The sun is shining, the bells are ringing out in joyful peals from the height of the Berkeley Campanile, and a knot of black-gowned, mortar-boarded young people are milling excitedly around on the green at the foot of the bell tower. Dawn Summers is somewhere among them, unfairly tall and womanly and glowing brighter than an extradimensional Key with pride and elation.
“There she is!” Xander shouts, over the din of the bells, and plunges into the mob to find his girl. “Come on, Buff!”
But Buffy hangs back, adrift at the outskirts of the celebration. There's a not-quite-unease pulling at the edge of her awareness, and it isn't just the discomfort of a girl whose baby sister has just beaten her to a degree. She scans the crowd, noting Dawn and Xander's enthusiastic embrace in passing, with a small grimace that is nearly, but not entirely, reflexive. She's grown used to that particular development, but that doesn't mean she has to like it.
Then, out of the corner of her eye: a swift flicker of movement in the broad shadow at the base of the Campanile. She both sees and feels it, as a tingle at the nape of her neck, a jolt of adrenaline through her body that leaves her body loose and ready, her mind clear, her heart rate slightly elevated.
She smiles, already on the move, not quite a jog but a long fluid stride, purposeful. She doesn't feel out of place anymore.
It's Graduation Day, and Buffy Summers is hunting demons.
It's only as she crosses under the eaves of the great bell tower that she recognizes the familiar tinge to these particular neck-tinglies, and that other parts of her are also tingling in recognition. She skids to a halt at the top of the steps.
The late-afternoon shadows are dim after the brilliance of the near-summer California sun, so all she can see in that moment is an indistinct figure. But he moves, turns towards her, and she is sure before her eyes adjust, knows the shape of him, his predator's economy of motion.
“Spike?” and he says her name at the same time, a smile in his voice, “Buffy!”
His hand is outstretched towards her; she can see the smile now on his face, but she reads a hint of uncertainty in his posture.
“I didn't know you were coming,” she says, pulling herself together from the surprise of him here, in the flesh, in the daytime, and from the pleasure of looking at him. He looks different, she realizes, with a pang. He's let his hair grow out dark and curly--no more crisp bleached blond--and his shirt is a plain, crisp white Oxford. He's filled out, too, his face less hollow than she remembers. Maybe being away from her is good for him.
She blinks furiously; damn that sun. It can't possibly be that she's missing an old trench coat, or a bad dye job, or shirts the color of old blood.
“Like I would skip our Little Bit's big day. Come on, Slayer. You know me better than that.”
Is there a hidden question in that statement? Do you know me better, now?
Do I? “Not so little anymore.” Buffy takes a shaky breath. “And big enough to date Xander Harris, or so she tells me. You've been warned. Try not to eat him if you're planning on attending the party.”
“I'll do my best,” he says, with what sounds like suppressed amusement. She hasn't taken his outstretched hand, and he drops it to his side without comment or apparent hurt. Is that it? Perhaps all that time he's spent with Angel in L.A. has taught him inscrutability, after all. “Big sis does not approve, I take it.”
“It's not that! I just—it's Xander! My friend. With my baby sister. And imagining them—“ she waves her hands, pushing air together like an imaginary Barbie and Ken and grossing herself out in the process. “Ugh.” She frowns at him. “I'm surprised you don't agree.”
“Must admit, I never liked the boy much. But the Niblet is old enough to make decisions on her own. Truth is, she could do a lot worse.” He tilts his head at her. “And so could you. Is that it, Slayer? Are you jealous?”
“Jealous?” Ah, there: that's more like the Spike she remembered. Reading her like a book, going straight for her weakest point. “What—of Dawn, you mean? Of Xander? No!” How he knows these things, intuits them, she has never fathomed. Nor how it brings comfort, his knowing, even as it infuriates her.
It has to be a lucky intuition; Xander would never have told Spike about that--the ignominious pass she made on her old friend, after she found out about his relationship with her sister. Not her finest moment. No, pretty much her rock bottom. She has tried her best to forget about that night, and she hopes Xander has, too. She certainly hopes Xander hasn't gone gossiping to Spike about it. Talk about unexpected and unwanted connections among your intimates...Spike and Xander as confidants. That would be a doozy.
“Not what I meant,” he says softly. “I mean, jealous of what they have.”
And now he reaches again to touch her, his fingers cool as the tower stone where her shoulder hunches against his words, a light brush of skin on skin, full of wistfulness and the potential that always, always hangs between them. She wants to pull away, but another part of her has been waiting for that touch, craving it, and so she just stands there stiffly, her head turned away, listening to the thump of blood in her ears, the sweet mingling of desire, danger, and destructive instinct he sparks in her.
