Spike tipped the bottle back again, only to find it empty. With a grunt and a sigh, he tossed it across the room, disappointed when it merely bounced off the wall and rolled across the floor. If he had still been in the crypt, it would have broken with a satisfying tinkle of glass.
But he wasn’t in his crypt. He wasn’t in his crypt because he’d tried to get himself killed by a really nasty warlock, and what did he get for his troubles?
Nothing. A big fat zero.
There was that one evening with Buffy where he thought they were going somewhere, somewhere other than friendship. She had seemed engaged, ready to start moving along, and then nothing at all.
Spike had walked her home, like any normal guy might, he’d given her a kiss at the front door, and then Buffy had begun the process of ignoring him. He’d let a few days go by, and then he’d gone over to her house to see her. Buffy had smiled, said she was busy, maybe in a few days. Spike had given her the requisite time, all the while trying to patrol with her. Even on patrol she managed to avoid him, however, and after another few days of avoidance, Spike had gotten a little more aggressive.
No one had said anything to him, though he’d received some pitying looks from her friends, but Buffy made sure she was unavailable any time he even got close. Spike had resorted to sneaking into the Summers’ residence to ask Dawn what was going on, but all the littler Summers had to say was that Buffy wasn’t really talking to anyone. He shouldn’t be feeling left out.
Three weeks of that kind of treatment had left him frustrated, with the beginnings of furious. Spike had managed to finally confront her while she was on patrol. The details of which would be forever burned on his memory.
“Buffy!” Spike ran to catch up with the Slayer as she walked briskly through Pleasant Rest cemetery.
The Slayer turned to look back at him. “Spike. What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you,” he replied. “Buffy, I’ve been trying to talk to you for weeks now. What’s up with you?”
Buffy waved her hands, as though giving him the brush off. “Spike, look. I don’t know what you thought, but I’m really not into this right now.”
“Not into what?” he demanded. “We were doing just fine, luv. I don’t want to push. I’m not asking for much. Friendship, patrol partners, whatever you want. Told you that. It’s up to you. But I need to know what you want from me.”
“Absolutely nothing,” Buffy replied. “Look, Spike, I asked for an evening out as normal girl, and you more than came through. It was great, really, but it’s over. It was one night, and now it’s time to return to my regularly scheduled life, which doesn’t actually include vampires. Other than the slaying of.”
Spike stepped back, stunned. “Buffy, we were friends.”
She had shrugged, as though supremely unconcerned. “You just needed help getting over the hump. I think you’re fine on your own. I know I am.”
Spike had let her go after that. If it weren’t for the chip, he probably would have tried to tear her throat out right there. It would have been a fair response to her ripping his heart out, as far as he was concerned. He’d been at the bottom of a bottle for the last four days, trying to figure out what went wrong. Everything had been going so well; Buffy had been talking to him, they’d had a few laughs together, he knew she’d enjoyed their night out. So what had happened?
Rubbing a weary hand over his face, he levered himself out of his chair and stumbled over to the fridge, groaning when he realized that he didn’t have any blood. Spike hadn’t eaten for at least two days, and he was beginning to feel the effects. He’d lost track of things in the middle of trying to get drunk. It usually took copious amounts of alcohol, and he’d surpassed himself.
“Looking for this?” Spike turned to see Dawn standing the doorway to the kitchen, holding a brown paper sack. “I came by a while ago, but you were passed out. I figured you might want to eat.”
“What are you doing here?” Spike demanded shortly. “It’s the middle of the day. Shouldn’t you be in school?”
Dawn rolled her eyes. “Hello? Summer? Have you heard of it? School was out a week ago. I was waiting for you to come back over, but when you didn’t show, I thought I’d come visit.”
When Spike continued to stare at her dumbly, Dawn repeated the eye roll and pulled the plastic tub of blood out of the sack. Brushing past him, she stuck it in the microwave, set the timer, pulled it out when the buzzer went off, and handed it to him. “I think the booze turned your brains to mush,” Dawn said wisely. “Drink.”
