit, gets close. When Spike tries to turn his head, obviously uncomfortable under Giles' scrutiny, Giles reaches out and firmly grabs Spike's chin in his hand. Forces him to meet his eyes.

A breath catches in Buffy's chest, and she knows what Giles is doing. Measuring Spike up. Seeing if it's for real. The change. The soul. She knows that feeling. Remembers it well. Looking into his eyes for so long that she started to get lost in the cobwebs and phantoms, in all of his fucked-up darkness, and then you can turn a corner and suddenly, there's all of this radiance....

Giles smiles, nods a bit.

"Good on you, Spike. Good on you."

She doesn't say anything. Not a word. Just stands there by the refrigerator, nestled in the shadows as Giles turns his head to look at her. He narrows his eyes a bit, and she feels a little flutter of panic in her chest. He'll see it. He'll see this strange new (but not so new, oh, she thinks it might be old) twist in her heart and he'll hate it. He'll see the disaster of Angel all over again, the pain and the impossibility.

But if he sees it, he says nothing. Just gives her a rumpled Giles-y smile. "I think I'm up for the rest of the night. Why don't I take the lookout post? You need some sleep." A beat. "You both do."

She doesn't miss the meaning behind it. It's strange, and it surprises her, but she doesn't question it. "Thank you," she murmurs, and then he's gone, and they're alone again.

He wears candlelight like a copper second skin. Shades of gold and tangerine warm his skin, shadows hanging from his haunted face as he closes his eyes and sighs. Shifts uncomfortably, and even though he tries to hide it, he flinches. Again, that desire. That pull. A tug in her heart, so strong that it steals away her breath for a second.

Fly to his side, pull him into your lap, run your fingers through his hair, croon him awkward melodies until he falls asleep....

"You need to be in bed," she croaks, ducking her eyes away when he glances in her direction. "I'll... help you up the stairs."

A crooked smile. She remembers that look from the basement, when he was chained to the wall and trying to convince her to kill him. Telling her stories. Giving her lessons on how to kill a girl and still keep her in tears. The one that said he was barely holding back tears himself. "Frankly, luv, getting down the stairs was hard enough," he admits. "Doubt if I could get back up them."

So she helps him to his feet. Wraps an arm around his waist, tries to keep her heart from breaking when she feels how thin he is. She lets him lean on her as they take halting steps to the living room, and when she lays him out on the sofa, she tries to avoid Giles's curious gaze. Just drapes one of her mother's cashmere throw blankets over him. She's so careful with his bare feet. Has to make sure that he's tucked in. That he's safe.

She can't deny her hands the solace of his skin, so she brushes her fingers over his brow. "If you need anything, Giles will take care of you."

When his fingers reach out to tuck a lock of stray hair behind her ear, she marvels at how soft he can be. Never let him touch her like this before. Before, it was always fists and nails, rough groping and slaps on the cheek. Could he always have been this tender?

Yes. He was. I just couldn't take the kindness.

"Thank you," he whispers, and she frowns.

"For what?"

His eyes, so heavy with love that it chokes her up inside. "For saving me."

It pains her so much that she can't say anything else. All that she can do is squeeze back a sob and go upstairs.

She doesn't know what to do. Doesn't know what to think. Her heart screams out declarations of love, snippets of bad poetry. It wails for him, begs her feet to run back down the stairs and fall at his feet. But her mind doesn't know what to do. She has all of these memories that confuse her, all of these regrets swimming dark and fast in her belly. Doesn't know if she should be bawling by his side or huddled up under her covers, waiting for all of this to go away.

But wait. There are those little things again. The little distractions that keep one foot in front of the other, moving forward. Brush her teeth. Scrub her face. Comb her hair. She throws all of her concentration into these simple actions, uses them to distract herself from the constant cry of this sudden love for Spike.

Willow is still slumped over in the armchair, her pretty face veiled by coppery hair. Quietly, Buffy walks over to her friend and shakes her shoulder. "Willow," she murmurs.

She wakes with a strangled cry, eyes wide and startled, shards of fear fracturing her face. "Time!" she gasps, and then pitches forward, her hands in her hair.

Concerned, Buffy kneels down, tries to see her friend's face. "Willow? What is it?"

Willow sighs, shakes her head. "Bad dream," she mutters. "There were... bad things happening. Bad things that are going to happen."

"What did you see?"

The terror in Willow's eyes is dark and contagious.

"It."

And she thinks about that as she curls up under the covers, draws her knees up to her chest and stares at the streetlight pouring in through the window. There are bad things coming. Things that will maim her heart and leave scars on her soul. The kind of darkness and awfulness that no mortal girl should have to deal with.

She thinks about time, and wonders how much they have left.

Not enough. You might not have more than a thousand hours with him. The sands in the hourglass are starting to run thin, and if you don't put your heart in the game now, it'll be too late.

Part of her knows this. Knows that she doesn't want to go to her grave with regrets. But she's scared. Terrified. This feeling... it's so strong. So strong that she feels like it's radiating off of her now, that everyone will see her and know in an instant that her heart belongs to the vampire sleeping on her living room sofa. It's different from anything she's ever felt before. Electric and forceful. Primal and passionate. She thinks that she loves him enough to die for him.

But the worst part is that she thinks she loves him enough to kill him.

When she opens her eyes, the mirror in the wardrobe throws her reflection at her like a weapon and it slices her to pieces. Curled up under the duvet, she looks like a frightened girl hiding from boogey monsters. But Buffy knows what's under her own skin. She knows what kind of love she possesses. It's full of landmines that could go off at any given moment. Her heart is made of napalm, messy and murderous, just waiting for the opportunity to explode.