“Do we have to talk about this right now?” she says. “I mean, I realize that the Eternal Loneliness of Buffy Summers is a fascinating topic, but for right now...could we just not?”
“Except that's not what I was going to talk about.” He does not move his hand this time, just rests it, palm open, on her shoulder. She can feel his palm warm to her, as it always has. “I was going to say how you've got no reason to be. A woman like you, Slayer—you could have any man you choose. But you don't choose. So I figure, that must be what you want.”
“What I want--?” What does she want? Sometimes she feels she's been fighting so long and so hard not to want so many things, she's forgotten what they were. Normalcy? Peace? The chance to grow old? Someone who understands why those things are impossible?
“You're too strong to let any man possess all of you, love. I wanted to, once. But I couldn't.” He is still smiling down at her, but his eyes are solemn. “You and me only ever crossed paths, you know. Had to let you go your own way, in the end. But I’d rather have a bit of you than the whole of another woman.”
Startled, she stares at him. “What...exactly are you saying, Spike?” After all these years, all the time they've spent apart, all the times they've crossed paths, like he said, and never treated it as more than that. And now this. A moment ago she thought him remote from her, inscrutable, but no, that is not this vampire. This is Spike, his heart laid open before her just as willingly as if she's never hurt him, humiliated him, left him beaten and bruised and bleeding for it.
She hates him for that ability, sometimes. How can those feelings rest so easy on the face of a demon when they sit so uneasily in the heart of a Slayer?
If Spike loves so easily, without fear, then what does that make her?
He bends his head to hers.
“Just this, Buffy,” he says. “Should you ever find reason to choose differently...I'm still here.”
For a moment, she can't speak. But she takes his hand as she once did, many years ago, and places it on her chest, above her left breast. “And here,” she says. “In my heart, Spike. Even if not in my bed. But--”
“Buffy! Are you back there?”
Buffy jumps at the sound of Dawn's voice, and tries to pull back, but Spike holds her fast.
“Guilty habits die hard, eh, Slayer? We're not doing anything wrong...” he leans toward her with a suggestive leer... “yet.”
Buffy makes a horrible face at him. “I'm here, Dawnie,” she calls. “And guess who I found lurking in the shadows?”
“I was not lurking!” Spike protests.
“There was definite lurkage,” she informs him, but before she can enumerate the Five Points of Lurkage, her sister has launched herself at the vampire and nearly bowled him over with a flying tackle-hug.
“Oh my God, Spike.”
“You're looking well, Bit.” Spike sets her carefully on the ground. “If a bloody giantess!”
“No,” Dawn says loftily. “I've been a real giantess. This is just normal tall.”
“You're still a freak of nature, though,” Buffy points out.
“And I'm too grown-up and mature to respond to that comment.”
“Good deflection,” Xander says, following Dawn up the steps. “Just like we talked about. Oh, it's you, Spike.”
“Hello, Harris,” Spike says, with a dangerous grin. “I hear you're stepping out with my Niblet, here.”
“Stepping out?” Xander rolls his eyes. “We've been living together for two years now. A little late to go all Victorian on me.”
“Just a friendly word between gentlemen. If you hurt her, soul or no soul, I'll make sure you wish you'd never been born.”
“All right,” Dawn says, “now that the barbaric threats are out of the way, can we take pictures, please? I want one with everyone. And one of you two.” She points at Buffy and Spike.
Spike pulls Buffy close against his side, his arm around her shoulders. She fits there, just like she remembers, under the crook of his arm. It feels like home.
She smiles, and sighs, and on a sudden impulse, leans her cheek against his as the flash goes off.
* * *
A few days later, alone in her room at Slayer Central, she fingers the photograph, trying to read it for signs. There is triumph in Spike's eyes, and an ebullient smile on her face.
She thinks she and Spike could spend eternity just crossing paths.
Is that enough?
It's past midnight on a Monday, but her cell phone chirps, telling her she has a text. She picks up the phone, expecting a check-in from Dawn.
But the text is not from Dawn. It reads:
Demon war brewing in LA. Nasties vs. uglies. Could use your expertise. --Spike
And then, a second later, a second chirp:
The choice is yours. Remember what I said.
As if she could forget. She stares at the photograph again, her thumb hovering over the keys. Finally, she types a message, and hits “send” before she can change her mind.
Teleporting into the middle of a demonic war has never sounded better.