Spike shook himself out of his daze and obediently drank his dinner. He finished off the tub, he was that hungry, and then looked back over at Dawn. “What are you doing here, Nibblet?” he asked. The alcohol was beginning to wear off, and his head was pounding, but he kept his tone gentle. Now that he was thinking again, he could see in the girl’s eyes that all was not right with her world.
Dawn shrugged in reply. “I just wanted to see you, y’know?” She wandered out to the living room. Spike had cleaned the place up, and the small living room had been furnished with a nice TV set, couch and chair. The floors were still dusty, but there were blankets arranged over the windows, and he’d almost managed to make them look like heavy drapes. “It could use some paint.”
“You want to help?” he asked. Sighing, he reached into the fridge for one of those fruit drinks he knew she liked so much. “Here.” He tossed her the bottle, impressed in spite of himself when she snatched it out of the air easily.
“Not so much,” Dawn replied, then adding a small, “Thanks.” She dropped onto the couch, and was unsurprised when he came over and plopped down beside her. “What happened?”
“Your sis decided she didn’t want me around anymore,” Spike replied honestly. He didn’t question why he might unburden himself to a teenager. He and Dawn had an understanding of sorts.
Dawn pouted. “So you couldn’t come visit me?”
Spike shrugged uncomfortably, realizing that he’d forgotten about the little sis while obsessing about the older one. Dawn, at least, wanted him around, needed him around, and wasn’t shy about saying so. “Sorry.”
They sat in silence for a while, until Spike put a tentative arm around her shoulders and asked the question. “So what’s bothering you, Bit?”
Dawn sighed and relaxed against him. Spike was the best, really. He never treated her like a freak, and he was the best listener in the world. Plus, he was really, really good about taking her side and not telling her she was being stupid. “Everybody’s busy.”
Spike let the silence go, waiting for Dawn to fill him on the details. She finally continued. “Willow and Tara are both working this summer, and Giles and Anya are at the Magic Box all the time. Xander’s working really long hours, because summer’s when that happens for construction, and Buffy’s got a new job. Nobody’s ever around.” Dawn’s lip trembled. “I miss Mom.”
Spike pulled her to him, letting Dawn bury her face in his chest. “Oh, luv,” he murmured. “I miss her too. Let it out, Sweet Bit.”
She cried then. It was the first time she’d allowed herself to let go since the funeral. Everybody seemed to be trying to move on with their lives, but the summer had been her and her mom’s time. Joyce had spent as much time as possible with her younger daughter. They had rented movies, and she had let Dawn help in the gallery, looking at all the new pieces that were shipped in. They had had a book club, and had read together.
Dawn knew intellectually that this was really the first summer she’d been around, but somehow that only made it worse. She thought about all the memories of all the summers before this one, including the one where Buffy was in L.A. Every single one of those summers had been a lie, and she would never have a real one.
She woke in the morning to an empty house, knowing that Buffy wouldn’t be around most of the day. She ate her meals by herself and watched as her sister ignored her existence, too caught up in her own life and misery to know that Dawn was dying by inches. Dawn hated it, but who was to say that Buffy wasn’t in the same boat, and was trying to keep up a strong front? Of course, when your sister would hardly look at you, it was impossible to say what she was up to.
The story, as well as the tears, came tumbling out onto Spike’s t-shirt-clad chest and sympathetic ears. He didn’t say anything for a long time, letting Dawn spill out all her troubles. “It’s just—it’s worse than it was right after the funeral, you know?” she said. “I mean, at least then I kind of understood, and it got better for a little while. Now, though, Buffy just says she has to work or go over bills. And if she’s not working she’s at the Bronze with the gang, and she never even talks to me. We weren’t ever best friends, but—”
Spike held her tightly and sighed. “Your sister’s going through a rough time right now, Bit. I’m sure she’s just trying to get everything settled. Before, she had Glory and things to take her mind off it, but it’s harder for her now.”
Dawn shook her head stubbornly. “I don’t care, Spike.” She pulled away from his chest and stared at him. “I hate her. I hate her for not even caring where I am all day or what I’m doing. She loves her friends and slaying more than me.”
Spike didn’t bother trying to correct her, even though he knew it wasn’t true. He always hated it when people told him he wasn’t really feeling what he said he was feeling, and he wasn’t about to do the same to Dawn. Instead, he decided to see to the problem he could fix. “I’m around, luv,” he pointed out.