She never gave him any physical scars, but she knows that his heart is in pieces because of her.

She tries to find sleep. Tries to enter into a world where she doesn't have to think about these complicated, messy things. But when she closes her eyes, she finds him instead. Finds him battered and beaten, cowering in the little cave, clinging to shadows in a battered church. His words echo through her ears in the silence of the night.

I hurt the girl. It's what you wanted, right? Get it hard, service the girl. What's a word means glowing? God help me, Buffy, but it's still all about you.

A groan. A sigh. And then she finally surrenders to the call of her heart, climbs out of bed, and goes downstairs to find him.

He's not sleeping well, either.

Thrashing, sighing, whimpering. Talking in his sleep in that strange, endearing way that Spike has. But the words that he mutters through dreaming are far from charming. "Can't... didn't mean... killer, all I am, killer..." A moan, another twist of his lithe body, and she can see his slender feet. Naked and bare. Stripped and vulnerable.

All because of me.

She doesn't know what to do. Doesn't know what the answers are. How to ease his pain. They're both so lost, thrown into a dark labyrinth without a torch, and only the fragile spark that burns him so. Buffy bites her lip. If she touches him, she could only make things worse.

But she can't leave him here like this.

She sees Giles, standing in the corner, his eyes steady on her. But Giles is inconsequential. At this moment, pulled by the will of her heart and nothing else, she doesn't care what people say or think. All she thinks of is him. So she walks to him, puts her hand on his cheek. Lightly murmurs his name, and when his wild, terrified eyes open up, she smiles softly at him. Leans down close, so that only he can hear her whispery words.

"Come on, Spike. I think... I think we need each other tonight."

Still weak. Still battered and bruised. Buffy helps him up, lets him place his weight on her. She can handle it. Just slide an arm around his waist, be mindful of his bruised ribs, and take little steps up the stairs. Halfway up, she tosses a glance at Giles, but all that she can see is his slow, respectful turn back to the window.

Gently, Buffy lays him down in her bed and tucks him in. She arranges the pillows for him, leaves enough room for her to sidle up beside him. But she takes a moment first, just standing beside him, watching him flinch and wince his way into a comfortable position. Wary blue eyes turn up to meet hers. "You sure about this?" he murmurs, and she swallows hard.

No. She's not. All that she knows is that she can't sleep without him by her side.

Buffy gives him a faint smile. "Of course I'm sure."

Slowly, oh-so-slowly. It doesn't matter how strong this feeling inside of her is; she has to keep things delicate. For his sake. No more passionate displays of violent, turbulent emotion. She can't try to squeeze him until he breaks. Instead, Buffy just slips between the covers, keeps her body away from his. "See?" she murmurs. "No touching. Perfectly innocent."

"Right," he sighs. "Perfectly... innocent."

Of course, there's nothing innocent about them. She has a map of his body tattooed into her memory. Knows every smooth line of sinew. The shape of his fingers. The pout of his lips when he open-mouth sleeps. When she looks at him now through the veil of her lashes, Buffy can see the moonlight kisses scattered across his face. He looks so young when he sleeps. Like all of those years never touched him.

But the way that he flinches tells her that he remembers it all too well.

Tentatively, she inches closer to him. Just so that her calf brushes his, and oh, how she wants to slide her thigh between his legs and just get tangled up in him for hours. But no, not yet. Not tonight. She doesn't want to do anything that she can't take back, because she can't give him yes-but-no again. They don't have the luxury of maybe.

His fingertips flit across her shoulder and then quickly dance away again, and Buffy swallows a gasp of breath. Shrugs a bit, her body instinctively seeking him out, and then she licks her lips. "You know, a little touching wouldn't be bad," she whispers.

"Oh. Like this?"

When his fingers thread through her hair, sifting through the strands of gold, Buffy sighs and moves a little closer. "Yeah," she breathes. "Like that. Just a little... touching."

They need this, after all. Need to be close to each other. And oh, how she needs this. Needs his strength, his solidity. His love burns like a candle, and she can't stay away. Strokes his jaw, nestles up in his side. Buried under the duvet and snuggled up with Spike.

For the first time in forever, she feels safe.

She knows it won't last. Maybe a couple of hours. Maybe long enough to get them through the night. Maybe longer than that. But it'll all be shot to hell eventually. The First will come back for him and try to steal their lives with its sharp claws. It'll try to take him away from her arms. There's something awful snarling and screaming somewhere in the night, and it won't rest until she's gone.

From beneath you, it devours.

Ah, ah. Not now. For now, she concentrates on those little things that surround her. The spice of his skin against her nose. He smells like freshly sparked matches. Burnt and lush. The languid rhythm of his fingers as they push gently through her hair, slowing down to nothing but a twitch of his bones as he drifts off into a dreamless sleep.

She loves him. There's no way for her to deny it. But what will come of it... she just doesn't know. She isn't good at love. Buffy knows how to hate a man. Knows how to shred him to pieces with her barbed wire kisses and her dagger-sharp fucks. He's evidence of her talents, the battered product of her careful, calculated destruction. But can she love him? Heal him? Can she save what's left of him and help him become something wonderful?

The answers are never easy, and they won't come to her in the span of those few drowsy moments between waking and dreaming. So instead, she just burrows up closer. Drinks in his smell. Basks in his presence.

As Buffy falls asleep, she can feel herself smiling. And for a moment, everything is all right.

It's all right.

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