“Huh?” Dawn stared at him.
Spike was beginning to get more enthusiastic about the idea the more he thought about it. Even if Buffy didn’t want him around, he could still spend time with Dawn, and he truly enjoyed the girl’s company. It was like having a little sister, only better. He didn’t feel quite so guilty about corrupting Dawn. “If it’s gonna be you and me this summer, we’ll make the best of it, Bit. Can’t do much about going out in the daylight, but in the house or after dark, I’m all yours.”
Dawn stared at him with great, shining eyes. “Really? You mean that?”
“Yeah, I mean that. Not putting myself at your complete beck and call, mind you, but we’ll stick together, right? So what do you want to do?” When she didn’t respond right away, he rephrased the question. “Not that I can take her place, but what do you miss most about your mum being gone?”
Dawn thought for a moment, and then replied, “The book club. We would read the same books and then talk about them. Buffy doesn’t read much, and not the same things, you know?”
Spike frowned thoughtfully. “How’s this then? You pick a book, and we’ll both read it and talk about it. And then I get to pick the book. We’ll switch off like that.”
Her face brightened. “Okay, that would be cool. As long as you don’t pick something that’s going to send Buffy through the roof if she sees it.”
“Give me a little credit, luv,” Spike admonished. “Not like I want to give your sister another excuse to stake me. What else?”
Dawn considered it for a moment, and then hesitantly said, “Well, I know we couldn’t go during the day, but maybe we could go to the beach? You know, after dark? It would be cool.”
Spike nodded slowly. “We’ll have to get the Slayer’s permission on that one. Taking you anywhere in my car might not fly with her. But we’ll try it, yeah?”
“Do you ever think it might be nice to just leave?” Dawn asked wistfully. “Just pack it all up and go and not even worry about ever coming back?”
“You thinking of leaving?” Spike asked, sounding as casual as possible.
Dawn shrugged. “Not seriously. I just wish we could leave some days, you know?”
“I know, Bit,” Spike said, echoing her sigh. The idea had appeal—to just go, not look back, do his best to forget about Buffy and Sunnydale and its Hellmouth. Leaving and taking Dawn with him even held its own allure. They could be road bums together, even though in his rational mind Spike knew that it was out of the question. There was no way he could ever take Dawn with him. Just like there was no way he’d ever be able to forget about the Slayer.
He glanced at the curtain, and both the level of light and his demon told him that it was past sundown. “Come on, Nibblet. It’s time you were home.” At her groan, he decided to sweeten the statement with a little bribe. “We’ll get ice cream on the way back, yeah?”
Buffy lay awake in her bed, with only herself to blame for her insomnia. Dawn’s glare when she’d arrived home that evening had not made Buffy’s day go any better. Long hours as a waitress were just not fun, but it paid some of the bills at least. Come September she’d have to make a decision about whether or not she could swing her classes, but that was months away and too much to think about just yet.
She was tired, bone-tired. In fact, Buffy was fairly certain that she’d never been this tired before in her entire life. No matter how much sleep she got, it didn’t seem to help. Going to bed early, sleeping in late, napping in the middle of the day: none of it made a difference. Exhaustion had seemed to settle into her very soul once Glory had been taken care of and finals were over.
It wasn’t Glory, or finals, or even her mom’s death that haunted her dreams at night, however. Every time she closed her eyes she could see Spike’s face as she told him she was better off on her own. Buffy had known she could be cruel, of course, but she’d never realized how calculating she could be, how easily she could cut out a man’s heart.
The worst part of it was that he made her happy. She had been more contented with Spike than she had been in a long time. Shutting him out of her life meant shutting out the best chance for happiness that she had right now. Every day that went by made her miss him more. And she knew, that if she had let him go patrolling with her, if she’d taken him up on any of his many offers of company, that he would have gladly stayed with her through any number of sleepless nights. He would have taken care of Dawn, without any complaint.
Hell, she already knew that Spike would willingly go to the sun and back for her, knowing it meant his death. This was, after all, Spike.
Buffy couldn’t blame him for his confusion. Their date had gone well. For a few hours, she’d been able to forget that she was the Slayer, that she was raising her sister by herself, that her mom was dead. For a few hours, the world had consisted of Spike and Buffy and no one else. And she’d been happy. Unbelievably happy.
Afterwards, at home again, she got to thinking. Everyone left. Her Dad had left, Angel had left, Parker (asshole that he was) had left, Riley had left. Now her mom was gone, through no desire of her own, and Buffy was tired of it all. She was tired of watching people she loved die, and tired of seeing their backs when they couldn’t take her and her life anymore.
Even Spike had nearly been killed for her twice, and Buffy was suddenly quite sure that one day she’d wake up and he’d be gone too. Maybe he’d leave like Angel had, for her own good. Or he’d leave like Riley had, because he didn’t think she loved him enough. Or maybe, knowing Spike, he’d leave like her mom: because he had no other choice.
Buffy had decided to nip the whole thing in the bud. Knowing that it was too late for him, that Spike already loved her and there was nothing she could do about it, she had decided to save her own heart for once. If she cut their relationship off quickly and cleanly it wouldn’t hurt that much. She might manage to survive it. She depended on him too much, she already cared about him too much. By letting it go on longer, she was dooming herself to intense heartbreak when he finally did leave.
Over would be better. Alone would be better. Less hurt that way.
What Buffy had never counted on was that losing Spike this way could make her this miserable. She missed him horribly. All she wanted to do was to go hunt him down and tell him she’d been a bitch, and wouldn’t he stick around for a while. The longer, the better, as far as she was concerned.
It was her pride that wouldn’t let her go to him, and perhaps it was his pride that wouldn’t let him make another attempt. Not that she could actually blame him. Dawn had made it a point to tell her how upset he was, and how stupid she was being. Buffy couldn’t blame her, but the raw anger, bordering on hate in her little sister’s eyes, made her wonder if it was worth it. Was shutting everybody out really worth it in the end?
A sob stuck in her throat, and Buffy turned over to bury her face in the pillow. She was so careful not to break down in front of anyone. She turned the water on and the radio up to cover the sound of her tears. She buried her face in sheets and blankets and down pillows to muffle her sobs. She was the Slayer, the strong one. Spike knew—if he were here, he would know. Buffy didn’t think she’d mind so much if he did.
“I promised myself I’d stay away.” The voice startled her out of her misery. For a moment, she thought perhaps she was dreaming, because he couldn’t be there, now, with her. Buffy had chased him away, and she was very, very good at that.
“I just walked the Bit home, and I thought I’d loiter a bit for a smoke, and I heard you up here.” Buffy didn’t dare roll over, fearing that if she did, he would disappear. “I’ll go, Buffy. I’ll stay away from you, but I won’t stay away from the Bit. Made her a promise, and I mean to keep it, but I’ll keep out of your way.”
“No.” It was no more than a whisper, but his supernatural hearing easily picked it up.
Spike took a step closer to the bed. He wanted nothing more than to gather her up in his arms and comfort her. He wanted to promise her that everything would be okay, but he couldn’t find the words. “No, what, pet?” he asked, his tone gentler than he’d intended. “No, I can’t spend time with your sis, or no, don’t keep out of your way.” At the long pause that followed, he said softly, “I gotta know, Slayer.”
Buffy said nothing, didn’t move, her head buried childishly in her pillow. Spike was torn between diving out the window and leaving for good, and following his first inclination, which was to offer comfort. “Bloody hell,” he muttered under his breath, and was sitting on the side of her bed in two purposeful strides.
Ignoring any protests, though there really weren’t any, Spike rolled her over and pulled her into his arms. After a moment’s stiffness, Buffy collapsed bonelessly in his embrace. Spike could feel her shaking, and feel the tears soaking the front of his t-shirt for the second time that day. Buffy wasn’t making any noise, though. It was actually the lack of sound that frightened him more than anything else.
Spike ran a long-fingered hand down her hair, making soothing sounds that had no meaning. “Shh, luv. I’m right here.”
“But you’ll leave.” The words were choked, but understandable.
Spike frowned. “Hadn’t planned on it.”
The smallest glimmer of understanding began to kindle in Spike’s brain. “I don’t.”
“But everybody does,” Buffy protested. “Mom left.”
“Oh, Buffy,” Spike whispered into her hair. “I know, luv, I know. But I’m not going anywhere. Look at me.” He waited until she met his eyes. “How many times have you chased me out of town?”
Buffy rolled her eyes, which were still suspiciously misty. “A lot.”
“And how many times have I come back?”
“Every time.” Buffy voiced a protest. “But Mom didn’t mean to leave, and she did anyway. She died, Spike, and I know you wouldn’t mean to, but you’ve almost been killed twice.”
“Before you cared,” Spike pointed out. At her glare, he allowed, “It could happen, Buffy-luv.” He sighed unnecessarily. “You ever think what it might do to me to lose you? How many people have walked out on me before?” He let her consider that for a minute, and then continued, “We take risks every day. You take risks every time you go out and slay, risks that are hard for me to watch you take. And maybe you’re right. Something will happen to me, but you can’t shut yourself off from the world.”
She leaned her head on his shoulder. “But maybe it’s better to just not care. It’s safer.”
“Safe isn’t living, Slayer,” Spike reminded her. “Safe means you shut yourself in a box and hope it doesn’t blow up on you.” He hesitated. “That why you pushed me away?”
She shrugged slightly. “I just got to thinking about it, and—and you make me happy. And I thought that if you left, I wouldn’t be happy anymore.”
Spike felt whatever reservations he had about being with her fade away at her words. He kissed her forehead gently, then her eyelids, tasting the residue of her tears. He pressed a kiss to her lips, feeling greatly daring. “You’re my chance at happiness too, Buffy. Haven’t you figured that out yet?”
He paused, wondering how much he really wanted to tell her. They hadn’t had much of a chance to talk about what he’d experienced up on that wall. She knew the ramifications of the spell, of course, but not about its effect on him. “Slayer—Buffy, you know what that curse does to a person. The Watcher explained, yeah?”
Buffy nodded. “Him and Anya, but I don’t see—”
“It’s more than just the suffering, pet. It’s about making you relive your life as if nothing good ever happened to you.” Spike fiddled with the ends of Buffy’s hair where it lay over his hand. “Funny thing was, when you pulled me down, I didn’t see much of a difference.”
“Oh.” Buffy was quiet, thinking how she couldn’t have helped that impression much over the last weeks. She didn’t want to feel guiltier, but she was. “I’m sorry, Spike.”
“It’s okay, luv. I understand.”
“No, it’s not okay. Dawn’s furious with me, and my friends probably aren’t real happy with me right now either.” Buffy felt another wave of loneliness wash over her again, but Spike’s tightened embrace kept her from feeling as though she were drowning.
He pressed a gentle kiss on the top of her head. “We all grieve in our own ways.”
“How’d you get to be so smart?” she asked.
“Long years of practice, and lots of screw-ups.” He smiled when she gave him a weak chuckle, and then started to pull away. “I should let you sleep.”
“Stay, please,” Buffy replied, hanging onto his hand. “Spike, I don’t know how much I can give you right now. I’m so tired, I feel like I can hardly breathe, but—”
Spike rose and went to the window, shutting the blinds. He turned back to face her, and Buffy could hear the seriousness of his tone, although she couldn’t see him in the darkness. “I won’t ask you for anything except that you don’t try and get rid of me again. Maybe try leaning on me a bit. I’m my own man. Don’t need you to take care of me, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Buffy agreed, though she knew that it wasn’t quite true. But she needed to believe him. She needed to believe that there was one person she didn’t have to take care of, who would take care of her. Riley had needed that too, she supposed, but he hadn’t been strong enough to stay, to wait her out. Spike had more than proven himself.
Spike didn’t leave.
Buffy felt the bed sink down as he lowered himself onto the mattress. There were the sounds of his duster, and then each of his boots in turn, hitting the floor. She felt him scooting up close to where she lay in the bed, his arms encircling her. For the first time in weeks, Buffy allowed herself to believe that it might be okay, even if she knew it was a lie.
Because things would never really be okay again.